Magazine | September 8, 2014, Issue

A Salzburg Quartet

Salzburg, Austria — The Vienna Philharmonic is the king orchestra here: the resident orchestra, the nightly orchestra. But there are guests, including the Philharmonia Orchestra. This is a London group, founded in 1945 by Walter Legge, a famous English record producer — who was married to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, the German soprano, who was a big star at this festival, the Salzburg Festival (and everywhere else).

In the Great Festival Hall, the Philharmonia Orchestra played a program of Strauss and Bruckner. The Strauss was the Four Last Songs. The Bruckner was the Ninth Symphony. It would be hard to imagine a more profound or sublime program. How are we expected to go on with mortal life, after hearing this?

Each piece was the composer’s last will and testament. Bruckner did not actually complete his Ninth Symphony. He let it go after the third movement, the Adagio. It is his “Abschied,” as they say, his farewell.

Conducting the Philharmonia on this evening was Christoph von Dohnányi, the octogenarian German. He is an honorable conductor with a most honorable pedigree: His grandfather was Erno Dohnányi, the Hungarian composer. His father was Hans von Dohnányi, an anti-Nazi German, executed by the regime. His uncle was the pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, also executed by the regime.

As for the conductor himself, he still has a shock of glorious white hair, after all these years. Furthermore, he’s still standing. Some senior maestros prefer to sit while conducting, or have to.

The soprano for the Four Last Songs was Camilla Tilling, a stunning Swede (if that’s not a redundancy). Unusually, she used a book while singing: the sheet music. There is no rule against it, it is simply unusual.

From the assembled performers, the first three songs went essentially the same way. I will make some general remarks (as throughout this piece). The orchestra was somewhat sloppy. The conductor and the soprano disagreed on tempos: He wanted to go faster, she slower. He deferred to her. The singer was rather self-conscious and this-worldly. The songs did not enrapture or transport. Also, she sang with a kind of youthful wonder, rather than the autumnal quality we associate with these songs.

In the fourth one, something happened: This song did indeed enrapture and transport. Who was responsible? Strauss or the performers? Both sides, I think. It’s like Strauss plants a drug in the first song that takes full effect in the last.

The Bruckner symphony was largely a success from beginning to end. Sometimes Dohnányi, though always respectable, is a bit of a bore. Not on this night. The symphony developed “organically” (to resort to a cliché). Dohnányi did not manipulate it; he let it be. The Philharmonia was not immaculate, but good enough. Some principal players were outstandingly good. The Abschied, that farewell, was warm and wise. By the end, it was delivering its divine power.

Incidentally, the Bruckner Ninth carries a singular dedication: “To my dear God.”

Early this year, I interviewed Christa Ludwig, who, like Dohnányi, is an octogenarian German. She is also one of the greatest singers of the 20th century. In the course of our talk, I asked her, “Who’s good today? Give me a few names, please.” She gave me two. The first name out of her mouth was “Harteros.” The second was “DiDonato.”

Anja Harteros is a German soprano of Greek paternity. Joyce DiDonato is a mezzo-soprano from Kansas. The former gave a recital in Salzburg’s House for Mozart. She sang no Mozart, but rather Schubert on the first half of her program and Brahms on the second. Accompanying her was the pianist Wolfram Rieger, one of the best in his business.

A Liederabend, or song recital, at the Salzburg Festival is something of a rite for a major singer. A rite and a right, both. The aforementioned Schwarzkopf had such recitals, and they are considered historic. Now Harteros was having her say — and leaving a mark. The first half of her recital, proffering the Schubert songs, was absolutely gripping. You can attend song recitals for many a moon and not experience anything like it.

I could discuss Harteros’s voice, technique, diction, and other things, but let me cut to the chase: She sang these Schubert songs with extraordinary intensity. We often speak of “intimacy of communication,” and she had that. (So did Rieger.) She also had intensity of communication (as did Rieger). I did not care for some of her portamentos, or sliding around — but even these made a certain sense in her overall scheme. Her Schubert songs were very familiar, the usual suspects. Yet they had an amazing impact.

After the final Schubert song (“Die junge Nonne”), the audience roared as after a wild opera (Strauss’s Elektra, say). This is very rare in a Liederabend — particularly after merely the first half. I think the audience had a sense that something historic was going on. During intermission, there was a buzz.

The second half, the Brahms half, was plenty good, of course. But it was normal-good. Not freaky-good, or historic-good. What happened? Why the falling off? One answer is that it’s hard to keep up intensity for a whole recital, or whole game. There has to be a coming back to earth. In any event, Harteros’s earthly is pretty heavenly. On this and other evenings, in the recital hall and in the opera house, she has proven herself a great singer.

And when you’ve been singled out by Christa Ludwig, you don’t really need affirmation from anyone else.

#page#Grigory Sokolov is almost a living myth. A Russian pianist, he makes relatively few appearances. He stopped traveling to America many years ago. His recordings are even fewer than his appearances. He has a cult following, and they say, brooking no opposition, that he’s the best pianist in the world.

I have heard him several times, always here at the Salzburg Festival. He is eccentric in his stage manner, and he can be eccentric in his playing. There is a touch of Glenn Gould, the late Canadian, about him. Sometimes his playing is too screwy to defend. Sometimes he is plain dull. Sometimes he is magical, wizardly — living up to the myth.

His latest program in the Great Festival Hall was all-Chopin: the B-minor sonata on the first half, a slew of mazurkas on the second. The lighting on the stage was strange: very dim, with no spotlight on the piano. Sokolov was essentially playing in the dark. I assumed this was an eccentric demand of his.

He played the sonata unusually — unconventionally — if not quite eccentrically. The slow movement was sadly warped. The final movement was intriguing and almost compelling. You could not help wondering what the mazurkas would be like. They are hard pieces to get right, in their style and spirit. They are idiosyncratic. When played without understanding and flair, they’re dull. Played right, they’re bewitching. Horowitz was the Master of the Mazurka.

Talking with friends at intermission, I made a safe prediction: “Some of the mazurkas will be great. The rest will be too weird or indifferent to succeed.”

The first one, the Mazurka in A minor, Op. 68, No. 2, was great. It was wizardly, bewitching, perfectly shaped and felt. It had some sort of pianistic voodoo about it. I thought, “Well, he’s got one under his belt. That is practically enough. If there are any others, they’ll be gravy.” You know? They were all great, all wizardly, every one. Sokolov put on a clinic of mazurka-playing and Chopin-playing. As in the first half of the Harteros recital, you had the sense of experiencing something rare and historic.

When he’s in the mood, Sokolov plays encores late into the night. So it was on this occasion. Some were merely good, some were great. I found myself muttering “wow,” and standing to applaud. When we at last left the hall, I had this thought: “It irks me when his cult says, so glibly, ‘He’s the best.’ But I’m not entirely sure they’re wrong . . .”

The next night, in the same hall, the festival staged Der Rosenkavalier, Strauss’s waltzy, Viennese opera. The composer was one of the founders of this festival. This year, they are celebrating his 150th birthday. But Salzburg, and the music world at large, needs no excuse to celebrate Strauss.

Onstage was a new production by Harry Kupfer, described by Alexander Pereira, head of the festival, as “the grand old man of the German theater.” His Rosenkavalier is elegant and off-kilter, like the opera itself. The lines are not quite straight. You’ve heard of the Black and White Ball in New York. That was the party thrown by Truman Capote at the Plaza Hotel in 1966. Kupfer’s Rosenkavalier is sort of a black-and-white ball — with huge photos of Vienna at the back. In Act III, color arrives, as the antics at the inn begin.

All you can ask of a director is that he serve the opera, intelligently and maybe imaginatively, too. Kupfer has done this.

Leading the cast was Krassimira Stoyanova, the Bulgarian soprano portraying the Marschallin. For many years, I have said, and complained, that she is underrated. It is time to stop doing so, however, as she keeps being assigned starring roles on big stages. Her Marschallin was a model of taste, vocally, musically, and theatrically.

Octavian was the French mezzo Sophie Koch, not to be confused with Sophie the character, who was portrayed by Mojca Erdmann, the German soprano. Koch looks a little like Princess Stephanie of Monaco; Erdmann looks a little like Meg Ryan. Each acquitted herself ably. Each understood the nobility and poignancy of the piece, as well as its froth and fun.

Highly interesting was the Baron Ochs of Günther Groissböck, an Austrian bass. Often, Ochs is played as a fat old buffoon. A perfectly permissible interpretation (in my book). Groissböck played him as a youngish, arrogant, menacing aristocrat, at least as brutish as buffoonish.

At any rate, the star of the show was not a singer at all but the king orchestra: the Vienna Philharmonic. They had a fabulous night, conveying the opera in their playing. They danced and talked and sang (and made whoopee, to use an antique phrase). So orchestral was this Rosenkavalier, the opera might have been a tone poem, with a little singing and acting onstage. Franz Welser-Möst, the conductor, from nearby Linz, has never been better, in my experience.

You might say that a Rosenkavalier at the Salzburg Festival, with the Vienna Philharmonic in the pit, should be good. Dog bites man, right? Nothing to write home about. Except: You never know. I’ve heard lousy Rosenkavaliers in Salzburg. You can have a lousy schnitzel, too. And then one that makes you go, “Yes, the way it should be.”

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