Exploring the beauty and tumult of Vienna

The Philadelphia Orchestra with pianist Jan Lisiecki

5 minute read
A Van Cliburn for the 21st century: Jan Lisiecki. (Photo by Mathias Bothor)
A Van Cliburn for the 21st century: Jan Lisiecki. (Photo by Mathias Bothor)

Frederic Morton, in his acclaimed book, A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888-1889, depicted Viennese society as having two faces. It was splendorous in music and the arts and in Austro-Hungarian history and royalty, but at the same time there were cracks and crevices of angst and conflict in its social, economic, and political life. That same duality has recurred periodically in Vienna, which played an important role in 20th-century philosophy and the arts, as well as in the roots of two world wars.

The music in this concert of Viennese pastry reflected both of those faces: It was romantically sweet but with a bitter crust. Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, while exploiting the rich sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra to bring out the grand sonorities, also conveyed the underlying disturbances and tensions. All four composers featured in the concert resided in Vienna and drank from its cup, but unlike the tight chronological focus of Morton’s book, in which Strauss and Mahler were the important musical figures, the time ranged from 1805-1806 (Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto) to 1981 (HK Gruber’s 1981 Charivari).

A nervous schmaltz

Tales from the Vienna Woods by Johann Strauss II is a New Year’s Eve favorite of all the great orchestras, typically interpreted as great fun and seduction. Nézet-Séguin took it at a slightly slower tempo than usual, closely following the score. This brought out a mood not usually associated with the waltz: It had something of the quality of a tango, with its fatalistic expressions.

Beneath the lush façade of the strings and the pompous 3/4 time mating call of the bass drums, percussion, and brass, one could hear in the woodwinds subtle intrigue and disarray, almost anticipating Mahler’s use of street songs. That motif then appeared melodically in concertmaster David Kim’s pianissimo violin solo, which was more like a lament than a kiss in the dark. Whether or not the composer intended it that way, such an interpretation had the merit of revealing something hidden within the score.

Back to Mozart or forward to Liszt?

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 is a flowing masterpiece that never stops giving. It was composed after Napoleon’s invasion of Austria disrupted the benign monarchies in which the rich and royal were patrons for Haydn, Mozart, and the early Beethoven. Like Beethoven’s Razumovsky String Quartets, composed in roughly the same time period, the concerto can be interpreted in two ways. Some play it as nostalgic longing for the old established ways, i.e., as an extension of Mozart’s classical style (as in Ashkenazy’s recording with the Cleveland Orchestra); others play it as looking toward Liszt’s romantic future in melodramatic fashion. Nézet-Séguin and the young Canadian-born pianist Jan Lisiecki chose the latter path.

With jackhammer precision, Lisiecki rolled off the long virtuosic passages that Beethoven, himself a star pianist of his day, might have written as a challenge to his competitors. Only 20 years old, the pianist is musically mature; with his reserved yet charming persona, he is a treasure. His dashing appearance and eruption onto the scene are reminiscent of Van Cliburn, but his piano style is very different.

In this performance, Lisiecki gave the concerto the sturm und drang of Franz Liszt and Beethoven’s own Appassionata sonata. He had a bit of trouble starting out, but once he got in gear, his rendering of the most challenging passages and a couple of cadenzas from hell (a slew of cadenzas have been written for this concerto) was nothing short of spectacular.

On a “serioso” note

In his 11th string quartet, Beethoven minimized his playful use of musical twists, turns, and surprises to sustain a study of shifting moods, hence the designation Serioso. It came at a time when Beethoven was experimenting with new ideas and forms.

Gustav Mahler, in his early days as conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic, arranged several of Beethoven’s string quartets — including this one — for a string orchestra. His orchestration, which emphasizes the second violins, cellos, and bass violins, is ideal for this orchestra with its incomparable string sections. You can hear the modernity and angst that Beethoven was moving toward in his final years — and get a hint of the musical tears of the early Schoenberg — in the piece. Kudos to Nézet-Séguin for including this work of great musical importance in the program.

From Viennese angst to postmodern jumble

The concert concluded with a postmodern pastiche, HK Gruber’s Charivari. The charivari, or shivaree, is a folk custom in which celebrants “serenade” newlyweds by banging on pots and pans outside the marital bedchamber. Tackling the tradition musically gave the composer an opportunity to move freely from one motif to another without formal concerns, building to a gargantuan rocking climax.

The piece makes liberal use of the jazz idiom and at times could be mistaken for excerpts from Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Concerto in F; at other times, its lumbers like Mussorgsky’s Baba Yaga. But the totality is steeped in Prussian and Austrian folk and classical music, and so brings us back to Vienna’s nervous splendor. No one could perform Gruber’s outrageous concatenation of music better than our own fabulous Philadelphians. One could almost imagine the great Stokowski, with his love of spectacle and a large musical palette, back on the podium to conduct it.

For Steve Cohen's overview of the festival as a whole, click here.

For Linda Holt's review of the January 21-22 concerts, click here.

For Dan Rottenberg's review of the January 28-30 concerts, click here.

What, When, Where

The Philadelphia Orchestra. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor; Jan Lisiecki, piano. Strauss, Tales from the Vienna Woods; Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 4; Beethoven, String Quartet No. 11 ("Serioso"), orchestrated by Mahler; Gruber, Charivari. January 13-16, 2016 at Verizon Hall, the Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce Streets, Philadelphia. 215-893-1999 or

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