Online Highlights from the Corona Lockdown

Highlights

With the world on pause due to the latest pandemic, cultural institutions have gone online.

I myself fled Salzburg and decamped home to Vienna before the authorities ended freedom of movement, so that for what looks like will last at least one month on lockdown, I can be more comfortable than I would be if crammed into my small Salzburg pad (my office is in Salzburg, and it’s just too far from Vienna to commute daily – all I really need in Salzburg is a place to sleep, with a reasonable kitchen, bathroom, and balcony for when I do spend Summer weekends there).  In Vienna, I have a good kitchen stocked with sufficient food, a cellar full of Georgian wines, and my private library (including my CD collection – and good external speakers for my laptop), so can survive more than a month if necessary.  My own day job goes on remotely, so it’s also good to have a home office with a desk and printer.

My ticket for a new Vienna production of Rigoletto was refunded – that show won’t go on.  A chamber concert of music by Moishe Weinberg in Salzburg will, I hope, be rescheduled (no refund yet – but I’d rather hear the concert so happy to wait to see about the new date).  My April trip to the US is off, so I lose a chance to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra in its annual concert in memory of my father (would have been Beethoven’s Ninth this year – but not only my trip but also the concert itself is anyway canceled).  We will see when and whether concerts resume this Spring, or indeed for the Festival this Summer (I got my applications accepted for 19 tickets, and since I usually manage to add new ones during the Summer this would have meant my most performances ever at the Festival, surpassing last Summer’s final total of 19).  We will see.

At night, after work, I have been able to take advantage of the new offerings available online.  I am not going to pretend this is the same as hearing music live, but it’s nice to get some variety I might not have otherwise had.

Every evening the Staatsoper releases a new video available for that night.  New York’s Metropolitan Opera does the same (but with the difference in time zones, this comes after midnight here – thankfully I am nocturnal).

I am now halfway through the Staatsoper’s current production of Wagner‘s Ring cycle, which they have spread out over two weeks (so far just Rheingold and Walküre).  The staging is blah – I am not sure that the vapid German director Sven-Eric Bechtholf had a concept.  If he did, it’s not remotely clear.  Thankfully, it’s not Regietheater, so nothing offends.  But I hope the Staatsoper did not pay him for this lack of imagination.  The cast consists mostly of Staatsoper ensemble members or frequent guests, and does not need to have any star names to succeed dramatically.  I have especially liked the edgy-voiced Thomasz Konieczny as Wotan.  He apparently has sung more Alberich than Wotan, and his voice indeed would be well-suited for Alberich, but the two characters are almost alteregos (“Schwarz-Alberich” and “Licht-Alberich”), so it can work with intelligent singing as Konieczny provides.  In the big roles so far, Evelyn Herlitzius has disappointed as Brünnhilde, her voice is expressive enough but not big enough.  Siegfried (my favorite opera as a child) is tomorrow, and Götterdämmerung (my favorite opera since I was a teen) next weekend.

I actually realized I have not sat through an entire Ring cycle in a while, so even with the faulty staging this is quite a positive outcome of the global pandemic.  Next week, I will also sit through the entire Ring Cycle on four successive nights, courtesy of the Met.  And the Royal Swedish Opera has provided Walküre (just the audio in this case) – in another dramatic reading with only one big-name star, Nina Stemme, as Brünnhilde (a shame she wasn’t contracted by for the current Vienna set!), and a supporting cast that generally held up.

  • [Recording tips: since I am cooped up at home, I do get to tap into my archive to listen to comparative performances.  For Rheingold, the 1958 Solti set with the Vienna Philharmonic made for Decca works for sake of drama thanks to John Culshaw’s brilliant audio engineering; but since George London’s portrayal of Wotan lacks dynamism, I tend to favor the 1953 live recording from Bayreuth conducted by Clemens Kraus, with Hans Hotter as Wotan and a cast otherwise up to the same standards as the Vienna one (in some cases the same singers).  For Walküre, I’ve never found a recording that really does it for me.  There are two conducted by Erich Leinsdorf a couple of decades apart, the first with the Metropolitan Opera has the better cast – there are actually a few of these from the same period, of which I favor a 1940 recording the Metropolitan Opera made while on tour in Boston, with Lauritz Melchior and Lotte Lehmann as a heroic Siegmund and Sieglinde, Marjorie Lawrence as Brünnhilde, and Friedrich Schorr as Wotan; the second Leinsdorf record came with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1962, with Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde and a much better George London as Wotan, and has the more thrilling reading from the pit (indeed, from the orchestral standpoint, this 1962 Leinsdorf version may be the best Walküre available).  For sake of being unusual, I might also suggest seeking out the hard-to-find audio from the 1983 Bayreuth Festival with Georg Solti conducting a Ring cycle that was rightfully panned, but out of which came a surprisingly good Walküre.  Siegmund Nimsgern’s Wotan is similar in style to Konieczny’s in the recent Vienna cycle, Hildegard Behrens is at the hight of her career as Brünnhilde, and Siegfried Jerusalem and Jeannine Altmeier made an excellent pair as Siegmund and Sieglinde.]

Of course, there is plenty of non-Wagner in the Staatsoper’s offering.  In an effort not just to be popular, the Staatsoper also included one 21st-Century opera in its mix: Three Sisters by Peter Eötvös.  That was worth a listen – Eötvös’ music is intelligent and edifying.

From the Met, the highlight so far has been a 2010 performance of Bizet‘s Carmen, with a sultry Elīna Garanča in the title role, overwhelming poor Roberto Alagna as Don José (he was great, but could not compare to her).  A very young-looking Yannick Nézet-Séguin (this production came even before he was appointed Music Director in Philadelphia) provided a perfect spark in the pit.  (Among the other performances the Met streamed was Dmitri Hvorostovsky‘s final public performance, when he returned to the stage for one set of Verdi‘s Il Trovatore, after he began his cancer treatment and before he died.)  The sad side-story from the Met, however, is that this week they fired all members of their orchestra, chorus, ensemble singers, and stage staff and it remains to be seen if the best opera house in the US will be able to survive the pandemic.

  • [Recording tips: I will be a bit zany here, and instead of suggested a “best” recording I will instead suggest one that will make the listener hear Carmen differently.  Carmen‘s international success derives from a production done in Vienna a few years after its Paris premiere.  So how about a German-language version?  The best one of those is a 1961 version from the Deutsche Oper Berlin under Horst Stein, with Christa Ludwig (Carmen), Rudolf Schock (Don José), and Herman Prey (Escamillo).  From a standpoint of drama, it is worth getting over the clumsy German that does not always pass with the music, and just enjoying some fantastic singing actors.]

The most disappointing production I have seen this week, though, was a new one.  The Theater an der Wien (Vienna’s third major opera house) was supposed to open a new production of Beethoven‘s Fidelio this week.  When it was clear a couple of weeks ago that this would not be able to go ahead – and indeed the entire run would be canceled – Austrian television rushed in to film it in front of an empty seats, so that all the work that had gone into producing it would not go to waste.  That was classy.

The problem, though, was the terrible production.  Beethoven’s first attempt at writing an opera did not go well and he gave up.  But he was still under contract, and the impressario was paying his living expenses while he wrote, so he was actually in debt to the impressario – Emanuel Schickaneder – and had to write something to fulfill his obligation, so he grabbed a French play he thought he could set as an opera: Leonore.  It went very badly.  A year later, he revised it.  The second version (now called Fidelio) survived two performances before being canceled.  Beethoven gave up.  About eight years later, with the help of another dramatist friend, he did yet another revision.  This third attempt worked and is the version of Fidelio that became a fixture in the operatic repertory.  Beethoven swore off writing any more operas.

Why anyone would think to stage the first or second versions of Fidelio is beyond my comprehension.  Actually, the music is Beethoven, so it’s great music, and certainly worth the curiosity factor to program selections for concerts.  But it’s lousy opera: there’s no drama (this got fixed in the third version, especially Act Two, which Mahler later augmented by adding the brilliant convention of inserting the Leonore Overture #3, which Beethoven himself realized was not a proper opera overture but a stand-alone piece in its own right, into the scene change).

The staging was blah here too – apparently they hired an architectural firm, which is not who should be doing stagings.  The construction of the stage indeed succeeded aesthetically, and I suppose it worked with this performing version – it, too, lacked drama.  The cast of no-names was mediocre – although it probably did not help that they had to perform this deficient version of the opera.  The Vienna Symphony Orchestra was in the pit (they are world-class, but when I have heard them live in the last couple of years I have noticed they have slipped a bit from where they were a few years ago) under the baton of Manfred Honeck (I like him – he’s certainly the best Austrian conductor working in the US, currently music director in Pittsburgh, and I never understand why his adequate but undistinguished countryman in Cleveland has a higher profile) – but again, the score of this version has no drama, so it’s really hard to make it do anything.

  • [Recording tips: Nothing has yet surpassed the 1969 Otto Klemperer recording of Fidelio with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Christa Ludwig as Leonore, which continues to be my go-to recording.  However, for something different, there is an excellent 1991 version from the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester under Kurt Masur, with some of the same folks who made the 1983 Bayreuth Walküre so compelling: Jeannine Altmeyer as Leonore, Siegfried Jerusalem as Fidelio, and Siegmund Nimsgern as D. Pizarro.  Fun fact: this was the very first CD I owned.  When I bought my first CD player, the electronics shop had a very small collection of classical CDs in the store and I bought this one so I could play something as soon as I got home.]

For non-operatic selections, I have to defer to the Philadelphia Orchestra.  When the City of Philadelphia banned large gatherings due to the virus, this orchestra was supposed to open a series of concerts to celebrate the 250th year of Beethoven’s birth.  That entire series is now canceled.  But they did perform the first concert in the series in front of an empty hall, and posted it on Facebook.  This concert included Beethoven’s Symphonies #5 and #6 plus a world premiere of a work the orchestra commissioned from Iman Habibi, Jeder Baum Spricht, inspired by Beethoven.  Nézet-Séguin’s tempi were far too fast for my taste, but the playing was sublime (they left the concert up online without a clear expiration date, so I recommend searching for it from the Orchestra’s webpage).  This orchestra is by far the best in the US right now (Nézet-Séguin is also one of the best conductors of his 40-ish generation, but he seems to be in a horrible rush here.)

As I write this, I have just finished enjoying a Philadelphia Orchestra concert from one year ago, added free for streaming on their website, with Nézet-Séguin conducting Mahler‘s Ninth, which highlights many of the complex interior lines, played virtuosically by this Orchestra.  Overall a pensive performance, and perfect for an uneasy period in which the world is locked down by a Chinese virus.  The European orchestra Philadelphia is most similar to is the Concertgebouworkest Amsterdam, in terms of having a lot of virtuosi players with fantastic individual lines but who also understand how to blend those thrilling lines into an ensemble whole. Most of the first chairs in Philadelphia are every bit as good as the first chairs in Amsterdam (the Concertgebouworkest is better, as it has more virtuosic depth after the first chairs).

Speaking of the Concertgebouworkest, when Mariss Jansons died last year, they posted for free a nice selection of live concerts he had conducted with them over the years.  Although I have not re-listened to them this week, they remain up on the orchestra’s website.  From the available selection, I’d recommend in particular Tod und Verklärung by Richard Strauss and Mahler’s Symphony #4, but you really cannot go wrong with any of them.

Bruno Walter Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Mozart, Mendelssohn, Tschaikowsky

The Bruno Walter Symphony Orchestra, comprising musicians from Vienna, Bratislava, and Budapest, under its founder and music director Jack Martin Händler, gives an annual concert in the Musikverein near the date of the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, with welcome from the Chair of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.  I was invited once before (I am pretty sure while I still lived in Kosovo, which I left in 2008, so no later than that year), and was kindly invited again this afternoon.

On the program for the 75th anniversary this year: Wolfgang Amadé Mozart and Pyotr Ilyich Tschaikowsky (unclear why these two were selected, and not – say – some composer the Germans murdered in Auschwitz such as Viktor Ullman, for example).  I should probably say, for the record, that I actually do like both composers.  It’s only that their music is over-performed and over-rated, so aside from concerts like these I have reduced my intake (I say as someone who works in Salzburg, where Mozart-worship is a cult, and also as someone who used to live in Moscow, where they do the same for Tschaikowsky).  But I suppose my reduced intake means I can also deal with their music when it does appear on special programs like this afternoon.

The piano duo (and married couple) Sivan Silver and Gil Garburg joined the orchestra for Mozart’s Concerto #10 for Two Pianos and Orchestra.  I heard them perform a few years ago in Salzburg, at that time doing a Mendelssohn concerto for two pianos.  While they played wonderfully together back then, the Mendelssohn concerto, a youthful work, sounded too derivative of Mozart and not particularly original (but Felix Mendelssohn was still a child when he wrote it for himself to perform with his sister Fanny, and which he left unpublished).  So it was nice to hear an actual Mozart concerto, and one written relatively later in his short life (also written for Wolfgang to perform with his sister Nannerl).

I was not previously familiar with this work, and so got to experience it in these conditions fresh.  And fresh it was in the hands of Silver and Garburg, who performed on two interlocking pianos (with lids removed, so both of their sounds emerged from the same place).  They looked across the strings lovingly at each other as they tossed their lines back and forth full of life – indeed a celebration of life that started to make sense as an opener for a Holocaust remembrance concert.  The chamber orchestra accompaniment, under Händler’s light direction, was playful, dashing among and between the piano lines.  This was Mozart at his finest.

Silver and Garburg made the bridge to the concert’s second half by providing an encore: sitting at one keyboard, they performed a four-handed rendition of the scherzo from Mendelssohn‘s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  This captured the Mozartian influence, with the dancelike rhythms leading naturally to Tschaikowsky.

The Tschaikowsky 6th Symphony after the intermission.  I am not quite sure who the Bruno Walter Symphony Orchestra’s members are.  They do enough concerts per year in their three core cities (and some tours) to make me think they are a semi-permanent professional orchestra, but it seemed unclear in their literature (they were founded as an ad hoc orchestra for a music festival in 2004 and stayed together).  One problem I have with Tschaikowsky as a composer is that his later works – the ones most often performed – are insufficiently Russian, and other European composers did western music better (I actually wouldn’t mind if his quite good first three symphonies, for example, were MORE often performed, but they are usually overlooked).  But Händler and the orchestra this afternoon treated the work based on its western inspiration rather than as a Russian symphony, and this idiom worked.  There was one (excellent) exception to this: Händler, born in Bratislava and carrying with him the central European traditions, actually trained at the Moscow Conservatory and so would have brought back with him an ear for Russian sound, and in this case he had the brass – who otherwise played like central Europeans – interject with a bitter Russian technique and sound for the first and fourth movements, adding bite to these movements, making the lively dances have sinister inclinations.  This was intelligent and moving.  The fourth movement then slowly, and appropriately, faded into oblivion.

Volksoper

Kálmán, Gräfin Mariza

The Vienna Volksoper can usually be counted on to spin out Viennese operettas in their natural habitat.  This performance of Gräfin Mariza by Imre Kálmán was idiomatic, if not particularly special in any way.

The (Viennese) director took the decision to move the action to the 1920s, around the time the opera had its premiere.  This proved neither helpful nor unhelpful.  It did change some of the context, but as the dialogue is traditionally flexible they adjusted, and included nothing too extreme (thankfully not a German opera director).  What it meant, however, was a nostalgia for a period in which there had been nostalgia for an earlier period, which itself may not have existed.  So all rather wistful, I suppose – and maybe the bump in setting to the 1920s did not quite reflect that (although maybe there was now nostalgia for the 1920s as we enter the 2020s).

One new plot twist did not work:  Baron Koloman Zsupán was turned into an actor pretending to be Baron Koloman Zsupán.  But the whole point of using that name (and the plot line that explained it – which appeared in this production as well) was that Mariza invents a fictitious fiance, and names him after a character in Johann Strauß II’s Zigeunerbaron, assuming such a person does not exist, only to have a real Baron Koloman Zsupán see the announcement and present himself, this disrupting Mariza’s ruse.  To make this into a an actor on top of that actually removed the humor, not added.

One major bit of dialogue did not work: traditionally in the third act, a stage actor performs what is mostly a stand-up routine (sometimes improvised, but even if prepared in advance then a chance for the comic actor to ham up the plot even more.  In this case, as happens often enough in the Volksoper in recent years, the intendant of the house, Robert Meyer, himself an accomplished comic actor, took on this task.  I like Meyer, but here he flopped completely.  In this version, Penižek, the servant of Princess Božena, is identified as a theater critic she picked up at the theater and engaged as her “mimic” (since in this version she had so much plastic surgery she could not move her face, so Penižek had to provide expressions for her – something else that was just odd.  As a theater critic, he continuously turned his lines into references to the names of various plays.  This was not punning, just a bunch of names.  If it was cute at first, it quickly became tiresome, and seemed never to end.

On the whole, however, the cast was fine.  I think it has actually been a few years since I have seen one of the classic operettas (Strauß – Lehár – Kálmán) at the Volksoper, so the singers on their roster have all changed up since then.  The only one I recognized was Juliette Khalil as Lisa (I had seen her in Benatzky’s Axel an der Himmelstür in 2016), who also had the best voice and stage presence.  The rest of the cast (in addition to Khalil, the lead quartet included Caroline Melzer as Countess Mariza, Carsten Süss as Count Tassilo, and Jakob Semotan as Baron Koloman Zsupán) was perfectly adequate if not special – which essentially sums up the whole production.  Conductor Karsten Januschke kept things going in the pit.

Volksoper

Mozart, Don Giovanni

Question: What does cannibalism have to do with Mozart’s Don Giovanni?  Answer: nothing.  Indeed, what did anything on the Volksoper stage this evening have to do with Don Giovanni?  Also nothing.

The less said about the inept German opera director, Achim Freyer, the better.  If he’s into kinky cannibalism, then I am sure I read in the news reports every couple of years that there are some dark web sites in Germany that will oblige him.

Not only did the staging have no discernible relation to the plot, but it was extra busy to the point of distraction.  The stage hands were wandering around the whole time rearranging things (starting to do so even before the first note of the overture – they couldn’t set the stage up in advance before they opened the curtain?  Really?  Obviously Freyer was trying to make some point here, but what it was is beyond me.  And why the stage hands in street clothes had to be constantly in view moving props – big and small – around was also unclear).

The language of the opera was also confused to the point of distraction – it was performed partly in Italian and partly in German, with no clear reason for the choice of one or the other (often changing mid-line, sometimes dialogues and sometimes arias or set pieces, with all of the characters going back and forth throughout, so not even a logic of certain characters being “Italians” and others “Germans”).  Incidentally, the German version was not even the standard Hermann Levi performing version (that is arguably as good a literary performing version as da Ponte’s Italian original text), so again Freyer made a choice and chose strangely.

The female leads were good, particularly Manuela Leonhartsberger as D. Elvira, but also Kristiane Kaiser as D. Anna and Theresa Dax as Zerlina.  The men less so (they often had difficulty projecting).  Alfred Eschwé led a complete-sounding orchestra with just enough lightness, color, and Viennese charm – if sadly not enough to compensate for Freyer’s mess on the stage.

(And for the prurient who need to know: the cannibalism appeared in the final scene, the morality scene after the final banquet, where tonight the rest of the cast, and a few audience members who got dragged on stage as well, consumed Don Giovanni’s corpse.)

Vienna Philharmonic, Musikverein

Beethoven

I realized I had not heard the Vienna Philharmonic live in over six months, so resolved the problem by snagging a returned ticket for this evening’s concert in the Musikverein with Andris Nelsons performing Beethoven‘s symphonies #4 and #5.

This is actually the second time I have heard Beethoven’s Fourth this month.  The Philharmonic is a different orchestra from the Mozarteum Orchestra, of course, so right there I was always going to get a different sound – bigger, fuller, more nuance.  And by pairing this symphony with his Fifth, the mood was also going to be quite different.  Normally, if paired, the Fifth goes with the Sixth (they were written at the same time and had their premiere at the same concert), but the putting the slightly earlier Fourth in juxtaposition with the Fifth emphasized the progression.

Nelsons took both with a big, rich, and mysterious sound.  He did not emphasize the lighter moments of the Fourth (they were there in full color, though, just worked into the orchestral whole), producing a somewhat edgier mood.  This continued through the first three movements of the Fifth, until the Fifth’s final movement erupted in joy.

As I have mentioned previously, the Fourth often gets lost in between the Third and the Fifth, or gets overlooked with a slender interpretation.  The Mozarteum Orchestra two weeks ago under Joshua Weilerstein, and the Philharmonic this evening under Nelsons, flushed it out.  But having it introduce the Fifth, as Nelsons did, not only highlighted its value in and of itself, but also elevated it to the same level as its more-performed successor.

Orchestral Society of the Association of the Friends of Music in Vienna, Musikverein

Mozart, Bruckner

I woke up early this Sunday morning for a concert of the Orchestral Society of the Association of the Friends of Music in Vienna, the amateur house orchestra of the Musikverein.  I used to attend their concerts periodically, but do not seem to have been in Vienna recently when they were playing, until this morning.  This was probably the best I have heard them sound.  Robert Zelzer, their music director, conducted, 25 years to the day after he made his debut with this orchestra.  

It is fair to say I am sick of Mozart, who is over-performed (and even more so in Salzburg, where I have been based for almost five years).  That said, Mozart is pleasant to wake up to on a Sunday morning, and I also suppose I don’t mind hearing a work I did not previously know.  This morning’s offering was his Sinfonia Concertante for Oboe, Clarinet, Horn, Bassoon, and Orchestra.  Mozart wrote this in Paris for four touring musicians he knew from Mannheim (the clarinet part was originally for flute), but they ended up not playing it and the piece languished in an archive until being discovered 200 years later.  Typically Mozartian, the music danced playfully for thirty minutes.  The team of soloists (Adelheid Bosch, oboe; Christoph Zimper, clarinet; Peter Dorfmayr, horn; and Max Feyertag, bassoon) handled the tricky phrases effortlessly, while Zelzer and the orchestra provided a strong continuo.  A good start to the day.

Zelzer’s reading of Bruckner‘s Ninth Symphony was in general a pretty standard interpretation, which is fine (especially with an amateur orchestra which has not – by my listening in previous years – managed to have the fullness of sound for Bruckner.  But today they did.  This was a sorrowful reading of Bruckner’s final, unfinished, work… but just as we felt the sadness, along came a bit of the Mozartian cheer in the final movement, where the orchestra almost began to dance again.  Well done.

Volksoper

Wagner, Der Fliegende Holländer

I decided to take a risk and snag a ticket for opening night of a new production of Wagner‘s Flying Dutchman in the Volksoper.  The Volksoper, which excels in lighter Viennese fare and non-standard period pieces, does not always quite rise to the larger operatic repertory; furthermore, tonight’s opera director was German (which flashes warning signs) and conductor French (if not a warning, then at least a flag for Wagner).  But I looked at the Volksoper’s preview materials on line and decided it was worth the chance – and it certainly was.

The director, Aron Stiehl, did not provide a standard staging, but he did read the book and make an intelligent interpretation (something his countrymen should also really try doing sometime).  The Volksoper stage is not large, so any staging would require some amount of suggestion rather than realism.  The first thing he dispensed with, therefore, were the ships – making them more an allusion.  With those out of the way, the remainder of the props were not quite minimal but suggestive of something – and hence his interpretation: the Flying Dutchman as a psychological drama.  Costumes were nondescript and of no particular period, so we did not focus on those, and unlike his German colleagues he did not see the need to shock us.  Indeed, by minimizing the distractions, without being minimalist, we focused more on the words and the acting, so that was a win.

I actually had not thought too much before about comedic aspects of the words, but here, for example, Stiehl made fun of the Steersman (as did the rest of the cast) as a somewhat inept buffoon (not just someone who falls asleep at the watch), although one wonders how he got the job if he were really that incompetent.  The strangest deviation was to avoid having spinning wheels completely, instead making women in the second act part of a choral group practicing under the direction of Mary.  The portrait of the Dutchman on the wall was again alluded to but never shown (it would have been hanging on the non-existent wall where the orchestra pit was), and instead the room was filled with paintings of the sea.  I’m not sure that worked.

On the other hand, the Dutchman’s anguish as to his fate was palpable.  He has given up: this will be his final stop, and if it doesn’t work, he will accept death and eternal damnation.  In the final act, Stiehl had him walk in on the conversation between Senta and Erik earlier than where it normally happens.  In the plot, he normally walks in just as Erik is urging Senta to be faithful (meaning to Erik) and not having heard the context misinterprets that as Erik urging Senta to be faithful to her pledge to the Dutchman, after which the Dutchman announces himself, sets sail without Senta, and Senta seeing the misunderstanding throws herself off a cliff into the sea.  In Stiehl’s reading, by arriving early enough to hear the context, the Dutchman understands that Senta is just a child with an obsession, and the best course of action is not to take advantage of her but instead to leave her in Erik’s protection (as she had been) and to leave to his own fate.  Thus in this staging Senta never actually does throw herself into the sea: the opera ends with her walking towards the illuminated waves, but the ending is intentionally ambiguous.  Maybe she will throw herself in to redeem the Dutchman (as the music tells), but on the other hand it all may have been a dream.

To pull this all off required great performers.  The cast was tremendous, headed by Markus Marquardt as the Dutchman, who went through the whole range of emotions and psychological twists Stiehl had devised, with a powerful and expressive voice.  As Daland, Stefan Czerny had a twinkle in his eye, even as (when getting right down to the text) he is essentially selling his own beloved daughter to the highest bidder, which would make him a bit one-dimensional even if so much not in Czerny’s characterful reading.  Meagan Miller, as Senta, also managed to make her character more than just a one-dimensional lovesick teen, although her voice warbled a bit.  Tomislav Mužek, with a pleasant and large tenor, made a forceful Erik, not the landlubber wimp he often comes across as in this sea-based drama.

The orchestra played with both brilliance and nuance.  Conductor Marc Piollet got it.  The sound from the pit was large, but despite that never overwhelmed the singers.  Indeed, the orchestra was itself practically a character in the plot.  Since so much of the staging was allusion, and many of the alluded-to objects (from the Dutchman’s ship to the portrait on the wall) would have been located where the orchestra pit was (based on where the characters were pointing to refer to things), it meant that the descriptive music had to have an even bigger role.  That it did.  And the orchestra had to keep the drama moving, which meant with forward-driving but also tweaking the emphasis (some of which Wagner wrote intentionally off-beat to make the opera feel more uneasy), and so required a full understanding of its role in this production.  In that it fully succeeded under Piollet’s direction.

Glad I decided to take the risk!

Berlin Philharmonic, Musikverein (Vienna)

Abrahamsen, Bruckner

How to make Bruckner‘s Ninth Symphony even more apocalyptic?  Spend several decades collecting the stray pages of the manuscript score from the fourth movement that he was working on when he died, and which his friends and students took away as souvenirs from his desk after he passed on.  Then reassemble the finale.

There have been several versions of the finale to this symphony over the years, but most of them are pure fantasy and have little to do with Bruckner.  But a group of scholars slowly assembled the finale from actual manuscripts.  In some cases they found the partitur, in other cases only the sheet music for strings or other individual parts but the full orchestration is known.  A few very small gaps remain, and they can be filled with educated guesses, at least until the originals turn up.  And it is this reassembled version that Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic use for performances (as far as I know, this is the only conductor/orchestra combination that uses this version – I don’t know if that is because they have some special agreement with the Anton Bruckner Society in Vienna that is sponsoring this work, or if simply no one else feels ready to perform the four-movement version).

Bruckner likely would have made some adjustments anyway, so it is in no way a finished product.  But Bruckner’s adjustments to his symphonies were not always improvements – sometimes they were due to his insecurities and criticism from well-meaning friends.

This morning’s concert was the first time I got to hear this version live, with the Berliners visiting Vienna’s Musikverein.  I do own a recording of these forces performing the four-movement version, so it is not entirely new to me.  But I have wanted to experience it live, and Rattle’s farewell tour with the Berlin Philharmonic featured it, so off I went.

The finale is indeed apocalyptic.  Bruckner was looking forward to what music might become in the 20th century, with dissonance and jarring themes on top of his usual chorale apotheosis.  The first three movements, normally performed to fade into oblivion at the end of the slow movement, here build to the originally-planned climax, and Rattle and the Berliners certainly went in that direction.

Conversely, their performance felt a bit clinical – something I have noticed in general about their Bruckner interpretations in the past.  There was nothing really special about the first three movements (the fourth at any rate has a slightly artificial and unfinished feel).  A little emotion would have taken this a long way.  I wonder what the Vienna Philharmonic, the Concertebouw Orchestra, or the Symphony Orchestra of the Bavarian Radio – all quite different in approach but all consumate Bruckner orchestras in their own right – might make of this performing version.  For all of the excellent technical playing by the Berliners, they did little more than go through the motions.

The concert opened with Three Pieces for Orchestra by the Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen, which had its premiere with this orchestra and conductor last week.  Abrahamsen champions “simplified” music, but it is not minimalism (and certainly not the nihilism of Philip Glass), but rather has all the bits it needs without anything extraneous.  The first of the three pieces was quite lively, as if to wake everyone up for the morning concert.  The next two pieces set a more sedate mood.  As a stand-alone set, it worked quite well.  If Bruckner’s Ninth looked into the future, then Abrahamsen is clearly part of that future.

Philadelphia Orchestra, Musikverein (Vienna)

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.

Philadelphia Orchestra, Musikverein (Vienna)

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.

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

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).

 

Vienna Philharmonic, Konzerthaus

Sibelius, Langgaard, Elgar

I was not planning on going to a concert during a quick weekend trip home, but sometimes I just get curious and grab a ticket if one is available last minute.  The Vienna Philharmonic performed tonight in the Konzerthaus, Vienna’s second major hall, with a concert featuring music by the forgotten Danish composer Rued Langgaard (1893-1952).  Having Sakari Oramo on the podium and Sol Gabetta on cello hardly dissuaded me.

It seems Langgaard’s Symphony #6 (written in 1919-20 and fully revised between 1928-30) is supposed to be typical of his output.  The composer’s father had been a piano student of Liszt, so this became the young man’s starting point – his symphonic writing being more tone poem than symphony, just without the plot.  Apparently he became fascinated with Scriabin, too, so his music showed heavy influence from the zany Russian.  At times, the music also bore a resemblance to that of his contemporary Paul Hindemith (whom he knew).  With all of that said, Liszt, Scriabin, and Hindemith all went somewhere with their music.  Langgaard – although making this symphony a setting of a theme and various variations on it, with theatrical extra brass (a whole additional row of trumpets sat in the choir seats) and percussion, I never got the sense that the work had any particular meaning.

I might give other works by Langgaard a listen (if they ever appear on a concert program – which they never do), but I suppose I can understand why he has not entered the repertory (it’s not bad music, but if we have Liszt, Scriabin, and Hindemith all in the original, we don’t really need Langgaard).  That said, tonight’s symphony was infinitely more original than almost anything composed by Langgaard’s older countryman Carl Nielsen, whose interminable music has inexplicably entered the standard repertory.

To introduce the Langgaard symphony, Oramo opened the concert with Sibelius‘ tone poem Pohjola’s Daughter, in possibly one of the finest performances I have heard of that work.  The opening cello solo was other-worldly, and the various virtuosic woodwinds built on that to take us into the realm of Finnish mythology.  The violin shrieks – depicting the girl’s mocking laughter – propelled the work forward, as the winds tried valiently in back to achieve the tasks she had set for them.  Some of this coloration certainly helped set up the Langgaard work to make it more understandable, I suppose, but Sibelius was the undisputed master of northern color.

After the intermission, Gabetta joined Oramo and the orchestra for Elgar‘s Cello Concerto, demonstrating both dexterity and lyricism.  Elgar used the cello to set out each section of the concerto and then let the orchestra blend in.  Only a rare cellist can effectively lead a whole orchestra, and more rarely when that orchestra is the Vienna Philharmonic.  Gabetta established her mastery this evening.

Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra, Konzerthaus (Vienna)

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.

Chorus and Orchestra of the Cappella Albertina Wien, Franziskanerkirche

Bach, Händel

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)?

Vienna Philharmonic, Musikverein

Haydn, Bruckner

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.

Leipzig Gewandhausorchester, Musikverein (Vienna)

Brahms

 

The last time I heard BrahmsRequiem 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.

Staatsoper

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.

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.