Reich, Bernstein, Antheil, Copland, Curiale, Still
Sibelius, Britten, Schoenberg, Strauss
A wonderful Sunday morning chamber concert in the Mozarteum by the Camerata Salzburg featured some lesser-known works by Janne Sibelius, Benjamin Britten, Arnold Schoenberg, and Richard Strauss. It was like being invited over for brunch by old friends who spent the meal regaling me of stories from their youth that I had never heard before, full of detail and charm. (That said, I actually have heard the Strauss work in concert once before, and own excerpts from the Sibelius work on a recording; the rest was new for me.)
The Camerata’s strings were especially lush, and for those pieces requiring woodwinds, they were emotive. We had that all together for the incidental music composed by Sibelius for Maeterlinck’s Pelleas and Melisande, a rare work by that composer not rooted in Finnish myth, but still identifiably Sibelian in its somber but dramatic colors.
On either side of the intermission, soprano Anna Prohaska joined the orchestra for some songs. Before the intermission came “Illuminations” by Britten, setting texts by a London-based French poet, Arthur Rimbaud, who wrote in French but used English metrics. These also spanned the dramatic range, and demonstrated Britten’s mastery of both fine chamber musicianship and rhetoric. Prohaska channeled her inner Britten, also mastering both, with a fine dramatic reading spanning the emotions.
After the intermission, Prohaska and the ensemble added two songs by Schoenberg, based on themes from early string quartets setting the words of poet Stefan George: “Litany” and “Rapture.” If Schoenberg’s starting point was Beethoven, he quickly moved into new tonal (or atonal) experiments, but left enough room for today’s artists to wax mystical.
As a final programmed work, the Camerata’s principal hornist Johannes Hinterholzer came to the front of the stage for Strauss’ Horn Concerto #1, which the then 18-year-old composer wrote as a 60th birthday present for his illustrious hornist father. Where the other works on this morning’s program were essentially melancholic, this one was boisterous and happy. Hinterholzer played with enthusiasiasm, backed up in equal measures by his colleagues, all clearly having fun while doing so.
There was an encore, which Hinterholzer introduced loudly enough but then he swallowed the name of the composer so that it became unintelligible, so I have no idea what it was; it was not as good as the Strauss and on the whole we could have done without it. The four scheduled pieces on the program were enough of a good thing with this group. The orchestra went without a conductor today, instead having guest concert master Sebastian Breuninger lead, giving demonstrative cues. Breuninger is the concert master of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra – the Camerata’s own concert master, Gregory Ahss, announced in the annual program schedule and in many of the flyers available in the foyer (but not in the printed program, which showed Breuninger) as leading this concert, was mysteriously absent. I saw Ahss perform with this orchestra in January, and an on-line search comes up with no further information about the substitution.
Schnittke, Beethoven, Mahler, Martin
I added tonight’s concert of the Camerata Salzburg to an eclectic Mozarteum subscription package on a whim. I have no idea why. I certainly did not expect that chamber music by Alfred Schnittke and Frank Martin could be so much fun.
The music was certainly unconventional and gave me a lot to digest (even before dinner – I think all the unexpected digestion made me hungry early tonight). The concert opened with Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso #1 for two violins, cembalo, “prepared” piano, and strings. Stylistically this was everywhere (from Corelli to the tango, according to the program), but never felt out of control. I would need to hear it again to understand if Schnittke had some logic to its construction, but even without quite understanding it at this point I could safely feel he must have had one. The two violin parts were taken by the Camerata’s concertmaster Gregory Ahss and guest Andrey Baranov, who played together with one mind. Jumping robustly from musical style to style, they somehow made it sound easy – and it could not have been (must be hard enough if it were a solo violin, but two of them together made the effort more dauting – but achieved). A quick encore by these two (and piano accompaniment) of a Beethoven piece as arranged by Schostakowitsch was more conventional but equally as impressive.
The concert’s last piece was Martin’s Petite Symphonie Concertante for harp, cembalo, piano, and string orchestra – commissioned to provide a baroque continuo orchestra with a modern work. Martin accepted the challenge, producing something classical in form but modern in substance. Although not as boisterous as the Schnittke piece, it remained tonal but always sounding new. What did Martin have to say exactly? Again, like the Schnittke, I am not sure. This is another piece I will absolutely and gladly need to hear again some time.
Tonight’s conductor was Teodor Currentzis, the Russian-trained Greek whose career got stuck in Perm, Siberia. I heard him for the first time last season in front of the Camerata, and noticed then that he showed a great rapport with this group (they had just kicked out their previous unexciting music director and had decided to try to do without one, but I had thought they should snap up Currentzis – indeed, I still think they should). Currentzis had returned to Salzburg for last Summer’s Festival at the head of his own orchestra from Perm, which was unfortunate (too much performance art and not enough performance), but the Camerata is a far better orchestra than his usual one, so the music was foremost tonight, and Currentzis drew it out.
I did have one gripe with tonight’s performance, coming in the form of Gustav Mahler‘s Kindertotenlieder. Currentzis lost it on this one: he insisted on adding his own sound effects (making hush sounds throughout the cycle, perhaps mimicking crashing waves, although I don’t really know what he was trying to do). He really does need to tone down the performance art and stick to music. Fortunately, the Camerata went on with its business and sounded fantastic. Mezzo Ann Hallenberg had a warm and full lower register that almost made me forget it was not a baritone voice tonight (the usual voice for this song cycle – although using a mezzo instead is perfectly acceptable too). Her upper registers were not always quite as complete (or accurate) though.
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.
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.
Bach, Schostakowitsch, Schubert
Back to the Mozarteum for another chamber concert, this evening with the Hagen Quartet (for Bach and Schostakowitsch) joined by Sol Gabetta for Schubert.
Signature works made up the first half of the concert. Contrapunctus I-IV from Bach’s Art of the Fugue opened the program – each building from Bach’s B-A-C-H signature notation. Bach wrote these more as mathematical exercises than as musical composition, and while they have served – and been rightfully admired – as a good technical manual on fugue-writing for centuries since, they do seem rather too technical. Tonight’s performance bore that out.
Without a break, the Quartet went directly into the Schostakowitsch String Quartet #8, which updated Bach by over two centuries, substituting the Russian composer’s own D-S-C-H musical signature. Where Bach was technical, Schostakowitsch became emotional. Composed in the midst of a depression in his life, the movements were varyingly somber and angry. They borrowed some language from the composer’s Cello Concerto, which I heard in a desolate interpretation with Clemens Hagen, the cellist in this quartet, back in May.
After the intermission came something completely different – or at least somewhat different. Schubert’s late masterwork, his String Quintet composed shortly before his death, filled the second hour. In the quieter parts, the musicians played almost delicately, looking backwards to capture aspects of Bach’s Art. For the larger more raucous moments, particularly inside the Adagio, they struck up agressively, looking forward to the Schostakowitsch. But for playing that was both robust and lyrical at the same time, we needed to wait until the final movement.
On the whole, the permance was technically fine but generally lacked the necessary lyricism. Maybe they should not have started with Bach’s exercises, as their tone never really expanded enough thereafter.
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.
My second concert of the day at the Festival took me over the river to the Mozarteum, where the Camerata Salzburg took the stage. A fine chamber orchestra, they provided a fuller sound than their numbers might have indicated. On the podium, the young Italian Lorenzo Viotti generally had a clear idea of what he wanted to present, and the orchestra generally followed him – but he may need more seasoning.
The indubitable star of the evening was the soloist, a young Armenian violinist (apparently 32 years old, although he looks even younger): Sergey Khachatryan, who confidently delivered Beethoven‘s soaring concerto. His tone remained warm, but edgy enough to not ever become too sweet, masterfully expressing Beethoven’s lines. This work is normally a series of dialogues between the soloist and individual members of the orchestra, but Viotti chose to move them all to the same side of the conversation, with the violinst first among equals in presenting to the audience. While this may have worked for the first movement, and maybe some of the third, it broke down in the more thinly-orchestrated middle movement, the orchestra not providing the appropriate accompaniment – often disjointed – while Khachatryan forged on regardless.
A triumphant applause enticed Khachatryan back out for an encore: an arrangement of an Armenian folk song, in which he sang several octaves of wistful melody on his instrument.
After the intermission, Viotti and the Camerata shed Khachatryan and gave us Schumann‘s third symphony. Viotti’s exuberance – to match the music, of course – did lead to some ragged edges with the orchestra not quite all together. But when they did come together they crafted a bold and evocative tone poem depicting Schumann’s delight at his arrival on the Rhine.
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.
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.
Wagner, Britten, Mendelssohn
Fall has most certainly arrived in Salzburg, but with it the concert season also picks up. Tonight, the Camerata Salzburg opened its year with a spirited performance under the St. Petersburg-trained Greek conductor Teodor Currentzis. I had never heard of Currentzis, who seems to have mostly vanished inside the Russian Federation for his career, but he is quite talented. Indeed, the orchestra parted ways with their unremarkable chief conductor (Louis Langrée) last season and decided to go without one – but maybe they should keep this one! They clearly had an excellent rapport with him, and their enjoyment spilled off the stage into the Mozarteum’s Great Hall.
The centerpiece of tonight’s concert was a somewhat unusual work by Benjamin Britten, his Seranade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings. A not-quite-tonal work, it sets six poems written over six centuries, and prompts difficult blends of colors, which Currentzis coaxed with ease from the orchestra. The tenor soloist Samuel Boden and hornist Johannes Hinterholzer fully grasped the mood as well, with their idiomatic readings. Although on a modern horn for the songs themselves, Hinterholzer played the Prologue and Epilogue on a natural horn – the last as a backstage solo with the lights in the hall fading to darkness.
Sandwiching this peculiar Britten piece came two more traditional – but themselves quite different – works. The concert opened with Wagner‘s Siegfried Idyll, here performed extremely delicately by Currentzis and the Camerata. This was perhaps the Idyll Wagner intended, as a brithday morning wake-up gift for his wife, although tonight working equally as well to set the relaxed mood at the end of a hectic week.
After the intermission came a boisterous Symphony #4 by Felix Mendelssohn, which coming after the Wagner and Britten works demonstrated the Camerata’s sheer musicality. This is a chamber orchestra, so they did not augment the string section although adding the assorted wind instruments – this allowed Currentzis to highlight the various lines in those instruments, over a string foundation, with the orchestra capturing all of the nuances.
The audience exploded in applause. This applause, on top of the Mendelssohn, may have raised the roof in the hall, so Currentzis and the orchestra felt compelled to sedate everyone again with an encore (not a bad idea at all). Currentzis spoke a long introduction for this encore, emphasizing the need for silence and inner reflection after the wild performance of Mendelssohn, but he never actually told us what it was. It was some quiet minimalist piece of no particular interest (performed with the house and stage lights off, illuminated only by the music stand lights) that – to be frank – was anti-climactic after his long-winded introductory remarks. Far better would have been to turn the lights off and let us meditate in actual silence before heading back out into the night. But given the music-making of the rest of the evening before the encore, all is forgiven.
Bruckner, Schoenberg, Wagner
I followed the Festival and members of the Vienna Philharmonic over the Salzach River to the Mozarteum for a chamber concert. Co-principal violin, viola, and cello of the Philharmonic were joined by three younger orchestra members for music by Bruckner, Schoenberg, and Wagner.
The Bruckner String Quintet is a monumental work despite its limited instrumentation. Written when Bruckner held the chair of composition at the Vienna Conservatory, on request of the Conservatory’s Director (and the Philharmonic’s principal violin), Bruckner gave the instruments full music and lush colors fit for a whole orchestra. The musicians got off to a rough start as something appears to have happened to the second violin’s instrument (there was a loud crack, and she kept inspecting the backside of it, but continued anyway). The audience also seemed incapable of sitting still, and many audience members coughed up various lungs (the weather this summer has indeed been surprisingly wet and cool – to the point that some friends are even using heat in their apartments – but if people are that ill then they should go directly to the morgue). The unfit audience noticeably distracted the musicians – and while their playing was sublime, they did not always capture the mood. Only during the third movement – the Adagio, crowing achievement of Brucknerian musical architecture – did the hall fall quiet and the angels from Heaven descended to heal the wounded and cure the sick, at least briefly.
After the intermission came Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (in the original version for string sextet). This built easily on Bruckner’s lushness, but with more complicated and diverging lines, which the musicians developed while producing the same full sound fit for an even larger ensemble. The transfiguring tones naturally led to a much-desired encore, for which they provided a version of the Prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in a reduced version for sextet. Indeed, Schoenberg was known for making such reductions, and maybe they even used his version. Whether or not they did, the sextet revealed Wagner’s revolutionary harmonics, exposing them as the forerunner for Schoenberg’s own later experiments. These were kindred works.
Schubert, Weinberg, Brahms
The Jerusalem Quartet and András Schiff provided a full, nearly orchestral, sound for their chamber performance in the Mozarteum this evening, as part of the Salzburg Festival.
The program opened with the Quartet Movement in c minor by Franz Schubert, who never wrote the other movements for a planned work. This movement goes down with the two movements of his “Unfinished Symphony” under the “what could have been” column. But like those two symphonic movements, which actually work as an abridged symphony, this quartet movement also works as a stand-alone piece. The Israelis built up a big sound, capturing all the nuances of Schubert’s genius.
The piece also served as a good warm-up for the next work, in which Schiff joined the quartet for Moishe Weinberg‘s Piano Quintet. Weinberg, a Polish Jew, fled Warsaw when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939 (they murdered his entire family) and got stuck inside the Soviet Union, which had meanwhile invaded Poland from the other direction. In Russia, his new family (through his new wife, daughter of the great Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels) also got murdered by the anti-Semitic Soviet regime. Dmitri Schostakowitsch, with whom he became a close friend, personally rescued Weinberg from another purge of Jews. I discovered Weinberg’s music on recordings early in 2015, and became intrigued – but although Schostakowitsch valued him very highly as a composer, his music is today rarely performed. I had unfortunately missed a concert of his music in Vienna last Summer, but sought out this concert specifically to hear something live.
The Quintet did not disappoint. Written in 1944, the work captured the mixed trauma Weinberg must have experienced as he settled in Moscow (with Schostakowitsch’s help) after escaping Poland via Minsk and Tashkent (!). Although containing kernels of the conventional, it went off in all directions. Here a march off into oblivion, there a warped waltz performed presto, there a slow funereal movement interrupted by fanfares (warning blasts? signs of hopeful redemption approaching over the horizon?), and concluding with a difficult final movement based on what sounded like a off-kilter jig, played by the instruments in succession, in unison, in round, and ultimately against each other, before dropping off into a pianissimo melancholic abyss, followed by a long silence before applause. The five musicians handled this exhilarating work with great verve, approaching a Schostakowitsch-sized orchestral complexity, keeping the audience on the edge of our seats: what on earth would Weinberg bring next?
The rest of the concert, after the intermission, was anti-climactic, featuring a lone work: Johannes Brahms‘ Piano Quintet. At the time of its premiere, contemporaries regarded Brahms’ Piano Quintet as following the legacy of Beethoven and Schubert – which may be true, except those two composers had been dead for nearly forty years by then, betraying Brahms’ complete lack of originality. The quality of tonight’s performance and the technical prowess of Brahms notwithstanding, this work had nothing to say, particularly coming as it did after the Weinberg. The musicians did produce a build up of real tension for the third movement scherzo, but it was a build up to… just another unrelated movement. All four movements were quite fine works, but Brahms failed to connect them other than the setting for a quartet plus piano. Indeed, they would each have held up just fine as individual single-movement works, as demonstrated during the encore, when the group performed a reprise of the third movement scherzo on its own.
My only quibble, therefore, with tonight’s performance: they probably should have reversed the order of the Weinberg and Brahms quintets, and sent us out with Weinberg’s moving pianissimo into the summer night.
Stravinsky, Mozart, Tschaikowsky
Haydn, Paganini, Bruch, Schubert
In his homeland, the Russian violist (and conductor-by-necessity since there is not enough solo viola music to keep him employed) Yuri Bashmet is greeted as a cult figure and his concerts sell out immediately to people who do not understand music. In his ancestral homeland, Ukraine (he is of Hutsul descent – a small sub-group of Ukrainians from the Carpathian mountains), he is persona non grata after crossing from art into politics and openly endorsing the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year. In Austria, he is respected for his music-making by those in the know (but this does not mean a sold-out hall).
This morning, Bashmet performed with the Camerata Salzburg in the Mozarteum, a concert well worth waking up early for. Not surprisingly, the small venue that is the Mozarteum’s Great Hall provides the perfect setting for this chamber orchestra, and Bashmet understood how to get even more out of them. The opening work, Haydn’s Symphony #83 (called the “Hen” because of the clucking in its first movement) became a study in dynamics – the fortes were never too loud, but to provide contrast the pianissimi were about as quiet as humanly possible to still get noise out of the instruments. These contrasts pushed the symphony forward while showcasing the masterful artistry of individual instruments.
Bashmet then re-emerged with his viola for Paganini’s Concertino for Viola and Strings, for which Bashmet’s viola provided an operatic singing voice for the lyrical piece – not a Paganini showpiece in the usual sense, but broader and enabling the soloist to demonstrate mastery of an instrument that rarely gets solo parts written for it. To accommodate the lack of solo viola music, Bashmet does indeed have to make some of his own arrangements, and this he did after the intermission with his own transposition of Bruch’s Kol Nidre from the orchestra accompanying solo cello to solo viola. He performed the haunting solo lines with great feeling (although I do think it works better with a deeper cello voice).
For the final work, Bashmet led the Camerata in Schubert’s Symphony #5. Although excellently-played, this work does not have the same contrasts as Haydn’s Hen Symphony at the start of the concert, and without that dynamic play it began to drag. Although thought of by the composer as a work looking backwards to Mozart, it nevertheless has room to be driven forward. Unfortunately, that did not happen this morning. But it in no way detracted from the sheer musicianship of the orchestra or its guest conductor/soloist.
They over-hyped tonight’s concert of the Philharmonie Salzburg in the Great Hall of the Mozarteum. Or maybe I should not have gone to this concert so soon after returning from hearing both the Philharmoniker and the Symphoniker in Vienna this past weekend. Still, the Philharmonie Salzburg sounds like a pretty good youth orchestra.
The announced conductor, Elisabeth Fuchs (the orchestra’s founder) did not appear (although she remains on the concert’s website, she was not in the program), and instead a 23-year-old cellist, Tobias Wögerer took the podium (after making his debut as a conductor in his native Linz earlier this year). I suppose conductors have to start sometime and somewhere, so I will give him a pass. He had a clear stick technique, but the orchestra did not always get it together. In many respects, the orchestra did not blend as an orchestra, but rather each instrument and each line sounded exposed, a collection of musicians playing on stage at the same time (well, usually), but not necessarily together to form a coherent sound. I do not know how much of this was attributable to Wögerer, how much to the mysteriously absent Fuchs who presumably rehearsed them, or how much to the youth of the musicians in the orchestra itself. While an orchestra should be better than the sum of its parts, in this case the individual musicians were better and the orchestra was worse.
The concert opened with Tschaikowsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, which Wögerer took at an unusually slow tempo, accentuating the drama. While this worked for the opening sections, the orchestra did not hold together all the way through.
Russian pianist Nikolai Tokarev arrived on stage for Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. By the look of it, his luggage never arrived with him, as he did not dress for the concert, performing in jeans and an open-collared casual shirt. Wögerer had the orchestra play everything staccato. This had the interesting result of accentuating the natural staccato of the piano, but also made each attack more exposed if not everyone hit each note preceisely together (they did not). Despite this attempt to play in a lively way, Tokarev lost interest somewhere along the way, and the entire piece became unusually dull. Once the piece dragged on to its ultimate conclusion, Tokarev gave us for an encore a few more solo variations on the same Paganini theme, in a much more contemporary style. I don’t know if some composer after Rachmaninov (but less talented) wrote these additional variations out, or if Tokarev simply improvised. I suppose it did not matter.
After the intermission, the orchestra returned to perform Tschaikowsky’s Symphony #6. Again, it was rather unfortunate that whereas I bought tonight’s ticket a month ago, I got a last-minute ticket to hear the Philharmoniker perform this same work in the Musikverein last weekend. Although I experienced the Philharmoniker from a seat in the midst of the percussion section, and therefore out of balance, these poor students tonight in no way could match the world’s best orchestra, and they did not. As a youth orchestra, however, they were good – although, as noted earlier, they tended to perform individually as a group rather than always joining together for a common sound. The audience was disproportionately young – the orchestra and Wögerer clearly invited all of their friends, so they got a rousing (deserved) applause.
Simon Keenlyside and Emanuel Ax wandered into Salzburg with a performance of Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise in the Mozarteum.
Keenlyside captured Schubert’s dark songs on an emotional roller coaster, with a full resonant baritone mixed with soft tender tones. Where Schubert made the piano accompaniment more lyrical, Ax did not so much accompany as provide a duet, particularly in the softer opening poem Gute Nacht but also in the more rousing Die Post and Muth as well. The accompaniment worked less well in harsher piano sequences such as in Die Wetterfahne, where Ax hammered against Keenlyside. But together they delivered the irony of Die Krähe and the morbidness of Der Lindenbaum, which I finally realized tonight is a poem about suicide and not actually about the shade tree.
The most depressive and impressive poem came at the end: Der Leiermann. Keenlysides’s voice followed the old man out over the ice and Ax’s final notes trailed off. It was left to the audience’s imagination to let the ice slowly crack and the poet, having resisted the temptation of suicide and having avoided being eaten by the crow now wandered off to the end.
Silence embraced the hall as the notes drifted. When applause rang out, it continued for a dozen or more curtain calls.