Vienna at the turn of the 20th century was a bee's nest of contradictions. A city with a strong liberal Jewish merchant class, it was also an ultra-conservative breeding ground for anti-Semitism.
Through its architecture and museums Vienna was home to the old masters and eclecticism, but it also spawned the cutting edge of new art, such as the Secession and Expressionism.
And while Vienna was maniacally ushering in the new millennium to the polished and beautiful, if superficial, waltzes of Johann Strauss, it was also the host body to a radically “ugly” new music festering in its concert halls.
It was precisely these musical contradictions that maestro Zoltán Kocsis and the Hungarian National Philharmonic presented the audience in its concert on January 12.
The very hard music for the brain by the so-called Second Viennese School gang of Schönberg and his disciples Berg and Webern contrasted very sharply – perhaps too sharply – with the very light dance music for the body by “the king of the waltz”.
In Strauss's waltzes Southern Roses, Wine, Women and Song, Treasure,and the Emperor, you could practically hear the rustling of huge white crinoline skirts, only to be slashed to shreds by the razor-edged, mercilessly acute atonalism of Schönberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra, Webern's Cantata No 1, and Berg's concert aria Wine, which were interspersed with the dances.
The National Philharmonic was very polished in its rendition of the waltzes, and I expect Strauss-lovers could not have asked for more.
But what really grabbed my attention was the justice Kocsis and the philharmonic did to the all-too-rarely performed masterworks of Expressionism.
Personally, I've been waiting most of my life to hear the Five Pieces performed live, and I was not disappointed.
The level of togetherness in such extremely difficult music was exemplary. The languid second movement was only bettered by the cryptic Colors movement, in which the musicians found that perfect balancing axis on which the ever-so-slightly shifting musical colors could see-saw.
A fascinating point in the program was Kocsis's own orchestration of Schönberg's Six Little Piano Pieces, op 19.
His scorings demonstrated insights into Schönberg's textures and linear thinking, plucking these obtuse miniatures out of their non-pianistic medium and repainting them in the orchestral realm of pure line.
Soprano Tünde Szabóki gave a powerful, persuasive reading in Webern's Cantata.
The National Chorus, too, was in top form. If only these three short poems had been encored to give a second chance to savor their mysteries.
Of the Second Viennese School works, Berg's Der Weinwas the most accessible and the most luscious.
True inheritor of that great fin-de-siecle Viennese tradition of Mahler, Berg uses the over-ripe late-Romantic orchestra to saturate the air with wine's intoxicating fumes.
The vocal soloist was Yvonn Füssl-Harris, whose voice was strong and dramatic.
In dark, hushed colors dominated by saxophone and bass clarinet, the ensemble and singer wove a music that smelled of death and glowed golden.
Füssl-Harris's was a voice shrieking doom and sensuality simultaneously.
It was an excellent concert, indeed, but Strauss and the others made for pretty strange bedfellows.
(The Budapest Sun)