Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Sibelius, Prokofiev, Strauss

More from Yannick Nézet-Séguin (again filling in for the ailing Mariss Jansons) and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra this morning, with Gil Shaham stepping in for the ill Lisa Batiashvili.  If we are going to get substitutes, those are pretty good ones to have.

I am not quite sure the reasoning behind the collection of works Jansons assembled for this concert (the program remaining the same despite the substitutions), although Jansons has said before that sometimes there is no logic and he just programs pieces he likes.  So we started with the Symphony #1 by Sibelius, then the Violin Concerto #2 by Prokofiev, and finally a suite from Der Rosenkavalier by Strauss.

The program notes made a point of stressing a supposed interest in Tschaikowsky during the time Sibelius wrote his first symphony, which seemed odd.  The origins of the symphony date to his study in Vienna, and Schubert and Bruckner (his favorite living composer) would normally seem to be the most appropriate influences.  I seriously doubt Nézet-Séguin made any decisions on interpretation based on reading the program, but from my side: having read the program, and listening to Nézet-Séguin’s reading, I did hear a few lines now and then (in the strings) or psychodramatic (in the winds) which could have invoked the lush melodic flow of Tschaikowsky.  These either got interrupted, or had a different section perform a completely contrasting line simultaneously and counter to them.  Sibelius was far more original, even early in his career, than Tschaikowsky later in his career, while remaining authentic to his Nordic homeland (where Tschaikowsky sounded less and less Russian later in his career).  Although Nézet-Séguin did not draw out the soaring post-Brucknreian chorales, he did load this symphony up with contrasts and a throwback melancholy.

Prokofiev’s second violin concerto has several moods, based on Russian and Spanish folk music (his wife was Spanish, and this work had its premiere in Madrid).  Shaham does not get the largest sound from his violin, but he moves adeptly among styles, from the robust and assertive to the soft and wistful, with ease.  Nézet-Séguin and the orchestra made a stunning complement to keep painting an ever-broader palate.  (Shaham returned to the stage to do a joint encore with the concertmaster from Prokofiev’s sonata for two violins).

Richard Strauss’ opera Der Rosenkavalier was by design a piece of Viennese nostalgia, even at its premiere in 1911 before the dismembering of the Austrian Empire a few years later.  The suite (arranged with Strauss’ approval, possibly by Artur Rodziński who may also have been aided by his then-assistant Leonard Bernstein) does not follow the plot of the opera, but instead tries to capture its schmaltz.  The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra hammed it up.  (To take down the mood, they added as a final encore more Sibelius: his “Valse Triste” from Kuolema – perhaps connecting the two Vienna-inspired composers at either end of the program).

The orchestra sounded even better today than it did on Friday, with its complete soundscape.  The woodwinds as a unit are nothing short of spectacular.  And they had a great rapport with Nézet-Séguin (in addition to the clear warmth and understanding during the performance, he kept kissing and hugging members of the orchestra as he wandered around the stage between pieces and during the applause to a degree I have not seen him do with the Philadelphians).  One wonders what will happen if Jansons needs to retire and whom the Bavarians might choose to succeed him.

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Beethoven, Schostakowitsch, Mussorgsky

With Mariss Jansons taking a doctor-advised period of rest, Yannick Nézet-Séguin sprung in to replace him on the podium in front of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra for two concerts at this Summer’s Festival.  Nézet-Séguin retained the original programs with one change: substituting Schostakowitsch‘s 5th Symphony tonight for his 10th, paired with Beethoven‘s 2nd (Sunday morning’s concert will remain as programmed by Jansons).

Even if not originally scheduled, the new pairing made sense.  Both symphonies represented, in their own ways, defiance in the face of personal tragedy.  Beethoven wrote his Second Symphony at a time when he was borderline suicidal, coming to grips with the deafness he realized would consume him and the world he knew.  Nézet-Séguin captured pure exuberance.  Whatever Beethoven may have been feeling under the circumstances (and he wrote those morbid thoughts down in words), his music expressed the opposite, full of wit, humor, and life.  Tonight’s performance came fully-charged.

After the intermission came a different take on the Schostakowitsch Fifth.  The composer’s enemy in this case was not nature, but a man, Josef Stalin, the Soviet dictator who had criticized Schostakowitsch’s music and had purged his friends.  Schostakowitch had to produce a symphony within bounds acceptable to the regime, but true to himself wrote something which nevertheless transcended the regime.  Tonight’s interpretation took an unusual route: melancholy.  Neither artificially upbeat nor dark and oppressive, this reading demonstrated an almost-hopeful subtext: things were bad, but the listener should cheer up; the human soul will survive.  So while not up-beat, Nézet-Séguin also did not make this performance devastating: how might the original listeners in 1937 have heard this (not quite a capitulation to Stalin’s criticism of the composer, but rather a new addition to the approved canon).

Foot-stomping applause induced an encore: the prelude to Mussorgsky‘s opera Khovanshchina, which both relaxed the mood while also building on the hopeful feeling derived from the Schostakowitsch interpretation.  Throughout all three works, this orchestra played as a fully-coherent unit: no standout individual instrumentalists, but all working together as an accomplished whole.  However the woodwinds in particular took this concept to a higher level, with evocative wistful playing as a unit, perhaps responding even more than the other sections to the unfamiliar guest conductor’s lead.

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).

Symphonie-Orchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Bruckner

Bruckner’s charming Symphony #5 has many difficult joints.  Unfortunately, that meant that, at the Salzburg Festival tonight, Bernard Haitink and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra limped through a somewhat arthritic performance.  At moments, glimpses of their more youthful days flickered, and overall the performance may have worked, but this is perhaps the hardest of Bruckner’s symphonies to perform, and on the whole I am not sure they succeeded.

This symphony has many delicate moments, often with a pronounced pizzicato.  Done right they can be aetherial.  But the orchestra tonight hesitated at times, and came in too harshly at others, losing the flow.  The joints creeked.  The inner harmonies sometimes jarred off-pitch.  The chorales did not always soar.

On the other hand, the orchestra did allow the underlying influence of Beethoven and Schubert to emerge.  Beethoven’s Fourth, another oft-forgotten symphony full of charm, had inspired Bruckner here, and tonight’s performance contained sufficient glimpses.

Honestly, it was not a bad performance, just a disappointing one.  Neither the orchestra nor Haitink (whom I do not believe I have seen conduct live since my London year in 1991-92) were as agile as they once were, and for a symphony that changes directions so many times, often mid-phrase, they simply could not always manage.

Also impacting my experience were the acoustics: I got a ticket in the back downstairs, and now know that the sound upstairs (even in the last row up top) is better in this hall.

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein (Vienna)

Schostakowitsch, Mahler

I managed to get the last ticket available for tonight’s concert of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Mariss Jansons, performing Schostakowitsch’s 9th and Mahler’s 4th Symphonies.

This was an intelligent pairing.  Both symphonies are somewhat lighter than the rest of the composers’ respective symphonic output.  And although I have never seen it commented anywhere, I realized by listening to the two of them back-to-back this evening that Schostakowitsch (who anyway drew his symphonic influence from Mahler) must have had Mahler’s 4th in mind when he wrote his 9th, as it indeed sounded like a direct derivation.

The performance was fantastic.  Jansons is rightly extremely popular in Vienna, and regularly visits not only to conduct the Philharmonic, but also to bring the two world-class orchestras he leads (he is simultaneously in charge of Munich’s Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, here tonight, and Amsterdam’s Concertgegouw, whom he conducted the last time I saw him in the Musikverein).  Although the 9th is relatively light for Schostakowitsch, he managed to turn it into a fun showpiece.  The orchestra responded to his emotional conducting with precision.

The Mahler 4th, after the intermission, came out a little more ragged – I wonder if the first horn and some of the others might not have opened the Schnapps a little early during the break.  Still, Jansons can draw a bright reading out of anyone (probably helps that he started his career in the Soviet Union, and so must have gotten used to drunk musicians).  The young Swedish soprano Miah Persson performed the solo adequately (actually, I looked her up after the concert and she is older than I am, but seems to have only begun her singing career recently).  The concert master, as well as the principal flute, piccolo, clarinet, and bassoon, all deserved their several extra rounds each of applause.

I could see from my seat that the orchestra had sheet music for some Dvorak piece waiting on their stands (I could not read what piece it was, though), but despite the loud and very prolonged applause, we got no encores.  After the orchestra eventually left the stage but the applause still would not stop, Jansons himself came back out for a solo bow – but a conductor solo does not an encore produce.  I suppose he could have waved his baton at the audience and commanded us to sing something, but we left.