The Emerson Quartet via
In my last update, I said that Paul Lewis was “widely recognized as one of our great pianists.” So I was surprised to hear, before his recital on Tuesday, a number of concertgoers saying that they'd “never heard of this guy.” After this program, I doubt they'll forget him any time soon.
His performance of the last three Beethoven Sonatas, Op. 109, 110, and 111, might not have been the most imaginative lineup, but it was certainly a flashy one. The late works of Beethoven, and in particular the late piano sonatas and string quartets, carry a certain weighty aura about them, much like the great dramas. They are among both his most cerebral and his most intense output, and to attempt one of these pieces is both an intellectual undertaking and an artistic achievement; to play three of them together gives a recital the feeling of a major athletic event.
What's more, in terms of the quality of playing alone, this was one of the finest piano recitals I have heard in the past few years. It was the sort of performance that truly is a privilege to experience, hearing great and challenging music reaching its full potential through interpretation.
The most famous of these three, probably, is the last, Op. 111. Lewis began the maestoso with a firm attack, giving the first of these two movements the solid base that it needs to unfold. He was not quite as sharp here as in the rest of the recital, pushing the tempo and allowing some of the fugal passagework to get away from him slightly, but there was no shortage of brio. The Arietta was indeed singing, as he caressed the keys into a whisper, and in one of the later variations I heard jazzy inflections in the dotted cascades that I'd never noticed before.
110 was excellent as well, its opening movement a thing of majesty. The trick here is to create the rippling effect of the arpeggios while still allowing the main line to sing through, and Lewis pulled it off admirably, even conjuring a rainstorm on the lawn outside. The two middle movements flowed easily (the Allegro molto was not, in fact, “molto”), and his reading of the finale was straightforward—he allowed the fuga to do its work, rather than getting in its way with excessive meddling.
Best of all was 109, a considered, ruminative performance that showed the very finest and most personal qualities of Lewis's playing. Moderation was his theme; where Beethoven indicated “non troppo,” Lewis followed, as in the opening movement, which was about the most sighing “Vivace” you'll ever hear. He made the keyboard positively glitter, without losing any of the seriousness of the music.
The last movement of this sonata was absolutely spellbinding; the appearance of the melody at the top of the keyboard was rapturous, each note bursting with light. All three of these sonatas have a movement marked “cantabile,” and in all three Lewis achieved some of the most lyrical playing you'll ever hear from a piano.
Paul Lewis may or may not be a superstar, but the four members of the Emerson Quartet certainly are; or, rather, among the four of them one collective superstar emerges. They are among the elite of the world's string quartets, attracting audiences in droves, and yet I doubt very many people in Ozawa Hall on Wednesday could have told you the players' names without glancing at the program. It's the same with orchestras: every music lover reveres the Vienna Philharmonic, but you probably won't find one in ten who can tell you the name of the concertmaster.
Their program could hardly have seemed more eclectic on paper, comprising works by three composers from three different centuries. About Ives's String Quartet No. 1, which started the evening, I won't say too much. It was skillfully and sunnily played, and it is often very clever, but I've never really warmed to Ives, especially his early works, which I find a little syrupy. The most convincing movement of the four in this quartet was the third, the “Offertory,” which shows an airy, fluid sonority. The last movement had some verve to it, but seemed half-hearted.
The headline attraction of the evening was Beethoven's Op. 135 Quartet, his sixteenth and his last—his last complete work, in fact. One expects a venerable ensemble like Emerson to play a complex work like this one with clarity and understanding, which they did. One also expects them to play in tune, which they did not. There was some crunching of tone in the Vivace, too—but the energetic bounce here was just right. Throughout the quartet, in fact, they showed odd technical problems, but direction of the piece has never been clearer. Emerson knew exactly what the music meant to them, and they communicated their ideas frankly to the audience.
Most striking, though, was the newest piece on the program, Lowell Liebermann's String Quartet No. 5. Written for Emerson in 2014, it is a work of one continuous movement, though there are several clearly defined sections within it. It begins in lurking mystery, building towards a fevered frenzy that settles back into a new, more lyrical vein, as the first violin traces out a wandering melody. A fast middle section, characterized by skittering violence and harsh pounding (the composer describes this as a scherzo: if so, the joke is a cruel one) gives way once more to a heart-rending search, before the quartet finally creeps out as strangely as it entered.
Liebermann has a particularly compelling harmonic language, neither saccharine nor screeching. He is not afraid of liberated dissonance, but neither does he employ it merely for its own sake; it intensifies the color of what he has already created in his melodic writing, turning sweet consonance into something that sounds uncomfortably acid. He avoids, too, the paper-thin textures and copious extended technique that other composers today often use to create spooky atmospheres. This is fleshy, purposeful writing, its texture exploring the sonic possibilities of the string quartet, and its gestures all contributing to the piece's larger argument.
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John Sell Cotman, A Ruined House, c. 1807–10, watercolor over graphite on paper, © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford
Watercolors, Nikolaus Pevsner explained in his 1964 lecture "The Englishness of English Art," enjoy in Britain a status "never equalled in any other country." The reason, Pevsner suggested, is that watercolors are usually small. Having stated the historically obvious, Pevsner demurred from explaining its cause. Ruskin, viewing the narrow horizons of middle-class taste in 1879, was less discreet. The popularity of the watercolorists William Henry Hunt and Samuel Prout, whose work Ruskin quite liked, betrayed a complicity between smallness in art and pettiness in taste: "They gave an unquestionable tone of liberal-mindedness to a suburban villa, and were the cheerfullest possible decorations for a moderate-sized breakfast-parlour opening onto a nicely-mown lawn."
Other, less negative, affiliations come to mind. A culture that takes its philosophy empirically might appreciate the watercolor's fidelity to appearance. Conversely, there might be a sympathy between the understated emotional palette of the Land of the Stiff Upper Lip, and the watercolor's deliberate modesty of execution, with its confidence that an unruffled surface and subtle variations in wateriness can express profundities of emotion, or at least hint at their potential, like wisps from a waking volcano. Smallness, the geographical condition of the British Isles, can also make for intensity.
The Ashmolean at Oxford is technically a provincial museum, smaller than the great museums of London, but it holds one of the world's broadest collections of British drawings and watercolors. For Great British Drawings, Colin Harrison, Senior Curator of European Art, has selected a mere hundred or so, from Samuel Cooper's sensitively shadowed black chalk portrait of Thomas Alcock (c.1650), whose angelic demeanor belies his membership in the Earl of Rochester's set, to Tom Phillips' violent "Salman Rushdie" (1993), in which Rushdie's image is almost erased by evocations of mud-slinging, book-burning, and controversy: spatters of blood-colored dirt, incisions of charcoal, and Rushdie's own words, almost unreadable, black on black.
If Great British Drawings ranges widely and skillfully, it never loses sight of its native habits and terrain. The early history of the "golden age" of the British watercolor (c.1750-1850) is a study in the merits and limits of patriotic art. The art schools of eighteenth-century Paris followed a rigid, Classical curriculum; in London, even after the establishment of the Royal Academy in 1769, each studio reflected its teacher. Hogarth advised "Observation," and thought that studying abroad was an "errant farce." Fuseli corrected the balance between line and shading by leaning over his students' shoulders with a crayon, and scoring their drawings so forcefully "as to cut through the paper." Sass, who trained Frith, Holman Hunt, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti for their Academy examinations, insisted on the "dot and lozenge" method found in eighteenth-century engravings, where every cross-hatched lozenge had its dot.
The national style, then, was highly personal. Gainsborough's "Milkmaid with Two Cows" (1770s) is deliberately rough, its rustic subjects in rough black and white chalk, their setting softened by a bucolic pink-brown wash. The chiaroscuro effect of the thick brown ink in Romney's study, "A Lady Leaning on a Pedestal" (1777-78) is fast and functional; after visiting Rome in 1775, Romney often dispensed with studies entirely, and outlined in brown ink directly onto the canvas. The penwork and the degrees of light and darkness in Rowlandson's "Landscape with Cattle Fording a Stream" (c.1795-1800) are filigreed to the point of lifelessness, the watercolor vitiated in anticipation of the engraver's burin.
Jonathan Richardson (1665-1745) exemplifies the life-drawing techniques of the age. His drawing of the bare-knuckle pugilist James Figg (1714), who can be seen at work in Hogarth's "Southwark Fair" (1734), uses its blue paper as a middle tone, black chalk for the line, and white chalk for heightening. Yet Richardson too is unpredictable. The contours of Figg's muscled arms and neck are blended and smudged, but a later portrait, a drawing of the bibliophile and antiquary Richard Mead (c.1739), is densely cross-hatched, like one of the Old Master silverpoint drawings that Richardson collected.
William Blake was the most eccentric product of this literary-minded culture. While the washes of Blake's tempera "Baptism of Christ" (c.1803) soften his graphite line, his process is revealed by the layers in "The Deity from whom proceed the Nine Spheres" (1825-27), an unfinished drawing from his incomplete "Divine Comedy" series. Broad, simple graphite sketches are developed with diluted ink and brush, then detailed with pen and ink.
Blake shared in style, if not subject matter, with his contemporaries. Blake's statuesque allegories of revolt recur in James Barry's shameless currying of royal favor, "Allegory of the Union of Britain and Ireland" (1800). Samuel Palmer's dark nocturne "The Valley With Bright Cloud" (1825), echoes Blake's visionary sensibility, but it also shares in the muted Arcadia of George Augustus Wallis’s conventionally scenic "Ruins of Selinunte" (c.1792).
The strength of the Ashmolean's collections allows Great British Paintings to navigate the long, scenic passage from Romantic tourism to the Victorian parlor wall without falling into the Valley of the Shadow of the Picturesque. There are excellent domestic scenes by Thomas Girtin (a sublimely disordered "Dunottar Castle in a Thunderstorm," c.1794); Edward Dayes (a light-flooded "Durham Cathedral, Seen from Under Ralph Flambard's Bridge," 1797); John Sell Cotman ("Ruined House," c. 1807-1810, its tawny colors proto-abstract blocks); and William Turner of Oxford ("Stonehenge: Stormy Day, 1846," painted a couple of years before Carlyle took Emerson to Stonehenge in similar weather). More exotically, Edward Lear's "Constantinople from Ayoub" (1848) is a witty, wordless postcard, the delicacy of its graphite interrupted by a pen and ink tree line. And John Frederick Lewis' scrupulous "Arabs with Camels" (1858) is both detailed and minimal, with highlights of light cream scumbled over bare canvas, and a mercilessly blue sky, modulated with a sandy mist of dust.
Back in the parlors of Blighty, the Pre-Raphaelites await. The self-taught curiosities of Burne-Jones always interest, as does one of Rossetti's "stunners," a luscious pastel drawing of Jane Morris as Proserpine (1871). The linchpins of the modern watercolor, however, were not the often-clumsy medievalism of the Pre-Raphaelites, but the tonal variations of the other Turner, William Mallord, and the opening of the Slade School in 1871. Cleverly juxtaposed, Turner's dissolving Venice ("The Riva degli Schiavone," 1840), adjoins the fine detail of Ruskin's quasi-photographic "Exterior of the Ducal Palace" (1852).
The Slade taught the French academic principle of study from life, but Henry Tonks, like a milder Fuseli, still sat down next to his students and drew on the side of their papers. Tonks' pupils revived British drawing in what he called a "crisis of brilliance." After late Victorian propriety, the superb physicality of Augustus John ("Standing Male Nude," 1897) sings with energy. And while the Slade looked to the French academy for its method, its students turned to contemporary French art. Harold Gilman's "Seascape: Breaking Waves" (1917) merges sea and sky by pen and ink lines. The tumbledown port of Ben Nicholson's "1929 (view of the harbour at St. Ives)" domesticates Picasso's line to Britain, as Shaw had once explained Wagner and Ibsen.
The documentary aspect survived, but not in the picturesque. Austin Osman Spare's "Dressing Station" (1919) is hellish: in a Stygian bunker, the green-faced wounded wait for the white-robed surgeon and the chloroform. In "Under the Cliff" (1940), Paul Nash, whose engagement as a war artist Eric Newton compared to "asking T.S. Eliot to cover a boxing match," dissolves the smashed tail of a German bomber into the impassive white cliffs of Dover. The flames, egg-yolk yellow, and carmine red, of Graham Sutherland's "The Smelting Works" (1941) are a Blakean mill, the ruins of David Bomberg's "Evening in the City of London" (1944), thick with smoky, broken cross-hatches.
Space, and the need not to confirm the worst fears of Pevsner and Ruskin, precludes mention of the other twentieth-century thread in this intense and rich show: a selection of excellent comic drawings, each expressing the islanders' odd sense of humor, and all perfect for the parlor wall.
Great British Drawings opened at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford on March 26th, 2015, and can be seen until August 31st, 2015. The catalog, Great British Drawings (Oxford, 2015) is edited by Colin Harrison, and contains several excellent essays.
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Bernard Lewis, Photo Credit: Office of Communications, Princeton University
For decades, there has been a battle between Edward Said and Bernard Lewis. In truth, this is not much of a battle: Lewis is one of the greatest historians—indeed, one of the greatest scholars—of our time. And Said?
I’ll quote Paul Johnson, another historian. In 2006, he referred to Said as “this malevolent liar and propagandist, who has been responsible for more harm than any other intellectual of his generation.”
I have been hearing about Said versus Lewis since I was in college. If I never heard about this matter again, it would be too soon. But a friend of mine recently sent me an article by e-mail, and I’m sorry I saw it. Not so much the article, which is excellent, as a quotation in it—a quotation that occasioned the article.
Said once charged that Lewis was “dripping with condescension and contempt toward the Arab world.”
Before getting to Lewis, I’d like to mention a friend of his, David Pryce-Jones, yet another historian. (The trio of Lewis, Johnson, and Pryce-Jones makes a powerful trio indeed.) Over the years, Arabs have said to Pryce-Jones, “Why do you care about us so much, that you would write so honestly about us?”
Lewis told me something interesting once. A book of his was translated into Hebrew and published by the Israeli defense ministry. The same book was translated into Arabic and published by the Muslim Brotherhood.
In his preface to the Arabic version, the translator said, “I don’t know who this author is, but one thing about him is clear: He is either a candid friend or an honorable enemy, and in either case is one who has disdained to falsify the truth.”
This is one of the great compliments of Lewis’s career, and completely earned.
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Sir Neville Marriner and Paul Lewis (Credit: Hillary Scott)
While the Mostly Mozart Festival prepares to open its season with Brahms, the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood served up a Saturday evening of Mozart, and nothing else. This is a prospect that didn't necessarily appeal to me in theory. To lead off with a major admission, I don't think of Mozart as one of my favorite composers; one certainly has to respect his genius and the beauty of his works, but I find he doesn't deliver the sort of emotional punch I often crave in a musical performance, which a listener is more likely to find in the great Romantics.
But once in a while, as on Saturday, I hear a performance that reminds me how unfair I've been to Mozart. The opportunity to luxuriate in the beauty and grace of his music is exquisite, even if it lacks the psychological challenge of a Shostakovich quartet.
Christian Zacharias, the German pianist and conductor, led the BSO from the keyboard, a trick of which I'm often skeptical. As with violinists and composers who think they can also conduct, the results are frequently poor. It's a little different, of course, when playing with a chamber orchestra (the BSO played with reduced numbers for its Mozart selections, as is now customary), and Zacharias is no dabbler; he is an excellent pianist and an excellent conductor, and if he wants to do both at once, so much the better.
Zacharias was remarkably free in his playing in the opening movement. His runs weren't always even, but his playing was richly expressive, and deeply intelligent. He played a rhapsodic cadenza of his own devising; stylistically appropriate and virtuosic and personal all at once, it was one of the best “original” cadenzas I've heard in a while. No less fine were the two ensuing movements—his touch positively glowed in the andante, and in the finale he achieved the perfect cheerful energy, finding an almost romantic strain near the end.
He stayed at the keyboard to play continuo for two Mozart arias with Sarah Connolly, CBE, the superb English mezzo. Connolly took the stage with poise, listened thoughtfully to the orchestral introduction, and had scarcely sung the first line of the concert aria “Ch'io mi scordi di te” before a lavish wedding party up the road began what sounded like an impressive display of fireworks. One of course has to give Connolly the benefit of the doubt and assume her artistry was superior, but alas, the rockets gave her a good fight in the volume department, unleashing their final salvo during the aria's closing bars. At Carnegie Hall, we put up with passing subway trains and police sirens; at Tanglewood it's fireworks. Go figure.
Her second aria, “Deh, per questo istante solo” from La Clemenza di Tito, went undisturbed, and was brilliant. Connolly might not have the most drop-dead-gorgeous, honey-kissed mezzo in the world, but she knows how to use her instrument. She floats so freely and gracefully through her upper register, turning every phrase with artistry and intelligence, that you almost forget she has a warm, powerful chest voice as well, until suddenly it crackles to life at the bottom of a line.
Back to conducting, this time without a piano, Zacharias gave an admirable reading of Mozart's “Prague” Symphony, No. 38. One of the reasons, I suspect, that I don't relish Mozart is the treatment his music so often gets—a pinky-in-the-air sort of effeteness has become almost standard, and while his work is certainly graceful it oughtn't sound flimsy. Zacharias's interpretation of this symphony was bright and tripping, of course, but it was also richly textured, and—believe it or not—muscular. The finale in particular had almost an inebriate joy.
On Friday, Baiba Skride had played Mozart's great “Turkish” Violin Concerto, the fifth, also with Zacharias on the podium. This is one of the most important concerti in the violin's repertoire, though, in terms of technical challenge, not one of the most difficult.
So it was strange to hear Skride, a Queen Elizabeth Competition laureate, let so many impurities sneak into her playing. There was a lot of funny intonation, dropped notes, and the like—surprising lapses, on the whole. Still, Skride plays with a gleaming tone that suits this repertoire perfectly, and she conveyed a clear understanding of the piece—even if her technical preparation was suspect.
She played a second programmed piece with the orchestra, which is just about unheard of in concerts these days. It was the Rondo for violin and orchestra, K. 373, and it was, frankly, more of the same—very good playing with some very noticeable errors.
This turned out to be Schumann weekend, as well as Mozart weekend. Friday's symphony was Schumann's Second, and it got an outstanding performance from Zacharias and company. The opening placed clear peals of brass over a velvet bed of strings, and the peppery scherzo had just the right amount of spark, feeling energetic but not aggressive.
The andante was the star of this symphony, as it so often is—the BSO was pure honey, singing out the arching motif of the strings and ensuring that it would stick in the listeners' ears for hours. After this vision of bliss, the noble gallop of the finale seemed almost superfluous—almost.
There might be no conductor more closely associated with Mozart today than Sir Neville Marriner, who led the BSO on Sunday afternoon. Now 91 years old, he still manages to stand for an entire concert, and gives a firm—if slightly odd-looking—beat.
Two familiar Mozart symphonies book-ended this program, and both were predictably excellent in more or less the same ways. Leading the way was No. 35 in D, the “Haffner” symphony, and ending was No. 36 in C, “Linz.” Both were crisp and buoyant in their opening movements, then featured a beguiling andante, followed by a stately menuet and a grinning presto finale. A battle-tested formula, to be sure, but it speaks to the genius of both Mozart and Marriner that neither piece felt formulaic.
Sir Neville's Mozart is a little on the reserved side—it feels contained, cerebral, poised. It never slips out of his firm grasp. Pacing plays a major part—there is no fussing around with tempo in Marriner's conducting. He picks a tempo, and then he sticks to it, using other means to carve out a well-shaped interpretation.
If Sunday marked the end of a Mozart and Schumann mini-festival, it also marked the start of a Paul Lewis mini-festival. Lewis is widely regarded as one of our great pianists, particularly in the Classical repertoire, but he doesn't doesn't have quite the fanatical following of a Daniil Trifonov or a Lang Lang. He is all business, wearing only one uniform that I've seen—a grey linen shirt and black slacks. His recital on Tuesday night, presenting the last three of Beethoven's sonatas, promises to be a highlight of the Tanglewood summer.
On Sunday he played Robert Schumann's Piano Concerto. (I've always found it odd that Schumann finished only one piano concerto, seeing what a virtuoso he was himself; but then, Sibelius only wrote one violin concerto.) It's often observed that this piece is not as difficult as it sounds. For Lewis, it did not sound difficult at all; his playing was limpid, spacious, and completely free. It sounded as though he had done away with all pretense of effort, lest it get in the way of his phrasing. And yet, for all his lyrical ease at the keyboard, he has enough stormy intensity to pull off the mood swings that this piece requires.
It feels as though the BSO get better every time I hear them; under Marriner on Sunday they securely executed every technical demand, and showed showed countless colors and textures in their playing. They have had some dark times in the last decade, and after all of their trouble, to hear them sound this good is immensely gratifying.
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McKim, Mead & White, Hall of Fame for Great Americans, 1897-1899. Bronx, NY.
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This week: Ministers, Man Booker, and McKim, Mead & White.
Fiction: Swimming Home, by Deborah Levy (Bloomsbury): Last week I discussed the foibles of the Man Booker Prize process in relation to Edward St Aubyn’s Lost For Words. That, and this week’s unbearably muggy weather, reminded me of another recently shortlisted book, Deborah Levy’s 2012 novel Swimming Home. In this slim volume, Levy conveys with spare prose the stifling ennui of an affluent English family’s summer vacation in the south of France. Levy’s skillful, provocative language keeps the reader engaged, overcoming what some might deem a narrow topic. More a sketch of a certain destructive lifestyle than a novel proper, Levy’s book is an absorbing examination of the burdens of choice that we all face. —BR
Nonfiction: Comedy Rules: From the Cambridge Footlights to Yes Prime Minister, by Jonathan Lynn (Faber & Faber): Want some light summer reading? If you are (as I am) a fan of the BBC series Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minster, I suspect you will enjoy Comedy Rules: From the Cambridge Footlights to Yes Prime Minister by one of the series' (and resulting offshoots’) two authors, Jonathan Lynn. (The other was Anthony Jay.) Comedy Rules is half, or maybe five-eighths, memoir, presented in a series of 150 rules for the writing (and reflections on the nature of) comedy. "Rule #1: There are exceptions to every rule in this book. Except this one, of course.” There are longueurs, crotchets, and passages that some readers might wish to preface with the legend “Detour,” but (as cabinet minister Sir Humphrey might put it) on the whole, taking everything into account, balancing this against that, at the end of the day, the book is a charming way to beguile the odd hour. Even some of the quirks are amusing, for example Lynn’s ambition to stage two productions of Macbeth seriatim, same cast (except for the title role), same set, same overall direction, but one would be played straight, as a tragedy (Lynn wanted Brian Cox for this version), the other as a comedy, for which John Cleese was Lynn’s man. He explained his idea to the director Peter Hall. “Peter stared at me for about a minute, in complete silence. Then he simply changed the subject and never referred to the idea again.” Lynn also rehearses that brilliant moment (one of my favorites) in Yes Minister when Jim Hacker, the hapless but (partly) lovable Minister comments that if there were votes to be had by pushing a certain policy, he certainly didn't want to look a gift horse in the mouth.
He proceeded to give a little grammatical explanation of the phrase, distinguishing between the use of the “os” ending in Greek from its use in Latin, etc. Lynn digested all this and realized it would be perfect for the third major character of the series, the Minister’s benignly pedantic Principal Private Secretary Bernard Woolly. So they bunged it in. If this is the sort of thing you like, you’ll like Comedy Rules. —RK
Poetry: What Pet Should I Get?, by Dr. Seuss (Random House): Summer calls for a certain lightness in all pursuits: poetry should be no different. It is no time for Eliot’s cold, musty Waste Land; in summer we crave something more buoyant, less serious, as it were. And so this week we highlight the posthumous release of a new book by Dr. Seuss. Though Seuss (the erstwhile Theodor Geisel) may not rank among the great versifiers of our time, there is much joy to be had in his doggerel. His newly released What Pet Should I Get? should pair nicely with a glass of lemonade. —BR
Art: The Hall of Fame for Great Americans and Gould Memorial Library: With the reopening of the High Bridge, now is a great time to explore the beauty of the Bronx. You heard right. The Bronx contains some of the most picturesque, historic, yet overlooked sites in New York. One day recently I biked to the the nearly forgotten architectural wonders of the Hall of Fame for Great Americans and Gould Memorial Library, both designed at the turn of the last century by Stanford White for what was once the uptown campus of New York University. The brainchild of Dr. Henry Mitchell MacCracken, Chancellor of New York University from 1891 to 1910, the Hall of Fame contains the bronze portrait busts of 98 honorees along a 630-foot colonnade that wraps around the back of the Stanford White campus. The building at the center, Gould Memorial Library, is also must-see for its magnificent gold dome, which Christopher Gray has rightfully called "One of New York's most spectacular interiors, just as sumptuous as the New York Public Library and just as dazzling as the Chrysler Building." —JP
Music: Paul Lewis, at Tanglewood: This will be one of the busiest weeks of the summer festival, as the annual "Festival of Contemporary Music" presents concerts with Manny Ax and Nicholas Phan. The highlight of the week, though, is a classic: on Tuesday Paul Lewis will play the last three of Beethoven's piano sonatas. —ECS
From the archive: Building the Gilded Age, by Michael J. Lewis: We revisit McKim, Mead & White in person, while in 2010 Michael J. Lewis revisited their work in our October issue of that year.
From our latest issue: Cuddlers & cutthroats, by James Bowman: As the United Kingdom’s Conservative government attempts to navigate the new political environment, James Bowman dissects the election coverage.
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In its recent season, the American Ballet Theatre put on two Prokofiev ballets, Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella. Those are the big two, in the Prokofiev corpus. There are others.
Romeo and Juliet was written in 1935. Cinderella was written, on and off, from 1940 to 1944. That was not a great time in the Soviet Union. Then again, neither was 1935.
From R&J, Prokofiev made three orchestral suites and a piano suite. From Cinderella, Prokofiev again made three orchestral suites, but this time three piano suites.
Dancing aside—a bold thing to say about a ballet!—Romeo and Juliet is one of the great masterpieces in the whole of the orchestral literature. It is certainly a standout in Romantic music, or twentieth-century music. But in the whole of the orchestral literature? I would say.
Earlier this summer, having heard (and seen) R&J again, I had a thought: Shostakovich and Prokofiev are paired together, eternally. They may not like it, but they are. And Shostakovich is usually—not always, but usually—judged the greater. Yet did Shostakovich ever write anything better than R&J? The Violin Concerto No. 1? The Symphony No. 5? The String Quartet No. 8?
As good, okay, but better?
Romeo and Juliet is nearly a perfect work, and it’s hard to write a perfect work, or nearly perfect work, of that length. A bagatelle is one thing, but a ballet lasting two and a half hours? The sustained genius of this score is staggering.
About five years ago, a friend of mine said, “You know, Cinderella is every bit as good as Romeo and Juliet.” Now, this was not just any friend. He is a highly distinguished musician. And when he talks, I listen. But when he made this comment about the two ballets, I thought, “Well, that’s a nice bit of hyperbole, a nice way of saying, ‘Cinderella is very good, and should not be overlooked.’”
Lately, however, my esteem of Cinderella has gone up and up. It is brilliantly crafted and brilliantly varied. There is subtlety, gaiety, pathos, majesty, and comedy (for the stepsisters). The score is a miracle of dark and light.
And there is lots of dancing in it. What do I mean? That’s a dumb statement, right? It’s a ballet, after all.
What I mean is, the story, and therefore the music, is chockfull of dancing. There’s even a dance lesson, early on. There is a gavotte, a passepied, a bourrée, a mazurka, a few galops, and that glorious, swirling waltz, the Cinderella Waltz.
And when the clock strikes midnight, Prokofiev gives us a surpassing example of beautiful chaos—of chaos in beauty, or beauty in chaos. This moment is stunningly rendered.
Honestly, I have not been able to stop listening to Cinderella, and it is haunting me, as it would haunt anyone who engages with it. Is it as good as Romeo and Juliet? I have my doubts, but comparisons are odious, or odorous, as someone said.
When I was a kid, I esteemed Prokofiev highly, yet I esteem him more with every passing year. Consider the Piano Concerto No. 1. I used to think of it as a youthful work, shot through with testosterone, but maybe a little rough. The more I know it, the more I marvel at its maturity and mastery. Its sheer compositional mastery.
But back to ballet. Should we talk about On the Dnieper, composed in 1931, some years before the Big Two? Maybe some other time . . .
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The Banquet Scene, Gypsum wall panel relief fragment, 645 BC – 635 BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum
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Perino del Vaga, Holy Family with Saint John the Baptist, c. 1528-37, © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London
William Blake, in his annotations to Reynolds's Works, records how Michael Moser, the first Keeper of the Royal Academy Schools, advised him to study prints of Charles Le Brun and Rubens, not the "old, Hard, Stiff & Dry Unfinished Works" of Raphael and Michelangelo. Infuriated, Blake replied, "These things that you call Finished are not Even Begun; how can they then be Finished? The Man who does not know The Beginning, never can know the End of Art."
Unfinished art possesses a peculiar power of fascination. The beginning and end of the work are both present in adjoining passages; the completion of the work can be understood, yet its conception, and its process of development, remain visible. This power of suggestion is accompanied by a demand for interpretation. The principle of effacement, the covering of the artist's tracks, is undone. The viewer, challenged to imagine both origins and completion, cannot separate the autonomous object, the work, from its autonomous subject, the mind that created it.
Renaissance connoisseurs cherished unfinished works for their breadth of effect and their intimacy. Vasari records that Leonardo, commissioned to create an altarpiece for the Santissima Annunziata church in Florence, exhibited in 1502 a preparatory cartone ("cartoon") of "The Virgin and Child with St. Anne"; the crowds of viewers were "stupefied by its perfection." Crowds are still stupefied by Michelangelo's "Prisoners," writhing into human life from their marble cells.
Others examine unfinished works for technical insights. London's Courtauld Institute, eminent in art history and conservation, possesses an unusually large collection of them. For this year's Summer Showcase, Karen Serres, Curator of Paintings, has selected a small but eloquent selection from the Institute's holdings. All are incomplete, but while some are abandoned or interrupted, others challenge the nineteenth-century ideal of "finish," the glossed condition by which a painting announced its readiness for the market, and open a path toward the experimental techniques of the twentieth century.
In Parmigianino's "Virgin and Child" (1527-28), the obvious challenge to completion is technical: the background is complete, but the folds of clothing on Mary's elongated body are unresolved, and her extended right foot can be seen in three positions. The Man from Porlock may have intervened before Parmigianino could resolve these questions; in 1527, the mutinous troops of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, sacked Rome. By contrast, in Palma il Vecchio's "Reclining Woman in a Landscape" (c.1520), the nude in the foreground is complete, but the cliffs, castle, and sky of the background are unfinished. The cliffs are a silhouette on the brown ground, the sky suggestively blotched in blue and white.
Perino del Vaga's "Holy Family with St. John the Baptist" (1528-37) is a ghostly image that presents the full range of Renaissance process. Perino, who studied with Raphael, finishes Jesus and John in Leonardo-style detail. But Mary's features, traced in pen from a preliminary cartoon, are fixed on the varnished canvas in their moment of conception; and her hands, delicate and frozen, are modeled in thin layers of paint. The surrounding drapery is outlined in freehand with a fine brush. The Courtauld bought this "Holy Family" as a teaching aid. It is possible that Rembrandt had similar intent when he made prints of his unfinished "Artist Drawing from a Model,” with its instructive polarity between the completed shadows of its dark background and the light sketching in the foreground.
"There is," Baudelaire wrote in 1845, "a great difference between a work that is complete and one that is finished. The complete work is one that conveys the vision of the artist, the finished one is often glossed." Manet's "Au Bal" (c.1877) is pure vision. Joyous, light strokes capture the reverse rotation of a woman's head as she looks over her bare shoulder, which is pulled forward and upward. The painting acquired its title after Manet's death, when the contents of his studio were sold. It is unclear whether he painted this as a preparatory sketch for a work that was never executed, or as a complete statement.
Daumier's "Don Quixote and Sancho Panza" (c.1877), composed entirely in brown paint on a bare ground, is unambiguously unfinished, but this intensifies the emotional affect. Quixote and Panza are lost in the woods, dissolving into strokes as dense, thick, and twisted as jungle creepers: the quest of the chivalric knight merges with its contemporary form, the ordeal of the nineteenth-century explorer. This was one of Francis Bacon's favorite paintings.
Similarly, Walter Sickert bought Degas’ "Woman at a Window" (1871-72) and called it "Degas’ finest work." Degas signed and sold this work, even though some passages are no more developed than Manet's "Au Bal," Daumier's "Don Quixote and Sancho Panza," and Degas’ "Lady with a Parasol" (also 1871-72), which appears to be a preparatory sketch, studying the play of light beneath a parasol.
The revolt against the Salon and "finish" created its own style and conventions. Whistler's "Girl with Cherry Blossoms" (1874) documents their pursuit down a path which doubled back on itself. This picture is the surviving fragment of a larger work, "The White Symphony," a portrait of three young women, commissioned by the Liverpool shipping magnate William Leyland. Unhappy with its progress, Whistler repeatedly scraped back and repainted, each time turning a finished work back into an unfinished one. Unable to complete it, he hoped to destroy it.
Similar complexities attend Monet's "Vase with Flowers" and Cezanne's "Rue Tournante" ("Turning Road," 1894-95). Monet began his painting in 1881 or 1882, but the lavish complexities of its wild mallows eluded him. He put it aside for forty years, then reworked it in his final years. He signed it, but we can only guess whether he considered it to be complete. Cezanne views a village across an abstracted pattern of fields, blocked roughly in brown, green, and blue. The white ground is integrated into the image; paradoxically, the representation seems complete, even if the execution is not.
Extending this method, the stubby, strong brushwork of Derain's "Fishermen in Collioure" (1904-05) leaves patches of bare canvas exposed, like the sandy foreshore. In "The Red Beach" (c.1905), Matisse, Derain's companion in Collioure in 1905, uses a white ground to suggest the effect of light on the green- and pink-flecked water. Completion has become a state of mind, and one not always shared between artist and viewer.
"Unfinished" is not quite as short as Leonardo's one-work exhibition of 1502. But its single room contains multitudes of suggestive effects and ambiguous implications. "A thing's not begun," Keats observed, "until it's half done." In "Unfinished," we see that a thing half done can contain not just the proofs of its inspiration, but also the promise of its completion.
Unfinished, which opened on June 18th, can be seen at the Courtauld Gallery, The Strand, London W1 until .
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Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, Self-Portait with Gorget, ca. 1629, Oil on Panel, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg
As I've mentioned before, anniversaries, despite our culture's undue fascination with them, can prove useful as reminders for critical assessment. And so it is today, on the anniversary of Rembrandt's birth, that we look back to Hilton Kramer's April 1988 piece "Rembrandt as Warhol: Svetlana Alpers's 'Enterprise.'" Kramer's masterful lamentation of the subjugation of art history to the social sciences is worth a read any day, but especially with Rembrandt already on the mind.
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Today marks the publication of (arguably) the most anticipated literary release of the year, Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman. Many opinions have been offered on the work since its first chapter was released, but in our June issue, Anthony Daniels offered his thoughts ahead of the book's publication. In his piece Daniels assesses the legacy of To Kill a Mockingbird and the prospect of Go Set a Watchman, and also offers reflections on the work's resonance in his life. Click here to read that piece.
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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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