Online Highlights (from residual streamings)

Highlights

I was convalescing from dental surgery this week, so although the lockdown is long over and life outside looks reasonably normal, I continue to scan residual streamings for more unusual performances I want to hear.  This seems to include a disproportionate amount of Russian music.

Tschaikowsky: Iolanta and Bartók: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (Metropolitan Opera)

Good to know that sometimes a rarely-performed – indeed unjustly-neglected – opera gets a champion and another chance to re-enter the repertory.  Tschaikowsky himself did not think much of Iolanta, which may have influenced the poor uptake of the work even though its champions included such notables as Gustav Mahler.  Now it seems Valery Gergiev is leading a new charge, working with Anna Netrebko in the title role.  I saw this combination in a streaming from the Mariinsky one month ago (a 2009 production), and was rather pleased to see them reunited at the Metropolitan Opera now (in a 2015 production).  Mariusz Treliński directed both versions.  His staging for the Met essentially followed a similar concept to the one he previously did for the Mariinsky – both rather silly, with no discernable logic to the combination of costumes and sets, but indeed emphasizing the psychological aspects of the drama.  The confusion was inoffensive, if needless, but so long as I did focus on the psychodrama and the singing, I could enjoy the performance.  In addition to Netrebko sounding in top form for the title role, Ilya Bannik sang an elegant King René, Aleksei Markov a strong Duke Robert (a role he also sang in the Mariinsky version), and Elchin Azizov an impressive Ibn Hakia.  Piotr Beczala was uneven as Count Gottfried Vaudemont – his good moments shone, but he also had rougher ones.

If Iolanta provided a psychodrama of a woman moving from darkness to light, then the Met paired this performance with Duke Bluebeard’s Castle by Béla Bartók, in which a woman goes the other direction into darkness.  It’s not at all an easy opera to stage, and so Treliński juxtaposed projections with odd portions of inside and outside spaces with off-balance lighting, seeking to get inside the head of Judith.  I am not sure he succeeded, and in the process he made Duke Bluebeard a more one-dimensional evil character, when in reality Bluebeard is more nuanced and in some ways himself cursed to his fate, hoping Judith will succeed in rescuing him.  That did not come across here.  Nadja Michael and Mikhail Petrenko sang the two roles adequately, but both might have had fuller voices: Petrenko could have been darker and rounder especially in Treliński’s interpretation.  Gergiev appears also to be promoting this rare opera – I heard him conduct it in Moscow in 2011.

Shchedrin: The Lefthander (Mariinsky Theater)

I don’t think I have ever heard the music of Rodion Shchedrin live.  I own a recording of his opera Dead Souls, but other than having listened to that at some point (I don’t remember buying it, so think it was given to me) I don’t remember hearing anything else by him on the radio.  But something pulled me to watch the Mariinsky’s steaming of the world premiere of Shchedrin’s opera The Lefthander from July 2013 (commissioned to open the Mariinsky’s brand new Second Stage).

Supposedly a witty satire on British and Russian society, I missed a lot of the amusement from not understanding Russian (the Mariinsky does not provide optional captions for its streamings, and my residual passive Russian, built up when I worked in Russia from 2009-2011, is no longer up to the task).  But the production by Alexei Styepanyuk was like a lot of other fantasy stagings the Mariinsky has shown in the last few months (including his own staging of the Queen of Spades) – although set in the 19th century, it is obviously not a realistic story, and so the caricatures and sometimes cartoonish settings serve their purpose.  Valery Gergiev conducted a cast headed by Andrei Popov, whose stylized Russian tenor worked well for the title role.  The music itself jumped around modern tonalities on a base of Russian folk melodies – a 21st century outgrowth of the Russian classical tradition.  Was it good music?  Maybe, but it did seem to properly support the operatic story, so at least it was good opera.  I just wish I had understood more of the text.

Prokofiev: War and Peace (Mariinsky Theater)

I may not have appreciated Prokofiev’s War and Peace when I watched it for the first time last week in a streaming from the Stanislavsky.  So I decided to give it another go, to see if I might not take to it more on a second hearing, this week from a 2003 performance streamed by the Mariinsky (I actually own two complete recordings – one from 1961 at the Bolshoi, the other from 1991 at the Kirov, as the Mariinsky was then called – as well as excerpts released from the private archives of Galina Vishnyevskaya from a 1971 Bolshoi production, but until last week had never seen a production on video).  My verdict: unchanged.  Good music, poor music drama.

Valery Gergiev conducted this performance, starring a young-voiced Anna Netrebko overshadowing Vladimir Moroz, as Andrey.  Gegham Grigoryan provided a more forceful presence as Pierre, less timid but portrayed as a bit of an older character than the Stanislavsky had him and that he might seem from the plot (Grigoryan, who passed away in 2016, was the father of Asmik Grigoryan, who made such an impression in the otherwise forgettable Salzburg Festival production of Salome in 2018).  Stage director Andrei Konchalovsky used historical costumes but otherwise an abstract staging, that may have worked – but it was hard to tell, as whatever moron was in charge of filming this performance was having a severe drug trip, using vertigo-inducing camera angles, never from the perspective of the audience and always from bizarre angles that put the stage on steep diagonals which made the cast look like they should have slipped off the set completely (since they clearly were not, this was entirely due to the extreme camera angles).

Mussorgsky: Boris Godunov (Staatsoper)

I never tire of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov.  But I marked this one – from the Staatsoper – down in my calendar as to hear and not to watch.  I saw this production in 2014 and had no desire to see it again.  Director Yannis Kokkos, who despite being Greek seemingly does not have the word “drama” in his vocabulary, delivered a terrible concept: first, he used Mussorgsky’s original version – which Mussorgsky himself had rejected and which will always lack drama, and then did not even try to develop anything beyond that (see my blog review from 2014).  But the music is wonderful, and although it makes every character except Boris himself somewhat one-dimension, this original version does enable whoever sings the role of Boris to have a showcase.  And in this performance, the stage belonged to René Pape, ably supported by the orchestra under Marko Letonja.  I may also call out Ryan Speedo Green, who sang a rousing Varlaam in his brief appearance.

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra: Schostakowitsch

The Mariinsky streamed a concert from the Mariinsky Concert Hall on 25 September 2016, the 110thanniversary of the birth of Dmitri Schostakowitsch.  The first half consisted of chamber music, and the second of orchestral, with two student works framing two Jewish-inspired pieces.  Schostakowitsch wrote his Trio #1 when he was just sixteen years old, and his Symphony #1 as a graduation piece from the conservatory when he was twenty.  Both demonstrate his budding talent at the different Fächer.  The middle pieces were his song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry (performed here in its original version with only piano accompaniment) and his Violin Concerto #1 – both of which he had to hide in his desk drawer due to official Soviet antisemitism.  Sergei Redkin (piano), Pavel Milyukov (violin), and Aleksandr Ramm (cello) performed the trio, with Redkin returning to accompany vocalists Anastasiya Kalagina, Yekatyerina Sergeyeva, and Dmitry Voropayev for the songs, and Milyukov returning for the concerto.  Valery Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Orchestra.  The performance of the concerto stood out in particular for its robustness and vigor – celebrations in the midst of tragedy (kudos to Milyukov).  And the interpretation of the symphony was very powerful, even in its softer moments demonstrating a sense of foreboding.

Philadelphia Orchestra: Bach, Dukas, Rachmaninov, Sarasate, Copland, Stravinsky

The Philadelphia Orchestra has posted on its website its 100th birthday concert from 16 November 2000.  The program opened in dramatic fashion with Leopold Stokowski’s orchestration of J.S. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in d (BWV 565), one of many transcriptions Stokowski did for this orchestra during his tenure as its music director (1912-38).  In keeping with Stokowski’s trends, his version represents a complete reinterpretation of the work more than just an orchestration, here for a full orchestra and emphasizing the Philadelphians’ famous lush strings.  This orchestra also provided the soundtrack for the classic 1940 Disney film Fantasia, in which works such as Stokowski’s arrangement of Bach’s Toccata and the Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas entered American pop culture.  So it was natural to hear these two works lead off the anniversary concert in thrilling, high-octane performances.

Three works for soloists and orchestra followed.  André Watts joined the Orchestra for Rachmaninov’s second Piano Concerto – the Orchestra which Rachmaninov himself had prized so greatly gave the world premiere of several of the composer’s works (although not this one, as it happens).   Sarah Chang then came on for Sarasate’s Fantasy on Bizet’s Carmen (which had its US premiere in Philadelphia, albeit before this Orchestra was founded), and Thomas Hampson for four selections from Copland’s Old American Songs (there would of course need to be some American composition on this program, in this case the greatest American composer of the 20th century, born the same year the Orchestra was founded – apparently two days before, on 14 November 1900).  Watts and Chang grew up in Philadelphia so were likely chosen for sentimental reasons – Hampson did not grow up in Philadelphia (and as far as I know has no particular Philadelphia connection), but was by far the most impressive of the choices for soloists.  It was a great shame they did only four selections and not Copland’s entire song cycle (ten short songs in total, the additional six would have only added another 15 minutes to the concert, so certainly within reason especially for a gala celebration that came in easily at under two hours including applause and announcements from the stage).

The concert concluded with the suite from the Firebird by Igor Stravinsky, for which the Orchestra had given the U.S. premiere – the return to purely orchestral music most welcome and again full-on showcasing the Orchestra’s craft.  Wolfgang Sawallisch, the Orchestra’s much-loved music director at the time, conducted this concert in Philadelphia’s Academy of Music.  The Orchestra today still owns the Academy, although it has subsequently moved to a new hall – sadly, neither the Academy nor the Orchestra’s current venue in the Kimmel Center has decent acoustics, which is a real travesty.  This wonderful Orchestra desperately needs a proper home venue and is until then best enjoyed on tour.  Back when I lived in Zurich, I heard it with Sawallisch in the Tonhalle – where it nearly blew the roof off considering the perfect acoustics in that hall, the best in the world, and the Orchestra simply had been used to having to over-play in order to overcome the Academy’s tendency to swallow sound – as well as in recent years with its current music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin in the Musikverein (another world-great hall), Dresden’s Semper Oper (where sound takes peculiar bounces but remains alive), and the Berlin Konzerthaus (a strangely overrated hall, albeit better than the Philharmonie across town, but still reasonable thanks to the installation of sound-deflecting enhancements around the stage).

Online Highlights from the Corona Lockdown (week 3)

Highlights

When this pandemic is all over, I will either need to rush out to hear live music, or I may never want to see another opera again for the rest of my life.  But in the meantime, I continue to take advantage of the opera (and symphonic) archives being opened up on line during the lockdown.

Wagner: Tannhäuser (Metropolitan Opera)

This week began much as last week ended: with Wagner from the Metropolitan Opera.  A classic Otto Schenk production of Tannhäuser was undermined by Johan Botha in the title role, who basically could not act so stood there while other characters bounced off him, trying to get him to move.  This production has been around for decades, and with better casts.  James Levine has probably been in the pit for many of those as well.

  • [Recording tip:  Of the recordings I own, my go-to version remains the one by Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic, with René Kollo as Heinrich von Tannhäuser and Victor Braun as Wolfram von Eschenbach.  No other version quite captures the drama and elevates the authenticity of the characters the way this one does.]

Poulenc: Dialogues of the Carmelites (Metropolitan Opera)

This mystical opera – about nuns who are martyred by barbaric French revolutionaries – is one of those exceptions that prove the rule that the French do not understand music or drama.  Several French composers (beyond Berlioz, who was pretty consistently good and whose countrymen never properly understood him) could sometimes manage to churn out one decent opera per composer (and maybe one additional work that has withstood the test of time).  Gounod had Faust, Bizet had Carmen, Massenet had La Navarraise (my obscure choice for Massenet may surprise people, but have another listen: it really is his best opera by far), Saint-Saëns had Samson and Dalilah, and Poulenc had Dialogues of the Carmelites.  A suggestive minimal staging by John Dexter was in general sufficient to convey the meaning of this opera (except the final scene, which was supposed to depict the nuns getting guillotined, did not work at all – even without showing them all being executed, Dexter’s timing of the action did not go with the music, which undermined the drama).  Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted in full idiom.  I do not own a recording of this opera, having only heard it periodically on radio broadcasts (possibly all of them over the years from the Met), and this may be the first time I have seen the opera.

Rossini: Barber of Seville (Metropolitan Opera)

The Met’s staging of Rossini’s Barber of Seville seemed a bit odd at first but it grew on me.  I was not sure if it was trying to be realistic or fantastical.  But the concept was to accentuate the farce within this opera, and it ultimately succeeded in doing that.  The extremely tall Peter Mattei as the factotum Figaro hammed it up sufficiently.  Maurizio Benini let the performance from the pit – but with the stage built out around the front of the pit as well, he and the orchestra ended up right in the middle of it all.

  • [Recording tips: I am going to agree with conventional wisdom that the best recording of this opera is the 1958 one with Tito Gobbi as Figaro, Maria Callas as Rosina, and Luigi Alva as Count Almaviva, with Alceo Galliera conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra.  But for sake of being different, I may use this space to point out two unusual recordings worth looking for – not because they are better (they are not), but only because they have excellent acting casts that have a certain charm of their own.  One is a Moscow Radio recording from 1953 conducted by Samuil Samosud, sung in Russian.  I think I originally bought it (when I lived in Russia) solely because I was trying to collect recordings of Mark Reizen (who sang Basilio here), but I ended up enjoying the whole thing.  Another is a 1966 live recording from Vienna, sung in German, which gives the opportunity to hear Fritz Wunderlich as Almaviva just a few months before his untimely death.  The remaining roles are filled out by stalwarts of the Staatsoper ensemble under the baton of Karl Böhm.  Rossini doesn’t really work in Russian or German per se, but these recordings in local vernacular do provide a chance to hear the opera differently and have some additional fun with it.]

Verdi: Don Carlo (Metropolitan Opera)

The Met’s confused staging (by Nicholas Hynter) of Verdi’s Don Carlos could not decide if it wanted to be traditional or modern and failed miserably at both.  Roberto Alagna was nowhere near in his best voice as Carlos, sounding strained and often off-pitch.  The Met likely has many versions of this opera in its archives, with better casts and better stagings, so it is a mystery why they chose to put this one up.  Nézet-Séguin did his best to be dramatic in the pit, but he can’t do everything.

  • [Recording tip: This is another one of those operas where one recording far exceeds everything else.  In this case, it is the comprehensive concept thoroughly thought through by Carlo Maria Giulini for the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, with Plácido Domingo as Carlos, along with a truly dramatic cast including Montserrat Caballé, Shirley Verrett, Ruggiero Raimondi, and Sherrill Milnes.]

Saint-Saëns: Samson and Dalilah (Mariinsky Theater)

I realized that the Mariinsky, by far Russia’s best opera house, is putting up a cross-section of performances (not just operas – in fact, actually not many operas) during the lockdown.  So over it was electronically to St. Petersburg for Saint-Saëns’s Samson.  As I said above (and often enough before), with the exception of Berlioz, the French generally seem to lack any understanding of music or drama, but Saint-Saëns showed some talent (not that he used it much) and wrote one complete opera that passes muster.  I had seen a staging by the French-trained Greek director Yannis Kokkos before (at the Staatsoper: a production of the original – rejected for good reason by the composer – version of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov), which was dark, static, and totally missing drama.  That must be his way of doing things (presumably his French training), because this production of Samson was also dark, static, and totally missing any drama whatsoever.  Ekaterina Semenchuk as Dalilah held up her end of the bargain as much as she could in this staging, but Gregory Kunde as Samson did not, with a voice that lacked sufficient dramatic heft, particularly in the lower register.  Valery Gergiev, in the pit, is usually a better judge of casting in his house.

  • [Recording tip: since I don’t think I have ever heard a recording by a French opera house that passes muster either musically or dramatically, I default to a non-French recording of this opera.  In this case, I revert to a 1948 Bavarian Radio recording conducted by Hans Altman, with Lorenz Fehenberger and Res Fischer in the title roles and Fred Destal as the High Priest.  I’d recommend people have a listen to this dramatic version even if they do somehow find French productions satisfying in ways I never seem to.]

Tschaikowsky: Yevgeny Onyegin (Mariinsky Theater)

I suppose I could not resist hanging around on the Mariinsky’s site to see what other operas were available.  Tschaikowsky’s Onyegin should not have been unexpected.  But this production, conducted by Gergiev, did not match up to the Met’s production, also conducted by Gergiev, that was streamed last week.  Andrei Bondarenko did not make as dashing an Onyegin as Hvorostovsky.

Schreker: Der Ferne Klang (Royal Swedish Opera)

I decided to finish the week with an unusual choice: Franz Schreker’s The Distant Sound, an opera rarely performed.  I have actually owned a recording of it for many years (a 1990 Berlin Radio recording with Gerd Albrecht conducting a cast headed by Thomas Moser and Gabriele Schnaut), but do not remember when I last listened to it, so thought this was as good a time as any to see if I could remind myself what was up here.  Schreker’s polychromatic musical palette – somewhere between Richard Strauss and Erich Wolfgang Korngold – is on full display in this opera, composed over several years in Vienna during the first decade of the 20thcentury.  There is no particular reason this opera could not be performed more often (it apparently was performed frequently enough in Germany until the Nazis banned it because Schreker’s father was Jewish), but it is probably destined to remain a curiosity.  The Royal Swedish Opera has dusted it off, with a simple but straightforward staging that did not try to do too much.  Daniel Johansson was good as the main male lead, the composer Fritz.  As part of the simple concept by Christof Loy (a German opera director who seemed to have a concept and tried to set the actual plot of an opera!), the chorus morphed among different roles in each scene, much like a Greek chorus, but that worked here.  What may not have worked was that many of the singers doubled up in roles as named characters – so not the Greek chorus – and since they stayed in costume this was often confusing.  Was it cost-saving that made the Royal Swedish Opera double cast members up, or was this part of the director’s concept to portray different characters as alter-egos of the same persona (and if so, why?)?  In the pit, Stefan Blunier maintained a good sense of the drama.

Rimsky-Korsakov: Tsar’s Bride (Bolshoi Opera)

I should have known better.  One night this week I tried to watch the Tsar’s Bride by Rimsky-Korsakov streamed from Moscow’s Bolshoi Opera.  I decided to do this purely on the strength of the opera itself, which is rarely performed but really should appear more often.  I saw it four times when I lived in Moscow, with four different opera companies, including this same staging at the Bolshoi (the other performances I saw were by the Novaya Opera, the Gelikon Opera, and a visiting opera company from Rostov-on-Don performing in the Stanislavsky Theater).  But the Bolshoi is an absurd place, which lives entirely off its reputation.  It has not been a good opera house for 40 years, ever since the Communist Party fired longtime general director Boris Pokrovsky (apparently – the story I have heard – because, during one of the all-too-regular waves of official Russian antisemitism, he refused to reduce the number of Jews playing the Bolshoi orchestra), and when I lived in Moscow it was the worst of the seven different opera companies I attended (yet due to prestige – all-important in Russia – it was nevertheless the most expensive).  This performance was, as I should have expected, mediocre.  But not only that.  The Bolshoi fails at almost everything, so it probably should not have surprised me that they could not even succeed in streaming this properly: the stream cut out shortly into the third act (suddenly went off-line to “private” setting).  Since I couldn’t exactly walk away at that point, I threw on a much better recording from the Bolshoi in 1973.  I won’t be going back to the Bolshoi’s streamings again during this crisis – or probably not ever, they’re just a mess.

  • [Recording tip: That 1973 Bolshoi recording may be the best available, with Galina Vishnyevskaya in one of her final performances before she was expelled from the Soviet Union along with her husband Mstislav Rostropovich for their opposition to the regime and support of other dissidents (I suppose that was a better penalty than being sent to the gulags, or being executed).  The cast is from the Bolshoi’s ensemble of singers under the baton of Fuat Mansurov.  I am willing to guess, however, that there may be an even better unpublished version somewhere in the Bolshoi’s archives.]

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra: Tschaikowsky

In addition to Onyegin, the Mariinsky posted a fair amount of Tschaikowsky.  My objection to Tschaikowsky is that much of his music tries too hard to be western, when western Europeans wrote much better material.  His music is pretty enough, but so over-performed – particularly his 4th, 5th, and 6th symphonies – as to have become tiresome.  Where he most succeeded in saying something lasting were in his psychodramas (particularly Yevgeny Onyegin and the Queen of Spades) and in his truly Russian-inspired masterpieces such as the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd symphonies, which are sadly underperformed.  In taking advantage of the archive made available on the Mariinsky website, a performance of the Second Symphony stood out, with Gergiev again conducting.  This may be my favorite work by Tschaikowsky, and Gergiev did it justice with his orchestra.  The performance was recorded on tour in Moscow in the Zaryadye Concert Hall, a hall I do not actually know since it was constructed sometime after I lived in Moscow.  The hall stands in a large lot near the Kremlin which, when I lived there, contained a handful of partly-restored historic buildings which had decayed during the Soviet period and a bunch of tractors whose only reason for being there seemed to be to move dirt from one place to another.  Apparently they subsequently decided what to move the dirt for.

Berlin Philharmonic: Sibelius, Weber, Bartók

I continue to search through the archival materials that the Berlin Philharmonic has made available for a month on its website.  The late Mariss Jansons, who died last November, periodically guest-conducted this orchestra over the years, and a number of his concerts appear.  I would highlight this concert in particular, featuring the First Symphony of Janne Sibelius, the Clarinet Concerto #1 by Carl Maria von Weber (with the Berlin Philharmonic’s principal clarinetist Andreas Ottensamer as soloist), and the suite from the Miraculous Mandarin by Béla Bartók.  It never really mattered what Jansons conducted – there was always some new way to listen.  My own go-to recording of the Sibelius first is also by Jansons, when he was music director in Oslo earlier in his career.  Although he was responsible for raising the standard of the Oslo Philharmonic, it still did not reach the level of the Berlin Philharmonic, and here we have his tremendous interpretation taken to the highest level.

Berlin Philharmonic: Bach, Stravinsky, Mahler

The Berlin archive only has one concert led by Vladimir Jurowski, and this from back in 2011.  Jurowski has always been one of the most exciting conductors of his generation (he’s now 48), and his concerts often provide intelligent combinations of music designed to make listeners think.  The concert available here was no exception.  It opened with Johann Sebastian Bach’s chorale “Von Himmel hoch da komm’ ich her” as arranged by Igor Stravinsky – starting with a brass chorale and moving through the text with Bach’s mathematics and 20th century harmonics.  Jurowski followed this with an altogether stranger work by Stravinsky, his Requiem Canticles – parts of the mediaeval requiem mass reset in a very modern structure – scientific, perhaps, but not necessary with musicality in the forefront.  It’s not that it had to have a tune, per se, but maybe a little less formula and a little more music would have helped.  Still, as an intellectual exercise it worked as a bridge to the main work in the program, Gustav Mahler’s giant student work Das Klagende Lied, in which the young composer, still at conservatory, imagined new musical ways forward (partly under the influence of his neurotic apartmentmate Hans Rott, when they were both studying with Anton Bruckner).  Like with Stravinsky, there is a reverence for the past, the history and building blocks of music, but also a desire to strike out in a new direction.  I own one recording of Das Klagende Lied: a 1997 performance by Michael Tilson-Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.  Jurowski’s interpretation with Berlin is rather more angular and strident than Tilson-Thomas, and the Berlin Philharmonic’s playing more robust than San Francisco’s.  The San Francisco Symphony in that recording (indeed in that period generally) did not sound as muddy as it does now (Tilson-Thomas has been there too long), but the superior virtuosity of the Berliners simply allows for more fine tuning.

Berlin Philharmonic: Wagner, Liszt

Riccardo Chailly brought two Faust-inspired works to Berlin for his guest stint.  The logical pairing (since the composers themselves encouraged each other) of Wagner’s Faust Overture and Ferenc Liszt’s Faust Symphony graced Chailly’s contribution.  Chailly grasped the strengths of this orchestra, which can sound clinical but can also have its technical precision unleashed in nuanced ways for a fulness of sound and excitement.  While every recording I am familiar with of Liszt’s Faust Symphony is missing a little something here or there (my favorite is the one with Leonard Bernstein and the Boston Symphony Orchestra), this performance with Chailly and the Berliners may be close to definitive.

Boston Symphony Orchestra: Sibelius

The Boston Symphony Orchestra, historically one of the best in the United States (and I believe also the best-endowed orchestra in the world), suffered a long, slow, painful decline.  Seiji Ozawa, who may have been an inspired choice to lead the orchestra in 1973, stayed far too long in that post, leading to stagnation by the time he finally departed in 2002.  The orchestra replaced him with James Levine, who had done so much to improve the pit orchestra at the Metropolitan Opera and was looking for a top symphony orchestra to lead alongside his duties as music director at the Met.  Unfortunately, Levine did not have the health and vitality at this point in his career to handle both roles, leaving the BSO rudderless.  By the time he resigned in 2011 (they never bothered to terminate him early, which was another huge mistake), no one could speak of the BSO as a top-flight orchestra.  In that climate, the choice of Andris Nelsons to take over as music director in 2014 was inspired – a young dynamic conductor at the top of his game.  During the lockdown, the BSO is putting up one selection per day from its archives (which then remain on their website – not clear how long they will stay there beyond the end of the lockdown).  As I listened to the selection they provided this week, I found one of the first performances Nelson conducted as music director featured the Second Symphony of Sibelius: here it is possible to listen to the relief the orchestra must have felt, that finally they would be restored to their rightful place.  It’s a moody symphony, but performed here with so much hope.  The excitement is palpable.

  • [Recording tip: I own several recordings of the Sibelius 2nd, but for sheer other-worldliness nothing comes close to the one with Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra.  It is the most recent one I have purchased, and since I added it to my collection I have pretty much stopped listening to the other versions.]

Mozarteum Orchestra, Mozarteum

Kraus, Koželuh, JS Bach, CPE Bach, Schubert

The wonderful Mozarteum Orchestra, under its principal guest conductor Giovanni Antonini presented a concert of historical curiosities in the Mozarteum this evening.  The music was beautifully played (as expected with this orchestra), and was pleasant enough (if not perhaps better suited in temperament for one of their Sunday morning concerts rather than a Thursday evening), but in the end, some composers probably deserve to be forgotten.

The concert opened with the Symphony in c, VB 142, by Joseph Martin Kraus, a German who spent most of his career as a court composer in Sweden and was almost an exact contemporary of Wolfgang Amadé Mozart (born a few months after Mozart, died a year after him).  Kraus composed this symphony in Vienna, and it seems likely (although not fully confirmed) that Joseph Haydn gave its premiere. Haydn is said to have liked this work – but when compared to the master, one wonders if he was just being polite to a friend.  While perfectly nice music (perhaps for a sleepy Sunday morning), it simply said nothing and went nowhere – and considering there was Haydn, there really was no need for Kraus.

Next up came the oboe concerto in F by Jan Antonín Koželuh, a Czech composer slightly younger than Haydn but with a similarly long lifespan.  Of course, if I want an oboe concerto from this period, I would turn to one by Ludwig August Lebrun (a composer who is mostly forgotten, but in my opinion not justifiably – and Lebrun’s oboe concerti are probably the pinnacle of the Fach for that instrument).  But Koželuh’s it was.  I suppose the third movement was playful, at least, but we had to get to it.  Again, perfectly nice music, but nothing to get excited about.  The solo oboist was Albrecht Mayer, the principal oboist of the Berlin Philharmonic, who had a strong but sweet tone (actually, surprisingly sweet for an oboe – normally when oboists sound sweet, they lack substance – I am a fan of the bold nasal twang of the instrument – but that was not the case here, both sweet and substantive).

Mayer and a small ensemble from the orchestra then performed an encore by Johann Sebastian Bach to head into intermission.  After the intermission came a brief symphony in F by one of JS Bach’s sons: Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, a bit older than the pre-intermission group but overlapping, with this symphony falling in the late 1700s as well.   There is of course also a reason that when people refer to “Bach” they mean the father and not one of his composer sons.  Not that the sons wrote bad music, but they did not rise to the level of the father.  Of course in their lifetimes they were well-regarded, but JS Bach has withstood the test of time, with his mathematically-gifted creations.

Some curiosities also withstand the test of time, as was the case of the concert’s final work.  It is not clear why Franz Schubert never finished what is known as his “Unfinished” Symphony.  Whatever the reason, he abandoned it and never intended to publish the two movements he did write (a sketch of the opening of a third movement exists, but is in no shape to perform), which reappeared several decades after his death and entered the standard repertory for good reason.  Antonini started off this performance a bit disjointed, while the orchestra tried to be lyrical – it took until a few minutes into the first movement for them to work out a happy compromise, moving out of the classical period (as for Kraus, Koželuh, and CPE Bach) and fully into the dramatic nineteenth century.  But they got there, and sent us off smiling into the night.  If the other composers were forgettable (albeit worth hearing once for sake of curiosity), Schubert most certainly is not forgettable.

Berlin Konzerthausorchester, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Prokofiev, Tschaikowsky, JS Bach, Rachmaninov

The Berlin Konzerthausorchester, house orchestra of that (over-rated) concert hall and one of the successors of the old Berlin Symphony Orchestra, a once-good orchestra in former East Berlin, has come to Salzburg for a three-day set.

The band was never in a class with the Berlin Philharmonic in West Berlin, but was established by the communists as a cross-town rival and was formerly rather respectable musically.  I am aware that it split at some point, with one successor orchestra keeping the name and the other one keeping the venue (hence changing its name to match the venue).  What I do not know is if that split had any connection to the precipitous drop in quality.  The original band made numerous high-quality recordings that gave it a global profile, and then at some point the orchestra seems to have faded completely from sight (they did come to Salzburg about five years ago, so I got to hear them then too – but in my only visit to Berlin a few years ago, I heard not this orchestra but rather the Philadelphia Orchestra on the stage of the Berlin Konzerthaus.)

One reason that the orchestra is globally much lower profile these days, of course, is that it just is not up to the level (I have not heard the orchestra that retained the “Symphony” name, but have no reason to believe it is any better).  The Berlin Konzerthausorchester is not actually a bad orchestra (I do hear worse in my frequent concert-going), but I score it down because I try to rate orchestras based on their supposed level – I would certainly not criticize a student orchestra for failing to meet the standards of the Vienna Philharmonic, for example.  But given the history of where this orchestra once was, I do think it is fair to treat it as though the expectation is its former standard.

This orchestra performs reasonably well technically, but lacks passion for music (I noticed that when they were here in 2015, so it’s endemic).  Well, maybe actually the woodwinds showed some passion this evening, but that was unfortunate since they really were not all that good, hitting the notes (or most of them) but producing a strained and un-lyrical tone.  The large string section played smoothly but mechanically.  The brass was acceptable.  Actually, the horn section was pretty good, and the percussionists seemed to enjoy themselves.

Dmitri Katayenko took the podium this evening (thankfully: the orchestra’s music director is actually the tedious Christoph Eschenbach, although possibly Eschenbach and the Berlin Konzerthausorchester might be meant for each other).  Kitayenko is good, but only had so much to work with given this orchestra.  The main piece, after the intermission, was Rachmaninov‘s Symphony #2 – indeed, I first heard this symphony on an old Melodiya LP with Kitayenko conducting the Moscow Philharmonic (which he led in Soviet days), and it was that recording that made me an instant fan of this work.  Kitayenko still understands this symphony and crafted it well from the podium.  The orchestra was proficient enough to follow, but not proficient enough to create the full mood or mystery.  There were flashes – particularly when the horns had something to say, as well as much of the final movement.  But more feeling from the orchestra would have helped.

The first half of the concert opened with excerpts from Romeo and Juliet by Prokofiev.  By selecting a handful of spicier numbers, Kitayenko did manage to rouse the orchestra partly.

The star of the evening, however, was the soloist, the 25-year-old Russian cellist Anastasia Kobekina.  She produced a gorgeous dark full sound and had a real personality.  At moments I thought I could hear traces of the lyricism of Steven Isserlis or the warmth of Mischa Maisky.  She is definitely someone to look out for in the future, with a promising career ahead (actually well underway – she started touring young – but as she matures I’m convinced she’ll get even better).  She joined the orchestra for Tschaikowsky‘s Variations on a Rococo Theme, which is not actually a particularly good work.  It starts out with a theme derivative of Mozart and then doesn’t take it anywhere interesting.  But Kobekina outshone the entire orchestra – she was going places.  And she followed this with a JS Bach work for solo cello – far more elaborate than what Tschaikowsky produced, with its intellectual mathematical structures.  And it was nice to enjoy Kobekina’s performance without an orchestra.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Beethoven, Bach, Strauss

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

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

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

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

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

Schumann, Bach, Bruckner, Mozart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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)?

Mozarteum Orchestra, Mozarteum

Schostakowitsch, Haydn, Stravinsky, Liszt, CPE Bach

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

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

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

Hagen Quartet and Sol Gabetta, Mozarteum

Bach, Schostakowitsch, Schubert

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

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

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

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

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

Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Felsenreitschule (Salzburg)

Dvořák, Bach, Prokofiev

Another weekend at the Festival, moving into the Felsenreitschule for the annual Young Conductors Award prize concert, which featured last year’s winner Aziz Shokhakimov, only 29 years old but for the last eleven years the principal conductor of the Uzbek National Opera.  This evening he had the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra at his disposal – a competent if somewhat undistinguished orchestra by Austrian standards (albeit probably better than his own, I am sure).

Shokhakimov provided all of the necessary impulse to drive the orchestral music forward, even during moments of sadness, introspection, or tragedy.  This was especially true in the second half of the concert, with a performance of Prokofiev‘s Fifth Symphony, written in the final year of the Second World War and celebrating impending victory while lamenting the terrible toll.

It worked less well in the first half of the concert, but not because of Shokhakimov.  For Dvořák‘s Cello Concerto, the Romanian soloist Andrei Ioniţă simply sapped all energy from the room whenever he played.  Although sometimes capable of a round warm tone, most of the time he sounded like he was scraping a washboard.  The contrast between the excitement of the pure orchestral passages (of which Dvořák gave us many) and dreary cello solos (not what Dvořák wrote, but what Ioniţă played) were extreme.  Ioniţă came back out for an encore of what sounded very much like Bach (scored for washboard).

(Addendum: I discovered after writing this that the washboard has actually been adapted for use in jazz as a percussion instrument.  That is not that sound I intended to suggest by my description, but rather I meant the sort of sound that might be created by scraping a wire bow across a washboard – not having ever tried that myself, and listening to some jazz recordings of washboards, I wonder if I would even be right.  In short, Ioniţă’s sound was scratchy, rough, and metallic.)

Stuttgart Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Tschaikowsky, Bach, Elgar

Back to the Great Festival House for the third night in a row – but this time a different orchestra, the Stuttgart Philharmonic on the stage, under Israeli-American conductor Yoel Gamzou.  The concert was merely OK – far less rewarding than the Norrköpingers who appeared the previous two nights.

The first half of the concert featured Russian violinist Andrey Baranov, who may be the first Russian I have heard who seems not to get the Tschaikowsky violin concerto.  He came out with a halfway sugary tone (not quite all the way in that direction, but still a bit too much), which contrasted – actually, more conflicted – with the orchestra’s harder edge.  Indeed the orchestra sounded more authentically Russian than Baranov.  After the first movement, Baranov and Gamzou conferred briefly with each other, which seems to have resulted in Baranov trying something different for the second and third movements – trying to achieve a more striking sound, however, Baranov was not quite authentic to himself, and still did not quite mesh with the orchestra although Gamzou clearly also tried to make adjustments.

Baranov gave us two solo encores (not sure what the first one was, but he told us the second was Bach), in which he reverted to his original sweet tone.  Playing without orchestral accompaniment, where he determined the sound, gave him a little more success.  But I still wouldn’t rush out to specifically see him perform.

After the break came Elgar‘s Second Symphony.  I suppose there is a reason this work is rarely performed.  It’s long (almost an hour), big (full orchestra plus), and never gets to much of a point.  Periodically the brass try to get a melody going, but then the music just decides it isn’t necessary and wanders off aimlessly.  For a tonal and late-romantic work it really should say something, but fails repeatedly.

That said, the orchestra sounded very good.  Gamzou, a protege of Carlo Maria Giulini, seemed to have inherited much of the orchestral control of his mentor – with broad but clear sweeps of his body and cascading arms, that the orchestra itself responded well to, with a clear sympathy between conductor and musicians.

Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Dvořák, Rachmaninov, Gluck, Bach

Back again to hear the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra under Andrés Orozco-Estrada in Salzburg’s Great Festival House.  It would appear the orchestra made some adjustments to the hall since Wednesday, as the tone was clearer and some of the peculiarities (like the vibrating forte brass) did not repeat tonight.  So I can possibly put down their Wednesday sounds to insufficient rehearsal time in this hall (maybe – I have no idea; I only know they sounded better tonight).  However, they continue to play with little emotion, more background music for a film soundtrack but without the film.

Tonight’s concert opened with Dvořák‘s tone poem The Midday Witch, a humorous little piece of Czech folklore, which put me at ease that we would not have as murky a concert as on Wednesday.  The music then switched back to Rachmaninov – his fourth piano concerto and the second symphony.

Denis Kozhukhin returned to the keyboard for the concerto.  This is perhaps not as strong a work as the third concerto these forces performed on Wednesday, seemingly lacking direction – a little jazzy, but with no discernable overall concept.  Kozhukhin sounded better – somewhat less pedal – and hit all the notes, but I’m not sure Rachmaninov gave him enough to work with.  His two encores (by Gluck and Bach) repeated from Wednesday and demonstrated more of a match for his style, relaxed and sentimental.

Rachmaninov’s lush second symphony is another moody piece.  When performed right it has a forward drive and excitement to it.  Its legatos would seem suited to this orchestra, but their lack of emotion canceled that out tonight.  It is a long work – nearly an hour – keeping in mood, so it is essential that the conductor and orchestra remain engaged.  The playing was pretty, and the woodwinds especially made an impression, but this performance dragged.  The audience spent the concert audibly fidgeting in the seats.

Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Rachmaninov, Gluck, Bach

The Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra has moved into Salzburg’s Great Festival House for a three-day series of concerts. The first one was part of my Wednesday monthly subscription series, and I also opted for Friday in addition.

The orchestra seems to have become a bit artsy since I last heard it live, now styling itself as the hr Symphony Orchestra (with a lower case hr, short for Hessian Radio – of course Frankfurt is in the German state of Hesse and the state radio is the Hessian Radio, so this name happens to be accurate but peculiar, especially with the lowercase hr). It has a respectable history as the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, so this must be some zany German concept of rebranding a product that does not require a rebranding. One would prefer this orchestra to focus on maintaining its quality rather than coming up with strange marketing gimmicks.

So as for quality: if I did not know the acoustics in Salzburg’s Great Festival House, and/or I were not sitting in my usual seat, I would have assumed that something was wrong with the acoustics in this hall (however I do know the hall and was sitting in my usual spot). The orchestra has acquired a distinctly muddy tone, a bit of a blur as though it were performing in the background of a movie score. As the brass performed forte, there was a distinct vibration, like the sort of feedback that emerges from an old radio speaker when the volume is turned up too high. Of course there was no amplification: this vibration came naturally from the brass, which is just odd. Their Colombian conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada underwhelmed (his previous orchestra, the Tonkünstler of Lower Austria, also saw its level drop noticeably during his tenure).

The young Russian Denis Kozhukhin joined the orchestra at the keyboard for Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto, in what was not a thrilling reading. In fact, maybe the Orchestra was trying to match his style, which sounded like he employed too much pedal and let the notes run together (he hit them all, just not making much distinction). The style may have worked better for two solo encores, by Gluck (an arrangement from Orfeo ed Euridice) and Bach (a prelude), both mellow and requiring less passion than Rachmaninov.

I snuck out at intermission, only because my late-scheduled extra surgery in Vienna first thing in the morning means I needed to make the last train home, and staying to the end of the concert would have cut it too close. I suspect this orchestra’s rendition of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony after the intermission may have lulled me to sleep, too. I will however return to hear more Rachmaninov plus Dvořák on Friday.

 

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Smetana, Korngold, Bach, Dvořák

A pleasantly sentimental Sunday morning concert with the Mozarteum Orchestra in the Salzburg’s Great Festival House may not have overwhelmed, but got the day off to a good start. 

The program opened with the Moldau, the second tone poem in Smetana’s My Fatherland series, which the orchestra performed evocatively under the baton of British guest conductor Matthew Halls.  I was a little worried about the flutes in the long opening passage, depicting the origins of the river, as I was not sure they were coming up for air – but capture a gurgling spring they did, and the rest of the orchestra took it downstream from there until the river met the Elbe.

Austrian violinst Benjamin Schmid, a professor at the Mozarteum who specializes in 20th century music, joined the orchestra for Korngold’s violin concerto.  Korngold, a Viennese Wunderkind with a theatrical flare who landed in Hollywood as an Academy Award-winning composer of film music, repackaged some of his film themes into this concerto, keeping the atmosphere while creating something a bit more serious and charming, which is not performed often enough.  Though technically-proficient, Schmid tried to milk a sweet tone from his violin, with legati and vibrati, but it unfortunately came out somewhat sour.  Korngold said he wanted the soloist for this work to be more Caruso and less Paganini – but Schmid is neither.  Even more sour (since he had no orchestral accompaniment) was his solo encore, which sounded like it must have originally been by Bach, but underwhelmed.

Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony rounded out the program.  Halls seemed determined to emphasize the influence of Brahms on this work.  Brahms did indeed influence and champion the Czech composer.  Brahms, wrote music of the highest quality that was often excessively unimaginative and dull.  But whereas Dvořák learned orchestration and structure from his mentor, he took inspiration from Czech (and other) folk traditions and had something more to say.  The performance this morning managed to leave out the extra meanings, producing just a nostalgic reading of what might have been.  For a Sunday morning, that may have been enough.

Wiener Symphoniker, Konzerthaus

Sibelius, Mendelssohn, Bach

The Vienna Symphony Orchestra, under guest conductor Vasily Petrenko, the talented young music director in Liverpool (and, since I last saw him, now also in Oslo), recreated the magical world of Janne Sibelius at the Konzerthaus this evening, to mark the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth earlier this week.

The tone poem Pohjola’s Daughter led off the program, with the opening cello solo emerging as if out of the floorboards.  The orchestra ensured that this dramatic reading was not just heard but also felt, as the sound started low and slowly enveloped the hall, transporting the audience into a mythical time and place, now made very real.

The Fifth Symphony closed the concert, alternately driving the drama forward and settling in on lush arctic landscapes, proposing a tension between the two moods throughout as it moved to its triumphant conclusion. Sibelius wrote several versions of this symphony before he created the final triumphant one, inspired by a flock of migrating swans.

In the middle, Joshua Bell joined the orchestra for Mendelssohn’s violin concerto. Although I did not see the logical connection to put that concerto into a Sibelius concert, I appreciated the chance to hear a work I have not heard for a long while (and I hear the Sibelius violin concerto relatively frequently already). Bell’s full and warm tone blended beautifully with the orchestra’s, and the smiles that passed between Bell and his colleagues on the stage indicated strong mutual sympathy. Though not as dramatic as Sibelius, moving us from the icy outdoors into the heated salon, Mendelssohn made pleasant music for an early winter’s day, and this was a concert among friends.

Bell added one encore – an arrangement of Bach scored for solo violin by Mendelssohn – in which he charmed the hall with his tones while somehow producing the complexity of a chamber orchestra on his single instrument.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Sibelius, Bach, Rott

I have long wanted to hear a live performance of the Symphony by Hans Rott. While clearly a student work, and left unperformed for over a hundred years after Rott wrote it (and still almost never performed), the symphony had an oversized impact on symphonic music.

Rott was Gustav Mahler’s best friend and apartment-mate when the two studied with Anton Bruckner at the Vienna Conservatory. Bruckner and Mahler both believed that Rott was the more talented of the two young friends. But while Mahler was only neurotic, Rott was psychotic. Convinced that Johannes Brahms was plotting to murder him, Rott was confined to an insane asylum when he was 22, where he died at age 25.

Rott wrote only one symphony, and while it was never performed until 1989, Mahler knew the score and credited Rott’s Symphony as inspiration for his own symphonic output. At the same time Rott composed his Symphony, Mahler wrote Das Klagende Lied, another student work, but the influence is immediately apparent. And as a train of thought runs throughout Mahler’s works, so too does Rott’s concept.

Mahler’s Sixth may be the most difficult of his symphonies to understood – or at least it was so for me. I had been aware of Rott’s Symphony, but when I found a recording of it a few years ago, I finally discovered the key to understanding Mahler’s Sixth (and got new insights into the Seventh, as well). Rott’s Symphony is not a depressive work (as those Mahler works are), quite the contrary, but Mahler, remembering his friend many years later and consumed by his own fatalism, expanded the concepts Rott experimented with as a student.

Today’s performance came at a Sunday morning concert in Salburg’s Great Festival House with the Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra under the baton of guest conductor Constantin Trinks. Although Trinks appeared to know what he wanted to get out of the performance, and the orchestra also played generally well, the whole thing sounded under-rehearsed, with some sloppy cues and missed signals. As the Symphony went on, the orchestra became more comfortable with Trinks, however, and there were moments of pure inspiration. Rott experimented with unusual harmonies and dissonance, taking a step beyond his mentor Bruckner (and probably more than Bruckner bringing Wagner’s developments into the symphonic mainstream) while anticipating where Mahler might go (or indeed possibly inspiring Mahler to go there), and the orchestra pulled these passages off effortlessly. The contemplative Wagnerian moments had required delicacy in the solo or small groups of instruments. The Brucknerian brass chorales that rise above and across each other in the Finale shone brilliantly, as Rott painted with every color on his palette – a wonderful first symphony and a taste of what might have become (or did become Mahler, and then on to Schostakowitsch in one direction, and Schoenberg in the other).

In the first half of the concert, Canadian James Ehnes joined the orchestra for Sibelius’ Violin Concerto. Ehnes has a glittering tone, not overpowering his instrument but letting the sound reverberate into the hall. The orchestra may have come across too robustly – as with the Rott Symphony after the intermission, I wondered whether they had all rehearsed together sufficiently. Sibelius had come to Vienna wanting to study with Bruckner (his favorite composer) about a decade after Mahler and Rott, but the aging Bruckner was not taking new students. Nevertheless, Bruckner exerted quite an influence on the Finn, and it seemed the orchestra was trying to prove that point during this piece by building up stone walls of sound. On the whole, Trinks’ reading did not convince.

Ehnes came out for two encores. Although he did not announce them and I could not identify them precisely, I am pretty certain that they were both movements from sonate by Bach. They emphasized different aspects of virtuosity: one fast, one slow (but with separate moving lines, so that Ehnes essentially provided his own accompaniment on the same instrument). Ehnes’ style actually seemed far better-suited for Bach than for Sibelius – where his Sibelius merely reflected the composer’s sunlight, his Bach shone on its own.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Schumann, Bach, Bruckner

The Mozarteum Orchestra launched its Sunday matinee series for 2015-16 this morning in Salzburg’s Large Festival House with some known but lesser-played, almost experimental, music from the middle of the 19th Century.

Schumann’s “Overture, Scherzo, and Finale” (a rather clunky title after he rejected more logical ones) opened the program.  Although perfectly pleasant, this work suffered from a lack of a coherent concept.  Schumann revised it many times for more than a decade after its premiere, but does not seem to have ever rectified its main weakness.  With an opening almost foretelling Tschaikowsky’s opening to Yevgeny Onyegin (composed a few decades later), Schumann backpedalled into a post-Mozartian muddle before reaching a Bach-like fugue which culminated in a brass chorale almost predicting Bruckner.  Where was Schumann going with all of this?

If he was going towards Bruckner, we did have a chance to find out later in the concert.  But before we got there, German cellist Jan Vogler came out to slog through Schumann’s Cello Concerto.  Again, Schumann produced a perfectly pleasant work which did not say anything.  Vogler’s dry tone easily filled the large hall, but nevertheless came out somewhat subdued rather than expansive.  When the orchestra stood down and Vogler gave a Bach saraband as an encore, the cellist confirmed the impression.  An accomplished musician who formerly filled the first chair of the Dresden Staatskapelle, Vogler’s playing did not lack quality, just dynamism.  Perhaps he should return to orchestral playing rather than a solo career.

After the break came Bruckner’s 2nd Symphony, logically resuming where the first Schumann work at the start of the concert had left off.  Although Bruckner wrote this piece when he was nearly fifty, it is in many ways a young work as he started writing orchestral music so late.  Bruckner never dedicated this symphony, so he offered it to Wagner at the same time as he showed the German composer his 3rd Symphony – Wagner wisely preferred the dedication of the latter, more-mature work.  The 2nd could have used some intelligent editing to tighten the phrases.  Bruckner did produce several versions over the years, but these did not resolve its underlying wordiness.

A driven performance can overcome these defects.  Ivor Bolton, the Mozarteum Orchestra’s music director, did not accomplish this, allowing some of the longer passages to drag.  The orchestra, although falling out of synch now and then, sounded strong and in good health.  Schumann and Bruckner, in these readings, maybe less so.  And while I know from other performances that the Bruckner 2nd can be salvaged, the verdict remains out on these lesser Schumann works.

Armenian State Youth Orchestra, Khachaturian Hall

Rimsky-Korsakov, Sibelius, Bach, Schubert, Khachaturian

The Armenian State Youth Orchestra performed at Yerevan’s Khachaturian Hall this evening, under the baton of Maxim Vengerov.  The hall was packed to overflowing, with the standing-room audience even crowding all of the aisles.  Judging by the number of close protection agents, I assume there were also a lot of government officials in attendance.

Students from the Yerevan Conservatory make up most of the members of this orchestra, supplemented where necessary by members of the Armenian State Philharmonic.  By my observation, the Conservatory must only train students in a limited number of instruments, since half of the woodwinds, all but two of the basses, and the entire brass and percussion sections were clearly not students.  That said, the orchestra – including its student sections – sounded reasonably good.  Another oddity: the student strings (i.e., violins, viole, celli, and two bassists) were obviously trained to sway together like grain in the wind – I know that most orchestras have the strings bow together, but this swaying business was disconcerting.  Two violinists did not get the memo: the second row second chair sat immobile and stared intently at his lap when he played and a woman several rows back swayed completely out of synch with everyone else.

Vengerov seemed to want to protect the students from being overwhelmed by the adults, so he muffled the brass.  This worked for the piece after the intermission – Rimsky-Korsakov’Scheherezade – since the strings lead that work, and their sound represented the waves surging and crashing.  It did not work so well for the concert’s opening work, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Festival Overture, where Vengerov did not permit the brass choirs to soar.

Between the two Rimsky pieces on the program came the Sibelius Violin Concerto, with Jaroslaw Nadrzycki, a young Pole with bizarre technique, as the soloist.  Instead of holding the violin diagonally under his chin and bowing across his body, Nadrzycki held the violin parallel to the floor, stuck his elbow high in the air above his head, and fiddled from above.  I do not know if it was the technique, or some other lack of talent, that produced the thin and sour tone.  The concerto dragged on like this for half an hour.  If Vengerov were going to trot out a young soloist, it is a shame he chose this one instead of showcasing a local Conservatory student – indeed, from the brief violin solos in the Russian Easter Festival Overture, the concertmistress may have been a good choice.  At the very least, he could have let her play the violin solos in Scheherazade, but he brought Nadrzycki out for that too, marring those sections.

For encores, we got three.  One came before the first intermission, when Nadrzycki played an arrangement for solo violin of Schubert’Erlkönig.  This arrangement seemed designed to maximize showmanship and fingering, and to minimize emotion.  The Erlkönig might as well have taken the child and been done with it.

At the end of the second half of the concert, Vengerov came out on stage with his own violin, and teamed up with Nadrzycki and the student strings for the largo movement of Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins.  Vengerov’s sweet and sensitive sound contrasted with Nadrzcki’s tones.

As a final encore, Vengerov knew how to bring the audience roaring to its feet: the Lezghinka from Khachaturian’s ballet Gayaneh.  For this, Vengerov unleashed the hounds, and the orchestra – especially the wild percussionist – played without restraint.