Between August 13 and 16, Riccardo Muti conducted three unforgettable performances of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Missa solemnis with the Vienna Philharmonic at the Salzburg Festival. These concerts marked significant milestones for the distinguished maestro including his first performances of this monumental work by Beethoven in his career, over half a century of conducting at the revered festival, more than 50 years of conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, and the maestro’s recent 80th birthday. Any of these circumstances would have been the cause of great anticipation and celebration but the combined effect was most auspicious. As Wilhelm Sinkovicz of Die Presse wrote, “From the first bar you felt it … Muti handled the work and presented it as faithfully as perhaps no one else can today.”
These concerts were also the first performance of Missa solemnis by the Vienna Philharmonic in 20 years and the first performance heard in Salzburg for almost 30 years. Muti has been a fixture at the Salzburg Festival, where he has appeared annually since his initial invitation to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic there in 1971 by none other than Herbert von Karajan. After Karajan’s death in 1989, Muti succeeded the German maestro in leading the festival’s popular mid-August concerts, known as the “Ferragosto” appointment, in honor of the Feast of the Assumption, and typically including performances of great romantic choral and orchestral works.
The overarching theme of the Salzburg Festival this summer was “Pax” — peace. Many works throughout the season explored a longing for peace be it from war, sickness or inner turmoil. “The most powerful and at the same time the most mysterious call for peace,” wrote Lotte Thaler of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung was “reserved for the main program: Ludwig van Beethoven’s Missa solemnis.”
Beethoven himself declared the Missa solemnis as the “greatest work I have composed so far” in a letter to his publisher. Composed (1819-23; 1824) during his introspective late period, the Missa solemnis is considered “a supreme expression of personal belief” as scholar Christopher H. Gibbs describes it: an attempt “to reconcile conventional Christian views and Enlightenment rationalism with more personal spiritual influences.” For this reason, Muti, who first studied the score in 1970, has waited for the right opportunity to conduct it. “It is like climbing Everest,” he said in an interview with Valerio Cappelli of Corriere della Sera: “it is the greatest religious sermon in music.” Muti continued, “It is the Sistine Chapel of Music … a work so complex that it makes every interpreter’s wrists tremble.”
By all accounts Muti was up to this interpretive challenge. “The intensive study and decades of reverence for the work resulted in an absolute concert experience this weekend with a high level of pathos and long, standing ovations,” read the Salzburger Nachrichten. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung stated that “for conveying extremes Muti is a master, just as we have seen in his performances of Verdi’s Requiem … monumentality where it is compositionally wanted as well as the deepest introspection.” Muti was particularly praised for his faithful interpretation of Beethoven’s demanding setting of the mass text. For this, Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic were joined by the Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus, prepared by Chorus Master Ernst Raffelsberger, and soloists soprano Rosa Feola, mezzo-soprano Alisa Kolosova, tenor Dmitry Korchak and bass Ildar Abdrazakov. “The opera conductor Muti, as a master of mixing, is there where he is needed, and his precise work on phrasing illuminated details making them clearly audible” (Salzburger Nachrichten).
Also, while in Salzburg, Riccardo Muti received the Great Golden Decoration of Honor for Services to the Republic of Austria. This is the highest honor a civilian can receive from the Austrian government. The award was bestowed on Aug. 15 by Wilfried Haslauer, head of the Salzburg Regional Government, on behalf of President of the Austrian Republic Alexander Van der Bellen, saying Muti “has been an integral part of the Salzburg Festival for five decades. Riccardo Muti has made festival history with his work and conducted his way into countless hearts in and outside of Salzburg.” Festival President Helga Rabl-Stadler added, “His high musicality, his passion, his relentless claim to perfection make him an impressive constant in a cultural landscape threatened by superficial events. ... Muti is a star in the brightest sense of the word.”
Muti, Zell Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, was scheduled to open the Orchestra’s 2020/21 season with Beethoven’s Missa solemnis and to lead the CSO on a tour of European summer festivals, including the Salzburg Festival, during the summer of 2021. Regrettably, both were canceled due to COVID.