Stadler Quartet, Mozarteum Viennese Hall

Haydn, Grassl, Schubert

Writing notes on paper and having people holding instruments perform them does not per se qualify as composing music.  Tonight in the Viennese Hall of the Mozarteum, the Stadler Quartet gave the world premiere of String Quartet #4 “Phases” by Herbert Grassl.  Somewhere inside the instruments, music (maybe Stravinsky?) was trying to escape, but Grassl made sure to keep it imprisoned.  In some cases rhythms bounced on monotonously, in other cases he had the musicians beat the sound back into their instruments percussively, and in still other cases he seems to have become so obsessed with gimmicks (let’s see what cutesy thing I can make an instrument do!!!) that he kept doing that and simply stopped even trying to find a musical line anymore.  

Joseph Haydn and Franz Schubert, on the other hand, knew how to write music, and tonight’s selections, performed on either side of the Grassl wreck, were wonderful.  Haydn essentially invented this genre, and his String Quartet #56 opened the concert.  This was full of surprises – in dissonance, rhythm, and contrast of instruments playing against each other – but never lost sight of the fact that it was supposed to be a piece of music.  Grassl might have done himself a favor by studying the master.

Schubert’s String Quartet #15, the final work he wrote in this genre, may have reached the pinnacle of the form.  He too used inventive harmonies, rhythms, and ways of mixing the instruments (only four?  it sounded like an orchestra at times!) to construct enormous sonorities.  Listening to this work – and in this performance – it becomes easy to understand why Anton Bruckner so admired Schubert’s craftmanship.  This piece had much more going on than even Haydn had conceived possible, and anticipated music far beyond 1826 (when Schubert wrote it) – although Schubert probably did not anticipate Grassl.  The Stadler Quartet transported us to another world for this one – a sublime performance.

Waseda Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Nicolai, Strauss, Tschaikowsky, Ishii

The Waseda Symphony Orchestra stopped in Salzburg on its European tour, along with a troupe of traditional Japanese drummers.  This orchestra is the student orchestra of Waseda University, which does not actually have a music department so all of these students are studying something else.

The orchestra, under Kazufumi Yamashita, was enthusiastic and quite adept.  Otto Nicolai‘s Overture to The Merry Wives of Windsor opened ahead of the Sinfonia Domestica by Richard Strauss.  The legato string playing sometimes managed to capture the right Austrian lilt (neither composer was Austrian, but both had deep connections here – among other things, Nicolai co-founded the Vienna Philharmonic and Strauss co-founded the Salzburg Festival).  The Sinfonia Domestica, with its many exposed lines, allowed Yamashita to showcase different members of the winds – with an especially excellent oboist.  Tschaikowsky‘s fantasy overture Romeo and Juliette came across just as enthusiastically if somewhat less successfully to start the concert’s second half (many of the wind players seemed to have changed, so this must have been the “B” team).

The Taiko Drummers marched on stage next, their sleeveless shirts flamboyantly displaying enormous muscled arms.  It quickly became clear why they needed those, as they banged away on their selection of traditional drums during the Mono Prism for Japanese Drums and Orchestra, by Maki Ishii.  The orchestral accompaniment essentially set the background mood, upon which the drummers built their huge sounds.  Ishii had explained that the name “mono” referred to monochrome, so where this piece had no melodies it was instead a rhythmic showpiece.

Two encores followed: the first was an orchestral piece (which I did not recognize), where the principal oboist came back out to shine in dialogue with the orchestra.  The second encore was another piece for the Japanese drums and orchestra, this one more colorful, almost with the throbbing passion of a Brazilian Carnival.

SWR Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Dvořák, Tschaikowsky, Schostakowitsch

I do not think I have ever heard a cello so gorgeously played as by Mischa Maisky tonight, in a performance of Dvořák‘s Cello Concerto with the SWR Symphony Orchestra and Aziz Shokhakimov in Salzburg’s Great Festival House.  When he needed a big sound to balance the whole orchestra, he got it; when he needed delicate playing, he did that too (his duets with the principal flute were especially wonderous, the flutist sounding far better than Wednesday evening’s solo flutist too).  Throughout, his tone was heart-rendingly warm and full – high notes, low notes, loud, soft, delicate, aggressive, whatever it was, pure beauty emerged.  Shokhakimov did not exactly restrain the orchestra, nor flatten – no, this was a full orchestral effort, but he did ensure it had a solid basis for accompaniment that allowed Maisky to take over the extra interpretation, with lilts and embellishments.  Indeed, a human voice singing actual words could probably not have been so expressive (as an encore, the orchestra accompanied Maisky in Lensky’s aria from Tschaikowsky‘s Yevgeny Onyegin, with the baritone transcribed for cello, and he made us forget that there are normally words being sung).

I really do not know what else to say.  And this is especially so since the last time I heard this concerto was at last summer’s Festival, also with Shokhakimov on the podium (his prize-winner’s concert, having won the young conductors’ competition at the 2016 Festival), but then with a dreadful cello soloist who butchered this beautiful piece.  I did not blame Shokhakimov for that mess (it was definitely the cellist), but it was vindication that he got to do this piece again in Salzburg so soon thereafter with a cellist at the opposite extreme (and a better orchestra this time, too).

The orchestra is in its second season of existence, having been formed in Fall 2016 from the merger of two orchestras of Germany’s South Western Radio (that network’s house orchestras from Stuttgart and from Baden-Baden).  I would imagine that morale would probably not have been very good initially (I’d guess the decision was a financial one), but it did mean they got to select the best players from two decent orchestras, with a really quite good final result, with a level of virtuosity exceeded among German radio orchestras possibly only by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.

This talent was on display (without Maisky) after the intermission, for Schostakowitsch‘s First Symphony.  A student work (his graduation piece from the conservatory), it did not yet have the darkness and pain he displayed later, but it still represented the next logical forward step in symphonic music after Mahler.  A colorful work with many exposed lines (that, as student writing, do not always lead anywhere) presents challenges, which this orchestra handled effortlessly.  The affable Uzbek, Shokhakimov, kept them lively.

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mozart, Prokofiev, Strauß

Lahav Shani and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra popped out to Salzburg for a fun jaunt in the Great Festival House.

The Overture to Mozart‘s Marriage of Figaro set the mood nicely.  Exhuberant but not bombastic, Shani kept it contained but playful.  Given that it did not have to announce the opera (which might have required a bigger reading) but instead Mozart’s first flute concerto, this approach worked to not overwhelm the second work.

Indeed, that unspectacular work would be easy to overwhelm.  Mozart hated the flute, but someone paid him to write this concerto, so he did. Tonight’s flutist, Erwin Klambauer, is the first flute of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra (which won’t be confused with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra nor the Philharmonic – ironic, since the preface page in the program, which would have been written by the local Salzburg concert promoter, identified him as the principal flute of tonight’s orchestra, but the bio in the program that he himself would have submitted made it clear he is principal flute of the Radio Symphony Orchestra).  He had a full and sometimes warm sound, particularly in the lower registers, but at times was also a tad thin and almost hollow.  Shani kept the entire ensemble well-balanced, and the soft touch worked.

The fun continued after the intermission – indeed, the party had really just begun.  Prokofiev supposedly wrote his Fifth Symphony when the Red Army crossed into Poland for the second time in World War Two.  Shani seems to have taken it as a cousin of Schostakowitsch’s Seventh Symphony, whose “invasion” theme Schostakowitsch had written when the Red Army had first marched into Poland in September 1939 after Soviet Russia and its Nazi German allies agreed to dismember that country.  (Soviet propaganda, of course, famously repurposed that music.)  Now Germany had turned on Russia in 1941, and after a brutal couple of years the Wehrmacht was in retreat, and the Russians once again entered Poland.  So this invasion was happier than the one Schostakowitsch had depicted.

Whereas Schostakowitsch also had no qualms about depicting Soviet Russia in all its bleakness, Prokofiev’s war music was almost joyful, particularly as read this evening by Shani and the Vienna Symphony.  Indeed, Shani’s interpretation of this symphony was a great deal happier than I think I have heard this work performed before, and the orchestra bought into the reading.  The second movement danced openly.  The third movement went back to the industrial war, but still upbeat.  And the final movement brought back the initial invasion theme with additional dance music.  Prokofiev’s symphony is actually quite a complex series of interlocking themes, where one begins before the previous one fully ends, creating conflicting moods and mashing rhythms and harsh dissonance.  In this regard, it resembled the experiments the Polish composer Witold Lutosławski tried a few decades later with his “chain form” music – the main difference being that Prokofiev had an overall concept for his symphony and Lutosławski just had a gimmick that got dull quickly once the novelty wore off.

Prokofiev’s symphony was anything but dull, and certainly not with these performers, Shani crafting the shape from the podium while the talented orchestra handled the complex switches with ease.  When they finished, the audience stayed stubbornly in their seats and would not let the musicians leave the stage.  The applause kept going and going, so we ended up with three encores:  first, the March from Prokofiev’s Love of Three Oranges, another snarky march that danced.  Then, as long as we were going to get dancing and Poland in the same breath, the next logical move came with two polkas by Johann Strauß II – first the Thunder and Lightning Polka, then the Tritsch-Tratsch Polka, both performed slightly faster than usual.  These choices all made sense after the Symphony.  (They did tend to make Mozart’s flute concerto even more anomalous, though.)

Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra, Konzerthaus (Vienna)

Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, Alfeyev

I followed the Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra and Vladimir Fedoseyev to Vienna for the third concert with them in four days.  It does help when they have a good variety on the program.  This evening, the Choir of the Moscow Synod joined them for a selection of choral church music.

The concert opened, however, with an overture that was not especially religious: to Rimsky-Korsakov‘s opera The Invisible City of Kitezh.  I suppose that was to set the mood, which it did with its hymnlike theme, although rearranging the stage to shift the right musicians and instruments afterwards before the choral music rather broke the mood.

Two selections from Rachmaninov‘s All Night Vigil followed: Rachmaninov’s take on traditional Russian church music forms.  This made a nice bridge to Stravinsky‘s Symphony of Psalms, which took an old idea and somehow created an entirely new concept all together.  The chorus pulled both sets off, with the orchestra – or the odd group of musicians Stravinsky scored the work for – joining in merrily.  Indeed, this was a merry reading, a happy way to praise the Lord.  Stravinsky’s method was rather complex, but under Fedoseyev’s organizing structure it sounded almost easy.

These works nicely set the table for something new (or was it also just something old made new?) after the intermission: works by the composer Grigoriy Alfeyev, who under his ordination name, Metropolitan Hilarion, is the Russian Orthodox Church’s current minister of external relations.  He’s a little older than me, but exactly overlapped with me at Oxford when we were both doing our doctorates (I don’t believe we ever met).

The first piece by Alfeyev set the Catholic Latin text Stabat Mater.  Not surprisingly, then, it opened in a classical church music tradition that suggested some influence from Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and early Bruckner (when Bruckner was still composing church music).  It then moved from the Brucknerian in the (not actually unrelated) direction of Taneyev (who was the great professor of counterpoint at the Moscow conservatory in the late 19th century).  Taneyev’s students included Rachmaninov and Scriabin, so it was probably not surprising that the piece started to head that way… except for some neo-Baroque orchestral interludes.

Alfeyev’s Songs of Pilgramage followed, based on excerpts from Psalms in Russian language translations.  Perhaps because they were Russian texts (and not Latin), they owed more to a combination of traditional Russian choral church music but passed through the development of Mussorgsky, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Stravinsky and beyond.  I suppose befitting a high-ranking figure in the Russian Orthodox Church, it never got too radical, and the textual language remained clear (thanks also to the talent of the choir), but it nevertheless came across as new and fresh.  Fedoseyev, on the podium, seemed careful.  Indeed, if I had to categorize his interpretive style in all three concerts I have heard this week, I would say that Fedoseyev has demonstrated enormous control over the performances, keeping them well-contained and allowing for full color – if not especially bold, then at least especially balanced and thoughtful.

Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mussorgsky, Prokofiev, Schubert, Tschaikowsky

Musical pictures went on exhibit at the Great Festival House this evening, painted wonderfully by Vladimir Fedoseyev and the Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio.  

Modest Mussorgsky‘s Night on Bald Mountain led off the evening appropriately enough as a showpiece – although a popular piece, often regarded as a “warhorse,” I don’t recall seeing it on many concert programs and I do not even remember when I last heard it live.  At any rate, with such a performance, the work refreshed itself.  The wonderful bitter colors of this orchestra, whose sound has been built up by Fedoseyev in his nearly 44 years at its helm, portrayed a particularly evil witches’ sabbath and a welcome (if not entirely hopeful) escape of the hero saved by the day’s dawn.

Bookending the programmed part of the concert came more Mussorgsky: his Pictures at an Exhibition, in the Ravel orchestration.  Ravel’s over-rated reputation as an orchestrator derives primarily from what he accomplished with this set of pieces that Mussorgsky originally wrote for piano.  And it is indeed a most excellent scoring – in this case, made more so by this orchestra which ably highlighted the raw Russian character of Mussorgsky’s original music.  Each painting came across vividly, the troubador serenading his love outside the castle, the ox wagon rolling harshly by, the newborn chicks chirping in their shells, and the clanging bells of the Great Gate of Kiev bringing the exhibit to its glorious conclusion.  Colorful vivid playing brought out the music.

In between, Andrei Korobeinikov returned as soloist for the Second Piano Concerto by Prokofiev.  The two previous times I heard this concerto (most recently at last Summer’s Festival) overwhelmed me.  Tonight’s interpretation ended up being much more sedate.  Korobeinikov did not approach this concerto as the tour de force that it is.  Instead, he restrainted himself by opting to play it almost delicately.  Instead of massive angles of sounds bombarding the listener from all directions, we may have had all of the notes there but wafting from the keyboard and moving merrily out into the room.  Fedoseyev took his cue from the soloist in leading the orchestral accompaniment in a manner that supported Korobeinikov – to do anything else would have left the soloist swamped.  In this reading, the concerto became somewhat less bizarre than it had sounded before, maybe even more beautiful, although it had been the utter craziness of it which had endeared it to me the previous two times I heard it.

Korobeinikov came back out for one encore: Schubert‘s Erlkönig in an arrangement without words for solo piano.  For the vocal lines, Korobeinikov made clear and dramatic distinctions among the three characters, but he also slowed the tempi right down for those sections, which did not come across as necessary and probably made this piece more schizophrenic than it needed to be.

The orchestra also presented two encores at the very end.  The first was their old stand-by, which I have finally learned is the Spanish dance from Tschaikowsky‘s Swan Lake.  I knew it sounded like a Russian interpretation of Spanish music, but had never placed it before perhaps because I now realize I have never actually seen Swan Lake nor heard the whole ballet.  This was again suitable up-beat, as was the second encore (it did not look like they intended a second encore, as the orchestra members had already started congratulating themselves on stage and gotten ready to leave, but the buzz in the hall required more).  I could not identify the second encore, however – sounded annoyingly familiar, but had me stumped.

Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Glinka, Tschaikowsky, Rachmaninov, Schostakowitsch

The Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio pays a visit to Austria this week with its long-time (since 1974!) music director Vladimir Fedoseyev.  Of three concerts in Salzburg there is some program overlap, which I avoid by going to my subscription concert tonight, skipping tomorrow, but returning on Friday, and then I get to hear them in Vienna on Saturday with yet another set of works on the program.  Tonight’s performance was definitely a concert of two halves: whimsical Glinka and Tschaikowsky before the break, and Schostakowitsch served raw after.

The Overture to Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila gave a spirited start to the Orchestra’s arrival in the Great Festival House.  This fairy tale opera is mostly known only by this Overture, which is a shame – I did have a chance to see it once (at Moscow’s Novaya Opera) and wish opera houses would stage it more (not least because, in a fun performace such as the one I saw at the Novaya, children will get hooked on opera).  But if we only get the overture, then Glinka’s music marks as good a place as anywhere to open several nights of Russian music.

Next came Tschaikowsky’s Second Piano Concerto.  I am not sure I had been aware that he had written more than one (the famous one) until I showed up tonight and realized that the one in the program was number two!  It’s perhaps not as memorable as his first, and might have used some editing (particularly the far-too-long first movement), but it was fun in its own way.  The first movement certainly used every key on the keyboard (I was half expecting pianist Andrei Korobeinikov to run out of keys at both ends).  While that movement did not contain exciting music, it did have intrigue.  In the second movement, Tschaikowsky never quite figured out what sort of piece he was writing, switching among several, including various chamber combinations (not all of which even utilized a piano – the violin-cello duets were certainly special, then with strong continuo; the combinations involving piano and different winds also stood out).  What would he have thought of next?  Well, that would be the final movement, which exhibited the skill and coloration with which the composer had constructed his moody opera Yevgeny Onyegin, except without the depressants.

Korobeinikov’s treatment was flat (in a good way): this was not a flashy work (Tschaikowsky’s friend Nikolai Rubinstein, known for his excellent musicality but sober and contained technique, was supposed to have performed the premiere, however he died suddenly right before the concert and Sergey Taneyev took over, under the baton of Nikolai’s even more famous older brother Anton – the composer dedicated the concerto to Nicolai’s memory).  Korobeinikov gave us a flashier (unidentified – UPDATE: subsequently identified as Rachmaninov‘s Piano Prelude #5 – I am not so familiar with solo piano reportary, as I am actually not a fan of the instrument) encore to show us he could do flash too (I hope so, since he’s performing Prokofiev’s absolutely nutso second piano concerto on Friday).

After the intermission, Fedoseyev led an almost restrained reading of Schostakowitsch’s Symphony #10.  Begun in dark times, right after the end of the Second World War when Soviet Russia had defeated its one-time ally Nazi Germany and then people woke up and realized they still had to live in Soviet Russia.  This performance was all gloom and doom, yet nevertheless quiet, passive, and even submissive – never bombastic (I’ve heard good bombastic interpretations of this symphony, too, but that was not Fedoseyev’s approach tonight).  This interpretation worked, as it allowed the periodic harsh dissonance and jarring syncopations to jump off the stage, scraping at an open wound.  By the time Schostakowitsch finished writing this symphony, Stalin had died, and the final movement tonight came across as an off-kilter dance on his grave – off kilter because, despite that evil man’s demise, the Soviet Union was still around and ultimately outlasted Schostakowitsch, who would never know freedom.  For this work, this orchestra’s unmistakable Russian tone stood out – not always the most polished noises come out of the instruments, but the style is intentional and the sound authentically Russian.

A mock-Spanish piece livened up the mood as an encore (I think I’ve heard this orchestra play this encore before, although I never did figure out what it is – UPDATE: turns out to be the Spanish dance from Swan Lake) and sent us out maybe a little less-depressed into the snow.