Mozarteum Orchestra, Mozarteum

Kraus, Koželuh, JS Bach, CPE Bach, Schubert

The wonderful Mozarteum Orchestra, under its principal guest conductor Giovanni Antonini presented a concert of historical curiosities in the Mozarteum this evening.  The music was beautifully played (as expected with this orchestra), and was pleasant enough (if not perhaps better suited in temperament for one of their Sunday morning concerts rather than a Thursday evening), but in the end, some composers probably deserve to be forgotten.

The concert opened with the Symphony in c, VB 142, by Joseph Martin Kraus, a German who spent most of his career as a court composer in Sweden and was almost an exact contemporary of Wolfgang Amadé Mozart (born a few months after Mozart, died a year after him).  Kraus composed this symphony in Vienna, and it seems likely (although not fully confirmed) that Joseph Haydn gave its premiere. Haydn is said to have liked this work – but when compared to the master, one wonders if he was just being polite to a friend.  While perfectly nice music (perhaps for a sleepy Sunday morning), it simply said nothing and went nowhere – and considering there was Haydn, there really was no need for Kraus.

Next up came the oboe concerto in F by Jan Antonín Koželuh, a Czech composer slightly younger than Haydn but with a similarly long lifespan.  Of course, if I want an oboe concerto from this period, I would turn to one by Ludwig August Lebrun (a composer who is mostly forgotten, but in my opinion not justifiably – and Lebrun’s oboe concerti are probably the pinnacle of the Fach for that instrument).  But Koželuh’s it was.  I suppose the third movement was playful, at least, but we had to get to it.  Again, perfectly nice music, but nothing to get excited about.  The solo oboist was Albrecht Mayer, the principal oboist of the Berlin Philharmonic, who had a strong but sweet tone (actually, surprisingly sweet for an oboe – normally when oboists sound sweet, they lack substance – I am a fan of the bold nasal twang of the instrument – but that was not the case here, both sweet and substantive).

Mayer and a small ensemble from the orchestra then performed an encore by Johann Sebastian Bach to head into intermission.  After the intermission came a brief symphony in F by one of JS Bach’s sons: Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, a bit older than the pre-intermission group but overlapping, with this symphony falling in the late 1700s as well.   There is of course also a reason that when people refer to “Bach” they mean the father and not one of his composer sons.  Not that the sons wrote bad music, but they did not rise to the level of the father.  Of course in their lifetimes they were well-regarded, but JS Bach has withstood the test of time, with his mathematically-gifted creations.

Some curiosities also withstand the test of time, as was the case of the concert’s final work.  It is not clear why Franz Schubert never finished what is known as his “Unfinished” Symphony.  Whatever the reason, he abandoned it and never intended to publish the two movements he did write (a sketch of the opening of a third movement exists, but is in no shape to perform), which reappeared several decades after his death and entered the standard repertory for good reason.  Antonini started off this performance a bit disjointed, while the orchestra tried to be lyrical – it took until a few minutes into the first movement for them to work out a happy compromise, moving out of the classical period (as for Kraus, Koželuh, and CPE Bach) and fully into the dramatic nineteenth century.  But they got there, and sent us off smiling into the night.  If the other composers were forgettable (albeit worth hearing once for sake of curiosity), Schubert most certainly is not forgettable.

Berlin Konzerthausorchester, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Tschaikowsky, Saint-Saëns, Kobekin, Khachaturian

For the second night in a row, the 25-year-old Russian cellist Anastasia Kobekina outshone an entire orchestra.  She brought the Saint-Saëns first cello concerto to Salzburg’s Great Festival House – like the Tschaikowsky Rococo Variations last night, a work that itself never really went anywhere.  But the music did allow Kobekina to showcase what she could accomplish with instrument.  As yesterday, I found in her playing a cross between Steven Isserlis and Mischa Maisky – fantastically adept and nuanced playing with a gorgeous tone spanning the range from below the normal scale to way above it.

The Berlin Konzerthausorchester essentially stayed out of her way – just enough there, under the expert leadership of Dmitri Kitayenko, to provide the necessary background for Kobekina, but no more.

Kobekina followed up the concerto with a piece her father Vladimir Kobekin wrote for her: Fantasy on a French Theme for Cello and Tambourine (performed with one of the orchestra’s percussionists).  This was a 21st-century rewrite of a mediaeval dance, not losing the original formal dance but adding on top of it new sounds and techniques in a clever and multi-faceted whole and allowing her to demonstrate her entire range of styles in a thrilling manner.

As for the rest of the concert (Tschaikowsky‘s Manfred Symphony before the intermission, and three excerpts from Khachaturian‘s ballet Spartacus to conclude the concert): my assessment of this orchestra remains the same from last night.  They are generally emotionless, although in some of the bigger passages (essentially parts of the final movement of Manfred tonight and of Rachmaninov’s 2nd yesterday, as well as some more active parts of the ballet selections each evening) they did throw themselves into the music more.  But generally they lack passion.  Kitayenko is a very restrained conductor, but was clearly trying to craft an expansive sound; the orchestra followed and was technically pretty good (except the woodwinds again, who have neither a pleasant sound nor the harsher but idiomatic tone taught in Russia) but basically went through the motions.  The horns and percussion again stood out in a good way, as did the harps this evening, and the rest of the brass was decent, but otherwise the orchestra just came off as generally lacking soul.

The orchestra gave no encores either night, not that the audience wanted any.  This concert program repeats tomorrow – without me in the hall – as the orchestra concludes its three-night visit.

Berlin Konzerthausorchester, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Prokofiev, Tschaikowsky, JS Bach, Rachmaninov

The Berlin Konzerthausorchester, house orchestra of that (over-rated) concert hall and one of the successors of the old Berlin Symphony Orchestra, a once-good orchestra in former East Berlin, has come to Salzburg for a three-day set.

The band was never in a class with the Berlin Philharmonic in West Berlin, but was established by the communists as a cross-town rival and was formerly rather respectable musically.  I am aware that it split at some point, with one successor orchestra keeping the name and the other one keeping the venue (hence changing its name to match the venue).  What I do not know is if that split had any connection to the precipitous drop in quality.  The original band made numerous high-quality recordings that gave it a global profile, and then at some point the orchestra seems to have faded completely from sight (they did come to Salzburg about five years ago, so I got to hear them then too – but in my only visit to Berlin a few years ago, I heard not this orchestra but rather the Philadelphia Orchestra on the stage of the Berlin Konzerthaus.)

One reason that the orchestra is globally much lower profile these days, of course, is that it just is not up to the level (I have not heard the orchestra that retained the “Symphony” name, but have no reason to believe it is any better).  The Berlin Konzerthausorchester is not actually a bad orchestra (I do hear worse in my frequent concert-going), but I score it down because I try to rate orchestras based on their supposed level – I would certainly not criticize a student orchestra for failing to meet the standards of the Vienna Philharmonic, for example.  But given the history of where this orchestra once was, I do think it is fair to treat it as though the expectation is its former standard.

This orchestra performs reasonably well technically, but lacks passion for music (I noticed that when they were here in 2015, so it’s endemic).  Well, maybe actually the woodwinds showed some passion this evening, but that was unfortunate since they really were not all that good, hitting the notes (or most of them) but producing a strained and un-lyrical tone.  The large string section played smoothly but mechanically.  The brass was acceptable.  Actually, the horn section was pretty good, and the percussionists seemed to enjoy themselves.

Dmitri Katayenko took the podium this evening (thankfully: the orchestra’s music director is actually the tedious Christoph Eschenbach, although possibly Eschenbach and the Berlin Konzerthausorchester might be meant for each other).  Kitayenko is good, but only had so much to work with given this orchestra.  The main piece, after the intermission, was Rachmaninov‘s Symphony #2 – indeed, I first heard this symphony on an old Melodiya LP with Kitayenko conducting the Moscow Philharmonic (which he led in Soviet days), and it was that recording that made me an instant fan of this work.  Kitayenko still understands this symphony and crafted it well from the podium.  The orchestra was proficient enough to follow, but not proficient enough to create the full mood or mystery.  There were flashes – particularly when the horns had something to say, as well as much of the final movement.  But more feeling from the orchestra would have helped.

The first half of the concert opened with excerpts from Romeo and Juliet by Prokofiev.  By selecting a handful of spicier numbers, Kitayenko did manage to rouse the orchestra partly.

The star of the evening, however, was the soloist, the 25-year-old Russian cellist Anastasia Kobekina.  She produced a gorgeous dark full sound and had a real personality.  At moments I thought I could hear traces of the lyricism of Steven Isserlis or the warmth of Mischa Maisky.  She is definitely someone to look out for in the future, with a promising career ahead (actually well underway – she started touring young – but as she matures I’m convinced she’ll get even better).  She joined the orchestra for Tschaikowsky‘s Variations on a Rococo Theme, which is not actually a particularly good work.  It starts out with a theme derivative of Mozart and then doesn’t take it anywhere interesting.  But Kobekina outshone the entire orchestra – she was going places.  And she followed this with a JS Bach work for solo cello – far more elaborate than what Tschaikowsky produced, with its intellectual mathematical structures.  And it was nice to enjoy Kobekina’s performance without an orchestra.

Bruno Walter Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Mozart, Mendelssohn, Tschaikowsky

The Bruno Walter Symphony Orchestra, comprising musicians from Vienna, Bratislava, and Budapest, under its founder and music director Jack Martin Händler, gives an annual concert in the Musikverein near the date of the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, with welcome from the Chair of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.  I was invited once before (I am pretty sure while I still lived in Kosovo, which I left in 2008, so no later than that year), and was kindly invited again this afternoon.

On the program for the 75th anniversary this year: Wolfgang Amadé Mozart and Pyotr Ilyich Tschaikowsky (unclear why these two were selected, and not – say – some composer the Germans murdered in Auschwitz such as Viktor Ullman, for example).  I should probably say, for the record, that I actually do like both composers.  It’s only that their music is over-performed and over-rated, so aside from concerts like these I have reduced my intake (I say as someone who works in Salzburg, where Mozart-worship is a cult, and also as someone who used to live in Moscow, where they do the same for Tschaikowsky).  But I suppose my reduced intake means I can also deal with their music when it does appear on special programs like this afternoon.

The piano duo (and married couple) Sivan Silver and Gil Garburg joined the orchestra for Mozart’s Concerto #10 for Two Pianos and Orchestra.  I heard them perform a few years ago in Salzburg, at that time doing a Mendelssohn concerto for two pianos.  While they played wonderfully together back then, the Mendelssohn concerto, a youthful work, sounded too derivative of Mozart and not particularly original (but Felix Mendelssohn was still a child when he wrote it for himself to perform with his sister Fanny, and which he left unpublished).  So it was nice to hear an actual Mozart concerto, and one written relatively later in his short life (also written for Wolfgang to perform with his sister Nannerl).

I was not previously familiar with this work, and so got to experience it in these conditions fresh.  And fresh it was in the hands of Silver and Garburg, who performed on two interlocking pianos (with lids removed, so both of their sounds emerged from the same place).  They looked across the strings lovingly at each other as they tossed their lines back and forth full of life – indeed a celebration of life that started to make sense as an opener for a Holocaust remembrance concert.  The chamber orchestra accompaniment, under Händler’s light direction, was playful, dashing among and between the piano lines.  This was Mozart at his finest.

Silver and Garburg made the bridge to the concert’s second half by providing an encore: sitting at one keyboard, they performed a four-handed rendition of the scherzo from Mendelssohn‘s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  This captured the Mozartian influence, with the dancelike rhythms leading naturally to Tschaikowsky.

The Tschaikowsky 6th Symphony after the intermission.  I am not quite sure who the Bruno Walter Symphony Orchestra’s members are.  They do enough concerts per year in their three core cities (and some tours) to make me think they are a semi-permanent professional orchestra, but it seemed unclear in their literature (they were founded as an ad hoc orchestra for a music festival in 2004 and stayed together).  One problem I have with Tschaikowsky as a composer is that his later works – the ones most often performed – are insufficiently Russian, and other European composers did western music better (I actually wouldn’t mind if his quite good first three symphonies, for example, were MORE often performed, but they are usually overlooked).  But Händler and the orchestra this afternoon treated the work based on its western inspiration rather than as a Russian symphony, and this idiom worked.  There was one (excellent) exception to this: Händler, born in Bratislava and carrying with him the central European traditions, actually trained at the Moscow Conservatory and so would have brought back with him an ear for Russian sound, and in this case he had the brass – who otherwise played like central Europeans – interject with a bitter Russian technique and sound for the first and fourth movements, adding bite to these movements, making the lively dances have sinister inclinations.  This was intelligent and moving.  The fourth movement then slowly, and appropriately, faded into oblivion.