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.
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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.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Penderecki, Beethoven

Krzysztof Penderecki is one of those composers known more for his reputation than for his actual music.  I seldom see his music in any programs, and indeed, I don’t recall ever hearing his work live in a program myself.  

This morning he brought his second violin concerto to Salzburg’s Great Festival House, for a performance by the Mozarteum Orchestra and soloist Leticia Moreno.  He conducted himself.

His music is reminiscent of warmed-over Schostakowitsch, and in the case of this particular work, Schostakowitsch’s cello concerto. Maybe less-edgy and less-original, but nevertheless quite pleasant enough structured as variations morphing without breaks for about forty minutes.  Moreno made her Salzburg debut last Fall with some spectacular playing in front of the Cadaqués Orchestra, and it helped Penderecki that he had her to interpret today.  She handled all of the tones he required, compfortable in every idiom from lyrical to frenetic, with a wide range (indeed, she beautifully hit notes I thought were above the violin’s register).  She did not have the biggest sound today, sometimes being overwhelmed by the orchestra in the larger passages.  The audience really would have appreciated an encore (unfortunately we did not get one).

After the intermission, Pederecki returned to the podium for Beethoven‘s seventh symphony.  He chose to do this with a greatly-reduced orchestra, barely larger than a chamber group.  If his own concerto had been a mellowed version of Schostakowitsch’s, then his Beethoven 7 was a mellowed version of Beethoven 7.  The performance lacked the necessary exuberance, except maybe in the slow movement (which he performed too quickly and with too much staccato).  Penderecki mostly used only one arm at a time when he conducted, with brief overlaps as he shifted from one to the other every few measures.  I did not quite get the concept, and the orchestra may not have either (certainly the horns were a total mess of confusion in the first movement, although they got their bearings as the symphony went on).

Philadelphia Orchestra, Kimmel Center

Machover

I would not normally post a review of a rehearsal, particularly one for a world premiere performance where the orchestra and composer were still fine-tuning ahead of the first concert.  But for this rehearsal, I have decided to make an exception (albeit delaying the public posting for a day until after the world premiere has taken place).  This is because I realized I am not actually reviewing the performance.

Tod Machover’s Philadelphia Voices is about to have its premiere with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin in a three-concert set in Philadelphia this week and then at Carnegie Hall in New York next week (along with works by Bernstein and Mussorgsky, not rehearsed this evening).

On an intellectual level, I’m glad I went.  On a musical level, there’s nothing to say.  It’s an especially awful piece for the Philadelphia Orchestra to bring to Carnegie Hall – a Philadelphia audience might have fun with some of the inside jokes and immediate cultural references, but New Yorkers will lose that dimension, exposing that there is nothing else there.

Machover crowd-sourced his thing-a-ma-bobby.  He cobbled the inane text (partly sung, partly pre-recorded voices from around the city played over speakers) together from various sources, including on-the-street interviews (or in one case an interview with a short-order cook making a cheese steak).  Some of it came from snippets of documents like the US Constitution (written in Philadelphia).  The text contained juxtaposed words or phrases often presenting inside jokes; recent events ranging from the Pope’s visit that took place while Machover had begun to work on this, to the Philadelphia Eagles winning the Super Bowl earlier this year complete with the play-by-play announcer’s calling of the final play of that game; and some truly dreadful poetry including one section that began: “My house is full of black people.”

At a pre-rehearsal discussion, Machover answered an audience member’s question about what will happen with this piece after this initial set of concerts, explaining that Haydn had written his London symphonies and they became part of the standard repertory. But Haydn’s “London” symphonies got the name because he wrote a set of them there (or at least for premieres there), not because they have anything specifically to do with London ranging from insider knowledge to recent (from 200 years ago) football championships. Haydn just wrote good music.

But intellectually, learning how Machover constructed this work (wandering around Philadelphia recording people and sounds, while getting to know the city – he himself is not from Philadelphia), and then hearing a full (final) rehearsal in which the composer and Nézet-Séguin had to make finishing touches and to see how to make it function in real life, was worth the several hours I spent in the Kimmel Center.  As a native Philadelphian, I also had fun with parts of the text.

Four different choral groups, apparently mostly drawn from a good selection of inner-city kids, sang the words.  For them, this was an opportunity to rehearse with the best orchestra in the United States and under one of the best conductors of the 40-ish generation, and then to perform live at New York’s historic Carnegie Hall (and of course at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center, an undistinguished venue but likely exciting for these kids).  This was heartening to see.  What a great experience for these kids – and maybe they’ll even stick around for some real music.

Oh, yes… the music.  It was mostly tonal, and required performance on instruments (including voice) despite many voice-overs, but I’m not sure it was music.  It had no discernable structure or direction (not just a factor of the strange text, but a fundamental problem with the construction itself).

What did it really remind me of?  I attended a bizarrely experimental elementary school in Philadelphia.  On a typical day, we walked up and down the streets of this city exploring different neighborhoods (and once a week they bussed us city kids out to a working farm).  We had no formal classes – maybe the closest we came to a recognizable class period was music, which they taught us using the educational system developed by Carl Orff.  I could easily see my elementary school collaboratively writing this piece – both the words and music – and then performing it for our parents on our recorders and xylophones (and singing along) in the school’s “Multi-Purpose Room.”  Our parents would have had fun (or at least would have pretended to).  And then after that performance there would never – ever – be any reason to perform our piece again.

Philadelphia Voices should share the same fate.   Creative?  Sure.  But place- and time-specific, and otherwise with nothing of substance.

Philadelphia Orchestra, Kimmel Center

Lindberg, Stravinsky, Prokofiev

The Philadelphia Orchestra‘s concert today was dedicated in memory of my father, so I made a rare appearance on the other side of the Pond despite some travel chaos due to winter weather in London (where I always transit through) and on the US east coast.  It’s wonderful to hear this orchestra – by far the best in the US and now clearly among the top five in the world (for those readers wondering: I’d put them on a par with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, albeit below the Vienna Philharmonic, the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra from Munich).  Their home venue in the Kimmel Center remains the biggest drawback: sitting on this stage, they always sound like they are playing behind a scrim.  The sounds come out clearly enough, but distant and simewhat dulled.  Those who have not experienced this orchestra would be wise to go hear them on tour in a hall with proper acoustics (they are coming to Europe and Israel in May and June, although I’m likely to miss them in Vienna).

Today’s concert program had no particular connection to my father, just the dedication.  The rapidly rising under-30 star Lahav Shani took the podium, for a program of music by Christian Lindberg, Igor Stravinsky, and Sergei Prokofiev.  I actually heard Shani conduct the Prokofiev work – his Fifth Symphony – already one month ago, with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra performing in Salzburg.  That performance of this war symphony was almost joyful, accenting the dancing rhythms, and so I wondered how the two orchestras might compare with Shani’s interpretation.  To my surprise, Shani gave a completely different interpretation today, one which accentuated the many talents of this orchestra.  Where the Vienna Symphony (that city’s second orchestra) sounds excellent and itself world-class, it has a more uniform sound.  The Philadelphia Orchestra is the more virtuosic, and this let Shani draw out the individual playing (but always keeping these sounds as part of an orchestral whole).  Gone was the (actually convincing if different) dancing celebration from last month; back was the desolate landscape of war tinged happily with the knowledge of impending victory.  Better orchestra, better performance.

The first half of the concert had opened with Akbank Bunka, an eclectic trumpet concerto by Lindberg, with the Orchestra’s principle trumpet David Bilger as soloist.  I may have been the only person in the hall who had heard it performed before (in Salzburg about three years ago, with Lindberg himself conducting his own Arctic Symphony Orchestra, with soloist Pacho Flores).  Again: better orchestra, better performance.  Except that it was a concerto, and despite Bilger’s clear talents, as an orchestral musician he is not the showman (Flores is).  Bilger’s warm tone blended well with the orchestra’s wintery arctic accompaniment, but did not jump out off the stage.

Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite rounded off the first half.  But someone’s phone in the audience kept ringing (bad enough that it rang, but worse that the person refused to turn it off and let it keep ringing).  Shani twice stopped and started over from the beginning.  If I had been sitting next to the person, I would have smashed his phone under my shoe.  The ushers should have done so themselves – but they did not even eject him from the hall.

Although this severely broke the mood, the Orchestra’s playing soon restored order to the world, and the Stravinsky work allowed them to showcase what they do best.  The orchestra’s justly famous strings propelled this piece (and the others), not just serving as the base for the music but actually pushing everything forward, while the winds (and percussion) added vivid color, each line exceptional.  While bringing off a full ensemble sound, the individual talents nevertheless shone.  It is this extraordinary skill set that enabled Shani to take the interpretation he did with the Prokofiev at variance with the one he used last month.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Mozarteum

Reich, Bernstein, Antheil, Copland, Curiale, Still

American night at the Mozarteum: music by Steve Reich, Leonard Bernstein, George Antheil, Aaron Copland, Joseph Curiale, and William Grant Still.  Conductor Riccardo Minasi led the superb Mozarteum Orchestra in an intelligently-constructed program.

With the exception of the Copland segment (and an encore by Bernstein – a rousing excerpt from West Side Story), nothing in the program has entered the standard repertory, so tonight was a chance to experience something new – or lots of somethings new.  The connecting strand was one of taking jazz and other American rhythms and incorporating them into classical orchestral music.  This also required highlighting the winds especially, and the Mozarteum’s winds rose to the challenge.  However, they did this one a bed of strings, who created a full supportive tone.

The Copland selection – three excerpts from his ballet Rodeo – may have been the most accessible (which may also explain why this music has entered the standard repertory).  But “accessible” does not mean “easy” – Copland’s music jumped around both in rhythm and in tone, and the orchestra got all of the crazy juxtapositions, smiling and winking at each other as they went.

Excerpts from Bernstein’s ballet On the Town, and Antheil’s Jazz Symphony both attempted other aspects, maybe less successfully than Copland.  Antheil’s work came in a revised version (apparently the original one – although fully orchestrated – called for three pianos; one was certainly sufficient).  The Orchestra’s principal solo trumpet, Johannes Moritz, came to the front of the stage for Curiale’s Blue Windows for Trumpet and Orchestra – the only work composed in the 21st century (everything else was 20th century).  After a jarring start in the orchestra (intentional – Curiale wrote it that way), the work settled down, and Moritz’s warm and silky tone balanced the rest of the team.

The first piece was actually oddest work of the night: Reich’s Clapping Music was inspired by African drumming, and consisted of sixteen orchestra members coming to the front of the stage and clapping to a beat led by Minasi (clapping while facing them).  Cute, but I’m glad it only lasted three minutes.  African drums might have provided more variety in sound.

The final scheduled work was a find.  Still’s “Afro-American” Symphony #1 was the first symphony by a black composer ever performed by a “white” orchestra in an age of segregation (the premiere came in 1931 by the Rochester Philharmonic conducted by Still’s friend Howard Hanson).  Still drew inspiration from the sounds he had heard growing up along the Mississippi River, but this was not just a rehash or orchestration thereof, but a wonderful synthesis that clearly grew from his heart.

Camerata Salzburg, Mozarteum

Sibelius, Britten, Schoenberg, Strauss

A wonderful Sunday morning chamber concert in the Mozarteum by the Camerata Salzburg featured some lesser-known works by Janne Sibelius, Benjamin Britten, Arnold Schoenberg, and Richard Strauss.  It was like being invited over for brunch by old friends who spent the meal regaling me of stories from their youth that I had never heard before, full of detail and charm.  (That said, I actually have heard the Strauss work in concert once before, and own excerpts from the Sibelius work on a recording; the rest was new for me.)

The Camerata’s strings were especially lush, and for those pieces requiring woodwinds, they were emotive.  We had that all together for the incidental music composed by Sibelius for Maeterlinck’s Pelleas and Melisande, a rare work by that composer not rooted in Finnish myth, but still identifiably Sibelian in its somber but dramatic colors.

On either side of the intermission, soprano Anna Prohaska joined the orchestra for some songs.  Before the intermission came “Illuminations” by Britten, setting texts by a London-based French poet, Arthur Rimbaud, who wrote in French but used English metrics.  These also spanned the dramatic range, and demonstrated Britten’s mastery of both fine chamber musicianship and rhetoric.  Prohaska channeled her inner Britten, also mastering both, with a fine dramatic reading spanning the emotions.

After the intermission, Prohaska and the ensemble added two songs by Schoenberg, based on themes from early string quartets setting the words of poet Stefan George: “Litany” and “Rapture.”  If Schoenberg’s starting point was Beethoven, he quickly moved into new tonal (or atonal) experiments, but left enough room for today’s artists to wax mystical.

As a final programmed work, the Camerata’s principal hornist Johannes Hinterholzer came to the front of the stage for Strauss’ Horn Concerto #1, which the then 18-year-old composer wrote as a 60th birthday present for his illustrious hornist father.  Where the other works on this morning’s program were essentially melancholic, this one was boisterous and happy.  Hinterholzer played with enthusiasiasm, backed up in equal measures by his colleagues, all clearly having fun while doing so.

There was an encore, which Hinterholzer introduced loudly enough but then he swallowed the name of the composer so that it became unintelligible, so I have no idea what it was; it was not as good as the Strauss and on the whole we could have done without it.  The four scheduled pieces on the program were enough of a good thing with this group.  The orchestra went without a conductor today, instead having guest concert master Sebastian Breuninger lead, giving demonstrative cues.  Breuninger is the concert master of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra – the Camerata’s own concert master, Gregory Ahss, announced in the annual program schedule and in many of the flyers available in the foyer (but not in the printed program, which showed Breuninger) as leading this concert, was mysteriously absent.  I saw Ahss perform with this orchestra in January, and an on-line search comes up with no further information about the substitution.

Stadler Quartet, Mozarteum Viennese Hall

Haydn, Grassl, Schubert

Writing notes on paper and having people holding instruments perform them does not per se qualify as composing music.  Tonight in the Viennese Hall of the Mozarteum, the Stadler Quartet gave the world premiere of String Quartet #4 “Phases” by Herbert Grassl.  Somewhere inside the instruments, music (maybe Stravinsky?) was trying to escape, but Grassl made sure to keep it imprisoned.  In some cases rhythms bounced on monotonously, in other cases he had the musicians beat the sound back into their instruments percussively, and in still other cases he seems to have become so obsessed with gimmicks (let’s see what cutesy thing I can make an instrument do!!!) that he kept doing that and simply stopped even trying to find a musical line anymore.  

Joseph Haydn and Franz Schubert, on the other hand, knew how to write music, and tonight’s selections, performed on either side of the Grassl wreck, were wonderful.  Haydn essentially invented this genre, and his String Quartet #56 opened the concert.  This was full of surprises – in dissonance, rhythm, and contrast of instruments playing against each other – but never lost sight of the fact that it was supposed to be a piece of music.  Grassl might have done himself a favor by studying the master.

Schubert’s String Quartet #15, the final work he wrote in this genre, may have reached the pinnacle of the form.  He too used inventive harmonies, rhythms, and ways of mixing the instruments (only four?  it sounded like an orchestra at times!) to construct enormous sonorities.  Listening to this work – and in this performance – it becomes easy to understand why Anton Bruckner so admired Schubert’s craftmanship.  This piece had much more going on than even Haydn had conceived possible, and anticipated music far beyond 1826 (when Schubert wrote it) – although Schubert probably did not anticipate Grassl.  The Stadler Quartet transported us to another world for this one – a sublime performance.