Staatskapelle Dresden/Christian Thielemann - Großes Festspielhaus Salzburg, 29 March - 1 April 2013
The shadow of Herbert von Karajan still hangs over Salzburg. Nowhere more creepily than in this souvenir shop window.
After Simon Rattle's mildly experimental stewardship (by Salzburg standards), the Easter Festival baton passed this year to Christian Thielemann, who seems keener to preserve Karajan's tradition of tradition. 2013 focused on three big guns - Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner.
So why bother to travel all the way to Salzburg for four nights of orchestral bread-and-butter - and at prices nearly a whole zero higher than London's? The answer is quality. The expectation is manicured perfection. The only experimentation allowed is on the opera stage. This year's predictably bizarre, ugly production was Parsifal, duly presented as if to underline that there's no point in novelty for novelty's sake and everyone comes for the music anyway.
Taking the place of the festival-founding Berlin Philharmonic was, for the first time, the Staatskapelle Dresden. The change would have been unthinkable even five years ago - swapping the mighty Berlin Philharmonic for who? - but Christian Thielemann's emergence as Germany's favoured conductor made the Staatskapelle the obvious choice when the Berliners decided to defect to Baden Baden. Even though the Staatskapelle would rank below the Berliners for most people, they still managed to fill nearly 90% of the seats, roughly the same as in previous years. One reason for that must be the dedication of the Easter Festival customers - most of the people I met over the weekend had been dutifully turning up for years and years.
The Staatskapelle don't have that distinctive dark and dirty Berlin bass, but there's a satisfying weight to their sound and a glowing richness to their palette. Thielemann's fondness for broad, spacious tempi lend further authority.
I was there for the festival's second long weekend, a rerun of the first but in a different order. It began with Brahms's Requiem, a vast work rendered intimate and consolatory by Thielemann's subtle detailing and restrained dynamics. With the fabulous Bavarian Radio Choir rendering every syllable clearly and expressive soloists in Christiane Karg and Michael Volle, you couldn't wish for a finer performance.
A couple of contrasting Beethoven piano concertos seemed obligatory in the circumstances. The huge sausagey fingers and ursine bulk of Yefim Bronfman belied the extraordinary sensitivity of his Emperor, empathetically supported by Thielemann's orchestra. The fragile-looking Evgeny Kissin pulled off the opposite trick the next night with the Fourth, his delicate hands thundering up and down the keyboard like an artillery assault. Thielemann made a more engaging job of Brahms' Fourth Symphony than Myung-Whun Chung did of Mahler's First, but it was hard to find fault with either.
The Parsifal production that closed the festival on - appropriately - April Fool's Day was no more edifying than the photos suggest, though less irritating than I'd feared. Orchestrally, it was spellbinding and perfectly executed, every detail glossed and lacquered into place, if at times distancing. Johan Botha, standing there like a wardrobe with a mullet, wasn't on top form (he was too ill to sing a few days later) but the rest of the cast were splendid, particularly Stephen Milling.
If you're thinking of going next year (Mozart, Strauss, Arabella), don't be put off by clueless reports that the Easter Festival is 'exclusive' or only for the rich. It's not. Yes, there were some wealthy-looking people there. That's opera for you. But they weren't the majority. The people I met were academics, lawyers, civil servants and so on - not billionaires - and they were all sincere music lovers. The most noticeable effect of the change in regime is that the flashiest wealth seems to have disappeared - presumably to Baden Baden, along with Simon Rattle.
True, tickets can be expensive if you go for the best seats, but you get excellent sound and a good (if distant) view from even the cheapest. I sat in the last-but-one category, which came to roughly £400 for one opera and three orchestral concerts. Not cheap, but good value, in my opinion.
To secure tickets as early as possible, you need to buy a subscription for all four nights. You can't buy a subscription without a Patrons' membership fee (€300, or €50 for under-35s). If you don't want to shell out for this, individual tickets which don't sell to subscribers are released for general sale, usually around January (on 2 December 2013 for the 2014 festival). The cheapest ones go fast. The operas may sell out; the concerts rarely do. The advice I gave in a previous post about saving money on travel and accommodation at the summer festival applies to Easter as well, with the proviso that prices can be lower and rooms easier to find in spring.