The Salzburg Festival offers a great variety of performances, and I will offer a variety in this chronicle: a voice recital, an orchestra concert (with violin soloist), an opera in concert, a piano recital, a staged opera, and a chamber concert. The voice recital was given by Christiane Karg, a light lyric soprano from Germany. She was accompanied by Malcolm Martineau, the Scottish-born pianist.

Their program was an unblushing mixture, a real salad. It began with Wolf and then went to Montsalvatge. After intermission, there were five French composers, and two concluding songs by Samuel Barber, who stands as probably the best composer of art songs that America has ever produced. The first Wolf song was “Kennst du das Land.” This was interesting in that “Kennst du das Land” often functions as an encore, or a late-in-recital piece. But Karg wanted to lead off with profundity and poignancy.

She sang the song beautifully and un-derstandingly. There was a kindness in her voice. There was also great concentration, of mind, voice, and everything else. As Karg sang, a listener could think of nothing but that singing, and that song. Is this common? No, not really. Karg is a high lyric, but she showed a fine low voice. And she sang the rest of her Wolf set at a high level—high in quality. Her main problem, technically, was a little trouble sustaining long notes until the end of their time. With interpretation, you could have quibbled here and there. I thought “Ich hab’ in Penna” was too polite. But another song, “In dem Schatten meiner Locken,” had its quirky character. Also, Karg demonstrated the subtleties of her native language, German. And although she is a light lyric, she could project power when she wanted to, in this hall (the Grosser Saal of the Mozarteum).

Without pause, she and Martineau went into their Spanish set—a conceit of recital life these days. They’re all doing it: not pausing. They want to establish, or emphasize, connections. The last of the Wolf songs were from the Spanisches Liederbuch, and the next set was Montsalvatge. Get it? Blech. In any event, Karg sang her Spanish songs nicely. She was smooth, natural, and unaffected. You might have asked for more color in one or two of the more exuberant songs, but Karg was not bland. She evinced a clear love for the music. And I heard a dog not barking: She was singing completely in tune. You often don’t notice pitch, when it is right.

After intermission, Karg sang Duparc, Ravel, Hahn, Koechlin, and Poulenc. This part of the recital amounted to the Greatest Hits of the French Repertoire. Missing, however, was Hahn’s most famous and beloved song: “A Chloris.” Karg’s account of “L’invitation au voyage” (Duparc) was transfixing. There was, again, kindness in the voice. Most of these songs were refined and touching. A few were sinuous. All were sincere. I like my “Hôtel” (Poulenc) a little bluesier, but that may be an American bias. Speaking of hotels—and connections, and America—the Barber songs were “Solitary hotel” and “Sure on this shining night.” I have a hard time not hearing Leontyne Price in these songs, for she was Barber’s great champion.

As the hall rang with applause, out came Karg for an encore, and it was—I should have guessed—“A Chloris.” She had been holding it in reserve. One singer, Susan Graham, calls “A Chloris” her favorite song. From beginning to end, Christiane Karg gave us a beautiful, intelligent, and delicious recital, reminding us how great a song recital—especially one of mixed repertoire—can be. Incidentally, I did a public interview of her five years ago. She is, as you know, a light lyric soprano. But her favorite voice of all time? Pavarotti’s. Many top singers have this view, along with the planetary multitudes.

I have a friend, a professional violinist, who says, “At this point, I only go for the dress.” He means that he attends a performance by Anne-Sophie Mutter, the glamorous German violinist, only to see what she is wearing. At the Grosses Festspielhaus, she walked out in a stunning yellow number, and the crowd roared. She had them already. She was getting ready to play the Tchaikovsky Concerto with the Vienna Philharmonic and Riccardo Muti. In the first movement, she took extraordinary liberties, ridiculous liberties. Muti heroically tried to follow her, but she was virtually unfollowable. (Muti is not used to following, by the way—he’s used to leading.) Mutter’s playing was spacey. She made an adequate sound, however, and she truly played the cadenza. What I mean is, she played all the notes—and I could not have told you that she was capable of it, at this juncture of her career. Her trilling, to mention one technical detail, was exemplary.

At the end of the first movement, the audience applauded, as an audience cannot help doing. Tchaikovsky obviously wants them to. Mutter just mopped her brow in this hot hall and talked with Muti. She never looked at the audience. Maybe that’s what passes for manners in this neck of the woods.

In the middle movement, the Canzonetta, Mutter’s playing was sometimes warped and sometimes dreamy. Always, it was individualistic. And the Vienna Phil.’s woodwinds were outstanding. How Tchaikovsky loves wood-
winds, as his ballets and other pieces prove! The Finale, Mutter genuinely played, just as she had played the first-movement cadenza. The notes were really and truly there, not fudged over. Yet the music needed more fire, bite, and fun.

She treated the audience to an encore, and I mean treated: It was some Bach D-minor, played with poise and mastery. She reminded us—reminded me, at least—that she is famous for a reason.

Muti is famous for a reason too, and on the second half of the program he conducted another big piece in D major: the Brahms Second (Symphony). The opening movement breathed beautifully. I thought of the late conductor Bruno Walter, and his gentleness and humanity. I also thought of Brahms’s gentleness and humanity. The horns were warm, supple, and unflubbing. Horns can do this? Yes, they can, in this orchestra. Pizzicatos in the strings were not together, however, which is par for the course, in orchestras the world over. Brahms’s second movement was as admirable as the first. But the third was a little staid—and the fourth, marked Allegro con spirito, seemed on autopilot. There was nothing wrong with it, except that it was short on its impetus and thrill.

As a rule, audiences in the Grosses Festspielhaus applaud long and loud for the Vienna Philharmonic and its starry conductors. The applause goes on and on, with the maestros coming back for curtain call after curtain call. The applause on this occasion, however, was on the tepid side, and Muti sensed this. He took the orchestra off the stage very quickly. He is such a canny pro, in every aspect of the business.

The next night, in the same house, a much younger and less known conductor led a concert performance of Werther, the Massenet opera. He was Alejo Pérez, an Argentinian. His orchestra was not the vaunted Viennese but the Mozarteum Orchestra. The music began badly—with a botched entrance—and there was sloppy playing thereafter. But there was also some good playing, and the conductor showed competence and an essential musicality. I must say, it was interesting to hear Werther without a production (that is, to hear it unstaged). At first, I thought, “This opera could really use a production.” Without theater to watch, you notice more than ever the score’s longueurs or banality. But you also notice what is good, inspired, and even somewhat inventive in that score. There is excellent music here, and not just the hit (tenor) aria, “Pourquoi me réveiller.”

That aria, like the rest of the title role, was sung by Piotr Beczala, the Polish star. All night, he poured forth creamy tenorial sound. He was youthful, romantic, ardent. His vocal apparatus was “hooked up,” though he did a little—just a little—croaking, sharping, and spreading. Beczala sounded generous and warm, just like he did years ago. He was at times a little unsubtle—belting it out there—but I think he was reveling in his form.

His Charlotte was Angela Gheorghiu, the Romanian star. But she’s a soprano, right? And Charlotte is a mezzo, right? Well, it’s a ’tweener role, sung by mezzos and sopranos alike. It lay a little low for Gheorghiu. She could not really show off. Charlotte’s “high” notes—chiefly an A—were not terribly impressive from this singer, because there was no strain, and there were obviously several notes above those. But Gheorghiu is a very shrewd artist. As I say about another soprano, Anna Netrebko, her musical and theatrical IQ is off the charts. More than ever, she portrayed her character with her voice, for there was no production around her. And I’ll tell you something funny: When Beczala was singing the hit aria, La Gheorghiu looked like she wanted to sing it herself.

She has a reputation for being a difficult colleague—Countess Dracula—but I believe I saw a bit of collegial generosity at the end of the evening. The young conductor received some boos. I believe Gheorghiu noticed this. When an usher handed her a bouquet, she worked very hard to yank out a bloom to give to the conductor. After, she clutched him close, and faced the audience with him. I could be wrong, but I think this was an act of protection and sympathy.

Two nights later, Arcadi Volodos played a recital in the Haus für Mozart. He played no Mozart, however. His program consisted of Brahms and Schubert. Volodos is a Russian pianist, a Russian virtuoso, and a bear of a musician. He has a monster technique. Yet he likes to play programs that are unvirtuosic and profound. He sits back in a chair, like Radu Lupu, not on a bench. And he plays thoughtfully. Still, he can unleash a little technique on you now and then. He’s often like a big cat, liable to pounce at any time.

His first half was all Brahms, beginning with the Variations in D minor, Op. 18b. These are seldom heard, and so are the variations I am always plumping for: the Variations on an Original Theme in D major, Op. 21. Volodos played the D-minor variations with order, balance, and beauty. Then he played the Eight Piano Pieces of Op. 76. Volodos handled these with sensitivity and intelligence, though his playing did not achieve maximum silkiness—the quality you might get from, say, Krystian Zimerman or Grigory Sokolov. After intermission, Volodos played Schubert’s Sonata in B flat, D. 960. Every pianist wants to play this, and does. Can you, in the house, possibly hear it again? Yes, particularly when it is played as well as Volodos played it on this occasion. I have but one complaint, more like a quibble: Volodos emphasized the awkwardness of the Scherzo’s Trio, when such emphasis is unnecessary—because the Trio is awkward already.

The tradition is, a pianist never plays an encore after Beethoven’s last sonata, Op. 111. It is the last word. Should you play an encore after the Schubert B-flat, sublime as it is? Volodos did. In fact, he played two. First came a rarity, though it is a favorite Volodos encore: Schubert’s Minuet in C-sharp minor, D. 600. Then came more Brahms, in the form of the Intermezzo in E-flat minor, Op. 118, No. 6. Volodos gave a recital of tremendous artistry and soulfulness (and no little pianism). But next time, maybe a burst or two of fireworks, even in the sanctified atmosphere of Salzburg halls?

In 2014, I rhapsodized about a new production of Der Rosenkavalier by Harry Kupfer. No dummies, the Salzburg Festival repeated it in 2015. (Not because of me, I hasten to say.) I will do no further rhapsodizing this year and note only this: I fear I’ll become one of those codgers who, on seeing a new production of something, say, “Yeah, but you should have seen Production X.” I doubt I will ever be able to see Der Rosenkavalier without remembering—perhaps with a Marschallin-like sigh (“Ja, ja”)—the Kupfer production.

Marschallins and Octavians tend to last, season after season. Sophies tend to be new, because they must be fresh, pure, and girlish. Salzburg retained Krassimira Stoyanova, the Bulgarian soprano, as the Marschallin, and Sophie Koch, the French mezzo-soprano, as Octavian. Stoyanova, quite simply, has entered the pantheon of Marschallins. Koch is an experienced, adept, and convincing Octavian. Sophie this season was Golda Schultz, a young soprano from South Africa. She had the requisites of her role, such as gossamer high notes and a girlish spirit. As before, Baron Ochs was Günther Groissböck, the Austrian bass. In his text, Hofmannsthal specifies that Ochs is a fat slob. Groissböck, however, is fit, handsome, and brutish. He is nimble verbally, vocally, and physically. You cannot take your eyes or ears off him.

Thinking about the Vienna Philharmonic, I think of an ancient English expression: “Once a man has gained fame as an early riser, he can sleep until noon.” The Vienna Phil. has gained fame as a precise and sumptuous orchestra, and so it is—but not always so. Under the baton of Franz Welser-Möst, the orchestra began slipshod and overly loud. It soon settled into its work, however, delivering a Rosenkavalier worthy of the Vienna Philharmonic. Welser-Möst was never less than adequate, and he was sometimes wonderful.

I happened to see this opera two nights after The Marriage of Figaro, its forebear and model. The relationship is striking. Also, I had never quite noticed what a scherzo the whole of Act III is. (A scherzo with trio!) It is a bona fide, sustained Mendelssohnian scherzo—although perhaps it would be better to say “Straussian.”

Finally, I recall something that Barbara Bonney told me in an interview some years ago. She was singing Sophie, and the director wanted her to sing her part of the Presentation of the Rose with her back to the audience. She said to the director, “You know, a soprano like me works so hard on singing this music, and looks so forward to it. Would it be okay if I faced the audience?” The director—in an act of disloyalty to his guild—relented.

In the Mozarteum’s Grosser Saal, where Christiane Karg sang her recital, the Belcea Quartet played two canonical works: Beethoven’s String Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131, and Schubert’s String Quintet in C, D. 956. The extra cellist they needed for the Schubert was Valentin Erben, who in 1969 co-founded the Alban Berg Quartet. The Berg players served as mentors of the Belcea. The younger quartet was established in 1994, and is led by Corina Belcea, a Romanian violinist.

As they played the Beethoven, I had the luxury of being able to stop reviewing, mentally. I could just listen to the C-sharp-minor quartet. The players were integrated, understanding, and expressive. (Indeed, the composer marks his first movement “molto espressivo.”) Corina Belcea did some fine soloistic playing, and, thankfully, it was in tune. She didn’t fuss much, and neither did the quartet at large. The Presto movement was not a model of precision, but everything else was foursquare. Were the depths of the music plumbed? Maybe not, but the music is deep enough, just as it is on the page.

Schubert’s string quintet is a peak of music, and a peak of art. At the Belcea’s reading, I could pick, as anyone could—but the whole was greater than the sum of the parts. The players demonstrated good, honest music-making. They recognized the sublimity of the music, but were not precious. They were forceful when they needed to be. They eschewed the la-di-da. As I listened, and watched, I wondered, “How many times has Valentin Erben played this” (either one cello part or the other)? Hundreds, no doubt. I bet he has counted it a privilege, each time. The applause for the players went on and on, enthusiastically, and after several curtain calls, they walked in front of their chairs and came to the very front of the stage to bow. They played no encore, which was wise. Schubert’s string quintet is the last word.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 34 Number 2, on page 56
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