Bruckner, Schubert, Mozart
The 2017 Salzburg Festival has begun, and I opened my festival-going with a Bruckner mass for a Sunday morning. Bruckner’s Mass #2 was a personal work – although he was well into his forties when he composed it, he had only recently begun writing larger works and had not yet left his job as the cathedral organist in the provinces to begin his career Vienna.
The mass, for choir and a limited wind ensemble, opens with clear inspiration from the 16th-century master church composer, Palestrina, who had entered mystic legend as the man who had saved music from a papal ban and was a particular favorite of Bruckner’s then-boss, the Bishop of Linz. But by the time he reached the middle Credo section, Bruckner had found his own idiom, transcending music in the 19th century as Palestrina had done three hundred years before. A brief return to Palestrina in the Sanctus led to a search for chromaticism in the winds, moving around their accompaniment of a chorus harking back to traditional form. The devout Bruckner had scored a triumph, which would help propel his career outside the Church.
The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Salzburg’s Mozarteum Orchestra performed with distinction in the Mozarteum’s Great Hall, under the baton of the rising young Lithuanian star Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, demonstrating a mastery of both idioms reflected in the work: the traditional polyphony of Palestrina and the superimposed chromatic experimentalism of Bruckner inspired both by his predecessor and by his own piety.
The second half of the concert worked less well. Schubert‘s Stabat Mater, composed for a Church commission when he was 19, set not the Catholic Latin liturgical work, but rather a German-language poem by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock inspired by the Catholic work but reworked into a German Protestant vision. Unsurprisingly, the Catholic Church rejected Schubert’s work. That it also went unperformed elsewhere during his lifetime may represent that it’s not actually very good. Derivational of both Haydn and Mozart, it fails to match the quality of either, and also lacks spirituality in the way Bruckner’s deceptively simple music did. Three soloists known primarily, appropriately enough given the composer, for singing Lieder joined orchestra and chorus: Christiane Karg, Martin Mitterrutzner, and Michael Nagy, and all excelled. No, the failure of the work was not due to the performers, but really to the work itself.
Gražinytė-Tyla then went directly with no pause (indeed, while Schubert’s Amens were still floating in the room) into the final work, Mozart‘s short Ave Verum Corpus. Although brief, it had just enough notes, and while Mozart had long since left the Church in spirit (if not officially), he captured the necessary simple and straightforward spirituality, in the same manner as the hymn to Isis and Osiris in his opera Zauberflöte. This very personal spirituality was admired by, among others, a young Anton Bruckner, and therefore served as an appropriate bookend for the morning’s program.
Beethoven, Bruckner, Larrson
The second evening with the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra in Salzburg’s Great Festival House did nothing to change my positive impression of this orchestra from yesterday. Once again the orchestra members produce sounds in full color, with a sense of time and space, not so much playing instruments as using them to create tonal portraits.
The young violinist Christine-Maria Höller from Salzburg’s Mozarteum conservatory joined the orchestra for Beethoven‘s violin concerto. Although a little rough to start, she quickly warmed into the work, with a strong and determined tone which effortless entered into dialogue with the different instruments Beethoven highlighted in the orchestra, and with the orchestra as a whole. Conductor Florian Krumpöck worked the orchestra with her, deftly crafting the individual sounds and blending them together. Beethoven’s brilliant concerto is a conversation with many voices, but the trick is to ensure that none of them get lost, and that all of them have something clever to say. That they accomplished.
Höller then danced back on stage for a flamenco encore.
After the intermission came Bruckner‘s Fourth Symphony. The lush strings provided an earthy basis for the ongoing dialogue between flute and horn that carries its way throughout this symphony, while the rest of the brass soared above them with a heavenly chorale. This symphony came across as the logical continuation of the Beethoven concerto, a series of fascinating conversations among instruments. On the whole, though, Krumpöck’s slow tempi (although they work for some) did not alwyas allow this longer conversation to press forward, sometimes straying from the topic and losing interest. Nevertheless, this was a happy conversation, with a shiny bright outcome.
The strings gave us another encore – a romance for string orchestra by Lars-Erik Larsson. Although not a dance, these strings periodically could not help themselves, and the Austrian Krumpöck perhaps had them inserting a charming lilt, which they could certainly handle.
I had not planned to be home in Vienna this weekend, but once here I decided to see if there would be last-minute tickets available for otherwise sold out concerts, and I got lucky with one tonight and one tomorrow afternoon.
Tonight’s offer, in the Konzerthaus, allowed me to hear Herbert Blomstedt and the Bamberg Symphony explore the architecture of Schubert and Bruckner in a well-paired concert containing Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony.
The Swedish-American Blomstedt, still amazingly spritely at 89 years old, is a master builder of orchestral sound. The Bamberg Symphony, originally founded by ethnic Germans exiled from Czechoslovakia after the Second World War (victims of the post-war reprisals against Nazi Germany’s policies towards that country – although some of them probably less-than-innocent victims), is an orchestra I only knew of through its solid recordings and reputation, and now got to hear live for the first time (the current orchestra members are obviously not the original ones, so it’s a new generation from the days of its old recordings).
From tonight’s performance, we clearly saw how much Schubert inspired Bruckner. Blomstedt constructed the two movements of the Unfinished out of solid building blocks, while still enabling the lyrical melodies to sore, in many ways a prototype for Bruckner. Having heard Beethoven’s expansive Eroica Symphony on Wednesday with a scaled-down orchestra, it was refreshing for me to hear Schubert’s often dainty Unfinished with a full ensemble on stage. This was a mighty performance, without sacrificing any of the charm. The low string rumblings at the opening of the first movement set the foundations in place upon which Blomstedt built the pillars to hold up the soaring roof. He also emphasized often unseen and unheard angles within the solid supporting construction, which allowed layer upon layer of melody to pile on top.
Although unfortunate that Schubert never completed more than those two movements of this tremendous symphony, this interpretation naturally flowed into Bruckner after the intermission. Indeed, we could hear similar low strings supporting ever more layers upon layers of sound. So while Schubert died young, Bruckner the former church organist was in many ways his symphonic heir. Blomstedt may not use the heavist stones when constructing Bruckner’s cathedrals, but his interpretations always demonstrate him as understanding the architecture. The Swede may be an acquired taste, but indeed one worth acquiring. The fully packed Konzerthaus audience clearly approved.
Christoph von Dohnányi, longtime Music Director of the Cleveland Orchestra and frequent guest of the Vienna Philharmonic, used to comment that his orchestra in Cleveland played every note perfectly, yet he was still trying to get them to sound more like the Philharmonic, which did not play every note perfectly. It’s not just about playing perfectly, but performing the music with a certain emotion in the notes, and something the Philharmoniker gets better than anyone. So hearing the Philarmoniker this morning perform in juxtaposition with the Clevelanders on Friday reinforced exactly what Dohnányi meant.
It of course helps to have Mariss Jansons on the podium, which ensured intelligent readings that maximized the orchestra’s ability to add its color. The two halves of the concert had little to do with each other (“sometimes they do not have to” Jansons explained at a talk here last week). But we got Mozart‘s Piano Concerto #22 and Bruckner‘s Symphony #6 on either side of the intermission.
Emanuel Ax performed as soloist for the Mozart. He and the Orchestra created a soothing, almost melancholic, tone, which both blended well and with the contrasting lines informing each other. For a matinee concert, this was a good way to start a morning.
The Bruckner symphony after the intermission was more lively. Probably the least performed of Bruckner’s mature symphonies (and the only one he did not revise), it was actually my favorite among his works when I was a child. So this made for a nostalgic day-after-birthday concert. At his talk last week, Jansons was asked why he chose Bruckner’s sixth: he replied that the Festival had offered conductors a selection of works premiered by the Vienna Philharmonic to perform with that orchestra at the Festival over several years, and he was slow deciding until many others were already taken. But he nevertheless appreciates this symphony and its construction, as do I, even if we have moved on to others. One can picture Gustav Mahler giving the symphony’s premiere with the Philharmoniker in the Musikverein three years after Bruckner’s death.
Bruckner, Schoenberg, Wagner
I followed the Festival and members of the Vienna Philharmonic over the Salzach River to the Mozarteum for a chamber concert. Co-principal violin, viola, and cello of the Philharmonic were joined by three younger orchestra members for music by Bruckner, Schoenberg, and Wagner.
The Bruckner String Quintet is a monumental work despite its limited instrumentation. Written when Bruckner held the chair of composition at the Vienna Conservatory, on request of the Conservatory’s Director (and the Philharmonic’s principal violin), Bruckner gave the instruments full music and lush colors fit for a whole orchestra. The musicians got off to a rough start as something appears to have happened to the second violin’s instrument (there was a loud crack, and she kept inspecting the backside of it, but continued anyway). The audience also seemed incapable of sitting still, and many audience members coughed up various lungs (the weather this summer has indeed been surprisingly wet and cool – to the point that some friends are even using heat in their apartments – but if people are that ill then they should go directly to the morgue). The unfit audience noticeably distracted the musicians – and while their playing was sublime, they did not always capture the mood. Only during the third movement – the Adagio, crowing achievement of Brucknerian musical architecture – did the hall fall quiet and the angels from Heaven descended to heal the wounded and cure the sick, at least briefly.
After the intermission came Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (in the original version for string sextet). This built easily on Bruckner’s lushness, but with more complicated and diverging lines, which the musicians developed while producing the same full sound fit for an even larger ensemble. The transfiguring tones naturally led to a much-desired encore, for which they provided a version of the Prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in a reduced version for sextet. Indeed, Schoenberg was known for making such reductions, and maybe they even used his version. Whether or not they did, the sextet revealed Wagner’s revolutionary harmonics, exposing them as the forerunner for Schoenberg’s own later experiments. These were kindred works.
There may be no better way to start off a long holiday weekend in Austria than at the Festival with the Vienna Phlharmonic. They played this morning’s concert under the baton of Riccardo Muti. The choice of works seemed uncharacteristic for him (Richard Strauss and Anton Bruckner), but the program soon made sense once underway.
The Strauss selection was his suite of incidental music from Der Bürger als Edelmann, which he originally composed for an (unsuccessful) collaboration with dramatist Hugo von Hofmannsthal and producer Max Reinhardt to update Molière’s comedy Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. The experiment may have failed, but the component parts were all put to other uses, and Strauss made a suite of the incidental music. Set for a modern chamber orchestra, the music paid homage to the composer of the incidental music to the original production of Molière’s play: Gianbattista Lulli (a.k.a. Jean-Baptiste Lully), Italian composer in the court of French King Louis XIV. And it was this aspect that Muti emphasized, providing us a neo-Baroque setting with recognizably Straussian colors. That this music served a comedy was not lost, despite the lack of words, as Muti and the orchestra performed full of humor.
Muti may not be known as a conductor of Bruckner, but he is known for Schubert, whose music heavily influenced Bruckner. Bruckner’s Second Symphony, a relatively early work in his symphonic canon (albeit he was already 48 when he wrote the first version), in many ways builds on Schubert’s Ninth and takes the next logical step in the development of the Symphony. Not yet a great cathedral of sound such as the ones that Bruckner would build in his subsequent work, it may instead represent an abbey. Muti drew out the underlying Schubertian structure, to which Bruckner had affixed flying buttresses. And with that, Muti and the Philharmoniker made sense of this symphony.
Pärt, Mahler, Bruckner
The good Lord put so much beauty in the world, but sometimes we have to go search for it. Zubin Mehta and the Vienna Philharmonic knew where to look tonight at the Festival.
The concert opened with a short piece by Arvo Pärt that the Philharmonic had premiered in 2014, on a commission from the Salzburg Mozarteum. Swansong was a setting for chamber orchestra of an anthem Pärt had previously on words Cardinal John Henry Newman had written shortly before he died. The piece was musical enough, but awfully repetitive for a short work – I wonder if the orginal version with text might not have been better.
The next work did have its words intact: Gustav Mahler‘s Kindertotenlieder, with baritone by Matthias Goerne. Mehta combined Goerne’s passionate sadness with distraught woodwinds, never letting the instruments overwhelm the words but portraying the anguish in Friedrich Rückert’s texts. This culminated in the final song, “In diesem Wetter,” in which the orchestra all but created a storm inside the Great Festival House – I nearly wanted to run home to check if my windows were closed – but still contained as tears.
Beauty can best be appreciated when the world is not perfect. So Mahler’s songs provided a fitting prelude to Anton Bruckner‘s Fourth Symphony. Without a soloist, Mehta did not have to worry about restraining the orchestra, and he unleashed it in full force. In this interpretation, however, Mehta drew out much of the often-overlooked tension lurking underneath the surface of this symphony. Indeed, we could see suffering in the world, yet the beauty rose above it all. Mehta bound the whole work together with the pulsing strides of the lower strings: could this have been the inevitable march of fate? But beauty triumphed: so much beauty. Praise the Lord!
Bruckner, Sechter, Lachner
A rare chance to hear Bruckner’s Te Deum and other religious choral music in a church: the Salzburg Cathedral Choir performed a selection in the Salzburg Cathedral.
Bruckner composed most of the works this afternoon when he was still the organist at the St. Florian Monastery, in a style instantly recognizable from his later orchestral music. The selection of assorted pieces displayed the mastery of Palestrina, albeit several centuries later – so by Bruckner’s day conservative, but understanding that saying something new in church music still required a reliance on transmitting the text. The Locus iste, which I heard performed in the Great Festival House last month, held up well in the muddier acoustics of the Cathedral, and Bruckner’s setting of Ave Maria truly deserves more attention. János Czifra conducted, ensuring that the chorus enunciated fully so that the text could emerge despite the blurry reverberations across the building. Although I do not know the acoustics of the St. Florian Monastery, this reading showed that Bruckner understood the importance of getting the religious message out in a venue that works essentially as an enormous damper pedal.
This became more noticeable with the addition to the program (not in the program as advertised) of two non-Bruckner works: short pieces by Bruckner’s composition professor at the Vienna Conservatory, Simon Sechter (after Sechter’s death, the Conservatory hired Bruckner to fill his chair), and another Sechter pupil Franz Lachner. Although similar in style, and performed by Czifra and the choir using the same technique, these pieces did not demonstrate the same mastery of space as Bruckner’s.
The concert built up to the featured work, Bruckner’s Te Deum, for which the Cathedral’s orchestra joined. I feared they might blow the roof off the building, despite being a small chamber orchestra (albeit with augmented brass). But Czifra, who has been the Cathedral’s Kapellmeister since 1987, knew his venue. Hearing this work in a cathedral was nothing like hearing it in concert (where it does get performed). Bruckner actually did write it for a concert hall and not for a church, but given his background it is certainly appropriate to bring it back to a relgious setting. Czifra made the group perform more delicately, allowing the building’s acoustics to mix the palette of sounds, but with sufficient stops inserted to avoid unwanted color – especially after hearing Bruckner’s earlier choral music, this presented a new and refreshing way to understand this composer’s later construction techniques.
Schumann, Bach, Bruckner
The Mozarteum Orchestra launched its Sunday matinee series for 2015-16 this morning in Salzburg’s Large Festival House with some known but lesser-played, almost experimental, music from the middle of the 19th Century.
Schumann’s “Overture, Scherzo, and Finale” (a rather clunky title after he rejected more logical ones) opened the program. Although perfectly pleasant, this work suffered from a lack of a coherent concept. Schumann revised it many times for more than a decade after its premiere, but does not seem to have ever rectified its main weakness. With an opening almost foretelling Tschaikowsky’s opening to Yevgeny Onyegin (composed a few decades later), Schumann backpedalled into a post-Mozartian muddle before reaching a Bach-like fugue which culminated in a brass chorale almost predicting Bruckner. Where was Schumann going with all of this?
If he was going towards Bruckner, we did have a chance to find out later in the concert. But before we got there, German cellist Jan Vogler came out to slog through Schumann’s Cello Concerto. Again, Schumann produced a perfectly pleasant work which did not say anything. Vogler’s dry tone easily filled the large hall, but nevertheless came out somewhat subdued rather than expansive. When the orchestra stood down and Vogler gave a Bach saraband as an encore, the cellist confirmed the impression. An accomplished musician who formerly filled the first chair of the Dresden Staatskapelle, Vogler’s playing did not lack quality, just dynamism. Perhaps he should return to orchestral playing rather than a solo career.
After the break came Bruckner’s 2nd Symphony, logically resuming where the first Schumann work at the start of the concert had left off. Although Bruckner wrote this piece when he was nearly fifty, it is in many ways a young work as he started writing orchestral music so late. Bruckner never dedicated this symphony, so he offered it to Wagner at the same time as he showed the German composer his 3rd Symphony – Wagner wisely preferred the dedication of the latter, more-mature work. The 2nd could have used some intelligent editing to tighten the phrases. Bruckner did produce several versions over the years, but these did not resolve its underlying wordiness.
A driven performance can overcome these defects. Ivor Bolton, the Mozarteum Orchestra’s music director, did not accomplish this, allowing some of the longer passages to drag. The orchestra, although falling out of synch now and then, sounded strong and in good health. Schumann and Bruckner, in these readings, maybe less so. And while I know from other performances that the Bruckner 2nd can be salvaged, the verdict remains out on these lesser Schumann works.
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.
A late start tonight in Salzburg’s Great Festival Hall: 9 p.m. seems like an appropriate time to construct a church service in a concert hall, with Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Vienna Philharmonic doing the construction.
The concert opened with Bohuslav Martinů’s Frescos of Piero della Francesca, a work I did not previously know. Martinů got his inspiration on vacation in Arezzo, where he saw these paintings in a church. To be entirely honest, I could not quite connect Martinů’s modern music (the work had its premiere by the Philharmoniker in Salzburg at the 1956 Festival) with the 15th-century frescos. But as pure music, it worked, with that composer’s wonderful juxtapositions.
They then skipped the intermission completely and went directly to the second work on the program, which gave Martinů yet more juxtaposition. The Bavarian Radio Chorus joined a smaller orchestra for Bruckner’s Mass #3. Having put up the paintings in the church, I suppose they now had to fill the room with mass.
In 1867, Bruckner’s doctor told him to stay away from music – it was driving him insane. Thankfully, Bruckner listened to God instead of to his doctor. He wrote Mass #3 and then moved to Vienna full time to teach counterpoint at the conservatory.
This mass is a bridge work. The insane church organist subsequently wrote mostly orchestral music, constructing his cathedrals of sound. But this was a work he meant to have performed in a church (unlike Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Wednesday night’s work, to which it was immediately compared in scale when it was first performed). The premiere indeed took place in Vienna’s Augustinerkirche (in the Hofburg) and remains frequently performed as a mass in Austrian churches and cathedrals (possibly more often than it appears in the world’s concert halls).
Unlike Harnoncourt’s muffled Missa Solemnis on Wednesday, Nézet-Séguin made use of his forces to fill the hall brightly. Although relatively-early Bruckner (in terms of major compositional output), the mass connected Bruckner’s church organist background with some of the larger structures he would create after moving to Vienna. The mass works both as church music and as a dramatic concert work. But the texts are clear, and the devout Bruckner clearly believed in them. This piece marked his transition from his time serving the Church to his new world serving Humanity.
Soloists Dorothea Röschmann, Karen Cargill, Chistian Elsner, and Franz-Josef Selig sang their lines clearly. But this is not a work highlighting the soloists. There is drama in the text, but it is in the service of the Lord.
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’s 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.
One of the last pieces Robert Schumann wrote before he attempted suicide (the consequences of which did lead to his eventual death) was a violin concerto for his good friend Joseph Joachim to perform. Joachim did not think much of the work and it remained in the violinist’s possession, unpublished, when Schumann died. Joachim eventually gave the manuscript to the Prussian National Library, stipulating that the work not be made public until 100 years after the composer’s death. The Nazis, looking for an “Aryan” work to replace Mendelssohn’s violin concerto in the repertory, did not honor Joachim’s stipulation (Joachim was anyway Jewish), and so the work came to the public for the first time in the 1930s.
German violinist Christian Tetzlaff gave it a go this evening in the Konzerthaus with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under the young British conductor Robin Ticciati. Unfortunately, Joachim’s assessment was correct, and the work really should have been left on the library shelf. The tone is overall dark, and the tempo slow, but Teztlaff approached it with a warm sound and smoothed the jagged edges. He could have nevertheless given it a more robust reading, but in the end it turned out as not one of Schumann’s best efforts. The writing for orchestra was thin and generally unfinished (although Schumann considered it done). An encore (sounded like a baroque-era violin sonata) by Teztlaff did not help much – far too dull to liven the mood.
After the intermission, however, the real revelations began. Bruckner’s 4th Symphony, probably his most approachable symphony, receives so many performances that I did not think I could learn anything new tonight. Ticciati’s interpretation was revealing and magnificent (and the Symphoniker executed to perfection).
Ticciati took the outer movements more slowly than usual, drawing out the harmonies. Rather than overwhelming us with sound, he made the work subdued, indeed delicate. This allowed for glorious contrasts when the brass choirs rang out, soaring over the stillness. Rather than opening up the heavens, as Bruckner symphonies do, this one stayed close to the earth – letting us explore its intracacies with microscope rather than a telescope. The universe Bruckner described remains huge – but we are just little specks within it. Ticciati did not give a minimalistic interpretation at all – the orchestra and its sound remained full and bright – but by turning the whole work into a microcosmos he drastically altered the way we heard and experienced the world.
The slow second movement Andante danced a slow dance. The third movement started to pick up tempo, so that the finale, while returning to the pensive structure of the first movement, actually began to demonstrate increasing tension, left unresolved until the final chorale. God is great.
Ligeti, J. Marx, Bruckner
Zubin Mehta returned to conduct the Philharmoniker in the Musikverein, the first time I have heard him in many years. His concerts used to be hit-or-miss (often miss), but I had been advised on good authority that it is now safe to go hear him again. He used to conduct using charisma alone – some days it provoked thrilling results, but mostly not. He moves more slowly now, which may mean that he needs to take more care to think about the music and craft it. It worked today.
The program took a an odd walk backwards in time, sliding off the abyss. It included a hint of Asian polyphony where I did not expect it.
However, before we got to the music, the concert started inauspiciously with György Ligeti’s “Atmospheres” for large Orchestra, which sounded a bit like a ride on a on old tram whose wheels have not been oiled in several years. The creeking and squeaking gave everyone in the hall a headache. When it ended, the orchestra got the amount of applause it deserved: just enough to acknowledge that they had managed to play the piece. It wasn’t worth the effort to boo – Ligeti himself is dead. It may have been the shortest applause I have ever observed after a piece in the Musikverein – probably about 10-15 seconds of soft clapping, and then everyone wanted to forget our tormented ears and move on to the music.
Alt-Wiener Serenaden by Joseph Marx followed, and succeeded in erasing the Ligeti from the audience’s memory. Joseph Marx was an Austrian paedagogue, music critic, and sometime composer who lost his positions and influence during the Nazi years because he strongly believed in an Austrian identity. In 1942, the Vienna Philharmonic held a festival for its 100th anniversary (with the Philharmoniker joined by the leading Italian, Hungarian, and Dutch but out of principle no Reichsdeutsche orchestras), and Marx wrote these four pieces for that event to memorialize an Austria that had been erased from the map. He reworked the old Viennese themes, using more modern techniques developed in Vienna in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This approach updated otherwise backwards-looking music. Quite oddly, several of the themes resembled music from Paliashvili’s opera Abesalom da Eteri, in which the Georgian master had taken a similar approach to updating traditional Georgian music with classical techniques. It is hard to believe that Joseph Marx would have been familiar with Paliashvili’s 1919 opera, although Marx was an admirer of Scriabin, who had studied composition with Sergei Taneyev at the Moscow Conservatory as had Paliashvili. Could there have been a connection?
Anton Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony graced the second half of the program. Mehta gave a deliberate and measured reading, and the Philharmoniker, responded in full sound and aetherial grace. If Marx looked back on old-fashioned Austrian music through intermediate developments, Bruckner – composing fifty years before Marx – looked into the future. These two works complemented each other, crossing space and time in an Austrian context, never quite meeting halfway but twisting their perspectives.
Bruckner stretched tonality to its furthest extent in this Symphony. And while he died before finishing it, the sketches for the never-written fourth movement apparently indicate he would develop this concept even further, leading music off the end of the world. His letters to friends indicate that it was perhaps more than could be asked of a simple Austrian church organist. Bruckner had looked into the future and had seen the Apocolypse, and did not survive to write it down. Taneyev’s own music came to my mind in Mehta’s reading – particularly Taneyev’s cantata (opus 1) John of Damascus, whose words welcomed oncoming death (yes, Taneyev was brooding already in opus 1). I have previously sensed an affinity between Taneyev’s and Bruckner’s choral church music, but this was the first time I had noticed the similarities in mood between Bruckner’s final work and Taneyev’s first opus. Was it me, or was Mehta subconsciously making this point?
Mehta let the last notes waft into the evening. Absolute silence reigned in the Golden Hall. Eventually, Mehta lowered his arms. Even then, the audience still waited to applaud. The silence at the end of this symphony was longer than the applause at the end of the Ligeti.
Melancholy at the Salzburg Festival tonight, with Christoph von Dohnányi and the Philharmonia Orchestra of London in town for the Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss and the unfinished Ninth Symphony of Anton Bruckner.
The link, of course, was that although these works marked the end of the composers’ outputs, and they knew it, there is a transcendence to the sadness, a lifetime of accomplishment and a job well done. They do not defy death; nor do they seem too concerned. When the soprano sings the final line of the last of the Strauss songs, “ist dies etwa der Tod?” (“is this perhaps death?), the orchestra answers with a quotation from Strauss’ own Death and Transfiguration.
Soprano soloist Camilla Trilling, substituting on short notice for the original soprano who got ill, never quite found her pitch which she lost somewhere in Strauss’ dense polychromatic score. Her voice conflicted openly at times with the woodwinds. She sounded at her best when she sang from a trance rather than trying to inflect, but her voice never projected well over the orchestra, even though Dohnányi kept the orchestra contained. On the other hand, orchestral entrances came abruptly (and sometimes at the wrong times), which was also a little jarring. Not a transcendental performance.
The Bruckner Ninth, on the other hand, did rise from the stage into the sky. The playing was icy, and at the same time it was warming, the first movement touching the soul like mulled wine by a frozen lake on a cold winter day. The woodwinds glistened. The brass shone. The second movement pierced, the strings automated from the industrial revolution, a forerunner of Schostakowitsch in many ways, the glory and tragedy of mankind. The third movement surged. Bruckner did not intend to end the symphony there, but that’s where it ended. Dohnány held out the final chord, contemplating what had gone before and what could have come. Unfortunately, after such a note, he did not hold out the silence at the end long enough. He dropped his arms after several seconds, but far too early, and the well-deserved applause broke in too soon.
Bruckner’s charming Symphony #5 has many difficult joints. Unfortunately, that meant that, at the Salzburg Festival tonight, Bernard Haitink and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra limped through a somewhat arthritic performance. At moments, glimpses of their more youthful days flickered, and overall the performance may have worked, but this is perhaps the hardest of Bruckner’s symphonies to perform, and on the whole I am not sure they succeeded.
This symphony has many delicate moments, often with a pronounced pizzicato. Done right they can be aetherial. But the orchestra tonight hesitated at times, and came in too harshly at others, losing the flow. The joints creeked. The inner harmonies sometimes jarred off-pitch. The chorales did not always soar.
On the other hand, the orchestra did allow the underlying influence of Beethoven and Schubert to emerge. Beethoven’s Fourth, another oft-forgotten symphony full of charm, had inspired Bruckner here, and tonight’s performance contained sufficient glimpses.
Honestly, it was not a bad performance, just a disappointing one. Neither the orchestra nor Haitink (whom I do not believe I have seen conduct live since my London year in 1991-92) were as agile as they once were, and for a symphony that changes directions so many times, often mid-phrase, they simply could not always manage.
Also impacting my experience were the acoustics: I got a ticket in the back downstairs, and now know that the sound upstairs (even in the last row up top) is better in this hall.