Simon Keenlyside and Emanuel Ax, Mozarteum Salzburg


Simon Keenlyside and Emanuel Ax wandered into Salzburg with a performance of Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise in the Mozarteum.

Keenlyside captured Schubert’s dark songs on an emotional roller coaster, with a full resonant baritone mixed with soft tender tones.  Where Schubert made the piano accompaniment more lyrical, Ax did not so much accompany as provide a duet, particularly in the softer opening poem Gute Nacht but also in the more rousing Die Post and Muth as well.  The accompaniment worked less well in harsher piano sequences such as in Die Wetterfahne, where Ax hammered against Keenlyside.  But together they delivered the irony of Die Krähe and the morbidness of Der Lindenbaum, which I finally realized tonight is a poem about suicide and not actually about the shade tree.

The most depressive and impressive poem came at the end: Der Leiermann.  Keenlysides’s voice followed the old man out over the ice and Ax’s final notes trailed off.  It was left to the audience’s imagination to let the ice slowly crack and the poet, having resisted the temptation of suicide and having avoided being eaten by the crow now wandered off to the end.

Silence embraced the hall as the notes drifted.  When applause rang out, it continued for a dozen or more curtain calls.

Bülent Evcil and Çağatay Akyol, Salzburg Gwandhaus

Bach, Gluck, Couler, Ungar, Ibert, Miyagi, Morlacchi, Ravel, Piazzolla, Briccialdi, Traditional Turkish songs

The Turkish Consulate in Salzburg invited me to a concert in celebration of the proclamation of the Turkish Republic on this day in 1923.  Bülent Evcil, second flute of the Istanbul Symphony Orchestra played a selection of music from around the world accompanied by Çağatay Akyol on the harp in the Salzburg Gwandhaus hall (a nice walk right out into the countryside).

Evcil was dextrous enough, but his tone was nasal and thin.  The concert improved enormously when I started focussing my attention instead on Akyol’s accompaniment.  Akyol played with a twinkle in his eye and had altogether more personality even while trying to stay in the background.  The musical styles on the program – from Bach and Gluck to composers writing in the traditional styles of everything from Ireland (Phil Coulter) to Japan (Michio Miyagi) to Argentina (Astor Piazzolla) to an arrangement of traditional Turkish songs that had some in the audience singing along – required great diversity and charm, and Akyol switched from one to the next with little stress but much feeling.

At the reception afterwards, everyone assumed I was Turkish.  The Turks (about two thirds of the people there) all tried speaking to me in Turkish and the Austrians (none of them younger than about 60) all asked me apologetically if I spoke German before they would converse.  This was extremely weird.  Salzburg in general is quite peculiar.

Wiener Symphoniker, Konzerthaus

Holzer, Resch, Smetana

The Vienna Symphony Orchestra celebrated the so-called Austrian “National” Holiday (a misnomer – it is really a state holiday; there is an Austrian state, which this holiday celebrates, but I do not know what an Austrian “nation” is) in the Konzerthaus this morning.  Dynamic 33-year-old Moravian guest conductor Jakub Hrůša took the podium enthusiastically.

The concert opened with the Austrian Federal Anthem, music by Johann Holzer that was chosen in 1946 because people mistakenly thought Mozart had written it.  It is not a memorable work and we really do need to reclaim Haydn’s anthem stolen from us by Germany.  Although everyone in the hall stood up, no one sang (I don’t even know the lyrics – something mundane about being a land of mountains and streams).  More interestingly, the work Land by the young Austrian composer Gerald Resch followed, taking Holzer’s work and putting it into a blender.  The resulting piece resembled the original, somewhat shredded but generally smooth; the style kept morphing, so it was not always clear what Resch intended, except for a new way of hearing Holzer’s hymn.

But these pieces were just warm-up for Smetana’Má Vlast.  Although the “Fatherland” Smetana wrote about was Bohemia, Bohemia was indeed part of Austria at the time he wrote these six tone poems.  Often performed individually and separately, Hrůša performed them individually in a row, three on either side of the intermission, taking a pause and bow between poems except for the final two.  Hrůša put one harp on either side of the orchestra, and they opened the work playing off each other in alternation, setting the scene.  The Symphoniker’s strings were sumptuous.  The woodwinds were evocative of the landscapes they portrayed.  Hrůša gave the fourth poem, “From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields,” perhaps a little too martial a reading, not particularly a stroll through the countryside.  The final two poems, written four years after the first four, had an altogether different color (Smetana was also completely deaf then), and for those Hrůša captured the drama.

The fifth poem, Tabor, of course is named after the town where my great grandfather was born (although he had already moved off to Vienna, and then Manchester, by the time Smetana wrote this; and the Ehrlich family had almost certainly not settled there yet at the time the town was founded by Hussites in the enents Smetana portrays in the poem).  But still, a good connection for “My Fatherland.”

Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Walton, Dvořák, Berlioz, Verdi, Tschaikowsky, Prokofiev

The Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra came to town today with a program of music inspired by Shakespeare in love.  The renowned Austrian actress Senta Berger introduced each selection with a mix of biographical information of Shakespeare (and his loves and loves lost), period history, readings from Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets (mostly in German translation), literary commentary on Shakespearean double-entendre in English, and some stories of later generations inspired by Shakespeare.

This program concept was good, but they could have thought it through more fully.  There was nothing wrong with Berger’s reading, but the mish-mash of texts came across as disjointed.  She also made no effort to connect the readings to the music in the program.  For example, she could have dramatized the scenes set by the composers, or explained the music in the context of the selections – if these composers were inspired by Shakespeare, the link should be obvious.  Or multiple actors could have acted out the scenes.  And while she alluded to the big delay between Shakespeare’s death and when people started setting his work to music, she could have explained more (as it was, she just said that opera, a natural medium for Shakespearean drama, did not exist yet in his lifetime and so it would take some time – problem was that all but one of the musical selections had no connection to opera, so that could not explain the delay).

The Nuremberg Symphony, though perfectly competent, did not make up for this disjointedness.  The playing was workmanlike.  They hit most of the notes.  They concentrated so hard to do so, that the music came out with little emotion, which essentially defeated the purpose of this concert.  Young English conductor Alexander Shelley kept these forces together with a smile.

The concert opened with an arrangement of music by William Walton for the 1936 film of As You Like It starring Laurence Olivier and continued with Dvořák’s Concert Overture to Othello.  Both compositions, seldom heard, displayed drama (not always communicated by the orchestra).  A selection of music from Berlioz’s “Dramatic Symphony” Romeo and Julietwas not dramatic – at least not this selection and not with this orchestra.  The ballet music from the third act of Verdi‘s MacBeth (the one nod to opera) jumped out a little better, possibly because Berger had been rather raunchy in her introduction.  Tschaikowsky’Romeo and Juliet Fantasy could have fantasized more.  The encore, the fight scene (not a love scene) from Prokofiev’Romeo and Juliet ballet, actually allowed them to let it all loose.

Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Sibelius, Mahler, Elgar

The Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra opened the Salzburg Days of Culture 2014 with Sibelius and Mahler in the Large Festival House.  On the podium, its young Oxford-born Principal conductor Daniel Harding, a protege of Simon Rattle and the late Claudio Abbado.

Harding gave an innovative and fascinating reading of Mahler’s First Symphony in the second half of the concert.  Although the full orchestral forces filled the stage, and the volume was up (where it should have been), the orchestra performed it almost as chamber music in scope if not in size.  The lines in the different parts each stood out, interacted, and intertwined – it is now even clear what role the double basses have in the overall structure.  Unfortunately, this reading exposed the individual orchestra members as not an orchestra of virtuosi – although overall quite good, they could be a little sloppy at times, and the interpretation left them no where to hide.

The first movement opened icily, perhaps echoing the Sibelius from the concert’s first half.  Then, as the sound grew, a certain whimsical humor entered.  The orchestra danced and skipped and clicked its heels right through the second movement, a bit precise but playful.  The third movement dirge revealed new colors.  The spare playing allowed new individual lines to emerge.  And where the orchestra had danced together for the first two movements, now each line did its own thing to make up the whole.  The final movement brought not a wall of sound, not a wave, but just a lot of individual sounds that added together in ways not always apparent in this work.  Rather than overwhelming the audience, they gave us something somewhat more delicate but without sacrificing size.

As an encore, the orchestra did an equally full but tender Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

The Mahler (and Elgar) made up for the truly awful solo playing in the Sibelius Violin Concerto during the concert’s first half. Renaud Capuçon simply could not manage to get in tune.  Where Harding and the orchestra did their best to create an icy atmosphere appropriate for Sibelius, Capuçon poured vinegar on the ice.  His sour sound improved slightly as he warmed up during the performance, but warming up also does not go with Sibelius.  His notes came out often sharp and jarring.  He then treated us to a familiar-sounding encore (that I could not quite place – but I think it was a transcription for solo violin of something written for more instruments; whatever it was, Capuçon played it sharp and painfully but without substance).

Salzburger Landestheater

Mozart, Die Zauberflöte

My first opera since moving to Salzburg… had to be Mozart, I suppose.  The Salzburger Landestheater has brought out a new production of Zauberflöte this year.

There may not be a right way to stage this opera.  I’m sure a German could think of a wrong way, but the German director in this case decided to actually stage it properly (maybe because he did not train in Germany).  The curtain opened with someone representing the impressario Emanuel Schikaneder (and in this case the librettist) on stage with an oversized suitcase, out of which emerged the evening’s characters.  This production would clearly bridge fantasy and reality.  Then the Schikaneder shed his cloak to reveal himself as Papageno… just as the real-life Schikaneder sang Papageno at the opera’s premiere in 1791.

For Tamino and Papageno, and Pamina and Papagena, in addition to the singers, they were also portrayed by marionettes.  Rather than just mimicking the singers, the marionettes became alter-egos, adding an extra layer of emotion, but also allowing these characters to talk to themselves and explore the their innermost psychologies.  The ploy added charm, helping to make these characterizations fuller, but also underscoring the fantasy/reality dichotomy.

The staging was otherwise simple and straightforward.  Costumes, though mixing periods, were generally neutral and blended well – except for Tamino’s.  Why Tamino (and therefore also his marionette) wore a Yale University sweatshirt was entirely unclear.

At the end of the opera, Papageno put his cloak back on and became Schikaneder again, ushering all the characters and props back into his suitcase.  Except Tamino and Pamina decided to go their own way without their puppets.  He gave them a hug and a blessing, and then climbed with his own puppet into his own suitcase as the curtain fell.

The star of the evening was the Landestheater’s terrific new 28-year-old Lithuanian music director, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla.  Her unusual conducting style looked a little like she was mimicking the marionettes: she held her arms outstretched in front of her and upwards, while making oversized but clear motions.  Everyone could follow her perfectly.  She doubles as Gustavo Dudamel’s assistant in Los Angeles – but on first sight seems like she has more of knack for musical clarity than her overrated boss.

The cast was fine – voices were as big as they needed to be in this relatively small theater and with a chamber orchestra in the pit.