Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Sibelius, Bruckner

In an essay for today’s concert program book, Herbert Blomstedt pointed out that the orchestral forces used by Bruckner and Sibelius in their respective fourth symphonies (which he conducted this morning with the Vienna Philharmonic in Salzburg’s Great Festival House) were virtually identical to the forces used by Beethoven, but represented tremendous symphonic development.

Blomstedt led the concert with the later Sibelius work, the least performed of his symphonies (indeed, the Vienna Philharmonic is just now performing it for the first time!).  Sibelius rejected programmatic symphonies – indeed, even his nominally-programmatic tone poems based on Finnish sagas are usually free form and do not correspond with a text, and this one is even harder to classify.  Blomstedt drew out the lush if cold sounds – each movement ending in something tragic: the first with a never-answered question, the second stopping abruptly mid-phrase, the third subsiding to nothing, and the final one resolving in resignation.  But the final one, with the addition of playful bells, showed signs of happiness and life.  The dour Finn drew out harmonic lines – with sufficient deviations from the traditional – hinting at melodies but never quite becoming melodic, keeping the room on edge.  Blomstedt employed these as building blocks, and used the to highlight individual winds (or the first chair cello, who opened the work and reemerged in key spots).  This was a heavy and philosophical way to wake up this morning, but the audience appreciated it.

The Bruckner symphony after the break stood in contrast.  His most-performed and possibly most-accessible work, the symphony is exuberant.  But it too is constructed from building blocks, and those Blomstedt highlighted.  On a foundation of (sometimes quite agressive) strings, Blomstedt placed large chunks of hewn stone.  Bruckner was encouraged by friends to write a program for this symphony, but it was always an afterthought and never descriptive of what he had in mind when he wrote the music.  So this morning’s reading dispensed with that silliness and just presented the music in its own right.  By the final movement, Blomstedt could draw out the dissonances that made this symphony forward-looking, rather than just Beethoven-inspired (or earlier).  Sibelius, of course, considered Bruckner the greatest living composer over his own lifetime, and hearing the final movement of the Bruckner 4 in the interpretation by Blomstedt and the Philharmonic awakened new nuances and in many ways brought the music full circle to the Sibelius 4 that started the day.

I had the opportunity on Friday to attend the rehearsal for this concert.  One thing that struck me is that Blomstedt rehearsed without a score (not surprised he conducted without one, but the lack of one for the rehearsal was interesting).  Instead, he had a little blue notebook full of scribbles, I presume containing his over-90 years of musical wisdom.
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Camerata Salzburg, Mozarteum

Wagner, Schoenberg

This evening’s concert by the Camerata Salzburg in the Mozarteum’s Great Hall had great potential, with chamber music by Wagner and Schoenberg.  Unfortunately, Roger Norrington, whom I previously knew only from recordings, turned out to be as dull in person as his recordings suggest.  He has been sapping the soul out of music for over half a century, so not sure why I hoped otherwise.

The concert opened with Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll.  The Camerata performed the last time I heard this work live, so that would make the natural comparison.  Whereas I remember that concert (conducted then by Teodor Currentzis) distinctly, providing a delicate but lush birthday/Christmas morning gift that Wagner gave his wife Cosima, today’s performance was rather more forgettable.

Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder followed – in an arrangement for chamber orchestra made by Hans Werner Henze.  The arrangement wasn’t bad, nor was the playing.  Alto Elisabeth Kulman had a firm warm tone that filled the hall with beauty.  But the interpretation from the podium lacked drive and meaning.

After the intermission came Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht as transcribed for string orchestra by the composer.  I prefer the string orchestra version to the original sextet, as Schoenberg made it more lush.  Tonight’s performance, however, started off as broken down early music with a strand of atonalism built on top, not quite what Schoenberg intended.  It was frustrating as well because the Camerata is an excellent ensemble capable of much more.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Strauss, Berio, Bartók

From the bizarrely philosophical to the just plain pleasantly bizarre: Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Vienna Philharmonic were sovereign at the Great Festival House this evening for a real head-scratcher of a program.

The first half consisted of Richard Strauss‘s tone poem Thus Spoke Zoroaster, based on Nietzsche.  The murky philosophy did not beget murky playing, as the Philharmonic picked apart every nuance, and Salonen drove them forward.  We had intimate chamber ensembles embedded inside the broad romantic swells, and delicate touches particularly from the concertmistress (yes, the Philharmonic has had a concertmistress for several years now, and she’s duly excellent).  When the sounds needed to get rough, they did, with agressive bowing and spikey winds.  In the end, Nietzsche’s World Riddle did not resolve itself (it’s not supposed to), which left us hanging through intermission.

Returning to the hall, the program only became more peculiar.  Perhaps the highlight of the evening was the series Folk Songs by Luciano Berio.  Several of them were not actual folk songs, but at least followed in the style.  Talented mezzosoprano Marianne Crebassa sang quite conventional song-like lines – Berio balanced the selection between the happy and the sad, but she remained always demonstrative – to which Berio added colorful backdrops from a chamber orchestra.  These were no ordinary accompaniments.  Berio seems to have taken some inspiration from composers who masterfully knew how to set folk songs.  I thought I heard traces that could have been influenced by Gustav Mahler, Aaron Copeland, Joseph Canteloube, and Father Komitas, although not necessarily corresponding to the songs a knowledgeable listener might expect to match those; then Berio took those traces and plopped them into a blender to make them unrecognizable.  The final product worked, as while they did not necessarily support the song’s simple music, they did underscore the song’s meaning.  This was delightful.  The songs were in various dialects of English, Armenian, French, Sicilian, Italian, Sardu, Occitan, and fake Azeri (I say “fake” for the last one, because Berio’s ex-wife transcribed the words from an old poor-quality recording which was hard to hear and she was Armenian-American and spoke no Azeri, so she had no idea what she was transcribing and wrote down jibberish – no one since the premiere in 1972 seems to have bothered to identify the original song in order to get the correct lyrics).

The concert concluded with the suite from Béla Bartók‘s Miraculous Mandarin.  In its day, this ballet caused as much of a stink as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring had, both for its scandalous plot and its extreme music.  Unfortunately, unlike the Stravinsky work, it has not entered the mainstream repertory and is rather less-often performed, even in the abridged suite form we heard tonight.  That’s a shame.  Yes it is crazy – maybe like the odder moments of Richard Strauss’ Zarathustra gone even wilder (Bartók greatly admired that Strauss work).  There may even be some hints of Stravinsky.  The Philharmonic proved its supremacy, not just in the late romantic Fach but in the modern – what a terrific and versatile orchestra, full of drama and excitement.  Credit to Salonen too for putting it all together.

Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Felsenreitschule (Salzburg)

Sibelius, Paganini, Schostakowitsch

The 2017 winner of the Salzburg Festival’s Young Conductors Award, the Brit Kerem Hasan, had his victory concert this evening with the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra in the Felsenreitschule.

The conductor I suppose has to work with what they give him.  This orchestra is fine, if not exceptional – and the same could be said for tonight’s instrumental soloist, the violinist Augustin Hadelich.  Hasan did not rise to the occasion, so we got a perfectly decent if unexceptional concert.  Could he have done better with better forces?  Possibly.  But there really was nothing wrong with these (even if they aren’t stars) so it would be nice if he could have inspired them to do more.

Hadelich displayed excellent versatility for the Sibelius Violin Concerto, but plays with an over-abundance of legato.  So rather than a robust sound, he came up soft (not in terms of volume – he was loud enough – but rather in his approach).  This blended rather well with this particular orchestra, itself known for a somewhat muddy tone.  So while it all sounded nice and together, it has no forward propulsion, and Hasan did not provide any.  A beautiful playing but dragging along lacking much of substance.

Hadelich did provide Paganini‘s Capriccio #21 as an encore, and for this his softer approach seemed better-suited than for Sibelius, his instrument singing along in an Italianate lilt.

Schostakowitsch‘s Symphony #10 started where the Sibelius left off, at least in terms of where Hasan was.  But as the symphony went on, Hasan became more confident, and slowly provided a bit more drive (and the orchestra eventually started following).  If the first movement began a bit ragged and opaque, the fourth ended excitedly and together.  Hasan made this Symphony into a series of off-kilter dances on the grave of Stalin: the composer had outlived the brutal dictator and now affairs in the Soviet Union thawed slightly under Stalin’s henchman Krushchev (life inside the Evil Empire was indeed all relative), and this symphony marked the composer’s return to public life after nearly being purged.

Tallis Scholars & Klangforum Wien, University Church (Salzburg)

Furrer, Victoria

I came to Salzburg’s University Church this evening for the sonorous Mass for the Dead, the Renaissance masterpiece of Tomás Luis de Victoria.  I stayed for some works by contemporary Swiss composer Beat Furrer.  I should not have stayed for the Furrer, as I now have a headache.

The Tallis Scholars, founded 45 years ago, came to the Festival under their founder Peter Phillips to perform Victoria’s last work. Victoria lived eight years after he wrote his Mass for the Dead, but wrote nothing else – he left everything he had left in this polyphonic delight, originally written for the funeral of the Queen Mother of Spain, Victoria’s longtime patron and employer (he was not only her court composer, but also her priest).  The choir, with only twelve singers, filled the church with warmth, their voices soaring high into the dome and back down, for a complete but crystal clear sound.  What joy in sorrow.

Victoria’s mass was framed by two Furrer works, which I don’t know if I’d dignify with the description of “music” (maybe the second one qualified).  The concert opened with Invocation VI, a setting of a poem by Victoria’s Spanish contemporary Juan de la Cruz, scored for soprano (Katrien Baerts) and bass flute (Eva Furrer).  The problem was that neither of them used their instruments properly.  Both came out with microphones strapped to their heads, which already signaled something was wrong (being unable to project in a small church is not a good sign).  The microphones became clear when they began to perform: the soprano whispered and hissed (and never enunciated the words), while the flutist seemingly inhaled loudly through, rather than blowing into, her flute.  Sometimes it became hard to tell which of them was making the noise.  What the hell was that?

I assumed that the work after the Victoria mass could not be as bad, and it seemed impolite to walk out, so I stayed.  I was right: Intorno al Bianco was not as bad as Invocation VI.  The Klangforum Wien performed (or some of its members: the scoring was for string quartet, clarinet, and two “sound designers” who provided special effects over the speaker system).  It opened with a certain charm, reminding me of recordings of songs of the humpback whales.  But after about 10 minutes, these got a little tiring.  Suddenly the music sped up and changed its message, but then stayed the new course for another five minutes.  When would it get to the point?  Well, the final 15 minutes the instruments started making new sound effects, initially together and then against each other.  These were generally curious, but sometimes devolved into high-pitched shrieking, bouncing off the dome and back to mock the lush tones Victoria had produced, and making my head throb.  Finally it ended.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Zimmermann, Mahler

 

I went to hear Mahler‘s 2nd for the first time since my father died.  He would have liked this spectacular, emotive performance by the Vienna Philharmonic and Andris Nelsons in Salzburg’s Great Festival House.

Nelsons gave the performance extra drama – this is, of course, an orchestra drawn from an opera house, which knows better than most how to use music to augment the impact on the audience, so they bought in to Nelsons’ reading.  Essentially, Nelsons kept the lid on the first movement, making it almost delicate and mysterious.  This allowed him to draw out individual lines to highlight anguish and pain.  When the music swelled to crescendo, it proved devastating.  And then came the almost playful second and third movements, as interludes, almost classical in proportions (despite a full Mahler-sized orchestra).  The fourth movement – “premordial light” – shone.  Then we returned to the approach of the first movement… except whereas the first movement was a “celebration of death” the final movement is one of life and renewal and triumph.  Nelsons never lost sight of that ever-broadening smile among the tears.

Soprano Lucy Crowe, mezzo Ekaterina Gubanova, and the Bavarian Radio Chorus sang beautifully.  At the end: silence, even after Nelsons dropped his arms and released the room.  Only when he turned to look out over the stunned hall did tentative clapping begin, swelling slowly.  The audience stayed standing in our seats to applaud until 11 p.m..

Before the intermission came Bernd Alois Zimmermann‘s Trumpet Concerto “Nobody Knows de Trouble I See” with soloist Håkan Hardenberger.  I suppose Nelsons chose this to somehow set up his interpretation of Mahler.  The work, in one long movement, has a colorful orchestral backdrop that starts in dissonance, moves through dancing jazz, and finishes in mystery, sort of the reverse of his interpretation of Mahler’s 2nd.  On top of this, the trumpet moves through a variety of styles.  And who better than Hardenberger, whose versatility shines, to interpret this.  The work was actually fun – despite the undercurrent (inspired by an old Negro spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” the German Zimmermann wrote it shortly after his own country had checked out of the human race for a few years as a sort-of self-indulgent Schadenfreude to highlight American racism, but he undermined his own message somewhat by changing the title to parody black American English).  But in the end, juxtaposed to the Mahler, it was unconvincing.  It was written decades after Mahler, so it is not like Zimmermann could set up Mahler or provide influence; Mahler was also fresher, more original, and managed to carry his work over five movements and more than an hour and a quarter.

As an aside: I had been disappointed to not have my application accepted for tickets for Salome by Richard Strauss at this year’s Festival.  But opening night was televised, so I at least watched that.  The staging, by an Italian, Romeo Castellucci was terrible.  His biography does not indicate any German connection, but watching this performance I might have assumed he could have been German or German-trained, given how little relevance his staging had to the plot and a desire to shock for sake of shock – opera in Germany is all about these narcissist imbecilic directors.  The characters wandering around the stage – sometimes stopping and standing in place, sometimes also contorting themselves, had no bearing to anything.  The literature indicated he thought the Dance of the Seven Veils was the culmination, but he did not have Salome dance.  Instead, after Herod left the stage (so he did not even get to see the dance), Castellucci had Salome tied immobile to the top of a pedestal labeled “SAXA” – Latin for “rocks” – and had a large hewn rock descend slowly from the ceiling to crush her (apparently it was hollow, because she survived to sing the next scene).  John the Baptist (who sang in blackface) appeared to share his cistern cell with a horse (!?), so that when they brought his head out, they actually brought the horse’s out instead.  The Baptist’s naked headless body (white skin – so I won’t even begin to guess why Castellucci portrayed him in blackface – probably to shock, or he’s just a racist, I don’t know) did come on stage at the end, and she made out with that corpse and kissed where his lips would have been if he had still had a head.  Salome was not killed at the end either (why should she be? – “kill that woman!” are only the opera’s final words, and the music describes her death).  It really is not worth recapping the rest of this garbage.  I suppose I am now pleased I did not pay for tickets.

The one redeeming feature: the Armenian-Lithuanian soparano Asmik Grigoryan as an expressive, physcologically tortured, Salome.  Franz Welser-Möst led the Philharmonic (which reminded me that I had seen an even worse staging of this opera in Zurich many years ago with him conducting).  If I had only heard this on the radio, I would have been impressed.

 

Berlin Philharmonic, Musikverein (Vienna)

Abrahamsen, Bruckner

How to make Bruckner‘s Ninth Symphony even more apocalyptic?  Spend several decades collecting the stray pages of the manuscript score from the fourth movement that he was working on when he died, and which his friends and students took away as souvenirs from his desk after he passed on.  Then reassemble the finale.

There have been several versions of the finale to this symphony over the years, but most of them are pure fantasy and have little to do with Bruckner.  But a group of scholars slowly assembled the finale from actual manuscripts.  In some cases they found the partitur, in other cases only the sheet music for strings or other individual parts but the full orchestration is known.  A few very small gaps remain, and they can be filled with educated guesses, at least until the originals turn up.  And it is this reassembled version that Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic use for performances (as far as I know, this is the only conductor/orchestra combination that uses this version – I don’t know if that is because they have some special agreement with the Anton Bruckner Society in Vienna that is sponsoring this work, or if simply no one else feels ready to perform the four-movement version).

Bruckner likely would have made some adjustments anyway, so it is in no way a finished product.  But Bruckner’s adjustments to his symphonies were not always improvements – sometimes they were due to his insecurities and criticism from well-meaning friends.

This morning’s concert was the first time I got to hear this version live, with the Berliners visiting Vienna’s Musikverein.  I do own a recording of these forces performing the four-movement version, so it is not entirely new to me.  But I have wanted to experience it live, and Rattle’s farewell tour with the Berlin Philharmonic featured it, so off I went.

The finale is indeed apocalyptic.  Bruckner was looking forward to what music might become in the 20th century, with dissonance and jarring themes on top of his usual chorale apotheosis.  The first three movements, normally performed to fade into oblivion at the end of the slow movement, here build to the originally-planned climax, and Rattle and the Berliners certainly went in that direction.

Conversely, their performance felt a bit clinical – something I have noticed in general about their Bruckner interpretations in the past.  There was nothing really special about the first three movements (the fourth at any rate has a slightly artificial and unfinished feel).  A little emotion would have taken this a long way.  I wonder what the Vienna Philharmonic, the Concertebouw Orchestra, or the Symphony Orchestra of the Bavarian Radio – all quite different in approach but all consumate Bruckner orchestras in their own right – might make of this performing version.  For all of the excellent technical playing by the Berliners, they did little more than go through the motions.

The concert opened with Three Pieces for Orchestra by the Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen, which had its premiere with this orchestra and conductor last week.  Abrahamsen champions “simplified” music, but it is not minimalism (and certainly not the nihilism of Philip Glass), but rather has all the bits it needs without anything extraneous.  The first of the three pieces was quite lively, as if to wake everyone up for the morning concert.  The next two pieces set a more sedate mood.  As a stand-alone set, it worked quite well.  If Bruckner’s Ninth looked into the future, then Abrahamsen is clearly part of that future.

Philadelphia Orchestra, Musikverein (Vienna)

Bernstein, Tschaikowsky, Elgar

The Philadelphia Orchestra and Yannick Nézet-Séguin returned for a second night in the Musiverein’s Golden Hall, making a bigger splash with the audience than last night: bigger applause devolving to rhythmic clapping and a call for an encore.  To be honest: this orchestra certainly deserved the ovation, but I’m not convinced tonight was better than last.

The first half of the concert had one peculiar piece, Leonard Bernstein‘s Second Symphony, the “Age of Anxiety.”  Bernstein was a far better conductor and intellectual than he was a composer, but this is one of his better compositions.  That does not make it any less pretentious.  Part One was everywhere (as the composer intended), which I suppose is what gives it the sense of anxiety.  But it was a joyous Part One – a musical description of four people getting drunk together, but each lonely and self-absorbed, in a bar, they seemed to be embibing a bit too much and may have actually been rather happy when not mourning their own existence.  Part Two, on the other hand, never seemed to figure out what it wanted to be, shifting musical styles (including a bit of jazz) without settling on anything.  This may have been a bit too weird.  The Orchestra could certainly handle this tricky music with no problem at all – the only one who seemed to be anxious was Jean-Yves Thibaudet, the piano soloist (the work is in many ways more piano concerto than symphony), whose mouth remained agape and whose eye stared up at Nézet-Séguin with a look of utter fear.  Thibaudet appears to have told his barber to cut his hair to match Bernstein’s own hairstyle, and there was a passing similarity, so perhaps this was indeed the pianist channeling the composer’s spirit.

For the second half of the concert, the Orchestra pulled out Tschaikowsky‘s Fourth Symphony.  His fourth, fifth, and sixth symphonies are performed far too often.  They are good music, but it’s just hard to say anything new.  This Orchestra’s thrilling Tschaikowsky Fifth in Dresden in 2015, for example, still rings in my ears – it was that good.  Tonight’s Fourth… wonderful performance, but I heard nothing I haven’t heard before.  So that was a bit disappointing.

But yes it was a wonderful performance, and the audience appreciated it maybe more than I did.  The solo bows elicited roars (particularly for the principal oboist, Richard Woodhams, who is retiring at the end of this tour, whose solo bow inspired massive foot thumping across the hall).  So the orchestra gave us an orchestration of Edward Elgar‘s Liebesgruß to show off its lush string sound, as an encore.

Philadelphia Orchestra, Musikverein (Vienna)

Brahms, Schumann, Strauss

It’s always wonderful to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra on tour performing in a proper hall and not the dull box they have in the Kimmel Center.  Tonight, they hit the Musikverein for the first of a two-night set with Yannick Nézet-Séguin on the podium.

The second half of the concert was spectacular, featuring the best performance of Schumann‘s Fourth Symphony I have ever heard – a mix of mystery, wistfullness, and outright joy.  This was followed by Richard Strauss‘ tone poem Don Juan, in an interpretation which emphasized the individual virtuosic lines.  Not sure where to begin on this, but maybe the duet between the oboe and clarinet was most special.  Or was it the horn solos?  Or the violin?  Or… or…  From my seat I had a good view of Nézet-Séguin, and watched him cajole the Orchestra emotionally, and then heard the immediate response.  These forces make music so well together.

This intimacy was also on show for the concert’s first half, where they were joined by Hélène Grimaud for the Brahms first piano concerto.  I am afraid not even the Philadelphia Orchestra can rescue that Brahms concerto, although it was a valiant effort.  The playing sounded great, but there was just not much to work with (or too much – an hour of musical ideas that weren’t all bad but Brahms was not creative enough to know what to do with them).  According to the program notes, Bruckner was a fan of the main theme of the first movement (“Siehst, das is a Symphoniethema!” – “You see, that is a symphony theme!” he apparently declared to a student).  Indeed, there was something there, and if it had been a Bruckner symphony we would have found ourselves dreaming in a gothic cathedral he would have built from it.  But it was a Brahms piano concerto, so all he could do with it was plant a vegetable garden for the monks.  Maybe they were good vegetables, and maybe Grimaud, Nézet-Séguin, and the Philadelphians made good tour guides, but I’d rather admire Bruckner’s cathedral than wander around in Brahms’ monastery farm.

The concert had very high security (indeed, I have never seen so much security for anything in Austria, including when I attended a reception hosted by the President last Fall with many other dignitaries from Austria and neighboring countries in the room).  Armed police roamed everywhere (outside and inside the building), as did ubiquitous Israeli close protection teams.  There were also a bunch of huge men who looked like nightclub bouncers stationed around the hall (apparently recommended by the Israelis).

This all had to do with the fact that at the end of the Orchestra’s European tour tomorrow, they head off to tour Israel, and the anti-Semites are protesting everywhere.  The Orchestra started its tour in Belgium, one of the most anti-Semitic countries in Europe today (I make no excuses for Austria, its failure to address its history, and the fact that unrepentent German nationalists with an arguably classical national socialist political agenda are sitting in the current government – but Austria is actually pretty tame, which is frightening).  So in Brussels the Orchestra’s concert was repeatedly interrupted by anti-Semitic protestors, which led the Orchestra to contact the Israelis for advice and the host cities on the rest of the European tour for high alerts.  At the start of tonight’s concert, a Musikverein representative came on stage to announce that if there were a protest, then the Orchestra would stop playing and walk off the stage, and return to start the concert over after the protest ended; so, since the Orchestra believes in the right to free speech, it was requested that if anyone in the audience wanted to protest, that they do so now before the concert began.  There was a loud applause for the announcement, but no protest.

And there was certainly no protest about the concert itself.  I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s.

Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Schostakowitsch, Mahler

Back in the Great Festival House, the dour Finns sounded much better this evening for a program of Schostakowitsch and Mahler.  The Helsinki Philharmonic and Susanna Mälkki seemed more comfortable than on Wednesday, as did cellist Truls Mørk with the Schostakowitsch concerto more in his comfort zone than the Elgar.

Mørk’s Schostakowitsch was paranoid – as though the Soviet police might come on stage at any moment and arrest and deport him.  Mälkki bought into this, and a certain nervousness pervaded everything.  This was not so much Schostakowitsch triumphing over Stalin, but more basic survival… for now.

Hearing a Finnish orchestra do Mahler was a treat.  Tonight came his 9th Symphony, which allowed this group to keep their melancholic mood going from Wednesday.  This approach worked best in the third movement, for a off-kilter dance, and especially in the pensive final movement.  Mälkki is still a bit too blockish in her approach, which broke up the flow of the first two movements – and oddly meant less precision where Mahler’s lines run into or against each other.  But she warmed, the music cooled, and the audience was left hanging in the balance, where we belonged, questioning our existence.  She and the orchestra earned a much bigger and warmer applause than on Wednesday, well deserved this evening.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Mozarteum

Hoffmann, Beethoven, Chopin, Haydn

A triumphant final subscription concert of the season had the Mozarteum Orchestra sounding absolutely ebullient this evening – maybe the best I have heard this orchestra sound since I moved to Salzburg four years ago.

The Orchestra, wrapping up its first season with its chief conductor Riccardo Minasi, was in its element in the Mozarteum’s Great Hall, performing music by ETA Hoffmann (!), Ludwig van Beethoven, and Joseph Haydn.  Minasi tends to conduct things a tad fast and loud, but it worked with this concert, and the orchestra members looked up at him with broad smiles and then poured their enthusiasm into their instruments.  They all sounded great – although I’d have to single out the oboist especially.

The poet ETA Hoffmann did a bit of everything artistic, including compose music.  His opera Undine was successful and much admired by Carl Maria von Weber (and inspired a bit of Weber’s Freischütz), but quickly fell out of the repertory.  Minasi dusted off the overture to open the concert full of drama and verve.  This nicely set the mood for Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, for which they also emphasized that composer’s sense of drama.  This concerto had its premiere at the same concert where Beethoven also premiered his fifth and sixth symphonies, Choral Fantasy, and several parts of his Mass in C – and it was supposed to be a somewhat lighter foil for all of that (indeed it probably was), but nevertheless it is still Beethoven, so always room for melodrama. Tonight’s soloist, the Vienna-based Japanese pianist Yoko Kikuchi (a last-minute substitution – the program and website still show the original ill pianist) was very good, but even she was going along for the ride, with the Orchestra and its fine solo lines soaring off the stage.  (Kikuchi added a solo encore by Chopin, to demonstrate she could do this without orchestra, although it was less-exciting without the orchestra.)

After the intermission came Haydn’s Symphony #104, his final one.  It’s also dramatic, but Haydn scattered in it many musical jokes (odd pauses, instrumental combinations, dynamic changes, and missing harmonics), which Minasi and the Orchestra emphasized here as well, bringing such joy to the stage.  At the end of the performance, the audience erupted.  No one even budged – wave after wave of applause came and the audience stayed fixed in our seats.  The Orchestra had not planned an encore, but was forced to repeat much of the final movement or else we might still be sitting there applauding.  Fantastic.

Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Liszt, Elgar, Britten, Bartók, Sibelius

Eighty years ago, about 20% of the population of Salzburg came out to burn books.  They mostly burned books written by or about, or which had even belonged to, Jews – but since there really were not so many Jews in this extreme anti-Semitic town, they added others to the pyre: those of pro-Habsburg monarchists and of anyone who had spoken out against the incorporation of Austria into Germany.  The Salzburg University Library, across the lane from the Great Festival House, is one of several places in the town remembering this event with exhibits, in this case outward-facing posters in the ground floor windows depicting Salzburg citizens whose books were burned and the Salzburg Nazis who burned the books.  Across from the door where I entered the Great Festival House this evening, Max Reinhardt’s face stared out.  Reinhardt founded the Salzburg Festival and made this city an important cultural center – and the Salzburgers hated him for it and saw the Festival as a plot by international Jewry to take over Salzburg (oh, they’ve loved the Festival ever since the Nazis appropriated it in 1938 and of course from the 1950s to the 1980s under its intendant, the unrepetant Nazi Herbert von Karajan).  Broken, Reinhardt died in exile in 1943.

Salzburg is a beautiful city, but it is a beauty tarnished.  So this exhibit seemed like a good scene-setter for this evening’s concert of the Helsinki Philharmonic, visiting Salzburg for three concerts this week (I’ll go again on Friday – would have gone tomorrow too, but that’s my Mozarteum Orchestra Thursday subscription concert).   Susanna Mälkki conducted a program of melancholy.

Ferenc Liszt‘s tone poem Orpheus opened the concert.  Liszt wrote this as a new prelude for a revision he did of Gluck’s opera Orpheus and Eurydice, to describe pure beauty cast into the depths of the underworld.  Edward Elgar wrote his Cello Concerto (performed here with Norwegian soloist Truls Mørk) in the aftermath of the carnage of the First World War and as his wife lay dying.  Béla Bartók, who had opposed the Nazis and fled to the United States, wrote his Concerto for Orchestra while consumed by abject poverty and leukemia in his New York exile – it would be the last work he completed before he died.  (Janne SibeliusValse Triste concluded the concert as an encore, the sad waltz from his incidental music to a play called Death.)  So much beauty; so much sadness.

The orchestra carried this mood throughout the concert, although there was a certain humor to the warped tunes in the final two movements of the Bartók.  Mørk was not quite up to the level of Sol Gabetta (whom I heard perform the Elgar concerto with the Vienna Philharmonic last month) – it’s a difficult piece to get right.  He exhibited a fuller understanding of a solo encore work (a movement from the Cello Suite #2) by Benjamin Britten, in which he could display a bigger sound, capturing the instrument’s deep – and deeply human – voice.  Meanwhile, Mälkki’s conducting was rather blockish – very heavy-handed and abrupt, not always drawing out the lines to their fullest or allowing the orchestra to sing.  The audience applause was polite but underwhelming (this was my Wednesday Kulturvereinigung subscription concert with the usual crowd, so I can indeed compare the reaction to other concerts).  It wasn’t a bad performance at all, just not quite to the level I think the audience expected.

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Beethoven, Joh. Strauß, Schostakowitsch

Another weekend at home in Vienna for which I had not planned to go to a concert but could not help myself.  A month ago I heard the Vienna Philharmonic (which normally plays in the Musikverein) perform in the Konzerthaus, so maybe it just seemed fair to hear the Vienna Symphony (which normally plays in the Konzerthaus) perform in the Musikverein.

Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck took the podium for a pair of 5s: the fifth piano concerto by Beethoven and the fifth symphony by Schostakowitsch.  These were two quite different works, but Honeck had a plan.  Fives of different suits, indeed.

The Beethoven concerto (with young Russian pianist Igor Levit) strangely, but in a good sense, gave the feel of climbing into a newly-made bed with freshly-laundered silken sheets and well-fluffed pillows.  This was a performing version to settle into for the night.  Levit’s playing had a slightly other-wordly feel until it hit me during the quiet (but still quite active) passages: he made the piano into a music box tinkling away (his louder passages had some extraneous notes, unfortunately).  That may sound wierd, but it worked.

Levit returned for a piano rendition of a Johann Strauss waltz – this worked less so, as it only had the music-box quality with the fullness of the orchestra missing.

After the intermission, the Schostakowitsch Fifth was anything but warm and cuddly.  Here legato playing exaggerated the dissonances, and Honeck went further in that direction but turning the first movement into a parody of a march and the second into a warped waltz.  This was Schostakowitsch composing to Communist Party dictates but at the same time thumbing his nose.  The solos by (and duets between) the principal violin and oboe were especially jarring.  The third movement largo came across as cold as Sibelius, but not the plucky Finnish winter – instead bleak Siberian tundra.  There was no fake triumph in the final movement – Honeck elongated the agony Schostakowitsch experienced living in Soviet Russia.  If not quite as devastating as the version I heard in this hall about three years ago with the Petersburgers (who fittingly have their authentic Russian sound), this was still a smart reading of the composer’s intentions.

This orchestra (Vienna’s second-best!) sounds world class.  The pieces were indeed quite different, but it captured both idioms with full sound (including the quiet passages, which could be delicate and still full and revealing).  Tonight’s works were warhorses, performed quite often, but if the orchestra can provide intelligent readings like these then worth hearing over and over and finding new and undiscovered corners even on the umpteenth listen.  (Plus I don’t think I’ll ever tire of Beethoven and Schostakowitsch, the way I have certainly tired of Mozart and Tschaikowsky).

 

Czech National Opera

Boito, Mefistofele

My favorite Italian-language opera, Mefistofele by Arrigo Boito, may not be so obscure, but nevertheless it rarely appears on stage, so despite my enthusiasm I have never actually seen it.  Until now, that is: this evening at the Czech National Opera in Prague.


The music is sublime, but I wonder if the main reason this opera does not appear often is that it’s probably difficult to pull off convincingly.  It consists of a series of scenes from Goethe’s Faust, selected by Boito to try to capture the mysticism of that huge work, but in the process leaving out much of the character development.  There is a lot to read between the lines (which are often Boito’s idiomatic translation from Goethe).


The central figure in this setting is of course not Faust, but Mephistopheles (hence Boito’s chosen name for the opera), so a performance will live or die on who fills that role.  Slovak bass-baritone Štefan Kocán had sufficient charismatic stage presence and a dark biting voice (often more bass than baritone in a welcome way).  But he did not always project sufficiently, and had to come to stage front and center to deliver many passages or else his voice would have gotten lost (and despite this, he was still inaudible during the finale, overwhelmed by the celestial chorus not only in the action – he is defeated and pelted by flowers – but also in that we just did not hear his defiance at all).


The National Theater  is not an exceptionally large house, so it should be easily within the power of singers to fill the room.  But this seemed to be a problem for most of the cast – Kocán was actually the best at projecting.  Italian conductor Marco Guidarini actually led a restrained performance, very careful not to overwhelm the singers while nevertheless still keeping the drama (that said, the restraint did come at the cost of drama in some of the larger passages, and the celestial brass chorales never shook the hall as they should at key times, the backstage brass coming across more tinny than heavenly, as if from a pre-recorded track).


Argentinian tenor Raúl Gabriel Iriarte had a weakish-voiced but idiomatic Faust.  This role does not require a fully dramatic tenor, so the somewhat more lyrical approach worked.  I just would have appreciated a larger sound.  As Gretchen, the expressive Alžbĕta Poláčková (from the Czech National Opera’s house team) did mostly manage to project, and was clearly a hometown favorite.  The rest of the cast was mostly adequate.


Of course, pulling singers to the front of the stage to help them project more had as a drawback that it removed them from the effective action on stage.  In this case, I suppose that was OK – as the action on stage distracted from the plot.  This opera, as a series of scenes not always clearly related for those who have not read the original Goethe saga, could support numerous interpretations.  This one, by Ivan Krejči, was not one of them.  Static when the libretto called for action (the witches’ sabbath, for example) it was otherwise active with lots of strange choreography (including by dancing human hors-d’oevres at a banquet that does not appear in the plot).  I think Krejči tried too hard to make this a psychodrama and to give us visions, but if he did want that approach he should have related those visions to something in the text.

 

Mozarteum Orchestra, Mozarteum

Ruzicka, Poulenc, Schumann

I am not really sure how the Mozarteum Orchestra could follow this evening’s guest conductor, Peter Ruzicka from Hamburg, whose stick-wagging technique seemed to have little correlation to the music.

Actually, they really did not follow him.  When they could ignore him, as during some of the larger passages in Schumann‘s Fourth Symphony, a standard in the repertory, the orchestra sounded its usual full self, with especially soaring brass chorales.  But during more exposed portions, especially with tempo changes, the orchestra sounded a little lost.

The works before the intermission made it harder for the orchestra.  Soloist Iveta Apkalna, from Latvia, gave a lyrical interpretation of Francis Poulenc‘s Organ Concerto.  But there was often a disconnect with the string orchestra, who seemed determined to cut disruptively across her solos.  Only the tympanist engaged her in the dialogue, and the passages with the two of them alone stood out as the highlight.

The concert had opened with a forgettable work by the conductor himself: his fantasy for strings, Into the Open.  I’m not really sure what this was – I suppose it was a fantasy in that the violins provided unaccustomed high notes perhaps looking to escape from the Mozarteum’s Great Hall into another world.  But mostly the strings just kept up with the violent cutting noises.  Although I thought it was forgettable, in retrospect the orchestra may have remembered it long enough to disrupt the Poulenc.

 

Salzburger Landestheater

Hindemith, Cardillac

When I realized I had actually not been to an opera for nearly six months, I had a look to see if any last-minute tickets were available to opening night of the Salzburg Landestheater‘s new production of Paul Hindemith‘s Cardillac.  Surprisingly, a selection of seats remained, so off I went.

From Hindemith’s neo-baroque period, this opera employed a somewhat fantastical musical language, pushing forward the drama through use of warped early music conventions – syncopated and made dissonant.  The music matched the plot, based on a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann about jeweller who cannot be parted from his art, and who murders all who buy his pieces so he can claim his creations back.  His undoing comes when he attempts to kill his daughter’s fiancé, a police officer who has been investigating the spree of murders.  The police officer blames the gold dealer for trying to stab him, but coaxes a confession from the jeweller, who is then lynched by the crowd.  But in the end Cardillac triumphs in death as his fame as an artist lives on.

The Mozarteum Orchestra, conducted by the young Brit Robin Davis, championed the cause from the pit, with playing both lush (considering the reduced-size Hindemith wrote for) and refined in its individual lines.  Marian Pop (Cardillac), Anne-Fleur Werner (his daughter), and Kristofer Lundin (the officer) headed a very good cast, working their way expressively through the drama.  There’s actually not much action in this plot, so the music and words must propel the work.  In that, the Landestheater’s team succeeded.

In my last-minute decision-making process, however, I forgot to check on whom the Landestheater had hired to direct this work.  Unfortunately, it was the despicable German poser Amélie Niermeyer.  The plot is fantastical and could lend itself to a variety of interpretations, but her confused staging often bore little connection, and indeed detracted from the fantasy.   Her Rigoletto with the Landestheater in 2014 included child pornography.  Thankfully she did not repeat that travesty this evening, although she did give us incestuous necrophilia (at least this was only the singers acting out incestuous necrophilia – the last time was actual child pornography).  Such is the current state of “art” in Germany.

Vienna Philharmonic, Konzerthaus

Sibelius, Langgaard, Elgar

I was not planning on going to a concert during a quick weekend trip home, but sometimes I just get curious and grab a ticket if one is available last minute.  The Vienna Philharmonic performed tonight in the Konzerthaus, Vienna’s second major hall, with a concert featuring music by the forgotten Danish composer Rued Langgaard (1893-1952).  Having Sakari Oramo on the podium and Sol Gabetta on cello hardly dissuaded me.

It seems Langgaard’s Symphony #6 (written in 1919-20 and fully revised between 1928-30) is supposed to be typical of his output.  The composer’s father had been a piano student of Liszt, so this became the young man’s starting point – his symphonic writing being more tone poem than symphony, just without the plot.  Apparently he became fascinated with Scriabin, too, so his music showed heavy influence from the zany Russian.  At times, the music also bore a resemblance to that of his contemporary Paul Hindemith (whom he knew).  With all of that said, Liszt, Scriabin, and Hindemith all went somewhere with their music.  Langgaard – although making this symphony a setting of a theme and various variations on it, with theatrical extra brass (a whole additional row of trumpets sat in the choir seats) and percussion, I never got the sense that the work had any particular meaning.

I might give other works by Langgaard a listen (if they ever appear on a concert program – which they never do), but I suppose I can understand why he has not entered the repertory (it’s not bad music, but if we have Liszt, Scriabin, and Hindemith all in the original, we don’t really need Langgaard).  That said, tonight’s symphony was infinitely more original than almost anything composed by Langgaard’s older countryman Carl Nielsen, whose interminable music has inexplicably entered the standard repertory.

To introduce the Langgaard symphony, Oramo opened the concert with Sibelius‘ tone poem Pohjola’s Daughter, in possibly one of the finest performances I have heard of that work.  The opening cello solo was other-worldly, and the various virtuosic woodwinds built on that to take us into the realm of Finnish mythology.  The violin shrieks – depicting the girl’s mocking laughter – propelled the work forward, as the winds tried valiently in back to achieve the tasks she had set for them.  Some of this coloration certainly helped set up the Langgaard work to make it more understandable, I suppose, but Sibelius was the undisputed master of northern color.

After the intermission, Gabetta joined Oramo and the orchestra for Elgar‘s Cello Concerto, demonstrating both dexterity and lyricism.  Elgar used the cello to set out each section of the concerto and then let the orchestra blend in.  Only a rare cellist can effectively lead a whole orchestra, and more rarely when that orchestra is the Vienna Philharmonic.  Gabetta established her mastery this evening.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Haydn, The Creation

 

The Mozarteum Orchestra created the world in the Great Festival House this evening.  Or at least part of it did.  When Joseph Haydn conducted his oratorio himself, he used 120 instrumentalists.   Tonight, conductor Matthew Halls only employed about 50 (seemingly those orchestra members that Krzysztof Penderecki did not use for his own reduced-orchestra Beethoven 7th on Sunday morning).

This is actually a rather whimsical work, with Haydn having illustrated everything from hopping rabbits to the waters flooding the earth.  Halls elicited some appropriately descriptive playing from the orchestra in full color portraits.  But the reduced forces meant that the work never became as monumental as it should have – indeed, it felt quite constrained, and at times even dragged.  These were elaborate miniature portraits, rather than a gradiose set of murals.

Among the soloists, the 28-year-old Austrian soprano Christina Gansch, doubling up as both the Angel Gabriel and Eve, shone.    She managed a rare triple, succeeding in pureness of tone, fullness of voice, and dramatic presence.  She is certainly someone to watch out for on the opera stages of the future (or today, for that matter).  German baritone Daniel Ochoa as both the Angel Raphael and Adam, matched her in drama, but not always in voice (though not bad, he simply got outshone).  Austrian tenor Bernhard Berchtold as the Angel Uriel had a nice voice, I suppose, but it was not very big and he lacked drama.  Perhaps he could stick to chamber music (although he does not seem to inflect enough to do Lieder, so I am actually not sure what his ideal repertory would be – maybe some minor Russian character-tenor roles?).  The Salzburg Bachchor provided an idiomatic backdrop.