Vienna Philharmonic filled concert with sonic splendor


March 06, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Just about any encounter with the famed Vienna Philharmonic renews one's musical value system. The orchestra's visit to the Kennedy Center Monday and Tuesday nights, presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society, offered a fascinating demonstration of style and strength. You could actually see it in the body language; none of that listless sawing away so common in the orchestral world.

Making the experience doubly intriguing was the presence of Nikolaus Harnoncourt on the podium. This septuagenarian conductor with the kindly professor looks is a scholar who has helped enormously to change - and enhance - the way we hear early music. Although much of his work has been done with his own Concentus Musicus Wien, an ensemble specializing in performance on original instruments, Harnoncourt regularly leads a handful of the world's top modern-instrument orchestras. The results don't satisfy everyone.

Some folks question the wisdom of letting him apply his ideas about articulation, phrasing, dynamics and all the rest to such a sacred institution as the Vienna Philharmonic, which knows perfectly well how to play Beethoven, Schubert, Dvorak and the Strauss Family. So who let the meddlesome Harnoncourt in the door? The Vienna Philharmonic. These musicians run their own show, engage any conductors they like. And, by all reports, they like working with this guy. One probable reason - they learn something. Just like open-eared listeners at a Harnoncourt-led concert.

With this conductor, you can be assured of keen intelligence behind every decision, although there's nothing egghead-y about the approach. This was clear from the start Monday with a rather offbeat selection of pieces by Johann and Joseph Strauss. Their music tends to be relegated to pops programs or encores on these shores; not high-art enough. The Viennese don't have that prejudice, of course, although even they might find the idea of Strauss dances preceding Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony a little surprising. But Harnoncourt made the pairing work, and not just because birdcalls crop up in a couple of the Strauss dances and the symphony.

When Harnoncourt approaches Strauss, the level of schmaltz might be reduced, but not sentiment. His interpretations exude affection. By treating, say, Johann's Electro-magnetic Polka and Joseph's Delirium Waltz as music first, light entertainment second, the conductor intensified the charm of their melodies and superb orchestration. That waltz, in particular, unfolded in exquisite detail and with the gentlest of tempo-bending, becoming a tone poem nearly as eventful and beguiling as Beethoven's musical tour of the countryside. The philharmonic's playing was effortless, warm, enveloping.

To that Beethoven symphony, Harnoncourt applied some principles of the authenticity movement; strings held back on vibrato, for example, and the overall sound of the orchestra was lean, transparent. He put abundant character into the rustic dance of the third movement and the ensuing thunderstorm; a feeling of dance also imbued parts of the finale, providing a little link to the delectable music of the Strausses. With a minimum of gestures, the conductor had the players responding seamlessly, colorfully.

On Tuesday night, Schubert's Symphony No. 4 (the Tragic) received a taut account. Harnoncourt's guidance yielded rewards measure by measure. The crispness and clarity of the orchestra's attacks in the outer movements proved as telling as the tenderness in the second.

As if the two-day visit had been a steady climb up some indescribably picturesque Alp, the summit was reached at the very end with Dvorak's New World Symphony. Harnoncourt seemed to let himself go, driving passages of high drama with extraordinary fire and allowing lyrical moments all the time in the world to touch the heart, yet he never sacrificed content for effect. I can't remember a performance of this symphony that was so thoroughly gripping - or so incredibly delivered.

The Viennese filled the concert hall with what can only be called sonic splendor. It proved as indelible at the softest volume in the ever-endearing Largo movement as in the most explosive points in the scherzo and finale, when the orchestra produced an amazing force by the end - without forcing.

Ultimately it was the heart behind the music-making both nights that counted most, and explained why the Vienna Philharmonic remains so invaluable.

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