Concertgebouw Orchestra, Musikverein (Vienna)

Mozart, Mahler

Precious few orchestras manage to staff themselves fully with players in every section who simultaneously exhibit individual virtuosity and blend into an orchestral whole. It is this which makes the Philadelphia Orchestra in its current incarnation rank high above all others in North America. But the Philadelphia has had its ups and downs over the years (including downs in very recent memory). The elite among the elite manage to maintain this level of excellence year-in-year-out, indeed decade-in-decade-out. Possibly only two orchestras on the planet meet this exalted standard: the Wiener Philharmoniker, which makes its home in the Musikverein, and the Concertgebouworkest Amsterdam, which visited the Musikverein this morning.

They arrived with a guest conductor: Semyon Bychkov, a wise choice (they recently appointed the uninspiring Daniele Gatti as their music director – I suppose Gatti must rehearse well, but from my experience orchestras simply ignore him during concerts where he stays out of the way while the orchestra in front of him makes the music; but Gatti’s appointment marks a big drop off from their outgoing chief Mariss Jansons). Where the orchestra provided Bychkov with a palette of the most vibrant colors, it still required a painter to know how to blend those colors to create a masterwork. Bychkov knew what to do, making broad brush strokes where necessary but also showing attention to fine details. Controlled on one hand, Bychkov was passionate on the other. He is a conductor who continues to grow in stature every time I hear his concerts.

This morning’s concert led off with Mozart’s Piano Concerto #22, with Emanuel Ax at the keyboard. The interpretation put paid to the idiotic original instruments movement: here we had a full-sized orchestra with proper instruments, and Ax sitting at a piano (which had actually also not been invented yet when Mozart wrote this – the German title should really be translated as “Keyboard Concerto #22”). One wonders if this sound is not what Mozart really had inside his head when he wrote it, but the poorly-tuned instruments and insufficient resources of his era meant that he wrote not for his own inadequate time but for the future when it would finally become possible to perform the music properly. Just because music may have been performed badly at the time composers wrote is no justification (other than curiosity) to perform the music badly today. Ax, Bychkov, and the orchestra made a convincing case for Mozart as he might have been, in full sound but never overbearing. The details were all there, right down to Wolfgang Amadé’s sarcastic smile.

This was the second time I have heard Ax perform this work this year – he did it at the Salzburg Festival in August with the Vienna Philharmonic under Jansons, also for a morning concert.  It’s a perfect piece to start off a morning – not too heavy.  This morning’s performance was the more substatial of the two readings, without becoming too heavy, and set out the stronger case for this concerto.

After the intermission came Mahler’s Symphony #5 in all of its glory. This is actually the second time I have heard Bychkov conduct this symphony in 2016 – the last was in May with the orchestra of the Vienna conservatory. While the previous performance was good, this time with the Concertgebouw Orchestra Bychkov could take the piece to another level. He slowed down the first movement somewhat, even bringing the quieter sections down a notch, to produce an extra layer of foreboding as Mahler grappled with fate. This touch also allowed him to emphasize many of the musicians in the orchestra and their intricate lines – but, as I said above, their individual virtuosity was apparent for all to hear but never strayed from creating a whole sound. On the podium, Bychkov could build on this, moving up to the anticipated triumph of the truncated chorale at the end of the second movement (which later resolved in complete triumph with the full chorale at the end of the fifth movement). The dance melodies danced – in the forefront where appropriate and behind the scenes where suggestive, the scherzo hopped, and the juxtaposition of the adagio with the final movement (performed correctly without break) accentuated the victory.

Bright sunlight shone through the upper windows of the Musikverein (rarely happens as it requires a morning concert, a sunny day, and the right angle) and illuminated the Golden Hall in all of its glory, a perfect complement to the musicianship on the stage. Someone up there was smiling too.

Advertisements

Webern Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Mozart, Mahler

I had not planned on any concerts until the Salzburg Festival this Summer, an unusual gap of two months. So I suppose I was bound to fill it when a ticket opened up in the packed Musikverein this evening for a concert of the Vienna Conservatory’s Webern Symphony Orchestra under Semyon Bychkov.  I can now testify that the future of Mozart and Mahler in the Musikverein sounds secure.

Pairing Mozart’s Piano Concerto #20 and Mahler’s Symphony #5 on the program had a certain logic. Both start in minor, somewhat foreboding, but end in a triumphant major. Without resorting to stereotype for such arrangements, Bychkov still drew out the transformation – these are not just fate-conquering works, but a positive trip through a troubled world. Bychkov restrained the orchestra for much of the darker moments, yet always pushed forward, never dragging. This allowed the youthful orchestra to demonstrate its exuberance during the brighter passages. A lot of happiness shone through here.

At the keyboard for the Mozart sat Jasminka Stančul, whose hands almost hovered above the keys and simply coaxed the music effortlessly out of the piano. She and the orchestra spoke the same language and their instrumental voices blended beautifully.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Brahms, Schmidt, Elgar

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

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

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

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

Wiener Philharmoniker, Musikverein

Glinka, Schostakowitsch, Tschaikowsky

Sometimes tickets come available late for the subscription-only concerts of the Vienna Philharmonic.  I got one such ticket this afternoon, giving me a seat in the percussion section between the cymbals and the bass drum.  No kidding.  At least no Mahler was on the program, although my ears are still ringing a bit.

Semyon Bychkov took the podium for an all-Russian concert.  The chronically-ill Mikhail Glinka spent a Summer in Vienna, where he came for medical advice and to take the cure in Baden.  During his stay he met Johann Strauß (the father) and Joseph Lanner, who inspired him a few years later to try his hand at a waltz.  In a sense, Bychkov brought the Waltz-Fantasie home by having the Philharmoniker (not only the world’s best orchestra, but the world’s best waltz orchestra), perform it.

Kirill Gerstein joined the orchestra for the second piano concerto of Dmitri Schostakowitsch.  This is a tuneful work with a degree of charm, but written by Schostakowitsch during one of the many periods in his life when he was subject to artistic persecution.  While recognizably music by Schostakowitsch, it is perhaps less daring than it should be.  From my seat in the back of the orchestra, I also did not experience it as much of a concerto – the piano part seemed somewhat under-written and blended into the orchestral tones.  Gerstein gave a long solo encore to demonstrate his agility (I could not hear his announcement of what he played – it was not a showy piece, instead rather melancholic, but it did allow him to demonstrate versatility).

After the intermission came Pyotr Tschaikowsky’s Symphony #6.  Bychkov captured the composer’s depression.  While the orchestra carried off a flawless performace, I did not get the sense that I learned anything new from this reading.  However, I did learn some new things about cymbal technique.

Munich Philharmonic, Musikverein (Vienna)

Richard Strauss

I came into Vienna for the weekend and added a concert to my schedule: the Munich Philharmonic visited the Musikverein.  Semyon Bychkov took the podium, replacing the late Lorin Maazel.  Tonight’s program was an all-Richard Strauss affair, and there may be few orchestras which master his music like this one.  The Munich Philharmonic treated us to a sumptuous sound – something that Maazel, a consumate if unbelievably dull musician – certainly refined.

The concert opened with the tone poem Don Juan, in a fiery and passionate reading (something that Maazel certainly could not have accomplished) – not only did Don Juan seduce the women, but it sounded like he’d also paid a visit to the Venusberg.  This orchestra has a lush sound that draws in the listeners, particularly with acoustics in a hall such as the Musikverein.  Although uniform at times, Bychkov kept the modulations to build overall combined sounds – allowing the mind to imagine the protrayals.  Or, perhaps, the playing left very little for the imagination – this Don Juan may have earned a X rating

The orchestra’s principal horn, Jörg Brückner, was the soloist for Strauss’ second horn concerto.  I heard his first concerto (a youthful work) in May, and now got to follow it up with the second (written near the end of Strauss’ life).  These two concerti do not form part of the common concert repertory.  But the influence of the composer’s virtuoso hornist father continued to rub off, and Strauss knew how to write for this instrument.  The model remained Mozart, like in the earlier concerto, but now he augmented the chromatics.  The horn engaged the whole orchestra, but particularly the woodwinds, in fascinating dialogue and witty repartee, and sent the audience dancing into the intermission.

For the second half of the concert, Ein Heldenleben traced a hero’s life.  Every time I thought an instrument or section deserved a highlight, along came the next performer.  There were no standouts – they were all good.  But wait, maybe there was one: concertmaster Sreten Krstič, who played the violin solos as a country fiddler, provided a level of spontaneity to the already-composed music on the page.  The applause at the concert’s end, although long and hard for everyone, rose several more notches for him.