Beethoven, Joh. Strauß, Schostakowitsch
Another weekend at home in Vienna for which I had not planned to go to a concert but could not help myself. A month ago I heard the Vienna Philharmonic (which normally plays in the Musikverein) perform in the Konzerthaus, so maybe it just seemed fair to hear the Vienna Symphony (which normally plays in the Konzerthaus) perform in the Musikverein.
Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck took the podium for a pair of 5s: the fifth piano concerto by Beethoven and the fifth symphony by Schostakowitsch. These were two quite different works, but Honeck had a plan. Fives of different suits, indeed.
The Beethoven concerto (with young Russian pianist Igor Levit) strangely, but in a good sense, gave the feel of climbing into a newly-made bed with freshly-laundered silken sheets and well-fluffed pillows. This was a performing version to settle into for the night. Levit’s playing had a slightly other-wordly feel until it hit me during the quiet (but still quite active) passages: he made the piano into a music box tinkling away (his louder passages had some extraneous notes, unfortunately). That may sound wierd, but it worked.
Levit returned for a piano rendition of a Johann Strauss waltz – this worked less so, as it only had the music-box quality with the fullness of the orchestra missing.
After the intermission, the Schostakowitsch Fifth was anything but warm and cuddly. Here legato playing exaggerated the dissonances, and Honeck went further in that direction but turning the first movement into a parody of a march and the second into a warped waltz. This was Schostakowitsch composing to Communist Party dictates but at the same time thumbing his nose. The solos by (and duets between) the principal violin and oboe were especially jarring. The third movement largo came across as cold as Sibelius, but not the plucky Finnish winter – instead bleak Siberian tundra. There was no fake triumph in the final movement – Honeck elongated the agony Schostakowitsch experienced living in Soviet Russia. If not quite as devastating as the version I heard in this hall about three years ago with the Petersburgers (who fittingly have their authentic Russian sound), this was still a smart reading of the composer’s intentions.
This orchestra (Vienna’s second-best!) sounds world class. The pieces were indeed quite different, but it captured both idioms with full sound (including the quiet passages, which could be delicate and still full and revealing). Tonight’s works were warhorses, performed quite often, but if the orchestra can provide intelligent readings like these then worth hearing over and over and finding new and undiscovered corners even on the umpteenth listen. (Plus I don’t think I’ll ever tire of Beethoven and Schostakowitsch, the way I have certainly tired of Mozart and Tschaikowsky).