A quick coffee and a Topfenstrudel at the Schwarzenberg later, I was back in my seat for the Vienna Symphony under Fabio Luisi. This is a better class of orchestra than the Tonkünstler, and sounded fantastic all around. I’m not sure about Luisi, though. I don’t think I have ever had a problem with his conducting, but he also never seems to bring an orchestra over the top emotionally. He’s been a stalwart in Vienna for a while – principal conductor of the Symphoniker since 2005, and of the Tonkünstler before that. He knows his way around, and manages the orchestra just fine. But he does not seem to find the extra level. Strange. I wonder how he does in the opera pit, especially now that he is the principal conductor at the Metropolitan Opera.
Tonight’s concert opened with Hindemith’s Organ Concerto, written in the last year of the composer’s life. This was an odd piece for Hindemith, coming across rather modern in comparison with his more typical earlier work, but at the same time not fully modern and remaining baroque-inspired. A bit like the trumpet concerto in the previous concert, I think he had something to say, but I am not sure if I liked it. Perhaps Hindemith’s most convincing movement was the fourth and final one, when he provided a “free and broad” fantasy on Veni Creator Spiritus – a 9th century hymn that also inspired the second part of Mahler’s eighth symphony. This particular mix of ancient and modern music showed Hindemith at his best.
Martin Haselböck played an excellent organ. However, there was something disconcerting about the set-up. The Musikverein has a brand new organ this year, and this was the first I have heard it. It sounded impressive (Haselböck himself was one of the consultants). The keyboard is up on the balcony directly behind the orchestra over the stage, but Haselböck sat at another keyboard that was rolled out and placed on the stage between the conductor and the woodwinds. I have no idea how this worked technically, but clearly the sound was coming out of the pipes up above. However, at the organ’s real keyboard, a little television screen was turned on to allow the organist to follow the conductor – even though no one was sitting there, which made it all look rather uneasy and disembodied. Furthermore, I sensed a high-pitched tone that should not have been there – a tone which was still audible during the pauses between movements, but was not audible before or after the piece, nor when Haselböck used the damper pedal, nor in the second piece of the concert after the intermission when an organist sat at the main keyboard. This made me suspect that something in the wiring – or whatever (I have no idea how this works) – between the portable keyboard on stage and the organ up above was causing one of the high-pitched pipes to whine, and this pipe did not make the noise when the connection was turned off (or the damper was pressed). I have no idea, so am just guessing. Still, the tone should not have been there.
Haselböck performed an encore for solo organ. Not sure what it was, but it sounded like a modern fantasy based on a Bach-like chorale, designed to show off the versatility of an organ. Haselböck made the most of this.
After the intermission, for the final work of the day, came Richard Strauss‘ Alpensymphonie. This is one of my favorite symphonic poems, maybe even my favorite one. Again, I may have heard more exciting interpretations than what Luisi was able to craft tonight, but Luisi certainly allowed the orchestra to show off. Strauss indicated that it was not until he wrote this piece – well into the second half of his career – that he truly learned orchestration. In this case, he explained that he had learned orchestration from Mother Nature, trying to get an orchestra to mimic a wide variety of natural sounds. As a result, this is a piece capable of showcasing the talents of an orchestra, and this orchestra demonstrated its skill tonight.