The opening concert of the Wiener Konzerthaus in 1913 featured a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with a celebratory prelude written by Richard Strauss. To mark its 100 year birthday, this Sunday morning the Vienna Philharmonic, led by the eminently engaging Gustavo Dudamel, performed Beethoven’s Ninth as well, but this time with a “Prolog” written by living composer Aribert Reimann. Supporting them were the Wiener Singakademie as well as soprano Julianna Di Giacomo, mezzo-soprano Katarina Karnéus, tenor Klaus Florian Vogt and bass Luca Pisaroni, who jumped in for the indisposed Franz-Josef Selig. It was a historical, brilliant performance that absolutely brought the house down.

Wiener Philharmoniker © Richard Schuster
Wiener Philharmoniker
© Richard Schuster

Aribert Reimann’s Prolog zu Beethovens 9. Sinfonie auf einen Text von Friedrich Schiller (“Prologue to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with Text by Friedrich Schiller”) was commissioned expressly for this event by the Konzerthaus. Approximately 20 minutes in length, it utilized a selection of lines from Schiller’s An die Freude, reordered, that Beethoven did not set himself – and this different text was joined to a very different feel.

The Singkademie, looking stately in black suits with red ties for the men, black dresses with a similar cut and red pendants for the women, opened Reimann’s work a cappella. Small groups of male, then female voices enter, rubbing together dissonantly; rising on words like “Hoffnung” (“hope”) and “Gott” (“God”) in supplication, dropping on “vergeben” (“to pardon”). They work their way through the first seven lines of text before the string entrance at around the ten minute mark. A fleet of basses (homage to Beethoven’s finale?) make their presence known and are eventually joined by cellos, violas and violins. Finally voice and string are united, the males singing “Auch die Toten” (“even the dead”), the women “sollen leben” (“shall live”) until the full string orchestra, highly sectionalized, leads in the entire choir singing “die Toten sollen Leben” The work ends in eerie pianissimo, from which the Beethoven followed attacca.

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony gave everyone goosebumps. It is hard to avoid them: the piece is so utterly significant that every superlative in the book has already been thrown at it, and there is just something absolutely perfect and complete about it. Dudamel took it on with style and aplomb. He was energetic and graceful in his movements, engaging to watch for the audience, perfectly clear in his indications, and refined in his persona throughout the concert.

The Vienna Philharmonic exhibited their characteristically sure-footed understanding of style, a broad dynamic palette, and remarkable poise. The first movement was light and graceful where it needed to be, richly majestic and dynamic when called for. The second movement was perfectly precise through the triplet theme, and never lagged in its energy. In fact, the entire work enjoyed the wonderful juxtaposition of control and energy; exhilaration and finesse, thanks in no small part to masterful conducting. The third movement made wonderful use of the Philharmoniker’s rich, mature string sound, well-modulated wind colors (bravo in particular to the solo clarinettist) and beautiful understanding of legato. We were bathed in its benevolent, golden sound for a sublime while until the fourth movement erupted in a buzz of anticipation and brass. The introduction of the “Ode to Joy” theme in the cellos and basses was so unison and quiet you could have believed a single hand was moving the flock of bows. Pisaroni’s opening bass solo was sublime: well focused, strong and well articulated. In fact, all four soloists were wonderfully present and made a beautiful showing, speaking clearly and beautifully to the back of the hall through a sea of brass, strings and listeners.

After sitting for a full hour and a half (no interval in this morning matinee), the audience was finally forced to find its way to the exit after calling out Dudamel, Reimann, Pisaroni, Di Giacomo, Karnéus, Vogt, and Heinz Ferlesch (artistic director of the Singakademie) six times to accept rapturous ovations alongside the Philharmonic and the Singakademie. There are certainly less moving ways to spend a Sunday morning. But if you happened to be in Vienna this weekend, why would you bother being anywhere else?

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