Schubert, Brahms, Strauss
Boccherini, Schubert, Mozart, Françaix
The Wiener Virtuosen, musicians from the Philharmonic, brought playful chamber music surrounding moodier songs to the Musikverein’s small Brahms Hall this evening.
Luigi Boccherini‘s Pastorale, Grave, e Fandango established a pleasant atmosphere, one dance-like melody building on the next, until reaching the fadango, when Boccherini let loose to have the chamber ensemble imitate a baroque guitar, moving the plucking and the thumping and the riffs from one instrument to the next. The audience practically jumped out of its seats to dance along. Pass the castinets!
Luca Pisaroni, a protege (and subsequently also son-in-law) of Thomas Hampson joined the ensemble for a series of songs by Franz Schubert, orchestrated variously by Johannes Brahms, Anton von Webern, Max Reger, and Felix Mottl. The orchestrations served to add extra warmth and color to the music, in ways that a piano could not do, drawing out the emotion further, especially considering Pisaroni’s own voice was full and round, amply supported by a deep baritone. While Pisaroni did not necessarily wear all of his emotions on his sleeve (in contrast, say, to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the master of this Fach), these settings allowed the songs to speak clearly for themselves: Memnon, Ihr Bild, An die Musik, Der Tod und das Mädchen, An Schwager Kronos, Litanei auf das Fest Allerseelen, and finally Erlkönig.
While Pisaroni did have a gorgeous deep baritone, his voice unfortunately did bottom out, lacking a true bass. This became exposed in the second half of the concert with songs composed by Wolfgang Amadé Mozart for bass vocalist: Mentre ti lascio, o figlia, Così dunque tradisci… aspri rimorsi atroci (written for the bass who premiered the role of Osmin in Entführung), and Per questa bella mano (written for the bass who premiered Sarastro in Zauberflöte). The baritone registers were fine – the bass not so much (Pisaroni hit the deep notes, just weakly). More Schubert might have helped. Nevertheless, he displayed the talent and presence that had attracted Hampson’s attention – and Hampson’s Liederabende are always elegant affairs.
The concert concluded with a more peculiar work by Jean Françaix, a French composer who obviously drew inspiration from Vienna for his Octet for Clarinet, Horn, Bassoon, two Violins, Viola, Cello, and Bass (premiered in this hall in 1972). The program notes said the composer had sought to update Schubert in a modern idiom. I honestly heard very little Schubert, but little Viennese lilts did appear throughout, especially the parodies of Viennese waltzes in the fourth movement. And while the jokes hit home with this Viennese audience, it was just amusement without much substance. Another bookend for the Boccherini perhaps, but not at the same level.
Sommer, Mahler, Rachmaninov, Schubert, Bartók
Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra came to Vienna’s Musikverein for a two-night set, for which I was fortunate to be home for the first night, which contained an ecclectic mix.
If I had to describe this orchestra with one adjective, it would be “complete.” No individual instrument stood out, but together they produced the most perfectly balanced sound. There were no gaps, no flaws, no twists they could not make together. Jansons has been at its helm since 2003, so this represents a tribute to him as well.
The concert led off with a concert overture to Antigone by a forgotten 20th-Century Czech composer Vladimír Sommer, someone I had never heard of before. He had a limited output, and this work showed a routine post-romantic style. It provided enough excitement to launch a drama, but was only a concert overture, not a setting of the entire Sophocles work for theater, and therefore seemed to be missing something (although also not clear from this snippet if Sommer could have pulled off writing an entire drama).
For more drama, alto Gerhild Romberger joined the orchestra for Mahler‘s Kindertotenlieder. Jansons and the orchestra drove this work, too, but Romberger did provide a warm, full-bodied, expressive, solo voice, at least in the middle register. Her moving reading melted the texts, demonstrating sadness and evoking sympathy. She did however lack the strength in the brief moments Mahler took her to the upper register, and she simply did not have the dramatic voice required for the final song (“In diesem Wetter”), which stays mostly at the bottom of the range. Jansons restrained the orchestra in the final song so as not to overwhelm her, but it was an unfortunate conclusion to an otherwise heartful cycle.
After the intermission, the orchestra’s “complete” sound could come into its own with Rachmaninov‘s Symphonic Dances, the composer’s final orchestral work. It’s a strange combination – apparently Rachmaninov conceived it as something which could be converted into a ballet, but a project the composer subsequently abandoned during composition, so while going through an assortment of dance forms, it is not really a set of dances but a more of a three-movement symphony with a lot of moving parts. The orchestra navigated around and through these motions masterfully, making this difficult work fully accessible to the listener. The audience erupted in pleasure (prompting not just one but two encores: the more sedate Moment Musical by Schubert and the crazier excerpt from The Miraculous Mandarin by Bartók).
Mozart, Copland, Schubert
I went to see and hear for myself, as 27-year-old rapidly rising star Lahav Shani conducted the Vienna Symphony Orchestra at the Konzerthaus this evening. About a year ago, he sprung in to conduct the Philharmonic when the scheduled conductor canceled on short notice due to illness, and the reviews were incredible. This led to more bookings with the Philharmonic and other orchestras (including the Symphoniker tonight), and he will soon take over as music director in Rotterdam, often a stepping-stone to a star career.
This evening’s performance did not disappoint. The opening work – the Overture to the Marriage of Figaro by Mozart – enabled Shani to reveal often-hidden lines. The strings drove the action forward, but the winds created tension, to set up the impending comedy. Shani highlighted these juxtapositions, and the excellent Symphoniker responded just so.
Similarly, for the second half of the concert, Schubert‘s Great C Major Symphony capped off the concert. Although I am not sure I heard any new nuances I did not alread know, this performance – clearly thought-through by Shani and expertly performed by the Symphoniker at the pinacle of the idiom – did provide a vivid reminder of just how majestic and exciting this symphony can be, and in many ways how visionary as well. Shani will certainly grow further as his career takes off.
In between these two standard pieces came Aaron Copland‘s Clarinet Concerto, with soloist Sabine Meyer. The first movement arrived full of melancholy, which led into a cadenza-only movement that began to awaken the instrument before jumping into a somewhat more flamboyant finale. Copland wrote the work on commission for jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman. There is jazz-like syncopation, requiring versatility, but this is not jazz and falls cleanly within a classical paradigm, if tending to something new. Meyer, dextrous of tongue, danced to the music as she played. Her unidentified encore was in the same style as the cadenza, but considerably faster.
I had not planned to be home in Vienna this weekend, but once here I decided to see if there would be last-minute tickets available for otherwise sold out concerts, and I got lucky with one tonight and one tomorrow afternoon.
Tonight’s offer, in the Konzerthaus, allowed me to hear Herbert Blomstedt and the Bamberg Symphony explore the architecture of Schubert and Bruckner in a well-paired concert containing Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony.
The Swedish-American Blomstedt, still amazingly spritely at 89 years old, is a master builder of orchestral sound. The Bamberg Symphony, originally founded by ethnic Germans exiled from Czechoslovakia after the Second World War (victims of the post-war reprisals against Nazi Germany’s policies towards that country – although some of them probably less-than-innocent victims), is an orchestra I only knew of through its solid recordings and reputation, and now got to hear live for the first time (the current orchestra members are obviously not the original ones, so it’s a new generation from the days of its old recordings).
From tonight’s performance, we clearly saw how much Schubert inspired Bruckner. Blomstedt constructed the two movements of the Unfinished out of solid building blocks, while still enabling the lyrical melodies to sore, in many ways a prototype for Bruckner. Having heard Beethoven’s expansive Eroica Symphony on Wednesday with a scaled-down orchestra, it was refreshing for me to hear Schubert’s often dainty Unfinished with a full ensemble on stage. This was a mighty performance, without sacrificing any of the charm. The low string rumblings at the opening of the first movement set the foundations in place upon which Blomstedt built the pillars to hold up the soaring roof. He also emphasized often unseen and unheard angles within the solid supporting construction, which allowed layer upon layer of melody to pile on top.
Although unfortunate that Schubert never completed more than those two movements of this tremendous symphony, this interpretation naturally flowed into Bruckner after the intermission. Indeed, we could hear similar low strings supporting ever more layers upon layers of sound. So while Schubert died young, Bruckner the former church organist was in many ways his symphonic heir. Blomstedt may not use the heavist stones when constructing Bruckner’s cathedrals, but his interpretations always demonstrate him as understanding the architecture. The Swede may be an acquired taste, but indeed one worth acquiring. The fully packed Konzerthaus audience clearly approved.
Strauss, Mozart, Schubert
Thus spake Zoroaster: the 2016-17 music season hath opened. The Mozarteum Orchestra took to the Great Festival House this evening under Hans Graf, its former music director (1984-94) for Mozart’s clarinet concerto sandwiched by two tone poems by Richard Strauss.
Graf started the concert with Don Juan at a faster-than-usual clip, which highlighted the Don’s playful seductive nature. Also Sprach Zarathustra, which concluded the concert, came across suitably mystical. Both works showcased the orchestra’s talents, a fullness of sound and character. They also demonstrated how modern Strauss could sound, breaking ground as a tone poet (coming after Liszt, in this regard, but pressing ever forward into the twentieth century still-to-come).
In the juxtaposition with Strauss, Mozart came off worse for the comparison. This is not only because his clarinet concerto was composed a century before the two Strauss poems. But coming in the final year of Mozart’s life, it did not represent anything new in particular, but more a rehash of Mozart’s usual conventions. Certainly he was a master, and the very beautiful music and an understanding for the instrument helped. In this case, he wrote knowingly for the clarinet, as a non-human singing voice. And he had a sympathetic reading, by soloist Matthias Schorn, principal clarinetist of the Vienna Philharmonic, who produced a warm and fuzzy sound, big enough to fill the hall and – for added emphasis – breaking into a gorgeous mezza voce for the more delicate, yet still robust, measures. But was it original?
Schorn (with the orchestra) also gave the happy audience an encore: an arrangement (by Offenbach!) of Schubert’s song “Leise flehen meine Lieder.”
Quilter, Finzi, Korngold, Mahler, Schubert
The long mid-August holiday weekend at the Festival concluded with a recital by the ever-elegant Thomas Hampson. On Saturday, I attended an event (“Artist Encounter”) with him, at which he explained his approach to singing different roles and songs. The bottom line was to produce the appropriate emotion in the audience without actually going through the emotion on stage: crying and singing don’t mix, for example. He told the famous story of John Gielgud critiquing Dustin Hoffman’s methodology to get into the roles he played: “have you tried acting?” Gielgud had inquired.
The selection of songs tonight required acting, and Hampson moved easily from one context to the next. For the first half of the concert, he sang three lesser-known sets of songs based on Shakespeare by Roger Quilter, Gerald Finzi, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Hampson’s approach became most apparent where he sang settings by each of the three composers of the same words. So, for example, “Come Away, Death” from Twelfth Night came across as welcoming fate (Quilter), melancholic (Finzi), and narrative (Korngold).
The second half of the program consisted of a whole bunch of songs by Gustav Mahler. Mahler had subsequently orchestrated most of these (indeed, it was always his intention), but tonight’s versions were with purely piano accompaniment. This made the settings more intimate, and Hampson could reflect on the words more delicately and distinctly.
It helped, of course, to have Wolfram Rieger on the piano, a fine accompanist who drew out all of the color but supported and never overwhelmed the words. Wave after wave of applause provoked some more Mahler encores, and finally Schubert’s An Sylvia to hark back to the concert’s Shakesperean beginnings (we’d heard the same ode in a setting by Finzi earlier as well).
Schubert, Weinberg, Brahms
The Jerusalem Quartet and András Schiff provided a full, nearly orchestral, sound for their chamber performance in the Mozarteum this evening, as part of the Salzburg Festival.
The program opened with the Quartet Movement in c minor by Franz Schubert, who never wrote the other movements for a planned work. This movement goes down with the two movements of his “Unfinished Symphony” under the “what could have been” column. But like those two symphonic movements, which actually work as an abridged symphony, this quartet movement also works as a stand-alone piece. The Israelis built up a big sound, capturing all the nuances of Schubert’s genius.
The piece also served as a good warm-up for the next work, in which Schiff joined the quartet for Moishe Weinberg‘s Piano Quintet. Weinberg, a Polish Jew, fled Warsaw when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939 (they murdered his entire family) and got stuck inside the Soviet Union, which had meanwhile invaded Poland from the other direction. In Russia, his new family (through his new wife, daughter of the great Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels) also got murdered by the anti-Semitic Soviet regime. Dmitri Schostakowitsch, with whom he became a close friend, personally rescued Weinberg from another purge of Jews. I discovered Weinberg’s music on recordings early in 2015, and became intrigued – but although Schostakowitsch valued him very highly as a composer, his music is today rarely performed. I had unfortunately missed a concert of his music in Vienna last Summer, but sought out this concert specifically to hear something live.
The Quintet did not disappoint. Written in 1944, the work captured the mixed trauma Weinberg must have experienced as he settled in Moscow (with Schostakowitsch’s help) after escaping Poland via Minsk and Tashkent (!). Although containing kernels of the conventional, it went off in all directions. Here a march off into oblivion, there a warped waltz performed presto, there a slow funereal movement interrupted by fanfares (warning blasts? signs of hopeful redemption approaching over the horizon?), and concluding with a difficult final movement based on what sounded like a off-kilter jig, played by the instruments in succession, in unison, in round, and ultimately against each other, before dropping off into a pianissimo melancholic abyss, followed by a long silence before applause. The five musicians handled this exhilarating work with great verve, approaching a Schostakowitsch-sized orchestral complexity, keeping the audience on the edge of our seats: what on earth would Weinberg bring next?
The rest of the concert, after the intermission, was anti-climactic, featuring a lone work: Johannes Brahms‘ Piano Quintet. At the time of its premiere, contemporaries regarded Brahms’ Piano Quintet as following the legacy of Beethoven and Schubert – which may be true, except those two composers had been dead for nearly forty years by then, betraying Brahms’ complete lack of originality. The quality of tonight’s performance and the technical prowess of Brahms notwithstanding, this work had nothing to say, particularly coming as it did after the Weinberg. The musicians did produce a build up of real tension for the third movement scherzo, but it was a build up to… just another unrelated movement. All four movements were quite fine works, but Brahms failed to connect them other than the setting for a quartet plus piano. Indeed, they would each have held up just fine as individual single-movement works, as demonstrated during the encore, when the group performed a reprise of the third movement scherzo on its own.
My only quibble, therefore, with tonight’s performance: they probably should have reversed the order of the Weinberg and Brahms quintets, and sent us out with Weinberg’s moving pianissimo into the summer night.
Piazzolla, Schubert, Duggan, Schumann
As part of the fiftieth anniversary celebrations for Wolfson College, Oxford, the College’s artist-in-residence, the Fournier Trio, performed in the College’s recently-opened new auditorium.
The centerpiece of the concert, immediately after the intermission, was the world premiere of a work commissioned for the occasion, The Song of the Hedgehog and the Fox by John Duggan, inspired by the writings of Wolfson’s founding president, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin. The composer himself and Miranda Laurence joined the trio for the tenor and soprano vocals, with Teena Lyle on percussion. This playful work skipped around several compositional styles, linked by the modern, the fox knowing many things and the hedgehog one big thing. The performers knew the right things, in order to deftly handle the variety of skills required.
The Fournier Trio performed the other three works alone. Of these, late trios by Franz Schubert (in B flat, D. 898) and by Robert Schumann (#3, op. 110) demonstrated the respective composers’ mastery of the art – classical in scale but bigger in concept, with the Fournier Trio making their instruments sing along. Unfortunately, this had to grow out of an inopportune opening work, an arrangement for trio of Astor Piazzolla‘s Verano Porteño, which came out smudged to the point that I feared the acoustics in the new hall may not have been especially good – however, the following works showed that the problem was not the acoustics, as the Trio did perform the other works balancing both delicate and full-bodied passages without the smudge. So either the Fournier Trio failed to understand Piazzolla’s tangos, or those tangos just did not work in this setting (or arrangement for trio).
The auditorium itself has an unusual layout. I had gone on a architectural tour of college earlier in the day led by the lead architect for the new buildings, himself inspired by Isaiah Berlin’s instructions for the College’s original buildings. The architect actually sat next to me during the concert. Planning permission came through for a rectangular auditorium, but modifications to attached structures to harmonize with the older buildings, plus to encapsualte some of Berlin’s ideas, meant that the roof would not be a rectangular block. Since the auditorium floor could not have a standard layout without clashing with the adjusted non-standard ceiling, the seating in the entire auditorium required twisting. But the entire concept worked. The newly-opened wings of College mark an enormous improvement, augmenting the positive aspects Berlin and the original architects had develped decades ago (although I admit I am still not a fan of concrete brutalism that was the fad at the time, considering when the original structures were built, they did a remarkable job; for consistency, the new wings also had to match the old ones in style).
A somewhat relaxed concert in Salzburg’s Great Festival House this evening, with the Mozarteum Orchestra under guest conductor Trevor Pinnock, with music by Mendelssohn and Schubert, provided big works in contained boxes.
Isabelle Faust came on as soloist for the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, looking effortless as she produced a very pretty and idiomatic, if not especially large, sound. Pinnock kept the balance in the orchestra, at least for most of the concerto, never overwhelming her, and letting her read the nuances. As nice as it came across, they could have used a larger sound to fill this hall (big, but not cavernous, and it still has good acoustics). Faust gave an encore which sounded like a Bach partita – I did not recognize it, nor would I care to hear it again, as it was not one of his better or more interesting works and made a strange encore as it showcased nothing (neither versatility nor mood). She does have a wonderful tone and understanding for music, but, hearing her for the first time, I sensed something was missing.
After the intermission came Schubert’s Great C Major Symphony, his Ninth (according to the standard numbering), or his Eighth (according to reality, and as numbered in tonight’s program book), or his Seventh (according to the original publication). This is a big symphony, but Pinnock did not necessarily treat it as such. Rather than having the horns stride out with the bold opening theme, he restrained them (and they nearly swallowed their mouthpieces – this opening theme was never meant to be restrained). Pinnock’s concept seemed to be to perform much of this symphony piano to build tension and then unleash the tension in large brass forte sections. Sometimes this worked, sometimes it did not, leaving the strings especially sounding thin, with bits that dragged waiting for him to get to the point. He also employed a bit too much staccato, not always letting the orchestra draw out the gorgeous long Schubertian lines.
On the whole, I understood Pinnock’s concept, but I wavered from section to section as to whether I liked it. I think I may have preferred a larger and fuller use of the orchestral palette, employing Pinnock’s contrasting dynamics more selectively for emphasis and drama where most effective rather than constantly.
Pinnock used a similar idea for an extended encore: Entreacte #3 from Schubert’s music for Rosamunde, with the same result. Wonderful playing by the woodwinds especially tonight.
Haydn, Paganini, Bruch, Schubert
In his homeland, the Russian violist (and conductor-by-necessity since there is not enough solo viola music to keep him employed) Yuri Bashmet is greeted as a cult figure and his concerts sell out immediately to people who do not understand music. In his ancestral homeland, Ukraine (he is of Hutsul descent – a small sub-group of Ukrainians from the Carpathian mountains), he is persona non grata after crossing from art into politics and openly endorsing the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year. In Austria, he is respected for his music-making by those in the know (but this does not mean a sold-out hall).
This morning, Bashmet performed with the Camerata Salzburg in the Mozarteum, a concert well worth waking up early for. Not surprisingly, the small venue that is the Mozarteum’s Great Hall provides the perfect setting for this chamber orchestra, and Bashmet understood how to get even more out of them. The opening work, Haydn’s Symphony #83 (called the “Hen” because of the clucking in its first movement) became a study in dynamics – the fortes were never too loud, but to provide contrast the pianissimi were about as quiet as humanly possible to still get noise out of the instruments. These contrasts pushed the symphony forward while showcasing the masterful artistry of individual instruments.
Bashmet then re-emerged with his viola for Paganini’s Concertino for Viola and Strings, for which Bashmet’s viola provided an operatic singing voice for the lyrical piece – not a Paganini showpiece in the usual sense, but broader and enabling the soloist to demonstrate mastery of an instrument that rarely gets solo parts written for it. To accommodate the lack of solo viola music, Bashmet does indeed have to make some of his own arrangements, and this he did after the intermission with his own transposition of Bruch’s Kol Nidre from the orchestra accompanying solo cello to solo viola. He performed the haunting solo lines with great feeling (although I do think it works better with a deeper cello voice).
For the final work, Bashmet led the Camerata in Schubert’s Symphony #5. Although excellently-played, this work does not have the same contrasts as Haydn’s Hen Symphony at the start of the concert, and without that dynamic play it began to drag. Although thought of by the composer as a work looking backwards to Mozart, it nevertheless has room to be driven forward. Unfortunately, that did not happen this morning. But it in no way detracted from the sheer musicianship of the orchestra or its guest conductor/soloist.
Schubert, Schostakowitsch, Beethoven, Johann Strauß II
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).
Simon Keenlyside and Emanuel Ax wandered into Salzburg with a performance of Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise in the Mozarteum.
Keenlyside captured Schubert’s dark songs on an emotional roller coaster, with a full resonant baritone mixed with soft tender tones. Where Schubert made the piano accompaniment more lyrical, Ax did not so much accompany as provide a duet, particularly in the softer opening poem Gute Nacht but also in the more rousing Die Post and Muth as well. The accompaniment worked less well in harsher piano sequences such as in Die Wetterfahne, where Ax hammered against Keenlyside. But together they delivered the irony of Die Krähe and the morbidness of Der Lindenbaum, which I finally realized tonight is a poem about suicide and not actually about the shade tree.
The most depressive and impressive poem came at the end: Der Leiermann. Keenlysides’s voice followed the old man out over the ice and Ax’s final notes trailed off. It was left to the audience’s imagination to let the ice slowly crack and the poet, having resisted the temptation of suicide and having avoided being eaten by the crow now wandered off to the end.
Silence embraced the hall as the notes drifted. When applause rang out, it continued for a dozen or more curtain calls.
Beethoven, Schubert, Stravinsky, Ravel, Webern, Lehár
Tonight I got to play the role of Max Reinhardt and organize and present a concert in the Great Hall of Schloss Leopoldskron for an invitation-only audience of international dignitaries. The concert took place as part of the program “1814, 1914, 2014: Lessons from the Past, Visions for the Future” on the state of international diplomacy. I programmed only pieces composed in 1814 and 1914, for which I brought in Salzburg’s leading string quartet, the Stadler Quartet (headed by the Mozarteum’s concertmaster Frank Stadler) and top piano soloist, the Swiss-born Ariane Haering.
The first two pieces on the program, from 1814, were private works never intended for public performance, which added to the sense of intimacy. Ludwig van Beethoven wrote the Piano Sonata in e-minor, op. 90, for his friend Moritz von Lichnowsky, a Silesian aristocrat having an affair with an opera singer whom he later married (hence one of the movements is labeled to be performed in a “singable manner” – which Haering certainly did). Franz Schubert’s String Quartet #8, composed in only eight days while Schubert was still only 17 years old, tested the composer’s many talents to reflect his astonishing development, although he never decided to publish the work during his lifetime. The Stadler Quartet’s performance made the work sound very mature.
Moving along to 1914, the music became less harmonious. Igor Stravinsky‘s friends considered his Three Pieces for String Quartet to be unfinished fragments. He called them “abstract music” and published them anyway. These works were fun – as written and as performed with a smirk.
Maurice Ravel wrote to his friend Stravinsky that he had rushed the composition of his Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano, because he wanted to enlist in the French Army and feared the Great War would end before he had a chance to fight if he did not hurry up and finish. So he rushed it and ran to enlist, and the senseless War lasted four more horrible years. Tonight we programed the third movement, Passacaille (Très Large), as a slow and dancing contrast to the Stravinsky work, with sumptuous playing by these musicians.
The Ravel movement also contrasted with the final programmed work, Anton von Webern’s Three Small Pieces for Cello and Piano. Webern considered these a “distillation of music” and all three pieces together lasted less than two minutes. At around the time he wrote these, Webern was also my grandmother’s music theory teacher in Vienna, so I have a particular soft spot for him. Webern’s music was banned by the Nazis as “degenerate,” but he survived the Second World War only to be shot mistakenly by an American soldier in 1945 while offering a light to another American soldier, who thus perpetuated an American stereotype.
Although charming, Webern’s work was not going to send our guests humming into dinner. So after poking around for something suitable, Frank Stadler and I settled on an arrangement for string quartet of the Weibermarsch from Ferenc Lehár’s Lustige Witwe. Although not composed in 1914 (it was written in 1905), the operetta did reflect the mood before the First World War, and created a bit of a scandal by parodying the life of Crown Prince Danilo of Montenegro, who preferred the brothels in Paris to his homeland. This march got feet tapping: “Yes, the study of women is hard!”
This was quite a fun concert to put together. I also personally learned a lot researching the pieces, since chamber music is not my specialty, and these particular works are anyway not often performed. I think the concert had a good balance and it certainly had top-of-the-line performers who could pull it off. In fact, the Stadler Quartet specializes in contemporary music, and could add some 2014 pieces to the mix to fill out an entire program of 1814-1914-2014. I decided against anything that contemporary, and did not want to worry about copyright issues, but could easily foresee a third section of this program developing and appearing in a concert nearby later this year.
Back-to-back concerts in the Musikverein. For the first concert, the Tonkünstler with Thomas Zehetmair on the bump, Zehetmair played the violin solo for Beethoven’s Violin Concerto while conducting. He has a sweet tone, perhaps not with enough precision if he intends to have that sound. But he did give a spirited performance. Rather than using the full forces of the Tonkünstler, he assembled a reduced-sized chamber ensemble on stage, which in the acoustics of the Golden Hall gave the performance some intimacy. He took the tempi somewhat fast, but this worked with the smaller orchestral size to keep the overall mood spirited.
Beethoven never wrote down the cadenze for this concerto, since that had not yet become the practice, but the Fritz Kreisler cadenze have become standard: however, Zehetmair opted for a new approach, perhaps more in the spirit of Bethovenian free-improvisation. The cadenza in the first movement worked best due to an ingenious touch: tympani. The typani have the concerto’s first notes and sets the whole work in motion, so allowing the typani to engage in a dialogue with the solo violin in the midst of the cadenza developed the concept further with intelligence.
Schubert’s Sixth Symphony made up the concert’s second half. This is a hit-or-miss work. There is nothing inherently wrong with this symphony, but its blend of styles could either give it special meaning or just leave without any particular meaning. Even if well-played, as it was here (by the same chamber forces of the reduced orchestra), it is hard to make it rousing. It can happen, but not today.
Andrés Orozco-Estrada, a Vienna-trained Colombian who has actually been music director of the Tonkünstler Orchestra for the past three years (and in Vienna for several years prior to that) but whom I have somehow missed, tonight took the podium in the Musikverein at the head of his orchestra for a nice pre-Christmas concert. On the program were two works that had nothing to do with Christmas, nor with each other for that matter. But he made the orchestra sound full and in good spirit.
For the first half of the program, the orchestra performed Schubert’s Mass #5. From this performance, it was easy to see how Schubert had inspired Bruckner – a full Catholic mass that retained its mystical spirituality while moving from the church into a concert hall. Of course, it helps that the concert hall in question was the Musikverein, a cathedral of music. The Wiener Singverein filled the space to the rafters with drama, mystery, and passion. Schubert did not write much church music, and in his day it was forbidden to perform church music outside the church, but in this relatively late Schubert piece (written only two years before his death, albeit he died when he was only 31) the composer remained respectful of the religious origins of the mass while still augmenting it as a stand-alone musical piece.
It could serve either as church or concert music. Although I am familiar with Schubert’s final mass, the even larger #6, I had not previously experienced this one, but would gladly do so again, especially with such a compelling performance as this.
The second half of the program featured the Symphony #3, with Organ, by Saint-Saëns. Saint-Saëns lived for 86 years, but never before nor after wrote a piece quite like this. Indeed, this piece is unique in musical literature, and demonstrates originality and talent. One wonders why this composer, whose talents were well known and appreciated in his own lifetime, turned out so little music of lasting impact. For whatever reason, he still managed to produce this symphony on a commission from the Royal Philharmonic in London, inspired by the tone poems of Ferenc Liszt and dedicated to the memory of the recently-deceased Hungarian master, including, at its high point, a thrilling major adaptation of the Dies Irae chant. Once again, the Tonkünstler took up the challenge. Orozco-Estrada kept the music pushing forward to its thrilling climaxes, never rushing but giving just enough drive and momentum to ensure that the piece got an honest and exciting reading.
I did not notice the extraneous high-pitched tone from the organ this time, which I had heard last time when the organist played from the stage-based organ consul instead of directly at the organ. So either they fixed whatever the problem was, or I happened to be sitting in the wrong seat last time where the acoustics brought that extraneous pitch to my ear.
One problem I could not blame on the hall was the Japanese tourist sitting in the row in front of me, who could obviously afford to buy a ticket here from Japan but somehow could not afford a belt or underwear (let alone both). Every time she popped up to take a photo (quite a few times throughout the evening), her pants fell down.
Schubert, Adams, Lutosławski, Brahms, Britten, Bernstein
The Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra performed a Sunday afternoon light concert of symphonic dances under the baton of Dmitry Liss, which ran through a number of styles: Six German Dances by Franz Schubert (as orchestrated by Anton Webern), the Chairman’s Dance from Nixon in China by John Adams, Five Dance Preludes for Clarinet and Orchestra by Witold Lutosławski (with Vladimir Permyakov on Clarinet), Hungarian Dance Nr. 6 by Johannes Brahms, the Musical Evening Suite by Benjamin Britten (based on Rossini), and Symphonic Dances from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein.
Liss kept the afternoon light and bouncy. This worked best for the Brahms, with an almost-Hungarian lilt, and for the Bernstein, which Liss made sound like Bernstein had composed it under the influence of Stravinsky (maybe he did…?). It worked less well for the Adams dance, which had a lot of movement and went absolutely nowhere, a typically poor effort by that ridiculously over-hyped composer.
After coffee and a sandwich, I migrated over to the Stanisklavsky.