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Concert Review

Salzburg Mozartwoche 2015

January 22 - February 1

In Salzburg every year is a Mozart year, especially around the time of the master's birthday on Jan.27, when visitors from around the world flock to this lovely Baroque town for the annual Mozartwoche. During the eleven days of the festival (it usually runs longer than a week) the music this year was devoted not only to Mozart but also to some of his contemporaries like Schubert, all of whose symphonies were played by eight different conductors and a number of orchestras. Performed also was the modern music of the Pulitzer Prize winner Elliot Carter, who died in 2012 at the age of 103, a great admirer of Schubert. Daniel Barenboim understood Carter's work when he stated at his death that he "brought together worlds that were very different."

Isabelle Faust devoted a whole evening to all of Mozart's violin concertos, the Hagen Quartet performed all of Mozart's string quartets, the pianists Fazil Say and Kristian Bezuidenhout completed performances of Mozart's piano sonatas, a cycle which they began last year, played by one on a modern grand piano and by the other on a fortepiano and the Mozart Gold Medal winner, the great pianist Mitsuko Uchida, thrilled the audience with her interpretations of Mozart piano sonatas.

The Vienna Philharmonic gave three concerts led by different conductors. On Jan.24 Nikolaus Harnoncourt led an all Schubert program. On Jan.28 Andres Orozo-Estrada, the young Columbia-born maestro, who next autumn becomes principal guest conductor of the London Philharmonic, conducted a program with the legendary cellist Gautier Capuçon performing Gaspar Cassadó's (1897-1966) Concerto in A minor for cello and orchestra, based on Schubert's Sonata in A minor D821 "Arpeggione", and Elliot Carter's Symphony #1. The German conductor Thomas Hengelbrock was at the helm on Jan.31 when Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka, stepping in at the last moment to replace an ailing Diana Damrau, dazzled with Mozart arias.

Also heard were the Camerata Salzburg, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and the Cappella Andrea Barca with their incomparable pianist conductor Andras Schiff. Special mention must also be made of the Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble under the baton of Marc Minkowski. January 27 is not just Mozart's birthday; it is also the day the concentration camp Auschwitz was liberated in 1945. That evening the Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble gave a superb concert but before even a note was heard, conductor Minkowski asked the audience in the Grand Hall of the Mozarteum to stand and to observe a minute's silence in memory of the victims of those terrible days. It was only after the collective silence that the music spoke.

One of the great joys of this festival was the appearance of Mozart's own fortepiano and violin. The Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble's concertmaster, Thibault Noally, brilliantly interpreted Mozart's Concerto in A major for violin and orchestra KV 219 on Mozart's own Costa Violin, once again in its proper home in the Mozarteum Foundation Museum. Francesco Corti played Mozart's Concerto in A major for piano and orchestra KV 488 on the master's fortepiano.

The centrepiece of Mozartwoche 2015 were the three performances of the Cantata Davide Penitente K469, first performed in the Burgtheater in Vienna. In 1785, at the height of his career in Vienna, Mozart was commissioned by the Viennese Society of Musicians to write a work for a Lenten benefit concert for widows and orphans. Due to lack of time, Mozart recycled the Kyrie and Gloria sections he had composed for the earlier unfinished Mass in C Minor K427. Drawing upon the Psalms of David, this is a work of great beauty, especially the memorable choruses, where Mozart, inspired by the works of Bach just then becoming fashionable in Vienna, used layers of elaborate counterpoint. The music was first adapted to the Italian version of the Psalm "I raised my weeping cries to the Lord's," attributed to Lorenzo da Ponte, the Venetian opera librettist who collaborated with Mozart in the writing of his three most famous operas and other works. And for two of his favourite singers, Mozart wrote two beautiful new solo arias, A te fra tanti affanni (In you amid such tribulation) and Tra lòscure ombre funeste (Amid the dark grievous shadows).

This rarely performed cantata is always an event in itself but this year it was of even greater interest, since it was directed by the amazing master "horse choreographer" Bartabas and his team from the Academie equestre de Versailles. Never before has Mozart been staged with a dozen Friesen horses and their riders performing unimaginable acrobatics and ballet movements to the sound of his music. Bartabas himself, in mysterious black-hooded attire, stood rigidly mounted on his stallion Caravage during the entire dramatic introductory "March of the Priests" #9 from the Magic Flute KV620 and the Masonic Funeral Music KV477. Perhaps this costume was meant to show Mozart's attachment to the Freemasons during his last years in Vienna.

Born Clement Marty, Bartabas is the performing name of the talented French horse trainer who in 2003 founded the Academy of Equestrian Arts in the old royal stone stables of the Palace of Versailles. This cantata, however, is not his first collaboration with classical musicians. In 2000 Pierre Boulez led the Orchestre de Paris in one of his equestrian spectacles based on Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.

The venue for these three events was the Felsenreitschule, a 17th-century Habsburg riding school literally carved out of the cliffs behind the Festspielhaus. The stage needed, of course, to be reconstructed to support the weight of the horses and, to soften the hoof beats to allow the music to resonate, it was covered in sand. The early music ensemble the Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble, the Salzburg Bach Choir and the three soloists (mezzo Marianne Crebassa, soprano Christiane Karg and tenor Stanislas De Barbeyrac) were placed in three-storeyed arcades built in 1693 based on a design by the Baroque master architect Fischer von Erlich.

The central arena was occupied entirely by the assembled white horses, Lusitanos and Criollos, and their riders, who turned dressage into a theatrical art. The dancing horses pranced, trotted, galloped and cantered, alone or in pairs, while their riders sang with the choir, brandishing swords and simultaneously performing incredible acrobatics.The empathy between Bartabas, his horses and their riders was felt by all. "I don't tell a story. I don't drill them," said Bartabas. "I only suggest a rhythm and certain movements. I listen to them," he added. "I let the horses tell the story." And through his work the focus was again on the performers for whom the Felsenreitschule was originally created over three centuries ago. After so many years, the horses were once again in the spotlight.

Copyright © 2015, Elizabeth Schotten Merklinger

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