Does abhorring someone’s personal qualities mean you have to abhor his art? The question comes up reliably in classical music around two subjects: Richard Wagner, an avowed anti-Semite, and the Vienna Philharmonic, long the last bastion of all-male orchestras, now creakily opening its gates to allow women in, one at a time.
Those who have come to an accommodation with the orchestra’s chauvinistic ways were able to hear it in Washington on Wednesday night, courtesy of the Kennedy Center and the Washington Performing Arts Society, for its approximately once-in-a-decade visit. This time, the orchestra was one of the anchors of the Kennedy Center’s “The Music of Budapest, Prague, and Vienna” festival. This title signals, basically, the status quo, because this music is heavily represented even in non-festival orchestral seasons.
And the Vienna Philharmonic signaled a kind of status quo as well. The performers played, of course, with beauty and richness. There were all of five or six women onstage (I saw five). And they were led by Lorin Maazel, who has led most of the world’s major orchestras in his high-flying career and who is a familiar face in Washington thanks in part to his Castleton Festival on his estate in nearby Virginia. He stood at their head like a symbol of what they represent: an aging patriarchy, supposedly the very best in classical music, but faltering, ever so slightly.
It was the faltering that was unexpected. Maazel’s reputation as a brilliant technician is usually borne out in performance by crisp tempi, razor-sharp precision and absolutely perfect ensemble playing from whoever happens to be playing along with him. Maazel, however, is about to turn 82 and seems to be entering an odd late period in which the brilliance is giving way to something else.
To my ear, he appears to be reaching for more than mere perfection, but it’s a hard exchange to make when your stock in trade is technical excellence. The heart that he found in the Mozart pieces on the first half of the program — the “Nozze di Figaro” overture and the G Minor symphony — often beat sluggishly, particularly in the overture and the symphony’s second movement. There was a poignant ache to the strings, sighing at the end of the first movement’s first theme, but the second movement paled because, although the music was sharply illuminated, it was deprived of an animating spark.
The orchestra departed from the festival’s theme by moving up to Scandinavia with the Sibelius Seventh, which was, again, oddly disjunct in places, although when it was powerful, it was very powerful indeed.
At the conclusion, the music crackled with a lowering threat of atonality that was only partly papered over by the tonic resolution. This was followed by a lusty, even earthy reading of Strauss’s “Rosenkavalier” suite, an odd ending to a program that seemed to lack cohesion. Particularly striking here was that Maazel, flinging himself lustily into rubatos or extending pauses, sometimes took the players by surprise, leading to some startlingly sloppy playing — “startling,” at least, from this ensemble, under this conductor.
Also startling was that Maazel looked as though he were having fun. He bantered with the audience before the encore, pretending he’d forgotten the work’s name (it was the “Blue Danube Waltz”) and, at one point, practically danced himself off the podium. For a conductor known for a kind of chilly disdain, it was a nice sign of warmth — even if it led to an ultimately disappointing concert.