Do conductors make a difference? Do these highly paid wielders of the baton really change the sound of the orchestras they lead? Two concerts I heard in New York in the last week of February suggested an answer to these questions. In the first concert, at Fisher Hall on February 25, I heard the New York Philharmonic, conducted by its new music director, Kurt Masur; in the second concert, at Carnegie Hall on February 28, I heard the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by its frequent guest conductor, Lorin Maazel. The result of my concert-going was proof, hardly necessary but nevertheless somewhat surprising, that conductors do make a difference.

To demonstrate the truth of this old adage, I should begin by telling the reader something of my history of hearing these orchestras in these halls in recent years. Over the past decade and more, I have heard the Philharmonic, in Fisher Hall, conducted most often by (in alphabetical order) Leonard Bernstein, Pierre Boulez, Erich Leinsdorf, and, of course, Zubin Mehta; I have also heard the Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall, conducted by Eugene Ormandy, with Vladimir Horowitz as the aging but still heroic piano soloist. Not surprisingly, I have attended the Vienna less. But about 1988 I did hear a Vienna rehearsal in Carnegie Hall, conducted by Claudio Abbado; in 1989 I heard the orchestra in Carnegie conducted by Herbert von Karajan in his last appearances in New York; in 1990 I heard the orchestra, again in Carnegie, conducted by Leonard Bernstein in what was certainly one ofhis last appearances in New York.

Under every conductor save Boulez, the New York Philharmonic impressed me repeatedly in the great works of the orchestral literature as a coarse-sounding ensemble made up of what clearly were exceptional players. It is true that under Boulez the orchestra seemed more transparent and musically controlled; but Boulez’s specialities in any case were to be found in contemporary music rather than in the core works of the classical and romantic repertory. The orchestra seemed at its coarsest under Mehta, who insisted on egging on the brass, as if in great music climax were all. Even under their much-loved Bernstein, however, the Philharmonic rarely played with the combination of exactitude, finesse, and lush tone that the quality of its players might, under other leadership, have produced.

My experience of the Vienna Philharmonic prior to this past February was quite different. Under Abbado, the rehearsal of the “Pastorale” Symphony elicited an extraordinary, “woodsy” sound from the orchestra; it seemed to me as I sat in Carnegie Hall that the orchestra’s sound should be called by the name of the famous Strauss waltz G’schichten aus dem Wienerwald—“Tales from the Vienna Woods.” The tone of the orchestra seemed to be determined not so much by its strings as by its winds, and by the special French horns of which the Vienna is so proud. Here, I thought, was the musical sound of Austria, suggesting a direct line from Beethoven to Mahler.

The next time I heard the Vienna—this time in a real concert, now under Karajan—was in February of 1989. At that moment I quickly became conscious that I was hearing the end of an era of musical history. The program was made up simply of the Schubert “Unfinished” and six Strauss waltzes and polkas—five by Johann and one by Josef.1 The Schubert was Karajan’s apotheosis as the greatest conductor to emerge since World War II. In the Schubert, the orchestra was not absolutely perfect in execution, for the palpable tension caused by Karajan’s all too obvious control precluded any real comfort in playing. But though the notes were on rare occasions not quite perfect, the timbre of the orchestra was transcendentally beautiful; the sound was elegant, the quintessence of refinement, and the most musically beguiling imaginable. The result was not a Viennese Schubert, and the orchestra did not sound, as it had under Abbado, like a Viennese orchestra: the Schubert Karajan and the Vienna played was not of a place but for all time. In other hands, the “Unfinished” can be hackneyed, but this was a performance of Schubert that stood as a living artistic rebuke to all the coarseness that had been taking place for the whole decade of the 1980s just a few blocks uptown at Lincoln Center.

The next Vienna concert I heard took place in March of 1990. Now the program was Mahler—the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and the Rückert Lieder (with the soloist in both the American baritone Thomas Hampson)—along with Sibelius—the Symphony no. 1 in E minor—led by Bernstein at the very end of his career. Artistically, the entire concert seemed ripped-apart, with not a single musical point anywhere allowed to make itself in a natural fashion. This was superstar conducting to a fault. The orchestra playing often seemed shaky, probably because they were often held back to an unreasonable extent, so that when they played full-out they might be able to achieve the heightened contrasts so dear to Bernstein’s heart. In the Sibelius the orchestra did have a certain Viennese sound—an odd presence in this very Nordic symphony.

Much has changed in concert life in the past two years. Mehta has been replaced at the Philharmonic by the echt deutsch Kurt Masur; Abbado has gone on to become the music director of the Berlin Philharmonic; Karajan and Bernstein, who each in his own way fought death tooth and nail, have gone to their maker. And so the two concerts I heard in the last week in February were new to me. I had previously avoided going to hear Masur live at the Philharmonic: so much had been done to the Philharmonic by Bernstein, Boulez, and finally Mehta over three decades that anyone brought in to fix matters deserved a little time to set things right. Furthermore, the televised opening-night concert Masur did with the Philharmonic in September, which I did watch, seemed a mixed effort, both in program—it included two short works by the minimalist turned would-be romantic John Adams, songs by Aaron Copland, and the Bruckner Symphony no. 7—and in execution, with all too much of the Mehta spirit still in evidence in the aggressive sound of the orchestra.

Much has changed in concert life in the past two years.

I am glad to say that everything seemed quite different at the February concert. The program had been scheduled to begin with two works of César Franck, the rarely heard symphonic poem Les Eolides followed by the celebrated Symphony in D minor, with the second half consisting solely of the Brahms Symphony no. 2 in D major. But in the event Les Eolides was replaced by the “When Jesus Wept” movement from the New England Triptych of William Schuman, played in memory of the composer, who had just died. Masur and the orchestra seemed a bit lacking in tension and musically cautious in the Schuman, which in any case is hardly a work by which to judge a virtuoso orchestra. But even in the Schuman, the string sound happily had a silky quality that I do not remember hearing from the Philharmonic in the Bernstein, Boulez, or Mehta years.

The Franck Symphony is, of course, a virtuoso showpiece par excellence for a great orchestra. From the opening of the Franck, it was plain to me that what had only been hinted at in the Schuman was absolutely true: Masur’s Philharmonic is very different from, and a great improvement on, Mehta’s. My impression was of a gentle-sounding ensemble, capable of producing polished sounds from their instruments in a wide, and a constantly varying, range of dynamics. Many members of the orchestra, including many strings in addition to the brass, now sit on risers; the double basses have been moved from the side to the very back. Gone was the gritty, grainy sound of the past; most welcome, gone too was the incessant screeching of woodwinds and blasting of brass.

It is a major change that Masur has wrought at the Philharmonic. To say this is not to endorse his performance of the Franck. I found it almost totally lacking in drama; completely missing, or so it seemed to me, was any identification by Masur with the very real presence of suffering and pain in this, as in so many other works by Franck. Franck was not just a mid- to late-nineteenth-century Franco-Belgian romantic; he was also a deeply Christian artist whose music reflects the suffering, the pity, and the triumph that nineteenth-century Catholicism found in the life of Christ. These characteristics suffuse the symphony from the questioning and sorrowful opening, to the D major apotheosis in the finale. In Masur’s performance, this welter of feeling was so restrained, and so gracious, that the result seemed not even French, but rather Frenchified.

Fortunately, it was a different story with the Brahms. Here Masur was at last on his home ground, and he acquitted himself nobly. Here was a kind of Brahms playing, cushioned and suave, that we have not heard in many years at the Philharmonic. The opening D major theme of the first movement seemed eminently sunny; everything that followed had weight, measure, and proportion. Though not all the orchestra playing—particularly in the brass—in this difficult work was perfectly reliable, the overall quality of the sound was on a high enough level to make me feel that my faith in the individual talent of the Philharmonic players was now, under Masur’s leadership, to be fully realized in the ensemble.

I left Fisher Hall thinking that Masur was indeed a good thing for the Philharmonic. To judge by this concert, Masur will be happier conducting pure, rather than program music; perhaps he was happier in the Brahms than he had been in the Franck—all questions of national origins aside—because whereas the Franck is first emotion and then music, the Brahms is first music and only then emotion. But at the same time I had another, and less happy, thought about the Philharmonic: the extraordinary gains in ensemble sound that Masur has already realized in such a short time at the Philharmonic have only exposed the fundamentally poor acoustics of the hall which is its home. Now that the orchestra has so fortunately said good-bye to its old raucous habits, I was aware at all times of just how distant the newly refined orchestra sounded—somewhat as if it were playing behind a scrim. The sad fact is that Fisher Hall lacks the immediacy and projection of sound that every great hall must have to provide optimum listening conditions for the audience and optimum playing conditions for the musicians. There is already much talk of rebuilding Fisher Hall yet again; I wonder whether the answer isn’t the wrecker’s ball, followed by a new start.

No such acoustical problems accompanied the Vienna Philharmonic concert I heard. Carnegie Hall is surely one of the great halls in the world, and I am quite sure that it makes everything played in it sound better. On the night I heard them, the Vienna players—very much including their conductor of the evening, Lorin Maazel—could have used all the help the hall afforded. The all-male Vienna is a proud orchestra; it is cooperatively owned, and does not have a music director. Its members come on stage at the last moment, and clearly revel in receiving the applause that in the concerts of other orchestras is reserved for the conductor and the soloist. When they play as they did for Abbado and Karajan, more power to them; when they play as they did for Maazel, their pride seems smug.

There were but two works on the program: the Mozart Symphony no. 40 in G minor, and the Mahler Symphony no. 5. The Mozart, it need hardly be said, is now famous and even over-famous. Thanks to the sour spell cast on the composer by Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, the throbbing opening is now seen as the very epitome of the artist-genius’s fate in an ungrateful world. Despite Maazel’s decision to give preparatory beats at the opening—itself a sign of discomfort in the performance to come—the start was rocky; the beautiful theme in the violins was clumsily played, with the notes above the staff frequently out of tune. Doubtless at the conductor’s direction, all the melodic passages were over-inflected, with an infinity of little swells and disappearances. Like the over-inflection of essentially simple material, the bad intonation continued to the end, with the passages above high C the most frequent offenders. The performance communicated nothing, save the conductor’s fussiness and the orchestra’s sloppiness.

Part of the reason doubtless is the central position that this work occupies in the hearts of Mahlerians.

The Maazel-Vienna performance of the Mahler Fifth was much appreciated in the local press. Part of the reason doubtless is the central position that this work occupies in the hearts of Mahlerians. It is also true that Mahler fans—even the music critics among them—avidly cherish each and every playing of the Master. It is indeed remarkable how rarely a performance of Mahler receives a bad review. I myself am not a Mahlerian, and save for the Ninth Symphony and perhaps the Sixth, I do not find his works musically coherent; judged strictly as music, they seem to me to be pre-eminently a conductor’s compositions, full of knowledge of how the orchestra works, utilized with a conductor’s ability to formulate music in small segments. I am well aware that there is an emotional coherence to Mahler, but unfortunately—at least for me—the emotion that is so coherent in Mahler seems all too self-regarding and self-indulgent.

Now that I have made the necesssary caveat, I must say that I found the Vienna performance of the Fifth Symphony singularly unconvincing, with Maazel and the orchestra, both as self-regarding and self-indulgent as the composer, reveling in all the disjunctions with which the work abounds. Despite its many intimate effects, the predominant effect of this performance was brash and blaring. There were instances of ragged ensemble, with little warmth conveyed overall. The powerful musicality that had so nobly characterized Masur’s Brahms Second just three days before was here completely lacking. At the end, the audience predictably went off like a Roman candle, and Maazel and the orchestra indubitably had their triumph.

And so I return to the point with which I began: conductors do make a difference. Masur has turned around the New York Philharmonic, and I await hearing him and his orchestra further with keen interest. The Vienna Philharmonic, despite its pretensions to an existence beyond a conductor, seems very much the product—like every other orchestra—of just who is on the podium on any given night. Perhaps the next time I hear the Vienna, its leader for the nonce will remind me more of Abbado or Karajan than of Maazel. Meanwhile, the New York Philharmonic will be giving a lot of concerts with Kurt Masur.

  1.  For my description see “Karajan: The Last Time?” in The New Criterion, April 1989.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 10 Number 9, on page 44
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