Wiener Symphoniker, Konzerthaus

Schumann, Bruckner

One of the last pieces Robert Schumann wrote before he attempted suicide (the consequences of which did lead to his eventual death) was a violin concerto for his good friend Joseph Joachim to perform.  Joachim did not think much of the work and it remained in the violinist’s possession, unpublished, when Schumann died.  Joachim eventually gave the manuscript to the Prussian National Library, stipulating that the work not be made public until 100 years after the composer’s death.  The Nazis, looking for an “Aryan” work to replace Mendelssohn’s violin concerto in the repertory, did not honor Joachim’s stipulation (Joachim was anyway Jewish), and so the work came to the public for the first time in the 1930s.

German violinist Christian Tetzlaff gave it a go this evening in the Konzerthaus with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under the young British conductor Robin Ticciati.  Unfortunately, Joachim’s assessment was correct, and the work really should have been left on the library shelf.  The tone is overall dark, and the tempo slow, but Teztlaff approached it with a warm sound and smoothed the jagged edges.  He could have nevertheless given it a more robust reading, but in the end it turned out as not one of Schumann’s best efforts.  The writing for orchestra was thin and generally unfinished (although Schumann considered it done).  An encore (sounded like a baroque-era violin sonata) by Teztlaff did not help much – far too dull to liven the mood.

After the intermission, however, the real revelations began.  Bruckner’s 4th Symphony, probably his most approachable symphony, receives so many performances that I did not think I could learn anything new tonight.  Ticciati’s interpretation was revealing and magnificent (and the Symphoniker executed to perfection).

Ticciati took the outer movements more slowly than usual, drawing out the harmonies.  Rather than overwhelming us with sound, he made the work subdued, indeed delicate.  This allowed for glorious contrasts when the brass choirs rang out, soaring over the stillness.  Rather than opening up the heavens, as Bruckner symphonies do, this one stayed close to the earth – letting us explore its intracacies with microscope rather than a telescope.  The universe Bruckner described remains huge – but we are just little specks within it.  Ticciati did not give a minimalistic interpretation at all – the orchestra and its sound remained full and bright – but by turning the whole work into a microcosmos he drastically altered the way we heard and experienced the world.

The slow second movement Andante danced a slow dance.  The third movement started to pick up tempo, so that the finale, while returning to the pensive structure of the first movement, actually began to demonstrate increasing tension, left unresolved until the final chorale.  God is great.

Camerata Salzburg, Mozarteum

Haydn, Paganini, Bruch, Schubert

In his homeland, the Russian violist (and conductor-by-necessity since there is not enough solo viola music to keep him employed) Yuri Bashmet is greeted as a cult figure and his concerts sell out immediately to people who do not understand music.  In his ancestral homeland, Ukraine (he is of Hutsul descent – a small sub-group of Ukrainians from the Carpathian mountains), he is persona non grata after crossing from art into politics and openly endorsing the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year.  In Austria, he is respected for his music-making by those in the know (but this does not mean a sold-out hall).

This morning, Bashmet performed with the Camerata Salzburg in the Mozarteum, a concert well worth waking up early for.  Not surprisingly, the small venue that is the Mozarteum’s Great Hall provides the perfect setting for this chamber orchestra, and Bashmet understood how to get even more out of them.  The opening work, Haydn’s Symphony #83 (called the “Hen” because of the clucking in its first movement) became a study in dynamics – the fortes were never too loud, but to provide contrast the pianissimi were about as quiet as humanly possible to still get noise out of the instruments.  These contrasts pushed the symphony forward while showcasing the masterful artistry of individual instruments.

Bashmet then re-emerged with his viola for Paganini’Concertino for Viola and Strings, for which Bashmet’s viola provided an operatic singing voice for the lyrical piece – not a Paganini showpiece in the usual sense, but broader and enabling the soloist to demonstrate mastery of an instrument that rarely gets solo parts written for it.  To accommodate the lack of solo viola music, Bashmet does indeed have to make some of his own arrangements, and this he did after the intermission with his own transposition of Bruch’Kol Nidre from the orchestra accompanying solo cello to solo viola.  He performed the haunting solo lines with great feeling (although I do think it works better with a deeper cello voice).

For the final work, Bashmet led the Camerata in Schubert’s Symphony #5.  Although excellently-played, this work does not have the same contrasts as Haydn’s Hen Symphony at the start of the concert, and without that dynamic play it began to drag.  Although thought of by the composer as a work looking backwards to Mozart, it nevertheless has room to be driven forward.  Unfortunately, that did not happen this morning.  But it in no way detracted from the sheer musicianship of the orchestra or its guest conductor/soloist.

Arctic Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Aagard-Nilsen, Tartini, Lindberg, Tschaikowsky, Grieg

Trombonist / conductor / composer Christian Lindberg founded the Arctic Philharmonic Orchestra in 2009, inspired by the Venezuelan maestro José Antonio Abreu (founder of “El Sistema”), who advocates social transformation through music.  The Arctic Philharmonic, based in a couple of Norwegian towns north of the Arctic Circle, recombines itself in different settings and combinations to flood the region with a variety of music.  This week they came to Salzburg – and tonight’s program looked the most promising in the schedule.  Indeed, it was a pleasant surprise – maybe I should have gone to more of their concerts this week (some overlap in the selections from day to day, but a good range).  I had assumed from the publicity that it was a student “Sistema” orchestra, and thought a bunch of concerts might be too many, but it’s a professional group I’d be pleased to hear again (although this was the final night this time through).

Lindberg is a somewhat famboyant character, and very expressive on the podium.  He clearly rehearses this orchestra well.  They played every note distinctly and with distinction.  At times this became a little too technical, and the tone was often a tad thin no matter the size of the group on stage (for the Tschaikowsky Fourth Symphony, for example, the big orchestra did not always have the fullness of sound to match).  But if the orchestra did not always make Tschaikowsky’s rhythms dance, or always reflect Tschaikowsky’s moods (although the first movement drew out the melancholy of Yevgeny Onyegin, composed around the same time), it did provide quite a spring during selections from Grieg’Peer Gynt music played as several encores.

The concert had opened with Boreas Sings, a 2012 work by Norwegian composer Torstein Aagard-Nilsen, inspired by the Aurora Borealis.  The piece never really went anywhere – it developed sounds in one direction, then morphed into something else, and morphed again, and again.  I suppose this is an accurate musical description of the Aurora Borealis (I’ve somehow never experienced it, unfortunately).

Other than the Grieg encores, the highlights of the night involved the outstanding young Venezuelan trumpeter Pacho Flores.  Lindberg first met him when he went to Venezuela to conduct Abreu’s orchestra, and then came across him again later, and decided he had to bring him on tour.  Flores did not dissappoint, and we got to experience plenty of his talent.

After the Aagard-Nilsen piece, Flores came out for Tartini’s Concerto for Trumpet and Strings, which was an arrangement of a violin concerto.  Tartini, born in the wonderful Venetian fishing village of Pirano (one of my favorite spots in modern-day Slovenia) had six fingers on his hands, enabling him to perform impossibly-difficult music on his violin – notably the “Devil’s Trill.”  In this case, he transcribed this impossible violin music to the trumpet, which should right there be even more impossible.  Flores made it sound effortless.  Maybe he has six tongues.  And in between the crazy outer movements, the slow inner movement came across as fine velvet, demonstrating Flores’ versatility.

This versatility came out again in the next work, Akbank Bunka, composed by the conductor Lindberg himself in 2004.  This piece never quite decided what style it wanted to be in, ranging from neo-Sibelius to neo-jazz.  No matter.  Flores handled it all.

For an encore, Flores came out with a flugelhorn and did a solo piece.  I have no idea what it was, but it sounded like he had taken a trumpet exercise book for students and then played it at record speed.  The ease he did this with was astonishing.  He then gave us another extended encore, accompanied by the orchestra – also no idea what it was, but it sounded like bad film music arranged for performance in a nightclub – no matter, since Flores could make this sound good too and demonstrate his versatility in the process.  In total, he played a range of styles several centuries apart using three different instruments.  The audience kept calling him back out for more bows, with the hope of getting more encores, but none of these were short and his lips may have fallen off.  Or maybe not, but that was all we got.