[Making history, making good music: sometimes that is one and the same thing. Emmanuelle Haïm conducting the Vienna Philharmonic – Vienna (Theater an der Wien) 2016]
While this concert (and its Lucerne premiere) were promoted as “only the third woman in history to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic!” my own motivation went more along the lines of “Haïm is conducting! Fine, I’ll also go if she is not directing Le Concert d’Astrée”.
What is more of a novelty, a woman conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, or an Early Music conductor working with the Vienna Philharmonic, on Handel?
Sitting down, the voices carrying over from the next box sounded more like #2:
“Well, it’s Baroque… though it could have been worse.”
“Yes. I mean, it doesn’t quite hurt to listen to.”
My first thought was: “Is this not sold out?! How come this is not sold out?!” There were a few empty seats, but not many – the audience being an eclectic blend of Frenchfolk supporting a countrywoman, and somewhat befuddled regulars who were not quite sure at which point to clap because they were not that familiar with Handel. The atmosphere was welcoming, though, and applause was very cordial early on.
When the orchestra stepped out onto the stage, I was inclined to put feminism over Baroque after all because save for the bassoon and a viola, I did not see any female players (the theorbist (or was that an arciliuto?), Mónic Pustilnik, belongs with Le Concert d’Astrée, so does not count), but then, I had no view of the first and second violins. The Vienna Philharmonic selection on display last night was also mostly of the younger generation of players – and the absence of a certain New Year’s vibe was a benefit all around.
How do you approach the Vienna Philharmonic coming from Early Music?
The first point in Haïm’s favor is the very fitting choice of music – Handel can accommodate a wide range of playing without sounding off, and all pieces selected (the Concerto grosso HWV 319, the first and third Suite from the Water Music, plus Il delirio amoroso) offer dynamic range and chances for solo virtuosity, and the players audibly connected to that.
Part of this concert setup was seeing the Vienna Philharmonic in a repertory and with an approach not theirs (so the question was: “How close do they get to actual historically informed style?”), and the Early Music buffs in the audience had to untangle “oh, they are really trying, do you hear that?” from “this is genuinely good music-making”.
Haïm pulled the group together by giving them space: letting them shine in virtuoso moments, in ornamented trills a little brighter than historic flair would mandate. At some moments, the very clear and high-pitched sound of the violins remained oddly detached from the orchestra on the whole, floating in space. And some early phrases were jarringly smooth in sound for a listener whose daily fair is much more – well, Le Concert d’Astrée.
Overall, Haïm does once more excel here at drawing musicians with a romantic education into making engaging, believable Early Music, through drive and communication and a very smart grasp on phrase structure. The fit with the Vienna Philharmonic is different than the one with Berlin, which was more “Rothko painting a Velazquez sujet”. Vienna thrives on rubati, and even if you cannot completely take the Mahler out of the celli, or the sense of mantling expanse out of the violas: that handling of time is something a musician schooled in rhetoric will catch onto.
There will always be a bit of mélange with cream in the Vienna make-up – a gleam that is is cream, and not milk. The sound will always, at first hearing, be sitting down on a plush sofa, and not on a high-backed half-wooden chair.
To me, the main challenge seemed to be to put air and space into a sound that is usually geared towards being even and compact. And from the very first moment, Haïm did just that: breaking through the sound blanket to the beams below that carry the house.
Her thinking in arcs is exceptional. I hadn’t seen her conduct live before and I was in the fortunate position of being able to see her face throughout: focused communication, and joy at communication reached and share, whether it is precisely giving two bars in very small motions to then segue into a piano phrase, or whether it the way she is channeling what she envisions through her body. The moments closest to flow were those were Haïm played the harpsichord herself, motioned for an accent or other meanwhile, and then was listening again, before giving back the impulse received. This shared space also showed in the applause, which she was quick to pass on to her players, singling out merits in gestures that pointed back to Baroque reverances.
Over the Water Music suites, having settled into the evening, focus was joined by more relaxed enjoyment, and Haïm seemed to direct with a smile and a frown as much as with her hands – though overall, my impression was that she is leading less by her hands either way, and more by body tension, like a dancer. It made for an atmosphere of, “We are listening to each other here, and you in the audience get to listen in on that in turn.”
Sometimes, that included an overdose of vibrato in the low strings. Sometimes, it meant the violas unrolling the carpet where I would envision unpolished wooden floors. But Haïm manages to tie in the strengths of her cast, be it in solo moments, or in details like the beautiful wind work during the the third suite (my notes on this read “Come to the Dark Side, we have cookies and Couperin!” – Oh, the bassoon of Sophie Dartigalongue! I *that* is the future of the Vienna Philharmonic, count me in!).
In the Suite No. 1, neither orchestra nor director (nor Handel) were opposed to a bigger sound, but the performance remained driven by Haïm’s trademark energy that is like a building carrying the structure on the outside, for all to see. It was not fragrant French Baroque, but I could have danced all night to this.
Given that it is the Vienna Philharmonic, the individual musicians do bring an insane level of skill to the table. During the first suite, the first (Volkhard Steude, I believe) and second solo violin in particular were brilliant, and fit themselves well into an Early Music idiom without bending over into faking something. Perhaps Haïm’s biggest talent really is enabling authentic communication.
Of the two horn players (the very good horn players – Jan Janković, Josef Reif) who stepped onstage for the Suite No. 1, one of them kept swinging along, nearly tapping his foot, smiling. That, perhaps, is the image of the evening that will stay with me, along with the exchange that happened in the intermission between the first oboist (Clemens Horak) and the recorder player (Sebastian Marcq, also an Early Music specialist), who sat chatting for a good while, in mutual appreciation and curiosity, from the looks of it.
The last movement of Suite No. 1, leading into the break, was unbelievably groovy (much more e.g. than Gardiner’s Early Music take), thanks to the entire string section, and while the sound is always – simply due to the instruments – a little too polished, this was this point where I thought, “Yes, this is working out.” And there are small things that you can’t throw at just any modern orchestra, but you can throw it at the Vienna Philharmonic – like the fast, precise downward runs in the strings in the opening number of Il delirio amoroso that made up the second part of the concert – that was damn close to French Baroque without pretending to be something they are not. Or the first oboe (Horak) doing the solo in the cantata ouverture: not playing romantically, but not hiding it, either: simply playing very well and finding a personal path to this kind of music.
Lenneke Ruite, as the evening’s soprano, was likewise at the point of swinging along, much like the horn player. Ruiten, in short, shone. And I mean this quite literally, between a dress reminiscent of Loren Lamé, and a very unpretentious approach to the music. Her opening lines were a little too much on the dramatic side (I have no listened to the Piau take yet, which must be very different), but in between the theorbo (Pustilnik), Haïm and Ruiten, things quickly settled into a more flexible tone (also: ladies making music together, yes, please, and thank you).
Not being an Early Music specialist, Ruiten went in with a broader tone that must have cost far more energy. I got the feeling that the tessitura – not the range – of the cantata was a bit beyond even her comfort zone in that, and given that Ruiten is basically a coloratura soprano with a somewhat lyrical heft, that is saying something. I am not sure for whom the piece was originally written (Chichino, perhaps?), but the setting is insanely high.
Still, Ruiten showed off clear, rounded top notes and well-connected ranges (despite battling a bit of a running nose). And to no surprise, after my previous takes of listening to her, her coloratura was rock-solid. The theorbist kept glancing at her with an appreciative grin as if to say, “You go get’em, girl!”. And Ruiten did.
What is it about Handel writing arias that start with “Un pensiero…” that segue right into soprano stratosphere dazzle? Aided, in this case, by a large amount of dazzling solo violin (Steude)?
At times, I had the impression that the orchestra kept covering up the soprano in the upper middle range, but it also might have been my seats, where sound carried up at times a bit unevenly. But as much as the density in the orchestra sound may have annoyed me at some spots, it did make for a very three-dimensional dialog partner in the recitatives. And those were the moments I really listened up, also to Ruiten. Her virtuoso abilities are one thing, and they are public record. But – and especially after this summer’s Fiordiligi from Aix – I kept listening out for the parts of quieter emoting (and on that note: Hello, continuo cello – Péter Somodari, I believe?) and the way Ruiten showcased heartbreak in lines like “Ma che veggio? rimira il mio sembiante dispettosa…” carried the actual weight of the cantata (which, in short, is Crazy Ex Girlfriend: nymph follows shepherd who already didn’t want her while alive to the afterlife and is rejected again, finally settling for dreaming of him being more receptive forever) moved it beyond the realm of mere coloratura showpiece.
Ruiten anchored the vocal dazzle in seemingly plain recitative lines, such as the “o pur se vuoi fuggir, dimmi perché, perché!”, which she gave just enough breath to stand out, but not be overwrought. Overall, she does not hide behind a safety net of tonal beauty, she searches for dramatic expression. Over the course of the cantata, Ruiten’s tone became smoother, culminating in an enchanting “Lascia o mai le brune vele”, with flute solo and pizzicato in the strings.
And while Ruiten’s coloratura delivery was very good – clear, well-projected, with a breadth that kept it from ever going shrill or batty – my favorite moments were the long, held notes that allowed for showing dynamic control and color, such as the incredulous “tu vuoi partir da me?” in “Per te lascai la luce”. Ruiten took one of them as a messa di voce, the others as simple crescendi and decrescendi that were all the more effective for it (it’s the same pattern that reeled me in during the Aix Così in the second Fiordiligi aria).