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Notes from the 2012 Salzburg Festival ( 7 )

Salzburg contemporary 9

Amid the grumbling discontent about Alexander Pereira’s Salzburg commercial Culture-Olympics, several major and minor starry moments pop up. That’s hardly surprising: any festival so bent on presenting the biggest names and piling up sheer quality has got to register its share of hits.

Monday at the Mozarteum such a minor starry moment took place when the Zehetmair Quartet and Heinz Holliger (as oboist, composer, and concert programmer) performed the “Salzburg contemporary 9” concert. A program of Elliot Carter, Mozart, Holliger himself, his onetime student Gustav Friedrichsohn, and Robert Schumann took place before a meagerly filled hall. Good thing the “Youth! Arts! Science!” program of the pharmaceutical company Roche channeled exactly one-hundred students into the stalls which made them look filled; the balcony remained entirely empty.

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E.Carter, Oboe Quartet, Figments 1 & 2 et al.,
H.Holliger, Zehetmair Quartet

Mozart’s Oboe Quartet proved a lovely, lightly croaking amuse-gueule, incisively performed: a warm-up for the Elliot Carter’s in every way more challenging Oboe Quartet, which scrapes and cackles on stage in syncopated rhythms. It’s a coy, hectic work that Carter has written eleven years ago—at the sprightly age of 93—and dedicated to Holliger.

While Ruth Killius tuned her instrument for “Three Sketches for Violin and Viola”, Holliger took a chair, sat down at the edge of the stage and gave an impromptu Austrian premiere of Carter’s latest piece for oboe, the brief, lyric and melodic “Figment No.6”. “Because”, Holliger told the audience with an impish waggle of his head and his ingratiating Swiss accent, “it’s been written that contemporary music is taking such a back seat at this year’s Festival.”

Following the suggestive simplicity of Friedrichsohn’s “From Darkness on a Shadowed Path”, equally written for Thomas Zehetmair’s violin and Killius’ viola, came the Zehetmair Quartet’s specialty: Schumann. If only the First Quartet in A minor, or either of the other two quartets, were always performed with such panache and empathy, they wouldn’t suffer want from performers’ and listeners’ attention. Zehetmair & Co. moved Heinz Holliger’s Second String Quartet to the end of the evening, to give it pride of place. Dedicated to Carter, and riddled with very well hidden references to the great quartet composers that have become before Holliger (not that I discerned any, myself) it is an insistent work. The last movement, using double stops and humming on part of all four players, musters a blend of 12 musical lines that bring it to its otherworldly end.