Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Wagner, Liszt

The scheduled conductor for this morning’s concert by the Mozarteum Orchestra got ill last week, leaving the orchestra to scramble to find a replacement who was not only available, but could also take over the identical program of two seldom-performed works: Wagner‘s Faust Overture and Liszt‘s Faust Symphony.  In stepped Frank Beermann, who recently left his post after a decade as general music director in Chemnitz to become a freelancer and had this weekend free to rush to Salzburg’s Great Festival House.

Beermann and the orchestra don’t know each other.  The orchestra also had not performed these works before.  So under the circumstances Beermann took a deliberate, angular, approach.  This worked for the Wagner piece and for the final movement of the Liszt.  It caused the first two movements of the Liszt to drag.  Still, considering they were practically sight-reading the music, the Mozarteum Orchestra’s natural musicality came to the fore, coaxed by Beermann, and in that the concert proved a success.

The Wagner work is from his early period – he had considered an opera based on Goethe’s Faust, which he never wrote, but Liszt had encouraged him to arrange some sketches as a concert overture (originally conceived as the first movement of a series of linked tone poems, which Wagner also never wrote).  Despite truncating his project, Wagner already demonstrated his sense of theater, however, and Beermann successfully inspired the orchestra to the dramatic.

Liszt ended up writing the multi-movement tone poem based on Faust that Wagner never wrote.  While it does contain some great passages (particularly in the Berlioz-inspired third movement depicting Mephistopheles – apparently it was Berlioz who had introduced Liszt to Goethe’s work), it probably takes a little more effort to keep a performance of this piece compelling for well over an hour.  The fault is Liszt’s (uncharacteristically for him, as it happens), who never properly edited his work – this was not one of his better efforts, and indeed instead of editing he kept adding bits to it (including a final chorus – sung here by the Chorus Viennensis and tenor soloist Toby Spence).

Back in the days when I used to have my own Sunday morning radio show, I programmed these two works followed by Mahler’s Eighth Symphony (which includes a setting of the final scene of Faust).  Now that combination in a real concert might have been too ambitious, but it would be the logical next development of this music and I would have gladly stayed.  Instead, I came home and cooked breakfast.

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Mozarteum Orchestra, Mozarteum

Schostakowitsch, Haydn, Stravinsky, Liszt, CPE Bach

The new musical year opened tonight in Salzburg, with an extremely eclectic concert by the Mozarteum Orchestra under its brand new chief conductor Riccardo Minasi in the Mozarteum’s Great Hall.  The orchestra is apparently very enthusiastic about Minasi, not least because he promises to schedule unusual works such as tonight’s combination: Dmitri Schostakowitsch‘s Festive Overture, Joseph Haydn‘s first Te Deum in C (he wrote two), Igor Stravinsky‘s Fireworks, Ferenc Liszt‘s Preludes, and finally CPE Bach‘s Magnificat.  Whew!

Enthusiasm permeated the room.  I’m not clear if this lead to the generally faster-than-normal tempi Minasi took, or if he really meant to play everything faster.  I could say the same about the volume, which rarely dropped below forte.  But this produced a breathless buzz (sometimes a bit chaotic, as in Stravinsky’s rarely-heard and refreshingly peculiar Fireworks; sometimes literally breathless, as in it was hard to believe the musicians managed to keep up and get all of the notes in for the opening of CPE Bach’s Magnificat).  Everyone had a twinkle in their eyes – and sometimes an unrestrained laugh, as the first four works were relatively short and the orchestra (and chorus) had to rearrange themselves frequently and with great difficulty between them (when Minasi chose the works for this concert, he probably did not realize they were in the Mozarteum, which has a much smaller stage than the Great Festival House where they often perform).

The orchestra sounded in its accustomed form, with the Salzburg Bach Chorus joining them magnificently for the two choral works.  Three of the four soloists – Kim-Lillian Strebel (soprano), Dara Savinova (alto), and Fulvio Bettini (bass) – had wonderful voices which blended nicely with orchestra and chorus even as they projected cleanly.  The fourth soloist, tenor Barry Banks, was a disaster for the ears, unable to find his pitches (especially painful in his upper register) and with an ugly hoarse (but loud) timbre.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Ligeti, Liszt, Chopin, Bartók

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

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

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

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

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

Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Schumann, Liszt, Beethoven, Rossini

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philadelphia Orchestra, Kimmel Center

Beethoven, Liszt, Respighi

In Philadelphia for a day, I popped into a Philadelphia Orchestra rehearsal led by guest conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos.  Although I recognized this as a rehearsal and not a concert, it gave me a chance to hear how my hometown orchestra sounds these days, as well as to test out the acoustics of the hall from a new vantage point.  As for the former, the Philadelphians are back in form; as for the latter, I remain unconvinced.  I’ve tried the parterre before, as well as the lower boxes; today I tried the first row of the center balcony (which juts out from the upper balcony, so the sound does not get trapped).  The sound indeed came out pure, but still distant – something about this hall makes the Orchestra sound like it is playing behind a scrim or screen.  It’s an attractive new hall, but the acoustics do not work.

The program opened with the King Stephen Overture by Beethoven, a work that the Orchestra indicated it was unfamiliar with and which almost none of the members had played before.  This may account for the tentativeness with which they approached the piece, with only the reeds appearing to grasp the Beethovenian idiom.  However, Frühbeck proved able, and the Orchestra warmed throughout.

Beethoven’s charming Eighth Symphony gets overlooked between its two popular neighbors. Nevertheless, Beethoven still wrote it, and Frühbeck got the Orchestra to capture Beethoven’s typical drama, augmented by the Philadelphians’ famous lush stringwork.   This work proved the highlight of the concert (or at least the rehearsal).

The young and dashing French pianist Lise de la Salle joined the Orchestra for the Liszt Second Piano Concerto, another piece showing off a composer in his typical idiom.  She instantly developed a good rapport with the Orchestra, and established a dialogue. The Orchestra held back maybe a little too much, but at the end they went back and rehearsed a few sections she had flagged, when the Orchestra realized it could pronounce its lines without overwhelming her energetic playing.

Respighi’Pini di Roma rounded off the program.  A warhorse in everyone’s music collection and a favorite over the radio, this piece is actually quite rarely performed (from my observation at least).  The Orchestra performed it with gusto.  Clearly they knew this one.

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Kodály, Liszt, Bartók

Tonight was Hungarian music night at the Musikverein, with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Christian Arming.  Two suites bookended two works for piano and orchestra.

Arming and the Symphoniker performed the Háry János Suite by Zoltán Kodály as a comic-mystery thriller.  The reading did not come directly, but instead incapsulated a mood.  Within that telling, each of the odd instruments in the score provided delightful nuances.  This storytelling was made fun.

Likewise, at the back end of the concert, they provided a similar amount of delight in telling the story, again in suite form, of the Miraculous Mandarin by Béla Bartók.  Where Kodály’s suite had delightful melodies, Bartók’s had delightful rhythms.  A master orchestrator, Bartók wrote some brilliantly imaginative music.  And this orchestra, sounding great, could rise to the challenge.  Each instrument had its lines, and the musicians made the most of the opportunities to showcase their talents.  Arming kept everything together (not easy for this work), well-proportioned, and – importantly – dancing.  Bartók drew great inspiration from Hungarian folk dances, but did not set any of them in this story.  Instead, he incorporated their essence, while producing an original work that has lost none of its sparkle after a century, at least not as performed tonight.

Unfortunately, the middle works in the concert did not come across as well.  Here, Gerhard Oppitz joined the orchestra on the piano for Ferenc Liszt’s First Piano Concerto after the Kodály before the intermission, and Liszt’s Totentanz after the intermission before the Bartók.  He utilized the intimate acoustics of the Golden Hall to make the Piano Concerto more resemble a piano recital, and Arming and the Symphoniker contributed softly in kind.  However, I do not attend piano recitals for a reason.  Even when played well (as tonight), the piano is a fundamentally dull instrument, a tool for a composer to construct more elaborate works, but generally not worthy to stand alone.  Liszt is one piano composer for whom I sometimes make an exception, but this was not idiomatic Liszt.  The Totentanz, though a more rugged work (and indeed very substantial if performed correctly) proved somewhat better, but Oppitz still lacked the necessary oompf.  Beautifully played, but just lacking the drama and intrigue of the 20th-Century works on either side of the program.

Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

Respighi, Bartok, Ravel, Liszt

An afternoon concert of lighter music at the Tschaikowsky Hall, with the Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra under Dyenis Lotoyev.

The concert opened with Respighi’s Suite #1 of Ancient Dances and Airs.  I do not believe that this orchestra often plays music composed before the mid-19th century, and although Respighi wrote this in the 20th century, he based it on Renaissance music.  The orchestra seemed a little lost as a result.  Much of this I can directly attribute to the harpsichordist, who seemed incapable of playing in time, and who must have distracted the rest of the orchestra.  The performance greatly improved in the movements with limited harpsichord, which meant that the orchestra could capture the 20th-century sonorities Respighi used to enhance the music.

Bartok’Dance Suite followed, and here the orchestra was more at home.  Likewise for the piece following the intermission: Ravel’s Noble and Sentimental Waltzes.  I do not listen to much Ravel, since I consider him excessively dull.  But he was good at orchestration, although not as great at it as his reputation.  Both the Bartok and the Ravel pieces, with lots of solo lines emerging from lush scoring, allowed this orchestra to showcase its skilled instrumentality.  This orchestra was formerly known as the USSR State Radio-Television Orchestra, and has retained its standards under its Principal Conductor Vladimir Fedoseyev (who has been at the helm since 1974).  He turns 80 next year and is slowing down, so it will be curious to see who takes over this fine ensemble.

The concert concluded with Liszt’Mephisto Waltz #1, which was more like a scheduled encore than a natural follow-on.  Still nice to hear this orchestra get enthusiastic.