Letter from Salzburg

The 2011 Salzburg Festival, July 27-Aug. 30, was the usual combination of outstanding musical performances and high society. This writer attended performances from Aug. 20-28. The project to reroof the Felsenreitschule has been concluded, and the hall is an acoustic and visual wonder. Few performance halls in the world have such an impressive entrance area. Verdi’s Macbeth was the featured event in an attractive, if conventional production conducted by Riccardo Muti.

Among the highlights from performances of about a week were Janacek’s The Makropoulos Case, starring Angela Denoke, who just about owns the role of Emilia Marty. Anna Netrebko has become a Salzburg favorite, and she did not disappoint in a concert performance of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta, which was paired with Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol. Netrebko and Polish star tenor Pyotr Beczala had the Grosses Festspielhaus audience in a frenzy after their passionate performance of the love duet that is the highlight of Iolanta.

One of the guest orchestras this year was the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by its recently designated music director, Riccardo Muti. In two concerts the highlights were Parts I and II of Prokofiev’s suite from Romeo et Juliette and Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. It is always interesting to compare and contrast the guest orchestras to the plush, warm string sound of the Vienna Philharmonic, which summers at the Salzburg Festival as the pit orchestra for most operas.

Muti’s performances with Chicago were razor-sharp, every detail in place, and no nuance left unexplored. The legendary Chicago brass has lost none of the brilliance for which it has been justly renowned since Fritz Reiner’s time. Muti’s Shostakovich was in the triumphant mode, as contrasted with Valery Gergiev’s angry, bitter, bleak rendition of the work heard three years ago in Salzburg with his Mariinsky Orchestra.

No praise is too high for the stupendous playing of the Vienna Philharmonic and inspired conducting of Christian Thielemann in Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, which overcame even the odd staging by Christof Loy. Anne Schwanewilms was not a particularly inspired Empress, but the stage was dominated by the heroic voice of Evelyn Herlitzius as the Dyer’s Wife. Michaela Schuster as the Nurse, Wolfgang Koch as a sympathetic Barak, and Stephen Gould as the Emperor all sang capably. Surely the score could not be better played or conducted.

Another Salzburg favorite is Maurizio Pollini, who is programming and recording the Beethoven sonatas. In the Grosses Festspielhaus he played the sonatas Op. 54, 53, 78, and 57. His playing still has the pristine clarity, dignified phrasing, and immaculate musicianship that make his performances legendary. The passage work was flawless, the pedaling was subtle, and his conception of the works was logical and inspired. The performance of the Appassionata in particular bore comparison to any other heard by this writer.

Overall, it was a great Festival. I can hardly wait until 2012.

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