Bernstein, Tschaikowsky, Elgar
The Philadelphia Orchestra and Yannick Nézet-Séguin returned for a second night in the Musiverein’s Golden Hall, making a bigger splash with the audience than last night: bigger applause devolving to rhythmic clapping and a call for an encore. To be honest: this orchestra certainly deserved the ovation, but I’m not convinced tonight was better than last.
The first half of the concert had one peculiar piece, Leonard Bernstein‘s Second Symphony, the “Age of Anxiety.” Bernstein was a far better conductor and intellectual than he was a composer, but this is one of his better compositions. That does not make it any less pretentious. Part One was everywhere (as the composer intended), which I suppose is what gives it the sense of anxiety. But it was a joyous Part One – a musical description of four people getting drunk together, but each lonely and self-absorbed, in a bar, they seemed to be embibing a bit too much and may have actually been rather happy when not mourning their own existence. Part Two, on the other hand, never seemed to figure out what it wanted to be, shifting musical styles (including a bit of jazz) without settling on anything. This may have been a bit too weird. The Orchestra could certainly handle this tricky music with no problem at all – the only one who seemed to be anxious was Jean-Yves Thibaudet, the piano soloist (the work is in many ways more piano concerto than symphony), whose mouth remained agape and whose eye stared up at Nézet-Séguin with a look of utter fear. Thibaudet appears to have told his barber to cut his hair to match Bernstein’s own hairstyle, and there was a passing similarity, so perhaps this was indeed the pianist channeling the composer’s spirit.
For the second half of the concert, the Orchestra pulled out Tschaikowsky‘s Fourth Symphony. His fourth, fifth, and sixth symphonies are performed far too often. They are good music, but it’s just hard to say anything new. This Orchestra’s thrilling Tschaikowsky Fifth in Dresden in 2015, for example, still rings in my ears – it was that good. Tonight’s Fourth… wonderful performance, but I heard nothing I haven’t heard before. So that was a bit disappointing.
But yes it was a wonderful performance, and the audience appreciated it maybe more than I did. The solo bows elicited roars (particularly for the principal oboist, Richard Woodhams, who is retiring at the end of this tour, whose solo bow inspired massive foot thumping across the hall). So the orchestra gave us an orchestration of Edward Elgar‘s Liebesgruß to show off its lush string sound, as an encore.
Brahms, Schumann, Strauss
It’s always wonderful to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra on tour performing in a proper hall and not the dull box they have in the Kimmel Center. Tonight, they hit the Musikverein for the first of a two-night set with Yannick Nézet-Séguin on the podium.
The second half of the concert was spectacular, featuring the best performance of Schumann‘s Fourth Symphony I have ever heard – a mix of mystery, wistfullness, and outright joy. This was followed by Richard Strauss‘ tone poem Don Juan, in an interpretation which emphasized the individual virtuosic lines. Not sure where to begin on this, but maybe the duet between the oboe and clarinet was most special. Or was it the horn solos? Or the violin? Or… or… From my seat I had a good view of Nézet-Séguin, and watched him cajole the Orchestra emotionally, and then heard the immediate response. These forces make music so well together.
This intimacy was also on show for the concert’s first half, where they were joined by Hélène Grimaud for the Brahms first piano concerto. I am afraid not even the Philadelphia Orchestra can rescue that Brahms concerto, although it was a valiant effort. The playing sounded great, but there was just not much to work with (or too much – an hour of musical ideas that weren’t all bad but Brahms was not creative enough to know what to do with them). According to the program notes, Bruckner was a fan of the main theme of the first movement (“Siehst, das is a Symphoniethema!” – “You see, that is a symphony theme!” he apparently declared to a student). Indeed, there was something there, and if it had been a Bruckner symphony we would have found ourselves dreaming in a gothic cathedral he would have built from it. But it was a Brahms piano concerto, so all he could do with it was plant a vegetable garden for the monks. Maybe they were good vegetables, and maybe Grimaud, Nézet-Séguin, and the Philadelphians made good tour guides, but I’d rather admire Bruckner’s cathedral than wander around in Brahms’ monastery farm.
The concert had very high security (indeed, I have never seen so much security for anything in Austria, including when I attended a reception hosted by the President last Fall with many other dignitaries from Austria and neighboring countries in the room). Armed police roamed everywhere (outside and inside the building), as did ubiquitous Israeli close protection teams. There were also a bunch of huge men who looked like nightclub bouncers stationed around the hall (apparently recommended by the Israelis).
This all had to do with the fact that at the end of the Orchestra’s European tour tomorrow, they head off to tour Israel, and the anti-Semites are protesting everywhere. The Orchestra started its tour in Belgium, one of the most anti-Semitic countries in Europe today (I make no excuses for Austria, its failure to address its history, and the fact that unrepentent German nationalists with an arguably classical national socialist political agenda are sitting in the current government – but Austria is actually pretty tame, which is frightening). So in Brussels the Orchestra’s concert was repeatedly interrupted by anti-Semitic protestors, which led the Orchestra to contact the Israelis for advice and the host cities on the rest of the European tour for high alerts. At the start of tonight’s concert, a Musikverein representative came on stage to announce that if there were a protest, then the Orchestra would stop playing and walk off the stage, and return to start the concert over after the protest ended; so, since the Orchestra believes in the right to free speech, it was requested that if anyone in the audience wanted to protest, that they do so now before the concert began. There was a loud applause for the announcement, but no protest.
And there was certainly no protest about the concert itself. I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s.
Riccardo Muti is not normally thought of as a Bruckner conductor. He is known for his Schubert, one of Bruckner’s key influences, and at the Salzburg Festival in 2016 I heard Muti lead the Vienna Philharmonic in a very intelligent and Schubertian interpretation of Bruckner’s 2nd Symphony. So this enticed me to give his Bruckner 9th (again with the Philharmonic, this time in the Golden Hall of the Musikverein) a try. Making a case for an early Bruckner symphony as a successor to Schubert is one thing – how would he manage this for Bruckner’s last work?
As it turns out, Muti did not try to find Schubertian influences in Bruckner’s 9th. Instead, he showed how Bruckner had become forward looking, drawing out the strained harmonies and immense dissonances. Building on themes from his 7th and 8th Symphonies, both massive Gothic works, Bruckner was clearly aware of his own failing health and that he might not live to complete his 9th (as indeed he did not), so he peered out over the abyss to see where music might go on after him.
Aside from Italian opera and Schubert, Muti is also a specialist in some 20th Century Russian repertory, including Scriabin, also a master of harmony who consciously set out to destroy the world in six symphonies (but died young after his fifth, his attempt incomplete). Elements of this Bruckner interpretation possibly owed a debt to Muti’s familiarity with Scriabin and his utter insanity. I have no idea if Scriabin knew Bruckner’s music, but a direct linkage is not really the point. Muti knows Scriabin, and here he gave us a Bruckner performance that deconstructed music and opened up possibilities for the 20th Century.
The Philharmonic of course also knows Bruckner inside out, but responded to Muti’s directions to deliver Bruckner to his grave. From my seat in the back of the side balcony (the only one available when I checked) I could not see the orchestra other than the last two rows of the first violins, so I let the Golden Hall’s wonderful acoustics provide the full experience. This was a performance to hear live.
The concert opened with Haydn‘s Symphony #39, that composer’s first minor-key symphony and considered the origin of Sturm und Drang that led to the romanticism which perhaps reached its pinnacle with Bruckner. This symphony got Haydn promoted from assistant Kapellmeister to chief in the Eszterházy court. He wrote for what he had available – an orchestra of only about 16 musicians which often seemed to have an excess (for so small a band) of horns. So the original version had four horns in those 16 musicians. But Haydn also thought for the future, and to hear a proper-sized string section took nothing away from the four horns (and two oboes and a bassoon) but provided Haydn as he is meant to be heard (if not how he originally was, only due to lack of resources). In this interpretation, Muti seemed also to predict a bit of Bruckner – Bruckner was an organist and even when he composed symphonic music inserted full and partial stops. Haydn had those there too in this symphony, building blocks for a bigger construction. An unexpected, but clever, way to set up deconstruction of romanticism in Muti’s reading of Bruckner’s 9th.
The last time I heard Brahms‘ Requiem live was also with Herbert Blomstedt in the Musikverein with the Singverein… but a different orchestra. Then (2014) it was the Symphoniker (Vienna’s second-best orchestra, still maybe top ten in the world these days), the night before I moved to Salzburg. Tonight it was the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig (top five, on a par with the Philadelphia Orchestra) in town for a visit. This is the same orchestra which gave the first complete performance of this work back in 1869 (no, Blomstedt was not conducting that night… although it almost feels like he should have been).
I remember that 2014 concert clearly, and although I had not planned to be in Vienna tonight, some workmen at home combined with a public holiday yesterday brought me here and a ticket (in my usual seat, no less) opened up for an otherwise sold out performance and beckoned me back.
The Gewandhaus Orchestra is somewhat more dainty than the Vienna Symphony, and Blomstedt was its music director from 1998-2005, making him quite familiar with its strengths. As a result, tonight’s concert was probably a little less driven than I remember the 2014 interpretation – possibly not as memorable. But Blomstedt milked the bittersweet tones from the woodwinds (it’s called a “requiem,” after all – although not a traditional one – yet it has a certain sweetness in the sorrow). The orchestra and chorus sounded delicate but still full – it’s a big piece, but cannot become overbearing. Restrained but at times exhuberant – indeed it looked like the measured Blomstedt almost started dancing at points – but at other points the tragedy nearly brought the house down.
We opened with the low strings, which quietly got the Musikverein’s floorboards vibrating, opening to an otherworldly choir. The tympani highlighted the swells, particularly in the second movement, to pure devastation. And the at times Blomstedt’s construction, and the implementation by orchestra and chorus, produced the foreboding effect of tolling bells.
Blomstedt stood to conduct (in contrast with this summer at the Festival, when he conducted sitting), but still moves a little more slowly than last year. He’s 90 years old: the twinkle in his eye does it all. The Gewandhaus Orchestra also has a throwback tone to another era (founded in 1781, this was Mendelssohn’s orchestra in the mid 1800s and one which guards its traditions well). Blomstedt knows that, and knew when to make this unusual work by Brahms sometimes more classical in nuance (if romantic in construction) playing on the orchestra’s strengths.
The Singverein blended perfectly with the Orchestra, as did baritone soloist Michael Nagy. The soprano, Hannah Morrison, seems not to have gotten the memo, however. Her voice is quite pretty at the lower volumes, but when she had to add more heft it became a tad bitter and forced. She seems to be a baroque specialist, and this work may just have been too much for her.
Dvořák, Strauss, Stravinsky
The Vienna Philharmonic added some seats on stage for this afternoon’s concert, and even sitting amidst the percussion (albeit thankfully not next to a gong, as I once found myself a few years ago) it is hard to resist hearing this orchestra in the Musikverein with Mariss Jansons on the podium… indeed, getting to watch him from the orchestra’s perspective (when he was not blocked out by a music stand or a percussionist).
On the program was a strange mix of works I did not necessarily understand why they went together: Dvořák‘s Eighth Symphony, Richard Strauss‘ Death and Transfiguration, and the suite from Stravinsky‘s ballet The Firebird. As Jansons explained in a talk in Salzburg last summer, sometimes parts of the same concert don’t have to go together, but even by that standard this combination was odd. Perhaps the one linkage here was some truly fine playing.
The Dvořák symphony came out dancing, full as it is with Czech folk dances. Jansons maintained a certain tension, which just gave the exuberant bits all the more sway. This may have anticipated a ballet suite later in the concert, but folk dances and ballet are still two different genres, so maybe not.
If the Strauss tone poem after intermission danced, it was with death. This set an altogether different mood, and at one point close to the end the orchestra sent a cold chill through the room. Somehow, through force of music, we all emerged on the other side, shivering in our seats but transfigured.
Jansons took a much more humorous approach with Stravinsky’s Firebird suite. This is fun music, with a lot happening despite a somewhat reduced orchestra. A twinkle in Jansons’ eyes made sure the orchestra kept the music upbeat (they not only smiled back at Jansons, but smirked knowingly at each other – particularly the bemused percussionists around me), until the lullaby section, which grew somewhat dark before a triumphant finale. Shades of Death and Transfiguration earlier in the concert? Or just masterful playing?
This orchestra reigns. It’s not always technically the best, but it has a feel for music like no other orchestra. And Jansons on the podium brings out some of its finest moments. Although the balance was a bit off from my seat in the percussion, I could feel the magic in the Musikverein’s Golden Hall. The audience felt it too, with thundering applause and a rare standing ovation (we are spoiled by this orchestra, so it doesn’t happen often). The applause did not stop even after the orchestra finally left the stage, and Jansons had to return for not one but two individual curtain calls. I cannot remember that happening before.
When the post of Kapellmeister opened unexpectedly in Leipzig last year, the Gewandhaus Orchestra moved quickly to secure Andrís Nelsons, one of the most dynamic conductors of the next generation (he turns 40 next year). Nelsons, who had only shortly before taken up his post as music director in Boston, where he has the unenviable task of rebuilding the Boston Symphony Orchestra from its long years of slow decay, would have been silly not to take on this new opportunity, even if it will leave him a bit overstretched.
Nelsons and the Gewandhaus Orchestra came to Vienna for the first time since the new appointment was announced, and clearly they were meant for each other (Nelsons’ wife, Kristīne Opolais, shouldn’t be jealous; she was tonight’s soloist).
The Orchestra has a warm and creamy sound, but which is never muddled. Instead, it displays a bright passion and nuance, which directly responds to Nelsons’ own demonstrative conducting technique. He has become somehow even more expressive as he gets older, contorting his body as he used to, but honing his method of drawing concepts and hidden thoughts out of the instruments (he’s also grown a beard, possibly to compensate for his rapidly receding hairline – he’s now gone half-bald).
Tonight’s concert showcased the music of Antonín Dvořák (with one brief selection by Bedřich Smetana), in particular the Ninth Symphony (“From the New World”). This is a popular symphony for a reason – the music is fantastic and varied – but over-performed to the point that it has become generally trite. Nelsons and the Leipzigers made it special. They captured the excitement of the new, as it indeed was in 1893, even in the quiet passages which they played with delicacy but confidence. This performance never dragged, indeed some fascinating aspects lurked around every corner and Nelsons and his team found and uncovered all of them (I’ll forgive one wayward blatt in the horns towards the end), one pleasant surprise after another when there really shouldn’t be any more suprises in this symphony.
The other orchestral selections (the concert overture Othello, the Polonaise from the opera Rusalka, and as an encore a Slavonic Dance) demonstrated the same overwhelming passion and swing. But when the moments arose for quiet solos, the orchestra dropped its volume without sacrificing its stride, to give just the right amount of support and ambience to the soloist. This was therefore most helpful during the soprano vocals by Opolais, who sang two excerpts from Rusalka, another Dvořák song, and a selection from Smetana’s opera Dalibor. Her voice also proved the right match for this orchestra: strong, confident, and warm into the night.
Sommer, Mahler, Rachmaninov, Schubert, Bartók
Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra came to Vienna’s Musikverein for a two-night set, for which I was fortunate to be home for the first night, which contained an ecclectic mix.
If I had to describe this orchestra with one adjective, it would be “complete.” No individual instrument stood out, but together they produced the most perfectly balanced sound. There were no gaps, no flaws, no twists they could not make together. Jansons has been at its helm since 2003, so this represents a tribute to him as well.
The concert led off with a concert overture to Antigone by a forgotten 20th-Century Czech composer Vladimír Sommer, someone I had never heard of before. He had a limited output, and this work showed a routine post-romantic style. It provided enough excitement to launch a drama, but was only a concert overture, not a setting of the entire Sophocles work for theater, and therefore seemed to be missing something (although also not clear from this snippet if Sommer could have pulled off writing an entire drama).
For more drama, alto Gerhild Romberger joined the orchestra for Mahler‘s Kindertotenlieder. Jansons and the orchestra drove this work, too, but Romberger did provide a warm, full-bodied, expressive, solo voice, at least in the middle register. Her moving reading melted the texts, demonstrating sadness and evoking sympathy. She did however lack the strength in the brief moments Mahler took her to the upper register, and she simply did not have the dramatic voice required for the final song (“In diesem Wetter”), which stays mostly at the bottom of the range. Jansons restrained the orchestra in the final song so as not to overwhelm her, but it was an unfortunate conclusion to an otherwise heartful cycle.
After the intermission, the orchestra’s “complete” sound could come into its own with Rachmaninov‘s Symphonic Dances, the composer’s final orchestral work. It’s a strange combination – apparently Rachmaninov conceived it as something which could be converted into a ballet, but a project the composer subsequently abandoned during composition, so while going through an assortment of dance forms, it is not really a set of dances but a more of a three-movement symphony with a lot of moving parts. The orchestra navigated around and through these motions masterfully, making this difficult work fully accessible to the listener. The audience erupted in pleasure (prompting not just one but two encores: the more sedate Moment Musical by Schubert and the crazier excerpt from The Miraculous Mandarin by Bartók).
Precious few orchestras manage to staff themselves fully with players in every section who simultaneously exhibit individual virtuosity and blend into an orchestral whole. It is this which makes the Philadelphia Orchestra in its current incarnation rank high above all others in North America. But the Philadelphia has had its ups and downs over the years (including downs in very recent memory). The elite among the elite manage to maintain this level of excellence year-in-year-out, indeed decade-in-decade-out. Possibly only two orchestras on the planet meet this exalted standard: the Wiener Philharmoniker, which makes its home in the Musikverein, and the Concertgebouworkest Amsterdam, which visited the Musikverein this morning.
They arrived with a guest conductor: Semyon Bychkov, a wise choice (they recently appointed the uninspiring Daniele Gatti as their music director – I suppose Gatti must rehearse well, but from my experience orchestras simply ignore him during concerts where he stays out of the way while the orchestra in front of him makes the music; but Gatti’s appointment marks a big drop off from their outgoing chief Mariss Jansons). Where the orchestra provided Bychkov with a palette of the most vibrant colors, it still required a painter to know how to blend those colors to create a masterwork. Bychkov knew what to do, making broad brush strokes where necessary but also showing attention to fine details. Controlled on one hand, Bychkov was passionate on the other. He is a conductor who continues to grow in stature every time I hear his concerts.
This morning’s concert led off with Mozart’s Piano Concerto #22, with Emanuel Ax at the keyboard. The interpretation put paid to the idiotic original instruments movement: here we had a full-sized orchestra with proper instruments, and Ax sitting at a piano (which had actually also not been invented yet when Mozart wrote this – the German title should really be translated as “Keyboard Concerto #22”). One wonders if this sound is not what Mozart really had inside his head when he wrote it, but the poorly-tuned instruments and insufficient resources of his era meant that he wrote not for his own inadequate time but for the future when it would finally become possible to perform the music properly. Just because music may have been performed badly at the time composers wrote is no justification (other than curiosity) to perform the music badly today. Ax, Bychkov, and the orchestra made a convincing case for Mozart as he might have been, in full sound but never overbearing. The details were all there, right down to Wolfgang Amadé’s sarcastic smile.
This was the second time I have heard Ax perform this work this year – he did it at the Salzburg Festival in August with the Vienna Philharmonic under Jansons, also for a morning concert. It’s a perfect piece to start off a morning – not too heavy. This morning’s performance was the more substatial of the two readings, without becoming too heavy, and set out the stronger case for this concerto.
After the intermission came Mahler’s Symphony #5 in all of its glory. This is actually the second time I have heard Bychkov conduct this symphony in 2016 – the last was in May with the orchestra of the Vienna conservatory. While the previous performance was good, this time with the Concertgebouw Orchestra Bychkov could take the piece to another level. He slowed down the first movement somewhat, even bringing the quieter sections down a notch, to produce an extra layer of foreboding as Mahler grappled with fate. This touch also allowed him to emphasize many of the musicians in the orchestra and their intricate lines – but, as I said above, their individual virtuosity was apparent for all to hear but never strayed from creating a whole sound. On the podium, Bychkov could build on this, moving up to the anticipated triumph of the truncated chorale at the end of the second movement (which later resolved in complete triumph with the full chorale at the end of the fifth movement). The dance melodies danced – in the forefront where appropriate and behind the scenes where suggestive, the scherzo hopped, and the juxtaposition of the adagio with the final movement (performed correctly without break) accentuated the victory.
Bright sunlight shone through the upper windows of the Musikverein (rarely happens as it requires a morning concert, a sunny day, and the right angle) and illuminated the Golden Hall in all of its glory, a perfect complement to the musicianship on the stage. Someone up there was smiling too.
My second unplanned concert of the weekend, for which when realizing I would be in Vienna this weekend I managed to score late-returned tickets for an otherwise sold out performance of Verdi’s Requiem in the Musikverein this afternoon.
Albeit a setting of a mass, Verdi’s is a theatrical work, with operatic drama, and the forces assembled on stage certainly understood Verdi’s intent. Conductor Philippe Jordan deftly crafted all aspects of the performance. I’d say he practically staged the work, except that the fire and brimstone may have consumed the Musikverein, and the gentler plaintive moments may have caused the remnants to melt, and we need this hall intact.
The Wiener Symphoniker, of which Jordan is the chief conductor, shone, with bright and open tones. Behind them, the Singverein, filled the hall with strident sound. Enunciating each syllable with clear diction, they got the message across.
To match such a performance would require four expressive and large-voiced dramatic soloists, and that is indeed the line-up they achieved this afternoon, with Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova, Russian alto Elena Zhidkova, Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja, and Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto. Never outgunned by the orchestra and chorus, they projected clearly with bold – yet still sympathetic – voices which also blended well with each other (also not an easy feat).
I had not planned on any concerts until the Salzburg Festival this Summer, an unusual gap of two months. So I suppose I was bound to fill it when a ticket opened up in the packed Musikverein this evening for a concert of the Vienna Conservatory’s Webern Symphony Orchestra under Semyon Bychkov. I can now testify that the future of Mozart and Mahler in the Musikverein sounds secure.
Pairing Mozart’s Piano Concerto #20 and Mahler’s Symphony #5 on the program had a certain logic. Both start in minor, somewhat foreboding, but end in a triumphant major. Without resorting to stereotype for such arrangements, Bychkov still drew out the transformation – these are not just fate-conquering works, but a positive trip through a troubled world. Bychkov restrained the orchestra for much of the darker moments, yet always pushed forward, never dragging. This allowed the youthful orchestra to demonstrate its exuberance during the brighter passages. A lot of happiness shone through here.
At the keyboard for the Mozart sat Jasminka Stančul, whose hands almost hovered above the keys and simply coaxed the music effortlessly out of the piano. She and the orchestra spoke the same language and their instrumental voices blended beautifully.
A few things converged to bring me to the Musikverein this afternoon: I realized I had not been to a concert there this winter; it has been a longer while since I last heard the Tonkünstler Orchestra, a pleasant provincial orchestra from Lower Austria that I came to enjoy when visiting Vienna from Kosovo back in the day; and trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger reliably introduces audiences to new repertory with flawless technique.
Today’s program opened with a spirited Leonore Overture Nr. 3 by Beethoven. Conductor John Storgårds coaxed dramatic playing all around, particularly from the flutes. The fondness for Beethoven continued in the concert’s finale, with the under-performed gem of his Eighth Symphony. The Beethoven 8 is his smallest and shortest symphony, and often overlooked, but although it took a more classical form at first look, a deeper examination such as today’s brought out the nuances Beethoven had developed as he revolutionized music. The performance on the whole was nothing special, but the sound was balanced and the playing fine, to get the message out.
On the other hand, Australian composer Brett Dean’s Dramatis Personae trumpet concerto, which he wrote on commission for this orchestra and soloist, came across contrived. Hardenberger is excellent, and if Dean wanted someone to interpret his work he could not have done better. But the only way to understand this piece was to read the program notes, and even then its meaning was unclear. The music either needs to be able to speak for itself (especially in able hands), or the program must tell a story that allows the listener to follow along. In this case, the whole composition failed.
Dean’s music was not unpleasant, just unintelligible even with the program. Dean said he chose to write a trumpet concerto inspired by Beethoven’s Leonore fanfare – the trumpet having something to announce. But it remains unclear what he was announcing. After some odd percussive opening, the first recognizable music in the first movement was reminiscent of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony gone awry. After moving through several adventures and misadventures, the trumpet hero ended up in the urban landscape of Charles Ives. But Ives needed no program. This is probably not a piece I need to hear again in the hopes of understanding it better, but hearing Hardenberger attempt these works is always a pleasure.
A Sunday matinee in the Musikverein with amateur ensembles: first the Vienna Academic Wind Orchestra performing music by American composer David Maslanka, and then the Musikverein’s house orchestra – the Orchestral Society of the Association of the Friends of Music in Vienna – with Schostakowitsch’s 5th Symphony.
This was the first performance ever of a work by Maslanka in the Musikverein: today, his Symphony #8 for winds and percussion, composed in 2008. The program notes indicated he wanted to show a positive outlook despite all the problems in the world, to give hope that mankind will go on. The three-movement symphony opened with evocative and pensive music, which to me was evocative of or even derivative from the opera Lela by 20th-Century Georgian composer Revaz Laghidze. Did Maslanka know this opera? Did he hope American listeners would not know it? As the movement went on, I caught glimpses of Rachmaninov’s Three Russian Songs for chorus and orchestra. Since I do know these works, I felt rather disconcerted. The second movement was a fantasy based on the hymn “Jesu meine Freude,” representing prayer to overcome the difficulties. The final movement took the themes from the first movement but spun them positively and ultimately triumphantly. On the whole, the symphony was pleasant, and the musicians played well under the direction of conductor Andreas Simbeni. But perhaps I missed the drama in the words (here without chorus) of Rachmaninov and Laghidze; or perhaps the scoring for a wind ensemble was on its own a tad overbearing.
After the intermission came Schostakowitsch. I have heard this symphony already twice before this year, with the version by the St. Petersburg Philharmonic under Yuri Temirkanov in the Musikverein being a special highlight. So it would be unfair to make a direct comparison. That said, under the baton of Robert Zelzer, the orchestra this morning held its own. They understood the meaning of the work, although perhaps not bringing out the extreme emotions the Petersburgers did. Still, the playing remained idiomatic and well-formed, particularly in the first movement, which Zelzer took at a slightly slower pace than usual. Indeed, the orchestra sounded good for today (indeed more proficient than the professional orchestra from Berlin – the Konzerthausorchester – which I heard perform this work in in Salzburg in February).
A visit to the Musikverein’s Golden Hall by Mariss Jansons to lead the Vienna Philharmonic is always worth flagging in the calendar, no matter what they put on the program. Tonight proved no exception, with Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Schostakowitsch’s 10th Symphony.
I last heard this peculiar Stravinsky work five seasons ago, with the at the time newly-bankrupt and demoralized Philadelphia Orchestra under the perennially bankrupt-of-ideas Charles Dutoit. They completely flummoxed me with what seemed an ugly and pointless work. Nevertheless, I thought something must be hiding in there, and so I’ve waited eagerly for the opportunity to hear the work again. Lo and behold, when put into the competent hands of Jansons, it all made sense tonight.
Stravinsky re-thought the psalms, updating old church chants for the twentieth century with a highly original orchestration. There are many ways to praise the Lord. The Lord has probably heard them all before, so I suppose Stravinsky decided he required something new and inspired to get attention. Jansons got the pacing right, the broad and mystical mixed with the impulsive and driven. The Philharmoniker – or at least the strange combination of instrumentalists called for by Stravinsky – brought out the bold accents and bright colors, wherever required, to support the Singverein’s vocals. Would that the Lord be pleased! The audience certainly was, with a thumping ovation.
After the intermission came Schostakowitsch. If Stravinsky from his exile could praise the Lord with a new song, Schostakowitsch was left behind in Russia, lingering in a godless empire. The first movement portrayed a landscape so devastating that the Siberian gulags would have paled in comparison. Death, heartbreak, destruction, and all of the misery of the Soviet regime was on display. As the symphony progressed across the musical tundra, the regime and its minions shot down anyone who dared hope. The workers went about their roles as automatons in their wonderful dictatorship of the proletariat. But through it all came a glimmer of light – in the snarky form of the composer’s musical signature: D-S-C-H, D-S-C-H, D-S-C-H – haltingly at first and ultimately triumphantly. Jansons let us hear the message clearly, and the orchestra responded. Indeed, at times it felt like echoes from last night’s concert (Mahler 7) had hung in the hall, with some intimate solo parts and exposed ensemble playing, shining some light in the darkness. Oh so much darkness.
Mozart, Papandopulo, D. Scarlatti, Mahler
Ádám Fischer and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra gave us a concert of two distinct halves in the Musikverein this evening – same orchestra, same conductor, and same hall, but the similarities ended there. The first half featured Mozart, who thought life was worth living; whereas in the second half came Mahler, who wished life were worth living.
Serbian pianist Jasminka Stančul joined in for Mozart’s Piano Concerto #23, bringing great warmth from her keyboard, while Fischer and the Symphoniker melted the room. The second movement practically sang – I eagerly waited for Don Ottavio to climb out from under the soundboard and start his serenade. The final movement displayed Mozart at his most exuberant and irrepressible.
Stančul used the momentum to provide two encores: the first, a distinctly modern firework by Boris Papandopulo (Studia 1), showed that her fingers could be everywhere at once; the second a sonata by Domenico Scarlatti on steroids (although her fingers did not always quite keep up for that one).
But if Mozart were so happy, despite impending doom, then Mahler’s Seventh Symphony put an end to that after the intermission. Fischer’s interpretation was ice cold. While the brass played the opening movement’s funeral marches with deep melancholy, the woodwinds bit, the strings ripped at the open flesh, and the percussion pounded. Fischer took the middle three movements almost as chamber works, despite having a full Mahler-sized orchestra on the stage, carefully crafting the delicate lines, moving from one instrument group to another, with thin blades and cautious steps across the ice. The Symphoniker’s musicians responded with gorgeously idiomatic playing. For the final movement, Fischer combined the two concepts, the brass chorales alternating with restrained but somber chamber constructs. This was a new interpretation of this work – take a big work and rein it in to find its inner meaning and desolation. Although it was an intelligent attempt, and wonderfully performed, to be entirely honest I am not sure Fischer’s interpretation convinced me.
The world’s best orchestra. The leading conductor of his generation. A concert hall with some of the best acoustics anywhere. And Mahler’s Third Symphony.
I unfortunately had to skip an unusual chamber concert last weekend that I had been looking forward to. I made it up to myself by snagging a late-returned ticket for the sold-out subscription concert of the Vienna Philharmonic under Mariss Jansons in the Musikverein, always an event. No one left the hall disappointed.
Jansons took the first movement somewhat more slowly than normal, but he gave it tension and suspense throughout: even though we knew how this would end, the audience hung on every note. Jansons and the Philharmoniker know every nuance of this hall, and used them, letting the sounds waft gently. Mahler’s description of nature showed that this is a solid but fragile planet. The birds chirp, the lake shimmers, the mountains soar, but it is all quite intricate as Mahler observed it from his summer hut. The concertmaster gave sweet solo lines, mingling with the winds. The brass provided majesty and the percussion a driving force.
The orchestral sound got complex, but never became too big. By the fourth movement, Argentinian mezzo Bernarda Fink gave a bold reading of Nietzsche, while the orchestra continued to simmer underneath, before the chorus of Vienna Choir Boys and the women of the Singverein joined her to ring in the fifth movement. Never overbearing, these voices uttered their words distinctly, but the meaning came almost understated in the music. Listen closely and hear the world.
For the opening of the Finale, despite the huge orchestral forces arrayed on stage, Jansons made them sound almost as a chamber orchestra. The two choirs remained standing for several minutes into this non-choral movement, to observe the world bloom. Gradually the orchestra filled the hall with increasing sound. The choirs sat down. The music stood up. And when it finished, the audience provided an additional ten minutes of applause.
The most excellent Andrís Nelsons uncovered the Holy Grail in the Musikverein’s Golden Hall this evening, as he brought the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra to Vienna on his farewell tour with that orchestra before moving full-time to Boston. On the program, the Prelude to Act I and the entire Act III of Wagner’s Parsifal.
Nelsons did not disappoint, providing a dramatic reading for the unstaged concert performance. On one hand, he had to make up for the lack of staging by accentuating the playing – on the other hand, the opera is low-action and the music provides the drama anyway, so he did not resort to gimmicks, just clear emphases to indicate that he understood well the operatic scenes he conducted.
For soloists, he was especially blessed with German baritone Georg Zeppenfeld portraying Gurnemanz. Zeppenfeld had a big, round voice, warmly portraying the holy monk-knight, a sympathetic character for Parsifal to meet as he wandered back into the Grail Kingdom. Unfortunately, the German tenor Klaus Florian Vogt who sang Parsifal, did not make it up to snuff. He spent the first scene trying to sing on key – never quite figuring it out. By the second scene, he had finally come into tune with the orchestra, but he nevertheless will never be confused with a Heldentenor. It’s not that he had a small voice, but – to be blunt – he sounded like a wimp. No bold sounds emerged from his mouth. No drama either (unless you count the anxiety of waiting to hear if he would ever sing on key). As Amfortas, British baritone James Rutherford fell somewhere in the middle. At least he was on key and his voice projected through the hall, but he also lacked the dramatic narrative that Nelsons and the Birminghamers (and Zeppenfeld) had pushed.
The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra will miss Nelsons. I’m not aware that they have managed to name a successor to Nelsons and the program identified no one. But they sound mostly in order, with the ragged edges likely not from a lack of good leadership from the podium but rather just that this is, after all, only a provincial orchestra. The strings somehow managed to sound nasal.