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Heather Mac Donald
Musical Miscellany in Salzburg
A festive program of lovingly performed masterpieces
12 August 2011

Stand outside the main concert hall of the annual Salzburg Festival at 7 PM, and you might think yourself at the Oscars or Cannes, as hordes of well-heeled music lovers wait patiently behind red velvet ropes, hoping to glimpse such luminaries as Russian soprano Anna Netrebko and Princess Gloria of Thurn and Taxis sweeping into an opera premiere. On Wednesday night, however, the festival recalled a much more august tradition from the late eighteenth century—the miscellany program, composed of works for varying combinations of instruments and, invariably, a singer. The modern segregation of concerts into purely instrumental and purely vocal programs was unheard of in the first 100 years of public concerts. For the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century paying public, vocal music, preferably drawn from opera, was a prerequisite for any concert; instrumental works were slipped in around the main event, which was the singing.

On Wednesday night at the Haus für Mozart, the singing was certainly superlative, but the rendition of Franz Schubert’s Notturno for piano, violin, and cello that opened the program was easily as important. From pianist Mitsuko Uchida’s hushed opening notes, as delicate as petals falling on water, it was clear that this performance was going to be of an unparalleled intensity. Schubert’s piano trios contain some of his most achingly poignant writing, and the Notturno, a single-movement work written in 1828, is no exception. Violinist Mark Steinberg and cellist Clemens Hagen, who got the first crack at the trio’s sighing melody, played with an unbroken unity of phrasing. As the piano and strings passed the melody back and forth, the concentration with which the three musicians listened to each other made it almost impossible to breathe. They brought out all the mesmerizing mystery of the work.

A hard act to follow, but tenor Ian Bostridge maintained the trio’s extraordinary level of musicianship in his performance of Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe, a song cycle from 1840 marked in the piano part by strange, disturbing silences and off-balance syncopations. Bostridge’s expressivity increased over the course of the cycle, becoming most astounding as the narrator (the songs are set to poems by Heinrich Heine) sinks deeper into despair and ironic contempt for his unfaithful beloved. In “Hör’ ich das Liedchen klingen,” Bostridge added a wide range of colors to his high, clear tenor, from a whisper to a deep, sensual vibrato that recalled Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. His two crescendos during the final line of “Am Leuchtenden Sommermorgen” created a terrifying portrait of emotional instability. Bostridge’s phrasing was subtle and detailed throughout, pushing against the beat according to the pull of feeling. He ended the cycle dramatically leaning on one hand against the piano, head bowed down, the very image of the melancholic Romantic poet. Uchida was an attentive accompanist, but she seemed to hold back from the gorgeous solos that Schumann gave the pianist in this work, including from the yearning final passage which anticipates the first movement of Schumann’s piano concerto.

The concluding work of the program broadened the idea of the miscellany program to include not just singing and instrumental playing but also Sprechstimme, the form of semi-sung pitched speech embraced by turn-of-the-century Expressionist composers. Its most notable appearance was in Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, a 1912 setting of weirdly imagistic poems by the Belgian Symbolist Albert Giraud, performed here by Uchida, Steinberg, Hagen, clarinetist Anthony McGill, flutist Marina Piccinini, and German actress Barbara Sukowa. Though Pierrot Lunaire represents a famous moment in the then-ongoing dissolution of tonality, its instrumental music today is wholly accessible, containing Gershwinesque swing, jazzlike duets for clarinet and cello pizzicato, and lyrical wind lines that rise languorously like helium. The ensemble playing was again superbly focused; Piccinini and McGill, doubling on piccolo and bass clarinet, respectively, embellished their lines with wonderful grace and timing.

Sukowa stood on a podium among the instrumentalists, declaiming and putting her entire body into action. She brought high levels of energy to her performance, whooping like a Valkyrie or clucking fussily like a British matron. But this hybrid form of dramatic speech ultimately became repetitive, predictably swooping up and down in pitch without adding much of musical interest to the piece. It is not surprising that Sprechstimme has remained a minor form of expression. Still, Pierrot Lunaire conjures up a crucial stage of modernism, and the Salzburg performers, to enthusiastic audience acclaim, gave it the dynamic interpretation that it deserves.

Heather Mac Donald is a contributing editor of City Journal and the John M. Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

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