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Notes from the 2012 Salzburg Festival ( 6 )

Salzburg contemporary 8

The e-mail blasts of the Salzburg press office about proud new record sales in 2012 seem ever more the pre-emptive window dressing for the first season under the new Festival Director’. Ticket sales may well be up, but if so only because the festival has been extended by a week and many performances added, compared to previous years. But for the two most popular shows—La Boheme and the Magic Flute—none are sold out, and at worst the venues are a quarter or half full. And that’s after throwing tickets after Friends of the Festival like never before.

It wouldn’t be surprising that the smallest audiences turn out for the “Salzburg contemporary” series, if it hadn’t been for the “Kontinente” series which enjoyed well filled venues and a dedicated audience in the last few years. There are very good new music programs on offer in 2012, and planned for 2013, but there’s still the sense that “contemporary” is back in its place as a tolerated nod to the artsy types, good for the festival’s reputation in certain quarters; an appeasement to critics and the eclectically inclined. In the last few years, contemporary music, without the Anglicism in the name, presented itself with its head up high, confident and as a central, essential part of the festival. Now it’s a fig leaf of acknowledgement that classical music may be more than a sound-museum and convenient excuse for red-carpet photo ops in fancy dress with age-inappropriate girlfriends.

available at Amazon
B.A.Zimmermann, Ecclesiastic Action, Canto di speranza, Violin Concerto,
H.Holliger / WDRSO / A.Schmidt et al.

available at Amazon
DSCH, Ligety, Songs with Orchestra,
C.Abbado / COE / A.S.v.Otter, T.Quasthoff

This by way of prelude to the sparsely attended “Salzburg contemporary 8” concert, where entire sections of the Felsenreitschule were empty, despite a very cleverly put-together program of Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces, Schubert songs in various orchestrations (with baritone Matthias Goerne), and the titillating experience of Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Ich wandte mich und sah an alles Unrecht, das geschah unter der Sonne (“I turned and beheld all the injustice perpetrated under the sun” [Ecclesiastes 4:1, via Luther])—Zimmermann’s Ecclesiastical Action for two speakers, bass-baritone, and orchestra… his last work before committing suicide and in essence the announcement of his death.

Ecclesiastical Action is a text-centered work to be experienced more-so than just listened to. Understanding German, to follow the excerpts from the Book of Ecclesiastes (Ulrich Matthes) and the Grand Inquisitor’s soliloquy (Peter Stein, in wonderfully husky voice) from Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, heightens the experience considerably. The two speakers stood on little towers left and right of the stage, the baritone in the middle, next to the conductor. Zimmermann asks for the text to be rhythmically declaimed, with fire, but—please—without exaggeration.” A wise request that was followed by the two men up on the left and up on the right. It is a sparse, haunting work, and the baritone is made to wail away, flailing, powerfully, powerless, with willed forcefulness in an expression of impotent anger; a different kind of rage against the machine.

The huge percussion apparatus includes exotic sounds like ripping cardboard into pieces, and the metaphor-heavy hammering of three nails into a block of wood. Zimmermann uses the orchestra sparsely, often just accentuating the baritone or the increasingly intersecting speakers’ declamations, which finally descend into organized chaos as Zimmermann’s score tells the voices to wing it. The latter is asked to improvise “on a vowel of his choosing, free dynamics, rhythm, and interpretation; either with open or closed mouth…” But there was little if any improvisation this night, certainly not on Goerne’s part who seemed to recite from a carefully prepared score. Nor did Eschenbach or the speakers follow the theatrical instructions all too closely, but as Zimmermann himself knew: erring on the side of reticence beats exaggeration.

Towards the end of the 30, 35 minute cantata, the speakers recite fragments over an improvised but perfectly steady blues rhythm, which is a calling card of the Jazz admirer Zimmermann (notably expressed in his Trumpet concerto). After the baritone’s last “Woe him, who stands alone!”, Zimmermann pulls the curtain on this work—and his life—with a brass chorale fragment from Bach’s Cantata BWV 60“O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort”. The musical phrase is the one on which Bach sets the words “Es ist genung / Herr, wenn es dir gefällt / So spanne mich doch aus!” (“’Tis enough / Lord, if you will / So do release me!”, Alban Berg uses the same to conclude his Violin Concerto), followed by a quick falling pizzicato chord, a tumble, and a short, dark, dissonant note from the trombones. Eschenbach, without the trick of keeping his arms in the air, got almost a minute of reflective silence out of the audience, then strangely polite applause which eventually turned into a more emotional, grim-but-rapturous response to this hard-to-comprehend, but captivating work.

The concert had begun with Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces: The Praeludium had a sweeping, sort of woody quality about it, the fine Reigen was punctuated by a smattering of routine rather than analysis or love, and in the Marsch, happily more emotional than systematic, all the qualities came together for something quite superb. The Schubert songs started well with the perky bass line in “An Silvia”, charming, unhurried, with pleasant calm, lightly dancing to Eduard von Bauernfeld’s Shakespeare translation from “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” (the program notes, strangely, used Richard Wigmore’s re-translation back into English instead of the Bard’s original.) With his booming barrel of a voice, Goerne worked his way through eight songs, including the Reger-orchestrated encore of “An die Musik”. The best of them were those transcribed by Webern, whose silvery delicacy of orchestration contrasts nicely with the musky, dramatic gloom of Brahms. Webern achieves a maximum of orchestral effect with the minimal necessary means; shreds of color appear as illustrative spotlights on the text or mood. Webern’s wan brass floods the songs with pale light, the woodwinds playfully trade the piano’s melodic parts, and only the wild, robust Reger transcription of the Erlkönig matches the orchestral delight. All the songs, Brahms included, gain something from orchestration—usually as much, sometimes more than they lose in intimacy-and the instrumental diversity also seemed to absorb some of the diffuse, bellowed quality of Goerne’s voice.

For all the disappointing empty blocks and rows, the showing of the professionally interested—press, musicians, administrators—was good. Those who were interested enough to come were obviously in for it all, not just the Berg pieces and Schubert songs of the first half—the attrition rate after intermission was negligible.

Pictures courtesy Salzburg Festival, © Silvia Lelli