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.