Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra, Konzerthaus (Vienna)

Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, Alfeyev

I followed the Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra and Vladimir Fedoseyev to Vienna for the third concert with them in four days.  It does help when they have a good variety on the program.  This evening, the Choir of the Moscow Synod joined them for a selection of choral church music.

The concert opened, however, with an overture that was not especially religious: to Rimsky-Korsakov‘s opera The Invisible City of Kitezh.  I suppose that was to set the mood, which it did with its hymnlike theme, although rearranging the stage to shift the right musicians and instruments afterwards before the choral music rather broke the mood.

Two selections from Rachmaninov‘s All Night Vigil followed: Rachmaninov’s take on traditional Russian church music forms.  This made a nice bridge to Stravinsky‘s Symphony of Psalms, which took an old idea and somehow created an entirely new concept all together.  The chorus pulled both sets off, with the orchestra – or the odd group of musicians Stravinsky scored the work for – joining in merrily.  Indeed, this was a merry reading, a happy way to praise the Lord.  Stravinsky’s method was rather complex, but under Fedoseyev’s organizing structure it sounded almost easy.

These works nicely set the table for something new (or was it also just something old made new?) after the intermission: works by the composer Grigoriy Alfeyev, who under his ordination name, Metropolitan Hilarion, is the Russian Orthodox Church’s current minister of external relations.  He’s a little older than me, but exactly overlapped with me at Oxford when we were both doing our doctorates (I don’t believe we ever met).

The first piece by Alfeyev set the Catholic Latin text Stabat Mater.  Not surprisingly, then, it opened in a classical church music tradition that suggested some influence from Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and early Bruckner (when Bruckner was still composing church music).  It then moved from the Brucknerian in the (not actually unrelated) direction of Taneyev (who was the great professor of counterpoint at the Moscow conservatory in the late 19th century).  Taneyev’s students included Rachmaninov and Scriabin, so it was probably not surprising that the piece started to head that way… except for some neo-Baroque orchestral interludes.

Alfeyev’s Songs of Pilgramage followed, based on excerpts from Psalms in Russian language translations.  Perhaps because they were Russian texts (and not Latin), they owed more to a combination of traditional Russian choral church music but passed through the development of Mussorgsky, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Stravinsky and beyond.  I suppose befitting a high-ranking figure in the Russian Orthodox Church, it never got too radical, and the textual language remained clear (thanks also to the talent of the choir), but it nevertheless came across as new and fresh.  Fedoseyev, on the podium, seemed careful.  Indeed, if I had to categorize his interpretive style in all three concerts I have heard this week, I would say that Fedoseyev has demonstrated enormous control over the performances, keeping them well-contained and allowing for full color – if not especially bold, then at least especially balanced and thoughtful.

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Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mussorgsky, Prokofiev, Schubert, Tschaikowsky

Musical pictures went on exhibit at the Great Festival House this evening, painted wonderfully by Vladimir Fedoseyev and the Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio.  

Modest Mussorgsky‘s Night on Bald Mountain led off the evening appropriately enough as a showpiece – although a popular piece, often regarded as a “warhorse,” I don’t recall seeing it on many concert programs and I do not even remember when I last heard it live.  At any rate, with such a performance, the work refreshed itself.  The wonderful bitter colors of this orchestra, whose sound has been built up by Fedoseyev in his nearly 44 years at its helm, portrayed a particularly evil witches’ sabbath and a welcome (if not entirely hopeful) escape of the hero saved by the day’s dawn.

Bookending the programmed part of the concert came more Mussorgsky: his Pictures at an Exhibition, in the Ravel orchestration.  Ravel’s over-rated reputation as an orchestrator derives primarily from what he accomplished with this set of pieces that Mussorgsky originally wrote for piano.  And it is indeed a most excellent scoring – in this case, made more so by this orchestra which ably highlighted the raw Russian character of Mussorgsky’s original music.  Each painting came across vividly, the troubador serenading his love outside the castle, the ox wagon rolling harshly by, the newborn chicks chirping in their shells, and the clanging bells of the Great Gate of Kiev bringing the exhibit to its glorious conclusion.  Colorful vivid playing brought out the music.

In between, Andrei Korobeinikov returned as soloist for the Second Piano Concerto by Prokofiev.  The two previous times I heard this concerto (most recently at last Summer’s Festival) overwhelmed me.  Tonight’s interpretation ended up being much more sedate.  Korobeinikov did not approach this concerto as the tour de force that it is.  Instead, he restrainted himself by opting to play it almost delicately.  Instead of massive angles of sounds bombarding the listener from all directions, we may have had all of the notes there but wafting from the keyboard and moving merrily out into the room.  Fedoseyev took his cue from the soloist in leading the orchestral accompaniment in a manner that supported Korobeinikov – to do anything else would have left the soloist swamped.  In this reading, the concerto became somewhat less bizarre than it had sounded before, maybe even more beautiful, although it had been the utter craziness of it which had endeared it to me the previous two times I heard it.

Korobeinikov came back out for one encore: Schubert‘s Erlkönig in an arrangement without words for solo piano.  For the vocal lines, Korobeinikov made clear and dramatic distinctions among the three characters, but he also slowed the tempi right down for those sections, which did not come across as necessary and probably made this piece more schizophrenic than it needed to be.

The orchestra also presented two encores at the very end.  The first was their old stand-by, which I have finally learned is the Spanish dance from Tschaikowsky‘s Swan Lake.  I knew it sounded like a Russian interpretation of Spanish music, but had never placed it before perhaps because I now realize I have never actually seen Swan Lake nor heard the whole ballet.  This was again suitable up-beat, as was the second encore (it did not look like they intended a second encore, as the orchestra members had already started congratulating themselves on stage and gotten ready to leave, but the buzz in the hall required more).  I could not identify the second encore, however – sounded annoyingly familiar, but had me stumped.

Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Glinka, Tschaikowsky, Rachmaninov, Schostakowitsch

The Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio pays a visit to Austria this week with its long-time (since 1974!) music director Vladimir Fedoseyev.  Of three concerts in Salzburg there is some program overlap, which I avoid by going to my subscription concert tonight, skipping tomorrow, but returning on Friday, and then I get to hear them in Vienna on Saturday with yet another set of works on the program.  Tonight’s performance was definitely a concert of two halves: whimsical Glinka and Tschaikowsky before the break, and Schostakowitsch served raw after.

The Overture to Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila gave a spirited start to the Orchestra’s arrival in the Great Festival House.  This fairy tale opera is mostly known only by this Overture, which is a shame – I did have a chance to see it once (at Moscow’s Novaya Opera) and wish opera houses would stage it more (not least because, in a fun performace such as the one I saw at the Novaya, children will get hooked on opera).  But if we only get the overture, then Glinka’s music marks as good a place as anywhere to open several nights of Russian music.

Next came Tschaikowsky’s Second Piano Concerto.  I am not sure I had been aware that he had written more than one (the famous one) until I showed up tonight and realized that the one in the program was number two!  It’s perhaps not as memorable as his first, and might have used some editing (particularly the far-too-long first movement), but it was fun in its own way.  The first movement certainly used every key on the keyboard (I was half expecting pianist Andrei Korobeinikov to run out of keys at both ends).  While that movement did not contain exciting music, it did have intrigue.  In the second movement, Tschaikowsky never quite figured out what sort of piece he was writing, switching among several, including various chamber combinations (not all of which even utilized a piano – the violin-cello duets were certainly special, then with strong continuo; the combinations involving piano and different winds also stood out).  What would he have thought of next?  Well, that would be the final movement, which exhibited the skill and coloration with which the composer had constructed his moody opera Yevgeny Onyegin, except without the depressants.

Korobeinikov’s treatment was flat (in a good way): this was not a flashy work (Tschaikowsky’s friend Nikolai Rubinstein, known for his excellent musicality but sober and contained technique, was supposed to have performed the premiere, however he died suddenly right before the concert and Sergey Taneyev took over, under the baton of Nikolai’s even more famous older brother Anton – the composer dedicated the concerto to Nicolai’s memory).  Korobeinikov gave us a flashier (unidentified – UPDATE: subsequently identified as Rachmaninov‘s Piano Prelude #5 – I am not so familiar with solo piano reportary, as I am actually not a fan of the instrument) encore to show us he could do flash too (I hope so, since he’s performing Prokofiev’s absolutely nutso second piano concerto on Friday).

After the intermission, Fedoseyev led an almost restrained reading of Schostakowitsch’s Symphony #10.  Begun in dark times, right after the end of the Second World War when Soviet Russia had defeated its one-time ally Nazi Germany and then people woke up and realized they still had to live in Soviet Russia.  This performance was all gloom and doom, yet nevertheless quiet, passive, and even submissive – never bombastic (I’ve heard good bombastic interpretations of this symphony, too, but that was not Fedoseyev’s approach tonight).  This interpretation worked, as it allowed the periodic harsh dissonance and jarring syncopations to jump off the stage, scraping at an open wound.  By the time Schostakowitsch finished writing this symphony, Stalin had died, and the final movement tonight came across as an off-kilter dance on his grave – off kilter because, despite that evil man’s demise, the Soviet Union was still around and ultimately outlasted Schostakowitsch, who would never know freedom.  For this work, this orchestra’s unmistakable Russian tone stood out – not always the most polished noises come out of the instruments, but the style is intentional and the sound authentically Russian.

A mock-Spanish piece livened up the mood as an encore (I think I’ve heard this orchestra play this encore before, although I never did figure out what it is – UPDATE: turns out to be the Spanish dance from Swan Lake) and sent us out maybe a little less-depressed into the snow.

Bruckner Orchestra Linz, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Bruckner

For the second time in five days, I got to hear Bruckner‘s Eighth in Salzburg’s Great Festival House, tonight with the Bruckner Orchestra of Linz under its new chief conductor, Markus Poschner.

Sunday’s performance was better.  First of all, the Mozarteum Orchestra is simply a far better ensemble, and in a difficult work like this, the quality of the orchestra right there counts for much.  But as the orchestra formerly known as the Linz Theater Orchestra was renamed fifty years ago after Upper Austria’s greatest composer, Bruckner does make up a staple of its repertory, so it should be expected to specialize in this music.

Poschner’s concept was to treat this expansive work as almost a chamber symphony.  Sure, he had the full-sized orchestra on stage and playing, but he often restrained them.  This had the unfortunate drawback that it also exposed them – they lack the virtuosity of the Mozarteum Orchestra, so missed some cues, came in off-pitch, and just did not maintain the beauty of sound at the lower volumes. For the louder moments, they did not quite soar either.  I suppose the third movement – one of the greatest adagios in the entire symphonic repertory – came of worst for the wear: far too small.  But throughout the brass chorales never took off, the strings creaked, the woodwinds (especially the flutes) never quite found the right tones, and the tympanist was fine but might have been unleashed more.

Thankfully, the performance did not drag (as a bad performance of this symphony inevitably does), so it was essentially in good working order.  But coming as it did so close to the Mozarteum’s performance of the same work in this hall, it did not survive the comparison.  I cannot say I am disappointed to hear this symphony twice within one week.

Hungarian National Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mozart, Liszt, Schubert

The Hungarian National Philharmonic visited Salzburg’s Great Festival House with the French oboist and conductor François Leleux, bringing colorful performances which lacked motion.  Well, Leleux jumped around a lot and was quite expressive.  And clearly he had a sense of color as well, dinstinguishing each fine grain.  This was serious music-making.  Yet still it sat (perhaps using “still” here as both an adverb and an adjective).

The concert opened with Wolfgang Amadé Mozart‘s oboe concerto, with Leleux performing the solo and conducting.  Leleux produced a warm tone, maybe not quite as strident as an oboe should be, but more cantabile.  The Mozart concerto is in general unconvincing – I think he must have spat it out for a commission, but it lacks passion (interestingly, I am familiar with the version Mozart later transcribed for flute – either it works better as a flute concerto, or Leleux just did not convince me about the oboe version).  Tomorrow night these forces will perform Ludwig August Lebrun’s first oboe concerto, which (for those in the know) really is special.  But my subscription is tonight, and I won’t go tomorrow (there is duplication on the program, and tonight’s concert did not inspire me to see if any tickets are available tomorrow).

The Mozart concerto did conclude with music Mozart subsequently reworked for an opera aria in Abduction, so there was promise there at least.  And Leleux returned for an oboe encore with the orchestra, which was actually the highlight of the entire evening: a transcription of the Queen of the Night’s aria from the Magic Flute.  Leleux’s oboe sang.

The pure orchestral music followed, with Ferenc Liszt‘s Preludes. This must be bread-and-butter for the Hungarians, but it underscored the entire concert.  They produced very nuanced colors – indeed this was a painting as much as it was a symphonic poem, crossing all senses.  But somehow it lacked impulse.  So while I may never have heard this work sounding so colorful as the orchestra made it sound tonight, I also did not think it was possible to make this work lack movement.  Leleux was bouncing, and obviously coaxing the colors from the orchestra, but the music was not going anywhere.  So gorgeous, complex playing… but static.

After the intermission came Franz Schubert‘s Fourth Symphony (“Tragic”) and as an encore an intermezzo from his Rosamund (the second time I’ve heard that piece as an encore this season), and both performances dragged colorfully much like Liszt’s Preludes.  In the audience, I did hear some Hungarian accents, which always sound especially charming in German, so I went home with a smile on my face, if not exactly energized.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Bruckner

Bruckner‘s 8th is one of my favorite symphonies.  If performed badly, however, it provides 90 minutes of utter tedium.  So when the Mozarteum Orchestra announced its 2017-18 schedule, my initial excitement to see this work programmed this morning in the Sunday subscription series turned immediately to disappointment when I noted the chosen conductor: the talentless Jeffrey Tate guaranteed it would be an unbearable ninety minutes which I had no desire to suffer through.  So I dropped my Sunday subscription this year in part as a result (also because the February concert in the Sunday series contains far too much Debussy to be worth waking up early in the morning for – actually, far too much Debussy to be worth the effort of even climbing the staircase to my seat in the Great Festival House even if I were already standing in the foyer) so I picked the Sunday concerts I wanted and mixed-and-matched (including with the great Camerata concert I attended on Friday) to form a different subscription leaving out the ones I did not want.

Then last month at my Mozarteum Orchestra Thursday evening subscription concert I saw in the list of upcoming concerts that for this morning’s Bruckner 8th they had replaced Tate on the podium with Karl-Heinz Steffens.  I have never heard of Steffens, but that was enough of an endorsement given the man he replaced.  My usual subscription seat was even still available, so I grabbed it.

Steffens had an ear for some fine details.  This performace was like getting a tour of a cathedral from an architect who periodically stopped to admire individual gargoyles.  At times, he took an almost minimalist approach, exposing instruments and placing the weight of the whole symphony on them – especially the woodwinds (I don’t think I’d ever appreciated the role the oboe plays in this symphony until this morning).  These touches stood out especially in the first movement, where they sounded almost plaintive.  He made the second movement more boisterous, actually cheerful.  And while the tempi he chose for the third and fourth movements were well within conventions, they were perhaps a tad faster than I prefer.  But this approach served his overall concept, to make this deeply religious work rather hopeful that the power of prayer might be answered.

My biggest quibble with the whole performace was Steffens’ failure to hold the silence at the end: he dropped his arms immedately on the final chord.  A well-deserved applause (the orchestra sounded fantastic this morning) erupted long and loud – but really this symphony requires absolute silence and heavy contemplation before returning to earth.

Because the Mozarteum Foundation does not coordinate its schedule (beyond not double-booking a hall) with the Kulturvereinigung, the other main Salzburg concert society, the Kulturvereinigung invited a guest orchestra to perform this symphony in the same hall on Friday (a concert I did include in one of my subscription packages with them).  Lucky me: I get to hear Bruckner’s 8th twice within just five days.

Camerata Salzburg, Mozarteum

Schnittke, Beethoven, Mahler, Martin

I added tonight’s concert of the Camerata Salzburg to an eclectic Mozarteum subscription package on a whim.  I have no idea why.  I certainly did not expect that chamber music by Alfred Schnittke and Frank Martin could be so much fun.

The music was certainly unconventional and gave me a lot to digest (even before dinner – I think all the unexpected digestion made me hungry early tonight).  The concert opened with Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso #1 for two violins, cembalo, “prepared” piano, and strings.  Stylistically this was everywhere (from Corelli to the tango, according to the program), but never felt out of control.  I would need to hear it again to understand if Schnittke had some logic to its construction, but even without quite understanding it at this point I could safely feel he must have had one.  The two violin parts were taken by the Camerata’s concertmaster Gregory Ahss and guest Andrey Baranov, who played together with one mind.  Jumping robustly from musical style to style, they somehow made it sound easy – and it could not have been (must be hard enough if it were a solo violin, but two of them together made the effort more dauting – but achieved).  A quick encore by these two (and piano accompaniment) of a Beethoven piece as arranged by Schostakowitsch was more conventional but equally as impressive.

The concert’s last piece was Martin’s Petite Symphonie Concertante for harp, cembalo, piano, and string orchestra – commissioned to provide a baroque continuo orchestra with a modern work.  Martin accepted the challenge, producing something classical in form but modern in substance.  Although not as boisterous as the Schnittke piece, it remained tonal but always sounding new.  What did Martin have to say exactly?  Again, like the Schnittke, I am not sure.  This is another piece I will absolutely and gladly need to hear again some time.

Tonight’s conductor was Teodor Currentzis, the Russian-trained Greek whose career got stuck in Perm, Siberia.  I heard him for the first time last season in front of the Camerata, and noticed then that he showed a great rapport with this group (they had just kicked out their previous unexciting music director and had decided to try to do without one, but I had thought they should snap up Currentzis – indeed, I still think they should).  Currentzis had returned to Salzburg for last Summer’s Festival at the head of his own orchestra from Perm, which was unfortunate (too much performance art and not enough performance), but the Camerata is a far better orchestra than his usual one, so the music was foremost tonight, and Currentzis drew it out.

I did have one gripe with tonight’s performance, coming in the form of Gustav Mahler‘s Kindertotenlieder.  Currentzis lost it on this one: he insisted on adding his own sound effects (making hush sounds throughout the cycle, perhaps mimicking crashing waves, although I don’t really know what he was trying to do).  He really does need to tone down the performance art and stick to music.  Fortunately, the Camerata went on with its business and sounded fantastic.  Mezzo Ann Hallenberg had a warm and full lower register that almost made me forget it was not a baritone voice tonight (the usual voice for this song cycle – although using a mezzo instead is perfectly acceptable too). Her upper registers were not always quite as complete (or accurate) though.

Chorus and Orchestra of the Cappella Albertina Wien, Franziskanerkirche

Bach, Händel

My first (and last) concert of baroque music for 2017 let me see out the year with Bach (Gloria in Excelsis Deo and the Orchestral Suite #1) and Händel (Dettingen Te Deum and as an encore the “Hallelujah” chorus from Messiah).  The Chorus and Orchestra of the Cappella Albertina Wien (named not for the museum but for a chapel inside the Cathedral) performed in the Vienna’s Franciscan Church of St. Jerome, famous for having the city’s oldest organ.

The baroque church fit the music by look – except that I was not clear if the sound was due to poor acoustics or the singing style of the chorus itself.  This is a music group that performs almost exclusively in churches (including three concerts a year in this church), so it should know something about church acoustics, which do indeed require a more restrained and more staccato technique.  But not tonight, I suppose.  The chorus barely made itself heard over the orchestra, itself hardly overpowering.  Sometimes they managed – either for segments with limited orchestration, or when they just wanted to (such as in the Hallelujah encore).  The orchestra also sounded maybe too restrained, except for when the brass got to chime in, as they offered quite clear interventions (albeit not always hitting the notes quite right).  In general, the whole performance was actually quite good musically, it’s just that it came across as underwhelming – something was just not right in the balance.  The ensemble’s young conductor, Teresa Riveiro Böhm looked in control, demonstratively as a church choir conductor often is.  Could it have been her fault, or was it something peculiar with the acoustics in this particular church (although again, this group knows this church, and so could and should have performed accordingly)?

Mozarteum Orchestra, Mozarteum

Schumann, Mozart

I probably would not have gone to tonight’s concert at the Mozarteum, except that it was part of a subscription series.  Not that anything was wrong with it (or I would have given the ticket away), just that it was not particularly exciting.  The value of attending was to hear the Mozarteum Orchestra play beautifully, especially the lush woodwinds and confident brass, on a bed of gorgeous strings.  So that was worth it.  

The music, presumably selected by the young British conductor Nicholas Collon, was a bit pedestrian.  The concert opened with an arrangement of Robert Schumann‘s Six Pieces in Canon Form.  Schumann took his inspiration for these piece from technical keyboard studies by Bach, and then this particular set was subsequently rearranged for two pianos by Debussy, then that version was itself orchestrated for chamber orchestra by British composer Robin Holloway, so that this version had its world premiere earlier this year.  To a music theorist, Bach’s keyboard studies were mathematical treasure troves – although not necessarily aesthetically great music.  And by the time these get washed through three other composers, they are no longer mathematically substantive, so what’s the point any more?  At least the playing was nice.

Mozart‘s 22nd Piano Concerto came next.  Till Fellner joined the orchestra with his velvety fingers.  The first movement started more joyfully, to raise the mood after the Schumann pieces, but then the rest of the performance dragged.  Whenever I eventually leave Salzburg I won’t need to be reminded to substantially reduce my intake of Mozart, just as I have already been reducing my intake of Tschaikowsky (whose favorite composer was Mozart).  They wrote beautiful music, often wonderfully so, and sometimes they even had something to say about it, but there often just is not enough there there.  Living in Salzburg has not inducted me into the cult of Mozart any more than living in Moscow inducted me into the cult of Tschaikowsky – I find both composers highly over-rated (if they did not have cult status, I’d judge them as quite good, but, as it is, enough is enough).

The concert closed with more Schumann: his 2nd Symphony.  This drew inspiration from Schubert’s 9th.  And while there are some experimental chromatics which the orchestra knew how to navigate, the symphony demonstrated a stunted development in symphonic music that led directly into the musical dead end that was Brahms.  (Bruckner, on the other hand, followed the logical development from Schubert and gave us a musical heritage that continued through Mahler, Sibelius, and Schostakowitsch, among others).  That said, if I am going to hear this tuneful and often stately symphony, I’m very pleased to have the Mozarteum Orchestra performing it.  They did it justice tonight.

Then again, maybe I am being especially jaded, still reveling in the afterglow of last weekend’s interpretation of Haydn and Bruckner by Riccardo Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic.  Mozart and Schumann just cannot compare.

Vienna Philharmonic, Musikverein

Haydn, Bruckner

Riccardo Muti is not normally thought of as a Bruckner conductor.  He is known for his Schubert, one of Bruckner’s key influences, and at the Salzburg Festival in 2016 I heard Muti lead the Vienna Philharmonic in a very intelligent and Schubertian interpretation of Bruckner’s 2nd Symphony.  So this enticed me to give his Bruckner 9th (again with the Philharmonic, this time in the Golden Hall of the Musikverein) a try.  Making a case for an early Bruckner symphony as a successor to Schubert is one thing – how would he manage this for Bruckner’s last work?

As it turns out, Muti did not try to find Schubertian influences in Bruckner’s 9th.  Instead, he showed how Bruckner had become  forward looking, drawing out the strained harmonies and immense dissonances.  Building on themes from his 7th and 8th Symphonies, both massive Gothic works, Bruckner was clearly aware of his own failing health and that he might not live to complete his 9th (as indeed he did not), so he peered out over the abyss to see where music might go on after him.

Aside from Italian opera and Schubert, Muti is also a specialist in some 20th Century Russian repertory, including Scriabin, also a master of harmony who consciously set out to destroy the world in six symphonies (but died young after his fifth, his attempt incomplete).  Elements of this Bruckner interpretation possibly owed a debt to Muti’s familiarity with Scriabin and his utter insanity.  I have no idea if Scriabin knew Bruckner’s music, but a direct linkage is not really the point.  Muti knows Scriabin, and here he gave us a Bruckner performance that deconstructed music and opened up possibilities for the 20th Century.

The Philharmonic of course also knows Bruckner inside out, but responded to Muti’s directions to deliver Bruckner to his grave.  From my seat in the back of the side balcony (the only one available when I checked) I could not see the orchestra other than the last two rows of the first violins, so I let the Golden Hall’s wonderful acoustics provide the full experience.  This was a performance to hear live.

The concert opened with Haydn‘s Symphony #39, that composer’s first minor-key symphony and considered the origin of Sturm und Drang that led to the romanticism which perhaps reached its pinnacle with Bruckner.  This symphony got Haydn promoted from assistant Kapellmeister to chief in the Eszterházy court.  He wrote for what he had available – an orchestra of only about 16 musicians which often seemed to have an excess (for so small a band) of horns.  So the original version had four horns in those 16 musicians.  But Haydn also thought for the future, and to hear a proper-sized string section took nothing away from the four horns (and two oboes and a bassoon) but provided Haydn as he is meant to be heard (if not how he originally was, only due to lack of resources).  In this interpretation, Muti seemed also to predict a bit of Bruckner – Bruckner was an organist and even when he composed symphonic music inserted full and partial stops.  Haydn had those there too in this symphony, building blocks for a bigger construction.  An unexpected, but clever, way to set up deconstruction of romanticism in Muti’s reading of Bruckner’s 9th.

Brussels Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Connesson, Lalo, Saint-Saëns, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Bizet

The Brussels Philharmonic, visiting Salzburg’s Great Festival House this week for a three-night set with its music director Stéphane Denève, sounds like it takes representing its home city seriously: technically proficient, I suppose, but no personality.

The first half of the concert consisted of French music, which was not the problem but probably did not help.  A short contemporary work, Maslenitza, by Guillaume Connesson opened the performance.  A trip to Russia and Russian music supposed inspired the composer to write this piece, but I heard nothing particularly Russian about it.  It consisted of several tonal melodies or phrases, with no apparent logic for why so many and why he put them in the order he did.  An inoffensive muddle.

The concert dragged on with Edouard Lalo‘s cello concerto: still inoffensive, maybe less of a muddle, but no real point either.  It did contain some wonderful dancing melodies (especially one interplaying the solo cello and the flute in the slow second movement), but they never really went anywhere.  The soloist, Gautier Capuçon, had a large sweet and quite beautiful tone well-matched for this music – if anyone could have made something of it, he could have.  He and the orchestra followed this up with an encore: the “Swan” from Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saëns, an animal of grace (thankfully short, however, so it had a point and finished).

The second half of the concert left France and moved to Russia for two sets of ballet excerpts: a long set from Cinderella by Sergei Prokofiev and a suite from the Firebird by Igor Stravinsky.  Both actually danced, but neither sounded particulary Russian, the orchestra producing melifluous sounds instead of the somewhat more biting tones a Russian orchestra would produce (although, bizarrely, during the finale of the Firebird, Denève oddly highlighted the strings above the orchestral balance by getting them to attack their instruments as though trying to use their bows to saw their instruments clean in half – out of character for this concert, but not especially clear in motive either.

As a final encore, the orchestra returned to French music and performed the farandole from the incidental music by Georges Bizet to The Girl from Arles: again proficiently – indeed pleasantly – but without nearly the verve and personality demonstrated, for example, by the Cadaqués Orchestra in this same hall last month for this same piece.

I am busy the next two nights, and so never bought tickets for the next performances (tonight is my monthly Wednesday subscription concert).  I’m probably not missing anything.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Wagner, Liszt

The scheduled conductor for this morning’s concert by the Mozarteum Orchestra got ill last week, leaving the orchestra to scramble to find a replacement who was not only available, but could also take over the identical program of two seldom-performed works: Wagner‘s Faust Overture and Liszt‘s Faust Symphony.  In stepped Frank Beermann, who recently left his post after a decade as general music director in Chemnitz to become a freelancer and had this weekend free to rush to Salzburg’s Great Festival House.

Beermann and the orchestra don’t know each other.  The orchestra also had not performed these works before.  So under the circumstances Beermann took a deliberate, angular, approach.  This worked for the Wagner piece and for the final movement of the Liszt.  It caused the first two movements of the Liszt to drag.  Still, considering they were practically sight-reading the music, the Mozarteum Orchestra’s natural musicality came to the fore, coaxed by Beermann, and in that the concert proved a success.

The Wagner work is from his early period – he had considered an opera based on Goethe’s Faust, which he never wrote, but Liszt had encouraged him to arrange some sketches as a concert overture (originally conceived as the first movement of a series of linked tone poems, which Wagner also never wrote).  Despite truncating his project, Wagner already demonstrated his sense of theater, however, and Beermann successfully inspired the orchestra to the dramatic.

Liszt ended up writing the multi-movement tone poem based on Faust that Wagner never wrote.  While it does contain some great passages (particularly in the Berlioz-inspired third movement depicting Mephistopheles – apparently it was Berlioz who had introduced Liszt to Goethe’s work), it probably takes a little more effort to keep a performance of this piece compelling for well over an hour.  The fault is Liszt’s (uncharacteristically for him, as it happens), who never properly edited his work – this was not one of his better efforts, and indeed instead of editing he kept adding bits to it (including a final chorus – sung here by the Chorus Viennensis and tenor soloist Toby Spence).

Back in the days when I used to have my own Sunday morning radio show, I programmed these two works followed by Mahler’s Eighth Symphony (which includes a setting of the final scene of Faust).  Now that combination in a real concert might have been too ambitious, but it would be the logical next development of this music and I would have gladly stayed.  Instead, I came home and cooked breakfast.

Salzburger Landestheater

Offenbach, Hoffmanns Erzählungen

The fact that Offenbach died before completing – or even properly organizing – The Tales of Hoffmann has left opera companies great flexibility in determining how to stage the opera – which music or dialogues to include and in what order.  Anything coherent could work in theory.  A little over a year ago I sat through a mess of a production at the Volksoper, but have rectified this tonight by attending the Salzburg Landestheater‘s new production.

The staging itself was neither here nor there – not elaborate, not in any particular style, but with many props so it was a staging.  It did not help, but it also did not interfere with what was otherwise a finely structured performance overall.  The concept relied on Hoffmann and his muse stepping out of the stories they had drafted themselves into as participants in order to also be external observers (the author and his muse, after all).  Hoffmann’s loves always went horribly wrong, as he became depressed while he wrote and in this setting his muse had to put an end to each story and get him to move on.  In the epilogue, Hoffmann with the help of his muse, came to the conclusion that he did not himself need love because he had his art.  The muse conjured up all of Hoffmann’s characters for a triumphant final chorus.

What is most interesting about this ending is that it was the same ending the Volksoper used in its production last year.  But in the Volksoper’s version it made no sense, essentially because the Volksoper’s version had no logical concept for the performing version they used which seemingly contained every sketch Offenbach ever jotted down with no editing whatsoever.  The Landestheater’s well-thought-through performing version could handle this ending.  This meant also deleting the role of Stella – she cannot appear because that would be just another love lost for Hoffmann, whereas here instead of getting defeated drunk under the table, Hoffmann emerges with his muse in triumph.

That the cast and orchestra rose to the challenge musically certainly increased the triumph.  Franz Supper as Hoffmann drove the opera forward with nuance, his voice remaining firm throughout, the glue to hold these stories together.  George Humphreys, performing all four villains, kept a menacing tone and a sense of drama.  Tamara Gura, as Hoffmann’s muse, acted well but did not always have a big enough voice.  Of the three female loves, Tamara Ivaniš as the doll Olympia gave the strongest performance, with an appropriately delicate voice that nevertheless projected through the hall.  Anne-Fleur Werner as the singer Antonia in the third act (they used the traditional order, albeit probably not the order Offenbach wanted, putting Antonia as the third of the three) also performed her role with tragedy and love.  In the middle, Angela Davis as Giulietta was merely adequate.

The Mozarteum Orchestra exceeded itself in the pit tonight.  Adrian Kelly had them in full sound, but always properly proportioned to never overwhelm the singers, but with enough volume and shape to almost become a character of its own (it never overstepped its role as a pit orchestra, but its gorgeous playing was certainly appreciated and noted by the even more rousing applause it received at the end).  Kelly’s pacing was perfect, allowing this performance to keep moving forward, even if we sometimes may have wished to get lost in the lush playing and thrilling Offenbachian tunes.

The director was a young German, Alexandra Liedke.  What is unclear to me is whether she made the decision about which performing version to construct, or whether someone on the musical side took that decision and she just staged it (given that she is a German opera director, my inclination is that the good decision was more likely taken by someone else – German directors are so awful that they don’t get the benefit of any doubt).  As I said, the staging itself was neither good nor bad.  If she took the decision of how to put together this version, then good on her (and how atypical of a German director).  If she just staged a version someone else had assembled, then I suppose it could have been worse – but certainly the staging allowed an intelligently-constructed performing version of this opera to bloom.  Score one for the muse.

Leipzig Gewandhausorchester, Musikverein (Vienna)

Brahms

 

The last time I heard BrahmsRequiem live was also with Herbert Blomstedt in the Musikverein with the Singverein… but a different orchestra.  Then (2014) it was the Symphoniker (Vienna’s second-best orchestra, still maybe top ten in the world these days), the night before I moved to Salzburg.  Tonight it was the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig (top five, on a par with the Philadelphia Orchestra) in town for a visit.  This is the same orchestra which gave the first complete performance of this work back in 1869 (no, Blomstedt was not conducting that night… although it almost feels like he should have been).

I remember that 2014 concert clearly, and although I had not planned to be in Vienna tonight, some workmen at home combined with a public holiday yesterday brought me here and a ticket (in my usual seat, no less) opened up for an otherwise sold out performance and beckoned me back.

The Gewandhaus Orchestra is somewhat more dainty than the Vienna Symphony, and Blomstedt was its music director from 1998-2005, making him quite familiar with its strengths.  As a result, tonight’s concert was probably a little less driven than I remember the 2014 interpretation – possibly not as memorable.  But Blomstedt milked the bittersweet tones from the woodwinds (it’s called a “requiem,” after all – although not a traditional one – yet it has a certain sweetness in the sorrow).  The orchestra and chorus sounded delicate but still full – it’s a big piece, but cannot become overbearing.  Restrained but at times exhuberant – indeed it looked like the measured Blomstedt almost started dancing at points – but at other points the tragedy nearly brought the house down.

We opened with the low strings, which quietly got the Musikverein’s floorboards vibrating, opening to an otherworldly choir.  The tympani highlighted the swells, particularly in the second movement, to pure devastation.  And the at times Blomstedt’s construction, and the implementation by orchestra and chorus, produced the foreboding effect of tolling bells.

Blomstedt stood to conduct (in contrast with this summer at the Festival, when he conducted sitting), but still moves a little more slowly than last year.  He’s 90 years old: the twinkle in his eye does it all.  The Gewandhaus Orchestra also has a throwback tone to another era (founded in 1781, this was Mendelssohn’s orchestra in the mid 1800s and one which guards its traditions well).  Blomstedt knows that, and knew when to make this unusual work by Brahms sometimes more classical in nuance (if romantic in construction) playing on the orchestra’s strengths.

The Singverein blended perfectly with the Orchestra, as did baritone soloist Michael Nagy.  The soprano, Hannah Morrison, seems not to have gotten the memo, however.  Her voice is quite pretty at the lower volumes, but when she had to add more heft it became a tad bitter and forced.  She seems to be a baroque specialist, and this work may just have been too much for her.

Staatsoper

Rossini: L’Italana in Algeri

Today is Austria’s state holiday, so as a good patriot I donned my Tracht and went to the opera for a rare mid-afternoon performance at the Staatsoper (with one nice ticket front row on the balcony amazingly available).  Rossini‘s Italian in Algiers provided sufficient amusement, in a 30-year-old dusted-off staging by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle.

While I appreciated the simplicity of the staging, I was never quite sure Ponelle understood the opera.  The main part of the set remained the same throughout – representing an imaginary Ottoman palace in North Africa – with additional scenery (or curtains) added and subtracted throughout.  This concept worked to put the focus on the singers, which was fine.  The problem was that the blocking was too static.  The music, and the absurdities of the plot, call for farce, and Ponnelle included sight-gags which demonstrated his awareness of the musical surroundings.  But mostly the characters stood there and rolled their eyes at each other (wasn’t that Mozart’s criticism of Italian opera drama – fat people standing at opposite ends of the stage rolling their eyes at each other and calling it love?  But while often true of Italian opera, Rossini above all others in Italy understood crazy farce and his works lend themselves to hammed-up and active on-the-move comedy).

One nice touch Ponnelle added (although I don’t know if it was intentional) was the use of screened boxes overhanging courtyards typical in Islamic architecture.  These allowed women to stay modestly out of sight but able to observe the world of the men below through the ornate wooden slits.  In this staging, the men often hid in the boxes to observe the women, flipping the Islamic practice.  And this opera indeed was about a clever Italian woman who imposes her rule on and dominates men – the whole plot of the opera, then, is a cultural inversion.  If this is what Ponnelle meant by this aspect of the staging, then good on him.  It’s just that there was very little else in the staging to suggest this was intentional.

The mostly-young cast negotiated Rossini’s colorful music aptly – with Luca Pisaroni standing out as Mustafà.  Antonino Siragusa as Lindoro took some time to warm up, but ultimately showed a strong voice.  Bryony Dwyer (Elvira), Manuel Walser (Haly), Elena Maximova (Isabella), and Orhan Yildiz (Taddeo) all had their moments.  The real music nuance came from the pit, where the orchestra gave a completely idiomatic interpretation of Rossini’s music – making me almost want to sing and dance along – in proportions that never overwhelmed and perfectly supported the singers, a credit to conductor Evelino Pidò as well.

Cadaqués Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Bizet, Sarasate, Falla, Chapí

 

The Cadaqués Orchestra picked up where it left off, with a complete triumph on the stage of Salzburg’s Great Festival House this evening.  This was the same orchestra which successfully delivered Mendelssohn’s Third Symphony on Wednesday, with great drama and nuance directed from chief conductor Jaime Martín, once again joined by the spectacular Leticia Moreno for solo violin work.  Unsadled with the dreadful music of Piazzolla that weighed down the first half of Wendesday’s concert, music by Georges Bizet and Pablo de Sarasate let the orchestra glisten.

Tonight’s concert opened with a few short selections from Bizet’s incidental music to The Girl from Arles, that enabled individual instrumental lines to stand out within an overall complete sound.  The orchestra is still a tad small, but made up for the reduced size through enthusiasm.  This approach especially came out in the concert’s second half, a performance of Bizet’s Symphony in C, which he wrote when he was only 17 and then suppressed (it had its premiere sixty years after his death after the score was rediscovered).  Although a not-fully developed youthful work, the symphony showed great talent – the scope of a middle-period Mozart symphony, the internal humor of late Haydn, and the melodic inventiveness of early Beethoven or Schubert.  Martín drew out the solo lines – especially highlighting the woodwinds, who demonstrated remarkable virtuosity they had hinted at on Wednesday – but without overshadowing the complete symphonic sound.  (Why did Bizet suppress this work?  With a few notable exceptions such as the opera Carmen and the incidental music from The Girl from Arles, as well as portions of the opera Pearl Fishers,  his later music was mostly forgetable although he clearly had talent – there are theories that have to do with France’s complete lack of musical sophistication, but he could have rebelled against that in the way the others like Berlioz did).  The orchestra clearly enjoyed itself, and the audience erupted into applause – even briefly the rare rhythmic clapping normally reserved for the pinacle of ensembles in this musically-literate country.

The first half of the concert also included the appearance by Moreno for two programmed works by Sarasate: Gypsy Airs (based on central European gypsy fiddle music) and the Carmen Fantasy (based on themes from Bizet’s opera).  Moreno’s performance was sultry, dark but alluring.  She demonstrated mastery over every tone, thick in the slower measures, quick-fingered in the wild ones. Tonight she did not have to struggle with the poor score she had on Wednesday, but instead took charge of the already-complex music and made it her own.  The enraptured audience could not really contain itself, breaking into an inappropriate roaring applause right in the middle of her show, and refusing to give up cheering until conductor Martín turned around on the podium and pleaded with the audience to stop clapping.  I’ve never seen this behavior in Salzburg before – and while I shared the audience’s opinion of her playing, I did not go along.  When these two pieces ended, she added a work by Manuel de Falla, in duet with the harpist.

I think we could have kept calling her out, but it ended there.  Likewise at the end of the concert the audience demanded more, but we only got one orchestral encore tonight (the same Chapí overture for La Revoltosa they did on Wednesday, although tonight with even more buzz in the air).

Una triomfada!

Cadaqués Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Albéniz, Piazzolla, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Chapí

The Cadaqués Orchestra has come from Catalonia to Salzburg for a three-night visit with its chief conductor Jaime Martín (a Cantabrian, not a Catalan, for what it’s worth).  Tonight’s concert and tomorrow’s have the same program, and Friday’s is different – so I have my Wednesday subscription ticket tonight and will hear them again for the other set on Friday.  This was a nice little ensemble – only slightly bigger than a chamber group, but which played well together, and if sometimes a tad brash to overcompensate for the size, nevertheless produced a full sound.  The woodwinds in particular characterized the overall sound.

Martín understands his orchestra’s strength, and this was best heard in the main work of the concert’s second half, the Third Symphony (“Scottish”) by Felix Mendelssohn.  It was enlightening to contrast this idiomatic performance so soon after hearing the Mozarteum Orchestra perform Mendelssohn’s Fourth (“Italian”) recently.  The Mozarteum Orchestra is better on the whole, but its brand new young chief conductor Riccardo Minasi has a tendency to get over-exuberant, rushing through the faster bits and lacking nuance – indeed, I wonder if Minasi understands harmony.  Martín clearly does get harmony, drawing out the different lines – including all of the middle lines – across the instruments, so that we could hear the complexities but also one single complete sound.  And while Martín took the fast bits quickly enough, he emphasized rather more stately tempos when needed, for an overall well-paced performance – and a real triumph.

This approach continued through two encores which followed: an intermezzo from Schubert‘s Rosamund (charming) and the overture to Ruperto Chapí‘s zarzuela La Revoltosa (witty).

That said, the first half of the concert did not succeed as well.  The opening work – an orchestration of “Catalonia” from the Spanish Suite by Isaac Albéniz, gave a hint of what was to come, but was perhaps too short and abrupt to highlight this orchestra’s strengths, at least as a starter.  It just made the orchestra sound a bit thin (is this orchestra even big enough for that orchestration, done by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos to perform with a larger ensemble?).

Worse though was the Four Seasons in Buenos Aires by Astor Piazzolla, in an arrangement for violin and chamber orchestra.  I’ve heard this work – or individual seasons from it – rearranged for various combinations of instruments.  No arrangement can disguise Piazzolla’s lack of talent as a composer, and it was this aspect that failed once again tonight.  The logic behind this arrangement was that Piazzolla was apparently originally inspired by Vivaldi’s original Four Seasons, and so he hid bits of the Vivaldi in his new music, as well as what I am sure was Pachelbel’s Canon (I must admit to never having heard those direct quotations of Vivaldi and Pachelbel before when I have heard this work – maybe I’ve always been too bored by it to notice).  The Catalans really should not have bothered with Piazzolla’s recycled garbage and just performed Vivaldi (and Pachelbel) in the original.

Except… then we might not have had the most excellent solo violinist, Leticia Moreno, who took Piazzolla’s music and made it worth listening to.  This arrangement required a good deal of dexterity on the instrument, often more rough country fiddle than soothing baroque violin.  But as if to show she could do the sweet tones as well, she came out for an encore with the orchestra – I’m not sure what it was (sounded sugary, more background film music than concert music), but she got the style down here too, a master of her trade.  I’d love to hear her perform a piece that actually has musical value and doesn’t just require her talent to carry it.

I did have one quibble with this orchestra, though – they string section all breathed in unison, loudly.  I was in my usual subscription seat up in the balcony (not close to the orchestra, but good acoustics) and kept hearing them breath clearly, all together, like a wind machine.  This was truly disconcerting (no pun intended).

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Smetana, Mozart, Tschaikowsky

The Salzburg Kulturvereinigung (Cultural Association), which organizes most of the big concert events in Salzburg outside the various festivals, celebrated a jubilee concert this evening in the Great Festival House, with the Mozarteum Orchestra under its new chief conductor Riccardo Minasi (my fourth concert in a row with this orchestra, three of them with the new conductor).  

I am glad the Kulturvereinigung leaves the music to the musicians, because the association’s math and reading skills left me befuddled.  All of the publicity including the program books called this the 70th anniversary jubilee.  However, the year 1947 (70 years ago) appeared no where, and all references to a specific starting date indicated this concert commemorated the very first concert from 17 October 1952 (which is only 65 years ago).  The publicity also made a point that tonight’s concert repeated the program of that very first concert – yet here again it did not (they reproduced the flier from that first concert program which showed this clearly).

Ignoring the bizarre publicity and turning to the music: the orchestra performed Smetana‘s Moldau (the second tone poem from My Fatherland) and Tschaikowsky‘s Symphony #5, both in similar fashion.  In the case of the Moldau, we heard the waters swirl, the waves splash, and the stream flow by robust promontories.  And while that’s probably not what Tschaikowsky had in mind when he wrote his symphony, the interpretation somewhat worked here too.  Minasi kept the orchestra delicately restrained at times, then introduced the themes on top, growing from the stream to great crescendi before backing down.  And while careful at the more subdued bits, Minasi does have a tendency (which I have noticed in the other concerts I have heard him conduct recently) to get a little excited during the bigger moments, moving forward at faster-than-necessary tempi (most obvious during the march at the end of the final movement, which was practically a double-step).  These styles (too fast or too delicate) also do not always let the orchestra exhibit full sound – but many of the solo and sectional lines demonstrated that the instrumentalists do have much to say.

The original 1952 concert they commemorated had opened with the Dances of Galánta by Zoltan Kodály.  Tonight this work had fallen out of the program, replaced instead between the Smetana and Tschaikowsky works by Mozart‘s 20th piano concerto.  That substitution was a a real shame – the Kodály work is far more interesting than Mozart’s rather routine concerto.  Piano soloist Peter Lang (who apparently made his Great Festival House debut with this concerto in 1966) and the orchestra produced a completely idiomatic if uninspired reading.  All the more reason they should have done the Kodály dances.  Yawn.