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.

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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.

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Holzer, Brahms, Strauss, Prokofiev

I was afraid Austria might revoke my citizenship if I did not attend at least one musical event on this brief trip.  So off I went to the Musikverein to hear the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Vasily Petrenko.

Petrenko is a young conductor from St. Petersburg, who trained under Jansons, Temirkanov, and Salonen, and was already chief conductor of St. Petersburg’s second opera house, the Michailovsky, by the time he was 18 years old.  Since 2009 he has been based in Liverpool, where is gets great reviews and has become quite popular.  I can see why.  He has a very clear, precise yet emotional technique, and the orchestra knows what to do next.

No where better did this come out than in the second half of the concert: the Prokofiev Symphony #5, for which the odd harmonies and tempi were actually meant to be there.  I have never heard this piece performed the way Petrenko did it tonight.  Written during the Second World War, the music contains great tension, drama, and industrial mobilization, all of which Petrenko brought out of the orchestra.  Of course, this orchestra happens to specialize in 20th-Century Russian music, thanks to its former music director Vladimir Fedoseyev, and therefore it responded brilliantly to Petrenko’s idiomatic reading.  This may be about as definitive a version of this work as it gets – what a shame it was not recorded for posterity.

But before the second half came the first.  Tonight’s concert opened with the Austrian National Anthem (tomorrow is the national day), music by Johann Holzer.  A nice anthem, to be sure, but I’d still rather claim our old one back from Germany.

Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture followed.  Petrenko took it rather more quickly than usual – a raise the house sort of overture rather than a stately dignified one.  The orchestra responded well, and I suppose I saw the point, but I would stick with the slower tempo.

Soprano Christiane Oelze then came out to sing seven assorted songs by Richard Strauss.  Oelze has a beautiful round voice, projects it well, and can hit all the notes.  Unfortunately tonight she did not hit the right ones.  She seemed incapable of keeping either on pitch or on tempo.  As she got more frustrated she screeched.  A disaster of a night for her.  The orchestra provided nice background color, if only it had played without soloist.

All of this was worth it, however, for the Prokofiev after the intermission.

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Brahms, Bruckner

Tonight was a study in contrasts: the skilled sophisticate with nothing to say, and the sincere simpleton who knew how to make the music of Heaven audible to those of us on Earth.  The Vienna Symphony Orchestra performed Brahms and Bruckner.

Bruckner admired the opening of the first movement to Brahms’ First Piano Concerto.  But he considered that Brahms could have built a symphony out of this theme.  Although Brahms certainly had the skills to do so, he lacked the imagination.  So instead he produced a piano concerto.  In reality, the concerto was just an orchestral piece which Brahms simply failed to completely orchestrate – rather than showcasing the solo instrument, he blended the piano parts into the whole, and he might as well have turned this into a fully-orchestrated symphony.  But he did not.

The German Conductor Marc Albrecht accentuated the structure that Bruckner had so admired.  The German Pianist Lars Vogt provided robust substance that filled out the un-orchestrated piano parts and blended well with the orchestra.  But the movement never went very far beyond this.  The second movement had less motion – Brahms considered it a musical portrait of his friend Clara Schumann, but if I were her I would have been insulted that Brahms considered her so dull.  Thematically, the movement foretold his German Requiem, but in that later work Brahms certainly had something to say that he did not in this earlier one.  The final movement had many very charming parts, which had little or no relation with each other.  Brahms certainly knew how to compose on a purely technical level.  But successful music must exist on a higher level.

Hence to the Bruckner Third Symphony.  Bruckner was a simple man, and very insecure.  Critics ridiculed his compositional technique in his day (and many still do).  But in his way he knew how to develop an idea.  Albrecht also understood this idiom.  By controlling the dynamics, he ensured that the work had sufficient contrasts to augment the aetherial swells, and he also drew out the lyrical elements within the score, to make the reading multi-faceted, and to allow the heavenly chorales to grow organically out of the earthly lyrics.

The Vienna Symphony continues to impress with its authoritative but sensitive tone.  The solo horn had absolutely gorgeous moments in the Brahms concerto.  He deserved a solo bow, but Albrecht did not grant him one.

Orchestral Society of the Association of the Friends of Music in Vienna & Vienna Academic Wind Philharmonic, Musikverein

Brahms, Berlioz

Another amateur night in the Musikverein.

The Orchestral Society of the Association of the Friends of Music in Vienna, the Musikverein’s house amateur orchestra with the excessively-long name, performed Brahms’ Symphony #4 under Robert Zelzer for the first half of the program.  The playing was somewhat ragged, but they made it through reasonably well, considering they are not professional musicians.  As usual, Brahms wrote pleasant-sounding music but had nothing to say.  Occasionally an orchestra partly makes up for this by itself having something to say when playing Brahms, but not this orchestra and not tonight.

After the intermission, the Academic Wind Instrument Philharmonic – a student orchestra which grew out of the Vienna Technical University – got to do the original version of the rarely-heard Grand Funereal and Triumphal Symphony of Berlioz under the Danish conductor David Hojer.  The first movement – funeral music – emerged quite strikingly.  Perhaps I have spent too much time in Russia recently, but I almost heard antecedents of Schostakowitsch in some of Berlioz’ harmonies and rhythms.  A Russian orchestra, with its glaring winds, might take to this work.  The second and third movements settled in less convincingly as the orchestra tired and began to drag.  Berlioz himself later re-scored this piece to strengthen those two movements with a chorus, and perhaps this performance of the original version provided some indication of why he believed he needed to do that.  Indeed, when it looked like the orchestra was preparing to perform an encore, Hojer consulted with several of the musicians and then announced from the stage that they were too tired to play an encore.

Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

Schubert, Adams, Lutosławski, Brahms, Britten, Bernstein

The Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra performed a Sunday afternoon light concert of symphonic dances under the baton of Dmitry Liss, which ran through a number of styles: Six German Dances by Franz Schubert (as orchestrated by Anton Webern), the Chairman’s Dance from Nixon in China by John Adams, Five Dance Preludes for Clarinet and Orchestra by Witold Lutosławski (with Vladimir Permyakov on Clarinet), Hungarian Dance Nr. 6 by Johannes Brahms, the Musical Evening Suite by Benjamin Britten (based on Rossini), and Symphonic Dances from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein.

Liss kept the afternoon light and bouncy.  This worked best for the Brahms, with an almost-Hungarian lilt, and for the Bernstein, which Liss made sound like Bernstein had composed it under the influence of Stravinsky (maybe he did…?).  It worked less well for the Adams dance, which had a lot of movement and went absolutely nowhere, a typically poor effort by that ridiculously over-hyped composer.

After coffee and a sandwich, I migrated over to the Stanisklavsky.

Armenian Philharmonic, Khachaturian Hall

Beethoven, Brahms

The Armenian Philharmonic, conducted by Ruben Asatryan, gave a concert tonight that I probably should have skipped.  Workmanlike, but dull.

Marine Abrahamyan performed as soloist in Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto.  She hit all the notes.  The old Steinway piano, though in tune, sounded like it had gone past its use-by date, since it had an excessively sour tone.  Apparently they have a new concert piano at the Khachaturian Hall, but Abrahamyan prefers this one because the keys are broken in and easier to play.  After the applause, she subjected us to a series of encores.  Every time we thought she had finished and the orchestra started to sneak off the stage, she reappeared and started playing again.  Maybe with a better-sounding instrument she might have achieved something (although one of her encores was an ugly modern piece by an Armenian composer which probably sounds better on a bad piano).  Eventually her annoying behavior stopped and we got to take a walk about for intermission.

After the intermission came Brahms’ First Symphony.  Convinced that there was nothing new to say after Beethoven, Brahms only put notes on paper cautiously.  Although some of his works can be pleasant enough, no one can consider Brahms original.  It therefore takes charismatic performers to add excitement to Brahms, something that may have been too much for tonight’s band to provide.  The Armenian Philharmonic’s winds were once again good, particularly the woodwinds, and overall the orchestra made it through the piece without problem but also without providing any enlightenment.