Brussels Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Connesson, Lalo, Saint-Saëns, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Bizet

The Brussels Philharmonic, visiting Salzburg’s Great Festival House this week for a three-night set with its music director Stéphane Denève, sounds like it takes representing its home city seriously: technically proficient, I suppose, but no personality.

The first half of the concert consisted of French music, which was not the problem but probably did not help.  A short contemporary work, Maslenitza, by Guillaume Connesson opened the performance.  A trip to Russia and Russian music supposed inspired the composer to write this piece, but I heard nothing particularly Russian about it.  It consisted of several tonal melodies or phrases, with no apparent logic for why so many and why he put them in the order he did.  An inoffensive muddle.

The concert dragged on with Edouard Lalo‘s cello concerto: still inoffensive, maybe less of a muddle, but no real point either.  It did contain some wonderful dancing melodies (especially one interplaying the solo cello and the flute in the slow second movement), but they never really went anywhere.  The soloist, Gautier Capuçon, had a large sweet and quite beautiful tone well-matched for this music – if anyone could have made something of it, he could have.  He and the orchestra followed this up with an encore: the “Swan” from Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saëns, an animal of grace (thankfully short, however, so it had a point and finished).

The second half of the concert left France and moved to Russia for two sets of ballet excerpts: a long set from Cinderella by Sergei Prokofiev and a suite from the Firebird by Igor Stravinsky.  Both actually danced, but neither sounded particulary Russian, the orchestra producing melifluous sounds instead of the somewhat more biting tones a Russian orchestra would produce (although, bizarrely, during the finale of the Firebird, Denève oddly highlighted the strings above the orchestral balance by getting them to attack their instruments as though trying to use their bows to saw their instruments clean in half – out of character for this concert, but not especially clear in motive either.

As a final encore, the orchestra returned to French music and performed the farandole from the incidental music by Georges Bizet to The Girl from Arles: again proficiently – indeed pleasantly – but without nearly the verve and personality demonstrated, for example, by the Cadaqués Orchestra in this same hall last month for this same piece.

I am busy the next two nights, and so never bought tickets for the next performances (tonight is my monthly Wednesday subscription concert).  I’m probably not missing anything.

Advertisements

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Wagner, Liszt

The scheduled conductor for this morning’s concert by the Mozarteum Orchestra got ill last week, leaving the orchestra to scramble to find a replacement who was not only available, but could also take over the identical program of two seldom-performed works: Wagner‘s Faust Overture and Liszt‘s Faust Symphony.  In stepped Frank Beermann, who recently left his post after a decade as general music director in Chemnitz to become a freelancer and had this weekend free to rush to Salzburg’s Great Festival House.

Beermann and the orchestra don’t know each other.  The orchestra also had not performed these works before.  So under the circumstances Beermann took a deliberate, angular, approach.  This worked for the Wagner piece and for the final movement of the Liszt.  It caused the first two movements of the Liszt to drag.  Still, considering they were practically sight-reading the music, the Mozarteum Orchestra’s natural musicality came to the fore, coaxed by Beermann, and in that the concert proved a success.

The Wagner work is from his early period – he had considered an opera based on Goethe’s Faust, which he never wrote, but Liszt had encouraged him to arrange some sketches as a concert overture (originally conceived as the first movement of a series of linked tone poems, which Wagner also never wrote).  Despite truncating his project, Wagner already demonstrated his sense of theater, however, and Beermann successfully inspired the orchestra to the dramatic.

Liszt ended up writing the multi-movement tone poem based on Faust that Wagner never wrote.  While it does contain some great passages (particularly in the Berlioz-inspired third movement depicting Mephistopheles – apparently it was Berlioz who had introduced Liszt to Goethe’s work), it probably takes a little more effort to keep a performance of this piece compelling for well over an hour.  The fault is Liszt’s (uncharacteristically for him, as it happens), who never properly edited his work – this was not one of his better efforts, and indeed instead of editing he kept adding bits to it (including a final chorus – sung here by the Chorus Viennensis and tenor soloist Toby Spence).

Back in the days when I used to have my own Sunday morning radio show, I programmed these two works followed by Mahler’s Eighth Symphony (which includes a setting of the final scene of Faust).  Now that combination in a real concert might have been too ambitious, but it would be the logical next development of this music and I would have gladly stayed.  Instead, I came home and cooked breakfast.

Salzburger Landestheater

Offenbach, Hoffmanns Erzählungen

The fact that Offenbach died before completing – or even properly organizing – The Tales of Hoffmann has left opera companies great flexibility in determining how to stage the opera – which music or dialogues to include and in what order.  Anything coherent could work in theory.  A little over a year ago I sat through a mess of a production at the Volksoper, but have rectified this tonight by attending the Salzburg Landestheater‘s new production.

The staging itself was neither here nor there – not elaborate, not in any particular style, but with many props so it was a staging.  It did not help, but it also did not interfere with what was otherwise a finely structured performance overall.  The concept relied on Hoffmann and his muse stepping out of the stories they had drafted themselves into as participants in order to also be external observers (the author and his muse, after all).  Hoffmann’s loves always went horribly wrong, as he became depressed while he wrote and in this setting his muse had to put an end to each story and get him to move on.  In the epilogue, Hoffmann with the help of his muse, came to the conclusion that he did not himself need love because he had his art.  The muse conjured up all of Hoffmann’s characters for a triumphant final chorus.

What is most interesting about this ending is that it was the same ending the Volksoper used in its production last year.  But in the Volksoper’s version it made no sense, essentially because the Volksoper’s version had no logical concept for the performing version they used which seemingly contained every sketch Offenbach ever jotted down with no editing whatsoever.  The Landestheater’s well-thought-through performing version could handle this ending.  This meant also deleting the role of Stella – she cannot appear because that would be just another love lost for Hoffmann, whereas here instead of getting defeated drunk under the table, Hoffmann emerges with his muse in triumph.

That the cast and orchestra rose to the challenge musically certainly increased the triumph.  Franz Supper as Hoffmann drove the opera forward with nuance, his voice remaining firm throughout, the glue to hold these stories together.  George Humphreys, performing all four villains, kept a menacing tone and a sense of drama.  Tamara Gura, as Hoffmann’s muse, acted well but did not always have a big enough voice.  Of the three female loves, Tamara Ivaniš as the doll Olympia gave the strongest performance, with an appropriately delicate voice that nevertheless projected through the hall.  Anne-Fleur Werner as the singer Antonia in the third act (they used the traditional order, albeit probably not the order Offenbach wanted, putting Antonia as the third of the three) also performed her role with tragedy and love.  In the middle, Angela Davis as Giulietta was merely adequate.

The Mozarteum Orchestra exceeded itself in the pit tonight.  Adrian Kelly had them in full sound, but always properly proportioned to never overwhelm the singers, but with enough volume and shape to almost become a character of its own (it never overstepped its role as a pit orchestra, but its gorgeous playing was certainly appreciated and noted by the even more rousing applause it received at the end).  Kelly’s pacing was perfect, allowing this performance to keep moving forward, even if we sometimes may have wished to get lost in the lush playing and thrilling Offenbachian tunes.

The director was a young German, Alexandra Liedke.  What is unclear to me is whether she made the decision about which performing version to construct, or whether someone on the musical side took that decision and she just staged it (given that she is a German opera director, my inclination is that the good decision was more likely taken by someone else – German directors are so awful that they don’t get the benefit of any doubt).  As I said, the staging itself was neither good nor bad.  If she took the decision of how to put together this version, then good on her (and how atypical of a German director).  If she just staged a version someone else had assembled, then I suppose it could have been worse – but certainly the staging allowed an intelligently-constructed performing version of this opera to bloom.  Score one for the muse.

Leipzig Gewandhausorchester, Musikverein (Vienna)

Brahms

 

The last time I heard BrahmsRequiem live was also with Herbert Blomstedt in the Musikverein with the Singverein… but a different orchestra.  Then (2014) it was the Symphoniker (Vienna’s second-best orchestra, still maybe top ten in the world these days), the night before I moved to Salzburg.  Tonight it was the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig (top five, on a par with the Philadelphia Orchestra) in town for a visit.  This is the same orchestra which gave the first complete performance of this work back in 1869 (no, Blomstedt was not conducting that night… although it almost feels like he should have been).

I remember that 2014 concert clearly, and although I had not planned to be in Vienna tonight, some workmen at home combined with a public holiday yesterday brought me here and a ticket (in my usual seat, no less) opened up for an otherwise sold out performance and beckoned me back.

The Gewandhaus Orchestra is somewhat more dainty than the Vienna Symphony, and Blomstedt was its music director from 1998-2005, making him quite familiar with its strengths.  As a result, tonight’s concert was probably a little less driven than I remember the 2014 interpretation – possibly not as memorable.  But Blomstedt milked the bittersweet tones from the woodwinds (it’s called a “requiem,” after all – although not a traditional one – yet it has a certain sweetness in the sorrow).  The orchestra and chorus sounded delicate but still full – it’s a big piece, but cannot become overbearing.  Restrained but at times exhuberant – indeed it looked like the measured Blomstedt almost started dancing at points – but at other points the tragedy nearly brought the house down.

We opened with the low strings, which quietly got the Musikverein’s floorboards vibrating, opening to an otherworldly choir.  The tympani highlighted the swells, particularly in the second movement, to pure devastation.  And the at times Blomstedt’s construction, and the implementation by orchestra and chorus, produced the foreboding effect of tolling bells.

Blomstedt stood to conduct (in contrast with this summer at the Festival, when he conducted sitting), but still moves a little more slowly than last year.  He’s 90 years old: the twinkle in his eye does it all.  The Gewandhaus Orchestra also has a throwback tone to another era (founded in 1781, this was Mendelssohn’s orchestra in the mid 1800s and one which guards its traditions well).  Blomstedt knows that, and knew when to make this unusual work by Brahms sometimes more classical in nuance (if romantic in construction) playing on the orchestra’s strengths.

The Singverein blended perfectly with the Orchestra, as did baritone soloist Michael Nagy.  The soprano, Hannah Morrison, seems not to have gotten the memo, however.  Her voice is quite pretty at the lower volumes, but when she had to add more heft it became a tad bitter and forced.  She seems to be a baroque specialist, and this work may just have been too much for her.