Last night, the Vienna Philharmonic played in the Great Festival Hall at the Salzburg Festival. This orchestra has no permanent conductor—just an endless series of guests—and last night they were led by someone who has been leading them, off and on, for many years: Riccardo Muti, the veteran Italian who is chief in Chicago.
On the program were two composers: Schumann and Schubert (in that order). The Schubert was the pièce de résistance.
Not that the Schumann work was slouchy, mind you—far from it. It was that composer’s Symphony No. 2, a masterpiece, in my opinion, like No. 1 and one or two others we might name. Schumann is not really known as a symphonist: he is more admired for his chamber music, piano pieces, and songs. But as I see it, Schumann is a great symphonist, whether his scores are toyed with by Mr. Szell or in their original forms.
I will say a word about the Vienna Philharmonic, prompted by their performance of the Schumann. There is something about the woodwind section—something royal, something super-elegant and ‑stylish. No department of this orchestra is weak, but the woodwinds, somehow, give a performance additional credit.
The second half of the program brought Schubert’s Mass No. 6 in E flat, D. 950, a work composed late in the composer’s life, which in any case was short. The mass was not performed until after his death.
Schubert is known for his symphonies, piano pieces, chamber music, songs—but he wrote a slew of operas, which are virtually unknown today, and a slew of masses, which are underknown. No. 6 is dear to Riccardo Muti’s heart, with good reason: it is a masterpiece, touched by the divine.
Though there were massive forces on the stage—orchestra, chorus, and five soloists—the music was never too heavy.
Last night, the Mass in E flat was superb from beginning to end. It was beautifully breathed. Muti’s tempos, phrasing, and dynamics were inarguable. That is, you heard them and thought, “How else could it be? In no other way.” Crucially, there was no sagging, no dragging. Muti moved along in musical fashion. The mass was the right weight, too, by which I mean this: though there were massive forces on the stage—orchestra, chorus, and five soloists—the music was never too heavy. It had the desired texture. It was always Schubertian, never weighed down.
Muti conducted the mass with devotion and understanding. He ended the final chord beautifully. He did not let it linger, inappropriately. Also, he held his hands up, just for a bit, and put them down. He did not want to force false raptness from the audience. He is too professional, and too dignified, for that.
Some conductors hold their hands in the air forever, forcing a silence or a wonder that they did not earn.
The chorus of the Vienna State Opera sang warmly, solidly, and attentively. All five soloists were admirable, but I must say that Krassimira Stoyanova was luxury casting. The great Bulgarian soprano did not have much to sing, but when she sang there was an extra touch of sublimity in the hall. Her very goodness—her nobility, her righteousness, I’m tempted to say—shines through.
Can the Mass in E flat rank with the sacred choral works of Bach, Handel, Mozart, and Beethoven? I think so, yes.
Let me give you three footnotes, to close out this post.
(1) The best-known part of the Mass in E flat is a portion of the Credo, “Et incarnatus est.” It reminds me, I swear, of the love duet from Berlioz’s Troyens (“Nuit d’ivresse”). I’m not suggesting any funny business on Berlioz’s part. It just does.
(2) In New York, at the end of performances, flowers are given to both male and female performers. The men are sometimes embarrassed by this. I saw Bryn Terfel make an embarrassed joke of it in Carnegie Hall. I have long praised the Salzburg Festival for its (apparent) policy: women only.
This year, they are giving bouquets to both men and women. The men are really embarrassed. On Saturday night, Martin Grubinger Jr., a percussion star, gave away his bouquet as fast as he could. He tossed it to a woman in the audience. Last night, Maestro Muti gave away his bouquet as fast as he could—and with a bit of disgust, I think. He handed it to the first woman in the orchestra he saw (one of the Vienna Phil.’s three concertmasters, Albena Danailova).
I understand completely.
(3) On Friday, I did a public interview of Franz Welser-Möst, the Austrian conductor who is chief of the Cleveland Orchestra. I asked him to give us a few of the composers he feels closest to. He said that he has had one No. 1 since the age of four. It has never changed: Schubert.
I thought of this, when listening to the Mass in E flat, and smiled a little.