Sibelius, Nielsen, Tschaikowsky
While in Vienna to grab a few things before flying to the US, since I was leaving from Salzburg, I decided to grab a concert.
I have finally heard a piece by Carl Nielsen that I actually liked. Nielsen took a ride over the Alps on a new-fangled automobile which apparently inspired him to write a flute concerto in a hurry. Probably since there are so few flute concerti in the modern repertory, this allowed him more originality than trying to write more standard repertory, at which he usually took his time to produce spectacularly dull results. This work had a degree of whimsy, with juxtaposed sounds – flute with several reeds, flute with tympani, and – most rewardingly – flute with trombone. Marina Piccinini performed the solos, taking a little time to find her tone but once she got there she performed with warmth. The Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Jukka-Pekka Saraste gave her excellent balance and support.
The concert had opened rather more prosaically, with incidental music by Sibelius to Maurice Maeterlinck’s play Pelleas and Melisande. The Sibelius incidental music for this play is rarely performed (particularly in contrast with that by Fauré or Schoenberg) – apparently for good reason, as it is not one of his better efforts. The problem came in that the music was too short and detached to ever fully capture the drama. Sibelius actually set nine pieces to music, of which Saraste picked three (At the Castle Gate, Intermezzo, and Melisande’s Death) – maybe they would have been better served if left in the context of all nine.
For the second half of the concert, Saraste and the Symphoniker gave a spirited reading of Tschaikowsky’s Fourth Symphony. The brass sounded out the fate motive, and spent the rest of the symphony ambitiously trying to overcome that fate, while the rest of the orchestra resigned itself to melancholy. While the final chords echoed triumpantly over the Russian dancing, this reading gave a more anguished triumph. The Symphoniker sounds great, although Saraste is a tad wooden, fully proficient and getting the tone right, but not as dynamic as he could be.
Mozart, Bruckner, Sibelius
I decided to test the full range of acoustics in Salzburg’s Großes Festspielhaus – my first time hearing a concert in this hall – with a chamber work by Mozart and a Bruckner symphony. I approve. I got a seat way up top in the last row, and heard every nuance despite the cavernous amphitheater structure. The waves of sound rolled up to the top and back down again, washing the ears.
Unusually for me, I did not wear any Austrian Tracht to the concert. Much to my surprise, I found this put me into a minority. I am used to being one of the few to preserve this tradition, but clearly not tonight. Salzburgers may speak with an accent that sounds to my ears like it comes from the wrong side of the border, but I will give them credit for dressing appropriately.
The young Norwegian star Vilde Frang played the solos for Mozart’s Violin Concerto #5, producing a spicy tone like none other I have heard. Like well-seasoned food, it contained a robust complex flavor without too much salt – my mind, in fact, strayed to a fusion-Indian restaurant I like in London, which balances Indian spices and Western palates. Tasty. As an encore, she treated us to a rendition of a Norwegian folk song, more North Sea salmon than pickled herring.
Jukka-Pekka Saraste led the West German Radio Symphony Orchestra of Cologne. A shell of an orchestra accompanied Frang in the Mozart concert, setting the table for her. The full orchestra turned out after the intermission for Bruckner’s Symphony #3 – but only the full orchestra, unaugmented, making it appear rather small for a Bruckner symphony. The acoustics in the hall stretched the sound to full. But the whole performance came off as abrupt and unfeeling, lacking fluency. The lines did not flow. So after such a fine appetizer, they served us a large pile of perfectly good but unexciting sauerkraut with sausage.
The final encore, Valse Triste by Sibelius, showed that these forces did indeed know how to make the music flow. Dark chocolate mousse for dessert.
I should probably have cooked dinner before I wrote this review.
My third concert of the day in the Musikverein, with Lahti Symphony Orchestra and Jukka-Pekka Saraste, opened with a piece by the Finnish (ethnic-Swedish) composer Magnus Lindberg, whom I had heard of but never heard. He is supposed to be one of the most creative of currently living composers, but under-performed. The orchestra performed a piece called Corrente II composed in 1991-92. I will indeed vouch for Lindberg’s creativity. The work was not to my taste, but I am glad I experienced it.
This was followed by eight short pieces for violin and orchestra by Sibelius (six humoresques and two serenades), with a thirty-something Finnish violinist, Pekka Kuusisto, performing. Kuusisto is supposedly a bit of a cult figure in Finland, and it is easy to see why. He brought the house down with some virtuosic and idiomatic performances. He then added a few extremely difficult solo encores of traditional Scandinavian melodies he had arranged. I think if he had just kept playing for hours the audience would have stayed and kept applauding, but at some point he really did have to stop.
After the intermission we had the Sibelius 6th Symphony. The Lahti SO is the quintessential Sibelius orchestra, and the audience appreciated it. We got treated to more encores at the end, but no one could understand what Sarastre was saying when he introduced them, and no one near me recognized the pieces (although they sounded like Sibelius).
Raitio, Schumann, Sibelius
Although not well-known, the Lahti Symphony Orchestra is a fine ensemble, always worth marking in the calendar when it comes on tour, and especially to perform Sibelius.
Tonight it arrived for a two-day visit in the Musikverein, under Jukka-Pekka Saraste. It opened with The Swans by Väinö Raitio, an eccentric early-20th century Finnish composer (actually, I think all Finnish composers are eccentric) – definitely glad I heard it and would go hear more music by him if I ever see it performed.
This was followed by Schumann‘s piano concerto, a piece I have not heard live since I played first trumpet in my high school orchestra. But there is a good reason I haven’t gone to hear this piece live: despite a promising melodic first half of the first movement, it is an interminably dull work. Not even a good performance can rescue this truly boring concerto (and this was indeed a good performance, with a Hungarian pianist, Dezsö Ránki, as soloist).
After the intermission, the orchestra performed the Lemminkäinen Suite by Sibelius, a work I am very fond of (and not performed often enough), and a fine performance at that. The opportunity to hear something by Raitio and to hear Lemminkäinen are the reasons I suffered through the Schumann concerto, and were worth the suffering. (Sibelius’ Valse Triste was the encore.)