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.
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.