Melancholy at the Salzburg Festival tonight, with Christoph von Dohnányi and the Philharmonia Orchestra of London in town for the Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss and the unfinished Ninth Symphony of Anton Bruckner.
The link, of course, was that although these works marked the end of the composers’ outputs, and they knew it, there is a transcendence to the sadness, a lifetime of accomplishment and a job well done. They do not defy death; nor do they seem too concerned. When the soprano sings the final line of the last of the Strauss songs, “ist dies etwa der Tod?” (“is this perhaps death?), the orchestra answers with a quotation from Strauss’ own Death and Transfiguration.
Soprano soloist Camilla Trilling, substituting on short notice for the original soprano who got ill, never quite found her pitch which she lost somewhere in Strauss’ dense polychromatic score. Her voice conflicted openly at times with the woodwinds. She sounded at her best when she sang from a trance rather than trying to inflect, but her voice never projected well over the orchestra, even though Dohnányi kept the orchestra contained. On the other hand, orchestral entrances came abruptly (and sometimes at the wrong times), which was also a little jarring. Not a transcendental performance.
The Bruckner Ninth, on the other hand, did rise from the stage into the sky. The playing was icy, and at the same time it was warming, the first movement touching the soul like mulled wine by a frozen lake on a cold winter day. The woodwinds glistened. The brass shone. The second movement pierced, the strings automated from the industrial revolution, a forerunner of Schostakowitsch in many ways, the glory and tragedy of mankind. The third movement surged. Bruckner did not intend to end the symphony there, but that’s where it ended. Dohnány held out the final chord, contemplating what had gone before and what could have come. Unfortunately, after such a note, he did not hold out the silence at the end long enough. He dropped his arms after several seconds, but far too early, and the well-deserved applause broke in too soon.