Saturday, February 28, 2009

Sounds Viennese to Me

With the Vienna Philharmonic in town this week, there has been much talk among New York's classical musicians about the sound of this storied ensemble. I heard their Carnegie Hall concert on my one night off this week, Wednesday, and was captivated by the orchestra's sounds, plural, because these players do not, as some orchestra's do, play with only one sound and apply it (indiscriminately?) to every kind of music they play.

The first element of the Vienna sound I responded to was its clarity; the distinctness with which all parts were clearly heard. This created a sophisticated sound more than merely a luxurious one. The way the orchestra applied vibrato contributed to this clarity. Melodic lines certainly were played with expressive vibrato, but accompanimental music was played with little or none. The melodies never had to struggle to be heard, and all the middle voices contributed in proper balance. In fact, the crispness and concision of the inner lines gave buoyancy and energy to the sound. It was lit from within. This kind variety of sound was evident in the wind playing as well. Solo lines were performed with individuality and freedom, and then, turning on a dime, the same player made an entirely different sound to blend with another instrument in the next passage.

The impression was of orchestral power that rarely was welded full force. Fortissimo passages had poise as well as power. Quiet passages drew the audience close, whispered messages are so sweet.

The sounds of the Vienna Philharmonic arise from unity of purpose, artistic commitment, and a deep understanding of how best to communicate music's messages. I wish I could hear their Schubert 9 tonight.

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