It used to be said that Russian pianists couldn’t play Bach—either couldn’t or wouldn’t. When was this said? For generations, and until fairly recently, as a matter of fact. Rachmaninoff recorded a Bach sarabande, and it was beautiful—not classically Bachian, but beautiful. (Rachmaninoff was incapable of doing anything unmusical.) The great Russian pianists of mid-century—Richter, Gilels—were never associated with Bach. Horowitz stayed away. It was simply understood that Bach was foreign to the Russian tradition.

Well, nuts to that. Now Russians play Bach with abandon (in more senses than one, often). Exhibit A may be Sergey Schepkin, born in St. Petersburg, now resident in Boston. He teaches at the New England Conservatory, and also at Carnegie Mellon, down in Pittsburgh. Schepkin is a veritable Bach specialist, and he played a recital of Bach in the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse at Lincoln Center.

Never heard of it? It is kind of a lounge, high up in the sky, with windows affording a view or two. The Great Performers people operate a concert series called “A Little Night Music.” (Wonder where they got the name.) It offers hour-long concerts—no intermission—starting at 10:30 p.m. Personally, I’m not crazy about the hour, but I’m crazy about 60-minute recitals with no intermission. And concertgoers should have a menu of options: I’ve always been a devotee of the New York Philharmonic’s eleven-o’clock concerts—11 a.m., I mean.

Schepkin started his Bach recital with the Capriccio in B flat, On the Departure of a Beloved Brother. This is an early work of the master, and it is also an early example—a very early example—of “program music”: music intended to paint a picture, or tell a story. Bach takes pains to say what each of the Capriccio’s six sections means: “A general lament of [the departing brother’s] friends”—that sort of thing. Can you tell, from the music alone—with no assist from words—what the music is saying? Of course not, but that is true of virtually all program music.

We seldom hear this charming and moving work, and, strangely enough, we’d heard it two nights before, in Carnegie Hall: Leon Fleisher, the veteran American pianist, played it (and has recently recorded it).

Schepkin played the work very pianistically, as befits a pianist. He had no clavier upon that penthouse stage; he had a big ol’ grand, with the top up. And yet Schepkin was unimpeachably Bachian. Notes had the proper weight, phrases were smoothly sculpted, all voices were clear. They were present without being ostentatiously so, if you know what I mean. Some pianists play in a way that says, “See, I’m bringing out the voices—see, see?” Obnoxious.

Before he finished the Capriccio, it was obvious that Schepkin has a logical and musical mind, so necessary to Bach (and to most composers, really). And, for my money, there is nothing more satisfying than being in the hands of a musician who knows Bach. To absorb Bach without objecting to the performance—to the execution of Bach—is an uncommon joy.

Schepkin next played the Partita in E minor, one of the greatest of all Bach’s keyboard works. I have a special memory of another Russian pianist, Mikhail Pletnev, in this work. He played it astoundingly: with freedom and imagination, but also with respect and persuasiveness. Schepkin played it well too—very well—exhibiting both fluidity and character. I stress this, because you don’t always get both, from a pianist. I should say, too, that Schepkin’s ornamentation was intelligent: neither too frilly nor too spare.

The pianist ended his printed program with the ever-popular Italian Concerto, and here he surprised us: because he disappointed us. The first movement of the “concerto”—a concerto for keyboard alone—was interpretively wayward, awkward. Schepkin could have done with a straighter approach. The second movement—that bewitching thing in D minor—was slightly mechanical (and it is vulnerable to such a rendering). And the last movement—fleet and delightsome—was sadly heavy, loud, and unmodulated. Schepkin’s playing earlier in the recital had not prepared us for that.

But this was a distinguished evening nonetheless, and the crowd wanted an encore. Schepkin obliged with more Bach, right? No. In my view, if you’re going to play one of these one-composer recitals, you should stick with him, even at encore time. In any event, Schepkin played an excellent piece: Rameau’s Barricades mystérieuses, known to me mainly from Georges Cziffra’s recording of it. What a beautiful composition, both Baroque and Romantic, somehow—and Schepkin did it justice. Why more pianists don’t play it—particularly for an encore—I don’t know.

I mentioned Leon Fleisher above, and might say a word about his recital: He played an all-two-handed program, which is remarkable in that he was confined to his left hand alone for some thirty years. He was battling a neurological problem. At Carnegie Hall, he played Bach, both transcribed and original; he played a seldom-heard work by Stravinsky, the Serenade in A; he played some Chopin, some Albéniz, and some Debussy. Fleisher has not been known, particularly, as an Impressionist, but he conjured maybe the most beautiful, mysterious, and beguiling Cathédrale engloutie I have ever heard.

In most of the program, Fleisher was subdued, even a little sleepy—and the entire evening felt heavy with autumn. The only time the old lion did a little roaring was in Chopin’s devilish Scherzo in C-sharp minor. These days, he looks like some performing monk, hunched over the keyboard in his prominent glasses, reading his music. And though I’ve said that Fleisher played an all-two-handed program—which he did—he reverted to the left hand alone, for his one encore: an arrangement of Gershwin’s “Man I Love.” How nice to play a left-hand number just because you want to.

Sticking with pianists, you may recall that, in our April issue, I reported that I’d walked out of a Lang Lang performance: The young Chinese phenom was playing the Rachmaninoff D-minor concerto, and playing it into the ground. It was hardly recognizable as what Rachmaninoff wrote; Lang Lang was making his own piece out of it, and not a better one. Some months later, in Salzburg, he played Mozart’s Concerto in G, and played it superbly: with insight, delight, and unquestionable musicality. I was happy to report all this in our October issue.

So, when Lang Lang played Beethoven’s Concerto in C major in Carnegie Hall, with Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, I considered it a tiebreaker. How did it go? Lang Lang was his willful, exasperating self: He again wrote his own concerto. He messed with tempo, he invented accents, he fooled with dynamics. In the first movement’s cadenza, he sounded like Liberace, if that’s not too insulting to the late (and gifted) showman. And yet it would be wrong to say that Lang Lang played badly; it would be more accurate to say that he thought badly. Lang Lang almost never plays badly: His fingers can do basically whatever his brain or heart directs. He has an unbelievably smooth, flexible technique, and he can get sounds out of the piano that few others can. But sometimes his head is on Mars.

After the Beethoven concerto—or Lang Lang’s arrangement of that concerto—he played a Chinese piece, which, in his hands, was both exquisite and dazzling. You just never know.

Surprisingly enough, I was at a private function the next night, and who was the “entertainment”? You guessed it. Lang Lang played one movement of a Mozart sonata, Liszt’s Liebestraum, and another Chinese piece. He played sensibly, charmingly, and admirably. I will say again that you just never know. I say about Lang Lang what I’ve said about many other musicians, including Horowitz, who was, frankly, amazingly uneven: It always pays to show up.

Still on pianists, I have some very good news for you: young Gilles Vonsattel, born in Switzerland. Only a few days before he played in a concert of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, he won the Geneva Competition, a pretty big deal. And, with the CMS, he proved himself a meritorious pianist indeed. He showed a sure technique and, even better, a sure sense of music. With Cho-Liang Lin, he played Schubert’s Sonatina No. 2 in A minor for violin and piano. Later, with the clarinetist David Shifrin and the violist Paul Neubauer, he played Schumann’s Märchenerzählungen, or Fairy Tales. In view of his taste, refinement, and spark, he reminded me of the young Murray Perahia, and that is an enviable comparison. We are not overrunning with good pianists, although we have some; it’s a pleasure to announce another one.

Finally, a sad tale: The Belgrade-born pianist Ivo Pogorelich made a huge splash in 1980, when he failed to win the Chopin Competition in Warsaw. Martha Argerich stormed off the jury in protest. Thereafter, he enjoyed a major career, selling countless records, and electrifying the world with bold, unusual pianism. For reasons I need not, and cannot, analyze, Pogorelich has turned eccentric, and beyond eccentric: In a recital at the Metropolitan Museum, he was incomprehensible, and indefensible. Pogorelich was clearly not his right self; his talent was smothered in nonsense. My vote—not that I have one—is that Pogorelich refrain from playing in public until such time as he has regained his equilibrium.

That Chamber Music Society concert in which Gilles Vonsattel appeared was one of two entitled Through Brahms. The conceit of the organizers was that there is a Viennese “style,” evolved from at least Schubert, through Brahms, and on to Schoenberg and his students. This seems to me a stretch—to talk about “Viennese music” is to talk about music itself—but programmers these days have to scratch a musicological itch. To present a concert of good and varied music is just too … boring, gauche, a waste of all the classes one took and all the reading one has done. Too bad Artur Rubinstein, Jascha Heifetz, and other simpletons didn’t know better.

One of the pianists on the second program was Gary Graffman, the famous American born in 1928. Like Leon Fleisher, he suffered a neurological affliction in his right hand, and has played with the left hand alone since 1979. In this Chamber Music Society concert, he played a piece called (straightforwardly) Music for the Left Hand, written by Leon Kirchner for Fleisher in 1995; and he participated in Korngold’s Suite for Piano Left Hand, Two Violins, and Cello, one of the Wittgenstein commissions. Paul Wittgenstein, to refresh your memory, was a pianist who lost his right arm in the First War. (He was also the brother of the philosopher.) It was he who commissioned all those left-hand pieces we know, including the Ravel concerto.

And I might mention that Kirchner’s piece was inspired by two works of literature: Emily Dickinson’s Wild Nights and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Renascence. This gives me the opportunity to say that Lee Hoiby, the American composer, wrote a marvelous song on Wild Nights, championed by Leontyne Price (as many Hoiby songs were). Hoiby soars and pants along with Dickinson: “Wild Nights—Wild Nights!/ Were I with thee/ Wild Nights should be/ Our luxury!”

A little autobiography, if you will: I never had an opportunity to hear Graffman, before he ceased to play with both hands. But, like most everyone else interested in classical music, I heard his many recordings. (And I read his marvelous memoir, I Really Should Be Practicing.) I had never heard Graffman with the left hand alone, either. In short, I had never heard Graffman, in the flesh.

And I was astonished at his playing, because it was exactly like the Graffman of old—the two-handed Graffman whom I knew from recordings: powerful, charged, arresting. He was not a nice little old man, retired from the presidency of the Curtis Institute, playing a little unconventional music with just one hand. He had the command and élan we have always associated with Graffman. Every voice was in play, from those five fingers, and he pedaled exceptionally well (as a one-handed pianist must). His playing was at the same time elegant and exciting, just as it has always been.

You will understand that I listened to all this with real gratitude.

At the beginning of this concert, we heard from another outstanding musician, mentioned some paragraphs above: David Shifrin, the clarinetist. He played one of Brahms’s two clarinet sonatas, the second one, in E-flat major. Shifrin has played this a million times, but that doesn’t mean he plays it less than lovingly. In fact, the sonata’s first movement carries an unusual, striking marking: Allegro amabile, or a lovable (amiable) allegro. As soon as he started to move air through his instrument, Shifrin sent us into dreamland, and he continued with his accustomed mastery.

His collaborator was the pianist André-Michel Schub, who won the Van Cliburn Competition in 1981. (Funny about that competition: If Schub lives to 120, we’ll still be saying he won the Van Cliburn Competition.) Amazingly, he looks essentially the same as he did twenty-five years ago. He did well in Brahms’s sonata, although he could have used a little more majesty and tonal depth. His playing was a little bit surface. His playing further tended to be clean and Classical, rather than fully Romantic, but that was all right. Schub is always tasteful, not doing anything stupid.

If I have one complaint about the Shifrin-Schub performance, it is that it was a little small-scale. Of course, this is a chamber work, involving a mere two people—and it has plenty of intimacy. But the work can feel bigger, plumper, more soulful.

After the sonata, Schub played more Brahms, the Piano Pieces, Op. 118, a set of six, comprising four intermezzos, a ballade, and a romance. Brahms’s music is varied here, and truly wonderful. As expected, Schub was very tidy, and perfectly intelligent, but—again—one might have asked for a touch more soul. His best playing came in the closing piece, the Intermezzo in E-flat minor, which is mystical, far-seeing, strange. Schub brought out the weird genius of this work completely.

You perhaps know Mahler’s piece for string quartet, written when the composer was a student. That has come down to us as the Quartettsatz (Quartet Movement). Well, Webern wrote a movement for string quartet too, when he was in his early twenties. This is known as the Langsamer Satz (Slow Movement), and it is startlingly beautiful. It is also crafted with Webern’s familiar tight and knowing pen. He wrote this music for his beloved, and it expresses his feelings unmistakably.

The Chamber Music Society arranged for a marvelous performance of this work. It came from the Daedalus Quartet, and so good was this performance, I will go ahead and name the players: violinists Kyu-Young Kim and Min-Young Kim, violist Jessica Thompson, and cellist Raman Ramakrishnan. They were in faultless technical form, attacking and breathing together. They were in faultless musical form, too, yearning and appreciating, just as Webern does. Sitting in my chair, I thought, “You can go a very long time without hearing string-quartet playing this good.”

The Daedalus Quartet is a young group. Not all musical wisdom comes from gray heads.

Seeing as we’re on the subject of chamber music, I have something to report to you: a change of mind. For years, I bought the line that chamber ensembles made up of soloists—especially the starriest ones—are not as satisfying as regular, full-time chamber ensembles. The latter ensembles spend their lives together. They fuse. The soloist-filled ensembles meet once in a blue moon, and perhaps consent to a little rehearsal. When onstage, each player is apt to do his own, egotistical thing. Hence, the Beaux Arts Trio will be a better bet than the Star Pianist, the Star Violinist, and the Star Cellist, descending on some hall to make a fast buck.

Maybe so, maybe not. In the space of three weeks, Carnegie Hall presented two soloist-filled trios that gave highly distinguished concerts. First up were Lilya Zilberstein, Maxim Vengerov, and Alisa Weilerstein (piano, violin, and cello, respectively). Then came Yefim Bronfman, Gil Shaham, and Lynn Harrell. (Truls Mørk is the cellist who normally plays with Bronfman and Shaham, but he was unable to make this tour, and was replaced by Harrell—who has performed in a trio with two other stars: André Previn and Anne-Sophie Mutter.) Coincidentally, each of these groups played Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, composed during the war—1944. It is a harrowing, odd, singular work, and each group played it convincingly (though differently).

Who knows how many rehearsals they had? I don’t know, and don’t particularly care. Each trio was loaded with talent. And we remember that Rubinstein-Heifetz-Feuermann—and later Rubinstein-Heifetz-Piatigorsky—did pretty well. Letting yourself fantasize a bit, you may want to propose your own trio for today. How about Thibaudet-Hahn-Chang?

Finally, have a dollop of opera. New York City Opera put on Mozart’s Così fan tutte, and Julius Rudel was in the pit. As I mentioned in last month’s chronicle, Rudel worked for City Opera in its very first year: 1943. Now eighty-five, Rudel maintains a busy schedule, and is clearly spry. Many conductors have done splendid work in their eighties; Stokowski, of course, was closing in on triple digits when he finally laid down his baton.

Rudel led a competent Così, but not one to tickle your senses, or raise your spirits. It was short on vibrancy, crispness, and bounce; the score often sagged, or tripped too slowly. Rudel has had better nights, and will again. City Opera’s cast was adequate, even if none of the six set the world on fire. Tim Albery’s stage direction was graceful, witty, and ever interesting. How often can you say that about an opera production?

In recent years, I have reported on the Così at the Salzburg Festival, and you may remember the egg—or is it an egg-shaped rock?—onstage. And the harpsichordist, playing the continuo, onstage. And the badminton and other goofy touches. Bear in mind, too, that this Così is far from Salzburg’s nuttiest production. And as I watched what City Opera was doing, I had the following thought: Many critics would consider this production—the New York production—“traditional,” and scorn it as such. In fact, it is merely sane and comprehensible.

Sane and comprehensible is good, in the opera house and elsewhere. And these qualities are no impediment to creativity.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 Number 4, on page 48
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