The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra is the resident band at the Salzburg Festival, playing in concerts and operas, night after night, day after day. Members of any orchestra like to step out now and then and play chamber music. Several vpo players did this one night at the Mozarteum. By the way, is there a concert venue in Christendom more beautiful than the Great Room of Salzburg’s Mozarteum? I doubt it.

On this chamber program, there were three works: a quartet, a quintet, and a sextet. All of these works are for strings, I should say. This was a string-only affair. The first work was Wolf’s Italian Serenade; the third was Tchaikovsky’s String Sextet in D minor, Op. 70, dubbed “Souvenir de Florence.” So this evening had an Italian theme. Yet the middle work was Dvořák’s String Quintet in G, Op. 77, which is thoroughly Czech. Happy are those programs that are not dogmatic about themes.

Hugo Wolf was a songwriter, one of the greatest who ever lived. The Italian Serenade is pretty much the only non-song by him that we know. It is a cockeyed, off-kilter, wonderful thing. The vpo players played it with gusto. Almost lustily. I like it a little more serene—more serenade-like—but these players were entitled to their enthusiasm.

A double bass joined the proceedings for the Dvořák quintet. This is an intelligent, sparky, and beautiful piece—almost a small-scale symphony. The vpo five did it justice. The opening movement, Allegro con fuoco, had its risings and fallings. It also had its essential happiness, very Dvořák-like. Exercising leadership was the first violin, Albena Danailova, who is one of the vpo’s concertmasters. She is from Bulgaria. For a long time, the vpo has been criticized for its inhospitality to women. And here is Danailova, a concertmaster (or concertmistress, we used to say—I sometimes still do).

The violinist Albena Danailova and other members of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra play a concert of chamber music at the Salzburg Festival. Photo: Marco Borrelli.

Dvořák’s second movement, the scherzo, was “ethnic,” but not excessively so, not bluntly so. And the players made a variety of attractive sounds. The third movement, Poco andante, is the heart of this work. In this heart, Danailova did some beautiful soloing, or even serenading, you could say. And the Finale was utterly gemütlich, or whatever the Czech equivalent would be. It also swung. Not for a second was any part of the Dvořák quintet dull. I thought of Liszt, who said, “The cardinal sin of performance is dullness.”

So, that left the Tchaikovsky sextet, the “Souvenir de Florence.” How did it go? I can’t tell you, because I left at intermission, in order to attend another concert, across the river, in the Great Festival Hall. Before I went to that concert, I dropped by home, my temporary home. Across the hall from me, a string ensemble was practicing. And I’ll be damned: they were practicing the Italian Serenade.

At the Great Festival Hall, they were handing out earplugs as you entered. That had never happened to me at a concert, ever. I thought of George F. Will, many years ago—1984, Google tells me. He attended a Bruce Springsteen concert and wrote about it in his column. A friend of his met him “with a small pouch of cotton—for my ears, she explained. She thinks I am a poor specimen, I thought. I made it three beats into the first number before packing my ears.” I never used my earplugs. But what in the world was the concert?

Yuja Wang and Martin Grubinger. Photo: Marco Borrelli.

It brought us the Percussive Planet Ensemble, with Yuja Wang. Wang is the starry Chinese pianist and the ppe is a group of fifteen or so. The pianist and the ensemble have played together all over the world. The leader and star of the ppe is Martin Grubinger, a Salzburg kid who studied at the Mozarteum. His dad, also a percussionist, and also named Martin Grubinger, taught at the Mozarteum. He, too, is in the ppe.

The scheme of the evening was this: The ppe, by itself, would play on the first half of the program. They would perform Rituals: Improvisations on Motifs of Igor Stravinsky. On the second half, Wang, by herself, would play some Ligeti etudes. The pianist and a smaller group of percussionists would then play Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion—in an arrangement requiring just one piano, by the elder Martin Grubinger.

I must say, I was skeptical about this Stravinsky-improvisation business. But my skepticism melted away after about five minutes. These percussionists are talented, disciplined, and altogether impressive. They got rhythm, sure, but other musical qualities as well. They are ever alert. They communicate well with one another, and their comradeship onstage seems extraordinary.

Indulge me in an aside: I have always marveled at the ability of percussionists to do one thing over and over, for a long, long time. Think of the snare drummer in Boléro. Or in the “Leningrad” Symphony. I’m afraid I would check out after five or ten bars.

Grubinger the Younger is no less than brilliant. He is versatile, instinctive, and tasteful. And personable, exuberant, and confident. This confidence must come from talent and experience, both. Also, he feels a rhythm before he enters it. What I mean is, there is a mental preparation—even a readiness of soul—before the hands begin to work.

In the Stravinsky improvisations, the percussionists had the help of a clarinetist, a trumpeter, an electric guitarist, and others. Those others included a pianist, who, technically speaking, it’s true, plays a percussion instrument. Whenever the music threatened to be monotonous, the ensemble would rescue it, with something else. You heard a touch of klezmer. A touch of the Tijuana Brass. Even some singing, or chanting, tribal-style. After a while, I lost sight of Stravinsky entirely, but it didn’t matter much.

All of this, though interesting and admirable, went on a little long for me. But I remind myself that much does: even undisputed and universally loved masterpieces such as (gulp) the “Eroica” Symphony (not to mention the aforementioned “Leningrad”). I even have a bit of trouble with The Marriage of Figaro, after Act II (don’t tell anyone).

When it was her turn onstage, Yuja Wang played her Ligeti as she usually does: with nimbleness and musicality. Vertige, i.e., “Vertigo,” sounded just like it. Wang used sheet music, concentrating hard on it. This did not adversely affect her playing, however. She also concentrated hard on sheet music during the Bartók. The percussionists, however, used none. Grubinger Junior must be the happiest person alive, when he is playing. (If you played like that, you’d be happy too.) Wang played with an appropriate Bartókian dryness. She was at her best in the slow movement, I think, deploying a stony inevitability.

A final aside, concerning the young Grubinger: When he gives a countdown, so to speak—a verbal signal to his peers—he uses English, as in “One, two . . .” English, it seems to me—American English—is the universal language of jazz and jazziness.

Grigory Sokolov performs in the Great Festival Hall. Photo: Marco Borrelli.

Pianists at the Salzburg Festival this year besides Yuja Wang included Grigory Sokolov, the storied Russian. He plays a recital at the festival every year. He always gives you moments of transcendence, even long stretches of it. Sokolov is one of the best pianists of our time. But I have never heard him play better than he did this year, from first note to last. The program consisted of Haydn and Schubert. As Sokolov neared the end of his first half, a furious rainstorm broke over Salzburg. The roof of the Great Festival Hall sprang a leak. Water was coming through a light fixture, dousing patrons in the second row. There was a commotion, naturally. But Sokolov kept playing, seemingly unaware of the problem. (He is typically in his own private Idaho.) The leak was plugged at intermission. When it came time for encores, Sokolov played Chopin’s Prelude in D flat, a.k.a. the Raindrop Prelude. Was the pianist alluding to the incident earlier in the evening? No, the prelude is simply one of his regular encores—but the thought was nice.

Among the operas was L’incoronazione di Poppea, by Monteverdi, which premiered way back in 1643. Is it really by Monteverdi, or by Monteverdi & Co.? This is a musicological question, and it need not detain us. The principal roles in the opera are those of the title character, Poppea, and Nerone (Nero). In Salzburg, they were taken by Sonya Yoncheva, the Bulgarian soprano, and Kate Lindsey, the American mezzo. At last year’s festival, Yoncheva sang a program of Baroque arias with a period band, the Academia Montis Regalis. Let me quote from my 2017 chronicle, for it applies to 2018:

Yoncheva is a curvy, juicy woman, and she came out in a clinging, plunging gown, all va-va-voom. Now, why do I mention this? First, because it’s true, and second, because she sang essentially the same way. She is an opera star, and she sang her Baroque music like an opera star—but very, very well. She reminded me of Leontyne Price in this repertoire. She was unapologetic, accurate, and thoroughly musical. She did nothing—nothing—violative of taste. And I would take her singing of this music over most specialists’ any day.

Further, what a contrast she made with the period band! They scratched and tooted their way through the music as Yoncheva delivered her lushness. It was like pouring cream over wheat germ.

Yes. As for Lindsey, she sang correctly, intelligently, and beautifully, as she can be expected to do. She and Yoncheva made for a contrast—not necessarily a helpful one. Lindsey’s voice is much smaller, but she was the man, the emperor, Nero. Yoncheva was the more imperial and imperious singer. Also, she is bigger physically. When Nero pawed at Poppea, sexually—I’ll get to the production in a minute—it was rather ridiculous, I’m afraid.

Kate Lindsey and Sonya Yoncheva in Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea. Photo: Maarten Vanden Abeele.

In the pit—two pits, actually—was Les Arts Florissants, the band founded by William Christie in 1979. He conducted at one of the keyboards; there was another player at another keyboard, in the other half of the orchestra. The stage had two dugouts, if you will, splitting the band. Some of the players stood, some of the time; some wore costumes, some of the time. Some of the time, they played enjoyably; some of the time, they scratched and tooted along, indifferently.

Sometimes a production drowns out singing. This one was in the care of Jan Lauwers, from Belgium. It is a porny production, with grotesque videos and grotesque other things.

Before the production takes over my account, as it did the opera, let me mention two other singers: Stéphanie d’Oustrac, who portrayed Ottavia, and Ana Quintans, who portrayed both Virtù and Drusilla. The former is a French mezzo, who happens to be the great-niece of Francis Poulenc. The latter is a Portuguese soprano (no relation to a famous composer, so far as I know). Each sang with considerable beauty, security, and musicality. This is what you go to the opera to hear.

But sometimes a production drowns out singing. This one was in the care of Jan Lauwers, from Belgium. It is a porny production, with grotesque videos and grotesque other things. Why Yoncheva, Lindsey, and their colleagues agreed to participate in this, I have no idea. Is “art” worth it? In the middle of the stage, on a round riser, someone is spinning, on and on. People take turns spinning, lest one person spin out of control. It makes an audience member dizzy to look at this spinning. Perhaps that is the intention.

I must say that Sonya Yoncheva is so sexy—as I described in my chronicle last year—you don’t have to gild this lily. She is poured into a dress, like Jessica Rabbit. She is walking sensuality. She does not so much walk as slink and ooze. A stage director worth his salt might have recognized this and worked with it.

Among the other operas in Salzburg this year was Salome, the Richard Strauss one-acter. Its Salome was Asmik Grigorian, a soprano from Lithuania (no matter her Armenian last name). She was sensational, singing with extraordinary freshness and freedom. Also, Salome looked like Salome, for once—like a young, beguiling Judean princess. The production was full of symbols, whose meaning was known only to the director, if to him. Salome did not get the head of John the Baptist; she got a horse head—and the headless corpse of the prophet. Go figure. Or don’t bother. Also among the operas was The Bassarids, by the late Hans Werner Henze, an opera that premiered at the Salzburg Festival in 1966. Based on The Bacchae, by Euripides, it has a libretto by Auden and Kallman. The Bassarids is a highly intelligent composition, deserving of wider acquaintance.

Asmik Grigorian in Salome. Photo: Ruth Walz.

A sensation at last year’s festival was Teodor Currentzis, the Greek conductor who has made his career in Russia. This year, he was back with a Beethoven cycle: the nine symphonies. His orchestra is musicAeterna of Perm Opera. (Don’t shoot the messenger. That’s how they render it.) There was a lot of buzz around this cycle this year. The proprietor of the guesthouse where I stay asked me, “What is the reason for all this fuss? What makes this guy’s Beethoven different from all the other Beethoven you hear?” I told him I would endeavor to answer, once I heard the concert. I attended just one of the concerts—offering Beethoven’s First and Third symphonies.

Currentzis is something to look at (just to begin with). He is tall and thin, with a mane of unruly black hair. He uses no baton but rather his long, floppy arms. He has an uncanny ability to communicate musical ideas physically; his orchestra responds to him. The orchestra plays standing up, at least those who can: all but the cellists, the timpanist, and a few others. In their Beethoven, they played period instruments, of some sort—which sort exactly, I cannot say.

The first movement of the First was fast and bracing. It had a happy intensity. The players played as though to say, “Isn’t this wonderful?” It was exciting as hell, frankly. In the second movement, Andante cantabile con moto, Currentzis did not skimp on the moto. I’m afraid he skimped a bit on the cantabile. The playing was somewhat punchy, but not offensively so. The third movement—the minuet and trio—was vivid. Currentzis was downright wizardly. As for the Finale, it begins with an Adagio and then transitions into Allegro molto e vivace. This transition can be difficult to effect—and Currentzis did it superbly, with a grin-making playfulness. Speaking of grinning, you could hardly help doing that as the Finale skipped home.

So, one thing I would say to my friend the guesthouse proprietor is: Currentzis is highly charismatic. He also has a keen grasp on music. And he is able to communicate what he knows, and feels, to an orchestra. I thought of Bernstein. If you listen to a lot of Bernstein, other conductors’ performances start to seem tame. Currentzis is like that. In Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3—the “Eroica” I took a little jab at, above—he was a little loud and unrelenting. Otherwise, he was persuasive and, again, exciting.

You know the expression “Believe the hype”? There may be hype around Currentzis, yes, and it may be annoying, yes, but it’s not baseless.

The Vienna Philharmonic gave some very good concerts, including one conducted by Riccardo Muti. It featured Schubert’s Mass No. 6 in E flat, which was sublime. Also sublime was a Bruckner Fourth, conducted by Herbert Blomstedt, the veteran Swede. It was a sublime and transcendent Fourth, a genuine spiritual experience. The audience could not stop clapping. They kept going after the orchestra had left the stage, requiring Blomstedt to come out for a final bow and wave.

Herbert Blomstedt conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Photo: Marco Borrelli.

In Salzburg, I hear a dog not barking: no one talks from the stage, as they do relentlessly in New York. At this festival, they understand that the music does the talking, the “reaching out.” It does it better than words ever could. There is a sense of the elevated at these concerts. A sense of the magical, or at least the special, not to be spoiled by the mundane. I suspect that the more purity you have in art and artistic institutions, the more popular and successful those things will be. (Music-business personnel may tell me I’m nuts.)

Shall we end on a floral note? In New York, when performances have concluded, ushers give flowers to both male and female performers. The men are sometimes embarrassed by this. In Carnegie Hall, I saw Bryn Terfel jokily pluck a flower from his bouquet to present to his (male) accompanist. I have long praised the Salzburg Festival for its policy, or custom: women only. Until now. This year, they started giving flowers to both men and women. The men were really embarrassed. Muti gave away his bouquet immediately, with what I thought was a look of disgust. He gave it to the first woman he saw (Albena Danailova, as it happened). Martin Grubinger Jr. gave his bouquet away immediately—tossing it to a woman in the first rows. Currentzis could not wait to get his bouquet out of his hands. I understand. So help me, I do.

Riccardo Muti (bottom, at far left), sans bouquet, and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Photo: Marco Borrelli.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 2, on page 51
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