Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mozart

Salzburg’s Mozarteum Foundation runs an annual Mozart Week Festival overlapping the anniversary of the composer’s birthday (27 January 1756).  Quite oddly, these are the most expensive tickets of the year in Salzburg – even more than the Salzburg Festival.  It’s a great mystery why.

I’ve skipped it the last two years as it is extremely hard to justify the prices, but last Summer while renewing my Mozarteum subscription series tickets (quite reasonably priced), I decided to pick up relatively cheaper-end seats for three concerts for this Winter’s Mozart Week while they were still available.  By stroke of bad luck, I now have to go on a last-minute work trip this weekend and will miss two of the concerts (so gave my tickets back to the box office tonight for re-sale), leaving me with only tonight’s concert (and next year’s Mozart Week schedule, just released, looks especially uninteresting, so I won’t be going back any time soon).

The programs mix about 50% or more Mozart with some other themes (this year includes a lot of Haydn).  That’s probably a bit more Mozart than my diet can take, and tonight’s concert was 100% Mozart, but he’s a fun if highly over-rated composer, so I decided to enjoy.  The forces assembled tonight in Salzburg’s Great Festival House – the Vienna Philharmonic under Yannick Nézet-Séguin – promised to make the performances dynamic, and they did not disappoint.

The concert included Symphonies #39 and #40, composed back-to-back but in different styles, which Nézet-Séguin and the Philharmoniker mastered.  For #39, they captured Mozart’s quirky humor, the sudden shifts and surprises, unexpected pauses and changes in direction.  #40 is a bit more serious, and Nézet-Séguin emphasized the thick harmonies hiding under the melodies, giving this work perhaps even more weight than it normally has.

In between the symphonies we were supposed to have a selection of Mozart’s songs performed by Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón (songs not heard so often, which had made this concert particularly appealing to me).  Unfortunately, Villazón came in to rehearse earlier today sick and coughing heavily, so was a late cancelation.  Brazilian pianist Maria João Pines, in town for a concert last night, was on her way to the airport when the Mozarteum called her up and asked her to skip her flight and perform tonight as well.  She did a standard work from the repertory – Piano Concerto #23.  Her playing was workmanlike, lacking sparkle or humor.  About all I can say regarding the others on stage: the orchestra accompanied her.  Nothing particularly wrong with anything, indeed beautiful music, but perhaps paradigmatic of Mozart himself on one of those days when he just did not feel like playing any jokes.  And Mozart’s music without Mozart’s humor is… perfectly nice for a lazy weekend morning, but maybe not for an evening concert with the fashionably overdressed crowd.

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Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Martinů, Bruckner

A late start tonight in Salzburg’s Great Festival Hall: 9 p.m. seems like an appropriate time to construct a church service in a concert hall, with Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Vienna Philharmonic doing the construction.

The concert opened with Bohuslav Martinů’Frescos of Piero della Francesca, a work I did not previously know. Martinů got his inspiration on vacation in Arezzo, where he saw these paintings in a church. To be entirely honest, I could not quite connect Martinů’s modern music (the work had its premiere by the Philharmoniker in Salzburg at the 1956 Festival) with the 15th-century frescos. But as pure music, it worked, with that composer’s wonderful juxtapositions.

They then skipped the intermission completely and went directly to the second work on the program, which gave Martinů yet more juxtaposition. The Bavarian Radio Chorus joined a smaller orchestra for Bruckner’s Mass #3. Having put up the paintings in the church, I suppose they now had to fill the room with mass.

In 1867, Bruckner’s doctor told him to stay away from music – it was driving him insane. Thankfully, Bruckner listened to God instead of to his doctor. He wrote Mass #3 and then moved to Vienna full time to teach counterpoint at the conservatory.

This mass is a bridge work. The insane church organist subsequently wrote mostly orchestral music, constructing his cathedrals of sound. But this was a work he meant to have performed in a church (unlike Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Wednesday night’s work, to which it was immediately compared in scale when it was first performed). The premiere indeed took place in Vienna’s Augustinerkirche (in the Hofburg) and remains frequently performed as a mass in Austrian churches and cathedrals (possibly more often than it appears in the world’s concert halls).

Unlike Harnoncourt’s muffled Missa Solemnis on Wednesday, Nézet-Séguin made use of his forces to fill the hall brightly. Although relatively-early Bruckner (in terms of major compositional output), the mass connected Bruckner’s church organist background with some of the larger structures he would create after moving to Vienna. The mass works both as church music and as a dramatic concert work. But the texts are clear, and the devout Bruckner clearly believed in them. This piece marked his transition from his time serving the Church to his new world serving Humanity.

Soloists Dorothea RöschmannKaren CargillChistian Elsner, and Franz-Josef Selig sang their lines clearly. But this is not a work highlighting the soloists. There is drama in the text, but it is in the service of the Lord.

Philadelphia Orchestra, Konzerthaus Berlin

Muhly, Schostakowitsch, Tschaikowsky, Rachmaninov

Tonight the Philadelphia Orchestra and Yannick Nézet-Séguin appeared at the Berlin Konzerthaus with a rather more-challenging program. The Berlin Konzerthaus is famous for its acoustics, but from tonight’s observation this praise is not deserved. Maybe it got this reputation only in comparison with the other concert hall in town, the Philharmonie, which I discovered last night is truly awful. It is also clear that the house management knows something is wrong with the acoustics, as plexiglass plates have been installed over the orchestra to deflect the sound (either that, or to keep unruly Berliners in the side balconies from spitting on the orchestra). Nine additional large plexiglass dishes hung near the ceiling to try to get the sound to do something (or were they UFOs hovering up there to hear the Philadelphians?). In short, the acoustics are not bad but nothing special and the house clearly knows this.

However, because the acoustics were more straightforward, I did get a better chance to hear Mixed Messages by Nico Muhly that I heard for the first time two nights ago. While the Orchestra did need that piece in Dresden to understand the acoustical bounces of that hall (which, as I noted, had better acoustics but the bounces off the walls took getting used to), tonight they could jump right in and it came across more clearly and somewhat less crazy than it sounded on Sunday. Nevertheless, although the piece changed its musical style, it did not go anywhere, and the common thread throughout could not sustain it for the full length. If Muhly edits it down to something shorter, it may stand.

Works by Schostakowitsch and Rachmaninov demostrated what composers with something to say can achieve despite wild rhythms and modern sounds – Muhly is not in their league.

From Schostakowitsch, we got the First Violin Concerto, with the solos played defiantly by Lisa Batiashvili. Batiashvili exhibited a warm, deep tone, while remaining crisp. The Schostakowitsch concerto allows for the violin to play along with the orchestra but periodically change its tune and go its own individual way, still hewing closely to the orchestra, as if to show that an individual can preserve an identity in the face of oppression and demands for conformity. But then, even those bets were off, as the violin solo turned into a full-out cadenzaof enormous complexity. Batiashvili made this into a real tour-de-force. Did Schostakowitsch (who wrote the piece for David Oistrakh) really expect human violinists could play this? Batiashvili did. And when the cadenza finished, the orchestra joined back in at a level unheard before. The violin individualist had freed the masses.

After a standing ovation, Nézet-Séguin sat down at the piano on the side of the stage, and Batiashvili joined him for a Tschaikowsky romance, that lowered the tension going into the break. But after the intermission, the gloves came off again for a crazy Rachmaninov Third Symphony. Although it got its premiere by the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Nézet-Séguin and the Orchestra have decided to champion it, it really is not one of the composer’s better works. But if anyone can do it, then this orchestra will at least make the case. The concert ended with another encore designed to bring down the tension: Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, highlighting the violins and woodwinds. Wonderful playing.

Philadelphia Orchestra, Semperoper (Dresden)

Muhly, Grieg, Chopin, Tschaikowsky

The last time I visited Dresden, the city consisted of big empty areas with periodic piles of rubble. Presumably, the communists had wanted to remind everyone of what British and American bombers had done to the city in the Second World War, quite ignoring the ravages that Russia had inflicted. The city center remained virutally empty (I couldn’t even find a hotel, so only stayed for a day from an early morning arrival by train to a night train back out). The wrecked core was surrounded by hideous apartment blocks. In the midst, the Semperoper building had been rebuilt, but (as I was told tonight) only the exterior.

Today, I arrived in Dresden to find it unrecognizable. First of all, there is a city here. Some neighborhoods have modern buildings, while the core of the center has been rebuilt to look like it did before the War. Tourists throng the streets. City residents bask on the grassy lawns and beaches which appeared on the river banks. And the Semperoper, too, has reopened.

The Philadelphia Orchestra tested the hall tonight. The acoustics were clear, if possibly too radiant. The sound not only approached me from the stage, but from behind as well. The Orchestra said they were not always sure how the music was bouncing off the walls and coming back to them, and which to play with. So they guessed.

Their guesses were good beyond belief. Is this one of the top twenty orchestras in the world? Top ten? Top five? They certainly made a case for themselves tonight.

The concert opened with Mixed Messages by Nico Muhly, which had its world premiere by this orchestra earlier in the month. He says he does not write in any particular style, just music he would enjoy listening too. He has peripatetic tastes, although the fact that he composes music to match his tastes and not to shock makes him a big improvement on many contemporary composers. I’m not sure what original he had to say – Charles Ives said many of these things much better 100 years ago. But I’ll have another chance to hear this work on Tuesday and maybe I’ll find something. In the meantime, it gave the orchestra a good warm-up and a chance to test the acoustics in the hall before the other works.

There followed a passionate reading of Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto, with soloist Jan Lisiecki. The Canadian Lisiecki, all of 20 years old, had an obvious rapport with his countryman, conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and together they crafted magic with the orchestra. Lisiecki gave us a encore, of a Chopin Nocturn – the posthumous one famously played by Wladislaw Szpilman live on Polish radio at the time the Germans invaded, a performance he was therefore unable to complete for six years and unfathomable hardship. Lisiecki’s reading was pensive, moving, and restrained.

If the Grieg concerto was passionate, Piotr Tschaikowsky’s Symphony #5 was orgasmic. Nézet-Séguin nourished the dialogue among the instruments (and it certainly helps when every instrument in the dialogue is world-class and able to ascribe new meanings to well-heard phrases), and with a lilt here, an abrupt tempo change there, and still another tense moment relieved by wildness, he took Tschaikowsky’s pent-up romanticism and set it loose in the hall. If this interpretation had become any more intense, Tschaikowsky’s music would have morphed into Scriabin. I think I now understand how Scriabin, who did not come to the Moscow Conservatory until long after Tschaikowsky had stopped teaching there, could emerge from the same music school. The Tschaikowsky Fifth is a warhorse, all too often performed, but tonight I heard something I have never heard before.

The Dresden audience gave the orchestra a standing ovation. They pounded the floor with their feet. Curtain call after curtain call ensued, until Nézet-Séguin silenced the crowd and said thank you. But an encore was not forthcoming. The orchestra looked exhausted – and an 8:00 p.m. start time had not helped (concert finished close to 10:30, even without the encore) for a long European tour. The other oddity, of course, with such a start time is that restaurants in Dresden were mostly closed or had stopped serving by the time the concert ended. Very odd to schedule a late start time in a city that does not stay open especially late.