Czech Philharmonic, Musikverein (Vienna)

Martinů, Janáček

I checked in with the Czechs this morning at the Musikverein: the Czech Philharmonic under Jiří Bělohlávek performed works by Martinů and Janáček.

The Martinů pieces proved the most rewarding.  The concert opened with the somber Memorial for Lidice, a short work composed from exile in memory of a village by that name which was erased from the map and whose entire population was murdered by the Germans in 1942 as reprisal for the assassination by Czech patriots of Reinhard Heydrich, the German occupation government’s “Imperial Protector of Bohemia and Moravia.”  A fitting tribute.

Martinů’s Sixth Symphony followed, much more developed in the style of this composer.  His sophisticated, and extremely challenging, music rises from the chromatic chords and heads in all directions.  It could come across as rather disjointed if performed by lesser forces.  But Bělohlávek and the Czech Philharmonic understood the idiom, allowing the music to flow and soar, treating the ears to thrilling new methods of experiencing sound.  Martinů’s music is no secret to those who know, but the level of difficulty in making music out of modernity has perhaps limited his exposure.  Well-performed Martinů is always worth hearing.

After the intermission, the orchestra returned with the original manuscript version of Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass.  After the first performance, the composer had made changes, and it was the revised version that got published.  The revised version eliminated some of the overbearing percussion (which made the work less regligious in feel) and softened or tightened the orchestration elsewhere.  Now that I’ve heard the original manuscript version, I would tend to agree with the composer that the changes were necessary.  Though we had excellent performers this morning, the work did perhaps suffer from a lack of fluidity. The Vienna Singverein and four soloists (Hibla GerzmavaVeronika HajnováBrandon Jovanovich, and Jan Martiník) joined the orchestra enthusiastically.

Wiener Virtuosen, Musikverein Brahms Saal

Beethoven, Martinů, Wellesz, Elgar

I felt like I was not getting enough chamber music.  That’s an easy problem to resolve in Vienna.  The Wiener Virtuosen, a chamber ensemble made up of members of the Philharmonic, performed an unusual and fascinating concert in the Brahms Hall of the Musikverein this evening.

Most of the program jumped out of the 20th Century, but Eleven “Mödlinger Tänze” by Beethoven served as a warm-up.  Beethoven did not mean these to become part of his lasting repertory, having just thrown them together for some friends performing at a Fasching party in 1819.  He never published them and did not count them in his inventory.  But even a casual set of works by Beethoven makes an impression.  Nevertheless, works by Martinů and Wellesz were the real reasons to hear this concert.

Bohuslav Martinů’s Nonett, one of the last works he composed before he died in 1959 and premiered at the Salzburg Festival that year, employed complex harmonics and rhythms, with the instruments seemingly moving independently, but when assembled together this remained accessible music.  Chorales – large almost – tried to emerge from the evocative second movement, moving from instrument to instrument.  By the third movement, every time we thought we knew where the music was going, it detoured.  This was a walk in the woods, with no particular place to be, wandering wherever the route looked nicest.  Martinů proved that it is possible to marry such 20th-Century complexities and still make sonorous tones.

Clarinetist Ernst Ottensamer felt the need to introduce the Oktett op. 67 by Egon Wellesz: “don’t be afraid of Egon Wellesz,” he advised the audience before the ensemble started, “it may not be the most melodic work.”  Ottensamer was unfair.  Although composed ten years before the Martinů Nonett (with a premiere at the 1949 Salzburg Festival), this Wellesz piece in many ways developed Martinů one step further in the way it combined new harmonies and rhythms with real musicality.  It opened with a mysterious but forward-driving push, filling the room with a big sound: in part, the big sound came from the ensemble, but in part the music was also dramatic and full.  The second movement appeared to be picked up from Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in parts.  Melodies tried to spring out of the third movement, but only by the fourth movement did Wellesz develop a cantabile section, with gorgeous harmonies.  By the fifth movement, the piece became downright whimsical, a country dance chaperoned by seriousness.

The Wiener Virtuosen gave intelligent readings of these difficult but (when performed this way) approachable works.  To send everyone home with something more traditional, they gave us an arrangement of Edward Elgar‘s Nimrod from the Enigma Variations.  This seems to be the encore of choice these days – I think I’ve heard it performed four times in the last year – but Ottensamer introduced it as “the most beautiful melody in the symphonic repertory of the 20th Century.”  I don’t know about that, but certainly when performed by this group they make a case for it.

Wiener Philharmoniker, Musikverein

Ligeti, J. Marx, Bruckner

Zubin Mehta returned to conduct the Philharmoniker in the Musikverein, the first time I have heard him in many years.  His concerts used to be hit-or-miss (often miss), but I had been advised on good authority that it is now safe to go hear him again.  He used to conduct using charisma alone – some days it provoked thrilling results, but mostly not.  He moves more slowly now, which may mean that he needs to take more care to think about the music and craft it.  It worked today.

The program took a an odd walk backwards in time, sliding off the abyss.  It included a hint of Asian polyphony where I did not expect it.

However, before we got to the music, the concert started inauspiciously with György Ligeti’s “Atmospheres” for large Orchestra, which sounded a bit like a ride on a on old tram whose wheels have not been oiled in several years.  The creeking and squeaking gave everyone in the hall a headache.  When it ended, the orchestra got the amount of applause it deserved: just enough to acknowledge that they had managed to play the piece.  It wasn’t worth the effort to boo – Ligeti himself is dead.  It may have been the shortest applause I have ever observed after a piece in the Musikverein – probably about 10-15 seconds of soft clapping, and then everyone wanted to forget our tormented ears and move on to the music.

Alt-Wiener Serenaden by Joseph Marx followed, and succeeded in erasing the Ligeti from the audience’s memory.  Joseph Marx was an Austrian paedagogue, music critic, and sometime composer who lost his positions and influence during the Nazi years because he strongly believed in an Austrian identity.  In 1942, the Vienna Philharmonic held a festival for its 100th anniversary (with the Philharmoniker joined by the leading Italian, Hungarian, and Dutch but out of principle no Reichsdeutsche orchestras), and Marx wrote these four pieces for that event to memorialize an Austria that had been erased from the map.  He reworked the old Viennese themes, using more modern techniques developed in Vienna in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  This approach updated otherwise backwards-looking music.  Quite oddly, several of the themes resembled music from Paliashvili’s opera Abesalom da Eteri, in which the Georgian master had taken a similar approach to updating traditional Georgian music with classical techniques.  It is hard to believe that Joseph Marx would have been familiar with Paliashvili’s 1919 opera, although Marx was an admirer of Scriabin, who had studied composition with Sergei Taneyev at the Moscow Conservatory as had Paliashvili.  Could there have been a connection?

Anton Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony graced the second half of the program.  Mehta gave a deliberate and measured reading, and the Philharmoniker, responded in full sound and aetherial grace.  If Marx looked back on old-fashioned Austrian music through intermediate developments, Bruckner – composing fifty years before Marx – looked into the future.  These two works complemented each other, crossing space and time in an Austrian context, never quite meeting halfway but twisting their perspectives.

Bruckner stretched tonality to its furthest extent in this Symphony.  And while he died before finishing it, the sketches for the never-written fourth movement apparently indicate he would develop this concept even further, leading music off the end of the world.  His letters to friends indicate that it was perhaps more than could be asked of a simple Austrian church organist.  Bruckner had looked into the future and had seen the Apocolypse, and did not survive to write it down.  Taneyev’s own music came to my mind in Mehta’s reading – particularly Taneyev’s cantata (opus 1) John of Damascus, whose words welcomed oncoming death (yes, Taneyev was brooding already in opus 1).  I have previously sensed an affinity between Taneyev’s and Bruckner’s choral church music, but this was the first time I had noticed the similarities in mood between Bruckner’s final work and Taneyev’s first opus.  Was it me, or was Mehta subconsciously making this point?

Mehta let the last notes waft into the evening.  Absolute silence reigned in the Golden Hall.  Eventually, Mehta lowered his arms.  Even then, the audience still waited to applaud.  The silence at the end of this symphony was longer than the applause at the end of the Ligeti.

Salzburger Landestheater

Benatzky, Im Weißen Rößl

The Salzburg Landestheater decided to prove some sort of point by staging Im Weißen Rößl, by Ralph Benatzky and friends, as a Berlin Revue.  There is some historic justification for this, but this does not make the idea successful or even good.

The original version, performed here tonight, did indeed have its premiere in decadent Berlin in 1930, where revue dominated the style of the day.  Extra music (mostly reworked from the music elsewhere, but tonight with some pop songs added) allowed for extra dancing inserted between numbers of the plot, with dancers in various stages of undress doing rhythmic dancing (not all from the 1920s/1930s).

The conception made me feel uneasy for other reasons as well.  The program made a point that the Nazis considered this “degenerate music,” as so many Austrian Jews had been involved in putting it together.  For those who did not read the program, the dancers marched onstage at the start with a Nazi-era poster for the famous degenerate art exhibition.  While some of the characters in this work may have been Jewish, this production made a point of making them identifiably so in caricature, down to breaking a glass at a engagement reception (in a bit of confusion with the wedding practice, but what do these idiots know).  And Prof. Dr. Hinzelmann was portrayed as a caricature of Albert Einstein.  With the European left having become increasingly rabid in its anti-Semitism, where anti-Semitism is once again salonfähig, trying to hide behind nominally anti-Nazi statements is often itself code for anti-Semitism.  And, of course, it was the Austrian left which happily rehabilitated the Austrian Nazis in the 1940s and 50s.

The performance itself was further blighted by having the cast heavily miked.  There is never any reason to do this in an indoor performance, and the small Landestheater is certainly not big enough to justify it.  If the cast cannot project to fill the small hall, they picked the wrong profession.  The volume of the amplification also meant that the voices overwhelmed the music.  This was most unfortunate for Sascha Oskar Weis singing Leopold Brandmeyer, the lead male role, since his singing voice was truly awful.  Simon Schorr as Dr. Otto Siedler had by far the best voice, but they did not regulate the microphone for him, so he projected that much more than everyone else at blasting volume.  A random non-character, Renate Vaithianathan, a yodeler(!) who looked like she had crawled out of the grunge bin and had not showered for years with long matted hair, just proved annoying – who enunciates a yodel (and, yes, she did manage to enunciate her yodels) into a microphone?  The rest of the cast was completely undistinguished and not worth mentioning.

Peter Ewaldt conducted a fantastic-sounding Mozarteum Orchestra (the music is fun, and they played it with bounce).