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Three in Five Nights

7 May (Symphony Space), 9 May (MMA), and 11 May (Carnegie Hall)

In an unusual conjunction for us, Kathleen and I had three evenings of music in five nights. We began with Jeremy Denk's performance of Bach's Goldberg Variations, at Symphony Space. Then there was the chamber music recital given at the Museum by Itzhak Perlman and some of his gifted pupils. Finally, Susan Graham joined Orpheus for its Carnegie Hall season finale — and composer Ned Rorem all but leapt onto the stage after the premiere of his new-ish work, 11 Songs for Susan, as spry a near-nonagenarian as you could think to see.

If Kathleen did not enjoy Mr Denk's performance as much as I did, she will have to tell you why herself. I spent the first twenty minutes after the opening aria in a state of tense excruciation, because it seemed to me that the performance went awry at two early points, near the ends of Variations I and V. I don't know what happened the first time, but I had a strong sense that the music was not proceeding as usual. As for the second, there was a bar in which the pianist's hands seemed to fall into slightly different tempi. I won't swear to the veracity of this account, because all that I can be sure of is that I was terrified. How awful it would be if the soloist were having a bad night!

As the performance continued without further mishap, however, I sensed that Mr Denk was groping for a new reading of a challenging but very well-known chestnut; that he was holding the music up and examining its interesting bits. There is of course nothing to the Goldbergs except interesting bits, but it was clear that some of them clearly interested the pianist more than others. The two "romantic" variations (XIII and XXV) were played with exquisite lyricism and restrained pathos, but for the most part the work was tackled with a Broadway vigor that made such thoughts as "timeless," "magisterial," and even "counterpoint" seem fussy. Mr Denk took an intelligent mini-break before launching the Variations' second half with the pompy splendors of the French ouverture (XVI), but from there on the music sailed out of the piano in faintly smudged exaltation. The penultimate variation's runs flew at us in a way that seemed beyond both time and space. I'd very much like to hear the performance again. Perhaps I would perceive those moments in the first and fifth variations quite differently.

At the Museum, Itzhak Perlman led younger virtuosos in two staples, the second of Mozart's two piano quartets and Mendelssohn's Octet. The key difference between the two classics is the piano, which inspires some of Mozart's most conversational music. (The other piano quartet and the quintet for piano and winds are the only comparable works.) Pianist Kwan Yi and cellist Yves Dharamraj conducted an compelling discussion while Mr Perlman and violist Molly Carr made beautiful music. For some reason, the larghetto seemed to last a great deal longer than usual, but the explanation for this was certainly not the one offered by a woman seated behind me at the interval. (She didn't think that the musicians were "up to" the music.)

Mendelssohn's Octet, in contrast, is conceived for a pair of string quartets, and that is how it usually sounds, as each of the constituent ensembles brings a slightly different manner to the performance. There was none of that on Saturday night: the musicians executed the work with the extreme coordination of a superlative team of acrobats, and the result was correspondingly breathtaking. This approach would not suit the craggier meditations of older composers, but it matched beautifully the triumph of Mendelssohn's youthful élan.

In between, violinists Erno Kallai and Francesca Aneregg played the Onze Caprices Pour Deux Violons of Philippe Hersant. These exquisite miniatures, on the sound of them inspired by Bartók, made me imagine that I was listening in an austere salon that looked out from the Ile St Louis onto a snowy afternoon.

Orpheus began the year's last concert with Haydn's Symphony No 26, the "Lamentatione." It was only later that I connected the odd exclamations in the concluding minuet (accenting the third beat, in the trio) with the outraged roar in Ned Rorem's setting of William Blake's "A Poison Tree." This may be my own madness, but the symphony proved to be an ingenious overture to the edgy music that followed. One of Haydn's so-called Sturm und Drang symphonies, it illustrates the composer's attempt to domesticate the intoxicated ravings of CPE Bach. By the standards of the great "Paris" and "London" symphonies, it is an unruly work. There was nothing unruly about Ned Rorem's suite of songs or Stravinsky's Danses Concertantes, but a less roughed-up classicism would have made the opener look prim and what followed sound a bit vulgar. Instead, the modern music made the Haydn seem, in retrospect, prescient. 

I was pleased to note that Mr Rorem, whose songs closed the first half of the program, stayed on for the second, which consisted of Ravel's beloved Pavane pour une Infante défunte and the late-Stravinsky Danses Concertantes. Both of these works were played as Orpheus would be expected to play them, with a rigor that was always open to abandon. I'm not sure that I'd ever heard the Pavane in concert before; when I was growing up, and for many years after, no serious conductor would have touched it.

As for the 11 Songs for Susan, I hope that a recording will be forthcoming. Mr Rorem's orchestrations of eleven songs (three newly-written) put one in mind of a better-behaved Poulenc, but as light-touched and determined not to weary. Ms Graham, who is the composer's best-known exponent at the moment, sang with enthusiasm and assurance, nailing one song after another. I couldn't help wondering that English is incomprehensible when sung at full voice, and I wondered why Ms Graham's music stand, which apparently served to remind her of the words; on a more humdrum level, I couldn't guess why Ms Graham's music stand was positioned at a level somewhat above her knees, for whenever she consulted it her voice dropped off (just as you'd expect). She made up for everything with the concluding "Alleluia," a vocalise that can stand with the best of the Hallelujah choruses.

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