NR Digital

Shows and Sideshows

by Jay Nordlinger

Salzburg, Austria — At the Salzburg Festival, you expect some operas by Mozart, for it’s the boy’s hometown. And the festival is duly staging three Mozart operas this year: The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte. These are the “Da Ponte operas,” i.e., the ones with librettos by Lorenzo Da Ponte, a boy so bad he could keep up with his pal Casanova.

There are, of course, other operas on offer, including one by Janáček: The Makropulos Case. This is the opera about the singer who’s more than 300 years old. It is a complicated and talky affair. The stage director ought to let things be as clear as possible. Our director, Christoph Marthaler, disagrees. He is happy for the audience to scratch its head.

I could complain about this production in detail, and also praise here and there. But let me mention one fact. You know the term “sideshow,” right? Well, this production has literal sideshows: separate little shows or scenes taking place on either side of the main action. We might well find the production clever, if we had the director crouching at our seats, explaining it to us.

The Makropulos Case requires a brave, defiant, nearly all-capable soprano, and it has one in Angela Denoke. The night I attended, she made the role of Emilia Marty (the tricentenarian) a tour de force. She didn’t always sing pretty, but she always sang gutsily and meaningfully. For me, though, the revelation in the cast was Raymond Very, an American tenor. He has an enviable voice — big, beautiful, and lyric — and a keen sense of music. Very is better known here in Europe than he is at home, which ought to be remedied.

Just about stealing the show was the Vienna Philharmonic, led by Esa-Pekka Salonen. It had a crackling good night. Salonen can be brash, frosty, tight, and fast (too fast). If he was any of those things on this night, it was helpful. The next day, a friend said to me, “Did you notice that the orchestra applauded Salonen, when he was taking his bows? I’ve never seen the Vienna Phil. do that before.” I had noticed, yes.

As it happens, Salonen was a guest of the Salzburg Festival Society, in its series of public interviews. He showed up in a black T-shirt and funky facial hair, looking very cool indeed. And he was a candid, insightful, and warm guest. Perfect.

He is a Finn, and I asked whether it is possible for such a person not to like Sibelius — the country’s musical hero. Is that allowed? Salonen said that it’s natural to go through a period of rebellion, when you want to “kill your father.” He himself was nauseated by the aura of reverence around Sibelius. As a young man, he fled to Italy, a “Sibelius-free zone.” But he soon learned to love the master — not because he (Sibelius) was Finnish, of course, but because he’s great.

Salonen loves Stravinsky as well. And he almost bought his house. For 17 years, from 1992 to 2009, Salonen was music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. One day, Stravinsky’s house, at 1260 North Wetherly Drive, came up for sale. In fact, it was in foreclosure, a very good buy. Only one owner had occupied the place since the Stravinskys left. There were still signs of the composer about. For example, Salonen saw the hook to which the Stravinskys tethered their goat. Igor was allergic to cow’s milk.

Here I should say that Salonen is a composer as well as a conductor. And a friend of his made him think about something: “Say you’re in Stravinsky’s studio, about to write something. Can you get one note down?” Salonen decided he couldn’t, and passed on the house.

Preceding him in our interview series was Trevor Pinnock, the English conductor and harpsichordist. I wanted to call him “Sir Trevor,” because he has that air and bearing. But he is not that yet, so he was “Mr. Pinnock” to me. He is a cultivated, gentle, refined man — but not dull, not in the least. He has that elegant spark about him, typically English. And he is, of course, smart as a whip.

We talked a fair amount about Mozart, whose music he was conducting here at the festival. I said, “How do you think he would have developed, if he had had more time” (that is, more years)? Pinnock gave probably the only answer you can give: “We have no way of knowing.” Then he said, “Was he ever really here in the first place?” That was a lovely thought and remark. Mozart seems, to some, to have been a musician-angel, just passing through, briefly.

Pinnock was a pioneer in the “period” movement, the movement for “period instruments” and “period practice.” I asked him, “Did some members of this movement go too far in dictating musical correctness to others?” (They did — some of them were downright Leninist in their severity and bossiness.) Pinnock did not answer directly, he answered artfully: and gave an eloquent statement about the various ways of expressing music. He strikes me as a “moderate” in his movement — too tasteful, sensible, and musical to be an ideologue.

The night before, there had been a program of Beethoven violin-and-piano sonatas. (Actually, Beethoven called them piano-and-violin sonatas, as pianists would be happy to remind you.) The violinist was the starry Viktoria Mullova. The pianist was, not a pianist, but a fortepianist, a South African with a Dutch mouthful of a name: Kristian Bezuidenhout. I have to say, I was a little heartsick to arrive at the hall and see that tiny little thing on the stage — the fortepiano, I mean.

And yet Bezuidenhout played it quite well: tidily, gracefully, and alertly. He looks like Jeff Daniels, the actor, and, speaking of acting, he acts out the music, with his face and body. He mugs and gyrates and so on. I thought, a little meanly, “Is he trying to get more out of his instrument, which doesn’t have more to give?” The contrast with his violinist could not have been greater. Mullova is famously stoic, economical, unsmiling — à la Heifetz.

She did not play as well as Heifetz on this occasion, however. In the first sonata on the program, the one in A minor, Op. 23, she was generally bold and correct. You could appreciate her unscrewiness. But in the next sonata, the one in E flat, Op. 12, No. 3, a grimness set in. Mullova was just sawing her way through, dutifully, and none too cleanly. Her intonation sagged badly, and she allowed more squeaks than is really ignorable.

I bolted before the second half, which was to bring the “Kreutzer” Sonata. On the first half, at least, the unknown South African fortepianist outshone the superstar Russian violinist. But then, some would argue that Mullova was dealing with the harder instrument. In one of our public interviews, a few years ago, Joshua Bell — another superstar violinist — quipped, “Playing the piano? You might as well be typing.”

“Irregardless,” as we say back home, Mullova looked like a million bucks, sweating like crazy in the hot, hot Grosser Saal of the Mozarteum. (I once renamed this room the Grosser Sauna.) Before I sat down for this recital, I took off my jacket. The man next to me looked at his wife, shrugged, and did the same. Sometimes, people need a little encouragement, a little permission.

After the recital, I was part of a dinner that included another violinist — a woman of a certain age and, shall we say, amplitude. She asked me how Mullova had played. I told her what I thought, ending with, “In any case, she looked fantastic, as always.” The woman fixed me with a daunting look and said, “Who’s more beautiful, Mullova or Anne-Sophie Mutter” (the German violinist)? I said, “Flip a coin.”

The very next night, I attended a piano recital by Arcadi Volodos — and in the audience was Mutter. Later, I saw her outside her hotel. You know how if you ask, say, a pianist something like, “What’s your favorite Chopin ballade?” he’ll answer, “The one I’m working on at the moment”? Well, who’s more beautiful, Mullova or Mutter? The one you’re looking at at the moment.

I don’t mean to shock and disillusion you, but these looks are not incidental to their careers. Nonetheless, they are meritorious and deserving musicians (especially the German).

Riccardo Muti — whose hair is still great, and black — conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in the Verdi Requiem. Long ago, the rap on him was, “He conducts everything like Verdi.” No one would deny it’s okay to conduct Verdi like Verdi. The orchestra, of course — the Vienna Phil. — is a glorious band. It has extensive experience in Verdi. But its sound is not necessarily right for the Requiem. Now and then, you want an incisive, even a metallic sound. The Vienna Phil. is devotedly beautiful, lush, woody . . .

The tenor soloist was Saimir Pirgu, an Albanian. I remember when he made his Salzburg debut, in 2004. He was Ferrando in Così fan tutte — in other words, he was an Albanian playing an Italian disguised as an Albanian. Only in America! His voice proved a little light for the Verdi Requiem — actually, a lot light. He sometimes seemed like a boy trying to do a man’s work. But he was beautiful in his “Hostias,” floating that little instrument of his. Schipa-esque.

Olga Borodina was the mezzo — a platinum blonde now — sounding bigger than ever. She wielded a cannon to Pirgu’s toothpick. Singing the bass part was her husband, Ildar Abdrazakov. His sound was glowing, rich, and thoroughly Russian. It was as though Boris Godunov had been invited into the Requiem. And his accuracy was exceptional. For example, most basses’ utterances of “Mors” are ballpark; his were spot-on.

The soprano was the wonderful and endearing Krassimira Stoyanova, a gem in Mozart. Her voice could not hack parts of Verdi’s Requiem; it is simply too small. In the “Libera me,” when she sang her big C, I heard nothing, absolutely nothing. I simply saw her mouth open. But when you could hear her, she was her admirable self.

Frankly, one of the best musical experiences I have had this summer was, not in Salzburg, but in St. Florian, in Upper Austria. En route, I gave a talk on Bruckner to a busload of Americans. Bruckner was educated in the monastery school at St. Florian, and later taught there. He also served as organist in the church. That organ is now known as the Bruckner Organ.

We heard a recital on it, by a resident organist, the excellent Andreas Etlinger. He began, of course, with Bruckner — the Prelude and Fugue in C minor, a youthful effort. We would never hear this undistinguished piece if it hadn’t been written by a man who would become an immortal composer. Etlinger continued with Mendelssohn’s Prelude in G major, followed by another piece in G major: Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier, by Bach. This is merely the most beautiful and perfect piece of music ever written. Alicia de Larrocha used to play a piano arrangement of it by Harriet Cohen, the Englishwoman. You could have ascended, while listening to it.

Etlinger then treated us to some improvisation. In a New York recital earlier this year, the Lisztian pianist Cyprien Katsaris played some improvisations, first saying, “It’s a shame that this art has been left to organists and jazzmen, only.” But thank goodness for organists and jazzmen if they can do it well, as Etlinger did.

He ended with Vierne’s beloved fantasy Carillon de Westminster — a piece by a Frenchman, using the famous British chimes, pealing forth on Bruckner’s organ in Upper Austria. It was thrilling, just thrilling.