Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Schumann, Liszt, Beethoven, Rossini

The young Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili packed the Great Festival House in Salzburg this evening for her concert with the Orchestra of Italian Switzerland.  Her performance of Schumann‘s piano concerto – simultaneously sultry and driven – demonstrated how she has achieved her current star status.

Schumann’s tedious concerto has fine musical moments, but normally drags (Schumann basically extended a fantasy he had written earlier without any new inspiration).  The orchestra, and conductor Markus Poschner, could not do much about that, nor did they (and it showed especially when the orchestra played without piano).  But Buniatishvili pieced together the moments, engaged the orchestra in dialogue, and made one of the more plausible cases for this work that I have heard.

Then she barged out for an encore: Liszt‘s Hungarian Rhapsody #2 – this is a wild work when played by an orchestra, but Buniatishvili played it tonight as a piano transcription, meaning that she also had to capture the missing orchestral parts, and then she did all of this at breakneck speed for a remarkable display of digital acrobatics on the keyboard.  A second encore, something late romantic which I did not recognize, was more sedate and probably necessary to allow the audience heart rates to drop a little before the intermission.

This orchestra is barely larger than a chamber ensemble, so the sound was neither full nor lush enough – especially without Buniatishvili on the piano.  Some of that became less problematic given the choice of music after the intermission: Beethoven‘s Symphony #3, an exceptional piece of music, that Poschner seemed in general to understand for its drama and the orchestra picked up with gusto – and while thin, Beethoven’s music adeptly interpreted more than compensated.

It’s not a bad orchestra, but it did have the timbre of an original instrument ensemble (which it is not – except for the trumpets who played on cumbersome valveless trumpets that required them to constantly insert different-length tubes much to what looked like permanent frustration on their faces).  Only the woodwinds (and especially the fantastic oboist) produced properly rounded sounds.  Poschner also took the first and second movements far too fast (presumably he followed the nonsensical markings Beethoven mistakenly jotted on his scores later when he was given a defective prototype metronome).

The orchestral encore – the overture to the Barber of Seville by Rossini – came off somewhat better.  This is supposed to be a fast work, so the reading was far more idiomatic.  Again, Poschner’s and the orchestra’s sense of drama provoked solid music-making, and as a comic opera overture the thinner orchestra did not detract, but indeed kept it appropriately light and exuberant.
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La Scala Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Cherubini, Verdi, Rossini

Rousing visit by La Scala Philharmonic of Milan to the Salzburg Festival this evening.  Befitting an orchestra whose musicians mostly play in the orchestra pit of an opera house, this group understands drama, and adds to that an Italian passion.  Chief conductor Riccardo Chailly, who began his tenure in La Scala in the middle of last season, knew precisely how to maximize the talents of this orchestra, with big gestures (to compensate for his small stature, perhaps) but fully under control to harness their exuberance.  

The program’s first half showcased the rarely-performed music of Luigi Cherubini.  Actually, it was the inclusion of Cherubini on this program that made it most interesting.  A contemporary of Beethoven, the two of them knew each other’s music and each informed the other – Cherubini being more known for drama and liturgical music, Beethoven for his instrumental output.  Beethoven was the more original composer, but Cherubini’s sense of theater did allow him to inject a certain verve into the orchestral pieces on the menu tonight: the Concert Overture in G and the Symphony in D (Cherubini’s only symphony).  These were italianate updates on classical form, rather than reflecting Beethoven’s masterful innovations, but in keeping with Cherubini’s style and true to himself.  Chailly and the orchestra had fun with this opportunity.

They had more fun after the intermission, though.  The second half of the program led off with Giuseppe Verdi‘s ballet music The Four Seasons.  The convention at the Paris Opera required ballets to be inserted nonsensically into operas, and Verdi complied – but in composing a ballet for the Sicilian Vespers, Verdi decided to write one that not only could be deleted when performing the opera outside France, but for which the music would not go to waste as it could stand on its own.  The resulting half-hour work demonstrated Verdi’s ability to write evocative music for the dance – and as interpreted here by the Milanders and Chailly we could almost feel the weather change as the seasons progressed.

The scheduled part of the concert closed with another overture: from Giachino Rossini‘s William Tell.  Although a warhorse, this performance had a balance to it, with the orchestra not going through motions but drawing out the lines excitedly under Chailly’s direction.  We would have galloped off into the night at its conclusion, except that this audience wasn’t going anywhere.  The crowd demanded and got an encore: Verdi’s overture to the Sicilian Vespers.  This music did belong with the opera (unlike the ballet we heard earlier) and in the ten-minute span we went through the key points of the drama, concluding with the Sicilian rising.

The orchestra does not always have the most beautiful sound – it’s obvious they play to be heard from the pit.  But their joy with the notes shows.  I hate to harp too much on the Cleveland Orchestra, whose performance here on Friday was so disappointing, but it is precisely this that the Clevelanders do not seem to ever understand: music is passionate, it is emotional, it is dramatic.  The Bartók and Strauss works on Friday may be quite different from Cherubini, Verdi, and Rossini, but they still required emotion, that Cleveland despite its more gorgeous playing simply could not produce.  That was precisely von Dohnányi’s criticism of the Cleveland Orchestra.  The La Scala orchestra just appears to understand music better than Cleveland, and shares one approach with the Vienna Philharmonic (albeit nowhere in the league of the Vienna Philharmonic): its musicians, like the Philharmonic, spend most of their time in the orchestra pit.  It was Claudio Abbado’s idea during his tenure at La Scala to pull this orchestra out of the pit and put it on stage (no doubt influenced by his time in Vienna), and Chailly sees himself following in the late Abbado’s steps.  It made for an exciting concert tonight.

Salzburger Landestheater

Rossini, Il Turco in Italia

A new production of Rossini‘s Il Turco in Italia came to the Salzburg Landestheater last week, with the second performance tonight.  The cast and orchestra looked quite pleased with themselves, as they should have been, so the musical side of the performance would have worked out any kinks from opening night.

This was a musically-idiomatic Rossini, led by Adrian Kelly from the harpsichord, with the right amount of humor.  The mostly-young cast matched this element from the stage, headed by Pietro Di Bianco as Selim, the title role, and Hannah Bradbury as Fiorilla and well-supported in particular by Sergio Foresti as Geronio and Simon Schnorr as Prosdocimo.  I’d like to comment on their sense of nuance, as they build their careers, but I kept getting too distracted by the goings-on on stage to fully appreciate their apparent talent; I hope to hear them again in a more sensible setting.

Indeed, if I had kept my eyes closed, I would have enjoyed the performance more.  The opera is a Rossinian farce with a convoluted plot, which leaves the opera director much room to have fun.  But there is a plot, and to stage something else in no way helps the audience understand the bizarre twists in the story.  Tonight’s setting, moving the scene to the Costa Concordia cruise ship that sank off the Italian coast in 2012, with Geronio as the ship’s captain, was nonsense.  To even try to make this work proved distracting from the opera the cast was gallantly trying to perform.  The German (of course) director, Marco Dott, at least did not seem to try to offend the audience, so I suppose he could have done far worse.

Milan Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Respighi, Schumann, Rossini

Italy is not known for its orchestras outside the opera house.  It’s also not known for producing too many composers in the last two centuries who could succeed in writing non-operatic orchestral music, unless they trained north of the Alps.  Why did Italians stop being able to comprehend orchestral music? I have no explanation for these gaps.

The Milan Symphony Orchestra under Oleg Caetani came to Salzburg’s Great Festival House this week to perform all four Schumann symphonies and assorted other works over three nights.  I chose the first night, figuring I would test the water before committing to all three concerts.  Tonight’s performance was proficient, but did nothing to dispel the reputation of Italian orchestras.  The hall was completely full for the first half of the concert, and at least one fifth of the audience departed at intermission and never returned.  I stayed, but heard nothing that made me eager to buy tickets for the next two nights.

The tone was pleasant enough, if a bit thin, particularly noticeable during the tutti sections, and more so during Schumann’s Third Symphony.  The musicians went through all of the motions, but did not manage to sway.  Uninspired?  Lost in translation?  I’m not sure.  Schumann’s symphonies – the First and Third were on the program tonight – should be easily accessible.  The Third – a relatively late work (he died young, so not that late, but his music was becoming more dramatic with age) – certainly should have had a bigger sound, but Caetani took it more quickly than usual, and the orchestra did not always keep up.

The concert opened with the third suite of Ancient Airs and Dances by Respighi. Although Italian, Respighi studied composition with Rimsky-Korsakov and Max Bruch.  Here his music harked back to the time when Italians did write purely orchestral works, updating music from the 16th and 17th century.  It’s wonderful stuff, but probably also outside what can excite this orchestra.

As an encore, the orchestra gave us a much more idiomatic reading of the overture to the Barber of Seville by Rossini.  This playful music they understood, so at least we went home with a twinkle and a smile.

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.

Apollon Festival Opera, Military Cultural Center (Tirana)

Rossini, Barbiere di Siviglia

Just when I thought I would not get to hear any live performances this summer, then the Italian Cultural Institute of Tirana decided to sponsor a performance of Rossini’Barber of Seville.  The production is actually due to debut tomorrow at the Apollon Festival, in the ancient outdoor theater of Apollonia, near modern Fier.  But the full dress rehearsal took place at the Military Cultural Center of Tirana tonight in the presence of the Italian Ambassador.

The Military Cultural Center’s theater is not very large, and the seats squeaked more than the orchestra’s strings, but even so the atmosphere was more pleasant than in the city’s opera house.  The Ambassador left early, as did more than half of the audience, but that was not really fair.  Although hardly an impressive performance, it maintained the standard I now expect in Albania, of a bunch of tolerable singers having fun on stage with basic high-school-like sets, with the enjoyment spilling into the audience.  Armand Likaj performed a spirited Figaro and drove the plot, as he is supposed to.

The most beautiful voice of the evening belonged to the Bulgarian bass Emil Zhelev, with his cavernous deep voice personifying Don Basilio the music-master.  The rest of the cast hit many of the notes, more or less.  Actually, it seemed a shame that Ogert Islami, who sang the bit role of Fiorello, did not get a bigger part, as he stole the show during the opening scene.

Conductor Valmir Xoxa kept the small orchestra on pace.  While the strings screeched, the woodwinds sounded pleasant even when missing their cues.

Staatsoper

Rossini, Il Barbiere di Siviglia

Ageless production of the Rossini’Barber of Seville at the Staatsoper tonight.  Well, not completely ageless.  It will be 46 years old this April.  But it was produced back in the day when there were still some German directors who understood opera and theater.  The long-departed Günther Rennert (died in 1978), who at the time was the director at the Bavarian State Opera did this guest production in Vienna in 1966, and used a simple concept.  The entire action took place without a set change – he constructed Don Bartolo’s house in such a way as to allow walls to retract so that the audience could see inside one or more rooms where the action took place.  Some action took place in – or spilled into – the courtyard.  Rennert put the music foremost – but this opera represented Rossini at his most consistently tuneful and whimsical.  So the music drove the farcical plot, which Rennert added to with a dash of slapstick and other sight-gags.

Over the years, an entire array of Vienna casts have had the chance to put on this production, so it can remain constantly fresh.  Looking at the faces of the cast, they enjoyed themselves immensely, which very much helped.  Vienna ensemble singers made up tonight’s group, maintaining the standards that make the House on the Ring the best on the planet even for casts without particular stars.  Adrian Eröd (Figaro), Isabel Leonard(Rosina), and Juan Francisco Gatell (Almaviva) made up a youthful front-line trio, ably supported by Alfred Šramek (Bartolo), Michele Pertusi (Basilio), and Donna Ellen (Marzellina).  Michael Güttler conducted precisely, ensuring that the orchestra not only did not overpower the singers but also allowed them to enunciate their often tongue-twisted texts – he clearly appreciated that Rossini wrote a difficult opera to sing and, furthermore, for the comedy to work in this production especially, the difficult singing must have extra clarity.

Novaya Opera

Rossini, Barbiere di Siviglia

Went back to the Novaya Opera tonight for Rossini’s Barber of Seville.  Realized that I cannot remember having ever actually seen this opera before, although I know it well.

Initially, I thought it would be a disappointment, but the production, directed by the Australian opera director Elijah Moshinsky, grew on me during the course of the first act.  Moshinsky used bright colors, as though out of an old Dick Tracy comic book, and backdrops of geometric shapes and optical illusions evoking a bizarre 1950s atmosphere.  During the scenes which take place outdoors, which are most of the first scenes, he kept the stage dimly lit, and the cast and chorus had to walk around using flashlights.  I did not understand this aspect, as it muted the colors and made the whole production come across as confused.  But since most of the scenes take place indoors, where Moshinsky used bright lights, causing the colors to jump, the setting accentuated the operatic farce extremely well, and this turned into a fun production.  His staging allowed for the cast of characters to ham it up to the fullest, and this worked – especially contrasted with last night’s director, who had too much going on providing distraction.  Moshinsky clearly realized that there is a difference between making everyone on stage do things just to make them do things (as last night’s director clearly did, to justify his own existence on the planet) and actually making them do things for the purpose of enhancing the action of the opera.

The cast certainly enjoyed it, too.  For the second night in a row, the lead tenor had a light, dry, and not overly pleasant voice (tonight: Aleksandr Bogdanov as Almaviva), but the others were all very good.  Vasily Ladyuk, as Figaro, led the charge as the Factotum della Città.  Yelena Tyerentyeva, as Rosina, also sounded and acted great, although, rather unfortunately, she periodically forgot her lines.  Aleksey Antonov and Yevgeny Stavinskyas Basilio and Bartolo, provided strong singing and acting voices and much additional fun.  The young conductor Vasily Valitov kept the orchestra alive and full of humor.