The great jazz composer Bob Brookmeyer used to instruct his students that they should never write a solo section in their composition until it was absolutely inevitable that a solo should take place. In other words, he encouraged composers never to use a form simply because that form had previously existed; rather, they should create new musical events only when the internal logic of their piece, or their musical intuition, dictated. In this well-balanced program, Fabio Luisi’s direction provided a clarity that revealed the internal logic of all three works. In his reading of the Franck especially, he brought about a sense of the inevitability of each new section of music, which made this simple symphony feel joyful and grand.

Wiener Symphoniker © Andreas Balon
Wiener Symphoniker
© Andreas Balon

Austrian composer Gottfried von Einem was 24 years old when he began his first work for orchestra, the Capriccio Op. 2, in 1942. It is full of youthful zest: tumbling chromatic lines and rubbing harmonies give way to gently popular rhythmic ideas, which in turn slide away to reveal a tonal, romantic core. Here, we find a young man joyfully exploring the endless possibilities of orchestral sound. At times, he seems to be grasping for some logic to guide his writing, and the train of thought is not always so masterfully handled, new sections appearing somewhat before a transition is ripe. However, when the score turned overwrought, Luisi kept the orchestra stepping lightly through the bombast. He handled the sudden turns easily, focusing attention on the lovely moments in this work.

Soloist Ingolf Wunder approached the Beethoven concerto with a gentle and subtle touch, which was sadly largely eaten by the cavernous large room of the Konzerthaus. Despite the muddied acoustics, it was clear that Wunder’s light playing unambiguously outlined the unusual form of the first movement, delineating the themes and providing a clear sense of movement through the harmonically clever form. He made the most of the contrast between the piano and the orchestra’s gestures at the beginning of the second movement, although his soft treatment of the theme here was lost in this large room. The orchestra tripped over the first theme of the third movement several times, with the horns, timpani and strings perhaps disoriented by the long echo and unable to find each other’s beat. Quickly pulling together, the orchestra gave a gentle finale, allowing the soloist to conclude the piece in his quietly triumphant manner. The audience called Wunder back to the stage for an encore; his Chopin fantasy was beautiful, but again, his intimate playing may have felt more at home in a smaller room.

Beethoven’s deft ability to mess with a form in a manner which makes absolute sense in the internal world of the piece may have influenced César Franck when he wrote his only symphony; Franck referenced Beethoven’s cyclical thematic development in relation to this piece. Though Franck works with a theme in this symphony that has been (perhaps justly) derided as boring by critics, he pursues its cyclical development with imagination and logical perseverance. There is a moment, just before the recapitulation in the first movement, where the forward-pushing allegro is swallowed up by a half-time iteration of the short main theme, led by the tuba. After the earlier swirling, the effect of this low, slow melody is to open up an almost world-swallowing cavern, drawing the ear’s total focus to the few notes contained in the primary theme. It is not necessarily the thing one would expect to happen at this moment in a classically-structured symphony, but it makes absolute sense given the situation Franck has set up.

Luisi’s performance approached this musical logic with surgical precision, carving out each section and presenting it to the orchestra with great clarity of purpose. In the wrong hands, this work can sound plodding and ponderous, but Luisi’s tempi were light throughout, giving a strong sense of logical structure. The allegro in the first movement was well controlled and exciting, aided by the spot-on trumpet section. The brass continued to shine, as the tuba masterfully navigated the aforementioned pre-recap world swallowing. The second movement was nicely shaped, as Luisi stayed with the phrases all the way until their winding conclusions. The orchestra approached the third movement with absolute sincerity, perhaps the only way to tackle this slightly crude theme. Luisi’s absolute joy here was apparent, and his controlled exuberance proved infectious. By the end of the movement, his ear-to-ear grin was reflected audibly as the orchestra filled the hall to the rafters. It is inevitable, when a performer so obviously understands the composer’s intent, that he would feel such joy in its skilled execution. As the orchestra insisted that Luisi stand alone for a curtain call, it was obvious that they enjoyed the experience as much as he did. The maestro will move on from the symphony after this season, which is surely a loss for this city.