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In the lobby of the Mozarteum—of the Grosser Saal, specifically—I met a fellow critic. I said, “What are the chances this won’t be great?” He said, “Very low.” I said, “Right—like nil.” “This” was a recital by Christian Gerhaher, the German baritone, accompanied by his regular pianist, Gerold Huber. They have worked together since school days. Their program in Salzburg was all-Schumann. Out came Gerhaher, with a limp and a serious, intense expression. Sometimes his expression is half crazed. He and Huber opened with the Six Songs of Op. 107.

These songs were sublime. Gerhaher sang, as he usually does, with complete honesty of expression. Huber has much the same quality, pianistically. After this first set—which lasts only about ten minutes—I was ready to go home. I had just arrived at the Salzburg Festival and would hear more than two weeks of other performances. But this Op. 107, I thought, would be a kind of summit.

Still, I stayed for Dichterliebe, the great cycle that was the next work on the program. In these songs, Gerhaher gave a clinic in how to marry music and words. He did not let the words overwhelm: A song recital is not an evening of poetry; it is primarily a musical event, and Gerhaher knows this. He is a musician first, and can sing like an instrumentalist. In Dichterliebe, he knew how to convey ambiguity of emotion: Some things are happy, and some things are sad, but some things are in between. Never was there pretension or artifice—great vulnerabilities of lieder singers.

Nursing whatever difficulty he had—whatever was causing the limp—Gerhaher sat on a stool during stretches when the pianist played alone. Huber, too, gave a clinic. He has the gift of what I call, for lack of a better word, calibration: a way of gauging phrases, note values, weight, and so on. In Dichterliebe, the two men cast a spell. They cast it because they did not try to do so: It happened naturally, inevitably. They are not like a conductor who holds his arms in the air forever, after a piece is finished, willing the audience to be entranced. That’s just charlatanism. When the audience in Salzburg woke up, they roared for Gerhaher and Huber as they might have for Callas or Horowitz.

Audiences also roared for Wagner. In
acknowledgement of the bicentennial of that composer’s birth, the festival staged
Die Meistersinger. (The festival acknowledged another bicentennial too, with a passel of Verdi operas.) In the pit, the Vienna Philharmonic, under Daniele Gatti, botched its opening chord. As the overture proceeded, the horns did some stumbling. But they, and the orchestra at large, had plenty of opportunity to redeem themselves, and redeem themselves they did. Gatti conducted with understanding and assurance. He was a little brisk at times, and the orchestra was occasionally too loud (though glorious). But, in general, Gatti was alert, smart, and alive. Outstanding in the cast was the baritone in the role of Hans Sachs, Michael Volle. He was noble, warm, authoritative—like Sachs.

The production was in the hands of Stefan Herheim, the Norwegian director. His name ought to send a shudder down the spines of Salz-
burg patrons: It was he who was responsible for the festival’s
Abduction from the Seraglio. It was pornographic and ghastly, an assault on Mozart’s opera, rather than a genuine production of it. You wanted to shower after. Herheim’s Meistersinger is far better—far more reasonable—but it, too, is grossly sexualized. The review in the Financial Times began, “The Frog Prince is sodomising an apprentice, while Hansel and Gretel get up to no good.” More about fairy-tale characters in a moment.

The conceit of this production is that everything that happens in Die Meistersinger is simply a dream of Hans Sachs. And all the action takes place on his (crowded) desk. In the opening scene, the church scene, Sachs is all over Eva. According to Wagner, I believe, Sachs has a sweet older man’s crush on Eva (and she returns it, in her own way). According to Herheim, he has a psychotic obsession with her. He keeps a portrait of her, in which she holds an apple. (Eve, apple, geddit?) In a jealous rage, he slashes the portrait. Back to the action in the church, however: As Walther sings his love song, the girls hump the posts they lean on while the boys make out with one another. Later in the opera, a parade of fairy-tale creatures enters the stage. It resembles Act III of Sleeping Beauty. Except, in the ballet, the creatures don’t—you know, sodomize the apprentice.

Not all of Herheim’s Meistersinger is a perversion. There is a fair amount to commend it. But I can’t help thinking of what William F. Buckley Jr. once said about Norman Mailer: If only he would lift his gaze above the world’s groin.

The morning after the Meistersinger performance I attended, the Vienna Philharmonic played Bruckner’s Symphony No. 5, under Christian Thielemann. I could give a blow by blow account of this event, this performance, and would enjoy doing so. But this may suffice: Given the orchestra, the conductor, and the piece, the concert should have been one to remember. And it was. It’s nice when music works out this way. Bruckner’s symphony had its sonic greatness, its spiritual greatness—its healing properties.

A couple of nights later, Hans Graf conducted under the stars. Actually, there was a roof overhead, but the concert was still outdoors—in the courtyard of the Residenz, where Salzburg’s archbishops used to live. The weather was heavenly on this night. And Graf conducted the Camerata Salzburg in three serenades: that of Mozart, K. 388; that of Bernstein (a work that is really his violin concerto); and that of Brahms, Op. 11. The Mozart serenade is for wind octet—merely eight players. Did they need a conductor? Whatever the case, Graf shaped the work with excellent taste.

The soloist in the Bernstein was Benjamin Schmid, a Salzburg boy who had the good fortune to meet Donald Kahn, an important benefactor of the Salzburg Festival—and of The New Criterion. Schmid plays the “Lady Jeanne,” a Stradivarius bought by Donald and named after Mrs. Kahn, his widow. Our friend died a few days before this concert. In remarks before playing, Schmid dedicated his performance to Donald. And how did he play? With earnestness and skill. But without the jazz or freedom that Bernstein really ought to have, certainly in this work. The music was marred by sobriety.

Nothing marred the Brahms serenade. Graf conducted, again, with excellent taste. The work was smooth, amiable, gemütlich. The Scherzo burbled beautifully. Best about this performance was its sheer unforcedness. Graf did not try to make the piece bigger or more important than it is. It is not a symphony. The music breathed a casualness that matched the cool summer air.

In the Mozarteum’s Grosser Saal—where the air is seldom cool (I’ve referred to this room as the “Grosser Sauna”)—a leading wind ensemble gave a concert. The worst thing about them is their name, or how they render
it: the ensemble-wienberlin. The Vienna-
Berlin Ensemble. Amid their program were works by two living composers who were featured at this year’s festival: Sir Harrison Birtwistle and Toshio Hosokawa. The former’s opera Gawain, written in the early 1990s, was staged. The ensemble played his Five Distances for Five Instruments, written about the time of Gawain. I have no doubt that this piece, like others by Sir Harrison, is mathematically or scientifically interesting. Musically, it is less so, I believe. The Hosokawa piece is a new work, Ancient Voices. I hope readers will forgive me if I note that many works written by East Asian composers are ancient-voices pieces. This one is pleasantly sinuous and lilting—repetitive without quite being minimalistic. Then a panic sets in, and the music tries not to scream. I would like to hear Ancient Voices again, which is higher praise than it may sound.

Our ensemble played one encore, a piece they had played on the first half of their program: one of Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles from 1953. These little pieces have marvelous markings—such as Presto strepitoso, or an obstreperous presto. The bassoonist muffed the final note of the encore. It didn’t sound, so he blew again—then it sounded. His colleagues pretended this was charming, and the audience followed suit. Remember that, the next time you make a mistake, especially in public: It was charming!

About the Vienna-Thielemann Bruckner Fifth, I said it should have been great, and was. Riccardo Muti’s Verdi Requiem, with the same orchestra, should have been great too. He is one of the best Verdi conductors of our time. The Vienna Phil. is more than capable. There was a quartet of first-rate soloists: Krassimira Stoyanova, Elina Garanca, Piotr Beczala, and Dmitry Belosselskiy. We were in the Verdi bicentennial year. The stars were aligned. But someone may have forgotten to tell Muti.

The soprano, Stoyanova, was superb. She reinforced my belief that she is one of the great underrated performers of today. Beczala is also superb, of course, but he had a bad case of the flats on this night. The other two singers were fine. But Muti was out of sorts. I could give paragraphs of detail—painful detail—but the main point is that this Requiem was dull. Shockingly dull. The Sanctus had to be heard to be believed. The work as a whole was basically without its drama: its immense drama. When it was over, the audience applauded and applauded, as Salzburg audiences do. I turned to some friends sitting behind me and said, “How long would they applaud for a good performance?” Muti had two more performances of the Requiem to go. I’m sure they were better, possibly great.

Bear with me a second: In the next few days, I came upon a display of gingerbread men at an open-air market. Austria is known for its gingerbread. The cookies looked fantastic. I picked the best-looking one and bit into it. It was stale. No good. But, for a split second, I could see how I might will it good. It was supposed to be good. The expectations game is very important, too important, in music and other spheres of life.

One of the Verdi operas presented was Don Carlo, conducted by Antonio Pappano—Sir Antonio Pappano, he is now. As expected, he conducted with a sure hand. I will say of him what I said of Daniele Gatti: Some of his tempos were a little brisk for me, a little unsavoring, or unexploiting. Sir Antonio could have wrung more pomp and drama out of the score. More character. The amazing encounter between the King and the Grand Inquisitor might have been a little slower. (The low strings of the Vienna Phil. were great here, by the way.) Yet, Sir Antonio was scarcely impeachable.

The cast was uniformly capable, and, in the interest of space, I will mention just two members. The title role was sung by Jonas Kaufmann, who is one of the most popular singers in Europe. There is something like a Cult of Kaufmann (as there is something like a Cult of Muti). I respect Kaufmann, as I’ve written many times, and I admire him. But the cult, I don’t entirely get. For Don Carlo, he was somewhat light-voiced, and his sound was often swallowed. But he did some commendable singing, especially when soft. Positively smashing was the Elisabetta, Anja Harteros. She was correct, arresting, and altogether overwhelming. This soprano is a notorious canceler. My thinking as I was listening to “Tu che le vanità” was, “If she sings like this, hire her whenever you can, and take your chances.”

I may be wrong—this is just a suspicion—but I believe some of the singers, on this night, were miked. I understand this is happening more and more frequently in opera. There are two sides to this debate, or more, and I respect the sides. I can’t help thinking, however, that miking is a cheat.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt, the veteran Austrian, conducted a rarity: Haydn’s oratorio Il ritorno di Tobia (The Return of Tobias, whose story is taken from the Apocrypha). The libretto, much scorned, is by Giovanni Gastone Boccherini, brother of the composer Luigi. Antal Dorati, the late Hungarian-American conductor, recorded this oratorio. He was extraordinarily devoted to Haydn, every highway and byway. There is some excellent music in Tobia—and some of this music is strongly Bach-like. Haydn wrote it just 25 years after the master’s death.

The soloists, on average, were fair, and the chorus was quite good: the Arnold Schoenberg Chorus, based in Vienna. The orchestra was a period band, an offshoot of the Zurich Opera Orchestra—they call themselves La Scintilla. Sometimes they scintillate, sometimes they don’t. Underlying everything, though, was Harnoncourt: his understanding, his musicality, his commitment. When his singers or players were dull, he was not. Years ago, a famous singer asked me, “Which Bach cantatas do you prefer?” Those recorded by Harnoncourt or those recorded by another famous conductor? The singer’s own answer was Harnoncourt: “Because he conducts like he believes it.”

All of my biases made me skeptical of Salzburg’s Norma. I will count the ways. In the title role was a mezzo, not a soprano: Cecilia Bartoli. And I thought her customary style would be unsuited to the role. In the pit would be a period band, led by a period conductor: a Baroque specialist, a wheat-germ-and-sprouts man. The production would be an “update”: set in the French Resistance. Ay, caramba. In an essay published in the program booklet, the dramaturgist asked, “How is it possible to breathe life into this work today?” Again, ay, caramba. Norma is pulsing with life (and death)—always will be. The Salzburg crew thought that people today could not “relate” to Gauls, Romans, and Druids. If you’re a human being, you can. The true Norma is timeless.

The production proved duly absurd. I could mock it, scaldingly and probably entertainingly, at length. But let’s not waste the time. Early in the performance, I sort of wrote off the production and concentrated on the music.

The period band—this same Scintilla—was ugly and sloppy, eschewing bel canto style, or traditions. Bartoli was far from a classic Norma: not cool or ethereal. She was hot, as she usually is. She was sometimes over the top, as she often is—vocally hyperactive. But she was also sensational, brilliant, and compelling. She was a “beast,” as Georg Solti once described Inge Borkh. He meant it positively, and so do I. Bartoli was an untraditional but supreme Norma.

On this night, Adalgisa was smaller than Norma, vocally. She was Rebeca Olvera, a Mexican soprano, sweet of sound. We’re used to a scorching mezzo, à la Dolora Zajick, in this role. Yet Olvera was effective and affecting. From the seats, she looked a little like Natalie Wood. In the role of Pollione was John Osborn, an American tenor—lyric tenor. He sang his music beautifully. I didn’t know that Pollione could be sung beautifully, and not just stalwartly. The period band grew on me, then floored me. This was thanks to the conductor, Giovanni Antonini. In the sports world, they speak of “winning ugly.” That’s what these guys did. Antonini threw elegance largely aside and conducted with passion. He, with Bartoli, made Norma a blood-and-guts opera, a forerunner to, say, Il trovatore. It was electrifying.

Norma, which I have always loved as a masterpiece, turns out to be even better than I knew. Its composer, whom I have always acknowledged as a genius, turns out to be even more of a genius than I knew. (Bellini, we mean.) I owe this new understanding, or enthusiasm, to this performance.

A Mozart opera, Così fan tutte, had a new production. It was in the care of Salzburg’s head of theater, the German director Sven-Eric Bechtolf. His Così opens with some T&A: two nude girls in a hot tub. Thus he conforms to the rule I articulated some ten years ago: Salzburg is a place in which the people in the audience are overdressed and the people onstage are underdressed. And yet this Così is far from Herheimesque. It is delightful, rollicking, and comical—one of the funniest productions of this opera you will see. It’s a little silly, a little Jerry Lewis, at times. Moreover, a little drunkenness goes a long way. But the main thing is that this Così is directed by someone who obviously appreciates and likes the opera—which is not to be taken for granted.

Conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, and everyone else, was Christoph Eschenbach. You and I could pick at him for pages. But, let’s face it, he is a fine musician, and he conducted the opera creditably. This is a six-singer opera—three men, three women—and I will mention half the cast: those who had the best nights. Gerald Finley, the Canadian baritone, was Don Alfonso, and he was the picture of professionalism, as he reliably is. At the beginning of “Soave sia il vento,” however, he had a terrible case of the flats. It took him a while to get on track. Despina was a Czech-born soprano named Martina Janková. She sang with beauty, accuracy, cleverness, and—this is crucial—freedom. Sweet freedom! How singers, and others, strive for it, and fall short! Last, Luca Pisaroni, the Italian baritone portraying Guglielmo. I have described and praised this singer’s mastery in Mozart for many years now. The strange thing is, he is growing yet more masterly—and he started at a very high level.

The Capuçon brothers, Renaud and Gautier, violinist and cellist, headlined a chamber concert. They were joined by a pianist, Nicholas Angelich, and a violist, Gerard Caussé. There was a small Birtwistle piece on the program: Bourdon for violin and viola. It is beautiful and inquiring—sort of an unanswered-question piece, I would say. I wished it had lasted longer. I’m pleased to be able to say that about a piece by this composer. The evening ended with one of the great piano quartets, the Brahms G-minor. In the first three movements, the players reminded me of a truth about Brahms: He is your friend, a consoler, your advocate. He is on your side. The last movement, the Gypsy rondo, ought to be hot and tight (tight in a good sense: unified, bristlingly so). On this occasion, it was ordinary and flabby. But it had been a very good concert.

Grigory Sokolov gave a recital of Schubert and Beethoven. He is said by some to be the best pianist in the world. You would not have known it from his opening set: the Schubert Impromptus of Op. 90. They were eccentric, which is no sin, or not necessarily so. But at least one was plain bad: That was the G-flat-major one. Sokolov batted out the melody in an ugly fashion. It was as though he couldn’t hear himself. This was bewildering, from one of the smoothest sculptors you will ever hear on a piano.

On the second half of the program was a Beethoven sonata, maybe the mightiest piano sonata of them all: Op. 106, nicknamed “Hammerklavier.” The first movement was somewhat clunky, punchy, and unpedaled. But it was clear and logical. The Scherzo was unhelpfully slow. In the third movement, Sokolov made some beautiful sounds, amid his odd accents and slappings. He was not as eccentric as, say, Ivo Pogorelich. But he was a little puzzling all the same. The closing fugue was, again, clear and logical. It was also smooth. But, to my ears, it was not transcendent.

Anyway, it had been a frustrating evening. And then Sokolov began his “second concert”: his encores, which he played late into the night. The audience got thinner, leaving a devoted and adoring core. And they, we, were treated to some of the most beautiful, most refined, most exemplary playing imaginable. Sokolov played his usual Rameau pieces, plus a dollop of Brahms. Gone were clunkiness and eccentricity. In their place was purest poetry, purest singing. Sokolov was mesmerizing. He was also self-effacing, giving a lesson in musical integrity. In this second concert, you could believe that you were actually listening to the best pianist in the world, certainly one of them.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 32 Number 2, on page 48
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