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.

Philadelphia Orchestra, Kimmel Center

Stravinsky, Schostakowitsch, Prokofiev

I rushed up from Washington to Philadelphia in time to hear Valery Gergiev conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra in three very different symphonies by Russian composers. What Stravinsky’s Symphony in C, Schostakowitsch’s 9th, and Prokofiev’s 5th had in common was intriguing rhythmic combinations, which make them fun, if difficult, to play.  The Philadelphians proved themselves up for the challenge.

The Stravinsky might be the oddest of the lot.  Written over a period of a couple of years, it is not quite clear that the composer ever had a clear vision or plan for this work.  The creativity came in the rhythmic shifts and juxtapositions across the instruments.  A medium-sized orchestration never became too overpowering, and the Philadelphians played the work with dexterous delicacy: tender moments prevailing through jarring jabs of sound.

In some respects, the orchestra sounded as though it had started the concert by going mostly through motions, taking a while to warm up during the piece.  The playing was fine, but some sparkle lacked at the outset.  Part of that may have been Stravinsky’s lack of clarity in this work.  Certainly, by the time the Schostakowitsch came, the Orchestra was now ready.

Schostakowitsch’s work marks a triumph of his own spirit at a time of triumph for his country.  The communists expected a major work to crown their victory in the Second World War, and Schostakowitsch gave them a sarcastic one.  The work dances – maybe not with as much syncopation as Stravinsky’s or with the balletic sweeps of the Prokofiev that followed, but nevertheless it showed a certain celebration alternating with dark brooding.  Although Soviet Russia had defeated Nazi Germany, it remained Soviet Russia, its peoples enslaved.  The irony did not escape notice that the Orchestra took its cues from Gergiev, a close friend of (and apologist for) current Russian strongman Vladimir Putin.  But politics aside (and sticking to music-making), Gergiev successfully shaped this symphony with his clawing fingers, giving it a fuller and more meaningful reading than the Stravinsky.

The Prokofiev symphony after the intermission provided something more in line with what the communist regime would have wanted.  Written shortly before the end of the European war, as the Red Army advanced to liberate (and re-enslave) Eastern Europe, Prokofiev could use dramatic language and large forces to portray both the uplifting triumph and sad laments of the battlefield, while still maintaining a modern musical language characterized by its own dancing rhythms.  The Orchestra’s sound came across full when it had to, but the solo lines throughout emerged with sensitivity and virtuosity.

Berlin Konzerthausorchester, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Beethoven, Mozart, Schostakowitsch, Elgar

The Berlin Konzerthausorchester, as its name implies the house orchestra of a concert hall in Berlin (and apparently an offshoot of the once reasonably-good Berliner Symphoniker), has come to Salzburg for three nights, with a bunch of works that do not logically fit together in any particular way (nor do the program notes provide an explanation for the selection).  Tonight’s concert: Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #1 (with a movement from a Mozart sonata for solo piano as an encore) and Schostakowitsch’s Symphony #5 (with “Nimrod” from Elgar’Enigma Variations as an encore).  (Tomorrow night’s concert has the same program, which I won’t repeat; Friday’s concert has mismatched Prokofiev and Haydn – since I fly on the weekend, I may need to work late on Friday so I’ll likely skip that one.)

Berliner Martin Helmchen played the piano solos, and another Berliner, Michael Sanderling, conducted.  Sanderling is the third of three sons of the late conductor Kurt Sanderling – and all three sons themselves became conductors.  I heard his father conduct in Zurich in 2002 on his farewell tour (he retired that year at 90 years old).  The youngest Sanderling (who is actually turning 48 later this month) may have inherited his father’s understanding of music, but may not have inherited his father’s ability to communicate that understanding.  Or maybe not with this orchestra.  The Berlin Konzerthausorchestra was technically sound, responded to Sanderling’s shaping, but something was missing: feeling.  Although the interpretation was clear, the outcome was rigid.

The Beethoven concerto, written at the end of the 18th century, remains in that century even as it shows signs of Beethoven’s growing genius.  Tonight’s performance took it carefully with a light touch.  The Mozart encore perhaps allowed the Beethoven to shine more.  Although it may be sacrilegious to say this in Salzburg, Beethoven eclipses Mozart.  If Mozart had never existed, the world would be deprived of a lot of beautiful music by Mozart, but that’s all.  If Beethoven had never existed, music would not have evolved the same way, and we would not only be deprived of music by Beethoven, but by much of what came after.  Helmchen’s beautifully-played Mozart encore proved the point.

As for the Schostakowitsch symphony, Sanderling clearly understood the work, and the orchestra dutifully followed his interpretation.  But understanding it and being fluent in it are not quite the same.  Schostakowitsch’s Fifth is often misinterpreted as a triumphal Soviet work; in reality, it is about as triumphal as an a defeated man being ordered to celebrate while having a gun pointed at his head.  Sanderling took the tempi slowly, which drew out the irony and the pain underlying the music.  The percussion pierced.  The orchestra did as instructed, but in this case the middle bits dragged, and thus lost the complex emotions.  Maybe Berliners are not capable of emotion.

After such a work, the encore had to be lighter but not too happy.  Elgar’s “Nimrod” served the purpose well, even if it is an over-used encore these days.  The orchestra played sentimentally, but maybe not enough so.

Wiener Symphoniker, Konzerthaus

Schubert, Schostakowitsch, Beethoven, Johann Strauß II

Woke up early on a Sunday for a wonderful concert by the Wiener Symphoniker in the Konzerthaus.  Philippe Jordan, in his first season as the orchestra’s official Chief Conductor (although long a fixture here, especially after the departure of Fabio Luisi), took the podium.  I first saw him conduct twelve years ago in Graz, and he has retained his ability to charm.

He opened the concert with Schubert’s Second Symphony, an early work which, though not yet mature and therefore not frequently performed, nevertheless exhibits Schubertian characteristics.  Jordan’s reading drew out the joyful spirit of the work, using a good control of dynamics to increase the drama.  The first movement, which opens slowly before jumping in head-first at breakneck speed, proved especially successful (Schubert developed this technique as he matured, and it influenced Bruckner who also deeply appreciated Schubert’s talent and originality).

Schostakowitsch’s Concerto for Piano, Trumpet, and String Orchestra followed.  The composer wrote this sarcastic piece in 1933 to cheer himself up during one of the darkest periods in Russian history (which, sadly, has no lack of dark periods – indeed, it’s mostly dark, but the 1930s were especially dark).  Khatia Buniatishvili, the young Georgian star, took on the challenge, and in contrast to the Schostakowitsch piano concerto I heard yesterday in this case she dominated the stage.  The Symphoniker’s first trumpet, Rainer Küblböck, performed the trumpet solos, and nimbly switched from the somewhat sad muted lines to the boisterous and bright unmuted sections.  At the end, Buniatishvili came back out and gave us two encores (neither identified, and I do not know the repertory well enough to place them).  The first (clearly 20th-century, maybe Schostakowitsch?) nearly blew the roof off the hall – I did not believe a piano could produce that much sound, rivaling some orchestras in might.  The second (sounded like something one of the Scarlatti family might have written, but could have been a neo-classical throwback) had a wonderful song-like character, and Buniatishvili’s keyboard did everything except produce the words.

After the intermission, the orchestra stormed through Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.  Jordan took this at a faster clip than I normally would prefer (he probably followed Beethoven’s own erroneous metronome markings, which current theories suggest come from a broken metronome which displayed the wrong beat numbers), but got the orchestra to produce all the swinging excitement while gasping for breath.  Again, he utilized dynamics to underscore this dramatics of the piece.  He performed the first two movements without a break, going right from the initial Vivace into the slow movement, for maximum (and effective) contrast.  The final movement especially tied the concert neatly together, as it echoed the first movement of the Schubert symphony in the frenetic strings.  Although Schubert’s Second Symphony predated Beethoven’s Seventh by a full year, Beethoven was the older and more mature composer (and it would seem unlikely that Beethoven even knew Schubert’s symphony, as much of Schubert’s work in that period was developmental and not performed publicly or published until many decades after his death).

Jordan gave the enthusiastically-applauding audience another encore:  Künstlerleben by Johann Strauß II.  The Symphoniker lilted, and the audience danced out of the hall.  This orchestra sounds like it will maintain the level of quality it has built over the previous years under Luisi, almost to the point of rivaling its colleague down the street, the world’s best Wiener Philharmoniker (which sounds better when I am not sitting in the middle of its percussion section like yesterday).

Wiener Philharmoniker, Musikverein

Glinka, Schostakowitsch, Tschaikowsky

Sometimes tickets come available late for the subscription-only concerts of the Vienna Philharmonic.  I got one such ticket this afternoon, giving me a seat in the percussion section between the cymbals and the bass drum.  No kidding.  At least no Mahler was on the program, although my ears are still ringing a bit.

Semyon Bychkov took the podium for an all-Russian concert.  The chronically-ill Mikhail Glinka spent a Summer in Vienna, where he came for medical advice and to take the cure in Baden.  During his stay he met Johann Strauß (the father) and Joseph Lanner, who inspired him a few years later to try his hand at a waltz.  In a sense, Bychkov brought the Waltz-Fantasie home by having the Philharmoniker (not only the world’s best orchestra, but the world’s best waltz orchestra), perform it.

Kirill Gerstein joined the orchestra for the second piano concerto of Dmitri Schostakowitsch.  This is a tuneful work with a degree of charm, but written by Schostakowitsch during one of the many periods in his life when he was subject to artistic persecution.  While recognizably music by Schostakowitsch, it is perhaps less daring than it should be.  From my seat in the back of the orchestra, I also did not experience it as much of a concerto – the piano part seemed somewhat under-written and blended into the orchestral tones.  Gerstein gave a long solo encore to demonstrate his agility (I could not hear his announcement of what he played – it was not a showy piece, instead rather melancholic, but it did allow him to demonstrate versatility).

After the intermission came Pyotr Tschaikowsky’s Symphony #6.  Bychkov captured the composer’s depression.  While the orchestra carried off a flawless performace, I did not get the sense that I learned anything new from this reading.  However, I did learn some new things about cymbal technique.

Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra (Moscow Radio), Royal Festival Hall (London)

Tschaikowsky, Schostakowitsch, Elgar

I popped down to London to hear the Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra under Vladimir Fedoseyev perform in the Royal Festival Hall.  With this team, it is always a treat.  Fedoseyev has led the orchestra for forty years as of this year, so it is very much his instrument.

The instrument that opened the concert, though, belonged to violinist Vadim Repin.  Repin does not have a big tone, but he does have a beautiful one.  Fedoseyev had the orchestra provide him appropriately delicate backing in the Tschaikowsky Violin Concerto, not too robust as to overwhelm him.  Fedoseyev painted an overall picture using pastels rather than bold colors, colorful yet restrained.  Tschaikowsky might have appreciated more energy, however.

Where the Tschaikowsky Violin Concerto was light and sweet, the Schostakowitsch Symphony #8 after the intermission was dark and bitter.  I heard this symphony with the Tonkünstler a month ago, but it forms a more usual part of this orchestra’s repertory, and they knew how to dig into the soul.  The solo lines scattered among the industrialized music representing the faceless Soviet regime soared with great beauty.  Around them sounded devastation, Russia in rubble and its people under oppression.

The concert promoted the opening of the 2014 UK-Russia Year of Culture, so the orchestra knew it had to warm the home crowd with some Elgar encores.  A strongly sentimental Nimrod from the Enigma Variations showed they could communicate the message.  The Pomp and Circumstance March #1 which concluded the set came across as a tad regimented and less academic, but nevertheless roused the crowd.  In between came a encore I did not recognize, which sounded like someone’s quite fun attempt at imitating Spanish music.  The audience reacted delightedly to the encores – I am not sure they understood the Russian works, however.

Wiener Symphoniker, Konzerthaus

Tschaikowsky, Schostakowitsch, Dvořák

The Vienna Symphony Orchestra sounded both delicate and robust, in appropriate measures, as it navigated the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture by Tschaikowsky and the Ninth Symphony by Dvořák under the direction of Vassily Sinaiksy in the Konzerthaus this evening.  Sinaisky on the podium looked very much like the orchestra’s kind-hearted professor, engaging his orchestra fully, calling on individual instruments demonstratively, and peering studiously over the top of the reading spectacles perched upon the end of his nose, as he drew sound from the orchestra using his hands and without need of a baton.

Sinaisky, a conductor I had not previously heard of, was a stand-in for Neemi Järvi, who had taken ill.  It seems Sinaisky does not have any pressing engagements at the moment as he recently resigned as music director of Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater after a dispute with the new management (I suppose he could not have survived a few months longer for the management to completely change again).  The association with the Bolshoi, of course, sent up a red flag – there is probably no opera house in the world (outside Italy, of course) with so much political intrigue and thick mafia connections, surviving entirely on its reputation as having once been a world-class opera company.  In my time in Moscow, I discovered fully six opera venues in that city of superior quality to the once-proud and now farcical Bolshoi.

The Bolshoi has never recovered from firing Boris Pokrovsky as its chief over thirty years ago (Pokrovsky, perhaps one of the most intelligent opera directors of all time, had lasted three decades as the boss in that house and had personally seen to the maintainance of the house’s quality and tradition – rumor is that he allowed the theater to employ too many Jews for the government’s liking, and was fired when he refused to purge them).  On the other hand, Sinaisky would not be the first decent artist to think he might be the one to fix that hopeless theater after Pokrovsky’s ouster.  But Sinaisky failed, just like everyone else in the last thirty years, and now sits unemployed waiting for people like Järvi to get sick.

Tonight, the Symphoniker looked glad to have him, and he looked glad to have them too (certainly a far better orchestra than the band that sits in the Bolshoi’s pit).

Also on the program, coming between the other two works, was the Cello Concerto #1 by Schostakowitsch, which the composer wrote for his friend and fellow dissident Mstislav Rostropovich.  Intermixing humor and other-worldliness, this concerto is not easy on the cellist, who must get a broad range of sounds out of the instrument while maintaining a dialogue with the orchestra.  The Franco-German soloist Nicolas Altstaedt somehow got through it all intact.  But Altstaedt is not Rostropovich, and his sound lacked fullness, while his playing was labored to the point that he became completely out of breath, his wheezing projecting over the sound of his instrument.  The orchestra did its part, and Sinaisky did well to keep everything together, but the young Altstaedt might be advised to stick to simpler works at this stage of his career.

Tonkünstlerorchester, Musikverein

Tschaikowsky, Petrovski, Schostakowitsch

After he survived the Siege of Leningrad, and after the Red Army turned back the Germans at Stalingrad, the Russian government sent Dmitri Schostakowitsch off somewhere quiet to compose a new symphony.  The Communist officials expected him to produce a triumphant work, and he gave them something triumphant – just not in the way that they meant.  The Eighth Symphony is dark and not quite optimistic, showing that although Schostakowitsch was pleased his county had turned the tide against the enemy, that triumph in reality only represented the victory of one evil empire over another.  The score came out heavily mechanized, but contains wonderful solo lines throughout the orchestra, often showing great humor (if too often crushed).  The triumph here was not that of the Red Army, but rather of the human soul, able somehow to survive under oppression.  Even the citizens of eternally-dismal Russia deserve freedom and a voice.  The regime responded by banning performances of this symphony for over a decade.

Orchestras sometimes get wrapped up the the industrial machine that churns out this symphony, but in a good performance they savor their lines and produce the little individual expressions of dissent that Schostakowitsch cherished.  The Tonkünstler Orchestra managed that today in the Musikverein, under the controlled direction of Michail Jurowsky.  The elder Jurowsky, who continues to age and looked extremely pale, no longer possesses the vigor he used to, but communicated to the orchestra with dextrous contortions of his baton and expressive fingers.  If I am around, I happily seek out his annual appearances in Vienna with this orchestra.

Speaking of expressive fingers, Macedonian pianist Simon Trpčeski mastered Tschaikowsky’Piano Concerto in the first half of the concert, establishing a spirited dialogue with the orchestra.  As an encore, Trpčeski and the Tonkünstler’s concertmaster Alexander Gheorghiu, and the twinkles in their eyes, joined forces for a charming work by Macedonian composer Soni Petrovski, which sounded like a cross between jazz and Balkan Gypsy music, with a bit of Stravinsky thrown in for good measure.  What fun.

Armenian State Youth Orchestra, Khachaturian Hall

Schostakowitsch, Tschaikowsky

The first concert I ever attended in Yerevan was the Armenian State Youth Orchestra.  I had remembered that they were relatively good, compared with the adult Armenian Philharmonic, and tonight’s concert confirmed my recollection.

The Tschaikowsky Sixth Symphony allowed the orchestra to demonstrate its warm tones, which progressively heated up throughout.  The young conductor Sergey Smbatyan, who founded the orchestra in 2005 (when his father headed the Yerevan Conservatory), took the first two movements deliberately and probably too carefully, considering that the Orchestra could easily handle this music.  The third movement presto went to the other extreme, performed rather faster than normal, but at a pace that the Orchestra could keep.  The final movement brought everything together nicely.  Honestly, the adult orchestra does not manage to get this level of musicality, in tone, attack, and precision.  Smbatyan conducts without a baton, with his palms left open and facing downwards, almost as though he is petting the orchestra; yet his motions are clear and precise, and the Orchestra followed with no problem.  Currently based in London, Smbatyan has started to appear on more European orchestras’ radars.

The first half of the concert, offering Schostakowitsch’s First Violin Concerto, did not achieve the same level as the second half.  Smbatyan and the Orchestra tried, as did soloist Guy Braunstein, but something did not click.  Braunstein became the Berlin Philarmonic’s youngest-ever concertmaster in 2000 (when he was just 29) and retired at the end of last season in order to pursue a solo career.  During the two faster movements (second movement scherzo and fourth movement burlesque) he certainly demonstrated dexterity.  The slower movements (first movement nocturne and third movement passacaglia) did not offer him the same opportunities, and they emerged more workmanlike than thrilling, even though Schostakowitch’s typical chromatic games should have made them more fascinating.  The performance was not bad, and perhaps better than I had anticipated before the concert, until I discovered Braunstein’s bio during the intermission which caused me to re-evaluate.

I did not manage to find a program until the intermission (the students who were supposed to hand them out got lazy and stopped early, but they left the stash behind somewhere), so I got to listen to Braunstein before reading his biography.  As long as I thought he too was still a student (he certainly looked much younger than 42 – I am used to performers using old file photos for their program profiles but then looking older; seldom is it the other way around where the official photo makes the performer look older than in real life) I was more inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt; after reading his biography, I was left wondering what went wrong.

Perhaps it came from insufficient rehearsal with this orchestra and conductor, but this was something I could not observe.  Although I had an excellent seat and got a good listen (undisturbed by the audience, which was small but well-behaved), I actually saw very little.  The concert was being filmed for television, and two large cameras with cameramen filled the middle aisle and blocked my view of a good part of the stage.  Different spotlights than usual were left on throughout the concert to illuminate the room, but two of them above and behind the orchestra were unfortunately directed straight into my eyes, so I could not observe very much (I mostly had to keep my eyes closed and just listened).  This means I could not see the interaction between Braunstein and Smbatyan, which might have given me more clues.  I may try to get that seat again for future concerts, though, just for the acoustics (they do not normally film concerts, so the partly-obstructed and partly-blinded view will not often repeat).

Gelikon Opera, Arbat Theater

Schostakowitsch, Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk

I heard Schostakowitsch’Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk tonight at the Gelikon Opera.  I will only say that I *heard* it, since I do not know what opera I saw.  The staging had less and less to do with the plot as the opera went on.  The director (Dmitry Bertman, the principal director of the Gelikon) clearly intended to stage something with a coherent plot, but whatever he staged it was not this opera.

Instead of being set at the Izmailov home in a village, the opera I saw took place in what appeared to be a factory basement.  Katerina’s room was a cage in the back.  Costumes were possibly 1950s-ish, maybe 1960s, with Katerina starting out dressed in a red velvet gown.  OK, I thought at first, this is just interpretation of a wild opera.  He’ll go somewhere with this.

But soon it became clear that, although he was going somewhere, it was not the same direction according to the book.  Various actions described in the text simply did not happen.  Other actions were bizarrely changed – for example, in this version Katerina gave her father-in-law a poisoned drink, even though both of them kept singing about mushrooms.  By the third act, the drunk had turned into a wedding singer, with the villagers dancing a bop to his description (crooned into microphone, with electric guitar accompaniment) of finding Katerina’s first husband’s body in the basement when he went looking for more alcohol.  By the final act, the director was not even trying anymore.  I could attempt to explain what was happening on stage, but I’m not sure I understood it (In which nightclub was this act set, and why weren’t the characters prisoners marching to Siberia as in the plot?  Why did the murdered father-in-law return to life as a camp guard?  What were the cook and priest from the village doing there?  Who were all the extras in latex?)

Schostakowitsch’s opera, with its sex and violence, was intended to shock.  This director did not shy away from that.  But, in short, there was very little he could do to shock anyone any more than the opera plot already did.  Therefore, maybe he got angry at Schostakowitsch for not allowing him freedom to shock on his own.  I really cannot begin to explain what was going on in the director’s head.  Again, it was not a random staging, nor German Regietheater, but clearly a staging of some plot line, just not the same plot the opera was about.

This was a huge shame.  Staging a different opera than the one being performed causes the attention to drift away from the music and on to trying to figure out what the hell is happening on stage.  Schostakowitsch’s music was fantastic.  And the performance… well, I was so distracted by the staging, I cannot be quite sure.  Certainly, everyone sounded reasonably good.  This was more remarkable, because I think the Gelikon Opera has been hit by a massive flu bug: of the fifteen cast members individually listed in the program, fully ten of them were indisposed and replaced by late substitutes (who were not even from the B or C casts).  The conductor was also a late substitute.  This may have lessened the drama on stage, and possibly caused some additional confusion, but clearly the understudies knew their way around enough so that the confused staging was not due to their substitution but rather was the staging itself.  As understudies, mostly rather young singers, they all acquitted themselves very well.  If I had not been distracted by the actions on stage, I might be able to give them even better reviews.  Certainly, they were not the problem tonight.