North German Radio Radio Philharmonic, Felsenreitschule (Salzburg)

Elgar, Korngold, Kreisler, Vaughan Williams, Händel

Tonight’s performance in the Felsenreitschule of the oddly-named North German Radio Radio Philharmonic proved altogether more satisfying than last night.

Violinist Arabella Steinbacher returned this evening with Korngold‘s violin concerto, which besides having far more to say than Brahms’ dull offering last night also highlighted both of her main strengths: warm melodic lines and complex rich fullness of body.  The general progression of the work moves from the first towards the second, a combination of styles many violinists cannot accomplish but Steinbacher can.  Once again, however, her sound, though not small, was also not big, but conductor Andrew Manze ensured the orchestra maintained the proper balance, never overwhelming her and indeed blending and augmenting with her tones.  This is a good partnership.

She played the same encore as last night – the recitativo and scherzo by Kreisler – but it succeeded even more coming as it did after the Korngold.  It also started with the warm lines before becoming more active, echoing and magnifying the Korngold work, to send us even more satisfied into the break.

The concert had opened with Elgar‘s seldom heard concert overture Froissart, which represented an attempt to use late 19th-century musical language to harken back to the 13th.  It had its moments, but could have used some serious editing which might have also cleared up just what it was trying to do (the orchestra also seemed unclear and got lost a couple of times).  Indeed, Elgar himself apparently thought the same when he looked back at it years later, but decided not to fix it.  Now I’ve heard it.

Vaughan Williams‘s Symphony #5 followed the break, and although three times longer than the Elgar work, and also a somewhat emotive nostalgic work, it had a point, contained wonderful touches and nuances that kept the listener interested, and was properly edited.  Completed at the hight of the Second World War, it was sad but hopeful, and Manze and the orchestra gave a skilled presentation with great understanding – essentially the opposite of the Elgar at the start of the concert.

A warmer applause – bigger than last night – was well-earned, and in return they treated us to two excerpts from Händel‘s Music for the Royal Fireworks.  I must also say that Händel’s monumental works come across far better when arranged for modern orchestras and forces Händel would have gladly had if they had existed in his age – using piddly baroque ensembles with out-of-tune instruments doesn’t really cut it any more (at least not for these grand showcases).

Philadelphia Orchestra, Kimmel Center

Lyadov, Korngold, Tschaikowsky

A trip to the United States would not feel complete without checking the calendar of the Philadelphia Orchestra, by far the finest orchestra in the land.  The only negative is the Orchestra’s less-than-ideal concert hall  in the Kimmel Center, which looks pretty enough on the inside but has somewhat dull acoustics.  The sound is clear enough (and with this orchestra, that is fantastic), but having heard this orchestra perform elsewhere I know full well how much better the orchestra can sound in a brighter hall.

Specifically, tonight’s program included Tschaikowsky‘s Fifth Symphony.  I heard this orchestra perform this symphony in Dresden’s Semper Opera House in 2015, an orgasmic performance that has made me completely avoid listening to this symphony again ever since.  Tonight’s version had all of the orchestral nuance of that 2015 performance, but with a damper fully in place.  Despite that, the Orchestra made the large moments sound almost delicate while stamping authority and conviction on the quieter bars.  This suitably complex retelling of a warhorse symphony culminated in a brash march that practically swung side-to-side rather than relentlessly forward, a happy triumph (even if leaving me less emotionally exhausted than I was after hearing the Philadelphians perform it in Dresden two years ago).

Where this orchestra continues to excel is in its ability to take a group of virtuosi, each instrumentalist amazing the audience in skill, and join them together into a whole that is still substantially more than the sum of these not insubstantial parts.  No other orchestra in the United States accomplishes this so consistently (if at all) right now.

The talent came on show right away in the concert’s opening selection, Kikimora by Anatol Lyadov.  This short tone poem begins mysteriously in the low strings, and includes fine lines for assorted winds, each more sumptuous than the next.

The middle piece on the program, Erich Wolfgang Korngold‘s Violin Concerto, practically echoed the Lyadov in its middle movement (an unexpected link between these two seemingly unrelated works).  The outer movements were more ostentatious, the solo lines (provided tonight by Renaud Capuçon, whose warm tone also got swallowed up by the hall’s poor acoustics) well supported by an orchestra which matched – if not exceeded – the soloist in talent.  In reality, the star of this concerto tonight was not Capuçon but rather the Orchestra.

The Orchestra’s young Conductor-in-Residence, Cristian Măcelaru, sprung in on short notice when scheduled conductor Tugan Sokhiev had to withdraw for medical reasons.  Măcelaru kept Sokhiev’s original program, and dextrously led the orchestra through it.



Thomas Hampson & Wolfgang Rieger, Haus für Mozart

Quilter, Finzi, Korngold, Mahler, Schubert

The long mid-August holiday weekend at the Festival concluded with a recital by the ever-elegant Thomas Hampson.  On Saturday, I attended an event (“Artist Encounter”) with him, at which he explained his approach to singing different roles and songs. The bottom line was to produce the appropriate emotion in the audience without actually going through the emotion on stage: crying and singing don’t mix, for example.  He told the famous story of John Gielgud critiquing Dustin Hoffman’s methodology to get into the roles he played: “have you tried acting?” Gielgud had inquired.

The selection of songs tonight required acting, and Hampson moved easily from one context to the next.  For the first half of the concert, he sang three lesser-known sets of songs based on Shakespeare by Roger Quilter, Gerald Finzi, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold.  Hampson’s approach became most apparent where he sang settings by each of the three composers of the same words.  So, for example, “Come Away, Death” from Twelfth Night came across as welcoming fate (Quilter), melancholic (Finzi), and narrative (Korngold).

The second half of the program consisted of a whole bunch of songs by Gustav Mahler.  Mahler had subsequently orchestrated most of these (indeed, it was always his intention), but tonight’s versions were with purely piano accompaniment.  This made the settings more intimate, and Hampson could reflect on the words more delicately and distinctly.

It helped, of course, to have Wolfram Rieger on the piano, a fine accompanist who drew out all of the color but supported and never overwhelmed the words.  Wave after wave of applause provoked some more Mahler encores, and finally Schubert’An Sylvia to hark back to the concert’s Shakesperean beginnings (we’d heard the same ode in a setting by Finzi earlier as well).

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Smetana, Korngold, Bach, Dvořák

A pleasantly sentimental Sunday morning concert with the Mozarteum Orchestra in the Salzburg’s Great Festival House may not have overwhelmed, but got the day off to a good start. 

The program opened with the Moldau, the second tone poem in Smetana’s My Fatherland series, which the orchestra performed evocatively under the baton of British guest conductor Matthew Halls.  I was a little worried about the flutes in the long opening passage, depicting the origins of the river, as I was not sure they were coming up for air – but capture a gurgling spring they did, and the rest of the orchestra took it downstream from there until the river met the Elbe.

Austrian violinst Benjamin Schmid, a professor at the Mozarteum who specializes in 20th century music, joined the orchestra for Korngold’s violin concerto.  Korngold, a Viennese Wunderkind with a theatrical flare who landed in Hollywood as an Academy Award-winning composer of film music, repackaged some of his film themes into this concerto, keeping the atmosphere while creating something a bit more serious and charming, which is not performed often enough.  Though technically-proficient, Schmid tried to milk a sweet tone from his violin, with legati and vibrati, but it unfortunately came out somewhat sour.  Korngold said he wanted the soloist for this work to be more Caruso and less Paganini – but Schmid is neither.  Even more sour (since he had no orchestral accompaniment) was his solo encore, which sounded like it must have originally been by Bach, but underwhelmed.

Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony rounded out the program.  Halls seemed determined to emphasize the influence of Brahms on this work.  Brahms did indeed influence and champion the Czech composer.  Brahms, wrote music of the highest quality that was often excessively unimaginative and dull.  But whereas Dvořák learned orchestration and structure from his mentor, he took inspiration from Czech (and other) folk traditions and had something more to say.  The performance this morning managed to leave out the extra meanings, producing just a nostalgic reading of what might have been.  For a Sunday morning, that may have been enough.

Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Konzerthaus

Yabuta, Korngold, Bruckner

Tonight’s concert at the Konzerthaus presented three works in reverse chronological order, providing a somewhat nostalgic view of the program.  As part of its celebrations of the 100th anniversary of its construction, the Konzerthaus sponsored composition contests.  Shoichi Yabuta, a 30-year-old Japanese composer won the category for large symphonic work with “Anima,” received his prize before the concert began, and then got to hear the world premiere, with the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra under Cornelius Meister.

Yabuta indicated in the program notes that he tries to blend eastern and western harmonics in his music through a concept called “heterophony.”  I was not clear that I heard any particular harmonics at work in this piece.  However, he used a Bruckner-sized orchestra to its fullest – not only in terms of the massive sound potential, but also in the ability to mix and match instruments, performing in an aggressive and muscular manner, somehow in context with each other. The result: surprisingly good, and enjoyable on an intellectual level.  Yabuta also kept the work at under about 15 minutes, understanding (as so many other modern composers do not) that the creation of so much creative noise becomes grating and unwelcome after a short period.  The piece included three movements, with sharp internal and external edges, so this never became dull and switched up sufficiently to maintain interest among the audience, which gave Yabuta a warm applause after.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Violin Concerto followed.  Korngold wrote this piece in 1945, dedicating it to Alma Mahler.  As a refugee from occupied Vienna living in the US, he had turned to Hollywood and produced film music, back when serious composers did such things.  Taking some of his favorite tunes from various movies, he recombined them into this concerto.  He also indicated that he did not write it for a latter-day “Paganini” to performon the violin, but rather for a “Caruso” – he wanted the violin solos to sing.  Tonight, French violinist Renaud Capuçon followed Korngold’s instructions, giving a softer and more melodic tone to thesomewhat sentimental music.  No hard edges here.

In its way, the single work after the intermission – Anton Bruckner‘s Ninth Symphony – managed to link the two previously-performed works.  While I am not sure Meister offered a new interpretation on its own, the fact that he juxtaposed this symphony with the other two works on the program, and put it after the more modern pieces, did allow for a new consideration of Bruckner’s unfinished final masterpiece.  On one hand, it contained the usual soaring harmonies, a spirituality to match the Korngold concerto’s sentimentality.  On the other hand, Meister had the orchestra muscling its way through much of the new work – and particularly the second movement – and accentuated the organ stops and the drum highlights, thus tying Bruckner’s work to the Yabuta one at the start of the evening.  This was not a relaxed Bruckner Nine.

The orchestra itself sounded somewhat better than when I last heard it earlier this year in the Musikverein.  It has still fallen off from the level it had attained at the time it nearly got closed a couple of years ago, unfortunately.  I would say that perhaps it might know this music better than the works in the previous concert – this would likely apply only to Bruckner, though; the film-music of Korngold at least feels familiar even if it is seldom performed; but the Yabuta was certainly unfamiliar and very difficult.  Meister tried to keep things clear, but the orchestra repeatedly missed cues and did not always have accurate attacks.  Overall, however, it produced a much more open and strident tone than what I heard in the Musikverein eight weeks ago.  Tonight’s odd manner of eliciting nostalgic feelings may also have helped – this is still Vienna after all.

Landestheater (Innsbruck)

Korngold, Die Tote Stadt

For many years, Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s opera Die Tote Stadt has been on my list of operas I have wanted to see but never have the chance.  Great music, but too-rarely performed.  This scheduling made for a nice trip out to Innsbruck’s Landestheater.

Puccini and Mahler both had a high regard for young Korngold’s innate talent.  Korngold composed he opera in 1916, when he was only 19, but although employing twentieth-century harmonics the opera is in many ways a throwback, marking an end to an era that was crashing down around him in World War One Vienna.  Korngold did not live up to his potential after the war, despite a few short-lived successes.  When the Germans banned his music after 1933, he moved to Hollywood and eventually won two Oscars for movie scores.  Still, his concert and stage music reached a level of sophistication which remains under-appreciated to this day.

The Landestheater offered a very dramatic cast.  Wolfgang Schwaninger as the male lead, Paul, and Wagnerian baritone Joachim Seipp as Frank, both of whom sang in strong voice providing forceful portrayals of their roles.  Anna Maria Dur, as Brigitte, also matched the two male roles, but as the female lead, Jennifer Maines as Marietta and Marie’s ghost, lacked the same strength of voice, accurate pitch, or acting ability, just getting through the role with a bare level of competence.  While not bad for a provincial theater environment, she clearly underperformed her colleagues.  Alexander Rumpf conducted the Tyrol Symphony Orchestra in the pit.

Once again, however, a German director let everyone else down with a senseless staging.  Ernö Weil tried to keep things simple, which would not be bad for a psycho-drama, but rather than allowing this acting cast to then develop their roles, he became silly and clichéd.  Korngold’s opera can take many interpretations, but as a dream within a dream (possibly within another dream), it depends entirely on complex psychology.  Paul’s wife has died at a young age, and the devastated man needs to overcome his obsessive mourning.  Weil seems only to have understood the sexual level, and treated us to a display of supposedly-erotic (although in a German sort of way) quasi-pornographic overdrive, neither subtle nor nuanced.  If Weil could not capture, or perhaps even understand, the drama, then I guess he supposed that sex sells. The characters kept their clothes on, but the pseudo-eroticism was blatant – no more so than during the second act, when some dancers, presumably representing ghosts or spirits, pranced, slithered, and cavorted all over stage in what appeared to be costumes (for lack of a better word) made out of plastic refrigerator wrap highlighting sexual organs.  In the third act, veering away from the sexual, Weil projected black and white film onto a scrim showing scenes from a church service, Jesus on a cross, and close-ups of the character Paul’s face – presumably this was meant to represent yet another level of Paul’s dreams, but since it did not match the rest of the staging, it came across as out-of-place and demonstrative of a lack of originality or understanding on Weil’s part.  On the whole, the staging could have been much worse, but because the overall concept was simple it did not overwhelm the performance. But it added nothing to the understanding of this work.  The cast tried its best to ignore the nonsense and just act, but the role of the director is to enhance their ability to do so, not to make acting more difficult.  Someone really needs to slap a ban on German opera directors until they sort themselves out up there.