An opera star or two never fails to add luster to a symphonic program, at least on paper. But how are such talents best employed? Should they be showcased as visiting royalty, bearing gifts of showy arias from their own world? Or should they be integrated as humble musicians among equals, serving the oratorio or mass or other dignified vocal work at hand, whatever it may be?
These questions are prompted by new DVDs of two concerts by the Vienna Philharmonic given nearly fifty years apart. In a concert taped on May 31, 1962, Hans Knappertsbusch leads a Vienna Festival program at the Theater an der Wien that concludes with the prelude and Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, which are frequently coupled as a purely orchestral piece. But here is Birgit Nilsson, the reigning Wagnerienne of her age, to sing an excerpt many in the audience must have heard her perform in the context of the opera. Is it necessary? Perhaps not, but it is no ego trip, either. Hands clasped as if in prayer, she crowns the evening with incandescent poise.
Flash forward to July 26, 2010, when Daniel Barenboim led the opening concert of the Salzburg Festival. The final selection this time is Bruckner's grandiloquent yet mildly obscure Te Deum, with an all-star quartet of opera singers to sweeten the deal. Overkill? In the case of Elina Garanča, definitely - the inner lines of the alto part offer no opportunity whatsoever to shine. In the case of René Pape, who anchors the quartet with eloquent dignity, a great deal less so, though one does wish Bruckner had thrown the bass a real crumb somewhere. But Dorothea Röschmann dazzles in the soprano part, sallying into the fray like Joan of Arc. And Klaus Florian Vogt dispatches the tenor's long, exposed paragraphs with lyric timbre and heroic thrust, to thrilling effect.
There is more to these videos, of course. For the historically minded, the simply, decorously shot Knappertsbusch concert rings many bells. Beethoven lived in rooms at the Theater an der Wien for a while. His Piano Concerto No. 4, heard on the first half of this program, received its first public performance in the auditorium; the overture Leonore No. 3, the curtain-raiser this time, had its premiere there. The pianist in the concerto is Wilhelm Backhaus, Knappertsbusch's senior by four years. These men were Olympians, with nothing to prove: their work is settled, majestic, free of histrionic flourishes.
In Salzburg forty-eight years later, Barenboim doubles as soloist in a muscular, visionary reading of the same concerto. Next up are selected movements from the latest orchestral incarnation of Pierre Boulez's Notations, youthful piano pieces that the composer has been transmogrifying for some six decades. The players' demeanor is coolly clinical, but the performance is on fire first to last.
Works by Beethoven and Wagner. Wilhelm Backhaus, piano. Wiener Philharmoniker. Arthaus Musik 107 347, 81 mins., subtitled Salzburg Festival Opening Concert 2010 . Dorothea Röschmann, Elina Garanča; Klaus Florian Vogt, René Pape; Wiener Philharmoniker, Daniel Barenboim. C Major 706904 (Blu-ray) or 706808 (DVD), 85 mins., subtitled.