Von Einem’s 100th Turns Kafkaesque With ‘Der Prozess’

HK Gruber raises the score of Gottfried von Einem’s ‘Der Prozess’ after leading the Salzburg Festival performance.
(Photos by Marco Borrelli)
By Rebecca Schmid

SALZBURG – The composer Gottfried von Einem is little known outside his native Austria. But his legacy remains part of the prestigious Salzburg Festival here, where he fought for its identity as a platform for contemporary music and theater while serving on the board of directors from 1948 to 1951. As part of centenary celebrations for Von Einem this year, the festival on Aug. 14 presented his opera Der Prozess in a concert performance at the Felsenreitschule led by the conductor, composer, and von Einem student HK Gruber.

The performance was given in the Felsenreitschule, the former Rock Riding School.

Von Einem was “a musical continent” unto himself, as Gruber writes in program notes, remaining immune to avant-garde fashions that dominated the modern music world after World War II. Der Prozess freely integrates moments of post-Berg pointillism with playful winds and jazz allusions that recall the Berlin-period music of Kurt Weill. Pulsing rhythms create a sense of relentless tension. As Gruber also points out, it is the orchestra that emerges as the main character, commenting on the action and quickly changing mood to accompany the singers.

The libretto – fashioned by von Einem’s teacher, Boris Blacher, with author and director Heinz von Cramer – adapts the Franz Kafka novel, The Trial, about a bank signatory, Josef K., who is persecuted for reasons neither he nor we ever understand. Society emerges as an indifferent, unknowable bureaucracy, something von Einem understood from his personal life, having experienced the arrest and imprisonment of his mother by the Gestapo on fabricated charges in 1938.

Gruber, through his intimate knowledge of von Einem’s life and work, shaped the performance of both the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra and cast with a subtle irony that made the music all the more convincing. He also retouched dynamics so that the orchestra would not overwhelm the voices and hand-picked soloists who could make every word understandable. In a day and age when attention to text is often considered secondary, it was a breath of fresh air to hear such beautiful diction across the board.

If the singers at times had their noses to the music stands, the coordination with the orchestra was so precise and the musical characterizations so vivid as to redeem the concert format. And the imposing stone walls of the Felsenreitschule proved an aesthetically satisfying backdrop, with or without a staging. Given the tendency of today’s directors to overwhelm the music with their own concepts, the decision to present the score as such is surely not misguided.

The cast takes bows after performing Gottried von Einem’s ‘Der Prozess.’

In his portrayal of Josef K., the young tenor Michael Laurenz gave a performance of tremendous stamina and verve. The listener suffered with him through his interrogation and encounters with a lawyer’s nurse, a factory owner, and other figures who seemed to emerge out of the darkness. The soprano Ilse Eerens brought a pretty, polished tone and dramatic flexibility to four different characters, including the landlady Fräulein Bürstner and the nurse, Leni, who bebops in sardonic irony when cornered in an alley in the final scene.

The bass Tilmann Rönnebeck stood out for his direct communication with the audience and menacing tone not only as Franz, who arrests Josef K. in the first scene, but also as the Law Firm Director and Uncle Albert. In the roles of Willem, the Lawyer, and the Court Usher, Johannes Kammler was less forceful dramatically but sang with impeccably elegant phrasing. The tenor Jörg Schneider, as the artist Tintorelli, impressed with expert word painting and vocal power. Baritone Jochen Schmeckenbecher was earnest as the Priest and reassuring as the Factory Owner, who, like Tintorelli, tries to help Josef K. out of his crisis.

The Vienna Radio Symphony mastered everything from skipping winds to transparent strings without losing a sense of spontaneity. The only regret at the end of the evening, given the density of musical ideas and complexity with which von Einem structured the score, is that there are no further opportunities to hear Der Prozess live at the festival this summer.

Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin, contributing to publications such as the Financial Times and International New York Times. As a doctoral candidate at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, she is writing about the compositional legacy of Kurt Weill.