Salzburg Festival 2011 – Franz Welser-Möst not quite at his best for Zemlinsky

AustriaAustria Salzburg Festival 2011 – Schubert/Mahler and Zemlinsky: Christine Schäfer (soprano), Michael Volle (baritone), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst (conductor). Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg, 25.8.2011 (MB)

Schubert-Mahler, String Quartet in D minor, D 810, ‘Death and the Maiden’
Lyric Symphony, op.18

Franz Welser-Möst’s Vienna Philharmonic concert opened somewhat disappointingly with Mahler’s arrangement of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet. It was naturally a joy in many ways to hear the massed Vienna strings and it would be difficult to fault their contribution in itself. However, I could not help but wonder quite what the point of Mahler’s arrangement was – especially nowadays. Having heard, just two days previously, the Hagen Quartet perform the piece as Schubert wrote it, it was not clear that Mahler, orchestrator of genius though he was, added anything at all; a more overt orchestration might well have been more interesting. Instead, the simple apportioning of parts between a string orchestra, sometimes divided, sometimes not, has the tendency to neutralise Schubert’s music. There were occasional hints of the symphonies and perhaps of the Rosamunde music too, but more often we seemed to be in a strange, or rather bland, no man’s land somewhere between Schubert and Bruckner. I suspect that it would have sounded better, if it had sounded less ‘conducted’, more like chamber music writ large, yet Welser-Möst maintained an iron grip on proceedings, with constricted results. The second movement probably came off best in such circumstances. However, the scherzo was pushed towards Beethoven or rather towards a Toscanini-derived, driven conception of Beethoven which I find uncongenial, but to which some listeners – especially, it seems, across the Atlantic – still hold. It is difficult to begrudge a performance of such a curiosity – and in these days of Mahler glut, it is arguably preferable to a run-of-the-mill symphonic performance – but I was left with a feeling of a box ticked rather than a truly musical experience. If only we could have heard the VPO in Verklärte Nacht instead…

Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony needs no apologies, and nowadays hovers on the edge of the repertoire. Not so long ago, I heard an excellent performance in London from the Philharmonia and Esa-Pekka Salonen. The VPO had nothing to fear from the comparison, drawing upon seemingly fathomless depth of tone, despite one especially glaring loss of ensemble. The extraordinary beauty of the horn solo in the postlude to the third movement, ‘Du bist die Abendwolke’ would have been worth the price of admission alone: utterly ravishing. However, Salonen proved a more interesting guide than Welser-Möst. The orchestral introduction did not open promisingly. Indeed, the studied ‘conducted’ style of the Schubert-Mahler quartet seemed to persist, every beat too audible. Interestingly, if somewhat disappointingly, the orchestral postlude suffered similarly, though to a considerably lesser extent, whilst Welser-Möst relaxed a great deal when ‘accompanying’, here giving a true sense of an experienced opera conductor accustomed to dealing with singers. Zemlinsky wrote a lyric symphony, though, rather than a song cycle, and the performance, however gorgeous, did not always exhibit a symphonic sense of purpose, meandering from time to time. Christine Schäfer struggled a little to be heard in the first of her three movements, in which the poet tells of the girl whose jewel is crushed by a heedless young prince’s chariot, but there was no such problem thereafter. Moreover, I have never heard the sixth movement sound quite so close to Pierrot lunaire. Doubtless Schäfer’s experience of performing – and recording – the latter work with Boulez fed into the chilling expressionism of her account. Volle’s voice was rarely beautiful, which is not to say that it was ugly either, but the point seemed much more to be the words with him, almost as if this were Wolf. Despite the shortcomings of the conducting, this remained an estimable performance, on account of the orchestra and singers.

Mark Berry