Vienna Philharmonic, Musikverein

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 StraussDeath 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.

Leipzig Gewandhausorchester, Musikverein (Vienna)

Dvořák, Smetana

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.

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein (Vienna)

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).

Concertgebouw Orchestra, Musikverein (Vienna)

Mozart, Mahler

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.

Vienna Philharmonic, Musikverein

Schubert, Cherubini

Another Sunday, another Requiem in the Musikverein.  This week’s offering was from Luigi Cherubini, his 1816 Requiem in c, a work much admired in the nineteenth century and later falling out of favor.  It’s not earth-shattering, as Berlioz or Verdi later provided, but it did help establish the genre and many great composers (starting with Beethoven) took inspiration from it and considered it better than Mozart’s, the work usually considered to have created the concept of a concert requiem.  Indeed, as Beethoven never wrote a requiem, it was Cherubini’s which was performed on Beethoven’s death.

The interpretation this morning came from Riccardo Muti leading the Vienna Philharmonic and the Singverein, a wonderful combination that filled the Musikverein with lush sound.  The performance lasted close to an hour – much longer than normal – but never dragged.

Perhaps Muti meant the slow pacing (albeit hardly noticed) for the Cherubini to balance out the fast pacing he chose for Franz Schubert‘s Fourth Symphony (“The Tragic”) before the intermission.  Although taking it at a fast clip, Muti did not sacrifice the sweeping tunes and thick scoring, and the Philharmoniker felt right at home (well, actually this is their home).  This is how to hear Schubert.  Schubert composed this symphony in 1816, the same year Cherubini wrote the Requiem.  The styles, though different, complemented each other well, influencing musical development and for the years ahead.

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Verdi, Requiem

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).

Webern Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Mozart, Mahler

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.

Tonkünstler Orchestra, Musikverein

Beethoven, Dean

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.

Orchestral Society of the Association of the Friends of Music in Vienna, Musikverein

Maslanka, Schostakowitsch

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).

Wiener Philharmoniker, Musikverein

Stravinsky, Schostakowitsch

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.

Wiener Symphoniker, Musikverein

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.

Vienna Philharmonic, Musikverein

Mahler

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.

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein (Vienna)

Wagner

 

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’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.

St. Petersburg Philharmonic, Musikverein (Vienna)

Sibelius, Paganini, Schostakowitsch, Elgar

I returned to the Golden Hall of the Musikverein for another visiting orchestra, this time the best one from Russia: the St. Petersburg Philharmonic under the baton of its music director Yuri Temirkanov. It did not disappoint. In contrast to the Berliners on Sunday, the St. Petersburgers played with a passion, if not always the precision. But they still managed even better clarity than the Berliners in the wonderful Golden Hall (could this be perhaps that their own hall in St. Petersburg is better than the Phiharmonie in Berlin, which is supposedly cavernous? I guess I will find out when I hear the Berliners in their home later this month).

German violinist Julia Fischer joined the orchestra for the Sibelius violin concerto. The simmering strings at the work’s introduction cooled off the hall on an unseasonably humid night, and then Fischer waded into the icy waters. She entered with caution at first, but her sound grew with the development of the piece, and a full robust tone rose from the deepest notes in her register. The performance had just the right amount of melancholy, drawing its power from its lyrics. The orchestral accompaniment grumbled menacingly during the final movement.

To add some excitement, Fischer returned with an encore: Paganini’s Capriccio #24, which though seldom performed itself is well-known as the subject for Rachmaninov’s famous rhapsody. On the violin it requires more dexterity than on Rachmaninov’s keyboard, and jumps around in its styles including an impossible (but possible for Fischer) pizzicato.

After the intermission, Temirkanov led the orchestra in a soul-crushing interpretation of Schostakowitsch’s Fifth Symphony, probably close to how the composer heard the work inside his own head. Schostakowitsch is on record as saying that Yevgeny Mravinsky, who premiered this work with this same orchestra, was not smart enough to understand it, and Mravinsky’s interpretation came across as triumphant when Schostakowitsch meant it to be tragic. Of course, had he performed it in 1937 the way Temirkanov did tonight, then possibly the composer, conductor, and entire orchestra would have been carted off for execution – and this is exactly why it was so tragic. However, the work was designed to be mock-triumphant, which is what produces its inherent tensions. Tonight, Temirkanov took the whole work at slower-than-normal tempi, with no mock triumph in sight – but this also deprived the work of the little message of hope Schostakowitsch embedded in it – that the soul could somehow survive the oppressive regime. The accentuated timpani blows carried out the execution of that hope tonight, leaving little doubt that there is no room for resistance.

Roaring applause called for an encore. And they delivered a lush version of “Nimrod” from Elgar’Enigma Variations. However it now seems like I hear an orchestra use this excerpt as an encore almost every month. Wonderful piece, but why has it suddenly become the encore everyone plays?

This orchestra and conductor have, as far as I am aware, stayed out of Russian and geo-politics, in contrast the the opera orchestra and conductor (and one-time Temirkanov protege) on the other side of their city. Schostakowitsch may be inherently political, a voice for justice from within an evil empire, but Temirkanov and his orchestra should be commended for making music as it was meant to be.

Berlin Philharmonic, Musikverein (Vienna)

Janáček, Bruckner

Somehow I had never seen Simon Rattle nor heard the Berlin Philharmonic live until they visited the Musikverein tonight. They were very good, but not as good as anticipated, which made for a disappointing first listen.

The concert opened with Leoš Janáček’Sinfonietta – or a muddle pretending to be that work. The trumpet choir on the Musikverein organ balcony behind the orchestra looked lost and unprepared. Perhaps they have practiced in a semi-circle and not a line where they cannot see each other (although they had an unobstructed view of Rattle). I can be sympathetic if this is the case, as it happened to me in a brass quartet during my senior year at Exeter, but I would hope there is a big difference in preparation time and quality between an amateur high school brass quartet and the Berlin Philharmonic. The rest of the orchestra tried to recover somewhat, but this is a difficult syncopated piece, and they never quite sounded like they got it together. As the Sinfonietta raced to its finale, the musicians held on for dear life, hoping to get all of the notes out at some point, no matter if at the right point.

After the intermission, the orchestra regrouped for Bruckner’s 7th Symphony. This one they got together for, and produced very fine sounds. But Bruckner is meant to be emotion-shattering, allowing a glimpse of heaven – whereas tonight’s performance, though technically flawless, provided no such thing. Where the first movement should wash the audience in great waves of sound, this performance just had sound, fluctuating tensely. The funeral movement – composed when Bruckner learned of the death of Richard Wagner, whose musical advances freed him to conceive of another world of possibilities – should reduce the audience to the tears Bruckner had in his eyes when he wrote it, but tonight’s version showed no emotion. This was not the blockish interpretation of Bruckner standard from such Prussian oompahs as Christian Thielemann, rather indeed a fuller and better attempt, but nevertheless missing a soul.

The audience gave a loud applause, but I heard a lot of German accents in the crowd. The Austrians headed for the doors.

Czech Philharmonic, Musikverein (Vienna)

Martinů, Janáček

I checked in with the Czechs this morning at the Musikverein: the Czech Philharmonic under Jiří Bělohlávek performed works by Martinů and Janáček.

The Martinů pieces proved the most rewarding.  The concert opened with the somber Memorial for Lidice, a short work composed from exile in memory of a village by that name which was erased from the map and whose entire population was murdered by the Germans in 1942 as reprisal for the assassination by Czech patriots of Reinhard Heydrich, the German occupation government’s “Imperial Protector of Bohemia and Moravia.”  A fitting tribute.

Martinů’s Sixth Symphony followed, much more developed in the style of this composer.  His sophisticated, and extremely challenging, music rises from the chromatic chords and heads in all directions.  It could come across as rather disjointed if performed by lesser forces.  But Bělohlávek and the Czech Philharmonic understood the idiom, allowing the music to flow and soar, treating the ears to thrilling new methods of experiencing sound.  Martinů’s music is no secret to those who know, but the level of difficulty in making music out of modernity has perhaps limited his exposure.  Well-performed Martinů is always worth hearing.

After the intermission, the orchestra returned with the original manuscript version of Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass.  After the first performance, the composer had made changes, and it was the revised version that got published.  The revised version eliminated some of the overbearing percussion (which made the work less regligious in feel) and softened or tightened the orchestration elsewhere.  Now that I’ve heard the original manuscript version, I would tend to agree with the composer that the changes were necessary.  Though we had excellent performers this morning, the work did perhaps suffer from a lack of fluidity. The Vienna Singverein and four soloists (Hibla GerzmavaVeronika HajnováBrandon Jovanovich, and Jan Martiník) joined the orchestra enthusiastically.

Wiener Philharmoniker, Musikverein

Ligeti, J. Marx, Bruckner

Zubin Mehta returned to conduct the Philharmoniker in the Musikverein, the first time I have heard him in many years.  His concerts used to be hit-or-miss (often miss), but I had been advised on good authority that it is now safe to go hear him again.  He used to conduct using charisma alone – some days it provoked thrilling results, but mostly not.  He moves more slowly now, which may mean that he needs to take more care to think about the music and craft it.  It worked today.

The program took a an odd walk backwards in time, sliding off the abyss.  It included a hint of Asian polyphony where I did not expect it.

However, before we got to the music, the concert started inauspiciously with György Ligeti’s “Atmospheres” for large Orchestra, which sounded a bit like a ride on a on old tram whose wheels have not been oiled in several years.  The creeking and squeaking gave everyone in the hall a headache.  When it ended, the orchestra got the amount of applause it deserved: just enough to acknowledge that they had managed to play the piece.  It wasn’t worth the effort to boo – Ligeti himself is dead.  It may have been the shortest applause I have ever observed after a piece in the Musikverein – probably about 10-15 seconds of soft clapping, and then everyone wanted to forget our tormented ears and move on to the music.

Alt-Wiener Serenaden by Joseph Marx followed, and succeeded in erasing the Ligeti from the audience’s memory.  Joseph Marx was an Austrian paedagogue, music critic, and sometime composer who lost his positions and influence during the Nazi years because he strongly believed in an Austrian identity.  In 1942, the Vienna Philharmonic held a festival for its 100th anniversary (with the Philharmoniker joined by the leading Italian, Hungarian, and Dutch but out of principle no Reichsdeutsche orchestras), and Marx wrote these four pieces for that event to memorialize an Austria that had been erased from the map.  He reworked the old Viennese themes, using more modern techniques developed in Vienna in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  This approach updated otherwise backwards-looking music.  Quite oddly, several of the themes resembled music from Paliashvili’s opera Abesalom da Eteri, in which the Georgian master had taken a similar approach to updating traditional Georgian music with classical techniques.  It is hard to believe that Joseph Marx would have been familiar with Paliashvili’s 1919 opera, although Marx was an admirer of Scriabin, who had studied composition with Sergei Taneyev at the Moscow Conservatory as had Paliashvili.  Could there have been a connection?

Anton Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony graced the second half of the program.  Mehta gave a deliberate and measured reading, and the Philharmoniker, responded in full sound and aetherial grace.  If Marx looked back on old-fashioned Austrian music through intermediate developments, Bruckner – composing fifty years before Marx – looked into the future.  These two works complemented each other, crossing space and time in an Austrian context, never quite meeting halfway but twisting their perspectives.

Bruckner stretched tonality to its furthest extent in this Symphony.  And while he died before finishing it, the sketches for the never-written fourth movement apparently indicate he would develop this concept even further, leading music off the end of the world.  His letters to friends indicate that it was perhaps more than could be asked of a simple Austrian church organist.  Bruckner had looked into the future and had seen the Apocolypse, and did not survive to write it down.  Taneyev’s own music came to my mind in Mehta’s reading – particularly Taneyev’s cantata (opus 1) John of Damascus, whose words welcomed oncoming death (yes, Taneyev was brooding already in opus 1).  I have previously sensed an affinity between Taneyev’s and Bruckner’s choral church music, but this was the first time I had noticed the similarities in mood between Bruckner’s final work and Taneyev’s first opus.  Was it me, or was Mehta subconsciously making this point?

Mehta let the last notes waft into the evening.  Absolute silence reigned in the Golden Hall.  Eventually, Mehta lowered his arms.  Even then, the audience still waited to applaud.  The silence at the end of this symphony was longer than the applause at the end of the Ligeti.

Wiener Philharmoniker, Musikverein

Haydn, Elgar, Richard Strauss

It may seem impossible to describe the Alps to those who cannot see.  Indeed, at a performance of Richard Strauss’ Alpensymphonie earlier this year, the Stuttgart Philharmonic saw the need to accompany a photographic show on a big screen behind the orchestra.  Today, the Vienna Philharmonic performed the same work without photographs (and from my last-minute seat on the balcony behind the Musikverein organ, I could not even see the orchestra) and none were necessary.  This afternoon’s performance demonstrated how the Alps sound, emerging from the night fogs to rise dramatically over the clouds and, after meadows and glaciers and waterfalls and a huge storm, settling back into the night.  Andrís Nelsons, the young Latvian star who recently took over the Boston Symphony Orchestra, triumphantly led the Philharmonic with sensible pacing and nuance.

The concert opened with Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony (known to the German-speaking world not as “Surprise” but as the “Symphony with the Timpani Strike”).  There are various stories as to why Haydn wrote this odd work, many involving a need to keep a London audience awake.  But whatever the reason for the pounding of the timpani, the symphony is full of humor and wit.  Haydn is the father of the modern symphony, and this piece has all the architecture that later composers built on, without being formulaic – a thinking-man’s symphony.  Nelsons and the Philharmoniker clearly know how to think, and performed the symphony with a level of whimsy throughout, mixed with a fullness of sound which would not have always been available to Haydn in his day.

The middle work did not succeed.  Elgar’s Romance for Bassoon and Orchestra was an odd piece.  It never seemed to come together tonight, as though the bassoonist and orchestra used different scores.  The soloist and orchestra should know each other well: Michael Werba is the Philharmonic’s first bassoonist.  Someone who could see Nelsons’ face told me he looked quizzical on the podium.  Since I could not see any of the performers, I had no visual clues.  Suddenly it ended (which I could only know becuase the audience started to applaud – albeit a lukewarm applause).