Online Highlights While Waiting for Live Music to Resume (week 9)

Highlights

The government this week released some guidelines for the resumption of public performances.  It was not all that clear how they will work in practice (basically they won’t).  The Bregenz Festival announced it would skip this year.  The Grafenegg Festival will go ahead reconfigured with outdoor performances featuring musicians based in Austria (we certainly have plenty).  And the Salzburg Festival announced what we already knew: it will take place in some form, but nothing resembling what was planned… details by the end of May.  As for the return of concerts and operas in the Fall, who knows.  What a mess.  So I remain, sampling offerings online.

Wagner: Parsifal (Bayreuth Festival)

Having seen some absolutely atrocious stagings of Wagner’s Parsifal last month, I felt I needed something better.  The “Fidelio” streaming service (courtesy of the Volksoper) provided me with a production from the 1981 Bayreuth Festival, directed by the composer’s grandson Wolfgang Wagner.  The production was actually rather simple, in some ways basic with inexpensive-looking costumes (not that a lot of monks in the early middle ages would have had expensive clothes), painted backdrops substituting for scenery, and melodramatic acting.  Actually, maybe the acting was a bit too melodramatic.  But even without providing new insights it did not get in the way of a basic understanding, something that could not be said about the stagings I streamed last month.

Hans Sotin carried the role as Gurnemanz.  As Parsifal, Siegfried Jerusalem matured noticeably (and not just from gaining a beard in the final act) through the opera from fool made wise through pity to king of the realm of the Grail.  Eva Randová provided a multi-faceted Kundry.  Bernd Weikl sang better than he acted, although this may have been Wolfgang Wagner’s stage direction rather than a fault from Weikl.  Horst Stein may have gone a little fast in his tempi.  But then the slow-motion stage direction might have been unbearable if Stein had kept more traditionally-paced tempi.

Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Bayreuth Festival)

I stuck with Bayreuth and a staging by Wolfgang Wagner for Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.  On the whole, this 1984 production was effective.  While it may not have pushed the realm of giving any new understanding to the opera, it remained relatable.  The characters in this opera are not gods nor figures from legend, but humans, and the staging made them human.  They may not have always interacted naturally, or pulled off their acting assignments generally, and glossed over some of the humor (Meistersinger is supposed to be a comedy, after all), but they still generally presented a couple of (albeit fictitious) days in the life of their town.  And the strong cast generally sang their roles idiomatically.

The nice sets, although grand, also came across as almost intimate: Act 1 took place in the corner of the church; Act 2 in a leafy square; Act 3, scene 1, in a simple room in Sachs’ home that was almost cell-like (although perhaps too grand a space for a cobbler, even a worldly one as the real-life Sachs had been); and Act 3, scene 2, indeed took place in a field (as it is supposed to be, but without Nürnberg in the background).  The blocking was playful, if not always obviously comic.  There was some strange camera work during the second act fight scene, using lots of close-ups, but since the people fighting were the chorus and not professional stuntmen, this came across as rather silly.  Normally the fight can be disguised a bit in the theater (and we all know they are opera singers and not street brawlers), but the close-ups exposed that the fighting just was not very realistic, compounded by the funky expressions on everyone’s faces.  That said, I do suppose Meistersinger is a comedy.  And the flying leap that David made onto Beckmesser, which set off the brawl, was indeed quite humorous in its way.  In the final act, instead of running away, Beckmesser goes into the crowd to watch Walther’s prize song, and even he in the end is won over.  At the very end, Sachs even shakes his hand – an act of reconciliation.

Bernd Weikl starred as somewhat haughty Sachs (pretending to be modest, but he knew who he was).  Hermann Prey’s Beckmesser took some getting used to – while a bit of a caricature, it was also clear why he is also a mastersinger and should have a lyrical voice.  Siegfried Jerusalem was a dashing Walther von Stolzing, and Graham Clark a lively David.  Mari Anne Häggander (Eva) and Marga Schiml (Magdalena) portrayed their roles as somewhat much older than they should have been, although vocally they were fine.  Horst Stein conducted again.

Mascagni: Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo: I Pagliacci (Metropolitan Opera)

David McVicar’s staging of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana at the Metropolitan Opera took place not in a village, but on a large rotating wooden stage surrounded by villagers who moved their chairs around, pranced flailingly, or who knows what they were doing besides distracting everyone.  McVicar is generally quite good but has a tendency to create busy stagings – which work when they focus on the plot, but don’t work when they are just busy for the sake of it.  When the villagers were not around, the intimate scenes and interactions between the main characters more successfully elucidated the story, particularly for Marcelo Álvarez (Turridu), Eva-Maria Westbroek (Santuzza), and Giorgi Gagnidze (Alfio).  Álvarez and Westbroek strangely had trouble at times staying on key, as did the chorus, making me wonder if something was off with the streaming even though nothing obvious was.  Fabio Luisi conducted.

In the second half of the double-bill, McVicar also gave Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci a peculiar staging, opening in what looked like some tacky vaudeville theater to reveal behind the curtain: the mid-1900s.  This actually worked quite a bit better than his odd setting of Cavalleria – the change in time was not really material, and the busy details here contributed to a lively interpretation (especially the twentieth-century slapstick update of the Commedia dell’Arte that had inspired it).  It is precisely in these sorts of detailed thoughtful interpretations that McVicar succeeds best.  Álvarez (as Canio) and Gagnidze (as Tonio) returned, now with Patricia Racette (as Nedda).

Verdi: Rigoletto (Metropolitan Opera)

I started to watch this version of Verdi’s Rigoletto, but the 2013 Met Opera staging (by Michael Mayer, apparently some trendy hack from Broadway) was too absurd, set in a sleazy casino with the Duke seemingly the casino singer, Monterone an Arab sheikh, and I did not stick around long enough to figure out who everyone else was supposed to be.  So I just listened, particularly to Piotr Beczała’s charming Duke and Željko Lučić’s on-edge Rigoletto (who could still show such tenderness for his daughter Gilda, here portrayed by Diana Damrau), who made it worthwhile.  The Met’s orchestra sounded a tad thin under Michele Mariotti.

Donizetti: Don Pasquale (Staatsoper)

A bit of a silly staging of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale from the Staatsoper – by the Frenchwoman Irina Brook.  It was thankfully not Regietheater but somewhat of an updating of the plot into a modern nightclub with Don Pasquale apparently as the proprietor.  I’m not sure what her point was, though.  The 2016 cast featured Michele Pertusi in the title role and Dmitry Korchak as Ernesto, backed by the Vienna Ensemble, notably (and happily for my ears) Alessio Arduini as Malatesta and Valentina Naforniţă as Norina, all keeping their humor up on stage.  Frédéric Chaslin conducted.

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra: Howell, Elgar, Weinberg, Knussen

Poking around the “Fidelio” streaming service to see if it had more music by Moishe Weinberg, I came up with a concert from the Royal Albert Hall and the 2019 Proms, with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla performing Weinberg’s Third Symphony.  This made quite a contrast to the only other work by Weinberg which I could find on the “Fidelio” service, his opera The Passenger, which I watched a couple of weeks ago.  Whereas the opera was brutal, brash, but ultimately defiant, the symphony was lyrical but wistful, charming but sad.  I had not heard this symphony before, but as with most of Weinberg’s compositions, it was well worth discovering.  I listened twice to make sure I heard every brilliant nuance (Weinberg’s music is so brilliantly complex on so many levels that I am sure I still missed a few).  Gražinytė-Tyla is a skilled interpreter and promoter of his music, now at the helm of her own orchestra (which ranks alongside the Rotterdam Philharmonic, the Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra, and the Tonhalle Orchestra of Zurich in a class by themselves of top European provincial orchestras).

The first half of that concert opened with the tone poem Lamia by Dorothy Howell, which had its premiere at the Proms one hundred years before (making this an intentional commemoration), when the composer was 21 years old.  It, in turn, was based on a poem by John Keats, which he had written exactly one hundred years before that.  The music, by an otherwise forgotten British composer, worked fine as a tone poem, but was in the end not more than a curiosity that will likely return to oblivion (it’s not bad, and who knows why some works of less quality become more standard parts of the general repertory, but there is also no reason this should get more attention).  The same could not be said of Edward Elgar, whose Cello Concerto followed: this is a work which started off mostly ignored (despite being championed by such greats as Pau Casals) but gradually became a standard.  A then-twenty-year-old Sheku Kanneh-Mason as the soloist was nothing short of impressive – this is a difficult work to pull off even for a fully-mature artist, full of passion and deep feeling, but the young cellist more than mastered it.  He added a Saraband for solo cello by Weinberg as an encore.  The concert’s first half concluded with “The Way to Castle Yonder,” an orchestral excerpt from Higglety Pigglety Pop! – a children’s opera based on a Maurice Sendak book – by Oliver Knussen.  I had heard of Knussen before, but do not believe I had heard anything written by Knussen before.  So now I have.

Vienna Philharmonic: Beethoven, Bruckner

The “Fidelio” service also has in its archive Bernard Haitink’s last concert at the Salzburg Festival, the third-to-last stop of his farewell tour of Europe with the Vienna Philharmonic before he took his “sabbatical” (from which it is widely believed he knows he will never return).  I attended this concert, but found it worth listening again to hear Haitink lead the orchestra in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #4 (with Emanuel Ax) and Bruckner’s Symphony #7.  My impressions from last summer have held up on a second listen. (My review from 31 August 2019 is on this blog – incidentally, the stream edited Ax’s encore out completely, so I still have no idea what he played.)

Boston Symphony Orchestra: Tschaikowsky

The Boston Symphony has decided to continue to post on its site (for a limited but not-specified amount of time) a curated selection of performances from its archives, which it considers transformative, now going up weekly rather than daily.  These are generally individual works rather than entire concerts.  To highlight Erich Leinsdorf’s farewell spring as the Orchestra’s music director in 1969, they posted a warhorse: Tschaikowsky’s Fifth Symphony.  This is one of these far-too-often-performed works that I have said should generally be removed from concert programs unless people have something new to say (such as a spectacular performance of it I heard in Dresden a few years ago with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin).  Here, indeed, Leinsdorf and the BSO rose to the occasion.  The first movement had a relentless pacing (not fast, just strident).  The second captured lyric nuances in the winds which often get blurred, over an underlying tension.  The third movement danced, as it should, but the dance increasing went on its edge: could be in despair, except that it led into the triumphant final movement.  This performance produced more sound than the BSO normally manages, and indeed the stage looked crowded, but Leinsdorf had indeed expanded the BSO’s repertory, and nothing prevents more intimate-sounding orchestras such as the BSO or Leipzig Gewandhausorchester from doing justice to the larger works.  And it is performances such as this one which keep this particular symphony in the forefront of the repertory.  It is also such special performances like this that mean most other orchestras and conductors should remove it from their repertories completely.

Philadelphia Orchestra: Verdi

The Philadelphia Orchestra offered a performance of Verdi’s Requiem from 2012, one of Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s first concerts as Music Director, starting the Orchestra’s reemergence from its doldrum years under Eschenbach and Dutoit.  The musicians were there, so it’s not like the orchestra itself required an overhaul, but having good leadership makes a huge difference.  In this concert, that became palpable.  It started off quietly, almost delicately, remarkably so for what grows into a bombastic piece, but this just highlighted Verdi’s powerful writing (even the soft passages have their own fateful power).  Excellent soloists (Marina Poplavskaya,Christine Rice, Rolando Villazón, and Mikhail Petrenko) – who themselves did not try to be bombastic but rather provided sympathetic and almost lilting lines.  The Westminster Symphony Choir added wonderful color.

There was a certain catharsis with this concert – the Orchestra knew that happy days were ahead, and this requiem mass may well have been a mass for the Orchestra’s lost decade.  In the end, Nézet-Séguin held the silence out – especially noteworthy considering that American audiences tend to be quick to applaud and do not necessarily respect that hold.  But here the audience remained mute for the duration until Nézet-Séguin lowered his arms long after the music ended.  From the knowing looks on the musicians’ faces, they felt it too.  Welcome back to the pantheon, Philadelphia Orchestra – it’s been a stellar rise since then too.

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.

Stadler Quartet, Salzburg University Orchestra, Landesjazzorchester Salzburg, various soloists, Mozarteum Solitär

Weinberg

Moishe Weinberg would have turned 100 today.  So the final concert of the Weinberg 100 Festival in Salzburg lasted almost four hours.  In part this appears to have been a complete miscalculation by the organizers, who seem not to have estimated how long the program was, and indeed unnecessarily added pieces to the original program (in some cases repeating music already performed during the five-day festival).

The venue this evening was the Solitär auditorium in the Mozarteum Conservatory – a hall I had not known existed (I assumed most of the conservatory’s in-house concerts would take place either in the Mozarteum’s Great Hall or for chamber music in the smaller Viennese Hall, but they’ve obviously relatively recently constructed a sparkling-new 300-seat auditorium).  The acoustics and overall conditions were far better than in the horrible basement auditorium we suffered in on Thursday evening, and this let me reevaluate some performances repeated both evenings.  So, for example, the Salzburg University Orchestra – the amateur group loosely connected to the university – actually held its own this evening (again under Silvia Spinnata) with violin soloist Alexandra Seywald also improving incrementally, to produce a wonderful Concertino – a work that deserves to enter the standard repertory of concert violinists (maybe Seywald can help on that count, bringing her compelling performance to future orchestral concerts, as Gidon Kremer has).

The Sonata for Solo Contrabass performed partly on double bass (by Verena Wurzer) and partly on contrabasoon (by Eddie Bartlett) also came off much better – especially the case for the contrabassoon, which simply did not resonate in the auditorium on Thursday (Wurzer succeeded in producing a good sound on Thursday, but was also far better this evening).

And the 16-year-old Philipp Huber returned with the Piano Sonata #6 – but we had the opportunity to hear him perform that in the Mozarteum’s Viennese Hall yesterday, and so he already had a chance to shine in a good hall.  I’m not sure I needed to hear this piece three times in five days.

The Stadler Quartet also repeated the String Quartet #4 they had performed on Friday in the Salzburg Synagogue.  They have been perhaps overworked throughout the five days (no one has performed as much as they have), and looked like they were tiring.  Friday’s performance was better paced, more intimate, and fresher.

The only other repeat performance was the children’s chorus singing three selections from Children’s Songs opus 139 – the same three they sang yesterday.  Yesterday they were a festive introduction to the concert – today they were misplaced.  Maybe they would have once again provided a festive opening, but they were instead scheduled for several hours in, and when the organizers looked at their watches and realized it had already passed the bedtime of some of the youngest chorus members, they moved them forward in between Huber’s main piece and his encore – at about 9:45 p.m.

As for the works that we had not heard before: one commonality tonight was a sense of song (without vocals – rather instruments doing the singing, supported by Weinberg’s complex accompaniments).  The concert had opened with the Stadler Quartet performing the Aria for String Quartet opus 9, composed in the composer’s period in exile in Tashkent, which set the mood.  Immediately following (and before Quartet #4) came a sonata for Clarinet and Piano, opus 28, with Ferdinand Steiner accompanied by Per Rundberg.  And between the Concertino and Piano Sonata #6 came a sonata for cello and piano, opus 63, with Mikhail Nemtsov accompanied by his sister Elena Nemtsova.  Both of these sonatas contained the customary amount of intellectual craziness we now expect from Weinberg.  The Nemtsov siblings probably got the flashier piece, and completely deserved the biggest applause of the evening from a thrilled audience.

At the end of the concert came the circus.  As Weinberg’s formal music was often suppressed by the communist regime, he made his living writing more popular forms – such as for films (one of which I saw on Wednesday, the festival’s opening evening) and for the circus.  The Salzburg Regional Jazz Orchestra – a recently-founded youth group – did the honors this evening.  What was completely unclear from the announcer (unidentified person in a hat who seemed to have some connection to the jazz orchestra, although what connection was unclear) was whether the arrangements made especially for this evening’s performance by this group jazzed up non-jazz music, or whether Weinberg actually wrote some pretty jazzy music to be performed at the circus.  I would have thought that for a composer out of favor with the regime and already in danger of being purged (he was indeed purged once and Schostakowitsch had to rescue him), jazz might be too “western” and he would have stuck to something more sedate – the program notes suggested “variety music” and dances deriving from Viennese waltzes and similar, possibly jazzed up a bit (as Schostakowitsch had done – although the program does not mention that Schostakowitsch’s attempts did not go over too well with the authorities).  I was curious about Weinberg’s circus music, so stayed to the end, but am not sure I got any answers.

Mirga Gražynitė-Tyla, one of the organizers, announced at the end that they may try to make a Weinberg Festival into a regular occurrence in Salzburg.  Maybe we can get his 21 symphonies next time, or his seven operas…

Stadler Quartet, Mozarteum Viennese Hall

Weinberg

The lobby of the Mozarteum’s Viennese Hall completely thinned out after the first concert of the evening.  I thought maybe people were going for coffee or a quick Würstl, since there were no refreshments on hand in the Mozarteum today.  But, much to my surprise, the audience mostly did not come back, and the second concert was sparsely-populated.  This was a great shame, because this was definitely the best concert in the entire festival so far (and probably will beat tomorrow’s too).

The Stadler Quartet again did the honors and got top billing, performing two more of Weinberg‘s quartets, #7 at the start of the concert and #3 at the end.  I’m still unpacking these two: absolutely gorgeous music, with so much going on.  There were only four instruments in the quartet, but it felt like a whole orchestra was on the stage from the complexity and fullness of the sound.  Combine the brilliance of Schubert’s quartets with Mahler’s Weltschmerz and Schostakowtisch’s desolation, and then add an extra does of Jewish humor, and maybe that at least hints at the mood here.  Quartet #7 opened with what sounded like what would happen if someone started crying uncontrollably while copying out a Schubert quartet, smudging the ink badly, and then someone else tried to perform the result.  Schubert had reached the pinnacle of the Fach, and his quartets were brilliant for his day, with so many lines and twists, and in a sense Weinberg carried that tradition forward but in his own style.  And if the second movement of the quartet #3 carried all of the tragedy of the end of Mahler’s ninth symphony, Weinberg did not leave it there but instead revved up for a dance in the third and final movement.

To fill out the program (as the odd trio had done last night), placed between these two quartets came Weinberg songs (with the intermission in between the sets).  These too had a bit of a Schubertian derivation, at least in the singing line if more complex in the piano accompaniment.  Before the break came the a cycle of songs setting to music the poems of Yevgyeny Baratynsky.  Afterwards came a setting of an elegy by Friedrich Schiller.  Austrian baritone Wolfgang Holzmair had a warm, wonderful, expressive voice – clearly a master of the Lied, supported by Gaiva Bandzinaitė on the piano.  Bandzinaitė recited (from memory) the German translation of the Baratynsky poems before the performance, and Holzmair read out the original German of Schiller (Weinberg had set a Russian translation) – better would have been to reproduce those in the program so we could follow along.

The songs made this second concert of the evening more Schubertian.  I would have liked to have heard two of the sopranos who sang on Thursday (Lubov Karetnikova and Alina Martemianova – both currently studying with Holzmair) repeat their selections this evening, since the performing conditions in the auditorium on Thursday were so sub-optimal.

Gidon Kremer, Mozarteum Viennese Hall

Weinberg

Day Four of the Weinberg 100 Festival featured two back-to-back concerts in the Viennese Hall of the Mozarteum.  The first completely sold out, presumably based on the star power of Gidon Kremer, the soloist for Moishe Weinberg‘s first and second violin sonate.  Kremer may, to a degree, be indirectly responsible for this festival: he had become a champion of Weinberg’s music, and I believe it was through him (the Baltic connection – he’s based in Latvia and is active with chamber music across the Baltic states) that the Lithuanian conductor Mirga Gražynitė-Tyla discovered and also championed it.  She was chief conductor of the Salzburg Landestheater at the time, and the Mozarteum Orchestra is the pit orchestra for the opera, and she also regularly leads the orchestra in concerts as well, and while she did not introduce Weinberg to the Salzburg public then, she is one of the drivers behind this festival, together with Mozarteum Orchestra concertmaster Frank Stadler, who fell for Weinberg’s music shortly after that.

At any rate, as for the music: I’m afraid I am not so sure about these two sonate.  Weinberg’s music is quite complex, but I find he does best with multiple lines weaving among each other in fascinating ways, and this is harder to pull off on one instrument.  Not impossible (and certainly Kremer has that talent), just harder.  So while remarkable music, and well performed, these two solo sonate just did not seem to speak to me.  Kremer added another work as an encore, but although repeating several times what it was he kept mumbling it so that everyone sitting around me looked at each other shrugging our shoulders – I think I understood that it was a work Weinberg wrote for his friend the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, which Kremer had transcribed from cello to violin.

The rest of the concert contained (good) filler, works being performed elsewhere during the festival, which did not need to appear on the program again and could have been substituted for other Weinberg works.

Philipp Huber, one of the student pianists on Thursday, returned to perform Weinberg’s Piano Sonata #6, which he also played on Thursday and apparently (according to the program but not the original schedule) will play again at tomorrow’s concert.  The conditions this evening were much more conducive to hearing his performance than in that awful auditorium on Thursday, and so today it was possible both to hear Huber’s enormous talent as well as grasp the sense of the two-movement sonata he performed.  Huber is 16 years old, and certainly belongs in the adult surroundings of the Mozarteum’s Viennese Hall, showing excellent self-confidence for a not-easy work.  That said, I wish Weinberg had orchestrated this work, as it would be a great improvement to hear it on more than a solo piano (not Huber’s fault – he was excellent and now I look forward to hearing him perform it again tomorrow).  Huber added as an encore the movement from the opus 16 piano cycle he performed as part of the train of student performers on Thursday, and again the better setting this evening gave him more confidence and stage presence.

Gražynitė-Tyla had opened the concert in the midst of the Children’s Chorus of the Salzburg Festival and Landestheater, with three excerpts from Children’s Songs opus 139 – Russian-language adaptations of Jewish songs, a fun way to start the evening. We’ll hear them again tomorrow, too.

Stadler Quartet, Salzburg Synagogue

Weinberg

The third evening of the Weinberg 100 Festival took place in the Salzburg Synagogue.  In one sense, this was an appropriate venue for music by someone whose tragic life was defined by his Jewish identity: the Nazis murdered Moishe Weinberg‘s family, the Soviets murdered his wife’s family, he was purged, and although he was saved through the intervention of Dmitri Schostakowitsch his music was suppressed in the Soviet Union and virtually unknown outside it – all because he was Jewish.  On the other hand, it is Shabbat, and attending a concert in an active synagogue on Shabbat just felt a bit odd (there are no Friday evening services in Salzburg, and never a minyan for Saturday morning, and maybe 30 or so Jews in the entire city none of whom is particularly religious, but it’s still an active synagogue).

Tonight’s concert of music by featured two quartets masterfully performed by the Stadler Quartet, sandwiching a trio for flute, viola, and harp.  Quartet #8 opened the evening – the same one the Stadler Quartet had included in a concert this past February. It began by piercing the soul with tragedy, moved on into some almost-klezmer inspired humor, which it then deconstructed.  The different lines moved along and returned in new places, intersecting each other.  Listening to Weinberg’s music requires intellectual gymnastics and an innate Jewish ability to combine humor with tragedy.

The Quartet #4 closed the evening.  Written in the closing months of the Second World War, Weinberg gave it a wartime program, depicting the approach of war, invasion, mourning, and ultimately happy memories of childhood and hope for a better future.  Schostakowitsch, who had in 1943 succeeded in bringing Weinberg from his exile in Tashkent to Moscow and had become the younger composer’s mentor, clearly inspired this war quartet.  But Weinberg gave it perhaps more devastation than even Schostakowitsch managed in his music (even considering that Schostakowitsch also had his snarky humor – Weinberg’s humor wasn’t snarky, through, it was more a coping mechanism to survive).  The Stadler Quartet experienced a little hiccup in the first movement, but by the time we got all the way through to the end of the piece it was forgotten.

In between the two quartets, Vera Klug (flute), Sarah Maria Dragovic (viola), and Ingeborg Weber (harp) performed the bizarre trio – composed much later, in 1979.  It partly struck me as having the same problematic as the quartet #12 that the Stadler Quartet played last night, which showed too much influence from lesser composers.  According to the introduction this evening, Weinberg drew inspiration for the opening of the trio from Debussy, and that may indeed be the explanation.  It was thankfully not as bad as anything by Debussy, but it was also not a substantial work, until the third movement.  The third movement clearly owed its inspiration to Mahler.  But Weinberg’s music is best when he charts his own course, and I am also not sure that with this particular three-instrument combination there is even much of a course to chart.  That said, Dragovic and Weber were quite good and facile with the difficult score.  Klug, on the flute, did not have a pleasant tone.

Stadler Quartet, Salzburg University Orchestra, soloists of the Mozarteum Conservatory, Musikum Steinway Hall

Weinberg

The second evening of the Weinberg 100 Festival in Salzburg proved somewhat zanier, with a three-hour-long mix of chamber works arranged chronologically (but certainly not thematically) from 1943-1971, and a hodge-podge of performers, professionals and amateurs (some probably future professionals) as young as 9 years old.  All of this took place in a non-ideal auditorium in the basement of a music school (Steinway Hall of the Musikum), where the lights in the rooms emitted different (and out-of-tune) humming noises audible over quieter passages.  This was an awful venue which I did not even know existed (and now know to avoid so I never have to hear a concert here again).  Some of the works on this program will be repeated (by the same performers) on the weekend in better halls, so this was in many ways a dress rehearsal.  If I was going to skip any concerts in the festival, I would have skipped this one – however, the music of Moishe Weinberg is so rarely performed, I figured I should go.

Of the pieces which will not repeat this weekend, the one that interested me the most was the String Quartet #12, performed by the Stadler Quartet.  I probably need not have worried.  Weinberg fled his native Warsaw in September 1939 and was not allowed to return until 1966.  He wrote this piece after that trip, under the influence of Polish composers Witold Lutosławski and Krzystof Penderecki, whom he spent time with there.  Neither of them had anywhere near the talent Weinberg did.  Where Weinberg’s works were musically-grounded and intellectually brilliant, his Polish colleagues produced gimmicks.  Sometimes the gimmicks worked (or were interesting enough to want to at least listen to in small amounts), but they were not in Weinberg’s league.  This string quartet suffered from the association.

Three song cycles, based on Jewish poetry (respectively opus 13 in Russian, opus 17 in Yiddish, and opus 57 in Polish) worked much better, drawing out feeling and emotions.  The first and the third of the soprano soloists were quite good: Lubov Karetnikova (she would seem from her bio to be an ethnic Russian from Lithuania, although born in the US) and Alina Martemianova (from Moscow, she trained at the Galina Vishnyevskaya Opera Center overlapping the time I lived in Moscow, although I don’t remember hearing her perform at the Center), both now based here in Salzburg.  They made tremendously expressive portrayals of the songs (Vishnyevskaya’s distinctive style seems to have rubbed off on Martemianova as well).  The soprano for opus 17, Brazilian Ornella de Luca had trouble with pitch, and had a tendency to shriek, so was far less pleasant.

A train of very young students performed a movement or two each from a piano cycle (opus 16, with movements from opus 19 and 23 interpolated into it).  The kids were fine, but I just cannot get myself excited about solo piano music (not everyone can be Khatia Buniatishvili at the Festival this past summer).  So how good was Weinberg’s piano music?  Hard to say.  I’ll hear one piece – his opus 73 sonata – again on Sunday with one of these child pianists.  Maybe I’ll like it more under better conditions.

As for the other pieces I will hear again this weekend, the best one was his Concertino for Violin and String Orchestra opus 42.  The chamber orchestra was not especially great, a local amateur outfit (the Salzburg University Orchestra – which despite its name is not restricted to students or faculty of the University but open to pretty much anyone – under the baton of Silvia Spinnata).  But they were also fine, and this is not one of Weinberg’s most difficult works (it’s one I do own an excellent recording of, so I already know and like the piece, and am familiar with it in a performance by Gidon Kremer and his own chamber ensemble, which is just not a fair comparison).  This evening’s violinist, Alexandra Seywald, a native of Salzburg, captured the warmth of Weinberg’s piece (which is really just a violin concerto, maybe only slightly smaller in concept than most, but still requiring the thoughtful playing that Seywald offered).

The final work of the evening, which will also repeat on the weekend, was the very peculiar Sonata for Solo Contrabass.  Actually, the work was brilliant: who writes solo music – and good solo music at that – for the bass?  The first three and last movement were performed by Verena Wurzer on a double bass, and for the fourth and fifth movements Eddie Bartlett performed on the contrabassoon.  The double bass was the better instrument, with much more complex sounds, including overtones, providing a fuller experience; the contrabassoon on its own just tended to go splat.  Would a worse double bass player and a better contrabassoonist have switched that around?  Hard to tell (I’m not sure Bartlett was not good, he just did not manage to make this work as a solo).

I suppose after three hours I left scratching my head wondering what I had just experienced.  The Weinberg works I had experienced before this evening were invariably stimulating.  I don’t know how much of this evening’s selection did not rise to that standard because the performers were not always up to the same level I am used to with this music, or because the auditorium was terrible, or because maybe these were not entirely Weinberg’s better works (other than the Concertino, which I was already familiar with).

Stadler Quartet, Das Kino

Weinberg

Composer Moishe Weinberg would turn 100 this coming Sunday.  That would not normally merit much more than a footnote somewhere… except that he is the best composer of the Twentieth Century that almost no one has heard of.  I have mentioned before that I discovered him accidentally about five years ago while reading (I’ve also mentioned his tragic backstory before), and was curious enough to look up some of his music online.  I became hooked, and searched out and bought a whole stack of CDs expecting I would probably not get much opportunity to hear his music live.

Some others have also discovered him, including violinist Gidon Kremer, who brought a fair amount of his music to a series of concerts at the Musikverein during the Vienna Festival Weeks a few months after I made my discovery.  I had tickets… but then had to cancel and missed what I assumed was a once-in-a-lifetime chance.  One piano quintet appeared on the program of the Salzburg Festival in 2016.  But where could I hear more live?

The rising star conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla seems to have caught the bug from Gidon Kremer.  And then Frank Stadler, concertmaster of Salzburg’s Mozarteum Orchestra, discovered him as well.  Stadler presented two Weinberg chamber works (a quartet and a trio) at a concert I attended last winter, for which Gražinytė-Tyla made the journey to Salzburg to hear from the audience (and Stadler invited her on stage to provide some words of introduction).  And the two of them hinted they might do more together this Fall.  Last month that meant Gražinytė-Tyla conducting the Mozarteum Orchestra for Weinberg’s second symphony.  And now we have a mini Weinberg Festival, presented by Stadler and Gražinytė-Tyla, performing a selection of Weinberg’s chamber music over five days, culminating in his birthday on Sunday.

The opening event in the series came this evening: the 1957 film The Cranes Are Flying by the Russified Georgian film director Mikhail Kalatozov (born Kalatozishvili), a landmark of Soviet cinema.  Weinberg wrote the film music.  High quality film music indeed.

Before the film, we got a lecture about Weinberg from University of Salzburg Professor Karl Müller (from which I learned that in 1939 Weinberg, then at the Warsaw Conservatory, had been accepted to study composition at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia… before his life’s tragedy began, so it never happened; in typical fashion around here – welcome to Austria – the Professor originally referred to the “German invasion of Poland” but then decided to rephrase himself, backing up and clarifying that he should have said “Hitler’s invasion of Poland by means of (‘durch‘) the German army” as though Hitler acted alone and the poor Germans – and of course Austrians – could not do anything to help themselves.  There are too many of these thinly-veiled Nazi apologists around here.)

After Müller’s talk, the Stadler Quartet performed Weinberg’s Capriccio opus 11, written in 1943 from his exile in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, shortly before Schostakowitsch, who had discovered his talent, managed to get him brought to Moscow.  It started off sounding like a rather routine classical string quartet, and then went absolutely haywire, combining musical jokes with a degree of melancholy, with periodic classical lines weaving in and out.  Although an early work, it indeed demonstrating the talent that made Weinberg such a curious composer.  His music is not big (this is just a chamber work, of course, but his symphonies too have intimacy), and it is also well-rooted in classical tradition, but it has several levels of complexity, making it an intellectual delight to listen to in addition to just being beautiful music.  Where some composers may just repeat formulas, and others may forget they are writing music in the interest of doing something different, Weinberg managed to shatter convention without forgetting the transformative nature of good pleasant music.

I’m looking forward to the concerts on the coming days.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Weinberg, Brahms

I still cannot believe I was unaware of the existence of Moishe Weinberg as recently as five years ago.  Now I plan my schedule to incorporate rare performances of his music.  One of the greatest composers of the 20th Century, he was first championed by Dmitri Schostakowitsch (who served as a mentor for the younger Weinberg, but admitted Weinberg may indeed have been more talented).  One of his most recent champions is the brilliant young Lithuanian conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, who led the Mozarteum Orchestra this morning in his Second Symphony.

Scored only for string orchestra, this Symphony produced rich complexities which combined the intimacy of a sting quartet with the full-bodied sounds of a symphonic work.  Multiple lines (even among instrument groups) weaved in and out throughout the three-movement symphony, capturing vast sonorities sometimes almost delicately.  The first movement strung together a series of dances, but warped by the aftermath of the Holocaust (Weinberg was the only member of his family to survive – when he wrote this in 1945-46 in his Moscow exile he may still have been unaware of their fate but presumably knew it could not have been good).  The bleak second movement may have been too bleak even for the Russians, and may be the reason the Soviet authorities suppressed this symphony for nearly two decades (they did not permit it to have its premiere until 1964, a fate which often befell Weinberg’s works and which contributed to his oblivion despite his enormous talents and the high quality of his music at so many levels).  The moods of the first two movements combined to form the finale, but rather than rehash, Weinberg found new themes and tonalities, particularly in expansion of pizzicato to set the music on edge.

Under the impulse of Gražinytė-Tyla and the Stadler Quartet (formed by Mozarteum Orchestra members led by the concertmaster), there will be a Weinberg Festival in Salzburg in early December to mark the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth, featuring a good selection (by no means anywhere near complete) of his chamber music.  It has not had much publicity (Gražinytė-Tyla alluded to it but gave no details when making some introductory remarks at a concert featuring Weinberg’s music performed by the Stadler Quartet last Spring), but a few (not many) fliers were lying around in the lobby of the Great Festival House this morning, and I am now figuring out how to plan my schedule to get to as many of the performances as possible.  I’d say others should do the same.

The novelty and creativity of Weinberg’s work overshadowed the program’s main advertised piece, which came after the intermission: Brahms‘ Requiem, perhaps that composer’s greatest and most monumental work, and certainly his most original.  Gražinytė-Tyla recognized it as a very personal work despite its size, and so rather than making it a giant piece (although there were indeed 150 performers on stage) with at times swelling fortes, she kept it intimate (not quiet in the big parts – suitably loud where that was necessary – just intimate).  For this work, the Salzburg Bach Chorus and soloists Günther Haumer and Robin Johannsen (she a very late substitute – so late that not only did they not have time to put an insert in the program, they did not even print up pieces of paper to post at the entrance to alert concert-goers of the change) joined the Mozarteum Orchestra and Gražinytė-Tyla to make a balanced, sensitive, and emotional whole.

Stadler Quartet, Mozarteum Viennese Hall

Weinberg, Woodborne

A fantastic chamber concert by the Stadler Quartet in the Mozarteum’s Viennese Hall this evening was not quite the one advertised.  The second violinist got very ill earlier this month – he has recovered, but with a cut in rehearsal time they decided to dispense with a Beethoven quartet and replace it with a trio (scored for violin, viola, and cello).  After that, they just reorganized the concert order completely.  And as much as I love Beethoven, the final result was an even bigger treat.

Moishe Weinberg was one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century – yet remains virtually unknown.  I only discovered him online about four years ago.  His works are almost never programmed – and if I see anything by him in a program, and I can physically get there, then I intend to go.  His String Quartet #8 was already scheduled this evening (what attracted me to the concert in the first place), but his Trio for violin, viola, and cello was the late addition.  The trio (composed in 1950) and the quartet (composed in 1959) made up the first half of the concert.  As an added bonus, the rising star conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla apparently has the same opinion of Weinberg as I do and so she came all the way to Salzburg just for this concert – and was invited on stage to introduce the composer (she apparently discovered him for the first time five years ago – about a year before I did) and announced she will be bringing some of his orchestral works to Salzburg soon.  What a treat that will be.

I have described Weinberg’s sad story before – born  and educated in Warsaw, he fled east when Germany invaded Poland in 1939.  The Germans murdered his entire family.  He got stuck in the Soviet Union (which, allied with Nazi Germany, had invaded Poland from the other direction), married the daughter of Solomon Mikhoels and then the Russians murdered her family.  He himself was purged but saved from execution by the intervention of Dmitri Schostakowitsch, who had become his mentor.  Russian anti-Semitism meant his music was rarely performed even in the Soviet Union, but for those who knew, they knew.

His complex music exists on many levels.  The undertone of the two works this evening was immense sadness.  But above it came dancing and humor and survival.  The techniques varied, keeping the works fresh and evolving, with a lot going on.  These are works worth hearing over and over, and each hearing would reveal something new – of course, I’ve only heard them now once.  The Stadler Quartet indicated it wants to perform all of Weinberg’s seventeen quartets this year alone (the 100th anniversary of his birth comes in December).  I have a lot to look forward to (hopefully they won’t shove all the concerts into October when I am in the US).

After the intermission came the world premiere of the String Quartet #2 – The Eternal Reciprocity of Tears – by South African composer Shane Woodborne.  Woodborne made this quartet a wordless setting of four poems by Wilfred Owen, which Owen composed about his experience in the First World War while convalescing from having been wounded on the front.  After regaining health, he went back to the front where he was killed one week before the end of the war, aged only 25.  Woodborne’s quartet captured the tragedy – and although employing techniques like Weinberg’s dances, these were not happy ones but illustrated the activity and trauma of war.  The Stadler Quartet has probably been practicing this piece the longest (since it was completed last year) and put their hearts into it, suitably raising the dead.  In the audience for the concert, Woodborne also had the opportunity to introduce the work before the performance, and received enthusiastic applause together with the Stadler Quartet at the evening’s end.

Jerusalem Quartet and András Schiff, Mozarteum

Schubert, Weinberg, Brahms

The Jerusalem Quartet and András Schiff provided a full, nearly orchestral, sound for their chamber performance in the Mozarteum this evening, as part of the Salzburg Festival.

The program opened with the Quartet Movement in c minor by Franz Schubert, who never wrote the other movements for a planned work.  This movement goes down with the two movements of his “Unfinished Symphony” under the “what could have been” column.  But like those two symphonic movements, which actually work as an abridged symphony, this quartet movement also works as a stand-alone piece.  The Israelis built up a big sound, capturing all the nuances of Schubert’s genius.

The piece also served as a good warm-up for the next work, in which Schiff joined the quartet for Moishe Weinberg‘s Piano Quintet.  Weinberg, a Polish Jew, fled Warsaw when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939 (they murdered his entire family) and got stuck inside the Soviet Union, which had meanwhile invaded Poland from the other direction.  In Russia, his new family (through his new wife, daughter of the great Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels) also got murdered by the anti-Semitic Soviet regime.  Dmitri Schostakowitsch, with whom he became a close friend, personally rescued Weinberg from another purge of Jews.  I discovered Weinberg’s music on recordings early in 2015, and became intrigued – but although Schostakowitsch valued him very highly as a composer, his music is today rarely performed.  I had unfortunately missed a concert of his music in Vienna last Summer, but sought out this concert specifically to hear something live.

The Quintet did not disappoint.  Written in 1944, the work captured the mixed trauma Weinberg must have experienced as he settled in Moscow (with Schostakowitsch’s help) after escaping Poland via Minsk and Tashkent (!).  Although containing kernels of the conventional, it went off in all directions.  Here a march off into oblivion, there a warped waltz performed presto, there a slow funereal movement interrupted by fanfares (warning blasts? signs of hopeful redemption approaching over the horizon?), and concluding with a difficult final movement based on what sounded like a off-kilter jig, played by the instruments in succession, in unison, in round, and ultimately against each other, before dropping off into a pianissimo melancholic abyss, followed by a long silence before applause.  The five musicians handled this exhilarating work with great verve, approaching a Schostakowitsch-sized orchestral complexity, keeping the audience on the edge of our seats: what on earth would Weinberg bring next?

The rest of the concert, after the intermission, was anti-climactic, featuring a lone work: Johannes Brahms‘ Piano Quintet.  At the time of its premiere, contemporaries regarded Brahms’ Piano Quintet as following the legacy of Beethoven and Schubert – which may be true, except those two composers had been dead for nearly forty years by then, betraying Brahms’ complete lack of originality.  The quality of tonight’s performance and the technical prowess of Brahms notwithstanding, this work had nothing to say, particularly coming as it did after the Weinberg.  The musicians did produce a build up of real tension for the third movement scherzo, but it was a build up to… just another unrelated movement.  All four movements were quite fine works, but Brahms failed to connect them other than the setting for a quartet plus piano.  Indeed, they would each have held up just fine as individual single-movement works, as demonstrated during the encore, when the group performed a reprise of the third movement scherzo on its own.

My only quibble, therefore, with tonight’s performance: they probably should have reversed the order of the Weinberg and Brahms quintets, and sent us out with Weinberg’s moving pianissimo into the summer night.