Philadelphia Orchestra, Musikverein (Vienna)

Brahms, Schumann, Strauss

It’s always wonderful to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra on tour performing in a proper hall and not the dull box they have in the Kimmel Center.  Tonight, they hit the Musikverein for the first of a two-night set with Yannick Nézet-Séguin on the podium.

The second half of the concert was spectacular, featuring the best performance of Schumann‘s Fourth Symphony I have ever heard – a mix of mystery, wistfullness, and outright joy.  This was followed by Richard Strauss‘ tone poem Don Juan, in an interpretation which emphasized the individual virtuosic lines.  Not sure where to begin on this, but maybe the duet between the oboe and clarinet was most special.  Or was it the horn solos?  Or the violin?  Or… or…  From my seat I had a good view of Nézet-Séguin, and watched him cajole the Orchestra emotionally, and then heard the immediate response.  These forces make music so well together.

This intimacy was also on show for the concert’s first half, where they were joined by Hélène Grimaud for the Brahms first piano concerto.  I am afraid not even the Philadelphia Orchestra can rescue that Brahms concerto, although it was a valiant effort.  The playing sounded great, but there was just not much to work with (or too much – an hour of musical ideas that weren’t all bad but Brahms was not creative enough to know what to do with them).  According to the program notes, Bruckner was a fan of the main theme of the first movement (“Siehst, das is a Symphoniethema!” – “You see, that is a symphony theme!” he apparently declared to a student).  Indeed, there was something there, and if it had been a Bruckner symphony we would have found ourselves dreaming in a gothic cathedral he would have built from it.  But it was a Brahms piano concerto, so all he could do with it was plant a vegetable garden for the monks.  Maybe they were good vegetables, and maybe Grimaud, Nézet-Séguin, and the Philadelphians made good tour guides, but I’d rather admire Bruckner’s cathedral than wander around in Brahms’ monastery farm.

The concert had very high security (indeed, I have never seen so much security for anything in Austria, including when I attended a reception hosted by the President last Fall with many other dignitaries from Austria and neighboring countries in the room).  Armed police roamed everywhere (outside and inside the building), as did ubiquitous Israeli close protection teams.  There were also a bunch of huge men who looked like nightclub bouncers stationed around the hall (apparently recommended by the Israelis).

This all had to do with the fact that at the end of the Orchestra’s European tour tomorrow, they head off to tour Israel, and the anti-Semites are protesting everywhere.  The Orchestra started its tour in Belgium, one of the most anti-Semitic countries in Europe today (I make no excuses for Austria, its failure to address its history, and the fact that unrepentent German nationalists with an arguably classical national socialist political agenda are sitting in the current government – but Austria is actually pretty tame, which is frightening).  So in Brussels the Orchestra’s concert was repeatedly interrupted by anti-Semitic protestors, which led the Orchestra to contact the Israelis for advice and the host cities on the rest of the European tour for high alerts.  At the start of tonight’s concert, a Musikverein representative came on stage to announce that if there were a protest, then the Orchestra would stop playing and walk off the stage, and return to start the concert over after the protest ended; so, since the Orchestra believes in the right to free speech, it was requested that if anyone in the audience wanted to protest, that they do so now before the concert began.  There was a loud applause for the announcement, but no protest.

And there was certainly no protest about the concert itself.  I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s.

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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.

Waseda Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Nicolai, Strauss, Tschaikowsky, Ishii

The Waseda Symphony Orchestra stopped in Salzburg on its European tour, along with a troupe of traditional Japanese drummers.  This orchestra is the student orchestra of Waseda University, which does not actually have a music department so all of these students are studying something else.

The orchestra, under Kazufumi Yamashita, was enthusiastic and quite adept.  Otto Nicolai‘s Overture to The Merry Wives of Windsor opened ahead of the Sinfonia Domestica by Richard Strauss.  The legato string playing sometimes managed to capture the right Austrian lilt (neither composer was Austrian, but both had deep connections here – among other things, Nicolai co-founded the Vienna Philharmonic and Strauss co-founded the Salzburg Festival).  The Sinfonia Domestica, with its many exposed lines, allowed Yamashita to showcase different members of the winds – with an especially excellent oboist.  Tschaikowsky‘s fantasy overture Romeo and Juliette came across just as enthusiastically if somewhat less successfully to start the concert’s second half (many of the wind players seemed to have changed, so this must have been the “B” team).

The Taiko Drummers marched on stage next, their sleeveless shirts flamboyantly displaying enormous muscled arms.  It quickly became clear why they needed those, as they banged away on their selection of traditional drums during the Mono Prism for Japanese Drums and Orchestra, by Maki Ishii.  The orchestral accompaniment essentially set the background mood, upon which the drummers built their huge sounds.  Ishii had explained that the name “mono” referred to monochrome, so where this piece had no melodies it was instead a rhythmic showpiece.

Two encores followed: the first was an orchestral piece (which I did not recognize), where the principal oboist came back out to shine in dialogue with the orchestra.  The second encore was another piece for the Japanese drums and orchestra, this one more colorful, almost with the throbbing passion of a Brazilian Carnival.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Strauss

Hector Berlioz, Felix Mendelssohn, and Richard Strauss all traveled to Italy as young men (the first two at the same time, although not together), which inspired them to write italianate works, which the Mozarteum Orchestra and Riccardo Minasi presented at a Sunday matinee this morning.

Minasi animates the orchestra, particularly during the faster parts (when he takes particularly frenetic tempi).  The slower movements dance, where there is lilt.  Where there is meant to be broader color – painted landscapes, for example – he does not always complete the picture, although this orchestra has the talent to produce the full palette.

The former (frenetic style) was on display in the Overture to Berlioz’ opera Benvenuto Cellini, which came across a bit crazy, a warm-up for Mendelssohn’s Fourth Symphony (“Italian”), whose outer movements had a definite forward drive, and whose interior movements had a certain spring in the step but not necessarily the fullness of tone.

Richard Strauss’ under-performed youthful work Aus Italien, is a four-movement tone poem, and perhaps here in the first three movements may have been too north-of-the-Alps in structure (if not in inspiration) for Minasi.  The first movement especially foreshadows the tonal lushness Strauss would later develop.  The final movement, though closer to Minasi’s rambunctious style, is actually the weakest link: Strauss mistook Funiculì Funiculà as a Neapolitan folk song and used it as the basis for his final movement – its (then very much alive) composer, Luigi Denza, sued Strauss for plagiarism and apparently recovered quite a bit in royalties.  Strauss should have quietly cut the final movement, which does not go with the first three anyway, but at least Minasi and the Mozarteum Orchestra had fun with it this morning.

 

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Strauss, Bruckner

Herbert Blomstedt turned 90 last month.  I suppose when a conductor turns 90, he is entitled to sit down while conducting – that would seem to be the only change I noticed with him since I saw him last year.  He remains an architect on the podium, carefully constructing the musical edifice in front of him – today in Salzburg’s Great Festival House with the Vienna Philharmonic (which, according to the program, he never conducted before 2011, much to the orchestra’s regret; they seem to be making up for the oversight, now inviting him frequently).

 

This morning’s interpretation of Bruckner‘s Seventh Symphony came across almost as a chamber work in its intimacy, upon which towers of sound found their foundations.  This was a massive cathedral complex – but like many of the best-designed cathedral complexes, there are cloisters with gardens and fountains where monks can quietly contemplate the world although surrounded by a huge stone edifice.  Are these quiet corners the foundation supporting the domes and spires, or are they respite?  A good architect leaves that question unanswered, because both components must form a coherent whole.  And that was the version of Bruckner’s seventh that Blomstedt gave us this morning.

 

To intelligently introduce  such an intimate reading of Bruckner, the concert had opened with the Metamorphoses of Richard Strauss.  This was a chamber work, for 23 strings, also intimate and tragic.  Strauss started the sketch while contemplating the destruction of his home town, Munich, and completed it after American and British bombers wiped Dresden off the map.  He infused the music with a theme from the funeral music of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, and one can picture a chamber music group sitting amid the rubble of some obliterated concert hall rehearsing (the premiere actually took place in Zurich in 1946).  “For 12 years, bestiality, ignorance, and illiteracy have ruled under the greatest criminals,” Strauss wrote in his diary.  “At the same time, the fruits of German cultural development, created over 2,000 years, were delivered over to extinction, and irreplaceable buildings and works of art were destroyed by criminal scum.”

 

The apolitical Strauss had stayed in Germany after 1933 in the name of German culture.  Strauss’ own grandchildren were Jewish, as was much of his social and professional sphere (he had even co-founded the Salzburg Festival with Max Reinhardt, who was Jewish, and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who was of Jewish ancestry and who had married back into the faith).  But as the greatest German composer of his day, the Nazis appointed Strauss president of the composers’ union in 1933 until 1935, when the Gestapo intercepted a letter he wrote to his Austrian Jewish librettist Stefan Zweig criticizing the Nazi Aryan mythos and put it on Hitler’s desk.  Hitler immediately had Strauss fired.  I suppose he was lucky.

 

That’s a lot of emotion to be wrapped up in, and reduced to, a surprisingly intimate concert.

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.