Royal Philharmonia of Galicia, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Arriaga, Rodrigo, Sanz, Albéniz, Falla, Montes

The second night of the Royal Philharmonia of Galicia‘s visit to Salzburg’s Great Festival House with guest conductor Pablo González allowed the orchestra to confirm that it does indeed play with a full palette of warm Spanish colors.

Tonight’s program provided a wider sweep of Spanish music than yesterday.  The concert opened with the Symphony in d by Juan Crisóstomo de Arriaga.  This was a curiosity, in the same sense as works on the Mozarteum Orchestra’s concert two weeks ago: a rarely-performed work by a little-known composer who made a splash in his own time (indeed, this same symphony is on the Mozarteum Orchestra’s next Thursday subscription concert program, which I would miss even if I were in Austria as it falls on the night of the second Seder).  Arriago, a child prodigy known as the “Spanish Mozart” (incorrectly according to the program, as he did not bloom as young as Mozart and was a contemporary of Schubert, whose early career he paralleled, meaning the program thought he should be known as the “Spanish Schubert”) wrote the work when he was about 18 years old – and he died 10 days shy of his 20th birthday.  The work was pleasant enough and may have been better than the curiosities on the Mozarteum Orchestra’s program last month (except for the Schubert “Unfinished” which this did not come close to matching).  What Arriaga might have accomplished if he had lived even as long as Schubert (who died at 31 years old), we can only guess.

Joaquín Rodrigo‘s Concierto de Aranjuez followed.  The orchestra once again provided full color.  Unfortunately, they miked the solo guitarist, Enrike Solinís.  What is with the microphones?  Granted the guitar does not project as much as some instruments, and must perform here with a full orchestra, but González seemed to be in control on the podium, so could and should have managed the balance.  Instead, at points the sound came across as very electric (and not in a good way).  We had a similar problem for the solo guitar piece Solinís provided as an encore (Canarios by Gaspar Sanz).

After the intermission came two excerpts from Iberia by Isaac Albéniz, in a new (and utterly terrible) orchestration by Jesús Rueda.  Rueda combined the instruments in dreadful ways, seemingly wanting to stress dissonance and combinations of sounds that did not quite go together, while jumping among instruments to break up all flow in the dancing lines.  If this orchestra had been prone to more errors elsewhere in the concert, I would almost believe the orchestra itself was a chaotic mess – but since the orchestra was consistently good everywhere else, with wonderful lines even when individual instruments were exposed, then I can only conclude that Rueda’s orchestration was a mess.  What a shame.

The final scheduled work repeated El Amor Brujo by Manuel de Falla that we heard last night.  It was once again a great success for the orchestra… but not for the soloist María José Pérez.  She was miked once again.  And while she understood the specialized style of Spanish Gypsy singing, the tinny twang from amplification just did not work.  I’ve heard better Spanish Gypsy singing anyway in my many years spending time in Spain, even in smaller spaces, but if she cannot fill a concert hall then she should go back to Almería to some small venue more her size.

She gave us a solo encore (a traditional Flamenco number) – but even here, singing solo without needing to project in front of an orchestra, she still used the microphone.  That’s just poor.

González came back out to lead the orchestra in a final encore Negra Sombra by Xoán Montes, the evocative Galician piece which they also performed last night, and which sent the audience out into the night inspired to make a pilgrimage to Santiago, perhaps.

Royal Philharmonia of Galicia, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Falla, Ravel, Gulda, Montes

The Royal Philharmonia of Galicia has come to Salzburg’s Great Festival House this week for a concert series.  The orchestra has brought mostly Spanish music to Salzburg, and this is clearly its thing.  A rather new orchestra (founded only in 1996) from Santiago, it had a full and satisfying sound enhanced by rich Spanish color.  Guest conductor Pablo González kept everything sparkling and idiomatic.

The opening work and encore were both purely instrumental, and here the orchestra showed off at its best.  A suite from Manuel de Falla‘s ballet Sombrero de Tres Picos led off, and as with the encore, Negra Sombra, by Galician composer Xoán Montes Capón, the music danced (flamboyantly when required) and provided drama.

The orchestra proved equally good in the middle portions of the concert, but was saddled with poor soloists and one poor musical selection.  Claire Huangci was the piano soloist for two concerti and one solo encore.  While the piano was presumably the same grand Steinway they usually roll out in this hall and which I therefore hear used often enouth, she managed to make it sound like an upright, with an ugly metallic twang.

The first concerto she did, before the intermission, was Ravel‘s.  I assume this snuck into the program because the composer’s mother was a Spanish Basque, and thus he was half-Spanish.  Unfortunately, he got his compositional style from his French side.  I last heard this concerto (twice) a year ago with the sad circumstances of pianist Alice Sara Ott’s tour right after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.  Ott took a soft approach last year, whereas Huangci was more robust now.  So the work sounded completely different – but it’s still not very good, since Ravel could not really figure out what he was trying to say, creating instead a mass of confusion without a point.  Ravel is unjustly remembered as a great orchestrator (because he indeed did do a great orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition), but generally his orchestrations, if not thin, at least feel like he never got around to finishing the score.  That was true for this concerto too – so not only did he not know what he wanted to say, but he never quite said it either.

The second concerto, after the break, was a better composition: Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain.  Falla of course spent some time in Paris where he fell under the influence of Ravel, Debussy, and other useless French composers.  But Falla had substance, and his work had all the color that Ravel’s lacked.  If it had not been for Huangci’s metallic playing, I might have even forgotten there was a piano there.  As it was, I still enjoyed the orchestral bits – both in tutti and the evocative solo work by the various first chairs.

Huangci bashed the life out of the piano for an encore after the Ravel.  No idea what it was (UPDATE: the Kulturvereinigung has helpfully identified it as Toccata by Friedrich Gulda), but the wild and crazy piece probably was intended to show us she could be very dexterous.  But when Khatia Buniatishvili, sitting in this same hall (possibly even on the same piano) last summer went wild on the keyboard, we got great amounts of subtlety within the craziness.  Huangci just couldn’t manage that.

The final scheduled work – after Nights in the Gardens of Spain and before the Montes encore – was another one by Falla: El Amor Brujo.  Once again, we had some fun orchestral playing.  But now the soloist was mezzosoprano María José Pérez.  She actually had the Spanish gypsy idiom down, more or less (I’ve heard better Spanish gypsy singing, but her style was OK).  Her problem was mostly that she required amplification.  Even with a good speaker system in the hall, this still made her voice sound tinny.  If I want music to sound like a recording, I will listen to a recording (presumably with an even better singer).  If I go to a live concert, I expect to hear live music, unamplified.  If she cannot project her voice, she needs another career.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Borodin, Say, Prokofiev

Most of the Mozarteum Orchestra‘s first chairs seemed to have taken this morning off, but no matter: the orchestra nonetheless produced wonderful, colorful, evocative music worth waking up early on a Sunday morning for.

Russian conductor Andrei Boreiko chose to highlight eastern sounds in classical music, and this let him feature many individual lines that contributed to the orchestra members getting the chance to demonstrate their versatility.  He opened the concert with the Polovtsian Dances from Borodin‘s opera Prince Igor – here performed using the orchestral lines only.  Although the operatic excerpt sounded distinctly odd without the chorus, with the singers out of the way we had a chance to hear the underlying orchestral lines more clearly.  And so while I would not necessarily recommend this particularly wordless version (which defies the Erich Leinsdorf rule against performing operatic excerpts without the singing – orchestral excerpts should be limited to orchestra-only passages in the opera), as an opportunity to listen to the “eastern” (not just Russian, but the Turkic tribes that made up the peoples the early Russians referred to as “Polovtsians”) textures Borodin set for the instruments, particularly the winds, it was a worthwhile exercise.  And we got much fine playing.

I do not believe I have ever heard music by Turkish pianist-composer Fazil Say before, so the next item on the program was bound to be a new experience: Say’s violin concerto 1001 Nights in the Harem, with the talented Spanish violinist Leticia Moreno.  Say incorporated Anatolian Turkish sounds into the classical tradition, particularly use of percussion.  One thinks of the “Turkish” music popular in Austria in the 18th and 19th Centuries, which used Turkish instruments – but in this case Say employed not just the instruments but also actual Turkic music into the mix.  The blend of traditions worked well, balanced by Boreiko, with Moreno’s lively dexterous performance in front of a fully-engaged and engaging Mozarteum Orchestra.

Prokofiev‘s Fifth Symphony came as the lone work after the intermission.  Here the horde from the East was not Turkic, but Russian (although there is the saying: scratch a Russian, find a Tatar).  Prokofiev wrote the symphony to mark Russia’s invasion of Poland for the second time in the Second World War – this time to drive the Germans out (the first time they invaded Poland during that war, they were allied with Germany and divided Poland up between them).  Boreiko’s interpretation lacked some of the drive I have heard in other performances of this symphony, but he seems to have done this in order to focus on the finer details: a clear relationship to the evocative sounds from the Borodin excerpt that opened the concert, as well as to some of the angularity – particularly in the percussion – of Say’s concerto.  The orchestra clearly appreciated the chance Boreiko gave them to show off their talent – the guest conductor crafted the sounds, but did not make the performance about himself but rather about the musicians who actually produced the music: a felicitous combination all around.

Berlin Konzerthausorchester, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Tschaikowsky, Saint-Saëns, Kobekin, Khachaturian

For the second night in a row, the 25-year-old Russian cellist Anastasia Kobekina outshone an entire orchestra.  She brought the Saint-Saëns first cello concerto to Salzburg’s Great Festival House – like the Tschaikowsky Rococo Variations last night, a work that itself never really went anywhere.  But the music did allow Kobekina to showcase what she could accomplish with instrument.  As yesterday, I found in her playing a cross between Steven Isserlis and Mischa Maisky – fantastically adept and nuanced playing with a gorgeous tone spanning the range from below the normal scale to way above it.

The Berlin Konzerthausorchester essentially stayed out of her way – just enough there, under the expert leadership of Dmitri Kitayenko, to provide the necessary background for Kobekina, but no more.

Kobekina followed up the concerto with a piece her father Vladimir Kobekin wrote for her: Fantasy on a French Theme for Cello and Tambourine (performed with one of the orchestra’s percussionists).  This was a 21st-century rewrite of a mediaeval dance, not losing the original formal dance but adding on top of it new sounds and techniques in a clever and multi-faceted whole and allowing her to demonstrate her entire range of styles in a thrilling manner.

As for the rest of the concert (Tschaikowsky‘s Manfred Symphony before the intermission, and three excerpts from Khachaturian‘s ballet Spartacus to conclude the concert): my assessment of this orchestra remains the same from last night.  They are generally emotionless, although in some of the bigger passages (essentially parts of the final movement of Manfred tonight and of Rachmaninov’s 2nd yesterday, as well as some more active parts of the ballet selections each evening) they did throw themselves into the music more.  But generally they lack passion.  Kitayenko is a very restrained conductor, but was clearly trying to craft an expansive sound; the orchestra followed and was technically pretty good (except the woodwinds again, who have neither a pleasant sound nor the harsher but idiomatic tone taught in Russia) but basically went through the motions.  The horns and percussion again stood out in a good way, as did the harps this evening, and the rest of the brass was decent, but otherwise the orchestra just came off as generally lacking soul.

The orchestra gave no encores either night, not that the audience wanted any.  This concert program repeats tomorrow – without me in the hall – as the orchestra concludes its three-night visit.

Berlin Konzerthausorchester, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Prokofiev, Tschaikowsky, JS Bach, Rachmaninov

The Berlin Konzerthausorchester, house orchestra of that (over-rated) concert hall and one of the successors of the old Berlin Symphony Orchestra, a once-good orchestra in former East Berlin, has come to Salzburg for a three-day set.

The band was never in a class with the Berlin Philharmonic in West Berlin, but was established by the communists as a cross-town rival and was formerly rather respectable musically.  I am aware that it split at some point, with one successor orchestra keeping the name and the other one keeping the venue (hence changing its name to match the venue).  What I do not know is if that split had any connection to the precipitous drop in quality.  The original band made numerous high-quality recordings that gave it a global profile, and then at some point the orchestra seems to have faded completely from sight (they did come to Salzburg about five years ago, so I got to hear them then too – but in my only visit to Berlin a few years ago, I heard not this orchestra but rather the Philadelphia Orchestra on the stage of the Berlin Konzerthaus.)

One reason that the orchestra is globally much lower profile these days, of course, is that it just is not up to the level (I have not heard the orchestra that retained the “Symphony” name, but have no reason to believe it is any better).  The Berlin Konzerthausorchester is not actually a bad orchestra (I do hear worse in my frequent concert-going), but I score it down because I try to rate orchestras based on their supposed level – I would certainly not criticize a student orchestra for failing to meet the standards of the Vienna Philharmonic, for example.  But given the history of where this orchestra once was, I do think it is fair to treat it as though the expectation is its former standard.

This orchestra performs reasonably well technically, but lacks passion for music (I noticed that when they were here in 2015, so it’s endemic).  Well, maybe actually the woodwinds showed some passion this evening, but that was unfortunate since they really were not all that good, hitting the notes (or most of them) but producing a strained and un-lyrical tone.  The large string section played smoothly but mechanically.  The brass was acceptable.  Actually, the horn section was pretty good, and the percussionists seemed to enjoy themselves.

Dmitri Katayenko took the podium this evening (thankfully: the orchestra’s music director is actually the tedious Christoph Eschenbach, although possibly Eschenbach and the Berlin Konzerthausorchester might be meant for each other).  Kitayenko is good, but only had so much to work with given this orchestra.  The main piece, after the intermission, was Rachmaninov‘s Symphony #2 – indeed, I first heard this symphony on an old Melodiya LP with Kitayenko conducting the Moscow Philharmonic (which he led in Soviet days), and it was that recording that made me an instant fan of this work.  Kitayenko still understands this symphony and crafted it well from the podium.  The orchestra was proficient enough to follow, but not proficient enough to create the full mood or mystery.  There were flashes – particularly when the horns had something to say, as well as much of the final movement.  But more feeling from the orchestra would have helped.

The first half of the concert opened with excerpts from Romeo and Juliet by Prokofiev.  By selecting a handful of spicier numbers, Kitayenko did manage to rouse the orchestra partly.

The star of the evening, however, was the soloist, the 25-year-old Russian cellist Anastasia Kobekina.  She produced a gorgeous dark full sound and had a real personality.  At moments I thought I could hear traces of the lyricism of Steven Isserlis or the warmth of Mischa Maisky.  She is definitely someone to look out for in the future, with a promising career ahead (actually well underway – she started touring young – but as she matures I’m convinced she’ll get even better).  She joined the orchestra for Tschaikowsky‘s Variations on a Rococo Theme, which is not actually a particularly good work.  It starts out with a theme derivative of Mozart and then doesn’t take it anywhere interesting.  But Kobekina outshone the entire orchestra – she was going places.  And she followed this with a JS Bach work for solo cello – far more elaborate than what Tschaikowsky produced, with its intellectual mathematical structures.  And it was nice to enjoy Kobekina’s performance without an orchestra.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Pfitzner, Gruchmann, Schubert

Franz Schubert‘s Great C Major Symphony (#9 according to standard numbering, #8 according to reality and today’s program book, #7 according to publication – but always the “Great C Major”) is a standard of the repertory, and pops up in my concert schedule almost every year.  Recent performances – even good ones – have left me wanting.  Today’s, with the Mozarteum Orchestra under Constantin Trinks, did not.  It’s not that I necessarily heard anything new (I have heard some intelligent interpretations over the years accomplishing that), but Trinks and the Mozarteum Orchestra gave a full-bodied rendition of this symphony, each movement pulsating and lively.

Schubert had intentionally written a big one: as of his time, the longest purely-orchestral symphony.  Unperformed at his death, it was dusted off a decade or so later, when Schubert’s brother gave a copy to Robert Schumann, who appreciated its value and passed it further on the Felix Mendelssohn, who gave the work its premiere and became its champion, despite ridicule in other circles.  Apparently people said it was unplayable, but that merely their incompetence.  For the Mozarteum Orchestra, it clearly is not unplayable.  And if it is purely orchestral, the lovely winds provided the voices with exquisite and emotional playing.

The concert had opened with the preludes to all three acts of Palestrina by Hans Pfitzner.  The opera tells the legend of how the composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina saved music from a papal ban.  The prelude to the first act starts with a chorale for four flutes, and gradually grows – as though the piece is writing itself – to reflect that in the legend an angel had inspired Palestrina to write the mass that convinced the pope and his retinue of the value of music, and once Palestrina started writing, so inspired, he did not pause.  For a full-sized orchestra, the Mozarteum Orchestra nevertheless managed the delicate lines with tenderness.  Pfitzner’s late-romantic music, used the conventions and orchestral palette of of 1917 to portray the 16th-century master.

The next set of works also bridged the centuries: the young Salzburg-born composer Jakob Gruchmann (born 1991) has a style which bridges his own family background in traditional folk music with the avant-garde, and today’s concert including two contrasting works by him.  The first was Pictures of Heaven based on five frescos in the Thurgau parish church depicting the life of St. Martin.  Gruchmann set this music to texts by Sulpicius Severus, who knew St. Martin and had written his biography in the fourth century.  The string orchestra bridged traditional motives with more modern tonalities, supplemented by a percussion section whose main role seems to have been to make it all funky, but never overbearing (after all, this is religious music, in a way).  Russian soprano Alexandra Lubchansky gave the Latin texts full intonation, perfectly balanced with the orchestra and depicting the emotions of the scenes.

The final piece before the intermission was the world premiere of Gruchmann’s Wer vom Ziel nicht weiß (“he who does not know of the goal”), a poem by Christian Morgenstern – a piece commissioned by this Orchestra for this morning to serve as a bridge from Pfitzner to Schubert.  This was a little more jarring.  Lubchansky got more heated (without losing her wonderful tone) to assert herself with the rumbling orchestra (strings, six horns, and a tuba).  Worth hearing, and it did pull the morning along from Pfitzner to Schubert, but I’m not sure it spoke to me.  Pictures of Heaven (premiered in 2010) was better.  But it did demonstrate the versatility and creativity of Gruchmann and was well worth a listen.

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Beethoven

This year marks the 250th anniversary of Beethoven‘s birth, so we should be getting no end to his music.  That’s fine with me – the man was a genius who forever changed the course of music.  If I am sick and tired of Mozart and Tschaikowsky, whose music is nice but horribly over-performed, I will likely never tire of Beethoven.  Yet I realize the problem arises: what more can performances say with this repertory?

The Vienna Symphony Orchestra comes up to perform in Salzburg’s Great Festival House for a concert every two winters.  This year they came with their chief conductor Philippe Jordan, the Swiss in his final year with them (he is taking over as the music director of the Staatsoper this year).  My understanding is that Jordan and the Symphoniker have already done several cycles of the Beethoven symphonies for the last several years.  And while I suppose that has served as warm-up for this year, it does run the risk that these works become too routine.

Tonight, Symphonies #5 and #6 lacked freshness.  The performances were basically fine (although Vienna’s second-best orchestra, it is one of the top dozen in the world; Jordan is also an accomplished conductor of the 40-ish generation, even if not quite as exciting as his contemporaries Andris Nelsons, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, or Vladimir Jurowski, whom I would rate the most exceptional from that generation).  But they performed from rote, and added nothing special, making tonight’s much-anticipated performance somewhat of a disappointment.  The notes were there, it was Beethoven’s heavenly music, but I suppose I wanted and expected more.

The last time I heard the 5th, last year, Nelsons conducted the Vienna Philharmonic, in a somewhat edgier performance, following on the 4th (not the 6th, so an unusual pairing and way to appreciate both symphonies more).  I heard the 6th last in 2016, with Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla frenetically leading Salzburg’s Mozarteum Orchestra, in an interpretation clearly designed to make the listener uncomfortable, and remind us that although today it seems a rather sedate work, the 6th shocked the music world in its own time as a revolutionary construction.  Her interpretation, though radical, made the audience appreciate the symphony that much more.

Incidentally, Jordan and the Symphoniker did demonstrate they could provide more excitement during the encore: the overture Beethoven wrote to the incidental music for Goethe’s Egmont.  This reading contained the drama the performances of the two symphonies lacked.

The orchestra performed the symphonies in reverse order – the same order in which they appeared on the program at the concert where Beethoven led their premieres.  Although a concert of legend (mostly due to people thinking about it after-the-fact), that 22 December 1808 concert did not go so well: the orchestra was under-rehearsed, and Beethoven himself conducted although already mostly deaf.  Doing just the two symphonies this evening, even with the encore, made for a short concert.  I suppose if this orchestra wished to do something special, they could have scheduled the entire program from 22 December 1808: it had included not only the premieres of these two symphonies, but also excerpts from Beethoven’s Mass in C (premiered the previous year) and the premieres of the Piano Concerto #4 and Choral Fantasy.  Performed right, reviving that famous concert would be an evening to remember Beethoven’s genius.

Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Grieg, Mozart, Rossini, Þorvaldsdóttir, Sibelius

Yesterday evening, the first snow of the year fell in Salzburg.  This evening, the Iceland Symphony Orchestra arrived in the Great Festival House.  Coincidence?

The concert included mostly Nordic music, for which this orchestra obviously has a natural affinity.  Their overall tone came off a bit thin for a full-sized orchestra, mostly an odd lack of undertones which made the icy upper registers sound somehow less full.  Under the baton of Daníel Bjarnason, their first guest conductor (they are apparently between music directors at the moment), they also played hesitantly at times – knowing well what they were doing but lacking confidence.  They sounded nice overall, but if they had just played more robustly they might have made a bigger impression.

The concert included five excerpts from Edvard Grieg‘s incidental music to Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt, Aeriality by Icelandic composer Anna Þorvaldsdóttir (a moody piece utilizing percussion and double basses to creative effect, which seemed to be building to some sort of climax, but just as it almost erupted into a chorale about ten minutes in decided not to and carried on without resolution for another five minutes), and the Fifth Symphony of Janne Sibelius (and Sibelius’ Valse Triste as an encore at the end of the concert).  After the Grieg and before the intermission, Croatian hornist Radovan Vlatković joined the orchestra for the Horn Concerto #3 by Wolfgang Amadé Mozart, which came across as odd among the Nordic surroundings.  Vlatković performed fluidly, but had a somewhat cold tone – was he mimicking the Nordic sound, or is his horn just sour?  Mozart’s horn music should be much warmer.

As an encore before the intermission, Vlatković and five Icelandic hornists managed a much warmer sound full of good humor: a little piece for horn ensemble by Gioachino Rossini.  No conductor for that one meant they played much more confidently.  While nothing seemed out of place for Bjarnason, I do wonder if that made the difference.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Weinberg, Brahms

I still cannot believe I was unaware of the existence of Moishe Weinberg as recently as five years ago.  Now I plan my schedule to incorporate rare performances of his music.  One of the greatest composers of the 20th Century, he was first championed by Dmitri Schostakowitsch (who served as a mentor for the younger Weinberg, but admitted Weinberg may indeed have been more talented).  One of his most recent champions is the brilliant young Lithuanian conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, who led the Mozarteum Orchestra this morning in his Second Symphony.

Scored only for string orchestra, this Symphony produced rich complexities which combined the intimacy of a sting quartet with the full-bodied sounds of a symphonic work.  Multiple lines (even among instrument groups) weaved in and out throughout the three-movement symphony, capturing vast sonorities sometimes almost delicately.  The first movement strung together a series of dances, but warped by the aftermath of the Holocaust (Weinberg was the only member of his family to survive – when he wrote this in 1945-46 in his Moscow exile he may still have been unaware of their fate but presumably knew it could not have been good).  The bleak second movement may have been too bleak even for the Russians, and may be the reason the Soviet authorities suppressed this symphony for nearly two decades (they did not permit it to have its premiere until 1964, a fate which often befell Weinberg’s works and which contributed to his oblivion despite his enormous talents and the high quality of his music at so many levels).  The moods of the first two movements combined to form the finale, but rather than rehash, Weinberg found new themes and tonalities, particularly in expansion of pizzicato to set the music on edge.

Under the impulse of Gražinytė-Tyla and the Stadler Quartet (formed by Mozarteum Orchestra members led by the concertmaster), there will be a Weinberg Festival in Salzburg in early December to mark the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth, featuring a good selection (by no means anywhere near complete) of his chamber music.  It has not had much publicity (Gražinytė-Tyla alluded to it but gave no details when making some introductory remarks at a concert featuring Weinberg’s music performed by the Stadler Quartet last Spring), but a few (not many) fliers were lying around in the lobby of the Great Festival House this morning, and I am now figuring out how to plan my schedule to get to as many of the performances as possible.  I’d say others should do the same.

The novelty and creativity of Weinberg’s work overshadowed the program’s main advertised piece, which came after the intermission: Brahms‘ Requiem, perhaps that composer’s greatest and most monumental work, and certainly his most original.  Gražinytė-Tyla recognized it as a very personal work despite its size, and so rather than making it a giant piece (although there were indeed 150 performers on stage) with at times swelling fortes, she kept it intimate (not quiet in the big parts – suitably loud where that was necessary – just intimate).  For this work, the Salzburg Bach Chorus and soloists Günther Haumer and Robin Johannsen (she a very late substitute – so late that not only did they not have time to put an insert in the program, they did not even print up pieces of paper to post at the entrance to alert concert-goers of the change) joined the Mozarteum Orchestra and Gražinytė-Tyla to make a balanced, sensitive, and emotional whole.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Glinka, Bartók, Saint-Saëns

I spent a colorful (if dark colors) Sunday morning with the Mozarteum Orchestra in Salzburg’s Great Festival House.  The three works on the program did not logically fit together, except perhaps for their color palette.  Riccardo Minasi, the orchestra’s music director, certainly saw to that.

The overture to Mikhail Glinka‘s opera Ruslan and Lyudmila energized the hall from the outset.  Glinka used dark Russian colors to highlight folk and dance-able music.  Although the overture is well-known, the opera gets performed rarely, which in my opinion is a huge oversight – indeed, a good production of this opera (such as the only time I have seen it performed, by the Novaya Opera in 2010, a production I remember fondly) is magical in a way Mozart’s Zauberflöte can be and would hook generations of children on opera.  I keep repeating this every time I hear the overture in a concert, in the hope that someone might actually start programming the entire opera (and not some imbecilic self-important German opera director, but rather someone with actual talent interested in staging the opera).  The overture is fun; the whole opera is more so.

When Béla Bartók died in 1945, he was still working on a viola concerto.  One of his students completed the orchestration, and fifty years later Bartók’s son made additional tweaks, to produce the version we heard today.  It also employed dark coloration, alternatingly moody and folkish.  It’s not a work I’d heard before, but would gladly again.  Violist Antoine Tamestit made a wonderful sound and a statement about an under-appreciated instrument.  Indeed, if the question about Glinka’s Ruslan is why that opera is rarely performed, then the question Bartók’s concerto provoked – or at least in this interpretation – is why there are not more viola concerti.  The instrument may not hit the highs of the violin, nor the warm tenor of the cello, but it has something to say in the alto range.

Minasi borrowed the concertmaster’s violin, and accompanied Tamestit in a lively duet to liven the mood as we headed into break.  This was quite short, but maintained positive energy in the house.

The question I had going into the second half of the concert was: why would anyone program Camille Saint-Saëns‘s Symphony #3 (inscribed “With Organ”) in a house that does not contain an organ?  They can and do wheel out an electric simulated organ with speaker amplification, but it’s not the real thing and makes a pitiful substitute.  Indeed, the Dresden Staatskapelle fell on its face in this house in 2017 trying to do just that.  But Minasi and the Mozarteum Orchestra had an answer to this question.  Instead of having the organ as a central part of the music, they instead highlighted the rich symphonic colors (Saint-Saëns was of course inspired by the tone poems of Ferenc Liszt, in whose memory he wrote the work), and the organ emerged almost as an afterthought, augmenting the depth of the colors but not actually painting them itself.  This approach worked under the circumstances (the symphony is thrilling with a proper organ, but without one this alternative interpretation was quite good as well).

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Beethoven, Stravinsky

The new concert season opened while I was in India, so this evening was my first.  Pianist Herbert Schuch joined Riccardo Minasi and the Mozarteum Orchestra in the Great Festival House for two Beethoven concerti, followed after the break by Stravinsky‘s Rite of Spring.

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #2, actually his first in order of composition, was not a fully-developed work, and indeed came off unconvincing when Lang Lang and the Camerata under Manfred Honeck performed it at the Festival during the Summer.  But perhaps they tried to do too much with it.  Schuch, Minasi, and the Mozarteum took a much more reserved approach this evening, and while that did not improve the quality of the concerto (still a student experiment that Beethoven himself did not think very highly of), they did manage to make it lyrical and demonstrate the talent that this composer would use to bring music into the 19th century.  All together, this performance exceeded the one at the Festival by every measure.

In contrast, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #5 may mark the absolute pinnacle of the Fach. These forces approached it similarly to how they did the second concerto, never trying to overwhelm anything, but now with far superior music.  The orchestra highlighted substantial dance, with Schuch providing glistening tinkling to augment the delicate colors.  Though not a robust performance, it worked well to demonstrate the composer’s development and consistency, even in contrast with his less-substantial earlier concerto.

Schuch provided an encore: a bagatelle by Beethoven, which he made look forward almost to a Strauß waltz.  However, as a solo work, it left him exposed.  The tingling technique did not succeed as well without the orchestra to provide some heft.

After the intermission, the orchestra showed its full colors with Stravinsky’s nutso ballet.  The tone was all there, but one thing was missing: the ballet.  Although quite a wild work, Stravinsky did intend performers to dance to it.  Minasi coaxed all the right tones and complicated dissonance from the orchestra, which sounded amazing, but he made the sections too detached, and lost the flow even within sections.  He is maturing as a conductor and should be applauded for his thoughtful programming, but he may not quite be there yet with some of this twentieth century music.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Beethoven, Bruckner

Bernard Haitink announced earlier this year that, at 90 years old, he would take a sabbatical after the end of the Summer.  It is widely understood he will never return.  This made for an emotional final concert at the Salzburg Festival this morning, with Haitink at the helm of the Vienna Philharmonic (these forces will repeat this same program at the London Proms and Luzern Festival after this, so it’s not quite his final performance yet – two more).

The concert opened with Beethoven‘s Piano Concerto #4 with soloist Emanuel Ax.  Conductor, orchestra, and pianist kept everything light and lyrical.  There is much going on in this concerto, but these forces made it seem almost easy (“almost” in that we could actually hear how much was going on given the clear playing, so we knew that despite the sound it could not have been easy).  Ax gave an encore, a lively if not flamboyant work (once again, as someone who does not generally care for and almost never listens to solo piano music, I was left to make an educated guess; I might guess Chopin, but don’t really know).

After the intermission came the real emotions for Bruckner‘s Seventh Symphony.  This work had its premiere from the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester, but as evidenced on Wednesday, that orchestra (which has preserved its distinct quality and sound) may just not be the right orchestra for Bruckner.  The Vienna Philharmonic certainly is the right orchestra.  This morning they sounded bright and played with just the right emotional balance.  They carried the lyrics over from Beethoven, but passed them through almost eighty years of musical development to reach not light and lyrical but actually somber and lyrical, a difficult balance to pull off (easy for this orchestra).

Haitink, conducting with his score closed on the music stand, had well-measured beats.  He periodically propped himself up against the barstool-like seat made available for him on the podium.  At the end, clearly exhausted, he needed to be helped to walk on and off the stage for the standing ovation and multiple curtain calls (including an extra one after the orchestra had left the stage).   I remember first seeing him conduct live (although I don’t remember what) when I lived in London in 1991-92 (and had my favorite seat in the pre-renovation Royal Festival Hall directly behind the brass able to read their music while facing the conductors – post-renovation these seats are higher and further removed, but back then it was a great way to learn music with some of the cheapest tickets for anything in that overpriced city).  Of course I knew of his work previously.

Leipzig Gewandhausorchester, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Bruckner

Andris Nelsons and the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester brought a peculiar interpretation of Bruckner‘s Eighth Symphony to the Festival this evening, representing less a cathedral of sound (as this work normally is) and more a great expanse of penitents seeking absolution under the open sky.  If Sunday’s Beethoven Ninth with Kirill Petrenko and the Berliners was an apotheosis of joy in praise of a benevolent Creator dwelling above the stars to bless humanity, this may have been somewhat the opposite.  That’s not a bad thing, just different.

The default volume this evening was, strangely, piano.  This is not to say that the orchestra performed the majority, nor even the plurality, at that level, only that it kept returning to this volume for the foundational pulse, with everything else coming as an overlay.  And rather than have the orchestra produce a warm and rounded tone, Nelsons had them playing mostly bitter and brash.  He also emphasized not Bruckner’s thick harmonies, but rather his newfound dissonance (Bruckner, late in life, did indeed look into the abyss, although this was not the prevalent mood until the Ninth Symphony).

Despite the intentionally-harsh sounds, there was some real delicacy in the playing, consistent with the Gewandhausorchester’s throwback 18th-century traditional tone (the orchestra has its origins from 1743 and has cultivated a distinct style).  Bach died in Leipzig in 1750, and although I don’t believe he had an association with this orchestra, tonight’s intricate string work showcased an almost Bachian quality, something Bruckner the church organist and professor of counterpoint would certainly have appreciated and indeed which influenced his work.  The woodwinds jumped out where needed (not unnoticed was that at the end of the concert Nelsons gave the first featured bow to the flute section).  That said, the brass were less good – not just the rawness Nelsons cultivated across the performance this evening, but actually botching a few notes too many and sounding less sure in ensemble.  Great tympanist.

Berlin Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Berg, Beethoven

I have not heard the Berlin Philharmonic sound this good in years.  The orchestra had recently become quite clinical in its performances, and its former music director, the otherwise excellent Simon Rattle, had probably stayed too long in post.  Last Summer at the Festival, Rattle looked much happier at the helm of his new orchestra (the London Symphony Orchestra, which sounded happy to have him as well), but the verdict remained out with the Berliners and their new music director, the reclusive and enigmatic Kirill Petrenko.  A year further along, the Berliners seemed determined to return to their former place among the top tier of the world’s orchestras.

Tonight’s program provided a good test: Symphonic Pieces from the Opera Lulu by Alban Berg, and the Symphony #9 by Ludwig van Beethoven.

If the orchestra wanted to be clinical, Berg’s twelve-tone music would have given them a good excuse.  But Berg knew he was writing music, and went a step beyond his teacher Schoenberg, who had developed the formulaic twelve-tone technique, to successfully craft longer works including operas.  Lulu is an opera I once knew reasonably well when I was a child, when I had studied it ahead of seeing it live at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.  Somehow it did not stick with me over the years, getting eclipsed by Berg’s Wozzeck for my affections already while I was an undergraduate, to the point that Lulu fell almost completely off my radar.

Berg assembled these concert pieces when he realized he might never complete the opera (he actually never did) and that the rise of the Nazis in Germany and the writing appearing on the wall in Austria might make it difficult to perform in the German-speaking world even if he did finish it.  So he needed to assemble a half hour or so of music that might make a coherent concert program.  In this he was successful, and the Berliners underscored this with a performance that was anything but clinical.  Marlis Petersen joined the orchestra for the middle movement entitled “Lulu’s song” adding her own clear soprano lines.  In total, the performance stood well on its own as music, utilizing Berg’s idiom which followed the twelve-tone method but also had to maintain a sense of both music and drama.

The Berliners must know Beethoven’s Ninth by heart, so I suppose they could also have ended up being clinical here too.  And once again they were not.  The first three movements represented a battle between a dark world and a human joy, the orchestra sounding almost playful in the juxtaposition.  While there was a tension between the two competing moods – particularly in the first two movements, it was also clear in which direction Beethoven was moving, heading to the triumphant apotheosis of joy in the finale.  I would quibble a bit with Petrenko’s tempi, which were too fast, particularly in the first movement (essentially the same speed as the second movement scherzo) and in the third (one of the symphonic repertory’s great adagio movements, along with those from the Bruckner Eighth and Mahler Third), the third sounding slow only by comparison with what came before.  But the musicality remained.

Joining Petersen in the quartet were Elisabeth Kulman, Benjamin Bruns, and Kwangchul Youn, who blended well together and with the orchestra as a coherent part of the scheme.  Petrenko placed them behind the orchestra, rather than at the front of the stage (where they might more normally be) – but as Petrenko is primarily an opera conductor, he knows well how not to overwhelm the singers even while maintaining a full orchestral tone.  Less successful was the Berlin Radio Chorus, which seems not to have gotten the memo, producing detached staccato and emotionless singing in contrast to the otherwise exhilarating performance.

The Berliners perform at the Festival again tomorrow, but I decided to skip it as I wanted to get through an entire summer without hearing any music by Mozart or Tschaikowsky (I like their music, but they are far too over-rated and over-performed and I need a break from both of them for a while).  I’ll catch the Berliners and Petrenko on a future date and see if their transformation sticks.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mahler

After a run of chamber concerts at the Festival, my final five tickets return me to my usual Fach, the large orchestra concerts starting this morning with an all-Mahler program with the Vienna Philharmonic under Daniel Barenboim.

Barenboim is a perfectly competent if not particularly interesting conductor, so the concert was good but not insightful.  He used the orchestra to paint thick musical canvasses, but did not necessarily do anything with the music that I have not already heard.  Although this morning’s primary work was Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, the natural point of contrast would be to Herbert Blomstedt leading the Philharmonic in Mahler’s Ninth last month, in which Blomstedt opened new worlds within the existing notes and produced a trascendental performance from this orchestra.  Not anywhere in the same league as Blomstedt, Barenboim came across as certain but not always clear, and at times it sounded as though the orchestra could not really follow him.  Also missing: any sense of Angst – and what is Mahler without Angst?

The concert opened with Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, with mezzo Okka von der Damerau as soloist.  Damerau has a full, well-rounded voice.  She warbles a bit at the lower register, which also did not project as well as the upper registers.  But she overall has a clear sound that interacted especially well with the woodwinds, whose colors Barenboim was most intent on drawing out.

Khatia Buniatishvili, Großes Festspielhaus

Schubert, Liszt, Stravinsky

I do not normally get excited about solo piano recitals, but tonight I may have a new favorite pianist.  I have heard Khatia Buniatishvili before in concert – always with orchestra and just never in solo recitals – and acknowledged her stardom.  But at 32 years old she keeps getting better, and a solo evening at the Festival allowed her to show off without an orchestra.

The concert opened with the first four Impromptus by Franz Schubert.  Since she played solo, this meant she could do things which would not be heard with any other instruments present: mezza voce on the piano!  Really?  How is that even possible?  These impromptus were not songs, but pure piano works, but Schubert gave them lyrical qualities, and she took it one step further, making me search for the words that never had existed.

The following works (three more impromptus and the rest of the concert) had swells and indeed wilder playing, but Buniatishvili never lost that lyricism, and mezza voce lines returned when needed, mixed with just the right amount of other dynamics (from dancing melodies through to outright crazy).  One hand could be delicately singing while the other jumped wildly and at volume all over the keyboard (and her third, fourth, and fifth hands added other lines – what, she only has two hands?).

Three Schubert songs followed (with brief pauses but no break for applause between them as she did not lower her hands), in arrangements for piano solo (without words) by Ferenc Liszt: the “Serenade” from Swan Song, “Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel,” and Erlkönig.  Liszt did more than just add the vocal line to the piano accompaniment, but in Lisztian fashion made embellishments.  Buniatishvili not only handled those embellishments masterfully, but she did so by practically keeping the now wordless vocal line, with all the emotion that the missing words would have provided.

After the intermission, things got even crazier, with Liszt’s own works and some Igor Stravinsky.  First after the break came a study for piano of what would eventually become Liszt’s tone poem Mazeppa.  In this version, it was recognizable as the future (better) orchestral work, but with only a piano at her disposal Buniatishvili unleashed herself like the wild horse carrying the chained Mazeppa across the steppe.  There followed Liszt’s piano arrangement of the Hungarian Rhapsody #6 (which Liszt had also orchestrated – but who needs an orchestra with Buniatishvili playing).

The final programmed work was an arrangement Stravinsky did for piano of his ballet Petrushka.  This was not a piano transcription, but rather a fantasy based on the music.  The ballet is colorfully scored, and I would not have expected it to come over well for piano – too much going on (both in contrasting lines and in colors).  Indeed, a few years ago in this hall a husband-and-wife piano team who had performed Mendelssohn’s concerto for two pianos did as an encore part of a Petrushka transcription (maybe even this one) for piano four hands and it indeed was missing a lot.  Yet somehow with only two hands, Buniatishvili managed to get everything in there.  Even watching her do it I am not sure how she did it.

The standing ovation (in a fully-packed Great Festival House – which seats well over 2,000 people) warranted two encores.  First came part of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody #2 in its piano arrangement.  Not only was this not missing the usual orchestra, but it almost seemed she did a parody of a Liszt embellishment of his own work, by adding all sorts of extra notes and riffs, and performing at what seemed like at least double speed.  A few notes were missing here and there (or her finger landed slightly wrong), but these are forgiven because I am flummoxed how she did this at all.

Buniatishvili took down the racing heartbeats in the room with a sedate second encore.  I did not recognize what it was, but it was clearly only there to calm people down rather than for any particular show.  If I had to hazard a guess, I’d guess it may have been Debussy: it seemed to want to go somewhere but never quite get anywhere, and went through a phase that felt like we had been transported to a low class night club late at night with the prostitutes circling a bunch of bored drunk men.  Since with Buniatishvili’s lyrical playing we could almost hear the words not being sung, I’m pretty sure this had to be French.  Chopin had moments like this but usually more class, and Ravel would have been equally as terrible but a bit more modern, so I’ll go with Debussy as an educated guess.  Still, under the circumstances, Buniatishvili did have to sedate everyone (the concert began at 9 p.m. and ended around 11 p.m., so non-nocturnal Festival-goers would need to go back to their hotels to sleep, and this worked).  And she demonstrates so much personality, no matter what she plays, so actually made this rather dreadful piece sound pretty good.

Maurizio Pollini, Großes Festspielhaus

Schoenberg, Nono, Beethoven

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

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

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

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

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

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Verdi, Requiem

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

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

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

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

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