Wiener Philharmoniker, Musikverein

Stravinsky, Schostakowitsch

A visit to the Musikverein’s Golden Hall by Mariss Jansons to lead the Vienna Philharmonic is always worth flagging in the calendar, no matter what they put on the program. Tonight proved no exception, with Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Schostakowitsch’s 10th Symphony.

I last heard this peculiar Stravinsky work five seasons ago, with the at the time newly-bankrupt and demoralized Philadelphia Orchestra under the perennially bankrupt-of-ideas Charles Dutoit. They completely flummoxed me with what seemed an ugly and pointless work. Nevertheless, I thought something must be hiding in there, and so I’ve waited eagerly for the opportunity to hear the work again. Lo and behold, when put into the competent hands of Jansons, it all made sense tonight.

Stravinsky re-thought the psalms, updating old church chants for the twentieth century with a highly original orchestration. There are many ways to praise the Lord. The Lord has probably heard them all before, so I suppose Stravinsky decided he required something new and inspired to get attention. Jansons got the pacing right, the broad and mystical mixed with the impulsive and driven. The Philharmoniker – or at least the strange combination of instrumentalists called for by Stravinsky – brought out the bold accents and bright colors, wherever required, to support the Singverein’s vocals. Would that the Lord be pleased! The audience certainly was, with a thumping ovation.

After the intermission came Schostakowitsch. If Stravinsky from his exile could praise the Lord with a new song, Schostakowitsch was left behind in Russia, lingering in a godless empire. The first movement portrayed a landscape so devastating that the Siberian gulags would have paled in comparison. Death, heartbreak, destruction, and all of the misery of the Soviet regime was on display. As the symphony progressed across the musical tundra, the regime and its minions shot down anyone who dared hope. The workers went about their roles as automatons in their wonderful dictatorship of the proletariat. But through it all came a glimmer of light – in the snarky form of the composer’s musical signature: D-S-C-H, D-S-C-H, D-S-C-H – haltingly at first and ultimately triumphantly. Jansons let us hear the message clearly, and the orchestra responded. Indeed, at times it felt like echoes from last night’s concert (Mahler 7) had hung in the hall, with some intimate solo parts and exposed ensemble playing, shining some light in the darkness. Oh so much darkness.

Wiener Symphoniker, Musikverein

Mozart, Papandopulo, D. Scarlatti, Mahler

Ádám Fischer and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra gave us a concert of two distinct halves in the Musikverein this evening – same orchestra, same conductor, and same hall, but the similarities ended there. The first half featured Mozart, who thought life was worth living; whereas in the second half came Mahler, who wished life were worth living.

Serbian pianist Jasminka Stančul joined in for Mozart’s Piano Concerto #23, bringing great warmth from her keyboard, while Fischer and the Symphoniker melted the room. The second movement practically sang – I eagerly waited for Don Ottavio to climb out from under the soundboard and start his serenade. The final movement displayed Mozart at his most exuberant and irrepressible.

Stančul used the momentum to provide two encores: the first, a distinctly modern firework by Boris Papandopulo (Studia 1), showed that her fingers could be everywhere at once; the second a sonata by Domenico Scarlatti on steroids (although her fingers did not always quite keep up for that one).

But if Mozart were so happy, despite impending doom, then Mahler’s Seventh Symphony put an end to that after the intermission. Fischer’s interpretation was ice cold. While the brass played the opening movement’s funeral marches with deep melancholy, the woodwinds bit, the strings ripped at the open flesh, and the percussion pounded. Fischer took the middle three movements almost as chamber works, despite having a full Mahler-sized orchestra on the stage, carefully crafting the delicate lines, moving from one instrument group to another, with thin blades and cautious steps across the ice. The Symphoniker’s musicians responded with gorgeously idiomatic playing. For the final movement, Fischer combined the two concepts, the brass chorales alternating with restrained but somber chamber constructs. This was a new interpretation of this work – take a big work and rein it in to find its inner meaning and desolation. Although it was an intelligent attempt, and wonderfully performed, to be entirely honest I am not sure Fischer’s interpretation convinced me.

Wiener Symphoniker, Konzerthaus

Schumann

Robert Schumann’s setting of scenes from Goethe’s Faust does not get performed as often as it should, despite being one of the composer’s finest works (or, more accurately, a collection of works).  Goethe’s play is notoriously zany.  The basic underlying story line was an easy topic for composers to portray in music, but the metaphysical aspects were a bigger challenge.  Schumann attempted just that, taking only select scenes, never meant to be staged, yet encapsulating the tension and drama.  He began composition with the final scene (the same scene set by Mahler in his Eighth Symphony – indeed, anticipating Mahler but in Schumann’s mid-19th Century musical language) and then picked an assortment of scenes, composed in spurts and without necessarily trying to always match the same style) before concluding with an overture.  This means that in some ways this piece starts with the most simple scenes set to the most complex music, and as the scenes get more and more detached from the realm of reality, the music becomes simpler and more traditional.

The protagonists tonight in Vienna’s Konzerthaus were the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and the intelligent young British star conductor Daniel Harding (a protégé of Rattle in Birmingham and later Abbado in Berlin, and who I thought should have gotten the job in Berlin earlier this year; although he regularly guest conducts the world’s best orchestras, he has yet to land a top-tier job – I last saw him last year at the helm of his current orchestra, that of the Swedish Radio).  Harding understood Schumann’s intentions, and led a masterful performance.  No staging was necessary – indeed, probably would have detracted – but drama showed in abundance.  The Symphoniker produced a full sound at just the right levels, with virtuoso solo playing when Schumann brought different instruments into the spotlight.

Christian Gerhaher portrayed the troubled title role (and Pater Seraphicus and Dr. Marianus) with dignity and a warm baritone.  Christiane Karg, as Gretchen, elevated the soprano lead.  Bass Alastair Miles produced a dark and devilish Mephistopheles.  And the supporting cast proved excellent as well, all of them acting out roles that could not be acted.  The adults of the Singakademie and the Staatsoper Opera School youth chorus supplied a sumptuous choral backdrop.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Haus für Mozart

Orff

The Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra added a benefit concert this morning at the Haus für Mozart, to support providing education for unaccompanied refugee children who have sought asylum in Salzburg. On the program, a single work: Carmina Burana by Carl Orff.

Orff’s unclear relationship with the Nazi regime (some Nazis found him too modern, but others saw in him a connection to Germanic roots, and he happily provided the Nazis music on commission to replace music by Mendelssohn with more Aryan tones) made him an odd choice for this benefit concert. On the other hand, he dedicated himself to education (my own elementary school music training came through the Orff System he had pioneered). In the end, of course, it was all about the music.

Because recordings of “O Fortuna,” which opens and closes this work, have become overused and clichéd, it feels like the Carmina Burana are over-performed. That said, I do not remember ever hearing this cantata live, nor seeing it programmed in concert (the Vienna Volksoper has staged it as a ballet in recent years, to predictably dreadful reviews), and I believe I myself have never heard it performed live before.

Orff’s cantata is masterful, putting mediaeval songs into a modern idiom. The Mozarteum’s chief conductor, Ivor Bolton, drew out the colors from all corners of the orchestra to maximize Orff’s broad palette. Bolton did not make the big numbers bombastic, but instead used them merely to craft large sounds of the many individually-orchestrated instrumentations.

Baritone Günter Haumer showed off his warm-toned singing instrument, although he sometimes had trouble projecting over the orchestra in the bigger sections. Countertenor Markus Forster waddled on stage to act out his single song – the swan who finds himself roasted for dinner. Haumer took the cue after that and started to act out his songs more as well (notably the drunken abbot in the next song – although I found his Italianate pronunciation of the mediaeval Latin somewhat disconcerting, these songs not being fit for the Vatican but for some rather bawdy German monks). Laura Nicolescu handled her soprano solos beautifully. The Chorus of the Music High School of Salzburg and the Salzburg Festival Children’s Chorus augmented the performance.

Hac in hora sine mora corde pulsum tangite; quod per sortem sternit fortem, mecum omnes plangite!

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Sibelius, Bach, Rott

I have long wanted to hear a live performance of the Symphony by Hans Rott. While clearly a student work, and left unperformed for over a hundred years after Rott wrote it (and still almost never performed), the symphony had an oversized impact on symphonic music.

Rott was Gustav Mahler’s best friend and apartment-mate when the two studied with Anton Bruckner at the Vienna Conservatory. Bruckner and Mahler both believed that Rott was the more talented of the two young friends. But while Mahler was only neurotic, Rott was psychotic. Convinced that Johannes Brahms was plotting to murder him, Rott was confined to an insane asylum when he was 22, where he died at age 25.

Rott wrote only one symphony, and while it was never performed until 1989, Mahler knew the score and credited Rott’s Symphony as inspiration for his own symphonic output. At the same time Rott composed his Symphony, Mahler wrote Das Klagende Lied, another student work, but the influence is immediately apparent. And as a train of thought runs throughout Mahler’s works, so too does Rott’s concept.

Mahler’s Sixth may be the most difficult of his symphonies to understood – or at least it was so for me. I had been aware of Rott’s Symphony, but when I found a recording of it a few years ago, I finally discovered the key to understanding Mahler’s Sixth (and got new insights into the Seventh, as well). Rott’s Symphony is not a depressive work (as those Mahler works are), quite the contrary, but Mahler, remembering his friend many years later and consumed by his own fatalism, expanded the concepts Rott experimented with as a student.

Today’s performance came at a Sunday morning concert in Salburg’s Great Festival House with the Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra under the baton of guest conductor Constantin Trinks. Although Trinks appeared to know what he wanted to get out of the performance, and the orchestra also played generally well, the whole thing sounded under-rehearsed, with some sloppy cues and missed signals. As the Symphony went on, the orchestra became more comfortable with Trinks, however, and there were moments of pure inspiration. Rott experimented with unusual harmonies and dissonance, taking a step beyond his mentor Bruckner (and probably more than Bruckner bringing Wagner’s developments into the symphonic mainstream) while anticipating where Mahler might go (or indeed possibly inspiring Mahler to go there), and the orchestra pulled these passages off effortlessly. The contemplative Wagnerian moments had required delicacy in the solo or small groups of instruments. The Brucknerian brass chorales that rise above and across each other in the Finale shone brilliantly, as Rott painted with every color on his palette – a wonderful first symphony and a taste of what might have become (or did become Mahler, and then on to Schostakowitsch in one direction, and Schoenberg in the other).

In the first half of the concert, Canadian James Ehnes joined the orchestra for Sibelius’ Violin Concerto. Ehnes has a glittering tone, not overpowering his instrument but letting the sound reverberate into the hall. The orchestra may have come across too robustly – as with the Rott Symphony after the intermission, I wondered whether they had all rehearsed together sufficiently. Sibelius had come to Vienna wanting to study with Bruckner (his favorite composer) about a decade after Mahler and Rott, but the aging Bruckner was not taking new students. Nevertheless, Bruckner exerted quite an influence on the Finn, and it seemed the orchestra was trying to prove that point during this piece by building up stone walls of sound. On the whole, Trinks’ reading did not convince.

Ehnes came out for two encores. Although he did not announce them and I could not identify them precisely, I am pretty certain that they were both movements from sonate by Bach. They emphasized different aspects of virtuosity: one fast, one slow (but with separate moving lines, so that Ehnes essentially provided his own accompaniment on the same instrument). Ehnes’ style actually seemed far better-suited for Bach than for Sibelius – where his Sibelius merely reflected the composer’s sunlight, his Bach shone on its own.