The Salzburg Easter Festival always offers its audience a special experience and fascinates with extravagant productions. One such production is the chamber music project with and by Isabel Karajan, which was premiered during last year's Shostakovich Days in Gohrisch. Herbert von Karajan, Isabel's father and the founder of the Salzburg Easter Festival, was a man who immersed himself thoroughly in the life and works of Shostakovich. Miss Death meets Mr Shostakovich: a scenic collage about fear looks especially at the topic of the constant state of fear in the Stalinist regime.

Isabel Karajan with Jascha Nemtsov and the Dresden String Quartet © Matthias Creutziger
Isabel Karajan with Jascha Nemtsov and the Dresden String Quartet
© Matthias Creutziger

 The project as a whole comprises Shostakovich's music, texts by Russian authors and the scenic performance by Isabel Karajan. The audience is treated to a multi-faceted audio-visual spectacle which uses multiple ways to shine a light on the twin themes of Fear and Death. The project has more of the feel of a piece of theatre than of a concert and, following the "collage" in the title, the vast majority of the works have only one of their movements played. In fact, the only work to be played in full is the String Quartet no. 8, of which all five movements are performed.

All the elements were purposefully and carefully chosen according to their respective moods: the movements played were related to the texts, and after each text which was performed dramatically by Isabel Karajan, there followed a piece of music in the mood of that text, performed by the Dresden String Quartet and/or pianist Jascha Nemtsov. So the dynamic, sweeping second movement of the String Quartet was preceded by an excerpt from Pugachev, a drama by one of the best known and best loved Russian poets of the twentieth century, Sergei Yesenin. Karajan performed it in a way that was wild, insane, hopping from one leg to another, grimacing, screaming the image-laden text straight from the depths of her soul.

Throughout, the instrumentalists played with sharp accenting, including a great deal of staccato. The result was a cool, almost sterile sound which contrasted sharply with Karajan's fiery performance. In the piano quintet, all five musicians let their individual themes shine through, and even though their lines run parallel to each other or are intertwined, the overall sound was so transparent that each individual voice was clearly distinguishable. For the whole evening, the musicians' balance and coordination with each other resulted in a satisfying piece of ensemble playing.

Karajan's "field of play", from which she produced emotional outpourings and different moods, was just about a metre square, with the acting happening on top of a stack of three palettes placed on a colourless background of synthetic material which served both as ground and rear wall for the stage. At the start of the performance, the palettes were covered in a vertical sheet of black cloth which hung to the ground. In the course of the performance, this was used as padding for acrobatic elements.

It began with a surprise for the audience: After the five musicians had taken their places on stage, there was astonishment at Isabel Karajan who appeared directly on the stage, underneath the black cloth with her face covered by a white handkerchief, which she blew off to reveal her face.

Isabel Karajan © Matthias Creutziger
Isabel Karajan
© Matthias Creutziger
Throughout, Isabel Karajan showed immense versatility, displaying a full gamut of emotions. Frequently, the mood would switch rapidly from grief to crazed, unbridled joy. The staging served her well by allowing the creation of various different scenes: the black cloth serving either as cover or to be swung hither and thither. The white handkerchief on which Shostakovich's characteristic glasses were depicted, turned into a cover for head or face, or on one occasion into a hand puppet to be the composer’s double, with which Isabel Karajan engaged in a dialogue in the speech with which Shostakovich had to justify himself in 1949 before the Soviet Composers' Association. This brief comic interlude somewhat lightened the oppressive atmosphere the dark texts about death, fear and persecution had created.

Notably, music and poetry were kept strictly separate. When Karajan performed, only she was lit and the musicians left in darkness in the background – and the converse. Only at the end did words, music and drama merge together. In a grotesque scene, Karajan worked the sheet around her body as a symbol of death and was drawn upwards by a rope as if to hang herself, while the Dresden String Quartet played a Polka.

Music and words were really well matched and came together to produce a coherent whole, although, as mentioned already, the music seemed to function as no more than background accompaniment, not least because the hall of The Republic doesn’t provide the best acoustic for classical music. The sound was somewhat muffled, albeit in some way that suited the project’s theme. None the less, Shostakovich’s works were played with enthusiasm as well as wit and precision. The Polka from the ballet The Golden Age that had been played by pianist Jascha Nemtsov in the beginning was now played again as a finale by the Dresden String Quartet, with crisp staccato. Thus, it sounded fresh, but its dissonant chords created sinister overtones and painted a vivid picture for this impressive performance.

 

Translated from German by David Karlin