Vienna Philharmonic, Haus für Mozart (Salzburg)

Berg, Wozzeck

Alban Berg‘s opera Wozzeck is a musical psychodrama.  But there is a plot, too.  Tonight’s performance at the Salzburg Festival fully captured the musical part, but as for the plot… not so much.

The director, William Kentridge, a South African cartoonist, openly admitted he wanted to stage the music and not the text, as the music discloses what the characters are really thinking, as opposed to the words they might sing.  So he filled the stage with clutter, projected cartoons both on a movie screen and more generally on top of the scenery, and mostly did not bother with the plot.  This was not German Regietheater, designed to shock, but actually an attempt to elucidate what the opera was about.  Unfortunately, the approach added nothing, but did cause unwanted distraction.

On the other hand, by making the plot irrelevant, Kentridge did succeed in pushing the attention fully onto the music (assuming we could ignore the staging – and actually I found I could: again, as it was not Regietheater it did not tell a different plot but rather simply provided cluttered and sometimes silly asides that matched the extremes in the music if not the text).  On this count the performance shone.  The Vienna Philharmonic in the pit is unrivaled as an opera orchestra.  And conductor Vladimir Jurowski, one of the stars of his 40-ish generation, truly understood the opera’s meaning in ways that Kentridge could not, entirely making up for Kentridge’s failings and allowing the audience to bask in the lush music.  Although atonal, Berg’s opera is not without pure music, and its contortions do allow an exploration of the psychoses that inspired the plot.

Although most of the singing characters have their personal issues to explore, these are only really developed in one: the title role Wozzeck.  So while the cast this evening managed strong portrayals despite Kentridge’s direction (and aided by Jurowski’s sensible balancing of the music), only Matthias Goerne as Wozzeck stood out, giving a full and brooding performance of the feeble-minded and disturbed soldier.

Would a concert performance have been better?  Perhaps.  But maybe it ironically took Kentridge’s absurdities to focus attention more on the music.  And if that was his intention, then maybe he succeeded after all.

Musica Aeterna Orchestra of the Perm Opera, Felsenreitschule (Salzburg)

Berg, Mahler

The “Musica Aeterna” Orchestra of the Perm Opera certainly provided the most unusual reading of Mahler‘s First Symphony (the third live performance of the work I have heard this year), paired with Berg‘s Violin Concerto in Salzburg’s Felsenreitschule.

It’s not that it was necessarily bad – it wasn’t – but they tried too hard to make it more performance art than performance.  Less of the former and more of the latter would have been nice.

Conducting was Teodor Currentzis, whom I first heard last Fall with the Camerata Salzburg and thought was quite promising.  I think he still is, but he seems to have let spectacle get the better of him.  Currentzis is a Greek who studied in Russia and whose career seems to have gotten stuck in Siberia.  He’s beginning to venture back out.  He founded this orchestra (with a Latin name – why?) in 2004 – one wonders what the Perm Opera used for an orchestra until then.

Russian orchestras have a distinctive timbre, mostly from the method of playing the wind instruments.  This works surprisingly well for Mahler.  However, this orchestra does not sound Russian at all, and instead has a rather homogenized sound, which is unfortunate.  Perhaps to make up for this lack of distinction (which I suppose he wants – it’s his orchestra, after all, and always has been!), Currentzis plays with the volume to exaggerate the dynamic range.  This produces delicate rather than robust playing for the quieter moments (even when quiet robust would be wanted) and big swells of sound to the larger moments.  The overall tone is not bad, it’s just the orchestra seems to use dynamics as a substitute for actually inflecting the music.

For the Mahler, Currentzis had the orchestra stand rather than sit (except for those instruments that have to be played sitting down).    The musicians did not seem to know what to do, fidgeting from leg to leg (or in some cases, especially the concertmaster, more than fidgeting – he kept jumping around, up and down, and almost off the stage).  Visually this became distracting.  And while there may be times (chamber orchestras in confined spaces, for example) where standing might be preferable, an hour-long Mahler symphony is not one of those times.

Tacked onto the Mahler First came an encore – the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth.  Lacking the big swells of the Mahler First, this single movement lent itself even less to the performance style and made the delicate playing sound altogether too thin (especially for the drawn-out slow movement speed).

The first half of the concert had also been for show.  Members of the orchestra started playing – or, rather, making noises on – their instruments before Currentzis and soloist Patricia Kopatchinskaja came on stage.  These noises were, I think, supposed to be aetherial noises to set a mood.  Again, they served only to showcase performance art over performance.  Currentzis and Kopatchinskaja tip-toed on stage during this nonsense (Kopatchinskaja barefoot – as is her wont – but also taking a random detour through the orchestra on her way in), and then jumped right into Berg’s concerto.

Berg’s Violin Concerto is a difficult enough work to figure out – except during the occasional lapses when Berg actually tried to write (and succeeded in writing) music.  The weird intro did not help this understanding.  At least the orchestra was sitting down for this one.

Again, it’s not that the performance was bad, it was just they tried too hard to make it performance art.  They should stick to music.

Hagen Quartet and Sol Gabetta, Mozarteum

Bach, Schostakowitsch, Schubert

Back to the Mozarteum for another chamber concert, this evening with the Hagen Quartet (for Bach and Schostakowitsch) joined by Sol Gabetta for Schubert.

Signature works made up the first half of the concert.  Contrapunctus I-IV from Bach’s Art of the Fugue opened the program – each building from Bach’s B-A-C-H signature notation.  Bach wrote these more as mathematical exercises than as musical composition, and while they have served – and been rightfully admired – as a good technical manual on fugue-writing for centuries since, they do seem rather too technical.  Tonight’s performance bore that out.

Without a break, the Quartet went directly into the Schostakowitsch String Quartet #8, which updated Bach by over two centuries, substituting the Russian composer’s own D-S-C-H musical signature.  Where Bach was technical, Schostakowitsch became emotional.  Composed in the midst of a depression in his life, the movements were varyingly somber and angry.  They borrowed some language from the composer’s Cello Concerto, which I heard in a desolate interpretation with Clemens Hagen, the cellist in this quartet, back in May.

After the intermission came something completely different – or at least somewhat different.  Schubert’s late masterwork, his String  Quintet composed shortly before his death, filled the second hour.  In the quieter parts, the musicians played almost delicately, looking backwards to capture aspects of Bach’s Art.  For the larger more raucous moments, particularly inside the Adagio, they struck up agressively, looking forward to the Schostakowitsch.  But for playing that was both robust and lyrical at the same time, we needed to wait until the final movement.

On the whole, the permance was technically fine but generally lacked the necessary lyricism.  Maybe they should not have started with Bach’s exercises, as their tone never really expanded enough thereafter.

Members of the Vienna Philharmonic, Mozarteum (Salzburg)

Strauss, Mozart, Henze, Mendelssohn

A chamber ensemble from the Vienna Philharmonic took the stage in the Mozarteum this evening for a concert in memory of Ernst Ottensamer, the orchestra’s principal clarinetist, who died suddenly of a heart attack two weeks ago aged only 61.  He himself had done so much to promote chamber music by members of the Philharmonic, particularly through leading the Wiener Virtuosen ensemble.

Tonight’s concert involved all string instruments, with only one exception.  It opened with the sextet from Richard Strauss‘ opera Capriccio, a work both lush in post-romanticism and backwards-looking in style to the 18th century.  The musicians know the opera, and answer the critical question posed therein: music or words first?  Music.

Ernst Ottensamer left two clarinetist sons – Daniel was the second principal (after him) of this orchestra (the other is the principal in Berlin).  And so it fell to Daniel Ottensamer to join the strings for Mozart’s clarinet quintet KV581.  If Strauss looked back in the first piece, Mozart looked ahead in this piece.  The composer wrote for a clarinetist friend who was experimenting with an extended clarinet that could hit an extra lower register – now more commonplace but then a novelty.  Ottensamer made the most of the full range of the music, a warm tone wafting across the room and no doubt making his father proud.  The audience reciprocated with a warm and extended applause.

Hans Werner Henze‘s The Young Törless: Fantasia for Sextet came after the intermission.  Although euqal parts modern and traditional, this distillation of film music was altogether forgettable when juxtaposed with the other items on tonight’s program.

Felix Mendelssohn‘s Octet, composed when he was only 16, showed tremendous maturity, with each of the eight instruments having much to say alternately or together.  With many moving lines, the musicians demonstrated their mastery not only in doing their own parts, but by blending their instruments’ voices into a coherent and altogether natural whole that often sounded much bigger and more important than just an octet – both from the standpoint of Mendelssohn’s skilled composition and the orchestra members’ clear comfort in playing together with the same Vienna sound.

The audience did not let them escape that easily, and so we went – as they explained – from 16-year-old Mendelssohn to 12-year-old Mozart, for a short encore.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Prokofiev, Schostakowitsch

Another Sunday morning concert with the Vienna Philharmonic in Salzburg’s Great Festival House, in which the work I specifically wanted to hear got overshadowed by the one I did not know and was initially less interested in.

The surprise for me came in the first half of the concert, with Prokofiev‘s Second Piano Concerto, which I did not believe I had ever heard before (I looked it up after the concert: indeed, I heard it in 2009 and seem to have been equally stunned).  Written to fulfill a graduation requirement from the conservatory, the precocious student Prokofiev decided to smash all conventions.  The result produced a whole lot of sound, often coming at odd angles, emerging from the piano but also bombarding the ears from across the stage.  There may have been no particular order to the madness – mostly Prokofiev showing off: “look what I can do!” – but this was no cacaphony.

Soloist Daniil Trifonov, a Russian Wunderkind himself still only 26, siezed the piano in his arms and practically hurled it around the stage.  OK, it stayed put, more or less, but he jumped around on the stool more than conductor Andris Nelsons on the podium.  His arms were blazing, and hands everywhere (does he only have two hands?), fingers pounding the keys.  It was all a blur.  But the music… perhaps the snarky young Prokofiev had been on to something, and Trifonov discovered it.

For his part, Nelsons made sure the orchestra provided the perfect context for Trifonov (maybe not as hard with this orchestra, but someone had to put it all together).

After the intermission, Schostakowitsch‘s monumental Seventh Symphony – the work I dearly wanted to hear – became somehow anti-climactic.  This is the one symphony that Schostakowtsch wrote knowing it was to be used for propaganda purposes.  There’s also a whole lot of sound here, and the orchestra got it all.  The subtext is harder to find than in other Schostakowitsch symphonies (according to propaganda, the “invasion” theme in the first movement depicts the German invasion of Russia in 1941; yet Schostakowitsch had actually written this portion nearly two years before, moved by the Russian invasion of Poland as the first phase for implementation of Russo-German alliance that opened the Second World War).  In truth, Schostakowitsch had seen firsthand the misery in Leningrad during the German siege and the bravery of the people to attempt to survive, and this required memorialization.  Yet when it would all be over, it would not be over: the Soviet regime of terror still reigned.

Nelsons, born in Latvia 39 years ago when it was still very much under Russian occupation, should understand that subtext, as hard as it may be to find.  I’m not sure we heard it this morning.  Nevertheless, the orchestral playing was spectacular.

Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Felsenreitschule (Salzburg)

Dvořák, Bach, Prokofiev

Another weekend at the Festival, moving into the Felsenreitschule for the annual Young Conductors Award prize concert, which featured last year’s winner Aziz Shokhakimov, only 29 years old but for the last eleven years the principal conductor of the Uzbek National Opera.  This evening he had the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra at his disposal – a competent if somewhat undistinguished orchestra by Austrian standards (albeit probably better than his own, I am sure).

Shokhakimov provided all of the necessary impulse to drive the orchestral music forward, even during moments of sadness, introspection, or tragedy.  This was especially true in the second half of the concert, with a performance of Prokofiev‘s Fifth Symphony, written in the final year of the Second World War and celebrating impending victory while lamenting the terrible toll.

It worked less well in the first half of the concert, but not because of Shokhakimov.  For Dvořák‘s Cello Concerto, the Romanian soloist Andrei Ioniţă simply sapped all energy from the room whenever he played.  Although sometimes capable of a round warm tone, most of the time he sounded like he was scraping a washboard.  The contrast between the excitement of the pure orchestral passages (of which Dvořák gave us many) and dreary cello solos (not what Dvořák wrote, but what Ioniţă played) were extreme.  Ioniţă came back out for an encore of what sounded very much like Bach (scored for washboard).

(Addendum: I discovered after writing this that the washboard has actually been adapted for use in jazz as a percussion instrument.  That is not that sound I intended to suggest by my description, but rather I meant the sort of sound that might be created by scraping a wire bow across a washboard – not having ever tried that myself, and listening to some jazz recordings of washboards, I wonder if I would even be right.  In short, Ioniţă’s sound was scratchy, rough, and metallic.)