Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Sibelius, Bruckner

In an essay for today’s concert program book, Herbert Blomstedt pointed out that the orchestral forces used by Bruckner and Sibelius in their respective fourth symphonies (which he conducted this morning with the Vienna Philharmonic in Salzburg’s Great Festival House) were virtually identical to the forces used by Beethoven, but represented tremendous symphonic development.

Blomstedt led the concert with the later Sibelius work, the least performed of his symphonies (indeed, the Vienna Philharmonic is just now performing it for the first time!).  Sibelius rejected programmatic symphonies – indeed, even his nominally-programmatic tone poems based on Finnish sagas are usually free form and do not correspond with a text, and this one is even harder to classify.  Blomstedt drew out the lush if cold sounds – each movement ending in something tragic: the first with a never-answered question, the second stopping abruptly mid-phrase, the third subsiding to nothing, and the final one resolving in resignation.  But the final one, with the addition of playful bells, showed signs of happiness and life.  The dour Finn drew out harmonic lines – with sufficient deviations from the traditional – hinting at melodies but never quite becoming melodic, keeping the room on edge.  Blomstedt employed these as building blocks, and used the to highlight individual winds (or the first chair cello, who opened the work and reemerged in key spots).  This was a heavy and philosophical way to wake up this morning, but the audience appreciated it.

The Bruckner symphony after the break stood in contrast.  His most-performed and possibly most-accessible work, the symphony is exuberant.  But it too is constructed from building blocks, and those Blomstedt highlighted.  On a foundation of (sometimes quite agressive) strings, Blomstedt placed large chunks of hewn stone.  Bruckner was encouraged by friends to write a program for this symphony, but it was always an afterthought and never descriptive of what he had in mind when he wrote the music.  So this morning’s reading dispensed with that silliness and just presented the music in its own right.  By the final movement, Blomstedt could draw out the dissonances that made this symphony forward-looking, rather than just Beethoven-inspired (or earlier).  Sibelius, of course, considered Bruckner the greatest living composer over his own lifetime, and hearing the final movement of the Bruckner 4 in the interpretation by Blomstedt and the Philharmonic awakened new nuances and in many ways brought the music full circle to the Sibelius 4 that started the day.

I had the opportunity on Friday to attend the rehearsal for this concert.  One thing that struck me is that Blomstedt rehearsed without a score (not surprised he conducted without one, but the lack of one for the rehearsal was interesting).  Instead, he had a little blue notebook full of scribbles, I presume containing his over-90 years of musical wisdom.
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Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Strauss, Berio, Bartók

From the bizarrely philosophical to the just plain pleasantly bizarre: Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Vienna Philharmonic were sovereign at the Great Festival House this evening for a real head-scratcher of a program.

The first half consisted of Richard Strauss‘s tone poem Thus Spoke Zoroaster, based on Nietzsche.  The murky philosophy did not beget murky playing, as the Philharmonic picked apart every nuance, and Salonen drove them forward.  We had intimate chamber ensembles embedded inside the broad romantic swells, and delicate touches particularly from the concertmistress (yes, the Philharmonic has had a concertmistress for several years now, and she’s duly excellent).  When the sounds needed to get rough, they did, with agressive bowing and spikey winds.  In the end, Nietzsche’s World Riddle did not resolve itself (it’s not supposed to), which left us hanging through intermission.

Returning to the hall, the program only became more peculiar.  Perhaps the highlight of the evening was the series Folk Songs by Luciano Berio.  Several of them were not actual folk songs, but at least followed in the style.  Talented mezzosoprano Marianne Crebassa sang quite conventional song-like lines – Berio balanced the selection between the happy and the sad, but she remained always demonstrative – to which Berio added colorful backdrops from a chamber orchestra.  These were no ordinary accompaniments.  Berio seems to have taken some inspiration from composers who masterfully knew how to set folk songs.  I thought I heard traces that could have been influenced by Gustav Mahler, Aaron Copeland, Joseph Canteloube, and Father Komitas, although not necessarily corresponding to the songs a knowledgeable listener might expect to match those; then Berio took those traces and plopped them into a blender to make them unrecognizable.  The final product worked, as while they did not necessarily support the song’s simple music, they did underscore the song’s meaning.  This was delightful.  The songs were in various dialects of English, Armenian, French, Sicilian, Italian, Sardu, Occitan, and fake Azeri (I say “fake” for the last one, because Berio’s ex-wife transcribed the words from an old poor-quality recording which was hard to hear and she was Armenian-American and spoke no Azeri, so she had no idea what she was transcribing and wrote down jibberish – no one since the premiere in 1972 seems to have bothered to identify the original song in order to get the correct lyrics).

The concert concluded with the suite from Béla Bartók‘s Miraculous Mandarin.  In its day, this ballet caused as much of a stink as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring had, both for its scandalous plot and its extreme music.  Unfortunately, unlike the Stravinsky work, it has not entered the mainstream repertory and is rather less-often performed, even in the abridged suite form we heard tonight.  That’s a shame.  Yes it is crazy – maybe like the odder moments of Richard Strauss’ Zarathustra gone even wilder (Bartók greatly admired that Strauss work).  There may even be some hints of Stravinsky.  The Philharmonic proved its supremacy, not just in the late romantic Fach but in the modern – what a terrific and versatile orchestra, full of drama and excitement.  Credit to Salonen too for putting it all together.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Zimmermann, Mahler

 

I went to hear Mahler‘s 2nd for the first time since my father died.  He would have liked this spectacular, emotive performance by the Vienna Philharmonic and Andris Nelsons in Salzburg’s Great Festival House.

Nelsons gave the performance extra drama – this is, of course, an orchestra drawn from an opera house, which knows better than most how to use music to augment the impact on the audience, so they bought in to Nelsons’ reading.  Essentially, Nelsons kept the lid on the first movement, making it almost delicate and mysterious.  This allowed him to draw out individual lines to highlight anguish and pain.  When the music swelled to crescendo, it proved devastating.  And then came the almost playful second and third movements, as interludes, almost classical in proportions (despite a full Mahler-sized orchestra).  The fourth movement – “premordial light” – shone.  Then we returned to the approach of the first movement… except whereas the first movement was a “celebration of death” the final movement is one of life and renewal and triumph.  Nelsons never lost sight of that ever-broadening smile among the tears.

Soprano Lucy Crowe, mezzo Ekaterina Gubanova, and the Bavarian Radio Chorus sang beautifully.  At the end: silence, even after Nelsons dropped his arms and released the room.  Only when he turned to look out over the stunned hall did tentative clapping begin, swelling slowly.  The audience stayed standing in our seats to applaud until 11 p.m..

Before the intermission came Bernd Alois Zimmermann‘s Trumpet Concerto “Nobody Knows de Trouble I See” with soloist Håkan Hardenberger.  I suppose Nelsons chose this to somehow set up his interpretation of Mahler.  The work, in one long movement, has a colorful orchestral backdrop that starts in dissonance, moves through dancing jazz, and finishes in mystery, sort of the reverse of his interpretation of Mahler’s 2nd.  On top of this, the trumpet moves through a variety of styles.  And who better than Hardenberger, whose versatility shines, to interpret this.  The work was actually fun – despite the undercurrent (inspired by an old Negro spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” the German Zimmermann wrote it shortly after his own country had checked out of the human race for a few years as a sort-of self-indulgent Schadenfreude to highlight American racism, but he undermined his own message somewhat by changing the title to parody black American English).  But in the end, juxtaposed to the Mahler, it was unconvincing.  It was written decades after Mahler, so it is not like Zimmermann could set up Mahler or provide influence; Mahler was also fresher, more original, and managed to carry his work over five movements and more than an hour and a quarter.

As an aside: I had been disappointed to not have my application accepted for tickets for Salome by Richard Strauss at this year’s Festival.  But opening night was televised, so I at least watched that.  The staging, by an Italian, Romeo Castellucci was terrible.  His biography does not indicate any German connection, but watching this performance I might have assumed he could have been German or German-trained, given how little relevance his staging had to the plot and a desire to shock for sake of shock – opera in Germany is all about these narcissist imbecilic directors.  The characters wandering around the stage – sometimes stopping and standing in place, sometimes also contorting themselves, had no bearing to anything.  The literature indicated he thought the Dance of the Seven Veils was the culmination, but he did not have Salome dance.  Instead, after Herod left the stage (so he did not even get to see the dance), Castellucci had Salome tied immobile to the top of a pedestal labeled “SAXA” – Latin for “rocks” – and had a large hewn rock descend slowly from the ceiling to crush her (apparently it was hollow, because she survived to sing the next scene).  John the Baptist (who sang in blackface) appeared to share his cistern cell with a horse (!?), so that when they brought his head out, they actually brought the horse’s out instead.  The Baptist’s naked headless body (white skin – so I won’t even begin to guess why Castellucci portrayed him in blackface – probably to shock, or he’s just a racist, I don’t know) did come on stage at the end, and she made out with that corpse and kissed where his lips would have been if he had still had a head.  Salome was not killed at the end either (why should she be? – “kill that woman!” are only the opera’s final words, and the music describes her death).  It really is not worth recapping the rest of this garbage.  I suppose I am now pleased I did not pay for tickets.

The one redeeming feature: the Armenian-Lithuanian soparano Asmik Grigoryan as an expressive, physcologically tortured, Salome.  Franz Welser-Möst led the Philharmonic (which reminded me that I had seen an even worse staging of this opera in Zurich many years ago with him conducting).  If I had only heard this on the radio, I would have been impressed.

 

Vienna Philharmonic, Konzerthaus

Sibelius, Langgaard, Elgar

I was not planning on going to a concert during a quick weekend trip home, but sometimes I just get curious and grab a ticket if one is available last minute.  The Vienna Philharmonic performed tonight in the Konzerthaus, Vienna’s second major hall, with a concert featuring music by the forgotten Danish composer Rued Langgaard (1893-1952).  Having Sakari Oramo on the podium and Sol Gabetta on cello hardly dissuaded me.

It seems Langgaard’s Symphony #6 (written in 1919-20 and fully revised between 1928-30) is supposed to be typical of his output.  The composer’s father had been a piano student of Liszt, so this became the young man’s starting point – his symphonic writing being more tone poem than symphony, just without the plot.  Apparently he became fascinated with Scriabin, too, so his music showed heavy influence from the zany Russian.  At times, the music also bore a resemblance to that of his contemporary Paul Hindemith (whom he knew).  With all of that said, Liszt, Scriabin, and Hindemith all went somewhere with their music.  Langgaard – although making this symphony a setting of a theme and various variations on it, with theatrical extra brass (a whole additional row of trumpets sat in the choir seats) and percussion, I never got the sense that the work had any particular meaning.

I might give other works by Langgaard a listen (if they ever appear on a concert program – which they never do), but I suppose I can understand why he has not entered the repertory (it’s not bad music, but if we have Liszt, Scriabin, and Hindemith all in the original, we don’t really need Langgaard).  That said, tonight’s symphony was infinitely more original than almost anything composed by Langgaard’s older countryman Carl Nielsen, whose interminable music has inexplicably entered the standard repertory.

To introduce the Langgaard symphony, Oramo opened the concert with Sibelius‘ tone poem Pohjola’s Daughter, in possibly one of the finest performances I have heard of that work.  The opening cello solo was other-worldly, and the various virtuosic woodwinds built on that to take us into the realm of Finnish mythology.  The violin shrieks – depicting the girl’s mocking laughter – propelled the work forward, as the winds tried valiently in back to achieve the tasks she had set for them.  Some of this coloration certainly helped set up the Langgaard work to make it more understandable, I suppose, but Sibelius was the undisputed master of northern color.

After the intermission, Gabetta joined Oramo and the orchestra for Elgar‘s Cello Concerto, demonstrating both dexterity and lyricism.  Elgar used the cello to set out each section of the concerto and then let the orchestra blend in.  Only a rare cellist can effectively lead a whole orchestra, and more rarely when that orchestra is the Vienna Philharmonic.  Gabetta established her mastery this evening.

Vienna Philharmonic, Musikverein

Haydn, Bruckner

Riccardo Muti is not normally thought of as a Bruckner conductor.  He is known for his Schubert, one of Bruckner’s key influences, and at the Salzburg Festival in 2016 I heard Muti lead the Vienna Philharmonic in a very intelligent and Schubertian interpretation of Bruckner’s 2nd Symphony.  So this enticed me to give his Bruckner 9th (again with the Philharmonic, this time in the Golden Hall of the Musikverein) a try.  Making a case for an early Bruckner symphony as a successor to Schubert is one thing – how would he manage this for Bruckner’s last work?

As it turns out, Muti did not try to find Schubertian influences in Bruckner’s 9th.  Instead, he showed how Bruckner had become  forward looking, drawing out the strained harmonies and immense dissonances.  Building on themes from his 7th and 8th Symphonies, both massive Gothic works, Bruckner was clearly aware of his own failing health and that he might not live to complete his 9th (as indeed he did not), so he peered out over the abyss to see where music might go on after him.

Aside from Italian opera and Schubert, Muti is also a specialist in some 20th Century Russian repertory, including Scriabin, also a master of harmony who consciously set out to destroy the world in six symphonies (but died young after his fifth, his attempt incomplete).  Elements of this Bruckner interpretation possibly owed a debt to Muti’s familiarity with Scriabin and his utter insanity.  I have no idea if Scriabin knew Bruckner’s music, but a direct linkage is not really the point.  Muti knows Scriabin, and here he gave us a Bruckner performance that deconstructed music and opened up possibilities for the 20th Century.

The Philharmonic of course also knows Bruckner inside out, but responded to Muti’s directions to deliver Bruckner to his grave.  From my seat in the back of the side balcony (the only one available when I checked) I could not see the orchestra other than the last two rows of the first violins, so I let the Golden Hall’s wonderful acoustics provide the full experience.  This was a performance to hear live.

The concert opened with Haydn‘s Symphony #39, that composer’s first minor-key symphony and considered the origin of Sturm und Drang that led to the romanticism which perhaps reached its pinnacle with Bruckner.  This symphony got Haydn promoted from assistant Kapellmeister to chief in the Eszterházy court.  He wrote for what he had available – an orchestra of only about 16 musicians which often seemed to have an excess (for so small a band) of horns.  So the original version had four horns in those 16 musicians.  But Haydn also thought for the future, and to hear a proper-sized string section took nothing away from the four horns (and two oboes and a bassoon) but provided Haydn as he is meant to be heard (if not how he originally was, only due to lack of resources).  In this interpretation, Muti seemed also to predict a bit of Bruckner – Bruckner was an organist and even when he composed symphonic music inserted full and partial stops.  Haydn had those there too in this symphony, building blocks for a bigger construction.  An unexpected, but clever, way to set up deconstruction of romanticism in Muti’s reading of Bruckner’s 9th.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Schostakowitsch, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

What promised to be a musical highlight of this Summer’s Festival did not disappoint: Mariss Jansons and the Vienna Philharmonic performing Dmitri Schostakowitsch‘s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.

This is an absolutely brutal opera, without any sympathetic characters and full of violent crime.  Schostakowitsch infused the music with western dance patterns (Viennese waltzes and the like – many recognizable from operettas) in caricature, interrupted by more violence, before the choral music in the final act – depicting prisoners being force-marched to Siberia – evoking Mussorgsky (and maybe here some sympathy).  Stalin called it “muddle not music” in a review he wrote for Pravda and the opera nearly cost Schostakowitsch his life.

But it is a fantastic score.  Mariss Jansons kept all of the complexities together and well-paced.  The orchestra produced a full sound from the pit, without ever overwhelming the singers, and then exploded into the musical interludes.  This was thrilling, and fitting that Jansons and the Philharmonic got the evening’s loudest applause.

The cast itself had no big names – a motley collection made up mostly of Russians and Ukrainians.  All were good.  The best voice of the night belonged to Dmitri Ulyanov, the Russian baritone who sang Boris Ismailov, the protagonist’s overbearing father-in-law (he exits relatively early in the plot, after she feeds him mushrooms laced with rat poison).  Nina Stemme was to be the one big-name singer in the cast as the protagonist, but she has been ill and was replaced this Summer by her understudy, Evgenia Muraveva, a young soprano from the Mariinsky Theater, who – aside from a few misplaced upper notes – completely filled the role and carried the plot.  She was mostly balanced by tenor Brandon Jovanovich, an American cast as her lover and partner in crime Sergei.

The staging, by German director (oh, no, not another talentless German opera director!?) Andreas Kriegenburg was thankfully not Regietheater (thank goodness for these periodic exceptions coming from Germany). That did not mean that it made any sense. It was a modernized, if not modern, staging, moved to what looked like a Soviet-ish apartment block, which did not quite match the plot so unclear why he did it.  There were some other deviations from the plot, but the music and plot are shocking enough that there really is no need to do more (and he did not).  Depicting rapes and murders and whatnot is sufficient – and it was all there.  Injecting some comic relief in appropriate places (consistent with the text) is also correct.  And giving the singers a platform on which to act is probably most important, and Kriegenburg did just that.  So there was no need to get into an intellectual exercise to try to figure out what he was thinking.

Better to bask in the music.

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.

Vienna Philharmonic, Haus für Mozart (Salzburg)

Berg, Wozzeck

Alban Berg‘s opera Wozzeck is a musical psychodrama.  But there is a plot, too.  Tonight’s performance at the Salzburg Festival fully captured the musical part, but as for the plot… not so much.

The director, William Kentridge, a South African cartoonist, openly admitted he wanted to stage the music and not the text, as the music discloses what the characters are really thinking, as opposed to the words they might sing.  So he filled the stage with clutter, projected cartoons both on a movie screen and more generally on top of the scenery, and mostly did not bother with the plot.  This was not German Regietheater, designed to shock, but actually an attempt to elucidate what the opera was about.  Unfortunately, the approach added nothing, but did cause unwanted distraction.

On the other hand, by making the plot irrelevant, Kentridge did succeed in pushing the attention fully onto the music (assuming we could ignore the staging – and actually I found I could: again, as it was not Regietheater it did not tell a different plot but rather simply provided cluttered and sometimes silly asides that matched the extremes in the music if not the text).  On this count the performance shone.  The Vienna Philharmonic in the pit is unrivaled as an opera orchestra.  And conductor Vladimir Jurowski, one of the stars of his 40-ish generation, truly understood the opera’s meaning in ways that Kentridge could not, entirely making up for Kentridge’s failings and allowing the audience to bask in the lush music.  Although atonal, Berg’s opera is not without pure music, and its contortions do allow an exploration of the psychoses that inspired the plot.

Although most of the singing characters have their personal issues to explore, these are only really developed in one: the title role Wozzeck.  So while the cast this evening managed strong portrayals despite Kentridge’s direction (and aided by Jurowski’s sensible balancing of the music), only Matthias Goerne as Wozzeck stood out, giving a full and brooding performance of the feeble-minded and disturbed soldier.

Would a concert performance have been better?  Perhaps.  But maybe it ironically took Kentridge’s absurdities to focus attention more on the music.  And if that was his intention, then maybe he succeeded after all.

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.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Prokofiev, Schostakowitsch

Another Sunday morning concert with the Vienna Philharmonic in Salzburg’s Great Festival House, in which the work I specifically wanted to hear got overshadowed by the one I did not know and was initially less interested in.

The surprise for me came in the first half of the concert, with Prokofiev‘s Second Piano Concerto, which I did not believe I had ever heard before (I looked it up after the concert: indeed, I heard it in 2009 and seem to have been equally stunned).  Written to fulfill a graduation requirement from the conservatory, the precocious student Prokofiev decided to smash all conventions.  The result produced a whole lot of sound, often coming at odd angles, emerging from the piano but also bombarding the ears from across the stage.  There may have been no particular order to the madness – mostly Prokofiev showing off: “look what I can do!” – but this was no cacaphony.

Soloist Daniil Trifonov, a Russian Wunderkind himself still only 26, siezed the piano in his arms and practically hurled it around the stage.  OK, it stayed put, more or less, but he jumped around on the stool more than conductor Andris Nelsons on the podium.  His arms were blazing, and hands everywhere (does he only have two hands?), fingers pounding the keys.  It was all a blur.  But the music… perhaps the snarky young Prokofiev had been on to something, and Trifonov discovered it.

For his part, Nelsons made sure the orchestra provided the perfect context for Trifonov (maybe not as hard with this orchestra, but someone had to put it all together).

After the intermission, Schostakowitsch‘s monumental Seventh Symphony – the work I dearly wanted to hear – became somehow anti-climactic.  This is the one symphony that Schostakowtsch wrote knowing it was to be used for propaganda purposes.  There’s also a whole lot of sound here, and the orchestra got it all.  The subtext is harder to find than in other Schostakowitsch symphonies (according to propaganda, the “invasion” theme in the first movement depicts the German invasion of Russia in 1941; yet Schostakowitsch had actually written this portion nearly two years before, moved by the Russian invasion of Poland as the first phase for implementation of Russo-German alliance that opened the Second World War).  In truth, Schostakowitsch had seen firsthand the misery in Leningrad during the German siege and the bravery of the people to attempt to survive, and this required memorialization.  Yet when it would all be over, it would not be over: the Soviet regime of terror still reigned.

Nelsons, born in Latvia 39 years ago when it was still very much under Russian occupation, should understand that subtext, as hard as it may be to find.  I’m not sure we heard it this morning.  Nevertheless, the orchestral playing was spectacular.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mahler

Gustav Mahler‘s farewell to life: his last completed work, the ninth symphony, filled him with superstitious dread.  His symphonic idiom drew from Beethoven, Schubert, and Bruckner, who had not exceeded nine symphonies (using the official numberings – Schubert’s supposedly-lost symphony that got a number seems to have actually been his unfinished #8 and not an entirely different one, and Bruckner wrote two, #0 and #00, which he excluded from his own numbering).  The symphony received its premiere in 1912, one year after Mahler’s death.

 

There are a number of ways to approach this symphony.  In taking perhaps the most anguished possible interpretation at Salzburg’s Great Festival House this morning, Bernard Haitink and the Vienna Philharmonic may have unleashed the best – and most devastating – performance I have heard of the work.  This was a heart-wrenching version, the instruments growling and hissing and mocking the soul.  Haitink coaxed virtuoso playing from each individual musician, representations of awaiting death (but also an entirely new harmonic language Mahler had developed, a logical if radical continuation of his unique style which went on to influence Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School).  Even when the middle movements danced, this was not a dance with death so much as a dance with death hovering in the corner of the room, darkening the dancers with its monstrous shadow.

 

This interpreation highlighted an expansive adagio finale as the cousin of the adagio finale of Mahler’s third symphony.  But whereas the third ends triumphant, the ninth sinks into despair, fading to nil.

 

The Philharmonic’s principal clarinet died suddenly of a heart attack a few days ago, and one wonders if his departure hung over the orchestra.  The audience breathed deeply and stood.  We may be so used to this orchestra that we expect the most from them, and so standing ovations don’t come often.  But sometimes even the great Philharmoniker exceeds itself as it did this morning.

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.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mozart

Salzburg’s Mozarteum Foundation runs an annual Mozart Week Festival overlapping the anniversary of the composer’s birthday (27 January 1756).  Quite oddly, these are the most expensive tickets of the year in Salzburg – even more than the Salzburg Festival.  It’s a great mystery why.

I’ve skipped it the last two years as it is extremely hard to justify the prices, but last Summer while renewing my Mozarteum subscription series tickets (quite reasonably priced), I decided to pick up relatively cheaper-end seats for three concerts for this Winter’s Mozart Week while they were still available.  By stroke of bad luck, I now have to go on a last-minute work trip this weekend and will miss two of the concerts (so gave my tickets back to the box office tonight for re-sale), leaving me with only tonight’s concert (and next year’s Mozart Week schedule, just released, looks especially uninteresting, so I won’t be going back any time soon).

The programs mix about 50% or more Mozart with some other themes (this year includes a lot of Haydn).  That’s probably a bit more Mozart than my diet can take, and tonight’s concert was 100% Mozart, but he’s a fun if highly over-rated composer, so I decided to enjoy.  The forces assembled tonight in Salzburg’s Great Festival House – the Vienna Philharmonic under Yannick Nézet-Séguin – promised to make the performances dynamic, and they did not disappoint.

The concert included Symphonies #39 and #40, composed back-to-back but in different styles, which Nézet-Séguin and the Philharmoniker mastered.  For #39, they captured Mozart’s quirky humor, the sudden shifts and surprises, unexpected pauses and changes in direction.  #40 is a bit more serious, and Nézet-Séguin emphasized the thick harmonies hiding under the melodies, giving this work perhaps even more weight than it normally has.

In between the symphonies we were supposed to have a selection of Mozart’s songs performed by Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón (songs not heard so often, which had made this concert particularly appealing to me).  Unfortunately, Villazón came in to rehearse earlier today sick and coughing heavily, so was a late cancelation.  Brazilian pianist Maria João Pines, in town for a concert last night, was on her way to the airport when the Mozarteum called her up and asked her to skip her flight and perform tonight as well.  She did a standard work from the repertory – Piano Concerto #23.  Her playing was workmanlike, lacking sparkle or humor.  About all I can say regarding the others on stage: the orchestra accompanied her.  Nothing particularly wrong with anything, indeed beautiful music, but perhaps paradigmatic of Mozart himself on one of those days when he just did not feel like playing any jokes.  And Mozart’s music without Mozart’s humor is… perfectly nice for a lazy weekend morning, but maybe not for an evening concert with the fashionably overdressed crowd.

Vienna Philharmonic, Musikverein

Schubert, Cherubini

Another Sunday, another Requiem in the Musikverein.  This week’s offering was from Luigi Cherubini, his 1816 Requiem in c, a work much admired in the nineteenth century and later falling out of favor.  It’s not earth-shattering, as Berlioz or Verdi later provided, but it did help establish the genre and many great composers (starting with Beethoven) took inspiration from it and considered it better than Mozart’s, the work usually considered to have created the concept of a concert requiem.  Indeed, as Beethoven never wrote a requiem, it was Cherubini’s which was performed on Beethoven’s death.

The interpretation this morning came from Riccardo Muti leading the Vienna Philharmonic and the Singverein, a wonderful combination that filled the Musikverein with lush sound.  The performance lasted close to an hour – much longer than normal – but never dragged.

Perhaps Muti meant the slow pacing (albeit hardly noticed) for the Cherubini to balance out the fast pacing he chose for Franz Schubert‘s Fourth Symphony (“The Tragic”) before the intermission.  Although taking it at a fast clip, Muti did not sacrifice the sweeping tunes and thick scoring, and the Philharmoniker felt right at home (well, actually this is their home).  This is how to hear Schubert.  Schubert composed this symphony in 1816, the same year Cherubini wrote the Requiem.  The styles, though different, complemented each other well, influencing musical development and for the years ahead.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mozart, Bruckner

Christoph von Dohnányi, longtime Music Director of the Cleveland Orchestra and frequent guest of the Vienna Philharmonic, used to comment that his orchestra in Cleveland played every note perfectly, yet he was still trying to get them to sound more like the Philharmonic, which did not play every note perfectly. It’s not just about playing perfectly, but performing the music with a certain emotion in the notes, and something the Philharmoniker gets better than anyone.  So hearing the Philarmoniker this morning perform in juxtaposition with the Clevelanders on Friday reinforced exactly what Dohnányi meant.  

It of course helps to have Mariss Jansons on the podium, which ensured intelligent readings that maximized the orchestra’s ability to add its color.  The two halves of the concert had little to do with each other (“sometimes they do not have to” Jansons explained at a talk here last week).  But we got Mozart‘s Piano Concerto #22 and Bruckner‘s Symphony #6 on either side of the intermission.

Emanuel Ax performed as soloist for the Mozart.  He and the Orchestra created a soothing, almost melancholic, tone, which both blended well and with the contrasting lines informing each other.  For a matinee concert, this was a good way to start a morning.

The Bruckner symphony after the intermission was more lively.  Probably the least performed of Bruckner’s mature symphonies (and the only one he did not revise), it was actually my favorite among his works when I was a child.  So this made for a nostalgic day-after-birthday concert.  At his talk last week, Jansons was asked why he chose Bruckner’s sixth: he replied that the Festival had offered conductors a selection of works premiered by the Vienna Philharmonic to perform with that orchestra at the Festival over several years, and he was slow deciding until many others were already taken.  But he nevertheless appreciates this symphony and its construction, as do I, even if we have moved on to others.  One can picture Gustav Mahler giving the symphony’s premiere with the Philharmoniker in the Musikverein three years after Bruckner’s death.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Gounod, Faust

The weekend at the Festival with the Vienna Philharmonic continued.  First I heard an orchestral concert, then a chamber concert, and tonight an opera: Gounod’Faust.  Musically, this was an exciting performance.  It was staged (in Salzburg’s Great Festival House), although it probably should not have been.

Stage director Reinhard von der Thannen is not German (indeed, he is Austrian) but he works primarily in Germany, and clearly he has been infected by whatever horrible disease has caused German opera directors to lose their ability to stage operas in the last half century or so.  The staging was at least not offensive, as German productions often are, but it was almost literally a circus.  The chorus were dressed up as clowns, and the main cast members often were as well.  There were acrobats.  There were lights (in fact, too many – the stage was usually glowing with bright light shining into the audience, sometimes blindingly so, to the point people were covering their eyes and some put on sunglasses).  There was comedy.  It had nothing to do with the plot, and often distracted from it.

Young Argentinian conductor Alejo Pérez led a well-paced performance with the right orchestral coloring – both the colors and the amounts.  He managed to showcase the wonderful solos in the orchestra without overwhelming the singers, quite a fine balance to achieve.  And considering the nonsense taking place on stage, these were especially difficult circumstances.  To a degree, he forged ahead regardless of the imbecilic stage director, to craft a gripping drama.

The cast also helped in this sense, as they all demonstrated an understanding of the opera and the words they were singing, so could spin the right emotions regardless of what von der Thannen had them doing or had going on around them.

Piotr Beczala headed the cast in the title role.  While his acting and stage presence was superb, he was not in his best voice this evening, and was straining in the upper registers.  But, although Faust is the title character, Gounod’s setting is not actually about Faust – indeed, for many years the opera was performed under the name “Margarethe” to emphasize that she was understood to be the central character.  Maria Agresta did superb in that role.

However, for me, the key figure in this opera is actually Mephistopheles.  He drives the plot.  Ildar Abdrazakov handled that remarkably – even managing to sneak in some of the comedy von der Thannen had going on as a subtext.  This was a charming devil, but the devil he was.

Of the small roles, Alexey Markov stood out as a strong and courageous Valentin.  The Philharmonia Chor Wien was outstanding.  A performance worth hearing (although maybe only worth seeing to experience the sound live – it was recorded, but music sounds so much better when not over the tin).

Members of the Vienna Philharmonic, Mozarteum (Salzburg)

Bruckner, Schoenberg, Wagner

I followed the Festival and members of the Vienna Philharmonic over the Salzach River to the Mozarteum for a chamber concert.  Co-principal violin, viola, and cello of the Philharmonic were joined by three younger orchestra members for music by BrucknerSchoenberg, and Wagner.

The Bruckner String Quintet is a monumental work despite its limited instrumentation.  Written when Bruckner held the chair of composition at the Vienna Conservatory, on request of the Conservatory’s Director (and the Philharmonic’s principal violin), Bruckner gave the instruments full music and lush colors fit for a whole orchestra.  The musicians got off to a rough start as something appears to have happened to the second violin’s instrument (there was a loud crack, and she kept inspecting the backside of it, but continued anyway).  The audience also seemed incapable of sitting still, and many audience members coughed up various lungs (the weather this summer has indeed been surprisingly wet and cool – to the point that some friends are even using heat in their apartments – but if people are that ill then they should go directly to the morgue).  The unfit audience noticeably distracted the musicians – and while their playing was sublime, they did not always capture the mood.  Only during the third movement – the Adagio, crowing achievement of Brucknerian musical architecture – did the hall fall quiet and the angels from Heaven descended to heal the wounded and cure the sick, at least briefly.

After the intermission came Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (in the original version for string sextet).  This built easily on Bruckner’s lushness, but with more complicated and diverging lines, which the musicians developed while producing the same full sound fit for an even larger ensemble.  The transfiguring tones naturally led to a much-desired encore, for which they provided a version of the Prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in a reduced version for sextet.  Indeed, Schoenberg was known for making such reductions, and maybe they even used his version.  Whether or not they did, the sextet revealed Wagner’s revolutionary harmonics, exposing them as the forerunner for Schoenberg’s own later experiments.  These were kindred works.