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Notes from Salzburg

30 June 2012

6:00 AM

30 June 2012

6:00 AM

Gratefully we cast our bread upon the blue-green waters of the Salzach to give thanks to this festival city. Across the river the famous castle stands fortress over the old town. On the terrace of the Cafe Bazar one hears the tongues of France, Italy and Spain as well as Austria, because this is old Europe. Not ‘European’ as defined by the EU, European as in the Arnoldian sense, handing on from one generation to another the best that has been thought, or said, or done. There is a European way of living, and it is easy to find it here.

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No city of comparable size (150,000 souls) enjoys so elevated an international ranking. That Mozart was born here has something to do with it, even if he longed to get away. Another composer, Richard Rodgers, painted it in a rather different hue, and although The Sound of Music was never a big hit in Austria the tourists come in their thousands. But ever since Richard Strauss and Max Reinhardt put their heads together after the first world war, festivals have nurtured its reputation. No sooner has Easter faded than thoughts turn to Whitsun, after which the mighty summer programme carries everybody through to autumn, when the jazzers arrive.

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Easter used to belong to the Berlin Philharmonic. Next year, when they head to Baden-Baden, the Dresden Staatskapelle will take their place. There is sadness, and among some of the patrons there is a sense of betrayal. Herbert von Karajan, Sir Simon Rattle’s predecessor as music director in Berlin, and a Salzburg native, established the Easter festival in 1967, and his spirit still hangs over the place, though suffocate might be a better verb. In the long run the Dresden residency will suit Salzburg’s wealthy punters fine. Christian Thielemann, the incoming music director, who sees himself as Karajan’s heir, will give them more Brahms (hurrah!) and less Ligeti. Already subscriptions are up for next year.

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The Berliners took their leave with performances of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde and Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony, which reminded festival-goers of what they will miss. Having attended more than 1,500 musical events, I have never been more conscious of an orchestra’s greatness. As a man associated with another of Germany’s great orchestras told me after the Mahler, ‘They won’t hear a performance like that next year.’

All great orchestras, it hardly needs saying, are chock-full of virtuosi. But no musicians listen more closely to one another, or are more aware of their shared inheritance. I have been fortunate enough to befriend many of them, and can testify that they are modest, companionable folk. But when it comes down to hey-lads-hey, they become very serious indeed. They know they are the greatest band in the world, and they played the Bruckner not only for Zubin Mehta, the conductor, but also for every person who has ever worn their colours. ‘This is who we are’, they seemed to be saying. Occasionally, on the great nights, listeners may feel in awe not only of the performance but also of their own experience. This was one of those nights.

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It isn’t all about high art in Salzburg. At my home from home, the Hotel Stadtkrug, carved into the rock of the Kapuzinerberg, strong drink has been known to be taken, and oaths muttered. When Hugo and Eva, the owners of this superb coaching inn, join guests at the bar, and the beer gives way to schnapps, there’s many a jest. One is always at my expense, as the bar iPod is programmed to play a little-remembered hit by the Seventies pop group, Slade, called ‘My Friend Stan’. As it begins ‘My Friend Stan’s got a funny old man’, you may think it should not be remembered at all, but this post-midnight prank has become as much a part of the Salzburg experience as mornings in the Mirabell Gardens, afternoons on the castle battlements, and plates of asparagus at Triangel. Every time Hugo and Eva put it on, amid much horseplay, I recoil in mock-horror, and Hugo delivers his traditional, mock-serious rejoinder: ‘Englishman! Fuck you!’ That’s what friends are for.

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Sir Neville Cardus, the celebrated critic, visited Salzburg each spring. His friend, Michael Kennedy, carried on the tradition. Now Michael has handed on the baton to me. Three Mancunians, linked across a century by a love of music and the summer game. Cardus told some tall tales, but one was absolutely true. Every time his train approached Salzburg he waited by the carriage window, so that he might be the first to catch the splendour of the city as they crossed the Salzach. I give an eyes-left as we pull out on the return journey, to gaze along the fast-flowing river that will one day carry my ashes, though I shan’t be around to confirm it. Yea, a pilgrim to the last bar.

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