Longtime readers with long memories may remember a rhapsody I wrote about Christian Zacharias during the 2005–06 season. Zacharias, a German pianist, had played a Mozart concerto, and played it consummately. He seemed to channel Mozart himself, I wrote. I further said that I had heard all the significant Mozart players of my time, and all the significant ones who had ever recorded. That includes Casadesus, Kraus, Gieseking, the young Perahia—that whole roll. And I would not have traded Zacharias for any of them on this particular night.
Of course, he has nights that are not so good. But that might be said of us all. Zacharias has now made his Carnegie Hall recital debut, though he made it latishly—the pianist is in his early sixties. He opened with C. P. E. Bach, a talented kid. Zacharias played a sonata and a rondo of his (a standalone rondo). In them, he was limpid, clean, stylish, and tasteful. So tasteful, he might as well have been English. Some pianists are smoother than smooth, almost incomprehensibly smooth. Richard Goode can be this way, and so can Grigory Sokolov and Jean-Yves Thibaudet. Zacharias is unsurpassed in this respect.
After his Bach (so to speak), Zacharias played a Brahms set, the Klavierstücke, Op. 119. Obviously, there was some lovely playing here. But Zacharias makes—at least made—a smallish sound, and sometimes you want a more, well, Brahmsian sound: a plumper, richer, more Rubinstein-like sound. You also want some strength in the closing piece, the Rhapsody in E flat. Even some intensity and fierceness are called for. Zacharias missed those entirely.
He moved on to Beethoven, the second-to-last sonata, Op. 110 (A-flat major). I will restrict myself to a generalization: Where the music was more Mozartean, let’s say, Zacharias was superb. Where it required more heft, more grandness, not so much. Parts of the fugue, which ends the work, were unbelievably tender and sensitive. I had never quite heard these things in the fugue. But in the final measures, there was no sound, no excitement, and those are simply required.
After intermission, it was another big, profound sonata, the one by Schubert in D major, D. 850. (I thought of that wonderful quip of Schnabel’s—“My programs are boring both before and after intermission.”) Again, you could predict what Zacharias would do superbly and what he would do less well. But here is something I might not have predicted: The second movement lacked its spiritual quality, that religioso feeling the music embeds. The Rondo, predictably, was perfect: an innocent, merry little clockwork thing.
Perfect also were Zacharias’s two encores: a Scarlatti sonata (G major, K. 55) and Mozart’s Rondo in D, K. 485. They were studies in grace. I would go so far as to call the Rondo a model of how to play that piece. And I was reminded of a story. When I was a boy, I knew a professor of piano who, when a college student, had turned pages for Myra Hess. Toward the end of her career, I believe, Dame Myra used sheet music, not trusting her memory.
Two stories came out of the young man’s experience. Before the recital, he and the legendary pianist had a chat in the green room. She asked him what he was working on. He named, among other pieces, a Mozart concerto. “Oh, what cadenzas are you using?” asked Dame Myra. The student said, somewhat sheepishly, “I’ve composed my own.” “That’s wonderful,” said Dame Myra. “I’m not gifted that way.”
Now, the opening work on her program was the D-major Rondo, K. 485. You can handle the rhythm at the beginning in two different ways. It is up to the taste and impulse of the pianist. Just before Hess and the student walked out onstage, she turned to him and said, “Do you like bah-dah-dah-dah or buh-dum, buh-dum?” The student gulped and said, “Well, I kind of like buh-dum, buh-dum.” Hess said, “Fine, that’s just the way we’ll do it.”
Another recital in Carnegie Hall was given by Karita Mattila, the Finnish soprano. She had at her side the veteran accompanist Martin Katz. She is very tall, he is very not. They have kind of a Mutt & Jeff show. At one recital, some seasons ago, I saw her pat him on the head. He took it with good humor (outward good humor). The first half of their recent recital was all-French, beginning with Banalités, the delicious set by Poulenc.
Mattila is a smart musician, but one can always quarrel with the interpretive choices of smart musicians. “Hôtel” needs a touch of the blues, just a touch; Mattila laid it on too thick, in my view. The voice is frayed now, but she has plenty of it left. One of the things I like most about her is that she does not make a false distinction between opera singer and recitalist. When she’s in the recital hall, she does not go into recital mode: She just sings, letting musical sense govern. The best recitalists do this, I have found.
Many years ago, William F. Buckley, Jr., wrote something like the following about Paul Johnson: He is so predictably, routinely excellent, you can underrate him. Much the same can be said about Martin Katz. Year in, year out, he is an excellent pianist: judicious, ready, aristocratic, tidy, debonair. He has a lot in common with Christian Zacharias. And this is leaving aside Katz’s knack for accompanying, for collaborating, which is extraordinary.
The Mattila-Katz recital continued with a set by Debussy, the Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire. These songs require some Gallic sexiness, which Mattila is amply prepared to give (along with other sexiness). Some of her high notes were nowhere near the mark: a mile low. But Mattila sang bravely, and I will give you one reason I say this. She could have blasted her high notes, making them more solid. But she would not compromise, musically: She sang them mezzo-piano or mezzo-forte, when that was appropriate, meaning that these notes were far shakier than they would have been if she had ignored musical sense and blasted. I was filled with admiration for her.
I did not admire the audience, whose behavior was abominable. Usually, I don’t object to audience noises. In fact, I object to objection to them (shushing, clucking, condemnation). But the coughing and the cell phones on this night were ridiculous. Also, it’s interesting that New York audiences, reputed to be sophisticated, applaud regularly between songs in sets. I doubt they do any worse in Sioux Falls.
Mattila opened her second half with a set by a Finnish composer, Aulis Sallinen, born in 1935. (He is not to be confused with the conductor-composer Salonen, born in 1958.) Mattila sang Sallinen’s Four Dream Songs, Op. 30. To my ears, they are nice, sad, atmospheric, and forgettable. In their sadness, they reminded me of a fact I think I read somewhere: Is Finland the suicide capital of the world? At any rate, Mattila sang these songs well, and we can commend her for her national and linguistic loyalty.
She ended her printed program with a group by Joseph Marx, the five songs on which his reputation rests, really. These are the songs—“Nocturne,” “Waldseligkeit,” “Selige Nacht,” “Valse de Chopin,” and “Hat dich die Liebe berührt”—that have been loved and exploited by Leontyne Price, Renée Fleming, and many another luscious, bold soprano. I would call Marx a major minor composer (and I’m not referring to keys). From Mattila, the first song, “Nocturne,” could have used more lift and élan. But Katz came through, playing with Romantic taste and silky technique. As the songs continued, Mattila gave her all, and the emotions built. At the end, she hugged her pianist, shoving his face into her bosom.
Like Zacharias, she presented two encores, but these were very different from his. The first was “I Could Have Danced All Night.” Do you know Birgit Nilsson’s recording? She goes up for a high C at the end, nailing it, hard (which is how Nilsson nailed things). Mattila did not dare a C, settling for a G, but it was a wonderful one. During the song, she danced maniacally, as though she were Salome or Elek-
tra. This was a little disturbing, frankly. But she closed the evening on a delightful note, singing a novelty song from Finland—nothing dark about it.
Another singer in a later stage of her career appeared with the New York Philharmonic. That was Anne Sofie von Otter, the Swedish mezzo-soprano. Her voice, too, is frayed, and it is also smaller than it was. But there is enough of it left, and the singer’s intelligence and musicality remain intact, even supreme. Moreover, she looks the same as she always has, at least from the seats. With the Philharmonic, she sang six songs of Schubert, orchestrated by Reger, Britten, and one unknown hand. She likes to sing these songs and has in fact recorded them. Do we need orchestrated Schubert songs, seeing as Schubert songs are ubiquitous (with piano) and there is plenty of material for voice and orchestra? It’s not a question of “need,” I would say; it’s a question of desire. And these orchestrations work quite well.
Von Otter began with “Die Forelle,” a song that can be tricky: The error is to make it either too jokey or too sober. Von Otter found the balance, as usual. Incidentally, this concert took place around the time the latest Sherlock Holmes movie came out—a movie in which “Die Forelle” figures as part of the plot. Von Otter sang “Im Abendrot” exquisitely. To use a sports expression, she “plays within herself.” She does not commit the error of straining. For my taste, “Nacht und Träume” was a tad precious, but Von Otter sang it with spellbinding control.
Last of the set was “Erlkönig,” which, you remember, involves four voices: the narrator, the father, the child, and the devil (more or less). From von Otter, the child’s voice and the devil’s voice were distinct and effective; the other two were nondescript. But this hardly mattered, the song packing its punch.
For all these decades, critics and other onlookers have spoken of von Otter’s aristocratic nature. She is like some kind of musical noblewoman. Let me report something tiny: After the Schubert song “An Silvia,” the audience applauded, as audiences can be expected to do. Von Otter did not ignore them or scowl at them, nor did she bow grandly. She executed a little nod-bow—perfect, and just like her.
About a week later, the Philharmonic played a new work by Thomas Adès, the British composer. It’s called Polaris: Voyage for Orchestra. According to the evening’s program notes, the piece can be played with accompanying images, projected on a screen, or without. The Philharmonic played it without. Alan Gilbert, the music director, was quoted as saying, “I am looking forward to the increased focus on the orchestra that is possible when not presenting the visuals . . .”
I will tell you what I heard (though a single hearing is sometimes insufficient). Polaris opens with the piano, which plays waves. Then layers are added, the waves increasing. The feeling is New Age, as probably befits a piece about a star. There is also a psychedelic feeling. I thought of that druggy saying from the Seventies, “Lie back and see the colors.” I then thought of a term coined, I believe, by a violinist friend of mine: “sound design.” Polaris is, in part, sound design, which is a kind of music, but a weak sister within the musical family, in my opinion. Frankly, the work sounded like it was meant to accompany images!
For a long while, the piece is a deafening din, as the composer works out his compositional geometry. The strings screech like birds, Hitchcock gone wild, and the low brass belch. Finally, there is a calming, which relieves the ear. The piece regains intensity, ending with some interesting hammer blows.
According to the program, Polaris lasts thirteen minutes. It felt a lot longer than that to me. I can admire, certainly respect, what I have called the “geometry” in the piece, the craft behind it. And sometimes people’s experimentation is pleasant to see, hear, or otherwise behold. But I don’t regard Polaris as thirteen minutes well spent. The audience, applauding enthusiastically, apparently disagreed.
Let’s now go to the opera—not to the Met, but to the Dicapo Opera Theatre, which is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary. They stage their performances at Saint Jean Baptiste Catholic Church on the Upper East Side. I caught Iolanta, the one-act opera by Tchaikovsky, which we must not mix up with Iolanthe, the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta. Readers may remember that I saw Iolanta at the Salzburg Festival last summer, discussing it in our October issue. Actually, I heard it, rather than saw it: Salzburg presented a concert performance, starring Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczala. You can go eons without seeing or hearing Iolanta. And here I had it twice in the space of four months. Go figure . . .
Before Dicapo’s Iolanta began, an executive came out to make a pitch for funds. If I heard him correctly, ticket sales cover only 20 percent of the company’s costs. I wondered darkly about union impositions. Given what we know about those impositions, and the costs that result, I hope you will forgive my wondering.
Iolanta is a strange combination of dorky, perfumed, pedestrian music and magnificent music: Its love duet belongs in the grand anthology of operatic love duets. A modest, pickuppy orchestra was ably led by a conductor with a fascinating name: Pacien Mazzagatti. The first name relates to peace; the second means, roughly, cat-killer. The production was modest and minimal: a chair, some interesting lighting, some confetti at the end. I liked it.
I also liked the cast, which was in general young and eager. There was a studenty feel about the cast, certainly a young-professional feel. But their enthusiasm was catching. You got the impression they took pleasure in singing and considered themselves lucky to be on the stage. There was ardor in virtually every measure. One hears, by the way, that the mighty Met will soon stage little Iolanta. Not that they need reminding, but I hope they will consider Netrebko for the title role. And Beczala for her count.
In last month’s issue, I had a few paragraphs on Handel’s Rodelinda at the Met. I mentioned that Andreas Scholl, the famous countertenor, had a bad night, when I attended. I did not mention that another countertenor, less famous, had a very good night. He was Iestyn Davies, a Welshman, as his name will tell you. And he later sang a recital in a good place for a recital, especially one given by a countertenor: Weill Recital Hall. He was accompanied by Kevin Murphy, the pianist and conductor whose most frequent partner is the soprano Heidi Grant Murphy, his wife.
Davies has three essentials: a good mind, a good voice, and a good technique. He was particularly impressive in—who else?—Handel: two arias from Partenope. If a countertenor can’t shine in Handel, chances are he has trouble shining. Also on the program were four traditional British songs arranged by an American, Nico Muhly. This composer has dipped the songs in modernism, and successfully. One of them, “The Cruel Mother,” is amazing and relentless. Davies sang it in arresting fashion.
Soon came a set of Bach songs, arranged by Britten. These include “Bist du bei mir,” which scholars say was not actually written by Bach. Whatever the case, it is one of the dearest and noblest songs in the literature. Schwarzkopf, among others, knew it, and Davies sang it like he knew it too. He then turned to a Schubert song, “Der Tod und das Mädchen.” Earlier, I mentioned the four voices in “Erlkönig.” This other Schubert song has just the two, death and the maiden—and Davies did them chillingly.
He and Murphy offered an encore, a Purcell song that we usually hear at the beginning of a recital, not at the end: “Music for a while / Shall all your cares beguile.” It was probably the best and most moving thing on the evening, and it had been a very satisfying evening.
The Met put on an extraordinary show, The Enchanted Island. What manner of show is this? Well, it’s a Baroque pastiche, or “Baroque fantasy,” to quote the formal designation. The fantasy was “devised and written by Jeremy Sams,” a British—what? Almost everything, apparently. According to his bio, he is “a film director, writer, translator, orchestrator, musical director, film composer, and lyricist.” For The Enchanted Island, he borrows music by Handel, Vivaldi, and six others, and creates a story out of The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That is, he blends them. The production, Disneyesque, is overseen by Phelim McDermott. Sams didn’t have the time?
We could debate the merits of the concept, story, and production—I gave in to them all, more or less, smiling along with them. But mainly I considered the evening a festival of Baroque singing. The Met had summoned many singers well equipped for the task. They included Joyce DiDonato, David Daniels, Danielle de Niese, Luca Pisaroni, and Plácido Domingo. That was what you might call the first tier.
DiDonato, unsurprisingly, was worth the price of admission alone. But don’t overlook the second tier, comprising Lisette Oropesa, Layla Claire, Paul Appleby, and others. The cast ranged from satisfactory to fantastic.
I will devote a few lines to Domingo: I had heard he was a little shaky at the beginning of the run. By the time I got to the show, however, he was utterly commanding, booming out his notes gloriously. The years poured off him as the sound poured out of him. He was essentially a baritone with an easy, enormous, glowing high G. His English was entirely “Bésame Mucho”—have I mentioned that the libretto is in English?—but this was almost charming. I have called Domingo “the ageless Spaniard” for something like twenty years now. Someday I’ll have to stop. Not yet.
The opera, or whatever we should call it, was conducted by William Christie, the Baroque specialist. In our last issue, I lamented Baroque specialists, saying that some of them were ruining Baroque performance. Christie is not one of them. He conducted with correctness and also with the real correctness: musicality. He was more valuable than any of the singers onstage.
But one thing the evening did was confirm for me that we are indeed in an enviable age for singing. About conducting, piano playing, and composing, feel free to worry. About singing, don’t bother. I confess that I was not looking forward to attending The Enchanted Island, fearing it would be a gimmicky snooze. I had a ball.
My January chronicle, I closed with Chanticleer in the Medieval Sculpture Hall of the Metropolitan Museum. This chronicle I will close with Anonymous 4 in the same space. Who are they? They are four women who sing early music, a cappella. Formed in 1986, they are marking their twenty-fifth-anniversary season.
It will not scandalize you, I hope, to know that I find a little medieval music goes a long way. The word “plain” is not out of place in “plainchant.” After Anonymous 4 sang a particular piece, the friend sitting next to me said, “That was enough perfect fourths to last a lifetime.” A year, at least. But the group does a good job, and though they are partly scholars, they are not so scholarly as to forget to perform. They generally sing in tune. And they sang with dignity—great dignity, without pomposity. They drew you in and made you believe and enjoy. I also might mention that these women aren’t chippies. That makes them all the more impressive, and touching.
At the end of their program, they sang an American set, starting with “The Cherry Tree Carol,” in an Appalachian version. As I was listening to that, I thought, “That’s the most purely American thing I have ever heard in my life—including The Stars and Stripes Forever and Rhapsody in Blue.”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 Number 6, on page 54
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