Salzburger Landestheater, Felsenreitschule

Bizet, Carmen

I do not know what opera I just saw performed by the Salzburg Landestheater at the Felsenreitschule (something nonsensical about Mexican drug cartels), but I do know what I heard: a musically-outstanding performance of Bizet‘s Carmen.

The highest kudos must go to the Landestheater’s music director, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, for ignoring the idiocy on stage and getting the musicians to produce real drama.  She captured the emotion, drove the (real) plot, and balanced the tragedy with the light-heartedness and dance in much of this music.  The orchestral colors mixed in just the right combinations, full but never overwhelming the singers.

The cast, too, responded to her direction more than to the stage director’s.  The Byelorussian mezzo Oksana Volkova portrayed a seductive – both flirty and hard-to-get – Carmen with a full voice, although it tired during rhe second act (performed without a break from the first, so requiring her to show quite a lot of stamina).  Tenor Andeka Gorrotxategi, like his character Don José a Basque, took most of the first act to warm up, but his originally somewhat-dry voice came into its own as the opera progressed.  Philadelphian Zachary Nelson disappointed as a weaker-voiced Escamillo, more telling in contrast to the others.  The best voice of the evening belonged to Russian soprano Elena Stikhina, as Micaela, whose beautiful instrument radiated confidently.

About the staging (a terrible concept by Andreas Gergen), the less said the better.  This was not an update into another time and location, but rather a retelling of the story.  Determining exactly how to get the new plot to match the libretto took too much energy.  When it became apparent that the musical performance deserved full attention, I started ignoring the revised plot on stage and just enjoyed the music.  Looking at the singers, it seems they tried to do the same, focussing entirely on Gražinytė-Tyla and getting on with it.

Lahti Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Sibelius, Bruch

Every couple of years, the Lahti Symphony Orchestra visits Austria and provides a chance to get a splash of Sibelius served ice cold.  I’ve heard them in the Musikverein and in the Konzerthaus, and this year they brought Sibelius to Salzburg’s Great Festival House for the 150th year of the composer’s birth.

Music Director Okko Kamu coaxed a full sound from the orchestra, but rather than lush and flowing, the music emerges icily, with hard edges, an arctic river before the winter.  En Saga led off the program, with accentuated melodies that danced like nymphs from rock to rock.  The Third Symphony completed the scheduled program with more of the same.  Sibelius’ big chorales sang broadly without words – but Sibelius famously said that if people wanted to sing, they should sing.  Two movements from the composer’s incidental music to Pelléas and Mélisande arrived as encores, also skating on the congealing ice.

In the midst of all of this came Max Bruch’s First Violin Concerto.  That German composer’s most famous and popular work normally sounds warm, but by sticking it in the midst of the Sibelius these forces did not contrast but rather accentuated its edgier bits.  Soloist Elina Vähälä dug in to this interpretation, her bow a blade against the icy strings.  Like the orchestra, her sound also came out full but hard (and sometimes a tad sharp, almost on purpose it seemed).  For an encore, she joined up with the first and second chair violins for a trio, which she introduced as coming “from Finland” (but more than that it was not exactly clear what it was): a modern work, albeit harking back to an older tradition, and which all three violinists attacked with the same style and method for good results.

Münchner Symphoniker, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Grieg

Tonight’s reading, in Salzburg’s Great Festival House, of excerpts from Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (in German translation) clarified the music of Edvard Grieg.

Although I have heard Grieg’s complete incidental music to Peer Gynt (accompanying a reading in Russian), normally only the two short suites get performed, disembodied from the whole.  The Munich Symphony Orchestra kept only the two suites as well this evening, but by inserting the readings that explained what the music itself sought to describe, it gave them additional meaning and drama.  This is nice music, but much nicer when put in context – indeed, the music makes a whole lot more sense this way (I do not believe I have ever heard “In the Hall of the Mountain King” quite like that before).

Friedrich von Thun, a famous Austrian actor, did the readings.  He can still certainly act, but his voice has become dry and crackly and required amplification.  He worked well, however, with Estonian conductor Anu Tali, who knew how to draw out the dramatic scenes from just eight segments of music.  Unfortunately it is worth noting that Tali is a woman – not that has anything to do with her music-making, but only because it is so absurdly rare to see female conductors for reasons I have never comprehended.  Good for her.

The concert opened with Grieg’s Piano Concerto, performed with the young Austrian pianist Florian Feilmair.  The Munich Symphony Orchestra apparently performs a lot of European movie soundtracks, which gives it a somewhat homogeneous background tone – and although he played well (albeit sometimes hesitantly), Feilmair just did not blend in.  The concerto thus came off sounding like it was an orchestral work that Grieg never fully orchestrated.

Salzburger Dommusik, Salzburg Cathedral

Bruckner, Sechter, Lachner

A rare chance to hear Bruckner’Te Deum and other religious choral music in a church: the Salzburg Cathedral Choir performed a selection in the Salzburg Cathedral.

Bruckner composed most of the works this afternoon when he was still the organist at the St. Florian Monastery, in a style instantly recognizable from his later orchestral music.  The selection of assorted pieces displayed the mastery of Palestrina, albeit several centuries later – so by Bruckner’s day conservative, but understanding that saying something new in church music still required a reliance on transmitting the text.  The Locus iste, which I heard performed in the Great Festival House last month, held up well in the muddier acoustics of the Cathedral, and Bruckner’s setting of Ave Maria truly deserves more attention.  János Czifra conducted, ensuring that the chorus enunciated fully so that the text could emerge despite the blurry reverberations across the building.  Although I do not know the acoustics of the St. Florian Monastery, this reading showed that Bruckner understood the importance of getting the religious message out in a venue that works essentially as an enormous damper pedal.

This became more noticeable with the addition to the program (not in the program as advertised) of two non-Bruckner works: short pieces by Bruckner’s composition professor at the Vienna Conservatory, Simon Sechter (after Sechter’s death, the Conservatory hired Bruckner to fill his chair), and another Sechter pupil Franz Lachner.  Although similar in style, and performed by Czifra and the choir using the same technique, these pieces did not demonstrate the same mastery of space as Bruckner’s.

The concert built up to the featured work, Bruckner’s Te Deum, for which the Cathedral’s orchestra joined.  I feared they might blow the roof off the building, despite being a small chamber orchestra (albeit with augmented brass).  But Czifra, who has been the Cathedral’s Kapellmeister since 1987, knew his venue. Hearing this work in a cathedral was nothing like hearing it in concert (where it does get performed).  Bruckner actually did write it for a concert hall and not for a church, but given his background it is certainly appropriate to bring it back to a relgious setting.  Czifra made the group perform more delicately, allowing the building’s acoustics to mix the palette of sounds, but with sufficient stops inserted to avoid unwanted color – especially after hearing Bruckner’s earlier choral music, this presented a new and refreshing way to understand this composer’s later construction techniques.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Schumann, Bach, Bruckner

The Mozarteum Orchestra launched its Sunday matinee series for 2015-16 this morning in Salzburg’s Large Festival House with some known but lesser-played, almost experimental, music from the middle of the 19th Century.

Schumann’s “Overture, Scherzo, and Finale” (a rather clunky title after he rejected more logical ones) opened the program.  Although perfectly pleasant, this work suffered from a lack of a coherent concept.  Schumann revised it many times for more than a decade after its premiere, but does not seem to have ever rectified its main weakness.  With an opening almost foretelling Tschaikowsky’s opening to Yevgeny Onyegin (composed a few decades later), Schumann backpedalled into a post-Mozartian muddle before reaching a Bach-like fugue which culminated in a brass chorale almost predicting Bruckner.  Where was Schumann going with all of this?

If he was going towards Bruckner, we did have a chance to find out later in the concert.  But before we got there, German cellist Jan Vogler came out to slog through Schumann’s Cello Concerto.  Again, Schumann produced a perfectly pleasant work which did not say anything.  Vogler’s dry tone easily filled the large hall, but nevertheless came out somewhat subdued rather than expansive.  When the orchestra stood down and Vogler gave a Bach saraband as an encore, the cellist confirmed the impression.  An accomplished musician who formerly filled the first chair of the Dresden Staatskapelle, Vogler’s playing did not lack quality, just dynamism.  Perhaps he should return to orchestral playing rather than a solo career.

After the break came Bruckner’s 2nd Symphony, logically resuming where the first Schumann work at the start of the concert had left off.  Although Bruckner wrote this piece when he was nearly fifty, it is in many ways a young work as he started writing orchestral music so late.  Bruckner never dedicated this symphony, so he offered it to Wagner at the same time as he showed the German composer his 3rd Symphony – Wagner wisely preferred the dedication of the latter, more-mature work.  The 2nd could have used some intelligent editing to tighten the phrases.  Bruckner did produce several versions over the years, but these did not resolve its underlying wordiness.

A driven performance can overcome these defects.  Ivor Bolton, the Mozarteum Orchestra’s music director, did not accomplish this, allowing some of the longer passages to drag.  The orchestra, although falling out of synch now and then, sounded strong and in good health.  Schumann and Bruckner, in these readings, maybe less so.  And while I know from other performances that the Bruckner 2nd can be salvaged, the verdict remains out on these lesser Schumann works.

Salzburger Dommusik, Salzburg Cathedral

Mozart

A special concert appeared in the Salzburg Cathedral in the old-fashioned way: by poster, with tickets at the door.  The Salzburg Cathedral Choir and Orchestra, with guests, performed Mozart’s Mass in c-minor in the Salzburg Cathedral.  And while they have a website and normally publicize, this concert remained a mystery – I had only seen posters two weeks ago at the Cathedral entrance.

The acoustics in that building do cause the sounds to blur, making a fair appraisal more difficult.  Nevertheless, the words came out with clear enunciation and the instruments emerged individually as well, so despite the blurry lines these musicians, who provide the music every week for High Mass and are used to the building and its acoustics, understood the idiom and the setting.  János Czifra conducted.