Berlin Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Berg, Beethoven

I have not heard the Berlin Philharmonic sound this good in years.  The orchestra had recently become quite clinical in its performances, and its former music director, the otherwise excellent Simon Rattle, had probably stayed too long in post.  Last Summer at the Festival, Rattle looked much happier at the helm of his new orchestra (the London Symphony Orchestra, which sounded happy to have him as well), but the verdict remained out with the Berliners and their new music director, the reclusive and enigmatic Kirill Petrenko.  A year further along, the Berliners seemed determined to return to their former place among the top tier of the world’s orchestras.

Tonight’s program provided a good test: Symphonic Pieces from the Opera Lulu by Alban Berg, and the Symphony #9 by Ludwig van Beethoven.

If the orchestra wanted to be clinical, Berg’s twelve-tone music would have given them a good excuse.  But Berg knew he was writing music, and went a step beyond his teacher Schoenberg, who had developed the formulaic twelve-tone technique, to successfully craft longer works including operas.  Lulu is an opera I once knew reasonably well when I was a child, when I had studied it ahead of seeing it live at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.  Somehow it did not stick with me over the years, getting eclipsed by Berg’s Wozzeck for my affections already while I was an undergraduate, to the point that Lulu fell almost completely off my radar.

Berg assembled these concert pieces when he realized he might never complete the opera (he actually never did) and that the rise of the Nazis in Germany and the writing appearing on the wall in Austria might make it difficult to perform in the German-speaking world even if he did finish it.  So he needed to assemble a half hour or so of music that might make a coherent concert program.  In this he was successful, and the Berliners underscored this with a performance that was anything but clinical.  Marlis Petersen joined the orchestra for the middle movement entitled “Lulu’s song” adding her own clear soprano lines.  In total, the performance stood well on its own as music, utilizing Berg’s idiom which followed the twelve-tone method but also had to maintain a sense of both music and drama.

The Berliners must know Beethoven’s Ninth by heart, so I suppose they could also have ended up being clinical here too.  And once again they were not.  The first three movements represented a battle between a dark world and a human joy, the orchestra sounding almost playful in the juxtaposition.  While there was a tension between the two competing moods – particularly in the first two movements, it was also clear in which direction Beethoven was moving, heading to the triumphant apotheosis of joy in the finale.  I would quibble a bit with Petrenko’s tempi, which were too fast, particularly in the first movement (essentially the same speed as the second movement scherzo) and in the third (one of the symphonic repertory’s great adagio movements, along with those from the Bruckner Eighth and Mahler Third), the third sounding slow only by comparison with what came before.  But the musicality remained.

Joining Petersen in the quartet were Elisabeth Kulman, Benjamin Bruns, and Kwangchul Youn, who blended well together and with the orchestra as a coherent part of the scheme.  Petrenko placed them behind the orchestra, rather than at the front of the stage (where they might more normally be) – but as Petrenko is primarily an opera conductor, he knows well how not to overwhelm the singers even while maintaining a full orchestral tone.  Less successful was the Berlin Radio Chorus, which seems not to have gotten the memo, producing detached staccato and emotionless singing in contrast to the otherwise exhilarating performance.

The Berliners perform at the Festival again tomorrow, but I decided to skip it as I wanted to get through an entire summer without hearing any music by Mozart or Tschaikowsky (I like their music, but they are far too over-rated and over-performed and I need a break from both of them for a while).  I’ll catch the Berliners and Petrenko on a future date and see if their transformation sticks.

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Berlin Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Dukas, Prokofiev, Schmidt

My final concert of this Summer’s Salzburg Festival was second of the Berlin Philharmonic‘s set under Kirill Petrenko.  In contrast to last night, tonight’s concert contained three works which are not part of the standard repertory, and thus a chance to consider the performance in more of a vacuum on its own merits.  The three pieces, all from the early Twentieth Century, seemingly had one commonality: they provided Petrenko a chance to show off the versatility and color of this orchestra.

If that indeed was Petrenko’s goal, then he succeeded.  The orchestra handled complex multi-colored and multi-textured canvasses with a certain warmth.  What was missing, on the whole, was something more than that.  Where were these pieces going?  I don’t know that I found any meaning, beyond just the playing.

Paul Dukas is yet another French composer known for a single work (in his case, the Sorcerer’s Apprentice), with the rest of the output being dismally forgettable.  Dukas actually destroyed most of his own compositions without publishing them, I suppose saving us from having to listen to them.  That he was a professor of composition at the Paris Conservatory helps explain things too (although he’s hardly responsible for French composers who came before him, rather being a product of the system himself).  Tonight’s concert opened with his ballet The Peri, originally composed for Sergei Diaghilev’s Paris-based Russian Ballet – although apparently Diaghilev then decided his leading ballerina was not up the task (one wonders why, as he staged rather more complicated scores such as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring that must have been even more challenging than Dukas’ work; maybe he was just being nice to Dukas with his excuse).  The work opened with a fanfare, which apparently also came with a story: as the ballet itself starts quietly, it was next to impossible to get the uncultured Parisian audiences to shut up when the music began, so Dukas added a loud opening fanfare to the score later on.  The rest of the ballet was unremarkable – sure, it had intricate components, but I’m not clear it went anywhere, or why anyone would want to dance to it.

Prokofiev‘s third piano concerto followed, with soloist Yuja Wang.  This work is nuts: all over the place stylistically.  But there is a certain logic to it, and Petrenko assembled the pieces.  Wang had light fingers – like Krystian Zimerman last week, but unlike Zimerman who gently coaxed full tones out of the piano, she did not get a big sound.  Indeed, she was often overwhelmed by the orchestra.  Very agile and adept, but there just was not much heft to her (similar to the assorted green threads she was wearing that some unscrupulous – maybe French? – fashion designer must have somehow convinced her qualified as a “dress;” it may have been snazzy, but really could have benefitted with a lot more fabric).  She gave us an unidentified encore of no particular interest.

After the intermission, the orchestra returned for Franz Schmidt‘s sorrowful Fourth Symphony, written after his beloved daughter died giving birth.  As he mourns her, he reminisces, but each reminiscence – including what looks like it might turn into a happy dance – gets overcome by his grief.  Schmidt’s works really do deserve to get performed more often.  He represents a natural progression from Bruckner – parallel to Mahler (who would have opened up new concepts for him) and Sibelius, if maybe not at their levels.  Schmidt is not Bruckner re-worked, but rather more inventive, if Bruckner had lived several decades more where his own music might have evolved – I think the rarity of performances really just demonstrate a lack of understanding, or of even an attempt to understand.  Petrenko made the attempt, although in this case I am not sure how successful he was.  The orchestra did produce some wonderfully-moving moments, but Petrenko could not keep the momentum, so that the performance had a tendency to drag.

Berlin Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Strauss, Beethoven

The Berlin Philharmonic came to this year’s Festival for a two-concert set with its enigmatic new chief conductor, Kirill Petrenko, whom I have now heard for the first time.  I may have to wait until tomorrow’s concert to give a full verdict.  

Tonight’s concert contained standard repertory, so in theory I should be able to make a judgement, but I left scratching my head.  Two tone poems by Richard Strauss graced the first half of the concert, Don Juan and Tod und Verklärung.  Beethoven‘s Seventh came after the break.

I suppose it was time for this orchestra to move on from Simon Rattle – people shouldn’t stay too long in one place, and I’ve found this orchestra has often sounded too clinical (most recently in the Musikverein in June).  Judging by his appearances with his new orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, here at the Festival last week, I’d say it’s been good for both sides after a happy few years together just to have a change of scenery.  With Petrenko, the orchestra certainly did not sound clinical – he took the exact playing and elicited just a little more emotion and nuance, with a conducting style equal parts animated and precise.

The problem was that his interpretations did not necessarily succeed.  Strauss wrote these two tone poems months apart using the same compositional language, but they are telling very different stories.  While Petrenko coaxed gorgeous tone paintings out of the orchestra in amazing colors, I actually heard very little differentiation between the poem desrcibing of the erotic life and exploits of Don Juan and the poem describing the death of an artist.  Petrenko rarely conducts concerts (which is what made his selection by the Berliners an odd choice), but has spent almost all of his career as an opera conductor, so he understands drama and coaxed it from the orchestra – still, it was peculiar not to hear much of a difference between these two works.

His interpretation of Beethoven’s Seventh flopped.  Petrenko did it with a much-reduced orchestra, perhaps to highlight chamber music aspects (the musicians could certainly make a big sound when they needed to, to contrast the quiet – indeed delicate – moments Petrenko emphasized).  He also did it at breakneck speed.  The slow movement was only slow by comparison, and it was breathless.  I was amazed the musicians could even keep up without any glaring errors in the final movement.  It may indeed have been that fact that prompted a standing ovation – truly a remarkable bit of playing that had everyone on the edge of our seats wondering if the orchestra could survive this craziness.  But on the other hand, it didn’t make any sense, so I think the ovation was unwarranted (and indeed it dissipated – the ovation was rather short, which might affirm for me that it was more a spontaneous reaction to the fact that the orchestra survived the out-of-control ride still very much in control, rather than a measure of the overall performance value).

Tomorrow night sees three works that are not in the standard repertory, all from the Twentieth Century.  It may help me complete the picture.

Wiener Symphoniker, Konzerthaus

Sibelius, Mendelssohn, Bach

The Vienna Symphony Orchestra, under guest conductor Vasily Petrenko, the talented young music director in Liverpool (and, since I last saw him, now also in Oslo), recreated the magical world of Janne Sibelius at the Konzerthaus this evening, to mark the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth earlier this week.

The tone poem Pohjola’s Daughter led off the program, with the opening cello solo emerging as if out of the floorboards.  The orchestra ensured that this dramatic reading was not just heard but also felt, as the sound started low and slowly enveloped the hall, transporting the audience into a mythical time and place, now made very real.

The Fifth Symphony closed the concert, alternately driving the drama forward and settling in on lush arctic landscapes, proposing a tension between the two moods throughout as it moved to its triumphant conclusion. Sibelius wrote several versions of this symphony before he created the final triumphant one, inspired by a flock of migrating swans.

In the middle, Joshua Bell joined the orchestra for Mendelssohn’s violin concerto. Although I did not see the logical connection to put that concerto into a Sibelius concert, I appreciated the chance to hear a work I have not heard for a long while (and I hear the Sibelius violin concerto relatively frequently already). Bell’s full and warm tone blended beautifully with the orchestra’s, and the smiles that passed between Bell and his colleagues on the stage indicated strong mutual sympathy. Though not as dramatic as Sibelius, moving us from the icy outdoors into the heated salon, Mendelssohn made pleasant music for an early winter’s day, and this was a concert among friends.

Bell added one encore – an arrangement of Bach scored for solo violin by Mendelssohn – in which he charmed the hall with his tones while somehow producing the complexity of a chamber orchestra on his single instrument.

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Holzer, Brahms, Strauss, Prokofiev

I was afraid Austria might revoke my citizenship if I did not attend at least one musical event on this brief trip.  So off I went to the Musikverein to hear the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Vasily Petrenko.

Petrenko is a young conductor from St. Petersburg, who trained under Jansons, Temirkanov, and Salonen, and was already chief conductor of St. Petersburg’s second opera house, the Michailovsky, by the time he was 18 years old.  Since 2009 he has been based in Liverpool, where is gets great reviews and has become quite popular.  I can see why.  He has a very clear, precise yet emotional technique, and the orchestra knows what to do next.

No where better did this come out than in the second half of the concert: the Prokofiev Symphony #5, for which the odd harmonies and tempi were actually meant to be there.  I have never heard this piece performed the way Petrenko did it tonight.  Written during the Second World War, the music contains great tension, drama, and industrial mobilization, all of which Petrenko brought out of the orchestra.  Of course, this orchestra happens to specialize in 20th-Century Russian music, thanks to its former music director Vladimir Fedoseyev, and therefore it responded brilliantly to Petrenko’s idiomatic reading.  This may be about as definitive a version of this work as it gets – what a shame it was not recorded for posterity.

But before the second half came the first.  Tonight’s concert opened with the Austrian National Anthem (tomorrow is the national day), music by Johann Holzer.  A nice anthem, to be sure, but I’d still rather claim our old one back from Germany.

Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture followed.  Petrenko took it rather more quickly than usual – a raise the house sort of overture rather than a stately dignified one.  The orchestra responded well, and I suppose I saw the point, but I would stick with the slower tempo.

Soprano Christiane Oelze then came out to sing seven assorted songs by Richard Strauss.  Oelze has a beautiful round voice, projects it well, and can hit all the notes.  Unfortunately tonight she did not hit the right ones.  She seemed incapable of keeping either on pitch or on tempo.  As she got more frustrated she screeched.  A disaster of a night for her.  The orchestra provided nice background color, if only it had played without soloist.

All of this was worth it, however, for the Prokofiev after the intermission.

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra and Chorus, Mariinsky Concert Hall

Verdi, Aida

In 2003, the Mariinsky’s set warehouse, a few blocks from the Theater, burned down, leaving only parts of three walls from the historic building.  Valery Gergiev decided this was an opportunity to build a completely new concert hall inside those walls, and the Mariinsky Concert Hall duly opened in 2006.  Gergiev has boasted to me that the acoustics are as good as those in the Moscow Conservatory, which has some of the finest in the world and certainly sets the standard for Russia.  Until today, I had not yet had the opportunity to have a listen.  I am pleased to report that the acoustics did not disappoint, although today’s performance may not have been the best way to judge.

The Mariinsky’s new production of Verdi’s Aida has been designed for the Mariinsky Concert Hall.  The front part of the stage submerges an entire level (a full floor down, rather than the usual lesser amount for an orchestra pit) to allow for an otherwise non-existent orchestra pit, leaving the rest of the stage clear.  I must say that the disembodied sounds coming from the submerged orchestra floated clearly into the theater in full sonority.  So, although this is not perhaps how the hall was designed to showcase orchestral acoustics, obviously the architects and acoustical engineers thought of even this detail.  Well done.

The singing from the stage was clear.  Some of the soloists sounded a tad tinny, but this may not have come as a result of the acoustics and may just be their actual voices.  As is usually the case in Russia, the male singers were stronger than the females.  Dmitry Polkopin, whom I have enjoyed in Moscow as part of the ensemble from the Stanisklavsky Opera (he provided a wonderful German in the Queen of Spades there last year), sang a strong-throated Radames.  His two unattractive female suitors, Zlata Bulycheva as Amneris and Yekaterina Shimanovich as Aida, had pleasant enough voices, when they could be fully heard (Bulycheva was more expressive, but less audible than Shimanovich – I was sitting in the second row, and only really heard her clearly when she was singing stage front and center, which could not have been an acoustical problem since I could hear everyone else).  Perhaps the two best-voiced cast members represented the clergy: Mikhail Kit as the High Priest Ramfis and Irina Vasilyeva as the Priestess.

In the pit, Andrei Petrenko, the Mariinsky’s Principal Chorus Master, conducted.  His reading ironically worked best with purely orchestral passages, particularly the lighter moments.  The singing was not always altogether in time with the orchestra.  He also provided no interpretation: good, bad, or otherwise.  Where the singers provided some, then the plot moved.  Where the singers did not, then the performance dragged.  The chorus, which in this production remained on stage the entire time, often looked bored.

Staging a performance on a concert hall stage obviously placed limits on how elaborate the sets could be.  In this case, Daniele Finzi Pasca, the stage director, is a circus clown (quite literally – the man’s profession is indeed a circus clown).  Finzi Pasca is also a Swiss peace activist, which may actually also be synonymous with “circus clown.”  In the program, he explained that he intended to stage Aida as an anti-war drama (“if only the Pharaoh and Amonasro could have sat down and talked.”)  Even knowing what his concept was, I could not discern it from the staging.  If the idea was in his head, he never managed to convey it.  The sets were minimal (because of the stage), and the costumes looked like they had been design leftovers rejected from a production of Zauberflöte (at least that made them mock-Egyptian, at any rate).  He presented nothing offensive, so in that respect he did better than every stage director working in Germany today.  However, he may wish to keep his day job.