Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Beethoven, Stravinsky

The new concert season opened while I was in India, so this evening was my first.  Pianist Herbert Schuch joined Riccardo Minasi and the Mozarteum Orchestra in the Great Festival House for two Beethoven concerti, followed after the break by Stravinsky‘s Rite of Spring.

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #2, actually his first in order of composition, was not a fully-developed work, and indeed came off unconvincing when Lang Lang and the Camerata under Manfred Honeck performed it at the Festival during the Summer.  But perhaps they tried to do too much with it.  Schuch, Minasi, and the Mozarteum took a much more reserved approach this evening, and while that did not improve the quality of the concerto (still a student experiment that Beethoven himself did not think very highly of), they did manage to make it lyrical and demonstrate the talent that this composer would use to bring music into the 19th century.  All together, this performance exceeded the one at the Festival by every measure.

In contrast, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #5 may mark the absolute pinnacle of the Fach. These forces approached it similarly to how they did the second concerto, never trying to overwhelm anything, but now with far superior music.  The orchestra highlighted substantial dance, with Schuch providing glistening tinkling to augment the delicate colors.  Though not a robust performance, it worked well to demonstrate the composer’s development and consistency, even in contrast with his less-substantial earlier concerto.

Schuch provided an encore: a bagatelle by Beethoven, which he made look forward almost to a Strauß waltz.  However, as a solo work, it left him exposed.  The tingling technique did not succeed as well without the orchestra to provide some heft.

After the intermission, the orchestra showed its full colors with Stravinsky’s nutso ballet.  The tone was all there, but one thing was missing: the ballet.  Although quite a wild work, Stravinsky did intend performers to dance to it.  Minasi coaxed all the right tones and complicated dissonance from the orchestra, which sounded amazing, but he made the sections too detached, and lost the flow even within sections.  He is maturing as a conductor and should be applauded for his thoughtful programming, but he may not quite be there yet with some of this twentieth century music.

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Khatia Buniatishvili, Großes Festspielhaus

Schubert, Liszt, Stravinsky

I do not normally get excited about solo piano recitals, but tonight I may have a new favorite pianist.  I have heard Khatia Buniatishvili before in concert – always with orchestra and just never in solo recitals – and acknowledged her stardom.  But at 32 years old she keeps getting better, and a solo evening at the Festival allowed her to show off without an orchestra.

The concert opened with the first four Impromptus by Franz Schubert.  Since she played solo, this meant she could do things which would not be heard with any other instruments present: mezza voce on the piano!  Really?  How is that even possible?  These impromptus were not songs, but pure piano works, but Schubert gave them lyrical qualities, and she took it one step further, making me search for the words that never had existed.

The following works (three more impromptus and the rest of the concert) had swells and indeed wilder playing, but Buniatishvili never lost that lyricism, and mezza voce lines returned when needed, mixed with just the right amount of other dynamics (from dancing melodies through to outright crazy).  One hand could be delicately singing while the other jumped wildly and at volume all over the keyboard (and her third, fourth, and fifth hands added other lines – what, she only has two hands?).

Three Schubert songs followed (with brief pauses but no break for applause between them as she did not lower her hands), in arrangements for piano solo (without words) by Ferenc Liszt: the “Serenade” from Swan Song, “Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel,” and Erlkönig.  Liszt did more than just add the vocal line to the piano accompaniment, but in Lisztian fashion made embellishments.  Buniatishvili not only handled those embellishments masterfully, but she did so by practically keeping the now wordless vocal line, with all the emotion that the missing words would have provided.

After the intermission, things got even crazier, with Liszt’s own works and some Igor Stravinsky.  First after the break came a study for piano of what would eventually become Liszt’s tone poem Mazeppa.  In this version, it was recognizable as the future (better) orchestral work, but with only a piano at her disposal Buniatishvili unleashed herself like the wild horse carrying the chained Mazeppa across the steppe.  There followed Liszt’s piano arrangement of the Hungarian Rhapsody #6 (which Liszt had also orchestrated – but who needs an orchestra with Buniatishvili playing).

The final programmed work was an arrangement Stravinsky did for piano of his ballet Petrushka.  This was not a piano transcription, but rather a fantasy based on the music.  The ballet is colorfully scored, and I would not have expected it to come over well for piano – too much going on (both in contrasting lines and in colors).  Indeed, a few years ago in this hall a husband-and-wife piano team who had performed Mendelssohn’s concerto for two pianos did as an encore part of a Petrushka transcription (maybe even this one) for piano four hands and it indeed was missing a lot.  Yet somehow with only two hands, Buniatishvili managed to get everything in there.  Even watching her do it I am not sure how she did it.

The standing ovation (in a fully-packed Great Festival House – which seats well over 2,000 people) warranted two encores.  First came part of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody #2 in its piano arrangement.  Not only was this not missing the usual orchestra, but it almost seemed she did a parody of a Liszt embellishment of his own work, by adding all sorts of extra notes and riffs, and performing at what seemed like at least double speed.  A few notes were missing here and there (or her finger landed slightly wrong), but these are forgiven because I am flummoxed how she did this at all.

Buniatishvili took down the racing heartbeats in the room with a sedate second encore.  I did not recognize what it was, but it was clearly only there to calm people down rather than for any particular show.  If I had to hazard a guess, I’d guess it may have been Debussy: it seemed to want to go somewhere but never quite get anywhere, and went through a phase that felt like we had been transported to a low class night club late at night with the prostitutes circling a bunch of bored drunk men.  Since with Buniatishvili’s lyrical playing we could almost hear the words not being sung, I’m pretty sure this had to be French.  Chopin had moments like this but usually more class, and Ravel would have been equally as terrible but a bit more modern, so I’ll go with Debussy as an educated guess.  Still, under the circumstances, Buniatishvili did have to sedate everyone (the concert began at 9 p.m. and ended around 11 p.m., so non-nocturnal Festival-goers would need to go back to their hotels to sleep, and this worked).  And she demonstrates so much personality, no matter what she plays, so actually made this rather dreadful piece sound pretty good.

Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Felsenreitschule (Salzburg)

Tarrodi, Ravel, Chopin, Stravinsky, Sibelius

The Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and its new chief conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali came to the Felsenreitschule this evening with a vividly colorful Petrushka by Igor Stravinsky.  Composed between his Firebird and Rite of Spring, tonight’s performance also demonstrated how this could serve as a bridge work between those greatly-contrasting styles, as Rouvali and the Orchestra emphasized the complexities in the score – particularly in the first and fourth scenes, set in the fairground, when we could hear all the varying activities going on at once (but never jumbled).  Although a concert performance, we could almost see the ballet.

In saying we could almost see the ballet, I am not actually referring to Rouvali’s unusual conducting style – one would think he was once a ballet dancer, with his exaggerated arm motions and (controlled) leaps around the podium on his toes.  He did this throughout the concert, not just for Petrushka, so it is his style.  But the orchestra responded well – and indeed sounded much better than the last time I heard it live (under Rouvali’s overrated predecessor Gustavo Dudamel).  

The concert’s encore, the Valse Triste by Janne Sibelius, also thrived in this telling – although the extreme tempo changes may have been a bit odd (even if they actually worked), starting off and finishing very slowly, but getting very fast, or speeding up and slowing down, to emphasize an odd rhythm.

Unfortunately, as colorful as the concert was after the intermission, so was it dull before the intermission.  The concert had opened with Liguria, a tone poem from 2012 by the Swedish composer Andrea Tarrodi.  The program notes said she was inspired by Respighi’s musical canvasses of Italian landscapes, but Respighi could make pine trees exciting – I heard none of this in her work.  The waves were clear and soothing, lapping against the coast, but the music never went anywhere.

Worse was to come: Maurice Ravel‘s Piano Concerto (the one for two hands).  I suppose it was pleasant, maybe, but there just was nothing of substance there.  For such a work, the performance matched exactly.  Soloist Alice Sara Ott appeared intent on getting as little sound out of the piano as possible, tapping her fingers lightly against the keys.  She remained audible because the orchestra never overwhelmed her – Ravel had not really given them anything to do either.  This was distilled essence of music.  Ott’s encore, Frederic Chopin‘s posthumous Nocturne #20, showed more of the same technique from Ott, if slightly more of value from the composer.

Of course, there was a tragic subtext.  Ott was supposed to perform Grieg’s concerto this evening.  But late last year she felt unwell and went to have medical tests done.  Earlier this month she got the results: multiple sclerosis.  At 30 years old, she now must contemplate the end of her career.  I guess the insubstantial Ravel work is far less grueling than Grieg’s showpiece.  This is sad and I feel for her.  She has announced that medical breakthroughs mean she will fight the disease, and I wish her well and many more years in front of a keyboard.

Philadelphia Orchestra, Kimmel Center

Lindberg, Stravinsky, Prokofiev

The Philadelphia Orchestra‘s concert today was dedicated in memory of my father, so I made a rare appearance on the other side of the Pond despite some travel chaos due to winter weather in London (where I always transit through) and on the US east coast.  It’s wonderful to hear this orchestra – by far the best in the US and now clearly among the top five in the world (for those readers wondering: I’d put them on a par with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, albeit below the Vienna Philharmonic, the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra from Munich).  Their home venue in the Kimmel Center remains the biggest drawback: sitting on this stage, they always sound like they are playing behind a scrim.  The sounds come out clearly enough, but distant and simewhat dulled.  Those who have not experienced this orchestra would be wise to go hear them on tour in a hall with proper acoustics (they are coming to Europe and Israel in May and June, although I’m likely to miss them in Vienna).

Today’s concert program had no particular connection to my father, just the dedication.  The rapidly rising under-30 star Lahav Shani took the podium, for a program of music by Christian Lindberg, Igor Stravinsky, and Sergei Prokofiev.  I actually heard Shani conduct the Prokofiev work – his Fifth Symphony – already one month ago, with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra performing in Salzburg.  That performance of this war symphony was almost joyful, accenting the dancing rhythms, and so I wondered how the two orchestras might compare with Shani’s interpretation.  To my surprise, Shani gave a completely different interpretation today, one which accentuated the many talents of this orchestra.  Where the Vienna Symphony (that city’s second orchestra) sounds excellent and itself world-class, it has a more uniform sound.  The Philadelphia Orchestra is the more virtuosic, and this let Shani draw out the individual playing (but always keeping these sounds as part of an orchestral whole).  Gone was the (actually convincing if different) dancing celebration from last month; back was the desolate landscape of war tinged happily with the knowledge of impending victory.  Better orchestra, better performance.

The first half of the concert had opened with Akbank Bunka, an eclectic trumpet concerto by Lindberg, with the Orchestra’s principle trumpet David Bilger as soloist.  I may have been the only person in the hall who had heard it performed before (in Salzburg about three years ago, with Lindberg himself conducting his own Arctic Symphony Orchestra, with soloist Pacho Flores).  Again: better orchestra, better performance.  Except that it was a concerto, and despite Bilger’s clear talents, as an orchestral musician he is not the showman (Flores is).  Bilger’s warm tone blended well with the orchestra’s wintery arctic accompaniment, but did not jump out off the stage.

Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite rounded off the first half.  But someone’s phone in the audience kept ringing (bad enough that it rang, but worse that the person refused to turn it off and let it keep ringing).  Shani twice stopped and started over from the beginning.  If I had been sitting next to the person, I would have smashed his phone under my shoe.  The ushers should have done so themselves – but they did not even eject him from the hall.

Although this severely broke the mood, the Orchestra’s playing soon restored order to the world, and the Stravinsky work allowed them to showcase what they do best.  The orchestra’s justly famous strings propelled this piece (and the others), not just serving as the base for the music but actually pushing everything forward, while the winds (and percussion) added vivid color, each line exceptional.  While bringing off a full ensemble sound, the individual talents nevertheless shone.  It is this extraordinary skill set that enabled Shani to take the interpretation he did with the Prokofiev at variance with the one he used last month.

Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra, Konzerthaus (Vienna)

Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, Alfeyev

I followed the Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra and Vladimir Fedoseyev to Vienna for the third concert with them in four days.  It does help when they have a good variety on the program.  This evening, the Choir of the Moscow Synod joined them for a selection of choral church music.

The concert opened, however, with an overture that was not especially religious: to Rimsky-Korsakov‘s opera The Invisible City of Kitezh.  I suppose that was to set the mood, which it did with its hymnlike theme, although rearranging the stage to shift the right musicians and instruments afterwards before the choral music rather broke the mood.

Two selections from Rachmaninov‘s All Night Vigil followed: Rachmaninov’s take on traditional Russian church music forms.  This made a nice bridge to Stravinsky‘s Symphony of Psalms, which took an old idea and somehow created an entirely new concept all together.  The chorus pulled both sets off, with the orchestra – or the odd group of musicians Stravinsky scored the work for – joining in merrily.  Indeed, this was a merry reading, a happy way to praise the Lord.  Stravinsky’s method was rather complex, but under Fedoseyev’s organizing structure it sounded almost easy.

These works nicely set the table for something new (or was it also just something old made new?) after the intermission: works by the composer Grigoriy Alfeyev, who under his ordination name, Metropolitan Hilarion, is the Russian Orthodox Church’s current minister of external relations.  He’s a little older than me, but exactly overlapped with me at Oxford when we were both doing our doctorates (I don’t believe we ever met).

The first piece by Alfeyev set the Catholic Latin text Stabat Mater.  Not surprisingly, then, it opened in a classical church music tradition that suggested some influence from Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and early Bruckner (when Bruckner was still composing church music).  It then moved from the Brucknerian in the (not actually unrelated) direction of Taneyev (who was the great professor of counterpoint at the Moscow conservatory in the late 19th century).  Taneyev’s students included Rachmaninov and Scriabin, so it was probably not surprising that the piece started to head that way… except for some neo-Baroque orchestral interludes.

Alfeyev’s Songs of Pilgramage followed, based on excerpts from Psalms in Russian language translations.  Perhaps because they were Russian texts (and not Latin), they owed more to a combination of traditional Russian choral church music but passed through the development of Mussorgsky, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Stravinsky and beyond.  I suppose befitting a high-ranking figure in the Russian Orthodox Church, it never got too radical, and the textual language remained clear (thanks also to the talent of the choir), but it nevertheless came across as new and fresh.  Fedoseyev, on the podium, seemed careful.  Indeed, if I had to categorize his interpretive style in all three concerts I have heard this week, I would say that Fedoseyev has demonstrated enormous control over the performances, keeping them well-contained and allowing for full color – if not especially bold, then at least especially balanced and thoughtful.

Brussels Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Connesson, Lalo, Saint-Saëns, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Bizet

The Brussels Philharmonic, visiting Salzburg’s Great Festival House this week for a three-night set with its music director Stéphane Denève, sounds like it takes representing its home city seriously: technically proficient, I suppose, but no personality.

The first half of the concert consisted of French music, which was not the problem but probably did not help.  A short contemporary work, Maslenitza, by Guillaume Connesson opened the performance.  A trip to Russia and Russian music supposed inspired the composer to write this piece, but I heard nothing particularly Russian about it.  It consisted of several tonal melodies or phrases, with no apparent logic for why so many and why he put them in the order he did.  An inoffensive muddle.

The concert dragged on with Edouard Lalo‘s cello concerto: still inoffensive, maybe less of a muddle, but no real point either.  It did contain some wonderful dancing melodies (especially one interplaying the solo cello and the flute in the slow second movement), but they never really went anywhere.  The soloist, Gautier Capuçon, had a large sweet and quite beautiful tone well-matched for this music – if anyone could have made something of it, he could have.  He and the orchestra followed this up with an encore: the “Swan” from Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saëns, an animal of grace (thankfully short, however, so it had a point and finished).

The second half of the concert left France and moved to Russia for two sets of ballet excerpts: a long set from Cinderella by Sergei Prokofiev and a suite from the Firebird by Igor Stravinsky.  Both actually danced, but neither sounded particulary Russian, the orchestra producing melifluous sounds instead of the somewhat more biting tones a Russian orchestra would produce (although, bizarrely, during the finale of the Firebird, Denève oddly highlighted the strings above the orchestral balance by getting them to attack their instruments as though trying to use their bows to saw their instruments clean in half – out of character for this concert, but not especially clear in motive either.

As a final encore, the orchestra returned to French music and performed the farandole from the incidental music by Georges Bizet to The Girl from Arles: again proficiently – indeed pleasantly – but without nearly the verve and personality demonstrated, for example, by the Cadaqués Orchestra in this same hall last month for this same piece.

I am busy the next two nights, and so never bought tickets for the next performances (tonight is my monthly Wednesday subscription concert).  I’m probably not missing anything.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Mozarteum

Schostakowitsch, Haydn, Stravinsky, Liszt, CPE Bach

The new musical year opened tonight in Salzburg, with an extremely eclectic concert by the Mozarteum Orchestra under its brand new chief conductor Riccardo Minasi in the Mozarteum’s Great Hall.  The orchestra is apparently very enthusiastic about Minasi, not least because he promises to schedule unusual works such as tonight’s combination: Dmitri Schostakowitsch‘s Festive Overture, Joseph Haydn‘s first Te Deum in C (he wrote two), Igor Stravinsky‘s Fireworks, Ferenc Liszt‘s Preludes, and finally CPE Bach‘s Magnificat.  Whew!

Enthusiasm permeated the room.  I’m not clear if this lead to the generally faster-than-normal tempi Minasi took, or if he really meant to play everything faster.  I could say the same about the volume, which rarely dropped below forte.  But this produced a breathless buzz (sometimes a bit chaotic, as in Stravinsky’s rarely-heard and refreshingly peculiar Fireworks; sometimes literally breathless, as in it was hard to believe the musicians managed to keep up and get all of the notes in for the opening of CPE Bach’s Magnificat).  Everyone had a twinkle in their eyes – and sometimes an unrestrained laugh, as the first four works were relatively short and the orchestra (and chorus) had to rearrange themselves frequently and with great difficulty between them (when Minasi chose the works for this concert, he probably did not realize they were in the Mozarteum, which has a much smaller stage than the Great Festival House where they often perform).

The orchestra sounded in its accustomed form, with the Salzburg Bach Chorus joining them magnificently for the two choral works.  Three of the four soloists – Kim-Lillian Strebel (soprano), Dara Savinova (alto), and Fulvio Bettini (bass) – had wonderful voices which blended nicely with orchestra and chorus even as they projected cleanly.  The fourth soloist, tenor Barry Banks, was a disaster for the ears, unable to find his pitches (especially painful in his upper register) and with an ugly hoarse (but loud) timbre.

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.

Norrköping Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mendelssohn, Lecuona, Stravinsky, Mahler

Tonight I had quite a discovery in Salzburg’s Great Festival House: the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra from Sweden.  This orchestra sprung to the rescue for a two-night set in Salzburg when the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra canceled its European tour (as the result of a budget crisis, I have been told).  The new orchestra generously took over kept the same conductor (Florian Krumpöck), soloists, and program as the Jerusalemites (Jerusalemers? Yerushalaimi? what is the adjectival form of Jerusalem anyway?) with one substitution tonight – Mahler‘s First instead of his Ninth (so I’ll get the First twice within one month, as the Mozarteum Orchestra has it scheduled for my next Sunday subscription concert in May).

 

A number of conductors have launched their careers in Norrköping, among them Herbert Blomstedt and Franz Welser-Möst, but for some reason I’ve never heard of it.  Now I have, and that makes me happy.

 

The concert tonight led off with Felix Mendelssohn‘s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, which he wrote when he was only fourteen and of which he and his sister Fanny gave the premiere (also performing the orchestra parts between them, since they lacked an orchestra and only had the two pianos).  For what it was, it showed the composer’s real talent – but it was essentially only reworked Mozart and not one of his finer works  (by the composer’s own recognition – he never published it).  Still, it did provide a platform for Felix and Fanny to show off their enormous talents, and they probably had fun with it as the Israeli duo of Sivan Silver and Gil Garburg (not sister and brother, but a married couple) clearly had fun together tonight, throwing lines of music back and forth at each other from two interlocking pianos.

 

Silver and Garburg then gave us two encores on a single piano but with four hands.  First came Ernesto Lecuona‘s Malagueña, followed by an arrangement of the opening of Petrushka by Igor Stravinsky (as much as they hammed it up, it’s still better orchestrated).

 

After the intermission came the anticipated Mahler First, the substitution.  Actually, as an earlier composition by Mahler, it probably was a better choice to come after the youthful Mendelssohn work.  The orchestra performed the symphony in technicolor – this was quite an exuberant performance.  They captured the dancing melodies better than the underlying melancholic ones, but that made it happier, I suppose.  Unfortunately, conductor Krumpöck intentionally could not keep a temp – he kept switching tempi radically throughout, the way Leopold Stokowski used to alter some works to make them (he thought) more dramatic.  But when the work is already dramatic, these sudden and unwarranted tempo shifts all over the place just make it confused.

 

As another encore, Krumpöck and the Nörrkopingers gave us Mahler’s so-called “Blumine” movement, which I actually do not believe I have ever heard live before (only recordings).  This was a movement from an early piece of incidental music Mahler wrote.  When he discarded that other work (no copies are known to have survived), he stuffed this one movement into a draft of his First Symphony, since it had some melodic ties (as do many of Mahler’s works with each other), but then thought better of it so removed it again.  Mahler was right not to include it in his symphony, but the Norrköpingers made a good case for it as a symphonic fragment standing by itself.

 

Let’s see what they do with Beethoven and Bruckner tomorrow.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Stravinsky, Schwertsik, Lindberg, Gruber

This month’s Sunday morning subscription concert of the Mozarteum Orchestra featured a decidedly contemporary selection.  The composer HK Gruber conducted and introduced each work – a guided tour of the scores, as it were.

The concert opened with something relatively traditional: Four Norwegian Impressions by Igor Stravinsky, written for a film to portray the German occupation of Norway during the Second World War. As Gruber pointed out, the music was not especially martial nor really Norwegian – mostly it was Stravinsky.  These short little-heard pieces were fine music if nothing special – from Stravinsky’s “weak period,” but Gruber said he wished he could write as well as Stravinsky in his “weak period.”

The remaining works on the program were by still-living composers.  Some tone poems followed by Kurt Schwertsik, from his multi-year cycle Earthly Sounds – from which Gruber selected Five Nature Pieces (Wind, Thunder, Rain, Water, Birds) composed in 1984 and With the Giant Boots composed in 1991.  Schwertsik was apparently driven out of his German compositional school for daring to write tonal music.  These were not old-fashioned, just tonal, and relied to a great extent on special effects in the heavily enlarged percussion section.  The Five Nature Pieces, all short, ended up being more gimmick than substance – pleasant enough music, but without the special effects there was not much there.  The piece With the Giant Boots was much longer, which actually meant that Schwertsik had sufficient time to do development in the orchestra, making this a much more satisfying work.  Schwertsik himself came on stage for a long bow and warm applause.

After the intermission came the Clarinet Concerto by Magnus Lindberg, composed in 2002.  Of all the works on this morning’s program, this probably succeeded the most.  It was also tonal, but mixed a range of styles and approaches (and according to Gruber, Lindberg is fond of drastic tempo changes and explored some with us before the piece began).  This may have been the music of George Gershwin if he had lived until 2000 – and had been born in post-Sibelian Finland.  The young British clarinetist Mark Simpson demonstrated all the different skillsets required to pull off the solo parts.

For the last work of the morning, Gruber introduced his own 2002 composition, Dancing in the Dark.  Gruber sees himself as the heir of the Viennese musical tradition, so his music harks back to previous eras while taking new directions.  But this mix of styles and reliance on special effects gets a bit tiresome.  So while nothing was quite wrong with this work, there was no commonality and it never seemed to go anywhere even as it did not quite sit still either.  Maybe if it had come earlier in the concert, or as part of a concert not entirely dedicated to this type of music, it may have fared better just by being original.  Coming at the end today, it simply got lost.

Entertaining curiosities with enlightening presentation – for that we have Gruber to thank.  Other than the Lindberg, I am not sure I need to hear these works again.

Wiener Philharmoniker, Musikverein

Stravinsky, Schostakowitsch

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

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

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

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

Camerata Salzburg, Mozarteum

Stravinsky, Mozart, Tschaikowsky

Mozart in the Mozarteum this evening kicked off August at the Salzburg Festival, along with some of his admirers.

Pinchas Zukerman led the Camerata Salzburg on an intelligent chamber music course.  Rather than jumping in with Mozart and building, he started with the most modern piece on the program: Igor Stravinsky’Concerto for String Orchestra.  Although a piece from his neo-classical period, this was only Mozartean in form.  Stravinsky’s harmonics and syncopations made its mid-20th-century provenance clear.  For a short work, Stravinsky stripped out the nonsense and replaced it with charm, each strange harmony of syncopation coming unexpectedly but in just the right places.

Hearing that Stravinsky work first before anything by Mozart meant not seeing the Mozartean influence in Stravinsky, but rather hearing the first work by Mozart as a fore-runner of the modern.  Mozart’s Violin Concerto #5 had its own amusements, considering its 18th-century origin.  Zukerman, who picked up his violin to play the solos while conducting, intentionally did not show a warm tone, but rather propelled the music robustly.  If Stravinsky had given us a modern reinterpretation of classical form, Mozart, as performed here, gave us a glimpse of the modern from the classical period itself.

After the intermission, Mozart’s Serenade #6 – Serenata Nocturna – sounded more stereotypically Mozartean, both in terms of its more traditional harmonics and rhythms, and also for its churlish humor: Mozart oddly scored a bass as part of the concertino with solo lines, and added a flamboyant tympani to a chamber string orchestra.

The concert concluded with Tschaikowsky’Serenade for Strings, written as a hommage to Mozart, Tschaikowsky’s favorite composer.  But where Tschaikowsky called for the “largest possible” string orchestra (essentially the string section of a full symphony orchestra), Zukerman kept only the core members of the Camerata Salzburg on stage.  A chamber performance of this work emphasized many of the delicate nuances that get lost, but these performers could still fill the hall with sound during the larger portions.  A rousing end.

Philadelphia Orchestra, Kimmel Center

Stravinsky, Schostakowitsch, Prokofiev

I rushed up from Washington to Philadelphia in time to hear Valery Gergiev conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra in three very different symphonies by Russian composers. What Stravinsky’s Symphony in C, Schostakowitsch’s 9th, and Prokofiev’s 5th had in common was intriguing rhythmic combinations, which make them fun, if difficult, to play.  The Philadelphians proved themselves up for the challenge.

The Stravinsky might be the oddest of the lot.  Written over a period of a couple of years, it is not quite clear that the composer ever had a clear vision or plan for this work.  The creativity came in the rhythmic shifts and juxtapositions across the instruments.  A medium-sized orchestration never became too overpowering, and the Philadelphians played the work with dexterous delicacy: tender moments prevailing through jarring jabs of sound.

In some respects, the orchestra sounded as though it had started the concert by going mostly through motions, taking a while to warm up during the piece.  The playing was fine, but some sparkle lacked at the outset.  Part of that may have been Stravinsky’s lack of clarity in this work.  Certainly, by the time the Schostakowitsch came, the Orchestra was now ready.

Schostakowitsch’s work marks a triumph of his own spirit at a time of triumph for his country.  The communists expected a major work to crown their victory in the Second World War, and Schostakowitsch gave them a sarcastic one.  The work dances – maybe not with as much syncopation as Stravinsky’s or with the balletic sweeps of the Prokofiev that followed, but nevertheless it showed a certain celebration alternating with dark brooding.  Although Soviet Russia had defeated Nazi Germany, it remained Soviet Russia, its peoples enslaved.  The irony did not escape notice that the Orchestra took its cues from Gergiev, a close friend of (and apologist for) current Russian strongman Vladimir Putin.  But politics aside (and sticking to music-making), Gergiev successfully shaped this symphony with his clawing fingers, giving it a fuller and more meaningful reading than the Stravinsky.

The Prokofiev symphony after the intermission provided something more in line with what the communist regime would have wanted.  Written shortly before the end of the European war, as the Red Army advanced to liberate (and re-enslave) Eastern Europe, Prokofiev could use dramatic language and large forces to portray both the uplifting triumph and sad laments of the battlefield, while still maintaining a modern musical language characterized by its own dancing rhythms.  The Orchestra’s sound came across full when it had to, but the solo lines throughout emerged with sensitivity and virtuosity.

Stadler Quartet and Ariane Haering, Schloß Leopoldskron

Beethoven, Schubert, Stravinsky, Ravel, Webern, Lehár

Tonight I got to play the role of Max Reinhardt and organize and present a concert in the Great Hall of Schloss Leopoldskron for an invitation-only audience of international dignitaries.  The concert took place as part of the program “1814, 1914, 2014: Lessons from the Past, Visions for the Future” on the state of international diplomacy.  I programmed only pieces composed in 1814 and 1914, for which I brought in Salzburg’s leading string quartet, the Stadler Quartet (headed by the Mozarteum’s concertmaster Frank Stadler) and top piano soloist, the Swiss-born Ariane Haering.

The first two pieces on the program, from 1814, were private works never intended for public performance, which added to the sense of intimacy.  Ludwig van Beethoven wrote the Piano Sonata in e-minor, op. 90, for his friend Moritz von Lichnowsky, a Silesian aristocrat having an affair with an opera singer whom he later married (hence one of the movements is labeled to be performed in a “singable manner” – which Haering certainly did).  Franz Schubert’s String Quartet #8, composed in only eight days while Schubert was still only 17 years old, tested the composer’s many talents to reflect his astonishing development, although he never decided to publish the work during his lifetime.  The Stadler Quartet’s performance made the work sound very mature.

Moving along to 1914, the music became less harmonious.  Igor Stravinsky‘s friends considered his Three Pieces for String Quartet to be unfinished fragments.  He called them “abstract music” and published them anyway.  These works were fun – as written and as performed with a smirk.

Maurice Ravel wrote to his friend Stravinsky that he had rushed the composition of his Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano, because he wanted to enlist in the French Army and feared the Great War would end before he had a chance to fight if he did not hurry up and finish.  So he rushed it and ran to enlist, and the senseless War lasted four more horrible years.  Tonight we programed the third movement, Passacaille (Très Large), as a slow and dancing contrast to the Stravinsky work, with sumptuous playing by these musicians.

The Ravel movement also contrasted with the final programmed work, Anton von Webern’s Three Small Pieces for Cello and Piano.  Webern considered these a “distillation of music” and all three pieces together lasted less than two minutes.  At around the time he wrote these, Webern was also my grandmother’s music theory teacher in Vienna, so I have a particular soft spot for him.  Webern’s music was banned by the Nazis as “degenerate,” but he survived the Second World War only to be shot mistakenly by an American soldier in 1945 while offering a light to another American soldier, who thus perpetuated an American stereotype.

Although charming, Webern’s work was not going to send our guests humming into dinner.  So after poking around for something suitable, Frank Stadler and I settled on an arrangement for string quartet of the Weibermarsch from Ferenc Lehár’s Lustige Witwe.  Although not composed in 1914 (it was written in 1905), the operetta did reflect the mood before the First World War, and created a bit of a scandal by parodying the life of Crown Prince Danilo of Montenegro, who preferred the brothels in Paris to his homeland.  This march got feet tapping: “Yes, the study of women is hard!”

This was quite a fun concert to put together.  I also personally learned a lot researching the pieces, since chamber music is not my specialty, and these particular works are anyway not often performed.  I think the concert had a good balance and it certainly had top-of-the-line performers who could pull it off.  In fact, the Stadler Quartet specializes in contemporary music, and could add some 2014 pieces to the mix to fill out an entire program of 1814-1914-2014.  I decided against anything that contemporary, and did not want to worry about copyright issues, but could easily foresee a third section of this program developing and appearing in a concert nearby later this year.

Camerata Salzburg, Khachaturian Hall (Yerevan)

Stravinsky, Mozart, Beethoven

Pinchas Zukerman and the Camerata Salzburg brought chamber music to the stage of the Khachaturian Hall.  They provided beautiful and delicate playing, but had a hard time filling the large hall with sound, particularly the strings, who foud themselves regularly overwhelmed by the winds, who were certainly not themselves overplaying.

This issue became apparent right from the first piece: Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite.  Without thicker strings, the dischords Stravinsky intentionally put in the winds stood out more, making this neo-classical work odder than the composer intended.  For Mozart’Haffner Serenade, with Zukerman conducting with his violin, the situation improved somewhat.  Still, Zukerman got a lush sound from his instrument, and it easily left the stage and reached our ears, which contrasted with the subdued Camerata strings.

The balance finally worked after the intermission, for Beethoven’s Romance #1 for Violin and Orchestra.  Essentially a work for solo violin augmented by chamber orchestra, Zukerman took over the playing more assertively, and the orchestra did not need to stand out but rather just had to back him up.  And with their gorgeous playing, they did just that.

Mozart’s Symphony #39 closed the program.  Here, the strings put a little more oompf into their playing, but again the wind section dominated.   An encore Mozart menuetto, scored with limited wind lines, demonstrated that the strings, playing almost alone, could make a bigger impact, even in this cavernous hall.  I just left wondering if maybe they need to perform in a more intimate venue.

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

R. Strauss, Stravinsky

After a break for coffee and cake, I returned to the Musikverein for the Vienna Symphony with Fabio Luisi.  I recognized a lot of people at the second concert from the first, so maybe others are catching on to my methods.

This orchestra enjoys a clear rapport with Luisi, its chief conductor since 2005, and has sounded fantastic in recent years.  No doubt he has them well-trained.  Luisi’s own performances are reliable, but never rise up to anything that would bring down the house.  I suppose the guest conductors must do that, thankful that Luisi has the orchestra in top form.  But even if his performances may not shatter the earth, they do provide high-quality musical entertainment.

This evening’s concert opened with an extremely playful rendition of Till Eulenspiegel by Richard Strauss.  Luisi coaxed sumptuous tones from the orchestra while keeping the pace light.   Then Pianist
Rudolf Buchbinder joined the orchestra for Strauss’ Burleske for Piano and Orchestra, composed shortly before Till Eulenspiegel, and in some ways a study for it with its good-humored pacing and instrumental dialogue.  Buchbinders fingers must have broken some world speed records – I am not sure my fingers could move that fast even if it were not necessary to hit the right notes.  He, on the other hand, made it look effortless.

After the intermission, Stravinsky’Petrushka sounded a logical connection to the first half of the program, particularly in Stravinsky’s 1947 reworking.  The fairground setting of the ballet drew from the Straussian experience, adding new dissonances and contrasts, and making the most of the orchestra’s many talents showcasing their solos.  With this orchestra, there was no need to stage the ballet, since the lines themselves danced right up to poor Petrushka’s tragic end.

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Stravinsky, Tomasi, Tschaikowsky

I would not normally describe Tschaikowsky’s Symphony #6 as “rousing,” but tonight’s performance by the Vienna Symphony under Hans Graf was exceptional.  The first movement began with a low, dark grumble which felt like it had emerged slowly from the floorboards of the Musikverein.  This swelled into waves of emotion, which washed from the orchestra over the audience.  By the third movement, the only one which does not end quietly, the musicians had reached a feverish intensity.  Although the Musikverein audiences are usually good about their applause (sometimes tourists have been known to applaud at inappropriate times, but this is rare), the crescendo at the end of this third movement had the audience roaring, with wild applause across the hall.  Indeed, I am not sure if any of the audience members could really contain themselves, the emotions had simply grown that high.  The orchestra, which might be expected to react to such an interruption with annoyance, appeared instead to expect it.  After acknowledging what happened, the orchestra picked up with the final movement.  This gradually faded out, much the way the first movement had begun – returning to a low grumble under the floorboards.  A drained audience gathered its breath, and then the applause resumed long and hard.

This performance made up for the two uninteresting works which had graced the program before the intermission.  The concert had opened with Stravinsky’s rarely performed (for good reason) divertimento “The Fairy’s Kiss.”  A homage to Tschaikowsky, Stravinsky had orchestrated lesser-known music by Tschaikowsky with his own colors, and had then reworked the piece several times over a period of decades.  The only thing worth hearing was how Tschaikowsky’s music translated into Stravinksy’s tonal colors.  But the curiosity value soon faded – there was a good reason the original pieces by Tschaikowsky were themselves rarely performed, and Stravinsky added minimal curiosity but no drama, worth filing away with his other lesser works.  Kudos to the Symphoniker’s woodwinds, though, for some virtuosic playing.

For the second piece on the program, the excellent trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger made one of his frequent guest appearances in Vienna, this time as the soloist for Henri Tomasi’s trumpet concerto (1948).  Sadly, Tomasi would seem to be yet another of a long line of dull French composers with nothing to say.  The music was not unpleasant, and Hardenberger gave it an exceptionally skillful reading, but it simply did not go anywhere.  Worth filing away somewhere with Stravinsky’s Fairy’s Kiss.

Russian State Symphony Orchestra, Moscow Conservatory

Stravinsky, Chausson, Ravel, Rachmaninov

I attended an unplanned concert at the Moscow Conservatory – the 75th Anniversary Concert of the Russian State Symphony Orchestra.  When I was deciding what concerts interested me this month, this concert had a different program and conductor, and so I had marked it off the list.  But it seems that all that changed while I was away from Moscow.  I swung by the afternoon before the concert to see if any tickets would be available, and there were a few left up in the top level of the second balcony (but the hall has great acoustics, so this only meant it was hard to see the orchestra, but I could hear just fine).

This is the orchestra Yevgeny Svetlanov led for 35 years before he was fired in 2000 (after Putin came in), when the Ministry of Culture suddenly questioned his patriotism.  Mark Gorenstein, an impossibly dull Soviet wand-waver, was appointed to replace him.  The Orchestra musicians have been miserable ever since (but stay because the orchestra pays relatively very well for Russia).  Finally this Summer the musicians got up the courage to demand that Gorenstein be fired.  When this did not happen, they simply refused to show up for rehearsals this Fall, and all of their concerts this season have been canceled one-by-one as a result.  Two weeks ago, while I was away, Gorenstein got the axe and the young and dynamic Vladimir Jurowski was appointed in his place effective immediately.  Today was Jurowski’s first appearance with the orchestra in his new position.

The program opened with Stravinsky’Firebird Suite.  This is still the most Russian-sounding of orchestras, and the flagship of the state orchestra system, so it was fitting to open the anniversary concert with a showpiece.  Jurowski made the most of it, generating excitement with each scene in the suite.  If he had added the entire ballet as an encore, no one in this audience (nor in the orchestra) would have objected.  I have a soft-spot for this piece, since I think it was the first recording I ever owned as a child (with Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony Orchestra – a birthday present from my sister).  Hearing it fresh tonight, with a fully-charged orchestra and conductor happy to be there, made me remember the joy and excitement of putting on that record for the first time way back in my childhood.

After this thrilling start, the concert unfortunately shifted to French composers.  The choice for the next two pieces was curious, since they certainly do not figure in the core repertory for this orchestra, nor should they figure in the core repertory for any orchestra.  While, starting in the mid-19th Century, Russia discovered classical music and has since produced enormous quantities of exciting material (possibly the only civilized thing the Russians do produce), France has inexplicably seemed incapable of having any composer other than Berlioz (whom the French ridiculed for his admiration of Beethoven) capable of consistently producing music of any reasonable quality.  The French never cease to amaze me just how dull the music is that they write – and I keep listening to new pieces just hoping something will come along to break the monotony, but it never does.

So tonight we had two pieces for violin and orchestra: the Poem for Violin and Orchestra by Ernest Chausson and the Gypsy Concert Rhapsody by Maurice Ravel.  Julia Fischer was the soloist.  Try as she, Jurowski, and the orchestra might, nothing they could do could bring these works to life.  And boy did they try.  Technically, they all played very well.  Fischer proved very adept.  The audience dozed, and awoke at the end of each piece to give a polite golf-tournament-style applause most notable for its contrast with the roaring applause which had greeted the Stravinsky.

After the intermission, the orchestra returned to Russian music with Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances.  These are less dance music and more somewhat-eccentric post-Scriabin-esque studies in orchestral color that Rachmaninov wrote shortly before he died.  Jurowski and the orchestra kept the movements moving along, exploring their tones and rhythms until the end of the third dance, which sounded like it represented the composer taking a hop, skip, and a jump into the grave.  Never has the Dies Irae sounded so whimsical.  Jurowski applauded his new orchestra, the orchestra applauded Jurowski, and the audience applauded both.  This applause went on for a while.