The Philharmonics ‒ Oblivion
Pearls of musical nostalgia

The Philharmonics, the newest and successful ensemble featuring members of the Vienna & Berlin Philharmonic Orchestras as well as two extraordinary jazz musicians lends musical treasures and especially those from imperial times a new life.

You’ll always have success with Fritz Kreisler. He was not only one of the most prominent violinists in his time but also an original composer. For a long while he fooled the public and critics alike by naming others as composers of his works, until his trick was discovered and he had to admit that he had written them himself. Those pieces were never really forgotten but until recently were never heard in such a formation, namely string quartet, double-bass, clarinet and piano. Which is not a surprise since The Philharmonics has existed for just a few years. 2007 to be exact. 

It all started on a Vienna Philharmonic tour of Japan. While having a shabu-shabu meal in Fukuoka, violinist Tibor Kováč and his double-bass colleague Ödön Rácz questioned why one only hears classical-romantic chamber music or waltzes from Vienna Philharmonic ensembles and never Klezmer, gypsy music, tangos or jazz although many Philharmonic members love these genres and have a good understanding of them. So they decided to take the initiative.  The question remained: in which formation should they carry out their plan? With violin and double-bass they couldn’t realize their demands on raising this repertoire to a philharmonic niveau, meaning the phrasing and tone-culture typical for the Vienna Philharmonic.

The ideal formation soon crystallized: string quartet, double-bass, clarinet and piano. The first concerts took the ensemble, calling itself The Philharmonics since most of its members came from the Vienna Philharmonic, to the Kittsee palace in Burgenland, to ORF and to the large hall of the Mozarteum in Salzburg, during the summer festival 2008. It was there that prominence like the conductor Riccardo Muti or mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča sat in the audience. Not only were they enthusiastic, they also recommended them further. In the meantime The Philharmonics has its own series in Vienna’s Konzerthaus, plays concerts in leading festivals from Paris, Ravenna and Dresden to Izmir or St. Petersburg. They have enthusiastic fans, sold-out concerts and standing ovations not only in Europe but also in Japan, Singapore or Brazil. In just a short time, they received a “golden disc” for their first Universal/DG CD Fascination.

The ensemble’s latest CD is “The Best of” its wide reaching repertoire, so to speak, with the title Oblivion, borrowed from an Astor Piazzolla tango. This because one of the thematic starting points is the period of the dissolution of the Danube monarchy. Arranger František Jánoška gives the lyrical, slow tango a frantic-impulsive facet. Ultimately, it’s exciting to remember what diversity in musical style and forms of expression there was in this multi-peopled empire. Tibor Kováč and František Jánoška capture this in the K&K Rhapsody, and when they draw their arch from the sounds of Richard Strauss’ Rosenkavalier to Verdi’s La forza del destino, from the popular song of a beloved Russian children’s film, a Polish polka, a dance from Janáček’s opera Jenufa and echoes of Fledermaus to a Hungarian csárdas. The Hungarian accent is evident as well in one of the lively Hungarian dances by Johannes Brahms and in the well-known electrifying csárdas from Ritter Pasman, the comic opera by waltz-king Johann Strauß (son), added as a bonus track.

Musical pearls are also found in neighboring Romania. The Philharmonics show it with George Enescu’s popular Rumanian Rhapsody in the chamber music setting by Jacques Enoch, for which in addition the musicians came up with a virtuosic “bird-twittering” cadenza. There is also the bravura piece Hora di Mars by Grigorias Dinicu, like Enescu and Kreisler one of the most celebrated violin virtuosos of his time. Apropos Kreisler: the ensemble doesn’t just play his music quasi in classical arrangements but rather in more daring adaptations. In his arrangement of Schön Rosmarin for example, Tibor Kováč shares the solo violin part with the double-bass, masterfully played by Ödön Rácz. Philharmonics pianist František Jánoška – for Bobby McFerrin the leading contemporary jazz pianist – rewrites Kreisler’s Prelude and Allegro in the style of Django Reinhardt with the title Presto Fight, turning it into a brilliant jazz number, and then composes a piece called Musette pour Fritz, as a jazzy homage to Fritz Kreisler. An amusing and not at all macabre interpretation. But there’s also a piece on this theme adorning the CD program: Camille Saint-Saen’s mysterious Danse macabre, originally conceived for voice and piano, later reworked for violin and orchestra, and here heard in an equally effective version for strings, clarinet and piano. These like all of the other classical numbers on the program were arranged by Tibor Kováč. Second-violinist Roman Jánoška plays the jazz violin improvisations.

You also meet singing prominence on this recording: global star Patricia Petibon presents herself as musical star with the nostalgic “Somewhere” from Bernstein’s most successful stage work West Side Story and with “Just the Two of Us,” she is just as convincing as interpreter of what is probably Bill Withers’ most popular hit, that which brought him his second Grammy. And Piotr Beczala, one of today’s leading tenors, is resplendent with his glowing highs in the Berceuse from what, in the meantime, is only known anymore by its name, the opera Jocelyn from Benjamin Godard.