Several months ago, I wrote of the Salzburg Easter Festival, younger cousin to the Salzburg Summer Festival, the granddaddy of all music festivals (if you don’t count Bayreuth, I suppose, but that is a very special case). At Easter, the city is crowded, but you can move about with relative ease. In the summer, the streets and sidewalks are clogged, and you may be late on account of traffic: foot traffic. Salzburg is a popular destination, even aside from the festival, and people from all over seem happy to soak things in.
There is music constantly, of course, in an assortment of halls: the Grosses Festspielhaus and the Kleines Festspielhaus; the Felsenreitschule and the Mozarteum. The Grosser Saal of the Mozarteum is one of the most beautiful concert spaces on earth, all gilded and smart, like one of the Emperor’s officers dressed for a ceremonial occasion. St. Peter’s Church, too, is a concert venue, and it, too, is extraordinarily beautiful (though verging on the gaudy). I must say, however, that its acoustics are not ideal, certainly for a work like Mozart’s C Minor Mass—never mind that it had its premiere in the church and has been performed in it almost annually since the festival was founded in 1920.
I should mention, further, another concert venue: Hangar 7 out at the airport. There we had the premiere of the Helicopter String Quartet by Karlheinz Stockhausen, featuring (yes) four choppers. In its almanac, the festival published an impassioned defense of this composer, particularly in light of his remark, after September 11, that the terrorists had wrought “the greatest work of art ever”—nay, “the greatest work of the whole cosmos.” We are perpetually told that Stockhausen’s words were misinterpreted; we are never told, as far as I have observed, what the correct—the exonerating—interpretation would be.
There is music on the streets, too, unavoidable and usually pleasant. Violinists play their standards; sometimes they have a device—a machine—that provides an accompaniment. Gypsy ensembles are common. I heard a balalaika group play a rollicking version of the Winter movement from The Four Seasons. There are even tea dances, a very and delightfully old-fashioned event at which couples (of a certain age) whirl gently around the floor. This is touching to behold.
Like the Easter Festival, the Summer Festival is a same-time-next-year happening, only more so. There is a man named George Sgalitzer—a Vienna-born American, long resident in Seattle—who has attended every festival since the very first performance, on August 22, 1920. (He did miss the war years.) That first performance was of Jedermann, a play by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, one of the founders of the festival. On August 31, 2003, Doctor Sgalitzer attended his thousandth performance in Salzburg—it was of Mahler’s Lied von der Erde. He keeps logs of all the concerts and operas he attends, anywhere, and he remembers virtually everything anyway. To listen to him is to be wide-eyed.
I met another unusual person at the festival, a lady, born in Salzburg, into an old, old Salzburg family. She related that the four “most charming” men she had ever met were—get ready—Franz Lehár, Richard Strauss, Maurice Chevalier, “and my grandfather.” You meet any number of interesting people at the festival, and some are apt to be “of noble birth,” to use antiquated language. Duchess this, Baron that. At one point, someone said to me, “You’re going to see The Count of Luxemburg on Thursday night, right?” I thought, initially, that she was referring to a person—but she was referring to the operetta by Lehár (one of the four most charming). An American inquired, one day, how many Hapsburgs there were in Austria. A lady—our old-line Salzburger, our list-maker—replied, “More than there are gas stations in America”!
The festival began, for me, with a couple of first-rate song recitals: one by Marjana Lipov~s\ek, the other by Angela Gheorghiu. The evenings could not have been more different, just as the women could not be more different—except that they are both superb singers, and had superb outings. Lipovšek is a Slovenian mezzo-soprano entering the autumn of her career, or so it would seem. She is little known in the United States, which is something of a scandal, as she is an important singer. She had her debut at the Metropolitan Opera only last season—in Elektra, as Klytämnestra. Her performance was not only gripping, but unforgettably so.
She sang in Salzburg an all-lieder recital, from Schubert to Wolfgang Rihm, a composer of today. Accompanying her was Rudolf Buchbinder, a pianist with a biggish solo career. Lipov~s\ek displayed an uncanny gift for communication, marrying text and music almost to perfection. Her Scene from Faust (Schubert) was positively harrowing, as she portrayed the Evil Spirit, Gretchen, and the chorus that tolls that poor girl’s doom. She was equally compelling in “Erlkönig” (also Schubert), making a familiar—nearly too familiar—song something like new. Lipovšek occasionally lacked technical polish, tending to flatness of pitch, for example; but this mattered little, in the face of such musicality.
The Rihm selection was noteworthy. Lipovšek sang his Lavant-Gesänge, so called because they set poems by Christine Lavant, an Austrian poet who lived a very sad life (1915–1973) but who achieved considerable distinction in her art. Rihm wrote the songs three years ago, dedicating them to Lipovšek. They are gratifying to have, a worthy addition to a lieder repertory that has not stopped growing. The set is despairing and bleak, but now and then relieved. Rihm, in these songs, reminds me somewhat of our own—of America’s own—George Crumb, in his sensitivity and ability to paint. Lipovšek went straight to the heart of the matter, and Buchbinder was respectable too.
Angela Gheorghiu is a singer one feels compelled to defend, although why such an excellent singer should need a defense is a mystery. People—critics and (other) crabs —like to dwell on her offstage divaness more than on her onstage achievements. Let her indulge in all the divaness she wants: She delivers in her singing, and even her antics should be welcome, contributing, as they do, to the lore of operatic life.
She began with two “antique” arias, one by Alessandro Scarlatti—“O cessate di piagarmi”—and the other by Gluck, “O del mio dolce ardor.” She was emotional and operatic in these pieces, but thoroughly Baroque. Gheorghiu—rather like Lipovšek—has a musical and dramatic sense that cannot be taught, and cannot be lost. In addition, she boasts a technique that any sensible singer would kill for.
Her recital, as it progressed, was almost a pops recital, and rather old-fashioned: a throwback. Bellini songs, a Donizetti song, Verdi songs, the Gounod “Sérénade,” “Les Filles de Cadix” by Delibes, some Bizet, Massenet’s “Elégie”—this was the sort of program one used to hear but which fell out of favor. Victoria de los Angeles sang music like this, and I associate her with some of these very songs: “Les Filles,” for example. Gheorghiu ended her program with a slew of Romanian items, paying homage to her roots. Her feel for this music was a joy to experience—but then, her feeling for most music is commendable. She gave five encores, each of them old-fashioned, including “Vai azulão”—the Brazilian song that was another de los Angeles favorite—and the Vilja from The Merry Widow. As she bade goodnight, the crowd was still screaming, with justice.
While we’re talking about operetta (sort of), shall we move this chronicle to Bad Ischl? This is the summer home of the Emperor, about an hour from Salzburg. The Kaiservilla still stands, and the present archduke, and his family, occupy it. They conduct tours with patience, graciousness, and humor. There is also an operetta festival in town, whose schedule, in 2003, included Die Fledermaus (practically obligatory) and the aforementioned Count of Luxemburg. This was a fizzy, delightful show—talk about a throwback. It was waltzy, can-canny, alive. The cast, which was youthful, clearly had a ball, with one and all evincing real sympathy for the genre. They didn’t condescend to the Count, but met it on its own, worthy terms. The stage director threw in everything but the kitchen sink: Streamers shot out into the audience, weight-lifters and bears paraded by, rich ladies walked rich-lady dogs, bellhops danced up a storm. Lovers and would-be lovers sang and acted through a zany plot that ended with everyone happy—including the audience.
I am not one who laments that the word “gay” has been altered, but that is exactly the word that should describe this evening in Bad Ischl.
Some opera proper, back in Salzburg? First, however, attend one concert at the Mozarteum, an all-Rachmaninoff evening. This was an inspired idea, serving to highlight a composer who, famous as he is, is often underrated. The program involved a pianist, a cellist, a violinist—and one of the top bass-baritones in the world.
The evening began with five Preludes from Op. 23 played by Alexander Lonquich, a German pianist. He perhaps did not show himself to best effect. The first prelude was that in F-sharp minor, and Lonquich did some terrible banging. He produced some of the ugliest notes you can hear from a piano. He provided no singing line whatsoever, which is ruinous to Rachmaninoff. The pianist had enough fingers to get through the virtuosic B-flat prelude, but he did not do so especially musically. In the G-minor prelude, his rhythm was loose—which practically negates this piece. It is not a Chopin nocturne (and even there, you don’t want to be too loose). The C-minor prelude, with which this set concluded, was a muddle.
But the evening brightened—and the pianist improved as well. Boris Pergamenshikov came on to join Lonquich in Rachmaninoff’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in G minor. Pergamenshikov—like Marjana Lipov~s\ek—is little known in the United States, but he is an outstanding musician, celebrated elsewhere as early as 1974, when he won the gold medal at the Tchaikovsky competition. (He soon emigrated to the West.) Pergamenshikov was exemplary in the Rachmaninoff sonata, an underappreciated work. He was consistently musical, playing Romantically but never soupily. He also played in tune, which is no small favor. In addition, he proved a faithful observer of rhythm. His sound was pleasing, having a certain roughness, a graininess—a Russianness, if you will. His lyricism in the slow movement was memorably beautiful. In all, he brought out both the sun and the shade of Rachmaninoff’s sonata.
And as I indicated, Alexander Lonquich acquitted himself better in collaboration than he had by himself.
After an intermission came the Trio élégiaque No. 1 in G minor. This is a somewhat neglected work that—like the Trio élégiaque No. 2 in D minor—owes much to Tchaikovsky. Joining the two performers to whom we had already been introduced was Dmitri Sitkovetsky, a violinist who happens to be the son of Bella Davidovich, the distinguished Russian pianist. He offered a rather brawny sound, sort of matching Pergamenshikov grain for grain. The slow, slow ending of this trio was transporting, extremely well judged.
Then came the singing portion of the evening: Sergei Leiferkus in five songs, not counting encores (of which there were three). In these songs, we heard the Real McCoy, a true Russian singer wringing everything one can from Rachmaninoff and the texts he uses. The language—microscopically clear—was a treat to listen to, and Leiferkus sang with vocal correctness and musical ardor, in equal parts. He sent a resplendent sound through the Grosser Saal. And he has remarkable posture and presence—physical command—even for an opera star.
Leiferkus sang an unusual song called “Fate”—poem by Alexei Apukhtin—which plays off Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and its famous, ominous opening. An old woman (Fate) knocks on doors with her crutch: stuk, stuk, stuk. Leiferkus was arresting in his storytelling—chilling. Immediately after, he performed a song of a much lighter character: “Letter to K. S. Stanislavsky,” which, as Professor Thomas P. Hodge of Wellesley explained in his program notes, is probably the most skillful singing telegram in history. Stanislavsky had an important evening at the Moscow Art Theater that Rachmaninoff, abroad in Dresden, was unable to attend. So he penned this song, appointing Feodor Chaliapin to sing/deliver it. It begins “Dear Konstantin Sergeyevich” and ends “Yours, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Dresden, 14 October 1908”—with a postscript: “My wife joins in my good wishes.” A plain, plain text, but a deliciously charming song.
There were many admired low voices at this festival—Thomas Hampson, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Matthias Goerne, Dwayne Croft —but Leiferkus held his own, to say the least. This Rachmaninow-Abend, as it was billed, ended with the playing of the second Trio élégiaque. The composer had had a good evening, and so had these musicians.
Now for those operas: There were almost ten of them, including two given in concert performance—Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila and Richard Strauss’s Aegyptische Helena. In the title roles were those in the world best equipped to fill them: Plácido Domingo and Olga Borodina as Samson and Delilah, and Deborah Voigt as Helen. There was also an opera by Hans Werner Henze— L’Upupa, a sort of fairy tale—that proved very popular with festival-goers. In fact, Henze was a conspicuous presence in Salzburg, as Benjamin Schmid—a local hero, a Salzburger—played a piece of his for violin and chamber orchestra, and the Camerata Salzburg—another local product, a period group—played a suite fashioned from a film score: Der junge Törless (1966).
Hogging the attention, however, was a trio of operas by the biggest local hero of all—Mozart. These were La Clemenza di Tito, Don Giovanni, and Die Entführung aus dem Serail. The productions conceived for these operas were “controversial,” as we say. Often we say “controversial” when we fear to be less polite, or “judgmental.” Many aspects of these productions were indefensible: crude, outlandish, insulting. Two of the operas—Tito and Don Giovanni—were directed by Martin Kušej, who is a crown prince of Salzburg (not literally): In 2005, he will become artistic director of the festival’s drama department. His Don Giovanni was unveiled last year, his Tito this year. Forgive me, but I will pass over the direction—not because it is unimportant, but because … well, direction has become all too important, in this age of “director-driven opera.” The likes of Kušej have quite literally stolen the show: from singers and conductors, and—more gravely—from composers and librettists.
The German-Canadian tenor Michael Schade was Tito, and he was magnificent, though festival officials told us he was ill. I have compared him before, in these pages, to the immortal Fritz Wunderlich, and I am not inclined to retract the comparison. Appearing as Sesto was the Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Vesselina Kasarova. With her rich, dusky throat and her easy technique, she has moved to the forefront of mezzos—and this is an age bursting with them. The two sopranos were Dorothea Röschmann and Barbara Bonney, with Bonney, in particular, pure and lovely, as she is wont to be. (I might mention that she gave an excellent recital at the Mozarteum, the latter half of which featured operetta arias, to which she has devoted her most recent album.) A second mezzo-soprano was Elina Garanca, a young Latvian, who obviously has a major career ahead of her, as does Luca Pisaroni, the Italian baritone who sang Publio … and who also sang Masetto in Don Giovanni.
The star of that show, however—no matter what Kušej tried to do—was Thomas Hampson, simply the great Don Giovanni of our time. Indeed, he is one of the greatest of all time. In this hugely important part—not just to baritones, or bass-baritones, but to opera—Hampson is the embodiment of handsome evil. Everything that has to be conveyed about the Don he conveys, musically and otherwise. Donna Anna was sung by Anna Netrebko, the Russian soprano who is fast becoming a world pinup—though, fortunately, she is a capital singer as well. A German tenor named Christoph Strehl made an appealing Don Ottavio, and Isabel Bayrakdarian—the Armenian-Canadian soprano frequently seen in New York—was both delectable and effective as Zerlina. Commanding in the role of the Commendatore was Kurt Moll, the veteran bass who made his operatic debut in 1961. His authority is greater than ever.
The conductor for both Tito and Don Giovanni was Nikolaus Harnoncourt, the one-time early-music specialist who is increasingly asked to lead the Vienna Philhar- monic (whose summer home Salzburg is). He was disappointingly limp and listless—in Tito in particular—but built a powerful ending of Don Giovanni. Harnoncourt’s tempos are almost always on the slow side, frustratingly—slow tempi have become epidemic in Mozart. There ought to be a movement: for literal movement, a going forward.
Die Entführung was directed, not by Martin Kušej, but by another European enfant terrible, Stefan Herheim. This was the most “controversial” production at the festival—and the most objectionable. Beyond bawdy, it was vulgar; beyond imaginative, or unconventional, or experimental, it was sickly bizarre. Mozart had little place in this spectacle. And, unlike in the other two operas, there was not much good singing to compensate—the Blonde, Diana Damrau, and the Pedrillo, Dietmar Kerschbaum, being game exceptions.
Why not close with something beautiful? That annual performance of the Mozart C Minor Mass. I must say that I was somewhat handicapped, having heard, a couple of months before, in Carnegie Hall, the performance of this mass by James Levine and the Metropolitan Opera forces, with Heidi Grant Murphy and Susan Graham as principal soloists. That was a performance that scaled the heights. That of Ivor Bolton—the English conductor who led the Mozarteum Orchester Salzburg, the Choir of Clare College, and a solid quartet of soloists—did not. But still: This was the Mozart C Minor Mass, and in its home, St. Peter’s! I have already crabbed about the acoustics of this historic church—but who am I, ultimately, to argue? I felt lucky to be present.
And I wager that most everyone feels lucky to be present, in Salzburg. We have our assorted gripes and crotchets. But, in a world that sprouts a new summer music festival on every block, Salzburg is still king. Its varied riches cause one and all to vow: Same time next year.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 22 Number 2, on page 51
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