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Mozart’s Birthday in Salzburg: Fröst's Mozart, Holliger's Haydn, Gerhaher's Veress

This week was Mozart’s Birthday, and what better way to celebrate than to spend a little time at the “MozartWoche” in Salzburg, one of the annual star-powered festivals in Salzburg.

Twenty three concerts in ten days, with artists Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez, the Capuçon Bros., Dennis Russell Davies, Bernarda Fink, Martin Fröst, Christian Gerhaher, Susan Graham, Werner Güra, Magdalena Kožená, Marc Minkowski, Seiji Ozawa, Simon Rattle, András Schiff, Mitsuko Uchida, the Artemis-, Hagen-, and Minguet Quartets, Camerata Salzburg, Concentus Musikus Wien, Ensemble intercontemporain, Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Les Musiciens du Louvre, and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. And that’s just a selection.

I skipped the first three days and started with what was supposed to a chamber performance of the Capuçons, Fröst, Antoine Tamestit (ARD Viola Prize Winner), and Sergio Tiempo. Unfortunately Tiempo got sick and Renaud Capuçon elected to practice the Berg Violin Concerto (due today in Munich with the BRSO) instead, and the replacement pianist Mihaela Ursuleasa was more pale patch than surprising delight. Her distressingly trivial Haydn Sonata (Hob:XVI 49) is best kept mum about, her Mozart B-minor Adagio K540 was made unbearable by a superimposed profundity of the shallowest kind, and both of Beethoven’s sets of Variations for Cello and Piano wouldn’t have been transformative experiences, even if Gautier Capuçon had elected to play in the same pitch as the pianist, rather than putting on the artiste, closed eyes, dramatically raised eyebrows, and all.

The chamber music fared much better. Mozart’s Kegelstatt Trio in E-flat was the sole survivor of the original program (a tantalizing juxtaposition of just Birthday-Boy Mozart and Anniversary-Papa Haydn) and in this 2+1 trio, Föst and Tamestit gave an example of what musical communication in chamber music should be like. Brahms’ Clarinet Trio, a somewhat arbitrary filler, was appreciated for Fröst’s contribution who, even in a less than concentrated state, is incapable of unlovely music-making. He engages in the potentially distracting snake-charmer movements common to clarinetists, but closing one’s eyes confirms the consistent, unfettered and clear beauty of his tone.

The New Mozarteum is an impressive building, surprisingly aesthetic for its bulky size and rigorous modernist look. It contains a good sounding concert hall (“Solitaire”) with a spectacular view over the Mirabell Gardens over to the Mönchsberg. Waiting for Carolin Widmann, I hear sounds coming from the Solitaire upstairs that evoke a group of musicians testing the exact breaking point of a piano, cello, and violin. It turns out to have been Widmann & Co practicing Matthias Pintscher’s work “Svelto”. From the piano rooms in the back faint sounds of a student practicing the same Schumann phrase over and over round out the delicate cacophony.

I missed the performance of “Svelto” the next day, where it was part of an almost four hour long “Concert & Conversation”, juxtaposing Mozart with Pintscher. The idea of loosening up the ears with familiar sounds between the demanding complexities of modern works is great in theory. In practice, ensembles spend all their time practicing the new, difficult piece, and perform Mozart (or Haydn, or whatever else it may be) on autopilot. Mozart’s String Quartet in d-minor K421 suffered thus, with only the cellist attempting to bring calm and cohesion to the work, and then only for one movement.

Pintscher’s talk with Stephan Pauly about the world premiere of his “Study IV for Treatise on the Veil” for string quartet (inspired by Cy Twonbly’s painting of the same name) was full of empty phrases about “spatial relationships”, “states of density”, “duality and autonomy”: European feuilleton-speak of the worst kind, supported by projections of artworks by Giacometti, Beuys and of course Twombly. (The unintended comedic element of continuously pronouncing the work “Treatise on the Veal” was sadly lost on the rapt audience.) Strangely, some of those platitudes began taking on relevance during the half hour “Study IV”, and the fragile Giacometti sculptures received audial context.

The work comes across as a breathy study of sound, heavily muted sounds of a freight train station or under-water sea lion chatter, occasionally and violently punctuated by shrieks. The first violinist’s hitting the score in a few agitated moments could have been intentional or accident: with music like this, who knows. The score was, to the limited extend one could tell, performed superbly, delicately, and with enormous precision. It would have fit seamlessly into the exhibit of a modern art museum, which is part compliment, part warning: It’s aesthetically impressive art, but does being museum-bound make contemporary music instant taxidermist’s material, dead-on-arrival? Twenty minutes into “Study IV”, the first actual “string quartet sounds” appear, only to slip back into the atmospheric clatter. But the critical ear noted with surprise: The 30 minutes sounded like 15! “Study III for Treatise on the Veil” for violin solo—performed, fully engaged, by Carolin Widmann—followed, and it sounded like paper and stone—a bit like what might be left if a composition by Kaja Saariaho had all its music filtered out.

Mozart still didn’t get a particularly genial Birthday present in Alexander Lonquich’s Sonata in F, K533/494, but what a difference to the morning’s interpretation. Rather too bold and a little harsh, at least here was a concept and interpretive intent with which one could disagree, rather than no concept at all. The concert continued for another 90 minutes, with more Pintscher (said “Svelto” and “Janusgesicht for Viola and Cello”) and Mozart’s Quartet in E-flat, but I had to run—not from the music, but to my next appointment.

The evening set the first musical exclamation mark. René Jacobs, the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, and the RIAS Chamber Choir presented Haydn’s Creation. A very homogeneous, wet sound (as if covered by several silken veils, down to the timpani), resulted in a warm and comfortable orchestral glow. Maximilian Schmitt, who had rid himself of the gray fuzziness that surrounded his voice for the first few minutes of the first and (after the break) third part, was surrounded by Johannes Weisser—strong and radiating—and strong yet mild, surprisingly dramatic soprano Julia Kleiter, whose comfortable voice has a brassy, matte golden hue, aided by spot-on accuracy. Dramatic also the smallish orchestra, which displayed the “roaring lions” with the most garish possible brass exclamation and made the floor boards creak at “Den Boden drückt der Tiere Last”. There was nothing chamber-like in the rousing, powerful contribution of the RIAS Chamber Choir. (An aside: Does anyone else hear hints of the First Act Finale of “L’Italiana in Algeri” in the music to “und ewig bleibt sein Ruhm”?)

Another treat, squeezed between a score of interviews, was experiencing Nicolaus Harnoncourt in rehearsal with the Vienna Philharmonic and the Arnold Schoenberg Choir, getting Haydn’s Harmoniemesse in B-flat ready for performance.

Fröst, meanwhile, got at it again on Tuesday, the 27th, when he played the Mozart Clarinet Concerto in A, K622 on the basset clarinet it was intended for. The sense that Fröst was not entirely at ease but encountered moments where he had to fight a little lent intensity to what might otherwise have been too sparkly and pretty a performance. The way he held the last note of the Adagio until it died away into infinity, just to jump immediately into the eagerly excited Rondo Allegro was just one of the touches that make his performances so special. He followed Mozart with Carter’s Clarinet Concerto after intermission, which had a more difficult stance with the audience. But with concentration and accuracy in ample supply by soloist and the Camerata Salzburg, the chamber qualities and violent whiplash of the work came through well.

It caught me by surprise, but most successful and remarkable was the conducting of Heinz Holliger. I thought of him as a instrumentalist and composer, known for his conducting primarily in modern repertoire. No revelation that his Carter was excellent. But how absolutely smudge-free the muscular neo-classicism of Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin shone through French romanticism—full bodied and delicate—was truly special. And the concluding Military Symphony by Haydn was worthy of hyperbole. While its initial delightful, gentle sounds elicited a light chuckle of relief from the Carter-shocked audience, the violence and war indicated by the symphony’s title made their presence known just a few bars later. It turned out to be the most intensely theatrical reading, with the trumpets charging headlong into their music (just like the opening of Mahler’s Fifth), and the three man military percussion group marching into and through the auditorium in the finale. A gimmick, but delightful and impressive. Undoubtedly the best performance of this symphony I’ve ever heard—and well possibly the best live Haydn Symphony I’ve had the pleasure to hear. Haydn’s Symphony No.104 and Mozart’s Symphony in C, K338, aided and abetted by Christian Gerhaher in Mozart arias and Sándor Veress’ dark, brooding Elegie, were just about as fine.