Reaction: Schoenberg and Schubert, Vienna Philharmonic

Sunday, February 26 2017
Carnegie Hall, New York, NY

Vienna Philharmonic
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor

Schoenberg, Verklärte Nacht (1943)
Schubert, Symphony No. 9 (1826)

When you’ve been pulling 12 hour workdays and battling a semi-serious cold, there is a strong inclination toward spending the entire weekend on the couch.  When it’s late February and baseball has finally returned in the form of spring training, the couch looks even better.  But then you notice that the Vienna Philharmonic is in town and a $36 ticket is available (the top balcony seats go for $88), and that they are playing pre-atonal Schoenberg.  So you have to ask yourself: when will you ever have a better opportunity to check off “attending a Vienna Philharmonic concert live” and “listening to Schoenberg at all” from your classical music bucket list?  The answer is likely never.  Off you go, then!

I feel that when most people say they don’t like classical music, it’s because they perceive classical music as boring.  Heck, there are about 100 Haydn symphonies that I wouldn’t pay to listen to either.  I very much doubt, however, that anyone doesn’t like Schoenberg on account of his music being boring.  Atonality can actually really mess with you–I’m still scarred after trying to cram “Pierrot Lunaire” in the middle of the night in a dark dorm room more than a decade ago.  Yet Schoenberg wasn’t born that way, apparently; he had taken Romanticism to its breaking point earlier in his career before sending it over the edge.  “Verklärte Nacht” was one such hyper-Romantic early piece, where, according to the program notes, “tonality is still very much alive, though one can hear symptoms of its oncoming illness”.  Not exactly reassuring, and there were occasions (especially during the violin solos in the middle) when I started raising my shield, but overall “Verklärte Nacht” isn’t that much of a departure from late Mahler or, dare I say it, Wagner.  When I had listened to a recording of the piece earlier in the week, I remarked how I couldn’t shake off this sense that I had just returned from a parallel universe, and that disconcertingly I couldn’t tell if my real universe is the one I left behind or the one that I returned to.  The Vienna Philharmonic, on the other hand, played the all-strings arrangement so literally that the piece was bereft of cosmic implications.  Instead it was just beautiful music, maybe even what the layman would consider boring, which, honestly, is the best thing I’ve ever said about Schoenberg.

From the breaking point of Romanticism, the orchestra went back in time to give us Schubert’s Ninth Symphony, a seminal work of Romanticism’s nascent years.  Actually, can one use the word “seminal” to describe Schubert?  I often forget that he existed as a contemporary of Beethoven, or that he existed at all.  In the last one and a half years of concert-going without even trying to avoid him, this is the first time that I’ve come across his music.  For whatever reason I had lumped Schubert together with Richard Strauss, whose music is enjoyable at times but the structure of which I can never discern.  After listening to recordings of the Ninth Symphony all week and not having much luck visualizing its scope on my own, Mr. Welser-Möst’s streamlined, structured presentation of it was quite helpful.  The waltz-like scherzo is still in my head, along with the lyrical second movement.  The high-spirited finale, in my view, actually looks backward to Beethoven and predecessors instead of forward as one might expect of the so-called “First Romantic Symphony”, but that may just be as well, for a chaotic fate awaited at the other terminus of the era.

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