Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Schostakowitsch, Mahler

Back in the Great Festival House, the dour Finns sounded much better this evening for a program of Schostakowitsch and Mahler.  The Helsinki Philharmonic and Susanna Mälkki seemed more comfortable than on Wednesday, as did cellist Truls Mørk with the Schostakowitsch concerto more in his comfort zone than the Elgar.

Mørk’s Schostakowitsch was paranoid – as though the Soviet police might come on stage at any moment and arrest and deport him.  Mälkki bought into this, and a certain nervousness pervaded everything.  This was not so much Schostakowitsch triumphing over Stalin, but more basic survival… for now.

Hearing a Finnish orchestra do Mahler was a treat.  Tonight came his 9th Symphony, which allowed this group to keep their melancholic mood going from Wednesday.  This approach worked best in the third movement, for a off-kilter dance, and especially in the pensive final movement.  Mälkki is still a bit too blockish in her approach, which broke up the flow of the first two movements – and oddly meant less precision where Mahler’s lines run into or against each other.  But she warmed, the music cooled, and the audience was left hanging in the balance, where we belonged, questioning our existence.  She and the orchestra earned a much bigger and warmer applause than on Wednesday, well deserved this evening.

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Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Beethoven, Joh. Strauß, Schostakowitsch

Another weekend at home in Vienna for which I had not planned to go to a concert but could not help myself.  A month ago I heard the Vienna Philharmonic (which normally plays in the Musikverein) perform in the Konzerthaus, so maybe it just seemed fair to hear the Vienna Symphony (which normally plays in the Konzerthaus) perform in the Musikverein.

Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck took the podium for a pair of 5s: the fifth piano concerto by Beethoven and the fifth symphony by Schostakowitsch.  These were two quite different works, but Honeck had a plan.  Fives of different suits, indeed.

The Beethoven concerto (with young Russian pianist Igor Levit) strangely, but in a good sense, gave the feel of climbing into a newly-made bed with freshly-laundered silken sheets and well-fluffed pillows.  This was a performing version to settle into for the night.  Levit’s playing had a slightly other-wordly feel until it hit me during the quiet (but still quite active) passages: he made the piano into a music box tinkling away (his louder passages had some extraneous notes, unfortunately).  That may sound wierd, but it worked.

Levit returned for a piano rendition of a Johann Strauss waltz – this worked less so, as it only had the music-box quality with the fullness of the orchestra missing.

After the intermission, the Schostakowitsch Fifth was anything but warm and cuddly.  Here legato playing exaggerated the dissonances, and Honeck went further in that direction but turning the first movement into a parody of a march and the second into a warped waltz.  This was Schostakowitsch composing to Communist Party dictates but at the same time thumbing his nose.  The solos by (and duets between) the principal violin and oboe were especially jarring.  The third movement largo came across as cold as Sibelius, but not the plucky Finnish winter – instead bleak Siberian tundra.  There was no fake triumph in the final movement – Honeck elongated the agony Schostakowitsch experienced living in Soviet Russia.  If not quite as devastating as the version I heard in this hall about three years ago with the Petersburgers (who fittingly have their authentic Russian sound), this was still a smart reading of the composer’s intentions.

This orchestra (Vienna’s second-best!) sounds world class.  The pieces were indeed quite different, but it captured both idioms with full sound (including the quiet passages, which could be delicate and still full and revealing).  Tonight’s works were warhorses, performed quite often, but if the orchestra can provide intelligent readings like these then worth hearing over and over and finding new and undiscovered corners even on the umpteenth listen.  (Plus I don’t think I’ll ever tire of Beethoven and Schostakowitsch, the way I have certainly tired of Mozart and Tschaikowsky).

 

SWR Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Dvořák, Tschaikowsky, Schostakowitsch

I do not think I have ever heard a cello so gorgeously played as by Mischa Maisky tonight, in a performance of Dvořák‘s Cello Concerto with the SWR Symphony Orchestra and Aziz Shokhakimov in Salzburg’s Great Festival House.  When he needed a big sound to balance the whole orchestra, he got it; when he needed delicate playing, he did that too (his duets with the principal flute were especially wonderous, the flutist sounding far better than Wednesday evening’s solo flutist too).  Throughout, his tone was heart-rendingly warm and full – high notes, low notes, loud, soft, delicate, aggressive, whatever it was, pure beauty emerged.  Shokhakimov did not exactly restrain the orchestra, nor flatten – no, this was a full orchestral effort, but he did ensure it had a solid basis for accompaniment that allowed Maisky to take over the extra interpretation, with lilts and embellishments.  Indeed, a human voice singing actual words could probably not have been so expressive (as an encore, the orchestra accompanied Maisky in Lensky’s aria from Tschaikowsky‘s Yevgeny Onyegin, with the baritone transcribed for cello, and he made us forget that there are normally words being sung).

I really do not know what else to say.  And this is especially so since the last time I heard this concerto was at last summer’s Festival, also with Shokhakimov on the podium (his prize-winner’s concert, having won the young conductors’ competition at the 2016 Festival), but then with a dreadful cello soloist who butchered this beautiful piece.  I did not blame Shokhakimov for that mess (it was definitely the cellist), but it was vindication that he got to do this piece again in Salzburg so soon thereafter with a cellist at the opposite extreme (and a better orchestra this time, too).

The orchestra is in its second season of existence, having been formed in Fall 2016 from the merger of two orchestras of Germany’s South Western Radio (that network’s house orchestras from Stuttgart and from Baden-Baden).  I would imagine that morale would probably not have been very good initially (I’d guess the decision was a financial one), but it did mean they got to select the best players from two decent orchestras, with a really quite good final result, with a level of virtuosity exceeded among German radio orchestras possibly only by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.

This talent was on display (without Maisky) after the intermission, for Schostakowitsch‘s First Symphony.  A student work (his graduation piece from the conservatory), it did not yet have the darkness and pain he displayed later, but it still represented the next logical forward step in symphonic music after Mahler.  A colorful work with many exposed lines (that, as student writing, do not always lead anywhere) presents challenges, which this orchestra handled effortlessly.  The affable Uzbek, Shokhakimov, kept them lively.

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.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Mozarteum

Schostakowitsch, Haydn, Stravinsky, Liszt, CPE Bach

The new musical year opened tonight in Salzburg, with an extremely eclectic concert by the Mozarteum Orchestra under its brand new chief conductor Riccardo Minasi in the Mozarteum’s Great Hall.  The orchestra is apparently very enthusiastic about Minasi, not least because he promises to schedule unusual works such as tonight’s combination: Dmitri Schostakowitsch‘s Festive Overture, Joseph Haydn‘s first Te Deum in C (he wrote two), Igor Stravinsky‘s Fireworks, Ferenc Liszt‘s Preludes, and finally CPE Bach‘s Magnificat.  Whew!

Enthusiasm permeated the room.  I’m not clear if this lead to the generally faster-than-normal tempi Minasi took, or if he really meant to play everything faster.  I could say the same about the volume, which rarely dropped below forte.  But this produced a breathless buzz (sometimes a bit chaotic, as in Stravinsky’s rarely-heard and refreshingly peculiar Fireworks; sometimes literally breathless, as in it was hard to believe the musicians managed to keep up and get all of the notes in for the opening of CPE Bach’s Magnificat).  Everyone had a twinkle in their eyes – and sometimes an unrestrained laugh, as the first four works were relatively short and the orchestra (and chorus) had to rearrange themselves frequently and with great difficulty between them (when Minasi chose the works for this concert, he probably did not realize they were in the Mozarteum, which has a much smaller stage than the Great Festival House where they often perform).

The orchestra sounded in its accustomed form, with the Salzburg Bach Chorus joining them magnificently for the two choral works.  Three of the four soloists – Kim-Lillian Strebel (soprano), Dara Savinova (alto), and Fulvio Bettini (bass) – had wonderful voices which blended nicely with orchestra and chorus even as they projected cleanly.  The fourth soloist, tenor Barry Banks, was a disaster for the ears, unable to find his pitches (especially painful in his upper register) and with an ugly hoarse (but loud) timbre.

Berlin Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Schostakowitsch

There is a certain logic in pairing Schostakowitsch‘s first and last symphonies.  Symphony #1, his graduation work from the Petrograd Conservatory, is an experimental work looking forward to the music style he would develop through his compositional career.  Symphony #15, written in failing health, looked back upon that career and made reference to it (along with snippets from Wagner, Mahler, Rossini, and others).  Both pieces use full orchestras, but spend most of their time bringing out delicate juxtapositions of individual instruments – more concerto for orchestra than symphony.

The first symphony is clearly a student work, often failing to develop portions, while in a hurry to move on to the next thing, to demonstrate to the examiners that he could tick the boxes (albeit quite elaborate ticks).  The fifteenth benefits from 45 more years of composition, and without going overboard does resolve each theme and section.

Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic programmed these works tonight at the Festival.  The large swells were there, but so were all the details.  I already knew both symphonies, but felt as though I was hearing both for this first time.  So many details often remain hidden in the complex workings of these symphonies: they are not big showcases, and indeed are often delicate, but they are nevertheless showcases for the right orchestral forces.  Rattle drew out all of the lines, and the orchestra responded with every intricacy intact.  Even at quiet moments, the sound made its way through the hall in the right proportions.

As for the audience, it failed tonight.  The whole hall seemed restless – lots of coughing, seats fidgeting, people standing up and sitting back down, and a mobile phone ringing.  The man next to me seemed to be intent on swatting non-existent flies all night.  Who were all these people and what did they do with the usual audience?

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Schostakowitsch, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

What promised to be a musical highlight of this Summer’s Festival did not disappoint: Mariss Jansons and the Vienna Philharmonic performing Dmitri Schostakowitsch‘s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.

This is an absolutely brutal opera, without any sympathetic characters and full of violent crime.  Schostakowitsch infused the music with western dance patterns (Viennese waltzes and the like – many recognizable from operettas) in caricature, interrupted by more violence, before the choral music in the final act – depicting prisoners being force-marched to Siberia – evoking Mussorgsky (and maybe here some sympathy).  Stalin called it “muddle not music” in a review he wrote for Pravda and the opera nearly cost Schostakowitsch his life.

But it is a fantastic score.  Mariss Jansons kept all of the complexities together and well-paced.  The orchestra produced a full sound from the pit, without ever overwhelming the singers, and then exploded into the musical interludes.  This was thrilling, and fitting that Jansons and the Philharmonic got the evening’s loudest applause.

The cast itself had no big names – a motley collection made up mostly of Russians and Ukrainians.  All were good.  The best voice of the night belonged to Dmitri Ulyanov, the Russian baritone who sang Boris Ismailov, the protagonist’s overbearing father-in-law (he exits relatively early in the plot, after she feeds him mushrooms laced with rat poison).  Nina Stemme was to be the one big-name singer in the cast as the protagonist, but she has been ill and was replaced this Summer by her understudy, Evgenia Muraveva, a young soprano from the Mariinsky Theater, who – aside from a few misplaced upper notes – completely filled the role and carried the plot.  She was mostly balanced by tenor Brandon Jovanovich, an American cast as her lover and partner in crime Sergei.

The staging, by German director (oh, no, not another talentless German opera director!?) Andreas Kriegenburg was thankfully not Regietheater (thank goodness for these periodic exceptions coming from Germany). That did not mean that it made any sense. It was a modernized, if not modern, staging, moved to what looked like a Soviet-ish apartment block, which did not quite match the plot so unclear why he did it.  There were some other deviations from the plot, but the music and plot are shocking enough that there really is no need to do more (and he did not).  Depicting rapes and murders and whatnot is sufficient – and it was all there.  Injecting some comic relief in appropriate places (consistent with the text) is also correct.  And giving the singers a platform on which to act is probably most important, and Kriegenburg did just that.  So there was no need to get into an intellectual exercise to try to figure out what he was thinking.

Better to bask in the music.

Hagen Quartet and Sol Gabetta, Mozarteum

Bach, Schostakowitsch, Schubert

Back to the Mozarteum for another chamber concert, this evening with the Hagen Quartet (for Bach and Schostakowitsch) joined by Sol Gabetta for Schubert.

Signature works made up the first half of the concert.  Contrapunctus I-IV from Bach’s Art of the Fugue opened the program – each building from Bach’s B-A-C-H signature notation.  Bach wrote these more as mathematical exercises than as musical composition, and while they have served – and been rightfully admired – as a good technical manual on fugue-writing for centuries since, they do seem rather too technical.  Tonight’s performance bore that out.

Without a break, the Quartet went directly into the Schostakowitsch String Quartet #8, which updated Bach by over two centuries, substituting the Russian composer’s own D-S-C-H musical signature.  Where Bach was technical, Schostakowitsch became emotional.  Composed in the midst of a depression in his life, the movements were varyingly somber and angry.  They borrowed some language from the composer’s Cello Concerto, which I heard in a desolate interpretation with Clemens Hagen, the cellist in this quartet, back in May.

After the intermission came something completely different – or at least somewhat different.  Schubert’s late masterwork, his String  Quintet composed shortly before his death, filled the second hour.  In the quieter parts, the musicians played almost delicately, looking backwards to capture aspects of Bach’s Art.  For the larger more raucous moments, particularly inside the Adagio, they struck up agressively, looking forward to the Schostakowitsch.  But for playing that was both robust and lyrical at the same time, we needed to wait until the final movement.

On the whole, the performance was technically fine but generally lacked the necessary lyricism.  Maybe they should not have started with Bach’s exercises, as their tone never really expanded enough thereafter.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Prokofiev, Schostakowitsch

Another Sunday morning concert with the Vienna Philharmonic in Salzburg’s Great Festival House, in which the work I specifically wanted to hear got overshadowed by the one I did not know and was initially less interested in.

The surprise for me came in the first half of the concert, with Prokofiev‘s Second Piano Concerto, which I did not believe I had ever heard before (I looked it up after the concert: indeed, I heard it in 2009 and seem to have been equally stunned).  Written to fulfill a graduation requirement from the conservatory, the precocious student Prokofiev decided to smash all conventions.  The result produced a whole lot of sound, often coming at odd angles, emerging from the piano but also bombarding the ears from across the stage.  There may have been no particular order to the madness – mostly Prokofiev showing off: “look what I can do!” – but this was no cacaphony.

Soloist Daniil Trifonov, a Russian Wunderkind himself still only 26, siezed the piano in his arms and practically hurled it around the stage.  OK, it stayed put, more or less, but he jumped around on the stool more than conductor Andris Nelsons on the podium.  His arms were blazing, and hands everywhere (does he only have two hands?), fingers pounding the keys.  It was all a blur.  But the music… perhaps the snarky young Prokofiev had been on to something, and Trifonov discovered it.

For his part, Nelsons made sure the orchestra provided the perfect context for Trifonov (maybe not as hard with this orchestra, but someone had to put it all together).

After the intermission, Schostakowitsch‘s monumental Seventh Symphony – the work I dearly wanted to hear – became somehow anti-climactic.  This is the one symphony that Schostakowtsch wrote knowing it was to be used for propaganda purposes.  There’s also a whole lot of sound here, and the orchestra got it all.  The subtext is harder to find than in other Schostakowitsch symphonies (according to propaganda, the “invasion” theme in the first movement depicts the German invasion of Russia in 1941; yet Schostakowitsch had actually written this portion nearly two years before, moved by the Russian invasion of Poland as the first phase for implementation of Russo-German alliance that opened the Second World War).  In truth, Schostakowitsch had seen firsthand the misery in Leningrad during the German siege and the bravery of the people to attempt to survive, and this required memorialization.  Yet when it would all be over, it would not be over: the Soviet regime of terror still reigned.

Nelsons, born in Latvia 39 years ago when it was still very much under Russian occupation, should understand that subtext, as hard as it may be to find.  I’m not sure we heard it this morning.  Nevertheless, the orchestral playing was spectacular.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Schostakowitsch, Mahler

The Mozarteum Orchestra presented the final Sunday matinee of its subscription series this year.  It’s a fine provincial band, on a par with Rotterdam Philharmonic or the City of Birmingham Symphony or Zurich’s Tonhalle Orchestra (which itself gave me two and a half years’ enjoyment during my time living there from 2000-2002, although I have not had a chance to hear it again in well over a decade).

Salzburg’s own great local cellist Clemens Hagen joined guest conductor Constantinos Carydis and the orchestra for Schotakowitsch‘s cello concerto.  Together, they depicted a desolate Russian wasteland, where every soul struggles to survive life in the Evil Empire.  Schostakowitsch’s own signature notes D-S-C-H permeated the whole score, pushing forwards as those around him had been liquidated by the brutal regime.  Here he was defiant, but kept his head down: soloist and orchestra were never over-bearing, and kept their performance almost restrained, and with an edge to it that Russian performers would understand.  The meaning was clear.  The principal hornist sat amidst the viole to engage Hagen in more dialogue: was he hiding there as a spy, or was he simply a trusted friend out of place?  The music kept this ambiguous, indeed as life must have been in the Soviet Union, or indeed Russia today.

On an ominous note, in the middle of the slow movement a member of the bass section collapsed on stage.  The music stopped while he was carried off, and then the movement started over.  After the intermission they announced that he had merely fainted and was fine, but the optics added to the somber mood.  Hagen tried to cut this with a somewhat more up-beat encore, which sounded like it may have been Bach, but really we needed nothing else.

The Mahler first symphony after the intermission was a bit anti-climactic.  The first movement launched with a certain dynamism.  But then Carydis decided to insert the so-called “Blumine” movement – the bit Mahler extracted from an earlier work he had ripped up and inserted here, only to decide almost immediately that it didn’t belong here either and so he removed again.  When the Norrköpingers performed this symphony here last month, they gave us the “Blumine” movement as an encore and made it work as a stand-alone fragment, but inserting it here demonstrated why Mahler rejected it.  This reading was less compelling and also sapped the emotion and drive from the entire symphony.  When the usual second movement (now third) came along, the orchestra had not quite recovered from the pointless diversion.  For the rest of the symphony, Carydis tried to re-capture the initial dynamism by modulating the volume, keeping some passages unnaturally quiet and then exploding in others.  The orchestra responded well, but I still wonder what they might have done had they not lost the momentum in the “Blumine.”

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Berlioz, Prokofiev, Schostakowitsch

The first Sunday matinee of the Mozarteum Orchestra‘s new season filled Salzburg’s Great Festival House with music, if with many empty seats as well.  This was a shame, as the orchestra shone under guest conductor Markus Stenz.

The concert overture Roman Festival by Berlioz led kicked off the program full of color.  Derived from music adapted from his opera Benvenuto Cellini, this reworking allowed the individual musicians in the orchestra to showcase themselves while blending to a thrilling whole.  This was moreso apparent in the second work, Prokofiev‘s first violin concerto, where soloist Arabella Steinbacher joined the orchestra.  Her tone was warm and sweet – but never too much so, allowing just enough edge to reflect that Prokofiev, when he wrote this in 1916, remained in the vanguard of new music.  So we got intricate combinations of musicians – introduced by the viole, Steinbacher played a dialogue with the flutes, and then moved on to continue the discussion through the orchestra.  And quite a fun discussion, moving back and forth and around and around, providing stimulation for the mind throughout the masterfull (and underperformed) work, here captured well be these artists assembled on stage.

Steinbacher treated us to an encore – a movement of a sonata by Prokofiev – which allowed her to showcase her talents further.  This time, she carried out the fanciful dialogue not with an orchestra, but rather by herself.  Her tone was just big enough to fill the large hall without strain, and allow us to enjoy her versatility working through Prokofiev’s clever thoughts.

The program closed with more color, except this time more somber: Schostakowitsch‘s fifth symphony.  Stenz translated the sense of foreboding in the symphony by controlling the dynamics, the big moments bringing in a shock component.  Stenz made Schostakowitch almost snarky: did the first movement describe clowns rounded up and marched to Siberia for cheering up the miserable victims of Soviet oppression?  Who was trying to dance in the second movement?  There was the color – so obvious in the Berlioz and Prokofiev works – showing through, in an controlled reading.  While in my own head I’ve heard this work as increasingly black over the last few years (and heard that interpretation to the extreme with the Petersburgers and Yuri Temirkanov visiting the Musikverein a year and a half ago), I still understood the convincing spin Stenz and the orchestra gave the symphony.  It certainly helps that this orchestra is in good form.

Orchestral Society of the Association of the Friends of Music in Vienna, Musikverein

Maslanka, Schostakowitsch

A Sunday matinee in the Musikverein with amateur ensembles: first the Vienna Academic Wind Orchestra performing music by American composer David Maslanka, and then the Musikverein’s house orchestra – the Orchestral Society of the Association of the Friends of Music in Vienna – with Schostakowitsch’s 5th Symphony.

This was the first performance ever of a work by Maslanka in the Musikverein: today, his Symphony #8 for winds and percussion, composed in 2008. The program notes indicated he wanted to show a positive outlook despite all the problems in the world, to give hope that mankind will go on. The three-movement symphony opened with evocative and pensive music, which to me was evocative of or even derivative from the opera Lela by 20th-Century Georgian composer Revaz Laghidze. Did Maslanka know this opera? Did he hope American listeners would not know it? As the movement went on, I caught glimpses of Rachmaninov’s Three Russian Songs for chorus and orchestra. Since I do know these works, I felt rather disconcerted. The second movement was a fantasy based on the hymn “Jesu meine Freude,” representing prayer to overcome the difficulties. The final movement took the themes from the first movement but spun them positively and ultimately triumphantly. On the whole, the symphony was pleasant, and the musicians played well under the direction of conductor Andreas Simbeni. But perhaps I missed the drama in the words (here without chorus) of Rachmaninov and Laghidze; or perhaps the scoring for a wind ensemble was on its own a tad overbearing.

After the intermission came Schostakowitsch. I have heard this symphony already twice before this year, with the version by the St. Petersburg Philharmonic under Yuri Temirkanov in the Musikverein being a special highlight. So it would be unfair to make a direct comparison. That said, under the baton of Robert Zelzer, the orchestra this morning held its own. They understood the meaning of the work, although perhaps not bringing out the extreme emotions the Petersburgers did. Still, the playing remained idiomatic and well-formed, particularly in the first movement, which Zelzer took at a slightly slower pace than usual. Indeed, the orchestra sounded good for today (indeed more proficient than the professional orchestra from Berlin – the Konzerthausorchester – which I heard perform this work in in Salzburg in February).

Wiener Philharmoniker, Musikverein

Stravinsky, Schostakowitsch

A visit to the Musikverein’s Golden Hall by Mariss Jansons to lead the Vienna Philharmonic is always worth flagging in the calendar, no matter what they put on the program. Tonight proved no exception, with Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Schostakowitsch’s 10th Symphony.

I last heard this peculiar Stravinsky work five seasons ago, with the at the time newly-bankrupt and demoralized Philadelphia Orchestra under the perennially bankrupt-of-ideas Charles Dutoit. They completely flummoxed me with what seemed an ugly and pointless work. Nevertheless, I thought something must be hiding in there, and so I’ve waited eagerly for the opportunity to hear the work again. Lo and behold, when put into the competent hands of Jansons, it all made sense tonight.

Stravinsky re-thought the psalms, updating old church chants for the twentieth century with a highly original orchestration. There are many ways to praise the Lord. The Lord has probably heard them all before, so I suppose Stravinsky decided he required something new and inspired to get attention. Jansons got the pacing right, the broad and mystical mixed with the impulsive and driven. The Philharmoniker – or at least the strange combination of instrumentalists called for by Stravinsky – brought out the bold accents and bright colors, wherever required, to support the Singverein’s vocals. Would that the Lord be pleased! The audience certainly was, with a thumping ovation.

After the intermission came Schostakowitsch. If Stravinsky from his exile could praise the Lord with a new song, Schostakowitsch was left behind in Russia, lingering in a godless empire. The first movement portrayed a landscape so devastating that the Siberian gulags would have paled in comparison. Death, heartbreak, destruction, and all of the misery of the Soviet regime was on display. As the symphony progressed across the musical tundra, the regime and its minions shot down anyone who dared hope. The workers went about their roles as automatons in their wonderful dictatorship of the proletariat. But through it all came a glimmer of light – in the snarky form of the composer’s musical signature: D-S-C-H, D-S-C-H, D-S-C-H – haltingly at first and ultimately triumphantly. Jansons let us hear the message clearly, and the orchestra responded. Indeed, at times it felt like echoes from last night’s concert (Mahler 7) had hung in the hall, with some intimate solo parts and exposed ensemble playing, shining some light in the darkness. Oh so much darkness.

Berlin Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Britten, Schostakowitsch

It was third time lucky this year with the Berlin Philharmonic.  They underwhelmed me in Vienna and Berlin in May, but in Salzburg this afternoon they hit their stride for the closing concert of the Festival.  Simon Rattle took the podium.

The concert opened with a work I did not previously know: Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge by Benjamin Britten.  This was Britten’s first major international success, composed on commission for the 1937 Salzburg Festival.  In it, Britten took a simple theme from his composition teacher and ran it through a bunch of variations for string orchestra.  And these were not just the usual variations, but rather in a wide range of styles, from Viennese waltz to funeral music and from military march to baroque fugue.  The Berlin Philharmonic strings needed to demonstrate almost every possible manner of playing, and Rattle had to jump from one to another with versatility and agility.  They succeeded and then some.

These skills also helped after the intermission, when the full orchestra took the stage.  Schostakowitsch’s Fourth Symphony was banned for 25 years in part because it accurately portrayed how miserable life is in Russia.  The authorities also thought it was far too complex.  The Berliners handled the complexities this afternoon with few problems – almost made it sound easy, but sometimes it was a head-scratcher (“did they really just manage to play that?!?!).  Rattle had it all under control.  My only quibble is that they could have played it several shades darker – this performance did not quite portray Russia in all of its misery.

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.

Boston Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Strauss, Schostakowitsch

If the Boston Symphony Orchestra may not have understood Mahler’s Sixth yesterday, they certainly understood Don Quijote by Richard Strauss today.  Strauss wrote the piece, but tonight Andris Nelsons was the story-teller on the podium.  The Orchestra responded wonderfully, with all of the nuances missing from last night’s Mahler.  Of course, it did not hurt that, portraying Don Quijote himself, Yo-Yo Ma on the cello made the title character sympathetic and tragic.  The poor knight meant well, but his delusions put him into increasingly untenable situations, until he died a broken man.  Ma started firmly, slowly succombing to fate, but keeping a positive outlook of the knight errant.  Cervantes himself barely told it better.

After the break, the orchestra returned for Schostakowitsch’s Tenth Symphony.  Once again, as for last night’s Mahler, this work was probably too big for where this orchestra is right now.  But it is easier to decipher than the Mahler, and the solo lines sounded more comfortable (excellent bassoon and contrabassoon, in particular).  If they follow Nelsons, they won’t get lost, and the story Nelsons told was one of the devastation wrought by Josef Stalin, and Schostakowitsch’s survival.  Stalin’s legacy marched out for all to see – Schostakowitsch portrayed in music the man Osip Mandelstam so vividly displayed in poetry, and that poetry echoed through the hall tonight (“every killing was a treat, for the broad-chested Ossete”).  Schostakowitsch outlived Stalin, in life and in the symphony, but the Soviet Union marched on.  Nelsons, born under Russian occupation, showed the way, if not to victory then just to survival (as his hero in last night’s Mahler Sixth also appears to have survived).

The BSO is wise to continue to follow Nelsons where he leads.  This is a conductor on a mission, with forceful readings and clear vision.

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.

St. Petersburg Philharmonic, Musikverein (Vienna)

Sibelius, Paganini, Schostakowitsch, Elgar

I returned to the Golden Hall of the Musikverein for another visiting orchestra, this time the best one from Russia: the St. Petersburg Philharmonic under the baton of its music director Yuri Temirkanov. It did not disappoint. In contrast to the Berliners on Sunday, the St. Petersburgers played with a passion, if not always the precision. But they still managed even better clarity than the Berliners in the wonderful Golden Hall (could this be perhaps that their own hall in St. Petersburg is better than the Phiharmonie in Berlin, which is supposedly cavernous? I guess I will find out when I hear the Berliners in their home later this month).

German violinist Julia Fischer joined the orchestra for the Sibelius violin concerto. The simmering strings at the work’s introduction cooled off the hall on an unseasonably humid night, and then Fischer waded into the icy waters. She entered with caution at first, but her sound grew with the development of the piece, and a full robust tone rose from the deepest notes in her register. The performance had just the right amount of melancholy, drawing its power from its lyrics. The orchestral accompaniment grumbled menacingly during the final movement.

To add some excitement, Fischer returned with an encore: Paganini’s Capriccio #24, which though seldom performed itself is well-known as the subject for Rachmaninov’s famous rhapsody. On the violin it requires more dexterity than on Rachmaninov’s keyboard, and jumps around in its styles including an impossible (but possible for Fischer) pizzicato.

After the intermission, Temirkanov led the orchestra in a soul-crushing interpretation of Schostakowitsch’s Fifth Symphony, probably close to how the composer heard the work inside his own head. Schostakowitsch is on record as saying that Yevgeny Mravinsky, who premiered this work with this same orchestra, was not smart enough to understand it, and Mravinsky’s interpretation came across as triumphant when Schostakowitsch meant it to be tragic. Of course, had he performed it in 1937 the way Temirkanov did tonight, then possibly the composer, conductor, and entire orchestra would have been carted off for execution – and this is exactly why it was so tragic. However, the work was designed to be mock-triumphant, which is what produces its inherent tensions. Tonight, Temirkanov took the whole work at slower-than-normal tempi, with no mock triumph in sight – but this also deprived the work of the little message of hope Schostakowitsch embedded in it – that the soul could somehow survive the oppressive regime. The accentuated timpani blows carried out the execution of that hope tonight, leaving little doubt that there is no room for resistance.

Roaring applause called for an encore. And they delivered a lush version of “Nimrod” from Elgar’Enigma Variations. However it now seems like I hear an orchestra use this excerpt as an encore almost every month. Wonderful piece, but why has it suddenly become the encore everyone plays?

This orchestra and conductor have, as far as I am aware, stayed out of Russian and geo-politics, in contrast the the opera orchestra and conductor (and one-time Temirkanov protege) on the other side of their city. Schostakowitsch may be inherently political, a voice for justice from within an evil empire, but Temirkanov and his orchestra should be commended for making music as it was meant to be.