Tuesday 11 August 2009

Salzburg Festival (5): VPO/Salonen - Berg and Bruckner, 9 August 2009

Grosses Festspielhaus

Berg – Three Pieces from the Lyric Suite for string orchestra
Berg – Five Orchestral Songs after Postcard Texts by Peter Altenberg, op.4
Bruckner – Symphony no.6 in A major

Angela Denoke (soprano)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen

Berg and Bruckner is perhaps not the most obvious choice for a Sunday morning concert. Festival time, however, is different. Salzburg is different too. The opportunity to hear the Vienna Philharmonic in such repertoire is, of course, mouth-watering; no one could have been seriously disappointed by the results.

Indeed, it would have been a difficult and perverse task to be anything other than impressed by the Berg opening ‘half’. Esa-Pekka Salonen’s account of the pieces from the Lyric Suite perhaps took a little time truly to get into its stride. It would be an exaggeration to describe the opening Andante amoroso as inhibited but, in retrospect at least, Berg’s labyrinthine voluptuousness only bloomed a little later. The sound of the Vienna strings is of course a joy in itself, but the Allegro misterioso showed that luxury need not preclude rhythmic precision. Salonen’s guiding hand was of course valuable here. And the intensity of the Adagio appassionato proved a dramatic tragedy in itself, Wozzeck and Lulu both invoked.

The Altenberg Lieder received a masterly performance. Bar a slightly shaky start to the first from Angela Denoke, her part was not only beyond reproach but worthy of the highest praise. The twists and turns, the invitation and repulsion of Berg’s extraordinary score were searingly expressed in her vocal line. Salonen’s pointing of instrumental detail intensified rather than detracted from the tonal direction so strongly imparted. One could sense new voices, new timbres, new combinations, new harmonies demanding to be heard: no sooner said than done. The orchestra itself played no small part in that, of course, the richness and sensuous delight of Berg’s scoring a gift to the VPO – and a gift returned to the audience with interest. As Hier ist Friede concluded all too soon, not only could one see, hear, and experience snow falling into water; one knew that this meant for Altenberg and Berg far more than a literal reading could ever conceive. Those borders invoked in Über die Grenzen des All were created in order to be crossed, and so it would be in the final song’s anticipation of dodecaphony.

Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony provided ample opportunity once again to glory in the Vienna sound. Time and again I was made to think of Wagner, but a golden and surprisingly un-modernist – surprising not least given Salonen’s credentials – version of Bruckner’s idol. Salonen could certainly not justly be accused of wallowing; he clearly had a vision of where the music should go and was well placed to achieve it. There was sometimes, however, a tendency to drive a little too hard, not least in the outer movements – the first perhaps a little too fast for the true majesty its tempo marking dictates – and this tendency could be exacerbated by a striking, indeed stunning sound from the massed brass, a sound which could nevertheless occasionally overwhelm the rest of the orchestra. I do not wish to exaggerate: this was not Solti in Chicago, nor indeed Solti in Vienna, but Salonen’s occasional impetuousness did not speak of a conductor truly at home in Bruckner. The results remained in many senses glorious but metaphysical questions remained unanswered, unasked even, without convincingly presenting a modernistic alternative to such allegedly ‘Romantic’ concerns. This symphony seems to be especially difficult to bring off: in my experience, admittedly somewhat limited, I have only been truly convinced by Klemperer’s recording. What the work appears to need, however, is a readiness to accept that sometimes the best way to cross the threshold is to open the door and then to walk straight through. Here the interpretative steps did not always seem to lead in quite the right direction to do so.