Within a week and a half, Carnegie Hall hosted two first-class orchestras, for three concerts each. Those were the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic. That’s a lot of first-class orchestra playing crammed within a week and a half. Sometimes you can’t spread the wealth just perfectly.
The Berliners were conducted by their music director, Sir Simon Rattle. Their final program was dominated by Mahler’s Second Symphony, the “Resurrection”—which poses a problem. A programming problem. The symphony lasts about an hour and a half. Do you pair something else with it, something short? Brahms’s Requiem poses an even greater problem: It lasts about an hour and ten minutes. Some people feel ripped off if they don’t get a prelude before that requiem, and we can understand them.
Before the Mahler, Sir Simon conducted three rarities: three choruses by Hugo Wolf. One of them was from his unfinished opera, Manuel Venegas. Apparently, Wolf wanted badly to be an opera composer. (He completed just one opera, the forgotten Corregidor.) The poor man would have to content himself with being one of the greatest song composers ever. In any event, Sir Simon conducted these choruses with taste.
Then came the main event, the Mahler symphony—whose first movement was superb. Sir Simon was “fully committed,” as they say in the restaurant business. The music was exotic, raw, startling, and powerful. Each player knew his part, as if he owned it. I don’t think I have ever heard such perfect pianissimos from an orchestra. The Berliners were a technical, as well as a sonic, wonder. When I heard some bloopers in the brass, I was so surprised, I could not quite tell where they had come from.
The final measures of this movement were unusually slow, and the pizzicatos were not together (they almost never are). But the movement was so good, I was just about ready to go home—there had been enough greatness and emotion for one day.
And, frankly, it was all sort of downhill from there. The second movement was okay: but could have been lighter, more lilting, more grazioso. Later, it could have had more tension. And less sloppiness. Pizzicatos, for example, were absolutely hopeless. The third movement was okay: a little fast, a little indifferent. Bernarda Fink was on hand for the “Urlicht,” and she is one of our most sublime singers. Sublime, she was. But this music ideally wants a bigger voice. Eventually, she was joined by Camilla Tilling, a soprano who had done a very good solo turn in one of the Wolf choruses. In the Mahler, she went badly off the rails for a moment—into another key—but quickly got back on track.
The thing about the final parts of the “Resurrection”: They either pack their punch or they don’t. They either administer their medicine or they don’t. They either lift you to the heavens or they don’t. And from Sir Simon, on this occasion, the music had nothing, at least for me. The orchestra was classy, no doubt. But I remember hearing Valery Gergiev in Carnegie Hall just two years ago in this symphony, with a much, much worse orchestra (the Mariinsky). That night, the symphony packed its punch. You just never know. In music, as in sports, there are no guarantees. We have heard Gergiev lay eggs—including in the Mahler Second—and have heard Sir Simon scale heights.
Avery Fisher Hall hosted an orchestra from fairly close by—Pittsburgh. The PSO started its concert with an OOMP, which is to say, an obligatory opening modern piece. But this was a little long for a proper OOMP: seventeen minutes, rather than about eight. The work in question was Silent Spring, composed last year by Steven Stucky, an American born in 1949. His piece was commissioned to honor the fiftieth anniversary of the book by Rachel Carson. We have seen this in recent years: the environmental, or environmentalist, piece. The greenpiece (so to speak). Music follows fashion, like everything else.
Silent Spring, as you recall, was one of the bibles of the Left, along with The Wretched of the Earth, I, Rigoberta Menchú, and other tracts. According to our program notes, Stucky “celebrates” Carson “by evoking the emotions her writing inspired: awe and delight at the majesty of nature, concern over the harm caused by heedless human actions, and despair at the possible loss of beauty in the world—unless we mend our ways.”
In any case, music without words means next to nothing, as Stucky well knows—and this music has no words. The composer describes it as a tone poem in four sections. And it’s a good one. It gives the impression of water nicely. In fact, the entire poem is impressionistic, and even cinematic. There’s a hint of Elgar (yes), a hint of Shostakovich. This is a work that bears rehearing. Stucky is a craftsman, and he has music in him (something many composers, though they have craft, lack). The fiftieth anniversary of Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance will be in 2042. May he receive as good a tone poem. And may all composers receive so fine a reading as the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, under its music director, Manfred Honeck, gave Silent Spring.
After the new piece, Hilary Hahn took the stage, in a marvelous red-orange dress. The lady next to me said, “Wow.” Hahn was dressed more like a soprano than like the violinist she is. Her concerto was Prokofiev’s No. 1, and she played it with her usual poise, preparation, and mastery. Sometimes Hahn is made fun of, perhaps by the envious, for being “too perfect.” And sometimes, true, she is a little overly scrubbed. But there are worse faults.
What do you want in the Prokofiev concerto? Same as you want in a lot of Prokofiev. You want the playing to be sardonic (the big Prokofiev word), irreverent, beautiful, mysterious, impertinent, icy. Hahn demonstrated it all. And I hope it’s no offense to her to say that she does icy particularly well. That’s not to say that she can’t melt anytime she wants, as she did in this concerto. She played an encore, her usual one—and many violinists’ usual one: Bach’s D-minor sarabande. It was perfectly shaped, perfectly in tune. Not showy, not austere—just pure and honest, the way it, and most Bach, should be.
The thing about having the privilege of writing for publication is that you have to tell the truth. There comes a time for punches to be thrown, rather than pulled (and punch-pulling is the critic’s specialty). In last month’s chronicle, I admitted that Katarina Dalayman was the best Brünnhilde I had ever heard, of many (and many more heralded than she): “Since it’s true, I feel obliged to say it, though I gulp a little as I do.” In the same spirit, let me ask, “Is there a better instrumentalist than Hilary Hahn? Hell, a better musician?” I’m not sure I can say there is.
Simon Trpceski, the Macedonian pianist, came for a recital in Zankel Hall. A young man, he is an old-fashioned pianist, a throwback: the kind to play transcriptions, and to wear concert tails (instead of the now-
standard black pajamas), and to kiss a concertmistress’s hand (and to say “concertmistress”). I have heard and seen him do all these things (except say “concertmistress,” which I bet he does). His program had Liszt on the first half and Schubert on the second. But it started with Bach, in a way.
He played Liszt’s arrangement of the Prelude and Fugue in A minor, of which there is a famous recording: the one that Solomon made in 1943. In my opinion, this is one of the best piano tracks of all time. In the prelude, Solomon is almost impossibly smooth and even. Trpceski was more muscular and athletic, but perfectly respectable. And he understood both the math and the spirituality of the fugue. Especially admirable about Trpceski is that he played with reverence, but not with fear or hesitation. Holy music can make a person fearful and hesitant. The ending, which has more Liszt than Bach, was thrilling.
Trpceski continued with the Petrarch Sonnet No. 104, from the Years of Pilgrimage. He showed Romantic flair and a singerly right hand. (Forgive the coinage “singerly,” which I think is convenient.) In the following piece, Les Jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este, he showed a singerly left hand. You have heard this piece more gossamer and more ethereal—but you could appreciate Trpceski’s strength, clarity, and straightforwardness. He ended the Liszt set with a Hungarian Rhapsody, the second one, in C-sharp minor. He was suitably improvisatory, and swashbuckling, and Gypsy-like. Trpceski has a big and sure technique, which the few clinkers reminded you of.
But, walking out to intermission, I thought of something: Pianists such as Lang Lang, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and Yuja Wang have spoiled us. They seem not to have muscles or nerves in their arms and hands. They are wet spaghetti, and they can play absolutely liquidly. They make you forget that the piano is a percussion instrument. They make you forget that Liszt is hard. Trpceski played a little more—humanly? You could hear the effort, you could sense some tightness, you could hear the percussion. Just a little.
To open the second half, he played something rare: Schubert’s German Dances, D. 783, all sixteen of them. You never hear them in a group. Trpceski was occasionally slapdash, and occasionally dry—but he captured the essential character of each dance. And he finished the printed program with the Wanderer Fantasy. Here, he was solid, rock-solid. Solid in his understanding and in his execution. I have always thought that the Fantasy, along with much other Schubert, is not especially pianistic. The better pianists find their way around that, as Trpceski did, largely.
His encores were three—beginning with something from the homeland, a piece by the Macedonian composer Pande Shahov called “In Struga.” It is jazzy and infectious, hard to sit still to. Trpceski is taking it around the world, and the piece deserves the journey. He then played Liszt’s arrangement of Schubert’s “Serenade” —talk about old-fashioned, talk about a throwback! Once upon a time, everyone played the “Serenade” (in some arrangement) in his parlor. It was almost as common as “Happy Birthday.” But it rather dropped off the map. Trpceski played it absolutely beautifully, and it was in fact his best playing of the night. And he reminded you: what a great piece, whether on the map or off. He sent the audience home with another piece in D minor, the Chopin prelude in that key—an excellent storm.
The next night, the New York Philharmonic opened its concert with an OOMP: a proper OOMP, a nine-minute piece by, once more, Steven Stucky. This was two days after the PSO and Silent Spring. The Philharmonic played an older work, 1988’s Son et lumière. With it, Stucky wants to suggest a sound-and-light show, as at the Pyramids. He does. Son et lumière has fantastic colors, and fantastic rhythms. There is a touch of West Side Story, almost a quotation from it (the Sharks and the Jets). The piece picks up in intensity. Its ending is shrewdly plotted.
In short—and the piece is short—Son et lumière is interesting, beautiful, and enjoyable. The modern rule is bleakness, and this piece reflects delight. If Stucky does that too often, he’ll be kicked out of the composers’ union.
Joyce DiDonato then came on to sing Les Nuits d’été, by Berlioz. Her competitive advantage is an awesome Rossinian technique; that is not much called for in the Berlioz. But DiDonato has many gifts, including velvet in the voice, and she sang the cycle well. Sang it with intelligence and appreciation. And Alan Gilbert, the Philharmonic’s music director, is a notably good accompanist (not a dirty word, in my lexicon, as regular readers know).
About a week later, a guesting David Zinman conducted the Philharmonic in Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony. The opening notes weren’t close to together. The first movement was bouncy and brisk. The symphony would get bouncier and brisker. Well and good. But Beethoven’s music was generally without pleasure and mirth, and no more pleasurable or mirthful music has ever been written. At least it was over soon. Zinman can do far better.
As he did in the next piece, the Barber Cello Concerto. The soloist was Alisa Weilerstein, who played with her usual authority and passion—a passion that walks up to the boundary of taste but does not cross it. She has the art of being emotional without losing herself in emotionalism. Also, she can make a great big sound that’s nevertheless lush. She can be both lush and clear, which is a great combination, for a string player, and for a singer. In her hands, Barber’s second movement was a sinuous, melancholy song. When the concerto was over, the Philharmonic’s principal cello, Carter Brey, who is himself a fine player of this concerto, clapped earnestly. A gentlemanly and collegial act.
The Metropolitan Opera revived, for the last time, John Copley’s 1991 production of The Elixir of Love, Donizetti’s enduring hit (one of them). There will be another production next season; in fact, the Met will open its season with that production. I love the Copley Elixir, with its goofy touches—its dancing soldiers and all. Goofy touches for a goofy opera. I know an opera administrator who sneers at so-called traditional productions as “chocolate-box productions.” I’ve never been quite sure what she means. I think she means productions such as this Elixir. I suppose it looks like some chocolate boxes, or some Valentine’s Day cards. To me, it looks mainly like The Elixir of Love. And feels that way too.
On the night I attended last month, Juan Diego Flórez was in top form as Nemorino. He was stylish, accurate, personable—and, to me, surprisingly loud. Where did that power come from? Isn’t he supposed to be a graceful, nimble pipsqueak? His least successful moment, I think, was his big aria: “Una furtiva lagrima.” It was sluggish and stiff—unpliant. But he knows how to sing Nemorino. And Mariusz Kwiecien knows how to sing Belcore, though he started out croaky. Kwiecien was terribly charismatic, strutting around—comically charismatic. Dr. Dulcamara was Alessandro Corbelli, an old pro. He showed the house how to perform Italian patter.
Um, Diana Damrau (Adina). Over the years, I have run out of ways to praise her. She sings with a freedom that’s hard to believe. She is so natural, it seems unnatural. I have never been someone to say that someone was “born to” do this or that. But Damrau may well have been born to sing. She played with Adina’s notes and words as though they were written for her. Her technical control was near-absolute. High pianissimos might as well have been middle-voice mezzo-fortes. I had a thought during a particularly tricky section: “How odd not to have to worry that the Adina won’t sing in tune.”
About four years ago, after an Abduction from the Seraglio, I said to a fellow critic, “Are you ready to call Diana Damrau a great singer?” “Not yet,” he said. “Too early.” I was ready then and am readier now.
Olga Borodina has long been a great singer, and she proved the durability of this greatness in Khovanshchina at the Met. (Khovanshchina is the epic that Mussorgsky left incomplete. This season, the Met is using the orchestration by Shostakovich and the final scene by Stravinsky.) If there was any doubt that Borodina is the Marfa of our time, she dispelled it. The Met’s cast was stocked with other worthies too, and we should not forget the Met chorus, for a chorus is key to any Khovanshchina. Most important, of course, is the conductor, who was Kirill Petrenko. Like Parsifal, Pelléas et Mélisande, and some other operas we could name, Khovanshchina is best when it hypnotizes, when it works its spell. Under Petrenko’s baton, it did. Did he make me forget Valery Gergiev? No. But he didn’t make me regret his absence in the pit either. At all.
“None ever wished it longer than it is,” said Dr. Johnson about Paradise Lost. None ever wished Khovanshchina longer either. But on this night, I wouldn’t have wanted it a second shorter.
Those three concerts by the Vienna Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall? They were conducted by Lorin Maazel. And the first program was all-Sibelius—three symphonies, the First, the Fifth, and the Seventh (the composer’s last). Maazel conducted them in the reverse order. And in the Seventh, he was deliberate, determined, and intense. The seriousness of purpose, and seriousness of thought, was almost painful. So clearly did Maazel bring out the inner logic of this symphony, I felt I understood it better than I ever had. And I guess I’d never quite realized how much emotion this short and somewhat problematic symphony contains.
The Fifth and First were—okay. Some movements hit the mark, other movements not so much. Some Maazelisms—i.e., the conductor’s idiosyncrasies—were successful, others not. No one can conduct the Scherzo from the First better than he: It’s jazzy, throttling, delirious—a joy. On this night, it was disappointingly staid, almost shockingly so.
The second of the vpo concerts consisted of Mozart and Wagner—the Symphony No. 40 in G minor and the Ring without Words that Maazel himself fashioned in the late 1980s. The closing movement of the Mozart was blessedly unrushed. You could actually hear the music. The trend these days is to play Mozart finales at warp speed (emphasis on the “warp”). Unfortunately, Maazel and the orchestra were sleepy, a problem unrelated to tempo, usually. But the Ring treatment was something else. Maazel was engaged in his creation—his and Wagner’s (not in that order)—and the vpo played the stuffing out of it, as you would expect. Yet there were so many bloopers in the brass, I was almost relieved: These guys are human after all.
Not until the third concert did Maazel demonstrate what he is really capable of—and he demonstrated it in the first piece, Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration (a funny piece to have first on a program). This tone poem was ideally conducted, in my opinion: seamlessly, organically, transcendently. Its beauty was never precious or sentimental. The closing chords weren’t together, but at least Maazel cut the final note off in exactly the right place (one of his specialties). He continued with Strauss, the Suite from Der Rosenkavalier. Here, Maazel was idiomatic and magnetic, more Viennese than anyone else on the stage. The crowd whooped and screamed.
I recalled a night at the New York Philharmonic when Maazel conducted this piece—the suite. Afterward, I said to Beverly Sills, “Didn’t you want to bust out with the words?” (as at “In Gottes Namen”). She replied with a complaint: They never let her sing the Marschallin, only Sophie.
After intermission at Carnegie Hall, it was New Year’s Day in Vienna as Maazel conducted the VPA in another Strauss, Johann the Younger—the Fledermaus overture, the Czardas, waltzes, polkas, etc. Maazel has always reveled and shone in this music, and so it was on this occasion. I always said something about him: One of his virtues is that, whether the music before him is high or low, he conducts with the same care. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Mahler’s Ninth Symphony or the accompaniment to the “Vilja” (the dorky song from The Merry Widow).
Tucked into the program booklets for these concerts was an interesting note by Clemens Hellsberg, a violinist who serves as chairman of the Vienna Philharmonic. He noted Maazel’s love for Vienna, and also that the city “has not always reciprocated” this love. “What you have done for our orchestra and our country is the expression of those feelings which—to quote Fidelio—‘penetrate to the depths of the heart’: friendship, understanding, forgiveness, love . . .” Hellsberg then compared Maazel to Bruno Walter, who had showed “magnanimity . . . toward our orchestra and our country.”
What could he have meant? What else could he have meant? And how many other Jews have been kinder to Vienna than Vienna has been to them? All of them?
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 Number 8, on page 56
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