Haus of Contrasts

At the Konzerthaus: a New Year’s 9th Symphony, Netrebko star-mania, mid-winter Resonanzen and Balcea sublime!

The Belcea Quartet, playing at the Konzerthaus in May and June | Photo:

For New Year’s in Vienna it’s Fledermaus on New Year’s Eve and the Blue Danube at midnight, and in the morning, a late champagne breakfast in bed with the Philharmonic’s New Year’s Concert on the radio. And then that evening, how fine it is to dress up in one’s best clothes and traipse to the Konzerthaus for yet another Viennese tradition (at least since 1975): Beethoven’s 9th with the Vienna Symphony.

When hearing a piece that is so much a part of our everyday inner ear, it was wonderful to have an evening that met all expectations. The Wiener Singakademie, the in-house choir of the Konzerthaus, was especially shining. Suddenly standing for their final tutti entrance sent a palpable shiver of appreciation through the hall.

But in Vienna, this music is in the walls. Just a short walk from the Konzerthaus, in the 3rd District on the corner of the Ungargasse and the Beatrixgasse, is a building where Beethoven once lived. It is a busy intersection, with narrow sidewalks, the O-Tram rumbling past, and cars accelerating up the Ungargasse’s hill. It’s dusty and loud.  But if you look up, you discover an old plaque: “In this house Ludwig van Beethoven completed his 9th Symphony in the winter of 1823/24.”

“This corner should be turned into a sacred garden, a place of meditation and beauty,” a friend once insisted. And indeed, how profane that holy spot has become, the site of the Ode to Joy’s birth regularly desecrated by the roar of traffic. But in Vienna there would have to be a shrine on every corner, in all those rooms above, where masterpieces had been written, painted or composed. In some districts, it seems there is little else.

So perhaps, it best that we just keep going to the Konzerthaus, and let our moments of reverence find their home there. And, to paraphrase Alain de Botton, for a genuine homage to Beethoven, it is probably better to look at our world through his eyes, not look at his world through ours.

Mid-January brought us Rossini’s Stabat Mater, with a star cast. Well, at least one star. Tickets were sold out weeks ahead for the concert appearance of Anna Netrebko, and tickets at the door were being sharked for €200 apiece; upstairs, programs were high-gloss and over-sized.

The audience trembled with anticipation, hushed but not quite silent. But still they had to wait, through an innocuously played Mozart symphony (Wiener Kammerorchester) on the first half. “When is she coming?” whispered one distracted guest. They applauded with relief between every movement, thinking the prologue finally over.

Netrebko finally did come, after intermission, in simple black with delicate glitter. It was, after all, just a concert. The Wiener Singakademie again was splendid, the other soloists commendable. But Rossini did our star a disservice by composing only one solo aria for soprano. Though I was glad to have heard her glorious velvet voice, star-mania is better with an ensemble of stars, like the Verdi’s Requiem of my student days with van Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic, José Carreras, Agnes Baltsa, José van Dam…

The finest part of the beginning of a new year is always the Konzerthaus’ Resonanzen Festival, ten days of early and baroque music that made up for the hype of the Rossini evening. This years theme was Glänzende Geschäfte (Dazzling Deals). All the concerts I heard were.

The sound of period instruments, that is, instruments that didn’t go through the 19th century’s progressive “improvements” that strove for volume and homogeneity of tone, can indeed be dazzling. Period instruments (or copies) are idiosyncratic – with shifts of sound quality over registers, a tendency to get out of tune quickly, a bit too nasal here and too tinny there. But there is also a tangible sincerity. Period instruments have qualities that perk up your ears. The brightness of violin tone, the discreetness of the gamba, the directness and simplicity of a natural horn: it is like listening to a high renaissance painting.

Especially sparkling in this year’s Festival was the Alaskan mezzo Vivica Genaux, who has a furiously splendid technique and a swaggering delight in tossing it off as though it were nothing.

A friend in Amsterdam confided that hearing the Belcea Quartet made him feel that he had just gone to the first concert of his life. Luckily, the multi-national London ensemble now performs regularly in the Konzerthaus’ Mozartsaal. And with the opening notes of their December concert, I too experienced a sense of wonder: that the contact between strings and bows can pull forth such sweetness, such intimate emotions, such nuanced speech. And such sublimity.

In addition to the perfection of Haydn, Mendelssohn and especially Schubert, the Belcea Quartet is also at home with “new” music. Twisted Blues with Twisted Ballad (2008) by Mark-Anthony Turnage offered surprising variations on two songs by Led Zeppelin. Sublimity doesn’t always have to sound beautiful. The metallic snarl of electric guitars has its own power, its own truth.

The quartet has recently incorporated a new second violinist, which worried me. But it has simply given the quartet a change of color, like a beautiful woman putting on a new gown. There is a self-evident common purpose that lends their music making a pensive character. Yet the vibrancy of their virtuosity is breathtakingly natural.

The Belcea will be at the Konzerthaus again in May and June. It will be the highlight of my spring.

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