The Berlin Philharmonic Returns
to Salzburg for the Easter Festival
Masterful Music Making
Willard White as Wotan in Wagner’s Walküre.
fotocredit © OFS / Ania Gruca
The Easter Festival brought Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra back to Salzburg with their usual operatic performance and series of concerts. The festival was originally founded by Herbert von Karajan in 1967. These well rehearsed performances are always a joy to attend and remain one of the principal highlights of the international musical calendar. Rattle is now half way through Wagner’s Ring cycle. Last year featured Das Rheingold and this year it was Die Walküre.
The production of Die Walküre, directed by Stéphane Braunschweig, was sparse, minimalistic and somewhat dull and unimaginative. What the performance lacked visually, it more than compensated for musically. It was almost impossible to find fault with the singing and orchestral accompaniment. All the principals gave impeccable performances. Jamaican bass-baritone, Willard White, was outstanding both vocally and dramatically in his portrayal of the god Wotan. Except in his relationship with his embittered wife Fricka, Wotan successfully lorded over everyone else and was the true master of the proceedings. However he could also muster tenderness and empathy as evidenced in the unforgettable conclusion of the opera when he lays his daughter Brunnhilde to sleep surrounding her with fire. The Finnish mezzo-soprano, Lilli Paasikivi has a heavenly voice and was a very effective, convincing and domineering Fricka. American heldentenor Robert Gambill as Siegmund and the Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westboek as Sieglinde were beautifully matched. Gambill could muster all the required power for the dramatic fortissimo passages but even in the lyrical sections, he sounded persuasive. There was real chemistry and passion between him and Eva-Maria Westboek. Her passion and love for Siegmund counter balanced her fear and loathing of the cruel Hunding, magnificently sung by Russian bass Mikhail Petrenko. Petrenko really succeeded in bringing out the malice of this character. Danish soprano, Eva Johansson, in the taxing role as Brünnhilde rose to the occasion. Her dramatic soprano towered over the orchestra, even in the fortissimo passages, but she also showed tenderness in her interaction with Sieglinde and in her final confrontation with her father, Wotan. Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, kept a very tight rein on the proceedings and led a compelling and forceful performance. The sweeping strings, lyrical woodwinds and booming brass produced an air of dramatic tension and excitement which is often absent with lesser orchestras. This was a Walküre to remember and cherish.
The three concerts were also most memorable. The elegant German violinist, Anne-Sophie Mutter, gave an authoritative slow introspective, emotionally charged account of Beethoven's violin concerto accompanied by Seiji Ozawa. Ozawa then pulled out all the stops for a dramatic rendering of Shostakovich's 10th Symphony. Perhaps the most memorable concert of all was a performance of Haydn’s sublime Creation with Simon Rattle and the incomparable bass-baritone, Thomas Quasthoff. Joining Quasthoff were Salzburg born soprano Genia Kuhmeier, German-Canadian tenor Michael Schade and the impressive Berlin Radio Chorus. Soloists, choir and orchestra were all worthy partners in this outstanding and most memorable endeavor. The final concert included a masterful performance of Brahms’s ever popular First Symphony also under Rattle. This concert also included a rather tepid performance of Dvorak's cello concerto with Heinrich Schiff as soloist. All in all, this was four days of great and remarkable music making. It has been widely reported that Simon Rattle’s contract with the Berlin Philharmonic, scheduled to expire in 2012 will be extended. No wonder! This is a partnership made in heaven and Berlin is fortunate in having him. Next year will see Siegfried and the year after Götterdämmerung which will complete Wagner’s Ring cycle.