Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Schostakowitsch, Mahler

The Mozarteum Orchestra presented the final Sunday matinee of its subscription series this year.  It’s a fine provincial band, on a par with Rotterdam Philharmonic or the City of Birmingham Symphony or Zurich’s Tonhalle Orchestra (which itself gave me two and a half years’ enjoyment during my time living there from 2000-2002, although I have not had a chance to hear it again in well over a decade).

Salzburg’s own great local cellist Clemens Hagen joined guest conductor Constantinos Carydis and the orchestra for Schotakowitsch‘s cello concerto.  Together, they depicted a desolate Russian wasteland, where every soul struggles to survive life in the Evil Empire.  Schostakowitsch’s own signature notes D-S-C-H permeated the whole score, pushing forwards as those around him had been liquidated by the brutal regime.  Here he was defiant, but kept his head down: soloist and orchestra were never over-bearing, and kept their performance almost restrained, and with an edge to it that Russian performers would understand.  The meaning was clear.  The principal hornist sat amidst the viole to engage Hagen in more dialogue: was he hiding there as a spy, or was he simply a trusted friend out of place?  The music kept this ambiguous, indeed as life must have been in the Soviet Union, or indeed Russia today.

On an ominous note, in the middle of the slow movement a member of the bass section collapsed on stage.  The music stopped while he was carried off, and then the movement started over.  After the intermission they announced that he had merely fainted and was fine, but the optics added to the somber mood.  Hagen tried to cut this with a somewhat more up-beat encore, which sounded like it may have been Bach, but really we needed nothing else.

The Mahler first symphony after the intermission was a bit anti-climactic.  The first movement launched with a certain dynamism.  But then Carydis decided to insert the so-called “Blumine” movement – the bit Mahler extracted from an earlier work he had ripped up and inserted here, only to decide almost immediately that it didn’t belong here either and so he removed again.  When the Norrköpingers performed this symphony here last month, they gave us the “Blumine” movement as an encore and made it work as a stand-alone fragment, but inserting it here demonstrated why Mahler rejected it.  This reading was less compelling and also sapped the emotion and drive from the entire symphony.  When the usual second movement (now third) came along, the orchestra had not quite recovered from the pointless diversion.  For the rest of the symphony, Carydis tried to re-capture the initial dynamism by modulating the volume, keeping some passages unnaturally quiet and then exploding in others.  The orchestra responded well, but I still wonder what they might have done had they not lost the momentum in the “Blumine.”

Norrköping Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mendelssohn, Lecuona, Stravinsky, Mahler

Tonight I had quite a discovery in Salzburg’s Great Festival House: the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra from Sweden.  This orchestra sprung to the rescue for a two-night set in Salzburg when the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra canceled its European tour (as the result of a budget crisis, I have been told).  The new orchestra generously took over kept the same conductor (Florian Krumpöck), soloists, and program as the Jerusalemites (Jerusalemers? Yerushalaimi? what is the adjectival form of Jerusalem anyway?) with one substitution tonight – Mahler‘s First instead of his Ninth (so I’ll get the First twice within one month, as the Mozarteum Orchestra has it scheduled for my next Sunday subscription concert in May).

 

A number of conductors have launched their careers in Norrköping, among them Herbert Blomstedt and Franz Welser-Möst, but for some reason I’ve never heard of it.  Now I have, and that makes me happy.

 

The concert tonight led off with Felix Mendelssohn‘s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, which he wrote when he was only fourteen and of which he and his sister Fanny gave the premiere (also performing the orchestra parts between them, since they lacked an orchestra and only had the two pianos).  For what it was, it showed the composer’s real talent – but it was essentially only reworked Mozart and not one of his finer works  (by the composer’s own recognition – he never published it).  Still, it did provide a platform for Felix and Fanny to show off their enormous talents, and they probably had fun with it as the Israeli duo of Sivan Silver and Gil Garburg (not sister and brother, but a married couple) clearly had fun together tonight, throwing lines of music back and forth at each other from two interlocking pianos.

 

Silver and Garburg then gave us two encores on a single piano but with four hands.  First came Ernesto Lecuona‘s Malagueña, followed by an arrangement of the opening of Petrushka by Igor Stravinsky (as much as they hammed it up, it’s still better orchestrated).

 

After the intermission came the anticipated Mahler First, the substitution.  Actually, as an earlier composition by Mahler, it probably was a better choice to come after the youthful Mendelssohn work.  The orchestra performed the symphony in technicolor – this was quite an exuberant performance.  They captured the dancing melodies better than the underlying melancholic ones, but that made it happier, I suppose.  Unfortunately, conductor Krumpöck intentionally could not keep a temp – he kept switching tempi radically throughout, the way Leopold Stokowski used to alter some works to make them (he thought) more dramatic.  But when the work is already dramatic, these sudden and unwarranted tempo shifts all over the place just make it confused.

 

As another encore, Krumpöck and the Nörrkopingers gave us Mahler’s so-called “Blumine” movement, which I actually do not believe I have ever heard live before (only recordings).  This was a movement from an early piece of incidental music Mahler wrote.  When he discarded that other work (no copies are known to have survived), he stuffed this one movement into a draft of his First Symphony, since it had some melodic ties (as do many of Mahler’s works with each other), but then thought better of it so removed it again.  Mahler was right not to include it in his symphony, but the Norrköpingers made a good case for it as a symphonic fragment standing by itself.

 

Let’s see what they do with Beethoven and Bruckner tomorrow.

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein (Vienna)

Sommer, Mahler, Rachmaninov, Schubert, Bartók

Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra came to Vienna’s Musikverein for a two-night set, for which I was fortunate to be home for the first night, which contained an ecclectic mix.  

If I had to describe this orchestra with one adjective, it would be “complete.”  No individual instrument stood out, but together they produced the most perfectly balanced sound.  There were no gaps, no flaws, no twists they could not make together.  Jansons has been at its helm since 2003, so this represents a tribute to him as well.

The concert led off with a concert overture to Antigone by a forgotten 20th-Century Czech composer Vladimír Sommer, someone I had never heard of before.  He had a limited output, and this work showed a routine post-romantic style.  It provided enough excitement to launch a drama, but was only a concert overture, not a setting of the entire Sophocles work for theater, and therefore seemed to be missing something (although also not clear from this snippet if Sommer could have pulled off writing an entire drama).

For more drama, alto Gerhild Romberger joined the orchestra for Mahler‘s Kindertotenlieder.  Jansons and the orchestra drove this work, too, but Romberger did provide a warm, full-bodied, expressive, solo voice, at least in the middle register.  Her moving reading melted the texts, demonstrating sadness and evoking sympathy.  She did however lack the strength in the brief moments Mahler took her to the upper register, and she simply did not have the dramatic voice required for the final song (“In diesem Wetter”), which stays mostly at the bottom of the range.  Jansons restrained the orchestra in the final song so as not to overwhelm her, but it was an unfortunate conclusion to an otherwise heartful cycle.

After the intermission, the orchestra’s “complete” sound could come into its own with Rachmaninov‘s Symphonic Dances, the composer’s final orchestral work.  It’s a strange combination – apparently Rachmaninov conceived it as something which could be converted into a ballet, but a project the composer subsequently abandoned during composition, so while going through an assortment of dance forms, it is not really a set of dances but a more of a three-movement symphony with a lot of moving parts.  The orchestra navigated around and through these motions masterfully, making this difficult work fully accessible to the listener.  The audience erupted in pleasure (prompting not just one but two encores: the more sedate Moment Musical by Schubert and the crazier excerpt from The Miraculous Mandarin by Bartók).

Concertgebouw Orchestra, Musikverein (Vienna)

Mozart, Mahler

Precious few orchestras manage to staff themselves fully with players in every section who simultaneously exhibit individual virtuosity and blend into an orchestral whole. It is this which makes the Philadelphia Orchestra in its current incarnation rank high above all others in North America. But the Philadelphia has had its ups and downs over the years (including downs in very recent memory). The elite among the elite manage to maintain this level of excellence year-in-year-out, indeed decade-in-decade-out. Possibly only two orchestras on the planet meet this exalted standard: the Wiener Philharmoniker, which makes its home in the Musikverein, and the Concertgebouworkest Amsterdam, which visited the Musikverein this morning.

They arrived with a guest conductor: Semyon Bychkov, a wise choice (they recently appointed the uninspiring Daniele Gatti as their music director – I suppose Gatti must rehearse well, but from my experience orchestras simply ignore him during concerts where he stays out of the way while the orchestra in front of him makes the music; but Gatti’s appointment marks a big drop off from their outgoing chief Mariss Jansons). Where the orchestra provided Bychkov with a palette of the most vibrant colors, it still required a painter to know how to blend those colors to create a masterwork. Bychkov knew what to do, making broad brush strokes where necessary but also showing attention to fine details. Controlled on one hand, Bychkov was passionate on the other. He is a conductor who continues to grow in stature every time I hear his concerts.

This morning’s concert led off with Mozart’s Piano Concerto #22, with Emanuel Ax at the keyboard. The interpretation put paid to the idiotic original instruments movement: here we had a full-sized orchestra with proper instruments, and Ax sitting at a piano (which had actually also not been invented yet when Mozart wrote this – the German title should really be translated as “Keyboard Concerto #22”). One wonders if this sound is not what Mozart really had inside his head when he wrote it, but the poorly-tuned instruments and insufficient resources of his era meant that he wrote not for his own inadequate time but for the future when it would finally become possible to perform the music properly. Just because music may have been performed badly at the time composers wrote is no justification (other than curiosity) to perform the music badly today. Ax, Bychkov, and the orchestra made a convincing case for Mozart as he might have been, in full sound but never overbearing. The details were all there, right down to Wolfgang Amadé’s sarcastic smile.

This was the second time I have heard Ax perform this work this year – he did it at the Salzburg Festival in August with the Vienna Philharmonic under Jansons, also for a morning concert.  It’s a perfect piece to start off a morning – not too heavy.  This morning’s performance was the more substatial of the two readings, without becoming too heavy, and set out the stronger case for this concerto.

After the intermission came Mahler’s Symphony #5 in all of its glory. This is actually the second time I have heard Bychkov conduct this symphony in 2016 – the last was in May with the orchestra of the Vienna conservatory. While the previous performance was good, this time with the Concertgebouw Orchestra Bychkov could take the piece to another level. He slowed down the first movement somewhat, even bringing the quieter sections down a notch, to produce an extra layer of foreboding as Mahler grappled with fate. This touch also allowed him to emphasize many of the musicians in the orchestra and their intricate lines – but, as I said above, their individual virtuosity was apparent for all to hear but never strayed from creating a whole sound. On the podium, Bychkov could build on this, moving up to the anticipated triumph of the truncated chorale at the end of the second movement (which later resolved in complete triumph with the full chorale at the end of the fifth movement). The dance melodies danced – in the forefront where appropriate and behind the scenes where suggestive, the scherzo hopped, and the juxtaposition of the adagio with the final movement (performed correctly without break) accentuated the victory.

Bright sunlight shone through the upper windows of the Musikverein (rarely happens as it requires a morning concert, a sunny day, and the right angle) and illuminated the Golden Hall in all of its glory, a perfect complement to the musicianship on the stage. Someone up there was smiling too.

Berlin Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Boulez, Mahler

Although the Salzburg Festival still runs a few more days, my ticket collection ended tonight… and what a way to end.  Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic returned to the Great Festival House and brought Mahler‘s Seventh Symphony with them.  

They provided a perfect balance of tension and celebration: here a dance, there a march, and over there a lullaby – but all threatened by the struggle of life.  The orchestra bounced effortlessly from one concept to the other, while simultaneously balancing night and day, darkness and light, joy and trepidation.  Many have failed to understand this symphony, and have criticized the final movement in particular for failing to resolve: but it does resolve, especially when crafted as Rattle did tonight.  It happens to be one of my favorite movements in Mahler’s symphonies, with its great chorales striding from the darkness to proclaim to the world that it may be dark but we live – indeed, we have danced, marched, and sung lullabies.

Less commented is the original inspiration: Mahler’s conservatory classmate (and roommate) when they studied together with Bruckner was Hans Rott, who went insane and died aged 25.  Bruckner (and Mahler too) had regarded him as more talented than Mahler.  Rott completed only one symphony (which I had only known from recordings until I finally heard it live last year), elements of which later showed up as inspiration for some of Mahler’s works.  And indeed the final movement chorales in the Seventh Symphony grew out of Rott’s.  In life, Rott had failed (and was locked up in the asylum).  In death, it seems he has triumphed on the wide open spaces of Mahler’s Seventh.

Of course, it takes a perfomance of such clarity as Rattle and the Berliners gave tonight in order to hear this.

For some reason, they chose to preface the symphony with a short pile of musical notes spilled on paper by Pierre BoulezÉclat.  Boulez, in his roles both as composer and as conductor carried on the French effete tradition of distilling all of the essence out of art (in this case, music) and then also throwing out the substance, so that nothing of value remains.  And so it was with this opening work.  Seriously, what was the point?  Fortunately, it was short and easily forgotten when the Mahler arrived.

Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, Felsenreitschule

Mahler

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

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

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

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

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

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).

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Pärt, Mahler, Bruckner

The good Lord put so much beauty in the world, but sometimes we have to go search for it.  Zubin Mehta and the Vienna Philharmonic knew where to look tonight at the Festival.

The concert opened with a short piece by Arvo Pärt that the Philharmonic had premiered in 2014, on a commission from the Salzburg Mozarteum.  Swansong was a setting for chamber orchestra of an anthem Pärt had previously on words Cardinal John Henry Newman had written shortly before he died.  The piece was musical enough, but awfully repetitive for a short work – I wonder if the orginal version with text might not have been better.

The next work did have its words intact: Gustav Mahler‘s Kindertotenlieder, with baritone by Matthias Goerne.  Mehta combined Goerne’s passionate sadness with distraught woodwinds, never letting the instruments overwhelm the words but portraying the anguish in Friedrich Rückert’s texts.  This culminated in the final song, “In diesem Wetter,” in which the orchestra all but created a storm inside the Great Festival House – I nearly wanted to run home to check if my windows were closed – but still contained as tears.

Beauty can best be appreciated when the world is not perfect.  So Mahler’s songs provided a fitting prelude to Anton Bruckner‘s Fourth Symphony.  Without a soloist, Mehta did not have to worry about restraining the orchestra, and he unleashed it in full force.  In this interpretation, however, Mehta drew out much of the often-overlooked tension lurking underneath the surface of this symphony.  Indeed, we could see suffering in the world, yet the beauty rose above it all.  Mehta bound the whole work together with the pulsing strides of the lower strings: could this have been the inevitable march of fate?  But beauty triumphed: so much beauty.  Praise the Lord!

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Eötvös, Brahms, Mahler

If the world is going to end in 2016, which at this rate it may do, then a brand-new oratorio by Péter Eötvös, jointly commissioned by the Salzburg Festival (with several other partners), may provide the backdrop.  The Vienna Philharmonic gave the premiere of Halleluja – Oratorium Balbulum tonight at the Festival.  

This strange melancholic work had a sense of humor.  It comprised three characters: a long-winded and easily distracted narrator, a stuttering prophet, and a drunken angel.  The composer called it “four fragments” not because it was excerpted from a longer work, but because he – and the librettist Péter Esterhazy, who died earlier this month – took a much bigger concept and then selected four fragments to put to music.  The plot, such as it was, centered on September 11th 2001, in which a European government spokesman on a business trip switches off his hotel television because they are showing what he thinks is an American B-movie of a plane flying into the World Trade Center.  However, his wife was on the plane, and ordering a tomato juice… but this plot was not really so important other than as a frame.  History has come to an end.  People are afraid for tomorrow.  They have begun to think only for today.  There will be no tomorrow.  But does a fragment have an end?

The music was eclectic, but demonstrated that original music today can say something new without having to be ugly.  The idea was to keep everything disjointed, flowing logically but changing directions, and of course being interrupted by the three main characters.  The chorus augmented the scene, providing periodic Hallelujas composed by a range of composers from Monteverdi through Mussorgsky (including singing two simultaneously by Mozart and Bruckner and one “in the style of Bartok” who never wrote one).  

Actor Peter Simonischek in the spoken role of Narrator, alto Iris Vermillion as the Angel, and tenor Topi Lehtipuu as the Prophet gave idiomatic readings, milking the humor of the work through the darkness.  The Hungarian Radio Chorus mastered the complex and ever-changing choral parts.

On the podium, the young Brit Daniel Harding (who I thought would get the Berlin job, and instead ended up with the awful Orchestra of Paris… what a waste) showed why he is one of the more dynamic comductors of his generation and able to handle a broad repertory.

This oratorio actually was not the end (it was only four fragments!).  The concert resumed after the intermission with Brahms and Mahler.  Harding allowed the scaled-down chamber orchestra sing for Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn.  The original work was a chorale (although it may not have been by Haydn), and Harding made this clear, adding a bit of cheer after the Eötvös oratorio.  For Mahler, we reverted to melancholy: the Adagio from his Tenth Symphony.  This Adagio was, of course, also a fragment, the only movement of that symphony that Mahler was able to substantially complete before he died.  Taken in the context of the Eötvös work, this performance was a revelation.  The world ends, but it is only a fragment.  The world goes on.

Webern Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Mozart, Mahler

I had not planned on any concerts until the Salzburg Festival this Summer, an unusual gap of two months. So I suppose I was bound to fill it when a ticket opened up in the packed Musikverein this evening for a concert of the Vienna Conservatory’s Webern Symphony Orchestra under Semyon Bychkov.  I can now testify that the future of Mozart and Mahler in the Musikverein sounds secure.

Pairing Mozart’s Piano Concerto #20 and Mahler’s Symphony #5 on the program had a certain logic. Both start in minor, somewhat foreboding, but end in a triumphant major. Without resorting to stereotype for such arrangements, Bychkov still drew out the transformation – these are not just fate-conquering works, but a positive trip through a troubled world. Bychkov restrained the orchestra for much of the darker moments, yet always pushed forward, never dragging. This allowed the youthful orchestra to demonstrate its exuberance during the brighter passages. A lot of happiness shone through here.

At the keyboard for the Mozart sat Jasminka Stančul, whose hands almost hovered above the keys and simply coaxed the music effortlessly out of the piano. She and the orchestra spoke the same language and their instrumental voices blended beautifully.

Wiener Symphoniker, Musikverein

Mozart, Papandopulo, D. Scarlatti, Mahler

Ádám Fischer and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra gave us a concert of two distinct halves in the Musikverein this evening – same orchestra, same conductor, and same hall, but the similarities ended there. The first half featured Mozart, who thought life was worth living; whereas in the second half came Mahler, who wished life were worth living.

Serbian pianist Jasminka Stančul joined in for Mozart’s Piano Concerto #23, bringing great warmth from her keyboard, while Fischer and the Symphoniker melted the room. The second movement practically sang – I eagerly waited for Don Ottavio to climb out from under the soundboard and start his serenade. The final movement displayed Mozart at his most exuberant and irrepressible.

Stančul used the momentum to provide two encores: the first, a distinctly modern firework by Boris Papandopulo (Studia 1), showed that her fingers could be everywhere at once; the second a sonata by Domenico Scarlatti on steroids (although her fingers did not always quite keep up for that one).

But if Mozart were so happy, despite impending doom, then Mahler’s Seventh Symphony put an end to that after the intermission. Fischer’s interpretation was ice cold. While the brass played the opening movement’s funeral marches with deep melancholy, the woodwinds bit, the strings ripped at the open flesh, and the percussion pounded. Fischer took the middle three movements almost as chamber works, despite having a full Mahler-sized orchestra on the stage, carefully crafting the delicate lines, moving from one instrument group to another, with thin blades and cautious steps across the ice. The Symphoniker’s musicians responded with gorgeously idiomatic playing. For the final movement, Fischer combined the two concepts, the brass chorales alternating with restrained but somber chamber constructs. This was a new interpretation of this work – take a big work and rein it in to find its inner meaning and desolation. Although it was an intelligent attempt, and wonderfully performed, to be entirely honest I am not sure Fischer’s interpretation convinced me.

Boston Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mahler

I cannot remember the last time I heard the Boston Symphony Orchestra live, but it must have been while I was still at Harvard.  It stagnated for three decades under Seiji Ozawa and James Levine who succeeded Ozawa simply was not in good enough health to do anything about it but lingered for seven years before finally stepping down.  So the appointment of the dynamic young Latvian Andris Nelsons at the start of the last season marked a hopeful turn.  Nelsons has rightfully reached star status in his visits to Vienna, so can he achieve the same in Boston to restore this orchestra?

I must say the jury (I suppose I am the jury here) is still out, from an unrepresentative sample: Mahler’s Sixth Symphony in Salzburg’s Large Festival House tonight.  Historically, this orchestra has been the smallest of the US “Big Five” orchestras, and therefore excelled more at the smaller symphonic works.  This is a big work: how could a normally smaller orchestra handle it?  The orchestra pulled Mahlerian forces on stage for it, so the sound was big enough.  But it lacked warmth and fullness.  The playing was of a high quality, and quite together, but something was missing.  When solo instruments had exposed lines, they played them well, but a certain virtuosity lacked.  While symphony orchestras need to blend, the best ones blend individuals – thinking of how the principals of the Philadelphia Orchestra, for example, overwhelm the listener with their skill when presented the chance.  Not this orchestra tonight.

Nelsons took a slightly unusual interpretation of this symphony, treating it not as disaster befalling a hero, but rather as the hero trying with all his might to enjoy life despite impending doom.  So the music playfully danced, jumped, and soared, as destructive fate all the while loomed.  Mahler wrote this symphony with three devastating hammer blows in the final movement, and later decided that the third one was too depressing even for him.  So he suggested removing it.  Nelsons followed Mahler’s second-thought recommendation, and so we only got two hammer blows tonight.  The result of this was an almost optimistic conclusion by comparison.  Maybe the hero will survive despite the tragedy of the world.

The orchestra responded to Nelsons, and the quite good playing drew out his interpretation yet lacked something – they played as he directed them, but did they know what they were playing?  This is notoriously the most difficult of Mahler’s symphonies to understand (it took me years – I don’t think I really got it until about ten years ago).  Nelsons gets it; I am not sure the BSO does – yet.  Give them some more time with Nelsons.

Budapest Festival Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Bartók, Mahler

The Budapest Festival Orchestra came to the Salzburg Festival tonight, conducted by its founder Iván Fischer, to provide new ways of hearing Bartók and Mahler.

Bartók’s Hungarian Sketches for Orchestra opened the program.  An orchestration and elaboration done in the 1930s of music he wrote for piano a quarter of a century earlier, Bartók captured lyrical folk dances.  Fischer and his orchestra performed these as though written for a chamber wind ensemble, augmented by the rest of the orchestra.  The result showed off the versatility of this string section, which evoked the Hungarian traditions.  Where most orchestras have their strings synchronize their bowing, this orchestra had the woodwinds synchronize their own motions – heads flowing up-and-down and side-to-side with the music (with big sweeps – the instruments often shot upwards of the musicians’ heads).

Yefim Bronfman joined the orchestra for Bartók’s Piano Concerto #3.  Bartók viewed the piano fundamentally as a percussion instrument (a view I share), and tonight’s performance verified the assertion.  Although generally lyrical, this concerto – the last composition the composer completed before he died (the Philadelphia Orchestra gave its premiere after his death) – allowed some dialogue between the piano and, alternately, the woodwinds, strings, and tympani, but I do wonder if this piece might have done better if he had simply orchestrated the non-percussive piano parts.  Bronfman treated us to an (unidentified) encore – a flashy and also very-percussive solo piano piece where his fingers and hands turned into a blur as they athletically jumped all over the keyboard.

Mahler’s Symphony #4 is perhaps the lightest and most cheerful of his symphonies.  Not tonight.  Fischer did keep the size of the sound manageable, almost a chamber-music reading (albeit with full orchestra), but this was not by any means a light performance, and it certainly was not cheerful.  I may never have heard this work sound so dark and angst-ridden, and would not be surprised if the suicide rate in Salzburg spikes this evening.

The opening of the symphony dances.  But tonight Fischer inserted extra lilts in the dancing, to keep everything off-balance.  He also exposed separate lines elsewhere in the orchestra which conflict with the flow of one dance while suggesting another.  Yet he did this, keeping the music small – until about ten minutes in when the crescendo introduces the fate motif Mahler would develop in his fifth symphony, here left unresolved.

For the second movement, the principal horn (unidentified in the program) came to the front of the orchestra and sat next to the concert mistress (also unidentified in the program).  This was no sweet duet, but an interogation.  She played the solo violin parts with a sinister glare, while he answered on the horn with a lyrical self-defense.  The orchestra surrounded him with deep foreboding, always off-kilter.

The third movement adagio marked the darkest turn.  Taken at an especially slow pace, and with the orchestra keeping the sound low and delicate, this movement set the scene in nature, the successor of the closing movement of Mahler’s third symphony, but smaller and more contained.  But this was no happy march through the fields, but rather the wanderings of a troubled man seeking his doom in a place of utmost beauty.  The audience, which had been unusually restless through the concert so far, snapped to attention – no one moved, no one breathed, and even the coughing – which had plagued a good number of audience members – ceased.  I think this heart-wrenching interpretation made these ill people see the benefit of killing themselves.

Swedish soprano Miah Persson came out on stage slowly as this movement ended, allowing Fischer to move directly into the final movement.  She ended up standing where the hornist had been, and became subject to the same interogation.  Her sweat voice did not project fully in Salzburg’s Great Festival House, but Fischer kept a cap on the orchestra and never overwhelmed her with sound, although he did with anxiety, as she sang the lyrics about heaveny pleasures.

After several rounds of stunned applause (it was a good applause, but I think the audience was a bit emotionally overwhelmed), and perhaps well aware that they had to restore the audience’s mood after this, the performers offered us an encore.  I’m not sure what it was, but it sounded like a Latin prayer from the late baroque or early classical period.  Perrson sang beautifully, accompanied by a small chamber group within the orchestra.  About halfway through, the rest of the orchestra stood up in their places and joined in as a choir, singing the choral accompaniment.  An appropriate encore – something too cheerful would not work, but the mood had to become more hopeful – which provoked a standing ovation for one more round of applause.

Vienna Philharmonic, Musikverein

Mahler

The world’s best orchestra. The leading conductor of his generation. A concert hall with some of the best acoustics anywhere. And Mahler’s Third Symphony.

I unfortunately had to skip an unusual chamber concert last weekend that I had been looking forward to. I made it up to myself by snagging a late-returned ticket for the sold-out subscription concert of the Vienna Philharmonic under Mariss Jansons in the Musikverein, always an event. No one left the hall disappointed.

Jansons took the first movement somewhat more slowly than normal, but he gave it tension and suspense throughout: even though we knew how this would end, the audience hung on every note. Jansons and the Philharmoniker know every nuance of this hall, and used them, letting the sounds waft gently. Mahler’s description of nature showed that this is a solid but fragile planet. The birds chirp, the lake shimmers, the mountains soar, but it is all quite intricate as Mahler observed it from his summer hut. The concertmaster gave sweet solo lines, mingling with the winds. The brass provided majesty and the percussion a driving force.

The orchestral sound got complex, but never became too big. By the fourth movement, Argentinian mezzo Bernarda Fink gave a bold reading of Nietzsche, while the orchestra continued to simmer underneath, before the chorus of Vienna Choir Boys and the women of the Singverein joined her to ring in the fifth movement. Never overbearing, these voices uttered their words distinctly, but the meaning came almost understated in the music. Listen closely and hear the world.

For the opening of the Finale, despite the huge orchestral forces arrayed on stage, Jansons made them sound almost as a chamber orchestra. The two choirs remained standing for several minutes into this non-choral movement, to observe the world bloom. Gradually the orchestra filled the hall with increasing sound. The choirs sat down. The music stood up. And when it finished, the audience provided an additional ten minutes of applause.

Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Sibelius, Mahler, Elgar

The Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra opened the Salzburg Days of Culture 2014 with Sibelius and Mahler in the Large Festival House.  On the podium, its young Oxford-born Principal conductor Daniel Harding, a protege of Simon Rattle and the late Claudio Abbado.

Harding gave an innovative and fascinating reading of Mahler’s First Symphony in the second half of the concert.  Although the full orchestral forces filled the stage, and the volume was up (where it should have been), the orchestra performed it almost as chamber music in scope if not in size.  The lines in the different parts each stood out, interacted, and intertwined – it is now even clear what role the double basses have in the overall structure.  Unfortunately, this reading exposed the individual orchestra members as not an orchestra of virtuosi – although overall quite good, they could be a little sloppy at times, and the interpretation left them no where to hide.

The first movement opened icily, perhaps echoing the Sibelius from the concert’s first half.  Then, as the sound grew, a certain whimsical humor entered.  The orchestra danced and skipped and clicked its heels right through the second movement, a bit precise but playful.  The third movement dirge revealed new colors.  The spare playing allowed new individual lines to emerge.  And where the orchestra had danced together for the first two movements, now each line did its own thing to make up the whole.  The final movement brought not a wall of sound, not a wave, but just a lot of individual sounds that added together in ways not always apparent in this work.  Rather than overwhelming the audience, they gave us something somewhat more delicate but without sacrificing size.

As an encore, the orchestra did an equally full but tender Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

The Mahler (and Elgar) made up for the truly awful solo playing in the Sibelius Violin Concerto during the concert’s first half. Renaud Capuçon simply could not manage to get in tune.  Where Harding and the orchestra did their best to create an icy atmosphere appropriate for Sibelius, Capuçon poured vinegar on the ice.  His sour sound improved slightly as he warmed up during the performance, but warming up also does not go with Sibelius.  His notes came out often sharp and jarring.  He then treated us to a familiar-sounding encore (that I could not quite place – but I think it was a transcription for solo violin of something written for more instruments; whatever it was, Capuçon played it sharp and painfully but without substance).

Thomas Hampson and Wolfram Rieger, Haus für Mozart

Strauss, Mahler

Thomas Hampson presented an elegant concert of songs by Richard Strauss this evening, in the Salzburg Festival House’s small hall (oddly called the “House for Mozart”), in commemoration of the composer’s 150th birth year.

Hampson was not in full voice tonight.  This came out most apparently in the mezza voce sections, where his instrument cracked and sounded forced.  On the other hand, the performance came across as very human, which added to the elegance.  For the first half of the program, Hampson performed songs composed by Strauss over many years from the first half of his life, mostly for his wife or close acquaintances to sing in his parlor.  Hampson made these intimate.  We could almost hear a fireplace crackling.  His singing also gave the feel more of a poetry reading with piano accompaniment than of a concert.  His voice kept its musicality throughout, but the music was just there to accentuate the poems, which had their share of melancholy, backwards looking with allusions to Schubert.

Pianist Wolfram Rieger was easily Hampson’s equal.  He kept himself in the background, never overshadowing the singing or the poetic line.  When Strauss composed extended parts just for the piano, Rieger maintained the balance and flow and created more pure poetry without words.

The second half of the concert began with a strange 15-minute piece, “Notturno” – music by Strauss to words by Richard Dehmel, where violinist Yamei Yu joined Hampson and Rieger.  Her violin squeeked too much.  This broke the poetry.  Of course, the piece was strange enough to break the poetry as well.  There is probably a reason it is seldom performed.

The scheduled program concluded with three later songs based on poems by Friedrich Rückert.  I think Mahler picked the better selection of Rückert poetry, and probably also wrote more dramatic and emotional song music than Strauss.  Hampson gave us one of these Mahler settings of Rückert as his final encore, with astonishing contrast.  For the other encores, Hampson pointed out that Strauss had lived for 85 years and composed right to the end – so a lot of songs.  He picked some nice ones for the encores that brought us back to the concert’s elegant first half poetry reading.

San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Konzerthaus (Vienna)

Mahler

My parents’ old friend, the irrepressible Erich Leinsdorf, would have called tonight’s interpretation of Mahler’s 3rd in the Konzerthaus by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony “interesting.”  While it began with a thoughtful concept, ultimately it did not convince.

Tilson Thomas took the introduction to the first movement much more slowly than usual and with more trauma.  The percussion and double basses provided a broken heartbeat in the background, while the brass played bitterly, clearly shaped by Tilson Thomas’ motions.  This led into the march at normal speed, representing Summer marching in.  Tilson Thomas’ summer clearly was not the hot sunny type, but rather full of storms.  The percussion kept the underlying march going, while the winds held back otherworldly and detached above, so that while the feet marched the head filled with melancholy.

The first movement actually worked.  The problem came that Tilson Thomas did not know where to go from here.  The next movements developed along the same lines.  But the tutti playing became altogether gooey and sentimental, while the solo lines gave contrast with detached sadness.  In the end, the woodwinds simply could not keep up the pretense, and lost their angst without finding relief.  This left the concertmaster and the brass alone keeping the alternate mood going.

Mezzo soloist Sasha Cooke gave a strong and haunting account in the fourth and fifth movements, but Tilson Thomas completely buried the choral parts (sung by the women from the Vienna Singakademie and by the Vienna Choir Boys), blending their voices into, and under, the orchestral music.

For the final movement, perhaps Mahler’s most mystical adagio, Tilson Thomas once again resumed the extra-slow tempo.  In doing so, he gave the orchestra a shimmering icy sound more appropriate for Sibelius (like Mahler, also a fan of and inspired by Bruckner, although having a distinct sound).  After the first horn entrance in this movement, the tone reverted to something more Mahlerian, but here the gooey sentimentality of the orchestral playing made the music more sappy than transformative.  The orchestra also tired, as evidenced by some missed cues and wrong notes.  And if Tilson Thomas wanted to take it slowly, he should not have made the playing so staccato, which further demystified the music.

As a final nail, Tilson Thomas did not hold the silence at the end, bringing his arms down right as the last note ended, thus making contemplation impossible.  The Vienna public certainly knows not to applaud until the conductor releases, but in this case Tilson Thomas did not hold at all.  The applause came politely, with some well-deserved huzzahs for Cooke, the concert master, and the principal trombone, trumpet, and horn during their solo bows, but otherwise everyone else just received some polite clapping.

In the end, while Tilson Thomas can get credit for originality, he may not have thought this one all the way through.  Or maybe the enlarged forces of the San Francisco Symphony normally sound this gooey (if so, then Tilson Thomas should take the blame for that, too, since he has served as music director of this orchestra since 1995).

Armenian Philharmonic, Khachaturian Hall

Mahler

Eduard Topchjan decided to introduce Armenia to Mahler’Lied von der Erde this evening, in the work’s premiere performance in this country.  With Topchjan on the podium, the Armenian Philharmonic made a valient effort.  However, it was perhaps a bit too ambitious for this orchestra.  They actually sounded good (if not always together, as usual), and Topchjan kept his speed and stick technique deliberate.  But the orchestra members all had frightened looks on their faces as their eyes darted between their music stands and Topchjan.

Individually, they actually did quite well on the whole, but the entire piece missed an overall feel, with no lilt or angst, as appropriate.  The soloists both had pleasant bittersweet voices.  Veteran northern Irish mezzo Zandra McMaster clearly has sung this before, whereas the young Armenian tenor Liparit Avetisyan may not have. In these circumstances, the lack of experience helped, as Avetisyan sounded more fresh and excited.  McMaster lacked emotion, and her sections tended to drag.

Speaking of ambition, perhaps Das Lied was a bit too ambitious for the three-year-old (or thereabouts) in the seat next to me.  She was well-behaved to start, but by an hour in she was crying uncontrollably.