The Vienna Symphony Orchestra, under the exceptional guidance of conductor Vladimir Jurowski, gave some very well-shaped, clearly defined readings of late-romantic masterpieces in the golden hall of the Musikverein, aided in no small part by violinist Leonidas Kavakos, an outstanding talent whose slender sound and effortless bowing technique are absolutely exquisite.

Vladimir Jurowski © Matthias Creutziger
Vladimir Jurowski
© Matthias Creutziger

Arnold Böcklin’s spirit must be inhabiting the halls of the Musikverein this season – the Swiss symbolist artist’s painting “Die Toteninsel” inspired Rachmaninov to write his symphonic poem of the same name in 1908 and apparently whispered in the ears of both the Wiener Philharmoniker and the Wiener Symphoniker prompting multiple performances of it this season in the Musikverein. Under the decisive baton of Jurowski, the Symphoniker delivered a reading that was eminently clear in intention – the architecture with which the rendition was endowed was impressive, as was the attention to phrasing, weight and sound. Jurowski is a wonderful conductor to watch. He carves shapes through his bearing and gesture cleanly, and his indications are crisp and defined - yet he retains poetic fluidity through his hands at all times. One gets the feeling that he has everything completely under control and that he is perhaps not used to being wrong - yet we feel very secure in that. From the opening phrasal stress given the 5/8 rhythms (the uneven rowing of Charon’s boat across the water) which provide the base for the work in the glorious, dark opening through to the wondrous moment where dissonant string tremolo dissolve into the dies irae theme, it was gripping. By keeping the volume low initially, the return of the 5/8 motif in mezzoforte raised every hair on my person, and the dovetailing of solo lines in terms of tone color was absolutely masterful. Wonderful solo work – particularly noticeable in the violin, oboe and cello voices – set the tone for the rest of the evening.

On the heels of Rachmaninov’s lush, melancholy musings followed another late romantic offering, Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s violin concerto featuring soloist Leonidas Kavakos. Although there is something about Kavakos’ understated dress, coiffuer and bearing which initially makes you question if he hasn’t wandered onto stage by accident, there is nothing unkempt about his playing. His slender sound is as pure and refined as it is recognizable and distinctive, and his approach to Korngold’s music was flawless. The melodic lines sang pristinely, trilling and swelling through the various melodic lines that Korngold featured not only in this work, but later in a variety of his film music creations. Instead of sawing through virtuosic passages with more gusto than accuracy, a common mistake, he mastered every double stop, leap, shift and run with style and perfect control. He was the perfect answer to those who argue that Korngold is nothing more than fluffy cheese. Fluff it was not, when approached with grace and respect, and couldn’t we all sometimes use just a bit more cheese in our musical diet? I for one am not lactose intolerant, and am all for singable melody. Kavokos’ efforts were not in vain – ecstatic applause was rewarded by a Ysaÿe encore.

One of Korngold’s teachers at the Vienna Conservatory, Alexander Zemlinsky, penned the symphonic poem, Die Seejungfrau (The Little Mermaid) on the well-known Hans Christian Andersen tale. The opening movement begins with dark string and woodwind colors, in the ocean depths. The protagonist is introduced through a theme filled with longing. Rich string work permeates much of the movement as the mermaid falls in love with a prince, then builds percussively as a storm approaches. The prince’s dramatic rescue by the mermaid is interrupted by bells, already tolling the hour of her departure from him and unhappy fate.

The lengthy second movement opens in a rush of unease. The desperate mermaid visits the sea witch, become human, and loses her voice in return. She becomes close to the prince, but her inability to tell him about herself leads to his marrying another; the bustle of his wedding layered with the mermaid’s musical melancholy.  Although Zemlinsky originally planned for a two movement work, the final apotheosis of the mermaid necessitated a third. Lamenting sisters of the sea appear in a dirge-like melody, offering the mermaid a knife for her kill her love and become a creature of the sea again. Instead she throws the knife dramatically into the depths, and is rewarded by the “daughters of the air” by being transformed into one of them, the possibility of an eternal soul still within her grasp. A gorgeous moments occurs as the mermaid gazes on the sleeping bridal paid, characterized by fluttering harps and strings, and the hymn-like close was an ideal end to a magical evening at the Musikverein.