Anima Eterna and the Contrabassoon That Could

Vienna, November 6, 2019; Konzerthaus—Vienna was in an early-music mood this November: Christophe Rousset’s Les Talens Lyrique was performing Ariodante at the State Opera; the Musikverein hosted the fast declining Concentus Musicus as well as the endearingly chaotic but often exciting Vienna Academy Orchestra; and the Konzerthaus opened its doors to Jos van Immerseel and his Anima Eterna orchestra on November 6, to present a program of Brahms, Wolf, and Mahler. Not typical HIP band stuff, but not surprising either, given how most historically informed performance orchestras have sunk their fangs into the romantic repertoire all the way to Wagner and beyond.

One can argue about the merits of this – that’s part of the fun – but the fact is that there’s an audience that is glad for any new ideas that might give otherwise well-worn Brahms a shot in the arm. Sometimes it goes well, sometimes it goes awry, some ideas are sound, some are poppycock. Either way, there’s usually some sense of excitement which is valuable in its own right, amid so many serviceable but ultimately bland performances. (Hello, Vienna Symphony!)

It starts with the programming. For a song recital to open a concert that is ostensibly an orchestral event is a wonderful texture-changing throwback to the old days, when concerts customarily were veritable smörgåsbords of wildly different ensemble combos. Immerseel on his own 1870s Bechstein with his long-time collaborating baritone Thomas Bauer in four Hugo Wolf songs might have looked a little lost in the large hall, but no complaints from ten rows in, where everything could be heard just fine. Bauer, not an outrageously distinctive vocal talent perhaps, but a very fine, reliable singer, was best in the quasi-operatic, concluding “Der Feuerreiter”. Still, the piano’s sustain that would have buttressed the voice on a modern instrument – especially in such an acoustic – was missing and made Bauer sound exposed and dry.

The glassy, harmonica-like sound and the dead-on intonation of the orchestra’s violin section (eight firsts, seven seconds), which had rumbled onto the stage for the subsequent Mahler songs, conveyed an otherworldly quality; less sweet than tart but not less moving for it. A few questionable orchestral sounds could have been generously interpreted as touching fragility, underscored by surprisingly slow tempos. This went well with Bauer’s dramatic presentation of “Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer”, in which he dropped his tone down almost to sprechgesang, but it could not make up for the sense that something was missing amid the undernourished orchestral climaxes and slack lines (“Ging heut’ moregen über’s Feld”).

Great, snarling, and forward-falling double basses, a confident second-movement violin solo, and the lively timbres from the woodwind section in the third movement were the fun ingredients of the concert’s symphonic finale. There were still more fine individual contributions in the joyous-enough fourth movement – amidst them a superbly humming contrabassoon the likes of which you will absolutely never before have heard so prominently in Brahms’ First. It sounded like a roaring race car lapping all its colleagues from the outer lane! Alas, the music of the finale wasn’t rising like the glorious morning sun over a valley – as it should. It ended up much like the rest of the concert: full of good ideas, tasty enough for in-the-now; not something for posterity.