Online Highlights from the Corona Lockdown

Highlights

With the world on pause due to the latest pandemic, cultural institutions have gone online.

I myself fled Salzburg and decamped home to Vienna before the authorities ended freedom of movement, so that for what looks like will last at least one month on lockdown, I can be more comfortable than I would be if crammed into my small Salzburg pad (my office is in Salzburg, and it’s just too far from Vienna to commute daily – all I really need in Salzburg is a place to sleep, with a reasonable kitchen, bathroom, and balcony for when I do spend Summer weekends there).  In Vienna, I have a good kitchen stocked with sufficient food, a cellar full of Georgian wines, and my private library (including my CD collection – and good external speakers for my laptop), so can survive more than a month if necessary.  My own day job goes on remotely, so it’s also good to have a home office with a desk and printer.

My ticket for a new Vienna production of Rigoletto was refunded – that show won’t go on.  A chamber concert of music by Moishe Weinberg in Salzburg will, I hope, be rescheduled (no refund yet – but I’d rather hear the concert so happy to wait to see about the new date).  My April trip to the US is off, so I lose a chance to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra in its annual concert in memory of my father (would have been Beethoven’s Ninth this year – but not only my trip but also the concert itself is anyway canceled).  We will see when and whether concerts resume this Spring, or indeed for the Festival this Summer (I got my applications accepted for 19 tickets, and since I usually manage to add new ones during the Summer this would have meant my most performances ever at the Festival, surpassing last Summer’s final total of 19).  We will see.

At night, after work, I have been able to take advantage of the new offerings available online.  I am not going to pretend this is the same as hearing music live, but it’s nice to get some variety I might not have otherwise had.

Every evening the Staatsoper releases a new video available for that night.  New York’s Metropolitan Opera does the same (but with the difference in time zones, this comes after midnight here – thankfully I am nocturnal).

I am now halfway through the Staatsoper’s current production of Wagner‘s Ring cycle, which they have spread out over two weeks (so far just Rheingold and Walküre).  The staging is blah – I am not sure that the vapid German director Sven-Eric Bechtholf had a concept.  If he did, it’s not remotely clear.  Thankfully, it’s not Regietheater, so nothing offends.  But I hope the Staatsoper did not pay him for this lack of imagination.  The cast consists mostly of Staatsoper ensemble members or frequent guests, and does not need to have any star names to succeed dramatically.  I have especially liked the edgy-voiced Thomasz Konieczny as Wotan.  He apparently has sung more Alberich than Wotan, and his voice indeed would be well-suited for Alberich, but the two characters are almost alteregos (“Schwarz-Alberich” and “Licht-Alberich”), so it can work with intelligent singing as Konieczny provides.  In the big roles so far, Evelyn Herlitzius has disappointed as Brünnhilde, her voice is expressive enough but not big enough.  Siegfried (my favorite opera as a child) is tomorrow, and Götterdämmerung (my favorite opera since I was a teen) next weekend.

I actually realized I have not sat through an entire Ring cycle in a while, so even with the faulty staging this is quite a positive outcome of the global pandemic.  Next week, I will also sit through the entire Ring Cycle on four successive nights, courtesy of the Met.  And the Royal Swedish Opera has provided Walküre (just the audio in this case) – in another dramatic reading with only one big-name star, Nina Stemme, as Brünnhilde (a shame she wasn’t contracted by for the current Vienna set!), and a supporting cast that generally held up.

  • [Recording tips: since I am cooped up at home, I do get to tap into my archive to listen to comparative performances.  For Rheingold, the 1958 Solti set with the Vienna Philharmonic made for Decca works for sake of drama thanks to John Culshaw’s brilliant audio engineering; but since George London’s portrayal of Wotan lacks dynamism, I tend to favor the 1953 live recording from Bayreuth conducted by Clemens Kraus, with Hans Hotter as Wotan and a cast otherwise up to the same standards as the Vienna one (in some cases the same singers).  For Walküre, I’ve never found a recording that really does it for me.  There are two conducted by Erich Leinsdorf a couple of decades apart, the first with the Metropolitan Opera has the better cast – there are actually a few of these from the same period, of which I favor a 1940 recording the Metropolitan Opera made while on tour in Boston, with Lauritz Melchior and Lotte Lehmann as a heroic Siegmund and Sieglinde, Marjorie Lawrence as Brünnhilde, and Friedrich Schorr as Wotan; the second Leinsdorf record came with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1962, with Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde and a much better George London as Wotan, and has the more thrilling reading from the pit (indeed, from the orchestral standpoint, this 1962 Leinsdorf version may be the best Walküre available).  For sake of being unusual, I might also suggest seeking out the hard-to-find audio from the 1983 Bayreuth Festival with Georg Solti conducting a Ring cycle that was rightfully panned, but out of which came a surprisingly good Walküre.  Siegmund Nimsgern’s Wotan is similar in style to Konieczny’s in the recent Vienna cycle, Hildegard Behrens is at the hight of her career as Brünnhilde, and Siegfried Jerusalem and Jeannine Altmeier made an excellent pair as Siegmund and Sieglinde.]

Of course, there is plenty of non-Wagner in the Staatsoper’s offering.  In an effort not just to be popular, the Staatsoper also included one 21st-Century opera in its mix: Three Sisters by Peter Eötvös.  That was worth a listen – Eötvös’ music is intelligent and edifying.

From the Met, the highlight so far has been a 2010 performance of Bizet‘s Carmen, with a sultry Elīna Garanča in the title role, overwhelming poor Roberto Alagna as Don José (he was great, but could not compare to her).  A very young-looking Yannick Nézet-Séguin (this production came even before he was appointed Music Director in Philadelphia) provided a perfect spark in the pit.  (Among the other performances the Met streamed was Dmitri Hvorostovsky‘s final public performance, when he returned to the stage for one set of Verdi‘s Il Trovatore, after he began his cancer treatment and before he died.)  The sad side-story from the Met, however, is that this week they fired all members of their orchestra, chorus, ensemble singers, and stage staff and it remains to be seen if the best opera house in the US will be able to survive the pandemic.

  • [Recording tips: I will be a bit zany here, and instead of suggested a “best” recording I will instead suggest one that will make the listener hear Carmen differently.  Carmen‘s international success derives from a production done in Vienna a few years after its Paris premiere.  So how about a German-language version?  The best one of those is a 1961 version from the Deutsche Oper Berlin under Horst Stein, with Christa Ludwig (Carmen), Rudolf Schock (Don José), and Herman Prey (Escamillo).  From a standpoint of drama, it is worth getting over the clumsy German that does not always pass with the music, and just enjoying some fantastic singing actors.]

The most disappointing production I have seen this week, though, was a new one.  The Theater an der Wien (Vienna’s third major opera house) was supposed to open a new production of Beethoven‘s Fidelio this week.  When it was clear a couple of weeks ago that this would not be able to go ahead – and indeed the entire run would be canceled – Austrian television rushed in to film it in front of an empty seats, so that all the work that had gone into producing it would not go to waste.  That was classy.

The problem, though, was the terrible production.  Beethoven’s first attempt at writing an opera did not go well and he gave up.  But he was still under contract, and the impressario was paying his living expenses while he wrote, so he was actually in debt to the impressario – Emanuel Schickaneder – and had to write something to fulfill his obligation, so he grabbed a French play he thought he could set as an opera: Leonore.  It went very badly.  A year later, he revised it.  The second version (now called Fidelio) survived two performances before being canceled.  Beethoven gave up.  About eight years later, with the help of another dramatist friend, he did yet another revision.  This third attempt worked and is the version of Fidelio that became a fixture in the operatic repertory.  Beethoven swore off writing any more operas.

Why anyone would think to stage the first or second versions of Fidelio is beyond my comprehension.  Actually, the music is Beethoven, so it’s great music, and certainly worth the curiosity factor to program selections for concerts.  But it’s lousy opera: there’s no drama (this got fixed in the third version, especially Act Two, which Mahler later augmented by adding the brilliant convention of inserting the Leonore Overture #3, which Beethoven himself realized was not a proper opera overture but a stand-alone piece in its own right, into the scene change).

The staging was blah here too – apparently they hired an architectural firm, which is not who should be doing stagings.  The construction of the stage indeed succeeded aesthetically, and I suppose it worked with this performing version – it, too, lacked drama.  The cast of no-names was mediocre – although it probably did not help that they had to perform this deficient version of the opera.  The Vienna Symphony Orchestra was in the pit (they are world-class, but when I have heard them live in the last couple of years I have noticed they have slipped a bit from where they were a few years ago) under the baton of Manfred Honeck (I like him – he’s certainly the best Austrian conductor working in the US, currently music director in Pittsburgh, and I never understand why his adequate but undistinguished countryman in Cleveland has a higher profile) – but again, the score of this version has no drama, so it’s really hard to make it do anything.

  • [Recording tips: Nothing has yet surpassed the 1969 Otto Klemperer recording of Fidelio with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Christa Ludwig as Leonore, which continues to be my go-to recording.  However, for something different, there is an excellent 1991 version from the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester under Kurt Masur, with some of the same folks who made the 1983 Bayreuth Walküre so compelling: Jeannine Altmeyer as Leonore, Siegfried Jerusalem as Fidelio, and Siegmund Nimsgern as D. Pizarro.  Fun fact: this was the very first CD I owned.  When I bought my first CD player, the electronics shop had a very small collection of classical CDs in the store and I bought this one so I could play something as soon as I got home.]

For non-operatic selections, I have to defer to the Philadelphia Orchestra.  When the City of Philadelphia banned large gatherings due to the virus, this orchestra was supposed to open a series of concerts to celebrate the 250th year of Beethoven’s birth.  That entire series is now canceled.  But they did perform the first concert in the series in front of an empty hall, and posted it on Facebook.  This concert included Beethoven’s Symphonies #5 and #6 plus a world premiere of a work the orchestra commissioned from Iman Habibi, Jeder Baum Spricht, inspired by Beethoven.  Nézet-Séguin’s tempi were far too fast for my taste, but the playing was sublime (they left the concert up online without a clear expiration date, so I recommend searching for it from the Orchestra’s webpage).  This orchestra is by far the best in the US right now (Nézet-Séguin is also one of the best conductors of his 40-ish generation, but he seems to be in a horrible rush here.)

As I write this, I have just finished enjoying a Philadelphia Orchestra concert from one year ago, added free for streaming on their website, with Nézet-Séguin conducting Mahler‘s Ninth, which highlights many of the complex interior lines, played virtuosically by this Orchestra.  Overall a pensive performance, and perfect for an uneasy period in which the world is locked down by a Chinese virus.  The European orchestra Philadelphia is most similar to is the Concertgebouworkest Amsterdam, in terms of having a lot of virtuosi players with fantastic individual lines but who also understand how to blend those thrilling lines into an ensemble whole. Most of the first chairs in Philadelphia are every bit as good as the first chairs in Amsterdam (the Concertgebouworkest is better, as it has more virtuosic depth after the first chairs).

Speaking of the Concertgebouworkest, when Mariss Jansons died last year, they posted for free a nice selection of live concerts he had conducted with them over the years.  Although I have not re-listened to them this week, they remain up on the orchestra’s website.  From the available selection, I’d recommend in particular Tod und Verklärung by Richard Strauss and Mahler’s Symphony #4, but you really cannot go wrong with any of them.

Salzburger Landestheater

Donizetti, Le convenienze ed inconvenienze teatrali

The Salzburger Landestheater was presenting something they called “Viva la Diva” by Donizetti.  Since Donizetti never wrote an opera by that name, and the name itself looked suspect, I assumed it was a pastiche or a mishmash of Donizetti works, a sort-of dumbing-down of the opera.  So I did not plan on going.  Then I found it is actually was a rebranding of Donizetti’s Le convenienze ed inconvenienze teatrali, which is a real, if seldom-performed, opera.  So I went, and am now glad I did.

The Landestheater’s concept behind this production is essentially this: Donizetti himself changed his operas depending on various surrounding circumstances, leading to differences in performances.  This particular opera – based on two farces combined – itself had multiple versions by the composer, and the farcical nature of the plot meant that it was particularly suitable to story fluctuations to work in more topical jokes appropriate for the time and location of the performance.  So there is no “definitive” version to begin with, just an underlying plot with a changeable frame.

The underlying plot has to do with theater conventions in Italy in the 18th and 19th centuries, and stereotypes that grew out of them (for example, with divas behaving badly, unscrupulous managers, parents over-pushing their children, and differences in nationalities leading to other conventions and confusions).  These all lead to further problems (the “inconvenienze”).  Many of these stereotypes still remain, so the underlying plot works.  The Landestheater simply updated the frame (and the name – I am not sure why they needed to give it a new name – perhaps catchier than the original but still).

This approach worked because they also did not try to do too much with it.  They kept the frame simple and let the underlying original fend for itself, with Donizetti’s appropriately fun music (performed with verve by the Mozarteum Orchestra under Adrian Kelly).  In this sense it did not get too crazy, even as they clearly updated characters to give them new identities while keeping the personalities.

The cast worked well – not only individually (quite a strong cast for this little theater, actually) but also interacting as a whole.  This despite an apparent late substitution of the prima donna – Ulpiana Aliaj from Tirana was the understudy (this must be quite a role to be an understudy for, as the opera is so rarely performed it would not be in many people’s repertory, particularly in a German-language translation, not to mention German-language dialogues that were part of the frame and not the original; Aliaj did just fine!).  The rest of the cast members either come from the Landestheater’s ensemble (as was the original prima donna whom Aliaj replaced) or are regular guests, so this would suggest they should have made a nice ensemble, but they did not disappoint.  George Humphreys as Agatha (a baritone role in drag – as it indeed was in the original Donizetti opera) had a huge stage presence (indeed, he is generally a rather tall human being) and hammed up his role to be the audience favorite.  Hazel McBain, Raimundas Juzuitas, Zsófia Mózer, Gustavo Quaresma, and Franz Supper all contributed in other leading roles, each displaying full voices and rounded acting.

So while I suppose there is a reason this opera never gets performed (frankly, there are better period farces and Donizetti has also written more inspired music), it did provide an evening of great fun. I do find it nice that the Landestheater dusts off some of these forgotten operas.

Royal Philharmonia of Galicia, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Arriaga, Rodrigo, Sanz, Albéniz, Falla, Montes

The second night of the Royal Philharmonia of Galicia‘s visit to Salzburg’s Great Festival House with guest conductor Pablo González allowed the orchestra to confirm that it does indeed play with a full palette of warm Spanish colors.

Tonight’s program provided a wider sweep of Spanish music than yesterday.  The concert opened with the Symphony in d by Juan Crisóstomo de Arriaga.  This was a curiosity, in the same sense as works on the Mozarteum Orchestra’s concert two weeks ago: a rarely-performed work by a little-known composer who made a splash in his own time (indeed, this same symphony is on the Mozarteum Orchestra’s next Thursday subscription concert program, which I would miss even if I were in Austria as it falls on the night of the second Seder).  Arriago, a child prodigy known as the “Spanish Mozart” (incorrectly according to the program, as he did not bloom as young as Mozart and was a contemporary of Schubert, whose early career he paralleled, meaning the program thought he should be known as the “Spanish Schubert”) wrote the work when he was about 18 years old – and he died 10 days shy of his 20th birthday.  The work was pleasant enough and may have been better than the curiosities on the Mozarteum Orchestra’s program last month (except for the Schubert “Unfinished” which this did not come close to matching).  What Arriaga might have accomplished if he had lived even as long as Schubert (who died at 31 years old), we can only guess.

Joaquín Rodrigo‘s Concierto de Aranjuez followed.  The orchestra once again provided full color.  Unfortunately, they miked the solo guitarist, Enrike Solinís.  What is with the microphones?  Granted the guitar does not project as much as some instruments, and must perform here with a full orchestra, but González seemed to be in control on the podium, so could and should have managed the balance.  Instead, at points the sound came across as very electric (and not in a good way).  We had a similar problem for the solo guitar piece Solinís provided as an encore (Canarios by Gaspar Sanz).

After the intermission came two excerpts from Iberia by Isaac Albéniz, in a new (and utterly terrible) orchestration by Jesús Rueda.  Rueda combined the instruments in dreadful ways, seemingly wanting to stress dissonance and combinations of sounds that did not quite go together, while jumping among instruments to break up all flow in the dancing lines.  If this orchestra had been prone to more errors elsewhere in the concert, I would almost believe the orchestra itself was a chaotic mess – but since the orchestra was consistently good everywhere else, with wonderful lines even when individual instruments were exposed, then I can only conclude that Rueda’s orchestration was a mess.  What a shame.

The final scheduled work repeated El Amor Brujo by Manuel de Falla that we heard last night.  It was once again a great success for the orchestra… but not for the soloist María José Pérez.  She was miked once again.  And while she understood the specialized style of Spanish Gypsy singing, the tinny twang from amplification just did not work.  I’ve heard better Spanish Gypsy singing anyway in my many years spending time in Spain, even in smaller spaces, but if she cannot fill a concert hall then she should go back to Almería to some small venue more her size.

She gave us a solo encore (a traditional Flamenco number) – but even here, singing solo without needing to project in front of an orchestra, she still used the microphone.  That’s just poor.

González came back out to lead the orchestra in a final encore Negra Sombra by Xoán Montes, the evocative Galician piece which they also performed last night, and which sent the audience out into the night inspired to make a pilgrimage to Santiago, perhaps.

Royal Philharmonia of Galicia, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Falla, Ravel, Gulda, Montes

The Royal Philharmonia of Galicia has come to Salzburg’s Great Festival House this week for a concert series.  The orchestra has brought mostly Spanish music to Salzburg, and this is clearly its thing.  A rather new orchestra (founded only in 1996) from Santiago, it had a full and satisfying sound enhanced by rich Spanish color.  Guest conductor Pablo González kept everything sparkling and idiomatic.

The opening work and encore were both purely instrumental, and here the orchestra showed off at its best.  A suite from Manuel de Falla‘s ballet Sombrero de Tres Picos led off, and as with the encore, Negra Sombra, by Galician composer Xoán Montes Capón, the music danced (flamboyantly when required) and provided drama.

The orchestra proved equally good in the middle portions of the concert, but was saddled with poor soloists and one poor musical selection.  Claire Huangci was the piano soloist for two concerti and one solo encore.  While the piano was presumably the same grand Steinway they usually roll out in this hall and which I therefore hear used often enouth, she managed to make it sound like an upright, with an ugly metallic twang.

The first concerto she did, before the intermission, was Ravel‘s.  I assume this snuck into the program because the composer’s mother was a Spanish Basque, and thus he was half-Spanish.  Unfortunately, he got his compositional style from his French side.  I last heard this concerto (twice) a year ago with the sad circumstances of pianist Alice Sara Ott’s tour right after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.  Ott took a soft approach last year, whereas Huangci was more robust now.  So the work sounded completely different – but it’s still not very good, since Ravel could not really figure out what he was trying to say, creating instead a mass of confusion without a point.  Ravel is unjustly remembered as a great orchestrator (because he indeed did do a great orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition), but generally his orchestrations, if not thin, at least feel like he never got around to finishing the score.  That was true for this concerto too – so not only did he not know what he wanted to say, but he never quite said it either.

The second concerto, after the break, was a better composition: Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain.  Falla of course spent some time in Paris where he fell under the influence of Ravel, Debussy, and other useless French composers.  But Falla had substance, and his work had all the color that Ravel’s lacked.  If it had not been for Huangci’s metallic playing, I might have even forgotten there was a piano there.  As it was, I still enjoyed the orchestral bits – both in tutti and the evocative solo work by the various first chairs.

Huangci bashed the life out of the piano for an encore after the Ravel.  No idea what it was (UPDATE: the Kulturvereinigung has helpfully identified it as Toccata by Friedrich Gulda), but the wild and crazy piece probably was intended to show us she could be very dexterous.  But when Khatia Buniatishvili, sitting in this same hall (possibly even on the same piano) last summer went wild on the keyboard, we got great amounts of subtlety within the craziness.  Huangci just couldn’t manage that.

The final scheduled work – after Nights in the Gardens of Spain and before the Montes encore – was another one by Falla: El Amor Brujo.  Once again, we had some fun orchestral playing.  But now the soloist was mezzosoprano María José Pérez.  She actually had the Spanish gypsy idiom down, more or less (I’ve heard better Spanish gypsy singing, but her style was OK).  Her problem was mostly that she required amplification.  Even with a good speaker system in the hall, this still made her voice sound tinny.  If I want music to sound like a recording, I will listen to a recording (presumably with an even better singer).  If I go to a live concert, I expect to hear live music, unamplified.  If she cannot project her voice, she needs another career.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Borodin, Say, Prokofiev

Most of the Mozarteum Orchestra‘s first chairs seemed to have taken this morning off, but no matter: the orchestra nonetheless produced wonderful, colorful, evocative music worth waking up early on a Sunday morning for.

Russian conductor Andrei Boreiko chose to highlight eastern sounds in classical music, and this let him feature many individual lines that contributed to the orchestra members getting the chance to demonstrate their versatility.  He opened the concert with the Polovtsian Dances from Borodin‘s opera Prince Igor – here performed using the orchestral lines only.  Although the operatic excerpt sounded distinctly odd without the chorus, with the singers out of the way we had a chance to hear the underlying orchestral lines more clearly.  And so while I would not necessarily recommend this particularly wordless version (which defies the Erich Leinsdorf rule against performing operatic excerpts without the singing – orchestral excerpts should be limited to orchestra-only passages in the opera), as an opportunity to listen to the “eastern” (not just Russian, but the Turkic tribes that made up the peoples the early Russians referred to as “Polovtsians”) textures Borodin set for the instruments, particularly the winds, it was a worthwhile exercise.  And we got much fine playing.

I do not believe I have ever heard music by Turkish pianist-composer Fazil Say before, so the next item on the program was bound to be a new experience: Say’s violin concerto 1001 Nights in the Harem, with the talented Spanish violinist Leticia Moreno.  Say incorporated Anatolian Turkish sounds into the classical tradition, particularly use of percussion.  One thinks of the “Turkish” music popular in Austria in the 18th and 19th Centuries, which used Turkish instruments – but in this case Say employed not just the instruments but also actual Turkic music into the mix.  The blend of traditions worked well, balanced by Boreiko, with Moreno’s lively dexterous performance in front of a fully-engaged and engaging Mozarteum Orchestra.

Prokofiev‘s Fifth Symphony came as the lone work after the intermission.  Here the horde from the East was not Turkic, but Russian (although there is the saying: scratch a Russian, find a Tatar).  Prokofiev wrote the symphony to mark Russia’s invasion of Poland for the second time in the Second World War – this time to drive the Germans out (the first time they invaded Poland during that war, they were allied with Germany and divided Poland up between them).  Boreiko’s interpretation lacked some of the drive I have heard in other performances of this symphony, but he seems to have done this in order to focus on the finer details: a clear relationship to the evocative sounds from the Borodin excerpt that opened the concert, as well as to some of the angularity – particularly in the percussion – of Say’s concerto.  The orchestra clearly appreciated the chance Boreiko gave them to show off their talent – the guest conductor crafted the sounds, but did not make the performance about himself but rather about the musicians who actually produced the music: a felicitous combination all around.

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.

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.)

Bruckner Orchestra Linz, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Bruckner, Aho, Miki, Strauss

The Finnish composer Kalevi Aho wrote a “Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra” – premiered in London in 2012.  This evening, the Bruckner Orchestra of Linz and its music director Markus Poschner brought it to Salzburg’s Great Festival House, with soloist Martin Grubinger.

Grubinger describes himself as a “multi-percussionist,” which seems apt having seen him perform this work.  He and a few stage hands set up what must have been at least thirty different percussion instruments across the front of the stage, and he ran around for over half an hour playing all of them (the orchestra’s own three percussionists each got several of their own to play too!).  I cannot say I am sure about the logic of the concerto: it was oddly tonal, and with so many sounds (not all from European orchestra instruments – some borrowed from other musical traditions) it constantly had something new to say.  But the entire concept escaped me, so I instead focused on watching Grubinger run around and make all this music, which was itself exhilarating.  In that sense, maybe Aho’s logic was only providing a platform for a “multi-percussionist.”  (Figure skating came to mind: I can appreciate the skill and athleticism of a figure skater, but it’s not a real sport – that takes nothing away from admiring the skater, but skating is no more a sport than ballet is, yet whereas no one considers ballet a sport some people insist figure skating is a sport; so I am not really sure this was a concerto, but it was one amazing performance).

After a huge ovation, Grubinger returned to the front of the stage, and he, the stagehands, and the orchestra’s three percussionists removed many instruments, rearranged others, and then brought still more out.  The four of them then performed an encore: another crazy piece for percussion only (lots of percussion only), with the glue being Grubinger (mostly) on the marimba (subsequently identified on the Kulturvereinigung’s website as the Marimba Spirtual by Minoru Miki).  It was all nuts, but so much fun.

The concert opened with the Overture in g minor by Anton Bruckner.  Written when he was almost forty, it nevertheless definitely counts as an early work – he was still the organist of the Linz Cathedral at the time, and had still not composed any symphonies (not even his student ones).  This piece he stuffed in a drawer after he wrote it and never intended it to see the light of day.  There were only two known copies – one ended up mostly in the archives of a nearby abbey (part went missing), and the other ended up with a friend.  It was first published and performed long after his death.  A hint of Bruckner’s future style can be gleaned from the work, but otherwise it is not much of anything other than a curiosity.

After the intermission came Ein Heldenleben by Richard Strauss.  Poschner decided on an expansive reading – indeed, the other orchestra he leads, the Orchestra of Italian Switzerland (which he has also brought to Salzburg), is barely bigger than a chamber ensemble and so he must luxuriate in having a proper-sized band in Linz.  The problem is that this orchestra was not good enough for his interpretation.  At the opening of the piece, the right and left sides of the orchestra were strangely out of time with each other (not by much, but by just enough to make the whole thing sound warped) and by the time he got them playing all together they just settled into a formless blur.  Their ensemble playing generally came across full but not lush, and the individual lines lacked virtuosity, generally undistinguished mushy playing.  There were also more missed notes in the winds than there should have been.  This is the provincial orchestra of Upper Austria, one province over – and so the logical comparisons should be to Salzburg’s Mozarteum Orchestra to its west and the Tonkünstler Orchestra of Lower Austria to its east, both of which are far superior to the one from Linz.

But that multi-percussionist…!

Mozarteum Orchestra, Mozarteum

Weber, Wagner, Mendelssohn, Berlioz

I just spent a surprisingly unfulfilling evening with the Mozarteum Orchestra under music director Riccardo Minasi.  The orchestra actually sounded great… so I suppose I’ll need to blame the uninspiring mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich.

Aldrich appeared for two sets, closing both halves of the concert.  In the first part, she sang the Wesendonck Lieder of Richard Wagner.  Initially, her voice came out coarse, marking a contrast from the wonderful warmth of the orchestra.  She gradually settled into it, but never quite captured much of the emotion.  She closed the concert’s second half with the Death of Cleopatra by Hector Berlioz.  Now her voice was fully ready, but the songs dragged.  Part of this may be the songs themselves: Berlioz wrote them to conform to the expectations of a French jury in order to win a five-year stipend in Rome.  Since the French generally don’t seem to understand music (and had repeatedly rejected Berlioz before – he was probably far too creative and consistently talented a composer to be understood by his countrymen), I might mark this down to Berlioz intentionally writing dull music.  Might a better vocalist have done more with it?  Perhaps, but perhaps not.

The orchestral selections came out better.  The concert opened with two pieces by Carl Maria von Weber: the overture to his opera Euryanthe and the funeral march and overture he wrote for Schiller’s play Turandot.  I do not believe I had heard the second one before, but it was instantly recognizable since Hindemith wrote his famous variations on it.  The concert’s second half opened with The Hebrides by Felix Mendelssohn – if not quite as evocative as the performance I heard of this concert overture (more like a tone poem) by the Philadelphia Orchestra in October, the orchestra still gave us a treat with gorgeous solo lines rising from a full-bodied ensemble.  More of that and less of her next time, please.

Stadler Quartet, Salzburg University Orchestra, Landesjazzorchester Salzburg, various soloists, Mozarteum Solitär

Weinberg

Moishe Weinberg would have turned 100 today.  So the final concert of the Weinberg 100 Festival in Salzburg lasted almost four hours.  In part this appears to have been a complete miscalculation by the organizers, who seem not to have estimated how long the program was, and indeed unnecessarily added pieces to the original program (in some cases repeating music already performed during the five-day festival).

The venue this evening was the Solitär auditorium in the Mozarteum Conservatory – a hall I had not known existed (I assumed most of the conservatory’s in-house concerts would take place either in the Mozarteum’s Great Hall or for chamber music in the smaller Viennese Hall, but they’ve obviously relatively recently constructed a sparkling-new 300-seat auditorium).  The acoustics and overall conditions were far better than in the horrible basement auditorium we suffered in on Thursday evening, and this let me reevaluate some performances repeated both evenings.  So, for example, the Salzburg University Orchestra – the amateur group loosely connected to the university – actually held its own this evening (again under Silvia Spinnata) with violin soloist Alexandra Seywald also improving incrementally, to produce a wonderful Concertino – a work that deserves to enter the standard repertory of concert violinists (maybe Seywald can help on that count, bringing her compelling performance to future orchestral concerts, as Gidon Kremer has).

The Sonata for Solo Contrabass performed partly on double bass (by Verena Wurzer) and partly on contrabasoon (by Eddie Bartlett) also came off much better – especially the case for the contrabassoon, which simply did not resonate in the auditorium on Thursday (Wurzer succeeded in producing a good sound on Thursday, but was also far better this evening).

And the 16-year-old Philipp Huber returned with the Piano Sonata #6 – but we had the opportunity to hear him perform that in the Mozarteum’s Viennese Hall yesterday, and so he already had a chance to shine in a good hall.  I’m not sure I needed to hear this piece three times in five days.

The Stadler Quartet also repeated the String Quartet #4 they had performed on Friday in the Salzburg Synagogue.  They have been perhaps overworked throughout the five days (no one has performed as much as they have), and looked like they were tiring.  Friday’s performance was better paced, more intimate, and fresher.

The only other repeat performance was the children’s chorus singing three selections from Children’s Songs opus 139 – the same three they sang yesterday.  Yesterday they were a festive introduction to the concert – today they were misplaced.  Maybe they would have once again provided a festive opening, but they were instead scheduled for several hours in, and when the organizers looked at their watches and realized it had already passed the bedtime of some of the youngest chorus members, they moved them forward in between Huber’s main piece and his encore – at about 9:45 p.m.

As for the works that we had not heard before: one commonality tonight was a sense of song (without vocals – rather instruments doing the singing, supported by Weinberg’s complex accompaniments).  The concert had opened with the Stadler Quartet performing the Aria for String Quartet opus 9, composed in the composer’s period in exile in Tashkent, which set the mood.  Immediately following (and before Quartet #4) came a sonata for Clarinet and Piano, opus 28, with Ferdinand Steiner accompanied by Per Rundberg.  And between the Concertino and Piano Sonata #6 came a sonata for cello and piano, opus 63, with Mikhail Nemtsov accompanied by his sister Elena Nemtsova.  Both of these sonatas contained the customary amount of intellectual craziness we now expect from Weinberg.  The Nemtsov siblings probably got the flashier piece, and completely deserved the biggest applause of the evening from a thrilled audience.

At the end of the concert came the circus.  As Weinberg’s formal music was often suppressed by the communist regime, he made his living writing more popular forms – such as for films (one of which I saw on Wednesday, the festival’s opening evening) and for the circus.  The Salzburg Regional Jazz Orchestra – a recently-founded youth group – did the honors this evening.  What was completely unclear from the announcer (unidentified person in a hat who seemed to have some connection to the jazz orchestra, although what connection was unclear) was whether the arrangements made especially for this evening’s performance by this group jazzed up non-jazz music, or whether Weinberg actually wrote some pretty jazzy music to be performed at the circus.  I would have thought that for a composer out of favor with the regime and already in danger of being purged (he was indeed purged once and Schostakowitsch had to rescue him), jazz might be too “western” and he would have stuck to something more sedate – the program notes suggested “variety music” and dances deriving from Viennese waltzes and similar, possibly jazzed up a bit (as Schostakowitsch had done – although the program does not mention that Schostakowitsch’s attempts did not go over too well with the authorities).  I was curious about Weinberg’s circus music, so stayed to the end, but am not sure I got any answers.

Mirga Gražynitė-Tyla, one of the organizers, announced at the end that they may try to make a Weinberg Festival into a regular occurrence in Salzburg.  Maybe we can get his 21 symphonies next time, or his seven operas…

Stadler Quartet, Mozarteum Viennese Hall

Weinberg

The lobby of the Mozarteum’s Viennese Hall completely thinned out after the first concert of the evening.  I thought maybe people were going for coffee or a quick Würstl, since there were no refreshments on hand in the Mozarteum today.  But, much to my surprise, the audience mostly did not come back, and the second concert was sparsely-populated.  This was a great shame, because this was definitely the best concert in the entire festival so far (and probably will beat tomorrow’s too).

The Stadler Quartet again did the honors and got top billing, performing two more of Weinberg‘s quartets, #7 at the start of the concert and #3 at the end.  I’m still unpacking these two: absolutely gorgeous music, with so much going on.  There were only four instruments in the quartet, but it felt like a whole orchestra was on the stage from the complexity and fullness of the sound.  Combine the brilliance of Schubert’s quartets with Mahler’s Weltschmerz and Schostakowtisch’s desolation, and then add an extra does of Jewish humor, and maybe that at least hints at the mood here.  Quartet #7 opened with what sounded like what would happen if someone started crying uncontrollably while copying out a Schubert quartet, smudging the ink badly, and then someone else tried to perform the result.  Schubert had reached the pinnacle of the Fach, and his quartets were brilliant for his day, with so many lines and twists, and in a sense Weinberg carried that tradition forward but in his own style.  And if the second movement of the quartet #3 carried all of the tragedy of the end of Mahler’s ninth symphony, Weinberg did not leave it there but instead revved up for a dance in the third and final movement.

To fill out the program (as the odd trio had done last night), placed between these two quartets came Weinberg songs (with the intermission in between the sets).  These too had a bit of a Schubertian derivation, at least in the singing line if more complex in the piano accompaniment.  Before the break came the a cycle of songs setting to music the poems of Yevgyeny Baratynsky.  Afterwards came a setting of an elegy by Friedrich Schiller.  Austrian baritone Wolfgang Holzmair had a warm, wonderful, expressive voice – clearly a master of the Lied, supported by Gaiva Bandzinaitė on the piano.  Bandzinaitė recited (from memory) the German translation of the Baratynsky poems before the performance, and Holzmair read out the original German of Schiller (Weinberg had set a Russian translation) – better would have been to reproduce those in the program so we could follow along.

The songs made this second concert of the evening more Schubertian.  I would have liked to have heard two of the sopranos who sang on Thursday (Lubov Karetnikova and Alina Martemianova – both currently studying with Holzmair) repeat their selections this evening, since the performing conditions in the auditorium on Thursday were so sub-optimal.

Gidon Kremer, Mozarteum Viennese Hall

Weinberg

Day Four of the Weinberg 100 Festival featured two back-to-back concerts in the Viennese Hall of the Mozarteum.  The first completely sold out, presumably based on the star power of Gidon Kremer, the soloist for Moishe Weinberg‘s first and second violin sonate.  Kremer may, to a degree, be indirectly responsible for this festival: he had become a champion of Weinberg’s music, and I believe it was through him (the Baltic connection – he’s based in Latvia and is active with chamber music across the Baltic states) that the Lithuanian conductor Mirga Gražynitė-Tyla discovered and also championed it.  She was chief conductor of the Salzburg Landestheater at the time, and the Mozarteum Orchestra is the pit orchestra for the opera, and she also regularly leads the orchestra in concerts as well, and while she did not introduce Weinberg to the Salzburg public then, she is one of the drivers behind this festival, together with Mozarteum Orchestra concertmaster Frank Stadler, who fell for Weinberg’s music shortly after that.

At any rate, as for the music: I’m afraid I am not so sure about these two sonate.  Weinberg’s music is quite complex, but I find he does best with multiple lines weaving among each other in fascinating ways, and this is harder to pull off on one instrument.  Not impossible (and certainly Kremer has that talent), just harder.  So while remarkable music, and well performed, these two solo sonate just did not seem to speak to me.  Kremer added another work as an encore, but although repeating several times what it was he kept mumbling it so that everyone sitting around me looked at each other shrugging our shoulders – I think I understood that it was a work Weinberg wrote for his friend the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, which Kremer had transcribed from cello to violin.

The rest of the concert contained (good) filler, works being performed elsewhere during the festival, which did not need to appear on the program again and could have been substituted for other Weinberg works.

Philipp Huber, one of the student pianists on Thursday, returned to perform Weinberg’s Piano Sonata #6, which he also played on Thursday and apparently (according to the program but not the original schedule) will play again at tomorrow’s concert.  The conditions this evening were much more conducive to hearing his performance than in that awful auditorium on Thursday, and so today it was possible both to hear Huber’s enormous talent as well as grasp the sense of the two-movement sonata he performed.  Huber is 16 years old, and certainly belongs in the adult surroundings of the Mozarteum’s Viennese Hall, showing excellent self-confidence for a not-easy work.  That said, I wish Weinberg had orchestrated this work, as it would be a great improvement to hear it on more than a solo piano (not Huber’s fault – he was excellent and now I look forward to hearing him perform it again tomorrow).  Huber added as an encore the movement from the opus 16 piano cycle he performed as part of the train of student performers on Thursday, and again the better setting this evening gave him more confidence and stage presence.

Gražynitė-Tyla had opened the concert in the midst of the Children’s Chorus of the Salzburg Festival and Landestheater, with three excerpts from Children’s Songs opus 139 – Russian-language adaptations of Jewish songs, a fun way to start the evening. We’ll hear them again tomorrow, too.