Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Grieg, Mozart, Rossini, Þorvaldsdóttir, Sibelius

Yesterday evening, the first snow of the year fell in Salzburg.  This evening, the Iceland Symphony Orchestra arrived in the Great Festival House.  Coincidence?

The concert included mostly Nordic music, for which this orchestra obviously has a natural affinity.  Their overall tone came off a bit thin for a full-sized orchestra, mostly an odd lack of undertones which made the icy upper registers sound somehow less full.  Under the baton of Daníel Bjarnason, their first guest conductor (they are apparently between music directors at the moment), they also played hesitantly at times – knowing well what they were doing but lacking confidence.  They sounded nice overall, but if they had just played more robustly they might have made a bigger impression.

The concert included five excerpts from Edvard Grieg‘s incidental music to Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt, Aeriality by Icelandic composer Anna Þorvaldsdóttir (a moody piece utilizing percussion and double basses to creative effect, which seemed to be building to some sort of climax, but just as it almost erupted into a chorale about ten minutes in decided not to and carried on without resolution for another five minutes), and the Fifth Symphony of Janne Sibelius (and Sibelius’ Valse Triste as an encore at the end of the concert).  After the Grieg and before the intermission, Croatian hornist Radovan Vlatković joined the orchestra for the Horn Concerto #3 by Wolfgang Amadé Mozart, which came across as odd among the Nordic surroundings.  Vlatković performed fluidly, but had a somewhat cold tone – was he mimicking the Nordic sound, or is his horn just sour?  Mozart’s horn music should be much warmer.

As an encore before the intermission, Vlatković and five Icelandic hornists managed a much warmer sound full of good humor: a little piece for horn ensemble by Gioachino Rossini.  No conductor for that one meant they played much more confidently.  While nothing seemed out of place for Bjarnason, I do wonder if that made the difference.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Weinberg, Brahms

I still cannot believe I was unaware of the existence of Moishe Weinberg as recently as five years ago.  Now I plan my schedule to incorporate rare performances of his music.  One of the greatest composers of the 20th Century, he was first championed by Dmitri Schostakowitsch (who served as a mentor for the younger Weinberg, but admitted Weinberg may indeed have been more talented).  One of his most recent champions is the brilliant young Lithuanian conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, who led the Mozarteum Orchestra this morning in his Second Symphony.

Scored only for string orchestra, this Symphony produced rich complexities which combined the intimacy of a sting quartet with the full-bodied sounds of a symphonic work.  Multiple lines (even among instrument groups) weaved in and out throughout the three-movement symphony, capturing vast sonorities sometimes almost delicately.  The first movement strung together a series of dances, but warped by the aftermath of the Holocaust (Weinberg was the only member of his family to survive – when he wrote this in 1945-46 in his Moscow exile he may still have been unaware of their fate but presumably knew it could not have been good).  The bleak second movement may have been too bleak even for the Russians, and may be the reason the Soviet authorities suppressed this symphony for nearly two decades (they did not permit it to have its premiere until 1964, a fate which often befell Weinberg’s works and which contributed to his oblivion despite his enormous talents and the high quality of his music at so many levels).  The moods of the first two movements combined to form the finale, but rather than rehash, Weinberg found new themes and tonalities, particularly in expansion of pizzicato to set the music on edge.

Under the impulse of Gražinytė-Tyla and the Stadler Quartet (formed by Mozarteum Orchestra members led by the concertmaster), there will be a Weinberg Festival in Salzburg in early December to mark the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth, featuring a good selection (by no means anywhere near complete) of his chamber music.  It has not had much publicity (Gražinytė-Tyla alluded to it but gave no details when making some introductory remarks at a concert featuring Weinberg’s music performed by the Stadler Quartet last Spring), but a few (not many) fliers were lying around in the lobby of the Great Festival House this morning, and I am now figuring out how to plan my schedule to get to as many of the performances as possible.  I’d say others should do the same.

The novelty and creativity of Weinberg’s work overshadowed the program’s main advertised piece, which came after the intermission: Brahms‘ Requiem, perhaps that composer’s greatest and most monumental work, and certainly his most original.  Gražinytė-Tyla recognized it as a very personal work despite its size, and so rather than making it a giant piece (although there were indeed 150 performers on stage) with at times swelling fortes, she kept it intimate (not quiet in the big parts – suitably loud where that was necessary – just intimate).  For this work, the Salzburg Bach Chorus and soloists Günther Haumer and Robin Johannsen (she a very late substitute – so late that not only did they not have time to put an insert in the program, they did not even print up pieces of paper to post at the entrance to alert concert-goers of the change) joined the Mozarteum Orchestra and Gražinytė-Tyla to make a balanced, sensitive, and emotional whole.

Philadelphia Orchestra, Kimmel Center

Mendelssohn, Bruch, Brahms

I had not intended to go to a concert this evening, but ended up needing to come back to Philadelphia from Washington on an earlier train than originally planned.  So I could not resist hearing the Philadelphia Orchestra for a second time on this trip.  Most of the principal chairs had this evening off, but no matter: it’s still the best orchestra in the Western Hemisphere.

Nathalie Stutzmann conducted, part of a series of women conductors the Orchestra is consciously featuring this season (good for them!).  I had vaguely heard of her (reading her bio seemed familiar), but did not previously know her.  She is a French contralto who recently turned to conducting.  Over a crystal clear baton beat in her right hand, she crafted sounds in her left, drawing the orchestra along expressively.  They responded with subtle, nuanced playing, with wonderful individual lines combining into a balanced, fulfilling, whole sound.

This playing immediately came on show for the concert overture: The Hebrides by Felix Mendelssohn, in which the Orchestra rocked us gently on the sea, lush strings swaying, as the composer crossed to Fingal’s Cave, the approach announced by increasingly evocative winds.  Despite the hall’s dry acoustics, this piece served (under Stutzmann’s direction) its purpose to demonstrate the warmth of this orchestra at every level, and their mastery throughout the instruments of landscape painting (Mendelssohn not only wrote this concert overture, but made a painting of the scene as well, which in such a performance we can dispense with, since the music alone suffices to let us hear the visuals).

The Orchestra’s concertmaster, David Kim, came out next for the Violin Concerto by Max Bruch.  He does not have a huge solo sound, but he does have a rich one, and he obviously knows how to play at the front of this orchestra, making a wonderful partnership.  Stutzmann restrained the orchestra during the solo violin features, never overwhelming Kim and keeping the performance balanced.  For the tutti sections, she drew the orchestra out fully, without creating unnecessary startling contrast.

After the intermission came the Second Symphony of Johannes Brahms.  The first movement had clear echoes of Mendelssohn’s Hebrides which had opened the concert, a similarity of line and craft.  But Mendelssohn had gotten there almost half a century earlier.  Brahms’ music was well-constructed as always, but had little new to say.  However, over the course of the symphony, this orchestra gave feeling to his lines, never dragging, lilting as necessary.  If not an evocative trip to the Scottish Islands to take in a natural wonder, then at least it was still a wonderful journey.

Curtis Symphony Orchestra, Kimmel Center

Theofanidis, Beethoven, Mozart

Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music is one of the leading conservatories in the United States, so always nice to see what the Curtis Symphony Orchestra is up to: if they have fun on stage (as they did this afternoon), then the mood is contagious and the audience has fun too.

This afternoon’s program in the Kimmel Center was a mixed affair, designed to show off a wide range of musicians rather than to highlight anyone or anything in particular.  Bizarrely, the concert opened (unannounced and not listed in the program) with the US National Anthem (nice arrangement, but… why exactly?  It felt like we were at a sporting event or something.  The students at Curtis are also an international bunch – I don’t know what percentage are Americans, but surely a large number of non-Americans were on the stage, so it just seemed weird and out-of-place).

The first programmed piece was Drum Circles by Christopher Theofanidis.  Written earlier this year, the work featured seven percussionists (four stage front with multiple instruments each, and three more conventional percussionists at the back of the stage) and orchestral continuo.  At times it veered in the direction of new age music, but in general it held together nicely and with more substance, emphasizing unusual combinations of sounds (mostly from pitched percussion instruments).  The overall mood remained creative and original while firmly based in classical musical traditions.  The student conductor Yuwon Kim kept everything under good control.

After the intermission, the concert became more conventional and we went to the opera.  Robert Kahn came on to conduct a dramatic Leonore Overture #3 by Ludwig van Beethoven, shaping it as a tone poem – the opera Fidelio in miniature – rather than as an overture (at which even Beethoven recognized it was less effective and replaced it with a simpler overture for the opera).  But although not a great overture, it is great music as a stand-alone (and the convention introduced by Gustav Mahler to perform it during the scene change in the middle of Act II of Fidelio was also brilliant).  Important however it is performed is an understanding of the entire opera, and that sense of drama pervaded this performance.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra who also mentors conductors at Curtis (including Kim and Kahn) came out to perform four extended ensembles from operas by Wolfgang Amadé Mozart (two each from Cosi Fan Tutte and Figaro).  What worked best here was precisely the ensemble nature of the excerpts – no need to highlight individual singers but rather to show how they could perform as a whole group (each selection had a different cast, with a couple of people repeating but mostly new groups for each).  The voices were mixed in quality (none bad, but some stronger or more expressive than others) but worked well as a team effort, and they clearly had chemistry with each other.  Behind them, the orchestra gave tremendous support.  The audience smiled broadly and laughed (appropriately) at the comic nuances.

Pennsylvania Ballet, Academy of Music

Minkus, Don Quixote

I think the last time I went to see a complete ballet performed live was in around 1979, with the Pennsylvania Ballet (I am pretty sure it was Coppelia by Léo Delibes).  I suppose there is a good reason I have waited 40 years to go again – same Pennsylvania Ballet company, but this time Don Quixote by Ludwig Minkus.  After this experience, I might wait another 40 years (until 2059) to go another time.

It is not like I do not see ballet regularly.  Thanks to silly French convention, ballets are inserted in many 19th century operas (often disruptive, sometimes not, but usually only a limited set of dance pieces within a larger musical score).  I’ve also seen individual scenes in different contexts.  But sitting through an entire ballet seemed a chore.  As I am visiting my mother in Philadelphia and she wanted to go, I was a good sport and tagged along (who knows, maybe I’d change my mind and like it).  It was also fun to go to an event in Philadelphia’s Academy of Music (still owned by the Philadelphia Orchestra, although they moved to the Kimmel Center in 2001 (neither hall has good acoustics), where I attended so many concerts and operas when growing up in this city.

I admit I had to look Minkus up, as he is not a composer I had ever encountered before (it seems for good reason).  A Jew born in Vienna in 1826 (where he died in 1917), he seems to have been good at one thing: writing insipid, cloying, utterly pointless music that happened to be easy to dance to.  He spent most of his life in Russia, where he churned out buckets of this droll, pasted together ad nauseum to make ballets such as the one this evening (based loosely on an episode in Cervantes’ book) for theaters in St. Petersburg and Moscow.  A number or two would have sufficed – a whole evening of this drivel was just maddening.  I could listen to dances by the Strauß family all day, but they had talent to write more than just danceable tunes but rather some quite good music – Minkus seems to have missed out on that concept entirely.  Beatrice Jona Affron conducted an unspectacular pit orchestra – I suppose she and the orchestra cannot be held accountable for the music, but only someone with a lobotomy could perform this stuff more than once (the run is for eleven performances spread over ten days, which must be truly mind-numbing).

As for the dancing: my mother (who would know) said it was indeed very good, and I will take her word for it since I do not feel competent to judge it.  My problem is that I have lived in Tbilisi, and having seen how Georgians dance, I am not sure that anyone else will ever impress me.  All dancing pales in comparison to Georgian dance.

Philadelphia Orchestra, Kimmel Center

Schubert, Mahler

I have now heard Gustav Mahler‘s Fifth Symphony three times in 2019.  Today’s performance, by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin was the best.

Nézet-Séguin took us on an emotional roller-coaster.  He took the opening funeral march with deliberate pacing, emphasizing the deep dark bass lower registers to create a fearsome rumble upon which to construct the rest of the amusement park.  Up the mood went to the blazing heights, only to come tumbling down in sheer terror.  The aborted chorale at the end of second movement provided a glimpse ahead, before it too came crashing down.

The transformation occurred in the middle movement, which began with a warped dance full of foreboding until it resolved into something more hopeful.  Then the fourth movement adagietto came across not as its usual melancholic self, but rather as something positive, to lead into an exuberant final movement, now with the complete chorale achieving its fullest triumph.

The Orchestra managed these mixed emotions with ease.  I prefer to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra on tour in better halls, since the acoustics in the Kimmel Center just are not very good.  But even in this dull hall, the orchestra shone.  If Minasi’s interpretation of this work with the Mozarteum Orchestra in May represented an experiment in approaching what was for that conductor an unfamiliar symphony, and Barenboim’s interpretation with the Vienna Philharmonic at the Festival in August was conventional and missing angst, Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphians drained their souls this afternoon.

Unfortunately – and a big unfortunately – the Orchestra’s principal trumpet is undergoing shoulder surgery and was unable to perform, so they substituted in his place the principal trumpet of the Metropolitan Opera.  He just was not very good (or at least far inferior to the standard of this orchestra) and flubbed too many notes in what is a very exposed trumpet part.  They should have let one of the other orchestra trumpeters take on the principal part, and brought the Met’s musician in for a less-exposed part (the score has four trumpets, so he might have been able to handle the fourth trumpet OK).  The rest of the Orchestra (definitely the best on this side of the Atlantic) sounded spectacular, full of nuance, charm, and verve, which made this substitution particularly painful.

Speaking of not very good musicians: the piano soloist in the concert’s first half, Louis Lortie was emotionless and mechanical.  He hit the notes (which I suppose is more than the Met’s trumpeter managed during the Mahler), but without any sense of feeling at all (actually, the Met’s trumpeter at least had feeling).  Wind Lortie up like a watch and he can keep time.  The music was Franz Schubert‘s Wanderer Fantasy as arranged for piano and orchestra by Ferenc Liszt.  The orchestra sounded warm and cheerful – but Lortie not so much.  I suppose we should consider ourselves fortunate that they chose the Liszt arrangement (Schubert’s original was for piano solo, and Lortie would have been even worse without the orchestra keeping this thing going).

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Glinka, Bartók, Saint-Saëns

I spent a colorful (if dark colors) Sunday morning with the Mozarteum Orchestra in Salzburg’s Great Festival House.  The three works on the program did not logically fit together, except perhaps for their color palette.  Riccardo Minasi, the orchestra’s music director, certainly saw to that.

The overture to Mikhail Glinka‘s opera Ruslan and Lyudmila energized the hall from the outset.  Glinka used dark Russian colors to highlight folk and dance-able music.  Although the overture is well-known, the opera gets performed rarely, which in my opinion is a huge oversight – indeed, a good production of this opera (such as the only time I have seen it performed, by the Novaya Opera in 2010, a production I remember fondly) is magical in a way Mozart’s Zauberflöte can be and would hook generations of children on opera.  I keep repeating this every time I hear the overture in a concert, in the hope that someone might actually start programming the entire opera (and not some imbecilic self-important German opera director, but rather someone with actual talent interested in staging the opera).  The overture is fun; the whole opera is more so.

When Béla Bartók died in 1945, he was still working on a viola concerto.  One of his students completed the orchestration, and fifty years later Bartók’s son made additional tweaks, to produce the version we heard today.  It also employed dark coloration, alternatingly moody and folkish.  It’s not a work I’d heard before, but would gladly again.  Violist Antoine Tamestit made a wonderful sound and a statement about an under-appreciated instrument.  Indeed, if the question about Glinka’s Ruslan is why that opera is rarely performed, then the question Bartók’s concerto provoked – or at least in this interpretation – is why there are not more viola concerti.  The instrument may not hit the highs of the violin, nor the warm tenor of the cello, but it has something to say in the alto range.

Minasi borrowed the concertmaster’s violin, and accompanied Tamestit in a lively duet to liven the mood as we headed into break.  This was quite short, but maintained positive energy in the house.

The question I had going into the second half of the concert was: why would anyone program Camille Saint-Saëns‘s Symphony #3 (inscribed “With Organ”) in a house that does not contain an organ?  They can and do wheel out an electric simulated organ with speaker amplification, but it’s not the real thing and makes a pitiful substitute.  Indeed, the Dresden Staatskapelle fell on its face in this house in 2017 trying to do just that.  But Minasi and the Mozarteum Orchestra had an answer to this question.  Instead of having the organ as a central part of the music, they instead highlighted the rich symphonic colors (Saint-Saëns was of course inspired by the tone poems of Ferenc Liszt, in whose memory he wrote the work), and the organ emerged almost as an afterthought, augmenting the depth of the colors but not actually painting them itself.  This approach worked under the circumstances (the symphony is thrilling with a proper organ, but without one this alternative interpretation was quite good as well).

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Beethoven, Stravinsky

The new concert season opened while I was in India, so this evening was my first.  Pianist Herbert Schuch joined Riccardo Minasi and the Mozarteum Orchestra in the Great Festival House for two Beethoven concerti, followed after the break by Stravinsky‘s Rite of Spring.

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #2, actually his first in order of composition, was not a fully-developed work, and indeed came off unconvincing when Lang Lang and the Camerata under Manfred Honeck performed it at the Festival during the Summer.  But perhaps they tried to do too much with it.  Schuch, Minasi, and the Mozarteum took a much more reserved approach this evening, and while that did not improve the quality of the concerto (still a student experiment that Beethoven himself did not think very highly of), they did manage to make it lyrical and demonstrate the talent that this composer would use to bring music into the 19th century.  All together, this performance exceeded the one at the Festival by every measure.

In contrast, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #5 may mark the absolute pinnacle of the Fach. These forces approached it similarly to how they did the second concerto, never trying to overwhelm anything, but now with far superior music.  The orchestra highlighted substantial dance, with Schuch providing glistening tinkling to augment the delicate colors.  Though not a robust performance, it worked well to demonstrate the composer’s development and consistency, even in contrast with his less-substantial earlier concerto.

Schuch provided an encore: a bagatelle by Beethoven, which he made look forward almost to a Strauß waltz.  However, as a solo work, it left him exposed.  The tingling technique did not succeed as well without the orchestra to provide some heft.

After the intermission, the orchestra showed its full colors with Stravinsky’s nutso ballet.  The tone was all there, but one thing was missing: the ballet.  Although quite a wild work, Stravinsky did intend performers to dance to it.  Minasi coaxed all the right tones and complicated dissonance from the orchestra, which sounded amazing, but he made the sections too detached, and lost the flow even within sections.  He is maturing as a conductor and should be applauded for his thoughtful programming, but he may not quite be there yet with some of this twentieth century music.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Beethoven, Bruckner

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

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

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

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

Leipzig Gewandhausorchester, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Bruckner

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

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

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

Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, Felsenreitschule

Dvořák, Bruckner

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

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

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

Berlin Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Berg, Beethoven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mahler

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

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

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

Khatia Buniatishvili, Großes Festspielhaus

Schubert, Liszt, Stravinsky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Camerata Salzburg, Haus für Mozart

Schubert, Beethoven

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

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

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

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

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

Maurizio Pollini, Großes Festspielhaus

Schoenberg, Nono, Beethoven

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

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

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

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

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

Camerata Salzburg, Mozarteum

Bartók, Weber, Koncz, Kodály, Brahms

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

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

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

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

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

Martha Argerich & Daniel Barenboim, Haus für Mozart

Prokofiev, Schumann

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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