Longtime readers of this magazine have heard me make this point, more than once: The music world is inordinately affected by nostalgia. The past was always golden, and the present is more like tin. That performance of Lohengrin at the Metropolitan Opera this afternoon? It was okay, but you should have heard the cast back in ’58! (Some people would like to go back to 1858, but I was referring to the twentieth century.) That young violinist who played the Tchaikovsky Concerto with the Cleveland Orchestra? She was all right, but you should have heard Erica Morini, when she first came out.

Sometimes we remember—or imagine—the past correctly. And sometimes we are simply deluded. Sometimes the present is, indeed, tin (and tin will be preponderant in any age). But there is much gold about, and part of musical awareness is to be … well, aware of that. Five years ago, I wrote a piece about Olga Borodina, the Russian mezzo-soprano, entitled “Greatness, Here & Now.” She was, and is, a great singer, by any standard. And why wait until she is retired or dead to acknowledge that? I might say, too, that a visit to the past can be an unhappy experience. Last year, someone gave me a recording of a Philadelphia Orchestra concert, from 1962. Guest-conducting was Otto Klemperer. And the program included Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7.

Klemperer is a legendary Beethoven conductor, and deservedly so. But that performance was not A-1 impressive, to put it mildly. The third and fourth movements, in particular, should be buried and not allowed up. I understand that this was only one performance—a snapshot—and I also understand that Klemperer was not with his own orchestra. I further understand that recordings, of any kind, are problematic, to say the least. But still: Listening to that performance—dropping in on that scene, from almost forty-five years ago—was sobering. Something like a reality check.

I propose now to answer the question, “Who’s good?” Who is worthy, special, even great today? I will survey the realm of music, making judgments—an arrogant exercise, to be sure.

But to continue: Who will be remembered, or deserve to be, fifty years from now, or a hundred years from now? Whose recordings will be cherished (no matter what the problems with those artifacts)? To ask our question differently, Whom do we feel lucky to hear? For example, after I hear Michael Schade, the German-Canadian tenor, sing Die schöne Müllerin, I think, “Yes, I’m sorry to have missed Wunderlich,” for he died shortly after I was born. “But I’m glad I’m around to hear Schade, and future generations should envy me.” After I hear—and see!—Karita Mattila, the Finnish soprano, in Salome, I’m liable to think, “I’m sorry to have missed Birgit Nilsson,” who was essentially retired by the time I came of age. “But others will surely be sorry about Mattila!”

I will go through conductors, pianists, violinists, cellists, singers, and assorted other performers. I will also touch on composers (but merely touch). In brief, I think we have all too few conductors—memorable ones—and not too many pianists. I think we’re doing all right in violinists, and that we are positively swimming in singers. Readers are familiar with my opinion that we are in a golden age of singing, albeit largely unrecognized. But I could easily get ahead of myself, talking about singers. We’ll begin with the men of the podium, the conductors.

There is one indisputably great conductor in the world today: James Levine. He has no weaknesses, no gaps; he can conduct anything, with supreme understanding and musicality. As soon as you say he is the consummate Mozart conductor, you say, “Well, actually, he is the consummate Wagner conductor,” and then the leading exponent of the Second Viennese School. Etc. He is a musician, is what he is. A onetime apprentice to George Szell in Cleveland, Levine has the essential ingredients of technique and spirit, head and heart, discipline and soul. He can give you the most exalted Mahler, and the bawdiest, most grinding Bacchanale (from Samson and Delilah). He does whatever the music or the moment calls for, and he is always at the service of the composer. He has a rare ability to get himself out of the way.

None of this is to say that Levine doesn’t lay an egg now and then; that is true of every performer I will mention in this piece. It hardly needs stating that music-making is a human activity. But Levine is extraordinarily reliable, which is part of a complete package—the musician’s complete package.

I will name some other fine, or interesting, conductors. Sir Colin Davis is versatile, musical, and wise. Lorin Maazel is capable of greatness, and so is Kurt Masur. The latter can seem like a dutiful kapellmeister, but then something will click, and he stuns you. It is a mysterious reality. I happen to know that the players of the New York Philharmonic came off the stage one evening, after a Beethoven Seventh (speaking of those), saying, “What happened? What happened out there? Why does the earth seem transformed?” Again, a mystery.

Valery Gergiev is capable of great, electrifying performances, but is fantastically uneven. Bernard Haitink can be superb (in Bruckner, for example), and so can other senior maestros: André Previn, Christoph von Dohnányi, Pierre Boulez, Claudio Abbado, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Yuri Temirkanov. Mariss Jansons is solid, sometimes rising to brilliant, never dipping below competent. Daniel Barenboim can conduct like a dog one night, and like an all-time champ the next night. Mstislav Rostropovich—one of the greatest instrumentalists in history—can be exemplary on the podium. Sir Neville Marriner is admirable, and so is Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Among younger conductors, Antonio Pappano, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Christian Thielemann, and Osmo Vänskä are very good. One or two may finish as greats. And among still-younger conductors, Sakari Oramo, Paavo Järvi, and Philippe Jordan stand out. We can hope for their continued development.

These twenty or so names aside, there is one conductor who may be described as historic—in the pantheon of Szell, Furtwängler, Walter, and the rest—and that is Levine. One is a small number, but it is better than none.

Turning to pianists, I would designate six as great, or at least eminently worthy: Yefim Bronfman, Zoltán Kocsis, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Ivan Moravec, Mikhail Pletnev, and Stephen Hough. Drawing up such a list is dicey—I have agonized some—and it is also arrogant, as I have said. But I am forging ahead. Like most great instrumentalists, or conductors, Bronfman can handle anything. He can roar through a Liszt étude like nobody’s business, but he is also a superb Mozartean. He is a musician through and through (while equipped with a wizard’s technique).

Much the same can be said about Kocsis. Indeed, one could go on at length about him—as about these others—but I will confine myself to a single memory. One evening, he played Schubert’s Sonata in B flat, Op. posth., in an utterly transporting way. Another critic and I looked at each other as if to say, “Did we just hear that?” Jean-Yves Thibaudet is known as a French specialist, but he has other strengths. Even if he did not, however, he would still be an invaluable pianist. Many an evening or afternoon, I have left a Thibaudet recital thinking, “You know, we grow teary over Gieseking. But, honestly, would we trade?”

Ivan Moravec is an aristocrat of the piano, the embodiment of an old, honorable sensibility, a musician of complete integrity. There is not a trace of artifice in him. Mikhail Pletnev is a different player—more flash—but still musically formidable. He can be eccentric, or willful, but always compels. Stephen Hough is a Bronfman-like miracle: He can be a dazzling virtuoso one day—playing a Saint-Saëns concerto, for example—and the soul of small-scale poetry the next. It is as though Georges Cziffra and Clara Haskil were combined in one fellow. (Of course, Cziffra was capable of small-scale poetry too.) And there is not a smoother, more lyrical pianist than Hough.

There are certainly other worthies in the piano field. Nikolai Lugansky is a young Russian of sure fingers and sure intelligence. Christian Zacharias can be masterly, especially in Mozart. Krystian Zimerman is out of this world, when the stars are lined up. Martha Argerich is as mercurial as they come: She can be appalling—indefensible—and unbeatable, in the course of the same evening. Vladimir Feltsman can rise to greatness, and so can Richard Goode. Leif Ove Andsnes is a commanding musician—too severe at times, but commanding. Piotr Anderszewski is a skillful Pole, and Arcadi Volodos is a Russian lion who can be profound in, say, Schubert.

A few special cases might be mentioned. Leon Fleisher is now in his late seventies, playing a bit with two hands, after about thirty-five years of being limited to one. (Neurological disorder.) He is a noble musician. Alicia de Larrocha is now retired from concert life. And Murray Perahia? Readers of these pages are well familiar with my lament over him: He was, in the 1970s and ’80s, a great pianist, even a historic pianist, I would say. He practically defined tastefulness. But then he decided to make changes: to become a keyboard-eater. He started to pound and strain and stress. And the old Perahia was gone, largely. He is still not yet sixty. But to listen to the real Perahia, in my opinion, you have to put on recordings of a different era.

We have a solid crop of violinists, with two who constitute the cream: Hilary Hahn and Maxim Vengerov. Hahn came to world attention when she was a teenager, and she was astounding then: uncannily musical, knowing. Now in her mid-twenties, she is of course even better. She seems to have no weakness, playing Bach, the Romantics, the moderns with affinity and mastery. Like other greats on these lists, she has the indispensable quality of musical taste—instinct abetted by training. She also has a reserve of spirituality (which you hear in Bach partitas, for example, or the Elgar Concerto). Vengerov is not less impressive. He has loads of charisma, and he can be showy. But a) there’s a place for showiness in music, and b) he never loses his head. He is one of the golden handful in whom music is preexisting.

Other violinists to mention? Midori, the one-named wonder, is another player of taste. Joshua Bell generates a lot of hype, almost movie-actor hype—but he deserves his acclaim. Sure, he can be sloppy—as they all can (maybe not Hilary Hahn)—but he played a recital that ranks among the greatest I have heard, and that includes Milstein. (Any such statement sounds heretical to countless ears.) Gidon Kremer is bright, challenging, exacting. James Ehnes has oodles of technique, and musicality to spare. He is distinguished in Mozart and finger-fliers alike. Christian Tetzlaff is uneven, in my experience, but sometimes he cuts absolutely to the heart of the matter.

Everyone has his criticisms of Anne-Sophie Mutter—I do—but she is a musician to be reckoned with. Also estimable are Viktoria Mullova, Leonidas Kavakos, Sarah Chang, and Leila Josefowicz. Itzhak Perlman is by no means out to pasture—he is barely past sixty—but his violin-playing days seem to be waning, and he will probably be increasingly active as a conductor.

Before we leave the strings, let’s run through some cellists. (I have no violists or bassists to offer.) Han-Na Chang was a child prodigy whom you did not really treat as a child prodigy: She was a cellist of amazing maturity and ability. If Rostropovich says you are great, you are—and Chang was, and is. Now in her early twenties, she is pretty much at the top of the cello heap. And, if expectations are met, we will listen to her for another half-century, at least. Truls Mørk is another splendid cellist, boasting an excellent sound, worry-free technique, and good sense.

Natalia Gutman is a Russian who is particularly effective in her home repertoire. Lynn Harrell can deliver fine performances, and so can Carter Brey and David Finckel. Brey is principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic, and Finckel is best known as a member of the Emerson String Quartet. Each has much to say as a soloist. I should not omit Yo-Yo Ma, for, no matter how much he maddens you, interpretively, he owns one of the most beautiful sounds going. The great János Starker is in his eighties, out of the limelight. And the greatest of them all, Rostropovich, is through with the cello. He still puts in his time on the conductor’s podium.

Of singers, I will give you dozens. I grant that we are not rich in Wagner singing today—putting on a Ring, for example, can be unappetizing. But we are doing well in most every other category. In my survey of singers, I will begin with sopranos (which is the way they like it, of course).

Christine Schäfer is extraordinary in both song and opera. (She is a standout in Berg’s Lulu, for example.) Like other great singers, she is blessed with technique, voice, intelligence, musicality, and what we might call “presence.” Dorothea Röschmann is similarly blessed, and is a Mozart soprano for the ages. Renée Fleming is sometimes resented because of her celebrity—but that celebrity is not accidental. For all her faults (e.g., mannerisms), she is a great singer, and in particular a great Straussian. Deborah Voigt can be faulted, too. But when she is on her game, she is indisputably great, combining power and lyricism as few before her have. She is unsurpassed as Sieglinde and Chrysothemis—to name only two opera roles—and she is a fine recitalist, across a variety of repertoire. Violeta Urmana has recently ascended from mezzo-soprano to soprano, and she is a singer of formidable ability, wherever she is. (They will be crying over her Kundry in future generations.) Karita Mattila is first-rate. She knows her way around the song repertoire, and she is well-nigh historic in several roles: Leonore, Salome, some Janáček ones.

Oh, how they love to pick on Angela Gheorghiu. (“They” being the press, and sniffier members of the public.) She certainly kicks up controversy, and her antics are already legendary. But this should not disguise the fact that she can sing superbly. Moreover, since when do antics count against an opera performer? Anna Netrebko is supported by a vast publicity machine, but that machine has a lot to sell: She is an amazingly compelling singer, or singing actress (in La Traviata, for instance). The two dominant coloratura sopranos—Zerbinettas, let’s say—are Natalie Dessay and Diana Damrau, and they would be showstoppers in any era. Dame Felicity Lott is an artist of true refinement. Ruth Ann Swenson is a very, very good lyric soprano, who seldom gets her due, and Barbara Bonney is a winner as well. Heidi Grant Murphy has a voice of angelic beauty—she knows how to use it, too—and Dawn Upshaw is appealing in a number of ways.

Mezzo-sopranos? They will come fast and furious. Olga Borodina, I have already spoken of, in my introduction. She is, indeed, a great singer, and in many areas: in Russian liturgical music, in Russian song, and in Russian opera; in Verdi (she is a stunning Amneris, for example); in the French repertoire (Carmen, Delilah, the Berlioz parts); in Rossini. She can absorb anything, although I have never heard her in Mozart, and have seldom heard her in the German language. Nevertheless, have you experienced her Urlicht, as Mahler’s Second Symphony unfolds? Transcendental. Anne Sofie von Otter is a mezzo who can really do everything—or virtually everything—and, what’s more, she can do no wrong. Borodina and von Otter all by themselves almost constitute a golden age.

Here are three more who are nearly all-capable: Susan Graham, Magdalena Kožená, and Stephanie Blythe. And take another excellent three: Susanne Mentzer, Vesselina Kasarova, and Angelika Kirchschlager. All of these singers, you could argue for, or celebrate, at length. Bernarda Fink is magnificent, particularly in Bach and the Spanish repertoire. (She is from Argentina.) Joyce DiDonato is a relative newcomer on the scene, but she is already unignorable. Three mezzos who can really scorch their way across the operatic stage—as Eboli, for example—are Dolora Zajick, Larissa Diadkova, and Luciana D’Intino. But they can more than scorch: They are first-class singers. Marjana Lipovšek and Felicity Palmer are veteran mezzos of immense musical and theatrical wisdom. And Cecilia Bartoli? She may madden you, as she does me, but her talent is impossible to deny. Like her, it is extravagant.

Few singers go by the name of contralto these days, but Ewa Podleś does—and one could hardly ask for more. She is versatile, technically stupendous, great. And she possesses one of the most unusual instruments anyone has ever heard. I am one of many who have described it as barely human. Another small category—although it is getting less so—is that of countertenor. The king here, of course, is David Daniels, who easily merits the crown.

Where tenors are concerned—proper tenors—we are not exactly rolling in clover. Pavarotti has exited the scene, and Domingo is not far behind him. Or is he? He sometimes gives the impression of being ageless and indestructible. Today there is practically no one for the core Italian roles of Radamès, Cavaradossi, etc. And we are, if anything, even poorer in Wagner tenors.

There is one area in which we are faring pretty well: that of light lyric tenors, or Wunderlichian tenors, if you like. I have already mentioned Michael Schade, that singer of Die schöne Müllerin, the Mozart roles, and other things. When I heard him as Tamino in Salzburg two summers ago, along with René Pape as Sarastro, I thought (and wrote), “Come, now. Weep for ages past, if you can’t control yourself. But when are you going to hear better Mozart singing from a tenor and a bass? When could you have?” Another tenor in the Wunderlich category is Matthew Polenzani, and Christoph Prégardien is no slouch. Richard Croft is a beautifully lyric tenor, and Juan Diego Flórez is a florid wonder—he has almost as many notes with his voice as Mikhail Pletnev does on the piano. There is much to commend about Ian Bostridge, and this is especially true when he is not over-intellectualizing. For a big voice, we have Johan Botha, who shows flashes of greatness. May those flashes lengthen out. And Roberto Alagna can be first-rate, particularly in French operas.

In the field of baritones, I will start with Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Thomas Hampson. The former is a good Verdian, and he has something to contribute in other areas as well. But where he is really to be prized is in the Russian literature, in all of its manifestations. For instance, he and Borodina are two of the greatest singers of Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death of all time. (Podleś is a third, come to think of it.) Hampson is a quite versatile singer, at home in songs of every kind. When he resists the temptation to over-intellectualize—speaking of that—he is as satisfying as anyone. On the opera stage, he is a superb Onegin, a superb Wolfram, a superb Giovanni. In fact, he has etched his name on the roll of historic Giovannis.

Sir Thomas Allen, so tasteful and stylish, is near the end of his career, but is still going. Mariusz Kwiecien is near the beginning of his career, but already provides significant pleasure. Falk Struckmann is burnished and credible. And Matthias Goerne owns one of the most beautiful voices in … I will not blush to say history. He doesn’t always deploy it as one would want, but he sometimes does.

I offer up a trio of bass-baritones: Bryn Terfel, Thomas Quasthoff, and John Relyea. Terfel is a true star, a larger-than-life personality, with music in his bones. He has long been a famous Falstaff, and he excels in many other roles, Mozart’s Figaro prominent among them. But he is an especially fine recitalist, with his charisma, musicianship, and likability. He is one of the greatest singers of British music ever. Quasthoff is terribly bright and talented, and that throat is golden. As for Relyea, he is completely dependable—in oratorio (a form not to be neglected) as much as in his variety of opera roles.

The first four basses I will give you are all senior, in some cases quite senior. Kurt Moll is still going, that paragon of operatic art. James Morris is still an authoritative Wotan, Hans Sachs, Scarpia, and other things. Samuel Ramey may be frayed, but he has powers of compensation. And Robert Lloyd is in the tradition of elegant, polished, and tasteful British singers. A fifth bass, however, is in the prime of his career, and that is René Pape. Even the most determined nostalgists concede his greatness, for it is so obvious, to deny it is futile. Can there ever have been a better King Mark (to name only one of his roles)? Here is a more brazen question: Has there ever been one as good? And to hear Pape in, say, the Verdi Requiem is equally gratifying. His technique is assured, his voice is marvelous, his sense of music is natural, and right. To return to a phrase I used earlier: the complete package.

But enough of singers (and I have named over fifty). Let’s explore some other instruments, beginning with the clarinet—because we have some great musicians who play it. David Shifrin is simply one of the best instrumentalists in the world, and we can say the same of Sabine Meyer. Ricardo Morales is first-rate too, though he does not have a full-time solo career. (He is principal in the Philadelphia Orchestra.) Emmanuel Pahud is a flutist of lavish gifts—technical, musical, and intellectual. It says something that Yefim Bronfman tours with him. There are some solo French-horn players about, but I would like to name an orchestra player: Stefan Dohr, of the Berlin Philharmonic. In his hands, the many difficulties of the French horn seem to vanish. And Evelyn Glennie is so good, she has created something new: the full-time solo percussionist.

I said I would touch on composers, and I will—prefacing my remarks with a couple of truisms. 1) You can never be sure what music will last. Critics and others often worry that future generations will laugh at them for ignorant dismissal. Frankly, my friends, I’ll take my chances. And 2) No matter what the era, 90 percent of music is dreck. My complaint is that our era soars well above the allotted 90 percent. We are not nearly as rich in new music as we are in people to perform it.

I suspect that almost nothing of today’s music will join the everlasting repertory, or even endure beyond the composers’ lives. Arvo Pärt may buck the trend. He is a serious-minded composer who receives doses of spiritual inspiration. Choirs, in particular, may want to perform his work. And there are other worthy composers, don’t get me wrong. I will type a short list: Krzysztof Penderecki, William Bolcom, Sofia Gubaidulina, Steve Reich (the former bad boy of minimalism who is just turning seventy). Singers should want to sing Lee Hoiby’s songs, American singers in particular. And his operas are strong. Thomas Adès is a smart young man—but is he musically inspired, the way really good composers must be? Jay Greenberg provides a ray of hope. He is only fourteen, but he has been writing impressive music for years. The Sony label recently released his Symphony No. 5 and his Quintet for Strings. They don’t merely show promise: They are laudable works in and of themselves. This is a composer who bears watching, particularly if he eludes capture by the theoreticians and dogmatists.

But, generally speaking, we are in a barren age for composition.

Back to the full half of the glass, however. As I have contended, there are plenty of people worth hearing today, and a fair number of immortals-in-the-making. You don’t have to stay home with your historical reissues; you can go to the concert hall or opera house (on selected nights). There is something unattractive in human nature that wants to scorn the present and exalt the past—or that wants to dishonor the present in order to honor the past (as though we besmirch the memories of the departed if we appreciate the living and breathing). This phenomenon is perpetually repeating. When Furtwängler came along, he was faced with the ghost of Nikisch. The upstart Serkin had to deal with the beloved Schnabel. Janet Baker could do no right, because there had been Kathleen Ferrier. And so on.

Switching to baseball, what harm do we do to Walter Johnson (who retired in 1927) if we acknowledge the obvious fact that Roger Clemens is an all-time great? And as long as we’re talking sports, I’d like to tell you about a golf pro I once knew. The late Bill Strausbaugh, Jr., was the most decorated teacher in the PGA of America. Everyone called him “Coach.” In the mid-1990s, when Tiger Woods started winning on the Tour, Coach said, “That young man has the best golf motion ever.” (Coach disliked the word “swing,” for reasons I need not pause for.) I replied, like an idiot, “Oh, Coach: You must mean he has one of the best motions ever. I mean, you’ve seen Hogan, Snead—all of them.” He fixed me with a look and said, “No, Jay, I meant what I said: Tiger Woods has the best golf motion ever.” (Coach, who died in 1999, would like him even better now.)

I was deeply impressed that this senior statesman was free of nostalgia, recognizing greatness when it was before him. And that’s not a bad posture for any of us.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 Number 1, on page 108
Copyright © 2019 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com

Popular Right Now