The Vienna Philharmonic Tends the Classics With a Perfect Partner

The Vienna Philharmonic Tends the Classics With a Perfect Partner

Sometimes in a concert-going life, preconceived notions are upended, leading to thrilling surprises.

Before the Vienna Philharmonic’s three concerts over the weekend at Carnegie Hall, I was primed for this storied orchestra’s dashing Mendelssohn, formidable Brahms and majestic Bruckner.

But I had been prepared to reach those works, on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, after the hurdle of Strauss’s “An Alpine Symphony” on Friday.

“An Alpine Symphony” is something of an ugly duckling in the orchestral repertory — or, given its scale, an ugly elephant. Lasting some 50 minutes, it is Strauss’s final and biggest tone poem, a wall mural in sound depicting a dramatic mountain hike, and requiring both celesta and organ, wind and thunder machines — and cowbell for good measure — as well as woodwind and brass forces that put even Bruckner to shame.

The piece gets a bad rap for its indulgent size and fitfully episodic structure, the way it can seem to be spinning its wheels for long stretches between bloated climaxes. It’s considered more than acceptable for people who know a lot about classical music — people who are in classical music — to roll their eyes at it.

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And it’s true: From most orchestras, under most conductors, on most nights, it comes off bombastic, limp and long.

Not here. On the podium for the three concerts this weekend was Christian Thielemann, a maestro whose Strauss is able to convert even skeptics. People still talk about the focused splendor he brought to another huge, hard-to-wrangle Strauss score, “Die Frau Ohne Schatten,” at the Metropolitan Opera more than 20 years ago.

Now 63, Thielemann spends much of his career in the German-speaking world, focusing on a tiny group of eminent ensembles like this one and a small circle of canonical scores. In recent years, he has been almost absent from New York stages; his last visit to Carnegie Hall, with his Staatskapelle Dresden, was in 2013.

On Friday, his “Alpine Symphony” was a reminder that the fuss that surrounds him is not hype. Above all, Thielemann conveyed a sense of unaffected fluidity — achieved, paradoxically, by firm control over a score that can sag.

The soft but grand dawn opening felt not portentous but natural, building to a sunrise that was shining without blare. Throughout, Thielemann refused to dwell on the climaxes, be they mountaintop vistas or thundering storms, blurring the boundaries between the episodes into an ever-shifting, gorgeously disorienting whole.

Sometimes sumptuous, sometimes frosty, sometimes glistening, Vienna’s strings were perhaps at their most impressive when it came to maintaining tension even as a barely audible foundation of the orchestral textures. This helped ensure that material that often feels like filler was continually mesmerizing.

More relaxed passages had the poised intimacy of Strauss’s salon-style opera “Ariadne auf Naxos.” And, toward the end, the orchestra luxuriated in the wandering chromatic music that demonstrates Strauss’s debt to Schoenberg, whose “Verklärte Nacht” opened the concert with the same sense of unforced flow that Thielemann brought to “An Alpine Symphony.”

That easy flow, though, managed to convey the opposite of ease, making this score sound more mysterious and thorny, and more engrossing, than I’d ever heard it. This was a truly persuasive performance.

So was the rendition of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony on Sunday. As in the Strauss, Thielemann conveyed a sense of continuity, of great arches, that pressed intensity through the work’s endless, hypnotic repetitions. (And, as in the Strauss, the strings in particular never let up.) At the start of the Adagio, the melody was properly broad without losing the line, and the Finale was a medieval edifice, looming through fog and in sunshine.

The careful control from Thielemann that gave tautness to “An Alpine Symphony” and the Bruckner took away a certain bucolic character in Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides” Overture and Symphony No. 3, which had a weight, even a severity, on Saturday that brought them in line with Brahms’s Symphony No. 2 after intermission.

Scattered through the weekend were some quirks — moments of uneasy intonation and tiny flaws, including a hiccup on the opening chord of the Bruckner symphony. But these issues felt tiny next to all the breathtaking things this orchestra does: ends of phrases so elegantly rounded they almost make you sigh; the uncanny matching of tone and texture between horn and strings in the Bruckner Adagio; the silkiness of the start of the Brahms symphony’s finale; and effortlessly idiomatic moments like a delightfully squealing, squelching chord in “An Alpine Symphony.”

And there are aspects of sound in which the Viennese remain distinctively themselves: their winds woodsier — darker, somehow damper and more moodily blended, like a forest floor — than you hear from other orchestras, and the brasses in ensemble closer to a bronze shield than a golden spear.

A year ago, the Philharmonic’s annual New York visit was not so focused on the music-making. In the lead-up to those concerts in late February, the orchestra and Carnegie came under scrutiny for the decision to collaborate with the conductor Valery Gergiev, a prominent supporter of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. It was only after the invasion of Ukraine began, the day before the first performance, that the orchestra and hall dropped their defenses of Gergiev and replaced him.

It was an irruption of politics into an ensemble whose brand has been defined by insulation from all that. Beyond the standard-repertory programs this weekend, the encores, as usual, came from the nostalgic dream world of the Philharmonic’s waltz- and polka-filled New Year’s concerts, which do their best to pretend that the past 150 years never happened.

This orchestra is devoted to tending the fire of tradition; in this task, it has in Thielemann perhaps the perfect partner.

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