Bernstein, Tschaikowsky, Elgar
The Philadelphia Orchestra and Yannick Nézet-Séguin returned for a second night in the Musiverein’s Golden Hall, making a bigger splash with the audience than last night: bigger applause devolving to rhythmic clapping and a call for an encore. To be honest: this orchestra certainly deserved the ovation, but I’m not convinced tonight was better than last.
The first half of the concert had one peculiar piece, Leonard Bernstein‘s Second Symphony, the “Age of Anxiety.” Bernstein was a far better conductor and intellectual than he was a composer, but this is one of his better compositions. That does not make it any less pretentious. Part One was everywhere (as the composer intended), which I suppose is what gives it the sense of anxiety. But it was a joyous Part One – a musical description of four people getting drunk together, but each lonely and self-absorbed, in a bar, they seemed to be embibing a bit too much and may have actually been rather happy when not mourning their own existence. Part Two, on the other hand, never seemed to figure out what it wanted to be, shifting musical styles (including a bit of jazz) without settling on anything. This may have been a bit too weird. The Orchestra could certainly handle this tricky music with no problem at all – the only one who seemed to be anxious was Jean-Yves Thibaudet, the piano soloist (the work is in many ways more piano concerto than symphony), whose mouth remained agape and whose eye stared up at Nézet-Séguin with a look of utter fear. Thibaudet appears to have told his barber to cut his hair to match Bernstein’s own hairstyle, and there was a passing similarity, so perhaps this was indeed the pianist channeling the composer’s spirit.
For the second half of the concert, the Orchestra pulled out Tschaikowsky‘s Fourth Symphony. His fourth, fifth, and sixth symphonies are performed far too often. They are good music, but it’s just hard to say anything new. This Orchestra’s thrilling Tschaikowsky Fifth in Dresden in 2015, for example, still rings in my ears – it was that good. Tonight’s Fourth… wonderful performance, but I heard nothing I haven’t heard before. So that was a bit disappointing.
But yes it was a wonderful performance, and the audience appreciated it maybe more than I did. The solo bows elicited roars (particularly for the principal oboist, Richard Woodhams, who is retiring at the end of this tour, whose solo bow inspired massive foot thumping across the hall). So the orchestra gave us an orchestration of Edward Elgar‘s Liebesgruß to show off its lush string sound, as an encore.
Brahms, Schumann, Strauss
It’s always wonderful to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra on tour performing in a proper hall and not the dull box they have in the Kimmel Center. Tonight, they hit the Musikverein for the first of a two-night set with Yannick Nézet-Séguin on the podium.
The second half of the concert was spectacular, featuring the best performance of Schumann‘s Fourth Symphony I have ever heard – a mix of mystery, wistfullness, and outright joy. This was followed by Richard Strauss‘ tone poem Don Juan, in an interpretation which emphasized the individual virtuosic lines. Not sure where to begin on this, but maybe the duet between the oboe and clarinet was most special. Or was it the horn solos? Or the violin? Or… or… From my seat I had a good view of Nézet-Séguin, and watched him cajole the Orchestra emotionally, and then heard the immediate response. These forces make music so well together.
This intimacy was also on show for the concert’s first half, where they were joined by Hélène Grimaud for the Brahms first piano concerto. I am afraid not even the Philadelphia Orchestra can rescue that Brahms concerto, although it was a valiant effort. The playing sounded great, but there was just not much to work with (or too much – an hour of musical ideas that weren’t all bad but Brahms was not creative enough to know what to do with them). According to the program notes, Bruckner was a fan of the main theme of the first movement (“Siehst, das is a Symphoniethema!” – “You see, that is a symphony theme!” he apparently declared to a student). Indeed, there was something there, and if it had been a Bruckner symphony we would have found ourselves dreaming in a gothic cathedral he would have built from it. But it was a Brahms piano concerto, so all he could do with it was plant a vegetable garden for the monks. Maybe they were good vegetables, and maybe Grimaud, Nézet-Séguin, and the Philadelphians made good tour guides, but I’d rather admire Bruckner’s cathedral than wander around in Brahms’ monastery farm.
The concert had very high security (indeed, I have never seen so much security for anything in Austria, including when I attended a reception hosted by the President last Fall with many other dignitaries from Austria and neighboring countries in the room). Armed police roamed everywhere (outside and inside the building), as did ubiquitous Israeli close protection teams. There were also a bunch of huge men who looked like nightclub bouncers stationed around the hall (apparently recommended by the Israelis).
This all had to do with the fact that at the end of the Orchestra’s European tour tomorrow, they head off to tour Israel, and the anti-Semites are protesting everywhere. The Orchestra started its tour in Belgium, one of the most anti-Semitic countries in Europe today (I make no excuses for Austria, its failure to address its history, and the fact that unrepentent German nationalists with an arguably classical national socialist political agenda are sitting in the current government – but Austria is actually pretty tame, which is frightening). So in Brussels the Orchestra’s concert was repeatedly interrupted by anti-Semitic protestors, which led the Orchestra to contact the Israelis for advice and the host cities on the rest of the European tour for high alerts. At the start of tonight’s concert, a Musikverein representative came on stage to announce that if there were a protest, then the Orchestra would stop playing and walk off the stage, and return to start the concert over after the protest ended; so, since the Orchestra believes in the right to free speech, it was requested that if anyone in the audience wanted to protest, that they do so now before the concert began. There was a loud applause for the announcement, but no protest.
And there was certainly no protest about the concert itself. I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s.
Beethoven, Joh. Strauß, Schostakowitsch
Another weekend at home in Vienna for which I had not planned to go to a concert but could not help myself. A month ago I heard the Vienna Philharmonic (which normally plays in the Musikverein) perform in the Konzerthaus, so maybe it just seemed fair to hear the Vienna Symphony (which normally plays in the Konzerthaus) perform in the Musikverein.
Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck took the podium for a pair of 5s: the fifth piano concerto by Beethoven and the fifth symphony by Schostakowitsch. These were two quite different works, but Honeck had a plan. Fives of different suits, indeed.
The Beethoven concerto (with young Russian pianist Igor Levit) strangely, but in a good sense, gave the feel of climbing into a newly-made bed with freshly-laundered silken sheets and well-fluffed pillows. This was a performing version to settle into for the night. Levit’s playing had a slightly other-wordly feel until it hit me during the quiet (but still quite active) passages: he made the piano into a music box tinkling away (his louder passages had some extraneous notes, unfortunately). That may sound wierd, but it worked.
Levit returned for a piano rendition of a Johann Strauss waltz – this worked less so, as it only had the music-box quality with the fullness of the orchestra missing.
After the intermission, the Schostakowitsch Fifth was anything but warm and cuddly. Here legato playing exaggerated the dissonances, and Honeck went further in that direction but turning the first movement into a parody of a march and the second into a warped waltz. This was Schostakowitsch composing to Communist Party dictates but at the same time thumbing his nose. The solos by (and duets between) the principal violin and oboe were especially jarring. The third movement largo came across as cold as Sibelius, but not the plucky Finnish winter – instead bleak Siberian tundra. There was no fake triumph in the final movement – Honeck elongated the agony Schostakowitsch experienced living in Soviet Russia. If not quite as devastating as the version I heard in this hall about three years ago with the Petersburgers (who fittingly have their authentic Russian sound), this was still a smart reading of the composer’s intentions.
This orchestra (Vienna’s second-best!) sounds world class. The pieces were indeed quite different, but it captured both idioms with full sound (including the quiet passages, which could be delicate and still full and revealing). Tonight’s works were warhorses, performed quite often, but if the orchestra can provide intelligent readings like these then worth hearing over and over and finding new and undiscovered corners even on the umpteenth listen. (Plus I don’t think I’ll ever tire of Beethoven and Schostakowitsch, the way I have certainly tired of Mozart and Tschaikowsky).
Sibelius, Langgaard, Elgar
Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, Alfeyev
I followed the Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra and Vladimir Fedoseyev to Vienna for the third concert with them in four days. It does help when they have a good variety on the program. This evening, the Choir of the Moscow Synod joined them for a selection of choral church music.
The concert opened, however, with an overture that was not especially religious: to Rimsky-Korsakov‘s opera The Invisible City of Kitezh. I suppose that was to set the mood, which it did with its hymnlike theme, although rearranging the stage to shift the right musicians and instruments afterwards before the choral music rather broke the mood.
Two selections from Rachmaninov‘s All Night Vigil followed: Rachmaninov’s take on traditional Russian church music forms. This made a nice bridge to Stravinsky‘s Symphony of Psalms, which took an old idea and somehow created an entirely new concept all together. The chorus pulled both sets off, with the orchestra – or the odd group of musicians Stravinsky scored the work for – joining in merrily. Indeed, this was a merry reading, a happy way to praise the Lord. Stravinsky’s method was rather complex, but under Fedoseyev’s organizing structure it sounded almost easy.
These works nicely set the table for something new (or was it also just something old made new?) after the intermission: works by the composer Grigoriy Alfeyev, who under his ordination name, Metropolitan Hilarion, is the Russian Orthodox Church’s current minister of external relations. He’s a little older than me, but exactly overlapped with me at Oxford when we were both doing our doctorates (I don’t believe we ever met).
The first piece by Alfeyev set the Catholic Latin text Stabat Mater. Not surprisingly, then, it opened in a classical church music tradition that suggested some influence from Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and early Bruckner (when Bruckner was still composing church music). It then moved from the Brucknerian in the (not actually unrelated) direction of Taneyev (who was the great professor of counterpoint at the Moscow conservatory in the late 19th century). Taneyev’s students included Rachmaninov and Scriabin, so it was probably not surprising that the piece started to head that way… except for some neo-Baroque orchestral interludes.
Alfeyev’s Songs of Pilgramage followed, based on excerpts from Psalms in Russian language translations. Perhaps because they were Russian texts (and not Latin), they owed more to a combination of traditional Russian choral church music but passed through the development of Mussorgsky, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Stravinsky and beyond. I suppose befitting a high-ranking figure in the Russian Orthodox Church, it never got too radical, and the textual language remained clear (thanks also to the talent of the choir), but it nevertheless came across as new and fresh. Fedoseyev, on the podium, seemed careful. Indeed, if I had to categorize his interpretive style in all three concerts I have heard this week, I would say that Fedoseyev has demonstrated enormous control over the performances, keeping them well-contained and allowing for full color – if not especially bold, then at least especially balanced and thoughtful.
My first (and last) concert of baroque music for 2017 let me see out the year with Bach (Gloria in Excelsis Deo and the Orchestral Suite #1) and Händel (Dettingen Te Deum and as an encore the “Hallelujah” chorus from Messiah). The Chorus and Orchestra of the Cappella Albertina Wien (named not for the museum but for a chapel inside the Cathedral) performed in the Vienna’s Franciscan Church of St. Jerome, famous for having the city’s oldest organ.
The baroque church fit the music by look – except that I was not clear if the sound was due to poor acoustics or the singing style of the chorus itself. This is a music group that performs almost exclusively in churches (including three concerts a year in this church), so it should know something about church acoustics, which do indeed require a more restrained and more staccato technique. But not tonight, I suppose. The chorus barely made itself heard over the orchestra, itself hardly overpowering. Sometimes they managed – either for segments with limited orchestration, or when they just wanted to (such as in the Hallelujah encore). The orchestra also sounded maybe too restrained, except for when the brass got to chime in, as they offered quite clear interventions (albeit not always hitting the notes quite right). In general, the whole performance was actually quite good musically, it’s just that it came across as underwhelming – something was just not right in the balance. The ensemble’s young conductor, Teresa Riveiro Böhm looked in control, demonstratively as a church choir conductor often is. Could it have been her fault, or was it something peculiar with the acoustics in this particular church (although again, this group knows this church, and so could and should have performed accordingly)?
Riccardo Muti is not normally thought of as a Bruckner conductor. He is known for his Schubert, one of Bruckner’s key influences, and at the Salzburg Festival in 2016 I heard Muti lead the Vienna Philharmonic in a very intelligent and Schubertian interpretation of Bruckner’s 2nd Symphony. So this enticed me to give his Bruckner 9th (again with the Philharmonic, this time in the Golden Hall of the Musikverein) a try. Making a case for an early Bruckner symphony as a successor to Schubert is one thing – how would he manage this for Bruckner’s last work?
As it turns out, Muti did not try to find Schubertian influences in Bruckner’s 9th. Instead, he showed how Bruckner had become forward looking, drawing out the strained harmonies and immense dissonances. Building on themes from his 7th and 8th Symphonies, both massive Gothic works, Bruckner was clearly aware of his own failing health and that he might not live to complete his 9th (as indeed he did not), so he peered out over the abyss to see where music might go on after him.
Aside from Italian opera and Schubert, Muti is also a specialist in some 20th Century Russian repertory, including Scriabin, also a master of harmony who consciously set out to destroy the world in six symphonies (but died young after his fifth, his attempt incomplete). Elements of this Bruckner interpretation possibly owed a debt to Muti’s familiarity with Scriabin and his utter insanity. I have no idea if Scriabin knew Bruckner’s music, but a direct linkage is not really the point. Muti knows Scriabin, and here he gave us a Bruckner performance that deconstructed music and opened up possibilities for the 20th Century.
The Philharmonic of course also knows Bruckner inside out, but responded to Muti’s directions to deliver Bruckner to his grave. From my seat in the back of the side balcony (the only one available when I checked) I could not see the orchestra other than the last two rows of the first violins, so I let the Golden Hall’s wonderful acoustics provide the full experience. This was a performance to hear live.
The concert opened with Haydn‘s Symphony #39, that composer’s first minor-key symphony and considered the origin of Sturm und Drang that led to the romanticism which perhaps reached its pinnacle with Bruckner. This symphony got Haydn promoted from assistant Kapellmeister to chief in the Eszterházy court. He wrote for what he had available – an orchestra of only about 16 musicians which often seemed to have an excess (for so small a band) of horns. So the original version had four horns in those 16 musicians. But Haydn also thought for the future, and to hear a proper-sized string section took nothing away from the four horns (and two oboes and a bassoon) but provided Haydn as he is meant to be heard (if not how he originally was, only due to lack of resources). In this interpretation, Muti seemed also to predict a bit of Bruckner – Bruckner was an organist and even when he composed symphonic music inserted full and partial stops. Haydn had those there too in this symphony, building blocks for a bigger construction. An unexpected, but clever, way to set up deconstruction of romanticism in Muti’s reading of Bruckner’s 9th.
The last time I heard Brahms‘ Requiem live was also with Herbert Blomstedt in the Musikverein with the Singverein… but a different orchestra. Then (2014) it was the Symphoniker (Vienna’s second-best orchestra, still maybe top ten in the world these days), the night before I moved to Salzburg. Tonight it was the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig (top five, on a par with the Philadelphia Orchestra) in town for a visit. This is the same orchestra which gave the first complete performance of this work back in 1869 (no, Blomstedt was not conducting that night… although it almost feels like he should have been).
I remember that 2014 concert clearly, and although I had not planned to be in Vienna tonight, some workmen at home combined with a public holiday yesterday brought me here and a ticket (in my usual seat, no less) opened up for an otherwise sold out performance and beckoned me back.
The Gewandhaus Orchestra is somewhat more dainty than the Vienna Symphony, and Blomstedt was its music director from 1998-2005, making him quite familiar with its strengths. As a result, tonight’s concert was probably a little less driven than I remember the 2014 interpretation – possibly not as memorable. But Blomstedt milked the bittersweet tones from the woodwinds (it’s called a “requiem,” after all – although not a traditional one – yet it has a certain sweetness in the sorrow). The orchestra and chorus sounded delicate but still full – it’s a big piece, but cannot become overbearing. Restrained but at times exhuberant – indeed it looked like the measured Blomstedt almost started dancing at points – but at other points the tragedy nearly brought the house down.
We opened with the low strings, which quietly got the Musikverein’s floorboards vibrating, opening to an otherworldly choir. The tympani highlighted the swells, particularly in the second movement, to pure devastation. And the at times Blomstedt’s construction, and the implementation by orchestra and chorus, produced the foreboding effect of tolling bells.
Blomstedt stood to conduct (in contrast with this summer at the Festival, when he conducted sitting), but still moves a little more slowly than last year. He’s 90 years old: the twinkle in his eye does it all. The Gewandhaus Orchestra also has a throwback tone to another era (founded in 1781, this was Mendelssohn’s orchestra in the mid 1800s and one which guards its traditions well). Blomstedt knows that, and knew when to make this unusual work by Brahms sometimes more classical in nuance (if romantic in construction) playing on the orchestra’s strengths.
The Singverein blended perfectly with the Orchestra, as did baritone soloist Michael Nagy. The soprano, Hannah Morrison, seems not to have gotten the memo, however. Her voice is quite pretty at the lower volumes, but when she had to add more heft it became a tad bitter and forced. She seems to be a baroque specialist, and this work may just have been too much for her.
Rossini: L’Italana in Algeri
Today is Austria’s state holiday, so as a good patriot I donned my Tracht and went to the opera for a rare mid-afternoon performance at the Staatsoper (with one nice ticket front row on the balcony amazingly available). Rossini‘s Italian in Algiers provided sufficient amusement, in a 30-year-old dusted-off staging by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle.
While I appreciated the simplicity of the staging, I was never quite sure Ponelle understood the opera. The main part of the set remained the same throughout – representing an imaginary Ottoman palace in North Africa – with additional scenery (or curtains) added and subtracted throughout. This concept worked to put the focus on the singers, which was fine. The problem was that the blocking was too static. The music, and the absurdities of the plot, call for farce, and Ponnelle included sight-gags which demonstrated his awareness of the musical surroundings. But mostly the characters stood there and rolled their eyes at each other (wasn’t that Mozart’s criticism of Italian opera drama – fat people standing at opposite ends of the stage rolling their eyes at each other and calling it love? But while often true of Italian opera, Rossini above all others in Italy understood crazy farce and his works lend themselves to hammed-up and active on-the-move comedy).
One nice touch Ponnelle added (although I don’t know if it was intentional) was the use of screened boxes overhanging courtyards typical in Islamic architecture. These allowed women to stay modestly out of sight but able to observe the world of the men below through the ornate wooden slits. In this staging, the men often hid in the boxes to observe the women, flipping the Islamic practice. And this opera indeed was about a clever Italian woman who imposes her rule on and dominates men – the whole plot of the opera, then, is a cultural inversion. If this is what Ponnelle meant by this aspect of the staging, then good on him. It’s just that there was very little else in the staging to suggest this was intentional.
The mostly-young cast negotiated Rossini’s colorful music aptly – with Luca Pisaroni standing out as Mustafà. Antonino Siragusa as Lindoro took some time to warm up, but ultimately showed a strong voice. Bryony Dwyer (Elvira), Manuel Walser (Haly), Elena Maximova (Isabella), and Orhan Yildiz (Taddeo) all had their moments. The real music nuance came from the pit, where the orchestra gave a completely idiomatic interpretation of Rossini’s music – making me almost want to sing and dance along – in proportions that never overwhelmed and perfectly supported the singers, a credit to conductor Evelino Pidò as well.
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 Strauss‘ Death 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.
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.
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: Memnon, Ihr Bild, An die Musik, Der Tod und das Mädchen, An Schwager Kronos, Litanei 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 figlia, Così 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.