What’s new? This is a question we sometimes ask in music, as in other fields, and we ask it both about performers and about composers. Are the young worth listening to? That is a related question. Often, they are, yes: for what they will become, certainly, but also for what they already are. Some musicians will never get any better than they are when they debut. Never will they be fresher, more engaged, or more engaging. Violinists, for example, are sometimes like girl tennis players, terrific when fifteen, sadly more ordinary when thirty. Young violin prodigies we will always have scads of; the instrument lends itself to those hands, and to a certain fearlessness. Every year, it seems, there is another Menuhin, or near-Menuhin, in shorts. Teenage cellists are rarer, and pianists—that is, good ones—are about equally so. Singers? That is another breed of cat. They are still considered “young” when they are in their thirties, for the vocal apparatus takes time to mature. Conductors? Seldom will you see one in his twenties. Once in a great while, there will be a Lorin Maazel in shorts, like Yehudi, waving a stick before an orchestra. But a conductor generally requires ripening, and ample practical experience. As for composers, they can come at any age, and—if they produce something of value—they are warmly, gratefully welcomed.

One thing that seems certain about young musicians is that they have little trouble getting recording contracts. The market is flooded with such recordings, and we will survey a few of them, beginning with that of a violinist, Alexander Sitkovetsky, born in Russia in 1983.

He grew up under the eye of the late Lord Menuhin, and his new album is entitled Sasha (EMI 57025), which is the diminutive, of course, of Alexander. The disc features him in “Romantic Russian rarities,” accompanied by his mother, the pianist Olga Sitkovetsky. The boy is undeniably precocious, not only by the evidence of this recording—which is not so unusual—but from the fact that he is composing, and had a ballet score premiered in London six years ago: when he was eleven.

Sitkovetsky’s “rarities” are little souvenirs, by such composers as Wienawski, Glière, and Glinka, to go with more substantial composers such as Prokofiev. In fact, the first piece on the CD is Wienawski’s “Souvenir de Moscow.” It’s good to hear these little, old-fashioned numbers, which will probably serve this violinist all his life as encores. Sitkovetsky is often sensitive and charming, but his intonation is not reliable and his sound is rather thin at the moment. He has plenty of technique, though: they all do. Double-stops and the like are as nothing for him. With time, his playing will probably grow more robust, as he plays deeper into the strings. He should grow musically as well. In the pieces here, he often seems tentative, overcautious, not letting the music flow naturally. His playing could use more panache, more personality, which is strange to say, because self-effacement is usually not a fault of youth. The more typical fault is immodesty, a gross self-assertion. Still, there is an intimacy and shyness about this recording that is not unattractive. The playing is demure, retiring, like a conversation in a parlor. A curious young man, Sasha.

Han-Na Chang, an eighteen-year-old cellist, is simply a wonder. She has been one of the most impressive child prodigies in memory, and she is a full-blown musician —has been for years. I myself first heard her when she was fifteen, in the Saint-Saëns concerto. The remarkable thing about her was not that she was a stupendous prodigy; the remarkable thing was that she was a stupendous—or certainly an excellent—cellist, period. One quickly got over the fact that the concerto was being played by a fifteen-year-old; it was simply being played with mastery, in every respect.

Chang is a Korean-born girl who now lives and studies in the United States. Almost needless to say, Mstislav Rostropovich early on took an interest in her and helped bring her along. Six years ago, he recorded with her the Saint-Saëns, Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations, and other works. He had never before consented to accompany as conductor a fellow cellist on a recording. Of his young colleague he has said, “I’ve never heard anything like it.” Rostropovich’s regard for her says more than any critic could, certainly.

Chang’s newest album is called The Swan (EMI 57052), and, as one might guess, it is an anthology of cello miniatures. (“The Swan,” which comes from Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals, is the most famous and best loved of all such miniatures.) Chang’s tone is big and supple and truly gorgeous. There are no breaks or scratches in it. It also contains several colors and “widths,” which Chang employs at will. She breathes and sings her way beautifully through such pieces as Fauré’s “Après un rêve.” It is hard to imagine a more affecting performance of this lovely transcription. Han-Na gets pretty much all there is to get out of these pieces, some of which are far from great music. Everything she does has beauty, and nothing is sentimental or “pretty,” in the negative sense. Never does she emote. This entire recording is marked by grace, elegance, and dignity, to go with a pervasive musical intelligence.

And—to stress—age is no consideration here. We commonly say this in reference to the work of an elderly person: a scholarly tome by Jacques Barzun, a piano recital by Shura Cherkassky. Very seldom do we say it about the young. Yet no allowance, no concession, need be made for Han-Na Chang. We have, indeed, never heard anything quite like it.

An older cellist is Matt Haimovitz, born in 1969. This Israeli-American ex-child prodigy has now recorded—on his own label, no less, the newly launched Oxingale—the central and supreme work of the cello repertory, the six unaccompanied suites of Bach. This takes some cheek, you might say. Rostropovich, who, like all cellists, had lived with this music all his life, waited until the age of sixty-four before committing the suites to disc. For one thing, he approached these pieces slightly differently each time he sat down to them, and he was therefore hesitant to “freeze” one performance, or series of performances, for all time—to leave a testament, the Rostropovich Statement on the Bach Suites. (Still, what a testament, as it turned out.)

Haimovitz acknowledges this problem in his liner notes, when he writes, “I confess some trepidation at creating a fixed expression of these beloved works. How can I commit them to a single path, when each day I revisit and revise decisions on articulation, fingering, tempo or phrasing made the day or year before? Each decision limits and informs the next while also opening a new door with the possibility of unforeseen revelations behind it. This recording is a snapshot of choices I have made over the last twenty years and on the night each suite was recorded.” This is eloquently said—and of course it is a problem with all recordings, though it is more acute with Bach’s suites, which contain worlds within them and are immortal.

But Haimovitz has gone boldly ahead, and little could prepare the listener for the boldness—even audacity—of his interpretations. Right off the bat, in the Prelude of the G Major Suite, Haimovitz employs several tempos in the first few bars. His playing is beyond free: it is full of stutters and hesitations and gulps and swoons. To say that these performances are individualistic or idiosyncratic is to fail to give a true flavor of them. Haimovitz takes shocking license, making Pablo Casals—known as a great liberal with Bach, expansive and uninhibited—look like a stern literalist. Haimovitz’s Bach is extraordinarily romantic: one would hesitate to be this loose with a Chopin nocturne. Often, we seem to be hearing not Bach, but Bach-Haimovitz. Almost never will he play a passage straight.

This would be an intolerable outrage if not for the fact that Haimovitz is a very musical being. He just about has the musical wit and conviction to pull it off. Free spirits—or Bach-warpers, to put it less charitably—like to plead that the composer left no markings on these suites, gave no guidance. Yet there are obvious standards, a basic understanding, which Haimovitz ignores. I would like to think that Bach, on hearing Haimovitz, would choke—but then, somewhat warily, accept what the young man has done, on the condition that others would be available to render the suites more conventionally, more faithfully.

To turn to a pianist much in the musical news: Piotr Anderszewski has made a recording of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations (Virgin 45468), and along with that recording a documentary has been made~dash\celebrating the pianist and his recording. (The documentary is available on videotape from VAI.) It has been some time since a single piano performance was so heavily marketed. Anderszewski, born in 1969, is the son of a Polish father and a Hungarian mother, and his career has for many years attracted attention. In 1990, he withdrew from the Leeds Competition, dissatisfied with his playing in the semifinal round. Many observers had figured he would win. Anderszewski is the type of musician thought psychologically interesting. Perhaps he is.

The Diabelli Variations—or, to give the formal title, Thirty-three Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli—are a splendid, formidable, underperformed work, and it is good that Anderszewski has given so much time to them. (They are a staple of his recitals.) He is a solid pianist, if a problematic one. His playing, at its best, is clear, bold, and sharply defined, like that of Maurizio Pollini, one of the most successful Beethoven players of our time. At its less good, that playing is harsh, unduly severe, and wrongly aggressive, reminiscent of Alexis Weissenberg, or of Martha Argerich, when she is being brutal. Anderszewski is prone to accenting notes violently. His passagework has a detached, un-legato quality, resembling Glenn Gould—which is not such a bad thing for Beethoven. He is a keen observer of rests, which is definitely a very good thing for Beethoven. So too, Anderszewski’s vigor is appropriate, and his intelligence obvious: he grasps the structure of this rather sprawling work. Yet a harshness threatens to overwhelm his playing, and one might hope that, as he gets older, he will round his edges. But then, Weissenberg didn’t.

As for those in the singing trade, the world is bursting with them, and we have a particular abundance of new, or newish, mezzo-sopranos. One of them is the Finn Monica Groop, who has made her name in Baroque music. She happens to be a beauty, which will do no harm to her career; her record label, Finlandia, lays her out like a film star. The latest CD is Arie Amorose (29713), which is composed of Baroque opera arias and “arie antiche,” or old Italian songs.

Groop is a competent singer, but she will not likely make your hair stand on end. Her Dido’s Lament (Purcell), to take one example, has the advantage of not being histrionic, but it also has the disadvantage of being a little dull and unmoving. She does not go to the depth of the piece. Handel’s “Va tacito” (from Giulio Cesare) is more characterful and authoritative. Groop has some heft in her voice, and a nice bottled sound below. But again, the singing is dull, carefully “placed,” without much flow. Another Handel aria, the wondrous “Verdi prati” from Alcina, should be spellbinding; from Groop, though, it is a bit stiff and unremarkable. Nevertheless, she imparts dignity and stateliness, which are recurrent qualities in her work.

This album is one of those that are rather difficult for a critic to judge: Groop does much that is perfectly correct and unobjectionable; but she lacks that interpretive spark that would give her singing real distinction. To provide what must be an unfair example, a mezzo-soprano of the past, Janet Baker, could make you think, while she was singing, that she was doing nothing special: simply following the music, dutifully. But by the end of it, you were floored.

A final word ought to be said for Ms. Groop: she provides a little kick at the end of her CD with Durante’s “Danza, fanciulla.” This leaves the listener willing, if not hungry, to hear more.

Possibly the most rhapsodized-about young singer in the world at present is the English tenor Ian Bostridge, an intellectual and specialist in lieder. Precious few tenors have made lieder singers, or song singers at all: one thinks of Peter Anders and Fritz Wunderlich, but the list is not long. The gifts of Ian Bostridge are manifold, as can be heard in his latest disc of Schubert lieder (EMI 57141). He has a pleasant, lightish, characteristically English voice that manages to stay on the happy side of dainty. His technique is adequate, or more than that. And he is indeed a probing and persuasive interpreter of this music. Yet he has the trait—common in singers of a cerebral bent—of being just a little too careful, slow, and reverential in these songs. In the singing of lieder, there is such a thing as being too “poetic,” too awed. I often have occasion to think, give me a singer who doesn’t approach these songs with trembling reverence, but who will embrace them as flesh and blood! For this reason I have hailed the young Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Vesselina Kasarova, for example, who sings lieder so openly and unaffectedly, if somewhat untraditionally.

Reservations aside, Ian Bostridge is a singer of fine taste and an ability to communicate, and the fuss made over him is largely merited. He has also come out with a disc devoted to Hans Werner Henze (EMI 57112).

A soprano making waves is Natalie Dessay, a French coloratura who has just done an anthology of Mozart arias (Virgin 45447). In these, she shows off her strengths, beginning with the strength of her voice— meaning physical, tonal strength. This voice is not especially beautiful, and it is not especially light, for its general category. But one learns to appreciate that strength: Dessay is a high coloratura who is not bird-like, no Tinkerbell. Her “Queen of the Night Aria,” from Die Zauberflöte, for example, is militant. Technically, Dessay can do most anything, and she is musically adept. Operatic roles for this vocal type perpetually need filling, and that is why Dessay is sought after by every house.

We should end our tour with a composer, recognizing that they are the most important musicians of all—the ones without whom performers would have nothing to do. Olli Mustonen, a Finn born in 1967, is a quite popular pianist, who is also a composer and conductor. At the keyboard, he is a talented disaster, someone who can render a composer—Beethoven, to choose perhaps his most prominent victim—unrecognizable, from sheer self-indulgence and indiscipline. Mustonen is a kindred spirit of Matt Haimovitz, although the pianist’s offenses seem more dismaying than the cellist’s. In the promotional literature about him, Mustonen is always portrayed as something of a musical wild child, whose work, whether as performer or composer, is “hard to categorize,” self-justifying. This should put us on guard.

An album of his compositions has been released on the Ondine label (974), and the first of them is a triple concerto, for three violins. (Mustonen himself conducts a Finnish ensemble.) This is for the most part pleasant music, which goes by without making much of an impression. Mustonen is a bit of a minimalist, a bit of a neo-Classicist, a bit of some other things. Often, his music is merely busy—purposelessly busy—suggesting vague emotions. It can be the musical equivalent of idle, empty chatter. The triple concerto is improved somewhat by a spirited Finale, although that, too, is ultimately banal.

Mustonen favors nonets, of which two are here, the second of them written in 2000. It is a nervous, agitated work, whose Adagio shows some conceptual power. In any conservatory, the nonet would receive an A—probably an A+. Yet the question arises, would this and the other pieces have received a recording had they not been written by a popular and charismatic young pianist? I think of Artur Schnabel, who was a dedicated composer and who longed to be recognized in that capacity. He knew that performances were ephemeral, even with the advent of recording, and he devoutly wished to leave something lasting. Yet he would not program his own music, believing—isn’t this quaint?—that it would constitute an abuse of his position (as a major, exalted touring pianist).

I should say quickly that it is wonderful that Mustonen is composing, as he has from an early age, for that is the vital musical activity. May he devote more time to it, growing in understanding and creativity. If he, as a pianist, is going to insert so much of himself in other people’s music, he might as well write his own, making an honest man of himself. This fellow will doubtless be a presence in the musical world for years—decades? a half-century?—to come. From child prodigy to established musician to autumnal artist: where does the time go?

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 20 Number 1, on page 85
Copyright © 2017 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com

Popular Right Now