A century after his break with tonality, it shouldn’t still be brave to open a festival as major as New York’s “Vienna: City of Dreams” with Schoenberg, but it is. Braver still is pairing Schoenberg with Beethoven or, rather, the other way around. The risk is always that Beethoven sounds so much more radical, so much more contemporary in a good performance, than most of the composers who have followed him. For this concert, though, Franz Welser-Möst and the Vienna Philharmonic put an interesting tweak on the genre by prefacing the Ninth with Schoenberg’s own paean to human unity, Friede auf Erden (‘Peace on Earth’).

Franz Welser-Möst © Roger Mastroianni
Franz Welser-Möst
© Roger Mastroianni

This pairing probably happens less often than it should because Schoenberg’s piece is so terrifyingly difficult. Conrad Ferdinand Meyer’s text was set for mixed choir, and was one of the last of Schoenberg’s headily late Romantic works. Completed in 1907, the score is littered with accidentals, leaps and long lines. It begins ambiguously, slowly splitting its four parts into five, six, eventually eight, unity coming through ever more polyphony. Its journey takes it towards a radiant D major (like Beethoven's Ninth) by way of repeated refrains of “Friede, Friede, auf der Erde!” Of course, it was not peace that would come for Schoenberg’s Vienna, but war. He later called the piece “an illusion for mixed choir”. 

Friede auf Erden is challenging enough that Schoenberg had to add a soft orchestral part for the premiere in 1911, to help what was intended to be an a cappella work. Although the backing is often omitted now as choirs have improved, Welser-Möst chose to include it. With that decision began a series of missteps that resulted in a disappointing concert. Welser-Möst drove the piece incessantly hard, allowing it little time to breathe. The choir, usually so fine a part of this city’s musical culture, struggled to project Schoenberg’s combination of polyphony and harmony, sounding oddly recessed in this most lucid of halls. The text was too often lost. Add in the contribution of the Vienna Philharmonic, and what ought to have been radically clear was simply claggy.

What an idea it might have been to have the Schoenberg run directly into the opening strains of the Beethoven. But no: applause, additions to the orchestra, a larger choir, and so on, prevented that. Strange too was Welser-Möst’s decision to have his soloists walk onto the stage in the middle of the orchestral statement of the “Ode to Joy”, shifting attention away from two minutes of what turned out to be the orchestra’s most impressive playing of the evening.

This Ninth was pretty routine, something that no Beethoven and certainly no Ninth should ever be. At least the characteristic Viennese sound was in full flow, as it tends to be when Rainer Honeck and the energetic Volkhard Steude occupy the concertmasters’ chairs. That had its upsides, like an airy lyricism from the strings in the slow movement, and characterful, almost Mozartean contributions from the woodwinds, neatly brought out from time to time by Welser-Möst. It also had its downsides. Suddenly, for instance, one became aware that the front and rear desks of the strings were out of sync, which was a considerable problem for the opening of the scherzo, not alone among the alarming number of moments that sounded lazily uncoordinated.

Technical problems need not bring Beethoven down, however, as long as there is something at stake in a performance. Take the Ninth played – lived – a year ago by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and Daniel Barenboim on this same stage, or even Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s earthy celebration a few months before that. This, though, was complacent. Like many current conductors, Welser-Möst took the first movement violently, although this was violence with a matter-of-fact air to it: the development and the harrowing, timpani-crushed recapitulation were almost nonchalant. The coda, though, was extraordinary, the Viennese strings digging into their tremolo like no other orchestra can. The scherzo hammered away at the barlines, assuredly anodyne playing vying for dominance with spectacular quickfire changes of direction. Beethoven’s great slow movement had nothing of the miracle to it, nothing transformative, despite the occasional glories of those strings. Things livened up with the entries of bass Günter Groissbock, a Wotan in waiting, who infused his text with meaning and vigour, and tenor Peter Seiffert. While the enlarged choir sang with verve, what followed was unremittingly fast, but ultimately riskless. It was just there, and not a lot more.