Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Transcendence, transfiguration & redemption

The new Pentatone album of music from Vienna by Alisa Weilerstein, her first as Artistic Partner of the Trondheim Soloists, comes from a place of profoundly mixed feelings:
Schoenberg fled Vienna in 1934, four years before my grandparents escaped. So, as a young artist, nowhere in my imagination was the possibility of duality and contradiction made more manifest than in the history of that city. A culture that gave birth to some of the greatest achievements in the artform that I had chosen to pursue could, in the same breath, harbor sentiments and sanction behavior antithetical to music’s transcendent promise. 
This ambivalence is a common theme when writing about Vienna since the 1930s, by Jewish writers, or indeed anyone who has been paying attention to the often sordid political and social life of this great intellectual centre, once an Imperial capital.  In "Thomas Bernhard, Karl Kraus, and Other Vienna-Hating Viennese", a fascinating article in the Paris Review, Matt Levin counts down a list of many great thinkers and artists - Robert Musil, Elias Canetti, Sigmund Freud, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Arthur Schnitzler, and more - and concludes, " some way, they all seemed to despise the city in at least equal measure to their affection."

For the last twelve years of his life Joseph Haydn lived in Gumpendorf, then a village on the outskirts of Vienna. After his many years away from the mainstream at Esterházy, he really wanted to be closer to the centre of the musical world, and that meant, in turn, Paris, London and Vienna. Alisa Weilerstein has a chance here to show off her considerable chops as a cellist in the two cello concertos that are undeniably by Haydn. But it's also Weilerstein as a conductor who shapes this music in the context of her thought-provoking program (a program that's beautifully laid out in a superb, long liner-notes essay by Mark Berry). We have here a picture of 18th century Vienna, one of civilized life before multiple revolutions brought down the power structures that had built the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But this is more than the usual nostalgic sentimental kitsch so common in Vienna, since Weilerstein brings out both Haydn's earthy humour and the folkloric musical roots of his music. Weilerstein and the players of the Trondheim Soloists have already developed a superb partnership in this repertoire, which also bodes well for future projects.

There's a huge gap between Haydn's Vienna and Arnold Schoenberg's Vienna, but in our post-modern world even the Second Vienna School can take on the same kind of nostalgic sheen that drapes pre-WWI society, of a different sort, certainly, but just as sentimental in its own way.  Vienna has been called "an essential cockpit of modernism", but that revolution, which once seemed so close to our time, begins to recede into distant memories as we move into our new century.  In his 1943 transcription of the 1899 original Schoenberg loses chamber music textures but gains in emotional intensity, assuming a very good performance, which we certainly get here. I always thought the famous Karajan recording from 1974 was way over the top, but this definitely isn't. Though it also packs an emotional punch, Weilerstein's version is responsible in the way that Karajan's version wasn't, clear-eyed about the beauty of the music but also the horrors into which Vienna would descend.

What a thoughtful and impressively musical disc this is!

This recording will be released on August 24, 2018.

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