Do you remember this bit from the Constitution of the United States? [The President] shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; . . . That’s so-called “Treaty Clause” from Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 of the Constitution. […]
Patricia Kopatchinskaja, via The New York Times
The resident orchestra may be the “main event” at the Mostly Mozart Festival, but the series of “Little Night Music” concerts in the Kaplan Penthouse is a hidden gem. Intimate, café-style seating, a spectacular view, complimentary wine for those who are so inclined: These are among the most relaxing and enjoyable concert experiences that New York has to offer. And occasionally, as happened last Thursday, the weather helps out with a few well-timed flashes of lightning for dramatic effect.
Thursday’s concert was a solo recital by the Moldovan-Austrian violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, who does very well abroad but has lately stayed away from New York. She is an engaging presence, both in her playing and in her physicality. She came right on without a word and dispatched Enescu's playful, chirping “Ménétrier” with folksy humor, blinking at the audience as she tossed off the final notes.
Among the scheduled pieces, Kopatchinskaja was most at home in Bartók's solo Sonata. Here she displayed her greatest variety of color, from a hard, steely tone to a hazy warmth to a breathy sotto voce (she loves to whisper). The constant element in her playing was a sense of the piece's fighting intensity, even when it was only an echo, as in the frail wailing of the “Melodia.” Just before she began the Fuga, she backed up and bent slightly, as though ready to pounce, and pounce at the music she did.
The second piece on her program, the Chaconne from Bach's D-minor Partita, was listed last on the program. To reorder the program as she did was wise, as this was the most familiar piece of the evening, but also the most troubling of her performances.
The Chaconne is the fifth and final movement of the second partita, itself the undisputed summit of the solo violin literature, and it is unfortunately not uncommon to hear it played as a stand-alone piece. I say “unfortunately” because to isolate the movement sells it short. The Chaconne is not a self-contained episode, but a destination; we must have the stately sobriety of the Allemande, the tripping Courante, the subdued grief of the Sarabande, and the raucous Gigue before we can begin to grapple with the wrenching emotional drama that is waiting in the finale. Even the decision of how to begin—whether to allow a pause or to play the movement almost attacca—is an interpretive choice that affects how we hear the Chaconne. Instead, we were given truly masterful writing deprived of its all-important context, almost like seeing only the fifth act of Macbeth: Skip to the sleepwalking scene, and off we go . . .
So it's hard, really, to comment on Kopatchinskaja's interpretation, given that we don't know how the Chaconne fits into her vision of the whole suite. As it was, her performance felt claustrophobic. She took few liberties and rarely let herself play fully in the string, as though trying to maintain a respectful distance from the music. After she had finished, she confessed “I never play Bach. I don't think he needs me.” This was a startling (and, in a way, refreshing) admission, since the six Sonatas and Partitas are at the core of the repertoire—ask any violinist what she most likes to play when she is at home by herself, and the answer is likely to be “unaccompanied Bach.”
The following evening found Kopatchinskaja onstage again, this time at Avery Fisher with the Festival's Orchestra. She seemed a different violinist—gone were all traces of the timidity that had dogged her in Thursay’s Bach, in its place searing emotional intensity and harsh fury. Perhaps she had overcompensated in trying to play to the smaller Kaplan Penthouse—who knows?
She played the Swiss composer Frank Martin's Polyptyque from 1973, the year before his death. Inspired by six panels depicting the Passion of Christ, the six-movement concerto for violin and strings is an astonishing work that ranges from tender reverence to furious grief. “Image de la Chambre haute” featured beautiful, gauzy playing from Kopatchinskaja, grasping in different directions over the orchestra’s crushed tonality. The playing that Louis Langrée, the conductor, coaxed out of these strings was rich, even as the music itself left a feeling of emptiness. The most powerful movement of the six was the third, “Image de Judas.” The writing here is wild and bruising, the violin ranging madly over the off-kilter stuttering of the basses. One heard a combination of intense grief and absolute panic.
Langrée interspersed the movements with five chorales from Bach's St. John Passion (not an uncommon practice with this piece). His choices were thoughtful, lending an almost narrative quality to the interpolations.
The marquee piece on Friday's program was Mozart's Requiem Mass—what better way to finish off a festival in the composer's honor? While debate over what to do with this greatest of unfinished works rages on without end, the one point on which scholars all seem to agree is that the original completion by Mozart’s friends Joseph Leopold Eybler and Franz Xaver Sussmäyr is worse than unsatisfactory. One scarcely hears it in this version any more, it has become so unfashionable (though a number of well-known recordings have preserved its canonical status), but Langrée dusted it off, adding a few minor amendations of his own.
Langrée's changes to the score were subtle: The only one that immediately struck my ear (and I'm not even sure I could swear to it) was what sounded like a slight reordering of the choral parts in the Agnus dei, which gave a lighter complexion to the “Dona eis requiem” refrain. It was with the baton that he really made his mark, leading a performance that was, among other things, extremely fast. He consistently chose envelope- (and metronome-) pushing tempi, but kept all his forces together for a racing, high-energy performance. The Dies Irae was taken at a bat-out-of-hell clip, lending unstoppable fire to the work’s most hair-raising bars. Only the Confutatis was close to a standard pace, and it seemed positively tame by comparison.
The torrid pace paid off in the fugues, which rolled along with electric energy, intricately layered and brilliantly spun. The “Quam olim Abrahae” fugue in particular was gripping, sung with dignity and authority by James Bagwell’s Concert Chorale of New York.
The vocal quartet was uneven, and took a back seat to the chorus as a result. Susanna Philips, the young soprano who has recently become a star at the Met, was not in top form. Her tone was clear, and at times liquid, but it was also effortful, especially at the top, where her sound was never able to bloom fully. The tenor Dmitri Pittas had an even rougher time, clobbering his part with such force that he left no room to phrase. His pitch, meanwhile, suffered from an overly wide vibrato.
Kelley O'Connor, though, brought a gorgeous, dark velvet tone to the mezzo-soprano part, shaping the opening strains of the Recordare with loving care. The few moments in which her caramel voice was paired with Morris Robinson’s dusky, growling bass provided the most sumptuous singing of the night.
With all the ink that’s been spilled over who-wrote-what, it’s refreshing to hear a performance like this one that stays above the fray. So much of this authorship debate centers on flaying Sussmäyr for not doing things the way Mozart “would have” done them or for not being as formidable a composer as Mozart (a failing certainly not unique to him), forgetting that no matter how many new completions musicologists come up with, we will never hear the Requiem as Mozart would have finished it. Langrée did not try to offer a “definitive” version of the Requiem; instead he offered an earnest and compelling performance working with the material that he had. His focus was on music-making, not music history, and the audience was better off for it.
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Sign up to receive “Critic's Notebook” in your inbox every Monday—it only takes a few seconds and it's completely free! “Critic's Notebook” is a weekly preview of the best to read, see, and hear in culture, compiled by the editors of The New Criterion.
This week: German brutality in 1914 Belgium, why we should reconsider Philip Larkin, and an introduction to contemporary art from the Middle East.
Fiction: Our Lady of the Nile by by Scholastique Mukasonga, translated by Melanie Mauthner (Archipelago): Girls are sent to Our Lady of the Nile, an elite Catholic school set on the ridge of that river, for two reasons: to develop into leaders and to escape the dangers they face at home. Set fifteen years before the Rwandan genocide, the students in Mukasonga’s novel experience the thrill of independence while also giving voice to their parents’ politics and prejudices. The result is a snapshot of the social and racial conflicts that eventually led to the 1994 massacres. —BPK
Nonfiction: Philip Larkin: Life, Art, and Love by James Booth (Bloomsbury): While Larkin enjoyed great renown during his life—at least by poets’ standards—his reputation was tarnished following the 1992 publication of his letters, which revealed a spiteful man with unsavory opinions on race and sex. Booth’s new biography looks to mend Larkin’s reputation by examining his personal relationships. Booth argues that the poet was far from boorish, but rather better understood through the beauty of his art and the people he held most dear. —BPK
Rehearsals: The German Army in Belgium, August 1914 by Jeff Lipkes (Brabant Press): This is a revised second edition of a book first published in 2007. Lipkes provides a harrowing account of the “Rape of Belgium” by the German army at the beginning of the Great War. “By the end of August,” Lipkes writes, “nearly 6,000 Belgium civilians were dead, the equivalent of about 230,000 Americans today.” The title “Rehearsals” is to the point. For anyone who knows about Nazi atrocities in WWII, Lipkes’s account of German barbarities in the earlier conflict cannot but induce a dreadful sense of déjà-vu. Men were herded into fields or village squares and gunned down, others, including women and children, were forced into cattle cars and transported east to concentration camps, etc. Ever since the Armistice in 1918, there has been a tendency to downplay German savagery in the Great War. Lipkes provide an admonitory and thoroughly researched corrective. —RK
Poetry: The Poetry Foundation announces its fall season: The Poetry Foundation has announced its events for the coming fall; highlights include a readings and performances by A. E. Stallings, Renée Fleming, Mark Strand, and Timothy Donnelly, and lectures on Giacomo Leopardi and Bertolt Brecht. —DY
The Power of Beauty: A Philosophical Conference. Accepting Submissions: "Beauty will save the world," writes Dostoevsky, yet beauty is often seen as a weak and expendable arrow in the metaphysical quiver that includes the more robust good and true. Many think of beauty as a mere decoration o f human life, a luxury rather than a spiritual necessity. Indeed, there is much kitsch that masquerades as art; it is not surprising if such "beauty" is not taken seriously. Authentic beauty can have the transformative, even salvific, effects that Dostoevsky sees.
Art: “Here and Elsewhere” at the New Museum (through September 28, 214): Bringing together the work of almost fifty artists from more than a dozen countries, this exhibition presents an engaging overview of contemporary art from and about the Middle East. In the words of the Times’ Holland Cotter, the show offers “wonderful artists, deep ideas, fabulous stories and the chance, still too seldom offered by our museums, to be a global citizen.” —BPK
Music: Dvorak: Symphony No. 8—Janacek: Jenufa Suite (Reference Recordings): As we hit the end of summer, pickings for live music in the New York area are slim; pick up a copy of Manfred Honeck's latest CD with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. This past year, the Austrian conductor led one of the New York Philharmonic's most thrilling concerts of the season, delivering a gripping performance of Dvorak's Symphony No. 9. The new album, on the Reference label, gives us a chance to hear his interpretation of another Dvorak work, the bright and stirring Eighth, this time with his own orchestra. Also on the disc is the suite from Janacek's lush but melancholy opera Jenufa. —ECS
Other: En Avant! An Evening with Tennessee Williams at Stage 72 (Tuesday): Written and performed by William Shuman, this solo show, which won the 2013 New York International Fringe Festival award for “Overall Excellence for Solo Performance,” looks at Williams’s family life, lovers, hardships, and plays. —BPK
From the archive: Clement Greenberg by Tim Hilton, September 2000: A memoir of the art critic, reprinted from the book Telling Lives, edited by Alistair Horne, which was published in England by Macmillan.
From our latest issue: Cast in a bad light by Daniel Grant: The art market and its problem with reproductions.
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Connoisseurs of obtuse moral idiocy have long cherished The New York Times. Is there any other contemporary organ of opinion that so reliably combines the odor of sanctimoniousness with a seamless adherence to “progressive” left-leaning orthodoxy? It’s not just the positions espoused by our former paper of record: it’s the combination of those echt correct […]
Marbling from an 1880 French book, via The Paris Review
Links from the past week:
The Enemies, and Friends, of the Humanities
The Musicians Silenced in the Great War
In Defence of Puccini
A Visit With Mary Beard
The Birth of Impressionism Calculated to the Nearest Minute
From our pages:
Dogma & Diaghilev
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Daniel Barenboim; photo by Karl Schoendorfer/REX, via the Daily Telegraph
There was a Wagner concert in the Great Festival Hall at the Salzburg Festival last night. Daniel Barenboim led the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and a cast of veteran singers in the Prelude, Act II, and Liebestod (“Love-Death”) from Tristan und Isolde. The festival gave this concert an intriguing name: “The Tristan und Isolde Project.” But people have been performing exactly this program from time immemorial. It’s what you do when you want to give a Tristan concert.
I’d like to tell a story. Some years ago, I attended a Tristan at the Metropolitan Opera. Barenboim was in the pit. He was conducting very badly, or indifferently. It was like he had simply not shown up. During the second intermission, I made up my mind to leave. But I had gotten separated from the friend whom I had taken to the opera. So I went back to our seats to tell her I was leaving. She argued that I should stay. And then the lights were dimming. So I had no choice but to sit down.
And, in Act III, Barenboim was enthralling—entirely engaged, entirely musical, spellbinding. Why? Why then and not before? I don’t know.
Last night, Barenboim was very good—superb—from the beginning. The Prelude was very slow—probably the slowest I have heard—but it never dragged. It breathed beautifully and compellingly all through. He was no less good for the rest of the evening. This was the conducting of a podium master.
The orchestra was not good, or maybe I should say not first-class. The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is a cultural-political effort, an orchestra made up of Israelis and Arabs. On purely orchestral merits, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra would probably not get a gig like this. But people support the idea behind the orchestra, understandably.
It occurred to me that Barenboim needed to try harder, or conduct better, because of the quality of the orchestra. Again, I don’t know.
The singers were placed behind the orchestra, on risers. They were quite a long way from the audience. They might have been better off in front of the orchestra, as they traditionally are.
In the role of Isolde was Waltraud Meier, the German mezzo-soprano. Isolde is a soprano role, but mezzos dip a toe in—Christa Ludwig made a famous recording of the Liebestod. And Meier, as a singer, is a bit of a ’tweener: a soprano / mezzo-soprano.
The great Meier had very little voice to give. And what voice she had was not in good shape. She struggled, with intonation and everything else, throughout the night. She had zero high notes. Everything high was flat. Did she have enough musical intelligence and wiles to make up for the absence of a voice? That would be practically impossible: You really need an instrument in the part of Isolde.
Like Meier, our Tristan, the German tenor Peter Seiffert, had little voice to give. He, too, had a struggle throughout.
So, this was the situation: In some of the most beautiful music ever written, no one—neither the soprano (or mezzo) nor the tenor nor the orchestra—was making a beautiful sound. That was a problem.
Eventually, King Mark came on, and he was the best King Mark of our time: René Pape, the German bass. He came on with his water bottle. Why do singers in concert think they must have water with them at all times? They don’t in opera. Anyway, Pape sang like the best King Mark of our time. He contributed total authority.
In the Liebestod, as in the score at large, Barenboim was alert and kind: He took the singer’s final measures at lightning speed, knowing she was out of gas. Then he slowed down, to deliver the orchestra’s closing pages beautifully, transcendently.
A customer pays a lot of money when he attends a performance at the Salzburg Festival. What did he get last night? He got superb conducting and a superb King Mark. Otherwise . . .
Daniel Barenboim is one of those mysteries. He can conduct or play the piano like a dog—like a pigheaded amateur. And he can conduct or play like an all-time master. This is one of the things that make musical life interesting, I suppose.
I will end on a meteorological note: It has been very cool in Salzburg. Last night, the temperature was maybe 55 degrees. And inside the Great Festival Hall, it was sweltering. I’m surprised the audience didn’t drop like flies. The heat inside the halls—no matter the weather outside—is part of the Salzburg experience.
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Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). Divan Japonais. 1893. Lithograph
MOMA has mounted three major exhibitions of Toulouse-Lautrec’s work in the past, each separated by twenty or thirty years. Their most recent exhibition—“The Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec: Prints and Posters”—arrives just on schedule, following 1985’s “Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.”
Thirty years feels like the right amount of time to wait for a reappraisal; any longer would be risky. Toulouse-Lautrec needs defending as probably no other canonized artist of modern times does. His work has been so shamelessly vulgarized, imitations of his prints so often hung on the bathroom walls of overpriced French restaurants, that one is predisposed to look askance at his work and his reputation.
MOMA revises this unfair perception with “Prints and Posters,” which includes both lighthearted and serious works. The exhibition, which runs until March of next year, focuses on lithography to the exclusion of almost every other medium. This curatorial choice might seem narrow-minded at first, but it makes perfect sense in the case of Toulouse-Lautrec, whose best work was often in the form of printed posters, ads, and illustrations.
The form suited Toulouse-Lautrec. It was as malleable as he was. Born into an aristocratic family, he spent his days and nights among the masses in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris, but returned home every evening to have dinner with his pious mother. Bandy-legged and bespectacled, he cut a very strange figure among his own class, but found himself accepted into the world of freaks, barflies, and prostitutes that surrounded him in Paris.
Paris, like printing, suited Toulouse-Lautrec’s protean nature. The city presented him with many and varied scenes and settings, of which we see a wide sampling in “Prints and Posters.” The delirious energy of posters like La Troupe de Mademoiselle Eglantine is mellowed by the presence of more meditative works, like the “Elles” lithographs. Toulouse-Lautrec produced the “Elles” series, depicting eleven of Paris’s best known prostitutes, for a book about brothel life; however, the book flopped—apparently his portrayals of prostitutes did not sufficiently titillate the French reading public. The pictures remain, and give us proof of Toulouse-Lautrec’s range. They are among his finest works, and betray the strong influence of Degas—the shabbily wallpapered apartments, the yawning laundresses, the women bent double. Toulouse-Lautrec creates powerful images of femininity unlaced, unpowdered, and unadorned.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). Femme au tub (Woman at the Tub) from the portfolio “Elles.” 1896. Lithograph
The exhibition itself embodies Toulouse-Lautrec’s spirit of eclecticism. A touchscreen tablet allows the viewer to scroll through a book of illustrations, while speakers on either side pour out the chirping voice of Yvette Guilbert, a cabaret singer and a favorite subject of Toulouse-Lautrec. The same cabaret song repeats on loop. (A little variation or cessation of the music surely would have enhanced the effect.) An old film by the Lumière brothers, the acknowledged forefathers of filmmaking, shows a danse serpentine, a whirling-dervish sort of dance where women in dresses twirl huge bolts of silk on bamboo poles. A few photographs give us a nostalgic peep into fin-de-siècle Montmartre, a place today so flooded with tourists that it is hard to imagine what it was like during its heady youth.
All this extra material seems a little excessive, but then again, so is Toulouse-Lautrec. He revels in the cheap, relishes in baubles and bawdiness. As reported in an old MOMA catalogue, contemporaries describe Toulouse-Lautrec’s work as “exquisitely perverse” and “superbly nauseating.” “Prints and Posters” shows that he is sometimes simply “exquisite” and “superb.”
“The Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec: Prints and Posters” opened at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, on July 26, 2014 and remains on view through March 22, 2015
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As Scott Johnson over at Powerline has noted, the Sixties seems to be making a comeback on the world stage. Consider Barack Obama’s pathetic response to the violence and racial posturing in Ferguson. “It was,” Johnson writes, “a statement full of the reigning leftist clichés, even retrieving the “anger” of “looting” and “carrying guns” from […]
Piotr Beczala; photo via Salzburger Festspiele / Marco Borrelli / Lelli
Piotr Beczala has for years been an opera star, and on Sunday night he had his turn upon the recital stage here at the Salzburg Festival. Beczala is a Polish tenor whose name is pronounced “Beck-SHAH-wah.” He owns a beautiful voice, and has a key ingredient for a singer, or a musician, or a person, for that matter: likability.
He gave his recital in the House for Mozart, with the pianist Kristin Okerlund. They offered an appetizing program, with two distinct halves. On the first half was Dichterliebe, Schumann’s song-cycle, which gave the singer a chance to prove his chops in German art song. This is almost necessary at the Salzburg Festival. On the second half was music closer to home, which is to say, Beczala’s native land. It was all Slavic: songs by Karlowicz (a Pole), Dvorak (a Czech), and Rachmaninoff (a Russian).
I once did a public interview of Beczala in this town. He said he had studied with Sena Jurinac, the famed “Yugoslavian” soprano, as we used to say. I asked, “What language did you communicate in?” He said, “We call it ‘Slavic mix’”—some Russian, some Polish, some Czech, some Serbo-Croatian . . .
Dichterliebe did not begin well. Okerlund, the pianist, warped the opening with an excess of rubato. And when the tenor came in, he was strained and tentative—not sounding like himself at all. He seemed to be in some vocal distress. Possibly, he was nervous. The first song was very, very shaky.
But Beczala soon came into his voice. He had nothing low, however, and Schumann requires some low notes in this cycle. The pianist, I believe, played much more bluntly than she intended. I’m not sure she could properly hear her accentuation, for example. I have no doubt she intended more refinement, more lyricism.
The performers never quite settled into Dichterliebe. The cycle never quite cast its spell. Beczala sang some excellent individual phrases, as he can’t help doing—he’s a world-class tenor. But Dichterliebe did not have its marvelous overall effect.
What it had, along with Beczala’s voice, was the singer’s likability. You root for him, in all circumstances. He is winning, no matter the weather.
Leaving for intermission, I thought, “If they could do it over, it would be much better. They need a mulligan.” I don’t often have this thought. But I believe that Beczala and Okerlund were capable of much more in this cycle. I’m sorry the performance was recorded for posterity (more on that in a moment).
Mieczyslaw Karlowicz was a Pole who lived a very brief life: 1876 to 1909. He was thirty-two when he died in a skiing accident. I have said he lived “a very brief life,” but, let’s face it, he lived a year longer than Schubert.
Beczala sang seven songs of Karlowicz, published between 1897 and 1899. In them, you heard the voice of sheer authenticity (Beczala’s). I will mention a detail, a technical detail: In the first song, Beczala did not have a true piano. He was hoarse and hooded. (Pavarotti would do this, on his worst days.) But at the end of the last song, he floated a beautiful little high A. He held it forever, never wavering from his pitch, even as the pianist shifted harmonies underneath him.
Speaking of the pianist, she played agreeably in these songs, as in subsequent ones.
The program told us that she and Beczala would next perform Dvorak’s Gypsy Songs, Op. 55. They would close with their Rachmaninoff group. Instead, they launched into the Rachmaninoff group—with no indication to the audience, written or spoken, so far as I’m aware.
Beczala should have eaten these songs alive. They are in his wheelhouse. And he sang them well enough. Yet some of the dreamy songs were not smooth enough, from either performer, to be truly dreamy. There were seams in the seamlessness. Also, Beczala did some straining on high and soft notes. And then there was this:
I’ve never much liked it when people say, “So-and-so sang the song like an opera aria. It was far too operatic.” The truth is, there is some opera-singing in song-singing, and some song-singing in opera-singing. And yet—a couple of the Rachmaninoff songs sounded too much like opera arias.
Beczala sang them with heart, however. And he sang Dvorak’s Gypsy Songs with heart—and voice, and style, and gladness.
The audience was very pleased, and he gave them four encores. The first two were classic Italian songs—as distinct from classical Italian songs. They were “Cor ’ngrato” and “Mattinata.” Beczala sang them, naturally, with voice and heart. They were not particularly Italianate—but this mattered little.
Then he sang two Strauss songs, ending with “Zueignung,” the most common encore in song recitals, at least in my experience: It is a song of thanks. Beczala sang it very warmly, expansively, and likably.
Let me append a few footnotes—beginning with a remark on “gender,” as we say these days. Not often is the singer a man and the accompanist a woman. Beczala made sure to let her go first, as they retreated from the stage into the wings (or wing). A gentleman.
I thought of Ivari Ilja, known for accompanying Dmitri Hvorostovsky (the Russian baritone). Once, he had a female page-turner. And always insisted she go first.
Okay, the second footnote, also about “gender,” as it happens. Here in Salzburg, only the female performers receive flowers from ushers at the end of performances. In America—at least in New York—male and female alike receive flowers. We have developed a unisexual, or metrosexual, culture. I once saw Bryn Terfel (the Welsh bass-baritone) receive his flowers onstage at Carnegie Hall. He was charmingly mocking about it.
And the final footnote: The Beczala recital was recorded for television, apparently. Anna Netrebko, the starry Russian soprano, was in the audience. She has been singing Leonora in Verdi’s Trovatore next door in the Great Festival Hall. During the Beczala recital, in the House for Mozart, a camera was now and then trained on her.
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Gianandrea Noseda; photo by Ramella&Giannese
One of the particular problems that comes with performing Beethoven's Ninth, at least with modern programming conventions, is how to complement it. At an hour to an hour and ten, it's too long to pair with a full-length concerto (unless you want a twenty-five-minute first half, a twenty-minute intermission, and a seventy-minute second half) but too short to program all by itself (as is often done with, say, any number of Mahler symphonies). The trick is to find an overture of about ten minutes that won't look completely flimsy next to perhaps the greatest warhorse in the symphonic repertoire.
Gianandrea Noseda, conducting the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra last Wednesday, chose another late work, the Consecration of the House overture. It’s not the most thrilling or commanding of Beethoven’s concert overtures, but it has history in its favor, as it and the Ninth were originally premiered together. The opening chords came in wide, flashing bursts as the strings played with stately breadth, showing off a rich, burnished tone. Noseda’s direction was both sensible and liberal, allowing the measured opening to flow naturally and organically into the spirited bounding that follows.
The MMF Orchestra is a reduced band, of the size we'd expect from the early classical period—twenty violins, as opposed to the thirty or so common for a modern symphony orchestra. All hands are usually called for when this piece is performed, so to hear it stripped down as it was on Wednesday gives the symphony an entirely different complexion. In a few spots the result was less than illuminating; at the opening, for instance, the reduced strings were able to play spectacularly softly, but the horns above them, which are marked pianissimo, seemed absolutely blaring. (Moreover, the acoustics of Avery Fisher Hall, modified annually for this festival, seemed especially unforgiving from where I sat, though others further back in the hall reported a different experience.)
In general, though, the scale of the orchestra allowed for a pared-away reading of the work, a sound that didn't envelop the audience as we're used to, but that still got at the meat of the music. Fewer in number, the strings were able to dig in and bow freely without fear of upsetting the balance.
There was solid playing and intelligent conducting throughout the symphony, but the highlight was a hair-raising rendition of the second movement. In this Scherzo (and in the Fifth's, for that matter) Beethoven displays a darker-than-pitch sense of humor, and the relentless thrashing of this movement's clockwork theme gets delightfully nasty. Noseda, though, managed to keep the music’s impishness from getting away from him, finding the very real wit underneath all of that bile, pairing the scherzo with a cool, singing trio.
Noseda led a sweet and ruminative account of the Adagio, though he found less variety here than in the rest of the symphony. The music sat mostly at one level of energy, which is not entirely out of place, but gave the sense of being “stuck.” The finale, too, initially seemed to be on a tight leash, sounding less than chaotic in its explosive presto introduction. What followed, though, was masterfully crafted, as Noseda’s conducting tantalized in the build-up to the main theme, teasing the audience with the echoed snatches from the earlier movements and keeping a lid on the orchestra right up through the celli’s first sotto voce purr of the “An die Freude” melody. The interpretation was intelligent, clear, and varied, leading us through beaming choral outbursts (courtesy of the Concert Chorale of New York, magnificently booming and richly toned), a delightfully coy march, and an intricately layered fugato section.
For star power, the vocal quartet featured the Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov, who was a commanding presence with his gigantic, smoky voice. This was not his most precise singing (he had an uncharacteristically rough time finding the pitches at the bottom of his range), but he brought richly colored, rough-hewn sound to his part. His three compatriots were all admirable in turn: The tenor Russell Thomas declaimed his soli with confidence and the two ladies—the mezzo-soprano Anna Maria Chiuri and the soprano Erika Grimaldi, in her U.S. debut—displayed precise, clear technique, weaving together beautifully when singing ensemble.
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( AHR-mah wih-ROOM-kweh)
In the Aeneid, the Roman poet Virgil sang of "arms and a man" (Arma virumque cano). Month in and month out, The New Criterion expounds with great clarity and wit on the art, culture, and political controversies of our times. With postings of reviews, essays, links, recs, and news, Armavirumque seeks to continue this mission in accordance with the timetable of the digital age.
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