Glorious Sounds From Salzburg

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The New York Sun

SALZBURG, Austria — The Vienna Philharmonic has no permanent conductor — instead they have an endless string of guests. But if they did have a permanent conductor, they could do worse than Mariss Jansons, the formidable Latvian-born musician. It was he who conducted them in a concert at the Salzburg Festival last weekend.

Mr. Jansons has plenty of work to do — he heads two big orchestras, the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Munich. In earlier days, he worked in Oslo and Pittsburgh, with great success.

His program with the Vienna Philharmonic began with a relative rarity: “In the Summer Wind,” subtitled “Idyll for Large Orchestra.” This is by Webern, but perhaps not the Webern you know: The work is beautifully, sometimes blowsily Romantic; Webern would strike out in a different direction later.

From Mr. Jansons and the Vienna Philharmonic, the piece began like a dream, out of nowhere. It was almost too ethereal for words. And the wonderment on the conductor’s face matched the wonderment of the music.

He was not so much conducting the piece as caressing it. At the same time, he did not baby it (and I know you’ll appreciate the distinction). Moreover, he gave the piece an excellent sweep. You did not really hear separate notes, measures, or even pages. Instead, it was one thing, one unit.

Rarely have strings sounded so beautiful as on this occasion. The woodwinds and brass did their part, too. Toward the dreamy end, I was surprised that Salzburg’s Great Festival Hall didn’t just up and float away.

Elīna Garanča was the guest soloist in this concert — and she, too, is from Latvia. For years, the only Latvians we really knew in music were Mr. Jansons and Gidon Kremer, the violinist. After the fall of the Soviet Union, a profusion of musicians came from the Baltic states. Ms. Garanča is a prize among them.

She is a regal, somewhat coldly beautiful mezzo-soprano. But as Metropolitan Opera audiences know, she’s a hell of a comedic actress. She proved so in Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” last season.

With the Vienna Philharmonic she sang “Les Nuits d’été” by Berlioz. Some of us like a soprano in this cycle, rather than a mezzo. But who would disqualify Janet Baker? When a mezzo sings “Les Nuits d’été,” the first song, “Villanelle,” is in F, rather than A — and away you go.

Ms. Garanča sang with smoky, sultry, sensuous tones. She seemed to enjoy every phrase, and every French syllable. Technically, she was very, very secure. At some moments — for example, in “Sur les lagunes” — you might have asked for a bigger voice. More of a Michelle DeYoung. But Ms. Garanča did splendidly with what she has, which is plenty.

You could have differed with her on interpretation. I myself think the final song, “L’île inconnue,” should have some breathless ecstasy. Ms. Garanča made it unfold like a beautiful, plush carpet. But that was her idea of “Les Nuits d’été.”

Mr. Jansons seemed to enjoy the cycle as much as she did. And the Vienna Philharmonic played sensitively, richly, and well. (The principal cello, unfortunately, had a badly flat solo.)

Please permit me an outrageous statement: Not even musicians of the highest caliber can quite defeat the dullness of some of Berlioz’s less inspired pages. I think, in particular, of “Absence.” Still, Mr. Jansons and Ms. Garanča could have helped this song, and a couple of others, with a less sleepy pace.

I might mention, too, that some audience members tried to applaud between songs, as usual. And, as usual, other audience members shushed them viciously. The shushers are always more cloddish and disturbing than the clappers.

After intermission, Mr. Jansons led the Vienna Philharmonic in the Second Symphony of Brahms. In a review last week, I described this orchestra as “built for Brahms,” sonically. And so it is. The warm, glowing Vienna sound embraced the Second, and the symphony embraced it back.

And yet, the first movement was sharply etched — Mr. Jansons made sure of that, and Brahms requires it. This was not a mere aural bath (although the sound was impossibly beautiful and filling). I should say, too, that the principal horn was gloriously unflubbing. I had to check to make sure that it was actually a French horn he was holding.

The second movement, Adagio non troppo, was expansive, and almost too much so — but Mr. Jansons did not go overboard. And the low strings produced amazing effects. You know how a political commentator said that Senator Obama gave him a “tingle up the leg”? So it was with these low strings.

Brahms’s third movement, Allegretto grazioso, had a pleasing rustic flavor, plus true orchestral unity. And, in the last movement, the composer, the conductor, and the orchestra all conjured up a joyous D-major storm.

Not every concert is a winner, in Salzburg or elsewhere. But sometimes you are grateful to have attended — and this was one of those times.

The New York Sun

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