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.

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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.

Berlin Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Dukas, Prokofiev, Schmidt

My final concert of this Summer’s Salzburg Festival was second of the Berlin Philharmonic‘s set under Kirill Petrenko.  In contrast to last night, tonight’s concert contained three works which are not part of the standard repertory, and thus a chance to consider the performance in more of a vacuum on its own merits.  The three pieces, all from the early Twentieth Century, seemingly had one commonality: they provided Petrenko a chance to show off the versatility and color of this orchestra.

If that indeed was Petrenko’s goal, then he succeeded.  The orchestra handled complex multi-colored and multi-textured canvasses with a certain warmth.  What was missing, on the whole, was something more than that.  Where were these pieces going?  I don’t know that I found any meaning, beyond just the playing.

Paul Dukas is yet another French composer known for a single work (in his case, the Sorcerer’s Apprentice), with the rest of the output being dismally forgettable.  Dukas actually destroyed most of his own compositions without publishing them, I suppose saving us from having to listen to them.  That he was a professor of composition at the Paris Conservatory helps explain things too (although he’s hardly responsible for French composers who came before him, rather being a product of the system himself).  Tonight’s concert opened with his ballet The Peri, originally composed for Sergei Diaghilev’s Paris-based Russian Ballet – although apparently Diaghilev then decided his leading ballerina was not up the task (one wonders why, as he staged rather more complicated scores such as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring that must have been even more challenging than Dukas’ work; maybe he was just being nice to Dukas with his excuse).  The work opened with a fanfare, which apparently also came with a story: as the ballet itself starts quietly, it was next to impossible to get the uncultured Parisian audiences to shut up when the music began, so Dukas added a loud opening fanfare to the score later on.  The rest of the ballet was unremarkable – sure, it had intricate components, but I’m not clear it went anywhere, or why anyone would want to dance to it.

Prokofiev‘s third piano concerto followed, with soloist Yuja Wang.  This work is nuts: all over the place stylistically.  But there is a certain logic to it, and Petrenko assembled the pieces.  Wang had light fingers – like Krystian Zimerman last week, but unlike Zimerman who gently coaxed full tones out of the piano, she did not get a big sound.  Indeed, she was often overwhelmed by the orchestra.  Very agile and adept, but there just was not much heft to her (similar to the assorted green threads she was wearing that some unscrupulous – maybe French? – fashion designer must have somehow convinced her qualified as a “dress;” it may have been snazzy, but really could have benefitted with a lot more fabric).  She gave us an unidentified encore of no particular interest.

After the intermission, the orchestra returned for Franz Schmidt‘s sorrowful Fourth Symphony, written after his beloved daughter died giving birth.  As he mourns her, he reminisces, but each reminiscence – including what looks like it might turn into a happy dance – gets overcome by his grief.  Schmidt’s works really do deserve to get performed more often.  He represents a natural progression from Bruckner – parallel to Mahler (who would have opened up new concepts for him) and Sibelius, if maybe not at their levels.  Schmidt is not Bruckner re-worked, but rather more inventive, if Bruckner had lived several decades more where his own music might have evolved – I think the rarity of performances really just demonstrate a lack of understanding, or of even an attempt to understand.  Petrenko made the attempt, although in this case I am not sure how successful he was.  The orchestra did produce some wonderfully-moving moments, but Petrenko could not keep the momentum, so that the performance had a tendency to drag.

Berlin Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Strauss, Beethoven

The Berlin Philharmonic came to this year’s Festival for a two-concert set with its enigmatic new chief conductor, Kirill Petrenko, whom I have now heard for the first time.  I may have to wait until tomorrow’s concert to give a full verdict.  

Tonight’s concert contained standard repertory, so in theory I should be able to make a judgement, but I left scratching my head.  Two tone poems by Richard Strauss graced the first half of the concert, Don Juan and Tod und Verklärung.  Beethoven‘s Seventh came after the break.

I suppose it was time for this orchestra to move on from Simon Rattle – people shouldn’t stay too long in one place, and I’ve found this orchestra has often sounded too clinical (most recently in the Musikverein in June).  Judging by his appearances with his new orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, here at the Festival last week, I’d say it’s been good for both sides after a happy few years together just to have a change of scenery.  With Petrenko, the orchestra certainly did not sound clinical – he took the exact playing and elicited just a little more emotion and nuance, with a conducting style equal parts animated and precise.

The problem was that his interpretations did not necessarily succeed.  Strauss wrote these two tone poems months apart using the same compositional language, but they are telling very different stories.  While Petrenko coaxed gorgeous tone paintings out of the orchestra in amazing colors, I actually heard very little differentiation between the poem desrcibing of the erotic life and exploits of Don Juan and the poem describing the death of an artist.  Petrenko rarely conducts concerts (which is what made his selection by the Berliners an odd choice), but has spent almost all of his career as an opera conductor, so he understands drama and coaxed it from the orchestra – still, it was peculiar not to hear much of a difference between these two works.

His interpretation of Beethoven’s Seventh flopped.  Petrenko did it with a much-reduced orchestra, perhaps to highlight chamber music aspects (the musicians could certainly make a big sound when they needed to, to contrast the quiet – indeed delicate – moments Petrenko emphasized).  He also did it at breakneck speed.  The slow movement was only slow by comparison, and it was breathless.  I was amazed the musicians could even keep up without any glaring errors in the final movement.  It may indeed have been that fact that prompted a standing ovation – truly a remarkable bit of playing that had everyone on the edge of our seats wondering if the orchestra could survive this craziness.  But on the other hand, it didn’t make any sense, so I think the ovation was unwarranted (and indeed it dissipated – the ovation was rather short, which might affirm for me that it was more a spontaneous reaction to the fact that the orchestra survived the out-of-control ride still very much in control, rather than a measure of the overall performance value).

Tomorrow night sees three works that are not in the standard repertory, all from the Twentieth Century.  It may help me complete the picture.

London Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mahler

For the third year in a row, Mahler‘s Ninth graced the program at the Salzburg Festival, each with a different orchestra and conductor, and thus interpretation.  Tonight, Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra provided a surprisingly happy reading… which left me a little befuddled.  It was indeed a good performance, but not quite as I might have expected, and at the opposite end of the interpretative spectrum from the anguish of Bernard Haitink and the Vienna Philharmonic last year.

Rattle’s interpretation was missing what would normally be the key ingredient for Mahler: angst.  The London Symphony Orchestra replicated its joy and lilt and overall good humor from last night (Rattle must certainly have more fun with them than with the Berlin Philharmonic).  The symphony presented itself as a series of dances – albeit off-kilter (and by the end of the third movement rather frantic).  Even the outer movements became boisterous.  Only at the very end, where the symphony fades away, did the mood get contained, but given what had come before this seemed to describe a life fully lived.  The only problem was that Mahler was pensive even on a good day, and he wrote this symphony while dying and consumed by superstition, so Rattle’s take on it was peculiar, to say the least.

The Orchestra responded, however.  As I noted yesterday, the strings do sound a tad thin, and tonight the winds now and then cracked some notes.  So maybe I need to hear this orchestra more (and perhaps after Rattle has had more time with them) before reaching a conclusion.  Top ten certainly – probably more personality than Berlin (even when performing under Rattle).

London Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Bernstein, Dvořák, Janáček

A member of the Philadelphia Orchestra assured me that Leonard Bernstein‘s Second Symphony, the “Age of Anxiety,” which I heard for the first time when the Philadelphia Orchestra performed it in Vienna in June, only makes sense after the second time through.  That second time came this evening at the Festival, with the London Symphony Orchestra under its new music director Simon Rattle visiting the Great Festival House.  Bernstein the composer was still too pretentious for his own good, but at least I understand how the pieces fit together now.

It was not an issue of the orchestra, as the Philadelphians handled every difficult twist and turn in June, just as the Londoners did this evening, it is just that it takes two hearings to have a listener’s ear assemble it sensibly.  It’s actually rather fun when it is all put together.

There was one major improvement tonight, however: the piano soloist.  Jean-Yves Thibaudet looked frightened out of his wits when he performed with the Philadelphians in June.  Tonight, Krystian Zimerman sat at the keyboard cool as can be, and made the extensive solo parts sound effortless.  I had a direct view of his hands from my seat, and they just moved up and down the keyboard (including several lines where they crossed each other) as though this was easy.

Zimerman came back out for a solo encore – I’ll guess Chopin, although I’m not 100% sure (not really my thing), but again cool and collected.

After the intermission, Rattle and the orchestra returned with the second set of Slavonic Dances by Antonín Dvořák and the Sinfonietta by Leoš Janáček.  This orchestra certainly has a lot more lilt and playfullness than Rattle’s previous band in Berlin, and he highlighted all of the color.  I can see why it is regarded as the best of the several world-class London-based orchestras – I have not heard it live for a few years (I am more current with the London Philharmonic, sounding better under Vladimir Jurowski than it has since the 1980s, and the Philharmonia), but might agree.  Its strings sounded beautiful and adept at crafting the lines, but despite a full-sized contingent strangely thin in contrast with, for example, the Vienna Philharmonic or the Philadelphia Orchestra. So top ten but not top five…. or maybe it will convince me otherwise tomorrow evening.

 

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Sibelius, Bruckner

In an essay for today’s concert program book, Herbert Blomstedt pointed out that the orchestral forces used by Bruckner and Sibelius in their respective fourth symphonies (which he conducted this morning with the Vienna Philharmonic in Salzburg’s Great Festival House) were virtually identical to the forces used by Beethoven, but represented tremendous symphonic development.

Blomstedt led the concert with the later Sibelius work, the least performed of his symphonies (indeed, the Vienna Philharmonic is just now performing it for the first time!).  Sibelius rejected programmatic symphonies – indeed, even his nominally-programmatic tone poems based on Finnish sagas are usually free form and do not correspond with a text, and this one is even harder to classify.  Blomstedt drew out the lush if cold sounds – each movement ending in something tragic: the first with a never-answered question, the second stopping abruptly mid-phrase, the third subsiding to nothing, and the final one resolving in resignation.  But the final one, with the addition of playful bells, showed signs of happiness and life.  The dour Finn drew out harmonic lines – with sufficient deviations from the traditional – hinting at melodies but never quite becoming melodic, keeping the room on edge.  Blomstedt employed these as building blocks, and used the to highlight individual winds (or the first chair cello, who opened the work and reemerged in key spots).  This was a heavy and philosophical way to wake up this morning, but the audience appreciated it.

The Bruckner symphony after the break stood in contrast.  His most-performed and possibly most-accessible work, the symphony is exuberant.  But it too is constructed from building blocks, and those Blomstedt highlighted.  On a foundation of (sometimes quite agressive) strings, Blomstedt placed large chunks of hewn stone.  Bruckner was encouraged by friends to write a program for this symphony, but it was always an afterthought and never descriptive of what he had in mind when he wrote the music.  So this morning’s reading dispensed with that silliness and just presented the music in its own right.  By the final movement, Blomstedt could draw out the dissonances that made this symphony forward-looking, rather than just Beethoven-inspired (or earlier).  Sibelius, of course, considered Bruckner the greatest living composer over his own lifetime, and hearing the final movement of the Bruckner 4 in the interpretation by Blomstedt and the Philharmonic awakened new nuances and in many ways brought the music full circle to the Sibelius 4 that started the day.

I had the opportunity on Friday to attend the rehearsal for this concert.  One thing that struck me is that Blomstedt rehearsed without a score (not surprised he conducted without one, but the lack of one for the rehearsal was interesting).  Instead, he had a little blue notebook full of scribbles, I presume containing his over-90 years of musical wisdom.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Strauss, Berio, Bartók

From the bizarrely philosophical to the just plain pleasantly bizarre: Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Vienna Philharmonic were sovereign at the Great Festival House this evening for a real head-scratcher of a program.

The first half consisted of Richard Strauss‘s tone poem Thus Spoke Zoroaster, based on Nietzsche.  The murky philosophy did not beget murky playing, as the Philharmonic picked apart every nuance, and Salonen drove them forward.  We had intimate chamber ensembles embedded inside the broad romantic swells, and delicate touches particularly from the concertmistress (yes, the Philharmonic has had a concertmistress for several years now, and she’s duly excellent).  When the sounds needed to get rough, they did, with agressive bowing and spikey winds.  In the end, Nietzsche’s World Riddle did not resolve itself (it’s not supposed to), which left us hanging through intermission.

Returning to the hall, the program only became more peculiar.  Perhaps the highlight of the evening was the series Folk Songs by Luciano Berio.  Several of them were not actual folk songs, but at least followed in the style.  Talented mezzosoprano Marianne Crebassa sang quite conventional song-like lines – Berio balanced the selection between the happy and the sad, but she remained always demonstrative – to which Berio added colorful backdrops from a chamber orchestra.  These were no ordinary accompaniments.  Berio seems to have taken some inspiration from composers who masterfully knew how to set folk songs.  I thought I heard traces that could have been influenced by Gustav Mahler, Aaron Copeland, Joseph Canteloube, and Father Komitas, although not necessarily corresponding to the songs a knowledgeable listener might expect to match those; then Berio took those traces and plopped them into a blender to make them unrecognizable.  The final product worked, as while they did not necessarily support the song’s simple music, they did underscore the song’s meaning.  This was delightful.  The songs were in various dialects of English, Armenian, French, Sicilian, Italian, Sardu, Occitan, and fake Azeri (I say “fake” for the last one, because Berio’s ex-wife transcribed the words from an old poor-quality recording which was hard to hear and she was Armenian-American and spoke no Azeri, so she had no idea what she was transcribing and wrote down jibberish – no one since the premiere in 1972 seems to have bothered to identify the original song in order to get the correct lyrics).

The concert concluded with the suite from Béla Bartók‘s Miraculous Mandarin.  In its day, this ballet caused as much of a stink as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring had, both for its scandalous plot and its extreme music.  Unfortunately, unlike the Stravinsky work, it has not entered the mainstream repertory and is rather less-often performed, even in the abridged suite form we heard tonight.  That’s a shame.  Yes it is crazy – maybe like the odder moments of Richard Strauss’ Zarathustra gone even wilder (Bartók greatly admired that Strauss work).  There may even be some hints of Stravinsky.  The Philharmonic proved its supremacy, not just in the late romantic Fach but in the modern – what a terrific and versatile orchestra, full of drama and excitement.  Credit to Salonen too for putting it all together.

Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Schostakowitsch, Mahler

Back in the Great Festival House, the dour Finns sounded much better this evening for a program of Schostakowitsch and Mahler.  The Helsinki Philharmonic and Susanna Mälkki seemed more comfortable than on Wednesday, as did cellist Truls Mørk with the Schostakowitsch concerto more in his comfort zone than the Elgar.

Mørk’s Schostakowitsch was paranoid – as though the Soviet police might come on stage at any moment and arrest and deport him.  Mälkki bought into this, and a certain nervousness pervaded everything.  This was not so much Schostakowitsch triumphing over Stalin, but more basic survival… for now.

Hearing a Finnish orchestra do Mahler was a treat.  Tonight came his 9th Symphony, which allowed this group to keep their melancholic mood going from Wednesday.  This approach worked best in the third movement, for a off-kilter dance, and especially in the pensive final movement.  Mälkki is still a bit too blockish in her approach, which broke up the flow of the first two movements – and oddly meant less precision where Mahler’s lines run into or against each other.  But she warmed, the music cooled, and the audience was left hanging in the balance, where we belonged, questioning our existence.  She and the orchestra earned a much bigger and warmer applause than on Wednesday, well deserved this evening.

Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Liszt, Elgar, Britten, Bartók, Sibelius

Eighty years ago, about 20% of the population of Salzburg came out to burn books.  They mostly burned books written by or about, or which had even belonged to, Jews – but since there really were not so many Jews in this extreme anti-Semitic town, they added others to the pyre: those of pro-Habsburg monarchists and of anyone who had spoken out against the incorporation of Austria into Germany.  The Salzburg University Library, across the lane from the Great Festival House, is one of several places in the town remembering this event with exhibits, in this case outward-facing posters in the ground floor windows depicting Salzburg citizens whose books were burned and the Salzburg Nazis who burned the books.  Across from the door where I entered the Great Festival House this evening, Max Reinhardt’s face stared out.  Reinhardt founded the Salzburg Festival and made this city an important cultural center – and the Salzburgers hated him for it and saw the Festival as a plot by international Jewry to take over Salzburg (oh, they’ve loved the Festival ever since the Nazis appropriated it in 1938 and of course from the 1950s to the 1980s under its intendant, the unrepetant Nazi Herbert von Karajan).  Broken, Reinhardt died in exile in 1943.

Salzburg is a beautiful city, but it is a beauty tarnished.  So this exhibit seemed like a good scene-setter for this evening’s concert of the Helsinki Philharmonic, visiting Salzburg for three concerts this week (I’ll go again on Friday – would have gone tomorrow too, but that’s my Mozarteum Orchestra Thursday subscription concert).   Susanna Mälkki conducted a program of melancholy.

Ferenc Liszt‘s tone poem Orpheus opened the concert.  Liszt wrote this as a new prelude for a revision he did of Gluck’s opera Orpheus and Eurydice, to describe pure beauty cast into the depths of the underworld.  Edward Elgar wrote his Cello Concerto (performed here with Norwegian soloist Truls Mørk) in the aftermath of the carnage of the First World War and as his wife lay dying.  Béla Bartók, who had opposed the Nazis and fled to the United States, wrote his Concerto for Orchestra while consumed by abject poverty and leukemia in his New York exile – it would be the last work he completed before he died.  (Janne SibeliusValse Triste concluded the concert as an encore, the sad waltz from his incidental music to a play called Death.)  So much beauty; so much sadness.

The orchestra carried this mood throughout the concert, although there was a certain humor to the warped tunes in the final two movements of the Bartók.  Mørk was not quite up to the level of Sol Gabetta (whom I heard perform the Elgar concerto with the Vienna Philharmonic last month) – it’s a difficult piece to get right.  He exhibited a fuller understanding of a solo encore work (a movement from the Cello Suite #2) by Benjamin Britten, in which he could display a bigger sound, capturing the instrument’s deep – and deeply human – voice.  Meanwhile, Mälkki’s conducting was rather blockish – very heavy-handed and abrupt, not always drawing out the lines to their fullest or allowing the orchestra to sing.  The audience applause was polite but underwhelming (this was my Wednesday Kulturvereinigung subscription concert with the usual crowd, so I can indeed compare the reaction to other concerts).  It wasn’t a bad performance at all, just not quite to the level I think the audience expected.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Haydn, The Creation

 

The Mozarteum Orchestra created the world in the Great Festival House this evening.  Or at least part of it did.  When Joseph Haydn conducted his oratorio himself, he used 120 instrumentalists.   Tonight, conductor Matthew Halls only employed about 50 (seemingly those orchestra members that Krzysztof Penderecki did not use for his own reduced-orchestra Beethoven 7th on Sunday morning).

This is actually a rather whimsical work, with Haydn having illustrated everything from hopping rabbits to the waters flooding the earth.  Halls elicited some appropriately descriptive playing from the orchestra in full color portraits.  But the reduced forces meant that the work never became as monumental as it should have – indeed, it felt quite constrained, and at times even dragged.  These were elaborate miniature portraits, rather than a gradiose set of murals.

Among the soloists, the 28-year-old Austrian soprano Christina Gansch, doubling up as both the Angel Gabriel and Eve, shone.    She managed a rare triple, succeeding in pureness of tone, fullness of voice, and dramatic presence.  She is certainly someone to watch out for on the opera stages of the future (or today, for that matter).  German baritone Daniel Ochoa as both the Angel Raphael and Adam, matched her in drama, but not always in voice (though not bad, he simply got outshone).  Austrian tenor Bernhard Berchtold as the Angel Uriel had a nice voice, I suppose, but it was not very big and he lacked drama.  Perhaps he could stick to chamber music (although he does not seem to inflect enough to do Lieder, so I am actually not sure what his ideal repertory would be – maybe some minor Russian character-tenor roles?).  The Salzburg Bachchor provided an idiomatic backdrop.