The Vienna Philharmonic opened the second concert of their annual three-concert tour of Carnegie Hall with Mussorgsky’s Prelude to Khovanshchina. The piece began with woodwinds quietly evoking the scene of dawn over Moscow. Strings soon joined in, weaving a single theme into an ever complex harmony. Russian church bells were heard towards the end, the only hint of dissonance. The restrained and yet revelatory performance of the orchestra made one long to hear the rest of this infrequently performed opera.

Heidi Melton © Simon Pauly
Heidi Melton
© Simon Pauly
Dissonance and cacophony were the dominant impressions made by a new work by Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth. Drawing inspiration from her dream of her grandfather, Masaot/Clocks Without Hands is her homage to her family’s Kakanian heritage. Fragments of melodies, mostly fast, although with some slow passages, were randomly introduced and abruptly replaced by others. The piece began with a nightmarish evocation of some long ago memory, and could be characterized as a series of endless nightmares rather than pleasant memories, reflecting her grandfather’s experiences. Striking of clocks marked some silent moments. Towards the end some Klezmer music was heard, with harmonic distortion.

Woodwinds and strings were again dominant in this piece. If one had trouble grappling with Ms Neuworth’s sonic overload, one could at least enjoy the virtuosity of the Viennese musicians. Often stretching their technical prowess to the limit of their instruments, the orchestra showed that it was well equipped to perform challenging modern music. Led by Rainer Kuchl, the brilliant concert master slated to retire this summer, the strings were standouts in navigating the often tricky melodies and passages.

The second half of the evening found the orchestra in a more familiar ground. Taking up the theme of dawn from Khovanshchina, Gergiev chose three selections from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, starting with the Dawn and awakening of Siegfried and Brünnhilde.  The dawn music quietly began with the horn, followed by woodwinds and finally strings, but was rather abruptly interrupted to transition to Siegfried’s Rhine Journey. With barely a pause, Gergiev continued onto Siegfried’s Death and Funeral March. Throughout, his pacing was slow and deliberate, but never sluggish. He gave ample room for the orchestra to breath freely and expansively.

The orchestra, freed from their usual place in the orchestra pit, seemed to luxuriate in this freedom. It was a special pleasure to hear eight Viennese horn players on stage (as well as one off stage). Even as the volume increased, the orchestra sound was never marred by loudness; it was a brilliant combination of the flood of sounds with warm and round transparency.

Gergiev increased the tempo towards the end of the last selection of the evening, Brünnhilde's Immolation Scene. The Viennese musicians played as if the instruments were extensions of themselves. The upper bowing of violins to create fuller sounds was an amazing sight to behold as the music reached its climax of Valhalla in flame before all returned to quietness. The orchestra indeed played as a whole, and it was heartening to see players exchanging approving glances with one another after particularly well-played passages. It was a shame that the music selections were relatively brief. One would certainly be tempted to book the next flight to Vienna to experience the full Ring Cycle. 

Young American soprano Heidi Melton had the unenviable task of competing with the orchestra going at full volume behind. Indeed she had to push her high notes at the climax to be heard. However, the rest of her performance showed off her warm voice that never acquired shrill or harsh tone. She connected well with the text, and she and the orchestra produced most moving moments of “Ruhe, ruhe, du Gott!” in a slow and quiet whisper. Ms Melton’s career has mostly been in Europe, where she is developing a promising repertoire in Wagnerian soprano roles, and her continuing progress would be most welcome.

Responding to Gergiev's direction, the Vienna Philharmonic once again showed it is composed of the most versatile musicians with their roots firmly in tradition and yet constantly experimenting and evolving.