Palestrina, Victoria, Bruckner
The Salzburg Festival gods smiled on my application this year and gave me tickets for every concert I requested. My first one came tonight with religious music by Palestrina, Victoria, and Bruckner in Salzburg’s University Church. Unfortunately, the performance by the Collegium Vocale Gent under Phillippe Herreweghe left me sadly unfulfilled.
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and Tomás Luis de Victoria were giants of western polyphonic composition in the 16th century, and performances of their music can be emotionally draining – especially when accounting for their straightforward simplicity. From Palestrina, we heard his Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah – Lession 1 for Good Friday; from Victoria his Miserere and Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah – Lessions 1, 2, and 3 for Holy Saturday. There are not many thrills there, just somber music, but the music itself is supposed to transform the listener if done right. It’s not that the Belgians did it badly – there were no noticeable mistakes – it’s just that they somehow failed to be transformative. Their reading was straight and unadorned (fine!) but dull.
Anton Bruckner’s Mass #2 followed the intermission, and somehow was worse. This is also a restrained work – inspired by Palestrina but using Bruckner’s musical voice from 300 years later – set for a small chorus and wind ensemble (here members of the Orchestra of the Champs Élysées joined the Belgians). Bruckner’s Ave Maria followed as an encore.
Herreweghe perhaps held everyone back intentionally because this performance took place in a church (as the respective composers intended) rather than in a concert hall, therefore requiring a somewhat restrained reading. But I have heard concerts in this church before (including Victoria’s Mass for the Dead with the Tallis Scholars at last year’s Festival, which soared while also portraying sorrow), so it’s not the church. This same Bruckner mass featured at the Festival as recently as two years ago (albeit in the Mozarteum’s Great Hall) with a much bolder reading by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla leading the Estonian Philharmonic Choir and musicians from the Mozarteum Orchestra.
So, no, nothing wrong with the music or the venue either. In his effort to keep the music properly unadorned, Herreweghe’s interpretation was just missing something (perhaps a soul).