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.]

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.

Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra, Konzerthaus (Vienna)

Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, Alfeyev

I followed the Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra and Vladimir Fedoseyev to Vienna for the third concert with them in four days.  It does help when they have a good variety on the program.  This evening, the Choir of the Moscow Synod joined them for a selection of choral church music.

The concert opened, however, with an overture that was not especially religious: to Rimsky-Korsakov‘s opera The Invisible City of Kitezh.  I suppose that was to set the mood, which it did with its hymnlike theme, although rearranging the stage to shift the right musicians and instruments afterwards before the choral music rather broke the mood.

Two selections from Rachmaninov‘s All Night Vigil followed: Rachmaninov’s take on traditional Russian church music forms.  This made a nice bridge to Stravinsky‘s Symphony of Psalms, which took an old idea and somehow created an entirely new concept all together.  The chorus pulled both sets off, with the orchestra – or the odd group of musicians Stravinsky scored the work for – joining in merrily.  Indeed, this was a merry reading, a happy way to praise the Lord.  Stravinsky’s method was rather complex, but under Fedoseyev’s organizing structure it sounded almost easy.

These works nicely set the table for something new (or was it also just something old made new?) after the intermission: works by the composer Grigoriy Alfeyev, who under his ordination name, Metropolitan Hilarion, is the Russian Orthodox Church’s current minister of external relations.  He’s a little older than me, but exactly overlapped with me at Oxford when we were both doing our doctorates (I don’t believe we ever met).

The first piece by Alfeyev set the Catholic Latin text Stabat Mater.  Not surprisingly, then, it opened in a classical church music tradition that suggested some influence from Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and early Bruckner (when Bruckner was still composing church music).  It then moved from the Brucknerian in the (not actually unrelated) direction of Taneyev (who was the great professor of counterpoint at the Moscow conservatory in the late 19th century).  Taneyev’s students included Rachmaninov and Scriabin, so it was probably not surprising that the piece started to head that way… except for some neo-Baroque orchestral interludes.

Alfeyev’s Songs of Pilgramage followed, based on excerpts from Psalms in Russian language translations.  Perhaps because they were Russian texts (and not Latin), they owed more to a combination of traditional Russian choral church music but passed through the development of Mussorgsky, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Stravinsky and beyond.  I suppose befitting a high-ranking figure in the Russian Orthodox Church, it never got too radical, and the textual language remained clear (thanks also to the talent of the choir), but it nevertheless came across as new and fresh.  Fedoseyev, on the podium, seemed careful.  Indeed, if I had to categorize his interpretive style in all three concerts I have heard this week, I would say that Fedoseyev has demonstrated enormous control over the performances, keeping them well-contained and allowing for full color – if not especially bold, then at least especially balanced and thoughtful.

Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Glinka, Tschaikowsky, Rachmaninov, Schostakowitsch

The Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio pays a visit to Austria this week with its long-time (since 1974!) music director Vladimir Fedoseyev.  Of three concerts in Salzburg there is some program overlap, which I avoid by going to my subscription concert tonight, skipping tomorrow, but returning on Friday, and then I get to hear them in Vienna on Saturday with yet another set of works on the program.  Tonight’s performance was definitely a concert of two halves: whimsical Glinka and Tschaikowsky before the break, and Schostakowitsch served raw after.

The Overture to Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila gave a spirited start to the Orchestra’s arrival in the Great Festival House.  This fairy tale opera is mostly known only by this Overture, which is a shame – I did have a chance to see it once (at Moscow’s Novaya Opera) and wish opera houses would stage it more (not least because, in a fun performace such as the one I saw at the Novaya, children will get hooked on opera).  But if we only get the overture, then Glinka’s music marks as good a place as anywhere to open several nights of Russian music.

Next came Tschaikowsky’s Second Piano Concerto.  I am not sure I had been aware that he had written more than one (the famous one) until I showed up tonight and realized that the one in the program was number two!  It’s perhaps not as memorable as his first, and might have used some editing (particularly the far-too-long first movement), but it was fun in its own way.  The first movement certainly used every key on the keyboard (I was half expecting pianist Andrei Korobeinikov to run out of keys at both ends).  While that movement did not contain exciting music, it did have intrigue.  In the second movement, Tschaikowsky never quite figured out what sort of piece he was writing, switching among several, including various chamber combinations (not all of which even utilized a piano – the violin-cello duets were certainly special, then with strong continuo; the combinations involving piano and different winds also stood out).  What would he have thought of next?  Well, that would be the final movement, which exhibited the skill and coloration with which the composer had constructed his moody opera Yevgeny Onyegin, except without the depressants.

Korobeinikov’s treatment was flat (in a good way): this was not a flashy work (Tschaikowsky’s friend Nikolai Rubinstein, known for his excellent musicality but sober and contained technique, was supposed to have performed the premiere, however he died suddenly right before the concert and Sergey Taneyev took over, under the baton of Nikolai’s even more famous older brother Anton – the composer dedicated the concerto to Nicolai’s memory).  Korobeinikov gave us a flashier (unidentified – UPDATE: subsequently identified as Rachmaninov‘s Piano Prelude #5 – I am not so familiar with solo piano reportary, as I am actually not a fan of the instrument) encore to show us he could do flash too (I hope so, since he’s performing Prokofiev’s absolutely nutso second piano concerto on Friday).

After the intermission, Fedoseyev led an almost restrained reading of Schostakowitsch’s Symphony #10.  Begun in dark times, right after the end of the Second World War when Soviet Russia had defeated its one-time ally Nazi Germany and then people woke up and realized they still had to live in Soviet Russia.  This performance was all gloom and doom, yet nevertheless quiet, passive, and even submissive – never bombastic (I’ve heard good bombastic interpretations of this symphony, too, but that was not Fedoseyev’s approach tonight).  This interpretation worked, as it allowed the periodic harsh dissonance and jarring syncopations to jump off the stage, scraping at an open wound.  By the time Schostakowitsch finished writing this symphony, Stalin had died, and the final movement tonight came across as an off-kilter dance on his grave – off kilter because, despite that evil man’s demise, the Soviet Union was still around and ultimately outlasted Schostakowitsch, who would never know freedom.  For this work, this orchestra’s unmistakable Russian tone stood out – not always the most polished noises come out of the instruments, but the style is intentional and the sound authentically Russian.

A mock-Spanish piece livened up the mood as an encore (I think I’ve heard this orchestra play this encore before, although I never did figure out what it is – UPDATE: turns out to be the Spanish dance from Swan Lake) and sent us out maybe a little less-depressed into the snow.

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein (Vienna)

Sommer, Mahler, Rachmaninov, Schubert, Bartók

Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra came to Vienna’s Musikverein for a two-night set, for which I was fortunate to be home for the first night, which contained an ecclectic mix.  

If I had to describe this orchestra with one adjective, it would be “complete.”  No individual instrument stood out, but together they produced the most perfectly balanced sound.  There were no gaps, no flaws, no twists they could not make together.  Jansons has been at its helm since 2003, so this represents a tribute to him as well.

The concert led off with a concert overture to Antigone by a forgotten 20th-Century Czech composer Vladimír Sommer, someone I had never heard of before.  He had a limited output, and this work showed a routine post-romantic style.  It provided enough excitement to launch a drama, but was only a concert overture, not a setting of the entire Sophocles work for theater, and therefore seemed to be missing something (although also not clear from this snippet if Sommer could have pulled off writing an entire drama).

For more drama, alto Gerhild Romberger joined the orchestra for Mahler‘s Kindertotenlieder.  Jansons and the orchestra drove this work, too, but Romberger did provide a warm, full-bodied, expressive, solo voice, at least in the middle register.  Her moving reading melted the texts, demonstrating sadness and evoking sympathy.  She did however lack the strength in the brief moments Mahler took her to the upper register, and she simply did not have the dramatic voice required for the final song (“In diesem Wetter”), which stays mostly at the bottom of the range.  Jansons restrained the orchestra in the final song so as not to overwhelm her, but it was an unfortunate conclusion to an otherwise heartful cycle.

After the intermission, the orchestra’s “complete” sound could come into its own with Rachmaninov‘s Symphonic Dances, the composer’s final orchestral work.  It’s a strange combination – apparently Rachmaninov conceived it as something which could be converted into a ballet, but a project the composer subsequently abandoned during composition, so while going through an assortment of dance forms, it is not really a set of dances but a more of a three-movement symphony with a lot of moving parts.  The orchestra navigated around and through these motions masterfully, making this difficult work fully accessible to the listener.  The audience erupted in pleasure (prompting not just one but two encores: the more sedate Moment Musical by Schubert and the crazier excerpt from The Miraculous Mandarin by Bartók).

Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Dvořák, Rachmaninov, Gluck, Bach

Back again to hear the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra under Andrés Orozco-Estrada in Salzburg’s Great Festival House.  It would appear the orchestra made some adjustments to the hall since Wednesday, as the tone was clearer and some of the peculiarities (like the vibrating forte brass) did not repeat tonight.  So I can possibly put down their Wednesday sounds to insufficient rehearsal time in this hall (maybe – I have no idea; I only know they sounded better tonight).  However, they continue to play with little emotion, more background music for a film soundtrack but without the film.

Tonight’s concert opened with Dvořák‘s tone poem The Midday Witch, a humorous little piece of Czech folklore, which put me at ease that we would not have as murky a concert as on Wednesday.  The music then switched back to Rachmaninov – his fourth piano concerto and the second symphony.

Denis Kozhukhin returned to the keyboard for the concerto.  This is perhaps not as strong a work as the third concerto these forces performed on Wednesday, seemingly lacking direction – a little jazzy, but with no discernable overall concept.  Kozhukhin sounded better – somewhat less pedal – and hit all the notes, but I’m not sure Rachmaninov gave him enough to work with.  His two encores (by Gluck and Bach) repeated from Wednesday and demonstrated more of a match for his style, relaxed and sentimental.

Rachmaninov’s lush second symphony is another moody piece.  When performed right it has a forward drive and excitement to it.  Its legatos would seem suited to this orchestra, but their lack of emotion canceled that out tonight.  It is a long work – nearly an hour – keeping in mood, so it is essential that the conductor and orchestra remain engaged.  The playing was pretty, and the woodwinds especially made an impression, but this performance dragged.  The audience spent the concert audibly fidgeting in the seats.

Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Rachmaninov, Gluck, Bach

The Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra has moved into Salzburg’s Great Festival House for a three-day series of concerts. The first one was part of my Wednesday monthly subscription series, and I also opted for Friday in addition.

The orchestra seems to have become a bit artsy since I last heard it live, now styling itself as the hr Symphony Orchestra (with a lower case hr, short for Hessian Radio – of course Frankfurt is in the German state of Hesse and the state radio is the Hessian Radio, so this name happens to be accurate but peculiar, especially with the lowercase hr). It has a respectable history as the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, so this must be some zany German concept of rebranding a product that does not require a rebranding. One would prefer this orchestra to focus on maintaining its quality rather than coming up with strange marketing gimmicks.

So as for quality: if I did not know the acoustics in Salzburg’s Great Festival House, and/or I were not sitting in my usual seat, I would have assumed that something was wrong with the acoustics in this hall (however I do know the hall and was sitting in my usual spot). The orchestra has acquired a distinctly muddy tone, a bit of a blur as though it were performing in the background of a movie score. As the brass performed forte, there was a distinct vibration, like the sort of feedback that emerges from an old radio speaker when the volume is turned up too high. Of course there was no amplification: this vibration came naturally from the brass, which is just odd. Their Colombian conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada underwhelmed (his previous orchestra, the Tonkünstler of Lower Austria, also saw its level drop noticeably during his tenure).

The young Russian Denis Kozhukhin joined the orchestra at the keyboard for Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto, in what was not a thrilling reading. In fact, maybe the Orchestra was trying to match his style, which sounded like he employed too much pedal and let the notes run together (he hit them all, just not making much distinction). The style may have worked better for two solo encores, by Gluck (an arrangement from Orfeo ed Euridice) and Bach (a prelude), both mellow and requiring less passion than Rachmaninov.

I snuck out at intermission, only because my late-scheduled extra surgery in Vienna first thing in the morning means I needed to make the last train home, and staying to the end of the concert would have cut it too close. I suspect this orchestra’s rendition of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony after the intermission may have lulled me to sleep, too. I will however return to hear more Rachmaninov plus Dvořák on Friday.

 

Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Felsenreitschule (Salzburg)

Kabalevksy, Rachmaninov, Scriabin

Lorenzo Viotti, the Swiss who won the annual Salzburg Young Conductors Award last year, celebrated his victory concert this morning in the Felsenreitschule leading the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, with an ambitious all-Russian program.  Although he seemed to have a clear idea of the structure of the music, the performance was not compelling.  How much of this could be the fault of the nicely-toned by rather blurry orchestra is unclear.

The overture to Colas Breugnon by Dmitri Kabalevksy opened the morning concert like an alarm clock.  Kabalevsky’s music, usually fun if rarely memorable, did the trick, and Viotti and the orchestra handled the theatrics.  The young Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili then took the stage for Sergei Rachmaninov‘s second piano concerto.  Buniatishvili performed the work entranced as if in a dream, in a better world.  The Orchestra applied a bit too much pedal, however.  Where her notes came across crisp and light, theirs plodded.  Clearly this was her dream: they just slept through it.

The single work after the intermission had first attracted me to this concert: Aleksandr Skryabin‘s Second Symphony.  Underappreciated as a symphonist, because he was stark raving mad, Skryabin was a classmate and close friend of Rachmaninov at the Moscow Conservatory and turned out some of the greatest Russian symphonies of the Twentieth Century.  He set out to destroy the world in six symphonies – fortunately maybe for the world but not for music-lovers nor certainly not for him, he died at 43 years old having only written five, so the world survived (although the Bolsheviks finished off his world two years later, and his reputation fell into rapid decline).  When his symphonies do appear on a concert program, they are worth seeking out, although again I think the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra simply was not up to the job.  Their sound was invariably sweet, where Skryabin required sour.

Philadelphia Orchestra, Konzerthaus Berlin

Muhly, Schostakowitsch, Tschaikowsky, Rachmaninov

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

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

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

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

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

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall

Rachmaninov, Enescu

Vladimir Jurowski has not only restored the level of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, but he has also given it a reputation as willing to perform rarer works.  Tonight, the highly unusual Symphony #3 by George Enescu.

The Romanian prodigy Enescu studied first at the Vienna Conservatory and then at the Paris Conservatory.  This may have influenced this symphony, which was Austrian in concept but French in the details.  He employed a massive orchestra and chorus (wordless) to paint an enormous canvas, and then stuck to only pastel colors.  Jurowksi is clearly enamored of this work, and he made a point of holding the score over his head during the rounds of applause at the end, to have the audience give it special recognition.

I think the orchestra liked the spectacle of it.  And it certainly gave most instruments a chance to stand out and add their own colors – I suppose if anyone is to perform this symphony, it might as well be the London Philharmonic under Jurowski.  But was it a good work?  I’m not sure.  Some rarely-performed pieces are secret gems… others are rarely-performed for a reason.  It wasn’t bad.  I might hear it again sometime to give it another try.  But even this excellent performance by sympathetic forces did not make it stand out.

The first half of the concert included Three Russian Songs and the Spring Cantata, all by Rachmaninov (the London Philharmonic is featuring his work this season).  These works are performed in Russia, but not so much outside.  The London Philharmonic Choir and Ukrainian baritone Andrei Bondarenko built on the moving reading by Jurowski and the orchestra, although the chorus did sound a bit uncomfortable singing Russian.

Philharmonie Salzburg, Mozarteum

Tschaikowsky, Rachmaninov

They over-hyped tonight’s concert of the Philharmonie Salzburg in the Great Hall of the Mozarteum.  Or maybe I should not have gone to this concert so soon after returning from hearing both the Philharmoniker and the Symphoniker in Vienna this past weekend.  Still, the Philharmonie Salzburg sounds like a pretty good youth orchestra.

The announced conductor, Elisabeth Fuchs (the orchestra’s founder) did not appear (although she remains on the concert’s website, she was not in the program), and instead a 23-year-old cellist, Tobias Wögerer took the podium (after making his debut as a conductor in his native Linz earlier this year).  I suppose conductors have to start sometime and somewhere, so I will give him a pass.  He had a clear stick technique, but the orchestra did not always get it together.  In many respects, the orchestra did not blend as an orchestra, but rather each instrument and each line sounded exposed, a collection of musicians playing on stage at the same time (well, usually), but not necessarily together to form a coherent sound.  I do not know how much of this was attributable to Wögerer, how much to the mysteriously absent Fuchs who presumably rehearsed them, or how much to the youth of the musicians in the orchestra itself.  While an orchestra should be better than the sum of its parts, in this case the individual musicians were better and the orchestra was worse.

The concert opened with Tschaikowsky’Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, which Wögerer took at an unusually slow tempo, accentuating the drama.  While this worked for the opening sections, the orchestra did not hold together all the way through.

Russian pianist Nikolai Tokarev arrived on stage for Rachmaninov’Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.  By the look of it, his luggage never arrived with him, as he did not dress for the concert, performing in jeans and an open-collared casual shirt.  Wögerer had the orchestra play everything staccato.  This had the interesting result of accentuating the natural staccato of the piano, but also made each attack more exposed if not everyone hit each note preceisely together (they did not).  Despite this attempt to play in a lively way, Tokarev lost interest somewhere along the way, and the entire piece became unusually dull.  Once the piece dragged on to its ultimate conclusion, Tokarev gave us for an encore a few more solo variations on the same Paganini theme, in a much more contemporary style.  I don’t know if some composer after Rachmaninov (but less talented) wrote these additional variations out, or if Tokarev simply improvised.  I suppose it did not matter.

After the intermission, the orchestra returned to perform Tschaikowsky’s  Symphony #6.  Again, it was rather unfortunate that whereas I bought tonight’s ticket a month ago, I got a last-minute ticket to hear the Philharmoniker perform this same work in the Musikverein last weekend.  Although I experienced the Philharmoniker from a seat in the midst of the percussion section, and therefore out of balance, these poor students tonight in no way could match the world’s best orchestra, and they did not.  As a youth orchestra, however, they were good – although, as noted earlier, they tended to perform individually as a group rather than always joining together for a common sound.  The audience was disproportionately young – the orchestra and Wögerer clearly invited all of their friends, so they got a rousing (deserved) applause.

Armenian Philharmonic, Khachaturian Hall

Verdi, Rachmaninov, Tschaikowsky

Before tonight’s concert of the Armenian Philharmonic, the Italian Ambassador, on behalf of his country’s president, presented conductor Eduard Topchjan with the Order of Merit, making him a Cavaliere, bestowed for his services to music.  This honor he well deserved.

I had gotten sick of hearing this mediocre orchestra flail under guest conductors, and so the return of Topchjan meant an extra mark in the calendar.  The orchestra sounds remarkably different with Topchjan on the podium, and tonight’s concert showcased his ability to keep his orchestra in working order.  The concert actually began with an encore – I suppose, if Topchjan received an Italian knighthood, he needed to quickly program some Italian music in addition to the two Russian pieces already scheduled.  So he treated the ambassador to a spirited overture from I Vespri Siciliani by Verdi.

The scheduled portion of the program began with Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto.  This concert actually marked the conclusion of the “Return Festival” (other than this concert, the Festival programmed mostly chamber music), in which Armenian-born stars who have settled elsewhere return to Armenia to perform.  Tonight’s piano soloist, Vag Papian, now based in Israel, began his international professional career as a conductor before settling in with the piano, and he at one point was the principal conductor of the Armenian Philharmonic in the late 1980s (succeeding Valery Gergiev).

Papian’s piano technique was curious – he set the bench rather high, and then hovered over the key-board as though he were short-sighted, bent over at 90 degrees with his nose practically jabbing at the tops of his fingers.  Papian handled the awful piano in the Khachaturian Hall by keeping his touch light, a softly-softly approach that hit all the notes without allowing too much of the tinny sound of this poor instrument to escape.  Topchjan kept the orchestra appropriately modulated, and an enraptured audience listened intently.  The strategy worked as well during the encore (which I could not identify), for solo piano and thus without any other instruments to cover if the piano should make its usual false noises.  Papian was rewarded by warm applause.

Oddly, half the audience did not return after the intermission for Tschaikowsky’s Symphony #4.  They missed a solid performance.  Despite a disastrous opening by the horns (especially sad, since the horns otherwise sounded great all night), Topchjan had the orchestra dancing its way through this exciting symphony, with an extra lilt in the second movement, some wonderfully-delicate play from the woodwinds in the third, and a boisterous brass finale.   Bravo, Maestro.

Armenian National Opera

Rachmaninov, Aleko

Rachmaninov’s seldom-performed early Aleko has long been on my wish-list of to-see operas.  I did not manage to find a production during my time in Russia, but the Armenian National Opera obliged tonight.

For reasons not apparent, instead of pairing this single-act opera with another one-acter, as might be normal for an opera lasting less than an hour, the Armenian National Opera instead used Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini as an opener.  Other than the fact that both works are by the same composer, I could find little in common between a dark opera written at the start of Rachmaninov’s career and a flashy virtuoso work for piano and orchestra written towards the end of his career.  And this in an opera house.

For the Rhapsody, I could not tell if the opera company had rolled the Steinway over from the Khachaturian Hall (which is only on the other side of the same building as the opera house) or whether the opera has a twin instrument that is equally out-of-tune and sour as the one in the Khachaturian Hall.  Zhora Sargsyan pounded on the keyboard, while the orchestra perfectly matched his instrument’s bitter tone.

The orchestra sounded much better once it sunk it into the pit after the intermission, from where it provided good accompaniment to the singers rather than retaining the focus for itself.  On the podium, Karen Durgaryan kept it in place even if he added nothing in particular to the interpretation.

The opera tells the story of Aleko, a Russian who has sacrificed everything in order to run off with a band of gypsies to be with Zemfira, the gypsy woman he loves.  During the action, he comes to the realization that Zemfira is a fraud, and never loved him.  Enraged, he murders Zemfira’s current gypsy lover and then her.  Zemfira’s father, who had been similarly wronged by Zemfira’s mother but had never done anything about it, casts Aleko out of the gypsy band, cursing him to remain alone forever.

The opera, composed when Rachmaninov was only 19, lacks dramatic development but has much wonderful music.  Baritone Gevorg Hakobyan played an embittered and emotional Aleko.  The supporting characters also delivered strong-voiced performances, particularly Mikayel Hovakimyan and Perch Karazyan as Zemfira’s father and lover respectively.  As Zemfira, Elvira Khachatryan made her stage debut, for which she looked somewhat lost: she over-sang (the manner in which she sang her lullaby for her infant would more likely have kept the kid awake terrified rather than lulled it to sleep), but there was good potential there as her career takes off.

The simple sets were evocative of a rustic gypsy encampment and set a mood which allowed the singers to do their part.  The chorus blended in with the set, never upsetting the main characters (although Rachmaninov’s choral writing had not yet developed; an older Rachmaninov would have given them better material to work with in order to drive the drama forward).  On the other hand, the dancing scene in the gypsy camp, performed by the ballet troupe, gave me more evidence for why I will never attend a full ballet in this town, with their clumsy clomping, tragic tripping, and stationary stumbling.  But while the Armenian National Opera sticks to opera, the performance is more than adequate.  Perhaps not everyone shares that opinion, though, as a surprising number of people seemed to have attended purely for the ballet and walked out of the audience immediately after that scene finished.  Why they’d stay for the uncoordinated prancing and not for the singing must remain a mystery.

Russian National Philharmonic Orchestra, Khachaturian Hall (Yerevan)

Rachmaninov, Chopin, Bizet, Bellini, Rossini, Donizetti, Saint-Saëns, Puccini, Cilea, Sorozábal, Giménez, Khachaturian

The Russian National Philharmonic Orchestra under music director Vladimir Spivakov dropped into the Khachaturian Hall this evening, as part of its tenth anniversary season celebrations.  This orchestra was created essentially as the house orchestra of Moscow’s International House of Music, that bizarre Escher-esque building with the awful acoustics where I attended one concert (not this orchestra) and never went back again.  So, since I completely managed to miss hearing this orchestra (not to be confused with orchestras having similar names) during my time in Moscow, I finally got to hear them now in a different hall.

Incidentally, it seems that in Moscow they no longer perform exclusively in the International House of Music, but schedule a significant minority of their concerts in the Moscow Conservatory Great Hall, with its top-notch acoustics.  I suppose they too regret their link with their home venue.

According to the orchestra’s website, they were supposed to do two concerts in Yerevan, followed by one in Gyumri (Armenia’s second-largest city).  The posted programs for Yerevan were an exclusively-Rachmaninov concert and an opera gala.  In the end, they combined the concerts into a single one in each venue (abridging the Rachmaninov to a single work).  This produced a bi-polar evening.

Before the intermission, the young Ukrainian pianist Aleksandr Romanovsky joined the orchestra for the Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto.  While dexterously maneauvering through Rachmaninov’s score, he also tried his best to get a sweet sound out of the Khachaturian Hall’s sour Steinway.  In this, the orchestra assisted him with some exceptionally warm playing, particularly from the woodwinds.  Afterwards, Romanovsky treated us to a moving encore rendition of Chopin’s Nocturne opus 20.

After a long intermission, the orchestra returned for a full 90-minutes-worth of opera excerpts (from operas by Bizet, Bellini, Rossini, Donizetti, Saint-SaënsPuccini, and Cilea, and from zarzuelas by Pablo Sorozábal and Gerónimo Giménez), joined by mezzo Juliette Galstian and soprano Hasmik Papian (both Armenian stars), and by baritone Vasily Ladyuk (a dynamic Russian).  The second portion of the concert had a spontaneous feel, in part because they did not keep to the printed program but added or subtracted arias or orchestral pieces independently of what was on the page.  Clearly they were having fun.  All three of the soloists demonstrated a sense of drama – or at least as much drama as they could muster with the arias taken out of context (and considering that the solo parts were all individual arias, so the program never allowed the three singers to interact with each other, which was unfortunate).  The orchestra, too, gave spirited accompaniment for the soloists, while also demonstrated its own spirit for the Carmen overture and intermezzi from Manon Lescaut and La Tabernera del Puerto, culminating in – as an encore – the Lezghinka from Khachaturian’s ballet Gayaneh.

Although the playing was quite beautiful, the second half of the concert had the feel of a long set of encores, one after another, never really going anywhere.  By the time of the real encore, the orchestra’s playing had simply lost much of its spontaneity.  Yes, they played all the notes well, but no they were no longer showcasing themselves despite the boisterous music.  For a brief visit on tour, Spivakov and his orchestra should have selected their program more wisely.

Armenian Philharmonic, Khachaturian Hall

Verdi, Wagner, Bellini, Glinka, Rachmaninov, Rubinstein, Bizet, Khachaturian, Pakhmutova, Dunayevsky, Babzhanian, Orbelian

Tonight’s concert by baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky and the Armenian Philharmonic was peculiar long before it started.  Ostensibly part of the annual Yerevan Perspectives Music Festival, it appeared neither on the Festival’s published program nor on the Armenian Philharmonic’s schedule.  But when posters went up around town, tickets sold out.  Only cheap seats were available when I got to the box office, and in retrospect that was a good thing because this concert was not worth more than a 10-dollar ticket.  After the concert sold out (or over-sold out, since some people were literally sitting on every available stair in the aisles and standing to fill every other empty space), black market tickets were going for well above face value.

A list of composers was published on the concert flier, so presumably they knew what they were performing in advance.  But to tell us what was being performed, they hired a master of ceremonies.  Sometimes he was too slow to announce the next selection.  Sometimes Hvorostovsky beat him too it.  Sometimes we just had to guess.  A program would have been a nicer idea.

The first half of the program contained a mix of arias and orchestral overtures.  Hvorostovsky is clearly more comfortable in the Russian repertory, and Aleko’s lament from Rachmaninov’Aleko and an aria from Rubinstein’s Demon remain signature works, combining loving sensitivity with drama.  His singing style may be less suited for German and Italian repertory, at least for tonight’s selections, since his voice can sound somewhat bitter and not subtle in those languages, and this undermined the portrayal in Wolfram’s Ode to the Evening Star from Wagner’Tannhäuser and in another aria that sounded (I’ll guess) like it came from Bellini’Puritani.  It worked better for Escamillo’s bullfighting aria from Bizet’Carmen, as Hvorostovsky ostentatiously made his appearance in the middle of the orchestral introduction, and then gave a swashbuckling portrayal quite appropriate for the scene (this may also have worked better since French is already an ugly enough language, and a biting Russian baritone will not make that worse).

The orchestra mostly kept pace, under the baton of the Armenian-American conductor Constantine Orbelian, but Orbelian does not have the same control that the orchestra’s music director Eduard Topchjan has.  Topchjan is perhaps the only one to make this orchestra sound good.  Tonight, they reverted down several levels, missing notes and entrances, and failing to allow natural phrasing in the music to flow, making the performance somewhat disjointed.  When Hvorostovsky sang, they thankfully stayed in the background (with some glaring exceptions).  When performing the overtures to Verdi’NabuccoGlinka’s  Ruslan i Lyudmila, Bizet’s Carmen, they just served to keep the audience entertained while Hvorostovsky took a breather.  Likewise for a Khachaturian dance in the concert’s second half.

When I worked in Russia, someone told me that someone famous (unfortunately, I forget who) once quipped that if the Russians have ever done anything cultured, they learned it from the Jews, the Armenians, or the Georgians.  The second half of the concert seemed designed to prove that no matter how well they have been trained, Russians remain tasteless underneath.  I suppose Hvorostovsky selects his own programs, so I will blame him.  His selections in the second half converted the hall into a Russian nightclub, but with the accompaniment scored for full orchestra to ensure it could become as tacky as possible.  He sang a string of Russian-language songs by Russian and Armenian composers (according to the flier: Pakhmutova, Dunayevsky, Babzhanian, and Konstanin Orbelian – the last being the uncle of the conductor and who came on stage personally to accompany Hvorostovsky and the orchestra on a miked piano, and whose music is as cheesy as it was when I last suffered through it in 2011).  Hvorostovsky used a microphone for these songs (he correctly did not use one in the first half of the program).  Why someone with his voice needed amplification is a mystery, but it just made the sound more seedy and defeated the point of paying to hear him sing live.  His gold chain glittered under his half-unbuttoned shiny black shirt.

Audience reaction was mixed.  Some – presumably the Russified Armenians, of whom there are far too many – clearly loved it and applauded madly.  But a sizable minority had expressions of disgust on their faces similar to mine.  After politely sitting through the scheduled part of the concert, and sitting on our hands during the applause, we waited to see what Hvorostovsky would do for encores.  He began with two differently-scored versions of the Russian nightclub favorite “Dark Eyes.”  When it became clear that the encores would continue in the same manner, lots of us got up and walked out.

Russian State Symphony Orchestra, Moscow Conservatory

Stravinsky, Chausson, Ravel, Rachmaninov

I attended an unplanned concert at the Moscow Conservatory – the 75th Anniversary Concert of the Russian State Symphony Orchestra.  When I was deciding what concerts interested me this month, this concert had a different program and conductor, and so I had marked it off the list.  But it seems that all that changed while I was away from Moscow.  I swung by the afternoon before the concert to see if any tickets would be available, and there were a few left up in the top level of the second balcony (but the hall has great acoustics, so this only meant it was hard to see the orchestra, but I could hear just fine).

This is the orchestra Yevgeny Svetlanov led for 35 years before he was fired in 2000 (after Putin came in), when the Ministry of Culture suddenly questioned his patriotism.  Mark Gorenstein, an impossibly dull Soviet wand-waver, was appointed to replace him.  The Orchestra musicians have been miserable ever since (but stay because the orchestra pays relatively very well for Russia).  Finally this Summer the musicians got up the courage to demand that Gorenstein be fired.  When this did not happen, they simply refused to show up for rehearsals this Fall, and all of their concerts this season have been canceled one-by-one as a result.  Two weeks ago, while I was away, Gorenstein got the axe and the young and dynamic Vladimir Jurowski was appointed in his place effective immediately.  Today was Jurowski’s first appearance with the orchestra in his new position.

The program opened with Stravinsky’Firebird Suite.  This is still the most Russian-sounding of orchestras, and the flagship of the state orchestra system, so it was fitting to open the anniversary concert with a showpiece.  Jurowski made the most of it, generating excitement with each scene in the suite.  If he had added the entire ballet as an encore, no one in this audience (nor in the orchestra) would have objected.  I have a soft-spot for this piece, since I think it was the first recording I ever owned as a child (with Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony Orchestra – a birthday present from my sister).  Hearing it fresh tonight, with a fully-charged orchestra and conductor happy to be there, made me remember the joy and excitement of putting on that record for the first time way back in my childhood.

After this thrilling start, the concert unfortunately shifted to French composers.  The choice for the next two pieces was curious, since they certainly do not figure in the core repertory for this orchestra, nor should they figure in the core repertory for any orchestra.  While, starting in the mid-19th Century, Russia discovered classical music and has since produced enormous quantities of exciting material (possibly the only civilized thing the Russians do produce), France has inexplicably seemed incapable of having any composer other than Berlioz (whom the French ridiculed for his admiration of Beethoven) capable of consistently producing music of any reasonable quality.  The French never cease to amaze me just how dull the music is that they write – and I keep listening to new pieces just hoping something will come along to break the monotony, but it never does.

So tonight we had two pieces for violin and orchestra: the Poem for Violin and Orchestra by Ernest Chausson and the Gypsy Concert Rhapsody by Maurice Ravel.  Julia Fischer was the soloist.  Try as she, Jurowski, and the orchestra might, nothing they could do could bring these works to life.  And boy did they try.  Technically, they all played very well.  Fischer proved very adept.  The audience dozed, and awoke at the end of each piece to give a polite golf-tournament-style applause most notable for its contrast with the roaring applause which had greeted the Stravinsky.

After the intermission, the orchestra returned to Russian music with Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances.  These are less dance music and more somewhat-eccentric post-Scriabin-esque studies in orchestral color that Rachmaninov wrote shortly before he died.  Jurowski and the orchestra kept the movements moving along, exploring their tones and rhythms until the end of the third dance, which sounded like it represented the composer taking a hop, skip, and a jump into the grave.  Never has the Dies Irae sounded so whimsical.  Jurowski applauded his new orchestra, the orchestra applauded Jurowski, and the audience applauded both.  This applause went on for a while.

Bolshoi Opera Orchestra, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

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.