Dvořák, Bach, Prokofiev
Dvořák, Strauss, Stravinsky
The Vienna Philharmonic added some seats on stage for this afternoon’s concert, and even sitting amidst the percussion (albeit thankfully not next to a gong, as I once found myself a few years ago) it is hard to resist hearing this orchestra in the Musikverein with Mariss Jansons on the podium… indeed, getting to watch him from the orchestra’s perspective (when he was not blocked out by a music stand or a percussionist).
On the program was a strange mix of works I did not necessarily understand why they went together: Dvořák‘s Eighth Symphony, Richard Strauss‘ Death and Transfiguration, and the suite from Stravinsky‘s ballet The Firebird. As Jansons explained in a talk in Salzburg last summer, sometimes parts of the same concert don’t have to go together, but even by that standard this combination was odd. Perhaps the one linkage here was some truly fine playing.
The Dvořák symphony came out dancing, full as it is with Czech folk dances. Jansons maintained a certain tension, which just gave the exuberant bits all the more sway. This may have anticipated a ballet suite later in the concert, but folk dances and ballet are still two different genres, so maybe not.
If the Strauss tone poem after intermission danced, it was with death. This set an altogether different mood, and at one point close to the end the orchestra sent a cold chill through the room. Somehow, through force of music, we all emerged on the other side, shivering in our seats but transfigured.
Jansons took a much more humorous approach with Stravinsky’s Firebird suite. This is fun music, with a lot happening despite a somewhat reduced orchestra. A twinkle in Jansons’ eyes made sure the orchestra kept the music upbeat (they not only smiled back at Jansons, but smirked knowingly at each other – particularly the bemused percussionists around me), until the lullaby section, which grew somewhat dark before a triumphant finale. Shades of Death and Transfiguration earlier in the concert? Or just masterful playing?
This orchestra reigns. It’s not always technically the best, but it has a feel for music like no other orchestra. And Jansons on the podium brings out some of its finest moments. Although the balance was a bit off from my seat in the percussion, I could feel the magic in the Musikverein’s Golden Hall. The audience felt it too, with thundering applause and a rare standing ovation (we are spoiled by this orchestra, so it doesn’t happen often). The applause did not stop even after the orchestra finally left the stage, and Jansons had to return for not one but two individual curtain calls. I cannot remember that happening before.
When the post of Kapellmeister opened unexpectedly in Leipzig last year, the Gewandhaus Orchestra moved quickly to secure Andrís Nelsons, one of the most dynamic conductors of the next generation (he turns 40 next year). Nelsons, who had only shortly before taken up his post as music director in Boston, where he has the unenviable task of rebuilding the Boston Symphony Orchestra from its long years of slow decay, would have been silly not to take on this new opportunity, even if it will leave him a bit overstretched.
Nelsons and the Gewandhaus Orchestra came to Vienna for the first time since the new appointment was announced, and clearly they were meant for each other (Nelsons’ wife, Kristīne Opolais, shouldn’t be jealous; she was tonight’s soloist).
The Orchestra has a warm and creamy sound, but which is never muddled. Instead, it displays a bright passion and nuance, which directly responds to Nelsons’ own demonstrative conducting technique. He has become somehow even more expressive as he gets older, contorting his body as he used to, but honing his method of drawing concepts and hidden thoughts out of the instruments (he’s also grown a beard, possibly to compensate for his rapidly receding hairline – he’s now gone half-bald).
Tonight’s concert showcased the music of Antonín Dvořák (with one brief selection by Bedřich Smetana), in particular the Ninth Symphony (“From the New World”). This is a popular symphony for a reason – the music is fantastic and varied – but over-performed to the point that it has become generally trite. Nelsons and the Leipzigers made it special. They captured the excitement of the new, as it indeed was in 1893, even in the quiet passages which they played with delicacy but confidence. This performance never dragged, indeed some fascinating aspects lurked around every corner and Nelsons and his team found and uncovered all of them (I’ll forgive one wayward blatt in the horns towards the end), one pleasant surprise after another when there really shouldn’t be any more suprises in this symphony.
The other orchestral selections (the concert overture Othello, the Polonaise from the opera Rusalka, and as an encore a Slavonic Dance) demonstrated the same overwhelming passion and swing. But when the moments arose for quiet solos, the orchestra dropped its volume without sacrificing its stride, to give just the right amount of support and ambience to the soloist. This was therefore most helpful during the soprano vocals by Opolais, who sang two excerpts from Rusalka, another Dvořák song, and a selection from Smetana’s opera Dalibor. Her voice also proved the right match for this orchestra: strong, confident, and warm into the night.
Dvořák, Rachmaninov, Gluck, Bach
Back again to hear the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra under Andrés Orozco-Estrada in Salzburg’s Great Festival House. It would appear the orchestra made some adjustments to the hall since Wednesday, as the tone was clearer and some of the peculiarities (like the vibrating forte brass) did not repeat tonight. So I can possibly put down their Wednesday sounds to insufficient rehearsal time in this hall (maybe – I have no idea; I only know they sounded better tonight). However, they continue to play with little emotion, more background music for a film soundtrack but without the film.
Tonight’s concert opened with Dvořák‘s tone poem The Midday Witch, a humorous little piece of Czech folklore, which put me at ease that we would not have as murky a concert as on Wednesday. The music then switched back to Rachmaninov – his fourth piano concerto and the second symphony.
Denis Kozhukhin returned to the keyboard for the concerto. This is perhaps not as strong a work as the third concerto these forces performed on Wednesday, seemingly lacking direction – a little jazzy, but with no discernable overall concept. Kozhukhin sounded better – somewhat less pedal – and hit all the notes, but I’m not sure Rachmaninov gave him enough to work with. His two encores (by Gluck and Bach) repeated from Wednesday and demonstrated more of a match for his style, relaxed and sentimental.
Rachmaninov’s lush second symphony is another moody piece. When performed right it has a forward drive and excitement to it. Its legatos would seem suited to this orchestra, but their lack of emotion canceled that out tonight. It is a long work – nearly an hour – keeping in mood, so it is essential that the conductor and orchestra remain engaged. The playing was pretty, and the woodwinds especially made an impression, but this performance dragged. The audience spent the concert audibly fidgeting in the seats.
Smetana, Korngold, Bach, Dvořák
A pleasantly sentimental Sunday morning concert with the Mozarteum Orchestra in the Salzburg’s Great Festival House may not have overwhelmed, but got the day off to a good start.
The program opened with the Moldau, the second tone poem in Smetana’s My Fatherland series, which the orchestra performed evocatively under the baton of British guest conductor Matthew Halls. I was a little worried about the flutes in the long opening passage, depicting the origins of the river, as I was not sure they were coming up for air – but capture a gurgling spring they did, and the rest of the orchestra took it downstream from there until the river met the Elbe.
Austrian violinst Benjamin Schmid, a professor at the Mozarteum who specializes in 20th century music, joined the orchestra for Korngold’s violin concerto. Korngold, a Viennese Wunderkind with a theatrical flare who landed in Hollywood as an Academy Award-winning composer of film music, repackaged some of his film themes into this concerto, keeping the atmosphere while creating something a bit more serious and charming, which is not performed often enough. Though technically-proficient, Schmid tried to milk a sweet tone from his violin, with legati and vibrati, but it unfortunately came out somewhat sour. Korngold said he wanted the soloist for this work to be more Caruso and less Paganini – but Schmid is neither. Even more sour (since he had no orchestral accompaniment) was his solo encore, which sounded like it must have originally been by Bach, but underwhelmed.
Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony rounded out the program. Halls seemed determined to emphasize the influence of Brahms on this work. Brahms did indeed influence and champion the Czech composer. Brahms, wrote music of the highest quality that was often excessively unimaginative and dull. But whereas Dvořák learned orchestration and structure from his mentor, he took inspiration from Czech (and other) folk traditions and had something more to say. The performance this morning managed to leave out the extra meanings, producing just a nostalgic reading of what might have been. For a Sunday morning, that may have been enough.
Walton, Dvořák, Berlioz, Verdi, Tschaikowsky, Prokofiev
The Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra came to town today with a program of music inspired by Shakespeare in love. The renowned Austrian actress Senta Berger introduced each selection with a mix of biographical information of Shakespeare (and his loves and loves lost), period history, readings from Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets (mostly in German translation), literary commentary on Shakespearean double-entendre in English, and some stories of later generations inspired by Shakespeare.
This program concept was good, but they could have thought it through more fully. There was nothing wrong with Berger’s reading, but the mish-mash of texts came across as disjointed. She also made no effort to connect the readings to the music in the program. For example, she could have dramatized the scenes set by the composers, or explained the music in the context of the selections – if these composers were inspired by Shakespeare, the link should be obvious. Or multiple actors could have acted out the scenes. And while she alluded to the big delay between Shakespeare’s death and when people started setting his work to music, she could have explained more (as it was, she just said that opera, a natural medium for Shakespearean drama, did not exist yet in his lifetime and so it would take some time – problem was that all but one of the musical selections had no connection to opera, so that could not explain the delay).
The Nuremberg Symphony, though perfectly competent, did not make up for this disjointedness. The playing was workmanlike. They hit most of the notes. They concentrated so hard to do so, that the music came out with little emotion, which essentially defeated the purpose of this concert. Young English conductor Alexander Shelley kept these forces together with a smile.
The concert opened with an arrangement of music by William Walton for the 1936 film of As You Like It starring Laurence Olivier and continued with Dvořák’s Concert Overture to Othello. Both compositions, seldom heard, displayed drama (not always communicated by the orchestra). A selection of music from Berlioz’s “Dramatic Symphony” Romeo and Julietwas not dramatic – at least not this selection and not with this orchestra. The ballet music from the third act of Verdi‘s MacBeth (the one nod to opera) jumped out a little better, possibly because Berger had been rather raunchy in her introduction. Tschaikowsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy could have fantasized more. The encore, the fight scene (not a love scene) from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet, actually allowed them to let it all loose.
Tschaikowsky, Schostakowitsch, Dvořák
Dvořák, Honegger, Gershwin
Zoraqi, Jakova, Laro, Ilo, Smetana, Dvořák
Attended a “gala concert” tonight at the Albanian National Opera, put on to celebrate 90 years of Czech-Albanian diplomatic relations. I suppose what made it a “gala” was that there were dignitaries there, people dressed nicely, and drinks were served afterwards in the foyer. Also, the Czech Ambassador and Albanian Foreign Minister spoke beforehand, and the orchestra played both national anthems.
The program contained an assortment of Czech and Albanian classical music, all romantic-period in style (although the Albanian compositions were mostly written a century after the Czech ones). The Albanian works opened with Nikolla Zoraqi’s Festive Overture, which sounded like movie music (which I suppose makes sense, since he mostly wrote movie music), and continued with an aria from Prenk Jakova’s Scanderbeg (which I saw complete in June), Kujtim Laro’s moving tone poem Freedom or Death, and a song (“I love Albania more“) by Spiridon Ilo, a signer of the Albanian declaration of independence who wrote patriotic songs as a hobby. The Czech works were excerpts from Smetana’s The Kiss and Bartered Bride, and Dvořák’s Rusalka and 9th Symphony.
The orchestral playing, by the opera orchestra, was sufficient. Valmir Xoxa, whom I saw conduct the Barber of Seville recently, conducted the Albanian pieces, while Karel Smékal, the Czech Deputy Ambassador who trained as a conductor, took the podium for the Czech works. Czech soprano Barbora Perná had a nice enough voice with a warble on the higher registers; while Elson Braha (Nemorino in last April’s Elixir) still has his pleasant but weak voice that cracked at volume but otherwise was good on the ears.
Throughout the concert, the organizers projected a slide show on a cheap movie screen behind the orchestra, showing photos of the Czech Republic in a loop that lasted about three minutes and repeated the whole night. The screen was big enough to be distracting, but small enough so we could not really make out the slides well, especially since the stage lights were up so the orchestra could read its music.
Nevertheless, a pleasant evening with good live music, something that does not come often enough.
Balakirev, Dvořák, Tschaikowsky
I took in one last concert in Vienna before leaving full-time for Albania. The Tonkünstler took to the Musikverein stage under Mikhail Jurowski. Poor Jurowski looks unwell: he’s gained weight, moves slowly, and walks with a cane – he seems to communicate more with his eyes than with his stick motion (which is now limited).
Of course, he looks better than the Israeli pianist Alexander Markovich. I heard this combination Jurowski-Markovich-Tonkünstler a few years ago, which was so much fun that it got me to go back for more this time. Markovich is still obese, and continues to play sitting far away from the piano with his arms reaching over his more-than-ample stomach. But he keeps a wry smile on his face and a light touch on the keyboard, and the joy he takes from playing is contagious. He and Jurowski communicated well with each other. They performed the Dvořák piano concerto – which is seldom-performed for a reason. the work is not bad, but not great either. Still, I am happy to hear something new, and Dvořák had far more to say than some other people.
The concert had opened with Balakirev’s youthful Overture on Three Russian Themes. This was quite pleasant, and demonstrated the skill Balakirev would later develop, often under-appreciated in the west, of producing quality and authentic Russian music. Two of the three themes were later made more famous from settings by Tschaikowsky (in his Fourth Symphony) and Stravinsky (in his Petrushka), but did not lose anything by comparison in Balakirev’s arrangement.
After the intermission, the concert concluded with Tschaikowsky’s Second Symphony. This has long been my favorite Tschaikowsky symphony, probably because it is the most authentic and least western (western composers did western music better than Tschaikowsky, and some of Tschaikowsky’s best works were the ones in which he did not try to imitate the west). The orchestra sounded a little ragged for this one, but the reads, strings, and piccolo were generally good. A red-haired flautist (in my direct line of view behind Jurowski’s shoulder through my binoculars) looked bored out of her wits the whole evening.
It may surprise people that the main reason I attended tonight’s concert of the Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra in the Tschaikowsky Hall came from a desire to hear some works by Bohuslav Martinů, since his music does not receive much play.
Until the fall of the Soviet Union, this orchestra was known as the Large Symphony Orchestra of the Soviet Radio. On the podium tonight was Gintaras Rinkevičius, a Soviet-trained Lithuanian, whom my mother might describe as a “tall glass of water.” In fact, he should not have conducted from a podium: in order to remain in the sight-lines of the orchestra, he had to hunch over rather severely; whenever he forgot to hunch, I think the orchestra members may have strained their necks looking up for his cues. However, he had a clear technique and abundant energy.
The first half of the concert contained three works by Martinů composed in 1932-33, which made a clear progression. The Serenade #2 for Strings opened the concert, and in it Martinů used an eighteenth-century classical style with just a hint of update. The next work, the Serenade #3 for Oboe, Clarinet, and Strings was also remarkably classical in form (although in only two self-contained movements) but had sufficient dissonance to give it a mean edge and useful contrasts. The third work in the progression, the Concerto for Trio and String Orchestra was clearly a child of the twentieth century, with the competing tonal but dissonant lines, often performed by the trio, leading naturally to soaring harmonic chorales in the orchestra.
After the intermission came the more-known Symphony #8 by Antonín Dvořák. The orchestra sounded great, and Rinkevičius certainly drew out the energy of the piece, but in his efforts to keep it crisp he may have produced technique that came across as too abrupt, almost starting-and-stopping between each phrase.
The concert tonight was surprisingly crowded, although I think because they let all the little old ladies out of the nursing home. They clapped between every movement (audiences in Moscow usually know better). And they hacked out several lungs during the first half of the concert, so that I think many of them did not survive until the second half, when many seats were suddenly vacant and the coughing stopped. Either that or the sick old ladies were all Martinů fans who hate Dvořák.
Glass, Tschaikowsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Dvořák
Tonight’s concert of the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra was under the baton of Pavel Kogan, and opened with the Philip Glass Violin Concerto #1, my first time hearing this piece. The tone was nice, but – like most Glass – it never went anywhere. Glass should stick to movie scores, as his music makes good background music and portrays a certain tension, but should never be the focus of anyone’s attention.
As for the soloist, I could probably say the same thing about her as I have said about Glass’ music. She’s a 23-year-old Brit, Chloe Hanslip. Like the Glass concerto, her tone was good but did not go anywhere. Kogan did his best to keep the orchestra playing quietly, but she was still barely audible. What I could hear of her sounded fine.
For the second piece, the same soloist came out for Tschaikowsky’s violin concerto. I think between the pieces someone must have mentioned to them the problem with the dynamics, because Kogan was clearly making the orchestra play even more gently pianissimo than in the Glass piece, and she turned her own volume up a few notches. Unfortunately, when she turned herself up, she flailed at her violin and also lost her tone, making her playing now sound forced and unpleasant.
She came out for a solo encore. I did not hear her when she announced what it was, but it sounded like the Tschaikowsky again, but this time disfigured and rewritten for the Devil’s fiddle. She used the same forced technique she used for the Tschaikowsky concerto. Certainly her unpleasant tone was indeed appropriate for this ugly piece.
After the intermission, having thankfully dispensed with the soloist, Kogan could take the lid off the orchestra for Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade. This may be a warhorse, but it is always fun to hear live performed by a good Russian orchestra. The solo playing was very good, particularly the extensive violin solos by the concert master (Gayk Kazazyan). They should have let Kazazyan play the solo parts in the concerti before the intermission rather than importing the British woman.
The concert concluded with a bunch of spirited encores: a Slavonic Dance by Dvořák and some ballet music I couldn’t quite identify.
Glinka, Prokofiev, Dvořák
My second concert of the day in the Musikverein featured the Tonkünstler-Orchester under Mikhail Jurowski.
The concert opened with Glinka‘s Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila, followed by Prokofiev‘s Second Piano Concerto, with Alexander Markovich, an obese Russian-born Israeli as soloist (because of his stomach, he can’t actually sit near the piano; fortunately his arms reach). I did not know this concerto at all – never heard it before – and I dislike pianos generally. But this was a find. The piece is truly bizarre. Markovich is a very charismatic performer with a twinkle in his eye. I have no idea how the orchestra could manage staying together given the way the music jumps about, but Jurowski kept everything working. Really a stunning performance, and they all (soloist, conductor, orchestra) deserved the thunderous applause.
After the intermission came a very good Dvořák 8th Symphony. The Tonkünstler (which seemed enthusiastic and happy to be on stage) actually sounded better than the last two Symphoniker concerts I attened, which made me wonder even more what is going on with the Symphoniker right now.
Prior to 2010 I did not write regularly. I found most records from 2009 (now posted on this blog), but right now the only reliable musical notes from 2004-2008 are in my annual year-end highlight summaries, so I am posting these until I locate more in my archives.
Less travel and more time in Vienna meant I enjoyed even more live music than usual this year.
Best performance: Schostakowitsch, Symphony Nr. 8, Wiener Symphoniker, Vladimir Fedoseyev (November). Not among the more-often performed of Schostakowitsch’s symphonies, the anguished Eighth captures Schostakowitsch’s personality and mindset well. Written to commemorate the Red Army driving the Germans out of Russia, the undertone is that the Soviet regime was also ghastly, so the work was banned in Russia for many years. A moving performance, quite devastating in segments.
Runner up: Berlioz, Grande Messe des Morts, RSO Wien, Bertrand de Billy (November). I had forgotten just how immense this work was. Not sure the chorus even had room to inhale, they were so packed onto the Musikverein stage. The orchestra did not fit on the stage, so extended over the first few rows as well as into the first parterre loges on each side. The four brass choirs (in addition to the regular oversized brass section in the orchestra itself) were placed around the hall. Berlioz intended the piece, although bombastic, to be performed as church music and not as a concert requiem. De Billy clearly understood this and kept the lid on. The singing soared from the combined chorus of both the Wiener Singverein and the Wiener Singakademie.
Best concert venue: Occupation Museum, Tallinn (May). Visiting the Estonian Occupation Museum, I was invited to stay on after closing time for a concert with a rather odd quartet (soprano, flute, cello, and a glockenspiel-like instrument) performing modern, mostly Estonian, music. Between each piece the quartet moved around the museum and the audience had to carry our folding chairs from place to place, surrounded by Soviet-era memorabilia.
Most disappointing performance: Beethoven, Symphony Nr. 2 / Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique, Göteborgs Symfoniker, Gustavo Dudamel, Vienna (October). If it had been a student orchestra, I would have been impressed. The much-hyped Dudamel (whom I watched from a balcony seat over the stage, where I could observe his peculiar technique) had clear passion and sense for palette, but the performance was far too sloppy for such an orchestra. Dudamel is the music director in Gothenborg, and thus can and should be held personally responsible. I cannot tell if Dudamel will gain more control as he gets older or will turn into Zubin Mehta (charismatic and capable of getting occasional exciting performances, but otherwise dreadfully boring and absolutely disastrous for orchestral discipline).
Worst performances: Nielsen, Violin Concerto / Bruckner, Symphony Nr. 6, Tonkünstler Orchester, Kristjan Järvi, Vienna (November). Nielsen is neither original nor interesting. Järvi demonstrated absolutely no feel for Bruckner. Dvořák, Cello Concerto, Daniel Müller-Schott, Wiener Symphoniker, Yakov Kreizberg (April). Müller-Schott’s uninspired solo work put me to sleep. Woke up after the intermission for a spirited Dvořák Sixth Symphony.
Best opera and most fun at the opera (winning both categories this year): R. Strauss, Capriccio, Staatsoper, Vienna (October). A rarely-performed esoteric work, the entire plot (in one act lasting nearly three hours) concerns whether music or text is more important to opera. No kidding. The opera’s seemingly unpromising plot was supported by witty text set to glorious music. The simple staging was well-considered and with good direction. Renee Fleming headed a superb cast, conducted by Philippe Jordan. I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
Runner-up for best opera: Verdi, Simon Boccanegra, Staatsoper, Vienna (September). A moody piece, not performed often enough. Not tuneful by Verdi standards, but with a plot resembling Gilbert and Sullivan. Thankfully, Verdi let Arrigo Boito fix up the libretto and made Boccanegra version #2 into good drama, if properly performed (as here).
Runner-up for most fun at the opera: Benatzky, Im Weißen Rößl, Kammerspiele, Vienna (May). The classic 1920s Austrian comedy, here performed cabaret-style on a small stage with a three-person orchestra.
Worst opera production: Wagner, Lohengrin, Staatsoper, Vienna (May). The performance, conducted by Peter Schneider, would have been great if I had kept my eyes closed. They should have saved the expense of a staged production and just done a concert performance, since the cast generally wore formal concert attire anyway. Of all the bizarre things on stage, the director left out the one thing which must be there: the swan (explaining in the program notes that this central figure was actually unnecessary). The imbecilic director was not German, but – to no surprise – trained in Berlin. I think I have to stop going to operas directed by people who have even visited Germany.