Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Beethoven, Bach, Strauss

Salzburg’s Great Festival House has reopened after several months of supposed renovation, and the Mozarteum Orchestra greeted it with a joyous rendition of Beethoven‘s Piano Concerto #1 with Herbert Schuch at the keyboard and Riccardo Minasi on the podium.  Minasi kept the performance well-shaped and lively, while Schuch deftly handled the longer third cadenzi that Beethoven wrote as an alternative set for himself eight years after he gave the premiere of this work.  An early work by Beethoven, it showed a fullness of character (despite a smaller orchestra) while maintaining a youthful boisterousness.

Schuch added a more sedate chorale by J.S. Bach as an encore, which made a nice balance for the mood going into the intermission – he did not need a show-stopper, but just enough to allow everyone to relax from the exciting first work back in the hall.

After the intermission, StraussDon Quijote did not quite have the same impulse.  The playing was generally fine (although a surprising number of stray notes emerged), but I never got the sense that Minasi had become sufficiently comfortable with this work, as it lacked the humor and spring it needs.  The title character appears as the solo cellist, and there are two ways of taking it: either as a first-chair cellist blending into the whole (as the principal violist, tenor horn, and bass clarinet combine to portray Sancho Panza within the orchestra), or as a virtuoso main focal point of the story.  Marcus Pouget did not really do either: as a featured soloist he sat up front next to Minasi and played well within the orchestra – so perhaps trying to stand out but not really doing so.  His playing, like the orchestra’s, was fine, but it just lacked any particular drive.  (On the other hand, the soloist threesome portraying Sancho really did stand out, particularly the principal violist – with tonight’s performance, the work could have as easily been called Sancho Panza).

As for the renovations: I must admit I did not notice anything different than before.  The hall could use a good sprucing up, as it is looking a bit tired, and I had assumed that is exactly what they were doing.  But all the rips and scratches were in the same places.  The stage looked the same, too.  The woman in the seat next to me thought that maybe they had installed brighter lights in the foyer – possibly, but that would then appear to have been the extent of it.

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Salzburger Landestheater

Rossini, La Gazzetta

I have no idea what I just saw, which in this case is not a bad thing.  Even by Rossini‘s standards, his opera La Gazzetta is crazy, which is why it completely disappeared from the repertory for about 150 years (and then only in a partially cobbled-together performance since not all of the manuscript was found).  Rossini had recycled music from elsewhere into this opera and used music written for this elsewhere (notably re-purposing the overture for Cenerentola).  A proper, more-or-less complete, performing edition was not reconstructed until 2001.

The Salzburg Landestheater pulled it off the shelf this season, and in this performance I just gave up trying to understand the plot, and just enjoyed the complete farce and wonderful music.  The director, Alexandra Liedtke, is German, but I nevertheless gave her the benefit of the doubt when deciding to buy a ticket, based on the staging she did of Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann in this theater last season – that staging was actually nothing special, but it was not offensive German Regietheater and allowed for quite an intelligently reconstructed version of Offenbach’s own opera with problematic multiple versions.

Liedtke set the staging in around 1960, when the opera – or at least parts of it – was rediscovered.  That may indeed have been the only logic for the time period.  I don’t know.  Rather than trying to clarify what was happening on stage, she augmented the farce.  In the sense that the plot is already quite convoluted (I’m having a hard time even finding a good plot summary online that makes any sense at all, and the program book did not even make an attempt – it provided a simplified outline, but even that was not so simple and far more is going on that the outline simply can’t capture), this actually worked.  I do not know how much of the plot twist is actually in the original and how much she added (especially the background slapstick that kept involving main characters as well so mixed into the story line), but I suppose it did not really matter.

In the end, it was worth enjoying precisely because it was a complete farce.  Oh… and the music.  The music was great.  The cast (themselves a mishmash – all quite acceptable with no standouts and no problems, several of them having performed here before but mostly not this theater’s repertory casting) clearly had fun on stage.  The young Welshman Iwan Davies, the Landestheater’s corepetitor, got to take the podium (apparently substituting for the regular conductor, although no explanation was provided) – and he took a little bit of time to warm into the evening, starting off a bit too square for Rossini, but once warmed up the Mozarteum Orchestra took over with lighthearted playing and appropriate tone.

Camerata Salzburg, Mozarteum

L. Mozart, W. A. Mozart

The Camerata Salzburg celebrated Leopold Mozart‘s 300th birthday this evening with an amusing concert in the Mozarteum with Andreas Spering conducting.  Eclipsed in music history by his son, Wolfgang Amadé, in his day Leopold was a highly-celebrated pedagogue, conductor, and violinist – but of course his son (and daughter Nannerl) learned well

The concert opened with Symphony in B-flat, a fairly conventional work of its period.  A superlative chamber orchestra, the Camerata has a fullness of tone that magnified the work (the fact that the orchestra avoided the faddish trend of using out-of-tune period instruments certainly also helped).  Where Leopold Mozart excelled, however, was in the introduction of solo instruments to the chamber ensemble, so in the case of the second piece on the program – a concerto for two horns in E-flat – the two hornists playfully danced around the continuo (I wasn’t quite sure they were fully in tune with each other, though).

All of this playfulness, however, was nothing compared to what followed: a selection of short ditties by a ten-year-old Wolfgang Amadé, mostly snarky variations on themes by other composers that the younger Mozart made fun of in something known as his Gallimathias Musicum (Quodlibet) – a whole lot of whimsy, which the orchestra hammed up (including by walking off the stage and wandering around the hall).  Some of it was warped, some syncopated, some sung, some made to sound like bagpipes, and God Save the King performed with different instruments going along at different speeds.  Leopold must have been in equal measures proud of and horrified by his progeny.

After the intermission, we returned to Leopold, now his Serenade in D-flat.  The initial movements for the continuo alone once again reverted to standard (albeit good standard), but then followed several movements in which Leopold seems to have incorporated his concerti for natural trumpet and for tenor trombone.  Once again, the solo instrument added immensely to the work, darting in and out of the continuo and playing with conventions (neither of these instruments had reached their modern forms yet, so they were not yet standard orchestral fare).  These two solo instruments were not modern (unclear from my seat was whether they were original from the period or models) and – especially the natural trumpet – are harder to play accurately.  But aside from a few off-notes, they blended well.  (The concert materials, including on line, did not identify the soloists by name – I do not know if they might have been listed in the program, as they ran completely out of programs and I and those seated around me did not manage to find any although some people in the audience clearly had them).

Mozarteum Orchestra, Mozarteum

Haydn, Gruber, Webern, Beethoven

A fun, if a bit unorthodox, evening with the Mozarteum Orchestra in the Mozarteum’s Great Hall.  The young American conductor Joshua Weilerstein clearly found his element, bookending Haydn and Beethoven around Gruber and Webern.

The overture to Joseph Haydn’s oratorio The Creation opened the mood.  Describing “chaos,” this music was considered extreme in its day – Haydn left phrases unfinished and with chords open, reminding us that music need not go by formula.

That certainly applied on the next piece: Frankenstein!! A Pandemonium for Chansonnier and Orchestra after Nursery Rhymes by H.C. Artmann, music by H. K. Gruber.  Gruber’s output is decidedly mixed – it has its moments but usually requires severe editing that he does not do in order to identify a point.  Frankenstein!! may be the first of his works that I actually enjoyed start to finish.  To be honest, I still am not sure what to make of it, but at least this one was fun.  Gruber himself performed as the chansonnier, using his voice to obtain full special effects.  The Orchestra achieved the other effects not by abusing their instruments, as many of Gruber’s contemporaries think is necessary for “new music” but by pulling out children’s toys and playing those.  The songs were short and varied enough not to ever drag, with suspense added to hear what they’d do next.

After the intermission, the orchestra returned for Anton von Webern’s Five Pieces for Orchestra.  Weilerstein gave a short intro to remind everyone that the five-movement work lasted only four minutes in its entirety.  Therefore, he decided to perform it twice: once to allow the audience to listen to its overall color, and the second time to focus on the individual sounds.  That actually worked.  Weilerstein explained that Webern had distilled all of 20th century music into its bare minimum components, but it was all there.  Indeed it was.  Webern said so much with so little.

That said, I still found it rewarding to return to something more normal to finish the concert: Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony #4.  This symphony does not get performed often, but has long been admired by those in the know.  Its mysterious slow opening leads into a boisterous first movement, and it dances away from there.  Many people see it as lighter and more relaxed compared to its neighbors, but Weilerstein – building on Haydn, Gruber, and Webern – emphasized just how much fun this symphony can be.  This was not a tranquil reading, but one full of action and humor.

Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Felsenreitschule (Salzburg)

Tarrodi, Ravel, Satie Sibelius

The Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and Santtu-Matias Rouvali performed Sibelius‘ Second Symphony in the Felsenreitschule this evening much the way they performed Stravinsky’s Petrushka on Wednesday evening by emphasizing the dissonances and angles.  That worked well for Stravinsky, because his piece was a ballet and also because the complicated rhythms and juxtaposed instrumentations were meant to be jumpy and push the drama forward.  But for Sibelius’ symphony, these sounds need to combine to create the huge canvas, not stand out.  The result was jagged.  Individual orchestra members had wonderful lines and great talent, but the whole was less than the sum of the parts.  Rouvali could not pull it all together, and his interpretation did not convince.

It worked a bit better in the encores (more Sibelius): first the Valse Triste (again), with the same extreme tempo changes as Wednesday pulsating forwards; second Finlandia, which is a little less dissonant and has distinct sections, so the approach mostly worked (there was an odd moment where Rouvali clearly froze all movement and brought out a discordant section in the celli – and turned and winked to the audience before proceeding onwards).

The first half of the concert was unfortunately a reprise of Wednesday.  Andrea Tarrodi‘s Liguria did not get more interesting in a second hearing.  It’s not an unpleasant quarter hour, just a rather dull experience listening to crashing waves on the Ligurian coast.  If I were really sitting listening to waves on the Ligurian coast, I’d have a good book with me.

Then I pained again for pianist Alice Sara Ott, newly diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, who was supposed to perform a Liszt concerto tonight.  But as with the Grieg concerto originally scheduled on Wednesday, she substituted Ravel‘s.  So it seems her career will slowly come to a close at age 30, with this the only work left in her repertory.  And as with Tarrodi’s tone poem, it also did not get more interesting in a second hearing.  Ravel is most justly famous for his masterful orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition – no one has managed to do it better.  But that’s one work, and Ravel did not even write it.  The most famous piece he himself wrote was his tedious Bolero that shows up at pops concerts when people are having too much fun and need to be bored out of their wits.  Beyond that, his ballet Daphnis and Chloe has its moments, but he was neither a skilled orchestrator (Mussorgsky’s Pictures aside) nor an especially talented composer capable of developing an idea.  Ott’s minimalist technique (supported well by Rouvali and the orchestra) suited this concerto.  She also gave an unidentified solo encore in the same style.  (UPDATE: The concert promoter has helpfully identified it as Gnossienne 1 by Erik Satie).

Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Felsenreitschule (Salzburg)

Tarrodi, Ravel, Chopin, Stravinsky, Sibelius

The Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and its new chief conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali came to the Felsenreitschule this evening with a vividly colorful Petrushka by Igor Stravinsky.  Composed between his Firebird and Rite of Spring, tonight’s performance also demonstrated how this could serve as a bridge work between those greatly-contrasting styles, as Rouvali and the Orchestra emphasized the complexities in the score – particularly in the first and fourth scenes, set in the fairground, when we could hear all the varying activities going on at once (but never jumbled).  Although a concert performance, we could almost see the ballet.

In saying we could almost see the ballet, I am not actually referring to Rouvali’s unusual conducting style – one would think he was once a ballet dancer, with his exaggerated arm motions and (controlled) leaps around the podium on his toes.  He did this throughout the concert, not just for Petrushka, so it is his style.  But the orchestra responded well – and indeed sounded much better than the last time I heard it live (under Rouvali’s overrated predecessor Gustavo Dudamel).  

The concert’s encore, the Valse Triste by Janne Sibelius, also thrived in this telling – although the extreme tempo changes may have been a bit odd (even if they actually worked), starting off and finishing very slowly, but getting very fast, or speeding up and slowing down, to emphasize an odd rhythm.

Unfortunately, as colorful as the concert was after the intermission, so was it dull before the intermission.  The concert had opened with Liguria, a tone poem from 2012 by the Swedish composer Andrea Tarrodi.  The program notes said she was inspired by Respighi’s musical canvasses of Italian landscapes, but Respighi could make pine trees exciting – I heard none of this in her work.  The waves were clear and soothing, lapping against the coast, but the music never went anywhere.

Worse was to come: Maurice Ravel‘s Piano Concerto (the one for two hands).  I suppose it was pleasant, maybe, but there just was nothing of substance there.  For such a work, the performance matched exactly.  Soloist Alice Sara Ott appeared intent on getting as little sound out of the piano as possible, tapping her fingers lightly against the keys.  She remained audible because the orchestra never overwhelmed her – Ravel had not really given them anything to do either.  This was distilled essence of music.  Ott’s encore, Frederic Chopin‘s posthumous Nocturne #20, showed more of the same technique from Ott, if slightly more of value from the composer.

Of course, there was a tragic subtext.  Ott was supposed to perform Grieg’s concerto this evening.  But late last year she felt unwell and went to have medical tests done.  Earlier this month she got the results: multiple sclerosis.  At 30 years old, she now must contemplate the end of her career.  I guess the insubstantial Ravel work is far less grueling than Grieg’s showpiece.  This is sad and I feel for her.  She has announced that medical breakthroughs mean she will fight the disease, and I wish her well and many more years in front of a keyboard.

Stadler Quartet, Mozarteum Viennese Hall

Weinberg, Woodborne

A fantastic chamber concert by the Stadler Quartet in the Mozarteum’s Viennese Hall this evening was not quite the one advertised.  The second violinist got very ill earlier this month – he has recovered, but with a cut in rehearsal time they decided to dispense with a Beethoven quartet and replace it with a trio (scored for violin, viola, and cello).  After that, they just reorganized the concert order completely.  And as much as I love Beethoven, the final result was an even bigger treat.

Moishe Weinberg was one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century – yet remains virtually unknown.  I only discovered him online about four years ago.  His works are almost never programmed – and if I see anything by him in a program, and I can physically get there, then I intend to go.  His String Quartet #8 was already scheduled this evening (what attracted me to the concert in the first place), but his Trio for violin, viola, and cello was the late addition.  The trio (composed in 1950) and the quartet (composed in 1959) made up the first half of the concert.  As an added bonus, the rising star conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla apparently has the same opinion of Weinberg as I do and so she came all the way to Salzburg just for this concert – and was invited on stage to introduce the composer (she apparently discovered him for the first time five years ago – about a year before I did) and announced she will be bringing some of his orchestral works to Salzburg soon.  What a treat that will be.

I have described Weinberg’s sad story before – born  and educated in Warsaw, he fled east when Germany invaded Poland in 1939.  The Germans murdered his entire family.  He got stuck in the Soviet Union (which, allied with Nazi Germany, had invaded Poland from the other direction), married the daughter of Solomon Mikhoels and then the Russians murdered her family.  He himself was purged but saved from execution by the intervention of Dmitri Schostakowitsch, who had become his mentor.  Russian anti-Semitism meant his music was rarely performed even in the Soviet Union, but for those who knew, they knew.

His complex music exists on many levels.  The undertone of the two works this evening was immense sadness.  But above it came dancing and humor and survival.  The techniques varied, keeping the works fresh and evolving, with a lot going on.  These are works worth hearing over and over, and each hearing would reveal something new – of course, I’ve only heard them now once.  The Stadler Quartet indicated it wants to perform all of Weinberg’s seventeen quartets this year alone (the 100th anniversary of his birth comes in December).  I have a lot to look forward to (hopefully they won’t shove all the concerts into October when I am in the US).

After the intermission came the world premiere of the String Quartet #2 – The Eternal Reciprocity of Tears – by South African composer Shane Woodborne.  Woodborne made this quartet a wordless setting of four poems by Wilfred Owen, which Owen composed about his experience in the First World War while convalescing from having been wounded on the front.  After regaining health, he went back to the front where he was killed one week before the end of the war, aged only 25.  Woodborne’s quartet captured the tragedy – and although employing techniques like Weinberg’s dances, these were not happy ones but illustrated the activity and trauma of war.  The Stadler Quartet has probably been practicing this piece the longest (since it was completed last year) and put their hearts into it, suitably raising the dead.  In the audience for the concert, Woodborne also had the opportunity to introduce the work before the performance, and received enthusiastic applause together with the Stadler Quartet at the evening’s end.

North German Radio Radio Philharmonic, Felsenreitschule (Salzburg)

Elgar, Korngold, Kreisler, Vaughan Williams, Händel

Tonight’s performance in the Felsenreitschule of the oddly-named North German Radio Radio Philharmonic proved altogether more satisfying than last night.

Violinist Arabella Steinbacher returned this evening with Korngold‘s violin concerto, which besides having far more to say than Brahms’ dull offering last night also highlighted both of her main strengths: warm melodic lines and complex rich fullness of body.  The general progression of the work moves from the first towards the second, a combination of styles many violinists cannot accomplish but Steinbacher can.  Once again, however, her sound, though not small, was also not big, but conductor Andrew Manze ensured the orchestra maintained the proper balance, never overwhelming her and indeed blending and augmenting with her tones.  This is a good partnership.

She played the same encore as last night – the recitativo and scherzo by Kreisler – but it succeeded even more coming as it did after the Korngold.  It also started with the warm lines before becoming more active, echoing and magnifying the Korngold work, to send us even more satisfied into the break.

The concert had opened with Elgar‘s seldom heard concert overture Froissart, which represented an attempt to use late 19th-century musical language to harken back to the 13th.  It had its moments, but could have used some serious editing which might have also cleared up just what it was trying to do (the orchestra also seemed unclear and got lost a couple of times).  Indeed, Elgar himself apparently thought the same when he looked back at it years later, but decided not to fix it.  Now I’ve heard it.

Vaughan Williams‘s Symphony #5 followed the break, and although three times longer than the Elgar work, and also a somewhat emotive nostalgic work, it had a point, contained wonderful touches and nuances that kept the listener interested, and was properly edited.  Completed at the hight of the Second World War, it was sad but hopeful, and Manze and the orchestra gave a skilled presentation with great understanding – essentially the opposite of the Elgar at the start of the concert.

A warmer applause – bigger than last night – was well-earned, and in return they treated us to two excerpts from Händel‘s Music for the Royal Fireworks.  I must also say that Händel’s monumental works come across far better when arranged for modern orchestras and forces Händel would have gladly had if they had existed in his age – using piddly baroque ensembles with out-of-tune instruments doesn’t really cut it any more (at least not for these grand showcases).

North German Radio Radio Philharmonic, Felsenreitschule (Salzburg)

Brahms, Kreisler, Mendelssohn, Händel

The North German Radio Radio Philharmonic has come to the Felsenreitschule in Salzburg this week.  That sentence apparently does not have a typo. The orchestra indeed has “radio” twice in its name.  How bizarre.  Must be a German attempt at humor.

I actually was only planning on going to their concert tomorrow, but ended up with this ticket unexpectedly: I’ll miss the Luxemburg Philharmonic in March while I am in London, and was wondering what to do with that ticket, when the concert promoter got in touch with me the same day entirely by chance and asked if I might happen to be willing to exchange my ticket for that concert for something else (during maintenance work in the Felsenreitschule, the seat for which I had a ticket had been removed and replaced with a wheelchair spot).  So this was the exchange.  Solved their problem and mine.

That said, there was a reason I had not planned on going tonight: the first half of the program contained a single work, the Violin Concerto by Brahms.  Some anonymous wit had apparently once called this less a “concerto for orchestra and violin” and more a “concerto for orchestra versus violin.”  Except that this description still makes it sound too exciting.  It’s dull.  Really dull (except for the oboe, who gets some nice melodies).

Soloist Arabella Steinbacher gave it a brave shot.  She had a lush warm tone, with actually a lot of color and and substance – like a complex Georgian red wine.  It worked best during the quieter passages, since the size of her sound was not especially large.  The orchestra’s chief conductor Andrew Manze had everything under control, however, never allowing the orchestra to overwhelm her and keeping perfect balance.  But did I mention the concerto is dull?

Steinbacher came back out for a solo encore, a little recitativo and scherzo by Fritz Kreisler which allowed her to show off her talent. Another bottle of fine Georgian wine from the cellar.

After the intermission, the Orchestra returned for a spirited Mendelssohn Symphony #4, his colorful “Italian” landscape.  The orchestra also has a nice warm sound.  But it’s not a Georgian red wine.  It might be a German white.  The playing was roundly good, but not especially distinctive and somewhat homogeneous. Two excerpts from Händel’s Water Music followed similarly.  Fun stuff – not dull.  Next time they might think of pairing Mendelssohn’s far better violin concerto with this symphony, rather than Brahms’ – the Mendelssohn would also be appropriate for Steinbacher’s tone.  Poor choice this evening.

Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Haus für Mozart (Salzburg)

Haydn, Gruber, Mahler, Grieg

This evening’s concert by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and Juanjo Mena in Salzburg’s Haus für Mozart confirmed my impression yesterday, but exceeded the result.  First, the musical selection was better tonight.  Second, I had a seat with passable acoustics.  And third, I finally did not have to stifle a cough, so I was more comfortable (still a little congested, but not much of an issue any more).

Joseph Haydn‘s trumpet concerto opened the concert, again with Håkan Hardenberger as soloist.  This was the first modern trumpet concerto – the keyed trumpet had just been invented, allowing a trumpet to have the full range of notes, and Haydn was the first to write for it, combining his usual good humor with a demonstration of the new instrument’s capabilities.  Hardenberger plays everything idiomatically, and here was no exception, a warm tone throughout.

We then switched gears entirely for a different type of trumpet concerto: H. K. Gruber‘s Three MOB Pieces, originally for jazz septet here rescored for trumpet and orchestra in a version the composer did for Hardenberger himself several years back.  Gruber has never explained what “MOB” stands for (he has implied but not confirmed “mobility”).  They are American big-band-inspired works, and in this performing version a nice showpiece for Hardenberger (actually three different showpieces, performed on three different trumpets).  Not really my thing, and unclear if this is appropriate music for an orchestral concert, but it allowed a display of virtuosity and was not as pointless as the Wallin concerto last night.

After the break came another first symphony – not Brahms, as we had last night, but Gustav Mahler.  Salzburg is the location of the (likely apocryphal) story in which Brahms complained to Mahler while walking along the Salzach River that after Beethoven had said everything there was to be said with music, it was now impossible to write anything new.  Mahler pointed out at the river and said: “Look, Maestro!  Here comes the last wave!”  So Brahms’ first symphony was a mature work which said nothing new (water under the bridge, as it were).  Mahler’s was a youthful work which marked the next wave in the flowing river.

With this much to work with, Mena and the Bergen Philharmonic excelled, producing a full, emotional, and ultimately exuberant performance.  This orchestra once again demonstrated its complete sound, with strong solo lines magnifying the full impact.  Mena again looked like he was molding clay, but this was a much higher-quality clay, and the life he breathed into it showed.  The symphony indeed came alive.  The audience reception agreed, with a much bigger applause than last night (they earned it last night, but the music was less compelling – tonight just went in total to the next level).  Two additional encores from Edvard Grieg‘s incidental music to Peer Gynt rounded off the performance (one was “Morning;” the other I can’t quite remember what the segment is) with more enthusiastic responses and smiles all around.

My seat this evening was up top on the side – I’ve actually sat in almost the equivalent seat on the other side before, and thought it was OK, so now I know where to sit in this hall.  Sitting over the orchestra, the sound came straight up to me.  I have had other seats up top before too, which were OK.  Now I realize where the sound goes in this hall: right to the ceiling – from the other seats I’ve been in lower down, it has sounded like it was trapped in a box.  Given that the other two halls in the Festival complex have good acoustics, one wonders how they got this one so wrong.  And the name is stupid too, as I’ve remarked before.  Why “House for Mozart” (not to be confused with “Mozart’s House” and “Mozart’s Birth House” both open as museums in Salzburg)?  Why not “Mozart Hall” – or, given the number of things named for Mozart already in this town, why not name it after someone else?  Or since there is a “Great Festival House” next door, even the prosaic “Little Festival House” would even work.  At any rate, looking through the windows of the Great Festival House, the renovations are well underway and the sooner we get concerts back there the better.  Maybe they can rip this hall out next year (ahead of the Festival’s 100th anniversary) and replace it with a new hall with decent acoustics.

Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Haus für Mozart (Salzburg)

Wagner, Wallin, Brahms, Grieg

The Bergen Philharmonic had not yet started its season when I was staying across the street from its home at the end of last Summer. No worries, they’ve come to me, with guest conductor Juanjo Mena and the incomparable Håkan Hardenberger on the trumpet(s).

I probably would not have chosen this concert, but it was part of my Wednesday subscription series (tomorrow is a more promising program, and I’ll go back for that).  At least it began and ended well, and even the long slog through the middle was well-performed.  This orchestra has a wonderfully complete lyrical sound, with solo lines to augment the point (but never outshine the whole).  Particularly soulful solos came from the concertmistress (who I think went to Exeter several years before I did), oboe, and principal horn.  Mena had a wonderful sense of sound-shaping, as though forming clay and breathing life into it.

Wagner‘s Flying Dutchman was of course set on the Norwegian coast, so I suppose it was fitting to open the set with the overture, a study in character contrasts as performed here.  The excitement vanished in a hurry, however, for Rolf Wallin‘s Trumpet Concerto, The Fisher King.  I suppose a legend about a wounded king sitting on the banks of a river waiting for fish to bite is never going to be the stuff of high drama (although it could be mystical – Wolfram von Eschenbach’s version had the story evolve into Amfortas, leading to Wagner’s portrayal in Parsifal).  Wallin’s music also just sat there, throbbing along, periodically interrupted by a spasm in the orchestra, and with virtuosity throughout by Hardenberger (for whom Wallin wrote this piece in 2011).  Wallin designated it a “trumpet” concerto, but he should have called it a “trumpets” concerto, as it required two (not an issue for the versatile Hardenberger).

Ironically, Wallin’s concerto set up the second half of the concert well: the first symphony by Johannes Brahms.  The great conductor Hans von Bülow referred to this as “Beethoven’s Tenth.”  Brahms understood that as a compliment, but in reality it was an indication of how unoriginal Brahms was, since coming half a century after Beethoven’s Ninth, the music really should have progressed (indeed, in many respects, Brahms regressed).  Brahms mastered symphonic technique, but just did not add anything (those few emotional works when he dropped his inhibitions, such as his Requiem and a handful of shorter pieces, demonstrated that Brahms could do original, he just usually did not want to).  Like the Wallin concerto, this opened with a throbbing pulsating rhythm, and then just moved along (certainly more musical than Wallin, and the orchestra had enough moments to shine with it, but… Brahms).

Bergen-born Edvard Grieg had been the music director of this orchestra in the 1880s, and so we naturally got two encores excerpted from his incidental music for Peer Gynt – “Åse’s death” and “In the hall of the mountain king” – the first with sumptuous lush strings, the second full of enthusiasm and smiles all around.

My lingering cough is now (mostly) better, but the acoustics in the Haus für Mozart are not.  This evening I sat downstairs, center – I don’t remember sitting there before either, but it did not help.  Tomorrow I’ll be up top, where I have been before and have found it reasonable, so maybe it’s only really passable all the way up there.  I’ll confirm tomorrow.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Haus für Mozart

Berlioz, Tschaikowsky

The music of Berlioz is worth getting up early for on a Sunday.  That said, I nearly did not – a cough lingering from a cold earlier this month made me anxious about attending a concert, and has been interrupting my sleep, so I thought I’d make the call this morning.  Then I overslept and did not think: only had time to race into town (and I managed to stifle my cough, at least during the parts when the orchestra was playing). 

I’m glad I did.  I did not renew my Mozarteum Orchestra subscriptions this year (neither Sunday nor Thursday series) because there were concerts in both that really did not interest me, so instead I decided it was better to get two mix-and-match subscriptions with the Mozarteum Foundation, throwing in those orchestra concerts that most appealed.  This was one.  Berlioz does not get performed frequently enough (beyond the Symphonie Fantastique) – he was quite innovative for his day, and indeed his consistently good output puts every other French composer to shame.  He brings a sense of drama and passion to music, sounding perhaps a tad warped.  Today’s selections included Harold in Italy (with solo viola – originally written on commission for Paganini, who wanted to try out a new viola; Paganini rejected the score, but upon hearing it performed several years later broke down in tears, dragged Berlioz back on stage, and wrote Berlioz a large check) and the overture to Le Cousaire, although it was never quite clear what it was an overture to (usually assumed to be a play by Byron, but it was actual the overture’s third title added after several performances, none connected with Byron’s play).   Actually,  despite its title suggesting Byron, Harold in Italy is not a setting of Byron, but a setting of Berlioz’ own travels in Italy reading Byron.  In other words, a lot of Berlioz’ drama does not actually dramatize anything – it’s drama for drama’s sake without a plot.  This fact contributes to what makes Berlioz so bizzarre.

Guest conductor Antony Walker (an Australian who leads the Pittsburgh Opera) clearly understood and channeled this composer – Berlioz was very touchy about letting others conduct his music, but I think he would have been most satisfied this morning – with the orchestra showing great comfort and enthusiasm.  For Harold in Italy, local star violist Veronika Hagen joined in idiomatically and warmly.

The concert ended with Tschaikowsky, but not a standard one of his works – rather his Francesca da Rimini tone poem (written after returning from Bayreuth, influenced by Wagner’s operas and Liszt’s tone poems).  There is a plot here, but Walker and the Mozarteum Orchestra captured the Berlioz-like drama, making it feel like a natural progression.

The Great Festival House is undergoing renovations this winter, so concerts have found other venues.  Today’s concert with the Mozarteum Orchestra moved next door to the stupidly-named House for Mozart (although more than Mozart gets performed there, and it has no connection to Mozart other than the name – one wonders why this venue in the Salzburg Festival complex could not have just been named the “Mozart Hall” if they really wanted to name yet another thing in Salzburg after the composer).  The hall also does not have great acoustics – I have sat in different seats before, and then today got to hear from two different vantage points (running late, I stood in the standing room in the back before the intermission as there was no way to get to my seat when I arrived; and then my seat was the very first one over the stage on the first balcony, with the poorly-designed layout of the hall meaning I essentially had to be the first person to take my seat or else have to climb over everyone else).

Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Wagner, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert

The Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra and Andrés Orozco-Estrada remained in Salzburg to finish their three-day visit to the Great Festival House with a different program than Wednesday.  The orchestra definitely sounds much better than it did on its last visit two years ago, in tone and accuracy (and without the strange feedback-like sounds that plagued its brass then).  Sandwiched around the Mozarteum Orchestra concert last night, though, I could not help but notice the contrast – the local orchestra is that much warmer and full of feel for the music, while the Frankfurters remain a but more industrial.

Tonight’s concert opened with the full orchestra on stage for the Overture to Wagner‘s Tannhäuser – big and workmanlike in sound. This led to an immediate contrast: only a chamber group from the orchestra remained on stage for Mozart‘s Piano Concerto #23, with soloist Rafał Blechacz.  As he demonstrated with the Chopin concerto on Wednesday, Blechacz does not have a big tone, but rather lets his light fingers set glistening tones into motion, so having a chamber orchestra maintained balance.  Still, it felt a tad thin. (A movement from a Beethoven piano sonata, provided as an encore, showed humor, but also could have been bigger.)

Schubert‘s Great C Major Symphony (normally given the standard #9, although correctly #8 as it appeared in tonight’s program book since Schubert never actually wrote a #7 and a symphony that never existed was given that number on speculation that it may have existed).  The orchestra size here split the difference between the two pre-intermission pieces.  This also made it a little small and thin for this work, but it may have been more appropriate for Orozco-Estrada’s interpretation: he was off to the races, taking the whole thing much faster than usual.  Where the symphony is in many ways a bridge from Beethoven to Bruckner, at this speed it became more “classical” in approach, and Orozco-Estrada emphasized the dancing melodies (with periodic tutti interjections at forte).  Like his unusual Dvořák 9 on Wednesday, this non-standard interpretation was not unconvincing.  I’m not sure I prefer it this way – it’s a big symphony and deserves to be drawn out in full color – but I was happy to hear new aspects to this piece of standard repertory.  The orchestra responded with more emotion too, which was welcome.

To get into the Christmas spirit, Orozco-Estrada thought an encore was appropriate, and that the audience should sing along.  He did not say what it was – only that we’d know as soon as we heard it (I half expected Stille Nacht, composed 200 years ago in Salzburg).  Except it wasn’t so familiar, and only a smattering of the audience seemed to know the words (no one near me managed to sing along).  The Kulturvereinigung has kindly identified it as the Sanctus (“Heilig, heilig, heilig”) from the German Mass by Schubert.  So that didn’t work so well.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Mozarteum

Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn

Drumroll, please: the three pieces guest conductor Trevor Pinnock put on the Mozarteum Orchestra‘s program tonight all shared one thing in common: a prominent opening for the tympani.  This was an elegant concert, and another good demonstration of why it is easy to become fond of this intelligent little provincial orchestra, with its warm and engaging sound.

I’ll go back to the visting Frankfurters in the Great Festival House tomorrow night, but broke up their set with a trip over the Salzach to the Mozarteum this evening.  The local orchestra plays with far more character and musical feel, and that comes across more so when able to contrast directly with the larger German orchestra on alternate nights.

The overture to Mozart‘s Clemenza di Tito got the fun started in a lively manner.  Then soloist Vilde Frang came on to perform Beethoven‘s Violin Concerto.  Her sound was equally warm as the orchestra’s but had a slight bitter edge that thrust the piece forward.  So where the orchestra gave a boisterous and happy reading, she added just the right touch of melancholy (not too much, just enough to keep things dramatic).

For an encore, she provided solo variations on the Austrian Imperial Hymn, composed by Haydn (subsequently stolen by the Germans, leaving us instead with a silly ditty chosen because it was – wrongly – attributed to Mozart; let the Germans get their own anthem and we really need to claim ours back).

The concert concluded with more Haydn: his Symphony #103 – part of a series the composer wrote in London and where he experimented freely.  Haydn’s flaunting of convention also played into this orchestra’s strength, as they clearly had fun (not only the tympanist, who enjoyed his prominent role this evening).  My only quibble is that the Beethoven concerto cleary went even further than the Haydn symphony, so reversing those two works in the program would have made for a more fulfilling progression.  Instead, the Haydn represented a step back following the Beethoven, rather than the unconventional work it was for its day.

Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Chopin, Dvořák

The Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra has returned to Salzburg’s Great Festival House for a set, under the baton of its chief conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada.  The large hall was packed – looked to be completely sold out.

Normally there is only so much Chopin I can tolerate at any one sitting, so I came in a little apprehensive about his first piano concerto taking up the entire first half of the program (which is part of my subscription package).  I mostly know Chopin’s works for solo piano, which don’t really do it for me, so feared a long concerto might be worse.  However, hearing this work for the first time I realized that adding an orchestra gave the music more depth and variety (the longer parts for solo or with limited orchestra were naturally less interesting).  There was a certain swing to this performance, with Rafał Blechacz, a young Pole, at the keyboard.  He produced a glistening tone, fingers tapping lightly as though on top of the water, letting the ripples flow softly outwards.  The orchestra supported this approach.  And while it seemed a more appropriate piece for a Sunday matinee and not a Wednesday evening concert, somewhat sedate and subtle, it worked.  While I am not likely to go out of my way to hear this concerto again, I would not now seek to avoid it either.

As if to prove a point, though, Blechacz came out with an encore that sounded like a solo Chopin work, and though nothing was missing from his playing, the absence of the orchestra was notable.

After the intermission, the orchestra and Orozco-Estrada gave a somewhat unusual interpretation of Dvořák‘s Ninth Symphony.  Orozco-Estrada decided to emphasize some of the off-kilter syncopation by playing around quite drastically with tempi – faster or slower, speeding up and slowing down.   This approach was not unconvincing (it perhaps made the piece more American and less Czech in inspiration – the piece has elements of both), however it left instruments too often out of time with each other, which I don’t believe was the intent.

The orchestra opened the concert with a somewhat muddy tone, but warmed and became clearer throughout, particularly as the Dvořák symphony progressed (the encore, another Dvořák movement for strings only from his Serenade for Strings, was more homogenized).  All in all, this group sounded much better than the last time I heard them here about two years ago, this time playing with more emotion and color, particularly the improved brass.  Last time I suspected they had not done a proper soundcheck in the hall, but this time the balance worked well.

West German Radio Symphony Orchestra of Cologne, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Schumann, Bach, Bruckner, Mozart

We got more from the West German Radio Symphony Orchestra this evening in Salzburg’s Great Festival House, again with Jukka-Pekka Saraste conducting and Alban Gerhardt as cello soloist.

Today’s cello concerto again was less standard in the repertory: Robert Schumann‘s, which had its premiere about four years after the composer’s death.  I must say that as I get older I find Schumann less and less interesting.  His best works (from songs to symphonies to scenes from Goethe’s Faust) can be fine (indeed, I still enjoy a good performance of them) – a cross between Schubert and Mendelssohn – but the lesser ones are… lesser (although even his piano concerto, part of the standard repertory, is just an exercise in abject tedium).  In recent years, whenever I hear a Schumann piece on a program that I am not already familiar with, I come away unimpressed (not Schubert and Mendelssohn, but rather more like Brahms, who with precious few exceptions was rarely inspired nor inspiring).

Schumann’s cello concerto isn’t so bad, but I’m not sure he had anything to say.  On the other hand, Gerhardt, as soloist, definitely had something to say, and in a funny way Schumann’s concerto gave him the platform he needed.  This is not as complex a work – neither emotionally nor technically – as Schostakowitsch’s offering performed last night, but did not have to be to highlight Gerhardt’s expansive lower registers, the undertones carrying the entire orchestra.

Thankfully, Gerhardt also gave us a long solo encore – a work by Johann Sebastian Bach – if not as technically complicated as yesterday’s encore (just as the main concerto was not), at least something which allowed Gerhardt to fill the large hall with his warming tones.

After the break came Anton Bruckner‘s Sixth Symphony (another work that had to wait until after the composer’s death before Gustav Mahler and the Vienna Philharmonic gave its premiere).  Saraste’s interpretation was curious, building up tension and then releasing, but doing so in different ways throughout by emphasizing certain lines.  It was not consistent – but that was part of the point, or it would have been dull.  This was not (in general) dull, the pulsating underlines that appear throughout the work keeping it moving.  But because he was playing around with balance and emphasis, the orchestra needed to know what to expect, and they did not always seem to know, leaving a number of botched lines – too loud, or too soft, or just confused and trying to adjust mid-note.  So it succeeded in part and failed in part.

It was a full-sized orchestra, but not augmented for the Bruckner (their sound was big enough, but again it was a question of balance).  But having such a full orchestra on stage served another purpose: the encore, the overture to Wolfgang Amadé Mozart‘s Figaro.  What fun to hear this piece in full color, and not with a reduced opera orchestra sunk into a pit.

Tomorrow’s concert repeats tonight’s program, so just these two for me.

West German Radio Symphony Orchestra of Cologne, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Schostakowitsch, Rostropovich, Beethoven, Schubert

The West German Radio Symphony Orchestra of Cologne has come to Salzburg for a set this week, with its Chief Conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste and cellist Alban Gerhardt.  This evening’s opener packed the Great Festival House, and for good reason.

Schostakowitsch wrote two cello concerti for his friend Mstislav Rostropovich, of which the second – on tonight’s program – is less-often performed, but seemed ideally-suited for Gerhardt.  Gerhardt has a gorgeous lower register that can warm up even a large hall, and the opening movement – a deep and pensive largo – showed off Gerhardt’s tone.  Against this, the orchestra (particularly interjections by the percussion, but also the winds and upper strings) insert jagged edges.  While the cello tries to relax, the surrounding music becomes increasingly nervous.  This leads to two further lyrical movements, the third with the cello waxing nostalgic, but still the orchestral pokes keep everything unsettled, which the cello has to swat away.  When the cello returns at the end to its warmth, the world around it remains uncertain.  Schostakowitsch certainly had his neuroses, and this combination of Gerhardt with the orchestra, shaped by Saraste, played them out to perfection.

Gerhardt then offered a showier encore – itself a somewhat neurotic cello piece by Rostropovich himself – in which he could demonstrate his dexterity across diverse techniques.

The nervousness carried over to the second half of the concert, where it probably did not belong.  Saraste took the first movement of Beethoven‘s Symphony #3 at breakneck speed, which did not allow its wonderful sonorities (including stark dissonances that resolve) to breath.  The rest of the symphony remained within the realm of normal tempi, but the neurotic start had already colored the mood.  It was a fun reading, Beethoven’s genius shining through in a post-Schostakowitsch world, with some fine orchestral playing (nice oboe!) but it did not necessarily convince.  A dancing encore by Schubert (the scherzo from his Symphony #6) relaxed the mood so we did not have to go home paranoid.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Mozarteum

Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Schoenberg

The Mozarteum Orchestra‘s concert tonight in the Mozarteum featured a little night music, but none of it by Mozart – rather a much more interesting program of Mendelssohn, Berlioz, and Schoenberg under the baton of Leopold Hager (a native Salzburger, who had served as chief conductor of this orchestra from 1969-1981).

The Overture and some excerpts from Mendelssohn’s incidental music to A Midsummernight’s Dream made for a welcome opening.  In reality, this is not really night music, but Shakespearean comedy, for which Mendelssohn captured the charm in notes, and the orchestra tonight brought out the full color.  It might have been nice to have the complete set of incidental music.

Real night music came next, with Summer Nights, a song cycle by Berlioz (with soprano Juliane Banse joining Hager and the Mozarteum Orchestra).  These songs individually were pensive laments, but collectively the cycle did not work so well – the mood was too similar and did not vary (as, say, Schubert or Mahler song cycles might, even when they are also pensively lamenting), and this gave more drag than drive.  Banse’s voice was pleasant when contained, and large enough to project clearly and express emotion, but when projecting it sometimes turned a tad sour, more sour than the lamenting might justify.

The real treat of the evening came after the intermission, with Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night in the version the composer himself made for string orchestra.  This version, in my opinion, works better than the original sextet, allowing thicker sonorities and far more emotion.  Although a more than half-hour instrumental setting of a single poem, Schoenberg takes the listener through an emotional ride, into the deepest thoughts and souls of the two protagonists.  The Mozarteum Orchestra strings truly demonstrated their worth this evening, with Hager’s shaping, to draw out the little ravishing details for a heartfelt interpretation – not only telling the story but conveying its deep sympathetic meaning without uttering a word.