Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Felsenreitschule (Salzburg)

Tarrodi, Ravel, Chopin, Stravinsky, Sibelius

The Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and its new chief conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali came to the Felsenreitschule this evening with a vividly colorful Petrushka by Igor Stravinsky.  Composed between his Firebird and Rite of Spring, tonight’s performance also demonstrated how this could serve as a bridge work between those greatly-contrasting styles, as Rouvali and the Orchestra emphasized the complexities in the score – particularly in the first and fourth scenes, set in the fairground, when we could hear all the varying activities going on at once (but never jumbled).  Although a concert performance, we could almost see the ballet.

In saying we could almost see the ballet, I am not actually referring to Rouvali’s unusual conducting style – one would think he was once a ballet dancer, with his exaggerated arm motions and (controlled) leaps around the podium on his toes.  He did this throughout the concert, not just for Petrushka, so it is his style.  But the orchestra responded well – and indeed sounded much better than the last time I heard it live (under Rouvali’s overrated predecessor Gustavo Dudamel).  

The concert’s encore, the Valse Triste by Janne Sibelius, also thrived in this telling – although the extreme tempo changes may have been a bit odd (even if they actually worked), starting off and finishing very slowly, but getting very fast, or speeding up and slowing down, to emphasize an odd rhythm.

Unfortunately, as colorful as the concert was after the intermission, so was it dull before the intermission.  The concert had opened with Liguria, a tone poem from 2012 by the Swedish composer Andrea Tarrodi.  The program notes said she was inspired by Respighi’s musical canvasses of Italian landscapes, but Respighi could make pine trees exciting – I heard none of this in her work.  The waves were clear and soothing, lapping against the coast, but the music never went anywhere.

Worse was to come: Maurice Ravel‘s Piano Concerto (the one for two hands).  I suppose it was pleasant, maybe, but there just was nothing of substance there.  For such a work, the performance matched exactly.  Soloist Alice Sara Ott appeared intent on getting as little sound out of the piano as possible, tapping her fingers lightly against the keys.  She remained audible because the orchestra never overwhelmed her – Ravel had not really given them anything to do either.  This was distilled essence of music.  Ott’s encore, Frederic Chopin‘s posthumous Nocturne #20, showed more of the same technique from Ott, if slightly more of value from the composer.

Of course, there was a tragic subtext.  Ott was supposed to perform Grieg’s concerto this evening.  But late last year she felt unwell and went to have medical tests done.  Earlier this month she got the results: multiple sclerosis.  At 30 years old, she now must contemplate the end of her career.  I guess the insubstantial Ravel work is far less grueling than Grieg’s showpiece.  This is sad and I feel for her.  She has announced that medical breakthroughs mean she will fight the disease, and I wish her well and many more years in front of a keyboard.

Stadler Quartet, Mozarteum Viennese Hall

Weinberg, Woodborne

A fantastic chamber concert by the Stadler Quartet in the Mozarteum’s Viennese Hall this evening was not quite the one advertised.  The second violinist got very ill earlier this month – he has recovered, but with a cut in rehearsal time they decided to dispense with a Beethoven quartet and replace it with a trio (scored for violin, viola, and cello).  After that, they just reorganized the concert order completely.  And as much as I love Beethoven, the final result was an even bigger treat.

Moishe Weinberg was one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century – yet remains virtually unknown.  I only discovered him online about four years ago.  His works are almost never programmed – and if I see anything by him in a program, and I can physically get there, then I intend to go.  His String Quartet #8 was already scheduled this evening (what attracted me to the concert in the first place), but his Trio for violin, viola, and cello was the late addition.  The trio (composed in 1950) and the quartet (composed in 1959) made up the first half of the concert.  As an added bonus, the rising star conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla apparently has the same opinion of Weinberg as I do and so she came all the way to Salzburg just for this concert – and was invited on stage to introduce the composer (she apparently discovered him for the first time five years ago – about a year before I did) and announced she will be bringing some of his orchestral works to Salzburg soon.  What a treat that will be.

I have described Weinberg’s sad story before – born  and educated in Warsaw, he fled east when Germany invaded Poland in 1939.  The Germans murdered his entire family.  He got stuck in the Soviet Union (which, allied with Nazi Germany, had invaded Poland from the other direction), married the daughter of Solomon Mikhoels and then the Russians murdered her family.  He himself was purged but saved from execution by the intervention of Dmitri Schostakowitsch, who had become his mentor.  Russian anti-Semitism meant his music was rarely performed even in the Soviet Union, but for those who knew, they knew.

His complex music exists on many levels.  The undertone of the two works this evening was immense sadness.  But above it came dancing and humor and survival.  The techniques varied, keeping the works fresh and evolving, with a lot going on.  These are works worth hearing over and over, and each hearing would reveal something new – of course, I’ve only heard them now once.  The Stadler Quartet indicated it wants to perform all of Weinberg’s seventeen quartets this year alone (the 100th anniversary of his birth comes in December).  I have a lot to look forward to (hopefully they won’t shove all the concerts into October when I am in the US).

After the intermission came the world premiere of the String Quartet #2 – The Eternal Reciprocity of Tears – by South African composer Shane Woodborne.  Woodborne made this quartet a wordless setting of four poems by Wilfred Owen, which Owen composed about his experience in the First World War while convalescing from having been wounded on the front.  After regaining health, he went back to the front where he was killed one week before the end of the war, aged only 25.  Woodborne’s quartet captured the tragedy – and although employing techniques like Weinberg’s dances, these were not happy ones but illustrated the activity and trauma of war.  The Stadler Quartet has probably been practicing this piece the longest (since it was completed last year) and put their hearts into it, suitably raising the dead.  In the audience for the concert, Woodborne also had the opportunity to introduce the work before the performance, and received enthusiastic applause together with the Stadler Quartet at the evening’s end.

North German Radio Radio Philharmonic, Felsenreitschule (Salzburg)

Elgar, Korngold, Kreisler, Vaughan Williams, Händel

Tonight’s performance in the Felsenreitschule of the oddly-named North German Radio Radio Philharmonic proved altogether more satisfying than last night.

Violinist Arabella Steinbacher returned this evening with Korngold‘s violin concerto, which besides having far more to say than Brahms’ dull offering last night also highlighted both of her main strengths: warm melodic lines and complex rich fullness of body.  The general progression of the work moves from the first towards the second, a combination of styles many violinists cannot accomplish but Steinbacher can.  Once again, however, her sound, though not small, was also not big, but conductor Andrew Manze ensured the orchestra maintained the proper balance, never overwhelming her and indeed blending and augmenting with her tones.  This is a good partnership.

She played the same encore as last night – the recitativo and scherzo by Kreisler – but it succeeded even more coming as it did after the Korngold.  It also started with the warm lines before becoming more active, echoing and magnifying the Korngold work, to send us even more satisfied into the break.

The concert had opened with Elgar‘s seldom heard concert overture Froissart, which represented an attempt to use late 19th-century musical language to harken back to the 13th.  It had its moments, but could have used some serious editing which might have also cleared up just what it was trying to do (the orchestra also seemed unclear and got lost a couple of times).  Indeed, Elgar himself apparently thought the same when he looked back at it years later, but decided not to fix it.  Now I’ve heard it.

Vaughan Williams‘s Symphony #5 followed the break, and although three times longer than the Elgar work, and also a somewhat emotive nostalgic work, it had a point, contained wonderful touches and nuances that kept the listener interested, and was properly edited.  Completed at the hight of the Second World War, it was sad but hopeful, and Manze and the orchestra gave a skilled presentation with great understanding – essentially the opposite of the Elgar at the start of the concert.

A warmer applause – bigger than last night – was well-earned, and in return they treated us to two excerpts from Händel‘s Music for the Royal Fireworks.  I must also say that Händel’s monumental works come across far better when arranged for modern orchestras and forces Händel would have gladly had if they had existed in his age – using piddly baroque ensembles with out-of-tune instruments doesn’t really cut it any more (at least not for these grand showcases).

North German Radio Radio Philharmonic, Felsenreitschule (Salzburg)

Brahms, Kreisler, Mendelssohn, Händel

The North German Radio Radio Philharmonic has come to the Felsenreitschule in Salzburg this week.  That sentence apparently does not have a typo. The orchestra indeed has “radio” twice in its name.  How bizarre.  Must be a German attempt at humor.

I actually was only planning on going to their concert tomorrow, but ended up with this ticket unexpectedly: I’ll miss the Luxemburg Philharmonic in March while I am in London, and was wondering what to do with that ticket, when the concert promoter got in touch with me the same day entirely by chance and asked if I might happen to be willing to exchange my ticket for that concert for something else (during maintenance work in the Felsenreitschule, the seat for which I had a ticket had been removed and replaced with a wheelchair spot).  So this was the exchange.  Solved their problem and mine.

That said, there was a reason I had not planned on going tonight: the first half of the program contained a single work, the Violin Concerto by Brahms.  Some anonymous wit had apparently once called this less a “concerto for orchestra and violin” and more a “concerto for orchestra versus violin.”  Except that this description still makes it sound too exciting.  It’s dull.  Really dull (except for the oboe, who gets some nice melodies).

Soloist Arabella Steinbacher gave it a brave shot.  She had a lush warm tone, with actually a lot of color and and substance – like a complex Georgian red wine.  It worked best during the quieter passages, since the size of her sound was not especially large.  The orchestra’s chief conductor Andrew Manze had everything under control, however, never allowing the orchestra to overwhelm her and keeping perfect balance.  But did I mention the concerto is dull?

Steinbacher came back out for a solo encore, a little recitativo and scherzo by Fritz Kreisler which allowed her to show off her talent. Another bottle of fine Georgian wine from the cellar.

After the intermission, the Orchestra returned for a spirited Mendelssohn Symphony #4, his colorful “Italian” landscape.  The orchestra also has a nice warm sound.  But it’s not a Georgian red wine.  It might be a German white.  The playing was roundly good, but not especially distinctive and somewhat homogeneous. Two excerpts from Händel’s Water Music followed similarly.  Fun stuff – not dull.  Next time they might think of pairing Mendelssohn’s far better violin concerto with this symphony, rather than Brahms’ – the Mendelssohn would also be appropriate for Steinbacher’s tone.  Poor choice this evening.