Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Weinberg, Brahms

I still cannot believe I was unaware of the existence of Moishe Weinberg as recently as five years ago.  Now I plan my schedule to incorporate rare performances of his music.  One of the greatest composers of the 20th Century, he was first championed by Dmitri Schostakowitsch (who served as a mentor for the younger Weinberg, but admitted Weinberg may indeed have been more talented).  One of his most recent champions is the brilliant young Lithuanian conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, who led the Mozarteum Orchestra this morning in his Second Symphony.

Scored only for string orchestra, this Symphony produced rich complexities which combined the intimacy of a sting quartet with the full-bodied sounds of a symphonic work.  Multiple lines (even among instrument groups) weaved in and out throughout the three-movement symphony, capturing vast sonorities sometimes almost delicately.  The first movement strung together a series of dances, but warped by the aftermath of the Holocaust (Weinberg was the only member of his family to survive – when he wrote this in 1945-46 in his Moscow exile he may still have been unaware of their fate but presumably knew it could not have been good).  The bleak second movement may have been too bleak even for the Russians, and may be the reason the Soviet authorities suppressed this symphony for nearly two decades (they did not permit it to have its premiere until 1964, a fate which often befell Weinberg’s works and which contributed to his oblivion despite his enormous talents and the high quality of his music at so many levels).  The moods of the first two movements combined to form the finale, but rather than rehash, Weinberg found new themes and tonalities, particularly in expansion of pizzicato to set the music on edge.

Under the impulse of Gražinytė-Tyla and the Stadler Quartet (formed by Mozarteum Orchestra members led by the concertmaster), there will be a Weinberg Festival in Salzburg in early December to mark the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth, featuring a good selection (by no means anywhere near complete) of his chamber music.  It has not had much publicity (Gražinytė-Tyla alluded to it but gave no details when making some introductory remarks at a concert featuring Weinberg’s music performed by the Stadler Quartet last Spring), but a few (not many) fliers were lying around in the lobby of the Great Festival House this morning, and I am now figuring out how to plan my schedule to get to as many of the performances as possible.  I’d say others should do the same.

The novelty and creativity of Weinberg’s work overshadowed the program’s main advertised piece, which came after the intermission: Brahms‘ Requiem, perhaps that composer’s greatest and most monumental work, and certainly his most original.  Gražinytė-Tyla recognized it as a very personal work despite its size, and so rather than making it a giant piece (although there were indeed 150 performers on stage) with at times swelling fortes, she kept it intimate (not quiet in the big parts – suitably loud where that was necessary – just intimate).  For this work, the Salzburg Bach Chorus and soloists Günther Haumer and Robin Johannsen (she a very late substitute – so late that not only did they not have time to put an insert in the program, they did not even print up pieces of paper to post at the entrance to alert concert-goers of the change) joined the Mozarteum Orchestra and Gražinytė-Tyla to make a balanced, sensitive, and emotional whole.

Philadelphia Orchestra, Kimmel Center

Mendelssohn, Bruch, Brahms

I had not intended to go to a concert this evening, but ended up needing to come back to Philadelphia from Washington on an earlier train than originally planned.  So I could not resist hearing the Philadelphia Orchestra for a second time on this trip.  Most of the principal chairs had this evening off, but no matter: it’s still the best orchestra in the Western Hemisphere.

Nathalie Stutzmann conducted, part of a series of women conductors the Orchestra is consciously featuring this season (good for them!).  I had vaguely heard of her (reading her bio seemed familiar), but did not previously know her.  She is a French contralto who recently turned to conducting.  Over a crystal clear baton beat in her right hand, she crafted sounds in her left, drawing the orchestra along expressively.  They responded with subtle, nuanced playing, with wonderful individual lines combining into a balanced, fulfilling, whole sound.

This playing immediately came on show for the concert overture: The Hebrides by Felix Mendelssohn, in which the Orchestra rocked us gently on the sea, lush strings swaying, as the composer crossed to Fingal’s Cave, the approach announced by increasingly evocative winds.  Despite the hall’s dry acoustics, this piece served (under Stutzmann’s direction) its purpose to demonstrate the warmth of this orchestra at every level, and their mastery throughout the instruments of landscape painting (Mendelssohn not only wrote this concert overture, but made a painting of the scene as well, which in such a performance we can dispense with, since the music alone suffices to let us hear the visuals).

The Orchestra’s concertmaster, David Kim, came out next for the Violin Concerto by Max Bruch.  He does not have a huge solo sound, but he does have a rich one, and he obviously knows how to play at the front of this orchestra, making a wonderful partnership.  Stutzmann restrained the orchestra during the solo violin features, never overwhelming Kim and keeping the performance balanced.  For the tutti sections, she drew the orchestra out fully, without creating unnecessary startling contrast.

After the intermission came the Second Symphony of Johannes Brahms.  The first movement had clear echoes of Mendelssohn’s Hebrides which had opened the concert, a similarity of line and craft.  But Mendelssohn had gotten there almost half a century earlier.  Brahms’ music was well-constructed as always, but had little new to say.  However, over the course of the symphony, this orchestra gave feeling to his lines, never dragging, lilting as necessary.  If not an evocative trip to the Scottish Islands to take in a natural wonder, then at least it was still a wonderful journey.

Camerata Salzburg, Mozarteum

Bartók, Weber, Koncz, Kodály, Brahms

The Camarata Salzburg provided a thoroughly-enjoyable Hungarian-themed concert in the Mozarteum this evening at the Festival.  A tremendous chamber orchestra, they had a whole series of fascinating concerts that I had hoped to attend during the 2018-19 season but kept finding myself out of town and giving my tickets away (I made it only to the final concert in their season series, plus an extra concert dedicated to Leopold Mozart; for the 2019-20 season their concert series is notable for being completely and surprisingly uninteresting and I have bought no tickets at all).  When this concert appeared on the 2019 Festival program, I starred it as a potential Summer highlight.

Béla Bartók‘s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta made up the first half of the concert.  It was an experimental work, but showed Bartók at his most original – and also in his element.  Odd tonalities resolve into fully-lyrical swells.  Just as the Hungarian accent in German has a mysterious and enormous charm, so does this same charm apply to Hungarian music.  The young Swiss conductor Lorenzo Viotti had everything under perfect control, but radiated sympathy and a twinkle.  The audience roared its approval, with more curtain calls than are usual before an intermission when the orchestra will be returning for more anyway.

Carl Maria von Weber‘s Clarinet Concerto #1 would have seemed to be the odd-piece-out on the program, since it has no Hungarian connection.  But it was an experimental work by the composer for a newly-developed mechanism for this instrument.  The work made a splash in its time, but for some reason (maybe because it is extremely difficult) it rarely shows up on concert programs.  Andreas Ottensamer, principal clarinet of the Berlin Philharmonic (younger brother of his counterpart with the Vienna Philharmonic, both sons of the late Vienna Philharmonic principal clarinetist who died in 2017) did the honors this evening, and hammed the work up to the fullest, dancing on stage and turning to various other orchestra members (and conductor Viotti), making eye contact and urging them on – indeed, he was practically as engaged as Viotti in leading the orchestra.

There followed a work written for Ottensamer in 2017: the Hungarian Fantasy on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber for clarinet and orchestra, by Stephan Koncz (an Austrian of Hungarian descent) which sprung from Weber’s opera Die Freischütz.  This had a feel of improvisation about it, although it was not improv, fitting perfectly with Ottensamer’s personality deriving from the Weber concerto (and hence the need to have that non-Hungarian work on the program).  As it got faster and faster, crazier and crazier, everyone went loose.  But with this soloist, this orchestra, and this conductor, they never lost control, and the audience almost started dancing the csárdás with them.

The final programmed work was a dance set: the Dances of Galánta by Zoltán Kodály.  If we were not dancing already with Koncz, we certainly were with Kodály.  This is actually lush music but with a heavy Hungarian lilt, composed in 1933 not from Kodály’s own folklore research but rather from music preserved in a Vienna library.  The orchestra supplied a Hungarian dance by Johannes Brahms as an encore.  The enthusiastic applause from the audience suggested there should be a standing ovation, but as these are rare people seemed hesitant at first until the dam broke and everyone stood.

North German Radio Radio Philharmonic, Felsenreitschule (Salzburg)

Brahms, Kreisler, Mendelssohn, Händel

The North German Radio Radio Philharmonic has come to the Felsenreitschule in Salzburg this week.  That sentence apparently does not have a typo. The orchestra indeed has “radio” twice in its name.  How bizarre.  Must be a German attempt at humor.

I actually was only planning on going to their concert tomorrow, but ended up with this ticket unexpectedly: I’ll miss the Luxemburg Philharmonic in March while I am in London, and was wondering what to do with that ticket, when the concert promoter got in touch with me the same day entirely by chance and asked if I might happen to be willing to exchange my ticket for that concert for something else (during maintenance work in the Felsenreitschule, the seat for which I had a ticket had been removed and replaced with a wheelchair spot).  So this was the exchange.  Solved their problem and mine.

That said, there was a reason I had not planned on going tonight: the first half of the program contained a single work, the Violin Concerto by Brahms.  Some anonymous wit had apparently once called this less a “concerto for orchestra and violin” and more a “concerto for orchestra versus violin.”  Except that this description still makes it sound too exciting.  It’s dull.  Really dull (except for the oboe, who gets some nice melodies).

Soloist Arabella Steinbacher gave it a brave shot.  She had a lush warm tone, with actually a lot of color and and substance – like a complex Georgian red wine.  It worked best during the quieter passages, since the size of her sound was not especially large.  The orchestra’s chief conductor Andrew Manze had everything under control, however, never allowing the orchestra to overwhelm her and keeping perfect balance.  But did I mention the concerto is dull?

Steinbacher came back out for a solo encore, a little recitativo and scherzo by Fritz Kreisler which allowed her to show off her talent. Another bottle of fine Georgian wine from the cellar.

After the intermission, the Orchestra returned for a spirited Mendelssohn Symphony #4, his colorful “Italian” landscape.  The orchestra also has a nice warm sound.  But it’s not a Georgian red wine.  It might be a German white.  The playing was roundly good, but not especially distinctive and somewhat homogeneous. Two excerpts from Händel’s Water Music followed similarly.  Fun stuff – not dull.  Next time they might think of pairing Mendelssohn’s far better violin concerto with this symphony, rather than Brahms’ – the Mendelssohn would also be appropriate for Steinbacher’s tone.  Poor choice this evening.

Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Haus für Mozart (Salzburg)

Wagner, Wallin, Brahms, Grieg

The Bergen Philharmonic had not yet started its season when I was staying across the street from its home at the end of last Summer. No worries, they’ve come to me, with guest conductor Juanjo Mena and the incomparable Håkan Hardenberger on the trumpet(s).

I probably would not have chosen this concert, but it was part of my Wednesday subscription series (tomorrow is a more promising program, and I’ll go back for that).  At least it began and ended well, and even the long slog through the middle was well-performed.  This orchestra has a wonderfully complete lyrical sound, with solo lines to augment the point (but never outshine the whole).  Particularly soulful solos came from the concertmistress (who I think went to Exeter several years before I did), oboe, and principal horn.  Mena had a wonderful sense of sound-shaping, as though forming clay and breathing life into it.

Wagner‘s Flying Dutchman was of course set on the Norwegian coast, so I suppose it was fitting to open the set with the overture, a study in character contrasts as performed here.  The excitement vanished in a hurry, however, for Rolf Wallin‘s Trumpet Concerto, The Fisher King.  I suppose a legend about a wounded king sitting on the banks of a river waiting for fish to bite is never going to be the stuff of high drama (although it could be mystical – Wolfram von Eschenbach’s version had the story evolve into Amfortas, leading to Wagner’s portrayal in Parsifal).  Wallin’s music also just sat there, throbbing along, periodically interrupted by a spasm in the orchestra, and with virtuosity throughout by Hardenberger (for whom Wallin wrote this piece in 2011).  Wallin designated it a “trumpet” concerto, but he should have called it a “trumpets” concerto, as it required two (not an issue for the versatile Hardenberger).

Ironically, Wallin’s concerto set up the second half of the concert well: the first symphony by Johannes Brahms.  The great conductor Hans von Bülow referred to this as “Beethoven’s Tenth.”  Brahms understood that as a compliment, but in reality it was an indication of how unoriginal Brahms was, since coming half a century after Beethoven’s Ninth, the music really should have progressed (indeed, in many respects, Brahms regressed).  Brahms mastered symphonic technique, but just did not add anything (those few emotional works when he dropped his inhibitions, such as his Requiem and a handful of shorter pieces, demonstrated that Brahms could do original, he just usually did not want to).  Like the Wallin concerto, this opened with a throbbing pulsating rhythm, and then just moved along (certainly more musical than Wallin, and the orchestra had enough moments to shine with it, but… Brahms).

Bergen-born Edvard Grieg had been the music director of this orchestra in the 1880s, and so we naturally got two encores excerpted from his incidental music for Peer Gynt – “Åse’s death” and “In the hall of the mountain king” – the first with sumptuous lush strings, the second full of enthusiasm and smiles all around.

My lingering cough is now (mostly) better, but the acoustics in the Haus für Mozart are not.  This evening I sat downstairs, center – I don’t remember sitting there before either, but it did not help.  Tomorrow I’ll be up top, where I have been before and have found it reasonable, so maybe it’s only really passable all the way up there.  I’ll confirm tomorrow.

Philadelphia Orchestra, Musikverein (Vienna)

Brahms, Schumann, Strauss

It’s always wonderful to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra on tour performing in a proper hall and not the dull box they have in the Kimmel Center.  Tonight, they hit the Musikverein for the first of a two-night set with Yannick Nézet-Séguin on the podium.

The second half of the concert was spectacular, featuring the best performance of Schumann‘s Fourth Symphony I have ever heard – a mix of mystery, wistfullness, and outright joy.  This was followed by Richard Strauss‘ tone poem Don Juan, in an interpretation which emphasized the individual virtuosic lines.  Not sure where to begin on this, but maybe the duet between the oboe and clarinet was most special.  Or was it the horn solos?  Or the violin?  Or… or…  From my seat I had a good view of Nézet-Séguin, and watched him cajole the Orchestra emotionally, and then heard the immediate response.  These forces make music so well together.

This intimacy was also on show for the concert’s first half, where they were joined by Hélène Grimaud for the Brahms first piano concerto.  I am afraid not even the Philadelphia Orchestra can rescue that Brahms concerto, although it was a valiant effort.  The playing sounded great, but there was just not much to work with (or too much – an hour of musical ideas that weren’t all bad but Brahms was not creative enough to know what to do with them).  According to the program notes, Bruckner was a fan of the main theme of the first movement (“Siehst, das is a Symphoniethema!” – “You see, that is a symphony theme!” he apparently declared to a student).  Indeed, there was something there, and if it had been a Bruckner symphony we would have found ourselves dreaming in a gothic cathedral he would have built from it.  But it was a Brahms piano concerto, so all he could do with it was plant a vegetable garden for the monks.  Maybe they were good vegetables, and maybe Grimaud, Nézet-Séguin, and the Philadelphians made good tour guides, but I’d rather admire Bruckner’s cathedral than wander around in Brahms’ monastery farm.

The concert had very high security (indeed, I have never seen so much security for anything in Austria, including when I attended a reception hosted by the President last Fall with many other dignitaries from Austria and neighboring countries in the room).  Armed police roamed everywhere (outside and inside the building), as did ubiquitous Israeli close protection teams.  There were also a bunch of huge men who looked like nightclub bouncers stationed around the hall (apparently recommended by the Israelis).

This all had to do with the fact that at the end of the Orchestra’s European tour tomorrow, they head off to tour Israel, and the anti-Semites are protesting everywhere.  The Orchestra started its tour in Belgium, one of the most anti-Semitic countries in Europe today (I make no excuses for Austria, its failure to address its history, and the fact that unrepentent German nationalists with an arguably classical national socialist political agenda are sitting in the current government – but Austria is actually pretty tame, which is frightening).  So in Brussels the Orchestra’s concert was repeatedly interrupted by anti-Semitic protestors, which led the Orchestra to contact the Israelis for advice and the host cities on the rest of the European tour for high alerts.  At the start of tonight’s concert, a Musikverein representative came on stage to announce that if there were a protest, then the Orchestra would stop playing and walk off the stage, and return to start the concert over after the protest ended; so, since the Orchestra believes in the right to free speech, it was requested that if anyone in the audience wanted to protest, that they do so now before the concert began.  There was a loud applause for the announcement, but no protest.

And there was certainly no protest about the concert itself.  I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s.

Leipzig Gewandhausorchester, Musikverein (Vienna)

Brahms

 

The last time I heard BrahmsRequiem live was also with Herbert Blomstedt in the Musikverein with the Singverein… but a different orchestra.  Then (2014) it was the Symphoniker (Vienna’s second-best orchestra, still maybe top ten in the world these days), the night before I moved to Salzburg.  Tonight it was the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig (top five, on a par with the Philadelphia Orchestra) in town for a visit.  This is the same orchestra which gave the first complete performance of this work back in 1869 (no, Blomstedt was not conducting that night… although it almost feels like he should have been).

I remember that 2014 concert clearly, and although I had not planned to be in Vienna tonight, some workmen at home combined with a public holiday yesterday brought me here and a ticket (in my usual seat, no less) opened up for an otherwise sold out performance and beckoned me back.

The Gewandhaus Orchestra is somewhat more dainty than the Vienna Symphony, and Blomstedt was its music director from 1998-2005, making him quite familiar with its strengths.  As a result, tonight’s concert was probably a little less driven than I remember the 2014 interpretation – possibly not as memorable.  But Blomstedt milked the bittersweet tones from the woodwinds (it’s called a “requiem,” after all – although not a traditional one – yet it has a certain sweetness in the sorrow).  The orchestra and chorus sounded delicate but still full – it’s a big piece, but cannot become overbearing.  Restrained but at times exhuberant – indeed it looked like the measured Blomstedt almost started dancing at points – but at other points the tragedy nearly brought the house down.

We opened with the low strings, which quietly got the Musikverein’s floorboards vibrating, opening to an otherworldly choir.  The tympani highlighted the swells, particularly in the second movement, to pure devastation.  And the at times Blomstedt’s construction, and the implementation by orchestra and chorus, produced the foreboding effect of tolling bells.

Blomstedt stood to conduct (in contrast with this summer at the Festival, when he conducted sitting), but still moves a little more slowly than last year.  He’s 90 years old: the twinkle in his eye does it all.  The Gewandhaus Orchestra also has a throwback tone to another era (founded in 1781, this was Mendelssohn’s orchestra in the mid 1800s and one which guards its traditions well).  Blomstedt knows that, and knew when to make this unusual work by Brahms sometimes more classical in nuance (if romantic in construction) playing on the orchestra’s strengths.

The Singverein blended perfectly with the Orchestra, as did baritone soloist Michael Nagy.  The soprano, Hannah Morrison, seems not to have gotten the memo, however.  Her voice is quite pretty at the lower volumes, but when she had to add more heft it became a tad bitter and forced.  She seems to be a baroque specialist, and this work may just have been too much for her.

Members of the Vienna Philharmonic, Schloß Leopoldskron (Salzburg)

Mozart, Strauss, Brahms, Kreisler

Our annual board of directors weekend gave us the opportunity for two quite different classical chamber music concerts on Sunday (we also had a jazz trio performing rearranged renditions of classical works on Saturday – but I don’t feel like I can write a meaningful review of jazz, even classically-inspired jazz; I will also omit a public review of the afternoon classical chamber concert, as I do not publicly review all of the private concerts we host, and that particular concert resulted from a peculiar request from a specific donor).

For the Sunday matinée, three members of the Vienna Philharmonic (accompanied by one of their wives, on piano) came to our magical palace, Schloß Leopoldskron. They selected the first allegro movement from each of the piano quartet #1 in E-flat by Wolfgang Amadé Mozart and of the piano quartet in c by Richard Strauss, and the complete piano quartet #1 in g by Johannes Brahms (and a miniature, “Little Vienna March” by Fritz Kreisler, as an encore). I got to introduce the concert.

The selection of works by Mozart and Strauss was obvious: both had themselves performed in Schloß Leopoldskron. Prince Archbishop Leopold von Firmian, who built Leopoldskron, was the patron of Mozart’s father (also Leopold), and the Archbishop’s son (officially “nephew” since Catholic archbishops should technically not have sons), the second owner of the palace, was an early patron of the young Wolfgang. A century and a half later, Max Reinhardt owned the palace and founded the Salzburg Festival in one of its rooms, together with a small group of his good friends, including Strauss, a frequent guest.

However, as Mozart did not compose piano quartets before he left Salzburg, and Strauss did not compose any after he started visiting, we ended up with late Mozart and early Strauss, neither from their Salzburg periods. Mozart was at his pinnacle for this work, and Strauss still experimental on his way up, but the musicians deftly produced two very distinct styles.

The excitement continued for the Brahms. Neither this work nor this composer had any special meaning – it was simply something they enjoyed playing. While Brahms can be exceptionally dull, this piece – or at least this performance – showed non-stop excitement (aided perhaps by unexpected roaring thunder outside). The tradition-bound Brahms demonstrated that he could write with passion if he broke with tradition – he was not incapable of originality, just generally afraid of it. This piece, in scoring, pacing, and self-referential variations skipping among all four movements was original. To prepare for the concert, I had listened to several versions of this work on line, and none excited me – presumably only the Vienna Philharmonic has musicians capable of making this piece sound quite so special.

Christoph von Dohnányi once famously explained that “the Viennese never give technique a priority. They always try to achieve the musical sense, and by doing this they actually go as far as they can in a technical respect. But they would never sacrifice natural music-making to technical necessities.” (Music director in Cleveland at the time he made those comments, Dohnányi contrasted the Philharmonic with his own orchestra, which he described as giving technically perfect performances of music, and so his greatest frustration in Cleveland was trying to get his orchestra to perform more like the Vienna Philharmonic).  The Philharmonic, I quipped, may be the Salzburg Global Seminar of orchestras.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Schubert, Brahms, Strauss

Richard Strauss‘s masterpiece of orchestral painting, Eine Alpensinfonie, has been my favorite tone poem since childhood, and my appreciation and enjoyment of the piece has not wavered as I grow older.  Nor indeed the accuracy of its depiction: its tremendous colors describe for the ears the majesty of the Alps.

The Mozarteum Orchestra proved this morning that it was up to the task, with outstanding solo detail throughout the overcrowded stage.  On the podium, Ivor Bolton, until last year the orchestra’s music director, can certainly take some credit for the caliber of the orchestra’s sound.

Unfortunately, however, it was not clear that Bolton himself understood this work.  After presenting a thrilling sunrise, Bolton set out for this walk in the Alps at a somewhat slower-than-normal pace.  England is mostly flat, so perhaps the mountains made him winded.  While I hoped this might allow the sonorities to bloom, the orchestra did seem to want to push forward, held back by their out-of-shape English cousin who huffed and puffed but could not keep up.  They dutifully went at the speed of their least fit member.

The first half of the concert contained two unusual dark pieces, one by Schubert and one by Brahms.  Schubert’s Song of the Spirits over the Waters, a setting of a Goethe poem, started out promising, with a male choir and instrumentation for strings without violins, but never really went anywhere.  Brahms, who did his best work when he wasn’t trying to imitate Beethoven, had somewhat more success with his Alto Rhapsody for alto, male choir, and chamber orchestra – also setting Goethe.  Argentinian alto Bernarda Fink gave a bold reading, and the Salzburg Bach Choir captured the somber mood of these two pieces without getting overly emotional.

Jerusalem Quartet and András Schiff, Mozarteum

Schubert, Weinberg, Brahms

The Jerusalem Quartet and András Schiff provided a full, nearly orchestral, sound for their chamber performance in the Mozarteum this evening, as part of the Salzburg Festival.

The program opened with the Quartet Movement in c minor by Franz Schubert, who never wrote the other movements for a planned work.  This movement goes down with the two movements of his “Unfinished Symphony” under the “what could have been” column.  But like those two symphonic movements, which actually work as an abridged symphony, this quartet movement also works as a stand-alone piece.  The Israelis built up a big sound, capturing all the nuances of Schubert’s genius.

The piece also served as a good warm-up for the next work, in which Schiff joined the quartet for Moishe Weinberg‘s Piano Quintet.  Weinberg, a Polish Jew, fled Warsaw when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939 (they murdered his entire family) and got stuck inside the Soviet Union, which had meanwhile invaded Poland from the other direction.  In Russia, his new family (through his new wife, daughter of the great Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels) also got murdered by the anti-Semitic Soviet regime.  Dmitri Schostakowitsch, with whom he became a close friend, personally rescued Weinberg from another purge of Jews.  I discovered Weinberg’s music on recordings early in 2015, and became intrigued – but although Schostakowitsch valued him very highly as a composer, his music is today rarely performed.  I had unfortunately missed a concert of his music in Vienna last Summer, but sought out this concert specifically to hear something live.

The Quintet did not disappoint.  Written in 1944, the work captured the mixed trauma Weinberg must have experienced as he settled in Moscow (with Schostakowitsch’s help) after escaping Poland via Minsk and Tashkent (!).  Although containing kernels of the conventional, it went off in all directions.  Here a march off into oblivion, there a warped waltz performed presto, there a slow funereal movement interrupted by fanfares (warning blasts? signs of hopeful redemption approaching over the horizon?), and concluding with a difficult final movement based on what sounded like a off-kilter jig, played by the instruments in succession, in unison, in round, and ultimately against each other, before dropping off into a pianissimo melancholic abyss, followed by a long silence before applause.  The five musicians handled this exhilarating work with great verve, approaching a Schostakowitsch-sized orchestral complexity, keeping the audience on the edge of our seats: what on earth would Weinberg bring next?

The rest of the concert, after the intermission, was anti-climactic, featuring a lone work: Johannes Brahms‘ Piano Quintet.  At the time of its premiere, contemporaries regarded Brahms’ Piano Quintet as following the legacy of Beethoven and Schubert – which may be true, except those two composers had been dead for nearly forty years by then, betraying Brahms’ complete lack of originality.  The quality of tonight’s performance and the technical prowess of Brahms notwithstanding, this work had nothing to say, particularly coming as it did after the Weinberg.  The musicians did produce a build up of real tension for the third movement scherzo, but it was a build up to… just another unrelated movement.  All four movements were quite fine works, but Brahms failed to connect them other than the setting for a quartet plus piano.  Indeed, they would each have held up just fine as individual single-movement works, as demonstrated during the encore, when the group performed a reprise of the third movement scherzo on its own.

My only quibble, therefore, with tonight’s performance: they probably should have reversed the order of the Weinberg and Brahms quintets, and sent us out with Weinberg’s moving pianissimo into the summer night.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Eötvös, Brahms, Mahler

If the world is going to end in 2016, which at this rate it may do, then a brand-new oratorio by Péter Eötvös, jointly commissioned by the Salzburg Festival (with several other partners), may provide the backdrop.  The Vienna Philharmonic gave the premiere of Halleluja – Oratorium Balbulum tonight at the Festival.  

This strange melancholic work had a sense of humor.  It comprised three characters: a long-winded and easily distracted narrator, a stuttering prophet, and a drunken angel.  The composer called it “four fragments” not because it was excerpted from a longer work, but because he – and the librettist Péter Esterhazy, who died earlier this month – took a much bigger concept and then selected four fragments to put to music.  The plot, such as it was, centered on September 11th 2001, in which a European government spokesman on a business trip switches off his hotel television because they are showing what he thinks is an American B-movie of a plane flying into the World Trade Center.  However, his wife was on the plane, and ordering a tomato juice… but this plot was not really so important other than as a frame.  History has come to an end.  People are afraid for tomorrow.  They have begun to think only for today.  There will be no tomorrow.  But does a fragment have an end?

The music was eclectic, but demonstrated that original music today can say something new without having to be ugly.  The idea was to keep everything disjointed, flowing logically but changing directions, and of course being interrupted by the three main characters.  The chorus augmented the scene, providing periodic Hallelujas composed by a range of composers from Monteverdi through Mussorgsky (including singing two simultaneously by Mozart and Bruckner and one “in the style of Bartok” who never wrote one).  

Actor Peter Simonischek in the spoken role of Narrator, alto Iris Vermillion as the Angel, and tenor Topi Lehtipuu as the Prophet gave idiomatic readings, milking the humor of the work through the darkness.  The Hungarian Radio Chorus mastered the complex and ever-changing choral parts.

On the podium, the young Brit Daniel Harding (who I thought would get the Berlin job, and instead ended up with the awful Orchestra of Paris… what a waste) showed why he is one of the more dynamic comductors of his generation and able to handle a broad repertory.

This oratorio actually was not the end (it was only four fragments!).  The concert resumed after the intermission with Brahms and Mahler.  Harding allowed the scaled-down chamber orchestra sing for Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn.  The original work was a chorale (although it may not have been by Haydn), and Harding made this clear, adding a bit of cheer after the Eötvös oratorio.  For Mahler, we reverted to melancholy: the Adagio from his Tenth Symphony.  This Adagio was, of course, also a fragment, the only movement of that symphony that Mahler was able to substantially complete before he died.  Taken in the context of the Eötvös work, this performance was a revelation.  The world ends, but it is only a fragment.  The world goes on.

Wiener Symphoniker, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Johann Strauß II

Beethoven was a genius. Tonight’s concert with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and Ádám Fischer made this obvious.

When first performed in 1808, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony must have shocked the audience (and the Sixth, having its premiere at the same concert, gave them even more nuance to think about). Tonight’s performance of the Fifth was rather classical in approach: restrained, somewhat on the faster side, and not necessarily forward-looking. For its time, that would have been enough, given the work’s radical construction. This masterful performance, particularly the gifted woodwinds, gave the thick canvas a rich coloration.

What made this Symphony stand out so much, however, was not taking it in isolation. Instead it followed as the second half a concert whose first half featured music by Mozart (Symphony #35) and Haydn (Cello Concerto #1). Mozart and Haydn were themselves no slouches as composers, two of the best of their day, and from whom Beethoven himself personally learned his craft (only briefly with Mozart, more from Haydn). The concert used them tonight to set up the Beethoven, to demonstrate just how much more he could push music forward. These two works were taken by half-sized orchestras, typically for their period, and well within their context. Nicolas Altstaedt joined the orchestra for the cello concerto – a somewhat underwhelming cellist, he took Haydn back a generation more with his somewhat off-tuned instrument (does his cello not hold a tune, or does he not?). Possibly this was Altstaedt’s idiom – I have heard him labor through Schostakowitsch before, but he managed Haydn better tonight.

For a first-half encore, Altstaedt played something for solo cello I could not identify but which sounded like it could have been Sibelius, which he handled dexterously. Fischer and the orchestra gave us two second-half encores: Brahms’ Hungarian Dance #5 and Johann Strauß II’s Pizzicato Polka. Not big works to be sure, but they had the room swaying after the Beethoven, making the final mood somewhat lighter.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Hager, Brahms, Bruckner

I remember when a performace of a Bruckner symphony happened infrequently enough to make it an event.  Now everyone performs Bruckner.  So long as they understand Bruckner, as the Mozarteum Orchestra of Salzburg did tonight under its former chief conductor Leopold Hager in Salzburg’s Great Festival House, I won’t complain.

Hager set up Bruckner’s 7th intelligently, with an well-chosen first half of the concert.  Bruckner owed his musical development to many years spent as a church organist, so Hager brought us to church.  Hager’s own setting of Psalm 2, a work from his own youth (he composed it in 1955), opened the concert – a modern work with an almost Stravinsky-like edge, with the orchestra driving the music forward forcefully before reaching apotheosis.  Austrian baritone Markus Volpert and the Salzburg Bach Chorus provided the text and additional excitement.

Hager followed this with one of Brahms‘ most-original works, his Alto Rhapsody, with the mellifluous Franco-Russian alto Svetlana Lifar joining the orchestra and chorus.  Brahms set a poem by Goethe to music, secular but with a religious undertone, much as he had done for his Requiem one year earlier, with the same balance of melancholic and uplifting spirituality.

Also before the intermission, Hager conducted the chorus in two a capella motets by Bruckner: Locus iste and Os justi meditabitur sapientiam.  As forward looking as Hager’s psalm was, these two were backwards-looking works by Bruckner for church choirs (in St. Florian and Linz, respectively).  The Salzburg Bach Chorus sang out tremendously.

This introductory hour of music perfectly enabled Hager’s interpretation of Bruckner’s 7th for the second hour(-plus).  The Mozarteum Orchestra is a medium-sized band, and although augmented this evening for the Bruckner, it still came out sounding a bit thin.  Hager compensated by having them play legato, emphasizing that these were chorales, and should therefore be sung by the instruments.  Bruckner was a man of the church even when in the concert hall.  Indeed, even the adagio movement, composed as funeral music for the a-religious (and wholly amoral) Richard Wagner, still contained music Bruckner wrote for his own Te Deum (composed at the same time).

The orchestra responded to Hager’s concept.  The last time I heard this symphony, with the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle in the Musikverein in May, the Berliners sounded more lush, but they did not understand the music.  Hager and his Mozarteum Orchestra may have lacked the sparkle of their more-famous Berlin colleagues, but they had more to say tonight.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Brahms, Schmidt, Elgar

No one doubts the technical skill of Johannes Brahms.  The composer’s problem, however, was that his music was highly derivative, unoriginal, and quite often boring.  Nevertheless, place the instruments in the hands of the Vienna Philharmonic and it becomes perfect music to wake up to on a Sunday morning.

A morning concert opened the final day of the Salzburg Festival.  Brahms’ Symphony #3 opened the performance.  The strings produced lush sounds to fill the hall, while maestro Semyon Bychkov, who seems to have become a favorite of the Philharmonic recently, found ways to keep the playing fresh.  All I was missing in my seat in the Large Festival House was breakfast (I had juice and a yoghurt before leaving home, and cooked a full breakfast back at home after the concert).  Brahms may not be my favorite way to end a day, but with these forces on the stage it was a great way to start one.

Franz Schmidt, whose music remains under-appreciated, contributed Symphony #2 after the break.  The contrast with Brahms was evident.  Schmidt, a devout Catholic and one-time disciple of Bruckner at the Vienna Conservatory, looked backwards like his teacher to earlier forms of music, especially from the church, for inspiration and technique.  But unlike Brahms, Schmidt’s inspirations from the past pushed him into the 20th Century.  This Symphony, originally conceived as a simple piano work that grew out of control, was well-grounded but expanded the art of the possible without breaking the mold.  The final chorale, rising triumphantly from the brass, was pure Bruckner – if Bruckner had lived 20 years longer – except that it wasn’t.  Where Brahms would derive inspiration from Beethoven and others and just re-write the music of the earlier composers in technically superb but less-exciting ways, Schmidt took his models as a starting point and built something new.  The Philharmonic and Bychkov made it all riveting.

We did get an encore, although I might prefer not to mention it: “Nimrod” from Elgar’Enigma Variations.  Yes, it is beautiful (especially with the Philharmonic), but it seems that I have recently heard it performed as an encore (plus once as part of the whole work) by every orchestra on the planet, and frankly I wish they chose something else.  Maybe the Blue Danube would have been appropriate for this concert (Brahms once autographed a score of Johann Strauß II’s waltz: “unfortunately not composed by Brahms”)?  Nope, Elgar’s Nimrod again.

Norddeutsche Philharmonie Rostock, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Khachaturian, Tschaikowsky, Brahms

The concert promoters mislabeled tonight’s concert as a “Russian” night, even though a piece by the Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian made up the first half of the program.  Perhaps the they did this to recognize Armenia recently joining the Eurasian Union as part of its gradual reincorporation into Russia.

The Norddeutsche Philharmonie Rostock performed in Salzburg’s Great Festival House under the baton of the Viennese conductor Florian Krumpöck, with young Austrian (from a village near Salzburg) violinist Christine-Maria Höller performing the solo for the Khachaturian Violin Concerto.  I do not think they understood this piece at all.  Möller’s playing was more mechanical than lyrical, and she never captured the wild Caucasian dance melodies.  She demonstrated fine tone and technique, just not feeling.  Krumpöck also allowed the orchestra to overwhelm her at times, with unsatisfying consequences.

Tschaikowsky’s Fifth Symphony came after the intermission.  Krumpöck did his best to capture the composer’s innate dancing, with lilting gestures on the podium, but the orchestra did not respond and failed to reflect those moods, generally playing with a lack of fluidity.  Not until the marching final movement did the orchestra respond – good Germans, I suppose: at least they know how to march.  Even so, this is supposed to be a melancholy march, and while rousing they did not capture Tschaikowsky’s depression.  Still, the main part of the concert ended on a strength.

For an encore, Krumpöck and the Rostock orchestra jumped into the Hungarian Dance #5 by Brahms.  Brahms the Germans understood: finally they danced.

Wiener Symphoniker, Musikverein

Brahms

Johannes Brahms wrote a large amount of technically high-quality music, much of it quite dull since he had little original to say and derived his works from others (particularly Beethoven) who had already said something previously.  But grief has a way of moving even the most emotionless of men, and Ein Deutsches Requiem became his most original work.

For tonight’s performance, Herbert Blomstedt took the podium of the Musikverein.  Both Blomstedt and the Golden Hall provided the frame – although a big work, it is delicate.  The quiet sections must remain detached but full, and the forte and even fortissimo can never be allowed to overwhelm the lines.  Blomstedt’s careful phrasing and the beautiful acoustics of the Golden Hall accomplished their task.

Of course, it also helped to have the Wiener Symphoniker and Singverein on the stage, both institutions also in their best sound.  The clear lines and crisp words were never abrupt.  The extremely tall Swede Peter Mattei provided dramatic but sensitive baritone solos, and the surprisingly short German Christiane Karg gave a daintily substantial soprano solo.

Philadelphia Orchestra, Kimmel Center

Brahms, Weber, Beethoven

I accompanied my mother to a Friday afternoon Philadelphia Orchestra concert to hear how my hometown orchestra is doing.  For the first time, I sat in seats at the Kimmel Center that had good acoustics – the new hall (now not actually so new) has never impressed me.  My mother had decided that anyone making gifts in my father’s memory should make them to the Philadelphia Orchestra, a worthy and transparent recipient now recovering from years of absolutely dreadful management.

The orchestra sounded in great musical health under the baton of guest conductor Christoph von Dohnányi.  The clear and crisp sound had sufficient emotion to transmit the music, and provided a nice contrast to the last concert I attended with the gooey-sounding San Franciscans visiting Vienna.

The highlight of the concert, and perhaps of my entire musical year to date, came in the second piece, Weber’s Clarinet Concerto #1.  There is a reason this work receives few performances; it’s not a bad piece, but someone needs to perform it right, particularly the clarinet solos.  And prolonged music for solo clarinets could grate on the nerves.  Every so often, a special clarinetist comes along, such as Heinrich Joseph Baermann for whom Weber specifically wrote the work two centuries ago.  And today’s unrivaled clarinetist was the Philadelphia Orchestra’s own principal clarinet, Ricardo Morales.  I have never in my life heard a clarinet sound like that.  The tone was full and practically operatic, with all of the nuance of a singing voice; his instrument was not reedy or whiny but had a deep-textured wooden sound like a holy tribal flute invoking the heavans from a temple.  Apparently, he not only plays like this clarinet but constructs his instruments himself in order to perfect this tone.

The concert opened with Brahms’ “Haydn” Variations and concluded with Beethoven’s Symphony #7.  These works are justifiably popular, but to have a good concert requires performing with the warhorses rather than just going through the motions on their backs.  The strings had spring.  The winds added a warm tone.  Dohnányi maintained a justified balance, never too overbearing but never too restrained either.  The Philadelphians breathed.  They smiled.  They gleamed.  The music filled the hall and, for those two hours, brought us to a better place.

Armenian Philharmonic, Khachaturian Hall

Beethoven, Mozart, R. Strauss, Brahms

I did not think anyone could make that old Steinway piano in the Khachaturian Hall sound good.  Tonight, Aleksei Lubimov somehow managed to do so, and everyone in the house knew it.  The Moscow-trained pianist lifted Mozart’s Piano Concerto #27 out from the instrument, where it must have been hiding for decades.  The Armenian Philharmonic – or a chamber group of orchestra musicians, including recognizably some of the students I heard perform on Wednesday – gave him the accompaniment he needed, but otherwise stayed out of his way.  He spoke Mozart’s idiom, and the orchestra understood.

After a rhythmic applause, Lubimov returned for an encore – a sonata from the late classical or early romantic repertory that was not a showpiece but which had suitable embellishments and could showcase his pure musicality.  When the audience would not let the second round of applause die down, Lubimov returned for another similar encore.  He had no need to be flashy when he was so musical.  The piano really is not that good these days, but he restored it as much as possible to its former glory.

On the podium tonight, Stefan Willich brought an unusual personal subplot.  Willich is actually a German cardiologist (who also trained and later taught at Harvard) who conducts as a hobby.  He founded the World Doctors Orchestra, to bring together musician-doctors to give charity concerts.  So he is used to conducting amateur orchestras.  The Armenian Philharmonic is better than amateur, but normally sounds lost without its principal conductor Eduard Topchjan.  Willich managed to keep everyone mostly together, and when they played together they sounded rather reasonable.  I think the youth movement also helped, as the Youth Orchestra has sounded better than the adult one.

The concert opened with Beethoven’Coriolan Overture, in a solid if not quite dramatic reading.  After the Mozart concerto and the intermission, Wagner’s Meistersinger Overture disappeared from the program – perhaps Willich could not keep them together in rehearsal.  Death and Transfiguration by Richard Strauss remained, and where they stayed together they managed the chromatics.  As an encore, perhaps to complete a program by substituting for the Wagner, the orchestra played a spirited and sweeping Hungarian Dance #1 by Brahms – nothing special in this piece, so they actually sounded quite fine.  Probably a wise substitution.