Salzburger Zeitung 2014 #3

Though the food, wine and sights of Salzburg are part of what draws me back so often to this lovely city, central to it all has always been the music.

Whither it was in those early years for the Summer Festival, the Mozart-werk one winter or the visits to the Pfingstenfestspeile that started in 2008 the main attraction has always been the music – and the music makers.

As with any Festival there are going to be banner years and then there will be times when the stars – both astrologically and musically – don’t quite align.  I’m afraid this year was one of the later.  Given the line-up of performers and works being performed it should have been a success but there was something that didn’t quite work.  Perhaps it was the effect of the numerous last minute cancellations for the Stabat Mater and the Rossini Gala; perhaps it was the less than sparkling conducting in the two operas (more of which later); perhaps it was the poor choice of venue for the Otello  – even Verdi’s version, as I recall from 1971, did not sit all that well on the sprawling stage of the Grosses Festspeilhaus; or perhaps it was simply that the programme didn’t gel the way it was intended to.  Of the six Pfingstenfestspeils we have attended this was the one that had the the least impact musically and left the least impression.

June 8, 2014 – Religiously Rossini

Unlike many of his contemporaries Rossini did not have to rely on the church for his commissions.  He had been a church singer as a child and written several small pieces (a lovely Cantemus domino and the Faith, Hope and Charity triptych) but things of a religious nature – masses, te deums and canticles, Aves and Salves, those corner stones of church music – he composed little.  And oddly, for a composer known for the speed at which he wrote,  the two major “church” pieces that are most often performed took an inordinately long time to complete.  We were to hear both those pieces on, appropriately,  Whitsunday.

Stabat Mater/Libera me – Grosses Festspielhaus 12:00 Uhr

A photo-montage created of Giuseppe Verdi and Gioachino Rossini.
Photo Shop in Paris in 1860. akg-image/De Agostini Picture Lib./A. Dagli Orti

This midday concert had been plagued by cancellations: of the four scheduled soloists only one, Erwin Schrott, actually performed.  As I mentioned previously, several days before the concert the Festival sent out a notice that due to illness Krassimira Stoyanova and Piotr Beczala had been forced to cancel; and that Elīna Garanča felt it was too soon after her encouchement to return to singing.  Maria Agresta, Lawrence Brownlee and Sonia Ganasssi had graciously agreed to replace their ailing colleagues.  Not a bad set of replacements – though it was interesting to note that all three have very different voices from the singers they were replacing – particularly Brownlee.

I’m not sure if this – or the acoustics in the Grosses Festspeilhaus – was the reason that on several occasions Antonio Pappano and his Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia overpowered the soloists.  In more than one post I have expressed my fondness and admiration for Santa Cecilia – they were my “home” orchestra for four years but I have also remarked on more than one occasion that Pappano does have a tendency to occasionally pull out the stops and swamp his singers.  However in the past the Orchestra and Chorus  have given me quite a few memorable moments and  I will include this concert – and the one that followed – amongst them, particularly in the Verdi Libera me.

A facsimile of Verdi’s  autograph score of the 1869 Libera Me composed for the unperformed
Messa per Rossini.  Later it was to become the starting point for his 1874 Requiem.

Verdi wrote this first attempt at a passage for a Requiem in 1868-9 as his contribution to a commemorative Messa per Rossini  that had been commissioned by Giulio Ricordi as an observation of the first anniversary of the death of the Swan of Pesaro.  Each section of the Requiem was to be composed by a different hand and Verdi choose and completed the concluding words.  Unfortunately a combination of political, financial and “artistic” difficulties meant the mass was never performed.  Verdi was to use the Libera Me as the foundation of his 1874 Requiem to commemorate the death of Alessandro Manzoni.

My friend David mentioned that he had heard Maria Agresta in the difficult and thankless role of Abaigaile in Nabucco in Palermo and asked if, in my opinion, this was the right repertoire for her.   I wasn’t sure if he meant the Verdi or the Rossini but frankly she seemed more comfortable in the later than the former.  Given the late replacement she may not have had enough rehearsals in what is a tricky hall but she didn’t seem to have the power to ride over the chorus and orchestra.  There was an emotional coolness in her performance – in my mind this work needs some fire and brimstone:  we aren’t talking redemption here but being saved from hell fire!  Though by the end she had gained power for that final pleading cry of Domine.   There is nothing quite like the Santa Cecilia Chorus in either its hushed entry after that frightened and frightening soprano entry or in full cry of terror at the day of wrath – I have heard them in the complete Verdi  Requiem three times and this is music that is in their soul and it shows forth even in this brief piece.

Antonio Pappano, soloists and the Orchestra e coro dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia accept the applause after Sunday’s performance of a Verdi/Rossini programme at the 2014 Whitsun Festival.   (Photo: Sylvia Letti – Salzburg Festival)

The Rossini Stabat Mater also had a difficult birth: Rossini composed it on commission from Manuel Fernánde Varela.  Rossini revered the Pergolesi setting of the medieval hymn and did not wish to be seen as challenging the older composer.  One of the conditions of the commission was that the manuscript remained with Varela and was not to be published.  Ill health meant that he had not completed the work by the time of its scheduled premiere on Good Friday, April 5, 1833 and half the piece was composed by Rossini’s friend Giovanni Tadolini. Rossini was not to complete the work until 1841 and the work that premiered, to great acclaim, on January 7, 1842 was all Rossini.

Again I’m not sure if it was my seat in the Grosses Festspielhuas – about half way back centre – or perhaps a question of balance because of the change of voice timbres from the originally announced singers but there were several instances when again Pappano’s orchestra overpowered his singers. This is not to say that it was less than satisfactory performance though perhaps not as self-satisfying as Schrott seemed to find it.

Maria Agresta, Sonia Ganasssi, Antonio Pappano, Lawrence Brownlee and Erwin Schrott seem as
pleased as their audience was with this performance of the Rossini Stabat Mater. (Photo: Sylvia Letti – Salzburg Festival)

I have heard more powerful Cujus animam than Brownlee’s but I doubt I will ever find one that touched the heart so closely – the piercing sword was one of sorrow.  Sonia Ganassi is a singer that I heard and enjoyed often during our years in Italy however the last few times I heard her she seemed to have developed a roughness to her singing – whatever the problem was it has been overcome and she was back to a sound like black velvet shot with silver.  Her voice blended well with Agresta in the Quis est homo and both singers gave fine accounts of their respective aria – though again a touch more fire from Agresta in the Inflammatus would not have gone amiss. Schrott (Hot Schrott to his many admirers) gave a heft to the Pro peccatis – rather amusingly being a tall athletic man he  towered over his colleagues and conductor and seemed to take secret delight in it.

Once again the Coro di Santa Cecilia proved to be the backbone of the performance particularly in the hushed delicacy they brought to the lovely “paradisi gloria” passage of the final quartet and chorus.  Aside from those odd moments when the balance favoured the orchestra Pappano conducted a good if,  perhaps, not Festival standard performance.

Petite Messe Solennelle – Stiftung Mozarteum – Grosser Saal – 17:00 uhr


Pappano, Brownlee and a small group of the Coro were on double duty for the day with a performance of the Petite Messe Solennelle  scheduled just a few hours after they had finished the midday Stabat Mater

As has often been said the work is neither “petite” nor particularly “solenelle” – however it was intended more as a chamber work.  Rossini had set it for 12 singers including four soloists accompanied by two pianos and a harmonium.  It was meant for a church setting however the Papal ban on mixed choirs in church (castrated men where acceptable – fully equipped women not!) meant that it could not be performed as a liturgical act.  Rossini had been in correspondence with Pius IX in an attempt to get the ban lifted but without success.  Fortunately the edict did not apply to private chapels and the first performance took place in the personal chapel of Count and Countess Pillet-Will.  It was intended for family and friends – with Auber, Meyerbeer and Thomas being amongst the later.

The title page of the autograph manuscript of the Petite Messe Solennelle – Rossini specifies the
number of singers and instrumentation he intended. In 1866-67 Rossini expanded the work
for performance by larger forces and orchestra.

The work was  orchestrated by Rossini in1866-67 but the first performance of this expanded version did not take place until three month’s after his death on February 28, 1869 – the closest date to his birthday in a non-leap year.  For the Festival performance Pappano choose to use the original chamber version with a larger chorus and four soloists.  Though the Grosser Saal of the Mozarteum may not be as “homey” as the chapel chez Pillet-Will the atmosphere was still intimate.

Pappano led from the piano (Pamela Bullock was the second pianist and Ciro Visco, the chorus master, played the harmonium) and in the Offertorium Ritornelle proved to be an accomplished pianist.   It was a simple, clean and intimate performance – just as Rossini intended.

Michele Pertusi, Lawrence Brownlee, Vesselina Kasarova, Eva Mei, Pamela Bullock, Antonio Pappano and
Ciro Visco acknowledge our applause after the Whitsunday performance of the Petite Messe Solonnelle
Several members of my beloved Coro di Santa Cecilia are in the background.  (Photo: Sylvia Letti – Salzburg Festival)

There is a quote somewhere – attributed to I know not who – that all this work requires is a small space (√ the Grosser Saal) two pianos ( √ Pappano and Pamela Bullock), a harmonium (√ chorus master Ciro Visco) a small chorus (√ Coro di Santa Cecilia) and the four greatest singers on earth …..  there we run into a slight problem.  Eva Mei, Vesselina Kasarova, Lawrence Brownlee and Michele Pertusi are all well-known names in opera circles and are fine singers all but on this occasion two of them seemed out of their element.  I knew Mei by reputation and a TV-cast of La Traviata live from Zurich Central Railway Station which I recall enjoying but here found her voice pinched and colourless.  Perhaps Pertusi needs a character to hide behind: on stage he can be dynamic but on the three times I have seen him in concert he has proven, as he did here, bland and one dimensional.  If the day’s double duty gave Brownlee any problem it wasn’t obvious here – an exceptionally fine nuanced performance that was matched by the artistry of Vesselina Kasarova who’s Agnus Dei embodied everything that Rossini put into this  “last of my péchés de vieillesse“.

And again that remarkable choir from Santa Cecilia proved the backbone of the performance:  joyful, rambunctious (is there anything jollier than that Cum Sancto Spiritu?) and quietly – almost whisperingly – reverential.  And as a sidebar there was an entire cheering section from the larger Coro behind me greeting their colleagues with bravi and foot stomping – as indeed had the audience.  One of the ladies had to tell me that they were part of the Coro; when I said I had lived in Rome and heard every concert they had given during that time and how much I thought of them she gave me a kiss on the cheek and said: Grazie.  A rather nice way to end a performance that was seemed indeed to be for family and friends.

Postscript:  In his preface to the work Rossini wrote:

Good God—behold completed this poor little Mass—is it indeed sacred music [la musique sacrée] that I have just written, or merely some damned music [la sacré musique]? You know well, I was born for comic opera. Little science, a little heart, that is all. So may you be blessed, and grant me Paradise!

Why do I think if I had one of those mythical dinner parties he would be amongst the guests I would want at table?

July 13 – 1814: The Carabinieri, the national gendarmerie of Italy, is established.

Mercoledi Musciale

This past Saturday was the first of our season’s concerts at the Accademia and it was nice to exchange greetings with a few of the regulars who we recognize from past seasons including the rather courtly gentleman who sits to our left. However we noticed that the pleasant couple who always sit in front of us weren’t there – I know they had a full concert series (26 concerts) last year maybe like us they decided to only do one of the half series.

Our series got of to a good start with Antonio Pappano conducting the first in a string of all Russian concerts under the umbrella title Passione Russa.

The evening began a trifle slowly with Anatoli Lyadov‘s The Enchanged Lake – a morose little tone poem that set both Laurent and our friend to the left into the land of Nod. There didn’t seem to be much passion – Russian or Italian in either Lyadov’s composing or Pappano’s reading though the strings had their accustomed shimmering tone.

The last item on the programme was the Tchaikovsky – I love the Italian spelling Čajkovskij with a little moon over the C – Symphony n. 4. If the programme notes are correct this was the 82nd time the orchestra had tackled the work since they first performed it in 1910. It was their second time under Pappano the first being in 2006. I often find Pappano’s conducting a bit over the top – too much molto forte, to much pianissimo, not much in between – and this was again the case. But he coaxed a wonderful reading of the pizzicato Scherzo movement from the players. I had never been more aware of the humour in the extended section for plucked strings. It was almost tongue-in-cheek in its light-heartiness. After such a subtle reading of that movement it was rather jarring to hear Pappano’s bombastic treatment of the Finale. A good performance that could have – had the other three movements been as brilliant as the Scherzo – verged on great.

Sandwich between was the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto 4 performed with the Norwegian pianist Lief Ove Andsnes. Even though Rachmaninoff is not to my taste – I find his music often seems too “Hollywood” – Andsnes gave amble proof as to why he is considered one of today’s top young pianists.

Here he is playing the Greig Piano Concerto No. 1 with the BBC Symphony at one of the Proms concerts.

Granted Slatkin isn’t really a conductor that sets the world on fire – he could use a bit of Pappano’s bombast – and there are times when the balance needed between orchestra and piano for a concerto are missing but damn Andsnes is one fine pianist. And sort of cute looking too!

04 november – San Carlo Booromeo

Forever Faithful

On Saturday night many of us in the audience at the Sala Ste Cecilia weren’t so much applauding the performance we had just witnessed of Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht’s Seven Deadly Sins as the sheer existence of the star performer. We were applauding her and ourselves for still being around. Like Marianne Faithful we had got through the past 40 years a bit battered, a bit bruised but still able say to the world “We’re here!”

Faithful has reinvented herself several times now – as a singer, an actress, a writer and now as what they use to call in the old days a diseuse. It is interesting to note that though the programme note told us we were hearing the arrangement for contralto, she was listed simply as “voce” or voice. And even someone as steeped in nostalgia as I have to admit there really isn’t much of a voice left – but what she has is an incredible ability to communicate. Using a variation on the Auden-Kallman English translation she sang-spoke Brecht’s story of Anna, a little girl from Louisiana who goes to the big cities to make her fortune. She sends all her money home to her moralistic pontificating family so they can build a little house on the Mississippi.

Originally conceived as a ballet-opera Brecht uses the conceit of two Anna’s – Anna I, the singer, who by her own admission is “realistic” and Anna II, the dancer, who is “the one with the looks.” All the while her travels – through St Louis (Sloth), Memphis (Pride), Los Angeles (Wrath), Philadelphia (Gluttony), Boston (Lust), Baltimore (Avarice), San Francisco (Envy) – are commented on by her family – in the form of a barbershop quartet. Brecht’s intent is satirical: Anna II only does wrong when she refuses to commit the sin required to earn the money. She tries to do the right think but is always brought back to “reality” by Anna I and her hypocritical family. The only thing the defeated Anna II ever says is “Right, Anna.”

Under Ingo Metzmacher the Orchestra treated Weill’s music to the glowing performance it deserved – I happen to believe Weill is one of the 20th century greats. And it would be hard to imagine better harmonies than those produced by Mark Bleeke, Eric Edlund, Peter Becker and Wilbur Pauley – the Hudson Shad Quartet. Special praise to Bleeke, who despite a few wayward notes, sang Weill’s particularly difficult tenor line effectively. Though the text was printed in the programme the skill of all the performers in delivering the English text made it almost unnecessary.

Laurent was not as enamored of the performance as I – which could have something to do with those clouds of nostalgia – and at one point muttered that he wanted his Weill sung the way Teresa Stratas or Ute Lemper does it – not croaked. And though I am a big Stratas fan, I was more than happy with the experience. It is funny how nostalgia can alter perception.

28 aprile – San Pietro Chanel

Angels and Demons in Concert

The season at Accademia Santa Cecilia is almost over and it has been a good one – I’ll be posting something on last Saturday’s concert later today. Sure there has been at two or three clinkers – Lorin Maazel leading the most leaden Berlioz’s Romeo et Juliette I’ve ever heard, an uninspired Verdi Requiem under Antonio Pappano and a dull evening of Debussy and Ravel led by Heinz Holliger – but its been a season of some fine – in some cases outstanding – performances and interesting programming. The list of conductors and soloists has been impressive and the chorus and the orchestra are, in MHO, the best in Italy and amongst the best in Europe.

Amongst the highlights have been:

    • A slightly dowdy looking Martha Argerich sitting down at the piano and suddenly becoming the most beautiful woman on earth as she showed us how the Beethoven Number 1 should be played.
    • The Labèque girls – Katia in scarlet party-girl flounces, Marielle all matronly somber black – under the fatherly eye of Georges Prêtre in an exciting reading of the Poulenc Concerto for two pianos; preceeded by an enchanting performance of his Les Animaux modeles.
    • Pappano, who I find so disappointing in the more classical repertoire, tearing the place apart with a wonderfully noisy Mahler 6th – sledge hammer and all. Then further proving he knows his way around 20th century music by conducting some of the finest performances I’ve heard of Bartok, Shostakovich and Ligeti.
  • That wonderful chorus helping Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos find new things in Orf’s shopworn Carmina Burana one week then giving a Broadway umph to Porgy and Bess the next. Plus being all Germanic solemn and sanctimonious in Medelssohn’s Elijah, a first rate performance with Rene Pape of a second rate work and barbarically Polovesian in Borodin’s Prince Igor. The later under Gennadi Rozdestvenskij who coupled it with a lush reading of the Tchaikovsky Pathétique.

And speaking of the chorus – Norbert Balartsch’s forces will get quite the workout this coming week with the Verdi Te Deum and the prologue to Boito’s Mefistofele in a concert under the title Angeli e Demoni.

The bright lights at the Accademia’s publicity department are capitalizing on the forthcoming movie of the Dan Brown pot boiler for the general public and the current golden couple of opera , Anna Netrebko & barihunk Erwinn Schrott*, for the more hard core classical music fans. Both the photo and the English blurb advertising the concert on the website are as cheesy as my home made lasagna. Aside from the fact that its really badly Photo Shopped, it looks to me like Antonio’s using some of that sweat he works up conducting to repel Erwinn’s Devil. I’m a bit disappointed that Erwinn is fully clothed as there are some fine pictures out there of him showing what abdominal exercises can do – I mean for the voice, of course.

We almost always tend to picture the Devil as a horned monster. In a word, repellent. But if he has the capacity to seduce us with all those temptations for which we humans promptly fall, he must be equipped with superior intelligence, to begin with, and he must also be irresistibly attractive.

Therefore, Uruguayan bass Erwinn Schrott is made to play Mephistopheles. Dazzling as a fallen angel (and the fortunate consort of equally gorgeous Anna Netrebko, the celebrated Russian soprano who recently gave him a son) Schrott will sing the title role in the Prologue to the opera Mephistopheles by Arrigo Boito, the pièce de résistance in the first concert in May conducted by Antonio Pappano.

Still the thought of the forces at Santa Cecilia plus Erwinn – even if he remains fully clothed – doing one of the most fun pieces in Italian opera has me eagerly anticipating this weekend at the Parco.

*My dear friend OC has posted some great shots of Anna, Erwinn and operadom’s favorite baby. You have to admit they make a really pretty family.

28 aprile – Luigi Maria Grignion de Montfort

Bess, Sei La Mia Donna Ora …

Or as they say in English “Bess, you is my woman now …”

Porgy and Bess programmeSaturday night was our regular subscription night at the Orchestra of the Accademia Ste Cecilia. As part of a big Jazz Festival happening at the Auditorium this month, they were presenting a concert suite of George Gershwin’s 1935 folk opera Porgy and Bess. The Sala Ste Cecilia was almost full and the audience was an interesting mix of regular subscribers and jazz fans.

Conductor Wayne Marshall, a local favorite, had arranged a suite of numbers – vocal and instrumental – from Gershwin’s groundbreaking opera. All the favorites were there – Summertime, It Ain’t Necessarily So, I Got Plenty O’Nuttin’, A Woman is a Sometime Thing – sort of like a highlights album. Four singers, Marshall conducting and on ragtime piano, the full orchestra, chorus and children’s chorus gave us 90 minutes of some exciting, if loud, music making.

Marshall has Broadway experience and it showed but at times he tended to forget he was conducting a full symphony and not a pit band. The sound he got from the Accademia – though never less than musical – at times swamped both the singers and the audience. Rodney Clarke and Indira Mahajan, singing the lead roles, suffered the most from Marshall’s enthusiasm, being at times totally inaudible. It would be unfair to judge either singer based on this performance because much of what they did was lost. Angela Renée Simpson and Ronald Samm in supporting roles were able to ride over the wall of sound with Samm (as Sportin’ Life) and the chorus garnering cheers after a great version of “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”

And the glory of the evening was the chorus – two weeks ago they sang Mendelsson’s Elijah, two weeks from now it will be Orff’s Carmina Burana but Saturday night they were denizens of Catfish Row, Charleston, Sud Carolina (U.S.A.) as the programme told us. Initially there was the incongruity of an all white Italian chorus in their smart formals singing I see’d him in de mornin’ wid his work clo’es on. But then is it anymore incongruous than watching an American chorus as Egyptians singing in Italian in Aida? They proved once again that they are one of the finest choral groups in Europe singing the great chorus pieces with style and a touch of American omph.

The audience response was enthusiastic and the applause went on for a good ten minutes at the end of the concert. Several opera houses – Parma and Palmero – have included Porgy in their recent seasons. As satisfying as it was to see this fine performance, it would be nice to see a fully staged performance here in Rome.

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