Philadelphia Orchestra, Musikverein (Vienna)

Brahms, Schumann, Strauss

It’s always wonderful to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra on tour performing in a proper hall and not the dull box they have in the Kimmel Center.  Tonight, they hit the Musikverein for the first of a two-night set with Yannick Nézet-Séguin on the podium.

The second half of the concert was spectacular, featuring the best performance of Schumann‘s Fourth Symphony I have ever heard – a mix of mystery, wistfullness, and outright joy.  This was followed by Richard Strauss‘ tone poem Don Juan, in an interpretation which emphasized the individual virtuosic lines.  Not sure where to begin on this, but maybe the duet between the oboe and clarinet was most special.  Or was it the horn solos?  Or the violin?  Or… or…  From my seat I had a good view of Nézet-Séguin, and watched him cajole the Orchestra emotionally, and then heard the immediate response.  These forces make music so well together.

This intimacy was also on show for the concert’s first half, where they were joined by Hélène Grimaud for the Brahms first piano concerto.  I am afraid not even the Philadelphia Orchestra can rescue that Brahms concerto, although it was a valiant effort.  The playing sounded great, but there was just not much to work with (or too much – an hour of musical ideas that weren’t all bad but Brahms was not creative enough to know what to do with them).  According to the program notes, Bruckner was a fan of the main theme of the first movement (“Siehst, das is a Symphoniethema!” – “You see, that is a symphony theme!” he apparently declared to a student).  Indeed, there was something there, and if it had been a Bruckner symphony we would have found ourselves dreaming in a gothic cathedral he would have built from it.  But it was a Brahms piano concerto, so all he could do with it was plant a vegetable garden for the monks.  Maybe they were good vegetables, and maybe Grimaud, Nézet-Séguin, and the Philadelphians made good tour guides, but I’d rather admire Bruckner’s cathedral than wander around in Brahms’ monastery farm.

The concert had very high security (indeed, I have never seen so much security for anything in Austria, including when I attended a reception hosted by the President last Fall with many other dignitaries from Austria and neighboring countries in the room).  Armed police roamed everywhere (outside and inside the building), as did ubiquitous Israeli close protection teams.  There were also a bunch of huge men who looked like nightclub bouncers stationed around the hall (apparently recommended by the Israelis).

This all had to do with the fact that at the end of the Orchestra’s European tour tomorrow, they head off to tour Israel, and the anti-Semites are protesting everywhere.  The Orchestra started its tour in Belgium, one of the most anti-Semitic countries in Europe today (I make no excuses for Austria, its failure to address its history, and the fact that unrepentent German nationalists with an arguably classical national socialist political agenda are sitting in the current government – but Austria is actually pretty tame, which is frightening).  So in Brussels the Orchestra’s concert was repeatedly interrupted by anti-Semitic protestors, which led the Orchestra to contact the Israelis for advice and the host cities on the rest of the European tour for high alerts.  At the start of tonight’s concert, a Musikverein representative came on stage to announce that if there were a protest, then the Orchestra would stop playing and walk off the stage, and return to start the concert over after the protest ended; so, since the Orchestra believes in the right to free speech, it was requested that if anyone in the audience wanted to protest, that they do so now before the concert began.  There was a loud applause for the announcement, but no protest.

And there was certainly no protest about the concert itself.  I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s.

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Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Schostakowitsch, Mahler

Back in the Great Festival House, the dour Finns sounded much better this evening for a program of Schostakowitsch and Mahler.  The Helsinki Philharmonic and Susanna Mälkki seemed more comfortable than on Wednesday, as did cellist Truls Mørk with the Schostakowitsch concerto more in his comfort zone than the Elgar.

Mørk’s Schostakowitsch was paranoid – as though the Soviet police might come on stage at any moment and arrest and deport him.  Mälkki bought into this, and a certain nervousness pervaded everything.  This was not so much Schostakowitsch triumphing over Stalin, but more basic survival… for now.

Hearing a Finnish orchestra do Mahler was a treat.  Tonight came his 9th Symphony, which allowed this group to keep their melancholic mood going from Wednesday.  This approach worked best in the third movement, for a off-kilter dance, and especially in the pensive final movement.  Mälkki is still a bit too blockish in her approach, which broke up the flow of the first two movements – and oddly meant less precision where Mahler’s lines run into or against each other.  But she warmed, the music cooled, and the audience was left hanging in the balance, where we belonged, questioning our existence.  She and the orchestra earned a much bigger and warmer applause than on Wednesday, well deserved this evening.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Mozarteum

Hoffmann, Beethoven, Chopin, Haydn

A triumphant final subscription concert of the season had the Mozarteum Orchestra sounding absolutely ebullient this evening – maybe the best I have heard this orchestra sound since I moved to Salzburg four years ago.

The Orchestra, wrapping up its first season with its chief conductor Riccardo Minasi, was in its element in the Mozarteum’s Great Hall, performing music by ETA Hoffmann (!), Ludwig van Beethoven, and Joseph Haydn.  Minasi tends to conduct things a tad fast and loud, but it worked with this concert, and the orchestra members looked up at him with broad smiles and then poured their enthusiasm into their instruments.  They all sounded great – although I’d have to single out the oboist especially.

The poet ETA Hoffmann did a bit of everything artistic, including compose music.  His opera Undine was successful and much admired by Carl Maria von Weber (and inspired a bit of Weber’s Freischütz), but quickly fell out of the repertory.  Minasi dusted off the overture to open the concert full of drama and verve.  This nicely set the mood for Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, for which they also emphasized that composer’s sense of drama.  This concerto had its premiere at the same concert where Beethoven also premiered his fifth and sixth symphonies, Choral Fantasy, and several parts of his Mass in C – and it was supposed to be a somewhat lighter foil for all of that (indeed it probably was), but nevertheless it is still Beethoven, so always room for melodrama. Tonight’s soloist, the Vienna-based Japanese pianist Yoko Kikuchi (a last-minute substitution – the program and website still show the original ill pianist) was very good, but even she was going along for the ride, with the Orchestra and its fine solo lines soaring off the stage.  (Kikuchi added a solo encore by Chopin, to demonstrate she could do this without orchestra, although it was less-exciting without the orchestra.)

After the intermission came Haydn’s Symphony #104, his final one.  It’s also dramatic, but Haydn scattered in it many musical jokes (odd pauses, instrumental combinations, dynamic changes, and missing harmonics), which Minasi and the Orchestra emphasized here as well, bringing such joy to the stage.  At the end of the performance, the audience erupted.  No one even budged – wave after wave of applause came and the audience stayed fixed in our seats.  The Orchestra had not planned an encore, but was forced to repeat much of the final movement or else we might still be sitting there applauding.  Fantastic.

Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Liszt, Elgar, Britten, Bartók, Sibelius

Eighty years ago, about 20% of the population of Salzburg came out to burn books.  They mostly burned books written by or about, or which had even belonged to, Jews – but since there really were not so many Jews in this extreme anti-Semitic town, they added others to the pyre: those of pro-Habsburg monarchists and of anyone who had spoken out against the incorporation of Austria into Germany.  The Salzburg University Library, across the lane from the Great Festival House, is one of several places in the town remembering this event with exhibits, in this case outward-facing posters in the ground floor windows depicting Salzburg citizens whose books were burned and the Salzburg Nazis who burned the books.  Across from the door where I entered the Great Festival House this evening, Max Reinhardt’s face stared out.  Reinhardt founded the Salzburg Festival and made this city an important cultural center – and the Salzburgers hated him for it and saw the Festival as a plot by international Jewry to take over Salzburg (oh, they’ve loved the Festival ever since the Nazis appropriated it in 1938 and of course from the 1950s to the 1980s under its intendant, the unrepetant Nazi Herbert von Karajan).  Broken, Reinhardt died in exile in 1943.

Salzburg is a beautiful city, but it is a beauty tarnished.  So this exhibit seemed like a good scene-setter for this evening’s concert of the Helsinki Philharmonic, visiting Salzburg for three concerts this week (I’ll go again on Friday – would have gone tomorrow too, but that’s my Mozarteum Orchestra Thursday subscription concert).   Susanna Mälkki conducted a program of melancholy.

Ferenc Liszt‘s tone poem Orpheus opened the concert.  Liszt wrote this as a new prelude for a revision he did of Gluck’s opera Orpheus and Eurydice, to describe pure beauty cast into the depths of the underworld.  Edward Elgar wrote his Cello Concerto (performed here with Norwegian soloist Truls Mørk) in the aftermath of the carnage of the First World War and as his wife lay dying.  Béla Bartók, who had opposed the Nazis and fled to the United States, wrote his Concerto for Orchestra while consumed by abject poverty and leukemia in his New York exile – it would be the last work he completed before he died.  (Janne SibeliusValse Triste concluded the concert as an encore, the sad waltz from his incidental music to a play called Death.)  So much beauty; so much sadness.

The orchestra carried this mood throughout the concert, although there was a certain humor to the warped tunes in the final two movements of the Bartók.  Mørk was not quite up to the level of Sol Gabetta (whom I heard perform the Elgar concerto with the Vienna Philharmonic last month) – it’s a difficult piece to get right.  He exhibited a fuller understanding of a solo encore work (a movement from the Cello Suite #2) by Benjamin Britten, in which he could display a bigger sound, capturing the instrument’s deep – and deeply human – voice.  Meanwhile, Mälkki’s conducting was rather blockish – very heavy-handed and abrupt, not always drawing out the lines to their fullest or allowing the orchestra to sing.  The audience applause was polite but underwhelming (this was my Wednesday Kulturvereinigung subscription concert with the usual crowd, so I can indeed compare the reaction to other concerts).  It wasn’t a bad performance at all, just not quite to the level I think the audience expected.

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Beethoven, Joh. Strauß, Schostakowitsch

Another weekend at home in Vienna for which I had not planned to go to a concert but could not help myself.  A month ago I heard the Vienna Philharmonic (which normally plays in the Musikverein) perform in the Konzerthaus, so maybe it just seemed fair to hear the Vienna Symphony (which normally plays in the Konzerthaus) perform in the Musikverein.

Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck took the podium for a pair of 5s: the fifth piano concerto by Beethoven and the fifth symphony by Schostakowitsch.  These were two quite different works, but Honeck had a plan.  Fives of different suits, indeed.

The Beethoven concerto (with young Russian pianist Igor Levit) strangely, but in a good sense, gave the feel of climbing into a newly-made bed with freshly-laundered silken sheets and well-fluffed pillows.  This was a performing version to settle into for the night.  Levit’s playing had a slightly other-wordly feel until it hit me during the quiet (but still quite active) passages: he made the piano into a music box tinkling away (his louder passages had some extraneous notes, unfortunately).  That may sound wierd, but it worked.

Levit returned for a piano rendition of a Johann Strauss waltz – this worked less so, as it only had the music-box quality with the fullness of the orchestra missing.

After the intermission, the Schostakowitsch Fifth was anything but warm and cuddly.  Here legato playing exaggerated the dissonances, and Honeck went further in that direction but turning the first movement into a parody of a march and the second into a warped waltz.  This was Schostakowitsch composing to Communist Party dictates but at the same time thumbing his nose.  The solos by (and duets between) the principal violin and oboe were especially jarring.  The third movement largo came across as cold as Sibelius, but not the plucky Finnish winter – instead bleak Siberian tundra.  There was no fake triumph in the final movement – Honeck elongated the agony Schostakowitsch experienced living in Soviet Russia.  If not quite as devastating as the version I heard in this hall about three years ago with the Petersburgers (who fittingly have their authentic Russian sound), this was still a smart reading of the composer’s intentions.

This orchestra (Vienna’s second-best!) sounds world class.  The pieces were indeed quite different, but it captured both idioms with full sound (including the quiet passages, which could be delicate and still full and revealing).  Tonight’s works were warhorses, performed quite often, but if the orchestra can provide intelligent readings like these then worth hearing over and over and finding new and undiscovered corners even on the umpteenth listen.  (Plus I don’t think I’ll ever tire of Beethoven and Schostakowitsch, the way I have certainly tired of Mozart and Tschaikowsky).