Berlin Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Britten, Schostakowitsch

It was third time lucky this year with the Berlin Philharmonic.  They underwhelmed me in Vienna and Berlin in May, but in Salzburg this afternoon they hit their stride for the closing concert of the Festival.  Simon Rattle took the podium.

The concert opened with a work I did not previously know: Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge by Benjamin Britten.  This was Britten’s first major international success, composed on commission for the 1937 Salzburg Festival.  In it, Britten took a simple theme from his composition teacher and ran it through a bunch of variations for string orchestra.  And these were not just the usual variations, but rather in a wide range of styles, from Viennese waltz to funeral music and from military march to baroque fugue.  The Berlin Philharmonic strings needed to demonstrate almost every possible manner of playing, and Rattle had to jump from one to another with versatility and agility.  They succeeded and then some.

These skills also helped after the intermission, when the full orchestra took the stage.  Schostakowitsch’s Fourth Symphony was banned for 25 years in part because it accurately portrayed how miserable life is in Russia.  The authorities also thought it was far too complex.  The Berliners handled the complexities this afternoon with few problems – almost made it sound easy, but sometimes it was a head-scratcher (“did they really just manage to play that?!?!).  Rattle had it all under control.  My only quibble is that they could have played it several shades darker – this performance did not quite portray Russia in all of its misery.
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Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Brahms, Schmidt, Elgar

No one doubts the technical skill of Johannes Brahms.  The composer’s problem, however, was that his music was highly derivative, unoriginal, and quite often boring.  Nevertheless, place the instruments in the hands of the Vienna Philharmonic and it becomes perfect music to wake up to on a Sunday morning.

A morning concert opened the final day of the Salzburg Festival.  Brahms’ Symphony #3 opened the performance.  The strings produced lush sounds to fill the hall, while maestro Semyon Bychkov, who seems to have become a favorite of the Philharmonic recently, found ways to keep the playing fresh.  All I was missing in my seat in the Large Festival House was breakfast (I had juice and a yoghurt before leaving home, and cooked a full breakfast back at home after the concert).  Brahms may not be my favorite way to end a day, but with these forces on the stage it was a great way to start one.

Franz Schmidt, whose music remains under-appreciated, contributed Symphony #2 after the break.  The contrast with Brahms was evident.  Schmidt, a devout Catholic and one-time disciple of Bruckner at the Vienna Conservatory, looked backwards like his teacher to earlier forms of music, especially from the church, for inspiration and technique.  But unlike Brahms, Schmidt’s inspirations from the past pushed him into the 20th Century.  This Symphony, originally conceived as a simple piano work that grew out of control, was well-grounded but expanded the art of the possible without breaking the mold.  The final chorale, rising triumphantly from the brass, was pure Bruckner – if Bruckner had lived 20 years longer – except that it wasn’t.  Where Brahms would derive inspiration from Beethoven and others and just re-write the music of the earlier composers in technically superb but less-exciting ways, Schmidt took his models as a starting point and built something new.  The Philharmonic and Bychkov made it all riveting.

We did get an encore, although I might prefer not to mention it: “Nimrod” from Elgar’Enigma Variations.  Yes, it is beautiful (especially with the Philharmonic), but it seems that I have recently heard it performed as an encore (plus once as part of the whole work) by every orchestra on the planet, and frankly I wish they chose something else.  Maybe the Blue Danube would have been appropriate for this concert (Brahms once autographed a score of Johann Strauß II’s waltz: “unfortunately not composed by Brahms”)?  Nope, Elgar’s Nimrod again.

Israel Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Schoenberg, Tschaikowsky, Mussorgsky

Zubin Mehta, recovering from knee surgery, conducted the Israel Philharmonic tonight in Salzburg’s Large Festival House while sitting down.   He received major applause for the effort, and for his genuine popularity. Unfortunately, the handicap resulted in a concert that resembled one of his misses that came all-to-frequently for much of his otherwise charismatic career.

The Israel Philharmonic demonstrated real virtuosity across all of its lines, one instrumentalist finer than the other.  They played well together.  So the problem came in interpretation, and possibly a lack of inspiration.

Two works by Schoenberg took up the first hour of the concert:Verklärte Nacht and the Chamber Symphony #1.  The first work, for a string chamber orchestra, can be quite sensuous, an individual work but still fully tonal.  Not tonight, as it dragged from the beginning and the night felt like it never ended.  The Chamber Symphony #1, for 15 instruments, already shows Schoenberg begin to break down traditional tonality.  This imaginative work requires much expert playing, which we got.  But after ten minutes tonight, Mehta ceased to say anything new, leaving the audience to just wait for this to pass.

After the intermission came Tschaikowsky’s Sixth.  This interpretation featured more excellent instrumentalism, yet somehow managed to both lack dancing in Tschaikowsky’s lush swinging orchestrations, and also miss the morbid foretelling of the composer’s own death days after the Symphony’s premiere.  This version tonight just dragged.

Mehta managed to stay on his feet during the encore, the prelude to Khovanshchina by Mussorgsky, and here we received more drama in the reading.  It’s hard to criticize the conductor, who could have rightfully canceled, but that’s what we got.  He’s personally popular for a reason.  But at least we did get to hear the Israel Philharmonic, itself worth the price of a ticket.

Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, Felsenreitschule

Mozart, Dvořák

The Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra scored a triumph in Salzburg’s Felsenreitschule this evening, with round after round of boisterous applause and foot-stomping.  On the podium, the almost-youthful Herbert Blomstedt, who is actually as old as any four orchestra members combined.  But this in no way made him any less enthusiastic, and the warm bond between Blomstedt and the orchestra became immediately apparent.

The concert led off with Mozart’s Symphony #39, a work in which the playful composer switched directions several times.  Just when the symphony looked to go one way, Mozart went the other.  Blomstedt accentuated these jumps, and the skillful musicians smiled back.  

This was my first time in the Felsenreitschule, a concert hall made for the Salzburg Festival, built out of a former Prince-Archbishop’s stables carved into the mountainside.  I found the hall a bit odd – the seating in the theater is symmetrical, but not centered in the room.  The stage is used by the Festival for opera productions, and so many of the sets, as well as scaffolding, cluttered the sides around the orchestra, making it feel like they were performing in a warehouse (while we were sitting in a theater that did not quite match).  The acoustics are supposed to be excellent – it is what made Max Reinhardt and the other founders of the Festival want to use this space, but for the Mozart the orchestra sounded a bit distant.

Yet the orchestra on stage for Mozart was small.  After the intermission, the full orchestra emerged for Dvořák’s Symphony #9, and they no longer sounded distant.  This was odd, because the sound should depend on the number of instruments playing and their volume, and not the number of instruments sitting on stage (in other words, the big passages in the Mozart still sounded distant, whereas the quieter passages scored for only a few instruments in the Dvořák did not.  Perhaps it took this long to warm up (the hall indeed felt warmer as the night wore on).

Blomstedt and the orchestra continued to have fun with the Dvořák, particularly the syncopated rhythms where they accentuated the dance.  Ultimately, they went directly to a dance, one of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances came as an encore that shook the hall.  Talented playing all around – remarkable woodwinds (especially the English Horn solo in the Dvořák; although the flutist for the Dvořák was no where near as good as his colleague who had performed for the Mozart, and who reminded me of my sister).

Boston Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Strauss, Schostakowitsch

If the Boston Symphony Orchestra may not have understood Mahler’s Sixth yesterday, they certainly understood Don Quijote by Richard Strauss today.  Strauss wrote the piece, but tonight Andris Nelsons was the story-teller on the podium.  The Orchestra responded wonderfully, with all of the nuances missing from last night’s Mahler.  Of course, it did not hurt that, portraying Don Quijote himself, Yo-Yo Ma on the cello made the title character sympathetic and tragic.  The poor knight meant well, but his delusions put him into increasingly untenable situations, until he died a broken man.  Ma started firmly, slowly succombing to fate, but keeping a positive outlook of the knight errant.  Cervantes himself barely told it better.

After the break, the orchestra returned for Schostakowitsch’s Tenth Symphony.  Once again, as for last night’s Mahler, this work was probably too big for where this orchestra is right now.  But it is easier to decipher than the Mahler, and the solo lines sounded more comfortable (excellent bassoon and contrabassoon, in particular).  If they follow Nelsons, they won’t get lost, and the story Nelsons told was one of the devastation wrought by Josef Stalin, and Schostakowitsch’s survival.  Stalin’s legacy marched out for all to see – Schostakowitsch portrayed in music the man Osip Mandelstam so vividly displayed in poetry, and that poetry echoed through the hall tonight (“every killing was a treat, for the broad-chested Ossete”).  Schostakowitsch outlived Stalin, in life and in the symphony, but the Soviet Union marched on.  Nelsons, born under Russian occupation, showed the way, if not to victory then just to survival (as his hero in last night’s Mahler Sixth also appears to have survived).

The BSO is wise to continue to follow Nelsons where he leads.  This is a conductor on a mission, with forceful readings and clear vision.

Boston Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mahler

I cannot remember the last time I heard the Boston Symphony Orchestra live, but it must have been while I was still at Harvard.  It stagnated for three decades under Seiji Ozawa and James Levine who succeeded Ozawa simply was not in good enough health to do anything about it but lingered for seven years before finally stepping down.  So the appointment of the dynamic young Latvian Andris Nelsons at the start of the last season marked a hopeful turn.  Nelsons has rightfully reached star status in his visits to Vienna, so can he achieve the same in Boston to restore this orchestra?

I must say the jury (I suppose I am the jury here) is still out, from an unrepresentative sample: Mahler’s Sixth Symphony in Salzburg’s Large Festival House tonight.  Historically, this orchestra has been the smallest of the US “Big Five” orchestras, and therefore excelled more at the smaller symphonic works.  This is a big work: how could a normally smaller orchestra handle it?  The orchestra pulled Mahlerian forces on stage for it, so the sound was big enough.  But it lacked warmth and fullness.  The playing was of a high quality, and quite together, but something was missing.  When solo instruments had exposed lines, they played them well, but a certain virtuosity lacked.  While symphony orchestras need to blend, the best ones blend individuals – thinking of how the principals of the Philadelphia Orchestra, for example, overwhelm the listener with their skill when presented the chance.  Not this orchestra tonight.

Nelsons took a slightly unusual interpretation of this symphony, treating it not as disaster befalling a hero, but rather as the hero trying with all his might to enjoy life despite impending doom.  So the music playfully danced, jumped, and soared, as destructive fate all the while loomed.  Mahler wrote this symphony with three devastating hammer blows in the final movement, and later decided that the third one was too depressing even for him.  So he suggested removing it.  Nelsons followed Mahler’s second-thought recommendation, and so we only got two hammer blows tonight.  The result of this was an almost optimistic conclusion by comparison.  Maybe the hero will survive despite the tragedy of the world.

The orchestra responded to Nelsons, and the quite good playing drew out his interpretation yet lacked something – they played as he directed them, but did they know what they were playing?  This is notoriously the most difficult of Mahler’s symphonies to understand (it took me years – I don’t think I really got it until about ten years ago).  Nelsons gets it; I am not sure the BSO does – yet.  Give them some more time with Nelsons.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Bruckner

A hopeful, almost happy, reading of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony by Bernard Haitink and the Vienna Philharmonic at the Salzburg Festival this evening.

 

This is the second year in a row I have heard the Philharmoniker perform this work here – last year with quite a different interpretation under Herbert Blomstedt.  This orchestra premiered the symphony and has been performing it for 123 years, but each conductor will bring something else to it.  Blomstedt conducted like an architect building a massive cathedral.  Haitink may have lacked the same hewn approach, but the one he took worked.

 

This symphony often brings the listener to hear the destruction of the world, which is what made tonight’s performance so surprising.  Haitink accentuated the joyous aspects in the music, more prevalent in Bruckner’s early symphonies (up until his Fourth).  The rhythms superimposed on the massive blocks of sound ensure the work remains off-kilter, but rather than foreboding the result tonight stressed the positive.

 

The world is still going to end.  But if it is going to end, maybe that’s a good thing.

Budapest Festival Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Bartók, Mahler

The Budapest Festival Orchestra came to the Salzburg Festival tonight, conducted by its founder Iván Fischer, to provide new ways of hearing Bartók and Mahler.

Bartók’s Hungarian Sketches for Orchestra opened the program.  An orchestration and elaboration done in the 1930s of music he wrote for piano a quarter of a century earlier, Bartók captured lyrical folk dances.  Fischer and his orchestra performed these as though written for a chamber wind ensemble, augmented by the rest of the orchestra.  The result showed off the versatility of this string section, which evoked the Hungarian traditions.  Where most orchestras have their strings synchronize their bowing, this orchestra had the woodwinds synchronize their own motions – heads flowing up-and-down and side-to-side with the music (with big sweeps – the instruments often shot upwards of the musicians’ heads).

Yefim Bronfman joined the orchestra for Bartók’s Piano Concerto #3.  Bartók viewed the piano fundamentally as a percussion instrument (a view I share), and tonight’s performance verified the assertion.  Although generally lyrical, this concerto – the last composition the composer completed before he died (the Philadelphia Orchestra gave its premiere after his death) – allowed some dialogue between the piano and, alternately, the woodwinds, strings, and tympani, but I do wonder if this piece might have done better if he had simply orchestrated the non-percussive piano parts.  Bronfman treated us to an (unidentified) encore – a flashy and also very-percussive solo piano piece where his fingers and hands turned into a blur as they athletically jumped all over the keyboard.

Mahler’s Symphony #4 is perhaps the lightest and most cheerful of his symphonies.  Not tonight.  Fischer did keep the size of the sound manageable, almost a chamber-music reading (albeit with full orchestra), but this was not by any means a light performance, and it certainly was not cheerful.  I may never have heard this work sound so dark and angst-ridden, and would not be surprised if the suicide rate in Salzburg spikes this evening.

The opening of the symphony dances.  But tonight Fischer inserted extra lilts in the dancing, to keep everything off-balance.  He also exposed separate lines elsewhere in the orchestra which conflict with the flow of one dance while suggesting another.  Yet he did this, keeping the music small – until about ten minutes in when the crescendo introduces the fate motif Mahler would develop in his fifth symphony, here left unresolved.

For the second movement, the principal horn (unidentified in the program) came to the front of the orchestra and sat next to the concert mistress (also unidentified in the program).  This was no sweet duet, but an interogation.  She played the solo violin parts with a sinister glare, while he answered on the horn with a lyrical self-defense.  The orchestra surrounded him with deep foreboding, always off-kilter.

The third movement adagio marked the darkest turn.  Taken at an especially slow pace, and with the orchestra keeping the sound low and delicate, this movement set the scene in nature, the successor of the closing movement of Mahler’s third symphony, but smaller and more contained.  But this was no happy march through the fields, but rather the wanderings of a troubled man seeking his doom in a place of utmost beauty.  The audience, which had been unusually restless through the concert so far, snapped to attention – no one moved, no one breathed, and even the coughing – which had plagued a good number of audience members – ceased.  I think this heart-wrenching interpretation made these ill people see the benefit of killing themselves.

Swedish soprano Miah Persson came out on stage slowly as this movement ended, allowing Fischer to move directly into the final movement.  She ended up standing where the hornist had been, and became subject to the same interogation.  Her sweat voice did not project fully in Salzburg’s Great Festival House, but Fischer kept a cap on the orchestra and never overwhelmed her with sound, although he did with anxiety, as she sang the lyrics about heaveny pleasures.

After several rounds of stunned applause (it was a good applause, but I think the audience was a bit emotionally overwhelmed), and perhaps well aware that they had to restore the audience’s mood after this, the performers offered us an encore.  I’m not sure what it was, but it sounded like a Latin prayer from the late baroque or early classical period.  Perrson sang beautifully, accompanied by a small chamber group within the orchestra.  About halfway through, the rest of the orchestra stood up in their places and joined in as a choir, singing the choral accompaniment.  An appropriate encore – something too cheerful would not work, but the mood had to become more hopeful – which provoked a standing ovation for one more round of applause.

Camerata Salzburg, Mozarteum

Stravinsky, Mozart, Tschaikowsky

Mozart in the Mozarteum this evening kicked off August at the Salzburg Festival, along with some of his admirers.

Pinchas Zukerman led the Camerata Salzburg on an intelligent chamber music course.  Rather than jumping in with Mozart and building, he started with the most modern piece on the program: Igor Stravinsky’Concerto for String Orchestra.  Although a piece from his neo-classical period, this was only Mozartean in form.  Stravinsky’s harmonics and syncopations made its mid-20th-century provenance clear.  For a short work, Stravinsky stripped out the nonsense and replaced it with charm, each strange harmony of syncopation coming unexpectedly but in just the right places.

Hearing that Stravinsky work first before anything by Mozart meant not seeing the Mozartean influence in Stravinsky, but rather hearing the first work by Mozart as a fore-runner of the modern.  Mozart’s Violin Concerto #5 had its own amusements, considering its 18th-century origin.  Zukerman, who picked up his violin to play the solos while conducting, intentionally did not show a warm tone, but rather propelled the music robustly.  If Stravinsky had given us a modern reinterpretation of classical form, Mozart, as performed here, gave us a glimpse of the modern from the classical period itself.

After the intermission, Mozart’s Serenade #6 – Serenata Nocturna – sounded more stereotypically Mozartean, both in terms of its more traditional harmonics and rhythms, and also for its churlish humor: Mozart oddly scored a bass as part of the concertino with solo lines, and added a flamboyant tympani to a chamber string orchestra.

The concert concluded with Tschaikowsky’Serenade for Strings, written as a hommage to Mozart, Tschaikowsky’s favorite composer.  But where Tschaikowsky called for the “largest possible” string orchestra (essentially the string section of a full symphony orchestra), Zukerman kept only the core members of the Camerata Salzburg on stage.  A chamber performance of this work emphasized many of the delicate nuances that get lost, but these performers could still fill the hall with sound during the larger portions.  A rousing end.