It is arguable that no single figure has quite dominated the artistic scene at the Salzburg Festival to the extent that Herbert von Karajan did when he ruled the roost from the 1950s to the 80s. Riccardo Muti may well have come closest in subsequent years, so it was appropriate for him to be entrusted with a concert dedicated to Karajan's memory 30 years after the Austrian conductor's death in 1989, and performed in the venue that Karajan had such a hand in designing, the Großes Festspielhaus.

Riccardo Muti
© Salzburg Festival | Marco Borrelli

Karajan's Assumption Day concerts were a focal point of his festival planning, and so it was that on this 15 August visitors and Salzburgians put on their Sunday best for a Thursday morning performance of Verdi's Messa da Requiem, that most non-liturgical of requiems. Muti's strengths have always been in Mozart, Russian music and, of course, Verdi, and this repertoire has dominated his own contribution to Salzburg since Karajan first invited him to conduct there in 1971. Now 78, he is still a vigorous figure on the podium, conducting a performance of the Requiem that conveyed all its operatic drama yet also allowed room for consolation and contemplation.

Verdi Requiem in the Großes Festspielhaus
© Salzburg Festival | Marco Borrelli

The Vienna Philharmonic – or should one say a Vienna Philharmonic, given that the orchestra was scheduled to give three full operatic performances plus this taxing concert over just a pair of representative days of the festival and therefore must contain the personnel for at least two orchestras – responded in kind. The brass duly blazed, drums ominously thwacked and rolled, and the strings soared heavenward. Such was the might of orchestral sound at the recurrences of the Dies irae that the hundred-strong Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus struggled to be heard – this is one work where bringing together multiple massed choirs can pay off. But this is not to deny the refinement and excellent ensemble of the choral singing when balance was more helpful in the rest of the piece, which had tonal richness as well as sleek dynamic shading.

Ildar Abdrazakov, Francesco Meli, Anita Rachvelishvili and Krassimira Stoyanova
© Salzburg Festival | Marco Borrelli

The quartet of soloists was a starry line-up of Salzburg favourites. Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova, best known at the festival for her Strauss, sang with creamy tone, but struggled to make her words audible until her more biting, sotto voce “Tremens factus sum” in the Libera me, whereas Georgian mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili gave an object lesson in visceral diction throughout, coupled with an almost indecently seductive tonal opulence. Italian tenor Francesco Meli revealed a nice line in piano singing, but could also thrill with metallic fortissimo, and Bashkirian bass Ildar Abdrazakov, scheduled to sing Philip II in the next Easter festival's new Don Carlos, sang with a blazing intensity. Despite such outward individuality, the four made a surprisingly well-blended ensemble when singing together: festival performances can often give the impression of being thrown together for a one-off occasion, but this, the middle one in a series of three performances of the Requiem over five days, managed to be both thoroughly prepared musically and an event in itself.