Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Beethoven, Bruckner

Bernard Haitink announced earlier this year that, at 90 years old, he would take a sabbatical after the end of the Summer.  It is widely understood he will never return.  This made for an emotional final concert at the Salzburg Festival this morning, with Haitink at the helm of the Vienna Philharmonic (these forces will repeat this same program at the London Proms and Luzern Festival after this, so it’s not quite his final performance yet – two more).

The concert opened with Beethoven‘s Piano Concerto #4 with soloist Emanuel Ax.  Conductor, orchestra, and pianist kept everything light and lyrical.  There is much going on in this concerto, but these forces made it seem almost easy (“almost” in that we could actually hear how much was going on given the clear playing, so we knew that despite the sound it could not have been easy).  Ax gave an encore, a lively if not flamboyant work (once again, as someone who does not generally care for and almost never listens to solo piano music, I was left to make an educated guess; I might guess Chopin, but don’t really know).

After the intermission came the real emotions for Bruckner‘s Seventh Symphony.  This work had its premiere from the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester, but as evidenced on Wednesday, that orchestra (which has preserved its distinct quality and sound) may just not be the right orchestra for Bruckner.  The Vienna Philharmonic certainly is the right orchestra.  This morning they sounded bright and played with just the right emotional balance.  They carried the lyrics over from Beethoven, but passed them through almost eighty years of musical development to reach not light and lyrical but actually somber and lyrical, a difficult balance to pull off (easy for this orchestra).

Haitink, conducting with his score closed on the music stand, had well-measured beats.  He periodically propped himself up against the barstool-like seat made available for him on the podium.  At the end, clearly exhausted, he needed to be helped to walk on and off the stage for the standing ovation and multiple curtain calls (including an extra one after the orchestra had left the stage).   I remember first seeing him conduct live (although I don’t remember what) when I lived in London in 1991-92 (and had my favorite seat in the pre-renovation Royal Festival Hall directly behind the brass able to read their music while facing the conductors – post-renovation these seats are higher and further removed, but back then it was a great way to learn music with some of the cheapest tickets for anything in that overpriced city).  Of course I knew of his work previously.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mahler

After a run of chamber concerts at the Festival, my final five tickets return me to my usual Fach, the large orchestra concerts starting this morning with an all-Mahler program with the Vienna Philharmonic under Daniel Barenboim.

Barenboim is a perfectly competent if not particularly interesting conductor, so the concert was good but not insightful.  He used the orchestra to paint thick musical canvasses, but did not necessarily do anything with the music that I have not already heard.  Although this morning’s primary work was Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, the natural point of contrast would be to Herbert Blomstedt leading the Philharmonic in Mahler’s Ninth last month, in which Blomstedt opened new worlds within the existing notes and produced a trascendental performance from this orchestra.  Not anywhere in the same league as Blomstedt, Barenboim came across as certain but not always clear, and at times it sounded as though the orchestra could not really follow him.  Also missing: any sense of Angst – and what is Mahler without Angst?

The concert opened with Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, with mezzo Okka von der Damerau as soloist.  Damerau has a full, well-rounded voice.  She warbles a bit at the lower register, which also did not project as well as the upper registers.  But she overall has a clear sound that interacted especially well with the woodwinds, whose colors Barenboim was most intent on drawing out.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Verdi, Requiem

A lot of hype preceded the decision this year to have Riccardo Muti lead the Vienna Philharmonic for Verdi‘s Requiem at this summer’s Salzburg Festival.  So much so, in fact, that they added an extra concert to handle the perceived sold-out crowd (indeed achieved).

Was this the definitive performance of this mass this evening?  Certainly it was an excellent one in all aspects, but I suppose a matter of taste whether it was definitive.  It was not the fire-and-brimstone version I experienced in the Musikverein with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and Philippe Jordan the last time I heard this work in 2016.  Of course, it did not need to be – just a different valid interpretation.

Muti generally kept the performance quite contained (although it got loud when it needed to).  He emphasized the drama more subtly, whether the plaintive opening with Verdi in mourning for the poet Alessandro Manzoni, or the lyrical choral (and orchestral) music of the “Sanctus.”  Muti gave great attention to little details often overlooked, emphasizing the flutes in the “Dies Irae” providing infernal flames every bit as edgy and in the forefront as the brass; or the plucked double basses (augmented by the bass drum) mimicking the death bells tolling for the “Lux Aeterna.”

The Vienna State Opera Chorus again showed itself in fine form, with superb diction and nuance.  The four soloists made for an excellent ensemble: Bulgarian Krassimira Stoyanova (who sang in that Musikverein version three years ago), Georgian Anita Rachvelishvili, Italian Francesco Meli, and the Bashkurt from the Russian Federation Ildar Abdrazakov (who dominated a production of Gounod’s Faust here at the Festival in 2016, and whom I also heard sing Verdi’s Requiem in Moscow back when I lived there).  Of that group, I was most curious to hear Rachvelishvili, who made news last Winter as she took the Metropolitan Opera by storm and whom Muti has essentially declared to be the best voice of the next generation.  She lived up to her hype: she opened with a full, round, dark lower register the likes of which I don’t think I have ever heard an alto produce – and then moved effortlessly to an upper register which had a different more subtle character but which was every bit as full (rare to have such presence in both top and bottom).

My one complaint on the evening: the concert was dedicated to the memory of committed Nazi Herbert von Karajan, who died thirty years ago last month.  While his artistic talents deserve to be remembered (not all worked, and he got even more peculiar and self-absorbed with age, but he added thought to the mix), they should be in a purely artistic context.  Giving concerts in his memory (or naming a square after him outside the Festival House – or outside the State Opera House in Vienna, for that matter) is poor taste, unless they also present who he was (the concert program did not, and the name plaque on Karajanplatz glosses abstractly).  The man joined the Nazi party not once but twice: the first time when it was illegal in Austria (demonstrating he was willing to risk jail to be a Nazi), and the second time after the Anschluss as the records of underground Nazis such as Karajan were misplaced and he needed to be sure he was fully-inscribed.  He may not have committed any war crimes himself, but his loyalty to Hitler and his barbaric ideology was not in question.  Salzburg has of course never been fully denazified, even by poor Austrian standards.  Salzburg never wanted the Festival, when it considered it as too “Jewish” at its founding in 1920 – indeed the city feared an international Jewish conspiracy designed to undermine Salzburg – and perhaps never fully embraced until 1938 after the Nazis took it over (and Karajan himself led it from 1956-1989).  I might normally leave this out of a musical review, but if the Festival did not wish to mention it, then I must.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Wagner, Strauss, Schostakowitsch

Franz Welser-Möst assembled a very strange concert indeed this evening for the Vienna Philharmonic in the Great Festival House all about death: overcoming it (first half of the concert) or not (second half).  In the end, I am not sure he convinced me of anything.

For the first half, Welser-Möst performed two unrelated works with no break between them: the Prelude to Parsifal by Richard Wagner and the tone poem Tod und Verklärung by Richard Strauss.  Clearly he tried to make a connection.  In the opera, Amfortas is unable to die from what should be a mortal wound, and the other knights are wasting away lacking sustenance from the Grail – it is Parsifal who redeems them.  In Strauss’s tone poem, a setting to music of an actual poem, a man is lies dying and as he passes his soul is transfigured.

I just did not see the connection: but maybe I could hear it?  No.  Christoph von Dohnányi, Welser-Möst’s predecessor as music director in Cleveland and also a frequent guest conductor of the Philharmonic, praised the Philharmonic by saying that when others just played overtures or preludes, the Philharmonic put the full opera into that overture or prelude, and so it was this evening.  So even with just the prelude, we had the full emotion.  Extended excerpts from Parsifal would have worked better than the Strauss piece following without pause, which did not work as continuity in any way.

I heard Welser-Möst conduct Tod und Verklärung three years ago at the Festival with the Cleveland Orchestra.  The Vienna Philharmonic is a far better orchestra than the Cleveland Orchestra (and indeed the Cleveland Orchestra itself is not as good as it was in the days when Dohnányi was at the helm), so this was almost a better performance by default.  The orchestra added emotion, but what Welser-Möst shaped was not death and transfiguration (as in the title) but rather triumph over death.  It did end triumphantly.  I hear this work about once every year, so Welser-Möst needed to do something to convince me of his interpretation, and he did not.

After the intermission, the concert got weirder.  Dmitri Schostakowitsch‘s Fourteenth Symphony is rarely performed for good reason: it’s quite morbid and difficult.  Rather than a character in a story on the verge of death, it was Schostakowitsch himself who thought he was about to die (although he managed to hang on a few more years), and consists of a chamber ensemble supporting two vocalists who sing settings of eleven poems about death.  Lines of sadness flashing back to many of Schostakowitsch’s earlier work (either directly quoting, or reminiscent of) permeate.  There is very little motion, just one depressing song after another for almost an hour.  This evening’s performers were excellent (soprano Asmik Grigoryan and baritone Matthias Goerne joined members of the Philharmonic), but the entire work as presented by Welser-Möst lacked shape.  It’s hard to get right in a way that makes the audience appreciate the work, and it didn’t happen this evening.

Great playing; unsatisfying concert.  I am not on the anti-Welser-Möst bandwagon, but his interpretations are not especially inspiring when compared to the other conductors in the circles in which he travels.  He’s merely adequate – if better than most conductors over all, he’s (to use the nasty nickname someone once coined that unfairly stuck with him ever since) “frankly worse than most” conductors who appear regularly in front of this orchestra.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Cherubini, Medea

This afternoon, the Festival featured the premiere of a complete new storyline loosely based on the myth of Medea, performed to the music of Luigi Cherubini.

My formulation there is intentional.  Despite what the program said, this was also not a staging of Cherubini’s opera Medea.

Whatever it was, I will start with the music.  Elena Stikhina, as Medea, was stellar, working her way through the full range of emotions, with a big, warm, round voice to fill the hall no matter what the emotion.  She is only 32 years old but had a stage and vocal presence that seemed experienced well beyond her years.  I’ve heard her once before as Micaela in Carmen at the Salzburg Landestheater in 2015 where she overshadowed the rest of a good cast.  This time, the cast was better – with Rosa Feola as Dirce, Pavel Černoch as Jason, and Vitalij Kowaljov as Creon – all highly expressive, but she still outshone them all.  The role is a real tour-de-force, and she achieved it with flying colors (and made it almost sound easy, which it is certainly not).

The cast was ably supported by the Vienna State Opera Chorus and the Vienna Philharmonic in top form, under the baton of Thomas Hengelbrock, whom I had never before heard of but apparently specializes in non-standard operatic repertory.  His reading tonight was well-paced, and he highlighted Cherubini’s dramatic music perfectly.

Cherubini remains surprisingly underrated, although he was well-regarded in his day, especially by Beethoven (a much more original composer, but who did take influence from Cherubini, whom he openly credited and admired).  Cherubini composed this opera originally in French for Paris, where it flopped (probably more drama and power than the effete French can take).  But the Italian Cherubini, known for his drama and liturgical music, had more influence in the German-speaking world, so he augmented this opera (and had it put into German) and it formed part of the standard repertory in German-speaking theaters throughout the 19th Century, before falling out of favor.  Translated into Italian, it got a new lease on life in the 20th Century.  Recently, there have been attempts to revert to the original French-language setting.

While this was one such case to revert to French, it was not exactly an attempt to be faithful to the original.  The staging was not Regietheater (thankfully), but the director – Australian Simon Stone – altered the plot (more than just updating it to take place in 2019 Austria).  Most of the action in this opera occurs either during the dialogue or offstage during the musical interludes.  By getting rid of the dialogue entirely and leaving only the arias, duets, and choral ensembles, Stone could substitute his own retelling of plot (so he had multiple scene changes jumping from one to the next, showed film clips with new plot during the musical interludes, and replaced some of the dialogue with long voicemail messages from Medea to Jason).

For the most part, this silliness could be ignored. I am not sure it helped elucidate the opera, but it also did not really hurt either and at least Stone was using his brain.  However, the final scene (in which Medea supposedly douses a car she has stolen in gasoline and ignites it with the kids and herself inside while the police watch for ten minutes without doing anything) just looked too silly and had the audience chortling.  The rousing applause at the end turned to boos when Stone and his enablers came on stage for a bow (I did not boo – I was just relieved it wasn’t offensive German Regietheater garbage – but I did sit on my hands when he and his team showed up, as the concept really did not work even if it did not offend).

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mahler

For the fourth year in a row, Mahler‘s 9th Symphony was on the program at the Festival.  I’ve heard it many many more times as well.  I wondered: what new could there possibly be to say?  Then I heard Herbert Blomstedt‘s masterful reading with the Vienna Philharmonic tonight in the Great Festival House and discovered worlds in that symphony I have never heard before.

The symphony opened desolately enough, but it soon became clear Blomstedt was not satisfied with just being desolate.  He deconstructed every line and then put the pieces back together emphasizing the sinister and the odd and even the grotesque. Instruments jumped out of the mass of sound, only to get abruptly cut off – or to have their flowing line completed by seemingly the wrong other instrument.  All of this appeared in Mahler’s score, but Blomstedt found it (and the Philharmonic reproduced Mahler’s and Blomstedt’s vision perfectly).

He treated the music like painting by Pieter Bruegel – with attention to all the fine details, but upon close inspection a lot is actually malformed.  The interior movements may have even harkened to Hieronymus Bosch – they had the skeletons dancing in hell and blurts on what might have been the bizarre musical instruments Bosch portrayed.  The Philharmonic provided raw playing – not just the winds, but even the strings came across like a lush hurdy-gurdy.

The final movement started by suggesting it might resolve this craziness and rise above the din, but as the music soared it revealed itself as the Angel of Death.  And then… when we may have expected death to warm over, it became instead frigid. As blood spilled upon the ice, it hardened solid.  I did not time how long it took from the last note to fade until Blomstedt released the room, but it certainly felt like a full two minutes of complete silence.  No one in the packed hall even breathed.  We couldn’t.  No air remained in the room.

Vienna Philharmonic, Musikverein

Beethoven

I realized I had not heard the Vienna Philharmonic live in over six months, so resolved the problem by snagging a returned ticket for this evening’s concert in the Musikverein with Andris Nelsons performing Beethoven‘s symphonies #4 and #5.

This is actually the second time I have heard Beethoven’s Fourth this month.  The Philharmonic is a different orchestra from the Mozarteum Orchestra, of course, so right there I was always going to get a different sound – bigger, fuller, more nuance.  And by pairing this symphony with his Fifth, the mood was also going to be quite different.  Normally, if paired, the Fifth goes with the Sixth (they were written at the same time and had their premiere at the same concert), but the putting the slightly earlier Fourth in juxtaposition with the Fifth emphasized the progression.

Nelsons took both with a big, rich, and mysterious sound.  He did not emphasize the lighter moments of the Fourth (they were there in full color, though, just worked into the orchestral whole), producing a somewhat edgier mood.  This continued through the first three movements of the Fifth, until the Fifth’s final movement erupted in joy.

As I have mentioned previously, the Fourth often gets lost in between the Third and the Fifth, or gets overlooked with a slender interpretation.  The Mozarteum Orchestra two weeks ago under Joshua Weilerstein, and the Philharmonic this evening under Nelsons, flushed it out.  But having it introduce the Fifth, as Nelsons did, not only highlighted its value in and of itself, but also elevated it to the same level as its more-performed successor.

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.

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., at which point Nelsons and the Philharmonic decided they (and we) should probably go home.

 

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 carrying a tambourine) 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.