Notes from the 2012 Salzburg Festival – 9

AustriaAustria Liszt: Soloists, Vienna Philharmonic, Riccardo Muti (conductor), Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg, 15.8.2012. (JFL)

Liszt: Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe, Les Préludes

Berlioz: Messe Solenelle

Wiener Philharmoniker 3 • Riccardo Muti

Picture courtesy Salzburg Festival, © Silvia Lelli

It’s no good putting together orchestral programs a year or two in advance, as if they were regular symphonic concerts in the evening when two out of two (or sometimes two out of three) are matinees. What the ear may happily digest at eight or nine in the evening is not the same as it wants to hear at 11 in the morning. (Nor an orchestra play.) A double bill of Liszt and his buddy Berlioz, in any case, is decidedly not suitable AM-fare.

Still, it is Riccardo Muti at the helm of the Vienna Philharmonic—quality musicianship I can appreciate, even if more in theory than the mildly anemic reality of the opera or concert programs I’ve encountered with the Neapolitan maestro. And a work by Liszt was on the bill thatI had not only never heard, but never heard of: His 13th and last symphonic poem Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe (“From the Cradle to the Grave”), composed in Rome in the early 1880s; a three-partite depiction of a drawing by Michály Zichy.

The first movement, “The Cradle – Andante”, is economical with its instrumentation to the extreme—the violas and second violins set a simplistic, dark tone; the first violins add sparse, melodies that vaguely intimate an awakening. Aggressively bored coughs from the audience, unwilling to follow the long, patient musical line, interrupted that movement, much to the irritation of the twitching maestro who tried as best he could to work that elegiac episode as smoothly as possible. Then comes the nervous, tense “Struggle for Existence”, at various times aggressive and loud, with fierce trumpets and a storm of timpani salvos. After that it’s back to “The Grave, Cradle of Future Life”, which is almost an inversion of the first third… upon which the work, to this listener’s piqued befuddlement, was over.

Gratefulness was still sloshing within me for having heard a real novelty as part of a mainstream-appeal Festival concert, when the Franz Liszt-Joachim J. Raff co-production Les Préludes blurted into that appreciation. Muti’s performance was smooth and homogenous, subtle and delicate (this being the conductor’s finest contribution), but robust and heroic as needed. The well known but rarely performed orchestral work seemed a little self-satisfied, and content just with itself. If only: Les Préludes has suffered considerably after the War from its association with the weekly news reels from the Wehrmacht’s latest exploits on the Soviet front. Thus the little excerpted bit towards the very end of Les Préludes became known as the “Russia Fanfare”. And how well it was received at the Grosses Festspielhaus, this Wednesday morning! It would have taken a less cynical soul than mine not to think: “Boy, aren’t they liking that… they haven’t been allowed to cheer after that music for such a long time.”

With enough Liszt under my belt, knowing what a third rate work Berlioz’ Messe solennelle is (Muti performed the work that Berlioz burnt in embarrassment in 2007 with the BRSO), and with the prospect of two more concerts on my agenda that day, I took my marching orders and retreated from the Festspielhaus to the University’s Auditorium…

Jens F. Laurson