Maurizio Pollini, Großes Festspielhaus

Schoenberg, Nono, Beethoven

Maurizio Pollini looks older and frailer than his 77 years would suggest.  But his fingers still move.  Indeed, I had a great view of his hands at this evening’s concert, and I still cannot figure out how he produced all those notes so effortlessly.

Ludwig van Beethoven was a genius.  Completely deaf, he packed his last two piano sonate (#31 and #32) full of gorgeous music.  The multiple lines weaved among each other, yet each was clear despite the complexity (having Pollini to perform them certainly helped).  Fundamentally, Beethoven knew he was writing music, even if he could not hear.

And so the second half of tonight’s recital in the Great Festival House, featuring these two Beethoven sonate, made it worth sitting through the first half.

The concert had opened with two sets by Arnold Schoenberg: his Three Piano Pieces for Piano and his Six Little Piano Pieces.  Schoenberg’s writing was formulaic according to his own doctrines.  They started off with a hint of music, and devolved.  Music was not part of the calculation.  Pollini’s playing was suitably acrobatic, but what was the point?  At least the second set (Six Little Pieces) were short – similar to Anton von Webern’s miniatures, so they did not dwell but just basically hit the keys and moved on.  But the pieces in the first set just went on too long.  Where some of Schoenberg’s orchestral music can develop outwards, when using only a piano (which is not a very convincing solo instrument to begin with, and requires the talent of someone like Beethoven to do something with) there is only so far Schoenberg can go with these thoughts.

But if Beethoven focused on music he could not hear, and Schoenberg focused on theory over music, it remains unclear what Luigi Nono‘s excuse was for Serene Waves Suffered (which followed the Schoenberg at the end of the concert’s first half).  This work was an insufferable gimmick, in which Pollini accompanied a recording of himself (made in the 1970s) playing more notes by Nono.  There was nothing musical about any of this.  Tapping keys – whether now or pre-recorded – does not itself qualify as music.  Nor does it count as music theory (in the tradition of Schoenberg).  It’s just a bunch of notes banged out on a definite-pitched percussion instrument.  If Beethoven could produce amazing results despite being deaf, what indeed was Nono’s excuse?

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Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Verdi, Requiem

A lot of hype preceded the decision this year to have Riccardo Muti lead the Vienna Philharmonic for Verdi‘s Requiem at this summer’s Salzburg Festival.  So much so, in fact, that they added an extra concert to handle the perceived sold-out crowd (indeed achieved).

Was this the definitive performance of this mass this evening?  Certainly it was an excellent one in all aspects, but I suppose a matter of taste whether it was definitive.  It was not the fire-and-brimstone version I experienced in the Musikverein with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and Philippe Jordan the last time I heard this work in 2016.  Of course, it did not need to be – just a different valid interpretation.

Muti generally kept the performance quite contained (although it got loud when it needed to).  He emphasized the drama more subtly, whether the plaintive opening with Verdi in mourning for the poet Alessandro Manzoni, or the lyrical choral (and orchestral) music of the “Sanctus.”  Muti gave great attention to little details often overlooked, emphasizing the flutes in the “Dies Irae” providing infernal flames every bit as edgy and in the forefront as the brass; or the plucked double basses (augmented by the bass drum) mimicking the death bells tolling for the “Lux Aeterna.”

The Vienna State Opera Chorus again showed itself in fine form, with superb diction and nuance.  The four soloists made for an excellent ensemble: Bulgarian Krassimira Stoyanova (who sang in that Musikverein version three years ago), Georgian Anita Rachvelishvili, Italian Francesco Meli, and the Bashkurt from the Russian Federation Ildar Abdrazakov (who dominated a production of Gounod’s Faust here at the Festival in 2016, and whom I also heard sing Verdi’s Requiem in Moscow back when I lived there).  Of that group, I was most curious to hear Rachvelishvili, who made news last Winter as she took the Metropolitan Opera by storm and whom Muti has essentially declared to be the best voice of the next generation.  She lived up to her hype: she opened with a full, round, dark lower register the likes of which I don’t think I have ever heard an alto produce – and then moved effortlessly to an upper register which had a different more subtle character but which was every bit as full (rare to have such presence in both top and bottom).

My one complaint on the evening: the concert was dedicated to the memory of committed Nazi Herbert von Karajan, who died thirty years ago last month.  While his artistic talents deserve to be remembered (not all worked, and he got even more peculiar and self-absorbed with age, but he added thought to the mix), they should be in a purely artistic context.  Giving concerts in his memory (or naming a square after him outside the Festival House – or outside the State Opera House in Vienna, for that matter) is poor taste, unless they also present who he was (the concert program did not, and the name plaque on Karajanplatz glosses abstractly).  The man joined the Nazi party not once but twice: the first time when it was illegal in Austria (demonstrating he was willing to risk jail to be a Nazi), and the second time after the Anschluss as the records of underground Nazis such as Karajan were misplaced and he needed to be sure he was fully-inscribed.  He may not have committed any war crimes himself, but his loyalty to Hitler and his barbaric ideology was not in question.  Salzburg has of course never been fully denazified, even by poor Austrian standards.  Salzburg never wanted the Festival, when it considered it as too “Jewish” at its founding in 1920 – indeed the city feared an international Jewish conspiracy designed to undermine Salzburg – and perhaps never fully embraced until 1938 after the Nazis took it over (and Karajan himself led it from 1956-1989).  I might normally leave this out of a musical review, but if the Festival did not wish to mention it, then I must.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Wagner, Strauss, Schostakowitsch

Franz Welser-Möst assembled a very strange concert indeed this evening for the Vienna Philharmonic in the Great Festival House all about death: overcoming it (first half of the concert) or not (second half).  In the end, I am not sure he convinced me of anything.

For the first half, Welser-Möst performed two unrelated works with no break between them: the Prelude to Parsifal by Richard Wagner and the tone poem Tod und Verklärung by Richard Strauss.  Clearly he tried to make a connection.  In the opera, Amfortas is unable to die from what should be a mortal wound, and the other knights are wasting away lacking sustenance from the Grail – it is Parsifal who redeems them.  In Strauss’s tone poem, a setting to music of an actual poem, a man is lies dying and as he passes his soul is transfigured.

I just did not see the connection: but maybe I could hear it?  No.  Christoph von Dohnányi, Welser-Möst’s predecessor as music director in Cleveland and also a frequent guest conductor of the Philharmonic, praised the Philharmonic by saying that when others just played overtures or preludes, the Philharmonic put the full opera into that overture or prelude, and so it was this evening.  So even with just the prelude, we had the full emotion.  Extended excerpts from Parsifal would have worked better than the Strauss piece following without pause, which did not work as continuity in any way.

I heard Welser-Möst conduct Tod und Verklärung three years ago at the Festival with the Cleveland Orchestra.  The Vienna Philharmonic is a far better orchestra than the Cleveland Orchestra (and indeed the Cleveland Orchestra itself is not as good as it was in the days when Dohnányi was at the helm), so this was almost a better performance by default.  The orchestra added emotion, but what Welser-Möst shaped was not death and transfiguration (as in the title) but rather triumph over death.  It did end triumphantly.  I hear this work about once every year, so Welser-Möst needed to do something to convince me of his interpretation, and he did not.

After the intermission, the concert got weirder.  Dmitri Schostakowitsch‘s Fourteenth Symphony is rarely performed for good reason: it’s quite morbid and difficult.  Rather than a character in a story on the verge of death, it was Schostakowitsch himself who thought he was about to die (although he managed to hang on a few more years), and consists of a chamber ensemble supporting two vocalists who sing settings of eleven poems about death.  Lines of sadness flashing back to many of Schostakowitsch’s earlier work (either directly quoting, or reminiscent of) permeate.  There is very little motion, just one depressing song after another for almost an hour.  This evening’s performers were excellent (soprano Asmik Grigoryan and baritone Matthias Goerne joined members of the Philharmonic), but the entire work as presented by Welser-Möst lacked shape.  It’s hard to get right in a way that makes the audience appreciate the work, and it didn’t happen this evening.

Great playing; unsatisfying concert.  I am not on the anti-Welser-Möst bandwagon, but his interpretations are not especially inspiring when compared to the other conductors in the circles in which he travels.  He’s merely adequate – if better than most conductors over all, he’s (to use the nasty nickname someone once coined that unfairly stuck with him ever since) “frankly worse than most” conductors who appear regularly in front of this orchestra.

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Sibelius, Prokofiev, Strauss

More from Yannick Nézet-Séguin (again filling in for the ailing Mariss Jansons) and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra this morning, with Gil Shaham stepping in for the ill Lisa Batiashvili.  If we are going to get substitutes, those are pretty good ones to have.

I am not quite sure the reasoning behind the collection of works Jansons assembled for this concert (the program remaining the same despite the substitutions), although Jansons has said before that sometimes there is no logic and he just programs pieces he likes.  So we started with the Symphony #1 by Sibelius, then the Violin Concerto #2 by Prokofiev, and finally a suite from Der Rosenkavalier by Strauss.

The program notes made a point of stressing a supposed interest in Tschaikowsky during the time Sibelius wrote his first symphony, which seemed odd.  The origins of the symphony date to his study in Vienna, and Schubert and Bruckner (his favorite living composer) would normally seem to be the most appropriate influences.  I seriously doubt Nézet-Séguin made any decisions on interpretation based on reading the program, but from my side: having read the program, and listening to Nézet-Séguin’s reading, I did hear a few lines now and then (in the strings) or psychodramatic (in the winds) which could have invoked the lush melodic flow of Tschaikowsky.  These either got interrupted, or had a different section perform a completely contrasting line simultaneously and counter to them.  Sibelius was far more original, even early in his career, than Tschaikowsky later in his career, while remaining authentic to his Nordic homeland (where Tschaikowsky sounded less and less Russian later in his career).  Although Nézet-Séguin did not draw out the soaring post-Brucknreian chorales, he did load this symphony up with contrasts and a throwback melancholy.

Prokofiev’s second violin concerto has several moods, based on Russian and Spanish folk music (his wife was Spanish, and this work had its premiere in Madrid).  Shaham does not get the largest sound from his violin, but he moves adeptly among styles, from the robust and assertive to the soft and wistful, with ease.  Nézet-Séguin and the orchestra made a stunning complement to keep painting an ever-broader palate.  (Shaham returned to the stage to do a joint encore with the concertmaster from Prokofiev’s sonata for two violins).

Richard Strauss’ opera Der Rosenkavalier was by design a piece of Viennese nostalgia, even at its premiere in 1911 before the dismembering of the Austrian Empire a few years later.  The suite (arranged with Strauss’ approval, possibly by Artur Rodziński who may also have been aided by his then-assistant Leonard Bernstein) does not follow the plot of the opera, but instead tries to capture its schmaltz.  The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra hammed it up.  (To take down the mood, they added as a final encore more Sibelius: his “Valse Triste” from Kuolema – perhaps connecting the two Vienna-inspired composers at either end of the program).

The orchestra sounded even better today than it did on Friday, with its complete soundscape.  The woodwinds as a unit are nothing short of spectacular.  And they had a great rapport with Nézet-Séguin (in addition to the clear warmth and understanding during the performance, he kept kissing and hugging members of the orchestra as he wandered around the stage between pieces and during the applause to a degree I have not seen him do with the Philadelphians).  One wonders what will happen if Jansons needs to retire and whom the Bavarians might choose to succeed him.

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Beethoven, Schostakowitsch, Mussorgsky

With Mariss Jansons taking a doctor-advised period of rest, Yannick Nézet-Séguin sprung in to replace him on the podium in front of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra for two concerts at this Summer’s Festival.  Nézet-Séguin retained the original programs with one change: substituting Schostakowitsch‘s 5th Symphony tonight for his 10th, paired with Beethoven‘s 2nd (Sunday morning’s concert will remain as programmed by Jansons).

Even if not originally scheduled, the new pairing made sense.  Both symphonies represented, in their own ways, defiance in the face of personal tragedy.  Beethoven wrote his Second Symphony at a time when he was borderline suicidal, coming to grips with the deafness he realized would consume him and the world he knew.  Nézet-Séguin captured pure exuberance.  Whatever Beethoven may have been feeling under the circumstances (and he wrote those morbid thoughts down in words), his music expressed the opposite, full of wit, humor, and life.  Tonight’s performance came fully-charged.

After the intermission came a different take on the Schostakowitsch Fifth.  The composer’s enemy in this case was not nature, but a man, Josef Stalin, the Soviet dictator who had criticized Schostakowitsch’s music and had purged his friends.  Schostakowitch had to produce a symphony within bounds acceptable to the regime, but true to himself wrote something which nevertheless transcended the regime.  Tonight’s interpretation took an unusual route: melancholy.  Neither artificially upbeat nor dark and oppressive, this reading demonstrated an almost-hopeful subtext: things were bad, but the listener should cheer up; the human soul will survive.  So while not up-beat, Nézet-Séguin also did not make this performance devastating: how might the original listeners in 1937 have heard this (not quite a capitulation to Stalin’s criticism of the composer, but rather a new addition to the approved canon).

Foot-stomping applause induced an encore: the prelude to Mussorgsky‘s opera Khovanshchina, which both relaxed the mood while also building on the hopeful feeling derived from the Schostakowitsch interpretation.  Throughout all three works, this orchestra played as a fully-coherent unit: no standout individual instrumentalists, but all working together as an accomplished whole.  However the woodwinds in particular took this concept to a higher level, with evocative wistful playing as a unit, perhaps responding even more than the other sections to the unfamiliar guest conductor’s lead.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Cherubini, Medea

This afternoon, the Festival featured the premiere of a complete new storyline loosely based on the myth of Medea, performed to the music of Luigi Cherubini.

My formulation there is intentional.  Despite what the program said, this was also not a staging of Cherubini’s opera Medea.

Whatever it was, I will start with the music.  Elena Stikhina, as Medea, was stellar, working her way through the full range of emotions, with a big, warm, round voice to fill the hall no matter what the emotion.  She is only 32 years old but had a stage and vocal presence that seemed experienced well beyond her years.  I’ve heard her once before as Micaela in Carmen at the Salzburg Landestheater in 2015 where she overshadowed the rest of a good cast.  This time, the cast was better – with Rosa Feola as Dirce, Pavel Černoch as Jason, and Vitalij Kowaljov as Creon – all highly expressive, but she still outshone them all.  The role is a real tour-de-force, and she achieved it with flying colors (and made it almost sound easy, which it is certainly not).

The cast was ably supported by the Vienna State Opera Chorus and the Vienna Philharmonic in top form, under the baton of Thomas Hengelbrock, whom I had never before heard of but apparently specializes in non-standard operatic repertory.  His reading tonight was well-paced, and he highlighted Cherubini’s dramatic music perfectly.

Cherubini remains surprisingly underrated, although he was well-regarded in his day, especially by Beethoven (a much more original composer, but who did take influence from Cherubini, whom he openly credited and admired).  Cherubini composed this opera originally in French for Paris, where it flopped (probably more drama and power than the effete French can take).  But the Italian Cherubini, known for his drama and liturgical music, had more influence in the German-speaking world, so he augmented this opera (and had it put into German) and it formed part of the standard repertory in German-speaking theaters throughout the 19th Century, before falling out of favor.  Translated into Italian, it got a new lease on life in the 20th Century.  Recently, there have been attempts to revert to the original French-language setting.

While this was one such case to revert to French, it was not exactly an attempt to be faithful to the original.  The staging was not Regietheater (thankfully), but the director – Australian Simon Stone – altered the plot (more than just updating it to take place in 2019 Austria).  Most of the action in this opera occurs either during the dialogue or offstage during the musical interludes.  By getting rid of the dialogue entirely and leaving only the arias, duets, and choral ensembles, Stone could substitute his own retelling of plot (so he had multiple scene changes jumping from one to the next, showed film clips with new plot during the musical interludes, and replaced some of the dialogue with long voicemail messages from Medea to Jason).

For the most part, this silliness could be ignored. I am not sure it helped elucidate the opera, but it also did not really hurt either and at least Stone was using his brain.  However, the final scene (in which Medea supposedly douses a car she has stolen in gasoline and ignites it with the kids and herself inside while the police watch for ten minutes without doing anything) just looked too silly and had the audience chortling.  The rousing applause at the end turned to boos when Stone and his enablers came on stage for a bow (I did not boo – I was just relieved it wasn’t offensive German Regietheater garbage – but I did sit on my hands when he and his team showed up, as the concept really did not work even if it did not offend).

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mahler

For the fourth year in a row, Mahler‘s 9th Symphony was on the program at the Festival.  I’ve heard it many many more times as well.  I wondered: what new could there possibly be to say?  Then I heard Herbert Blomstedt‘s masterful reading with the Vienna Philharmonic tonight in the Great Festival House and discovered worlds in that symphony I have never heard before.

The symphony opened desolately enough, but it soon became clear Blomstedt was not satisfied with just being desolate.  He deconstructed every line and then put the pieces back together emphasizing the sinister and the odd and even the grotesque. Instruments jumped out of the mass of sound, only to get abruptly cut off – or to have their flowing line completed by seemingly the wrong other instrument.  All of this appeared in Mahler’s score, but Blomstedt found it (and the Philharmonic reproduced Mahler’s and Blomstedt’s vision perfectly).

He treated the music like painting by Pieter Bruegel – with attention to all the fine details, but upon close inspection a lot is actually malformed.  The interior movements may have even harkened to Hieronymus Bosch – they had the skeletons dancing in hell and blurts on what might have been the bizarre musical instruments Bosch portrayed.  The Philharmonic provided raw playing – not just the winds, but even the strings came across like a lush hurdy-gurdy.

The final movement started by suggesting it might resolve this craziness and rise above the din, but as the music soared it revealed itself as the Angel of Death.  And then… when we may have expected death to warm over, it became instead frigid. As blood spilled upon the ice, it hardened solid.  I did not time how long it took from the last note to fade until Blomstedt released the room, but it certainly felt like a full two minutes of complete silence.  No one in the packed hall even breathed.  We couldn’t.  No air remained in the room.

SWR Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Schostakowitsch

The Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra under its new music director Teodor Currentzis gave a monumental but never bombastic interpretation of Schostakowitsch‘s Symphony #7 at the Festival this evening in Salzburg’s Great Festival House.

I have admired Currentzis before, lamenting that he often lets performance theater get the better of him to get in the way of actual musical quality (image over substance).  But when he is on, the music clicks, as it did this evening.  He captured nuance and drama in a work, and even a quirky black humor, that itself sometimes overwhelms less-thoughtful conductors.  Although this symphony was used from its first performance for Russian propaganda purposes, the thoughts going through the composer’s mind when he wrote it were far more complex.  It is worth remembering that Schostakowitsch originally sketched the “invasion” theme in the first movement – which Russian propaganda ascribed to Nazi Germany invasion of the Soviet Union – not in 1941 but already in September 1939 in response to the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, which were then still allies.  Dark forces engulfed the world.

Currentzis did revert to some performance theater, of course.  Different sections of the orchestra stood up periodically and played on their feet – not just brass (which would allow more air in the lungs and a fuller tone) but pretty much everyone who played an instrument that did not absolutely need to be played sitting down.  Indeed, when the orchestra first took the stage, the percussion and woodwinds came out and sat down alone – before a long pause when the rest of the orchestra finally joined them (knowing Currentzis, I feared the worst: was he going to have the rest of the orchestra march on stage to the “invasion” theme – thankfully not).

The orchestra, formed from the merger of two previous orchestras, sounded terrific (actually, given the size of the orchestra in this symphony, they might have almost used two full orchestras-worth of musicians).

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Mahler

The final subscription concert of the 2018-19 season by the Mozarteum Orchestra under chief conductor Riccardo Minasi had a single work this morning: the Symphony #5 by Gustav Mahler.  While they easily could have had something else on the program before an intermission, in a sense it was good for them to keep this focus.  Minasi’s own background as a violinist who had specialized in early music and the baroque, and his recent conducting career in which he has preferred short(er) pieces must have made Mahler quite foreign to him.  But in becoming chief conductor here, he has clearly intended to expand his repertory.

There is something to say about hearing a work like Mahler’s in a fresh interpretation, by someone not so familiar with the Fach but willing to learn.  What we got was indeed a refreshing performance, with Minasi demonstratively coaxing competing lines from the orchestra.  The symphony itself is a competition between dance and despair, and Minasi tweaked and tucked to pull out both the dissonance and the fact that with Mahler the two aspects really belong together.  This began from the opening funeral march (parsed through a limping dance) and went right the way through to the final triumphant (if only hopefully-so) chorale.

The emphasis on various stray lines highlighted the complexities of the music – rather than blending it all together – and the orchestra in general responded with exquisite playing (a few stray notes and blotches notwithstanding – my second concert in a row with this orchestra where I am noticing more of these issues), particularly exceptional and evocative in the woodwinds and principal trumpet and horn.

What did not work so well was bringing the principal horn down to the front of the stage (even forward of where a soloist would stand during a concerto) during the third movement.  Although that movement features the solo horn quite a bit (albeit this is Mahler, so really not much more than usual), it did not have enough solo lines to justify the strange positioning, and the poor hornist fidgeting during the long periods when he did not have lines, wondering what on earth he was supposed to do standing there at the lip of the stage in front of Minasi.  But I’ll give Minasi points for his creativity and desire to tackle something new (for him) in a thoughtful manner.  The orchestra was also quite enthusiastic, as was the audience which gave an extended applause.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Beethoven, Bach, Strauss

Salzburg’s Great Festival House has reopened after several months of supposed renovation, and the Mozarteum Orchestra greeted it with a joyous rendition of Beethoven‘s Piano Concerto #1 with Herbert Schuch at the keyboard and Riccardo Minasi on the podium.  Minasi kept the performance well-shaped and lively, while Schuch deftly handled the longer third cadenzi that Beethoven wrote as an alternative set for himself eight years after he gave the premiere of this work.  An early work by Beethoven, it showed a fullness of character (despite a smaller orchestra) while maintaining a youthful boisterousness.

Schuch added a more sedate chorale by J.S. Bach as an encore, which made a nice balance for the mood going into the intermission – he did not need a show-stopper, but just enough to allow everyone to relax from the exciting first work back in the hall.

After the intermission, StraussDon Quijote did not quite have the same impulse.  The playing was generally fine (although a surprising number of stray notes emerged), but I never got the sense that Minasi had become sufficiently comfortable with this work, as it lacked the humor and spring it needs.  The title character appears as the solo cellist, and there are two ways of taking it: either as a first-chair cellist blending into the whole (as the principal violist, tenor horn, and bass clarinet combine to portray Sancho Panza within the orchestra), or as a virtuoso main focal point of the story.  Marcus Pouget did not really do either: as a featured soloist he sat up front next to Minasi and played well within the orchestra – so perhaps trying to stand out but not really doing so.  His playing, like the orchestra’s, was fine, but it just lacked any particular drive.  (On the other hand, the soloist threesome portraying Sancho really did stand out, particularly the principal violist – with tonight’s performance, the work could have as easily been called Sancho Panza).

As for the renovations: I must admit I did not notice anything different than before.  The hall could use a good sprucing up, as it is looking a bit tired, and I had assumed that is exactly what they were doing.  But all the rips and scratches were in the same places.  The stage looked the same, too.  The woman in the seat next to me thought that maybe they had installed brighter lights in the foyer – possibly, but that would then appear to have been the extent of it.

Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Wagner, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert

The Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra and Andrés Orozco-Estrada remained in Salzburg to finish their three-day visit to the Great Festival House with a different program than Wednesday.  The orchestra definitely sounds much better than it did on its last visit two years ago, in tone and accuracy (and without the strange feedback-like sounds that plagued its brass then).  Sandwiched around the Mozarteum Orchestra concert last night, though, I could not help but notice the contrast – the local orchestra is that much warmer and full of feel for the music, while the Frankfurters remain a but more industrial.

Tonight’s concert opened with the full orchestra on stage for the Overture to Wagner‘s Tannhäuser – big and workmanlike in sound. This led to an immediate contrast: only a chamber group from the orchestra remained on stage for Mozart‘s Piano Concerto #23, with soloist Rafał Blechacz.  As he demonstrated with the Chopin concerto on Wednesday, Blechacz does not have a big tone, but rather lets his light fingers set glistening tones into motion, so having a chamber orchestra maintained balance.  Still, it felt a tad thin. (A movement from a Beethoven piano sonata, provided as an encore, showed humor, but also could have been bigger.)

Schubert‘s Great C Major Symphony (normally given the standard #9, although correctly #8 as it appeared in tonight’s program book since Schubert never actually wrote a #7 and a symphony that never existed was given that number on speculation that it may have existed).  The orchestra size here split the difference between the two pre-intermission pieces.  This also made it a little small and thin for this work, but it may have been more appropriate for Orozco-Estrada’s interpretation: he was off to the races, taking the whole thing much faster than usual.  Where the symphony is in many ways a bridge from Beethoven to Bruckner, at this speed it became more “classical” in approach, and Orozco-Estrada emphasized the dancing melodies (with periodic tutti interjections at forte).  Like his unusual Dvořák 9 on Wednesday, this non-standard interpretation was not unconvincing.  I’m not sure I prefer it this way – it’s a big symphony and deserves to be drawn out in full color – but I was happy to hear new aspects to this piece of standard repertory.  The orchestra responded with more emotion too, which was welcome.

To get into the Christmas spirit, Orozco-Estrada thought an encore was appropriate, and that the audience should sing along.  He did not say what it was – only that we’d know as soon as we heard it (I half expected Stille Nacht, composed 200 years ago in Salzburg).  Except it wasn’t so familiar, and only a smattering of the audience seemed to know the words (no one near me managed to sing along).  The Kulturvereinigung has kindly identified it as the Sanctus (“Heilig, heilig, heilig”) from the German Mass by Schubert.  So that didn’t work so well.

Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Chopin, Dvořák

The Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra has returned to Salzburg’s Great Festival House for a set, under the baton of its chief conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada.  The large hall was packed – looked to be completely sold out.

Normally there is only so much Chopin I can tolerate at any one sitting, so I came in a little apprehensive about his first piano concerto taking up the entire first half of the program (which is part of my subscription package).  I mostly know Chopin’s works for solo piano, which don’t really do it for me, so feared a long concerto might be worse.  However, hearing this work for the first time I realized that adding an orchestra gave the music more depth and variety (the longer parts for solo or with limited orchestra were naturally less interesting).  There was a certain swing to this performance, with Rafał Blechacz, a young Pole, at the keyboard.  He produced a glistening tone, fingers tapping lightly as though on top of the water, letting the ripples flow softly outwards.  The orchestra supported this approach.  And while it seemed a more appropriate piece for a Sunday matinee and not a Wednesday evening concert, somewhat sedate and subtle, it worked.  While I am not likely to go out of my way to hear this concerto again, I would not now seek to avoid it either.

As if to prove a point, though, Blechacz came out with an encore that sounded like a solo Chopin work, and though nothing was missing from his playing, the absence of the orchestra was notable.

After the intermission, the orchestra and Orozco-Estrada gave a somewhat unusual interpretation of Dvořák‘s Ninth Symphony.  Orozco-Estrada decided to emphasize some of the off-kilter syncopation by playing around quite drastically with tempi – faster or slower, speeding up and slowing down.   This approach was not unconvincing (it perhaps made the piece more American and less Czech in inspiration – the piece has elements of both), however it left instruments too often out of time with each other, which I don’t believe was the intent.

The orchestra opened the concert with a somewhat muddy tone, but warmed and became clearer throughout, particularly as the Dvořák symphony progressed (the encore, another Dvořák movement for strings only from his Serenade for Strings, was more homogenized).  All in all, this group sounded much better than the last time I heard them here about two years ago, this time playing with more emotion and color, particularly the improved brass.  Last time I suspected they had not done a proper soundcheck in the hall, but this time the balance worked well.

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

Schumann, Bach, Bruckner, Mozart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schostakowitsch, Rostropovich, Beethoven, Schubert

The West German Radio Symphony Orchestra of Cologne has come to Salzburg for a set this week, with its Chief Conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste and cellist Alban Gerhardt.  This evening’s opener packed the Great Festival House, and for good reason.

Schostakowitsch wrote two cello concerti for his friend Mstislav Rostropovich, of which the second – on tonight’s program – is less-often performed, but seemed ideally-suited for Gerhardt.  Gerhardt has a gorgeous lower register that can warm up even a large hall, and the opening movement – a deep and pensive largo – showed off Gerhardt’s tone.  Against this, the orchestra (particularly interjections by the percussion, but also the winds and upper strings) insert jagged edges.  While the cello tries to relax, the surrounding music becomes increasingly nervous.  This leads to two further lyrical movements, the third with the cello waxing nostalgic, but still the orchestral pokes keep everything unsettled, which the cello has to swat away.  When the cello returns at the end to its warmth, the world around it remains uncertain.  Schostakowitsch certainly had his neuroses, and this combination of Gerhardt with the orchestra, shaped by Saraste, played them out to perfection.

Gerhardt then offered a showier encore – itself a somewhat neurotic cello piece by Rostropovich himself – in which he could demonstrate his dexterity across diverse techniques.

The nervousness carried over to the second half of the concert, where it probably did not belong.  Saraste took the first movement of Beethoven‘s Symphony #3 at breakneck speed, which did not allow its wonderful sonorities (including stark dissonances that resolve) to breath.  The rest of the symphony remained within the realm of normal tempi, but the neurotic start had already colored the mood.  It was a fun reading, Beethoven’s genius shining through in a post-Schostakowitsch world, with some fine orchestral playing (nice oboe!) but it did not necessarily convince.  A dancing encore by Schubert (the scherzo from his Symphony #6) relaxed the mood so we did not have to go home paranoid.

Monte Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Pärt, Prokofiev, Tschaikowsky, Azarashvili

The Monte Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra came to Salzburg Great Festival House this evening with its music director Kazuki Yamada and violin soloist Vadim Repin.

Repin did not get top billing on the posters, but should have, playng two pieces with warmth and charm: Pärt‘s Brothers in an arrangement for violin and orchestra (the original version, for violin and piano, had its premiere at the 1980 Salzburg Festival) and Prokofiev‘s Second Violin Concerto.  Both pieces are curiosities, which do not necessarily remain in any one style (or at least the violin parts do not), and Repin made both sound a bit wacky and delightful, both full of humor and nuance.  This music was original, and a welcome part of my Wednesday subscription series when I examined the year’s schedule.  I of course stayed for the second half of the concert as well, though, which was less of a highlight.

The orchestra was proficient enough, I suppose.  It seemed underwhelming when performing alongside Repin, and without him I scratched my chin for a while trying to put my finger on exactly what was missing (besides Repin, that is).  Then it hit me: this orchestra sounds nasal – even the strings and percussion somehow sound nasal – with sour overtones and completely missing undertones.  The size of the sound was there, but missing was its fullness.

It certainly also did not help that after the intermission the Orchestra chose to feature Tschaikowsky‘s over-performed Fourth Symphony.  I feel like I have alluded to this problem so often that I’m now just going to keep writing it openly (as I did last week with the Petersburgers).  Unless orchestras have something new to say, there should be a moratorium on performances of Tschaikowsky’s fourth, fifth, and sixth symphonies for the next few years – beautiful music, but they aren’t that deep and there are only so many times people can hear them in less-than-spectacular renditions.  Needless to say, the Orchestra tonight had nothing in particular new to say about this symphony – an adequate reading, but just that.

It compounded the issue with a dance from Tschaikowsky’s Nutcracker as a first encore (more Tschaikowsky?  Did they really have to?).  And then some further encore I could not identify came across as saccharine.  (UPDATE: the Kulturvereinigung website has indicated that the final encore was a nocturn by Vaja Azarashvili.)

St. Petersburg Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Prokofiev, Scarlatti, Tschaikowsky, Elgar

When one of the world’s top orchestras, on its music director’s 80th birthday tour, appears in the Salzburg Great Festival House, I would normally expect the hall to be more than half full.  Obviously I expect wrong.  Where was everyone for tonight’s concert of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic under Yuri Temirkanov?  Perhaps it was the program – they’ve been in Vienna for several days (but I have not) with excellent programs, yet tonight tried something far less exciting.  Perhaps those who could went to hear them in Vienna’s Musikverein – better programs, better hall, and better city.

The main work was Tschaikowsky‘s Sixth Symphony.  It’s not that it’s bad, only that it’s over-performed (along with the fourth and fifth).  If they must play Tschaikowsky (they must not), couldn’t they please come on tour with one of his first three symphonies?

As one of the top ten or twelve orchestras on the planet, the Petersburgers do have something to say with this symphony, though.  Maybe they should play it so lesser orchestras can please stop playing it.  Temirkanov has slowed down somewhat at 80 and was not especially demonstrative on the podium, but he has been at the helm of this orchestra for thirty years, and its assistant conductor for twenty-one years before that, so he did not need to make big gestures in order to coax the perfectly contorted sounds and emotions from this group.  He featured the winds, who responded expressively.  The brass chorales looked over the abyss, in a different style from but surprisingly similar to Bruckner’s ninth – like Tschaikowsky’s sixth, also his last composition before he died, both composed at the same time.  Things got a little happier and upbeat by the third movement, but then Tschaikowsky’s depression came fully on show for the final movement, which ended in the menacing deep strings.

To ensure we stayed with cliché, Temirkanov and the orchestra performed “Nimrod” from Elgar‘s Enigma Variations as an encore.  They played this as an encore the last time I heard them too.  And it’s overplayed as an encore anyway.  However, I’m not sure I have ever heard it played this well, full of melancholy left over from the Tschaikowsky.

The first half of the concert was rather more unusual: Prokofiev‘s crazy Second Piano Concerto, with soloist Yefim Bronfman.  Except that Bronfman did not make it so crazy – I’d like to say he kept it more restrained, but he still hit all the notes and produced full swells of sound.  The orchestra supported this interpretation.  Where it needed to come across warped, it did.  Where it needed to interject – loudly at times – it did.  Yet it never overwhelmed him.  I’ve heard this concerto performed in a restrained manner before, but felt that the pianist that time did not really understand the work – tonight Bronfman, with Temirkanov’s and the Petersburgers’ support, came out with a lot more nuance.

Bronfman also gave us an unannounced solo encore – a Domenico Scarlatti sonata.  It was easy to forget that Scarlatti would have written the piece before the invention of the piano, as Bronfman made it seem so natural for this instrument (indeed, the piano almost sounded like it wasn’t really a piano after all).

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Dvořák, Bruckner

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

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

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

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

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Bernstein, Schostakowitsch

The 2018-19 concert season opened in Salzburg’s Great Festival House with the hometown Mozarteum Orchestra and guest conductor John Storgårds. They performed music from the mid-1950s by Leonard Bernstein and Dmitri Schostakowitsch, although the pieces could not have been more different: Bernstein’s charming Serenade After Plato’s Symposium and Schostakowitsch’s brutal Eleventh Symphony.

The Bernstein piece, scored for violin solo (tonight, Baiba Skride), strings, and percussion, was suitably eclectic in style, with movements representing figures at Plato’s dinner party.  I suppose the nature of each movement was supposed to represent the respective character, but whether Bernstein succeeded in this or not (and some evidence suggests he wrote the music first and only later added the cultural references to the written description) the music did work in an odd way.  Written simultaneous with Candide, some elements of that opera make an appearance in the score here, and Stravinsky also has an influence.  I had not known this piece before, and had feared it might be over-thunk like so many of Bernstein’s works, but maybe because he was not really trying to set a program (despite his official description) he kept this more contained.  The orchestra got it.  Skride got it.  The combination produced delightful interplay, well balanced and full of humor.

After the break, Storgårds let loose with Schostakowitsch’s approximate portrayal of the events in Russia of 1905 – a year which opened with peaceful protesters coming to the Imperial Palace to plead with the Czar (whom they actually revered), only to have the Czar send his soldiers shooting into the crowd leaving thousands dead, triggering revolutionary events that foretold the overthrow of the Czarist regime in 1917.  In memorializing the victims and raising the alarm, Schostakowitsch’s subtext concerned the post-1917 Soviet regime under which Russia continued to suffer (the symphony was officially written to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution).  

Lines in one section of the orchestra came into direct conflict with lines played by other instruments, both dissonant and cumulative (in this way it actually did resemble the Bernstein work too).  Storgårds’ interpretation was raw – with the comfort level of ripping scabs off wounds unable to heal, with the wailing of harsh crescendi interjecting.  Gone were the soaring chorales – either of the peasants’ pleas or the memorial hymns – replaced instead by harsh reality.  This was not the Mozarteum Orchestra at its most beautiful, but that was exactly Storgårds’ point.  This was the Mozarteum Orchestra at its most dramatic.  I still think it’s possible to do both (my clear favorite reference recording of the work is with Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra – a recording that made this possibly my favorite of Schostakowitsch’s output), but tonight’s interpretation was highly convincing on its own merits.  Special kudos to the English hornist and percussion section.