There wasn’t any surprise in terms of selected works for the three performances that the famed Wiener Philharmoniker offered New Yorkers as part of their annual pilgrimage at Carnegie Hall. With one single exception, every work on the programs conducted by Franz Welser-Möst was conceived in a very small area of Central Europe in the hundred years spanning from the Biedermeier era to the aftermath of the Great War!

Franz Welser-Möst © Michael Pöhn
Franz Welser-Möst
© Michael Pöhn

The last concert of the series included two opuses from the beginning and end of the Romantic period, both considered today undisputed masterpieces, both having had to overcome serious obstacles in “their” trajectory to the main symphonic repertoire.

Welser-Möst started with the orchestral version of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) initially conceived during three summer weeks of 1899 for string sextet and later adapted by the composer himself for full string orchestra. A programmatic work inspired by Richard Dehmel's poem, it predates Schoenberg’s dodecaphonic compositions. More than a culmination of the Romantic idiom, combining a Brahms-inspired structure with Wagner’s uninhibited chromaticism, it has been viewed by many capable interpreters of the 19th-century repertoire as a work offering a view into a dangerous, bottomless pit one should avoid. But Verklärte Nacht, as many other true chefs d’oeuvre, looks both backwards, with its rondo shaped form pointing towards musical Classicism, and forwards, beyond serialism, to Strauss’ Metamorphosen.

The Vienna Philharmonic strings played with a beautiful, deep sound sculpting well the long, “transfiguring” arc moving from D minor to D major, from mystery and uncertainty to unmitigated joy. Somehow missing in this interpretation were the beyond narrative, subjective aspects of the score. There are true expressionistic, angst-imbued sequences in this music as there are in Edvard Munch’s paintings from the same period and in Schoenberg’s own wonderful, big-eyed, self-portraits. Of course, compared to the original version, the emotional immediacy is obviously diluted when rendered by a full string orchestra, but this music should never sound tamed.

Laying for years in a drawer but now a staple of the symphonic repertoire, Schubert’s Symphony no. 9 in C major proved to be better suited for these interpreters, at least on this particular Sunday afternoon. Conductor and orchestra overcame the dangers hidden in what Schumann famously called the work's “divine lengths”. The rhythmical demands of the Scherzo and the Finale were met with commitment and decisiveness. Textures were always light. Obscure counter-motifs played by second violins or cellos were beautifully brought to the surface of the musical canvas. The woodwinds played well overall with the oboes being remarkably smooth in the Trio.

Listeners were presented with an integrated but, at the same time, well-articulated musical structure. Welser-Möst emphasized the shift taking place in this most innovative of Schubert’s orchestral works from expanding musical building blocks, in Beethoven’s footsteps, to letting melodies flow more freely in a tonal drama that the younger composer could call his own. These instrumentalists, used to interacting every night as members of the pit orchestra for the Vienna State Opera with exceptional singers, played the melodic lines with a truly mellifluous sound, feeling, and restrained pathos.

Schubert was first and foremost a Lieder composer with an extraordinary keen ear for setting verses to music. Leaving Carnegie Hall, I was asking myself how would he have “transfigured” Dehmel’s Verklärte Nacht?