Members of the Vienna Philharmonic, Mozarteum (Salzburg)

Bruckner, Schoenberg, Wagner

I followed the Festival and members of the Vienna Philharmonic over the Salzach River to the Mozarteum for a chamber concert.  Co-principal violin, viola, and cello of the Philharmonic were joined by three younger orchestra members for music by BrucknerSchoenberg, and Wagner.

The Bruckner String Quintet is a monumental work despite its limited instrumentation.  Written when Bruckner held the chair of composition at the Vienna Conservatory, on request of the Conservatory’s Director (and the Philharmonic’s principal violin), Bruckner gave the instruments full music and lush colors fit for a whole orchestra.  The musicians got off to a rough start as something appears to have happened to the second violin’s instrument (there was a loud crack, and she kept inspecting the backside of it, but continued anyway).  The audience also seemed incapable of sitting still, and many audience members coughed up various lungs (the weather this summer has indeed been surprisingly wet and cool – to the point that some friends are even using heat in their apartments – but if people are that ill then they should go directly to the morgue).  The unfit audience noticeably distracted the musicians – and while their playing was sublime, they did not always capture the mood.  Only during the third movement – the Adagio, crowing achievement of Brucknerian musical architecture – did the hall fall quiet and the angels from Heaven descended to heal the wounded and cure the sick, at least briefly.

After the intermission came Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (in the original version for string sextet).  This built easily on Bruckner’s lushness, but with more complicated and diverging lines, which the musicians developed while producing the same full sound fit for an even larger ensemble.  The transfiguring tones naturally led to a much-desired encore, for which they provided a version of the Prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in a reduced version for sextet.  Indeed, Schoenberg was known for making such reductions, and maybe they even used his version.  Whether or not they did, the sextet revealed Wagner’s revolutionary harmonics, exposing them as the forerunner for Schoenberg’s own later experiments.  These were kindred works.


Israel Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Schoenberg, Tschaikowsky, Mussorgsky

Zubin Mehta, recovering from knee surgery, conducted the Israel Philharmonic tonight in Salzburg’s Large Festival House while sitting down.   He received major applause for the effort, and for his genuine popularity. Unfortunately, the handicap resulted in a concert that resembled one of his misses that came all-to-frequently for much of his otherwise charismatic career.

The Israel Philharmonic demonstrated real virtuosity across all of its lines, one instrumentalist finer than the other.  They played well together.  So the problem came in interpretation, and possibly a lack of inspiration.

Two works by Schoenberg took up the first hour of the concert:Verklärte Nacht and the Chamber Symphony #1.  The first work, for a string chamber orchestra, can be quite sensuous, an individual work but still fully tonal.  Not tonight, as it dragged from the beginning and the night felt like it never ended.  The Chamber Symphony #1, for 15 instruments, already shows Schoenberg begin to break down traditional tonality.  This imaginative work requires much expert playing, which we got.  But after ten minutes tonight, Mehta ceased to say anything new, leaving the audience to just wait for this to pass.

After the intermission came Tschaikowsky’s Sixth.  This interpretation featured more excellent instrumentalism, yet somehow managed to both lack dancing in Tschaikowsky’s lush swinging orchestrations, and also miss the morbid foretelling of the composer’s own death days after the Symphony’s premiere.  This version tonight just dragged.

Mehta managed to stay on his feet during the encore, the prelude to Khovanshchina by Mussorgsky, and here we received more drama in the reading.  It’s hard to criticize the conductor, who could have rightfully canceled, but that’s what we got.  He’s personally popular for a reason.  But at least we did get to hear the Israel Philharmonic, itself worth the price of a ticket.

Ensemble Reconsil Wien, Schoenberg Center (Vienna)

Seierl, Amann, Karaew, Schoenberg

A young Swede, Christian Karlsen, conducted a concert at the Schoenberg Center tonight by the Ensemble Reconsil Wien, a chamber music ensemble specializing in contemporary composers.

The main work, and the only reason to attend, came after the intermission: Erwartung by Schoenberg, in an arrangement for chamber ensemble.  Schoenberg’s music may not qualify as beautiful, but it is intelligent and has a real sense of drama.  Cornelia Horak performed the soprano solo in keeping with the style.  It was, however, more than a little ironic that for this 12-tonal work she needed to hold a tuning fork to recalibrate her own pitch periodically.  The small auditorium may have been too small, though, even for this limited arrangement – apparently, they could have opened the room up to make it bigger, although this might also have augmented the realization that the audience was quite small.

Normally, concerts present music in vaguely chronological order, so the Schoenberg piece might have been expected before the intermission rather than after it.  However, by placing Erwartung after the intermission, its 12-tonal sounds sounded almost delightful in comparison with the dreadful works performed prior to the intermission.

The concert opened with the world premiere of Parent Parts by the Austrian composer Wolfgang Seierl.  After the conductor came out, the orchestra started tuning again – or so I thought, until I realized they had actually begun performing the work.  Seierl composed the piece in memory of his parents, who formed “two halves of the same brain” according to the program notes.  Obviously, he grew up in an extremely unharmonious house.

As bad as this was, it paled in comparison with the second work, another world premiere by an Austrian composer, this time the Embrace of the Branches for Trombone and Ensemble by Michael Amann.  As far as headaches go, I would rank this piece somewhere between a room full of crying babies and the Chinese water torture.  Before the piece began, the orchestra started un-tuning.  Amann distributed notes rather arbitrarily between the instruments, but every so often one instrument was allowed to play three or four notes together in a row, giving the audience hope that some music might break out, only to once again be interrupted by the reality that Amann was clearly not in the business of composing music.

The third and final piece in the pre-intermission set was the Austrian premiere of the Postludio #8 for piano, clarinet, and behind-the-scenes-string-quartet by the Azeri composer Faradsch Karaew.  This piece had all the charm of a leaking roof.  The first five minutes consisted of the pianist tapping high notes with long pauses between them.  Eventually, the clarinet started making noises that sounded like she drowned.  Finally, the string quartet off stage got to play a few bars of rather pretty chorale-like music, before the pianist put an end to that anomaly.

I’ve never been so excited to hear Schoenberg.

Ensemble LUX, Schoenberg Center

Berg, Hensel, Wolfram Wagner, Wagendristel, Schoenberg

I suppose I knew it would be an odd concert when the most musical piece on the program was the one by Arnold Schoenberg.  But Ensemble LUX played everything about as well as this music can ever be performed, which I suppose made up for the music itself.

The concert opened with Alban Berg’s Piano Sonata #1 transcribed for string sextet.  The transcription actually worked quite well in this arrangement, but made me wonder throughout how unbelievably awful this piece would have sounded in its original version for piano.  I’m certain I do not want to find out.

Next came three pieces by living composers (two in attendance – the third was not there because his flight got stuck in a snowstorm in Frankfurt), which I understand were fun to play but less fun to listen to.  The first two (Klärchens Lied by Daniel Hensel and Five Moments by Wolfram Wagner) at least qualified as curiosities, but the third (Double Trio by Alexander Wagendristel), being given its world premiere, was utter nonsense.  The concept of this last piece was intriguing – rather than writing for sextet, Wagendristel wrote for two trios.  But if he was doing that, he should have written two separate but related trios played simultaneously; that would have shown talent and imagination.  Instead, I am not really sure what we got but a pile of notes, shrieks, and thumps, where the only innovation was seating the sextet violin-viola-cello-cello-viola-violin.

The final piece was Schoenberg’Verklärte Nacht in its original version for sextet.  Good performance, but I prefer this piece in its revised version for string orchestra.  The original version for sextet performed here just comes off as too thin, even when the instrumentalists are good.

Highlights from 2004


Prior to 2010 I did not write regularly.  I found most records from 2009 (now posted on this blog), but right now the only reliable musical notes from 2004-2008 are in my annual year-end highlight summaries, so I am posting these until I locate more in my archives.

Best opera production: Verdi, Rigoletto, Wiener Staatsoper (September). Ensemble cast with no particular stars, this was an example of why no opera house in the world comes close to comparing to the Staatsoper.

Worst opera production: Johann Strauß (Sohn), Eine Nacht in Venedig, Wiener Volksoper (September). I am really sick of these German opera directors who don’t bother to read the book before they stage an opera. This staging was set, for no apparent reason, in a shopping mall outside Vienna. The stupidity of the staging took away the charm of the music. The Volksoper is becoming far too artsy.

Best concert: Schoenberg, Gurrelieder, Wiener Philharmoniker under Mariss Jansons in the Musikverein (May). Reduced me to tears. Particularly devastating was the Wood Dove’s narrative (with Waltraud Meier). I recovered in time to follow the orchestra across the Ring to the Staatsoper for Verdi’s Falstaff starring Bryn Terfel two hours later.

Worst concert: nothing I attended was truly bad, but if I had to select something as “least good,” I would say the Bayerisches Staatsorchester playing a concert of Richard Strauss in the Vienna Musikverein (September). Zubin Mehta is either charismatic or sloppy, and in this case the Bavarians sounded like the New York Philharmonic at the end of his tenure there. The orchestra could play this music in its sleep, and I don’t get these sorts of concerts in Pristina, so I did not suffer too much. The Viennese public applauded politely.