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.]

Khatia Buniatishvili, Großes Festspielhaus

Schubert, Liszt, Stravinsky

I do not normally get excited about solo piano recitals, but tonight I may have a new favorite pianist.  I have heard Khatia Buniatishvili before in concert – always with orchestra and just never in solo recitals – and acknowledged her stardom.  But at 32 years old she keeps getting better, and a solo evening at the Festival allowed her to show off without an orchestra.

The concert opened with the first four Impromptus by Franz Schubert.  Since she played solo, this meant she could do things which would not be heard with any other instruments present: mezza voce on the piano!  Really?  How is that even possible?  These impromptus were not songs, but pure piano works, but Schubert gave them lyrical qualities, and she took it one step further, making me search for the words that never had existed.

The following works (three more impromptus and the rest of the concert) had swells and indeed wilder playing, but Buniatishvili never lost that lyricism, and mezza voce lines returned when needed, mixed with just the right amount of other dynamics (from dancing melodies through to outright crazy).  One hand could be delicately singing while the other jumped wildly and at volume all over the keyboard (and her third, fourth, and fifth hands added other lines – what, she only has two hands?).

Three Schubert songs followed (with brief pauses but no break for applause between them as she did not lower her hands), in arrangements for piano solo (without words) by Ferenc Liszt: the “Serenade” from Swan Song, “Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel,” and Erlkönig.  Liszt did more than just add the vocal line to the piano accompaniment, but in Lisztian fashion made embellishments.  Buniatishvili not only handled those embellishments masterfully, but she did so by practically keeping the now wordless vocal line, with all the emotion that the missing words would have provided.

After the intermission, things got even crazier, with Liszt’s own works and some Igor Stravinsky.  First after the break came a study for piano of what would eventually become Liszt’s tone poem Mazeppa.  In this version, it was recognizable as the future (better) orchestral work, but with only a piano at her disposal Buniatishvili unleashed herself like the wild horse carrying the chained Mazeppa across the steppe.  There followed Liszt’s piano arrangement of the Hungarian Rhapsody #6 (which Liszt had also orchestrated – but who needs an orchestra with Buniatishvili playing).

The final programmed work was an arrangement Stravinsky did for piano of his ballet Petrushka.  This was not a piano transcription, but rather a fantasy based on the music.  The ballet is colorfully scored, and I would not have expected it to come over well for piano – too much going on (both in contrasting lines and in colors).  Indeed, a few years ago in this hall a husband-and-wife piano team who had performed Mendelssohn’s concerto for two pianos did as an encore part of a Petrushka transcription (maybe even this one) for piano four hands and it indeed was missing a lot.  Yet somehow with only two hands, Buniatishvili managed to get everything in there.  Even watching her do it I am not sure how she did it.

The standing ovation (in a fully-packed Great Festival House – which seats well over 2,000 people) warranted two encores.  First came part of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody #2 in its piano arrangement.  Not only was this not missing the usual orchestra, but it almost seemed she did a parody of a Liszt embellishment of his own work, by adding all sorts of extra notes and riffs, and performing at what seemed like at least double speed.  A few notes were missing here and there (or her finger landed slightly wrong), but these are forgiven because I am flummoxed how she did this at all.

Buniatishvili took down the racing heartbeats in the room with a sedate second encore.  I did not recognize what it was, but it was clearly only there to calm people down rather than for any particular show.  If I had to hazard a guess, I’d guess it may have been Debussy: it seemed to want to go somewhere but never quite get anywhere, and went through a phase that felt like we had been transported to a low class night club late at night with the prostitutes circling a bunch of bored drunk men.  Since with Buniatishvili’s lyrical playing we could almost hear the words not being sung, I’m pretty sure this had to be French.  Chopin had moments like this but usually more class, and Ravel would have been equally as terrible but a bit more modern, so I’ll go with Debussy as an educated guess.  Still, under the circumstances, Buniatishvili did have to sedate everyone (the concert began at 9 p.m. and ended around 11 p.m., so non-nocturnal Festival-goers would need to go back to their hotels to sleep, and this worked).  And she demonstrates so much personality, no matter what she plays, so actually made this rather dreadful piece sound pretty good.

Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Liszt, Elgar, Britten, Bartók, Sibelius

Eighty years ago, about 20% of the population of Salzburg came out to burn books.  They mostly burned books written by or about, or which had even belonged to, Jews – but since there really were not so many Jews in this extreme anti-Semitic town, they added others to the pyre: those of pro-Habsburg monarchists and of anyone who had spoken out against the incorporation of Austria into Germany.  The Salzburg University Library, across the lane from the Great Festival House, is one of several places in the town remembering this event with exhibits, in this case outward-facing posters in the ground floor windows depicting Salzburg citizens whose books were burned and the Salzburg Nazis who burned the books.  Across from the door where I entered the Great Festival House this evening, Max Reinhardt’s face stared out.  Reinhardt founded the Salzburg Festival and made this city an important cultural center – and the Salzburgers hated him for it and saw the Festival as a plot by international Jewry to take over Salzburg (oh, they’ve loved the Festival ever since the Nazis appropriated it in 1938 and of course from the 1950s to the 1980s under its intendant, the unrepetant Nazi Herbert von Karajan).  Broken, Reinhardt died in exile in 1943.

Salzburg is a beautiful city, but it is a beauty tarnished.  So this exhibit seemed like a good scene-setter for this evening’s concert of the Helsinki Philharmonic, visiting Salzburg for three concerts this week (I’ll go again on Friday – would have gone tomorrow too, but that’s my Mozarteum Orchestra Thursday subscription concert).   Susanna Mälkki conducted a program of melancholy.

Ferenc Liszt‘s tone poem Orpheus opened the concert.  Liszt wrote this as a new prelude for a revision he did of Gluck’s opera Orpheus and Eurydice, to describe pure beauty cast into the depths of the underworld.  Edward Elgar wrote his Cello Concerto (performed here with Norwegian soloist Truls Mørk) in the aftermath of the carnage of the First World War and as his wife lay dying.  Béla Bartók, who had opposed the Nazis and fled to the United States, wrote his Concerto for Orchestra while consumed by abject poverty and leukemia in his New York exile – it would be the last work he completed before he died.  (Janne SibeliusValse Triste concluded the concert as an encore, the sad waltz from his incidental music to a play called Death.)  So much beauty; so much sadness.

The orchestra carried this mood throughout the concert, although there was a certain humor to the warped tunes in the final two movements of the Bartók.  Mørk was not quite up to the level of Sol Gabetta (whom I heard perform the Elgar concerto with the Vienna Philharmonic last month) – it’s a difficult piece to get right.  He exhibited a fuller understanding of a solo encore work (a movement from the Cello Suite #2) by Benjamin Britten, in which he could display a bigger sound, capturing the instrument’s deep – and deeply human – voice.  Meanwhile, Mälkki’s conducting was rather blockish – very heavy-handed and abrupt, not always drawing out the lines to their fullest or allowing the orchestra to sing.  The audience applause was polite but underwhelming (this was my Wednesday Kulturvereinigung subscription concert with the usual crowd, so I can indeed compare the reaction to other concerts).  It wasn’t a bad performance at all, just not quite to the level I think the audience expected.

Hungarian National Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mozart, Liszt, Schubert

The Hungarian National Philharmonic visited Salzburg’s Great Festival House with the French oboist and conductor François Leleux, bringing colorful performances which lacked motion.  Well, Leleux jumped around a lot and was quite expressive.  And clearly he had a sense of color as well, dinstinguishing each fine grain.  This was serious music-making.  Yet still it sat (perhaps using “still” here as both an adverb and an adjective).

The concert opened with Wolfgang Amadé Mozart‘s oboe concerto, with Leleux performing the solo and conducting.  Leleux produced a warm tone, maybe not quite as strident as an oboe should be, but more cantabile.  The Mozart concerto is in general unconvincing – I think he must have spat it out for a commission, but it lacks passion (interestingly, I am familiar with the version Mozart later transcribed for flute – either it works better as a flute concerto, or Leleux just did not convince me about the oboe version).  Tomorrow night these forces will perform Ludwig August Lebrun’s first oboe concerto, which (for those in the know) really is special.  But my subscription is tonight, and I won’t go tomorrow (there is duplication on the program, and tonight’s concert did not inspire me to see if any tickets are available tomorrow).

The Mozart concerto did conclude with music Mozart subsequently reworked for an opera aria in Abduction, so there was promise there at least.  And Leleux returned for an oboe encore with the orchestra, which was actually the highlight of the entire evening: a transcription of the Queen of the Night’s aria from the Magic Flute.  Leleux’s oboe sang.

The pure orchestral music followed, with Ferenc Liszt‘s Preludes. This must be bread-and-butter for the Hungarians, but it underscored the entire concert.  They produced very nuanced colors – indeed this was a painting as much as it was a symphonic poem, crossing all senses.  But somehow it lacked impulse.  So while I may never have heard this work sounding so colorful as the orchestra made it sound tonight, I also did not think it was possible to make this work lack movement.  Leleux was bouncing, and obviously coaxing the colors from the orchestra, but the music was not going anywhere.  So gorgeous, complex playing… but static.

After the intermission came Franz Schubert‘s Fourth Symphony (“Tragic”) and as an encore an intermezzo from his Rosamund (the second time I’ve heard that piece as an encore this season), and both performances dragged colorfully much like Liszt’s Preludes.  In the audience, I did hear some Hungarian accents, which always sound especially charming in German, so I went home with a smile on my face, if not exactly energized.

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.

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.