Easter Festival

Herbert von Karajan would have been 100 on April 5, and at least in the German-speaking wo rld, in those places he was prominent, he is again ubiquitous. His legacy as a conductor, preserved in a myriad self-adoring videos, has not established him as one of the defining maestros of the previous century, however sumptuous he helped orchestras sound and however sovereign he was in some repertory, Bruckner uber alles.

But at least his institutional legacy is tangible: the Berlin Philharmonie, home of his Berliner Philharmoniker, and the almost-but-not-quite-as-wonderful-sounding large Festspielhaus here in Salzburg, which he built to house his Berlin orchestra in his productions of Wagner's operas, especially the "Ring," are impressive monuments, rather like what Carnegie Hall is to Isaac Stern.

The "Ring" is back in Salzburg, where we are currently in the midst of the first cycle of opera and concert performances. I was paid to come over here and give a music-appreciation talk, which I duly did. That would have invalidated me from commenting on the festival were I still at the NY Times, but I'm not so here goes: 

The Easter Festival "Ring" is a co-production with Aix-en-Provence, though curiously nobody at either festival managed to schedule all four operas in one year: when "Gotterdammerung" is seen in the summer of 2009 in Aix and the spring of 2010 in Salzburg, that will be it. (Sets and costumes, the least interesting aspect of the production, have reportedly been sold to the Chinese, but with no commitment from any of the musicians.)

Aix's involvement presumably accounts for the choice of Stephane Braunschweig as the director and set designer of this "Ring," and he is -- to judge from the current "Walkure" -- its weakest element. His production is not so much outrageous (would that it were so, in comparison with this) as dull and plain. In fact, the actual direction of the characters isn't bad, though the sex seems a little puimped up: Siegmund and Sieglinde crave each other from the outset -- so much for the building tension detailed in the stage directions -- and Brunnhilde smooches Siegmund full on the lips, no doubt warming herself up for his son. Oh, well, Braunschweig's choices could be defended and he is, after all, French.

Musically, this was a seriously impressive perforrmance. Curiously, not one of the six principals was a native German speaker, yet all are steeped in the language and the style. The weakest was the Siegmund of Robert Gambill, whose wildlly emitted high notes undercut the rapture at the end of the first act. Still, he looked hunky, which the opera blogs tell us is Tony Tommasini's favorite word, and his baritonal voice suited the Todesverkundigung just fine. Mikhail Petrenko, though costumed like a Puritan or an undertaker or both, sang sonorously as Hunding, and Lilli Paasikivi made Fricka's nagging more tolerable than usual.

Eva Johansson is given to sometimes cartoonish facial expressions, but she looked good, sounded good and phrased with real pathos. Eva-Maria Westbroek, who should be singing Brunnhilde herself any minute now, is a radiant artist with a clarion top, and she mustered the first-act rapture that Gambill lacked.

But most impressive of all the singers was Willard White (or Sir Willard, as we are now to call him). Nothing that this fine, now 61-year-old bass-baritone had done prepared me for his Wotan. He may not have the richest voice in memory. But he encompasses the range perfectly, and he declamed the narratives with a nobility and involvement I hadn't heard since Thomas Stweart -- and White has a bigger voice.

As for Karajan's successor and the mighty Berliners --- I was told only two musicians remain from the Easter Festival's first year in1967 - Simon Rattle (Sir Simon) conducted with sure command in just the kind of core Germanic repertory for which he was been persistently criticized. And the orchestra played just gloriously, as sure a testament to Karajan's legacy as he might have dreamed of. 

March 17, 2008 11:10 AM | | Comments (4)

4 Comments

Glad to hear that "the orchestra played gloriously," as in their recent visit to Carnegie Hall they remained incredibly accurate and polished, as under von Karajan and Abbado, but in the two concerts I heard under Rattle they seemed more "British"-the dark richness of sound and incredible focus and concentration under the previous two conductors was clearly gone, replaced by Berlin "lite." Rattle's interpretation were clear but left everything a bit cold, perhaps more representative of clipped British style than the earlier central European or passionate Italian directors.

I did hear them under von Karajan, and how anyone can not say that he was "great" belies the imagination. Even if you disagreed with his interpretation, the magnificent rich sound of the orchestra, the precision of the playing, the silence between phrases (any orchestra can start together-it is rare that they can finish notes so simultaneously that the very silence between clarifies the sound) the intense concentration of every individual orchestra member, which focused the attention of the audience, the sense that every player knew the entire score and was attending to each other's parts-so that when phrase passed from one section to another the blend was so perfect it was startling to realize that no longer were the strings playing, it was now the woodwinds, or the horns, or the trumpets.

This intensity was present in the 20th century only in the NBC under Arturo Toscanini-the alertness of the strings under von Karajan and Toscanini can be compared in the old kinescopes of the NBC.

This magnificent ensemble playing and sound is no longer present under Rattle-so we must credit von Karajan for its presence, and Abbado for continuing it and adding his Italian warmth.

I think he's a bit better than you seem to, in Bruckner especially. But I do think the current attention being paid him just now is a centenary bubble.

Yes,some snooty English critics have
been using the Karajan centennial as an
excuse to belittle him,but the fact remains
that Karajan was a very great conductor;not
perfect,but what conductor ever has been?
I never heard hin conduct live,but he has
left some truly magnificent recordings.
Karajan could be absolutely enthralling
in composers such as Wagner,Bruckner and
Richard Strauss,and some of his recordings
of Italian operas are revelatory.

Where do you think von Karajan ranks now? I read a recent piece (I think in the Guardian or Telegraph) that dismissed him as a second-rater whose star had dimmed considerably since his death. Yes he was popular and sold a lot of records, but I have to admit, listening to some of those recordings now, I can' say they're all that good. They certainly don't rise to the level of the best.

Is there any sense in Germany now, do you think, of a reappraisal of his work, his legacy? Seems like now's as good a time as any...

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This page contains a single entry by John Rockwell published on March 17, 2008 11:10 AM.

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