A lot of hype preceded the decision this year to have Riccardo Muti lead the Vienna Philharmonic for Verdi‘s Requiem at this summer’s Salzburg Festival. So much so, in fact, that they added an extra concert to handle the perceived sold-out crowd (indeed achieved).
Was this the definitive performance of this mass this evening? Certainly it was an excellent one in all aspects, but I suppose a matter of taste whether it was definitive. It was not the fire-and-brimstone version I experienced in the Musikverein with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and Philippe Jordan the last time I heard this work in 2016. Of course, it did not need to be – just a different valid interpretation.
Muti generally kept the performance quite contained (although it got loud when it needed to). He emphasized the drama more subtly, whether the plaintive opening with Verdi in mourning for the poet Alessandro Manzoni, or the lyrical choral (and orchestral) music of the “Sanctus.” Muti gave great attention to little details often overlooked, emphasizing the flutes in the “Dies Irae” providing infernal flames every bit as edgy and in the forefront as the brass; or the plucked double basses (augmented by the bass drum) mimicking the death bells tolling for the “Lux Aeterna.”
The Vienna State Opera Chorus again showed itself in fine form, with superb diction and nuance. The four soloists made for an excellent ensemble: Bulgarian Krassimira Stoyanova (who sang in that Musikverein version three years ago), Georgian Anita Rachvelishvili, Italian Francesco Meli, and the Bashkurt from the Russian Federation Ildar Abdrazakov (who dominated a production of Gounod’s Faust here at the Festival in 2016, and whom I also heard sing Verdi’s Requiem in Moscow back when I lived there). Of that group, I was most curious to hear Rachvelishvili, who made news last Winter as she took the Metropolitan Opera by storm and whom Muti has essentially declared to be the best voice of the next generation. She lived up to her hype: she opened with a full, round, dark lower register the likes of which I don’t think I have ever heard an alto produce – and then moved effortlessly to an upper register which had a different more subtle character but which was every bit as full (rare to have such presence in both top and bottom).
My one complaint on the evening: the concert was dedicated to the memory of committed Nazi Herbert von Karajan, who died thirty years ago last month. While his artistic talents deserve to be remembered (not all worked, and he got even more peculiar and self-absorbed with age, but he added thought to the mix), they should be in a purely artistic context. Giving concerts in his memory (or naming a square after him outside the Festival House – or outside the State Opera House in Vienna, for that matter) is poor taste, unless they also present who he was (the concert program did not, and the name plaque on Karajanplatz glosses abstractly). The man joined the Nazi party not once but twice: the first time when it was illegal in Austria (demonstrating he was willing to risk jail to be a Nazi), and the second time after the Anschluss as the records of underground Nazis such as Karajan were misplaced and he needed to be sure he was fully-inscribed. He may not have committed any war crimes himself, but his loyalty to Hitler and his barbaric ideology was not in question. Salzburg has of course never been fully denazified, even by poor Austrian standards. Salzburg never wanted the Festival, when it considered it as too “Jewish” at its founding in 1920 – indeed the city feared an international Jewish conspiracy designed to undermine Salzburg – and perhaps never fully embraced until 1938 after the Nazis took it over (and Karajan himself led it from 1956-1989). I might normally leave this out of a musical review, but if the Festival did not wish to mention it, then I must.