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.