Throngs of the well-dressed faithful came for their periodic worship of the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall on Friday night. Lorin Maazel led the players in a backwards tour of three Sibelius symphonies, beginning with the single-movement Seventh, moving on to the inimitable Fifth, and ending with the more traditional First. The delicious program and the distinguished orchestra promised an evening of musical transcendence. But the collaboration fell short of what it could have been.

Lorin Maazel, © Chris Lee
Lorin Maazel,
© Chris Lee

A master of conducting technique, Maazel has two habits that sometimes do not work in the music’s favor. He can overconduct, beating time and dictating solos in such a way that the orchestra does not have a chance to build up its own energy. He also tends to impose tempo choices independently of what is indicated in the score. These habits can straitjacket the players.

Condensed into one movement, the Seventh has a meandering opening that can’t seem to decide if it is mournful or hopeful. As the music builds in breadth and intensity, an eloquent trombone solo states the main theme. Eventually the music accelerates into a violent storm, driven by subterranean scales in the basses. The clouds clear, and the work ends in grand yet serene affirmation. Maazel’s performance was hobbled by slow tempos and suppressed dynamics. Only rarely did he throw caution to the wind, such as at the very end of the storm passage. But these few bolts of energy only threw the flatness of the rest into relief; for instance, the storm passage itself was disappointingly placid.

The Fifth Symphony contains the idiomatic Sibelian techniques that make his music great: pedal points that transform the lines above them, tiny motifs that are assembled and reassembled into themes, and orchestration that astonishes with every listen. The majestic music may seem to play itself, but in Maazel’s hands, the moments of greatest clarity were somehow lost in a muddle, and passages that should have been playful fell victim to his all-controlling beat.

The highlight of the Fifth is the masterful finale, whose main theme is known as the “Swan Hymn,” and was inspired by a flock of swans circling Sibelius’ home. It is surely one of music’s greatest moments. Over sunset-colored strings, the horns play an unforgettable ostinato, punctuated by a soaring theme in the winds and cellos. It is the sound of flight and yearning, and usually brings me right to tears. Heartbreakingly, the moment is over far too soon and never reappears in quite the same way. The rest of the movement struggles to come back to it, with the swan hymn appearing in spiccato strings, then in wrestling low brass, and lonely attempts at the soaring theme.

On Friday, the balance was off. With the strings too prominent and the horns not present enough, the ear didn’t have a path to follow, and the effect was lost. At the very end, the music suddenly gives way to silence, punctuated by six massive full-orchestra chords. The composer clearly measured out the rests that make up the abrupt ending, but the timing of the final chords was distorted in this rendition.

The First Symphony speaks with the Romantic rhetoric of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth; both begin with a clarinet solo that returns in the Finale. But Sibelius’ originality is always evident. His tunes are just as grandiose as Tchaikovsky’s, but he surrounds them with diaphanous orchestral textures, and contrasts them with disquieting, non-melodic passages. Even the opening clarinet solo demonstrates Sibelius’ originality; while Tchaikovsky supported his clarinet with traditional chordal harmony, Sibelius gives only a pianissimo timpani roll, suggesting vast, empty space.

This work fared best on the program, perhaps because of its more Romantic style. Instead of strictly beating time and cueing every entrance, Maazel threw his whole body into his gestures, and the players responded in kind. Climaxes throughout the work, propelled by thundering timpani, were spectacular.

This concert should have been a highlight of the season. An evening with the Vienna Philharmonic is always well spent, but on this occasion Maazel’s finagling resulted in more limited means of expression. Sometimes, less is more.