Members of the Vienna Philharmonic, Mozarteum (Salzburg)

Strauss, Mozart, Henze, Mendelssohn

A chamber ensemble from the Vienna Philharmonic took the stage in the Mozarteum this evening for a concert in memory of Ernst Ottensamer, the orchestra’s principal clarinetist, who died suddenly of a heart attack two weeks ago aged only 61.  He himself had done so much to promote chamber music by members of the Philharmonic, particularly through leading the Wiener Virtuosen ensemble.

Tonight’s concert involved all string instruments, with only one exception.  It opened with the sextet from Richard Strauss‘ opera Capriccio, a work both lush in post-romanticism and backwards-looking in style to the 18th century.  The musicians know the opera, and answer the critical question posed therein: music or words first?  Music.

Ernst Ottensamer left two clarinetist sons – Daniel was the second principal (after him) of this orchestra (the other is the principal in Berlin).  And so it fell to Daniel Ottensamer to join the strings for Mozart’s clarinet quintet KV581.  If Strauss looked back in the first piece, Mozart looked ahead in this piece.  The composer wrote for a clarinetist friend who was experimenting with an extended clarinet that could hit an extra lower register – now more commonplace but then a novelty.  Ottensamer made the most of the full range of the music, a warm tone wafting across the room and no doubt making his father proud.  The audience reciprocated with a warm and extended applause.

Hans Werner Henze‘s The Young Törless: Fantasia for Sextet came after the intermission.  Although euqal parts modern and traditional, this distillation of film music was altogether forgettable when juxtaposed with the other items on tonight’s program.

Felix Mendelssohn‘s Octet, composed when he was only 16, showed tremendous maturity, with each of the eight instruments having much to say alternately or together.  With many moving lines, the musicians demonstrated their mastery not only in doing their own parts, but by blending their instruments’ voices into a coherent and altogether natural whole that often sounded much bigger and more important than just an octet – both from the standpoint of Mendelssohn’s skilled composition and the orchestra members’ clear comfort in playing together with the same Vienna sound.

The audience did not let them escape that easily, and so we went – as they explained – from 16-year-old Mendelssohn to 12-year-old Mozart, for a short encore.

Members of the Vienna Philharmonic, Schloß Leopoldskron (Salzburg)

Mozart, Strauss, Brahms, Kreisler

Our annual board of directors weekend gave us the opportunity for two quite different classical chamber music concerts on Sunday (we also had a jazz trio performing rearranged renditions of classical works on Saturday – but I don’t feel like I can write a meaningful review of jazz, even classically-inspired jazz; I will also omit a public review of the afternoon classical chamber concert, as I do not publicly review all of the private concerts we host, and that particular concert resulted from a peculiar request from a specific donor).

For the Sunday matinée, three members of the Vienna Philharmonic (accompanied by one of their wives, on piano) came to our magical palace, Schloß Leopoldskron. They selected the first allegro movement from each of the piano quartet #1 in E-flat by Wolfgang Amadé Mozart and of the piano quartet in c by Richard Strauss, and the complete piano quartet #1 in g by Johannes Brahms (and a miniature, “Little Vienna March” by Fritz Kreisler, as an encore). I got to introduce the concert.

The selection of works by Mozart and Strauss was obvious: both had themselves performed in Schloß Leopoldskron. Prince Archbishop Leopold von Firmian, who built Leopoldskron, was the patron of Mozart’s father (also Leopold), and the Archbishop’s son (officially “nephew” since Catholic archbishops should technically not have sons), the second owner of the palace, was an early patron of the young Wolfgang. A century and a half later, Max Reinhardt owned the palace and founded the Salzburg Festival in one of its rooms, together with a small group of his good friends, including Strauss, a frequent guest.

However, as Mozart did not compose piano quartets before he left Salzburg, and Strauss did not compose any after he started visiting, we ended up with late Mozart and early Strauss, neither from their Salzburg periods. Mozart was at his pinnacle for this work, and Strauss still experimental on his way up, but the musicians deftly produced two very distinct styles.

The excitement continued for the Brahms. Neither this work nor this composer had any special meaning – it was simply something they enjoyed playing. While Brahms can be exceptionally dull, this piece – or at least this performance – showed non-stop excitement (aided perhaps by unexpected roaring thunder outside). The tradition-bound Brahms demonstrated that he could write with passion if he broke with tradition – he was not incapable of originality, just generally afraid of it. This piece, in scoring, pacing, and self-referential variations skipping among all four movements was original. To prepare for the concert, I had listened to several versions of this work on line, and none excited me – presumably only the Vienna Philharmonic has musicians capable of making this piece sound quite so special.

Christoph von Dohnányi once famously explained that “the Viennese never give technique a priority. They always try to achieve the musical sense, and by doing this they actually go as far as they can in a technical respect. But they would never sacrifice natural music-making to technical necessities.” (Music director in Cleveland at the time he made those comments, Dohnányi contrasted the Philharmonic with his own orchestra, which he described as giving technically perfect performances of music, and so his greatest frustration in Cleveland was trying to get his orchestra to perform more like the Vienna Philharmonic).  The Philharmonic, I quipped, may be the Salzburg Global Seminar of orchestras.

Vienna Philharmonic, Musikverein

Dvořák, Strauss, Stravinsky

The Vienna Philharmonic added some seats on stage for this afternoon’s concert, and even sitting amidst the percussion (albeit thankfully not next to a gong, as I once found myself a few years ago) it is hard to resist hearing this orchestra in the Musikverein with Mariss Jansons on the podium… indeed, getting to watch him from the orchestra’s perspective (when he was not blocked out by a music stand or a percussionist).  

On the program was a strange mix of works I did not necessarily understand why they went together: Dvořák‘s Eighth Symphony, Richard StraussDeath and Transfiguration, and the suite from Stravinsky‘s ballet The Firebird.  As Jansons explained in a talk in Salzburg last summer, sometimes parts of the same concert don’t have to go together, but even by that standard this combination was odd.  Perhaps the one linkage here was some truly fine playing.

The Dvořák symphony came out dancing, full as it is with Czech folk dances.  Jansons maintained a certain tension, which just gave the exuberant bits all the more sway.  This may have anticipated a ballet suite later in the concert, but folk dances and ballet are still two different genres, so maybe not.

If the Strauss tone poem after intermission danced, it was with death.  This set an altogether different mood, and at one point close to the end the orchestra sent a cold chill through the room.  Somehow, through force of music, we all emerged on the other side, shivering in our seats but transfigured.

Jansons took a much more humorous approach with Stravinsky’s Firebird suite.  This is fun music, with a lot happening despite a somewhat reduced orchestra.  A twinkle in Jansons’ eyes made sure the orchestra kept the music upbeat (they not only smiled back at Jansons, but smirked knowingly at each other – particularly the bemused percussionists around me), until the lullaby section, which grew somewhat dark before a triumphant finale.  Shades of Death and Transfiguration earlier in the concert?  Or just masterful playing?

This orchestra reigns.  It’s not always technically the best, but it has a feel for music like no other orchestra.  And Jansons on the podium brings out some of its finest moments.  Although the balance was a bit off from my seat in the percussion, I could feel the magic in the Musikverein’s Golden Hall.  The audience felt it too, with thundering applause and a rare standing ovation (we are spoiled by this orchestra, so it doesn’t happen often).  The applause did not stop even after the orchestra finally left the stage, and Jansons had to return for not one but two individual curtain calls.  I cannot remember that happening before.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Schubert, Brahms, Strauss

Richard Strauss‘s masterpiece of orchestral painting, Eine Alpensinfonie, has been my favorite tone poem since childhood, and my appreciation and enjoyment of the piece has not wavered as I grow older.  Nor indeed the accuracy of its depiction: its tremendous colors describe for the ears the majesty of the Alps.

The Mozarteum Orchestra proved this morning that it was up to the task, with outstanding solo detail throughout the overcrowded stage.  On the podium, Ivor Bolton, until last year the orchestra’s music director, can certainly take some credit for the caliber of the orchestra’s sound.

Unfortunately, however, it was not clear that Bolton himself understood this work.  After presenting a thrilling sunrise, Bolton set out for this walk in the Alps at a somewhat slower-than-normal pace.  England is mostly flat, so perhaps the mountains made him winded.  While I hoped this might allow the sonorities to bloom, the orchestra did seem to want to push forward, held back by their out-of-shape English cousin who huffed and puffed but could not keep up.  They dutifully went at the speed of their least fit member.

The first half of the concert contained two unusual dark pieces, one by Schubert and one by Brahms.  Schubert’s Song of the Spirits over the Waters, a setting of a Goethe poem, started out promising, with a male choir and instrumentation for strings without violins, but never really went anywhere.  Brahms, who did his best work when he wasn’t trying to imitate Beethoven, had somewhat more success with his Alto Rhapsody for alto, male choir, and chamber orchestra – also setting Goethe.  Argentinian alto Bernarda Fink gave a bold reading, and the Salzburg Bach Choir captured the somber mood of these two pieces without getting overly emotional.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Strauss, Mozart, Schubert

Thus spake Zoroaster: the 2016-17 music season hath opened.  The Mozarteum Orchestra took to the Great Festival House this evening under Hans Graf, its former music director (1984-94) for Mozart’s clarinet concerto sandwiched by two tone poems by Richard Strauss.

 Graf started the concert with Don Juan at a faster-than-usual clip, which highlighted the Don’s playful seductive nature.  Also Sprach Zarathustra, which concluded the concert, came across suitably mystical.  Both works showcased the orchestra’s talents, a fullness of sound and character.  They also demonstrated how modern Strauss could sound, breaking ground as a tone poet (coming after Liszt, in this regard, but pressing ever forward into the twentieth century still-to-come).

 In the juxtaposition with Strauss, Mozart came off worse for the comparison.  This is not only because his clarinet concerto was composed a century before the two Strauss poems.  But coming in the final year of Mozart’s life, it did not represent anything new in particular, but more a rehash of Mozart’s usual conventions.  Certainly he was a master, and the very beautiful music and an understanding for the instrument helped.  In this case, he wrote knowingly for the clarinet, as a non-human singing voice.  And he had a sympathetic reading, by soloist Matthias Schorn, principal clarinetist of the Vienna Philharmonic, who produced a warm and fuzzy sound, big enough to fill the hall and – for added emphasis – breaking into a gorgeous mezza voce for the more delicate, yet still robust, measures.  But was it original?  

Schorn (with the orchestra) also gave the happy audience an encore: an arrangement (by Offenbach!) of Schubert’s song “Leise flehen meine Lieder.”  

Cleveland Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Bartók, Strauss

The Cleveland Orchestra came to the Salzburg Festival as this year’s American guest, under longtime music director Franz Welser-Möst.  They have a gorgeous tone, but something was definitely missing – perhaps the virtuosity of the Philadelphians, who are in a league of their own among US orchestras, let alone the personality of the Vienna Philharmonic (always the criticism Cleveland’s previous long-time music director Christoph von Dohnányi had of this orchestra, and he obviously liked his own team!).  I was clearly not the only one who felt this way: the applause was lukewarm, and although they looked like they were preparing their music stands to do an encore, the audience actually walked out pretty quickly.  This is probably unfair, since they are still probably among the top 20 orchestras in the world, and maybe #2 or #3 in the United States (Chicago is probably still a notch better than Cleveland, and neither compares with Philadelphia).

The concert opened with Béla Bartók‘s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, an exciting work whose mood jumps around and which the orchestra handled with ease.  The Orchestra does have a wonderful sound, and as a group can capture the swings in this music, but although individual instruments also sounded fantastic, they did not stand out with any particular personality.  That’s OK for orchestal ensemble playing, but the trick is still finding the balance of spectacular individual playing within the group.  And when the music swelled to tutti, it lacked fullness.  It’s not that they did not manage the volume, just that it felt surprisingly thin.

After the intermission, the Orchestra performed Tod und Verklärung and the Four Last Songs by Richard Strauss, without a break.  Welser-Möst presumably did this to capture the quotation at the end of the final song, when Strauss circles back on a theme he had written in Tod und Verklärung almost sixty years earlier.  The playing was sweet – maybe too much so for music leading to death.  The performance lacked a sense of melancholy, especially as Welser-Möst seemed inclined to take faster-than-usual tempi, which left the orchestra missing some cues.  So we raced through the middle of Tod und Verklärung, and the only thing slowing down the songs was the fact that soloist Anja Harteros clearly wanted to go more slowly than Welser-Möst.  He kept getting ahead of her, and then had to slow down for her.  I’d say she was steady, except that her voice wobbled unevenly.

The audience expected more and held this orchestra to a higher standard than it could achieve.  That assessment is probably fair, given how much the Cleveland Orchestra touts itself, but not fair in that if we’d just expected something less we might have come away impressed by some truly beautiful ensemble playing.  When are the Philadelphians coming to Salzburg?

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Strauss, Bruckner

There may be no better way to start off a long holiday weekend in Austria than at the Festival with the Vienna Phlharmonic.  They played this morning’s concert under the baton of Riccardo Muti.  The choice of works seemed uncharacteristic for him (Richard Strauss and Anton Bruckner), but the program soon made sense once underway.

The Strauss selection was his suite of incidental music from Der Bürger als Edelmann, which he originally composed for an (unsuccessful) collaboration with dramatist Hugo von Hofmannsthal and producer Max Reinhardt to update Molière’s comedy Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.  The experiment may have failed, but the component parts were all put to other uses, and Strauss made a suite of the incidental music.  Set for a modern chamber orchestra, the music paid homage to the composer of the incidental music to the original production of Molière’s play: Gianbattista Lulli (a.k.a. Jean-Baptiste Lully), Italian composer in the court of French King Louis XIV.  And it was this aspect that Muti emphasized, providing us a neo-Baroque setting with recognizably Straussian colors.  That this music served a comedy was not lost, despite the lack of words, as Muti and the orchestra performed full of humor.

Muti may not be known as a conductor of Bruckner, but he is known for Schubert, whose music heavily influenced Bruckner.  Bruckner’s Second Symphony, a relatively early work in his symphonic canon (albeit he was already 48 when he wrote the first version), in many ways builds on Schubert’s Ninth and takes the next logical step in the development of the Symphony.  Not yet a great cathedral of sound such as the ones that Bruckner would build in his subsequent work, it may instead represent an abbey.  Muti drew out the underlying Schubertian structure, to which Bruckner had affixed flying buttresses.  And with that, Muti and the Philharmoniker made sense of this symphony.

Staatsoper

Strauss, Salome

I realized that I had not been to the Staatsoper yet in 2015 (and indeed not since January 2014), so I set out to rectify that anomaly this evening. On the program, Salome by Richard Strauss.

The iconic House on the Ring shines as a symbol of Vienna. Several round-year anniversaries coincided here that meant I might not fulfill my duty if I missed the year. My city has celebrated the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Ringstraße itself in 1865. Opera Director Gustav Mahler wanted Salome’s premiere for Vienna in 1905 (but could not convince the censors, so the premiere went to Dresden). The House’s Gustav Mahler Hall currently has an exhibit commemorating the reopening of the Staatsoper in November 1955 (after being destroyed by American bombing shortly before the end of the war in 1945).

Tonight’s staging, from 1972, stepped out of the right time, the period-piece that Strauss intended. A Klimt-inspired setting, it mixed the classic with the fantasy, both in staging and costumes. Although also somewhat minimal, the blocking put the focus on the music, which in turn reflected onto the set, to make an effective whole.

As John the Baptist, Polish baritone Tomasz Konieczny demonstrated why he is much in demand, with a strong bass (including when singing from the cistern without amplification) and restrained but suggestive acting, befitting of a prophet. American soprano Lise Lindstrom as Salome took more time to get her voice to fill the hall, but did so with boldness and self-confidence (and danced her own Dance of the Seven Veils, including – unusually these days – seven veils; after five, as the music turned to the motives associated with the Baptist and his prophecies, her dancing went from flirtatious towards Herod to vindictive to the Baptist). Austrian tenor Herwig Pecoraro portrayed a sardonic and sometimes unintentionally-sarcastic Tetrarch Herod (a pathetic figure in the book, for whom the performer – such as Pecoraro – needs to find the right balance in order to make him not come across as a caricature), while English mezzo Carole Wilson, a member of the Vienna Ensemble, presented the strong-willed and nasty Herodias. In the pit, the orchestra sounded in its element under the direction of American Dennis Russel-Davies.

Although probably not a performance for the ages, tonight confirmed that the Staatsoper still sets the bar pretty high.

Boston Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Strauss, Schostakowitsch

If the Boston Symphony Orchestra may not have understood Mahler’s Sixth yesterday, they certainly understood Don Quijote by Richard Strauss today.  Strauss wrote the piece, but tonight Andris Nelsons was the story-teller on the podium.  The Orchestra responded wonderfully, with all of the nuances missing from last night’s Mahler.  Of course, it did not hurt that, portraying Don Quijote himself, Yo-Yo Ma on the cello made the title character sympathetic and tragic.  The poor knight meant well, but his delusions put him into increasingly untenable situations, until he died a broken man.  Ma started firmly, slowly succombing to fate, but keeping a positive outlook of the knight errant.  Cervantes himself barely told it better.

After the break, the orchestra returned for Schostakowitsch’s Tenth Symphony.  Once again, as for last night’s Mahler, this work was probably too big for where this orchestra is right now.  But it is easier to decipher than the Mahler, and the solo lines sounded more comfortable (excellent bassoon and contrabassoon, in particular).  If they follow Nelsons, they won’t get lost, and the story Nelsons told was one of the devastation wrought by Josef Stalin, and Schostakowitsch’s survival.  Stalin’s legacy marched out for all to see – Schostakowitsch portrayed in music the man Osip Mandelstam so vividly displayed in poetry, and that poetry echoed through the hall tonight (“every killing was a treat, for the broad-chested Ossete”).  Schostakowitsch outlived Stalin, in life and in the symphony, but the Soviet Union marched on.  Nelsons, born under Russian occupation, showed the way, if not to victory then just to survival (as his hero in last night’s Mahler Sixth also appears to have survived).

The BSO is wise to continue to follow Nelsons where he leads.  This is a conductor on a mission, with forceful readings and clear vision.

Berlin Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonie

Petrassi, Strauss, Tschaikowsky

I went to hear the Berlin Philharmonic perform in its natural environment. What an awful concert hall they play in. I did not realize. Besides the fact that it is just plain ugly, and way too big, the most important issues concern acoustics. When a small number of instruments play, or more of them play quietly, then the sound travels cleanly. But if multiple instruments are playing, especially with any volume at all, the sound turns to sludge.

So with the caveat that I could not hear them cleanly due to their lousy home hall, they sounded a bit better than they did in Vienna earlier this month, at least playing with some sense of emotion.  Gianandrea Noseda, an Italian currently based in Turin, made his first appearance with the Berliners. Although not in his bio, he would seem to be a protege of Valery Gergiev, given his dates both as an assistant at the Mariinsky and as principal guest in Rotterdam. The audience gave him a warm welcome.

The concert opened with a strange 1932 piece by Goffredo Petrassi, his Partita for Orchestra. This work tried to say everything and in the end said nothing. It had too much going on, with no clear style, and no clear direction (although three movements tried to make their own ways). The music was not unpleasant, it just had no point. Not even at least a nice melody, on one hand, or a new concept of composition, on the other.

It did allow the orchestra to warm up ahead of Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs, with soloist Camilla Nylund (subbing for an indisposed Angela Denoke). Nylund clearly had not had the benefit of the Petrassi warm up, so it took her until the middle of the second song before she came into full voice. Until then, she warbled. The solos in the orchestra were outstanding, but the dry acoustics in the hall made the bigger sections lose their shine. Nylund projected out cleanly in the final two songs, but probably would also benefit from a better venue.

After the intermission, the orchestra returned with Tschaikowsky’s Fourth Symphony. Noseda knew how to draw out the emotion, the anguish and the angst. The woodwinds were especially exceptional, particularly in their third-movement dialogue with pizzicato strings. The larger parts got muddled, hitting the ear as a blur. Fine playing, but a poor hall (then again, when they performed in the Musikverein, they did not sound so good – also a muddle in a hall with excellent acoustics). I am being hard on them, because they claim to be so good. But could it really be that the orchestra, though indeed good, may be the most over-rated orchestra on the planet?

Wiener Philharmoniker, Musikverein

Haydn, Elgar, Richard Strauss

It may seem impossible to describe the Alps to those who cannot see.  Indeed, at a performance of Richard Strauss’ Alpensymphonie earlier this year, the Stuttgart Philharmonic saw the need to accompany a photographic show on a big screen behind the orchestra.  Today, the Vienna Philharmonic performed the same work without photographs (and from my last-minute seat on the balcony behind the Musikverein organ, I could not even see the orchestra) and none were necessary.  This afternoon’s performance demonstrated how the Alps sound, emerging from the night fogs to rise dramatically over the clouds and, after meadows and glaciers and waterfalls and a huge storm, settling back into the night.  Andrís Nelsons, the young Latvian star who recently took over the Boston Symphony Orchestra, triumphantly led the Philharmonic with sensible pacing and nuance.

The concert opened with Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony (known to the German-speaking world not as “Surprise” but as the “Symphony with the Timpani Strike”).  There are various stories as to why Haydn wrote this odd work, many involving a need to keep a London audience awake.  But whatever the reason for the pounding of the timpani, the symphony is full of humor and wit.  Haydn is the father of the modern symphony, and this piece has all the architecture that later composers built on, without being formulaic – a thinking-man’s symphony.  Nelsons and the Philharmoniker clearly know how to think, and performed the symphony with a level of whimsy throughout, mixed with a fullness of sound which would not have always been available to Haydn in his day.

The middle work did not succeed.  Elgar’s Romance for Bassoon and Orchestra was an odd piece.  It never seemed to come together tonight, as though the bassoonist and orchestra used different scores.  The soloist and orchestra should know each other well: Michael Werba is the Philharmonic’s first bassoonist.  Someone who could see Nelsons’ face told me he looked quizzical on the podium.  Since I could not see any of the performers, I had no visual clues.  Suddenly it ended (which I could only know becuase the audience started to applaud – albeit a lukewarm applause).

Stuttgarter Philharmoniker, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mozart, Richard Strauss

I had a hike through the Alps this evening without leaving my seat, as the Stuttgart Philharmonic and Swiss conductor Stefan Blunier came to Salzburg’s Great Festival House.  During the performance of An Alpine Symphony by Richard Strauss, a sequence of photos by German cellist-photographer Tobias Melle projected onto the screen behind the stage.

The photos reminded me of scenes from the good CIBA-Geigy calendars of yore, back when they only had scenes of Switzerland.  Although the photographs were often spectacular, this work actually requires no photos, since Strauss described a day’s hike through the Alps so well in his music.  So, to a degree, they even distracted attention from the music.  The question became not so much what image did Strauss portray, but did the music match a specific photo (no, actually, since we have the program subtitles by Strauss himself).  But in accompanying the photos, the Stuttgart Philharmonic did its job – it clearly did not intend to sit at the center of audience attention tonight.

The program opened with a technically-sound Symphony #39 by Mozart.  Nice woodwinds.  The strings could have lilted more, however.

Munich Philharmonic, Musikverein (Vienna)

Richard Strauss

I came into Vienna for the weekend and added a concert to my schedule: the Munich Philharmonic visited the Musikverein.  Semyon Bychkov took the podium, replacing the late Lorin Maazel.  Tonight’s program was an all-Richard Strauss affair, and there may be few orchestras which master his music like this one.  The Munich Philharmonic treated us to a sumptuous sound – something that Maazel, a consumate if unbelievably dull musician – certainly refined.

The concert opened with the tone poem Don Juan, in a fiery and passionate reading (something that Maazel certainly could not have accomplished) – not only did Don Juan seduce the women, but it sounded like he’d also paid a visit to the Venusberg.  This orchestra has a lush sound that draws in the listeners, particularly with acoustics in a hall such as the Musikverein.  Although uniform at times, Bychkov kept the modulations to build overall combined sounds – allowing the mind to imagine the protrayals.  Or, perhaps, the playing left very little for the imagination – this Don Juan may have earned a X rating

The orchestra’s principal horn, Jörg Brückner, was the soloist for Strauss’ second horn concerto.  I heard his first concerto (a youthful work) in May, and now got to follow it up with the second (written near the end of Strauss’ life).  These two concerti do not form part of the common concert repertory.  But the influence of the composer’s virtuoso hornist father continued to rub off, and Strauss knew how to write for this instrument.  The model remained Mozart, like in the earlier concerto, but now he augmented the chromatics.  The horn engaged the whole orchestra, but particularly the woodwinds, in fascinating dialogue and witty repartee, and sent the audience dancing into the intermission.

For the second half of the concert, Ein Heldenleben traced a hero’s life.  Every time I thought an instrument or section deserved a highlight, along came the next performer.  There were no standouts – they were all good.  But wait, maybe there was one: concertmaster Sreten Krstič, who played the violin solos as a country fiddler, provided a level of spontaneity to the already-composed music on the page.  The applause at the concert’s end, although long and hard for everyone, rose several more notches for him.

Philharmonia Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Strauss, Bruckner

Melancholy at the Salzburg Festival tonight, with Christoph von Dohnányi and the Philharmonia Orchestra of London in town for the Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss and the unfinished Ninth Symphony of Anton Bruckner.

The link, of course, was that although these works marked the end of the composers’ outputs, and they knew it, there is a transcendence to the sadness, a lifetime of accomplishment and a job well done.  They do not defy death; nor do they seem too concerned.  When the soprano sings the final line of the last of the Strauss songs, “ist dies etwa der Tod?” (“is this perhaps death?), the orchestra answers with a quotation from Strauss’ own Death and Transfiguration.

Soprano soloist Camilla Trilling, substituting on short notice for the original soprano who got ill, never quite found her pitch which she lost somewhere in Strauss’ dense polychromatic score.  Her voice conflicted openly at times with the woodwinds.  She sounded at her best when she sang from a trance rather than trying to inflect, but her voice never projected well over the orchestra, even though Dohnányi kept the orchestra contained.  On the other hand, orchestral entrances came abruptly (and sometimes at the wrong times), which was also a little jarring.  Not a transcendental performance.

The Bruckner Ninth, on the other hand, did rise from the stage into the sky.  The playing was icy, and at the same time it was warming, the first movement touching the soul like mulled wine by a frozen lake on a cold winter day.  The woodwinds glistened.  The brass shone.  The second movement pierced, the strings automated from the industrial revolution, a forerunner of Schostakowitsch in many ways, the glory and tragedy of mankind.  The third movement surged.  Bruckner did not intend to end the symphony there, but that’s where it ended. Dohnány held out the final chord, contemplating what had gone before and what could have come.  Unfortunately, after such a note, he did not hold out the silence at the end long enough.  He dropped his arms after several seconds, but far too early, and the well-deserved applause broke in too soon.

Thomas Hampson and Wolfram Rieger, Haus für Mozart

Strauss, Mahler

Thomas Hampson presented an elegant concert of songs by Richard Strauss this evening, in the Salzburg Festival House’s small hall (oddly called the “House for Mozart”), in commemoration of the composer’s 150th birth year.

Hampson was not in full voice tonight.  This came out most apparently in the mezza voce sections, where his instrument cracked and sounded forced.  On the other hand, the performance came across as very human, which added to the elegance.  For the first half of the program, Hampson performed songs composed by Strauss over many years from the first half of his life, mostly for his wife or close acquaintances to sing in his parlor.  Hampson made these intimate.  We could almost hear a fireplace crackling.  His singing also gave the feel more of a poetry reading with piano accompaniment than of a concert.  His voice kept its musicality throughout, but the music was just there to accentuate the poems, which had their share of melancholy, backwards looking with allusions to Schubert.

Pianist Wolfram Rieger was easily Hampson’s equal.  He kept himself in the background, never overshadowing the singing or the poetic line.  When Strauss composed extended parts just for the piano, Rieger maintained the balance and flow and created more pure poetry without words.

The second half of the concert began with a strange 15-minute piece, “Notturno” – music by Strauss to words by Richard Dehmel, where violinist Yamei Yu joined Hampson and Rieger.  Her violin squeeked too much.  This broke the poetry.  Of course, the piece was strange enough to break the poetry as well.  There is probably a reason it is seldom performed.

The scheduled program concluded with three later songs based on poems by Friedrich Rückert.  I think Mahler picked the better selection of Rückert poetry, and probably also wrote more dramatic and emotional song music than Strauss.  Hampson gave us one of these Mahler settings of Rückert as his final encore, with astonishing contrast.  For the other encores, Hampson pointed out that Strauss had lived for 85 years and composed right to the end – so a lot of songs.  He picked some nice ones for the encores that brought us back to the concert’s elegant first half poetry reading.

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.

Armenian Philharmonic, Khachaturian Hall

Beethoven, Mozart, R. Strauss, Brahms

I did not think anyone could make that old Steinway piano in the Khachaturian Hall sound good.  Tonight, Aleksei Lubimov somehow managed to do so, and everyone in the house knew it.  The Moscow-trained pianist lifted Mozart’s Piano Concerto #27 out from the instrument, where it must have been hiding for decades.  The Armenian Philharmonic – or a chamber group of orchestra musicians, including recognizably some of the students I heard perform on Wednesday – gave him the accompaniment he needed, but otherwise stayed out of his way.  He spoke Mozart’s idiom, and the orchestra understood.

After a rhythmic applause, Lubimov returned for an encore – a sonata from the late classical or early romantic repertory that was not a showpiece but which had suitable embellishments and could showcase his pure musicality.  When the audience would not let the second round of applause die down, Lubimov returned for another similar encore.  He had no need to be flashy when he was so musical.  The piano really is not that good these days, but he restored it as much as possible to its former glory.

On the podium tonight, Stefan Willich brought an unusual personal subplot.  Willich is actually a German cardiologist (who also trained and later taught at Harvard) who conducts as a hobby.  He founded the World Doctors Orchestra, to bring together musician-doctors to give charity concerts.  So he is used to conducting amateur orchestras.  The Armenian Philharmonic is better than amateur, but normally sounds lost without its principal conductor Eduard Topchjan.  Willich managed to keep everyone mostly together, and when they played together they sounded rather reasonable.  I think the youth movement also helped, as the Youth Orchestra has sounded better than the adult one.

The concert opened with Beethoven’Coriolan Overture, in a solid if not quite dramatic reading.  After the Mozart concerto and the intermission, Wagner’s Meistersinger Overture disappeared from the program – perhaps Willich could not keep them together in rehearsal.  Death and Transfiguration by Richard Strauss remained, and where they stayed together they managed the chromatics.  As an encore, perhaps to complete a program by substituting for the Wagner, the orchestra played a spirited and sweeping Hungarian Dance #1 by Brahms – nothing special in this piece, so they actually sounded quite fine.  Probably a wise substitution.

Concertgebouworkest, Musikverein (Vienna)

R. Strauss, Bruckner

The second of two nights in a row with Mariss Jansons and the Concertgebouw Orchestra in the Musikverein.  Tonight’s offering by these forces: Tod und Verklärung by Richard Strauss and the Seventh Symphony by Anton Bruckner.  More heavy music, today less up-beat.

Tod und Verklärung got off to an icy start, death sending chills through the hall on an already cold and wet evening.  But the orchestra swelled, the music warmed, and we were all transfixed, transformed, and transfigured.  As the last notes soared into the night, the Golden Hall sat in absolute extended silence, contemplating what we had just experienced.  And then, after a long thought, we could breathe again.  And applaud.  And reluctantly descend into intermission.

I suppose after hearing the Bartók, Mahler, and Strauss during the last three concert segments, we came to expect a transformative Bruckner 7th as well.  The Concertgebouw and Jansons had legitimately raised our expectations.  We got a very good one, but it did not quite transform nor necessarily say anything new.

This was actually the second time I have heard this symphony live this month – last with Fabio Luisi and the Symphoniker – and the interpretations came across quite distinct, but complementary.  Whereas Luisi did not take a robust approach, emphasizing other aspects of the symphony’s inner structure, Jansons certainly did shake the rafters.  This was in no way a delicate performance, yet still a fully idiomatic and non-bombastic reading of Bruckner’s symphony, with its funereal overtones (Wagner lay dying when Bruckner began the work, and died while Bruckner was composing it, and Bruckner added an entire section of Wagner Tubas to the orchestration, notably for a broad funeral chorale in the slow movement).  Jansons allowed the brass to shine, but without forgetting the full sounds elsewhere – the chorale at the opening of the first movement, scored for the cello section, proved other-worldly.  I’ve heard celli sing before, but never quite like that.