WDR Symphonie-Orchester Köln, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mozart, Bruckner, Sibelius

I decided to test the full range of acoustics in Salzburg’s Großes Festspielhaus – my first time hearing a concert in this hall – with a chamber work by Mozart and a Bruckner symphony.  I approve.  I got a seat way up top in the last row, and heard every nuance despite the cavernous amphitheater structure.  The waves of sound rolled up to the top and back down again, washing the ears.

Unusually for me, I did not wear any Austrian Tracht to the concert.  Much to my surprise, I found this put me into a minority.  I am used to being one of the few to preserve this tradition, but clearly not tonight.  Salzburgers may speak with an accent that sounds to my ears like it comes from the wrong side of the border, but I will give them credit for dressing appropriately.

The young Norwegian star Vilde Frang played the solos for Mozart’s Violin Concerto #5, producing a spicy tone like none other I have heard.  Like well-seasoned food, it contained a robust complex flavor without too much salt – my mind, in fact, strayed to a fusion-Indian restaurant I like in London, which balances Indian spices and Western palates.  Tasty.  As an encore, she treated us to a rendition of a Norwegian folk song, more North Sea salmon than pickled herring.

Jukka-Pekka Saraste led the West German Radio Symphony Orchestra of Cologne.  A shell of an orchestra accompanied Frang in the Mozart concert, setting the table for her.  The full orchestra turned out after the intermission for Bruckner’s Symphony #3 – but only the full orchestra, unaugmented, making it appear rather small for a Bruckner symphony.  The acoustics in the hall stretched the sound to full.  But the whole performance came off as abrupt and unfeeling, lacking fluency.  The lines did not flow.  So after such a fine appetizer, they served us a large pile of perfectly good but unexciting sauerkraut with sausage.

The final encore, Valse Triste by Sibelius, showed that these forces did indeed know how to make the music flow.  Dark chocolate mousse for dessert.

I should probably have cooked dinner before I wrote this review.
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Tonkünstlerorchester, Musikverein

Britten, R. Strauss, Elgar, Sibelius

Came into Vienna for a conference and other meetings this week.  Decided to pop into the Musikverein unplanned for what looked like good program of the Tonkünstlerorchester: early and rarely-performed works by Benjamin Britten and Richard Strauss, and Elgar’Enigma Variations.

I had not realized the history behind Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, for which he received a large commission from the Japanese Emperor for a major festive work and instead wrote a melancholic orchestral work inspired by the Catholic mass for the dead.  Better to decline the commission than to still accept the money but insult the Emperor for the sake of artistic expression.

The piece, however, is of quite high quality and although I cannot remember seeing it on other concert programs (although I am familiar with it through a recording), it led to a number of other commissions as Britten’s career took off.  This afternoon, Danish conductor Michael Schønwandt gave a full-bodied reading.  He may be unfamiliar with the acoustics in the Golden Hall, since although he clearly wanted to accentuate the rich lines of individual instruments, he kept the rest of the orchestra playing thickly, meaning the sounds tended to blur.  In this hall, such an approach is not necessary to achieve a full sound.

Richard Strauss grew up as the son of the most celebrated hornist of his day, and he clearly understood the instrument.  So did the Czech soloist Radek Baborák.  The expressiveness appeared to grow from Mozart’s four horn concerti, augmented with late-classical and early-romantic developments from Schubert or Schumann or Mendelssohn, which Baborák approached with versatility, character, and charm.  The soloists within the orchestra complemented his playing, and with Schønwandt’s approach good dialogues developed between Baborák and the orchestral soloists.  Baborák gave us a little encore as well (although his announcement to introduce what it was was not audible, at least his horn was).

Unlike the first two works, Elgar’s Enigma Variations are often performed and a bit of a warhorse.  It remains a lovely work.  Tonight’s concert lacked the English sentimentality usually heard with this work, but the Tonkünstler nevertheless played it well.  Once again, some of the section soloists had wonderful lines, which Schønwandt allowed them to augment, particularly the first flute and first cello.  Schønwandt capped off the concert with the Valse Triste by Sibelius, which the orchestra did play sentimentally and with a melancholic lilt.

Wiener Symphoniker, Musikverein

Brahms

Johannes Brahms wrote a large amount of technically high-quality music, much of it quite dull since he had little original to say and derived his works from others (particularly Beethoven) who had already said something previously.  But grief has a way of moving even the most emotionless of men, and Ein Deutsches Requiem became his most original work.

For tonight’s performance, Herbert Blomstedt took the podium of the Musikverein.  Both Blomstedt and the Golden Hall provided the frame – although a big work, it is delicate.  The quiet sections must remain detached but full, and the forte and even fortissimo can never be allowed to overwhelm the lines.  Blomstedt’s careful phrasing and the beautiful acoustics of the Golden Hall accomplished their task.

Of course, it also helped to have the Wiener Symphoniker and Singverein on the stage, both institutions also in their best sound.  The clear lines and crisp words were never abrupt.  The extremely tall Swede Peter Mattei provided dramatic but sensitive baritone solos, and the surprisingly short German Christiane Karg gave a daintily substantial soprano solo.