Salzburg Summer Festival 2020

Cultural events all over the world have been cancelled as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, yet, remarkably, one of the biggest and most important festivals in the cultural calendar went ahead, even if in a slimmed-down version. The Salzburg Summer Festival, celebrating its 100th anniversary, took place over thirty days from 1 – 30 August.

Two operas were performed, Richard Strauss’s ‘Elektra’ and a new production of Mozart’s ‘Così fan tutte’, the latter organised at incredibly short notice. There were also a total of fifty-three concerts and recitals, with guest orchestras including the Vienna Philharmonic under Andris Nelsons, Gustavo Dudamel and Christian Thielemann, and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra with its founder Daniel Barenboim. There were piano recitals by Andras Schiff and Daniel Barenboim, the German-Russian pianist Igor Levit performed a cycle of Beethoven piano sonatas and pianist Martha Argerich and violinist Renaud Capuçon played a programme of Beethoven, Prokofiev and Franck.

What was most wonderful of all was that it wasn’t even necessary to leave home to see it, as all this was streamed live on Arte TV and Medici TV.


Richard Strauss’s ‘Elektra’, based on the tragedy by Sophocles, was here staged by Polish director Krzysztof Warlikowski with set designs by Małgorzata Szczęśniak. It tells of the revenge sought by Elektra (superbly sung by the Lithuanian soprano Aušrinė Stundytė) after her father King Agamemnon, on his return from the Trojan War, is murdered by his wife Klytemnestra (Tanja Ariane Baumgartner) and her lover Aegisth (Michael Laurenz).

Aušrinė Stundytė as Elektra

Unusually (uniquely?), the performance began with a prologue delivered by Klytemnestra in which she explained the origin of the curse of the House of Atreus (The curse began with Atreus’s grandfather, Tantalus, king of Lydia, who angered the gods and was banished to the underworld for eternity) and justified the murder, thereby providing a more balanced view of events than is normal. It was only then that the Wiener Philharmoniker, conducted by Franz Welser-Möst, began their immaculate, though not overly-exciting, performance.

Overall, it was an imaginative and enjoyable performance, not least because, against all the odds, it happened.

Cosi fan tutte

A new production of an opera usually takes years to plan, design, cast and rehearse, yet incredibly this was staged in just a few weeks. True it had fairly minimalist designs, inevitable with such limited preparation time, but this did not detract at all from a thoroughly energetic and enjoyable performance.

The one-hundredth anniversary of the Salzburg Festival would have been unimaginable without a Mozart opera, and so after the festival’s original plans were cancelled, festival organisers and German director Christof Loy, who had been scheduled to direct Mussorgsky’s ‘Boris Godunov’, together with Russian tenor Bogdan Volkov and conductor Joana Mallwitz came up with a new project – a production of ‘Cosi fan tutte’.

A cast was quickly put together and, as other productions all over the world had been cancelled, star names were available, including one of my own personal favourites, French mezzo-soprano Marianne Crebassa, who sang Dorabella. The cast was completed by Elsa Dreisig (Fiordiligi), Andrè Schuen (Guglielmo), Bogdan Volkov (Ferrando), Lea Desandre (Despina) and Johannes Martin Kränzle (Don Alfonso). They did not come together for rehearsals until July, with the opera debuting on 2 August. It was sung exquisitely by all.

Joana Mallwitz led a very lively and enjoyable performance by the Vienna Philharmonic, with Nicholas Rimmer providing piano in the recitatives. In my opinion, it was a triumph and hopefully a production to be repeated.

Marianne Crebassa, Lea Desandre, Johannes Martin Kränzle, Andrè Schuen, Bogdan Volkov, Elsa Dreisig

Mahler Symphony 6 (Vienna Philharmonic – Andris Nelsons)

In a way a performance of Gustav Mahler’s epic sixth symphony, with an orchestra of 108, was even more remarkable than being able to stage an opera. It is impossible to socially-distance such a large number of people on a stage and so regular testing of the orchestra members was necessary in order for them to perform together.

This was an extremely spirited performance and Nelsons seemed to be really enjoying himself in getting the best out of the Vienna Philharmonic as they interpreted the massive score. The thunderous ovation at the conclusion was thoroughly deserved.

Andris Nelsons and the Vienna Philharmonic in the Großes Festspielhaus, Salzburg

Beethoven Symphony 9 (Vienna Philharmonic – Riccardo Muti)

In the year of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth we had been promised numerous symphony cycles in celebration. The pandemic has seen nearly all of them cancelled, so it was particularly enjoyable to at least have the ninth at Salzburg.

Vienna Philharmonic, with Asmik Grigorian (soprano), Marianne Crebassa (mezzo-soprano), Riccardo Muti (conductor), Saimir Pirgu (tenor), Gerald Finley (bass).

In Muti’s hands, this was a deliberate, at times slowish performance, but it also had its explosive moments. The finale was particularly splendid. The soloists, Asmik Grigorian (soprano), Marianne Crebassa (mezzo-soprano), Gerald Finley (bass) Saimir Pirgu (tenor) were all impressive, as was the Vienna State Opera Chorus, who looked extremely happy to be singing ‘Ode to Joy’, even though it was from behind a row of perspex screens.

Martha Argerich and Renaud Capuçon

Pianist Martha Argerich and violinist Renaud Capuçon opened their recital at the Haus für Mozart with more Beethoven, this time a very lively and enjoyable interpretation of the ‘Sonata for Violin and Piano in G major’.   

Renaud Capuçon and Martha Argerich

They continued with Prokofiev’s ‘Second Violin Sonata’. Originally written for flute and piano, Prokofiev transformed the work into a violin sonata at the prompting of his close friend, the violinist David Oistrakh.

The opening sonata movement, the violin part evocative of the flute, is followed by a scherzo, a slow movement, and a finale. It is a piece that they have played often and clearly enjoy.

The third item on the programme was César Franck’s ‘Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major’, possibly Franck’s best-known composition, and arguably one of the finest sonatas for violin and piano in the repertoire. Capuçon’s playing was particularly impressive. The audience also thought so and rapturous applause brought the pair back to the stage for two encores, the finale of Beethoven’s ‘Kreutzer Sonata’ and Kreisler’s ‘Liebesleid’.