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Vienna Philharmonic, Riccardo Muti conducting. [Photo © Silvia Lelli courtesy of the Salzburg Festival]
20 Aug 2012

Berlioz and Liszt at the Salzburg Festival

At the Salzburg Festival, Riccardo Muiti conducted Liszt’s Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe and Berlioz’s Messe solonnelle.

Franz Liszt: Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe (S 107), Les Préludes (S 97); Hector Berlioz: Messe solennelle (H 20)

Julia Kleiter: soprano, Samir Pirgu: tenor, Ildar Abdrazakov (bass). Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus (chorus master: Ernst Raffelsberger). Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Riccardo Muti (conductor).

Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg, 17th August 2012

Above: Vienna Philharmonic, Riccardo Muti conducting.

Photos © Silvia Lelli courtesy of the Salzburg Festival


This, the third of the Vienna Philharmonic’s concerts, reunited the Salzburg Festival’s pit band with one of its favourite conductors, Riccardo Muti. Muti’s presence on the podium pretty much guarantees at the very least a high degree of execution, and there were no real problems in that respect here, though I have heard the VPO sound more faultless, not least with him. In the right repertoire, and the nature of that repertoire can readily surprise, Muti remains a great conductor. Berlioz proved on this occasion a better fit than Liszt, perhaps not surprisingly, given Muti’s track record: I recall a fine Salzburg performance of the Symphonie fantastique, followed by Lélio.

I have heard far worse in Liszt, a composer who suffers more than most not only from bad performances, but also from the deleterious consequences thereof. Bach’s towering greatness will somehow, quite miraculously, shine through even the worst the ‘authenticke’ brigade can throw at him; Liszt in the wrong hands can readily sound meretricious, and even we fervent advocates have to admit that his œuvre is mixed in quality. The late, indeed outlying, Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe (‘From the Cradle to the Grave’) (S 107) fared better of the two symphonic poems performed, birth and death in turn faring better than the ‘struggle for existence’ in the middle. The VPO contributed delicate, sensitive performances in those outer sections, violas’ cradle song and woodwind caresses especially ravishing.

Les Préludes, (S 07), on the other hand, suffered from some of the bombast that also infected the middle section of the first work. The most celebrated of Liszt’s symphonic poems — for reasons that remain obscure to me — is extremely difficult to bring off successfully. Muti’s reading did not exhibit the vulgarity of, say, Solti, yet nor did it entirely convincingly convey harmonic motion and richness of texture. There were times when, volume notwithstanding, the work sounded somewhat thin. The audience, however, acted as if it were English in Beecham’s understanding, not much liking the music of Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe, reaction quite tepid indeed, but certainly liking the noise that Les Préludes made.

15Aug2012__Silvia_Lelli_8.gifJulia Kleiter, Ildar Abdrazakov, Riccardo Muti, Saimir Pirgu, Vienna Philharmonic

Berlioz’s Messe solennelle (H 20) was long thought lost, yet it resurfaced in 1991, granted its first modern performance in 1993. This was the first time I had heard this fascinating work in the flesh. Whilst it would be folly to proclaim it a masterpiece, or even something approaching that status, it has much to interest, not least in Berlioz’s recycling of some of the ideas in works that certainly are amongst his greatest. One might expect a degree of kinship between this mass and, say the Requiem — the latter’s celebrated brass interventions reusing material from the Resurrexit’s ‘Et iterum venturus’, but one can hardly fail to be brought up short by the appearance of music one knows so well from the ‘Scène aux champs’ in the Symphonie fantastique, employed both orchestrally and then chorally. Muti’s long experience in the sacred music of Cherubini served him well in this performance, which it is difficult to imagine being bettered.

Steely, post-Revolutionary grandeur he does extremely well, form delineated with great clarity, but tender moments were equally well served. Any fears of undue restraint were duly banished by a blazing conclusion to the Kyrie. Choral singing was excellent throughout, as, the occasional blemish aside, were the performances of a large, though not extravagant, VPO. Movements additional to the typical mass — at least, typical to us, if not necessarily to early-nineteenth-century France — provided especial interest: an O salutaris, following Cherubini’s practice, and a celebratory monarchical Domine salvum fac, the latter benefiting greatly from sweet-toned yet ardent tenor, Samir Pirgu, and the darkly Verdian Ildar Abdrazakov, whose contributions throughout were, following a slightly muddy start, characterful and at time ominous. Only soprano Julia Kleiter was somewhat disappointing, her intonation rendering Berlioz’s pastoral a little sea-sick, before descending into generalised blandness. This was Muti’s performance, though; he set his seal on the work with style and conviction.

Mark Berry

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