Brussels Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Connesson, Lalo, Saint-Saëns, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Bizet

The Brussels Philharmonic, visiting Salzburg’s Great Festival House this week for a three-night set with its music director Stéphane Denève, sounds like it takes representing its home city seriously: technically proficient, I suppose, but no personality.

The first half of the concert consisted of French music, which was not the problem but probably did not help.  A short contemporary work, Maslenitza, by Guillaume Connesson opened the performance.  A trip to Russia and Russian music supposed inspired the composer to write this piece, but I heard nothing particularly Russian about it.  It consisted of several tonal melodies or phrases, with no apparent logic for why so many and why he put them in the order he did.  An inoffensive muddle.

The concert dragged on with Edouard Lalo‘s cello concerto: still inoffensive, maybe less of a muddle, but no real point either.  It did contain some wonderful dancing melodies (especially one interplaying the solo cello and the flute in the slow second movement), but they never really went anywhere.  The soloist, Gautier Capuçon, had a large sweet and quite beautiful tone well-matched for this music – if anyone could have made something of it, he could have.  He and the orchestra followed this up with an encore: the “Swan” from Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saëns, an animal of grace (thankfully short, however, so it had a point and finished).

The second half of the concert left France and moved to Russia for two sets of ballet excerpts: a long set from Cinderella by Sergei Prokofiev and a suite from the Firebird by Igor Stravinsky.  Both actually danced, but neither sounded particulary Russian, the orchestra producing melifluous sounds instead of the somewhat more biting tones a Russian orchestra would produce (although, bizarrely, during the finale of the Firebird, Denève oddly highlighted the strings above the orchestral balance by getting them to attack their instruments as though trying to use their bows to saw their instruments clean in half – out of character for this concert, but not especially clear in motive either.

As a final encore, the orchestra returned to French music and performed the farandole from the incidental music by Georges Bizet to The Girl from Arles: again proficiently – indeed pleasantly – but without nearly the verve and personality demonstrated, for example, by the Cadaqués Orchestra in this same hall last month for this same piece.

I am busy the next two nights, and so never bought tickets for the next performances (tonight is my monthly Wednesday subscription concert).  I’m probably not missing anything.

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Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Wagner, Liszt

The scheduled conductor for this morning’s concert by the Mozarteum Orchestra got ill last week, leaving the orchestra to scramble to find a replacement who was not only available, but could also take over the identical program of two seldom-performed works: Wagner‘s Faust Overture and Liszt‘s Faust Symphony.  In stepped Frank Beermann, who recently left his post after a decade as general music director in Chemnitz to become a freelancer and had this weekend free to rush to Salzburg’s Great Festival House.

Beermann and the orchestra don’t know each other.  The orchestra also had not performed these works before.  So under the circumstances Beermann took a deliberate, angular, approach.  This worked for the Wagner piece and for the final movement of the Liszt.  It caused the first two movements of the Liszt to drag.  Still, considering they were practically sight-reading the music, the Mozarteum Orchestra’s natural musicality came to the fore, coaxed by Beermann, and in that the concert proved a success.

The Wagner work is from his early period – he had considered an opera based on Goethe’s Faust, which he never wrote, but Liszt had encouraged him to arrange some sketches as a concert overture (originally conceived as the first movement of a series of linked tone poems, which Wagner also never wrote).  Despite truncating his project, Wagner already demonstrated his sense of theater, however, and Beermann successfully inspired the orchestra to the dramatic.

Liszt ended up writing the multi-movement tone poem based on Faust that Wagner never wrote.  While it does contain some great passages (particularly in the Berlioz-inspired third movement depicting Mephistopheles – apparently it was Berlioz who had introduced Liszt to Goethe’s work), it probably takes a little more effort to keep a performance of this piece compelling for well over an hour.  The fault is Liszt’s (uncharacteristically for him, as it happens), who never properly edited his work – this was not one of his better efforts, and indeed instead of editing he kept adding bits to it (including a final chorus – sung here by the Chorus Viennensis and tenor soloist Toby Spence).

Back in the days when I used to have my own Sunday morning radio show, I programmed these two works followed by Mahler’s Eighth Symphony (which includes a setting of the final scene of Faust).  Now that combination in a real concert might have been too ambitious, but it would be the logical next development of this music and I would have gladly stayed.  Instead, I came home and cooked breakfast.

Cadaqués Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Bizet, Sarasate, Falla, Chapí

 

The Cadaqués Orchestra picked up where it left off, with a complete triumph on the stage of Salzburg’s Great Festival House this evening.  This was the same orchestra which successfully delivered Mendelssohn’s Third Symphony on Wednesday, with great drama and nuance directed from chief conductor Jaime Martín, once again joined by the spectacular Leticia Moreno for solo violin work.  Unsadled with the dreadful music of Piazzolla that weighed down the first half of Wendesday’s concert, music by Georges Bizet and Pablo de Sarasate let the orchestra glisten.

Tonight’s concert opened with a few short selections from Bizet’s incidental music to The Girl from Arles, that enabled individual instrumental lines to stand out within an overall complete sound.  The orchestra is still a tad small, but made up for the reduced size through enthusiasm.  This approach especially came out in the concert’s second half, a performance of Bizet’s Symphony in C, which he wrote when he was only 17 and then suppressed (it had its premiere sixty years after his death after the score was rediscovered).  Although a not-fully developed youthful work, the symphony showed great talent – the scope of a middle-period Mozart symphony, the internal humor of late Haydn, and the melodic inventiveness of early Beethoven or Schubert.  Martín drew out the solo lines – especially highlighting the woodwinds, who demonstrated remarkable virtuosity they had hinted at on Wednesday – but without overshadowing the complete symphonic sound.  (Why did Bizet suppress this work?  With a few notable exceptions such as the opera Carmen and the incidental music from The Girl from Arles, as well as portions of the opera Pearl Fishers,  his later music was mostly forgetable although he clearly had talent – there are theories that have to do with France’s complete lack of musical sophistication, but he could have rebelled against that in the way the others like Berlioz did).  The orchestra clearly enjoyed itself, and the audience erupted into applause – even briefly the rare rhythmic clapping normally reserved for the pinacle of ensembles in this musically-literate country.

The first half of the concert also included the appearance by Moreno for two programmed works by Sarasate: Gypsy Airs (based on central European gypsy fiddle music) and the Carmen Fantasy (based on themes from Bizet’s opera).  Moreno’s performance was sultry, dark but alluring.  She demonstrated mastery over every tone, thick in the slower measures, quick-fingered in the wild ones. Tonight she did not have to struggle with the poor score she had on Wednesday, but instead took charge of the already-complex music and made it her own.  The enraptured audience could not really contain itself, breaking into an inappropriate roaring applause right in the middle of her show, and refusing to give up cheering until conductor Martín turned around on the podium and pleaded with the audience to stop clapping.  I’ve never seen this behavior in Salzburg before – and while I shared the audience’s opinion of her playing, I did not go along.  When these two pieces ended, she added a work by Manuel de Falla, in duet with the harpist.

I think we could have kept calling her out, but it ended there.  Likewise at the end of the concert the audience demanded more, but we only got one orchestral encore tonight (the same Chapí overture for La Revoltosa they did on Wednesday, although tonight with even more buzz in the air).

Una triomfada!

Cadaqués Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Albéniz, Piazzolla, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Chapí

The Cadaqués Orchestra has come from Catalonia to Salzburg for a three-night visit with its chief conductor Jaime Martín (a Cantabrian, not a Catalan, for what it’s worth).  Tonight’s concert and tomorrow’s have the same program, and Friday’s is different – so I have my Wednesday subscription ticket tonight and will hear them again for the other set on Friday.  This was a nice little ensemble – only slightly bigger than a chamber group, but which played well together, and if sometimes a tad brash to overcompensate for the size, nevertheless produced a full sound.  The woodwinds in particular characterized the overall sound.

Martín understands his orchestra’s strength, and this was best heard in the main work of the concert’s second half, the Third Symphony (“Scottish”) by Felix Mendelssohn.  It was enlightening to contrast this idiomatic performance so soon after hearing the Mozarteum Orchestra perform Mendelssohn’s Fourth (“Italian”) recently.  The Mozarteum Orchestra is better on the whole, but its brand new young chief conductor Riccardo Minasi has a tendency to get over-exuberant, rushing through the faster bits and lacking nuance – indeed, I wonder if Minasi understands harmony.  Martín clearly does get harmony, drawing out the different lines – including all of the middle lines – across the instruments, so that we could hear the complexities but also one single complete sound.  And while Martín took the fast bits quickly enough, he emphasized rather more stately tempos when needed, for an overall well-paced performance – and a real triumph.

This approach continued through two encores which followed: an intermezzo from Schubert‘s Rosamund (charming) and the overture to Ruperto Chapí‘s zarzuela La Revoltosa (witty).

That said, the first half of the concert did not succeed as well.  The opening work – an orchestration of “Catalonia” from the Spanish Suite by Isaac Albéniz, gave a hint of what was to come, but was perhaps too short and abrupt to highlight this orchestra’s strengths, at least as a starter.  It just made the orchestra sound a bit thin (is this orchestra even big enough for that orchestration, done by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos to perform with a larger ensemble?).

Worse though was the Four Seasons in Buenos Aires by Astor Piazzolla, in an arrangement for violin and chamber orchestra.  I’ve heard this work – or individual seasons from it – rearranged for various combinations of instruments.  No arrangement can disguise Piazzolla’s lack of talent as a composer, and it was this aspect that failed once again tonight.  The logic behind this arrangement was that Piazzolla was apparently originally inspired by Vivaldi’s original Four Seasons, and so he hid bits of the Vivaldi in his new music, as well as what I am sure was Pachelbel’s Canon (I must admit to never having heard those direct quotations of Vivaldi and Pachelbel before when I have heard this work – maybe I’ve always been too bored by it to notice).  The Catalans really should not have bothered with Piazzolla’s recycled garbage and just performed Vivaldi (and Pachelbel) in the original.

Except… then we might not have had the most excellent solo violinist, Leticia Moreno, who took Piazzolla’s music and made it worth listening to.  This arrangement required a good deal of dexterity on the instrument, often more rough country fiddle than soothing baroque violin.  But as if to show she could do the sweet tones as well, she came out for an encore with the orchestra – I’m not sure what it was (sounded sugary, more background film music than concert music), but she got the style down here too, a master of her trade.  I’d love to hear her perform a piece that actually has musical value and doesn’t just require her talent to carry it.

I did have one quibble with this orchestra, though – they string section all breathed in unison, loudly.  I was in my usual subscription seat up in the balcony (not close to the orchestra, but good acoustics) and kept hearing them breath clearly, all together, like a wind machine.  This was truly disconcerting (no pun intended).

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Smetana, Mozart, Tschaikowsky

The Salzburg Kulturvereinigung (Cultural Association), which organizes most of the big concert events in Salzburg outside the various festivals, celebrated a jubilee concert this evening in the Great Festival House, with the Mozarteum Orchestra under its new chief conductor Riccardo Minasi (my fourth concert in a row with this orchestra, three of them with the new conductor).  

I am glad the Kulturvereinigung leaves the music to the musicians, because the association’s math and reading skills left me befuddled.  All of the publicity including the program books called this the 70th anniversary jubilee.  However, the year 1947 (70 years ago) appeared no where, and all references to a specific starting date indicated this concert commemorated the very first concert from 17 October 1952 (which is only 65 years ago).  The publicity also made a point that tonight’s concert repeated the program of that very first concert – yet here again it did not (they reproduced the flier from that first concert program which showed this clearly).

Ignoring the bizarre publicity and turning to the music: the orchestra performed Smetana‘s Moldau (the second tone poem from My Fatherland) and Tschaikowsky‘s Symphony #5, both in similar fashion.  In the case of the Moldau, we heard the waters swirl, the waves splash, and the stream flow by robust promontories.  And while that’s probably not what Tschaikowsky had in mind when he wrote his symphony, the interpretation somewhat worked here too.  Minasi kept the orchestra delicately restrained at times, then introduced the themes on top, growing from the stream to great crescendi before backing down.  And while careful at the more subdued bits, Minasi does have a tendency (which I have noticed in the other concerts I have heard him conduct recently) to get a little excited during the bigger moments, moving forward at faster-than-necessary tempi (most obvious during the march at the end of the final movement, which was practically a double-step).  These styles (too fast or too delicate) also do not always let the orchestra exhibit full sound – but many of the solo and sectional lines demonstrated that the instrumentalists do have much to say.

The original 1952 concert they commemorated had opened with the Dances of Galánta by Zoltan Kodály.  Tonight this work had fallen out of the program, replaced instead between the Smetana and Tschaikowsky works by Mozart‘s 20th piano concerto.  That substitution was a a real shame – the Kodály work is far more interesting than Mozart’s rather routine concerto.  Piano soloist Peter Lang (who apparently made his Great Festival House debut with this concerto in 1966) and the orchestra produced a completely idiomatic if uninspired reading.  All the more reason they should have done the Kodály dances.  Yawn.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Beethoven, Berlioz

Beethoven‘s violin concerto has now featured on three concert programs I have attended in Salzburg during 2017.  All three soloists have done it justice, but tonight’s was the best of the three: Emmanuel Tjeknavorian, the 22-year-old Austrian son of the Armenian composer/conductor Loris Tjeknavorian.  The young Tjeknavorian had a gorgeous tone – sweet, but not sweetened, like a fresh organic vegetable relying on natural sugars to melt naturally in the mouth.  He backed this up with full-bodiedness, but still kept nuance.  A truly remarkable performance.

Less should be said about guest conductor Marko Letonja, who gave Tjeknavorian an uninspired backdrop.  The Beethoven concerto excels because of the series of dialogues it sets out between the solo violin and various instruments in the orchestra.  Letonja featured none of these instruments, instead blurring all of them together into a homogenized blob.  The orchestra supported the soloist – indeed the way most concertos call for an orchestra to do – but this is not what Beethoven had constructed.

Letonja applied the same approach for the second half of the concert, Berlioz‘s Symphonie Fantastique.  He did try to emphasize the odd syncopation, which left the work off-kilter as Berlioz intended: this is essentially Berlioz on a drug trip.  Unfortunately, with Letonja conducting, the drug of choice appears to have been qualudes.  The whole work dragged – especially an interminable third movement.  The Mozarteum Orchestra sounded great – although periodically unable to follow Letonja, not coming in together nor always on beat – but generally uninspired.  At least they too visibly enjoyed Tjeknavorian’s performance – they knew he was tonight’s winner.

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Lutosławski, Tschaikowsky, Prokofiev

From the works on the program, I had considered not buying a ticket to tonight’s concert at the Festival.  But curiosity to hear the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under Manfred Honeck (whom I have heard before, but never with his own orchestra) pulled me in.  The first half of the program included some experimental works (better in theory than in practice) by Witold Lutosławski and the second had Piotr Tschaikowsky‘s over-played Sixth Symphony.

Lutosławski tried out something he called “chain form” music, where subjects start before the previous ones end, linking them together in a chain (including across movements).  Tonight we had one such experiment, in triptych – finishing with Chain 2 – a “Dialogue for Violin and Orchestra” premiered in 1986 – to which in 1990 he appended onto the front the other two works in the triptych: first the Partita for Violin and Orchestra (and Obligatory Piano) and second the Interlude for Orchestra.  At times the music actually was quite fascinating.  The problem was that as soon as we could enjoy these sections, they were overcome by the next link in the chain.  The 1986 work Chain 2 was far better and made the point the composer was trying to make – and if he had left it at that, then this whole experiment might have been relatively successful.  But adding the other two pieces to the front made this a maddening 45 minutes or so.

Under these circumstances, it was hard to judge the orchestra itself.  I suppose they made it through the work OK, and therefore should be commended.  Did they sound good?  I think so, maybe.  I was spending too much time trying to understand the music to contemplate if the orchestra performed well.  Certainly, though, the soloist, Anne-Sophie Mutter did, with a full sound and great versatility.  She also gave the premiere of this stuff, so I suppose she would know it well and it helped.

The Tschaikowsky at least allowed us a chance to evaluate the orchestra itself.  It’s hard to say something new with Tschaikowsky.  He wrote nice music, but it was often too westernized – usually not authentically Russian enough to be Russian and not quite as good as real westerners wrote (so neither here nor there, really, but somehow seemingly on so many concert programs that I am trying to cut down my Tschaikowsky intake).  But he had his manias, and a sense of the psychodramatic (some of his authentic Russian works – mostly earlier works – are quite good but less-performed; his operas set as psychodramas work better than anything with action).

It is possible to say something new with an imaginative interpretation.  And that is exactly what Honeck did tonight – practically re-interpreting Tschaikowsky through a Mahlerian lense.

A few nights ago I watched a video which included some scenes of Valery Gergiev rehearsing Mahler’s Fifth, in which Gergiev described to the orchestra that they should perform it as though they were playing on a ship in the middle of the ocean, with huge swells making them sway back and forth while keeping them off-balance, and every so often having an enormous wave crash across their bow.  That analogy would have worked for Honeck’s reading of Tschaikowsky’s Sixth tonight.  This was an angst-ridden performance – although the theory that Tschaikowsky committed suicide nine days after the premiere of this symphony is not widely accepted, certainly if this had been the amount of angst consuming him then maybe he would have.

The orchestra handled this very well – Honeck has served chief there since 2008, so they know him and respond.  The ensemble playing therefore got it.  Unfortunately, the exposed lines stood out: this is a second-tier American orchestra, lacking the virtuosity of a top-level band.  While the whole sound was good, the individual instruments did not rise to the solo lines.  This came in stark contrast considering last night’s performance by the Berlin Philharmonic, where each individual line was to savor.

We did get to enjoy two encores, both ballet music.  The first I did not quite place, but it sounded like Tschaikowsky and had a nice little lilt.  Of greater spectacle, next came a couple of sections from Prokofiev‘s Romeo and Juliet.  This was authentically Russian in a way Tschaikowsky was generally not, and brash and modern in ways that Lutosławski would have done well to emulate (the whole Prokofiev ballet is long but never gets dull – that might have been a much more exciting programmatic choice, but I’ll take the snippets as an encore).

Berlin Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Schostakowitsch

There is a certain logic in pairing Schostakowitsch‘s first and last symphonies.  Symphony #1, his graduation work from the Petrograd Conservatory, is an experimental work looking forward to the music style he would develop through his compositional career.  Symphony #15, written in failing health, looked back upon that career and made reference to it (along with snippets from Wagner, Mahler, Rossini, and others).  Both pieces use full orchestras, but spend most of their time bringing out delicate juxtapositions of individual instruments – more concerto for orchestra than symphony.

The first symphony is clearly a student work, often failing to develop portions, while in a hurry to move on to the next thing, to demonstrate to the examiners that he could tick the boxes (albeit quite elaborate ticks).  The fifteenth benefits from 45 more years of composition, and without going overboard does resolve each theme and section.

Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic programmed these works tonight at the Festival.  The large swells were there, but so were all the details.  I already knew both symphonies, but felt as though I was hearing both for this first time.  So many details often remain hidden in the complex workings of these symphonies: they are not big showcases, and indeed are often delicate, but they are nevertheless showcases for the right orchestral forces.  Rattle drew out all of the lines, and the orchestra responded with every intricacy intact.  Even at quiet moments, the sound made its way through the hall in the right proportions.

As for the audience, it failed tonight.  The whole hall seemed restless – lots of coughing, seats fidgeting, people standing up and sitting back down, and a mobile phone ringing.  The man next to me seemed to be intent on swatting non-existent flies all night.  Who were all these people and what did they do with the usual audience?

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Schostakowitsch, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

What promised to be a musical highlight of this Summer’s Festival did not disappoint: Mariss Jansons and the Vienna Philharmonic performing Dmitri Schostakowitsch‘s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.

This is an absolutely brutal opera, without any sympathetic characters and full of violent crime.  Schostakowitsch infused the music with western dance patterns (Viennese waltzes and the like – many recognizable from operettas) in caricature, interrupted by more violence, before the choral music in the final act – depicting prisoners being force-marched to Siberia – evoking Mussorgsky (and maybe here some sympathy).  Stalin called it “muddle not music” in a review he wrote for Pravda and the opera nearly cost Schostakowitsch his life.

But it is a fantastic score.  Mariss Jansons kept all of the complexities together and well-paced.  The orchestra produced a full sound from the pit, without ever overwhelming the singers, and then exploded into the musical interludes.  This was thrilling, and fitting that Jansons and the Philharmonic got the evening’s loudest applause.

The cast itself had no big names – a motley collection made up mostly of Russians and Ukrainians.  All were good.  The best voice of the night belonged to Dmitri Ulyanov, the Russian baritone who sang Boris Ismailov, the protagonist’s overbearing father-in-law (he exits relatively early in the plot, after she feeds him mushrooms laced with rat poison).  Nina Stemme was to be the one big-name singer in the cast as the protagonist, but she has been ill and was replaced this Summer by her understudy, Evgenia Muraveva, a young soprano from the Mariinsky Theater, who – aside from a few misplaced upper notes – completely filled the role and carried the plot.  She was mostly balanced by tenor Brandon Jovanovich, an American cast as her lover and partner in crime Sergei.

The staging, by German director (oh, no, not another talentless German opera director!?) Andreas Kriegenburg was thankfully not Regietheater (thank goodness for these periodic exceptions coming from Germany). That did not mean that it made any sense. It was a modernized, if not modern, staging, moved to what looked like a Soviet-ish apartment block, which did not quite match the plot so unclear why he did it.  There were some other deviations from the plot, but the music and plot are shocking enough that there really is no need to do more (and he did not).  Depicting rapes and murders and whatnot is sufficient – and it was all there.  Injecting some comic relief in appropriate places (consistent with the text) is also correct.  And giving the singers a platform on which to act is probably most important, and Kriegenburg did just that.  So there was no need to get into an intellectual exercise to try to figure out what he was thinking.

Better to bask in the music.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Strauss, Bruckner

Herbert Blomstedt turned 90 last month.  I suppose when a conductor turns 90, he is entitled to sit down while conducting – that would seem to be the only change I noticed with him since I saw him last year.  He remains an architect on the podium, carefully constructing the musical edifice in front of him – today in Salzburg’s Great Festival House with the Vienna Philharmonic (which, according to the program, he never conducted before 2011, much to the orchestra’s regret; they seem to be making up for the oversight, now inviting him frequently).

 

This morning’s interpretation of Bruckner‘s Seventh Symphony came across almost as a chamber work in its intimacy, upon which towers of sound found their foundations.  This was a massive cathedral complex – but like many of the best-designed cathedral complexes, there are cloisters with gardens and fountains where monks can quietly contemplate the world although surrounded by a huge stone edifice.  Are these quiet corners the foundation supporting the domes and spires, or are they respite?  A good architect leaves that question unanswered, because both components must form a coherent whole.  And that was the version of Bruckner’s seventh that Blomstedt gave us this morning.

 

To intelligently introduce  such an intimate reading of Bruckner, the concert had opened with the Metamorphoses of Richard Strauss.  This was a chamber work, for 23 strings, also intimate and tragic.  Strauss started the sketch while contemplating the destruction of his home town, Munich, and completed it after American and British bombers wiped Dresden off the map.  He infused the music with a theme from the funeral music of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, and one can picture a chamber music group sitting amid the rubble of some obliterated concert hall rehearsing (the premiere actually took place in Zurich in 1946).  “For 12 years, bestiality, ignorance, and illiteracy have ruled under the greatest criminals,” Strauss wrote in his diary.  “At the same time, the fruits of German cultural development, created over 2,000 years, were delivered over to extinction, and irreplaceable buildings and works of art were destroyed by criminal scum.”

 

The apolitical Strauss had stayed in Germany after 1933 in the name of German culture.  Strauss’ own grandchildren were Jewish, as was much of his social and professional sphere (he had even co-founded the Salzburg Festival with Max Reinhardt, who was Jewish, and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who was of Jewish ancestry and who had married back into the faith).  But as the greatest German composer of his day, the Nazis appointed Strauss president of the composers’ union in 1933 until 1935, when the Gestapo intercepted a letter he wrote to his Austrian Jewish librettist Stefan Zweig criticizing the Nazi Aryan mythos and put it on Hitler’s desk.  Hitler immediately had Strauss fired.  I suppose he was lucky.

 

That’s a lot of emotion to be wrapped up in, and reduced to, a surprisingly intimate concert.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Prokofiev, Schostakowitsch

Another Sunday morning concert with the Vienna Philharmonic in Salzburg’s Great Festival House, in which the work I specifically wanted to hear got overshadowed by the one I did not know and was initially less interested in.

The surprise for me came in the first half of the concert, with Prokofiev‘s Second Piano Concerto, which I did not believe I had ever heard before (I looked it up after the concert: indeed, I heard it in 2009 and seem to have been equally stunned).  Written to fulfill a graduation requirement from the conservatory, the precocious student Prokofiev decided to smash all conventions.  The result produced a whole lot of sound, often coming at odd angles, emerging from the piano but also bombarding the ears from across the stage.  There may have been no particular order to the madness – mostly Prokofiev showing off: “look what I can do!” – but this was no cacaphony.

Soloist Daniil Trifonov, a Russian Wunderkind himself still only 26, siezed the piano in his arms and practically hurled it around the stage.  OK, it stayed put, more or less, but he jumped around on the stool more than conductor Andris Nelsons on the podium.  His arms were blazing, and hands everywhere (does he only have two hands?), fingers pounding the keys.  It was all a blur.  But the music… perhaps the snarky young Prokofiev had been on to something, and Trifonov discovered it.

For his part, Nelsons made sure the orchestra provided the perfect context for Trifonov (maybe not as hard with this orchestra, but someone had to put it all together).

After the intermission, Schostakowitsch‘s monumental Seventh Symphony – the work I dearly wanted to hear – became somehow anti-climactic.  This is the one symphony that Schostakowtsch wrote knowing it was to be used for propaganda purposes.  There’s also a whole lot of sound here, and the orchestra got it all.  The subtext is harder to find than in other Schostakowitsch symphonies (according to propaganda, the “invasion” theme in the first movement depicts the German invasion of Russia in 1941; yet Schostakowitsch had actually written this portion nearly two years before, moved by the Russian invasion of Poland as the first phase for implementation of Russo-German alliance that opened the Second World War).  In truth, Schostakowitsch had seen firsthand the misery in Leningrad during the German siege and the bravery of the people to attempt to survive, and this required memorialization.  Yet when it would all be over, it would not be over: the Soviet regime of terror still reigned.

Nelsons, born in Latvia 39 years ago when it was still very much under Russian occupation, should understand that subtext, as hard as it may be to find.  I’m not sure we heard it this morning.  Nevertheless, the orchestral playing was spectacular.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mahler

Gustav Mahler‘s farewell to life: his last completed work, the ninth symphony, filled him with superstitious dread.  His symphonic idiom drew from Beethoven, Schubert, and Bruckner, who had not exceeded nine symphonies (using the official numberings – Schubert’s supposedly-lost symphony that got a number seems to have actually been his unfinished #8 and not an entirely different one, and Bruckner wrote two, #0 and #00, which he excluded from his own numbering).  The symphony received its premiere in 1912, one year after Mahler’s death.

 

There are a number of ways to approach this symphony.  In taking perhaps the most anguished possible interpretation at Salzburg’s Great Festival House this morning, Bernard Haitink and the Vienna Philharmonic may have unleashed the best – and most devastating – performance I have heard of the work.  This was a heart-wrenching version, the instruments growling and hissing and mocking the soul.  Haitink coaxed virtuoso playing from each individual musician, representations of awaiting death (but also an entirely new harmonic language Mahler had developed, a logical if radical continuation of his unique style which went on to influence Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School).  Even when the middle movements danced, this was not a dance with death so much as a dance with death hovering in the corner of the room, darkening the dancers with its monstrous shadow.

 

This interpreation highlighted an expansive adagio finale as the cousin of the adagio finale of Mahler’s third symphony.  But whereas the third ends triumphant, the ninth sinks into despair, fading to nil.

 

The Philharmonic’s principal clarinet died suddenly of a heart attack a few days ago, and one wonders if his departure hung over the orchestra.  The audience breathed deeply and stood.  We may be so used to this orchestra that we expect the most from them, and so standing ovations don’t come often.  But sometimes even the great Philharmoniker exceeds itself as it did this morning.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Schostakowitsch, Mahler

The Mozarteum Orchestra presented the final Sunday matinee of its subscription series this year.  It’s a fine provincial band, on a par with Rotterdam Philharmonic or the City of Birmingham Symphony or Zurich’s Tonhalle Orchestra (which itself gave me two and a half years’ enjoyment during my time living there from 2000-2002, although I have not had a chance to hear it again in well over a decade).

Salzburg’s own great local cellist Clemens Hagen joined guest conductor Constantinos Carydis and the orchestra for Schotakowitsch‘s cello concerto.  Together, they depicted a desolate Russian wasteland, where every soul struggles to survive life in the Evil Empire.  Schostakowitsch’s own signature notes D-S-C-H permeated the whole score, pushing forwards as those around him had been liquidated by the brutal regime.  Here he was defiant, but kept his head down: soloist and orchestra were never over-bearing, and kept their performance almost restrained, and with an edge to it that Russian performers would understand.  The meaning was clear.  The principal hornist sat amidst the viole to engage Hagen in more dialogue: was he hiding there as a spy, or was he simply a trusted friend out of place?  The music kept this ambiguous, indeed as life must have been in the Soviet Union, or indeed Russia today.

On an ominous note, in the middle of the slow movement a member of the bass section collapsed on stage.  The music stopped while he was carried off, and then the movement started over.  After the intermission they announced that he had merely fainted and was fine, but the optics added to the somber mood.  Hagen tried to cut this with a somewhat more up-beat encore, which sounded like it may have been Bach, but really we needed nothing else.

The Mahler first symphony after the intermission was a bit anti-climactic.  The first movement launched with a certain dynamism.  But then Carydis decided to insert the so-called “Blumine” movement – the bit Mahler extracted from an earlier work he had ripped up and inserted here, only to decide almost immediately that it didn’t belong here either and so he removed again.  When the Norrköpingers performed this symphony here last month, they gave us the “Blumine” movement as an encore and made it work as a stand-alone fragment, but inserting it here demonstrated why Mahler rejected it.  This reading was less compelling and also sapped the emotion and drive from the entire symphony.  When the usual second movement (now third) came along, the orchestra had not quite recovered from the pointless diversion.  For the rest of the symphony, Carydis tried to re-capture the initial dynamism by modulating the volume, keeping some passages unnaturally quiet and then exploding in others.  The orchestra responded well, but I still wonder what they might have done had they not lost the momentum in the “Blumine.”

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.

Norrköping Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Beethoven, Bruckner, Larrson

The second evening with the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra in Salzburg’s Great Festival House did nothing to change my positive impression of this orchestra from yesterday.  Once again the orchestra members produce sounds in full color, with a sense of time and space, not so much playing instruments as using them to create tonal portraits.

The young violinist Christine-Maria Höller from Salzburg’s Mozarteum conservatory joined the orchestra for Beethoven‘s violin concerto.  Although a little rough to start, she quickly warmed into the work, with a strong and determined tone which effortless entered into dialogue with the different instruments Beethoven highlighted in the orchestra, and with the orchestra as a whole.  Conductor Florian Krumpöck worked the orchestra with her, deftly crafting the individual sounds and blending them together.  Beethoven’s brilliant concerto is a conversation with many voices, but the trick is to ensure that none of them get lost, and that all of them have something clever to say.  That they accomplished.

Höller then danced back on stage for a flamenco encore.

After the intermission came Bruckner‘s Fourth Symphony.  The lush strings provided an earthy basis for the ongoing dialogue between flute and horn that carries its way throughout this symphony, while the rest of the brass soared above them with a heavenly chorale.  This symphony came across as the logical continuation of the Beethoven concerto, a series of fascinating conversations among instruments.  On the whole, though, Krumpöck’s slow tempi (although they work for some) did not alwyas allow this longer conversation to press forward, sometimes straying from the topic and losing interest.  Nevertheless, this was a happy conversation, with a shiny bright outcome.

The strings gave us another encore – a romance for string orchestra by Lars-Erik Larsson.  Although not a dance, these strings periodically could not help themselves, and the Austrian Krumpöck perhaps had them inserting a charming lilt, which they could certainly handle.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Schubert, Brahms, Strauss

Richard Strauss‘s masterpiece of orchestral painting, Eine Alpensinfonie, has been my favorite tone poem since childhood, and my appreciation and enjoyment of the piece has not wavered as I grow older.  Nor indeed the accuracy of its depiction: its tremendous colors describe for the ears the majesty of the Alps.

The Mozarteum Orchestra proved this morning that it was up to the task, with outstanding solo detail throughout the overcrowded stage.  On the podium, Ivor Bolton, until last year the orchestra’s music director, can certainly take some credit for the caliber of the orchestra’s sound.

Unfortunately, however, it was not clear that Bolton himself understood this work.  After presenting a thrilling sunrise, Bolton set out for this walk in the Alps at a somewhat slower-than-normal pace.  England is mostly flat, so perhaps the mountains made him winded.  While I hoped this might allow the sonorities to bloom, the orchestra did seem to want to push forward, held back by their out-of-shape English cousin who huffed and puffed but could not keep up.  They dutifully went at the speed of their least fit member.

The first half of the concert contained two unusual dark pieces, one by Schubert and one by Brahms.  Schubert’s Song of the Spirits over the Waters, a setting of a Goethe poem, started out promising, with a male choir and instrumentation for strings without violins, but never really went anywhere.  Brahms, who did his best work when he wasn’t trying to imitate Beethoven, had somewhat more success with his Alto Rhapsody for alto, male choir, and chamber orchestra – also setting Goethe.  Argentinian alto Bernarda Fink gave a bold reading, and the Salzburg Bach Choir captured the somber mood of these two pieces without getting overly emotional.

Staatskapelle Dresden, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Fauré, Saint-Saëns

Herbert von Karajan founded the Salzburg Easter Festival exactly 50 years ago, presumably to showcase himself and his outsized Nazi ego.  Today Christian Thielemann, Karajan’s pompous plodding Prussian protege presides.  But as I happened to be in town and a seat was available, I went tonight for the sake of good music, in this case two of the few original works in the French repertory: Fauré‘s Requiem and Saint-Saëns‘ Symphony #3.

The unquestionably shining stars this evening were the members of the Bavarian Radio Chorus.  Although already in their places on stage, they opened the Requiem with such great delicacy that they sounded like a backstage choir, their voices gradually growing over half an hour until reaching Paradise in the final stanza.  Fauré, a church organist by profession, had played more than his share of funerals, and rather than writing a massive mass instead crafted a lullaby.  The chorus understood the idiom perfectly.  While the two named soloists – soprano  Anna Prohaska and baritone Adrian Eröd – got name recognition, they were at their best when they fit in with the chorus (Eröd did this better).

The Staatskapelle Dresden stayed out of the way as well.  Primarily an opera orchestra, they understand how to support singers rather than taking the spotlight for themselves.  Thielemann, their current music director, presumably has them well-drilled, but tonight we had their principal guest conductor, Myung-Whun Chung.  Chung is second-rate at best, but innocuous – a decent accompanist who has spent much of his career waving a stick at inferior French orchestras.  The Staatskapelle remains a fine orchestra (I last heard them under Thielemann in the Musikverein about six years ago), but it is also clear why the Dresden public was so overwhelmed during the Philadelphia Orchestra’s visit to the Semper Opera House in 2015 (which I had the great fortune to attend) – Thielemann and Chung will never get their orchestra ratcheted up to the same level of emotion or enthusiasm.

After the intermission we moved on to the Saint-Saëns symphony, where the orchestra was not accompanying anyone but had to fill the Great Festival Hall itself.  Chung also started off quietly and built up the drama.  But while this orchestra supplied the drama – a symphony of songs without singers – they missed some nuances and some portions dragged.  The woodwinds in particular came across a bit tongue-tied.

The symphony itself is also inspired by funerals, but where Fauré produced a lullaby, Saint-Saëns made a triumph, with the most famous portions taking the Dies Irae chant and flipping it into major key.  Cameron Carpenter supplied the organ solos – unfortunately, Salzburg’s Great Festival House does not have an organ, so they brought on an electric one with speaker amplification.  This was probably not the most brilliantly-planned concert (where an organ is so central to a work, they should really find out in advance before setting the program if the hall even has one!).

This was my first time at the Easter Festival.  One of the first things I noticed when arriving at the Great Festival House was that the crowd who turned out for the Easter Festival were not the usual suspects.  There was a whole lot of black tie and a suspicious absence of Austrian Tracht.  The accents were also overwhelmingly from north of the border.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Khachaturian, Rimsky-Korsakov

Middle Eastern-inspired music filled Salzburg’s Great Festival House this evening, presented by the Mozarteum Orchestra under the young Spanish guest conductor Antonio Méndez.

Violinist Alina Pogostkina (born in the Soviet Union, her violinist parents left after it collapsed to begin a new life in Germany as street musicians, which is how she got her start) joined the orchestra for Aram Khachaturyan‘s violin concerto.  She may not have fully warmed up before coming on stage, as the sounds that initially emerged from her instrument were weak and halting, even though the music itself requires a robust and somewhat edgy opening.  Méndez noticed, and quickly dialed down the orchestra to not overwhelm her.  As her sound warmed (although it never became completely full), the orchestra came back up to a normal level.

I’m not convinced she ever quite captured the rawness of this work.  The orchestra did, however.  Although not scored for duduks, it could have been: the most quintessential of Armenian instruments made its presence felt in the music even without being in the score.  The orchestra painted a journey across the low Caucasus, with highly evocative playing.

The journey south deeper into the Middle East continued with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov‘s tone poem Scheherazade.  Méndez did not magnify the sounds, but pulled out individual lines and wove them together.  Not big drama, but lots of little touches.  Both halves of the concert presented especially fine playing by the bassoon soloist in particular, and also the first chair oboe and clarinet.