Notes from the Salzburg Festival – 1

AustriaAustria Strauss, Beethoven, Bartók: Radu Lupu (piano), Christoph Eschenbach (conductor), Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orchestra, Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg, 6.8.2012 (JFL)

R.Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.3
Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra

Schleswig Holstein Festival Orchestra

A fortnight into the Salzburg Festival, some of the initial premiere-focused hubbub has died down, and the mood is a nicely settled one amid the constant stream of tourists (either Festival or Sound of Music, rarely overlapping), Festival-regulars, and the few locals that stayed put. Visitors are looking forward to things to come, and the end of cultural goodies is not yet in sight.

The city is as overrun-yet-welcoming, as sunny* and charming as ever—which is a great draw, especially in years when the program of the Festival relies more on sheer quality in great quantities, rather than intelligent programming with a narrative. Last year, under interim festival director Markus Hinterhäuser, was an aberration in the best sense—as sharp, coherent, challenging and popular program as Salzburg will see. (Until, that is, he is appointed the Festival’s director for good. Until then, it’s the Wiener Festwochen he will leave his mark on.)

What the new artistic director Alexander Pereira, successful long time Intendant of the Zurich Opera, has put together for 2012 (to the extent it already bears his handwriting) looks on paper like indifferently cobbled-together highlights and instances without a thread, an obvious eye on ticking all the boxes (a few new things, smatterings of contemporary, a laudable series of concerts with sacred music) and both eyes on still more obviously popular choices. There’s nothing inherently wrong with popularity or predictability, of course, and if he has anything particular to say, programming-wise, he will presumably do so—starting with the 2014 season, at the latest.

Also predictable is the Salzburg concert weather: A gorgeous sunny day lures you into an umbrellaless lull, then invariably surprises you (when it really shouldn’t) with a massive, prolonged shower as you go to the Grosses Festspielhaus (in this case). If you’ve escaped that with luck or dexterity, the humidity on the inside of the hall will get you as you listen to the Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orchestra perform Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel. (Only the Haus for Mozart has reasonably functioning ventilation). On top of that, count on being surprised by a little, strategically timed after-shower that will do you in, right as you leave the concert and are pushed into the night from underneath the small protective strip of awning.

Partly cloudy with sunshine was pretty much the situation on the inside: Sunshine during Till Eulenspiegel, with entries soft as butter, malleable round woodwinds, gutsy, largely successful brass, and the strings ready to raise a storm at a speedy flicker of Christoph Eschenbach’s baton. When in doubt, the orchestra erred on the side of excitement, even where that caused hectic moments.

available at AmazonL.v.Beethoven, Piano Concertos,
R.Lupu / Z.Mehta / Israel PO

Radu Lupu, who looks ever more like the lovechild between Brahms and Santa Claus, is worth hearing in anything, no matter what piece, nor how many wrong notes. A consistently musical pianist, he is capable of spreading casually understated charm any time. His look compounds the impression: When he’s got nothing to play, Lupu—troubled by back pain—leans back on his chair, arms crossed. And even in the busiest passages he looks as though he played with one hand in his pocket.

On this occasion his job was to tame a seemingly reluctant Third Beethoven Concerto, a task during which he looked even more disgruntled than usual. It wasn’t, for all the enjoyment, his best night, nor did the concerto-situation play to the strengths of the Youth Orchestra. Accompanying a soloist seemed to clip their wings as they couldn’t bring their unbridled passion to the fore. Beethoven subsequently lumbered from a sort of muted loveliness in the first movement toward aimless boredom—albeit very beautiful boredom—in the Largo, from which he only briefly recovered at the opening of the finale’s Rondo. Aftewards Lupu steadfastly refused to treat the audience to the encore it tried to elicit with beer-hall rhythmic clapping, stomping, and indiscriminate hollering.

Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra offered much greater opportunity for the refreshingly eager musicians, at their best in the dark, determined and deliberate slower movements, in the Introduction and Elegy especially. The finale was a rousing affair, as it should be, but not without the sense that there was room for more, except perhaps in terms of decibels.

Jens F. Laurson