Magazine | September 11, 2017, Issue

A Salzburg Trio

Nina Stemme in Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (Salzburger Festspiele/Thomas Aurin)<

Salzburg, Austria — The recital in the Great Festival Hall had the air of an occasion, an event. The hall was packed, and there were even extra seats on either side of the stage. This is rare here. A big pianist was going to play a big program: a demanding, virtuosic program.

Our pianist was Evgeny Kissin, born in 1971 (Moscow). He came to the world’s attention at age twelve, when he recorded the Chopin concertos. He was curly-headed and cute, wearing a red Young Pioneers scarf.

An émigré, he became a British citizen in 2002. In 2013, he became an Israeli citizen. Why? Anti-Israeli protesters had been disrupting the concerts of such groups as the Jerusalem Quartet. If they were disrupting those concerts, Kissin wanted them to disrupt his own. “Israel’s enemies are my enemies, and I do not want to be spared.” Kissin received his Israeli passport from the hands of Natan Sharansky, who, as Anatoly Shcharansky, had been one of the foremost prisoners in the Soviet Gulag.

Here at the Salzburg Festival, Kissin took the stage wearing formal concert attire, though with a white jacket, in acknowledgement of the summer heat. Not for him those black pajamas that are standard concert wear today. I sometimes refer to these pajamas as a “Mao suit,” reflecting “proletarian chic.” These days, Kissin reminds me of Anton Rubinstein, who had a broad forehead and a terrific mane.

This Rubinstein was the great Russian pianist who lived from 1829 to 1894. He is not to be confused with another great pianist, the Polish-born Artur Rubinstein, who lived from 1887 to 1982. When he was a boy virtuoso, the second Rubinstein had cards printed up that included the words “No Relation.”

In the Great Festival Hall, Kissin opened his program with the mightiest Beethoven sonata: that in B flat, Op. 106, known as the “Hammerklavier.” In the first movement, Kissin did some of his thudding. He committed some unattractive accents. In reviews, I often find myself saying that a pianist “wrestled manfully” with the “Hammerklavier.” Kissin wrestled manfully too.

The second movement is Beethoven’s scherzo, and here Kissin was a little mechanical, and sober. The music has more impishness and charm than Kissin allowed it. His preference was for the big and blunt. I have to tell you something else I occasionally say, when reviewing a pianist in this sonata: “He put the hammer in ‘Hammerklavier.’”

In the third movement, the Adagio, Kissin was duly reverent. But he did not show much of a singing line. Rather, he thudded out the melody. The fourth and final movement, however, was a clear success. It is a great and formidable fugue — and Kissin was great and formidable in it.

From the beginning of the sonata to the end, he always evinced a sense of the architecture of the piece, and the importance of the piece. I liked Kissin better as a forest, so to speak, than as trees.

The second half of his recital, he devoted to Rachmaninoff: twelve preludes. He began with the Prelude in C-sharp minor, which was brave, I thought: Long ago, this prelude became a chestnut, a cartoon, a stereotype. Yet it is a beautiful and interesting piece, and Kissin played it that way.

His Rachmaninoff at large, he played beautifully, and interestingly, and virtuosically. The singing line that I found absent in the Beethoven was present in the Rachmaninoff. Only the Prelude in D major, I thought, was ruined by thudding. The Prelude in D minor had some lovely, subtle blurring. And in the B-flat-major prelude — that stirring storm of notes — Kissin was a glorious lawn mower.

Rachmaninoff includes a nobility, and Kissin includes it too. These preludes sometimes have a storytelling quality, which Kissin brought out. There were some clinkers — some wrong notes — but this only proved that we were not listening to a studio recording, thank heaven.

I do not always like Kissin’s playing. But I always want to hear him, which says something about an artist.

The next night, also in the Great Festival Hall, the Salzburg Festival presented Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Shostakovich’s opera from 1934. It almost got him killed, this opera. Stalin and the Party didn’t like it. But Shostakovich survived, and his opera resurfaced decades later, to take its place among other masterpieces.

Lady Macbeth is based on a novel by Nikolai Leskov, written in 1865. The story is cruel: a story of love, hate, betrayal, murder, suicide — a natural opera. In Salzburg, the stage director is Andreas Kriegenburg, from Germany. He has fashioned a production that is in concert with the libretto and the music — which is what a production ought to be. This one is very hard to watch. But then, it’s Lady Macbeth.

In the opening minutes of the opera, I thought, “Uh-oh: This is all wrong.” The problem was, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra was in the pit, and they are an exceptionally, famously beautiful band. They were playing in accordance with their tradition and reputation. I am used to Lady Macbeth somewhat steely, and abrasive, and raw. This opera is definitely ohne Schlag — without cream. And the Viennese orchestra can lay on Schlag like no one’s business.

And yet, my ear adjusted, and I realized how much beauty there actually is in this score. It does not have to be ugly. The action onstage is ugly enough.

Conducting the VPO, and assembled other forces, was Mariss Jansons. He was born in Riga — the Riga ghetto — in 1943. His mother was in hiding. Her father and her brother had already been killed by the Gestapo. Mariss’s father was Arvīds Jansons, a conductor who worked under the legendary Evgeny Mravinsky in Leningrad. Mariss would do the same. He is a superb conductor, full of humanity, and he had an outstanding night in the Great Festival Hall.

He conducted Lady Macbeth with intelligence, mastery, musicality, and sympathy. I have heard crazier, more intense accounts of this opera. Never have I heard one more understanding and beautiful, with power to spare.

The title role, Katerina, a.k.a. Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, is one of opera’s most demanding roles. From the soprano, it requires strength, lyricism, stamina, theatrical range, focus, and sheer nerve. Nina Stemme, the Swede, met all demands. So did her tenor, portraying Sergei, Brandon Jovanovich. He is from Billings, Montana, and he has made a specialty of Sergei. Last season at the Metropolitan Opera, he was the Prince in Dvořák’s Rusalka. He excels in these Slavic-language roles, as perhaps befits an American named Jovanovich.

Dmitri Ulyanov was Boris, Katerina’s father-in-law. Ulyanov comes from a long line of Russian basses, and he is an exemplar of that line: a booming, beautiful singer. Without straining, he filled the Great Festival Hall as though it were a phone booth.

A good performance of Lady Macbeth will leave you rattled for a while. This one was really good.

The next night, some players from the Vienna Philharmonic went to the Great Hall of the Mozarteum, to play a chamber concert. All orchestral work and no chamber music makes Jack a dull boy. (Or would that be Hans?) Nine of the VPO’s best participated in this concert, captained by one of the orchestra’s concertmasters, Rainer Honeck (brother of Manfred Honeck, the conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra).

Their concert began with Richard Strauss: the sextet from his opera Capriccio. From the VPO’s six, it was relaxed and poised. Rainer Honeck makes a beautiful sound — as you would expect, given his position.

Then came one of Mozart’s most sublime works, his Clarinet Quintet, K. 581. Playing the clarinet was Daniel Ottensamer, a principal of the orchestra. He made a smooth and burnished sound, and he was seamless. There were no registers to his “voice”; it was one voice, top to bottom. He sang as much as he played. His soft playing, or singing, was remarkable. It was genuinely piano, not disembodied. He caught the poignancy of the music. And all through the work, he demonstrated Mozartean purity. From everyone involved, this was a performance worthy of the work.

After intermission, six players gathered for a suite by Hans Werner Henze, the German composer who lived from 1926 to 2012. This was his Fantasia for String Sextet, drawn from his score for Young Törless, a 1966 film based on the notorious novel of Robert Musil, published in 1906. Henze’s suite is varied, skillful, and intriguing.

The concert ended with one of the most famous chamber works of all, Mendelssohn’s Octet in E flat. What were you doing when you were 16? Mendelssohn was writing this octet. I’m not sure he ever wrote anything better. The Vienna players rendered it with brio and savvy. There was some sour intonation along the way, and some technical stumbles — but, as with Kissin’s clinkers, it was a reminder that we were listening to the real McCoy, not a studio recording.

A discreet paragraph in our programs informed us of something jarring: Ernst Ottensamer, one of the principal clarinets in the orchestra, had died two weeks before. The concert was being dedicated to him. His son Daniel had been one of his co-principals. Another son, Andreas, is a principal clarinet of the Berlin Philharmonic. (These are the two best orchestras in the world, mind you.)

In America, I guarantee you, there would have been at least one speech from the stage. It would have been maudlin. No one at this concert in the Mozarteum said a word. Players and administrators knew, I’m sure, that Mozart’s quintet would say far more than words could. And Daniel Ottensamer’s playing — which required some bravery, I think — was painfully good.

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