Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Eötvös, Brahms, Mahler

If the world is going to end in 2016, which at this rate it may do, then a brand-new oratorio by Péter Eötvös, jointly commissioned by the Salzburg Festival (with several other partners), may provide the backdrop.  The Vienna Philharmonic gave the premiere of Halleluja – Oratorium Balbulum tonight at the Festival.  

This strange melancholic work had a sense of humor.  It comprised three characters: a long-winded and easily distracted narrator, a stuttering prophet, and a drunken angel.  The composer called it “four fragments” not because it was excerpted from a longer work, but because he – and the librettist Péter Esterhazy, who died earlier this month – took a much bigger concept and then selected four fragments to put to music.  The plot, such as it was, centered on September 11th 2001, in which a European government spokesman on a business trip switches off his hotel television because they are showing what he thinks is an American B-movie of a plane flying into the World Trade Center.  However, his wife was on the plane, and ordering a tomato juice… but this plot was not really so important other than as a frame.  History has come to an end.  People are afraid for tomorrow.  They have begun to think only for today.  There will be no tomorrow.  But does a fragment have an end?

The music was eclectic, but demonstrated that original music today can say something new without having to be ugly.  The idea was to keep everything disjointed, flowing logically but changing directions, and of course being interrupted by the three main characters.  The chorus augmented the scene, providing periodic Hallelujas composed by a range of composers from Monteverdi through Mussorgsky (including singing two simultaneously by Mozart and Bruckner and one “in the style of Bartok” who never wrote one).  

Actor Peter Simonischek in the spoken role of Narrator, alto Iris Vermillion as the Angel, and tenor Topi Lehtipuu as the Prophet gave idiomatic readings, milking the humor of the work through the darkness.  The Hungarian Radio Chorus mastered the complex and ever-changing choral parts.

On the podium, the young Brit Daniel Harding (who I thought would get the Berlin job, and instead ended up with the awful Orchestra of Paris… what a waste) showed why he is one of the more dynamic comductors of his generation and able to handle a broad repertory.

This oratorio actually was not the end (it was only four fragments!).  The concert resumed after the intermission with Brahms and Mahler.  Harding allowed the scaled-down chamber orchestra sing for Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn.  The original work was a chorale (although it may not have been by Haydn), and Harding made this clear, adding a bit of cheer after the Eötvös oratorio.  For Mahler, we reverted to melancholy: the Adagio from his Tenth Symphony.  This Adagio was, of course, also a fragment, the only movement of that symphony that Mahler was able to substantially complete before he died.  Taken in the context of the Eötvös work, this performance was a revelation.  The world ends, but it is only a fragment.  The world goes on.

Fournier Trio, Leonard Wolfson Auditorium, Oxford

Piazzolla, Schubert, Duggan, Schumann

As part of the fiftieth anniversary celebrations for Wolfson College, Oxford, the College’s artist-in-residence, the Fournier Trio, performed in the College’s recently-opened new auditorium.

The centerpiece of the concert, immediately after the intermission, was the world premiere of a work commissioned for the occasion, The Song of the Hedgehog and the Fox by John Duggan, inspired by the writings of Wolfson’s founding president, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin.  The composer himself and Miranda Laurence joined the trio for the tenor and soprano vocals, with Teena Lyle on percussion.  This playful work skipped around several compositional styles, linked by the modern, the fox knowing many things and the hedgehog one big thing.  The performers knew the right things, in order to deftly handle the variety of skills required.

The Fournier Trio performed the other three works alone.  Of these, late trios by Franz Schubert (in B flat, D. 898) and by Robert Schumann (#3, op. 110) demonstrated the respective composers’ mastery of the art – classical in scale but bigger in concept, with the Fournier Trio making their instruments sing along.  Unfortunately, this had to grow out of an inopportune opening work, an arrangement for trio of Astor Piazzolla‘s Verano Porteño, which came out smudged to the point that I feared the acoustics in the new hall may not have been especially good – however, the following works showed that the problem was not the acoustics, as the Trio did perform the other works balancing both delicate and full-bodied passages without the smudge.  So either the Fournier Trio failed to understand Piazzolla’s tangos, or those tangos just did not work in this setting (or arrangement for trio).

The auditorium itself has an unusual layout.  I had gone on a architectural tour of college earlier in the day led by the lead architect for the new buildings, himself inspired by Isaiah Berlin’s instructions for the College’s original buildings.  The architect actually sat next to me during the concert.  Planning permission came through for a rectangular auditorium, but modifications to attached structures to harmonize with the older buildings, plus to encapsualte some of Berlin’s ideas, meant that the roof would not be a rectangular block.  Since the auditorium floor could not have a standard layout without clashing with the adjusted non-standard ceiling, the seating in the entire auditorium required twisting.  But the entire concept worked.  The newly-opened wings of College mark an enormous improvement, augmenting the positive aspects Berlin and the original architects had develped decades ago (although I admit I am still not a fan of concrete brutalism that was the fad at the time, considering when the original structures were built, they did a remarkable job; for consistency, the new wings also had to match the old ones in style).