Reich, Bernstein, Antheil, Copland, Curiale, Still
Bruckner‘s 8th is one of my favorite symphonies. If performed badly, however, it provides 90 minutes of utter tedium. So when the Mozarteum Orchestra announced its 2017-18 schedule, my initial excitement to see this work programmed this morning in the Sunday subscription series turned immediately to disappointment when I noted the chosen conductor: the talentless Jeffrey Tate guaranteed it would be an unbearable ninety minutes which I had no desire to suffer through. So I dropped my Sunday subscription this year in part as a result (also because the February concert in the Sunday series contains far too much Debussy to be worth waking up early in the morning for – actually, far too much Debussy to be worth the effort of even climbing the staircase to my seat in the Great Festival House even if I were already standing in the foyer) so I picked the Sunday concerts I wanted and mixed-and-matched (including with the great Camerata concert I attended on Friday) to form a different subscription leaving out the ones I did not want.
Then last month at my Mozarteum Orchestra Thursday evening subscription concert I saw in the list of upcoming concerts that for this morning’s Bruckner 8th they had replaced Tate on the podium with Karl-Heinz Steffens. I have never heard of Steffens, but that was enough of an endorsement given the man he replaced. My usual subscription seat was even still available, so I grabbed it.
Steffens had an ear for some fine details. This performace was like getting a tour of a cathedral from an architect who periodically stopped to admire individual gargoyles. At times, he took an almost minimalist approach, exposing instruments and placing the weight of the whole symphony on them – especially the woodwinds (I don’t think I’d ever appreciated the role the oboe plays in this symphony until this morning). These touches stood out especially in the first movement, where they sounded almost plaintive. He made the second movement more boisterous, actually cheerful. And while the tempi he chose for the third and fourth movements were well within conventions, they were perhaps a tad faster than I prefer. But this approach served his overall concept, to make this deeply religious work rather hopeful that the power of prayer might be answered.
My biggest quibble with the whole performace was Steffens’ failure to hold the silence at the end: he dropped his arms immedately on the final chord. A well-deserved applause (the orchestra sounded fantastic this morning) erupted long and loud – but really this symphony requires absolute silence and heavy contemplation before returning to earth.
Because the Mozarteum Foundation does not coordinate its schedule (beyond not double-booking a hall) with the Kulturvereinigung, the other main Salzburg concert society, the Kulturvereinigung invited a guest orchestra to perform this symphony in the same hall on Friday (a concert I did include in one of my subscription packages with them). Lucky me: I get to hear Bruckner’s 8th twice within just five days.
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.
The scheduled conductor for this morning’s concert by the Mozarteum Orchestra got ill last week, leaving the orchestra to scramble to find a replacement who was not only available, but could also take over the identical program of two seldom-performed works: Wagner‘s Faust Overture and Liszt‘s Faust Symphony. In stepped Frank Beermann, who recently left his post after a decade as general music director in Chemnitz to become a freelancer and had this weekend free to rush to Salzburg’s Great Festival House.
Beermann and the orchestra don’t know each other. The orchestra also had not performed these works before. So under the circumstances Beermann took a deliberate, angular, approach. This worked for the Wagner piece and for the final movement of the Liszt. It caused the first two movements of the Liszt to drag. Still, considering they were practically sight-reading the music, the Mozarteum Orchestra’s natural musicality came to the fore, coaxed by Beermann, and in that the concert proved a success.
The Wagner work is from his early period – he had considered an opera based on Goethe’s Faust, which he never wrote, but Liszt had encouraged him to arrange some sketches as a concert overture (originally conceived as the first movement of a series of linked tone poems, which Wagner also never wrote). Despite truncating his project, Wagner already demonstrated his sense of theater, however, and Beermann successfully inspired the orchestra to the dramatic.
Liszt ended up writing the multi-movement tone poem based on Faust that Wagner never wrote. While it does contain some great passages (particularly in the Berlioz-inspired third movement depicting Mephistopheles – apparently it was Berlioz who had introduced Liszt to Goethe’s work), it probably takes a little more effort to keep a performance of this piece compelling for well over an hour. The fault is Liszt’s (uncharacteristically for him, as it happens), who never properly edited his work – this was not one of his better efforts, and indeed instead of editing he kept adding bits to it (including a final chorus – sung here by the Chorus Viennensis and tenor soloist Toby Spence).
Back in the days when I used to have my own Sunday morning radio show, I programmed these two works followed by Mahler’s Eighth Symphony (which includes a setting of the final scene of Faust). Now that combination in a real concert might have been too ambitious, but it would be the logical next development of this music and I would have gladly stayed. Instead, I came home and cooked breakfast.
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.
Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Strauss
Hector Berlioz, Felix Mendelssohn, and Richard Strauss all traveled to Italy as young men (the first two at the same time, although not together), which inspired them to write italianate works, which the Mozarteum Orchestra and Riccardo Minasi presented at a Sunday matinee this morning.
Minasi animates the orchestra, particularly during the faster parts (when he takes particularly frenetic tempi). The slower movements dance, where there is lilt. Where there is meant to be broader color – painted landscapes, for example – he does not always complete the picture, although this orchestra has the talent to produce the full palette.
The former (frenetic style) was on display in the Overture to Berlioz’ opera Benvenuto Cellini, which came across a bit crazy, a warm-up for Mendelssohn’s Fourth Symphony (“Italian”), whose outer movements had a definite forward drive, and whose interior movements had a certain spring in the step but not necessarily the fullness of tone.
Richard Strauss’ under-performed youthful work Aus Italien, is a four-movement tone poem, and perhaps here in the first three movements may have been too north-of-the-Alps in structure (if not in inspiration) for Minasi. The first movement especially foreshadows the tonal lushness Strauss would later develop. The final movement, though closer to Minasi’s rambunctious style, is actually the weakest link: Strauss mistook Funiculì Funiculà as a Neapolitan folk song and used it as the basis for his final movement – its (then very much alive) composer, Luigi Denza, sued Strauss for plagiarism and apparently recovered quite a bit in royalties. Strauss should have quietly cut the final movement, which does not go with the first three anyway, but at least Minasi and the Mozarteum Orchestra had fun with it this morning.
Beethoven‘s violin concerto has now featured on three concert programs I have attended in Salzburg during 2017. All three soloists have done it justice, but tonight’s was the best of the three: Emmanuel Tjeknavorian, the 22-year-old Austrian son of the Armenian composer/conductor Loris Tjeknavorian. The young Tjeknavorian had a gorgeous tone – sweet, but not sweetened, like a fresh organic vegetable relying on natural sugars to melt naturally in the mouth. He backed this up with full-bodiedness, but still kept nuance. A truly remarkable performance.
Less should be said about guest conductor Marko Letonja, who gave Tjeknavorian an uninspired backdrop. The Beethoven concerto excels because of the series of dialogues it sets out between the solo violin and various instruments in the orchestra. Letonja featured none of these instruments, instead blurring all of them together into a homogenized blob. The orchestra supported the soloist – indeed the way most concertos call for an orchestra to do – but this is not what Beethoven had constructed.
Letonja applied the same approach for the second half of the concert, Berlioz‘s Symphonie Fantastique. He did try to emphasize the odd syncopation, which left the work off-kilter as Berlioz intended: this is essentially Berlioz on a drug trip. Unfortunately, with Letonja conducting, the drug of choice appears to have been qualudes. The whole work dragged – especially an interminable third movement. The Mozarteum Orchestra sounded great – although periodically unable to follow Letonja, not coming in together nor always on beat – but generally uninspired. At least they too visibly enjoyed Tjeknavorian’s performance – they knew he was tonight’s winner.
Schostakowitsch, Haydn, Stravinsky, Liszt, CPE Bach
The new musical year opened tonight in Salzburg, with an extremely eclectic concert by the Mozarteum Orchestra under its brand new chief conductor Riccardo Minasi in the Mozarteum’s Great Hall. The orchestra is apparently very enthusiastic about Minasi, not least because he promises to schedule unusual works such as tonight’s combination: Dmitri Schostakowitsch‘s Festive Overture, Joseph Haydn‘s first Te Deum in C (he wrote two), Igor Stravinsky‘s Fireworks, Ferenc Liszt‘s Preludes, and finally CPE Bach‘s Magnificat. Whew!
Enthusiasm permeated the room. I’m not clear if this lead to the generally faster-than-normal tempi Minasi took, or if he really meant to play everything faster. I could say the same about the volume, which rarely dropped below forte. But this produced a breathless buzz (sometimes a bit chaotic, as in Stravinsky’s rarely-heard and refreshingly peculiar Fireworks; sometimes literally breathless, as in it was hard to believe the musicians managed to keep up and get all of the notes in for the opening of CPE Bach’s Magnificat). Everyone had a twinkle in their eyes – and sometimes an unrestrained laugh, as the first four works were relatively short and the orchestra (and chorus) had to rearrange themselves frequently and with great difficulty between them (when Minasi chose the works for this concert, he probably did not realize they were in the Mozarteum, which has a much smaller stage than the Great Festival House where they often perform).
The orchestra sounded in its accustomed form, with the Salzburg Bach Chorus joining them magnificently for the two choral works. Three of the four soloists – Kim-Lillian Strebel (soprano), Dara Savinova (alto), and Fulvio Bettini (bass) – had wonderful voices which blended nicely with orchestra and chorus even as they projected cleanly. The fourth soloist, tenor Barry Banks, was a disaster for the ears, unable to find his pitches (especially painful in his upper register) and with an ugly hoarse (but loud) timbre.
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.
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.”
Schubert, Brahms, Strauss
Middle Eastern-inspired music filled Salzburg’s Great Festival House this evening, presented by the Mozarteum Orchestra under the young Spanish guest conductor Antonio Méndez.
Violinist Alina Pogostkina (born in the Soviet Union, her violinist parents left after it collapsed to begin a new life in Germany as street musicians, which is how she got her start) joined the orchestra for Aram Khachaturyan‘s violin concerto. She may not have fully warmed up before coming on stage, as the sounds that initially emerged from her instrument were weak and halting, even though the music itself requires a robust and somewhat edgy opening. Méndez noticed, and quickly dialed down the orchestra to not overwhelm her. As her sound warmed (although it never became completely full), the orchestra came back up to a normal level.
I’m not convinced she ever quite captured the rawness of this work. The orchestra did, however. Although not scored for duduks, it could have been: the most quintessential of Armenian instruments made its presence felt in the music even without being in the score. The orchestra painted a journey across the low Caucasus, with highly evocative playing.
The journey south deeper into the Middle East continued with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov‘s tone poem Scheherazade. Méndez did not magnify the sounds, but pulled out individual lines and wove them together. Not big drama, but lots of little touches. Both halves of the concert presented especially fine playing by the bassoon soloist in particular, and also the first chair oboe and clarinet.
Ligeti, Liszt, Chopin, Bartók
A mostly-Hungarian morning with the Mozarteum Orchestra in the Great Festival House, with works by Ligeti, Liszt, and Bartók (and a piece by Chopin that did not belong in this set).
Ligeti’s Atmosphères took a full orchestra and a full polytonality, but broke down the music into smaller components, each one somehow full but without logical progression. I suppose any given note or measure was sonorous, but when taken all together we got: I’m not really sure. When members of the orchestra are holding their ears, it is a bad sign.
The Ligeti did serve as a useful preparation for jumping back a century to Liszt’s second piano concerto. This work did not keep to the conventions of its day, with six segments (not really movements) played without break. These also did not generally follow melodic lines, but (especially in this reading by the Scottish conductor Douglas Boyd) also could be abrupt like Ligeti. Yet Liszt was a master of the idiom, and instead of a dialogue between piano and orchestra, as would have been typical, he made the piano part of the orchestral fabric. Soloist Tsimon Barto and the orchestra gave a robust performance, a strong centerpiece for the Sunday morning concert.
The concert concluded with Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, written from his US exile, as he lay homesick, impoverished, and dying. Boyd gave the work a somewhat melancholic interpretation as a result. But Bartók could indeed show himself as Liszt’s heir in the mastery of Hungarian orchestral color, and the musicians of the Mozarteum Orchestra shone, coming into their own when featured.
Between the Liszt and the Bartók works, Chopin’s Andante Spianato e Grande Polonaise Brillante was far out of place, and not juse because Chopin was not Hungarian. This was a black and white work in a concert full of color. Juxtaposed on this program with music by his contemporary Liszt, it provided further evidence that Chopin was more curiosity than visionary in the world of mid-19th Century pianist-composers. The piano parts said little enough, but one wonders why there was an orchestra there at all. It did not have a dialogue with the piano (as would have been normal), nor did it follow Liszt’s example of embedding the piano within an orchestral palette. It seemed more of an afterthought, kind of like how this piece might have ended up on the program in the first place. Barto, a charismatic performer, could not rescue it.
Haydn, Kakhidze, Eötvös, Beethoven, Praetorius
A bizarre evening at the Mozarteum: three peculiar works by Joseph Haydn, Vakhtang Kakhidze, and Peter Eötvös, followed by Beethoven‘s Sixth Symphony on steroids, as interpreted by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the Mozarteum Orchestra.
The orchestration for Haydn’s Symphony #31 was determined by the forces available to him in the court of Count Eszterházy at the time he wrote it, which included four virtuoso hornists. That was apparently about a quarter of the size of the entire Eszterházy orchestra (although subsequent performances have filled out the other sections). Haydn had the hornists playing in dialogue with individual other instruments in a somewhat unorthodox back-and-forth, which must have alarmed some people in its day. Indeed, it may have alarmed the orchestra tonight: while the horns jumped in vociferously tonight, the rest of the orchestra seemed a bit overwhelmed at first, before fully getting in time and swing mid-way through the first movement.
Vakhtang Kakhidze’s 1996 composition Brotherhood followed, being sure not to remain in any one style for more than a few measures. Aside from a string orchestra (playing not only their instruments, but also snapping and literally slapping their thighs), Kakhidze added a clarinet (originally a soprano saxaphone) and a piano, the pianist (tonight, Onutė Gražinytė, sister of the conductor) having some object to beat against the top of the piano and a microphone to hum into (and make “shush” noises – not because anyone was talking, just because… well, why not?). These were gimmicks, of course, but did not come across as fake – clearly the orchestra had fun on stage, as did the audience in the hall, creating a festive atmosphere. The program gave billing to the violist and the clarinetist (the Mozarteum’s principals), but in reality this was much like the Haydn symphony before it, with many standout solo lines.
After the intermission came the world premiere of Dialogue with Mozart: Da Capo for Orchestra by Eötvös, commissioned for the orchestra’s 175th anniversary this year. It consisted of fragmentary lines from Mozart put into a blender. Familiar and disorienting in equal measures, this work continued the fun of Kakhidze before the break, albeit in a different language (Hungarian not Georgian – but both are indeed odd-sounding languages).
If we thought that the final work on the program, Beethoven’s Sixth, might restore normality to the evening, well then we were very very wrong. Gražinytė-Tyla’s frenetic interpretation (as she bounced wildly on the podium as though she were trying to touch the ceiling and nearly succeeded) was fast and often loud, although she included much play in the dynamics. In fact, it seemed that she tried to connect this piece to the previous ones, with their clear solo lines, to highlight specific parts throughout.
Not only Gražinytė-Tyla but also the music jumped maniacally from the stage. This was Beethoven rushing out of control into the 21st century. As the performance went on, I began to understand her concept more: when Beethoven wrote this symphony in 1806, it was revolutionary, and although a modern informed listener can comprehend that the fact the symphony had a story line was original for its day, the music itself today is not normally considered so shocking. Giving it an update, jarring us in our seats, actually made us appreciate how crazy this symphony must have sounded to the Vienna audience in 1806.
As an encore, Gražinytė-Tyla led the orchestra and the audience in Michael Praetorius‘ setting of the Christmas hymn “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen.” And off we went happily perplexed into the night.
Stravinsky, Schwertsik, Lindberg, Gruber
This month’s Sunday morning subscription concert of the Mozarteum Orchestra featured a decidedly contemporary selection. The composer HK Gruber conducted and introduced each work – a guided tour of the scores, as it were.
The concert opened with something relatively traditional: Four Norwegian Impressions by Igor Stravinsky, written for a film to portray the German occupation of Norway during the Second World War. As Gruber pointed out, the music was not especially martial nor really Norwegian – mostly it was Stravinsky. These short little-heard pieces were fine music if nothing special – from Stravinsky’s “weak period,” but Gruber said he wished he could write as well as Stravinsky in his “weak period.”
The remaining works on the program were by still-living composers. Some tone poems followed by Kurt Schwertsik, from his multi-year cycle Earthly Sounds – from which Gruber selected Five Nature Pieces (Wind, Thunder, Rain, Water, Birds) composed in 1984 and With the Giant Boots composed in 1991. Schwertsik was apparently driven out of his German compositional school for daring to write tonal music. These were not old-fashioned, just tonal, and relied to a great extent on special effects in the heavily enlarged percussion section. The Five Nature Pieces, all short, ended up being more gimmick than substance – pleasant enough music, but without the special effects there was not much there. The piece With the Giant Boots was much longer, which actually meant that Schwertsik had sufficient time to do development in the orchestra, making this a much more satisfying work. Schwertsik himself came on stage for a long bow and warm applause.
After the intermission came the Clarinet Concerto by Magnus Lindberg, composed in 2002. Of all the works on this morning’s program, this probably succeeded the most. It was also tonal, but mixed a range of styles and approaches (and according to Gruber, Lindberg is fond of drastic tempo changes and explored some with us before the piece began). This may have been the music of George Gershwin if he had lived until 2000 – and had been born in post-Sibelian Finland. The young British clarinetist Mark Simpson demonstrated all the different skillsets required to pull off the solo parts.
For the last work of the morning, Gruber introduced his own 2002 composition, Dancing in the Dark. Gruber sees himself as the heir of the Viennese musical tradition, so his music harks back to previous eras while taking new directions. But this mix of styles and reliance on special effects gets a bit tiresome. So while nothing was quite wrong with this work, there was no commonality and it never seemed to go anywhere even as it did not quite sit still either. Maybe if it had come earlier in the concert, or as part of a concert not entirely dedicated to this type of music, it may have fared better just by being original. Coming at the end today, it simply got lost.
Entertaining curiosities with enlightening presentation – for that we have Gruber to thank. Other than the Lindberg, I am not sure I need to hear these works again.
Berlioz, Prokofiev, Schostakowitsch
The first Sunday matinee of the Mozarteum Orchestra‘s new season filled Salzburg’s Great Festival House with music, if with many empty seats as well. This was a shame, as the orchestra shone under guest conductor Markus Stenz.
The concert overture Roman Festival by Berlioz led kicked off the program full of color. Derived from music adapted from his opera Benvenuto Cellini, this reworking allowed the individual musicians in the orchestra to showcase themselves while blending to a thrilling whole. This was moreso apparent in the second work, Prokofiev‘s first violin concerto, where soloist Arabella Steinbacher joined the orchestra. Her tone was warm and sweet – but never too much so, allowing just enough edge to reflect that Prokofiev, when he wrote this in 1916, remained in the vanguard of new music. So we got intricate combinations of musicians – introduced by the viole, Steinbacher played a dialogue with the flutes, and then moved on to continue the discussion through the orchestra. And quite a fun discussion, moving back and forth and around and around, providing stimulation for the mind throughout the masterfull (and underperformed) work, here captured well be these artists assembled on stage.
Steinbacher treated us to an encore – a movement of a sonata by Prokofiev – which allowed her to showcase her talents further. This time, she carried out the fanciful dialogue not with an orchestra, but rather by herself. Her tone was just big enough to fill the large hall without strain, and allow us to enjoy her versatility working through Prokofiev’s clever thoughts.
The program closed with more color, except this time more somber: Schostakowitsch‘s fifth symphony. Stenz translated the sense of foreboding in the symphony by controlling the dynamics, the big moments bringing in a shock component. Stenz made Schostakowitch almost snarky: did the first movement describe clowns rounded up and marched to Siberia for cheering up the miserable victims of Soviet oppression? Who was trying to dance in the second movement? There was the color – so obvious in the Berlioz and Prokofiev works – showing through, in an controlled reading. While in my own head I’ve heard this work as increasingly black over the last few years (and heard that interpretation to the extreme with the Petersburgers and Yuri Temirkanov visiting the Musikverein a year and a half ago), I still understood the convincing spin Stenz and the orchestra gave the symphony. It certainly helps that this orchestra is in good form.
Strauss, Mozart, Schubert
Thus spake Zoroaster: the 2016-17 music season hath opened. The Mozarteum Orchestra took to the Great Festival House this evening under Hans Graf, its former music director (1984-94) for Mozart’s clarinet concerto sandwiched by two tone poems by Richard Strauss.
Graf started the concert with Don Juan at a faster-than-usual clip, which highlighted the Don’s playful seductive nature. Also Sprach Zarathustra, which concluded the concert, came across suitably mystical. Both works showcased the orchestra’s talents, a fullness of sound and character. They also demonstrated how modern Strauss could sound, breaking ground as a tone poet (coming after Liszt, in this regard, but pressing ever forward into the twentieth century still-to-come).
In the juxtaposition with Strauss, Mozart came off worse for the comparison. This is not only because his clarinet concerto was composed a century before the two Strauss poems. But coming in the final year of Mozart’s life, it did not represent anything new in particular, but more a rehash of Mozart’s usual conventions. Certainly he was a master, and the very beautiful music and an understanding for the instrument helped. In this case, he wrote knowingly for the clarinet, as a non-human singing voice. And he had a sympathetic reading, by soloist Matthias Schorn, principal clarinetist of the Vienna Philharmonic, who produced a warm and fuzzy sound, big enough to fill the hall and – for added emphasis – breaking into a gorgeous mezza voce for the more delicate, yet still robust, measures. But was it original?
Schorn (with the orchestra) also gave the happy audience an encore: an arrangement (by Offenbach!) of Schubert’s song “Leise flehen meine Lieder.”
Guest conductor Marc Minkowski came to the front of the stage to personally introduce this morning’s Wagner matinée a la française with the Mozarteum Orchestra. An introduction was in order, as he had changed the concert program recently, and after this concert (part of a subscription series) was originally announced.
Minkowski explained that Wagner did not write symphonies (except for one particularly poor one that is never performed for good reason). So, he asked, who wrote Wagner’s unwritten symphonies? French composers, inspired by pilgrimages to Bayreuth. Or so Minkowski said. I won’t deny that some French composers did indeed frequent Bayreuth, but they had to keep their heads down when they got home because of the negative perception of Wagner’s music in France.
One composer Minkowski did not mention was Massenet, who did write (generally exceedingly dull) operas. Other Fench opera composers who admired Wagner, such as Meyerbeer (who was actually not at all French, but an Italian-trained German Jew whose music owed nothing to France although it was adopted there), found that they could not convince French tastes to accept Wagner no matter how much they championed him.
But Minkowski persisted, and the first half of the concert contained one of the French symphonies Wagner never wrote: the Symphony #1 by Ernest Chausson. Chausson, a student of Massenet, is largely forgotten today (he died in 1899, aged only 44, in a bicycle accident). Minkowski is championing his work, but from this morning’s concert it seems the music was rightly forgotten, other than as a curiosity. The symphony was pleasant but meaningless. It was Wagnerian in scale, but not in drama. Wagner’s failure to write symphonic music is directly tied to his own sense of drama – and for him, this required the Gesamtkunstwerk, and not just an orchestral component. Chausson’s symphony did have some beautiful passages, but they never went anywhere, nor did they seem to connect to each other effectively. In the end, it was this lack of any sense of meaning that made the work, even if Wagner-inspired, typically French.
After the intermission came Wagner himself. I don’t actually hear enough Wagner. His operas are hard to stage (and cast), which limits what opera houses can handle them. And too many places that do stage Wagner bring in self-important and utterly terrible German opera directors that make attending Wagner operas unwatchable and unbearable. So I get Wagner, if at all, mostly in concert performances (or recordings). One of the reasons I liked the original program this morning was that it had extended excerpts rather than short extracts, but the changed program went back to the short extracts.
Two of these had connections to Paris. First came Senta’s ballad from the Flying Dutchman in its original version (written by Wagner in a proposal to the Paris Opera, which the Paris Opera rejected – Wagner later wrote the full opera for Dresden). Swedish soprano Ingela Brimberg, only recently branching into Wagner, captured the inner passion of Senta in a thrilling and emotional reading.
There followed the Overture to Tannhäuser in the version Wagner reworked and extended for the Paris Opera to include a bacchanal. This is the only ballet music Wagner wrote, and it fails as a concert work (it is even debatable if it succeeds dramatically on stage – in general, the French practice of inserting ballets into operas was a really bad idea – but the right choreographer would make a difference). So the thrilling stage-setting that comes from the original opening of the overture devolves quickly in the unstaged ballet music.
Brimberg returned for the final extract, which Minkowski explained had no French connection but which they just wanted to perform: Brünnhilde’s immolation from Götterdämmerung. Although Brimberg’s voice may not be big enough (yet) to perform the entire role, she does have the right sense of drama to carry off this scene. Despite her defiance, Brünnhilde’s final scene is actually sad, and Brimberg understood the tragedy.
The Mozarteum Orchestra, today with heavily-augmented winds, sounded fine. My understanding is that one of Minkowski’s assistants actually rehearsed the orchestra for this concert and Minkowski just showed up at the end. If so, the orchestra was clearly well-rehearsed. Minkowski, not known for his Wagner (although it is apparently his current interest), carefully crafted the drama, with good pacing and modulation, but having the orchestra in good form certainly helped.