Two months ago, I wrote that the Berlin Philharmonic had come into Carnegie Hall for a three-concert stand. Well, some time later, their rival orchestra to the south, the Vienna Philharmonic, did the same. One difference between the Berliners and the Viennese is that the former have a permanent conductor whereas the latter do not. You never know who will stand before the Vienna Phil. On this occasion, in New York, it was Daniel Barenboim, plus Pierre Boulez. Barenboim led two concerts, and Boulez one—a concert in which Barenboim was piano soloist. Boulez, by the way, seems as engaged as ever: At eighty-five, he is in constant demand, and meets it. In this same period, he was in Carnegie Hall conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for two concerts.
As for Barenboim, he is one of the great uneven musicians, both as conductor and as pianist: You never know what you’ll get. In the Vienna Philharmonic’s opening concert, he was on and off, but mainly on. His program began with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, the “Pastoral.” The first phrase did not bode well: There was an absurd ritard at the end of it. And the first movement at large was rather heavy and stodgy. The second movement was worse, for Beethoven’s lovely brook was more like sludge. But the final movement—the end of this pastoral tale—was positively beautiful. It breathed pure peace, contentment, and gratitude, just as it should.
The Vienna Phil.’s sound was extraordinary, of course: These guys never let you down there. And their execution was generally at a high level. How odd, I often think, not to hear horns flubbing. How odd to hear them play their notes sure-footedly. Don’t they know that horns have a divine right to flub?
The second half of the program was to be Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31, followed by the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (no soprano, just the orchestra). But Barenboim switched the order—Wagner first, Schoenberg last. This had consequences.
The Wagner, he paced and shaped beautifully, letting the music have its marvelous swells and magic. Thrilling. (Incidentally, is it possible to hear the Liebestod, in orchestra-only form, without filling in the soprano part in your head?) Once the Wagner was complete, some modest number of people in the audience left, before the Schoenberg could begin. You could see Barenboim take note of this and remark on it to the orchestra. He then conducted the Variations with clear competence and mastery, although it is possible for this music to be more vivid and grabbing.
Carnegie’s audience badly wanted an encore, and Barenboim, taking his sweet time, finally obliged: He told the audience not to tell those who had left before the Schoenberg that they were going to get a Strauss polka, because the leavers would only “resent it.” Then he conducted Unter Donner und Blitz rip-roaringly, ebulliently, thrillingly. Oh, what fun. “Thunder and Lightning” indeed.
But why had Barenboim switched the order of the program at the last minute? A sudden respect for chronology? A desire to make mischief—knowing that some, not yearning for Schoenberg, would split?
About Yefim Bronfman, the Russian-born American pianist, I have rhapsodized in these pages many times. I will rhapsodize a little more. He is not only a great pianist (yes), he is an exceptionally versatile one: In fact, his versatility is part of his greatness. He is a heaven-storming virtuoso and a refined poet. He is exemplary in a Liszt transcendental etude and in a Bach sarabande. That is musicianship.
With the New York Philharmonic, he played Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2, a piece that he has made something of a specialty. You almost never hear this work, as contrasted with two other Prokofiev piano concertos: Nos. 1 and 3. There are reasons for this. First, it is not great Prokofiev, containing a lot of dross to go with the gold. And second, it is stupendously hard, a relentless, punishing workout for the pianist. Few can play it.
Difficulty is no problem for Bronfman. Take the leaps in the last movement: They are not easy, they’re really not. It’s just that Bronfman made them seem so; he did not miss a one.
I will list some of Bronfman’s virtues, as brought out in this Prokofiev performance. He can make a huge sound without pounding. Moreover, he can make a variety of sounds—such as that dry sound that Prokofiev wants, sometimes. He can play staccato without clipping. He is a master at pedaling, an art whose importance is underrated. His rhythmic sense is sure. He knows how to weight a note, weightedness being essential in phrasing, and in piano playing. Music, in his hands, is in balance. In short, Bronfman has judgment: and judgment, you could say, is the key to the musical kingdom.
He played Prokofiev’s Second to within an inch of its life. And the audience, in a happy frenzy, demanded an encore. Bronfman has a modest stage presence, and he was reluctant, but, after much prodding, he played something: a Scarlatti sonata, or esercizio, as the composer called them. And he did this with breathtaking delicacy and beauty. Talk about weightedness. Talk about judgment. Probably not wanting to detain the audience, or orchestra, he did not take the repeats. A shame.
By the way, we have had at least one other Prokofiev Second this season—that was handled by Yuja Wang, the twenty-three-year-old Chinese pianist, with the Philadelphia Orchestra in Carnegie Hall. Do take account of Wang: She is not merely an up-and-coming pianist, she has already up and come.
James Levine, as is his wont, brought his Metropolitan Opera Orchestra out of the pit and into Carnegie Hall on a Sunday afternoon. He had programmed two canonical symphonies, with Diana Damrau singing Strauss in between. The first symphony was not a finished one, but Schubert’s No. 8 in B minor. From Levine, it was big, grand, and filling—Brahmsian, really. Is this legit? It was satisfying, in any case. The orchestra executed well, although some of its attacks were not together. And I will single out Stephen Williamson, the co-principal clarinet. In last month’s chronicle, I discussed the other co-principal, Anthony McGill. Williamson was superb in his Schubert duties.
Schubert was a rather versatile composer, no? A symphonist and a lieder writer, a chamber-music composer and a master of piano pieces large and small. Etc. He did more or less everything in his paltry thirty-one years. I might add this about the B-minor symphony: When I was quite young, I used to bridle at the assertion that it was “Unfinished.” Who could want more? And the two movements went so well together. Now, however, I feel an itch for a completing scherzo and finale.
In eight orchestrated songs by Strauss, Damrau, the German coloratura soprano, was as she can be expected to be: liquid, personable, accurate, winning. Her intonation was spot-on, reminding us what a difference that makes: whether a singer is in tune or not. Her diction was fabulous. And her trills and other tricks were textbook. “Morgen,” to take one song, was exquisite. “Wiegenlied,” to take another, was a pure float. And “Amor”—a showpiece, and the inevitable last song—was duly dazzling.
A strange thing occurred, however: Throughout the songs, the orchestra was often too loud for Damrau (or for anybody). It repeatedly overwhelmed her, making her hard to hear. Is there anyone who knows more about accompanying singers than James Levine, the world’s leading opera conductor for thirty years, and a pianist to the singing stars? Even so, there was a problem.
After intermission, Damrau came back to sing some of Zerbinetta’s music from Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. She was maybe hammier than is strictly necessary, but her panache and sparkle are always to be appreciated. Damrau is one of the two great sparklers among singers today: the other being Joyce DiDonato, the American mezzo. And I might ask: Was Damrau the best singer in the house on this Sunday afternoon? Hard to say, because Marilyn Horne and Plácido Domingo were in attendance.
Levine closed the program with Beethoven’s Fifth, and I left before his downbeat. Why? You would have to be out of your mind to miss Levine in this symphony. Some medical emergency?
No, something more important than that: a recital at Alice Tully Hall by Bernarda Fink. She is the mezzo-soprano from Argentina—of Slovenian parents, which is why you have that mixed name. For years, I have claimed that she is just about the most underrated, or under-famous, singer on the scene. But plenty know her, and she has a full international career, in the opera house and on the concert and recital stages. I first heard her when she came to New York, maybe ten years ago, to sing Bach with a European period band. The period band was wretched—anti-musical, really. The Bach singing was just about the most accomplished and sublime you could ever hope to hear.
For her Alice Tully recital, Fink had Schumann on the first half and Spanish-language music on the second. The Schumann was fairly off the beaten path: not Frauenliebe und -leben, for example, but five Rückert songs (it is the Mahler Rückert songs that are famous), five songs from Myrthen, and the (five) Maria Stuart Lieder. The Myrthen songs she chose were all on texts by Robert Burns. I say as an American that when Burns is translated into German you can understand him at last.
Fink sang her Schumann with great dignity and musicality, with freedom and restraint. Every song and every phrase were infused with intelligence. She is one of our best musicians to sing. To technique, you had to give not a thought, because the singer had everything in the bag. I did hear a dog not barking, however: no sense of break whatever between the registers of her voice. It was one regal voice from bottom to top.
In the Schumann and throughout the program, you heard a sincerity, a goodness—I’m tempted to say a morality. The pianist Jerome Rose once taught me a saying: “You play who you are.” It may be that singers, sometimes, sing who they are. I don’t know Bernarda Fink at all, and she may be an ax-murderer, but I very much doubt it.
The Spanish songs were by Granados, Gianneo, Dallapiccola, and Rodrigo. But Dallapiccola was Italian, right? Yes, but he set four texts of Antonio Machado. A discovery among these sets were the Seis coplas of Luis Gianneo, an Argentinian composer (1897–1968). The piano parts of these little numbers are especially fetching. Fink sang all of this music with the dignity, poise, and respect of a lieder singer, you might say, and the idiomatic grasp of a native. The very last piece on the program was the Rodrigo song “De los álamos vengo, madre.” No matter what, many of us will always associate that with the late Victoria de los Angeles.
There is a long tradition of mentioning the accompanist in the last line of a review. In keeping with that tradition, I will say that Anthony Spiri—an American who has made his career in Europe—proved a worthy partner. Do you remember one of Gerald Moore’s quips? The late, esteemed accompanist said that his mother was the only person who read reviews from the bottom up.
The next night, Monday night, the Metropolitan Opera gave a performance of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. And the title role—one of the great baritone roles in the repertory—was filled by Plácido Domingo. But he’s a tenor, right? Yes, a most unusual tenor: Some people call him a “baritenor” nowadays. He began his career, long ago, as a baritone. And one has always been able to hear this in his singing: a “baritonal trunk,” as they say. This has been true of other legendary tenors, too: Melchior, for one. Bergonzi, for another. And you can hear that baritonal trunk in the great Caruso as well, can’t you?
Officially, Domingo is sixty-nine years old, but he may be a smidge older. Never mind: For years now, I have referred to him as “the ageless Spaniard,” and I will keep going, as he does. As Boccanegra, he was in splendid vocal health, not wavering at all, but sounding like his typical hale, virile, glowing self. His top notes, in the role, were not so baritonal: You could tell that this singer had several notes above those. Top notes from a tenor, or even a baritenor, in a baritone role, are not terribly exciting. But this is scant cause for complaint. Domingo’s sheer ability, quite apart from his longevity, is amazing. Once, at a rehearsal years ago, James Levine had reason to call out to him, “They don’t call you Plácido Domingo for nothin’.”
Speaking of Levine, he was in the pit for Boccanegra, exercising total command, getting the most out of each page of the score. And his cast at large was commendable. The veteran bass James Morris portrayed Fiesco, and he sounded surprisingly fresh. When he and Domingo were singing together, under Levine’s baton, I thought, “This—this— is grand opera.” Marcello Giordani was Adorno. I had always wondered at this tenor’s reputation: I had never heard him live up to it, in many appearances. On this night, he did: A fuss was in order.
The next night, the Met performed another Verdi opera, this one Stiffelio. And, immediately, there was a difference: The command in the pit was not so sharp. There was a drop-off in precision, grace, verve. Who was conducting? Domingo. He is no Levine, to be sure, but (a) not many are and (b) Domingo is, and was, competent. And there is no question that he knows Verdi style. Let’s review Domingo’s schedule, quickly: On Sunday afternoon, he was at the Met Orchestra concert in Carnegie Hall. On Monday night, he sang Simon Boccanegra. On Tuesday night, he conducted Stiffelio. What else did this senior citizen do on these days? He has said his motto is, “If I rest, I rust.”
The Met had staged Stiffelio in two seasons previously, both in the 1990s: and Domingo was almost always in the title role, with Levine in the pit. This time, José Cura, the Argentinian tenor with some Domingo-like qualities, was Stiffelio. And he had a subpar night: including some pinching, wailing, and strangling. The voice was beautiful, however, when the singing was soft. And, after some warming up, Cura improved overall. I might mention, too, that a Polish baritone named Andrzej Dobber was sturdy and affecting in the role of Stankar. A few years ago, I heard him sing a bit from Macbeth in a minor concert: impressive.
Young Radu Lupu will be sixty-five this year—hard to believe. The famed Romanian pianist came to Carnegie Hall for a recital. And he is another of those great uneven musicians, à la Barenboim. He can give you the recital of your life, then maybe not even the recital of your week. In this most recent outing, he walked onstage grave of mien—as usual—and gray of hair. Also gray of beard. More and more, he looks like an Old Testament prophet, or, as a patron remarked after the recital, like a character in a Dostoevsky novel. He started with the ~JANACHEK suite called In the Mists. And then he played two of the greatest, grandest sonatas we have.
First was Beethoven’s Op. 57, the “Appassionata.” Lupu did some first-rate playing in this work. He was thoughtful, measured, interesting. He applied much rubato, or flexibility in rhythm, and at times he would have been better off straighter. Also, he did some overpedaling, blurring through some rests, for example. In the second movement, more limpidity—a greater sense of horizontality—was desirable. But there was much good, much wisdom, in this account.
Let’s remember that this sonata is called the “Appassionata.” It was written by a passionate, clenched-fist man in his mid-thirties who was confronting a nasty fate: deafness, primarily. The sonata takes some fire, some abandon, some suspense—even some speed. I guess what I’m saying is that a little autumnality, a little “wisdom,” goes a long way, certainly in this sonata. Lupu played it like a master, a sage. Nothing wrong with that, and he is perfectly entitled to his approach. But there’s nothing wrong with playing the “Appassionata” like a demon, either.
After intermission, Lupu played Schubert’s Sonata in B flat, Op. posth. This piece, you might think, is made for autumnality—our most senior pianists have always loved to play it. But even here, a little of that quality goes a long way. The sonata, really, ought to be played fairly straightforwardly and contentedly. Too often, pianists impose a sense of “Poor Franz, who was so sick and would die so young.”
Lupu played this sonata very well, even if he was occasionally too understated or retiring for his own good, or the music’s good. The Scherzo had the right sprightliness, and its trio had wonderful, teasing rhythms. The audience was passionate for Lupu, and justifiably so. He gave them one encore, the same single encore that Jean-Yves Thibaudet had offered at his own recital in Carnegie Hall some weeks before: Brahms’s Intermezzo in A, Op. 118, No. 2. Lupu played it wisely and rightly, and even smiled as the audience hailed him.
Three chronicles ago, I spoke of Beethoven concerts, and Beethoven festivals: and their tendency to sell out. “There is a perpetual hunger for Beethoven,” I said, “and it is a hunger that Beethoven perpetually satisfies.” (Forgive the obnoxious act of self-quotation.) Some people insist that concertgoers want the new and experimental, and not “dead white males” (one of the most obnoxious phrases ever concocted). Reality is no friend to this point of view. And a concert of Beethoven string quartets in Alice Tully Hall one Sunday afternoon … was completely sold out.
This was a concert under the auspices of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. CMS arranged for six concerts, traversing all the Beethoven string quartets. And a different ensemble played in each concert. The ensemble I heard was the Daedalus Quartet: young, American, and outstanding. They can be counted on to play with poise and maturity—and no pretentiousness, which is refreshing. Of course, CMS had any number of ensembles to choose from, when it came time to book these concerts. The boom in chamber music continues. Once upon a time, there was only the Budapest String Quartet, and as Sasha Schneider liked to recall, “Vee vent by bus.” Death-of-classical-music people should remember this, as they are pronouncing doom.
The Daedalus Quartet happened to play on Super Bowl Sunday (a day that is now creeping toward Valentine’s Day). I remember, ten years ago, when Plácido Domingo sang a recital in Carnegie Hall, with Daniel Barenboim at the keyboard. It was Super Bowl Sunday (in January, as God intended). Declining to sing one more encore, Domingo feigned a football throw: We had to get to the game. No member of the Daedalus did this, though the game had started.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 28 Number 7, on page 48
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