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Lorin Maazel, Vienna Philharmonic reach impressive heights in DC visit

In a world of so many variables, it is heartening to know that some things stay wonderfully consistent. The Vienna Philharmonic, for one.

The orchestra gave a gratifying concert Tuesday night for the Washington Performing Arts Society, in conjunction with the Kennedy Center's Music of Budapest, Prague and Vienna project. It was just as expected, of course. The Philharmonic is one gold standard you can count on.

This was a welcome occasion to drink in that golden sound, to admire pristine articulation. More impressive still was the sense of players totally immersed in the music, approaching it from the inside out.

Another element of reliability on Tuesday could be found on ...

the podium, where veteran conductor Lorin Maazel provided his usual meticulous guidance and beautifully expressive nuances.

The first half of the program, devoted to Mozart, yielded particular pleasures from the way Maazel brought out inner details of scoring in the "Marriage of Figaro" Overture, and little expansions of tempo he took at key points in the last two movements of Symphony No. 40, adding a dramatic zing to complement all the expressive elegance from the ensemble.

Things really started cooking after intermission when, now with a full complement of players onstage, Maazel turned to the Symphony No. 7 by Sibelius and the Suite from "Der Rosenkavalier" by Richard Strauss. Hearing the orchestra sink its collective teeth into these scores, well, that was something to behold.

The Sibelius work is a marvel of content and concision, four movement's worth of activity packed into a single, 20-minute movement that grows organically before your ears.

Maazel generated a taut, absorbing performance and drew almost magical playing from the Philharmonic -- rich, earthy string tone, golden sounds from the brass (the trombone solos were superb sculpted), vivid coloring form the woodwinds.

Works like "Rosenkavalier" are practically mother's milk for the Viennese, so a loving, glowing account was inevitable. I was still surprised, though, by just how vital the performance turned out to be, how every note sang.

Maazel was in his element, unleashing the music's sensual richness and applying rubato with particularly compelling results. He shaped the Presentation of the Rose and the sublime Trio with remarkable tenderness, and actually kicked up his heels (well, one of them at least) in the most exuberant waltz passages.

The results were so uplifting that I could almost forgive the ending the Suite, which, instead of offering the perfect closing pages from the opera, sticks in a cheap, for-the-masses coda.

A generous encore by an unrelated Strauss, Johann Jr., capped the evening -- "The Blue Danube." Once again, it was fascinating to hear a work the musicians have played a zillion times sound so vital, so personal, so meaningful.

Maazel had a hand in the freshness, ensuring delicious nuances of tempo and phrasing. He got another chance to do some more heel-kicking, too.


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