Vienna Philharmonic, Musikverein

Dvořák, Strauss, Stravinsky

The Vienna Philharmonic added some seats on stage for this afternoon’s concert, and even sitting amidst the percussion (albeit thankfully not next to a gong, as I once found myself a few years ago) it is hard to resist hearing this orchestra in the Musikverein with Mariss Jansons on the podium… indeed, getting to watch him from the orchestra’s perspective (when he was not blocked out by a music stand or a percussionist).  

On the program was a strange mix of works I did not necessarily understand why they went together: Dvořák‘s Eighth Symphony, Richard StraussDeath and Transfiguration, and the suite from Stravinsky‘s ballet The Firebird.  As Jansons explained in a talk in Salzburg last summer, sometimes parts of the same concert don’t have to go together, but even by that standard this combination was odd.  Perhaps the one linkage here was some truly fine playing.

The Dvořák symphony came out dancing, full as it is with Czech folk dances.  Jansons maintained a certain tension, which just gave the exuberant bits all the more sway.  This may have anticipated a ballet suite later in the concert, but folk dances and ballet are still two different genres, so maybe not.

If the Strauss tone poem after intermission danced, it was with death.  This set an altogether different mood, and at one point close to the end the orchestra sent a cold chill through the room.  Somehow, through force of music, we all emerged on the other side, shivering in our seats but transfigured.

Jansons took a much more humorous approach with Stravinsky’s Firebird suite.  This is fun music, with a lot happening despite a somewhat reduced orchestra.  A twinkle in Jansons’ eyes made sure the orchestra kept the music upbeat (they not only smiled back at Jansons, but smirked knowingly at each other – particularly the bemused percussionists around me), until the lullaby section, which grew somewhat dark before a triumphant finale.  Shades of Death and Transfiguration earlier in the concert?  Or just masterful playing?

This orchestra reigns.  It’s not always technically the best, but it has a feel for music like no other orchestra.  And Jansons on the podium brings out some of its finest moments.  Although the balance was a bit off from my seat in the percussion, I could feel the magic in the Musikverein’s Golden Hall.  The audience felt it too, with thundering applause and a rare standing ovation (we are spoiled by this orchestra, so it doesn’t happen often).  The applause did not stop even after the orchestra finally left the stage, and Jansons had to return for not one but two individual curtain calls.  I cannot remember that happening before.

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Leipzig Gewandhausorchester, Musikverein (Vienna)

Dvořák, Smetana

When the post of Kapellmeister opened unexpectedly in Leipzig last year, the Gewandhaus Orchestra moved quickly to secure Andrís Nelsons, one of the most dynamic conductors of the next generation (he turns 40 next year).  Nelsons, who had only shortly before taken up his post as music director in Boston, where he has the unenviable task of rebuilding the Boston Symphony Orchestra from its long years of slow decay, would have been silly not to take on this new opportunity, even if it will leave him a bit overstretched.  

Nelsons and the Gewandhaus Orchestra came to Vienna for the first time since the new appointment was announced, and clearly they were meant for each other (Nelsons’ wife, Kristīne Opolais, shouldn’t be jealous; she was tonight’s soloist).

The Orchestra has a warm and creamy sound, but which is never muddled.  Instead, it displays a bright passion and nuance, which directly responds to Nelsons’ own demonstrative conducting technique.  He has become somehow even more expressive as he gets older, contorting his body as he used to, but honing his method of drawing concepts and hidden thoughts out of the instruments (he’s also grown a beard, possibly to compensate for his rapidly receding hairline – he’s now gone half-bald).

Tonight’s concert showcased the music of Antonín Dvořák (with one brief selection by Bedřich Smetana), in particular the Ninth Symphony (“From the New World”).  This is a popular symphony for a reason – the music is fantastic and varied – but over-performed to the point that it has become generally trite.  Nelsons and the Leipzigers made it special.  They captured the excitement of the new, as it indeed was in 1893, even in the quiet passages which they played with delicacy but confidence.   This performance never dragged, indeed some fascinating aspects lurked around every corner and Nelsons and his team found and uncovered all of them (I’ll forgive one wayward blatt in the horns towards the end), one pleasant surprise after another when there really shouldn’t be any more suprises in this symphony.

The other orchestral selections (the concert overture Othello, the Polonaise from the opera Rusalka, and as an encore a Slavonic Dance) demonstrated the same overwhelming passion and swing.  But when the moments arose for quiet solos, the orchestra dropped its volume without sacrificing its stride, to give just the right amount of support and ambience to the soloist.  This was therefore most helpful during the soprano vocals by Opolais, who sang two excerpts from Rusalka, another Dvořák song, and a selection from Smetana’s opera Dalibor.  Her voice also proved the right match for this orchestra: strong, confident, and warm into the night.

Wiener Virtuosen, Musikverein Brahms Hall

Boccherini, Schubert, Mozart, Françaix

The Wiener Virtuosen, musicians from the Philharmonic, brought playful chamber music surrounding moodier songs to the Musikverein’s small Brahms Hall this evening.  

Luigi Boccherini‘s Pastorale, Grave, e Fandango established a pleasant atmosphere, one dance-like melody building on the next, until reaching the fadango, when Boccherini let loose to have the chamber ensemble imitate a baroque guitar, moving the plucking and the thumping and the riffs from one instrument to the next.  The audience practically jumped out of its seats to dance along.  Pass the castinets!

Luca Pisaroni, a protege (and subsequently also son-in-law) of Thomas Hampson joined the ensemble for a series of songs by Franz Schubert, orchestrated variously by Johannes Brahms, Anton von Webern, Max Reger, and Felix Mottl.  The orchestrations served to add extra warmth and color to the music, in ways that a piano could not do, drawing out the emotion further, especially considering Pisaroni’s own voice was full and round, amply supported by a deep baritone.  While Pisaroni did not necessarily wear all of his emotions on his sleeve (in contrast, say, to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the master of this Fach), these settings allowed the songs to speak clearly for themselves: MemnonIhr BildAn die MusikDer Tod und das MädchenAn Schwager KronosLitanei auf das Fest Allerseelen, and finally Erlkönig.

While Pisaroni did have a gorgeous deep baritone, his voice unfortunately did bottom out, lacking a true bass.  This became exposed in the second half of the concert with songs composed by Wolfgang Amadé Mozart for bass vocalist: Mentre ti lascio, o figliaCosì dunque tradisci… aspri rimorsi atroci (written for the bass who premiered the role of Osmin in Entführung), and Per questa bella mano (written for the bass who premiered Sarastro in Zauberflöte).  The baritone registers were fine – the bass not so much (Pisaroni hit the deep notes, just weakly).  More Schubert might have helped.  Nevertheless, he displayed the talent and presence that had attracted Hampson’s attention – and Hampson’s Liederabende are always elegant affairs.

The concert concluded with a more peculiar work by Jean Françaix, a French composer who obviously drew inspiration from Vienna for his Octet for Clarinet, Horn, Bassoon, two Violins, Viola, Cello, and Bass (premiered in this hall in 1972).  The program notes said the composer had sought to update Schubert in a modern idiom.  I honestly heard very little Schubert, but little Viennese lilts did appear throughout, especially the parodies of Viennese waltzes in the fourth movement.  And while the jokes hit home with this Viennese audience, it was just amusement without much substance.  Another bookend for the Boccherini perhaps, but not at the same level.

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein (Vienna)

Sommer, Mahler, Rachmaninov, Schubert, Bartók

Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra came to Vienna’s Musikverein for a two-night set, for which I was fortunate to be home for the first night, which contained an ecclectic mix.  

If I had to describe this orchestra with one adjective, it would be “complete.”  No individual instrument stood out, but together they produced the most perfectly balanced sound.  There were no gaps, no flaws, no twists they could not make together.  Jansons has been at its helm since 2003, so this represents a tribute to him as well.

The concert led off with a concert overture to Antigone by a forgotten 20th-Century Czech composer Vladimír Sommer, someone I had never heard of before.  He had a limited output, and this work showed a routine post-romantic style.  It provided enough excitement to launch a drama, but was only a concert overture, not a setting of the entire Sophocles work for theater, and therefore seemed to be missing something (although also not clear from this snippet if Sommer could have pulled off writing an entire drama).

For more drama, alto Gerhild Romberger joined the orchestra for Mahler‘s Kindertotenlieder.  Jansons and the orchestra drove this work, too, but Romberger did provide a warm, full-bodied, expressive, solo voice, at least in the middle register.  Her moving reading melted the texts, demonstrating sadness and evoking sympathy.  She did however lack the strength in the brief moments Mahler took her to the upper register, and she simply did not have the dramatic voice required for the final song (“In diesem Wetter”), which stays mostly at the bottom of the range.  Jansons restrained the orchestra in the final song so as not to overwhelm her, but it was an unfortunate conclusion to an otherwise heartful cycle.

After the intermission, the orchestra’s “complete” sound could come into its own with Rachmaninov‘s Symphonic Dances, the composer’s final orchestral work.  It’s a strange combination – apparently Rachmaninov conceived it as something which could be converted into a ballet, but a project the composer subsequently abandoned during composition, so while going through an assortment of dance forms, it is not really a set of dances but a more of a three-movement symphony with a lot of moving parts.  The orchestra navigated around and through these motions masterfully, making this difficult work fully accessible to the listener.  The audience erupted in pleasure (prompting not just one but two encores: the more sedate Moment Musical by Schubert and the crazier excerpt from The Miraculous Mandarin by Bartók).

Vienna Chamber Opera

Ullmann, Der Kaiser von Atlantis

On the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I attended a performance of Viktor Ullmann‘s Kaiser von Atlantis at the Vienna Chamber Opera.

Ullmann wrote the opera in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, a Nazi propaganda site where the Germans gathered Jewish cultural elites (mostly from the former Austria, Bohemia, and Moravia) to show the Red Cross and visiting dignitaries how well they were treating Jews despite wartime conditions.  Having served that purpose, the Germans deported the prisoners to Auschwitz in late 1944, where they murdered most of them – including Ullmann – immediately upon arrival.

Despite the difficult circumstances, the inmates in Theresienstadt enjoyed a brief cultural respite on their way to mass death.  Their minds focussed on new compositions, many of which survived liquidation in the camp library.  They wrote for the musical forces available, using odd instrumentations and limited-sized productions.  But this inpiration produced compelling theater.

The Vienna Chamber Opera succeeded in giving this peculiar piece a dignified staging.  This was actually my first time in the theater – I’ve known about this small house embedded on an alleyway in the First District for many years but for some reason never attended anything.  When booking the ticket on-line, I realized that it is run as a satellite by the Theater an der Wien in the Sixth District, my city’s third – and most “creative” – opera house (“creative” not necessarily being a good thing with opera, as it is often infected by obnoxious self-important German directors who show disdain for operas they stage, one reason I have still never attended a performance in the historic Theater an der Wien).  Thankfully, the people responsible for this production allowed the little opera  to speak for itself.

Infused with dark humor, the opera tells the story of the elusive Emperor Overall of Atlantis, who has declared total war until everyone is dead.  This megalomania so offends, that Death himself goes on strike.  With Death refusing to work, no one can die, in war, by execution, by disease… which creates its own illogic.  The Emperor attempts to use this as propaganda, that he is responsible for eternal life, while continuing to wage war. This farce becomes untenable, until he has to beg Death to return to work.  Death agrees, so long as the Emperor is the first victim.  The population greets Death as redemption.

The opera’s text and music were infused with German and central European literary and musical tradition, with word and note play and explicit and implicit references to poets and composers.  The audience (had it ever been performed in Theresienstadt – it was not, and ultimately was not performed for the first time until 1975) would have understood the references, and would have felt that the plot personally affected them, as they lived out their final days awaiting their own murders in a concentration camp set up as a stage for Nazi propaganda.

Obviously a plot like this (and a cast of only six singers) does not call for an elaborate staging (and they would have had limited sets in Theresienstadt anyway).  The staging in the Vienna Chamber Opera thus remained simple, but with heavy use of distorted images through film or props (including a large – dead – tree removed at the beginning, with the resulting hole in the ground filled in by the characters during the opera, suddenly lowering down from heaven at the end and being replanted – still dead – in the gound).  Obviously this was more elaborate than anything they could have produced in Theresienstadt, but it never overdid it and it let the music and text speak for themselves.  While the images provoked by the staging are hard to convey out of context, in context they worked as a unified whole.

The cast was uniformly excellent.  The Chamber Opera naturally has a small theater, so the singers do not need to have overwhelming voices, but they nevertheless carried out their roles with force and conviction.  Special mention must go to the baritone who portrayed the central character, the Emperor Overall, Matthias Helm, who was not supposed to be here.  The person advertised for the title role came down with a massive flu and was home in bed.  This opera, only having a limited run of seven evenings over four weeks, had no understudy and almost no one is familiar with the parts because it is rarely performed.  So they almost canceled… but this being Austria they searched out recent performances and found someone nearby who had taken the role to acclaim.  Helm spent the entire day rehearsing this production, and gave a convincing reading.  The Vienna Chamber Orchestra sounded clear and handled the sometimes difficult music with ease under conductor Julien Vanhoutte.

Concertgebouw Orchestra, Musikverein (Vienna)

Mozart, Mahler

Precious few orchestras manage to staff themselves fully with players in every section who simultaneously exhibit individual virtuosity and blend into an orchestral whole. It is this which makes the Philadelphia Orchestra in its current incarnation rank high above all others in North America. But the Philadelphia has had its ups and downs over the years (including downs in very recent memory). The elite among the elite manage to maintain this level of excellence year-in-year-out, indeed decade-in-decade-out. Possibly only two orchestras on the planet meet this exalted standard: the Wiener Philharmoniker, which makes its home in the Musikverein, and the Concertgebouworkest Amsterdam, which visited the Musikverein this morning.

They arrived with a guest conductor: Semyon Bychkov, a wise choice (they recently appointed the uninspiring Daniele Gatti as their music director – I suppose Gatti must rehearse well, but from my experience orchestras simply ignore him during concerts where he stays out of the way while the orchestra in front of him makes the music; but Gatti’s appointment marks a big drop off from their outgoing chief Mariss Jansons). Where the orchestra provided Bychkov with a palette of the most vibrant colors, it still required a painter to know how to blend those colors to create a masterwork. Bychkov knew what to do, making broad brush strokes where necessary but also showing attention to fine details. Controlled on one hand, Bychkov was passionate on the other. He is a conductor who continues to grow in stature every time I hear his concerts.

This morning’s concert led off with Mozart’s Piano Concerto #22, with Emanuel Ax at the keyboard. The interpretation put paid to the idiotic original instruments movement: here we had a full-sized orchestra with proper instruments, and Ax sitting at a piano (which had actually also not been invented yet when Mozart wrote this – the German title should really be translated as “Keyboard Concerto #22”). One wonders if this sound is not what Mozart really had inside his head when he wrote it, but the poorly-tuned instruments and insufficient resources of his era meant that he wrote not for his own inadequate time but for the future when it would finally become possible to perform the music properly. Just because music may have been performed badly at the time composers wrote is no justification (other than curiosity) to perform the music badly today. Ax, Bychkov, and the orchestra made a convincing case for Mozart as he might have been, in full sound but never overbearing. The details were all there, right down to Wolfgang Amadé’s sarcastic smile.

This was the second time I have heard Ax perform this work this year – he did it at the Salzburg Festival in August with the Vienna Philharmonic under Jansons, also for a morning concert.  It’s a perfect piece to start off a morning – not too heavy.  This morning’s performance was the more substatial of the two readings, without becoming too heavy, and set out the stronger case for this concerto.

After the intermission came Mahler’s Symphony #5 in all of its glory. This is actually the second time I have heard Bychkov conduct this symphony in 2016 – the last was in May with the orchestra of the Vienna conservatory. While the previous performance was good, this time with the Concertgebouw Orchestra Bychkov could take the piece to another level. He slowed down the first movement somewhat, even bringing the quieter sections down a notch, to produce an extra layer of foreboding as Mahler grappled with fate. This touch also allowed him to emphasize many of the musicians in the orchestra and their intricate lines – but, as I said above, their individual virtuosity was apparent for all to hear but never strayed from creating a whole sound. On the podium, Bychkov could build on this, moving up to the anticipated triumph of the truncated chorale at the end of the second movement (which later resolved in complete triumph with the full chorale at the end of the fifth movement). The dance melodies danced – in the forefront where appropriate and behind the scenes where suggestive, the scherzo hopped, and the juxtaposition of the adagio with the final movement (performed correctly without break) accentuated the victory.

Bright sunlight shone through the upper windows of the Musikverein (rarely happens as it requires a morning concert, a sunny day, and the right angle) and illuminated the Golden Hall in all of its glory, a perfect complement to the musicianship on the stage. Someone up there was smiling too.

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Konzerthaus

Mozart, Copland, Schubert

I went to see and hear for myself, as 27-year-old rapidly rising star Lahav Shani conducted the Vienna Symphony Orchestra at the Konzerthaus this evening.  About a year ago, he sprung in to conduct the Philharmonic when the scheduled conductor canceled on short notice due to illness, and the reviews were incredible.  This led to more bookings with the Philharmonic and other orchestras (including the Symphoniker tonight), and he will soon take over as music director in Rotterdam, often a stepping-stone to a star career.

This evening’s performance did not disappoint.  The opening work – the Overture to the Marriage of Figaro by Mozart – enabled Shani to reveal often-hidden lines.  The strings drove the action forward, but the winds created tension, to set up the impending comedy.  Shani highlighted these juxtapositions, and the excellent Symphoniker responded just so.

Similarly, for the second half of the concert, Schubert‘s Great C Major Symphony capped off the concert.  Although I am not sure I heard any new nuances I did not alread know, this performance – clearly thought-through by Shani and expertly performed by the Symphoniker at the pinacle of the idiom – did provide a vivid reminder of just how majestic and exciting this symphony can be, and in many ways how visionary as well.  Shani will certainly grow further as his career takes off.

In between these two standard pieces came Aaron Copland‘s Clarinet Concerto, with soloist Sabine Meyer.  The first movement arrived full of melancholy, which led into a cadenza-only movement that began to awaken the instrument before jumping into a somewhat more flamboyant finale.  Copland wrote the work on commission for jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman.  There is jazz-like syncopation, requiring versatility, but this is not jazz and falls cleanly within a classical paradigm, if tending to something new.  Meyer, dextrous of tongue, danced to the music as she played.  Her unidentified encore was in the same style as the cadenza, but considerably faster.

Vienna Philharmonic, Musikverein

Schubert, Cherubini

Another Sunday, another Requiem in the Musikverein.  This week’s offering was from Luigi Cherubini, his 1816 Requiem in c, a work much admired in the nineteenth century and later falling out of favor.  It’s not earth-shattering, as Berlioz or Verdi later provided, but it did help establish the genre and many great composers (starting with Beethoven) took inspiration from it and considered it better than Mozart’s, the work usually considered to have created the concept of a concert requiem.  Indeed, as Beethoven never wrote a requiem, it was Cherubini’s which was performed on Beethoven’s death.

The interpretation this morning came from Riccardo Muti leading the Vienna Philharmonic and the Singverein, a wonderful combination that filled the Musikverein with lush sound.  The performance lasted close to an hour – much longer than normal – but never dragged.

Perhaps Muti meant the slow pacing (albeit hardly noticed) for the Cherubini to balance out the fast pacing he chose for Franz Schubert‘s Fourth Symphony (“The Tragic”) before the intermission.  Although taking it at a fast clip, Muti did not sacrifice the sweeping tunes and thick scoring, and the Philharmoniker felt right at home (well, actually this is their home).  This is how to hear Schubert.  Schubert composed this symphony in 1816, the same year Cherubini wrote the Requiem.  The styles, though different, complemented each other well, influencing musical development and for the years ahead.

Neue Oper Wien, Museumsquartier

Křenek, Pallas Athena Weint

I like the music of Ernst Křenek. Thonight’s performance of Pallas Athena Weint by the Neue Oper Wien was well done and I am glad I heard it… once.  However, there is a reason this opera never succeeded, and it wasn’t the musicians.

Křenek wrote both the music and the libretto, freely adapting stories very loosely based on characters from ancient Athens (VERY loosely).  His concept was to use these characters to make some sort of modern political statement influenced by the McCarthyism he was observing in 1950s America (where he wrote this) and of course his pre-War experiences in Europe.  But he avoided making any direct analogies, and the allegory did not really end up explaining anything.  There were certainly a lot of unpleasant tragic figures, with the plot sometimes having moments of cynical comedy eliciting laughs from the audience followed by a dark afterthought that maybe we shouldn’t be laughing.

This was all set to music that was perfectly fine, if twelve-tonal, but fit the mood well enough.  But if the plot had no drive, then the music needed to, and it did not either.  So both the music and the plot came across dense enough, while also managing to feel superficial.  

Tonight’s staging did what it could.  The set was evocative rather than realistic, which fit well.  The costumes were undefined – not really timeless, but mixed (although not ancient Greek, but they really did not need to be).  I found no logic to them but they also did not disturb.  The blocking allowed the cast to act.

Of the cast, Franz Gürtelschmied, as Alcibiades, stood out.  Very young, he recently emerged from the Young Singers Project of the Salzburg Festival, and is a name to look out for.  His voice projected clearly and cleanly, with a strident dramatic tone.  Klemens Sander as Socrates also gave an especially strong reading.  In the pit, Walter Kobéra led an idiomatic reading in front of the Tonkünstler Orchester, which continues to make a case for itself as a fine regional orchestra and which handled the difficult chromatics with ease.

The performance took place in the auditorium of Vienna’s Museumsquartier.  This is a strange place and probably added to the discombobulation as it proved a poor venue.  The Museumsquartier project has been a great success as an exhibition and events space in Vienna, but it always has a somewhat peculiar alternative feel, and never seems ready for anything serious.  So little things stood out: programs priced at odd amounts (3.30 Euros) but the ushers selling the programs were not provided sufficient change; the people “working” half of the coat room stood around refusing to accept coats and forcing everyone into a long line (and a panic as to whether we’d get through the line before the performace started) – and then the amount they were charging for the coat check which appeared on the table at the front of the line (1.20 Euros) did not match the amount on the sign visible to everyone waiting in line (1 Euro – it’s not the price that was the problem, but that everyone in line had taken out one Euro to save time, and then arrived at the front and had to fumble around for the extra 20 cents or get the checkers to make change, which made the bottleneck worse); then of course poor signposting made it hard to find anything.  The auditorium itself is actually fine for the purpose, but uncomfortable (and may even be temporary, with rows of cheap seats going up an incline).  The production used screens to project the words, which was helpful at times, but instead of supertitles (as seems to be the norm these days) they put a screen on either side of the stage meaning to read the words required looking away from the action, which was distracting and caused me to lose the flow.  The screens were also small – I was relatively close in and could see them, but I’d imagine that higher up they were unreadable.  None of these little things was serious, but together as a collection they added up, and I would not recommend this venue until it gets its own act together.

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Verdi, Requiem

My second unplanned concert of the weekend, for which when realizing I would be in Vienna this weekend I managed to score late-returned tickets for an otherwise sold out performance of Verdi’s Requiem in the Musikverein this afternoon.

Albeit a setting of a mass, Verdi’s is a theatrical work, with operatic drama, and the forces assembled on stage certainly understood Verdi’s intent. Conductor Philippe Jordan deftly crafted all aspects of the performance. I’d say he practically staged the work, except that the fire and brimstone may have consumed the Musikverein, and the gentler plaintive moments may have caused the remnants to melt, and we need this hall intact.

The Wiener Symphoniker, of which Jordan is the chief conductor, shone, with bright and open tones. Behind them, the Singverein, filled the hall with strident sound. Enunciating each syllable with clear diction, they got the message across.

To match such a performance would require four expressive and large-voiced dramatic soloists, and that is indeed the line-up they achieved this afternoon, with Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova, Russian alto Elena Zhidkova, Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja, and Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto. Never outgunned by the orchestra and chorus, they projected clearly with bold – yet still sympathetic – voices which also blended well with each other (also not an easy feat).

Bamberg Symphony, Konzerthaus (Vienna)

Schubert, Bruckner

I had not planned to be home in Vienna this weekend, but once here I decided to see if there would be last-minute tickets available for otherwise sold out concerts, and I got lucky with one tonight and one tomorrow afternoon.

Tonight’s offer, in the Konzerthaus, allowed me to hear Herbert Blomstedt and the Bamberg Symphony explore the architecture of Schubert and Bruckner in a well-paired concert containing Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and  Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony.

The Swedish-American Blomstedt, still amazingly spritely at 89 years old, is a master builder of orchestral sound.  The Bamberg Symphony, originally founded by ethnic Germans exiled from Czechoslovakia after the Second World War (victims of the post-war reprisals against Nazi Germany’s policies towards that country – although some of them probably less-than-innocent victims), is an orchestra I only knew of through its solid recordings and reputation, and now got to hear live for the first time (the current orchestra members are obviously not the original ones, so it’s a new generation from the days of its old recordings).

From tonight’s performance, we clearly saw how much Schubert inspired Bruckner.  Blomstedt constructed the two movements of the Unfinished out of solid building blocks, while still enabling the lyrical melodies to sore, in many ways a prototype for Bruckner.  Having heard Beethoven’s expansive Eroica Symphony on Wednesday with a scaled-down orchestra, it was refreshing for me to hear Schubert’s often dainty Unfinished with a full ensemble on stage.  This was a mighty performance, without sacrificing any of the charm.  The low string rumblings at the opening of the first movement set the foundations in place upon which Blomstedt built the pillars to hold up the soaring roof.  He also emphasized often unseen and unheard angles within the solid supporting construction, which allowed layer upon layer of melody to pile on top.

Although unfortunate that Schubert never completed more than those two movements of this tremendous symphony, this interpretation naturally flowed into Bruckner after the intermission.  Indeed, we could hear similar low strings supporting ever more layers upon layers of sound.  So while Schubert died young, Bruckner the former church organist was in many ways his symphonic heir.  Blomstedt may not use the heavist stones when constructing Bruckner’s cathedrals, but his interpretations always demonstrate him as understanding the architecture.  The Swede may be an acquired taste, but indeed one worth acquiring.  The fully packed Konzerthaus audience clearly approved.

Volksoper

Offenbach, Hoffmanns Erzählungen

The Volksoper unveiled a brand new production of Offenbach‘s Tales of Hoffmann this evening, achieving mixed results.  

Offenbach died before completing this opera, so no definitive version exists.  Certainly, tonight’s version would not have been the one he would have chosen had he lived.  He left a lot of sketches behind, but likely would have edited the opera if he had the chance – I will give the Volksoper the benefit of the doubt that tonight’s extra music was original Offenbach, but they did not have to include all of it, as it made the performance drag.  Offenbach also did not live to draft the recitatives, so there is great flexibility in how much to use, and again the Volksoper used too much.  

The Volksoper also introduced plot changes, which failed dramatically.  Again, this may have been through using Offenbach’s sketches (I will assume), but that does not make them necessary.  So two extra scenes were added to the beginning of the prologue, in which first Hoffmann’s Muse (a.k.a. Niklaus) and then the devil (all four villains) introduce and explain themselves, which is not strictly necessary and which made the prologue drag considerably before finally moving to Luther’s tavern. In the Venetian act, the plot became needlessly convoluted (instead of Hoffmann killing Schlemihl to get the key to Giulietta’s room and then arriving to find she has already gone off in the gondola with someone else, tonight’s plot became somewhat hopeless, with Hoffmann appearing to kill Pitichinaccio with not a lot of other clarity in the outcome).

 

The final major plot change happened at the end – almost every version of this opera I know ends with Stella finding Hoffmann drunk under the table and going off with Lindorf, but not tonight.  Actually, the end of tonight’s opera, with all characters on stage, and Hoffmann and his Muse (Niklaus reverted to female form) singing about art being more important than love, made no sense.

In addition to this, the director appeared not to understand that Offenbach wanted his whole life to write a serious opera – not just the farces that made him famous – and this was it.  Although there is a certain amount of humor in this opera, it is not a farce and Offenbach never intended it to be one.  The opera director, Renaud Doucet (I suppose a Frenchman, although this seems to be a co-production with the Bonn Opera, a German company which thus should have raising a red flag indicating the opera director is no doubt incompetent) staged this production as a farce, with many sight-gags and crazy costumes that really are not worth mentioning that made the staging a nonsense.  (It really is not worth mentioning the idiocy that went on stage – albeit I’ve seen far worse from German opera directors – so I won’t even try to describe this nonsense.)  

But the lousy stage direction underscored a complete lack of understanding of what Offenbach would have wanted to accomplish had he lived, and this undermined the entire performance.  The extended acts (particularly the extra prologue scenes and the act with the singer Antonia which lasted a full hour) dragged.  They made one reversal in the opera, flipping the Antonia act to second before moving the Venetian act with Giulietta to third, although there is sufficient evidence in both the text itself and in Offenbach’s own comments to colleagues that this order is the one he wanted (although the other order became the standard), and to be honest I have no preference there, nor criticism for the reversal in this production.  But there was no logical sense of continuity tonight, so the reversal from the established convention, even if likely Offenbach’s preference, just made for additional bewilderment if Doucet had any overall concept at all.

 

The male leads outperformed the female leads.  Particularly strong were Josef Wagner as all four villains and Stefan Cernydoubling as the tavern-keeper Luther and as Antonia’s father Krespel.  Mirko Roschkowski in the title role sang well enough but looked lost on stage (was it him, or was it the staging that made him lost?).  The various female leads were perfectly adequate. 

Conductor Gerrit Prießnitz held the orchestra more or less together, although periodically not quite in time with the chorus, and also sometimes allowing the music to overwhelm the singers (who otherwise generally projected well).

Volksoper

Benatzky, Axel an der Himmelstür

The Volksoper last month revived Ralph Benatzky‘s 1936 hit Axel an der Himmelstür (Axel at Heaven’s Door) with a new production (and the first ever production at the Volksoper).  Although I did not know the work, it had great reviews, and of course I find I can count on Benatzky for a lot of Viennese fun.  So off I went, and tonight was not only no exception, but indeed exceeded my expectations.

This is a period piece, a parody of Hollywood set as a Viennese operetta.  The whimsical staging, by Peter Lund (a German!  A German opera director who actually understands staging!) cleverly set the entire evening in black and white (costumes and set were all grey-toned, and the cast wore whiteface and white gloves (and body gloves) to cover skin; wigs were also black and white.  A movie screen often formed the back wall of the stage and was used to project images, movie clips, and sometimes complete cartoon follies connected directly to the scene (sometimes with the singers themselves morphing into cartoon form on the screen).

Lest the screen become a crutch, a joke that got old, it actually was not there for about half the time, making the staging balanced.  The cast hammed up their roles on cue, as they should have, also always consistent with the drive of the plot.  Indeed, Lund’s sense of drama drove the plot rather than being driven.  The Viennese operetta references provoked loud laughs from the audience, but everyone seemed ready to laugh in general, not least the cast.

My only quibble with the entire evening was the decision to mike the cast.  In 1936 they would not have been miked, and the movies being parodied were mostly silent films, so this decision could not have been to try to recapture some authenticity.  I’m not sure why it was necessary, unless it simply allowed the cast to pay more attention to their antics on stage without having to worry about projecting.

The cast was uniformly good, with Andreas Bieber and Julia Koci in the lead male and female roles (gossip reporter Axel Swift and Hollywood leading star Gloria Mills, respectively), well supported by Juliette Khalil (as Jessie Leyland, Mills’ secretary and Swift’s girlfriend a the start of the opera), Peter Lesiak (as Theodor Herlinger, a Viennese barber working as a Hollywood makeup artist, Swift’s roommate, and Leyland’s fiance at the end of the opera), and Kurt Schreibmayer (as Cecil McScott, Hollywood’s biggest film producer).  A chorus of others performed an assortment of roles each, the duplication adding to the period feel, almost 1930s operetta as caberet (something Benatzky understood as well).  Conductor Lorenz C. Aichner kept the orchestra light and spritely in the pit.

Absolutely the most fun I’ve had at a performance so far this year.  I’d go again next week if I had the chance (I don’t).

Webern Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Mozart, Mahler

I had not planned on any concerts until the Salzburg Festival this Summer, an unusual gap of two months. So I suppose I was bound to fill it when a ticket opened up in the packed Musikverein this evening for a concert of the Vienna Conservatory’s Webern Symphony Orchestra under Semyon Bychkov.  I can now testify that the future of Mozart and Mahler in the Musikverein sounds secure.

Pairing Mozart’s Piano Concerto #20 and Mahler’s Symphony #5 on the program had a certain logic. Both start in minor, somewhat foreboding, but end in a triumphant major. Without resorting to stereotype for such arrangements, Bychkov still drew out the transformation – these are not just fate-conquering works, but a positive trip through a troubled world. Bychkov restrained the orchestra for much of the darker moments, yet always pushed forward, never dragging. This allowed the youthful orchestra to demonstrate its exuberance during the brighter passages. A lot of happiness shone through here.

At the keyboard for the Mozart sat Jasminka Stančul, whose hands almost hovered above the keys and simply coaxed the music effortlessly out of the piano. She and the orchestra spoke the same language and their instrumental voices blended beautifully.

Volksoper

Borodin, Prince Igor

Back at the Volksoper this evening for something a little heavier: Aleksandr Borodin‘s Prince Igor.  This wonderful epic opera, not performed often enough outside Russia, may unfortunately have been a little too heavy for the Volksoper to lift.

There is no definitive version of this opera, as Borodin left the whole thing – sketches of music and plot – in a mess when he died, that his friends Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Aleksandr Glazunov had to sort out (Glazunov likely ghost-wrote much of the music himself, but insisted he did it from memory after having heard Borodin play as-yet-unwritten music on the piano).  As a result, theaters have great flexibility at determining which music they wish to perform, and in what order (not only order of the scenes, but even where within scenes music will fall).  

The Volksoper took advantage of this to construct an intelligent performing version with a reasonably logical plot sequence.  The problem came with every other aspect of the production, resulting in a performance that dragged and somehow missed the drama.  The staging was confused, to say the least, and it is unclear to me if the director (Thomas Schulte-Michels, a German – need I have guessed?) even had any particular concept in mind (seriously, what is up with that country that it produces so many horrible opera directors).  It seems that he used oversized sunflowers to represent the Polovtsians – their camp was a big field of the flowers, and after they destroyed the city of Putivl, it had also succombed to the infestation of oversized sunflowers.  Constumes were from no particular period or style.  Putivl itself seemed to have been constructed of mirrors that reflected the audience.  Minimal props also had no particular logic.  In all, the staging added nothing to understanding the opera, and indeed detracted because it also did not allow the singers to interact sensibly.

The singers themselves also lacked a sense of drama that did not just derive from the unclear staging.  They sang their lines with various degrees of proficiency, but no more.  In order of strength, starting with the strongest, Andreas Mitschky as Khan Kontchak, Alik Abdukayumov as Prince Igor, Morten Frank Larsen as Prince Galitzky, Mehrzad Montazeri as Igor’s son Vladimir, and Jeffrey Treganza as the baptized Polvtsian Owlur all accomplished their lines to the right music.  The two main female characters, Melba Ramos as Igor’s wife Yaroslavna and Annely Peebo as Kontschak’s daughter Kontchakovna, did not – often off-pitch and sometimes shreiking.  Yasushi Hirano as the drunkard Skula may have stolen the show in his scenes, but got dragged down by his partner David Sitka as fellow-drunk Yeroshka, who simply could neither hit the notes nor sing in time with the music.

In the pit, conductor Lorenz Aichner did not make an impression.  The performance lacked drive.  The German singing-translation sounded clunky – however, I do not dismiss hearing this opera in German, as one of my recordings of this opera is in German (using a similar scene order and maybe even the same translation) from a 1969 Staatsoper production, with an outstanding cast that does not sound clunky in German.  So it works if it has the right design.  Tonight’s performance seemed ill-conceived and the cast over-matched.

Volksoper

Leigh, Man of La Mancha

I do not believe I have seen Mitch Leigh‘s Man of La Mancha since I was a child, and I have certainly never seen it before performed in German.  But I got a special offer for a ticket to see it at the Volksoper, so… my destiny called and I went.

Cervantes’ story is timeless.  So this minimal, vaguely modern staging worked to allow the players to develop the plot, presented with good humor all around.  The stage was built out over the pit, with the orchestra submerged behind the stage facing away from the audience, really just providing background (under conductor Lorenz Aichner).  Under these circumstances, my main quibble was that they miked the cast, which was disconcerting (not to mention defeating the purpose of hearing a live performance) and totally unnecessary.  Voices came from incorrect angles and sometimes gave several members of the cast an excuse to mumble their lines rather than acting them.

The simplification and twist of the plot works in this format, but can often come across as thin – there is actually very little there.  So it is worth going for the fine music by Leigh.  Great acting, however, can make the setting rise.

In this case, the mostly nondescript cast played along and was satisfactory.  At its helm, and the only truly notable member, was the Volksoper’s own Director Robert Meyer, who has done a fantastic job leading this house since he took over in 2007 (his contract has been extended until 2022).  He portrayed the tragi-comic Don Quijote with full emotion and intelligence, particularly when confronted by the Knight of the Mirrors when Quijote is forced to recognize his own farce and then again in the final death scene.

Tonkünstler Orchestra, Musikverein

Beethoven, Dean

A few things converged to bring me to the Musikverein this afternoon: I realized I had not been to a concert there this winter; it has been a longer while since I last heard the Tonkünstler Orchestra, a pleasant provincial orchestra from Lower Austria that I came to enjoy when visiting Vienna from Kosovo back in the day; and trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger reliably introduces audiences to new repertory with flawless technique.

Today’s program opened with a spirited Leonore Overture Nr. 3 by Beethoven. Conductor John Storgårds coaxed dramatic playing all around, particularly from the flutes. The fondness for Beethoven continued in the concert’s finale, with the under-performed gem of his Eighth Symphony. The Beethoven 8 is his smallest and shortest symphony, and often overlooked, but although it took a more classical form at first look, a deeper examination such as today’s brought out the nuances Beethoven had developed as he revolutionized music. The performance on the whole was nothing special, but the sound was balanced and the playing fine, to get the message out.

On the other hand, Australian composer Brett Dean’s Dramatis Personae trumpet concerto, which he wrote on commission for this orchestra and soloist, came across contrived. Hardenberger is excellent, and if Dean wanted someone to interpret his work he could not have done better. But the only way to understand this piece was to read the program notes, and even then its meaning was unclear. The music either needs to be able to speak for itself (especially in able hands), or the program must tell a story that allows the listener to follow along. In this case, the whole composition failed.

Dean’s music was not unpleasant, just unintelligible even with the program. Dean said he chose to write a trumpet concerto inspired by Beethoven’s Leonore fanfare – the trumpet having something to announce. But it remains unclear what he was announcing. After some odd percussive opening, the first recognizable music in the first movement was reminiscent of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony gone awry. After moving through several adventures and misadventures, the trumpet hero ended up in the urban landscape of Charles Ives. But Ives needed no program. This is probably not a piece I need to hear again in the hopes of understanding it better, but hearing Hardenberger attempt these works is always a pleasure.

Staatsoper

Janáček, The Makropoulos Affair

The Vienna State Opera kindly offered me a heavily-discounted ticket to tonight’s performance of The Makropoulos Affair by Leoš Janáček, which I naturally accepted. This is a very peculiar opera – well-known but not often performed. I have seen it once before, in a perfectly acceptable but in the end not memorable performance at the Gelikon Opera in Moscow in 2010, and I’ve heard it (without paying too much attention) broadcast from the Met. So tonight also presented an opportunity to try to figure this one out.

This is the first time the Staatsoper has put on this opera (premiere was last week). The staging by Peter Stein certainly helped make it accessible, paying loving attention to the libretto to make this odd piece understandable even without a mastery of Czech. The scenes were realistic but essentially simple, putting the emphasis on the performers, who then acted out their lines, which called for little action but much psychodrama. And this was not the sort of psychodrama that appears in Tschaikowsky’s great operas, but a whole other order, crossing into a world of magic and legend. That the libretto was based on a comic play (Janáček’s opera was no comedy) meant that a sense of humor pervaded the bizarre predicament of a woman whose body has lived for 337 years but whose soul has long since died, and now she wants to give up.

Laura Aikin headed the cast in the role of Emilia Marty (a.k.a. Elina Makropoulos, a.k.a. many other names with initials E.M.). She has wanted to sing this dynamic role for many years, and learned to sing Czech for the occasion. As the central character, all others had to react to her, so her success in portraying this multi-faceted role enabled the rest of the cast to blossom: Ludovit Ludha (Albert Gregor), Thomas Ebenstein (Vítek), Margarita Gritskova (Krista), Markus Marquardt (Jaroslav Prus), Carlos Osuna (Janek Prus), Wolfgang Bankl (Dr. Kolenatý), and longtime audience favorite Heinz Zednik (Hauk-Šendorf). Thanks to this group, I now indeed comprehend this opera and its fine nuances.

In the pit, the young Czech conductor and Janáček specialist Jakub Hrůša drew out all of the composer’s fantastic coloring to support the action, never to supplant it. This is not an opera that has the audience leaving the house humming its tunes, and the music can be quite complex, but it nevertheless cannot detract focus from the stage. Hrůša understood the right balance, while enhancing the singing. The orchestral playing was also magnificent.