Vienna Philharmonic, Musikverein

Dvořák, Strauss, Stravinsky

The Vienna Philharmonic added some seats on stage for this afternoon’s concert, and even sitting amidst the percussion (albeit thankfully not next to a gong, as I once found myself a few years ago) it is hard to resist hearing this orchestra in the Musikverein with Mariss Jansons on the podium… indeed, getting to watch him from the orchestra’s perspective (when he was not blocked out by a music stand or a percussionist).  

On the program was a strange mix of works I did not necessarily understand why they went together: Dvořák‘s Eighth Symphony, Richard StraussDeath and Transfiguration, and the suite from Stravinsky‘s ballet The Firebird.  As Jansons explained in a talk in Salzburg last summer, sometimes parts of the same concert don’t have to go together, but even by that standard this combination was odd.  Perhaps the one linkage here was some truly fine playing.

The Dvořák symphony came out dancing, full as it is with Czech folk dances.  Jansons maintained a certain tension, which just gave the exuberant bits all the more sway.  This may have anticipated a ballet suite later in the concert, but folk dances and ballet are still two different genres, so maybe not.

If the Strauss tone poem after intermission danced, it was with death.  This set an altogether different mood, and at one point close to the end the orchestra sent a cold chill through the room.  Somehow, through force of music, we all emerged on the other side, shivering in our seats but transfigured.

Jansons took a much more humorous approach with Stravinsky’s Firebird suite.  This is fun music, with a lot happening despite a somewhat reduced orchestra.  A twinkle in Jansons’ eyes made sure the orchestra kept the music upbeat (they not only smiled back at Jansons, but smirked knowingly at each other – particularly the bemused percussionists around me), until the lullaby section, which grew somewhat dark before a triumphant finale.  Shades of Death and Transfiguration earlier in the concert?  Or just masterful playing?

This orchestra reigns.  It’s not always technically the best, but it has a feel for music like no other orchestra.  And Jansons on the podium brings out some of its finest moments.  Although the balance was a bit off from my seat in the percussion, I could feel the magic in the Musikverein’s Golden Hall.  The audience felt it too, with thundering applause and a rare standing ovation (we are spoiled by this orchestra, so it doesn’t happen often).  The applause did not stop even after the orchestra finally left the stage, and Jansons had to return for not one but two individual curtain calls.  I cannot remember that happening before.

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein (Vienna)

Sommer, Mahler, Rachmaninov, Schubert, Bartók

Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra came to Vienna’s Musikverein for a two-night set, for which I was fortunate to be home for the first night, which contained an ecclectic mix.  

If I had to describe this orchestra with one adjective, it would be “complete.”  No individual instrument stood out, but together they produced the most perfectly balanced sound.  There were no gaps, no flaws, no twists they could not make together.  Jansons has been at its helm since 2003, so this represents a tribute to him as well.

The concert led off with a concert overture to Antigone by a forgotten 20th-Century Czech composer Vladimír Sommer, someone I had never heard of before.  He had a limited output, and this work showed a routine post-romantic style.  It provided enough excitement to launch a drama, but was only a concert overture, not a setting of the entire Sophocles work for theater, and therefore seemed to be missing something (although also not clear from this snippet if Sommer could have pulled off writing an entire drama).

For more drama, alto Gerhild Romberger joined the orchestra for Mahler‘s Kindertotenlieder.  Jansons and the orchestra drove this work, too, but Romberger did provide a warm, full-bodied, expressive, solo voice, at least in the middle register.  Her moving reading melted the texts, demonstrating sadness and evoking sympathy.  She did however lack the strength in the brief moments Mahler took her to the upper register, and she simply did not have the dramatic voice required for the final song (“In diesem Wetter”), which stays mostly at the bottom of the range.  Jansons restrained the orchestra in the final song so as not to overwhelm her, but it was an unfortunate conclusion to an otherwise heartful cycle.

After the intermission, the orchestra’s “complete” sound could come into its own with Rachmaninov‘s Symphonic Dances, the composer’s final orchestral work.  It’s a strange combination – apparently Rachmaninov conceived it as something which could be converted into a ballet, but a project the composer subsequently abandoned during composition, so while going through an assortment of dance forms, it is not really a set of dances but a more of a three-movement symphony with a lot of moving parts.  The orchestra navigated around and through these motions masterfully, making this difficult work fully accessible to the listener.  The audience erupted in pleasure (prompting not just one but two encores: the more sedate Moment Musical by Schubert and the crazier excerpt from The Miraculous Mandarin by Bartók).

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mozart, Bruckner

Christoph von Dohnányi, longtime Music Director of the Cleveland Orchestra and frequent guest of the Vienna Philharmonic, used to comment that his orchestra in Cleveland played every note perfectly, yet he was still trying to get them to sound more like the Philharmonic, which did not play every note perfectly. It’s not just about playing perfectly, but performing the music with a certain emotion in the notes, and something the Philharmoniker gets better than anyone.  So hearing the Philarmoniker this morning perform in juxtaposition with the Clevelanders on Friday reinforced exactly what Dohnányi meant.  

It of course helps to have Mariss Jansons on the podium, which ensured intelligent readings that maximized the orchestra’s ability to add its color.  The two halves of the concert had little to do with each other (“sometimes they do not have to” Jansons explained at a talk here last week).  But we got Mozart‘s Piano Concerto #22 and Bruckner‘s Symphony #6 on either side of the intermission.

Emanuel Ax performed as soloist for the Mozart.  He and the Orchestra created a soothing, almost melancholic, tone, which both blended well and with the contrasting lines informing each other.  For a matinee concert, this was a good way to start a morning.

The Bruckner symphony after the intermission was more lively.  Probably the least performed of Bruckner’s mature symphonies (and the only one he did not revise), it was actually my favorite among his works when I was a child.  So this made for a nostalgic day-after-birthday concert.  At his talk last week, Jansons was asked why he chose Bruckner’s sixth: he replied that the Festival had offered conductors a selection of works premiered by the Vienna Philharmonic to perform with that orchestra at the Festival over several years, and he was slow deciding until many others were already taken.  But he nevertheless appreciates this symphony and its construction, as do I, even if we have moved on to others.  One can picture Gustav Mahler giving the symphony’s premiere with the Philharmoniker in the Musikverein three years after Bruckner’s death.

Wiener Philharmoniker, Musikverein

Stravinsky, Schostakowitsch

A visit to the Musikverein’s Golden Hall by Mariss Jansons to lead the Vienna Philharmonic is always worth flagging in the calendar, no matter what they put on the program. Tonight proved no exception, with Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Schostakowitsch’s 10th Symphony.

I last heard this peculiar Stravinsky work five seasons ago, with the at the time newly-bankrupt and demoralized Philadelphia Orchestra under the perennially bankrupt-of-ideas Charles Dutoit. They completely flummoxed me with what seemed an ugly and pointless work. Nevertheless, I thought something must be hiding in there, and so I’ve waited eagerly for the opportunity to hear the work again. Lo and behold, when put into the competent hands of Jansons, it all made sense tonight.

Stravinsky re-thought the psalms, updating old church chants for the twentieth century with a highly original orchestration. There are many ways to praise the Lord. The Lord has probably heard them all before, so I suppose Stravinsky decided he required something new and inspired to get attention. Jansons got the pacing right, the broad and mystical mixed with the impulsive and driven. The Philharmoniker – or at least the strange combination of instrumentalists called for by Stravinsky – brought out the bold accents and bright colors, wherever required, to support the Singverein’s vocals. Would that the Lord be pleased! The audience certainly was, with a thumping ovation.

After the intermission came Schostakowitsch. If Stravinsky from his exile could praise the Lord with a new song, Schostakowitsch was left behind in Russia, lingering in a godless empire. The first movement portrayed a landscape so devastating that the Siberian gulags would have paled in comparison. Death, heartbreak, destruction, and all of the misery of the Soviet regime was on display. As the symphony progressed across the musical tundra, the regime and its minions shot down anyone who dared hope. The workers went about their roles as automatons in their wonderful dictatorship of the proletariat. But through it all came a glimmer of light – in the snarky form of the composer’s musical signature: D-S-C-H, D-S-C-H, D-S-C-H – haltingly at first and ultimately triumphantly. Jansons let us hear the message clearly, and the orchestra responded. Indeed, at times it felt like echoes from last night’s concert (Mahler 7) had hung in the hall, with some intimate solo parts and exposed ensemble playing, shining some light in the darkness. Oh so much darkness.

Vienna Philharmonic, Musikverein

Mahler

The world’s best orchestra. The leading conductor of his generation. A concert hall with some of the best acoustics anywhere. And Mahler’s Third Symphony.

I unfortunately had to skip an unusual chamber concert last weekend that I had been looking forward to. I made it up to myself by snagging a late-returned ticket for the sold-out subscription concert of the Vienna Philharmonic under Mariss Jansons in the Musikverein, always an event. No one left the hall disappointed.

Jansons took the first movement somewhat more slowly than normal, but he gave it tension and suspense throughout: even though we knew how this would end, the audience hung on every note. Jansons and the Philharmoniker know every nuance of this hall, and used them, letting the sounds waft gently. Mahler’s description of nature showed that this is a solid but fragile planet. The birds chirp, the lake shimmers, the mountains soar, but it is all quite intricate as Mahler observed it from his summer hut. The concertmaster gave sweet solo lines, mingling with the winds. The brass provided majesty and the percussion a driving force.

The orchestral sound got complex, but never became too big. By the fourth movement, Argentinian mezzo Bernarda Fink gave a bold reading of Nietzsche, while the orchestra continued to simmer underneath, before the chorus of Vienna Choir Boys and the women of the Singverein joined her to ring in the fifth movement. Never overbearing, these voices uttered their words distinctly, but the meaning came almost understated in the music. Listen closely and hear the world.

For the opening of the Finale, despite the huge orchestral forces arrayed on stage, Jansons made them sound almost as a chamber orchestra. The two choirs remained standing for several minutes into this non-choral movement, to observe the world bloom. Gradually the orchestra filled the hall with increasing sound. The choirs sat down. The music stood up. And when it finished, the audience provided an additional ten minutes of applause.

Concertgebouworkest, Musikverein (Vienna)

R. Strauss, Bruckner

The second of two nights in a row with Mariss Jansons and the Concertgebouw Orchestra in the Musikverein.  Tonight’s offering by these forces: Tod und Verklärung by Richard Strauss and the Seventh Symphony by Anton Bruckner.  More heavy music, today less up-beat.

Tod und Verklärung got off to an icy start, death sending chills through the hall on an already cold and wet evening.  But the orchestra swelled, the music warmed, and we were all transfixed, transformed, and transfigured.  As the last notes soared into the night, the Golden Hall sat in absolute extended silence, contemplating what we had just experienced.  And then, after a long thought, we could breathe again.  And applaud.  And reluctantly descend into intermission.

I suppose after hearing the Bartók, Mahler, and Strauss during the last three concert segments, we came to expect a transformative Bruckner 7th as well.  The Concertgebouw and Jansons had legitimately raised our expectations.  We got a very good one, but it did not quite transform nor necessarily say anything new.

This was actually the second time I have heard this symphony live this month – last with Fabio Luisi and the Symphoniker – and the interpretations came across quite distinct, but complementary.  Whereas Luisi did not take a robust approach, emphasizing other aspects of the symphony’s inner structure, Jansons certainly did shake the rafters.  This was in no way a delicate performance, yet still a fully idiomatic and non-bombastic reading of Bruckner’s symphony, with its funereal overtones (Wagner lay dying when Bruckner began the work, and died while Bruckner was composing it, and Bruckner added an entire section of Wagner Tubas to the orchestration, notably for a broad funeral chorale in the slow movement).  Jansons allowed the brass to shine, but without forgetting the full sounds elsewhere – the chorale at the opening of the first movement, scored for the cello section, proved other-worldly.  I’ve heard celli sing before, but never quite like that.

Concertgebouworkest, Musikverein (Vienna)

Bartók, Tarrega, Mahler

 

The Concertgebouworkest of Amsterdam and Mariss Jansons came to Vienna for two nights at the Musikverein.  Tonight: Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto and Mahler’s First Symphony.

I did not know the Bartók piece before, but very much enjoyed it.  The concerto had a split personality, with phrases alternating between lively and depressed and never quite settling into one or the other, creating an original sound rooted in 1930 rhythms and advanced tonalities.  The soloist, Leonidas Kavakos, handled these mood swings with great ease, with his phrasing coming across lush or light as necessary, and even turning his Stradivarius at times into a gypsy fiddle in a stroke.  The orchestra always provided the appropriate level and mood of support.  In the end, the piece came across as overall positive… but with an edge.  Kavakos followed up with an encore, Tarrega‘s Recuerdos del Alhambra, which clearly sounded like it had been composed for guitar (as it indeed was), allowing Kavakos to demonstrate versatility jumping around to create a full tone.

Mahler can also be schizophrenic, but rather than alternating from phrase to phrase, he tended to demonstrate two sides to every note.  Jansons’ clear and commanding conducting had no gimmicks, and presented this Mahler in a straightforward manner.

In the First Symphony, Mahler presented himself in his most joyful mood, and there was no need to give it too much angst, so Jansons did not.  The Concertgebouw, one of the world’s greatest Mahler orchestras, filled the hall with just enough sound without blowing the roof off.  The first movement began as it should: hushed but firm.  The dance movement sounded as light as a waltz with a sense of foreboding.  The funeral march celebrated the deceased with a wry smile.  And the finale built up a mighty and delicate wall of sound.  Every note contradicted itself while making perfect sense.

The weather in Vienna has given most people the sniffles, but although people hacked away in the lobby, no one dared cough once during this performance.  If the Concertgebouw orchestra’s contained exuberance did not blow the roof off the Musikverein, then at least the applause at the end nearly did.

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein (Vienna)

Schostakowitsch, Mahler

I managed to get the last ticket available for tonight’s concert of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Mariss Jansons, performing Schostakowitsch’s 9th and Mahler’s 4th Symphonies.

This was an intelligent pairing.  Both symphonies are somewhat lighter than the rest of the composers’ respective symphonic output.  And although I have never seen it commented anywhere, I realized by listening to the two of them back-to-back this evening that Schostakowitsch (who anyway drew his symphonic influence from Mahler) must have had Mahler’s 4th in mind when he wrote his 9th, as it indeed sounded like a direct derivation.

The performance was fantastic.  Jansons is rightly extremely popular in Vienna, and regularly visits not only to conduct the Philharmonic, but also to bring the two world-class orchestras he leads (he is simultaneously in charge of Munich’s Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, here tonight, and Amsterdam’s Concertgegouw, whom he conducted the last time I saw him in the Musikverein).  Although the 9th is relatively light for Schostakowitsch, he managed to turn it into a fun showpiece.  The orchestra responded to his emotional conducting with precision.

The Mahler 4th, after the intermission, came out a little more ragged – I wonder if the first horn and some of the others might not have opened the Schnapps a little early during the break.  Still, Jansons can draw a bright reading out of anyone (probably helps that he started his career in the Soviet Union, and so must have gotten used to drunk musicians).  The young Swedish soprano Miah Persson performed the solo adequately (actually, I looked her up after the concert and she is older than I am, but seems to have only begun her singing career recently).  The concert master, as well as the principal flute, piccolo, clarinet, and bassoon, all deserved their several extra rounds each of applause.

I could see from my seat that the orchestra had sheet music for some Dvorak piece waiting on their stands (I could not read what piece it was, though), but despite the loud and very prolonged applause, we got no encores.  After the orchestra eventually left the stage but the applause still would not stop, Jansons himself came back out for a solo bow – but a conductor solo does not an encore produce.  I suppose he could have waved his baton at the audience and commanded us to sing something, but we left.

Highlights from 2007

Highlights

Prior to 2010 I did not write regularly.  I found most records from 2009 (now posted on this blog), but right now the only reliable musical notes from 2004-2008 are in my annual year-end highlight summaries, so I am posting these until I locate more in my archives.

Best performance: Bruckner, Symphony Nr. 3, Concertgebouworkest Amsterdam (performing in the Musikverein, Vienna) under Mariss Jansons (February). An emotional, transcendental, and ultimately triumphant performance that made me lose my breath several times. From my front-row seat, however, I discovered that Jansons makes snoring noises when he conducts, which is a little disconcerting. Otherwise he is a tremendous conductor and enormously popular in Vienna for good reason.

Worst performance: The Gypsy singer Carmen Linares, with the Spanish National Orchestra (performing in the Konzerthaus, Vienna, March). Orchestra under Josep Pons and young group of Spanish vocalists performed concert versions of de Falla’s ballet Amor Brujo and opera Vida Breve. However, the supposedly well-regarded Linares croaked the portions of Amor Brujo requiring a Gypsy singer and she also rasped the (supposed-to-be-male) Gypsy singer role in Vida Breve. Spanish Gypsy singing is a special art, but she may be the first Gypsy singer I have heard with no musical qualities whatsoever, and she even required amplification.

Worst performance at a concert (non-musician): Giorgio Mamberto, Head of the European Commission office in Kosovo, Pristina (March). Before a concert of the Kosovo Philharmonic (which deserves credit for actually managing to schedule a concert) sponsored by the EC to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, Mamberto announced to all assembled that for fifty years there has been only peace in Europe, and that today Europeans can travel throughout Europe without passports and can work without visas. The Kosovars were not amused. The Prime Minister’s spokeswoman got up and replied that Kosovo would have loved to sign the Treaty of Rome fifty years ago, but unfortunately was otherwise occupied at the time.

Best opera: Gounod, Faust, Slovene National Opera Marburg (March). I somehow managed to go a whole year without making it to the Wiener Staatsoper, so took in my operas in other houses. This performance was anything but provincial, with a repertory cast under the Neapolitan conductor Lorenzo Castriota Skanderbeg (whose family claims it is descended from Albania’s mediaeval national hero).

Most fun at the opera: Offenbach, Orpheus in der Unterwelt, Volksoper, Vienna (September). The parody plot is very much dated, but easily adaptable by a good director thanks to Offenbach’s timelessly comic music. This version worked.

Worst opera: Ravel, Spanische Stunde, Volksoper, Vienna (October). The plot is a farce and should have been very funny, but Ravel’s boring music did not match up despite being well-performed. The evening was not a total write-off thanks to a terrific performance after the intermission of Orff’s Die Kluge, which was fun indeed.

Highlights from 2004

Highlights

Prior to 2010 I did not write regularly.  I found most records from 2009 (now posted on this blog), but right now the only reliable musical notes from 2004-2008 are in my annual year-end highlight summaries, so I am posting these until I locate more in my archives.

Best opera production: Verdi, Rigoletto, Wiener Staatsoper (September). Ensemble cast with no particular stars, this was an example of why no opera house in the world comes close to comparing to the Staatsoper.

Worst opera production: Johann Strauß (Sohn), Eine Nacht in Venedig, Wiener Volksoper (September). I am really sick of these German opera directors who don’t bother to read the book before they stage an opera. This staging was set, for no apparent reason, in a shopping mall outside Vienna. The stupidity of the staging took away the charm of the music. The Volksoper is becoming far too artsy.

Best concert: Schoenberg, Gurrelieder, Wiener Philharmoniker under Mariss Jansons in the Musikverein (May). Reduced me to tears. Particularly devastating was the Wood Dove’s narrative (with Waltraud Meier). I recovered in time to follow the orchestra across the Ring to the Staatsoper for Verdi’s Falstaff starring Bryn Terfel two hours later.

Worst concert: nothing I attended was truly bad, but if I had to select something as “least good,” I would say the Bayerisches Staatsorchester playing a concert of Richard Strauss in the Vienna Musikverein (September). Zubin Mehta is either charismatic or sloppy, and in this case the Bavarians sounded like the New York Philharmonic at the end of his tenure there. The orchestra could play this music in its sleep, and I don’t get these sorts of concerts in Pristina, so I did not suffer too much. The Viennese public applauded politely.