Berlin Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Dukas, Prokofiev, Schmidt

My final concert of this Summer’s Salzburg Festival was second of the Berlin Philharmonic‘s set under Kirill Petrenko.  In contrast to last night, tonight’s concert contained three works which are not part of the standard repertory, and thus a chance to consider the performance in more of a vacuum on its own merits.  The three pieces, all from the early Twentieth Century, seemingly had one commonality: they provided Petrenko a chance to show off the versatility and color of this orchestra.

If that indeed was Petrenko’s goal, then he succeeded.  The orchestra handled complex multi-colored and multi-textured canvasses with a certain warmth.  What was missing, on the whole, was something more than that.  Where were these pieces going?  I don’t know that I found any meaning, beyond just the playing.

Paul Dukas is yet another French composer known for a single work (in his case, the Sorcerer’s Apprentice), with the rest of the output being dismally forgettable.  Dukas actually destroyed most of his own compositions without publishing them, I suppose saving us from having to listen to them.  That he was a professor of composition at the Paris Conservatory helps explain things too (although he’s hardly responsible for French composers who came before him, rather being a product of the system himself).  Tonight’s concert opened with his ballet The Peri, originally composed for Sergei Diaghilev’s Paris-based Russian Ballet – although apparently Diaghilev then decided his leading ballerina was not up the task (one wonders why, as he staged rather more complicated scores such as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring that must have been even more challenging than Dukas’ work; maybe he was just being nice to Dukas with his excuse).  The work opened with a fanfare, which apparently also came with a story: as the ballet itself starts quietly, it was next to impossible to get the uncultured Parisian audiences to shut up when the music began, so Dukas added a loud opening fanfare to the score later on.  The rest of the ballet was unremarkable – sure, it had intricate components, but I’m not clear it went anywhere, or why anyone would want to dance to it.

Prokofiev‘s third piano concerto followed, with soloist Yuja Wang.  This work is nuts: all over the place stylistically.  But there is a certain logic to it, and Petrenko assembled the pieces.  Wang had light fingers – like Krystian Zimerman last week, but unlike Zimerman who gently coaxed full tones out of the piano, she did not get a big sound.  Indeed, she was often overwhelmed by the orchestra.  Very agile and adept, but there just was not much heft to her (similar to the assorted green threads she was wearing that some unscrupulous – maybe French? – fashion designer must have somehow convinced her qualified as a “dress;” it may have been snazzy, but really could have benefitted with a lot more fabric).  She gave us an unidentified encore of no particular interest.

After the intermission, the orchestra returned for Franz Schmidt‘s sorrowful Fourth Symphony, written after his beloved daughter died giving birth.  As he mourns her, he reminisces, but each reminiscence – including what looks like it might turn into a happy dance – gets overcome by his grief.  Schmidt’s works really do deserve to get performed more often.  He represents a natural progression from Bruckner – parallel to Mahler (who would have opened up new concepts for him) and Sibelius, if maybe not at their levels.  Schmidt is not Bruckner re-worked, but rather more inventive, if Bruckner had lived several decades more where his own music might have evolved – I think the rarity of performances really just demonstrate a lack of understanding, or of even an attempt to understand.  Petrenko made the attempt, although in this case I am not sure how successful he was.  The orchestra did produce some wonderfully-moving moments, but Petrenko could not keep the momentum, so that the performance had a tendency to drag.

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Berlin Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Strauss, Beethoven

The Berlin Philharmonic came to this year’s Festival for a two-concert set with its enigmatic new chief conductor, Kirill Petrenko, whom I have now heard for the first time.  I may have to wait until tomorrow’s concert to give a full verdict.  

Tonight’s concert contained standard repertory, so in theory I should be able to make a judgement, but I left scratching my head.  Two tone poems by Richard Strauss graced the first half of the concert, Don Juan and Tod und Verklärung.  Beethoven‘s Seventh came after the break.

I suppose it was time for this orchestra to move on from Simon Rattle – people shouldn’t stay too long in one place, and I’ve found this orchestra has often sounded too clinical (most recently in the Musikverein in June).  Judging by his appearances with his new orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, here at the Festival last week, I’d say it’s been good for both sides after a happy few years together just to have a change of scenery.  With Petrenko, the orchestra certainly did not sound clinical – he took the exact playing and elicited just a little more emotion and nuance, with a conducting style equal parts animated and precise.

The problem was that his interpretations did not necessarily succeed.  Strauss wrote these two tone poems months apart using the same compositional language, but they are telling very different stories.  While Petrenko coaxed gorgeous tone paintings out of the orchestra in amazing colors, I actually heard very little differentiation between the poem desrcibing of the erotic life and exploits of Don Juan and the poem describing the death of an artist.  Petrenko rarely conducts concerts (which is what made his selection by the Berliners an odd choice), but has spent almost all of his career as an opera conductor, so he understands drama and coaxed it from the orchestra – still, it was peculiar not to hear much of a difference between these two works.

His interpretation of Beethoven’s Seventh flopped.  Petrenko did it with a much-reduced orchestra, perhaps to highlight chamber music aspects (the musicians could certainly make a big sound when they needed to, to contrast the quiet – indeed delicate – moments Petrenko emphasized).  He also did it at breakneck speed.  The slow movement was only slow by comparison, and it was breathless.  I was amazed the musicians could even keep up without any glaring errors in the final movement.  It may indeed have been that fact that prompted a standing ovation – truly a remarkable bit of playing that had everyone on the edge of our seats wondering if the orchestra could survive this craziness.  But on the other hand, it didn’t make any sense, so I think the ovation was unwarranted (and indeed it dissipated – the ovation was rather short, which might affirm for me that it was more a spontaneous reaction to the fact that the orchestra survived the out-of-control ride still very much in control, rather than a measure of the overall performance value).

Tomorrow night sees three works that are not in the standard repertory, all from the Twentieth Century.  It may help me complete the picture.

Berlin Philharmonic, Musikverein (Vienna)

Abrahamsen, Bruckner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Berlin Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Schostakowitsch

There is a certain logic in pairing Schostakowitsch‘s first and last symphonies.  Symphony #1, his graduation work from the Petrograd Conservatory, is an experimental work looking forward to the music style he would develop through his compositional career.  Symphony #15, written in failing health, looked back upon that career and made reference to it (along with snippets from Wagner, Mahler, Rossini, and others).  Both pieces use full orchestras, but spend most of their time bringing out delicate juxtapositions of individual instruments – more concerto for orchestra than symphony.

The first symphony is clearly a student work, often failing to develop portions, while in a hurry to move on to the next thing, to demonstrate to the examiners that he could tick the boxes (albeit quite elaborate ticks).  The fifteenth benefits from 45 more years of composition, and without going overboard does resolve each theme and section.

Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic programmed these works tonight at the Festival.  The large swells were there, but so were all the details.  I already knew both symphonies, but felt as though I was hearing both for this first time.  So many details often remain hidden in the complex workings of these symphonies: they are not big showcases, and indeed are often delicate, but they are nevertheless showcases for the right orchestral forces.  Rattle drew out all of the lines, and the orchestra responded with every intricacy intact.  Even at quiet moments, the sound made its way through the hall in the right proportions.

As for the audience, it failed tonight.  The whole hall seemed restless – lots of coughing, seats fidgeting, people standing up and sitting back down, and a mobile phone ringing.  The man next to me seemed to be intent on swatting non-existent flies all night.  Who were all these people and what did they do with the usual audience?

Berlin Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Boulez, Mahler

Although the Salzburg Festival still runs a few more days, my ticket collection ended tonight… and what a way to end.  Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic returned to the Great Festival House and brought Mahler‘s Seventh Symphony with them.  

They provided a perfect balance of tension and celebration: here a dance, there a march, and over there a lullaby – but all threatened by the struggle of life.  The orchestra bounced effortlessly from one concept to the other, while simultaneously balancing night and day, darkness and light, joy and trepidation.  Many have failed to understand this symphony, and have criticized the final movement in particular for failing to resolve: but it does resolve, especially when crafted as Rattle did tonight.  It happens to be one of my favorite movements in Mahler’s symphonies, with its great chorales striding from the darkness to proclaim to the world that it may be dark but we live – indeed, we have danced, marched, and sung lullabies.

Less commented is the original inspiration: Mahler’s conservatory classmate (and roommate) when they studied together with Bruckner was Hans Rott, who went insane and died aged 25.  Bruckner (and Mahler too) had regarded him as more talented than Mahler.  Rott completed only one symphony (which I had only known from recordings until I finally heard it live last year), elements of which later showed up as inspiration for some of Mahler’s works.  And indeed the final movement chorales in the Seventh Symphony grew out of Rott’s.  In life, Rott had failed (and was locked up in the asylum).  In death, it seems he has triumphed on the wide open spaces of Mahler’s Seventh.

Of course, it takes a perfomance of such clarity as Rattle and the Berliners gave tonight in order to hear this.

For some reason, they chose to preface the symphony with a short pile of musical notes spilled on paper by Pierre BoulezÉclat.  Boulez, in his roles both as composer and as conductor carried on the French effete tradition of distilling all of the essence out of art (in this case, music) and then also throwing out the substance, so that nothing of value remains.  And so it was with this opening work.  Seriously, what was the point?  Fortunately, it was short and easily forgotten when the Mahler arrived.

Berlin Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Britten, Schostakowitsch

It was third time lucky this year with the Berlin Philharmonic.  They underwhelmed me in Vienna and Berlin in May, but in Salzburg this afternoon they hit their stride for the closing concert of the Festival.  Simon Rattle took the podium.

The concert opened with a work I did not previously know: Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge by Benjamin Britten.  This was Britten’s first major international success, composed on commission for the 1937 Salzburg Festival.  In it, Britten took a simple theme from his composition teacher and ran it through a bunch of variations for string orchestra.  And these were not just the usual variations, but rather in a wide range of styles, from Viennese waltz to funeral music and from military march to baroque fugue.  The Berlin Philharmonic strings needed to demonstrate almost every possible manner of playing, and Rattle had to jump from one to another with versatility and agility.  They succeeded and then some.

These skills also helped after the intermission, when the full orchestra took the stage.  Schostakowitsch’s Fourth Symphony was banned for 25 years in part because it accurately portrayed how miserable life is in Russia.  The authorities also thought it was far too complex.  The Berliners handled the complexities this afternoon with few problems – almost made it sound easy, but sometimes it was a head-scratcher (“did they really just manage to play that?!?!).  Rattle had it all under control.  My only quibble is that they could have played it several shades darker – this performance did not quite portray Russia in all of its misery.

Berlin Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonie

Petrassi, Strauss, Tschaikowsky

I went to hear the Berlin Philharmonic perform in its natural environment. What an awful concert hall they play in. I did not realize. Besides the fact that it is just plain ugly, and way too big, the most important issues concern acoustics. When a small number of instruments play, or more of them play quietly, then the sound travels cleanly. But if multiple instruments are playing, especially with any volume at all, the sound turns to sludge.

So with the caveat that I could not hear them cleanly due to their lousy home hall, they sounded a bit better than they did in Vienna earlier this month, at least playing with some sense of emotion.  Gianandrea Noseda, an Italian currently based in Turin, made his first appearance with the Berliners. Although not in his bio, he would seem to be a protege of Valery Gergiev, given his dates both as an assistant at the Mariinsky and as principal guest in Rotterdam. The audience gave him a warm welcome.

The concert opened with a strange 1932 piece by Goffredo Petrassi, his Partita for Orchestra. This work tried to say everything and in the end said nothing. It had too much going on, with no clear style, and no clear direction (although three movements tried to make their own ways). The music was not unpleasant, it just had no point. Not even at least a nice melody, on one hand, or a new concept of composition, on the other.

It did allow the orchestra to warm up ahead of Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs, with soloist Camilla Nylund (subbing for an indisposed Angela Denoke). Nylund clearly had not had the benefit of the Petrassi warm up, so it took her until the middle of the second song before she came into full voice. Until then, she warbled. The solos in the orchestra were outstanding, but the dry acoustics in the hall made the bigger sections lose their shine. Nylund projected out cleanly in the final two songs, but probably would also benefit from a better venue.

After the intermission, the orchestra returned with Tschaikowsky’s Fourth Symphony. Noseda knew how to draw out the emotion, the anguish and the angst. The woodwinds were especially exceptional, particularly in their third-movement dialogue with pizzicato strings. The larger parts got muddled, hitting the ear as a blur. Fine playing, but a poor hall (then again, when they performed in the Musikverein, they did not sound so good – also a muddle in a hall with excellent acoustics). I am being hard on them, because they claim to be so good. But could it really be that the orchestra, though indeed good, may be the most over-rated orchestra on the planet?

Berlin Philharmonic, Musikverein (Vienna)

Janáček, Bruckner

Somehow I had never seen Simon Rattle nor heard the Berlin Philharmonic live until they visited the Musikverein tonight. They were very good, but not as good as anticipated, which made for a disappointing first listen.

The concert opened with Leoš Janáček’Sinfonietta – or a muddle pretending to be that work. The trumpet choir on the Musikverein organ balcony behind the orchestra looked lost and unprepared. Perhaps they have practiced in a semi-circle and not a line where they cannot see each other (although they had an unobstructed view of Rattle). I can be sympathetic if this is the case, as it happened to me in a brass quartet during my senior year at Exeter, but I would hope there is a big difference in preparation time and quality between an amateur high school brass quartet and the Berlin Philharmonic. The rest of the orchestra tried to recover somewhat, but this is a difficult syncopated piece, and they never quite sounded like they got it together. As the Sinfonietta raced to its finale, the musicians held on for dear life, hoping to get all of the notes out at some point, no matter if at the right point.

After the intermission, the orchestra regrouped for Bruckner’s 7th Symphony. This one they got together for, and produced very fine sounds. But Bruckner is meant to be emotion-shattering, allowing a glimpse of heaven – whereas tonight’s performance, though technically flawless, provided no such thing. Where the first movement should wash the audience in great waves of sound, this performance just had sound, fluctuating tensely. The funeral movement – composed when Bruckner learned of the death of Richard Wagner, whose musical advances freed him to conceive of another world of possibilities – should reduce the audience to the tears Bruckner had in his eyes when he wrote it, but tonight’s version showed no emotion. This was not the blockish interpretation of Bruckner standard from such Prussian oompahs as Christian Thielemann, rather indeed a fuller and better attempt, but nevertheless missing a soul.

The audience gave a loud applause, but I heard a lot of German accents in the crowd. The Austrians headed for the doors.