Artists and audiences alike felt a deep sense of loss when the pandemic put a sudden end to live performances last year. The ability to enjoy digital concerts online was some consolation, but as nothing can quite match the magic of direct contact between performer and audience, the few live concerts that were able to go ahead during this period were particularly meaningful. Set for release by Deutsche Grammophon on 3 December, Live from Salzburg documents two such remarkable events, featuring mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča’s appearances at the Salzburg Festival in the summers of 2020 and 2021 with the Wiener Philharmoniker and Christian Thielemann. These are concerts of historic significance, in part because they defied the crisis facing live performance worldwide, but first and foremost because they provided music-making of such exceptional intensity.
On each occasion, the programme included not only a symphony but a set of orchestral songs, and it is the latter that can be heard here. The album opens with Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder, whose expressive intimacy and poetry speak for themselves. This melancholy, emotional song cycle reflects the composer’s forbidden love for the writer of his chosen texts: Mathilde Wesendonck. Elīna Garanča gives an impassioned performance of Felix Mottl’s orchestral arrangements of these “Five Poems for Female Voice and Piano”.
The Wesendonck-Lieder are followed on the album by Mahler’s Rückert Lieder, five songs composed at different times as independent works rather than as a cycle. They are notable for the fine lyricism of Rückert’s texts, which Mahler interpreted musically as intimate character pieces, creating a set of evocative, atmospheric portraits.
Extraordinary levels of organisation were required to stage both of these Salzburg concerts. In 2020, there was considerable doubt as to whether the festival would be able to take place at all. Ultimately, the organisers made the decision to go ahead, but to present fewer concerts for restricted audiences, and with rigorous Covid security measures in place. Every audience member had to wear a mask and be in possession of a personalised ticket, and the venues implemented socially-distanced seating plans, reflecting the unprecedented reality of that first coronavirus summer. A year later, the pandemic was still very much present and the idea of staging cultural activities as in pre-Covid times remained out of reach. At Salzburg, masks were still mandatory, and visitors had to prove they had been tested or vaccinated, or had recovered from the virus (in line with Austria’s “3G” rule), but full capacity was possible. Understandably, this led to an atmosphere of heightened expectation, as strikingly captured on this album.
The exceptional circumstances also inspired performances of even more brilliance than usual from the artists. Elīna Garanča, for whom song is the “most intimate of musical forms”, interpreted both the Wagner and the Mahler with uncompromising commitment and intensely focused emotion. As if putting the music beneath a microscope, she got to the very heart of each text and captivated all present with with her perfect articulation and vocal elegance. The Wiener Philharmoniker, meanwhile, convinced as a symphony orchestra with chamber music sensibilities, bringing moments of both delicate shimmer and thrilling dynamism to the scores. Christian Thielemann, with whom Garanča has worked on a number of occasions and who succeeded in maintaining an impressive balance between soloist and orchestra, was creative and emphatic on the podium, as much a master of the grand gesture as he is of filigree detail.
Live from Salzburg, therefore, is a moving document not only of live music at a very particular moment in time, but of two superb artistic performances.