Herbert von Karajan founded the Salzburg Easter Festival exactly 50 years ago, presumably to showcase himself and his outsized Nazi ego. Today Christian Thielemann, Karajan’s pompous plodding Prussian protege presides. But as I happened to be in town and a seat was available, I went tonight for the sake of good music, in this case two of the few original works in the French repertory: Fauré‘s Requiem and Saint-Saëns‘ Symphony #3.
The unquestionably shining stars this evening were the members of the Bavarian Radio Chorus. Although already in their places on stage, they opened the Requiem with such great delicacy that they sounded like a backstage choir, their voices gradually growing over half an hour until reaching Paradise in the final stanza. Fauré, a church organist by profession, had played more than his share of funerals, and rather than writing a massive mass instead crafted a lullaby. The chorus understood the idiom perfectly. While the two named soloists – soprano Anna Prohaska and baritone Adrian Eröd – got name recognition, they were at their best when they fit in with the chorus (Eröd did this better).
The Staatskapelle Dresden stayed out of the way as well. Primarily an opera orchestra, they understand how to support singers rather than taking the spotlight for themselves. Thielemann, their current music director, presumably has them well-drilled, but tonight we had their principal guest conductor, Myung-Whun Chung. Chung is second-rate at best, but innocuous – a decent accompanist who has spent much of his career waving a stick at inferior French orchestras. The Staatskapelle remains a fine orchestra (I last heard them under Thielemann in the Musikverein about six years ago), but it is also clear why the Dresden public was so overwhelmed during the Philadelphia Orchestra’s visit to the Semper Opera House in 2015 (which I had the great fortune to attend) – Thielemann and Chung will never get their orchestra ratcheted up to the same level of emotion or enthusiasm.
After the intermission we moved on to the Saint-Saëns symphony, where the orchestra was not accompanying anyone but had to fill the Great Festival Hall itself. Chung also started off quietly and built up the drama. But while this orchestra supplied the drama – a symphony of songs without singers – they missed some nuances and some portions dragged. The woodwinds in particular came across a bit tongue-tied.
The symphony itself is also inspired by funerals, but where Fauré produced a lullaby, Saint-Saëns made a triumph, with the most famous portions taking the Dies Irae chant and flipping it into major key. Cameron Carpenter supplied the organ solos – unfortunately, Salzburg’s Great Festival House does not have an organ, so they brought on an electric one with speaker amplification. This was probably not the most brilliantly-planned concert (where an organ is so central to a work, they should really find out in advance before setting the program if the hall even has one!).
This was my first time at the Easter Festival. One of the first things I noticed when arriving at the Great Festival House was that the crowd who turned out for the Easter Festival were not the usual suspects. There was a whole lot of black tie and a suspicious absence of Austrian Tracht. The accents were also overwhelmingly from north of the border.