Saturday 28 April 2007

Salzburg Festival, August 2005

My first concert was Mahler's Sixth Symphony from Mariss Jansons and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. This, I thought, was a truly great performance. Not that such rankings matter, or even make sense, but my impression at the time was that it was superior even to my previous 'best live performance' of this work: Boulez and the LSO a few years ago. With hindsight, I see them as complementary, Boulez having drawn attention to certain colouristic elements which I can recall no one else having done, and having exhibited an awe-inspiring structural command. The first movement was quite brisk, very much a forward-looking march rather than a world-weary trudge. Both approaches can work, but this was very much of a piece with Jansons' overall vision of the work. I still find it difficult - perhaps I always shall - to hear the Andante second; however, this really did seem to me a case of it fitting into a coherent view, rather than a fashionable 'correction' to tradition. The relative relaxation was welcome, yet the shadow of the first movement remained ominous. Whilst it seems to me easier - though perhaps I am missing the point - for the Scherzo to parody, dramatically and tonally, the first movement when placed second, this nonetheless happened, quite ferociously, in this performance. And then there came the final movement. Throughout, the orchestra had played magnificently, but here it seemed to reach another level, encompassing everything from the Fafner-like growls of the low brass to the terrible orchestral - as well as hammer - blows of fate. Structurally, everything was utterly in place, just as it always is from Boulez; but there was an extraordinary musico-dramatic sense at work too: Götterdämmerung without words almost. The hammer-blows (two) were terrifying, and really sounded, as did the absence of the third. Finally, there was catharsis, but this remained an experience that shook me to the core. I was extremely fortunate to have been there, but felt that I did not want to hear the work again for quite some time. Which is, I think, as it should be...

Così fan tutte came next. I had seen this production (Karl-Ernst and Ursel Hermann) at its first outing, last year, and was just as impressed this time. It is an abstract view, with hints of Magritte in the design: quite justifiable for so artificial - in the best sense of the word - a work. The characters are not puppets, though; they are real human beings, all the more so for the fatalism with which they are often presented. I am still not quite sure about the sisters overhearing the wager in the first place, but nor am I utterly opposed to the idea. It is always a joy to hear the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in Mozart. This is essentially the orchestra that gave the first performance of the work: true 'authenticity', insofar as that matters. Sometimes, Adam Fischer drove them rather hard, very occasionally forging ahead of the singers, but there were wonderful moments of repose too. Thomas Allen was his usual wonderful self as Alfonso: ever in command, musically and in terms of the drama. Helen Donath was as close to perfection as Despina as one could imagine: a real character, with a still very beautiful voice, and with no hint of caricature.

The Magic Flute was perhaps the work to which I had been most looking forward: a new production under Graham Vick, with Riccardo Muti, no less, conducting the VPO. Muti did not disappoint; along with Colin Davis and Daniel Barenboim, he is one of the few living conductors whom I am always desperate to hear in Mozart, but this was my first time 'in the flesh'. He was not afraid to exploit the full resources of his great orchestra when necessary. Indeed, sometimes it sounded as if nothing had changed since the time of Karajan and Böhm: what a relief after so many of today's emaciated renditions. The strings had weight where necessary, yet there was never any trade off with delicacy where required, and the woodwind could always sing through beautifully. Indeed, the oboist almost stole the show from the flautist. Vick's production was typically imaginative, focussing on Tamino wrestling with his inner demons. It therefore began in his teenage bedroom, with the Three Ladies emerging from the wallpaper and the Queen of the Night representing an unsettling Freudian mother in his bed. Wisdom, virtue, and truth were sometimes undercut; one certainly felt that Papageno's life with Papagena might be quite fun, compared with Sarastro's realm, but there is more than one way to present this eternally fertile work. The cast members were uniformly excellent. Anna-Kristina Kaappola as the Queen of the Night presented a real character rather than a nightingale-singer. Rene Pape was predictably commanding and musically observant in the role of Sarastro. I had not heard Markus Werba before, but as Papageno, he proved a perfect foil to Michael Schade's Papageno: both were fine actors, as well as scrupulous musicians, attentive to every word and note. Genia Kuehmeier (Pamina) was new to me, but proved a great revelation. Her voice was rich but not over-rich, and she sang as if she were a world-class instrumentalist playing a violin or perhaps viola of great beauty.

Another revelation to me came from Schreker's Two Whitman Songs. Melanie Diener sang these as a true Lieder-singer, attentive to every word, and to every melodic and harmonic shift, of which there are many. Quite rightly, this was an intimate, not an operatic, revelation. I am now quite eager to hear more of Schreker's songs. The Vienna RSO, under Bertrand de Billy, was on its own for Messiaen's Turangalîla-Symphony. This astonishing work never palls for me, although I must admit that I do not listen to it very often; it might all become too much, rather like Tristan does for some people. The performance was well-paced: each movement seemed perfectly judged in its duration and in its internal performance, which is no mean feat. Whilst the orchestra is not the greatest in the world, it played splendidly nonetheless. Roger Muraro's piano prowess was magnificent. Every note was in place, both for itself and in connection with every other note. Yet his was not only crystalline perfection; there was dramatic engagement at every turn. His cadenzas harked back to Liszt and Debussy, but also looked forward to Boulez and Ligeti. For me, his was the greatest element of an excellent performance.

Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic brought Boulez and Ravel to the table. Boulez's Notations, played in the order I, VII, IV, III, II, received a fine if not outstanding performance. Rattle did not yet seem to possess quite the necessary familiarity with the score, yet presented it scrupulously. (Perhaps I had been spoilt by hearing the composer himself with the LSO last year.) Yet I thought it did the performers great credit to present this work rather than a predictable crowd-pleaser. Ravel's Daphnis and Chloë sounded wonderful. Every aspect of this great orchestra's staggering virtuosity was on show; yet never did this seem to be virtuosity for its own sake. The ebb and flow of Ravel's long score was tracked faithfully and with commendable dramatic attention. (This is telling a story, after all.) It would be invidious to single out any particular section, which signals how well the orchestra functions as an orchestra. The most recent concert I had attened from Rattle and the BPO before this had been bitterly disappointing, so this was a heartening occasion. The Vienna State Opera Chorus sounded marvellous too, boasting the much-vaunted precision of smaller choirs, yet lacking nothing in tonal refulgence. Its unaccompanied passages stood very close to perfection.