In three concerts, Vienna Phil and Gergiev show all that glitter isn't gold

By Raymond Beegle
June 3, 2016

Heidi Melton, soprano. Valery Gergiev, conductor

Heidi Melton, soprano. Valery Gergiev, conductor

Valery Gergiev, Conductor
Heidi Melton, Soprano
Friday, February 26th, 2016
Richard Wagner          Der Fligende Hollander Overture
Claude Debussy          La Mer
Modest Mussorgsky    Pictures at an Exhibition
Saturday, February 27TH 2016
Mussorgsky     Prelude to Khovanchina
Olga Neuwirth            Masoot/Clock without Hands
Wagner                        Götterdämmerung Selections
Sunday, February 28th, 2016
Wagner                       Prelude and Goof Friday Music from Parsifal
Tchaikovsky               Manfred Symphony

Vienna, the home of Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, and Brahms, sent its magnificent Philharmonic Orchestra to us for three concerts, which included not a note written by any of these illustrious former denizens. Instead Wagner was heard, as well as Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Debussy, and the contemporary Austrian crossover composer, opera composer, “live electronics designer,” and creator of “sound installations,” Olga Neuwirth. 

Wagner, of course, is a staple for the ensemble, and his works, performed on each of the three concerts were given glittering, incisive, larger than life readings under the baton of maestro Valery Gergiev.  Aside from glitter and magnitude, one could not expect much more than a cursory or perfunctory performance from a personality that in close sequence flies to Tokyo for a Mahler cycle, then to St. Petersburg for an opera performance, then to Brooklyn for a performance of ballet music, with a side trip to New York City for this three-day potpourri. Gergiev, who is renowned for his sight-reading skills, is a consummate musician. The structure of a composition, its nuances, and all the dynamic and tempo markings of a given score are immediately available to his formidable mind. However he leaves no time to digest what his mind consumes, and the listener is given a facile imitation of a living form similar to what one sees at Mme. Tussaud’s. It might be lifelike, but it is lifeless. By way of contrast Wilhelm Furtwängler, had a rather circumscribed repertoire, which he constantly studied and came to know in greater depth throughout his life. For example, he developed a method of building the string sound in Wagner’s Ring cycle from the bottom up, revealing the inner voices, and giving a sense of the drama’s undercurrent and inevitable conclusion. The strings in this evening’s performance were structured from the top down, with an emphasis on the melodic material, giving a brilliant tone, but minimizing the rich brooding sonorities demanded in much of the score. The young soprano Heidi Melton, whose voice already shows signs of wear through over singing and poor technique, made an inadequate showing in Brünhilde’s Immolation scene.

The most successful of the works presented this weekend was Debussy’s La Mer, which lends itself to Gergiev’s aggressive but glacial temperament.  Pierre Bernac wrote that Debussy’s “ …clarity of expression, precision, and concentration of form…” stands in contrast to the German’s  “…uninhibited outpourings directly opposed to the French taste.” In this manner, Maestro Gergiev’s approach is more French than it is German, or even Russian. 

Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony, one of the composer’s weaker pieces, was put on life supports through exaggerated tempos and dynamics. This was true as well of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, which certainly needs no life supports. Overstatement left it a vehicle for virtuosic display, drawing more attention to the orchestra and its conductor than the particular picture they were assigned to describe.

Graz born, Vienna and San Francisco educated Olga Neuwirth, was the only representative of the Orchestra’s great musical city. Her work seemed to cover all the necessary ingredients for a government grant, including a lengthy explanation of what we would hear and what we were to understand. The explanation itself needs an explanation and introduces the public to a composition similar in formula to her Viennese senior HK Gruber. Gruber’s Charivari, performed earlier this season by the Philadelphia Orchestra, challenged the orchestra, as did Neuwerth’s Clock without Hands, with complex rhythms, string glissandos, and barks from the brass, which, notwithstanding their demands for precision, left the listener with a vague impression of relentless, stupefying, meaningless noise. If one was to know that Clock without Hands was meant  “…to seem that you were listening to something being dreamed, or as if you were dreaming while listening…” or that it “…evolved out of the multi-voiced sound of my fragmented origins and my desire for an uninterrupted flow determined throughout the piece by interchanging cells, ” one gains this knowledge in vain, as none of these elements were discernable in the listening, even after wading through the sophomoric rhetoric in the program notes. 

I don’t know of another orchestra, which has such an uncanny ability to sound like an entirely different entity depending upon who is on the podium. The most striking example was the dramatic change in character when Herbert von Karajan succeeded Furtwängler and a glossy antiseptic virtuosity replaced the language of the “soul,” a word so ubiquitous in the nineteenth century, and so slighted today. The soul subsequently reappeared under various conductors like Giulini or Erich Kleiber, and disappeared with show business men like Mehta and Barenboim. This series of concerts by the Vienna Philharmonic was in the manner of the latter, where the soul was nowhere to be encountered. Frigid, impersonal showmanship took its place. I remember Virginia Woolf’s phrase, “…the soul, by nature a widow bird, flew away, startled up into the air by a stone thrown at it.” 

Raymond Beegle reviews classical music and opera for the New York Observer and Fanfare Magazine. For many years he was Contributing Editor of Opera Quarterly, the Classic Record Collector (UK), and also appeared on The Today Show (NBC) and Good Morning America (CBS). As an accompanist, he has collaborated with Zinka Milanov and Licia Albanese.  Currently Mr. Beegle serves on the faculty of Manhattan School of Music in New York City.