Faith and glamour have bookended this year’s Salzburg Festival, a move met with incredulity in certain quarters and yet one not entirely alien to Austrian customs, if one looks to the 20 or so most glittering events of the Viennese ball season, which is promptly curtailed by Ash Wednesday (still observed by much of the population here with high Catholic asceticism). When Helga Rabl-Stadler, the Festival’s president, remarked in a newspaper interview a couple of weeks ago that the contemplative start to the Festival, a week-long upbeat of sacred music curiously termed the ‘Spiritual Overture’, legitimized the decadence of a crowning ball, the Lenten underpinnings of her argument were readily understood if not necessarily accepted. The question of where Verdi’s Requiem, performed a few hours before the ball, might lie in this scheme was hardly left ambiguous, with the Festival’s artistic director, Alexander Pereira, promising in December that those prepared to cough up steep sums for his new ball would be guaranteed much-sought-after tickets for this concert. Four star soloists, the orchestra and chorus of La Scala, and Daniel Barenboim helming would make for a spectacle fit to match the evening’s festivities.
Naturally this would seem to sell Barenboim rather short, but despite the haunting sincerity of the work’s many hushed, supplicatory moments, in keeping with the Festival’s earlier spiritual focus without showing any of the piety Verdi remained so ambivalent towards, this performance didn’t make the goosebump-raising impact I had expected. The hairs on the back of my neck have risen once before upon hearing Barenboim and La Scala’s forces perform the Requiem, as recently as last November, but because this is a work where effects, or at least these heavily stylized ones, tend to stay fixed rather than shift subtly in emphasis from performance to performance – like the chorus’ rolled Rs of the opening ‘Requiem aeternam’ and the italianità of the delivery elsewhere, which is wonderful but also doggedly consistent in its inflection – it relies on things like increased commitment to make subsequent times seem as rewarding as the first.
That said, the playing merely matching what I heard last year minus a few weaker moments (like the trumpet intonation of the call to judgement) was no cause for complaint, with Barenboim’s gift for building profound climaxes once more something to marvel at, as well as his ability for showing disputed material in the best possible light – here the comment by Hans von Bülow (who also notoriously described the piece as ‘opera in ecclesiastical garb’) that ‘the final fugue, despite much that is worthy only of a student, and much that is fatuous and ugly, is a work of such industry that many German musicians will be greatly surprised by it’ seemed a particularly mean backhanded compliment. The silvery-blue tone colour to Barenboim’s Domine Jesu again added greatly to the limpid phrasing of this section, even if Jonas Kaufmann following suit in his Hostias put Verdi in threat of being hijacked by Lohengrin.
Earlier Kaufmann had impressed in his Ingemisco, balancing tenderly voiced opening phrases with an underlying force that carefully came to the fore, ensuring that the first top B flat wouldn’t seem to come from nowhere (La Scala’s horns, in the morning’s single most satisfying moment of playing, swelled perfectly in unison). From there on out the way he built in strength was flawlessly paced and gathered in improbable subtlety the louder he sang. René Pape made things a little more obvious, his repeated notes on ‘Mors’ descending into a William Shatner-esque stage whisper, though elsewhere his creative way with consonants was hard to resist. His singing, however, wasn’t as colourful as his diction, and he voiced his part like a blustery Germont throughout. Mezzo Elīna Garanča maintains a luxuriant beauty and smoothness throughout her range, but her failure to define or at least shape a little the parts she sings beyond occasionally employing the most generic expressive devices has caused my eyes to glaze over a good few times now; here I’m afraid to say I simply zoned out on her. Soprano Anja Harteros was a great deal less passive and achieved that rarest of things in a Verdi Requiem – delicately floating an unscooped and utterly exquisite rising B flat before the final fugue, and later pulling out a fierce top C which rode effortlessly above the orchestra and chorus. At times earlier in the performance her singing had seemed a little too composed, too proper, but she responded well to the turbulence of Barenboim’s Libera me and sang her most important number in the piece with compelling presence.
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