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Notes from the 2010 Salzburg Festival ( 11 )

Kontinent Rihm 10 - Eschenbach / Barto / WPh

It takes a confluence of circumstances (including loss of the actual ticket) and a touch of talent for disorganization to casually check the Salzburg Festival website around two in the afternoon to see if my Vienna Philharmonic concert with Christoph Eschenbach and Tzimon Barto starts at seven or eight, only to find out it had started at eleven in the morning. More embarrassing still, since I was supposed meet the artists afterwards where, eventually (instantly, hopefully), they shrugged and went to lunch without me. But then, who would have ever assumed that both performances of the Vienna Philharmonic, including the Saturday one, were at eleven in the morning?

Fortunately the understanding and kind festival press staff were kind enough to get me into the Sunday performance without as much as raising a bemused or reproachful eyebrow, and lunch—wedged between Wolfgang Rihm and Tzimon Barto’s Austro-American manager—was still had, even if Christoph Eschenbach had to rush away after the appetizer to practice some more with Matthias Goerne before leaving Salzburg to play a private gig with Barto near the Attersee that night.

In between, Eschenbach/Barto played the same Schumann program that can also be enjoyed on their most recent CD (slated to be the ‘Best of 2010’, reviewed here, and now even ‘Wolfgang Rihm-approved’, who told me that he, too, cried when listening to it for the first time). The two concert pieces for piano and orchestra, joined by the Ghost Variations to form a piano concerto of its own, are rounded out on CD by Schumann’s Bach-influenced Six Etudes in Canonic Form for pedal piano in Debussy’s transcription for two pianos (I heard Barto-Eschenbach play that later that day, in above mentioned countryside barn-cum-concert hall). In concert Schumann Second Symphony is added, which is a program I also heard in Hamburg with the NDRSO this summer, where I was to interview Maestro Eschenbach (interview forthcoming in September). And in Salzburg, with the Vienna Philharmonic playing, the concert was tacked on to the Kontinente Rihm series by adding Rihm’s “Ernster Gesang” before the symphony, after intermission.

The short work (short is always good, and especially with Rihm, who occasionally falls victim to the pitfalls of lengthiness) was commissioned by Wolfgang Sawallisch for the Philadelphia Orchestra’s celebration of Brahms’ 100th (death) anniversary in 1996. Without any blatantly obvious quotes, Rihm references Brahms’ Second and especially Third symphonies, several Intermezzi, and of course the Vier Ernste Gesänge (“Four Serious Songs”) from which Rihm takes the work’s name. It is very effective at establishing a sense of Brahms within a modern guise, modern in execution but easily accessible to the ears even of those in the audience who came despite, not because of Rihm. In a away, that doesn’t surprise, because Ernster Gesang in not just a beautiful work itself, but a lot of composers are most successful (in the above sense of ‘successful’) when they relate in some way—literally or ephemerally—to those who have come before, the composers we already know, cherish, love… Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart et al.

The obvious explanation for this is that in giving the audience their music, aligned to something that they relate to, they offer not just familiarity, but something to grasp; an easier “in” to the music. Like a work of modern architecture placed into an extant city block resonates with the casual viewer if it respects the sight-lines, proportions, ratios of its surroundings, the ensemble it is placed into, even if it is in every other way a product of its time, so a work of music that allows for context has an easier time hitting a vibe with listeners.

available at AmazonR.Schumann, Introd.& Allegro, Ghost Variations et al.,
Barto / Eschenbach / NDRSO

Lovely as it was to hear Ernster Gesang—to which Eschenbach has a natural relation as Sawallisch’s successor in Philadelphia—it did feel rather tacked on to an extant program… which happened to be superb. Those who had been at both performances—Rihm, among them—lauded this, the Sunday one, for adding yet something further to all four Schumann works. From a boldly varnished, very flexible Second Symphony in trademark VPO-sound (in the good sense, that) to the tender, torn Ghost Variations. Barto, who enjoys tempo extremes (if never without musical reasoning), takes the Variations very slowly; to the verge of one’s concentration no longer grasping the big line. Later, at lunch, he jokes with fellow pianist (and conductor) Stefan Vladar about the criticism of having ‘distorted the music’s architecture’ or ‘having lost the long line’: “I don’t lose the long line, I know exactly where I am and where I am going, at all points.” “Yes”, adds Vladar laughing, “if there is any losing of lines going on, it’s the audience’s fault.” With there being a bit of a joke in every joke [sic], they have a point, of course… even if it begs the question of how easy they’re going to make it for the audience not to ‘fail’. In any case, the Salzburg performance, although still not as overwhelming as the CD-listening experience, managed to join the Introduction and Allegro appassionato op.92 and the Concert-Allegro and Introduction op.134 better than I remember the Hamburg performance to have done, and the two girls sitting next to me, who I had regaled with the virtues of said recording, were disinclined to believe that the experience they just had could be bettered, on CD or in concert.

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