Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Kodály, Liszt, Bartók

Tonight was Hungarian music night at the Musikverein, with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Christian Arming.  Two suites bookended two works for piano and orchestra.

Arming and the Symphoniker performed the Háry János Suite by Zoltán Kodály as a comic-mystery thriller.  The reading did not come directly, but instead incapsulated a mood.  Within that telling, each of the odd instruments in the score provided delightful nuances.  This storytelling was made fun.

Likewise, at the back end of the concert, they provided a similar amount of delight in telling the story, again in suite form, of the Miraculous Mandarin by Béla Bartók.  Where Kodály’s suite had delightful melodies, Bartók’s had delightful rhythms.  A master orchestrator, Bartók wrote some brilliantly imaginative music.  And this orchestra, sounding great, could rise to the challenge.  Each instrument had its lines, and the musicians made the most of the opportunities to showcase their talents.  Arming kept everything together (not easy for this work), well-proportioned, and – importantly – dancing.  Bartók drew great inspiration from Hungarian folk dances, but did not set any of them in this story.  Instead, he incorporated their essence, while producing an original work that has lost none of its sparkle after a century, at least not as performed tonight.

Unfortunately, the middle works in the concert did not come across as well.  Here, Gerhard Oppitz joined the orchestra on the piano for Ferenc Liszt’s First Piano Concerto after the Kodály before the intermission, and Liszt’s Totentanz after the intermission before the Bartók.  He utilized the intimate acoustics of the Golden Hall to make the Piano Concerto more resemble a piano recital, and Arming and the Symphoniker contributed softly in kind.  However, I do not attend piano recitals for a reason.  Even when played well (as tonight), the piano is a fundamentally dull instrument, a tool for a composer to construct more elaborate works, but generally not worthy to stand alone.  Liszt is one piano composer for whom I sometimes make an exception, but this was not idiomatic Liszt.  The Totentanz, though a more rugged work (and indeed very substantial if performed correctly) proved somewhat better, but Oppitz still lacked the necessary oompf.  Beautifully played, but just lacking the drama and intrigue of the 20th-Century works on either side of the program.

Concertgebouworkest, Musikverein (Vienna)

R. Strauss, Bruckner

The second of two nights in a row with Mariss Jansons and the Concertgebouw Orchestra in the Musikverein.  Tonight’s offering by these forces: Tod und Verklärung by Richard Strauss and the Seventh Symphony by Anton Bruckner.  More heavy music, today less up-beat.

Tod und Verklärung got off to an icy start, death sending chills through the hall on an already cold and wet evening.  But the orchestra swelled, the music warmed, and we were all transfixed, transformed, and transfigured.  As the last notes soared into the night, the Golden Hall sat in absolute extended silence, contemplating what we had just experienced.  And then, after a long thought, we could breathe again.  And applaud.  And reluctantly descend into intermission.

I suppose after hearing the Bartók, Mahler, and Strauss during the last three concert segments, we came to expect a transformative Bruckner 7th as well.  The Concertgebouw and Jansons had legitimately raised our expectations.  We got a very good one, but it did not quite transform nor necessarily say anything new.

This was actually the second time I have heard this symphony live this month – last with Fabio Luisi and the Symphoniker – and the interpretations came across quite distinct, but complementary.  Whereas Luisi did not take a robust approach, emphasizing other aspects of the symphony’s inner structure, Jansons certainly did shake the rafters.  This was in no way a delicate performance, yet still a fully idiomatic and non-bombastic reading of Bruckner’s symphony, with its funereal overtones (Wagner lay dying when Bruckner began the work, and died while Bruckner was composing it, and Bruckner added an entire section of Wagner Tubas to the orchestration, notably for a broad funeral chorale in the slow movement).  Jansons allowed the brass to shine, but without forgetting the full sounds elsewhere – the chorale at the opening of the first movement, scored for the cello section, proved other-worldly.  I’ve heard celli sing before, but never quite like that.

Concertgebouworkest, Musikverein (Vienna)

Bartók, Tarrega, Mahler


The Concertgebouworkest of Amsterdam and Mariss Jansons came to Vienna for two nights at the Musikverein.  Tonight: Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto and Mahler’s First Symphony.

I did not know the Bartók piece before, but very much enjoyed it.  The concerto had a split personality, with phrases alternating between lively and depressed and never quite settling into one or the other, creating an original sound rooted in 1930 rhythms and advanced tonalities.  The soloist, Leonidas Kavakos, handled these mood swings with great ease, with his phrasing coming across lush or light as necessary, and even turning his Stradivarius at times into a gypsy fiddle in a stroke.  The orchestra always provided the appropriate level and mood of support.  In the end, the piece came across as overall positive… but with an edge.  Kavakos followed up with an encore, Tarrega‘s Recuerdos del Alhambra, which clearly sounded like it had been composed for guitar (as it indeed was), allowing Kavakos to demonstrate versatility jumping around to create a full tone.

Mahler can also be schizophrenic, but rather than alternating from phrase to phrase, he tended to demonstrate two sides to every note.  Jansons’ clear and commanding conducting had no gimmicks, and presented this Mahler in a straightforward manner.

In the First Symphony, Mahler presented himself in his most joyful mood, and there was no need to give it too much angst, so Jansons did not.  The Concertgebouw, one of the world’s greatest Mahler orchestras, filled the hall with just enough sound without blowing the roof off.  The first movement began as it should: hushed but firm.  The dance movement sounded as light as a waltz with a sense of foreboding.  The funeral march celebrated the deceased with a wry smile.  And the finale built up a mighty and delicate wall of sound.  Every note contradicted itself while making perfect sense.

The weather in Vienna has given most people the sniffles, but although people hacked away in the lobby, no one dared cough once during this performance.  If the Concertgebouw orchestra’s contained exuberance did not blow the roof off the Musikverein, then at least the applause at the end nearly did.

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Konzerthaus

Mahler, R. Strauss

Vienna’s second major concert hall, the Konzerthaus, has booked surprisingly little of interest recently. I do not even remember when I last attended a concert there. Considering that it celebrates the 100th year of its construction this season, I would expect more, but the 200th anniversary of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, based over in the Musikverein, has overshadowed this one.

Still, I did get there for a concert tonight, with the Symphoniker in its usual form, joined by baritone Christopher Maltman and conductor Marc Albrecht, for a surprisingly short program. Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder opened before an intermission, and StraussAlpensymphonie came after the intermission.

For the Mahler cycle, Maltman (a British biochemist) performed in a dark, clean, but unexpressive baritone, allowing the emotion to come not from his interpretation but rather from the orchestra. Though proper, it did not produce sufficient psychological torment.

The Alpensymphonie allowed this orchestra to shine. Despite the enormous orchestra required for the work, Albrecht still knew how to accentuate individual lines. Though not the thrilling climb through the Alps that this work can orchestrate, this performance nevertheless demonstrated a good fulfilling stroll. Given the weather outside, I kept my hiking boots on.


Joh. Strauß II, Wiener Blut

Disappointing performance of Wiener Blut, the posthumous work of Johann Strauß II, at the Volksoper.

The director chose to update the plot from its original 1815 setting, moving it to an unclear time period somewhere possibly in the mid-20th century.  To make this work required equivalent changes to the dialogue, although this proved to be equally confused in terms of time, including references to Obama and current events.  The staging was neither offensive nor modern, just non-descript.  In total, the entire production lacked any sort of charm whatsoever.  Although this particular work, put together by others after the composer’s death (Strauß had long before signed a contract to provide his next operetta for a theater, but since he never wrote another one, the theater had the right to complete one itself), could lend itself to anachronism, it cannot work without charm, and Viennese charm in particular.  The director, Thomas Enzinger, is Viennese by birth, but seems not to have received any Viennese charm in his blood.

Perhaps the only truly Viennese interludes came in the required monologues and dialogues in Viennese dialect of Kagler, and the resulting confusion from the Germans who can only speak in formal written German.  These got the audience rolling in laughter.  However, the dialect was mostly wrong.  The correct dialect would be the 19th-century Viennese dialect, which remained as the primary dialect until 1938.  Then again, we should probably not forget what sequence of events caused the old Viennese dialect to disappear.  In this case, the peculiar director injected a Hebrew word (carried into old Viennese German, but certainly not into Schriftdeutsch) into the dialogue spoken by Prince Ypsheim-Gindelbach (since when do German princes call people “meschugge?”).

Possibly because of the dull staging, the cast never got into the performance.  All of them sung their roles perfectly adequately, but without any special lilt.  They went through the motions on the stage, hit all the notes, and moved along presumably to their dinners and subsequent engagements.  The orchestra started the evening poorly and off-pitch.  Although it fixed itself, this music more than any should flow through the Volksoper orchestra’s veins.  It did not.  Conductor Michael Tomaschek also provided no particular inspiration.

Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Musikverein

Beethoven, J. Haydn, Gruber

Latvian Conductor Andrís Nelsons was the main attraction of tonight’s concert at the Musikverein.  A protege of Mariss Jansons, Nelsons has burst onto the Vienna music scene recently and received glowing reviews here, but always when I have been out of town.  So now I had to see for myself.  He used to play first trumpet in the Latvian National Opera orchestra until he ended up taking the baton as an emergency fill-in about ten years ago, which launched his career, first as chief conductor of that orchestra, and now in Birmingham.

Nelsons has an unusual conducting style.  He provides a few measures of beat with his baton to get everyone started together.  But mostly he paints with the baton instead of beating with it.  His movements on the podium are athletic and sometimes acrobatic, but nevertheless restrained.  He generally holds still in some contorted position which expresses the mood of the music, and makes demonstrative cues and modifications with his hands, before jumping up and down a few times and landing in a new body position.  Every now and then he keeps beat for a few more measures to ensure the orchestra remains together.  The technique produces expressive results.

Tonight he led the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, which also requires some introduction.  A bunch of members of Claudio Abbado’s Mahler Youth Orchestra, perhaps the leading youth orchestra in Europe, wanted to continue to play together after they passed the orchestra’s age limit, so Abbado created the new orchestra for them.  They are “resident” in several European cities, which also means in none.  Tonight, they too performed athletically, their bodies swaying in broad circles along with the music as they played – whether they do this normally or only as a result of Nelsons, I do not know since I have not seen them play before.

Works by Beethoven book-ended the program, surrounding two trumpet concerti with Håkan Hardenberger, frequent guest in Vienna, as soloist.

The Beethoven works shone, particularly the Egmont Overture at the start of the concert.  The Seventh Symphony at the end of the program may have been less precise.  This chamber orchestra was actually larger than the reduced-size Tonkünstler I saw yesterday, which I suppose indicates what Zehetmair tried to accomplish yesterday.  The sound today filled the hall, but at the required moments remained subtle and restrained, particularly in the slow movement.  Nelsons adjusted the dynamics to great dramatic impact.

The first of the trumpet concerti, coming before the intermission, was that of Joseph Haydn.  Hardenberger sang with his instrument, in a somewhat subdued, mellow, tone.  Although I have appreciated him often in Vienna over the years, I do not believe I have heard him play any music written before the 20th century.  His playing remains technically excellent, but I am not convinced that this tone fully worked for Haydn, especially since it did not always come out purely or cleanly from the instrument.

After the intermission came the second trumpet concerto, “Busking,” written for Hardenberger in 2007 by the now 70-year-old Austrian composer H.K. Gruber, scored for trumpet, accordion, banjo, and string orchestra and obviously inspired by street music (at least in name and orchestration, if not in the actual musical style).  In reality, the concerto did not call for one trumpet, but several: Hardenberger emerged on stage with three instruments: a standard B-flat trumpet, a flugelhorn, and his favored C-trumpet, as well as a variety of mutes.  The piece began with Hardenberg playing the music using only his mouthpiece.  The first two minutes of this concerto provided amusement.  Unfortunately, the work lasted more than two minutes, with endless variations on the same lines.  But it went on and on interminably.  And on.  And on.  And on.  And when it finally finished, it became clear that was only the first movement.  Two more movements of utter boredom followed, making the work’s title anomalous.  Gruber knew we had all paid for our tickets in advance and therefore the performers were getting their money – if they actually tried to busk using this music, no one would have thrown them a single coin.  Perhaps someone might have thrown a tomato.  The work continued unbearably – never in an ugly way, just dully – for over half an hour.  If Gruber had nothing at all to say, he should not have said it at all.  Or he should have stopped at two minutes when the audience was still amused.  Boos rang out from the floor as soon as the work ended.  This was not fair for the performers, who actually played quite well, although during a rehearsal someone should have had the good sense to yell “stop” and refrain from performing this tedium in public, at least not to a captive audience in a concert hall.

In this regard, the time it took for the orchestra to warm back into the Beethoven Seventh may owe in part to the orchestra itself trying to recover from the immediately preceding work.  They would have been wiser to skip Busking and just launch directly into the symphony after the intermission.

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

R. Strauss, Stravinsky

After a break for coffee and cake, I returned to the Musikverein for the Vienna Symphony with Fabio Luisi.  I recognized a lot of people at the second concert from the first, so maybe others are catching on to my methods.

This orchestra enjoys a clear rapport with Luisi, its chief conductor since 2005, and has sounded fantastic in recent years.  No doubt he has them well-trained.  Luisi’s own performances are reliable, but never rise up to anything that would bring down the house.  I suppose the guest conductors must do that, thankful that Luisi has the orchestra in top form.  But even if his performances may not shatter the earth, they do provide high-quality musical entertainment.

This evening’s concert opened with an extremely playful rendition of Till Eulenspiegel by Richard Strauss.  Luisi coaxed sumptuous tones from the orchestra while keeping the pace light.   Then Pianist
Rudolf Buchbinder joined the orchestra for Strauss’ Burleske for Piano and Orchestra, composed shortly before Till Eulenspiegel, and in some ways a study for it with its good-humored pacing and instrumental dialogue.  Buchbinders fingers must have broken some world speed records – I am not sure my fingers could move that fast even if it were not necessary to hit the right notes.  He, on the other hand, made it look effortless.

After the intermission, Stravinsky’Petrushka sounded a logical connection to the first half of the program, particularly in Stravinsky’s 1947 reworking.  The fairground setting of the ballet drew from the Straussian experience, adding new dissonances and contrasts, and making the most of the orchestra’s many talents showcasing their solos.  With this orchestra, there was no need to stage the ballet, since the lines themselves danced right up to poor Petrushka’s tragic end.

Tonkünstler Orchestra, Musikverein

Beethoven, Schubert

Back-to-back concerts in the Musikverein. For the first concert, the Tonkünstler with Thomas Zehetmair on the bump, Zehetmair played the violin solo for Beethoven’s Violin Concerto while conducting. He has a sweet tone, perhaps not with enough precision if he intends to have that sound. But he did give a spirited performance. Rather than using the full forces of the Tonkünstler, he assembled a reduced-sized chamber ensemble on stage, which in the acoustics of the Golden Hall gave the performance some intimacy. He took the tempi somewhat fast, but this worked with the smaller orchestral size to keep the overall mood spirited.

Beethoven never wrote down the cadenze for this concerto, since that had not yet become the practice, but the Fritz Kreisler cadenze have become standard: however, Zehetmair opted for a new approach, perhaps more in the spirit of Bethovenian free-improvisation. The cadenza in the first movement worked best due to an ingenious touch: tympani. The typani have the concerto’s first notes and sets the whole work in motion, so allowing the typani to engage in a dialogue with the solo violin in the midst of the cadenza developed the concept further with intelligence.

Schubert’s Sixth Symphony made up the concert’s second half. This is a hit-or-miss work. There is nothing inherently wrong with this symphony, but its blend of styles could either give it special meaning or just leave without any particular meaning. Even if well-played, as it was here (by the same chamber forces of the reduced orchestra), it is hard to make it rousing. It can happen, but not today.

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Kühr, Bruckner

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Society of Friends of Music in Vienna, the Society commissioned a bunch of works, which are having their world premieres during the 2012-13 season.  Tonight’s concert in the Musikverein presented one of these works: Jetzt wohin? by Gerd Kühr, a setting of fragments from poems by Goethe, Heine, and Lichtenberg, with actor Ignaz Kirchner as narrator and the Singverein joining the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Fabio Luisi.  As with soundbites, take a bunch of poetry fragments out of context and weld them together, and it is possible to say just about anything.  It was unclear why the composer tried to do it this way.  The music had quite original and impressive tone colors – no particular style, but building on the Austrian traditions both of romanticism and atonalism.  However, because of the fragmentary nature of the work, the music never had a chance to develop.  I would have liked to have heard much more.  Thisa work needed less talking and more music – sort of like trying to listen to the radio in the car during rush hour.

After the intermission came Bruckner’s 7th Symphony.  Luisi took the first two movements in a very non-robust reading, instead emphasizing some of the delicate sonorities in the strings and the flutes (many people forget that Bruckner wrote wonderful lines for the flute).  This grew in some ways organically from the tone painting in the Kühr work, providing a nice link in the program.  By the third movement, the Scherzo became a boisterous dance, and the fourth movement brought the evening to a triumphant conclusion.