A master with promise

David Philip Hefti: Wendepunkt / Bloch: Schelomo / Mahler: Symphony No. 5.  Torleif Thedéen (cello), ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien / Cornelius Meister.  Konzerthaus, Vienna – Friday, March 25th, 2011 

On this particular trip to Vienna, I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to visit venues that I have not yet experienced.  The Konzerthaus is certainly a beautiful hall – somewhat larger than the Musikverein – but equally opulent.  Indeed, I first set eyes on the interior in a VHS tape that I had as a teenager of Bernstein conducting the Mahler 8.  I noticed that the audience was much younger than that of the Musikverein and there was a real energy in the hall. 
There was certainly energy on the platform too.  The ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester is a superb band and they really shone at times tonight.  It gives the Philharmoniker a run for their money and has many more women, including a lady Konzertmeisterin.  Their Chief Conductor is the 31-year-old Cornelius Meister.  He made his debut at the Hamburg Opera at the age of 21 and he is also currently General Music Director of the city of Heidelberg.

I’m sure that this blog will get a number of google searches for a review of the Hefti piece.  It’s the first time that I have come across his work and while it passed the time agreeably, I wouldn’t be in a hurry to hear it again.  It seemed like a combination of Hans Zimmer and Bernard Herrmann film scores – the Herrmann of Vertigo for example – together with some touches of Boulez.  Nothing particularly memorable but hardly revolutionary either.  I could write more but the trouble is that it wasn’t memorable and I don’t really remember anything.    I know that someone worked very hard on this piece and it seems that I am dissing it – I’m not, it’s just that I felt that it would have worked much better as a film score than as a piece of concert music.

The Bloch was given an impassioned performance by Thedéen.  I first came across him on a superb recording of the Elgar concerto sometime in the mid-1990s but haven’t really heard of him since.  It’s a glorious piece one that Rosza took as a model for his score for Ben Hur to keep the film music analogy going.  Here, I didn’t feel that Meister nor the orchestra really had the music in their bones.  The rhythms were not really brought out in the soupy wash that was the result.  Still, Thedéen was glorious – why isn’t he better known?

The real triumph of the evening was the Mahler.  It was clear that this was the piece given the most rehearsal time and the orchestra played like heroes.  Ok, they don’t quite have the refulgence of the Concertgebouw – my favourite Mahler orchestra – but they have a highly polished string section, characterful woodwind and a superb horn section.

I realized while listening that the last time I had heard this piece live was at Simon Rattle’s inaugural concerts at the head of the Berliner Philharmoniker.  I was disappointed by the way that he played the finale as an all out dash to the finish with no subtlety or control.  Tonight was also an opportunity for me to enjoy the work of a third Mahler conductor in his early thirties (after Nelsons’ 8th and Dudamel’s 9th).  There was no comparison – Meister was easily the most assured and competent of the three.  Yes, there were a few occasions that I felt that he pushed the tempi around a little too much – the start of the first movement for example – but otherwise it was an exceptional reading.  The first movement almost came to disaster with a few trumpet accidents but managed to pick itself up nicely from there.  I found the brass a little too dominant at first but the balance improved, especially at the start of the 2nd movement.  This was superb Mahler conducting and playing – alert to every nuance and bringing everything out of the piece.  I loved the dirty horn sound in the 2nd and 3rd movements.  

Meister didn’t ask the uncredited horn soloist to stand at the front but he played splendidly never the less.  The adagietto was taking at a nicely flowing speed that organically moved from one section to the next.  The finale was perfectly judged.  There was a real sense of the light and shade in the music yet it led perfectly into that glorious conclusion with the plush string sound holding its own against the brass.

This was certainly a reading to remember and I will be following Meister’s work in Vienna closely – he really is a name to watch.

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