This was to be a big year at the Salzburg Festival: its centennial, plus a Beethoven celebration. The festival was born in 1920; the composer was born two hundred and fifty years ago, in 1770. But the pandemic intervened, putting a damper on the festival, as on the whole wide world. Still, the show went on—in modified form. There were fewer performances over a shorter period of time. Was the festival a success nonetheless? In a way, it was more impressive than ever, given the circumstances under which organizers had to work.

I’m told that the town was devoid of Americans (including me). Prevalent were Germans. Streets such as the Getreidegasse—normally packed—were easily navigable. Photos of Salzburg in Festspielzeit (“festival time”) were eerie: so few people.

Commonsensical rules were in place, involving temperature checks, masks, and social distancing. Attendees had plenty of elbow room. Speaking of elbows, performers greeted one another onstage with elbow bumps, rather than handshakes. A critic friend of mine, Antoine Leboyer, sent me a photo of the Vienna Philharmonic. One cellist had his mask on throughout the Mahler Sixth. That would have been more difficult for, say, a trombonist.

Antoine also told me something amusing: In the concert halls, virtually no one coughed, ever. These days, if you cough, you are regarded as a potential murderer.

A number of livestreams went out from the festival, enabling me to give you a Salzburg chronicle, as I have in every October issue since 2003. Nothing is as good as being there (anywhere)—but videos have their advantages, especially when it comes to seeing characters in operas, and looks on conductors’ faces.

The year 2020 may be a Beethoven year, but Salzburg is still Mozart’s town, and the festival staged his opera Così fan tutte. This is a “young” opera, about youngsters, and the festival had engaged many of them, including the conductor: Joana Mallwitz, a German in her mid-thirties. Under her baton, the overture was nicely sculpted, and the Vienna Philharmonic sound never hurts.

Throughout the opera, Mallwitz showed “energy in the executive,” as well as intelligence. You could quibble with tempos here and there—I thought “Un’aura amorosa” was a little slow—and I gulped at malcoordination between pit and stage during “Come scoglio.” But Mallwitz is obviously a fine Mozartean and conductor.

Our four youngsters—Fiordiligi, Dorabella, Ferrando, and Guglielmo—were all satisfying, vocally and theatrically. Let me mention, in particular, the Dorabella, who was Marianne Crebassa, a French mezzo-soprano whom I have reviewed frequently. I had never heard her in Mozart (the purest, sternest test). She is such a smart singer, with a beautiful voice. Despina, the maid, was young too: She was Lea Desandre, a French-Italian mezzo whom I happened to review in last month’s chronicle. She is a former ballerina and stands like one. I thought, “That’s one classy maid.”

The veteran onstage was our Don Alfonso, Johannes Martin Kränzle, a German baritone who appeared at the Metropolitan Opera last season in the title role of Bluebeard’s Castle. (I should note that he was Bluebeard, not the castle.) As Alfonso, he was clean, nimble, and blessedly in tune.

In charge of the production was Christof Loy, a German stage director who is familiar in Salzburg. I have always respected his productions, even if I didn’t especially like or totally understand them. With Così, you can do many things, of course. The Met currently has a Così set in Coney Island. About this Salzburg Così, I have one question (primarily): why is Don Alfonso rattled, disheveled, and half-mad? Indeed, he looks strung out. Normally, he is cool, sly, and masterly.

Before I move on to our next performance, I should record a social note, or a historical one, if you like: Maestra Joana Mallwitz is the first woman ever to be engaged to conduct an opera at the Salzburg Festival.

Riccardo Muti conducts at the 2020 Salzburg Festival. Photo: Silvia Lelli / Lelli e Masotti Archivio.

Years ago, I asked Riccardo Muti, “How do you approach very, very familiar music? Beethoven’s Fifth, say, or the ‘New World’ Symphony?” (By the way, Così fan tutte is Muti’s favorite opera, along with Falstaff.) Muti said, among other things, that he acquires a new score: a fresh copy, free of his previous markings. I thought of this when he mounted the podium to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic—and vocal forces—in Beethoven’s Ninth.

You know, this is a very, very familiar piece of music, one of the most familiar in all the world. But I don’t hear it very often in concert. Do you? I hear it almost never. I wonder why. Could it be that its length is awkward? The symphony takes about an hour and fifteen minutes to play, so the question is, Do you put something before it? Should the symphony serve as the whole concert?

I’ll give you a personal memory: Between my house and my grandparents’—by car—the duration was exactly the time it took George Szell to conduct the Cleveland Orchestra in the Ninth. He began as I left one driveway and finished when I arrived at the other.

I will not describe Muti’s Ninth in detail. Suffice it to say that it was mature, unshowy, and fitting. The opening of the Adagio was transcendent. Between the Adagio and the Finale, Muti dawdled not at all. He launched into the Finale, with notable intensity.

First to sing in that last movement was Gerald Finley, the Canadian baritone. I once interviewed him in front of an audience at the Salzburg Festival the morning after he had sung in A German Requiem. I said, “Let me ask you: The baritone has to sit there for almost a half-hour and then deliver a perfect, glowing A, on the word ‘Herr.’ How do you do it?” (I thought there might be some tricks, such as singing along with the chorus beforehand, discreetly.) Finley shrugged and said, “It’s what I do.” In other words, I’m a pro. I loved that answer.

And, of course, I thought of it when he entered the Beethoven after a very long sit (through the whole of the Adagio and the beginning of the Finale). The baritone enters on the momentous words “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!” and Finley did so very well. Like a pro, in fact.

The tenor, alongside him, was Saimir Pirgu, an Albanian. I was present for his Salzburg debut in 2004. That was in Così, as Ferrando. I had to joke a little: “an Albanian playing an Italian disguised as an Albanian. Only in America!” Pirgu handled his role in the Ninth expertly, declining to bark, which was a pleasure to hear (or not hear). Tenors in this music fall prey to barking.

To Michelle DeYoung, the American mezzo-soprano, I once hazarded the opinion that you can’t really hear the mezzo in the Ninth. She said, “You know what I tell my fellow mezzos when they’re going to sing this part? ‘Wear a pretty dress.’ ” On this occasion, Marianne Crebassa did, and she made her presence felt, however modestly. Beethoven’s soprano, on the other hand, has a critical role, which was filled ably by Asmik Grigorian, the Lithuanian: strong, acute, and arresting.

Above, I mentioned that, in these videos, you can see what orchestra members routinely see and audience members do not: the conductor’s face. Muti’s was very interesting to look at. At one point, in the Scherzo, he made a very bad face: disgusted. I rewound the tape to see what the problem was. I think he wanted certain players to play softer. I would have hated to be on the receiving end of that look. Of course, he gave much friendlier ones too.

What does “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!” mean, by the way? “O friends, not these notes!”

I might mention something else as well, a matter of stage etiquette: I see Muti conduct the Vienna Philharmonic rather often—and he tends not to take a solo bow. He prefers to stand to the side and have others bow.

Daniel Barenboim played an all-Beethoven recital—beginning with the Piano Sonata in A flat, Op. 110. In this sonata, you can hear the notes that Beethoven would employ, a few years later, for “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!” Barenboim then played the Diabelli Variations. He was marking the seventieth anniversary of his stage debut—which took place when he was seven, in Buenos Aires. He was also marking the fifty-fifth anniversary of his Salzburg Festival debut. Barenboim has appeared more than eighty times at the festival, as pianist and conductor.

Is he still a pianist? Or is he a venerable conductor and ex-pianist, who dabbles at the piano, calling on the indulgence of the audience? No, he is still a pianist. Some of his playing in this recital was a little bumpy, and there was perhaps an emphasis on the gentle, inward, or autumnal. But he is still a pianist, absolutely.

Juan Diego Flórez, the Peruvian tenor, sang a recital: his usual, comprising Italian songs and arias and French songs and arias, topped off by Spanish songs as encores, accompanied on the guitar by the singer himself. But there was a twist this time: Flórez began with German art songs—with Lieder, I kid you not. He sang two by Beethoven and three by Strauss. Fritz Wunderlich sang his Italian arias in German, but Flórez was singing his German songs in German. It was fascinating to hear that familiar voice—complete with little bleat—in a different repertoire.

Did he pull it off? Yes, he did. He was occasionally unorthodox, but in at least one song, “Zueignung” (Strauss), he was downright moving.

Flash forward to encore time, when Flórez brings out his guitar. “Danke schön,” he says to the audience. “Did you like my German? Okay, right, for the first time? Now this is Spanish. I know this one.” The man has charm, in addition to his other valuable qualities.

I heard about Igor Levit before I heard him, at the piano—that was in February 2017. Levit, to remind you, is a pianist who was born in the Soviet Union in 1987 and went with his family to live in Germany when he was about eight. Before he arrived to play his recital in New York three years ago, I heard ecstatic things about him and his abilities. I was a little skeptical, frankly, as it would have been only natural to be. The title of my review turned out to be “Igor Levit: It’s True.” “His performance of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations,” I wrote, “was a feat of understanding, affinity, technique, musicality, and stamina (mental stamina, mainly). It was a peak pianistic experience in my concertgoing life.” I have heard him several times since, in a variety of repertoire, heavy on the Beethoven.

Igor Levit performs at the 2020 Salzburg Festival. Photo: © SF / Marco Borrelli.

In this Beethoven year of 2020, he was asked to play all thirty-two sonatas at the Salzburg Festival. That is an extraordinary honor for a pianist—yet it was Salzburg, really, that was honored. Levit played the thirty-two in a series of eight recitals. There were encores, including at least one Joplin rag. My plan was to write in detail about Levit’s playing of one sonata, only: the one in D major, Op. 28, known as “Pastoral.” I have copious notes in front of me, covering the four movements. But I would like to touch on other performances at the festival, before closing out this chronicle. So, about Levit, I’ll make a simple statement.

I’m not much of a ranker: This one’s best, this one’s second-best. Music is not tennis. We don’t rank them. A range of musicians have a great deal to give, and we value them all. But I think of a line that Dave Wasserman uses. He is an American political journalist who specializes in House races. On an election night, when he is ready to call a race, he says, “I’ve seen enough.” And then he says that Smith or Jones or whoever has won.

In that spirit, let me say, I’ve heard enough: Igor Levit is the greatest Beethoven pianist I have ever heard, on recording or in the flesh. No disrespect to Backhaus, Brendel, or anyone else. If Beethoven could hear what Levit is doing, I think he’d say, eyes wide, “Yes, that is what I have in mind.”

I mentioned that I was present for Saimir Pirgu’s Salzburg debut, in Così fan tutte, in 2004. I also remember Elīna Garanča’s debut, the summer before, in another Mozart opera: La clemenza di Tito. The Latvian mezzo made a lasting impression, and she has gone from strength to strength. This summer, she sang Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Vienna Philharmonic under Christian Thielemann.

Singers and conductors can treat these songs too delicately. They can treat them as precious, ethereal beings, barely approachable by mortals. Garanča and Thielemann treated them with unusual straightforwardness. They were straightforward—human—even in the last song, “Träume.” Therefore, the songs—all five of them—were more moving than ever. Wagner has built the sublimity and transport in.

The concert continued with a Bruckner symphony, No. 4, known as the “Romantic.” Thielemann presided in his blue “Dr. Evil” suit. I want to say he was “business-like,” but that can be interpreted as “cold.” Thielemann was no colder than George Szell, who was a superb Bruckner conductor. Szell let the music speak for itself, and so did Thielemann. After a while, I forgot the conducting, frankly; I just listened to the Fourth. It was a bracing, cleansing, uplifting experience. Thielemann was right in every particular, not excluding the rests. But he was out of the way. And the Vienna Philharmonic soloists—from the principal horn on down—were first-rate.

Earlier, I brought up a matter of stage etiquette, when talking of Muti. After the Bruckner, Thielemann turned around on the podium to face the audience first—before anyone else had stood. This surprised me. But he was very generous with others’ bows thereafter (and he was the linchpin of the performance, to be sure, along with Bruckner).

Since you and I are blunt with each other, let me say that Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat can be dorky. I’ve never appreciated it more than when Evgeny Kissin played it, with the Vienna Philharmonic under Gustavo Dudamel. Kissin was logical, masculine, and virtuosic. It’s not that he didn’t allow the concerto its fun. But he played it with a conviction that served the piece well, in my judgment. And Dudamel helped with his color and flair.

Can we be blunt about Elektra, the Strauss opera? About its casting, in particular? It’s usually cast with two battle-axes and a sweetie: Elektra (battle-ax), Klytämnestra (ultra-battle-ax), and Chrysothemis (sweetie). Orest is a baritone—or bass-baritone or bass—in his glowing prime. Ägisth is a semi-retired tenor, picking up a comprimario gig. But in Salzburg’s Elektra this summer, everyone could sing, beautifully. (Each had any necessary bite, too.) It would be hard to imagine a more impressive Elektra, vocally.

Aušrinė Stundytė, a Lithuanian soprano, was in the title role. She has a rare combination of power and lyricism. Her portrayal was subtle. At the same time, it did not skimp on the madness. In my view, Stundytė was close to an ideal Elektra. Klytämnestra was a German mezzo, Tanja Ariane Baumgartner, and Chrysothemis was a second Lithuanian, the aforementioned Asmik Grigorian (who starred in another Strauss opera, Salome, last summer). An Australian bass-baritone, Derek Welton, was Orest, and a German tenor—a long way from retirement—was Ägisth. That was Michael Laurenz.

None of this impressive vocalism would have meant much without Franz Welser-Möst and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Welser-Möst conducted with marvelous Straussian fluidity. The score had all its tenderness and terror. In the Recognition Scene, the orchestra expressed great yearning. Sitting at home, I swear, I had shivers down my spine.

As we began with Mozart—the hometown hero—let’s end with him. Andrew Manze, the Englishman, conducted an all-Mozart concert. The orchestra was a local band, and a very good one: the Mozarteum Orchestra of Salzburg. Its principal horn, Rob van de Laar (a Dutchman, as his name tells you), was the soloist in the Horn Concerto No. 2 in E flat. The pianist Francesco Piemontesi (another man whose name gives his origin) was the soloist in the “Coronation” Concerto. These two soloists are elegant and skilled players. About Manze’s Mozart conducting, I have rhapsodized before. He is a brainy musician and a natural, friendly leader who takes great pleasure in Mozart. So do the players under his baton. You can see it in their faces (as well as hear it in their playing).

What a gift, this conducting, and this music, and music in general—never more than in a screwy, sorrowful, dislocating time.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 2, on page 55
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