Online Highlights (from residual streamings)

Highlights

Although live music has indeed resumed in Austria, I probably won’t get any until the Salzburg Festival.  So I continue to try to identify highlights online.

Janáček: The Makropoulos Affair (Staatsoper)

I was in the audience at the Staatsoper on the day this performance of Janáček’s Makropoulos Affair was recorded, and remember it as one of my musical highlights from 2015.  This is a very strange opera, which even some non-German directors have used as an excuse to turn it into a too-fantastical staging.  Here, a German director, Peter Stein, broke with the dross his countrymen usually produce and went the other direction, with a straightforward staging that made the plot understandable, and brought the underlying humor to the fore of the dark plot (the opera was based on a comic play, without itself becoming a comic opera).  An excellent cast (including Laura Aikin, Ludovít Ludha, Thomas Ebenstein, Margarita Gritskova, Markus Marquardt, and Wolfgang Bankl) ran with it from there.  Jakub Hrůša conducted idiomatically.  Indeed, this was worth seeing again – remaining fresh while every bit the success that I had remembered (see my original review on this blog from 20 December 2015).

Verdi: Un Ballo in Maschera (Staatsoper)

I do not believe I have seen Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera since I was a kid.  I have distinct memories of watching Luciano Pavarotti’s terrible acting skills try to navigate the prolonged death scene in more than one “Live from the Met” telecast, and I also have an old Met libretto on my bookshelf, so I must have also seen it there live, too.  It’s wonderful music, but had completely fallen off my radar (I do own one complete recording, which I have probably not listened to in twenty years).  So when I saw the cast assembled for this streaming of a 2016 performance from the Staatsoper, and also that they were using a opulent staging which also restored the action to Sweden (as opposed to colonial Boston, where the censors made Verdi move the plot and where it is therefore most commonly set), I decided this was as good an opportunity as any to remind myself of this opera.

Jesús López Cobos conducted with verve, nicely supporting Gianfranco de Bosio’s staging – neither was more than it needed to be, a sumptuous container in which the cast members could showcase their own talents.  Piotr Beczala and Dmitri Hvorostovsky (already dying of cancer when they filmed this) elegantly portrayed the lead characters Gustav III and René Ankarström, with able support from Krassimira Stoyanova (a gorgeous dark lower register) as Amelia, Nadia Krasteva as Ulrica, and Hila Fahima (with a tremendous stage presence whenever she appeared, standing out even in a supporting role) as Oscar.

During the opera, there was quite a bit of overt flirtation going on between the page Oscar and King Gustav III (who died here in Oscar’s embrace), which seemed very odd to me.  But as I started doing some background reading, I discovered that the real-life King Gustav was apparently a rather flamboyant homosexual.  So by moving the plot back to Sweden from Boston, de Bosio presumably decided to also restore the King’s homosexuality.  However, in a fictious plot centered on a love affair between the King and the wife of his closest advisor (in reality, Ankarström was not the King’s advisor, was not named René but Jacob Johan, did not assassinate the king over a love affair but rather because Gustav was a despotic autocrat who also broke up privileges for the unenlightened nobility, and did not receive a pardon from the king as in this opera plot but was instead executed), I’m not sure making the King gay made any sense in elucidating the plot and indeed contradicted it (OK, if he was gay, then he was gay, but then making the plot about his heterosexual affair made no sense… but it’s historical fiction and his love affair with Amelia is indeed the opera’s plot for better or worse).  But that oddity aside, restoring the plot to Sweden from its usual reassignment to colonial Boston did enable a more lavish setting, not to mention that it was simply more sensible this way.

Verdi: Simon Boccanegra (Staatsoper)

I have a certain fondness for Verdi’s dark-colored opera Simon Boccanegra, perhaps because it is one of the least tuneful of his works.  The original version flopped massively, and several decades later the brilliant Arrigo Boito revised the libretto and a more mature Verdi reworked the music, in the process creating a real drama.  I saw this production live at the Staatsoper in 2008, but here they streamed a 2018 performance, starring Thomas Hampson in the title role – a somewhat more dashing Boccanegra than in a normal portrayal.  As Jacopo Fiesco, Dmitry Belosselskiy also may have taken a non-standard approach to his role, making this grandfather (already a grandfather when the opera opens, and thirty years older by its conclusion) into a somewhat more robust character.  The interplay created a more exciting dynamic in their confrontations in the prologue, as well as in the final act (as the poison ate away at Boccanegra, and Hampson became accordingly haggard).  Marina Rebeka as Amelia had a tender voice that she could ramp up with real power.  The minimal staging itself, by Peter Stein, was simple and unpretentious – as if to prove that a German director can actually stage an opera (it was not a great staging, but gave a sufficient platform for the cast to do the work – by German standards that counts as a triumph these days).  Evelino Pidò conducted.

Prokofiev: The Gambler (Mariinsky Theater)

The Mariinsky has provided a stream of yet another rarely-performed opera, this time Prokofiev’s Gambler, in a 2010 performance.  The dialogue-heavy plot is dense, and without a libretto or subtitles I certainly missed a lot.  However, I could find the plot summary on line, and with the clear staging by Temur Chkheidze I did essentially follow along.  Unlike War and Peace, which I have tried to get into in each of the last two weeks, Prokofiev succeeded in producing drama here, something I could tell even without fully comprehending the text.  The music, not tuneful (but not having to be) also fully supported Prokofiev’s concept in a substantial way that the composer’s music for War and Peace did not.  Vladimir Galuzin (Alexei), Sergei Aleksashkin (the General), Nikolai Gassiev (the Marquis) led the way with Larisa Diadkova (Babulenka) adding her wry humor to the mix.  Valery Gergiev put it all together from the podium.

Philadelphia Orchestra: Bruckner

The Philadelphia Orchestra marked the tenth anniversary of signing its contract with music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, one of the most exciting conductors of his generation, with a luscious performance of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony filmed in May 2014.  The annual concert in memory of my father got eaten by covid in April, so this online streaming substituted.  My father loved this symphony (and I think it may have been his father’s favorite).  I have heard it a million times, but heard new nuances in this performance.  Nézet-Séguin made sure to highlight the woodwinds especially in the first movement – without diminishing the strings and brass, but reminding us that Bruckner took great care in these inner lines, which give his music so much extra color.  A brutal reading of the scherzo followed, with Bruckner breaking down conventions and moving music towards the twentieth century.  As an antidote, the Orchestra’s lush strings drew out a delicate adagio, even as it swelled into what must have seemed impossible chromatics, as Bruckner approached the abyss, setting up a final movement that Bruckner never completed (and which was not performed here, as per normal practice).  While there are some versions that have been conjured up mostly out of fantasy with no basis on Bruckner’s sketches, Bruckner was actually very close to completing the final movement, and likely did complete the sketch and most of the orchestration, but some of his eager students ran off with the paper from his desk as souvenirs, and the movement has only been slowly reconstructed in recent years by the Bruckner Society in Vienna, showing that Bruckner had indeed stared over the abyss to see the end of the world.  But the three completed movements suffice to tell a story.

An interview with Rafael Viñoly, the architect of the Kimmel Center, preceded the concert.  While Viñoly correctly mentioned the centrality of hearing the music, he never really explained why he could not be bothered to design a hall with decent acoustics.  The hall itself looks nice enough (it is shaped like the inside of a cello, and uses a pleasant dark wood with warm coloring), but aside from a few seats where the orchestra is fully audible, in most seats (and I indeed have intentionally sat in many locations) the orchestra sounds distant, as though playing behind a scrim.  As its onlyintended use was as a concert hall, this makes it a complete failure of architecture, no matter what it might look like.  And the hall itself is not the only failure.  Outside the concert hall itself, but inside the overall shell of the building, the Kimmel Center is quite simply a horrible space: busy but cramped, open but difficult to move around in, and generally jarringly noisy ruining the mood coming and going from concerts.  In the pre-concert interview, Viñoly said the right things about his motivation and music, but then never actually explained why his architectural concept took none of his motivations into account.  The Kimmel Center truly is an awful venue.  As I wrote here last week, I find it an absolute travesty that this wonderful orchestra does not have a home with decent acoustics.  Those who live in Philadelphia will have to make do.  For everyone else: go hear the Orchestra on tour in a proper venue.  (My choices for best concert halls where I have myself attended concerts: 1. the Tonhalle in Zurich; 2. the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory; and 3. the Musikverein in Vienna, although I recognize that certain seats in the Musikverein are problematic acoustically even if most are tremendous, I don’t think there are any bad seats in my first or second choices.  I have so far never been to the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, hence have not included that famed hall on my list but intend to get there for a concert some day; I have lived in Zurich, Moscow, and Vienna, so have tried seats in many locations in those three halls to get a good sense of their acoustics.)

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

Highlights

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

Wagner: Parsifal (Bayreuth Festival)

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

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

Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Bayreuth Festival)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verdi: Rigoletto (Metropolitan Opera)

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

Donizetti: Don Pasquale (Staatsoper)

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

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

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

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

Vienna Philharmonic: Beethoven, Bruckner

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

Boston Symphony Orchestra: Tschaikowsky

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

Philadelphia Orchestra: Verdi

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

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

Online Highlights from the Corona Lockdown (week 6)

Highlights

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

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

Strauss: Capriccio (Staatsoper)

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

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

Strauss, Rosenkavalier (Metropolitan Opera)

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

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

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

Strauss: Elektra (Metropolitan Opera)

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

Puccini: Tosca (Metropolitan Opera)

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

Offenbach: Tales of Hoffmann (Metropolitan Opera)

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

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

Beethoven: Fidelio (Staatsoper)

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

Benatzky: Axel an der Himmelstür (Volksoper)

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

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

Vienna Philharmonic: Schumann, Berlioz

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

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

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

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra: Bruckner

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

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra: Prokofiev

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

Philadelphia Orchestra: Beethoven

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

Online Highlights from the Corona Lockdown (week 2)

Highlights

Another week of lockdown, another week of online streaming.

Puccini: Tosca (Staatsoper)

The Staatsoper’s offers this week included a classic staging (by the Austrian Margarethe Wallmann) of Puccini’s Tosca with a selection of recent casts.  I chose a 2019 performance with Piotr Beczala as Cavardossi and Thomas Hampson as an elegant Scarpia.  Hampson’s voice has clearly tired with age, but he remains a tremendous stage presence.  Baron Scarpia is the bad guy in this opera, but to pull off the part requires a certain grace rather than just performing the role as a one dimensional villain.  And it was precisely that level of intelligence that Hampson provided.  Sondra Radvanovska, as Floria Tosca, was the least impressive of the three lead characters – adequate but not in Beczala’s or Hampson’s league.  The always-reliable Marco Armiliato conducted.

  • [Recording tips:  I think purists generally agree – and I don’t argue – that the standard recording against which every other should be compared is the 1953 La Scala version with Maria Callas in the title role, Giuseppe di Stefano as Cavaradossi, Tito Gobbi as Scarpia, and Victor de Sabata conducting.  However, I might also propose another recording which I often default to instead: a 1967 Russian-language studio recording with Yevgeny Svetlanov conducting the USSR State Symphony Orchestra.  My attention will always be drawn to recordings of great Georgian dramatic tenor Zurab Anjaparidze, indeed the greatest dramatic tenor I have ever heard (sadly only on recordings as he was before my time), who sang Mario Cavaradossi in this version.  Anjaparidze became the leading dramatic tenor at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater (often paired with the unmatched soprano Galina Vishnyevskaya) in its heyday in the late 1950s and through the 1960s until the authorities allowed him to return to Tbilisi in the 1970s.  In this recording, Oleg Klenov’s Scarpia is a force to reckon with, and Tamara Milashkina’s Floria Tosca, if not always entirely up to Callas’ level, displays an intensity consistent with this production under Svetlanov’s full-on interpretation.]

Donizetti: L’Elisir d’Amore (Staatsoper)

Armiliato also conducted another classic Vienna production, L’Elisir d’Amore by Donizetti, in a staging by Otto Schenk.  Schenk, also Austrian, is one of the greatest operatic stage directors – an actor by training, his stagings fundamentally focus on maximizing understanding of the plot, including refined interpretations, and I have seen this production myself live in the Staatsoper (albeit a different cast).  The Staatsoper’s streaming lineup gave me a choice of casts, so I picked the one with Dmitry Korchak as Nemorino and Adam Plachetka as Dr. Dulcamara, both excellent singing actors who personified their roles.  Olga Peretyatko may have been a notch down as Adina, but she still performed with a twinkle and the Schenk production made it easy.

  • [Recording tips: oddly, although I am long familiar with this opera since childhood and enjoy it very much, I realized that I somehow don’t own a complete recording of it, nor am I aware of a version I would recommend.  Indeed, I now want to do some research and get myself a complete recording to rectify the situation, but until then I suppose I will just have to keep going to see it in person.]

Tschaikowsky: Yevgeny Onyegin (Metropolitan Opera)

The Metropolitan Opera launched the week with its 2007 production of Tschaikowsky’s Yevgeny Onyegin, under the baton of Valery Gergiev, and with the dashing Dmitri Hvorostovksy in the title role ably matched by Renée Fleming as Tatyana and Ramón Vargas as Lensky.  The staging is minimal, allowing the characters to fully act out the emotional psychodrama.  I actually own a DVD of this performance, but it was still worth re-watching.

  • [Recording tips: I don’t have a go-to recording of Onyegin.  Unlike Elisir d’Amore, I do own several recordings, each with its plusses and minuses.  I tend to mix and match scenes, whether from complete recordings or excerpts recorded separately.  There is a Swedish-language version of Lensky’s aria sung by Jussi Björing which is – and deserves to be – widely available.  Galina Vishnyevskaya’s letter scene recorded at the Bolshoi with her husband Mstislav Rostropovich conducting is an excellent extended highlight.  Mark Reizen’s take on Prince Gremin’s aria – which he recorded multiple times over his remarkably long career – is definitive in many of those recordings.  A final scene from a 1961 Vienna Staatsoper performance (sung in German) with Sena Jurinac as Tatyana and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Yevgeny under the baton of Lovro von Matačić is worth looking for to give a different lyrical perspective.  But, in the end, perhaps Hvorostovsky was indeed the most dashing Yevgeny there exists on record.]

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde (Metropolitan Opera)

After that Onyegin, the Met shifted into Wagnerian gear for a few days.  They led off with a vocally-impressive version of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in a modern setting that was impossible to watch, so I stopped watching.  Stuart Skelton and Nina Stemme excelled as the title characters, with Simon Rattle keeping the pace from the pit.  To be honest, this is the only one of Wagner’s mature operas that has never spoken to me – I admit I just don’t understand Tristan.  So I guess I also was not bothered by finding the staging shambolic, allowing me to multi-task while listening.

  • [Recording tips: Since Tristan is not an opera I especially care for, I have not really done a complete comparison of commercially-available recordings.  I own one complete recording, that has some poor sound quality but otherwise excellent pacing: a 1943 live broadcast recording from the Met with Erich Leinsdorf conducting and Lauritz Melchior and Helen Traubel in the title roles.]

Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen (Staatsoper, Metropolitan Opera)

Of course the highlights of the week came in the form of a complete Ring Cycle from New York and the second half of the one from Vienna.

Vienna’s Ring, as noted last week, featured Thomas Konieczny as Wotan.  And while I could appreciate his edgy voice last week in Rheingold and Walküre, I was less convinced by it this week in Siegfried.  He contrasted with the Met’s Wotan, Bryn Terfel, who was altogether a more elegant chief god, still able to show the complexity of circumstances but with a much more rounded instrument.  Konieczny doubled up in Vienna as Gunther in Götterdämmerung, a role for which his voice was simply not at all suited – far too angry and unsubtle.  The Met countered with Iain Paterson as Gunther, who provided a much better characterization.  Gunther is often portrayed as a one-dimensional character, but he is rather more complex, which Paterson readily understood and transmitted.

Vienna’s Siegfried and Götterdämmerung switched out the Brünnhilde in last week’s streamed version (Evelyn Herlitzius) to provide instead the Swede Iréne Theorin, an altogether stronger solution.  The Met streamings had Deborah Voigt, who was in excellent voice for Die Walküre and Siegfried but tended to strain during Götterdämmerung (the streamings came from shows spread out over a year and a half, so provided no indication if in the real world she had to sing on three successive nights, which might have explained the voice losing its shine and becoming more forced by Götterdämmerung).

On the Heldentenor front, the Met tried out Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmund – he has a wonderful voice and stage presence, but this role seemed a bit much for him.  He may be a dramatic tenor, but it’s not so clear he is a Wagnerian Heldentenor.  Of course, Heldentenors are very hard to find, as demonstrated by the Met’s unfortunate choice to sing Siegfried, Jay Hunter Morris, who was reduced to screaming his role rather than singing it.  He had his quieter moments, and indeed might possibly have a nice voice in an appropriate role, but this role was far more than he could handle.  Vienna’s Siegfried, Stephen Gould, sounded dry-voiced and not quite fresh enough to sing this particular role, although he might have managed Siegmund (of the Wagnerian roles, I might peg his voice as best-suited for Tannhäuser).

The most impressive singer in either cycle was Hans-Peter König at the Met, who performed not only Fafner in Rheingold and Siegfried, but also Hunding in Walküre and Hagen in Götterdämmerung.  This was not a one-size-fits-all feat, but rather different portrayals to fit different roles.  (Contrast with Konieczny, for example, whose Gunther sounded exactly like his Wotan, and whose voice would have been temperamentally better for Alberich.)

It is actually worth underscoring König’s performance as Hagen especially.  If Götterdämmerung is my favorite opera, then Hagen is easily my favorite character in all of opera.  It is a strange role – Hagen actually has very few lines compared to his stage presence, but every one of those lines pushes the plot forward and the entire opera (possibly even the entire cycle) is dependent on this character.  Hagen is, of course, the son of Alberich, who wants a son to help him get the Ring back.  But it is often overlooked that in Act 2 of Die Walküre, Wotan anoints Alberich’s then not-yet-born son as his successor (pointedly NOT anointing his own offspring) for the purposes of bringing about the end of the world.  In the myths Wagner read and upon which he based his plot, Hagen was also sometimes portrayed as one-eyed, with the clear allusion to the one-eyed Wotan.  And as Wotan rules the world with his spear, defender of treaties, which is shattered by Siegfried in Act 3 of Siegfried, Hagen’s spear becomes the critical weapon of honor in Götterdämmerung.  While ultimately Hagen fails to win the Ring back for Alberich, he does succeed in setting in motion the final conspiracy that destroys the world (carried out, of course, by Wotan’s estranged daughter, Brünnhilde).

In this absolutely critical role, König dominated.  Vienna’s Hagen, Falk Struckmann, though a fine singer, simply did not rise to the role.  His Hagen was a tired old man – but Hagen is only a few months older than Siegfried (Kriemhild is pregnant with Hagen before the plot of Walküre begins – when Siegfried is conceived during the intermission between Acts 1 and 2), and probably (although not entirely clear) the younger brother of Gunther and Gutrune.  Assuming Siegfried is still a teenager during the opera Siegfried, and perhaps ten years or so pass during the first Act of Götterdämmerung before Siegfried arrives in Worms (the plot does not say explicitly how much time passes, but there are a number of clues in the text), this would make Siegfried and Hagen around 30 years old.  Hagen admits he is grey before his years thanks to being the son of the dwarf Alberich, but this does not need to mean he is an old man (Alberich himself is ageless and remains active, and wanted a half-human son to be his own vibrant hero to counter Wotan’s half-human race of descendants).

And if Struckmann did not have the voice or stage presence for Hagen, his task was made more difficult by the staging itself.  Last week I already mentioned the utterly useless production by the clueless German director Sven-Eric Bechtolf, and watching the last two operas in the cycle did not let me see any concept grow even taking the entire four-opera set into account.  If it was not offensive (which is already an improvement on the garbage self-important German poseur opera directors normally churn out), it added nothing.  Indeed, a minimalist staging would have been better to allow the singers to act, but this was not minimalist just a mix of I-am-not-sure-what (some mock-realism, some abstraction, some stuff seemingly unrelated to anything else).  Some of it was just plain silly (for example, Wotan left the stage in Act 1 of Siegfried having forgotten his spear, so he returns to fetch it, hitting himself on the head to demonstrate his forgetfulness… and then Siegfried does exactly the same thing with his sword later in the opera).  It really is not worth going into the weeds to analyze Bechtolf’s staging, as that would be giving him too much credit for intelligent thought.  So I dealt with it.  But really: why?  Why give this idiot a contract?  Why give any German stage directors contracts?  What the hell have German stage directors been smoking these last several decades that has made them incapable of providing any sensible opera productions?  (OK, I admit there are a small handful of exceptions to prove the rule, but Germany has become a operatic wasteland, ruined by its Regisseurs.)

My verdict on the Met’s staging is still out.  I actually do not know who the director was (I could not find a credit on their website).  But the concept was that the stage for the duration of all four operas was actually a huge mechanical contraption consisting of a series of long planks.  These planks adjusted their angles individually or together, to form everything from the Rhein River to various buildings to landscapes, assisted by projections – sometimes realistic film and sometimes abstract lighting.  The characters moved in and out of the contraption.  The use of projections meant that some things often omitted could easily be included (Wotan’s ravens, for example) but this was not done consistently.  Without having to do an elaborate set (although I imagine the contraption on stage was actually elaborate) it could still be traditional if it wanted to be, and minimalist if it preferred that approach (or somehow both at once).  Many of the singers could act (although the contraption was often at steep angles and they looked distinctly uncomfortable moving about on it).  Was I convinced?  No, but watching it on a laptop may not be ideal for this concept – maybe I would need to be in the audience at the Met to appreciate the entirety.

From an overall musical perspective, the Staatsoper exceeded the Met – no surprise there (although, in Götterdämmerung, Siegfried’s entries were accompanied by consistently disastrous horn playing – and not because they got Gould to play his own horn, so someone in the orchestra must have gotten fired).  James Levine conducted the first two operas in the Met’s cycle – a once dynamic opera conductor, he was already in poor health by the time these performances were recorded in 2010-11 and so he simply could not keep the orchestra charged.  Fabio Luisi took over for Levine during Levine’s illness, and so had Siegfried and Götterdämmerung – Luisi can always be counted on for perfectly adequate performances (and I also find that any orchestra he is music director of improves its quality during his tenure, so he must be a good rehearsal conductor – the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, our city’s second great orchestra, sounded at its best at the end of his tenure and may have moved to among the top ten in the world at that time), but Luisi rarely comes up with anything special.  In contrast, Adam Fischer led the Staatsoper for Rheingold, Simon Rattle for Walküre, and Axel Kober for the final two operas, and all of them coaxed exciting color from the pit.  It is only a shame that the musicians in Vienna’s pit driving the Ring forward could not overcome Bechtolf’s complete lack of talent or purpose in his staging.

  • [Recording tips: Nothing has ever exceeded John Culshaw’s brilliant ahead-of-his-time audio engineering for the classic London Decca Ring cycle.  But whereas the Rheingold lacks something particularly due to a sub-standard performance by George London as Wotan, and the Walküre in that set is poorly-cast, with an over-the-hill Hans Hotter falling short as Wotan at the end of his illustrious career – Culshaw recorded Walküre last, several years after the other operas – being one of several vocal inadequacies, especially Siegmund and Sieglinda in James King and Régine Crespin, neither of whom had anything near the voice for those roles).  But Siegfried and Götterdämmerung in that set have never been surpassed.  And if I said above that the key to any Ring is Hagen, well Culshaw cast Gottlob Frick, whom Wilhelm Furwängler once described as “the blackest bass” in all of Germany.  Possibly no one has ever been better suited for that role, and his Hagen dominates the entire recording (and may indeed be the reason I became such a fan of Götterdämmerung and the character Hagen in the first place).  But Hotter was in full voice for Wotan in Siegfried, Birgit Nilsson was at the top of her career as Brünnhilde, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was an inspired choice to portray the complexities of Gunther, Wolfgang Windgassen may not have been Culshaw’s first choice Siegfried but what we would not give to have a Heldentenor of his caliber today, Gustav Neidlinger and Gerhard Stolze provided idiomatic character portrayals of Alberich and Mime… and then there was the Vienna Philharmonic with Georg Solti, of course.]

Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Metropolitan Opera)

Before writing this blog post up, I concluded the week’s offerings with Wagner’s Meistersinger von Nürnberg in a classic staging by Otto Schenk (that name again).  Schenk really is one of the best stage directors to work in the opera world.  It’s not just that the staging is sensible, but there is an attention to details, blocking, nuance, meaning… in short, a delight to watch.  And although I have seen the production before (with several casts, including in person – it was my father’s favorite, after all!) it has held up and remains a treat. Michael Volle portrayed a humorful Hans Sachs, someone who could enjoy life and all of its eccentricities, while still providing substance (Meistersinger is supposed to be a comedy after all – a Wagnerian comedy, but a comedy nonetheless).  Sachs is of course the hero of this opera – it is a love story, but Sachs is the odd man out, the old bachelor who has an interest in Eva but has moved beyond that, and the internal conflicts of Sachs are apparent in Schenk’s intelligent concept.  At the end of this staging, Schenk has Eva crown Sachs with the victor’s laurel wreath.

But if I had not already mentioned Hans-Peter König in connection with the Met’s Ring above, I would focus on him now: the role of Veit Pogner is obviously quite different from Fafner, Hunding, or Hagen.  But as he successfully differentiated among those roles in the Ring, so did König’s performance here as Pogner display yet another personality.

  • [Recording tips: Although many people did not realize it (many assumed it was Rheingold), Meistersinger was my father’s favorite opera (he also admired the real life Hans Sachs as a freethinker ahead of his time).  He had several recordings, but there was one he kept returning to, which I might agree may still be the best, although it is a surprising choice.  Herbert von Karajan’s operatic interpretations were cerebral but usually underwhelming.  Yet he recorded a version of this opera in 1971 with the Dresden Semperoper (and therefore the Dresden Staatskapelle Orchestra), with Theo Adam as Sachs.  Adam has a higher-register baritone voice, so may not be the deeper Sachs most people are accustomed to, but he was a very lyrical baritone who could carry Wagnerian roles, so providing an excellent understanding.  The rest of the cast is also up to the same level – one of Karajan’s strengths, if not commanding performances, was his ability to identify vocal talent and match it to the right roles, even unexpectedly.]

Berlin Philharmonic: Bruckner

On the concert front, I have started to take advantage of the Berlin Philharmonic’s archive that they have opened up for 30 days (to anyone who registers – for free – by 31 March, so unless that is extended I suggest people sign up now!).  Of the several concerts from Berlin I selected this week (and I will certainly listen to more in the coming weeks), I will make two recommendations in particular, both under the baton of Herbert Blomstedt.

The different available versions of Anton Bruckner’s symphonies each have a story rooted in Bruckner’s personal insecurity and well-meaning friends who sometimes never fully comprehended his music and gave him bad advice, which he usually took. So sometimes his revisions are good things, representing him refining his music; but other times they reflect his insecurities and he deconstructed what he had built and not in a good way.  So it is inconsistent which version to use of any of his symphonies, but there is a general reason that convention has settled on one particular edition of any symphony as preferred and most reflective of Bruckner’s thoughts and talents.  For Bruckner’s Third Symphony, this is usually his third version.  Blomstedt here prefers Bruckner’s original version, a much more rambling work with extra passages quoting from various Wagner operas that he edited out later.  And in this performance, Blomstedt manages to make a convincing case for this version – if not as a substitute for the third version commonly performed, then at least as an additional part of the performing repertory (and not just as a curiosity either, but having rightful place in the repertory).  Fundamentally, Blomstedt remains an architect of music, and takes great care to construct Bruckner’s soaring edifice.

  • [Recording tips: I own one recording of this original version, also convincing under the baton of Bruckner-specialist Georg Tintner.  But the Berlin Philharmonic far surpasses the orchestra Tintner had available (the Royal Scottish National Orchestra acquits itself well enough in the recording, but Berlin is among the top ten orchestras in the world and is just that much better).  As I do not believe the Blomstedt / Berlin performance is commercially available, then I recommend interested listeners to seek out the Tintner / RSNO recording.  (My go-to recording of the symphony in its normal performing version is with the Concertgebouworkest and Mariss Jansons, recorded live in Amsterdam a few days before I heard these forces repeat the concert in Vienna.)]

Berlin Philharmonic: Berwald, Dvořák

The other concert from Berlin that especially appealed to me this week of the ones I listened to, featured Blomstedt conducting Franz Berwald’s Symphony #3 and Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony #7.  Berwald is an unjustly-neglected Swedish composer, and this symphony written 1845 was not performed for 60 years after he wrote it.  It is full of complex mood swings, which it accomplishes without losing its train of thought or musical lines.  Dvořák’s symphony, written on commission for the London Philharmonic in 1865, is in many ways similar, and represented the Czech composer’s first huge international popular success.

  • [Recording tips: For those who would like an introduction to Berwald, there is an excellent complete cycle of Berwald’s symphonies and other orchestral works released as a set by Sixten Ehrling and the Malmö Symphony Orchestra.  For commercial versions of the Dvořák seventh, I’m partial to one with Wolgang Sawallisch and the Philadelphia Orchestra (maybe more driven that Blomstedt’s interpretion with Berlin, whereas Blomstedt focuses on the intricate building blocks themselves, as is his wont).]

Bruckner Orchestra Linz, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Bruckner, Aho, Miki, Strauss

The Finnish composer Kalevi Aho wrote a “Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra” – premiered in London in 2012.  This evening, the Bruckner Orchestra of Linz and its music director Markus Poschner brought it to Salzburg’s Great Festival House, with soloist Martin Grubinger.

Grubinger describes himself as a “multi-percussionist,” which seems apt having seen him perform this work.  He and a few stage hands set up what must have been at least thirty different percussion instruments across the front of the stage, and he ran around for over half an hour playing all of them (the orchestra’s own three percussionists each got several of their own to play too!).  I cannot say I am sure about the logic of the concerto: it was oddly tonal, and with so many sounds (not all from European orchestra instruments – some borrowed from other musical traditions) it constantly had something new to say.  But the entire concept escaped me, so I instead focused on watching Grubinger run around and make all this music, which was itself exhilarating.  In that sense, maybe Aho’s logic was only providing a platform for a “multi-percussionist.”  (Figure skating came to mind: I can appreciate the skill and athleticism of a figure skater, but it’s not a real sport – that takes nothing away from admiring the skater, but skating is no more a sport than ballet is, yet whereas no one considers ballet a sport some people insist figure skating is a sport; so I am not really sure this was a concerto, but it was one amazing performance).

After a huge ovation, Grubinger returned to the front of the stage, and he, the stagehands, and the orchestra’s three percussionists removed many instruments, rearranged others, and then brought still more out.  The four of them then performed an encore: another crazy piece for percussion only (lots of percussion only), with the glue being Grubinger (mostly) on the marimba (subsequently identified on the Kulturvereinigung’s website as the Marimba Spirtual by Minoru Miki).  It was all nuts, but so much fun.

The concert opened with the Overture in g minor by Anton Bruckner.  Written when he was almost forty, it nevertheless definitely counts as an early work – he was still the organist of the Linz Cathedral at the time, and had still not composed any symphonies (not even his student ones).  This piece he stuffed in a drawer after he wrote it and never intended it to see the light of day.  There were only two known copies – one ended up mostly in the archives of a nearby abbey (part went missing), and the other ended up with a friend.  It was first published and performed long after his death.  A hint of Bruckner’s future style can be gleaned from the work, but otherwise it is not much of anything other than a curiosity.

After the intermission came Ein Heldenleben by Richard Strauss.  Poschner decided on an expansive reading – indeed, the other orchestra he leads, the Orchestra of Italian Switzerland (which he has also brought to Salzburg), is barely bigger than a chamber ensemble and so he must luxuriate in having a proper-sized band in Linz.  The problem is that this orchestra was not good enough for his interpretation.  At the opening of the piece, the right and left sides of the orchestra were strangely out of time with each other (not by much, but by just enough to make the whole thing sound warped) and by the time he got them playing all together they just settled into a formless blur.  Their ensemble playing generally came across full but not lush, and the individual lines lacked virtuosity, generally undistinguished mushy playing.  There were also more missed notes in the winds than there should have been.  This is the provincial orchestra of Upper Austria, one province over – and so the logical comparisons should be to Salzburg’s Mozarteum Orchestra to its west and the Tonkünstler Orchestra of Lower Austria to its east, both of which are far superior to the one from Linz.

But that multi-percussionist…!

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Beethoven, Bruckner

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

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

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

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

Leipzig Gewandhausorchester, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Bruckner

Andris Nelsons and the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester brought a peculiar interpretation of Bruckner‘s Eighth Symphony to the Festival this evening, representing less a cathedral of sound (as this work normally is) and more a great expanse of penitents seeking absolution under the open sky.  If Sunday’s Beethoven Ninth with Kirill Petrenko and the Berliners was an apotheosis of joy in praise of a benevolent Creator dwelling above the stars to bless humanity, this may have been somewhat the opposite.  That’s not a bad thing, just different.

The default volume this evening was, strangely, piano.  This is not to say that the orchestra performed the majority, nor even the plurality, at that level, only that it kept returning to this volume for the foundational pulse, with everything else coming as an overlay.  And rather than have the orchestra produce a warm and rounded tone, Nelsons had them playing mostly bitter and brash.  He also emphasized not Bruckner’s thick harmonies, but rather his newfound dissonance (Bruckner, late in life, did indeed look into the abyss, although this was not the prevalent mood until the Ninth Symphony).

Despite the intentionally-harsh sounds, there was some real delicacy in the playing, consistent with the Gewandhausorchester’s throwback 18th-century traditional tone (the orchestra has its origins from 1743 and has cultivated a distinct style).  Bach died in Leipzig in 1750, and although I don’t believe he had an association with this orchestra, tonight’s intricate string work showcased an almost Bachian quality, something Bruckner the church organist and professor of counterpoint would certainly have appreciated and indeed which influenced his work.  The woodwinds jumped out where needed (not unnoticed was that at the end of the concert Nelsons gave the first featured bow to the flute section).  That said, the brass were less good – not just the rawness Nelsons cultivated across the performance this evening, but actually botching a few notes too many and sounding less sure in ensemble.  Great tympanist.

Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, Felsenreitschule

Dvořák, Bruckner

Herbert Blomstedt is ageless.  At 92 years old, he was probably older than any four members of the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra combined.  They are lucky to learn from his wisdom.

The Bruckner symphonies at this year’s Festival seem to have been shoved to the end: three in the final week, starting this evening with the Sixth Symphony.  The orchestra, possibly the finest youth orchestra in Europe but also by its nature turning over musicians regularly, sounded uncharacteristically weaker in the winds than expected, with noticeably missed notes early on.  Presumably Blomstedt noticed as well, since he presented us with a quite unusual interpretation: instead of the strings producing a lush foundation upon which the winds could drive the plot forward and set up the soaring chorales, he instead had the winds provide a generally-legato rich base upon which the strings could take control – indeed, all of the string, from the pulsating violins to the rich viole in the adagio to the double basses (whom he lined up across the entire back row) taking a surprisingly large sound (I’ve never known double basses to have the lead role in Bruckner before) and pushing the symphony onwards.  Indeed, this interpretation could be described as an “inverted Sixth” – not the way I have heard it before, but with Blomstedt there is always something new and brilliant.  The man is an architect of music.

The first half of the concert was not as successful, containing ten Biblical Songs by Dvořák.  This was a very personal work for the composer, based on various Psalms (sometimes combined or edited).  But he only ever orchestrated five of the ten (even though he lived quite a bit beyond completion) and the whole set feels a tad unfinished (tonight performed with orchestrations of the other five made by others after the composer’s death).  The baritone soloist was Christian Gerhaher, who does not have a particularly large voice – I have heard him sing Mahler on this stage (the Felsenreitschule) and with this orchestra a three years’ back, where to be heard over the orchestra he had to force his voice and it came across unpleasant then, but I’ve also heard him sing Schumann less forced and more warmly.  The chamber orchestra accompaniment, with Blomstedt in control, meant Gerhaher did not have to strain this evening, and the warmer version of himself emerged (if still not especially large in voice).  But the songs themselves were not so convincing (I actually own a decent recording of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing six of them – in German translation with piano accompaniment – where he manages to make a case for them, but Gerhaher won’t be confused for Fischer-Dieskau, although I believe he may have studied with him once upon a time).

Collegium Vocale Gent, University Church (Salzburg)

Palestrina, Victoria, Bruckner

The Salzburg Festival gods smiled on my application this year and gave me tickets for every concert I requested.  My first one came tonight with religious music by Palestrina, Victoria, and Bruckner in Salzburg’s University Church.  Unfortunately, the performance by the Collegium Vocale Gent under Phillippe Herreweghe left me sadly unfulfilled.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and Tomás Luis de Victoria were giants of western polyphonic composition in the 16th century, and performances of their music can be emotionally draining – especially when accounting for their straightforward simplicity.  From Palestrina, we heard his Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah – Lession 1 for Good Friday; from Victoria his Miserere and Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah – Lessions 1, 2, and 3 for Holy Saturday.  There are not many thrills there, just somber music, but the music itself is supposed to transform the listener if done right.  It’s not that the Belgians did it badly – there were no noticeable mistakes – it’s just that they somehow failed to be transformative.  Their reading was straight and unadorned (fine!) but dull.

Anton Bruckner’s Mass #2 followed the intermission, and somehow was worse.  This is also a restrained work – inspired by Palestrina but using Bruckner’s musical voice from 300 years later – set for a small chorus and wind ensemble (here members of the Orchestra of the Champs Élysées joined the Belgians).  Bruckner’s Ave Maria followed as an encore.

Herreweghe perhaps held everyone back intentionally because this performance took place in a church (as the respective composers intended) rather than in a concert hall, therefore requiring a somewhat restrained reading.  But I have heard concerts in this church before (including Victoria’s Mass for the Dead with the Tallis Scholars at last year’s Festival, which soared while also portraying sorrow), so it’s not the church.  This same Bruckner mass featured at the Festival as recently as two years ago (albeit in the Mozarteum’s Great Hall) with a much bolder reading by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla leading the Estonian Philharmonic Choir and musicians from the Mozarteum Orchestra.

So, no, nothing wrong with the music or the venue either.  In his effort to keep the music properly unadorned, Herreweghe’s interpretation was just missing something (perhaps a soul).

 

Orchestral Society of the Association of the Friends of Music in Vienna, Musikverein

Mozart, Bruckner

I woke up early this Sunday morning for a concert of the Orchestral Society of the Association of the Friends of Music in Vienna, the amateur house orchestra of the Musikverein.  I used to attend their concerts periodically, but do not seem to have been in Vienna recently when they were playing, until this morning.  This was probably the best I have heard them sound.  Robert Zelzer, their music director, conducted, 25 years to the day after he made his debut with this orchestra.  

It is fair to say I am sick of Mozart, who is over-performed (and even more so in Salzburg, where I have been based for almost five years).  That said, Mozart is pleasant to wake up to on a Sunday morning, and I also suppose I don’t mind hearing a work I did not previously know.  This morning’s offering was his Sinfonia Concertante for Oboe, Clarinet, Horn, Bassoon, and Orchestra.  Mozart wrote this in Paris for four touring musicians he knew from Mannheim (the clarinet part was originally for flute), but they ended up not playing it and the piece languished in an archive until being discovered 200 years later.  Typically Mozartian, the music danced playfully for thirty minutes.  The team of soloists (Adelheid Bosch, oboe; Christoph Zimper, clarinet; Peter Dorfmayr, horn; and Max Feyertag, bassoon) handled the tricky phrases effortlessly, while Zelzer and the orchestra provided a strong continuo.  A good start to the day.

Zelzer’s reading of Bruckner‘s Ninth Symphony was in general a pretty standard interpretation, which is fine (especially with an amateur orchestra which has not – by my listening in previous years – managed to have the fullness of sound for Bruckner.  But today they did.  This was a sorrowful reading of Bruckner’s final, unfinished, work… but just as we felt the sadness, along came a bit of the Mozartian cheer in the final movement, where the orchestra almost began to dance again.  Well done.

West German Radio Symphony Orchestra of Cologne, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Schumann, Bach, Bruckner, Mozart

We got more from the West German Radio Symphony Orchestra this evening in Salzburg’s Great Festival House, again with Jukka-Pekka Saraste conducting and Alban Gerhardt as cello soloist.

Today’s cello concerto again was less standard in the repertory: Robert Schumann‘s, which had its premiere about four years after the composer’s death.  I must say that as I get older I find Schumann less and less interesting.  His best works (from songs to symphonies to scenes from Goethe’s Faust) can be fine (indeed, I still enjoy a good performance of them) – a cross between Schubert and Mendelssohn – but the lesser ones are… lesser (although even his piano concerto, part of the standard repertory, is just an exercise in abject tedium).  In recent years, whenever I hear a Schumann piece on a program that I am not already familiar with, I come away unimpressed (not Schubert and Mendelssohn, but rather more like Brahms, who with precious few exceptions was rarely inspired nor inspiring).

Schumann’s cello concerto isn’t so bad, but I’m not sure he had anything to say.  On the other hand, Gerhardt, as soloist, definitely had something to say, and in a funny way Schumann’s concerto gave him the platform he needed.  This is not as complex a work – neither emotionally nor technically – as Schostakowitsch’s offering performed last night, but did not have to be to highlight Gerhardt’s expansive lower registers, the undertones carrying the entire orchestra.

Thankfully, Gerhardt also gave us a long solo encore – a work by Johann Sebastian Bach – if not as technically complicated as yesterday’s encore (just as the main concerto was not), at least something which allowed Gerhardt to fill the large hall with his warming tones.

After the break came Anton Bruckner‘s Sixth Symphony (another work that had to wait until after the composer’s death before Gustav Mahler and the Vienna Philharmonic gave its premiere).  Saraste’s interpretation was curious, building up tension and then releasing, but doing so in different ways throughout by emphasizing certain lines.  It was not consistent – but that was part of the point, or it would have been dull.  This was not (in general) dull, the pulsating underlines that appear throughout the work keeping it moving.  But because he was playing around with balance and emphasis, the orchestra needed to know what to expect, and they did not always seem to know, leaving a number of botched lines – too loud, or too soft, or just confused and trying to adjust mid-note.  So it succeeded in part and failed in part.

It was a full-sized orchestra, but not augmented for the Bruckner (their sound was big enough, but again it was a question of balance).  But having such a full orchestra on stage served another purpose: the encore, the overture to Wolfgang Amadé Mozart‘s Figaro.  What fun to hear this piece in full color, and not with a reduced opera orchestra sunk into a pit.

Tomorrow’s concert repeats tonight’s program, so just these two for me.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Dvořák, Bruckner

I chose not to get a subscription to either the Mozarteum Orchestra‘s Sunday morning or Thursday concert series this year, because enough programs just were simply not interesting to make a subscription enticing (for the Sunday series, notably Bernstein’s pretentious Mass in November), but instead put together a couple of combination subscription packages with other concerts from the Mozarteum Foundation.

This morning’s concert in the Great Festival House was certainly among the ones that jumped out as worth including, featuring Bruckner‘s unjustly under-performed Symphony #0.  The composer lacked all self-confidence, and when he had shown his symphony to friends who questioned it, he “annulled” it.  It did not deserve this fate.  And while it could have used some polishing, it contained all the essentials of Bruckner’s magic worlds of sound (indeed at times more succinctly than the Symphony #2 which immediately followed it in order of composition – it post-dates his Symphony #1, not to mention his “Study” Symphony #00).  In some respects this symphony does not sound like an early Bruckner work (well, relatively early – he started composing orchestral music rather late, with Symphony #00 when he was 39, #1at age 41, and #0 at age 45) – in experimenting with new harmonies and structures, Bruckner had already become rather forward-looking, in ways he friends likely could not understand.

The Mozarteum Orchestra’s emeritus music director, Ivor Bolton, still has an excellent rapport with his former orchestra, and together they gave this symphony the reading it deserved, and of which Bruckner himself could have been proud (assuming such a humble man could ever be proud).

The concert opened with the more-often performed Cello Concerto by Antonín Dvořák.  The 25-year-old Salzburg native Julia Hagen joined the orchestra as soloist.  If the cello has been described as the closest instrument to the human voice, then her performance demonstrated why, her warm tone making me wonder what the words were to this piece.  Her playing was perhaps not bold enough for this energetic work, particularly in the first movement (she needed to re-tune her instrument right after that, so even she realized it was certainly a little off), but on the whole her song-like approach worked (as it did for an unidentified solo encore).

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Sibelius, Bruckner

In an essay for today’s concert program book, Herbert Blomstedt pointed out that the orchestral forces used by Bruckner and Sibelius in their respective fourth symphonies (which he conducted this morning with the Vienna Philharmonic in Salzburg’s Great Festival House) were virtually identical to the forces used by Beethoven, but represented tremendous symphonic development.

Blomstedt led the concert with the later Sibelius work, the least performed of his symphonies (indeed, the Vienna Philharmonic is just now performing it for the first time!).  Sibelius rejected programmatic symphonies – indeed, even his nominally-programmatic tone poems based on Finnish sagas are usually free form and do not correspond with a text, and this one is even harder to classify.  Blomstedt drew out the lush if cold sounds – each movement ending in something tragic: the first with a never-answered question, the second stopping abruptly mid-phrase, the third subsiding to nothing, and the final one resolving in resignation.  But the final one, with the addition of playful bells, showed signs of happiness and life.  The dour Finn drew out harmonic lines – with sufficient deviations from the traditional – hinting at melodies but never quite becoming melodic, keeping the room on edge.  Blomstedt employed these as building blocks, and used the to highlight individual winds (or the first chair cello, who opened the work and reemerged in key spots).  This was a heavy and philosophical way to wake up this morning, but the audience appreciated it.

The Bruckner symphony after the break stood in contrast.  His most-performed and possibly most-accessible work, the symphony is exuberant.  But it too is constructed from building blocks, and those Blomstedt highlighted.  On a foundation of (sometimes quite agressive) strings, Blomstedt placed large chunks of hewn stone.  Bruckner was encouraged by friends to write a program for this symphony, but it was always an afterthought and never descriptive of what he had in mind when he wrote the music.  So this morning’s reading dispensed with that silliness and just presented the music in its own right.  By the final movement, Blomstedt could draw out the dissonances that made this symphony forward-looking, rather than just Beethoven-inspired (or earlier).  Sibelius, of course, considered Bruckner the greatest living composer over his own lifetime, and hearing the final movement of the Bruckner 4 in the interpretation by Blomstedt and the Philharmonic awakened new nuances and in many ways brought the music full circle to the Sibelius 4 that started the day.

I had the opportunity on Friday to attend the rehearsal for this concert.  One thing that struck me is that Blomstedt rehearsed without a score (not surprised he conducted without one, but the lack of one for the rehearsal was interesting).  Instead, he had a little blue notebook full of scribbles, I presume containing his over-90 years of musical wisdom.

Berlin Philharmonic, Musikverein (Vienna)

Abrahamsen, Bruckner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bruckner Orchestra Linz, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Bruckner

For the second time in five days, I got to hear Bruckner‘s Eighth in Salzburg’s Great Festival House, tonight with the Bruckner Orchestra of Linz under its new chief conductor, Markus Poschner.

Sunday’s performance was better.  First of all, the Mozarteum Orchestra is simply a far better ensemble, and in a difficult work like this, the quality of the orchestra right there counts for much.  But as the orchestra formerly known as the Linz Theater Orchestra was renamed fifty years ago after Upper Austria’s greatest composer, Bruckner does make up a staple of its repertory, so it should be expected to specialize in this music.

Poschner’s concept was to treat this expansive work as almost a chamber symphony.  Sure, he had the full-sized orchestra on stage and playing, but he often restrained them.  This had the unfortunate drawback that it also exposed them – they lack the virtuosity of the Mozarteum Orchestra, so missed some cues, came in off-pitch, and just did not maintain the beauty of sound at the lower volumes. For the louder moments, they did not quite soar either.  I suppose the third movement – one of the greatest adagios in the entire symphonic repertory – came of worst for the wear: far too small.  But throughout the brass chorales never took off, the strings creaked, the woodwinds (especially the flutes) never quite found the right tones, and the tympanist was fine but might have been unleashed more.

Thankfully, the performance did not drag (as a bad performance of this symphony inevitably does), so it was essentially in good working order.  But coming as it did so close to the Mozarteum’s performance of the same work in this hall, it did not survive the comparison.  I cannot say I am disappointed to hear this symphony twice within one week.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Bruckner

Bruckner‘s 8th is one of my favorite symphonies.  If performed badly, however, it provides 90 minutes of utter tedium.  So when the Mozarteum Orchestra announced its 2017-18 schedule, my initial excitement to see this work programmed this morning in the Sunday subscription series turned immediately to disappointment when I noted the chosen conductor: the talentless Jeffrey Tate guaranteed it would be an unbearable ninety minutes which I had no desire to suffer through.  So I dropped my Sunday subscription this year in part as a result (also because the February concert in the Sunday series contains far too much Debussy to be worth waking up early in the morning for – actually, far too much Debussy to be worth the effort of even climbing the staircase to my seat in the Great Festival House even if I were already standing in the foyer) so I picked the Sunday concerts I wanted and mixed-and-matched (including with the great Camerata concert I attended on Friday) to form a different subscription leaving out the ones I did not want.

Then last month at my Mozarteum Orchestra Thursday evening subscription concert I saw in the list of upcoming concerts that for this morning’s Bruckner 8th they had replaced Tate on the podium with Karl-Heinz Steffens.  I have never heard of Steffens, but that was enough of an endorsement given the man he replaced.  My usual subscription seat was even still available, so I grabbed it.

Steffens had an ear for some fine details.  This performace was like getting a tour of a cathedral from an architect who periodically stopped to admire individual gargoyles.  At times, he took an almost minimalist approach, exposing instruments and placing the weight of the whole symphony on them – especially the woodwinds (I don’t think I’d ever appreciated the role the oboe plays in this symphony until this morning).  These touches stood out especially in the first movement, where they sounded almost plaintive.  He made the second movement more boisterous, actually cheerful.  And while the tempi he chose for the third and fourth movements were well within conventions, they were perhaps a tad faster than I prefer.  But this approach served his overall concept, to make this deeply religious work rather hopeful that the power of prayer might be answered.

My biggest quibble with the whole performace was Steffens’ failure to hold the silence at the end: he dropped his arms immedately on the final chord.  A well-deserved applause (the orchestra sounded fantastic this morning) erupted long and loud – but really this symphony requires absolute silence and heavy contemplation before returning to earth.

Because the Mozarteum Foundation does not coordinate its schedule (beyond not double-booking a hall) with the Kulturvereinigung, the other main Salzburg concert society, the Kulturvereinigung invited a guest orchestra to perform this symphony in the same hall on Friday (a concert I did include in one of my subscription packages with them).  Lucky me: I get to hear Bruckner’s 8th twice within just five days.

Vienna Philharmonic, Musikverein

Haydn, Bruckner

Riccardo Muti is not normally thought of as a Bruckner conductor.  He is known for his Schubert, one of Bruckner’s key influences, and at the Salzburg Festival in 2016 I heard Muti lead the Vienna Philharmonic in a very intelligent and Schubertian interpretation of Bruckner’s 2nd Symphony.  So this enticed me to give his Bruckner 9th (again with the Philharmonic, this time in the Golden Hall of the Musikverein) a try.  Making a case for an early Bruckner symphony as a successor to Schubert is one thing – how would he manage this for Bruckner’s last work?

As it turns out, Muti did not try to find Schubertian influences in Bruckner’s 9th.  Instead, he showed how Bruckner had become  forward looking, drawing out the strained harmonies and immense dissonances.  Building on themes from his 7th and 8th Symphonies, both massive Gothic works, Bruckner was clearly aware of his own failing health and that he might not live to complete his 9th (as indeed he did not), so he peered out over the abyss to see where music might go on after him.

Aside from Italian opera and Schubert, Muti is also a specialist in some 20th Century Russian repertory, including Scriabin, also a master of harmony who consciously set out to destroy the world in six symphonies (but died young after his fifth, his attempt incomplete).  Elements of this Bruckner interpretation possibly owed a debt to Muti’s familiarity with Scriabin and his utter insanity.  I have no idea if Scriabin knew Bruckner’s music, but a direct linkage is not really the point.  Muti knows Scriabin, and here he gave us a Bruckner performance that deconstructed music and opened up possibilities for the 20th Century.

The Philharmonic of course also knows Bruckner inside out, but responded to Muti’s directions to deliver Bruckner to his grave.  From my seat in the back of the side balcony (the only one available when I checked) I could not see the orchestra other than the last two rows of the first violins, so I let the Golden Hall’s wonderful acoustics provide the full experience.  This was a performance to hear live.

The concert opened with Haydn‘s Symphony #39, that composer’s first minor-key symphony and considered the origin of Sturm und Drang that led to the romanticism which perhaps reached its pinnacle with Bruckner.  This symphony got Haydn promoted from assistant Kapellmeister to chief in the Eszterházy court.  He wrote for what he had available – an orchestra of only about 16 musicians which often seemed to have an excess (for so small a band) of horns.  So the original version had four horns in those 16 musicians.  But Haydn also thought for the future, and to hear a proper-sized string section took nothing away from the four horns (and two oboes and a bassoon) but provided Haydn as he is meant to be heard (if not how he originally was, only due to lack of resources).  In this interpretation, Muti seemed also to predict a bit of Bruckner – Bruckner was an organist and even when he composed symphonic music inserted full and partial stops.  Haydn had those there too in this symphony, building blocks for a bigger construction.  An unexpected, but clever, way to set up deconstruction of romanticism in Muti’s reading of Bruckner’s 9th.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Strauss, Bruckner

Herbert Blomstedt turned 90 last month.  I suppose when a conductor turns 90, he is entitled to sit down while conducting – that would seem to be the only change I noticed with him since I saw him last year.  He remains an architect on the podium, carefully constructing the musical edifice in front of him – today in Salzburg’s Great Festival House with the Vienna Philharmonic (which, according to the program, he never conducted before 2011, much to the orchestra’s regret; they seem to be making up for the oversight, now inviting him frequently).

 

This morning’s interpretation of Bruckner‘s Seventh Symphony came across almost as a chamber work in its intimacy, upon which towers of sound found their foundations.  This was a massive cathedral complex – but like many of the best-designed cathedral complexes, there are cloisters with gardens and fountains where monks can quietly contemplate the world although surrounded by a huge stone edifice.  Are these quiet corners the foundation supporting the domes and spires, or are they respite?  A good architect leaves that question unanswered, because both components must form a coherent whole.  And that was the version of Bruckner’s seventh that Blomstedt gave us this morning.

 

To intelligently introduce  such an intimate reading of Bruckner, the concert had opened with the Metamorphoses of Richard Strauss.  This was a chamber work, for 23 strings, also intimate and tragic.  Strauss started the sketch while contemplating the destruction of his home town, Munich, and completed it after American and British bombers wiped Dresden off the map.  He infused the music with a theme from the funeral music of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, and one can picture a chamber music group sitting amid the rubble of some obliterated concert hall rehearsing (the premiere actually took place in Zurich in 1946).  “For 12 years, bestiality, ignorance, and illiteracy have ruled under the greatest criminals,” Strauss wrote in his diary.  “At the same time, the fruits of German cultural development, created over 2,000 years, were delivered over to extinction, and irreplaceable buildings and works of art were destroyed by criminal scum.”

 

The apolitical Strauss had stayed in Germany after 1933 in the name of German culture.  Strauss’ own grandchildren were Jewish, as was much of his social and professional sphere (he had even co-founded the Salzburg Festival with Max Reinhardt, who was Jewish, and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who was of Jewish ancestry and who had married back into the faith).  But as the greatest German composer of his day, the Nazis appointed Strauss president of the composers’ union in 1933 until 1935, when the Gestapo intercepted a letter he wrote to his Austrian Jewish librettist Stefan Zweig criticizing the Nazi Aryan mythos and put it on Hitler’s desk.  Hitler immediately had Strauss fired.  I suppose he was lucky.

 

That’s a lot of emotion to be wrapped up in, and reduced to, a surprisingly intimate concert.