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!


Israel Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Schoenberg, Tschaikowsky, Mussorgsky

Zubin Mehta, recovering from knee surgery, conducted the Israel Philharmonic tonight in Salzburg’s Large Festival House while sitting down.   He received major applause for the effort, and for his genuine popularity. Unfortunately, the handicap resulted in a concert that resembled one of his misses that came all-to-frequently for much of his otherwise charismatic career.

The Israel Philharmonic demonstrated real virtuosity across all of its lines, one instrumentalist finer than the other.  They played well together.  So the problem came in interpretation, and possibly a lack of inspiration.

Two works by Schoenberg took up the first hour of the concert:Verklärte Nacht and the Chamber Symphony #1.  The first work, for a string chamber orchestra, can be quite sensuous, an individual work but still fully tonal.  Not tonight, as it dragged from the beginning and the night felt like it never ended.  The Chamber Symphony #1, for 15 instruments, already shows Schoenberg begin to break down traditional tonality.  This imaginative work requires much expert playing, which we got.  But after ten minutes tonight, Mehta ceased to say anything new, leaving the audience to just wait for this to pass.

After the intermission came Tschaikowsky’s Sixth.  This interpretation featured more excellent instrumentalism, yet somehow managed to both lack dancing in Tschaikowsky’s lush swinging orchestrations, and also miss the morbid foretelling of the composer’s own death days after the Symphony’s premiere.  This version tonight just dragged.

Mehta managed to stay on his feet during the encore, the prelude to Khovanshchina by Mussorgsky, and here we received more drama in the reading.  It’s hard to criticize the conductor, who could have rightfully canceled, but that’s what we got.  He’s personally popular for a reason.  But at least we did get to hear the Israel Philharmonic, itself worth the price of a ticket.

Wiener Philharmoniker, Musikverein

Ligeti, J. Marx, Bruckner

Zubin Mehta returned to conduct the Philharmoniker in the Musikverein, the first time I have heard him in many years.  His concerts used to be hit-or-miss (often miss), but I had been advised on good authority that it is now safe to go hear him again.  He used to conduct using charisma alone – some days it provoked thrilling results, but mostly not.  He moves more slowly now, which may mean that he needs to take more care to think about the music and craft it.  It worked today.

The program took a an odd walk backwards in time, sliding off the abyss.  It included a hint of Asian polyphony where I did not expect it.

However, before we got to the music, the concert started inauspiciously with György Ligeti’s “Atmospheres” for large Orchestra, which sounded a bit like a ride on a on old tram whose wheels have not been oiled in several years.  The creeking and squeaking gave everyone in the hall a headache.  When it ended, the orchestra got the amount of applause it deserved: just enough to acknowledge that they had managed to play the piece.  It wasn’t worth the effort to boo – Ligeti himself is dead.  It may have been the shortest applause I have ever observed after a piece in the Musikverein – probably about 10-15 seconds of soft clapping, and then everyone wanted to forget our tormented ears and move on to the music.

Alt-Wiener Serenaden by Joseph Marx followed, and succeeded in erasing the Ligeti from the audience’s memory.  Joseph Marx was an Austrian paedagogue, music critic, and sometime composer who lost his positions and influence during the Nazi years because he strongly believed in an Austrian identity.  In 1942, the Vienna Philharmonic held a festival for its 100th anniversary (with the Philharmoniker joined by the leading Italian, Hungarian, and Dutch but out of principle no Reichsdeutsche orchestras), and Marx wrote these four pieces for that event to memorialize an Austria that had been erased from the map.  He reworked the old Viennese themes, using more modern techniques developed in Vienna in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  This approach updated otherwise backwards-looking music.  Quite oddly, several of the themes resembled music from Paliashvili’s opera Abesalom da Eteri, in which the Georgian master had taken a similar approach to updating traditional Georgian music with classical techniques.  It is hard to believe that Joseph Marx would have been familiar with Paliashvili’s 1919 opera, although Marx was an admirer of Scriabin, who had studied composition with Sergei Taneyev at the Moscow Conservatory as had Paliashvili.  Could there have been a connection?

Anton Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony graced the second half of the program.  Mehta gave a deliberate and measured reading, and the Philharmoniker, responded in full sound and aetherial grace.  If Marx looked back on old-fashioned Austrian music through intermediate developments, Bruckner – composing fifty years before Marx – looked into the future.  These two works complemented each other, crossing space and time in an Austrian context, never quite meeting halfway but twisting their perspectives.

Bruckner stretched tonality to its furthest extent in this Symphony.  And while he died before finishing it, the sketches for the never-written fourth movement apparently indicate he would develop this concept even further, leading music off the end of the world.  His letters to friends indicate that it was perhaps more than could be asked of a simple Austrian church organist.  Bruckner had looked into the future and had seen the Apocolypse, and did not survive to write it down.  Taneyev’s own music came to my mind in Mehta’s reading – particularly Taneyev’s cantata (opus 1) John of Damascus, whose words welcomed oncoming death (yes, Taneyev was brooding already in opus 1).  I have previously sensed an affinity between Taneyev’s and Bruckner’s choral church music, but this was the first time I had noticed the similarities in mood between Bruckner’s final work and Taneyev’s first opus.  Was it me, or was Mehta subconsciously making this point?

Mehta let the last notes waft into the evening.  Absolute silence reigned in the Golden Hall.  Eventually, Mehta lowered his arms.  Even then, the audience still waited to applaud.  The silence at the end of this symphony was longer than the applause at the end of the Ligeti.

Highlights from 2004


Prior to 2010 I did not write regularly.  I found most records from 2009 (now posted on this blog), but right now the only reliable musical notes from 2004-2008 are in my annual year-end highlight summaries, so I am posting these until I locate more in my archives.

Best opera production: Verdi, Rigoletto, Wiener Staatsoper (September). Ensemble cast with no particular stars, this was an example of why no opera house in the world comes close to comparing to the Staatsoper.

Worst opera production: Johann Strauß (Sohn), Eine Nacht in Venedig, Wiener Volksoper (September). I am really sick of these German opera directors who don’t bother to read the book before they stage an opera. This staging was set, for no apparent reason, in a shopping mall outside Vienna. The stupidity of the staging took away the charm of the music. The Volksoper is becoming far too artsy.

Best concert: Schoenberg, Gurrelieder, Wiener Philharmoniker under Mariss Jansons in the Musikverein (May). Reduced me to tears. Particularly devastating was the Wood Dove’s narrative (with Waltraud Meier). I recovered in time to follow the orchestra across the Ring to the Staatsoper for Verdi’s Falstaff starring Bryn Terfel two hours later.

Worst concert: nothing I attended was truly bad, but if I had to select something as “least good,” I would say the Bayerisches Staatsorchester playing a concert of Richard Strauss in the Vienna Musikverein (September). Zubin Mehta is either charismatic or sloppy, and in this case the Bavarians sounded like the New York Philharmonic at the end of his tenure there. The orchestra could play this music in its sleep, and I don’t get these sorts of concerts in Pristina, so I did not suffer too much. The Viennese public applauded politely.