Muti triumphs once again with Vienna Philharmonic at the Salzburg Festival

At the Salzburg Festival, Riccardo Muti led the Vienna Philharmonic in three sold-out performances of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 and two selections from Verdi’s Quattro pezzi sacri (the latter with members of the Vienna State Opera Chorus).

Marco Borrelli

In a tradition that has continued across more than 50 years, Riccardo Muti returned to the Salzburg Festival for concerts Aug. 13-15 with the Vienna Philharmonic.  Muti’s annual engagement for what are widely known as the Ferragosto concerts — so-called due to their proximity to the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, a high holy day in the Catholic tradition — often focus on sacred choral repertoire in what’s become one of the highlights of the celebrated festival’s annual program offerings.  

This year, guided by the festival’s over-all theme of “Lux Aeterna” or “Eternal Light,” Muti led the Vienna Philharmonic in three sold-out performances featuring Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony and two selections from Verdi’s Quattro pezzi sacri (Four Sacred Pieces) — Stabat Mater and Te Deum — which were performed with the Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus, prepared by Huw Rhys James, and featuring soprano soloist Serafina Starke.  

In speaking with Austria’s Die Presse about the pairing of the two works, Muti noted that “at first glance, they don’t go together, but they are two spiritual messages. For Bruckner, it is always about “natura e religione” — but not religion in the superficial sense. He absorbed his gratitude to the Creator as a schoolboy in Upper Austria and felt religion in nature. For well over a century, Verdi was thinking about whether he was religious or not. He was certainly not a devout churchgoer; he really hated priests — but not religion. Of course, he had doubts. But even the Pope sometimes has doubts, doesn’t he? Believing means not being able to be sure. This can also be heard in the Te Deum.”
In its review of the opening performance, Die Presse commented on Muti’s vision for the Verdi work, saying “one can be sure that his interpretation is reminiscent of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel freshly after the restoration: the soot of the centuries has been neatly removed, the colors shine, the contours sharp, the effect is monumental.” Of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7, Die Presse also said “Muti animated the Philharmonic to an opulent reading.” 

Soprano Serafina Starke was the soloist in selections from Verdi's Quattro pezzi sacri with Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic.

Marco Borrelli

The artistic collaboration of Riccardo Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic was introduced in 1971 after Muti was invited to conduct at the Salzburg Festival by distinguished conductor Herbert von Karajan. Responding to this ongoing partnership, the Salzburger Nachtrichten noted that “the southern Italian seems to have always been there … now considered his [Karajan’s] legitimate successor when it comes to conjuring up cultivated balance and classical beauty from every score.”

The review went on to praise the performance of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, saying “he [Muti] celebrated, layering the masses of sound, and with the Viennese golden sheen achieving extraordinary things. One could feel overwhelmed and thrilled.”

The Kleine Zeitung described the Bruckner performance “as if bathed in mild evening light; it shines and shimmers.” 

Kurier also noted that “Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic take you to heavenly spheres with Verdi and Bruckner. ... The Vienna State Opera Chorus and the orchestra are excellently balanced; the women’s voices let you feel an Italianità. The voices of the gentlemen captivate in chorale-like passages in the Te Deum. The plea for salvation, the questions, the doubts, the fears and hopes become palpable. A clearer appreciation of Verdi’s sacred legacy of such perfection could not be imagined.”  
Of the Verdi, Der Standard said, “Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic carried the choir on their hands and designed every passage of text as if with a brush.”

Bachtrack said “the orchestral playing was striking, from filigree flute and harp flecks that depict the glory of paradise in the Stabat Mater to the baleful brass in the Te Deum, just before the blink-and-you-miss-it soprano solo, well taken by Serafina Starke. Muti’s control was at its most awesome after the final climax in the Te Deum, gradating the diminuendo to almost nothing, the gauzy Viennese strings like a shroud being laid over Verdi’s score.” 
In addition to their annual collaboration at the Salzburg Festival, Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic continue to enjoy a special conductor orchestra relationship with regular engagements now planned through 2028. Recent highlights of their partnership include the invitation to lead the Vienna Philharmonic’s 150th-anniversary concert, when the orchestra presented Muti with the Golden Ring, a special sign of esteem and affection, awarded only to a few select conductors. In 2021, he conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in the New Year’s Concert for the sixth time. That year, Muti also received the Great Golden Decoration of Honor for Services to the Republic of Austria, the highest possible civilian honor from the Austrian government.

Muti has guest conducted the Vienna Philharmonic every year since 1971 and has also led the ensemble in many recordings and tours. This season, Muti will lead the Vienna Philharmonic in performances of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in May, commemorating the 200th anniversary of the iconic symphony’s premiere in 1824. In a recent conversation with Chicago-based arts journalist Kyle MacMillan, Muti noted he is “very proud” to have been asked by the ensemble to lead these performances, saying, “It is a big honor, because they didn’t ask a German or Austrian conductor. That shows the respect that we have.” 

Riccardo Muti, the Vienna Philharmonic and the Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus stand for a bow.

Marco Borrelli