Online Highlights from the Corona Lockdown (week 3)

Highlights

When this pandemic is all over, I will either need to rush out to hear live music, or I may never want to see another opera again for the rest of my life.  But in the meantime, I continue to take advantage of the opera (and symphonic) archives being opened up on line during the lockdown.

Wagner: Tannhäuser (Metropolitan Opera)

This week began much as last week ended: with Wagner from the Metropolitan Opera.  A classic Otto Schenk production of Tannhäuser was undermined by Johan Botha in the title role, who basically could not act so stood there while other characters bounced off him, trying to get him to move.  This production has been around for decades, and with better casts.  James Levine has probably been in the pit for many of those as well.

  • [Recording tip:  Of the recordings I own, my go-to version remains the one by Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic, with René Kollo as Heinrich von Tannhäuser and Victor Braun as Wolfram von Eschenbach.  No other version quite captures the drama and elevates the authenticity of the characters the way this one does.]

Poulenc: Dialogues of the Carmelites (Metropolitan Opera)

This mystical opera – about nuns who are martyred by barbaric French revolutionaries – is one of those exceptions that prove the rule that the French do not understand music or drama.  Several French composers (beyond Berlioz, who was pretty consistently good and whose countrymen never properly understood him) could sometimes manage to churn out one decent opera per composer (and maybe one additional work that has withstood the test of time).  Gounod had Faust, Bizet had Carmen, Massenet had La Navarraise (my obscure choice for Massenet may surprise people, but have another listen: it really is his best opera by far), Saint-Saëns had Samson and Dalilah, and Poulenc had Dialogues of the Carmelites.  A suggestive minimal staging by John Dexter was in general sufficient to convey the meaning of this opera (except the final scene, which was supposed to depict the nuns getting guillotined, did not work at all – even without showing them all being executed, Dexter’s timing of the action did not go with the music, which undermined the drama).  Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted in full idiom.  I do not own a recording of this opera, having only heard it periodically on radio broadcasts (possibly all of them over the years from the Met), and this may be the first time I have seen the opera.

Rossini: Barber of Seville (Metropolitan Opera)

The Met’s staging of Rossini’s Barber of Seville seemed a bit odd at first but it grew on me.  I was not sure if it was trying to be realistic or fantastical.  But the concept was to accentuate the farce within this opera, and it ultimately succeeded in doing that.  The extremely tall Peter Mattei as the factotum Figaro hammed it up sufficiently.  Maurizio Benini let the performance from the pit – but with the stage built out around the front of the pit as well, he and the orchestra ended up right in the middle of it all.

  • [Recording tips: I am going to agree with conventional wisdom that the best recording of this opera is the 1958 one with Tito Gobbi as Figaro, Maria Callas as Rosina, and Luigi Alva as Count Almaviva, with Alceo Galliera conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra.  But for sake of being different, I may use this space to point out two unusual recordings worth looking for – not because they are better (they are not), but only because they have excellent acting casts that have a certain charm of their own.  One is a Moscow Radio recording from 1953 conducted by Samuil Samosud, sung in Russian.  I think I originally bought it (when I lived in Russia) solely because I was trying to collect recordings of Mark Reizen (who sang Basilio here), but I ended up enjoying the whole thing.  Another is a 1966 live recording from Vienna, sung in German, which gives the opportunity to hear Fritz Wunderlich as Almaviva just a few months before his untimely death.  The remaining roles are filled out by stalwarts of the Staatsoper ensemble under the baton of Karl Böhm.  Rossini doesn’t really work in Russian or German per se, but these recordings in local vernacular do provide a chance to hear the opera differently and have some additional fun with it.]

Verdi: Don Carlo (Metropolitan Opera)

The Met’s confused staging (by Nicholas Hynter) of Verdi’s Don Carlos could not decide if it wanted to be traditional or modern and failed miserably at both.  Roberto Alagna was nowhere near in his best voice as Carlos, sounding strained and often off-pitch.  The Met likely has many versions of this opera in its archives, with better casts and better stagings, so it is a mystery why they chose to put this one up.  Nézet-Séguin did his best to be dramatic in the pit, but he can’t do everything.

  • [Recording tip: This is another one of those operas where one recording far exceeds everything else.  In this case, it is the comprehensive concept thoroughly thought through by Carlo Maria Giulini for the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, with Plácido Domingo as Carlos, along with a truly dramatic cast including Montserrat Caballé, Shirley Verrett, Ruggiero Raimondi, and Sherrill Milnes.]

Saint-Saëns: Samson and Dalilah (Mariinsky Theater)

I realized that the Mariinsky, by far Russia’s best opera house, is putting up a cross-section of performances (not just operas – in fact, actually not many operas) during the lockdown.  So over it was electronically to St. Petersburg for Saint-Saëns’s Samson.  As I said above (and often enough before), with the exception of Berlioz, the French generally seem to lack any understanding of music or drama, but Saint-Saëns showed some talent (not that he used it much) and wrote one complete opera that passes muster.  I had seen a staging by the French-trained Greek director Yannis Kokkos before (at the Staatsoper: a production of the original – rejected for good reason by the composer – version of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov), which was dark, static, and totally missing drama.  That must be his way of doing things (presumably his French training), because this production of Samson was also dark, static, and totally missing any drama whatsoever.  Ekaterina Semenchuk as Dalilah held up her end of the bargain as much as she could in this staging, but Gregory Kunde as Samson did not, with a voice that lacked sufficient dramatic heft, particularly in the lower register.  Valery Gergiev, in the pit, is usually a better judge of casting in his house.

  • [Recording tip: since I don’t think I have ever heard a recording by a French opera house that passes muster either musically or dramatically, I default to a non-French recording of this opera.  In this case, I revert to a 1948 Bavarian Radio recording conducted by Hans Altman, with Lorenz Fehenberger and Res Fischer in the title roles and Fred Destal as the High Priest.  I’d recommend people have a listen to this dramatic version even if they do somehow find French productions satisfying in ways I never seem to.]

Tschaikowsky: Yevgeny Onyegin (Mariinsky Theater)

I suppose I could not resist hanging around on the Mariinsky’s site to see what other operas were available.  Tschaikowsky’s Onyegin should not have been unexpected.  But this production, conducted by Gergiev, did not match up to the Met’s production, also conducted by Gergiev, that was streamed last week.  Andrei Bondarenko did not make as dashing an Onyegin as Hvorostovsky.

Schreker: Der Ferne Klang (Royal Swedish Opera)

I decided to finish the week with an unusual choice: Franz Schreker’s The Distant Sound, an opera rarely performed.  I have actually owned a recording of it for many years (a 1990 Berlin Radio recording with Gerd Albrecht conducting a cast headed by Thomas Moser and Gabriele Schnaut), but do not remember when I last listened to it, so thought this was as good a time as any to see if I could remind myself what was up here.  Schreker’s polychromatic musical palette – somewhere between Richard Strauss and Erich Wolfgang Korngold – is on full display in this opera, composed over several years in Vienna during the first decade of the 20thcentury.  There is no particular reason this opera could not be performed more often (it apparently was performed frequently enough in Germany until the Nazis banned it because Schreker’s father was Jewish), but it is probably destined to remain a curiosity.  The Royal Swedish Opera has dusted it off, with a simple but straightforward staging that did not try to do too much.  Daniel Johansson was good as the main male lead, the composer Fritz.  As part of the simple concept by Christof Loy (a German opera director who seemed to have a concept and tried to set the actual plot of an opera!), the chorus morphed among different roles in each scene, much like a Greek chorus, but that worked here.  What may not have worked was that many of the singers doubled up in roles as named characters – so not the Greek chorus – and since they stayed in costume this was often confusing.  Was it cost-saving that made the Royal Swedish Opera double cast members up, or was this part of the director’s concept to portray different characters as alter-egos of the same persona (and if so, why?)?  In the pit, Stefan Blunier maintained a good sense of the drama.

Rimsky-Korsakov: Tsar’s Bride (Bolshoi Opera)

I should have known better.  One night this week I tried to watch the Tsar’s Bride by Rimsky-Korsakov streamed from Moscow’s Bolshoi Opera.  I decided to do this purely on the strength of the opera itself, which is rarely performed but really should appear more often.  I saw it four times when I lived in Moscow, with four different opera companies, including this same staging at the Bolshoi (the other performances I saw were by the Novaya Opera, the Gelikon Opera, and a visiting opera company from Rostov-on-Don performing in the Stanislavsky Theater).  But the Bolshoi is an absurd place, which lives entirely off its reputation.  It has not been a good opera house for 40 years, ever since the Communist Party fired longtime general director Boris Pokrovsky (apparently – the story I have heard – because, during one of the all-too-regular waves of official Russian antisemitism, he refused to reduce the number of Jews playing the Bolshoi orchestra), and when I lived in Moscow it was the worst of the seven different opera companies I attended (yet due to prestige – all-important in Russia – it was nevertheless the most expensive).  This performance was, as I should have expected, mediocre.  But not only that.  The Bolshoi fails at almost everything, so it probably should not have surprised me that they could not even succeed in streaming this properly: the stream cut out shortly into the third act (suddenly went off-line to “private” setting).  Since I couldn’t exactly walk away at that point, I threw on a much better recording from the Bolshoi in 1973.  I won’t be going back to the Bolshoi’s streamings again during this crisis – or probably not ever, they’re just a mess.

  • [Recording tip: That 1973 Bolshoi recording may be the best available, with Galina Vishnyevskaya in one of her final performances before she was expelled from the Soviet Union along with her husband Mstislav Rostropovich for their opposition to the regime and support of other dissidents (I suppose that was a better penalty than being sent to the gulags, or being executed).  The cast is from the Bolshoi’s ensemble of singers under the baton of Fuat Mansurov.  I am willing to guess, however, that there may be an even better unpublished version somewhere in the Bolshoi’s archives.]

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra: Tschaikowsky

In addition to Onyegin, the Mariinsky posted a fair amount of Tschaikowsky.  My objection to Tschaikowsky is that much of his music tries too hard to be western, when western Europeans wrote much better material.  His music is pretty enough, but so over-performed – particularly his 4th, 5th, and 6th symphonies – as to have become tiresome.  Where he most succeeded in saying something lasting were in his psychodramas (particularly Yevgeny Onyegin and the Queen of Spades) and in his truly Russian-inspired masterpieces such as the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd symphonies, which are sadly underperformed.  In taking advantage of the archive made available on the Mariinsky website, a performance of the Second Symphony stood out, with Gergiev again conducting.  This may be my favorite work by Tschaikowsky, and Gergiev did it justice with his orchestra.  The performance was recorded on tour in Moscow in the Zaryadye Concert Hall, a hall I do not actually know since it was constructed sometime after I lived in Moscow.  The hall stands in a large lot near the Kremlin which, when I lived there, contained a handful of partly-restored historic buildings which had decayed during the Soviet period and a bunch of tractors whose only reason for being there seemed to be to move dirt from one place to another.  Apparently they subsequently decided what to move the dirt for.

Berlin Philharmonic: Sibelius, Weber, Bartók

I continue to search through the archival materials that the Berlin Philharmonic has made available for a month on its website.  The late Mariss Jansons, who died last November, periodically guest-conducted this orchestra over the years, and a number of his concerts appear.  I would highlight this concert in particular, featuring the First Symphony of Janne Sibelius, the Clarinet Concerto #1 by Carl Maria von Weber (with the Berlin Philharmonic’s principal clarinetist Andreas Ottensamer as soloist), and the suite from the Miraculous Mandarin by Béla Bartók.  It never really mattered what Jansons conducted – there was always some new way to listen.  My own go-to recording of the Sibelius first is also by Jansons, when he was music director in Oslo earlier in his career.  Although he was responsible for raising the standard of the Oslo Philharmonic, it still did not reach the level of the Berlin Philharmonic, and here we have his tremendous interpretation taken to the highest level.

Berlin Philharmonic: Bach, Stravinsky, Mahler

The Berlin archive only has one concert led by Vladimir Jurowski, and this from back in 2011.  Jurowski has always been one of the most exciting conductors of his generation (he’s now 48), and his concerts often provide intelligent combinations of music designed to make listeners think.  The concert available here was no exception.  It opened with Johann Sebastian Bach’s chorale “Von Himmel hoch da komm’ ich her” as arranged by Igor Stravinsky – starting with a brass chorale and moving through the text with Bach’s mathematics and 20th century harmonics.  Jurowski followed this with an altogether stranger work by Stravinsky, his Requiem Canticles – parts of the mediaeval requiem mass reset in a very modern structure – scientific, perhaps, but not necessary with musicality in the forefront.  It’s not that it had to have a tune, per se, but maybe a little less formula and a little more music would have helped.  Still, as an intellectual exercise it worked as a bridge to the main work in the program, Gustav Mahler’s giant student work Das Klagende Lied, in which the young composer, still at conservatory, imagined new musical ways forward (partly under the influence of his neurotic apartmentmate Hans Rott, when they were both studying with Anton Bruckner).  Like with Stravinsky, there is a reverence for the past, the history and building blocks of music, but also a desire to strike out in a new direction.  I own one recording of Das Klagende Lied: a 1997 performance by Michael Tilson-Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.  Jurowski’s interpretation with Berlin is rather more angular and strident than Tilson-Thomas, and the Berlin Philharmonic’s playing more robust than San Francisco’s.  The San Francisco Symphony in that recording (indeed in that period generally) did not sound as muddy as it does now (Tilson-Thomas has been there too long), but the superior virtuosity of the Berliners simply allows for more fine tuning.

Berlin Philharmonic: Wagner, Liszt

Riccardo Chailly brought two Faust-inspired works to Berlin for his guest stint.  The logical pairing (since the composers themselves encouraged each other) of Wagner’s Faust Overture and Ferenc Liszt’s Faust Symphony graced Chailly’s contribution.  Chailly grasped the strengths of this orchestra, which can sound clinical but can also have its technical precision unleashed in nuanced ways for a fulness of sound and excitement.  While every recording I am familiar with of Liszt’s Faust Symphony is missing a little something here or there (my favorite is the one with Leonard Bernstein and the Boston Symphony Orchestra), this performance with Chailly and the Berliners may be close to definitive.

Boston Symphony Orchestra: Sibelius

The Boston Symphony Orchestra, historically one of the best in the United States (and I believe also the best-endowed orchestra in the world), suffered a long, slow, painful decline.  Seiji Ozawa, who may have been an inspired choice to lead the orchestra in 1973, stayed far too long in that post, leading to stagnation by the time he finally departed in 2002.  The orchestra replaced him with James Levine, who had done so much to improve the pit orchestra at the Metropolitan Opera and was looking for a top symphony orchestra to lead alongside his duties as music director at the Met.  Unfortunately, Levine did not have the health and vitality at this point in his career to handle both roles, leaving the BSO rudderless.  By the time he resigned in 2011 (they never bothered to terminate him early, which was another huge mistake), no one could speak of the BSO as a top-flight orchestra.  In that climate, the choice of Andris Nelsons to take over as music director in 2014 was inspired – a young dynamic conductor at the top of his game.  During the lockdown, the BSO is putting up one selection per day from its archives (which then remain on their website – not clear how long they will stay there beyond the end of the lockdown).  As I listened to the selection they provided this week, I found one of the first performances Nelson conducted as music director featured the Second Symphony of Sibelius: here it is possible to listen to the relief the orchestra must have felt, that finally they would be restored to their rightful place.  It’s a moody symphony, but performed here with so much hope.  The excitement is palpable.

  • [Recording tip: I own several recordings of the Sibelius 2nd, but for sheer other-worldliness nothing comes close to the one with Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra.  It is the most recent one I have purchased, and since I added it to my collection I have pretty much stopped listening to the other versions.]

Vienna Philharmonic, Haus für Mozart (Salzburg)

Berg, Wozzeck

Alban Berg‘s opera Wozzeck is a musical psychodrama.  But there is a plot, too.  Tonight’s performance at the Salzburg Festival fully captured the musical part, but as for the plot… not so much.

The director, William Kentridge, a South African cartoonist, openly admitted he wanted to stage the music and not the text, as the music discloses what the characters are really thinking, as opposed to the words they might sing.  So he filled the stage with clutter, projected cartoons both on a movie screen and more generally on top of the scenery, and mostly did not bother with the plot.  This was not German Regietheater, designed to shock, but actually an attempt to elucidate what the opera was about.  Unfortunately, the approach added nothing, but did cause unwanted distraction.

On the other hand, by making the plot irrelevant, Kentridge did succeed in pushing the attention fully onto the music (assuming we could ignore the staging – and actually I found I could: again, as it was not Regietheater it did not tell a different plot but rather simply provided cluttered and sometimes silly asides that matched the extremes in the music if not the text).  On this count the performance shone.  The Vienna Philharmonic in the pit is unrivaled as an opera orchestra.  And conductor Vladimir Jurowski, one of the stars of his 40-ish generation, truly understood the opera’s meaning in ways that Kentridge could not, entirely making up for Kentridge’s failings and allowing the audience to bask in the lush music.  Although atonal, Berg’s opera is not without pure music, and its contortions do allow an exploration of the psychoses that inspired the plot.

Although most of the singing characters have their personal issues to explore, these are only really developed in one: the title role Wozzeck.  So while the cast this evening managed strong portrayals despite Kentridge’s direction (and aided by Jurowski’s sensible balancing of the music), only Matthias Goerne as Wozzeck stood out, giving a full and brooding performance of the feeble-minded and disturbed soldier.

Would a concert performance have been better?  Perhaps.  But maybe it ironically took Kentridge’s absurdities to focus attention more on the music.  And if that was his intention, then maybe he succeeded after all.

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall

Rachmaninov, Enescu

Vladimir Jurowski has not only restored the level of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, but he has also given it a reputation as willing to perform rarer works.  Tonight, the highly unusual Symphony #3 by George Enescu.

The Romanian prodigy Enescu studied first at the Vienna Conservatory and then at the Paris Conservatory.  This may have influenced this symphony, which was Austrian in concept but French in the details.  He employed a massive orchestra and chorus (wordless) to paint an enormous canvas, and then stuck to only pastel colors.  Jurowksi is clearly enamored of this work, and he made a point of holding the score over his head during the rounds of applause at the end, to have the audience give it special recognition.

I think the orchestra liked the spectacle of it.  And it certainly gave most instruments a chance to stand out and add their own colors – I suppose if anyone is to perform this symphony, it might as well be the London Philharmonic under Jurowski.  But was it a good work?  I’m not sure.  Some rarely-performed pieces are secret gems… others are rarely-performed for a reason.  It wasn’t bad.  I might hear it again sometime to give it another try.  But even this excellent performance by sympathetic forces did not make it stand out.

The first half of the concert included Three Russian Songs and the Spring Cantata, all by Rachmaninov (the London Philharmonic is featuring his work this season).  These works are performed in Russia, but not so much outside.  The London Philharmonic Choir and Ukrainian baritone Andrei Bondarenko built on the moving reading by Jurowski and the orchestra, although the chorus did sound a bit uncomfortable singing Russian.

Tonkünstlerorchester, Musikverein

Tschaikowsky, Petrovski, Schostakowitsch

After he survived the Siege of Leningrad, and after the Red Army turned back the Germans at Stalingrad, the Russian government sent Dmitri Schostakowitsch off somewhere quiet to compose a new symphony.  The Communist officials expected him to produce a triumphant work, and he gave them something triumphant – just not in the way that they meant.  The Eighth Symphony is dark and not quite optimistic, showing that although Schostakowitsch was pleased his county had turned the tide against the enemy, that triumph in reality only represented the victory of one evil empire over another.  The score came out heavily mechanized, but contains wonderful solo lines throughout the orchestra, often showing great humor (if too often crushed).  The triumph here was not that of the Red Army, but rather of the human soul, able somehow to survive under oppression.  Even the citizens of eternally-dismal Russia deserve freedom and a voice.  The regime responded by banning performances of this symphony for over a decade.

 

Orchestras sometimes get wrapped up the the industrial machine that churns out this symphony, but in a good performance they savor their lines and produce the little individual expressions of dissent that Schostakowitsch cherished.  The Tonkünstler Orchestra managed that today in the Musikverein, under the controlled direction of Michail Jurowski.  The elder Jurowski, who continues to age and looked extremely pale, no longer possesses the vigor he used to, but communicated to the orchestra with dextrous contortions of his baton and expressive fingers.  If I am around, I happily seek out his annual appearances in Vienna with this orchestra.

 

Speaking of expressive fingers, Macedonian pianist Simon Trpčeski mastered Tschaikowsky’Piano Concerto in the first half of the concert, establishing a spirited dialogue with the orchestra.  As an encore, Trpčeski and the Tonkünstler’s concertmaster Alexander Gheorghiu, and the twinkles in their eyes, joined forces for a charming work by Macedonian composer Soni Petrovski, which sounded like a cross between jazz and Balkan Gypsy music, with a bit of Stravinsky thrown in for good measure.  What fun.

London Philharmonic, Musikverein (Vienna)

Rimsky-Korsakov, Prokofiev, Bruckner, Wagner

Next week I will go to London.  This week the London Philharmonic came to me.  The orchestra, under its cool and talented chief conductor Vladimir Jurowski, performed in the Musikverein.

I have not heard this orchestra in many years, and although its reputation waned for a while, it sounded like the London Philharmonic of old that I remembered from its days under Klaus Tennstedt.  The opening showpiece demonstrated why: although Rimsky-Korsakov’Great Russian Easter Overture sounds different performed by Russians, with their distinctive sound, the lush London Philharmonic playing completed Rimsky’s rich orchestration, and the sonorities filled the hall.

The young violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, born in Moldova, educated in Austria and Switzerland, came out for the Prokofiev Second Violin Concerto looking like she had just snuck out of her own wedding – wearing a long fluffy white dress and barefoot (presumably from dancing, since she also danced the whole time she played).  She and the orchestra stayed in idiom for Prokofiev’s playful 1930s modernized re-telling of a classical model: quite a fun work, performed with great humor.  Her sound, though not large, blended perfectly with the orchestra.  As an encore, Kopatchinskaja and the orchestra’s concert master, South African Pieter Schoeman (whose solos in the earlier Rimsky-Korsakov had shone), performed a Prokofiev sonata for two violins with equal banter.

Bruckner’s Symphony #1, performed here in its original Linz version, must have sounded as innovative in the 1860s as Prokofiev’s concerto did in the 1930s, both taking strictly classical forms in new directions.  This was young Bruckner (relatively – he wrote the first symphony in his 40s), and showed his lack of experience with orchestral music at that time.  But it marks a contrast with the first symphony by Brahms, who also waited into his 40s before writing a symphony.  Both Bruckner and Brahms found approaching symphonies hard after Beethoven. But when they were finally ready to do so, Brahms produced the more sophisticated and polished work which said nothing new and simply imitated Beethoven, while Bruckner advanced the art with a rough but new Beethoven-inspired construction.  Ultimately, this work paved the way not only for Bruckner’s own future development, but also for great symphonies to come, including those of Mahler, Sibelius, and Schostakowitsch.  Setting this classical-derivative work, with its raw dissonances and soaring organ-inspired chorales inexpertly mixed throughout, after Prokofiev’s concerto emphasized just how new and important this symphony could sound.  The London Philharmonic and Jurowski put it in context, with resounding orchestral color.

The prelude to the third act of Wagner’Meistersinger served as a final encore, as the orchestral chorale that Wagner based on the hymn “Wacht Auf” (sung by the chorus later in the opera) by the historic Hans Sachs wafted the audience out of the hall, another for-its-time modernized setting of an older form.

Tonkünstler Orchestra, Musikverein

Balakirev, Dvořák, Tschaikowsky

I took in one last concert in Vienna before leaving full-time for Albania.  The Tonkünstler took to the Musikverein stage under Mikhail Jurowski.  Poor Jurowski looks unwell: he’s gained weight, moves slowly, and walks with a cane – he seems to communicate more with his eyes than with his stick motion (which is now limited).

Of course, he looks better than the Israeli pianist Alexander Markovich.  I heard this combination Jurowski-Markovich-Tonkünstler a few years ago, which was so much fun that it got me to go back for more this time.  Markovich is still obese, and continues to play sitting far away from the piano with his arms reaching over his more-than-ample stomach.  But he keeps a wry smile on his face and a light touch on the keyboard, and the joy he takes from playing is contagious.  He and Jurowski communicated well with each other.  They performed the Dvořák piano concerto – which is seldom-performed for a reason.  the work is not bad, but not great either.  Still, I am happy to hear something new, and Dvořák had far more to say than some other people.

The concert had opened with Balakirev’s youthful Overture on Three Russian Themes.  This was quite pleasant, and demonstrated the skill Balakirev would later develop, often under-appreciated in the west, of producing quality and authentic Russian music.  Two of the three themes were later made more famous from settings by Tschaikowsky (in his Fourth Symphony) and Stravinsky (in his Petrushka), but did not lose anything by comparison in Balakirev’s arrangement.

After the intermission, the concert concluded with Tschaikowsky’s Second Symphony.  This has long been my favorite Tschaikowsky symphony, probably because it is the most authentic and least western (western composers did western music better than Tschaikowsky, and some of Tschaikowsky’s best works were the ones in which he did not try to imitate the west).  The orchestra sounded a little ragged for this one, but the reads, strings, and piccolo were generally good.  A red-haired flautist (in my direct line of view behind Jurowski’s shoulder through my binoculars) looked bored out of her wits the whole evening.

Russian State Symphony Orchestra, Moscow Conservatory

Stravinsky, Chausson, Ravel, Rachmaninov

I attended an unplanned concert at the Moscow Conservatory – the 75th Anniversary Concert of the Russian State Symphony Orchestra.  When I was deciding what concerts interested me this month, this concert had a different program and conductor, and so I had marked it off the list.  But it seems that all that changed while I was away from Moscow.  I swung by the afternoon before the concert to see if any tickets would be available, and there were a few left up in the top level of the second balcony (but the hall has great acoustics, so this only meant it was hard to see the orchestra, but I could hear just fine).

This is the orchestra Yevgeny Svetlanov led for 35 years before he was fired in 2000 (after Putin came in), when the Ministry of Culture suddenly questioned his patriotism.  Mark Gorenstein, an impossibly dull Soviet wand-waver, was appointed to replace him.  The Orchestra musicians have been miserable ever since (but stay because the orchestra pays relatively very well for Russia).  Finally this Summer the musicians got up the courage to demand that Gorenstein be fired.  When this did not happen, they simply refused to show up for rehearsals this Fall, and all of their concerts this season have been canceled one-by-one as a result.  Two weeks ago, while I was away, Gorenstein got the axe and the young and dynamic Vladimir Jurowski was appointed in his place effective immediately.  Today was Jurowski’s first appearance with the orchestra in his new position.

The program opened with Stravinsky’Firebird Suite.  This is still the most Russian-sounding of orchestras, and the flagship of the state orchestra system, so it was fitting to open the anniversary concert with a showpiece.  Jurowski made the most of it, generating excitement with each scene in the suite.  If he had added the entire ballet as an encore, no one in this audience (nor in the orchestra) would have objected.  I have a soft-spot for this piece, since I think it was the first recording I ever owned as a child (with Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony Orchestra – a birthday present from my sister).  Hearing it fresh tonight, with a fully-charged orchestra and conductor happy to be there, made me remember the joy and excitement of putting on that record for the first time way back in my childhood.

After this thrilling start, the concert unfortunately shifted to French composers.  The choice for the next two pieces was curious, since they certainly do not figure in the core repertory for this orchestra, nor should they figure in the core repertory for any orchestra.  While, starting in the mid-19th Century, Russia discovered classical music and has since produced enormous quantities of exciting material (possibly the only civilized thing the Russians do produce), France has inexplicably seemed incapable of having any composer other than Berlioz (whom the French ridiculed for his admiration of Beethoven) capable of consistently producing music of any reasonable quality.  The French never cease to amaze me just how dull the music is that they write – and I keep listening to new pieces just hoping something will come along to break the monotony, but it never does.

So tonight we had two pieces for violin and orchestra: the Poem for Violin and Orchestra by Ernest Chausson and the Gypsy Concert Rhapsody by Maurice Ravel.  Julia Fischer was the soloist.  Try as she, Jurowski, and the orchestra might, nothing they could do could bring these works to life.  And boy did they try.  Technically, they all played very well.  Fischer proved very adept.  The audience dozed, and awoke at the end of each piece to give a polite golf-tournament-style applause most notable for its contrast with the roaring applause which had greeted the Stravinsky.

After the intermission, the orchestra returned to Russian music with Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances.  These are less dance music and more somewhat-eccentric post-Scriabin-esque studies in orchestral color that Rachmaninov wrote shortly before he died.  Jurowski and the orchestra kept the movements moving along, exploring their tones and rhythms until the end of the third dance, which sounded like it represented the composer taking a hop, skip, and a jump into the grave.  Never has the Dies Irae sounded so whimsical.  Jurowski applauded his new orchestra, the orchestra applauded Jurowski, and the audience applauded both.  This applause went on for a while.

Tonkünstler Orchestra, Musikverein

Glinka, Prokofiev, Dvořák

My second concert of the day in the Musikverein featured the Tonkünstler-Orchester under Mikhail Jurowski.

The concert opened with Glinka‘s Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila, followed by Prokofiev‘s Second Piano Concerto, with Alexander Markovich, an obese Russian-born Israeli as soloist (because of his stomach, he can’t actually sit near the piano; fortunately his arms reach).  I did not know this concerto at all – never heard it before – and I dislike pianos generally.  But this was a find.  The piece is truly bizarre.  Markovich is a very charismatic performer with a twinkle in his eye.  I have no idea how the orchestra could manage staying together given the way the music jumps about, but Jurowski kept everything working.  Really a stunning performance, and they all (soloist, conductor, orchestra) deserved the thunderous applause.

After the intermission came a very good Dvořák 8th Symphony.  The Tonkünstler (which seemed enthusiastic and happy to be on stage) actually sounded better than the last two Symphoniker concerts I attened, which made me wonder even more what is going on with the Symphoniker right now.