Tallis Scholars & Klangforum Wien, University Church (Salzburg)

Furrer, Victoria

I came to Salzburg’s University Church this evening for the sonorous Mass for the Dead, the Renaissance masterpiece of Tomás Luis de Victoria.  I stayed for some works by contemporary Swiss composer Beat Furrer.  I should not have stayed for the Furrer, as I now have a headache.

The Tallis Scholars, founded 45 years ago, came to the Festival under their founder Peter Phillips to perform Victoria’s last work. Victoria lived eight years after he wrote his Mass for the Dead, but wrote nothing else – he left everything he had left in this polyphonic delight, originally written for the funeral of the Queen Mother of Spain, Victoria’s longtime patron and employer (he was not only her court composer, but also her priest).  The choir, with only twelve singers, filled the church with warmth, their voices soaring high into the dome and back down, for a complete but crystal clear sound.  What joy in sorrow.

Victoria’s mass was framed by two Furrer works, which I don’t know if I’d dignify with the description of “music” (maybe the second one qualified).  The concert opened with Invocation VI, a setting of a poem by Victoria’s Spanish contemporary Juan de la Cruz, scored for soprano (Katrien Baerts) and bass flute (Eva Furrer).  The problem was that neither of them used their instruments properly.  Both came out with microphones strapped to their heads, which already signaled something was wrong (being unable to project in a small church is not a good sign).  The microphones became clear when they began to perform: the soprano whispered and hissed (and never enunciated the words), while the flutist seemingly inhaled loudly through, rather than blowing into, her flute.  Sometimes it became hard to tell which of them was making the noise.  What the hell was that?

I assumed that the work after the Victoria mass could not be as bad, and it seemed impolite to walk out, so I stayed.  I was right: Intorno al Bianco was not as bad as Invocation VI.  The Klangforum Wien performed (or some of its members: the scoring was for string quartet, clarinet, and two “sound designers” who provided special effects over the speaker system).  It opened with a certain charm, reminding me of recordings of songs of the humpback whales.  But after about 10 minutes, these got a little tiring.  Suddenly the music sped up and changed its message, but then stayed the new course for another five minutes.  When would it get to the point?  Well, the final 15 minutes the instruments started making new sound effects, initially together and then against each other.  These were generally curious, but sometimes devolved into high-pitched shrieking, bouncing off the dome and back to mock the lush tones Victoria had produced, and making my head throb.  Finally it ended.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Zimmermann, Mahler


I went to hear Mahler‘s 2nd for the first time since my father died.  He would have liked this spectacular, emotive performance by the Vienna Philharmonic and Andris Nelsons in Salzburg’s Great Festival House.

Nelsons gave the performance extra drama – this is, of course, an orchestra drawn from an opera house, which knows better than most how to use music to augment the impact on the audience, so they bought in to Nelsons’ reading.  Essentially, Nelsons kept the lid on the first movement, making it almost delicate and mysterious.  This allowed him to draw out individual lines to highlight anguish and pain.  When the music swelled to crescendo, it proved devastating.  And then came the almost playful second and third movements, as interludes, almost classical in proportions (despite a full Mahler-sized orchestra).  The fourth movement – “premordial light” – shone.  Then we returned to the approach of the first movement… except whereas the first movement was a “celebration of death” the final movement is one of life and renewal and triumph.  Nelsons never lost sight of that ever-broadening smile among the tears.

Soprano Lucy Crowe, mezzo Ekaterina Gubanova, and the Bavarian Radio Chorus sang beautifully.  At the end: silence, even after Nelsons dropped his arms and released the room.  Only when he turned to look out over the stunned hall did tentative clapping begin, swelling slowly.  The audience stayed standing in our seats to applaud until 11 p.m., at which point Nelsons and the Philharmonic decided they (and we) should probably go home.


Before the intermission came Bernd Alois Zimmermann‘s Trumpet Concerto “Nobody Knows de Trouble I See” with soloist Håkan Hardenberger.  I suppose Nelsons chose this to somehow set up his interpretation of Mahler.  The work, in one long movement, has a colorful orchestral backdrop that starts in dissonance, moves through dancing jazz, and finishes in mystery, sort of the reverse of his interpretation of Mahler’s 2nd.  On top of this, the trumpet moves through a variety of styles.  And who better than Hardenberger, whose versatility shines, to interpret this.  The work was actually fun – despite the undercurrent (inspired by an old Negro spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” the German Zimmermann wrote it shortly after his own country had checked out of the human race for a few years as a sort-of self-indulgent Schadenfreude to highlight American racism, but he undermined his own message somewhat by changing the title to parody black American English).  But in the end, juxtaposed to the Mahler, it was unconvincing.  It was written decades after Mahler, so it is not like Zimmermann could set up Mahler or provide influence; Mahler was also fresher, more original, and managed to carry his work over five movements and more than an hour and a quarter.

As an aside: I had been disappointed to not have my application accepted for tickets for Salome by Richard Strauss at this year’s Festival.  But opening night was televised, so I at least watched that.

The staging, by an Italian, Romeo Castellucci was terrible.  His biography does not indicate any German connection, but watching this performance I might have assumed he could have been German or German-trained, given how little relevance his staging had to the plot and a desire to shock for sake of shock – opera in Germany is all about these narcissist imbecilic directors.  The characters wandering around the stage – sometimes stopping and standing in place, sometimes also contorting themselves, had no bearing to anything.  The literature indicated he thought the Dance of the Seven Veils was the culmination, but he did not have Salome dance.  Instead, after Herod left the stage (so he did not even get to see the dance), Castellucci had Salome tied immobile to the top of a pedestal labeled “SAXA” – Latin for “rocks” – and had a large hewn rock descend slowly from the ceiling to crush her (apparently it was hollow, because she survived to sing the next scene).  John the Baptist (who sang in blackface carrying a tambourine) appeared to share his cistern cell with a horse (!?), so that when they brought his head out, they actually brought the horse’s out instead.  The Baptist’s naked headless body (white skin – so I won’t even begin to guess why Castellucci portrayed him in blackface – probably to shock, or he’s just a racist, I don’t know) did come on stage at the end, and she made out with that corpse and kissed where his lips would have been if he had still had a head.  Salome was not killed at the end either (why should she be? – “kill that woman!” are only the opera’s final words, and the music describes her death).  It really is not worth recapping the rest of this garbage.  I suppose I am now pleased I did not pay for tickets.

The one redeeming feature: the Armenian-Lithuanian soparano Asmik Grigoryan as an expressive, physcologically tortured, Salome.  Franz Welser-Möst led the Philharmonic (which reminded me that I had seen an even worse staging of this opera in Zurich many years ago with him conducting).  If I had only heard this on the radio, I would have been impressed.