Sunday worship in Salzburg led by Riccardo Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic
It’s Sunday morning and the bells of the Franziskaner Kirche and the Stiftskirche St Peter call the faithful to prayer. They also call Salzburg Festival pilgrims to the Großes Festspielhaus for the Vienna Philharmonic’s matinee concerts, a holy trinity of venue, orchestra and star conductor. This weekend saw the return of Riccardo Muti, a Salzburg regular, for a suitably reverent programme of Verdi – two of the Four Sacred Pieces – and Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, whose Adagio bends the knee to his hero, Wagner.
Muti’s style is undemonstrative, his beat elegant and fluid. He reserves grand gestures for the loudest fortissimos – the Sanctus early in Verdi’s Te Deum or the percussion-capped peak in Bruckner’s Adagio – raising the occasional fist at a brassy moment. His control was more focused on the quieter end of the dynamic scale, often wishing to reduce the volume.
This was a weekend of late Verdi. Falstaff (1893) opened here on Saturday evening; conductor Ingo Metzmacher was among today’s matinee audience. The Four Sacred Pieces are even later, the opening chords of the Stabat Mater (1896-97) echoing those at the start of Otello’s “Niun mi tema” from a decade earlier. The Concert Association Vienna State Opera Chorus, nearly 100 members, sang beautifully, particularly the sombre a cappella sections, an opera chorus released into church pews.
The orchestral playing was striking, from the filigree flute and harp flecks that depict the glory of paradise in the Stabat Mater to the baleful brass in the Te Deum, just before the blink-and-you-miss-it soprano solo, well taken by Serafina Starke. Muti’s control was at its most awesome after the final climax in the Te Deum, gradating the diminuendo to almost nothing, the gauzy Viennese strings like a shroud being laid over Verdi's score.
Veiled strings then opened Bruckner’s Seventh, a silky shimmer, translucent despite the large size of the section (60 players). It’s a symphony the Vienna Philharmonic knows like the back of its proverbial hand – they played it here just two years ago under Christian Thielemann – and that experience showed in a glowing, unhurried reading. Muti emphasised the sense of nobility and grandeur, moulding big string phrases lovingly. The cello oration halfway into the Allegro moderato first movement was aural velvet, enveloping the listener in a plush embrace. Muti made the transitions feel organic, rather than the stop–start gear changes that can be felt in less experienced hands.
The burnished gold of the Vienna Philharmonic brass was skilfully layered in the long Adagio, the first time Wagner tubas had been deployed in a symphony. There was no sense of rush, Muti preferring to savour the journey to the summit, almost justifying his very slow tempo. A touch of horn unsteadiness aside, the climax was safely scaled.
The Scherzo was light of foot, its Trio section slower, but not heavier, while the highlight of the finale was the noble brass chorale and the slight application of the brakes in the coda, where the first movement’s theme blazes fervently one last time; a joyous fanfare well-received by Salzburg’s Sunday worshippers.