Marianne Crebassa is a French mezzo-soprano, well-known in Europe, not well-known in the United States. Before long, she will be known everywhere. At the Salzburg Festival, Crebassa gave a recital in the Grosser Saal of the Mozarteum. For her pianist, she had a star: Fazil Say. The pianist is also a composer, and was featured as a composer on this evening.
The program consisted of songs by Ravel, Fauré, Debussy, and Duparc—also some solo piano music. That was a couple of preludes by Debussy and the Trois Gnossiennes of Satie. There was another piano piece, too: a sonata by Say himself. The program ended with more Say, a vocalise that he calls a “ballade.” More about that in a moment.
Crebassa came out looking like a movie star and sang even better. She has a beautiful, smoky voice—the voice of a classic French mezzo. Her breathing is easy. Her singing is even, poised, and unforced. Her French songs were understated and emotional at the same time. (Emotional because understated?) She was cool as a cucumber and yet strangely hot. And the French language, of course, was a pleasure out of the mouth of this native singer.
Some star pianists don’t make good accompanists. Fazil Say is not one of them.
Some star pianists don’t make good accompanists. Say is not one of them. He is an excellent accompanist, or collaborator, if you like. Say is best known for Mozart, but he proved himself a master colorist, a master Impressionist. He created the right atmosphere in everything he touched. The Gnossiennes were especially interesting. Say played them as though they were just occurring to him. Yet he did not rob Satie of his own pieces.
The last French song on the program was “Au pays où se fait la guerre,” that little masterpiece by Duparc. Like everyone else in or around the music world, I have heard it sung and played many, many times—never more intelligently, powerfully, and movingly than by Crebassa and Say. Have they recorded this and other French songs? They ought to.
A few years ago, Say composed three pieces in response to political unrest in his home country, Turkey. These are his Gezi Park pieces. The first of them is a concerto for two pianos. The second is the aforementioned piano sonata. The third is that vocalise, the ballade. Originally, Say composed it for mezzo-soprano, piano, and string orchestra. He made an arrangement of it for mezzo and piano alone, and that is what we heard, of course, in the Mozarteum.
The sonata is an example of program music—music meant to depict a story and make a point. It is in four movements, which have headings such as “Nights of resistance in the streets of Istanbul.” The fourth movement has a heading, and a nature, that is perhaps unexpected: “Hope is always in our hearts.” All the way through, the music is vivid—often rawly so. Could a person enjoy or appreciate the music without knowing the “backstory”? Could he take it in simply as music? I think so. As for the ballade, the wordless song, it expresses a horrible anguish. And Crebassa was unsparing in it.
For an encore, she sang something surprising—although I should not have been surprised, given the affinity of the French for Gershwin, and for jazz. With her jazz-minded pianist, Crebassa gave us a bluesy, jazzy version of “Summertime.” It must have put a smile on every face, not just the American ones. The evening ended with “Voi che sapete,” Mozart’s aria, the birthright of every mezzo, or at least lyric mezzos such as Marianne Crebassa. Earlier, I mentioned recording. I hope that someone—maybe even the Salzburg Festival itself, officially—was recording this recital.
Perhaps the most sensational performer at the festival was Teodor Currentzis, the Greek-born conductor. He studied in Russia and has spent his career there. He was one of the last students of Ilya Musin, the legendary conducting teacher born in 1904. (He died in 1999.) In 2004, Currentzis founded an orchestra, and one with an unusual name: musicAeterna. (Yes, the name is rendered that way.) According to official literature, the musicAeterna Orchestra is outstanding in “the field of historically informed performance practice.”
Currentzis is a treat to look at. He is tall and thin and goes without a baton. He is sometimes balletic on the podium. As a personality—and as a visual performer, if you will—he reminds me a bit of Stoki (Leopold Stokowski). Currentzis looks like a Hirschfeld drawing.
The most sensational performer at the festival was Teodor Currentzis, the Greek-born conductor.
In his music-making, Currentzis is individualistic and iconoclastic. “Visionary,” many people would say. So is Patricia Kopatchinskaja, the violinist. She was born in Moldova to a family of folk musicians. Eventually, the family immigrated to Vienna, where “PatKo,” as she is sometimes known, was trained. Currentzis and Kopatchinskaja seem a natural match, musically. And they appeared with musicAeterna in the Felsenreitschule at the Salzburg Festival.
There were two works on the program: a concerto and a symphony. The concerto was that for violin by Berg, an imaginative, otherworldly piece. PatKo played it that way. Her conductor was of essentially the same mind. The symphony was the First of Mahler, a.k.a. the Titan. “Historically informed performance practice” is not for everyone, especially in Mahler. There were many things about this account that you or I could not endorse. But it was Currentzis on the podium—and he has strong, clear views. The second movement was imbued with more than the usual charm. The third was beautifully “ethnic.” In the finale, the music bogged down in slow sections, simply not moving—or at least I thought so. And the closing, climactic pages did not provide their maximum thrill. But why Currentzis is a sensation, I can tell.
I think he has some Celibidache in him. “Celi” was individualistic, idiosyncratic, and “visionary.” You did not always like what he did—but you always wanted to hear him, and you could learn from him.
By the way, Currentzis has the musicians of his orchestra stand rather than sit. I mean, those who can stand, do. Years ago, the Emerson String Quartet started to stand. (All except the cellist, whose chair was placed on a podium, so that he could be closer to his now-much-taller partners.) That was radical, I thought—musicaAeterna, more so.
For going on twenty years, I have referred to Plácido Domingo as “the ageless Spaniard.” He is now seventy-six (although some contend that he is even older). The great tenor has sung baritone roles for many years now, and he sang one in Salzburg’s Grosses Festspielhaus: Francesco Foscari, Doge of Venice, in Verdi’s Due Foscari. (The other Foscari is Jacopo, the Doge’s son. That is the tenor role.) The festival staged a concert performance, rather than the opera proper. Domingo did a fair amount of acting anyway. He always does.
Let me issue the usual caveats and complaints: Domingo is not a real baritone, the high notes sound like the middle notes of a tenor, the voice is somewhat reduced in volume, he is “taking away” work from real baritones, etc. But. But. Domingo’s singing was beautiful, strong, and striking. When he was onstage, the opera had true intensity. Domingo’s authority is unquestionable. He is well-nigh sovereign. What he has done—what he is doing now—is almost unbelievable. The day after this Foscari, one of Domingo’s fellow singers said to me, “He has no wobble in his voice. None. Do you realize how rare that is, for an old singer? He has a freshness in the voice—a freshness in the register that he is now using. Do you realize how incredible that is?”
Moreover, Domingo tends to play characters who are aged—who are weary or raging or both at the same time. Why he shouldn’t continue to do this, I don’t know. Those who are tired of seeing him—can simply stay away.
Igor Levit had the honor of giving not one but two recitals at the festival. Those who heard him had an honor as well. Levit is a pianist, usually described as “Russian-German.” (He was born in the Soviet Union, during its last years, and moved with his family to Germany as a boy.) Both of his recitals took place in the Grosser Saal of the Mozarteum. The first was a marathon, presenting all the preludes and fugues of Shostakovich. I wrote about this recital for the website of this magazine. Here and now, I will concentrate on the second.
It began with a work by Schoenberg—a rarity, even a novelty. This was the Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte for string quartet, piano, and speaker, composed in 1942. Schoenberg used Byron’s ode—which is an ironic comment on Napoleon—as a comment on Hitler. Did Levit and Salzburg program this piece as a comment on President Trump, and perhaps other national leaders? I suspect so, but, blessedly, there is no talking from the stage in Salzburg (in stark contrast with America).
Yet there was talking from the stage in this sense: Dörte Lyssewski, a German actress, recited Byron’s ode as Levit and the string quartet played. She did it musically, theatrically, and superbly.
For the rest of the evening, Levit had the stage to himself. He played Beethoven’s Eroica Variations, and you may recall that Beethoven originally dedicated his “Eroica” Symphony to Napoleon. Disgusted with the little-big Corsican, Beethoven struck out the dedication. In any event, the piano variations are marvelous—they are Beethoven—but seldom programmed, for reasons I know not. Levit is a top-notch advocate of them. He was crisp and incisive. Occasionally, I found him too punchy and blunt, but only occasionally. His tempos were fast, but not too fast. He knew just how to calibrate the music. He trilled beautifully. The whole piece was alive, pungent, and thrilling. Levit played with both rigor and joy. And, in my experience, he always plays as if what he is doing were the most important thing in the world.
Levit has recorded some of the Beethoven sonatas. He would do the world a favor if he recorded all thirty-two.
He has recorded some of the Beethoven sonatas. He would do the world a favor if he recorded all thirty-two.
In the second half of the recital, he played one work, and a very long one: the magnum opus of Frederic Rzewski, an American born in 1938. (To my knowledge, that name is pronounced “zhev-ski.”) In 1976, the composer seized upon a new anthem of the Latin American Left: “¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!” (“The People United Will Never Be Defeated!”) He composed thirty-six variations on it. For good measure, he added other anthems of the Left—the general Left—including “Solidarity Song,” that ditty by Brecht and Eisler. (Hanns Eisler had the distinction of composing the national anthem of the German Democratic Republic, i.e., East Germany, i.e., Communist Germany, one of those police states that crush real artists.)
Igor Levit is a champion of Rzewski, and indeed he has recorded the People United variations alongside the Goldberg Variations (Bach) and the Diabelli Variations (Beethoven). In Salzburg, he was brilliant. He was sensitive, bold, and utterly devoted. He took care to unify the variations in this long, long work. Rzewski is lucky to have such a champion, but I must say this: the People United variations—whatever the politics behind them—are an impressive work. Far too long, I believe, but impressive, formidable. Also, compositionally speaking, they are—will Mr. Rzewski excuse me?—rather conservative.
In the middle of Levit’s performance, a man sitting in the first row—shaggy-haired, bearded—shook his fist. In solidarity, I believe. Was “Solidarity Song” being played? I’m not sure. I am sure that Levit is a great pianist. I thought so when he played the Diabelli Variations in New York earlier this year, and his Salzburg recitals did nothing to dissuade me.
The following night, also in the Mozarteum, Sonya Yoncheva appeared in concert with the Academia Montis Regalis, an Italian period band. Yoncheva is a Bulgarian soprano, one in a great tradition (Dimitrova, Stoyanova). She sang a program of Baroque music: arias from operas by Handel, Rameau, and Purcell. She began with “V’adoro, pupille” (from Handel’s Julius Caesar) and ended with Dido’s Lament (from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, of course). Yoncheva is a curvy, juicy woman, and she came out in a clinging, plunging gown, all va-va-voom. Now, why do I mention this? First, because it’s true, and second, because she sang essentially the same way. She is an opera star, and she sang her Baroque music like an opera star—but very, very well. She reminded me of Leontyne Price in this repertoire. She was unapologetic, accurate, and thoroughly musical. She did nothing—nothing—violative of taste. And I would take her singing of this music over most specialists’ any day.
Further, what a contrast she made with the period band! They scratched and tooted their way through the music as Yoncheva delivered her lushness. It was like pouring cream over wheat germ. While she was at it, Yoncheva prowled and pranced around, doing such things as playing the tambourine and flirting with the conductor, an earnest, bald-pated man. She was having a ball, and so was the audience.
I should not tease the band and its leader too much, for they evinced a clear love of music, as did Yoncheva, and they all gave us a wonderfully satisfying concert. (Short, too.) You felt an elation.
Probably the marquee event in the Salzburg Festival of 2017 was an Aida, conducted by Riccardo Muti, the veteran Italian, the veteran Verdian. (Aida is one of Verdi’s, as you know.) The production was in the care of Shirin Neshat, an Iranian-born visual artist who has lived her adult life in the United States. This was not a traditional Aida: it did not have elephants and grandeur. It was clean and spare, chiefly in black and white. And it employed video. I believe the production was trying to make points about political oppression and refugees. Whatever the case, the production was effective, letting Aida be Aida, with twists or not.
In the title role was the starriest soprano in the world today, and probably the starriest singer (along with Domingo). I am speaking of Anna Netrebko. She proved a first-rate Aida. She was technically sound, musically smart, and theatrically convincing. Her dark soprano was well suited to the role. She did almost none of the sharping that can be expected of her (especially when she is singing in languages other than Russian). She sang with discipline, more than her usual amount. For this, I credit Riccardo Muti. The combination of Netrebko’s instincts and Muti’s discipline was a fantastic combination indeed.
The secondary role is the mezzo role, Amneris—but on this night, Amneris was barely secondary. She was sung and acted by Ekaterina Semenchuk, who was as good as Netrebko. She was deft and overpowering, as necessary. Rarely has Amneris been portrayed with such sympathy.
Neither Netrebko nor Semenchuk is Italian, obviously, but both were plenty Italianate. The tenor in the cast was a proper Italian, Francesco Meli. He made a worthy Radamès, often singing beautifully. He was especially praiseworthy—in his groove—at the end of the opera, in the Tomb Scene. At the beginning of the opera, he gave us a good “Celeste Aida”—even a brave one, I would say. His final note was bad, very bad. But at least it wasn’t belted. A belted note is easy to do there, but Meli tried a softer one, as the composer asks, and was noble in the effort.
Good as Netrebko was, good as Semenchuk was, the No. 1 star of the evening—besides Verdi, of course—was Riccardo Muti, and the instrument sitting before him, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. The vpo played with all the skill, brains, and heart it could summon. And that is a considerable amount. Everyone involved in the opera—on the stage or in the pit—performed as though something very important was going on. Muti was never better. Never more alive. In his hands, Aida was not a stereotype, not a cartoon. It was fresh and masterly—indeed, a masterpiece. Aida was both subtle and exciting. Terribly exciting. There was no bombast allowed—only pure operatic genius.
As I left the Grosses Festspielhaus, I thought, “This is one of the best performances of an opera I have ever attended.” I also thought of a story, told to me by a friend, a veteran of the Metropolitan Opera. An old conductor—Viennese, I believe—was working at the Met. And he paid a high compliment to the youngish music director, James Levine. “They talk about the good old days,” he said. “Well, I was there, during the good old days. And let me tell you, Jimmy: these are the good old days.” This Muti Aida was one to remember, and to tell the grandkids about.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 2, on page 56
Copyright © 2020 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com