Sunday, June 23, 2013

Salzburger Zeitung 2013 - Sixth Edition

Dateline:  June 23, 2013:

A week or so of intense work and several evening engagements have meant that things are being left undone, half-done or done but not posted.  This is a long overdue look at the last two concerts of this year's Whitsun Festival.  I am saving my thoughts on the Norma that served as the centrepiece for this year's programme - perhaps along the lines of saving the best for last.  But it will come - honestly.

Monday May 20: Final Day of the Festival - Part II

Religiöses Opfer
Stiftskirche St. Peter: 1500

In writing of his Seven Last Words from the Cross Haydn said "it was no easy task to compose seven adagios lasting ten minutes each, one after the other, without tiring the listener."  And despite the undoubted beauty of the music and the always remarkable artistry of the Hagen Quartet I have to agree.   It really does go on a bit - to the point that the Earthquake movement that ends it seems positively exciting - though mind you I've always thought Haydn was good at that sort of programme music, his Chaos in The Creation is miraculous.    Several things seemed to be working against the performance:  the baroque splendor of St Peter's with its newly plated silver altar-ware was hardly the venue for the austerity of this Good Friday meditation; a sudden and violent storm meant that the quiet beauty of the revelation of paradise in the Second Sonata (Hodie mecum eris in paradiso) was drowned out by the beating of hail on the copper roof; and the presence, behind the communion rail and the Quartet, of Alfred Brendel at a desk with a goose-neck library lamp.

The Hagen Quartet (Lukas Hagen, Rainer Schmidt, Veronika Hagen, Clemens Hagen) pause
between movements of Haydn's Seven Last Words as Alfred Brendal reads from the
programme notes. A rather strange Religious Sacrifice!
One of the great pianists of the last century, since his retirement from the concert halls Brendel has forged a career as a reader in the German speaking world.  When it was announced that he would be doing the readings between the movements I had assumed he would be reading devotional or meditative texts.  Though my German is minimal I was looking forward to something along the lines of the services of words and music I have heard in other German/Austrian churches.  Instead he regaled us with the programme notes recited in rather flat, unmusical tones.  Of the five readings two spoke to the death of Christ - a passage from Jean Paul's Speech of the Dead Christ from the Universe that there is no God from Siebenkäs; and the Seven Words of Man from José Saramago's The Gospel According to Jesus Christ.   Rather odd choices to accompany Haydn's devotional work but certainly more interesting than a recitation of "then he sat down and wrote".

Il terremoto (the earthquake) - the final movement of the string quartet version of 
Haydn's The Seven Last Words  From the Cross as played by Assai String Quartet.

The programme made for a rather strange 90 minutes and I'm not at all sure that the quick exit of the audience at the end was only because there was another concert following shortly. 

Versöhnungs Opfer
Grosses Festspielhaus: 1800

By Monday late afternoon it was possible to believe that the subject of Opfer - Sacrifice had been well and truly explored musically.   However there was one concert left to this year's Whitsun Festival and it was devoted to "Versöhnen".  It means reconciliation and I have to admit that initially the significance of that term as it applied to Brahms's Ein deutsches Requiem, nach Worten der heiligen Schrift (A German Requiem to texts from the Holy Scriptures) escaped me.   A closer reading of the text made it clear:  Brahm's eschewed the words of the Roman Requiem and chose texts from both the Old and New Testaments as found in the German Luther Bible.  The work begins and ends with the word "selig" - "blessed" and points to the living rather than the dead and eventually to the comfort that will be found for those that mourn.  A humanist approach to death, grieving and "reconciliation".

There was another type of reconciliation very much in evidence on the stage of the Grosses Festspeilhaus.  As well as an impressive line up of vocal talent - Cecilia Bartoli, René Pape, the Wiener Singverein - Daniel Barenboim was on the podium leading his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. For anyone who does not know the story behind this group of young musicians from the Middle-East (Iran, Israel, Palestine, Syria, Iraq) I suggest you read a bit about them here.  A true attempt at "reconciliation through music" founded by Barenboim and Edward Said.

Cecilia Bartoli, René Pape, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and the Wiener Singverein take
their bows after the performance of Brahm's Ein deutsches Requiem.  Hidden in the orchestra
is conductor Daniel Barenboim being assisted in fixing a "wardrobe malfunction".

It was an evening with great emotional impact on several levels.  Barenboim, not one of my favourite conductors, managed to stave off the heaviness that can sometimes make this piece ponderous and despite an unfortunate, but humourous, incident create moments of great beauty and finally serenity.  Though both Bartoli and Pape were on top form - I do wonder if her voice carried to the far reaches of the hall - it was the massed voices of the Singverein that carried the performance to heights.  This is music that is in the choir's foundations - the Singverein premiered the work in its shorter form in 1867.  A large group - it almost look as if all 230 members were on stage - they have a huge sound when needed that at times narrowed to an almost transparent thread.  It was choral singing at its finest.

I'm not sure where of the forces in this particular performance - other than conductor Claudio Abbado
  there is no identification of either the orchestra or choir.  It is taking place in the Musikverein Wien
 the home of the Wiener Sangverein but I am not taking their presence as a given.

The orchestra experienced a few rough patches - they are after all young musicians who work as an ensemble for a short period of time - but again the emotional impact was a strong one.  Was it preconceived because of the nature of the group, perhaps but none the less the emotions were honest ones, truly felt.  As was the ovation at the end!

As for the unfortunate incident - I can say I was there the night that Daniel Barenboim lost his pants!  I honestly don't think many people in the audience realized it but from our seats we had a clear view of the podium and what was happening.  About half way through the performance we became aware of something unusual going on.  It appears that Barenboim's suspenders gave way and his pants began to fall.  There was some furtive clutching with the left hand while conducting with the right; a pause; a few bemused exchanges of glances with Bartoli; then he backed against the podium railing and continued on.  Unfortunately he is not a conductor known for his economy of movement so there were several points where he lunged forward and things began to fall.  It is a credit to both his professionalism and musicianship that despite what was happening he and his forces delivered a beautiful and moving performance.  A closing concert to remember on several levels.

All production photos are courtesy of the Salzburg Festival and © Hans Jörg Michel (E-Mail:

23 June -  1943:  James Levine, American conductor and pianist is born
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Sunday, June 16, 2013

Salzburger Zeitung 2013 - Fifth Edition

Dateline:  June , 2013:

The pathway from St Peter's Platz leading into the Petersfriedhof.  Nestled against the Festungsberg
the castle of Hohensalzburg looms over it, the early catacombs and the monastery church of St Peters.

Wikipedia defines a taphophile as a "Tombstone Tourist": one who has an excessive interest in graves and cemeteries.  I'm not sure if I am really into taphophilia but I admit to a fondness for visiting cemeteries and looking at graves.  Often they are a revealing snapshot of points in time in the history of a place and its people.  The stories of peoples lives, their loves, thier achievements  and their family are traced on elaborate stone and marble vaults, on elaborate iron-work,  simple wooden crosses or enamel plaques.

Take as an example Petersfriedhof or St Peter's Cemetery in Salzburg.  You may recognize it from The Sound of Music.  It was the place where the Von Trapps cowered in the darkness after they had made their cute "Farewell Symphony" exit from the Felsenritsheule which is just a few metres away.  Well dark and threatening it may be during the nighttime but in the daylight it is one of the most peaceful, beautiful and visited places in Salzburg.  On every visit since that first trip back in 1969  I've taken time to stroll along its paths and admire those particularly Tirolian iron-worked markers (a right click will enbiggen the two lovely examples) that serve as memento mori of so many of the local worthies who have passed this way.

The burial ground rests at the foot of the Festungsberg in the shadow of Hohensalzburg.  Though the first recorded burial is not until the 1100s there are some indications that the area served as a cemetery when St Rubert of Salzburg founded the Abbey of St Peter in the 700s  Forming part of the cemetery are catacombs carved into the rock that date from somewhere between 400 and 800 CE thought to be the hiding place of Christians during the Barbarian Invasions.

The cemetery lay dormant and unattended between 1878 and 1930 when it was reopened and restored.  Prior to its closing it served as the final resting place for Michael Haydn and Mozart's sister Nannerl as well as many prominent citizens of the town.  Though many of the more wealth were interred in elaborate vaults in the baroque colonnades along two sides of the cemetery many Salzburgers rest in loving tended plots marked by curlicues of wrought-iron with enamel plaques afixed telling us who and when they were.  Many are adorned with paintings of favourite saints, the Blessed Virgin or the Trinity itself; some worked like fine miniatures, others with more primitive presentations.  But all record the passage of a soul to a place of rest in the shadow of the mountain.

Looking to the rock face of the Festungberg: the Maximuskapelle and the Gertraudenkapelle
and catacombs carved into the side of the mountain that define one of the boundaries of Alte Salzburg. 

Monday May 20: Final Day of the Festival - Part I

I very foolish booked tickets for all three concerts programmed for today - 11:00  15:00  and 18:00 with little time between each one for food or refreshment.  Not the wisest move on my part, particularly as all three programmes were, in nature, a bit on the heavy side.  Continuing the theme of Sacrifice we had a day of Political Sacrifice, Religious Sacrifice and then Opfer in the sense of Offering - an offering of reconciliation. 

Politisches Opfer
Felsenreitschule: 1100

Perhaps this was the most interesting programming of the festival - two works that spoke to the sacrifices made because of a repressive political situation by four Russian artists. Two of the artists stayed and endured the fallout that their works made them subject to; the third made compromises with the state; the fourth choose to leave his homeland to find artistic freedom elsewhere.  Each artist responded to the same political oppression in their own way.

Prior to his departure from the Soviet Union in 1980 violinist Gidon Kremer had mentioned to composer Sofia Gubaidulina the possibility of her writing a violin concerto for him.  Gubaidulina took that suggestion and using the strengths she heard and saw in his playing crafted Offertorium, a work for and dedicated to him.  There were many obstacles standing in the way of the work being performed by Kremer:  his decision to stay in the West had resulted in tensions with Moscow and the religious nature of Gubaidulina's works always meant that she was under criticism from and observation by the State for the inspiration she took from her faith.  Finally the piece was smuggled out of the Soviet Union to Kremer and he premiered it during Wiener Festwochen 1981with the ORF Symphony conducted by Leif Segerstam.  It was well received at its premier and subsequently Gubaidulina revised it in 1982 and 1986.  The last revised version - which we heard - have given both the composer and her works international prominence.

I felt very lucky when opening the programme to see that the performance notes for both the Offertorium and the Shostakovitch Thirteenth Symphony - Babi Jar were by my dear  David from I'll Think of Something Later.  As I have often remarked here David has been my guide in so many things since we became friends I was happy he was there to help me with the Gubaidulina.  First she is not a composer I am familiar with and second I don't always find "modern" composers are my cup of tea.  Though I am still unsure of where I stand on her work it was more than helpful to have David along, though I kept thinking it would be more fun if he were there in person.

Violinist Vadim Repin with the Mariinsky Orchestra and Valery Gergiev performing
Sofia Gubaidulina's Offertorium  - a complex and spiritual work.  Gubaidulina's story
is certainly one of Political Sacrifice. 

Though I may be ambivalent on the work itself there can be nothing but admiration for any violinist performing it.   Aside from the fact that it was written with a specific talent in mind - not in itself unusual  - it demands a level of virtuosity that is daunting for anyone approaching the work.  Vadim Repin met the challenge though ultimately it seemed to be more a display of that virtuosity than as the act of devotion I have a feeling the work calls for.  And again for Gergiev and his orchestra there can only be admiration as they wound there way through a score that is complex and so multi-layered.   For myself I think perhaps listening to one of those initial performances by Kremer may reveal more of the beauty in the piece than did this performance.

If I had trouble with Offertorium there was none with Shostakovitch's Babi Yar.  My love affair with Dmitri Shostakovitch began when the Ottawa ChamberFest scheduled a cycle of his complete string quartets with the Borodin Quartet several years ago.  Though I only heard one or two concerts I began to explore his music a bit further.  In Rome there were frequent opportunities to hear his Symphonies and his The Nose played in several theatres in Italy in the classic Moscow Chamber Musical Theatre production.  A performance by the Hagan Quartet of his String Quartet Number 8 at Salzburg's MozartWoche sealed the deal.

Again in his detailed notes David outlined the history of the Symphony.  How Shostakovitch read  Babiyy Yar Yevgeny Yevtushenko's commemoration and condemnation of the massacre and Russian antisemitism.   He asked the poet's permission to set it to music.  How amazed by the composer's setting the young poet gave him a collection of his poems and wrote one for him - Fears, a sardonic indictment of the Stalinist years... and after.  How the composer had encountered difficulties with the authorities and performers right up to the day of the premiere in December of 1962.  How in 1963 in response to "advise" Yevtushenko had expand his text of Babiyy Yar beyond the slaughter of Russian Jews to "embrace the sufferings of the Russian People", a compromise which shocked and grieved  Shostakovitch.  How the work work remained unplayed for five years on "official recommendation".

Conductor Valery Gergiev, Mikhail Petrenko, the Chorus and Orchestra of the Mariinsky accept
the more than appreciative ovation from the audience at the Felsenreitschule on the last day
of the 2013 Whistun Festival.

A "choral" symphony with bass soloist Shostakovitch set five of Yevtushenko's poems including "Fears" and the eponymous "Babiyy Yar".  Apparently the poet found Shostakovitch's choice of poems puzzling and could see no common theme but reading the poems (translations provided in the programme) it is easy to see what attracted the composer:  Babiyy Jar - the sufferings of Jews, not just in Russia; Humour - the role of humour in a repressed society; In the Store - the strength of women in times of trouble; Fears - the backward slap at being constantly watched; and Careers - sacrificing principles to the safety of a career.  Five facets of living in a totalitarian society.  (The full texts that Shostakovitch used are available here - this includes the original text of Babi Yar.

The orchestra and male chorus of the Mariinsky were in top form and Valery Gergiev brought out both the power and far subtler sardonic qualities in the music.   Bass Mikhail Petrenko seemed somewhat nervous - almost uncertain - in the first solo of Babi Yar but by the second - the memories of a young boy being kicked and beaten, the victim of a pogrom -  had reached his stride and brought an intense range of emotions to the remaining four movements.

I was particularly overwhelmed by the third movement:  In the Store.  It moves me more than the other movements as it paints a picture of the women of Russia lining up for whatever is in the store that day.  The text is bitter, admiring, sorrowful, loving, and angry and in his music Shostakovitch catches every nuance of Yevtushenko's words and expands them into an almost universal tragedy. Gergiev, Petrenko, the chorus and orchestra captured those moods eloquently.

It was an emotional high point of the Festival - on a par with the opening night Norma - as we were leaving the Felsenreitschule they were opening the roof to allow the air and sunlight in and it was like a release of emotion.   The intensity of the experience meant that the remaining two performances were somewhat overshadowed. 

More about the rest of the day will follow but in the meantime here are the same forces performing that third movement at a BBC Proms concert from 2006

All Salzburg Festival photos © Hans Jörg Michel E-Mail:

June 16 - 1903:  Helen Traubel the great American Wagnerian soprano and Nightclub entertainer (?) was born.

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Sunday, June 02, 2013

Monumental Sidd - Sidd and the Several Dwarfs

Sidd is currently off on a Mediterranean Cruise with our friend Josée and our colleague Jean-Louis - being a security conscious type - thought he'd best be equipped just in case:

Given what has been happening on cruise ships lately Jean-Louis felt that Sidd
should be pre-equiped just in case they don't have one his size on board.
Meanwhile as Sidd heads out on his cruise I started going through more pictures of our friend on his jaunt with us to Munich, Salzburg, Füssen and Frankfurt.   One of the common features - well other than food, Sidd seems inordinately fond of food - was the number of monuments that our Sidd wanted to be posed beside.  So starting with a special garden in Salzburg we give you:  Monumental Sidd.

Salzburg - May 22, 2013

My friend David suggested that since Sidd was going to Salzburg for the music festival we should arrange a special performance of Zemlinksy's Der Zwerg (The Dwarf) for his delectation.  We suggested it to him but he rather huffily reminded us that he was a gnome not a dwarf.  After the distinction had been so clearly, and emphatically,  made I was a bit reticent to suggest a visit to the Zwergerlgarten (Dwarf Garden) at Scholss Mirabell.  However Sidd was agreeable and was even willing to have his photo taken with a few of the strange creatures that inhabit the tower-like patch of grass that has been their home since 1928.

On our visit in 2008 I posted photos of all the dwarfs that live in the Zwergerlgarten and a bit of their history.  You might want to take a look and in the meantime here are Sidd and Several Dwarfs.

Though her expression is no perhaps the most welcoming Sidd remembered
that the pomegranates she was offering were a sign of hospitality.

This poor Turkish Lad may have lost his arm in the Siege of Vienna
- or perhaps it was just the elements or a drunken loat after a night
of beer and sausage.

Many of the dwarfs in the garden are wearing clothes that suggest the commedia dell'arte
- perhaps they were members of the Archbishop's theatre company?

This lady - one of only two in the garden - was offering a jug of water (or
maybe wine) and some fruit to go with it.  As we all know Sidd loves his
wine and food so it was a given that he'd hop up to see what she had to offer.

This little woodcutter has always struck me as the saddest in the group.
  The difficulty of his existence is etched in the stone - despite assurances
Sidd was afraid to go near him.

In the early 1800s Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria, in a fit of superstitious concern for his wife and unborn child, had the little creatures (there were 28 of them)  “with their goiters and hunchbacks" removed from the Garden.  They were to be destroyed but were only auctioned off - nine remained in the city's possession.   At the moment 15 of them are back in their rightful place - perhaps one day the remaining 13 will be reunited with their fellows.

02 June - 1896: Guglielmo Marconi applies for a patent for his newest invention, the radio.

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