Transfiguration and Ascension
Arnold Schoenberg: Transfigured Night, opus 4
Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 9
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Zubin Mehta (conductor)
Zubin Mehta (© Julien Jourdes for Carnegie Hall Archive)
Although none of his music was on the program, the spirit of Gustav Mahler was palpable on Friday evening at the Isaac Stern Auditorium. The orchestra that he directed at the Vienna State Opera and that often invited him to lead them in their symphonic iteration, at least until tensions began to fray the relationship, was on the stage, a stage where Mahler conducted the New York Philharmonic for three seasons and that is only a few blocks from his former residence, now the site of the Sherry Netherland Hotel. Additionally, the two pieces of music presented this evening are closely associated with this seminal figure.
There would be no string orchestra version of Verklaerte Nacht without Mahler, who suggested to the young Arnold Schoenberg that he flesh out his febrile sextet for a full compliment. Schoenberg, a self-taught devotee of the music of Max Reger, wrote very dense chamber music, prompting Mahler to admit that he could not follow so many distinct lines in his protégé’s Chamber Symphony No. 1. But the older composer saw the potential for Transfigured Night as he did in his own transcriptions of Beethoven and Schubert chamber works for larger ensembles.
The big story this evening was the surprising imprecision of the orchestra. Although guest conductor Zubin Mehta coaxed that signature woody sound, incubated in their unique hothouse environment, from the strings, there were several miscues of the embarrassingly amateur variety. Individual strings tarried too long on notes, bows struck wood once too often, sections were not always operating as cohesive units. Had there not been so few women on the stage, one might have had to dive for his program to double check that this was indeed the Vienna Philharmonic.
Interpretively, Mr. Mehta disappointed. There was little mystery and virtually no passion in this rendition, rendering this particular work especially out of its element. At intermission, I convinced myself that this was simply an aberration.
That opening octave leap in the finale of Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9 was quoted verbatim by Mahler in his own ninth symphony. Mahler, who had been a student of Bruckner at Vienna University and who fashioned the first three movements of the piano version of his mentor’s Symphony No. 3, also appropriated the key of d minor for his valedictory effort, just as Bruckner had paid homage to Beethoven in the same manner of ninth symphonies as final testaments (Mahler later found himself outlasting his doctor’s predictions and forged ahead into an ultimately unfinished Tenth).
Sadly, the full orchestra only magnified the previous problems of the strings. There were, of course, some great moments, the chorale near the end of the first movement, for example, but overall the same lack of professionalism gripped the ensemble. As impressive as was their fortissimo playing, long sustained passages at a very high volume level with no appreciable loss of intonation, they simply could not stop on a dime, or even an inflated euro.
Mr. Mehta spent a lot of effort, too much in fact, on shaping his phrases, creating an environment that stunted organic growth. His middle movement was much more fundamentally sound than the two slower sections, but was ultimately flabby and unclenched. Bruckner works hard to negate linear time and physical space, portraying the paradisiacal without a road map, but my mind wandered at this performance not to the spiritual but rather the banal.
Mr. Mehta suffered through a rather haphazard and ultimately unsatisfying tenure at the head of the New York Philharmonic (his brother Zarin is general manager of the group to this day), but his realizations of the core Viennese repertoire of the late nineteenth and very early twentieth centuries were always imbued with passion and understanding (his recordings of works of Franz Schmidt are particularly notable). Now however, he appeared tired and produced a rather unfocused offering. As Franz Welser-Moest takes over this orchestra on the Opernring, it may be time to begin to worry some about their future health.