Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Schostakowitsch, Mahler

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.”

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Schubert, Brahms, Strauss

Richard Strauss‘s masterpiece of orchestral painting, Eine Alpensinfonie, has been my favorite tone poem since childhood, and my appreciation and enjoyment of the piece has not wavered as I grow older.  Nor indeed the accuracy of its depiction: its tremendous colors describe for the ears the majesty of the Alps.

The Mozarteum Orchestra proved this morning that it was up to the task, with outstanding solo detail throughout the overcrowded stage.  On the podium, Ivor Bolton, until last year the orchestra’s music director, can certainly take some credit for the caliber of the orchestra’s sound.

Unfortunately, however, it was not clear that Bolton himself understood this work.  After presenting a thrilling sunrise, Bolton set out for this walk in the Alps at a somewhat slower-than-normal pace.  England is mostly flat, so perhaps the mountains made him winded.  While I hoped this might allow the sonorities to bloom, the orchestra did seem to want to push forward, held back by their out-of-shape English cousin who huffed and puffed but could not keep up.  They dutifully went at the speed of their least fit member.

The first half of the concert contained two unusual dark pieces, one by Schubert and one by Brahms.  Schubert’s Song of the Spirits over the Waters, a setting of a Goethe poem, started out promising, with a male choir and instrumentation for strings without violins, but never really went anywhere.  Brahms, who did his best work when he wasn’t trying to imitate Beethoven, had somewhat more success with his Alto Rhapsody for alto, male choir, and chamber orchestra – also setting Goethe.  Argentinian alto Bernarda Fink gave a bold reading, and the Salzburg Bach Choir captured the somber mood of these two pieces without getting overly emotional.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Khachaturian, Rimsky-Korsakov

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.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Ligeti, Liszt, Chopin, Bartók

A mostly-Hungarian morning with the Mozarteum Orchestra in the Great Festival House, with works by LigetiLiszt, 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.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Mozarteum

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.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

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.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

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.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

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.”  

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Chausson, Wagner

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.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Mendelssohn, Schubert

A somewhat relaxed concert in Salzburg’s Great Festival House this evening, with the Mozarteum Orchestra under guest conductor Trevor Pinnock, with music by Mendelssohn and Schubert, provided big works in contained boxes.

Isabelle Faust came on as soloist for the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, looking effortless as she produced a very pretty and idiomatic, if not especially large, sound.  Pinnock kept the balance in the orchestra, at least for most of the concerto, never overwhelming her, and letting her read the nuances.  As nice as it came across, they could have used a larger sound to fill this hall (big, but not cavernous, and it still has good acoustics).  Faust gave an encore which sounded like a Bach partita – I did not recognize it, nor would I care to hear it again, as it was not one of his better or more interesting works and made a strange encore as it showcased nothing (neither versatility nor mood).  She does have a wonderful tone and understanding for music, but, hearing her for the first time, I sensed something was missing.

After the intermission came Schubert’s Great C Major Symphony, his Ninth (according to the standard numbering), or his Eighth (according to reality, and as numbered in tonight’s program book), or his Seventh (according to the original publication).  This is a big symphony, but Pinnock did not necessarily treat it as such.  Rather than having the horns stride out with the bold opening theme, he restrained them (and they nearly swallowed their mouthpieces – this opening theme was never meant to be restrained).  Pinnock’s concept seemed to be to perform much of this symphony piano to build tension and then unleash the tension in large brass forte sections.  Sometimes this worked, sometimes it did not, leaving the strings especially sounding thin, with bits that dragged waiting for him to get to the point.  He also employed a bit too much staccato, not always letting the orchestra draw out the gorgeous long Schubertian lines.

On the whole, I understood Pinnock’s concept, but I wavered from section to section as to whether I liked it.  I think I may have preferred a larger and fuller use of the orchestral palette, employing Pinnock’s contrasting dynamics more selectively for emphasis and drama where most effective rather than constantly.

Pinnock used a similar idea for an extended encore: Entreacte #3 from Schubert’s music for Rosamunde, with the same result.  Wonderful playing by the woodwinds especially tonight.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Orchesterhaus Salzburg

Mozart, Prokofiev, Beethoven

The Mozarteum Orchestra kindly gave me a free ticket to a non-calendar concert this morning at their rehearsal hall in the Orchesterhaus, where they were auditioning a candidate for their soon-to-be-open music director position: Vassilis Christopoulos, a Greek born and educated in Germany. At 40, he is still young, but has spent his career flitting around the most provincial of provincial houses. His two head postings – currently head of the Southwest German Philharmonic of Constance and formerly artistic director of the Athens Opera – have not made a name for either. The concert was extremely pleasant, but the orchestra may still be searching.

Christopoulos was fine, with a clear technique, but I did not see any particular spark of inspiration. The orchestra likely wants someone more established who rehearses well, although I think they should go for a young dynamo on the up, after the model of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, an ambitious provincial band (like the Mozarteum) which regularly selects charismatic music directors in their late 20s who bring the orchestra and its renown up with them as they rise (most famously Simon Rattle, who stayed 18 years, followed by Sakari Oromo for ten, Andris Nelsons for seven, and starting this fall Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, who is the music director of the Salzburg Landestheater).

The program opened with the Overture to Mozart‘s Don Giovanni, which this orchestra could probably play in its sleep. The music flew off the stage (designed to match the stage in the Great Festival House, so the orchestra can maintain its sightlines) and whirled into the audience (a 250-seat 2-level auditorium, so not very deep), which allowed us to appreciate the interior lines and menacing brass (all of two horns and two trumpets, but still coming on strong in this reading). The whole opera is in their repertory this season, in their dual role as pit orchestra for the Landestheater, so when they play the overture they are also ready to present the full meaning of an entire drama condensed into five minutes.

Two first symphonies followed. Prokofiev wrote his first – the “Classical” – in the style of Haydn, if Haydn had come back in the 20th century. The instrumentation he borrowed from what Haydn had used in his final symphony. Prokofiev’s is a playful work, and the orchestra had fun with it. Beethoven‘s first is altogether more serious – an actual student of Haydn, he took his teacher’s idiom one more step, writing five years after Haydn had completed his final symphony. Though still classical in style, the young genius tinkered a bit with convention to hint at the breakthroughs he would soon unleash, giving this work a hightened sense of urgency and drama. The Orchestra performed both of these comfortably within their idiom.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Smetana, Korngold, Bach, Dvořák

A pleasantly sentimental Sunday morning concert with the Mozarteum Orchestra in the Salzburg’s Great Festival House may not have overwhelmed, but got the day off to a good start. 

The program opened with the Moldau, the second tone poem in Smetana’s My Fatherland series, which the orchestra performed evocatively under the baton of British guest conductor Matthew Halls.  I was a little worried about the flutes in the long opening passage, depicting the origins of the river, as I was not sure they were coming up for air – but capture a gurgling spring they did, and the rest of the orchestra took it downstream from there until the river met the Elbe.

Austrian violinst Benjamin Schmid, a professor at the Mozarteum who specializes in 20th century music, joined the orchestra for Korngold’s violin concerto.  Korngold, a Viennese Wunderkind with a theatrical flare who landed in Hollywood as an Academy Award-winning composer of film music, repackaged some of his film themes into this concerto, keeping the atmosphere while creating something a bit more serious and charming, which is not performed often enough.  Though technically-proficient, Schmid tried to milk a sweet tone from his violin, with legati and vibrati, but it unfortunately came out somewhat sour.  Korngold said he wanted the soloist for this work to be more Caruso and less Paganini – but Schmid is neither.  Even more sour (since he had no orchestral accompaniment) was his solo encore, which sounded like it must have originally been by Bach, but underwhelmed.

Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony rounded out the program.  Halls seemed determined to emphasize the influence of Brahms on this work.  Brahms did indeed influence and champion the Czech composer.  Brahms, wrote music of the highest quality that was often excessively unimaginative and dull.  But whereas Dvořák learned orchestration and structure from his mentor, he took inspiration from Czech (and other) folk traditions and had something more to say.  The performance this morning managed to leave out the extra meanings, producing just a nostalgic reading of what might have been.  For a Sunday morning, that may have been enough.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Haus für Mozart

Orff

The Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra added a benefit concert this morning at the Haus für Mozart, to support providing education for unaccompanied refugee children who have sought asylum in Salzburg. On the program, a single work: Carmina Burana by Carl Orff.

Orff’s unclear relationship with the Nazi regime (some Nazis found him too modern, but others saw in him a connection to Germanic roots, and he happily provided the Nazis music on commission to replace music by Mendelssohn with more Aryan tones) made him an odd choice for this benefit concert. On the other hand, he dedicated himself to education (my own elementary school music training came through the Orff System he had pioneered). In the end, of course, it was all about the music.

Because recordings of “O Fortuna,” which opens and closes this work, have become overused and clichéd, it feels like the Carmina Burana are over-performed. That said, I do not remember ever hearing this cantata live, nor seeing it programmed in concert (the Vienna Volksoper has staged it as a ballet in recent years, to predictably dreadful reviews), and I believe I myself have never heard it performed live before.

Orff’s cantata is masterful, putting mediaeval songs into a modern idiom. The Mozarteum’s chief conductor, Ivor Bolton, drew out the colors from all corners of the orchestra to maximize Orff’s broad palette. Bolton did not make the big numbers bombastic, but instead used them merely to craft large sounds of the many individually-orchestrated instrumentations.

Baritone Günter Haumer showed off his warm-toned singing instrument, although he sometimes had trouble projecting over the orchestra in the bigger sections. Countertenor Markus Forster waddled on stage to act out his single song – the swan who finds himself roasted for dinner. Haumer took the cue after that and started to act out his songs more as well (notably the drunken abbot in the next song – although I found his Italianate pronunciation of the mediaeval Latin somewhat disconcerting, these songs not being fit for the Vatican but for some rather bawdy German monks). Laura Nicolescu handled her soprano solos beautifully. The Chorus of the Music High School of Salzburg and the Salzburg Festival Children’s Chorus augmented the performance.

Hac in hora sine mora corde pulsum tangite; quod per sortem sternit fortem, mecum omnes plangite!

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Sibelius, Bach, Rott

I have long wanted to hear a live performance of the Symphony by Hans Rott. While clearly a student work, and left unperformed for over a hundred years after Rott wrote it (and still almost never performed), the symphony had an oversized impact on symphonic music.

Rott was Gustav Mahler’s best friend and apartment-mate when the two studied with Anton Bruckner at the Vienna Conservatory. Bruckner and Mahler both believed that Rott was the more talented of the two young friends. But while Mahler was only neurotic, Rott was psychotic. Convinced that Johannes Brahms was plotting to murder him, Rott was confined to an insane asylum when he was 22, where he died at age 25.

Rott wrote only one symphony, and while it was never performed until 1989, Mahler knew the score and credited Rott’s Symphony as inspiration for his own symphonic output. At the same time Rott composed his Symphony, Mahler wrote Das Klagende Lied, another student work, but the influence is immediately apparent. And as a train of thought runs throughout Mahler’s works, so too does Rott’s concept.

Mahler’s Sixth may be the most difficult of his symphonies to understood – or at least it was so for me. I had been aware of Rott’s Symphony, but when I found a recording of it a few years ago, I finally discovered the key to understanding Mahler’s Sixth (and got new insights into the Seventh, as well). Rott’s Symphony is not a depressive work (as those Mahler works are), quite the contrary, but Mahler, remembering his friend many years later and consumed by his own fatalism, expanded the concepts Rott experimented with as a student.

Today’s performance came at a Sunday morning concert in Salburg’s Great Festival House with the Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra under the baton of guest conductor Constantin Trinks. Although Trinks appeared to know what he wanted to get out of the performance, and the orchestra also played generally well, the whole thing sounded under-rehearsed, with some sloppy cues and missed signals. As the Symphony went on, the orchestra became more comfortable with Trinks, however, and there were moments of pure inspiration. Rott experimented with unusual harmonies and dissonance, taking a step beyond his mentor Bruckner (and probably more than Bruckner bringing Wagner’s developments into the symphonic mainstream) while anticipating where Mahler might go (or indeed possibly inspiring Mahler to go there), and the orchestra pulled these passages off effortlessly. The contemplative Wagnerian moments had required delicacy in the solo or small groups of instruments. The Brucknerian brass chorales that rise above and across each other in the Finale shone brilliantly, as Rott painted with every color on his palette – a wonderful first symphony and a taste of what might have become (or did become Mahler, and then on to Schostakowitsch in one direction, and Schoenberg in the other).

In the first half of the concert, Canadian James Ehnes joined the orchestra for Sibelius’ Violin Concerto. Ehnes has a glittering tone, not overpowering his instrument but letting the sound reverberate into the hall. The orchestra may have come across too robustly – as with the Rott Symphony after the intermission, I wondered whether they had all rehearsed together sufficiently. Sibelius had come to Vienna wanting to study with Bruckner (his favorite composer) about a decade after Mahler and Rott, but the aging Bruckner was not taking new students. Nevertheless, Bruckner exerted quite an influence on the Finn, and it seemed the orchestra was trying to prove that point during this piece by building up stone walls of sound. On the whole, Trinks’ reading did not convince.

Ehnes came out for two encores. Although he did not announce them and I could not identify them precisely, I am pretty certain that they were both movements from sonate by Bach. They emphasized different aspects of virtuosity: one fast, one slow (but with separate moving lines, so that Ehnes essentially provided his own accompaniment on the same instrument). Ehnes’ style actually seemed far better-suited for Bach than for Sibelius – where his Sibelius merely reflected the composer’s sunlight, his Bach shone on its own.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Schumann, Bach, Bruckner

The Mozarteum Orchestra launched its Sunday matinee series for 2015-16 this morning in Salzburg’s Large Festival House with some known but lesser-played, almost experimental, music from the middle of the 19th Century.

Schumann’s “Overture, Scherzo, and Finale” (a rather clunky title after he rejected more logical ones) opened the program.  Although perfectly pleasant, this work suffered from a lack of a coherent concept.  Schumann revised it many times for more than a decade after its premiere, but does not seem to have ever rectified its main weakness.  With an opening almost foretelling Tschaikowsky’s opening to Yevgeny Onyegin (composed a few decades later), Schumann backpedalled into a post-Mozartian muddle before reaching a Bach-like fugue which culminated in a brass chorale almost predicting Bruckner.  Where was Schumann going with all of this?

If he was going towards Bruckner, we did have a chance to find out later in the concert.  But before we got there, German cellist Jan Vogler came out to slog through Schumann’s Cello Concerto.  Again, Schumann produced a perfectly pleasant work which did not say anything.  Vogler’s dry tone easily filled the large hall, but nevertheless came out somewhat subdued rather than expansive.  When the orchestra stood down and Vogler gave a Bach saraband as an encore, the cellist confirmed the impression.  An accomplished musician who formerly filled the first chair of the Dresden Staatskapelle, Vogler’s playing did not lack quality, just dynamism.  Perhaps he should return to orchestral playing rather than a solo career.

After the break came Bruckner’s 2nd Symphony, logically resuming where the first Schumann work at the start of the concert had left off.  Although Bruckner wrote this piece when he was nearly fifty, it is in many ways a young work as he started writing orchestral music so late.  Bruckner never dedicated this symphony, so he offered it to Wagner at the same time as he showed the German composer his 3rd Symphony – Wagner wisely preferred the dedication of the latter, more-mature work.  The 2nd could have used some intelligent editing to tighten the phrases.  Bruckner did produce several versions over the years, but these did not resolve its underlying wordiness.

A driven performance can overcome these defects.  Ivor Bolton, the Mozarteum Orchestra’s music director, did not accomplish this, allowing some of the longer passages to drag.  The orchestra, although falling out of synch now and then, sounded strong and in good health.  Schumann and Bruckner, in these readings, maybe less so.  And while I know from other performances that the Bruckner 2nd can be salvaged, the verdict remains out on these lesser Schumann works.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Hager, Brahms, Bruckner

I remember when a performace of a Bruckner symphony happened infrequently enough to make it an event.  Now everyone performs Bruckner.  So long as they understand Bruckner, as the Mozarteum Orchestra of Salzburg did tonight under its former chief conductor Leopold Hager in Salzburg’s Great Festival House, I won’t complain.

Hager set up Bruckner’s 7th intelligently, with an well-chosen first half of the concert.  Bruckner owed his musical development to many years spent as a church organist, so Hager brought us to church.  Hager’s own setting of Psalm 2, a work from his own youth (he composed it in 1955), opened the concert – a modern work with an almost Stravinsky-like edge, with the orchestra driving the music forward forcefully before reaching apotheosis.  Austrian baritone Markus Volpert and the Salzburg Bach Chorus provided the text and additional excitement.

Hager followed this with one of Brahms‘ most-original works, his Alto Rhapsody, with the mellifluous Franco-Russian alto Svetlana Lifar joining the orchestra and chorus.  Brahms set a poem by Goethe to music, secular but with a religious undertone, much as he had done for his Requiem one year earlier, with the same balance of melancholic and uplifting spirituality.

Also before the intermission, Hager conducted the chorus in two a capella motets by Bruckner: Locus iste and Os justi meditabitur sapientiam.  As forward looking as Hager’s psalm was, these two were backwards-looking works by Bruckner for church choirs (in St. Florian and Linz, respectively).  The Salzburg Bach Chorus sang out tremendously.

This introductory hour of music perfectly enabled Hager’s interpretation of Bruckner’s 7th for the second hour(-plus).  The Mozarteum Orchestra is a medium-sized band, and although augmented this evening for the Bruckner, it still came out sounding a bit thin.  Hager compensated by having them play legato, emphasizing that these were chorales, and should therefore be sung by the instruments.  Bruckner was a man of the church even when in the concert hall.  Indeed, even the adagio movement, composed as funeral music for the a-religious (and wholly amoral) Richard Wagner, still contained music Bruckner wrote for his own Te Deum (composed at the same time).

The orchestra responded to Hager’s concept.  The last time I heard this symphony, with the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle in the Musikverein in May, the Berliners sounded more lush, but they did not understand the music.  Hager and his Mozarteum Orchestra may have lacked the sparkle of their more-famous Berlin colleagues, but they had more to say tonight.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Mozart, Holst, Williams

The Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra could probably play Mozart without a conductor.  At tonight’s concert, they provided an idiomatic reading of the Symphony #41, “Jupiter,” with John Axelrod on the podium.  They probably mostly ignored him and got down to business.

Only a chamber-sized orchestra took the stage for the symphony, which I suppose matched the period in which Mozart wrote it.  However, this was late Mozart, and forward-looking, and does sound better with full orchestral forces.  The smaller sound got a little lost in Salzburg’s Large Festival House.

The full orchestra appeared for the concert’s second half, and this may have made the concert’s first half more clear.  This orchestra is less familiar with Gustav Holst, whose suite The Planets came after the intermission.  The extra instruments got lost, with stray sounds popping up – both the wrong notes and at the wrong times.  The solo horn made a number of disastrous entries.  However, whether these problems derived from the orchestra alone or were the fault of the man on the podium was unclear.

Axelrod was supposedly Leonard Bernstein’s last student, but he clearly was not the best.  Gimmicks do not make up for a lack of talent.  Like Bernstein, Axelrod believes in popularizing music – but Bernstein understood his fundamentals and relied on them.  Axelrod takes pride in being a “crossover artist” with rock.  His pelvic thrusts may have excited Elvis fans, but they lost the musicians who had to interpret their cues.

For Neptune, the last tone poem in the suite, Axelrod had a children’s chorus sing from offstage, their voices projected via speaker system, through which they were also distorted (seemingly intentionally).  This simply did not work, and how Axelrod thought it might make the evening more exciting eluded me.

Holst’s music is nice, but this performance betrayed that this suite is not exactly a series of high quality tone poems, but rather odd disjointed thoughts.  After Mozart’s forward-looking final symphony, the Holst did not hold up.

For an encore (why?), Axelrod led the orchestra in music by John Williams from Star Wars.  One of the kids in the chorus came out to present him with a plastic lightsaber, which he then used to annoint the kid as though he were being dubbed a mediaeval knight by his lord, thus demonstrating that Axelrod had no idea what a lightsaber was.  So much for pop culture.  But the performance did play up Williams’ obvious indebtedness to Holst’s work, the references made quite clear.  So maybe Holst was forward-looking in his way.  And maybe some day we will consider Axelrod forward-looking, although probably not.