Fidelio, the result of Beethoven’s ten-year compositional struggle with the operatic art form, was completed in three different versions – the first two christened Leonore – and with four different overtures. The Leonore Overture no. 3, completed for the second version of the opera in 1806, is often considered the most musically successful, though its broad, dramatic scope rather overwhelmed the opera’s cheerful opening scenes leading to its ultimate replacement. Despite this, it has found a place in the orchestral repertory and is still often used today as an interlude in Act 2. After a dramatic opening chord and a unison descent into the bleak prison, large parts of the opera’s plot are musically sketched, this overture feels like a condensed reading of much of the opera and very much holds its own in the concert hall. Rafael Payare, making his house debut, led the Vienna Philharmonic through a precise, dynamically rich reading of the overture. That this was not the most energized, meaty performance was likely due to the timing both in terms of the season and the day; at 3:30pm on a muggy Saturday in June, everyone was likely just waking up. The performance did feature stunning solo flute and off-stage trumpet, and not a few virtuosic, unison string passages.

Elīna Garanča
© Karina Schwarz | DG

Stunning mezzo Elīna Garanča joined the ensemble for songs by Mahler, bringing both her rich, creamy brand of legato vocal wonder and a stunning midnight-blue gown to the stage. Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder sound like they were written for two completely different voice types, and it no small take to carry off all five ideally. After opening with a less-than-sprightly Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder which lacked the frothy lightness the music requests, there was absolutely nothing more to complain about vocally. Ich atmet' einen linden Duft was effortless, with a gorgeous temperature change in the final phrase. Um Mitternacht was appropriately heavy and dramatic, Garanča’s low tones cutting through effortlessly. Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, an ode to artistic retreat from the turmoil of the world, was amazingly slow and controlled, perhaps to a fault. The artist in the poem is withdrawn and peaceful, but if the tempo flags too much it sounds like a funeral dirge. Regardless, it was beautifully sung, featuring highly expressive solo cor anglais and violin lines. Urlicht, the Knaben Wunderhorn setting that Mahler later used in his Second Symphony, ended the group successfully. One had the feeling that Payare was now leading the orchestra and soloist as a unit instead of aiding the orchestra in accompanying the voice, and Garanča’s voice was a perfect fit.

Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra was commissioned during dark days for the composer. After fleeing to the USA in 1940 and finishing a teaching contract at Columbia, Bartók found himself facing financial hardship, health troubles and career stagnation, unable to get his works performed. The commission of the concerto by Russian conductor Serge Koussevitzky – in remembrance of his recently deceased wife – was a shot in the arm not only financially, but also boosted Bartók’s health nearly immediately. An astounding transformation, from bitter pain, loss, sarcasm and desolation to jubilant triumph takes place in the Concerto. The work begins with an introduction slowly born into the world, developing into a theme full of trumpet fanfares and strife. Though moments of dolce peacefulness briefly make themselves heard, it is screaming trumpets defiantly push them into the background.

The second movement, a “Giuoco delle coppie” features various woodwind and brass pairs – the bassoons in sixths, the oboes in thirds, the clarinets in sevenths, the flutes in fifths and the trumpets in seconds – flightily dancing; building to a masterful symphonic romp. Payare’s tempo was ideal: slow enough to present each voice with clarity and precision, but quick enough to contrast nicely with the slow Elegia which follows. Themes from the first movement reappear here in a series of other-worldly, painful meanderings; this movement is all heartbreak, mourning and suffering. The fourth movement suffers in a very different way while allowing solo voices (well done, timpani!) in the Philharmoniker to strut their stuff once again. Here nostalgic folk melodies, tunes reminiscent of Bartók’s home, are interrupted and shredded by grotesque circus music, operetta-like gestures and march-themes from Shostakovich’s "Leningrad" Symphony. The fantastic folk dance that is the finale was taken at a brilliant clip by Payare and the Philharmoniker, the perpetuum mobile character building to a raucously joyous finale that elicited genuine, generous applause.