Remembering Walter Weller

conductor Walter Weller (1939-2015)
conductor Walter Weller (1939-2015)

 

Austrian conductor and violinist Walter Weller passed away last Sunday at the age of 75. Weller was one of the last links to a Viennese musical tradition rooted in the nineteenth century.

Following in his father’s footsteps, Walter Weller joined the Vienna Philharmonic at the age of 17, eventually becoming one of its concertmasters. In addition, he performed as first violinist of the Weller Quartet. In 1966 he was asked to fill in on short notice for the conductor Karl Böhm. This launched a conducting career that included regular appearances at Vienna State Opera and Volksoper and principal conductor posts with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and the Scottish National Orchestra. In an article in Glasgow’s Herald Scotland, music critic Michael Tumelty said that Weller

had a seminal influence on the sound of [the RSNO] that extends to this day. He brought a depth and richness of sound that nobody else ever has.

Conductor Kenneth Woods offered this description in 2007.

Walter Weller leaves behind an extensive discography, ranging from music of Martinu and Suk to the complete symphonies of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Prokofiev. Here is his 2004 recording of Mendelssohn’s overture, The Hebrides, Op. 26, “Fingal’s Cave” with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Throughout the overture, we hear the windswept mystery of the remote Scottish islands Mendelssohn visited around 1829…the play of light and shadow on the water and the rugged cliffs surround Fingal’s Cave. This sense of mystery remains unresolved in the final chords. Weller’s performance comes to life with fiery excitement and also with incredibly soft moments of introspection:

Here is Walter Weller’s 2006 recording with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra of Beethoven’s overture, The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43. The overture opened Beethoven’s 1801 ballet score.

Here is the final movement from Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony No. 1 from a 1975 recording with the London Symphony Orchestra. It’s hard to imagine a more exciting performance. Listen carefully to the little interjections throughout this joyful whirlwind of a movement:

“Badly Written” Tchaikovsky: The First Piano Concerto

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Clumsy…badly written…vulgar…with only two or three pages worth preserving.

That was the harsh assessment of Tchaikovsky’s friend, the pianist Nikolai Rubinstein, following a private reading of the Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23 on Christmas Eve, 1874. Rubinstein went on to call the piece “worthless” and “impossible to play.” But Tchaikovsky refused to “alter a single note” (he later made a few revisions in 1879 and 1888) and the concerto now joins a long list of beloved war horses prematurely deemed “unplayable.” The violinist  Leopold Auer had a similar, if slightly less devastating reaction to the Violin Concerto.

Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto breaks the rules. It opens with an unabashedly expansive melody in the “wrong” key of D-flat major. Beyond the first movement’s introduction, this powerful theme isn’t heard again, but it opens the door for all that follows. As Kenneth Woods points out, the concerto develops from motivic cells present in this memorable opening “seed.”

In the second movement, a series of instrumental voices, each with its distinct persona, contributes to the musical conversation. First we hear the solitary flute against the backdrop of spare pizzicati. We step into a warm new world with the first statement of the piano. Listen to the velvety descending string line and the bassoon in the background. Before the movement is over, the oboe, horn, and cello have contributed to the conversation.

One of my favorite moments in this concerto comes at the end of the final movement (beginning around 38:20, below), as our sense of expectation is stretched almost to its breaking point. As the bass and tympani hold a dominant pedal, the violins search for the theme we know is coming (38:38). At 39:31 the final notes of the piano’s dramatic cadenza seem to be leading a clear tonic resolution. Another composer might have given us that clear downbeat resolution. But, because of the harmony of Tchaikovsky’s theme (beginning on the dominant), the triumphant orchestral tutti begins and for a split second we’re still hanging on the dominate.

Here is pianist Evgeny Kissin with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic on New Years Eve, 1988:

  1. Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso — Allegro con spirito 0:00
  2. Andantino semplice — Prestissimo 24:40
  3. Allegro con fuoco 33:18

Additional Listening

  • a younger Martha Argerich and then another performance from a few years later. At the end of the second performance the audience and conductor Charles Dutoit urge a clearly annoyed Argerich to play an encore and she gives in with a magical performance of Schumann.
  • Eugene Istomin with the Philadelphia Orchestra

Rattle Heads to London

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Recently, some the world’s top conductors have been playing a game of musical chairs. Early last month it was announced that Alan Gilbert will step down in 2017, following eight seasons as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic. Christoph Eschenbach will be leaving his post at the National Symphony. Yesterday, we learned that Sir Simon Rattle will take the helm at the London Symphony Orchestra in 2017. He talks about the appointment here. Kenneth Woods has some interesting thoughts about Simon Rattle and the culture of celebrity in classical music. In the 1980s and 90s, Rattle rose to international prominence as principal conductor of Britain’s City of Birmingham Symphony. He has been leading the Berlin Philharmonic since 2002.

The anticipation of a new Music Director is an exciting time for any orchestra. It’s a time when it’s easy to sense new possibilities, renewal and growth, and an infusion of fresh artistic energy. An incoming Music Director’s honeymoon usually follows a long period of “courtship” as a guest conductor. Both the conductor and the orchestra have to make sure the chemistry is right.

As Sir Simon Rattle prepares to return to his English roots, let’s listen to a recording from his days in Birmingham. Here is Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ethereal “pastoral romance for orchestra,” The Lark Ascending. Nigel Kennedy plays the violin solo: