Smetana, Korngold, Bach, Dvořák
A pleasantly sentimental Sunday morning concert with the Mozarteum Orchestra in the Salzburg’s Great Festival House may not have overwhelmed, but got the day off to a good start.
The program opened with the Moldau, the second tone poem in Smetana’s My Fatherland series, which the orchestra performed evocatively under the baton of British guest conductor Matthew Halls. I was a little worried about the flutes in the long opening passage, depicting the origins of the river, as I was not sure they were coming up for air – but capture a gurgling spring they did, and the rest of the orchestra took it downstream from there until the river met the Elbe.
Austrian violinst Benjamin Schmid, a professor at the Mozarteum who specializes in 20th century music, joined the orchestra for Korngold’s violin concerto. Korngold, a Viennese Wunderkind with a theatrical flare who landed in Hollywood as an Academy Award-winning composer of film music, repackaged some of his film themes into this concerto, keeping the atmosphere while creating something a bit more serious and charming, which is not performed often enough. Though technically-proficient, Schmid tried to milk a sweet tone from his violin, with legati and vibrati, but it unfortunately came out somewhat sour. Korngold said he wanted the soloist for this work to be more Caruso and less Paganini – but Schmid is neither. Even more sour (since he had no orchestral accompaniment) was his solo encore, which sounded like it must have originally been by Bach, but underwhelmed.
Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony rounded out the program. Halls seemed determined to emphasize the influence of Brahms on this work. Brahms did indeed influence and champion the Czech composer. Brahms, wrote music of the highest quality that was often excessively unimaginative and dull. But whereas Dvořák learned orchestration and structure from his mentor, he took inspiration from Czech (and other) folk traditions and had something more to say. The performance this morning managed to leave out the extra meanings, producing just a nostalgic reading of what might have been. For a Sunday morning, that may have been enough.
I started my 2016 concert-going with the Finnish: Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, that is, under its music director Hannu Lintu for an all-Sibelius program.
The program featured two of Sibelius’ final compositions, the tone poem Tapiola and the Seventh Symphony (as well as an encore consisting of excerpts from his incidental music to The Tempest, composed around the same time). Although Sibelius lived for more than thirty more years (he did not die until 1957), after 1926 the increasingly-moody composer never wrote another major work other than his mysterious Eighth Symphony, all traces of which he despondently destroyed by burning them in the stove of his cottage in 1945.
Lintu and the orchestra literally spoke his language tonight. One wonders what was going on inside the composer’s head for all those years. The majestic and melancholic Seventh Symphony was alone worth the price of tonight’s ticket, its dark chorales pondering the vagueries of life as they arose from the grumblings on the stage of Salzburg’s Great Festival House.
In between the two late works, Canadian violinist Leila Josefowicz joined the Finns for Sibelius’ Violin Concerto. Although not Finnish, Josefowicz, too, demonstrated complete understanding of the idiom, producing a rugged tone, tough enough to survive the arctic winters – albeit she was not always robust enough in the bigger passages with orchestra, particularly in the conclusion to the first movement. Nevertheless, she demonstrated a swagger and confidence in her playing that made this oft-performed concerto come alive.
Lintu closed the main program with a relatively early work, Finlandia. Initially I thought this a strange programming choice to put this at the end, but having emerged from the Seventh Symphony and Sibelius’ late style, hearing the brighter patriotic piece subsequently brought out new angles. Lintu took the chorales more slowly, and having just experienced the darker chorales of the Seventh Symphony, these brighter ones took on new meaning. This was not a rousing performance necessarily, but rather a more pensive one, showing the beauty of the composer’s homeland, then awakening from its slumber under Russian occupation.