Austria Salzburg Festival (7) – Widmann, Mozart, and Wagner: West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim (piano/conductor), Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg, 11.8.2016. (MB)
Jörg Widmann – Con brio
Mozart – Piano Concerto No.27 in B flat major, KV 595
Wagner – Tannhäuser: Overture; Götterdämmerung: ‘Dawn’ and ‘Siegfried’s Rhine Journey’; Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Prelude to Act One
Another day, another cancellation by Martha Argerich, who was supposed to have performed Liszt’s First Piano Concerto here with Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Barenboim, whom I cannot remember having cancelled a single appearance, stepped in and offered Mozart’s final piano concerto instead. It was not the finest performance I have heard from him, nor from the WEDO, but it was still very good, and all the more welcome in the circumstances. If the first movement was slightly ragged at times, it was always clear where it was heading. Barenboim’s basic tempo – not initially settled upon – was spot on, capable of infinite modification according to the progress of the music. There was admirable clarity throughout, the performance really hitting its stride in the development section. The WEDO’s woodwind section proved especially delightful here and thereafter, its principal bassoonist heart-breaking in that solo line, likewise its principal flautist in response. Intimacy of mood and consequentiality of phrases were the hallmark of the slow movement, possessed of an air that was rare enough, but not so autumnal as many: this was more the world of an outdoor Salzburg serenade, fondly recalled by Mozart in Vienna. It was gloriously unhurried, though. Ornamentation was always convincing, always delightful. The finale was equally rare of mood, its knife-edge demands perfectly captured from the opening solo onwards. The occasional piano slip did not bother me in the slightest, but might, I suppose, have disconcerted some. The cadenza had Beethovenian purpose, but the closing bars were imbued with Mozartian grace and chiaroscuro.
Prior to that, we had heard an excellent performance of Jörg Widmann’s Con brio Overture, commissioned by Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra to accompany Beethoven’s Seventh and Eighth Symphonies. There is throughout – and was, I think, still more so in this particular performance – a strong and yet elusive sense of Beethovenian presence, from the opening timpani solo and orchestral éclat onwards. I found Barenboim’s performance livelier, more at home with Beethovenian allusion than the performance I have heard from Jansons. It dreamed, rather than experiencing nightmares, even when sounding closer to Mahler: a thoroughly upbeat – in more than one sense – opening to the concert.
The second half was devoted to Wagner. I am not the greatest fan of ‘bleeding chunks’, but with a conductor and orchestra such as this am unlikely to protest too strongly. The Tannhäuser Overture benefited from a deliciously woody opening, responded to by impressively dark-toned, contrasting strings. Barenboim took it faster, I think, than I have heard him do so in the theatre; as a stand-alone piece, it deserves different treatment (which may, of course, take very different forms). It was, in any case, a reading full of contrast, especially dynamic contrast, and – something that struck me in all the performances to follow – quite expertly shaped, so much so that one barely noticed it was being shaped. The final peroration was glorious by any standards.
The Götterdämmerung excerpts opened with ‘Dawn’: fatal, duly ambiguous. Tragedy was foretold, yet there seemed some sense of hope too. To cut to the end of the scene and the transition to ‘Siegfried’s Rhine Journey’ will always, I suspect, sound odd to me, but Barenboim did what he could with such foreshortening. The intrepid quality ensuing seemed not only to relate to the Volsung hero but to an anthropomorphised version of the mighty Rhine itself. As we reached the Gibichung gates, dark, Nibelung (or part-Nibelung) brass invited us in; despite ourselves, we felt drawn. Then we skipped to the shattering climax – here, Karajan-like in its brutality, the brutality of rape – to the first act. Fearful symmetry was to be experienced in the reappearance of trombones in the opening to the Funeral March. But now, there was no hope, just remembrance. The falling back into night seemed to look forward to Strauss’s Alpine Symphony (a work I should love to hear performed by these musicians).
Finally, at least so far as the advertised programme was concerned, we heard the ultimate pick-me-up, following Siegfried’s death: the Prelude to Act I of Die Meistersinger. It was gloriously full of tone, never lingering, but nor was it hard-driven. As two encores, we heard the Prelude to Act III: dark, noble, almost Elgarian, and with the greatest contrast of light, which would yet not be unalloyed for long. I guessed correctly that it would be followed by the Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin. Barenboim trusted his musicians, often barely conducting them. It was a bravura performance, but never just a bravura performance.