Stadler Quartet and Ariane Haering, Schloß Leopoldskron

Beethoven, Schubert, Stravinsky, Ravel, Webern, Lehár

Tonight I got to play the role of Max Reinhardt and organize and present a concert in the Great Hall of Schloss Leopoldskron for an invitation-only audience of international dignitaries.  The concert took place as part of the program “1814, 1914, 2014: Lessons from the Past, Visions for the Future” on the state of international diplomacy.  I programmed only pieces composed in 1814 and 1914, for which I brought in Salzburg’s leading string quartet, the Stadler Quartet (headed by the Mozarteum’s concertmaster Frank Stadler) and top piano soloist, the Swiss-born Ariane Haering.

The first two pieces on the program, from 1814, were private works never intended for public performance, which added to the sense of intimacy.  Ludwig van Beethoven wrote the Piano Sonata in e-minor, op. 90, for his friend Moritz von Lichnowsky, a Silesian aristocrat having an affair with an opera singer whom he later married (hence one of the movements is labeled to be performed in a “singable manner” – which Haering certainly did).  Franz Schubert’s String Quartet #8, composed in only eight days while Schubert was still only 17 years old, tested the composer’s many talents to reflect his astonishing development, although he never decided to publish the work during his lifetime.  The Stadler Quartet’s performance made the work sound very mature.

Moving along to 1914, the music became less harmonious.  Igor Stravinsky‘s friends considered his Three Pieces for String Quartet to be unfinished fragments.  He called them “abstract music” and published them anyway.  These works were fun – as written and as performed with a smirk.

Maurice Ravel wrote to his friend Stravinsky that he had rushed the composition of his Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano, because he wanted to enlist in the French Army and feared the Great War would end before he had a chance to fight if he did not hurry up and finish.  So he rushed it and ran to enlist, and the senseless War lasted four more horrible years.  Tonight we programed the third movement, Passacaille (Très Large), as a slow and dancing contrast to the Stravinsky work, with sumptuous playing by these musicians.

The Ravel movement also contrasted with the final programmed work, Anton von Webern’s Three Small Pieces for Cello and Piano.  Webern considered these a “distillation of music” and all three pieces together lasted less than two minutes.  At around the time he wrote these, Webern was also my grandmother’s music theory teacher in Vienna, so I have a particular soft spot for him.  Webern’s music was banned by the Nazis as “degenerate,” but he survived the Second World War only to be shot mistakenly by an American soldier in 1945 while offering a light to another American soldier, who thus perpetuated an American stereotype.

Although charming, Webern’s work was not going to send our guests humming into dinner.  So after poking around for something suitable, Frank Stadler and I settled on an arrangement for string quartet of the Weibermarsch from Ferenc Lehár’s Lustige Witwe.  Although not composed in 1914 (it was written in 1905), the operetta did reflect the mood before the First World War, and created a bit of a scandal by parodying the life of Crown Prince Danilo of Montenegro, who preferred the brothels in Paris to his homeland.  This march got feet tapping: “Yes, the study of women is hard!”

This was quite a fun concert to put together.  I also personally learned a lot researching the pieces, since chamber music is not my specialty, and these particular works are anyway not often performed.  I think the concert had a good balance and it certainly had top-of-the-line performers who could pull it off.  In fact, the Stadler Quartet specializes in contemporary music, and could add some 2014 pieces to the mix to fill out an entire program of 1814-1914-2014.  I decided against anything that contemporary, and did not want to worry about copyright issues, but could easily foresee a third section of this program developing and appearing in a concert nearby later this year.

Philharmonia Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Strauss, Bruckner

Melancholy at the Salzburg Festival tonight, with Christoph von Dohnányi and the Philharmonia Orchestra of London in town for the Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss and the unfinished Ninth Symphony of Anton Bruckner.

The link, of course, was that although these works marked the end of the composers’ outputs, and they knew it, there is a transcendence to the sadness, a lifetime of accomplishment and a job well done.  They do not defy death; nor do they seem too concerned.  When the soprano sings the final line of the last of the Strauss songs, “ist dies etwa der Tod?” (“is this perhaps death?), the orchestra answers with a quotation from Strauss’ own Death and Transfiguration.

Soprano soloist Camilla Trilling, substituting on short notice for the original soprano who got ill, never quite found her pitch which she lost somewhere in Strauss’ dense polychromatic score.  Her voice conflicted openly at times with the woodwinds.  She sounded at her best when she sang from a trance rather than trying to inflect, but her voice never projected well over the orchestra, even though Dohnányi kept the orchestra contained.  On the other hand, orchestral entrances came abruptly (and sometimes at the wrong times), which was also a little jarring.  Not a transcendental performance.

The Bruckner Ninth, on the other hand, did rise from the stage into the sky.  The playing was icy, and at the same time it was warming, the first movement touching the soul like mulled wine by a frozen lake on a cold winter day.  The woodwinds glistened.  The brass shone.  The second movement pierced, the strings automated from the industrial revolution, a forerunner of Schostakowitsch in many ways, the glory and tragedy of mankind.  The third movement surged.  Bruckner did not intend to end the symphony there, but that’s where it ended. Dohnány held out the final chord, contemplating what had gone before and what could have come.  Unfortunately, after such a note, he did not hold out the silence at the end long enough.  He dropped his arms after several seconds, but far too early, and the well-deserved applause broke in too soon.