Vienna’s Radio Symphony Orchestra has been offering some wonderfully varied programming this season within their four-concert subscription cycle, and last night’s concert, under the baton of their energetic resident conductor and music director Cornelius Meister was no exception, featuring works by Britten, Haydn and a world première by Friedrich Cerha. The binding factor between these varied works was the idea of newness or the fresh. Cerha’s elegiac Drei Sätze für Orchester being the octogenarian’s youngest compositional offering while “Le Matin” by Haydn is a charmingly upbeat celebration of the dawning of a new day and Britten’s Spring Symphony a massive ode to the season synonymous with new life and rebirth.

Cornelius Meister © Marco Borggreve
Cornelius Meister
© Marco Borggreve

Haydn’s Symphony no. 6 in D Major, “Le Matin” opened the performance. Waking up is tough for many of us, and the orchestra probably would have liked to hit the snooze button and have a repeat chance at the first opening bars of the Adagio, but after a rough start in terms of intonation, the rest of the work fairly sparkled. Strong solo work, fabulous ensemble and great energy did justice to Haydn’s four-movement symphony. Fingers and bows fluttered through dance-like figures and virtuosic passages packed with trills with astonishing clarity and brilliance.

The world première of Cerha’s Drei Sätze für Orchester was equally well-received and continued the evening’s theme of new beginnings. Though not perhaps the most colorful of titles, the work – a commission of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien – utilized the entire palette of orchestral sound possibility. After a shocking clash of cymbals, suspended string sounds seemed to remove us from metered time – like Salvador Dali’s melting clocks. Impressive brass work formed curtains of sound, building intensity through dramatic dissonance. The second movement featured solo work in the winds, particularly the flute and English horn, and meandered contemplatively from thought to thought without a sense of rest or resolution. One could imagine Korngold’s legacy of string scoring finding kindship in Cerha’s musical language. The final movement was permeated by a sense of urgency – decidedly bombastic and heavily virtuosic. The composer places considerable demands on every section of the orchestra, even giving the percussion section ample opportunity to display their chops through a multitude of sounds and effects. Alternating use of silence, and bursts of sound, a threatening rumbling drew the work to a brightly cacophonous close.

Britten’s massive Spring Symphony was the pièce de resistance of the evening. The work takes its inspiration from texts about spring by English poets spanning the 13th and the 20th centuries. One of the most powerful texts is “Out on the lawn I lie in bed” by W.H. Auden and features a beautiful alto solo and choir. The final verse is not only a devastatingly timely reflection of the state of the modern world, but tellingly set by Britten. The shock as almost militant reality breaks in at the mention of violence interrupts the haunting, dreamlike harmonies which hitherto typified the movement is palpable.

The voice is celebrated throughout this “choral symphony”. Grouped into four sections are twelve texts, each section sharing a similar mood. The second section, which includes the aforementioned Auden text, is contemplative. It opens and closes with mezzo solos, and the middle setting, Henry Vaughan’s “Waters Above (The Shower)” features an ethereal tenor solo above vibrating string sounds. The first section is generally upbeat after the slow, introductory “Shine Out”, a slow choral work which bent on unleashing the power of the human voice. The third section is “scherzo”-like and the last is a climactic finale with all hands on deck musically, featuring the unusual use of a ram’s horn and much more in a raucous representation of a London festival.

The sound of the Singverein was fabulous from the first number on, and though we were fortunate to have programme notes as understanding both their texts and those of the soloists was next to impossible, the mass and colour provided by Britten’s scoring and excellent execution by all involved enraptured the listener. One things that Britten consistently does brilliantly is combine folksy elements, imitative at times of external sounds – both natural and man-made – with modern harmonies and innovative techniques. Examples include the whistling, boys’ choir and tambourine which characterize the George Peele text “The Driving Boy” or the soloists’ marvellous imitations of bird sounds throughout Thomas Nashe’s poem “Spring” in the first section.

Kudos to the RSO – nothing breathes fresh life and energy into a musical season like this kind of programming and execution!