Mozart & Co.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, by Barbara Krafft (1819) (Wikimedia)
A report from the Salzburg Festival

Editor’s Note: The below is a slightly expanded version of an article that we have published in the current issue of National Review.

Salzburg, Austria

Every year, the Salzburg Festival puts an accent on a composer or two. How about Mozart? He is the hometown boy, the hometown hero. Yes, but every year is a “Mozart year,” around the musical world. He is always accented. He doesn’t need a special year.

He had one in 2006, however, the 250th anniversary of his birth. Here in Salzburg, they went all out, presenting all 22 of Mozart’s stage works, for example. (Some of these works are too small-scale — too chamber-like — to be called proper operas.) I thought 2006 would be the death of me, where Mozart was concerned. From January 1 to December 31, it was Mozart, Mozart, Mozart.

But, you know? By the time New Year’s Eve rolled around, I appreciated the lil’ fella more than ever. Familiarity bred even greater fondness, and awe.

Next year will be a “Beethoven year.” There’s another guy who doesn’t need a special year. But 2020 will mark the 250th anniversary of his birth, so there will be more Beethoven than ever. This summer at the Salzburg Festival, Evgeny Kissin jumped the gun by giving an all-Beethoven recital. (Kissin is a famed pianist.) I liked this jumping of the gun — kind of cheeky, for one thing.

In 2027, Beethoven will get it again, for that year will mark the 200th anniversary of his death. Two anniversaries, two “years,” so close . . .

Salzburg organizers have to do some serious juggling in 2020. They have Beethoven to deal with, but it’s also the centennial of the Salzburg Festival itself. If you run according to anniversaries — and the music world, to a considerable degree, does — you occasionally get a double whammy.

In any event, the accent this year in Salzburg has been on George Enescu, the Romanian who lived from 1881 to 1955. As you can tell by the dates, there is no anniversary. The festival is simply honoring, or accenting, Enescu, which is a good idea, because he was an extraordinary fellow, who probably doesn’t get enough airtime.

Enescu was a composer, yes — and also one of the greatest violinists in history. Last year in this town, I interviewed Vilde Frang, the young Norwegian violinist. I asked her about her favorites, her heroes of the violin. The first name out of her mouth was “Enescu.” Furthermore, Enescu was a pianist and a conductor. He was a talent of talents.

Little of his music is heard today, however. The Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 is a staple — an enduring hit. But the rest of his catalogue lies under a bushel, and that includes the other Romanian Rhapsody, No. 2.

This summer, the Salzburg Festival is seeking to remedy that, to an extent. The festival program is dotted with Enescu: a violin sonata, a piano quintet, Œdipe (his sole opera), etc.

One night, members of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra played his Octet — a work recorded by Vilde Frang last year. (I should say that she spearheaded this recording, making it along with seven of her colleagues, of course.) The Salzburg concert took place in the Grosser Saal of the Mozarteum, which, years ago, I nicknamed the “Grosser Sauna.” It is so very hot in there, as in all Salzburg venues, at least in the summer.

That America is over-air-conditioned, I will accept — as long as others accept that other places are under-air-conditioned.

The most famous and best octet in music history is Mendelssohn’s, written when the composer was 16. Enescu was 19 when he wrote his. It appeared in 1900. Both of these octets, I should say, are string octets — works written for twice a string quartet.

Like Mendelssohn’s, the Enescu Octet is in four movements, and they have French markings. (Mendelssohn’s do not, maybe I should say. And French, as you know, has long been a language of Romania.) Enescu’s second movement, for example, is marked Très fougueux, or Very fiery — and then Moins vite, Plus vite, Très vite, and Extrèmement vite (Less fast, Faster, Very fast, and Extremely fast).

Eight players is a lot for a chamber ensemble. And, indeed, an octet sounds quasi-orchestral. A group of eight musicians — not to mention nine, forming a nonet — hovers between a chamber ensemble and a chamber orchestra. Enescu’s Octet has a wonderful fullness, among other things.

It has a flavor of Eastern Europe, and of the Gypsy. It also has a touch of modernism, which was then being born. Enescu gives plenty of solo opportunities to a viola and a cello, in addition to a violin — generous for a violinist composer.

Contemplating the Enescu Octet, I thought of the word “strange.” It is a high compliment from Harold Bloom, the literary critic. He uses “strange” to mean “distinctive,” “of its own kind,” “unlike other things.” That is high praise indeed.

The Vienna players gave this piece an excellent reading, making a persuasive case for it. Works that are unplayed, or little known, tend to be called “neglected.” But some of them — most of them? — deserve to lie under bushels, frankly. The Enescu Octet is not one of those works.

Leading the players was Rainer Honeck, who is accustomed to leading: He is one of the concertmasters of the Vienna Phil. He is also a brother of Manfred Honeck, who is the music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and one of the best conductors in the world. The No. 2 violinist was Christoph Koncz, who had a movie career, early: At age nine, he was the child prodigy in The Red Violin (1998).

Yet another violinist onstage was Adela Frasineanu, whose participation was fitting: There ought to be at least one Romanian player in the Enescu Octet, don’t you agree?

The concert began with a sextet, the one by Brahms in G major, Op. 36. At the end of the program, the audience applauded and applauded. They do this in Austria, or at least in Salzburg. We Americans would be home by the time these people stop applauding. Finally, the players sat down for an encore. You knew it would be Mendelssohn. I was thinking the last movement. Instead, it was the third, the Scherzo.

It was surprisingly sloppy. Possibly, the players had not rehearsed it. Yet the evening had been a very satisfying one, and the players, in their civvies, soon repaired to Café Bazar, down the street, one of the great institutions in the city. The café began way too late for Mozart — 1909 — but he would have loved it.

Would he have loved Mozart Matinées? I don’t see why not. These are concerts that the festival presents on Saturday and Sunday mornings, in the Mozarteum. The programs aren’t always all-Mozart, but they tend to be. I’ll tell you about one that was.

On this Saturday morning, the program was a divertimento, a concerto, and a symphony. The first two works were in B flat and the third was in its “relative minor” — its two-flatted cousin — G minor.

The orchestra was the house orchestra, so to speak: the “Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg,” as it’s known in English (awkwardly).

Speaking of houses: Mozart grew up just down the street from the Mozarteum — maybe a three-minute walk away — and even closer to Café Bazar. It’s all very cozy, here in this little burg.

The conductor of the Mozart Matinée was Andrew Manze, an Englishman with whom I had a little fun in New York. I was reviewing a performance of his at the Mostly Mozart Festival, just a few weeks ago. His bio, published in our program booklets that night, was larded with publicist’s overkill, as almost all bios in music are. It began, “Andrew Manze is widely celebrated as one of the most stimulating and inspirational conductors of his generation.” I said that this was (a) untrue and (b) embarrassing. I also said this: He conducted so well (in this New York concert), he ought to be “widely celebrated as one of the most . . .”

Beginning the concert in Salzburg was the Divertimento in B flat, K. 137. Mozart wrote it when he was 16. Before the playing began, I thought of yet another review I had written recently in New York. This one was of a chamber concert, where a violinist and a pianist had played Mozart’s Sonata in B flat — that key seems to be everywhere — K. 454. I wrote,

Let me tell you a secret — something not all critics will tell you: This sonata can be boring as hell, like a lot of Mozart. It takes performers to bring it to life, as with a lot of Mozart. It will not play itself. You have to play it. You have to reveal its greatness.

This is one reason that Mozart is a great test — probably the best test — of performers.

Yes. Conductors will tell you that Mozart is one of the hardest, most challenging composers to conduct. “Anyone can conduct a complicated 20th-century work,” a maestro once told me. “All you have to do is count. All you have to do is manage affairs. But Mozart? You have to make him jump off the page. You can’t leave him dead there.”

This divertimento in B flat can be a real snooze, let me tell you — like Mozart’s other divertimentos. But not under Andrew Manze. The music was crisp, shapely, feeling, and fun — diverting, if you will. The final movement had a terrific peasant character.

The concerto that followed was the Piano Concerto No. 27 in B flat, K. 595. In my experience, pianists and conductors often try to invest this concerto with more than it has. They labor to make it deep and divine. Autumnal, too. In reality, this piece is one of the merriest that Mozart ever wrote, which is saying something. This is especially true of the final movement. Why do performers labor as they do?

Because No. 27 turned out to be Mozart’s last concerto. I always say, he didn’t mean for it to be his last. It just was. It was supposed to be the one between No. 26 and No. 28. What a great concerto — a masterpiece — in any case.

The pianist in the Mozarteum was Francesco Piemontesi, whose name makes his ancestry clear. As it happens, he was born just across the border from Piedmont in Locarno, Switzerland. He played the concerto with beauty, understanding, and — this is nice — love. He did not try to make it some Final Word, although I had concerns in the middle movement: I believe this music is simpler and happier than Piemontesi does. But the closing Allegro had all the gaiety it deserves, and the pianist added some interpolations of his own, as he had earlier in the concerto.

Are these kosher? Yes, as long as they accord with the character of the music. Mozart would have approved.

The audience certainly approved this performance, and Piemontesi gave them an encore: a Schubert impromptu, the one in A flat, D. 935, No. 2. This is one of those Schubertian twilight pieces (funny to think of, from a man who died at 31). Piemontesi did it full justice. Maestro Manze, not wanting to miss the encore, listened from the side of the stage.

After intermission, he conducted the Mozarteum orchestra in the Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550 (Mozart’s second-to-the-last symphony). Can you go home again? Can you hear this ultra-familiar piece one more time? Is it too hackneyed to bear rehearing?

I often think of Robert Shaw, the late conductor, who used to tell orchestras something when rehearsing an ultra-familiar piece: “Remember, there will be people in the audience hearing it for the first time. There will be other people hearing it for the last time. Make it good.” Yes — don’t phone it in.

Manze conducted No. 40 like doing so was the most important, most vital thing in all the world. The orchestra responded to him (and to Mozart). Manze conducted with great care and freedom at the same time, which is crucial in art. When it was all over, the audience applauded and applauded, as is their wont. They even broke into that rhythmic, unison clapping, which they do when they’re really feelin’ it.

There was no encore, however. And Bazar was so crowded at that hour — 1 on a Saturday — some of us were forced to go elsewhere.


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