Saturday 31 March 2012

Devil's Trill in Vienna

Musikverein and Karlskirche, Vienna
Vienna sits in the centre of Europe – much further east than you’d think – just a few dozen miles from Slovakia and Hungary, in that patch of Austria untroubled by Alpine peaks.  For a century and a half it was Europe’s musical heart, lying on the easy path round the mountains between the northern capitals of old Europe and Italy.  It was where composers came to make it big: Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart, Mahler; all pulled here by the promise of exposure and fame.  It still clings to those names, immortalising them in statues and museums, though their ubiquity suggests that subsequent revolutionaries moved on long ago.  

Vienna itself has avoided the sprawl of many of its European neighbours: ten minutes on the train out of the city centre and you’re surrounded by farms.  Its nineteenth century architects must have expected it to keep-a-pace with the Londons and Berlins of this world, designing vast boulevards and public spaces that these days often seem eerily empty.  If the city seems small scale, though, it has still seen its share of history, making London feel like a paragon of continuity in comparison.  Signs of Nazi control have gone, but the Soviets left their mark, not least at Schwartzenbergplatz, where the Soviet War Memorial stands as a strident monument to their expansion west. 

Soviet War Memorial, Vienna

Now, with all that history under the bridge, Vienna is left with its culture, simultaneously pedalled as high art and low kitsch.  You can take your pick: hear Mozart at the Musikverein, or munch his chocolate balls at the airport.  But in Vienna, the division isn’t always as clear: its highest of cultural institutions, the Vienna Philharmonic, are as famous for sleep-waltzing through new year’s morning fluff as for carrying the torch for Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms.

My short visit coincided with some unseasonally strong sunshine, throwing the most flattering of light on the baroque Karlskirche and the ornate Secession building.  Even the Soviet monolith glowed brilliantly as the sun set.  My real interest lay, though, in a less gilded structure.  The Musikverein, counted so often as one of the world’s great spaces for music, is dusty red and from the outside looks barely large enough to house a concert hall.  The reason becomes obvious: the main hall is surprisingly small, an impression only strengthened by the gloomy golden decor and low-flying chandeliers.  It certainly looks bigger on TV.

Musikverein, Vienna

Inside, though, it’s hard not to get excited.  Never mind the new year’s nonsense; on this stage, Bruno Walter conducted his legendary 1938 performance of Mahler’s 9th, just weeks before the Anschluss; half a century later, it was here that Carlos Kleiber conducted his miraculous Brahms 2.  The stage, though, is compact and is a squeeze for a modern orchestra.  While I was in Vienna, I heard two concerts by the visiting City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra with the music director Andris Nelsons  which tested the limits of the hall and its little stage.       

Britten’s Four Sea interludes (without the Passacaglia, inserted into the set in the orchestra’s Birmingham warm up) seemed at times to be too much for the hall.  At its loudest, its screeching fury begged for a bigger space.  It certainly wasn’t the orchestra’s fault – they could hardly have played it all mezzo forte – but I had to wonder what impression it had left on a Viennese audience, hardly likely to be too familiar with Britten’s music.

Rudolf Buchbinder’s performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto made a much better case for the Musikverein’s acoustics.  This is the sort of music its architects might have imagined would have been played here, and the hall responded by bathing the performance in a richly resonant aura.  It has it pitfalls, though: for all its luxuriant reverb, the acoustic has the sense of closeness common to smaller halls.  On the stage of the Musikverein, your sound might be silken, but the audience will hear if you make a mistake.  So it was that Buchbinder’s occasional untidiness was clear to hear, but his performance, which seemed to stir and awaken as it unfolded, was so fresh and free that it barely mattered.  He had excellent support from the CBSO, too: the bridge from the bullied solemnity of the slow movement to the whispered excitement of the finale, for example, could not have been bettered.

It got even better after the interval.  Andris Nelsons’s way with Sibelius’s Second Symphony was riveting.  The first movement became a fizzing prelude to the joyous finale, but the tone poem-like second movement plumbed the depths with craggy fanfares and tense silences.  It really was gripping and somehow the small hall only made it more intense.  The orchestra sounded better than I have ever heard them (and they’re usually no slouches); on a level here with any orchestra in the world.  If they don’t already plan to, Nelsons and the CBSO should get this one down on disc. 

Jonas Kaufmann and the CBSO, Vienna

It was Jonas Kaufmann’s turn as soloist the following night, and his considerable fame filled most of the few empty seats seen the previous evening.  His appearance a few weeks earlier in Birmingham was heavily covered in the British press, and I had a few words to say about it at the time.  His performance was very similar in Vienna; the Musikverein, though, didn’t seem as kind to his voice as Birmingham’s much larger Symphony Hall.  It seemed, also, that the 1700 strong Viennese audience had a tougher time sitting quietly than their Birmingham counterparts: the end of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder was rather ruined by the coughing and fidgeting that smothered what should have been a rapt silence.  The selection of Strauss songs again proved to be the high point; Kauf-watchers will be interested to know that he dropped the folded arms adopted for Morgen! in Birmingham for a more pious clasped-hands position.

Debussy’s La Mer opened the concert; Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe Second Suite ended it.  It surely is the ultimate sumptuous show stopper and Nelsons lavished attention over the famous “dawn” episode.  It ached and flexed as though slowly emerging from peaceful slumber, transforming assuredly into the exhilarating revelry that ends the ballet.  Is there any music better than this?  I don’t think so.  


Unknown said...

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Andrew Morris said...

Hi Tobias, could you email me at with more details, please? Andrew.