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).

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Prokofiev, Schostakowitsch

Another Sunday morning concert with the Vienna Philharmonic in Salzburg’s Great Festival House, in which the work I specifically wanted to hear got overshadowed by the one I did not know and was initially less interested in.

The surprise for me came in the first half of the concert, with Prokofiev‘s Second Piano Concerto, which I did not believe I had ever heard before (I looked it up after the concert: indeed, I heard it in 2009 and seem to have been equally stunned).  Written to fulfill a graduation requirement from the conservatory, the precocious student Prokofiev decided to smash all conventions.  The result produced a whole lot of sound, often coming at odd angles, emerging from the piano but also bombarding the ears from across the stage.  There may have been no particular order to the madness – mostly Prokofiev showing off: “look what I can do!” – but this was no cacaphony.

Soloist Daniil Trifonov, a Russian Wunderkind himself still only 26, siezed the piano in his arms and practically hurled it around the stage.  OK, it stayed put, more or less, but he jumped around on the stool more than conductor Andris Nelsons on the podium.  His arms were blazing, and hands everywhere (does he only have two hands?), fingers pounding the keys.  It was all a blur.  But the music… perhaps the snarky young Prokofiev had been on to something, and Trifonov discovered it.

For his part, Nelsons made sure the orchestra provided the perfect context for Trifonov (maybe not as hard with this orchestra, but someone had to put it all together).

After the intermission, Schostakowitsch‘s monumental Seventh Symphony – the work I dearly wanted to hear – became somehow anti-climactic.  This is the one symphony that Schostakowtsch wrote knowing it was to be used for propaganda purposes.  There’s also a whole lot of sound here, and the orchestra got it all.  The subtext is harder to find than in other Schostakowitsch symphonies (according to propaganda, the “invasion” theme in the first movement depicts the German invasion of Russia in 1941; yet Schostakowitsch had actually written this portion nearly two years before, moved by the Russian invasion of Poland as the first phase for implementation of Russo-German alliance that opened the Second World War).  In truth, Schostakowitsch had seen firsthand the misery in Leningrad during the German siege and the bravery of the people to attempt to survive, and this required memorialization.  Yet when it would all be over, it would not be over: the Soviet regime of terror still reigned.

Nelsons, born in Latvia 39 years ago when it was still very much under Russian occupation, should understand that subtext, as hard as it may be to find.  I’m not sure we heard it this morning.  Nevertheless, the orchestral playing was spectacular.

Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Felsenreitschule (Salzburg)

Dvořák, Bach, Prokofiev

Another weekend at the Festival, moving into the Felsenreitschule for the annual Young Conductors Award prize concert, which featured last year’s winner Aziz Shokhakimov, only 29 years old but for the last eleven years the principal conductor of the Uzbek National Opera.  This evening he had the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra at his disposal – a competent if somewhat undistinguished orchestra by Austrian standards (albeit probably better than his own, I am sure).

Shokhakimov provided all of the necessary impulse to drive the orchestral music forward, even during moments of sadness, introspection, or tragedy.  This was especially true in the second half of the concert, with a performance of Prokofiev‘s Fifth Symphony, written in the final year of the Second World War and celebrating impending victory while lamenting the terrible toll.

It worked less well in the first half of the concert, but not because of Shokhakimov.  For Dvořák‘s Cello Concerto, the Romanian soloist Andrei Ioniţă simply sapped all energy from the room whenever he played.  Although sometimes capable of a round warm tone, most of the time he sounded like he was scraping a washboard.  The contrast between the excitement of the pure orchestral passages (of which Dvořák gave us many) and dreary cello solos (not what Dvořák wrote, but what Ioniţă played) were extreme.  Ioniţă came back out for an encore of what sounded very much like Bach (scored for washboard).

(Addendum: I discovered after writing this that the washboard has actually been adapted for use in jazz as a percussion instrument.  That is not that sound I intended to suggest by my description, but rather I meant the sort of sound that might be created by scraping a wire bow across a washboard – not having ever tried that myself, and listening to some jazz recordings of washboards, I wonder if I would even be right.  In short, Ioniţă’s sound was scratchy, rough, and metallic.)

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

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.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Orchesterhaus Salzburg

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.

Philadelphia Orchestra, Kimmel Center

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.

Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

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’Romeo and Juliet Fantasy could have fantasized more.  The encore, the fight scene (not a love scene) from Prokofiev’Romeo and Juliet ballet, actually allowed them to let it all loose.

Armenian Philharmonic, Khachaturian Hall

Yerkanyan, Prokofiev, Mussorgsky

The Armenian Philharmonic sounded especially good tonight.  Not surprisingly, it did so under the baton of Eduard Topchjan, who continues to be the only person who can get good noises from this gang.  The star attraction this evening, however, was Steven Isserlis, the soloist for the second work on the program: Prokofiev’s Cello Concerto.

This was an unusual composition, mixing as it did a mechanized symphonic backdrop typical of Russian composers from the 1930s, perhaps the darkest decade in Russia’s already dark history, with lyrical solo lines.  If the lines were not fully lyrical, Isserlis made them so.  Isserlis treats the cello as his dance partner, even if he never does leave the chair the two of them spin around in place together.

Preceding the Prokofiev piece, Misteria by Armenian composer Yervand Yerkanyan opened the program.  The music was pleasant enough, in a pseudo-mystic sort of way, but never seemed to go anywhere.  Maybe it was not supposed to.  Maybe that was the mystery.

Almost half the audience failed to return to the Khachaturian Hall for the second half of the concert, and they made a big mistake.  Topchjan led an inspired performance of Mussorgsky’Pictures at an Exhibition in its Ravel orchestration.  A highly-regarded but generally over-rated orchestrator, Ravel exceeded his talents with this work – other attempts to orchestrate the Pictures have not come close.  Topchjan clearly knew every aspect and each instrument’s strength, bringing out lines here and nuances there which often get overlooked, showcasing Ravel’s accomplishment even more.  The Orchestra responded passionately, and without the usual squeeks and missed cues I have gotten used to here in Yerevan.  Tonight the Maestro had them on.

London Philharmonic, Musikverein (Vienna)

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’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’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.

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Holzer, Brahms, Strauss, Prokofiev

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

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

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

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

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

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

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