Sometimes, concert-going can lead to exciting surprises.
Before the three Vienna Philharmonic concerts at Carnegie Hall this weekend, I was ready for the orchestra's formidable Mendelssohn and formidable Brahms.
However, I was prepared to reach those works on Saturday evening or Sunday afternoon after overcoming Strauss's "An Alpine Symphony" on Friday.
"An Alpine Symphony" is a bit of an ugly duckling within the orchestral repertoire. Or, due to its size, an ugly elephant. It lasts approximately 50 minutes and is Strauss’s longest and most significant tone poem. A wall mural in sound depicting dramatic mountain hikes, it requires celesta, organ, wind, thunder machines and cowbells. As well as woodwinds and brass forces, it puts Bruckner to shame.
It gets a bad reputation for its large size and episodic structure. The way it seems to be spinning for long periods between big climaxes can make it seem like it is going nowhere. It is acceptable for classical music experts -- those who are involved in classical music -- not to laugh at it.
And it's true: From most orchestras, under most conductors, on most nights, it comes off bombastic, limp and long.
But not here. Christian Thielemann was the concert's host. His Strauss can convert even the most skeptical. People talk still about the concentrated splendor he brought back to a large, difficult-to-wrangle Strauss piece, 'Die Frau Ohne Schatten', at the Metropolitan Opera over 20 years ago.
Now 63, Thielemann spends much of his career in the German-speaking world, focusing on a tiny group of eminent ensembles like this one and a small circle of canonical scores. In recent years, he has been almost absent from New York stages; his last visit to Carnegie Hall, with his Staatskapelle Dresden, was in 2013.
On Friday, his 'Alpine Symphony' was a reminder that the fuss that surrounds him is not hype. Above all, Thielemann conveyed a sense of unaffected fluidity — achieved, paradoxically, by firm control over a score that can sag.
The soft but grand dawn opening felt not portentous but natural, building to a sunrise that was shining without blare. Throughout, Thielemann refused to dwell on the climaxes, be they mountaintop vistas or thundering storms, blurring the boundaries between the episodes into an ever-shifting, gorgeously disorienting whole.
Vienna's strings are sometimes rich and sometimes frosty. However, they were at their best when maintaining tension, even though it was barely audible, in the orchestral textures. This allowed for material that sometimes feels like filler to be awe-inspiring.
There were more relaxed sections with the salon-style opera 'Ariadne Auf Naxos'. The orchestra enjoyed the wandering chromatic music towards the end that demonstrated Strauss’s debt to Schoenberg. Schoenberg's 'Verklarte Nacht,' which opened the concert, had the same unforced flow as Thielemann's 'An Alpine Symphony.
However, this easy flow managed to convey the opposite, making this score more complex and difficult than anything I had ever heard. It was an incredibly persuasive performance.
So was the rendition of Bruckner's Eighth Symphony on Sunday. As in the Strauss, Thielemann conveyed a sense of continuity, of great arches, that pressed intensity through the work's endless, hypnotic repetitions. (And, as in the Strauss, the strings in particular never let up.) At the start of the Adagio, the melody was properly broad without losing the line, and the Finale was a medieval edifice, looming through fog and in sunshine.
The careful control from Thielemann that gave tautness to 'An Alpine Symphony' and the Bruckner took away a certain bucolic character in Mendelssohn's 'Hebrides' Overture and Symphony No. 3, which had a weight, even a severity, on Saturday that brought them in line with Brahms's Symphony No. 2 after intermission.
There were a few quirks throughout the weekend, such as moments of uneasy intonation or small flaws like the Bruckner symphony's opening chord. These issues were minor compared to the incredible things this orchestra does. Ends of phrases so beautifully rounded that almost make you sigh. The uncanny matching between tone and texture between strings and horn in the Bruckner Adagio. The silkiness of Brahms's finale. Intensely idiomatic moments such as a delightfully squealing chord in "An Alpine Symphony."
There are certain aspects of sound that the Viennese retain their own uniqueness: the winds in the orchestra are darker, damper, and moodier than other orchestras and the brasses in the ensemble sound closer to a bronze shield rather than a gold spear.
The Philharmonic's New York trip was not as focused on music-making a year ago. The orchestra and Carnegie were scrutinized for their collaboration with Valery Gergiev, a well-known supporter of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. The orchestra and hall replaced Gergiev only after the invasion began in Ukraine, a day before the concert.
It was a reintroduction of politics to an ensemble whose brand is defined by isolation from all that. The encores came not only from the standard-repertory programming this weekend but also from the nostalgic world of the Philharmonic’s waltz-and-polka-filled New Year’s concerts. They try to pretend that it has been 150 years since the last.