In an evening which seemed to be all about pluralism in classical music, the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester and the Singverein joined forces with countertenor Matthias Rexroth, alto Elisabeth Kulman, tenor Steve Davislim and baritone Adrian Eröd under the baton of Vladimir Fedoseyev for a colorful, wild jaunt through Shostakovich’s 6th Symphony and Schnittke’s Seid nüchtern und wachet (Faust Cantata) in the great hall of the Musikverein. Though performances of greater polish and perfection have certainly graced these venerated walls, this was a rapturous celebration of creative instrumentation, virtuosity and brilliance that completely engaged and energized.

Shostakovich’s three-movement 6th symphony kicked off the evening, a work rich both in contrast and content. It opens with a pensive, largo movement which develops from a single theme, characterized by a minor third, a diminished seventh and a trill. It is reflective and dark in character for the most part, and in the middle section seems almost to get lost in a series of seemingly unrelated thoughts, presented by a variety of instruments over tremolo strings. From the beginning the layered voicings and fascinating instrumentation employed by Shostakovich are noteworthy, showing off the depth of musicianship available from the RSO and highlighting Fedesoyev’s innate understanding of this music as he guided them through it. Each movement gains momentum and speed in this symphony, like falling down a large hill. The second movement is a Scherzo that manages to be both happy and slightly askew at the same time. It is full of syncopations and edgy accents, and features a grand variety of dancelike minuet and waltz moments which change and evolve as quickly as they appear, before evaporating with an ascending run into the atmosphere. The final movement is a musical hunt, with elements that could almost be classical if one leaves out of account the harmonic language. It is frothy and full of air and fun as it gallops and hops and finally storms to a brilliant close. 

This juxtaposition of classical and modern was continued into the Schnittke’s Faust Cantata which comprised the second half of the evening. Seid nüchtern und wachet, based on the Faust legend, was composed in 1983 as a commission work for the Wiener Festwochen and is actually a precursor to Schnittke’s Faust opera which followed some twelve years later, but on which he was already hard at work. The ten-part composition weaves neo-classical elements and forms with the modern and theatrical to form a piece which often seems very somber, but occasionally takes one’s breath away in surprise. One such moment in the Cantate is the 7th section, the alto solo – sung and portrayed memorably by Elisabeth Kulman – a tango where Mephistopheles mocks Faust and his descent into hell. The instrumentation here is epic, full of crashing percussion and shrill winds. Though the work is in general sometimes thought of as disjointed or unbalanced, the juxtaposition of the expected with the unexpected adds considerably to the surprise factor. As an example, the classical role of Erzähler (narrator), sung beautifully by tenor Steve Davislim, opens the work after a brief choral prologue, but his narration is accompanied by hair-raising, uncomfortably high melisma from countertenor Matthias Rexroth, the second vocal representation of the devil. The role of Faust himself was negotiated admirably by baritone Adrian Eröd, who sounded fantastic, apart from occasionally coming through less than ideally in the lower register of this bass role. The Singverein, the Musikverein’s in-house choral organization for passionate non-professional musicians since its inception in 1858, were prepared solidly by director Johannes Prinz. Their warnings, lamentations and commentary throughout the cantata lent energy and gravitas up through the final choral, a reminder to all good Christians: “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.”

The RSO performed this evening with energy and verve, and though I did not have the feeling they were over-rehearsed with this venerable guest conductor, when it comes to this music, I will take ability and impetus over studied perfection any day of the week. Orchestra, soloists, conductor and choir were all warmly rewarded with fervent applause, and I am certain I was not alone in leaving the Musikverein energized and smiling from a downright sinfully entertaining soirée.