Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Grieg, Mozart, Rossini, Þorvaldsdóttir, Sibelius

Yesterday evening, the first snow of the year fell in Salzburg.  This evening, the Iceland Symphony Orchestra arrived in the Great Festival House.  Coincidence?

The concert included mostly Nordic music, for which this orchestra obviously has a natural affinity.  Their overall tone came off a bit thin for a full-sized orchestra, mostly an odd lack of undertones which made the icy upper registers sound somehow less full.  Under the baton of Daníel Bjarnason, their first guest conductor (they are apparently between music directors at the moment), they also played hesitantly at times – knowing well what they were doing but lacking confidence.  They sounded nice overall, but if they had just played more robustly they might have made a bigger impression.

The concert included five excerpts from Edvard Grieg‘s incidental music to Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt, Aeriality by Icelandic composer Anna Þorvaldsdóttir (a moody piece utilizing percussion and double basses to creative effect, which seemed to be building to some sort of climax, but just as it almost erupted into a chorale about ten minutes in decided not to and carried on without resolution for another five minutes), and the Fifth Symphony of Janne Sibelius (and Sibelius’ Valse Triste as an encore at the end of the concert).  After the Grieg and before the intermission, Croatian hornist Radovan Vlatković joined the orchestra for the Horn Concerto #3 by Wolfgang Amadé Mozart, which came across as odd among the Nordic surroundings.  Vlatković performed fluidly, but had a somewhat cold tone – was he mimicking the Nordic sound, or is his horn just sour?  Mozart’s horn music should be much warmer.

As an encore before the intermission, Vlatković and five Icelandic hornists managed a much warmer sound full of good humor: a little piece for horn ensemble by Gioachino Rossini.  No conductor for that one meant they played much more confidently.  While nothing seemed out of place for Bjarnason, I do wonder if that made the difference.

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Sibelius, Prokofiev, Strauss

More from Yannick Nézet-Séguin (again filling in for the ailing Mariss Jansons) and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra this morning, with Gil Shaham stepping in for the ill Lisa Batiashvili.  If we are going to get substitutes, those are pretty good ones to have.

I am not quite sure the reasoning behind the collection of works Jansons assembled for this concert (the program remaining the same despite the substitutions), although Jansons has said before that sometimes there is no logic and he just programs pieces he likes.  So we started with the Symphony #1 by Sibelius, then the Violin Concerto #2 by Prokofiev, and finally a suite from Der Rosenkavalier by Strauss.

The program notes made a point of stressing a supposed interest in Tschaikowsky during the time Sibelius wrote his first symphony, which seemed odd.  The origins of the symphony date to his study in Vienna, and Schubert and Bruckner (his favorite living composer) would normally seem to be the most appropriate influences.  I seriously doubt Nézet-Séguin made any decisions on interpretation based on reading the program, but from my side: having read the program, and listening to Nézet-Séguin’s reading, I did hear a few lines now and then (in the strings) or psychodramatic (in the winds) which could have invoked the lush melodic flow of Tschaikowsky.  These either got interrupted, or had a different section perform a completely contrasting line simultaneously and counter to them.  Sibelius was far more original, even early in his career, than Tschaikowsky later in his career, while remaining authentic to his Nordic homeland (where Tschaikowsky sounded less and less Russian later in his career).  Although Nézet-Séguin did not draw out the soaring post-Brucknreian chorales, he did load this symphony up with contrasts and a throwback melancholy.

Prokofiev’s second violin concerto has several moods, based on Russian and Spanish folk music (his wife was Spanish, and this work had its premiere in Madrid).  Shaham does not get the largest sound from his violin, but he moves adeptly among styles, from the robust and assertive to the soft and wistful, with ease.  Nézet-Séguin and the orchestra made a stunning complement to keep painting an ever-broader palate.  (Shaham returned to the stage to do a joint encore with the concertmaster from Prokofiev’s sonata for two violins).

Richard Strauss’ opera Der Rosenkavalier was by design a piece of Viennese nostalgia, even at its premiere in 1911 before the dismembering of the Austrian Empire a few years later.  The suite (arranged with Strauss’ approval, possibly by Artur Rodziński who may also have been aided by his then-assistant Leonard Bernstein) does not follow the plot of the opera, but instead tries to capture its schmaltz.  The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra hammed it up.  (To take down the mood, they added as a final encore more Sibelius: his “Valse Triste” from Kuolema – perhaps connecting the two Vienna-inspired composers at either end of the program).

The orchestra sounded even better today than it did on Friday, with its complete soundscape.  The woodwinds as a unit are nothing short of spectacular.  And they had a great rapport with Nézet-Séguin (in addition to the clear warmth and understanding during the performance, he kept kissing and hugging members of the orchestra as he wandered around the stage between pieces and during the applause to a degree I have not seen him do with the Philadelphians).  One wonders what will happen if Jansons needs to retire and whom the Bavarians might choose to succeed him.

Camerata Salzburg, Mozarteum

Sibelius, Dvořák, Beethoven, Schubert

I had bad luck with the Camerata Salzburg this year: they had a great subscription series, which I had tickets to, but then I always seemed to be away whenever the concerts took place (I did get to one of their non-subscription concerts).  So, this evening, the final concert in the series was my first – Andrew Manze conducted.  At first glance, the musical selections looked a little odd set out in reverse chronological order.  On hearing them interpreted by Manze and the Camerata, however, it became clear that these works were more original the earlier they were written.

Leading off was a suite from Sibelius‘ Rakastava scored by the composer for strings, timpani, and triangle.  I’m used to this chamber orchestra having a larger sound than its numbers would imply.  But this performance came across surprisingly thin, missing Sibelius’ sonorities.  A relatively early work by the composer, it is seldom performed (I’d honestly never even heard of it).  Is it a poor work?  The music seemed indicative of Sibelius, but maybe the scoring just failed?

It could hardly be an orchestral failure, as the orchestra was nothing short of exhilarating for the rest of the concert.  Joshua Bell joined the Camerata as soloist in Dvořák‘s violin concerto, jumping in completely with an aggressively physical performance that nevertheless had real subtlety and warmth.  Manze and the Camerata supported him fully in this approach.  Here was also the richness I’d usually expect from Sibelius, transferred back three decades.  This is a standard work in the repertory, deservedly so, but when made this lively it remains fresh.

The last programmed piece was Beethoven‘s Symphony #2, from eight decades earlier, and a rarely performed early work by that composer.  But Beethoven was a genius, and with this symphony he brought music kicking and screaming into the 19th century.  In structure it is reasonably conventional – in composition it is anything but, and Manze emphasized all the deviations from convention.  The Camerata played with energy and vigor, and was in on all of the musical jokes, eclipsing even Bell’s performance of the Dvořák, with even more transcendent edginess and angularity.  

Both halves of the concert contained encores to allow the heartbeats to return to normal with more sedate, romantic, sonorous performances of a violin trio by Dvořák (Bell and the Camerata’s two first chair violins) before intermission and an excerpt from Schubert‘s Rosamund at the end.  Made me very sorry to have missed so many other concerts by the Camerata this year.

Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Felsenreitschule (Salzburg)

Tarrodi, Ravel, Satie Sibelius

The Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and Santtu-Matias Rouvali performed Sibelius‘ Second Symphony in the Felsenreitschule this evening much the way they performed Stravinsky’s Petrushka on Wednesday evening by emphasizing the dissonances and angles.  That worked well for Stravinsky, because his piece was a ballet and also because the complicated rhythms and juxtaposed instrumentations were meant to be jumpy and push the drama forward.  But for Sibelius’ symphony, these sounds need to combine to create the huge canvas, not stand out.  The result was jagged.  Individual orchestra members had wonderful lines and great talent, but the whole was less than the sum of the parts.  Rouvali could not pull it all together, and his interpretation did not convince.

It worked a bit better in the encores (more Sibelius): first the Valse Triste (again), with the same extreme tempo changes as Wednesday pulsating forwards; second Finlandia, which is a little less dissonant and has distinct sections, so the approach mostly worked (there was an odd moment where Rouvali clearly froze all movement and brought out a discordant section in the celli – and turned and winked to the audience before proceeding onwards).

The first half of the concert was unfortunately a reprise of Wednesday.  Andrea Tarrodi‘s Liguria did not get more interesting in a second hearing.  It’s not an unpleasant quarter hour, just a rather dull experience listening to crashing waves on the Ligurian coast.  If I were really sitting listening to waves on the Ligurian coast, I’d have a good book with me.

Then I pained again for pianist Alice Sara Ott, newly diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, who was supposed to perform a Liszt concerto tonight.  But as with the Grieg concerto originally scheduled on Wednesday, she substituted Ravel‘s.  So it seems her career will slowly come to a close at age 30, with this the only work left in her repertory.  And as with Tarrodi’s tone poem, it also did not get more interesting in a second hearing.  Ravel is most justly famous for his masterful orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition – no one has managed to do it better.  But that’s one work, and Ravel did not even write it.  The most famous piece he himself wrote was his tedious Bolero that shows up at pops concerts when people are having too much fun and need to be bored out of their wits.  Beyond that, his ballet Daphnis and Chloe has its moments, but he was neither a skilled orchestrator (Mussorgsky’s Pictures aside) nor an especially talented composer capable of developing an idea.  Ott’s minimalist technique (supported well by Rouvali and the orchestra) suited this concerto.  She also gave an unidentified solo encore in the same style.  (UPDATE: The concert promoter has helpfully identified it as Gnossienne 1 by Erik Satie).

Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Felsenreitschule (Salzburg)

Tarrodi, Ravel, Chopin, Stravinsky, Sibelius

The Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and its new chief conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali came to the Felsenreitschule this evening with a vividly colorful Petrushka by Igor Stravinsky.  Composed between his Firebird and Rite of Spring, tonight’s performance also demonstrated how this could serve as a bridge work between those greatly-contrasting styles, as Rouvali and the Orchestra emphasized the complexities in the score – particularly in the first and fourth scenes, set in the fairground, when we could hear all the varying activities going on at once (but never jumbled).  Although a concert performance, we could almost see the ballet.

In saying we could almost see the ballet, I am not actually referring to Rouvali’s unusual conducting style – one would think he was once a ballet dancer, with his exaggerated arm motions and (controlled) leaps around the podium on his toes.  He did this throughout the concert, not just for Petrushka, so it is his style.  But the orchestra responded well – and indeed sounded much better than the last time I heard it live (under Rouvali’s overrated predecessor Gustavo Dudamel).  

The concert’s encore, the Valse Triste by Janne Sibelius, also thrived in this telling – although the extreme tempo changes may have been a bit odd (even if they actually worked), starting off and finishing very slowly, but getting very fast, or speeding up and slowing down, to emphasize an odd rhythm.

Unfortunately, as colorful as the concert was after the intermission, so was it dull before the intermission.  The concert had opened with Liguria, a tone poem from 2012 by the Swedish composer Andrea Tarrodi.  The program notes said she was inspired by Respighi’s musical canvasses of Italian landscapes, but Respighi could make pine trees exciting – I heard none of this in her work.  The waves were clear and soothing, lapping against the coast, but the music never went anywhere.

Worse was to come: Maurice Ravel‘s Piano Concerto (the one for two hands).  I suppose it was pleasant, maybe, but there just was nothing of substance there.  For such a work, the performance matched exactly.  Soloist Alice Sara Ott appeared intent on getting as little sound out of the piano as possible, tapping her fingers lightly against the keys.  She remained audible because the orchestra never overwhelmed her – Ravel had not really given them anything to do either.  This was distilled essence of music.  Ott’s encore, Frederic Chopin‘s posthumous Nocturne #20, showed more of the same technique from Ott, if slightly more of value from the composer.

Of course, there was a tragic subtext.  Ott was supposed to perform Grieg’s concerto this evening.  But late last year she felt unwell and went to have medical tests done.  Earlier this month she got the results: multiple sclerosis.  At 30 years old, she now must contemplate the end of her career.  I guess the insubstantial Ravel work is far less grueling than Grieg’s showpiece.  This is sad and I feel for her.  She has announced that medical breakthroughs mean she will fight the disease, and I wish her well and many more years in front of a keyboard.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Sibelius, Bruckner

In an essay for today’s concert program book, Herbert Blomstedt pointed out that the orchestral forces used by Bruckner and Sibelius in their respective fourth symphonies (which he conducted this morning with the Vienna Philharmonic in Salzburg’s Great Festival House) were virtually identical to the forces used by Beethoven, but represented tremendous symphonic development.

Blomstedt led the concert with the later Sibelius work, the least performed of his symphonies (indeed, the Vienna Philharmonic is just now performing it for the first time!).  Sibelius rejected programmatic symphonies – indeed, even his nominally-programmatic tone poems based on Finnish sagas are usually free form and do not correspond with a text, and this one is even harder to classify.  Blomstedt drew out the lush if cold sounds – each movement ending in something tragic: the first with a never-answered question, the second stopping abruptly mid-phrase, the third subsiding to nothing, and the final one resolving in resignation.  But the final one, with the addition of playful bells, showed signs of happiness and life.  The dour Finn drew out harmonic lines – with sufficient deviations from the traditional – hinting at melodies but never quite becoming melodic, keeping the room on edge.  Blomstedt employed these as building blocks, and used the to highlight individual winds (or the first chair cello, who opened the work and reemerged in key spots).  This was a heavy and philosophical way to wake up this morning, but the audience appreciated it.

The Bruckner symphony after the break stood in contrast.  His most-performed and possibly most-accessible work, the symphony is exuberant.  But it too is constructed from building blocks, and those Blomstedt highlighted.  On a foundation of (sometimes quite agressive) strings, Blomstedt placed large chunks of hewn stone.  Bruckner was encouraged by friends to write a program for this symphony, but it was always an afterthought and never descriptive of what he had in mind when he wrote the music.  So this morning’s reading dispensed with that silliness and just presented the music in its own right.  By the final movement, Blomstedt could draw out the dissonances that made this symphony forward-looking, rather than just Beethoven-inspired (or earlier).  Sibelius, of course, considered Bruckner the greatest living composer over his own lifetime, and hearing the final movement of the Bruckner 4 in the interpretation by Blomstedt and the Philharmonic awakened new nuances and in many ways brought the music full circle to the Sibelius 4 that started the day.

I had the opportunity on Friday to attend the rehearsal for this concert.  One thing that struck me is that Blomstedt rehearsed without a score (not surprised he conducted without one, but the lack of one for the rehearsal was interesting).  Instead, he had a little blue notebook full of scribbles, I presume containing his over-90 years of musical wisdom.

Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Felsenreitschule (Salzburg)

Sibelius, Paganini, Schostakowitsch

The 2017 winner of the Salzburg Festival’s Young Conductors Award, the Brit Kerem Hasan, had his victory concert this evening with the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra in the Felsenreitschule.

The conductor I suppose has to work with what they give him.  This orchestra is fine, if not exceptional – and the same could be said for tonight’s instrumental soloist, the violinist Augustin Hadelich.  Hasan did not rise to the occasion, so we got a perfectly decent if unexceptional concert.  Could he have done better with better forces?  Possibly.  But there really was nothing wrong with these (even if they aren’t stars) so it would be nice if he could have inspired them to do more.

Hadelich displayed excellent versatility for the Sibelius Violin Concerto, but plays with an over-abundance of legato.  So rather than a robust sound, he came up soft (not in terms of volume – he was loud enough – but rather in his approach).  This blended rather well with this particular orchestra, itself known for a somewhat muddy tone.  So while it all sounded nice and together, it has no forward propulsion, and Hasan did not provide any.  A beautiful playing but dragging along lacking much of substance.

Hadelich did provide Paganini‘s Capriccio #21 as an encore, and for this his softer approach seemed better-suited than for Sibelius, his instrument singing along in an Italianate lilt.

Schostakowitsch‘s Symphony #10 started where the Sibelius left off, at least in terms of where Hasan was.  But as the symphony went on, Hasan became more confident, and slowly provided a bit more drive (and the orchestra eventually started following).  If the first movement began a bit ragged and opaque, the fourth ended excitedly and together.  Hasan made this Symphony into a series of off-kilter dances on the grave of Stalin: the composer had outlived the brutal dictator and now affairs in the Soviet Union thawed slightly under Stalin’s henchman Krushchev (life inside the Evil Empire was indeed all relative), and this symphony marked the composer’s return to public life after nearly being purged.

Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Liszt, Elgar, Britten, Bartók, Sibelius

Eighty years ago, about 20% of the population of Salzburg came out to burn books.  They mostly burned books written by or about, or which had even belonged to, Jews – but since there really were not so many Jews in this extreme anti-Semitic town, they added others to the pyre: those of pro-Habsburg monarchists and of anyone who had spoken out against the incorporation of Austria into Germany.  The Salzburg University Library, across the lane from the Great Festival House, is one of several places in the town remembering this event with exhibits, in this case outward-facing posters in the ground floor windows depicting Salzburg citizens whose books were burned and the Salzburg Nazis who burned the books.  Across from the door where I entered the Great Festival House this evening, Max Reinhardt’s face stared out.  Reinhardt founded the Salzburg Festival and made this city an important cultural center – and the Salzburgers hated him for it and saw the Festival as a plot by international Jewry to take over Salzburg (oh, they’ve loved the Festival ever since the Nazis appropriated it in 1938 and of course from the 1950s to the 1980s under its intendant, the unrepetant Nazi Herbert von Karajan).  Broken, Reinhardt died in exile in 1943.

Salzburg is a beautiful city, but it is a beauty tarnished.  So this exhibit seemed like a good scene-setter for this evening’s concert of the Helsinki Philharmonic, visiting Salzburg for three concerts this week (I’ll go again on Friday – would have gone tomorrow too, but that’s my Mozarteum Orchestra Thursday subscription concert).   Susanna Mälkki conducted a program of melancholy.

Ferenc Liszt‘s tone poem Orpheus opened the concert.  Liszt wrote this as a new prelude for a revision he did of Gluck’s opera Orpheus and Eurydice, to describe pure beauty cast into the depths of the underworld.  Edward Elgar wrote his Cello Concerto (performed here with Norwegian soloist Truls Mørk) in the aftermath of the carnage of the First World War and as his wife lay dying.  Béla Bartók, who had opposed the Nazis and fled to the United States, wrote his Concerto for Orchestra while consumed by abject poverty and leukemia in his New York exile – it would be the last work he completed before he died.  (Janne SibeliusValse Triste concluded the concert as an encore, the sad waltz from his incidental music to a play called Death.)  So much beauty; so much sadness.

The orchestra carried this mood throughout the concert, although there was a certain humor to the warped tunes in the final two movements of the Bartók.  Mørk was not quite up to the level of Sol Gabetta (whom I heard perform the Elgar concerto with the Vienna Philharmonic last month) – it’s a difficult piece to get right.  He exhibited a fuller understanding of a solo encore work (a movement from the Cello Suite #2) by Benjamin Britten, in which he could display a bigger sound, capturing the instrument’s deep – and deeply human – voice.  Meanwhile, Mälkki’s conducting was rather blockish – very heavy-handed and abrupt, not always drawing out the lines to their fullest or allowing the orchestra to sing.  The audience applause was polite but underwhelming (this was my Wednesday Kulturvereinigung subscription concert with the usual crowd, so I can indeed compare the reaction to other concerts).  It wasn’t a bad performance at all, just not quite to the level I think the audience expected.

Vienna Philharmonic, Konzerthaus

Sibelius, Langgaard, Elgar

I was not planning on going to a concert during a quick weekend trip home, but sometimes I just get curious and grab a ticket if one is available last minute.  The Vienna Philharmonic performed tonight in the Konzerthaus, Vienna’s second major hall, with a concert featuring music by the forgotten Danish composer Rued Langgaard (1893-1952).  Having Sakari Oramo on the podium and Sol Gabetta on cello hardly dissuaded me.

It seems Langgaard’s Symphony #6 (written in 1919-20 and fully revised between 1928-30) is supposed to be typical of his output.  The composer’s father had been a piano student of Liszt, so this became the young man’s starting point – his symphonic writing being more tone poem than symphony, just without the plot.  Apparently he became fascinated with Scriabin, too, so his music showed heavy influence from the zany Russian.  At times, the music also bore a resemblance to that of his contemporary Paul Hindemith (whom he knew).  With all of that said, Liszt, Scriabin, and Hindemith all went somewhere with their music.  Langgaard – although making this symphony a setting of a theme and various variations on it, with theatrical extra brass (a whole additional row of trumpets sat in the choir seats) and percussion, I never got the sense that the work had any particular meaning.

I might give other works by Langgaard a listen (if they ever appear on a concert program – which they never do), but I suppose I can understand why he has not entered the repertory (it’s not bad music, but if we have Liszt, Scriabin, and Hindemith all in the original, we don’t really need Langgaard).  That said, tonight’s symphony was infinitely more original than almost anything composed by Langgaard’s older countryman Carl Nielsen, whose interminable music has inexplicably entered the standard repertory.

To introduce the Langgaard symphony, Oramo opened the concert with Sibelius‘ tone poem Pohjola’s Daughter, in possibly one of the finest performances I have heard of that work.  The opening cello solo was other-worldly, and the various virtuosic woodwinds built on that to take us into the realm of Finnish mythology.  The violin shrieks – depicting the girl’s mocking laughter – propelled the work forward, as the winds tried valiently in back to achieve the tasks she had set for them.  Some of this coloration certainly helped set up the Langgaard work to make it more understandable, I suppose, but Sibelius was the undisputed master of northern color.

After the intermission, Gabetta joined Oramo and the orchestra for Elgar‘s Cello Concerto, demonstrating both dexterity and lyricism.  Elgar used the cello to set out each section of the concerto and then let the orchestra blend in.  Only a rare cellist can effectively lead a whole orchestra, and more rarely when that orchestra is the Vienna Philharmonic.  Gabetta established her mastery this evening.

Camerata Salzburg, Mozarteum

Sibelius, Britten, Schoenberg, Strauss

A wonderful Sunday morning chamber concert in the Mozarteum by the Camerata Salzburg featured some lesser-known works by Janne Sibelius, Benjamin Britten, Arnold Schoenberg, and Richard Strauss.  It was like being invited over for brunch by old friends who spent the meal regaling me of stories from their youth that I had never heard before, full of detail and charm.  (That said, I actually have heard the Strauss work in concert once before, and own excerpts from the Sibelius work on a recording; the rest was new for me.)

The Camerata’s strings were especially lush, and for those pieces requiring woodwinds, they were emotive.  We had that all together for the incidental music composed by Sibelius for Maeterlinck’s Pelleas and Melisande, a rare work by that composer not rooted in Finnish myth, but still identifiably Sibelian in its somber but dramatic colors.

On either side of the intermission, soprano Anna Prohaska joined the orchestra for some songs.  Before the intermission came “Illuminations” by Britten, setting texts by a London-based French poet, Arthur Rimbaud, who wrote in French but used English metrics.  These also spanned the dramatic range, and demonstrated Britten’s mastery of both fine chamber musicianship and rhetoric.  Prohaska channeled her inner Britten, also mastering both, with a fine dramatic reading spanning the emotions.

After the intermission, Prohaska and the ensemble added two songs by Schoenberg, based on themes from early string quartets setting the words of poet Stefan George: “Litany” and “Rapture.”  If Schoenberg’s starting point was Beethoven, he quickly moved into new tonal (or atonal) experiments, but left enough room for today’s artists to wax mystical.

As a final programmed work, the Camerata’s principal hornist Johannes Hinterholzer came to the front of the stage for Strauss’ Horn Concerto #1, which the then 18-year-old composer wrote as a 60th birthday present for his illustrious hornist father.  Where the other works on this morning’s program were essentially melancholic, this one was boisterous and happy.  Hinterholzer played with enthusiasiasm, backed up in equal measures by his colleagues, all clearly having fun while doing so.

There was an encore, which Hinterholzer introduced loudly enough but then he swallowed the name of the composer so that it became unintelligible, so I have no idea what it was; it was not as good as the Strauss and on the whole we could have done without it.  The four scheduled pieces on the program were enough of a good thing with this group.  The orchestra went without a conductor today, instead having guest concert master Sebastian Breuninger lead, giving demonstrative cues.  Breuninger is the concert master of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra – the Camerata’s own concert master, Gregory Ahss, announced in the annual program schedule and in many of the flyers available in the foyer (but not in the printed program, which showed Breuninger) as leading this concert, was mysteriously absent.  I saw Ahss perform with this orchestra in January, and an on-line search comes up with no further information about the substitution.

Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Sibelius

I started my 2016 concert-going with the Finnish: Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, that is, under its music director Hannu Lintu for an all-Sibelius program.  

The program featured two of Sibelius’ final compositions, the tone poem Tapiola and the Seventh Symphony (as well as an encore consisting of excerpts from his incidental music to The Tempest, composed around the same time).  Although Sibelius lived for more than thirty more years (he did not die until 1957), after 1926 the increasingly-moody composer never wrote another major work other than his mysterious Eighth Symphony, all traces of which he despondently destroyed by burning them in the stove of his cottage in 1945.

Lintu and the orchestra literally spoke his language tonight.  One wonders what was going on inside the composer’s head for all those years.  The majestic and melancholic Seventh Symphony was alone worth the price of tonight’s ticket, its dark chorales pondering the vagueries of life as they arose from the grumblings on the stage of Salzburg’s Great Festival House.

In between the two late works, Canadian violinist Leila Josefowicz joined the Finns for Sibelius’ Violin Concerto.  Although not Finnish, Josefowicz, too, demonstrated complete understanding of the idiom, producing a rugged tone, tough enough to survive the arctic winters – albeit she was not always robust enough in the bigger passages with orchestra, particularly in the conclusion to the first movement.  Nevertheless, she demonstrated a swagger and confidence in her playing that made this oft-performed concerto come alive.

Lintu closed the main program with a relatively early work, Finlandia.  Initially I thought this a strange programming choice to put this at the end, but having emerged from the Seventh Symphony and Sibelius’ late style, hearing the brighter patriotic piece subsequently brought out new angles.  Lintu took the chorales more slowly, and having just experienced the darker chorales of the Seventh Symphony, these brighter ones took on new meaning.  This was not a rousing performance necessarily, but rather a more pensive one, showing the beauty of the composer’s homeland, then awakening from its slumber under Russian occupation.

Wiener Symphoniker, Konzerthaus

Sibelius, Mendelssohn, Bach

The Vienna Symphony Orchestra, under guest conductor Vasily Petrenko, the talented young music director in Liverpool (and, since I last saw him, now also in Oslo), recreated the magical world of Janne Sibelius at the Konzerthaus this evening, to mark the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth earlier this week.

The tone poem Pohjola’s Daughter led off the program, with the opening cello solo emerging as if out of the floorboards.  The orchestra ensured that this dramatic reading was not just heard but also felt, as the sound started low and slowly enveloped the hall, transporting the audience into a mythical time and place, now made very real.

The Fifth Symphony closed the concert, alternately driving the drama forward and settling in on lush arctic landscapes, proposing a tension between the two moods throughout as it moved to its triumphant conclusion. Sibelius wrote several versions of this symphony before he created the final triumphant one, inspired by a flock of migrating swans.

In the middle, Joshua Bell joined the orchestra for Mendelssohn’s violin concerto. Although I did not see the logical connection to put that concerto into a Sibelius concert, I appreciated the chance to hear a work I have not heard for a long while (and I hear the Sibelius violin concerto relatively frequently already). Bell’s full and warm tone blended beautifully with the orchestra’s, and the smiles that passed between Bell and his colleagues on the stage indicated strong mutual sympathy. Though not as dramatic as Sibelius, moving us from the icy outdoors into the heated salon, Mendelssohn made pleasant music for an early winter’s day, and this was a concert among friends.

Bell added one encore – an arrangement of Bach scored for solo violin by Mendelssohn – in which he charmed the hall with his tones while somehow producing the complexity of a chamber orchestra on his single instrument.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Sibelius, Bach, Rott

I have long wanted to hear a live performance of the Symphony by Hans Rott. While clearly a student work, and left unperformed for over a hundred years after Rott wrote it (and still almost never performed), the symphony had an oversized impact on symphonic music.

Rott was Gustav Mahler’s best friend and apartment-mate when the two studied with Anton Bruckner at the Vienna Conservatory. Bruckner and Mahler both believed that Rott was the more talented of the two young friends. But while Mahler was only neurotic, Rott was psychotic. Convinced that Johannes Brahms was plotting to murder him, Rott was confined to an insane asylum when he was 22, where he died at age 25.

Rott wrote only one symphony, and while it was never performed until 1989, Mahler knew the score and credited Rott’s Symphony as inspiration for his own symphonic output. At the same time Rott composed his Symphony, Mahler wrote Das Klagende Lied, another student work, but the influence is immediately apparent. And as a train of thought runs throughout Mahler’s works, so too does Rott’s concept.

Mahler’s Sixth may be the most difficult of his symphonies to understood – or at least it was so for me. I had been aware of Rott’s Symphony, but when I found a recording of it a few years ago, I finally discovered the key to understanding Mahler’s Sixth (and got new insights into the Seventh, as well). Rott’s Symphony is not a depressive work (as those Mahler works are), quite the contrary, but Mahler, remembering his friend many years later and consumed by his own fatalism, expanded the concepts Rott experimented with as a student.

Today’s performance came at a Sunday morning concert in Salburg’s Great Festival House with the Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra under the baton of guest conductor Constantin Trinks. Although Trinks appeared to know what he wanted to get out of the performance, and the orchestra also played generally well, the whole thing sounded under-rehearsed, with some sloppy cues and missed signals. As the Symphony went on, the orchestra became more comfortable with Trinks, however, and there were moments of pure inspiration. Rott experimented with unusual harmonies and dissonance, taking a step beyond his mentor Bruckner (and probably more than Bruckner bringing Wagner’s developments into the symphonic mainstream) while anticipating where Mahler might go (or indeed possibly inspiring Mahler to go there), and the orchestra pulled these passages off effortlessly. The contemplative Wagnerian moments had required delicacy in the solo or small groups of instruments. The Brucknerian brass chorales that rise above and across each other in the Finale shone brilliantly, as Rott painted with every color on his palette – a wonderful first symphony and a taste of what might have become (or did become Mahler, and then on to Schostakowitsch in one direction, and Schoenberg in the other).

In the first half of the concert, Canadian James Ehnes joined the orchestra for Sibelius’ Violin Concerto. Ehnes has a glittering tone, not overpowering his instrument but letting the sound reverberate into the hall. The orchestra may have come across too robustly – as with the Rott Symphony after the intermission, I wondered whether they had all rehearsed together sufficiently. Sibelius had come to Vienna wanting to study with Bruckner (his favorite composer) about a decade after Mahler and Rott, but the aging Bruckner was not taking new students. Nevertheless, Bruckner exerted quite an influence on the Finn, and it seemed the orchestra was trying to prove that point during this piece by building up stone walls of sound. On the whole, Trinks’ reading did not convince.

Ehnes came out for two encores. Although he did not announce them and I could not identify them precisely, I am pretty certain that they were both movements from sonate by Bach. They emphasized different aspects of virtuosity: one fast, one slow (but with separate moving lines, so that Ehnes essentially provided his own accompaniment on the same instrument). Ehnes’ style actually seemed far better-suited for Bach than for Sibelius – where his Sibelius merely reflected the composer’s sunlight, his Bach shone on its own.

Lahti Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Sibelius, Bruch

Every couple of years, the Lahti Symphony Orchestra visits Austria and provides a chance to get a splash of Sibelius served ice cold.  I’ve heard them in the Musikverein and in the Konzerthaus, and this year they brought Sibelius to Salzburg’s Great Festival House for the 150th year of the composer’s birth.

Music Director Okko Kamu coaxed a full sound from the orchestra, but rather than lush and flowing, the music emerges icily, with hard edges, an arctic river before the winter.  En Saga led off the program, with accentuated melodies that danced like nymphs from rock to rock.  The Third Symphony completed the scheduled program with more of the same.  Sibelius’ big chorales sang broadly without words – but Sibelius famously said that if people wanted to sing, they should sing.  Two movements from the composer’s incidental music to Pelléas and Mélisande arrived as encores, also skating on the congealing ice.

In the midst of all of this came Max Bruch’s First Violin Concerto.  That German composer’s most famous and popular work normally sounds warm, but by sticking it in the midst of the Sibelius these forces did not contrast but rather accentuated its edgier bits.  Soloist Elina Vähälä dug in to this interpretation, her bow a blade against the icy strings.  Like the orchestra, her sound also came out full but hard (and sometimes a tad sharp, almost on purpose it seemed).  For an encore, she joined up with the first and second chair violins for a trio, which she introduced as coming “from Finland” (but more than that it was not exactly clear what it was): a modern work, albeit harking back to an older tradition, and which all three violinists attacked with the same style and method for good results.

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.

Wiener Symphoniker, Konzerthaus

Sibelius, Nielsen, Tschaikowsky

While in Vienna to grab a few things before flying to the US, since I was leaving from Salzburg, I decided to grab a concert.

I have finally heard a piece by Carl Nielsen that I actually liked.  Nielsen took a ride over the Alps on a new-fangled automobile which apparently inspired him to write a flute concerto in a hurry.  Probably since there are so few flute concerti in the modern repertory, this allowed him more originality than trying to write more standard repertory, at which he usually took his time to produce spectacularly dull results.  This work had a degree of whimsy, with juxtaposed sounds – flute with several reeds, flute with tympani, and – most rewardingly – flute with trombone.  Marina Piccinini performed the solos, taking a little time to find her tone but once she got there she performed with warmth.  The Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Jukka-Pekka Saraste gave her excellent balance and support.

The concert had opened rather more prosaically, with incidental music by Sibelius to Maurice Maeterlinck’s play Pelleas and Melisande.  The Sibelius incidental music for this play is rarely performed (particularly in contrast with that by Fauré or Schoenberg) – apparently for good reason, as it is not one of his better efforts.  The problem came in that the music was too short and detached to ever fully capture the drama.  Sibelius actually set nine pieces to music, of which Saraste picked three (At the Castle GateIntermezzo, and Melisande’s Death) – maybe they would have been better served if left in the context of all nine.

For the second half of the concert, Saraste and the Symphoniker gave a spirited reading of Tschaikowsky’s Fourth Symphony.  The brass sounded out the fate motive, and spent the rest of the symphony ambitiously trying to overcome that fate, while the rest of the orchestra resigned itself to melancholy.  While the final chords echoed triumpantly over the Russian dancing, this reading gave a more anguished triumph.  The Symphoniker sounds great, although Saraste is a tad wooden, fully proficient and getting the tone right, but not as dynamic as he could be.

Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Sibelius, Mahler, Elgar

The Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra opened the Salzburg Days of Culture 2014 with Sibelius and Mahler in the Large Festival House.  On the podium, its young Oxford-born Principal conductor Daniel Harding, a protege of Simon Rattle and the late Claudio Abbado.

Harding gave an innovative and fascinating reading of Mahler’s First Symphony in the second half of the concert.  Although the full orchestral forces filled the stage, and the volume was up (where it should have been), the orchestra performed it almost as chamber music in scope if not in size.  The lines in the different parts each stood out, interacted, and intertwined – it is now even clear what role the double basses have in the overall structure.  Unfortunately, this reading exposed the individual orchestra members as not an orchestra of virtuosi – although overall quite good, they could be a little sloppy at times, and the interpretation left them no where to hide.

The first movement opened icily, perhaps echoing the Sibelius from the concert’s first half.  Then, as the sound grew, a certain whimsical humor entered.  The orchestra danced and skipped and clicked its heels right through the second movement, a bit precise but playful.  The third movement dirge revealed new colors.  The spare playing allowed new individual lines to emerge.  And where the orchestra had danced together for the first two movements, now each line did its own thing to make up the whole.  The final movement brought not a wall of sound, not a wave, but just a lot of individual sounds that added together in ways not always apparent in this work.  Rather than overwhelming the audience, they gave us something somewhat more delicate but without sacrificing size.

As an encore, the orchestra did an equally full but tender Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

The Mahler (and Elgar) made up for the truly awful solo playing in the Sibelius Violin Concerto during the concert’s first half. Renaud Capuçon simply could not manage to get in tune.  Where Harding and the orchestra did their best to create an icy atmosphere appropriate for Sibelius, Capuçon poured vinegar on the ice.  His sour sound improved slightly as he warmed up during the performance, but warming up also does not go with Sibelius.  His notes came out often sharp and jarring.  He then treated us to a familiar-sounding encore (that I could not quite place – but I think it was a transcription for solo violin of something written for more instruments; whatever it was, Capuçon played it sharp and painfully but without substance).

WDR Symphonie-Orchester Köln, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mozart, Bruckner, Sibelius

I decided to test the full range of acoustics in Salzburg’s Großes Festspielhaus – my first time hearing a concert in this hall – with a chamber work by Mozart and a Bruckner symphony.  I approve.  I got a seat way up top in the last row, and heard every nuance despite the cavernous amphitheater structure.  The waves of sound rolled up to the top and back down again, washing the ears.

Unusually for me, I did not wear any Austrian Tracht to the concert.  Much to my surprise, I found this put me into a minority.  I am used to being one of the few to preserve this tradition, but clearly not tonight.  Salzburgers may speak with an accent that sounds to my ears like it comes from the wrong side of the border, but I will give them credit for dressing appropriately.

The young Norwegian star Vilde Frang played the solos for Mozart’s Violin Concerto #5, producing a spicy tone like none other I have heard.  Like well-seasoned food, it contained a robust complex flavor without too much salt – my mind, in fact, strayed to a fusion-Indian restaurant I like in London, which balances Indian spices and Western palates.  Tasty.  As an encore, she treated us to a rendition of a Norwegian folk song, more North Sea salmon than pickled herring.

Jukka-Pekka Saraste led the West German Radio Symphony Orchestra of Cologne.  A shell of an orchestra accompanied Frang in the Mozart concert, setting the table for her.  The full orchestra turned out after the intermission for Bruckner’s Symphony #3 – but only the full orchestra, unaugmented, making it appear rather small for a Bruckner symphony.  The acoustics in the hall stretched the sound to full.  But the whole performance came off as abrupt and unfeeling, lacking fluency.  The lines did not flow.  So after such a fine appetizer, they served us a large pile of perfectly good but unexciting sauerkraut with sausage.

The final encore, Valse Triste by Sibelius, showed that these forces did indeed know how to make the music flow.  Dark chocolate mousse for dessert.

I should probably have cooked dinner before I wrote this review.