Vienna rang in the official, opening performance of Philippe Jordan as new head conductor of the Wiener Symphoniker last evening in the Konzerthaus. Though Jordan and the Symphoniker have been happy bedfellows many times before, this concert marked the beginning of a new stage in their relationship and was therefore a highly anticipated event.

Philippe Jordan © Johannes Ifkovits
Philippe Jordan
© Johannes Ifkovits

Jordan is a perfect conductor. There is even something nearly too perfect about his technique – an ideal blend of flexibility and precision seem to permeate his gestures, and he completely looks the part; he has the posture of a dancer – his angles are ideal and crisp, yet contain beautiful flow and energy. One could call him robotic, but only in the most positive sense of the word. He may well be one of those futuristic, Asimov-inspired androids that are somehow more perfect than mere mortals without losing any of their humanoid charm.

Schubert’s First Symphony opened the evening. The work, composed at the tender age of 16, is much of what one would expect from an ambitious, teenage genius: it clearly exhibits Schubert’s solid grasp of classical form, his penchant for beautiful melody and points towards his astonishing potential. Filled with numerous musical quotations and gestures, Schubert’s own themes are generally mildly developed and often sequenced and repeated at length. It is a far cry from perfection – the second movement is lengthy for the amount of musical material it contains, and the scoring – doublings in the high brass for example – creates balance issues. The symphony has a youthful charm, however, and was skillfully rendered.

Janáček spoke a vastly different musical language. Janáček was the king of layered ostinati with varying rhythmic movement and loved shifting around meter and pulse – the hemiola is where he is very much at home. This, coupled with his unique blend of folk melody and dark, modal harmonies gives his music a flair that is his alone. The Mša glagolskaja, known to us as the Glagolitic Mass or Slavonic Mass, consists of eight movements, the first and last of which are purely instrumental. After the “Úvod” (Introduction) comes a dark “Gospodi pomiluj” (Kyrie) dominated by low winds and introducing the choir. This is followed by a “Slava” (Gloria) full of rhythmic interplay of 4 against 3, then a lengthy “Vĕruju” (Credo) full of simple folk melodies, chromatic interruptions, metric shifts and instrumental interludes between offerings by the soloists. Movement five, “Svet” (Sanctus) features stately incantations from soprano, tenor and bass soloists and the following “Agneče Božij” (Agnus Dei) begins with solo work, then erupts in a frenetic choral and orchestral dance. The penultimate movement, “Varhany solo” (Postludium) is a unique, difficult organ solo (bravo, Robert Kovács) and the instrumental “Intrada” (Exodus) rounds out the work with some particularly impressive work from the brass and winds.

The Singakademie did a remarkable job with this very difficult work, and the vocal soloists also deserve a great deal of credit. The rich voice of soprano Ricarda Merbeth was a welcome companion throughout the piece, as was the exceptional timbre of young bass Alexander Vinogradov. Tenor Torsten Kerl was offered a tessitura that loved to hang in the stratosphere. He never missed a note, though his thinner quality of sound had a difficult time cutting through the rich orchestral textures any time he dropped into mid and lower ranges. Marina Prudenskaja sounded beautiful in all three phrases allotted to the mezzo soloist.

The Symphoniker is a blessedly solid orchestra. I have heard it play with more inspiration, better intonation and more uniform attacks than last night, but its players are as competent and impressive as their new chief conductor. The one question I would venture to raise concerns the rather non-intuitive pairing of these two orchestral works. The Schubert has some charm but is not a work that would stand on its own had not Schubert’s later oeuvre been so masterful. Why programme it, particularly next to a work of such vastly different character? In culinary terms, the evening felt like being served tiny, delicate “Vanillekipferl” (vanilla sugar cookies) and then presented with a towering plate of roast duck, spiced cabbage, topped off with a snifter of homemade schnapps. The reasoning might well lie in local preference for classical, Germanic music, but I would hope to see programming that holds together more solidly from the Symphoniker during the upcoming season.

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