Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Grieg, Mozart, Rossini, Þorvaldsdóttir, Sibelius

Yesterday evening, the first snow of the year fell in Salzburg.  This evening, the Iceland Symphony Orchestra arrived in the Great Festival House.  Coincidence?

The concert included mostly Nordic music, for which this orchestra obviously has a natural affinity.  Their overall tone came off a bit thin for a full-sized orchestra, mostly an odd lack of undertones which made the icy upper registers sound somehow less full.  Under the baton of Daníel Bjarnason, their first guest conductor (they are apparently between music directors at the moment), they also played hesitantly at times – knowing well what they were doing but lacking confidence.  They sounded nice overall, but if they had just played more robustly they might have made a bigger impression.

The concert included five excerpts from Edvard Grieg‘s incidental music to Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt, Aeriality by Icelandic composer Anna Þorvaldsdóttir (a moody piece utilizing percussion and double basses to creative effect, which seemed to be building to some sort of climax, but just as it almost erupted into a chorale about ten minutes in decided not to and carried on without resolution for another five minutes), and the Fifth Symphony of Janne Sibelius (and Sibelius’ Valse Triste as an encore at the end of the concert).  After the Grieg and before the intermission, Croatian hornist Radovan Vlatković joined the orchestra for the Horn Concerto #3 by Wolfgang Amadé Mozart, which came across as odd among the Nordic surroundings.  Vlatković performed fluidly, but had a somewhat cold tone – was he mimicking the Nordic sound, or is his horn just sour?  Mozart’s horn music should be much warmer.

As an encore before the intermission, Vlatković and five Icelandic hornists managed a much warmer sound full of good humor: a little piece for horn ensemble by Gioachino Rossini.  No conductor for that one meant they played much more confidently.  While nothing seemed out of place for Bjarnason, I do wonder if that made the difference.

Curtis Symphony Orchestra, Kimmel Center

Theofanidis, Beethoven, Mozart

Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music is one of the leading conservatories in the United States, so always nice to see what the Curtis Symphony Orchestra is up to: if they have fun on stage (as they did this afternoon), then the mood is contagious and the audience has fun too.

This afternoon’s program in the Kimmel Center was a mixed affair, designed to show off a wide range of musicians rather than to highlight anyone or anything in particular.  Bizarrely, the concert opened (unannounced and not listed in the program) with the US National Anthem (nice arrangement, but… why exactly?  It felt like we were at a sporting event or something.  The students at Curtis are also an international bunch – I don’t know what percentage are Americans, but surely a large number of non-Americans were on the stage, so it just seemed weird and out-of-place).

The first programmed piece was Drum Circles by Christopher Theofanidis.  Written earlier this year, the work featured seven percussionists (four stage front with multiple instruments each, and three more conventional percussionists at the back of the stage) and orchestral continuo.  At times it veered in the direction of new age music, but in general it held together nicely and with more substance, emphasizing unusual combinations of sounds (mostly from pitched percussion instruments).  The overall mood remained creative and original while firmly based in classical musical traditions.  The student conductor Yuwon Kim kept everything under good control.

After the intermission, the concert became more conventional and we went to the opera.  Robert Kahn came on to conduct a dramatic Leonore Overture #3 by Ludwig van Beethoven, shaping it as a tone poem – the opera Fidelio in miniature – rather than as an overture (at which even Beethoven recognized it was less effective and replaced it with a simpler overture for the opera).  But although not a great overture, it is great music as a stand-alone (and the convention introduced by Gustav Mahler to perform it during the scene change in the middle of Act II of Fidelio was also brilliant).  Important however it is performed is an understanding of the entire opera, and that sense of drama pervaded this performance.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra who also mentors conductors at Curtis (including Kim and Kahn) came out to perform four extended ensembles from operas by Wolfgang Amadé Mozart (two each from Cosi Fan Tutte and Figaro).  What worked best here was precisely the ensemble nature of the excerpts – no need to highlight individual singers but rather to show how they could perform as a whole group (each selection had a different cast, with a couple of people repeating but mostly new groups for each).  The voices were mixed in quality (none bad, but some stronger or more expressive than others) but worked well as a team effort, and they clearly had chemistry with each other.  Behind them, the orchestra gave tremendous support.  The audience smiled broadly and laughed (appropriately) at the comic nuances.

Camerata Salzburg, Mozarteum

L. Mozart, W. A. Mozart

The Camerata Salzburg celebrated Leopold Mozart‘s 300th birthday this evening with an amusing concert in the Mozarteum with Andreas Spering conducting.  Eclipsed in music history by his son, Wolfgang Amadé, in his day Leopold was a highly-celebrated pedagogue, conductor, and violinist – but of course his son (and daughter Nannerl) learned well

The concert opened with Symphony in B-flat, a fairly conventional work of its period.  A superlative chamber orchestra, the Camerata has a fullness of tone that magnified the work (the fact that the orchestra avoided the faddish trend of using out-of-tune period instruments certainly also helped).  Where Leopold Mozart excelled, however, was in the introduction of solo instruments to the chamber ensemble, so in the case of the second piece on the program – a concerto for two horns in E-flat – the two hornists playfully danced around the continuo (I wasn’t quite sure they were fully in tune with each other, though).

All of this playfulness, however, was nothing compared to what followed: a selection of short ditties by a ten-year-old Wolfgang Amadé, mostly snarky variations on themes by other composers that the younger Mozart made fun of in something known as his Gallimathias Musicum (Quodlibet) – a whole lot of whimsy, which the orchestra hammed up (including by walking off the stage and wandering around the hall).  Some of it was warped, some syncopated, some sung, some made to sound like bagpipes, and God Save the King performed with different instruments going along at different speeds.  Leopold must have been in equal measures proud of and horrified by his progeny.

After the intermission, we returned to Leopold, now his Serenade in D-flat.  The initial movements for the continuo alone once again reverted to standard (albeit good standard), but then followed several movements in which Leopold seems to have incorporated his concerti for natural trumpet and for tenor trombone.  Once again, the solo instrument added immensely to the work, darting in and out of the continuo and playing with conventions (neither of these instruments had reached their modern forms yet, so they were not yet standard orchestral fare).  These two solo instruments were not modern (unclear from my seat was whether they were original from the period or models) and – especially the natural trumpet – are harder to play accurately.  But aside from a few off-notes, they blended well.  (The concert materials, including on line, did not identify the soloists by name – I do not know if they might have been listed in the program, as they ran completely out of programs and I and those seated around me did not manage to find any although some people in the audience clearly had them).

Orchestral Society of the Association of the Friends of Music in Vienna, Musikverein

Mozart, Bruckner

I woke up early this Sunday morning for a concert of the Orchestral Society of the Association of the Friends of Music in Vienna, the amateur house orchestra of the Musikverein.  I used to attend their concerts periodically, but do not seem to have been in Vienna recently when they were playing, until this morning.  This was probably the best I have heard them sound.  Robert Zelzer, their music director, conducted, 25 years to the day after he made his debut with this orchestra.  

It is fair to say I am sick of Mozart, who is over-performed (and even more so in Salzburg, where I have been based for almost five years).  That said, Mozart is pleasant to wake up to on a Sunday morning, and I also suppose I don’t mind hearing a work I did not previously know.  This morning’s offering was his Sinfonia Concertante for Oboe, Clarinet, Horn, Bassoon, and Orchestra.  Mozart wrote this in Paris for four touring musicians he knew from Mannheim (the clarinet part was originally for flute), but they ended up not playing it and the piece languished in an archive until being discovered 200 years later.  Typically Mozartian, the music danced playfully for thirty minutes.  The team of soloists (Adelheid Bosch, oboe; Christoph Zimper, clarinet; Peter Dorfmayr, horn; and Max Feyertag, bassoon) handled the tricky phrases effortlessly, while Zelzer and the orchestra provided a strong continuo.  A good start to the day.

Zelzer’s reading of Bruckner‘s Ninth Symphony was in general a pretty standard interpretation, which is fine (especially with an amateur orchestra which has not – by my listening in previous years – managed to have the fullness of sound for Bruckner.  But today they did.  This was a sorrowful reading of Bruckner’s final, unfinished, work… but just as we felt the sadness, along came a bit of the Mozartian cheer in the final movement, where the orchestra almost began to dance again.  Well done.

Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Wagner, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert

The Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra and Andrés Orozco-Estrada remained in Salzburg to finish their three-day visit to the Great Festival House with a different program than Wednesday.  The orchestra definitely sounds much better than it did on its last visit two years ago, in tone and accuracy (and without the strange feedback-like sounds that plagued its brass then).  Sandwiched around the Mozarteum Orchestra concert last night, though, I could not help but notice the contrast – the local orchestra is that much warmer and full of feel for the music, while the Frankfurters remain a but more industrial.

Tonight’s concert opened with the full orchestra on stage for the Overture to Wagner‘s Tannhäuser – big and workmanlike in sound. This led to an immediate contrast: only a chamber group from the orchestra remained on stage for Mozart‘s Piano Concerto #23, with soloist Rafał Blechacz.  As he demonstrated with the Chopin concerto on Wednesday, Blechacz does not have a big tone, but rather lets his light fingers set glistening tones into motion, so having a chamber orchestra maintained balance.  Still, it felt a tad thin. (A movement from a Beethoven piano sonata, provided as an encore, showed humor, but also could have been bigger.)

Schubert‘s Great C Major Symphony (normally given the standard #9, although correctly #8 as it appeared in tonight’s program book since Schubert never actually wrote a #7 and a symphony that never existed was given that number on speculation that it may have existed).  The orchestra size here split the difference between the two pre-intermission pieces.  This also made it a little small and thin for this work, but it may have been more appropriate for Orozco-Estrada’s interpretation: he was off to the races, taking the whole thing much faster than usual.  Where the symphony is in many ways a bridge from Beethoven to Bruckner, at this speed it became more “classical” in approach, and Orozco-Estrada emphasized the dancing melodies (with periodic tutti interjections at forte).  Like his unusual Dvořák 9 on Wednesday, this non-standard interpretation was not unconvincing.  I’m not sure I prefer it this way – it’s a big symphony and deserves to be drawn out in full color – but I was happy to hear new aspects to this piece of standard repertory.  The orchestra responded with more emotion too, which was welcome.

To get into the Christmas spirit, Orozco-Estrada thought an encore was appropriate, and that the audience should sing along.  He did not say what it was – only that we’d know as soon as we heard it (I half expected Stille Nacht, composed 200 years ago in Salzburg).  Except it wasn’t so familiar, and only a smattering of the audience seemed to know the words (no one near me managed to sing along).  The Kulturvereinigung has kindly identified it as the Sanctus (“Heilig, heilig, heilig”) from the German Mass by Schubert.  So that didn’t work so well.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Mozarteum

Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn

Drumroll, please: the three pieces guest conductor Trevor Pinnock put on the Mozarteum Orchestra‘s program tonight all shared one thing in common: a prominent opening for the tympani.  This was an elegant concert, and another good demonstration of why it is easy to become fond of this intelligent little provincial orchestra, with its warm and engaging sound.

I’ll go back to the visting Frankfurters in the Great Festival House tomorrow night, but broke up their set with a trip over the Salzach to the Mozarteum this evening.  The local orchestra plays with far more character and musical feel, and that comes across more so when able to contrast directly with the larger German orchestra on alternate nights.

The overture to Mozart‘s Clemenza di Tito got the fun started in a lively manner.  Then soloist Vilde Frang came on to perform Beethoven‘s Violin Concerto.  Her sound was equally warm as the orchestra’s but had a slight bitter edge that thrust the piece forward.  So where the orchestra gave a boisterous and happy reading, she added just the right touch of melancholy (not too much, just enough to keep things dramatic).

For an encore, she provided solo variations on the Austrian Imperial Hymn, composed by Haydn (subsequently stolen by the Germans, leaving us instead with a silly ditty chosen because it was – wrongly – attributed to Mozart; let the Germans get their own anthem and we really need to claim ours back).

The concert concluded with more Haydn: his Symphony #103 – part of a series the composer wrote in London and where he experimented freely.  Haydn’s flaunting of convention also played into this orchestra’s strength, as they clearly had fun (not only the tympanist, who enjoyed his prominent role this evening).  My only quibble is that the Beethoven concerto cleary went even further than the Haydn symphony, so reversing those two works in the program would have made for a more fulfilling progression.  Instead, the Haydn represented a step back following the Beethoven, rather than the unconventional work it was for its day.

West German Radio Symphony Orchestra of Cologne, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Schumann, Bach, Bruckner, Mozart

We got more from the West German Radio Symphony Orchestra this evening in Salzburg’s Great Festival House, again with Jukka-Pekka Saraste conducting and Alban Gerhardt as cello soloist.

Today’s cello concerto again was less standard in the repertory: Robert Schumann‘s, which had its premiere about four years after the composer’s death.  I must say that as I get older I find Schumann less and less interesting.  His best works (from songs to symphonies to scenes from Goethe’s Faust) can be fine (indeed, I still enjoy a good performance of them) – a cross between Schubert and Mendelssohn – but the lesser ones are… lesser (although even his piano concerto, part of the standard repertory, is just an exercise in abject tedium).  In recent years, whenever I hear a Schumann piece on a program that I am not already familiar with, I come away unimpressed (not Schubert and Mendelssohn, but rather more like Brahms, who with precious few exceptions was rarely inspired nor inspiring).

Schumann’s cello concerto isn’t so bad, but I’m not sure he had anything to say.  On the other hand, Gerhardt, as soloist, definitely had something to say, and in a funny way Schumann’s concerto gave him the platform he needed.  This is not as complex a work – neither emotionally nor technically – as Schostakowitsch’s offering performed last night, but did not have to be to highlight Gerhardt’s expansive lower registers, the undertones carrying the entire orchestra.

Thankfully, Gerhardt also gave us a long solo encore – a work by Johann Sebastian Bach – if not as technically complicated as yesterday’s encore (just as the main concerto was not), at least something which allowed Gerhardt to fill the large hall with his warming tones.

After the break came Anton Bruckner‘s Sixth Symphony (another work that had to wait until after the composer’s death before Gustav Mahler and the Vienna Philharmonic gave its premiere).  Saraste’s interpretation was curious, building up tension and then releasing, but doing so in different ways throughout by emphasizing certain lines.  It was not consistent – but that was part of the point, or it would have been dull.  This was not (in general) dull, the pulsating underlines that appear throughout the work keeping it moving.  But because he was playing around with balance and emphasis, the orchestra needed to know what to expect, and they did not always seem to know, leaving a number of botched lines – too loud, or too soft, or just confused and trying to adjust mid-note.  So it succeeded in part and failed in part.

It was a full-sized orchestra, but not augmented for the Bruckner (their sound was big enough, but again it was a question of balance).  But having such a full orchestra on stage served another purpose: the encore, the overture to Wolfgang Amadé Mozart‘s Figaro.  What fun to hear this piece in full color, and not with a reduced opera orchestra sunk into a pit.

Tomorrow’s concert repeats tonight’s program, so just these two for me.

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mozart, Prokofiev, Strauß

Lahav Shani and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra popped out to Salzburg for a fun jaunt in the Great Festival House.

The Overture to Mozart‘s Marriage of Figaro set the mood nicely.  Exhuberant but not bombastic, Shani kept it contained but playful.  Given that it did not have to announce the opera (which might have required a bigger reading) but instead Mozart’s first flute concerto, this approach worked to not overwhelm the second work.

Indeed, that unspectacular work would be easy to overwhelm.  Mozart hated the flute, but someone paid him to write this concerto, so he did. Tonight’s flutist, Erwin Klambauer, is the first flute of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra (which won’t be confused with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra nor the Philharmonic – ironic, since the preface page in the program, which would have been written by the local Salzburg concert promoter, identified him as the principal flute of tonight’s orchestra, but the bio in the program that he himself would have submitted made it clear he is principal flute of the Radio Symphony Orchestra).  He had a full and sometimes warm sound, particularly in the lower registers, but at times was also a tad thin and almost hollow.  Shani kept the entire ensemble well-balanced, and the soft touch worked.

The fun continued after the intermission – indeed, the party had really just begun.  Prokofiev supposedly wrote his Fifth Symphony when the Red Army crossed into Poland for the second time in World War Two.  Shani seems to have taken it as a cousin of Schostakowitsch’s Seventh Symphony, whose “invasion” theme Schostakowitsch had written when the Red Army had first marched into Poland in September 1939 after Soviet Russia and its Nazi German allies agreed to dismember that country.  (Soviet propaganda, of course, famously repurposed that music.)  Now Germany had turned on Russia in 1941, and after a brutal couple of years the Wehrmacht was in retreat, and the Russians once again entered Poland.  So this invasion was happier than the one Schostakowitsch had depicted.

Whereas Schostakowitsch also had no qualms about depicting Soviet Russia in all its bleakness, Prokofiev’s war music was almost joyful, particularly as read this evening by Shani and the Vienna Symphony.  Indeed, Shani’s interpretation of this symphony was a great deal happier than I think I have heard this work performed before, and the orchestra bought into the reading.  The second movement danced openly.  The third movement went back to the industrial war, but still upbeat.  And the final movement brought back the initial invasion theme with additional dance music.  Prokofiev’s symphony is actually quite a complex series of interlocking themes, where one begins before the previous one fully ends, creating conflicting moods and mashing rhythms and harsh dissonance.  In this regard, it resembled the experiments the Polish composer Witold Lutosławski tried a few decades later with his “chain form” music – the main difference being that Prokofiev had an overall concept for his symphony and Lutosławski just had a gimmick that got dull quickly once the novelty wore off.

Prokofiev’s symphony was anything but dull, and certainly not with these performers, Shani crafting the shape from the podium while the talented orchestra handled the complex switches with ease.  When they finished, the audience stayed stubbornly in their seats and would not let the musicians leave the stage.  The applause kept going and going, so we ended up with three encores:  first, the March from Prokofiev’s Love of Three Oranges, another snarky march that danced.  Then, as long as we were going to get dancing and Poland in the same breath, the next logical move came with two polkas by Johann Strauß II – first the Thunder and Lightning Polka, then the Tritsch-Tratsch Polka, both performed slightly faster than usual.  These choices all made sense after the Symphony.  (They did tend to make Mozart’s flute concerto even more anomalous, though.)

Hungarian National Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mozart, Liszt, Schubert

The Hungarian National Philharmonic visited Salzburg’s Great Festival House with the French oboist and conductor François Leleux, bringing colorful performances which lacked motion.  Well, Leleux jumped around a lot and was quite expressive.  And clearly he had a sense of color as well, dinstinguishing each fine grain.  This was serious music-making.  Yet still it sat (perhaps using “still” here as both an adverb and an adjective).

The concert opened with Wolfgang Amadé Mozart‘s oboe concerto, with Leleux performing the solo and conducting.  Leleux produced a warm tone, maybe not quite as strident as an oboe should be, but more cantabile.  The Mozart concerto is in general unconvincing – I think he must have spat it out for a commission, but it lacks passion (interestingly, I am familiar with the version Mozart later transcribed for flute – either it works better as a flute concerto, or Leleux just did not convince me about the oboe version).  Tomorrow night these forces will perform Ludwig August Lebrun’s first oboe concerto, which (for those in the know) really is special.  But my subscription is tonight, and I won’t go tomorrow (there is duplication on the program, and tonight’s concert did not inspire me to see if any tickets are available tomorrow).

The Mozart concerto did conclude with music Mozart subsequently reworked for an opera aria in Abduction, so there was promise there at least.  And Leleux returned for an oboe encore with the orchestra, which was actually the highlight of the entire evening: a transcription of the Queen of the Night’s aria from the Magic Flute.  Leleux’s oboe sang.

The pure orchestral music followed, with Ferenc Liszt‘s Preludes. This must be bread-and-butter for the Hungarians, but it underscored the entire concert.  They produced very nuanced colors – indeed this was a painting as much as it was a symphonic poem, crossing all senses.  But somehow it lacked impulse.  So while I may never have heard this work sounding so colorful as the orchestra made it sound tonight, I also did not think it was possible to make this work lack movement.  Leleux was bouncing, and obviously coaxing the colors from the orchestra, but the music was not going anywhere.  So gorgeous, complex playing… but static.

After the intermission came Franz Schubert‘s Fourth Symphony (“Tragic”) and as an encore an intermezzo from his Rosamund (the second time I’ve heard that piece as an encore this season), and both performances dragged colorfully much like Liszt’s Preludes.  In the audience, I did hear some Hungarian accents, which always sound especially charming in German, so I went home with a smile on my face, if not exactly energized.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Mozarteum

Schumann, Mozart

I probably would not have gone to tonight’s concert at the Mozarteum, except that it was part of a subscription series.  Not that anything was wrong with it (or I would have given the ticket away), just that it was not particularly exciting.  The value of attending was to hear the Mozarteum Orchestra play beautifully, especially the lush woodwinds and confident brass, on a bed of gorgeous strings.  So that was worth it.  

The music, presumably selected by the young British conductor Nicholas Collon, was a bit pedestrian.  The concert opened with an arrangement of Robert Schumann‘s Six Pieces in Canon Form.  Schumann took his inspiration for these piece from technical keyboard studies by Bach, and then this particular set was subsequently rearranged for two pianos by Debussy, then that version was itself orchestrated for chamber orchestra by British composer Robin Holloway, so that this version had its world premiere earlier this year.  To a music theorist, Bach’s keyboard studies were mathematical treasure troves – although not necessarily aesthetically great music.  And by the time these get washed through three other composers, they are no longer mathematically substantive, so what’s the point any more?  At least the playing was nice.

Mozart‘s 22nd Piano Concerto came next.  Till Fellner joined the orchestra with his velvety fingers.  The first movement started more joyfully, to raise the mood after the Schumann pieces, but then the rest of the performance dragged.  Whenever I eventually leave Salzburg I won’t need to be reminded to substantially reduce my intake of Mozart, just as I have already been reducing my intake of Tschaikowsky (whose favorite composer was Mozart).  They wrote beautiful music, often wonderfully so, and sometimes they even had something to say about it, but there often just is not enough there there.  Living in Salzburg has not inducted me into the cult of Mozart any more than living in Moscow inducted me into the cult of Tschaikowsky – I find both composers highly over-rated (if they did not have cult status, I’d judge them as quite good, but, as it is, enough is enough).

The concert closed with more Schumann: his 2nd Symphony.  This drew inspiration from Schubert’s 9th.  And while there are some experimental chromatics which the orchestra knew how to navigate, the symphony demonstrated a stunted development in symphonic music that led directly into the musical dead end that was Brahms.  (Bruckner, on the other hand, followed the logical development from Schubert and gave us a musical heritage that continued through Mahler, Sibelius, and Schostakowitsch, among others).  That said, if I am going to hear this tuneful and often stately symphony, I’m very pleased to have the Mozarteum Orchestra performing it.  They did it justice tonight.

Then again, maybe I am being especially jaded, still reveling in the afterglow of last weekend’s interpretation of Haydn and Bruckner by Riccardo Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic.  Mozart and Schumann just cannot compare.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Smetana, Mozart, Tschaikowsky

The Salzburg Kulturvereinigung (Cultural Association), which organizes most of the big concert events in Salzburg outside the various festivals, celebrated a jubilee concert this evening in the Great Festival House, with the Mozarteum Orchestra under its new chief conductor Riccardo Minasi (my fourth concert in a row with this orchestra, three of them with the new conductor).  

I am glad the Kulturvereinigung leaves the music to the musicians, because the association’s math and reading skills left me befuddled.  All of the publicity including the program books called this the 70th anniversary jubilee.  However, the year 1947 (70 years ago) appeared no where, and all references to a specific starting date indicated this concert commemorated the very first concert from 17 October 1952 (which is only 65 years ago).  The publicity also made a point that tonight’s concert repeated the program of that very first concert – yet here again it did not (they reproduced the flier from that first concert program which showed this clearly).

Ignoring the bizarre publicity and turning to the music: the orchestra performed Smetana‘s Moldau (the second tone poem from My Fatherland) and Tschaikowsky‘s Symphony #5, both in similar fashion.  In the case of the Moldau, we heard the waters swirl, the waves splash, and the stream flow by robust promontories.  And while that’s probably not what Tschaikowsky had in mind when he wrote his symphony, the interpretation somewhat worked here too.  Minasi kept the orchestra delicately restrained at times, then introduced the themes on top, growing from the stream to great crescendi before backing down.  And while careful at the more subdued bits, Minasi does have a tendency (which I have noticed in the other concerts I have heard him conduct recently) to get a little excited during the bigger moments, moving forward at faster-than-necessary tempi (most obvious during the march at the end of the final movement, which was practically a double-step).  These styles (too fast or too delicate) also do not always let the orchestra exhibit full sound – but many of the solo and sectional lines demonstrated that the instrumentalists do have much to say.

The original 1952 concert they commemorated had opened with the Dances of Galánta by Zoltan Kodály.  Tonight this work had fallen out of the program, replaced instead between the Smetana and Tschaikowsky works by Mozart‘s 20th piano concerto.  That substitution was a a real shame – the Kodály work is far more interesting than Mozart’s rather routine concerto.  Piano soloist Peter Lang (who apparently made his Great Festival House debut with this concerto in 1966) and the orchestra produced a completely idiomatic if uninspired reading.  All the more reason they should have done the Kodály dances.  Yawn.

Members of the Vienna Philharmonic, Mozarteum (Salzburg)

Strauss, Mozart, Henze, Mendelssohn

A chamber ensemble from the Vienna Philharmonic took the stage in the Mozarteum this evening for a concert in memory of Ernst Ottensamer, the orchestra’s principal clarinetist, who died suddenly of a heart attack two weeks ago aged only 61.  He himself had done so much to promote chamber music by members of the Philharmonic, particularly through leading the Wiener Virtuosen ensemble.

Tonight’s concert involved all string instruments, with only one exception.  It opened with the sextet from Richard Strauss‘ opera Capriccio, a work both lush in post-romanticism and backwards-looking in style to the 18th century.  The musicians know the opera, and answer the critical question posed therein: music or words first?  Music.

Ernst Ottensamer left two clarinetist sons – Daniel was the second principal (after him) of this orchestra (the other is the principal in Berlin).  And so it fell to Daniel Ottensamer to join the strings for Mozart’s clarinet quintet KV581.  If Strauss looked back in the first piece, Mozart looked ahead in this piece.  The composer wrote for a clarinetist friend who was experimenting with an extended clarinet that could hit an extra lower register – now more commonplace but then a novelty.  Ottensamer made the most of the full range of the music, a warm tone wafting across the room and no doubt making his father proud.  The audience reciprocated with a warm and extended applause.

Hans Werner Henze‘s The Young Törless: Fantasia for Sextet came after the intermission.  Although euqal parts modern and traditional, this distillation of film music was altogether forgettable when juxtaposed with the other items on tonight’s program.

Felix Mendelssohn‘s Octet, composed when he was only 16, showed tremendous maturity, with each of the eight instruments having much to say alternately or together.  With many moving lines, the musicians demonstrated their mastery not only in doing their own parts, but by blending their instruments’ voices into a coherent and altogether natural whole that often sounded much bigger and more important than just an octet – both from the standpoint of Mendelssohn’s skilled composition and the orchestra members’ clear comfort in playing together with the same Vienna sound.

The audience did not let them escape that easily, and so we went – as they explained – from 16-year-old Mendelssohn to 12-year-old Mozart, for a short encore.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Mozarteum

Bruckner, Schubert, Mozart

The 2017 Salzburg Festival has begun, and I opened my festival-going with a Bruckner mass for a Sunday morning.  Bruckner’s Mass #2 was a personal work – although he was well into his forties when he composed it, he had only recently begun writing larger works and had not yet left his job as the cathedral organist in the provinces to begin his career Vienna.  

The mass, for choir and a limited wind ensemble, opens with clear inspiration from the 16th-century master church composer, Palestrina, who had entered mystic legend as the man who had saved music from a papal ban and was a particular favorite of Bruckner’s then-boss, the Bishop of Linz.  But by the time he reached the middle Credo section, Bruckner had found his own idiom, transcending music in the 19th century as Palestrina had done three hundred years before.  A brief return to Palestrina in the Sanctus led to a search for chromaticism in the winds, moving around their accompaniment of a chorus harking back to traditional form.  The devout Bruckner had scored a triumph, which would help propel his career outside the Church.

The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Salzburg’s Mozarteum Orchestra performed with distinction in the Mozarteum’s Great Hall, under the baton of the rising young Lithuanian star Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, demonstrating a mastery of both idioms reflected in the work: the traditional polyphony of Palestrina and the superimposed chromatic experimentalism of Bruckner inspired both by his predecessor and by his own piety.

The second half of the concert worked less well.  Schubert‘s Stabat Mater, composed for a Church commission when he was 19, set not the Catholic Latin liturgical work, but rather a German-language poem by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock inspired by the Catholic work but reworked into a German Protestant vision.  Unsurprisingly, the Catholic Church rejected Schubert’s work.  That it also went unperformed elsewhere during his lifetime may represent that it’s not actually very good.  Derivational of both Haydn and Mozart, it fails to match the quality of either, and also lacks spirituality in the way Bruckner’s deceptively simple music did.  Three soloists known primarily, appropriately enough given the composer, for singing Lieder joined orchestra and chorus: Christiane Karg, Martin Mitterrutzner, and Michael Nagy, and all excelled.  No, the failure of the work was not due to the performers, but really to the work itself.

Gražinytė-Tyla then went directly with no pause (indeed, while Schubert’s Amens were still floating in the room) into the final work, Mozart‘s short Ave Verum Corpus.  Although brief, it had just enough notes, and while Mozart had long since left the Church in spirit (if not officially), he captured the necessary simple and straightforward spirituality, in the same manner as the hymn to Isis and Osiris in his opera Zauberflöte. This very personal spirituality was admired by, among others, a young Anton Bruckner, and therefore served as an appropriate bookend for the morning’s program.

Members of the Vienna Philharmonic, Schloß Leopoldskron (Salzburg)

Mozart, Strauss, Brahms, Kreisler

Our annual board of directors weekend gave us the opportunity for two quite different classical chamber music concerts on Sunday (we also had a jazz trio performing rearranged renditions of classical works on Saturday – but I don’t feel like I can write a meaningful review of jazz, even classically-inspired jazz; I will also omit a public review of the afternoon classical chamber concert, as I do not publicly review all of the private concerts we host, and that particular concert resulted from a peculiar request from a specific donor).

For the Sunday matinée, three members of the Vienna Philharmonic (accompanied by one of their wives, on piano) came to our magical palace, Schloß Leopoldskron. They selected the first allegro movement from each of the piano quartet #1 in E-flat by Wolfgang Amadé Mozart and of the piano quartet in c by Richard Strauss, and the complete piano quartet #1 in g by Johannes Brahms (and a miniature, “Little Vienna March” by Fritz Kreisler, as an encore). I got to introduce the concert.

The selection of works by Mozart and Strauss was obvious: both had themselves performed in Schloß Leopoldskron. Prince Archbishop Leopold von Firmian, who built Leopoldskron, was the patron of Mozart’s father (also Leopold), and the Archbishop’s son (officially “nephew” since Catholic archbishops should technically not have sons), the second owner of the palace, was an early patron of the young Wolfgang. A century and a half later, Max Reinhardt owned the palace and founded the Salzburg Festival in one of its rooms, together with a small group of his good friends, including Strauss, a frequent guest.

However, as Mozart did not compose piano quartets before he left Salzburg, and Strauss did not compose any after he started visiting, we ended up with late Mozart and early Strauss, neither from their Salzburg periods. Mozart was at his pinnacle for this work, and Strauss still experimental on his way up, but the musicians deftly produced two very distinct styles.

The excitement continued for the Brahms. Neither this work nor this composer had any special meaning – it was simply something they enjoyed playing. While Brahms can be exceptionally dull, this piece – or at least this performance – showed non-stop excitement (aided perhaps by unexpected roaring thunder outside). The tradition-bound Brahms demonstrated that he could write with passion if he broke with tradition – he was not incapable of originality, just generally afraid of it. This piece, in scoring, pacing, and self-referential variations skipping among all four movements was original. To prepare for the concert, I had listened to several versions of this work on line, and none excited me – presumably only the Vienna Philharmonic has musicians capable of making this piece sound quite so special.

Christoph von Dohnányi once famously explained that “the Viennese never give technique a priority. They always try to achieve the musical sense, and by doing this they actually go as far as they can in a technical respect. But they would never sacrifice natural music-making to technical necessities.” (Music director in Cleveland at the time he made those comments, Dohnányi contrasted the Philharmonic with his own orchestra, which he described as giving technically perfect performances of music, and so his greatest frustration in Cleveland was trying to get his orchestra to perform more like the Vienna Philharmonic).  The Philharmonic, I quipped, may be the Salzburg Global Seminar of orchestras.

Wiener Virtuosen, Musikverein Brahms Hall

Boccherini, Schubert, Mozart, Françaix

The Wiener Virtuosen, musicians from the Philharmonic, brought playful chamber music surrounding moodier songs to the Musikverein’s small Brahms Hall this evening.  

Luigi Boccherini‘s Pastorale, Grave, e Fandango established a pleasant atmosphere, one dance-like melody building on the next, until reaching the fadango, when Boccherini let loose to have the chamber ensemble imitate a baroque guitar, moving the plucking and the thumping and the riffs from one instrument to the next.  The audience practically jumped out of its seats to dance along.  Pass the castinets!

Luca Pisaroni, a protege (and subsequently also son-in-law) of Thomas Hampson joined the ensemble for a series of songs by Franz Schubert, orchestrated variously by Johannes Brahms, Anton von Webern, Max Reger, and Felix Mottl.  The orchestrations served to add extra warmth and color to the music, in ways that a piano could not do, drawing out the emotion further, especially considering Pisaroni’s own voice was full and round, amply supported by a deep baritone.  While Pisaroni did not necessarily wear all of his emotions on his sleeve (in contrast, say, to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the master of this Fach), these settings allowed the songs to speak clearly for themselves: MemnonIhr BildAn die MusikDer Tod und das MädchenAn Schwager KronosLitanei auf das Fest Allerseelen, and finally Erlkönig.

While Pisaroni did have a gorgeous deep baritone, his voice unfortunately did bottom out, lacking a true bass.  This became exposed in the second half of the concert with songs composed by Wolfgang Amadé Mozart for bass vocalist: Mentre ti lascio, o figliaCosì dunque tradisci… aspri rimorsi atroci (written for the bass who premiered the role of Osmin in Entführung), and Per questa bella mano (written for the bass who premiered Sarastro in Zauberflöte).  The baritone registers were fine – the bass not so much (Pisaroni hit the deep notes, just weakly).  More Schubert might have helped.  Nevertheless, he displayed the talent and presence that had attracted Hampson’s attention – and Hampson’s Liederabende are always elegant affairs.

The concert concluded with a more peculiar work by Jean Françaix, a French composer who obviously drew inspiration from Vienna for his Octet for Clarinet, Horn, Bassoon, two Violins, Viola, Cello, and Bass (premiered in this hall in 1972).  The program notes said the composer had sought to update Schubert in a modern idiom.  I honestly heard very little Schubert, but little Viennese lilts did appear throughout, especially the parodies of Viennese waltzes in the fourth movement.  And while the jokes hit home with this Viennese audience, it was just amusement without much substance.  Another bookend for the Boccherini perhaps, but not at the same level.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mozart

Salzburg’s Mozarteum Foundation runs an annual Mozart Week Festival overlapping the anniversary of the composer’s birthday (27 January 1756).  Quite oddly, these are the most expensive tickets of the year in Salzburg – even more than the Salzburg Festival.  It’s a great mystery why.

I’ve skipped it the last two years as it is extremely hard to justify the prices, but last Summer while renewing my Mozarteum subscription series tickets (quite reasonably priced), I decided to pick up relatively cheaper-end seats for three concerts for this Winter’s Mozart Week while they were still available.  By stroke of bad luck, I now have to go on a last-minute work trip this weekend and will miss two of the concerts (so gave my tickets back to the box office tonight for re-sale), leaving me with only tonight’s concert (and next year’s Mozart Week schedule, just released, looks especially uninteresting, so I won’t be going back any time soon).

The programs mix about 50% or more Mozart with some other themes (this year includes a lot of Haydn).  That’s probably a bit more Mozart than my diet can take, and tonight’s concert was 100% Mozart, but he’s a fun if highly over-rated composer, so I decided to enjoy.  The forces assembled tonight in Salzburg’s Great Festival House – the Vienna Philharmonic under Yannick Nézet-Séguin – promised to make the performances dynamic, and they did not disappoint.

The concert included Symphonies #39 and #40, composed back-to-back but in different styles, which Nézet-Séguin and the Philharmoniker mastered.  For #39, they captured Mozart’s quirky humor, the sudden shifts and surprises, unexpected pauses and changes in direction.  #40 is a bit more serious, and Nézet-Séguin emphasized the thick harmonies hiding under the melodies, giving this work perhaps even more weight than it normally has.

In between the symphonies we were supposed to have a selection of Mozart’s songs performed by Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón (songs not heard so often, which had made this concert particularly appealing to me).  Unfortunately, Villazón came in to rehearse earlier today sick and coughing heavily, so was a late cancelation.  Brazilian pianist Maria João Pines, in town for a concert last night, was on her way to the airport when the Mozarteum called her up and asked her to skip her flight and perform tonight as well.  She did a standard work from the repertory – Piano Concerto #23.  Her playing was workmanlike, lacking sparkle or humor.  About all I can say regarding the others on stage: the orchestra accompanied her.  Nothing particularly wrong with anything, indeed beautiful music, but perhaps paradigmatic of Mozart himself on one of those days when he just did not feel like playing any jokes.  And Mozart’s music without Mozart’s humor is… perfectly nice for a lazy weekend morning, but maybe not for an evening concert with the fashionably overdressed crowd.

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.

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Konzerthaus

Mozart, Copland, Schubert

I went to see and hear for myself, as 27-year-old rapidly rising star Lahav Shani conducted the Vienna Symphony Orchestra at the Konzerthaus this evening.  About a year ago, he sprung in to conduct the Philharmonic when the scheduled conductor canceled on short notice due to illness, and the reviews were incredible.  This led to more bookings with the Philharmonic and other orchestras (including the Symphoniker tonight), and he will soon take over as music director in Rotterdam, often a stepping-stone to a star career.

This evening’s performance did not disappoint.  The opening work – the Overture to the Marriage of Figaro by Mozart – enabled Shani to reveal often-hidden lines.  The strings drove the action forward, but the winds created tension, to set up the impending comedy.  Shani highlighted these juxtapositions, and the excellent Symphoniker responded just so.

Similarly, for the second half of the concert, Schubert‘s Great C Major Symphony capped off the concert.  Although I am not sure I heard any new nuances I did not alread know, this performance – clearly thought-through by Shani and expertly performed by the Symphoniker at the pinacle of the idiom – did provide a vivid reminder of just how majestic and exciting this symphony can be, and in many ways how visionary as well.  Shani will certainly grow further as his career takes off.

In between these two standard pieces came Aaron Copland‘s Clarinet Concerto, with soloist Sabine Meyer.  The first movement arrived full of melancholy, which led into a cadenza-only movement that began to awaken the instrument before jumping into a somewhat more flamboyant finale.  Copland wrote the work on commission for jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman.  There is jazz-like syncopation, requiring versatility, but this is not jazz and falls cleanly within a classical paradigm, if tending to something new.  Meyer, dextrous of tongue, danced to the music as she played.  Her unidentified encore was in the same style as the cadenza, but considerably faster.