Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Pfitzner, Gruchmann, Schubert

Franz Schubert‘s Great C Major Symphony (#9 according to standard numbering, #8 according to reality and today’s program book, #7 according to publication – but always the “Great C Major”) is a standard of the repertory, and pops up in my concert schedule almost every year.  Recent performances – even good ones – have left me wanting.  Today’s, with the Mozarteum Orchestra under Constantin Trinks, did not.  It’s not that I necessarily heard anything new (I have heard some intelligent interpretations over the years accomplishing that), but Trinks and the Mozarteum Orchestra gave a full-bodied rendition of this symphony, each movement pulsating and lively.

Schubert had intentionally written a big one: as of his time, the longest purely-orchestral symphony.  Unperformed at his death, it was dusted off a decade or so later, when Schubert’s brother gave a copy to Robert Schumann, who appreciated its value and passed it further on the Felix Mendelssohn, who gave the work its premiere and became its champion, despite ridicule in other circles.  Apparently people said it was unplayable, but that merely their incompetence.  For the Mozarteum Orchestra, it clearly is not unplayable.  And if it is purely orchestral, the lovely winds provided the voices with exquisite and emotional playing.

The concert had opened with the preludes to all three acts of Palestrina by Hans Pfitzner.  The opera tells the legend of how the composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina saved music from a papal ban.  The prelude to the first act starts with a chorale for four flutes, and gradually grows – as though the piece is writing itself – to reflect that in the legend an angel had inspired Palestrina to write the mass that convinced the pope and his retinue of the value of music, and once Palestrina started writing, so inspired, he did not pause.  For a full-sized orchestra, the Mozarteum Orchestra nevertheless managed the delicate lines with tenderness.  Pfitzner’s late-romantic music, used the conventions and orchestral palette of of 1917 to portray the 16th-century master.

The next set of works also bridged the centuries: the young Salzburg-born composer Jakob Gruchmann (born 1991) has a style which bridges his own family background in traditional folk music with the avant-garde, and today’s concert including two contrasting works by him.  The first was Pictures of Heaven based on five frescos in the Thurgau parish church depicting the life of St. Martin.  Gruchmann set this music to texts by Sulpicius Severus, who knew St. Martin and had written his biography in the fourth century.  The string orchestra bridged traditional motives with more modern tonalities, supplemented by a percussion section whose main role seems to have been to make it all funky, but never overbearing (after all, this is religious music, in a way).  Russian soprano Alexandra Lubchansky gave the Latin texts full intonation, perfectly balanced with the orchestra and depicting the emotions of the scenes.

The final piece before the intermission was the world premiere of Gruchmann’s Wer vom Ziel nicht weiß (“he who does not know of the goal”), a poem by Christian Morgenstern – a piece commissioned by this Orchestra for this morning to serve as a bridge from Pfitzner to Schubert.  This was a little more jarring.  Lubchansky got more heated (without losing her wonderful tone) to assert herself with the rumbling orchestra (strings, six horns, and a tuba).  Worth hearing, and it did pull the morning along from Pfitzner to Schubert, but I’m not sure it spoke to me.  Pictures of Heaven (premiered in 2010) was better.  But it did demonstrate the versatility and creativity of Gruchmann and was well worth a listen.

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Beethoven

This year marks the 250th anniversary of Beethoven‘s birth, so we should be getting no end to his music.  That’s fine with me – the man was a genius who forever changed the course of music.  If I am sick and tired of Mozart and Tschaikowsky, whose music is nice but horribly over-performed, I will likely never tire of Beethoven.  Yet I realize the problem arises: what more can performances say with this repertory?

The Vienna Symphony Orchestra comes up to perform in Salzburg’s Great Festival House for a concert every two winters.  This year they came with their chief conductor Philippe Jordan, the Swiss in his final year with them (he is taking over as the music director of the Staatsoper this year).  My understanding is that Jordan and the Symphoniker have already done several cycles of the Beethoven symphonies for the last several years.  And while I suppose that has served as warm-up for this year, it does run the risk that these works become too routine.

Tonight, Symphonies #5 and #6 lacked freshness.  The performances were basically fine (although Vienna’s second-best orchestra, it is one of the top dozen in the world; Jordan is also an accomplished conductor of the 40-ish generation, even if not quite as exciting as his contemporaries Andris Nelsons, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, or Vladimir Jurowski, whom I would rate the most exceptional from that generation).  But they performed from rote, and added nothing special, making tonight’s much-anticipated performance somewhat of a disappointment.  The notes were there, it was Beethoven’s heavenly music, but I suppose I wanted and expected more.

The last time I heard the 5th, last year, Nelsons conducted the Vienna Philharmonic, in a somewhat edgier performance, following on the 4th (not the 6th, so an unusual pairing and way to appreciate both symphonies more).  I heard the 6th last in 2016, with Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla frenetically leading Salzburg’s Mozarteum Orchestra, in an interpretation clearly designed to make the listener uncomfortable, and remind us that although today it seems a rather sedate work, the 6th shocked the music world in its own time as a revolutionary construction.  Her interpretation, though radical, made the audience appreciate the symphony that much more.

Incidentally, Jordan and the Symphoniker did demonstrate they could provide more excitement during the encore: the overture Beethoven wrote to the incidental music for Goethe’s Egmont.  This reading contained the drama the performances of the two symphonies lacked.

The orchestra performed the symphonies in reverse order – the same order in which they appeared on the program at the concert where Beethoven led their premieres.  Although a concert of legend (mostly due to people thinking about it after-the-fact), that 22 December 1808 concert did not go so well: the orchestra was under-rehearsed, and Beethoven himself conducted although already mostly deaf.  Doing just the two symphonies this evening, even with the encore, made for a short concert.  I suppose if this orchestra wished to do something special, they could have scheduled the entire program from 22 December 1808: it had included not only the premieres of these two symphonies, but also excerpts from Beethoven’s Mass in C (premiered the previous year) and the premieres of the Piano Concerto #4 and Choral Fantasy.  Performed right, reviving that famous concert would be an evening to remember Beethoven’s genius.

Volksoper

Kálmán, Gräfin Mariza

The Vienna Volksoper can usually be counted on to spin out Viennese operettas in their natural habitat.  This performance of Gräfin Mariza by Imre Kálmán was idiomatic, if not particularly special in any way.

The (Viennese) director took the decision to move the action to the 1920s, around the time the opera had its premiere.  This proved neither helpful nor unhelpful.  It did change some of the context, but as the dialogue is traditionally flexible they adjusted, and included nothing too extreme (thankfully not a German opera director).  What it meant, however, was a nostalgia for a period in which there had been nostalgia for an earlier period, which itself may not have existed.  So all rather wistful, I suppose – and maybe the bump in setting to the 1920s did not quite reflect that (although maybe there was now nostalgia for the 1920s as we enter the 2020s).

One new plot twist did not work:  Baron Koloman Zsupán was turned into an actor pretending to be Baron Koloman Zsupán.  But the whole point of using that name (and the plot line that explained it – which appeared in this production as well) was that Mariza invents a fictitious fiance, and names him after a character in Johann Strauß II’s Zigeunerbaron, assuming such a person does not exist, only to have a real Baron Koloman Zsupán see the announcement and present himself, this disrupting Mariza’s ruse.  To make this into a an actor on top of that actually removed the humor, not added.

One major bit of dialogue did not work: traditionally in the third act, a stage actor performs what is mostly a stand-up routine (sometimes improvised, but even if prepared in advance then a chance for the comic actor to ham up the plot even more.  In this case, as happens often enough in the Volksoper in recent years, the intendant of the house, Robert Meyer, himself an accomplished comic actor, took on this task.  I like Meyer, but here he flopped completely.  In this version, Penižek, the servant of Princess Božena, is identified as a theater critic she picked up at the theater and engaged as her “mimic” (since in this version she had so much plastic surgery she could not move her face, so Penižek had to provide expressions for her – something else that was just odd.  As a theater critic, he continuously turned his lines into references to the names of various plays.  This was not punning, just a bunch of names.  If it was cute at first, it quickly became tiresome, and seemed never to end.

On the whole, however, the cast was fine.  I think it has actually been a few years since I have seen one of the classic operettas (Strauß – Lehár – Kálmán) at the Volksoper, so the singers on their roster have all changed up since then.  The only one I recognized was Juliette Khalil as Lisa (I had seen her in Benatzky’s Axel an der Himmelstür in 2016), who also had the best voice and stage presence.  The rest of the cast (in addition to Khalil, the lead quartet included Caroline Melzer as Countess Mariza, Carsten Süss as Count Tassilo, and Jakob Semotan as Baron Koloman Zsupán) was perfectly adequate if not special – which essentially sums up the whole production.  Conductor Karsten Januschke kept things going in the pit.

Volksoper

Mozart, Don Giovanni

Question: What does cannibalism have to do with Mozart’s Don Giovanni?  Answer: nothing.  Indeed, what did anything on the Volksoper stage this evening have to do with Don Giovanni?  Also nothing.

The less said about the inept German opera director, Achim Freyer, the better.  If he’s into kinky cannibalism, then I am sure I read in the news reports every couple of years that there are some dark web sites in Germany that will oblige him.

Not only did the staging have no discernible relation to the plot, but it was extra busy to the point of distraction.  The stage hands were wandering around the whole time rearranging things (starting to do so even before the first note of the overture – they couldn’t set the stage up in advance before they opened the curtain?  Really?  Obviously Freyer was trying to make some point here, but what it was is beyond me.  And why the stage hands in street clothes had to be constantly in view moving props – big and small – around was also unclear).

The language of the opera was also confused to the point of distraction – it was performed partly in Italian and partly in German, with no clear reason for the choice of one or the other (often changing mid-line, sometimes dialogues and sometimes arias or set pieces, with all of the characters going back and forth throughout, so not even a logic of certain characters being “Italians” and others “Germans”).  Incidentally, the German version was not even the standard Hermann Levi performing version (that is arguably as good a literary performing version as da Ponte’s Italian original text), so again Freyer made a choice and chose strangely.

The female leads were good, particularly Manuela Leonhartsberger as D. Elvira, but also Kristiane Kaiser as D. Anna and Theresa Dax as Zerlina.  The men less so (they often had difficulty projecting).  Alfred Eschwé led a complete-sounding orchestra with just enough lightness, color, and Viennese charm – if sadly not enough to compensate for Freyer’s mess on the stage.

(And for the prurient who need to know: the cannibalism appeared in the final scene, the morality scene after the final banquet, where tonight the rest of the cast, and a few audience members who got dragged on stage as well, consumed Don Giovanni’s corpse.)