Saturday 31 March 2012

Devil's Trill in Vienna

Musikverein and Karlskirche, Vienna
Vienna sits in the centre of Europe – much further east than you’d think – just a few dozen miles from Slovakia and Hungary, in that patch of Austria untroubled by Alpine peaks.  For a century and a half it was Europe’s musical heart, lying on the easy path round the mountains between the northern capitals of old Europe and Italy.  It was where composers came to make it big: Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart, Mahler; all pulled here by the promise of exposure and fame.  It still clings to those names, immortalising them in statues and museums, though their ubiquity suggests that subsequent revolutionaries moved on long ago.  

Vienna itself has avoided the sprawl of many of its European neighbours: ten minutes on the train out of the city centre and you’re surrounded by farms.  Its nineteenth century architects must have expected it to keep-a-pace with the Londons and Berlins of this world, designing vast boulevards and public spaces that these days often seem eerily empty.  If the city seems small scale, though, it has still seen its share of history, making London feel like a paragon of continuity in comparison.  Signs of Nazi control have gone, but the Soviets left their mark, not least at Schwartzenbergplatz, where the Soviet War Memorial stands as a strident monument to their expansion west. 

Soviet War Memorial, Vienna

Now, with all that history under the bridge, Vienna is left with its culture, simultaneously pedalled as high art and low kitsch.  You can take your pick: hear Mozart at the Musikverein, or munch his chocolate balls at the airport.  But in Vienna, the division isn’t always as clear: its highest of cultural institutions, the Vienna Philharmonic, are as famous for sleep-waltzing through new year’s morning fluff as for carrying the torch for Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms.

My short visit coincided with some unseasonally strong sunshine, throwing the most flattering of light on the baroque Karlskirche and the ornate Secession building.  Even the Soviet monolith glowed brilliantly as the sun set.  My real interest lay, though, in a less gilded structure.  The Musikverein, counted so often as one of the world’s great spaces for music, is dusty red and from the outside looks barely large enough to house a concert hall.  The reason becomes obvious: the main hall is surprisingly small, an impression only strengthened by the gloomy golden decor and low-flying chandeliers.  It certainly looks bigger on TV.

Musikverein, Vienna

Inside, though, it’s hard not to get excited.  Never mind the new year’s nonsense; on this stage, Bruno Walter conducted his legendary 1938 performance of Mahler’s 9th, just weeks before the Anschluss; half a century later, it was here that Carlos Kleiber conducted his miraculous Brahms 2.  The stage, though, is compact and is a squeeze for a modern orchestra.  While I was in Vienna, I heard two concerts by the visiting City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra with the music director Andris Nelsons  which tested the limits of the hall and its little stage.       

Britten’s Four Sea interludes (without the Passacaglia, inserted into the set in the orchestra’s Birmingham warm up) seemed at times to be too much for the hall.  At its loudest, its screeching fury begged for a bigger space.  It certainly wasn’t the orchestra’s fault – they could hardly have played it all mezzo forte – but I had to wonder what impression it had left on a Viennese audience, hardly likely to be too familiar with Britten’s music.

Rudolf Buchbinder’s performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto made a much better case for the Musikverein’s acoustics.  This is the sort of music its architects might have imagined would have been played here, and the hall responded by bathing the performance in a richly resonant aura.  It has it pitfalls, though: for all its luxuriant reverb, the acoustic has the sense of closeness common to smaller halls.  On the stage of the Musikverein, your sound might be silken, but the audience will hear if you make a mistake.  So it was that Buchbinder’s occasional untidiness was clear to hear, but his performance, which seemed to stir and awaken as it unfolded, was so fresh and free that it barely mattered.  He had excellent support from the CBSO, too: the bridge from the bullied solemnity of the slow movement to the whispered excitement of the finale, for example, could not have been bettered.

It got even better after the interval.  Andris Nelsons’s way with Sibelius’s Second Symphony was riveting.  The first movement became a fizzing prelude to the joyous finale, but the tone poem-like second movement plumbed the depths with craggy fanfares and tense silences.  It really was gripping and somehow the small hall only made it more intense.  The orchestra sounded better than I have ever heard them (and they’re usually no slouches); on a level here with any orchestra in the world.  If they don’t already plan to, Nelsons and the CBSO should get this one down on disc. 

Jonas Kaufmann and the CBSO, Vienna

It was Jonas Kaufmann’s turn as soloist the following night, and his considerable fame filled most of the few empty seats seen the previous evening.  His appearance a few weeks earlier in Birmingham was heavily covered in the British press, and I had a few words to say about it at the time.  His performance was very similar in Vienna; the Musikverein, though, didn’t seem as kind to his voice as Birmingham’s much larger Symphony Hall.  It seemed, also, that the 1700 strong Viennese audience had a tougher time sitting quietly than their Birmingham counterparts: the end of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder was rather ruined by the coughing and fidgeting that smothered what should have been a rapt silence.  The selection of Strauss songs again proved to be the high point; Kauf-watchers will be interested to know that he dropped the folded arms adopted for Morgen! in Birmingham for a more pious clasped-hands position.

Debussy’s La Mer opened the concert; Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe Second Suite ended it.  It surely is the ultimate sumptuous show stopper and Nelsons lavished attention over the famous “dawn” episode.  It ached and flexed as though slowly emerging from peaceful slumber, transforming assuredly into the exhilarating revelry that ends the ballet.  Is there any music better than this?  I don’t think so.  

Friday 30 March 2012

Big orchestra in a little town

I’m afraid to say I wasn’t that taken with the St Petersburg Philharmonic’s visit to The Anvil in Basingstoke at the weekend.  No orchestra can claim to be closer to the symphonies of Shostakovich, but they seemed a bit too comfortable on this occasion.  Read my full review at Classicalsource.

Tuesday 27 March 2012

Friday 9 March 2012

Not just Jonas Kaufmann

An evening in Birmingham in the company of the CBSO was a great midweek treat this week; the concert, featuring the tenor-of-the-moment Jonas Kaufmann, has received a fair amount of attention elsewhere, from Intermezzo, The Guardian and The Art’s Desk.  All agreed with me – wonderful singing in Mahler’s Kindertotenleider, if not the most devastating account imaginable, and considerably more fun in a selection of songs by Richard Strauss (including a breathtaking Morgen!).  Follow those links of you want to read more about Kaufmann (unfortunately, Richard Morrison’s rather sourer appraisal in The Times is hidden behind Murdoch’s paywall).

But what of the rest of the programme?  Perhaps understandably, Kaufmann’s justified celebrity means most write about him at the expense of the Britten and Debussy seascapes that framed his handsome chops.  Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes (plus the Passacaglia, cleverly inserted before the final interlude) were perhaps a little tentative at times, but Debussy’s La Mer at the other end of the concert was the real standout.  Conductor Andris Nelsons imparts a flexibility on the music only attainable by a conductor with the total attention of their orchestra: Nelsons certainly has that.  These sea pictures were for once more Eastbourne than Med, being veiled in the English Channel’s mist and rain.  Nelsons’s conducting made its many transitions and contrasts flow seamlessly: I understand that the orchestra only had limited rehearsal time on it, but for once unfamiliarity bred excitement rather than hesitation.  The CBSO is taking this programme (plus another) on a two week European tour; watch this space for a report from me on their visit to Vienna next weekend.

Monday 5 March 2012

CD review: Philip Glass Concerto Project 4

Philip Glass
Concerto Project Vol.4

Tim Fain (violin)
Wendy Sutter (cello)
Dennis Russell Davies (piano/conductor)

Residente Orkest / The Hague Philharmonic
Jurjen Hempel (Double Concerto)

Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra (Tirol Concerto)

The concerto has become a mainstay in Philip Glass's oeuvre.  There have been some stand out entries in the series that began with the 1987 First Violin Concerto, but there have also been some distinctly cut-and-paste jobs that seem content to replicate many much imitated Glassisms.  I'd say the two that appear in volume four of Orange Mountain Music's Philip Glass Concerto Project fit somewhere between these two extremes; both the Double Concerto for violin and cello and the Tirol Concerto for piano have attractions and problems.

Written and premièred in 2010, the Double Concerto owes its existence to a commission from Nederlands Dans Theater for a dance piece.  Its structure is very similar to Glass's recent Violin Concerto No.2 'American Four Seasons', in that it places episodes for the solo instruments between movements with orchestra.  The first of these accompanied movements closely recalls the toe-tapping pulse of the Second Violin Concerto, though it's the duet interludes that prove the most interesting.  But it isn't all as successful.  There aren't many of the alluring harmonic sequences that Glass has come up in recent works; rather, there's some quite plain instrumental writing and homogenised orchestration.  It's a shame not to report a more engaging work, as the combination of violin and cello is a perfect fit for Glass's dark hues and in Tim Fain and Wendy Sutter he has a terrific pair of soloists.

Glass's music has always sounded good on the piano.  The solo piano introduction to the Tirol Concerto (2000) brings a warm remembrance of Opening from the seminal Glassworks album.  It then rushes off on a jolly path that I'm not quite so sure about, but regular Glass collaborator Dennis Russell Davies treads a fine line in the piano part between jaunty and weighty that adds some depth.  The problem, though, is the second of the three movements.  At 16'31, it's almost three times as long as the first or last movements and Glass's variations on his theme simply aren't interesting enough to sustain the duration.  At half the length, it might have balanced with the rest of the work.  As it stands, it just plods on and on like minimalist muzak.  I'm afraid I'd lost interest before the jovial stomp through the finale.