Leipzig Gewandhausorchester, Musikverein (Vienna)

Brahms

 

The last time I heard BrahmsRequiem live was also with Herbert Blomstedt in the Musikverein with the Singverein… but a different orchestra.  Then (2014) it was the Symphoniker (Vienna’s second-best orchestra, still maybe top ten in the world these days), the night before I moved to Salzburg.  Tonight it was the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig (top five, on a par with the Philadelphia Orchestra) in town for a visit.  This is the same orchestra which gave the first complete performance of this work back in 1869 (no, Blomstedt was not conducting that night… although it almost feels like he should have been).

I remember that 2014 concert clearly, and although I had not planned to be in Vienna tonight, some workmen at home combined with a public holiday yesterday brought me here and a ticket (in my usual seat, no less) opened up for an otherwise sold out performance and beckoned me back.

The Gewandhaus Orchestra is somewhat more dainty than the Vienna Symphony, and Blomstedt was its music director from 1998-2005, making him quite familiar with its strengths.  As a result, tonight’s concert was probably a little less driven than I remember the 2014 interpretation – possibly not as memorable.  But Blomstedt milked the bittersweet tones from the woodwinds (it’s called a “requiem,” after all – although not a traditional one – yet it has a certain sweetness in the sorrow).  The orchestra and chorus sounded delicate but still full – it’s a big piece, but cannot become overbearing.  Restrained but at times exhuberant – indeed it looked like the measured Blomstedt almost started dancing at points – but at other points the tragedy nearly brought the house down.

We opened with the low strings, which quietly got the Musikverein’s floorboards vibrating, opening to an otherworldly choir.  The tympani highlighted the swells, particularly in the second movement, to pure devastation.  And the at times Blomstedt’s construction, and the implementation by orchestra and chorus, produced the foreboding effect of tolling bells.

Blomstedt stood to conduct (in contrast with this summer at the Festival, when he conducted sitting), but still moves a little more slowly than last year.  He’s 90 years old: the twinkle in his eye does it all.  The Gewandhaus Orchestra also has a throwback tone to another era (founded in 1781, this was Mendelssohn’s orchestra in the mid 1800s and one which guards its traditions well).  Blomstedt knows that, and knew when to make this unusual work by Brahms sometimes more classical in nuance (if romantic in construction) playing on the orchestra’s strengths.

The Singverein blended perfectly with the Orchestra, as did baritone soloist Michael Nagy.  The soprano, Hannah Morrison, seems not to have gotten the memo, however.  Her voice is quite pretty at the lower volumes, but when she had to add more heft it became a tad bitter and forced.  She seems to be a baroque specialist, and this work may just have been too much for her.

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Vienna Philharmonic, Musikverein

Schubert, Cherubini

Another Sunday, another Requiem in the Musikverein.  This week’s offering was from Luigi Cherubini, his 1816 Requiem in c, a work much admired in the nineteenth century and later falling out of favor.  It’s not earth-shattering, as Berlioz or Verdi later provided, but it did help establish the genre and many great composers (starting with Beethoven) took inspiration from it and considered it better than Mozart’s, the work usually considered to have created the concept of a concert requiem.  Indeed, as Beethoven never wrote a requiem, it was Cherubini’s which was performed on Beethoven’s death.

The interpretation this morning came from Riccardo Muti leading the Vienna Philharmonic and the Singverein, a wonderful combination that filled the Musikverein with lush sound.  The performance lasted close to an hour – much longer than normal – but never dragged.

Perhaps Muti meant the slow pacing (albeit hardly noticed) for the Cherubini to balance out the fast pacing he chose for Franz Schubert‘s Fourth Symphony (“The Tragic”) before the intermission.  Although taking it at a fast clip, Muti did not sacrifice the sweeping tunes and thick scoring, and the Philharmoniker felt right at home (well, actually this is their home).  This is how to hear Schubert.  Schubert composed this symphony in 1816, the same year Cherubini wrote the Requiem.  The styles, though different, complemented each other well, influencing musical development and for the years ahead.

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Verdi, Requiem

My second unplanned concert of the weekend, for which when realizing I would be in Vienna this weekend I managed to score late-returned tickets for an otherwise sold out performance of Verdi’s Requiem in the Musikverein this afternoon.

Albeit a setting of a mass, Verdi’s is a theatrical work, with operatic drama, and the forces assembled on stage certainly understood Verdi’s intent. Conductor Philippe Jordan deftly crafted all aspects of the performance. I’d say he practically staged the work, except that the fire and brimstone may have consumed the Musikverein, and the gentler plaintive moments may have caused the remnants to melt, and we need this hall intact.

The Wiener Symphoniker, of which Jordan is the chief conductor, shone, with bright and open tones. Behind them, the Singverein, filled the hall with strident sound. Enunciating each syllable with clear diction, they got the message across.

To match such a performance would require four expressive and large-voiced dramatic soloists, and that is indeed the line-up they achieved this afternoon, with Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova, Russian alto Elena Zhidkova, Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja, and Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto. Never outgunned by the orchestra and chorus, they projected clearly with bold – yet still sympathetic – voices which also blended well with each other (also not an easy feat).

Wiener Philharmoniker, Musikverein

Stravinsky, Schostakowitsch

A visit to the Musikverein’s Golden Hall by Mariss Jansons to lead the Vienna Philharmonic is always worth flagging in the calendar, no matter what they put on the program. Tonight proved no exception, with Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Schostakowitsch’s 10th Symphony.

I last heard this peculiar Stravinsky work five seasons ago, with the at the time newly-bankrupt and demoralized Philadelphia Orchestra under the perennially bankrupt-of-ideas Charles Dutoit. They completely flummoxed me with what seemed an ugly and pointless work. Nevertheless, I thought something must be hiding in there, and so I’ve waited eagerly for the opportunity to hear the work again. Lo and behold, when put into the competent hands of Jansons, it all made sense tonight.

Stravinsky re-thought the psalms, updating old church chants for the twentieth century with a highly original orchestration. There are many ways to praise the Lord. The Lord has probably heard them all before, so I suppose Stravinsky decided he required something new and inspired to get attention. Jansons got the pacing right, the broad and mystical mixed with the impulsive and driven. The Philharmoniker – or at least the strange combination of instrumentalists called for by Stravinsky – brought out the bold accents and bright colors, wherever required, to support the Singverein’s vocals. Would that the Lord be pleased! The audience certainly was, with a thumping ovation.

After the intermission came Schostakowitsch. If Stravinsky from his exile could praise the Lord with a new song, Schostakowitsch was left behind in Russia, lingering in a godless empire. The first movement portrayed a landscape so devastating that the Siberian gulags would have paled in comparison. Death, heartbreak, destruction, and all of the misery of the Soviet regime was on display. As the symphony progressed across the musical tundra, the regime and its minions shot down anyone who dared hope. The workers went about their roles as automatons in their wonderful dictatorship of the proletariat. But through it all came a glimmer of light – in the snarky form of the composer’s musical signature: D-S-C-H, D-S-C-H, D-S-C-H – haltingly at first and ultimately triumphantly. Jansons let us hear the message clearly, and the orchestra responded. Indeed, at times it felt like echoes from last night’s concert (Mahler 7) had hung in the hall, with some intimate solo parts and exposed ensemble playing, shining some light in the darkness. Oh so much darkness.

Vienna Philharmonic, Musikverein

Mahler

The world’s best orchestra. The leading conductor of his generation. A concert hall with some of the best acoustics anywhere. And Mahler’s Third Symphony.

I unfortunately had to skip an unusual chamber concert last weekend that I had been looking forward to. I made it up to myself by snagging a late-returned ticket for the sold-out subscription concert of the Vienna Philharmonic under Mariss Jansons in the Musikverein, always an event. No one left the hall disappointed.

Jansons took the first movement somewhat more slowly than normal, but he gave it tension and suspense throughout: even though we knew how this would end, the audience hung on every note. Jansons and the Philharmoniker know every nuance of this hall, and used them, letting the sounds waft gently. Mahler’s description of nature showed that this is a solid but fragile planet. The birds chirp, the lake shimmers, the mountains soar, but it is all quite intricate as Mahler observed it from his summer hut. The concertmaster gave sweet solo lines, mingling with the winds. The brass provided majesty and the percussion a driving force.

The orchestral sound got complex, but never became too big. By the fourth movement, Argentinian mezzo Bernarda Fink gave a bold reading of Nietzsche, while the orchestra continued to simmer underneath, before the chorus of Vienna Choir Boys and the women of the Singverein joined her to ring in the fifth movement. Never overbearing, these voices uttered their words distinctly, but the meaning came almost understated in the music. Listen closely and hear the world.

For the opening of the Finale, despite the huge orchestral forces arrayed on stage, Jansons made them sound almost as a chamber orchestra. The two choirs remained standing for several minutes into this non-choral movement, to observe the world bloom. Gradually the orchestra filled the hall with increasing sound. The choirs sat down. The music stood up. And when it finished, the audience provided an additional ten minutes of applause.

Czech Philharmonic, Musikverein (Vienna)

Martinů, Janáček

I checked in with the Czechs this morning at the Musikverein: the Czech Philharmonic under Jiří Bělohlávek performed works by Martinů and Janáček.

The Martinů pieces proved the most rewarding.  The concert opened with the somber Memorial for Lidice, a short work composed from exile in memory of a village by that name which was erased from the map and whose entire population was murdered by the Germans in 1942 as reprisal for the assassination by Czech patriots of Reinhard Heydrich, the German occupation government’s “Imperial Protector of Bohemia and Moravia.”  A fitting tribute.

Martinů’s Sixth Symphony followed, much more developed in the style of this composer.  His sophisticated, and extremely challenging, music rises from the chromatic chords and heads in all directions.  It could come across as rather disjointed if performed by lesser forces.  But Bělohlávek and the Czech Philharmonic understood the idiom, allowing the music to flow and soar, treating the ears to thrilling new methods of experiencing sound.  Martinů’s music is no secret to those who know, but the level of difficulty in making music out of modernity has perhaps limited his exposure.  Well-performed Martinů is always worth hearing.

After the intermission, the orchestra returned with the original manuscript version of Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass.  After the first performance, the composer had made changes, and it was the revised version that got published.  The revised version eliminated some of the overbearing percussion (which made the work less regligious in feel) and softened or tightened the orchestration elsewhere.  Now that I’ve heard the original manuscript version, I would tend to agree with the composer that the changes were necessary.  Though we had excellent performers this morning, the work did perhaps suffer from a lack of fluidity. The Vienna Singverein and four soloists (Hibla GerzmavaVeronika HajnováBrandon Jovanovich, and Jan Martiník) joined the orchestra enthusiastically.

Wiener Symphoniker, Musikverein

Brahms

Johannes Brahms wrote a large amount of technically high-quality music, much of it quite dull since he had little original to say and derived his works from others (particularly Beethoven) who had already said something previously.  But grief has a way of moving even the most emotionless of men, and Ein Deutsches Requiem became his most original work.

For tonight’s performance, Herbert Blomstedt took the podium of the Musikverein.  Both Blomstedt and the Golden Hall provided the frame – although a big work, it is delicate.  The quiet sections must remain detached but full, and the forte and even fortissimo can never be allowed to overwhelm the lines.  Blomstedt’s careful phrasing and the beautiful acoustics of the Golden Hall accomplished their task.

Of course, it also helped to have the Wiener Symphoniker and Singverein on the stage, both institutions also in their best sound.  The clear lines and crisp words were never abrupt.  The extremely tall Swede Peter Mattei provided dramatic but sensitive baritone solos, and the surprisingly short German Christiane Karg gave a daintily substantial soprano solo.

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.

Orchestral Society of the Association of the Friends of Music in Vienna, Musikverein

Haydn, Die Schöpfung

For this year’s 200th anniversary of the Society of Friends of Music, extra concerts have made their way into the program.  Tonight, the Society’s house amateur orchestra (the Orchesterverein) put on Haydn’s Creation.  This is a work which, despite its huge dimensions, makes for a better match for this group than some of the pieces I have heard them perform in the past.  Indeed, they play very well for amateurs, but can be overmatched by the likes of Bruckner.  Despite some rough edges, they played a spectacular Haydn.  This was the best I have ever heard them.

They were helped by the house chorus (yes, the Singverein) in full voice, and three outstanding soloists: Cornelia Horak (soprano), Alexander Kaimbacher (tenor), and Wolfgang Babrnkl (bass), three Austrian singers with dramatic and pleasant voices, the two men coming out of the Staatsoper’s ensemble.  Robert Zelzer took his customary place on the podium, and knew exactly what to do to create the world with Haydn’s music.

Haydn produced this oratorio very much inspired by Händel, whose music he had fallen for during his spell in London.  The text was, in fact, originally written for – but not ultimately set by – Händel, so Haydn saw himself as picking up his predecessor’s work.  But to write a setting of the creation of the world required innovation in tone painting, of the sort that may have become routine in the 19th century but was still not done in 1798.  The listener would do well to hear Haydn’s work in that context: for his time, Haydn was an innovator, and took music to another level in this work.  Tonight’s performance understood the idiom.

The work has three parts: the first covers the first four days of creation, the second covers the fifth and sixth days, and the third has music for Adam and Eve to sing in paradise.  The third part comes across as more of a set piece, a product of 18th-century convention.  It contains none of the drama of the first two parts (it does not include the snake or the expulsion, just Adam and Eve crooning on how wonderful paradise is), and provides little opportunity for the tone color that made this work so innovative for its day.  Zelzer chose to have the first two parts run uninterrupted and then performed the third part after the intermission, which made for a let down.  After creating the heaven and earth in six days during the first two parts, Haydn should certainly have rested after the sixth day.

Tonkünstler Orchestra, Musikverein

Schubert, Saint-Saëns

Andrés Orozco-Estrada, a Vienna-trained Colombian who has actually been music director of the Tonkünstler Orchestra for the past three years (and in Vienna for several years prior to that) but whom I have somehow missed, tonight took the podium in the Musikverein at the head of his orchestra for a nice pre-Christmas concert.  On the program were two works that had nothing to do with Christmas, nor with each other for that matter.  But he made the orchestra sound full and in good spirit.

For the first half of the program, the orchestra performed Schubert’s Mass #5.  From this performance, it was easy to see how Schubert had inspired Bruckner – a full Catholic mass that retained its mystical spirituality while moving from the church into a concert hall.  Of course, it helps that the concert hall in question was the Musikverein, a cathedral of music.  The Wiener Singverein filled the space to the rafters with drama, mystery, and passion.  Schubert did not write much church music, and in his day it was forbidden to perform church music outside the church, but in this relatively late Schubert piece (written only two years before his death, albeit he died when he was only 31) the composer remained respectful of the religious origins of the mass while still augmenting it as a stand-alone musical piece.

It could serve either as church or concert music.  Although I am familiar with Schubert’s final mass, the even larger #6, I had not previously experienced this one, but would gladly do so again, especially with such a compelling performance as this.

The second half of the program featured the Symphony #3, with Organ, by Saint-Saëns.  Saint-Saëns lived for 86 years, but never before nor after wrote a piece quite like this.  Indeed, this piece is unique in musical literature, and demonstrates originality and talent.  One wonders why this composer, whose talents were well known and appreciated in his own lifetime, turned out so little music of lasting impact.  For whatever reason, he still managed to produce this symphony on a commission from the Royal Philharmonic in London, inspired by the tone poems of Ferenc Liszt and dedicated to the memory of the recently-deceased Hungarian master, including, at its high point, a thrilling major adaptation of the Dies Irae chant.  Once again, the Tonkünstler took up the challenge.  Orozco-Estrada kept the music pushing forward to its thrilling climaxes, never rushing but giving just enough drive and momentum to ensure that the piece got an honest and exciting reading.

I did not notice the extraneous high-pitched tone from the organ this time, which I had heard last time when the organist played from the stage-based organ consul instead of directly at the organ.  So either they fixed whatever the problem was, or I happened to be sitting in the wrong seat last time where the acoustics brought that extraneous pitch to my ear.

One problem I could not blame on the hall was the Japanese tourist sitting in the row in front of me, who could obviously afford to buy a ticket here from Japan but somehow could not afford a belt or underwear (let alone both).  Every time she popped up to take a photo (quite a few times throughout the evening), her pants fell down.

Highlights from 2008

Highlights

Prior to 2010 I did not write regularly.  I found most records from 2009 (now posted on this blog), but right now the only reliable musical notes from 2004-2008 are in my annual year-end highlight summaries, so I am posting these until I locate more in my archives.

Less travel and more time in Vienna meant I enjoyed even more live music than usual this year.

Best performance: Schostakowitsch, Symphony Nr. 8, Wiener Symphoniker, Vladimir Fedoseyev (November). Not among the more-often performed of Schostakowitsch’s symphonies, the anguished Eighth captures Schostakowitsch’s personality and mindset well. Written to commemorate the Red Army driving the Germans out of Russia, the undertone is that the Soviet regime was also ghastly, so the work was banned in Russia for many years. A moving performance, quite devastating in segments.

Runner up: Berlioz, Grande Messe des Morts, RSO Wien, Bertrand de Billy (November). I had forgotten just how immense this work was. Not sure the chorus even had room to inhale, they were so packed onto the Musikverein stage. The orchestra did not fit on the stage, so extended over the first few rows as well as into the first parterre loges on each side. The four brass choirs (in addition to the regular oversized brass section in the orchestra itself) were placed around the hall. Berlioz intended the piece, although bombastic, to be performed as church music and not as a concert requiem. De Billy clearly understood this and kept the lid on. The singing soared from the combined chorus of both the Wiener Singverein and the Wiener Singakademie.

Best concert venue: Occupation Museum, Tallinn (May). Visiting the Estonian Occupation Museum, I was invited to stay on after closing time for a concert with a rather odd quartet (soprano, flute, cello, and a glockenspiel-like instrument) performing modern, mostly Estonian, music. Between each piece the quartet moved around the museum and the audience had to carry our folding chairs from place to place, surrounded by Soviet-era memorabilia.

Most disappointing performance: Beethoven, Symphony Nr. 2 / Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique, Göteborgs Symfoniker, Gustavo Dudamel, Vienna (October). If it had been a student orchestra, I would have been impressed. The much-hyped Dudamel (whom I watched from a balcony seat over the stage, where I could observe his peculiar technique) had clear passion and sense for palette, but the performance was far too sloppy for such an orchestra. Dudamel is the music director in Gothenborg, and thus can and should be held personally responsible. I cannot tell if Dudamel will gain more control as he gets older or will turn into Zubin Mehta (charismatic and capable of getting occasional exciting performances, but otherwise dreadfully boring and absolutely disastrous for orchestral discipline).

Worst performances: Nielsen, Violin Concerto / Bruckner, Symphony Nr. 6, Tonkünstler Orchester, Kristjan Järvi, Vienna (November). Nielsen is neither original nor interesting. Järvi demonstrated absolutely no feel for Bruckner. Dvořák, Cello Concerto, Daniel Müller-Schott, Wiener Symphoniker, Yakov Kreizberg (April). Müller-Schott’s uninspired solo work put me to sleep. Woke up after the intermission for a spirited Dvořák Sixth Symphony.

Best opera and most fun at the opera (winning both categories this year): R. Strauss, Capriccio, Staatsoper, Vienna (October). A rarely-performed esoteric work, the entire plot (in one act lasting nearly three hours) concerns whether music or text is more important to opera. No kidding. The opera’s seemingly unpromising plot was supported by witty text set to glorious music. The simple staging was well-considered and with good direction. Renee Fleming headed a superb cast, conducted by Philippe Jordan. I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Runner-up for best opera: Verdi, Simon Boccanegra, Staatsoper, Vienna (September). A moody piece, not performed often enough. Not tuneful by Verdi standards, but with a plot resembling Gilbert and Sullivan. Thankfully, Verdi let Arrigo Boito fix up the libretto and made Boccanegra version #2 into good drama, if properly performed (as here).

Runner-up for most fun at the opera: Benatzky, Im Weißen Rößl, Kammerspiele, Vienna (May). The classic 1920s Austrian comedy, here performed cabaret-style on a small stage with a three-person orchestra.

Worst opera production: Wagner, Lohengrin, Staatsoper, Vienna (May). The performance, conducted by Peter Schneider, would have been great if I had kept my eyes closed. They should have saved the expense of a staged production and just done a concert performance, since the cast generally wore formal concert attire anyway. Of all the bizarre things on stage, the director left out the one thing which must be there: the swan (explaining in the program notes that this central figure was actually unnecessary). The imbecilic director was not German, but – to no surprise – trained in Berlin. I think I have to stop going to operas directed by people who have even visited Germany.