Photo, Jennifer Taylor

Friday-Sunday, March 3, 4 & 5, 2023

Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Guest Reviewer, Susan Stempleski

The Vienna Philharmonic began its three-concert Carnegie Hall residency in spectacular fashion with a superbly performed program of two sumptuous tone poems, opening with Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), Arnold Schoenberg’s twilight-of-Romanticism work depicting two lovers on an evening walk through a moonlit forest, where the woman, full of anxiety and remorse, confesses that she is pregnant by a previous lover, and the man unexpectedly responds that their love will unite them and that he will treat the child as his own. Responding to Christian Thielemann’s full-bodied conducting with both ardor and thrust, the Vienna players delivered a passionate rendering of the string-orchestra version (the original is for sextet), their elegant and exuberant playing revealing all the description of the Richard Dehmel poem which inspired it. The opening was ravishing, but the soul of the poignant performance lay in concertmaster Rainer Honeck’s solo contributions, alternating between anxiety and serenity, but always exquisitely polished. An opulent account of Eine Alpensinfonie, Richard Strauss’s spectacularly evocative showpiece, for an extravagant orchestra – 125 musicians, including offstage horns, organ, celesta, and some rarely used instruments such as a heckelphone – depicting a dramatic daylong Alpine trek, the last of the composer’s works in the tone poem genre. Because of the oversized orchestra and restlessly episodic structure the piece can come across as bloated and bombastic, but not on this occasion. Thielemann infused the score with focused radiance, highlighting the numerous pictorial details and molding each phrase with wonderful vitality and feeling. The Vienna players were at their finest, offering rich, cultured, and vital playing throughout – the echoing horns appropriately noble on ‘The Ascent’, the glowing violins soaring at the ‘Entry into the Forest’, the percussion glittering in ‘At the Waterfall’, the oboe solo extremely touching in ‘At the Summit’, the whole ensemble tremendously impressive in ‘Thunderstorm and Tempest, Descent’, and the trombones and tuba solemnly majestic in the opening and closing ‘Night’ sections. Some overly eager audience members prematurely started applauding during the pianissimo conclusion but came to a quick halt when Thielemann, arms still slightly raised, remained motionless. He returned to the stage only once and led a lighthearted encore: a graceful rendition of Joseph Hellmesberger Junior’s Entr’acte Valse.

The second evening opened with a dark and vibrant account of the Hebrides Overture. Christian Thielemann’s steady and subdued tempos maintained the somber mood, allowing Mendelssohn’s imaginative and atmospheric music to emerge with great power and beauty. The strings were wonderfully vibrant and even the agitated outbursts of the brass sounded as resplendent. A beautifully played but less than totally satisfying rendering of the ‘Scottish’ Symphony followed. While Thielemann elicited some incisive and spirited sounds in the introductory Andante – the melody was exceptionally poised and beautifully phrased – the treatment as a whole was marked by a weighty solemnity more befitting of Brahms than Mendelssohn. The dance-like Scherzo came across as more lead-footed than cheerfully graceful, and while the Adagio flowed easily enough, with no hint of sentimentality, it was more lethargic than desirable. In the Finale Thielemann recouped some of the energy missing from the earlier movements. The coda, closing on a fast gallop with the horns blazing brightly, was suitably driven and provided a gratifying and majestic close. After intermission came a distinctive and highly pleasurable rendition of Brahms’s warm and lyrical Second Symphony. The VP responded superbly to Thielemann, delivering an energetic performance full of fervor and power and offering playing that – while not exactly relaxed – was not too hard-driven to mask the music’s eloquence and essentially cheerful character. The orchestra exuded a marvelous feeling of vitality throughout, the first movement brisk, warm and impulsive, the coda enhanced by Ronald Janezic’s extraordinarily expressive horn solo. The Allegretto grazioso third had an appealing simplicity and elegance, distinguished by the graceful and sparkling work of the woodwinds, in particular Clemens Horak’s delicately beautiful oboe solo. The excitement of the fiery Finale carried an intense display of colors as it galloped into the fortissimo trombone-powered coda. But the real highlight was the enigmatic and lovingly detailed Adagio which had many memorable contributions, most notably that of the lyrical cellos in the arioso-like opening, Dietmar Küblböck’s ominous trombone later, and the graceful violins throughout. Altogether this was a gorgeous and glowing reading. The encore came from the nostalgic world of the orchestra’s polka- and waltz-filled New Year’s concerts – on this occasion a delightfully zippy rendition of Eduard Strauss’s playful Mit Extrapost.

The Vienna Philharmonic and Christian Thielemann’s residency at Carnegie Hall culminated with an inspired and spacious account of a monumental work. Thielemann is currently engaged in recording Bruckner’s Symphonies for Sony. The Eighth has a history of rejections and revisions. Hermann Levi, one of Bruckner’s preeminent supporters, was so perplexed by the original score that he refused to conduct it. After mounting the podium, Thielemann took an exceptionally long pause before bringing the players to attention. He then launched into the staggering work (as revised, edited by Robert Haas), delivering an expressive and powerful reading, totally dedicated from beginning to end. As he did during the other Carnegie concerts, Thielemann conducted with flawless precision and fluency, and from memory. His interpretation of this, the most expansive of Bruckner’s Symphonies, was vigorous, intense and emotionally expressive, aided by luminous playing that exuded authority and aspiration. The robust strings bestowed a sense of occasion, with the entry of each new voice energetic and alive, the great brass chorales giving way to exquisite woodwind solos. The sprightly, frolicsome passages of the confident, open-air Scherzo surfaced with an exhilarating sense of rising anticipation as Thielemann and his forces whipped up a rollicking storm. In the glittering and soulful harp-haloed Trio, the music flowed. The expressive core of Bruckner’s score burned brightest in the extensive Adagio, where Thielemann expertly managed its coloristic and dramatic demands so that everything – the radiant woodwinds, the burnished brass, and the fervent strings – was beautifully balanced and blended. The most reflective moments were absolutely transfixing. The beautifully shaped Finale was bitingly dramatic with no letup of intensity. The triumphant coda – with strings and brass drifting from one key to another and themes from all four movements coming together in blazing counterpoint – was thrilling. There was a joyful encore, a lilting rendition of Josef Strauss’s waltz, Sphärenklänge.

The above is an amalgam of reviews written for Classical Source

Christian Thielemann records Bruckner 8 with the Vienna Philharmonic for Sony Classical.