Mendelssohn, Lecuona, Stravinsky, Mahler
Mendelssohn, Lecuona, Stravinsky, Mahler
Wagner, Britten, Mendelssohn
Fall has most certainly arrived in Salzburg, but with it the concert season also picks up. Tonight, the Camerata Salzburg opened its year with a spirited performance under the St. Petersburg-trained Greek conductor Teodor Currentzis. I had never heard of Currentzis, who seems to have mostly vanished inside the Russian Federation for his career, but he is quite talented. Indeed, the orchestra parted ways with their unremarkable chief conductor (Louis Langrée) last season and decided to go without one – but maybe they should keep this one! They clearly had an excellent rapport with him, and their enjoyment spilled off the stage into the Mozarteum’s Great Hall.
The centerpiece of tonight’s concert was a somewhat unusual work by Benjamin Britten, his Seranade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings. A not-quite-tonal work, it sets six poems written over six centuries, and prompts difficult blends of colors, which Currentzis coaxed with ease from the orchestra. The tenor soloist Samuel Boden and hornist Johannes Hinterholzer fully grasped the mood as well, with their idiomatic readings. Although on a modern horn for the songs themselves, Hinterholzer played the Prologue and Epilogue on a natural horn – the last as a backstage solo with the lights in the hall fading to darkness.
Sandwiching this peculiar Britten piece came two more traditional – but themselves quite different – works. The concert opened with Wagner‘s Siegfried Idyll, here performed extremely delicately by Currentzis and the Camerata. This was perhaps the Idyll Wagner intended, as a brithday morning wake-up gift for his wife, although tonight working equally as well to set the relaxed mood at the end of a hectic week.
After the intermission came a boisterous Symphony #4 by Felix Mendelssohn, which coming after the Wagner and Britten works demonstrated the Camerata’s sheer musicality. This is a chamber orchestra, so they did not augment the string section although adding the assorted wind instruments – this allowed Currentzis to highlight the various lines in those instruments, over a string foundation, with the orchestra capturing all of the nuances.
The audience exploded in applause. This applause, on top of the Mendelssohn, may have raised the roof in the hall, so Currentzis and the orchestra felt compelled to sedate everyone again with an encore (not a bad idea at all). Currentzis spoke a long introduction for this encore, emphasizing the need for silence and inner reflection after the wild performance of Mendelssohn, but he never actually told us what it was. It was some quiet minimalist piece of no particular interest (performed with the house and stage lights off, illuminated only by the music stand lights) that – to be frank – was anti-climactic after his long-winded introductory remarks. Far better would have been to turn the lights off and let us meditate in actual silence before heading back out into the night. But given the music-making of the rest of the evening before the encore, all is forgiven.
Elgar, Mendelssohn, Piazzola
The Youth Orchestra of Greve in Chianti made its second-annual appearance for a lunchtime concert at my office in Schloß Leopoldskron under its director Luca Rinaldi. This is becoming a wonderful little tradition.
This year they decided to have most of the musicians (not the celli and bases) play standing up. This succeeded in opening up the sound, especially as the Great Hall usually hosts smaller chamber groups but can be overwhelmed by orchestras of this size. In this case, standing up it worked – and also made the performance even more lively.
The program included the Seranade for Strings by Edward Elgar, dipped back chronologically to Felix Mendelssohn‘s Symphony for Strings #10, and then concluded with Astor Piazzolla‘s Libertango. That last piece may have had a swing to it, but musically paled compared to the other two works. Indeed, these kids captured the sophistication but light-hearted Elgar and Mendelssohn nicely.
I had not thought to review last year’s performance on this blog (we do host a lot of informal chamber concerts, and it does not make sense to comment on them all), but this year’s rose to a standard worthy of a flag.
A somewhat relaxed concert in Salzburg’s Great Festival House this evening, with the Mozarteum Orchestra under guest conductor Trevor Pinnock, with music by Mendelssohn and Schubert, provided big works in contained boxes.
Isabelle Faust came on as soloist for the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, looking effortless as she produced a very pretty and idiomatic, if not especially large, sound. Pinnock kept the balance in the orchestra, at least for most of the concerto, never overwhelming her, and letting her read the nuances. As nice as it came across, they could have used a larger sound to fill this hall (big, but not cavernous, and it still has good acoustics). Faust gave an encore which sounded like a Bach partita – I did not recognize it, nor would I care to hear it again, as it was not one of his better or more interesting works and made a strange encore as it showcased nothing (neither versatility nor mood). She does have a wonderful tone and understanding for music, but, hearing her for the first time, I sensed something was missing.
After the intermission came Schubert’s Great C Major Symphony, his Ninth (according to the standard numbering), or his Eighth (according to reality, and as numbered in tonight’s program book), or his Seventh (according to the original publication). This is a big symphony, but Pinnock did not necessarily treat it as such. Rather than having the horns stride out with the bold opening theme, he restrained them (and they nearly swallowed their mouthpieces – this opening theme was never meant to be restrained). Pinnock’s concept seemed to be to perform much of this symphony piano to build tension and then unleash the tension in large brass forte sections. Sometimes this worked, sometimes it did not, leaving the strings especially sounding thin, with bits that dragged waiting for him to get to the point. He also employed a bit too much staccato, not always letting the orchestra draw out the gorgeous long Schubertian lines.
On the whole, I understood Pinnock’s concept, but I wavered from section to section as to whether I liked it. I think I may have preferred a larger and fuller use of the orchestral palette, employing Pinnock’s contrasting dynamics more selectively for emphasis and drama where most effective rather than constantly.
Pinnock used a similar idea for an extended encore: Entreacte #3 from Schubert’s music for Rosamunde, with the same result. Wonderful playing by the woodwinds especially tonight.
Sibelius, Mendelssohn, Bach
The Vienna Symphony Orchestra, under guest conductor Vasily Petrenko, the talented young music director in Liverpool (and, since I last saw him, now also in Oslo), recreated the magical world of Janne Sibelius at the Konzerthaus this evening, to mark the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth earlier this week.
The tone poem Pohjola’s Daughter led off the program, with the opening cello solo emerging as if out of the floorboards. The orchestra ensured that this dramatic reading was not just heard but also felt, as the sound started low and slowly enveloped the hall, transporting the audience into a mythical time and place, now made very real.
The Fifth Symphony closed the concert, alternately driving the drama forward and settling in on lush arctic landscapes, proposing a tension between the two moods throughout as it moved to its triumphant conclusion. Sibelius wrote several versions of this symphony before he created the final triumphant one, inspired by a flock of migrating swans.
In the middle, Joshua Bell joined the orchestra for Mendelssohn’s violin concerto. Although I did not see the logical connection to put that concerto into a Sibelius concert, I appreciated the chance to hear a work I have not heard for a long while (and I hear the Sibelius violin concerto relatively frequently already). Bell’s full and warm tone blended beautifully with the orchestra’s, and the smiles that passed between Bell and his colleagues on the stage indicated strong mutual sympathy. Though not as dramatic as Sibelius, moving us from the icy outdoors into the heated salon, Mendelssohn made pleasant music for an early winter’s day, and this was a concert among friends.
Bell added one encore – an arrangement of Bach scored for solo violin by Mendelssohn – in which he charmed the hall with his tones while somehow producing the complexity of a chamber orchestra on his single instrument.
Dora Serviarian-Kuhn has a reputation as the world’s leading interpreter of Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto. That must be a mixed blessing, since this is clearly not one of his best works. Although jarring, it lacks the drama of much of his music: noise does not equal excitement. Her hands handled the leaps and bounds athletically, and I think the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra hit most of the notes. But for a piece with a lot going on, it was actually quite dull.
In contrast, the Mendelssohn 4th Symphony after the break did provide drama in abundance. Maestro Eduard Topchjan had the podium – my last chance to see him conduct for a while – as he led his orchestra through Mendelssohn’s scenic tour through Italy. The Armenian Philharmonic strings still sound a little thin and the winds have a tendency to jump their cues, but those are normal problems here. Otherwise Topchjan kept the pacing clear and lively. The audience, which probably came in predisposed to cheer the Khachaturian work rather than the Mendelssohn, clearly knew which of the two halves of the concert came out better as evidenced through the much more rambunctious applause in the second half.
Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Sibelius
Haydn, Mozart, Gürkan, Mendelssohn, Léhar, Stolz, Strauß II, Strauß I
Starved for live music, I went to a concert that might not normally have been on my radar. A group from Vienna, the Color Trio (a piano trio plus soprano) was being heavily promoted by the Austrian Embassy as part of a cultural exchange. The program looked nice, actually, so off I went.
Oddly, I think I was the only foreigner in the hall (the concert hall of a music middle school not far from my office). They also performed only about half of the advertised program (no, I did not leave at intermission, they handed out revised programs which contained half of the works from the first half of the advertised program and half from the second, all over in a bit more than an hour). In all, compared to the Austrian Embassy’s hype, this experience was a bit of a let down. The musicians had no special quality, although hearing reasonable live music in Tirana added something.
The concert opened with Haydn’s Gypsy Trio, which got its name from the themes used in the third movement. It took until that movement for the musicians to fully warm up. Then followed an aria from Mozart’s Figaro, sung in Germanic Italian by the soprano Petra Halper-König. The trio’s violinist, Serkan Gürkan, then performed one of his own compositions, “Mein Wien,” accompanied by the pianist Ilse Schumann – a work which started and ended with music reminiscent of a melancholy rain and danced around a little in the middle section, so I suppose indeed the composer’s impression of Vienna. Cellist Irene Frank then returned to join Gürkan and Schumann for the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio #1, a much more robust work that allowed the musicians to fill the hall with sound. This Mendelssohn piece was certainly the highlight of the evening.
A selection of other Austrian pieces were supposed to round out the concert’s first half, but vanished from the program. The original second half of the program was to contain a selection of Viennese dance and operetta music arranged for trio (with soprano, as necessary). In the end, only five works remained: Ferenc Lehar’s Gold and Silver Waltz, an operetta aria by Robert Stolz (“Spiel auf deiner Geige” from Venus in Seide), the Tritsch-Tratsch Polka and Blue Danube Waltz by Johann Strauß the son, and as an encore the Radetzky March by Johann Strauß the father. These works were performed altogether too quickly. I suppose the sonorities do not work as well with only a trio performing, so these arrangements probably work either as background music or for actual dancing at an event but less so for a concert performance, and performing at speed at least cuts out the opportunities for thin sonorities in these arrangements. The waltzes would have been fast enough, but someone might have died trying to keep up dancing to that polka. As for the march, we clapped and left.
Mendelssohn, Elgar, Bruckner
Tonight was amateur night at the Musikverein. However, in this case we are talking about Vienna, and the amateur group is the Orchestral Society of the Vienna Association of Friends of Music – in other words, the concert hall’s own house orchestra founded in 1859. Robert Zelzer took the podium, and Othmar Müller (OK, he’s a professional) brought his cello (made in 1573).
On the program were Mendelssohn’s Ruy Blas Overture, Elgar’s Cello Concerto, and Bruckner’s Symphony #4. The orchestra was enthusiastic but not accurate. This generally carried the Mendelssohn and most of the Bruckner, but not so well the somber Elgar and the exposed Adagio movement of Bruckner’s symphony. In the case of the Elgar, however, Müller managed to hold the entire work together through his thoughtful playing. Not much could be done with the Bruckner adagio except to wait for the scherzo.
Someone (although I do not remember who) once described Bruckner as not so much a composer of music but rather as a man who captured music that already existed in the aether, so that human listeners could hear the sound of heaven. Certainly, enough Brucknerian aetherial sounds have established permanent residence in the rafters of the Musikverein Hall, so even an amateur orchestra could pull them down. These are amateurs who give only three concerts a year and their performance, even if rough, was to be appreciated.
The orchestra’s name doesn’t translate into English very well, but does translate into familiar German. Here it was conducted by its chief conductor, Valery Polyansky, who was quite good (first saw him in March conducting the Conservatory Orchestra for Verdi’s Requiem).
He had the audience’s undivided attention thanks to the flamboyantly gay announcer who trotted out on stage to read the program (the Conservatory does not seem to do this at every concert like the Tscahikowsky Hall, but does do it sometimes – not this particular flamboyant announcer, just some announcer to read the program aloud; mostly they are not remotely flamboyant). This guy stared down someone on the balcony whose mobile phone went off and ordered him to turn it off because it was rude. Needless to say, everyone else in the audience who had not been bothered to turn off their phones also did so at this point. Then he stopped talking and glared at anyone who dared shuffle in their seats, and waited for them to settle down before continuing to state the program. Actually, maybe they should get this guy to come out to read the program for every concert – I don’t remember the last time I saw an audience behave so well.
Anyway, on to the music:
The concert opened with Mendelssohn’s Concerto for Violin and Piano. The violin soloist, Aleksandr Rozhdestvensky (who may possibly be the son of conductor Gennady R. – certainly about the right age), was supposed to have been the soloist a week and a half ago with the Bolshoi Orchestra, when I believe he was stuck elsewhere by volcanic ash. So I now got to hear him. He is good, but uses too much vibrato and so his tone was a bit over-sweet (but much better than the violinist who replaced him at the Bolshoi Orchestra concert). The pianist was Vladimir Ovchinnikov, who was also very good. The Mendelssohn is a pleasant piece, but there is not much more to say about it.
After the intermission (and reappearance by the announcer to ensure order) came the reason I went to the concert: Mahler’s 2nd Symphony. There is something about the way Russian orchestras perform Mahler – it has to do with the Russian tradition of playing wind instruments, which gives them a different timbre than in the West, and which works to put extra edge on Mahler’s angst. I think it works better on Symphonies 4 and later, but it is OK for the first three.
It was a rousing performance. Polyansky obviously has a good feel for Mahler. I liked his conducting. The orchestra was far from flawless, but did put effort into it. The chorus was also in full form. The soloists were nothing special, though: the mezzo, Lyudmila Kuznetsova, had a embarrassingly thick Russian accent in her German, and the soprano, Yelena Yevseyeva, although better, was hard for me to take seriously because she obviously shared a make-up kit with the announcer, and over-applied the make-up as much as he had.
Weber, Mendelssohn, Offenbach, Prokofiev
I moved into the Musikverein for the day, for three concerts back-to-back-back in the Golden Hall. The first featured the Wiener Symphoniker and Dmitri Kitayenko.
I had never seen Kitayenko conduct in person, but know him from some fine recordings. But this was the second concert in a row with the Symphoniker that I was disappointed with. They sound perfectly fine, but the Symphoniker is too good to sound “perfectly fine.” Fedoseyev (who conducted them last week) and Kitayenko (today) are both excellent conductors, and there was an obvious rapport with the orchestra (I know they love Fedoseyev, and I’ve heard him conduct them before with great results). So I wonder what is up with that orchestra at the moment.
The performance today opened with the Oberon Overture by Weber, followed by the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto (a 29-year–old Russian violinist, Mikhail Ovrutsky, was the soloist). As a pre-intermission encore, they performed Hoffmann’s Kleinsack song from Offenbach‘s Tales of Hoffmann (I have no idea who the unannounced tenor was or where they found him – tenors don’t usually just pop up and sing encores when they are not in the program; voice sounded a little strained, maybe from lack of warm-up, who knows?).
After the intermission, German actor Gert Voss read a very funny short story by Thomas Bernhard in memoriam for the 20th anniversary of his death. Then came Prokofiev‘s Peter and the Wolf, narrated by another apparently famous German stage actor, Sunnyi Melles. She was dramatic, but missed a few cues, and read strictly from the script rather than providing the embellishments that are usual with live performances. I suspect she never rehearsed and may have been reading it for the first time.