Wagner, Strauss, Schostakowitsch

Franz Welser-Möst assembled a very strange concert indeed this evening for the Vienna Philharmonic in the Great Festival House all about death: overcoming it (first half of the concert) or not (second half).  In the end, I am not sure he convinced me of anything.

For the first half, Welser-Möst performed two unrelated works with no break between them: the Prelude to Parsifal by Richard Wagner and the tone poem Tod und Verklärung by Richard Strauss.  Clearly he tried to make a connection.  In the opera, Amfortas is unable to die from what should be a mortal wound, and the other knights are wasting away lacking sustenance from the Grail – it is Parsifal who redeems them.  In Strauss’s tone poem, a setting to music of an actual poem, a man is lies dying and as he passes his soul is transfigured.

I just did not see the connection: but maybe I could hear it?  No.  Christoph von Dohnányi, Welser-Möst’s predecessor as music director in Cleveland and also a frequent guest conductor of the Philharmonic, praised the Philharmonic by saying that when others just played overtures or preludes, the Philharmonic put the full opera into that overture or prelude, and so it was this evening.  So even with just the prelude, we had the full emotion.  Extended excerpts from Parsifal would have worked better than the Strauss piece following without pause, which did not work as continuity in any way.

I heard Welser-Möst conduct Tod und Verklärung three years ago at the Festival with the Cleveland Orchestra.  The Vienna Philharmonic is a far better orchestra than the Cleveland Orchestra (and indeed the Cleveland Orchestra itself is not as good as it was in the days when Dohnányi was at the helm), so this was almost a better performance by default.  The orchestra added emotion, but what Welser-Möst shaped was not death and transfiguration (as in the title) but rather triumph over death.  It did end triumphantly.  I hear this work about once every year, so Welser-Möst needed to do something to convince me of his interpretation, and he did not.

After the intermission, the concert got weirder.  Dmitri Schostakowitsch‘s Fourteenth Symphony is rarely performed for good reason: it’s quite morbid and difficult.  Rather than a character in a story on the verge of death, it was Schostakowitsch himself who thought he was about to die (although he managed to hang on a few more years), and consists of a chamber ensemble supporting two vocalists who sing settings of eleven poems about death.  Lines of sadness flashing back to many of Schostakowitsch’s earlier work (either directly quoting, or reminiscent of) permeate.  There is very little motion, just one depressing song after another for almost an hour.  This evening’s performers were excellent (soprano Asmik Grigoryan and baritone Matthias Goerne joined members of the Philharmonic), but the entire work as presented by Welser-Möst lacked shape.  It’s hard to get right in a way that makes the audience appreciate the work, and it didn’t happen this evening.

Great playing; unsatisfying concert.  I am not on the anti-Welser-Möst bandwagon, but his interpretations are not especially inspiring when compared to the other conductors in the circles in which he travels.  He’s merely adequate – if better than most conductors over all, he’s (to use the nasty nickname someone once coined that unfairly stuck with him ever since) “frankly worse than most” conductors who appear regularly in front of this orchestra.

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