Vienna

Day 22

Back to Austria! Vienna was next on the agenda, for one reason only: music. Vienna is where many of my favorite composers lived and premiered their works: it maintains a rich musical tradition to this day. The world class Wiener Philharmoniker and Wiener Staatsoper are based here. 

I began the day with a 4 hour Eurolines bus ride from Prague to Vienna (free WiFi, only €18!). Once in Vienna, the weather was cold and rainy. This was unfortunate because I had specifically arranged the trip in a circuitous fashion in order to line up with the annual Wiener Philharmoniker Summer Night Concert, which is held outside and could be rained out. I checked the weather hotline and the concert was a go, but I was dreading the idea of sitting out in the cold rain that long.

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40,000 other music lovers braved the elements in a beautiful venue: the Schönbrunn palace garden. At 8:30 the concert kicked off with a great program:

Hector Berlioz
Le carnaval romain. Ouvertüre caractéristique, op. 9 

Franz Liszt
Mazeppa (Tone Poem No. 6) 

Richard Strauss
Burleske for Piano and Orchestra in D minor 

Hector Berlioz
Ouvertüre zur Oper “Benvenuto Cellini” 

Richard Strauss
„Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche“ (“Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks”), op. 28

Johann Strauss Sohn
Wiener Blut Waltz

Johann Strauss
Polka (can’t remember exactly which one)

The performers dealt with the cold admirably and the sound system was surprisingly good! Lang Lang, probably the most famous pianist in the world right now, played the solo in the Burkeske, with more sensitivity than I’m used to from the artist known to some as “Bang Bang.” I’ve seen him live once before and he is, for lack of a better word, expressive on stage.

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Till Eulenspiegel was probably my favorite on the program, played with a sense of humor. The piece has many prominent mini-solos, perfect for Vienna’s sound. To me, Vienna sounds almost like a chamber orchestra in that the individual instruments’ tone colors are deliberately prominent. Berlin, on the other hand, plays with an amazing blended sound. Most other orchestras lie somewhere in between.

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The concert closed with the famous Wiener Blut (“Viennese Spirit”) waltz by the third Strauss featured on the concert. I recorded a snippet for you:

Day 23
Today it rained again but I had a small window in the morning to do the classic walking tour of the key buildings. Vienna was not as old as I expected. Rebuilt by Franz Josef II in the 19th century, the town has the classical influences of its contemporary capital city, Washington DC. I looked inside the Stefan Dom (not too remarkable) then walked along the ring road. The Vienna Opera is here, as well as the main museums, the parliament, the Hofburg Palace, and the Rathaus (city hall).

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I was a little disappointed after the splendor of Salzburg and especially Prague, but I had to remind myself that I’m not in Vienna for the sights: mostly the sounds. Oh yeah, my favorite composer, Mahler, spent a little time here:

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To kill time in a rain free place I paid way too much to get into the Kunsthistorische Museum, a nice gallery of old masters, ancient art and artifacts, royal trinkets, and my favorite: the collection of instruments.

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There were some real rarities, like this old school keyed trumpet (can you imagine playing the Haydn concerto on this?)

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I had never seen a stringed instrument like this. Is it played like a guitar, dulcimer, or cello?

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This is the oldest trombone I’ve seen. No sackbuts were present unfortunately (yes, the sackbut is the predecessor to the trombone)

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And the strangest artifact: a cane-violin!

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After the museum I had dinner and an obligatory apfelstrudel. I could get used to Viennese dessert.

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Later that night I had one of the highlights of my trip: a ticket to see the Orchestre de Paris in the most legendary concert hall in the world: the Musikverein. Known for its superb acoustics, the hall was the site of so much musical history: Brahms premiered symphonies there, Mahler was a conductor here, and Leonard Bernstein recorded some of my favorite albums with the Wiener Philharmoniker here.

Inside, it is a beautiful place:

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My first thought was that the hall looked extremely small! It is a very intimate space, and it just doesn’t hold many people. That’s why tickets are so expensive…

The program was:
Olivier Messiaen
Le tombeau resplendissant

Johannes Brahms
Ein Deutches Requiem

Paavo Jarvi was conducting. The Messiaen was new to me. It alternates a loud, polyrhythmic section with a contrasting, quiet theme. Jarvi was very conscious of the power of quiet all night. The piece ends with a string fade to nothing. He held it for probably 15 seconds as everyone in the hall held our collective breath. The intimacy of the space means that the exceedingly quiet note was totally audible, but likewise that the slightest chair squeak or cough can ruin the moment. It was highly effective.

The Brahms was very good. I was not super familiar with it but I’ve heard a recording or two before. The Requiem was groundbreaking because it bears no resemblance in text to the Latin mass after which it is named. It is intended to comfort the living rather than pray for the dead.

The opening movement (Selig sind, die da Leid tragen), comes from the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are they who mourn” and it was performed beautifully by Paris’s strings (minus violins! Brahms doesn’t bring them in until the next movement) and the Musikverein chorus. The choral singing throughout was the best I have heard, anywhere in the world. That is not a compliment I give lightly: they handled the very challenging vocal fugues effortlessly.

Side note: the organ part is subtle but sounded amazing on the Musikverein’s instrument. It really helps bolster the winds in long, exposed passages.

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The second movement is my favorite. It is sort of a funeral march on the Psalm text “Then all flesh is like grass…” The orchestra’s sound swelled and shrank like waves with each choral phrase. The ensemble can make a ton of volume in this small space!

The fifth movement was a bit of a wreck though. The conductor had the chorus sit for a bit, and I think it sapped the energy from the room. Nobody sounded focused, and the soprano soloist did not sound very good at all.

The sixth movement was the loudest, with text including “Oh death, where is thy sting?” Brahms detractors thought him old school, but this movement really shows it: a little Renaissance “word painting” was employed for the line “And the trumpet shall sound…” With literal trumpets sounding.

The final movement parallels the first “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord…” played and sung with similar sensitivity. Again, Jarvi held out the last, beautiful note for a seeming eternity as it resonated in the hall.

The concert experience certainly lived up to my expectations! And Vienna is prettier at night:

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Day 24
This morning I had better weather so I went back to the Schönbrunn gardens to see them in the sun. The scent of the flowering bushes was wonderful.
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I think Empress Maria Thersia invented the infinity pool:
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From there I rode the U Bahn to the Naschmarkt market, which had some great street food including the chicken kabob sandwich I settled on.
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It started raining again, so I found a free performance of a Bach Cantata by some very talented conservatory students. Ate some tasty pho at a Vietnamese place, and boarded my LAST European train (overnight to Berlin). It’s hard to believe that Nepal is just over the horizon!

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