in: News & Features

February 12, 2014

A Dispatch From Salzburg

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From time to time BMInt’s far-flung correspondents send observations from abroad that are relevant to our local happenings. Such is the case for Tamar Hestrin-Grader’s account below from Salzburg and for Bettina Norton’s observations from faraway San Francisco above.

Last summer, Boston was honored with the visit of two of Mozart’s own instruments, brought over from Salzburg by the Mozarteum Foundation to be exhibited and performed on during the Boston Early Music Festival. (An interview with the director of the Foundation is [here] and a review of the performance using those instruments is [here].) Since that time, in fact, the Mozarteum Foundation was fortunate enough to receive another violin, built by Pietro Antonio dalla Costa in 1764, which is believed to have been used by Mozart in Vienna (the one brought to BEMF was an instrument he used in Salzburg).

This donation brings the count of Mozart’s instruments owned by the Foundation to two violins, a viola, a child’s violin (Kindergeige), and a piano. But the Mozarteum Foundation is far more than a guardian of Mozart instruments. Their renowned collection of documents (both primary and secondary) related to Mozart and his family is a valuable and readily accessible source for researchers. Much of the manuscript collection has been digitized, and they regularly release CDs and facsimiles. They maintain Mozart’s birthplace and residence in Salzburg as museums, and arrange concerts and events throughout the year. The largest-scale of such events is the Mozartwoche, 11 days centered on Mozart’s birthday (January 27th) each year of concerts, lectures, film screenings, and other events.

Arvo Paert (Wolfgang Lienbacher photo)

Arvo Paert (Wolfgang Lienbacher photo)

While even for the most devoted Mozart-lover, 11 days might be a bit much, the event is not devoted to him exclusively. Yes, a great deal of his music is played. But in no way does the festival draw boundaries, not between composers, eras, or performance styles. As Matthias Schulz, Foundation CEO and artistic director, puts it in his preface to the mighty tome of articles and program notes covering the entire festival, “It is very important to us that the Mozart Week is not misunderstood as being set like a fine gemstone; our intention is not to present Mozart in isolation, but to show his work in relation to our own time.” In addition to a variety of works by Mozart, the repertoire this year included C.P.E. Bach, Richard Strauss, and Arvo Pärt, with concerts from solo piano to orchestra, from oratorio to opera, and stylistically from period to modern instruments. Perhaps most elegantly illustrating this was the cycle of complete keyboard sonatas (begun this year, to be finished in 2015): they are split between fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout (so beloved in Boston) and modern pianist Fazil Say, as known for his jazz improvisation as Bezuidenhout is for his ornaments in the style of Mozart.

With such a range of composers, genres, and performance styles, then, it is impossible to be bored. More than that, it is impossible not to be fascinated by all the stimulating juxtapositions. To be able to hear, within days of each other, a rare, magnificent cantata by C.P.E. Bach performed by the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra and a program of Strauss, Pärt (including a premiere), and Mozart performed by the Vienna Philharmonic, and in between to hear lieder of Mozart, Schubert, Strauss, and Brahms, recitals of Mozart sonatas on both a Walter-model fortepiano and a modern Steinway, opera by Gluck, and Mozart string quintets: it is almost a surfeit of pleasures. And with at least three events each day, this article can cover only a sample, and the many events I was unable to attend were equally varied.

On opening night, the 23rd of January, was the opera production, Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, conducted by Marc Minkowski, directed by Ivan Alexandre, with Bejun Mehta as Orfeo, Camilla Tilling as Eurydice, Ana Quintans as Amor, and Uli Kirsch as Death (an added silent part). Schulz and Minkowski, speaking from the stage before the curtain rose, announced that the evening was dedicated to the memory of the late Claudio Abbado, much beloved in Salzburg and elsewhere, who performed six times in the Mozartwoche since 1965. Coincidentally, his last performance in Salzburg, a year and a half before, was in the same hall as the opera, the Haus für Musik, next to the Festspielhaus. The production that followed this touching dedication was one of exquisite beauty and depth of imagination, more moving than any opera I have seen for a long time. To be swept from sorrow to awe to terror and open tears was an experience that many production attempt, but few succeed, and this was one. The compactness of Gluck’s original (premiered in Vienna in 1762), the vivid acting from the vocal parts, the ingenious staging, all combined to extraordinarily powerful effect.

Camilla Tilling as Eurydice and Uli Kirsch as Death (Wolfgang Lienbacher photo)

Camilla Tilling as Eurydice and Uli Kirsch as Death (Wolfgang Lienbacher photo)

For example, Minkowski and Alexandre added a silent part, always a risky choice. Too often, added parts merely distract from the already sufficient action of the written story. Here, the eerie presence of skeletal Death, moving about the stage, balefully watching the oblivious Orfeo, tenderly soothing Eurydice’s restless spirit, attempting to keep her safe from her searching lover, was moving. Indeed, his presence enhanced the story, adding layers of complexity to a plot already full of conflicting emotions—layers as complex as those formed by the hanging frames and shimmering mirror-curtains of the set. Eurydice’s lamenting that she preferred the sweet repose of death to what she believes is cruel indifference from her lover takes on a terrifying intensity after one has seen her dancing with Death, Death who affectionately combs her hair, who, like a selfish lover, attempts to keep her to himself and shield her even from the knowledge that her lover is near. This was directorial addition at its most sensitive. Sensitive also was the choice of opera: the six-year-old Mozart is known to have missed the premiere of Gluck’s Orfeo by a day, having been delayed on the road to Vienna. Had he arrived as planned, he would surely have attended the much publicized premiere. It is tempting to speculate what the effect might have been on his development had he encountered such a work at such an age.

In the same hall the following evening, we were presented with a work that Mozart in his mature years was intimately acquainted with, having conducted it twice in Vienna in 1788, just a decade after its completion: C.P.E. Bach’s oratorio Die Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu (the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus), performed by the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra and the Rias Chamber Choir conducted by René Jacobs. Mozart’s performance scores survive, showing the alterations he found necessary to make, including redistribution of the fiendishly high trumpet among the wind players, so that the forces available to him could pull it off. The work entirely justifies the Hamburg Bach’s own high opinion of it. The final chorus alone would make a magnificent work, without the wealth of arias, recitatives, and choruses preceding. Particularly expressive was the wonderful bassoon and bass aria, “Willkommen Heiland!”, with Javier Zafra and Michael Nagy. But all the musicians deserve the highest praise, their ensemble exquisite and flexible with lovely pianissimos and rich fortissimos. Andreas Kueppers at fortepiano improvised transposing preludes in Bach’s solo style before each recitative. It was the sort of piece and performance that made me sorry when the concert came to an end.

And so on throughout the week. On Monday the 28th, tenor Michael Schade and pianist Malcolm Martineau presented a lieder program, single songs of Mozart, Schubert, and Brahms, as well as Strauss’s Lotosblätter and Mozart’s cantata for solo voice and piano, Die ihr des unermeßlichen Weltalls Schöpfer ehrt (K.619), written at the same time as the Magic Flute and filled with Masonic imagery of brotherhood and order. It was an intriguing combination of songs and composers—inclusion of Schubert’s setting of Adelaide, as opposed to Beethoven’s more famous setting of Matthisson’s poem, was a particularly good touch—and a dramatic performance. At times even rather hammed up: Schade’s ability to switch instantaneously from a delicate whisper to a mighty roar is certainly impressive, but some passages in mf from time to time might have been a relief. It might have served the text better too; not all passages require dynamic extremes, and when even comparatively insignificant ones are delivered in this manner, the truly important lose some of their significance.

In the Große Universitätsaula on the 28th and 29th of January, in floods of afternoon sunlight, Kristian Bezuidenhout and Fazil Say presented the first installments of their Mozart sonata cycles. Bezuidenhout played sonatas K.309, 283, 332, 279, and 311, on an instrument built by Robert A. Brown, based on the c. 1780 Walther now in the Haydn Haus of Eisenstadt Austria. Like practically all early Viennese-type fortepianos built today, the instrument was equipped with knee levers, operating the damper-raising mechanism and the moderator, both of which Bezuidenhout used frequently. It would be interesting to hear him give the same program on a similar instrument equipped with handstops—Mozart’s own Walther (now in possession of the Mozarteum Foundation) appears to have had only handstops until shortly after the composer’s death, when Walther reworked the instrument, adding among other things the knee levers it retains today. One wonders both how differently modern performers would play, when raising or lowering the dampers can be accomplished only with a hand free from the keyboard, and whether Mozart would have used the knee levers in similar manner to handstops or as freely as modern performers use pedals. On a modern Steinway, Fazil Say the following afternoon played four sonatas: K.576, 330, 570, and 282. The contrast between the sounds could hardly be stronger for closely related instruments: the crisp slender brilliance of the fortepiano, next the fat mighty roar of the Steinway.

Kristian Bezuidenhout  (Wolfgang Lienbacher photo)

Kristian Bezuidenhout (Wolfgang Lienbacher photo)

The pianists’ approaches were as contrasting as their instruments, with the exception that each played from score, common for players of historic keyboards, less so for modern pianists. Bezuidenhout’s tempi were swift and flowing, his repeats varied with ornaments, his dynamics and use of the moderator pedal producing terraces, almost reminiscent of what a harpsichordist might do in these pieces. Say’s tempi were sometimes slow and sometimes choppy (in every final movement he was literally bouncing on each beat, very enthusiastically); he added no ornaments; and his dynamics swelled and faded sometimes confusingly, with little connection to the musical structure. I wonder if some of the seemingly random swells were overflowings of emotional energy that in an historically informed performance would have found outlet in improvised ornaments intensifying the moment rather than in sudden, not to say arbitrary, dynamic variations. It would probably be very entertaining to hear what Say would do were he to unleash his well-known improvisatory skills. As it was, they were restricted to the second encore, the “Turkish” Rondo, in which he slipped elegantly from Mozart to jazz and back. That was very well-done and in some ways the most musically satisfying part of the concert.

The evening after Say’s sonatas, across the road in the Festspielhaus Mark Minkowski returned to the podium to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in Pärt, Mozart, and Strauss. The first half began with one of Pärt’s many versions of his famous Fratres, this one for orchestra: eerie and Tarkovsky-esque, punctuated by tapping on block and drum. The second half began with a new piece commissioned by the Mozarteum Foundation for the festival. As is frequently Pärt’s practice, the commission began as an adaptation of an earlier piece, in this case his Littlemore Tractus, composed in 1999 for organ and chorus. Swan Song, however, is more than a reorchestration of Tractus: it revisits and expands on the ideas of life and death put forward earlier. The use of orchestra and bell gives Swan Song an almost Romantic lushness, in contrast to the medieval austerity of Tractus. As can be imagined, this made the pairing with Strauss’s exquisitely nostalgic reflections upon death—his Four Last Songs, sung by Soile Isokoski immediately after the Pärt premiere—singularly appropriate. All this may give the impression that the concert was programmed with enough sepulchral works to deserve the title Memento Mori, but not so, thanks to the remainder of the first half being occupied by Mozart’s joyous Haffner Serenade (K.250) and March in D Major (K.249). It was interesting for this keyboardist to note that C.P.E. Bach’s declaration in his Versuch that a harpsichord in an orchestra is more audible from a level above the stage holds true even when the harpsichord (here played by Francesco Corti) is surrounded by the modern forces, brass and all, of the Vienna Philharmonic.

Paul Lewis (Wolfgang Lienbacher photo)

Paul Lewis (Wolfgang Lienbacher photo)

The next evening, January 30th, across the river in the elaborately gilded early 20th-century Großer Saal of the Mozarteum, Robin Ticciati conducted the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in Strauss’s Overture to his last opera, Capriccio, Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C Major (with Paul Lewis), Pärt’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. A youthful and enthusiastic performance, it overflowed with energy, making some parts of the program perhaps a trifle unsubtle, but all infectiously cheerful. Lewis played sensitively, though conservatively, with a first-movement cadenza by his teacher Alfred Brendel, an appropriate choice, given that Brendel a few days earlier received this season’s Golden Mozart Medal. In fact, the programming was altogether a propos, in that Strauss’s Capriccio (whose overture floated in with a lovely warm sound) is set in the late 18th century among musicians rehearsing and arguing about the relative importance of music and words in opera—making it a late-Romantic composer’s musical and dramatic reflection in mid-20th century on the very ideas that both Gluck and Mozart grappled with in the 18th.

The next morning, in the same hall, was the second installment of the Mozart string quintets (the first set had been played two days earlier), performed by a beautifully blended ensemble formed of Renaud Capuçon and Alina Ibragimova on violin, Gérard Caussé and Léa Hennino on viola, and Clemens Hagen on cello, all artists heard far too rarely on the other side of the ocean. Their performance was filmed (two cameramen onstage); I understand the footage will be used at least to make a publicity video. (Two these performances are online, perhaps temporarily, K. 516 and 614.)

Michael Schade (Wolfgang Lienbacher photo)

Michael Schade (Wolfgang Lienbacher photo)

Admirable and varied as this year’s program was, next year’s looks equally tempting. The modern composer to be honored in the 2015 Mozartwoche will be the late Eliott Carter, paired with Schubert, a composer for whom Carter is known to have felt an affinity: “Schubert is always walking up and down with arpeggios on C, E, G and so forth. I am not doing anything different really, except using a different system of harmony.” Honored with the Golden Mozart Medal will be Mitsuko Uchida, celebrated performer of both Mozart and Schubert, and her performances will include both composers, solo and in trio with Veronika Eberle and Marie-Elisabeth Hecker. Christina Schäffer will sing Mozart and Schuber lieder with Daniel Sepec on violin and Eric Schneider on piano. Moreover, Mozart’s own violin and piano will brought out of the museums to appear in concertos for the first time in recent years. Schiff will continue the concerto series with his Cappella Andrea Barca (the pianist’s name in Italian). Bezuidenhout and Say will finish their solo sonata cycles.

As to opera for next year, Minkowski claims that they started with the idea of doing something lighter than the productions of the last two seasons (last year’s was Lucio Silla, composed by Mozart at 16), and they arrived at the decision to do Mozart’s cantata Davide penitente, first performed in Vienna in 1785. Rarely heard in its own right—although much of the music will be familiar in a different form, as Mozart reused material from his unfinished Great Mass in C minor—this production will be rarer still, since it will directed and choreographed by the celebrated equine choreographer Bartabas, with his Académie équestre de Versailles. Ten horses, riders, the Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble, the Salzburg Bach Choir, and soloists will all be gathered into Felsenreitschule, the late 17th-century riding arena built into the cliffs behind the Festspielhaus, the floor of which is being reconstructed both to support the weight of the horses and to soften their hoofbeats, so the music remains audible. Even an 18th-century aristocrat would agree that this will be a spectacle!

 

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