Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Prokofiev, Schostakowitsch

Another Sunday morning concert with the Vienna Philharmonic in Salzburg’s Great Festival House, in which the work I specifically wanted to hear got overshadowed by the one I did not know and was initially less interested in.

The surprise for me came in the first half of the concert, with Prokofiev‘s Second Piano Concerto, which I did not believe I had ever heard before (I looked it up after the concert: indeed, I heard it in 2009 and seem to have been equally stunned).  Written to fulfill a graduation requirement from the conservatory, the precocious student Prokofiev decided to smash all conventions.  The result produced a whole lot of sound, often coming at odd angles, emerging from the piano but also bombarding the ears from across the stage.  There may have been no particular order to the madness – mostly Prokofiev showing off: “look what I can do!” – but this was no cacaphony.

Soloist Daniil Trifonov, a Russian Wunderkind himself still only 26, siezed the piano in his arms and practically hurled it around the stage.  OK, it stayed put, more or less, but he jumped around on the stool more than conductor Andris Nelsons on the podium.  His arms were blazing, and hands everywhere (does he only have two hands?), fingers pounding the keys.  It was all a blur.  But the music… perhaps the snarky young Prokofiev had been on to something, and Trifonov discovered it.

For his part, Nelsons made sure the orchestra provided the perfect context for Trifonov (maybe not as hard with this orchestra, but someone had to put it all together).

After the intermission, Schostakowitsch‘s monumental Seventh Symphony – the work I dearly wanted to hear – became somehow anti-climactic.  This is the one symphony that Schostakowtsch wrote knowing it was to be used for propaganda purposes.  There’s also a whole lot of sound here, and the orchestra got it all.  The subtext is harder to find than in other Schostakowitsch symphonies (according to propaganda, the “invasion” theme in the first movement depicts the German invasion of Russia in 1941; yet Schostakowitsch had actually written this portion nearly two years before, moved by the Russian invasion of Poland as the first phase for implementation of Russo-German alliance that opened the Second World War).  In truth, Schostakowitsch had seen firsthand the misery in Leningrad during the German siege and the bravery of the people to attempt to survive, and this required memorialization.  Yet when it would all be over, it would not be over: the Soviet regime of terror still reigned.

Nelsons, born in Latvia 39 years ago when it was still very much under Russian occupation, should understand that subtext, as hard as it may be to find.  I’m not sure we heard it this morning.  Nevertheless, the orchestral playing was spectacular.

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.

Boston Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Strauss, Schostakowitsch

If the Boston Symphony Orchestra may not have understood Mahler’s Sixth yesterday, they certainly understood Don Quijote by Richard Strauss today.  Strauss wrote the piece, but tonight Andris Nelsons was the story-teller on the podium.  The Orchestra responded wonderfully, with all of the nuances missing from last night’s Mahler.  Of course, it did not hurt that, portraying Don Quijote himself, Yo-Yo Ma on the cello made the title character sympathetic and tragic.  The poor knight meant well, but his delusions put him into increasingly untenable situations, until he died a broken man.  Ma started firmly, slowly succombing to fate, but keeping a positive outlook of the knight errant.  Cervantes himself barely told it better.

After the break, the orchestra returned for Schostakowitsch’s Tenth Symphony.  Once again, as for last night’s Mahler, this work was probably too big for where this orchestra is right now.  But it is easier to decipher than the Mahler, and the solo lines sounded more comfortable (excellent bassoon and contrabassoon, in particular).  If they follow Nelsons, they won’t get lost, and the story Nelsons told was one of the devastation wrought by Josef Stalin, and Schostakowitsch’s survival.  Stalin’s legacy marched out for all to see – Schostakowitsch portrayed in music the man Osip Mandelstam so vividly displayed in poetry, and that poetry echoed through the hall tonight (“every killing was a treat, for the broad-chested Ossete”).  Schostakowitsch outlived Stalin, in life and in the symphony, but the Soviet Union marched on.  Nelsons, born under Russian occupation, showed the way, if not to victory then just to survival (as his hero in last night’s Mahler Sixth also appears to have survived).

The BSO is wise to continue to follow Nelsons where he leads.  This is a conductor on a mission, with forceful readings and clear vision.

Boston Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mahler

I cannot remember the last time I heard the Boston Symphony Orchestra live, but it must have been while I was still at Harvard.  It stagnated for three decades under Seiji Ozawa and James Levine who succeeded Ozawa simply was not in good enough health to do anything about it but lingered for seven years before finally stepping down.  So the appointment of the dynamic young Latvian Andris Nelsons at the start of the last season marked a hopeful turn.  Nelsons has rightfully reached star status in his visits to Vienna, so can he achieve the same in Boston to restore this orchestra?

I must say the jury (I suppose I am the jury here) is still out, from an unrepresentative sample: Mahler’s Sixth Symphony in Salzburg’s Large Festival House tonight.  Historically, this orchestra has been the smallest of the US “Big Five” orchestras, and therefore excelled more at the smaller symphonic works.  This is a big work: how could a normally smaller orchestra handle it?  The orchestra pulled Mahlerian forces on stage for it, so the sound was big enough.  But it lacked warmth and fullness.  The playing was of a high quality, and quite together, but something was missing.  When solo instruments had exposed lines, they played them well, but a certain virtuosity lacked.  While symphony orchestras need to blend, the best ones blend individuals – thinking of how the principals of the Philadelphia Orchestra, for example, overwhelm the listener with their skill when presented the chance.  Not this orchestra tonight.

Nelsons took a slightly unusual interpretation of this symphony, treating it not as disaster befalling a hero, but rather as the hero trying with all his might to enjoy life despite impending doom.  So the music playfully danced, jumped, and soared, as destructive fate all the while loomed.  Mahler wrote this symphony with three devastating hammer blows in the final movement, and later decided that the third one was too depressing even for him.  So he suggested removing it.  Nelsons followed Mahler’s second-thought recommendation, and so we only got two hammer blows tonight.  The result of this was an almost optimistic conclusion by comparison.  Maybe the hero will survive despite the tragedy of the world.

The orchestra responded to Nelsons, and the quite good playing drew out his interpretation yet lacked something – they played as he directed them, but did they know what they were playing?  This is notoriously the most difficult of Mahler’s symphonies to understand (it took me years – I don’t think I really got it until about ten years ago).  Nelsons gets it; I am not sure the BSO does – yet.  Give them some more time with Nelsons.

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.

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).

Staatsoper

Tschaikowsky, Yevgeny Onyegin

Back to the Staatsoper for the third time in a week, this time for Tschaikowsky’s Yevgeny Onyegin, with a superb cast headlined by Dmitri Hvorostovsky in the title role and Anna Netrebko as Tatyana, and Andris Nelsons conducting.  From the way it sounded, this cast certainly knew its way around the parts, and all of the singers commanded their roles.

Nelsons kept the orchestra tense, as it should be for such a psychodrama.  His pacing, tone, and emphasis were all exemplary.  Hvorostovsky’s voice cut through the air, slightly bitter (although I have long admired his voice since I first saw a broadcast of the Cardiff competition in 1989, this was surprisingly the first time I have heard him live, and he sounds exactly as he does in his recordings).  Netrebko pulled off a stunning mezza voce in the letter scene, sung partly on her back, which wafted through the House with practically the same fullness as her normal singing voice.  She was certainly on top of her game tonight, although not as young-looking as she once was (happens to all of us).  The young and dashing Dmitry Korchak as Lensky had a wonderful tenor, most strident when he told Onyegin they were no longer friends and most melancholic when he reflected on his life in Act Two before Onyegin killed him.  Alisa Kolosova portrayed a full but tender Olga.

The problem came with the Regisseur, yet another useless German import, Falk Richter.  Why no director from (or trained in) Germany seems capable of producing intelligent stagings in the last half century continues to bewilder me.  This staging was, at least, not offensive and not shocking (making it a big improvement over most of the nonsense coming from German opera directors).  However, I could not understand the point. The program booklet contained a long interview with Richter, but even in that forum he proved unable to explain anything coherently.

I have seen this opera twice in Moscow with minimal sets (at the Stanislavsky Opera in 2009 and at the Vishnyevskaya Opera Center in 2011), so a grand staging is not necessary if it remains sensible and allows the singers to emphasize the drama.

But tonight’s minimal stage provided just enough of a set to distract from the drama.  The chorus and ballet corps either stood around like blobs doing nothing when they should have been doing something or they pranced around like circus clowns (either way they made a distraction); snow fell constantly throughout most scenes (including one scene indoors); Tatyana appeared to go sleep in a cut-out igloo; the second act ball scene contained an ice bar literally crawling with lobsters; the third act ball appeared to take place in a tacky and tasteless ultra-modern shiny-black hangout for oligarchs that I tried to avoid when I lived in Moscow, hosted by a too-young Prince Gremin – presumably the oligarch-in-chief – in his diamond-encrusted tails.  Costumes were contemporary to today.

At no time did the staging either seek to draw out the drama (contained in the words and music, not the action, as typical in Tschaikowsky operas), nor even simply minimize itself to allow the cast to do this on their own.  I suppose the staging not only distracted me, but also must have distracted the cast.  So while they all sang wonderfully, it sounded like they were simply going through the roles from their staple repertory.  Since they have likely performed these roles together before, they managed some personal interaction, but on the whole it was a rote performance devoid of any coherent concept.  By process of elimination, if the problem was not the orchestra, the conductor, or the cast, then it must be the director.

For a simple staging, the scenes also came far too disjointed.  Every scene brought a scrim down, followed by silence as the orchestra had to wait (why?  the sets were so simple they could have been rotated or changed quickly).  The only intermission came two and a quarter hours into the opera – between the second and third acts – with only forty-five minutes to go once the opera resumed. For an opera with no action, that had the audience squirming.  If they needed (or just wanted) to pause for long scene changes anyway, breaking up any continuity, they should have had at least two intermissions.

As a final quibble, the scrim often had Russian written on it: either just the exclamation “Onyegin!” or the text of Tatyana’s letter to Yevgeny.  The problem was that it was written in the Cyrillic alphabet according to today’s spellings, and not the correct pre-Soviet spellings used by Tschaikowsky and Pushkin (for example, the original second vowel in Onyegin was abolished by the Soviets). So these Russian scribbles were simply contextually incorrect.  Falk Richter is an idiot.

Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Musikverein

Beethoven, J. Haydn, Gruber

Latvian Conductor Andrís Nelsons was the main attraction of tonight’s concert at the Musikverein.  A protege of Mariss Jansons, Nelsons has burst onto the Vienna music scene recently and received glowing reviews here, but always when I have been out of town.  So now I had to see for myself.  He used to play first trumpet in the Latvian National Opera orchestra until he ended up taking the baton as an emergency fill-in about ten years ago, which launched his career, first as chief conductor of that orchestra, and now in Birmingham.

Nelsons has an unusual conducting style.  He provides a few measures of beat with his baton to get everyone started together.  But mostly he paints with the baton instead of beating with it.  His movements on the podium are athletic and sometimes acrobatic, but nevertheless restrained.  He generally holds still in some contorted position which expresses the mood of the music, and makes demonstrative cues and modifications with his hands, before jumping up and down a few times and landing in a new body position.  Every now and then he keeps beat for a few more measures to ensure the orchestra remains together.  The technique produces expressive results.

Tonight he led the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, which also requires some introduction.  A bunch of members of Claudio Abbado’s Mahler Youth Orchestra, perhaps the leading youth orchestra in Europe, wanted to continue to play together after they passed the orchestra’s age limit, so Abbado created the new orchestra for them.  They are “resident” in several European cities, which also means in none.  Tonight, they too performed athletically, their bodies swaying in broad circles along with the music as they played – whether they do this normally or only as a result of Nelsons, I do not know since I have not seen them play before.

Works by Beethoven book-ended the program, surrounding two trumpet concerti with Håkan Hardenberger, frequent guest in Vienna, as soloist.

The Beethoven works shone, particularly the Egmont Overture at the start of the concert.  The Seventh Symphony at the end of the program may have been less precise.  This chamber orchestra was actually larger than the reduced-size Tonkünstler I saw yesterday, which I suppose indicates what Zehetmair tried to accomplish yesterday.  The sound today filled the hall, but at the required moments remained subtle and restrained, particularly in the slow movement.  Nelsons adjusted the dynamics to great dramatic impact.

The first of the trumpet concerti, coming before the intermission, was that of Joseph Haydn.  Hardenberger sang with his instrument, in a somewhat subdued, mellow, tone.  Although I have appreciated him often in Vienna over the years, I do not believe I have heard him play any music written before the 20th century.  His playing remains technically excellent, but I am not convinced that this tone fully worked for Haydn, especially since it did not always come out purely or cleanly from the instrument.

After the intermission came the second trumpet concerto, “Busking,” written for Hardenberger in 2007 by the now 70-year-old Austrian composer H.K. Gruber, scored for trumpet, accordion, banjo, and string orchestra and obviously inspired by street music (at least in name and orchestration, if not in the actual musical style).  In reality, the concerto did not call for one trumpet, but several: Hardenberger emerged on stage with three instruments: a standard B-flat trumpet, a flugelhorn, and his favored C-trumpet, as well as a variety of mutes.  The piece began with Hardenberg playing the music using only his mouthpiece.  The first two minutes of this concerto provided amusement.  Unfortunately, the work lasted more than two minutes, with endless variations on the same lines.  But it went on and on interminably.  And on.  And on.  And on.  And when it finally finished, it became clear that was only the first movement.  Two more movements of utter boredom followed, making the work’s title anomalous.  Gruber knew we had all paid for our tickets in advance and therefore the performers were getting their money – if they actually tried to busk using this music, no one would have thrown them a single coin.  Perhaps someone might have thrown a tomato.  The work continued unbearably – never in an ugly way, just dully – for over half an hour.  If Gruber had nothing at all to say, he should not have said it at all.  Or he should have stopped at two minutes when the audience was still amused.  Boos rang out from the floor as soon as the work ended.  This was not fair for the performers, who actually played quite well, although during a rehearsal someone should have had the good sense to yell “stop” and refrain from performing this tedium in public, at least not to a captive audience in a concert hall.

In this regard, the time it took for the orchestra to warm back into the Beethoven Seventh may owe in part to the orchestra itself trying to recover from the immediately preceding work.  They would have been wiser to skip Busking and just launch directly into the symphony after the intermission.