Online Highlights (from residual streamings)

Highlights

Although live music has indeed resumed in Austria, I probably won’t get any until the Salzburg Festival.  So I continue to try to identify highlights online.

Janáček: The Makropoulos Affair (Staatsoper)

I was in the audience at the Staatsoper on the day this performance of Janáček’s Makropoulos Affair was recorded, and remember it as one of my musical highlights from 2015.  This is a very strange opera, which even some non-German directors have used as an excuse to turn it into a too-fantastical staging.  Here, a German director, Peter Stein, broke with the dross his countrymen usually produce and went the other direction, with a straightforward staging that made the plot understandable, and brought the underlying humor to the fore of the dark plot (the opera was based on a comic play, without itself becoming a comic opera).  An excellent cast (including Laura Aikin, Ludovít Ludha, Thomas Ebenstein, Margarita Gritskova, Markus Marquardt, and Wolfgang Bankl) ran with it from there.  Jakub Hrůša conducted idiomatically.  Indeed, this was worth seeing again – remaining fresh while every bit the success that I had remembered (see my original review on this blog from 20 December 2015).

Verdi: Un Ballo in Maschera (Staatsoper)

I do not believe I have seen Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera since I was a kid.  I have distinct memories of watching Luciano Pavarotti’s terrible acting skills try to navigate the prolonged death scene in more than one “Live from the Met” telecast, and I also have an old Met libretto on my bookshelf, so I must have also seen it there live, too.  It’s wonderful music, but had completely fallen off my radar (I do own one complete recording, which I have probably not listened to in twenty years).  So when I saw the cast assembled for this streaming of a 2016 performance from the Staatsoper, and also that they were using a opulent staging which also restored the action to Sweden (as opposed to colonial Boston, where the censors made Verdi move the plot and where it is therefore most commonly set), I decided this was as good an opportunity as any to remind myself of this opera.

Jesús López Cobos conducted with verve, nicely supporting Gianfranco de Bosio’s staging – neither was more than it needed to be, a sumptuous container in which the cast members could showcase their own talents.  Piotr Beczala and Dmitri Hvorostovsky (already dying of cancer when they filmed this) elegantly portrayed the lead characters Gustav III and René Ankarström, with able support from Krassimira Stoyanova (a gorgeous dark lower register) as Amelia, Nadia Krasteva as Ulrica, and Hila Fahima (with a tremendous stage presence whenever she appeared, standing out even in a supporting role) as Oscar.

During the opera, there was quite a bit of overt flirtation going on between the page Oscar and King Gustav III (who died here in Oscar’s embrace), which seemed very odd to me.  But as I started doing some background reading, I discovered that the real-life King Gustav was apparently a rather flamboyant homosexual.  So by moving the plot back to Sweden from Boston, de Bosio presumably decided to also restore the King’s homosexuality.  However, in a fictious plot centered on a love affair between the King and the wife of his closest advisor (in reality, Ankarström was not the King’s advisor, was not named René but Jacob Johan, did not assassinate the king over a love affair but rather because Gustav was a despotic autocrat who also broke up privileges for the unenlightened nobility, and did not receive a pardon from the king as in this opera plot but was instead executed), I’m not sure making the King gay made any sense in elucidating the plot and indeed contradicted it (OK, if he was gay, then he was gay, but then making the plot about his heterosexual affair made no sense… but it’s historical fiction and his love affair with Amelia is indeed the opera’s plot for better or worse).  But that oddity aside, restoring the plot to Sweden from its usual reassignment to colonial Boston did enable a more lavish setting, not to mention that it was simply more sensible this way.

Verdi: Simon Boccanegra (Staatsoper)

I have a certain fondness for Verdi’s dark-colored opera Simon Boccanegra, perhaps because it is one of the least tuneful of his works.  The original version flopped massively, and several decades later the brilliant Arrigo Boito revised the libretto and a more mature Verdi reworked the music, in the process creating a real drama.  I saw this production live at the Staatsoper in 2008, but here they streamed a 2018 performance, starring Thomas Hampson in the title role – a somewhat more dashing Boccanegra than in a normal portrayal.  As Jacopo Fiesco, Dmitry Belosselskiy also may have taken a non-standard approach to his role, making this grandfather (already a grandfather when the opera opens, and thirty years older by its conclusion) into a somewhat more robust character.  The interplay created a more exciting dynamic in their confrontations in the prologue, as well as in the final act (as the poison ate away at Boccanegra, and Hampson became accordingly haggard).  Marina Rebeka as Amelia had a tender voice that she could ramp up with real power.  The minimal staging itself, by Peter Stein, was simple and unpretentious – as if to prove that a German director can actually stage an opera (it was not a great staging, but gave a sufficient platform for the cast to do the work – by German standards that counts as a triumph these days).  Evelino Pidò conducted.

Prokofiev: The Gambler (Mariinsky Theater)

The Mariinsky has provided a stream of yet another rarely-performed opera, this time Prokofiev’s Gambler, in a 2010 performance.  The dialogue-heavy plot is dense, and without a libretto or subtitles I certainly missed a lot.  However, I could find the plot summary on line, and with the clear staging by Temur Chkheidze I did essentially follow along.  Unlike War and Peace, which I have tried to get into in each of the last two weeks, Prokofiev succeeded in producing drama here, something I could tell even without fully comprehending the text.  The music, not tuneful (but not having to be) also fully supported Prokofiev’s concept in a substantial way that the composer’s music for War and Peace did not.  Vladimir Galuzin (Alexei), Sergei Aleksashkin (the General), Nikolai Gassiev (the Marquis) led the way with Larisa Diadkova (Babulenka) adding her wry humor to the mix.  Valery Gergiev put it all together from the podium.

Philadelphia Orchestra: Bruckner

The Philadelphia Orchestra marked the tenth anniversary of signing its contract with music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, one of the most exciting conductors of his generation, with a luscious performance of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony filmed in May 2014.  The annual concert in memory of my father got eaten by covid in April, so this online streaming substituted.  My father loved this symphony (and I think it may have been his father’s favorite).  I have heard it a million times, but heard new nuances in this performance.  Nézet-Séguin made sure to highlight the woodwinds especially in the first movement – without diminishing the strings and brass, but reminding us that Bruckner took great care in these inner lines, which give his music so much extra color.  A brutal reading of the scherzo followed, with Bruckner breaking down conventions and moving music towards the twentieth century.  As an antidote, the Orchestra’s lush strings drew out a delicate adagio, even as it swelled into what must have seemed impossible chromatics, as Bruckner approached the abyss, setting up a final movement that Bruckner never completed (and which was not performed here, as per normal practice).  While there are some versions that have been conjured up mostly out of fantasy with no basis on Bruckner’s sketches, Bruckner was actually very close to completing the final movement, and likely did complete the sketch and most of the orchestration, but some of his eager students ran off with the paper from his desk as souvenirs, and the movement has only been slowly reconstructed in recent years by the Bruckner Society in Vienna, showing that Bruckner had indeed stared over the abyss to see the end of the world.  But the three completed movements suffice to tell a story.

An interview with Rafael Viñoly, the architect of the Kimmel Center, preceded the concert.  While Viñoly correctly mentioned the centrality of hearing the music, he never really explained why he could not be bothered to design a hall with decent acoustics.  The hall itself looks nice enough (it is shaped like the inside of a cello, and uses a pleasant dark wood with warm coloring), but aside from a few seats where the orchestra is fully audible, in most seats (and I indeed have intentionally sat in many locations) the orchestra sounds distant, as though playing behind a scrim.  As its onlyintended use was as a concert hall, this makes it a complete failure of architecture, no matter what it might look like.  And the hall itself is not the only failure.  Outside the concert hall itself, but inside the overall shell of the building, the Kimmel Center is quite simply a horrible space: busy but cramped, open but difficult to move around in, and generally jarringly noisy ruining the mood coming and going from concerts.  In the pre-concert interview, Viñoly said the right things about his motivation and music, but then never actually explained why his architectural concept took none of his motivations into account.  The Kimmel Center truly is an awful venue.  As I wrote here last week, I find it an absolute travesty that this wonderful orchestra does not have a home with decent acoustics.  Those who live in Philadelphia will have to make do.  For everyone else: go hear the Orchestra on tour in a proper venue.  (My choices for best concert halls where I have myself attended concerts: 1. the Tonhalle in Zurich; 2. the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory; and 3. the Musikverein in Vienna, although I recognize that certain seats in the Musikverein are problematic acoustically even if most are tremendous, I don’t think there are any bad seats in my first or second choices.  I have so far never been to the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, hence have not included that famed hall on my list but intend to get there for a concert some day; I have lived in Zurich, Moscow, and Vienna, so have tried seats in many locations in those three halls to get a good sense of their acoustics.)

Online Highlights (from residual streamings)

Highlights

I was convalescing from dental surgery this week, so although the lockdown is long over and life outside looks reasonably normal, I continue to scan residual streamings for more unusual performances I want to hear.  This seems to include a disproportionate amount of Russian music.

Tschaikowsky: Iolanta and Bartók: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (Metropolitan Opera)

Good to know that sometimes a rarely-performed – indeed unjustly-neglected – opera gets a champion and another chance to re-enter the repertory.  Tschaikowsky himself did not think much of Iolanta, which may have influenced the poor uptake of the work even though its champions included such notables as Gustav Mahler.  Now it seems Valery Gergiev is leading a new charge, working with Anna Netrebko in the title role.  I saw this combination in a streaming from the Mariinsky one month ago (a 2009 production), and was rather pleased to see them reunited at the Metropolitan Opera now (in a 2015 production).  Mariusz Treliński directed both versions.  His staging for the Met essentially followed a similar concept to the one he previously did for the Mariinsky – both rather silly, with no discernable logic to the combination of costumes and sets, but indeed emphasizing the psychological aspects of the drama.  The confusion was inoffensive, if needless, but so long as I did focus on the psychodrama and the singing, I could enjoy the performance.  In addition to Netrebko sounding in top form for the title role, Ilya Bannik sang an elegant King René, Aleksei Markov a strong Duke Robert (a role he also sang in the Mariinsky version), and Elchin Azizov an impressive Ibn Hakia.  Piotr Beczala was uneven as Count Gottfried Vaudemont – his good moments shone, but he also had rougher ones.

If Iolanta provided a psychodrama of a woman moving from darkness to light, then the Met paired this performance with Duke Bluebeard’s Castle by Béla Bartók, in which a woman goes the other direction into darkness.  It’s not at all an easy opera to stage, and so Treliński juxtaposed projections with odd portions of inside and outside spaces with off-balance lighting, seeking to get inside the head of Judith.  I am not sure he succeeded, and in the process he made Duke Bluebeard a more one-dimensional evil character, when in reality Bluebeard is more nuanced and in some ways himself cursed to his fate, hoping Judith will succeed in rescuing him.  That did not come across here.  Nadja Michael and Mikhail Petrenko sang the two roles adequately, but both might have had fuller voices: Petrenko could have been darker and rounder especially in Treliński’s interpretation.  Gergiev appears also to be promoting this rare opera – I heard him conduct it in Moscow in 2011.

Shchedrin: The Lefthander (Mariinsky Theater)

I don’t think I have ever heard the music of Rodion Shchedrin live.  I own a recording of his opera Dead Souls, but other than having listened to that at some point (I don’t remember buying it, so think it was given to me) I don’t remember hearing anything else by him on the radio.  But something pulled me to watch the Mariinsky’s steaming of the world premiere of Shchedrin’s opera The Lefthander from July 2013 (commissioned to open the Mariinsky’s brand new Second Stage).

Supposedly a witty satire on British and Russian society, I missed a lot of the amusement from not understanding Russian (the Mariinsky does not provide optional captions for its streamings, and my residual passive Russian, built up when I worked in Russia from 2009-2011, is no longer up to the task).  But the production by Alexei Styepanyuk was like a lot of other fantasy stagings the Mariinsky has shown in the last few months (including his own staging of the Queen of Spades) – although set in the 19th century, it is obviously not a realistic story, and so the caricatures and sometimes cartoonish settings serve their purpose.  Valery Gergiev conducted a cast headed by Andrei Popov, whose stylized Russian tenor worked well for the title role.  The music itself jumped around modern tonalities on a base of Russian folk melodies – a 21st century outgrowth of the Russian classical tradition.  Was it good music?  Maybe, but it did seem to properly support the operatic story, so at least it was good opera.  I just wish I had understood more of the text.

Prokofiev: War and Peace (Mariinsky Theater)

I may not have appreciated Prokofiev’s War and Peace when I watched it for the first time last week in a streaming from the Stanislavsky.  So I decided to give it another go, to see if I might not take to it more on a second hearing, this week from a 2003 performance streamed by the Mariinsky (I actually own two complete recordings – one from 1961 at the Bolshoi, the other from 1991 at the Kirov, as the Mariinsky was then called – as well as excerpts released from the private archives of Galina Vishnyevskaya from a 1971 Bolshoi production, but until last week had never seen a production on video).  My verdict: unchanged.  Good music, poor music drama.

Valery Gergiev conducted this performance, starring a young-voiced Anna Netrebko overshadowing Vladimir Moroz, as Andrey.  Gegham Grigoryan provided a more forceful presence as Pierre, less timid but portrayed as a bit of an older character than the Stanislavsky had him and that he might seem from the plot (Grigoryan, who passed away in 2016, was the father of Asmik Grigoryan, who made such an impression in the otherwise forgettable Salzburg Festival production of Salome in 2018).  Stage director Andrei Konchalovsky used historical costumes but otherwise an abstract staging, that may have worked – but it was hard to tell, as whatever moron was in charge of filming this performance was having a severe drug trip, using vertigo-inducing camera angles, never from the perspective of the audience and always from bizarre angles that put the stage on steep diagonals which made the cast look like they should have slipped off the set completely (since they clearly were not, this was entirely due to the extreme camera angles).

Mussorgsky: Boris Godunov (Staatsoper)

I never tire of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov.  But I marked this one – from the Staatsoper – down in my calendar as to hear and not to watch.  I saw this production in 2014 and had no desire to see it again.  Director Yannis Kokkos, who despite being Greek seemingly does not have the word “drama” in his vocabulary, delivered a terrible concept: first, he used Mussorgsky’s original version – which Mussorgsky himself had rejected and which will always lack drama, and then did not even try to develop anything beyond that (see my blog review from 2014).  But the music is wonderful, and although it makes every character except Boris himself somewhat one-dimension, this original version does enable whoever sings the role of Boris to have a showcase.  And in this performance, the stage belonged to René Pape, ably supported by the orchestra under Marko Letonja.  I may also call out Ryan Speedo Green, who sang a rousing Varlaam in his brief appearance.

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra: Schostakowitsch

The Mariinsky streamed a concert from the Mariinsky Concert Hall on 25 September 2016, the 110thanniversary of the birth of Dmitri Schostakowitsch.  The first half consisted of chamber music, and the second of orchestral, with two student works framing two Jewish-inspired pieces.  Schostakowitsch wrote his Trio #1 when he was just sixteen years old, and his Symphony #1 as a graduation piece from the conservatory when he was twenty.  Both demonstrate his budding talent at the different Fächer.  The middle pieces were his song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry (performed here in its original version with only piano accompaniment) and his Violin Concerto #1 – both of which he had to hide in his desk drawer due to official Soviet antisemitism.  Sergei Redkin (piano), Pavel Milyukov (violin), and Aleksandr Ramm (cello) performed the trio, with Redkin returning to accompany vocalists Anastasiya Kalagina, Yekatyerina Sergeyeva, and Dmitry Voropayev for the songs, and Milyukov returning for the concerto.  Valery Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Orchestra.  The performance of the concerto stood out in particular for its robustness and vigor – celebrations in the midst of tragedy (kudos to Milyukov).  And the interpretation of the symphony was very powerful, even in its softer moments demonstrating a sense of foreboding.

Philadelphia Orchestra: Bach, Dukas, Rachmaninov, Sarasate, Copland, Stravinsky

The Philadelphia Orchestra has posted on its website its 100th birthday concert from 16 November 2000.  The program opened in dramatic fashion with Leopold Stokowski’s orchestration of J.S. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in d (BWV 565), one of many transcriptions Stokowski did for this orchestra during his tenure as its music director (1912-38).  In keeping with Stokowski’s trends, his version represents a complete reinterpretation of the work more than just an orchestration, here for a full orchestra and emphasizing the Philadelphians’ famous lush strings.  This orchestra also provided the soundtrack for the classic 1940 Disney film Fantasia, in which works such as Stokowski’s arrangement of Bach’s Toccata and the Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas entered American pop culture.  So it was natural to hear these two works lead off the anniversary concert in thrilling, high-octane performances.

Three works for soloists and orchestra followed.  André Watts joined the Orchestra for Rachmaninov’s second Piano Concerto – the Orchestra which Rachmaninov himself had prized so greatly gave the world premiere of several of the composer’s works (although not this one, as it happens).   Sarah Chang then came on for Sarasate’s Fantasy on Bizet’s Carmen (which had its US premiere in Philadelphia, albeit before this Orchestra was founded), and Thomas Hampson for four selections from Copland’s Old American Songs (there would of course need to be some American composition on this program, in this case the greatest American composer of the 20th century, born the same year the Orchestra was founded – apparently two days before, on 14 November 1900).  Watts and Chang grew up in Philadelphia so were likely chosen for sentimental reasons – Hampson did not grow up in Philadelphia (and as far as I know has no particular Philadelphia connection), but was by far the most impressive of the choices for soloists.  It was a great shame they did only four selections and not Copland’s entire song cycle (ten short songs in total, the additional six would have only added another 15 minutes to the concert, so certainly within reason especially for a gala celebration that came in easily at under two hours including applause and announcements from the stage).

The concert concluded with the suite from the Firebird by Igor Stravinsky, for which the Orchestra had given the U.S. premiere – the return to purely orchestral music most welcome and again full-on showcasing the Orchestra’s craft.  Wolfgang Sawallisch, the Orchestra’s much-loved music director at the time, conducted this concert in Philadelphia’s Academy of Music.  The Orchestra today still owns the Academy, although it has subsequently moved to a new hall – sadly, neither the Academy nor the Orchestra’s current venue in the Kimmel Center has decent acoustics, which is a real travesty.  This wonderful Orchestra desperately needs a proper home venue and is until then best enjoyed on tour.  Back when I lived in Zurich, I heard it with Sawallisch in the Tonhalle – where it nearly blew the roof off considering the perfect acoustics in that hall, the best in the world, and the Orchestra simply had been used to having to over-play in order to overcome the Academy’s tendency to swallow sound – as well as in recent years with its current music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin in the Musikverein (another world-great hall), Dresden’s Semper Oper (where sound takes peculiar bounces but remains alive), and the Berlin Konzerthaus (a strangely overrated hall, albeit better than the Philharmonie across town, but still reasonable thanks to the installation of sound-deflecting enhancements around the stage).

Online Highlights (from residual streamings)

Highlights

Daily life is now returning to normal in Austria, although certain restrictions remain on gatherings and travel.  Live music has resumed, but the halls are not yet allowed to be fully filled (indeed, they are barely filled), so I have not yet gotten in myself.  In the meantime, I still look around for worthwhile streamings being made available in the context of this crisis, but have reduced my frequency as life moves back along.  I look forward to getting live music myself later this Summer at the Festival.

Rimsky-Korsakov: The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh (Dutch National Opera)

Rimsky-Korsakov’s mystical masterpiece The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh somehow never managed to enter into the repertory – perhaps too Wagnerian for the Russians, and too Russian for the west.  It is an opera I am aware of, but have not listened for many years to my only complete recording (a live performance from the Mariinsky in 1994 – confusingly stating “Kirov Opera” on the box even though it was published in 1999 and the Mariinsky’s Imperial-era name was restored from the Soviet-era “Kirov” in 1992).  But the Dutch National Opera provided a stream of a 2012 performance, which gave me a chance to see it.  Marc Albrecht led the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra.  Standing out from the cast, Svetlana Ignatovich sang Fevroniya and Maksim Aksyënov sang Vsevelod.

I think I need to go back and listen to my recording from the Mariinsky.  I won’t waste much time on the staging, by Dmitri Tcherniakov, the same person who so badly botched Prince Igor  at the Met that I had watched in May.  This opened well enough – in the wilderness, with the animals surrounding Fevroniya in human form but not altogether departing from the mystical atmosphere.  But then came the modern updating, and as it got deeper into the opera this modernization became harder and harder to sustain.  It’s not that he really deviated from the plot, but singing about a legendary time and set of events but setting the whole thing in a contemporary-ish context created its own discrepancies, and trying to act it out created more (not to mention little intentional nonsensical details like dressing a couple of the Tatars up as Santa Claus).  And while Tcherniakov’s concept recovered a little in the minimalist final act, it came too late.  His modern inclinations, without consistency, increasingly undermined the mysticism that was the entire point of Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera.

Prokofiev: War and Peace (Stanislavsky Opera)

Another seldom-performed Russian opera, Prokofiev’s War and Peace, popped up from the Stanislavsky Opera.  When I lived in Moscow, I found the Stanislavsky a reliable venue for my opera addiction.  Most of the Stanislavsky’s productions tend towards the under-stated, which usually works just fine.  In this case, not unusually for the Stanislavsky, its director Aleksander Titel provided realistic costumes but abstract staging.  I suppose this worked, and it certainly gave the cast a chance to act (kudos to Natalia Petrozhitskaya as Natasha, Nikolay Yerokhin as Pierre, and Dmitry Zuyev as Andrey in this 2013 performance conducted by the Stanislavsky’s music director Felix Korobov).

In the end, though, the opera itself did not convince me.  Not having read the underlying Tolstoy novel, I cannot say to what degree Prokofiev had simplified the plot, but on its own I came away feeling like his adaptation did not work.  The gaps were too great to make a coherent opera – indeed, he might even have simplified more and just focused more narrowly so as not to try to spread so thin, or he might have extended the length in order to include more context and development.  Or he could have taken a Tschaikowsky-style approach and made it into a psychodrama, concentrating on the mental state of the characters and forgoing much plot at all.  Musically, too, Prokofiev’s idiom, so good in so many other symphonic works from symphonies to concerti to ballets to film scores, lacked drama, plodding along through the first act and disjointed through the second.  Given that he had borrowed some of this music from earlier works, where it did fit better, I wondered if this was just laziness and failure to commit to thinking this work through originally.  So I will not chalk this opera up as one of Prokofiev’s better efforts.

Strauss: Salome (Metropolitan Opera)

When I saw that the director, Jürgen Flimm, was German and looked him up to discover he was a pioneer of Regietheater, I assumed I was just going to listen to and not watch this performance.  But I quickly realized that, wonder of wonders, he actually decided to stage the plot.  The setting itself was odd and inconsistent but not inherently bad – it was a mix of styles from the turn of the 20th century, so Middle Eastern colonial uniforms for the guards, European high society for the royal family and their guests, Haredi for the Jews (that hasn’t changed), southern US black Sunday best for the Nazarenes, and John the Baptist in rags.  The stage was split between an indoor part (looked like it could have been on a luxury liner) and an outdoor part (stylized Middle Eastern desert).  The usual problem with updated the timeframe of an opera is that some of the references do not make sense, which requires either further changes to the plot to accommodate or else weird juxtapositions (like people carrying swords and spears in a contemporary context) – but with care a director can make Salome timeless yet consistent.  I am not sure any of this particular early-20th-century framing made any sense, but it could safely be ignored because Flimm indeed focused on the interactions among the characters, which were slightly more hands-on than usual, and generally consistent with the words being sung (or at least within the realm of reasonable interpretation to elucidate the plot).  The physical approach amplified and clarified the psychological.  And that level of attention made this a highly enjoyable production.

Unfortunately, the cast was less good.  They all pretty much acted their roles well, so again visually this all worked, but if I had only listened to this performance I would have come away disappointed.  Karita Mattila gave a very large-voiced reading of Salome, but she also often avoided coming in on pitch, and seems not to have understood that the role – although requiring enormous vocal stamina and range – is of a 16-year-old girl, and she did not capture that element of delicacy (it’s enormously hard to sing a huge role delicately, but that is what is required).  Juho Uusitalo (it must have been Finnish night) sang John the Baptist poorly.  His voice simply did not resonate (nor was he on pitch, so some of his exchanges with Mattila became painful).  Joseph Kaiser as Narraboth also could not sing to save his life (Narraboth commits suicide, so he did not save his life, but it’s a key role early in the opera and matching him up with Mattila and Uusitalo early just made me wonder what was going on there musically).  Actually, Mattila’s pitch improved after Narraboth committed suicide and the Baptist returned to his cistern – although her tone still remained wrong.  Yet all of them could act.  And when Herod (Kim Begley) and Herodias (Ilikó Komlósi) came out, they had their roles down well vocally.  The minor roles were all uneven.  Conductor Patrick Summers tried to put this all together from the pit for this 2008 performance, and he mostly succeeded even if hampered by a strange-sounding cast.

Concertgebouworkest: Beethoven

The Concertgebouw Orchestra has posted a row of Beethoven Symphonies – #4  through #8 – recorded in 2013-2014 under the baton of Iván Fischer.  These performances are fully charged, climaxing in the 7th.  But I might instead focus on the last in the series.  Fischer brought out an unusual degree of tension in the 8th, making this symphony appear much bigger than normal (if not in actual size then certainly in its stage presence).  This lighter foil to the 7th is in Fischer’s interpretation almost its equal in impact, and in fact it was terrific to hear this interpretation immediately after listening to the 7th.  If not quite as wild a dance as the 7th, it is still a dance.  Fischer and the Concertgebouw made a strong case for this underperformed symphony to appear more often on concert programs (indeed, there are those of us who do admire Beethoven’s eighth, but even for us this interpretation expanded its potential).

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 While Waiting for Live Music to Resume (week 8)

Highlights

The lockdown is thankfully over, at least in Austria, so I am getting out more.  But since there is still no live music out there for the foreseeable future, I continue to keep an eye out for worthwhile things to see online.

Mozart: Marriage of Figaro (Metropolitan Opera)

I have to admit: I have never quite taken to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro.  I’ve sat down to listen to it more than a few times, and usually give up after the first act.  I don’t turn it off, I simply leave it in the background.  While the music is beautiful, I never felt that it went anywhere, at least not to merit my further attention.  I’ve never been tempted to go see it.  I own one recording – bought early in my CD collection (a 1953 Salzburg Festival performance with a tremendous cast) since at that time I thought I still needed a recording of this opera – and then I basically never listen to that complete in a single sitting.

This remained the case, at least, until the Met streamed a 1998 performance, in a delightful staging by Jonathan Miller with an unbelievably perfect cast.  Perhaps if I had started with this production, I might have appreciated this opera more.  Miller left room for the singers to act out their roles to the fullest, which they did, creating pure comedy while still maintaining full musicality.  The cast could act.  The cast could sing.  The farce was every bit as hilarious as Rossini’s Barber of Seville (same characters set earlier, but which Rossini wrote later), just in a Mozartian style.  Renée Fleming (Countess), Cecilia Bartoli (Susanna), Susanne Mentzer (Cherubino), Dwayne Croft (Almaviva), and Bryn Terfel (Figaro) all captured such humor.  James Levine, still at the pinnacle of his career, conducted.

Strauss: Capriccio (Metropolitan Opera)

Renée Fleming has in recent years owned the role of the Countess in Capriccio by Richard Strauss (she has owned so many roles, actually).  She sang the part when I first saw this opera in Vienna in 2008, and in this 2011 performance from the Met here she was again.  The cast around her was idiomatic as well (Morten Frank Larsen as the Count, Joseph Kaiser as Flamand, Russell Braun as Olivier, Peter Rose as La Roche, and Sarah Connolly as Clairon).  The staging was not the timeless one of the Staatsoper, but updated into the twentieth century (exactly when is hard to tell – the lavish set suggested an over-the-top traditional country estate, the costumes could have been out of the 1980s – my father might have felt comfortable dressing that way in the 80s, although he would never have worn shoes inside the house, and this was certainly not our house since we neither had an inherited estate nor would we have decorated it that way if we had had).  Still, this opera does not require any particular time period, so the staging (by John Cox) worked.  What did not work in the end, or at least less well, was the music.  That’s not Strauss’ fault, so it must have been the Met orchestra under Andrew Davis, who did not capture the lush score.  The Met orchestra will never be the Vienna Philharmonic, but there had been a time when it was a top-rate opera orchestra – by the season when this was recorded, the first season when James Levine, who had done so much to build up that orchestra decades before, publicly had to admit he was no longer fit for the job as the Met’s music director, the orchestra had suffered noticeable decline.  Fabio Luisi took over many of Levine’s duties starting in 2010-11, and the orchestra began to improve again, but that season may have been its nadir.

Borodin: Prince Igor (Metropolitan Opera)

Because of the unusually-difficult provenance of Borodin’s Prince Igor, the director can basically decide how to assemble the opera – which music to use or omit, and in what order to perform it.

And because there is no fixed version of Prince Igor, I am fine giving great leeway to the construction of the opera.  Choosing which pieces to assemble and in what order to put them may indeed result in a not fully-logical result (and it would not be the first opera to have an illogical plot).  But whatever the choice, there must be some dramatic conception for how the director assembles it.  So while musically this performance from the Metropolitan Opera was objectively fine, the lack of clarity in the concept sapped its drama.  Gianandrea Noseda, conducting, did not do a bad job, but he could not overcome the direction by Dmitri Tcherniakov.  Likewise, a cast headed by Ildar Abdrazakov as Igor, supported ably by solid performances across the board (especially Oksana Dyka as Igor’s wife Yaroslavna), simply failed to inject life into this fundamentally dull production.  And that’s on Tcherniakov’s head.

It probably did not help that Tcherniakov could not figure out a timeframe for his concept (moving around in time, sometimes different characters in different centuries on stage simultaneously, and none of them in the 12th century, when the action takes place).  But that probably was not fatal.

After the usual prologue, Tcherniakov moved the first act (which in this case is essentially the first of the Polovtsian acts) into a field of flowers with characters wandering in and out speaking to or around Igor (even when they aren’t supposed to be in front of him – such as Vladimir and Konchakovna, or not supposed to be there at all, such as Igor’s wife Yaroslavna) and Igor speaking in front of them.  The result came across as a disjointed set of arias with no inherent logic (I suppose if Borodin left a jumble, Tcherniakov just kept it as a jumble, but there’s no reason to believe Borodin wanted a jumble).  When the Polovtsian chorus sings at various times (they remain offstage except at the end of the act when they dance among the flowers) a film is shown on the scrim depicting the aftermath of the battle in which their armies defeated Igor’s.

Another disconnect of putting this act immediately after the prologue: it contains the plot line that Igor’s son and the Khan’s daughter are already a couple, to the extent that Konchakovna has already raised this potential marriage with her father (and they speak of it, oddly in this production, in front of but not to Igor).  Yet much later in the opera Yaroslavna is informed for the first time that Igor was captured, which would imply that she somehow did not know this for a very long time.  While there was no internet or 24-hour news back then, this is still a bit odd.

At the end of that later act, when the Polovtsians attacked Putivl (presumably: they did not actually appear), somehow in the confusion the only one who wound up dead was Galitsky (he is supposed to die in the attack, but in this staging there was no actual attack yet he ended up dead on the floor of the stage for no clear reason).  More confusion came in the final act, here the act set in the destroyed city of Putivl, which had now turned into a late 20th-century impoverished ‘hood (think: Bronx, but with no black people).  Igor returned (as he is supposed to), but was greeted by his son Vladimir, followed by Konchakovna, who then sang music from an act (omitted in this version) in the Polovtsian camp before Igor’s escape.  Igor then sat there in the middle of the stage oblivious while the rest of the plot moved on around him.

So while there may be no correct order of the bits of this opera – assembly indeed required – there are incorrect orders.  What did Tcherniakov’s one for the Met do?  It removed the drama, and the musicians simply could not recover.  I don’t think this was quite as bad a jumble as I once saw at the Mariinsky – which felt like they threw the entire score up in the air and performed it in whatever order it fell to the ground – but actually in that Mariinsky performance each scene individually was wonderfully dramatic even while the full concept made no sense.

  • [Recording tips:  In selecting “complete” recordings, I have made my decisions based on the music rather than on the assembly of the opera itself.  On top of that I have a pretty decent amount if excerpts.  So I suppose when listening to the opera I am in general less concerned about whether it makes any sense.  But if I watch it, I want it to make sense.  My two “complete” recordings (since, after all, there is no such thing as a “complete” recording given what Borodin left behind when he died, and that much of it may actually have been composed by Aleksandr Glazunov anyway) are: one from the Bolshoi Opera in 1951 conducted by Aleksandr Melik-Pashaev, and one from the Staatsoper in 1969 conducted by Lovro von Matačić, both live performances with first class casts.]

Tschaikowsky: Iolanta (Mariinsky Theater)

I chose to stream a 2009 production of Tschaikowsky’s Iolanta from the Mariinsky Theater, with Anna Netrebko in the title role and Valery Gergiev in the pit in order to hear this seldom-performed opera done right.  Tschaikowsky himself did not think highly of it, but the music is rather gorgeous (and was appreciated by none other than Gustav Mahler, who knew a thing or two about opera and actively championed it outside Russia).  It’s basically a fairy tale, and taken as such it works.  Mariusz Treliński’s basic modern (definitely not fairy tale) staging, mixing in filmed images with real ones, was pretty silly, but did play up the psychological aspects of the main character (just as long as I did not try to think too hard about the stupidity of the mismatched costumes, sets, blocking, or pretty much anything – thankfully, this was a case of it being so silly that I indeed did not have to think much about it and did just focus on the psychological aspects).  The camera work on the filming followed the same path, often switching intentionally to soft focus to underscore the key plot element that Iolanta herself is blind.  Sergei Aleksashkin was particularly excellent as King René (I’ve seen him before at the Mariinsky as Khan Konchak in Prince Igor and Ivan Khovansky in Khovanshchina), with Sergei Skorokhodov as Count Vaudemont and Alexei Markov as Duke Robert.

Berlioz: Beatrice and Benedict (Boston Symphony Orchestra)

The Boston Symphony Orchestra concluded its six weeks of curated selections by providing a great chance to hear a seldom-performed opera: Beatrice and Benedict by Hector Berlioz.  This performance was fully staged at the Tanglewood Festival in 1984, but the BSO only released the audio recording.  Still, the performance, led by Seiji Ozawa with Frederica von Stade and Jon Garrison in the title roles, was exciting, and a rare chance to have comic relief provided by Berlioz, most of whose works were rather more serious.  From the sound of it, the audience also had a good time!

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra: Rossini, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Beethoven

The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra still has several concerts streamable from its website, and so I continue to pull out ones by the late Mariss Jansons.  I was particularly taken by this particular concert, even if the program itself was a bit of a mish-mash, as Jansons often seems to have intended to do later in his life.  But since it will never again be possible to hear Jansons conduct live, I am thankful for the recordings made available online that truly show why he was the greatest conductor of the last couple of decades, and this concert displayed some of his range.  It opened by a spirited overture to William Tell by RossiniProkofiev’s violin concerto #1 followed with soloist Frank Peter Zimmermann, who also played an encore by Rachmaninov.  A tense but also joyous Beethoven Symphony #3 concluded the concert – worth calling up from their website while it remains posted.

Philadelphia Orchestra: Schubert, Strauss, Dvořák, Berlioz
Philadelphia Orchestra: Mahler

Among the offerings they made available during the closure period, the Philadelphia Orchestra posted two transitional concerts from 1993 and 2011, which were quite enlightening, showing the orchestra in two different time periods under conductors who had actually not yet taken up their posts as music director yet and so were conducting an orchestra they had not yet had the chance to mold – Wolfgang Sawallisch in 1993 and Yannick Nézet-Séguin in 2011 both had the title “Music Director Designate.”

The 1993 concert itself was rather ironic given the current global crisis caused by the Chinese Communist Party penchant for trading in endangered species, operating unhygienic wet markets as breeding ground for new diseases, and orchestrated cover-ups (not to mention trying to gain propaganda value from exporting healthcare materials which turn out to be mostly defective and useless).  The Philadelphia Orchestra was the first American orchestra to be invited to Communist China in 1973, and this concert was performed twenty years later as a commemoration in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People (a misnomer, as the Communist Party of China cares not a jot for its people and has been the most murderous regime in history on raw numbers, dare I also mention Tibet and East Turkestan).  Sawallisch, who would take over as Music Director of the Orchestra a few months later, conducted this one, for a quite standard program: the unfinished Eighth Symphony of Franz Schubert, Till Eulenspiegel by Richard Strauss, and the Ninth Symphony by Antonín Dvořák, with the Roman Carnival by Hector Berlioz for an encore.

What made this concert interesting was actually hearing how different the orchestra sounded then than it does now.  Of course this was a recording using old technology (1993, but it was produced by Chinese television back then), in an absolutely enormous venue.  But I am getting a lot of streamed recorded music right now (plus there is my CD collection), so in the absence of live music (thanks to the Chinese Communist Party and Chairman Xi) this is the new standard.

I was probably too young to appreciate the “Philadelphia Sound” when Eugene Ormandy was Music Director – but I caught him towards the end of his 44-year tenure, and what was clear even to me as a child was that things had become blurry.  No one should stay in charge of anything for 44 years.  Riccardo Muti succeeded Ormandy, which was initially a good thing as it brought back some discipline.  But my assessment of Muti remains pretty  much the same today: he is a fantastic and intelligent guest conductor whose concerts are to be anticipated, and as a music director he will certainly discipline an orchestra’s sound, but he’s not actually a very good music director because he knows only one thing for his orchestras: a Muti sound.  Now, a Muti sound is certainly a good one, but it sacrifices the identity of an orchestra.  So, for example, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra today sounds pretty much like the Philadelphia Orchestra of the 1980s.  Close my eyes listening to the Chicagoans now and I think I am in Philadelphia’s Academy of Music back then (except for maybe the poor acoustics of the old Academy of Music – of course, Philadelphia’s new venue also has poor acoustics of a different sort).  So Muti may have been exactly what this orchestra needed to clean itself up in 1980, but he sacrificed the orchestra’s character.

In this concert, Sawallisch brought a program of standard works that could as easily have been conducted by either Muti or Sawallisch.  And the orchestra was not yet Sawallisch’s as he would not take over until later that year.  So it is a good concert by what was indeed one of the top three or four orchestras in the United States, but it’s neither the orchestra of my childhood nor certainly not the orchestra of today.

Sawallisch was a terrific match for this orchestra, as he maintained its quality but gave it back its distinctive character through the 1990s.  Sawallisch arrived on the back end of his career, never intending to stay long, but stayed long enough to do this orchestra right.  Rather than lining up whatever would come next knowing Sawallisch’s tenure would be short, the Orchestra managed to completely botch appointing a successor and initially ended up with no one.  Sawallisch, by then widowed, depressed, and ill, agreed to extend his contract to give the Orchestra more time.  They ended up with the seriously uninteresting Christoph Eschenbach, who was essentially chased out of town – and still the Orchestra failed to have anyone lined up.  This forced them to go without a Music Director for several years, using Charles Dutoit as “chief conductor” – and if Eschenbach was dull, Dutoit was ten times worse (he had apparently wanted to be music director for decades and there clearly was a good reason they had never appointed him, after all).  The Orchestra literally went bankrupt in 2011.  That was its nadir (although it had so many remarkable musicians – many still there today – it sounded so mediocre in those years).

On to the concert the Orchestra posted from 2011, or at least part of one including Mahler’s First Symphony.  The conductor of that concert was the current Music Director, Nézet-Séguin, at the time when he was still the Music Director Designate.  And while his concert was an improvement, he had not yet had time to fix the Orchestra.  The team was mostly already in place, but this reading of Mahler lacked the intensity and exquisite virtuosity the Orchestra produces as its baseline today.  But fix the Orchestra he did, to get where it is today, in my humble opinion far and away the best orchestra in the United States and among the top five in the world.

I do have recordings of the Philadelphians with Muti in the 1980s and Sawallisch in the 1990s, and they are good recordings indeed, but it is still fascinating to hear the evolution of the Orchestra’s sound.  It is hard to quantify – and if there is a “Philadelphia Sound” I am actually not sure that under Nézet-Séguin he has quite brought it back to Sawallisch or to Ormandy (or Stokowski) but has probably given it a new identity.  And in a sense that’s what Muti did too, so I suppose my only objection to Muti is not the sound (Muti is a fantastic musician and exacting conductor) but that it had no identity under Muti other than Muti (as Chicago today).  So sounds do evolve (although maybe not the Vienna Philharmonic’s), but the distinctiveness is key.

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra and Chorus: Prokofiev
Mariinsky Theater Orchestra: Schostakowitch

The Mariinsky streamed a good amount of not-unexpected music on Soviet Victory Day.  Sergei Eisenstein was one of the greatest film directors of all time from in terms of artistic value.  Among his product were films about Aleksandr Nyevsky and Ivan the Terrible (the first generally a Russian hero, the second a favorite of Stalin), to which Prokofiev provided the film scores.  Schostakowitsch’s Seventh Symphony is also a traditional work performed on that day.  Valery Gergiev conducted both concerts.

The Prokofiev concert took place in 2016 at the Mariinsky Concert Hall, with excerpts from both films: the separate Aleksandr Nyevsky Cantata which Prokofiev himself arranged, and a arrangement of music from Ivan the Terrible (not sure if Prokofiev or Gergiev or someone else assembled it in this condition).  For both, Gergiev took a somewhat softer, smoother approach than normal – not the usual bitter Russian orchestral sound (which I happen to like).  Only Prokofiev’s dissonances created tension.  Ivan the Terrible had a narrator in this version, which turned out annoying, as he interrupted the flow.  It would have been better either go with the complete film with the music serving as backdrop, or to go with the complete cantata without narration.  Or maybe narration between sets (as opposed to talking over the music).  This did not work at all – I just wanted the narrator to shut up so I could enjoy the music.  It was not that the narrator was bad, just the concept of a narrator was.

I suppose a performance of Schostakowtisch’s Seventh Symphony has become obligatory for the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra on Soviet Victory Day (I heard them perform it live that day in 2010).  It’s actually not clear when this performance was filmed – the Mariinsky’s webpage itself said it was done on the day, but there was clearly an audience in the Mariinsky’s new second hall, which would not be possible under Russia’s covid-19 restrictions, so clearly they had filmed it beforehand.  The symphony, called the “Leningrad,” was long used as a propaganda piece, but it is still good music (and of course had a subtext that did not follow the party line, starting with the “invasion” theme of the first movement, which Schostakowitsch did not write to portray the invasion of Russia by Germany in 1941 as the Communist Party announced, but rather had already written two years earlier to portray the invasion of Poland by Russia with its German allies in 1939).  For this symphony, Gergiev did let the orchestra’s more traditional Russian sound emerge.

  • [Recording tips: Gergiev has an excellent version of the Nyevsky Cantata with the same Mariinsky forces (confusingly, the CD jacket calls the Mariinsky by its Soviet-era name, the “Kirov,” despite the 2002 release date).  The 1984 version with Riccardo Chailly leading the Cleveland Orchestra was my introduction to this work and has held up well.  For Ivan the Terrible, the complete film score (without narration) appears in a 2000 version by Vladimir Fedoseyev and the Tschaikowsky Radio Symphony Orchestra of Moscow, a performance that truly allows the music itself to shine.  For the Schostakowitsch Seventh, I remain partial to a 1980 release by Bernard Haitink and the London Philharmonic.]

Online Highlights from the Corona Lockdown (week 6)

Highlights

Although Austria is coming back to life, the return to live music looks to remain months away.  Even then, it is not clear what musical events may look like.  Will we be able to cram into our seats in the audience, or will only a small number of seats go on sale?  Given scarcity, will they be affordable (and if not, is this sustainable?)?  Will the musicians themselves be able to survive this period?  Will the venues?  Even a committed concert-goer like me has not renewed any of my subscriptions for 2020-21.  Even if I were sure the shows will go on, I don’t know my schedule, which has been heavily disrupted, so do not know if I can plan around the subscription dates.  I also have taken a cut in income giving me even less disposable income to spend on concerts (I was using most of my disposable income on live music since I moved to Salzburg), so I may start to be more selective – subscriptions give me more music for the price, but if I won’t make certain concerts then it becomes less cost-effective.  I don’t really know, so I wait.  But I also recognize that people like me (I am sure I am not the only one waiting) makes it harder for the music to return.

So I am thankful for the online offerings people are making available.  It does not replace the live music, but it keeps me current.  Once again, I will stick to the format of operas first and concerts second in these highlight summaries.  I do not repeat recording tips if I have made them in connection with the same opera in a previous weekly blog during this lockdown.

Strauss: Capriccio (Staatsoper)

This week included three operas by Richard Strauss, opening with a simple and elegant staging at the Staatsoper by Marco Arturo Marelli, which I saw live in 2008.  The streamed version had a similar cast as the performance I saw back then (Michael Schade as Flamand, Adrian Eröd as Olivier, Wolfgang Bankl as La Roche, and Angelika Kirchschlager as Clairon) with only the Countess and Count different (here Camilla Nylund and Markus Eiche, instead of Renée Fleming and Bo Skovhus), and Michael Boder conducting (instead of Philippe Jordan in 2008).  This is a peculiar opera – wonderful in so many ways, but does not get performed often for reasons of its length and eccentricity.  When I saw this production at the Staatsoper in 2008, which may also have been the first time I ever heard it, it impressed me – a combination of Strauss’ lush score and undivided attention on the words (I would say “action” but there is no action, only words), and I rated it the best opera performance I had attended that year (in which I had spent quite a lot of time in Vienna).  On the small screen it did not enrapture me as much.  Was this Nyland and Eiche and Boder not having the same twinkle as Fleming and Skovhus and Jordan?  Hard to say, since it has been so long.

  • [Recording tip: After seeing this opera for the first time in 2008, I went out and got a recording (Karl Böhm’s 1972 recording with the Bavarian Radio and a stellar cast).  I am not going to claim it is the definitive one, since I have not made comparisons.  I have other excerpts, too.  But I will say that I return over and over again to Renée Fleming’s luscious final scene with the Vienna Philharmonic and Christoph Eschenbach released on a CD with other “Strauss heroines” in 1999).]

Strauss, Rosenkavalier (Metropolitan Opera)

I did not understand the interpretation from the Metropolitan Opera by Canadian director Robert Carsen.  I tried to understand.  I think he tried to think this one through.  But it’s not just that I was not convinced, rather more that I didn’t see any logic at all.  The concept (costumes, décor, and mood) was more 1920s Berlin than 1740s Vienna (even the fictionalized and romanticized 1740s Vienna created by Strauss and Hofmannsthal).

The first act, set in the Marschallin’s bedroom, looked more like a state room in the Hofburg.  For an opera set in Maria Theresia’s Vienna, somehow there were numerous portraits of Franz Joseph prominently displayed on the wall, as well as of other descendants of the Empress (at least in the Hofburg Maria Theresia is on the wall in what is now the President’s formal reception room).  As a nice touch, Carsen had Octavian return with (actual) roses for the Marschallin in the later part of the act, after he his snuck off and changed back into himself.  Act two had neo-Greek décor, armaments, and oddly waltzing servants (what?  Yes, the music is full of waltzes, but the servants don’t just start spontaneously waltzing with each other).  In the plot, Faninal was ennobled for supplying Austria’s armies in the Netherlands, but that would not mean he keeps the guns and cannons in his home – or maybe this was simply an attempt by Carsen at comedy.  Act three took place a brothel, but I suppose if it is being updated to the 1920s, then why not.  The “Innkeeper” was a transvestite madame, and the musicians also looked like transvestites.  Yes, the opera features a female lead playing a male role in which the character dresses as a woman, so it is part of the farce, but I am not sure what having actual transvestites in a brothel added.  Octavian as Mariandl dressed like one of the whores (skimpy lingerie is not necessarily a good way to hide certain body parts, though!).  It also meant she was not playing the simple country girl.

There are different ways to place the stress in this plot.  In Carsen’s interpretation, Octavian (an exciting and excited Elīna Garanča) became the driving force.  Günther Groissböck, a despicable Ochs, intended to be a bit of a dashing playboy in his military uniform.  This made him more physically active than the usual portrayal – not bad, just different, since he cannot be a complete bumpkin in the plot, but must demonstrate he is presentable in polite aristocratic society even if he is at heart an oaf.  The opera ended with Octavian and Sophie (Erin Morley) in the brothel bed together, and during the final measures (when the Marschallin’s young blackmoor Mohammed is supposed to be fetching her handkerchief), I have no explanation for what happened: the servant Mohammed (not a blackmoor here) showed up drunk, an army appeared in the background (presumably led by the Feldmarschall), the servant shook his bottle of alcohol, and the army collapsed dead – or something like that.  But we did get Renée Fleming as the Marschallin.  Sebastian Weigle led a perfectly fine performance from the pit.

Strauss: Elektra (Metropolitan Opera)

As I noted earlier during this lockdown, Strauss’ Elektra is an opera I have never really paid much attention to, for reasons I cannot explain.  The Staatsoper’s woeful staging by a Prussian nincompoop in its recent streaming did not help me to understand it, so I just listened then.  I was pleased to have another chance this week from the Met.  But it turns out the director of the Met’s version is Patrice Chéreau, who made a lasting traumatic impression on my childhood with a miserable production of Wagner’s Ring he did at Bayreuth along with his airheaded countryman Pierre Boulez conducting, that seemed designed to take the most deconstructionist French approach possible to the Ring (as a child I certainly did not know about French deconstructionism – and as an adult I am sorry I do).  That Chéreau-Boulez Ring from Bayreuth was televised, a big deal for back then, and my father and I sat down to watch with great anticipation, only to be terribly let down.  So I just listened again this time to Elektra.  (Is that entirely fair?  Should I have given Chéreau another chance, especially considering the number of lousy opera stagings I have seen over the years since then?  Probably, but his collaboration on that Bayreuth Ring really left my younger self disgusted and disgruntled.)  Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the moody music.  Nina Stemme was a wonderful Elektra, with Adrianne Pieczonka as Chrysothemis and Waltraud Meier as Clytemnestra.  It really is luxurious.  One of these days I will get to see a production of this opera by a competent director.

Puccini: Tosca (Metropolitan Opera)

The Met gave us a nice staging of Puccini’s Tosca (this was apparently the premiere performance of this staging from 2018) by David McVicar, where he provided a stage on which the singers could act.  Great little touches included Cavaradossi washing his face with holy water before Tosca comes in, and the mannerisms of Scarpia’s henchmen towards Cavaradossi (and knowing winks and nods to Scarpia).  Željko Lučić was a forceful Scarpia and dominated his scenes.  Sonya Yoncheva was a tad too melodramatic as Tosca (ever the diva, I suppose).  Vittorio Grigòlo may not have been the strongest Cavaradossi in voice or pitch (indeed, his voice was easily the poorest aspect of this entire performance), but could act the role.  Emmanuel Villaume conducted.

Offenbach: Tales of Hoffmann (Metropolitan Opera)

There is no definitive performing version of Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann (not worth explaining here why not).  So this is an opera which enables the director to decide how to assemble it.  All I ask is that the version makes sense.  A 2009 production at the Met by Bartlett Sher was set as a series of fantasies, which does make sense, but the settings themselves did not.  Not that they were crazy, just that they seemed to add nothing to understanding the work.  An excellent Niklaus (Kate Linsley) was equal parts dashing and mysterious, often as much co-conspirator against Hoffmann as muse to Hoffmann, so in this concept it made sense to insert the pre-prologue scene (with muse and the devil) and the post-epilogue scene (with the characters from the entire opera returning to the stage for a grand final morality chorus), both usually omitted.  Sher flipped the acts with Giulietta (here coming third) and Antonia (here coming second), putting them into the order that Offenbach himself wanted and which does make the most sense, although not the order they usually appear in.  The rest of the cast was fine, although the entire evening seemed uninspired other than Linsley (Joseph Calleja as Hoffmann, Kathleen Kim as Olympia, Anna Netrebko as Stella and Antonia, Ekaterina Gubanova as Giulietta, Alan Held as all of the villains).  James Levine conducted.

  • [Recording tips: …or lack thereof.  I like this opera and have seen it many times since my childhood, but maybe because there is no definitive version, I have never come across a recording I would especially recommend although I own two complete ones, depending on how one defines “complete.”]

Beethoven: Fidelio (Staatsoper)

The Staatsoper’s Otto Schenk-directed production of Beethoven’s Fidelio resolved for me the problem of having watched the Theater an der Wien’s production earlier in the lockdown.  First of all, they used the third version, which works dramatically much better than the two earlier versions (the Theater an der Wien did the second).  Second, Schenk’s intelligent staging augmented the drama even in the first act, which still in Beethoven’s third try was never quite up to the level.  I had a choice of recent casts, and picked one from 2017 (the cast available next week from a 2016 performance included the same Leonore – Anja Kampe – and Marzelline – Valentina Naforniƫă – that I saw in this production in 2013; they were excellent, but I opted for something else this time, although maybe I am tempted to listen back in next week).  Camilla Nylund as Leonore and Günther Groissböck as Rocco led the cast.  Chen Reiss fully developed the character of Marzelline, both in acting and in singing, and was a delight in her brief scenes.  The orchestra was warm and full, and carried the Vienna tradition started by Mahler of performing the Leonore Overture #3 in the scene change of the second act.  Drama indeed.  Cornelius Meister led a spirited performance.

Benatzky: Axel an der Himmelstür (Volksoper)

The Volksoper (of which I am a fan – and where I indeed attended my first live opera when I was five) kindly offered a trial of the “Fidelio” streaming service.  It does not offer a huge selection (or maybe it just does not have a very good search function), but I think I will be finding some things to recommend on there.  I thought I might start the trial with something from the Volksoper itself, and went back to the 2016 new production of Ralph Benatzky’s Axel an der Himmelstür, a parody of 1930s Hollywood done up as a Viennese operetta.  This production was one of my musical highlights in 2016.  And on this streaming, it was a great show once again, with a partly different cast than the one I saw in 2016 – I assume they filmed their “A” cast and I saw some “B” cast, but that itself may not mean anything in particular.  I am not sure that the two female leads here (Bettina Mönch as Gloria Mills and Johanna Arrouas as Jessie) convinced me as much as the ones I saw (Julia Koci and Juliette Khalil, respectively), although hard to make a direct comparison over the years.  But Andreas Bieber repeated as Axel and Kurt Schreibmayer as Cecil McScott, and Boris Eder replaced Peter Lesiak as Theodore, and they were all in fine form.  Lorenz Aichner conducted this clever staging by Peter Lund (my original review is on this blog for 14 October 2016).  I must say, however, that I was still bothered by the microphones.  There is no need to ever mike an opera opera performed indoors – although possibly if the staging requires the singers to move around a lot and not always face front, but here it was clear from the film that they still faced front, so I cannot excuse this decision.  It makes an even bigger difference in the theater for a live performance: what is the point of hearing music “live” if it comes over a speaker and sounds the same as on a recording?

  • [Recording tip: the 2016 Volksoper production inspired me to go out and get a recording.  There are not too many choices.  I now have a 1958 Vienna Radio recording with Heinz Sandauer conducting.  Zarah Leander, who created the roll of Gloria Mills, reprises it on this recording.  The CD set includes some original tracks from the 1936 team that created the opera.]

Vienna Philharmonic: Schumann, Berlioz

The trial with “Fidelio” allowed me to find Mariss Jansons’ last concert in the Musikverein leading the Vienna Philharmonic last June, broadcast on Austrian television after Jansons passed away late last year.  Jansons looked exhausted and frail, yet the sound he coaxed was revelatory despite the works being standard and theoretically with nothing new (for lesser conductors) to say: the “Spring” Symphony by Schumann and the Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz.  Indeed, this was perhaps the most powerful and expansive performance I have ever heard of Schumann’s first symphony.

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra: Berlioz, Poulenc, Saint-Saëns

Jansons was of course the greatest conductor of his generation, and will be sorely missed.  He was the sort of conductor I would see was conducting, and not even look to see what he was performing: I was guaranteed to hear something good.  The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, of which he remained Music Director at the time of his death, has posted several concerts for streaming on their website.  I zeroed in on one all-French concert.  The French, as I often remark, seem not to understand music (Berlioz excepted, and the French never understood him).  Some French composers had talent, but did not do much with it beyond some works that deserve to remain in the repertory but make me scratch my head as to why they couldn’t produce more like that.  But with Jansons and the Bavarians, suddenly real drama appears.  This was not French drama, but the way it could sound.  Latvian organist Iveta Apkalna joined forces here – I’ve heard her perform in the Mozarteum, but this she took to the next level.  The concert opened with Hector Berlioz’s Roman Carnival.  Then came Francis Poulenc’s Organ Concerto G minor (this is the work I heard Apkalna perform before – this time it convinced me, since last time she had a real disconnect with the orchestra, which I blamed back then squarely on an inadequate conductor).  Camille Saint-Saëns’s Symphony No. 3 C minor (with the organ) completed the concert, its own first movement setting an amazingly delicate mood.

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra: Bruckner

Jansons drew more lush sounds from the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in a January 2019 performance of Bruckner’s Mass #3.  Bruckner wrote this mass right before he moved to Vienna and so it marks the transition point in his life.  This performance itself was other-worldly.  At “et resurexit,” they could have raised the dead.

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra: Prokofiev

For Prokofiev’s birthday on 23 April, the Mariinsky streamed a concert the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra performed on his birthday in 2016 in Moscow’s Stalinist Tschaikowsky Hall (I hated that hall, but it has extra prestige in Russia because Stalin had it built).  Maestro Valery Gergiev was joined by Denis Kozhukhin for the piano concerto #1 to lead off the concert, and by Leonidas Kavakos for the violin concerto #1 to end it.  In between came Prokofiev’s first and second symphonies.  Gergiev kept the first symphony, called “classical” because of its size and style, within those classical bounds, but added a spirited and even exciting approach.  The violin concerto marked another highlight, with an interpretation highlighting the work’s great contrasts (and making it look easy).  For those subscribing to the Mariinsky’s streaming who can get them, go look for those two works in particular.

Philadelphia Orchestra: Beethoven

I opened the music this week with a compilation posted on the Philadephia Orchestra’s website: three Beethoven concerti from three different concerts combined into one program.  The Beethoven 250 celebration having been interrupted by the lockdown, they’ve moved it online.  Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted the two piano concerti, with Yefim Bronfman (concerto #4) and Daniil Trifonov (concerto #5) on the keyboard, and their performances were suitably pensive for a Sunday afternoon, the orchestra in full sound enveloping but never overwhelming the ears.  The violin concerto, with soloist Gil Shaham and conductor Susanna Mälkki, should have been the same, but was less so – I find Mälkki far too blockish a conductor, putting everything in place and leaving no room for expression.

Online Highlights from the Corona Lockdown (week 5)

Highlights

The cultural news hit on Friday that while musicians may begin to rehearse together in the coming days, and museums will reopen in July, large cultural events such as concerts will not resume until September.  The Salzburg Festival indicated it is in discussion with the government to see what might go ahead in a reduced form, but right now nothing fits the roadmap.  This was not unexpected – not just from the standpoint of the gradual reopening of Austrian society, but also from the fact that the roadmap for reopening still does not include any plan to reopen our international borders at any time in the foreseeable future.  Austria shut down the corona virus, but we may have been too successful and have developed no herd immunity, meaning that as soon as the borders open, more people will die.  So here we sit watching music streamed online.

Strauss: Rosenkavalier (Staatsoper)

Otto Schenk is one of the best opera directors of all time, and his staging of Richard Strauss’ Rosenkavalier for the Staatsoper (originally in 1968) may be his best production.  I saw this wonderful production live in 2010.  Schenk pays so much attention to detail without being busy, and this production is just a delight to see over and over to catch new things.  The Staatsoper streamed it this week with two different casts, and frankly it was worth seeing both even if only to take in Schenk’s brilliance.  For the first streaming, the Staatsoper went deeper into their archives than they generally have been doing for these free lockdown streamings: a 1994 performance under the elegant Carlos Kleiber, with a fine cast including Felicity Lott as the Marschallin, Kurt Moll as Ochs, Anne Sofie von Otter as Octavian, and Barbara Bonney as Sophie.

The second take of this, from a 2017 performance, was not nearly at the same level.  It was worth watching for the staging, but Krassimira Stoyanova was a far less glamorous Marschallin than Lott, Peter Rose could not remotely master Ochs’ Viennese dialect (actually not even close), and Stephanie Houtzeel, though playful as Octavian, did not quite have the chemistry (at least not with the other cast members) that von Otter showed.  When I saw Houtzeel in this role in the same production in 2010, she carried it out better, but it may have been that a more convincing cast surrounded her then too (mostly from the Staatsoper’s own ensemble or regular guests, rather than tourists like Stoyanova and Rose).  Especially with this Schenk production, which relies on the details, that chemistry among the cast becomes even more important.  Ádám Fischer, if not quite as enigmatic a figure as Kleiber, is possibly as cerebral and knew how to shape the music from the pit.

  • [Recording tip: I think everyone has a different favorite recording of Rosenkavalier.  I’ll put mine forward.  In March 1945, an American bomb destroyed the Staatsoper.  When the reconstructed building reopened in November 1955, it put on a whole row of legendary new productions.  Its new Rosenkavalier (in the staging that Schenk’s ultimately replaced in 1968) debuted with an all-star cast under the baton of Hans Knappertsbusch.  This was a production in which Ochs dominated (Strauss and Hofmannsthal had originally intended to call the opera “Ochs von Lerchenau”), even if there are other interpretations such as Schenk’s in which the Marschallin pulls all the strings.  In purposefully selecting Kurt Böhme, Knappertsbusch got the Ochs he needed.  Maria Reining (the Marschallin), Sena Jurinac (Octavian), and Hilde Güden (Sophie) produced some luxurious music together.  I do listen to other recordings, but I always return to this one.]

Rossini: L’Italiana in Algeri (Staatsoper)

I saw this Staatsoper production of Rossini’s Italian in Algiers in person in 2017, but the performance streamed here from 2015 was a much better cast.  I remember the staging, by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, to have been simple but tasteful, however when I saw it live I wondered then if Ponnelle had even understood the opera at all since he made it so static.  This 2015 cast more than made up for Ponnelle’s deficiency – they had so much fun on the stage it was hard not to have fun watching them.  Ildar Abrazakov (Mustafà), Aida Garifullina (Elvira), Rachel Frenkel (Zulma), and Alessio Arduini (Haly) stood out in particular with their strong voices and characterizations, but Edgardo Rocha (Lindoro), Anna Bonitatibus (Isabella), and Paolo Rumetz (Taddeo) also joined in the farce.  Jesús López-Cobos conducted and the orchestra, as when I heard this in 2017, absolutely nailed Rossini’s idiom.  If this music does not already emerge dancing out of the pit, then even a good cast cannot make it.  What fun!

  • [Recording tip: I first got to appreciate this opera through a recording that remains my most-listened-to recording of a Rossini opera: a charming and lively version by conductor Claudio Scimone and his orchestra, I Solisti Veneti, with a cast headed by Samuel Ramey s Mustafà and Kathleen Battle as Elvira, and with luxuries such as Nicola Zaccaria as Haly and Marilyn Horne as Isabella.]

Wagner: Parsifal (Staatsoper)

If the Staatsoper provided me the two highlights of the week with Rosenkavalier and Italiana in Algeri, it also provided me the biggest lowlight of the week.  I am sorry I thought I wanted to see Wagner’s Parsifal again in a new production (after three Parsifals last week).  The Staatsoper seems to have replaced the miserable staging by Christine Mielitz (which I saw live in 2006 and a different performance streamed last week) with yet another miserable staging, this time by Alvis Hermanis.  Hermanis is Latvian, not German, and although his CV includes productions staged in Germany, I did not expect he would be just as bad as a German opera director (seriously, who is as bad as the Germans at staging operas – such a common theme on this blog, but I feel I do have to keep pilloring them until they literally find the plot).  But he was (I should have googled him before making this decision: when I looked him up I realized he was responsible for a staging of Trovatore at the Salzburg Festival a few years ago, right after I moved to Salzburg, reset nonsensically in an art museum and which I remember was panned as vapid).  The staging here was set in the Otto Wagner Hospital (or an interpretation thereof), a psychiatric clinic designed by, and later named after, the famous Viennese Sezession architect in 1907.  Most of the knights (and Kundry, kept in a special caged bed) were patients, with Gurnemanz being the chief doctor.  (Act 2 was in an operating room, with Klingsor as a brain surgeon.)  Why?  I tried to watch a bit to figure out why, but even in the midst of an indefinite lockdown I have better things to do with my time.

Doing other things was also less distracting that watching this stupidity.  So I did get to appreciate René Pape’s luxurious Gurnemanz.  The rest of the cast seemed a bit off – probably not a bad cast under normal circumstances (although the shrill and almost nasal Parsifal lacked much of a voice, it sounded like it had aged badly even though the singer is not yet 50), but truly uninspired singing across the board.  I won’t list the cast because it’s not fair: it must be extremely difficult to sing seriously while traipsing around this travesty of a stage.  Valery Gergiev did not have that problem in the pit, but really what could he do?

Lortzing: Undine (Staatsoper)

Kudos for the Staatsoper for the last opera I watched this week.  I had never seen Albert Lortzing’s Undine before (and I don’t believe I’ve ever heard it performed either other than excerpts).  I still haven’t, but that’s not a bad thing.  The opera was listed as being streamed and I tuned in to discover it was actually an abridged version for children.  The opera was shortened to fit within one hour, and although the main roles were sung by members of the Staatsoper’s Ensemble, the supporting roles, chorus, and dancers all came from the Staatsoper’s children’s academy.  I am not quite clear where this was performed – a small theater space, presumably in the bowels of the Staatsoper.  But it made me discover that the Staatsoper does offer an entire array of abridged operas performed this way in front of an audience of children.

One thing I have to say in Austria is that opera is not just for old people, and audiences are full of people of all ages, but to ensure the future requires making the art form accessible to the youngest generation.  This does not have to come in the form in which my father exposed me, through his constant listening to operas, setting me in front of the television every time an opera was broadcast (whatever the opera), and frequent one-on-one lectures from him to me about Wagner’s Ring when I was still a toddler.  He took me to my first live opera, Otto Nicolai’s Merry Wives of Windsor at the Volksoper, when I was five years old, and that hooked me for good.  So I give the Staatsoper full points for this little presentation.  Not only do they do these “Operas for Children,” but they are including them in their corona lockdown streamings.

Dvořák: Rusalka (Metropolitan Opera)

Although a fairy tale, Dvořák’s Rusalka is a heavy one.  While it is dark, the music has its shimmers of light.  For this 2014 performance from New York’s Metropolitan Opera, Yannick Nézet-Séguin crafted a lush orchestral color.  Renée Fleming headed an excellent cast with Piotr Beczala as the Prince, John Relyea as the Water Goblin, and Dolora Zajick as the Witch Ježibaba.

  • [Recording tips: Fleming has owned the role of Rusalka for years.  She recorded it in 1998 with Charles Mackerras conducting the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, with Ben Heppner as the Prince, Franz Hawlata as the Water Goblin, and Dolora Zajick – again – as the Witch.  I also have a sentimental connection to a 1987 live recording from the Staatsoper, for which I myself saw the same cast later that year, with Eva Beňačková as Rusalka, Peter Dvorský as the Prince, Yevgyeny Nyestyernyenko as the Water Goblin, and Eva Randová doubling as the Witch and the Foreign Princess, with Václav Neumann conducting.  Apparently that was the first time that opera had ever been performed at the Staatsoper.  To be a little different, just because of Gottlob Frick, there is a 1948 German-language recording available out there from Dresden conducted by Joseph Keilberth.  I’ve not heard the whole thing, but own extended highlights on a CD set featuring some of Frick’s best recordings, and it is worth hearing him sing the Water Goblin.]

Mussorgsky: Boris Godunov (Metropolitan Opera)

I have a ticket for Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov at the Salzburg Festival on my birthday this year.  But first we tragically lost Mariss Jansons, who was supposed to conduct but passed away late last year.  Now it looks like we’ll lose the Festival this Summer thanks to the Chinese Communist Party deciding to destroy global health, welfare, and livelihoods.  They’ve murdered more of their own citizens than they’ve killed with their virus, but the virus has caused more worldwide devastation (yes, it’s a natural virus, but the pandemic is still entirely the Chinese Communist Party’s fault).

The plot of Boris is set during the “Time of Troubles” in Russia.  The title character was vilified by the repressive Romanov Dynasty, which ruled after that period until it, in turn, was deposed by the Russian Revolution leading to the again-repressive Soviet Communist regime.  The real-life Boris was probably more sympathetic, at least in the context of his time (is anyone in Russia truly sympathetic?  Boris created Ivan the Terrible’s secret police, so he was no saint, but apparently was relatively competent technocrat if overtaken by events out of his control and a bunch of schemers who resented him as the outsider he was – he came from a Tatar family that had converted to Christianity – and he had somewhat of a conscience, unlike most of the Russian ruling classes).  But I digress…

American director Stephen Wadsworth did not manage to capture the nuances, mostly because he was too busy with everything else.  In this production (filmed in a performance from 2010), he decided to augment the portrayals of the minor characters.  While this could be seen to be in the tradition of greats such as Otto Schenk to pay attention to intricate details, Schenk’s details are usually grounded in the opera and are merely fine incidental details that complete the plot.  Wadsworth’s strayed into distraction, especially given a non-traditional (but not modern) staging, with suggestive rather than accurate sets and extra elements added, such as a map and the book chronicling Russia’s history (both of which do appear in important places in the opera, but do not remain on stage – and the book in this case is enormously over-sized).  So, as an example, we got the Simpleton already taking a visible role in the prologue, which demonstrated clearly who he was, but did not give us any more of his story to make it useful or add to the scenes where he did play a role.  At the end of the scene in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral (the Cathedral itself missing here), he rolled himself into the pages of the chronicle.  All of this combined make Wadsworth’s staging additive, and it may have been too much while missing the realism, particularly as the additions did not necessarily accord with the plot – having Shuisky appear in the Polish court is one intrigue too many, even for that infamous historical villain.  But I guess I should be thankful that Wadsworth clearly put some thought into this staging (he’s not a German Regisseur), so there was some intelligence even if he failed to convince me.  So, for example, Varlaam and Missail much to their astonishment recognized Grigory when he returned in the final scene, adding a bit of comedy to the revolution: the brutality of guards towards the Russian people in the prologue was exceeded by the Russian people towards everyone viewed as an authority in the Kromy Forest epilogue, a clear reversal of fortune.  (Wadsworth set both the St. Basil’s scene and the Kromy Forest scene, as parentheses to the final act, as is one common and perfectly acceptable convention).

René Pape sang a strong Boris.  Valery Gergiev, in the pit, knew this opera upside down (and used Mussorgsky’s own scoring).  They combined to produce a particularly effective death scene musically.  But it did not work on stage, where the dying Boris did too much running around.  The rest of the cast was adequate (even Aleksandrs Antonenko, whom I heard sing an inadequate Radamès last week, but who seemed more comfortable singing in Russian as Grigory).  I may highlight two minor figures: they decided to use appropriately-aged singers for Boris’ children Ksenya (sung by Jennifer Zetlan) and Fyëdor (sung by Jonathan Makepeace), and they actually had a stage presence.  I googled them to see if their careers have taken them anywhere since 2010: the older Zetlan seems to not quite have launched herself yet in any major roles beyond inconsequential provincial US opera companies – her appearances with major US companies or orchestras have been in minor roles or as an understudy (I find no European credits at all on her website bio); and Makepeace is still an undergraduate at Princeton – but nice that they get a little bit of fame here.

  • [Recording tip: For an opera that actually has been recorded many times, I have never found an ideal version.  This is only partly the result of the problematic history of this opera, which exists in several versions.  The most-used performing version is an arrangement made by Rimsky-Korsakov that managed to miss Mussorgsky’s point entirely.  Most recordings are of this orchestration, and it fails – so this rules out the recordings with Mark Reizen perhaps the greatest Boris of all time (I do own one complete version with him as Boris, and numerous excerpts).  Overshooting in the other direction, in recent years a trend has been to perform the original version of the opera, which the composer himself rejected and which is lacking drama.  I am looking for a recording of Schostakowitsch’s arrangement – which I did get to hear at the Gelikon Opera in Moscow once – since Schostakowitsch did understand Mussorgsky and while cleaning up some of the loose odds and ends nevertheless kept Mussorgsky’s raw colorings.  But in the absence of a recording of the Schostakowitsch version, if I insist on Mussorgsky’s own scoring rather than the more-common Rimsky-Korsakov rewrite, but also insist on not using Mussorgsky’s rejected first version but some construction coming out of his more mature later version with the scenes in some semblance of order, and on top of all of that insist on a cast that can give character development and drama, then I end up with one very peculiar recording.  And that is a rather Wagnerian production broadcast live by the Bavarian Radio in 1957, under the baton of Eugen Jochum, with Hans Hotter as Boris.  Hotter, more known for his portrayals of Wagner baritone lead roles, regarded Boris as his favorite part.  The cast includes Martha Mödl, Hans Hopf, Kim Borg, Paul Kuen, Lorenz Fehenberger, Benno Kusche, Kurt Böhme, Hermann Uhde, and others, all singing in German.  Not ideal, but it’s what I go back to until I find something I am entirely satisfied with, which hasn’t happened yet.]

Tschaikowsky: Queen of Spades (Mariinsky Theater)

A simple staging by Aleksey Styepanyuk of Tschaikowsky’s Queen of Spades on the Second Stage of the Mariinsky Theater allowed the cast to act out their respective emotional and psychological psychoses.  The sets were not quite minimalist – there were props and furniture and important details – but the framing (colonnade to represent St. Petersburg, dark lighting highlighted by a giant moon…) was more suggestive of the mood.  Interestingly, Styepanyuk did not actually show either of the opera’s two suicides, those of Liza and Gyerman, but rather only suggested their deaths.  Whether they died physically or only mentally was left up to the audience.  A thrilling Maksim Aksyënov as Gyerman was obsessive, tormented, and mentally unbalanced right from the start, making it easier to see his descent into madness.  He gave a tremendous performance (I had thought of giving this streaming amiss, but his performance alone made me glad I did tune in).  Irina Churilova was a dreamy and distracted Liza who falls into his spell.  Of the smaller roles, a coquettish Yekaterina Sergeyeva as Polina thought she was being playful in the first act, but helped deliver the push.  The ubiquitous Gergiev conducted.

  • [Recording tip: I am going to go out on a ledge here and recommend a recording that has never been available but which I am certain must exist in an archive somewhere waiting to be rediscovered.  I have heard extended excerpts on two separate Russian disks: one on a recording released from the private archive of Galina Vishnyevskaya for patrons of her Moscow singing academy (I went when I lived in Moscow), the other on a Bolshoi Opera archival release for Melodiya in memory of Zurab Anjaparidze (which I found on Amazon, since I am always searching for recordings of Anjaparidze).  From the late 1950s until the early 1970s, the Bolshoi – then at its peak – had the world’s greatest dramatic soprano (Vishnyevskaya, a Russian dissident) and the world’s greatest dramatic tenor (Anjaparidze, a Georgian) both in the house’s ensemble, and they did sometimes perform together.  In May 1967, under Boris Khaikin, they did Tschaikowksy’s Queen of Spades.  The extended excerpts I have heard are so far beyond anything else available on recordings that there’s not really any point looking for another recording, although I do own other recordings.  I keep hoping someone finds the complete version of this, or at least some other complete performance including both of them in that period.  There is a complete film made around that time with Anjaparidze as Gyerman, but the sound quality is very poor.]

Rimsky-Korsakov: The Tale of Tsar Saltan (Mariinsky Theater)

Last week the Mariinsky gave us Rimsky-Korsakov’s rarely-performed fantasy opera The Golden Cockerel.  This week came another, The Tale of Tsar Saltan, suitable for children (and adults!), in a charming fairytale staging by Aleksandr Pyetrov which did not try to do too much.  It is after all a fairy tale.  A nice touch was that during the preludes to each of the acts, they projected a cartoon summary of the coming act’s plot.  This would make it even more accessible for children, but the cartoons were lovingly drawn and had so much personality on their own.   The 2015 performance streamed here marked the Mariinsky debut of Mikhail Vekua, singing Prince Guidon, whom I heard in the same role at the Stanislavsky in Moscow back in 2010.  Eduard Tsanga sang Tsar Saltan and Irina Churilova sang Empress Militrisa; Gergiev conducted.

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra: Schostakowitsch, Prokofiev

Either the Mariinsky orchestra performs a lot in the new Zaryadye Hall in Moscow, or they simply make more recordings there.  Gergiev is a Putin loyalist, and despite his jetsetting – or indeed because of it – he is always ready to perform his service to Mother Russia.  In this streamed concert, they opened with Schostakowitsch’s fifth symphony.  The orchestra displayed wonderful almost delicate phrasing (while also being robust), the sort of understanding of drama that comes from primarily being an opera orchestra rather than a concert orchestra.  The mood of the symphony did come across as uplifting and triumphant, rather than dark and mock-triumphant: Schostakowitsch intentionally wrote a piece with two meanings, one for Stalin’s consumption and one private (Yevgeny Mravinsky, who gave the premiere along Stalinist lines, was famously described by the composer as too stupid to understand the secret meaning, but of course the triumphant version is what saved Schostakowitsch from arrest and murder by the Soviet Russian regime).  Given Gergiev’s attention to detail (and his orchestra’s ability to follow through), I am sure Gergiev understood the symphony’s meaning, but at the same time the triumphant sound produced would have pleased that other famous Ossetian.  The concert continued with Prokofiev’s wonderfully crazy Piano Concerto #2 with Denis Matsuyev pounding out the solos idiomatically, wave after wave washing over the audience (or in this case spilling out of my speaker system and through my home office).

Boston Symphony Orchestra: Schostakowitsch, Hindemith, Martinů, Copland

The Boston Symphony Orchestra is still not posting full concerts online, but it is adding individual works each day to the selection available.  This week, several performances highlighted what this orchestra once used to be: an elegant ensemble, maybe smaller in size that its peers near the top of the US rankings, but able to provide just that little extra intimacy and character – an American counterpart to the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester (as it happens, both now share a music director, Andris Nelsons).  I will flag four pieces they posted this week, which exemplify its old sound: Dmitri Schostakowitsch’s Symphony #1 conducted by the BSO’s then-music director Erich Leinsdorf in 1964 took the composer’s conservatory graduation work and made it into a mature and groundbreaking next step beyond Mahler; Paul Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler symphony, conducted by guest conductor Carlo Maria Giulini in 1974 was expansive and stately; Bohuslav Martinů’s Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano, and Timpani guest conducted by Rafael Kubelik with Charles Wilson joining the orchestra on the piano in 1967, and Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, with Copland himself conducting and Harold Wright playing the clarinet in 1980, also explored new combinations of sounds.  Together they made a nice set this week, which I listened to in one sitting.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Borodin, Say, Prokofiev

Most of the Mozarteum Orchestra‘s first chairs seemed to have taken this morning off, but no matter: the orchestra nonetheless produced wonderful, colorful, evocative music worth waking up early on a Sunday morning for.

Russian conductor Andrei Boreiko chose to highlight eastern sounds in classical music, and this let him feature many individual lines that contributed to the orchestra members getting the chance to demonstrate their versatility.  He opened the concert with the Polovtsian Dances from Borodin‘s opera Prince Igor – here performed using the orchestral lines only.  Although the operatic excerpt sounded distinctly odd without the chorus, with the singers out of the way we had a chance to hear the underlying orchestral lines more clearly.  And so while I would not necessarily recommend this particularly wordless version (which defies the Erich Leinsdorf rule against performing operatic excerpts without the singing – orchestral excerpts should be limited to orchestra-only passages in the opera), as an opportunity to listen to the “eastern” (not just Russian, but the Turkic tribes that made up the peoples the early Russians referred to as “Polovtsians”) textures Borodin set for the instruments, particularly the winds, it was a worthwhile exercise.  And we got much fine playing.

I do not believe I have ever heard music by Turkish pianist-composer Fazil Say before, so the next item on the program was bound to be a new experience: Say’s violin concerto 1001 Nights in the Harem, with the talented Spanish violinist Leticia Moreno.  Say incorporated Anatolian Turkish sounds into the classical tradition, particularly use of percussion.  One thinks of the “Turkish” music popular in Austria in the 18th and 19th Centuries, which used Turkish instruments – but in this case Say employed not just the instruments but also actual Turkic music into the mix.  The blend of traditions worked well, balanced by Boreiko, with Moreno’s lively dexterous performance in front of a fully-engaged and engaging Mozarteum Orchestra.

Prokofiev‘s Fifth Symphony came as the lone work after the intermission.  Here the horde from the East was not Turkic, but Russian (although there is the saying: scratch a Russian, find a Tatar).  Prokofiev wrote the symphony to mark Russia’s invasion of Poland for the second time in the Second World War – this time to drive the Germans out (the first time they invaded Poland during that war, they were allied with Germany and divided Poland up between them).  Boreiko’s interpretation lacked some of the drive I have heard in other performances of this symphony, but he seems to have done this in order to focus on the finer details: a clear relationship to the evocative sounds from the Borodin excerpt that opened the concert, as well as to some of the angularity – particularly in the percussion – of Say’s concerto.  The orchestra clearly appreciated the chance Boreiko gave them to show off their talent – the guest conductor crafted the sounds, but did not make the performance about himself but rather about the musicians who actually produced the music: a felicitous combination all around.

Berlin Konzerthausorchester, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Prokofiev, Tschaikowsky, JS Bach, Rachmaninov

The Berlin Konzerthausorchester, house orchestra of that (over-rated) concert hall and one of the successors of the old Berlin Symphony Orchestra, a once-good orchestra in former East Berlin, has come to Salzburg for a three-day set.

The band was never in a class with the Berlin Philharmonic in West Berlin, but was established by the communists as a cross-town rival and was formerly rather respectable musically.  I am aware that it split at some point, with one successor orchestra keeping the name and the other one keeping the venue (hence changing its name to match the venue).  What I do not know is if that split had any connection to the precipitous drop in quality.  The original band made numerous high-quality recordings that gave it a global profile, and then at some point the orchestra seems to have faded completely from sight (they did come to Salzburg about five years ago, so I got to hear them then too – but in my only visit to Berlin a few years ago, I heard not this orchestra but rather the Philadelphia Orchestra on the stage of the Berlin Konzerthaus.)

One reason that the orchestra is globally much lower profile these days, of course, is that it just is not up to the level (I have not heard the orchestra that retained the “Symphony” name, but have no reason to believe it is any better).  The Berlin Konzerthausorchester is not actually a bad orchestra (I do hear worse in my frequent concert-going), but I score it down because I try to rate orchestras based on their supposed level – I would certainly not criticize a student orchestra for failing to meet the standards of the Vienna Philharmonic, for example.  But given the history of where this orchestra once was, I do think it is fair to treat it as though the expectation is its former standard.

This orchestra performs reasonably well technically, but lacks passion for music (I noticed that when they were here in 2015, so it’s endemic).  Well, maybe actually the woodwinds showed some passion this evening, but that was unfortunate since they really were not all that good, hitting the notes (or most of them) but producing a strained and un-lyrical tone.  The large string section played smoothly but mechanically.  The brass was acceptable.  Actually, the horn section was pretty good, and the percussionists seemed to enjoy themselves.

Dmitri Katayenko took the podium this evening (thankfully: the orchestra’s music director is actually the tedious Christoph Eschenbach, although possibly Eschenbach and the Berlin Konzerthausorchester might be meant for each other).  Kitayenko is good, but only had so much to work with given this orchestra.  The main piece, after the intermission, was Rachmaninov‘s Symphony #2 – indeed, I first heard this symphony on an old Melodiya LP with Kitayenko conducting the Moscow Philharmonic (which he led in Soviet days), and it was that recording that made me an instant fan of this work.  Kitayenko still understands this symphony and crafted it well from the podium.  The orchestra was proficient enough to follow, but not proficient enough to create the full mood or mystery.  There were flashes – particularly when the horns had something to say, as well as much of the final movement.  But more feeling from the orchestra would have helped.

The first half of the concert opened with excerpts from Romeo and Juliet by Prokofiev.  By selecting a handful of spicier numbers, Kitayenko did manage to rouse the orchestra partly.

The star of the evening, however, was the soloist, the 25-year-old Russian cellist Anastasia Kobekina.  She produced a gorgeous dark full sound and had a real personality.  At moments I thought I could hear traces of the lyricism of Steven Isserlis or the warmth of Mischa Maisky.  She is definitely someone to look out for in the future, with a promising career ahead (actually well underway – she started touring young – but as she matures I’m convinced she’ll get even better).  She joined the orchestra for Tschaikowsky‘s Variations on a Rococo Theme, which is not actually a particularly good work.  It starts out with a theme derivative of Mozart and then doesn’t take it anywhere interesting.  But Kobekina outshone the entire orchestra – she was going places.  And she followed this with a JS Bach work for solo cello – far more elaborate than what Tschaikowsky produced, with its intellectual mathematical structures.  And it was nice to enjoy Kobekina’s performance without an orchestra.

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Sibelius, Prokofiev, Strauss

More from Yannick Nézet-Séguin (again filling in for the ailing Mariss Jansons) and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra this morning, with Gil Shaham stepping in for the ill Lisa Batiashvili.  If we are going to get substitutes, those are pretty good ones to have.

I am not quite sure the reasoning behind the collection of works Jansons assembled for this concert (the program remaining the same despite the substitutions), although Jansons has said before that sometimes there is no logic and he just programs pieces he likes.  So we started with the Symphony #1 by Sibelius, then the Violin Concerto #2 by Prokofiev, and finally a suite from Der Rosenkavalier by Strauss.

The program notes made a point of stressing a supposed interest in Tschaikowsky during the time Sibelius wrote his first symphony, which seemed odd.  The origins of the symphony date to his study in Vienna, and Schubert and Bruckner (his favorite living composer) would normally seem to be the most appropriate influences.  I seriously doubt Nézet-Séguin made any decisions on interpretation based on reading the program, but from my side: having read the program, and listening to Nézet-Séguin’s reading, I did hear a few lines now and then (in the strings) or psychodramatic (in the winds) which could have invoked the lush melodic flow of Tschaikowsky.  These either got interrupted, or had a different section perform a completely contrasting line simultaneously and counter to them.  Sibelius was far more original, even early in his career, than Tschaikowsky later in his career, while remaining authentic to his Nordic homeland (where Tschaikowsky sounded less and less Russian later in his career).  Although Nézet-Séguin did not draw out the soaring post-Brucknreian chorales, he did load this symphony up with contrasts and a throwback melancholy.

Prokofiev’s second violin concerto has several moods, based on Russian and Spanish folk music (his wife was Spanish, and this work had its premiere in Madrid).  Shaham does not get the largest sound from his violin, but he moves adeptly among styles, from the robust and assertive to the soft and wistful, with ease.  Nézet-Séguin and the orchestra made a stunning complement to keep painting an ever-broader palate.  (Shaham returned to the stage to do a joint encore with the concertmaster from Prokofiev’s sonata for two violins).

Richard Strauss’ opera Der Rosenkavalier was by design a piece of Viennese nostalgia, even at its premiere in 1911 before the dismembering of the Austrian Empire a few years later.  The suite (arranged with Strauss’ approval, possibly by Artur Rodziński who may also have been aided by his then-assistant Leonard Bernstein) does not follow the plot of the opera, but instead tries to capture its schmaltz.  The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra hammed it up.  (To take down the mood, they added as a final encore more Sibelius: his “Valse Triste” from Kuolema – perhaps connecting the two Vienna-inspired composers at either end of the program).

The orchestra sounded even better today than it did on Friday, with its complete soundscape.  The woodwinds as a unit are nothing short of spectacular.  And they had a great rapport with Nézet-Séguin (in addition to the clear warmth and understanding during the performance, he kept kissing and hugging members of the orchestra as he wandered around the stage between pieces and during the applause to a degree I have not seen him do with the Philadelphians).  One wonders what will happen if Jansons needs to retire and whom the Bavarians might choose to succeed him.

Monte Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Pärt, Prokofiev, Tschaikowsky, Azarashvili

The Monte Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra came to Salzburg Great Festival House this evening with its music director Kazuki Yamada and violin soloist Vadim Repin.

Repin did not get top billing on the posters, but should have, playng two pieces with warmth and charm: Pärt‘s Brothers in an arrangement for violin and orchestra (the original version, for violin and piano, had its premiere at the 1980 Salzburg Festival) and Prokofiev‘s Second Violin Concerto.  Both pieces are curiosities, which do not necessarily remain in any one style (or at least the violin parts do not), and Repin made both sound a bit wacky and delightful, both full of humor and nuance.  This music was original, and a welcome part of my Wednesday subscription series when I examined the year’s schedule.  I of course stayed for the second half of the concert as well, though, which was less of a highlight.

The orchestra was proficient enough, I suppose.  It seemed underwhelming when performing alongside Repin, and without him I scratched my chin for a while trying to put my finger on exactly what was missing (besides Repin, that is).  Then it hit me: this orchestra sounds nasal – even the strings and percussion somehow sound nasal – with sour overtones and completely missing undertones.  The size of the sound was there, but missing was its fullness.

It certainly also did not help that after the intermission the Orchestra chose to feature Tschaikowsky‘s over-performed Fourth Symphony.  I feel like I have alluded to this problem so often that I’m now just going to keep writing it openly (as I did last week with the Petersburgers).  Unless orchestras have something new to say, there should be a moratorium on performances of Tschaikowsky’s fourth, fifth, and sixth symphonies for the next few years – beautiful music, but they aren’t that deep and there are only so many times people can hear them in less-than-spectacular renditions.  Needless to say, the Orchestra tonight had nothing in particular new to say about this symphony – an adequate reading, but just that.

It compounded the issue with a dance from Tschaikowsky’s Nutcracker as a first encore (more Tschaikowsky?  Did they really have to?).  And then some further encore I could not identify came across as saccharine.  (UPDATE: the Kulturvereinigung website has indicated that the final encore was a nocturn by Vaja Azarashvili.)

St. Petersburg Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Prokofiev, Scarlatti, Tschaikowsky, Elgar

When one of the world’s top orchestras, on its music director’s 80th birthday tour, appears in the Salzburg Great Festival House, I would normally expect the hall to be more than half full.  Obviously I expect wrong.  Where was everyone for tonight’s concert of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic under Yuri Temirkanov?  Perhaps it was the program – they’ve been in Vienna for several days (but I have not) with excellent programs, yet tonight tried something far less exciting.  Perhaps those who could went to hear them in Vienna’s Musikverein – better programs, better hall, and better city.

The main work was Tschaikowsky‘s Sixth Symphony.  It’s not that it’s bad, only that it’s over-performed (along with the fourth and fifth).  If they must play Tschaikowsky (they must not), couldn’t they please come on tour with one of his first three symphonies?

As one of the top ten or twelve orchestras on the planet, the Petersburgers do have something to say with this symphony, though.  Maybe they should play it so lesser orchestras can please stop playing it.  Temirkanov has slowed down somewhat at 80 and was not especially demonstrative on the podium, but he has been at the helm of this orchestra for thirty years, and its assistant conductor for twenty-one years before that, so he did not need to make big gestures in order to coax the perfectly contorted sounds and emotions from this group.  He featured the winds, who responded expressively.  The brass chorales looked over the abyss, in a different style from but surprisingly similar to Bruckner’s ninth – like Tschaikowsky’s sixth, also his last composition before he died, both composed at the same time.  Things got a little happier and upbeat by the third movement, but then Tschaikowsky’s depression came fully on show for the final movement, which ended in the menacing deep strings.

To ensure we stayed with cliché, Temirkanov and the orchestra performed “Nimrod” from Elgar‘s Enigma Variations as an encore.  They played this as an encore the last time I heard them too.  And it’s overplayed as an encore anyway.  However, I’m not sure I have ever heard it played this well, full of melancholy left over from the Tschaikowsky.

The first half of the concert was rather more unusual: Prokofiev‘s crazy Second Piano Concerto, with soloist Yefim Bronfman.  Except that Bronfman did not make it so crazy – I’d like to say he kept it more restrained, but he still hit all the notes and produced full swells of sound.  The orchestra supported this interpretation.  Where it needed to come across warped, it did.  Where it needed to interject – loudly at times – it did.  Yet it never overwhelmed him.  I’ve heard this concerto performed in a restrained manner before, but felt that the pianist that time did not really understand the work – tonight Bronfman, with Temirkanov’s and the Petersburgers’ support, came out with a lot more nuance.

Bronfman also gave us an unannounced solo encore – a Domenico Scarlatti sonata.  It was easy to forget that Scarlatti would have written the piece before the invention of the piano, as Bronfman made it seem so natural for this instrument (indeed, the piano almost sounded like it wasn’t really a piano after all).

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.

Philadelphia Orchestra, Kimmel Center

Lindberg, Stravinsky, Prokofiev

The Philadelphia Orchestra‘s concert today was dedicated in memory of my father, so I made a rare appearance on the other side of the Pond despite some travel chaos due to winter weather in London (where I always transit through) and on the US east coast.  It’s wonderful to hear this orchestra – by far the best in the US and now clearly among the top five in the world (for those readers wondering: I’d put them on a par with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, albeit below the Vienna Philharmonic, the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra from Munich).  Their home venue in the Kimmel Center remains the biggest drawback: sitting on this stage, they always sound like they are playing behind a scrim.  The sounds come out clearly enough, but distant and simewhat dulled.  Those who have not experienced this orchestra would be wise to go hear them on tour in a hall with proper acoustics (they are coming to Europe and Israel in May and June, although I’m likely to miss them in Vienna).

Today’s concert program had no particular connection to my father, just the dedication.  The rapidly rising under-30 star Lahav Shani took the podium, for a program of music by Christian Lindberg, Igor Stravinsky, and Sergei Prokofiev.  I actually heard Shani conduct the Prokofiev work – his Fifth Symphony – already one month ago, with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra performing in Salzburg.  That performance of this war symphony was almost joyful, accenting the dancing rhythms, and so I wondered how the two orchestras might compare with Shani’s interpretation.  To my surprise, Shani gave a completely different interpretation today, one which accentuated the many talents of this orchestra.  Where the Vienna Symphony (that city’s second orchestra) sounds excellent and itself world-class, it has a more uniform sound.  The Philadelphia Orchestra is the more virtuosic, and this let Shani draw out the individual playing (but always keeping these sounds as part of an orchestral whole).  Gone was the (actually convincing if different) dancing celebration from last month; back was the desolate landscape of war tinged happily with the knowledge of impending victory.  Better orchestra, better performance.

The first half of the concert had opened with Akbank Bunka, an eclectic trumpet concerto by Lindberg, with the Orchestra’s principle trumpet David Bilger as soloist.  I may have been the only person in the hall who had heard it performed before (in Salzburg about three years ago, with Lindberg himself conducting his own Arctic Symphony Orchestra, with soloist Pacho Flores).  Again: better orchestra, better performance.  Except that it was a concerto, and despite Bilger’s clear talents, as an orchestral musician he is not the showman (Flores is).  Bilger’s warm tone blended well with the orchestra’s wintery arctic accompaniment, but did not jump out off the stage.

Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite rounded off the first half.  But someone’s phone in the audience kept ringing (bad enough that it rang, but worse that the person refused to turn it off and let it keep ringing).  Shani twice stopped and started over from the beginning.  If I had been sitting next to the person, I would have smashed his phone under my shoe.  The ushers should have done so themselves – but they did not even eject him from the hall.

Although this severely broke the mood, the Orchestra’s playing soon restored order to the world, and the Stravinsky work allowed them to showcase what they do best.  The orchestra’s justly famous strings propelled this piece (and the others), not just serving as the base for the music but actually pushing everything forward, while the winds (and percussion) added vivid color, each line exceptional.  While bringing off a full ensemble sound, the individual talents nevertheless shone.  It is this extraordinary skill set that enabled Shani to take the interpretation he did with the Prokofiev at variance with the one he used last month.

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mozart, Prokofiev, Strauß

Lahav Shani and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra popped out to Salzburg for a fun jaunt in the Great Festival House.

The Overture to Mozart‘s Marriage of Figaro set the mood nicely.  Exhuberant but not bombastic, Shani kept it contained but playful.  Given that it did not have to announce the opera (which might have required a bigger reading) but instead Mozart’s first flute concerto, this approach worked to not overwhelm the second work.

Indeed, that unspectacular work would be easy to overwhelm.  Mozart hated the flute, but someone paid him to write this concerto, so he did. Tonight’s flutist, Erwin Klambauer, is the first flute of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra (which won’t be confused with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra nor the Philharmonic – ironic, since the preface page in the program, which would have been written by the local Salzburg concert promoter, identified him as the principal flute of tonight’s orchestra, but the bio in the program that he himself would have submitted made it clear he is principal flute of the Radio Symphony Orchestra).  He had a full and sometimes warm sound, particularly in the lower registers, but at times was also a tad thin and almost hollow.  Shani kept the entire ensemble well-balanced, and the soft touch worked.

The fun continued after the intermission – indeed, the party had really just begun.  Prokofiev supposedly wrote his Fifth Symphony when the Red Army crossed into Poland for the second time in World War Two.  Shani seems to have taken it as a cousin of Schostakowitsch’s Seventh Symphony, whose “invasion” theme Schostakowitsch had written when the Red Army had first marched into Poland in September 1939 after Soviet Russia and its Nazi German allies agreed to dismember that country.  (Soviet propaganda, of course, famously repurposed that music.)  Now Germany had turned on Russia in 1941, and after a brutal couple of years the Wehrmacht was in retreat, and the Russians once again entered Poland.  So this invasion was happier than the one Schostakowitsch had depicted.

Whereas Schostakowitsch also had no qualms about depicting Soviet Russia in all its bleakness, Prokofiev’s war music was almost joyful, particularly as read this evening by Shani and the Vienna Symphony.  Indeed, Shani’s interpretation of this symphony was a great deal happier than I think I have heard this work performed before, and the orchestra bought into the reading.  The second movement danced openly.  The third movement went back to the industrial war, but still upbeat.  And the final movement brought back the initial invasion theme with additional dance music.  Prokofiev’s symphony is actually quite a complex series of interlocking themes, where one begins before the previous one fully ends, creating conflicting moods and mashing rhythms and harsh dissonance.  In this regard, it resembled the experiments the Polish composer Witold Lutosławski tried a few decades later with his “chain form” music – the main difference being that Prokofiev had an overall concept for his symphony and Lutosławski just had a gimmick that got dull quickly once the novelty wore off.

Prokofiev’s symphony was anything but dull, and certainly not with these performers, Shani crafting the shape from the podium while the talented orchestra handled the complex switches with ease.  When they finished, the audience stayed stubbornly in their seats and would not let the musicians leave the stage.  The applause kept going and going, so we ended up with three encores:  first, the March from Prokofiev’s Love of Three Oranges, another snarky march that danced.  Then, as long as we were going to get dancing and Poland in the same breath, the next logical move came with two polkas by Johann Strauß II – first the Thunder and Lightning Polka, then the Tritsch-Tratsch Polka, both performed slightly faster than usual.  These choices all made sense after the Symphony.  (They did tend to make Mozart’s flute concerto even more anomalous, though.)

Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mussorgsky, Prokofiev, Schubert, Tschaikowsky

Musical pictures went on exhibit at the Great Festival House this evening, painted wonderfully by Vladimir Fedoseyev and the Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio.  

Modest Mussorgsky‘s Night on Bald Mountain led off the evening appropriately enough as a showpiece – although a popular piece, often regarded as a “warhorse,” I don’t recall seeing it on many concert programs and I do not even remember when I last heard it live.  At any rate, with such a performance, the work refreshed itself.  The wonderful bitter colors of this orchestra, whose sound has been built up by Fedoseyev in his nearly 44 years at its helm, portrayed a particularly evil witches’ sabbath and a welcome (if not entirely hopeful) escape of the hero saved by the day’s dawn.

Bookending the programmed part of the concert came more Mussorgsky: his Pictures at an Exhibition, in the Ravel orchestration.  Ravel’s over-rated reputation as an orchestrator derives primarily from what he accomplished with this set of pieces that Mussorgsky originally wrote for piano.  And it is indeed a most excellent scoring – in this case, made more so by this orchestra which ably highlighted the raw Russian character of Mussorgsky’s original music.  Each painting came across vividly, the troubador serenading his love outside the castle, the ox wagon rolling harshly by, the newborn chicks chirping in their shells, and the clanging bells of the Great Gate of Kiev bringing the exhibit to its glorious conclusion.  Colorful vivid playing brought out the music.

In between, Andrei Korobeinikov returned as soloist for the Second Piano Concerto by Prokofiev.  The two previous times I heard this concerto (most recently at last Summer’s Festival) overwhelmed me.  Tonight’s interpretation ended up being much more sedate.  Korobeinikov did not approach this concerto as the tour de force that it is.  Instead, he restrainted himself by opting to play it almost delicately.  Instead of massive angles of sounds bombarding the listener from all directions, we may have had all of the notes there but wafting from the keyboard and moving merrily out into the room.  Fedoseyev took his cue from the soloist in leading the orchestral accompaniment in a manner that supported Korobeinikov – to do anything else would have left the soloist swamped.  In this reading, the concerto became somewhat less bizarre than it had sounded before, maybe even more beautiful, although it had been the utter craziness of it which had endeared it to me the previous two times I heard it.

Korobeinikov came back out for one encore: Schubert‘s Erlkönig in an arrangement without words for solo piano.  For the vocal lines, Korobeinikov made clear and dramatic distinctions among the three characters, but he also slowed the tempi right down for those sections, which did not come across as necessary and probably made this piece more schizophrenic than it needed to be.

The orchestra also presented two encores at the very end.  The first was their old stand-by, which I have finally learned is the Spanish dance from Tschaikowsky‘s Swan Lake.  I knew it sounded like a Russian interpretation of Spanish music, but had never placed it before perhaps because I now realize I have never actually seen Swan Lake nor heard the whole ballet.  This was again suitable up-beat, as was the second encore (it did not look like they intended a second encore, as the orchestra members had already started congratulating themselves on stage and gotten ready to leave, but the buzz in the hall required more).  I could not identify the second encore, however – sounded annoyingly familiar, but had me stumped.

Brussels Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Connesson, Lalo, Saint-Saëns, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Bizet

The Brussels Philharmonic, visiting Salzburg’s Great Festival House this week for a three-night set with its music director Stéphane Denève, sounds like it takes representing its home city seriously: technically proficient, I suppose, but no personality.

The first half of the concert consisted of French music, which was not the problem but probably did not help.  A short contemporary work, Maslenitza, by Guillaume Connesson opened the performance.  A trip to Russia and Russian music supposed inspired the composer to write this piece, but I heard nothing particularly Russian about it.  It consisted of several tonal melodies or phrases, with no apparent logic for why so many and why he put them in the order he did.  An inoffensive muddle.

The concert dragged on with Edouard Lalo‘s cello concerto: still inoffensive, maybe less of a muddle, but no real point either.  It did contain some wonderful dancing melodies (especially one interplaying the solo cello and the flute in the slow second movement), but they never really went anywhere.  The soloist, Gautier Capuçon, had a large sweet and quite beautiful tone well-matched for this music – if anyone could have made something of it, he could have.  He and the orchestra followed this up with an encore: the “Swan” from Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saëns, an animal of grace (thankfully short, however, so it had a point and finished).

The second half of the concert left France and moved to Russia for two sets of ballet excerpts: a long set from Cinderella by Sergei Prokofiev and a suite from the Firebird by Igor Stravinsky.  Both actually danced, but neither sounded particulary Russian, the orchestra producing melifluous sounds instead of the somewhat more biting tones a Russian orchestra would produce (although, bizarrely, during the finale of the Firebird, Denève oddly highlighted the strings above the orchestral balance by getting them to attack their instruments as though trying to use their bows to saw their instruments clean in half – out of character for this concert, but not especially clear in motive either.

As a final encore, the orchestra returned to French music and performed the farandole from the incidental music by Georges Bizet to The Girl from Arles: again proficiently – indeed pleasantly – but without nearly the verve and personality demonstrated, for example, by the Cadaqués Orchestra in this same hall last month for this same piece.

I am busy the next two nights, and so never bought tickets for the next performances (tonight is my monthly Wednesday subscription concert).  I’m probably not missing anything.

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Lutosławski, Tschaikowsky, Prokofiev

From the works on the program, I had considered not buying a ticket to tonight’s concert at the Festival.  But curiosity to hear the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under Manfred Honeck (whom I have heard before, but never with his own orchestra) pulled me in.  The first half of the program included some experimental works (better in theory than in practice) by Witold Lutosławski and the second had Piotr Tschaikowsky‘s over-played Sixth Symphony.

Lutosławski tried out something he called “chain form” music, where subjects start before the previous ones end, linking them together in a chain (including across movements).  Tonight we had one such experiment, in triptych – finishing with Chain 2 – a “Dialogue for Violin and Orchestra” premiered in 1986 – to which in 1990 he appended onto the front the other two works in the triptych: first the Partita for Violin and Orchestra (and Obligatory Piano) and second the Interlude for Orchestra.  At times the music actually was quite fascinating.  The problem was that as soon as we could enjoy these sections, they were overcome by the next link in the chain.  The 1986 work Chain 2 was far better and made the point the composer was trying to make – and if he had left it at that, then this whole experiment might have been relatively successful.  But adding the other two pieces to the front made this a maddening 45 minutes or so.

Under these circumstances, it was hard to judge the orchestra itself.  I suppose they made it through the work OK, and therefore should be commended.  Did they sound good?  I think so, maybe.  I was spending too much time trying to understand the music to contemplate if the orchestra performed well.  Certainly, though, the soloist, Anne-Sophie Mutter did, with a full sound and great versatility.  She also gave the premiere of this stuff, so I suppose she would know it well and it helped.

The Tschaikowsky at least allowed us a chance to evaluate the orchestra itself.  It’s hard to say something new with Tschaikowsky.  He wrote nice music, but it was often too westernized – usually not authentically Russian enough to be Russian and not quite as good as real westerners wrote (so neither here nor there, really, but somehow seemingly on so many concert programs that I am trying to cut down my Tschaikowsky intake).  But he had his manias, and a sense of the psychodramatic (some of his authentic Russian works – mostly earlier works – are quite good but less-performed; his operas set as psychodramas work better than anything with action).

It is possible to say something new with an imaginative interpretation.  And that is exactly what Honeck did tonight – practically re-interpreting Tschaikowsky through a Mahlerian lense.

A few nights ago I watched a video which included some scenes of Valery Gergiev rehearsing Mahler’s Fifth, in which Gergiev described to the orchestra that they should perform it as though they were playing on a ship in the middle of the ocean, with huge swells making them sway back and forth while keeping them off-balance, and every so often having an enormous wave crash across their bow.  That analogy would have worked for Honeck’s reading of Tschaikowsky’s Sixth tonight.  This was an angst-ridden performance – although the theory that Tschaikowsky committed suicide nine days after the premiere of this symphony is not widely accepted, certainly if this had been the amount of angst consuming him then maybe he would have.

The orchestra handled this very well – Honeck has served chief there since 2008, so they know him and respond.  The ensemble playing therefore got it.  Unfortunately, the exposed lines stood out: this is a second-tier American orchestra, lacking the virtuosity of a top-level band.  While the whole sound was good, the individual instruments did not rise to the solo lines.  This came in stark contrast considering last night’s performance by the Berlin Philharmonic, where each individual line was to savor.

We did get to enjoy two encores, both ballet music.  The first I did not quite place, but it sounded like Tschaikowsky and had a nice little lilt.  Of greater spectacle, next came a couple of sections from Prokofiev‘s Romeo and Juliet.  This was authentically Russian in a way Tschaikowsky was generally not, and brash and modern in ways that Lutosławski would have done well to emulate (the whole Prokofiev ballet is long but never gets dull – that might have been a much more exciting programmatic choice, but I’ll take the snippets as an encore).