At the Salzburg Festival, Mozart and Richard Strauss are recurring figures—Mozart the hometown boy, Strauss one of the founders of the festival—but this season Dvořák and Korngold assumed prominence. The former composer died in 1904, and, as the music world is eternally infected with anniversaryitis, that centenary had to be exploited. And Korngold? It is the goal of the festival’s artistic director, Peter Ruzicka, to highlight and honor exiled composers, or those otherwise disfavored by the Nazis. Next season, Franz Schreker will be featured.

The air in Salzburg rang with Dvořák from the beginning of the festival: The Vienna Philharmonic, under Seiji Ozawa, played the “New World” Symphony. There followed concertos, chamber music, songs, etc. Superintending a special project was Thomas Hampson, the baritone from Spokane. This was called “Dvořák and His Times.” Hampson is seen increasingly as a musical intellectual, and the first line of his current bio stresses that he is “involved in the fields of musicology and pedagogy.” The photograph shows him in spectacles, studying a score—this is not the glamour figure from the operatic stage; but it is glamorous in a way.

“Dvořák and His Times” consisted of two programs, the first a fairly standard song recital by Hampson. It included a set of Dvořák songs—the Zigeunerlieder—along with sets of Liszt, Mahler, and Strauss. The Zigeunerlieder are relatively unfamiliar, except for the item we know in English as “Songs My Mother Taught Me.” Hampson sang in Czech, although one could do German, too. Dvořák was a strong song composer, and it’s a pity we don’t know more of this music. Hampson’s performance suggested we should. I suspect that Dvořák is handicapped by the unusualness of his language—Czech. This may be changing, however, as Janáček’s operas rise in popularity. (Janáček, by the way, was born in 1854, so this is an anniversary year for him, too—although he is not featured in Salzburg. You can’t do everybody.)

Hampson’s second program was a long one—a “marathon,” it was dubbed—involving three other singers as well: Barbara Bonney, the soprano, Michelle Breedt, a mezzo-soprano, and Georg Zeppenfeld, a bass. (At the piano was Wolfram Rieger, Hampson’s regular accompanist, and an excellent pianist.) The program featured a lot of Dvořák, but also American songs, as befitted an adventurer to the New World: Zeppenfeld sang Negro spirituals, and Hampson sang forgotten songs by Arthur Farwell and Charles Wakefield Cadman, along with selections from MacDowell and Ives. Filling out the program were Brahms, Mahler, and Grieg.

If you like musicological endeavors onstage, this evening had merit. Regardless, the Salzburg Festival is obviously willing to give Thomas Hampson, one of its biggest stars, his head.

An evening in the Felsenreitschule was alloted to Dvořák’s Requiem. This is not an especially well-known work, commissioned by England’s Birmingham Festival in the 1890s. Visiting Salzburg to perform it were the Czech Philharmonic and Chorus, conducted by Gerd Albrecht. This conductor—a German—has little reputation in the United States, which is a shame. He is an excellent conductor, probably in the twilight of his career. For three seasons in the 1990s, he led this orchestra, the Czech Philharmonic, and he is now in charge of the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra and the Danish National Orchestra. In Dvořák’s Requiem, he showed intelligence, mastery, and heart. He projected a solidity, a tightness. Every page cohered, and nothing was without a purpose. Albrecht is a commonsensical conductor, common sense being an underappreciated virtue in that breed (and among musicians in general).

Some examples of his musical common sense: When the Dies irae came, it came with terror, but not with what we might call a stage terror—a surfeit of theatricality. When the Quid sum miser ended, it did not do so with a false hushed emotion; it did so naturally, inevitably. Often, the conductor gave this work a light, chamber feel, without making it wrongly skimpy. Above all, I would describe him as honest—an honest conductor, an honest musician, without superficiality or intrusive ego.

He had with him a fine quartet of solo singers, starting with a substitute, the soprano Danielle Halbwachs, filling in for an indisposed Soile Isokoski. Halbwachs seemed more than ready for her part. She knew the letter of it, and she knew the spirit of it. She boasted a beautiful, exotic sound, which she did not force. Now and then, that sound turned hard—but there was nothing hard about the high, mezzo-pianoB flat she sang in the Hostias. I can hear it, gratefully, even now, as I write.

The mezzo-soprano was the well-known Finn Monica Groop, who proved a powerhouse, though not in volume: more in thought, and in her expression of that thought. When appropriate, she imparted some tonal bite, and also a bit of a throb. In the Domine, Jesu Christe, she suffered some flatness, but otherwise she was completely creditable. As was the tenor, Piotr Beczala, a Pole. He is light of voice, but solid. He sounded a little like Nicolai Gedda up top, with that pinchedness—one could have a worse voice. Like Danielle Halbwachs, he resisted the temptation to push. And when he sang lyrically, he was very lyric—tender—but did not croon. Beczala, a tenor unknown on American shores, is a commodity to watch.

And the bass? Perhaps the most lauded bass in the world, René Pape. He has dropped jaws in recital, oratorio, and, of course, opera. Probably his most famous part is King Mark, from Tristan und Isolde. When he sang in the Dvořák Requiem, it was hard not to think of King Mark. In the Lacrimosa, for example, that voice might have been denouncing Tristan and Isolde, betrayers—though unwitting betrayers—of the king. Pape was beautiful and arresting, as usual, and his language was amazingly clear—again as usual.

The Czech Philharmonic was well prepared, and it performed faithfully; the same can be said of the chorus. One might expect that these Czechs would present this work with particular knowledge, feeling, and pride—and that is what happened. Dvořák’s Requiem is not as good as Verdi’s, to which it is sometimes compared. It is uneven, and eventually runs out of creative gas. But it has its moments—for example, those stirring Bachian sequences in the Recordare—and Gerd Albrecht made as convincing a case for it as possible.

The festival was chock-a-block with recitals, particularly vocal recitals. Besides Hampson’s two, we heard from Karita Mattila, Waltraud Meier, Thomas Quasthoff, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Hvorostovsky’s program featured Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death, which this singer traversed grippingly. Last season, his great countryman, the mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina, sang this cycle in Carnegie Hall. I said, “That’s it—I don’t need to hear it again; this is the ultimate.” But I was wrong: Hvorostovsky was just as good, just as harrowing (if somewhat different).

On one especially hot night, Violeta Urmana appeared in the Grosser Saal of the Mozarteum. And when it is hot at the festival—especially in the Mozarteum—it is cruelly hot. The room is not air-conditioned, and they shut the doors tight. In 2003, I nicknamed the Grosser Saal the “Grosser Sauna.” For years, air conditioning—or the lack of it—has been a point of contention at the festival. Some administrators claim that, much as they would love to accommodate the public, the musicians themselves balk at air conditioning. This is hard to believe (for example, when watching them suffering onstage along with the audience). The tenor Michael Schade said, at a forum last year, “I propose to start a new political party in Austria: the Air Conditioning Party.” Sign me up, Michael.

Urmana dabbed at herself throughout the evening, but she could not be defeated. This Lithuanian is, quite simply, one of the greatest singers in the world, possessed of one of the greatest voices in the world. The program said “Violeta Urmana, mezzo-soprano”—but she is becoming a soprano, or has actually become one. In opera, she is probably best known for the role of Kundry, in Wagner’s Parsifal. (Her performances opposite Plácido Domingo have been … well, I don’t think “historic” would be too strong.) As Kundry, she has sung some frighteningly excellent high notes. Her Salzburg recital showed her to be a full-blown soprano. Or is she?

It is a hard-to-categorize voice, which is all to the good: Urmana will be an all-purpose singer. The voice has the strength—the body—associated with a mezzo; but it has a range belonging to a soprano—and, at the lower end, to a mezzo! As she sang one phrase, I thought, “If she’s a soprano, that’s a hell of a lower register”; a couple of phrases later, I thought, “If she’s a mezzo, that’s a hell of an upper register.”

Urmana sang a varied program, in a fairly unusual order: She began with La fraîcheur et le feu, the cycle of Poulenc. At her side was the pianist Jan Philip Schulze, a German. In the Poulenc, he showed himself to be a real pianist, negotiating Poulenc’s passages, which can be tough. Schulze was adequately Impressionistic, but clean.

Urmana sang these songs with great tastefulness, and, of course, that glorious voice, just a little scaled down for the hall. She is a smart singer, who shapes a song to maximum effect. Always, she gives off an overarching musical sense—this is more than a knockout voice. The Poulenc songs were sung naturally, musically, without an overemphasis on text. In “Homme au sourire tendre,” Urmana handled some jazzy intervals fetchingly. She also shows a little theatrical flair on the recital stage—which is no damnable thing.

Next came a group of Liszt songs, beginning with “Der Fischerknabe.” Urmana sings an excellent German, thanks to her years of study and work in Germany. “Der Fischerknabe” uses an eerie poem (Schiller) about the water luring a boy to his drowning. Urmana strained just a little on her high piano notes, but otherwise she rendered the song compellingly. So it was with “Die Fischerstochter,” a virtual scena. It was a delight to hear such strength in this song/scena, and in the other Liszt songs (and in the Poulenc, for that matter). Urmana could have been criticized for making these songs too “operatic”—but they are not porcelain figures, to be kept under glass.

She moved on to a Rachmaninoff group, which included the song we know in English as “In the Quiet of the Secret Night.” This is maybe the best loved of Rachmaninoff’s songs, and Urmana treated it richly and beautifully. Its final (sung) phrase is one of the most famous in all the song literature: It is long, lovely, and ascending, and is ideally sung in one breath. When Urmana started out, it seemed too slow to be accomplished in one breath, but that was okay, as two is certainly acceptable—but no: She sang the phrase slowly, and deliciously, and needed no second breath. In fact, she seemed to have breath left over! Remarkable.

Then, after intermission, it was all Strauss, as Urmana made the wise decision to wrap that instrument around the composer so besotted by the female voice—especially big, bold, lush ones. You think of Strauss singers of recent times: Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, Renée Fleming. Urmana has a sharper edge than any of those women—is less lush—but she can take a place beside them.

In “Frühlingsgedränge,” Urmana had spring in her voice—and springtime love. “Lob des Leidens,” she did not take at a ponderous tempo, thank goodness; and when she sang the words “Herbstes goldenem Licht” (“golden light of autumn”), we unmistakably heard that. The beloved, grateful song “Zueignung” was surprisingly scaled down, almost intimate—and that final note had a noble swelling. “Befreit” is one of the most heartbreaking of Strauss songs—probably the most—and Urmana resisted the temptation to sing it too slowly, or tremblingly. It was therefore properly moving. “Schlechtes Wetter” had swing and lightness (lightness not of voice, but of spirit). And here Jan Philip Schulze—who had been disagreeably choppy through much of the Strauss—applied exactly the right touch.

Finishing the set was “Frühlingsfeier,” one of the most strange of Strauss songs (with its cries of “Adonis! Adonis!”). Urmana showed off some of those outrageous Kundry notes—outrageously thrilling. The audience in the Mozarteum went wild, asking for many encores, with which Urmana was both generous and shrewd. First, it was a return to Poulenc, his song “Le violin,” which was insinuating and saucy (but in which Schulze was far too blunt). Then it was a quick return to Strauss, his song “Cäcilie,” maybe his most rapturous—and slain by Urmana. And then … a big, mad opera aria, maybe the biggest and maddest, “Suicidio!” from La Gioconda. The injection of a crazy-nuts opera aria into a song recital was, I think, daring and effective. After that, something excitingly Spanish—by Fernando Obradors—and that was it, although the audience begged for more, including with rhythmic clapping.

Is there anything in music more satisfying than a brilliant soprano in recital—a recital whose program is varied? I sort of doubt it.

And now to Korngold, one of the men of the hour. He may be best known as a movie composer, for he spent many years in Hollywood, exiled from his native Vienna. But he had been a child prodigy—the most remarkable since Mozart—and many of us have long nursed a fondness for his concert music.

The Salzburg Festival gave us gobs of it, including the violin concerto, the Symphonic Serenade, the symphony, and several chamber pieces—most notably the Suite for Two Violins, Cello, and Piano Left Hand, commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein, the pianist who lost his right arm in World War I. In recent decades, both Leon Fleisher and Gary Graffman have had to make heavy use of that suite. And it is an ingenious, lovable work, winningly performed in the Mozarteum by an ensemble whose lead violinist was Benjamin Schmid, the young Austrian sensation.

But the major Korngold work presented in Salzburg was his opera Die Tote Stadt, his most enduring work for the stage. This is the opera based on Rodenbach’s novel Bruges-la-Morte. It is most famous for one aria, “Marietta’s Lied,” which decades ago achieved almost a pop status. But the work as a whole must be drunk in. It speaks longing, nostalgia, torment, heartbreak, and finally healing. The score can be fizzy, and it can be profound, and—most interestingly—it can be both at the same time.

Into the Kleines Festspielhaus came the Vienna Philharmonic, led by the Scots conductor Donald Runnicles. The orchestra sounded magnificent, as it is wont to do (and as it sounded in Così fan tutte, Der Rosenkavalier, and others of the festival’s operas as well). For the hundredth time, one wondered how the brass could be so warm. And when Korngold’s score got violent, it was beautifully violent (or violently beautiful), in that cushioned, Vienna Philharmonic way—a way particularly apt for this extremely Viennese composer, and this extremely Viennese work.

Unfortunately, the orchestra covered the singers much of the time, and those singers were often placed in the back of the stage. Certainly, the instruments of the orchestra should be heard—always—but those vocal lines should be heard, too, and Runnicles should have made it all possible. And yet, there is Straussian precedent for drowning out singers: Opera buffs know the famous anecdote in which the composer, supervising a rehearsal, calls to the conductor, “Louder, louder, I can still hear the Heink!” (“The Heink” was the legendary German mezzo-soprano Ernestine von Schumann-Heink.) In general, Runnicles acquitted himself well, maintaining a momentum, for example.

The singers have interesting and impossibly Romantic lines to sing. The soprano is Marietta, and she was sung by Angela Denoke. At the Easter Festival in 2003, she had the title role in Fidelio, and she had a miserable, constricted night (when I heard her). She was all freed up, however, on this night in Tote Stadt. She had command of her part, and if I prefer more vibrato and flexibility in the voice, that is simply a preference, and Denoke’s characteristics—which include a slight hootiness and stiffness—are perfectly acceptable. “Marietta’s Lied” was overindulged, but it recalled the Old World, no doubt about that—and cast a spell on the audience.

Perhaps Denoke’s greatest strength was theatrical: She approached her part boldly, with total involvement, as much actress as singer. And at one point, Marietta asks Paul (the tenor), “Am I not pretty?” She is—Denoke, I mean, and altogether alluring, which completes the picture.

Paul is a difficult, high-lying part, and Torsten Kerl handled it superbly. He possesses one of the most beautiful instruments in tenordom, an instrument rich but not heavy, and lush but still ringing. (The latter combo, in particular, is hard to find.) Prominent in his arsenal is a gorgeous head voice, which Korngold gave him many opportunities to employ.

Smashingly good was the production of Willy Decker, a German director. It was imaginative yet faithful—faithful to the opera as Korngold conceived it. It is said of us “conservatives” that we don’t like “modern” productions. No: We don’t like modern productions—or any productions—that are stupid, or malicious, or indefensible.

Paul’s house is, as the libretto puts it, “a cathedral of the has-already-been”—a dark shrine to a deadening past—and this was portrayed almost to perfection. In due course, Paul falls into a dream, and then this production got topsy-turvy: The ceiling and floor moved, like amusement-park tilt-a-whirls, and goblins haunted the protagonist everywhere. The fever of this fellow’s mind was horribly apparent. And then … he wakes up, the ceiling and floor taking their normal places, along—at last—with Paul’s mind. With the music of the “Lied” playing, he walks out of the dark room, into light.

“A triumph,” as critics say, when looking for a shorthand. But the triumph, mainly, was Korngold’s, this child of Vienna, child of Austro-German culture, back, in some fashion, from exile.


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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 2, on page 53
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