Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Haus für Mozart (Salzburg)

Haydn, Gruber, Mahler, Grieg

This evening’s concert by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and Juanjo Mena in Salzburg’s Haus für Mozart confirmed my impression yesterday, but exceeded the result.  First, the musical selection was better tonight.  Second, I had a seat with passable acoustics.  And third, I finally did not have to stifle a cough, so I was more comfortable (still a little congested, but not much of an issue any more).

Joseph Haydn‘s trumpet concerto opened the concert, again with Håkan Hardenberger as soloist.  This was the first modern trumpet concerto – the keyed trumpet had just been invented, allowing a trumpet to have the full range of notes, and Haydn was the first to write for it, combining his usual good humor with a demonstration of the new instrument’s capabilities.  Hardenberger plays everything idiomatically, and here was no exception, a warm tone throughout.

We then switched gears entirely for a different type of trumpet concerto: H. K. Gruber‘s Three MOB Pieces, originally for jazz septet here rescored for trumpet and orchestra in a version the composer did for Hardenberger himself several years back.  Gruber has never explained what “MOB” stands for (he has implied but not confirmed “mobility”).  They are American big-band-inspired works, and in this performing version a nice showpiece for Hardenberger (actually three different showpieces, performed on three different trumpets).  Not really my thing, and unclear if this is appropriate music for an orchestral concert, but it allowed a display of virtuosity and was not as pointless as the Wallin concerto last night.

After the break came another first symphony – not Brahms, as we had last night, but Gustav Mahler.  Salzburg is the location of the (likely apocryphal) story in which Brahms complained to Mahler while walking along the Salzach River that after Beethoven had said everything there was to be said with music, it was now impossible to write anything new.  Mahler pointed out at the river and said: “Look, Maestro!  Here comes the last wave!”  So Brahms’ first symphony was a mature work which said nothing new (water under the bridge, as it were).  Mahler’s was a youthful work which marked the next wave in the flowing river.

With this much to work with, Mena and the Bergen Philharmonic excelled, producing a full, emotional, and ultimately exuberant performance.  This orchestra once again demonstrated its complete sound, with strong solo lines magnifying the full impact.  Mena again looked like he was molding clay, but this was a much higher-quality clay, and the life he breathed into it showed.  The symphony indeed came alive.  The audience reception agreed, with a much bigger applause than last night (they earned it last night, but the music was less compelling – tonight just went in total to the next level).  Two additional encores from Edvard Grieg‘s incidental music to Peer Gynt rounded off the performance (one was “Morning;” the other I can’t quite remember what the segment is) with more enthusiastic responses and smiles all around.

My seat this evening was up top on the side – I’ve actually sat in almost the equivalent seat on the other side before, and thought it was OK, so now I know where to sit in this hall.  Sitting over the orchestra, the sound came straight up to me.  I have had other seats up top before too, which were OK.  Now I realize where the sound goes in this hall: right to the ceiling – from the other seats I’ve been in lower down, it has sounded like it was trapped in a box.  Given that the other two halls in the Festival complex have good acoustics, one wonders how they got this one so wrong.  And the name is stupid too, as I’ve remarked before.  Why “House for Mozart” (not to be confused with “Mozart’s House” and “Mozart’s Birth House” both open as museums in Salzburg)?  Why not “Mozart Hall” – or, given the number of things named for Mozart already in this town, why not name it after someone else?  Or since there is a “Great Festival House” next door, even the prosaic “Little Festival House” would even work.  At any rate, looking through the windows of the Great Festival House, the renovations are well underway and the sooner we get concerts back there the better.  Maybe they can rip this hall out next year (ahead of the Festival’s 100th anniversary) and replace it with a new hall with decent acoustics.

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London Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mahler

For the third year in a row, Mahler‘s Ninth graced the program at the Salzburg Festival, each with a different orchestra and conductor, and thus interpretation.  Tonight, Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra provided a surprisingly happy reading… which left me a little befuddled.  It was indeed a good performance, but not quite as I might have expected, and at the opposite end of the interpretative spectrum from the anguish of Bernard Haitink and the Vienna Philharmonic last year.

Rattle’s interpretation was missing what would normally be the key ingredient for Mahler: angst.  The London Symphony Orchestra replicated its joy and lilt and overall good humor from last night (Rattle must certainly have more fun with them than with the Berlin Philharmonic).  The symphony presented itself as a series of dances – albeit off-kilter (and by the end of the third movement rather frantic).  Even the outer movements became boisterous.  Only at the very end, where the symphony fades away, did the mood get contained, but given what had come before this seemed to describe a life fully lived.  The only problem was that Mahler was pensive even on a good day, and he wrote this symphony while dying and consumed by superstition, so Rattle’s take on it was peculiar, to say the least.

The Orchestra responded, however.  As I noted yesterday, the strings do sound a tad thin, and tonight the winds now and then cracked some notes.  So maybe I need to hear this orchestra more (and perhaps after Rattle has had more time with them) before reaching a conclusion.  Top ten certainly – probably more personality than Berlin (even when performing under Rattle).

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Zimmermann, Mahler

 

I went to hear Mahler‘s 2nd for the first time since my father died.  He would have liked this spectacular, emotive performance by the Vienna Philharmonic and Andris Nelsons in Salzburg’s Great Festival House.

Nelsons gave the performance extra drama – this is, of course, an orchestra drawn from an opera house, which knows better than most how to use music to augment the impact on the audience, so they bought in to Nelsons’ reading.  Essentially, Nelsons kept the lid on the first movement, making it almost delicate and mysterious.  This allowed him to draw out individual lines to highlight anguish and pain.  When the music swelled to crescendo, it proved devastating.  And then came the almost playful second and third movements, as interludes, almost classical in proportions (despite a full Mahler-sized orchestra).  The fourth movement – “premordial light” – shone.  Then we returned to the approach of the first movement… except whereas the first movement was a “celebration of death” the final movement is one of life and renewal and triumph.  Nelsons never lost sight of that ever-broadening smile among the tears.

Soprano Lucy Crowe, mezzo Ekaterina Gubanova, and the Bavarian Radio Chorus sang beautifully.  At the end: silence, even after Nelsons dropped his arms and released the room.  Only when he turned to look out over the stunned hall did tentative clapping begin, swelling slowly.  The audience stayed standing in our seats to applaud until 11 p.m..

Before the intermission came Bernd Alois Zimmermann‘s Trumpet Concerto “Nobody Knows de Trouble I See” with soloist Håkan Hardenberger.  I suppose Nelsons chose this to somehow set up his interpretation of Mahler.  The work, in one long movement, has a colorful orchestral backdrop that starts in dissonance, moves through dancing jazz, and finishes in mystery, sort of the reverse of his interpretation of Mahler’s 2nd.  On top of this, the trumpet moves through a variety of styles.  And who better than Hardenberger, whose versatility shines, to interpret this.  The work was actually fun – despite the undercurrent (inspired by an old Negro spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” the German Zimmermann wrote it shortly after his own country had checked out of the human race for a few years as a sort-of self-indulgent Schadenfreude to highlight American racism, but he undermined his own message somewhat by changing the title to parody black American English).  But in the end, juxtaposed to the Mahler, it was unconvincing.  It was written decades after Mahler, so it is not like Zimmermann could set up Mahler or provide influence; Mahler was also fresher, more original, and managed to carry his work over five movements and more than an hour and a quarter.

As an aside: I had been disappointed to not have my application accepted for tickets for Salome by Richard Strauss at this year’s Festival.  But opening night was televised, so I at least watched that.  The staging, by an Italian, Romeo Castellucci was terrible.  His biography does not indicate any German connection, but watching this performance I might have assumed he could have been German or German-trained, given how little relevance his staging had to the plot and a desire to shock for sake of shock – opera in Germany is all about these narcissist imbecilic directors.  The characters wandering around the stage – sometimes stopping and standing in place, sometimes also contorting themselves, had no bearing to anything.  The literature indicated he thought the Dance of the Seven Veils was the culmination, but he did not have Salome dance.  Instead, after Herod left the stage (so he did not even get to see the dance), Castellucci had Salome tied immobile to the top of a pedestal labeled “SAXA” – Latin for “rocks” – and had a large hewn rock descend slowly from the ceiling to crush her (apparently it was hollow, because she survived to sing the next scene).  John the Baptist (who sang in blackface) appeared to share his cistern cell with a horse (!?), so that when they brought his head out, they actually brought the horse’s out instead.  The Baptist’s naked headless body (white skin – so I won’t even begin to guess why Castellucci portrayed him in blackface – probably to shock, or he’s just a racist, I don’t know) did come on stage at the end, and she made out with that corpse and kissed where his lips would have been if he had still had a head.  Salome was not killed at the end either (why should she be? – “kill that woman!” are only the opera’s final words, and the music describes her death).  It really is not worth recapping the rest of this garbage.  I suppose I am now pleased I did not pay for tickets.

The one redeeming feature: the Armenian-Lithuanian soparano Asmik Grigoryan as an expressive, physcologically tortured, Salome.  Franz Welser-Möst led the Philharmonic (which reminded me that I had seen an even worse staging of this opera in Zurich many years ago with him conducting).  If I had only heard this on the radio, I would have been impressed.

 

Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Schostakowitsch, Mahler

Back in the Great Festival House, the dour Finns sounded much better this evening for a program of Schostakowitsch and Mahler.  The Helsinki Philharmonic and Susanna Mälkki seemed more comfortable than on Wednesday, as did cellist Truls Mørk with the Schostakowitsch concerto more in his comfort zone than the Elgar.

Mørk’s Schostakowitsch was paranoid – as though the Soviet police might come on stage at any moment and arrest and deport him.  Mälkki bought into this, and a certain nervousness pervaded everything.  This was not so much Schostakowitsch triumphing over Stalin, but more basic survival… for now.

Hearing a Finnish orchestra do Mahler was a treat.  Tonight came his 9th Symphony, which allowed this group to keep their melancholic mood going from Wednesday.  This approach worked best in the third movement, for a off-kilter dance, and especially in the pensive final movement.  Mälkki is still a bit too blockish in her approach, which broke up the flow of the first two movements – and oddly meant less precision where Mahler’s lines run into or against each other.  But she warmed, the music cooled, and the audience was left hanging in the balance, where we belonged, questioning our existence.  She and the orchestra earned a much bigger and warmer applause than on Wednesday, well deserved this evening.

Camerata Salzburg, Mozarteum

Schnittke, Beethoven, Mahler, Martin

I added tonight’s concert of the Camerata Salzburg to an eclectic Mozarteum subscription package on a whim.  I have no idea why.  I certainly did not expect that chamber music by Alfred Schnittke and Frank Martin could be so much fun.

The music was certainly unconventional and gave me a lot to digest (even before dinner – I think all the unexpected digestion made me hungry early tonight).  The concert opened with Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso #1 for two violins, cembalo, “prepared” piano, and strings.  Stylistically this was everywhere (from Corelli to the tango, according to the program), but never felt out of control.  I would need to hear it again to understand if Schnittke had some logic to its construction, but even without quite understanding it at this point I could safely feel he must have had one.  The two violin parts were taken by the Camerata’s concertmaster Gregory Ahss and guest Andrey Baranov, who played together with one mind.  Jumping robustly from musical style to style, they somehow made it sound easy – and it could not have been (must be hard enough if it were a solo violin, but two of them together made the effort more dauting – but achieved).  A quick encore by these two (and piano accompaniment) of a Beethoven piece as arranged by Schostakowitsch was more conventional but equally as impressive.

The concert’s last piece was Martin’s Petite Symphonie Concertante for harp, cembalo, piano, and string orchestra – commissioned to provide a baroque continuo orchestra with a modern work.  Martin accepted the challenge, producing something classical in form but modern in substance.  Although not as boisterous as the Schnittke piece, it remained tonal but always sounding new.  What did Martin have to say exactly?  Again, like the Schnittke, I am not sure.  This is another piece I will absolutely and gladly need to hear again some time.

Tonight’s conductor was Teodor Currentzis, the Russian-trained Greek whose career got stuck in Perm, Siberia.  I heard him for the first time last season in front of the Camerata, and noticed then that he showed a great rapport with this group (they had just kicked out their previous unexciting music director and had decided to try to do without one, but I had thought they should snap up Currentzis – indeed, I still think they should).  Currentzis had returned to Salzburg for last Summer’s Festival at the head of his own orchestra from Perm, which was unfortunate (too much performance art and not enough performance), but the Camerata is a far better orchestra than his usual one, so the music was foremost tonight, and Currentzis drew it out.

I did have one gripe with tonight’s performance, coming in the form of Gustav Mahler‘s Kindertotenlieder.  Currentzis lost it on this one: he insisted on adding his own sound effects (making hush sounds throughout the cycle, perhaps mimicking crashing waves, although I don’t really know what he was trying to do).  He really does need to tone down the performance art and stick to music.  Fortunately, the Camerata went on with its business and sounded fantastic.  Mezzo Ann Hallenberg had a warm and full lower register that almost made me forget it was not a baritone voice tonight (the usual voice for this song cycle – although using a mezzo instead is perfectly acceptable too). Her upper registers were not always quite as complete (or accurate) though.

Musica Aeterna Orchestra of the Perm Opera, Felsenreitschule (Salzburg)

Berg, Mahler

The “Musica Aeterna” Orchestra of the Perm Opera certainly provided the most unusual reading of Mahler‘s First Symphony (the third live performance of the work I have heard this year), paired with Berg‘s Violin Concerto in Salzburg’s Felsenreitschule.

It’s not that it was necessarily bad – it wasn’t – but they tried too hard to make it more performance art than performance.  Less of the former and more of the latter would have been nice.

Conducting was Teodor Currentzis, whom I first heard last Fall with the Camerata Salzburg and thought was quite promising.  I think he still is, but he seems to have let spectacle get the better of him.  Currentzis is a Greek who studied in Russia and whose career seems to have gotten stuck in Siberia.  He’s beginning to venture back out.  He founded this orchestra (with a Latin name – why?) in 2004 – one wonders what the Perm Opera used for an orchestra until then.

Russian orchestras have a distinctive timbre, mostly from the method of playing the wind instruments.  This works surprisingly well for Mahler.  However, this orchestra does not sound Russian at all, and instead has a rather homogenized sound, which is unfortunate.  Perhaps to make up for this lack of distinction (which I suppose he wants – it’s his orchestra, after all, and always has been!), Currentzis plays with the volume to exaggerate the dynamic range.  This produces delicate rather than robust playing for the quieter moments (even when quiet robust would be wanted) and big swells of sound to the larger moments.  The overall tone is not bad, it’s just the orchestra seems to use dynamics as a substitute for actually inflecting the music.

For the Mahler, Currentzis had the orchestra stand rather than sit (except for those instruments that have to be played sitting down).    The musicians did not seem to know what to do, fidgeting from leg to leg (or in some cases, especially the concertmaster, more than fidgeting – he kept jumping around, up and down, and almost off the stage).  Visually this became distracting.  And while there may be times (chamber orchestras in confined spaces, for example) where standing might be preferable, an hour-long Mahler symphony is not one of those times.

Tacked onto the Mahler First came an encore – the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth.  Lacking the big swells of the Mahler First, this single movement lent itself even less to the performance style and made the delicate playing sound altogether too thin (especially for the drawn-out slow movement speed).

The first half of the concert had also been for show.  Members of the orchestra started playing – or, rather, making noises on – their instruments before Currentzis and soloist Patricia Kopatchinskaja came on stage.  These noises were, I think, supposed to be aetherial noises to set a mood.  Again, they served only to showcase performance art over performance.  Currentzis and Kopatchinskaja tip-toed on stage during this nonsense (Kopatchinskaja barefoot – as is her wont – but also taking a random detour through the orchestra on her way in), and then jumped right into Berg’s concerto.

Berg’s Violin Concerto is a difficult enough work to figure out – except during the occasional lapses when Berg actually tried to write (and succeeded in writing) music.  The weird intro did not help this understanding.  At least the orchestra was sitting down for this one.

Again, it’s not that the performance was bad, it was just they tried too hard to make it performance art.  They should stick to music.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mahler

Gustav Mahler‘s farewell to life: his last completed work, the ninth symphony, filled him with superstitious dread.  His symphonic idiom drew from Beethoven, Schubert, and Bruckner, who had not exceeded nine symphonies (using the official numberings – Schubert’s supposedly-lost symphony that got a number seems to have actually been his unfinished #8 and not an entirely different one, and Bruckner wrote two, #0 and #00, which he excluded from his own numbering).  The symphony received its premiere in 1912, one year after Mahler’s death.

 

There are a number of ways to approach this symphony.  In taking perhaps the most anguished possible interpretation at Salzburg’s Great Festival House this morning, Bernard Haitink and the Vienna Philharmonic may have unleashed the best – and most devastating – performance I have heard of the work.  This was a heart-wrenching version, the instruments growling and hissing and mocking the soul.  Haitink coaxed virtuoso playing from each individual musician, representations of awaiting death (but also an entirely new harmonic language Mahler had developed, a logical if radical continuation of his unique style which went on to influence Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School).  Even when the middle movements danced, this was not a dance with death so much as a dance with death hovering in the corner of the room, darkening the dancers with its monstrous shadow.

 

This interpreation highlighted an expansive adagio finale as the cousin of the adagio finale of Mahler’s third symphony.  But whereas the third ends triumphant, the ninth sinks into despair, fading to nil.

 

The Philharmonic’s principal clarinet died suddenly of a heart attack a few days ago, and one wonders if his departure hung over the orchestra.  The audience breathed deeply and stood.  We may be so used to this orchestra that we expect the most from them, and so standing ovations don’t come often.  But sometimes even the great Philharmoniker exceeds itself as it did this morning.

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.