[ UPDATE: Video of 3 minutes from 'my' Berlin Phil concert: Richard Strauss Alpine Symphony ]

I managed to hear some live music during the Grand Tour, although perhaps not as much as I would have liked. Some of it I'd pre-booked before I left the UK, other events presented themselves on the way. This is a record of the concerts and other events I attended, in chronological order (Bonn / Salzburg / St Florian / Vienna / Prague / Leipzig / Weimar and Berlin), with some very non-expert comments: 

Bonn : Beethovenhalle

Cappella Andrea Barca, conductor András Schiff (piano)

  • Ludwig van Beethoven: Coriolan Overture, op. 62
  • Joseph Haydn: Symphony no. 103 in E flat, 'Drumroll'
  • Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major, op. 58

I'd pre-booked this concert long before setting out on the Grand Tour, one of the early concerts this year in Bonn's annual Beethovenfest, and only the second night of my Tour. For a Beethoven groupie like me, the Coriolan Overture and any of the piano concertos are unmissable. Add in a Haydn symphony, and in particular the chance to hear András Schiff, with his own orchestra, live, in the main concert hall of Beethoven's birthplace, and I had no choice! 

BeethovenhalleThe Beethovehalle is a great design inside, perhaps twice the capacity of London's QEH, and only slightly spoiled by lights and loudspeakers, etc. not being designed-in (the same almost everywhere these days). I have a seat in the back row – deliberately – not just because it's cheaper, but to let me soak up the atmosphere and see everything. Many people are in suits, etc., most men with ties, but I don't feel out of place in my slightly creased traveller's jacket. The hall is about 90% full. A good and fairly dry sound. Very little coughing. Schiff, dapper as ever, is attentive to his players, directs rather than conducts; in the string quintet at the beginning of the second movement of Haydn's Drum Roll symphony, he just stood back and let them get on with it – they are chamber players, after all.

At the end of the Coriolan Overture some idiot had to start (and continue) clapping immediately at the end of the final pp pizzicato – but Schiff held his nerve, and held the orchestra for 10-15 seconds. It's not a period orchestra, but they play with very little vibrato; there's excellent interaction between the players, as one would expect. Beethoven's Piano Concerto no. 4 was brilliant, Schiff directing from the piano of course, back to the audience. A very warm reception. Schiff all around his friends in the orchestra at the end. A Schubert Moment Musical as an encore. Super.

Schiff founded Cappella Andrea Barca in the 1990s, originally for the purpose of performing all of Mozart’s piano concertos. Its name is an 'Italianised' twist on his own name: András -> Andrea, Schiff (German) = boat (English) = barca (Italian). More importantly, the players are not only solo and chamber performers at the highest level, they are also good friends of András Schiff, and, no doubt, of each other. The band includes the entire Panocha String Quartet, and many of the members of the Microcosmos, Takács, Cherubini and Quattuor Mosaïques quartets.top

Salzburg : Michael Haydn Museum

Ensemble Flautomobil
[Katharina Hermann, Helga Zuccaro, Magdalena Kolodziejczyk, Wiebke Schuler, Elizabeth Farrell]

  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Overture to Marriage of Figaro
  • Claude Debussy: Clair de lune
  • Anton Reicha: Quartet op. 12
  • Maurice Ravel: Pavane pour une infante défunte
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Quartet in D major, K 285
  • Edward Elgar: Salut d'Amour

The Johann-Michael-Haydn-Society run their 'Concerts at Five' recitals, from 1 July to 24 September, in the concert room of the Michael Haydn museum; at 5:00pm, of course, every day except Wednesday. Ensemble Flautomobil played for two of the recitals when I was in Salzburg: five flautists from Germany, Italy, Poland, Germany and New Zealand respectively, one of them playing alto flute for one of the pieces. Modern flutes. Arrangements of well-known works, very well played indeed, although I have to say that by the end of the recital I was feeling it all a bit top heavy, and I really wanted a bass line at a more familiar pitch.top

St Florian : 'Bruckner Organ'

Klaus Sonnleitner (organ)

  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Overture in C, K 399
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Adagio in C, K 356
  • Leopold Mozart / Johann Ernst Eberlin: Stücke für das Hornwerk, from Der Morgen und der Abend
  • Anton Bruckner: Präludium in C major, WAB 129, 'Perger Präludium'
  • Theodore Dubois: Toccata

Bruckner OrganThe chance to hear the Bruckner Organ was one of the main reasons for including St Florian in my Grand Tour destinations. A 20-minute recital is given at 14:30 each day, except Tuesday and Saturday, from mid-May to mid-October. I came on a day trip from Salzburg (train to Linz, bus to St Florian) and bought a €9.50 combined tour and organ ticket when I arrived (separate tickets €7.00 and €4.00).

To my non-expert ears the organ sounded in exceptional condition: very precise, very much in tune, and loud! The recital started dead on time with a sudden loud chord to grab everyone's attention, which I imagine is exactly what Mozart had intended. There were only 15-20 of us in the church, so we could spread out and listen in our own way. The whole recital was most enjoyable, but was over all too soon. As a reminder I bought a CD of the organ in the Monastery shop, one of half a dozen on offer, a very good recording of a recital by Prof. Augustinus Franz Kropfreiter (1936-2003), who joined the Monastery in 1954 and was organist from 1960 (and a composer).

Installed over the west door of the church in a beautiful Baroque case, the Bruckner Organ was built by the important Slovenian organ builder Franz Chrismann between 1770 and 1774, at which time it was probably the largest organ in central Europe. It was further developed in 1873 by Matthäus Maurly, and again in 1931, and was restored by Wilhelm Zika between 1945 and 1951, with more work in 1996 by Helmut Kögler. It now has four manuals, 103 stops and 7343 pipes.

Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) was a pupil at St Florian from 1837-40, returning as a teacher from 1845 until 1868, when he moved to Vienna. I believe he returned to the monastery from time to time, and of course made his final journey here after his death in Vienna in 1896, to be buried in the crypt below the organ, as was his wish. top

Vienna : Peterskirche

Péter Kuzsner (organ)

  • Franz Liszt: Fantasy and Fugue on the Chorale 'Ad nos, ad salutarem undam'

The Peterskirche is the showpiece Baroque church in the old part of Vienna, and is indeed impressive. I returned there after an earlier visit for the short "Organ at Three" recital, and hung around afterwards to take a few photos inside. Shut my eyes and thought of home. And shut my eyes to avoid the distraction of a few people taking flash pictures during the recital – why do they do that?top

Prague : Rudolfinum

Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, conductor Jiří Bělohlávek

  • Gustav Mahler: Symphony no. 7 [100th anniversary to the day since its first performance]

RudolfinumThe light was starting to fade as I walked down the hill from Prague castle, and over the Vltava, to the Rudolfinum, for my second pre-booked concert of the Tour: the Czech Philharmonic under Jiří Bělohlávek performing Mahler's 7th Symphony, 100 years to the day since its premiere in Prague (in the National Theatre), with the same orchestra under Gustav Mahler himself.

The Seventh is sometimes said to be 'difficult', especially the final movement, but Bělohlávek had the measure of it, and this was a superb concert, warmly received. He was called back five or six times at the end, and is obviously very much on the wavelength of the players in this large orchestra. One of the first violins moved over to play the mandolin in the 4th movement, and a clarinettist, surprisingly, came down to play guitar. A small printed programme only 25Kc, half of it in English.top

Leipzig : Gewandhaus

Thomas Zehetmair (violin), Leipzig Gewandhausorchester, conductor Herbert Blomstedt

  • Hans-Christian Bartel: Violin Concerto (first performance)
  • Anton Bruckner: Symphony no. 6

GewandhausI took a tram the two stops from my hotel to Augustusplatz, and tried a few photos of the Gewandhaus at dusk. Then inside, where the crowds were building up; everyone very smart, lots of suits and ties and black. They don't even allow people upstairs until half an hour before the concert, and not into the hall itself until 15 minutes before; I could hear some last-minute practice as I waited. Before going in to take my place behind the orchestra in what I would call a 'choir seat' (the London convention) I took a few surreptitious photos in the hall and foyers; no-one seemed concerned. The organ is big and flamboyant – I can see why they actually call my seat an 'organ seat'.

The concert itself very good. I quite enjoyed Bartel's new violin concerto, with Zehetmair playing well, and I should probably try to hear it again. Bruckner's 6th Symphony was excellent. The nice thing about sitting behind the orchestra is being able to watch the conductor; Blomstedt smiles encouragingly all the time at his players, and doesn't move a lot. In fact, if I may say so, he looks a little awkward, as if he's left-handed but has been made to use the baton right-handed. But he certainly gets a great sound from the orchestra and there was much hugging and back-slapping afterwards. For Hans-Christian Bartel too – who was in the stalls – after his violin concerto. / top

Leipzig : Thomaskirche

Johannes Unger (organ)
Choir and Brass Soloists of Collegium Musicum Luzern, conductor Alois Koch

  • Olivier Messiaen: Offrande au Saint Sacrement
  • Anton Bruckner: Mass no. 2 in E minor, WAB 27
  • Olivier Messiaen: Dans le verbe était la vie et la vie était la lumière,
    from Méditation sur le Mystière de la Saint Trinité

ThomaskircheThis was the regular 6:00pm Friday evening 'Motette' in the Thomaskirche, not a concert but a short service with an emphasis on the music; I'd jumped through a few hoops in my planning in order to be in Leipzig on a Friday. My ideal would have been to hear the Thomannerchor (the choir of the Thomaskirche) singing Bach, but I knew from the website before I left home that they would be out of town, and the music and musicians for this Motette were an excellent alternative.

I arrived at 5:35pm to buy my €3.00 ticket, and found the church already filling up. By 5:50 it was full; a good thing I was there early. A wonderful acoustic, with no disturbing echo, everything clear. All the settings in the service were by Bruckner, presumably written when he was at St Florian, and it was interesting to hear his delicate church compositions just after one of his big orchestral works (the 6th Symphony) in the Leipzig Gewandhaus concert last night. The Motette topped and tailed with Messiaen organ pieces – always interesting. At the end, a large part of the congregation left to climb onto buses parked near the west door, so presumably a visit to the Thomaskirche is part of a tourist package. top

Weimar : Fürstenhaus, Franz-Liszt-Hochschule

Philharmonia Quartett Berlin [Daniel Stabrawa, Christian Stadelmann, Neithard Resa, Jan Diesselhorst]
Klenke Quartett [Annegret Klenke, Beate Hartmann, Yvonne Uhlemann, Ruth Kaltenhäuser]

  • Anton Webern: String Quartet op. 28
  • Joseph Haydn: String Quartet op. 50 no. 6, 'Froschquartett'
  • Niels Wilhelm Gade: String Octet op. 17
  • Shostakovich: Prelude and Scherzo for Octet, op. 11 [encore]

FürstenhausI'd noticed a poster for this concert as I walked past the Franz-Liszt-Hochschule in Platz der Demokratie earlier in the day. An €18.00 ticket, plus €0.50 for the programme, and typical college chaos at the desk! There was much meeting and greeting, and this is obviously one of a regular series of concerts in the Fürstenhaus. Excellent performances from both of these well respected quartets, the (all male) Philharmonia Quartett (founded in 1984 by principals from the Berlin Philharmonic) playing the Webern and Haydn, and being joined by the (all female) Klenke Quartett for the Gade octet, the players democratically interspersed.

A long interval, when everyone made a bee-line for a room downstairs where they were serving wine and juice. The audience quite dressed up considering the college venue, and much black in evidence – perhaps my greeny cords were out of place. Wonderful to sit back and listen to chamber music for an hour or so, and good brain exercise to have to work on the unfamiliar Webern and Shostakovich, which I enjoyed.top

Berlin : Philharmonie

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, conductor Semyon Bychkov

  • Detlef Glanert: Theatrum Bestiarum
  • Richard Strauss: An Alpine Symphony

PhilharmonieThe last of my pre-booked concerts. The Philharmonie is super, with an excellent acoustic even up at the back in the 'one-and-nines' where I was. A far more relaxed dress code than in Leipzig – suits or jeans, more like the RFH in London. Theatrum Bestiarum, composed by Detlef Glanert in 2004/5 and revised in 2007, was first performed at the Proms in 2005 by the BBC SO. To my ears a hint of the earthiness of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, although it was Schostakovich who was mentioned in the pre-concert talk (an interview with Glanert).

The highlight of the evening for me was Richard Strauss's Alpine Symphony, which he wrote between 1911 and 1915, and which describes an Alpine world from sunrise to sunset, in 22 sections played without a break. A huge orchestra, though not I think as big as the one that Strauss originally called for, which included 12 off-stage horns, the organ, 'at least' 34 violins, 12 violas, 10 cellos, 8 basses... The Berlin Phil fielded plenty of brass (including 2 tubas, 2+ trombones plus (I think) 4 bass trombones, 4+ horns plus 4 more playing tenor horn) and noisy percussion including cow-bells, wind machine and the full show-off cymbals. Yet a wonderful calm, quiet ending to the symphony, all the more dramatic after the huge sound on the few occasions in this symphony when the full orchestra plays en masse. An excellent concert and a fitting musical end to my Grand Tour.

At the end of the symphony Semyon Bychkov seemed quite drained, not surprisingly, and leant back on the podium rail for perhaps 15 or 20 seconds. The entire audience respected the moment, and no-one shouted 'Bravo'. Then, after he'd been called back two or three times, the leader got up quite abruptly and led the players off the platform, and the lights went down. A few minutes later – with at least half the audience gone – some applause started, the lights went up, and Bychkov returned to the podium, to stand on the bright stage, alone but for the eight double basses lying on their sides, acknowledging the very warm applause from the remaining members of the audience. A moving moment. I don't know if this is a Berlin Phil custom, but I doubt it as the audience had been mostly quick to leave.

UPDATE 23 January 2011: Someone has just drawn my attention to this 3-minute YouTube video – posted by the Berlin Phil – which shows the climax of the Alpine Symphony in my concert on 4 October 2008, with the brass on full power. Wonderful orchestra-eye views of Bychkov too. I'd noticed the cameras but hadn't appreciated their significance. The video is an extract from the recording of the full performance which is available (for a small fee) through the superb Berlin Philharmonic Digital Concert Hall.


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