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.
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.
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.
Bruckner, Schubert, Mozart
The 2017 Salzburg Festival has begun, and I opened my festival-going with a Bruckner mass for a Sunday morning. Bruckner’s Mass #2 was a personal work – although he was well into his forties when he composed it, he had only recently begun writing larger works and had not yet left his job as the cathedral organist in the provinces to begin his career Vienna.
The mass, for choir and a limited wind ensemble, opens with clear inspiration from the 16th-century master church composer, Palestrina, who had entered mystic legend as the man who had saved music from a papal ban and was a particular favorite of Bruckner’s then-boss, the Bishop of Linz. But by the time he reached the middle Credo section, Bruckner had found his own idiom, transcending music in the 19th century as Palestrina had done three hundred years before. A brief return to Palestrina in the Sanctus led to a search for chromaticism in the winds, moving around their accompaniment of a chorus harking back to traditional form. The devout Bruckner had scored a triumph, which would help propel his career outside the Church.
The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Salzburg’s Mozarteum Orchestra performed with distinction in the Mozarteum’s Great Hall, under the baton of the rising young Lithuanian star Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, demonstrating a mastery of both idioms reflected in the work: the traditional polyphony of Palestrina and the superimposed chromatic experimentalism of Bruckner inspired both by his predecessor and by his own piety.
The second half of the concert worked less well. Schubert‘s Stabat Mater, composed for a Church commission when he was 19, set not the Catholic Latin liturgical work, but rather a German-language poem by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock inspired by the Catholic work but reworked into a German Protestant vision. Unsurprisingly, the Catholic Church rejected Schubert’s work. That it also went unperformed elsewhere during his lifetime may represent that it’s not actually very good. Derivational of both Haydn and Mozart, it fails to match the quality of either, and also lacks spirituality in the way Bruckner’s deceptively simple music did. Three soloists known primarily, appropriately enough given the composer, for singing Lieder joined orchestra and chorus: Christiane Karg, Martin Mitterrutzner, and Michael Nagy, and all excelled. No, the failure of the work was not due to the performers, but really to the work itself.
Gražinytė-Tyla then went directly with no pause (indeed, while Schubert’s Amens were still floating in the room) into the final work, Mozart‘s short Ave Verum Corpus. Although brief, it had just enough notes, and while Mozart had long since left the Church in spirit (if not officially), he captured the necessary simple and straightforward spirituality, in the same manner as the hymn to Isis and Osiris in his opera Zauberflöte. This very personal spirituality was admired by, among others, a young Anton Bruckner, and therefore served as an appropriate bookend for the morning’s program.
Beethoven, Bruckner, Larrson
The second evening with the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra in Salzburg’s Great Festival House did nothing to change my positive impression of this orchestra from yesterday. Once again the orchestra members produce sounds in full color, with a sense of time and space, not so much playing instruments as using them to create tonal portraits.
The young violinist Christine-Maria Höller from Salzburg’s Mozarteum conservatory joined the orchestra for Beethoven‘s violin concerto. Although a little rough to start, she quickly warmed into the work, with a strong and determined tone which effortless entered into dialogue with the different instruments Beethoven highlighted in the orchestra, and with the orchestra as a whole. Conductor Florian Krumpöck worked the orchestra with her, deftly crafting the individual sounds and blending them together. Beethoven’s brilliant concerto is a conversation with many voices, but the trick is to ensure that none of them get lost, and that all of them have something clever to say. That they accomplished.
Höller then danced back on stage for a flamenco encore.
After the intermission came Bruckner‘s Fourth Symphony. The lush strings provided an earthy basis for the ongoing dialogue between flute and horn that carries its way throughout this symphony, while the rest of the brass soared above them with a heavenly chorale. This symphony came across as the logical continuation of the Beethoven concerto, a series of fascinating conversations among instruments. On the whole, though, Krumpöck’s slow tempi (although they work for some) did not alwyas allow this longer conversation to press forward, sometimes straying from the topic and losing interest. Nevertheless, this was a happy conversation, with a shiny bright outcome.
The strings gave us another encore – a romance for string orchestra by Lars-Erik Larsson. Although not a dance, these strings periodically could not help themselves, and the Austrian Krumpöck perhaps had them inserting a charming lilt, which they could certainly handle.
I had not planned to be home in Vienna this weekend, but once here I decided to see if there would be last-minute tickets available for otherwise sold out concerts, and I got lucky with one tonight and one tomorrow afternoon.
Tonight’s offer, in the Konzerthaus, allowed me to hear Herbert Blomstedt and the Bamberg Symphony explore the architecture of Schubert and Bruckner in a well-paired concert containing Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony.
The Swedish-American Blomstedt, still amazingly spritely at 89 years old, is a master builder of orchestral sound. The Bamberg Symphony, originally founded by ethnic Germans exiled from Czechoslovakia after the Second World War (victims of the post-war reprisals against Nazi Germany’s policies towards that country – although some of them probably less-than-innocent victims), is an orchestra I only knew of through its solid recordings and reputation, and now got to hear live for the first time (the current orchestra members are obviously not the original ones, so it’s a new generation from the days of its old recordings).
From tonight’s performance, we clearly saw how much Schubert inspired Bruckner. Blomstedt constructed the two movements of the Unfinished out of solid building blocks, while still enabling the lyrical melodies to sore, in many ways a prototype for Bruckner. Having heard Beethoven’s expansive Eroica Symphony on Wednesday with a scaled-down orchestra, it was refreshing for me to hear Schubert’s often dainty Unfinished with a full ensemble on stage. This was a mighty performance, without sacrificing any of the charm. The low string rumblings at the opening of the first movement set the foundations in place upon which Blomstedt built the pillars to hold up the soaring roof. He also emphasized often unseen and unheard angles within the solid supporting construction, which allowed layer upon layer of melody to pile on top.
Although unfortunate that Schubert never completed more than those two movements of this tremendous symphony, this interpretation naturally flowed into Bruckner after the intermission. Indeed, we could hear similar low strings supporting ever more layers upon layers of sound. So while Schubert died young, Bruckner the former church organist was in many ways his symphonic heir. Blomstedt may not use the heavist stones when constructing Bruckner’s cathedrals, but his interpretations always demonstrate him as understanding the architecture. The Swede may be an acquired taste, but indeed one worth acquiring. The fully packed Konzerthaus audience clearly approved.
Christoph von Dohnányi, longtime Music Director of the Cleveland Orchestra and frequent guest of the Vienna Philharmonic, used to comment that his orchestra in Cleveland played every note perfectly, yet he was still trying to get them to sound more like the Philharmonic, which did not play every note perfectly. It’s not just about playing perfectly, but performing the music with a certain emotion in the notes, and something the Philharmoniker gets better than anyone. So hearing the Philarmoniker this morning perform in juxtaposition with the Clevelanders on Friday reinforced exactly what Dohnányi meant.
It of course helps to have Mariss Jansons on the podium, which ensured intelligent readings that maximized the orchestra’s ability to add its color. The two halves of the concert had little to do with each other (“sometimes they do not have to” Jansons explained at a talk here last week). But we got Mozart‘s Piano Concerto #22 and Bruckner‘s Symphony #6 on either side of the intermission.
Emanuel Ax performed as soloist for the Mozart. He and the Orchestra created a soothing, almost melancholic, tone, which both blended well and with the contrasting lines informing each other. For a matinee concert, this was a good way to start a morning.
The Bruckner symphony after the intermission was more lively. Probably the least performed of Bruckner’s mature symphonies (and the only one he did not revise), it was actually my favorite among his works when I was a child. So this made for a nostalgic day-after-birthday concert. At his talk last week, Jansons was asked why he chose Bruckner’s sixth: he replied that the Festival had offered conductors a selection of works premiered by the Vienna Philharmonic to perform with that orchestra at the Festival over several years, and he was slow deciding until many others were already taken. But he nevertheless appreciates this symphony and its construction, as do I, even if we have moved on to others. One can picture Gustav Mahler giving the symphony’s premiere with the Philharmoniker in the Musikverein three years after Bruckner’s death.
Bruckner, Schoenberg, Wagner
I followed the Festival and members of the Vienna Philharmonic over the Salzach River to the Mozarteum for a chamber concert. Co-principal violin, viola, and cello of the Philharmonic were joined by three younger orchestra members for music by Bruckner, Schoenberg, and Wagner.
The Bruckner String Quintet is a monumental work despite its limited instrumentation. Written when Bruckner held the chair of composition at the Vienna Conservatory, on request of the Conservatory’s Director (and the Philharmonic’s principal violin), Bruckner gave the instruments full music and lush colors fit for a whole orchestra. The musicians got off to a rough start as something appears to have happened to the second violin’s instrument (there was a loud crack, and she kept inspecting the backside of it, but continued anyway). The audience also seemed incapable of sitting still, and many audience members coughed up various lungs (the weather this summer has indeed been surprisingly wet and cool – to the point that some friends are even using heat in their apartments – but if people are that ill then they should go directly to the morgue). The unfit audience noticeably distracted the musicians – and while their playing was sublime, they did not always capture the mood. Only during the third movement – the Adagio, crowing achievement of Brucknerian musical architecture – did the hall fall quiet and the angels from Heaven descended to heal the wounded and cure the sick, at least briefly.
After the intermission came Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (in the original version for string sextet). This built easily on Bruckner’s lushness, but with more complicated and diverging lines, which the musicians developed while producing the same full sound fit for an even larger ensemble. The transfiguring tones naturally led to a much-desired encore, for which they provided a version of the Prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in a reduced version for sextet. Indeed, Schoenberg was known for making such reductions, and maybe they even used his version. Whether or not they did, the sextet revealed Wagner’s revolutionary harmonics, exposing them as the forerunner for Schoenberg’s own later experiments. These were kindred works.
There may be no better way to start off a long holiday weekend in Austria than at the Festival with the Vienna Phlharmonic. They played this morning’s concert under the baton of Riccardo Muti. The choice of works seemed uncharacteristic for him (Richard Strauss and Anton Bruckner), but the program soon made sense once underway.
The Strauss selection was his suite of incidental music from Der Bürger als Edelmann, which he originally composed for an (unsuccessful) collaboration with dramatist Hugo von Hofmannsthal and producer Max Reinhardt to update Molière’s comedy Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. The experiment may have failed, but the component parts were all put to other uses, and Strauss made a suite of the incidental music. Set for a modern chamber orchestra, the music paid homage to the composer of the incidental music to the original production of Molière’s play: Gianbattista Lulli (a.k.a. Jean-Baptiste Lully), Italian composer in the court of French King Louis XIV. And it was this aspect that Muti emphasized, providing us a neo-Baroque setting with recognizably Straussian colors. That this music served a comedy was not lost, despite the lack of words, as Muti and the orchestra performed full of humor.
Muti may not be known as a conductor of Bruckner, but he is known for Schubert, whose music heavily influenced Bruckner. Bruckner’s Second Symphony, a relatively early work in his symphonic canon (albeit he was already 48 when he wrote the first version), in many ways builds on Schubert’s Ninth and takes the next logical step in the development of the Symphony. Not yet a great cathedral of sound such as the ones that Bruckner would build in his subsequent work, it may instead represent an abbey. Muti drew out the underlying Schubertian structure, to which Bruckner had affixed flying buttresses. And with that, Muti and the Philharmoniker made sense of this symphony.
Pärt, Mahler, Bruckner
The good Lord put so much beauty in the world, but sometimes we have to go search for it. Zubin Mehta and the Vienna Philharmonic knew where to look tonight at the Festival.
The concert opened with a short piece by Arvo Pärt that the Philharmonic had premiered in 2014, on a commission from the Salzburg Mozarteum. Swansong was a setting for chamber orchestra of an anthem Pärt had previously on words Cardinal John Henry Newman had written shortly before he died. The piece was musical enough, but awfully repetitive for a short work – I wonder if the orginal version with text might not have been better.
The next work did have its words intact: Gustav Mahler‘s Kindertotenlieder, with baritone by Matthias Goerne. Mehta combined Goerne’s passionate sadness with distraught woodwinds, never letting the instruments overwhelm the words but portraying the anguish in Friedrich Rückert’s texts. This culminated in the final song, “In diesem Wetter,” in which the orchestra all but created a storm inside the Great Festival House – I nearly wanted to run home to check if my windows were closed – but still contained as tears.
Beauty can best be appreciated when the world is not perfect. So Mahler’s songs provided a fitting prelude to Anton Bruckner‘s Fourth Symphony. Without a soloist, Mehta did not have to worry about restraining the orchestra, and he unleashed it in full force. In this interpretation, however, Mehta drew out much of the often-overlooked tension lurking underneath the surface of this symphony. Indeed, we could see suffering in the world, yet the beauty rose above it all. Mehta bound the whole work together with the pulsing strides of the lower strings: could this have been the inevitable march of fate? But beauty triumphed: so much beauty. Praise the Lord!
Bruckner, Sechter, Lachner
A rare chance to hear Bruckner’s Te Deum and other religious choral music in a church: the Salzburg Cathedral Choir performed a selection in the Salzburg Cathedral.
Bruckner composed most of the works this afternoon when he was still the organist at the St. Florian Monastery, in a style instantly recognizable from his later orchestral music. The selection of assorted pieces displayed the mastery of Palestrina, albeit several centuries later – so by Bruckner’s day conservative, but understanding that saying something new in church music still required a reliance on transmitting the text. The Locus iste, which I heard performed in the Great Festival House last month, held up well in the muddier acoustics of the Cathedral, and Bruckner’s setting of Ave Maria truly deserves more attention. János Czifra conducted, ensuring that the chorus enunciated fully so that the text could emerge despite the blurry reverberations across the building. Although I do not know the acoustics of the St. Florian Monastery, this reading showed that Bruckner understood the importance of getting the religious message out in a venue that works essentially as an enormous damper pedal.
This became more noticeable with the addition to the program (not in the program as advertised) of two non-Bruckner works: short pieces by Bruckner’s composition professor at the Vienna Conservatory, Simon Sechter (after Sechter’s death, the Conservatory hired Bruckner to fill his chair), and another Sechter pupil Franz Lachner. Although similar in style, and performed by Czifra and the choir using the same technique, these pieces did not demonstrate the same mastery of space as Bruckner’s.
The concert built up to the featured work, Bruckner’s Te Deum, for which the Cathedral’s orchestra joined. I feared they might blow the roof off the building, despite being a small chamber orchestra (albeit with augmented brass). But Czifra, who has been the Cathedral’s Kapellmeister since 1987, knew his venue. Hearing this work in a cathedral was nothing like hearing it in concert (where it does get performed). Bruckner actually did write it for a concert hall and not for a church, but given his background it is certainly appropriate to bring it back to a relgious setting. Czifra made the group perform more delicately, allowing the building’s acoustics to mix the palette of sounds, but with sufficient stops inserted to avoid unwanted color – especially after hearing Bruckner’s earlier choral music, this presented a new and refreshing way to understand this composer’s later construction techniques.
Schumann, Bach, Bruckner
The Mozarteum Orchestra launched its Sunday matinee series for 2015-16 this morning in Salzburg’s Large Festival House with some known but lesser-played, almost experimental, music from the middle of the 19th Century.
Schumann’s “Overture, Scherzo, and Finale” (a rather clunky title after he rejected more logical ones) opened the program. Although perfectly pleasant, this work suffered from a lack of a coherent concept. Schumann revised it many times for more than a decade after its premiere, but does not seem to have ever rectified its main weakness. With an opening almost foretelling Tschaikowsky’s opening to Yevgeny Onyegin (composed a few decades later), Schumann backpedalled into a post-Mozartian muddle before reaching a Bach-like fugue which culminated in a brass chorale almost predicting Bruckner. Where was Schumann going with all of this?
If he was going towards Bruckner, we did have a chance to find out later in the concert. But before we got there, German cellist Jan Vogler came out to slog through Schumann’s Cello Concerto. Again, Schumann produced a perfectly pleasant work which did not say anything. Vogler’s dry tone easily filled the large hall, but nevertheless came out somewhat subdued rather than expansive. When the orchestra stood down and Vogler gave a Bach saraband as an encore, the cellist confirmed the impression. An accomplished musician who formerly filled the first chair of the Dresden Staatskapelle, Vogler’s playing did not lack quality, just dynamism. Perhaps he should return to orchestral playing rather than a solo career.
After the break came Bruckner’s 2nd Symphony, logically resuming where the first Schumann work at the start of the concert had left off. Although Bruckner wrote this piece when he was nearly fifty, it is in many ways a young work as he started writing orchestral music so late. Bruckner never dedicated this symphony, so he offered it to Wagner at the same time as he showed the German composer his 3rd Symphony – Wagner wisely preferred the dedication of the latter, more-mature work. The 2nd could have used some intelligent editing to tighten the phrases. Bruckner did produce several versions over the years, but these did not resolve its underlying wordiness.
A driven performance can overcome these defects. Ivor Bolton, the Mozarteum Orchestra’s music director, did not accomplish this, allowing some of the longer passages to drag. The orchestra, although falling out of synch now and then, sounded strong and in good health. Schumann and Bruckner, in these readings, maybe less so. And while I know from other performances that the Bruckner 2nd can be salvaged, the verdict remains out on these lesser Schumann works.
Hager, Brahms, Bruckner
I remember when a performace of a Bruckner symphony happened infrequently enough to make it an event. Now everyone performs Bruckner. So long as they understand Bruckner, as the Mozarteum Orchestra of Salzburg did tonight under its former chief conductor Leopold Hager in Salzburg’s Great Festival House, I won’t complain.
Hager set up Bruckner’s 7th intelligently, with an well-chosen first half of the concert. Bruckner owed his musical development to many years spent as a church organist, so Hager brought us to church. Hager’s own setting of Psalm 2, a work from his own youth (he composed it in 1955), opened the concert – a modern work with an almost Stravinsky-like edge, with the orchestra driving the music forward forcefully before reaching apotheosis. Austrian baritone Markus Volpert and the Salzburg Bach Chorus provided the text and additional excitement.
Hager followed this with one of Brahms‘ most-original works, his Alto Rhapsody, with the mellifluous Franco-Russian alto Svetlana Lifar joining the orchestra and chorus. Brahms set a poem by Goethe to music, secular but with a religious undertone, much as he had done for his Requiem one year earlier, with the same balance of melancholic and uplifting spirituality.
Also before the intermission, Hager conducted the chorus in two a capella motets by Bruckner: Locus iste and Os justi meditabitur sapientiam. As forward looking as Hager’s psalm was, these two were backwards-looking works by Bruckner for church choirs (in St. Florian and Linz, respectively). The Salzburg Bach Chorus sang out tremendously.
This introductory hour of music perfectly enabled Hager’s interpretation of Bruckner’s 7th for the second hour(-plus). The Mozarteum Orchestra is a medium-sized band, and although augmented this evening for the Bruckner, it still came out sounding a bit thin. Hager compensated by having them play legato, emphasizing that these were chorales, and should therefore be sung by the instruments. Bruckner was a man of the church even when in the concert hall. Indeed, even the adagio movement, composed as funeral music for the a-religious (and wholly amoral) Richard Wagner, still contained music Bruckner wrote for his own Te Deum (composed at the same time).
The orchestra responded to Hager’s concept. The last time I heard this symphony, with the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle in the Musikverein in May, the Berliners sounded more lush, but they did not understand the music. Hager and his Mozarteum Orchestra may have lacked the sparkle of their more-famous Berlin colleagues, but they had more to say tonight.
A late start tonight in Salzburg’s Great Festival Hall: 9 p.m. seems like an appropriate time to construct a church service in a concert hall, with Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Vienna Philharmonic doing the construction.
The concert opened with Bohuslav Martinů’s Frescos of Piero della Francesca, a work I did not previously know. Martinů got his inspiration on vacation in Arezzo, where he saw these paintings in a church. To be entirely honest, I could not quite connect Martinů’s modern music (the work had its premiere by the Philharmoniker in Salzburg at the 1956 Festival) with the 15th-century frescos. But as pure music, it worked, with that composer’s wonderful juxtapositions.
They then skipped the intermission completely and went directly to the second work on the program, which gave Martinů yet more juxtaposition. The Bavarian Radio Chorus joined a smaller orchestra for Bruckner’s Mass #3. Having put up the paintings in the church, I suppose they now had to fill the room with mass.
In 1867, Bruckner’s doctor told him to stay away from music – it was driving him insane. Thankfully, Bruckner listened to God instead of to his doctor. He wrote Mass #3 and then moved to Vienna full time to teach counterpoint at the conservatory.
This mass is a bridge work. The insane church organist subsequently wrote mostly orchestral music, constructing his cathedrals of sound. But this was a work he meant to have performed in a church (unlike Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Wednesday night’s work, to which it was immediately compared in scale when it was first performed). The premiere indeed took place in Vienna’s Augustinerkirche (in the Hofburg) and remains frequently performed as a mass in Austrian churches and cathedrals (possibly more often than it appears in the world’s concert halls).
Unlike Harnoncourt’s muffled Missa Solemnis on Wednesday, Nézet-Séguin made use of his forces to fill the hall brightly. Although relatively-early Bruckner (in terms of major compositional output), the mass connected Bruckner’s church organist background with some of the larger structures he would create after moving to Vienna. The mass works both as church music and as a dramatic concert work. But the texts are clear, and the devout Bruckner clearly believed in them. This piece marked his transition from his time serving the Church to his new world serving Humanity.
Soloists Dorothea Röschmann, Karen Cargill, Chistian Elsner, and Franz-Josef Selig sang their lines clearly. But this is not a work highlighting the soloists. There is drama in the text, but it is in the service of the Lord.
Somehow I had never seen Simon Rattle nor heard the Berlin Philharmonic live until they visited the Musikverein tonight. They were very good, but not as good as anticipated, which made for a disappointing first listen.
The concert opened with Leoš Janáček’s Sinfonietta – or a muddle pretending to be that work. The trumpet choir on the Musikverein organ balcony behind the orchestra looked lost and unprepared. Perhaps they have practiced in a semi-circle and not a line where they cannot see each other (although they had an unobstructed view of Rattle). I can be sympathetic if this is the case, as it happened to me in a brass quartet during my senior year at Exeter, but I would hope there is a big difference in preparation time and quality between an amateur high school brass quartet and the Berlin Philharmonic. The rest of the orchestra tried to recover somewhat, but this is a difficult syncopated piece, and they never quite sounded like they got it together. As the Sinfonietta raced to its finale, the musicians held on for dear life, hoping to get all of the notes out at some point, no matter if at the right point.
After the intermission, the orchestra regrouped for Bruckner’s 7th Symphony. This one they got together for, and produced very fine sounds. But Bruckner is meant to be emotion-shattering, allowing a glimpse of heaven – whereas tonight’s performance, though technically flawless, provided no such thing. Where the first movement should wash the audience in great waves of sound, this performance just had sound, fluctuating tensely. The funeral movement – composed when Bruckner learned of the death of Richard Wagner, whose musical advances freed him to conceive of another world of possibilities – should reduce the audience to the tears Bruckner had in his eyes when he wrote it, but tonight’s version showed no emotion. This was not the blockish interpretation of Bruckner standard from such Prussian oompahs as Christian Thielemann, rather indeed a fuller and better attempt, but nevertheless missing a soul.
The audience gave a loud applause, but I heard a lot of German accents in the crowd. The Austrians headed for the doors.