In a romantic, colourful jaunt which led from The Isle of the Dead to The Great Gate of Kiev, Gustavo Dudamel and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra presented an easy to love programme focussed on late-romantic masters who found musical inspiration in artistic masterpieces.

Gustavo Dudamel © Nohely Oliveros
Gustavo Dudamel
© Nohely Oliveros

The first half included works by Sergei Rachmaninov and Max Reger, who took their cues from paintings by the Swiss symbolist painter, Arnold Böcklin. Böcklin painted five versions of a piece dubbed Die Todteninsel in the 1880s, and a black and white representation of the third is what inspired Rachmaninov to compose a lush, romantic symphonic poem of the same name in 1908. The Isle of the Dead opens and closes with 5/8 figures in the low strings to which the dark, honey-mahogany blend for which the VPO is so renowned were perfectly suited. This uneven rocking of the low strings clearly evokes the lapping of the water and movement of the solitary oarsman rowing to and from the island, carrying shrouded passengers to their resting place in Böcklin’s painting. This base motif grows and adds layers, rhapsodically repeating with ever-changing nuances in harmony and mood, sometimes muted and mesmerizing, sometimes gloriously melancholy.

Snippets of faded dreams and conversations from bygone lives waft through periodically: a few bars of a waltz, a battle or conflict appears and then disappears ephemerally, and the broadly-drawn lines built upon the dark string motif in 5/8 inevitably reign once again, continuously building in intensity. In the middle section there is an episodic reduction to well executed soft flute, horn and reed work; thereafter strongly menacing brass tones herald drama. Slowly, a dramatic, brilliant, full-orchestral climax is reached which seems nearly emancipated from the main theme. This is, however, soon interrupted by the Dies irae theme and leads back to the lapping of the waves in 5/8, overlaid with heartbreakingly beautiful, perhaps even hopeful string lines in a higher tessitura to round out the work. Rachmaninov’s view of death and the island ends with a poignant and unique blend of fatalism, beauty and peaceful resignation.

A scant five years after Rachmaninov’s publication, Reger produced four symphonic poems for large orchestra which were likewise based on paintings by Böcklin. The first, Der geigende Eremit, naturally featured the violin, and offered the entire string section, but particularly showcased the silken tones and gorgeous phrasing of concert master Albena Danailova. Reger’s hermit is alone, but not necessarily lonely – the movement is rich with lush beauty and just a touch of the melancholy, picking up beautifully where Rachmaninov left off. The following Spiel der Wellen was a Vivace jaunt filled with deft overlapping of parts in 3/4 time. The waves built, ebbed, flowed and then completely died out at the end – bravo to maestro Dudamel whose tempo choices here held the drama throughout. Reger’s Todteninsel is a melancholy plod of sustained tones coloured with wind and string gestures. It builds to a burst of hopeful passion, then grinds to a resigned close with slightly offset entrances, melancholy wind and reed tones. Bacchanale is a rowdy romp which had such speed and energy it seemed ever on the brink of tripping over its own toes, yet somehow never did. Lovely articulation and colourful effects peppered the movement which, brassy and brash, went out with a bang and a flurry of bows.

What programme about art-inspired music would be complete without Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition? From the opening trumpet solo, which was certainly one of the most graceful “Promenades” anyone could ask for, to the massive and majestic Great Gate of Kiev the VPO realized Ravel's masterful orchestration with perfectly rounded sound and gilded perfection. The glissando effects in Gnomus were hair-raising, the melancholy alto saxophone solo in The Old Castle was perfection, and anyone without a smile on their face after the charming Ballet of Unhatched Chicks in their Shells must have left their souls at home. The stuttering of Schmuyle and the austere and imposing tones depicting Catacombs gave the brass a chance to strut their stuff. I might have found the children in the Tuileries playing a bit sluggishly or thought the cattle in Bydło didn’t sound quite fatigued enough, but who needs to split hairs? It was a brilliant rendition and an equally well-constructed concert of romantic masterpieces: a picture-perfect programme.