The resident band at the Salzburg Festival is the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. The vpo plays steadily throughout the festival, in concert and in operas—especially the latter. The orchestra has no music director, but rather an unending stream of guests. This summer, five conductors conducted the orchestra in concert: Christian Thielemann, Andris Nelsons, Riccardo Muti, Daniel Barenboim, and Esa-Pekka Salonen.

One Monday night, Nelsons stood before the orchestra for Bartók and Mahler. Nelsons is a Latvian, a protégé of Mariss Jansons, the late, great conductor. Jansons was a staple of the Salzburg Festival. Since 2014, Nelsons has been the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

The Bartók he conducted was the Piano Concerto No. 2. And who was the soloist? The most frequent, and probably best, player of this concerto today: Yefim Bronfman. He returns to this concerto again and again. He made a crackling recording of it in 1993, with Salonen (and the Los Angeles Philharmonic). It is fearsomely virtuosic, one of the most difficult concertos in the repertoire.

Andris Nelsons conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in Time with Bartók at the Salzburg Festival, 2022. Photo: Salzburg Festival / Marco Borrelli. 

A few years ago, I podcasted with Bronfman, and asked him about the Bartók No. 2: Is it the most difficult piano concerto? No, said Bronfman. He regards the Brahms No. 2 as harder, and also the Prokofiev No. 2. But he had a subsequent thought: he learned the Bartók No. 2 as a teenager, and the others later (as I recall). That makes a difference. It’s harder to learn a concerto later in life.

In the middle movement of the Bartók, Bronfman was beautiful and wise, and so were his partners: Nelsons and the vpo. As for the outer movements, they were fine. The first movement was a little careful—studied. When it ended, I jotted a word in my program: “gentlemanly.” The last movement ought to be smoldering, jagged, electric. From Bronfman, it usually is. On this night, however, it was slightly subdued. I almost want to say “autumnal.” The great Bronfman has had better outings, and will again.

Bronfman was sublime in the Arabeske. It was perfectly phrased, utterly Old World.

For an encore, he sat down and played the “Revolutionary” Étude of Chopin. He would again two nights later, when he played a recital in the Great Hall of the Mozarteum. (The vpo concert was played in the Great Festival Hall.) There were three encores, the night of the recital: the “Revolutionary”; then another piece by Chopin, the Nocturne in D flat; finally, some Schumann—his Arabeske. Bronfman was sublime in the Arabeske. It was perfectly phrased, utterly Old World. I thought of a pianist whom Bronfman admires a great deal, perhaps above all: Gilels.

Back to the Vienna Philharmonic, on that Monday night. What Mahler did Nelsons conduct, after intermission? The Symphony No. 5. This is the one with the famous, beloved Adagietto. It is also the one with which Leonard Bernstein is buried. A score of the symphony was laid across his heart.

Mahler Five opens with the trumpet alone. Jürgen Pöchhacker filled the Great Festival Hall with that little instrument, and filled it beautifully. Andris Nelsons himself is a trumpeter, or was. He played in the orchestra of the Latvian National Opera. In an interview, I once asked him, “What do trumpets do in opera, generally?” He said, “Well, they announce things.” So true.

Obviously, Nelsons did many excellent things in the Mahler Fifth, and so did the orchestra. The conductor’s tempos were unusually slow. Critics like to say “daringly slow.” Rightly slow? Nelsons had me for a while—convinced me—then lost me. I thought the momentum of the symphony was stalled. I thought that too many notes were “placed,” rather than occurring naturally. I scribbled in my program, “With these tempos, you’d better bewitch.” Personally, I was more bothered and bewildered than bewitched. But others had a different experience. You could tell by their applause at the end.

Later in the week, there was an all-Bartók concert in the House for Mozart. This was a chamber concert, involving six musicians. The evening began with the Contrasts, that piece for violin, clarinet, and piano, which Benny Goodman commissioned in the late 1930s. Does it have some jazz in it? Yes, but so does other Bartók, not commissioned by jazz legends.

Our violinist for the evening was Isabelle Faust, a German. She is a smart, tasteful musician. That is the kiss of death: it sounds like I’m calling her boring. I am not. She is highly musical, and plenty soulful. But she is also smart and tasteful—which is good. Our clarinetist was Daniel Ottensamer, who belongs to a royal family. His late father, Ernst, was a principal clarinetist in the Vienna Philharmonic. So is Daniel. Daniel’s brother, Andreas, is a principal clarinetist in the Berlin Philharmonic. In the Contrasts, Daniel was smooth and adept. He moved, he bent, gracefully on the stage. He is athletic, even dancer-like.

And I had a funny thought: he looked rather like his instrument—tall, thin, and, owing to his concert wear, black.

Our pianist was András Schiff—Sir András Schiff—who has become something of an éminence grise at the Salzburg Festival. He has his fingers in many musical pots. He takes part in a variety of concerts. Schiff was born and raised in Budapest. I imagine that he has lived with the music of Bartók for a long time—his entire life.

Faust, Ottensamer, and Schiff delivered an excellent account of the Contrasts. They listened to one another. They also listened to the composer—what he is saying—which is indispensable.

Next on the program was the Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2. It is a brainy work. It is also packed with emotion. In other words, it is Bartók. Was Isabelle Faust smart and tasteful? She certainly was. She also brought out the drama of the work. Sir András did the same. Often, he played with what I can only call a rounded percussiveness, which is just what is needed for Bartók.

At the end, Schiff warded off applause for a long time, evidently trying to create, or sustain, a moment. (A minute?) From my seat, it looked like Ms. Faust was slightly amused, or bemused, by this.

The second half of the program was given over to one work: the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. In addition to Schiff, Dénes Várjon, another Budapest-born pianist, participated. The percussionists were Martin Grubinger and Erwin Falk. The latter is the principal timpanist of the Vienna Philhar­monic. The former is a “multi-percussionist”—a jack of all percussionistic trades—and the leader of the Percussive Planet Ensemble. He is also a local boy, a Salzburger.

Grubinger is an extraordinary musician (and I apply this word, “musician,” to a percussionist consciously).

Grubinger is an extraordinary musician (and I apply this word, “musician,” to a percussionist consciously). He is full of music. He is pulsing with music, bursting with it. In his hands, a whack is not a whack. There are a thousand degrees of whack. He is alive to every vibration, to every gradation of pressure. It is a pleasure to watch him work, as well as to hear him.

This was a delightful, invigorating performance of the sonata. The audience responded with wild applause, eventually clapping in rhythm. They wanted an encore. But what else can such a collection of musicians play? They repeated the third movement—which I believe was a mistake. The third movement, the second time around, had nothing like the impact it originally had. Applause after the encore was . . . kind of polite.

The musicians would have been better off if they had left the audience wanting more. The audience would have been better off, too.

On a Tuesday night, Riccardo Muti conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in a program beginning with the Symphony No. 6 of Tchaikovsky. Had a program ever begun with this symphony? As a rule, a program ends with it. But the Muti/vpo program was shrewd. And the Tchaik Sixth was superb—absolutely devastating. They don’t call it the “Pathétique” for nothing, I suppose. The final movement, Adagio lamentoso, was loaded with lament indeed. Laced with pain. Practically unbearable.

I will give you an aside: it is customary for the audience to applaud at the end of the third movement. It is a rousing march with a boffo ending. It is well-nigh unnatural not to applaud. But, on this night, the audience in the Great Festival Hall didn’t. Why? Because the performance was subpar, unrousing? Not at all. Rather, the audience knew—knew that the symphony wasn’t over.

After intermission, Muti conducted a rarity of Liszt. I, at least, would call it a rarity: the Symphonic Poem No. 13, “From the Cradle to the Grave.” This is the last of the composer’s symphonic poems; he wrote it in his final years. The piece begins with the gentle rocking of the cradle. After a journey, it ends with a similar rocking—valedictory. Muti likes to champion orchestral Liszt—pianistic Liszt needs no such advocacy, and even the composer’s songs are frequently heard—and Muti thus renders a service.

Last on the program was some opera: the prologue to Boito’s Mefistofele. Doing the honors as the devil was Ildar Abdrazakov, the Russian bass. He wore shiny red shoes for the occasion—diabolical. And his singing was just the same: diabolical, Mephistophelean. By contrast, the prologue contains one of the great hymns in all of opera. Others might be “Va, pensiero” (from Verdi’s Nabucco), the Easter Hymn (from Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana), and the Bridal Chorus (from Wagner’s Lohengrin). Boito’s hymn was filling—filling up the hall and every listener in it, I imagine.

The continuity of music is a blessed and consoling thing.

Among the singers was a children’s chorus. I could not help doing some calculating. A few of those kids must have been, say, ten. A few of them will live into the twenty-second century. And they will be able to say that they sang under the great Muti, born in 1941, some of whose teachers were born in the nineteenth century. The continuity of music is a blessed and consoling thing.

A slate of pianists gave recitals. Bronfman, I have mentioned. There were also Daniil Trifonov, Yevgeny Kissin, Grigory Sokolov, Arcadi Volodos, Maurizio Pollini, and Igor Levit. Those were the pianists scheduled to play, I should say. Kissin, indisposed, was replaced by Yuja Wang. Pollini was also indisposed. The audience in the Great Festival Hall was seated, ready to hear him. But the festival’s artistic director, Markus Hinterhäuser—a pianist himself, by the way—had to make the unwelcome announcement that Pollini had had to withdraw. Off the audience went, in its finery.

I will touch on Volodos—whose recitals I have reviewed many times. There is a certain sameness about the annual Salzburg appearances of this great Russian-born pianist. Typically, he plays a late Schubert sonata. This year, it was the one in D major. Volodos can be expected to play these sonatas—and much else—with intelligence, heart, cleanness, and profundity. This is what he did with the D-major, in the House for Mozart, with the stage lights low. (Volodos seems to like it dim or dusky.)

The second half of the recital was devoted to Schumann: Kinderszenen and the Fantasy in C. You may wish to know how Volodos played a particular slice of Kinderszenen: “Träumerei,” which Horowitz made famous ’round the world as an encore. From Volodos, it was beautifully sung, another Schumann song, to go with the real ones—the ones with words. How about the Fantasy in C? Frankly, Volodos can do better. He can play this piece more coherently, for example. The arc of the piece was imperfect. But you see that standards for Volodos are high.

As usual, he played an additional little program of encores. Encores from this pianist tend to be gentle in nature—poetic, if you like—rather than virtuosic. Volodos, of course, has more virtuosity than almost anybody. But he chooses to keep it holstered. Yes, there is a sameness about these recitals—sometimes, I would vote for a little more adventure—but it is a sameness I would gladly seek out. And, in fact, do.

The recital of Arcadi Volodos at the Salzburg Festival. Photo: Salzburg Festival / Marco Borrelli.

Daniel Barenboim conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in an operatic evening: Act II from Samson and Delilah (Saint-Saëns) and Act II from Parsifal (Wagner). Barenboim has been undergoing health challenges. He looked enfeebled. Some in the audience were worried that he would not make it safely to and from the podium. When he reached the podium, he sat on a chair to conduct. How did he do? He got through the evening, I would say. He was respectable. He has been conducting for a long time—sixty years. His instincts, and his experience, kicked in.

A question: was Barenboim wrong to have gone ahead and conducted? Should he have ceded the podium to someone else? This question was discussed by patrons in Salzburg. I think it was a close call. But I believe that Barenboim was justified in going ahead and conducting. Again, he got through the evening respectably.

And I will tell you something interesting: he was better in the second half—which went until almost midnight—than in the first. He picked up a little steam, it seemed to me.

Having an abundance of steam all evening long was Elīna Garanča (who was both Delilah and Kundry). I well remember the Salzburg debut of this Latvian mezzo-soprano: she was a slip of a girl in 2003, singing Annio in La clemenza di Tito (Mozart). I also remember a vpo concert in which she sang. It was in 2008, and the conductor was Garanča’s countryman, Mariss Jansons. They performed Les Nuits d’été (Berlioz)—and it was splendid.

In the Saint-Saëns and the Wagner, Garanca showed a range of colors, and a range of weights (vocal weights). She adapted to the phrase or moment at hand. In both technique and musical understanding—and theatrical understanding—she was sovereign. There is no more talented or capable singer before the public today.

Michael Volle, the German baritone, was the High Priest in Samson and Klingsor in Parsifal. He is ever dependable. And he had a very good night: commanding of voice and authoritative in interpretation.

Our tenor? Our Samson and Parsifal? He was Brandon Jovanovich, from Billings, Montana. He sang well. Beautifully. Unfortunately, he had no high notes. Now, how can I say that a tenor sang well, and sang beautifully, when he had no high notes? One possible answer: most of the notes sung by Samson and Parsifal are not high. And yet, audiences remember the ones that are. And a tenor without high notes is a tenor without his bread and butter.

On the stage of the Felsenreitschule was Katya Kabanová, the masterpiece by Janáček. It was very clear that this opera is a masterpiece from the performance. Conducting was Jakub Hrůša, a Czech whom we heard in New York last season, leading the Philharmonic. In Salzburg, he was leading another Philharmonic, the Vienna. The production was in the hands of Barrie Kosky, the Australian stage director. Hrůša had an outstanding night, conducting with great fluidity, and alertness, and sweep, and pathos. The Vienna players responded to him with all they had (which is considerable).

Five or six cast members deserve paragraphs of their own, but I will spend my last dollop of space on the soprano in the title role. She was Corinne Winters, an American—previously unknown to me. She is a genuine singing actress. You could hardly take your eyes off her, or your ears off her. Never has Katya been more understandable, more pitiable, more tragic, in my experience. Winters just killed you.

As I left the hall, I ran into a friend of mine, who has been seeing operas for—well, at least as long as Barenboim has been conducting. She said, “She reminded me of Stratas”—a very good comparison.

I thought of the great role portrayals I had seen in opera: the Norma of Joan Sutherland; the Otello of Plácido Domingo; the Desdemona (sticking with that opera) of Renée Fleming; the Philip II of Ferruccio Furlanetto; the Sarastro of René Pape. All those singers are big names. Corinne Winters is not. But ladies and gentlemen, I tell you in all candor, her Katya Kabanová is one of the best role portrayals I have witnessed in all my days.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 2, on page 49
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