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Vienna Weekend

Renaissance man--Homo Universalis, if you wish--Tzimon Barto, a soon-to-be-regular in Washington, performed with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra at the Musikverein last weekend in a program that coupled the 20th century Nordics Einojuhani Rautavaara and Sibelius with Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1. The VSO’s music director Fabio Luisi had to replace Mikko Franck who bailed out on scheduling issues, and impressively did so without changing the program despite not having conducted either the Sibelius (Symphony No.5), or the Rautavaara (“Apotheosis”, the re-worked finale of his Sixth Symphony) before.

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J.Sibelius, Symphony No.5 (two versions),
O.Vänskä / Lahti SO

Tchaikovsky is among those composes whose beauty can easily be taken for granted… a failing I am not immune to. I was moved by the nuanced and very flexible opening of Barto’s, intelligently moving between brawn and lurid tenderness where many another interpreter merely thrashes the hell out of the instrument, to ever less effect the louder they play. As familiarity set in, I was only occasionally jolted out of the Tchaikovsky-routine: for worse when the clanky upper register of the instrument called strident attention to itself; for better when the second movement’s duos between first the cello and piano then the oboe and piano were played with gallantly-fresh accentuation. I found myself rather less in the position to extract anything particular special from the finale, but judging from the excited hollers and “Bravos” from the otherwise reserved Musikverein audience, it must have been a greater success of communicating a particular vision than I picked up on. (A few naifs in the audience had even dare applauded after the first movement... followed, without fail, by the haughty hissers. It's good to know that modern audiences know better how to reverently treat a Tchaikovsky concerto than, say, Tchaikovsky himself.) As it turned out, that particular warm reception would be a blessing because it elicited an encore from Barto, who played Schumann’s Mignon. Playing with the softest of touches—which, despite superficial suggestions that it might be otherwise, suits this musician best—he forced the ears to focus, forced a natural hushed silence onto the audience, and delivered something unreservedly magnificent. Radically daring pianissimo is where, for all his ability to destroy any instrument of choice, Barto’s true strength lies.

For Finn Mikko Franck, already a veteran conductor at the tender age of thirty-something, programming Sibelius and Rautavaara made eminent sense—he is on record, after all, claiming Rautavaara “the best composer. Period.” It has been over ten years since I read that statement of his (I remember him conducting a Shostakovich Seventh Symphony with the Munich Philharmonic, then barely into his twenties), and perhaps it was a comment borne out of youthful enthusiasm, meant to make a statement more than anything else. But the statement certain had had its effect on me. Never having even heard of Rautavaara before that, I have keenly followed the composer’s output since—which thanks to the many excellent recordings on the Ondine label is easy. “Best composer, ever” might be pushing it, but certainly one of the most interesting and enjoyable composers of our time. For Luisi—who is more of a stranger to these musical ideas of north—to leave the program intact was laudable and daring. Laudable to bring composers unknown or neglected in continental Europe to an audience not likely to get much exposure to this music; daring because it meant entering a different language.

The ruminatingly-gorgeous sounds of Rautavaara’s “Apotheosis” were bleeding through the doors of Musikverein as I made my belated way back to the seats for Sibelius. The beginning of this gorgeous work—probably the second-most accessible of Sibelius’ Symphonies after the terrific, relatively conventional Second—was precise and unafraid of jarring sounds. The separation of instrumental groups—as if put together from extensive Stimmproben and then skillfully re-arranged into proper common order—sounded like an interpretive choice for a while. Then the confusion set in. Not unlike Bruckner I’ve heard in Italy, this sounded like the perfectly proper recitation of a poem in a language the speaker doesn’t actually understand. All the letters and words are there and in the right order, but the sense is lost somewhere between them. It’s not entirely surprising that Sibelius still baffles many continental listeners when faced with performances itself so thoroughly baffling. Consequently the applause was gentle and confused, leaving open the question whether the case of Sibelius had been served or not, that Friday night.

Poulenc’s Trois Movements is a gay and frolicking little nonet for winds, strings, and a horn, rather typical of Poulenc’s engaging chamber music and it opened a matinee at the Vienna Konzerthaus I attended. Admittedly, I wasn’t there for the nine members of the Vienna Chamber Orchestra to perform Poulenc, and had I been, I might have been more disappointed with the ‘it’s-too-early-in-the-morning-to-be-doing-this’ performance than I was. I was there to hear the young cellist Julian Steckel, the freshly crowned winner of the ARD Competition. To say I was underwhelmed with the whole cellist’s side of this year’s ARD Competition—including Steckel, even as I, too, thought him primus inter pares—would be putting it kindly. All the more reason then to hear him in his natural environment: under non-competition conditions in a concert hall; a ‘real’ performance, conducted by his teacher and (former) colleague Heinrich Schiff.

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Saint-Saëns & Dvořák, Cello Concertos,
du Pré / Barenboim, Celibidache / Philadelphia, Swedish RSO

My impression of his being awarded the ARD prize was that he received it based on what the jury knew he has been and would be capable of, rather than what they heard from him during those weeks. That might not be my idea of how to dole out prizes at competitions, but it serves well enough to pique my intrigue, of wanting to hear that potential materialize; perhaps in this performance on a grisly-gray, misty Sunday morning in Vienna, with the ear-pleasing Saint-Saëns Concerto No.1 in a-minor. And voila: the bold opening was right on, Steckel’s sound easily filing the Konzerthaus’ smaller, charming Mozart Hall. Technically unimpeachable, interpretively polite, and enhanced by an obvious sensitivity to what he was playing, this was a different league from the competition performances—supported by the sincerely engaged orchestra under an engagedly baton-waving Schiff, who looks ever more like a rotund, friendly bear on his quest for another pot of honey-mead.

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