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.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Strauss, Bruckner

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

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

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

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Pärt, Mahler, Bruckner

The good Lord put so much beauty in the world, but sometimes we have to go search for it.  Zubin Mehta and the Vienna Philharmonic knew where to look tonight at the Festival.

The concert opened with a short piece by Arvo Pärt that the Philharmonic had premiered in 2014, on a commission from the Salzburg Mozarteum.  Swansong was a setting for chamber orchestra of an anthem Pärt had previously on words Cardinal John Henry Newman had written shortly before he died.  The piece was musical enough, but awfully repetitive for a short work – I wonder if the orginal version with text might not have been better.

The next work did have its words intact: Gustav Mahler‘s Kindertotenlieder, with baritone by Matthias Goerne.  Mehta combined Goerne’s passionate sadness with distraught woodwinds, never letting the instruments overwhelm the words but portraying the anguish in Friedrich Rückert’s texts.  This culminated in the final song, “In diesem Wetter,” in which the orchestra all but created a storm inside the Great Festival House – I nearly wanted to run home to check if my windows were closed – but still contained as tears.

Beauty can best be appreciated when the world is not perfect.  So Mahler’s songs provided a fitting prelude to Anton Bruckner‘s Fourth Symphony.  Without a soloist, Mehta did not have to worry about restraining the orchestra, and he unleashed it in full force.  In this interpretation, however, Mehta drew out much of the often-overlooked tension lurking underneath the surface of this symphony.  Indeed, we could see suffering in the world, yet the beauty rose above it all.  Mehta bound the whole work together with the pulsing strides of the lower strings: could this have been the inevitable march of fate?  But beauty triumphed: so much beauty.  Praise the Lord!

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Eötvös, Brahms, Mahler

If the world is going to end in 2016, which at this rate it may do, then a brand-new oratorio by Péter Eötvös, jointly commissioned by the Salzburg Festival (with several other partners), may provide the backdrop.  The Vienna Philharmonic gave the premiere of Halleluja – Oratorium Balbulum tonight at the Festival.  

This strange melancholic work had a sense of humor.  It comprised three characters: a long-winded and easily distracted narrator, a stuttering prophet, and a drunken angel.  The composer called it “four fragments” not because it was excerpted from a longer work, but because he – and the librettist Péter Esterhazy, who died earlier this month – took a much bigger concept and then selected four fragments to put to music.  The plot, such as it was, centered on September 11th 2001, in which a European government spokesman on a business trip switches off his hotel television because they are showing what he thinks is an American B-movie of a plane flying into the World Trade Center.  However, his wife was on the plane, and ordering a tomato juice… but this plot was not really so important other than as a frame.  History has come to an end.  People are afraid for tomorrow.  They have begun to think only for today.  There will be no tomorrow.  But does a fragment have an end?

The music was eclectic, but demonstrated that original music today can say something new without having to be ugly.  The idea was to keep everything disjointed, flowing logically but changing directions, and of course being interrupted by the three main characters.  The chorus augmented the scene, providing periodic Hallelujas composed by a range of composers from Monteverdi through Mussorgsky (including singing two simultaneously by Mozart and Bruckner and one “in the style of Bartok” who never wrote one).  

Actor Peter Simonischek in the spoken role of Narrator, alto Iris Vermillion as the Angel, and tenor Topi Lehtipuu as the Prophet gave idiomatic readings, milking the humor of the work through the darkness.  The Hungarian Radio Chorus mastered the complex and ever-changing choral parts.

On the podium, the young Brit Daniel Harding (who I thought would get the Berlin job, and instead ended up with the awful Orchestra of Paris… what a waste) showed why he is one of the more dynamic comductors of his generation and able to handle a broad repertory.

This oratorio actually was not the end (it was only four fragments!).  The concert resumed after the intermission with Brahms and Mahler.  Harding allowed the scaled-down chamber orchestra sing for Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn.  The original work was a chorale (although it may not have been by Haydn), and Harding made this clear, adding a bit of cheer after the Eötvös oratorio.  For Mahler, we reverted to melancholy: the Adagio from his Tenth Symphony.  This Adagio was, of course, also a fragment, the only movement of that symphony that Mahler was able to substantially complete before he died.  Taken in the context of the Eötvös work, this performance was a revelation.  The world ends, but it is only a fragment.  The world goes on.

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.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Brahms, Schmidt, Elgar

No one doubts the technical skill of Johannes Brahms.  The composer’s problem, however, was that his music was highly derivative, unoriginal, and quite often boring.  Nevertheless, place the instruments in the hands of the Vienna Philharmonic and it becomes perfect music to wake up to on a Sunday morning.

A morning concert opened the final day of the Salzburg Festival.  Brahms’ Symphony #3 opened the performance.  The strings produced lush sounds to fill the hall, while maestro Semyon Bychkov, who seems to have become a favorite of the Philharmonic recently, found ways to keep the playing fresh.  All I was missing in my seat in the Large Festival House was breakfast (I had juice and a yoghurt before leaving home, and cooked a full breakfast back at home after the concert).  Brahms may not be my favorite way to end a day, but with these forces on the stage it was a great way to start one.

Franz Schmidt, whose music remains under-appreciated, contributed Symphony #2 after the break.  The contrast with Brahms was evident.  Schmidt, a devout Catholic and one-time disciple of Bruckner at the Vienna Conservatory, looked backwards like his teacher to earlier forms of music, especially from the church, for inspiration and technique.  But unlike Brahms, Schmidt’s inspirations from the past pushed him into the 20th Century.  This Symphony, originally conceived as a simple piano work that grew out of control, was well-grounded but expanded the art of the possible without breaking the mold.  The final chorale, rising triumphantly from the brass, was pure Bruckner – if Bruckner had lived 20 years longer – except that it wasn’t.  Where Brahms would derive inspiration from Beethoven and others and just re-write the music of the earlier composers in technically superb but less-exciting ways, Schmidt took his models as a starting point and built something new.  The Philharmonic and Bychkov made it all riveting.

We did get an encore, although I might prefer not to mention it: “Nimrod” from Elgar’Enigma Variations.  Yes, it is beautiful (especially with the Philharmonic), but it seems that I have recently heard it performed as an encore (plus once as part of the whole work) by every orchestra on the planet, and frankly I wish they chose something else.  Maybe the Blue Danube would have been appropriate for this concert (Brahms once autographed a score of Johann Strauß II’s waltz: “unfortunately not composed by Brahms”)?  Nope, Elgar’s Nimrod again.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Bruckner

A hopeful, almost happy, reading of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony by Bernard Haitink and the Vienna Philharmonic at the Salzburg Festival this evening.

 

This is the second year in a row I have heard the Philharmoniker perform this work here – last year with quite a different interpretation under Herbert Blomstedt.  This orchestra premiered the symphony and has been performing it for 123 years, but each conductor will bring something else to it.  Blomstedt conducted like an architect building a massive cathedral.  Haitink may have lacked the same hewn approach, but the one he took worked.

 

This symphony often brings the listener to hear the destruction of the world, which is what made tonight’s performance so surprising.  Haitink accentuated the joyous aspects in the music, more prevalent in Bruckner’s early symphonies (up until his Fourth).  The rhythms superimposed on the massive blocks of sound ensure the work remains off-kilter, but rather than foreboding the result tonight stressed the positive.

 

The world is still going to end.  But if it is going to end, maybe that’s a good thing.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Martinů, Bruckner

A late start tonight in Salzburg’s Great Festival Hall: 9 p.m. seems like an appropriate time to construct a church service in a concert hall, with Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Vienna Philharmonic doing the construction.

The concert opened with Bohuslav Martinů’Frescos of Piero della Francesca, a work I did not previously know. Martinů got his inspiration on vacation in Arezzo, where he saw these paintings in a church. To be entirely honest, I could not quite connect Martinů’s modern music (the work had its premiere by the Philharmoniker in Salzburg at the 1956 Festival) with the 15th-century frescos. But as pure music, it worked, with that composer’s wonderful juxtapositions.

They then skipped the intermission completely and went directly to the second work on the program, which gave Martinů yet more juxtaposition. The Bavarian Radio Chorus joined a smaller orchestra for Bruckner’s Mass #3. Having put up the paintings in the church, I suppose they now had to fill the room with mass.

In 1867, Bruckner’s doctor told him to stay away from music – it was driving him insane. Thankfully, Bruckner listened to God instead of to his doctor. He wrote Mass #3 and then moved to Vienna full time to teach counterpoint at the conservatory.

This mass is a bridge work. The insane church organist subsequently wrote mostly orchestral music, constructing his cathedrals of sound. But this was a work he meant to have performed in a church (unlike Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Wednesday night’s work, to which it was immediately compared in scale when it was first performed). The premiere indeed took place in Vienna’s Augustinerkirche (in the Hofburg) and remains frequently performed as a mass in Austrian churches and cathedrals (possibly more often than it appears in the world’s concert halls).

Unlike Harnoncourt’s muffled Missa Solemnis on Wednesday, Nézet-Séguin made use of his forces to fill the hall brightly. Although relatively-early Bruckner (in terms of major compositional output), the mass connected Bruckner’s church organist background with some of the larger structures he would create after moving to Vienna. The mass works both as church music and as a dramatic concert work. But the texts are clear, and the devout Bruckner clearly believed in them. This piece marked his transition from his time serving the Church to his new world serving Humanity.

Soloists Dorothea RöschmannKaren CargillChistian Elsner, and Franz-Josef Selig sang their lines clearly. But this is not a work highlighting the soloists. There is drama in the text, but it is in the service of the Lord.

Vienna Philharmonic, Musikverein

Mahler

The world’s best orchestra. The leading conductor of his generation. A concert hall with some of the best acoustics anywhere. And Mahler’s Third Symphony.

I unfortunately had to skip an unusual chamber concert last weekend that I had been looking forward to. I made it up to myself by snagging a late-returned ticket for the sold-out subscription concert of the Vienna Philharmonic under Mariss Jansons in the Musikverein, always an event. No one left the hall disappointed.

Jansons took the first movement somewhat more slowly than normal, but he gave it tension and suspense throughout: even though we knew how this would end, the audience hung on every note. Jansons and the Philharmoniker know every nuance of this hall, and used them, letting the sounds waft gently. Mahler’s description of nature showed that this is a solid but fragile planet. The birds chirp, the lake shimmers, the mountains soar, but it is all quite intricate as Mahler observed it from his summer hut. The concertmaster gave sweet solo lines, mingling with the winds. The brass provided majesty and the percussion a driving force.

The orchestral sound got complex, but never became too big. By the fourth movement, Argentinian mezzo Bernarda Fink gave a bold reading of Nietzsche, while the orchestra continued to simmer underneath, before the chorus of Vienna Choir Boys and the women of the Singverein joined her to ring in the fifth movement. Never overbearing, these voices uttered their words distinctly, but the meaning came almost understated in the music. Listen closely and hear the world.

For the opening of the Finale, despite the huge orchestral forces arrayed on stage, Jansons made them sound almost as a chamber orchestra. The two choirs remained standing for several minutes into this non-choral movement, to observe the world bloom. Gradually the orchestra filled the hall with increasing sound. The choirs sat down. The music stood up. And when it finished, the audience provided an additional ten minutes of applause.

Wiener Philharmoniker, Musikverein

Ligeti, J. Marx, Bruckner

Zubin Mehta returned to conduct the Philharmoniker in the Musikverein, the first time I have heard him in many years.  His concerts used to be hit-or-miss (often miss), but I had been advised on good authority that it is now safe to go hear him again.  He used to conduct using charisma alone – some days it provoked thrilling results, but mostly not.  He moves more slowly now, which may mean that he needs to take more care to think about the music and craft it.  It worked today.

The program took a an odd walk backwards in time, sliding off the abyss.  It included a hint of Asian polyphony where I did not expect it.

However, before we got to the music, the concert started inauspiciously with György Ligeti’s “Atmospheres” for large Orchestra, which sounded a bit like a ride on a on old tram whose wheels have not been oiled in several years.  The creeking and squeaking gave everyone in the hall a headache.  When it ended, the orchestra got the amount of applause it deserved: just enough to acknowledge that they had managed to play the piece.  It wasn’t worth the effort to boo – Ligeti himself is dead.  It may have been the shortest applause I have ever observed after a piece in the Musikverein – probably about 10-15 seconds of soft clapping, and then everyone wanted to forget our tormented ears and move on to the music.

Alt-Wiener Serenaden by Joseph Marx followed, and succeeded in erasing the Ligeti from the audience’s memory.  Joseph Marx was an Austrian paedagogue, music critic, and sometime composer who lost his positions and influence during the Nazi years because he strongly believed in an Austrian identity.  In 1942, the Vienna Philharmonic held a festival for its 100th anniversary (with the Philharmoniker joined by the leading Italian, Hungarian, and Dutch but out of principle no Reichsdeutsche orchestras), and Marx wrote these four pieces for that event to memorialize an Austria that had been erased from the map.  He reworked the old Viennese themes, using more modern techniques developed in Vienna in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  This approach updated otherwise backwards-looking music.  Quite oddly, several of the themes resembled music from Paliashvili’s opera Abesalom da Eteri, in which the Georgian master had taken a similar approach to updating traditional Georgian music with classical techniques.  It is hard to believe that Joseph Marx would have been familiar with Paliashvili’s 1919 opera, although Marx was an admirer of Scriabin, who had studied composition with Sergei Taneyev at the Moscow Conservatory as had Paliashvili.  Could there have been a connection?

Anton Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony graced the second half of the program.  Mehta gave a deliberate and measured reading, and the Philharmoniker, responded in full sound and aetherial grace.  If Marx looked back on old-fashioned Austrian music through intermediate developments, Bruckner – composing fifty years before Marx – looked into the future.  These two works complemented each other, crossing space and time in an Austrian context, never quite meeting halfway but twisting their perspectives.

Bruckner stretched tonality to its furthest extent in this Symphony.  And while he died before finishing it, the sketches for the never-written fourth movement apparently indicate he would develop this concept even further, leading music off the end of the world.  His letters to friends indicate that it was perhaps more than could be asked of a simple Austrian church organist.  Bruckner had looked into the future and had seen the Apocolypse, and did not survive to write it down.  Taneyev’s own music came to my mind in Mehta’s reading – particularly Taneyev’s cantata (opus 1) John of Damascus, whose words welcomed oncoming death (yes, Taneyev was brooding already in opus 1).  I have previously sensed an affinity between Taneyev’s and Bruckner’s choral church music, but this was the first time I had noticed the similarities in mood between Bruckner’s final work and Taneyev’s first opus.  Was it me, or was Mehta subconsciously making this point?

Mehta let the last notes waft into the evening.  Absolute silence reigned in the Golden Hall.  Eventually, Mehta lowered his arms.  Even then, the audience still waited to applaud.  The silence at the end of this symphony was longer than the applause at the end of the Ligeti.

Wiener Philharmoniker, Musikverein

Haydn, Elgar, Richard Strauss

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

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

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

Wiener Philharmoniker, Musikverein

Glinka, Schostakowitsch, Tschaikowsky

Sometimes tickets come available late for the subscription-only concerts of the Vienna Philharmonic.  I got one such ticket this afternoon, giving me a seat in the percussion section between the cymbals and the bass drum.  No kidding.  At least no Mahler was on the program, although my ears are still ringing a bit.

Semyon Bychkov took the podium for an all-Russian concert.  The chronically-ill Mikhail Glinka spent a Summer in Vienna, where he came for medical advice and to take the cure in Baden.  During his stay he met Johann Strauß (the father) and Joseph Lanner, who inspired him a few years later to try his hand at a waltz.  In a sense, Bychkov brought the Waltz-Fantasie home by having the Philharmoniker (not only the world’s best orchestra, but the world’s best waltz orchestra), perform it.

Kirill Gerstein joined the orchestra for the second piano concerto of Dmitri Schostakowitsch.  This is a tuneful work with a degree of charm, but written by Schostakowitsch during one of the many periods in his life when he was subject to artistic persecution.  While recognizably music by Schostakowitsch, it is perhaps less daring than it should be.  From my seat in the back of the orchestra, I also did not experience it as much of a concerto – the piano part seemed somewhat under-written and blended into the orchestral tones.  Gerstein gave a long solo encore to demonstrate his agility (I could not hear his announcement of what he played – it was not a showy piece, instead rather melancholic, but it did allow him to demonstrate versatility).

After the intermission came Pyotr Tschaikowsky’s Symphony #6.  Bychkov captured the composer’s depression.  While the orchestra carried off a flawless performace, I did not get the sense that I learned anything new from this reading.  However, I did learn some new things about cymbal technique.

Wiener Philharmoniker, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Bruckner

For reasons unclear to me, the Salzburg Festival decided to perform a whole lot of Bruckner this summer (nine numbered symphonies and some religious works).  I certainly will not complain.  I selected three symphonies (tickets are not cheap, so I had no desire to waste good money on listening to the likes of Dudamel or Barenboim attempt Bruckner), starting tonight with Symphony #8.

The Vienna Philharmonic was conducted by the 87-year-old Swede Herbert Blomstedt.  Riccardo Chailly had been scheduled, but he broke his arm in a fall last month.  Although Chailly is an excellent interpreter of Bruckner (and I heard him conduct #6 with the Philarmonic in the Musikverein earlier this year), I actually thought the substitution fortuitous (although I do wish Chailly a good recovery).  I have heard Blomstedt conduct already this year (a masterful Brahms Requiem with the Vienna Symphony, also in the Musikverein), and I’ve heard him before as well – but never for Bruckner.  The man has a sense of architecture, which applies well with this, the mightiest of Bruckner’s cathedrals of sound.

This was a controlled reading, measured, structured, and constructed to the sky.  This cathedral was not just of hewed stone, but had its ornaments.  It had its humorous gargoyles. The woodwinds provided birds fluttering and pearching in its towers.  It had its brutal stained glass.  The light came through the widows high up in the dome.  The instruments echoed off the walls and came back to confront each other.  Although not scored for bells, they too pealed in the pizzicatti strings or the pounding of the timpani.  Blomstedt and the Philharmonic understood and reproduced all of this from Bruckner’s architectural renderings.  Not everyone can make this symphony work (the last time I remember hearing it live was about twenty-five years ago with the New York Philharmonic and Zubin Mehta, and they certainly couldn’t figure out what to do with Bruckner’s plans).  So not a bad way to experience my first night at the Salzburg Festival.