Online Highlights While Waiting for Live Music to Resume (week 10)

Highlights

Still no live music.   Here is a selection of what I’ve been streaming online.

Strauß: Die Fledermaus (Vienna Philharmonic)

The “Fidelio” streaming service gave me a choice of performances of Johann Strauß II’s Fledermaus, so it seemed worth having some fun with a 1972 film version I had not seen before.  Directed by Otto Schenk with the Vienna Philharmonic under Karl Böhm, it included a cast of Viennese regulars.  This opera is always best left in the hands of the Viennese, and here it was no different, with maximum fun.  The staging and acting were completely over-the-top, but no one can really try to make this farce believable, so why not push everything too far?  They also clearly lip-synched over the singing, which was a little disconcerting at times, but on the other hand meant that the cast did not have to worry too much about singing while they acted out (or over-acted out) their parts.  Gundula Janowitz (Rosalinde), Eberhard Wächter (Gabriel von Eisenstein), Renate Holm (Adele), Waldemar Kmentt (Alfred), Erich Kunz (Frank), Heinz  Holacek (Dr. Falke), and Sylvia Lukan (Ida), not to mention Schenk himself (as to be expected) in the non-singing role of Frosch, all contributed to the romp.  The main failing was actually Prince Orlofsky, which in this version instead of a mezzo dressed as a man was transposed for the Wagnerian Heldentenor Wolfgang Windgassen, who was totally unsuited for this role (recasting this for a male voice seems to fail every time it is attempted) – and since part of the comedy is giving the prince an outrageous Russian accent, Windgassen also failed on that as well (he tried, but he just could not master the accent).  That was a shame as it did interfere with the otherwise non-stop humorous flow of this production.

  • [Recording tips: Although the leading members of the cast are not Viennese, my favorite recording of Die Fledermaus is the 1972 one conducted by Willi Boskovsky, concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic from 1936-1979 – no one captured Strauß better than he did, which is why he led the Philharmonic’s New Year’s Concert from 1955 until his retirement.  In this recording, he conducted Vienna’s second orchestra, the Vienna Symphony Orchestra (if not the Philharmonic, then excellent in its own right – one wonders though why they did not engage the Philharmonic).  The cast includes Nicolai Gedda, Anneliese Rothenberger, Renate Holm – as in the film – Brigitte Fassbänder, Adolf Dallapozza, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Walter Berry, Senta Wengraf, and of course Otto Schenk in his obligatory appearance as Frosch.]

Weber: Der Freischütz (Staatsoper)

I have not seen Carl Maria von Weber’s Freischütz in years, and indeed do not remember when I last listened to it complete either (although I have two perfectly good complete recordings).  So I was long overdue, and checked the Staatsoper’s options to see which available cast I preferred (both of the options the Staatsoper steamed this month were from 2018).  In my excitement, I neglected to check who directed.  The curtain opened and I instantly knew the director had to be yet another awful German poseur (for the record, some dolt named Christian Räth).  Given the nonsense these German opera directors produce, one advantage of streaming at home is that I actually don’t have to watch – maybe I could try to figure it out, but I’ve seen enough German schlock to realize it’s all about the Regisseur and never about the opera.  So I guess I still have not seen Der Freischütz in years.  Yet from the Staatsoper orchestra and chorus – under Tomáš Netopil – all sounded well.  There was a lot of excess stage noise, which I assume had to do with the staging itself (I’d say it was distracting, but in a good staging some appropriate noise can augment the experience; what was happening on the stage here would have been distracting enough, so I suppose more noise might not make any impact for people trapped in the theater forced to watch whatever this Räth dumped on stage).  I also noted that they added to the dialogue – what seemed to be a German attempt at humor (yet another thing the Piefkes are apparently incapable of).  It’s hard to be critical of the cast, since they were forced to “act” out this thing and probably wished they were anywhere else except on this stage.  In fact, they all sounded agitated.  But somehow out of the wreckage I managed to appreciate Alan Held as Kaspar and Camilla Nylund as Agathe.

  • [Recording tips: I have two complete recordings.  Is either of them the best available?  I don’t know, but they are both good.  One is a 1960 Bavarian Radio production with Eberhard Wächter, Albrecht Peter, Irmgard Seefried, Rita Streich, Kurt Böhme, and Richard Hold, conducted by Eugen Jochum.  The other is from the German Opera Berlin in 1967, with Claudio Nicolai, Fritz Ollendorf, Claire Watson, Lotte Schädle, Gottlob Frick, and Rudolf Schock.]

Wagner: Lohengrin (Metropolitan Opera)

I remember the Metropolitan Opera sounding its best on a consistent basis during the early/mid-1980s, when I rarely missed a Saturday afternoon radio broadcast.  This made me especially pleased to see that the Met has streamed some older recordings from its archives, and not just the recent productions from the last decade.  I wavered on whether to watch Wagner’s Lohengrin, mostly because the singer in the title role – Peter Hofmann – was not very good (I never understood why he had such a following back then; he was – quite literally – a rock star who crossed into opera, but although he could be loud and dynamic, he couldn’t really sing very well).  But then I have not listened to any recordings of Hofmann in decades for that reason (he retired from the opera stage in the late 1980s, although he continued to sing rock an pop music for another decade), and hearing him again now, although my opinion remains, I realize I have heard many far worse nominal Heldentenors since Hofmann.  So he may not have been very good, but it seems he may have been better than average.  Eva Marton, then at the height of her powers, sang Elsa.  Leonie Rysanek approached the end of her career singing a darker role but no less strident and with a tremendous stage presence as Ortrud.

Leif Roar (Telramund), was a little rough but full of character, while John Macurdy (who died earlier this month) was an expressive King Heinrich.  James Levine, in his heyday, marshalled the Met Orchestra, from the mystical overture through to the larger martial passages.  The staging was sensible – not lavish, but enough to frame the action – by August Everding, a German left over from the days when German directors still understood opera.  That said, he did not really add understanding to the opera and there were some odd decisions.  For example, he could have used a swan – in the first act, the cast looked stage-front singing about a swan, but then Lohengrin emerged without one from behind them, which was weird; the swan also did not appear in the third act (nor is it clear how Lohengrin departed – maybe he walked back to Spain).  The blocking was also a bit static in general, maybe most notably so during the duel between Lohengrin and Telramund, where they mostly just looked at each other.  But I will still take this no-frills direction any day over the stuff German Regisseurs spew out these days.

  • [Recording tips: I naturally have more excerpts from Lohengrin than I can count, and I probably don’t know how many of “In fernem Land” specifically (nor do I have a favorite). For complete recordings, I go to one of two, depending on my mood.  Probably the best in terms of overall cast composition, orchestral coloring, and sound, would be the version recorded in 1985-86 by George Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic, with Plácido Domingo in the title role, and with Jessye Norman, Eva Randová, Siegmund Nimsgern, and Hans Sotin.  A 1941 live performance from the Met in New York has its reasons to savor as well, though: Lauritz Melchior sang the title role, with Astrid Varnay, Kerstin Thorborg, Alexander Sved, and Norman Cordon; Erich Leinsdorf conducted.]

Puccini: Turandot (Metropolitan Opera)

The spectacular staging by Franco Zeffirelli (who died last year at 96) of Puccini’s Turandot portrays timeless Peking as a living, thriving city (albeit suffering under a cruel regime), with its teaming masses represented by an oversized chorus, dancers, and extras.  The Met streamed a version from last Fall (a 2019 revival of a 1987 production) with an adequate if not especially noteworthy cast (they could all act, which was welcome at least): Christine Goerke (Turandot), Eleonora Buratto (Liù), Yusif Eyvazov (Calàf), and James Morris (Timur).  On the podium, Yannick Nézet-Séguin crafted a rich score.

  • [Recording tip: I go back repeatedly to the 1959 recording by Erich Leinsdorf and the Rome Opera, with Birgit Nilsson in the title role, Jussi Björling as Calàf, Renate Tebaldi as Liù, and Giorgio Tozzi as Timur.]

Gounod: Faust (Metropolitan Opera)

Des McAnuff created a modern staging of Gounod’s Faust for the Met, with Faust as a lab scientist.  McAnuff, a Canadian, is apparently also a trendy director from Broadway, as is Michael Mayer, who created that horrible staging of Rigoletto for the Met that I watched last week, and while McAnuff did not warp the plot here the way Mayer appeared to in Rigoletto (which made me stop watching and just listen last week), he did throw in some silliness (far too much prancing about), as well as a confused ending: Mephistopheles and Faust sank into Hell, Margarethe climbed a stairway to Heaven (presumably), and then Faust reappeared out of Hell having reverted to his old-man self, only to pass away on the floor of his lab.  All very unnecessary.  But McAnuff generally stuck to simplicity and letting the characters act, and that they did.  Marina Poplavskaya gave a resounding portrayal of Margarethe, evolving from a coquettish girl into a tormented woman over the course of the opera.  Jonas Kaufmann as Faust seemed in his element, making this opera (where Faust may have the title role but is not the central character) into his own.  René Pape’s voice lacked some of the fierceness he has shown portraying other villains, but his self-assured stage presence remained.  Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted this 2011 performance.

  • [Recording tip: Long before I had ever been to Russia and got to know Russian performers, I was tipped off about a recording of Gounod’s Faust that supposedly put all others to shame: a 1948 performance from the Bolshoi Opera.  I found a recording back then at a reasonable price and ordered it.  To this day, it remains my go-to recording of this opera.  At the center of this performance stands the unmatchable Mark Reizen as Mephistopheles, with Ivan Kozlovsky as Faust and Yelizaveta Shumskaya as Margarethe.  Kozlovsky takes some getting used to – a master (perhaps the master) in a very typical Russian style of tenor singing, which comes across to Western ears as weak (it’s not – it is only a special stylistic convention), but it works here, as Faust really is not the central character in this opera despite the title (there is a reason it has often been performed under the name Margerethe rather than Faust, as it does represent her struggle with evil and Faust is merely the catalyst).  Vasily Nyebolsin conducted a driven performance – albeit abridged, including to remove the church scene in Act IV as well as the ballet: the ballet is not missed (it added nothing to the opera but was only inserted due to a silly French custom in which opera patrons insisted on seeing ballet whether it made any sense or not, so it can just as easily be staged separately); the church scene is (but was probably removed by the Soviet censors) and some of the shorter cuts would be nice to have back as well.  But the performance as a whole stands.]

Prokofiev: Betrothal in a Monastery (Mariinsky Theater)

I had never heard Prokofiev’s rarely-performed opera Betrothal in a Monastery before, so took this opportunity to explore a version streamed by the Mariinsky Theater under Valery Gergiev.  Despite intending it to be a farce, Porkofiev’s setting failed by being too static – though lively here and there, the music mostly went on at a pace too slow to generate the comedy.  The staging itself (by Vladislav Pazi) was not static – suggestive of Spain in a mystery timeframe – and the characters moved around as would have been appropriate.  The cast was uniformly excellent: Larisa Diadkova (the Duenna), Yevgeny Akimov (Don Jerome), Roman Burdenko (Don Ferdinand), Sergei Aleksashkin (Mendoza), Yulia Matochkina (Clara), Yevgeny Akhmedov (Antonio), Violetta Lukyanenko (Louisa), and Yuri Laptev (Don Carlos).  I suppose the opera never caught on because the music, though fine on its own, simply does not convey the farce it is intended to depict.

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra: Prokofiev

The Mariinsky also streamed a varied concert of less-often performed music by Prokofiev, by the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra and Valery Gergiev in the Mariinsky Concert Hall in 2016.  The concert opened with the Piano Concerto #4, for the left hand, one of many written on commission from the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who needed works to play after losing his right hand in the First World War.  Wittgenstein apparently never understood this piece, so did not end up performing it.  It is indeed strange, although no stranger than some of the composer’s other works from the 1930s.  This was confirmed by the next works, the often delicate but still jarring Spanish-inspired Violin Concerto #2, and the Piano Concerto #5.  Sergei Redkin did the solo honors for the Piano Concerto #4, Kristóf Baráti for the Violin Concerto #2, and Vadim Kholodenko for the Piano Concerto #5 – looking at their relative youth, they may have been selected based on a performance competition, and indeed they were all sufficiently good (particularly Baráti, although Redkin seemed to have a larger personal following in the sparsely-populated hall.  Skipping ahead to the 1950s, the Seventh Symphony, which concluded this concert, was in many ways more traditional in its sweep as well as restraint.

Philadelphia Orchestra: Sibelius, Copland, “Hannibal”

The Philadelphia Orchestra and its Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin presented two warhorses and one world premiere in a concert they streamed.  An unusual rendition of SibeliusFinlandia opened the concert, with drawn out lines gave a sense of longing.  Copland’s Appalachian Spring followed, in which the Orchestra’s virtuosity pulled out lines (many quite modern in their tonalities) that may not generally feature, and magnified their feeling, for a full and complex performance.  “Hannibal” is the professional artistic name of jazz/soul trumpeter and composer Marvin Peterson.  One Land, One River, One People was a bit of a cross-over work for orchestra, commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra and given its world premiere at this 2015 concert.  I am not sure I am in a position to judge it – it was certainly pleasant enough as music, but as “classical” music I am not sure it needed this particular orchestra, or indeed any serious orchestra.  I will say that it did have substance and will likely withstand the test of time (even if it will not enter the classical repertory), with performances by regional orchestras, musical theaters, or bands, something I would not say about Tod Makover’s Philadelphia Voices, another Philadelphia Orchestra commission (in 2018) for which the Orchestra also posted the world premiere on its website this week (having heard that back in 2018 – as reviewed in this blog – I had zero desire to listen to it again now).  The Orchestra was joined by a bunch of soloists and choirs – all fine, but again hard to judge against more normal repertory, so I do not wish to give them undeserved short shrift.  I guess I’ll just recommend readers go have a listen for themselves.

Boston Symphony Orchestra: Wagner, Mascagni, Puccini, Respighi

Last week, the Philadelphia Orchestra streamed the first concert program conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin as its Music Director, a triumphant emergence of that orchestra from a prolonged slumber.  This week came the turn of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which streamed Andris Nelsons’ first concert as Music Director in 2014, reawakening this orchestra from its own slumber.  The concert opened with what can only be called a “triumphant” overture to Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser.  Yes, it ends in major key, but that is not normally so triumphant and usually comes with a darker subtext.  Except here.  Jonas Kaufmann has a nice voice and good inflection, but does not quite make a Heldentenor – just too much strain to fill the Wagnerian role, even for the slightly lighter role of Lohengrin and a single aria, “In fernem Land,” at that (so not needing to last an entire opera).  Kristīne Opolais gave a somewhat subdued rendition of the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde.  I don’t believe the role is in her repertory, so it is just a one-aria introduction.  Whether her voice grows into it will be seen, but the expression was there.  Kaufmann was better suited for the Italian repertory: from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana.  Opolais, too.  Bizarrely, though, where the program (and website) indicated she was supposed to sing an aria from La Wally by Catalani, she instead sang an aria from Madama Butterfly by Puccini.  Not that it makes much of a difference, but especially given this concert is six years old one would think they could get the program right.  A passionate duet from Manon Lescaut saw a rather romantic kiss between the two, with Opolais’ then-husband (Nelsons) looking on. And another duet from La Boheme (without the passionate kiss, but with plenty of flirtation – so much so that Opolais winked at Nelsons partway through).  The concert concluded by leaving the operatic repertory, with an evocative Pines of Rome by Respighi.  Like the Tannhäuser overture at the opening of the concert, this one ended with even more triumph than usual, with extra brass scattered around the Symphony Hall balcony.

Online Highlights from the Corona Lockdown (week 3)

Highlights

When this pandemic is all over, I will either need to rush out to hear live music, or I may never want to see another opera again for the rest of my life.  But in the meantime, I continue to take advantage of the opera (and symphonic) archives being opened up on line during the lockdown.

Wagner: Tannhäuser (Metropolitan Opera)

This week began much as last week ended: with Wagner from the Metropolitan Opera.  A classic Otto Schenk production of Tannhäuser was undermined by Johan Botha in the title role, who basically could not act so stood there while other characters bounced off him, trying to get him to move.  This production has been around for decades, and with better casts.  James Levine has probably been in the pit for many of those as well.

  • [Recording tip:  Of the recordings I own, my go-to version remains the one by Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic, with René Kollo as Heinrich von Tannhäuser and Victor Braun as Wolfram von Eschenbach.  No other version quite captures the drama and elevates the authenticity of the characters the way this one does.]

Poulenc: Dialogues of the Carmelites (Metropolitan Opera)

This mystical opera – about nuns who are martyred by barbaric French revolutionaries – is one of those exceptions that prove the rule that the French do not understand music or drama.  Several French composers (beyond Berlioz, who was pretty consistently good and whose countrymen never properly understood him) could sometimes manage to churn out one decent opera per composer (and maybe one additional work that has withstood the test of time).  Gounod had Faust, Bizet had Carmen, Massenet had La Navarraise (my obscure choice for Massenet may surprise people, but have another listen: it really is his best opera by far), Saint-Saëns had Samson and Dalilah, and Poulenc had Dialogues of the Carmelites.  A suggestive minimal staging by John Dexter was in general sufficient to convey the meaning of this opera (except the final scene, which was supposed to depict the nuns getting guillotined, did not work at all – even without showing them all being executed, Dexter’s timing of the action did not go with the music, which undermined the drama).  Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted in full idiom.  I do not own a recording of this opera, having only heard it periodically on radio broadcasts (possibly all of them over the years from the Met), and this may be the first time I have seen the opera.

Rossini: Barber of Seville (Metropolitan Opera)

The Met’s staging of Rossini’s Barber of Seville seemed a bit odd at first but it grew on me.  I was not sure if it was trying to be realistic or fantastical.  But the concept was to accentuate the farce within this opera, and it ultimately succeeded in doing that.  The extremely tall Peter Mattei as the factotum Figaro hammed it up sufficiently.  Maurizio Benini let the performance from the pit – but with the stage built out around the front of the pit as well, he and the orchestra ended up right in the middle of it all.

  • [Recording tips: I am going to agree with conventional wisdom that the best recording of this opera is the 1958 one with Tito Gobbi as Figaro, Maria Callas as Rosina, and Luigi Alva as Count Almaviva, with Alceo Galliera conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra.  But for sake of being different, I may use this space to point out two unusual recordings worth looking for – not because they are better (they are not), but only because they have excellent acting casts that have a certain charm of their own.  One is a Moscow Radio recording from 1953 conducted by Samuil Samosud, sung in Russian.  I think I originally bought it (when I lived in Russia) solely because I was trying to collect recordings of Mark Reizen (who sang Basilio here), but I ended up enjoying the whole thing.  Another is a 1966 live recording from Vienna, sung in German, which gives the opportunity to hear Fritz Wunderlich as Almaviva just a few months before his untimely death.  The remaining roles are filled out by stalwarts of the Staatsoper ensemble under the baton of Karl Böhm.  Rossini doesn’t really work in Russian or German per se, but these recordings in local vernacular do provide a chance to hear the opera differently and have some additional fun with it.]

Verdi: Don Carlo (Metropolitan Opera)

The Met’s confused staging (by Nicholas Hynter) of Verdi’s Don Carlos could not decide if it wanted to be traditional or modern and failed miserably at both.  Roberto Alagna was nowhere near in his best voice as Carlos, sounding strained and often off-pitch.  The Met likely has many versions of this opera in its archives, with better casts and better stagings, so it is a mystery why they chose to put this one up.  Nézet-Séguin did his best to be dramatic in the pit, but he can’t do everything.

  • [Recording tip: This is another one of those operas where one recording far exceeds everything else.  In this case, it is the comprehensive concept thoroughly thought through by Carlo Maria Giulini for the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, with Plácido Domingo as Carlos, along with a truly dramatic cast including Montserrat Caballé, Shirley Verrett, Ruggiero Raimondi, and Sherrill Milnes.]

Saint-Saëns: Samson and Dalilah (Mariinsky Theater)

I realized that the Mariinsky, by far Russia’s best opera house, is putting up a cross-section of performances (not just operas – in fact, actually not many operas) during the lockdown.  So over it was electronically to St. Petersburg for Saint-Saëns’s Samson.  As I said above (and often enough before), with the exception of Berlioz, the French generally seem to lack any understanding of music or drama, but Saint-Saëns showed some talent (not that he used it much) and wrote one complete opera that passes muster.  I had seen a staging by the French-trained Greek director Yannis Kokkos before (at the Staatsoper: a production of the original – rejected for good reason by the composer – version of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov), which was dark, static, and totally missing drama.  That must be his way of doing things (presumably his French training), because this production of Samson was also dark, static, and totally missing any drama whatsoever.  Ekaterina Semenchuk as Dalilah held up her end of the bargain as much as she could in this staging, but Gregory Kunde as Samson did not, with a voice that lacked sufficient dramatic heft, particularly in the lower register.  Valery Gergiev, in the pit, is usually a better judge of casting in his house.

  • [Recording tip: since I don’t think I have ever heard a recording by a French opera house that passes muster either musically or dramatically, I default to a non-French recording of this opera.  In this case, I revert to a 1948 Bavarian Radio recording conducted by Hans Altman, with Lorenz Fehenberger and Res Fischer in the title roles and Fred Destal as the High Priest.  I’d recommend people have a listen to this dramatic version even if they do somehow find French productions satisfying in ways I never seem to.]

Tschaikowsky: Yevgeny Onyegin (Mariinsky Theater)

I suppose I could not resist hanging around on the Mariinsky’s site to see what other operas were available.  Tschaikowsky’s Onyegin should not have been unexpected.  But this production, conducted by Gergiev, did not match up to the Met’s production, also conducted by Gergiev, that was streamed last week.  Andrei Bondarenko did not make as dashing an Onyegin as Hvorostovsky.

Schreker: Der Ferne Klang (Royal Swedish Opera)

I decided to finish the week with an unusual choice: Franz Schreker’s The Distant Sound, an opera rarely performed.  I have actually owned a recording of it for many years (a 1990 Berlin Radio recording with Gerd Albrecht conducting a cast headed by Thomas Moser and Gabriele Schnaut), but do not remember when I last listened to it, so thought this was as good a time as any to see if I could remind myself what was up here.  Schreker’s polychromatic musical palette – somewhere between Richard Strauss and Erich Wolfgang Korngold – is on full display in this opera, composed over several years in Vienna during the first decade of the 20thcentury.  There is no particular reason this opera could not be performed more often (it apparently was performed frequently enough in Germany until the Nazis banned it because Schreker’s father was Jewish), but it is probably destined to remain a curiosity.  The Royal Swedish Opera has dusted it off, with a simple but straightforward staging that did not try to do too much.  Daniel Johansson was good as the main male lead, the composer Fritz.  As part of the simple concept by Christof Loy (a German opera director who seemed to have a concept and tried to set the actual plot of an opera!), the chorus morphed among different roles in each scene, much like a Greek chorus, but that worked here.  What may not have worked was that many of the singers doubled up in roles as named characters – so not the Greek chorus – and since they stayed in costume this was often confusing.  Was it cost-saving that made the Royal Swedish Opera double cast members up, or was this part of the director’s concept to portray different characters as alter-egos of the same persona (and if so, why?)?  In the pit, Stefan Blunier maintained a good sense of the drama.

Rimsky-Korsakov: Tsar’s Bride (Bolshoi Opera)

I should have known better.  One night this week I tried to watch the Tsar’s Bride by Rimsky-Korsakov streamed from Moscow’s Bolshoi Opera.  I decided to do this purely on the strength of the opera itself, which is rarely performed but really should appear more often.  I saw it four times when I lived in Moscow, with four different opera companies, including this same staging at the Bolshoi (the other performances I saw were by the Novaya Opera, the Gelikon Opera, and a visiting opera company from Rostov-on-Don performing in the Stanislavsky Theater).  But the Bolshoi is an absurd place, which lives entirely off its reputation.  It has not been a good opera house for 40 years, ever since the Communist Party fired longtime general director Boris Pokrovsky (apparently – the story I have heard – because, during one of the all-too-regular waves of official Russian antisemitism, he refused to reduce the number of Jews playing the Bolshoi orchestra), and when I lived in Moscow it was the worst of the seven different opera companies I attended (yet due to prestige – all-important in Russia – it was nevertheless the most expensive).  This performance was, as I should have expected, mediocre.  But not only that.  The Bolshoi fails at almost everything, so it probably should not have surprised me that they could not even succeed in streaming this properly: the stream cut out shortly into the third act (suddenly went off-line to “private” setting).  Since I couldn’t exactly walk away at that point, I threw on a much better recording from the Bolshoi in 1973.  I won’t be going back to the Bolshoi’s streamings again during this crisis – or probably not ever, they’re just a mess.

  • [Recording tip: That 1973 Bolshoi recording may be the best available, with Galina Vishnyevskaya in one of her final performances before she was expelled from the Soviet Union along with her husband Mstislav Rostropovich for their opposition to the regime and support of other dissidents (I suppose that was a better penalty than being sent to the gulags, or being executed).  The cast is from the Bolshoi’s ensemble of singers under the baton of Fuat Mansurov.  I am willing to guess, however, that there may be an even better unpublished version somewhere in the Bolshoi’s archives.]

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra: Tschaikowsky

In addition to Onyegin, the Mariinsky posted a fair amount of Tschaikowsky.  My objection to Tschaikowsky is that much of his music tries too hard to be western, when western Europeans wrote much better material.  His music is pretty enough, but so over-performed – particularly his 4th, 5th, and 6th symphonies – as to have become tiresome.  Where he most succeeded in saying something lasting were in his psychodramas (particularly Yevgeny Onyegin and the Queen of Spades) and in his truly Russian-inspired masterpieces such as the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd symphonies, which are sadly underperformed.  In taking advantage of the archive made available on the Mariinsky website, a performance of the Second Symphony stood out, with Gergiev again conducting.  This may be my favorite work by Tschaikowsky, and Gergiev did it justice with his orchestra.  The performance was recorded on tour in Moscow in the Zaryadye Concert Hall, a hall I do not actually know since it was constructed sometime after I lived in Moscow.  The hall stands in a large lot near the Kremlin which, when I lived there, contained a handful of partly-restored historic buildings which had decayed during the Soviet period and a bunch of tractors whose only reason for being there seemed to be to move dirt from one place to another.  Apparently they subsequently decided what to move the dirt for.

Berlin Philharmonic: Sibelius, Weber, Bartók

I continue to search through the archival materials that the Berlin Philharmonic has made available for a month on its website.  The late Mariss Jansons, who died last November, periodically guest-conducted this orchestra over the years, and a number of his concerts appear.  I would highlight this concert in particular, featuring the First Symphony of Janne Sibelius, the Clarinet Concerto #1 by Carl Maria von Weber (with the Berlin Philharmonic’s principal clarinetist Andreas Ottensamer as soloist), and the suite from the Miraculous Mandarin by Béla Bartók.  It never really mattered what Jansons conducted – there was always some new way to listen.  My own go-to recording of the Sibelius first is also by Jansons, when he was music director in Oslo earlier in his career.  Although he was responsible for raising the standard of the Oslo Philharmonic, it still did not reach the level of the Berlin Philharmonic, and here we have his tremendous interpretation taken to the highest level.

Berlin Philharmonic: Bach, Stravinsky, Mahler

The Berlin archive only has one concert led by Vladimir Jurowski, and this from back in 2011.  Jurowski has always been one of the most exciting conductors of his generation (he’s now 48), and his concerts often provide intelligent combinations of music designed to make listeners think.  The concert available here was no exception.  It opened with Johann Sebastian Bach’s chorale “Von Himmel hoch da komm’ ich her” as arranged by Igor Stravinsky – starting with a brass chorale and moving through the text with Bach’s mathematics and 20th century harmonics.  Jurowski followed this with an altogether stranger work by Stravinsky, his Requiem Canticles – parts of the mediaeval requiem mass reset in a very modern structure – scientific, perhaps, but not necessary with musicality in the forefront.  It’s not that it had to have a tune, per se, but maybe a little less formula and a little more music would have helped.  Still, as an intellectual exercise it worked as a bridge to the main work in the program, Gustav Mahler’s giant student work Das Klagende Lied, in which the young composer, still at conservatory, imagined new musical ways forward (partly under the influence of his neurotic apartmentmate Hans Rott, when they were both studying with Anton Bruckner).  Like with Stravinsky, there is a reverence for the past, the history and building blocks of music, but also a desire to strike out in a new direction.  I own one recording of Das Klagende Lied: a 1997 performance by Michael Tilson-Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.  Jurowski’s interpretation with Berlin is rather more angular and strident than Tilson-Thomas, and the Berlin Philharmonic’s playing more robust than San Francisco’s.  The San Francisco Symphony in that recording (indeed in that period generally) did not sound as muddy as it does now (Tilson-Thomas has been there too long), but the superior virtuosity of the Berliners simply allows for more fine tuning.

Berlin Philharmonic: Wagner, Liszt

Riccardo Chailly brought two Faust-inspired works to Berlin for his guest stint.  The logical pairing (since the composers themselves encouraged each other) of Wagner’s Faust Overture and Ferenc Liszt’s Faust Symphony graced Chailly’s contribution.  Chailly grasped the strengths of this orchestra, which can sound clinical but can also have its technical precision unleashed in nuanced ways for a fulness of sound and excitement.  While every recording I am familiar with of Liszt’s Faust Symphony is missing a little something here or there (my favorite is the one with Leonard Bernstein and the Boston Symphony Orchestra), this performance with Chailly and the Berliners may be close to definitive.

Boston Symphony Orchestra: Sibelius

The Boston Symphony Orchestra, historically one of the best in the United States (and I believe also the best-endowed orchestra in the world), suffered a long, slow, painful decline.  Seiji Ozawa, who may have been an inspired choice to lead the orchestra in 1973, stayed far too long in that post, leading to stagnation by the time he finally departed in 2002.  The orchestra replaced him with James Levine, who had done so much to improve the pit orchestra at the Metropolitan Opera and was looking for a top symphony orchestra to lead alongside his duties as music director at the Met.  Unfortunately, Levine did not have the health and vitality at this point in his career to handle both roles, leaving the BSO rudderless.  By the time he resigned in 2011 (they never bothered to terminate him early, which was another huge mistake), no one could speak of the BSO as a top-flight orchestra.  In that climate, the choice of Andris Nelsons to take over as music director in 2014 was inspired – a young dynamic conductor at the top of his game.  During the lockdown, the BSO is putting up one selection per day from its archives (which then remain on their website – not clear how long they will stay there beyond the end of the lockdown).  As I listened to the selection they provided this week, I found one of the first performances Nelson conducted as music director featured the Second Symphony of Sibelius: here it is possible to listen to the relief the orchestra must have felt, that finally they would be restored to their rightful place.  It’s a moody symphony, but performed here with so much hope.  The excitement is palpable.

  • [Recording tip: I own several recordings of the Sibelius 2nd, but for sheer other-worldliness nothing comes close to the one with Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra.  It is the most recent one I have purchased, and since I added it to my collection I have pretty much stopped listening to the other versions.]

Leipzig Gewandhausorchester, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Bruckner

Andris Nelsons and the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester brought a peculiar interpretation of Bruckner‘s Eighth Symphony to the Festival this evening, representing less a cathedral of sound (as this work normally is) and more a great expanse of penitents seeking absolution under the open sky.  If Sunday’s Beethoven Ninth with Kirill Petrenko and the Berliners was an apotheosis of joy in praise of a benevolent Creator dwelling above the stars to bless humanity, this may have been somewhat the opposite.  That’s not a bad thing, just different.

The default volume this evening was, strangely, piano.  This is not to say that the orchestra performed the majority, nor even the plurality, at that level, only that it kept returning to this volume for the foundational pulse, with everything else coming as an overlay.  And rather than have the orchestra produce a warm and rounded tone, Nelsons had them playing mostly bitter and brash.  He also emphasized not Bruckner’s thick harmonies, but rather his newfound dissonance (Bruckner, late in life, did indeed look into the abyss, although this was not the prevalent mood until the Ninth Symphony).

Despite the intentionally-harsh sounds, there was some real delicacy in the playing, consistent with the Gewandhausorchester’s throwback 18th-century traditional tone (the orchestra has its origins from 1743 and has cultivated a distinct style).  Bach died in Leipzig in 1750, and although I don’t believe he had an association with this orchestra, tonight’s intricate string work showcased an almost Bachian quality, something Bruckner the church organist and professor of counterpoint would certainly have appreciated and indeed which influenced his work.  The woodwinds jumped out where needed (not unnoticed was that at the end of the concert Nelsons gave the first featured bow to the flute section).  That said, the brass were less good – not just the rawness Nelsons cultivated across the performance this evening, but actually botching a few notes too many and sounding less sure in ensemble.  Great tympanist.

Vienna Philharmonic, Musikverein

Beethoven

I realized I had not heard the Vienna Philharmonic live in over six months, so resolved the problem by snagging a returned ticket for this evening’s concert in the Musikverein with Andris Nelsons performing Beethoven‘s symphonies #4 and #5.

This is actually the second time I have heard Beethoven’s Fourth this month.  The Philharmonic is a different orchestra from the Mozarteum Orchestra, of course, so right there I was always going to get a different sound – bigger, fuller, more nuance.  And by pairing this symphony with his Fifth, the mood was also going to be quite different.  Normally, if paired, the Fifth goes with the Sixth (they were written at the same time and had their premiere at the same concert), but the putting the slightly earlier Fourth in juxtaposition with the Fifth emphasized the progression.

Nelsons took both with a big, rich, and mysterious sound.  He did not emphasize the lighter moments of the Fourth (they were there in full color, though, just worked into the orchestral whole), producing a somewhat edgier mood.  This continued through the first three movements of the Fifth, until the Fifth’s final movement erupted in joy.

As I have mentioned previously, the Fourth often gets lost in between the Third and the Fifth, or gets overlooked with a slender interpretation.  The Mozarteum Orchestra two weeks ago under Joshua Weilerstein, and the Philharmonic this evening under Nelsons, flushed it out.  But having it introduce the Fifth, as Nelsons did, not only highlighted its value in and of itself, but also elevated it to the same level as its more-performed successor.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Zimmermann, Mahler

 

I went to hear Mahler‘s 2nd for the first time since my father died.  He would have liked this spectacular, emotive performance by the Vienna Philharmonic and Andris Nelsons in Salzburg’s Great Festival House.

Nelsons gave the performance extra drama – this is, of course, an orchestra drawn from an opera house, which knows better than most how to use music to augment the impact on the audience, so they bought in to Nelsons’ reading.  Essentially, Nelsons kept the lid on the first movement, making it almost delicate and mysterious.  This allowed him to draw out individual lines to highlight anguish and pain.  When the music swelled to crescendo, it proved devastating.  And then came the almost playful second and third movements, as interludes, almost classical in proportions (despite a full Mahler-sized orchestra).  The fourth movement – “premordial light” – shone.  Then we returned to the approach of the first movement… except whereas the first movement was a “celebration of death” the final movement is one of life and renewal and triumph.  Nelsons never lost sight of that ever-broadening smile among the tears.

Soprano Lucy Crowe, mezzo Ekaterina Gubanova, and the Bavarian Radio Chorus sang beautifully.  At the end: silence, even after Nelsons dropped his arms and released the room.  Only when he turned to look out over the stunned hall did tentative clapping begin, swelling slowly.  The audience stayed standing in our seats to applaud until 11 p.m., at which point Nelsons and the Philharmonic decided they (and we) should probably go home.

 

Before the intermission came Bernd Alois Zimmermann‘s Trumpet Concerto “Nobody Knows de Trouble I See” with soloist Håkan Hardenberger.  I suppose Nelsons chose this to somehow set up his interpretation of Mahler.  The work, in one long movement, has a colorful orchestral backdrop that starts in dissonance, moves through dancing jazz, and finishes in mystery, sort of the reverse of his interpretation of Mahler’s 2nd.  On top of this, the trumpet moves through a variety of styles.  And who better than Hardenberger, whose versatility shines, to interpret this.  The work was actually fun – despite the undercurrent (inspired by an old Negro spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” the German Zimmermann wrote it shortly after his own country had checked out of the human race for a few years as a sort-of self-indulgent Schadenfreude to highlight American racism, but he undermined his own message somewhat by changing the title to parody black American English).  But in the end, juxtaposed to the Mahler, it was unconvincing.  It was written decades after Mahler, so it is not like Zimmermann could set up Mahler or provide influence; Mahler was also fresher, more original, and managed to carry his work over five movements and more than an hour and a quarter.

As an aside: I had been disappointed to not have my application accepted for tickets for Salome by Richard Strauss at this year’s Festival.  But opening night was televised, so I at least watched that.

The staging, by an Italian, Romeo Castellucci was terrible.  His biography does not indicate any German connection, but watching this performance I might have assumed he could have been German or German-trained, given how little relevance his staging had to the plot and a desire to shock for sake of shock – opera in Germany is all about these narcissist imbecilic directors.  The characters wandering around the stage – sometimes stopping and standing in place, sometimes also contorting themselves, had no bearing to anything.  The literature indicated he thought the Dance of the Seven Veils was the culmination, but he did not have Salome dance.  Instead, after Herod left the stage (so he did not even get to see the dance), Castellucci had Salome tied immobile to the top of a pedestal labeled “SAXA” – Latin for “rocks” – and had a large hewn rock descend slowly from the ceiling to crush her (apparently it was hollow, because she survived to sing the next scene).  John the Baptist (who sang in blackface carrying a tambourine) appeared to share his cistern cell with a horse (!?), so that when they brought his head out, they actually brought the horse’s out instead.  The Baptist’s naked headless body (white skin – so I won’t even begin to guess why Castellucci portrayed him in blackface – probably to shock, or he’s just a racist, I don’t know) did come on stage at the end, and she made out with that corpse and kissed where his lips would have been if he had still had a head.  Salome was not killed at the end either (why should she be? – “kill that woman!” are only the opera’s final words, and the music describes her death).  It really is not worth recapping the rest of this garbage.  I suppose I am now pleased I did not pay for tickets.

The one redeeming feature: the Armenian-Lithuanian soparano Asmik Grigoryan as an expressive, physcologically tortured, Salome.  Franz Welser-Möst led the Philharmonic (which reminded me that I had seen an even worse staging of this opera in Zurich many years ago with him conducting).  If I had only heard this on the radio, I would have been impressed.

 

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.