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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David said...

I've only heard the choral-orchestral version of the Seven Last Words conducted by your delectable Yannick Nezet-Seguin and it didn't drag at all.

Bartoli in 'Ihr hab' nun Traurigkeit', the ultimate of floaty soprano settings? That must have been odd.

David said...

Oh, and happy 80th birthday to carissimo Claudio today (Monday). Absolutely the greatest.