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Saluting a Great Orchestra From a Country Under Siege

The Vienna Philharmonic have been revered as one of the world’s finest orchestras for over a century. One of their more recent traditions has been an outdoor Summer Night Concert. They’ve released their 2021 performance, with Daniel Harding on the podium and pianist Igor Levit, streaming at Spotify. The ensemble are obviously jumping out of their shoes with the joy of being allowed to play again. At this point in history, there’s no doubt that this magnificent concert represents the people of Austria far more than the sinister apartheid state being erected with echoes of another historical development just over the German border a little more than ninety years ago.

They open with a spacious, unhurried, utterly suspenseful performance of the Overture from Verdi’s Les Vêpres Siciliennes. The brass/string harmonies are lusciously lustrous; the sudden leap into a gallop as the music picks up with a start is unselfconsciously breathtaking.

The piece de resistance should be Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and the balance of energy and pillowy Romanticism that Harding draws out of it is visceral. It’s on the fast side, especially in the beginning, but who can argue with the shivers of the fleeting eighth movement, or the furtive bustle of the ninth, especially in context? And Levit builds expectant triumph into the famous andante cantabile love theme. What’s annoying is that like many other recent recordings of the suite, these intervals – many of them under a minute long – are broken up into individual tracks. You have to build your own playlist to fully enjoy this without having to constantly click on the next one.

Levit gets the stage to himself for a spare, somber take of Beethoven’s Fur Elise: as he sees it, what a sad, serious girl she must have been! Next on the bill are four of Leonard Bernstein’s Dances from West Side Story. The group launch into a dynamically swinging Prologue, complete with fingersnaps, then an aptly starry, summery Somewhere, a lilting Scherzo and a positively feral Mambo.

There’s not a lot an orchestra can do with Elgar’s schmaltzy Salut D’amour, but the Intermezzo from Sibelius’ Karelia Suite gives Harding and the ensemble a chance to bring up the lights slowly and memorably, with meticulously swirling strings and understated brass: this is a peace march, not a warlord’s pageant.

Plaintive woodwinds and a hypnotic lushness permeate Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, arguably the most vivid piece on the bill. The orchestra wind up the concert on a jaunty, bubbly note with Jupiter, from Holst’s The Planets. Who knew how fast all this optimism and good cheer would evaporate in the months after this concert. The challenge will be to get it back: it only takes one generation for a totalitarian regime to annihilate the memory of any beautiful past.

January 15, 2022 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment