Ligeti, J. Marx, Bruckner
Zubin Mehta returned to conduct the Philharmoniker in the Musikverein, the first time I have heard him in many years. His concerts used to be hit-or-miss (often miss), but I had been advised on good authority that it is now safe to go hear him again. He used to conduct using charisma alone – some days it provoked thrilling results, but mostly not. He moves more slowly now, which may mean that he needs to take more care to think about the music and craft it. It worked today.
The program took a an odd walk backwards in time, sliding off the abyss. It included a hint of Asian polyphony where I did not expect it.
However, before we got to the music, the concert started inauspiciously with György Ligeti’s “Atmospheres” for large Orchestra, which sounded a bit like a ride on a on old tram whose wheels have not been oiled in several years. The creeking and squeaking gave everyone in the hall a headache. When it ended, the orchestra got the amount of applause it deserved: just enough to acknowledge that they had managed to play the piece. It wasn’t worth the effort to boo – Ligeti himself is dead. It may have been the shortest applause I have ever observed after a piece in the Musikverein – probably about 10-15 seconds of soft clapping, and then everyone wanted to forget our tormented ears and move on to the music.
Alt-Wiener Serenaden by Joseph Marx followed, and succeeded in erasing the Ligeti from the audience’s memory. Joseph Marx was an Austrian paedagogue, music critic, and sometime composer who lost his positions and influence during the Nazi years because he strongly believed in an Austrian identity. In 1942, the Vienna Philharmonic held a festival for its 100th anniversary (with the Philharmoniker joined by the leading Italian, Hungarian, and Dutch but out of principle no Reichsdeutsche orchestras), and Marx wrote these four pieces for that event to memorialize an Austria that had been erased from the map. He reworked the old Viennese themes, using more modern techniques developed in Vienna in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This approach updated otherwise backwards-looking music. Quite oddly, several of the themes resembled music from Paliashvili’s opera Abesalom da Eteri, in which the Georgian master had taken a similar approach to updating traditional Georgian music with classical techniques. It is hard to believe that Joseph Marx would have been familiar with Paliashvili’s 1919 opera, although Marx was an admirer of Scriabin, who had studied composition with Sergei Taneyev at the Moscow Conservatory as had Paliashvili. Could there have been a connection?
Anton Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony graced the second half of the program. Mehta gave a deliberate and measured reading, and the Philharmoniker, responded in full sound and aetherial grace. If Marx looked back on old-fashioned Austrian music through intermediate developments, Bruckner – composing fifty years before Marx – looked into the future. These two works complemented each other, crossing space and time in an Austrian context, never quite meeting halfway but twisting their perspectives.
Bruckner stretched tonality to its furthest extent in this Symphony. And while he died before finishing it, the sketches for the never-written fourth movement apparently indicate he would develop this concept even further, leading music off the end of the world. His letters to friends indicate that it was perhaps more than could be asked of a simple Austrian church organist. Bruckner had looked into the future and had seen the Apocolypse, and did not survive to write it down. Taneyev’s own music came to my mind in Mehta’s reading – particularly Taneyev’s cantata (opus 1) John of Damascus, whose words welcomed oncoming death (yes, Taneyev was brooding already in opus 1). I have previously sensed an affinity between Taneyev’s and Bruckner’s choral church music, but this was the first time I had noticed the similarities in mood between Bruckner’s final work and Taneyev’s first opus. Was it me, or was Mehta subconsciously making this point?
Mehta let the last notes waft into the evening. Absolute silence reigned in the Golden Hall. Eventually, Mehta lowered his arms. Even then, the audience still waited to applaud. The silence at the end of this symphony was longer than the applause at the end of the Ligeti.