Mozarteum Orchestra, Mozarteum

Schumann, Mozart

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

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

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

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

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

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Brussels Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Wagner, Liszt

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

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

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

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

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

Salzburger Landestheater

Offenbach, Hoffmanns Erzählungen

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cadaqués Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Bizet, Sarasate, Falla, Chapí

 

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

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

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

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

Una triomfada!

Cadaqués Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Albéniz, Piazzolla, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Chapí

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Smetana, Mozart, Tschaikowsky

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

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

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

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

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Strauss

Hector Berlioz, Felix Mendelssohn, and Richard Strauss all traveled to Italy as young men (the first two at the same time, although not together), which inspired them to write italianate works, which the Mozarteum Orchestra and Riccardo Minasi presented at a Sunday matinee this morning.

Minasi animates the orchestra, particularly during the faster parts (when he takes particularly frenetic tempi).  The slower movements dance, where there is lilt.  Where there is meant to be broader color – painted landscapes, for example – he does not always complete the picture, although this orchestra has the talent to produce the full palette.

The former (frenetic style) was on display in the Overture to Berlioz’ opera Benvenuto Cellini, which came across a bit crazy, a warm-up for Mendelssohn’s Fourth Symphony (“Italian”), whose outer movements had a definite forward drive, and whose interior movements had a certain spring in the step but not necessarily the fullness of tone.

Richard Strauss’ under-performed youthful work Aus Italien, is a four-movement tone poem, and perhaps here in the first three movements may have been too north-of-the-Alps in structure (if not in inspiration) for Minasi.  The first movement especially foreshadows the tonal lushness Strauss would later develop.  The final movement, though closer to Minasi’s rambunctious style, is actually the weakest link: Strauss mistook Funiculì Funiculà as a Neapolitan folk song and used it as the basis for his final movement – its (then very much alive) composer, Luigi Denza, sued Strauss for plagiarism and apparently recovered quite a bit in royalties.  Strauss should have quietly cut the final movement, which does not go with the first three anyway, but at least Minasi and the Mozarteum Orchestra had fun with it this morning.

 

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Beethoven, Berlioz

Beethoven‘s violin concerto has now featured on three concert programs I have attended in Salzburg during 2017.  All three soloists have done it justice, but tonight’s was the best of the three: Emmanuel Tjeknavorian, the 22-year-old Austrian son of the Armenian composer/conductor Loris Tjeknavorian.  The young Tjeknavorian had a gorgeous tone – sweet, but not sweetened, like a fresh organic vegetable relying on natural sugars to melt naturally in the mouth.  He backed this up with full-bodiedness, but still kept nuance.  A truly remarkable performance.

Less should be said about guest conductor Marko Letonja, who gave Tjeknavorian an uninspired backdrop.  The Beethoven concerto excels because of the series of dialogues it sets out between the solo violin and various instruments in the orchestra.  Letonja featured none of these instruments, instead blurring all of them together into a homogenized blob.  The orchestra supported the soloist – indeed the way most concertos call for an orchestra to do – but this is not what Beethoven had constructed.

Letonja applied the same approach for the second half of the concert, Berlioz‘s Symphonie Fantastique.  He did try to emphasize the odd syncopation, which left the work off-kilter as Berlioz intended: this is essentially Berlioz on a drug trip.  Unfortunately, with Letonja conducting, the drug of choice appears to have been qualudes.  The whole work dragged – especially an interminable third movement.  The Mozarteum Orchestra sounded great – although periodically unable to follow Letonja, not coming in together nor always on beat – but generally uninspired.  At least they too visibly enjoyed Tjeknavorian’s performance – they knew he was tonight’s winner.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Mozarteum

Schostakowitsch, Haydn, Stravinsky, Liszt, CPE Bach

The new musical year opened tonight in Salzburg, with an extremely eclectic concert by the Mozarteum Orchestra under its brand new chief conductor Riccardo Minasi in the Mozarteum’s Great Hall.  The orchestra is apparently very enthusiastic about Minasi, not least because he promises to schedule unusual works such as tonight’s combination: Dmitri Schostakowitsch‘s Festive Overture, Joseph Haydn‘s first Te Deum in C (he wrote two), Igor Stravinsky‘s Fireworks, Ferenc Liszt‘s Preludes, and finally CPE Bach‘s Magnificat.  Whew!

Enthusiasm permeated the room.  I’m not clear if this lead to the generally faster-than-normal tempi Minasi took, or if he really meant to play everything faster.  I could say the same about the volume, which rarely dropped below forte.  But this produced a breathless buzz (sometimes a bit chaotic, as in Stravinsky’s rarely-heard and refreshingly peculiar Fireworks; sometimes literally breathless, as in it was hard to believe the musicians managed to keep up and get all of the notes in for the opening of CPE Bach’s Magnificat).  Everyone had a twinkle in their eyes – and sometimes an unrestrained laugh, as the first four works were relatively short and the orchestra (and chorus) had to rearrange themselves frequently and with great difficulty between them (when Minasi chose the works for this concert, he probably did not realize they were in the Mozarteum, which has a much smaller stage than the Great Festival House where they often perform).

The orchestra sounded in its accustomed form, with the Salzburg Bach Chorus joining them magnificently for the two choral works.  Three of the four soloists – Kim-Lillian Strebel (soprano), Dara Savinova (alto), and Fulvio Bettini (bass) – had wonderful voices which blended nicely with orchestra and chorus even as they projected cleanly.  The fourth soloist, tenor Barry Banks, was a disaster for the ears, unable to find his pitches (especially painful in his upper register) and with an ugly hoarse (but loud) timbre.

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Lutosławski, Tschaikowsky, Prokofiev

From the works on the program, I had considered not buying a ticket to tonight’s concert at the Festival.  But curiosity to hear the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under Manfred Honeck (whom I have heard before, but never with his own orchestra) pulled me in.  The first half of the program included some experimental works (better in theory than in practice) by Witold Lutosławski and the second had Piotr Tschaikowsky‘s over-played Sixth Symphony.

Lutosławski tried out something he called “chain form” music, where subjects start before the previous ones end, linking them together in a chain (including across movements).  Tonight we had one such experiment, in triptych – finishing with Chain 2 – a “Dialogue for Violin and Orchestra” premiered in 1986 – to which in 1990 he appended onto the front the other two works in the triptych: first the Partita for Violin and Orchestra (and Obligatory Piano) and second the Interlude for Orchestra.  At times the music actually was quite fascinating.  The problem was that as soon as we could enjoy these sections, they were overcome by the next link in the chain.  The 1986 work Chain 2 was far better and made the point the composer was trying to make – and if he had left it at that, then this whole experiment might have been relatively successful.  But adding the other two pieces to the front made this a maddening 45 minutes or so.

Under these circumstances, it was hard to judge the orchestra itself.  I suppose they made it through the work OK, and therefore should be commended.  Did they sound good?  I think so, maybe.  I was spending too much time trying to understand the music to contemplate if the orchestra performed well.  Certainly, though, the soloist, Anne-Sophie Mutter did, with a full sound and great versatility.  She also gave the premiere of this stuff, so I suppose she would know it well and it helped.

The Tschaikowsky at least allowed us a chance to evaluate the orchestra itself.  It’s hard to say something new with Tschaikowsky.  He wrote nice music, but it was often too westernized – usually not authentically Russian enough to be Russian and not quite as good as real westerners wrote (so neither here nor there, really, but somehow seemingly on so many concert programs that I am trying to cut down my Tschaikowsky intake).  But he had his manias, and a sense of the psychodramatic (some of his authentic Russian works – mostly earlier works – are quite good but less-performed; his operas set as psychodramas work better than anything with action).

It is possible to say something new with an imaginative interpretation.  And that is exactly what Honeck did tonight – practically re-interpreting Tschaikowsky through a Mahlerian lense.

A few nights ago I watched a video which included some scenes of Valery Gergiev rehearsing Mahler’s Fifth, in which Gergiev described to the orchestra that they should perform it as though they were playing on a ship in the middle of the ocean, with huge swells making them sway back and forth while keeping them off-balance, and every so often having an enormous wave crash across their bow.  That analogy would have worked for Honeck’s reading of Tschaikowsky’s Sixth tonight.  This was an angst-ridden performance – although the theory that Tschaikowsky committed suicide nine days after the premiere of this symphony is not widely accepted, certainly if this had been the amount of angst consuming him then maybe he would have.

The orchestra handled this very well – Honeck has served chief there since 2008, so they know him and respond.  The ensemble playing therefore got it.  Unfortunately, the exposed lines stood out: this is a second-tier American orchestra, lacking the virtuosity of a top-level band.  While the whole sound was good, the individual instruments did not rise to the solo lines.  This came in stark contrast considering last night’s performance by the Berlin Philharmonic, where each individual line was to savor.

We did get to enjoy two encores, both ballet music.  The first I did not quite place, but it sounded like Tschaikowsky and had a nice little lilt.  Of greater spectacle, next came a couple of sections from Prokofiev‘s Romeo and Juliet.  This was authentically Russian in a way Tschaikowsky was generally not, and brash and modern in ways that Lutosławski would have done well to emulate (the whole Prokofiev ballet is long but never gets dull – that might have been a much more exciting programmatic choice, but I’ll take the snippets as an encore).

Berlin Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Schostakowitsch

There is a certain logic in pairing Schostakowitsch‘s first and last symphonies.  Symphony #1, his graduation work from the Petrograd Conservatory, is an experimental work looking forward to the music style he would develop through his compositional career.  Symphony #15, written in failing health, looked back upon that career and made reference to it (along with snippets from Wagner, Mahler, Rossini, and others).  Both pieces use full orchestras, but spend most of their time bringing out delicate juxtapositions of individual instruments – more concerto for orchestra than symphony.

The first symphony is clearly a student work, often failing to develop portions, while in a hurry to move on to the next thing, to demonstrate to the examiners that he could tick the boxes (albeit quite elaborate ticks).  The fifteenth benefits from 45 more years of composition, and without going overboard does resolve each theme and section.

Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic programmed these works tonight at the Festival.  The large swells were there, but so were all the details.  I already knew both symphonies, but felt as though I was hearing both for this first time.  So many details often remain hidden in the complex workings of these symphonies: they are not big showcases, and indeed are often delicate, but they are nevertheless showcases for the right orchestral forces.  Rattle drew out all of the lines, and the orchestra responded with every intricacy intact.  Even at quiet moments, the sound made its way through the hall in the right proportions.

As for the audience, it failed tonight.  The whole hall seemed restless – lots of coughing, seats fidgeting, people standing up and sitting back down, and a mobile phone ringing.  The man next to me seemed to be intent on swatting non-existent flies all night.  Who were all these people and what did they do with the usual audience?

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Schostakowitsch, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

What promised to be a musical highlight of this Summer’s Festival did not disappoint: Mariss Jansons and the Vienna Philharmonic performing Dmitri Schostakowitsch‘s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.

This is an absolutely brutal opera, without any sympathetic characters and full of violent crime.  Schostakowitsch infused the music with western dance patterns (Viennese waltzes and the like – many recognizable from operettas) in caricature, interrupted by more violence, before the choral music in the final act – depicting prisoners being force-marched to Siberia – evoking Mussorgsky (and maybe here some sympathy).  Stalin called it “muddle not music” in a review he wrote for Pravda and the opera nearly cost Schostakowitsch his life.

But it is a fantastic score.  Mariss Jansons kept all of the complexities together and well-paced.  The orchestra produced a full sound from the pit, without ever overwhelming the singers, and then exploded into the musical interludes.  This was thrilling, and fitting that Jansons and the Philharmonic got the evening’s loudest applause.

The cast itself had no big names – a motley collection made up mostly of Russians and Ukrainians.  All were good.  The best voice of the night belonged to Dmitri Ulyanov, the Russian baritone who sang Boris Ismailov, the protagonist’s overbearing father-in-law (he exits relatively early in the plot, after she feeds him mushrooms laced with rat poison).  Nina Stemme was to be the one big-name singer in the cast as the protagonist, but she has been ill and was replaced this Summer by her understudy, Evgenia Muraveva, a young soprano from the Mariinsky Theater, who – aside from a few misplaced upper notes – completely filled the role and carried the plot.  She was mostly balanced by tenor Brandon Jovanovich, an American cast as her lover and partner in crime Sergei.

The staging, by German director (oh, no, not another talentless German opera director!?) Andreas Kriegenburg was thankfully not Regietheater (thank goodness for these periodic exceptions coming from Germany). That did not mean that it made any sense. It was a modernized, if not modern, staging, moved to what looked like a Soviet-ish apartment block, which did not quite match the plot so unclear why he did it.  There were some other deviations from the plot, but the music and plot are shocking enough that there really is no need to do more (and he did not).  Depicting rapes and murders and whatnot is sufficient – and it was all there.  Injecting some comic relief in appropriate places (consistent with the text) is also correct.  And giving the singers a platform on which to act is probably most important, and Kriegenburg did just that.  So there was no need to get into an intellectual exercise to try to figure out what he was thinking.

Better to bask in the music.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Strauss, Bruckner

Herbert Blomstedt turned 90 last month.  I suppose when a conductor turns 90, he is entitled to sit down while conducting – that would seem to be the only change I noticed with him since I saw him last year.  He remains an architect on the podium, carefully constructing the musical edifice in front of him – today in Salzburg’s Great Festival House with the Vienna Philharmonic (which, according to the program, he never conducted before 2011, much to the orchestra’s regret; they seem to be making up for the oversight, now inviting him frequently).

 

This morning’s interpretation of Bruckner‘s Seventh Symphony came across almost as a chamber work in its intimacy, upon which towers of sound found their foundations.  This was a massive cathedral complex – but like many of the best-designed cathedral complexes, there are cloisters with gardens and fountains where monks can quietly contemplate the world although surrounded by a huge stone edifice.  Are these quiet corners the foundation supporting the domes and spires, or are they respite?  A good architect leaves that question unanswered, because both components must form a coherent whole.  And that was the version of Bruckner’s seventh that Blomstedt gave us this morning.

 

To intelligently introduce  such an intimate reading of Bruckner, the concert had opened with the Metamorphoses of Richard Strauss.  This was a chamber work, for 23 strings, also intimate and tragic.  Strauss started the sketch while contemplating the destruction of his home town, Munich, and completed it after American and British bombers wiped Dresden off the map.  He infused the music with a theme from the funeral music of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, and one can picture a chamber music group sitting amid the rubble of some obliterated concert hall rehearsing (the premiere actually took place in Zurich in 1946).  “For 12 years, bestiality, ignorance, and illiteracy have ruled under the greatest criminals,” Strauss wrote in his diary.  “At the same time, the fruits of German cultural development, created over 2,000 years, were delivered over to extinction, and irreplaceable buildings and works of art were destroyed by criminal scum.”

 

The apolitical Strauss had stayed in Germany after 1933 in the name of German culture.  Strauss’ own grandchildren were Jewish, as was much of his social and professional sphere (he had even co-founded the Salzburg Festival with Max Reinhardt, who was Jewish, and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who was of Jewish ancestry and who had married back into the faith).  But as the greatest German composer of his day, the Nazis appointed Strauss president of the composers’ union in 1933 until 1935, when the Gestapo intercepted a letter he wrote to his Austrian Jewish librettist Stefan Zweig criticizing the Nazi Aryan mythos and put it on Hitler’s desk.  Hitler immediately had Strauss fired.  I suppose he was lucky.

 

That’s a lot of emotion to be wrapped up in, and reduced to, a surprisingly intimate concert.

Vienna Philharmonic, Haus für Mozart (Salzburg)

Berg, Wozzeck

Alban Berg‘s opera Wozzeck is a musical psychodrama.  But there is a plot, too.  Tonight’s performance at the Salzburg Festival fully captured the musical part, but as for the plot… not so much.

The director, William Kentridge, a South African cartoonist, openly admitted he wanted to stage the music and not the text, as the music discloses what the characters are really thinking, as opposed to the words they might sing.  So he filled the stage with clutter, projected cartoons both on a movie screen and more generally on top of the scenery, and mostly did not bother with the plot.  This was not German Regietheater, designed to shock, but actually an attempt to elucidate what the opera was about.  Unfortunately, the approach added nothing, but did cause unwanted distraction.

On the other hand, by making the plot irrelevant, Kentridge did succeed in pushing the attention fully onto the music (assuming we could ignore the staging – and actually I found I could: again, as it was not Regietheater it did not tell a different plot but rather simply provided cluttered and sometimes silly asides that matched the extremes in the music if not the text).  On this count the performance shone.  The Vienna Philharmonic in the pit is unrivaled as an opera orchestra.  And conductor Vladimir Jurowski, one of the stars of his 40-ish generation, truly understood the opera’s meaning in ways that Kentridge could not, entirely making up for Kentridge’s failings and allowing the audience to bask in the lush music.  Although atonal, Berg’s opera is not without pure music, and its contortions do allow an exploration of the psychoses that inspired the plot.

Although most of the singing characters have their personal issues to explore, these are only really developed in one: the title role Wozzeck.  So while the cast this evening managed strong portrayals despite Kentridge’s direction (and aided by Jurowski’s sensible balancing of the music), only Matthias Goerne as Wozzeck stood out, giving a full and brooding performance of the feeble-minded and disturbed soldier.

Would a concert performance have been better?  Perhaps.  But maybe it ironically took Kentridge’s absurdities to focus attention more on the music.  And if that was his intention, then maybe he succeeded after all.

Musica Aeterna Orchestra of the Perm Opera, Felsenreitschule (Salzburg)

Berg, Mahler

The “Musica Aeterna” Orchestra of the Perm Opera certainly provided the most unusual reading of Mahler‘s First Symphony (the third live performance of the work I have heard this year), paired with Berg‘s Violin Concerto in Salzburg’s Felsenreitschule.

It’s not that it was necessarily bad – it wasn’t – but they tried too hard to make it more performance art than performance.  Less of the former and more of the latter would have been nice.

Conducting was Teodor Currentzis, whom I first heard last Fall with the Camerata Salzburg and thought was quite promising.  I think he still is, but he seems to have let spectacle get the better of him.  Currentzis is a Greek who studied in Russia and whose career seems to have gotten stuck in Siberia.  He’s beginning to venture back out.  He founded this orchestra (with a Latin name – why?) in 2004 – one wonders what the Perm Opera used for an orchestra until then.

Russian orchestras have a distinctive timbre, mostly from the method of playing the wind instruments.  This works surprisingly well for Mahler.  However, this orchestra does not sound Russian at all, and instead has a rather homogenized sound, which is unfortunate.  Perhaps to make up for this lack of distinction (which I suppose he wants – it’s his orchestra, after all, and always has been!), Currentzis plays with the volume to exaggerate the dynamic range.  This produces delicate rather than robust playing for the quieter moments (even when quiet robust would be wanted) and big swells of sound to the larger moments.  The overall tone is not bad, it’s just the orchestra seems to use dynamics as a substitute for actually inflecting the music.

For the Mahler, Currentzis had the orchestra stand rather than sit (except for those instruments that have to be played sitting down).    The musicians did not seem to know what to do, fidgeting from leg to leg (or in some cases, especially the concertmaster, more than fidgeting – he kept jumping around, up and down, and almost off the stage).  Visually this became distracting.  And while there may be times (chamber orchestras in confined spaces, for example) where standing might be preferable, an hour-long Mahler symphony is not one of those times.

Tacked onto the Mahler First came an encore – the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth.  Lacking the big swells of the Mahler First, this single movement lent itself even less to the performance style and made the delicate playing sound altogether too thin (especially for the drawn-out slow movement speed).

The first half of the concert had also been for show.  Members of the orchestra started playing – or, rather, making noises on – their instruments before Currentzis and soloist Patricia Kopatchinskaja came on stage.  These noises were, I think, supposed to be aetherial noises to set a mood.  Again, they served only to showcase performance art over performance.  Currentzis and Kopatchinskaja tip-toed on stage during this nonsense (Kopatchinskaja barefoot – as is her wont – but also taking a random detour through the orchestra on her way in), and then jumped right into Berg’s concerto.

Berg’s Violin Concerto is a difficult enough work to figure out – except during the occasional lapses when Berg actually tried to write (and succeeded in writing) music.  The weird intro did not help this understanding.  At least the orchestra was sitting down for this one.

Again, it’s not that the performance was bad, it was just they tried too hard to make it performance art.  They should stick to music.

Hagen Quartet and Sol Gabetta, Mozarteum

Bach, Schostakowitsch, Schubert

Back to the Mozarteum for another chamber concert, this evening with the Hagen Quartet (for Bach and Schostakowitsch) joined by Sol Gabetta for Schubert.

Signature works made up the first half of the concert.  Contrapunctus I-IV from Bach’s Art of the Fugue opened the program – each building from Bach’s B-A-C-H signature notation.  Bach wrote these more as mathematical exercises than as musical composition, and while they have served – and been rightfully admired – as a good technical manual on fugue-writing for centuries since, they do seem rather too technical.  Tonight’s performance bore that out.

Without a break, the Quartet went directly into the Schostakowitsch String Quartet #8, which updated Bach by over two centuries, substituting the Russian composer’s own D-S-C-H musical signature.  Where Bach was technical, Schostakowitsch became emotional.  Composed in the midst of a depression in his life, the movements were varyingly somber and angry.  They borrowed some language from the composer’s Cello Concerto, which I heard in a desolate interpretation with Clemens Hagen, the cellist in this quartet, back in May.

After the intermission came something completely different – or at least somewhat different.  Schubert’s late masterwork, his String  Quintet composed shortly before his death, filled the second hour.  In the quieter parts, the musicians played almost delicately, looking backwards to capture aspects of Bach’s Art.  For the larger more raucous moments, particularly inside the Adagio, they struck up agressively, looking forward to the Schostakowitsch.  But for playing that was both robust and lyrical at the same time, we needed to wait until the final movement.

On the whole, the permance was technically fine but generally lacked the necessary lyricism.  Maybe they should not have started with Bach’s exercises, as their tone never really expanded enough thereafter.

Members of the Vienna Philharmonic, Mozarteum (Salzburg)

Strauss, Mozart, Henze, Mendelssohn

A chamber ensemble from the Vienna Philharmonic took the stage in the Mozarteum this evening for a concert in memory of Ernst Ottensamer, the orchestra’s principal clarinetist, who died suddenly of a heart attack two weeks ago aged only 61.  He himself had done so much to promote chamber music by members of the Philharmonic, particularly through leading the Wiener Virtuosen ensemble.

Tonight’s concert involved all string instruments, with only one exception.  It opened with the sextet from Richard Strauss‘ opera Capriccio, a work both lush in post-romanticism and backwards-looking in style to the 18th century.  The musicians know the opera, and answer the critical question posed therein: music or words first?  Music.

Ernst Ottensamer left two clarinetist sons – Daniel was the second principal (after him) of this orchestra (the other is the principal in Berlin).  And so it fell to Daniel Ottensamer to join the strings for Mozart’s clarinet quintet KV581.  If Strauss looked back in the first piece, Mozart looked ahead in this piece.  The composer wrote for a clarinetist friend who was experimenting with an extended clarinet that could hit an extra lower register – now more commonplace but then a novelty.  Ottensamer made the most of the full range of the music, a warm tone wafting across the room and no doubt making his father proud.  The audience reciprocated with a warm and extended applause.

Hans Werner Henze‘s The Young Törless: Fantasia for Sextet came after the intermission.  Although euqal parts modern and traditional, this distillation of film music was altogether forgettable when juxtaposed with the other items on tonight’s program.

Felix Mendelssohn‘s Octet, composed when he was only 16, showed tremendous maturity, with each of the eight instruments having much to say alternately or together.  With many moving lines, the musicians demonstrated their mastery not only in doing their own parts, but by blending their instruments’ voices into a coherent and altogether natural whole that often sounded much bigger and more important than just an octet – both from the standpoint of Mendelssohn’s skilled composition and the orchestra members’ clear comfort in playing together with the same Vienna sound.

The audience did not let them escape that easily, and so we went – as they explained – from 16-year-old Mendelssohn to 12-year-old Mozart, for a short encore.