Sandrine Piau put on a real variety show. In a recital at Zankel Hall, she sang seven different sets by seven different composers, in a range of styles, and three tongues. This is most unfashionable now. Bless her for doing it. Piau is a French soprano, with a light high voice, and she was accompanied by Susan Manoff, an American pianist. They began with a Mendelssohn set. Piau was generally secure in technique, but she often sang sharp. This was odd, her being neither Russian nor Swedish nor Maria Callas. Also, her voice was bland, virtually without color. The same was true of her interpretations of the songs. Manoff played well, except maybe in “Neue Liebe,” that fleet, delightsome thing: She could have been crisper.
She and Piau moved on to Fauré, and therefore to the soprano’s home language. She was still sharp. She was still a bit bland, too. It’s not that she did anything wrong. Her poise and smarts were clear. It’s just that the songs made little impression, on me at least. We are in the realm of intangibles here. Then there was a set of Chausson. It was good to hear some songs from this composer (other than his big numbers: the Poème de l’amour et de la mer and the Chanson perpétuelle). One of Piau’s gifts is this: She makes you think that nothing is too high for her, that she can go up and up, without strain.
To close the first half of the program was a Strauss set, beginning with “Morgen!” This song is more traditionally, and more naturally, a recital-ender. But there are no rules. While singing this song, Piau proved she can take a long, long breath. Elsewhere, she showed a pop singer’s tendency: She would start a note with no vibrato and then lay it on. Better, probably, to be alive upon entrance. As for the pianist, she probably would have liked a second try at the final measures of “Morgen!”: She did not play with the delicacy required. But she was exemplary in “Ständchen,” a fleet, delightsome thing, like “Neue Liebe.”
After intermission, there was a set by a living composer: Vincent Bouchot, a Frenchman. This was his Galgenlieder, or Gallows Songs, on texts by Christian Morgenstern. I’ve often criticized today’s composers for lacking a sense of humor. They are a somber and bleak lot. But Bouchot has written a humorous, impish, whimsical set, and done it with skill. Piau sang it with skill, too—with charming guilelessness, for example. Then she sang Poulenc, in which she was superb: understated, insouciant, cool. Ultra-French, in other words. She also gave a lesson in how to navigate tricky intervals. I noticed a couple of dogs not barking: Piau was not singing sharp, and there was color in the voice. Also, the “intangibles” were present.
She ended her printed program in English, however accented—with three British folksongs, arranged by Benjamin Britten. The first of them was “Down by the Salley Gardens,” and I wish Piau had retained some of her understatement from the Poulenc. This song was strangely big, overtly passionate. One error was to overemphasize the bluesy element in the piece (on the first syllable of the word “foolish”). Britten, that genius, has already taken care of matters. Has baked the necessary into the cake. Yet Piau was transfixing in the third song, “I Wonder as I Wander.”
And she was delicious in her three encores, by Poulenc, Fauré, and Strauss. The nearby subway spoiled the quietude, as it regularly does in this hall. But Piau still made her points. A recital by her is an evening in the company of a civilized woman, with an extraordinary vocal technique.
The next afternoon, Lisa Batiashvili, the Georgian-born violinist, played a Mozart concerto with the New York Philharmonic: This was the one in G major, No. 3. For much of the first movement, Batiashvili did not make her purest sound, and there was a squeak or two, just to remind us that the performance was live. Also, her tempo was a touch too fast, in my judgment. The music could not be properly enjoyed. Brisk Mozart is one thing, but rushed is another. By the time of the cadenza, incidentally, Batiashvili was playing purely.
And in the second movement, Adagio, she was heavenly, like the music itself. She sang as much as played. Some of us have spoken of this violinist’s “nobility of soul,” and there it was. So good was this movement, I would have liked more recovery time before the third movement. But that movement, the rondo, was equally good: full of character and color, full of Mozart. The tempo, happily, was sensible. I must say, I have heard this concerto a thousand times, but on this afternoon I appreciated it more than ever. Batiashvili is a musician without pretension or affectation. Always welcome, it is especially so in Mozart.
That night, the Philadelphia Orchestra played in Carnegie Hall. They will have a new music director, the young Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin, next season. On this night, they were conducted by a frequent guest of theirs, Sir Simon Rattle. Their concert opened with Brahms’s Symphony No. 3. Brahms may have waited a while before writing his first symphony, but, once he got going, he was quite good at them.
In the very first measures of the Third, I thought of a point I have long made about Sir Simon: He is relaxed, laidback, virtually Californian. I have particularly noticed this in Brahms. I remember a Requiem that was like a jellyfish. It needed more muscle and tension. The same was true of this first movement, I thought. Brahms need not be flowsy-blowsy. But the Philadelphia Orchestra was making beautiful sounds. Usually, Sir Simon directs the Berlin Philharmonic, which is famous for sound, along with other qualities. I doubt that conducting the Philadelphians was much of a comedown for him. I might mention their soft playing, which was remarkable. I should also mention that Sir Simon had a case for his reading. Portions of the first movement were suitably heroic. Unfortunately, the ending was a disappointment, as the orchestra botched both an entrance, or onset, and an exit.
The next movement, Andante, was a total sonic treat. The orchestra was warm and burnished. Ricardo Morales, the clarinetist, contributed a star turn. Sir Simon and his forces breathed along with Brahms, and this conductor, it seems to me, is made for this kind of music. The same goes for the third movement. Sir Simon is a champion sigher. The third movement is a song, in a way, and I have always considered Brahms underrated as a songwriter. This movement, as you may know, has been turned into at least two pop songs. Doing a star turn on the French horn was Jennifer Montone. Sir Simon could not have missed Stefan Dohrn, his Berlin star, much.
As for the final movement, it was strange and ruminative, just as it should be. The unison string playing was fantastic. Sir Simon, not a jellyfish, gave the music its rightful sinew. But once more, the orchestra was sloppy at the end. High-school orchestras have trouble with entrances and exits. So do the best orchestras, evidently.
A band from much farther away than Philadelphia appeared in Zankel Hall. This was the Australian Chamber Orchestra, which has a violin-playing leader, Richard Tognetti. The group started with Webern’s Five Pieces, Op. 5, and Crumb’s Black Angels. Both of them at the same time. What I mean is, they played one of the Webern pieces, then an excerpt from Black Angels, then another of the Webern pieces, and so on. This weaving has been fashionable for a few years now. Performers think they are teaching the audience something, I suppose. They are pressing some musicological point. “Save it for the classroom,” I often think. This trend will fade out, as trends do. I look forward to it.
But I can’t fault the Aussies for their playing—which was vivid, knowledgeable, and assured. Their principal cello played with amazing sweetness. And, for all my griping, the juxtaposition of the Webern and the Crumb was kind of interesting. What’s not so interesting is that Zankel subway—which, again, spoiled the quietude.
We then heard a new work by Maria Schneider, a jazz composer, not to be confused with the dirty actress. The work, Winter Morning Walks, is a song cycle, using a string orchestra and a jazz combo (in addition to the singer, I should say). Texts are by Ted Kooser, a poet who wrote about his recovery from serious illness. These are skilled and moving poems. The songs? They reflect a mixture of styles: pop, jazz, New Age, the cocktail lounge. The late composer Lee Hoiby wrote a song called “Lady of the Harbor,” which he described as “a rock-and-roll song.” Yet it still sounds like an art song. He described his “Where the Music Comes From” as “my Cat Stevens song.” Yet it is still an art song. Schneider’s songs, in my opinion, do not sound like art songs. Which is no sin, of course.
I did not care for her cycle, but it disturbed me, and if it disturbed me, maybe it’s right to say that it moved me too. Also, I must say this for it: The cycle is an honest effort. There’s not an insincere note in its body.
Doing the singing was the woman for whom it was written, Dawn Upshaw. She sang like a pop singer, which was appropriate. She also sang very low, did this high lyric soprano. She was down at Sarah Vaughan levels. Her diction was exemplary. And when she sang her few soprano notes—why, I smiled at the reappearance of this familiar, renowned, and beloved voice.
Reappearing at the Metropolitan Opera was The Makropulos Case, the 1926 opera by Janácek. His instrumental music tends to be talky. And his operas, of course, are talky too. A feeling for language is essential. In the old days, the world sang Czech music in German or English, but these days Czech is de rigueur. I don’t believe there was a Czech in the Met’s cast. But the conductor was Czech: Jirí Belohlávek. For him, the Met orchestra talked and played nimbly. The cast on the stage was responsive as well. The Makropulos Case is a boisterous opera, and it can be all too shouty. But not on this night: Led by Belohlávek, the opera was boisterous but not shouty. The score and the libretto unfolded reasonably and naturally.
Starring as Emilia Marty was Karita Mattila, the Finnish soprano, who has made Janácek an important component of her career. She is possibly the Jenufa and the Katya of this era. And she was practically born for Emilia (a.k.a. Ellian and Elina): a prima donna, a siren, a femme fatale. In recent seasons, Mattila has sounded worn to me—not over-the-hill, but worn. In this outing, however, she was fresh and strong—her best and accustomed self. Singing Albert Gregor was Richard Leech, the veteran American tenor. Is he underrated? I think so, always have. My opinion was reinforced on this night, as he was gleaming and virile, just what a Gregor should be.
There was a substitute in the role of Prus, Christopher Feigum, an American baritone making his Met debut. What a beautiful voice he has.
When Evgeny Kissin plays a recital at Carnegie Hall, there is always a sense of occasion. Perhaps because the crowd overflows, with a good number sitting on the stage. Also because Kissin is old-fashioned and formal. He bows with dignity (also a little stiffly). He used to dip his forehead a full 90 degrees, but now the bows are shorter. He wouldn’t dream of wearing the contemporary black pajamas. And he does no talking from the stage. He lets his playing do the talking. And, of course, he is a fine and arresting pianist.
He began his latest recital with the Beethoven sonata that pianists call Op. 27, No. 2, but that the rest of the world is happy to call “the ‘Moonlight.’” It is imperative to approach this music freshly. Before rehearsing an orchestra in the Beethoven Fifth, James Levine once said, “It was written yesterday. The ink is still wet.” Don’t you dare succumb to a feeling of staleness or overfamiliarity. From Kissin, the sonata’s first movement was okay, but it had a plodding, thumping quality. You could feel every bar line. There was no melt. The second movement, Allegretto, was brought off in good style. And the finale was fantastic—not only exciting, but interesting. Crucially, Kissin didn’t play it too fast. He could have played it twice as fast, or 50 percent as fast, but at musical sacrifice.
Then came another sonata, this one by Barber—a sonata premiered by Horowitz in 1949. I thought of something another Russian-American pianist, Ignat Solzhenitsyn, has said: The Barber is the finest piano sonata since Liszt and Brahms. (Liszt and Brahms wrote their sonatas—Liszt his one and Brahms his three—in the same year: 1853.) I myself might give the nod to Rachmaninoff or Prokofiev, but Solzhenitsyn certainly has a case. Kissin is well suited to the Barber Sonata: He has the angularity, the violence, the exactitude. In the opening pages, he was a little muddled, but he quickly got back on track. He gave the second movement a wonderful scherzando quality. Elsewhere, he handled the jazz-like rhythms ably.
The second half of his program was all-Chopin, beginning with the Nocturne in A flat. This was the only non-sonata on the program—filler, in a way. But Kissin played it marvelously. He showed a sensitivity we don’t always hear from him. He does not have what you would call a classic singing tone, but it gets the job done.
He ended his printed program with the Sonata in B minor. In the first few pages, I noticed that Kissin was pedaling extremely well: creating the right blend of blur and clarity. But then I sort of forgot his playing—which is a high compliment. I was simply listening to the sonata. I went for ages without making any sort of note in my program. Kissin was at one, in my view, with the composer and his intentions. The Largo was too big-boned for my money, but what Kissin did with it was entirely defensible. At the beginning of the last movement, he was muddled, just as he had been at the beginning of the Barber. But, again, he got quickly back on track. He was swashbuckling, daring, stylish, and awesome.
The crowd would have taken encores past midnight, but Kissin gave them just three. The first was Chopin’s Mazurka in A minor, Op. 67, No. 4, and it was—I’m sorry—perfect. Simply perfect. His best playing of the night. It was followed by Beethoven: his Six Variations on an Original Theme in D Major, Op. 76. We know this theme better in B flat—as the Turkish March from The Ruins of Athens. In the variations, Kissin demonstrated his extraordinary sense of rhythm. An absolute, de Larrocha-like sense of rhythm. He closed the evening with the March from The Love for Three Oranges—talk about rhythm.
The next morning, the New York Philharmonic offered a new concerto by Magnus Lindberg, the Finn. This is his Piano Concerto No. 2. It has no movements, or, if you prefer, is in one movement. Sections are distinct, however—fast, slow, and so on. The piece begins smoothly and Romantically. I swear, I thought of the Saint-Saëns Concerto in G minor. It gives me wicked pleasure to mention this, because most modern composers would rather swallow cyanide than be compared to Saint-Saëns. What was that quip about the Brahms B-flat concerto? “A symphony with piano obbligato.” There is a bit of that in Lindberg’s concerto. But then the piano comes to the fore (as in Brahms). It is sometimes pulverizing and Prokofiev-like. It sometimes gives you rippling Liberace arpeggios and other passagework. It sometimes gives you Warsaw Concerto bombast. As for the orchestra, it is what the orchestra is in other Lindberg works as well: kaleidoscopic, cacophonic, Disneyesque, busy, breathless, tingling.
You may be able to tell that I didn’t like this concerto all that much—not on first hearing. I found it full of gestures, full of show, like Liszt at his worst: “Look at this, look at that! And here’s another thing. And another thing . . .” I did not hear a work of music in the gestures and display. I found the piece, for all its busyness and breathlessness, dull. But I would like to hear it again. And I can certainly say this for it: It expresses a love of music. It takes pleasure in music. That is not all that common today, strange as it may seem.
If the concerto lives a thousand years, it may not have a better pianist than the one who premiered it, Yefim Bronfman. (By the way, why is it “Evgeny” Kissin and “Yefim” Bronfman? In a consistent world, it would be “Yevgeny” and “Yefim” or “Evgeny” and “Efim.”) He gave the concerto his usual fluidity, strength, and smarts. Not having the piece memorized, he used a score, and turned the pages deftly—part of his technique?
The Philharmonic’s music director, Alan Gilbert, began this concert with Dvorák’s Carnival overture. It was tight, in the good sense—compact, together, bouncing. It was also thrilling. Sometimes the New York Philharmonic truly does play like the virtuoso ensemble it is touted as being.
That night, the Met revived Billy Budd, one of Britten’s two big operas (along with Peter Grimes). For some time now, people like me have been hailing the Met chorus, and particularly—no offense to the women—the men in it. Billy Budd requires a lot of men, of course. And those of the Met chorus confirmed their worth. The cast was worthy too. The weakest link, whoever he was, was more than adequate. And I’d like to spend some time on the bass-baritone portraying Claggart, James Morris.
He’s at Social Security–collecting age now. He seems not to know it. Some of his final Wotans made me think, “This is it.” But, no, Morris has vocal and operatic life in him. As Claggart, he contributed his standard Scarpia snarl. To me, Morris sounds like Scarpia whatever the role is. But he has other sounds too. When Claggart was lying, Morris sang in a sweetly false way—very effective. His technique was utterly secure, a firm foundation. Never was he in danger of cracking. For about forty years now, the voice of James Morris has been a fixed fact of operatic life. There are obviously years left.
In the title role of Billy Budd was Nathan Gunn, who had a beautiful night. He sang in tune. When the orchestra and others were loud, he could not really be heard. But to his credit, he never tried to be heard. He didn’t strain. Much of Billy’s music is lightly accompanied and song-like. When Gunn sang those “songs,” he was faultless. Funny, but for years he has been teased for taking his shirt off. Stage directors like him to do this. The shirtless Nathan Gunn is almost a cliché. But in this Billy Budd—of all operas!—he leaves his shirt on.
The opera requires not only a boatload of male singers (literally), but a first-rate orchestra. Britten’s score is practically a concerto for orchestra, with soloists including the flute, the saxophone, the horn, and the cello. The Met’s orchestra rose to the occasion, playing up to what you might call Levine standards. The music director is still sidelined with injuries and ailments. But David Robertson did an excellent job with Billy Budd. In fact, I quite forgot him (as I was saying about Kissin and Chopin). As the opera progressed, I forgot the conducting altogether, because everything was right and natural. Britten’s spell took hold.
I thought better of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 after hearing Batiashvili play it—if you can imagine thinking better of that piece. And I thought better of Billy Budd, after hearing the Met’s opening night. A masterpiece, done full justice.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 Number 10, on page 57
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