Concert Review: Vienna Philharmonic in Taipei- Part 2

The actual music portion.

Part one yesterday I suppose was more like a long preface or lead-in to the two concerts that will go down in my books as the most anticipated things I’ve ever attended. But yesterday, all we talked about was the thinks that I thought. Now we’ll talk more about my thinks, but the ones I had during the performances. Really, truly, incredible.

There’s nothing I can say about it that doesn’t sound at least a little bit cliche, and I know that, but the best I could come up with was that it’s like I’d never been to a concert before: the fascination with the sounds, the visual experience, the excitement, the surprise and wonder and awe, all more than I’ve ever had at any other concert, and perhaps justly so. Also, please bear with me. There are lots of words. If you don’t want to read them all, skip to the bottom where I talk about spitting and swaying at both evenings of the concert.

Again, two nights, and since the programs were completely different, I had the pleasure of hearing Christoph Eschenbach conduct the Vienna Philharmonic twice. Who would turn that down? The programs were as follows:

The pieces that jumped out at me on the programs were, well, basically everything. I wanted to hear Prokofiev’s ‘Classical’ and Tchaikovsky’s serenade, but also wanted to see Eschenbach conduct from the piano; I also do quite enjoy Beethoven’s first, so, as stated previously, I bought tickets to both nights. (Also, do you know how hard it is to take pictures of programs on glossy-type paper in a magazine-type program?!)

The program begins with the overture to Figaro, and it’s very overture-like, kind of an introduction to the entire two evenings of music, but the thing that made it different was that it was the Vienna Philharmonic, of course. It felt like you could ratchet up the tempo and no matter what, they’d still be pristine. It was fast, energetic and fun, and kind of an ice-breaker, a warm-up for the rest of the programs. Already, I was in awe. The tone of the instruments sounded like I’d never heard before, the clarity and precision and seeming effortlessness of everything that happened was incredible.

The second piece was a real treat, especially since I’d never heard the piece before. It’s that Mozart work that some people dispute as a Mozart work the way he intended, the Sinfonia Concertante for winds in E-flat major. Between the pieces, the four stands were set up for our soloists to stand in front of the ensemble, Clemens Horak on oboe; Ernst Ottensamer, clarinet; Harald Müller, bassoon; Ronald Janezic, horn. The whole thing, unsurprisingly sounds very Mozartian, but it really was a delicate, virtuosic, incredibly ornate, lush performance. It was the beginning of my thought that there doesn’t need to be Mahler or Bruckner or Brahms or Schoenberg on the program. What could be more genuine than the Vienna Philharmonic playing Mozart?

As you’ll see from the programs above, everything was kept quite classical. Obviously, the most recent pieces on the program were Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, but even their pieces owe something to very Classical-era styles, so our ensemble was small. It was the perfect chance to get a full concert experience from the Vienna Philharmonic with the intimacy and perfection of chamber music. The clarity of the four soloists’ parts, the delicate ppp they reached at times, still audible, but clear, crisp and quiet, the balance between them. Go listen to the piece: there are pieces where the soloists play in unison, or question-and-answer, or interact with the ensemble, and it was quite possibly one of the most perfect, supremely executed things I’ve ever heard. The tone of each individual performer (soloist or otherwise) was sublime, and thus the ensemble as a whole sounded clean and crisp, not a single thing out of place, a supreme achievement of music, and yet seemingly so effortless.

But that’s not all. No encore of any kind from this ensemble with soloists, unsurprisingly, but after our 20-minute intermission, we’re back at it. Eschenbach, a sprightly, seemingly quite tall 75-year-old superhero-type looking figure of a man (the all-black helps) springs to the podium and throws out his hands at the now all-string ensemble, and Tchaikovsky’s serenade begins. Immediate chills. There must be nothing in the world like hearing Vienna strings play this piece, which is, to begin with, an incredibly beautiful work. It was overwhelming. As with the Mozart pieces before it, it was so full of focus. The contrasts of dynamics, the perfect balance between voices, the intonation. For the size of the ensemble, the richness and fullness of the sound was amazing, and it seemed as if Eschenbach communicated with them telepathically.

If you’ve ever seen him conduct, you’ll know what I mean when I talk about his interesting gestures. He flicks his hands and twiddles his fingers and swipes across the air like he’s cleaning glass or trying to get plastic wrap off his hands, but watching him on the podium and hearing the music that resulted, every gesture seemed surgically precise, the orchestra’s response (unsurprisingly) on point. This is very likely a work that the ensemble is already really familiar with, so it’s nothing extraordinary, except that it also seems so effortless, so natural, and yet also beyond passionate, meaningful, captivating. This balance between seemingly natural effortlessness and yet intense perfection was the hallmark of both evenings. Tchaikovsky’s serenade was sublime.

Finally, the piece on the program with which I am the most familiar, Prokofiev’s first symphony. What a fun piece. Now… I’ve heard many versions of this work, both recorded and live. I heard a terrible version by a local ensemble who I’ve not heard since, a really fantastic version by the Taipei Symphony, and now this. While there’s no comparison, the Taipei Symphony’s interpretation was wonderful. Vienna addressed this work with a really wonderful balance. My preferred recording (and the one I think I featured in the article above) is of Koussevitzky with the Boston Symphony in a poor-quality recording full of energy at a pretty break-neck pace. Personally, I found Gergiev’s recording good, save the last movement. That horrible performance a year or two ago treated the work like it was Rachmaninoff’s second symphony, slow and dramatic and heavy, and ruined it.

Vienna’s approach was right down the middle. Hearing this work at a slower, slightly more deliberate tempo, you hear all the things the composer has done, and while it may not be the romping good time it is at a much faster clip, it’s much easier to savor. The first movement of the four was slower than I’d been used to, but it’s much easier to hear it that way as what it is: a sort of caricature of classical symphonies. Every gesture, every sound, every phrase was exaggerated, so crystal clear, but never overdone, so that the piece felt more complex and interesting than I’d ever heard it, at least the first movement. The middle two (extremely short movements) were intricate and exquisite, at turns comical and tender at all the right moments, playing with wonderful precision but also not taking themselves too seriously. The finale, though, was incredible. It’s this final movement where there’s an allure to go really really fast, and they did, and again, it felt like if you kept turning that dial, they’d keep up and never miss an articulation. The flutes were incredible. Afterward, I wished I had timed the movement, because it was blazing fast, but energetic and intense and still crisp and clean. I don’t think I breathed the entire movement. It was really spectacular.

The audience roared, as they should have, and I was mentally digesting the past two hours as we all applauded feverishly. Eschenbach, looking at once a bit tired but also more energized, walked out for bows with the ensemble a number of times before turning his back to us and giving another downbeat. As an encore, they played the final movement of Mozart’s 34th symphony, and, you know. Blissful.

I really don’t mean to sound so cheesy about all of this, but seriously, I’ve never in my life heard anything like this. I’ve listened to many a recording of the Vienna Philharmonic, but it’s something different to hear it live. There’s an energy, precision, and perfection that escapes me. I feel like a horrible writer for it, but there’s really nothing that compares.

On to the second evening. 

The second evening’s program consisted of only three pieces, with Mozart’s 23rd piano concert making up the whole first half of the program. The info board in the front of the hall said the first half of the program would be around 40 minutes, so you know: encore is happening. First time I’ve ever seen any soloist conduct from the piano. Saw a cellist conduct a Haydn concerto once, though. Anyway, this is Christoph Eschenbach conducting Mozart from the piano with the Vienna Philharmonic.

I spent some time over the summer really trying to ‘get’ Mozart’s music as more than just the ‘pretty face’ of the Classical era. If you have five minutes, go listen to any one of Robert Levin’s discussions of Mozart, and you’ll find yourself there two hours later mesmerized by his insight. Anyway, this was the kind of thing I was thinking of listening to Eschenbach and Vienna: the sheer musicality, the feat of conducting and performing, the purity of the Vienna Philharmonic playing such a Viennese masterpiece.

I really do feel like I’m not doing these performances justice. Seriously. But think of it this way: you know all those little things in live performances that make it…. different from recordings? The little hits-and-misses or imperfections or whatever? None. It was like the cleanest, most pristine, polished perfection you could ever expect from an ensemble, which obviously works supremely well with the Mozart works they played.

Eschenbach played wonderfully and confidently, and it seems almost natural that the piece is written with distinct sections for the performer to conduct or play, never both (but sometimes with one hand), and Eschenbach made wonderful use of head nods and eye contact, as one would expect. Roaring applause at the end of a fantastic performance, and as the “40 minutes” label suggested, an encore. They played the second movement of Mozart’s concerto no. 12 as the encore, a rather slower, more serene (and rather appropriate) choice, instead of like, a Chopin etude or something with no orchestra. Very pleased.

The second half of the program was listed as “70 minutes,” and consisted of Mozart’s 40th symphony and Beethoven’s first. When the 40th began, lots of people went (or seemed to in their heads) “Oh!” more facially than verbally. Mozart’s latest symphonies always stand out to me as works of real extreme beauty, the biggest, most developed masterworks of his symphonic output (operas, masses aside), and its use of sonata form and larger scales hints at what was to come decades later. Again, played effortlessly but with such passion and precision. I’ll talk about that at the bottom of the article though.

Finally (almost) is Beethoven’s first, a work I feel is quite underrated. Among Beethoven’s symphonies, the odd numbered ones get all the love, with the exception of 1, but I don’t think anyone couldn’t absolutely fall in love with it after hearing the Vienna Philharmonic play it. I was beyond thrilled with Eschenbach’s direction of the piece, sticking very much to the Classical-era theme that’d been set for the past two days instead of the Romantic, heavier, more exaggerated Beethoven that some conductors present. This is a work that’s delicate, but full of really quirky, very Beethoven moments, even from the first few notes. It wasn’t until I heard the piece live that I thought about how difficult this opening is to execute, as even the Vienna Philharmonic had a small misstep here. The piece is very much in keeping with the Mozart program, but is very clearly something unique and different. It was the highlight of the evening for me.

It’s nothing personal, but Beethoven’s music has lots of punch (i.e., more than Mozart’s). The notable additions to the performance for Beethoven were two trumpets and timpani (maybe more?) It was a performance of perfectly-proportioned intensity, ranging everywhere from the quietest, most delicate pianissimo to the loudest but still tasteful roaring fortissimo, and you can’t help but be in awe of this work as a first symphony of a composer who clearly knew what he wanted to say and was just getting started. Again, seemingly effortless.

Roaring floods of applause after the energetic and almost exhausting finale came to an end, and after many many applauses and bows taken, Eschenbach walks back out, baton in hand, and the crowd notices, and applause ratchets to another level of intensity. We get Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus overture, a wonderful choice to end these two incredible evenings of music, bookended by overtures: first Mozart’s Figaro overture, and then one by Beethoven. I couldn’t have dreamed of a more enjoyable two evenings.

Now to the spitting and the swaying. It seems the Vienna Philharmonic is quite the salivating group. Perhaps it has something to do with the climate, or the instruments themselves or whatever, but horn players were taking apart their instruments throughout both concerts and dumping out their mouth juices. One of the Ottensamers (I think) even swabbed his clarinet mid-performance. Bassoons held their instruments like backwards flutes to blow (or suck…? gross) out some moisture from his instrument, and this went on throughout the ensemble for the duration of the concerts (with the exception of the strings).

They also sway a lot. A passionate bunch they are, and looking at the facial expressions or motions of each player, you could be excused for thinking they were playing a solo. A few members of the orchestra seemed to be smiling the entire time (notably a young, blonde-haired gentleman on second violin), but swaying and gesturing and really moving with the music. Lots of focus and passion, and smiles! The first time I’ve ever seen such consistent smiles throughout two evenings of concerts (and also the first two-night feature I’ve ever attended).

Two more things of note: more swaying from an audience member the second evening. An old, bald headed man who looked like he was trying really hard to be ‘hip’ wearing a Kangol cap and carrying a pack of cigarettes in the chest pocket of his microfiber golf shirt got progressively more into the music as the music progressed. I hate head-bobbers at concerts, but not as much as I hate vigilante conductors  (I saw that little jackass too, but more about him later). He went from head bobbing (off-tempo) to practically swaying and bouncing in his seat. Ever been to a jazz or blues show and seen someone with their head down, eyes closed just kind of slowly dancing in their seats? Imagine that, but add to it the motions of falling asleep after drinking a bit too much, that forward head-thrust that people make when they’re not used to wearing a tie and have to go for an interview, and being poked in random places by hot paperclips. This is what he looked like, but boy was he into it. Had he not seemed like a scary human, I’d have tapped him on the shoulder, but I also didn’t know what to say to him. “Could you please stop writhing out of tempo?” But it didn’t really annoy me as much as make me feel sorry for the ladies on either side of him.

I saw the conducting jackass kid too, but thankfully, as expected, he was relegated to the fourth floor, far outside my eye line. Remember that I’m a white guy living in Asia, so I’m pretty easy to spot, and even easier to recognize after I’ve stuck my finger in your face and told you how incredibly distracting are your attempts to conduct. He saw me, but didn’t run. I gave him some nasty glares, but still got the impression he’d have made conversation if I’d been able to tolerate it. I am hoping he isn’t at the concert I’ll be going to this Saturday.

In summary, seeing the Vienna Philharmonic was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, one I was incredibly privileged to enjoy. I was a little nervous that my expectations were maybe a bit unrealistic, but I was blown away. Thank you very much to everyone who made this possible. I guess you really do get what you pay for.

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