The New Criterion
(Mobile Version)

Music

April 2007

New York chronicle

by Jay Nordlinger

One night at Carnegie Hall, Hilary Hahn did something refreshing: She played the Goldmark Concerto. Hahn, as you may know, is a brainy and exacting violinist. And the Goldmark is a very old-fashioned Romantic concerto. It is also a wonderful one—and it speaks well of Hahn that she recognizes this fact. Of course, she was trained by a violinist of the old school (and eternal school, as far as I’m concerned): That was Jascha Brodsky. He himself had studied with Ysaÿe and Zimbalist.

As for Karl Goldmark, he was born in 1830, to a Hungarian-Jewish family; he spent his career in Vienna, dying in 1915. If he is known for anything today, it is that violin concerto, along, possibly, with the “Rustic Wedding” Symphony. The top violinists of yore played the concerto, among them Heifetz and Milstein. In recent times, Joshua Bell and Sarah Chang have recorded it.

Hilary Hahn played the work with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, conducted by Sir Roger Norrington. She displayed her pure tone, which produced radiant singing. She was clean and restrained—exercising her freedom within a solid structure. Her technique, of course, can (almost) be taken for granted. She engaged in what we might call elegant pyrotechnics. And yet, she missed some notes—even emitted some squeaks—proving that she is human. (One wondered.)

The main problem with this account was that it was a little demure, a little polite. The work needed more sound, more heart, more passion (though emotionalism, no). Also, violinist and orchestra were often not together. And Hahn did a lot of nod-conducting, meaning she would nod at the players, apparently trying to lead them, or spur them. This must have annoyed the heck out of them—out of Sir Roger, too.

Carnegie Hall’s audience loved the performance, and asked for an encore. They got the slow movement of YsaËœe’s Sonata in A minor, Op. 27, No. 2. (This is an unaccompanied sonata.) The movement is labeled “Malincolia,” and Hahn judged it beautifully. The music seemed to come from some faraway sad place.

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center had an excellent idea—and they executed it well. What they did was stage a festival of English music, composed in the first third of the last century. It bore the name “An English Musical Renaissance.”

Many of us have complained about the neglect of English music—at least in America—and the CMS festival was a fine remedy. The history of music from England is a curious thing: In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there were three towering giants—Tallis, Byrd, and Purcell. Some would insist on including Dowland, and we could talk about others. And then—near silence. Almost nothing from England until Elgar emerged just before 1900.

Whatever was responsible for the silent centuries, Englishmen started composing with a vengeance, and we heard many of those composers over the four concerts of this festival: Vaughan Williams, Bliss, Warlock; Goossens, Ireland, Bax; Delius, Walton, and more. The first concert started with Purcell, which seemed to be cheating—what was he doing there? He was laying the groundwork, with his Fantasia upon One Note. Immediately following was the Phantasy Quintet of Vaughan Williams. This is a splendid work, and very, very British. How do we define “very, very British,” or even just “British”? I can’t give you a definition—at least not a quick one—but I think we know the qualities when we hear them. One of them is an oxymoron: a happy sadness.

I will spend some time on the third concert, which began with Delius—specifically, his Sonata No. 3 for violin and piano. The composer was born in Bradford, now known as a capital of Muslim Britain; he died in France, where he had much of his career. The Sonata No. 3 is a bit French, and also a bit, or more than a bit, English. (For instance, we hear some of that happy sadness.) In a word, it is Delius-like, and thoroughly. The second movement comes with a most unusual marking: Andante scherzando. And this music is sly, off-kilter, delicious—you may think of a person enjoying a joke that only he knows.

The sonata was played by two Chamber Music Society stalwarts: Ani Kavafian, violin, and Anne-Marie McDermott, piano. Both of them played beautifully, in a tasteful and British manner. (Is there a difference between British and tasteful?)

Next on the program was music of Benjamin Dale—who must have been the most obscure composer in CMS’s festival. He lived from 1885 to 1943, and in 1906 composed a Suite for Viola and Piano. It was championed by the famed English violist Lionel Tertis. (By the way, Dr. Richard E. Rodda’s program notes included a wonderful quotation from Tertis: “The art of playing the viola lies in the touch of a dove and the strength of an elephant.”) In this suite is a Romance, which is what we heard. It contains some unusual harmonies and is perfectly pleasant. Even if you don’t like it: Violists must take what they can get.

Our player was Paul Neubauer, in collaboration with McDermott. I have said many times that Neubauer has one of the most beautiful string sounds going, and I hold to that. He sang Dale’s music unsentimentally, which served it well.

Then it was time for some singing—I mean, by a human voice. We heard a full dozen songs, by eight composers. The first song was Vaughan Williams’s “Silent Noon,” which Dame Janet Baker used to kill—absolutely kill. (This is a high compliment, incidentally.) Outside the Sea Pictures, you almost never hear an Elgar song, but on this program was “Pleading.” Quilter and Parry were there, and John Ireland was represented by “My True Love Hath My Heart.” (His most famous song is “Sea Fever,” long favored by baritones.)

We then had Three Songs for Mezzo-Soprano, Viola, and Piano by Frank Bridge. This combination will be familiar to you, from Brahms. One of Bridge’s three is “Music When Soft Voices Die” (text by Shelley), but this is not the most famous version—that is by Quilter. I will take the opportunity to say that I have long been smitten by Bridge’s song “Love Went A-Riding” (memorably recorded by the late soprano Arleen Auger). At any rate, Bridge deserves to be remembered as more than Britten’s teacher, more than the name in the younger man’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge.

Next came two songs of Rebecca Clarke (1886–1979), including “The Seal Man,” which resembles an operatic scena. And the poem is by John Masefield, poet of “Sea Fever.” Finally, we heard two songs of Holst, who is good for more than The Planets. But then, one of these songs is astronomical: “Betelgeuse.” It is a very queer, eerie piece, causing time to stand pretty much still.

Doing the singing was Susanne Mentzer, the excellent American mezzo. Her sound was, as usual, beautiful—and opulent, throbbing, wet. It was also a little unmodulated. Mentzer would have benefited from more variety in her singing, more differentiation, a diversity of approaches. The twelve songs, English as they all may be, suffered from a bit of sameness. But Mentzer cannot be said to have failed—she is too good a singer for that. And Craig Rutenberg, the veteran accompanist of singers, played his role admirably.

This concert ended with an outstanding work, Bridge’s Phantasie Trio in C minor for piano, violin, and cello. It offers many moods, perpetually holding the listener’s interest. Kavafian and McDermott were the violinist and pianist, and the cellist was young Efe Baltacigil, from Turkey. (This means that the pianist Fasil Say is not the only Turk in music.) He smiled most of the way through the Bridge trio, often looking enraptured. He was right, too: The experience was fantastic.

And I will say again that the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center had an excellent idea, in this English-music festival. We lovers of this repertoire could say, “That should hold us for a while.”

The New World Symphony came into Carnegie Hall—and, yes, they play more than ~DVORAK’s Symphony No. 9. Michael Tilson Thomas co-founded this Florida-based orchestra in 1987, and it was he who conducted them at Carnegie. They bill themselves as “America’s Orchestral Academy,” dedicated to “the artistic, professional, and personal development of outstanding young musicians.” And on this evening, they played an all-Shostakovich program. Last year was the centennial of Shostakovich’s birth, and the world was treated to plenty of his music. But he is a composer for every year, and every week.

Tilson Thomas’s band started with a little suite from Shostakovich’s first ballet, The Golden Age, and ended with the mighty Fifth Symphony. In between came the Cello Concerto No. 2 in G major, Op. 126. Shostakovich wrote this as a sixtieth-birthday present to himself, and it is stocked with autobiographical references, or allusions. Almost needless to say, the concerto was premiered by Mstislav Rostropovich.

But playing it with the New World Symphony was Yo-Yo Ma. He took the stage with a hundred bows, smiles, waves, hugs—almost like an excited politician working the room. And what I say about the aforementioned Paul Neubauer, I frequently say about Ma: He boasts one of the best string sounds in the business. The question on this occasion, however, was whether that sound would be too warm, and whether the playing would be too emotional—too beautiful, in a way. Shostakovich often requires some severity, some iciness, and these are not qualities associated with Yo-Yo Ma. Then again, Shostakovich can use more beauty than he is sometimes afforded.

Ma did, indeed, make his beautiful sound, and at times you might have wished for something more penetrating, even jarring. But Ma had his own way, and he made a persuasive case. He phrased superbly, and he retains a boatload of technique. He contributed some puckishness and mischief. If he did not exactly embody danger, he at least hinted at it. And, during one stretch, he played with what I can only call a disquieted serenity: the feeling that vulnerable peace could be broken at any moment. Very Shostakovich-like.

On the whole, I like this concerto more charged and less relaxed, but, again: Ma had his own approach. He was unquestionably intelligent, subtle, and, above all, musical. And when the concerto was finished, he was a veritable blizzard of hugs, bows, waves, kisses. He seemed to be standing in for “Slava” (Rostropovich), a famous kisser, so much so that he has been known in some quarters as “Saliva.”

Ma, Tilson Thomas, and the New Worlders favored the audience with an encore: Tchaikovsky’s beloved Andante cantabile, an arrangement of the second movement of his String Quartet No. 1. This is an impossibly beautiful work, in whatever form, and Ma played it with impossible beauty—and with true musical taste. Absent was the soupiness of which this cellist is sometimes guilty. How the music could have been better expressed, I don’t know.

About a week later, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra came in, for a three-concert stand. They do without a permanent conductor, preferring perpetual guests: For this series, it was Daniel Barenboim.

The first concert offered Schubert and Bruckner; the third offered Schumann and Wagner. These are composers at the very center of the VPO’s life. The middle concert was all-Bartók—and you would not necessarily think of the VPO for that composer. Indeed, they did not play their Bartók in a traditional manner, which is to say, a traditionally Bartókian manner. Dryness and bite are not Viennese specialties. But Bartók calls for many qualities, and the VPO is not to be discounted, in any music.

They opened this middle concert with Bartók’s Four Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 12. From the first measures, these players showed their magnificent sound, a sound to luxuriate in. This may be especially true in Carnegie Hall: The combination of the VPO and those acoustics is well-nigh decadent. The second of the Four Pieces is a scherzo, and the orchestra played it roughly and raucously—for them. This was a rounded roughness, if you will, and not ineffective. What’s more, Barenboim had them playing with precision and electricity.

After Op. 12, we had a piano concerto, Bartók’s Second, one of the most stupendously hard pieces in the literature. Bartók wrote for himself, and had ample technique. And his concerto has its champions today: A performance by Yefim Bronfman (with the New York Philharmonic) was one of the most amazing feats of pianism I have ever witnessed—equal parts virtuosity and musical power.

On hand with the Vienna Philharmonic was the young Chinese superstar Lang Lang, and he certainly has the technique for the piece. As usual, he displayed that awesome dexterity, that enviable fluidity. He has zero tightness in his arms, which is why he can play almost anything. He brought a welcome impetuosity to the concerto—but this was not a satisfying performance. For one thing, Lang Lang’s playing was a bit sloppy and surface. For another, he simply did not generate enough sound. I realize this is strange to say, for Lang Lang is a famed barnburner. But the piano often sounded like a toy under his fingers—that sound should have been bolder, thicker, more masculine. He was kind of slapping at the piece.

His best playing occurred in the slow movement—which is really a slow-fast-slow movement—and this pointed up a dirty little secret about Lang Lang: He is a wonderful Classicist and colorist. I would rather hear him in a Haydn sonata or Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau than in this Bartók concerto, or one of Rachmaninoff’s. I must say, however, that he mustered some martial terror in Bartók’s last movement.

By the way, Lang Lang had a score in front of him, and read it intensely—fairly clung to it. I had never seen him do this before.

In any case, the audience went crazy for him, as always, and he gave them an encore—in tandem with Maestro Barenboim. The two of them sat down and played Schubert’s Marche militaire in D, probably the most famous of all piano duets. The younger man played the primo, the older one the secondo. Lang Lang rushed, slapped, and slopped his way through; Barenboim did not. Any resoluteness or spine came from him. And I could not help observing that Evgeny Kissin and James Levine, a few seasons ago, had played this piece better, in this same hall.

The Vienna Philharmonic’s all-Bartók program ended with the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta—beautiful, as expected, if not perfectly incisive. I regard the second movement as a spooky study, and the VPO played it hauntingly. And for an encore—more Bartók? No, some Johann Strauss the Younger. This was the Pizzicato Polka, and I had to smile: I am forever knocking orchestras for poor pizzicatos, and here was a piece containing virtually nothing but pizzicatos. The VPO handled them accurately, and the whole piece stylishly, as a great orchestra should.

You can’t say that James Levine has a specialty—he is too complete a musician for that. But there are some pieces in which he particularly excels, and one of them is Wagner’s Meistersinger. He conducted three performances of this work at the Metropolitan Opera, and on the first night, by all accounts, he was superlative. Critics could hardly find the words to praise him. And this had me worried—because I was attending the second night, and sometimes this conductor lets down. (By the same token, he can rebound, spectacularly, after an off night.) What would he have in him?

The audience acted like it was expecting something memorable: When Levine entered the pit, they cheered more vigorously than audiences typically do once a good performance is finished. As he conducted the overture, however, it was clear that Levine was not on his game: He was indifferent, perfunctory, and nearly uncaring. What a pity, and a waste. I have heard him conduct this overture maybe ten times, in the opera house and in the concert hall—never had I heard him so poor in it. As the opera continued, Levine was still indifferent, still mediocre, letting important moments go by. Repeatedly, he failed to rise to the musical occasion. But about halfway through, he sort of woke up, conducting, for example, an alert and moving quintet (Act III, Scene 1).

Mind you, Levine did not conduct an outright bad Meistersinger—that would be (practically) unthinkable. But he came nowhere near the standard he has set.

As for the cast, I might begin with Matthew Polenzani, the tenor in the role of David. I’m not sure any critic has ever begun with a David, but Polenzani deserves it: He was fresh-voiced, secure, and smart. He sang with vibrant lyricism, applying Mozart values to Wagner. And speaking of Mozart values in Wagner: The Eva was Hei-Kyung Hong, an unusual choice. This soprano is best known for her Mozart roles, and she was a slightly powered, sometimes underpowered, Eva. But she was also tender, pure, and lovely, in every respect. There are tradeoffs in opera, as in other departments of life.

Johan Botha is the Walther of choice today, and Martin Bernheimer of the Financial Times had this to say after the first night: Botha “sang like a god.” I believe it, in part because I have heard him sing that way several times. But on the second night, he sang more like a demigod: He suffered some vocal distress, which included woeful intonation. He even cracked a bit on one note—an easy one, too. But the mighty South African tenor remains your Walther of choice.

The baritone James Morris did his Hans Sachs, and he did not let down: He was wise, canny, and endearing, as usual. The voice may be worn, but you could say that Morris is in a mental prime—a prime of vocal and theatrical understanding. The rest of the cast measured up, too—for instance, the German baritone Hans-Joachim Ketelsen, in the role of Beckmesser. He was the ultimate fussbudget and pain in the rear. He was both hilarious and pathetic. But Ketelsen remembered to sing well, too.

And the production? It was Otto Schenk’s, from 1993. They say it is old-fashioned, and with a new sheriff in town—a new general manager at the Met—we may not see it again. I took a good, hard look, not wanting to let it go. If a Schenk production is old-fashioned, then so is excellence in opera—and that would be tragic, if true.


Jay Nordlinger is a Senior Editor at National Review
more from this author


This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 April 2007, on page 71
Copyright © 2014 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com


E-mail to friend(s)