Vienna Philharmonic, Musikverein

Beethoven

I realized I had not heard the Vienna Philharmonic live in over six months, so resolved the problem by snagging a returned ticket for this evening’s concert in the Musikverein with Andris Nelsons performing Beethoven‘s symphonies #4 and #5.

This is actually the second time I have heard Beethoven’s Fourth this month.  The Philharmonic is a different orchestra from the Mozarteum Orchestra, of course, so right there I was always going to get a different sound – bigger, fuller, more nuance.  And by pairing this symphony with his Fifth, the mood was also going to be quite different.  Normally, if paired, the Fifth goes with the Sixth (they were written at the same time and had their premiere at the same concert), but the putting the slightly earlier Fourth in juxtaposition with the Fifth emphasized the progression.

Nelsons took both with a big, rich, and mysterious sound.  He did not emphasize the lighter moments of the Fourth (they were there in full color, though, just worked into the orchestral whole), producing a somewhat edgier mood.  This continued through the first three movements of the Fifth, until the Fifth’s final movement erupted in joy.

As I have mentioned previously, the Fourth often gets lost in between the Third and the Fifth, or gets overlooked with a slender interpretation.  The Mozarteum Orchestra two weeks ago under Joshua Weilerstein, and the Philharmonic this evening under Nelsons, flushed it out.  But having it introduce the Fifth, as Nelsons did, not only highlighted its value in and of itself, but also elevated it to the same level as its more-performed successor.

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Orchestral Society of the Association of the Friends of Music in Vienna, Musikverein

Mozart, Bruckner

I woke up early this Sunday morning for a concert of the Orchestral Society of the Association of the Friends of Music in Vienna, the amateur house orchestra of the Musikverein.  I used to attend their concerts periodically, but do not seem to have been in Vienna recently when they were playing, until this morning.  This was probably the best I have heard them sound.  Robert Zelzer, their music director, conducted, 25 years to the day after he made his debut with this orchestra.  

It is fair to say I am sick of Mozart, who is over-performed (and even more so in Salzburg, where I have been based for almost five years).  That said, Mozart is pleasant to wake up to on a Sunday morning, and I also suppose I don’t mind hearing a work I did not previously know.  This morning’s offering was his Sinfonia Concertante for Oboe, Clarinet, Horn, Bassoon, and Orchestra.  Mozart wrote this in Paris for four touring musicians he knew from Mannheim (the clarinet part was originally for flute), but they ended up not playing it and the piece languished in an archive until being discovered 200 years later.  Typically Mozartian, the music danced playfully for thirty minutes.  The team of soloists (Adelheid Bosch, oboe; Christoph Zimper, clarinet; Peter Dorfmayr, horn; and Max Feyertag, bassoon) handled the tricky phrases effortlessly, while Zelzer and the orchestra provided a strong continuo.  A good start to the day.

Zelzer’s reading of Bruckner‘s Ninth Symphony was in general a pretty standard interpretation, which is fine (especially with an amateur orchestra which has not – by my listening in previous years – managed to have the fullness of sound for Bruckner.  But today they did.  This was a sorrowful reading of Bruckner’s final, unfinished, work… but just as we felt the sadness, along came a bit of the Mozartian cheer in the final movement, where the orchestra almost began to dance again.  Well done.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Mozarteum

Haydn, Gruber, Webern, Beethoven

A fun, if a bit unorthodox, evening with the Mozarteum Orchestra in the Mozarteum’s Great Hall.  The young American conductor Joshua Weilerstein clearly found his element, bookending Haydn and Beethoven around Gruber and Webern.

The overture to Joseph Haydn’s oratorio The Creation opened the mood.  Describing “chaos,” this music was considered extreme in its day – Haydn left phrases unfinished and with chords open, reminding us that music need not go by formula.

That certainly applied on the next piece: Frankenstein!! A Pandemonium for Chansonnier and Orchestra after Nursery Rhymes by H.C. Artmann, music by H. K. Gruber.  Gruber’s output is decidedly mixed – it has its moments but usually requires severe editing that he does not do in order to identify a point.  Frankenstein!! may be the first of his works that I actually enjoyed start to finish.  To be honest, I still am not sure what to make of it, but at least this one was fun.  Gruber himself performed as the chansonnier, using his voice to obtain full special effects.  The Orchestra achieved the other effects not by abusing their instruments, as many of Gruber’s contemporaries think is necessary for “new music” but by pulling out children’s toys and playing those.  The songs were short and varied enough not to ever drag, with suspense added to hear what they’d do next.

After the intermission, the orchestra returned for Anton von Webern’s Five Pieces for Orchestra.  Weilerstein gave a short intro to remind everyone that the five-movement work lasted only four minutes in its entirety.  Therefore, he decided to perform it twice: once to allow the audience to listen to its overall color, and the second time to focus on the individual sounds.  That actually worked.  Weilerstein explained that Webern had distilled all of 20th century music into its bare minimum components, but it was all there.  Indeed it was.  Webern said so much with so little.

That said, I still found it rewarding to return to something more normal to finish the concert: Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony #4.  This symphony does not get performed often, but has long been admired by those in the know.  Its mysterious slow opening leads into a boisterous first movement, and it dances away from there.  Many people see it as lighter and more relaxed compared to its neighbors, but Weilerstein – building on Haydn, Gruber, and Webern – emphasized just how much fun this symphony can be.  This was not a tranquil reading, but one full of action and humor.

Volksoper

Wagner, Der Fliegende Holländer

I decided to take a risk and snag a ticket for opening night of a new production of Wagner‘s Flying Dutchman in the Volksoper.  The Volksoper, which excels in lighter Viennese fare and non-standard period pieces, does not always quite rise to the larger operatic repertory; furthermore, tonight’s opera director was German (which flashes warning signs) and conductor French (if not a warning, then at least a flag for Wagner).  But I looked at the Volksoper’s preview materials on line and decided it was worth the chance – and it certainly was.

The director, Aron Stiehl, did not provide a standard staging, but he did read the book and make an intelligent interpretation (something his countrymen should also really try doing sometime).  The Volksoper stage is not large, so any staging would require some amount of suggestion rather than realism.  The first thing he dispensed with, therefore, were the ships – making them more an allusion.  With those out of the way, the remainder of the props were not quite minimal but suggestive of something – and hence his interpretation: the Flying Dutchman as a psychological drama.  Costumes were nondescript and of no particular period, so we did not focus on those, and unlike his German colleagues he did not see the need to shock us.  Indeed, by minimizing the distractions, without being minimalist, we focused more on the words and the acting, so that was a win.

I actually had not thought too much before about comedic aspects of the words, but here, for example, Stiehl made fun of the Steersman (as did the rest of the cast) as a somewhat inept buffoon (not just someone who falls asleep at the watch), although one wonders how he got the job if he were really that incompetent.  The strangest deviation was to avoid having spinning wheels completely, instead making women in the second act part of a choral group practicing under the direction of Mary.  The portrait of the Dutchman on the wall was again alluded to but never shown (it would have been hanging on the non-existent wall where the orchestra pit was), and instead the room was filled with paintings of the sea.  I’m not sure that worked.

On the other hand, the Dutchman’s anguish as to his fate was palpable.  He has given up: this will be his final stop, and if it doesn’t work, he will accept death and eternal damnation.  In the final act, Stiehl had him walk in on the conversation between Senta and Erik earlier than where it normally happens.  In the plot, he normally walks in just as Erik is urging Senta to be faithful (meaning to Erik) and not having heard the context misinterprets that as Erik urging Senta to be faithful to her pledge to the Dutchman, after which the Dutchman announces himself, sets sail without Senta, and Senta seeing the misunderstanding throws herself off a cliff into the sea.  In Stiehl’s reading, by arriving early enough to hear the context, the Dutchman understands that Senta is just a child with an obsession, and the best course of action is not to take advantage of her but instead to leave her in Erik’s protection (as she had been) and to leave to his own fate.  Thus in this staging Senta never actually does throw herself into the sea: the opera ends with her walking towards the illuminated waves, but the ending is intentionally ambiguous.  Maybe she will throw herself in to redeem the Dutchman (as the music tells), but on the other hand it all may have been a dream.

To pull this all off required great performers.  The cast was tremendous, headed by Markus Marquardt as the Dutchman, who went through the whole range of emotions and psychological twists Stiehl had devised, with a powerful and expressive voice.  As Daland, Stefan Czerny had a twinkle in his eye, even as (when getting right down to the text) he is essentially selling his own beloved daughter to the highest bidder, which would make him a bit one-dimensional even if so much not in Czerny’s characterful reading.  Meagan Miller, as Senta, also managed to make her character more than just a one-dimensional lovesick teen, although her voice warbled a bit.  Tomislav Mužek, with a pleasant and large tenor, made a forceful Erik, not the landlubber wimp he often comes across as in this sea-based drama.

The orchestra played with both brilliance and nuance.  Conductor Marc Piollet got it.  The sound from the pit was large, but despite that never overwhelmed the singers.  Indeed, the orchestra was itself practically a character in the plot.  Since so much of the staging was allusion, and many of the alluded-to objects (from the Dutchman’s ship to the portrait on the wall) would have been located where the orchestra pit was (based on where the characters were pointing to refer to things), it meant that the descriptive music had to have an even bigger role.  That it did.  And the orchestra had to keep the drama moving, which meant with forward-driving but also tweaking the emphasis (some of which Wagner wrote intentionally off-beat to make the opera feel more uneasy), and so required a full understanding of its role in this production.  In that it fully succeeded under Piollet’s direction.

Glad I decided to take the risk!

Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Felsenreitschule (Salzburg)

Tarrodi, Ravel, Satie Sibelius

The Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and Santtu-Matias Rouvali performed Sibelius‘ Second Symphony in the Felsenreitschule this evening much the way they performed Stravinsky’s Petrushka on Wednesday evening by emphasizing the dissonances and angles.  That worked well for Stravinsky, because his piece was a ballet and also because the complicated rhythms and juxtaposed instrumentations were meant to be jumpy and push the drama forward.  But for Sibelius’ symphony, these sounds need to combine to create the huge canvas, not stand out.  The result was jagged.  Individual orchestra members had wonderful lines and great talent, but the whole was less than the sum of the parts.  Rouvali could not pull it all together, and his interpretation did not convince.

It worked a bit better in the encores (more Sibelius): first the Valse Triste (again), with the same extreme tempo changes as Wednesday pulsating forwards; second Finlandia, which is a little less dissonant and has distinct sections, so the approach mostly worked (there was an odd moment where Rouvali clearly froze all movement and brought out a discordant section in the celli – and turned and winked to the audience before proceeding onwards).

The first half of the concert was unfortunately a reprise of Wednesday.  Andrea Tarrodi‘s Liguria did not get more interesting in a second hearing.  It’s not an unpleasant quarter hour, just a rather dull experience listening to crashing waves on the Ligurian coast.  If I were really sitting listening to waves on the Ligurian coast, I’d have a good book with me.

Then I pained again for pianist Alice Sara Ott, newly diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, who was supposed to perform a Liszt concerto tonight.  But as with the Grieg concerto originally scheduled on Wednesday, she substituted Ravel‘s.  So it seems her career will slowly come to a close at age 30, with this the only work left in her repertory.  And as with Tarrodi’s tone poem, it also did not get more interesting in a second hearing.  Ravel is most justly famous for his masterful orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition – no one has managed to do it better.  But that’s one work, and Ravel did not even write it.  The most famous piece he himself wrote was his tedious Bolero that shows up at pops concerts when people are having too much fun and need to be bored out of their wits.  Beyond that, his ballet Daphnis and Chloe has its moments, but he was neither a skilled orchestrator (Mussorgsky’s Pictures aside) nor an especially talented composer capable of developing an idea.  Ott’s minimalist technique (supported well by Rouvali and the orchestra) suited this concerto.  She also gave an unidentified solo encore in the same style.  (UPDATE: The concert promoter has helpfully identified it as Gnossienne 1 by Erik Satie).