Grant that there is no good year for a pandemic. Every year is the wrong year. But if the leaders of the Salzburg Festival could have chosen a year, I wager, they would not have chosen 2020: the centennial of the festival. But the show went on last year, with determination and heart. There were fewer performances than usual, and fewer patrons. But the show went on.

It certainly went on this year, in 2021, though it may have looked a little funny: patrons were required to wear masks—and not just any masks, but the ffp2 mask (which has a beak). Before getting into a concert hall, patrons were required to show either a covid-19 vaccination card or proof of a recent (and negative) test. Still, these seemed minor inconveniences, if inconveniences at all. My impression was, people were glad—extra-glad—to be at their Salzburg Festival.

Mozart was onstage, as usual, in various forms—including the form of Don Giovanni, that extraordinary opera of 1787. The production was a piece of work. But before I get to the production, let me say something about the music-making. Marilyn Horne, the great mezzo, once observed that critics tend to go on about a production, mentioning the singers at the end of their review, almost as an afterthought.

Setting the singers aside for a moment, I’d like to begin with the conductor: the straw that stirs the drink. He was Teodor Currentzis, the Greek-Russian sensation. There is a lot of hype around him; it is basically true. He is a very musical being, though you may disagree with some of his choices. On this night—as on all of his nights, I gather—there was “energy in the executive.” He is incapable of conducting a dull phrase. But neither is he obnoxiously energetic. The orchestra in the pit was his own, musicAeterna. That’s how the name of the band is rendered. Don’t shoot the messenger, or reporter.

The cast was youthful and capable. I will single out the soprano portraying Donna Anna, Nadezhda Pavlova. Yes, there is a new Pavlova in town. Her bio tells us, in its first sentence, that she is “one of the most exciting singers of her generation.” Please be aware: virtually every singer’s bio begins with something like this. But here, it is probably true. Pavlova has voice, technique, wit, allure—all of it. And if she can sing Mozart, that taskmaster, she can sing almost anything.

Opera is “lyric theater,” and I gravitate to the lyric, rather than to the theater.

At the beginning of this production, a church is stripped bare. This takes a long time. Usually, the stage crew breaks down a set at the end of the night. This time, the crew breaks down the set at the beginning. A goat scampers across the stage. (This must stand for Don Giovanni’s horny ways.) A car crashes down from on high. Eventually, Leporello sprinkles what seems to be fairy dust. He has a Xerox machine. There is an old man in a bikini. People are juggling basketballs. Don Ottavio is dressed in some white costume, and he has ski poles. He also has a poodle. There is often a touch of Liberace-in-Vegas.

I could go on, or mock on, but I will stop. The director is Romeo Castellucci, a celebrated Italian. A smart guy, he knows what he’s doing. But do you know? When you’re sitting in the audience, do you get all the symbols, all the points: religious, political, and social? I will admit to a bias. Opera is “lyric theater,” and I gravitate to the lyric, rather than to the theater. Yet opera is both. It is not a concert. Even when you or I might wish it were.

Also onstage was Handel—in the form of his oratorio Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno. This is hard to translate. The first part of it is easy: “The Triumph of Time and of . . .” “Disillusion,” you could say. But not in the sense of disappointment or dissatisfaction or the crushing of hope; in the sense, rather, of the loss of illusions, a freeing from deception. Did I say “oratorio,” a minute ago? Yes, but this work is an oratorio that can be opera-ized—staged—as it was in Salzburg.

Handel wrote it in 1707, when he was but twenty-two. He reworked the piece twice, in later years, and borrowed from it throughout his long career. The hit aria in it is “Lascia la spina, cogli la rosa”—better known as “Lascia ch’io pianga,” from the opera Rinaldo. When you write a tune like this one, you employ it at every opportunity.

Il trionfo is an allegory, presenting four characters, or figures: Beauty, Pleasure, Time, and Disinganno (let’s call him). Beauty is the target, tussled over by Pleasure, on one side, and the team of Time and Disinganno on the other. Guess who wins? As the title tells you, it is not Pleasure. The message of the allegory is tempus fugit, don’t get ensnared in the sensual, and all that.

It is offbeat and modern, yes, but it is in harmony with the oratorio, or opera.

At the risk of offending Marilyn Horne, I will say a few words about the production, before getting to the music-making. The director in Salzburg was Robert Carsen, the famed Canadian. The idea is this: The City of Salzburg holds a beauty contest, and the winner is launched on a career of modeling—and the “high life.” Our winner, of course, is Bellezza, or Beauty. Carsen uses video, shot with his cast around town. I could relate interesting detail, but suffice it to say that the production works. It is offbeat and modern, yes, but it is in harmony with the oratorio, or opera. The production did not distract from the music, taking over the evening.

Our orchestra was not musicAeterna but Les Musiciens du Prince-Monaco, of which Cecilia Bartoli is the artistic director. She was also Piacere—Pleasure—in the show. Conducting the orchestra was Gianluca Capuano, a regular collaborator with Bartoli. He is a dependable and knowledgeable musician.

In the role of Beauty was a rising Swiss soprano, Regula Mühlemann, who is rising for a reason: like Nadezhda Pavlova, she has all the tools. Furthermore, she is fresh, appealing, winsome. “To eat,” as my grandmother would say. Tempo and Disinganno were portrayed by two veteran Americans: the tenor Charles Workman, from Arkansas, and the countertenor Lawrence Zazzo, from Philadelphia. Each sang with beauty (as well as Beauty), maturity, and conviction. They may not have been the “names” in the cast, but they more than held their own.

Cecilia? In her mid-fifties, she has a lot of singing left in her. The technique is still there, the voice is ample—and she seems to be growing in musical and theatrical wisdom. What’s more, she is a leader. I would like to say she is “infectious,” but that is probably the wrong word, in this day and age. Her enthusiasm, discipline, and commitment are catching, lifting up those around her.

There are regular pianists at this festival, and four of them are Grigory Sokolov, Evgeny Kissin, Arcadi Volodos, and Igor Levit. (I have followed age order.) All of these are Russian-born, though none has lived in Russia in a very long time. This year, Kissin played a recital that began with Berg’s Op. 1—the sonata he published in 1910. It continued with several works by Khrennikov. The first half ended with the Gershwin Preludes.

These last two composers were surprising, to me. Tikhon Khrennikov was a Communist apparatchik, the longtime chief of the composers’ union. He participated in the persecution of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and worthy others. Kissin is a staunch anti-Communist. He may also be an understanding sort—someone who understands the pressures that Soviet composers, like all Soviet citizens, were under. In any case, Khrennikov was a good composer. Kissin and Gershwin? I was merely surprised—and pleased—to see the two together.

The second half of this recital was all-Chopin: a nocturne; three impromptus; the Scherzo in B minor; and the Polonaise in A flat, “Heroic.”

I will speak in general terms about Kissin’s playing, except to speak specifically about his Gershwin. The first of the Preludes was strange—unidiomatic. Interesting all the same, however. The second—that beguiler and luller in C-sharp minor—was a little unusual, but fine. And the third—which is almost Prokofiev-like in the brusqueness with which you can play it—was very good. Mainly, however—and personally—I appreciated Kissin’s appreciation of Gershwin.

Okay, my general terms: I have never heard Kissin—whom I’ve been listening to since he was twelve, in 1984—play better. He has hit his stride. His playing was clean, accurate, smart, and soulful. Often dazzling, too. He had complete control of his fingers and his mind. His Chopin was full of character. In a sense, he played two program-enders: the scherzo and the polonaise. As though he couldn’t decide, or wanted to have his cake and eat it too! Both were played in the grand, excellent style.

The encores were generous, as they usually are from Kissin. The third was another Chopin scherzo—the one in B-flat minor. I thought this was gilding the lily, frankly—too much, like another steak. The fourth and final encore was “Clair de lune.” I couldn’t remember ever hearing Kissin in French Impressionism. He played his Debussy sensitively and affectionately, if with a couple of ill-judged accents (on the blunt side).

In our program booklet, there was a note from the pianist. His teacher—the only piano teacher he has ever had—had passed away at ninety-eight. She was Anna Pavlovna Kantor. (The first two of those names seem to be a theme of this chronicle.) The two were very close, and, in fact, the teacher lived with her student and his family. “Everything I am able to do on the piano, I owe to her,” Kissin said in his program note. He dedicated the evening’s recital to his teacher.

Benjamin Bernheim is a French tenor, blessed with a stunningly beautiful voice. I say “blessed”—does Bernheim get any credit at all? I’m sure he has worked, and cultivated. With another Frenchman, the pianist Mathieu Pordoy, he sang a recital. The first half was all-French—and one piece: the Poème de l’amour et de la mer. Chausson’s piece for voice (usually a female one) and orchestra? Yes. That piece is as much an orchestral work as a vocal one—arguably more so. It was very odd to hear it with voice and piano, good as Bernheim and Pordoy were. If they had wanted to do a French first half, why not a number of songs? Proper mélodies?

I have a rude question: would her songs be sung today if they did not have a connection to Robert?

Yet the Poème was premiered, in 1893, by a tenor. And the composer, M. Chausson, accompanied him on the piano. So maybe I should keep quiet . . .

The second half of the Bernheim–Pordoy recital was German and English. There were groups of Schumann and Brahms songs, and three songs in English. The Schumann was not Robert but Clara. I have a rude question: would her songs be sung today if they did not have a connection to Robert? I have a second question, even ruder: would those songs be programmed if there weren’t a felt need to increase the presence of female composers on programs? Honestly, I don’t know the answer to either question. (There are worse songs than Clara’s, trust me.)

Bernheim and Pordoy ended their printed program with those English numbers—beginning with “The Salley Gardens,” in the Britten arrangement. On this occasion, it was unusual, even bizarre: fast and lighthearted. How could the last line—“and now am full of tears”—make sense? Maybe it did, to some. In the final position was that terrific program-ender, and show-stopper, of Frank Bridge, “Love went a-riding.” It was fine, from our performers—but could have been sturdier. Could have had a crisper, steadier gallop.

The best was yet to come. The duo offered two encores, beginning with “Morgen!,” the Strauss song, which you don’t often hear from a tenor. Pordoy played the opening superbly—without sentimentalism, and with genuine taste. Bern­heim was splendid. Exemplary. In countless hearings, I have never heard the song better. The last offering was an opera aria, “Pourquoi me réveiller,” from Werther (Massenet). Bernheim filled the hall with beauty and pathos. Everyone went home—or to a café—satisfied, I feel sure.

I have rhapsodized about Andrew Manze before in these pages, and I must rhapsodize again. He is an English conductor, and he is fast becoming a tradition at the Salzburg Festival: he conducts the Mozarteum Orchestra in an all-Mozart concert. Above, I described Teodor Currentzis as “a very musical being.” So is Manze. His Mozart is sharply etched, graceful, and alive. Not obnoxious, rightly alive. “Dullness is the cardinal sin of performance,” said Liszt. Manze is not dull. Of special note is his sense of rhythm. In music, we tend not to use the word “timing,” as we do in comedy. Regardless, Manze has it. This is an asset, not least in Mozart.

About Cecilia Bartoli, I said I was avoiding the word “infectious.” I should avoid it about Manze, too. But he is a leader, to whom an orchestra responds. They often smile at him, or smile back at him, for he is smiling, too. I think of a Leonard Bernstein book title: The Joy of Music.

As the Missa solemnis is one of the greatest works of Beethoven, it is one of the greatest works in music.

Of a very different character is an opera by Luigi Nono: Intolleranza 1960. It is a one-acter, commissioned for the 1961 Venice Biennale and dedicated to the composer’s father-in-law, Arnold Schoenberg. It is a political opera, dealing with injustice: dislocation, arrest, torture, and so on. It was given a vivid—and duly disturbing—performance in Salzburg. Ingo Metzmacher conducted the Vienna Philharmonic, and Jan Lauwers was responsible for the production. I would like to relate two thoughts, of a personal nature: Sitting in my seat, I could not help thinking of the horror in Afghanistan, then unfolding. I also could not help thinking: Luigi Nono was a member—a fervent, faithful member—of the Communist Party. And to hear about political injustice from such a person . . . Anyway . . .

As the Missa solemnis is one of the greatest works of Beethoven, it is one of the greatest works in music. Odd that there are few opportunities to hear it. In Salzburg, Riccardo Muti led the Vienna Philharmonic, and associated forces, in this work. I had heard it in Salzburg once before: at the Easter Festival in 2007, when Bernard Haitink led the Berlin Philharmonic et al. It was not that outstanding conductor’s best night. Muti had a very good night in the Missa solemnis. You might not have agreed with every interpretive choice he made. For me, some parts were too leisurely, too easygoing—I wanted something stricter. But everything Muti did was musical, and I thought, “Jay, your problem is, you listened to the Klemperer recording about a thousand times when you were younger.” A recording can get lodged in someone’s head—lodged as “right,” and exclusively so.

Riccardo Muti has appeared at the Salzburg Festival for a cool fifty seasons. So great is his esteem at the festival, people asked one another this year, “Are you going to Muti?” Not “Are you going to the Vienna Philharmonic?” or “Are you going to the Missa solemnis?” but “Are you going to Muti?”

All four soloists were commendable, but I will make particular mention of the soprano—Rosa Feola, a young Italian who is a favorite of Maestro Muti’s. She sang her part with clarity, purity, beauty, directness, and strength. She negotiated Beethoven’s high notes with aplomb. (He did not much care whether a singer could sing his notes. Pen in hand, he simply obeyed the dictates of music.) Another singer, in a sense, was Rainer Honeck, one of the Philharmonic’s concertmasters (and a brother of the conductor Manfred Honeck). He played his solo music with sweet dignity.

To hear the Missa solemnis, live, every five or ten years is to hear it too seldom. What a marvelous opportunity this concert was, as was the festival at large, in Season No. 101.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 2, on page 45
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