It would have been fun to poll the audience at Zankel Hall last night: how many in attendance had first encountered Jeremy Denk as a blogger? There was me, for one. I actually met Mr Denk before I heard him play. He was chatting with some friends a few rows ahead of us at an Orpheus Concert, and I recognized him immediately. Boldly I went up to him and introduced myself as a fellow blogger. He was very pleasant. I told him that I was looking forward to his Orpheus debut — at their next concert, I believe, doing Bach's D-Minor concerto — and went back to my seat. Since then, I've seen him a few times, here and there, but never playing solo. When I got wind of the Zankel recital, I thought about it for three seconds before purchasing tickets. The program was daunting for player and listeners alike: two of the most demanding sonatas in the repertoire, Ives's Concord and Beethoven's Hammerklavier.
These are not works that I would go out of my way to hear. The charms of Charles Ives have generally eluded me, with only one or two exceptions ("Decoration Day" and The Unanswered Question). And there is probably not another one of Beethoven's sonatas that I would not rather listen to. But the prospect of watching Mr Denk tackle them was irresistible. I think it fair to say that this is not a pianist who will be remembered for his austere stage presence. No, this is a pianist who is very — wholly — involved in the music he's playing. He looks like a romantic, but he plays like a neurosurgeon, and the combination makes his performances something of a spectator sport, only one without losers. Now intent upon the keyboard, now rearing his chin toward the heavens, Mr Denk plays with spellbound but fastidious enthusiasm that never flags for an instant.
In short, if anybody could wring pleasure from mightiness, it would be Jeremy Denk. While the audience was applauding, wildly, after the Concord Sonata, my companion remarked that nobody could play it better. This was nonsense, because my friend had never heard the sonata before and was unlikely to hear it again. But he captured what I'm sure was the general impression. The Concord had been conquered, once and for all. And we were there to witness it!
The first movement of Ives's tone poem, "Emerson," is a racket that nevertheless expresses the great Transcendentalist's otherworldliness, which sometimes makes for hard reading. Or, not hard reading, exactly, but hard comprehending. "Emerson" is very difficult to comprehend. If the great Viennese classicists always make it crystal clear whether one is listening to the beginning, the middle, or the end of a piece, Ives, in "Emerson," buries all sense of direction. His music goes nowhere, except, possibly, crazy. "Hawthorne," the second movement, is slightly more articulate, but it is given to pulling comic faces. It's the latter two movements that shimmer. In "The Alcotts," Ives honors the homespun but intelligent piety of Beth Alcott's piano playing, and in "Thoreau" he pulls off what ought to be a totally disqualifying stunt. As the music turns reflective, an unseen flute sounds remotely. The effect is electrifying: it's as though the music room's windows have been thrown open after a storm, and the flute is the pure memory that the pianist can only stammer. I don't think that music has ever "died away" more affectingly.
Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata, No 29 in B-Flat, Op. 106, is his biggest, and it is designed to show off the capabilities of an instrument that, still something of a utility when the composer was born, became by his death the indispensable music-maker. The first movement is imposing and somewhat furious, while the second is fleetly mercurial. The slow movement, more agonized than melodic, seems to fall somewhere between a song and a set of variations. The most famous movement is the last, a colossal fugue that displays, in addition to all of the sound that the piano is capable of, one composer's attempt at another's mastery — the other composer being, of course, Johann Sebastian Bach, in Beethoven's day a figure known only to musicians and a handful of cognoscenti. To my ear, the Hammerklavier lacks the dramatic tension of Beethoven's late quartets, replacing that quality with something of a bullying tone. The sonata is assertive throughout. But it didn't matter what I thought about this music. It wasn't about me. It was about the interest that the pianist took in it, and the equally great joy that he drew from playing it. In one sense — a sense that I am learning to leave behind — the performance was a failure, because it didn't teach me anything about the music, or open up my understanding in any way. But for the forty minutes that it took to play, Jeremy Denk made the sonata his own, his own thing, you might almost say. And while he played it, it was fascinating.
I hope to find out what his encore was. I think it may have been his own improvisation on "The Alcotts." The themes were obviously the same, but they were much more beautifully organized. Although certainly very free, the music did not sound as though it might fly off in just any direction.
Mr Denk's recital was received with ballpark enthusiasm. Pundits who worry about the graying of audiences or, in the alternative, about their dumbing-down, may now sleep in peace. Or perhaps not. It ought to be clear from my report that, although Mr Denk cannot be charged with grandstanding — his playing is much too cogent to be in bad taste — he is no mute servant of the Muse. We all know that there is no such thing as a mute servant of the Muse, but generations of critics (and restrained performers) have tried to persuade audiences that classical music is performed by disciples and acolytes, men and women who never speak except to whisper. Happily, I'd say, Zankel Hall was full of people who knew better, and who were positively eager for Mr Denk to express himself in the performance of two formidable scores. He did, and if I did not come much closer to cherishing either monument on the program, I came away with a better idea of what music is all about. That, I can't convey. To grasp that, you really had to be there. (November 2008) Permalink
¶ Thomas Meglioranza, with Timothy Long, at Weill Recital Hall (February 2008)
We did something a little bit different for us, last Friday — even if it did take place at Carnegie Hall. We attended one of the last of this season's JVC Jazz Festival concerts to be given at that venue. The double bill was split between Dianne Reeves and Al Green. The two performers had a few things in common, chiefly an enthusiastic audience that was flexible enough to move easily from Ms Reeves smiling but cool virtuosity to the Revd Green's ecstatic improvisations. But Ms Reeves truly belonged in Carnegie Hall. She is, in her idiom, as classical a musician as any of the concert violinists and pianists who do most of the showing off there. Al Green's half of the evening was more an event than a concert; so much so, that my strongest thought — a happy one — was that the Bacchic exuberance that he inspired in the audience never degenerated, as it surely would have done forty years ago, into destructive rowdiness. People could have a high old time and behave themselves. It seemed a mighty sign of social progress.
When she was starting out, Dianne Reeves was saddled with the legacy of Sarah Vaughan. This was neither ridiculous or unfair, for both singers were gifted with opulent, wide-ranging, aggressively accurate voices. But short of outright imitation, there could never be another Sarah Vaughan, and I'm glad to see that Ms Reeves has thoroughly outgrown the risk of odious comparison, in no small part by seizing material that does not invite it. Not just singing The Temptations' hit, "Just My Imagination," but setting it in the context of a drolly bittersweet personal story that made the hall as intimate as the Café Carlyle, Ms Reeves was entirely her own artist. Her segue from "This Child Is Born" to "If I Can Help Somebody" (which she sang without accompaniment) was a masterstroke. Generous with moments in the sun for her sidemen, she proved herself their agile equal with her inventive scat. The only standard that she sang was "One For My Baby," the song that closed Good Night, and Good Luck, the George Clooney film in which Ms Reeves actually appeared, but everything about her set was Standard, in the highest and best jazz sense.
As I say, Al Green worked the audience up into a decorous frenzy, but his act gleamed with premeditation. The formula may be all his own, but it is a formula, and it has far more to do with religious service than it does with secular music-making. The singer didn't so much play Carnegie Hall as play against it: constantly interrupting himself to address the audience, and letting snippets of famous songs stand in for complete performances, his set was about music without being altogether musical. The Reverend's songs are uniformly addressed to a lover who might as well be the Almighty as a pretty girl, a possibility that was underlined by much ceiling-ward finger-pointing. The very oddest thing about Al Green is his willingness to turn his brilliant smile on and off with a deadpan air that seems intended to bring minstrel shows to mind. The repertoire on offer was soul, but it was so completely framed by ironic distancing that the performances abounded in everything but soul. In the latter part of the set, my attention fastened on the two young men in tuxedos who jived alongside Revd Green with Chinese gravity, and my thoughts dwelled on the grand capaciousness of Carnegie Hall, which is so compleatly the house of music that it can accommodate a well-oiled tent meeting without the slightest sign of distress. (June 2008) Permalink
By far the most extraordinary evening of this season's three, but not always for purely musical reasons. In one respect, rather in spite of them! I'm speaking of a performance of the Third Brandenburg that reminded me of the old Casals-Music from Marlboro recording.
Showing off his students, Mr Perlman assembled a huge band of twenty-two string players, and distributed the trio parts throughout the sections, so that everyone had at least a moment to shine. (It was enough to make me feel like a parent.) Inevitably, this approach required a tempo that some would find stately, others stodgy. Either way, it was profoundly unfashionable, but that wasn't a bad thing in itself, since the performance was a link to Mr Perlman's youth. In those days, orchestral Bach was, above all things, dignified — to paraphrase a fashion term, it was self-monumental. To play Bach then the way we play Bach now would have brought on either a riot or the men in white coats.
The touching thing was, Mr Perlman's students are not ordinary students by a long shot. They're in college at least, for one thing, and for another they're at top schools, where everyone is keyed in to the latest styles. (And classical music has become wonderfully stylish.) They knew better than the likes of me how "wrong" it was to crowd the stage for a performance of a very well-known chestnut that nowadays would be played by ten musicians, tops, and much, much, much faster. More fleetly. No stately/stodgy! But of course these were the best students, and they played with all the brio that the occasion allowed. Kathleen, who couldn't have cared less about fashion, was thrilled by the oomph of it all. For my part, I was hugely moved. The experience was archetypally Proustian, taking place in a doubled time.
I must note, however, that, if the tempi reminded me of the old Marlboro recording, the playing most certainly did not. Listening to the CD upon returning home, I was even more struck than I expected to be by the far higher standard of today's musicianship.
After the interval, we had the Schumann Piano Quintet, Op. 44, a work that grows odder as it becomes familiar. What is Schumann up to? If you don't listen carefully, the work sounds like a joyful bit of domestic music-making, with all the musicians having a great old time. If you do listen carefully, the violin parts begin to seem like the artifact of another culture — a piece of jazz, perhaps. The piano, meanwhile, appears to be straining for the concert hall, with full orchestral accompaniment. That, at least, is how the piano being played by David Kadouch sounded. Mr Kadouch, a very young virtuoso, played as though he were channeling Robert Schumann himself — or perhaps Clara; who's to say? The lyricism of his playing approached (but never arrived at) the frankly uncollegial. He was always with the other players, but he made the piano sound like a completely different sort of instrument from the strings — an instrument, say, that Schumann truly understood and knew how to write for. It was a grand sendoff for this series of concerts.
For me, the standout work was the opener, Mozart's Quintet in C, K 515. It has never been my favorite of the four mature quintets, but that doesn't mean that I'm not crazy about it, because these works, together with the Divertimento, K 563, constitute for me the very pinnacle of Mozartean possibility, stretching far above the tree-line of reason. I should have enjoyed the performance in any case, but because I'd been so taken with the viola playing of Wei-Yang Andy Lin at the first concert in the series (see below), my attention was a little keener than usual. For the first two movements, there wasn't much in the way of an interesting viola part to hear (rather oddly, and in contradiction of the program, the musicians played the minuet as the second movement, not the third). But patience was rewarded when we reached the andante. Although I "knew" this music very well, I had never noticed its very strong echo of the smoldering duet in the middle of Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante, K 364 — possibly the most intense music that Mozart ever wrote. This called for Mr Lin to play against Mr Perlman, in the best musical sense, and his viola fully answered Mr Perlman's violin measure for measure. It would have been contrary to the festive nature of the occasion for the musicians to emphasize the atmosphere of contest in this movement, but I shall listen carefully for it next time the work comes up. As it, and the other three quintets, cannot do too often, or even often enough. I'll be doubly happy if Mr Lin is once again the first violist. Permalink
New Yorkers who devote their evenings to classical music performances have plenty of venues to attend in Manhattan alone — in Midtown alone — but it must often happen that an avid concertgoer finds himself in Carnegie Hall two nights in a row. Because I spend most of my evenings at home, however, it was anomalous in the extreme to take the same seat in Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on successive evenings. I may have purchased the tickets with the same phone call, but the chamber concerts belonged to different series, and, somewhat ironically, it was the fact that both were in GRR, obviating any concern about conflicts. than enabled me to overlook the dates until they came up.
But the coincidence of venue was only the beginning of what became an intriguing study in contrasts. The programs were superficially alike: Haydn String Quartet — modern work — Schumann Piano Quartet on Friday; and, on Saturday, Mendelssohn Sting Quintet — modern work — Brahms Piano Quintet. It would be difficult to imagine two more nominally similar programs without working Schumann or Brahms into both evenings. The modern works — Elliott Carter's Oboe Quartet (2001) and Bartók's Third String Quartet (1927), respectively, are farther apart in time than all the other offerings (except for the Haydn) are from one another, but they share an adamantly anti-romantic finish, and their placement, before the interval and between highly melodious treats, was anything but coincidental; on the contrary, it manifested a successful formula. This similarity of position, however, served further to mark the evenings apart, as I shall relate momentarily.
For the auditorium and the instrumentation were about the only things that these recitals had in common as musical events. The first of them, played to a fullish but hardly packed house by Musicians from Marlboro, was headed (however notionally) by Juilliard String Quartet veteran Samuel Rhodes. Certainly there can be no better-known violist in the United States. Joined by violinists Susie Park and Harumi Rhodes (the violist's daughter), cellist Priscilla Lee, oboist Rudolph Vrbsky, and pianist Ieva Jokubaviciute, Mr Rhodes presided over an archetypal evening of chamber music. Haydn's early but ground-breaking D Major Quartet, Op 20 No 4, opened the program, and Schumann's full-throated E-Flat Piano Quartet, Op 47, closed it. In between, Mr Rhodes played Mr Carter's Figment IV, a brief work for solo viola that he introduced to the world just this January. Then, as I say, we had the Oboe Quartet, a work that, even without program notes, one could tell was conceived as a series of duos. The 99 year-old composer, who was sitting about five rows in front of me, stood to applause after both compositions, and even mounted the stage after the quartet, whereupon we all stood for him.
The quietly magisterial performances were examples of how such things should be done. During the slow movement of the Haydn, I dreamed about what it must have been like for the princely employee to find himself in the Middle of Nowhere, Hungary, surrounded by melancholy gypsies; in my mind's eye, the baroque opulence of Esterháza Palace dimmed into a stone chamber illuminated by a single candle. (I also smiled to think: who would even know the name Esterházy today if it were not for Papa Haydn.) The Piano Quartet breathed the complicated musical domesticity of the Schumann household; had the work actually received a performance in that home that was as lighthearted as the music? Mr Carter's Oboe Quartet carried my imagination back to a world that I occasionally glimpsed when I was young: the Artistic Fifties — Cleopatras with long dark pony tails and close-fitting black pants — and where better to imagine it than among the crickets of Marlboro, even though I've never heard them?
Friday night, then, was very grand, but also, as chamber concerts are wont to be, very hushed. Splash and glamour were nowhere in evidence. I felt enormously privileged, when it was all over, in inverse proportion to the evening's expertly muffled éclat. I had somehow grown up to be someone who could sit through and enjoy such music — even the Carter! — and, not only that, I was lucky enough to live within walking distance. Walking down the museum's steps on my way home, I felt that some things in life, at least, had been adjusted very agreeably.
Saturday night was completely different. I had been alone on Friday, but now Kathleen was with me, and she captured one aspect of the evening perfectly: it was a high-school recital. Not the performances, of course, but the excitement. Once again, a solitary older man seemed to be in charge, but in this case it was Itzhak Perlman, a violinist who is not famous for the many wonderful chamber recordings that, in fact, he has made over the years. Mr Perlman, personally, exudes modesty, but he moves in a nimbus of celebrity that calls such figures as Nilsson and Pavarotti to mind. More people may know who Pavarotti was, but nevertheless more people appreciate Mr Perlman's musicality. For several years, he and his wife, Toby, have been nurturing young string players with classes and programs, and Grace Rainey Rogers is where the students get to show their stuff. They may play as well as any musicians on earth, but they are still young people, and their parents, as parents will, come to see them play. It would be wrong to suggest that there is any juvenile running-around between the performances, but an echo of running-around is discernible.
The Mendelssohn Quintet in B-Flat, Op 87, and the Brahms Piano Quintet in f, Op 34, turned out not be correlatives of the Haydn and Schumann that I'd heard the night before. They're both far more extroverted pieces; the first in its élan, which seems bathed by the light of many chandeliers, and the second in the creative assertiveness that must have been what offset, for Brahms, a notorious uncertainty about scoring. (Originally written for strings only, the work has come down in an authorized alternative, for two pianos — a more successful adaptation, in my view, than it is given credit for being.) One might imagine these works being rehearsed in a private home, but neither of them could be characterized as domestic. They seemed written, in fact, for the occasion, as diplomas for highly accomplished apprentices.
And here's how the Bartók wasn't like the Carter: I could tell that it was being given a terrific performance by the LK Quartet, a free-standing sprig of Mr Perlman's cultivation. Both works involve plenty of "wrong" notes, or not so much wrong notes as wrong sounds; Mr Carter's oboe splutters, ducklike, and Bartók's violins swoop through impish glissandos. But while I was sure that Bartók would have been pleased with the glissandos, I wondered what Mr Carter, sitting there with us, made of Mr Vrbsky's quacks. There was absolutely nothing even suspect about Mr Vrbsky's quacks, but I couldn't help thinking that Mr Carter must have a very definite idea about how those "wrong" notes ought to sound. Written to be played by the Swiss virtuoso, Heinz Holliger, did they come out of Mr Vrbsky's oboe in the intended shape? I don't mean to make Friday's performance sound more problematic than it was, but it was mildly problematic — quite interestingly so. What is a chamber concert like, after all, without an infusion of the problematic?
Well, it is like the ideal high-school recital. Everything is sleek and polished and nobody makes the smallest mistake. Where an older musician might halt, all but imperceptibly, and probe, a younger player bounds with enthusiasm and the exultation of new mastery. (I was especially struck by the pow-factor of Megan Griffin's way with the viola and Yves Dharamraj's command of the cello, but all of the instrumentalists were excellent.) The novelty of dressing up hasn't begun to wear off: in contrast to Saturday night's tuxes for the men, Mr Rhodes wore a perfectly academic tweed suit. The event is exciting for everybody. I was certainly excited. The only thing that bothered me was feeling guilty about not having been excited the night before. But when the lingering exuberance died away, I remembered that I had been — excited in an entirely different way.
Only — and I say this with deep conviction — in New York. (March 2008) Permalink
Once upon a time, the Philadelphia Orchestra, like the nation's handful of other premier orchestras, was a sea of white and graying male heads. Today it is young and diverse (although Afro-Americans are few and far between) — and indisputably superior. How well I remember the blasé, supercilious expressions of those old-time musicians, as if the playing of anything less demanding than Beethoven's C-sharp minor quartet were a vulgar display. Today's musicians look professional and engaged no matter what is placed before them, and they sound it, too. That the Philadelphians should bend their talents to an impressive execution of Gustav Holst's symphonic suite The Planets is a wonderful sign not only of how extensively the house of music has been swept clean of snobbery but of what that snobbery was all about: the fear of pleasure, the willingness to substitute ounces of "interest" for gallons of beauty and fun. Only a listener whose head was locked in the past could have missed the fun last Friday night when the Philadelphia crowded onto the stage of Carnegie Hall to perform a program of Twentieth-Century orchestral lollapaloozas, under the baton of a conductor who specializes in music of that vintage, Charles Dutoit. It was interesting to see how well the three works went together. While it would not have been unheard of, forty years ago, to find Bartok's The Miraculous Mandarin and Debussy's Nocturnes on the same bill, neither would have appeared alongside The Planets. In those days, The Planets was thought to be, if not quite "pops," then certainly too unbuttoned for white ties and tails. Even the Debussy was suspect. Only The Miraculous Mandarin was really "difficult" enough for serious concertizing. Summer festivals were invented to provide "outlets" for the other two. Things are different now.
Mr Dutoit's masterful reading of these scores — "reading" is not quite the word; "mixing" seems better, given the conductor's acute attentiveness to remarkable sounds — seemed pointed toward the most iconic composition of the period, Le sacre du printemps. It would be foolish and pedantic to try to be specific in this space, but details sprinkled throughout the performances certainly did keep Stravinsky's masterpiece present in the room. What all three works had in common was an impulsive impatience with formal coherence for its own sake — although, as always, the Debussy sounded much more free-form than it really is. All three works are very literally tone poems, with orchestral coloration and sonic impact vying for salience with melody and its attendants (harmony and counterpoint). For that reason — and this would be why they were disregarded in the middle of the last century — they partake of the visceral effectiveness of the best film scores. This is particularly true of The Planets. "Mars" is obviously and terrifically cinematic; it contains the kernel of a film treatment. But "Venus," quite regardless of its nominal subject, is even more like actual movie music. Forget "love," and simply hear the echoes of soundtracks meant to accompany scenes of bucolic simplicity and the like. The titles of well-known movies evanesce on the tip of one's tongue.
Once upon a time, the Philadelphia Orchestra, like any other orchestra of its caliber, would have sawed reluctantly and dispiritedly through works like Nocturnes and The Planets, and made them sound jejune in the process. In those days, it often seemed as though the principal purpose of first-class orchestra concerts was to suck the life from crowd-pleasing "chestnuts" and thus convince audiences of their unworthiness. (Listeners of a certain age are only beginning to suspect, after decades of looseleaf run-throughs of the three great symphonies, the famous piano concerto, and two or three symphonic poems, that Tchaikovsky might reward careful listening.) How happy it is to say goodbye to all that! Whether or not The Miraculous Mandarin, Nocturnes or The Planets is important — and their persistent reminiscences of Sacre suggest that they can't not be — they're complex, intriguing, and beautiful. They were meant to be well-liked, and the Philadelphia Orchestra is to be congratulated for presenting them as such. (March 2008) Permalink.
Last week, the Walter W Naumburg Foundation presented baritone and Naumburg Vocal Award winner Thomas Meglioranza in a recital at Weill Recital Hall, accompanied by the excellent Timothy Long. The program announced a bill of "Decadent" songs, and that is what Tom delivered — assuming that your definition of "decadence" is Marxist in tone, and that you find it retrograde to enjoy an evening of songs drawn from every quarter of the modern repertoire. As of course any true modernist must.
In the nearly three years since Tom won the Naumburg (I'm obliged to report that he came in second), I've heard him sing several of the songs on Tuesday's program several times — most notably, at the Neue Galerie in March 2006 — and I've not only become familiar with some very unusual material but watched Tom deploy it in ever-finer permutations. I should say that he's just about got it down, if I weren't sure that he'll continue to find new pieces for his musical offering, oxymoronic in sound only, of delightful Twentieth-Century art songs. On no earlier evening, for example, could I have anticipated the success of Gabriel Kahane's Craigslist songs, "You Looked Sexy" and "Neurotic and Lonely." Drawing on two bits of "found poetry" from the "Personals" section of the default classified-ads Web site, Mr Kahane smashes any and all barriers standing between intelligent young audiences and the tradition of the Lied. The ghosts of Schumann and Wolf would have to pretend to be shocked, in order to conceal their envy.
With only two or three exceptions, the "decadence" on offer was not even notional. Charles Ingle's dear music-hall staple, "My Old Dutch," could never be made to fit any definition of the rubric, and the same is true of "Emily: The Ballad of the Bombardier," from Marc Blitzstein's Airborne Symphony. There were a few naughty items, such as Fred Coyne's "The Tuner's Oppor-tun'-ity," and two very romantic but bitter, not sweet, numbers by William Bolcom, "The Total Stranger in the Garden" and "At the Last Lousy Moments of Love." But even a weak-tea definition of "decadence" was challenged by Leonard Bernstein's "Greeting," the short but unforgettable welcome to a newborn child.
As "cabaret," however, the evening simply set a standard of smiling sophistication that just might find a home at the Café Carlyle. Having heard Tom's way with two settings of W H Auden by Benjamin Britten, "Tell Me the Truth About Love" and "Calypso," it is both hard to believe and sad to reflect that Bobby Short never sang them from his perch on the Upper East Side — not to mention Marc Blitzstein's "Stay in My Arms." The world was not, in his day, big enough a place; but if Bobby Short is no longer with us, Tom Meglioranza very much is, and not a whit less capable of spinning these songs' severe lyricism.
If I dilate on the topic of Mr Meglioranza's insightful programming, that's only because it's easier to write about than the beauty of his singing, which can be characterized (best, perhaps, in terms of his choices) but not described. Gifted with a naturally lovely voice, Tom has studied it with assiduous intelligence, great good taste, and, finally, a genuinely musical lightheartedness that enable him to make every song his own — and you to be glad that he can.
In a perfect world, I'd be able to wrap up this page with a link to Tom singing Blitzstein's "The New Suit," the song that wound up the evening at Weill. As it is, you'll have to be content to know that the audience laughed a little less abashedly with every iteration of the song's ecstatic hook, "...and a zipper fly!" (March 2008) Permalink
On Friday, 9 November, Musicians From Marlboro began a series of three recitals at the museum with music by Kodály and Beethoven. It proved to be a well put-together program, anchored in the second half by a work that will probably never be as well-known as it ought to be, Beethoven's Quintet in C, Op 29. This work for viola quintet would be a standout in the canon of any great composer who had not given us sixteen dazzling string quartets ranging over the entirety of an unparalleled career. It fits nicely, though, between the exuberant, Haydn-flavored quartets of Op 18 and the gold-standard middle quartets of Op 59. If it is not quite mature Beethoven, it is certainly grown-up Beethoven, music that has replaced what the composer doubtless regarded as the graces of the previous age with his own matinee-idol charm. The scherzo alone will tell you that: it thoroughly displaces all memory of the minuets that occupied its slot in earlier quintets. The Musicians From Marlboro - Colin Jacobsen and Souvin Kim, violinists; Rebecca Albers and Maurycy Banaszek, violas; and Earl Lee, cello - played as though they'd been familiar with the Quintet for as many years as the oldest of them has been alive. (What they'll sound like when they get to that age is anybody's guess.) Beethoven is remarkable here for precisely how unremarkable his Quintet sounds; it is "just music." And Marlboro has always specialized in lighting such music from within, assuredly but without fuss. The proof, I suppose, was in the ovation - which might also have suggested that most of the grey heads in the audience had grown up with the precious 1942 recording by the Budapest String Quartet.
In the first half, we had two serenades. The first, Kodály's Serenade, Op 12, is a ruggedly bucolic work, and the musicians - Mr Jacobsen, Mr Kim, and Mr Banaszek - kept its edges sharp beneath a gleaming tone. Mr Kim was especially adept at giving his performance the necessary air of improvisation; for the Serenade is an idealization of the music that one might have heard just beyond a hedge while taking a walk in deep country. Although never simple, it goes in for bold and earthy strokes, and is shot through with the memory of a wrenching migration from a distant land. The Hungarians only moved a few thousand miles, from just beyond the Urals to the Danubian plain, but music like this suggests an interplanetary junket. No wonder these people were so feared - about a thousand years ago.
If Kodály's three-movement bagatelle is wonderfully, if disturbingly, open to the reverberations of ethnic history, Beethoven's Serenade in D, Op 25 is a study in the complete suppression of ethnic influence. Mozart's minuets, not to mention Beethoven's mature works, are more suffused by the sounds of the Austrian countryside than this work is allowed to be. As a result, it is brilliant but forgettable, more suited to aristocratic display than to musical expressiveness. One is engaged, but with the performers, not with the music. The Marlburians - Mr Kim and Mr Banaczek, with flutist Marina Piccinini - gave the sort of polished performance that we like to call "effortless," meaning that the score must be rather a challenge, but I suspect that the Serenade is not as difficult to play as Beethoven makes it sound. As such, it was the perfect foil to the deadly-earnest, but still lighthearted, Quintet. (November 2007) Permalink
On the last Saturday in October, Itzhak Perlman appeared at the Metropolitan Museum of Art together with members of the Perlman Music Program, a sort of one-man string-centered Marlboro that Mr Perlman and his wife, Toby, have established on the outskirts of New York, at Shelter Island. It was no surprise that Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium was packed, with three rows of listeners on the stage alone. There were three works on the program, with Mr Perlman playing in two, the first and the last.
The first item on the program was Mozart's g-Minor Quintet, K. 516. This is probably, for all its celebrity, still the desert-island Mozart chamber music piece. Like all of Mozart's mature works in the minor mode, the Quintet is both dramatic and impassioned, opera seria made sincere by dispensing altogether with words sung by the human voice. Like the other three mature viola quintets, K 516 sets a new standard for the generous distribution of musical interest throughout the ensemble; the first viola is almost on a par with the first violin. The Quintet is a chestnut that is too difficult to play without bothering to play it well - and without bothering to attend to closely. Mr Perlman led his troupe in an thoroughly elegant reading of the score. I should have preferred a bit more sobbing, perhaps, in the Adagio ma non troppo, but there was nothing unfeeling about the performance. The mot juste, perhaps, would be to say that the musicians were never unaware that the Quintet finishes gaily, tripping along in G.
The last work was Tchaikovsky's string sextet, Souvenir de Florence. Although not nearly so well known as Mozart's quintet, this work is probably also its composer's desert-island contribution to chamber music, only in this case it is the first cello that is showcased against the violin. The sextet is delightful from beginning to end, although anyone looking for Florentine influences, whatever they might be, will be met instead by an increasingly Russian character. If the first two movements are cosmopolitan and "European," the last two are barely disguised Russian dances. The Souvenir's appeal will be immediate to anyone who has not made up his mind to dislike Tchaikovsky - happily much less likely today than it was when I was young. Mr Perlman once again directed a consummately musical performance that tended to sound more effortless than it could possibly have been.
All the players were superb, but two must be singled out, violist Wei-Yang Andy Lin and cellist Saesunn Thorensteindottir. In the Tchaikovsky, Ms Thorensteindottir gave a performance far beyond her years, playing superbly but also with the air of an established diva; I had to admire what I can only call her "push," since she certainly earned it. Equally magnificent if far more modest, and certainly more surprising, was Mr Lin's viola playing in the Mozart. I have never heard the like of it. All of the viola's inherent uncertainty, so often reminiscent of a boy's breaking voice, was swept away by a firm, adult tone. If he keeps playing like this, Mr Lin is going to be showered with works written just for him, as Harold in Italy was written just for Paganini by Berlioz. Paganini declined to play what is essentially an obbligato part (certainly by the standards of his own concertos), but I hope that Mr Lin will play it often, and every now and then within walking distance of my house.
Between the Mozart and the interval, Patti Monson led twelve members of the Program in a performance of Steve Reich's Triple Quartet. In the Reichian manner, the Quartet begins in media res and doesn't let up until the last note, three movements later. I had not heard this agreeably assertive music before, but it made a winning first impression. In their solo-like duet, violinists Sean Lee and Kristin Lee soared over the work's insistent dynamism. I'd like to hear the Triple Quartet again, although I doubt that it would be played any better. (November 2007) Permalink
Last night, at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, on East 88th Street, organist Anthony Newman gave an almost ideal recital, one that exploited to the full the church's magnificent Rieger organ, an instrument that Mr Newman himself inaugurated twenty years ago.
The first half of the program began an ended with works by the organist, the first a Prelude and Fugue on the Te Deum, and the second a Toccata and Fugue on B-A-C-H. Mr Newman's idiom, while thoroughly contemporary, is deeply informed by baroque clarity and dynamics, and both works were invitingly lucid. For those of you who might wonder what the title of the second piece might mean, it's necessary only to know that, in German musical parlance, "B" signifies our B-Flat, while "H" signifies B itself. The motif, then, which has intrigued composers since the early Nineteenth Century, is a pair of half-tone intervals separated by a whole tone: B-Flat-A; C-B. It's motif that will never be mistaken for a tune, however, and its resistance to resolution is what makes it interesting to work with. Mr Newman's fugue on the theme was as intricately exciting as any fugue that I've ever heard, and I'd like to hear it again.
We were offered two of Bach's Preludes and Fugues that are famous enough to have nicknames: BWV 548 in e, known as the Wedge, because its theme, hardly more tuneful than B-A-C-H, is a series of widening intervals; and BWV 552 in E-Flat, which has come down to us - who knows why - as the St Anne. Mr Newman's way with both works was markedly familiar and almost - almost - improvisational, which is of course what baroque listeners expected to hear. (It was complained of Bach's compositions that all of the notes were written down, leaving nothing for the performer to improvise.) After the Wedge, we had three bird pieces from the French baroque, Couperin's "Rossingol en amour," Daquin's "Le Coucou," and, in between them, Rameau's immensely famous "La Poule." Great treats.
After the second half of the program opened with the St Anne, Mr Newman played a few Mozart pieces, two of them late - one written for something that Mr Newman rather unspecifically called "a contraption" - and one of them early-middle: the Epistle Sonata in C, K 276. The Epistle Sonatas, so called because they accompanied some sort of Salzburg-specific liturgical rigmarole between the readings of the Epistle and the Gospel, are very short pieces for strings, with organ obbligato. These are perhaps the most profligate works in Mozart's catalogue. Short as they are - several minutes at the most - they're stuffed - crammed! - with tunes of every type, and it cannot be said that the melodies in K 276 form an organic whole. But what a ride! And how exciting it was to hear Mr Newman's transcription for organ alone! His arrangement did full justice to the sonata's bluster and braggadocio. I rather wondered why Mozart hadn't composed the work this way himself. Doubtless he didn't think much of the archiepiscopal organist.
The recital ended with two pieces by Louis Vierne, longtime organist at Notre-Dame de Paris. The Allegro and Choral from Vierne's Symphony No 11 was unknown to me, but immediately appealing. Composed during the heyday of the French organ tradition, the excerpts called for every kind of sound that the organ could produce, but I never saw Mr Newman's hand abandon the keyboard for the stops, not once. He played as if by magic. As for the final piece, the Carillon de Westminster, I hardly watched at all, but let my ears revel in Mr Newman's once-again improvisational approach to a great chestnut, which may be said to ring changes upon ringing changes. ("Westminster," of course, alludes to Big Ben's chimes.)
I think I can say that the new season began very auspiciously. (October 2007) Permalink.
¶ Cosě fan tutte at New York City Opera (November 2006
¶ Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra at Zankel Hall/Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio at the 92nd Street Y (December 2006)
¶ Giuliano Carmignola and the Venice Baroque Orchestra at Zankel Hall (February 2007)
¶ Orpheus performs Bach cantatas at the Temple of Dendur (March 2007)
For the penultimate concert of the season, we heard Jordi Savall and friends play music from the Age of Louis XIV. It was time to hear this musician, of whom New York makes so much every year. Is it his bearing? He is grave but not austere. He looks something like the knights carved on the sepulchres up at The Cloisters (which come from his part of Spain, I believe); in any case, he has a distinctly medieval look. When he talks, his voice is somewhat higher than you might expect, and quite sweet, in a manly way. He also has the air of being married to music. It was clear that the audience was full of fans. Most musicians have admirers, but Mr Savall has fans.
I am not sure that the program was really suited to his way of playing. Mr Savall plays the viola da gamba with an almost rustic brio that, while not inexact, is not in concord with the punctilio of French music written for the Sun King. No phrase can be allowed to end without a flourish, as of a handkerchief. Although it is capable of occasional jolliness, and of allowing bucolic impulses to be cleaned and ornamented, it is music that takes itself very seriously - too seriously to get lost within itself, as all good music does. Every bar is willed. It may well be that the program was not really suited to my way of listening.
This somewhat grandiose aesthetic worked best when harpsichordist Pierre Hantaď took the stage alone to play Couperin's Pičces de clavecin (a prelude in e, "La petite Pince-sans-rire," and "La Forqueray" - the last an homage/caricature of Marin Marais's rival gambist. It was a pleasure to hear Mr Hantaď play, because his instrument sent out beautifully distinguishable notes, not the clumps of "harpsichord sound" that amount to so much untuned percussion.
The concert began with Marais's Pičces de Viole ("Prelude," "Muzettes," "La Sautillante"). Mr Savall and Mr Hantaď were joined by lutenist Xavier Diaz-Latorre, who played the theorbo. It was a great pleasure to watch Mr Diaz-Latorre handle his long instrument, from which he coaxed delicate but resonant sounds. After the Marais, he came on to play a Prelude and a Passacaille by Robert de Visée. This was followed by Marais's nine-movement Suite d'un Gout Etranger. It was strange indeed, in that the movements were in a jumble of different keys. I had never heard such a thing, and never even thought how much sticking to the same key contributes to the coherence of an instrumental suite.
After the interval, which was fairly long, Mr Savall played three pieces by contemporary German composers, including one of Bach's Allemandes. This was lovely to hear, and startlingly superior as well. After the Couperin, which followed, all the musicians joined for a third time to play two pieces by Marais, the latter a set of Couplets des Folies d'Espagne. The Folía, an internationally-known hit tune in the Seventeenth Century, is simplicity itself, and therefore lends itself to elaborate and dazzling variations, and the Marais was unstinting. It brought the audience to its feet at once, and an accolade that demanded at least one encore. (May 2007) Permalink
The third and final MMArtists concert, on 27 April, ended with a beautiful performance of Brahms's Quintet in F, Op. 88, a work that Artistic Coordinator and cellist Edward Arron described as "bucolic" even while pointing out that it pushes conventional harmony toward the borders of atonality. If so, it does so in stealth; either that, or Brahms's version of atonality is as tonic as the rest of his music. Colin Jacobsen and Laura Frautschi were the violinists; the violas were played by Max Mandel and Nicholas Cords. They all played like gods. Mr Arron himself was applauded for his leadership of the Museum's resident chamber musicians. Interestingly, the Brahms was the only piece of pure chamber music on the bill.
The program begin with Schubert's piano concerto manqué, the Adagio and Rondo Concertante in F, D 487. This is not really a chamber work at all. The piano part, played with virtuosic dash by Jeremy Denk, is brilliant bravura, while the string trio merely accompanies. The work, composed when the composer was still in his teens, sounds something like a Mozart concerto finale that doesn't want to end. Its exuberance cannot conceal its truncated ambitions: it ought to be a concerto, with three proper movements and an orchestra.
Arnold Schoenberg's String Quartet with Soprano Solo in f-sharp, Op. 10, begins as a chamber quartet but turns into a theatre piece when the singer, in this case mezzo-soprano Mary Nessinger, gets up to sing the settings of two poems by Stefan George, "Litanei" and "Entrückung." The tonal romanticism of the opening movement gradually yields to atonal expressionism. Although I listened with interest, I was often reminded of the hot but hopeless tedium that modern chamber music induced in me when I was a teenager. Ms Nessinger's singing ranged, appropriately, from the extremely naive to the operatic, and it brought to mind Evelyn Lear's long-ago recording. Expressionism always sounds bad for the voice.
After the interval, we had more Schoenberg, but of an entirely different character. Schoenberg wrote the Brettl-Lieder for performance in cabaret. Belle-Époque cabaret retains its transgressive impulse even today. Ms Nessinger's four selections, "Gigerlette," "Der genügsame Liebhaber," "Mahnung," and "Jeden das Seine," are all at least mildly salacious, and she was something of a vamp singing them. At the end, she seemed to be reaching for Mr Denk's hand. Mr Denk, for his part, seemed lost in the warm complexity of Schoenberg's accompaniments.
Then, at last, the Brahms. The unusual feature of the First Quintet is that Brahms incorporates the wisp of a scherzo in an extended, sighing slow movement. The flourishing finale is in contrast very brief. The MMArtists string players brought everything that the work required: warmth, attentiveness to inner voices, and power. Mr Mandel brought burnished beauty to the opening Allegro non troppo, ma con brio's second subject, and this was nicely picked up by the two violinists when the tune passed to them. Mr Arron, presiding from the center, nudged his part a little more to the fore than is usual with cellists, and we are all the richer for it. (May 2007) Permalink
Ordinarily, I hear Orpheus play at Carnegie Hall, but I jumped at the chance to hear a performance of Bach's Cantata BWV 42, Am Abend aber desselbigen Sabbats at the Metropolitan Museum. The heart of the cantata is an extraordinary alto aria, "Wo zwei und drei versammelt sind," and I'd never heard it sung live before. So I tootled over to the Temple of Dendur on Friday evening. Also on the bill was Ein Herz, das seinem Jesum lebend weiss, BWV 134.
I expected the sound to be murky and shrill. The Temple of Dendur stands in a vast space of stone, water, and glass, materials rarely found in concert halls. (In terms of floor space for the accommodation of performers and the public, moreover, it's rather cramped.) Where I sat, however, the music sounded warm and creamy - and clear. In both cantatas, the string band is colored by a pair of oboes and a bassoon, and these instruments sounded peculiarly vibrant.
Any resemblance between the two cantatas is limited to scoring, however. Ein Herz is the resetting of a secular cantata written to celebrate the New Year at Cöthen, in 1719, and it shares the exuberance of the Brandenburg Concertos. The recitatives, throughout, strike antiphonal effects, as the alto replies to the tenor. The tenor has a brilliant aria all to himself, "Auf Gläubige," an equally brilliant duet with the alto, "Wir danken und preisen dein brünstiges Lieben," and a starring role, again with the alto, in the final chorus. Benjamin Sosland dispatched these glories with verve, clarity, and a lovely voice. There were a few "aufs" that were just beyond his upper limits, but, given the overall magnificence of his singing, the momentary awkwardness was quite forgivable. Alto Solange Merdinian showed that she shares Mr Sosland's gifts. I'd like to have a recording.
According to the program, the evening was to begin with BWV 134, but right at the start, violinist and manager Ronnie Bausch announced a well-considered switch. As a result, the concert began and ended on a bright note. Am Abend is one of the rare cantatas that begin with a Sinfonia. This one calls for bravura woodwind playing, and Matthew Dine and Robert Ingliss provided it. The tone is bright, but rich rather than festive, as the oboes weave an intricate texture of relays and repetitions. The first number recites the text of the Gospel of John, 20:19-23; Mr Sosland showed his promise with understated but authoritative delivery. Then Hai-Ting Chinn, whom I've heard at several New York Collegium concerts, but never as a soloist, took the floor to sing "Wo zwei." Her slightly plangent voice was perfectly suited to the aria, a gravely beautiful meditation on the Gospel text that balances sustained notes with flourishing melismas.
The ensuing duet, "Verzage nicht," accompanied only by the continuo, was nicely sung by soprano Ena Freeman and Mr Sosdale, after which bass-baritone Arthur Burrows sang "Jesus ist ein Schild der Seinen," a victory aria declaring Jesus the Shield of his people. The cantata closed with a solemn chorale. Permalink
The second of MMArtists' three evenings ending in Brahms was very agreeable for the most part, and then, at the end, it got to be stupendous. Brahms's Quintet in G, Op 111 was briefly intended by the composer to serve as his swan song, but it is the very opposite of elegiac. The opening bars contain some of the most soaring music I know - I feel that I'm gliding over Alpine peaks with not a care in the world. The effect is all the more intense for being produced by five perfectly attuned musicians, etching clean, bold lines with a congruence that no symphony orchestra can achieve. The MMArtists appear to be in their thirties, but they play with the authority and assurance of musicians twice their age.
In addition to cellist and artistic coordinator Edward Arron, the group was made up by violist Nicholas Cords and violinists Jennifer Frautschi, Colin Jacobsen, and Yosuke Kawasaki. Mr Jacobsen played the viola in the Brahms; Ms Frautschi was the first violin. Opening the program, she played second fiddle to Mr Kawasaki in Schubert's Five German Dances and Seven Trios with Coda for String Quartet, D 90. Even in these very early dances, the melancholy playfulness that marks Schubert's sunnier music makes itself felt.
Straddling the interval were works by Hungarian composers, Zoltán Kodály and György Kurtág. Kodály's Duo for Violin and Cello, Op. 7, we were told, was inspired by back-country music-making, which sophisticated composers all over Europe had taken to researching, prescient that traditional cultures were environmentally challenged. I can't say, however, that the Duo sounded very rustic to me. Mr Jacobsen and Mr Arron could not have been more suave. Indeed, if I squinted, Mr Jacobsen became a dazzling Belle Époque violinist. The Duo sounded defiantly modern to me, but there were moments that reminded me of Bartok, and I began to wonder if "defiantly Hungarian" might not put it better.
After the break, we had Mr Kurtág's Homage to Mihaly András: 12 Microludes for String Quartet, Op 13. I suspect that this music is much more fun to play than it is to listen to. The difficult score obviously requires fierce coordination. The extremely brief episodes, tuneless but impressionistic, glanced over the quartet's sonic capabilities and was predictably interested in extremes.
Schubert seemed to smile over the Brahms, at least during the trio of third movement, Un poco allegretto, sad, syncopated waltz into which Brahms injects a highly Schubertian trio (or contrasting central part). The other inner movement, the adagio, was given a lyric but articulate exposition. The outer movements are Brahms at his most genial, and Mr Arron and his colleagues were astute in letting the music speak for itself; there wasn't a whiff of "interpretation."
I ought to note that these concerts have been broadcast "live" on WQXR. Host Jeff Spurgeon was onstage with a handmike, addressing not us but the radio audience. Just before the break ended, he did tell us that we were a great audience. We were certainly enthusiastic. Tune in one way or another for a program of Schubert, Schoenberg, and Brahms on 27 April at 8 PM. (March 2008) Permalink
Reading over Robert Mealy's program notes for last Thursday's concert at Zankel Hall, given by the Venice Baroque Orchestra under the direction of Andrea Marcon, I find that, as feared, they do nothing to summon echoes of works that dazzled briefly between going in one ear and out the other. There have been periods in my life as a listener when nothing could have induced me to attend a largely all-Vivaldi concert. In one sense, Vivaldi was my Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Dylan, all wrapped up in one. The rediscovery of his music burst upon the scene when I was in the middle of my teens, so that it was the music of my youth. But it became music that I outgrew, especially as it became ubiquitous wallpaper. Then, in the Nineties, Italian musicians (in particular) began to play rough with Vivaldi, giving his music a grainy, improvisatory quality that freshened it up no end. Violinist Giuliano Carmignola, who played on Thursday night, is one of several violinists to rekindle the fire that Vivaldi and other composers must have breathed in the early Eighteenth Century, when the backbone of the modern orchestra (violins, violas and cellos) was beginning to flex.
Unfortunately, I had booked seats so late that I was stuck on the side of the mezzanine, in a seat from which only half of the stage was easily visible, and wrong side of the stage - not Mr Carmignola's - at that. I find that when I cannot see musicians I might as well be listening to records at home. I have learned my lesson.
The program began with four orchestral works, three concerti and a sinfonia. These had their various fleeting pleasures, and they did not wear out the ear. Then Mr Carmignola came out to play Tartini's Concerto in A, D 96. It was good to hear this work, if only because it pointed up Vivaldi's adventurousness, his persistent impulse to run wild. Tartini's virtuoso writing calls attention to itself; Vivaldi's seems to emanate from Pandemonium.
After the interval, we had three of Vivaldi's violin concertos, in C, RV 190; in e, RV 278; and in G, RV 331. None was familiar to me. All were substantial, worked-out pieces, and it took about forty-five minutes to get through them. Mr Carmignola, who can't seem to help stamping his foot, played with great style and gusto.
The Venice Baroque Orchestra consisted of seven violinists, two violists, a cellist, a bassist, and lutenist Ivano Zanenghi, whose playing seasoned the music with what I fancied to be the very air of Venice. Mr Marcon conducted from the harpsichord. Everyone but Mr Zanenghi and cellist Francesco Galligioni stood throughout. The wildly ecstatic audience coaxed three encores out of Mr Margon and Mr Carmignola, and it moaned with delight when the second turned out to be the finale of Winter. Permalink
The miracle of Angela Hewitt's piano playing is that it is utterly authoritative because it is completely subservient. Along with flawless execution, Ms Hewitt conveys the impression that she has gone over the music with the composer in painstaking detail. Other pianists' performances are interpretations; when Ms Hewitt sits down to play, she really does channel her sources.
The miracle is yours to be had for the price of any of her recordings for Hyperion. To see her in recital is to add a third dimension: the romantic pianist. Recently in this space I praised Jeremy Denk for his jazz-like offhanded virtuosity. He plays as if playing well were the unintended side effect of his having a good time. Angela Hewitt is, in contrast, the hottest of performers. Not only has she gone over the music with the composer, but the composer is whispering suggestions in her ear as she plays. Rapt, curious, "inspired," bewildered, laughing - these are just some of the expressions that emanate from Ms Hewitt's face as she plays. I suspect that not everybody likes the naked emotionalism of her performing style. It is certainly at odds with the adamantine exactitude of her playing.
When Ms Hewitt played at the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium at the MMA last week, there was a fourth dimension: a Fazioli piano. The Wikipedia entry for Fazioli has been flagged as "written like an advertisement," which it certainly is, but so far as my ears are concerned, all of the statements made are true. It's unmusical to say so, but I've never heard so much noise from a piano. Of course it wasn't noise at all, quite the opposite. It was simply fantastic.
We had three works: Rameau's 1729 Suite in a, celebrated for "Les Trois Mains," and for the gangbuster Gavotte et doubles at the end; Beethoven's third piano sonata, Op 2 Nş 3 in C; and, after the interval, Schumann's Piano Sonata Nş 1 in f-Sharp, Op. 11. Rameau's bravura was right down Ms Hewitt's alley; she glittered and glistened and stupefied. The Beethoven was more interesting in that Ms Hewitt sedulously demonstrated the extent to which, even at this early date, Beethoven's musical persona was already formed. As for the Schumann, it made me wish that Ms Hewitt were playing Chopin. The finale was exhausting, and at the risk of impropriety I'm going to confess that it reminded me of a man trying to settle on the exactly right fantasy.
As an encore, Ms Hewitt played Max Reger's arrangement of Richard Strauss's lovely song, "Morgen." She left us with the question, first raised for me two years ago, of why she's playing in small houses. Permalink
MMArtists (Metropolitan Museum Artists in Concert) is a pickup team of chamber-music specialists who grace the Upper East Side with topnotch performances and sophisticated programs. Affable gent and crack cellist Edward Arron serves as the Artistic Coordinator. This year, the ensemble is focusing on three of the four quintets of Johannes Brahms.
February 2007: The first of the quintet evenings ended with a rousing performance of Brahms's Piano Quintet in f, Op. 34. This work gave Brahms a good deal of trouble, and he left it in two formats. I happen to prefer the Sonata for Two Pianos, Op. 34b, not least because of a fantastic you-are-there recording by Martha Argerich and Lilya Zilberstein. But the preference is very slight. The music tends to be wild, in the romantic sense; heroic yearning and frustration gush from every bar. Nowhere does Brahms seem quite as touched by the demonic as he is in the Scherzo, with its sulfurous rumblings and brimstone goosesteps. Even the sumptuous Adagio, un poco Allegro is haunted by worried repetitions. And then there's the big fake ending, where what sounds like the resounding final chord is stretched like rubber into a reconsideration of everything that must madden indifferent audience members with their eyes on their watches. Violinists Yosuke Kawasaki and Colin Jacobson. violist Nicholas Cords, and pianist Andrew Armstrong gathered round Mr Arron and filled the auditorium with benchmark Brahms.
In the first half of the program, Mr Jacobson took the first violin parts, and cellist Raman Ramakrishnan played two works for bottom-heavy string quintet, Boccherini's Quintet in E, G 288; and excerpts from Giovanni Sollima's Viaggio in Italia. The Boccherini is a sparkling example of music before Mozart: overtly inventive, charmingly hooked, and totally undemanding. The Sollima, which in our ignorance we rather dreaded, turned out to be utterly ravishing. Minimalist in structure, the music makes a lushly lyrical impression. Of the five excerpts played on Friday (and the work is meant to be excerpted), the most beautiful was "Zobeide," named after an Italo Calvino story. Mr Jacobson was called upon to punctuate the music with three (four?) dreamily demented glissandi, from the top of his instrument's register to the bottom. I am sadder than I can say to report that the one recording of Viaggio in Italia, which dates from 2000, is currently unavailable. This is music to get to know.
After the intermission, and before the Brahms, the string quintet played Purcell's Fantasia Upon One Note. Mr Arron played the same note - a C - for several minutes, while the other musicians wound around him. As Mr Jacobson quipped to presenter Jeff Spurgeon (the concert was broadcast live on WQXR), playing one note for an extended period is not as easy at it sounds. (February 2007) Permalink
Two weeks ago, during a busy week, I had back to back chamber concerts, first at Zankel Hall and then at the 92nd Street Y. They were very different evenings, but almost equally enjoyable.
On the Tuesday, I heard Ton Koopman lead the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra in two works by JS Bach, the Musical Offering and the Coffee Cantata. Something, in short, for everybody. The cantata is a sort of chamber opera in which a grumpy old papa tries to get his fetching daughter to abandon the (then burgeoning) coffee craze. After numerous threats, she at last concedes - but it's a sham concession, since her new husband is going to have to allow her to drink all the coffee she wants. As such, it's a domesticated version of the very popular buffa plot exemplified by La serva padrona, and about the only instance I can think of of Bach's following fashion. Klaus Mertens sang the part of the father in a heroic basso, while Bettini Pahn as the daughter showed a lovely soubrette voice. Tenor Otto Bouwknegt, as the fiancé, sang with a strong but pleasant voice.
As for the Musical Offering, the Playbills might have been marked to show that the band was going to play the work, quite sensibly, in three sets. As I thought everyone knew, the Musical Offering is a potpourri of contrapuntal works that thoroughly explores a bizarre, even confrontational theme that Frederick the Great dashed off as a challenge to the father of his court musician, Karl Philipp Emanuel Bach. The bulk of the work is a number of canons and such written for a shifting roster of instruments. Most of the pieces are brief, but because their contrapuntal meanderings are undisturbed by the harmonic shifts that give modern ears the impression, not so much of movement as of something happening, they can seem quite dense, and the overall effect in performance is one of too much rich dessert - at best. The beautiful trio sonata that follows illustrates Bach's assimilation of the new harmonism that Vivaldi pioneered, and if it were not for the pungent theme, the four-movement work-within-a-work would have nothing to do with the rest of the Musical Offering. Finally, there is an extended ricercar for six voices.
I was embarrassed by the crowd at Zankel Hall, because it took the musicians' departure from the stage at the end of the first part of The Musical Offering for the complete performance, and many people got up to intermit. Even more people got up after the trio sonata, so much so that the musicians had to stand on stage for several minutes before everyone had scuttled back into his seat. All this fuss diminished the impact of the work. The trio sonata, played by violinist Catherine Manson, flutist Wilbert Hazelzet, and cellist Jonathan Manson, with Mr Koopman at the harpsichord, was easily the most successful part of the first half of the concert, because this is music that still speaks to us clearly. I can say that all of the Musical Offering was very well played, if somewhat austerely in spots. But the audience made me wonder if we were in Peoria and not Zankel Hall. Program markings would have helped, but they oughtn't to have been necessary.
The next evening saw me at the 92nd Street Y, for a concert of chamber music performed by the laboriously-named Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio. This team has been playing together for thirty years, but they've managed to keep things fresh. I wish that they had played one of the classic piano trios, but they opted instead for the rather odd Edward Steuermann arrangement of Schoenberg's Verklŕrte Nacht for violin, cello, and piano. The result is not what I would call a "piano trio." It is, rather, a stunt. The percussive piano intrudes on Schoenberg's delicate textures, and the lack of inner strings contributes to the hollow sound. The musicians did a fine job of playing it, but I was unconvinced. The program began with one of Mozart's Preludes & Fugues for String Trio. Mozart wrote the preludes from scratch but adapted the fugues from Bach. In the case of the work that was played, the Bach was not JS but Wilhelm Friedemann. Written for connoisseurs at the Viennese salon of Baron van Swieten, the Prelude & Fugue No. 8, like the others in the set, is both charming and learned.
Michael Tree, who played the viola in the Mozart, rejoined the Trio at the end for a rousing performance of Schumann's Piano Quartet in E-Flat, Op 47. This is music that fairly trumpets the essence of nineteenth-century German chamber music. Its brio wavers between heroism and exuberance, and it is not afraid of complexity. It is also core repertoire for the KLR Trio, and, for all of its flourishes, it was made to sound very easy to play.
I must confess that a great part of the evening's appeal lay in watching cellist Sharon Robinson, whom I had not seen onstage (or off) in over thirty years. Once upon a time, when we were both much younger and living in Texas, she was the brilliant and beautiful first cellist of the Houston Symphony Orchestra, and I was a radio guy who got my seats on a pass. She left town and then I left town. It was a great treat to be once again in the audience, and an even bigger treat to hear how manifestly Ms Robinson has found herself in chamber music. Together with her partners, she exhaled the tradition of utterly assured music making that says "chamber music in New York" to me. (December 2006) Permalink
In the middle of November, just before flying off to St Croix for Thanksgiving, Kathleen and I took in a performance of Mozart's Cosě fan tutte, which, as everyone must know by now, is my favorite opera. I don't see it often, though, because it's so easy to screw up. The plot still makes people uncomfortable - which just shows you how prim and pious Americans can be about romantic comedy. Here is my take on the story: vacationing in Naples, two ladies from Ferrara meet two young officers and, in somewhat creaky but more recent parlance, start going steady. They don't fall in love at all; they're like middle-school students going through motions they don't entirely understand. All of this happens before the opera begins, but it is implied by every detail of the opening scenes. The young lovers are shown to be silly kids, now florid about their "perfect" mate, now necromantic. Their cynical old friend, Don Alfonso, decides to show them how just how silly they are. He makes a wager with the officers that, if they pretend to go off to war, and then show up in exotic costumes, they'll have no trouble each winning the other's girl's heart. The officers accept the bet with alacrity, to show the old misery just how wrong he is.
But of course he's not wrong. The boys come back in their Albanian (Turkish) outfits, and throw themselves into love-making with great vigor. It is unlikely that this was how they won the ladies originally. Their overtures are initially repulsed, of course, but this only redoubles their zeal. The long and the short of it is that the girls eventually fall in love, genuinely this time, in response to such ardor. And eventually the boys stop acting. Why do people overlook this? Why do the boys appear to forget which side of the bet they're on? When Ferrando makes his last-ditch effort to conquer Fiordiligi, he's in earnest. Winning a bet is the last thing on his mind, and, if you can't hear that, you're deaf.
So there is no real confusion at the end. Even though the libretto does not specify who ends up with whom, the music, if only people would listen, is unambiguous. Even Guglielmo, who claims to wish that he were toasting his friends with poison, is more genuinely engaged by the final arrangement than he was at the start, when all he could do was make preposterous claims about his lady-love's fortitude. Even though the final-scene marriages are a sham (officiated by a housemaid in drag), they represent the ultimate couplings.
The very ending of Tim Albery's staging at City Opera is, therefore, wrong-headed, and frightfully at odds with the music. But everything had gone so well up to that point that I wrote it off and excused it. And here is what had gone well. First, of course, there were the surtitles. City Opera's surtitles are broadcast by a billboard atop the proscenium, as they are in most opera houses that have surtitles. Not everyone can afford the Met's each-seat-has-its-own rig. But the surtitles introduce the audience to the comedy onstage. It is very crude comedy, to be sure, nothing like Lorenzo da Ponte's wickedly witty and learned libretto, but that's not strictly necessary. (Trust me, though: the text of Cosě is one of the masterpieces of world theatre.)
The surtitles would have done their job at any performance and through any staging. What was peculiar to this production was the youth, fitness, and enthusiastic acting of the two officers, Ryan MacPherson as Ferrando and Kyle Pfortzmiller as Guglielmo. Both men possess wonderful voices - Mr Pfortzmiller's, at least in this part, sounded particularly lovely - but it doesn't stop there. They threw themselves into acting the parts of brother-officers, one's arm always flung over the other's shoulder. They swaggered and vamped and reared in indignation like two perfect hotheads. It was utterly convincing. Remember, it is the officers' play-acting that drives the action. They do; while the girls are done to. So often, the burden of making Cosě funny falls on the shoulders of Despina, a character barely out of commedia dell'arte. Not on this night. The comedy flowed from its proper source: from two young men who find out the hard way that love is no bagatelle.
A word about the other singers, all of whom were great: Maureen McKay's Despina was a treat, although I thought it was rather mean of Mr Albery to condemn her to carrying pieces of furniture about the set. James Maddalena's Alfonso was strong and clear; the singer has been a favorite stage presence since my Monadnock Music summer, 1979. Sandra Piques Eddy had a lot of fun with Dorabella, and Julianna Di Giacomo, the only singer built on bulky, old-fashioned lines, proved that she could sing some of Mozart's most impossible music and make it sound easy. Julius Rudel brought out the best in the orchestra, although I couldn't help remembering the brilliant performance of the overture that Orpheus had given a month earlier.
As for the sets and costumes, both designed by Tobias Hoheisel, the costumes were fine but the sets were dubious. I'm sure that Mr Hoheisel could explain his use of a giant camera oscura as the frame of the action, and I'm sure that it would be the purest hogwash. At least the exterior of this instrument looked solid. When it was opened, to form the room in which the entire opera took place, the flats noticeably wobbled, as though we were in a high school auditorium. And the elevator-door joke - lose it! Like Mr Albery's ideas for the end of Cosě fan tutte, Mr Hoheisel's notions proved to be forgivable in the face of such harmonious singing and acting. (December 2006) Permalink
Owing to the poor health of its founder and leader, Reinhard Goebel, Musica Antiqua Köln is on its farewell tour. The band, which specializes in the German Baroque, made a number of fine discs for Deutsche Gramophon Archiv, and I've enjoyed a few of them for years. Better late than never, however, I caught the band at Zankel Hall earlier this month. Ilia Korol was the dashing guest leader, and contralto Marijana Mijanovic sang three of the items on the program.
It was an especially rich program. The centerpiece was Johann Sebastian Bach's Cantata BWV 54, Widerstehe doch der Sünde, a three-movement showcase for contralto. In the first movement, marching chords ascend the scale, creating discords allusive to the text but really too beautiful to suggest sin. After a recitative, the final number makes ghostly reference to the thema regia of the Musical Offering - in other words, its tendency is to step down the scale. Ms Mivanovic sang it very well, but her remarkable voice often approximated a kind of parlando: I could hear her well enough, but not always the difference between the note being sung and the preceding one. If you ask me, the singer is far too thin to produce a rich sound. In compensation, she displayed a totally secure bottom: I'd call her a contralto profundo. And her vibrato was agreeably light. The other two works that she sang, Johann Christoph Bach's Ach, dass ich Wassers g'nüg hätte and Jan Dismas Zelenka's motet, Barbara dira effera, were to my ears of greater dramatic than vocal interest. Ms Mivanovic infused the first with anguish and the second with ferocity, in both cases quite appropriate. The Zelenka, by far the most Italianate of the evening's offerings, concluded with a bright and serene "Alleluia."
Johann Christoph Bach was a collateral ancestor of the most famous Bach, and Heinrich Bach was Johann Christoph's father. The program began with two of his sonatas a cinque. The music of these two Bach's is written in an attractive Early Baroque style, which to me is charactertized by energetic flourishes and sudden mood swings. It is motivic rather than melodic, and, poorly played, it can be agonizingly dull. But it was very well played by Musica Antiqua Köln. In between the early Bachs and the Bach Bach, we had a spot of Telemann: his Septet in E. The group's oboists, Susanne Regel and Wolfgang Dey, came out for this work and injected just the right note of Telemann-isch sauciness. But what gave me no end of fun was the Overture in G by a composer I'd not come across before, Johann David Heinichen, who was born two years before Bach and Handel but who died much earlier than either of them, in 1729. His sprightly suite, occasionally graced by touches of the galant style, teased me endlessly. As a rule, I never confuse Bach and Handel; to me, they don't sound anything alike. They just happen to be contemporaries. But if you had locked me in a room to listen to the Overture without knowing who wrote it, I'd be barking mad within minutes, unable to decide whether Bach or Handel were the composer. Needless to say, anyone capable of generating such confusion must be a capable writer, and I look forward to getting to know Heinichen, who wrote for the great Dresden orchestra of the early eighteenth century, much better.
I sat in one of the side boxes, about halfway back, and I really couldn't think of a better place to be. The acoustics in Zankel Hall are said to be great whatever the seat, but from my vantage I could see all of the musicians quite clearly as well. (November 2006) Permalink.
Friday night's Parthenia recital brought a clutch of firsts: Parthenia itself, the ensemble of viole da gamba; Corpus Christi Church - the most New Englandy Catholic church that I've ever set foot in; lutenist Andy Rutherford; the music of Tobias Hume (1569-1645); and, not least, the sound of baritone Thomas Meglioranza's speaking voice. Overcoming my ingrained reluctance to horn in on performers after concerts, I stood at the edge of a small crowd until Tom directed his attention at me. We shook hands. "Hi, Tom, I'm RJ," said I. "I know," said he. Now I can say that I have met a fellow blogger.
So much for "disinterested observer" status.
Tobias Hume, as you can see from his dates, might be considered Elizabethan, but I root him in the seventeenth century. He published two books of music, in 1605 and 1607, in furtherance of his enthusiasm for the viola da gamba. This instrument, which at first glance resembles a miniature cello, is also played upright, but its base is nestled between the players thighs. There are three registers: treble, tenor, and bass. The instrument's sound is warm and not quite as focused as that of a modern stringed instrument. Perhaps because of its deep chest, the viola da gamba not only looks like a little cello but sound like one, too. It does not sound like the instrument that Ms G used to play.
Captain Hume appears to have led an active military life, mostly in Continental armies, and his disposition seems to have been somewhat combative. That's to say that he conducted the campaign to popularize his instrument as an either-or proposition. His mission was to supplant the lute, then the most common indoor instrument. This sounds odder than it was. The strings of the viola da gamba can be "plucked" with the bow in much the same manner as lute strings are strummed; they can also be plucked directly by the fingers. Using the bow as cellists do, of course, produces the "string" sound. Hume also proposed striking the strings with the wood of the bow, an technique known as col legno. (Mozart wrote a grand little march in D, K 335 Nş 1, that calls for the effect in its bristling trio.) The viola da gamba is therefore somewhat more versatile than the lute. It also sounds better in consorts, or groups. Indeed, consorts of viols were the heart of what would become the modern symphony orchestra. I am not sure that Hume would have regarded this outcome as a victory. He himself has fallen into obscurity. I was not aware of having heard any of his compositions prior to the recital that Parthenia dedicated to him.
The evening's program was devised to show as many of Hume's facets as possible, drawing from a large body of work. There were nine songs for Mr Meglioranza to sing, and two numbers for Mr Rutherford. The four members of Parthenia itself - Beverly Au, Lawrence Lipnik, Rosamund Morley, and Lisa Terry - played in what seemed like every imaginable combination, and solo as well. The performances began beautifully and kept getting better. The most difficult material, certainly, came first. As may be imagined, Hume wrote a number of soldierly pieces, and the recital began with several of these. It was, I thought later, not the best introduction to a composer who, evidently eccentric, might also come off as an amateur. The military pieces bordered on novelties. In "The Soldier's Song," Mr Meglioranza met the challenge of the following line with admirable grace -
The drums th'alarum sound; the captains cry.
Za za za za za za za...
The trumpets sound.
Tar ra ra ra ra ra.
- but, coming as it did at the beginning of the program, the song challenged my hope that Hume's music would be more than just interesting. I'd have been much more comfortable with it at the beginning of the second half of the recital, when Hume's proficiency would have been established. (There I go, reorganizing other people's programs again. But organizing programs is the only remotely musical thing that I've actually been paid to do.)
As it was, the first sound-sounding music was a "Pavan Paradiso" by Anthony Holborne, a rough contemporary of Hume. Here the consort gleamed, and it went on gleaming for the rest of the evening. Just before the Intermission, Mr Meglioranza gave an open-hearted performance of "Alas poor men," a lyrically bleak but musically rich address from a pessimistic time. And he opened the second half with "Tobacco."
Tobacco is like love. O love it, for you see I shall prove it.
And he did, at least for a few highly transgressive seconds.
The high point of the evening, instrumentally, was the set of dances and airs at the center of the recital's second half. The musicians, clearly enjoying themselves, began to be possessed by their performances, flashing wicked grins of satisfaction at having, say, struck a note at the absolutely correct moment. The fabric of the music became denser even as it seemed to be lit from within.
What followed was a set of pieces by Hume's archrival, John Dowland, the sad man of Elizabethan music. Dowland is as well known as Hume is obscure. Mr Meglioranza started it off with a virtual encore presentation, singing the original "Sorrow, come!" as Dowland wrote it, and following it with William Wigthorpe's adaptation, in which it becomes a devotional song. Mr Rutherford accompanied the first version, the viols the second, and indeed if this had been a Hume-sponsored competition, I'd have given the palm to the viols. Poignant either way, "Sorrow, come!" was well worth the second hearing. The set concluded with another song, "Now oh Now I Needs Must Part." And then, with Hume's whirling "The Spirit of the Gambo: The Lord Derrys favoret," the recital came to an end, on a note of beautifully matched glee and expertise. (October 2005)
Thursday night, I walked a couple of blocks to Holy Trinity Church, the bold quasi-Gothic spire of which is part of the view from the window to my right. In 1987, the church inaugurated a new Rieger pipe organ, situated at ground level in the right transept, with a console visible to about half the nave and all of the left transept. Being able to see the organist makes organ recitals a good deal more interesting, if less mystical.
And what I learned, or figured out, or finally realized, on Thursday night, was that you can be a petite ginger-haired septuagenarian and make the instrument roar without breaking a sweat. I have never seen so relaxed a performing musician as Dr Alain. Her hands played with the same feathery motions regardless of the sounds they were called upon to produce. A similarly disengaged-seeming pianist would probably be hospitalized for observation.
I must confess to the surprise of discovering that Dr Alain is still alive, much less performing. That's because, even before I set off to college, I had a few of her records, which were released in this country by the Musical Heritage Society (currently a sort of classical-music Rhino Records, reissuing old and out-of-print recordings), in my collection. She didn't seem to be particularly young at the time. Now, forty years later... Forty years later, she is still playing her brother Jehan's Litanies, and it sounded great on the Rieger organ. (Jehan Alain was killed in action in 1940, aged twenty-nine.) Dr Alain began the program with Jehan's transcription of a suite of dances for the guitar by François Campion, a contemporary of Bach and Handel. This was pleasant enough, as was little piece by Nicolas de Grigny, substituted for another when it was discovered that a needed stop on the Rieger organ "does not go all the way down to tenor C," (as Holy Trinity's Artistic Director, Dr Stephen John Hamilton, announced before the recital. Then we got to the Bach.
Dr Alain offered an excellent choice, the Pičce d'orge (Fantasia in G), BWV 572; the Chorale Prelude, "Schmücke dich, O liebe Seele," BWV 654, and the Prelude and Fugue in C, BWV 547. The first and third pieces were played with great brio, while the mournful burbling of the chorale prelude matched the romantic atmosphere of Holy Trinity's interior. It was while Dr Alain worked through the fugue of BWV 547 that I grasped how effortless her playing was. Maybe there's a reason for hiding organists up in choir lofts, after all.
The second half of the program was devoted to French music, most of it by the performer's relatives. After an agreeable Prélude, fugue et variation by César Franck that filled me with a longing, unfortunately, to hear something punchy by Widor, Dr Alain turned to two pieces by her father, Albert (1880-1971). The first was a lovely little scherzo in e that opened out, where a trio might be, into a radiant passage that at first seemed motionless but into which peeped the scherzo's busy little figures. I liked this so much that I've ordered the recording. Then Dr Alain played the bravura Carillon sur Laude Sion.
The three works by Jehan Alain that ended the recital demonstrated what a major talent was lost in 1940. The Variations sur un thčme de Clément Jannequin is the work of a mind fascinated by the harmonies of French modernism with the music of fifteenth-century Burgundy. (I look forward to getting to know this piece better, too.) Then, after a foggy, somewhat lugubrious Postlude pour l'Office de Complies, Dr Alain let rip with Litanies, her brother's most famous composition, a proudly antiphonal celebration of the pipe organ. The mystery to me was that she did not play this, or any of the recital's other offerings, from memory.
There was a final surprise. Brought back by the enthusiastic audience to play an encore, Dr Alain repeated her father's scherzo. I have never heard of such a thing - of replaying something from the program - in all my years of going to concerts, but I certainly didn't mind, as I'd been dying to hear it again anyway.
Perhaps Arnold Steinhardt doesn't like Mozart. The thought crossed my mind as the Guarneri Quartet, of which Mr Steinhardt is the first violinist, made its way through Mozart's Quartet in A, K. 464. The top note was never exactly flat, but it usually sounded tired, as though the air had been let out. Of all the quartets that I know, the Guarneri sounds most like the old Budapest Quartet, which resorted to a similar style when it meant to be sweet. But this sagging tonality tightened up during the Mendelssohn that followed, and not in evidence when, after the interval, the Guarneri was joined by violist Steven Tenenbom for a performance of Dvorak's American Quintet.
The thought crossed my mind because I have not forgotten, and will never forget, a perfectly maddening performance of Mozart's Divertimento in E-Flat, K. 563, at Caramoor one summer afternoon years ago. Yes, the trio that I've written about at some length. It was a painful hour. I concluded that it must have been an "off" day for Mr Steinhardt, but there it was again on Saturday at Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, a manner of playing all the high notes as if they were suffering from anemia. Nor did Mr Steinhardt appear to want to keep up with his colleagues' tempo. He never lagged, of course, but a certain resistance could be sensed. Second violinist John Dalley, violist Michael Tree, and cellist Peter Wiley, in contrast, seemed to like what they were playing. Mr Wiley was brilliant in the demanding Andante, a theme-and-variations that ends with a lesson in species counterpoint that puts the cellist to work.
If I set these annoying factors aside, something that became increasingly easy to do as Mr Steinhardt played with increasing enthusiasm, I could hear the firm and supple suggestion of a group of old Viennese gents playing at the rear of some-out-of-the-way coffee house - playing as if for themselves. Mozart's Vienna, in short. The minuet was particularly captivating. Charmed by the performance into not judging it, I found myself wondering how anybody could mistake this music for Haydn's. There is a musical handwriting, unique to each composer that, the more beautiful it is, the more difficult it is to copy, and in the great composers' music it is plain in every bar. Learning to hear this handwriting as it were means learning not to hear the composer's period, and that's very hard, at least for those of us who don't learn about music by performing it. Period style is simply the collection of tics and riffs that composers have in common with their contemporaries; to continue the handwriting metaphor, the current vogue in letter shapes and punctuation. Period style is easy for beginning listeners to grasp, and soon the composers can be sorted in something like this fashion:
The beginning listener will soon be able to distinguish these groups, but distinguishing the composers within them will remain difficult precisely because of the emphasis placed upon common elements. It's only when you stop listening for these that the handwriting becomes apparent. Consider Mozart and Haydn. Notwithstanding their warm mutual regard, two more unlike composers never existed. Mozart was prodigiously gifted with melody, and never had to develop Haydn's skill at (or interest in) exploring the possibilities of a tune. Mozart was much more interested in spinning plates: balancing a little motif like this against another like that. Just hum the opening bars of the Jupiter Symphony and you'll see what I mean. Balance and contrast are everything in Mozart, and it's the juggling that can lead the inattentive ear to judge that there are "too many notes," as Kaiser Josef is said to have complained (of Figaro). Haydn couldn't be more straightforward, more singleminded, and many of his finest works are entirely built on scraps of tune that Mozart would have used once and tossed.
Nobody sounds like Mendelssohn, either. I didn't know the Quartet in E-Flat, Op. 12, but the performance changed that, and now I want to get to know the work better. My feeling about Mendelssohn is that he was the greatest prodigy ever to write music; Mozart certainly wrote nothing on the order of the Octet or the "Midsummer Night's Dream" Overture when he was in his teens. Maturity, unfortunately, inclined Mendelssohn toward ponderousness. He never entirely lost his light touch, but his attempts at the somber and weighty are not successful. The Quartet, Op. 12, which despite its opus number was written after the Octet, catches Mendelssohn right as the bloom has begun to fade. It is beautifully fleet. But the spark is ebbing.
Dvorak's American Quintet, like his American Quartet, is a souvenir of the composers 1893 sojourn in Iowa, and, once again, the Guarneri Quartet played it as if they were channeling down-home musicians, only this time in a barn, not a café. Or perhaps under a bank of willows: what composer seems more at home in the breezy, sunny outdoors than Dvorak? If the performance of the opening Allegro non tanto had been any more exuberant, the hundred-odd listeners seated on the stage would have been in danger. There was something almost comical about sitting as we all did, politely, motionlessly listening to black-suited gentlemen earnestly playing what the Allegro vivo essentially is: a square dance; the gentle trio is really nothing but a breather, a moment of stillness that does not even last as long as the trio itself. Only with the Larghetto did the music really slow down. Although this music slips back and forth between major and minor, its wistfulness is open and rural, something that a gathering of farmers - American or Czech - could grasp at once. It made an interesting parallel to the Mozart, in that both "slow" movements are sets of variations on themes, and while the Dvorak is not noticeably less expert than the Mozart, it will send any mind into daydreams variously pleasant or moving. The Mozart will sound no more than agreeably pleasant to a listener less interested in music than in music's powers. The concluding Allegro giusto returns us to the dance, but to a dance in which the gentry might join.
The musicians were wildly applauded when the final echoes of the Quintet died out. There were baseball-field whistles as well as shouts of "bravo!". I'm hearing the whistling, which would have been unthinkable when I was a boy, more and more, and I take it as a good sign. Writing about it, I realize that I never felt that I was at a "chamber music concert" in the old austere-serious-cerebral mold, full of people radiating a personal superiority to the vulgarities of tone poems. The crowd last Saturday night would have been more inclined to ask, "What orchestra?"
Rather a lot of time has elapsed since the second Guarneri Quartet concert at the Metropolitan Museum, on 19 March, and, ordinarily, I'd be inclined to let it go. As I noted somewhere in passing, it was a good concert, with unvarying true tones from first violinist Arnold Steinhardt even in the Mozart. And guest pianist Anton Kuerti was unbelievably dazzling: no spring chicken, he ought to have been heard of before by me. I'd let all this pass unrepeated, however, but for the second work on the program, Dohnányi's String Quartet No. 2, Op. 15. Thinking ahead for once, I ordered recordings of the works that I didn't have - in short, all three offerings. I never got around to listening to Dvořák's Piano Quartet, Op. 87, and I haven't heard it since the concert, so the only thing that I can say about it is that it palpably dates from before the composer's American sojourn. Mozart's Quartet in F, K. 168, struck me as rather more grown-up than expected, and I look forward to getting to know it better. My excuse for slighting these works is that I was utterly smitten by the Dohnányi.
Ernst von Dohnányi was born in Pressburg, now Bratislava, of Hungarian parents, in 1877, and between the wars, according to Bartok, he directed his new nation's musical life from Budapest. He is best known today for his glorious Variations on a Nursery Tune (eg, our "alphabet" song, which is also the theme of a magnificent set of variations by Mozart). Written for piano and orchestra, the Variations conjure up a happily grand world in which the Titanic didn't sink. I didn't know what to expect of the Quartet. I still haven't forgiving myself for missing Gidon Kremer's performance, with the Kremerata Baltica, of Georges Enescu's Octet a few years ago. That's where the Dohnányi belongs. Its opening notes seem to veer sharply from Borodin to Dvořák, but the work's presiding genius is Schubert. The finale is like the slow movement of one of Schubert's late quartets, with a craggily troubled trio; the final coda, before repeating the opening theme, brings Bruckner to mind. There is a very agreeable scherzo in between this movement and the opening Andante - Allegro. This first movement is what captured me. Its second subject - I'm not sure that that's the correct terminology - is one of the most meltingly gorgeous tunes that I've ever heard, warm and quiet and irresistible, a little homesick but not unhappy. It's the kind of beauty that made me crazy when I was a teenager; in those days, my musical passions were all concentrated upon brief, often structurally insignificant passages in works that were rarely well-known. Some friends thought that I was too clever by half, but in fact I was utterly unsophisticated, rube enough to root for music that wasn't thought to be important. Now that I'm a decaying codger, it took two or three hearings to fall in love, and I might, had I not had the recordings in advance, have missed my latest love altogether at the concert.
Kathleen left the office at seven sharp yesterday, and I quitted the apartment shortly thereafter, so we both got to Carnegie Hall in plenty of time for an eight-o'clock curtain. Never mind that there are no curtains at Zankel Hall, which is tucked into Carnegie's basement. We had time to spare for a trip to the 55th Street Deli. Kathleen was feeling peckish and headachy and wanted to get some Raisinets. (Did you know about CandyDirect?). We sauntered back to the entrance to Zankel Hall, cluelessly imagining that we were there before everybody else. Not until the massive but vacant elevator doors opened on the Parterre level to resounding applause did I think to look at the tickets: make that a seven-thirty curtain. We had just missed the first work on the program, Bach's Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, and we would have missed the second work, the much longer French Overture in b, as well, if an usher hadn't taken pity on us and shepherded us to the invalids' seating section to one side.
Ask me how I discovered Angela Hewitt, and I can't tell you, but I began accumulating her Bach recordings on Hyperion some time ago. I won't say that they're my favorites, because I could never derogate András Schiff or Keith Jarrett, but they're up there, and when I worked through the schedule last fall in search of a good concert to introduce us to Zankel Hall - I deliberately didn't try to get in during the hall's first season - Ms Hewitt's recital made the first cut. (Another event, which I wish I'd chosen also - not instead - was an evening of dervishes. If I'd known that we'd be going to Istanbul...) And then, on the basis of repertoire and week-day, it emerged as the winner. I knew that there would be Bach on the program, but I forgot the rest, and by last night was actually feeling a little guilty about dragging Kathleen along. It was only when I managed to open the program that I saw the work that had undoubtedly clinched the selection months ago: Ravel's Le tombeau de Couperin.
The French Overture was new to me. Unlike the French Suites, it has a full-blown overture, in the manner of the Orchestral Suites, in the French manner. A halting, grandiose proclamation soon gives we to a the rapid workout of a theme that is half-playful, half-urgent, and invested with the feeling of perpetual-motion. The proclamation makes two reappearances, and the number lasts about eight minutes. It is followed by six dance movements and an "Echo." More than in any other music that I'm aware, Bach seizes French severity and make it his own.
After the interval, we had Couperin's Treizičme Ordre, a suite rather unlike Bach's. Before performing it, Ms Hewitt - who turns out to be Canadian, not English, as I had unreasoningly assumed - explained that the meanings of the characteristic titles that the composer attached to his movements have only recently been unearthed, and that the thirteenth of Couperin's suites refers to events at the court of the Regent, Philippe d'Orléans. I'll take Ms Hewitt's word for it. To hear Couperin after Bach is to grasp the difference between the French and Saxon baroques only to find that it is nothing more than the perennial difference between France and northern Germany. Where Bach is rigorous and even relentless in unfolding the implications of his subject-matter, Couperin is sprighty and agile. I would turn conventional epithetry on its head and say that Couperin is the more muscular. The fourth movement of the Ordre is a theme and variations entitled "Les Folies Françaises," its theme derived from the celebrated if fatherless tune, "La Folia." The final movement, "L'âme en peine," was performed with a dry anguish that brought out a relation to the theme of the Goldberg Variations, which always seems so innocent at the start and so suffused when it is repeated at and as the finish.
When we got home, I fished out a recording by Monique Haas of Le tombeau de Couperin. Ravel originally wrote this work for solo piano, and only later orchestrated four of its six movements, shifting their order slightly. Because each number memorializes a friend whom Ravel lost to the Great War, the antiquarian title has a punning quality that resonates poignantly with the brisk and clear music. Because the orchestral version has always been popular, the original work has been someone overlooked, and this couldn't have happened to a better guy, because it was Ravel's orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition that performed the same inhumation of Mussorgsky's original. More about that in a moment. Monique Haas's performance sounds like nothing but the piano version of a well-known score.
Ms Hewitt, in contrast, made the work sound like Gaspard de la nuit, Ravel's triptych of scary virtuosity. She brought out inner voices that the orchestration obscures while letting inner voices that the orchestration promotes to recede somewhat. And yet the world of Couperin was very much with us; Ravel's strict observation of ancient dance forms was clear to see. What Ms Hewitt surprised us with the paradox of a elegantly classical package capable of containing a maelstrom. Her interpretation as well as her performance was bold and unforgettable. That's not to say that I don't long to possess the recording. One passage stands out. During the mounting intensity that seems to precede the climax of the trio of the minuet, but that in fact is the climax, Ms Hewitt, who is a lithe woman, rose on her haunches like a horseman to toll out the slablike chords, doubtless setting many minds along with mine thinking of the climax of Pictures.
As an encore, Ms Hewitt played Ravel's Pavane pour une infante défunte. It was very fine, but I'm afraid that my memory-forming circuits were still swamped with recollection of the Tombeau, so I don't remember why it was fine. I will say that Ms Hewitt is my kind of pianist. There are pianists who rumble with the piano, and pianists who cajole. Ms Hewitt seems to transfuse every atom of the grand piano in an extension of her nervous system. I had the suspicion that no pianist could find a mistuned instrument more intolerable; perhaps I got this idea from the intermission tune-up.
Zankel Hall is a great addition to New York's concert life. Except for its ceiling, which is black and covered in a brambles of tubes, lamps, and catwalks - do designers think that black makes things invisible? It really just makes them look scary - the hall is bright and not at all subterranean, although the subway's adjacency is quite a bit more noticeable. Our proper seats were way up front, but we never went to them, finding the freestanding handicapped-section seats quite agreeable, and the sound great.
The Naumburg International Vocal Competition (June 2005)
The other night, I did something new. I attended a vocal competition. Anywhere else, perhaps, such an event might be more trial than pleasure, but the prestige of the Walter W. Naumburg Foundation International Vocal Competition in Concert Repertoire - not an annual event - draws very capable contestants. Aspirants submit audition CDs, and from these, this year, forty-odd were chosen. In two previous rounds, all but four singers were eliminated. These four were the finalists who sang at Alice Tully Hall on Wednesday night. The singing was excellent throughout, and even the accompanists were remarkable - I thought of them rather as pianists. More on that later. The event itself was curious.
First of all, it didn't seem to be very well organized. Everyone but the handful of judges had to sit in the balcony, which was more than half-full. I'm sure that friends and family constituted a sizeable portion of the audience, but I was approached by two parties at intermission and asked about the Naumburg Foundation - about which, at the time, I knew no more than to refer inquiries to Google and to mumble a reference to the bandshell in Central Park, which bears the same name - surname only, however - as the Foundation. The idea of people wandering in off the streets was too much, but, then again, admission was only ten dollars. (Ten dollars doesn't usually buy much of anything at Lincoln Center.) Things got off to a late start because one of the judges was late. There were no programs, because each finalist had devised his or her own program more or less on the spot, after Monday's round. An elderly couple appeared to be in charge, and the wife seemed to feel the presence of outsiders somewhat oppressive. But then she couldn't be heard very well, either. One singer had to excuse himself after his second song, because an eyelash had slipped beneath his contact lens and was "hurting a lot." The intermission was longer than the seven minutes announced, perhaps because an unidentified nuisance had to be "turned off." The ushers were surprised when we came out after the last finalist had finished: they didn't know that the judges were going to announce their decision then and there, and they wondered why we didn't go home. But perhaps it's unfair to talk of disorganization. The recital was thoroughly out of the ordinary, and one is perhaps too accustomed to the clockwork efficiency of presentations at New York's great houses of music.
The four finalists were two sopranos, Amanda Forsythe and Sari Gruber, and two baritones, Tyler Duncan and Thomas Meglioranza. Regular readers will know that the last singer was the draw for me. He sang the part of Jesus and a good many of the baritone arias (as well as all the choruses) in the performance of the St Matthew Passion that the New York Collegium presented in March. I liked him very much, and said so here; this elicited a comment from the singer himself. If you are an audience member with any interest in the nuts and bolts of professional music-making, Mr Meglioranza's site, Tomness (you'll find a link to the left) has got to be on your reading list. Have you ever wondered how a singer directs his gaze while sitting through the other soloists' numbers? I'll bet you never expected to find out. Voilŕ! Mr Meglioranza (whom I would call "Tom" if I were not writing of him as a singer) was kind enough to put me on his mailing list, so that when he won Round Two, I got a message the next morning. I wouldn't have known about the recital otherwise. I wouldn't have thought of attending. I have slimmed my musical schedule down to a dozen events per season, and I don't think that I've been to vocal recital in twenty years. Well, time to change all that, I thought.
Now, I happen to believe that opera is for high voices and that art song - often called by its plural equivalent in German, lieder - is for low voices. Nothing about the Naumburg Competition changed that opinion. Both sopranos had voices that I would classify as "soubrette." Soubrettes have bright and highly focused voices, qualities that conduce to great agility. Richard Strauss managed to insert a compelling soubrette role into each of his comic operas, but perhaps the best-known example is Oscar, in Verdi's Un ballo in machera. Ravel is said to have written his Violin Sonata on the understanding that violins and pianos don't really go well with each other, and I feel much the same about bright voices; I'll take my soubrettes with orchestral accompaniment, thank you. Ms Forsythe seemed a born soubrette; Ms Gruber's voice may widen and deepen - I forgot to mention that this is a young artist's affair, open to those between twenty and thirty-five years of age. I should have been much happier listening to a rich contralto. Upon reflection, I noted that there are only two soprano-recital CDs in my collection (aside from Elisabeth Schwarzkopf's, that is). Nevertheless, both singers were completely on top of their material. There were no audible mistakes, no missed notes that I could hear. Their self-possession and technical prowess put them in the ranks of veteran professionals.
The two men were much more agreeable to listen to, which is no surprise. Tyler Duncan had the more "traditional" voice of the two; he had an out-of-the-box baritonal quality that was satisfying but not unusual (for recorded baritones). His program was also the most conservative, featuring Beethoven's cycle of linked songs, An die ferne Geliebte. He ended with Ravel's Don Quixotte ŕ Dulcinée, three very brief songs packed into five minutes. While he knocked them off expertly, I wracked my brain trying to remember who sang them last season (and now I'm angry with myself for having failed to file a report). Mr Meglioranza, in contrast, concocted an extremely sophisticated program, outlined here. Almost everything was a big treat - the Schubert, the Wolf, the Debussy, and the works in English; there, that's the whole lineup. The program opened and closed with wry, winkingly comic pieces; perhaps the judges were looking for more angst. Marc Blitzstein's "The New Suit" - an expansion of "Now I lay me down to sleep..." - turns out to be a real jewel, and although Mr Meglioranza may not be best pleased by the comparison, I have to say that in singing it he brought Bobby Short back to life.
Very interestingly, the men had no difficulty making themselves understood in English, but for both women this was an ill-met challenge. The other big difference, again across gender lines, was that the ladies appeared to be far more oriented toward opera. There was no opera on the program, of course, but both sopranos seemed stagebound. Indeed, Ms Gruber has sung Mozart's Susanna at City Opera. The baritones, in contrast, sang in the reflective and untheatrical spirit of art song.
The singing done, we were given some confusing instructions about what to do while the judges made their decision. Then we were summoned, and the winners were announced. Ms Forsythe won Honorable Mention; Mr Duncan, Third Prize. Rats! Mr Meglioranza won Second Prize, and the big winner - with a nice bit of cash but, what's more, with two subsidized recitals at Alice Tully Hall - was Ms Gruber.
Kathleen had urged me to make myself known to Thomas Meglioranza, after the concert. "It's always nice to know that people have shown up to root for you." Yes, but. Something tells me that I was brought up not to intrude upon people to whom I haven't been introduced, and the prospect of hanging about in the persistent haze of confusion was distinctly unappealing. I went off to have dinner with Kathleen, walking then ten-odd blocks down Broadway to the Broadway Diner USA (my favorite post-concert restaurant), and, when I got home, I wrote a long letter to Tom.
As noted at the time, I thought I would wait to write up the JVC Jazz Festival 2005 Dave Brubeck/John Pizzarelli at Carnegie Hall ON 24 June until I'd had a chance to listen to related CDs. There were, after all, no programs, and I'm not enough of a journalist to write down announcements from the stage. The CDs were in my hands within days, and I lost no time playing Mr Pizzarelli's, Knowing You, and not just to hear him sing "Quality Time" with his wife, Jessica Molaskey - possibly the high moment of the concert for me, not least because Ms Molaskey is a knockout. But I took my time about listening to Mr Brubeck's London Sharp, London Flat, and now that I'm listening to it, the title song is the only one that sounds familiar.
The funniest thing about the concert was that Mr Pizzarelli's sax player, Harry Allen, sounded a lot more like Paul Desmond than Bobby Militello, playing with Mr Brubeck, did. It was Paul Desmond who contributed the warm and mellow, almost Asian, sound to Mr Brubeck's somewhat cerebral jazz when "Take Five" and "Rondo alla Turk" were spinning on all the brainier turntables. Mr Militello is a disciple of John Coltrane, and he brings more heat than light to the ensemble. He's very gifted, but not quite to my taste. He does play the flute quite sweetly, though. Bass player Michael Moore, who couldn't have looked more spruce when he was accompanying nor more abandoned during his solos, strings his instrument with what look like the copper coils that you'll find inside the left-hand side of a piano, and they produce a sound that's broad and muffled at the same time, and, in Carnegie Hall, even with a mike, surprisingly distant. Both ensembles, in fact, seemed to have some trouble with the sound of the hall; miking, however discrete, can only complicate the matter, especially for musicians accustomed to far smaller venues. The truly ace player in the Dave Brubeck Quartet was drummer Randy Jones - and when he finally got a solo, he played as if he were never going to stop, which was a real treat. Drum solos can be a little tedious on record, but they're always as fascinating as averted train wrecks when you can watch them.
Dave Brubeck shows every intention of dying with his boots on. Born in 1920, he fought in the Battle of the Bulge, Then, at about the time I was born, he studied with Darius Milhaud in California. The gentlemen playing with him were probably not much older than I am, if not younger. So were most of the men in our part of the house, front and center. Dave Brubeck has been part of our musical lives since the start. To have him physically present, performing still, was almost astounding. He is an indomitable showman, just the slightest bit of a ham, expert at displaying a kind of surprised awe at his reception, which of course was thunderous. His playing was strong and agile, and it was only a handful of minute hesitations and dynamic miscalculations that betrayed the effects of time. Classical training shines through his boogie-woogie, and a genuine creative curiosity, together with an inclination to be spare, make his music-making sound almost experimental at times. At times, I sat there, thinking that Dave Brubeck has it all. Later, though, I was listening to one of Keith Jarrett's Standards albums, and I heard quite clearly that music that was launched by Mr Brubeck so many decades ago has been taken further than Mr Brubeck is now prepared to go. Which is just fine. It shouldn't have been remarkable for me to be able to say, "I saw Dave Brubeck." But to see him playing in his mid-eighties, well, wow. And yet, he brought down the house with "Take Five."
Beginning sometime in 2003, I fell into a sort of funk that could be appeased only by eight hours of Jonathan Schwartz's radio show every weekend. I listened with the piety that I'd brought to Met broadcasts in my early twenties. From that anonymous opening thing that's just got to be Mr Schwartz's childhood friend Carly Simon to the concluding Nancy LaMott number, I listened week after week, month after month, until finally I couldn't take any more of it. That would be at about the time that Mr Schwartz's autobiography, All in Good Time, appeared. Ironically, Nancy LaMott's CDs were all re-released, after some legal problems that her estate and her producers were resolved, at just about the time when I could not longer bear their sadness. Most remain unopened.
Without all that exposure to Jonathan Schwartz's great taste, I'd never have gotten to know Stacey Kent or Jessica Molaskey or any of the Pizzarellis. These artists would actually show up and perform in Mr Schwartz's studio. I grew to like them very much. John Pizzarelli, like his father, Bucky, is a gifted jazz guitarist. A stand-up comedian on the side, he gives very good concert, and as the apparent center of a galaxy of musicians, he is generous about showcasing colleagues. In addition to his JP Trio regulars, pianist Ray Kennedy and brother Martin on bass, and drummer Tony Tedesco, the Pizzarelli set included appearances by organist Larry Goldings, singer Grover Kemble, Harry Allen, Ms Molaskey, and Brazilian pianist Cesar Camargo Mariano.
Mr Pizzarelli is also a fine singer who happens not to have the nicest-sounding voice in the world, which is to say that, musical as he is, Mr Pizzarelli takes advantage of his status as an instrumentalist to impose his singing, which is witty and well-phrased but somewhat colorless. This is not a problem when he's in Slam Stewart mode, as he almost always in during guitar solos. An apt student of Slam Stewart, the great bass player of the Forties (1914-1987) who was celebrated for humming along at an octave above his instrument, Mr Pizzarelli goes one better. Given that jazz guitar passagework is often quite a bit more rapid than anything heard on a double-bass, Mr Pizzarelli's vocal agility is amazing; he never slips.
Whereas Dave Brubeck played his own pieces, none of them familiar aside from the classic that closed the set, and in arrangements that lasted longer than five minutes, Mr Pizzarelli played a number of standards, such as "The Shadow of Your Smile," "Pick Yourself Up," and "How Long Has This Been Going On?", and even a standard-in-the-making, "That Face" from The Producers, to charts that kept things peppy and brief. It was essentially top-drawer cabaret rather than downtown jazz. The only surprise in listening to the album, Knowing You, was the obviously more intimate recording ambience. Other than that, it gives a very good account of a buoyant evening. (July 2005)
Copyright (c) 2008 Pourover Press