Mozart, Prokofiev, Strauß
Lahav Shani and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra popped out to Salzburg for a fun jaunt in the Great Festival House.
The Overture to Mozart‘s Marriage of Figaro set the mood nicely. Exhuberant but not bombastic, Shani kept it contained but playful. Given that it did not have to announce the opera (which might have required a bigger reading) but instead Mozart’s first flute concerto, this approach worked to not overwhelm the second work.
Indeed, that unspectacular work would be easy to overwhelm. Mozart hated the flute, but someone paid him to write this concerto, so he did. Tonight’s flutist, Erwin Klambauer, is the first flute of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra (which won’t be confused with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra nor the Philharmonic – ironic, since the preface page in the program, which would have been written by the local Salzburg concert promoter, identified him as the principal flute of tonight’s orchestra, but the bio in the program that he himself would have submitted made it clear he is principal flute of the Radio Symphony Orchestra). He had a full and sometimes warm sound, particularly in the lower registers, but at times was also a tad thin and almost hollow. Shani kept the entire ensemble well-balanced, and the soft touch worked.
The fun continued after the intermission – indeed, the party had really just begun. Prokofiev supposedly wrote his Fifth Symphony when the Red Army crossed into Poland for the second time in World War Two. Shani seems to have taken it as a cousin of Schostakowitsch’s Seventh Symphony, whose “invasion” theme Schostakowitsch had written when the Red Army had first marched into Poland in September 1939 after Soviet Russia and its Nazi German allies agreed to dismember that country. (Soviet propaganda, of course, famously repurposed that music.) Now Germany had turned on Russia in 1941, and after a brutal couple of years the Wehrmacht was in retreat, and the Russians once again entered Poland. So this invasion was happier than the one Schostakowitsch had depicted.
Whereas Schostakowitsch also had no qualms about depicting Soviet Russia in all its bleakness, Prokofiev’s war music was almost joyful, particularly as read this evening by Shani and the Vienna Symphony. Indeed, Shani’s interpretation of this symphony was a great deal happier than I think I have heard this work performed before, and the orchestra bought into the reading. The second movement danced openly. The third movement went back to the industrial war, but still upbeat. And the final movement brought back the initial invasion theme with additional dance music. Prokofiev’s symphony is actually quite a complex series of interlocking themes, where one begins before the previous one fully ends, creating conflicting moods and mashing rhythms and harsh dissonance. In this regard, it resembled the experiments the Polish composer Witold Lutosławski tried a few decades later with his “chain form” music – the main difference being that Prokofiev had an overall concept for his symphony and Lutosławski just had a gimmick that got dull quickly once the novelty wore off.
Prokofiev’s symphony was anything but dull, and certainly not with these performers, Shani crafting the shape from the podium while the talented orchestra handled the complex switches with ease. When they finished, the audience stayed stubbornly in their seats and would not let the musicians leave the stage. The applause kept going and going, so we ended up with three encores: first, the March from Prokofiev’s Love of Three Oranges, another snarky march that danced. Then, as long as we were going to get dancing and Poland in the same breath, the next logical move came with two polkas by Johann Strauß II – first the Thunder and Lightning Polka, then the Tritsch-Tratsch Polka, both performed slightly faster than usual. These choices all made sense after the Symphony. (They did tend to make Mozart’s flute concerto even more anomalous, though.)