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Music: Sampling Salzburg

by Jay Nordlinger

Jay Nordlinger on the world’s most prestigious music festival

Salzburg, Austria — Lucky me, I received a box of chocolates from Fürst, just about the best sweet-maker in creation. The chocolates had a special wrapping — something I had never seen before (and I had downed a few Fürst chocolates, believe me). The wrapper said, “90.” And, clever as I am, I figured it out immediately: Must be the 90th anniversary of the Salzburg Festival. It was.

The festival began on August 22, 1920, with a performance of Hofmannsthal’s treatment of Everyman, called, in German, Jedermann. I knew a man who attended that performance: He was seven years old and went with his grandparents, who lived outside Salzburg. That boy, George Sgalitzer, became an American and the senior patron of the Salzburg Festival. He died just a few years ago. At the following festival, we held a beautiful memorial service for him, replete with music.

Would you like a taste of the 2010 festival — kind of a Whitman’s Sampler? Whitman is not as good as Fürst, but he and I have been friends for a long time. I’ll touch on an orchestra concert, a piano recital, a song recital, and an opera performance. I expect there will be some miscellaneous notes at the end.

The festival’s resident orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic, played at the Grosses Festspielhaus (Great Festival Hall) one morning — 11 o’clock start. This was not exactly an orchestra concert, pure and simple. A cast of thousands was onstage: including choruses, solo singers, and speakers. The piece was Ivan the Terrible, Prokofiev’s score for the Eisenstein film. Or rather, it was the oratorio fashioned from this score by Abram Stasevich.

The star of the show was the Vienna Phil., a thoroughly virtuosic, learned, and musical bunch. These guys — and they are almost exclusively guys, much to the consternation of many — played like mad. They told the story through their playing, as much as the singers sang it, and the speakers spoke it. They did not sound perfectly Russian. They are a little too elegant for that. Prokofiev is full of bite and brashness, irony and rawness. But the Viennese were Russian enough. The low brass made a particular impression: They shook your nerves and rattled your brain, as Jerry Lee Lewis might report.

Speaking the role of Ivan was Gérard Depardieu, the veteran French actor. And he spoke in Russian, demonstrating his versatility, or at least his adventurousness. Taking the stage, he was limping and very stout. The audience sort of sucked in its breath. Depardieu was Falstaffian, but without the mirth: He seemed all grimness. He appeared unwell and uncomfortable. But when the bell rang, his theatrical command was there. This is every inch, and pound, a pro. He did rather a lot of shouting — but then, he was Ivan the Terrible. “It’s my party, and I’ll cry if I want to.” Depardieu seemed to be saying, “I’m Ivan the Terrible, and I’ll shout if I want to.”

The solo singers were Russian — proper Russians. Just about the only natives onstage. They were Olga Borodina, the mezzo-soprano, and Ildar Abdrazakov, the bass (and her husband). Neither singer has much to do in this oratorio; for most of the hour and a half, Borodina could not have looked more bored. But both she and Abdrazakov sang well, when their opportunities came. The mezzo rolled out her usual carpet of sound: lush, royal, exotic. She can fill you with awe, and linger in your memory. Almost ten years ago, I had a piece in this magazine about Borodina: “Greatness, Here & Now.” Yes, sir.

Conducting this affair was Riccardo Muti, the acclaimed Italian. He made the score as tight as possible, reining in excess (and Ivan has its share of that). Yet he allowed the music to breathe, where breathability was key. He did some truly beautiful conducting. In the course of this festival, he celebrated his 200th Salzburg performance. He is capo di tutti capi here, for better or worse. And on this morning, in the Grosses, it was for better.

The piano recital, also in the Grosses, was to be played by Krystian Zimerman. The poetic Pole was going to play the two main sonatas by another poetic Pole, Chopin, in celebration of the composer’s “anniversary year”: He was born in 1810. Chopin needs special anniversary treatment like I need another chocolate, but musicians have been giving him that treatment all year. Zimerman, you may remember, is boycotting the United States: He objects to our efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. But he is more than happy to play in Austria, that moral leader of nations.

In any case, Zimerman was sick, and needed a substitute: who was Arcadi Volodos, another top pianist on the scene. He is a Russian virtuoso, but he is also a complete musician, not to be pigeonholed. His program in Salzburg was odd, and in an odd order: The first half was all-Spanish, the second all-Schumann. (Schumann is another anniversary boy, born, like Chopin, in 1810. And he is another who is hardly in need of anniversary treatment. But if they do it for Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, which they do . . .)

It was nice to see Spanish music on the program, for we have not heard much of that literature since Alicia de Larrocha died a year ago — actually, since she retired in 2003. She pretty much retired the cup, where the Spanish literature is concerned. But it remains to be played, by all. (Incidentally, she was a friend of this magazine’s founder, William F. Buckley Jr.) Last season in New York, the Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky played a Spanish encore: Triana, from Albéniz’s Iberia. It was somewhat clumsy and unidiomatic — whitebread. But one could appreciate the effort.

There was not much to criticize in Volodos’s playing. He began with a set by Federico Mompou, the Scènes d’enfants. Then he played assorted pieces by Albéniz — but none from that magnum opus, Iberia. In the Mompou, Volodos was a superb colorist and impressionist. And in the Albéniz pieces, he called on a range of skills. He is a master of what I term “weightedness.” What I mean is, his accents are never wrong, and he knows how to follow the musical line. The notes carry the right weight — which is not as common as you might think.

Volodos has one of the biggest techniques in the business, a Lisztian technique, a monster technique. Check him out on YouTube sometime. Listen to him play his transcription of Mozart’s Rondo alla turca. It is a circus feat, but entirely musical. In Salzburg, he played no flashy Albéniz (of which there is plenty). The pieces were rather subdued and soulful. And Volodos played them spellbindingly. Honestly, this was some of the most beautiful piano playing you can ever hope to hear.

After intermission came Schumann’s Humoreske in B flat, Op. 20, and his Faschingsschwank aus Wien, or Carnival Jest from Vienna. In the hands of Volodos, each of the first work’s sections had its proper character, and they all formed a whole. Much the same can be said for the Carnival Jest. Volodos rendered this work with exceptional suavity, even aristocracy, you might say. In the Finale, he sort of ran out of steam, which was too bad: This music is thrilling. But, overall, he provided a very strong account.

Our voice recital? We got two singers for the price of one, Angelika Kirchschlager and Ian Bostridge. They appeared in the Haus für Mozart, the House for Mozart, of course, which used to be the Kleines Festspielhaus, or Little Festival Hall. And they sang Wolf’s Spanisches Liederbuch — the Spanish Songbook. This cycle contains many famous songs: “Herr, was trägt der Boden hier,” for example, with which Elisabeth Schwarzkopf used to break hearts. And “In dem Schatten meiner Locken,” with which she used to bewitch. But chances to hear the entire cycle are rare.

Kirchschlager and Bostridge know how to do it. She is a mezzo-soprano and a local girl: a Salzburger who once sang in the children’s chorus for Carmen. He is an English tenor who is well-known for lieder. On this evening, Kirchschlager sang as she usually does: straightforwardly, sincerely, and musically, with no affectation whatsoever. She is an uncanny combination of braininess and naturalness. Whenever it was her turn to sing — in the Spanish Songbook, the singers alternate — the world took on color.

Bostridge is a fine singer, and a real intellectual. Sometimes he seems to be lecturing the audience about music or poetry, rather than genuinely singing — performing. In the Wolf, he did some slightly precious singing, as well as some lecturing (or what comes off as lecturing). But he also scaled some heights, and plumbed some depths. He is a formidable artist. Another Englishman, Julius Drake, was the pianist, alert to Wolf’s intentions all through.

For opera, let’s have Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, which I believe is based on an English play of the late 16th century. The opera was staged in the Felsenreitschule — the old Riding School, carved out of rock. This is one of the spookiest and most interesting performance venues in the world. In the title roles were two singers from east of Vienna: the Polish tenor Piotr Beczala and the starry Russian soprano Anna Netrebko. Begin with the star.

As a rule, she can’t help sounding Russian, and she can’t help sharping, when singing in languages other than her own. This happened on this evening. Her early aria, “Je veux vivre,” also known as “Juliet’s Waltz,” was unfortunate. It was heavy, Slavic, and clumsy. It had almost no French lightness, lilt, or charm. But, as the opera wore on, Netrebko’s voice freed up and lightened — too late for the waltz, but in time for much else. Netrebko sang the balance of her role brilliantly, gloriously. And, as you know, she has stage charisma out the ears.

Her partner, Beczala, began his career with a sweet, lyrical, creamy voice. Lately, that voice has been showing some wear — or, to put it more positively, some ruggedness. As Roméo, Beczala did some straining, even some cracking. Should he ratchet back to Mozart and Donizetti for a while? In any case, he acquitted himself well, and the instrument — though no longer dewy fresh — is still excellent.

I think I’ll mention some faces in the crowd, rather like a society reporter. Alfred Brendel, the legendary Austrian pianist, attended a new opera by Wolfgang Rihm. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, attended a Norma. Marc Rich, the notorious Clinton pardonee, was at a party — very pleasant fellow to meet. And, at another party, I met a Hapsburg who is a pretender to the throne. Some years ago, I met a different Hapsburg, also a pretender. A friend said to me about the one from this year: “He is the real pretender.” I think I’ll always treasure that phrase: “the real pretender.”

When August 22 rolled around, there was a special performance of Jedermann, marking the 90th anniversary. Throughout the day, men on rooftops, or hanging from steeples, gave the play’s signature call: “Jedermann!” Everyman, can you hear me? Yes, but leave me alone, please — I’m enjoying chocolate.

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