When should a singer retire? It’s an old, difficult, ticklish question, addressed in these pages more than once. Pianists and conductors can go on pretty much forever. (The string players encounter some difficulties.) Some conductors are barely warmed up by the time they reach seventy. But a singer is more like an athlete, having to wave goodbye relatively early. When to do this waving is an individual decision. Some singers bow out as soon as things start to go awry, or shortly thereafter; others croak it out till the last trump. I think we can say that almost no singer retires too early.

This ticklish question came up in August at the Salzburg Festival: Edita Gruberova sang the title role of Bellini’s Norma in a concert performance (which is to say, an unstaged one). We used to call her a Czechoslovakian soprano; after 1993 or so, we learned to call her a Slovakian. She is sixty-three and looks wonderful: fit, attractive, not nearly ready for a rocking chair. She is one of the great sopranos of her time, in the bel canto division. What does she have left—I mean, to give an audience?

She has musical intelligence, vocal intelligence, operatic intelligence. She has a big bank of experience. And she showed all this on the stage of the Grosses Festspielhaus. There was no doubt that this was a very savvy performer. And you could see, and hear, through her current state to tell how she once was. She flatted terribly when she went up high, and she wailed some notes—again, up high—that were dreadful. She was more histrionic than she would have been, to make up for technical shortcomings: This is very common in the older singer. And she sang best when the music was soft and introspective.

Should she have sung Norma, at this stage in her career? I would not have—but then, this is her decision (and that of those who hire her, I suppose). Her fans screamed and screamed for her. They screamed after her “Casta diva” (shakily rendered), and they screamed at the end. And Gruberova milked the ovations for all they were worth. The audience, I think, was saying thank you—“Thank you for a wonderful career”—and goodbye. Was Gruberova saying goodbye? I don’t know. I don’t envy people who have to figure out when to leave the stage, and the applause. I have heard Professor Jeffrey Hart describe an athlete’s retirement as a “first death.”

Anja Harteros is in her prime. She is a German soprano, with a Greek father. And she sang a recital in Salzburg’s Haus für Mozart. It was a program of German art songs, by Schubert, Wolf, Brahms, and Strauss. (I have used her order.) Harteros sang well—very, very well. She has a beautiful voice and abundant musicality. I hope you’ll know what I mean when I say that she didn’t sing her lieder like a lieder-singer. She did not handle them with sugar tongs. She did not treat them as though they were museum pieces, to be kept under glass. She did not pussyfoot around them. She sang them like a living, breathing, feeling woman. Occasionally, there was a technical blemish—a note too low—but nothing serious.

She had at her side a first-rate accompanist, Wolfram Rieger, whom I have praised in several chronicles past. I keep saying that I’d like to hear him in a recital of his own someday. Musically, he is nearly unfailing, and he has plenty of technique, too. I might mention that he hunches his shoulders when he plays—making him a rare pianist who hunches and yet is not tight. In Wolf’s “Auf ein altes Bild,” he played as though speaking directly to the audience, directly to the individual listener: Words were hardly needed.

The Harteros-Rieger recital comprised some of the most familiar songs in the entire repertoire. And these two musicians proved that, yes, you can hear them again, if they are performed well. Credit must go to the composers too, who wrote music unstalable.

In the Grosser Saal of the Mozarteum—the most beautiful hall in Christendom—the festival offered a chamber series, centered on Brahms. We are not in a “Brahms year”; he is not an anniversary boy. His dates are 1833 to 1897. The anniversary boys in the music world are Schumann and Chopin (both born in 1810). But the Salzburg Festival’s concert administrator, Markus Hinterhäuser, disdains what I call “anniversaryitis,” which indicates his overall good sense.

At one of these chamber concerts, Leif Ove Andsnes was the leading musician: and this Norwegian pianist can be a model. So he was on this occasion. He was bracing, stringent, and exact; at the same time, he was poetic, always breathing, always feeling. Now and then he can be cold: I remember a Schubert sonata in Carnegie Hall that practically frosted the walls. But Andsnes was nothing but musical in the Mozarteum. Among his special qualities are balance, evenness, and solidity. He plays solidly—super-solidly—but also “horizontally.” He does not succumb to a clunky verticality. And he has a knack for playing simply. (Not everyone does, though it seems such a simple thing.) The last piece on the program was Brahms’s piano quartet in G minor, and, in it, Andsnes gave a definition of Classical Romanticism. Of course, Brahms does too, in that and other pieces.

Let me mention one technical detail, just a detail: Andsnes plays chords together. Absolutely together. But don’t they all? Wouldn’t any professional pianist? No, actually. And I’d like to single out another musician who took part in this concert: Martin Fröst, the Swedish clarinetist. In Brahms’s clarinet trio, he demonstrated long, long lines. This is a matter of breathing, to be sure, but also of thought.

The festival put on a new opera, by Wolfgang Rihm—the German composer who is approaching sixty. In fact, the festival’s season was filled with Rihm, as he was the composer du jour, or de l’été. His opera is called Dionysos, or, to give it its full name (in English), Dionysus: Scenes and Dithyrambs: An Opera Fantasy. The words come from Nietzsche, arranged by Rihm. Just as there are philosophical novels, there are philosophical operas. And just as philosophical novels are not quite novels, philosophical operas are not quite operas. Salzburg’s stage director for Dionysos, Pierre Audi, described the work as a “series of images in music.” Quite apt: Yet Dionysos is opera enough.

The opera’s main character is called “N.,” presumably standing for “Nietzsche.” He is a harried—indeed, a tormented—everyman, embarked on a journey, searching for answers and satisfaction. Audi says that the opera is “about truth and humanness.” That is a grand pronouncement, but I’ll buy it. And Audi has fashioned a production that matches the score, and the libretto, to a T (to an “N”?). Sometimes the production is grotesque to the point of unwatchability; I preferred to turn away. But it always matches.

And Rihm’s score is “full of music,” to use a phrase I learned from Artur Rubinstein. Rihm has done much smart writing here, both orchestral and vocal. The score is imaginative, colorful, diligent. It has hurly-burly—lots of that—and also subtlety. The opera sometimes seems a choral symphony, or a vocal symphony. And Rihm has something important to say. There is a great seriousness of purpose behind this opera, and I don’t mean in a grad-school, pot-smoking, self-congratulatory way: I am speaking of a genuine seriousness of purpose. Rihm’s opera is a considerable achievement, no matter what we may ultimately think of it.

And it belongs to the history of music, stands on the shoulders of music and composers past. Rihm continues a tradition that started with—whom? Hildegard? The Gregorian chanters? He puts in a waltz; he puts in a song—a Lied—with piano accompaniment. Speaking of songs, I believe I heard at one point a quotation from “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,” that immortal creation of Mahler. Rihm is a man who likes music, a lot. But he’s a composer! How could he not! Oh, you’d be surprised. (Or maybe you wouldn’t, if you’ve followed music for the last fifty years or so.) In an interview, Rihm made one of the most cherishable comments I have ever heard about music: “I grew up at a time when people thought that music could somehow be made with the slide rule. That was all so very distant from what I myself felt . . .”

The Salzburg Festival gave us an old opera, too: Orfeo ed Euridice, the Gluck piece from 1762. It has three singers in it, plus chorus. None of the singers was a native speaker of the opera’s language, Italian. But none of them offended the language. Orfeo was an Austrian mezzo, Elisabeth Kulman, who proved solid, secure, and earnest. She was also sympathetic: You rooted for her, and for her character. Euridice was an Austrian, too. And not just any Austrian, but a native: a Salzburger. She was Genia Kühmeier, superb, as she can be counted on to be. Amore was Christiane Karg, who is from nearby Bavaria. She has a wonderfully beautiful voice: a light, high, Amore voice. She has unusually good control over dynamics. And she can bend her sound, sort of play with it.

The production came from Dieter Dorn, and this production was publicly criticized by the maestro in the pit, Riccardo Muti. (Now there’s a native Italian speaker!) I do not profess to have understood all of Dorn’s production; it is one of those for which you might desire CliffsNotes. But it contains many interesting and worthwhile touches, and it excludes kiddie porn, torture, political grandstanding, and other hallmarks of the modern opera production, particularly in this neck of the woods: for which, a bow of gratitude.

Muti’s conducting was efficient, understated, and correct. There was a warm, filling chorus in Act II. Otherwise, this reading had surprisingly little spirit to it. It was well-sculpted, Apollonian—and dull. Quite dull, actually. I said to a senior, eminent critic, mainly in jest, “Remind me: Orfeo isn’t supposed to be boring, is it?” He replied, “To tell you the truth, I have always found it a bit so.”

Back to that chamber series in the Mozarteum, for another concert. Andsnes was absent, replaced by Alexander Lonquich, a German pianist. He played a solo piece on this program: Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Schumann, Op. 9. Lonquich was elegant and commanding—also simple, unwilling to force anything. It seems that this pianist, like Andsnes, has a gift for simplicity. Brahms’s Schumann Variations are thoughtful and natural, and so was Lonquich’s playing. Incidentally, these Schumann Variations are almost never played—which reminded me that Brahms’s Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 21, are never, ever played. And that is not just a shame but a puzzlement: for this composition is wondrous, filled with Brahmsian warmth, craftsmanship, and—there is no better word for it—love. Maybe pianists find it not flashy enough, preferring the Handel or Paganini variations?

The violinist in this chamber concert—as before, with Andsnes—was Christian Tetz-laff, the famed German. He began the evening with Biber’s Passacaglia in G minor, which is unaccompanied. Tetzlaff played it with both understanding and heart. The passacaglia is not merely a scientific experiment; it is bona fide music. And the main works on this program were two horn trios: Brahms’s, naturally, and that by György Ligeti, composed in 1982. He wrote it under the inspiration of the Brahms. You could say the two works are destined to be paired.

Our hornist was Stefan Dohr, the principal player of the Berlin Philharmonic—and a man about whom I have written often, usually in the same, semi-incredulous tone. One is not supposed to play the horn with this much pliancy, beauty, and accuracy. Dohr plays the horn, that untamable beast, as though it were a sedated kitten in his lap. It occurred to me, on this evening, that he was playing the horn as a supreme German tenor might sing—Peter Anders, at his best? In the last movement of the Brahms, Dohr committed some stumbles, which were reassuring, in a way: He was human, after all, and a hornist, after all.

Elektra was on the slate of operas in Salzburg, and the star of the show was in the pit: not the Berlin Philharmonic, but the Vienna Philharmonic. This orchestra made Strauss’s opera talk, scream, swoon, think, growl, purr, roar. Everything in the libretto—everything in the story—was in those instruments. I had never heard this opera so orchestral. Daniele Gatti, an Italian conductor (junior to Muti), led this thrilling account. He was alert, taut, unimpeachable . . . until the end. Oddly, the performance ran out of steam just at the climax, just before the murders. The rest of the opera—one of the most throttling, pulverizing stretches in all of music—was a letdown. Limp. Again, very odd.

Iréne Theorin, a Swedish soprano, was to be Elektra, but she was indisposed, replaced by Janice Baird, an American. She did a commendable job. She has a striking, juicy voice, for one thing. And she sang her part with considerable understanding—acted it that way, too. She was chilling to look at. Elektra’s madness was inward, rather than outward. In the Recognition Scene, unfortunately, Baird went badly flat on high notes.

Elektra’s sister, Chrysothemis, was Eva-Maria Westbroek, the Dutch soprano, who can be expected to sing warmly, envelopingly, endearingly. And she did, reflecting Chrysothemis’s essential goodness. Their bad mother, Klytämnestra, was portrayed by Waltraud Meier—and I pose to you a question: Is Meier simply too sexy to play Klytämnestra? Maybe, but it’s nowhere written (as far as I know) that this broad has to be a hag. Orest was René Pape, doing what he does so well: project a manly glow with that one-in-a-million voice of his. (In truth, it’s probably closer to one-in-a-billion.)

The production came courtesy of Nikolaus Lehnhoff. What we see onstage is skewed. That is, the courtyard is a Tilt-A-Whirl, matching the story perfectly: The world is bent, off-kilter, not right. There are some unaccustomed moves at the end, and I will take issue with two of them. We see Klytämnestra’s corpse, swinging. In my view, her screams should speak for themselves; the individual listener and viewer can well imagine what has taken place inside the palace. Also, Orest comes back out into the courtyard, to join Chrysothemis and the collapsed (dead) Elektra. The last notes—the last sung notes—of the opera are Chrysothemis’s cries of “Orest!” I believe she should be calling out to her brother, inside the palace. There is not much need to call out to him like that when he is standing right there, in front of her.

But Lehnhoff, an estimable man of the theater, is entitled to his own views, obviously. And the black creatures he has crawling out—symbolizing unexterminatable evil?—are effective.

On a later morning, the Vienna Philharmonic was onstage, giving a concert conducted by Christoph Eschenbach. It was mainly Schumann, bowing to the bicentennial. The second half of the program was dominated by the Symphony No. 2. The first half was full of curiosities, and was a curiosity itself. It comprised late and rare Schumann: the Introduction and Allegro appassionato, Op. 92, the Theme and Variations in E flat, known as the “Ghost Variations,” and the Introduction and Allegro, Op. 134. The first and third pieces are for piano and orchestra; the second piece is a solo piano work. In all my life, I don’t believe I had ever seen a solo piano piece written into an orchestral program—the orchestra simply sat there as the pianist played. Moreover, the day’s musicians tried to put over the conceit that the first half of the program was a united whole: They did not acknowledge applause between the pieces. The pianist did not leave the stage, or his bench. Everyone seemed to be pretending that the three pieces were actually one piece, or intimately connected. As I said, this was a conceit, and musicological baloney. But it was also harmless baloney.

I wish I could say that the piano-and-orchestra pieces—“concert pieces”—were neglected masterworks, finally getting their due in an anniversary year. But it is not so. I’m afraid they are mediocre works, not quite worthy of Schumann. This is especially true of Op. 134, which contains a lot of notes without a lot of inspiration. The Ghost Variations, however, are very fine, and invitingly strange.

The pianist of the day was Tzimon Barto, né Johnny Barto Smith, Jr., in Florida: He still lives there, even though he is Tzimon. A man of parts, he is a bodybuilder, a poet, a novelist, a scholar—a “oner,” as the crossword puzzles say (someone who is one-of-a-kind). In the opening piece, he was rather tight, and his playing included some obvious and dull accentuation. In the Ghost Variations, however, he was quite good: sensitive, judicious, lovely—barely rising above a whisper. And in Op. 134, he was perfectly adequate. The entire Grosses Festspielhaus seemed half-asleep; the audience could barely rouse itself for applause. And here is just an aside, or a footnote: Barto had sheet music in front of him, as pianists rarely do. But if it was good enough for Myra Hess, it’s good enough for anybody.

Diana Damrau is good enough for anybody. I heard her sing a Rosina at the Metropolitan Opera last season, and I said to myself, “She’s singing perfectly—but I can’t say that, can I? Because no one’s perfect, right?” I went ahead and wrote it: because it was true. I have thought that about Joyce DiDonato, too—in fact, I thought it when she was singing the same role, in the same house, in the same season. “She’s singing perfectly.” The German soprano, Damrau, and the American mezzo, DiDonato, have much in common: spitfire, and surefire, technique; charisma out the ears; and innate, unteachable, unearnable musicality.

Damrau was in the Mozarteum for a concert with the house band, the Mozarteum-orchester Salzburg. She sang four Mozart arias: one from La finta semplice, one from Mitridate, and two from Idomeneo. Mozart wrote those first two operas when he was twelve and fourteen. Are they juvenile pieces? No, certainly not: Mozart stopped writing juvenile pieces when he was about five. He wrote Idomeneo when he was twenty-four, virtually a wizened sage.

And did Damrau sing perfectly? Yes—I’m sorry, but it is simply true. Her purity was almost beyond belief, and that technique? Her throat has something like the facility of a pianist’s or a violinist’s fingers. I might also say that she has the gift of singing sharply—I’m not talking about pitch—without singing stridently. Elettra’s aria from Idomeneo—“Oh smania! oh furie . . . D’Oreste, d’Aiace”—was scalding and piercing: also pure, musical, and Mozartean. By the way, the singer was great with child. Also by the way: With DiDonato, she may be the best singer now working.

DiDonato participated in the 2010 Salzburg Festival too, singing Adalgisa to Gruberova’s Norma. They made a stark contrast, one singer in twilight, the other in radiant, glorious noon.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 29 Number 2, on page 51
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