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.

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Verdi, Requiem

My second unplanned concert of the weekend, for which when realizing I would be in Vienna this weekend I managed to score late-returned tickets for an otherwise sold out performance of Verdi’s Requiem in the Musikverein this afternoon.

Albeit a setting of a mass, Verdi’s is a theatrical work, with operatic drama, and the forces assembled on stage certainly understood Verdi’s intent. Conductor Philippe Jordan deftly crafted all aspects of the performance. I’d say he practically staged the work, except that the fire and brimstone may have consumed the Musikverein, and the gentler plaintive moments may have caused the remnants to melt, and we need this hall intact.

The Wiener Symphoniker, of which Jordan is the chief conductor, shone, with bright and open tones. Behind them, the Singverein, filled the hall with strident sound. Enunciating each syllable with clear diction, they got the message across.

To match such a performance would require four expressive and large-voiced dramatic soloists, and that is indeed the line-up they achieved this afternoon, with Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova, Russian alto Elena Zhidkova, Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja, and Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto. Never outgunned by the orchestra and chorus, they projected clearly with bold – yet still sympathetic – voices which also blended well with each other (also not an easy feat).

Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, Felsenreitschule

Mahler

The Vienna-based Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, another legacy of Claudio Abbado, is probably the world’s leading youth orchestra.  Its regular appearances at the Salzburg Festival deserve a flag, combining youthful exuberance with skill and promise for the future.

Tonight’s albeit somewhat morbid program was no exception: indeed, it was an all-Mahler program, featuring the final movement (“Abschied”) from the Lied von der Erde and the Ninth Symphony, the last piece Mahler completed before he died.  Philippe Jordan conducted, with Christian Gerhaher as the soloist for the Abschied.

Jordan coaxed a wide palette of sounds from the orchestra, and by highlighting individual lines, and then mixing them, he revealed just how peculiarly Mahler scored the Lied von der Erde.  Gerhaher was more of an appendage, just kind of there.  An alto soloist usually sings this movement, but Mahler put down a baritone as an alternate.  The advantage of a baritone voice is to provide darker coloring, but Gerhaher failed on this front.  His voice is neither especially pretty nor full-toned  – probably not helped because he essentially spoke half of the lines rather than singing them, periodically breaking into a quasi-falsetto.  His instrument was big enough to project over the orchestra, but it was a characterless performance, easily overshadowed by (when not getting in the way of) the orchestra.  We heard him, but did we really want to?

With Gerhaher out of the way, the orchestra became the focus for the Ninth Symphony.  I could not figure out Jordan’s concept for the work, or if he understood its warped architecture.  However, Jordan did successfully showcase the virtuosity of these young musicians – as an orchestral whole, within their sections, and individually.  These kids were spectacular, and if Jordan managed to allow them to demonstrate that to the raptured audience, then he succeeded – with or without any other intent.

The concert took place in the Felsenreitschule.  As a bizarre aside, the stage was set up for a concurrent production of West Side Story – and so the orchestra performed from within the set, repleat with New York street graffiti and scaffolding.  Mahler worked in New York at the time he composed tonight’s music (albeit he returned to Austria to do the actual composition), but I am not sure that connection was intentional – probably just a strange coincidence.

Wiener Symphoniker, Konzerthaus

Schubert, Schostakowitsch, Beethoven, Johann Strauß II

Woke up early on a Sunday for a wonderful concert by the Wiener Symphoniker in the Konzerthaus.  Philippe Jordan, in his first season as the orchestra’s official Chief Conductor (although long a fixture here, especially after the departure of Fabio Luisi), took the podium.  I first saw him conduct twelve years ago in Graz, and he has retained his ability to charm.

He opened the concert with Schubert’s Second Symphony, an early work which, though not yet mature and therefore not frequently performed, nevertheless exhibits Schubertian characteristics.  Jordan’s reading drew out the joyful spirit of the work, using a good control of dynamics to increase the drama.  The first movement, which opens slowly before jumping in head-first at breakneck speed, proved especially successful (Schubert developed this technique as he matured, and it influenced Bruckner who also deeply appreciated Schubert’s talent and originality).

Schostakowitsch’s Concerto for Piano, Trumpet, and String Orchestra followed.  The composer wrote this sarcastic piece in 1933 to cheer himself up during one of the darkest periods in Russian history (which, sadly, has no lack of dark periods – indeed, it’s mostly dark, but the 1930s were especially dark).  Khatia Buniatishvili, the young Georgian star, took on the challenge, and in contrast to the Schostakowitsch piano concerto I heard yesterday in this case she dominated the stage.  The Symphoniker’s first trumpet, Rainer Küblböck, performed the trumpet solos, and nimbly switched from the somewhat sad muted lines to the boisterous and bright unmuted sections.  At the end, Buniatishvili came back out and gave us two encores (neither identified, and I do not know the repertory well enough to place them).  The first (clearly 20th-century, maybe Schostakowitsch?) nearly blew the roof off the hall – I did not believe a piano could produce that much sound, rivaling some orchestras in might.  The second (sounded like something one of the Scarlatti family might have written, but could have been a neo-classical throwback) had a wonderful song-like character, and Buniatishvili’s keyboard did everything except produce the words.

After the intermission, the orchestra stormed through Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.  Jordan took this at a faster clip than I normally would prefer (he probably followed Beethoven’s own erroneous metronome markings, which current theories suggest come from a broken metronome which displayed the wrong beat numbers), but got the orchestra to produce all the swinging excitement while gasping for breath.  Again, he utilized dynamics to underscore this dramatics of the piece.  He performed the first two movements without a break, going right from the initial Vivace into the slow movement, for maximum (and effective) contrast.  The final movement especially tied the concert neatly together, as it echoed the first movement of the Schubert symphony in the frenetic strings.  Although Schubert’s Second Symphony predated Beethoven’s Seventh by a full year, Beethoven was the older and more mature composer (and it would seem unlikely that Beethoven even knew Schubert’s symphony, as much of Schubert’s work in that period was developmental and not performed publicly or published until many decades after his death).

Jordan gave the enthusiastically-applauding audience another encore:  Künstlerleben by Johann Strauß II.  The Symphoniker lilted, and the audience danced out of the hall.  This orchestra sounds like it will maintain the level of quality it has built over the previous years under Luisi, almost to the point of rivaling its colleague down the street, the world’s best Wiener Philharmoniker (which sounds better when I am not sitting in the middle of its percussion section like yesterday).

Highlights from 2008

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.

Less travel and more time in Vienna meant I enjoyed even more live music than usual this year.

Best performance: Schostakowitsch, Symphony Nr. 8, Wiener Symphoniker, Vladimir Fedoseyev (November). Not among the more-often performed of Schostakowitsch’s symphonies, the anguished Eighth captures Schostakowitsch’s personality and mindset well. Written to commemorate the Red Army driving the Germans out of Russia, the undertone is that the Soviet regime was also ghastly, so the work was banned in Russia for many years. A moving performance, quite devastating in segments.

Runner up: Berlioz, Grande Messe des Morts, RSO Wien, Bertrand de Billy (November). I had forgotten just how immense this work was. Not sure the chorus even had room to inhale, they were so packed onto the Musikverein stage. The orchestra did not fit on the stage, so extended over the first few rows as well as into the first parterre loges on each side. The four brass choirs (in addition to the regular oversized brass section in the orchestra itself) were placed around the hall. Berlioz intended the piece, although bombastic, to be performed as church music and not as a concert requiem. De Billy clearly understood this and kept the lid on. The singing soared from the combined chorus of both the Wiener Singverein and the Wiener Singakademie.

Best concert venue: Occupation Museum, Tallinn (May). Visiting the Estonian Occupation Museum, I was invited to stay on after closing time for a concert with a rather odd quartet (soprano, flute, cello, and a glockenspiel-like instrument) performing modern, mostly Estonian, music. Between each piece the quartet moved around the museum and the audience had to carry our folding chairs from place to place, surrounded by Soviet-era memorabilia.

Most disappointing performance: Beethoven, Symphony Nr. 2 / Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique, Göteborgs Symfoniker, Gustavo Dudamel, Vienna (October). If it had been a student orchestra, I would have been impressed. The much-hyped Dudamel (whom I watched from a balcony seat over the stage, where I could observe his peculiar technique) had clear passion and sense for palette, but the performance was far too sloppy for such an orchestra. Dudamel is the music director in Gothenborg, and thus can and should be held personally responsible. I cannot tell if Dudamel will gain more control as he gets older or will turn into Zubin Mehta (charismatic and capable of getting occasional exciting performances, but otherwise dreadfully boring and absolutely disastrous for orchestral discipline).

Worst performances: Nielsen, Violin Concerto / Bruckner, Symphony Nr. 6, Tonkünstler Orchester, Kristjan Järvi, Vienna (November). Nielsen is neither original nor interesting. Järvi demonstrated absolutely no feel for Bruckner. Dvořák, Cello Concerto, Daniel Müller-Schott, Wiener Symphoniker, Yakov Kreizberg (April). Müller-Schott’s uninspired solo work put me to sleep. Woke up after the intermission for a spirited Dvořák Sixth Symphony.

Best opera and most fun at the opera (winning both categories this year): R. Strauss, Capriccio, Staatsoper, Vienna (October). A rarely-performed esoteric work, the entire plot (in one act lasting nearly three hours) concerns whether music or text is more important to opera. No kidding. The opera’s seemingly unpromising plot was supported by witty text set to glorious music. The simple staging was well-considered and with good direction. Renee Fleming headed a superb cast, conducted by Philippe Jordan. I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Runner-up for best opera: Verdi, Simon Boccanegra, Staatsoper, Vienna (September). A moody piece, not performed often enough. Not tuneful by Verdi standards, but with a plot resembling Gilbert and Sullivan. Thankfully, Verdi let Arrigo Boito fix up the libretto and made Boccanegra version #2 into good drama, if properly performed (as here).

Runner-up for most fun at the opera: Benatzky, Im Weißen Rößl, Kammerspiele, Vienna (May). The classic 1920s Austrian comedy, here performed cabaret-style on a small stage with a three-person orchestra.

Worst opera production: Wagner, Lohengrin, Staatsoper, Vienna (May). The performance, conducted by Peter Schneider, would have been great if I had kept my eyes closed. They should have saved the expense of a staged production and just done a concert performance, since the cast generally wore formal concert attire anyway. Of all the bizarre things on stage, the director left out the one thing which must be there: the swan (explaining in the program notes that this central figure was actually unnecessary). The imbecilic director was not German, but – to no surprise – trained in Berlin. I think I have to stop going to operas directed by people who have even visited Germany.