Online Highlights from the Corona Lockdown (week 7)

Highlights

With the lockdown in Austria now having officially ended on 30 April, I may try to have other distractions in May, but I certainly digested a fair amount of opera during the last seven weeks.  Austria is not completely opening for a long time, and of course there is no live music any time soon, but we can at least get out of the house more.  Several institutions streaming performances online are now scaling back.  Others are moving ahead but beginning to repeat performances (see my reviews here, I suppose, to know what to look out for – or subscribe to the different sites).  So maybe I don’t keep updating this blog every week with online highlights.  We will see what I do.

Many thanks especially to the Vienna Staatsoper, New York’s Metropolitan Opera, St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater, the Vienna Volksoper, the Royal Swedish Opera, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, and the Philadelphia Orchestra, but also to all of the opera houses and orchestras that have streamed so much wonderful music these last weeks – there were many, but even during a lockdown there remain only so many hours in a night, so I merely sampled a selection.  Hope to hear you all in person again soon!

Humperdinck: Hänsel und Gretel (Staatsoper)

Engelbert Humperdinck, a favorite assistant of Wagner at Bayreuth (and who later wrote incidental music for Max Reinhardt productions), turned a lot of fairy tales into operas with a suitably Wagnerian coloring.  Hänsel und Gretel has hung around in the standard repertory, and although popular for children at Christmas time, it often attracts quite serious artists.  It’s fun to revisit this opera now and then.  Here the Staatsoper did a fantasy setting with Margaret Plummer and Chen Reiss in the title roles and Axel Kober conducting.

Weinberg: The Passenger (Bregenz Festival)

This was rough: over on the “Fidelio” streaming site (access courtesy of the Volksoper), I got to finally see Moishe Weinberg’s Auschwitz opera, The Passenger, in its world premiere staging at the 2010 Bregenz Festival.  Set in approximately 1960, a German diplomat and his wife are heading off to Brazil for his new posting when she spots a mysterious passenger on the ship, who reminds her of a Polish inmate at Auschwitz.  This leads her to reveal to her husband that she had been an officer in the SS and indeed an overseer in the women’s camp at Auschwitz.  The rest of the opera mixes flashbacks from the camp with scenes from the boat.

Weinberg’s music is rather grim and never tuneful (but not atonal – typical of Weinberg, the music is dense and complex and plays on multiple levels simultaneously) until close to the end, where the tunes shout defiance.  Keeping with communist propaganda, Jews were almost entirely missing from this version of Auschwitz, except for one inmate from Salonika.  Of course the Warsaw-born Weinberg knew the truth about the Holocaust, the Germans having murdered his entire family.  But even that attempt to follow the Communist Party line did not let his work through the censors.  The Soviet regime suppressed this opera, like they did to so much of Weinberg’s other music.  Although composed in 1967-68 it was not performed until a concert version in 2006, ten years after the composer’s death.  The world premiere staging had to wait until this one in 2010 in Bregenz.

Michelle Breedt sang Lisa, the SS officer and Elena Kelessidi sang Marta, the Polish inmate and the mysterious Passenger (the opera never actually reveals if these are the same person).  A very young-looking Teodor Currentzis (an excellent conductor when he sticks to music – as here – and does not attempt distracting performance art) led the Vienna Symphony Orchestra in the pit.  The staging by the British director David Pourtney fully captured the plot, and was effective at moving back and forth between the two periods portrayed without trying to do too much except let the opera speak for itself.

Boito: Mefistofele (Bavarian State Opera)

Opera in Germany became a bad joke several decades ago, to the point it is no longer safe to go to the opera there.  So I can promise that I did not turn to this Bavarian State Opera production of Boito’s Mefistofele because I wanted to see what yet another trashy German regisseur, in this case Roland Schwab, was up to (trashy is apparently the right word here, since the description said he opened this setting in a garbage dump).  But when searching through the collection available in the “Fidelio” streaming service, this was the only version of Boito’s Mefistofele in the catalogue and I wanted to hear who was singing.  My favorite Italian-language opera is not performed often enough (I’ve only managed to see it live once in person, in Prague exactly two years ago), so hearing it with a top-flight cast today was an objective.

As Mephistopheles René Pape himself was worth the listen, balancing a soothing bass-baritone voice – the temptation of the devil – with menace.  Joseph Calleja as Faust was suitably dramatic and had a wonderful mezza voce at times, but his voice also tended to crack.  Kristīne Opolais was a sensitive Gretchen.  Omer Meir Wellber was the conductor, and was neither here nor there – at times I do think he captured the music, but at others it wandered off, although maybe it would have to do with the staging and there’s not much a conductor can do if the director is an idiot who insists on staging something bearing no relation to the opera on the program.  It also did not help that part of the prologue (set in heaven, to what is supposed to be mystical, uplifting, open music) sounded like it was pre-recorded on a badly scratched vinyl LP (seriously – not a sound issue with the streaming as far as I could tell, so may indeed have been intentional).  Nor that the bumpkins in the audience kept interrupting the performance with gratuitous applause (although they did stop doing this midway through the opera, so someone must have given them a good thwack in the intermission – or maybe they went home and did not come back after the intermission).

  • [Recording tip: Nothing has matched the 1974 set featuring the inimitable Norman Treigle in the title role, backed by Plácido Domingo and Montserrat Caballé, with Julius Rudel conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.  Seriously, nothing comes close, and probably nothing ever will.  I’ve listened to numerous versions, and extensive excerpts with top-notch performers, and this is the definitive recording in every respect.]

Beethoven: Fidelio (Staatsoper)

I could not resist sitting once more through Beethoven’s Fidelio from the Staatsoper in the Otto Schenk staging, which I saw with a different cast last week.  I had remembered Anja Kampe’s Leonore and Valentina Naforniţă’s Marzelline fondly from when I saw this production live in 2013, so tuned in to see them again in this streamed 2016 performance.  They were every bit what I remembered, and although Camilla Nylund sang a good Leonore in last week’s streaming (from 2017), Kampe easily outdid her in the acting department, with passion and verve.  Stephen Milling, whom I admired as Gurnemanz in a Staatsoper streaming of Parsifal earlier in the lockdown (the first time I remembered hearing him) was indeed also impressive as Rocco.  Again, the acting added to his fine voice – not that Günther Groissböck (Rocco in the streaming I saw last week) cannot act (he certainly can), but there was more of the humanity in Milling’s Rocco.   Klaus Florian Vogt was also a much more believable Florestan than Peter Seiffert (whom I saw last week and who had not even merited a mention in my write-up).  And Evgeny Nikitin was that much more of a villain as Don Pizarro than Albert Dohmen’s more basic version last week (Nikitin’s unsavory past makes him personally more of a villain, but famously having had a large swastika tattoo, though making him of dubious character, does not make him a better artist – that comes from him genuinely being a better artist).  It’s not that last week’s cast was bad, but with the exception of Chen Reiss being a notch better than Naforniţă (which is not in any way meant as a knock on the younger singer), and Boaz Daniel (Don Fernando) and Jörg Schneider (Jaquino) reprising their roles, this group just made a more convincing whole portrayal.  And while Cornelius Meister led a fine performance in the version streamed last week, Peter Schneider in the pit this time just added even more warmth and spirit.  The applause from the audience was proportionately grander as well – they knew what they had seen.

Mozart: Entführung aus dem Serail (Glyndebourne Festival)

David McVicar has directed a delightful little production of Mozart’s Abduction for the 2015 Glyndebourne Festival.  Extended dialogue allowed for much fuller character development than the usual set stereotypes. McVicar could succeed here as well by keeping the singers active on the stage: they were not just singing in an opera and doing the necessary actions, but rather living their lives for us.  McVicar also recognized that this opera may be serious, but is filled with comic relief – which he magnified without turning it into a comedy.  This is actually Mozart at his best, playful and full of humor but grounded, with a lesson for us all.  The cast could act, too.

This production was the opposite of some of those terrible German Regietheater stagings, where I want to hear them but cannot watch.  In those cases, I do listen, but can do other things at the same time.  But in this case I wanted to watch, yet had to suffer through listening to the performance.  It made me realize that I do not know much about Glyndebourne, other than that it has a certain reputation from a cult following, set on some English country estate.  I assumed it was a bit like other music festivals, attracting top performers.  Maybe it is, but this production had more than a whiff of amateur night to it, which was a shame, though, with McVicar’s truly intelligent and completely thought-through concept.

The Glyndebourne Festival’s orchestra, conducted by Robin Ticciati, sounded thin and not quite able to stay in tune, which was painful.  Of the singers, Tobias Kehrer (Osmin) was perhaps the only one with a solid voice.  Brendan Gunnell (Pedrillo) and Mari Eriksmoen (Blonde) were equipped with adequate vocal instruments.  Sally Matthews (Konstanze) could sing sometimes but her voice cracked too often to get comfortable with.  Edgardas Montvidas (Belmonte) was the most problematic, with a consistently weak and strained tone that often became downright cringeworthy.  Franck Saurel (Pasha Selim) thankfully did not have a singing role, just spoken dialogue, which he generally could do although he had a tendency to overact.  I’d love to see the McVicar staging live with a proper cast and orchestra, though (I’d stream the film another time through to catch more of the nuances, except I don’t think I could take listening to this version again).

  • [Recording tip: My favorite recording of this opera, combining musicality and Austrian charm, is the 1966 one made by Josef Krips and the Vienna Philharmonic, with Nicolai Gedda as Belmonte, Anneliese Rothenberger as Konstanze, Gerhard Unger as Pedrillo, Lucia Popp as Blonde, and Gottlob Frick as Osmin.]

Berlioz: The Trojans (Staatsoper)

Berlioz’s opera based on Vergil’s Aeneid rarely gets performed.  The French, of course, never understood it, so Berlioz only managed to get a truncated version produced during his own lifetime, that he was not remotely satisfied with.  It finally got a full performance in Germany and entered the repertory long after the composer’s death.  The Staatsoper’s current staging is by David McVicar – and since he is generally pretty good, I figured this would be a nice version to see.

I’m not sure of the logic, but McVicar set the Trojan War in (perhaps) the 19th century.  For the acts set in Troy, McVicar has the Trojan warriors dressed up in ceremonial naval uniforms.  The sets were not realistic of anything – they looked a bit like deconstructed naval vessels.  The horse itself consisted of lashed-together detritus from old warships (cannons, ship’s wheels) lit up to look like a circuit board.  (The jumble reappeared at the end of the opera, reconfigured into a human form as the Carthiginians curse Rome.)  The acts in Carthage at least tried to look North African, even if likely not from 3,000 years ago.  But it worked, sort of, until the Trojans arrived from the 19th century.  Maybe I just write this off as not one of McVicar’s better efforts.

From the musical perspective, this 2018 performance featured strong characterizations by Brandon Jovanovich as Aeneas, Joyce DiDonato as Dido, Szilvia Vörös as Anna, and Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cassandra.  Alain Altinoglu conducted.

Verdi: Aida (Metropolitan Opera)

The Metropolitan Opera streamed a 1985 performance of Verdi’s Aida, featuring Leontyne Price in the title role (her final on-stage opera performance – she only did concerts after that point in her career), Fiorenza Cossotto as Amneris, James McCracken as Radamès, and Simon Estes as Amonasro.  James Levine conducted.  It was great to hear, but strange to watch, with a minimalist set, stylized mock-Egyptian costumes (a bit over the top, actually), and very static blocking with singers walking slowly and intentionally to specific spots where they just stood.

New York Philharmonic: Mahler

The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum posted on their Facebook page a video of a television broadcast by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic from 1963, performing Mahler’s Second Symphony in memory of President Kennedy, who had been assassinated two days before the broadcast.  This piece is always evocative, and here the orchestra produced a solemn performance, with Bernstein providing the strong punctuation.  Tempi were noticeably quite a bit faster than usual, particularly in the first movement, but while rather odd at times this did not undermine the tension.  The sound on the recording was oddly crackly (and even warped in places) – other live performances from that period were of far better quality, so one wonders whether CBS (the network responsible for the broadcast) was particularly incompetent – but the tone of the orchestra shines through.  Indeed, it is pleasant to remember that the New York Philharmonic once counted among the best in the world.

Online Highlights from the Corona Lockdown (week 1)

Highlights

With the world on pause due to the latest pandemic, cultural institutions have gone online.

I myself fled Salzburg and decamped home to Vienna before the authorities ended freedom of movement, so that for what looks like will last at least one month on lockdown, I can be more comfortable than I would be if crammed into my small Salzburg pad (my office is in Salzburg, and it’s just too far from Vienna to commute daily – all I really need in Salzburg is a place to sleep, with a reasonable kitchen, bathroom, and balcony for when I do spend Summer weekends there).  In Vienna, I have a good kitchen stocked with sufficient food, a cellar full of Georgian wines, and my private library (including my CD collection – and good external speakers for my laptop), so can survive more than a month if necessary.  My own day job goes on remotely, so it’s also good to have a home office with a desk and printer.

My ticket for a new Vienna production of Rigoletto was refunded – that show won’t go on.  A chamber concert of music by Moishe Weinberg in Salzburg will, I hope, be rescheduled (no refund yet – but I’d rather hear the concert so happy to wait to see about the new date).  My April trip to the US is off, so I lose a chance to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra in its annual concert in memory of my father (would have been Beethoven’s Ninth this year – but not only my trip but also the concert itself is anyway canceled).  We will see when and whether concerts resume this Spring, or indeed for the Festival this Summer (I got my applications accepted for 19 tickets, and since I usually manage to add new ones during the Summer this would have meant my most performances ever at the Festival, surpassing last Summer’s final total of 19).  We will see.

At night, after work, I have been able to take advantage of the new offerings available online.  I am not going to pretend this is the same as hearing music live, but it’s nice to get some variety I might not have otherwise had.

Every evening the Staatsoper releases a new video available for that night.  New York’s Metropolitan Opera does the same (but with the difference in time zones, this comes after midnight here – thankfully I am nocturnal).

Wagner, Das Rheingold, Die Walküre (Staatsoper, Royal Swedish Opera)

I am now halfway through the Staatsoper’s current production of Wagner‘s Ring cycle, which they have spread out over two weeks (so far just Rheingold and Walküre).  The staging is blah – I am not sure that the vapid German director Sven-Eric Bechtolf had a concept.  If he did, it’s not remotely clear.  Thankfully, it’s not Regietheater, so nothing offends.  But I hope the Staatsoper did not pay him for this lack of imagination.  The cast consists mostly of Staatsoper ensemble members or frequent guests, and does not need to have any star names to succeed dramatically.  I have especially liked the edgy-voiced Thomasz Konieczny as Wotan.  He apparently has sung more Alberich than Wotan, and his voice indeed would be well-suited for Alberich, but the two characters are almost alteregos (“Schwarz-Alberich” and “Licht-Alberich”), so it can work with intelligent singing as Konieczny provides.  In the big roles so far, Evelyn Herlitzius has disappointed as Brünnhilde, her voice is expressive enough but not big enough.  Siegfried (my favorite opera as a child) is tomorrow, and Götterdämmerung (my favorite opera since I was a teen) next weekend.

I actually realized I have not sat through an entire Ring cycle in a while, so even with the faulty staging this is quite a positive outcome of the global pandemic.  Next week, I will also sit through the entire Ring Cycle on four successive nights, courtesy of the Met.  And the Royal Swedish Opera has provided Walküre (just the audio in this case) – in another dramatic reading with only one big-name star, Nina Stemme, as Brünnhilde (a shame she wasn’t contracted by for the current Vienna set!), and a supporting cast that generally held up.

  • [Recording tips: since I am cooped up at home, I do get to tap into my archive to listen to comparative performances.  For Rheingold, the 1958 Solti set with the Vienna Philharmonic made for Decca works for sake of drama thanks to John Culshaw’s brilliant audio engineering; but since George London’s portrayal of Wotan lacks dynamism, I tend to favor the 1953 live recording from Bayreuth conducted by Clemens Kraus, with Hans Hotter as Wotan and a cast otherwise up to the same standards as the Vienna one (in some cases the same singers).  For Walküre, I’ve never found a recording that really does it for me.  There are two conducted by Erich Leinsdorf a couple of decades apart, the first with the Metropolitan Opera has the better cast – there are actually a few of these from the same period, of which I favor a 1940 recording the Metropolitan Opera made while on tour in Boston, with Lauritz Melchior and Lotte Lehmann as a heroic Siegmund and Sieglinde, Marjorie Lawrence as Brünnhilde, and Friedrich Schorr as Wotan; the second Leinsdorf record came with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1962, with Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde and a much better George London as Wotan, and has the more thrilling reading from the pit (indeed, from the orchestral standpoint, this 1962 Leinsdorf version may be the best Walküre available).  For sake of being unusual, I might also suggest seeking out the hard-to-find audio from the 1983 Bayreuth Festival with Georg Solti conducting a Ring cycle that was rightfully panned, but out of which came a surprisingly good Walküre.  Siegmund Nimsgern’s Wotan is similar in style to Konieczny’s in the recent Vienna cycle, Hildegard Behrens is at the hight of her career as Brünnhilde, and Siegfried Jerusalem and Jeannine Altmeier made an excellent pair as Siegmund and Sieglinde.]

Eötvös: Three Sisters (Staatsoper)

Of course, there is plenty of non-Wagner in the Staatsoper’s offering.  In an effort not just to be popular, the Staatsoper also included one 21st-Century opera in its mix: Three Sisters by Peter Eötvös.  That was worth a listen – Eötvös’ music is intelligent and edifying.

Bizet: Carmen / Verdi: Il Trovatore (Metropolitan Opera)

From the Met, the highlight so far has been a 2010 performance of Bizet‘s Carmen, with a sultry Elīna Garanča in the title role, overwhelming poor Roberto Alagna as Don José (he was great, but could not compare to her).  A very young-looking Yannick Nézet-Séguin (this production came even before he was appointed Music Director in Philadelphia) provided a perfect spark in the pit.  (Among the other performances the Met streamed was Dmitri Hvorostovsky‘s final public performance, when he returned to the stage for one set of Verdi‘s Il Trovatore, after he began his cancer treatment and before he died.)  The sad side-story from the Met, however, is that this week they fired all members of their orchestra, chorus, ensemble singers, and stage staff and it remains to be seen if the best opera house in the US will be able to survive the pandemic.

  • [Recording tips: I will be a bit zany here, and instead of suggested a “best” recording I will instead suggest one that will make the listener hear Carmen differently.  Carmen‘s international success derives from a production done in Vienna a few years after its Paris premiere.  So how about a German-language version?  The best one of those is a 1961 version from the Deutsche Oper Berlin under Horst Stein, with Christa Ludwig (Carmen), Rudolf Schock (Don José), and Herman Prey (Escamillo).  From a standpoint of drama, it is worth getting over the clumsy German that does not always pass with the music, and just enjoying some fantastic singing actors.]

Beethoven: Fidelio (Theater an der Wien)

The most disappointing production I have seen this week, though, was a new one.  The Theater an der Wien (Vienna’s third major opera house) was supposed to open a new production of Beethoven‘s Fidelio this week.  When it was clear a couple of weeks ago that this would not be able to go ahead – and indeed the entire run would be canceled – Austrian television rushed in to film it in front of an empty seats, so that all the work that had gone into producing it would not go to waste.  That was classy.

The problem, though, was the terrible production.  Beethoven’s first attempt at writing an opera did not go well and he gave up.  But he was still under contract, and the impressario was paying his living expenses while he wrote, so he was actually in debt to the impressario – Emanuel Schickaneder – and had to write something to fulfill his obligation, so he grabbed a French play he thought he could set as an opera: Leonore.  It went very badly.  A year later, he revised it.  The second version (now called Fidelio) survived two performances before being canceled.  Beethoven gave up.  About eight years later, with the help of another dramatist friend, he did yet another revision.  This third attempt worked and is the version of Fidelio that became a fixture in the operatic repertory.  Beethoven swore off writing any more operas.

Why anyone would think to stage the first or second versions of Fidelio is beyond my comprehension.  Actually, the music is Beethoven, so it’s great music, and certainly worth the curiosity factor to program selections for concerts.  But it’s lousy opera: there’s no drama (this got fixed in the third version, especially Act Two, which Mahler later augmented by adding the brilliant convention of inserting the Leonore Overture #3, which Beethoven himself realized was not a proper opera overture but a stand-alone piece in its own right, into the scene change).

The staging was blah here too – apparently they hired an architectural firm, which is not who should be doing stagings.  The construction of the stage indeed succeeded aesthetically, and I suppose it worked with this performing version – it, too, lacked drama.  The cast of no-names was mediocre – although it probably did not help that they had to perform this deficient version of the opera.  The Vienna Symphony Orchestra was in the pit (they are world-class, but when I have heard them live in the last couple of years I have noticed they have slipped a bit from where they were a few years ago) under the baton of Manfred Honeck (I like him – he’s certainly the best Austrian conductor working in the US, currently music director in Pittsburgh, and I never understand why his adequate but undistinguished countryman in Cleveland has a higher profile) – but again, the score of this version has no drama, so it’s really hard to make it do anything.

  • [Recording tips: Nothing has yet surpassed the 1969 Otto Klemperer recording of Fidelio with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Christa Ludwig as Leonore, which continues to be my go-to recording.  However, for something different, there is an excellent 1991 version from the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester under Kurt Masur, with some of the same folks who made the 1983 Bayreuth Walküre so compelling: Jeannine Altmeyer as Leonore, Siegfried Jerusalem as Fidelio, and Siegmund Nimsgern as D. Pizarro.  Fun fact: this was the very first CD I owned.  When I bought my first CD player, the electronics shop had a very small collection of classical CDs in the store and I bought this one so I could play something as soon as I got home.]

Philadelphia Orchestra: Beethoven, Habibi, Mahler

For non-operatic selections, I have to defer to the Philadelphia Orchestra.  When the City of Philadelphia banned large gatherings due to the virus, this orchestra was supposed to open a series of concerts to celebrate the 250th year of Beethoven’s birth.  That entire series is now canceled.  But they did perform the first concert in the series in front of an empty hall, and posted it on Facebook.  This concert included Beethoven’s Symphonies #5 and #6 plus a world premiere of a work the orchestra commissioned from Iman Habibi, Jeder Baum Spricht, inspired by Beethoven.  Nézet-Séguin’s tempi were far too fast for my taste, but the playing was sublime (they left the concert up online without a clear expiration date, so I recommend searching for it from the Orchestra’s webpage).  This orchestra is by far the best in the US right now (Nézet-Séguin is also one of the best conductors of his 40-ish generation, but he seems to be in a horrible rush here.)

As I write this, I have just finished enjoying a Philadelphia Orchestra concert from one year ago, added free for streaming on their website, with Nézet-Séguin conducting Mahler‘s Ninth, which highlights many of the complex interior lines, played virtuosically by this Orchestra.  Overall a pensive performance, and perfect for an uneasy period in which the world is locked down by a Chinese virus.  The European orchestra Philadelphia is most similar to is the Concertgebouworkest Amsterdam, in terms of having a lot of virtuosi players with fantastic individual lines but who also understand how to blend those thrilling lines into an ensemble whole. Most of the first chairs in Philadelphia are every bit as good as the first chairs in Amsterdam (the Concertgebouworkest is better, as it has more virtuosic depth after the first chairs).

Concertgebouworkest: Strauss, Mahler

Speaking of the Concertgebouworkest, when Mariss Jansons died last year, they posted for free a nice selection of live concerts he had conducted with them over the years.  Although I have not re-listened to them this week, they remain up on the orchestra’s website.  From the available selection, I’d recommend in particular Tod und Verklärung by Richard Strauss and Mahler’s Symphony #4, but you really cannot go wrong with any of them.

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Beethoven

This year marks the 250th anniversary of Beethoven‘s birth, so we should be getting no end to his music.  That’s fine with me – the man was a genius who forever changed the course of music.  If I am sick and tired of Mozart and Tschaikowsky, whose music is nice but horribly over-performed, I will likely never tire of Beethoven.  Yet I realize the problem arises: what more can performances say with this repertory?

The Vienna Symphony Orchestra comes up to perform in Salzburg’s Great Festival House for a concert every two winters.  This year they came with their chief conductor Philippe Jordan, the Swiss in his final year with them (he is taking over as the music director of the Staatsoper this year).  My understanding is that Jordan and the Symphoniker have already done several cycles of the Beethoven symphonies for the last several years.  And while I suppose that has served as warm-up for this year, it does run the risk that these works become too routine.

Tonight, Symphonies #5 and #6 lacked freshness.  The performances were basically fine (although Vienna’s second-best orchestra, it is one of the top dozen in the world; Jordan is also an accomplished conductor of the 40-ish generation, even if not quite as exciting as his contemporaries Andris Nelsons, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, or Vladimir Jurowski, whom I would rate the most exceptional from that generation).  But they performed from rote, and added nothing special, making tonight’s much-anticipated performance somewhat of a disappointment.  The notes were there, it was Beethoven’s heavenly music, but I suppose I wanted and expected more.

The last time I heard the 5th, last year, Nelsons conducted the Vienna Philharmonic, in a somewhat edgier performance, following on the 4th (not the 6th, so an unusual pairing and way to appreciate both symphonies more).  I heard the 6th last in 2016, with Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla frenetically leading Salzburg’s Mozarteum Orchestra, in an interpretation clearly designed to make the listener uncomfortable, and remind us that although today it seems a rather sedate work, the 6th shocked the music world in its own time as a revolutionary construction.  Her interpretation, though radical, made the audience appreciate the symphony that much more.

Incidentally, Jordan and the Symphoniker did demonstrate they could provide more excitement during the encore: the overture Beethoven wrote to the incidental music for Goethe’s Egmont.  This reading contained the drama the performances of the two symphonies lacked.

The orchestra performed the symphonies in reverse order – the same order in which they appeared on the program at the concert where Beethoven led their premieres.  Although a concert of legend (mostly due to people thinking about it after-the-fact), that 22 December 1808 concert did not go so well: the orchestra was under-rehearsed, and Beethoven himself conducted although already mostly deaf.  Doing just the two symphonies this evening, even with the encore, made for a short concert.  I suppose if this orchestra wished to do something special, they could have scheduled the entire program from 22 December 1808: it had included not only the premieres of these two symphonies, but also excerpts from Beethoven’s Mass in C (premiered the previous year) and the premieres of the Piano Concerto #4 and Choral Fantasy.  Performed right, reviving that famous concert would be an evening to remember Beethoven’s genius.

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Beethoven, Joh. Strauß, Schostakowitsch

Another weekend at home in Vienna for which I had not planned to go to a concert but could not help myself.  A month ago I heard the Vienna Philharmonic (which normally plays in the Musikverein) perform in the Konzerthaus, so maybe it just seemed fair to hear the Vienna Symphony (which normally plays in the Konzerthaus) perform in the Musikverein.

Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck took the podium for a pair of 5s: the fifth piano concerto by Beethoven and the fifth symphony by Schostakowitsch.  These were two quite different works, but Honeck had a plan.  Fives of different suits, indeed.

The Beethoven concerto (with young Russian pianist Igor Levit) strangely, but in a good sense, gave the feel of climbing into a newly-made bed with freshly-laundered silken sheets and well-fluffed pillows.  This was a performing version to settle into for the night.  Levit’s playing had a slightly other-wordly feel until it hit me during the quiet (but still quite active) passages: he made the piano into a music box tinkling away (his louder passages had some extraneous notes, unfortunately).  That may sound wierd, but it worked.

Levit returned for a piano rendition of a Johann Strauss waltz – this worked less so, as it only had the music-box quality with the fullness of the orchestra missing.

After the intermission, the Schostakowitsch Fifth was anything but warm and cuddly.  Here legato playing exaggerated the dissonances, and Honeck went further in that direction but turning the first movement into a parody of a march and the second into a warped waltz.  This was Schostakowitsch composing to Communist Party dictates but at the same time thumbing his nose.  The solos by (and duets between) the principal violin and oboe were especially jarring.  The third movement largo came across as cold as Sibelius, but not the plucky Finnish winter – instead bleak Siberian tundra.  There was no fake triumph in the final movement – Honeck elongated the agony Schostakowitsch experienced living in Soviet Russia.  If not quite as devastating as the version I heard in this hall about three years ago with the Petersburgers (who fittingly have their authentic Russian sound), this was still a smart reading of the composer’s intentions.

This orchestra (Vienna’s second-best!) sounds world class.  The pieces were indeed quite different, but it captured both idioms with full sound (including the quiet passages, which could be delicate and still full and revealing).  Tonight’s works were warhorses, performed quite often, but if the orchestra can provide intelligent readings like these then worth hearing over and over and finding new and undiscovered corners even on the umpteenth listen.  (Plus I don’t think I’ll ever tire of Beethoven and Schostakowitsch, the way I have certainly tired of Mozart and Tschaikowsky).

 

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mozart, Prokofiev, Strauß

Lahav Shani and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra popped out to Salzburg for a fun jaunt in the Great Festival House.

The Overture to Mozart‘s Marriage of Figaro set the mood nicely.  Exhuberant but not bombastic, Shani kept it contained but playful.  Given that it did not have to announce the opera (which might have required a bigger reading) but instead Mozart’s first flute concerto, this approach worked to not overwhelm the second work.

Indeed, that unspectacular work would be easy to overwhelm.  Mozart hated the flute, but someone paid him to write this concerto, so he did. Tonight’s flutist, Erwin Klambauer, is the first flute of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra (which won’t be confused with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra nor the Philharmonic – ironic, since the preface page in the program, which would have been written by the local Salzburg concert promoter, identified him as the principal flute of tonight’s orchestra, but the bio in the program that he himself would have submitted made it clear he is principal flute of the Radio Symphony Orchestra).  He had a full and sometimes warm sound, particularly in the lower registers, but at times was also a tad thin and almost hollow.  Shani kept the entire ensemble well-balanced, and the soft touch worked.

The fun continued after the intermission – indeed, the party had really just begun.  Prokofiev supposedly wrote his Fifth Symphony when the Red Army crossed into Poland for the second time in World War Two.  Shani seems to have taken it as a cousin of Schostakowitsch’s Seventh Symphony, whose “invasion” theme Schostakowitsch had written when the Red Army had first marched into Poland in September 1939 after Soviet Russia and its Nazi German allies agreed to dismember that country.  (Soviet propaganda, of course, famously repurposed that music.)  Now Germany had turned on Russia in 1941, and after a brutal couple of years the Wehrmacht was in retreat, and the Russians once again entered Poland.  So this invasion was happier than the one Schostakowitsch had depicted.

Whereas Schostakowitsch also had no qualms about depicting Soviet Russia in all its bleakness, Prokofiev’s war music was almost joyful, particularly as read this evening by Shani and the Vienna Symphony.  Indeed, Shani’s interpretation of this symphony was a great deal happier than I think I have heard this work performed before, and the orchestra bought into the reading.  The second movement danced openly.  The third movement went back to the industrial war, but still upbeat.  And the final movement brought back the initial invasion theme with additional dance music.  Prokofiev’s symphony is actually quite a complex series of interlocking themes, where one begins before the previous one fully ends, creating conflicting moods and mashing rhythms and harsh dissonance.  In this regard, it resembled the experiments the Polish composer Witold Lutosławski tried a few decades later with his “chain form” music – the main difference being that Prokofiev had an overall concept for his symphony and Lutosławski just had a gimmick that got dull quickly once the novelty wore off.

Prokofiev’s symphony was anything but dull, and certainly not with these performers, Shani crafting the shape from the podium while the talented orchestra handled the complex switches with ease.  When they finished, the audience stayed stubbornly in their seats and would not let the musicians leave the stage.  The applause kept going and going, so we ended up with three encores:  first, the March from Prokofiev’s Love of Three Oranges, another snarky march that danced.  Then, as long as we were going to get dancing and Poland in the same breath, the next logical move came with two polkas by Johann Strauß II – first the Thunder and Lightning Polka, then the Tritsch-Tratsch Polka, both performed slightly faster than usual.  These choices all made sense after the Symphony.  (They did tend to make Mozart’s flute concerto even more anomalous, though.)

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Konzerthaus

Mozart, Copland, Schubert

I went to see and hear for myself, as 27-year-old rapidly rising star Lahav Shani conducted the Vienna Symphony Orchestra at the Konzerthaus this evening.  About a year ago, he sprung in to conduct the Philharmonic when the scheduled conductor canceled on short notice due to illness, and the reviews were incredible.  This led to more bookings with the Philharmonic and other orchestras (including the Symphoniker tonight), and he will soon take over as music director in Rotterdam, often a stepping-stone to a star career.

This evening’s performance did not disappoint.  The opening work – the Overture to the Marriage of Figaro by Mozart – enabled Shani to reveal often-hidden lines.  The strings drove the action forward, but the winds created tension, to set up the impending comedy.  Shani highlighted these juxtapositions, and the excellent Symphoniker responded just so.

Similarly, for the second half of the concert, Schubert‘s Great C Major Symphony capped off the concert.  Although I am not sure I heard any new nuances I did not alread know, this performance – clearly thought-through by Shani and expertly performed by the Symphoniker at the pinacle of the idiom – did provide a vivid reminder of just how majestic and exciting this symphony can be, and in many ways how visionary as well.  Shani will certainly grow further as his career takes off.

In between these two standard pieces came Aaron Copland‘s Clarinet Concerto, with soloist Sabine Meyer.  The first movement arrived full of melancholy, which led into a cadenza-only movement that began to awaken the instrument before jumping into a somewhat more flamboyant finale.  Copland wrote the work on commission for jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman.  There is jazz-like syncopation, requiring versatility, but this is not jazz and falls cleanly within a classical paradigm, if tending to something new.  Meyer, dextrous of tongue, danced to the music as she played.  Her unidentified encore was in the same style as the cadenza, but considerably faster.

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Verdi, Requiem

My second unplanned concert of the weekend, for which when realizing I would be in Vienna this weekend I managed to score late-returned tickets for an otherwise sold out performance of Verdi’s Requiem in the Musikverein this afternoon.

Albeit a setting of a mass, Verdi’s is a theatrical work, with operatic drama, and the forces assembled on stage certainly understood Verdi’s intent. Conductor Philippe Jordan deftly crafted all aspects of the performance. I’d say he practically staged the work, except that the fire and brimstone may have consumed the Musikverein, and the gentler plaintive moments may have caused the remnants to melt, and we need this hall intact.

The Wiener Symphoniker, of which Jordan is the chief conductor, shone, with bright and open tones. Behind them, the Singverein, filled the hall with strident sound. Enunciating each syllable with clear diction, they got the message across.

To match such a performance would require four expressive and large-voiced dramatic soloists, and that is indeed the line-up they achieved this afternoon, with Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova, Russian alto Elena Zhidkova, Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja, and Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto. Never outgunned by the orchestra and chorus, they projected clearly with bold – yet still sympathetic – voices which also blended well with each other (also not an easy feat).

Wiener Symphoniker, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Johann Strauß II

Beethoven was a genius. Tonight’s concert with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and Ádám Fischer made this obvious.

When first performed in 1808, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony must have shocked the audience (and the Sixth, having its premiere at the same concert, gave them even more nuance to think about). Tonight’s performance of the Fifth was rather classical in approach: restrained, somewhat on the faster side, and not necessarily forward-looking. For its time, that would have been enough, given the work’s radical construction. This masterful performance, particularly the gifted woodwinds, gave the thick canvas a rich coloration.

What made this Symphony stand out so much, however, was not taking it in isolation. Instead it followed as the second half a concert whose first half featured music by Mozart (Symphony #35) and Haydn (Cello Concerto #1). Mozart and Haydn were themselves no slouches as composers, two of the best of their day, and from whom Beethoven himself personally learned his craft (only briefly with Mozart, more from Haydn). The concert used them tonight to set up the Beethoven, to demonstrate just how much more he could push music forward. These two works were taken by half-sized orchestras, typically for their period, and well within their context. Nicolas Altstaedt joined the orchestra for the cello concerto – a somewhat underwhelming cellist, he took Haydn back a generation more with his somewhat off-tuned instrument (does his cello not hold a tune, or does he not?). Possibly this was Altstaedt’s idiom – I have heard him labor through Schostakowitsch before, but he managed Haydn better tonight.

For a first-half encore, Altstaedt played something for solo cello I could not identify but which sounded like it could have been Sibelius, which he handled dexterously. Fischer and the orchestra gave us two second-half encores: Brahms’ Hungarian Dance #5 and Johann Strauß II’s Pizzicato Polka. Not big works to be sure, but they had the room swaying after the Beethoven, making the final mood somewhat lighter.

Wiener Symphoniker, Konzerthaus

Sibelius, Mendelssohn, Bach

The Vienna Symphony Orchestra, under guest conductor Vasily Petrenko, the talented young music director in Liverpool (and, since I last saw him, now also in Oslo), recreated the magical world of Janne Sibelius at the Konzerthaus this evening, to mark the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth earlier this week.

The tone poem Pohjola’s Daughter led off the program, with the opening cello solo emerging as if out of the floorboards.  The orchestra ensured that this dramatic reading was not just heard but also felt, as the sound started low and slowly enveloped the hall, transporting the audience into a mythical time and place, now made very real.

The Fifth Symphony closed the concert, alternately driving the drama forward and settling in on lush arctic landscapes, proposing a tension between the two moods throughout as it moved to its triumphant conclusion. Sibelius wrote several versions of this symphony before he created the final triumphant one, inspired by a flock of migrating swans.

In the middle, Joshua Bell joined the orchestra for Mendelssohn’s violin concerto. Although I did not see the logical connection to put that concerto into a Sibelius concert, I appreciated the chance to hear a work I have not heard for a long while (and I hear the Sibelius violin concerto relatively frequently already). Bell’s full and warm tone blended beautifully with the orchestra’s, and the smiles that passed between Bell and his colleagues on the stage indicated strong mutual sympathy. Though not as dramatic as Sibelius, moving us from the icy outdoors into the heated salon, Mendelssohn made pleasant music for an early winter’s day, and this was a concert among friends.

Bell added one encore – an arrangement of Bach scored for solo violin by Mendelssohn – in which he charmed the hall with his tones while somehow producing the complexity of a chamber orchestra on his single instrument.

Wiener Symphoniker, Musikverein

Mozart, Papandopulo, D. Scarlatti, Mahler

Ádám Fischer and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra gave us a concert of two distinct halves in the Musikverein this evening – same orchestra, same conductor, and same hall, but the similarities ended there. The first half featured Mozart, who thought life was worth living; whereas in the second half came Mahler, who wished life were worth living.

Serbian pianist Jasminka Stančul joined in for Mozart’s Piano Concerto #23, bringing great warmth from her keyboard, while Fischer and the Symphoniker melted the room. The second movement practically sang – I eagerly waited for Don Ottavio to climb out from under the soundboard and start his serenade. The final movement displayed Mozart at his most exuberant and irrepressible.

Stančul used the momentum to provide two encores: the first, a distinctly modern firework by Boris Papandopulo (Studia 1), showed that her fingers could be everywhere at once; the second a sonata by Domenico Scarlatti on steroids (although her fingers did not always quite keep up for that one).

But if Mozart were so happy, despite impending doom, then Mahler’s Seventh Symphony put an end to that after the intermission. Fischer’s interpretation was ice cold. While the brass played the opening movement’s funeral marches with deep melancholy, the woodwinds bit, the strings ripped at the open flesh, and the percussion pounded. Fischer took the middle three movements almost as chamber works, despite having a full Mahler-sized orchestra on the stage, carefully crafting the delicate lines, moving from one instrument group to another, with thin blades and cautious steps across the ice. The Symphoniker’s musicians responded with gorgeously idiomatic playing. For the final movement, Fischer combined the two concepts, the brass chorales alternating with restrained but somber chamber constructs. This was a new interpretation of this work – take a big work and rein it in to find its inner meaning and desolation. Although it was an intelligent attempt, and wonderfully performed, to be entirely honest I am not sure Fischer’s interpretation convinced me.

Wiener Symphoniker, Konzerthaus

Schumann

Robert Schumann’s setting of scenes from Goethe’s Faust does not get performed as often as it should, despite being one of the composer’s finest works (or, more accurately, a collection of works).  Goethe’s play is notoriously zany.  The basic underlying story line was an easy topic for composers to portray in music, but the metaphysical aspects were a bigger challenge.  Schumann attempted just that, taking only select scenes, never meant to be staged, yet encapsulating the tension and drama.  He began composition with the final scene (the same scene set by Mahler in his Eighth Symphony – indeed, anticipating Mahler but in Schumann’s mid-19th Century musical language) and then picked an assortment of scenes, composed in spurts and without necessarily trying to always match the same style) before concluding with an overture.  This means that in some ways this piece starts with the most simple scenes set to the most complex music, and as the scenes get more and more detached from the realm of reality, the music becomes simpler and more traditional.

The protagonists tonight in Vienna’s Konzerthaus were the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and the intelligent young British star conductor Daniel Harding (a protégé of Rattle in Birmingham and later Abbado in Berlin, and who I thought should have gotten the job in Berlin earlier this year; although he regularly guest conducts the world’s best orchestras, he has yet to land a top-tier job – I last saw him last year at the helm of his current orchestra, that of the Swedish Radio).  Harding understood Schumann’s intentions, and led a masterful performance.  No staging was necessary – indeed, probably would have detracted – but drama showed in abundance.  The Symphoniker produced a full sound at just the right levels, with virtuoso solo playing when Schumann brought different instruments into the spotlight.

Christian Gerhaher portrayed the troubled title role (and Pater Seraphicus and Dr. Marianus) with dignity and a warm baritone.  Christiane Karg, as Gretchen, elevated the soprano lead.  Bass Alastair Miles produced a dark and devilish Mephistopheles.  And the supporting cast proved excellent as well, all of them acting out roles that could not be acted.  The adults of the Singakademie and the Staatsoper Opera School youth chorus supplied a sumptuous choral backdrop.

Wiener Symphoniker, Konzerthaus

Schumann, Bruckner

One of the last pieces Robert Schumann wrote before he attempted suicide (the consequences of which did lead to his eventual death) was a violin concerto for his good friend Joseph Joachim to perform.  Joachim did not think much of the work and it remained in the violinist’s possession, unpublished, when Schumann died.  Joachim eventually gave the manuscript to the Prussian National Library, stipulating that the work not be made public until 100 years after the composer’s death.  The Nazis, looking for an “Aryan” work to replace Mendelssohn’s violin concerto in the repertory, did not honor Joachim’s stipulation (Joachim was anyway Jewish), and so the work came to the public for the first time in the 1930s.

German violinist Christian Tetzlaff gave it a go this evening in the Konzerthaus with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under the young British conductor Robin Ticciati.  Unfortunately, Joachim’s assessment was correct, and the work really should have been left on the library shelf.  The tone is overall dark, and the tempo slow, but Teztlaff approached it with a warm sound and smoothed the jagged edges.  He could have nevertheless given it a more robust reading, but in the end it turned out as not one of Schumann’s best efforts.  The writing for orchestra was thin and generally unfinished (although Schumann considered it done).  An encore (sounded like a baroque-era violin sonata) by Teztlaff did not help much – far too dull to liven the mood.

After the intermission, however, the real revelations began.  Bruckner’s 4th Symphony, probably his most approachable symphony, receives so many performances that I did not think I could learn anything new tonight.  Ticciati’s interpretation was revealing and magnificent (and the Symphoniker executed to perfection).

Ticciati took the outer movements more slowly than usual, drawing out the harmonies.  Rather than overwhelming us with sound, he made the work subdued, indeed delicate.  This allowed for glorious contrasts when the brass choirs rang out, soaring over the stillness.  Rather than opening up the heavens, as Bruckner symphonies do, this one stayed close to the earth – letting us explore its intracacies with microscope rather than a telescope.  The universe Bruckner described remains huge – but we are just little specks within it.  Ticciati did not give a minimalistic interpretation at all – the orchestra and its sound remained full and bright – but by turning the whole work into a microcosmos he drastically altered the way we heard and experienced the world.

The slow second movement Andante danced a slow dance.  The third movement started to pick up tempo, so that the finale, while returning to the pensive structure of the first movement, actually began to demonstrate increasing tension, left unresolved until the final chorale.  God is great.

Wiener Symphoniker, Konzerthaus

Sibelius, Nielsen, Tschaikowsky

While in Vienna to grab a few things before flying to the US, since I was leaving from Salzburg, I decided to grab a concert.

I have finally heard a piece by Carl Nielsen that I actually liked.  Nielsen took a ride over the Alps on a new-fangled automobile which apparently inspired him to write a flute concerto in a hurry.  Probably since there are so few flute concerti in the modern repertory, this allowed him more originality than trying to write more standard repertory, at which he usually took his time to produce spectacularly dull results.  This work had a degree of whimsy, with juxtaposed sounds – flute with several reeds, flute with tympani, and – most rewardingly – flute with trombone.  Marina Piccinini performed the solos, taking a little time to find her tone but once she got there she performed with warmth.  The Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Jukka-Pekka Saraste gave her excellent balance and support.

The concert had opened rather more prosaically, with incidental music by Sibelius to Maurice Maeterlinck’s play Pelleas and Melisande.  The Sibelius incidental music for this play is rarely performed (particularly in contrast with that by Fauré or Schoenberg) – apparently for good reason, as it is not one of his better efforts.  The problem came in that the music was too short and detached to ever fully capture the drama.  Sibelius actually set nine pieces to music, of which Saraste picked three (At the Castle GateIntermezzo, and Melisande’s Death) – maybe they would have been better served if left in the context of all nine.

For the second half of the concert, Saraste and the Symphoniker gave a spirited reading of Tschaikowsky’s Fourth Symphony.  The brass sounded out the fate motive, and spent the rest of the symphony ambitiously trying to overcome that fate, while the rest of the orchestra resigned itself to melancholy.  While the final chords echoed triumpantly over the Russian dancing, this reading gave a more anguished triumph.  The Symphoniker sounds great, although Saraste is a tad wooden, fully proficient and getting the tone right, but not as dynamic as he could be.

Wiener Symphoniker, Konzerthaus

Schubert, Schostakowitsch, Beethoven, Johann Strauß II

Woke up early on a Sunday for a wonderful concert by the Wiener Symphoniker in the Konzerthaus.  Philippe Jordan, in his first season as the orchestra’s official Chief Conductor (although long a fixture here, especially after the departure of Fabio Luisi), took the podium.  I first saw him conduct twelve years ago in Graz, and he has retained his ability to charm.

He opened the concert with Schubert’s Second Symphony, an early work which, though not yet mature and therefore not frequently performed, nevertheless exhibits Schubertian characteristics.  Jordan’s reading drew out the joyful spirit of the work, using a good control of dynamics to increase the drama.  The first movement, which opens slowly before jumping in head-first at breakneck speed, proved especially successful (Schubert developed this technique as he matured, and it influenced Bruckner who also deeply appreciated Schubert’s talent and originality).

Schostakowitsch’s Concerto for Piano, Trumpet, and String Orchestra followed.  The composer wrote this sarcastic piece in 1933 to cheer himself up during one of the darkest periods in Russian history (which, sadly, has no lack of dark periods – indeed, it’s mostly dark, but the 1930s were especially dark).  Khatia Buniatishvili, the young Georgian star, took on the challenge, and in contrast to the Schostakowitsch piano concerto I heard yesterday in this case she dominated the stage.  The Symphoniker’s first trumpet, Rainer Küblböck, performed the trumpet solos, and nimbly switched from the somewhat sad muted lines to the boisterous and bright unmuted sections.  At the end, Buniatishvili came back out and gave us two encores (neither identified, and I do not know the repertory well enough to place them).  The first (clearly 20th-century, maybe Schostakowitsch?) nearly blew the roof off the hall – I did not believe a piano could produce that much sound, rivaling some orchestras in might.  The second (sounded like something one of the Scarlatti family might have written, but could have been a neo-classical throwback) had a wonderful song-like character, and Buniatishvili’s keyboard did everything except produce the words.

After the intermission, the orchestra stormed through Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.  Jordan took this at a faster clip than I normally would prefer (he probably followed Beethoven’s own erroneous metronome markings, which current theories suggest come from a broken metronome which displayed the wrong beat numbers), but got the orchestra to produce all the swinging excitement while gasping for breath.  Again, he utilized dynamics to underscore this dramatics of the piece.  He performed the first two movements without a break, going right from the initial Vivace into the slow movement, for maximum (and effective) contrast.  The final movement especially tied the concert neatly together, as it echoed the first movement of the Schubert symphony in the frenetic strings.  Although Schubert’s Second Symphony predated Beethoven’s Seventh by a full year, Beethoven was the older and more mature composer (and it would seem unlikely that Beethoven even knew Schubert’s symphony, as much of Schubert’s work in that period was developmental and not performed publicly or published until many decades after his death).

Jordan gave the enthusiastically-applauding audience another encore:  Künstlerleben by Johann Strauß II.  The Symphoniker lilted, and the audience danced out of the hall.  This orchestra sounds like it will maintain the level of quality it has built over the previous years under Luisi, almost to the point of rivaling its colleague down the street, the world’s best Wiener Philharmoniker (which sounds better when I am not sitting in the middle of its percussion section like yesterday).

Wiener Symphoniker, Konzerthaus

Holzer, Resch, Smetana

The Vienna Symphony Orchestra celebrated the so-called Austrian “National” Holiday (a misnomer – it is really a state holiday; there is an Austrian state, which this holiday celebrates, but I do not know what an Austrian “nation” is) in the Konzerthaus this morning.  Dynamic 33-year-old Moravian guest conductor Jakub Hrůša took the podium enthusiastically.

The concert opened with the Austrian Federal Anthem, music by Johann Holzer that was chosen in 1946 because people mistakenly thought Mozart had written it.  It is not a memorable work and we really do need to reclaim Haydn’s anthem stolen from us by Germany.  Although everyone in the hall stood up, no one sang (I don’t even know the lyrics – something mundane about being a land of mountains and streams).  More interestingly, the work Land by the young Austrian composer Gerald Resch followed, taking Holzer’s work and putting it into a blender.  The resulting piece resembled the original, somewhat shredded but generally smooth; the style kept morphing, so it was not always clear what Resch intended, except for a new way of hearing Holzer’s hymn.

But these pieces were just warm-up for Smetana’Má Vlast.  Although the “Fatherland” Smetana wrote about was Bohemia, Bohemia was indeed part of Austria at the time he wrote these six tone poems.  Often performed individually and separately, Hrůša performed them individually in a row, three on either side of the intermission, taking a pause and bow between poems except for the final two.  Hrůša put one harp on either side of the orchestra, and they opened the work playing off each other in alternation, setting the scene.  The Symphoniker’s strings were sumptuous.  The woodwinds were evocative of the landscapes they portrayed.  Hrůša gave the fourth poem, “From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields,” perhaps a little too martial a reading, not particularly a stroll through the countryside.  The final two poems, written four years after the first four, had an altogether different color (Smetana was also completely deaf then), and for those Hrůša captured the drama.

The fifth poem, Tabor, of course is named after the town where my great grandfather was born (although he had already moved off to Vienna, and then Manchester, by the time Smetana wrote this; and the Ehrlich family had almost certainly not settled there yet at the time the town was founded by Hussites in the enents Smetana portrays in the poem).  But still, a good connection for “My Fatherland.”

Wiener Symphoniker, Musikverein

Brahms

Johannes Brahms wrote a large amount of technically high-quality music, much of it quite dull since he had little original to say and derived his works from others (particularly Beethoven) who had already said something previously.  But grief has a way of moving even the most emotionless of men, and Ein Deutsches Requiem became his most original work.

For tonight’s performance, Herbert Blomstedt took the podium of the Musikverein.  Both Blomstedt and the Golden Hall provided the frame – although a big work, it is delicate.  The quiet sections must remain detached but full, and the forte and even fortissimo can never be allowed to overwhelm the lines.  Blomstedt’s careful phrasing and the beautiful acoustics of the Golden Hall accomplished their task.

Of course, it also helped to have the Wiener Symphoniker and Singverein on the stage, both institutions also in their best sound.  The clear lines and crisp words were never abrupt.  The extremely tall Swede Peter Mattei provided dramatic but sensitive baritone solos, and the surprisingly short German Christiane Karg gave a daintily substantial soprano solo.

Wiener Symphoniker, Konzerthaus

Tschaikowsky, Schostakowitsch, Dvořák

The Vienna Symphony Orchestra sounded both delicate and robust, in appropriate measures, as it navigated the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture by Tschaikowsky and the Ninth Symphony by Dvořák under the direction of Vassily Sinaiksy in the Konzerthaus this evening.  Sinaisky on the podium looked very much like the orchestra’s kind-hearted professor, engaging his orchestra fully, calling on individual instruments demonstratively, and peering studiously over the top of the reading spectacles perched upon the end of his nose, as he drew sound from the orchestra using his hands and without need of a baton.

Sinaisky, a conductor I had not previously heard of, was a stand-in for Neemi Järvi, who had taken ill.  It seems Sinaisky does not have any pressing engagements at the moment as he recently resigned as music director of Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater after a dispute with the new management (I suppose he could not have survived a few months longer for the management to completely change again).  The association with the Bolshoi, of course, sent up a red flag – there is probably no opera house in the world (outside Italy, of course) with so much political intrigue and thick mafia connections, surviving entirely on its reputation as having once been a world-class opera company.  In my time in Moscow, I discovered fully six opera venues in that city of superior quality to the once-proud and now farcical Bolshoi.

The Bolshoi has never recovered from firing Boris Pokrovsky as its chief over thirty years ago (Pokrovsky, perhaps one of the most intelligent opera directors of all time, had lasted three decades as the boss in that house and had personally seen to the maintainance of the house’s quality and tradition – rumor is that he allowed the theater to employ too many Jews for the government’s liking, and was fired when he refused to purge them).  On the other hand, Sinaisky would not be the first decent artist to think he might be the one to fix that hopeless theater after Pokrovsky’s ouster.  But Sinaisky failed, just like everyone else in the last thirty years, and now sits unemployed waiting for people like Järvi to get sick.

Tonight, the Symphoniker looked glad to have him, and he looked glad to have them too (certainly a far better orchestra than the band that sits in the Bolshoi’s pit).

Also on the program, coming between the other two works, was the Cello Concerto #1 by Schostakowitsch, which the composer wrote for his friend and fellow dissident Mstislav Rostropovich.  Intermixing humor and other-worldliness, this concerto is not easy on the cellist, who must get a broad range of sounds out of the instrument while maintaining a dialogue with the orchestra.  The Franco-German soloist Nicolas Altstaedt somehow got through it all intact.  But Altstaedt is not Rostropovich, and his sound lacked fullness, while his playing was labored to the point that he became completely out of breath, his wheezing projecting over the sound of his instrument.  The orchestra did its part, and Sinaisky did well to keep everything together, but the young Altstaedt might be advised to stick to simpler works at this stage of his career.

Wiener Symphoniker, Musikverein

Dvořák, Honegger, Gershwin

The Vienna Symphony Orchestra remains in great sound.  On the podium tonight, Manfred Honeck, the Austrian-born conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony, who previously played violin in the Vienna Philharmonic, made a triumphant return to the Musikverein.

Honeck flipped the order of the pieces around from the traditional concert design, starting with the symphony, then a concerto, and concluding with a shorter rousing work, placing the three works in strict chronological order of composition. Dvořák’s Symphony #8 opened the program, Honeck giving it an especially dramatic reading, nursing the melodic lines while bringing out quite a bit more tension than normal while contrasting those lines against each other.  The orchestra responded with lush resonances, but although they clearly understood what he wanted they must not have rehearsed fully with him (this despite having performed the same program at a concert last night), as evidenced by a number of missed cues or failures to release notes together.  Honeck is a very diminutive person, and so it also could be that they simply had trouble seeing him, although he did wave his arms around above his head as if to signal “I’m over here!!!”

The concert’s mood changed completely after the break.  Indeed, I heard no connection at all between the two halves.  Honegger’Cello Concerto and Gershwin’American in Paris clearly went together – works conceived in Paris by a Swiss and an American, respectively (although Gershwin apparently finished writing his work in Vienna) but having little thematically to do with Dvořák’s Czech folksong-inspired symphony.  Honegger’s concerto married the Swiss composer’s interest in baroque and classical-era composers with the 1920s Parisian jazz idiom, especially catchy in the first movement’s variation on what sounded quite familiar – indeed, although the program notes did not identify it, it sounded peculiarly like a work by Weber better known through variations in a different style later written by Hindemith.  The young German cellist Maximilian Hornung carried off these lively and invocative juxtapositions well, blending back into the orchestra where necessary and then emerging with the next thoughtful phrase.

Gershwin’s American in Paris brought the concert to a triumphant conclusion, the audience absorbed by its humorous orchestration.  The 1930s car horns especially provoked broad smiles, not only from the public but from the percussionists tasked with bringing the city to life. They clearly had fun with this.  During the applause, Honeck awarded them a sectional bow, but they did not see him waving at them, so he climbed up onto a higher platform and waved again, still without success.  The brass passed along the message and they got their bow in the end.  Poor Honeck, who conducted well, clearly needs a much higher conducting platform to remain in the orchestra’s line of vision.