After conductor Franz Welser-Möst resigned his post as music director of Vienna State Opera last year, the maestro returned to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic in an exciting concert consisting of non-German repertoire that explored the musical influence of “core” Germanic composers on those in Russia and Scandinavia.

Nikolaj Znaider © Lars Gundersen
Nikolaj Znaider
© Lars Gundersen

Welser-Möst’s music making was often straightforward and sweeping. Rather than focusing on minute details and nuances of the score, he seemed to prefer a presentation of the music as a grand whole, often pushing the tempi and volume.  In the warm and enveloping acoustics of Musikverein, the brass that may have been too piercing in another hall sounded clear and bright, and the timpani that may have been too loud were appropriate complements to the rest of the orchestra.  The Vienna Philharmonic responded to his style with their usual brilliance.

The concert opened with Sibelius, Lemminkäinen's Return, the last of the four symphonic poems making up the Lemminkäinen Suite. From the beginning, the music was loud, fast and galloping. The strings and woodwinds played the hero’s return home from adventures with appropriate grandeur, and the pace quickened as the brass joined. After a brief slowdown, the final burst of the entire orchestra came to end the piece.  It was an exciting introduction to what was to follow. 

Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major was next, with a Danish-Israeli violinist Nikolaj Znaider as soloist. His reading of the first movement was rather individualistic, with emphasis on the edgy low notes in contrast to the the lyrical sensitivity displayed by the orchestra. The second and third movements showed the soloist working well with the conductor and the orchestra, all displaying elegant lines and legato. Mr Znaider was particularly excellent in the achingly beautiful legato of high notes. The finale was fast, rhythmic and brilliant. A Bach Sarabande encore followed, a combination of sweetness and technical mastery.

Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s Symphony no. 4 “The Inextinguishable” came after the intermission, played without breaks. The symphony was written against the backdrop of the First World War, and in Nielsen’s words represents the “elemental will to live”. 

The symphony, with its shifting keys and moods, is above all an opportunity for the conductor and orchestra to show their versatility and flexibility. Mr Welser-Möst chose to conduct most of the first and second movements fast and loud. Following a rather “bombastic” start, a brief quiet moment led by cello was soon supplanted by a strings-led tutti that boomed impressively in the hall. The conductor was adept at alternating fast and slow, but the overwhelming impression of the piece was the fast paced brilliance overall, with emphasis on the sweeping lines and contours.  

The third movement came as a welcome interlude with its slow and delicate passages. The woodwinds predominate, with beautifully wistful and deliberate melodies. They are then joined by sensate strings pizzicato before the tutti.

The final movement featured the “battle” of the two timpanists, placed on either side of the platform. With changing keys and volume, it was a breathtaking performance by the two percussionists, although the hall’s acoustics muted the sound somewhat. The percussion and strings were soon joined by the entire orchestra to end the piece (and the concert) with a joyful plea for peace and happiness.

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