The Herbst Gold Festival takes place over 10 days in the palace built for the Esterhazy family, who were Princes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and were among its richest landowners. Throughout the latter half of the 18th century they employed Josef Haydn as their director of music and he wrote many of his works for the palace. He was influential in the design of the hall that bears his name: one of very few in Europe still in regular use from that time. The Palace dominates the small town of Eisenstadt, a few miles from the modern Hungarian border, and is at the centre of Austria’s wine growing area.
Director: Julian Rachlin
15, 16 & 17 September
Haydnsaal, Esterhazy Palace
Brahms Violin Concerto
Haydn Symphony No. 49, La Passione
Beethoven Symphony No. 7
Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Julian Rachlin Violin & Conductor
Arias and Songs by de Falla, Rossini and others
Juan Diego Florez Tenor
Cécile Restier Piano
Haydn Piano Concerto No. 11
Bartok Divertimento for String Orchestra
Haydn Symphony No. 104, the London
Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Sir Andras Schiff Piano & Conductor
When Julian Rachlin, as Artistic Director, planned the concerts for Sunday 17 September he can hardly have anticipated how they would resonate with the day’s political context.
In the evening the Ukrainian Youth Symphony Orchestra were playing. I heard them first at the Leipzig Bath Festival in May and it was a deeply moving event. Since then they have roamed Europe: the girls effectively refugees, the boys fulfilling their fighting duties by presenting their talent and their battered country’s musical heritage as Russia continues its brutal attacks.
In the morning Sir Andras Schiff conducted Bartok’s Divertimento, a work with a title that completely belies its seriousness. The second movement is an agonised lament for Hungary’s slide into fascism on the side of the Nazis in 1939. Now in 2022, Sir Andras – no fan of the Orban regime in his original home country – was conducting it in Schloss Esterhazy, only a few kilometres from the Hungarian border that has sliced through the Esterhazy lands for more than a century. A couple of days earlier the European Parliament had concluded that Orban is no longer a democrat but an elected autocrat. Middle Europe has seen that before! For the comfortable Austrian audience expecting to be jollied along by Haydn’s amiable wit, it was a salutary moment. The whole performance can be watched on Medici TV’s website.
They had that moment of Haydn’s wit a little earlier when Sir Andras interpolated the opening of the Surprise Symphony, with its crashing A major chord from the orchestra, into his otherwise genial cadenza of the piano concerto (listed as No. 11 but in reality one of a smaller number that Haydn actually wrote for the piano). As ever, it made the audience jump before they could settle back into Schiff’s eternally elegant and improvisatory playing and, after the interval, marvel at the precision and energetic attack of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in the 104th symphony.
Elegance was also the key to Juan Diego Florez’s recital the previous evening. He is the type of tenor at his best tackling the soaring lines of coloratura in Rossini and the Spanish light opera form, zarzuela. When required to be more dramatic in Puccini or Donizetti his lack of vocal weight, especially in his lower register, can be a hindrance. The nearer he gets to middle C, the less sure his intonation, particularly when he strives for power. So what, most audiences would declare. Once he gets into his comfort zone – miles above most tenors’ – his agility and ringing high notes sweep all before him. This was an old fashioned evening of opera chunks. In the one song cycle in the programme, Manuel de Falla’s Seven Popular Spanish Songs I found Florez too light, missing the colour range usually found when it is sung by a mezzo-soprano with a rich chest voice.
On the Friday night Julian Rachlin, like Schiff, showed his prowess as a conductor as well as a soloist. He is passionate in both cases: in Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony hurling the orchestra along at a pace that was exhilarating. When he does that, though, it is slightly at the expense of the detail, the wonderful interplay between wind and strings that is Beethoven’s trademark. In his own playing, in the Brahms concerto, it was exactly that quality – the care with which he gave every note a character and a reason – which made the performance so special. Rachlin has a technique so secure it must make fellow violinists cry with envy and he knows just how to exploit it with intelligence, finding the centre of the note in pianissimi, never over-doing vibrato, constantly finding a path through the music that leads to a fresh view. Listening to him and Schiff in the hall that Haydn knew so well brings the continuum of music and history alive in a way that makes the squabbles and vanity of rabid political leaders ever more absurd.