By JAMES R. OESTREICHFEB
Franz Welser-Möst conducting the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. Credit Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times
The annual visit of the Vienna Philharmonic to Carnegie Hall, with Franz Welser-Möst conducting three splendid concerts over the weekend, brought bonuses historical, musical and educational. Like the New York Philharmonic, the Vienna is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year, and the two orchestras have assembled a compact joint exhibition of archival documents and photographs, which opened on Feb. 22 at the Austrian Cultural Forum in Midtown and will travel to Vienna on March 28.
An opening reception at the forum came with music: a performance of Mozart’s lovely Clarinet Quintet, with the superb Vienna principal clarinetist Daniel Ottensamer joined by two stellar string players from Vienna and two from New York (the Philharmonic’s principal violist, Cynthia Phelps, and principal cellist, Carter Brey). And on Feb. 23, three Vienna principals — Tamás Varga, cellist; Dieter Flury, flutist; and Dietmar Küblböck, trombonist — led master classes for young alumni of Carnegie’s National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America in the hall’s Resnick Education Wing.
In repertory as in so many other matters, the Vienna Philharmonic follows its own rules and inclinations. It is more likely to stick to time-honored fare than to venture into modernity, let alone contemporaneity.
But looming large in the first Carnegie program, on Friday, was a big, burly work only a few years old, “Time Recycling” (2012-13) by René Staar, a violinist in the orchestra (he sat out this performance), in its American premiere. In a program note, Mr. Staar describes his goal as an “interpenetration of past, present and future.”
A sort of Varèsian brashness permeates much of the first three of its four sections, a seeming caldron for the fourth, which tosses up an eclectic mix ranging from Perotin in the 13th century to bossa nova in the 20th. The Vienna Philharmonic wind players may be accustomed to playing toy instruments, as they did here, in some of their Strauss family oddments, but to hear the brass players braying on their detached mouthpieces was novel.
As an orchestral showpiece, the work was an apt foil to Richard Strauss’s “Ein Heldenleben” (“A Hero’s Life”), and both were resplendently performed. Volkmar Steude, the concertmaster, gave a beguiling solo violin portrayal of “the hero’s companion.”
Mr. Welser-Möst, an Austrian and music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, was music director of the Vienna State Opera, where the Philharmonic players populate the pit, from 2010 to 2014, and he and the orchestra seemed wholly at one throughout the evening and throughout the weekend.
The other two programs were more lightly spiced with modernity: Saturday’s with the dissonant angularity of Bartok’s “Miraculous Mandarin” Suite (1927) and Sunday’s with the supersaturated chromaticism of Schoenberg’s “Verklärte Nacht” (“Transfigured Night”; 1917, revised 1943). The Schoenberg was stunningly rendered by the Vienna strings: No surprise there, this work being a foundation stone of the Second Viennese School.
But nothing was automatic about the Bartok. The Vienna Philharmonic, for whom a lush sonority seems second nature, can sometimes fall short where harshness is needed, but Mr. Welser-Möst maintained a razor-sharp edge of excitement.
The pianist Rudolph Buchbinder opened the Saturday concert with an elegant, somewhat understated account of Brahms’s muscular First Piano Concerto. And all three programs offered sterling performances of Schubert: the unassuming “Zauberharfe” Overture on Friday, the exquisite “Unfinished” Symphony on Saturday and the grand Symphony No. 9 on Sunday.
All three also fell back on the Strauss family for encores. Johann II was represented by “Frühlingsstimmen” (“Voices of Spring”) and in Georges Cziffra’s Concert Paraphrase on themes from “Die Fledermaus,” played by Mr. Buchbinder; Josef Strauss by two polkas: “Frauenherz” and “For Ever.”
Happily, to judge from an extended conversation with Helmut Zehetner, a violinist and the vice president of this self-governing orchestra, the ensemble remains committed to social responsibility, so heavily stressed by its last president, Clemens Hellsberg. (Andreas Grossbauer succeeded Mr. Hellsberg in 2014.) It has developed new educational initiatives, and it continues to lay bare the details of its Nazi past, seeking to make restitution.
And as for the quantity that always draws attention, the number of female members continues to climb, glacially. It is currently at 11, with four more in the pipeline, as it were, of the State Opera Orchestra.
“This is going to be a female profession,” Mr. Zehetner predicted, startlingly. That, given the present pace of change, is undoubtedly a bridge too far.