An Orchestra Explores the Divine
07/27/2012New York Times
Written by James R. Oestreich
SALZBURG, Austria — Zubin Mehta, the Israel Philharmonic and the Collegiate Chorale, having opened their three-concert series in the Salzburg Festival’s preseason Spiritual Overture this week with two programs mostly rooted in Judaism, took a sharp, somewhat surprising turn on Thursday evening, into music of Bruckner.
Bruckner, who hailed from nearby Linz, was a practicing Roman Catholic, and his mighty Te Deum, completed in 1884, certainly fits the Spiritual Overture’s nominal criterion. His Seventh Symphony perhaps less so, though — written around the same time — it uses a passage from the end of the Te Deum (on the words “Let me never be confounded”) as a building block of its Adagio.
That Adagio, moving as it is, became something of a memorial to Wagner, who died in 1883, as Bruckner was nearing completion of the symphony. What’s more, Bruckner’s music, like Wagner’s, was appropriated by the Nazis for its grandiosity, and the Adagio was played on German radio at Hitler’s death.
Does the Israel Philharmonic, which has for the most part studiously avoided Wagner’s music, have no qualms about putting Bruckner forward, especially in so prominent a forum on such an auspicious occasion? True, unlike Wagner, Bruckner was apparently not a vociferous anti-Semite.
“Their opinions have nothing to do with it,” Avi Shoshani, the orchestra’s longtime secretary general, said in an interview. “What Wagner has been to Holocaust survivors is a symbol of a nightmare that we don’t even try to imagine.”
Early in his time with the orchestra, Mr. Shoshani added, he thought he could turn things around.
“I was a complete idiot,” he said. “The wounded will remain wounded. We can only respect their feelings.” (Not that they are necessarily rational, as feelings are often not: there are survivors, Mr. Shoshani noted, who firmly believe that Wagner and Hitler actually met.)
As it happens, he added, Bruckner’s music is something the orchestra and Mr. Mehta, who has been named its music director for life, perform particularly well. On the basis of Thursday’s concert, he will find no argument here.
The performance of the Seventh at the Festspielhaus was a model. The strings were vibrant in soaring lines, biting and seemingly tireless in those notorious Bruckner tremolos. Woodwinds had character, and the brasses were powerful in sonorous outbursts but no less impressive in quiet passages, even those, yes, Wagner tubas.
Mr. Mehta drew a full-throated account of Te Deum from orchestra and chorus alike. Of the prominent vocal soloists, the soprano Krassimira Stoyanova was excellent; the tenor Roberto Sacca, a bit blatant and untamed.
But it was a vocal soloist who had stolen the show on Wednesday night in another semi-sacred program at the Festspielhaus, consisting of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Emperor”) and Ernest Bloch’s “Sacred Service” (“Avodath Hakodesh”).
Here again, as they had on Tuesday, Mr. Mehta and the orchestra and chorus responded to the Spiritual Overture’s stress on Judaism this year with a major statement, brilliantly executed: in this case, Bloch’s imposing setting of Hebrew texts from the liturgy for Sabbath morning, completed in 1934. The five-movement work is symphonic not only in its grand scale, but also in its cyclical development of a striking motif: a melodic fragment that has recurred in various transpositions throughout Western musical history: as the first four notes of the Gregorian chant “Asperges me,” as a motto in symphonies by Mozart (No. 41) and Saint-Saëns (No. 3), and in any number of other contexts.
And again the baritone Thomas Hampson took a leading role. As great as he had been on Tuesday in works by Schoenberg, Mahler and Noam Sheriff, he was even more remarkable here, declaiming in a plausible cantorial style: more, virtually embodying an Old Testament prophet.
Singing all-out, in Hebrew, with greater concern for passionate communication than for tonal beauty (though there was plenty of that, too), he was utterly compelling. Even to a listener who had followed Mr. Hampson through major triumphs — not least, his comprehensive survey of Mahler songs at a festival in Amsterdam in 1995 — this was unexpected, perhaps his most stunning achievement yet.
The Wednesday program was filled out with the Beethoven concerto, to no apparent thematic purpose. But a fine performance of a masterpiece needs no special pleading, and the veteran pianist Rudolf Buchbinder played the solo part with a sure sense of structure and considerable flair.
In response to enthusiastic applause, Mr. Buchbinder performed the finale of Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata. Mr. Mehta and the orchestra, too, were roundly cheered by nearly full houses on all three nights, with the Bruckner evening eliciting a sustained — and ultimately, standing — ovation.
All this (and more) before the festival had officially opened, as it did in a ceremony televised throughout Austria on Friday morning. The Spiritual Overture runs through Sunday.
Photo Credit: Silvia Lilli