Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Beethoven, Bruckner

Bernard Haitink announced earlier this year that, at 90 years old, he would take a sabbatical after the end of the Summer.  It is widely understood he will never return.  This made for an emotional final concert at the Salzburg Festival this morning, with Haitink at the helm of the Vienna Philharmonic (these forces will repeat this same program at the London Proms and Luzern Festival after this, so it’s not quite his final performance yet – two more).

The concert opened with Beethoven‘s Piano Concerto #4 with soloist Emanuel Ax.  Conductor, orchestra, and pianist kept everything light and lyrical.  There is much going on in this concerto, but these forces made it seem almost easy (“almost” in that we could actually hear how much was going on given the clear playing, so we knew that despite the sound it could not have been easy).  Ax gave an encore, a lively if not flamboyant work (once again, as someone who does not generally care for and almost never listens to solo piano music, I was left to make an educated guess; I might guess Chopin, but don’t really know).

After the intermission came the real emotions for Bruckner‘s Seventh Symphony.  This work had its premiere from the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester, but as evidenced on Wednesday, that orchestra (which has preserved its distinct quality and sound) may just not be the right orchestra for Bruckner.  The Vienna Philharmonic certainly is the right orchestra.  This morning they sounded bright and played with just the right emotional balance.  They carried the lyrics over from Beethoven, but passed them through almost eighty years of musical development to reach not light and lyrical but actually somber and lyrical, a difficult balance to pull off (easy for this orchestra).

Haitink, conducting with his score closed on the music stand, had well-measured beats.  He periodically propped himself up against the barstool-like seat made available for him on the podium.  At the end, clearly exhausted, he needed to be helped to walk on and off the stage for the standing ovation and multiple curtain calls (including an extra one after the orchestra had left the stage).   I remember first seeing him conduct live (although I don’t remember what) when I lived in London in 1991-92 (and had my favorite seat in the pre-renovation Royal Festival Hall directly behind the brass able to read their music while facing the conductors – post-renovation these seats are higher and further removed, but back then it was a great way to learn music with some of the cheapest tickets for anything in that overpriced city).  Of course I knew of his work previously.

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Leipzig Gewandhausorchester, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Bruckner

Andris Nelsons and the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester brought a peculiar interpretation of Bruckner‘s Eighth Symphony to the Festival this evening, representing less a cathedral of sound (as this work normally is) and more a great expanse of penitents seeking absolution under the open sky.  If Sunday’s Beethoven Ninth with Kirill Petrenko and the Berliners was an apotheosis of joy in praise of a benevolent Creator dwelling above the stars to bless humanity, this may have been somewhat the opposite.  That’s not a bad thing, just different.

The default volume this evening was, strangely, piano.  This is not to say that the orchestra performed the majority, nor even the plurality, at that level, only that it kept returning to this volume for the foundational pulse, with everything else coming as an overlay.  And rather than have the orchestra produce a warm and rounded tone, Nelsons had them playing mostly bitter and brash.  He also emphasized not Bruckner’s thick harmonies, but rather his newfound dissonance (Bruckner, late in life, did indeed look into the abyss, although this was not the prevalent mood until the Ninth Symphony).

Despite the intentionally-harsh sounds, there was some real delicacy in the playing, consistent with the Gewandhausorchester’s throwback 18th-century traditional tone (the orchestra has its origins from 1743 and has cultivated a distinct style).  Bach died in Leipzig in 1750, and although I don’t believe he had an association with this orchestra, tonight’s intricate string work showcased an almost Bachian quality, something Bruckner the church organist and professor of counterpoint would certainly have appreciated and indeed which influenced his work.  The woodwinds jumped out where needed (not unnoticed was that at the end of the concert Nelsons gave the first featured bow to the flute section).  That said, the brass were less good – not just the rawness Nelsons cultivated across the performance this evening, but actually botching a few notes too many and sounding less sure in ensemble.  Great tympanist.

Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, Felsenreitschule

Dvořák, Bruckner

Herbert Blomstedt is ageless.  At 92 years old, he was probably older than any four members of the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra combined.  They are lucky to learn from his wisdom.

The Bruckner symphonies at this year’s Festival seem to have been shoved to the end: three in the final week, starting this evening with the Sixth Symphony.  The orchestra, possibly the finest youth orchestra in Europe but also by its nature turning over musicians regularly, sounded uncharacteristically weaker in the winds than expected, with noticeably missed notes early on.  Presumably Blomstedt noticed as well, since he presented us with a quite unusual interpretation: instead of the strings producing a lush foundation upon which the winds could drive the plot forward and set up the soaring chorales, he instead had the winds provide a generally-legato rich base upon which the strings could take control – indeed, all of the string, from the pulsating violins to the rich viole in the adagio to the double basses (whom he lined up across the entire back row) taking a surprisingly large sound (I’ve never known double basses to have the lead role in Bruckner before) and pushing the symphony onwards.  Indeed, this interpretation could be described as an “inverted Sixth” – not the way I have heard it before, but with Blomstedt there is always something new and brilliant.  The man is an architect of music.

The first half of the concert was not as successful, containing ten Biblical Songs by Dvořák.  This was a very personal work for the composer, based on various Psalms (sometimes combined or edited).  But he only ever orchestrated five of the ten (even though he lived quite a bit beyond completion) and the whole set feels a tad unfinished (tonight performed with orchestrations of the other five made by others after the composer’s death).  The baritone soloist was Christian Gerhaher, who does not have a particularly large voice – I have heard him sing Mahler on this stage (the Felsenreitschule) and with this orchestra a three years’ back, where to be heard over the orchestra he had to force his voice and it came across unpleasant then, but I’ve also heard him sing Schumann less forced and more warmly.  The chamber orchestra accompaniment, with Blomstedt in control, meant Gerhaher did not have to strain this evening, and the warmer version of himself emerged (if still not especially large in voice).  But the songs themselves were not so convincing (I actually own a decent recording of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing six of them – in German translation with piano accompaniment – where he manages to make a case for them, but Gerhaher won’t be confused for Fischer-Dieskau, although I believe he may have studied with him once upon a time).

Berlin Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Berg, Beethoven

I have not heard the Berlin Philharmonic sound this good in years.  The orchestra had recently become quite clinical in its performances, and its former music director, the otherwise excellent Simon Rattle, had probably stayed too long in post.  Last Summer at the Festival, Rattle looked much happier at the helm of his new orchestra (the London Symphony Orchestra, which sounded happy to have him as well), but the verdict remained out with the Berliners and their new music director, the reclusive and enigmatic Kirill Petrenko.  A year further along, the Berliners seemed determined to return to their former place among the top tier of the world’s orchestras.

Tonight’s program provided a good test: Symphonic Pieces from the Opera Lulu by Alban Berg, and the Symphony #9 by Ludwig van Beethoven.

If the orchestra wanted to be clinical, Berg’s twelve-tone music would have given them a good excuse.  But Berg knew he was writing music, and went a step beyond his teacher Schoenberg, who had developed the formulaic twelve-tone technique, to successfully craft longer works including operas.  Lulu is an opera I once knew reasonably well when I was a child, when I had studied it ahead of seeing it live at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.  Somehow it did not stick with me over the years, getting eclipsed by Berg’s Wozzeck for my affections already while I was an undergraduate, to the point that Lulu fell almost completely off my radar.

Berg assembled these concert pieces when he realized he might never complete the opera (he actually never did) and that the rise of the Nazis in Germany and the writing appearing on the wall in Austria might make it difficult to perform in the German-speaking world even if he did finish it.  So he needed to assemble a half hour or so of music that might make a coherent concert program.  In this he was successful, and the Berliners underscored this with a performance that was anything but clinical.  Marlis Petersen joined the orchestra for the middle movement entitled “Lulu’s song” adding her own clear soprano lines.  In total, the performance stood well on its own as music, utilizing Berg’s idiom which followed the twelve-tone method but also had to maintain a sense of both music and drama.

The Berliners must know Beethoven’s Ninth by heart, so I suppose they could also have ended up being clinical here too.  And once again they were not.  The first three movements represented a battle between a dark world and a human joy, the orchestra sounding almost playful in the juxtaposition.  While there was a tension between the two competing moods – particularly in the first two movements, it was also clear in which direction Beethoven was moving, heading to the triumphant apotheosis of joy in the finale.  I would quibble a bit with Petrenko’s tempi, which were too fast, particularly in the first movement (essentially the same speed as the second movement scherzo) and in the third (one of the symphonic repertory’s great adagio movements, along with those from the Bruckner Eighth and Mahler Third), the third sounding slow only by comparison with what came before.  But the musicality remained.

Joining Petersen in the quartet were Elisabeth Kulman, Benjamin Bruns, and Kwangchul Youn, who blended well together and with the orchestra as a coherent part of the scheme.  Petrenko placed them behind the orchestra, rather than at the front of the stage (where they might more normally be) – but as Petrenko is primarily an opera conductor, he knows well how not to overwhelm the singers even while maintaining a full orchestral tone.  Less successful was the Berlin Radio Chorus, which seems not to have gotten the memo, producing detached staccato and emotionless singing in contrast to the otherwise exhilarating performance.

The Berliners perform at the Festival again tomorrow, but I decided to skip it as I wanted to get through an entire summer without hearing any music by Mozart or Tschaikowsky (I like their music, but they are far too over-rated and over-performed and I need a break from both of them for a while).  I’ll catch the Berliners and Petrenko on a future date and see if their transformation sticks.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mahler

After a run of chamber concerts at the Festival, my final five tickets return me to my usual Fach, the large orchestra concerts starting this morning with an all-Mahler program with the Vienna Philharmonic under Daniel Barenboim.

Barenboim is a perfectly competent if not particularly interesting conductor, so the concert was good but not insightful.  He used the orchestra to paint thick musical canvasses, but did not necessarily do anything with the music that I have not already heard.  Although this morning’s primary work was Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, the natural point of contrast would be to Herbert Blomstedt leading the Philharmonic in Mahler’s Ninth last month, in which Blomstedt opened new worlds within the existing notes and produced a trascendental performance from this orchestra.  Not anywhere in the same league as Blomstedt, Barenboim came across as certain but not always clear, and at times it sounded as though the orchestra could not really follow him.  Also missing: any sense of Angst – and what is Mahler without Angst?

The concert opened with Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, with mezzo Okka von der Damerau as soloist.  Damerau has a full, well-rounded voice.  She warbles a bit at the lower register, which also did not project as well as the upper registers.  But she overall has a clear sound that interacted especially well with the woodwinds, whose colors Barenboim was most intent on drawing out.

Khatia Buniatishvili, Großes Festspielhaus

Schubert, Liszt, Stravinsky

I do not normally get excited about solo piano recitals, but tonight I may have a new favorite pianist.  I have heard Khatia Buniatishvili before in concert – always with orchestra and just never in solo recitals – and acknowledged her stardom.  But at 32 years old she keeps getting better, and a solo evening at the Festival allowed her to show off without an orchestra.

The concert opened with the first four Impromptus by Franz Schubert.  Since she played solo, this meant she could do things which would not be heard with any other instruments present: mezza voce on the piano!  Really?  How is that even possible?  These impromptus were not songs, but pure piano works, but Schubert gave them lyrical qualities, and she took it one step further, making me search for the words that never had existed.

The following works (three more impromptus and the rest of the concert) had swells and indeed wilder playing, but Buniatishvili never lost that lyricism, and mezza voce lines returned when needed, mixed with just the right amount of other dynamics (from dancing melodies through to outright crazy).  One hand could be delicately singing while the other jumped wildly and at volume all over the keyboard (and her third, fourth, and fifth hands added other lines – what, she only has two hands?).

Three Schubert songs followed (with brief pauses but no break for applause between them as she did not lower her hands), in arrangements for piano solo (without words) by Ferenc Liszt: the “Serenade” from Swan Song, “Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel,” and Erlkönig.  Liszt did more than just add the vocal line to the piano accompaniment, but in Lisztian fashion made embellishments.  Buniatishvili not only handled those embellishments masterfully, but she did so by practically keeping the now wordless vocal line, with all the emotion that the missing words would have provided.

After the intermission, things got even crazier, with Liszt’s own works and some Igor Stravinsky.  First after the break came a study for piano of what would eventually become Liszt’s tone poem Mazeppa.  In this version, it was recognizable as the future (better) orchestral work, but with only a piano at her disposal Buniatishvili unleashed herself like the wild horse carrying the chained Mazeppa across the steppe.  There followed Liszt’s piano arrangement of the Hungarian Rhapsody #6 (which Liszt had also orchestrated – but who needs an orchestra with Buniatishvili playing).

The final programmed work was an arrangement Stravinsky did for piano of his ballet Petrushka.  This was not a piano transcription, but rather a fantasy based on the music.  The ballet is colorfully scored, and I would not have expected it to come over well for piano – too much going on (both in contrasting lines and in colors).  Indeed, a few years ago in this hall a husband-and-wife piano team who had performed Mendelssohn’s concerto for two pianos did as an encore part of a Petrushka transcription (maybe even this one) for piano four hands and it indeed was missing a lot.  Yet somehow with only two hands, Buniatishvili managed to get everything in there.  Even watching her do it I am not sure how she did it.

The standing ovation (in a fully-packed Great Festival House – which seats well over 2,000 people) warranted two encores.  First came part of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody #2 in its piano arrangement.  Not only was this not missing the usual orchestra, but it almost seemed she did a parody of a Liszt embellishment of his own work, by adding all sorts of extra notes and riffs, and performing at what seemed like at least double speed.  A few notes were missing here and there (or her finger landed slightly wrong), but these are forgiven because I am flummoxed how she did this at all.

Buniatishvili took down the racing heartbeats in the room with a sedate second encore.  I did not recognize what it was, but it was clearly only there to calm people down rather than for any particular show.  If I had to hazard a guess, I’d guess it may have been Debussy: it seemed to want to go somewhere but never quite get anywhere, and went through a phase that felt like we had been transported to a low class night club late at night with the prostitutes circling a bunch of bored drunk men.  Since with Buniatishvili’s lyrical playing we could almost hear the words not being sung, I’m pretty sure this had to be French.  Chopin had moments like this but usually more class, and Ravel would have been equally as terrible but a bit more modern, so I’ll go with Debussy as an educated guess.  Still, under the circumstances, Buniatishvili did have to sedate everyone (the concert began at 9 p.m. and ended around 11 p.m., so non-nocturnal Festival-goers would need to go back to their hotels to sleep, and this worked).  And she demonstrates so much personality, no matter what she plays, so actually made this rather dreadful piece sound pretty good.

Camerata Salzburg, Haus für Mozart

Schubert, Beethoven

The Camerata Salzburg really is one of the finest chamber orchestras anywhere.  Working without a principal conductor these days, they invite a range of guests.  This evening they had Manfred Honeck, the charismatic Austrian currently music director in Pittsburgh, on the bump.  His concerts exude charm, and he’s rightfully quite popular in his homeland (makes me wonder why his rather more routine countryman currently in Cleveland gets all the attention).

The concert opened with the Overture to the Magic Harp (later repurposed by others and therefore mostly remembered as that to Rosamund) by Franz Schubert, wherein Honeck exhibited his sparkle and the orchestra shone.  Oddly, that may have been the highest point this evening.

Beethoven‘s Piano Concerto #2 followed, with Lang Lang at the keyboard.  This was actually Beethoven’s first completed piano concerto (numbered out of order) and a student work.  Beethoven himself was never convinced by it.  It’s a bit Mozartian, but not as good, which makes it even less interesting.  Beethoven was indeed a genius, and elements of what would become his style certainly poke out, but especially hearing this after his two final piano sonate performed two nights ago, it really did not cut the grade.  Honeck raced through the opening, almost trying to get to the solo as quickly as he could.  Then Lang joined in.  He clearly cultivates an image, shaping sounds by moving his hands in the air above the keys when not playing, and looking away whenever he does actually play.  But it sounded a tad clunky.  To be fair, the acoustics in Salzburg’s Haus für Mozart, as I have mentioned before, really are poor, and I would mark the tinny, distant sound down to that rather than to the performers.  But the acoustics certainly did not help.

Lang added two encores.  I have no idea what they were, but they were showpieces which allowed Lang to demonstrate just how fast he could move his fingers (very!) without hitting any wrong notes.  Quite impressive showmanship.

After the pause came Schubert’s Great C Major Symphony (normally #9, but sometimes bearing #7 or #8 due to some convoluted history – probably #8 would be most correct, as it appeared in the program tonight, although it’s more often designated #9 by convention).  Honeck had everything under control, with wonderful Austrian lilts, and the Camerata just got it.  My only quibble was the speed: Honeck raced through the symphony, including the stately opening and the slow movement.  I’m not sure I understood why.

Maurizio Pollini, Großes Festspielhaus

Schoenberg, Nono, Beethoven

Maurizio Pollini looks older and frailer than his 77 years would suggest.  But his fingers still move.  Indeed, I had a great view of his hands at this evening’s concert, and I still cannot figure out how he produced all those notes so effortlessly.

Ludwig van Beethoven was a genius.  Completely deaf, he packed his last two piano sonate (#31 and #32) full of gorgeous music.  The multiple lines weaved among each other, yet each was clear despite the complexity (having Pollini to perform them certainly helped).  Fundamentally, Beethoven knew he was writing music, even if he could not hear.

And so the second half of tonight’s recital in the Great Festival House, featuring these two Beethoven sonate, made it worth sitting through the first half.

The concert had opened with two sets by Arnold Schoenberg: his Three Piano Pieces for Piano and his Six Little Piano Pieces.  Schoenberg’s writing was formulaic according to his own doctrines.  They started off with a hint of music, and devolved.  Music was not part of the calculation.  Pollini’s playing was suitably acrobatic, but what was the point?  At least the second set (Six Little Pieces) were short – similar to Anton von Webern’s miniatures, so they did not dwell but just basically hit the keys and moved on.  But the pieces in the first set just went on too long.  Where some of Schoenberg’s orchestral music can develop outwards, when using only a piano (which is not a very convincing solo instrument to begin with, and requires the talent of someone like Beethoven to do something with) there is only so far Schoenberg can go with these thoughts.

But if Beethoven focused on music he could not hear, and Schoenberg focused on theory over music, it remains unclear what Luigi Nono‘s excuse was for Serene Waves Suffered (which followed the Schoenberg at the end of the concert’s first half).  This work was an insufferable gimmick, in which Pollini accompanied a recording of himself (made in the 1970s) playing more notes by Nono.  There was nothing musical about any of this.  Tapping keys – whether now or pre-recorded – does not itself qualify as music.  Nor does it count as music theory (in the tradition of Schoenberg).  It’s just a bunch of notes banged out on a definite-pitched percussion instrument.  If Beethoven could produce amazing results despite being deaf, what indeed was Nono’s excuse?

Camerata Salzburg, Mozarteum

Bartók, Weber, Koncz, Kodály, Brahms

The Camarata Salzburg provided a thoroughly-enjoyable Hungarian-themed concert in the Mozarteum this evening at the Festival.  A tremendous chamber orchestra, they had a whole series of fascinating concerts that I had hoped to attend during the 2018-19 season but kept finding myself out of town and giving my tickets away (I made it only to the final concert in their season series, plus an extra concert dedicated to Leopold Mozart; for the 2019-20 season their concert series is notable for being completely and surprisingly uninteresting and I have bought no tickets at all).  When this concert appeared on the 2019 Festival program, I starred it as a potential Summer highlight.

Béla Bartók‘s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta made up the first half of the concert.  It was an experimental work, but showed Bartók at his most original – and also in his element.  Odd tonalities resolve into fully-lyrical swells.  Just as the Hungarian accent in German has a mysterious and enormous charm, so does this same charm apply to Hungarian music.  The young Swiss conductor Lorenzo Viotti had everything under perfect control, but radiated sympathy and a twinkle.  The audience roared its approval, with more curtain calls than are usual before an intermission when the orchestra will be returning for more anyway.

Carl Maria von Weber‘s Clarinet Concerto #1 would have seemed to be the odd-piece-out on the program, since it has no Hungarian connection.  But it was an experimental work by the composer for a newly-developed mechanism for this instrument.  The work made a splash in its time, but for some reason (maybe because it is extremely difficult) it rarely shows up on concert programs.  Andreas Ottensamer, principal clarinet of the Berlin Philharmonic (younger brother of his counterpart with the Vienna Philharmonic, both sons of the late Vienna Philharmonic principal clarinetist who died in 2017) did the honors this evening, and hammed the work up to the fullest, dancing on stage and turning to various other orchestra members (and conductor Viotti), making eye contact and urging them on – indeed, he was practically as engaged as Viotti in leading the orchestra.

There followed a work written for Ottensamer in 2017: the Hungarian Fantasy on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber for clarinet and orchestra, by Stephan Koncz (an Austrian of Hungarian descent) which sprung from Weber’s opera Die Freischütz.  This had a feel of improvisation about it, although it was not improv, fitting perfectly with Ottensamer’s personality deriving from the Weber concerto (and hence the need to have that non-Hungarian work on the program).  As it got faster and faster, crazier and crazier, everyone went loose.  But with this soloist, this orchestra, and this conductor, they never lost control, and the audience almost started dancing the csárdás with them.

The final programmed work was a dance set: the Dances of Galánta by Zoltán Kodály.  If we were not dancing already with Koncz, we certainly were with Kodály.  This is actually lush music but with a heavy Hungarian lilt, composed in 1933 not from Kodály’s own folklore research but rather from music preserved in a Vienna library.  The orchestra supplied a Hungarian dance by Johannes Brahms as an encore.  The enthusiastic applause from the audience suggested there should be a standing ovation, but as these are rare people seemed hesitant at first until the dam broke and everyone stood.

Martha Argerich & Daniel Barenboim, Haus für Mozart

Prokofiev, Schumann

Argentinian pianist Martha Argerich is a star, even when she is just taking a back seat accompanying others.

Daniel Barenboim was actually the mover behind tonight’s chamber concert at the Festival in the Haus für Mozart.  It was originally for Argerich and him, augmented with members of his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, to give a concert in addition to a symphonic concert Barenboim was conducting with Argerich and the full orchestra yesterday.  As the concert drew nearer, the program kept changing (on the website and through comments in the media) – a Schostakowitsch piano quintet vanished; Schubert was added and later removed; more Schumann filled the program; Barenboim’s violinist son got added as a featured soloist – it never was announced whether Argerich or Barenboim would perform which piano works, and left unclear which other musicians might be needed.  Suspense.

Prokofiev‘s Overture on Jewish Themes led off the evening, in its original setting for clarinet and piano quintet.  This work is normally performed in an orchestrated version Prokofiev made a couple of decades later, but the setting this evening worked.  The clarinetist, Jussef Eisa, was spectacular for the mock-klezmer lead, with the string instruments (Michael Barenboim and Mohamed Hiber on violin, Miriam Manashevov on viola, and Astrig Siranossian on cello) making a full orchestra unnecessary with their complete sound.  Argerich, sitting behind them on the keyboard, played just as much as she needed too but no more – of course it was terrific playing, but she saw her role as support for the other five musicians and despite her obvious highest-level quality she nevertheless let them have the lead.

From this point on, the program shifted to all-Schumann.  Unfortunately gone was the Schostakowitch quintet, as well as anything by Schubert that had fleetingly come and gone from the program.  Schumann’s output was uneven.

All but Eisa returned for the Piano Quintet in E-flat, op. 44, and they gave a convincing rendition (again with Argerich doing all she needed to in order to demonstrate her own talent but have the four string players take precedence – it was about them, not her, but we all heard her too).

Argerich accompanied Michael Barenboim for the Sonata for Violin and Piano #1, which I found less convincing.  Michael Barenboim had done fine in an ensemble, but despite his adeptness, something seemed odd with his solo tone.  It was as though he was playing his instrument to produce a sweet legato, but not wanting to sound too sweet added some sour spices. “Sweet and sour” works in the kitchen.  It may have even worked here.  It was just unusual.

Finally, Daniel Barenboim took the stage himself, to join Argerich, Siranossian, Adi Tal (second cello), and Ben Goldscheider (horn) for the Andante and Variations.  Schumann wrote this work soon after he wrote the piano quintet, but never published it nor was it performed publicly until long after his death.  Indeed, although it had some wonderful lines, it felt unfinished.  The choice of instruments was peculiar (he likely wrote it for whomever was coming over to his home that evening) and could have used some filling out (build out the themes; ditch the two pianos and orchestrate for a full orchestra since there was certainly enough there) but that never happened.

Daniel Barenboim and Martha Argerich performed two encores (both works for two pianos) which they did not announce and which I did not recognize (not surprising, given I’m actually not a fan of the piano and therefore am less familiar with piano music).  The elder Barenboim may be quite accomplished in his own right (and a better pianist than conductor), but Argerich outshone him tonight as well.

The acoustics in the stupidly-named Haus for Mozart remain terrible.  Tonight they constructed a large curved wooden structure to place behind the musicians and help send the sound into the hall, but it still sounded distant and dull.  Tear the thing down and build another – there is no excuse for this.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Verdi, Requiem

A lot of hype preceded the decision this year to have Riccardo Muti lead the Vienna Philharmonic for Verdi‘s Requiem at this summer’s Salzburg Festival.  So much so, in fact, that they added an extra concert to handle the perceived sold-out crowd (indeed achieved).

Was this the definitive performance of this mass this evening?  Certainly it was an excellent one in all aspects, but I suppose a matter of taste whether it was definitive.  It was not the fire-and-brimstone version I experienced in the Musikverein with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and Philippe Jordan the last time I heard this work in 2016.  Of course, it did not need to be – just a different valid interpretation.

Muti generally kept the performance quite contained (although it got loud when it needed to).  He emphasized the drama more subtly, whether the plaintive opening with Verdi in mourning for the poet Alessandro Manzoni, or the lyrical choral (and orchestral) music of the “Sanctus.”  Muti gave great attention to little details often overlooked, emphasizing the flutes in the “Dies Irae” providing infernal flames every bit as edgy and in the forefront as the brass; or the plucked double basses (augmented by the bass drum) mimicking the death bells tolling for the “Lux Aeterna.”

The Vienna State Opera Chorus again showed itself in fine form, with superb diction and nuance.  The four soloists made for an excellent ensemble: Bulgarian Krassimira Stoyanova (who sang in that Musikverein version three years ago), Georgian Anita Rachvelishvili, Italian Francesco Meli, and the Bashkurt from the Russian Federation Ildar Abdrazakov (who dominated a production of Gounod’s Faust here at the Festival in 2016, and whom I also heard sing Verdi’s Requiem in Moscow back when I lived there).  Of that group, I was most curious to hear Rachvelishvili, who made news last Winter as she took the Metropolitan Opera by storm and whom Muti has essentially declared to be the best voice of the next generation.  She lived up to her hype: she opened with a full, round, dark lower register the likes of which I don’t think I have ever heard an alto produce – and then moved effortlessly to an upper register which had a different more subtle character but which was every bit as full (rare to have such presence in both top and bottom).

My one complaint on the evening: the concert was dedicated to the memory of committed Nazi Herbert von Karajan, who died thirty years ago last month.  While his artistic talents deserve to be remembered (not all worked, and he got even more peculiar and self-absorbed with age, but he added thought to the mix), they should be in a purely artistic context.  Giving concerts in his memory (or naming a square after him outside the Festival House – or outside the State Opera House in Vienna, for that matter) is poor taste, unless they also present who he was (the concert program did not, and the name plaque on Karajanplatz glosses abstractly).  The man joined the Nazi party not once but twice: the first time when it was illegal in Austria (demonstrating he was willing to risk jail to be a Nazi), and the second time after the Anschluss as the records of underground Nazis such as Karajan were misplaced and he needed to be sure he was fully-inscribed.  He may not have committed any war crimes himself, but his loyalty to Hitler and his barbaric ideology was not in question.  Salzburg has of course never been fully denazified, even by poor Austrian standards.  Salzburg never wanted the Festival, when it considered it as too “Jewish” at its founding in 1920 – indeed the city feared an international Jewish conspiracy designed to undermine Salzburg – and perhaps never fully embraced until 1938 after the Nazis took it over (and Karajan himself led it from 1956-1989).  I might normally leave this out of a musical review, but if the Festival did not wish to mention it, then I must.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Wagner, Strauss, Schostakowitsch

Franz Welser-Möst assembled a very strange concert indeed this evening for the Vienna Philharmonic in the Great Festival House all about death: overcoming it (first half of the concert) or not (second half).  In the end, I am not sure he convinced me of anything.

For the first half, Welser-Möst performed two unrelated works with no break between them: the Prelude to Parsifal by Richard Wagner and the tone poem Tod und Verklärung by Richard Strauss.  Clearly he tried to make a connection.  In the opera, Amfortas is unable to die from what should be a mortal wound, and the other knights are wasting away lacking sustenance from the Grail – it is Parsifal who redeems them.  In Strauss’s tone poem, a setting to music of an actual poem, a man is lies dying and as he passes his soul is transfigured.

I just did not see the connection: but maybe I could hear it?  No.  Christoph von Dohnányi, Welser-Möst’s predecessor as music director in Cleveland and also a frequent guest conductor of the Philharmonic, praised the Philharmonic by saying that when others just played overtures or preludes, the Philharmonic put the full opera into that overture or prelude, and so it was this evening.  So even with just the prelude, we had the full emotion.  Extended excerpts from Parsifal would have worked better than the Strauss piece following without pause, which did not work as continuity in any way.

I heard Welser-Möst conduct Tod und Verklärung three years ago at the Festival with the Cleveland Orchestra.  The Vienna Philharmonic is a far better orchestra than the Cleveland Orchestra (and indeed the Cleveland Orchestra itself is not as good as it was in the days when Dohnányi was at the helm), so this was almost a better performance by default.  The orchestra added emotion, but what Welser-Möst shaped was not death and transfiguration (as in the title) but rather triumph over death.  It did end triumphantly.  I hear this work about once every year, so Welser-Möst needed to do something to convince me of his interpretation, and he did not.

After the intermission, the concert got weirder.  Dmitri Schostakowitsch‘s Fourteenth Symphony is rarely performed for good reason: it’s quite morbid and difficult.  Rather than a character in a story on the verge of death, it was Schostakowitsch himself who thought he was about to die (although he managed to hang on a few more years), and consists of a chamber ensemble supporting two vocalists who sing settings of eleven poems about death.  Lines of sadness flashing back to many of Schostakowitsch’s earlier work (either directly quoting, or reminiscent of) permeate.  There is very little motion, just one depressing song after another for almost an hour.  This evening’s performers were excellent (soprano Asmik Grigoryan and baritone Matthias Goerne joined members of the Philharmonic), but the entire work as presented by Welser-Möst lacked shape.  It’s hard to get right in a way that makes the audience appreciate the work, and it didn’t happen this evening.

Great playing; unsatisfying concert.  I am not on the anti-Welser-Möst bandwagon, but his interpretations are not especially inspiring when compared to the other conductors in the circles in which he travels.  He’s merely adequate – if better than most conductors over all, he’s (to use the nasty nickname someone once coined that unfairly stuck with him ever since) “frankly worse than most” conductors who appear regularly in front of this orchestra.

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Sibelius, Prokofiev, Strauss

More from Yannick Nézet-Séguin (again filling in for the ailing Mariss Jansons) and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra this morning, with Gil Shaham stepping in for the ill Lisa Batiashvili.  If we are going to get substitutes, those are pretty good ones to have.

I am not quite sure the reasoning behind the collection of works Jansons assembled for this concert (the program remaining the same despite the substitutions), although Jansons has said before that sometimes there is no logic and he just programs pieces he likes.  So we started with the Symphony #1 by Sibelius, then the Violin Concerto #2 by Prokofiev, and finally a suite from Der Rosenkavalier by Strauss.

The program notes made a point of stressing a supposed interest in Tschaikowsky during the time Sibelius wrote his first symphony, which seemed odd.  The origins of the symphony date to his study in Vienna, and Schubert and Bruckner (his favorite living composer) would normally seem to be the most appropriate influences.  I seriously doubt Nézet-Séguin made any decisions on interpretation based on reading the program, but from my side: having read the program, and listening to Nézet-Séguin’s reading, I did hear a few lines now and then (in the strings) or psychodramatic (in the winds) which could have invoked the lush melodic flow of Tschaikowsky.  These either got interrupted, or had a different section perform a completely contrasting line simultaneously and counter to them.  Sibelius was far more original, even early in his career, than Tschaikowsky later in his career, while remaining authentic to his Nordic homeland (where Tschaikowsky sounded less and less Russian later in his career).  Although Nézet-Séguin did not draw out the soaring post-Brucknreian chorales, he did load this symphony up with contrasts and a throwback melancholy.

Prokofiev’s second violin concerto has several moods, based on Russian and Spanish folk music (his wife was Spanish, and this work had its premiere in Madrid).  Shaham does not get the largest sound from his violin, but he moves adeptly among styles, from the robust and assertive to the soft and wistful, with ease.  Nézet-Séguin and the orchestra made a stunning complement to keep painting an ever-broader palate.  (Shaham returned to the stage to do a joint encore with the concertmaster from Prokofiev’s sonata for two violins).

Richard Strauss’ opera Der Rosenkavalier was by design a piece of Viennese nostalgia, even at its premiere in 1911 before the dismembering of the Austrian Empire a few years later.  The suite (arranged with Strauss’ approval, possibly by Artur Rodziński who may also have been aided by his then-assistant Leonard Bernstein) does not follow the plot of the opera, but instead tries to capture its schmaltz.  The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra hammed it up.  (To take down the mood, they added as a final encore more Sibelius: his “Valse Triste” from Kuolema – perhaps connecting the two Vienna-inspired composers at either end of the program).

The orchestra sounded even better today than it did on Friday, with its complete soundscape.  The woodwinds as a unit are nothing short of spectacular.  And they had a great rapport with Nézet-Séguin (in addition to the clear warmth and understanding during the performance, he kept kissing and hugging members of the orchestra as he wandered around the stage between pieces and during the applause to a degree I have not seen him do with the Philadelphians).  One wonders what will happen if Jansons needs to retire and whom the Bavarians might choose to succeed him.

Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Felsenreitschule (Salzburg)

Dusapin, Mahler, Dvořák

I have taken to generally going to hear the annual Young Conductors Award prize concert each year at the Salzburg Festival to see what name might be coming down the line.  Hungarian Gábor Káli won the competition last year, so he got the honors of the concert in the Felsenreitschule this year.  His is definitely a name to look for in the future.

The Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra has not been particularly distinguished in recent years, never seeming to have quite recovered from an attempt by the Austrian radio (for whom it works, after all) to shut it down during the 2009-2010 season.  But I don’t believe I have heard it sound this good since before its near-death experience.  Káli gave it real character this evening, its playing evoking feeling and emotion.

For Mahler‘s Songs of a Wayfarer, baritone Andrè Schuen added his own warm, expressive tone, telling stories both with clear diction and intelligent nuanced singing (I definitely want to hear him again too!).  Káli and the orchestra were right with him for support, the song cycle erupting into full color.  After the intermission, Dvořák‘s Ninth Symphony built to another level.  This was not just the homogenized (if decent) sound I have come to expect from this orchestra, but rather more lilt and theatrics, as it used to sound ten years ago.  From the podium, Káli clearly had taken charge, and the orchestra happily and enthusiastically followed (so did the audience – he earned a long well-deserved applause).

The only part of the concert that made no sense was the first piece: Morning in Long Island by Frenchman Pascal Dusapin.  Dusapin wrote this piece in 2010 based on the memory of a particularly bleak Fall morning he had spent on Long Island in 1988 that had clearly stuck in his mind all that time.  His moody music quite successfully portrayed the gloomy weather and damp chill, so that the audience certainly experienced his 1988 morning too.  The main problem, though, was that this went on for half an hour.  While the music evolved and shifted a bit, it never got around to saying anything more than the weather, which we already knew.

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Beethoven, Schostakowitsch, Mussorgsky

With Mariss Jansons taking a doctor-advised period of rest, Yannick Nézet-Séguin sprung in to replace him on the podium in front of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra for two concerts at this Summer’s Festival.  Nézet-Séguin retained the original programs with one change: substituting Schostakowitsch‘s 5th Symphony tonight for his 10th, paired with Beethoven‘s 2nd (Sunday morning’s concert will remain as programmed by Jansons).

Even if not originally scheduled, the new pairing made sense.  Both symphonies represented, in their own ways, defiance in the face of personal tragedy.  Beethoven wrote his Second Symphony at a time when he was borderline suicidal, coming to grips with the deafness he realized would consume him and the world he knew.  Nézet-Séguin captured pure exuberance.  Whatever Beethoven may have been feeling under the circumstances (and he wrote those morbid thoughts down in words), his music expressed the opposite, full of wit, humor, and life.  Tonight’s performance came fully-charged.

After the intermission came a different take on the Schostakowitsch Fifth.  The composer’s enemy in this case was not nature, but a man, Josef Stalin, the Soviet dictator who had criticized Schostakowitsch’s music and had purged his friends.  Schostakowitch had to produce a symphony within bounds acceptable to the regime, but true to himself wrote something which nevertheless transcended the regime.  Tonight’s interpretation took an unusual route: melancholy.  Neither artificially upbeat nor dark and oppressive, this reading demonstrated an almost-hopeful subtext: things were bad, but the listener should cheer up; the human soul will survive.  So while not up-beat, Nézet-Séguin also did not make this performance devastating: how might the original listeners in 1937 have heard this (not quite a capitulation to Stalin’s criticism of the composer, but rather a new addition to the approved canon).

Foot-stomping applause induced an encore: the prelude to Mussorgsky‘s opera Khovanshchina, which both relaxed the mood while also building on the hopeful feeling derived from the Schostakowitsch interpretation.  Throughout all three works, this orchestra played as a fully-coherent unit: no standout individual instrumentalists, but all working together as an accomplished whole.  However the woodwinds in particular took this concept to a higher level, with evocative wistful playing as a unit, perhaps responding even more than the other sections to the unfamiliar guest conductor’s lead.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Cherubini, Medea

This afternoon, the Festival featured the premiere of a complete new storyline loosely based on the myth of Medea, performed to the music of Luigi Cherubini.

My formulation there is intentional.  Despite what the program said, this was also not a staging of Cherubini’s opera Medea.

Whatever it was, I will start with the music.  Elena Stikhina, as Medea, was stellar, working her way through the full range of emotions, with a big, warm, round voice to fill the hall no matter what the emotion.  She is only 32 years old but had a stage and vocal presence that seemed experienced well beyond her years.  I’ve heard her once before as Micaela in Carmen at the Salzburg Landestheater in 2015 where she overshadowed the rest of a good cast.  This time, the cast was better – with Rosa Feola as Dirce, Pavel Černoch as Jason, and Vitalij Kowaljov as Creon – all highly expressive, but she still outshone them all.  The role is a real tour-de-force, and she achieved it with flying colors (and made it almost sound easy, which it is certainly not).

The cast was ably supported by the Vienna State Opera Chorus and the Vienna Philharmonic in top form, under the baton of Thomas Hengelbrock, whom I had never before heard of but apparently specializes in non-standard operatic repertory.  His reading tonight was well-paced, and he highlighted Cherubini’s dramatic music perfectly.

Cherubini remains surprisingly underrated, although he was well-regarded in his day, especially by Beethoven (a much more original composer, but who did take influence from Cherubini, whom he openly credited and admired).  Cherubini composed this opera originally in French for Paris, where it flopped (probably more drama and power than the effete French can take).  But the Italian Cherubini, known for his drama and liturgical music, had more influence in the German-speaking world, so he augmented this opera (and had it put into German) and it formed part of the standard repertory in German-speaking theaters throughout the 19th Century, before falling out of favor.  Translated into Italian, it got a new lease on life in the 20th Century.  Recently, there have been attempts to revert to the original French-language setting.

While this was one such case to revert to French, it was not exactly an attempt to be faithful to the original.  The staging was not Regietheater (thankfully), but the director – Australian Simon Stone – altered the plot (more than just updating it to take place in 2019 Austria).  Most of the action in this opera occurs either during the dialogue or offstage during the musical interludes.  By getting rid of the dialogue entirely and leaving only the arias, duets, and choral ensembles, Stone could substitute his own retelling of plot (so he had multiple scene changes jumping from one to the next, showed film clips with new plot during the musical interludes, and replaced some of the dialogue with long voicemail messages from Medea to Jason).

For the most part, this silliness could be ignored. I am not sure it helped elucidate the opera, but it also did not really hurt either and at least Stone was using his brain.  However, the final scene (in which Medea supposedly douses a car she has stolen in gasoline and ignites it with the kids and herself inside while the police watch for ten minutes without doing anything) just looked too silly and had the audience chortling.  The rousing applause at the end turned to boos when Stone and his enablers came on stage for a bow (I did not boo – I was just relieved it wasn’t offensive German Regietheater garbage – but I did sit on my hands when he and his team showed up, as the concept really did not work even if it did not offend).

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mahler

For the fourth year in a row, Mahler‘s 9th Symphony was on the program at the Festival.  I’ve heard it many many more times as well.  I wondered: what new could there possibly be to say?  Then I heard Herbert Blomstedt‘s masterful reading with the Vienna Philharmonic tonight in the Great Festival House and discovered worlds in that symphony I have never heard before.

The symphony opened desolately enough, but it soon became clear Blomstedt was not satisfied with just being desolate.  He deconstructed every line and then put the pieces back together emphasizing the sinister and the odd and even the grotesque. Instruments jumped out of the mass of sound, only to get abruptly cut off – or to have their flowing line completed by seemingly the wrong other instrument.  All of this appeared in Mahler’s score, but Blomstedt found it (and the Philharmonic reproduced Mahler’s and Blomstedt’s vision perfectly).

He treated the music like painting by Pieter Bruegel – with attention to all the fine details, but upon close inspection a lot is actually malformed.  The interior movements may have even harkened to Hieronymus Bosch – they had the skeletons dancing in hell and blurts on what might have been the bizarre musical instruments Bosch portrayed.  The Philharmonic provided raw playing – not just the winds, but even the strings came across like a lush hurdy-gurdy.

The final movement started by suggesting it might resolve this craziness and rise above the din, but as the music soared it revealed itself as the Angel of Death.  And then… when we may have expected death to warm over, it became instead frigid. As blood spilled upon the ice, it hardened solid.  I did not time how long it took from the last note to fade until Blomstedt released the room, but it certainly felt like a full two minutes of complete silence.  No one in the packed hall even breathed.  We couldn’t.  No air remained in the room.

SWR Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Schostakowitsch

The Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra under its new music director Teodor Currentzis gave a monumental but never bombastic interpretation of Schostakowitsch‘s Symphony #7 at the Festival this evening in Salzburg’s Great Festival House.

I have admired Currentzis before, lamenting that he often lets performance theater get the better of him to get in the way of actual musical quality (image over substance).  But when he is on, the music clicks, as it did this evening.  He captured nuance and drama in a work, and even a quirky black humor, that itself sometimes overwhelms less-thoughtful conductors.  Although this symphony was used from its first performance for Russian propaganda purposes, the thoughts going through the composer’s mind when he wrote it were far more complex.  It is worth remembering that Schostakowitsch originally sketched the “invasion” theme in the first movement – which Russian propaganda ascribed to Nazi Germany invasion of the Soviet Union – not in 1941 but already in September 1939 in response to the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, which were then still allies.  Dark forces engulfed the world.

Currentzis did revert to some performance theater, of course.  Different sections of the orchestra stood up periodically and played on their feet – not just brass (which would allow more air in the lungs and a fuller tone) but pretty much everyone who played an instrument that did not absolutely need to be played sitting down.  Indeed, when the orchestra first took the stage, the percussion and woodwinds came out and sat down alone – before a long pause when the rest of the orchestra finally joined them (knowing Currentzis, I feared the worst: was he going to have the rest of the orchestra march on stage to the “invasion” theme – thankfully not).

The orchestra, formed from the merger of two previous orchestras, sounded terrific (actually, given the size of the orchestra in this symphony, they might have almost used two full orchestras-worth of musicians).