Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Glinka, Bartók, Saint-Saëns

I spent a colorful (if dark colors) Sunday morning with the Mozarteum Orchestra in Salzburg’s Great Festival House.  The three works on the program did not logically fit together, except perhaps for their color palette.  Riccardo Minasi, the orchestra’s music director, certainly saw to that.

The overture to Mikhail Glinka‘s opera Ruslan and Lyudmila energized the hall from the outset.  Glinka used dark Russian colors to highlight folk and dance-able music.  Although the overture is well-known, the opera gets performed rarely, which in my opinion is a huge oversight – indeed, a good production of this opera (such as the only time I have seen it performed, by the Novaya Opera in 2010, a production I remember fondly) is magical in a way Mozart’s Zauberflöte can be and would hook generations of children on opera.  I keep repeating this every time I hear the overture in a concert, in the hope that someone might actually start programming the entire opera (and not some imbecilic self-important German opera director, but rather someone with actual talent interested in staging the opera).  The overture is fun; the whole opera is more so.

When Béla Bartók died in 1945, he was still working on a viola concerto.  One of his students completed the orchestration, and fifty years later Bartók’s son made additional tweaks, to produce the version we heard today.  It also employed dark coloration, alternatingly moody and folkish.  It’s not a work I’d heard before, but would gladly again.  Violist Antoine Tamestit made a wonderful sound and a statement about an under-appreciated instrument.  Indeed, if the question about Glinka’s Ruslan is why that opera is rarely performed, then the question Bartók’s concerto provoked – or at least in this interpretation – is why there are not more viola concerti.  The instrument may not hit the highs of the violin, nor the warm tenor of the cello, but it has something to say in the alto range.

Minasi borrowed the concertmaster’s violin, and accompanied Tamestit in a lively duet to liven the mood as we headed into break.  This was quite short, but maintained positive energy in the house.

The question I had going into the second half of the concert was: why would anyone program Camille Saint-Saëns‘s Symphony #3 (inscribed “With Organ”) in a house that does not contain an organ?  They can and do wheel out an electric simulated organ with speaker amplification, but it’s not the real thing and makes a pitiful substitute.  Indeed, the Dresden Staatskapelle fell on its face in this house in 2017 trying to do just that.  But Minasi and the Mozarteum Orchestra had an answer to this question.  Instead of having the organ as a central part of the music, they instead highlighted the rich symphonic colors (Saint-Saëns was of course inspired by the tone poems of Ferenc Liszt, in whose memory he wrote the work), and the organ emerged almost as an afterthought, augmenting the depth of the colors but not actually painting them itself.  This approach worked under the circumstances (the symphony is thrilling with a proper organ, but without one this alternative interpretation was quite good as well).

Brussels Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Staatskapelle Dresden, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Fauré, Saint-Saëns

Herbert von Karajan founded the Salzburg Easter Festival exactly 50 years ago, presumably to showcase himself and his outsized Nazi ego.  Today Christian Thielemann, Karajan’s pompous plodding Prussian protege presides.  But as I happened to be in town and a seat was available, I went tonight for the sake of good music, in this case two of the few original works in the French repertory: Fauré‘s Requiem and Saint-Saëns‘ Symphony #3.

The unquestionably shining stars this evening were the members of the Bavarian Radio Chorus.  Although already in their places on stage, they opened the Requiem with such great delicacy that they sounded like a backstage choir, their voices gradually growing over half an hour until reaching Paradise in the final stanza.  Fauré, a church organist by profession, had played more than his share of funerals, and rather than writing a massive mass instead crafted a lullaby.  The chorus understood the idiom perfectly.  While the two named soloists – soprano  Anna Prohaska and baritone Adrian Eröd – got name recognition, they were at their best when they fit in with the chorus (Eröd did this better).

The Staatskapelle Dresden stayed out of the way as well.  Primarily an opera orchestra, they understand how to support singers rather than taking the spotlight for themselves.  Thielemann, their current music director, presumably has them well-drilled, but tonight we had their principal guest conductor, Myung-Whun Chung.  Chung is second-rate at best, but innocuous – a decent accompanist who has spent much of his career waving a stick at inferior French orchestras.  The Staatskapelle remains a fine orchestra (I last heard them under Thielemann in the Musikverein about six years ago), but it is also clear why the Dresden public was so overwhelmed during the Philadelphia Orchestra’s visit to the Semper Opera House in 2015 (which I had the great fortune to attend) – Thielemann and Chung will never get their orchestra ratcheted up to the same level of emotion or enthusiasm.

After the intermission we moved on to the Saint-Saëns symphony, where the orchestra was not accompanying anyone but had to fill the Great Festival Hall itself.  Chung also started off quietly and built up the drama.  But while this orchestra supplied the drama – a symphony of songs without singers – they missed some nuances and some portions dragged.  The woodwinds in particular came across a bit tongue-tied.

The symphony itself is also inspired by funerals, but where Fauré produced a lullaby, Saint-Saëns made a triumph, with the most famous portions taking the Dies Irae chant and flipping it into major key.  Cameron Carpenter supplied the organ solos – unfortunately, Salzburg’s Great Festival House does not have an organ, so they brought on an electric one with speaker amplification.  This was probably not the most brilliantly-planned concert (where an organ is so central to a work, they should really find out in advance before setting the program if the hall even has one!).

This was my first time at the Easter Festival.  One of the first things I noticed when arriving at the Great Festival House was that the crowd who turned out for the Easter Festival were not the usual suspects.  There was a whole lot of black tie and a suspicious absence of Austrian Tracht.  The accents were also overwhelmingly from north of the border.

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.

Tonkünstler Orchestra, Musikverein

Schubert, Saint-Saëns

Andrés Orozco-Estrada, a Vienna-trained Colombian who has actually been music director of the Tonkünstler Orchestra for the past three years (and in Vienna for several years prior to that) but whom I have somehow missed, tonight took the podium in the Musikverein at the head of his orchestra for a nice pre-Christmas concert.  On the program were two works that had nothing to do with Christmas, nor with each other for that matter.  But he made the orchestra sound full and in good spirit.

For the first half of the program, the orchestra performed Schubert’s Mass #5.  From this performance, it was easy to see how Schubert had inspired Bruckner – a full Catholic mass that retained its mystical spirituality while moving from the church into a concert hall.  Of course, it helps that the concert hall in question was the Musikverein, a cathedral of music.  The Wiener Singverein filled the space to the rafters with drama, mystery, and passion.  Schubert did not write much church music, and in his day it was forbidden to perform church music outside the church, but in this relatively late Schubert piece (written only two years before his death, albeit he died when he was only 31) the composer remained respectful of the religious origins of the mass while still augmenting it as a stand-alone musical piece.

It could serve either as church or concert music.  Although I am familiar with Schubert’s final mass, the even larger #6, I had not previously experienced this one, but would gladly do so again, especially with such a compelling performance as this.

The second half of the program featured the Symphony #3, with Organ, by Saint-Saëns.  Saint-Saëns lived for 86 years, but never before nor after wrote a piece quite like this.  Indeed, this piece is unique in musical literature, and demonstrates originality and talent.  One wonders why this composer, whose talents were well known and appreciated in his own lifetime, turned out so little music of lasting impact.  For whatever reason, he still managed to produce this symphony on a commission from the Royal Philharmonic in London, inspired by the tone poems of Ferenc Liszt and dedicated to the memory of the recently-deceased Hungarian master, including, at its high point, a thrilling major adaptation of the Dies Irae chant.  Once again, the Tonkünstler took up the challenge.  Orozco-Estrada kept the music pushing forward to its thrilling climaxes, never rushing but giving just enough drive and momentum to ensure that the piece got an honest and exciting reading.

I did not notice the extraneous high-pitched tone from the organ this time, which I had heard last time when the organist played from the stage-based organ consul instead of directly at the organ.  So either they fixed whatever the problem was, or I happened to be sitting in the wrong seat last time where the acoustics brought that extraneous pitch to my ear.

One problem I could not blame on the hall was the Japanese tourist sitting in the row in front of me, who could obviously afford to buy a ticket here from Japan but somehow could not afford a belt or underwear (let alone both).  Every time she popped up to take a photo (quite a few times throughout the evening), her pants fell down.