Seen and Heard International, 05/10/2020
by Jim Pritchard
Sommernachtskonzert, Wien, Schönbrunn, 18. September 2020
Love was in the air at Schönbrunn Palace for Vienna Philharmonic’s 2020 Summer Night Concert
Love was in the air in the middle of September and gave further evidence that if the world was not exactly returning to the normal we once knew, there was some cause for optimism, if not in this country then if we look abroad. I had already been ‘in’ Austria – well thanks to live-streaming that is – for the Salzburg Festival that went ahead with live audiences when nearly all similar summer musical events were cancelled. Now watching this recording – with the cameras roaming lovingly around the formal gardens and yew avenues and alleys of Schlosspark Schönbrunn; frequently pausing on the Gloriette and all the other statuary; looking inside the gilded Palace, and later allowing us to wander through the central Hofburg Palace – brought back so many memories of Vienna. I am half-Viennese and so still regard the city as my second home and I felt quite emotional about it all at times.

Music by Strauss opened the concert, though it was not the Strauss you would expect the orchestra we were hearing to play on such occasions. As Petroc Trelawny’s voiceover explained we had heard ‘The Vienna Philharmonic on a summer night performing music from Richard Strauss’s opera Der Rosenkavalier, Valery Gergiev conducting our concert tonight recorded at the end of September. It seems almost remarkable to see an orchestra sitting so close together on stage, the rule regarding social distancing and Covid-19 different in Austria to the UK. Normally there would be a 100,000 people in the audience stretched out over the lawns of the Schönbrunn Palace, one of the summer homes of Austria’s Hapsburg rulers. And the concert normally takes place in May postponed this year from Spring to the very end of summer.’ While the musicians were not spread about, it seemed the lucky few who got tickets to be there on the night were socially distanced and many were wearing face coverings. They were also wearing lots of warm clothing as it seems it must have been a chilly night with nothing summery about it.

We learnt from Trelawny how ‘The first Vienna New Year’s Day Concert was 80 years ago, it was in 2004 that its summer sibling was introduced performed on an outdoor stage in front of the neo-classical façade of the Schönbrunn Palace built in the eighteenth century during the reign of Empress Maria Theresa.’

Der Rosenkavalier veered from the rumbustious musical love-making of the Marschallin and Octavian in the prelude to the tenderness of his reappearance to present a silver rose to Sophie (if you know the opera you’ll know who these characters are). The Wagner/Stokowski we heard is one of his ‘symphonic syntheses’ and Stokowski was aiming to provide something more ‘whole’ than the more familiar ‘bleeding chunks’ of Wagner we could hear in such concerts. Seamlessly we have an orchestral version of the Act II ‘Liebesnacht’ (‘Love Duet’) between the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. It was superbly played bringing back happy memories of Wagner performances I have heard at the opera house on Vienna’s Ringstrasse. With the Barcarolle from Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann you could almost feel you were enveloped in the miasma from the Venetian lagoon. The Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream was suitably magical with its representation of fairies, the troublemaker Puck, and Bottom with his ass’s head.

You do not normally link Gergiev with Offenbach and Mendelssohn though he was in more familiar territory – for one reason or another – with Khachaturian’s Adagio from Spartacus and Maurice Jarre’s Suite from Doctor Zhivago. The grizzled Gergiev has a rather hypnotic presence on the podium and conducted for the most part with what looked like a – slightly larger than normal – toothpick and/or fluttering fingers. He was well-supported throughout the concert by the Vienna Philharmonic’s characteristically warm sound and virtuosic playing. There were several fine solo contributions, but I am only able to praise the concertmaster Rainer Honeck by name. In the 1970s the BBC used an excerpt from the Adagio as the theme to their TV series The Onedin Line and beginning with its opening on harp, flute, and cellos there was a wonderful lyrical quality to the performance it was given. It is odd how the music makes you actually now think about ships and sailors rather than slaves rebelling in ancient Rome. David Lean’s 1965 love story Doctor Zhivago is a film I have never seen in full and Maurice Jarre’s score didn’t exactly take me to the Russian steppes in the snow and sounded more like the soundtrack to a Western, though doesn’t most epic cinema music?

Petroc Trelawny told us how Jonas Kaufmann ‘is in Austria to appear at Vienna State Opera where performances continue. He is singing the title role in Verdi’s Don Carlos … social distancing means fewer seats and the wearing of face masks is recommended throughout the performance.’ Along with Anna Netrebko – before she contracted Covid-19 of course – Kaufmann has been one of the busiest opera singers in these unusual times.

Unfortunately, I saw and heard this after reviewing the new documentary about The Three Tenors (click here) and it was noticeable how effortful was Kaufmann’s singing. Throughout ‘Pourquoi me réveiller’ (from Massenet’s Werther) – which I have seen perfectly described as ‘an ode to self-pity’ – he undoubtedly used his voice with great skill and emotional sensitivity, but with his dark, throaty, sound there is now a lack of the requisite vocal lustre for this repertoire. I have been steeped in operetta since an early age and saw my first one in Vienna 50 or so years ago, however, I do not know Emmerich Kálmán’s Gräfin Mariza, nor do I remember hearing ‘Wenn es Abend wird’ before. It is pure Viennese schmaltz with lots about sweet women in beautiful Vienna and their laughing blue eyes. The Danube gets a mention and so does the waltz and it ends with the paean ‘My Vienna’ three times! Kaufmann enjoyed himself immensely but there was no Schwung. The applause – as for the Massenet – was polite rather than wildly enthusiastic. Kaufmann may well have won over more of the audience with ‘Nessun dorma’ but with memories of Pavarotti singing it – fresher in my mind than it might have otherwise been! – I thought Kaufmann made hard work of it.

However, the German tenor left the best till last when he at last found sunshine in his voice that had gone missing in the rest that he sang. Admittedly who could go wrong by serenading a Viennese audience on the musical sightseeing tour that is ‘Wien, du Stadt meiner Träume’ (‘Vienna, City of My Dreams’) which ends ‘there, where I am happy and delirious, is Vienna, is Vienna, my Vienna’.

Finally, the select audience got what they were perhaps hoping for all along and there was a waltz from Johann Strauss II whose music always get the most refined playing from the Vienna Philharmonic. Wiener Blut was as darkly rich as Sachertorte and to paraphrase another famous song ‘I left my heart in Vienna’ as the concert ended.

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