Harnoncourting Disaster: Vlast from the Past

The estimable Elisabeth Barnette will cover Thursday evening’s Vienna Philharmonic concert at Carnegie Hall for Classical Source. The orchestra (this time with a pretty full string complement) sounds as glorious as ever, despite the “historically [allegedly] authentic” playing techniques demanded by Maestro Nikolaus Harnoncourt in what sounded like an attempt to ape late 19th century performance practice, but judging from recordings made in the early 20th century was likely way off the mark.

The single work on the program was Smetana’s Má Vlast, which does not respond to the soft-focus articulation, non-vibrato playing at the low end of the dynamic range (sometimes sul ponticello), and oddly inappropriate rubatos and long dead silences that Harnoncourt foists on the music. The plodding and episodic Vyšehrad was a big disappointment, but The Donau… er, Moldau was far more pleasant and idiomatic. The march theme that emerges after the introduction to Šárka was buried somewhere in the sonic muddy — gloriously rich mud, mind you, but c’mon, where’s the triplet melody? The music that followed was as episodic and disappointing as that in Vyšehrad, but I liked the handling of the trombone melody near the end of the movement — dynamics were reined in, and the sound was remarkably appealing while remaining forceful. Following the intermission came From Bohemia’s Fields and Forests, which had a little more bite; Harnoncourt made portions sound Wagnerian.

From the first notes of Tábor, however, Harnoncourt and the Vienna Philharmonic suddenly seemed dialed into the music. The opening of the movement was episodic, yes, but in this movement the approach works. And there was not much silence between Tábor and the final movement, Blaník, which form a potently patriotic diptych in the hands of Harnoncourt and the orchestra.

Tomorrow night, Venezuelan strongman Gustavo Dudamel takes the podium leading the Vienna Philharmonic in the first of two programs. I’ll be at Lincoln Center covering the New York Philharmonic.

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