Grieg, Mozart, Rossini, Þorvaldsdóttir, Sibelius
Yesterday evening, the first snow of the year fell in Salzburg. This evening, the Iceland Symphony Orchestra arrived in the Great Festival House. Coincidence?
The concert included mostly Nordic music, for which this orchestra obviously has a natural affinity. Their overall tone came off a bit thin for a full-sized orchestra, mostly an odd lack of undertones which made the icy upper registers sound somehow less full. Under the baton of Daníel Bjarnason, their first guest conductor (they are apparently between music directors at the moment), they also played hesitantly at times – knowing well what they were doing but lacking confidence. They sounded nice overall, but if they had just played more robustly they might have made a bigger impression.
The concert included five excerpts from Edvard Grieg‘s incidental music to Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt, Aeriality by Icelandic composer Anna Þorvaldsdóttir (a moody piece utilizing percussion and double basses to creative effect, which seemed to be building to some sort of climax, but just as it almost erupted into a chorale about ten minutes in decided not to and carried on without resolution for another five minutes), and the Fifth Symphony of Janne Sibelius (and Sibelius’ Valse Triste as an encore at the end of the concert). After the Grieg and before the intermission, Croatian hornist Radovan Vlatković joined the orchestra for the Horn Concerto #3 by Wolfgang Amadé Mozart, which came across as odd among the Nordic surroundings. Vlatković performed fluidly, but had a somewhat cold tone – was he mimicking the Nordic sound, or is his horn just sour? Mozart’s horn music should be much warmer.
As an encore before the intermission, Vlatković and five Icelandic hornists managed a much warmer sound full of good humor: a little piece for horn ensemble by Gioachino Rossini. No conductor for that one meant they played much more confidently. While nothing seemed out of place for Bjarnason, I do wonder if that made the difference.
I still cannot believe I was unaware of the existence of Moishe Weinberg as recently as five years ago. Now I plan my schedule to incorporate rare performances of his music. One of the greatest composers of the 20th Century, he was first championed by Dmitri Schostakowitsch (who served as a mentor for the younger Weinberg, but admitted Weinberg may indeed have been more talented). One of his most recent champions is the brilliant young Lithuanian conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, who led the Mozarteum Orchestra this morning in his Second Symphony.
Scored only for string orchestra, this Symphony produced rich complexities which combined the intimacy of a sting quartet with the full-bodied sounds of a symphonic work. Multiple lines (even among instrument groups) weaved in and out throughout the three-movement symphony, capturing vast sonorities sometimes almost delicately. The first movement strung together a series of dances, but warped by the aftermath of the Holocaust (Weinberg was the only member of his family to survive – when he wrote this in 1945-46 in his Moscow exile he may still have been unaware of their fate but presumably knew it could not have been good). The bleak second movement may have been too bleak even for the Russians, and may be the reason the Soviet authorities suppressed this symphony for nearly two decades (they did not permit it to have its premiere until 1964, a fate which often befell Weinberg’s works and which contributed to his oblivion despite his enormous talents and the high quality of his music at so many levels). The moods of the first two movements combined to form the finale, but rather than rehash, Weinberg found new themes and tonalities, particularly in expansion of pizzicato to set the music on edge.
Under the impulse of Gražinytė-Tyla and the Stadler Quartet (formed by Mozarteum Orchestra members led by the concertmaster), there will be a Weinberg Festival in Salzburg in early December to mark the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth, featuring a good selection (by no means anywhere near complete) of his chamber music. It has not had much publicity (Gražinytė-Tyla alluded to it but gave no details when making some introductory remarks at a concert featuring Weinberg’s music performed by the Stadler Quartet last Spring), but a few (not many) fliers were lying around in the lobby of the Great Festival House this morning, and I am now figuring out how to plan my schedule to get to as many of the performances as possible. I’d say others should do the same.
The novelty and creativity of Weinberg’s work overshadowed the program’s main advertised piece, which came after the intermission: Brahms‘ Requiem, perhaps that composer’s greatest and most monumental work, and certainly his most original. Gražinytė-Tyla recognized it as a very personal work despite its size, and so rather than making it a giant piece (although there were indeed 150 performers on stage) with at times swelling fortes, she kept it intimate (not quiet in the big parts – suitably loud where that was necessary – just intimate). For this work, the Salzburg Bach Chorus and soloists Günther Haumer and Robin Johannsen (she a very late substitute – so late that not only did they not have time to put an insert in the program, they did not even print up pieces of paper to post at the entrance to alert concert-goers of the change) joined the Mozarteum Orchestra and Gražinytė-Tyla to make a balanced, sensitive, and emotional whole.