Music October 2019
On the 2019 Salzburg Festival.
The street music in Salzburg is exceptionally good. I have commented on it in chronicles past. I have sung of violinists, jazz ensembles, accordionists. (For some reason, there are a lot of accordionists in Salzburg, and throughout Europe.) This year, I noticed dulcimer players—three of them. One soloist and a duo. I was thinking, “This is the Summer of the Dulcimer.” I also saw a group of girls, in traditional dress, singing—a hint of the von Trapp family, so beloved of us Americans.
Most unusually, I saw dancers—two of them, a man and a woman doing the tango. (I say “tango.” It could have been another Spanish or Latin American dance, but I am not good at discerning the differences.) They danced on a mat, laid out on an ancient street, and they had a box that played music. They were stylish, alluring, intimate. The woman was astonishingly beautiful. At the end of the dance, they kissed like lovers. It was a highlight of the Salzburg Festival, at least for this visitor, and correspondent, and critic.
I will give you a sampler of the festival itself, the festival proper—beginning with an opera. It was Œdipe (“Oedipus”), by Enescu. George Enescu, you remember, was the Romanian composer—and violinist and pianist and conductor—who lived from 1881 to 1955. He lavished great care on his opera (his sole opera). He worked on it, off and on, from 1910 to 1931. The opera did not have its U.S. premiere until 2005. It is an opera very much worth hearing and seeing. The score is a blend of Romanticism and Modernism. There is a lot of intelligence behind it, musical and otherwise. There is nothing showy about it; it is not a crowd-pleaser, though it may be a crowd-satisfier, depending on the crowd. Sometimes, it is dream-like, hypnotic, reminding me of Pelléas et Mélisande, the Debussy opera (1902). There are also shades of Salome and Elektra (the Strauss operas, 1905 and 1909), with their exoticism. (The second of these operas, of course, is another Greek tale.) Yet Œdipe is its own thing.
The subject is a great one for an opera. Enescu has a French libretto, fashioned by Edmond Fleg, after the Sophocles plays. Oedipus rex, Stravinsky’s “opera-oratorio” (1927), deals with one chapter of this unfortunate individual’s life; Enescu takes him from cradle to grave.
Salzburg presented a production by Achim Freyer, the octogenarian German. It is grotesque, with big, puppet-like figures. It is sometimes hard to look at. It is replete with symbolism, sometimes opaque. It is also brilliant, dare I say, serving both the story and the music.
He sang and acted with beauty and intelligence. Guts, too.
The title role, Oedipus, was taken by Christopher Maltman, the British baritone. It is one of the roles of his career. He sang and acted with beauty and intelligence. Guts, too. Making a significant contribution in a smallish role (Tiresias) was Sir John Tomlinson, the septuagenarian bass. Touching the heart, with her purity, was Chiara Skerath, a young Belgian-Swiss soprano, who sang Antigone.
Not to be forgotten—not for a moment—is the band in the pit, the Vienna Philharmonic, which had a stellar night. When these guys commit to a work, or a performance, they really commit. Managing all this—and there was a lot to manage, between pit and stage—was Ingo Metzmacher, a German conductor who did well by a work that, if it should not be a staple, should not be a rarity.
Enescu was featured in a chamber concert, whose program included the Piano Quintet in A minor, Op. 29, written in 1940. In fact, Salzburg programmed a lot of Enescu this year, not because he had an anniversary—a sesquicentennial, for example—but just because. Which is a very good reason. Enescu deserves more time in the sun. His piano quintet is obviously a smart and serious piece, but not necessarily lovable, at least at first acquaintance. Far more winning—you could even say lovable—is his string octet, which was also played at the Salzburg Festival, in another concert.
The pianist and lead violinist in the quintet were Nicholas Angelich and Renaud Capuçon. They began the evening with two sonatas for violin and piano. Capuçon is a Frenchman, the older brother of Gautier Capuçon, who is enjoying a strong career as a cellist. Angelich is an American educated in France. Glancing at the program, I saw that they were going to play the Fauré sonata and the Brahms D-minor. But when they started, I had to look at the program again. What was that? It was the Fauré Sonata No. 2 in E minor, Op. 108, not the Sonata No. 1 in A major, Op. 13—which is widely considered the Fauré sonata.
When I checked my program, I noticed that the critic sitting next to me was doing the same. He too, I bet, was fooled.
The second Fauré sonata deserves its moment—many moments—in the sun, and our duo played it with care and panache. They gave us a steady stream of French Romanticism. (By the way, you can hear some of Fauré’s songs in this piece.) Capuçon played with particular beauty of sound. The second movement, Andante, was almost a prayer. Capuçon played it angelically without trying to make it pretty. (It is already.) I should not leave out the pianist, however, because these two were “full partners,” as we say. I might add that Mr. Angelich looks somewhat like John Cleese, the British actor.
During the Brahms sonata, you could hear one or two of the players’ colleagues warming up backstage, for the Enescu quintet to come. That was unfortunate. But I smiled at a memory: Years ago, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra was playing in my hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Maestro Levine’s guest soloist was Jessye Norman, the soprano (who is an alumna of the university in that town). During Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra, we could hear Norman warming up backstage. Some chuckled, which was awkward, but what can you do?
The Salzburg Festival always offers a slate of piano recitals. Many of the same pianists are invited back, summer after summer. Five of them this year were Pollini, Sokolov, Kissin, Levit, and Volodos. Let me tell you about the last of these, Arcadi Volodos, the Russian pianist born in 1972. If he is not the best pianist in the world, he is unsurpassed. Who might tie him? Grigory Sokolov, for example.
At Salzburg, Volodos played a recital whose first half was all Schubert—Volodos is a devotee of Schubert, like many a profound and songful pianist. He began with the Sonata in E, D. 157. This sonata is unfinished, missing a last movement. You recall that Schubert left a symphony unfinished, too. He was careless that way. The recital moved on to the Moments musicaux, a set of six, D. 780. I could go through Volodos’s playing piece by piece—almost bar by bar—but let me speak in general terms. He has nearly unerring taste. He plays in a singing line (where appropriate, as it often is). He commits no wrong accents. He gets the most out of the music—whatever it is—without forcing anything on it.
Some of these Moments musicaux are student pieces. I mean, kids learn them. Volodos made them profound, almost shockingly so. But I have not said it correctly: he did not make them profound; they just are, and his playing revealed it.
It was so dark in the hall, you could not read your program, and you could hardly see your hand. And there was just a bit of light onstage, for the pianist to play by. Whatever Volodos is doing, he should not change it.
The second half of his program consisted of Rachmaninoff and Scriabin. But these pieces included nothing virtuosic, really. Volodos would go on to play four encores—not one of them virtuosic. Volodos is a virtuoso, mind you. He has a staggering technique. No one has more. But he won’t use it, not anymore. (He did when he was younger, and making a name.) Volodos is like a guy with the hottest Ferrari on the planet who won’t take it more than fifty miles per hour or so.
In his Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, Volodos showed any number of colors. He pedaled with great shrewdness. The piano, under his hands, was hardly a percussion instrument. You had no sense of hammers moving up and down. The instrument was liquid. Sam Snead once boasted (truthfully), “When I was in my prime, I could do whatever I wanted with a golf ball.” Arcadi Volodos can do the same with a piano.
I have never heard better piano playing in my life than on this evening. As good, yes—from Horowitz, for example, and Kocsis, and the aforementioned Sokolov. Better, no way. He is an immortal, this pianist. Long has been, honestly.
Let me give you a curious footnote. Evidently, Volodos likes to play in a blackened hall. I thought of Florestan, in Fidelio (Beethoven’s opera): “Gott! welch’ Dunkel hier!” (“God, what darkness here!”) It was so dark in the hall, you could not read your program, and you could hardly see your hand. And there was just a bit of light onstage, for the pianist to play by. Whatever Volodos is doing, he should not change it.
Another of the operas was Médée, composed by Cherubini at the end of the eighteenth century. Most of us know this opera, if at all, as a Callas vehicle, performed in Italian (“Medea”). Luigi Cherubini was an Italian, true, but he had a French career. He was also greatly admired by Beethoven, which is high praise, or high admiration, indeed.
I had heard about the Salzburg production before I saw it. I heard words for and against. Sitting down with a friend of mine, who had already seen the production, I said, “Tell me about Médée—but first the singing, playing, and conducting, without reference to the production.” He said, “It’s impossible, to tell you the truth. The production overwhelms everything.” I found just the same.
The production was the brainchild of Simon Stone, an Australian. (Not to be confused with “Austrian.” In Austria, they sell T-shirts that say, “No Kangaroos in Austria.”) Stone updates the Greek tale to contemporary Salzburg. He has videos, giving the background of the story, and filling in the story as it goes along. In the audience, you have the sense of watching a movie, or a TV show. The music is like a soundtrack. Medea is stuck in an airport for a while, as she attempts to return to Corinth. Elsewhere, her children play videogames and ride skateboards. It is very interesting, and very well executed.
But I do not think it serves the opera, for this reason: while everything we see is contemporary, the characters sing of gods, and the Golden Fleece, and human sacrifice. The juxtaposition is jarring. The very sound of the music jars with the contemporaneity we see before us (although, you are right: today’s Salzburg is a lot closer to Cherubini than Cherubini was to ancient Greece). All in all, I thought the music took a backseat to the production, which I regard as backward.
Elena Stikhina, a Russian soprano, was Medea, giving it her all, and she has a lot to give, musically and theatrically. The Vienna Philharmonic was superb—absolutely superb—under the baton of Thomas Hengelbrock, a German conductor, like Ingo Metzmacher. I had to force myself—try really hard—to listen. Because the visual, the show, wanted to dominate, and surely did.
On another night, Manfred Honeck conducted the Camerata Salzburg. He is a native son, an Austrian, a former violist in the Vienna Philharmonic. His brother Rainer is a concertmaster of that orchestra. Manfred is a music director in America, at the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. In Salzburg, he opened his concert with another native Austrian, Schubert: the overture to Die Zauberharfe, or The Magic Harp—not to be confused with that magical flute, which Mozart treated. The overture, from Honeck and the group, was graceful, disciplined, and lively. Classic Honeck.
This was followed by a Beethoven concerto, the Piano Concerto in B flat, whose soloist was Lang Lang. He was not at his best, indulging in assorted eccentricities: harsh accents, excessive rubato, overpersonalization. His worst critics say he is always this way. Not true. When you show up at a Lang Lang performance, you never know what Lang Lang will show up. This is part of the excitement, I suppose. In any case, Lang Lang provided many wonderful moments in the Beethoven, as a talent at that level can’t help doing, even when he is disappointing overall.
After intermission, Honeck returned to Schubert, and not just any Schubert, the mightiest Schubert piece of all, probably: the Great C-major Symphony. Now, the Camerata Salzburg is a chamber orchestra—which means that the symphony could only be so grand, or “great.” It was unusually brisk and chamber-like, which was fitting. You go to war with the army you have. Also, I have never heard the third movement—the Scherzo and Trio—so rustic. It came right from the Austrian soil, enjoyably.
At the end of the first movement, some in the audience applauded, as is only natural—as is practically demanded. Others in the audience shushed them, which is more annoying than any applause could be.
This production is campy, clever, and very, very busy. It comes at you like a firehose.
Let us continue with our Greek theme, as the 2019 Salzburg Festival did. Among the operas was Orphée aux enfers, or Orpheus in the Underworld, Offenbach’s romp from the mid-nineteenth century. This is the opera that gives us the “Can-Can.” The Salzburg production was in the hands of Barrie Kosky, a talented Australian director, like Simon Stone. This production is campy, clever, and very, very busy. It comes at you like a firehose. It is tedious and exhausting, or so I found. I begged for a theatrical let-up, or further space for the music (not that Orphée aux enfers is the Bach B-minor Mass). Also, a little genitalia goes a long way, in opera productions and other areas of life. I wanted to say to the director, “Yeah, we’ve all seen it.”
John Podhoretz, the writer, editor, and critic, speaks of the “intolerable genius.” Danny Kaye, for example, and, later, Robin Williams and Jim Carrey. So much talent—and so relentless, so exhausting.
A coloratura soprano from America, Kathryn Lewek, starred as Eurydice. She was very effective, in all aspects of her performance. Appearing in the small role of Public Opinion was Anne Sofie von Otter, the great Swedish mezzo-soprano, keeping her dignity, as she always would.
Speaking of public opinion, how did the audience feel about Barrie Kosky’s Orphée? Most were enthusiastic, as far as I could tell.
Martha Argerich, now in her late seventies, occupies a position attained by very few (William F. Buckley Jr. comes to mind). She is both enfant terrible and éminence grise. The legendary pianist is an honorary member of the West–Eastern Divan Orchestra, which is composed of young musicians from Israel, Arab lands, and elsewhere, and is led by Daniel Barenboim. She came to Salzburg to play the Tchaikovsky Concerto No. 1 with the orchestra. The next night, she played a concert of chamber music with some of the musicians. Can you imagine the thrill for them? Can you imagine how they will regale their grandchildren?
One of the pieces was Schumann’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in A minor, Op. 105. The violinist was Michael Barenboim, son of Daniel. Years ago, some people snickered at Elena Gilels, a pianist who played with her great father. They also snickered at another Elena, Rostropovich, another pianist, who also played with her great father. Does young Barenboim deserve snickers? He acquitted himself creditably.
The final piece on the program was more Schumann, the Andante and Variations for a most unusual combo: two pianos, two cellos, and horn. Joining Argerich as the other pianist was Barenboim (Daniel). Argerich hit a real clinker—a honking wrong note—and smiled widely. She can afford to, given her status. At another point, Barenboim pointed to something in his score, commenting to the page-turner next to him. My hunch is, he was saying, “Do you recognize that tune from Frauen-Liebe und Leben” (the great Schumann song-cycle)?
About Simon Boccanegra, the Verdi opera, just a word. Salzburg had a production by Andreas Kriegenburg, a German director. It is modern, with people bearing smartphones, texting. Fine. But they also, as of old, fight with daggers and swords. This is a head-scratching juxtaposition. Salzburg’s cast had Luca Salsi (in the title role), Marina Rebeka (Amelia), René Pape (Fiesco), and Charles Castronovo (Adorno). The pit had Valery Gergiev and the Vienna Philharmonic. One word? You can go many, many a moon without hearing an opera, any opera, so well performed. Masterly from first note to last.
And now, a final word, personal. I heard about fifteen performances in Salzburg, and then—silence. No concert or opera for many days. Was I glad for the respite? The opposite, actually. I thought of Cleopatra, who “makes hungry where most she satisfies.” So it is with music. The more you hear, the more you want, greedily, but I hope understandably.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 2, on page 58
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