Thomas Hampson presented an elegant concert of songs by Richard Strauss this evening, in the Salzburg Festival House’s small hall (oddly called the “House for Mozart”), in commemoration of the composer’s 150th birth year.
Hampson was not in full voice tonight. This came out most apparently in the mezza voce sections, where his instrument cracked and sounded forced. On the other hand, the performance came across as very human, which added to the elegance. For the first half of the program, Hampson performed songs composed by Strauss over many years from the first half of his life, mostly for his wife or close acquaintances to sing in his parlor. Hampson made these intimate. We could almost hear a fireplace crackling. His singing also gave the feel more of a poetry reading with piano accompaniment than of a concert. His voice kept its musicality throughout, but the music was just there to accentuate the poems, which had their share of melancholy, backwards looking with allusions to Schubert.
Pianist Wolfram Rieger was easily Hampson’s equal. He kept himself in the background, never overshadowing the singing or the poetic line. When Strauss composed extended parts just for the piano, Rieger maintained the balance and flow and created more pure poetry without words.
The second half of the concert began with a strange 15-minute piece, “Notturno” – music by Strauss to words by Richard Dehmel, where violinist Yamei Yu joined Hampson and Rieger. Her violin squeeked too much. This broke the poetry. Of course, the piece was strange enough to break the poetry as well. There is probably a reason it is seldom performed.
The scheduled program concluded with three later songs based on poems by Friedrich Rückert. I think Mahler picked the better selection of Rückert poetry, and probably also wrote more dramatic and emotional song music than Strauss. Hampson gave us one of these Mahler settings of Rückert as his final encore, with astonishing contrast. For the other encores, Hampson pointed out that Strauss had lived for 85 years and composed right to the end – so a lot of songs. He picked some nice ones for the encores that brought us back to the concert’s elegant first half poetry reading.
Bruckner’s charming Symphony #5 has many difficult joints. Unfortunately, that meant that, at the Salzburg Festival tonight, Bernard Haitink and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra limped through a somewhat arthritic performance. At moments, glimpses of their more youthful days flickered, and overall the performance may have worked, but this is perhaps the hardest of Bruckner’s symphonies to perform, and on the whole I am not sure they succeeded.
This symphony has many delicate moments, often with a pronounced pizzicato. Done right they can be aetherial. But the orchestra tonight hesitated at times, and came in too harshly at others, losing the flow. The joints creeked. The inner harmonies sometimes jarred off-pitch. The chorales did not always soar.
On the other hand, the orchestra did allow the underlying influence of Beethoven and Schubert to emerge. Beethoven’s Fourth, another oft-forgotten symphony full of charm, had inspired Bruckner here, and tonight’s performance contained sufficient glimpses.
Honestly, it was not a bad performance, just a disappointing one. Neither the orchestra nor Haitink (whom I do not believe I have seen conduct live since my London year in 1991-92) were as agile as they once were, and for a symphony that changes directions so many times, often mid-phrase, they simply could not always manage.
Also impacting my experience were the acoustics: I got a ticket in the back downstairs, and now know that the sound upstairs (even in the last row up top) is better in this hall.
For reasons unclear to me, the Salzburg Festival decided to perform a whole lot of Bruckner this summer (nine numbered symphonies and some religious works). I certainly will not complain. I selected three symphonies (tickets are not cheap, so I had no desire to waste good money on listening to the likes of Dudamel or Barenboim attempt Bruckner), starting tonight with Symphony #8.
The Vienna Philharmonic was conducted by the 87-year-old Swede Herbert Blomstedt. Riccardo Chailly had been scheduled, but he broke his arm in a fall last month. Although Chailly is an excellent interpreter of Bruckner (and I heard him conduct #6 with the Philarmonic in the Musikverein earlier this year), I actually thought the substitution fortuitous (although I do wish Chailly a good recovery). I have heard Blomstedt conduct already this year (a masterful Brahms Requiem with the Vienna Symphony, also in the Musikverein), and I’ve heard him before as well – but never for Bruckner. The man has a sense of architecture, which applies well with this, the mightiest of Bruckner’s cathedrals of sound.
This was a controlled reading, measured, structured, and constructed to the sky. This cathedral was not just of hewed stone, but had its ornaments. It had its humorous gargoyles. The woodwinds provided birds fluttering and pearching in its towers. It had its brutal stained glass. The light came through the widows high up in the dome. The instruments echoed off the walls and came back to confront each other. Although not scored for bells, they too pealed in the pizzicatti strings or the pounding of the timpani. Blomstedt and the Philharmonic understood and reproduced all of this from Bruckner’s architectural renderings. Not everyone can make this symphony work (the last time I remember hearing it live was about twenty-five years ago with the New York Philharmonic and Zubin Mehta, and they certainly couldn’t figure out what to do with Bruckner’s plans). So not a bad way to experience my first night at the Salzburg Festival.