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.

Camerata Salzburg, Mozarteum

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.

Members of the Vienna Philharmonic, Mozarteum (Salzburg)

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 BrucknerSchoenberg, 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.

Jerusalem Quartet and András Schiff, Mozarteum

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.

Camerata Salzburg, Mozarteum

Stravinsky, Mozart, Tschaikowsky

Mozart in the Mozarteum this evening kicked off August at the Salzburg Festival, along with some of his admirers.

Pinchas Zukerman led the Camerata Salzburg on an intelligent chamber music course.  Rather than jumping in with Mozart and building, he started with the most modern piece on the program: Igor Stravinsky’Concerto for String Orchestra.  Although a piece from his neo-classical period, this was only Mozartean in form.  Stravinsky’s harmonics and syncopations made its mid-20th-century provenance clear.  For a short work, Stravinsky stripped out the nonsense and replaced it with charm, each strange harmony of syncopation coming unexpectedly but in just the right places.

Hearing that Stravinsky work first before anything by Mozart meant not seeing the Mozartean influence in Stravinsky, but rather hearing the first work by Mozart as a fore-runner of the modern.  Mozart’s Violin Concerto #5 had its own amusements, considering its 18th-century origin.  Zukerman, who picked up his violin to play the solos while conducting, intentionally did not show a warm tone, but rather propelled the music robustly.  If Stravinsky had given us a modern reinterpretation of classical form, Mozart, as performed here, gave us a glimpse of the modern from the classical period itself.

After the intermission, Mozart’s Serenade #6 – Serenata Nocturna – sounded more stereotypically Mozartean, both in terms of its more traditional harmonics and rhythms, and also for its churlish humor: Mozart oddly scored a bass as part of the concertino with solo lines, and added a flamboyant tympani to a chamber string orchestra.

The concert concluded with Tschaikowsky’Serenade for Strings, written as a hommage to Mozart, Tschaikowsky’s favorite composer.  But where Tschaikowsky called for the “largest possible” string orchestra (essentially the string section of a full symphony orchestra), Zukerman kept only the core members of the Camerata Salzburg on stage.  A chamber performance of this work emphasized many of the delicate nuances that get lost, but these performers could still fill the hall with sound during the larger portions.  A rousing end.

Camerata Salzburg, Mozarteum

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’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’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.

Philharmonie Salzburg, Mozarteum

Tschaikowsky, Rachmaninov

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’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’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, Mozarteum Salzburg

Schubert

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.