Online Highlights (from residual streamings)

Highlights

Daily life is now returning to normal in Austria, although certain restrictions remain on gatherings and travel.  Live music has resumed, but the halls are not yet allowed to be fully filled (indeed, they are barely filled), so I have not yet gotten in myself.  In the meantime, I still look around for worthwhile streamings being made available in the context of this crisis, but have reduced my frequency as life moves back along.  I look forward to getting live music myself later this Summer at the Festival.

Rimsky-Korsakov: The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh (Dutch National Opera)

Rimsky-Korsakov’s mystical masterpiece The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh somehow never managed to enter into the repertory – perhaps too Wagnerian for the Russians, and too Russian for the west.  It is an opera I am aware of, but have not listened for many years to my only complete recording (a live performance from the Mariinsky in 1994 – confusingly stating “Kirov Opera” on the box even though it was published in 1999 and the Mariinsky’s Imperial-era name was restored from the Soviet-era “Kirov” in 1992).  But the Dutch National Opera provided a stream of a 2012 performance, which gave me a chance to see it.  Marc Albrecht led the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra.  Standing out from the cast, Svetlana Ignatovich sang Fevroniya and Maksim Aksyënov sang Vsevelod.

I think I need to go back and listen to my recording from the Mariinsky.  I won’t waste much time on the staging, by Dmitri Tcherniakov, the same person who so badly botched Prince Igor  at the Met that I had watched in May.  This opened well enough – in the wilderness, with the animals surrounding Fevroniya in human form but not altogether departing from the mystical atmosphere.  But then came the modern updating, and as it got deeper into the opera this modernization became harder and harder to sustain.  It’s not that he really deviated from the plot, but singing about a legendary time and set of events but setting the whole thing in a contemporary-ish context created its own discrepancies, and trying to act it out created more (not to mention little intentional nonsensical details like dressing a couple of the Tatars up as Santa Claus).  And while Tcherniakov’s concept recovered a little in the minimalist final act, it came too late.  His modern inclinations, without consistency, increasingly undermined the mysticism that was the entire point of Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera.

Prokofiev: War and Peace (Stanislavsky Opera)

Another seldom-performed Russian opera, Prokofiev’s War and Peace, popped up from the Stanislavsky Opera.  When I lived in Moscow, I found the Stanislavsky a reliable venue for my opera addiction.  Most of the Stanislavsky’s productions tend towards the under-stated, which usually works just fine.  In this case, not unusually for the Stanislavsky, its director Aleksander Titel provided realistic costumes but abstract staging.  I suppose this worked, and it certainly gave the cast a chance to act (kudos to Natalia Petrozhitskaya as Natasha, Nikolay Yerokhin as Pierre, and Dmitry Zuyev as Andrey in this 2013 performance conducted by the Stanislavsky’s music director Felix Korobov).

In the end, though, the opera itself did not convince me.  Not having read the underlying Tolstoy novel, I cannot say to what degree Prokofiev had simplified the plot, but on its own I came away feeling like his adaptation did not work.  The gaps were too great to make a coherent opera – indeed, he might even have simplified more and just focused more narrowly so as not to try to spread so thin, or he might have extended the length in order to include more context and development.  Or he could have taken a Tschaikowsky-style approach and made it into a psychodrama, concentrating on the mental state of the characters and forgoing much plot at all.  Musically, too, Prokofiev’s idiom, so good in so many other symphonic works from symphonies to concerti to ballets to film scores, lacked drama, plodding along through the first act and disjointed through the second.  Given that he had borrowed some of this music from earlier works, where it did fit better, I wondered if this was just laziness and failure to commit to thinking this work through originally.  So I will not chalk this opera up as one of Prokofiev’s better efforts.

Strauss: Salome (Metropolitan Opera)

When I saw that the director, Jürgen Flimm, was German and looked him up to discover he was a pioneer of Regietheater, I assumed I was just going to listen to and not watch this performance.  But I quickly realized that, wonder of wonders, he actually decided to stage the plot.  The setting itself was odd and inconsistent but not inherently bad – it was a mix of styles from the turn of the 20th century, so Middle Eastern colonial uniforms for the guards, European high society for the royal family and their guests, Haredi for the Jews (that hasn’t changed), southern US black Sunday best for the Nazarenes, and John the Baptist in rags.  The stage was split between an indoor part (looked like it could have been on a luxury liner) and an outdoor part (stylized Middle Eastern desert).  The usual problem with updated the timeframe of an opera is that some of the references do not make sense, which requires either further changes to the plot to accommodate or else weird juxtapositions (like people carrying swords and spears in a contemporary context) – but with care a director can make Salome timeless yet consistent.  I am not sure any of this particular early-20th-century framing made any sense, but it could safely be ignored because Flimm indeed focused on the interactions among the characters, which were slightly more hands-on than usual, and generally consistent with the words being sung (or at least within the realm of reasonable interpretation to elucidate the plot).  The physical approach amplified and clarified the psychological.  And that level of attention made this a highly enjoyable production.

Unfortunately, the cast was less good.  They all pretty much acted their roles well, so again visually this all worked, but if I had only listened to this performance I would have come away disappointed.  Karita Mattila gave a very large-voiced reading of Salome, but she also often avoided coming in on pitch, and seems not to have understood that the role – although requiring enormous vocal stamina and range – is of a 16-year-old girl, and she did not capture that element of delicacy (it’s enormously hard to sing a huge role delicately, but that is what is required).  Juho Uusitalo (it must have been Finnish night) sang John the Baptist poorly.  His voice simply did not resonate (nor was he on pitch, so some of his exchanges with Mattila became painful).  Joseph Kaiser as Narraboth also could not sing to save his life (Narraboth commits suicide, so he did not save his life, but it’s a key role early in the opera and matching him up with Mattila and Uusitalo early just made me wonder what was going on there musically).  Actually, Mattila’s pitch improved after Narraboth committed suicide and the Baptist returned to his cistern – although her tone still remained wrong.  Yet all of them could act.  And when Herod (Kim Begley) and Herodias (Ilikó Komlósi) came out, they had their roles down well vocally.  The minor roles were all uneven.  Conductor Patrick Summers tried to put this all together from the pit for this 2008 performance, and he mostly succeeded even if hampered by a strange-sounding cast.

Concertgebouworkest: Beethoven

The Concertgebouw Orchestra has posted a row of Beethoven Symphonies – #4  through #8 – recorded in 2013-2014 under the baton of Iván Fischer.  These performances are fully charged, climaxing in the 7th.  But I might instead focus on the last in the series.  Fischer brought out an unusual degree of tension in the 8th, making this symphony appear much bigger than normal (if not in actual size then certainly in its stage presence).  This lighter foil to the 7th is in Fischer’s interpretation almost its equal in impact, and in fact it was terrific to hear this interpretation immediately after listening to the 7th.  If not quite as wild a dance as the 7th, it is still a dance.  Fischer and the Concertgebouw made a strong case for this underperformed symphony to appear more often on concert programs (indeed, there are those of us who do admire Beethoven’s eighth, but even for us this interpretation expanded its potential).

Online Highlights While Waiting for Live Music to Resume (week 9)

Highlights

The government this week released some guidelines for the resumption of public performances.  It was not all that clear how they will work in practice (basically they won’t).  The Bregenz Festival announced it would skip this year.  The Grafenegg Festival will go ahead reconfigured with outdoor performances featuring musicians based in Austria (we certainly have plenty).  And the Salzburg Festival announced what we already knew: it will take place in some form, but nothing resembling what was planned… details by the end of May.  As for the return of concerts and operas in the Fall, who knows.  What a mess.  So I remain, sampling offerings online.

Wagner: Parsifal (Bayreuth Festival)

Having seen some absolutely atrocious stagings of Wagner’s Parsifal last month, I felt I needed something better.  The “Fidelio” streaming service (courtesy of the Volksoper) provided me with a production from the 1981 Bayreuth Festival, directed by the composer’s grandson Wolfgang Wagner.  The production was actually rather simple, in some ways basic with inexpensive-looking costumes (not that a lot of monks in the early middle ages would have had expensive clothes), painted backdrops substituting for scenery, and melodramatic acting.  Actually, maybe the acting was a bit too melodramatic.  But even without providing new insights it did not get in the way of a basic understanding, something that could not be said about the stagings I streamed last month.

Hans Sotin carried the role as Gurnemanz.  As Parsifal, Siegfried Jerusalem matured noticeably (and not just from gaining a beard in the final act) through the opera from fool made wise through pity to king of the realm of the Grail.  Eva Randová provided a multi-faceted Kundry.  Bernd Weikl sang better than he acted, although this may have been Wolfgang Wagner’s stage direction rather than a fault from Weikl.  Horst Stein may have gone a little fast in his tempi.  But then the slow-motion stage direction might have been unbearable if Stein had kept more traditionally-paced tempi.

Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Bayreuth Festival)

I stuck with Bayreuth and a staging by Wolfgang Wagner for Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.  On the whole, this 1984 production was effective.  While it may not have pushed the realm of giving any new understanding to the opera, it remained relatable.  The characters in this opera are not gods nor figures from legend, but humans, and the staging made them human.  They may not have always interacted naturally, or pulled off their acting assignments generally, and glossed over some of the humor (Meistersinger is supposed to be a comedy, after all), but they still generally presented a couple of (albeit fictitious) days in the life of their town.  And the strong cast generally sang their roles idiomatically.

The nice sets, although grand, also came across as almost intimate: Act 1 took place in the corner of the church; Act 2 in a leafy square; Act 3, scene 1, in a simple room in Sachs’ home that was almost cell-like (although perhaps too grand a space for a cobbler, even a worldly one as the real-life Sachs had been); and Act 3, scene 2, indeed took place in a field (as it is supposed to be, but without Nürnberg in the background).  The blocking was playful, if not always obviously comic.  There was some strange camera work during the second act fight scene, using lots of close-ups, but since the people fighting were the chorus and not professional stuntmen, this came across as rather silly.  Normally the fight can be disguised a bit in the theater (and we all know they are opera singers and not street brawlers), but the close-ups exposed that the fighting just was not very realistic, compounded by the funky expressions on everyone’s faces.  That said, I do suppose Meistersinger is a comedy.  And the flying leap that David made onto Beckmesser, which set off the brawl, was indeed quite humorous in its way.  In the final act, instead of running away, Beckmesser goes into the crowd to watch Walther’s prize song, and even he in the end is won over.  At the very end, Sachs even shakes his hand – an act of reconciliation.

Bernd Weikl starred as somewhat haughty Sachs (pretending to be modest, but he knew who he was).  Hermann Prey’s Beckmesser took some getting used to – while a bit of a caricature, it was also clear why he is also a mastersinger and should have a lyrical voice.  Siegfried Jerusalem was a dashing Walther von Stolzing, and Graham Clark a lively David.  Mari Anne Häggander (Eva) and Marga Schiml (Magdalena) portrayed their roles as somewhat much older than they should have been, although vocally they were fine.  Horst Stein conducted again.

Mascagni: Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo: I Pagliacci (Metropolitan Opera)

David McVicar’s staging of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana at the Metropolitan Opera took place not in a village, but on a large rotating wooden stage surrounded by villagers who moved their chairs around, pranced flailingly, or who knows what they were doing besides distracting everyone.  McVicar is generally quite good but has a tendency to create busy stagings – which work when they focus on the plot, but don’t work when they are just busy for the sake of it.  When the villagers were not around, the intimate scenes and interactions between the main characters more successfully elucidated the story, particularly for Marcelo Álvarez (Turridu), Eva-Maria Westbroek (Santuzza), and Giorgi Gagnidze (Alfio).  Álvarez and Westbroek strangely had trouble at times staying on key, as did the chorus, making me wonder if something was off with the streaming even though nothing obvious was.  Fabio Luisi conducted.

In the second half of the double-bill, McVicar also gave Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci a peculiar staging, opening in what looked like some tacky vaudeville theater to reveal behind the curtain: the mid-1900s.  This actually worked quite a bit better than his odd setting of Cavalleria – the change in time was not really material, and the busy details here contributed to a lively interpretation (especially the twentieth-century slapstick update of the Commedia dell’Arte that had inspired it).  It is precisely in these sorts of detailed thoughtful interpretations that McVicar succeeds best.  Álvarez (as Canio) and Gagnidze (as Tonio) returned, now with Patricia Racette (as Nedda).

Verdi: Rigoletto (Metropolitan Opera)

I started to watch this version of Verdi’s Rigoletto, but the 2013 Met Opera staging (by Michael Mayer, apparently some trendy hack from Broadway) was too absurd, set in a sleazy casino with the Duke seemingly the casino singer, Monterone an Arab sheikh, and I did not stick around long enough to figure out who everyone else was supposed to be.  So I just listened, particularly to Piotr Beczała’s charming Duke and Željko Lučić’s on-edge Rigoletto (who could still show such tenderness for his daughter Gilda, here portrayed by Diana Damrau), who made it worthwhile.  The Met’s orchestra sounded a tad thin under Michele Mariotti.

Donizetti: Don Pasquale (Staatsoper)

A bit of a silly staging of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale from the Staatsoper – by the Frenchwoman Irina Brook.  It was thankfully not Regietheater but somewhat of an updating of the plot into a modern nightclub with Don Pasquale apparently as the proprietor.  I’m not sure what her point was, though.  The 2016 cast featured Michele Pertusi in the title role and Dmitry Korchak as Ernesto, backed by the Vienna Ensemble, notably (and happily for my ears) Alessio Arduini as Malatesta and Valentina Naforniţă as Norina, all keeping their humor up on stage.  Frédéric Chaslin conducted.

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra: Howell, Elgar, Weinberg, Knussen

Poking around the “Fidelio” streaming service to see if it had more music by Moishe Weinberg, I came up with a concert from the Royal Albert Hall and the 2019 Proms, with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla performing Weinberg’s Third Symphony.  This made quite a contrast to the only other work by Weinberg which I could find on the “Fidelio” service, his opera The Passenger, which I watched a couple of weeks ago.  Whereas the opera was brutal, brash, but ultimately defiant, the symphony was lyrical but wistful, charming but sad.  I had not heard this symphony before, but as with most of Weinberg’s compositions, it was well worth discovering.  I listened twice to make sure I heard every brilliant nuance (Weinberg’s music is so brilliantly complex on so many levels that I am sure I still missed a few).  Gražinytė-Tyla is a skilled interpreter and promoter of his music, now at the helm of her own orchestra (which ranks alongside the Rotterdam Philharmonic, the Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra, and the Tonhalle Orchestra of Zurich in a class by themselves of top European provincial orchestras).

The first half of that concert opened with the tone poem Lamia by Dorothy Howell, which had its premiere at the Proms one hundred years before (making this an intentional commemoration), when the composer was 21 years old.  It, in turn, was based on a poem by John Keats, which he had written exactly one hundred years before that.  The music, by an otherwise forgotten British composer, worked fine as a tone poem, but was in the end not more than a curiosity that will likely return to oblivion (it’s not bad, and who knows why some works of less quality become more standard parts of the general repertory, but there is also no reason this should get more attention).  The same could not be said of Edward Elgar, whose Cello Concerto followed: this is a work which started off mostly ignored (despite being championed by such greats as Pau Casals) but gradually became a standard.  A then-twenty-year-old Sheku Kanneh-Mason as the soloist was nothing short of impressive – this is a difficult work to pull off even for a fully-mature artist, full of passion and deep feeling, but the young cellist more than mastered it.  He added a Saraband for solo cello by Weinberg as an encore.  The concert’s first half concluded with “The Way to Castle Yonder,” an orchestral excerpt from Higglety Pigglety Pop! – a children’s opera based on a Maurice Sendak book – by Oliver Knussen.  I had heard of Knussen before, but do not believe I had heard anything written by Knussen before.  So now I have.

Vienna Philharmonic: Beethoven, Bruckner

The “Fidelio” service also has in its archive Bernard Haitink’s last concert at the Salzburg Festival, the third-to-last stop of his farewell tour of Europe with the Vienna Philharmonic before he took his “sabbatical” (from which it is widely believed he knows he will never return).  I attended this concert, but found it worth listening again to hear Haitink lead the orchestra in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #4 (with Emanuel Ax) and Bruckner’s Symphony #7.  My impressions from last summer have held up on a second listen. (My review from 31 August 2019 is on this blog – incidentally, the stream edited Ax’s encore out completely, so I still have no idea what he played.)

Boston Symphony Orchestra: Tschaikowsky

The Boston Symphony has decided to continue to post on its site (for a limited but not-specified amount of time) a curated selection of performances from its archives, which it considers transformative, now going up weekly rather than daily.  These are generally individual works rather than entire concerts.  To highlight Erich Leinsdorf’s farewell spring as the Orchestra’s music director in 1969, they posted a warhorse: Tschaikowsky’s Fifth Symphony.  This is one of these far-too-often-performed works that I have said should generally be removed from concert programs unless people have something new to say (such as a spectacular performance of it I heard in Dresden a few years ago with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin).  Here, indeed, Leinsdorf and the BSO rose to the occasion.  The first movement had a relentless pacing (not fast, just strident).  The second captured lyric nuances in the winds which often get blurred, over an underlying tension.  The third movement danced, as it should, but the dance increasing went on its edge: could be in despair, except that it led into the triumphant final movement.  This performance produced more sound than the BSO normally manages, and indeed the stage looked crowded, but Leinsdorf had indeed expanded the BSO’s repertory, and nothing prevents more intimate-sounding orchestras such as the BSO or Leipzig Gewandhausorchester from doing justice to the larger works.  And it is performances such as this one which keep this particular symphony in the forefront of the repertory.  It is also such special performances like this that mean most other orchestras and conductors should remove it from their repertories completely.

Philadelphia Orchestra: Verdi

The Philadelphia Orchestra offered a performance of Verdi’s Requiem from 2012, one of Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s first concerts as Music Director, starting the Orchestra’s reemergence from its doldrum years under Eschenbach and Dutoit.  The musicians were there, so it’s not like the orchestra itself required an overhaul, but having good leadership makes a huge difference.  In this concert, that became palpable.  It started off quietly, almost delicately, remarkably so for what grows into a bombastic piece, but this just highlighted Verdi’s powerful writing (even the soft passages have their own fateful power).  Excellent soloists (Marina Poplavskaya,Christine Rice, Rolando Villazón, and Mikhail Petrenko) – who themselves did not try to be bombastic but rather provided sympathetic and almost lilting lines.  The Westminster Symphony Choir added wonderful color.

There was a certain catharsis with this concert – the Orchestra knew that happy days were ahead, and this requiem mass may well have been a mass for the Orchestra’s lost decade.  In the end, Nézet-Séguin held the silence out – especially noteworthy considering that American audiences tend to be quick to applaud and do not necessarily respect that hold.  But here the audience remained mute for the duration until Nézet-Séguin lowered his arms long after the music ended.  From the knowing looks on the musicians’ faces, they felt it too.  Welcome back to the pantheon, Philadelphia Orchestra – it’s been a stellar rise since then too.

Online Highlights While Waiting for Live Music to Resume (week 8)

Highlights

The lockdown is thankfully over, at least in Austria, so I am getting out more.  But since there is still no live music out there for the foreseeable future, I continue to keep an eye out for worthwhile things to see online.

Mozart: Marriage of Figaro (Metropolitan Opera)

I have to admit: I have never quite taken to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro.  I’ve sat down to listen to it more than a few times, and usually give up after the first act.  I don’t turn it off, I simply leave it in the background.  While the music is beautiful, I never felt that it went anywhere, at least not to merit my further attention.  I’ve never been tempted to go see it.  I own one recording – bought early in my CD collection (a 1953 Salzburg Festival performance with a tremendous cast) since at that time I thought I still needed a recording of this opera – and then I basically never listen to that complete in a single sitting.

This remained the case, at least, until the Met streamed a 1998 performance, in a delightful staging by Jonathan Miller with an unbelievably perfect cast.  Perhaps if I had started with this production, I might have appreciated this opera more.  Miller left room for the singers to act out their roles to the fullest, which they did, creating pure comedy while still maintaining full musicality.  The cast could act.  The cast could sing.  The farce was every bit as hilarious as Rossini’s Barber of Seville (same characters set earlier, but which Rossini wrote later), just in a Mozartian style.  Renée Fleming (Countess), Cecilia Bartoli (Susanna), Susanne Mentzer (Cherubino), Dwayne Croft (Almaviva), and Bryn Terfel (Figaro) all captured such humor.  James Levine, still at the pinnacle of his career, conducted.

Strauss: Capriccio (Metropolitan Opera)

Renée Fleming has in recent years owned the role of the Countess in Capriccio by Richard Strauss (she has owned so many roles, actually).  She sang the part when I first saw this opera in Vienna in 2008, and in this 2011 performance from the Met here she was again.  The cast around her was idiomatic as well (Morten Frank Larsen as the Count, Joseph Kaiser as Flamand, Russell Braun as Olivier, Peter Rose as La Roche, and Sarah Connolly as Clairon).  The staging was not the timeless one of the Staatsoper, but updated into the twentieth century (exactly when is hard to tell – the lavish set suggested an over-the-top traditional country estate, the costumes could have been out of the 1980s – my father might have felt comfortable dressing that way in the 80s, although he would never have worn shoes inside the house, and this was certainly not our house since we neither had an inherited estate nor would we have decorated it that way if we had had).  Still, this opera does not require any particular time period, so the staging (by John Cox) worked.  What did not work in the end, or at least less well, was the music.  That’s not Strauss’ fault, so it must have been the Met orchestra under Andrew Davis, who did not capture the lush score.  The Met orchestra will never be the Vienna Philharmonic, but there had been a time when it was a top-rate opera orchestra – by the season when this was recorded, the first season when James Levine, who had done so much to build up that orchestra decades before, publicly had to admit he was no longer fit for the job as the Met’s music director, the orchestra had suffered noticeable decline.  Fabio Luisi took over many of Levine’s duties starting in 2010-11, and the orchestra began to improve again, but that season may have been its nadir.

Borodin: Prince Igor (Metropolitan Opera)

Because of the unusually-difficult provenance of Borodin’s Prince Igor, the director can basically decide how to assemble the opera – which music to use or omit, and in what order to perform it.

And because there is no fixed version of Prince Igor, I am fine giving great leeway to the construction of the opera.  Choosing which pieces to assemble and in what order to put them may indeed result in a not fully-logical result (and it would not be the first opera to have an illogical plot).  But whatever the choice, there must be some dramatic conception for how the director assembles it.  So while musically this performance from the Metropolitan Opera was objectively fine, the lack of clarity in the concept sapped its drama.  Gianandrea Noseda, conducting, did not do a bad job, but he could not overcome the direction by Dmitri Tcherniakov.  Likewise, a cast headed by Ildar Abdrazakov as Igor, supported ably by solid performances across the board (especially Oksana Dyka as Igor’s wife Yaroslavna), simply failed to inject life into this fundamentally dull production.  And that’s on Tcherniakov’s head.

It probably did not help that Tcherniakov could not figure out a timeframe for his concept (moving around in time, sometimes different characters in different centuries on stage simultaneously, and none of them in the 12th century, when the action takes place).  But that probably was not fatal.

After the usual prologue, Tcherniakov moved the first act (which in this case is essentially the first of the Polovtsian acts) into a field of flowers with characters wandering in and out speaking to or around Igor (even when they aren’t supposed to be in front of him – such as Vladimir and Konchakovna, or not supposed to be there at all, such as Igor’s wife Yaroslavna) and Igor speaking in front of them.  The result came across as a disjointed set of arias with no inherent logic (I suppose if Borodin left a jumble, Tcherniakov just kept it as a jumble, but there’s no reason to believe Borodin wanted a jumble).  When the Polovtsian chorus sings at various times (they remain offstage except at the end of the act when they dance among the flowers) a film is shown on the scrim depicting the aftermath of the battle in which their armies defeated Igor’s.

Another disconnect of putting this act immediately after the prologue: it contains the plot line that Igor’s son and the Khan’s daughter are already a couple, to the extent that Konchakovna has already raised this potential marriage with her father (and they speak of it, oddly in this production, in front of but not to Igor).  Yet much later in the opera Yaroslavna is informed for the first time that Igor was captured, which would imply that she somehow did not know this for a very long time.  While there was no internet or 24-hour news back then, this is still a bit odd.

At the end of that later act, when the Polovtsians attacked Putivl (presumably: they did not actually appear), somehow in the confusion the only one who wound up dead was Galitsky (he is supposed to die in the attack, but in this staging there was no actual attack yet he ended up dead on the floor of the stage for no clear reason).  More confusion came in the final act, here the act set in the destroyed city of Putivl, which had now turned into a late 20th-century impoverished ‘hood (think: Bronx, but with no black people).  Igor returned (as he is supposed to), but was greeted by his son Vladimir, followed by Konchakovna, who then sang music from an act (omitted in this version) in the Polovtsian camp before Igor’s escape.  Igor then sat there in the middle of the stage oblivious while the rest of the plot moved on around him.

So while there may be no correct order of the bits of this opera – assembly indeed required – there are incorrect orders.  What did Tcherniakov’s one for the Met do?  It removed the drama, and the musicians simply could not recover.  I don’t think this was quite as bad a jumble as I once saw at the Mariinsky – which felt like they threw the entire score up in the air and performed it in whatever order it fell to the ground – but actually in that Mariinsky performance each scene individually was wonderfully dramatic even while the full concept made no sense.

  • [Recording tips:  In selecting “complete” recordings, I have made my decisions based on the music rather than on the assembly of the opera itself.  On top of that I have a pretty decent amount if excerpts.  So I suppose when listening to the opera I am in general less concerned about whether it makes any sense.  But if I watch it, I want it to make sense.  My two “complete” recordings (since, after all, there is no such thing as a “complete” recording given what Borodin left behind when he died, and that much of it may actually have been composed by Aleksandr Glazunov anyway) are: one from the Bolshoi Opera in 1951 conducted by Aleksandr Melik-Pashaev, and one from the Staatsoper in 1969 conducted by Lovro von Matačić, both live performances with first class casts.]

Tschaikowsky: Iolanta (Mariinsky Theater)

I chose to stream a 2009 production of Tschaikowsky’s Iolanta from the Mariinsky Theater, with Anna Netrebko in the title role and Valery Gergiev in the pit in order to hear this seldom-performed opera done right.  Tschaikowsky himself did not think highly of it, but the music is rather gorgeous (and was appreciated by none other than Gustav Mahler, who knew a thing or two about opera and actively championed it outside Russia).  It’s basically a fairy tale, and taken as such it works.  Mariusz Treliński’s basic modern (definitely not fairy tale) staging, mixing in filmed images with real ones, was pretty silly, but did play up the psychological aspects of the main character (just as long as I did not try to think too hard about the stupidity of the mismatched costumes, sets, blocking, or pretty much anything – thankfully, this was a case of it being so silly that I indeed did not have to think much about it and did just focus on the psychological aspects).  The camera work on the filming followed the same path, often switching intentionally to soft focus to underscore the key plot element that Iolanta herself is blind.  Sergei Aleksashkin was particularly excellent as King René (I’ve seen him before at the Mariinsky as Khan Konchak in Prince Igor and Ivan Khovansky in Khovanshchina), with Sergei Skorokhodov as Count Vaudemont and Alexei Markov as Duke Robert.

Berlioz: Beatrice and Benedict (Boston Symphony Orchestra)

The Boston Symphony Orchestra concluded its six weeks of curated selections by providing a great chance to hear a seldom-performed opera: Beatrice and Benedict by Hector Berlioz.  This performance was fully staged at the Tanglewood Festival in 1984, but the BSO only released the audio recording.  Still, the performance, led by Seiji Ozawa with Frederica von Stade and Jon Garrison in the title roles, was exciting, and a rare chance to have comic relief provided by Berlioz, most of whose works were rather more serious.  From the sound of it, the audience also had a good time!

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra: Rossini, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Beethoven

The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra still has several concerts streamable from its website, and so I continue to pull out ones by the late Mariss Jansons.  I was particularly taken by this particular concert, even if the program itself was a bit of a mish-mash, as Jansons often seems to have intended to do later in his life.  But since it will never again be possible to hear Jansons conduct live, I am thankful for the recordings made available online that truly show why he was the greatest conductor of the last couple of decades, and this concert displayed some of his range.  It opened by a spirited overture to William Tell by RossiniProkofiev’s violin concerto #1 followed with soloist Frank Peter Zimmermann, who also played an encore by Rachmaninov.  A tense but also joyous Beethoven Symphony #3 concluded the concert – worth calling up from their website while it remains posted.

Philadelphia Orchestra: Schubert, Strauss, Dvořák, Berlioz
Philadelphia Orchestra: Mahler

Among the offerings they made available during the closure period, the Philadelphia Orchestra posted two transitional concerts from 1993 and 2011, which were quite enlightening, showing the orchestra in two different time periods under conductors who had actually not yet taken up their posts as music director yet and so were conducting an orchestra they had not yet had the chance to mold – Wolfgang Sawallisch in 1993 and Yannick Nézet-Séguin in 2011 both had the title “Music Director Designate.”

The 1993 concert itself was rather ironic given the current global crisis caused by the Chinese Communist Party penchant for trading in endangered species, operating unhygienic wet markets as breeding ground for new diseases, and orchestrated cover-ups (not to mention trying to gain propaganda value from exporting healthcare materials which turn out to be mostly defective and useless).  The Philadelphia Orchestra was the first American orchestra to be invited to Communist China in 1973, and this concert was performed twenty years later as a commemoration in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People (a misnomer, as the Communist Party of China cares not a jot for its people and has been the most murderous regime in history on raw numbers, dare I also mention Tibet and East Turkestan).  Sawallisch, who would take over as Music Director of the Orchestra a few months later, conducted this one, for a quite standard program: the unfinished Eighth Symphony of Franz Schubert, Till Eulenspiegel by Richard Strauss, and the Ninth Symphony by Antonín Dvořák, with the Roman Carnival by Hector Berlioz for an encore.

What made this concert interesting was actually hearing how different the orchestra sounded then than it does now.  Of course this was a recording using old technology (1993, but it was produced by Chinese television back then), in an absolutely enormous venue.  But I am getting a lot of streamed recorded music right now (plus there is my CD collection), so in the absence of live music (thanks to the Chinese Communist Party and Chairman Xi) this is the new standard.

I was probably too young to appreciate the “Philadelphia Sound” when Eugene Ormandy was Music Director – but I caught him towards the end of his 44-year tenure, and what was clear even to me as a child was that things had become blurry.  No one should stay in charge of anything for 44 years.  Riccardo Muti succeeded Ormandy, which was initially a good thing as it brought back some discipline.  But my assessment of Muti remains pretty  much the same today: he is a fantastic and intelligent guest conductor whose concerts are to be anticipated, and as a music director he will certainly discipline an orchestra’s sound, but he’s not actually a very good music director because he knows only one thing for his orchestras: a Muti sound.  Now, a Muti sound is certainly a good one, but it sacrifices the identity of an orchestra.  So, for example, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra today sounds pretty much like the Philadelphia Orchestra of the 1980s.  Close my eyes listening to the Chicagoans now and I think I am in Philadelphia’s Academy of Music back then (except for maybe the poor acoustics of the old Academy of Music – of course, Philadelphia’s new venue also has poor acoustics of a different sort).  So Muti may have been exactly what this orchestra needed to clean itself up in 1980, but he sacrificed the orchestra’s character.

In this concert, Sawallisch brought a program of standard works that could as easily have been conducted by either Muti or Sawallisch.  And the orchestra was not yet Sawallisch’s as he would not take over until later that year.  So it is a good concert by what was indeed one of the top three or four orchestras in the United States, but it’s neither the orchestra of my childhood nor certainly not the orchestra of today.

Sawallisch was a terrific match for this orchestra, as he maintained its quality but gave it back its distinctive character through the 1990s.  Sawallisch arrived on the back end of his career, never intending to stay long, but stayed long enough to do this orchestra right.  Rather than lining up whatever would come next knowing Sawallisch’s tenure would be short, the Orchestra managed to completely botch appointing a successor and initially ended up with no one.  Sawallisch, by then widowed, depressed, and ill, agreed to extend his contract to give the Orchestra more time.  They ended up with the seriously uninteresting Christoph Eschenbach, who was essentially chased out of town – and still the Orchestra failed to have anyone lined up.  This forced them to go without a Music Director for several years, using Charles Dutoit as “chief conductor” – and if Eschenbach was dull, Dutoit was ten times worse (he had apparently wanted to be music director for decades and there clearly was a good reason they had never appointed him, after all).  The Orchestra literally went bankrupt in 2011.  That was its nadir (although it had so many remarkable musicians – many still there today – it sounded so mediocre in those years).

On to the concert the Orchestra posted from 2011, or at least part of one including Mahler’s First Symphony.  The conductor of that concert was the current Music Director, Nézet-Séguin, at the time when he was still the Music Director Designate.  And while his concert was an improvement, he had not yet had time to fix the Orchestra.  The team was mostly already in place, but this reading of Mahler lacked the intensity and exquisite virtuosity the Orchestra produces as its baseline today.  But fix the Orchestra he did, to get where it is today, in my humble opinion far and away the best orchestra in the United States and among the top five in the world.

I do have recordings of the Philadelphians with Muti in the 1980s and Sawallisch in the 1990s, and they are good recordings indeed, but it is still fascinating to hear the evolution of the Orchestra’s sound.  It is hard to quantify – and if there is a “Philadelphia Sound” I am actually not sure that under Nézet-Séguin he has quite brought it back to Sawallisch or to Ormandy (or Stokowski) but has probably given it a new identity.  And in a sense that’s what Muti did too, so I suppose my only objection to Muti is not the sound (Muti is a fantastic musician and exacting conductor) but that it had no identity under Muti other than Muti (as Chicago today).  So sounds do evolve (although maybe not the Vienna Philharmonic’s), but the distinctiveness is key.

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra and Chorus: Prokofiev
Mariinsky Theater Orchestra: Schostakowitch

The Mariinsky streamed a good amount of not-unexpected music on Soviet Victory Day.  Sergei Eisenstein was one of the greatest film directors of all time from in terms of artistic value.  Among his product were films about Aleksandr Nyevsky and Ivan the Terrible (the first generally a Russian hero, the second a favorite of Stalin), to which Prokofiev provided the film scores.  Schostakowitsch’s Seventh Symphony is also a traditional work performed on that day.  Valery Gergiev conducted both concerts.

The Prokofiev concert took place in 2016 at the Mariinsky Concert Hall, with excerpts from both films: the separate Aleksandr Nyevsky Cantata which Prokofiev himself arranged, and a arrangement of music from Ivan the Terrible (not sure if Prokofiev or Gergiev or someone else assembled it in this condition).  For both, Gergiev took a somewhat softer, smoother approach than normal – not the usual bitter Russian orchestral sound (which I happen to like).  Only Prokofiev’s dissonances created tension.  Ivan the Terrible had a narrator in this version, which turned out annoying, as he interrupted the flow.  It would have been better either go with the complete film with the music serving as backdrop, or to go with the complete cantata without narration.  Or maybe narration between sets (as opposed to talking over the music).  This did not work at all – I just wanted the narrator to shut up so I could enjoy the music.  It was not that the narrator was bad, just the concept of a narrator was.

I suppose a performance of Schostakowtisch’s Seventh Symphony has become obligatory for the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra on Soviet Victory Day (I heard them perform it live that day in 2010).  It’s actually not clear when this performance was filmed – the Mariinsky’s webpage itself said it was done on the day, but there was clearly an audience in the Mariinsky’s new second hall, which would not be possible under Russia’s covid-19 restrictions, so clearly they had filmed it beforehand.  The symphony, called the “Leningrad,” was long used as a propaganda piece, but it is still good music (and of course had a subtext that did not follow the party line, starting with the “invasion” theme of the first movement, which Schostakowitsch did not write to portray the invasion of Russia by Germany in 1941 as the Communist Party announced, but rather had already written two years earlier to portray the invasion of Poland by Russia with its German allies in 1939).  For this symphony, Gergiev did let the orchestra’s more traditional Russian sound emerge.

  • [Recording tips: Gergiev has an excellent version of the Nyevsky Cantata with the same Mariinsky forces (confusingly, the CD jacket calls the Mariinsky by its Soviet-era name, the “Kirov,” despite the 2002 release date).  The 1984 version with Riccardo Chailly leading the Cleveland Orchestra was my introduction to this work and has held up well.  For Ivan the Terrible, the complete film score (without narration) appears in a 2000 version by Vladimir Fedoseyev and the Tschaikowsky Radio Symphony Orchestra of Moscow, a performance that truly allows the music itself to shine.  For the Schostakowitsch Seventh, I remain partial to a 1980 release by Bernard Haitink and the London Philharmonic.]

Online Highlights from the Corona Lockdown (week 7)

Highlights

With the lockdown in Austria now having officially ended on 30 April, I may try to have other distractions in May, but I certainly digested a fair amount of opera during the last seven weeks.  Austria is not completely opening for a long time, and of course there is no live music any time soon, but we can at least get out of the house more.  Several institutions streaming performances online are now scaling back.  Others are moving ahead but beginning to repeat performances (see my reviews here, I suppose, to know what to look out for – or subscribe to the different sites).  So maybe I don’t keep updating this blog every week with online highlights.  We will see what I do.

Many thanks especially to the Vienna Staatsoper, New York’s Metropolitan Opera, St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater, the Vienna Volksoper, the Royal Swedish Opera, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, and the Philadelphia Orchestra, but also to all of the opera houses and orchestras that have streamed so much wonderful music these last weeks – there were many, but even during a lockdown there remain only so many hours in a night, so I merely sampled a selection.  Hope to hear you all in person again soon!

Humperdinck: Hänsel und Gretel (Staatsoper)

Engelbert Humperdinck, a favorite assistant of Wagner at Bayreuth (and who later wrote incidental music for Max Reinhardt productions), turned a lot of fairy tales into operas with a suitably Wagnerian coloring.  Hänsel und Gretel has hung around in the standard repertory, and although popular for children at Christmas time, it often attracts quite serious artists.  It’s fun to revisit this opera now and then.  Here the Staatsoper did a fantasy setting with Margaret Plummer and Chen Reiss in the title roles and Axel Kober conducting.

Weinberg: The Passenger (Bregenz Festival)

This was rough: over on the “Fidelio” streaming site (access courtesy of the Volksoper), I got to finally see Moishe Weinberg’s Auschwitz opera, The Passenger, in its world premiere staging at the 2010 Bregenz Festival.  Set in approximately 1960, a German diplomat and his wife are heading off to Brazil for his new posting when she spots a mysterious passenger on the ship, who reminds her of a Polish inmate at Auschwitz.  This leads her to reveal to her husband that she had been an officer in the SS and indeed an overseer in the women’s camp at Auschwitz.  The rest of the opera mixes flashbacks from the camp with scenes from the boat.

Weinberg’s music is rather grim and never tuneful (but not atonal – typical of Weinberg, the music is dense and complex and plays on multiple levels simultaneously) until close to the end, where the tunes shout defiance.  Keeping with communist propaganda, Jews were almost entirely missing from this version of Auschwitz, except for one inmate from Salonika.  Of course the Warsaw-born Weinberg knew the truth about the Holocaust, the Germans having murdered his entire family.  But even that attempt to follow the Communist Party line did not let his work through the censors.  The Soviet regime suppressed this opera, like they did to so much of Weinberg’s other music.  Although composed in 1967-68 it was not performed until a concert version in 2006, ten years after the composer’s death.  The world premiere staging had to wait until this one in 2010 in Bregenz.

Michelle Breedt sang Lisa, the SS officer and Elena Kelessidi sang Marta, the Polish inmate and the mysterious Passenger (the opera never actually reveals if these are the same person).  A very young-looking Teodor Currentzis (an excellent conductor when he sticks to music – as here – and does not attempt distracting performance art) led the Vienna Symphony Orchestra in the pit.  The staging by the British director David Pourtney fully captured the plot, and was effective at moving back and forth between the two periods portrayed without trying to do too much except let the opera speak for itself.

Boito: Mefistofele (Bavarian State Opera)

Opera in Germany became a bad joke several decades ago, to the point it is no longer safe to go to the opera there.  So I can promise that I did not turn to this Bavarian State Opera production of Boito’s Mefistofele because I wanted to see what yet another trashy German regisseur, in this case Roland Schwab, was up to (trashy is apparently the right word here, since the description said he opened this setting in a garbage dump).  But when searching through the collection available in the “Fidelio” streaming service, this was the only version of Boito’s Mefistofele in the catalogue and I wanted to hear who was singing.  My favorite Italian-language opera is not performed often enough (I’ve only managed to see it live once in person, in Prague exactly two years ago), so hearing it with a top-flight cast today was an objective.

As Mephistopheles René Pape himself was worth the listen, balancing a soothing bass-baritone voice – the temptation of the devil – with menace.  Joseph Calleja as Faust was suitably dramatic and had a wonderful mezza voce at times, but his voice also tended to crack.  Kristīne Opolais was a sensitive Gretchen.  Omer Meir Wellber was the conductor, and was neither here nor there – at times I do think he captured the music, but at others it wandered off, although maybe it would have to do with the staging and there’s not much a conductor can do if the director is an idiot who insists on staging something bearing no relation to the opera on the program.  It also did not help that part of the prologue (set in heaven, to what is supposed to be mystical, uplifting, open music) sounded like it was pre-recorded on a badly scratched vinyl LP (seriously – not a sound issue with the streaming as far as I could tell, so may indeed have been intentional).  Nor that the bumpkins in the audience kept interrupting the performance with gratuitous applause (although they did stop doing this midway through the opera, so someone must have given them a good thwack in the intermission – or maybe they went home and did not come back after the intermission).

  • [Recording tip: Nothing has matched the 1974 set featuring the inimitable Norman Treigle in the title role, backed by Plácido Domingo and Montserrat Caballé, with Julius Rudel conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.  Seriously, nothing comes close, and probably nothing ever will.  I’ve listened to numerous versions, and extensive excerpts with top-notch performers, and this is the definitive recording in every respect.]

Beethoven: Fidelio (Staatsoper)

I could not resist sitting once more through Beethoven’s Fidelio from the Staatsoper in the Otto Schenk staging, which I saw with a different cast last week.  I had remembered Anja Kampe’s Leonore and Valentina Naforniţă’s Marzelline fondly from when I saw this production live in 2013, so tuned in to see them again in this streamed 2016 performance.  They were every bit what I remembered, and although Camilla Nylund sang a good Leonore in last week’s streaming (from 2017), Kampe easily outdid her in the acting department, with passion and verve.  Stephen Milling, whom I admired as Gurnemanz in a Staatsoper streaming of Parsifal earlier in the lockdown (the first time I remembered hearing him) was indeed also impressive as Rocco.  Again, the acting added to his fine voice – not that Günther Groissböck (Rocco in the streaming I saw last week) cannot act (he certainly can), but there was more of the humanity in Milling’s Rocco.   Klaus Florian Vogt was also a much more believable Florestan than Peter Seiffert (whom I saw last week and who had not even merited a mention in my write-up).  And Evgeny Nikitin was that much more of a villain as Don Pizarro than Albert Dohmen’s more basic version last week (Nikitin’s unsavory past makes him personally more of a villain, but famously having had a large swastika tattoo, though making him of dubious character, does not make him a better artist – that comes from him genuinely being a better artist).  It’s not that last week’s cast was bad, but with the exception of Chen Reiss being a notch better than Naforniţă (which is not in any way meant as a knock on the younger singer), and Boaz Daniel (Don Fernando) and Jörg Schneider (Jaquino) reprising their roles, this group just made a more convincing whole portrayal.  And while Cornelius Meister led a fine performance in the version streamed last week, Peter Schneider in the pit this time just added even more warmth and spirit.  The applause from the audience was proportionately grander as well – they knew what they had seen.

Mozart: Entführung aus dem Serail (Glyndebourne Festival)

David McVicar has directed a delightful little production of Mozart’s Abduction for the 2015 Glyndebourne Festival.  Extended dialogue allowed for much fuller character development than the usual set stereotypes. McVicar could succeed here as well by keeping the singers active on the stage: they were not just singing in an opera and doing the necessary actions, but rather living their lives for us.  McVicar also recognized that this opera may be serious, but is filled with comic relief – which he magnified without turning it into a comedy.  This is actually Mozart at his best, playful and full of humor but grounded, with a lesson for us all.  The cast could act, too.

This production was the opposite of some of those terrible German Regietheater stagings, where I want to hear them but cannot watch.  In those cases, I do listen, but can do other things at the same time.  But in this case I wanted to watch, yet had to suffer through listening to the performance.  It made me realize that I do not know much about Glyndebourne, other than that it has a certain reputation from a cult following, set on some English country estate.  I assumed it was a bit like other music festivals, attracting top performers.  Maybe it is, but this production had more than a whiff of amateur night to it, which was a shame, though, with McVicar’s truly intelligent and completely thought-through concept.

The Glyndebourne Festival’s orchestra, conducted by Robin Ticciati, sounded thin and not quite able to stay in tune, which was painful.  Of the singers, Tobias Kehrer (Osmin) was perhaps the only one with a solid voice.  Brendan Gunnell (Pedrillo) and Mari Eriksmoen (Blonde) were equipped with adequate vocal instruments.  Sally Matthews (Konstanze) could sing sometimes but her voice cracked too often to get comfortable with.  Edgardas Montvidas (Belmonte) was the most problematic, with a consistently weak and strained tone that often became downright cringeworthy.  Franck Saurel (Pasha Selim) thankfully did not have a singing role, just spoken dialogue, which he generally could do although he had a tendency to overact.  I’d love to see the McVicar staging live with a proper cast and orchestra, though (I’d stream the film another time through to catch more of the nuances, except I don’t think I could take listening to this version again).

  • [Recording tip: My favorite recording of this opera, combining musicality and Austrian charm, is the 1966 one made by Josef Krips and the Vienna Philharmonic, with Nicolai Gedda as Belmonte, Anneliese Rothenberger as Konstanze, Gerhard Unger as Pedrillo, Lucia Popp as Blonde, and Gottlob Frick as Osmin.]

Berlioz: The Trojans (Staatsoper)

Berlioz’s opera based on Vergil’s Aeneid rarely gets performed.  The French, of course, never understood it, so Berlioz only managed to get a truncated version produced during his own lifetime, that he was not remotely satisfied with.  It finally got a full performance in Germany and entered the repertory long after the composer’s death.  The Staatsoper’s current staging is by David McVicar – and since he is generally pretty good, I figured this would be a nice version to see.

I’m not sure of the logic, but McVicar set the Trojan War in (perhaps) the 19th century.  For the acts set in Troy, McVicar has the Trojan warriors dressed up in ceremonial naval uniforms.  The sets were not realistic of anything – they looked a bit like deconstructed naval vessels.  The horse itself consisted of lashed-together detritus from old warships (cannons, ship’s wheels) lit up to look like a circuit board.  (The jumble reappeared at the end of the opera, reconfigured into a human form as the Carthiginians curse Rome.)  The acts in Carthage at least tried to look North African, even if likely not from 3,000 years ago.  But it worked, sort of, until the Trojans arrived from the 19th century.  Maybe I just write this off as not one of McVicar’s better efforts.

From the musical perspective, this 2018 performance featured strong characterizations by Brandon Jovanovich as Aeneas, Joyce DiDonato as Dido, Szilvia Vörös as Anna, and Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cassandra.  Alain Altinoglu conducted.

Verdi: Aida (Metropolitan Opera)

The Metropolitan Opera streamed a 1985 performance of Verdi’s Aida, featuring Leontyne Price in the title role (her final on-stage opera performance – she only did concerts after that point in her career), Fiorenza Cossotto as Amneris, James McCracken as Radamès, and Simon Estes as Amonasro.  James Levine conducted.  It was great to hear, but strange to watch, with a minimalist set, stylized mock-Egyptian costumes (a bit over the top, actually), and very static blocking with singers walking slowly and intentionally to specific spots where they just stood.

New York Philharmonic: Mahler

The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum posted on their Facebook page a video of a television broadcast by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic from 1963, performing Mahler’s Second Symphony in memory of President Kennedy, who had been assassinated two days before the broadcast.  This piece is always evocative, and here the orchestra produced a solemn performance, with Bernstein providing the strong punctuation.  Tempi were noticeably quite a bit faster than usual, particularly in the first movement, but while rather odd at times this did not undermine the tension.  The sound on the recording was oddly crackly (and even warped in places) – other live performances from that period were of far better quality, so one wonders whether CBS (the network responsible for the broadcast) was particularly incompetent – but the tone of the orchestra shines through.  Indeed, it is pleasant to remember that the New York Philharmonic once counted among the best in the world.

Online Highlights from the Corona Lockdown (week 6)

Highlights

Although Austria is coming back to life, the return to live music looks to remain months away.  Even then, it is not clear what musical events may look like.  Will we be able to cram into our seats in the audience, or will only a small number of seats go on sale?  Given scarcity, will they be affordable (and if not, is this sustainable?)?  Will the musicians themselves be able to survive this period?  Will the venues?  Even a committed concert-goer like me has not renewed any of my subscriptions for 2020-21.  Even if I were sure the shows will go on, I don’t know my schedule, which has been heavily disrupted, so do not know if I can plan around the subscription dates.  I also have taken a cut in income giving me even less disposable income to spend on concerts (I was using most of my disposable income on live music since I moved to Salzburg), so I may start to be more selective – subscriptions give me more music for the price, but if I won’t make certain concerts then it becomes less cost-effective.  I don’t really know, so I wait.  But I also recognize that people like me (I am sure I am not the only one waiting) makes it harder for the music to return.

So I am thankful for the online offerings people are making available.  It does not replace the live music, but it keeps me current.  Once again, I will stick to the format of operas first and concerts second in these highlight summaries.  I do not repeat recording tips if I have made them in connection with the same opera in a previous weekly blog during this lockdown.

Strauss: Capriccio (Staatsoper)

This week included three operas by Richard Strauss, opening with a simple and elegant staging at the Staatsoper by Marco Arturo Marelli, which I saw live in 2008.  The streamed version had a similar cast as the performance I saw back then (Michael Schade as Flamand, Adrian Eröd as Olivier, Wolfgang Bankl as La Roche, and Angelika Kirchschlager as Clairon) with only the Countess and Count different (here Camilla Nylund and Markus Eiche, instead of Renée Fleming and Bo Skovhus), and Michael Boder conducting (instead of Philippe Jordan in 2008).  This is a peculiar opera – wonderful in so many ways, but does not get performed often for reasons of its length and eccentricity.  When I saw this production at the Staatsoper in 2008, which may also have been the first time I ever heard it, it impressed me – a combination of Strauss’ lush score and undivided attention on the words (I would say “action” but there is no action, only words), and I rated it the best opera performance I had attended that year (in which I had spent quite a lot of time in Vienna).  On the small screen it did not enrapture me as much.  Was this Nyland and Eiche and Boder not having the same twinkle as Fleming and Skovhus and Jordan?  Hard to say, since it has been so long.

  • [Recording tip: After seeing this opera for the first time in 2008, I went out and got a recording (Karl Böhm’s 1972 recording with the Bavarian Radio and a stellar cast).  I am not going to claim it is the definitive one, since I have not made comparisons.  I have other excerpts, too.  But I will say that I return over and over again to Renée Fleming’s luscious final scene with the Vienna Philharmonic and Christoph Eschenbach released on a CD with other “Strauss heroines” in 1999).]

Strauss, Rosenkavalier (Metropolitan Opera)

I did not understand the interpretation from the Metropolitan Opera by Canadian director Robert Carsen.  I tried to understand.  I think he tried to think this one through.  But it’s not just that I was not convinced, rather more that I didn’t see any logic at all.  The concept (costumes, décor, and mood) was more 1920s Berlin than 1740s Vienna (even the fictionalized and romanticized 1740s Vienna created by Strauss and Hofmannsthal).

The first act, set in the Marschallin’s bedroom, looked more like a state room in the Hofburg.  For an opera set in Maria Theresia’s Vienna, somehow there were numerous portraits of Franz Joseph prominently displayed on the wall, as well as of other descendants of the Empress (at least in the Hofburg Maria Theresia is on the wall in what is now the President’s formal reception room).  As a nice touch, Carsen had Octavian return with (actual) roses for the Marschallin in the later part of the act, after he his snuck off and changed back into himself.  Act two had neo-Greek décor, armaments, and oddly waltzing servants (what?  Yes, the music is full of waltzes, but the servants don’t just start spontaneously waltzing with each other).  In the plot, Faninal was ennobled for supplying Austria’s armies in the Netherlands, but that would not mean he keeps the guns and cannons in his home – or maybe this was simply an attempt by Carsen at comedy.  Act three took place a brothel, but I suppose if it is being updated to the 1920s, then why not.  The “Innkeeper” was a transvestite madame, and the musicians also looked like transvestites.  Yes, the opera features a female lead playing a male role in which the character dresses as a woman, so it is part of the farce, but I am not sure what having actual transvestites in a brothel added.  Octavian as Mariandl dressed like one of the whores (skimpy lingerie is not necessarily a good way to hide certain body parts, though!).  It also meant she was not playing the simple country girl.

There are different ways to place the stress in this plot.  In Carsen’s interpretation, Octavian (an exciting and excited Elīna Garanča) became the driving force.  Günther Groissböck, a despicable Ochs, intended to be a bit of a dashing playboy in his military uniform.  This made him more physically active than the usual portrayal – not bad, just different, since he cannot be a complete bumpkin in the plot, but must demonstrate he is presentable in polite aristocratic society even if he is at heart an oaf.  The opera ended with Octavian and Sophie (Erin Morley) in the brothel bed together, and during the final measures (when the Marschallin’s young blackmoor Mohammed is supposed to be fetching her handkerchief), I have no explanation for what happened: the servant Mohammed (not a blackmoor here) showed up drunk, an army appeared in the background (presumably led by the Feldmarschall), the servant shook his bottle of alcohol, and the army collapsed dead – or something like that.  But we did get Renée Fleming as the Marschallin.  Sebastian Weigle led a perfectly fine performance from the pit.

Strauss: Elektra (Metropolitan Opera)

As I noted earlier during this lockdown, Strauss’ Elektra is an opera I have never really paid much attention to, for reasons I cannot explain.  The Staatsoper’s woeful staging by a Prussian nincompoop in its recent streaming did not help me to understand it, so I just listened then.  I was pleased to have another chance this week from the Met.  But it turns out the director of the Met’s version is Patrice Chéreau, who made a lasting traumatic impression on my childhood with a miserable production of Wagner’s Ring he did at Bayreuth along with his airheaded countryman Pierre Boulez conducting, that seemed designed to take the most deconstructionist French approach possible to the Ring (as a child I certainly did not know about French deconstructionism – and as an adult I am sorry I do).  That Chéreau-Boulez Ring from Bayreuth was televised, a big deal for back then, and my father and I sat down to watch with great anticipation, only to be terribly let down.  So I just listened again this time to Elektra.  (Is that entirely fair?  Should I have given Chéreau another chance, especially considering the number of lousy opera stagings I have seen over the years since then?  Probably, but his collaboration on that Bayreuth Ring really left my younger self disgusted and disgruntled.)  Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the moody music.  Nina Stemme was a wonderful Elektra, with Adrianne Pieczonka as Chrysothemis and Waltraud Meier as Clytemnestra.  It really is luxurious.  One of these days I will get to see a production of this opera by a competent director.

Puccini: Tosca (Metropolitan Opera)

The Met gave us a nice staging of Puccini’s Tosca (this was apparently the premiere performance of this staging from 2018) by David McVicar, where he provided a stage on which the singers could act.  Great little touches included Cavaradossi washing his face with holy water before Tosca comes in, and the mannerisms of Scarpia’s henchmen towards Cavaradossi (and knowing winks and nods to Scarpia).  Željko Lučić was a forceful Scarpia and dominated his scenes.  Sonya Yoncheva was a tad too melodramatic as Tosca (ever the diva, I suppose).  Vittorio Grigòlo may not have been the strongest Cavaradossi in voice or pitch (indeed, his voice was easily the poorest aspect of this entire performance), but could act the role.  Emmanuel Villaume conducted.

Offenbach: Tales of Hoffmann (Metropolitan Opera)

There is no definitive performing version of Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann (not worth explaining here why not).  So this is an opera which enables the director to decide how to assemble it.  All I ask is that the version makes sense.  A 2009 production at the Met by Bartlett Sher was set as a series of fantasies, which does make sense, but the settings themselves did not.  Not that they were crazy, just that they seemed to add nothing to understanding the work.  An excellent Niklaus (Kate Linsley) was equal parts dashing and mysterious, often as much co-conspirator against Hoffmann as muse to Hoffmann, so in this concept it made sense to insert the pre-prologue scene (with muse and the devil) and the post-epilogue scene (with the characters from the entire opera returning to the stage for a grand final morality chorus), both usually omitted.  Sher flipped the acts with Giulietta (here coming third) and Antonia (here coming second), putting them into the order that Offenbach himself wanted and which does make the most sense, although not the order they usually appear in.  The rest of the cast was fine, although the entire evening seemed uninspired other than Linsley (Joseph Calleja as Hoffmann, Kathleen Kim as Olympia, Anna Netrebko as Stella and Antonia, Ekaterina Gubanova as Giulietta, Alan Held as all of the villains).  James Levine conducted.

  • [Recording tips: …or lack thereof.  I like this opera and have seen it many times since my childhood, but maybe because there is no definitive version, I have never come across a recording I would especially recommend although I own two complete ones, depending on how one defines “complete.”]

Beethoven: Fidelio (Staatsoper)

The Staatsoper’s Otto Schenk-directed production of Beethoven’s Fidelio resolved for me the problem of having watched the Theater an der Wien’s production earlier in the lockdown.  First of all, they used the third version, which works dramatically much better than the two earlier versions (the Theater an der Wien did the second).  Second, Schenk’s intelligent staging augmented the drama even in the first act, which still in Beethoven’s third try was never quite up to the level.  I had a choice of recent casts, and picked one from 2017 (the cast available next week from a 2016 performance included the same Leonore – Anja Kampe – and Marzelline – Valentina Naforniƫă – that I saw in this production in 2013; they were excellent, but I opted for something else this time, although maybe I am tempted to listen back in next week).  Camilla Nylund as Leonore and Günther Groissböck as Rocco led the cast.  Chen Reiss fully developed the character of Marzelline, both in acting and in singing, and was a delight in her brief scenes.  The orchestra was warm and full, and carried the Vienna tradition started by Mahler of performing the Leonore Overture #3 in the scene change of the second act.  Drama indeed.  Cornelius Meister led a spirited performance.

Benatzky: Axel an der Himmelstür (Volksoper)

The Volksoper (of which I am a fan – and where I indeed attended my first live opera when I was five) kindly offered a trial of the “Fidelio” streaming service.  It does not offer a huge selection (or maybe it just does not have a very good search function), but I think I will be finding some things to recommend on there.  I thought I might start the trial with something from the Volksoper itself, and went back to the 2016 new production of Ralph Benatzky’s Axel an der Himmelstür, a parody of 1930s Hollywood done up as a Viennese operetta.  This production was one of my musical highlights in 2016.  And on this streaming, it was a great show once again, with a partly different cast than the one I saw in 2016 – I assume they filmed their “A” cast and I saw some “B” cast, but that itself may not mean anything in particular.  I am not sure that the two female leads here (Bettina Mönch as Gloria Mills and Johanna Arrouas as Jessie) convinced me as much as the ones I saw (Julia Koci and Juliette Khalil, respectively), although hard to make a direct comparison over the years.  But Andreas Bieber repeated as Axel and Kurt Schreibmayer as Cecil McScott, and Boris Eder replaced Peter Lesiak as Theodore, and they were all in fine form.  Lorenz Aichner conducted this clever staging by Peter Lund (my original review is on this blog for 14 October 2016).  I must say, however, that I was still bothered by the microphones.  There is no need to ever mike an opera opera performed indoors – although possibly if the staging requires the singers to move around a lot and not always face front, but here it was clear from the film that they still faced front, so I cannot excuse this decision.  It makes an even bigger difference in the theater for a live performance: what is the point of hearing music “live” if it comes over a speaker and sounds the same as on a recording?

  • [Recording tip: the 2016 Volksoper production inspired me to go out and get a recording.  There are not too many choices.  I now have a 1958 Vienna Radio recording with Heinz Sandauer conducting.  Zarah Leander, who created the roll of Gloria Mills, reprises it on this recording.  The CD set includes some original tracks from the 1936 team that created the opera.]

Vienna Philharmonic: Schumann, Berlioz

The trial with “Fidelio” allowed me to find Mariss Jansons’ last concert in the Musikverein leading the Vienna Philharmonic last June, broadcast on Austrian television after Jansons passed away late last year.  Jansons looked exhausted and frail, yet the sound he coaxed was revelatory despite the works being standard and theoretically with nothing new (for lesser conductors) to say: the “Spring” Symphony by Schumann and the Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz.  Indeed, this was perhaps the most powerful and expansive performance I have ever heard of Schumann’s first symphony.

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra: Berlioz, Poulenc, Saint-Saëns

Jansons was of course the greatest conductor of his generation, and will be sorely missed.  He was the sort of conductor I would see was conducting, and not even look to see what he was performing: I was guaranteed to hear something good.  The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, of which he remained Music Director at the time of his death, has posted several concerts for streaming on their website.  I zeroed in on one all-French concert.  The French, as I often remark, seem not to understand music (Berlioz excepted, and the French never understood him).  Some French composers had talent, but did not do much with it beyond some works that deserve to remain in the repertory but make me scratch my head as to why they couldn’t produce more like that.  But with Jansons and the Bavarians, suddenly real drama appears.  This was not French drama, but the way it could sound.  Latvian organist Iveta Apkalna joined forces here – I’ve heard her perform in the Mozarteum, but this she took to the next level.  The concert opened with Hector Berlioz’s Roman Carnival.  Then came Francis Poulenc’s Organ Concerto G minor (this is the work I heard Apkalna perform before – this time it convinced me, since last time she had a real disconnect with the orchestra, which I blamed back then squarely on an inadequate conductor).  Camille Saint-Saëns’s Symphony No. 3 C minor (with the organ) completed the concert, its own first movement setting an amazingly delicate mood.

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra: Bruckner

Jansons drew more lush sounds from the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in a January 2019 performance of Bruckner’s Mass #3.  Bruckner wrote this mass right before he moved to Vienna and so it marks the transition point in his life.  This performance itself was other-worldly.  At “et resurexit,” they could have raised the dead.

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra: Prokofiev

For Prokofiev’s birthday on 23 April, the Mariinsky streamed a concert the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra performed on his birthday in 2016 in Moscow’s Stalinist Tschaikowsky Hall (I hated that hall, but it has extra prestige in Russia because Stalin had it built).  Maestro Valery Gergiev was joined by Denis Kozhukhin for the piano concerto #1 to lead off the concert, and by Leonidas Kavakos for the violin concerto #1 to end it.  In between came Prokofiev’s first and second symphonies.  Gergiev kept the first symphony, called “classical” because of its size and style, within those classical bounds, but added a spirited and even exciting approach.  The violin concerto marked another highlight, with an interpretation highlighting the work’s great contrasts (and making it look easy).  For those subscribing to the Mariinsky’s streaming who can get them, go look for those two works in particular.

Philadelphia Orchestra: Beethoven

I opened the music this week with a compilation posted on the Philadephia Orchestra’s website: three Beethoven concerti from three different concerts combined into one program.  The Beethoven 250 celebration having been interrupted by the lockdown, they’ve moved it online.  Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted the two piano concerti, with Yefim Bronfman (concerto #4) and Daniil Trifonov (concerto #5) on the keyboard, and their performances were suitably pensive for a Sunday afternoon, the orchestra in full sound enveloping but never overwhelming the ears.  The violin concerto, with soloist Gil Shaham and conductor Susanna Mälkki, should have been the same, but was less so – I find Mälkki far too blockish a conductor, putting everything in place and leaving no room for expression.

Online Highlights from the Corona Lockdown (week 1)

Highlights

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

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

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

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

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

Wagner, Das Rheingold, Die Walküre (Staatsoper, Royal Swedish Opera)

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

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

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

Eötvös: Three Sisters (Staatsoper)

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

Bizet: Carmen / Verdi: Il Trovatore (Metropolitan Opera)

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

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

Beethoven: Fidelio (Theater an der Wien)

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

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

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

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

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

Philadelphia Orchestra: Beethoven, Habibi, Mahler

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

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

Concertgebouworkest: Strauss, Mahler

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

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Beethoven

This year marks the 250th anniversary of Beethoven‘s birth, so we should be getting no end to his music.  That’s fine with me – the man was a genius who forever changed the course of music.  If I am sick and tired of Mozart and Tschaikowsky, whose music is nice but horribly over-performed, I will likely never tire of Beethoven.  Yet I realize the problem arises: what more can performances say with this repertory?

The Vienna Symphony Orchestra comes up to perform in Salzburg’s Great Festival House for a concert every two winters.  This year they came with their chief conductor Philippe Jordan, the Swiss in his final year with them (he is taking over as the music director of the Staatsoper this year).  My understanding is that Jordan and the Symphoniker have already done several cycles of the Beethoven symphonies for the last several years.  And while I suppose that has served as warm-up for this year, it does run the risk that these works become too routine.

Tonight, Symphonies #5 and #6 lacked freshness.  The performances were basically fine (although Vienna’s second-best orchestra, it is one of the top dozen in the world; Jordan is also an accomplished conductor of the 40-ish generation, even if not quite as exciting as his contemporaries Andris Nelsons, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, or Vladimir Jurowski, whom I would rate the most exceptional from that generation).  But they performed from rote, and added nothing special, making tonight’s much-anticipated performance somewhat of a disappointment.  The notes were there, it was Beethoven’s heavenly music, but I suppose I wanted and expected more.

The last time I heard the 5th, last year, Nelsons conducted the Vienna Philharmonic, in a somewhat edgier performance, following on the 4th (not the 6th, so an unusual pairing and way to appreciate both symphonies more).  I heard the 6th last in 2016, with Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla frenetically leading Salzburg’s Mozarteum Orchestra, in an interpretation clearly designed to make the listener uncomfortable, and remind us that although today it seems a rather sedate work, the 6th shocked the music world in its own time as a revolutionary construction.  Her interpretation, though radical, made the audience appreciate the symphony that much more.

Incidentally, Jordan and the Symphoniker did demonstrate they could provide more excitement during the encore: the overture Beethoven wrote to the incidental music for Goethe’s Egmont.  This reading contained the drama the performances of the two symphonies lacked.

The orchestra performed the symphonies in reverse order – the same order in which they appeared on the program at the concert where Beethoven led their premieres.  Although a concert of legend (mostly due to people thinking about it after-the-fact), that 22 December 1808 concert did not go so well: the orchestra was under-rehearsed, and Beethoven himself conducted although already mostly deaf.  Doing just the two symphonies this evening, even with the encore, made for a short concert.  I suppose if this orchestra wished to do something special, they could have scheduled the entire program from 22 December 1808: it had included not only the premieres of these two symphonies, but also excerpts from Beethoven’s Mass in C (premiered the previous year) and the premieres of the Piano Concerto #4 and Choral Fantasy.  Performed right, reviving that famous concert would be an evening to remember Beethoven’s genius.

Curtis Symphony Orchestra, Kimmel Center

Theofanidis, Beethoven, Mozart

Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music is one of the leading conservatories in the United States, so always nice to see what the Curtis Symphony Orchestra is up to: if they have fun on stage (as they did this afternoon), then the mood is contagious and the audience has fun too.

This afternoon’s program in the Kimmel Center was a mixed affair, designed to show off a wide range of musicians rather than to highlight anyone or anything in particular.  Bizarrely, the concert opened (unannounced and not listed in the program) with the US National Anthem (nice arrangement, but… why exactly?  It felt like we were at a sporting event or something.  The students at Curtis are also an international bunch – I don’t know what percentage are Americans, but surely a large number of non-Americans were on the stage, so it just seemed weird and out-of-place).

The first programmed piece was Drum Circles by Christopher Theofanidis.  Written earlier this year, the work featured seven percussionists (four stage front with multiple instruments each, and three more conventional percussionists at the back of the stage) and orchestral continuo.  At times it veered in the direction of new age music, but in general it held together nicely and with more substance, emphasizing unusual combinations of sounds (mostly from pitched percussion instruments).  The overall mood remained creative and original while firmly based in classical musical traditions.  The student conductor Yuwon Kim kept everything under good control.

After the intermission, the concert became more conventional and we went to the opera.  Robert Kahn came on to conduct a dramatic Leonore Overture #3 by Ludwig van Beethoven, shaping it as a tone poem – the opera Fidelio in miniature – rather than as an overture (at which even Beethoven recognized it was less effective and replaced it with a simpler overture for the opera).  But although not a great overture, it is great music as a stand-alone (and the convention introduced by Gustav Mahler to perform it during the scene change in the middle of Act II of Fidelio was also brilliant).  Important however it is performed is an understanding of the entire opera, and that sense of drama pervaded this performance.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra who also mentors conductors at Curtis (including Kim and Kahn) came out to perform four extended ensembles from operas by Wolfgang Amadé Mozart (two each from Cosi Fan Tutte and Figaro).  What worked best here was precisely the ensemble nature of the excerpts – no need to highlight individual singers but rather to show how they could perform as a whole group (each selection had a different cast, with a couple of people repeating but mostly new groups for each).  The voices were mixed in quality (none bad, but some stronger or more expressive than others) but worked well as a team effort, and they clearly had chemistry with each other.  Behind them, the orchestra gave tremendous support.  The audience smiled broadly and laughed (appropriately) at the comic nuances.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Beethoven, Stravinsky

The new concert season opened while I was in India, so this evening was my first.  Pianist Herbert Schuch joined Riccardo Minasi and the Mozarteum Orchestra in the Great Festival House for two Beethoven concerti, followed after the break by Stravinsky‘s Rite of Spring.

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #2, actually his first in order of composition, was not a fully-developed work, and indeed came off unconvincing when Lang Lang and the Camerata under Manfred Honeck performed it at the Festival during the Summer.  But perhaps they tried to do too much with it.  Schuch, Minasi, and the Mozarteum took a much more reserved approach this evening, and while that did not improve the quality of the concerto (still a student experiment that Beethoven himself did not think very highly of), they did manage to make it lyrical and demonstrate the talent that this composer would use to bring music into the 19th century.  All together, this performance exceeded the one at the Festival by every measure.

In contrast, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #5 may mark the absolute pinnacle of the Fach. These forces approached it similarly to how they did the second concerto, never trying to overwhelm anything, but now with far superior music.  The orchestra highlighted substantial dance, with Schuch providing glistening tinkling to augment the delicate colors.  Though not a robust performance, it worked well to demonstrate the composer’s development and consistency, even in contrast with his less-substantial earlier concerto.

Schuch provided an encore: a bagatelle by Beethoven, which he made look forward almost to a Strauß waltz.  However, as a solo work, it left him exposed.  The tingling technique did not succeed as well without the orchestra to provide some heft.

After the intermission, the orchestra showed its full colors with Stravinsky’s nutso ballet.  The tone was all there, but one thing was missing: the ballet.  Although quite a wild work, Stravinsky did intend performers to dance to it.  Minasi coaxed all the right tones and complicated dissonance from the orchestra, which sounded amazing, but he made the sections too detached, and lost the flow even within sections.  He is maturing as a conductor and should be applauded for his thoughtful programming, but he may not quite be there yet with some of this twentieth century music.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Beethoven, Bruckner

Bernard Haitink announced earlier this year that, at 90 years old, he would take a sabbatical after the end of the Summer.  It is widely understood he will never return.  This made for an emotional final concert at the Salzburg Festival this morning, with Haitink at the helm of the Vienna Philharmonic (these forces will repeat this same program at the London Proms and Luzern Festival after this, so it’s not quite his final performance yet – two more).

The concert opened with Beethoven‘s Piano Concerto #4 with soloist Emanuel Ax.  Conductor, orchestra, and pianist kept everything light and lyrical.  There is much going on in this concerto, but these forces made it seem almost easy (“almost” in that we could actually hear how much was going on given the clear playing, so we knew that despite the sound it could not have been easy).  Ax gave an encore, a lively if not flamboyant work (once again, as someone who does not generally care for and almost never listens to solo piano music, I was left to make an educated guess; I might guess Chopin, but don’t really know).

After the intermission came the real emotions for Bruckner‘s Seventh Symphony.  This work had its premiere from the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester, but as evidenced on Wednesday, that orchestra (which has preserved its distinct quality and sound) may just not be the right orchestra for Bruckner.  The Vienna Philharmonic certainly is the right orchestra.  This morning they sounded bright and played with just the right emotional balance.  They carried the lyrics over from Beethoven, but passed them through almost eighty years of musical development to reach not light and lyrical but actually somber and lyrical, a difficult balance to pull off (easy for this orchestra).

Haitink, conducting with his score closed on the music stand, had well-measured beats.  He periodically propped himself up against the barstool-like seat made available for him on the podium.  At the end, clearly exhausted, he needed to be helped to walk on and off the stage for the standing ovation and multiple curtain calls (including an extra one after the orchestra had left the stage).   I remember first seeing him conduct live (although I don’t remember what) when I lived in London in 1991-92 (and had my favorite seat in the pre-renovation Royal Festival Hall directly behind the brass able to read their music while facing the conductors – post-renovation these seats are higher and further removed, but back then it was a great way to learn music with some of the cheapest tickets for anything in that overpriced city).  Of course I knew of his work previously.

Berlin Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Berg, Beethoven

I have not heard the Berlin Philharmonic sound this good in years.  The orchestra had recently become quite clinical in its performances, and its former music director, the otherwise excellent Simon Rattle, had probably stayed too long in post.  Last Summer at the Festival, Rattle looked much happier at the helm of his new orchestra (the London Symphony Orchestra, which sounded happy to have him as well), but the verdict remained out with the Berliners and their new music director, the reclusive and enigmatic Kirill Petrenko.  A year further along, the Berliners seemed determined to return to their former place among the top tier of the world’s orchestras.

Tonight’s program provided a good test: Symphonic Pieces from the Opera Lulu by Alban Berg, and the Symphony #9 by Ludwig van Beethoven.

If the orchestra wanted to be clinical, Berg’s twelve-tone music would have given them a good excuse.  But Berg knew he was writing music, and went a step beyond his teacher Schoenberg, who had developed the formulaic twelve-tone technique, to successfully craft longer works including operas.  Lulu is an opera I once knew reasonably well when I was a child, when I had studied it ahead of seeing it live at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.  Somehow it did not stick with me over the years, getting eclipsed by Berg’s Wozzeck for my affections already while I was an undergraduate, to the point that Lulu fell almost completely off my radar.

Berg assembled these concert pieces when he realized he might never complete the opera (he actually never did) and that the rise of the Nazis in Germany and the writing appearing on the wall in Austria might make it difficult to perform in the German-speaking world even if he did finish it.  So he needed to assemble a half hour or so of music that might make a coherent concert program.  In this he was successful, and the Berliners underscored this with a performance that was anything but clinical.  Marlis Petersen joined the orchestra for the middle movement entitled “Lulu’s song” adding her own clear soprano lines.  In total, the performance stood well on its own as music, utilizing Berg’s idiom which followed the twelve-tone method but also had to maintain a sense of both music and drama.

The Berliners must know Beethoven’s Ninth by heart, so I suppose they could also have ended up being clinical here too.  And once again they were not.  The first three movements represented a battle between a dark world and a human joy, the orchestra sounding almost playful in the juxtaposition.  While there was a tension between the two competing moods – particularly in the first two movements, it was also clear in which direction Beethoven was moving, heading to the triumphant apotheosis of joy in the finale.  I would quibble a bit with Petrenko’s tempi, which were too fast, particularly in the first movement (essentially the same speed as the second movement scherzo) and in the third (one of the symphonic repertory’s great adagio movements, along with those from the Bruckner Eighth and Mahler Third), the third sounding slow only by comparison with what came before.  But the musicality remained.

Joining Petersen in the quartet were Elisabeth Kulman, Benjamin Bruns, and Kwangchul Youn, who blended well together and with the orchestra as a coherent part of the scheme.  Petrenko placed them behind the orchestra, rather than at the front of the stage (where they might more normally be) – but as Petrenko is primarily an opera conductor, he knows well how not to overwhelm the singers even while maintaining a full orchestral tone.  Less successful was the Berlin Radio Chorus, which seems not to have gotten the memo, producing detached staccato and emotionless singing in contrast to the otherwise exhilarating performance.

The Berliners perform at the Festival again tomorrow, but I decided to skip it as I wanted to get through an entire summer without hearing any music by Mozart or Tschaikowsky (I like their music, but they are far too over-rated and over-performed and I need a break from both of them for a while).  I’ll catch the Berliners and Petrenko on a future date and see if their transformation sticks.

Camerata Salzburg, Haus für Mozart

Schubert, Beethoven

The Camerata Salzburg really is one of the finest chamber orchestras anywhere.  Working without a principal conductor these days, they invite a range of guests.  This evening they had Manfred Honeck, the charismatic Austrian currently music director in Pittsburgh, on the bump.  His concerts exude charm, and he’s rightfully quite popular in his homeland (makes me wonder why his rather more routine countryman currently in Cleveland gets all the attention).

The concert opened with the Overture to the Magic Harp (later repurposed by others and therefore mostly remembered as that to Rosamund) by Franz Schubert, wherein Honeck exhibited his sparkle and the orchestra shone.  Oddly, that may have been the highest point this evening.

Beethoven‘s Piano Concerto #2 followed, with Lang Lang at the keyboard.  This was actually Beethoven’s first completed piano concerto (numbered out of order) and a student work.  Beethoven himself was never convinced by it.  It’s a bit Mozartian, but not as good, which makes it even less interesting.  Beethoven was indeed a genius, and elements of what would become his style certainly poke out, but especially hearing this after his two final piano sonate performed two nights ago, it really did not cut the grade.  Honeck raced through the opening, almost trying to get to the solo as quickly as he could.  Then Lang joined in.  He clearly cultivates an image, shaping sounds by moving his hands in the air above the keys when not playing, and looking away whenever he does actually play.  But it sounded a tad clunky.  To be fair, the acoustics in Salzburg’s Haus für Mozart, as I have mentioned before, really are poor, and I would mark the tinny, distant sound down to that rather than to the performers.  But the acoustics certainly did not help.

Lang added two encores.  I have no idea what they were, but they were showpieces which allowed Lang to demonstrate just how fast he could move his fingers (very!) without hitting any wrong notes.  Quite impressive showmanship.

After the pause came Schubert’s Great C Major Symphony (normally #9, but sometimes bearing #7 or #8 due to some convoluted history – probably #8 would be most correct, as it appeared in the program tonight, although it’s more often designated #9 by convention).  Honeck had everything under control, with wonderful Austrian lilts, and the Camerata just got it.  My only quibble was the speed: Honeck raced through the symphony, including the stately opening and the slow movement.  I’m not sure I understood why.

Maurizio Pollini, Großes Festspielhaus

Schoenberg, Nono, Beethoven

Maurizio Pollini looks older and frailer than his 77 years would suggest.  But his fingers still move.  Indeed, I had a great view of his hands at this evening’s concert, and I still cannot figure out how he produced all those notes so effortlessly.

Ludwig van Beethoven was a genius.  Completely deaf, he packed his last two piano sonate (#31 and #32) full of gorgeous music.  The multiple lines weaved among each other, yet each was clear despite the complexity (having Pollini to perform them certainly helped).  Fundamentally, Beethoven knew he was writing music, even if he could not hear.

And so the second half of tonight’s recital in the Great Festival House, featuring these two Beethoven sonate, made it worth sitting through the first half.

The concert had opened with two sets by Arnold Schoenberg: his Three Piano Pieces for Piano and his Six Little Piano Pieces.  Schoenberg’s writing was formulaic according to his own doctrines.  They started off with a hint of music, and devolved.  Music was not part of the calculation.  Pollini’s playing was suitably acrobatic, but what was the point?  At least the second set (Six Little Pieces) were short – similar to Anton von Webern’s miniatures, so they did not dwell but just basically hit the keys and moved on.  But the pieces in the first set just went on too long.  Where some of Schoenberg’s orchestral music can develop outwards, when using only a piano (which is not a very convincing solo instrument to begin with, and requires the talent of someone like Beethoven to do something with) there is only so far Schoenberg can go with these thoughts.

But if Beethoven focused on music he could not hear, and Schoenberg focused on theory over music, it remains unclear what Luigi Nono‘s excuse was for Serene Waves Suffered (which followed the Schoenberg at the end of the concert’s first half).  This work was an insufferable gimmick, in which Pollini accompanied a recording of himself (made in the 1970s) playing more notes by Nono.  There was nothing musical about any of this.  Tapping keys – whether now or pre-recorded – does not itself qualify as music.  Nor does it count as music theory (in the tradition of Schoenberg).  It’s just a bunch of notes banged out on a definite-pitched percussion instrument.  If Beethoven could produce amazing results despite being deaf, what indeed was Nono’s excuse?

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.

Camerata Salzburg, Mozarteum

Sibelius, Dvořák, Beethoven, Schubert

I had bad luck with the Camerata Salzburg this year: they had a great subscription series, which I had tickets to, but then I always seemed to be away whenever the concerts took place (I did get to one of their non-subscription concerts).  So, this evening, the final concert in the series was my first – Andrew Manze conducted.  At first glance, the musical selections looked a little odd set out in reverse chronological order.  On hearing them interpreted by Manze and the Camerata, however, it became clear that these works were more original the earlier they were written.

Leading off was a suite from Sibelius‘ Rakastava scored by the composer for strings, timpani, and triangle.  I’m used to this chamber orchestra having a larger sound than its numbers would imply.  But this performance came across surprisingly thin, missing Sibelius’ sonorities.  A relatively early work by the composer, it is seldom performed (I’d honestly never even heard of it).  Is it a poor work?  The music seemed indicative of Sibelius, but maybe the scoring just failed?

It could hardly be an orchestral failure, as the orchestra was nothing short of exhilarating for the rest of the concert.  Joshua Bell joined the Camerata as soloist in Dvořák‘s violin concerto, jumping in completely with an aggressively physical performance that nevertheless had real subtlety and warmth.  Manze and the Camerata supported him fully in this approach.  Here was also the richness I’d usually expect from Sibelius, transferred back three decades.  This is a standard work in the repertory, deservedly so, but when made this lively it remains fresh.

The last programmed piece was Beethoven‘s Symphony #2, from eight decades earlier, and a rarely performed early work by that composer.  But Beethoven was a genius, and with this symphony he brought music kicking and screaming into the 19th century.  In structure it is reasonably conventional – in composition it is anything but, and Manze emphasized all the deviations from convention.  The Camerata played with energy and vigor, and was in on all of the musical jokes, eclipsing even Bell’s performance of the Dvořák, with even more transcendent edginess and angularity.  

Both halves of the concert contained encores to allow the heartbeats to return to normal with more sedate, romantic, sonorous performances of a violin trio by Dvořák (Bell and the Camerata’s two first chair violins) before intermission and an excerpt from Schubert‘s Rosamund at the end.  Made me very sorry to have missed so many other concerts by the Camerata this year.

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.

Vienna Philharmonic, Musikverein

Beethoven

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

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

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

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

Mozarteum Orchestra, Mozarteum

Haydn, Gruber, Webern, Beethoven

A fun, if a bit unorthodox, evening with the Mozarteum Orchestra in the Mozarteum’s Great Hall.  The young American conductor Joshua Weilerstein clearly found his element, bookending Haydn and Beethoven around Gruber and Webern.

The overture to Joseph Haydn’s oratorio The Creation opened the mood.  Describing “chaos,” this music was considered extreme in its day – Haydn left phrases unfinished and with chords open, reminding us that music need not go by formula.

That certainly applied on the next piece: Frankenstein!! A Pandemonium for Chansonnier and Orchestra after Nursery Rhymes by H.C. Artmann, music by H. K. Gruber.  Gruber’s output is decidedly mixed – it has its moments but usually requires severe editing that he does not do in order to identify a point.  Frankenstein!! may be the first of his works that I actually enjoyed start to finish.  To be honest, I still am not sure what to make of it, but at least this one was fun.  Gruber himself performed as the chansonnier, using his voice to obtain full special effects.  The Orchestra achieved the other effects not by abusing their instruments, as many of Gruber’s contemporaries think is necessary for “new music” but by pulling out children’s toys and playing those.  The songs were short and varied enough not to ever drag, with suspense added to hear what they’d do next.

After the intermission, the orchestra returned for Anton von Webern’s Five Pieces for Orchestra.  Weilerstein gave a short intro to remind everyone that the five-movement work lasted only four minutes in its entirety.  Therefore, he decided to perform it twice: once to allow the audience to listen to its overall color, and the second time to focus on the individual sounds.  That actually worked.  Weilerstein explained that Webern had distilled all of 20th century music into its bare minimum components, but it was all there.  Indeed it was.  Webern said so much with so little.

That said, I still found it rewarding to return to something more normal to finish the concert: Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony #4.  This symphony does not get performed often, but has long been admired by those in the know.  Its mysterious slow opening leads into a boisterous first movement, and it dances away from there.  Many people see it as lighter and more relaxed compared to its neighbors, but Weilerstein – building on Haydn, Gruber, and Webern – emphasized just how much fun this symphony can be.  This was not a tranquil reading, but one full of action and humor.