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.

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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.

Tonkünstlerorchester, Musikverein

Britten, R. Strauss, Elgar, Sibelius

Came into Vienna for a conference and other meetings this week.  Decided to pop into the Musikverein unplanned for what looked like good program of the Tonkünstlerorchester: early and rarely-performed works by Benjamin Britten and Richard Strauss, and Elgar’Enigma Variations.

I had not realized the history behind Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, for which he received a large commission from the Japanese Emperor for a major festive work and instead wrote a melancholic orchestral work inspired by the Catholic mass for the dead.  Better to decline the commission than to still accept the money but insult the Emperor for the sake of artistic expression.

The piece, however, is of quite high quality and although I cannot remember seeing it on other concert programs (although I am familiar with it through a recording), it led to a number of other commissions as Britten’s career took off.  This afternoon, Danish conductor Michael Schønwandt gave a full-bodied reading.  He may be unfamiliar with the acoustics in the Golden Hall, since although he clearly wanted to accentuate the rich lines of individual instruments, he kept the rest of the orchestra playing thickly, meaning the sounds tended to blur.  In this hall, such an approach is not necessary to achieve a full sound.

Richard Strauss grew up as the son of the most celebrated hornist of his day, and he clearly understood the instrument.  So did the Czech soloist Radek Baborák.  The expressiveness appeared to grow from Mozart’s four horn concerti, augmented with late-classical and early-romantic developments from Schubert or Schumann or Mendelssohn, which Baborák approached with versatility, character, and charm.  The soloists within the orchestra complemented his playing, and with Schønwandt’s approach good dialogues developed between Baborák and the orchestral soloists.  Baborák gave us a little encore as well (although his announcement to introduce what it was was not audible, at least his horn was).

Unlike the first two works, Elgar’s Enigma Variations are often performed and a bit of a warhorse.  It remains a lovely work.  Tonight’s concert lacked the English sentimentality usually heard with this work, but the Tonkünstler nevertheless played it well.  Once again, some of the section soloists had wonderful lines, which Schønwandt allowed them to augment, particularly the first flute and first cello.  Schønwandt capped off the concert with the Valse Triste by Sibelius, which the orchestra did play sentimentally and with a melancholic lilt.

Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Sibelius

Winter has finally come to Vienna this year, which seemed like an appropriate time for the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra to perform Sibelius in the Musikverein.  The orchestra, under the baton of its new chief conductor Hannu Lintu, gave appropriately idiomatic readings of the composer’s Sixth and Seventh Symphonies (and some encores), with excellent, moody and brooding playing.  The great swell that is the Seventh Symphony, rising from delicate foundations into a bold Nordic chorale, with wonderfully edgy woodwinds and brash brass, marked the culmination of the concert and of the composer’s output.  Sibelius wrote very little for publication after these two symphonies – and in his depression consigned all known sketches of his Eighth Symphony, which had occupied him for many years, to an open fire in the dining room of his country hut.

The concert had opened with Beethoven’Leonore Overture #2, which the composer rejected for a number of reasons, but not because of the quality of the music.  Thankfully, Beethoven did not burn it.  The Finns performed this work almost as a precursor to Sibelius, starting off delicately, with a particularly cold and dark timbre to portray Florestan in his dungeon, and building into something bigger and more free.

Following the Beethoven before the intermission, pianist Alice Sara Ott joined the orchestra for Mendelssohn’First Piano Concerto.  Her playing was certainly dextrous and impassioned, but the music was out of place.  This is a light and lyrical youthful work from Mendelssohn, which fit uneasily in an otherwise sturdy and somber program.  Likewise, a similar solo encore also demonstrated her talent, but did not fit the mood, which made it rather tiresome.

Wiener Philharmoniker, Musikverein

Sibelius, Bruckner

I cheated: I attended yesterday’s rehearsal, so I knew in advance how today’s concert would turn out.

Tickets for Vienna Philharmonic concerts are hard to come by these days without buying a yearly cycle.  So it made sense to start with the more-easily obtainable rehearsal ticket, sitting on the balcony, before a late concert ticket became available on Thursday in the middle of the night.  Although the Musikverein is justly famous for its acoustics, the last rows of the Parterre are relatively dull and lifeless – maybe better than some halls, but nevertheless disappoining here.  So I heard the rehearsal – very much a working rehearsal, with breaks, cuts, and discussions on interpretations – in much better sound than the full play-through at the concert.

This stood out right from the first work, Sibelius’ Finlandia, a staple of the repertory for which conductor Riccardo Chailly only needed to emphasize some of the thick and lush chorales in the woodwinds during the rehearsal, and which sounded much brighter during the rehearsal than from my downstairs seat in the concert.

Leonidas Kavakos joined in for the Sibelius Violin Concerto.  His tone is delicate and pure, which works for Sibelius’ icy music, and the Philharmoniker knew not to overwhelm him, matching the style.  However, the rehearsal had its fits and starts, as the soloist and the orchestra often appeared to have difficulty establishing a good rapport. This prompted much discussion on stage, and Kavakos also turned to rehearse facing the orchestra, to assist in melding their approaches.  Although I left the rehearsal convinced they had reached an understanding, at the concert it did not seem too clear.  Sometimes it worked, particularly at the opening, but sometimes they played against each other.  Fine playing all around, just not always compatible, and as a result often too tentative.  Soloist and orchestra looked sympathetic to each other, but this look did not translate in the sound.

Bruckner’Sixth Symphony concluded the program.  The least performed of Bruckner’s symphonies, and often under-valued, this work was actually my favorite Bruckner symphony when I was a child (overtaken by the Eighth when I became a teenager and learned to appreciate the architecture of that large cathedral of sound, and later falling below others on the list as well), much as a result of the accessible galloping theme in the first movement (later reprised).  Chailly took this at a faster gallop than usual, while maintaining the soaring chorales, which tied the work back to the Sibelius works in the concert’s first half, demonstrating how much Sibelius’s style owed to Bruckner.

Lahti Symphony Orchestra, Konzerthaus (Vienna)

Sibelius, Tschaikowsky

I did not get to hear any live performances of Sibelius during my recent visit to Finland.  No problem: the Finns are always welcome in Vienna.  Tonight, the Lahti Symphony Orchestra was back in town at the Konzerthaus (I’ve heard them before, and indeed when trying to decide where to visit in Finland outside Helsinki, I even looked to see if they were performing in Lahti to go hear them there; they were not, so I went elsewhere).

This is a leading Sibelius orchestra, and the programming did not disappoint.  The concert opened with the Overture to the Historic Scenes (a series of tone poems not often performed these days), played in a very joyful manner under the lilting baton of new music director Okko Kamu.  Unfortunately, they only performed the overture, which ended abruptly leaving me (at least) wishing they would play the rest of the scenes.

Violinist (and apparently also violist and cellist) Sergey Malov, a young St. Petersburger, then came on to perform the Tschaikowsky Violin Concerto.  In addition to playing three instruments at a high level, Malov has a large repertory, ranging from early music to modern, and his versatile technique and impressively full tone testified to the possibilities.  Sadly, although full, his tone remained small even as the music swelled.  Kamu and Malov made the opening of the first movement sound Mozartian (which worked, not surprisingly, since Mozart was Tschaikowsky’s favorite composer).  But the music soon moved into more a Romantic-period size, and whereas the orchestra crescendoed, Malov did not seem able and his line got lost.  After the first movement, he and Kamu had a quick word, and Kamu clearly modulated for the second and third movement, heavily restraining the orchestra.  While sounding good musically, this boxed the music in unnaturally.  I would gladly hear Malov again, but for Mozart or chamber music, not for any big concerti from the romantic period.  Happily, he treated us to some solos as encores, which highlighted his great and diverse talents.

After the intermission came the Second Symphony of Sibelius in an idiomatic reading expected from Lahti.  Oddly, the winds came in somewhat ragged now and then – this symphony is probably one of their main staples, and they should know it by heart without missing entrances.  By the final movement, they had gotten themselves organized, and we were treated to what I can only describe as a Viennese interpretation.  Sibelius and Mahler shared a common favorite living composer during their student years: Anton Bruckner, whose music had great influence on both of their symphonic outputs, albeit they followed different routes.  Tonight, however, the Lahti Symphony accentuated the broad chorales that Sibelius took from Bruckner, and gave us a final movement that glistened, sounding very much the cousin of the final movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony.

Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Grieg, Pärt, Sibelius

Briefly in Vienna, I popped into the Musikverein to see what was on.  I do not believe I have heard the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra since the government nearly shut it down a few years ago. The Orchestra receives funding from a tax on televisions.  Even when I am in Vienna, I do not watch television and cannot even get the publicly-funded stations (they do not broadcast terrestrially and I do not have cable, so I can only receive free satellite, for which only one Austrian public channel is partially accessible).  So I pay for this.  Because public television is outdated, and in Europe has just morphed into commercial television anyway, no one really watches.  What makes the television tax palatable in Austria is that so much of it goes to arts funding in general. Nevertheless, they still threatened to disband this orchestra around 2009, until it was saved by public outcry.  In the process, it lost its conductor (Bertrand de Billy) and I wonder how many of its musicians. Tonight it sounded like a shell of its former self.

I do not know how often this orchestra performs these days.  I do not see it much in the listings, but it could merely be a factor of when I am around.  The young German conductor Cornelius Meister, de Billy’s successor, took the podium tonight, and he might just inspire the orchestra less.  I would need to hear more before deciding. Tonight’s concert, with music by Edvard Grieg, Arvo Pärt, and Janne Sibelius, would allow the orchestra to demonstrate its musicality.  This it did in part, but the theatrical passages got outnumbered by the passages where it simply played the music as written.  At times, the orchestra missed cues and sounded ragged around the edges – more so during the Grieg and Sibelius works, although it could have done so during the Pärt as well but no one would have noticed.

Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite #2 and Sibelius’ Symphony #5 framed the program.  At times these had inspiration, but somehow the orchestra managed to muddy the acoustics of the Golden Hall in a way I had not realized was possible.  I sat in a seat I often sit in, so the blur certainly came from the orchestra and not from the peculiarities of a particular seat.  The air remained clear, just the sound slushed through, although it did shine at times.

The piece which made me most curious came in the middle of the concert: Pärt’s Credo for Piano, Chorus, and Orchestra (with the Singverein and with Meister at the keyboard).  Pärt is a composer I have wanted to get to know for almost thirty years, but for some reason have never gotten around to it.  I do not believe I have ever heard Pärt live, I have no recordings of any of his music, and I have only heard works by him on the radio in passing without paying special attention.  Perhaps this was not the best Pärt piece to begin with.  It had wonderful moments, welding baroque or even polyphonic harmonies onto a 20th-century orchestral palate.  Unfortunately, Pärt interrupted these pleasant bits with obnoxious intrusions of sound produced in often gimmicky ways, getting unusual noises out of the instruments or voices.  I think I will need to find another piece to begin to explore Pärt again.

After the Pärt piece, Meister performed an encore for solo piano.  I did not catch what he announced that it was (his announcement was clearly audible, but not intelligible), nor did I recognize it. However, I do not need to waste much time finding out, since I do not wish to hear this dull and ugly encore again.

Armenian Philharmonic, Khachaturian Hall (Yerevan)

Sibelius, Bruckner

I did not come all the way to Yerevan to hear the Armenian Philharmonic perform Bruckner. Logic told me not to attend the concert.  But a voice in the back of my head told me I would regret it if I did not go.  So I went. Wow. That was not at all expected.

The Armenian Philharmonic is a functional orchestra, but I am used to much better and recently.  They can handle simpler standard works, but I am not convinced they have ever tried Bruckner before.  Why would they?  Their music director Eduard Topchjan may be the one conductor who can make them sound reasonable, but I also did not suspect Bruckner to form part of his repertory.  Still, someone handed them the keys to heaven, and they opened the door.  The orchestra was the same as always, but tonight it transcended itself.  And while I certainly have heard better playing, this performance had nothing to do with the playing. I do not give too many standing ovations, but once I managed to wipe the tears from my eyes and regain my composure, I stood.

The concert opened with the Sibelius Violin Concerto, performed with soloist Haik Davtian. Davtian had a light touch, playing softly and mysteriously, even during the more robust passages, in a way that actually evoked the depressive Finn’s mood.  Topchjan had the orchestra back off as well, softly softly, allowing the limited northern light to shimmer off the icy lakes.  It worked in its original manner.

The Sibelius set the stage well for Bruckner.  Bruckner was Sibelius’ favorite living composer at the time of his studies in Vienna, and provided much inspiration for the Finn.  Topchjan used that connection to back-engineer the Bruckner 4th Symphony.  The strings kept the mysterious quiet touch they had for Sibelius, while the chorales – on whatever instruments Bruckner wrote for – soared organically.  Topchjan treaded cautiously, taking a slow tempo with long drawn notes.  The orchestra, likely unfamiliar with the score, played carefully but not over-technically, feeling their way along.  By the third movement scherzo, the whole orchestra had become comfortable and well aware that this performance had reached a special place, and Topchjan shifted into gear for a fast, boisterous, and confident scherzo, the music dancing around the Khachaturian Hall.  He moved from the third to the fourth movements without break, and the strings shifted tempo and marched into the finale with great big strides.  The icy lakes of Sibelius’ Finland thawed, and the stars now twinkled down upon the calm waters.

Although this may be the easiest of Bruckner’s symphonies, it still requires nuance. Bruckner performed badly can ruin more than an evening.  Bruckner performed well transports the audience into the aether.

Unfortunately, as this was a benefit concert for children with cancer, there was a special encore.  I do not speak Armenian so did not understand the lengthy announcement over the public address system.  I could have sat through the Bruckner again.  Instead, we got a mood-killing piece of I-do-not-know-what. It sounded like a lounge song from the 1950s orchestrated for large orchestra and without lyrics.  Sinatra?  Whatever it was, it did not belong.

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Sibelius, Smetana

Back at the Musikverein this morning, for what was billed as a “Czech Matinee” with the Vienna Symphony, with Czech conductor Zdenĕk Mácal on the podium and Czech violinist Jan Pospichal playing the concerto solo.  The programming of Sibelius and Smetana was only half-Czech, however.

Pospichal, soloist for the violin concerto by Sibelius, is the concert master of this orchestra.  This means that, while he is used to working with the Symphoniker, such a pairing also has its drawbacks.  His tone was not robust enough for a concerto – he seemed more concerned with not overwhelming the orchestra, when for a concerto it really should be the other way around.  So his lines did not soar and sometimes got lost in the lush sounds surrounding him.  But he did get a good dialogue going with the rest of the orchestra, particularly when other instruments had contrasting solo lines.

After the intermission came the first three movements of Smetana’s Má Vlast.  The program notes made a point that Má Vlast was merely a collection of tone poems, in order to justify not performing all of them – or even performing them individually.  The Symphoniker has, apparently, only performed all six together twice in its history.  And although it is true that Smetana composed six tone poems, and gave them each individual premieres, he did see them as a group and one wonders why – as long as they were performing more than one anyway – they did not perform the entire set.

Macal clearly found a good level of sympathy with the musicians, although I am not sure I learned anything from his interpretation.  I am also not sure what to make of him – and his history also has some strange turns that suggest that others also don’t either.  He fled the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and built his career at the helm of middle-tier German orchestras with broad guest conducting engagements with world class orchestras on both sides of the Pond.  Then he languished inexplicably with the reputationless New Jersey Symphony Orchestra in the 1990s, before returning triumphantly to Prague to head the Czech Philharmonic in 2003, a post he suddenly and inexplicably resigned from in 2007.

Still, the Symphoniker continues to sound good, particularly its woodwinds, no matter who is standing on the bump.