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Notes from the 2010 Salzburg Festival ( 1 )

Vienna Philharmonic 1 · 50 Jahre Großes Festspielhaus

The Salzburg Festival had already opened when I got here yesterday. It’s been going on since Sunday with the opening play Everyman, the opening concert of the Vienna Philharmonic on Monday, and yesterday with Wolfgang Rihm’s new opera Dionysus. I should have liked to see Dionysus¸ and will, but until I do I contented myself with the repeat performance of the Vienna Phil under Daniel Barenboim, where he played Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto (conducting from the piano), Boulez’ Notations for Orchestra, and Bruckner’s Te Deum.

The Vienna Philharmonic, studded with strategically placed females in the Beethoven (two first violins), displayed a strange, possibly appealing chamber-like sonority in the opening of what is one of the most beautiful, perfectly balanced piano concertos ever written. The concert master stuck out particularly, with his sweetly melancholic tone—tone and playing of an old fashioned quality, which is to say: ever so slightly, wistfully out of tune. Unfortunately that was his best of the night; it went only downhill from there.

Barenboim’s pianism offered little to behold, aside from a few marvelous lyrical passages. Elsewhere it was rhythmically unstable, rushing to no effect, sometimes hasty, stealing time without giving it back, or stomping the rhythm down with his sustaining pedal foot, with a harsh attack… in short: forgettable, at best. At least they had time during intermission, when the curtain was raised to open the whole stage for the subsequent Boulez and Bruckner, to sweep up all the innumerable notes he had dropped.

But with a starry cast of singers for Bruckner promised, not many attendees will have come specifically for the Beethoven anyway. Nor for the Boulez, presumably, knowing the Salzburg audience. But to a few ears this might have been the point of particular interest, hearing the Vienna Philharmonic perform Boulez’ rich and fantastical Notations, that Barenboim-commissioned work-in-progress that has its roots in his 1945 op.1, twelve rigidly structured dodecaphonic pieces for piano. Barenboim programmed the five extant re-composed orchestral items in the order: “I – Modéré. III – Très modéré. IV – Rythmique. VII – Hiératique – Lent. Régulier, sans rigidité. II – Très vif – Strident.

I’m not sure how many members of the Vienna Phil looked forward to that, either, but at least as far as Boulez goes, Notations is pretty tame, cracks the occasional smile, and as an orchestral show-off piece it makes it easy to get into the spirit of. If there was any resistance to playing Boulez, the full-size orchestra, now up to 6, no, 7 females (adding two second violins, two harps, and one well hidden violist), didn’t show it. They acquitted themselves capably, not particularly precise and with as-you-like-it bowing, but with a much more than dutiful, if not outright enthusiastic performance. Best thing: seeing the Philharmonic’s percussionists in tails run back and forth at the wide back of the stage, trying to get to their various instruments in time.

Bruckner’s Te Deum, which I recently heard in a astonishingly soporific performance by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (otherwise the orchestra whose ‘worst’ I’d consider the ‘best worst’ of any orchestra I know—but under Daniel Harding apparently all bets are off), occupied a very special place in the composer’s œvre and heart. It was going to be his calling card when he waited in the antechamber of God. And there is of course his famous deathbed suggestion of taking the Te Deum as the final movement of the unfinished Ninth Symphony. He sketched it in 1881, composed the Seventh Symphony, then went back to it in 1883. The two works meet in the last line of the Te Deum (“non confundar in aeternum”, “let me never be put to shame”), the melody of which is central to the symphony’s Adagio.

Audiences realized the work’s value early on—it was by some measure the most performed of Bruckner’s works in his life-time. (It’s also conveniently short.) I have so far failed to ‘get it’, despite my deep, abiding love for Bruckner I prefer all his symphonies and masses to it. So in every live performance I hope to get my Te Deum Eureka moment. Would this, with such a cast—Dorothea Röschmann, Elīna Garanča, Klaus Florian Vogt, René Pape—manage? Yes—just about… but hardly because of the soloists.

For one, only the high voices—soprano and tenor—are of importance; the bass gets one short moment in the limelight and the mezzo none. Having Garanča on the bill looks nice, but that part must have been the easiest paycheck for her this season… a brief exercise in singalong. Röschmann was her usual vibrato-heavy but tasteful self while Vogt was missing some of his sheen in the heights (and the lows anyway). But the chorus and the orchestra, except for the barely intuned concert master’s solos, did well under Barenboim, who turned the terraced dynamics on and off at the flip of a switch, eliciting the music as a succession of somber exclamation marks—which now revealed themselves as Bruckner’s most confident such exclamation marks. Squeezed into proper structure, the Te Deum didn’t seem like a string of random outbursts anymore, which I had always found so confounding when compared to the symphonies. A most gratifying end to a satisfying second half.

On to Herreweghe-Pogorelich-Schumann-Chopin today.


Anonymous said...

What a pedantic review! Barenboim's interpretation of Beethoven 4th piano concert was great, particularly the second movement was excellent.

jfl said...

Most likely we have different ideas of what constitutes "great" and "especially great", but I'm certainly glad that (at least) you enjoyed it.