Viennese musicians triumph under a new Harnoncourt

By Nicholas Betson

Last Wednesday evening saw an incredible collection of musicians on the stage. However, to those who know Nikolaus Harnoncourt primarily through his path-breaking recordings of baroque music, such as the complete edition of Bach cantatas released on Teldec in the 1960s and ’70s, his conducting of music by Berg and Bruckner might seem odd. But while it is wrong to pigeonhole Harnoncourt as an “early-music” conductor, it is also wrong to view the move away from Bach entirely as an avoidance of specialization; better to see it as the culmination of a life-project.

In his 1954 essay “On the Interpretation of Historical Music,” described as the credo of his subsequently founded Concentus Musicus, Harnoncourt dwells heavily on the 19th century and cites the music of late-Romanticism–the music of Bruckner, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Richard Strauss–as the last music to be a living expression of its own time. It seems that Harnoncourt, after working so long with the Baroque, has finally been able to turn to this later music.

But is Berg to be considered a late-Romantic composer as well? The Violin Concerto, an atonal work composed in the twelve-tone method invented by Schoenberg, would be best categorized as having modern rather than nearly nineteenth-century sentiments. While Berg’s treatment of the row is anything but constructivist in the Webernian sense, it can also make the convincing argument that the twelve-tone technique was a way of extending the expansive tendencies of late-Romanticists such as Bruckner and Strauss by creating an atonal musical logic that gave coherence to large-scale forms–something that seemed impossible at the time of Schoenberg’s Op. 19 piano pieces.

We might then locate the modernist aspects of the concerto in its neoclassical tendencies, such as its references to tonality (the row is built on a chain of ascending thirds) and quotation of Bach’s chorale “Es ist genug” in the final movement. Indeed, this slogan, “it is enough,” might serve to express Berg’s attitudes toward the Romantic tradition, although its pronouncement does not come without pain and mourning: the concerto is, after all, a memorial. It was composed after the death of the daughter of Alma Gropius, the former wife of Gustav Mahler. Thus, from the perspective of Harnoncourt’s claim about music’s efficiency in expressing its own zeitgeist, Berg’s concerto comes at the end of a development, and its topic becomes whether or not this music can speak.

Gidon Kremer’s interpretation of the solo line was anything but Romantic. When a musician stomps his foot and squints his face it is difficult to take any manner of playing as Romantic. Kremer’s interplay with the orchestra for the haunting echo effect at the end of the concerto–the soloist’s slowly ascending line is adopted by one stand of violinists and then the next until all play the part in unison–was especially striking.

Harnoncourt is known for innovative interpretations, and the performance of the Berg certainly did nothing to detract from this generalization. The performance of Bruckner’s “Romantic” Symphony, however, was hard to characterize as innovative. The only innovative aspect of it was that Harnoncourt’s rendition distinguished itself in that it was the best I have ever heard. Rather, I would suggest that the category of “innovative” is problematic insofar as it is an attempt to give a non-canonical reading that would miss the essence of sedimentation that lies at the core of the symphony: its religiosity can be interpreted as a grand piety towards the imaginary museum of musical works itself. In other words, we might think of this work as an embodiment of the idea of the canon. The phrasing of the third movement was perhaps the most “innovative” of the evening.

Harnoncourt’s performance suggested we hear the third movement as a parody of the first: the trajectory of creatio ex nihilo (indeed, in both instances we are taken back to the E-flat of “Das Rheingold”) to a sudden combative climax imitates that of the opening movement. However, there is an impossibility of serious development within the confines of scherzo form that leads to much wailing around, but never any expressive exploration similar to that in the first movement.

Indeed, it is in the isolated middle–in the pastoral trio–where the music really speaks. Nonetheless, last Wednesday evening’s performance distinguished itself not by its iconoclasm–as was perhaps the case with the Kremer’s reading of the Berg concerto–but rather by its refusal to sound stale, to sound like just another performance of the Symphony. The playing of the Vienna Philharmonic’s first horn player was outstanding. In this symphony, the effectiveness of this part is judged by its perceived absence–I know of no other piece where wrong notes in the horn are so easy to hear. The texture of the orchestra as a whole was well-blended, resulting the organ-like sound typical of the composer who for years plays that instrument for his living.

This amazing visit of Viennese musicians will not be the last time in the near term that Chicago will be graced with outstanding European performers. In addition to the scores of world-renowned pianists (such as Alfred Brendel) coming this spring, this Sunday will feature an incredible double lineup of baritone Robert Holl (performing with Daniel Barenboim) and pianist Andreas Schiff (performing Bach’s Goldberg Variations) at 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. respectively.