The Truth About Being Modern

Pianist Lifschitz with the Radio Symphony Orchestra: Viennese “charm of the new”

On The Town | Cynthia Peck | December 2010 / January 2011

The Radio Symphony Orchestra Vienna (RSO) was nearly sacked last year. Now they are securely and legally part of the ORF, with the express purpose, among other things, to play and record contemporary Austrian composers. But they are not leaning back, with a sigh of relief – pressure off, business as usual – as others might. No, the orchestra is shimmering, as is its new chief conductor Cornelius Meister.

What was the drawing card of their latest concert in the Musikverein? Shostakovich’s last symphony… A piano concerto by Gottfried von Einem… A world premiere by… Rainer Bischof? In Vienna, such programming can be seen as daring.

"Berlin is obsessed with being modern. Vienna is the opposite. The truth must lie somewhere in between," says Konstantin Lifschitz, the brilliant yet soft-spoken pianist who performed the von Einem.

The Piano Concerto was composed in 1956. Dedicated to Alma Mahler-Werfel, it is an immensely listenable piece. With a wonderful transparency in the orchestral accompaniment and melodious lyricism in the piano, it seems directly linked to the piano concertos of Mozart. But the charm of Mozart mixed with some tango, a little Gershwin jazz, and both Johann and Richard Strauss: the nuance and rubato of Johann, the lushness of Richard. It has a classic freshness, a dance-like sprightliness combined with gorgeous tonality, and here and there, micro-cadenzas of flying scales – don’t blink or you won’t hear them.

When in Tokyo for Schubert recitals and recordings, Lifschitz was approached by the CEO of Bösendorfer Japan (the company is now owned by Yamaha), who asked if he would like to use one of their pianos: "since you are playing our Schubert." Indeed, Vienna seems to own its composers. When I asked Lifschitz if the music of von Einem also sounds Viennese, he answered with a smile, "yes, definitely. He is very much your Einem."

In 2008, with nearly no warning, Lifschitz was hired through his agent to record the von Einem Concerto. He had to fly to Vienna in the middle of teaching at a festival in New Hampshire. They didn’t even give him a seat in business. The piece was recorded in two days of intensive studio sessions, the orchestra working overtime. "The recording came out nicely, but I don’t remember it very well," says Lifschitz, "I flew back to New Hampshire the next day."

Lifschitz was glad to now have the chance to play the piece in one piece, instead of the chunks played in the recording studio. Although Lifschitz has already performed in the Musikverein with Gidon Kremer and Mischa Maisky as a spring-in for Martha Argerich, he was surprised to be playing von Einem as his Musikverein solo debut.

Lifschitz had a lovely, loving touch. He and the RSO played as if it were chamber music, with the most careful listening and responding, a dialogue of the best sort. And it was memorable to hear a pianist who can play pianissimo, with an orchestra who can play even more quietly.

Unsuspectingly, during the recording Cornelius Meister was being watched: he was in the running to become the RSO’s next chief conductor. He passed the test with his brilliant technique and clear musicality, and has now happily moved in and is part of the family.

The Vienna audience perhaps didn’t stream to the concert for the opening piece of the evening, the world premiere of the newest (2010) orchestral piece by Austrian composer Rainer Bischof: Wozu? Deshalb! 

Unfortunately – like a bad "knock-knock, who’s there?" joke – it was a latter-day 12-tone beast, with a single memorable moment, a fortissimo trumpet tone that suddenly dissolved into a pianissimo violin harmonic: Firecracker red becoming crystal blue.

It would have been an effective way to end the piece. Instead it continued on with great verbosity, with at least seven timpani glissandi (I do admit they are effective in Bartok) and (is it only me who needs something more than tone rows?) a palpable lack of structure.  "But why?" We didn’t find out. Perhaps "Es muss sein."

Dimitri Shostakovich, perhaps the greatest symphonist of the 20th century, wrote his 15th and last symphony in 1971. Despite the vast ideological controls over any sort of creative work in the Soviet Union throughout his life, he managed to maintain his artistic integrity.

In 1948 an official decree declared his work (and that of others, including Prokofiev) part of a "cult of atonality, dissonance and discord". It had an "infatuation with confused, neurotic combinations which transform music into cacophony".

It was a stunning blow that Shostakovich nevertheless managed to digest. He did not modify his compositional style much, but responded by stating that he had recognized his moral duty to be a composer for his fellow citizens. When artistic controls gradually liberalized after the death of Stalin in 1953, Shostakovich did not move into a "modernist" style, nor did he ever embrace 12-tone serialism.

The 15th symphony, with its Rossini Wilhelm Tell and Wagner quotes, is a curious mixture of seriousness and apparent spoof. A spry and brightly colored first movement moves to the second movement’s long lament in the solo cello (the RSO’s Michael Hammermayer), with its impressive tessitura, floating over a brass chorale.  The third movement showcases the wind section, the fourth ends with a remarkable coda – an intricate percussion ensemble over an immobile string chord. The precision and intensity coming from all corners of the orchestra was riveting.

Meister is a master. His technique is not an end in itself; he uses it to draw immense musical flexibility out of his orchestra. With his youthful grin and obvious love of what he is doing, maybe he will guide the traditional Viennese to find some truth in "new" music.


CD: ORFEO International: Gottfried von Einem Klavier Konzert; RSO Wien, Cornelius Meister, Konstantin Lifschitz

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