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17.8.11

Notes from the 2011 Salzburg Festival ( 10 )

Chamber Concert 3

There’s something most gratifying about a concert that fulfills its promise. High expectations met or even exceeded spell an enjoyable evening at the concert hall or opera house and more-so a feeling of genuine contentedness afterwards. If you are a bit spoiled with good music and go to many concerts, the hit rate for such concerts turns out to be something like one out of ten, possibly less, with various degrees of ‘reasonably enjoyable’ in between.

The immense, possibly unique, quality-density at the Salzburg Festival offers something closer to one in three. (It may sound pessimistic or even ungracious, but that’s a genuinely excellent rate, much better, I should think, than the chances of seeing a really superb film at the theaters… and I find the highs are generally higher than those of a film, the impressions more lasting.) That’s why the festival is so exciting, especially this year with Markus Hinterhäuser in charge. And that’s why some of the most attractive programs are found elsewhere than in the big fancy opera productions with their titles held in the same bold orange as the program notes that go with them. Tucked away in the ‘green’ concert series of the Festival (blue is reserved for the considerable theater and drama branch of the Festival), which includes the guest orchestras, Camerata Salzburg performances, Mozart matinees, chamber- and soloist recitals, Mahler Scenes, a complete Shostakovich Cycle, and the Kontinente series of contemporary music, are some of the gems for ‘collectors’, the keen ears, the aficionados, and the insatiably curious. While the cameras and crowds on August 10th were all focused on the premiere of Věc Makropulos (The Makropulos Affair) at the Grosse Festspielhaus next door, the House for Mozart hosted a true chamber gem within its doors.


The first chamber concert—Schulhoff, Korngold, Mozart—was already a joy, but my first starry hour of this Festival came in form of the most full-blooded Pierrot lunaire (Arnold Schoenberg, op.21, from 1912, when he still had an umlaut) I’ve had the pleasure to hear. Pierrot lunaire, Schönberg’s expressionist performance piece for a quintet of musicians and a speaker/singer based on Albert Giraud’s poem(s) of the same name, can easily fall with the reciting protagonist, and it can’t rise to the top without a quintet of completely engrossed musicians. With Mitsuko Uchida, Mark Steinberg, Marina Piccinini, Clemens Hagen, and Anthony McGill (the young principal clarinetist of the MET orchestra) at work on the piano, violin (& viola), flute (& piccolo), cello, and clarinet (& bass clarinet) the latter was a given. Their eyes were still lit up half an hour after the performance, the joy of performing Pierrot lunaire still palpable.

Perhaps the principal danger is that the pitched Sprechgesang veers into the hiccupping-exaggerated-ridiculous, cheating the inclined listener of the creepy, the haunting, or sardonically, morbidly grotesque elements. When Pierrot bores a hole into the head of his adversary and proceeds to smoke his tobacco from the latter’s skull (Jeffrey Dahmer greeting from the wings), you don’t want the audience chuckle for the wrong reasons.

Barbara Sukowa, a theater and film actress famous in German speaking countries and, through Fassbinder films like Lola, beyond, bent the pitched speaking part of Schönberg’s to her dramatic needs and stood amid the musicians on a pedestal or whispered over the flutist’s shoulder during their duet. Incidentally Schönberg is on record saying that he gave more or less a damn whether the indicated pitches were all nailed by the performer (male or female, though usually the latter), he rather wanted the character of the work to be bang-on. Sukowa, like a white-blonde apparition from within a cauldron of music did precisely that, with an actor’s dramatic skill and a happy performer’s genuine enthusiasm, and although taking liberties with astonishing pitch-accuracy and perspicuity. The groove, fluidity of the work, with pointillist colorization from the constantly changing instrumental grouping was so inescapable, the end so tender and consoling in its leave-taking, that no one who had attended the performance, from reactionary music critic to complete neophyte, didn’t have a great time. Pierrot lunaire has come a long way from shocking to society-crowd pleaser (a number of people, incorrigible or fearful or both, had bolted at half-time, admittedly), but perhaps Schoenberg’s quip is actually true: “My music isn’t difficult, it is just badly performed.”

Nothing was badly performed that night, which had started out with the Schubert Notturno, a single movement for piano trio in which the strings—Mark Steinberg and Clemens Hagen—matched the gentility of Uchida’s piano-work. Their pizzicato was delicate and thoughtful (not the standard, boring pluck-away) as the three musicians slowly found their way through the opening, more electric or leathery, and sonorous and lyrical in the reoccurring slow bits. The Steinberg-Uchida connection is a good one; it came to my attention when the two recorded Mozart Sonatas for Philips “a one-off, but lots of fun” [Uchida] some years ago… not just the single best Mozart Violin Sonata disc I know, but one of my favorite releases of the last ten years.

The heart of the chamber concert, if it hadn’t been for heart-melting Pierrot, was to have been Ian Bostridge performing Schumann’s Dichterliebe. Bostridge’s hairdo looks a little like Butthead’s (of Beavis & Butthead notoriety), on a gangly tall man whose figure is no longer ‘explained’ by a boyish face but at once accentuated and balanced by the much-matured face. With the contortions the same as they have always been, he now looks a little like a turkey singing for his post-Thanksgiving life.

Bostridge’s reputation as a Lieder-singer is well established and the qualities remain the same: perfect diction, pronunciation, elocution. His is a strong voice, now slightly darkened, less concentrated and no longer with the hint of chorister properness that once informed it. His reading isn’t artless (à la Gerhaher) and he has a tendency to sing out of the side of his mouth, but it’s also never operatic or affected and he never pushes his voice. After a hitch in the opening “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai”, he rendered these 16 miniatures (so successful not the least because of their economy, eschewing unnecessary notes or repeats) with a great variety of emotion, favoring the grotesque over light humor (the latter isn’t his thing or at least not his idea of Dichterliebe, and gives everything 105% which can, depending on listener-sensibility, take away (by way of mannerism) from the present naturalness of the voice. Interested listeners will be able to judge for themselves, since Dichterliebe was recorded for CD release next year.

Photos courtesy Salzburg Festival, © Silvia Lelli