Herbert von Karajan Remembered at the Salzburg Festival

19/08/2015

AustriaAustria Salzburg Festival (7) – Tchaikovsky and Brahms: Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Riccardo Muti (conductor). Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg, 15.8.2015 (MB)

Tchaikovsky – Violin Concerto in D major, op.35
Brahms – Symphony no.2 in D major, op.73

This concert, dedicated by Anne-Sophie Mutter, the Vienna Philharmonic, and Riccardo Muti to the memory of Herbert von Karajan, took place on the date he traditionally reserved for concerts with that orchestra. (I assume that to have been on account of the Feast of the Assumption, which always catches me unawares in southern Germany and Austria.) Mutter had played this concerto thirty years previously with Karajan and the VPO in the Grosses Festspielhaus. I wonder how many in the audience then were again in the audience this year: quite a few, I suspect. Brahms’s Second Symphony was, of course, premiered by this very same orchestra, and this year’s Festival offered a number of works whose first performance the VPO had given.

Although there was much to enjoy and little to complain about, I could not help but ask whether there was a little too much of the memorial to the concert. There is more, much more, to music-making than excitement, but perhaps this tended a little too much to the ritualistic. Mutter’s technique was quite beyond criticism, but occasionally, I longed for something a little more surprising, whether from her or from the orchestra. That said, I could not help but enjoy the splendidly old-world sound of the opening tutti and Mutter’s response: rich and sweet. Vibrato and portamento were very much part of her palette, but not at the expense of centring the notes. Moreover, she could cut through the orchestra’s sound as if she were Martha Argerich. The opening of the Canzonetta was beautifully hushed, the audience the recipient of whispered confidences. Above all, it sang. And then, the mood was transformed in a musical flash with the coming of the finale. Structure was clear – and if it left a little to be desired, the fault surely lay with the work rather than the performance. Expansive and urgent as required, the movement might nevertheless have benefited from a little more earthiness at times.

Too much D major in a concert? For my ears, I am afraid so. But that was not the only problem with Muti’s Brahms. I am all for slower tempi, but the first movement was off the scale, apparently a slow movement. There is ‘autumnal’ Brahms and then there was this. It was interesting, but I should not want to hear it like that again in a hurry. Counterpoint in the development was unexpectedly forthright: something of a relief. Thereafter, things picked up, although there was a true slow movement still to come. That, the Adagio non troppo, was memorable especially for the VPO cellos at the opening: like liquid chocolate, darkly noble. Again, this was a grandly autumnal reading, but easier to take. The change of mood for the ensuing Allegretto grazioso was welcome. This was no less exquisite, but faster-moving, lighter too. Perhaps the greatest contrast was nevertheless offered by the finale: jubilant, although, quite rightly, not uncontestedly so. Brahms’s tale was told frankly, without fuss, and was all the better for it. A gloriously rich orchestral sound would surely have delighted the concert’s dedicatee.

Mark Berry

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