Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Felsenreitschule (Salzburg)

Dvořák, Bach, Prokofiev

Another weekend at the Festival, moving into the Felsenreitschule for the annual Young Conductors Award prize concert, which featured last year’s winner Aziz Shokhakimov, only 29 years old but for the last eleven years the principal conductor of the Uzbek National Opera.  This evening he had the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra at his disposal – a competent if somewhat undistinguished orchestra by Austrian standards (albeit probably better than his own, I am sure).

Shokhakimov provided all of the necessary impulse to drive the orchestral music forward, even during moments of sadness, introspection, or tragedy.  This was especially true in the second half of the concert, with a performance of Prokofiev‘s Fifth Symphony, written in the final year of the Second World War and celebrating impending victory while lamenting the terrible toll.

It worked less well in the first half of the concert, but not because of Shokhakimov.  For Dvořák‘s Cello Concerto, the Romanian soloist Andrei Ioniţă simply sapped all energy from the room whenever he played.  Although sometimes capable of a round warm tone, most of the time he sounded like he was scraping a washboard.  The contrast between the excitement of the pure orchestral passages (of which Dvořák gave us many) and dreary cello solos (not what Dvořák wrote, but what Ioniţă played) were extreme.  Ioniţă came back out for an encore of what sounded very much like Bach (scored for washboard).

(Addendum: I discovered after writing this that the washboard has actually been adapted for use in jazz as a percussion instrument.  That is not that sound I intended to suggest by my description, but rather I meant the sort of sound that might be created by scraping a wire bow across a washboard – not having ever tried that myself, and listening to some jazz recordings of washboards, I wonder if I would even be right.  In short, Ioniţă’s sound was scratchy, rough, and metallic.)
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Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Felsenreitschule (Salzburg)

Kabalevksy, Rachmaninov, Scriabin

Lorenzo Viotti, the Swiss who won the annual Salzburg Young Conductors Award last year, celebrated his victory concert this morning in the Felsenreitschule leading the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, with an ambitious all-Russian program.  Although he seemed to have a clear idea of the structure of the music, the performance was not compelling.  How much of this could be the fault of the nicely-toned by rather blurry orchestra is unclear.

The overture to Colas Breugnon by Dmitri Kabalevksy opened the morning concert like an alarm clock.  Kabalevsky’s music, usually fun if rarely memorable, did the trick, and Viotti and the orchestra handled the theatrics.  The young Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili then took the stage for Sergei Rachmaninov‘s second piano concerto.  Buniatishvili performed the work entranced as if in a dream, in a better world.  The Orchestra applied a bit too much pedal, however.  Where her notes came across crisp and light, theirs plodded.  Clearly this was her dream: they just slept through it.

The single work after the intermission had first attracted me to this concert: Aleksandr Skryabin‘s Second Symphony.  Underappreciated as a symphonist, because he was stark raving mad, Skryabin was a classmate and close friend of Rachmaninov at the Moscow Conservatory and turned out some of the greatest Russian symphonies of the Twentieth Century.  He set out to destroy the world in six symphonies – fortunately maybe for the world but not for music-lovers nor certainly not for him, he died at 43 years old having only written five, so the world survived (although the Bolsheviks finished off his world two years later, and his reputation fell into rapid decline).  When his symphonies do appear on a concert program, they are worth seeking out, although again I think the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra simply was not up to the job.  Their sound was invariably sweet, where Skryabin required sour.

Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Konzerthaus

Yabuta, Korngold, Bruckner

Tonight’s concert at the Konzerthaus presented three works in reverse chronological order, providing a somewhat nostalgic view of the program.  As part of its celebrations of the 100th anniversary of its construction, the Konzerthaus sponsored composition contests.  Shoichi Yabuta, a 30-year-old Japanese composer won the category for large symphonic work with “Anima,” received his prize before the concert began, and then got to hear the world premiere, with the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra under Cornelius Meister.

Yabuta indicated in the program notes that he tries to blend eastern and western harmonics in his music through a concept called “heterophony.”  I was not clear that I heard any particular harmonics at work in this piece.  However, he used a Bruckner-sized orchestra to its fullest – not only in terms of the massive sound potential, but also in the ability to mix and match instruments, performing in an aggressive and muscular manner, somehow in context with each other. The result: surprisingly good, and enjoyable on an intellectual level.  Yabuta also kept the work at under about 15 minutes, understanding (as so many other modern composers do not) that the creation of so much creative noise becomes grating and unwelcome after a short period.  The piece included three movements, with sharp internal and external edges, so this never became dull and switched up sufficiently to maintain interest among the audience, which gave Yabuta a warm applause after.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Violin Concerto followed.  Korngold wrote this piece in 1945, dedicating it to Alma Mahler.  As a refugee from occupied Vienna living in the US, he had turned to Hollywood and produced film music, back when serious composers did such things.  Taking some of his favorite tunes from various movies, he recombined them into this concerto.  He also indicated that he did not write it for a latter-day “Paganini” to performon the violin, but rather for a “Caruso” – he wanted the violin solos to sing.  Tonight, French violinist Renaud Capuçon followed Korngold’s instructions, giving a softer and more melodic tone to thesomewhat sentimental music.  No hard edges here.

In its way, the single work after the intermission – Anton Bruckner‘s Ninth Symphony – managed to link the two previously-performed works.  While I am not sure Meister offered a new interpretation on its own, the fact that he juxtaposed this symphony with the other two works on the program, and put it after the more modern pieces, did allow for a new consideration of Bruckner’s unfinished final masterpiece.  On one hand, it contained the usual soaring harmonies, a spirituality to match the Korngold concerto’s sentimentality.  On the other hand, Meister had the orchestra muscling its way through much of the new work – and particularly the second movement – and accentuated the organ stops and the drum highlights, thus tying Bruckner’s work to the Yabuta one at the start of the evening.  This was not a relaxed Bruckner Nine.

The orchestra itself sounded somewhat better than when I last heard it earlier this year in the Musikverein.  It has still fallen off from the level it had attained at the time it nearly got closed a couple of years ago, unfortunately.  I would say that perhaps it might know this music better than the works in the previous concert – this would likely apply only to Bruckner, though; the film-music of Korngold at least feels familiar even if it is seldom performed; but the Yabuta was certainly unfamiliar and very difficult.  Meister tried to keep things clear, but the orchestra repeatedly missed cues and did not always have accurate attacks.  Overall, however, it produced a much more open and strident tone than what I heard in the Musikverein eight weeks ago.  Tonight’s odd manner of eliciting nostalgic feelings may also have helped – this is still Vienna after all.

Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Grieg, Pärt, Sibelius

Briefly in Vienna, I popped into the Musikverein to see what was on.  I do not believe I have heard the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra since the government nearly shut it down a few years ago. The Orchestra receives funding from a tax on televisions.  Even when I am in Vienna, I do not watch television and cannot even get the publicly-funded stations (they do not broadcast terrestrially and I do not have cable, so I can only receive free satellite, for which only one Austrian public channel is partially accessible).  So I pay for this.  Because public television is outdated, and in Europe has just morphed into commercial television anyway, no one really watches.  What makes the television tax palatable in Austria is that so much of it goes to arts funding in general. Nevertheless, they still threatened to disband this orchestra around 2009, until it was saved by public outcry.  In the process, it lost its conductor (Bertrand de Billy) and I wonder how many of its musicians. Tonight it sounded like a shell of its former self.

I do not know how often this orchestra performs these days.  I do not see it much in the listings, but it could merely be a factor of when I am around.  The young German conductor Cornelius Meister, de Billy’s successor, took the podium tonight, and he might just inspire the orchestra less.  I would need to hear more before deciding. Tonight’s concert, with music by Edvard Grieg, Arvo Pärt, and Janne Sibelius, would allow the orchestra to demonstrate its musicality.  This it did in part, but the theatrical passages got outnumbered by the passages where it simply played the music as written.  At times, the orchestra missed cues and sounded ragged around the edges – more so during the Grieg and Sibelius works, although it could have done so during the Pärt as well but no one would have noticed.

Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite #2 and Sibelius’ Symphony #5 framed the program.  At times these had inspiration, but somehow the orchestra managed to muddy the acoustics of the Golden Hall in a way I had not realized was possible.  I sat in a seat I often sit in, so the blur certainly came from the orchestra and not from the peculiarities of a particular seat.  The air remained clear, just the sound slushed through, although it did shine at times.

The piece which made me most curious came in the middle of the concert: Pärt’s Credo for Piano, Chorus, and Orchestra (with the Singverein and with Meister at the keyboard).  Pärt is a composer I have wanted to get to know for almost thirty years, but for some reason have never gotten around to it.  I do not believe I have ever heard Pärt live, I have no recordings of any of his music, and I have only heard works by him on the radio in passing without paying special attention.  Perhaps this was not the best Pärt piece to begin with.  It had wonderful moments, welding baroque or even polyphonic harmonies onto a 20th-century orchestral palate.  Unfortunately, Pärt interrupted these pleasant bits with obnoxious intrusions of sound produced in often gimmicky ways, getting unusual noises out of the instruments or voices.  I think I will need to find another piece to begin to explore Pärt again.

After the Pärt piece, Meister performed an encore for solo piano.  I did not catch what he announced that it was (his announcement was clearly audible, but not intelligible), nor did I recognize it. However, I do not need to waste much time finding out, since I do not wish to hear this dull and ugly encore again.

Highlights from 2008

Highlights

Prior to 2010 I did not write regularly.  I found most records from 2009 (now posted on this blog), but right now the only reliable musical notes from 2004-2008 are in my annual year-end highlight summaries, so I am posting these until I locate more in my archives.

Less travel and more time in Vienna meant I enjoyed even more live music than usual this year.

Best performance: Schostakowitsch, Symphony Nr. 8, Wiener Symphoniker, Vladimir Fedoseyev (November). Not among the more-often performed of Schostakowitsch’s symphonies, the anguished Eighth captures Schostakowitsch’s personality and mindset well. Written to commemorate the Red Army driving the Germans out of Russia, the undertone is that the Soviet regime was also ghastly, so the work was banned in Russia for many years. A moving performance, quite devastating in segments.

Runner up: Berlioz, Grande Messe des Morts, RSO Wien, Bertrand de Billy (November). I had forgotten just how immense this work was. Not sure the chorus even had room to inhale, they were so packed onto the Musikverein stage. The orchestra did not fit on the stage, so extended over the first few rows as well as into the first parterre loges on each side. The four brass choirs (in addition to the regular oversized brass section in the orchestra itself) were placed around the hall. Berlioz intended the piece, although bombastic, to be performed as church music and not as a concert requiem. De Billy clearly understood this and kept the lid on. The singing soared from the combined chorus of both the Wiener Singverein and the Wiener Singakademie.

Best concert venue: Occupation Museum, Tallinn (May). Visiting the Estonian Occupation Museum, I was invited to stay on after closing time for a concert with a rather odd quartet (soprano, flute, cello, and a glockenspiel-like instrument) performing modern, mostly Estonian, music. Between each piece the quartet moved around the museum and the audience had to carry our folding chairs from place to place, surrounded by Soviet-era memorabilia.

Most disappointing performance: Beethoven, Symphony Nr. 2 / Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique, Göteborgs Symfoniker, Gustavo Dudamel, Vienna (October). If it had been a student orchestra, I would have been impressed. The much-hyped Dudamel (whom I watched from a balcony seat over the stage, where I could observe his peculiar technique) had clear passion and sense for palette, but the performance was far too sloppy for such an orchestra. Dudamel is the music director in Gothenborg, and thus can and should be held personally responsible. I cannot tell if Dudamel will gain more control as he gets older or will turn into Zubin Mehta (charismatic and capable of getting occasional exciting performances, but otherwise dreadfully boring and absolutely disastrous for orchestral discipline).

Worst performances: Nielsen, Violin Concerto / Bruckner, Symphony Nr. 6, Tonkünstler Orchester, Kristjan Järvi, Vienna (November). Nielsen is neither original nor interesting. Järvi demonstrated absolutely no feel for Bruckner. Dvořák, Cello Concerto, Daniel Müller-Schott, Wiener Symphoniker, Yakov Kreizberg (April). Müller-Schott’s uninspired solo work put me to sleep. Woke up after the intermission for a spirited Dvořák Sixth Symphony.

Best opera and most fun at the opera (winning both categories this year): R. Strauss, Capriccio, Staatsoper, Vienna (October). A rarely-performed esoteric work, the entire plot (in one act lasting nearly three hours) concerns whether music or text is more important to opera. No kidding. The opera’s seemingly unpromising plot was supported by witty text set to glorious music. The simple staging was well-considered and with good direction. Renee Fleming headed a superb cast, conducted by Philippe Jordan. I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Runner-up for best opera: Verdi, Simon Boccanegra, Staatsoper, Vienna (September). A moody piece, not performed often enough. Not tuneful by Verdi standards, but with a plot resembling Gilbert and Sullivan. Thankfully, Verdi let Arrigo Boito fix up the libretto and made Boccanegra version #2 into good drama, if properly performed (as here).

Runner-up for most fun at the opera: Benatzky, Im Weißen Rößl, Kammerspiele, Vienna (May). The classic 1920s Austrian comedy, here performed cabaret-style on a small stage with a three-person orchestra.

Worst opera production: Wagner, Lohengrin, Staatsoper, Vienna (May). The performance, conducted by Peter Schneider, would have been great if I had kept my eyes closed. They should have saved the expense of a staged production and just done a concert performance, since the cast generally wore formal concert attire anyway. Of all the bizarre things on stage, the director left out the one thing which must be there: the swan (explaining in the program notes that this central figure was actually unnecessary). The imbecilic director was not German, but – to no surprise – trained in Berlin. I think I have to stop going to operas directed by people who have even visited Germany.