It is a happy New York tradition: the arrival of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall for a three-concert stand in February. Or March. In any case, shortly after the second half of the concert season begins.

The VPO played on Friday night, Saturday night, and Sunday afternoon. Leading the orchestra was Christian Thielemann, the German conductor, born in 1959. Since 2012, he has been the chief of the Staatskapelle Dresden.

About the first concert—Friday night’s—I will have a note in my next “New York chronicle” for the print magazine. Saturday night’s concert had two composers, Mendelssohn and Brahms, and the first half of that concert was all-Scottish. All that was missing, practically, was the Scottish Fantasy (a work by Max Bruch).

The concert began with Mendelssohn’s Hebrides overture, also known as Fingal’s Cave. This is a piece that paints a picture. Takes you on an adventure. It had that feeling in Carnegie Hall on Saturday night. Thielemann judged the piece shrewdly, following its contours, letting it surge and subside. The playing of the orchestra was unusually clear. The overture was unusually transparent. It had almost the quality of chamber music, though the mighty Vienna Phil. was sitting on the stage.

I had a funny thought: on this evening, the Hebrides overture was almost an older cousin of the Siegfried Idyll (Wagner’s creation, written forty years after the Hebrides). 

Saturday night’s concert continued with Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3, the “Scottish.” In the first movement, the VPO was the same as in the Hebrides—only bigger, grander. Still clear and nimble, however. And, of course, beautiful. The sound of the VPO is a rarity. The acoustics of Carnegie Hall, too, are rare. And the combination of the VPO and Carnegie Hall is hard to beat, sonically.

In this first movement, Thielemann was rigorous and incisive, allowing no soup whatsoever. He injected his Mendelssohn with a Beethoven quality, which served the music.

The second movement of the “Scottish,” in F major, is scherzo-like and dance-like, both. It ought to burble and delight. Did it? Not really. It was a little—a little—heavy and clumsy, which was a surprise.

Next comes the slow movement, the Adagio, which was adequate. (Remember, one has high standards for this orchestra, and conductor.) The finale was adequate, too—but without the alacrity and élan one would have expected, and wanted.

After intermission, there was a Brahms symphony, No. 2 in D major, one of the warmest and most genial things ever composed. It has its share of excitement, too, especially in the last movement. The beginning—the very beginning—is eminently muffable. Low strings, horns, and conductors have been muffing this beginning from the premiere, no doubt. Thielemann and the Vienna players did not muff it. They were straightforward and accurate.

In the course of the symphony, however, there were flubs, from horns and others. Some entrances were sloppy. The finale has another muffable beginning—and this, sadly, was muffed. Homer is allowed to nod, and so is the fabulous Vienna Phil.

To say that someone was brisk is not to say that he was brusque. Thielemann was brisk in the first movement, which is not unwelcome. You don’t want the Brahms Second to be killed by limpness. But a little savoring—even luxuriating—is not out of order.

Overall, Thielemann and the VPO gave a competent and creditable reading of the Brahms Second, as how could they not? But did it reach you, emotionally? Did it move you, if you were sitting there, in the hall? I cannot say that it did me.

Part of the tradition of the VPO at Carnegie Hall—the VPO on tour—is to play a Viennese favorite as an encore. The orchestra did so at all three of the concerts just concluded. Thielemann and the VPO performed these “bon-bons” (Sir Thomas Beecham’s word) with great care and affection. There is no condescension whatsoever when the Vienna Phil. offers these treats.

Saturday night’s bon-bon was a polka by Eduard Strauss (brother of Johann II and Josef). It was delicious, and stirring.

A Message from the Editors

Your donation sustains our efforts to inspire joyous rediscoveries.