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.

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Kodály, Liszt, Bartók

Tonight was Hungarian music night at the Musikverein, with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Christian Arming.  Two suites bookended two works for piano and orchestra.

Arming and the Symphoniker performed the Háry János Suite by Zoltán Kodály as a comic-mystery thriller.  The reading did not come directly, but instead incapsulated a mood.  Within that telling, each of the odd instruments in the score provided delightful nuances.  This storytelling was made fun.

Likewise, at the back end of the concert, they provided a similar amount of delight in telling the story, again in suite form, of the Miraculous Mandarin by Béla Bartók.  Where Kodály’s suite had delightful melodies, Bartók’s had delightful rhythms.  A master orchestrator, Bartók wrote some brilliantly imaginative music.  And this orchestra, sounding great, could rise to the challenge.  Each instrument had its lines, and the musicians made the most of the opportunities to showcase their talents.  Arming kept everything together (not easy for this work), well-proportioned, and – importantly – dancing.  Bartók drew great inspiration from Hungarian folk dances, but did not set any of them in this story.  Instead, he incorporated their essence, while producing an original work that has lost none of its sparkle after a century, at least not as performed tonight.

Unfortunately, the middle works in the concert did not come across as well.  Here, Gerhard Oppitz joined the orchestra on the piano for Ferenc Liszt’s First Piano Concerto after the Kodály before the intermission, and Liszt’s Totentanz after the intermission before the Bartók.  He utilized the intimate acoustics of the Golden Hall to make the Piano Concerto more resemble a piano recital, and Arming and the Symphoniker contributed softly in kind.  However, I do not attend piano recitals for a reason.  Even when played well (as tonight), the piano is a fundamentally dull instrument, a tool for a composer to construct more elaborate works, but generally not worthy to stand alone.  Liszt is one piano composer for whom I sometimes make an exception, but this was not idiomatic Liszt.  The Totentanz, though a more rugged work (and indeed very substantial if performed correctly) proved somewhat better, but Oppitz still lacked the necessary oompf.  Beautifully played, but just lacking the drama and intrigue of the 20th-Century works on either side of the program.

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Konzerthaus

Mahler, R. Strauss

Vienna’s second major concert hall, the Konzerthaus, has booked surprisingly little of interest recently. I do not even remember when I last attended a concert there. Considering that it celebrates the 100th year of its construction this season, I would expect more, but the 200th anniversary of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, based over in the Musikverein, has overshadowed this one.

Still, I did get there for a concert tonight, with the Symphoniker in its usual form, joined by baritone Christopher Maltman and conductor Marc Albrecht, for a surprisingly short program. Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder opened before an intermission, and StraussAlpensymphonie came after the intermission.

For the Mahler cycle, Maltman (a British biochemist) performed in a dark, clean, but unexpressive baritone, allowing the emotion to come not from his interpretation but rather from the orchestra. Though proper, it did not produce sufficient psychological torment.

The Alpensymphonie allowed this orchestra to shine. Despite the enormous orchestra required for the work, Albrecht still knew how to accentuate individual lines. Though not the thrilling climb through the Alps that this work can orchestrate, this performance nevertheless demonstrated a good fulfilling stroll. Given the weather outside, I kept my hiking boots on.

Volksoper

Joh. Strauß II, Wiener Blut

Disappointing performance of Wiener Blut, the posthumous work of Johann Strauß II, at the Volksoper.

The director chose to update the plot from its original 1815 setting, moving it to an unclear time period somewhere possibly in the mid-20th century.  To make this work required equivalent changes to the dialogue, although this proved to be equally confused in terms of time, including references to Obama and current events.  The staging was neither offensive nor modern, just non-descript.  In total, the entire production lacked any sort of charm whatsoever.  Although this particular work, put together by others after the composer’s death (Strauß had long before signed a contract to provide his next operetta for a theater, but since he never wrote another one, the theater had the right to complete one itself), could lend itself to anachronism, it cannot work without charm, and Viennese charm in particular.  The director, Thomas Enzinger, is Viennese by birth, but seems not to have received any Viennese charm in his blood.

Perhaps the only truly Viennese interludes came in the required monologues and dialogues in Viennese dialect of Kagler, and the resulting confusion from the Germans who can only speak in formal written German.  These got the audience rolling in laughter.  However, the dialect was mostly wrong.  The correct dialect would be the 19th-century Viennese dialect, which remained as the primary dialect until 1938.  Then again, we should probably not forget what sequence of events caused the old Viennese dialect to disappear.  In this case, the peculiar director injected a Hebrew word (carried into old Viennese German, but certainly not into Schriftdeutsch) into the dialogue spoken by Prince Ypsheim-Gindelbach (since when do German princes call people “meschugge?”).

Possibly because of the dull staging, the cast never got into the performance.  All of them sung their roles perfectly adequately, but without any special lilt.  They went through the motions on the stage, hit all the notes, and moved along presumably to their dinners and subsequent engagements.  The orchestra started the evening poorly and off-pitch.  Although it fixed itself, this music more than any should flow through the Volksoper orchestra’s veins.  It did not.  Conductor Michael Tomaschek also provided no particular inspiration.

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

R. Strauss, Stravinsky

After a break for coffee and cake, I returned to the Musikverein for the Vienna Symphony with Fabio Luisi.  I recognized a lot of people at the second concert from the first, so maybe others are catching on to my methods.

This orchestra enjoys a clear rapport with Luisi, its chief conductor since 2005, and has sounded fantastic in recent years.  No doubt he has them well-trained.  Luisi’s own performances are reliable, but never rise up to anything that would bring down the house.  I suppose the guest conductors must do that, thankful that Luisi has the orchestra in top form.  But even if his performances may not shatter the earth, they do provide high-quality musical entertainment.

This evening’s concert opened with an extremely playful rendition of Till Eulenspiegel by Richard Strauss.  Luisi coaxed sumptuous tones from the orchestra while keeping the pace light.   Then Pianist
Rudolf Buchbinder joined the orchestra for Strauss’ Burleske for Piano and Orchestra, composed shortly before Till Eulenspiegel, and in some ways a study for it with its good-humored pacing and instrumental dialogue.  Buchbinders fingers must have broken some world speed records – I am not sure my fingers could move that fast even if it were not necessary to hit the right notes.  He, on the other hand, made it look effortless.

After the intermission, Stravinsky’Petrushka sounded a logical connection to the first half of the program, particularly in Stravinsky’s 1947 reworking.  The fairground setting of the ballet drew from the Straussian experience, adding new dissonances and contrasts, and making the most of the orchestra’s many talents showcasing their solos.  With this orchestra, there was no need to stage the ballet, since the lines themselves danced right up to poor Petrushka’s tragic end.

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Holzer, Brahms, Strauss, Prokofiev

I was afraid Austria might revoke my citizenship if I did not attend at least one musical event on this brief trip.  So off I went to the Musikverein to hear the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Vasily Petrenko.

Petrenko is a young conductor from St. Petersburg, who trained under Jansons, Temirkanov, and Salonen, and was already chief conductor of St. Petersburg’s second opera house, the Michailovsky, by the time he was 18 years old.  Since 2009 he has been based in Liverpool, where is gets great reviews and has become quite popular.  I can see why.  He has a very clear, precise yet emotional technique, and the orchestra knows what to do next.

No where better did this come out than in the second half of the concert: the Prokofiev Symphony #5, for which the odd harmonies and tempi were actually meant to be there.  I have never heard this piece performed the way Petrenko did it tonight.  Written during the Second World War, the music contains great tension, drama, and industrial mobilization, all of which Petrenko brought out of the orchestra.  Of course, this orchestra happens to specialize in 20th-Century Russian music, thanks to its former music director Vladimir Fedoseyev, and therefore it responded brilliantly to Petrenko’s idiomatic reading.  This may be about as definitive a version of this work as it gets – what a shame it was not recorded for posterity.

But before the second half came the first.  Tonight’s concert opened with the Austrian National Anthem (tomorrow is the national day), music by Johann Holzer.  A nice anthem, to be sure, but I’d still rather claim our old one back from Germany.

Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture followed.  Petrenko took it rather more quickly than usual – a raise the house sort of overture rather than a stately dignified one.  The orchestra responded well, and I suppose I saw the point, but I would stick with the slower tempo.

Soprano Christiane Oelze then came out to sing seven assorted songs by Richard Strauss.  Oelze has a beautiful round voice, projects it well, and can hit all the notes.  Unfortunately tonight she did not hit the right ones.  She seemed incapable of keeping either on pitch or on tempo.  As she got more frustrated she screeched.  A disaster of a night for her.  The orchestra provided nice background color, if only it had played without soloist.

All of this was worth it, however, for the Prokofiev after the intermission.