Vienna, March 14, 2019; Musikverein—The Austrian Radio Symphony Orchestra Vienna (ORF SO), soon to be Marin Alsop’s band, is—when it isn’t diving headlong into modernism for ideology’s sake—in charge of repertoire that’s mildly, mercifully off the beaten path. That makes it the interesting orchestra in town, because the other three orchestras don’t bother: The Vienna Philharmonic because they don’t have to, the Vienna Symphony because they want to be the Vienna Philharmonic, and the Lower Austrian Tonkünstler Orchestra because they haven’t the willpower or clientele or neither. (Instead they’re starting a Mahler cycle in concert and on disc!)
To get a feeling about just how timid and antiquated the repertoire situation in Vienna is, that “mildly off the beaten path” program of the ORF SO last week was anchored around the populist-brutalist Shostakovich Fifth symphony. Andrey Boreyko and the orchestra, to their credit, made a slow but effective (if not always virtuosic) effort of it. Individual contributions in the first movement’s passages, where the different instruments pop out of the collective, were at least okay (trumpet), and more often very good (i.e. the flute). Only the first violin’s solo in the second movement was proper and sincere rather than indulgent and forlorn. Otherwise the movement was nicely roughed up and ruthless—especially the basses. The collective mourning in the third movement was articulated in gorgeous-yet-tragic ways; the finale was powerful through consistency and steadiness, rather than sheer freneticism or hysterics, avoiding an aftertaste of cheapness. Boreyko knows his way around the work and the very good result wasn’t a surprise. But that wasn’t the kicker of the concert.
The kicker was a first half that consisted entirely of Austrian premieres of modernish 20th-century fare—Galina Ustvolskaya’s 1959 Symphonic Poem No. 2 (a.k.a. The Heroic Deed), and Giya Kancheli’s 1999 Styx for chorus and solo viola. It’s said that Ustvolskaya rejected both Shostakovich’s advances and his—her teacher’s—style, but in this gnarly, decidedly Russian work she does sound like a Shostakovich-disciple even if you didn’t know who the composer was. It has the feel of winter’s frost here and muddy boots there and shows Ustvolskaya from her most accommodating side. The work, far more modern than the subsequent Styx, evoked a grand, broad sound from the ORS SO.
Kancheli’s work is a paradigm of effectiveness over substance. The structure is fairly banal, but rolled out with such single-mindedness that it invariably touches something in the listener. The massive and sustained applause and hollers in the Musikverein’s Golden Hall, not common at half-time, certainly spoke to that. Certainly a few uneven entries of the women’s voices didn’t detract, and what helped was that Boreyko wisely cut down the massive, concentration-testing rests to size, which did much to keep listeners in the flow instead of creating cough-islands. It is, like so much of Kancheli, calming, drawing on a greater, inner peace. It consists of a few slow build-ups that eventually erupt until the bottom drops out and the procedure starts again.
But before and amid those eruptions there is actually a lot going on: The flow of molten lava, aborted tangos, phrases that remind of sulfurous Schnittke (another member of the “1930s Club of Defiance” of non-Russian Soviet composers), and some e-bass passage-work, which looked awfully droll as a white-bearded orchestral geezer in tails took to the stilted groove. The viola part—played by the fabulous but hardly challenged Nils Mönkemeyer—runs in parallel with the music for much of the work, above, beneath, and orbiting round it. That’s until the simplistic and effective frenzy of the finale (Carl Orff is waving from the wings!)—in which Vienna’s Singverein chorus gave of its best. All the commotion then stops, once again and suddenly, only for the viola to remain handing out a few remaining heartbeats over breathed non-notes from the winds and brass. Styx is essentially one long lament, and that evening it was performed in memory of Michael Gielen who had died earlier that week. Moving stuff, powerfully presented, thanks to the ORF Symphony Orchestra and the repertoire-enriched Andrey Boreyko.