Philharmonia Orchestra, Konzerthaus (Vienna)

Lutosławski, Beethoven, Stravinksy

The Philharmonia Orchestra of London under Chief Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen visited the Konzerthaus this evening for an eclectic program of Funeral Music for String Orchestra by Witold Lutosławski, Symphony #7 by Ludwig van Beethoven, and the Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky. One of these pieces was out of place: maybe the Lutosławski as the only one without dance rhythm, maybe the Beethoven as being fully tonal and coming from the wrong century, or maybe the Stravinsky as the fact that Spring really has not yet begun in Vienna this year despite having reach the end of May.

Lutosławski’s atonal Funeral Music from 1958 was worth a hearing, although I am not sure I liked it. He traced the circle of life, starting small, then growing in sound and liveliness, before ultimately receding to the original tone. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The string orchestra emerged somewhat murkily, however – and not clear whether this was Lutosławski’s intention or whether they simply sound this way normally.

I also had trouble understanding what to make of this performance of Beethoven’s Seventh. I did not hear the relationship with the modern pieces on the program. Although this symphony is known for its dancing rhythms, tonight’s interpretation did not dance sufficiently. I also had issues with the balance, as some instruments came across in the wrong proportions to others, and I could not make sense of it all. As a former trumpet player, I do tend to listen closely for the trumpet line, but tonight I did not have to, as Salonen clearly augmented it not only when the trumpets had the melody but also when they only payed to add background color (tonight, very much in the foreground). The trumpeters themselves performed using what looked like herald trumpets, so they wanted a particular sound. I did wonder if, maybe, Salonen had not done a soundcheck of the Konzerthaus (the orchestra is only visiting for one night) and may have gotten the balance wrong; or maybe my seat just picked up the sounds wrong (I do not go often to the Konzerthaus, and have never sat where I sat tonight; although acoustics are good, I do not know the nuances of the hall). I figured my question would receive an answer after the intermission, as the Rite of Spring requires a larger orchestra and has a lot of exposed lines, so I could see if the balance remained off or if it had been Salonen’s intention.

The Stravinsky indeed answered my question from before the intermission. What I heard in the first half must have been intentional, since no problems with balance or sound came across in the second half of the concert. Whereas I can now write off the two works before the intermission, the Philharmonia treated us to a downright righteous Rite of Spring afterwards. The whole orchestra spoke Stravinsky’s idiom, achieving all the nuances of tone, the contrasts between sweet Spring and harsh reality, the sacred celebration and the profane passion. I have no further questions. Well, maybe one: when will Spring arrive this year?

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Lahti Symphony Orchestra, Konzerthaus (Vienna)

Sibelius, Tschaikowsky

I did not get to hear any live performances of Sibelius during my recent visit to Finland.  No problem: the Finns are always welcome in Vienna.  Tonight, the Lahti Symphony Orchestra was back in town at the Konzerthaus (I’ve heard them before, and indeed when trying to decide where to visit in Finland outside Helsinki, I even looked to see if they were performing in Lahti to go hear them there; they were not, so I went elsewhere).

This is a leading Sibelius orchestra, and the programming did not disappoint.  The concert opened with the Overture to the Historic Scenes (a series of tone poems not often performed these days), played in a very joyful manner under the lilting baton of new music director Okko Kamu.  Unfortunately, they only performed the overture, which ended abruptly leaving me (at least) wishing they would play the rest of the scenes.

Violinist (and apparently also violist and cellist) Sergey Malov, a young St. Petersburger, then came on to perform the Tschaikowsky Violin Concerto.  In addition to playing three instruments at a high level, Malov has a large repertory, ranging from early music to modern, and his versatile technique and impressively full tone testified to the possibilities.  Sadly, although full, his tone remained small even as the music swelled.  Kamu and Malov made the opening of the first movement sound Mozartian (which worked, not surprisingly, since Mozart was Tschaikowsky’s favorite composer).  But the music soon moved into more a Romantic-period size, and whereas the orchestra crescendoed, Malov did not seem able and his line got lost.  After the first movement, he and Kamu had a quick word, and Kamu clearly modulated for the second and third movement, heavily restraining the orchestra.  While sounding good musically, this boxed the music in unnaturally.  I would gladly hear Malov again, but for Mozart or chamber music, not for any big concerti from the romantic period.  Happily, he treated us to some solos as encores, which highlighted his great and diverse talents.

After the intermission came the Second Symphony of Sibelius in an idiomatic reading expected from Lahti.  Oddly, the winds came in somewhat ragged now and then – this symphony is probably one of their main staples, and they should know it by heart without missing entrances.  By the final movement, they had gotten themselves organized, and we were treated to what I can only describe as a Viennese interpretation.  Sibelius and Mahler shared a common favorite living composer during their student years: Anton Bruckner, whose music had great influence on both of their symphonic outputs, albeit they followed different routes.  Tonight, however, the Lahti Symphony accentuated the broad chorales that Sibelius took from Bruckner, and gave us a final movement that glistened, sounding very much the cousin of the final movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony.

Finnish National Opera (Helsinki)

Bartok, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle; Leoncavallo, I Pagliacci

A strange juxtaposition at the Finnish National OperaBartok’Duke Bluebeard’s Castlepaired with Leoncavallo’Pagliacci.  They did not work as a pairing.  Leoncavallo’s comic tragedy, while perfectly nice, simply cannot hold its ground with the much powerful and altogether gruesome Bartok opera.

The clue to the evening came with some preliminary words flashed on a scrim before the Bartok work (words in Hungarian, presumably from Bartok’s own introductory materials, with translation in Finnish, Swedish, and English).  These words described the ambiguity among reality, imagination, and staging.  In its way, this provided the only conceivable bridge between two completely different operas.  When Pagliacci began after the intermission, it opened backstage at this very opera, with Bluebeard and Judith, still in costume, receiving congratulations from the chorus (dressed as theater staff).  Still in character as a backstage hand, Tonio mingled with this crowd to give his opening monologue.  But the whole concept was stretched way too far.

Indeed, this Pagliacci took place mostly back stage at the Finnish National Opera.  This made the stage rather busy, with chorus members playing stage hands and production staff and running all over the place.  When Canio went off-script towards the end, the other main characters huddled around the person playing the director, who had a large script, and clearly debated among themselves what was happening and how to get Canio back on-script.  Meanwhile, as a comic tragedy, the staging added numerous sight-gags.  These worked to a point, but did prove somewhat distracting.  They also undermined the seriousness of the tragedy, further distancing the Pagliacci from Bluebeard’s Castle.  Indeed, the director could have had success linking the two in a scholarly essay, which might have contained enlightenment, but beyond academic theory, these operas do not belong together.

At the end of Pagliacci, when Canio stabbed Nedda, she screamed and fell off the back of the puppet stage.  There followed more incessant screaming from her.  Silvio belatedly ran to her rescue by climbing up onto that puppet stage to confront Canio.  But instead of Canio stabbing Silvio, as per the plot, the music froze several bars before the end and the curtain dropped.  The conductor, Mikko Franck, left the pit.  What seemed like several minutes of silence later, the conductor appeared in front of the curtain, announced (what are supposed to be Tonio’s lines) that the comedy had finished, and then conducted the orchestra’s final bars.  No.  Just no.

This production overshadowed some good singing, particularly by Stephen Gadd as Tonio and Mikhail Agafonov as Canio.

Perhaps the staging could have worked, if it had followed something more traditional – such as its usual partner Cavalleria Rusticana by Mascagni, for example.  Coming after Batok’s Bluebeard’s Castle just meant that poor Leoncavallo got overwhelmed by a much more serious work.  The staging for Bluebeard was extremely appropriate (this opera has no action and requires no real staging – Bartok placed everything in the dense music and devastating psychology of the characters).  An excellent use of light complimented the music and demonstrated that the director fully understood what Bartok tried to accomplish – no easy task.  Vladimir Baykov, as Duke Bluebeard, kept the edge on his strong voice throughout, and in the end the audience could easily sympathize with the condemned (or damned) man.  Niina Keitel, as Judith, did not quite match his standard, but nevertheless also understood the psychological torment of her character, driven to open one door after an another despite Bluebeard begging her not to, until it became too late and she sank into the earth with his previous wives, leaving him to suffer in inevitable eternal darkness.  And if the evening had ended there, I would have been satisfied.

The Finnish National Opera performs in a 20-year-old hall of extremely tasteful design.  With the sun going down now at nearly 10 p.m., it remained light at the end of the performance.  The lobby has large windows overlooking a lake, and is surrounded by green.  A very pleasant and cheerful venue and worth experiencing.