Lutosławski, Tschaikowsky, Prokofiev
Another Sunday morning concert with the Vienna Philharmonic in Salzburg’s Great Festival House, in which the work I specifically wanted to hear got overshadowed by the one I did not know and was initially less interested in.
The surprise for me came in the first half of the concert, with Prokofiev‘s Second Piano Concerto, which I did not believe I had ever heard before (I looked it up after the concert: indeed, I heard it in 2009 and seem to have been equally stunned). Written to fulfill a graduation requirement from the conservatory, the precocious student Prokofiev decided to smash all conventions. The result produced a whole lot of sound, often coming at odd angles, emerging from the piano but also bombarding the ears from across the stage. There may have been no particular order to the madness – mostly Prokofiev showing off: “look what I can do!” – but this was no cacaphony.
Soloist Daniil Trifonov, a Russian Wunderkind himself still only 26, siezed the piano in his arms and practically hurled it around the stage. OK, it stayed put, more or less, but he jumped around on the stool more than conductor Andris Nelsons on the podium. His arms were blazing, and hands everywhere (does he only have two hands?), fingers pounding the keys. It was all a blur. But the music… perhaps the snarky young Prokofiev had been on to something, and Trifonov discovered it.
For his part, Nelsons made sure the orchestra provided the perfect context for Trifonov (maybe not as hard with this orchestra, but someone had to put it all together).
After the intermission, Schostakowitsch‘s monumental Seventh Symphony – the work I dearly wanted to hear – became somehow anti-climactic. This is the one symphony that Schostakowtsch wrote knowing it was to be used for propaganda purposes. There’s also a whole lot of sound here, and the orchestra got it all. The subtext is harder to find than in other Schostakowitsch symphonies (according to propaganda, the “invasion” theme in the first movement depicts the German invasion of Russia in 1941; yet Schostakowitsch had actually written this portion nearly two years before, moved by the Russian invasion of Poland as the first phase for implementation of Russo-German alliance that opened the Second World War). In truth, Schostakowitsch had seen firsthand the misery in Leningrad during the German siege and the bravery of the people to attempt to survive, and this required memorialization. Yet when it would all be over, it would not be over: the Soviet regime of terror still reigned.
Nelsons, born in Latvia 39 years ago when it was still very much under Russian occupation, should understand that subtext, as hard as it may be to find. I’m not sure we heard it this morning. Nevertheless, the orchestral playing was spectacular.
Dvořák, Bach, Prokofiev
Berlioz, Prokofiev, Schostakowitsch
The first Sunday matinee of the Mozarteum Orchestra‘s new season filled Salzburg’s Great Festival House with music, if with many empty seats as well. This was a shame, as the orchestra shone under guest conductor Markus Stenz.
The concert overture Roman Festival by Berlioz led kicked off the program full of color. Derived from music adapted from his opera Benvenuto Cellini, this reworking allowed the individual musicians in the orchestra to showcase themselves while blending to a thrilling whole. This was moreso apparent in the second work, Prokofiev‘s first violin concerto, where soloist Arabella Steinbacher joined the orchestra. Her tone was warm and sweet – but never too much so, allowing just enough edge to reflect that Prokofiev, when he wrote this in 1916, remained in the vanguard of new music. So we got intricate combinations of musicians – introduced by the viole, Steinbacher played a dialogue with the flutes, and then moved on to continue the discussion through the orchestra. And quite a fun discussion, moving back and forth and around and around, providing stimulation for the mind throughout the masterfull (and underperformed) work, here captured well be these artists assembled on stage.
Steinbacher treated us to an encore – a movement of a sonata by Prokofiev – which allowed her to showcase her talents further. This time, she carried out the fanciful dialogue not with an orchestra, but rather by herself. Her tone was just big enough to fill the large hall without strain, and allow us to enjoy her versatility working through Prokofiev’s clever thoughts.
The program closed with more color, except this time more somber: Schostakowitsch‘s fifth symphony. Stenz translated the sense of foreboding in the symphony by controlling the dynamics, the big moments bringing in a shock component. Stenz made Schostakowitch almost snarky: did the first movement describe clowns rounded up and marched to Siberia for cheering up the miserable victims of Soviet oppression? Who was trying to dance in the second movement? There was the color – so obvious in the Berlioz and Prokofiev works – showing through, in an controlled reading. While in my own head I’ve heard this work as increasingly black over the last few years (and heard that interpretation to the extreme with the Petersburgers and Yuri Temirkanov visiting the Musikverein a year and a half ago), I still understood the convincing spin Stenz and the orchestra gave the symphony. It certainly helps that this orchestra is in good form.
Mozart, Prokofiev, Beethoven
The Mozarteum Orchestra kindly gave me a free ticket to a non-calendar concert this morning at their rehearsal hall in the Orchesterhaus, where they were auditioning a candidate for their soon-to-be-open music director position: Vassilis Christopoulos, a Greek born and educated in Germany. At 40, he is still young, but has spent his career flitting around the most provincial of provincial houses. His two head postings – currently head of the Southwest German Philharmonic of Constance and formerly artistic director of the Athens Opera – have not made a name for either. The concert was extremely pleasant, but the orchestra may still be searching.
Christopoulos was fine, with a clear technique, but I did not see any particular spark of inspiration. The orchestra likely wants someone more established who rehearses well, although I think they should go for a young dynamo on the up, after the model of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, an ambitious provincial band (like the Mozarteum) which regularly selects charismatic music directors in their late 20s who bring the orchestra and its renown up with them as they rise (most famously Simon Rattle, who stayed 18 years, followed by Sakari Oromo for ten, Andris Nelsons for seven, and starting this fall Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, who is the music director of the Salzburg Landestheater).
The program opened with the Overture to Mozart‘s Don Giovanni, which this orchestra could probably play in its sleep. The music flew off the stage (designed to match the stage in the Great Festival House, so the orchestra can maintain its sightlines) and whirled into the audience (a 250-seat 2-level auditorium, so not very deep), which allowed us to appreciate the interior lines and menacing brass (all of two horns and two trumpets, but still coming on strong in this reading). The whole opera is in their repertory this season, in their dual role as pit orchestra for the Landestheater, so when they play the overture they are also ready to present the full meaning of an entire drama condensed into five minutes.
Two first symphonies followed. Prokofiev wrote his first – the “Classical” – in the style of Haydn, if Haydn had come back in the 20th century. The instrumentation he borrowed from what Haydn had used in his final symphony. Prokofiev’s is a playful work, and the orchestra had fun with it. Beethoven‘s first is altogether more serious – an actual student of Haydn, he took his teacher’s idiom one more step, writing five years after Haydn had completed his final symphony. Though still classical in style, the young genius tinkered a bit with convention to hint at the breakthroughs he would soon unleash, giving this work a hightened sense of urgency and drama. The Orchestra performed both of these comfortably within their idiom.
Stravinsky, Schostakowitsch, Prokofiev
I rushed up from Washington to Philadelphia in time to hear Valery Gergiev conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra in three very different symphonies by Russian composers. What Stravinsky’s Symphony in C, Schostakowitsch’s 9th, and Prokofiev’s 5th had in common was intriguing rhythmic combinations, which make them fun, if difficult, to play. The Philadelphians proved themselves up for the challenge.
The Stravinsky might be the oddest of the lot. Written over a period of a couple of years, it is not quite clear that the composer ever had a clear vision or plan for this work. The creativity came in the rhythmic shifts and juxtapositions across the instruments. A medium-sized orchestration never became too overpowering, and the Philadelphians played the work with dexterous delicacy: tender moments prevailing through jarring jabs of sound.
In some respects, the orchestra sounded as though it had started the concert by going mostly through motions, taking a while to warm up during the piece. The playing was fine, but some sparkle lacked at the outset. Part of that may have been Stravinsky’s lack of clarity in this work. Certainly, by the time the Schostakowitsch came, the Orchestra was now ready.
Schostakowitsch’s work marks a triumph of his own spirit at a time of triumph for his country. The communists expected a major work to crown their victory in the Second World War, and Schostakowitsch gave them a sarcastic one. The work dances – maybe not with as much syncopation as Stravinsky’s or with the balletic sweeps of the Prokofiev that followed, but nevertheless it showed a certain celebration alternating with dark brooding. Although Soviet Russia had defeated Nazi Germany, it remained Soviet Russia, its peoples enslaved. The irony did not escape notice that the Orchestra took its cues from Gergiev, a close friend of (and apologist for) current Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. But politics aside (and sticking to music-making), Gergiev successfully shaped this symphony with his clawing fingers, giving it a fuller and more meaningful reading than the Stravinsky.
The Prokofiev symphony after the intermission provided something more in line with what the communist regime would have wanted. Written shortly before the end of the European war, as the Red Army advanced to liberate (and re-enslave) Eastern Europe, Prokofiev could use dramatic language and large forces to portray both the uplifting triumph and sad laments of the battlefield, while still maintaining a modern musical language characterized by its own dancing rhythms. The Orchestra’s sound came across full when it had to, but the solo lines throughout emerged with sensitivity and virtuosity.
Walton, Dvořák, Berlioz, Verdi, Tschaikowsky, Prokofiev
The Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra came to town today with a program of music inspired by Shakespeare in love. The renowned Austrian actress Senta Berger introduced each selection with a mix of biographical information of Shakespeare (and his loves and loves lost), period history, readings from Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets (mostly in German translation), literary commentary on Shakespearean double-entendre in English, and some stories of later generations inspired by Shakespeare.
This program concept was good, but they could have thought it through more fully. There was nothing wrong with Berger’s reading, but the mish-mash of texts came across as disjointed. She also made no effort to connect the readings to the music in the program. For example, she could have dramatized the scenes set by the composers, or explained the music in the context of the selections – if these composers were inspired by Shakespeare, the link should be obvious. Or multiple actors could have acted out the scenes. And while she alluded to the big delay between Shakespeare’s death and when people started setting his work to music, she could have explained more (as it was, she just said that opera, a natural medium for Shakespearean drama, did not exist yet in his lifetime and so it would take some time – problem was that all but one of the musical selections had no connection to opera, so that could not explain the delay).
The Nuremberg Symphony, though perfectly competent, did not make up for this disjointedness. The playing was workmanlike. They hit most of the notes. They concentrated so hard to do so, that the music came out with little emotion, which essentially defeated the purpose of this concert. Young English conductor Alexander Shelley kept these forces together with a smile.
The concert opened with an arrangement of music by William Walton for the 1936 film of As You Like It starring Laurence Olivier and continued with Dvořák’s Concert Overture to Othello. Both compositions, seldom heard, displayed drama (not always communicated by the orchestra). A selection of music from Berlioz’s “Dramatic Symphony” Romeo and Julietwas not dramatic – at least not this selection and not with this orchestra. The ballet music from the third act of Verdi‘s MacBeth (the one nod to opera) jumped out a little better, possibly because Berger had been rather raunchy in her introduction. Tschaikowsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy could have fantasized more. The encore, the fight scene (not a love scene) from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet, actually allowed them to let it all loose.
Yerkanyan, Prokofiev, Mussorgsky
Rimsky-Korsakov, Prokofiev, Bruckner, Wagner
Next week I will go to London. This week the London Philharmonic came to me. The orchestra, under its cool and talented chief conductor Vladimir Jurowski, performed in the Musikverein.
I have not heard this orchestra in many years, and although its reputation waned for a while, it sounded like the London Philharmonic of old that I remembered from its days under Klaus Tennstedt. The opening showpiece demonstrated why: although Rimsky-Korsakov’s Great Russian Easter Overture sounds different performed by Russians, with their distinctive sound, the lush London Philharmonic playing completed Rimsky’s rich orchestration, and the sonorities filled the hall.
The young violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, born in Moldova, educated in Austria and Switzerland, came out for the Prokofiev Second Violin Concerto looking like she had just snuck out of her own wedding – wearing a long fluffy white dress and barefoot (presumably from dancing, since she also danced the whole time she played). She and the orchestra stayed in idiom for Prokofiev’s playful 1930s modernized re-telling of a classical model: quite a fun work, performed with great humor. Her sound, though not large, blended perfectly with the orchestra. As an encore, Kopatchinskaja and the orchestra’s concert master, South African Pieter Schoeman (whose solos in the earlier Rimsky-Korsakov had shone), performed a Prokofiev sonata for two violins with equal banter.
Bruckner’s Symphony #1, performed here in its original Linz version, must have sounded as innovative in the 1860s as Prokofiev’s concerto did in the 1930s, both taking strictly classical forms in new directions. This was young Bruckner (relatively – he wrote the first symphony in his 40s), and showed his lack of experience with orchestral music at that time. But it marks a contrast with the first symphony by Brahms, who also waited into his 40s before writing a symphony. Both Bruckner and Brahms found approaching symphonies hard after Beethoven. But when they were finally ready to do so, Brahms produced the more sophisticated and polished work which said nothing new and simply imitated Beethoven, while Bruckner advanced the art with a rough but new Beethoven-inspired construction. Ultimately, this work paved the way not only for Bruckner’s own future development, but also for great symphonies to come, including those of Mahler, Sibelius, and Schostakowitsch. Setting this classical-derivative work, with its raw dissonances and soaring organ-inspired chorales inexpertly mixed throughout, after Prokofiev’s concerto emphasized just how new and important this symphony could sound. The London Philharmonic and Jurowski put it in context, with resounding orchestral color.
The prelude to the third act of Wagner’s Meistersinger served as a final encore, as the orchestral chorale that Wagner based on the hymn “Wacht Auf” (sung by the chorus later in the opera) by the historic Hans Sachs wafted the audience out of the hall, another for-its-time modernized setting of an older form.
Holzer, Brahms, Strauss, Prokofiev
I was afraid Austria might revoke my citizenship if I did not attend at least one musical event on this brief trip. So off I went to the Musikverein to hear the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Vasily Petrenko.
Petrenko is a young conductor from St. Petersburg, who trained under Jansons, Temirkanov, and Salonen, and was already chief conductor of St. Petersburg’s second opera house, the Michailovsky, by the time he was 18 years old. Since 2009 he has been based in Liverpool, where is gets great reviews and has become quite popular. I can see why. He has a very clear, precise yet emotional technique, and the orchestra knows what to do next.
No where better did this come out than in the second half of the concert: the Prokofiev Symphony #5, for which the odd harmonies and tempi were actually meant to be there. I have never heard this piece performed the way Petrenko did it tonight. Written during the Second World War, the music contains great tension, drama, and industrial mobilization, all of which Petrenko brought out of the orchestra. Of course, this orchestra happens to specialize in 20th-Century Russian music, thanks to its former music director Vladimir Fedoseyev, and therefore it responded brilliantly to Petrenko’s idiomatic reading. This may be about as definitive a version of this work as it gets – what a shame it was not recorded for posterity.
But before the second half came the first. Tonight’s concert opened with the Austrian National Anthem (tomorrow is the national day), music by Johann Holzer. A nice anthem, to be sure, but I’d still rather claim our old one back from Germany.
Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture followed. Petrenko took it rather more quickly than usual – a raise the house sort of overture rather than a stately dignified one. The orchestra responded well, and I suppose I saw the point, but I would stick with the slower tempo.
Soprano Christiane Oelze then came out to sing seven assorted songs by Richard Strauss. Oelze has a beautiful round voice, projects it well, and can hit all the notes. Unfortunately tonight she did not hit the right ones. She seemed incapable of keeping either on pitch or on tempo. As she got more frustrated she screeched. A disaster of a night for her. The orchestra provided nice background color, if only it had played without soloist.
All of this was worth it, however, for the Prokofiev after the intermission.
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra under new-ish Music Director Riccardo Muti came to the Musikverein tonight. The orchestra sounded fantastic, performing a concert that could have been scripted by the Philadelphia Orchestra in a happier day: Hindemith’s Symphony in E-flat and a suite from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet.
I have always considered Hindemith more of a painter than a composer, but one who used sound as a canvas. The Chicagoans reinforced this very concept with the rarely-performed Hindemith work (which really deserves more performances). The woodwinds deserved special applause (and got it) for both demonstrating enormous virtuosity in their exposed phrases while also managing to play as a single unit, ensuring that all of the colors from Hindemith’s palette blended correctly.
Although the orchestra continued to sound great throughout the Prokofiev after the intermission, it did not manage to equal its achievement from the first half of the concert. Muti combined movements of two different suites Prokofiev himself had prepared of this ballet. But Muti may have forgotten that, at its base, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet was not a collection of orchestral pieces, but was indeed a ballet. The music tonight, while technically more-than-proficient, simply did not dance like it should have.
So, give the CSO one point for painting and no points for dancing. For sheer technical prowess, give them full points. The brass get extra credit, and the woodwinds earned double extra credit.
Went to the movies at the Novaya Opera tonight, where concert excerpts from Prokofiev’s music to Eisenstein’s films Ivan the Terrible and Aleksandr Nyevsky were on the program (for the Nyevsky excerpts they used the Cantata that Prokofiev himself prepared based on the film ). The orchestra played from the pit, a film screen was dropped halfway up the stage, and the chorus sang from the sides of the stage. Since I have never seen the Ivan films (Eisenstein completed Part I, most of Part II, and only a small amount of Part III before the Soviets killed the project), it was hard for me to follow along with the video excerpts, which jumped around a bit. However, I do know the Nyevsky film, so although the portions shown also jumped around I could follow – I wonder how well the rest of the audience knows these two films?
The Novaya orchestra and chorus sounded in full form (although the brass began to wear out as the night went on), conducted by Dmitry Volosnikov. These works are not part of the house’s normal repertory, so it was a one-night-only performance. That said, I hope they do it again. Fantastic way to hear this music and see parts of these classic films. Absolute genius.
Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Tschaikowsky
Although not at all a fan of the Bolshoi, which has fallen to a level of petty bickering and political intrigue (with accompanying collapse in musical quality) that should only be possible in an Italian opera house, I decided to attend a concert by the Bolshoi Orchestra in the Tschaikowsky Concert Hall this evening for the chance to hear some less-performed music under the baton of Aleksandr Lazarev: a suite from Prokofiev’s Cinderella and Rachmaninov’s Symphony #1.
The Prokofiev suite, in an arrangement by Lazarev himself, opened with the sort of muddy string playing I have come to expect from this orchestra. However, under Lazarev’s enthusiastic direction, the playing did improve somewhat, especially when the winds got to join in. It is easy to forget that this orchestra, besides being an opera orchestra, is also a ballet orchestra. So if it can do very little else, at least it can dance. Lazarev helped it along by himself dancing wildly all over the podium. At several points, he got himself spun completely around so that he had turned his back completely on the orchestra and appeared to be trying to conduct the audience. He also sprung himself off the podium a couple of times, once dividing the first and second violins from each other, another time appearing to help out a cellist in the third row. This may have been the best I have heard this orchestra sound, although someone really should put those murky strings out of their misery.
The dancing continued after the intermission, even though the music became moodier. The Rachmaninov Symphony #1 is an odd work – the composer’s first attempt at major symphonic music, and although he had already done quite a bit of composition, including an opera, this piece could have used some more maturing. Part of this has to do with its unfortunate history, which meant it was never properly edited: its premiere under the baton of Aleksandr Glazunov was an unmitigated disaster. Glazunov, who made such overwhelmingly positive contributions to music through his teaching, mentoring, administration, composing, and willingness to stand up for Jewish musicians against official Russian anti-Semitism, was not a talented conductor. So, for the premiere of this symphony in 1897, Glazunov failed to rehearse the orchestra properly, preventing Rachmaninov from making the late edits that most composers do during the rehearsals before premieres, and Glazunov also showed up for the actual concert already heavily drunk. As a result, the symphony received such awful reviews that Rachmaninov withdrew the orchestral score, which he buried in his desk, and then gave up composing completely for three years. He intended to revise the work, but never got around to it, and the orchestral score eventually vanished.
After the composer’s death, the piece was reconstructed based on the individual instrumental scores (all of which had survived because Rachmaninov had forgotten to collect them and someone randomly stuffed them in a library where they sat for almost half a century) and enjoyed a bit of a renaissance – in fact, its US premiere by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra was part of the first complete symphony concert ever to be broadcast on live television. It is a shame the composer never got around to revising the score: it has its brilliant and exciting moments, but these are connected by some rather dull bits which could have used some tightening. Lazarev tried valiantly tonight, although a better orchestra might have helped.
Lazarev remains clearly very popular with the Moscow public, receiving prolonged and roaring applause. He kept sneaking to the side of the stage to try to deflect the applause to the orchestra (the way a grade school conductor might, to indicate the audience should express its amazement that the children actually know how to hold their instruments – the Bolshoi Orchestra is not that bad, but given that it is the Bolshoi it really should sound much better than it does). However, it was absolutely apparent that the audience was crying out for Lazarev and not for the orchestra. Lazarev obliged everyone with an encore, something the Bolshoi Orchestra could not easily miss: the Adagio from Sleeping Beauty by Tschaikowsky.
Prokofiev, Love for Three Oranges
Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges: what a bizarre opera, but delightful.
Still trying to digest it. Most of the plot summaries I have read don’t make a whole lot of sense. And my Russian is not good enough to figure the twists out entirely. But taking it for what it is, I had fun. Performance was good – singers and orchestra (although I do not care for the lead tenor, who also sang Grigory in the Schostakowitch version of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov that I saw at the Gelikon in February, and sings with a pitiable voice rather than a nice one, possibly on purpose). Denis Kirpanev was on the podium.
There is no “traditional” way to stage this opera, so pretty much anything goes. Given the plot, the staging was clear enough. I may have to see it again sometime with a different production to understand it, though.
Glinka, Prokofiev, Dvořák
My second concert of the day in the Musikverein featured the Tonkünstler-Orchester under Mikhail Jurowski.
The concert opened with Glinka‘s Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila, followed by Prokofiev‘s Second Piano Concerto, with Alexander Markovich, an obese Russian-born Israeli as soloist (because of his stomach, he can’t actually sit near the piano; fortunately his arms reach). I did not know this concerto at all – never heard it before – and I dislike pianos generally. But this was a find. The piece is truly bizarre. Markovich is a very charismatic performer with a twinkle in his eye. I have no idea how the orchestra could manage staying together given the way the music jumps about, but Jurowski kept everything working. Really a stunning performance, and they all (soloist, conductor, orchestra) deserved the thunderous applause.
After the intermission came a very good Dvořák 8th Symphony. The Tonkünstler (which seemed enthusiastic and happy to be on stage) actually sounded better than the last two Symphoniker concerts I attened, which made me wonder even more what is going on with the Symphoniker right now.
Weber, Mendelssohn, Offenbach, Prokofiev
I moved into the Musikverein for the day, for three concerts back-to-back-back in the Golden Hall. The first featured the Wiener Symphoniker and Dmitri Kitayenko.
I had never seen Kitayenko conduct in person, but know him from some fine recordings. But this was the second concert in a row with the Symphoniker that I was disappointed with. They sound perfectly fine, but the Symphoniker is too good to sound “perfectly fine.” Fedoseyev (who conducted them last week) and Kitayenko (today) are both excellent conductors, and there was an obvious rapport with the orchestra (I know they love Fedoseyev, and I’ve heard him conduct them before with great results). So I wonder what is up with that orchestra at the moment.
The performance today opened with the Oberon Overture by Weber, followed by the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto (a 29-year–old Russian violinist, Mikhail Ovrutsky, was the soloist). As a pre-intermission encore, they performed Hoffmann’s Kleinsack song from Offenbach‘s Tales of Hoffmann (I have no idea who the unannounced tenor was or where they found him – tenors don’t usually just pop up and sing encores when they are not in the program; voice sounded a little strained, maybe from lack of warm-up, who knows?).
After the intermission, German actor Gert Voss read a very funny short story by Thomas Bernhard in memoriam for the 20th anniversary of his death. Then came Prokofiev‘s Peter and the Wolf, narrated by another apparently famous German stage actor, Sunnyi Melles. She was dramatic, but missed a few cues, and read strictly from the script rather than providing the embellishments that are usual with live performances. I suspect she never rehearsed and may have been reading it for the first time.