Milestones: Since antiquity, they have indicated important landmarks, distances travelled, segments of journeys completed. Our awareness of them has remained in our consciousness - even if we no longer trust the grand narratives in which history has been depicted as a logical advance on the road of time, and we rather regard not only cultural history as an oscillating pendulum or continuous spiral.
Can we still appreciate today what the musical polarisation of the 19th Century must have meant?
At that time, composers were divided in two flocks. In one grazed the sheep, feeling a duty to tradition and cajoling Brahms to the forefront of their ranks. In the other, the goats, scrabbling with their hooves and lowering their heads to attack - these were the progressive 'neo-Germans' gathered around Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt...Musical milestones mark the concerts of the Wiener Symphoniker in 2019/20 - a season that itself sets a milestone and fork in the road of the history of the orchestra and its Chief Conductor Philippe Jordan. It is, after all, the last season in which Philippe Jordan will appear with the Symphoniker in this capacity. So the time is right for a retrospective - and for a metaphorical overview of the ground-breaking creations of musical history. Here the works of Johannes Brahms form a natural point of focus. The instrumental concertos are prominently featured at the Konzerthaus. In these technically challenging works, Brahms casts any outward brilliance to the side and gives a wide berth to a palette of soulful sound, whose tenderness is often threatened by bitter confict. At the keyboard for both piano concertos is none other than Yefim Bronfman, Artist-in-Residence this season. For the dramatically gripping First he is joined by Jordan at the podium, while the path through the lyrical, broad soundscape of the Second is led by Lahav Shani, whose tenure as First Guest Conductor also comes to an end.
The Violin Concerto, swathed in melancholy, is interpreted by Gil Shaham and Kent Nagano, while Sebastian Weigle leads the struggle against the Sting of Death in the German Requiem.
And if Max Bruch's First Violin Concerto, performed by the British violinist Nicola Benedetti, sits squarely in the Brahms camp, the 'neo-Germans' are likewise represented with important works: Wagner with the Tannhäuser Overture under Shani and a concertante performance of Act I from 'Die Walküre': Jennifer Holloway and Stephen Gould are the forest lovers, joined on the podium by the celebrated young conductor Joana Mallwitz, General Music Director of the Staatstheater Nürnberg. And deployed for the sparkling First Piano Concerto by Wagner's daddy-in-law Franz Liszt is Denis Kozhukhin, who just like conductor Robert Trevino is no longer only an insider's secret.
But where on the road lay the fork that divided the path of sheep and goats? With Ludwig van Beethoven, both flocks would have bleated unanimously and emphatically appealed to him. Beethoven, this monument sui generis of music history, represents a milestone in the collaboration between the Wiener Symphoniker and Philippe Jordan. In 2020, the composer's 250th anniversary will be celebrated with a monument in sound: the repeat performance of an infamous programme. 'There we sat, in the most bitter cold, from half past six until half past ten, finding the experience confirmed that one may easily have too much of a good thing - even more of a powerful one.' So wrote a contemporary about this evening of 22nd December 1808 in the unheated Theater an der Wien, where Beethoven presented his newest works to the public ('shivering and wrapped in furs'): the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, two movements from the Mass in C Major, the aria 'Ah! perfido', the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Choral Fantasy! Too much of a good thing?
Today's audiences can't get enough of Beethoven - provided he is presented with the technical quality and interpretive powers of persuasion demonstrated on the CD recordings of the symphonies, which Jordan and the Symphoniker are currently recording following performance, to international acclaim. And the indisputably well-tempered Great Hall will contribute as much to the concert's success as will the Wiener Singakademie, indispensable all year round, rehearsed by Heinz Ferlesch.
Notable milestones continue along the onward paths from Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner.
With the emergence of national musical cultures, be they Bohemian and Moravian (under Jakub Hrůša), Hungarian (Kent Nagano), Finnish (Santtu-Matias Rouvali) or American (Ludovic Morlot), the concert hall has benefited from the richness of their respective folk music: in Mahler's Fifth, the first in which the composer no longer drew upon the 'Wunderhorn' songs (Robert Trevino); in the drunken melancholy of Alban Berg's Violin Concerto (with Frank Peter Zimmermann) and in 'Pelleas und Melisande' by Arnold Schönberg, who once hailed Brahms as 'the Progressive' (under François-Xavier Roth); in the lament over the greatest crimes of the 20th Century as intoned in Richard Strauss's 'Metamorphosen' and Dmitri Shostakovich's Thirteenth Symphony (with Matthias Goerne and Dima Slobodeniouk); in perhaps the most brilliant scandal of classical modernism, Igor Stravinsky's 'The Rite of Spring' (under Philippe Jordan) and right up to the present day, to Wolfgang Rihm and, under Leo Hussain as part of Wien Modern, to music by Peter Ablinger, Mark Andre and Peter Eötvös. 'Multiversum', the title of Eötvös's work, seems to evoke the diversity and simultaneity of past and present styles, as the programmes in the Symphoniker's entire 2019/20 season express it: everything seems at an equal distance from us and within reach, and wants to be felt and heard.
The one, single-minded path has disappeared, or at least must be continually redefined, segment by segment. The fascination with its milestones, however, remains..