Stuttgart Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Tschaikowsky, Bach, Elgar

Back to the Great Festival House for the third night in a row – but this time a different orchestra, the Stuttgart Philharmonic on the stage, under Israeli-American conductor Yoel Gamzou.  The concert was merely OK – far less rewarding than the Norrköpingers who appeared the previous two nights.

The first half of the concert featured Russian violinist Andrey Baranov, who may be the first Russian I have heard who seems not to get the Tschaikowsky violin concerto.  He came out with a halfway sugary tone (not quite all the way in that direction, but still a bit too much), which contrasted – actually, more conflicted – with the orchestra’s harder edge.  Indeed the orchestra sounded more authentically Russian than Baranov.  After the first movement, Baranov and Gamzou conferred briefly with each other, which seems to have resulted in Baranov trying something different for the second and third movements – trying to achieve a more striking sound, however, Baranov was not quite authentic to himself, and still did not quite mesh with the orchestra although Gamzou clearly also tried to make adjustments.

Baranov gave us two solo encores (not sure what the first one was, but he told us the second was Bach), in which he reverted to his original sweet tone.  Playing without orchestral accompaniment, where he determined the sound, gave him a little more success.  But I still wouldn’t rush out to specifically see him perform.

After the break came Elgar‘s Second Symphony.  I suppose there is a reason this work is rarely performed.  It’s long (almost an hour), big (full orchestra plus), and never gets to much of a point.  Periodically the brass try to get a melody going, but then the music just decides it isn’t necessary and wanders off aimlessly.  For a tonal and late-romantic work it really should say something, but fails repeatedly.

That said, the orchestra sounded very good.  Gamzou, a protege of Carlo Maria Giulini, seemed to have inherited much of the orchestral control of his mentor – with broad but clear sweeps of his body and cascading arms, that the orchestra itself responded well to, with a clear sympathy between conductor and musicians.

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Orchestra Giovanile di Greve in Chianti Toscana, Schloß Leopoldskron (Salzburg)

Elgar, Mendelssohn, Piazzola

 

The Youth Orchestra of Greve in Chianti made its second-annual appearance for a lunchtime concert at my office in Schloß Leopoldskron under its director Luca Rinaldi.  This is becoming a wonderful little tradition.

This year they decided to have most of the musicians (not the celli and bases) play standing up.  This succeeded in opening up the sound, especially as the Great Hall usually hosts smaller chamber groups but can be overwhelmed by orchestras of this size.  In this case, standing up it worked – and also made the performance even more lively.

The program included the Seranade for Strings by Edward Elgar, dipped back chronologically to  Felix Mendelssohn‘s Symphony for Strings #10, and then concluded with Astor Piazzolla‘s Libertango.  That last piece may have had a swing to it, but musically paled compared to the other two works.  Indeed, these kids captured the sophistication but light-hearted Elgar and Mendelssohn nicely.

I had not thought to review last year’s performance on this blog (we do host a lot of informal chamber concerts, and it does not make sense to comment on them all), but this year’s rose to a standard worthy of a flag.

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.

St. Petersburg Philharmonic, Musikverein (Vienna)

Sibelius, Paganini, Schostakowitsch, Elgar

I returned to the Golden Hall of the Musikverein for another visiting orchestra, this time the best one from Russia: the St. Petersburg Philharmonic under the baton of its music director Yuri Temirkanov. It did not disappoint. In contrast to the Berliners on Sunday, the St. Petersburgers played with a passion, if not always the precision. But they still managed even better clarity than the Berliners in the wonderful Golden Hall (could this be perhaps that their own hall in St. Petersburg is better than the Phiharmonie in Berlin, which is supposedly cavernous? I guess I will find out when I hear the Berliners in their home later this month).

German violinist Julia Fischer joined the orchestra for the Sibelius violin concerto. The simmering strings at the work’s introduction cooled off the hall on an unseasonably humid night, and then Fischer waded into the icy waters. She entered with caution at first, but her sound grew with the development of the piece, and a full robust tone rose from the deepest notes in her register. The performance had just the right amount of melancholy, drawing its power from its lyrics. The orchestral accompaniment grumbled menacingly during the final movement.

To add some excitement, Fischer returned with an encore: Paganini’s Capriccio #24, which though seldom performed itself is well-known as the subject for Rachmaninov’s famous rhapsody. On the violin it requires more dexterity than on Rachmaninov’s keyboard, and jumps around in its styles including an impossible (but possible for Fischer) pizzicato.

After the intermission, Temirkanov led the orchestra in a soul-crushing interpretation of Schostakowitsch’s Fifth Symphony, probably close to how the composer heard the work inside his own head. Schostakowitsch is on record as saying that Yevgeny Mravinsky, who premiered this work with this same orchestra, was not smart enough to understand it, and Mravinsky’s interpretation came across as triumphant when Schostakowitsch meant it to be tragic. Of course, had he performed it in 1937 the way Temirkanov did tonight, then possibly the composer, conductor, and entire orchestra would have been carted off for execution – and this is exactly why it was so tragic. However, the work was designed to be mock-triumphant, which is what produces its inherent tensions. Tonight, Temirkanov took the whole work at slower-than-normal tempi, with no mock triumph in sight – but this also deprived the work of the little message of hope Schostakowitsch embedded in it – that the soul could somehow survive the oppressive regime. The accentuated timpani blows carried out the execution of that hope tonight, leaving little doubt that there is no room for resistance.

Roaring applause called for an encore. And they delivered a lush version of “Nimrod” from Elgar’Enigma Variations. However it now seems like I hear an orchestra use this excerpt as an encore almost every month. Wonderful piece, but why has it suddenly become the encore everyone plays?

This orchestra and conductor have, as far as I am aware, stayed out of Russian and geo-politics, in contrast the the opera orchestra and conductor (and one-time Temirkanov protege) on the other side of their city. Schostakowitsch may be inherently political, a voice for justice from within an evil empire, but Temirkanov and his orchestra should be commended for making music as it was meant to be.

Wiener Virtuosen, Musikverein Brahms Saal

Beethoven, Martinů, Wellesz, Elgar

I felt like I was not getting enough chamber music.  That’s an easy problem to resolve in Vienna.  The Wiener Virtuosen, a chamber ensemble made up of members of the Philharmonic, performed an unusual and fascinating concert in the Brahms Hall of the Musikverein this evening.

Most of the program jumped out of the 20th Century, but Eleven “Mödlinger Tänze” by Beethoven served as a warm-up.  Beethoven did not mean these to become part of his lasting repertory, having just thrown them together for some friends performing at a Fasching party in 1819.  He never published them and did not count them in his inventory.  But even a casual set of works by Beethoven makes an impression.  Nevertheless, works by Martinů and Wellesz were the real reasons to hear this concert.

Bohuslav Martinů’s Nonett, one of the last works he composed before he died in 1959 and premiered at the Salzburg Festival that year, employed complex harmonics and rhythms, with the instruments seemingly moving independently, but when assembled together this remained accessible music.  Chorales – large almost – tried to emerge from the evocative second movement, moving from instrument to instrument.  By the third movement, every time we thought we knew where the music was going, it detoured.  This was a walk in the woods, with no particular place to be, wandering wherever the route looked nicest.  Martinů proved that it is possible to marry such 20th-Century complexities and still make sonorous tones.

Clarinetist Ernst Ottensamer felt the need to introduce the Oktett op. 67 by Egon Wellesz: “don’t be afraid of Egon Wellesz,” he advised the audience before the ensemble started, “it may not be the most melodic work.”  Ottensamer was unfair.  Although composed ten years before the Martinů Nonett (with a premiere at the 1949 Salzburg Festival), this Wellesz piece in many ways developed Martinů one step further in the way it combined new harmonies and rhythms with real musicality.  It opened with a mysterious but forward-driving push, filling the room with a big sound: in part, the big sound came from the ensemble, but in part the music was also dramatic and full.  The second movement appeared to be picked up from Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in parts.  Melodies tried to spring out of the third movement, but only by the fourth movement did Wellesz develop a cantabile section, with gorgeous harmonies.  By the fifth movement, the piece became downright whimsical, a country dance chaperoned by seriousness.

The Wiener Virtuosen gave intelligent readings of these difficult but (when performed this way) approachable works.  To send everyone home with something more traditional, they gave us an arrangement of Edward Elgar‘s Nimrod from the Enigma Variations.  This seems to be the encore of choice these days – I think I’ve heard it performed four times in the last year – but Ottensamer introduced it as “the most beautiful melody in the symphonic repertory of the 20th Century.”  I don’t know about that, but certainly when performed by this group they make a case for it.

Berlin Konzerthausorchester, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Beethoven, Mozart, Schostakowitsch, Elgar

The Berlin Konzerthausorchester, as its name implies the house orchestra of a concert hall in Berlin (and apparently an offshoot of the once reasonably-good Berliner Symphoniker), has come to Salzburg for three nights, with a bunch of works that do not logically fit together in any particular way (nor do the program notes provide an explanation for the selection).  Tonight’s concert: Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #1 (with a movement from a Mozart sonata for solo piano as an encore) and Schostakowitsch’s Symphony #5 (with “Nimrod” from Elgar’Enigma Variations as an encore).  (Tomorrow night’s concert has the same program, which I won’t repeat; Friday’s concert has mismatched Prokofiev and Haydn – since I fly on the weekend, I may need to work late on Friday so I’ll likely skip that one.)

Berliner Martin Helmchen played the piano solos, and another Berliner, Michael Sanderling, conducted.  Sanderling is the third of three sons of the late conductor Kurt Sanderling – and all three sons themselves became conductors.  I heard his father conduct in Zurich in 2002 on his farewell tour (he retired that year at 90 years old).  The youngest Sanderling (who is actually turning 48 later this month) may have inherited his father’s understanding of music, but may not have inherited his father’s ability to communicate that understanding.  Or maybe not with this orchestra.  The Berlin Konzerthausorchestra was technically sound, responded to Sanderling’s shaping, but something was missing: feeling.  Although the interpretation was clear, the outcome was rigid.

The Beethoven concerto, written at the end of the 18th century, remains in that century even as it shows signs of Beethoven’s growing genius.  Tonight’s performance took it carefully with a light touch.  The Mozart encore perhaps allowed the Beethoven to shine more.  Although it may be sacrilegious to say this in Salzburg, Beethoven eclipses Mozart.  If Mozart had never existed, the world would be deprived of a lot of beautiful music by Mozart, but that’s all.  If Beethoven had never existed, music would not have evolved the same way, and we would not only be deprived of music by Beethoven, but by much of what came after.  Helmchen’s beautifully-played Mozart encore proved the point.

As for the Schostakowitsch symphony, Sanderling clearly understood the work, and the orchestra dutifully followed his interpretation.  But understanding it and being fluent in it are not quite the same.  Schostakowitsch’s Fifth is often misinterpreted as a triumphal Soviet work; in reality, it is about as triumphal as an a defeated man being ordered to celebrate while having a gun pointed at his head.  Sanderling took the tempi slowly, which drew out the irony and the pain underlying the music.  The percussion pierced.  The orchestra did as instructed, but in this case the middle bits dragged, and thus lost the complex emotions.  Maybe Berliners are not capable of emotion.

After such a work, the encore had to be lighter but not too happy.  Elgar’s “Nimrod” served the purpose well, even if it is an over-used encore these days.  The orchestra played sentimentally, but maybe not enough so.

Wiener Philharmoniker, Musikverein

Haydn, Elgar, Richard Strauss

It may seem impossible to describe the Alps to those who cannot see.  Indeed, at a performance of Richard Strauss’ Alpensymphonie earlier this year, the Stuttgart Philharmonic saw the need to accompany a photographic show on a big screen behind the orchestra.  Today, the Vienna Philharmonic performed the same work without photographs (and from my last-minute seat on the balcony behind the Musikverein organ, I could not even see the orchestra) and none were necessary.  This afternoon’s performance demonstrated how the Alps sound, emerging from the night fogs to rise dramatically over the clouds and, after meadows and glaciers and waterfalls and a huge storm, settling back into the night.  Andrís Nelsons, the young Latvian star who recently took over the Boston Symphony Orchestra, triumphantly led the Philharmonic with sensible pacing and nuance.

The concert opened with Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony (known to the German-speaking world not as “Surprise” but as the “Symphony with the Timpani Strike”).  There are various stories as to why Haydn wrote this odd work, many involving a need to keep a London audience awake.  But whatever the reason for the pounding of the timpani, the symphony is full of humor and wit.  Haydn is the father of the modern symphony, and this piece has all the architecture that later composers built on, without being formulaic – a thinking-man’s symphony.  Nelsons and the Philharmoniker clearly know how to think, and performed the symphony with a level of whimsy throughout, mixed with a fullness of sound which would not have always been available to Haydn in his day.

The middle work did not succeed.  Elgar’s Romance for Bassoon and Orchestra was an odd piece.  It never seemed to come together tonight, as though the bassoonist and orchestra used different scores.  The soloist and orchestra should know each other well: Michael Werba is the Philharmonic’s first bassoonist.  Someone who could see Nelsons’ face told me he looked quizzical on the podium.  Since I could not see any of the performers, I had no visual clues.  Suddenly it ended (which I could only know becuase the audience started to applaud – albeit a lukewarm applause).

Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Sibelius, Mahler, Elgar

The Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra opened the Salzburg Days of Culture 2014 with Sibelius and Mahler in the Large Festival House.  On the podium, its young Oxford-born Principal conductor Daniel Harding, a protege of Simon Rattle and the late Claudio Abbado.

Harding gave an innovative and fascinating reading of Mahler’s First Symphony in the second half of the concert.  Although the full orchestral forces filled the stage, and the volume was up (where it should have been), the orchestra performed it almost as chamber music in scope if not in size.  The lines in the different parts each stood out, interacted, and intertwined – it is now even clear what role the double basses have in the overall structure.  Unfortunately, this reading exposed the individual orchestra members as not an orchestra of virtuosi – although overall quite good, they could be a little sloppy at times, and the interpretation left them no where to hide.

The first movement opened icily, perhaps echoing the Sibelius from the concert’s first half.  Then, as the sound grew, a certain whimsical humor entered.  The orchestra danced and skipped and clicked its heels right through the second movement, a bit precise but playful.  The third movement dirge revealed new colors.  The spare playing allowed new individual lines to emerge.  And where the orchestra had danced together for the first two movements, now each line did its own thing to make up the whole.  The final movement brought not a wall of sound, not a wave, but just a lot of individual sounds that added together in ways not always apparent in this work.  Rather than overwhelming the audience, they gave us something somewhat more delicate but without sacrificing size.

As an encore, the orchestra did an equally full but tender Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

The Mahler (and Elgar) made up for the truly awful solo playing in the Sibelius Violin Concerto during the concert’s first half. Renaud Capuçon simply could not manage to get in tune.  Where Harding and the orchestra did their best to create an icy atmosphere appropriate for Sibelius, Capuçon poured vinegar on the ice.  His sour sound improved slightly as he warmed up during the performance, but warming up also does not go with Sibelius.  His notes came out often sharp and jarring.  He then treated us to a familiar-sounding encore (that I could not quite place – but I think it was a transcription for solo violin of something written for more instruments; whatever it was, Capuçon played it sharp and painfully but without substance).

Tonkünstlerorchester, Musikverein

Britten, R. Strauss, Elgar, Sibelius

Came into Vienna for a conference and other meetings this week.  Decided to pop into the Musikverein unplanned for what looked like good program of the Tonkünstlerorchester: early and rarely-performed works by Benjamin Britten and Richard Strauss, and Elgar’Enigma Variations.

I had not realized the history behind Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, for which he received a large commission from the Japanese Emperor for a major festive work and instead wrote a melancholic orchestral work inspired by the Catholic mass for the dead.  Better to decline the commission than to still accept the money but insult the Emperor for the sake of artistic expression.

The piece, however, is of quite high quality and although I cannot remember seeing it on other concert programs (although I am familiar with it through a recording), it led to a number of other commissions as Britten’s career took off.  This afternoon, Danish conductor Michael Schønwandt gave a full-bodied reading.  He may be unfamiliar with the acoustics in the Golden Hall, since although he clearly wanted to accentuate the rich lines of individual instruments, he kept the rest of the orchestra playing thickly, meaning the sounds tended to blur.  In this hall, such an approach is not necessary to achieve a full sound.

Richard Strauss grew up as the son of the most celebrated hornist of his day, and he clearly understood the instrument.  So did the Czech soloist Radek Baborák.  The expressiveness appeared to grow from Mozart’s four horn concerti, augmented with late-classical and early-romantic developments from Schubert or Schumann or Mendelssohn, which Baborák approached with versatility, character, and charm.  The soloists within the orchestra complemented his playing, and with Schønwandt’s approach good dialogues developed between Baborák and the orchestral soloists.  Baborák gave us a little encore as well (although his announcement to introduce what it was was not audible, at least his horn was).

Unlike the first two works, Elgar’s Enigma Variations are often performed and a bit of a warhorse.  It remains a lovely work.  Tonight’s concert lacked the English sentimentality usually heard with this work, but the Tonkünstler nevertheless played it well.  Once again, some of the section soloists had wonderful lines, which Schønwandt allowed them to augment, particularly the first flute and first cello.  Schønwandt capped off the concert with the Valse Triste by Sibelius, which the orchestra did play sentimentally and with a melancholic lilt.

Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra (Moscow Radio), Royal Festival Hall (London)

Tschaikowsky, Schostakowitsch, Elgar

I popped down to London to hear the Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra under Vladimir Fedoseyev perform in the Royal Festival Hall.  With this team, it is always a treat.  Fedoseyev has led the orchestra for forty years as of this year, so it is very much his instrument.

The instrument that opened the concert, though, belonged to violinist Vadim Repin.  Repin does not have a big tone, but he does have a beautiful one.  Fedoseyev had the orchestra provide him appropriately delicate backing in the Tschaikowsky Violin Concerto, not too robust as to overwhelm him.  Fedoseyev painted an overall picture using pastels rather than bold colors, colorful yet restrained.  Tschaikowsky might have appreciated more energy, however.

Where the Tschaikowsky Violin Concerto was light and sweet, the Schostakowitsch Symphony #8 after the intermission was dark and bitter.  I heard this symphony with the Tonkünstler a month ago, but it forms a more usual part of this orchestra’s repertory, and they knew how to dig into the soul.  The solo lines scattered among the industrialized music representing the faceless Soviet regime soared with great beauty.  Around them sounded devastation, Russia in rubble and its people under oppression.

The concert promoted the opening of the 2014 UK-Russia Year of Culture, so the orchestra knew it had to warm the home crowd with some Elgar encores.  A strongly sentimental Nimrod from the Enigma Variations showed they could communicate the message.  The Pomp and Circumstance March #1 which concluded the set came across as a tad regimented and less academic, but nevertheless roused the crowd.  In between came a encore I did not recognize, which sounded like someone’s quite fun attempt at imitating Spanish music.  The audience reacted delightedly to the encores – I am not sure they understood the Russian works, however.

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

Mendelssohn, Elgar, Bruckner

Tonight was amateur night at the Musikverein.  However, in this case we are talking about Vienna, and the amateur group is the Orchestral Society of the Vienna Association of Friends of Music – in other words, the concert hall’s own house orchestra founded in 1859.  Robert Zelzer took the podium, and Othmar Müller (OK, he’s a professional) brought his cello (made in 1573).

On the program were Mendelssohn’Ruy Blas Overture, Elgar’s Cello Concerto, and Bruckner’s Symphony #4.  The orchestra was enthusiastic but not accurate.  This generally carried the Mendelssohn and most of the Bruckner, but not so well the somber Elgar and the exposed Adagio movement of Bruckner’s symphony.  In the case of the Elgar, however, Müller managed to hold the entire work together through his thoughtful playing.  Not much could be done with the Bruckner adagio except to wait for the scherzo.

Someone (although I do not remember who) once described Bruckner as not so much a composer of music but rather as a man who captured music that already existed in the aether, so that human listeners could hear the sound of heaven.  Certainly, enough Brucknerian aetherial sounds have established permanent residence in the rafters of the Musikverein Hall, so even an amateur orchestra could pull them down.  These are amateurs who give only three concerts a year and their performance, even if rough, was to be appreciated.