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Alain Altinoglu in Rubbish Liszt and Crusading Prokofiev

Vienna, February 26, 2019; Musikverein—Liszt’s tone poem From the Cradle to the Grave is bound be one of those works that we will spasmodically “rediscover”, revive, hype, and – briefly – praise before forgetting again… because it really isn’t all that great. (Also see point 8 of David Hurwitz' “Classical Music’s Ten Dirtiest Secrets”.) It fails to deliver on what it sets out to do: It does *not* tell a story. It merely delivers episodes. That generic life that Liszt describes has little obvious development to it, nor even a particularly convincing end. Cradle to Grave (like the Faust Symphony) also lies awkwardly for the strings, which creates a unique, dark sound that does not project well – a color that does, however, befit the low woodwinds.

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Not entirely surprisingly, the Vienna Symphony Orchestra performed this tone poem for the first time in its 100-year history in a series of three concerts last February at the Musikverein… and I wouldn’t be surprised if it were another 100 years before it was performed again. Maybe Alain Altinoglu ‘lost the long line’—that canard of a complaint where you never know whether listener or performer deserves the lion’s share of the blame—but he couldn’t have blamed much: Only a magician could have kept the audience from losing track and Altinoglu is not a magician. It’s no fun to blame the composer for a performance that fails to spark because often it’s routine playing, lack of comprehension or articulation or a mix thereof that is at work. Here it might just have merit. All the same, one ought to be thankful for these periodic revivals. It’s still better than routine and same-old-same-old. Aside, every so often, a gem is among them, and the rest of the time it’s good to dismiss something on experience, not hearsay.

This concert’s de-facto overture made programming sense in light of the Liszt Piano Concerto No.2 that was put on for Denis Matsuev to fill the obligatory romantic-concerto slot of the concert with: A showman for a show concerto, plushly pushing the notes through their course; high-end luxury monochrome plodding through the work’s single movement. Happily, the fan-club was in place, setting off a ferociously banged Hall of the Mountain King transcription encore.

Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky to the rescue in the second half! A half that felt as if surgically decoupled from the first. Not that some of the ills the plague the classical music scene didn’t also rear their heads here. To assure the money stays in the family, Altinoglu had his wife—Nora Gubisch—hired to perform the short solo mezzo part of the piece. The saving grace on this act of common nepotism was that she is easy on the ears and did well, with a hollow-low, sepia-toned atmospheric voice. But the look is never, never good. Nevsky is a rousing work with a fun parody of Orff for the crusading Teutons and lots of musical rah-rah-ing. That the audience got loudness in lieu of raw energy was never really a detraction; the winds only slightly off in the trickiest passages. The Singverein aided and abetted the orchestra with rousing Russian and only very occasional missed cues.


News: Alain Altinoglu (1975) has just been named the new Chief Conductor of the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra (hr-Sinfonieorchester, in German). He will begin he tenure starting with the 21/20 season. He will succeed Andrés Orozco-Estrada who is in turn coming to the Vienna Symphony Orchestra.

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