Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein (Vienna)

Sommer, Mahler, Rachmaninov, Schubert, Bartók

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

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

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

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

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

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Ligeti, Liszt, Chopin, Bartók

A mostly-Hungarian morning with the Mozarteum Orchestra in the Great Festival House, with works by LigetiLiszt, and Bartók (and a piece by Chopin that did not belong in this set).

Ligeti’s Atmosphères took a full orchestra and a full polytonality, but broke down the music into smaller components, each one somehow full but without logical progression.  I suppose any given note or measure was sonorous, but when taken all together we got: I’m not really sure.  When members of the orchestra are holding their ears, it is a bad sign.

The Ligeti did serve as a useful preparation for jumping back a century to Liszt’s second piano concerto.  This work did not keep to the conventions of its day, with six segments (not really movements) played without break.  These also did not generally follow melodic lines, but (especially in this reading by the Scottish conductor Douglas Boyd) also could be abrupt like Ligeti.  Yet Liszt was a master of the idiom, and instead of a dialogue between piano and orchestra, as would have been typical, he made the piano part of the orchestral fabric.  Soloist Tsimon Barto and the orchestra gave a robust performance, a strong centerpiece for the Sunday morning concert.

The concert concluded with Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, written from his US exile, as he lay homesick, impoverished, and dying.  Boyd gave the work a somewhat melancholic interpretation as a result.  But Bartók could indeed show himself as Liszt’s heir in the mastery of Hungarian orchestral color, and the musicians of the Mozarteum Orchestra shone, coming into their own when featured.

Between the Liszt and the Bartók works, Chopin’s Andante Spianato e Grande Polonaise Brillante was far out of place, and not juse because Chopin was not Hungarian.  This was a black and white work in a concert full of color.  Juxtaposed on this program with music by his contemporary Liszt, it provided further evidence that Chopin was more curiosity than visionary in the world of mid-19th Century pianist-composers.  The piano parts said little enough, but one wonders why there was an orchestra there at all.  It did not have a dialogue with the piano (as would have been normal), nor did it follow Liszt’s example of embedding the piano within an orchestral palette.  It seemed more of an afterthought, kind of like how this piece might have ended up on the program in the first place.  Barto, a charismatic performer, could not rescue it.

Cleveland Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Bartók, Strauss

The Cleveland Orchestra came to the Salzburg Festival as this year’s American guest, under longtime music director Franz Welser-Möst.  They have a gorgeous tone, but something was definitely missing – perhaps the virtuosity of the Philadelphians, who are in a league of their own among US orchestras, let alone the personality of the Vienna Philharmonic (always the criticism Cleveland’s previous long-time music director Christoph von Dohnányi had of this orchestra, and he obviously liked his own team!).  I was clearly not the only one who felt this way: the applause was lukewarm, and although they looked like they were preparing their music stands to do an encore, the audience actually walked out pretty quickly.  This is probably unfair, since they are still probably among the top 20 orchestras in the world, and maybe #2 or #3 in the United States (Chicago is probably still a notch better than Cleveland, and neither compares with Philadelphia).

The concert opened with Béla Bartók‘s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, an exciting work whose mood jumps around and which the orchestra handled with ease.  The Orchestra does have a wonderful sound, and as a group can capture the swings in this music, but although individual instruments also sounded fantastic, they did not stand out with any particular personality.  That’s OK for orchestal ensemble playing, but the trick is still finding the balance of spectacular individual playing within the group.  And when the music swelled to tutti, it lacked fullness.  It’s not that they did not manage the volume, just that it felt surprisingly thin.

After the intermission, the Orchestra performed Tod und Verklärung and the Four Last Songs by Richard Strauss, without a break.  Welser-Möst presumably did this to capture the quotation at the end of the final song, when Strauss circles back on a theme he had written in Tod und Verklärung almost sixty years earlier.  The playing was sweet – maybe too much so for music leading to death.  The performance lacked a sense of melancholy, especially as Welser-Möst seemed inclined to take faster-than-usual tempi, which left the orchestra missing some cues.  So we raced through the middle of Tod und Verklärung, and the only thing slowing down the songs was the fact that soloist Anja Harteros clearly wanted to go more slowly than Welser-Möst.  He kept getting ahead of her, and then had to slow down for her.  I’d say she was steady, except that her voice wobbled unevenly.

The audience expected more and held this orchestra to a higher standard than it could achieve.  That assessment is probably fair, given how much the Cleveland Orchestra touts itself, but not fair in that if we’d just expected something less we might have come away impressed by some truly beautiful ensemble playing.  When are the Philadelphians coming to Salzburg?

Budapest Festival Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Bartók, Mahler

The Budapest Festival Orchestra came to the Salzburg Festival tonight, conducted by its founder Iván Fischer, to provide new ways of hearing Bartók and Mahler.

Bartók’s Hungarian Sketches for Orchestra opened the program.  An orchestration and elaboration done in the 1930s of music he wrote for piano a quarter of a century earlier, Bartók captured lyrical folk dances.  Fischer and his orchestra performed these as though written for a chamber wind ensemble, augmented by the rest of the orchestra.  The result showed off the versatility of this string section, which evoked the Hungarian traditions.  Where most orchestras have their strings synchronize their bowing, this orchestra had the woodwinds synchronize their own motions – heads flowing up-and-down and side-to-side with the music (with big sweeps – the instruments often shot upwards of the musicians’ heads).

Yefim Bronfman joined the orchestra for Bartók’s Piano Concerto #3.  Bartók viewed the piano fundamentally as a percussion instrument (a view I share), and tonight’s performance verified the assertion.  Although generally lyrical, this concerto – the last composition the composer completed before he died (the Philadelphia Orchestra gave its premiere after his death) – allowed some dialogue between the piano and, alternately, the woodwinds, strings, and tympani, but I do wonder if this piece might have done better if he had simply orchestrated the non-percussive piano parts.  Bronfman treated us to an (unidentified) encore – a flashy and also very-percussive solo piano piece where his fingers and hands turned into a blur as they athletically jumped all over the keyboard.

Mahler’s Symphony #4 is perhaps the lightest and most cheerful of his symphonies.  Not tonight.  Fischer did keep the size of the sound manageable, almost a chamber-music reading (albeit with full orchestra), but this was not by any means a light performance, and it certainly was not cheerful.  I may never have heard this work sound so dark and angst-ridden, and would not be surprised if the suicide rate in Salzburg spikes this evening.

The opening of the symphony dances.  But tonight Fischer inserted extra lilts in the dancing, to keep everything off-balance.  He also exposed separate lines elsewhere in the orchestra which conflict with the flow of one dance while suggesting another.  Yet he did this, keeping the music small – until about ten minutes in when the crescendo introduces the fate motif Mahler would develop in his fifth symphony, here left unresolved.

For the second movement, the principal horn (unidentified in the program) came to the front of the orchestra and sat next to the concert mistress (also unidentified in the program).  This was no sweet duet, but an interogation.  She played the solo violin parts with a sinister glare, while he answered on the horn with a lyrical self-defense.  The orchestra surrounded him with deep foreboding, always off-kilter.

The third movement adagio marked the darkest turn.  Taken at an especially slow pace, and with the orchestra keeping the sound low and delicate, this movement set the scene in nature, the successor of the closing movement of Mahler’s third symphony, but smaller and more contained.  But this was no happy march through the fields, but rather the wanderings of a troubled man seeking his doom in a place of utmost beauty.  The audience, which had been unusually restless through the concert so far, snapped to attention – no one moved, no one breathed, and even the coughing – which had plagued a good number of audience members – ceased.  I think this heart-wrenching interpretation made these ill people see the benefit of killing themselves.

Swedish soprano Miah Persson came out on stage slowly as this movement ended, allowing Fischer to move directly into the final movement.  She ended up standing where the hornist had been, and became subject to the same interogation.  Her sweat voice did not project fully in Salzburg’s Great Festival House, but Fischer kept a cap on the orchestra and never overwhelmed her with sound, although he did with anxiety, as she sang the lyrics about heaveny pleasures.

After several rounds of stunned applause (it was a good applause, but I think the audience was a bit emotionally overwhelmed), and perhaps well aware that they had to restore the audience’s mood after this, the performers offered us an encore.  I’m not sure what it was, but it sounded like a Latin prayer from the late baroque or early classical period.  Perrson sang beautifully, accompanied by a small chamber group within the orchestra.  About halfway through, the rest of the orchestra stood up in their places and joined in as a choir, singing the choral accompaniment.  An appropriate encore – something too cheerful would not work, but the mood had to become more hopeful – which provoked a standing ovation for one more round of applause.

Finnish National Opera (Helsinki)

Bartok, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle; Leoncavallo, I Pagliacci

A strange juxtaposition at the Finnish National OperaBartok’Duke Bluebeard’s Castlepaired with Leoncavallo’Pagliacci.  They did not work as a pairing.  Leoncavallo’s comic tragedy, while perfectly nice, simply cannot hold its ground with the much powerful and altogether gruesome Bartok opera.

The clue to the evening came with some preliminary words flashed on a scrim before the Bartok work (words in Hungarian, presumably from Bartok’s own introductory materials, with translation in Finnish, Swedish, and English).  These words described the ambiguity among reality, imagination, and staging.  In its way, this provided the only conceivable bridge between two completely different operas.  When Pagliacci began after the intermission, it opened backstage at this very opera, with Bluebeard and Judith, still in costume, receiving congratulations from the chorus (dressed as theater staff).  Still in character as a backstage hand, Tonio mingled with this crowd to give his opening monologue.  But the whole concept was stretched way too far.

Indeed, this Pagliacci took place mostly back stage at the Finnish National Opera.  This made the stage rather busy, with chorus members playing stage hands and production staff and running all over the place.  When Canio went off-script towards the end, the other main characters huddled around the person playing the director, who had a large script, and clearly debated among themselves what was happening and how to get Canio back on-script.  Meanwhile, as a comic tragedy, the staging added numerous sight-gags.  These worked to a point, but did prove somewhat distracting.  They also undermined the seriousness of the tragedy, further distancing the Pagliacci from Bluebeard’s Castle.  Indeed, the director could have had success linking the two in a scholarly essay, which might have contained enlightenment, but beyond academic theory, these operas do not belong together.

At the end of Pagliacci, when Canio stabbed Nedda, she screamed and fell off the back of the puppet stage.  There followed more incessant screaming from her.  Silvio belatedly ran to her rescue by climbing up onto that puppet stage to confront Canio.  But instead of Canio stabbing Silvio, as per the plot, the music froze several bars before the end and the curtain dropped.  The conductor, Mikko Franck, left the pit.  What seemed like several minutes of silence later, the conductor appeared in front of the curtain, announced (what are supposed to be Tonio’s lines) that the comedy had finished, and then conducted the orchestra’s final bars.  No.  Just no.

This production overshadowed some good singing, particularly by Stephen Gadd as Tonio and Mikhail Agafonov as Canio.

Perhaps the staging could have worked, if it had followed something more traditional – such as its usual partner Cavalleria Rusticana by Mascagni, for example.  Coming after Batok’s Bluebeard’s Castle just meant that poor Leoncavallo got overwhelmed by a much more serious work.  The staging for Bluebeard was extremely appropriate (this opera has no action and requires no real staging – Bartok placed everything in the dense music and devastating psychology of the characters).  An excellent use of light complimented the music and demonstrated that the director fully understood what Bartok tried to accomplish – no easy task.  Vladimir Baykov, as Duke Bluebeard, kept the edge on his strong voice throughout, and in the end the audience could easily sympathize with the condemned (or damned) man.  Niina Keitel, as Judith, did not quite match his standard, but nevertheless also understood the psychological torment of her character, driven to open one door after an another despite Bluebeard begging her not to, until it became too late and she sank into the earth with his previous wives, leaving him to suffer in inevitable eternal darkness.  And if the evening had ended there, I would have been satisfied.

The Finnish National Opera performs in a 20-year-old hall of extremely tasteful design.  With the sun going down now at nearly 10 p.m., it remained light at the end of the performance.  The lobby has large windows overlooking a lake, and is surrounded by green.  A very pleasant and cheerful venue and worth experiencing.

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Kodály, Liszt, Bartók

Tonight was Hungarian music night at the Musikverein, with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Christian Arming.  Two suites bookended two works for piano and orchestra.

Arming and the Symphoniker performed the Háry János Suite by Zoltán Kodály as a comic-mystery thriller.  The reading did not come directly, but instead incapsulated a mood.  Within that telling, each of the odd instruments in the score provided delightful nuances.  This storytelling was made fun.

Likewise, at the back end of the concert, they provided a similar amount of delight in telling the story, again in suite form, of the Miraculous Mandarin by Béla Bartók.  Where Kodály’s suite had delightful melodies, Bartók’s had delightful rhythms.  A master orchestrator, Bartók wrote some brilliantly imaginative music.  And this orchestra, sounding great, could rise to the challenge.  Each instrument had its lines, and the musicians made the most of the opportunities to showcase their talents.  Arming kept everything together (not easy for this work), well-proportioned, and – importantly – dancing.  Bartók drew great inspiration from Hungarian folk dances, but did not set any of them in this story.  Instead, he incorporated their essence, while producing an original work that has lost none of its sparkle after a century, at least not as performed tonight.

Unfortunately, the middle works in the concert did not come across as well.  Here, Gerhard Oppitz joined the orchestra on the piano for Ferenc Liszt’s First Piano Concerto after the Kodály before the intermission, and Liszt’s Totentanz after the intermission before the Bartók.  He utilized the intimate acoustics of the Golden Hall to make the Piano Concerto more resemble a piano recital, and Arming and the Symphoniker contributed softly in kind.  However, I do not attend piano recitals for a reason.  Even when played well (as tonight), the piano is a fundamentally dull instrument, a tool for a composer to construct more elaborate works, but generally not worthy to stand alone.  Liszt is one piano composer for whom I sometimes make an exception, but this was not idiomatic Liszt.  The Totentanz, though a more rugged work (and indeed very substantial if performed correctly) proved somewhat better, but Oppitz still lacked the necessary oompf.  Beautifully played, but just lacking the drama and intrigue of the 20th-Century works on either side of the program.

Concertgebouworkest, Musikverein (Vienna)

Bartók, Tarrega, Mahler

 

The Concertgebouworkest of Amsterdam and Mariss Jansons came to Vienna for two nights at the Musikverein.  Tonight: Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto and Mahler’s First Symphony.

I did not know the Bartók piece before, but very much enjoyed it.  The concerto had a split personality, with phrases alternating between lively and depressed and never quite settling into one or the other, creating an original sound rooted in 1930 rhythms and advanced tonalities.  The soloist, Leonidas Kavakos, handled these mood swings with great ease, with his phrasing coming across lush or light as necessary, and even turning his Stradivarius at times into a gypsy fiddle in a stroke.  The orchestra always provided the appropriate level and mood of support.  In the end, the piece came across as overall positive… but with an edge.  Kavakos followed up with an encore, Tarrega‘s Recuerdos del Alhambra, which clearly sounded like it had been composed for guitar (as it indeed was), allowing Kavakos to demonstrate versatility jumping around to create a full tone.

Mahler can also be schizophrenic, but rather than alternating from phrase to phrase, he tended to demonstrate two sides to every note.  Jansons’ clear and commanding conducting had no gimmicks, and presented this Mahler in a straightforward manner.

In the First Symphony, Mahler presented himself in his most joyful mood, and there was no need to give it too much angst, so Jansons did not.  The Concertgebouw, one of the world’s greatest Mahler orchestras, filled the hall with just enough sound without blowing the roof off.  The first movement began as it should: hushed but firm.  The dance movement sounded as light as a waltz with a sense of foreboding.  The funeral march celebrated the deceased with a wry smile.  And the finale built up a mighty and delicate wall of sound.  Every note contradicted itself while making perfect sense.

The weather in Vienna has given most people the sniffles, but although people hacked away in the lobby, no one dared cough once during this performance.  If the Concertgebouw orchestra’s contained exuberance did not blow the roof off the Musikverein, then at least the applause at the end nearly did.

Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

Respighi, Bartok, Ravel, Liszt

An afternoon concert of lighter music at the Tschaikowsky Hall, with the Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra under Dyenis Lotoyev.

The concert opened with Respighi’s Suite #1 of Ancient Dances and Airs.  I do not believe that this orchestra often plays music composed before the mid-19th century, and although Respighi wrote this in the 20th century, he based it on Renaissance music.  The orchestra seemed a little lost as a result.  Much of this I can directly attribute to the harpsichordist, who seemed incapable of playing in time, and who must have distracted the rest of the orchestra.  The performance greatly improved in the movements with limited harpsichord, which meant that the orchestra could capture the 20th-century sonorities Respighi used to enhance the music.

Bartok’Dance Suite followed, and here the orchestra was more at home.  Likewise for the piece following the intermission: Ravel’s Noble and Sentimental Waltzes.  I do not listen to much Ravel, since I consider him excessively dull.  But he was good at orchestration, although not as great at it as his reputation.  Both the Bartok and the Ravel pieces, with lots of solo lines emerging from lush scoring, allowed this orchestra to showcase its skilled instrumentality.  This orchestra was formerly known as the USSR State Radio-Television Orchestra, and has retained its standards under its Principal Conductor Vladimir Fedoseyev (who has been at the helm since 1974).  He turns 80 next year and is slowing down, so it will be curious to see who takes over this fine ensemble.

The concert concluded with Liszt’Mephisto Waltz #1, which was more like a scheduled encore than a natural follow-on.  Still nice to hear this orchestra get enthusiastic.

Mariinsky Theater (St. Petersburg), Bolshoi New Stage (Moscow)

Bartók, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle

The Mariinsky Theater performed Bartók’s dark psychodrama Duke Bluebeard’s Castle on the Bolshoi New Stage, with Willard White as Duke Bluebeard, Yelena Zhidkova as Judith, and Valery Gergiev on the podium.

It is obviously hard for me to judge proficiency in Hungarian language, but the two non-native speakers (White is Jamaican, Zhidkova is Russian) gave a fluent and chilling reading. The staging was nonsense – the opera was originally rejected in 1911 as a submission by Bartók to a theater competition because the judges did not consider this opera to contain any theater. Staging should be minimal, and the ability of the two singers to portray the psychological drama determines a successful performance. Although not over-staged, the director was trying to do something on stage, but that something was unclear. White and Zhidkova essentially ignored the stage and got on with their jobs, fully supported by Gergiev and his orchestra in the pit.

I decided to keep my cashmere scarf on when I checked my coat (and my wool scarf). This was a good thing – although the theater was not cold, the performance gave me chills and having the scarf proved useful. The audience stood for a moment of silence before the performance in memory of the victims from today’s terrorist attack on Domodedovo Airport – something which certainly added to the chill.