In a world of increasing musical digitalization, there is nothing like a masterwork such as Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony in Vienna’s Musikverein to make one appreciate the live music experience. While listening to a perfectly mastered CD of the work can also be moving, there is more than just the general ambience of the gilded hall that one misses out on. While aurally and intellectually the transformation of the opening “fate” motif through each of the four movements can still be appreciated canned, there is nothing which compares with experiencing in a group the ultimate exaltation of its final transformation into a triumphal march to close the work. Similarly, though one can certainly appreciate the brilliant contrapuntal craftsmanship of the third movement on a recording, the visceral sensation of different instrumental soundwaves entering your body cannot be replicated. The second movement’s framing horn and cello work put even the packed ranks of the Goldener Saal into a trance-like state, heart rates slowed, eyes dilated and even the staunchest proponents of unwrapping hard candies forgot themselves for a few blissful moments.

Stéphane Denève © Uwe Ditz
Stéphane Denève
© Uwe Ditz

Not only is the live concert a different animal aurally from recordings, but visually has much more to offer. Watching passionate conductor Stéphane Denève physically carve out his musical vision and interact with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra carries a great deal of added value and certainly impacts how we the audience hear the performance. Equally stunning was pianist Jasminka Stančul walking onto the stage to perform Saint-Saëns' Piano Concerto no. 2 in G minor dressed in a shiny black suit with a gold sash. Like a petite ninja, she attacked the piano to open the long solo which opens the work, holding her own through all the tricky twists and turns of the piece. While the work in terms of substance is nothing but meringue in comparison with the melancholy depths of the Tchaikovsky, variety is the spice of life and sometimes we could all use a bit of fluff on a cold winter day. That being said, the piece lives from excitement and rhythmic/virtuosic effect, and the fact that – particularly in the final movement – soloist and orchestra could not seem to find a groove together somewhat lessened the effect of an otherwise impressive performance. The audience was not in the least put off, calling Stančul to the stage repeatedly until she acquiesced with an encore, a very fitting Tchaikovsky Nocturne.

The somewhat unusual pairing of Tchaikovsky with Saint-Saëns – a surprising juxtaposition of Russian and French flavors – was underlined and strengthened by the opening work, Maslenitsa by contemporary French composer Guillaume Connesson. The work is programmatic, depicting the Russian festival of the same name which takes place a week before Orthodox Lent ensues. A sort of Russian Carnival, Maslenitsa combines religious and pagan elements including snowball-fights, games, masquerades and the ceremonial burning of an effigy, “Lady Maslenitsa”. Like film music, the three-sectioned composition moves from theme to theme freely and suddenly, without regard for the constraints of thematic development or formal strictures. In the first and last sections dance themes and virtuosic solo work bustle about, playing with percussive elements and darting from thought to thought like a child whirling elatedly through the festival, whilst the middle section takes a more solemnly religious tone, opening with low string work and chimes. The piece is richly textured, highly engaging homage to Russia by a living composer, and a final example of something the concert hall offers us over our CD collections: previously unknown works introduced to us live, as the composer intended.