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Concert Review

Salzburg Whitsun Festival, 2013

Salzburg Festival
Salzburg, Various Venues, 17-21 May 2013

Salzburg, the Golden City of High Baroque, is the foremost centre of classical musical festivals. The inherent charm of the baroque city, surrounded by a multitude of lakes and glaciers, makes a unique setting for the musical events. Besides the prestigious well-known summer festival, the city celebrates Mozart's birthday every January and holds a short annual Easter festival. Now a new festival has been added in late spring tied to Whitsun (Pentecost), seven weeks after Easter, commemorating the Descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles. From 2007 to 2011 Riccardo Muti served as the festival's artistic director and since last year the brilliant mezzo soprano, Cecilia Bartoli, has taken command.

This year the festival expanded to nine major events spread over the four days of the Whitsun weekend, May 17-20. The theme of the festival was sacrifice and seven types were represented, the first and foremost being Love as seen in Vincenzo Bellini`s opera Norma. Felice Romani's libretto relates how the Druid priestess Norma (Ms. Bartoli) has had a secret love affair with Pollione, the Roman proconsul, with whom she has had two children. We learn that Pollione, now in love with a young temple virgin, Adalgisa, intends to abandon Norma. On hearing of Pollione's betrayal Norma initially is inclined to murder and sacrifice their children, later to kill Adalgisa, her rival, and her lover, but finally she sacrifices herself in a fiery death joined by the repentant Pollione.

The Italian conductor Giovanni Antonini directed the Orchestra La Scintilla, the period instrument orchestra of the Zurich Opera in Haus fuer Mozart. The choir was the Coro della Radiotelevisione Svizzera.

The production by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier – favourite directors of Ms.Bartoli – began with a school room full of happy children, but soon troops appear wearing Nazi-style helmets, who disrupt the peace and quiet. Roman occupied Gaul has become occupied France and the oppressed Druids the French Resistance. The school room is transformed into a hideout for fleeing French refugees and a meeting place for resistance fighters.

The hauntingly beautiful aria Casta Diva (Chaste Goddess of the Moon) was beautifully rendered by Ms. Bartoli and showed that she has not lost her impressive extended upper range or her lovely legato. Her facial expressions and fiery sparkling eyes full of passion perfectly portrayed the anxious Druid priestess.

The second sacrifice is an ugly pagan blood offering of a young virgin dancing herself to death to appease the gods. Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rites of Spring), was written for the 1913 Paris season of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. The original choreography was done by the legendary Vaslav Nijinsky with stage designs and costumes by Nicholas Roerich. The current production, a reconstruction and revival by ballet historians Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer of the 1913 Nijinsky production, has sacrifice and the concept of fertility and seasonal cycles running like a thread throughout the entire triple bill which consists also of Le Noce (The Wedding) and L'Oiseau de feu (The Firebird).

The unfamiliar modern music and unorthodox choreography created an absolute uproar in 1913, Stravinsky was called "raving mad" and the production caused a scandal in Paris. The awkward primitive starkness was too much for the audience, not used to seeing "knock-kneed-long-braided Lolitas jumping up and down". In the Salzburg production in the Grosses Festspielhaus the corps de ballet of the Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, and the energetic performance of Valery Gergiev and his Mariinsky Orchestra and Choir were excellent.

The incomparable pianist Andras Schiff explored the third Musical sacrifice with piano works composed in the key of C minor, a key often used to portray lamenting, anguish, and longing of the "lovelorn soul". The central piece of the Mozarteum program was the consummately played Beethoven final Piano Sonata No.32 (Op.111), Mozart's Fantasia (K465) and Sonata (K457). The central pieces of Bach's Musical Offering (BMV1079) were two large-scale solo works for harpsichord which Bach called Ricercare (a type of early fugue).

The fourth Biblical sacrifice was Niccolo Jomelli's oratorio Isacco Figura del Redentore (Isaac, Image of the Redeemer), a retelling of Abraham's near sacrifice of his son Isaac. Mr.Jomelli is a recorder and Baroque traverse flute virtuoso and a frequent collaborator of Ms.Bartoli. Mr.Muti championed the Neapolitan composer and was probably partially instrumental in the inclusion of this oratorio in the Mozarteum program.

The fifth sacrifice was Political and focused on the playing of one of the most profound musical compositions of the 20th century, Shostakovich's Symphony No.13, « Babi Yar », set to the poems of the great Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Yevtushenko spoke for Shostakovich and his sentiments were clear when he wrote: »There is no Jewish blood in my blood but I feel the loathsome hatred of all anti-semites as though I were a Jew ». The work is an universal lament for the uncommemorated slaughter in 1941 of 34,000 Jews at Babi Yar, a ravine near Kiev.

Babi Yar, the first part of the symphony was followed by three witty movements – Store, Fears and Careers which posed uncomfortable questions for the Soviet regime, igniting a conflict between the composer and the Authorities. Valery Gergiev, the artistic and general director of the Mariinsky Theatre conducted the Mariinsky Orchestra and male chorus with the splendid powerful voice of the Russian bass, Mikhail Petrenko, towering over all in the Felsenreitschule.

The Shostakovich symphony was preceded by the Tatar composer Sofia Gubaidulina's Offertorium for violin and orchestra played superbly by the Siberian violinist, Vladim Repin. Gubaidulina made frequent use of religious imagery, a thorn in the side of the Soviet authorities, making it difficult to perform her works during Soviet times.

The sixth Religious sacrifice, played in the beautiful Romanesque Benedictine Abbey of St. Peter, was heard when the Hagen Quartet, with Alfred Brendel reading the texts, gave a rendering of Joseph Haydn's Sieben Letzten Worte Unseres Erloeser's (The Seven Last Words of Our Redeemer on the Cross). Around 1785 Joseph Haydn was commissioned by one of the canons of Cadiz to write music for the Good Friday service in order to intensify the religious experience through some musical meditative pieces. In each of the meditations Haydn explored aspects of the term religious sacrifice so that the suffering of Christ on the cross becomes comprehensible to all.

Atonement or Reconciliation, the seventh and last sacrifice, is finally achieved in Brahms' German Requiem. The gods have now been placated and their wrath propitiated not by human sacrifice but through faith. For his text Brahms did not chose the usual Latin liturgy but instead the texts from Luther's translation of the Bible, including several settings and words from the Psalms and Prophets of the Old Testament, a consolation for the living rather than a mass for the dead. The underlying thought is that faith alone frees the believer from sin and that, once saved, entry into heaven is guaranteed. Brahms' Requiem is a secular work and avoids any mention of Christ except in the opening line "Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted", a brief quotation from the Sermon on the Mount. Brahms tells us that we must accept our unavoidable fate and allow life to go on for the benefit of the living, must make the most of our brief time here, passing along our hopes and dreams as many others have done before us. He dedicated the finished Requiem to Robert Schumann, to his own mother, and to all humanity. « It is a formidable piece, gripping the entire being in way that few other works do, » said Clara Schumann.

And how fitting that this final work of the Festival performed in the Grosses Festpielhaus was conducted by the Israeli-Argentine conductor, Daniel Barenboim, himself a victim of the Holocaust, leading his own splendid West-Eastern Divan Orchestra composed of young Israeli and Palestinian musicians playing together, a true reconciliation. The work ended in a glorious crescendo, atoning for the sins committed by all politicians and statesmen. Memorably sung were the short but powerful lead parts by the great German bass Rene Pape and the incomparable Cecilia Bartoli, and the choir of the Wiener Singverein.

Next year the Whitsun festival will be entitled "Rossinissimo" and will feature some of Rossini's great works. Cecilia Bartoli now at the helm until 2016, will sing two of her signature roles, La Cenerentola and Desdemona in Otello. The dates for the Festival have been set for 5 to 9 June, 2014.

Copyright © 2013, Elizabeth Schotten Merklinger.

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