A tourist’s guide to music in Vienna

You’re visiting Vienna and want to hear some music. But there are so many choices, and the guys dressed as Mozart carrying binders offering tickets are so tempting. Don’t do it! Read this guide instead and find some real music. (Warning: difficult during July and August. Yeah, maybe this wan’t the best time to write this. But there are some options!)

Please, please don’t make a deal with the Mozart men. They are the dudes (and a few ladies) who you see in olde tyme garb outside all music venues and various tourist attractions aggressively suggesting you buy tickets to their concerts. They represent a variety of shady organizations, but most will send you to a short concert of light music catered exclusively to tourists, possibly in a historic setting. The tickets are very expensive and I have heard from accounts that they are falsely represented (particularly that they do not take place in the quite the same lovely setting that is advertised, but also that they play Strauss waltzes while wearing 18th century outfits, which is just wrong). But even if they’re honestly described, you should go to a real concert, not to this kitsch.

(Kitsch has a venerable place in Austrian history and culture. But these concerts are not artistic efforts, they’re solely aimed at your wallet. Even if you don’t normally go to classical concerts, Vienna’s a great place to give a real one a chance.)

About Tickets

Seeking a ticket…

If you don’t need to be told this and know what you like in terms of concerts and opera, you should plan ahead. This is absolutely vital for the seats at the Staatsoper (last-minute tickets are sometimes available but they are usually only very expensive ones) and also for any Konzerthaus or Musikverein concert featuring someone famous. You can order tickets on the venues’ websites, all of which are available in English versions. If you aren’t picky, between September and the end of June there is almost always something going on. July and August are sparse.

Standing for concerts and opera is an institution in Vienna. It rarely requires advance planning and is very cheap, and a great option for tourists. Sometimes it can require waiting in line, though. Read my guides here to the standing rooms of Vienna, including the Staatsoper, Theater an der Wien, and Musikverein. For the Volksoper, see below.

Be aware that there’s a thriving industry of scalpers in Vienna. You will see their ticket offerings in store windows, or see them in front of the doors before something starts, unloading unsold seats. If you want to see something sold out and have the cash to pay significantly over face value, they can help. Otherwise, stay away. If you see a sign advertising tickets for a major event that isn’t a) at the performance venue itself, b) the Vienna-Ticket booth across from the Staatsoper or c) the Bundestheaterkasse office across from the other side of the Staatsoper, you’ve found a scalper. This particularly goes for the EMI Store on Kärtnerstrasse, which sells Musikverein standing room tickets for double their face value (including events that are not nearly sold out). I can’t believe this is legal.

Where to Go
The major venues are in business from sometime in September and the end of June. The 800-pound gorilla of musical attractions is the Wiener Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera). They have a giant repertoire, lots of famous singers, lots of non-famous singers, a mixture of conservative old productions and half-assed Regietheater, and a tendency towards scrappiness. Their performances vary in quality from world-class to utterly provincial from night to night. It’s a crap shoot, but worth trying. The standing room is giant and its rituals form a cult, a wonderful activity for tourists. You can read my guide to it here. If you simply must sit, either order ahead, bring lots of money, or hope you get lucky. All operas include the option of English titles.

The Volksoper (People’s Opera) doesn’t attract as many tourists as the Staatsoper, and is located a little bit out of the city center on the Gürtel. But I recommend you consider it, particularly if you don’t care about name-value casts and/or don’t want to deal with the expense or standing of the Staatsoper. Performances rarely sell out and seats are very reasonably priced (you can get a perfectly good seat for 15-20 Euros). Their repertoire consists of opera, operetta, and musicals, are often family-friendly and sometimes are performed with English surtitles. For their accessibility, their consistent level of quality and creativity is very good. Tickets are available at the Bundestheaterkasse on Goethegasse (across from the Staatsoper), online, and at the house itself. They do have standing room; you can order those tickets in any of those ways as well. You might even catch an up-and-coming singer–the phenomenal Walther I saw there in 2006 was none other than currently reigning Heldentenor Johan Botha.

The Theater an der Wien is the most highbrow of Vienna’s opera houses, and my personal favorite. They only perform one opera a month, plus a few concerts, and their repertoire is dedicated to rarities, new works, Baroque opera, and other things that benefit from their small space (1,000 seats). Productions tend to be on the modern, Regie side of things. Performances with famous singers such as Cecilia Bartoli or Placido Domingo sell out very quickly, but those are the minority. They also have standing room, here is my guide. You can get tickets from the Vienna Ticket booth across from the Staatsoper near Kärtnerstrasse, online, or at the theater itself (located across from the Naschmarkt). No English titles here, brush up on the plot of Admeto before you go or check the back of your program for a short English synopsis. Their café is also excellent.

The Musikverein is the most famous of Vienna’s concert halls, you may have seen it on TV on New Year’s with the Philharmoniker sawing out waltzes. They host the Philharmoniker, the Ton-Künstler Orchester Niederösterreich, the Wiener Symphoniker, the ORF RSO Wien, and many visiting orchestras, plus solo recitals and chamber music. The Großer Saal is the big famous one, recitals happen in the smaller Brahms-Saal. Their standing room is kind of miserable, but very accessible, my guide is here.

TIckets for the Philharmoniker’s subscription concerts at the Musikverein are sold by the orchestra themselves rather than by the Musikverein’s box office. The rules on these are special for seats and standing, see the guide to the Musikverein for the details.

The other big concert hall is the Konzerthaus, located near the Stadtpark. Their guests are in aggregate not quite so famous as those of the Musikverein, but their programming tends to be more interesting. The Symphoniker and RSO Wien are regulars, and many visiting orchestras show up. Their recital hall is called the Mozart-Saal. Alone among major Viennese venues, they don’t have standing room, so plan ahead if you can. Students under 27 can get any available tickets right before the start for 15 Euros. Be aware the the last few rows of the Galerie in the Großer Saal have bad sight lines, which can make conductors and soloists disconcertingly invisible.

I can’t help you with the Vienna Boys’ Choir, having never seen them myself. Recently I heard a report that a concert featured them singing “We are the World,” so I have not yet rectified this. Sorry, I’m a snob.

Summer (July and August)
The Theater an der Wien is usually in business, but this year (2011) they are renovating and are not. There is usually a short opera season at the gorgeous Baroque theater in the Schloss Schönbrunn, but they sadly have lost their funding and had to cancel their season. Pickings, in other words, are slim. You can head out to Grafenegg for Rudolf Buchbinder’s growing festival (book the bus back to Vienna because you WILL miss the train) or take the legendary Baden Bahn train to Baden for operetta at the Bühne Baden (Baden Baden Baden Baden! there’s one near Vienna too) or go further south to Graz for Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s Styriarte. You can also watch various operas and concerts outside for free almost every night in July and August at the Rathaus Film Festival (City Hall), with lots of local cuisine. Or just get on the train and go to the Salzburg Festival, for God’s sake (note: not recommended for beginners).

And, most importantly, don’t forget to look up your local orchestra and opera company once you get home.

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The Budapest Festival Orchestra’s highs and lows

The Budapest Festival Orchestra and their music director Iván Fischer came to the Musikverein last night with an odd program of Bartók (Dance Suite for Orchestra Sz 77), Paganini (Violin Concerto No. 1), and Chaikovsky (Symphony No. 5). It’s not bad programming per se, but it seemed a little bit on the random side. I suppose the Bartók and Chaikovsky both have dance things going on? (Which is something you could say for a lot of music.)

I really like this orchestra, with their dry sound and vaguely Russian brass, but I wasn’t as blown away this time as I was by their Konzerthaus concert last September. But they are still a very good orchestra indeed. If only this program had come together a little better. The Bartók Dance Suite was new in title to me, though I’ve heard some parts of it before in other Bartók pieces. It was an unusual choice to open the program, because the orchestra is treated quite sectionally and it was hard to get a good sense of their general sound. However, the playing was very fine, with wonderful transparency between sections.

Yes, really.

Judging by the hobbit hair and the PR accompanying his CD, violin soloist József Lendvay sees himself as the embodiment of the demonic Hungarian Gypsy fiddler. But while his first Paganini concerto would be suitable for a Heuriger somewhere, this astonishingly sloppy performance was not fit for the Musikverein. Granted, he has a rather good flying staccato and plays it all very quickly, but more notes were wrong than right, and most of them were not in the right places, either. The whole concerto was pervaded by rubato and twisted rhythms with no musical logic, and even simple passages showed little grace and wretched intonation (nearly every harmonic squeaked in the way they do when you don’t tune them quite right). Just awful. He got a large ovation, making me distrust the collective ears of the Viennese public (this was perhaps not the usual crowd; they applauded a lot after the first movement of a perfectly conventional concerto, I wanted to in the hope that he would stop). Paging Julia Fischer! Or Hilary Hahn! We need you!

(I prefer writing positive reviews, I really like liking things, but I understand why people bash performances so much. It is so much easier to write. I think it is richly deserved in this case.)

It could only get better after that. And it did. The Chaikovsky Symphony no. 5 was very good, a good completion for my Jansons No. 4 and Barenboim No. 6 earlier this season. Fischer had his eye on the trajectory of the entire piece, starting off restrained and somber in the first movement. The horn solo in the second movement was a bit disappointingly blank, but the movement built up to a very impressive and clearly planned climax, even though the movement itself feels like leftovers from the Symphony No. 4 (fate motive? check. pizzicati? check.) plus some of the better bits of the Swan Lake finale. The third movement was quiet, played as a soft interlude between the outpourings of the second and fourth, and the staccato passages in the strings could have used more lightness. The fourth movement turned very gaudy, with the bright brass pretty much blasting everyone else out of the water. The ending was taken at an impressive clip, perhaps to disguise that it is about 4 minutes of straight V — I alternations.

A mixed bag but mostly redeemed by the Chaik.

Budapest Festival Orchestra, Iván Fischer, conductor. Musikverein, 5/11/2011. Program: Bartók, Dance Suite for Orchestra Sz 77; Pagaini, Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major; Chaikovsky/Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 5 in e minor.

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Petrenko and the lyric Symphoniker

Kirill Petrenko and the Wiener Symphoniker brought an unusual program to the Musikverein this week: Zemlinsky’s Lyrische Symphonie, Liadov’s The Enchanted Lake, and Scriabin’s Le poème de l’extase. I wish I could have written about this sooner, because there were a disappointing amount of empty seats at Wednesday’s first of three concerts and it was really worth hearing. The Lyrische Symphonie can be easily described as a Das Lied von der Erde rip-off, and as a series of lush orchestral songs for two alternating vocal soloists set to Asian poetry, there are obvious similarities. However, Zemlinsky’s musical language is quite different, and so are his poems’ themes. Petrenko and the Symphoniker’s account was monumental and dramatic.

The first movement was gloriously un-transparent, not dissected as much as a thick, ever-shifting carpet of sound. After hearing many technically overworked and clinical performances recently, it was a lovely change to hear the whole orchestra together instead of eliciting reactions such as “oh, hi, oboe section!” The soloists were excellent and carefully traced the work’s journey for youth to love to loss, but Petrenko’s focus was more on the orchestra than on them. Baritone Wolfgang Koch sounded somewhat flat and detached in the first movement, but warmed up to an imposing, passionate delivery in the other movements. Suddenly ubiquitous soprano Camilla Nylund was much better suited to this work than she had been to Rosalinde or Salome, her silvery sound projecting perfectly but never losing its freshness. Her “Sprich zu mir, Geliebter” was beautifully floated.

This was a very smartly put-together program. Anatoly Liadov’s brief, quiet tone poem The Enchanted Lake is another shimmering atmosphere piece, but one of greater delicacy, recalling a Russian Debussy. It served as a good introduction to Scriabin’s heady Poème de l’extase, whose chaotic structure and kaleidoscope of themes was, like the Zemlinsky, a dazzling exercise in orchestral color and balance. And, at the end, we heard how very, very loud an orchestra of this size can be. But it never felt gratuitous.

The concert was hindered by some spectacularly ill-timed coughing, and was met with a disappointingly lukewarm reception. I thought it was unusual and glorious.

Wiener Symphoniker, Kirill Petrenko, conductor. Musikverein, 2/23/2011. With Camilla Nylund, soprano and Wolfgang Koch, baritone. Program: Zemlinsky, Lyrische Symphonie, op. 18; Liadov (Lyadov/Ljadow), The Enchanted Lake, op. 62; Scriabin (Skrjabin), Le Poème de l’extase, op. 54.

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The Philharmoniker’s Mahler 6: More cowbell

The Philharmoniker is on tour this month with Semyon Bychkov, but before they departed, the sexist bastards are allowing us in Vienna a preview of their three programs in four concerts. This represents the sum total of their performances in the city this month. This is rather typical (unles you count the Staatsoper, which you shouldn’t). Three different programs is actually generous, comparatively speaking.

Mahler’s Symphony No. 6, the “Tragic,” is just about as imposing as No. 9, which I heard Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic give a few weeks ago. Unfortunately I felt that this performance was also lacking something, though I can’t quite put my finger on what. Maybe these are more my usual problems navigating Mahler’s unwieldy forms than the orchestra’s. It was extraordinarily accomplished on a technical level, with faultlessly clear textures and ensemble, opulent tone, and, with the exception of some overloud brass, barely a note out of place or balance. For those of you who collect critical editions, the scherzo preceded the andante but there were only two hammer blows.

I liked the restrained opening, and Bychkov and the orchestra never resorted to excess. However, I wonder if they perhaps should have–this is Mahler, after all.  Some odd tempos and an oddly episodic feeling made the entire performance never really pay off.  There were lovely moments: beautiful chamber playing in the winds in the first movement, that otherworldly strings/percussion passage, and particularly the opening of the third movement, which had a gorgeous gentleness. But the second movement lacked a certain element of caricature, and the lengthy last movement, until the exciting coda, again felt disconnected. In 90 minutes, you’d think it would add up to something.

Also, I couldn’t see the hammer due to a column. This was very disappointing. Is the Philharmoniker still using the Ur-Mahler Hammer? I think there is a good chance they are.

Wiener Philharmoniker, Semyon Bychkov, conductor. Musikverein, 2/2011. Program: Mahler, Symphony No. 6, “Tragic.”

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The Dude does not abide by Mahler

I have been skeptical of the Gustavo Dudamel phenomenon, because it seems like more a product of media hype than it does of musical inspiration.  It was nice to see a younger-than-average crowd at the Musikverein for Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Vienna tour concert on Friday (and I met an older woman who was at her first Musikverein concert, good to see her too), but I’m afraid that my first experience of Dudamel live was musically disappointing.

Mahler’s monumental Symphony No. 9 is a challenge for any conductor, and I don’t think it’s one Dudamel has met yet. But to start, the orchestra sounded quite good. This was actually my first time hearing the LA Phil live, but it nevertheless felt like a homecoming for me, because they do sound American. The strings have more depth than many American orchestras, but I could ID the big brass and mellow woodwinds immediately.

It’s difficult to trace a path through the symphony’s discursive first movement. Dudamel got off to a technically secure start, with clear textures and good coordination, but the character was strangely broad, warm, and serene, lacking dynamic differentiation and movement through the many twists and turns of tempo. Mahler’s essential world-weariness and bitterness was completely lacking, and the lack of emotional momentum made the movement less a journey than an amble between equally important sights. Occasionally the winds and strings would lose each other a bit, and the brass section would drown everyone else out, but the lack of detail and of dynamic contrast were larger problems for me.

Dudamel seemed to take the bounciness of the second movement’s Ländler at face value, and it came across as cuter and less sarcastic than usual. This worked better than I expected, and by whipping the waltz up into something a little exciting, the piece finally began to go somewhere, though it still seemed oddly small-scale. The third movement was definitely the highlight of the performance, with vehement, vicious playing at a murderous tempo. Here, a certain lack of depth worked. The last movement was odd, taken at a very slow tempo (I think the running time was around 28 minutes), and displaying less resignation than bold passion. While this one-dimensional, deeply earnest, Beethovenian approach seems just wrong to me, it did work in a way, and the string sound continued to be good. But the various movements never quite added up to anything. I’m not saying that Bernstein morbidity is the only valid approach to this piece, in fact my favorite recording is austere Boulez, but without more character differentiation and gravitas, you just don’t have Mahler.

Daniele Gatti will be conducting the Wiener Philharmoniker in this symphony at the Staatsoper on May 18, which is such a crazy idea it just might work.

Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. Musikverein, 2/4/2011. Mahler, Symphony No. 9.

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Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin cut the pathos

Compared to Friday night’s Dudamel extravaganza, there was a lot of elbow room in the Musikverein’s standing room section on Thursday night for Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin. But I found this evening the more rewarding of the two by a significant margin. This was the final entry in a three-concert series of Bartók’s piano concertos (in reverse order, with Yefim Bronfman) and Chaikovsky’s final three symphonies (in order).

The orchestra (generally found in the pit at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden) perhaps cannot compete with the Philharmoniker of Vienna or Berlin in terms of sheer sound, but their ensemble and level of detail was very, very fine, and solo playing was also excellent. I am not too familiar with Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 1, which belongs to the percussion section of Bartók piano music. This performance did not serve as a good introduction, with muddy playing from Bronfman that often didn’t project over the orchestra. My more-knowledgeable concert-going companion attributed this in part to the Musikverein’s obligatory in-house Bösendorfer, not a piano that specializes in crispness. The orchestra sounded excellent, though, particularly some beautiful wind solos in the second movement.

The Chaikovsky Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique) that followed intermission was outstanding, and all the more remarkable for avoiding hysteria. In the first movement, Barenboim steadfastly declined to wallow in melody or overdrive the louder sections, resulting in a detached, autumnal, Brahmsian character that was strikingly fresh and persuasive (OK, OK, especially fresh if you’re a Mravinsky addict like me). Unusual details emerged, and the narrative pacing was masterful. The second movement was a hazy, otherwordly dance, the timpani in the trio emerging with rare and ghostly clarity.

For much of the third movement Barenboim again kept from overdoing it, with more light, cheery virtuosity than immediate chaos. This allowed for a remarkably dramatic ending to the movement, where the orchestra finally let loose into fragmented loudness. A large portion of the audience broke into applause at the end of the movement, which surprised me, Viennese audiences usually don’t do that kind of thing, but given the performance it was a natural reaction. The last movement was a return to the character of the first; not as much Romantic tragedy but Greek in its solemn grandeur.

There were encores on both halves, some Bizet piano pieces for four hands (Bronfman plus Barenboim, of course) before the pause and a beautiful bit of Sibelius’s music for Pélleas et Mélisande followed by an immensely impressive Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila at the end. Opera house orchestras have stamina.

I wish I had heard one or both of the other concerts in this series, but I heard an excellent Chaik 4 from the Royal Concertgebouw and Jansons last fall and will get a hopefully excellent Chaik 5 from the Budapest Festival Orchestra in May. But I still wouldn’t have minded more of them. Chaikovsky is overprogramed here, but he’s a composer I can happily hear over and over.

Report on (sigh) Dudamel soon.

Staatskapelle Berlin, conducted by Daniel Barenboim with Yefim Bronfman, piano. Musikverein, 2/3/2011. Program: Bartók, Piano Concerto No. 1; Chaikovsky/Tchaikovsky [hi Google!], Symphony No. 6, “Pathétique.”

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Philharmoniker/Thielemann: Stuff dead white guys like

Christian Thielemann and the Wiener Philharmoniker will be playing the complete Beethoven symphonies in Paris and Berlin in the next few weeks.  Before leaving, they deigned to bring two of them (Nos. 4 and 5) to the Musikverein on Saturday (they played the lot together here last season).  It’s the orchestra’s only concert in the city this month.  It was pretty much fantastic, I can’t really complain about anything.  Oh wait, I can!  Imma gonna tell you about how perfect the Beethoven was and then try to work out some issues I have with this orchestra.

Wiener Philharmoniker; Christian Thielemann, conductor.  Musikverein, 20/11/10.  Beethoven, Symphonies No. 4 and 5.

Yesterday morning I realized I didn’t know shit about Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4.  No library at hand, I looked for some program notes on the internet.  I found out that it isn’t very popular (I had maybe already figured that out) and that it was called “maidenly” by Schumann but was exonerated of these charges by a British musicologist to whom it resembled the calisthenics of a manly manly giant.  The Philharmoniker has a well-known aversion to feminine weakness, so nothing to worry about there.

As usual, the orchestra sounded magnificent, if anything even better than usual.  This program was extraordinarily polished and finely tuned.  Thielemann’s Fourth sounded to me closer to late period Beethoven than early.  A constant tension rippled just under the surface, a nervous energy and power that reminded me more of the first movement of the Ninth than anything else.  It remains a classical form, though, and the eruptions happened where you would expect them to, all perfectly paced.  The second movement, though, was marvelously delicate and seamless.  The obsessive motivic fragmentation of the scherzo again recalled the Ninth.  The last movement is the most straightforwardly Classical, and sounded such here, with a vigorous but dazzlingly bright energy.

The Fifth is a piece we all think we know, and while I’ve played it a few times I actually haven’t heard it in concert very often.  Thielemann started it so suddenly the audience hadn’t even settled down yet from his entrance.  I can understand wanting to surprise us and try to reestablish the weirdness of that incredibly familiar opening gesture, but I wish he had waited for it to be quiet, I couldn’t even hear the opening clearly.  This was a propulsive, almost light account of the score, never ponderous or heavy or even as imposing as you would expect.  Thielemann has a way of tweaking the phrasing just a little bit so something sounds entirely new, but in a way that also is natural. 

The last movement was nearly presto from the very start, and rather thrilling even if some of the fast notes in the strings got lost (volume issues, not coordination ones!).  The ending was a real shock: an exaggerated ritardando speeding up to what you think is going to be an enormous triumphant close, only to pull back at the last second to a beautifully clearly voiced chord on nothing more than mezzo-forte.  It worked stunningly well, but also stunning in the fact that it was tremendously surprising.  I’m not sure if I would always want to hear it like that, but I’m glad I did once.  It did not touch off the wild cheering a less subtle ending would have, and the applause took a little while to build.

Beethoven ends here, now for my ISSUES (you know I have issues!).  While Philharmoniker concerts are always musically special, I find the organization kind of reprehensible to an extent that I sometimes feel uncomfortable listening to them, no matter how sublime the playing. There’s the sexism,* and there’s the arch-conservative, none-too-creative programming (they programmed Mahler Nine twice this season, five months apart with two different conductors).  But that’s only part of it.

The Philharmoniker is an orchestra devoted to the preservation of its own legacy above all other things.  This leads to a conservatism full of contradictions.  Their image today is less like than the Wiener Philharmoniker of Mahler’s day than of a bunch of white men devoted to perpetuating the canon of dead white men.  (Oh yeah, odds are they’re racist too.)  They market themselves as a luxury product: scarce, old-fashioned, and exquisitely independent from the realities of everyday life.  Appropriately, they are sponsored by Rolex.

To be fair, this is from the ushering
in of the Euro in 2002.

The orchestra is one of Vienna’s foremost ambassadors to the outside world, partly because the seem to be on tour more than they are at home.  Their prestige allows them to claim themselves as representative of both the city and of classical music as a whole.  Their Vienna is the one of Schönbrunn, not of today’s city, and their classical music is patriarchal and elitist in a way that doesn’t speak to the general public under the age of 70 (except tourists).  On a practical level, most tickets are inaccessible to anyone who can’t handle standing room or the prices of scalpers (14-year wait for a subscription, anyone?).  While the orchestra is making an admirable effort in the education realm, will those children ever be able to get into their concerts when they’ve grown up?  Their website doesn’t even clearly explain how to get standing room tickets, the only kind that are easily available (I explained how here).  It is only on New Year’s–the one day that Old Vienna throws a party when everyone’s invited–that the orchestra engages with the broader public.

The orchestra argues that its greatness (they’re good, but they’re not modest) is the result of this very same conservatism.  But I think it’s a shame that an orchestra that has so much to offer so often sees itself as above sharing.

If you want to see the Beethoven symphonies with Thielemann, their performances from last season are being issued on DVD and broadcast the next few weeks on Sunday mornings on ORF2.  It’s almost audience outreach, but I think it takes a wrong turn and ends up in self-promotion, an area where this orchestra has much more experience.

Next: I am busy!  There is much work, and there are many Troyens and Adriana Lecouvreurs to listen to, in preparation (oh hi, London and Berlin!).  I might not get out next until Juliane Banse’s liederabend on Friday.

*I counted five women in the orchestra (of course all except one were sitting at the last stand of their respective sections).  That’s got to be some kind of record, and I have to cynically wonder if it also has something to do with this being a tour program.

Orchestra photos copyright Wiener Philharmoniker/Foto Terry.

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Verdi Requiem at the Musikverein: Halloween special

In a rare display of programming wit from the Musikverein, this year you can hear the Verdi Requiem on two fitting dates: Halloween and All Saints’ Day.  (Theologically speaking All Souls’ Day on Tuesday would probably have been most appropriate, but I guess the schedule didn’t allow for that.)  But Daniele Gatti’s unshakable control in last night’s performance didn’t allow for anything spooky.  It was an epic cathedral of a performance, but not a thrills and chills one.

This year for Halloween I went as a Catholic.

Verdi, Requiem.  Musikverein, 31/10/10.  Orchestre Nationale de France and Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien conducted by Daniele Gatti with soloists Krassimira Stoyanova, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Francesco Meli, and Tomasz Konieczny

Daniele Gatti is a micromanager of a conductor, beating subdivisions and keeping a very careful eye on solo sections.  This wasn’t a very spontaneous performance and sometimes lacked momentum and excitement, but it was majestic, monumental, and mmm… awe-inspiring.  It was an interpretation of extremes, beginning almost imperceptibly softly (thanks, Musikverein acoustics!), broken up with exaggerated Luftpausen, and exploding into the louder sections.  Sometimes Gatti’s precision seemed counterproductive, as in the hesitant and oddly shaky fanfare beginning the Tuba mirum.  Tempos were slow with a running time of almost an hour and 35 minutes.  The most exaggerated slowness came in the Dies irae, here not a roller coaster but a monumental block, the wind lines emerging with unusual clarity.  The Orchestre Nationale de France sounded excellent and followed Gatti though all of his precisely planned changes of scenery–much more so than the excellent but enormous and not as subtle Musikverein chorus, which sometimes drowned the orchestra out.

The soloists didn’t blend very well, but since only two of them were the originally scheduled people I suppose you can’t really blame them (why do I have to write something like this for EVERY SINGLE THING that I see?).  Krassimira Stoyanova in the soprano part was the best match for Gatti’s style, singing with elegant control and reserved passion.  She never pushed and sometimes was drowned out by the chorus in the Libera me, but nailed the pppp high B-flat on “Requiem” and sounded generally fabulous.  Marie-Nicole Lemieux gave a more extroverted reading of the mezzo/alto part with a big voice that sounds like a real alto.  She has great low notes, but a very large vibrato.  Francesco Meli, substituting in the tenor part, has a nice Italianate timbre and fine phrasing, but sounded too lyric for this piece with occasionally strained tone and some tremulous piano singing.  Tomasz Koncieczny in the bass part was a very late replacement and sounded solid but not terribly coordinated with the others.

This concert will be repeated tonight.

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Andris Nelsons and the Philharmoniker: Old orchestra in a New World

Watching Andris Nelsons conduct is great fun.  His hands flutter wildly, he crouches, he stands on his toes.  He looks like he is having a much better time than anyone in the Wiener Philharmoniker ever seems to be.  But it’s a measure of the musical success of his Philharmoniker debut that I did not regret having gotten up early on a Sunday morning for a trombone concerto.  Much less for his absolutely spectacular Dvořák 9.

Wiener Philharmoniker 3. Soirée, Andris Nelsons, conductor; Dietmar Küblböck, trombone.  Musikverein, 24/10/10.  Mozart, Symphony No. 33 in B-flat major, K. 319; Tomasi, Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra; Dvořák, Symphony No. 9 in e minor, “From the New World.”

These 11:00 Sunday morning concerts are a common thing in Austria.  It’s a Catholic country, but I suspect there’s a lot of Kunstreligion in these parts.  Usually around this time I’m having a second cup of coffee and thinking about doing laundry, but I’m glad I dragged myself out of the house for this one. 

Andris Nelsons had already had his second cup of coffee, if not his third and his fourth as well.  The Latvian wunderkind is a disciple of the Faster is Better School of Conducting Prodigies (see also Nézet-Séguin, Yannick; Harding, Daniel), but there was a lot else going on here too.  The program began with Mozart’s Symphony K. 319.  Mozart with the Philharmoniker is inevitably a plush experience.  This is not my personal preference, but Nelsons’s light and fluid approach made it an enjoyably frothy and brilliant performance in the fast movements and a clear, delicate one in the canonic entries of the slow movement.  He seemed to want a more rustic character in the minuet than the orchestra was giving him, but in the last movement gathered speed like a 16-year old given a sportscar. 

Henri Tomasi (1901-1971) was a new name to me, he was a mid-century French composer of exceptionally tonal music.  His 1956 trombone concerto sounds like the bastard child of Gershwin and Prokofiev as raised by Poulenc.  It opens with a series of recitative-like confrontations between the trombone and orchestra, but then settles into a more relaxed and melodic groove, which it more or less stays in for the rest of the three-movement piece.  There’s a lot of jazzy stuff, there’s some twinkly and mechanical-sounding wind writing, there are passages that sound like trombone outtakes from An American in Paris.  Nelsons conducted it with as much rhythmic verve as he could locate.  It’s an enjoyable piece and Dietmar Küblböck played it with mellow command, but I don’t feel inspired to locate the rest of the Tomasi oeuvre.

The highlight of the program was the ever-popular Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” of Antonin Dvořák.  Nelsons conducted it with Brahmsian attention to rhythmic detail and texture, bringing out unexpected inner voices and harmonies that are usually lost behind the big tunes.  Except for the trio of the Scherzo, nothing sounded folksy at all.  As an orchestral musician I have been around the Dvořák 9 block and heard things I have never heard before: the first movement development emerged as a developing variation between strings and brass, a trilling string accompaniment figure in the second movement foreshadowed the birds near the end of the movement.  The last movement was, yes, very fast, but also Nelsons finally seemed to get a sharp-edged violence from the orchestra that never turned heavy.  Great all around.

Nelsons and the Philharmoniker repeat this program in the Musikverein on Tuesday and on tour in Japan next week.  I, on the other hand, will be in Bavaria on Tuesday to see Rusalka and can only hope that soprano Kristine Opolais proves as adept a Dvořák interpreter as her boyfriend is.

Photos: Royal Academy of Music/Telegraph.  As you probably guessed from the empty seats and lady violinist in the first row, that photo is not of the Philharmoniker.

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Mass in B minor at the Musikverein: Neue Harnoncourt Ausgabe

Nikolaus Harnoncourt is never one to adopt the conventional wisdom about anything.  Sometimes his interpretations seem to radically rethink a piece in a wonderful way, but sometimes they seem odd just for the sake of being different.  This Mass in b minor  had some of both and some dubious justification to go along with it, but overall was an austere and transparent interpretation with a lot of beauty.  The Harnoncourt pictured above was not to be seen, we got a more meditative type.

Bach, Mass in b minor. Musikverein, 16/10/10.  Conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt with the Concentus Musicus Wien, Arnold Schoenberg Chor, and soloists Genia Kühmeier and Elisabeth von Magnus, sopranos; Bernarda Fink, alto; Michael Schade, tenor; and Florian Boesch, bass-baritone.

I’m not overly familiar with sacred music, so this is going to be brief.  This performance used a 2010 Neue Bach Ausgabe edition that is reputedly improved (I’m not disputing that it is better, I just don’t know the details), and also celebrated the uncovering of Bach-Archiv Leipzig evidence that suggests Bach may have been writing the piece for, yep, Vienna.  The operative part of this theory (besides “ooooo, Vienna!”) is that Bach did envision a performance of this work in his lifetime, contrary to many accounts that he was just writing it as a private magnum opus.  Since it’s a Catholic missa longa, this would have to have been somewhere other than his Protestant Leipzig post.  Previous theories have proposed he was writing it for Dresden or Berlin, so this isn’t a wholly new idea.  But, you know, Vienna wants a claim on one of the few great composers with whom they don’t already have an obvious connection.  If you wish to read more about this, you can do so in German in the Musikverein’s September/October magazine here.

But Harnoncourt’s new thing for this performance was another matter.  Periodically he gave material usually assigned to the chorus to the soloists.  The program reproduced a handwritten note in which he detailed these changes, writing that he “believes that this is Bach’s intention.”  Evidence?  Anyone?  No?  For all you Bach nerds, here is the note with the details, click to enlarge:

I think it’s kind of funny that he believes he still has to justify this decision as Bach’s intention.  Particularly when we’re talking about a piece that, whatever the intention, never was performed during its composer’s lifetime and today remains somewhat hypothetical.  And we are presented with his handwritten note like a fragment of a manuscript; we should take it in trust that Harnoncourt has some open line of communication with Bach’s Intention. I’m open to new ways of performing anything, but to assert you know something that makes this a more “authentic” reading and then not offer any evidence is disingenuous.  Also, in my opinion, unnecessary.  If your version sounds better than it should justify itself.  Truth is, the changes seemed relatively slight and I don’t have a strong enough view on this work to offer any kind of verdict.  But there are your innovations, such that they are.

So onto the performance itself.  The Concentus Musicus Wien, here around 25 musicians strong, produces a silky, glassy sort of string sound, less grainy and aggressive than your more recently-founded period music groups.  The brass are remarkably in tune and have that delightfully buzzy quality I love about HIP instruments.  It’s lovely, but except for the trumpets it isn’t very loud, and was frequently overpowered by the approximately 50-member Arnold Schoenberg Chor, singing with precision and clarity.

Harnoncourt’s interpretation seemed to take its cue from the Kyrie: funereal, stile-antico, static, intimate.  Repeated details were emphasized: the precisely placed rising figure at the end of “eleison,” in the second Kyrie, the unequal eighth-note figures in the Laudamus te.  The high point of the evening came in the majestic, solemn Credo’s Et incarnatus est and Crucifixus.  Counterpoint never seemed thick or busy, everything sounded clearly.  Even the most triumphant moments had a valedictory quality.

The quintet of soloists was also fantastic.  Bernarda Fink was the standout on the alto part with a highly expressive and communicative account of her arias that never seemed overly dramatic or fussy.   In the two soprano duet, Genia Kühmeier’s vocal purity was an odd match for Elisabeth von Magnus’s darker sound, but both were excellent. (Von Magnus was replacing the ill Dorothea Röschmann.  As soon as Kühmeier started I could tell she and Röschmann would have been a match made in vocal heaven, but oh well, von Magnus’s Laudamus te was appropriately intricate.)  Michael Schade and Florian Boesch both sounded similarly outstanding on the male parts.

I believe this performance is being recorded for CD, it’s not exactly your average imposingly grand Mass in b minor but is certainly worth a listen.

Note: The premiere of Cardillac at the Staatsoper last night was a big success for all concerned.  More here tonight.

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