Wiener Symphoniker, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Johann Strauß II

Beethoven was a genius. Tonight’s concert with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and Ádám Fischer made this obvious.

When first performed in 1808, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony must have shocked the audience (and the Sixth, having its premiere at the same concert, gave them even more nuance to think about). Tonight’s performance of the Fifth was rather classical in approach: restrained, somewhat on the faster side, and not necessarily forward-looking. For its time, that would have been enough, given the work’s radical construction. This masterful performance, particularly the gifted woodwinds, gave the thick canvas a rich coloration.

What made this Symphony stand out so much, however, was not taking it in isolation. Instead it followed as the second half a concert whose first half featured music by Mozart (Symphony #35) and Haydn (Cello Concerto #1). Mozart and Haydn were themselves no slouches as composers, two of the best of their day, and from whom Beethoven himself personally learned his craft (only briefly with Mozart, more from Haydn). The concert used them tonight to set up the Beethoven, to demonstrate just how much more he could push music forward. These two works were taken by half-sized orchestras, typically for their period, and well within their context. Nicolas Altstaedt joined the orchestra for the cello concerto – a somewhat underwhelming cellist, he took Haydn back a generation more with his somewhat off-tuned instrument (does his cello not hold a tune, or does he not?). Possibly this was Altstaedt’s idiom – I have heard him labor through Schostakowitsch before, but he managed Haydn better tonight.

For a first-half encore, Altstaedt played something for solo cello I could not identify but which sounded like it could have been Sibelius, which he handled dexterously. Fischer and the orchestra gave us two second-half encores: Brahms’ Hungarian Dance #5 and Johann Strauß II’s Pizzicato Polka. Not big works to be sure, but they had the room swaying after the Beethoven, making the final mood somewhat lighter.

Wiener Symphoniker, Konzerthaus

Schubert, Schostakowitsch, Beethoven, Johann Strauß II

Woke up early on a Sunday for a wonderful concert by the Wiener Symphoniker in the Konzerthaus.  Philippe Jordan, in his first season as the orchestra’s official Chief Conductor (although long a fixture here, especially after the departure of Fabio Luisi), took the podium.  I first saw him conduct twelve years ago in Graz, and he has retained his ability to charm.

He opened the concert with Schubert’s Second Symphony, an early work which, though not yet mature and therefore not frequently performed, nevertheless exhibits Schubertian characteristics.  Jordan’s reading drew out the joyful spirit of the work, using a good control of dynamics to increase the drama.  The first movement, which opens slowly before jumping in head-first at breakneck speed, proved especially successful (Schubert developed this technique as he matured, and it influenced Bruckner who also deeply appreciated Schubert’s talent and originality).

Schostakowitsch’s Concerto for Piano, Trumpet, and String Orchestra followed.  The composer wrote this sarcastic piece in 1933 to cheer himself up during one of the darkest periods in Russian history (which, sadly, has no lack of dark periods – indeed, it’s mostly dark, but the 1930s were especially dark).  Khatia Buniatishvili, the young Georgian star, took on the challenge, and in contrast to the Schostakowitsch piano concerto I heard yesterday in this case she dominated the stage.  The Symphoniker’s first trumpet, Rainer Küblböck, performed the trumpet solos, and nimbly switched from the somewhat sad muted lines to the boisterous and bright unmuted sections.  At the end, Buniatishvili came back out and gave us two encores (neither identified, and I do not know the repertory well enough to place them).  The first (clearly 20th-century, maybe Schostakowitsch?) nearly blew the roof off the hall – I did not believe a piano could produce that much sound, rivaling some orchestras in might.  The second (sounded like something one of the Scarlatti family might have written, but could have been a neo-classical throwback) had a wonderful song-like character, and Buniatishvili’s keyboard did everything except produce the words.

After the intermission, the orchestra stormed through Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.  Jordan took this at a faster clip than I normally would prefer (he probably followed Beethoven’s own erroneous metronome markings, which current theories suggest come from a broken metronome which displayed the wrong beat numbers), but got the orchestra to produce all the swinging excitement while gasping for breath.  Again, he utilized dynamics to underscore this dramatics of the piece.  He performed the first two movements without a break, going right from the initial Vivace into the slow movement, for maximum (and effective) contrast.  The final movement especially tied the concert neatly together, as it echoed the first movement of the Schubert symphony in the frenetic strings.  Although Schubert’s Second Symphony predated Beethoven’s Seventh by a full year, Beethoven was the older and more mature composer (and it would seem unlikely that Beethoven even knew Schubert’s symphony, as much of Schubert’s work in that period was developmental and not performed publicly or published until many decades after his death).

Jordan gave the enthusiastically-applauding audience another encore:  Künstlerleben by Johann Strauß II.  The Symphoniker lilted, and the audience danced out of the hall.  This orchestra sounds like it will maintain the level of quality it has built over the previous years under Luisi, almost to the point of rivaling its colleague down the street, the world’s best Wiener Philharmoniker (which sounds better when I am not sitting in the middle of its percussion section like yesterday).

Volksoper

Joh. Strauß II, Wiener Blut

Disappointing performance of Wiener Blut, the posthumous work of Johann Strauß II, at the Volksoper.

The director chose to update the plot from its original 1815 setting, moving it to an unclear time period somewhere possibly in the mid-20th century.  To make this work required equivalent changes to the dialogue, although this proved to be equally confused in terms of time, including references to Obama and current events.  The staging was neither offensive nor modern, just non-descript.  In total, the entire production lacked any sort of charm whatsoever.  Although this particular work, put together by others after the composer’s death (Strauß had long before signed a contract to provide his next operetta for a theater, but since he never wrote another one, the theater had the right to complete one itself), could lend itself to anachronism, it cannot work without charm, and Viennese charm in particular.  The director, Thomas Enzinger, is Viennese by birth, but seems not to have received any Viennese charm in his blood.

Perhaps the only truly Viennese interludes came in the required monologues and dialogues in Viennese dialect of Kagler, and the resulting confusion from the Germans who can only speak in formal written German.  These got the audience rolling in laughter.  However, the dialect was mostly wrong.  The correct dialect would be the 19th-century Viennese dialect, which remained as the primary dialect until 1938.  Then again, we should probably not forget what sequence of events caused the old Viennese dialect to disappear.  In this case, the peculiar director injected a Hebrew word (carried into old Viennese German, but certainly not into Schriftdeutsch) into the dialogue spoken by Prince Ypsheim-Gindelbach (since when do German princes call people “meschugge?”).

Possibly because of the dull staging, the cast never got into the performance.  All of them sung their roles perfectly adequately, but without any special lilt.  They went through the motions on the stage, hit all the notes, and moved along presumably to their dinners and subsequent engagements.  The orchestra started the evening poorly and off-pitch.  Although it fixed itself, this music more than any should flow through the Volksoper orchestra’s veins.  It did not.  Conductor Michael Tomaschek also provided no particular inspiration.

Color Trio, Jordan Misja School of Art (Tirana)

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

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

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

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

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

Moscow Operetta

Joh. Strauß II, Die Fledermaus

Who knew the Muscovites were fans of Viennese operetta?  There is a theater next to the Bolshoi (called, appropriately, the “Moscow Operatta“) that does only operetta, more than half of it Viennese.  While waiting for the opera season to begin (next week), I got tickets for three operettas this week.  I figured it would also be good for my Russian comprehension skills if I picked operettas I know very well and so could listen to dialogue (and singing) in Russian when I already knew what they were saying.

The idea was good in part, but did not account for any changes they make in the plot when translating for the Russian stage.  So tonight I saw something that only resembled Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauß II.  Unfortunately, my Russian is not yet good enough after six days here to fully understand what they did to the plot.

I am really not sure what I saw.  It was a “traditional” staging, in that it was neither modern nor designed to be shocking, but they clearly reworked the plot (and deleted a lot of music), and my Russian simply was not up to it.

That said, who would have expected my first musical experience in Moscow to be Die Fledermaus?

 

 

Highlights from 2004

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.

Best opera production: Verdi, Rigoletto, Wiener Staatsoper (September). Ensemble cast with no particular stars, this was an example of why no opera house in the world comes close to comparing to the Staatsoper.

Worst opera production: Johann Strauß (Sohn), Eine Nacht in Venedig, Wiener Volksoper (September). I am really sick of these German opera directors who don’t bother to read the book before they stage an opera. This staging was set, for no apparent reason, in a shopping mall outside Vienna. The stupidity of the staging took away the charm of the music. The Volksoper is becoming far too artsy.

Best concert: Schoenberg, Gurrelieder, Wiener Philharmoniker under Mariss Jansons in the Musikverein (May). Reduced me to tears. Particularly devastating was the Wood Dove’s narrative (with Waltraud Meier). I recovered in time to follow the orchestra across the Ring to the Staatsoper for Verdi’s Falstaff starring Bryn Terfel two hours later.

Worst concert: nothing I attended was truly bad, but if I had to select something as “least good,” I would say the Bayerisches Staatsorchester playing a concert of Richard Strauss in the Vienna Musikverein (September). Zubin Mehta is either charismatic or sloppy, and in this case the Bavarians sounded like the New York Philharmonic at the end of his tenure there. The orchestra could play this music in its sleep, and I don’t get these sorts of concerts in Pristina, so I did not suffer too much. The Viennese public applauded politely.