The Borodin Quartet was born in Moscow in 1945. I’m not speaking of the famous string quartet by Alexander Borodin (composed in the 1880s). I’m speaking of the ensemble billed as the “Borodin Quartet.” The original members are now off the stage, but the brand carries on, with different players. And they are doing very well by the brand, as a concert in Alice Tully Hall proved.
There were two major works on the program, composed a year apart: Brahms’s String Quartet No. 2 in A minor (1873) and Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 2 in F (1874). In the Brahms, as throughout the concert, the Borodin players were extreme- ly mature, measured, and musical. Their sound was neither too plump nor too thin. They showed an exceptional rhythmic sense, knowing how to wait on the music, and on one another. In technique, they were not immaculate—Russian ensembles are not known for such immaculateness—but they were clean enough, never sloppy. Where Brahms asks for singing, they sang. They sang well as individuals and as a group. The first violinist, Ruben Aharonian, played with great confidence, a confidence well earned. And I will make a specific comment about the last movement: It was a model of strength in lyricism, and of resoluteness.
In all, there was nothing forced, showy, or dishonest about this performance. It was “good, honest music-making,” in the phrase of a teacher I once knew.
Before the Tchaikovsky, the players offered something quite rare: a movement—called “Romance”—from an unfinished string quartet of Rachmaninoff. This was a student work, penned when Rachmaninoff was sixteen. The Romance is sad and sweet, like so much that the composer would go on to write. He was good at sixteen—though perhaps not as good as Mendelssohn, who, at the same age, wrote his octet, one of the immortal pieces in chamber music: indeed, in music. And what about the young Georges Bizet, who wrote his Symphony in C at seventeen?
The Tchaikovsky quartet played by the Borodin was not the one with the well-loved Andante cantabile—that’s the Quartet No. 1. No. 2 has its own virtues, as the Borodin made plain. The first movement had an amazing feeling of gaiety, complete with dancing. The second movement was delicious and odd. The third was yearning and dark, in a rightly understated way. And the fourth simply pulsed with nobility. What could be better than real musicians playing real music?
This was an old-fashioned concert, by which I mean the following: There was no talking from the stage, no recitation of program notes; no imposed casualness. The magic of a concert was preserved. Last summer in Salzburg, I did a public interview with two members of the Emerson String Quartet. One of the subjects was this now-practically-mandatory talking from the stage. An Emerson player explained that administrators and others expect or demand what is known as “outreach.” “You can’t just have four guys in tuxes come out and play music.” I said, “What’s wrong with that? Do you know anything more satisfying than four guys in tuxes playing music? Isn’t that ‘outreach’ enough?” The player grinningly agreed.
Once upon a time, the composer and the performer were usually the same person: You composed music and you played it. Very rarely did a musician only compose or only perform. Think of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven; Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninoff; Paganini, Sarasate, Ysa˜e. Then, sometime in the first third of the twentieth century, a pronounced split occurred: Composers were composers and performers were performers, and the twain would not again meet.
There are throwbacks, however—and Thomas Adès is one of them. This Brit is a well-known composer, one of the best-known and most admired of the current crop; but he is also a pianist of no little ability. Longtime readers of this journal may remember that I wrote about his piano quintet, which he recorded along with Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet. I was as impressed with his playing as I was with his composing. Seldom will you hear a pianist so good, so effective, in the “Trout.”
He recently gave a recital in Carnegie Hall, featuring music off the beaten path. He likes to do that: play obscure music, often short pieces, and often by very familiar composers. Say Brahms wrote some novelty, sitting in a drawer: Adès will play it for you. And if his music at Carnegie Hall was strange, it was presented in a strange order, too.
The program began with Janacek’s Along an Overgrown Path, Book II. Book I is better known. And Janacek’s In the Mists is better known than either book, quite fashionable now. Adès continued with Liszt’s transcription of the Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (not off the beaten path, to be sure). And then there was an early Prokofiev set, Sarcasms, Op. 17. After intermission, Adès played Schubert’s little Allegretto in C minor, D. 915. He next played a concert paraphrase on one of his own works, the chamber opera Powder Her Face. And he concluded with the Six Bagatelles of Beethoven, Op. 126. See what I mean about a strange order? Janacek to Beethoven?
Adès has many virtues as a pianist, beginning with the fact that he plays rather like a composer: He can see, feel, a piece from the inside. He is not exactly Horowitzian, but he has plenty of technique. (By the way, Horowitz wrote a little music—not much, but some.) Also, he makes a beautiful sound, and can produce a variety of colors. He was not at his best in the Wagner-Liszt: He was a little hesitant and awkward. But I hasten to say that this is an awkward transcription, with all those tremolos and so on. He was superb in the Sarcasms—they are right up his alley, those little pieces: quirky, playful, rude. They’re spiky, as Prokofiev likes to be, but they also include beauty, which Adès enjoyed, even milked. And maybe his best playing came in the Schubert. It was exquisitely shaped and voiced. It was sweet, simple—I dare say perfect.
The audience, happy and on its feet, got encores: Liszt’s Valse oubliée No. 1 and some more of Adès’s own music, from Three Mazurkas, Op. 27. Bless the modern composer who will write mazurkas—and concert paraphrases! Adès is a thoroughly contemporary composer steeped in tradition, not a bad way to be, at all.
The San Francisco Symphony came to Carnegie Hall for two concerts, under its music director, Michael Tilson Thomas. The first of these concerts began with a new work by Victor Kissine. He is a Russian composer born in 1953—and his name is the same as that of Evgeny Kissin, the Russian-born pianist. It’s just that Kissine uses a French transliteration. Was his piece on this occasion an OOMP? Readers may remember that term, coined long ago by my colleague Fred Kirshnit and me. It stands for “obligatory opening modern piece” (or “opening obligatory modern piece,” really— you get “OOMP” either way). At fifteen-to-twenty minutes, Kissine’s piece, Post-scriptum, may be a little long for an OOMP. An OOMP is a bit of modernism quickly gotten out of the way. But, to me, Post-scriptum gave off an OOMP-ish aroma.
The piece begins with percussion, and the mood is bleak. What would modern music be without percussion and bleakness? And don’t composers ever want to depart from these norms? Post-scriptum alternates between the eerie and the calm; sometimes, it is true, there’s an eerie calmness. Harps are made to sound like ukuleles, or, more likely, given the nationality of the composer, balalaikas. The music is at times lugubrious, at times nicely elegiac. Eventually, we get a scurrying fast section. And the music takes on a sci-fi feeling. It could be a movie soundtrack—like many, many modern pieces. These soundtracks, unfortunately, are almost always to the same type of movie. Don’t composers ever want to go to a different movie?
Kissine is obviously a smart fellow, and his piece is knowingly crafted. He told us in a program note, “From a formal point of view, this piece is a variation on the theme of Ives’s The Unanswered Question.” What it is from an informal or less formal point of view is unclear. At any rate, others enjoyed and praised the piece. I must have a second listen. But it is dispiriting to hear a brand-new work and feel that you have heard it many, many times before—written by a thousand composers, all adhering to the same compositional religion, hardly a heretic among them.
Alice Coote is an outstanding mezzo-soprano in an age that stands out for its mezzos. She is also British—English, specifically—and gave a recital mainly of British song in Zankel Hall. Her accompanist was her countryman Julius Drake. I am always asking for more British music, and more British song in particular—so this evening was practically like Christmas morning for me.
On the program were Elgar, Stanford, Quilter, Warlock, Vaughan Williams, Gurney—all those composers whose songs Kathleen Ferrier and Janet Baker taught so many of us, through their recordings (and, if we were lucky, their live appearances). Do you know Ferrier’s recording of Stanford’s “A Soft Day”? It will kill you—kill you with its painful beauty.
Coote opened her program with two songs of Elgar, beginning with “Speak, Music.” That is an apt song to open with, as is Purcell’s “Music for a While,” right? Coote sang it with beautiful taste, and I figured we were in for a stellar evening: a wonderful mezzo in her prime, singing her native rep. The second Elgar song was “Pleading,” which includes the line “Will you come homeward from the hills of Dreamland?” When Coote sang it, you could hardly keep from sighing, audibly.
In addition to technical and interpretive skills, she has a first-rate voice, and that includes a good chest voice. She likes that voice a little too much: A chest voice should usually just come out, rather than be announced—“Ladies and gentlemen, behold a chest voice!”
At the end of her program’s first half, Coote sang Elgar’s cycle Sea Pictures. In my February chronicle, I reported on Stephanie Blythe’s singing of it, with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and James Levine in Carnegie Hall. I complained that the cycle was almost never done—and here it was again, from Coote. But something went wrong, in my opinion. The singer departed from taste. She overinterpreted the Sea Pictures, and grossly so. She gilded lilies that are not meant to be gilded—that are just fine the way they are, in nature.
She began the first “picture,” “Sea Slumber Song,” in a sickly, pale, breathy way. There was no need for that. And on such lines as “To slumber woos and wins” she was, I’m sorry, vulgar. “Sabbath Morning at Sea” has a potent inexorability, built in. But it lost that inexorability in this performance because of the extreme liberties taken. Rubato can’t be effective unless it is used sparingly, judiciously. “The Swimmer” suffered from much the same problem. Because of histrionics, it did not have its proper shape and climax. The line that ends “through his stormy winding sheet” is flooring—but not when so many preceding lines have been overdramatized.
I had a thought: “If Cecilia Bartoli were an English singer, this is the way she would sing these songs—but only on her most undisciplined day.”
Janet Baker had a terrible time at the beginning of her career, because Ferrier had died young—when Baker was just starting out—and everyone made comparisons: “Cluck, cluck, not as good as Kathleen.” I will not do to Alice Coote what people did to Baker: “Cluck, cluck, not as good as Kathleen or Janet.” Coote is her own woman, and, as I’ve already said at least twice, a fabulous singer. But her Elgar cycle was simply wrongheaded. As a rule, British songs depend for their power on a certain understatement, a quiet heartbreak. You occasionally let loose with emotion—but what makes these moments stunning is their rarity. I doubt that Coote would sing Salome (if she were a soprano) as freakily as she sang her Elgar. Would she sing these songs in such a fashion in Wigmore Hall? Did she feel she had to tart them up for an American audience? Elgar songs, and the rest of the British rep, don’t need to be sold; their greatness is within.
Before moving to the New York Philharmonic, I’d like to engage in something like fashion criticism, believe it or not: Coote wore a flashy, shiny, spangled top—the material looked like a disco ball. Under that were black leather pants (I believe). I have never seen such an incongruity between dress and music, between attire and program. And yet, the performer some- times sang like her attire. I couldn’t stay for the second half, and have a feeling it went better—i.e., more sensibly, more musically.
About five years ago, I was sitting at a table in Europe, and the topic was, “Who will, or should, succeed Levine as music director of the Met (when that unhappy day comes)?” I suggested the name Antonio Pappano. A Londoner at the table said crossly, “No—you can’t have him.” Pappano is the music director of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. What is his nationality? I will let his bio answer that question: “Born in London to Italian parents, Mr. Pappano moved to the United States at age 13, where he continued his studies in piano, composition, and conducting.” Today, he is to be found not only in the opera pit but on the symphonic podium as well.
And he led the New York Philharmonic in a positively splendid concert. It began with a Mozart symphony, No. 31 in D, nicknamed the “Paris.” This was Mozart the way he ought to be, in my view. Pappano was all taste and judgment. The music was full and bold but not bloated. It was tight and neat but not squeezed, scrubbed, or suffocated, in that “period practice” way. It was enthusiastic but not crazed or whipped. And Pappano always had control, an easy control: over the score, the orchestra, and himself.
The second movement, an Andante, was truly an Andante: It moved. Poorer conductors often turn Mozart Andantes into Adagios. And the last movement was a joyous affair, featuring giddy syncopation. No, jazz did not invent syncopation—not even Bach invented it. It has existed practically from the beginning. And no one has ever taken better advantage of it than Mozart.
This concert had a soloist, and he was Joshua Bell, the famous violinist from Indiana. He played Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, which is really a Romantic concerto with a poetic name. (The piece employs Scottish tunes and heart.) The last movement has that wonderful marking, Allegro guerriero—a fighting Allegro. It is typical of Bell to play a piece like the Scottish Fantasy—he is unapologetically “old-fashioned,” “old-souled,” a descendant of Kreisler. And he knows that if the Scottish Fantasy was good enough for Joachim and Sarasate—and good enough for Heifetz and Milstein, for that matter—it’s plenty good enough for violinists now.
He played it consummately—with the most beautiful tone, the surest sense of rhythm, phrasing, and pacing, and zero, absolutely zero, condescension. His portamento and rubato were relatively sparing: and when they came, they had just the desired effects. Pappano was with him every step of the way, as committed to the Scottish Fantasy as he might be to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. A critic could put his pen down and simply enjoy the performance.
As I have just done a fashion note, would it hurt to do another? Instead of his usual solid black Mao shirt—standard concert apparel for today—Bell wore a purple shirt, with a black stripe down the middle (I think). An improvement. And a final word about this violinist: Just because he’s a celebrity doesn’t mean he’s not great.
Pappano ended the concert with the final symphony of Brahms, the Fourth in E minor. Ideally, this symphony would have a rich, warm, glowing sound. The New York Philharmonic does not quite produce that. It has other strengths, however, and Pappano led a proud account. The outbursts in the scherzo were exceptionally well defined. And the finale was totally stirring, full of determination—a fighting passacaglia. I don’t believe I have attended a better concert all season.
At the Met, there was some intrigue, some controversy—operatic stuff. Leonard Slatkin, the veteran American conductor, arrived to conduct Verdi’s Traviata. Word leaked out during rehearsals that he was unprepared and worry-causing. The singers were unhappy—and one of those singers was Angela Gheorghiu, the Romanian diva cast in the title role. To borrow an old line, when she ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. Opening Night came, and Slatkin received poor reviews. He subsequently withdrew from the Traviata run. I was not present for this opening, and of course can’t comment on Slatkin’s performance. I do know that he is a very able and versatile conductor. And I find it hard to buy what some people assert: that Verdi is impossibly foreign to him. I also find it hard to believe that he deserves the professional black eye he has received. In any case, Steven White was in the pit the night I attended. He, too, is an American, and he was making his Met debut. He conducted La traviata with knowledge, sensitivity, and security.
I don’t quite have the space to cover the whole cast and the whole opera—but let me tell you a little about La Gheorghiu in Act I. She pulled out all the stops, playing with Verdi’s music shamelessly. She sometimes invented her own rhythms. And although she took many liberties, these liberties did not seem excesses, because they were within musical, and theatrical, bounds. When Violetta cried “Follia!” (“Madness!”), the musician sitting next to me said, “You can say that again.” He later commented that Gheorghiu had turned this part of the opera into a mad scene. And yet, we agreed, you could hardly resist it. You would not want Violetta to act this way every time—but now and then? Sure. Gheorghiu lunged at some high notes, and flatted on a few of them; also, she did not dare the E flat at the end, which I thought she should have. (I guess that was one stop she didn’t pull.) Still, it was a boffo Act I.
Next season, the Met will replace Franco Zeffirelli’s production of La traviata with Willy Decker’s 2005 production from Salzburg. Readers may recall that I praised that production, a relatively inoffensive exercise in modernism. But to prefer it over the Zeffirelli at the Met—the Met, that home of grand opera? “Follia!”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 28 Number 9, on page 53
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