You can tell that the Salzburg Festival is wrapping up when the local camera teams, trying to catch a glimpse of B- and C-celebrities, are thinning out, when outside seating at the Triangel restaurant across from the Festspielhaus becomes easily attainable, when the days get notably shorter than they were at the height of July and the temperature drops. The spot of the Festival’s last orchestral concert traditionally belongs to the Berlin Philharmonic, and after the out-of-this-world Firebird from the Concertgebouw Orchestra and Mariss Jansons, the Berliners under Sir Simon Rattle had to do something very special to see that their appearance would not be an anti-climax.
The Pieces Are Coming Together
Fortunately, they did have something special on offer, namely the programming. After Wagner’s Parsifal Vorspiel and Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs with Karita Mattila, Sir Simon programmed a veritable Second Viennese School workshop: Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces op.16 (1909), Anton Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra op.6b (1909, rev. 1928), and Alban Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces op.6 (1914, rev. 1929). In a very succinct introduction, Rattle asked to abstain from applause between the works, so that they might be appreciated as a triptych, “…or more—maybe even as an imaginary 11th Symphony of Gustav Mahler.”
What a daring, good program. Not so much a crowd pleaser as it is a taste-builder. This wasn’t going to elicit the ecstatic applause the Concertgebouw got post-Stravinsky, and indeed many in the audience fled pretty much immediately after the March from Berg’s 3 Pieces ended, but every disturbed set of ears was matched by a grateful, spellbound set that got lost in Schoenberg, Webern, Berg. Spellbound by the yearning love that Webern’s opening “Langsam” exudes, the cautious restlessness and search of “Bewegt”, the sweet longing of “Mäßig”, the looming, cloudy slowness of “Sehr Mäßig”, the road to serenity in “Sehr langsam”, or the mourning in the final “Langsam”. By the impossibly compelling climaxes of the “Präludium. Langsam” in Berg (finally putting an end to all distracted coughing), the audible heartbeat in “Reigen. Anfangs etwas zögernd – Leicht beschwingt”… by the rousing, gripping “Marsch. Mäßiges Marschtempo“, with Wozzeck bleeding through the score. One of Berg’s great skills is that he can cumulate climaxes, one after the other, without losing any tension in the stops, only re-gripping to further tighten the screws. The trombones, finally, burst out (Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District-style) with a sexuality that belies any ideas of dry, theoretic dodecaphonic music.
Wagner from the Fridge
The Berliners, though distracted by a hearing-aid with its high-pitched feedback that reared its ugly head throughout, traded some of their perfection for grit and brawn, made Rattle proud and many in the audience very happy, indeed. That their Second Viennese School ended up more moving and romantic than the first part of the program was partly due to their excellence in the latter, partly due to blasé Wagner and cold Strauss. With little mysticism, nor even the absolute precision they are uniquely capable of under Rattle, Parsifal was more stuffer than spiritual experience. And The Four Last Songs, insensitive to Karita Mattila’s need to sing through the wall of sound around her, didn’t stir, didn’t move, and would have been unintelligible even if Rattle had taken his band back whenever he realized that Mattila was in trouble. Mattila was warmly received from the audience anyway, and half sang, half yelled a Straussian “Habet Dank” back at them, but the best thing about her that night was a tastefully purple, body-hugging dress that, in sharp departure from a dress recently worn during Strauss in Munich, didn’t make her look like a GDR shot putter.
Outside the Festspielhaus an old but sharp lady approached me, shaking her head about that ‘modern, newfangled music’, and how she could not be expected to like it, or applaud after it. Since I wasn’t going to pretend to agree, I tried to make the Second Viennese School slightly more palatable to her in the gentlest terms possible, suggesting that if she—by her own admission—could find it impressive or even rousing, just not beautiful, she was already three quarters of the way down the road to appreciating it. ‘Beauty’, in the conventional sense, isn’t the point of these works, but then that isn’t the point of something like Le Sacre (which she likes), either. And I couldn’t help point out that, and I went about this tactfully, the music she just heard and found so awfully ‘new’ was older even than she. There we are: A century later, Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg are still poster boys for “New” music.