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Take Me to Your Lieder

by Jay Nordlinger

Salzburg, Austria – The Salzburg Festival always has a theme or two. I’m not talking about melodies, although there are those — I’m talking about programming themes. This year, the festival began with a mini-festival, or a festival-before-the-festival: “Ouverture spirituelle.” This was a series of sacred-music concerts. Why they gave it a French name, I can’t tell you. Maybe religion is less scary under a foreign title? In any case, it was a magnificent idea, this series. Even a little bit daring.

Since the “overture,” there has been “Über die Grenze,” or “Over the Border.” What border? The one between Austria and the Czech lands. In keeping with this theme, many of the concerts have featured music by Dvořák, Janáček, Suk, et al. There has also been a series called “Salzburg contemporary.” That is an interesting word, “contemporary.” One of the concerts had a piece by Hanns Eisler composed in 1932. Would songs written by Lee Hoiby just a few years ago be considered “contemporary”? Or are they too “traditional” for that? “Contemporary” can be a matter of attitude, more than anything else.

Themes aside, Salzburg always has just plain concerts — just plain performances, of a range of music by a range of musicians. I propose to give you a Whitman’s Sampler. (You won’t find Whitman’s, however, amid the chocolates in this chocolatey burg.) I’ll touch on an orchestra concert, a violin recital, a voice recital, a contemporary concert, and an opera.

Standing before the Vienna Philharmonic one morning — an 11 o’clock start — was Mariss Jansons, the Latvian conductor. They began with Strauss’s tone poem Don Juan. To my taste, Jansons was a little too measured and careful in some spots; more abandon would have been in order. But the conductor’s warmth and humanity came through, as it often does, whatever the music before him. Then, Nina Stemme joined the orchestra for the Wesendonck-Lieder. She is a Swedish soprano; the Wesendonck-Lieder were composed by Wagner to poems by Mathilde Wesendonck. Who was she? The wife of one of Wagner’s benefactors. He repaid him by carrying on with Mathilde. Say what you will about Wagner’s music, but his character was beyond reproach. In any event, Stemme sang these sublime songs with conviction. With technical security too. And Jansons, in his accompaniment, was unforced, natural, just like the music.

He ended the concert with Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 — a piece that matches his own qualities. It is great-hearted. And, from Jansons and the Vienna Phil., it was fresh as a daisy, not hackneyed at all. In the closing pages, I like a touch of — again — abandon. Jansons went in for a more stately excitement. Still, it was a first-rate concert, all around — one that people talked about for days.

In the same hall, the Grosses Festspielhaus (Great Festival Hall), Pinchas Zukerman gave a recital. He is now a senior statesman of the violin, age 64 (an age the Beatles sang a song about). It seems like only yesterday he was a hotshot out of Israel, along with his fellow fiddler Itzhak Perlman. In Salzburg, Zukerman appeared in the standard concert wear of today: that solid-black Mao suit. He and I were the only men without a jacket on, in this sweltering hall. Mine was in my lap. And Zukerman was the only one without a tie. When playing, he always seems completely relaxed, even phlegmatic. He is not a swayer or swooner; he is virtually impassive. His blood pressure must be enviably low. William F. Buckley Jr. once described his friend Beverly Sills as “the most unhurried person alive.” Zukerman gives a similar impression.

He began this recital with music perfectly suited to him: Schumann’s Three Romances, Op. 94. Zukerman was simple, pure, unaffected, and noble — noble of soul. He didn’t “do” anything; he mainly let the music be. He showed complete mastery of the material before him, of his instrument, and of himself. He continued this way for the rest of the recital. Sometimes, his serenity — you might even say an insistent, stubborn serenity — worked against him. The last movement of the Franck Sonata could have used more of its giddy joy. The C-minor Scherzo of Brahms could have used more mischief and bite. Parts of the Brahms D-minor Sonata could have used more drama. But Zukerman just sailed on, his way.

To end the evening, he played a little Sicilienne in E flat, which we used to say was by Maria Theresia von Paradis, an Austrian pianist, blind, who knew Mozart. But it seems to have been concocted by Samuel Dushkin, a 20th-century violinist, who claimed to have discovered a hidden treasure. Regardless, Zukerman played the Sicilienne with perfect and sweet simplicity — you could have gasped. Afterward, the pianist on the evening, Angela Cheng, gave him a look that said, “That was damn good.” It was. For all these years, I have considered Zukerman a fine violinist, but this recital made me think he is in fact a great one.

Thomas Hampson sang in the Haus für Mozart, formerly known as the Kleines Festspielhaus, or Little Festival Hall. A song recital, in this part of the world, is called a “Liederabend” — an evening of song. At this year’s festival, Christian Gerhaher sang a recital at 11:30 a.m. I asked some friends, “Can we say it’s a Liedermorgen,” i.e., a morning of song? No: still a Liederabend.

The baritone from Spokane — Hampson, not Gerhaher — is now in his mid-50s. On this evening, he sang with what I would call a manly beauty: not a youthful beauty, maybe, but certainly a kind of beauty. He sounded like he ought to sound, at this stage — probably better than anyone has a right to. The voice, like a car, has some “character dings.” That is, it has some dents and scratches, lending character, lending individuality. As a communicator, Hampson is one of the best. Sometimes, however, he sings a little too self-consciously, almost professorially. But you could have said the same of Fischer-Dieskau and Schwarzkopf, and many did. That is excellent company to be in.

Hampson began his recital the way Zukerman did: with Schumann. He sang Liederkreis, Op. 39, a cycle of twelve songs on poems by Eichendorff. “Waldesgespräch” was highly interesting and involving — almost operatic. “Mondnacht” was the least successful of the songs, I think. Hampson’s pitch went awry, and the music bogged down. It needed forward momentum. But “Auf einer Burg” was great — really great. I had never quite realized the worth of this song. Accompanying Hampson was Wolfram Rieger, on whom I have heaped praise for years. A superb pianist and natural musician, he is superior to more than a few with big solo careers.

After intermission, we went über die Grenze, as Hampson and Rieger performed the Gypsy Melodies of Dvořák. Time was, people sang Czech music in German or English. These days, no one would be caught dead outside the native Czech.

In the Kollegienkirche, the church of the University of Salzburg, Heinz Holliger conducted his magnum opus, Scardanelli-Zyklus, or the Scardanelli Cycle. Holliger, a septuagenarian Swiss, is best known as an oboist — indeed, he’s the best-known player of that instrument in the world. But he has devoted much of his career to conducting and composing. And he devoted many years — some 20 — to his Scardanelli Cycle. It is a kind of oratorio or cantata, for flute, chamber orchestra, and chorus. Texts are by Friedrich Hölderlin, the German Romantic poet who lived from 1770 to 1843. In the last several decades of his life, he was mad, a schizophrenic. The Scardanelli texts come from his very last years. Some claim that he was really lucid and far-seeing, more “sane” than the rest of us. You are familiar with this line of argument.

In Holliger’s opus, the madness comes through, and this can be unsettling. I imagine the composer intends it to be so. Yet there are also moments, or stretches, of calm, beauty, and order. The work, overall, has a music-of-the-spheres feeling. Holliger uses many of the tricks and tics of modernism. For example, musicians are made to whisper — to whisper words. They’re also supposed to feel their own pulses, or something. The piece lasts two and a half hours, requiring patience on the part of the listener. Maybe more patience than most have, or wish, to give. But Holliger has composed his piece with intelligence and care. It is a formidable achievement. Generations from now, when the carcasses of post–World War II modernism are exhumed for inspection, this will be one of the better ones.

Among the operas was La bohème, Puccini’s hit from 1896. It had never been performed at the Salzburg Festival before — a festival that began in 1920. The festival has been anything but Puccini-friendly. Before this year’sBohème, only two Puccini operas had been performed: Tosca in 1989 and Turandot in 2002. Maybe Madama Butterfly by 2040?

Starring in the Salzburg Bohème were Anna Netrebko, the Russian soprano, and Piotr Beczala, the Polish tenor. They are a frequent pairing, in several operas, all over. On the night I attended, Beczala was sick, substituted for by Marcello Giordani. He is a famous tenor, flown in on an emergency basis. But he had a bad night, croaking and cracking, sucking gas all the way. You rooted for him, because he was a substitute, and you root for Giordani anyway: a game, robust, sometimes great tenor who has many a difficult night. But I wondered: Did the public truly need an established star? How about an unknown, who might break through on a night like this? As for Netrebko, I could pick for several paragraphs, but the bottom line is, she is famous for good reason: A splendid singer and stage animal, she is.

The production caused a lot of grumbling. Crafted by Damiano Michieletto, an Italian director, it is an update, set in 2012. It does not much look like La bohème. As at Netrebko, I could pick at this production, for even more paragraphs. But my ultimate questions, in a case like this, are these: Is the production a sincere and honest effort? Does the director like the opera? Or is he trying to undermine it, twist it, mock it, sully it? Michieletto’s Bohème is a sincere and honest effort. And he no doubt likes the opera. What’s more, he understands it. This production, I believe, brings out the unhappy side of la vie bohème — of what today we might call “the hook-up culture.” Its emptiness, its soullessness, and, of course, its ephemerality.

A final note: La bohème can be a long, long night at the opera, with an intermission after each of the first three acts. In Michieletto’s production, there is one intermission: Acts I and II are stitched together, and so are Acts III and IV. I’ll tell you a secret about critics — it may be true of you too: The shorter the evening, the better we like it.

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