Capella Reial de Catalunya i Hespèrion XXI, University Church (Salzburg)

Miscellaneous composers


Broadened my horizons this evening at the Salzburg Festival, with a concert in the Salzburg University Church. The Catalan early-music specialist Jordi Savall came to town with two of his groups: the Capella Reial de Catalunya and Hespèrion XXI, and diverse instrumental soloist friends from across Asia, to perform early 16th-century music from Europe, India, and Japan (and a hint each of Mozambique and China).

The theme for the concert was the mission of St. Francis Xavier, the early Basque Jesuit sent off to convert Asia. He brought European musicians with him, and encountered music in his travels, so this concert was a re-interpretation of how that cross-cultural mix might have sounded. European music at the time was mostly improvised (the written music that has survived being only a formalized fraction of what would have been performed), but evidence exists of the manner of improvisation. Asian music was not written, but the improvisational forms have survived to the present day. So, in the end, the whole thing was a re-interpretation of a fantasy of an invention.

But it worked. Hearing how Asian instruments and musical conventions mix with European ones of the same period did produce new ways of hearing 16th-century music. For that it was a worthwhile evening.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Martinů, Bruckner

A late start tonight in Salzburg’s Great Festival Hall: 9 p.m. seems like an appropriate time to construct a church service in a concert hall, with Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Vienna Philharmonic doing the construction.

The concert opened with Bohuslav Martinů’Frescos of Piero della Francesca, a work I did not previously know. Martinů got his inspiration on vacation in Arezzo, where he saw these paintings in a church. To be entirely honest, I could not quite connect Martinů’s modern music (the work had its premiere by the Philharmoniker in Salzburg at the 1956 Festival) with the 15th-century frescos. But as pure music, it worked, with that composer’s wonderful juxtapositions.

They then skipped the intermission completely and went directly to the second work on the program, which gave Martinů yet more juxtaposition. The Bavarian Radio Chorus joined a smaller orchestra for Bruckner’s Mass #3. Having put up the paintings in the church, I suppose they now had to fill the room with mass.

In 1867, Bruckner’s doctor told him to stay away from music – it was driving him insane. Thankfully, Bruckner listened to God instead of to his doctor. He wrote Mass #3 and then moved to Vienna full time to teach counterpoint at the conservatory.

This mass is a bridge work. The insane church organist subsequently wrote mostly orchestral music, constructing his cathedrals of sound. But this was a work he meant to have performed in a church (unlike Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Wednesday night’s work, to which it was immediately compared in scale when it was first performed). The premiere indeed took place in Vienna’s Augustinerkirche (in the Hofburg) and remains frequently performed as a mass in Austrian churches and cathedrals (possibly more often than it appears in the world’s concert halls).

Unlike Harnoncourt’s muffled Missa Solemnis on Wednesday, Nézet-Séguin made use of his forces to fill the hall brightly. Although relatively-early Bruckner (in terms of major compositional output), the mass connected Bruckner’s church organist background with some of the larger structures he would create after moving to Vienna. The mass works both as church music and as a dramatic concert work. But the texts are clear, and the devout Bruckner clearly believed in them. This piece marked his transition from his time serving the Church to his new world serving Humanity.

Soloists Dorothea RöschmannKaren CargillChistian Elsner, and Franz-Josef Selig sang their lines clearly. But this is not a work highlighting the soloists. There is drama in the text, but it is in the service of the Lord.

Concentus Musicus Wien, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)


Nikolaus Harnoncourt interpreted Beethoven’Missa Solemnis at the Salzburg Festival tonight the way it might have sounded had Beethoven not been a genius.

Harnoncourt regularly produces performances that make the listener hear a piece differently – it’s just that his performances are usually no good. But they can provoke an understanding of why the music was good in the first place.

Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis is an expansive work. It was never meant for a church, but Beethoven simply used the form of a mass as an excuse for some very forward-looking music-making.

For tonight’s performance, with Harnoncourt’s own Concentus Musicus Wien and the Arnold Schoenberg Chor, Harnoncourt deconstructed the music for an ensemble barely larger than a chamber group. When Beethoven called for soaring lines, Harnoncourt coaxed restricted tones. If Harnoncourt did allow any hint of Beethoven’s lush harmonies to emerge, he did so by reducing still further the number of instruments, thinning out the sound.

Harnoncourt also seems to have instructed orchestra and chorus to make sounds as though they were in a gothic church with reverberating acoustics. However, we were in Salzburg’s Large Festival House, not a church. So having the chorus sing staccato, and the strings play in a detached manner, broke up Beethoven’s sounds further and never let them open into the hall. The brass played into their own laps, with completely muffled tones, when the music called for brightness. In all, this was a backwards-looking, 18th-century mass, not a work of late Beethoven at the top of his innovation.

Laura Aikin and Elisabeth Kulman did their best to provide full soprano and alto solo voices.  Johannes Chum’s tenor was limp on the higher register, and Ruben Drole’s bass came out bitter and pinched in the lower register.

Perhaps the only truly moving part of this performance came when concertmaster Erich Höbarth, playing the violin solos, picked up the entire performance onto his back and carried it through the Benedictus. His violin solos were nothing short of spectacular, and as Harnoncourt allowed him to shine he raised the level of the entire ensemble. Of course, the Benedictus is also the most delicate part of the Missa Solemnis, and therefore did not entirely contradict Harnoncourt’s limited worldview. But this was Höbarth’s moment in charge, not Harnoncourt’s.

Also worth a mention was the solo flute, which had a wonderfully pure tone, which stood out more since the rest of the orchestra often did not.