Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Strauss, Bruckner

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Prokofiev, Schostakowitsch

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mahler

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Schostakowitsch, Mahler

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

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

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

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

Stuttgart Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Tschaikowsky, Bach, Elgar

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

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

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

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

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

Norrköping Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Beethoven, Bruckner, Larrson

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

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

Höller then danced back on stage for a flamenco encore.

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

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

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Schubert, Brahms, Strauss

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

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

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

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

Staatskapelle Dresden, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Fauré, Saint-Saëns

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Khachaturian, Rimsky-Korsakov

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

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

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

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

Philharmonie Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Adams, Beethoven

The local youth orchestra, the Philharmonie Salzburg, took the stage of the Great Festival House this evening, under the baton of its founder Elisabeth Fuchs, for Beethoven‘s always-inspiring Ninth Symphony.

This being Salzburg, the young performers attained a high quality.  Fuchs drove the music forward with passion – something that worked well in the first two movements, but less so in the third (slightly too fast) and fourth (slightly too frantic).  The orchestra could not handle the swells in the music so well, never quite achieving full sound, but was far better in the more restrained moments.  Fuchs presumably knows her orchestra, so restrained a bit more of the music than normal, which certainly added drama but also emphasized the failed swells to a greater extent.  Still, overall, this was a fine performance for such an orchestra, which proved adept even at some of Beethoven’s more crazy junctions.

Soloists Ursula LandmayrChrista RatzenböckMichael Nowak, and Matthias Helm made a wonderful quartet (if not always in time with the orchestra, partly because they were stationed on the front of the stage with their backs to the conductor Fuchs in a poorly-advised failure in blocking), backed up (thankfully from the back of the stage) in fantastic fashion by the Salzburger Bachchor.

The concert opened with On the Transmigration of Souls by John Adams, composed as a commission for the New York Philharmonic’s concert on the first anniversary of the September 11th, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center.  This work contained snippets taken from the missing persons photos placed by the victims’ relatives around New York, overlayed on what was supposed to be mood-setting music.  Whoever came up with this idea (possibly Adams himself) had a good concept, but unfortunately the music was by John Adams, devoid of any value or meaning.  Not offensive, thankfully, but it did not say anything.  This assessment would have been true on its own, but became compounded in juxtaposition with the Beethoven Ninth after the break (according to the program, Beethoven’s Ninth was indeed also the pairing at the world premiere of Adams’ work.)  Yet Beethoven’s was a work of utter genius with everything to say written almost two centuries before Adams wrote his piece, thereby exposing Adams as a vapid fraud.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mozart

Salzburg’s Mozarteum Foundation runs an annual Mozart Week Festival overlapping the anniversary of the composer’s birthday (27 January 1756).  Quite oddly, these are the most expensive tickets of the year in Salzburg – even more than the Salzburg Festival.  It’s a great mystery why.

I’ve skipped it the last two years as it is extremely hard to justify the prices, but last Summer while renewing my Mozarteum subscription series tickets (quite reasonably priced), I decided to pick up relatively cheaper-end seats for three concerts for this Winter’s Mozart Week while they were still available.  By stroke of bad luck, I now have to go on a last-minute work trip this weekend and will miss two of the concerts (so gave my tickets back to the box office tonight for re-sale), leaving me with only tonight’s concert (and next year’s Mozart Week schedule, just released, looks especially uninteresting, so I won’t be going back any time soon).

The programs mix about 50% or more Mozart with some other themes (this year includes a lot of Haydn).  That’s probably a bit more Mozart than my diet can take, and tonight’s concert was 100% Mozart, but he’s a fun if highly over-rated composer, so I decided to enjoy.  The forces assembled tonight in Salzburg’s Great Festival House – the Vienna Philharmonic under Yannick Nézet-Séguin – promised to make the performances dynamic, and they did not disappoint.

The concert included Symphonies #39 and #40, composed back-to-back but in different styles, which Nézet-Séguin and the Philharmoniker mastered.  For #39, they captured Mozart’s quirky humor, the sudden shifts and surprises, unexpected pauses and changes in direction.  #40 is a bit more serious, and Nézet-Séguin emphasized the thick harmonies hiding under the melodies, giving this work perhaps even more weight than it normally has.

In between the symphonies we were supposed to have a selection of Mozart’s songs performed by Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón (songs not heard so often, which had made this concert particularly appealing to me).  Unfortunately, Villazón came in to rehearse earlier today sick and coughing heavily, so was a late cancelation.  Brazilian pianist Maria João Pines, in town for a concert last night, was on her way to the airport when the Mozarteum called her up and asked her to skip her flight and perform tonight as well.  She did a standard work from the repertory – Piano Concerto #23.  Her playing was workmanlike, lacking sparkle or humor.  About all I can say regarding the others on stage: the orchestra accompanied her.  Nothing particularly wrong with anything, indeed beautiful music, but perhaps paradigmatic of Mozart himself on one of those days when he just did not feel like playing any jokes.  And Mozart’s music without Mozart’s humor is… perfectly nice for a lazy weekend morning, but maybe not for an evening concert with the fashionably overdressed crowd.

Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Dvořák, Rachmaninov, Gluck, Bach

Back again to hear the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra under Andrés Orozco-Estrada in Salzburg’s Great Festival House.  It would appear the orchestra made some adjustments to the hall since Wednesday, as the tone was clearer and some of the peculiarities (like the vibrating forte brass) did not repeat tonight.  So I can possibly put down their Wednesday sounds to insufficient rehearsal time in this hall (maybe – I have no idea; I only know they sounded better tonight).  However, they continue to play with little emotion, more background music for a film soundtrack but without the film.

Tonight’s concert opened with Dvořák‘s tone poem The Midday Witch, a humorous little piece of Czech folklore, which put me at ease that we would not have as murky a concert as on Wednesday.  The music then switched back to Rachmaninov – his fourth piano concerto and the second symphony.

Denis Kozhukhin returned to the keyboard for the concerto.  This is perhaps not as strong a work as the third concerto these forces performed on Wednesday, seemingly lacking direction – a little jazzy, but with no discernable overall concept.  Kozhukhin sounded better – somewhat less pedal – and hit all the notes, but I’m not sure Rachmaninov gave him enough to work with.  His two encores (by Gluck and Bach) repeated from Wednesday and demonstrated more of a match for his style, relaxed and sentimental.

Rachmaninov’s lush second symphony is another moody piece.  When performed right it has a forward drive and excitement to it.  Its legatos would seem suited to this orchestra, but their lack of emotion canceled that out tonight.  It is a long work – nearly an hour – keeping in mood, so it is essential that the conductor and orchestra remain engaged.  The playing was pretty, and the woodwinds especially made an impression, but this performance dragged.  The audience spent the concert audibly fidgeting in the seats.

Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Rachmaninov, Gluck, Bach

The Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra has moved into Salzburg’s Great Festival House for a three-day series of concerts. The first one was part of my Wednesday monthly subscription series, and I also opted for Friday in addition.

The orchestra seems to have become a bit artsy since I last heard it live, now styling itself as the hr Symphony Orchestra (with a lower case hr, short for Hessian Radio – of course Frankfurt is in the German state of Hesse and the state radio is the Hessian Radio, so this name happens to be accurate but peculiar, especially with the lowercase hr). It has a respectable history as the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, so this must be some zany German concept of rebranding a product that does not require a rebranding. One would prefer this orchestra to focus on maintaining its quality rather than coming up with strange marketing gimmicks.

So as for quality: if I did not know the acoustics in Salzburg’s Great Festival House, and/or I were not sitting in my usual seat, I would have assumed that something was wrong with the acoustics in this hall (however I do know the hall and was sitting in my usual spot). The orchestra has acquired a distinctly muddy tone, a bit of a blur as though it were performing in the background of a movie score. As the brass performed forte, there was a distinct vibration, like the sort of feedback that emerges from an old radio speaker when the volume is turned up too high. Of course there was no amplification: this vibration came naturally from the brass, which is just odd. Their Colombian conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada underwhelmed (his previous orchestra, the Tonkünstler of Lower Austria, also saw its level drop noticeably during his tenure).

The young Russian Denis Kozhukhin joined the orchestra at the keyboard for Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto, in what was not a thrilling reading. In fact, maybe the Orchestra was trying to match his style, which sounded like he employed too much pedal and let the notes run together (he hit them all, just not making much distinction). The style may have worked better for two solo encores, by Gluck (an arrangement from Orfeo ed Euridice) and Bach (a prelude), both mellow and requiring less passion than Rachmaninov.

I snuck out at intermission, only because my late-scheduled extra surgery in Vienna first thing in the morning means I needed to make the last train home, and staying to the end of the concert would have cut it too close. I suspect this orchestra’s rendition of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony after the intermission may have lulled me to sleep, too. I will however return to hear more Rachmaninov plus Dvořák on Friday.

 

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Ligeti, Liszt, Chopin, Bartók

A mostly-Hungarian morning with the Mozarteum Orchestra in the Great Festival House, with works by LigetiLiszt, and Bartók (and a piece by Chopin that did not belong in this set).

Ligeti’s Atmosphères took a full orchestra and a full polytonality, but broke down the music into smaller components, each one somehow full but without logical progression.  I suppose any given note or measure was sonorous, but when taken all together we got: I’m not really sure.  When members of the orchestra are holding their ears, it is a bad sign.

The Ligeti did serve as a useful preparation for jumping back a century to Liszt’s second piano concerto.  This work did not keep to the conventions of its day, with six segments (not really movements) played without break.  These also did not generally follow melodic lines, but (especially in this reading by the Scottish conductor Douglas Boyd) also could be abrupt like Ligeti.  Yet Liszt was a master of the idiom, and instead of a dialogue between piano and orchestra, as would have been typical, he made the piano part of the orchestral fabric.  Soloist Tsimon Barto and the orchestra gave a robust performance, a strong centerpiece for the Sunday morning concert.

The concert concluded with Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, written from his US exile, as he lay homesick, impoverished, and dying.  Boyd gave the work a somewhat melancholic interpretation as a result.  But Bartók could indeed show himself as Liszt’s heir in the mastery of Hungarian orchestral color, and the musicians of the Mozarteum Orchestra shone, coming into their own when featured.

Between the Liszt and the Bartók works, Chopin’s Andante Spianato e Grande Polonaise Brillante was far out of place, and not juse because Chopin was not Hungarian.  This was a black and white work in a concert full of color.  Juxtaposed on this program with music by his contemporary Liszt, it provided further evidence that Chopin was more curiosity than visionary in the world of mid-19th Century pianist-composers.  The piano parts said little enough, but one wonders why there was an orchestra there at all.  It did not have a dialogue with the piano (as would have been normal), nor did it follow Liszt’s example of embedding the piano within an orchestral palette.  It seemed more of an afterthought, kind of like how this piece might have ended up on the program in the first place.  Barto, a charismatic performer, could not rescue it.

Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de Méjico, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Moncayo, Oscher, Piazzolla, Chávez, Revueltas

When I got the ticket for tonight’s concert in Salzburg’s Great Festival House with the National Symphony Orchestra of Mexico, I obviously had not expected this might be the last time they can travel before getting walled in by President Trump.  But there we go.

The program tonight provided a selection of Latin American classical music – mostly little-known curiosities.  At the centerpiece stood Pacho Flores, the talented young Venzuelan trumpeter, who joined the orchestra for Mestizo, a trumpet concerto written six years ago by the Uruguayan Efrain Oscher stringing together typical Latin American rhythms, and a somewhat more moody setting for trumpet and orchestra of “Winter” from Four Seasons in Buenos Aires and Oblivion by the Argentinian Astor Piazzolla (plus an unidentified solo encore).  Flores had two trumpets and a flugelhorn on stage with him – and though he only played one instrument at a time, he sometimes sounded like he was covering for multiple instruments, producing a round bold tone that was also warm and sweet.

Mexican music made up the rest of the concert.  The evening had opened with the short Huapango dance piece by José Pablo Moncayo.  After Flores and the intermission came the Sinfonía India by this orchestra’s founder, Carlos Chávez – really a Coplandesque symphony in miniature that moved from theme to theme nicely for ten minutes but easily could (and should) have been longer.

This Chávez piece, and the following one – and the longest work of the evening – a suite of music by Silvestre Revueltas from the 1930s film La Noche de los Mayas, showcased indigenous Mexican instruments predating the Spanish conquest.  Apparently the pre-Spanish society was heavily into percussion, and the augmented percussion session had a range of fanciful additions, including hollowed gourds floating in water (the final movement of the Revueltas also included conch shell horns).  This Revueltas music lost something in the plot when detatched from its film, but still showed the vitality and raw pulse of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.  Another unidentified (but presumably Mexican from a violinist’s shout of ¡Viva Méjico!) work jumped out as an encore.

The orchestra, under its principal conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto performed passionately and with a happy tone.  They clearly relish being ambassadors for their country.  The audience cheered back at them enthusiastically.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Stravinsky, Schwertsik, Lindberg, Gruber

This month’s Sunday morning subscription concert of the Mozarteum Orchestra featured a decidedly contemporary selection.  The composer HK Gruber conducted and introduced each work – a guided tour of the scores, as it were.

The concert opened with something relatively traditional: Four Norwegian Impressions by Igor Stravinsky, written for a film to portray the German occupation of Norway during the Second World War. As Gruber pointed out, the music was not especially martial nor really Norwegian – mostly it was Stravinsky.  These short little-heard pieces were fine music if nothing special – from Stravinsky’s “weak period,” but Gruber said he wished he could write as well as Stravinsky in his “weak period.”

The remaining works on the program were by still-living composers.  Some tone poems followed by Kurt Schwertsik, from his multi-year cycle Earthly Sounds – from which Gruber selected Five Nature Pieces (Wind, Thunder, Rain, Water, Birds) composed in 1984 and With the Giant Boots composed in 1991.  Schwertsik was apparently driven out of his German compositional school for daring to write tonal music.  These were not old-fashioned, just tonal, and relied to a great extent on special effects in the heavily enlarged percussion section.  The Five Nature Pieces, all short, ended up being more gimmick than substance – pleasant enough music, but without the special effects there was not much there.  The piece With the Giant Boots was much longer, which actually meant that Schwertsik had sufficient time to do development in the orchestra, making this a much more satisfying work.  Schwertsik himself came on stage for a long bow and warm applause.

After the intermission came the Clarinet Concerto by Magnus Lindberg, composed in 2002.  Of all the works on this morning’s program, this probably succeeded the most.  It was also tonal, but mixed a range of styles and approaches (and according to Gruber, Lindberg is fond of drastic tempo changes and explored some with us before the piece began).  This may have been the music of George Gershwin if he had lived until 2000 – and had been born in post-Sibelian Finland.  The young British clarinetist Mark Simpson demonstrated all the different skillsets required to pull off the solo parts.

For the last work of the morning, Gruber introduced his own 2002 composition, Dancing in the Dark.  Gruber sees himself as the heir of the Viennese musical tradition, so his music harks back to previous eras while taking new directions.  But this mix of styles and reliance on special effects gets a bit tiresome.  So while nothing was quite wrong with this work, there was no commonality and it never seemed to go anywhere even as it did not quite sit still either.  Maybe if it had come earlier in the concert, or as part of a concert not entirely dedicated to this type of music, it may have fared better just by being original.  Coming at the end today, it simply got lost.

Entertaining curiosities with enlightening presentation – for that we have Gruber to thank.  Other than the Lindberg, I am not sure I need to hear these works again.

Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Schumann, Liszt, Beethoven, Rossini

The young Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili packed the Great Festival House in Salzburg this evening for her concert with the Orchestra of Italian Switzerland.  Her performance of Schumann‘s piano concerto – simultaneously sultry and driven – demonstrated how she has achieved her current star status.

Schumann’s tedious concerto has fine musical moments, but normally drags (Schumann basically extended a fantasy he had written earlier without any new inspiration).  The orchestra, and conductor Markus Poschner, could not do much about that, nor did they (and it showed especially when the orchestra played without piano).  But Buniatishvili pieced together the moments, engaged the orchestra in dialogue, and made one of the more plausible cases for this work that I have heard.

Then she barged out for an encore: Liszt‘s Hungarian Rhapsody #2 – this is a wild work when played by an orchestra, but Buniatishvili played it tonight as a piano transcription, meaning that she also had to capture the missing orchestral parts, and then she did all of this at breakneck speed for a remarkable display of digital acrobatics on the keyboard.  A second encore, something late romantic which I did not recognize, was more sedate and probably necessary to allow the audience heart rates to drop a little before the intermission.

This orchestra is barely larger than a chamber ensemble, so the sound was neither full nor lush enough – especially without Buniatishvili on the piano.  Some of that became less problematic given the choice of music after the intermission: Beethoven‘s Symphony #3, an exceptional piece of music, that Poschner seemed in general to understand for its drama and the orchestra picked up with gusto – and while thin, Beethoven’s music adeptly interpreted more than compensated.

It’s not a bad orchestra, but it did have the timbre of an original instrument ensemble (which it is not – except for the trumpets who played on cumbersome valveless trumpets that required them to constantly insert different-length tubes much to what looked like permanent frustration on their faces).  Only the woodwinds (and especially the fantastic oboist) produced properly rounded sounds.  Poschner also took the first and second movements far too fast (presumably he followed the nonsensical markings Beethoven mistakenly jotted on his scores later when he was given a defective prototype metronome).

The orchestral encore – the overture to the Barber of Seville by Rossini – came off somewhat better.  This is supposed to be a fast work, so the reading was far more idiomatic.  Again, Poschner’s and the orchestra’s sense of drama provoked solid music-making, and as a comic opera overture the thinner orchestra did not detract, but indeed kept it appropriately light and exuberant.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Berlioz, Prokofiev, Schostakowitsch

The first Sunday matinee of the Mozarteum Orchestra‘s new season filled Salzburg’s Great Festival House with music, if with many empty seats as well.  This was a shame, as the orchestra shone under guest conductor Markus Stenz.

The concert overture Roman Festival by Berlioz led kicked off the program full of color.  Derived from music adapted from his opera Benvenuto Cellini, this reworking allowed the individual musicians in the orchestra to showcase themselves while blending to a thrilling whole.  This was moreso apparent in the second work, Prokofiev‘s first violin concerto, where soloist Arabella Steinbacher joined the orchestra.  Her tone was warm and sweet – but never too much so, allowing just enough edge to reflect that Prokofiev, when he wrote this in 1916, remained in the vanguard of new music.  So we got intricate combinations of musicians – introduced by the viole, Steinbacher played a dialogue with the flutes, and then moved on to continue the discussion through the orchestra.  And quite a fun discussion, moving back and forth and around and around, providing stimulation for the mind throughout the masterfull (and underperformed) work, here captured well be these artists assembled on stage.

Steinbacher treated us to an encore – a movement of a sonata by Prokofiev – which allowed her to showcase her talents further.  This time, she carried out the fanciful dialogue not with an orchestra, but rather by herself.  Her tone was just big enough to fill the large hall without strain, and allow us to enjoy her versatility working through Prokofiev’s clever thoughts.

The program closed with more color, except this time more somber: Schostakowitsch‘s fifth symphony.  Stenz translated the sense of foreboding in the symphony by controlling the dynamics, the big moments bringing in a shock component.  Stenz made Schostakowitch almost snarky: did the first movement describe clowns rounded up and marched to Siberia for cheering up the miserable victims of Soviet oppression?  Who was trying to dance in the second movement?  There was the color – so obvious in the Berlioz and Prokofiev works – showing through, in an controlled reading.  While in my own head I’ve heard this work as increasingly black over the last few years (and heard that interpretation to the extreme with the Petersburgers and Yuri Temirkanov visiting the Musikverein a year and a half ago), I still understood the convincing spin Stenz and the orchestra gave the symphony.  It certainly helps that this orchestra is in good form.