Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Schumann, Liszt, Beethoven, Rossini

The young Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili packed the Great Festival House in Salzburg this evening for her concert with the Orchestra of Italian Switzerland.  Her performance of Schumann‘s piano concerto – simultaneously sultry and driven – demonstrated how she has achieved her current star status.

Schumann’s tedious concerto has fine musical moments, but normally drags (Schumann basically extended a fantasy he had written earlier without any new inspiration).  The orchestra, and conductor Markus Poschner, could not do much about that, nor did they (and it showed especially when the orchestra played without piano).  But Buniatishvili pieced together the moments, engaged the orchestra in dialogue, and made one of the more plausible cases for this work that I have heard.

Then she barged out for an encore: Liszt‘s Hungarian Rhapsody #2 – this is a wild work when played by an orchestra, but Buniatishvili played it tonight as a piano transcription, meaning that she also had to capture the missing orchestral parts, and then she did all of this at breakneck speed for a remarkable display of digital acrobatics on the keyboard.  A second encore, something late romantic which I did not recognize, was more sedate and probably necessary to allow the audience heart rates to drop a little before the intermission.

This orchestra is barely larger than a chamber ensemble, so the sound was neither full nor lush enough – especially without Buniatishvili on the piano.  Some of that became less problematic given the choice of music after the intermission: Beethoven‘s Symphony #3, an exceptional piece of music, that Poschner seemed in general to understand for its drama and the orchestra picked up with gusto – and while thin, Beethoven’s music adeptly interpreted more than compensated.

It’s not a bad orchestra, but it did have the timbre of an original instrument ensemble (which it is not – except for the trumpets who played on cumbersome valveless trumpets that required them to constantly insert different-length tubes much to what looked like permanent frustration on their faces).  Only the woodwinds (and especially the fantastic oboist) produced properly rounded sounds.  Poschner also took the first and second movements far too fast (presumably he followed the nonsensical markings Beethoven mistakenly jotted on his scores later when he was given a defective prototype metronome).

The orchestral encore – the overture to the Barber of Seville by Rossini – came off somewhat better.  This is supposed to be a fast work, so the reading was far more idiomatic.  Again, Poschner’s and the orchestra’s sense of drama provoked solid music-making, and as a comic opera overture the thinner orchestra did not detract, but indeed kept it appropriately light and exuberant.

Fournier Trio, Leonard Wolfson Auditorium, Oxford

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).

Milan Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Respighi, Schumann, Rossini

Italy is not known for its orchestras outside the opera house.  It’s also not known for producing too many composers in the last two centuries who could succeed in writing non-operatic orchestral music, unless they trained north of the Alps.  Why did Italians stop being able to comprehend orchestral music? I have no explanation for these gaps.

The Milan Symphony Orchestra under Oleg Caetani came to Salzburg’s Great Festival House this week to perform all four Schumann symphonies and assorted other works over three nights.  I chose the first night, figuring I would test the water before committing to all three concerts.  Tonight’s performance was proficient, but did nothing to dispel the reputation of Italian orchestras.  The hall was completely full for the first half of the concert, and at least one fifth of the audience departed at intermission and never returned.  I stayed, but heard nothing that made me eager to buy tickets for the next two nights.

The tone was pleasant enough, if a bit thin, particularly noticeable during the tutti sections, and more so during Schumann’s Third Symphony.  The musicians went through all of the motions, but did not manage to sway.  Uninspired?  Lost in translation?  I’m not sure.  Schumann’s symphonies – the First and Third were on the program tonight – should be easily accessible.  The Third – a relatively late work (he died young, so not that late, but his music was becoming more dramatic with age) – certainly should have had a bigger sound, but Caetani took it more quickly than usual, and the orchestra did not always keep up.

The concert opened with the third suite of Ancient Airs and Dances by Respighi. Although Italian, Respighi studied composition with Rimsky-Korsakov and Max Bruch.  Here his music harked back to the time when Italians did write purely orchestral works, updating music from the 16th and 17th century.  It’s wonderful stuff, but probably also outside what can excite this orchestra.

As an encore, the orchestra gave us a much more idiomatic reading of the overture to the Barber of Seville by Rossini.  This playful music they understood, so at least we went home with a twinkle and a smile.

Wiener Symphoniker, Konzerthaus

Schumann

Robert Schumann’s setting of scenes from Goethe’s Faust does not get performed as often as it should, despite being one of the composer’s finest works (or, more accurately, a collection of works).  Goethe’s play is notoriously zany.  The basic underlying story line was an easy topic for composers to portray in music, but the metaphysical aspects were a bigger challenge.  Schumann attempted just that, taking only select scenes, never meant to be staged, yet encapsulating the tension and drama.  He began composition with the final scene (the same scene set by Mahler in his Eighth Symphony – indeed, anticipating Mahler but in Schumann’s mid-19th Century musical language) and then picked an assortment of scenes, composed in spurts and without necessarily trying to always match the same style) before concluding with an overture.  This means that in some ways this piece starts with the most simple scenes set to the most complex music, and as the scenes get more and more detached from the realm of reality, the music becomes simpler and more traditional.

The protagonists tonight in Vienna’s Konzerthaus were the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and the intelligent young British star conductor Daniel Harding (a protégé of Rattle in Birmingham and later Abbado in Berlin, and who I thought should have gotten the job in Berlin earlier this year; although he regularly guest conducts the world’s best orchestras, he has yet to land a top-tier job – I last saw him last year at the helm of his current orchestra, that of the Swedish Radio).  Harding understood Schumann’s intentions, and led a masterful performance.  No staging was necessary – indeed, probably would have detracted – but drama showed in abundance.  The Symphoniker produced a full sound at just the right levels, with virtuoso solo playing when Schumann brought different instruments into the spotlight.

Christian Gerhaher portrayed the troubled title role (and Pater Seraphicus and Dr. Marianus) with dignity and a warm baritone.  Christiane Karg, as Gretchen, elevated the soprano lead.  Bass Alastair Miles produced a dark and devilish Mephistopheles.  And the supporting cast proved excellent as well, all of them acting out roles that could not be acted.  The adults of the Singakademie and the Staatsoper Opera School youth chorus supplied a sumptuous choral backdrop.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Schumann, Bach, Bruckner

The Mozarteum Orchestra launched its Sunday matinee series for 2015-16 this morning in Salzburg’s Large Festival House with some known but lesser-played, almost experimental, music from the middle of the 19th Century.

Schumann’s “Overture, Scherzo, and Finale” (a rather clunky title after he rejected more logical ones) opened the program.  Although perfectly pleasant, this work suffered from a lack of a coherent concept.  Schumann revised it many times for more than a decade after its premiere, but does not seem to have ever rectified its main weakness.  With an opening almost foretelling Tschaikowsky’s opening to Yevgeny Onyegin (composed a few decades later), Schumann backpedalled into a post-Mozartian muddle before reaching a Bach-like fugue which culminated in a brass chorale almost predicting Bruckner.  Where was Schumann going with all of this?

If he was going towards Bruckner, we did have a chance to find out later in the concert.  But before we got there, German cellist Jan Vogler came out to slog through Schumann’s Cello Concerto.  Again, Schumann produced a perfectly pleasant work which did not say anything.  Vogler’s dry tone easily filled the large hall, but nevertheless came out somewhat subdued rather than expansive.  When the orchestra stood down and Vogler gave a Bach saraband as an encore, the cellist confirmed the impression.  An accomplished musician who formerly filled the first chair of the Dresden Staatskapelle, Vogler’s playing did not lack quality, just dynamism.  Perhaps he should return to orchestral playing rather than a solo career.

After the break came Bruckner’s 2nd Symphony, logically resuming where the first Schumann work at the start of the concert had left off.  Although Bruckner wrote this piece when he was nearly fifty, it is in many ways a young work as he started writing orchestral music so late.  Bruckner never dedicated this symphony, so he offered it to Wagner at the same time as he showed the German composer his 3rd Symphony – Wagner wisely preferred the dedication of the latter, more-mature work.  The 2nd could have used some intelligent editing to tighten the phrases.  Bruckner did produce several versions over the years, but these did not resolve its underlying wordiness.

A driven performance can overcome these defects.  Ivor Bolton, the Mozarteum Orchestra’s music director, did not accomplish this, allowing some of the longer passages to drag.  The orchestra, although falling out of synch now and then, sounded strong and in good health.  Schumann and Bruckner, in these readings, maybe less so.  And while I know from other performances that the Bruckner 2nd can be salvaged, the verdict remains out on these lesser Schumann works.

Wiener Symphoniker, Konzerthaus

Schumann, Bruckner

One of the last pieces Robert Schumann wrote before he attempted suicide (the consequences of which did lead to his eventual death) was a violin concerto for his good friend Joseph Joachim to perform.  Joachim did not think much of the work and it remained in the violinist’s possession, unpublished, when Schumann died.  Joachim eventually gave the manuscript to the Prussian National Library, stipulating that the work not be made public until 100 years after the composer’s death.  The Nazis, looking for an “Aryan” work to replace Mendelssohn’s violin concerto in the repertory, did not honor Joachim’s stipulation (Joachim was anyway Jewish), and so the work came to the public for the first time in the 1930s.

German violinist Christian Tetzlaff gave it a go this evening in the Konzerthaus with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under the young British conductor Robin Ticciati.  Unfortunately, Joachim’s assessment was correct, and the work really should have been left on the library shelf.  The tone is overall dark, and the tempo slow, but Teztlaff approached it with a warm sound and smoothed the jagged edges.  He could have nevertheless given it a more robust reading, but in the end it turned out as not one of Schumann’s best efforts.  The writing for orchestra was thin and generally unfinished (although Schumann considered it done).  An encore (sounded like a baroque-era violin sonata) by Teztlaff did not help much – far too dull to liven the mood.

After the intermission, however, the real revelations began.  Bruckner’s 4th Symphony, probably his most approachable symphony, receives so many performances that I did not think I could learn anything new tonight.  Ticciati’s interpretation was revealing and magnificent (and the Symphoniker executed to perfection).

Ticciati took the outer movements more slowly than usual, drawing out the harmonies.  Rather than overwhelming us with sound, he made the work subdued, indeed delicate.  This allowed for glorious contrasts when the brass choirs rang out, soaring over the stillness.  Rather than opening up the heavens, as Bruckner symphonies do, this one stayed close to the earth – letting us explore its intracacies with microscope rather than a telescope.  The universe Bruckner described remains huge – but we are just little specks within it.  Ticciati did not give a minimalistic interpretation at all – the orchestra and its sound remained full and bright – but by turning the whole work into a microcosmos he drastically altered the way we heard and experienced the world.

The slow second movement Andante danced a slow dance.  The third movement started to pick up tempo, so that the finale, while returning to the pensive structure of the first movement, actually began to demonstrate increasing tension, left unresolved until the final chorale.  God is great.

Armenian Philharmonic, Khachaturian Hall

Schumann, Wagner, Segal

A mixed bag from the Armenian Philharmonic in the Khachaturian Hall this evening, under the baton of Lior Shambadal, the long-time chief conductor of the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, performing SchumannWagner, and a world premiere by Anna Segal.

I remember recordings of the Berlin Symphony when growing up, and recollect that it achieved a pretty decent standard.  Now that I think of it, I cannot recall having heard anything from that orchestra since my childhood, which may also explain why I have never heard of Shambadal, whom I would have expected to know of considering he has led one of the major orchestras in Berlin for the last 16 years.  After tonight, I may now understand why the Berlin Symphony has faded from its previous acclaim and disappeared from the musical map.

Shambadal’s technique was unclear, and this led to uneven performances.  Schumann’s Manfred overture which opened the concert had a certain amount of drama.  This got lost during the subsequent overture to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.  The drama returned, however, once Armenian soprano Magda Marian Mkrtchyan stood up to deliver Isolde’s Liebestod from the same opera.  Her solid voice made an impression. Although it is not clear she had the vocal stregth to sing the whole opera, she managed the Wagnerian idiom well, and the the orchestra backed her up.  The orchestra’s performance clearly derived from the sheer force of Mkrtchyan’s personality, and not from Shambadal on the podium.

Still before the intermission, the orchestra treated us to the world premiere of Songs of the Soul by the Ukrainian-born Israeli composer Anna Segal, based on poems by Sayat-Nova, the great 18th-Century Armenian poet, composer, and diplomat who served the court of Iraki II of Georgia.  The music came across as a strange mix of Philip Glass (for its minimalist architecture), Sergei Prokofiev (for its scoring, particularly for woodwinds), and Zakaria Paliashvili (for its neo-polyphony) – and, oddly, with no discernable influence from Sayat-Nova’s own music.  The orchestra made a good account of this work, partly because the Glassian influence required thin playing from the strings, and this orchestra’s strings have a hard time managing a full sound on the best of days, whereas the winds are comparatively much better, making scoring of this work ideal for this orchestra.  Mkrtchyan came across weaker than she did for the Wagner, not in full voice and tentative, her eyes clearly darting back and forth between Shambadal’s cues and her music.  The piece was pleasant enough, and I would want to hear it again to understand it better; of course, if I hear it again, I’d probably also want to learn Armenian – the words to each song in the cycle meant something, but I had no idea what picture the music tried to paint.  The program notes were limited in Armenian, and this portion of the program was not translated into English, but I’m sure the Armenian audience understood the lyrics.

The concert closed with Schumann’s Third Symphony, for which Shambadal and the orchestra made a little mess, with all of the instruments seemingly playing independently of each other, coming in at the wrong times and keeping different speeds.  Every so often Shambadal slowed his hands down and the orchestra managed to get itself together.  The pained expressions on the musicians’ faces suggested confusion.  After a while, I think they may have started ignoring him.  The brass sounded great, but the chorales, which make this piece special, did not soar.  The orchestra got a warm applause – Shambadal less so (at his last curtain call, the audience simply stopped clapping altogether as soon as he walked back out onto the stage – he turned and walked off, and the applause resumed).

Color Trio, Jordan Misja School of Art (Tirana)

Haydn, Mozart, Gürkan, Mendelssohn, Léhar, Stolz, Strauß II, Strauß I

Starved for live music, I went to a concert that might not normally have been on my radar.  A group from Vienna, the Color Trio (a piano trio plus soprano) was being heavily promoted by the Austrian Embassy as part of a cultural exchange.  The program looked nice, actually, so off I went.

Oddly, I think I was the only foreigner in the hall (the concert hall of a music middle school not far from my office).  They also performed only about half of the advertised program (no, I did not leave at intermission, they handed out revised programs which contained half of the works from the first half of the advertised program and half from the second, all over in a bit more than an hour).  In all, compared to the Austrian Embassy’s hype, this experience was a bit of a let down.  The musicians had no special quality, although hearing reasonable live music in Tirana added something.

The concert opened with Haydn’Gypsy Trio, which got its name from the themes used in the third movement.  It took until that movement for the musicians to fully warm up.  Then followed an aria from Mozart’s Figaro, sung in Germanic Italian by the soprano Petra Halper-König.  The trio’s violinist, Serkan Gürkan, then performed one of his own compositions, “Mein Wien,” accompanied by the pianist Ilse Schumann – a work which started and ended with music reminiscent of a melancholy rain and danced around a little in the middle section, so I suppose indeed the composer’s impression of Vienna.  Cellist Irene Frank then returned to join Gürkan and Schumann for the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio #1, a much more robust work that allowed the musicians to fill the hall with sound.  This Mendelssohn piece was certainly the highlight of the evening.

A selection of other Austrian pieces were supposed to round out the concert’s first half, but vanished from the program.  The original second half of the program was to contain a selection of Viennese dance and operetta music arranged for trio (with soprano, as necessary).  In the end, only five works remained: Ferenc Lehar’s Gold and Silver Waltz, an operetta aria by Robert Stolz (“Spiel auf deiner Geige” from Venus in Seide), the Tritsch-Tratsch Polka and Blue Danube Waltz by Johann Strauß the son, and as an encore the Radetzky March by Johann Strauß the father.  These works were performed altogether too quickly.  I suppose the sonorities do not work as well with only a trio performing, so these arrangements probably work either as background music or for actual dancing at an event but less so for a concert performance, and performing at speed at least cuts out the opportunities for thin sonorities in these arrangements.  The waltzes would have been fast enough, but someone might have died trying to keep up dancing to that polka.  As for the march, we clapped and left.

Lahti Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein (Vienna)

Raitio, Schumann, Sibelius

Although not well-known, the Lahti Symphony Orchestra is a fine ensemble, always worth marking in the calendar when it comes on tour, and especially to perform Sibelius.

Tonight it arrived for a two-day visit in the Musikverein, under Jukka-Pekka Saraste.  It opened with The Swans by Väinö Raitio, an eccentric early-20th century Finnish composer (actually, I think all Finnish composers are eccentric) – definitely glad I heard it and would go hear more music by him if I ever see it performed.

This was followed by Schumann‘s piano concerto, a piece I have not heard live since I played first trumpet in my high school orchestra.  But there is a good reason I haven’t gone to hear this piece live: despite a promising melodic first half of the first movement, it is an interminably dull work.  Not even a good performance can rescue this truly boring concerto (and this was indeed a good performance, with a Hungarian pianist, Dezsö Ránki, as soloist).

After the intermission, the orchestra performed the Lemminkäinen Suite by Sibelius, a work I am very fond of (and not performed often enough), and a fine performance at that.  The opportunity to hear something by Raitio and to hear Lemminkäinen are the reasons I suffered through the Schumann concerto, and were worth the suffering.  (Sibelius’ Valse Triste was the encore.)