Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Orchesterhaus Salzburg

Mozart, Prokofiev, Beethoven

The Mozarteum Orchestra kindly gave me a free ticket to a non-calendar concert this morning at their rehearsal hall in the Orchesterhaus, where they were auditioning a candidate for their soon-to-be-open music director position: Vassilis Christopoulos, a Greek born and educated in Germany. At 40, he is still young, but has spent his career flitting around the most provincial of provincial houses. His two head postings – currently head of the Southwest German Philharmonic of Constance and formerly artistic director of the Athens Opera – have not made a name for either. The concert was extremely pleasant, but the orchestra may still be searching.

Christopoulos was fine, with a clear technique, but I did not see any particular spark of inspiration. The orchestra likely wants someone more established who rehearses well, although I think they should go for a young dynamo on the up, after the model of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, an ambitious provincial band (like the Mozarteum) which regularly selects charismatic music directors in their late 20s who bring the orchestra and its renown up with them as they rise (most famously Simon Rattle, who stayed 18 years, followed by Sakari Oromo for ten, Andris Nelsons for seven, and starting this fall Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, who is the music director of the Salzburg Landestheater).

The program opened with the Overture to Mozart‘s Don Giovanni, which this orchestra could probably play in its sleep. The music flew off the stage (designed to match the stage in the Great Festival House, so the orchestra can maintain its sightlines) and whirled into the audience (a 250-seat 2-level auditorium, so not very deep), which allowed us to appreciate the interior lines and menacing brass (all of two horns and two trumpets, but still coming on strong in this reading). The whole opera is in their repertory this season, in their dual role as pit orchestra for the Landestheater, so when they play the overture they are also ready to present the full meaning of an entire drama condensed into five minutes.

Two first symphonies followed. Prokofiev wrote his first – the “Classical” – in the style of Haydn, if Haydn had come back in the 20th century. The instrumentation he borrowed from what Haydn had used in his final symphony. Prokofiev’s is a playful work, and the orchestra had fun with it. Beethoven‘s first is altogether more serious – an actual student of Haydn, he took his teacher’s idiom one more step, writing five years after Haydn had completed his final symphony. Though still classical in style, the young genius tinkered a bit with convention to hint at the breakthroughs he would soon unleash, giving this work a hightened sense of urgency and drama. The Orchestra performed both of these comfortably within their idiom.

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Wiener Symphoniker, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Johann Strauß II

Beethoven was a genius. Tonight’s concert with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and Ádám Fischer made this obvious.

When first performed in 1808, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony must have shocked the audience (and the Sixth, having its premiere at the same concert, gave them even more nuance to think about). Tonight’s performance of the Fifth was rather classical in approach: restrained, somewhat on the faster side, and not necessarily forward-looking. For its time, that would have been enough, given the work’s radical construction. This masterful performance, particularly the gifted woodwinds, gave the thick canvas a rich coloration.

What made this Symphony stand out so much, however, was not taking it in isolation. Instead it followed as the second half a concert whose first half featured music by Mozart (Symphony #35) and Haydn (Cello Concerto #1). Mozart and Haydn were themselves no slouches as composers, two of the best of their day, and from whom Beethoven himself personally learned his craft (only briefly with Mozart, more from Haydn). The concert used them tonight to set up the Beethoven, to demonstrate just how much more he could push music forward. These two works were taken by half-sized orchestras, typically for their period, and well within their context. Nicolas Altstaedt joined the orchestra for the cello concerto – a somewhat underwhelming cellist, he took Haydn back a generation more with his somewhat off-tuned instrument (does his cello not hold a tune, or does he not?). Possibly this was Altstaedt’s idiom – I have heard him labor through Schostakowitsch before, but he managed Haydn better tonight.

For a first-half encore, Altstaedt played something for solo cello I could not identify but which sounded like it could have been Sibelius, which he handled dexterously. Fischer and the orchestra gave us two second-half encores: Brahms’ Hungarian Dance #5 and Johann Strauß II’s Pizzicato Polka. Not big works to be sure, but they had the room swaying after the Beethoven, making the final mood somewhat lighter.

Milan Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Respighi, Schumann, Rossini

Italy is not known for its orchestras outside the opera house.  It’s also not known for producing too many composers in the last two centuries who could succeed in writing non-operatic orchestral music, unless they trained north of the Alps.  Why did Italians stop being able to comprehend orchestral music? I have no explanation for these gaps.

The Milan Symphony Orchestra under Oleg Caetani came to Salzburg’s Great Festival House this week to perform all four Schumann symphonies and assorted other works over three nights.  I chose the first night, figuring I would test the water before committing to all three concerts.  Tonight’s performance was proficient, but did nothing to dispel the reputation of Italian orchestras.  The hall was completely full for the first half of the concert, and at least one fifth of the audience departed at intermission and never returned.  I stayed, but heard nothing that made me eager to buy tickets for the next two nights.

The tone was pleasant enough, if a bit thin, particularly noticeable during the tutti sections, and more so during Schumann’s Third Symphony.  The musicians went through all of the motions, but did not manage to sway.  Uninspired?  Lost in translation?  I’m not sure.  Schumann’s symphonies – the First and Third were on the program tonight – should be easily accessible.  The Third – a relatively late work (he died young, so not that late, but his music was becoming more dramatic with age) – certainly should have had a bigger sound, but Caetani took it more quickly than usual, and the orchestra did not always keep up.

The concert opened with the third suite of Ancient Airs and Dances by Respighi. Although Italian, Respighi studied composition with Rimsky-Korsakov and Max Bruch.  Here his music harked back to the time when Italians did write purely orchestral works, updating music from the 16th and 17th century.  It’s wonderful stuff, but probably also outside what can excite this orchestra.

As an encore, the orchestra gave us a much more idiomatic reading of the overture to the Barber of Seville by Rossini.  This playful music they understood, so at least we went home with a twinkle and a smile.