Haefliger’s Scrupulous Bartók with the Vienna Symphony Stands Out

Vienna, April 26, 2019: Vienna Konzerthaus—Perhaps it was a way of sending belated Easter Greetings to its audience, when the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Susanna Mälkki, opened its set of concerts at the Vienna Konzerthaus this week with Wagner’s Good Friday Music. That greeting was loud, more impressive than mystical or pious, with capricious entries (from the flute, for example) that seemed to ignore the flow and logic of the music. It’s tricky to perform music best known and heard from the depths of the Bayreuth opera house in the bright and unforgiving lights of the stage. But that couldn’t have been the entire reason for the on-the-nose dynamics and the binary softer/louder mode with which all was presented. But for a few moments that were beautiful (as the music is wont to sound) and well performed by the VSO in lush sound, this was an underwhelming overture to an ambivalently satisfactory concert.

The conclusion was not much better: Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra Op. 30, his first of two Nietzschean tone poems (the other being “The Antichrist”, better known as the Alpine Symphony) started with an unclean brass entry (it wasn’t the trumpet’s best day altogether), cast in bright neo-colors, very quickly reaching the upper dynamic limit under Mälkki’s baton. It reminded a bit of Bob Dylan’s complaints about the loudness wars in the recording industry. There’s sound everywhere. It doesn’t help that “Also sprach” is arguably Strauss’ weakest tone poem: It features the most famous opening and the least memorable rest. To make the work appear halfway coherent is a minor miracle. On disc, Blomstedt comes close.

By this measure, Mälkki, by all means a fine time-keeper, is no miracle worker. As my seat neighbor noted, uncharitably but to the point: “She does have a sense for kitsch and a sense for brutality and little in between.” On the upside, this made for superficially impressive moments, especially as the orchestra was largely together. But it couldn’t avoid for “Also sprach” to sound as episodic as it tends to end up, given its constant metamorphosis and deliberate shapelessness. The curiously and intentionally anti-climactic finale wasn’t helped by that persistent flat, long-held violin note from the concertmaster (who had still been such an excellent lead in the touchingly performed string octet bit near the beginning), or the limp concluding low Cs in the double basses that undercut the tonal ambivalence of this non-end.

If this doesn’t sound like a particularly memorable concert, it was at least nudged into the right direction by Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto that separated the romantic orchestral buns of this classical sandwich. Executor Andreas Haefliger is not a showboat pianist. Introspection and subtlety are more his thing. Not that he cannot tackle the great rollicking piano works, solo or orchestral. His most recent CD release on BIS (just reviewed here by Jed Distler) contains the Pictures at an Exhibition, for example. And just as tellingly the series of which the disc is the seventh installment is called “Perspectives”. All this is by way of saying that the sensitive Swiss musician certainly suits the Bartók Third Piano Concerto, written by the ill composer, no longer capable of performing himself, for his wife–and very much the lyrical one among the triptych.

As it turns out, it’s less the lyrical cliché of the concerto that Haefliger served, but its pensive aspects. Every note, every tone, every phrase seemed as though it had been thought through in detail. He did not sweeten anything in the score, tended to under-pedal (or deliberately not over-pedal), and brought out each note carefully demarcated to a determined, matter-of-fact, perhaps slightly dry result. The closing notes of the first movement came out reticent; maybe humble. As if they were a question mark: “Are you still with me? Anybody there?” The contemplative and slow, searching pictures of color that Haefliger drew out of the second movement brought Ravel’s concerto into more obvious proximity to Bartók, as it did Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues. Reverie grew into slowly increasing, eventually powerful resolve before Haefliger lunged into the liberated, comparatively wild finale. The orchestra, all along, was loud and pushed ahead, the finer points of Mälkki’s accompaniment or their collaboration escaping my notice. Bit of a shame amid what was otherwise an aural keepsake.