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Strauss from the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall

6 March 2012

Prudence has prevented me from being as withering as I could have been, but I have reviewed a Sunday matinée given by the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall for Bachtrack, readable here. Briefly, it was pretty bad: a shapeless Tod und Verklärung that was heavy on the Tod and light on the Verklärung, and a quite exhaustingly gaudy Rosenkavalier Suite. Even the Johann Strauss II tidbits weren’t that well-played. As my companion noted, this music shouldn’t be so tiring. Nor, I would add, should it be played with so little technical precision. The conductor responsible: Maestro Maazel.

The audience, of course, went berserk. You would too if a pair of stalls seats had cost you $400 plus booking fees and an interval drink. For me, it served only to show how wide the gap has become between top-tier music assessed as a commercial showpiece and music viewed solely as music (or as near to solely as is possible). There was some yukky fawning in the programme note that showed what this was all about: the chairman of the VPO wrote a paean to Maazel – whom London critics in particular have rarely tolerated – which even quoted Fidelio, and Maazel wrote a statistic-laden one back.

Beyond a line that I’ve been hammering at for a while now, a further political word is also required, for this was not just a lovefest but a sausagefest. There were eight female members of the Philharmonic on stage (or at there were eight women on stage) throughout this concert, out of well over one hundred. I am not inclined to launch into yet another denunciation of gender relations at the Musikverein: we have the reasoned Zerbinetta and the rather less-so Norman Lebrecht for that. But I will say that I overheard several people – old ladies, actually – in the audience either counting the women as they came onto the stage or discussing the male bias during the interval. If even the relatively uninformed, normal concertgoer – the kind of concertgoer who thinks early Schoenberg is a bit risqué and certainly too modern – is talking about sexism in the Vienna Philharmonic, then it has long been past time for change.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 8 March 2012 5:30 pm

    They play though the annual Carnegie programme in Vienna first and I avoided it simply because I always avoid Maazel, But I think the extreme sloppiness – which drives me spare sometimes – probably had little to do with him, in fairness. They can be quite fickle, even with conductors they claim to adore. And proper rehearsal only factors up to a point (some of the worst and best playing I’ve heard has been in concerts for which they barely rehearsed). All you can count on is unpredictability: Boulez chose to spend his 85th with them and got a frankly disgraceful Glagolitic, but when they played some tricky Cerha the other month it was CSO-style faultless (and that was with Eötvös).

    • 8 March 2012 6:19 pm

      It must be incredibly irritating to be in Vienna, knowing that they can be so good and yet hearing it so rarely. They were quite unbelievably bad, even my companion (who knows little about this kind of thing) was cringing at times. I’m supposedly hearing them in June with Rattle in Schubert, Webern, and Brahms: I have no idea what to expect.

      PS Big fan of your blog!

  2. Thea permalink
    9 March 2012 9:23 pm

    @ J R Oestreich
    Lorin Maazel led the Vienna Philharmonic in three concerts at Carnegie Hall last weekend. Little need to be added about Sunday’s program, a shameless wallow in some of the things the Vienna Philharmonic does best.

    These musicians were nowhere more at home than in the sounds of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle, as distilled by Mr. Maazel. The performance was magnificent, with the brasses again stellar, and it vividly evoked the colorful characters and larger-than-life confrontations that these players know so well from their work in the pit.

    For those keeping an annual count in the orchestra’s glacial evolution, it had eight women onstage at one time or another, six of them permanent members, two still in the mandatory probation period. The permanent members included Albena Danailova, one of the ensemble’s four concertmasters, though she played second chair to the veteran Rainer Honeck, whose leadership and solo stints were exemplary throughout the weekend.

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