On their way to the Prague Spring Festival, the Filarmonica della Scala conducted by Andrés Orozco-Estrada stopped in at Grafenegg to play the festival's final concert. Renée Fleming singing Richard Strauss and the originally-scheduled Symphonie fantastique had packed the house but what they were talking about after the concert was Brahms and the bold young Music Director of the Vienna Symphony, from Medellín by way of Bogotá and Houston.

Renée Fleming and the Filarmonica della Scala
© Lukas Beck

As it must eventually be for most singers, the Strauss was a bittersweet affair. But while Fleming's intimacy was more than the open air Wolkenturm at times could bear, the orchestra from Italy's great opera house embraced and lifted her to lyrical heights. In Beim Schlafengehen the violas produced atmospheric miracles, shafts of radiant light, the concertmaster played nobly, without artifice, and Fleming nestled. The Filarmonica horns were glorious throughout, and together they illuminated the poet's thoughts in a way that could not have happened on any other night. In Im Abendrot the violins were especially sweet, and the fluttering larks seemed to be stationed in the trees flanking the stage.

The surprise was Brahms' Second Symphony in which Orozco-Estrada responded to his Austrian settings with speeds for the Allegro non troppo that were consistently, organically right; when the cellos soared in their big theme it was clear the the Filarmonica knows Brahms. The violins played with sophisticated charm, the brass and winds were of the highest expressive caliber, and the timpanist in particular stood out for his brilliant range of expressive strokes and timbres. The double basses, playing with minimal endpins and embedded with the cellos, added further dimensions of power and depth. It was an unusually unified version of Brahms, an untroubled view of untroubled Brahms, that had the conductor frequently throwing smiles at different sections, as if acknowledging the work they had done in their late afternoon rehearsal.

Festival director Rudolf Buchbinder presents flowers to Renée Fleming
© Lukas Beck

The Allegretto grazioso (quasi andantino) was quick but so gracefully phrased that it sounded ineffably right; the Allegro con spirito was quickish, the second theme slower and more deliberately phrased, too smooth after the double bar but then moved with sudden huge energy at the end to bring the curtain down. 

The concert had begun with a splendid performance of Weber's overture to Der Freischütz. The tempo was measured and literal and set up the orchestra's horns as if they were singers on the stage themselves. Orozco-Estrada shaped the opening so that the second time through the cellos were just a bit louder, but tellingly so, leading to a fast, impulsive Allegro that almost stopped completely, suspended in time by the clarinetist's solo; even after Agathe's theme, the Filarmonica still had plenty in reserve.

The overture to The Barber of Seville was the perfect encore with the violins having a ball and the winds even more characterful and virtuosic, sending the audience warm and happy on a cool summer night, and ending the festival in a fireworks display of musical notes.