Franz Welser-Möst conducts the Vienna State Opera and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s rendition of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. Performance view, Carnegie Hall, New York, February 28, 2014. Photo: Steve J. Sherman.

THE VIENNA TOURIST BOARD—whose principal slogan is the rather menacing “Vienna: Now or Never”—also advertises the city as “the world’s music capital,” a place where “music is literally in the air.” Not everyone’s lungs take to it so well. Vienna is the city of cherubic boys’ choirs and inoffensive waltzes, but it is also the home of Erika Kohut, the neurotic, gruesomely perverse music professor in Elfriede Jelinek’s novel Die Klavierspielerin (The Piano Teacher, 1983). Erika—frigidly portrayed by Isabelle Huppert in Michael Haneke’s 2001 French-language film adaptation—has devoted her life to Schubert and Schumann, has made her way into the upper echelons of Austrian musical society. And the effect has been to turn her into an incestuous and self-mutilating masochist of the first order. That’s just how things go in the Imperial City, Jelinek writes: “Vienna, the city of music! Only the things that have proven their worth will continue to do so in this city. Its buttons are bursting from the fat white paunch of culture, which, like any drowned corpse that is not fished from the water, bloats up more and more.”

Here in New York, this month’s massive festival of Viennese music at Carnegie Hall and many other venues citywide (among them MoMA and the Jewish Museum) did not exactly equate Austria to a gaseous cadaver. Yet there was a darkness and incisiveness to “Vienna: City of Dreams”—Freud’s town rather than Mozart’s, a place of both fantasies and nightmares—if you knew where to look. The festival certainly had a lot of strudel and schlag if that’s your thing, but the Wiener Philharmoniker, in town for three weeks, also offered music of Jelinekian shock and difficulty. Accompanied by an important symposium in which the usually unforthcoming orchestra reckoned with its hideous Nazi past, the festival had at its heart two concert performances of major works of modernism: a poignant, coal-black performance of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck (1922) on February 28, and a blaring, rock-‘em-sock-‘em outing of Richard Strauss’s Salome (1905) on March 1. Both were extraordinary, their intensity amplified rather than undercut by the lack of theatrical staging, and I couldn’t get them out of my head during the overstuffed contemporary art week that followed, as I exhaustedly hustled from biennial to Brucennial and from one fair to the next to the third to the first again.

Wozzeck, just ninety minutes, is frequently called the best opera of the twentieth century, and I’m not going to disagree. (The only competitor for the honor is Berg’s other opera, the incomplete, much longer Lulu [1937], whose heroine seduces a man with the line, “Isn’t this the sofa on which your father bled to death?”) It is the story of a man ground down by society, abused by the rich and powerful, misled by love: in other words, the story of our time. It’s so dark and splintered that it barely merits comparison to other operas, not even those of Berg’s Second Vienna School colleague Arnold Schoenberg. Really, you’d do better to look for parallels in painting, specifically the bracingly ugly Expressionist portraits now on view at the Neue Galerie’s “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937.” Like those paintings, Wozzeck too was suppressed by the Nazis; the Third Reich had no place for what Goebbels called “the moral decay of the atonal composers,” whose music offered “dramatic proof of how strongly the Jewish intellectual infection had taken hold of the national body.”

In fact, though, the opera isn’t wholly atonal; Berg mixes moments of stunning beauty into his spiky score, seducing you before landing the deathblow. Under the baton of Franz Welser-Möst, the Wiener Philharmoniker played the most intense passages with unstinting ferocity (the rape scene at the end of Act I was performed not just loud but very fast), and little moments of mercy, a celesta line for example, were interrupted by angry, trembling brass. As the grunt soldier Wozzeck, the baritone Matthias Goerne kept leaning forward on the scaffold where he and the other singers had been positioned, infusing his lines with a curious poignancy that belied the darkness of the libretto. The music has Wozzeck as something out of a tortured portrait by Dix or Kokoschka—much of the vocal line is a difficult, spooky Sprechgesang—but Goerne, bravely yet with total ease, played him with such naturalism that it was hard to take at times.

An excerpt from Act 3 - Scene 2 of Alban Berg's Wozzeck, performed by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Vienna State Opera.

Wir arme Leut,’ ” Wozzeck intones again and again: we poor folks. Unlike the Romantic heroes of nineteenth-century opera, whose glorious deaths could spiral for twenty minutes or more, Berg’s hero succumbs to poverty, despair, and eventually insanity, first killing his common-law wife and then drowning himself—to the indifference of his abusive captain and doctor, who walk on unperturbed, like in the painting of Icarus that W. H. Auden describes in “Musée des Beaux-Arts.” In Wozzeck, no amount of intelligence, cunning, or honor will save you; if you’re born into the wrong class in the wrong society, then you’re going down and your kids are too. History is fate, but in compensation, perhaps one day the great and good of New York will pay upwards of $550 a ticket to see an opera about your suffering, before adjourning to dinner.

Salome, unlike Wozzeck, is about people at the top of the pile: namely the incestuous tetrarch of Judea and his reckless stepdaughter/niece, borrowed from the play by Oscar Wilde and transformed into one of the most scandalous and impious figures of modern art. Even by the rather extreme standards of opera, the story is shocking: a teenager falls in love, the guy spurns her, and so she does a seven-minute striptease for her stepdad to convince him to behead the man who rejected her. Then she grabs the bloody head, sings and dances with it for another twenty minutes, kisses the thing, and in the last few seconds is murdered. By the way, the severed head just happens to belong to John the Baptist. (Thanks for playing, Lars von Trier.)

Fun all around, then, and this night the Wiener Philharmoniker, in giant numbers and led by the young Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons, played the score with the velocity and intensity it merited. From the prologue on the orchestra went at Strauss’s score with more anger and intensity than in Wozzeck, reaching deafening heights at the entrance of John the Baptist. By the end, when Salome gets her man’s head on a silver platter, Nelsons brought the players to such a shattering crescendo I gripped my seat, like in a horror film. Yet while some of the singers couldn’t handle the blare (Tomasz Konieczny, as the unlucky martyr, was a superb exception), the orchestra itself never let the details get lost in the clamor. The final few bars, with its sickeningly dissonant chord after the big kiss, were revelatory despite the noise.

Andris Nelsons conducts the Vienna State Opera and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s rendition of Richard Strauss’s Salome. Performance view, Carnegie Hall, New York, March 1, 2014. Photo: Chris Lee.

Such grim and decadent music played by such a conservative orchestra—white tie and tails everywhere, even more than usual given its long exclusion of women—kept me thinking long after I left Carnegie Hall. It wasn’t just that Wozzeck seemed more politically incisive and Salome more shocking than anything I saw at the fairs or the Whitney. Even at the biennial, whose (relative) distance from the market might have allowed greater experimentation or savagery, boundary-pushing works by artists such as Bjarne Melgaard felt safer and more controlled than Salome, whose blasphemy still shocks. And it wasn’t just that the performances reaffirmed for me the disavowed hunger for modernism one sees everywhere in today’s art world: Most of the digital mashups passed off as contemporary are ultimately modernist collage a hundred years out of date, while on a tour of the galleries of the Lower East Side any given weekend you will see more small-scale abstraction than at a Klee retrospective.

It was more than that. Modernism so often seems to do a better job describing our present social and economic conditions that it can drive a student of contemporary art to fury. (To say nothing of contemporary music: the most anticipated event of the Metropolitan’s season, Nico Muhly’s “Internet opera” Two Boys, was so safe and retrogressive it could serve as hold music.) Modernism is our antiquity, argued T. J. Clark in Farewell to an Idea—but that was in 1999, before the start of this very unpromising century of war and austerity that, in too many ways, looks rather a lot like the start of the last one. The postmodern abdications of the past few decades, the small-scale gestures and individual stories and surgical interventions and little acts of détournement, look rather less impressive in the cold light of the 2010s, when allegedly deceased history has come roaring back to life. Wozzeck and Salome worked through history; they still do, dismayingly. It would be wonderful to see more contemporary artists do the same—and draw from modernism not formal gestures to be applied arbitrarily, but the scale and ambition that their world and ours both require.

Jason Farago is a writer based in New York.