Stephanie Blythe, the American mezzosoprano, gave a recital at Carnegie Hall. She was accompanied by her longtime pianist, Warren Jones (a pianist, and a longtime pianist, to many, it’s true). They began with the Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson—not by Aaron Copland, but by another American composer, James Legg, who died in 2000. He wrote his Dickinson songs expressly for Blythe.
Before she did any singing, she did some talking—noting that there were no texts in our programs. That’s because she didn’t want to see faces buried in programs. Fair enough. She said, “We,” meaning singers in general, “try so hard to be understood.” Again, fair enough. But then she did something curious: She recited all the Dickinson poems—or rather, she and Jones did so, taking turns. They recited the poems from memory. And they recited very well. But the recitation took a long while—and if an audience is supposed to understand the words anyway . . .
Something else curious happened: When the singing and playing began, the lights in Carnegie Hall were up, bright as day. They remained that way. If people aren’t looking at texts, it’s nice to have the lights down.
At any rate, Blythe sang her songs accurately, beautifully, and intelligently; Jones exhibited the same qualities. These songs are admirably crafted, and they may have a life after the singer for whom they were intended retires. Following this opening set, Blythe sang three songs of Samuel Barber (and, once more, she and Jones recited the poems beforehand). The last of the songs was “I hear an army,” a song virtually made for Blythe: It has fearsome power. But the song did not have its proper effect, somehow. It did not have its rightful climax, and the rhythm was not marked enough.
Still, it was a pleasure to hear Blythe’s voice. Even if you have heard it a hundred times, you are dazed by its power. The lid on Jones’s piano was all the way up—and when his singer was singing fortissimo, I could hardly hear him.
After intermission, Blythe gave a “pops recital,” a term I believe I coined when Marilyn Horne started singing such recitals toward the end of her career: a recital of light and popular songs. Blythe did songs of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and others. Jones had a solo turn, playing Kitten on the Keys, Zez Confrey’s hit from 1921. Both singer and pianist were personable. When Blythe sang an opaque lyric from “Button Up Your Overcoat”—“Wear your flannel underwear/ When you climb a tree”—she shrugged as though to say, “Beats the hell out of me.” If I have a criticism of this half of the recital, it is this: It was a little unrelenting and exhausting—loud, brassy, Mermanesque. Still, it was fun.
When the printed program was done, Blythe sang what I have heard her call her favorite encore, Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do?” This is indeed one of the great songs in the American repertoire, and she sings it with heartbreaking simplicity. All of this recital was in English, an infamously hard language to sing in—this by the testimony of native speakers. Blythe does it exceptionally well. And that voice is as beautiful as it is big. As for Warren Jones, he has excellent musical taste, and the means to express it, which is to say, a technique that can show us this taste.
The Metropolitan Opera staged a rarity, or near-rarity: Francesca da Rimini, by Zandonai. Now and then, you hear a soprano aria, “Paolo, datemi pace!” But chances to hear the opera are few, and they should be taken. The Met used a staging by Piero Faggioni from 1984. What you need for Francesca, first and foremost, is a Francesca, and the Met had a splendid one: Eva-Maria Westbroek, the Dutch soprano. She is essentially lyric, with a beautiful high piano and so on, but she can also spring dramatic power on you. During an intermission, I asked a singer friend of mine, “What do you like about her?” She said, “She has a great voice, and she can do whatever she wants with it.” That pretty much sums it up. I must say, Westbroek is not Italianate, at all. But it strangely did not mar her Francesca.
Paolo was Marcello Giordani, and he was as he often is: rough, effortful, in perpetual danger of breaking down. The life of a tenor can be very hard. But Giordani’s sheer determination manages to pull him through. Plus, he is the kind of singer an audience roots for, no matter what. Portraying Paolo’s brothers, Gianciotto and Malatestino, were Mark Delavan and Robert Brubaker. Both were formidable, expressing the animality of their characters.
Above, I said that what one needs for Francesca da Rimini, first and foremost, is a Francesca—but I knew I didn’t mean it even as I was typing it. The most important person in this opera, as in most operas, is the conductor, for on him the musical burden rests. He determines the overall feeling (along with the composer). And Marco Armiliato had one of his best nights. The opera breathed through his baton. Helping a lot was the Met orchestra, which did everything the conductor asked, and the composer asks. They were heavenly, anxious, frivolous, rude, belligerent, sly, romantic, murderous—everything. The story was told as much through their playing as through the singing and acting onstage.
Years ago, I began a review by saying, “Last night at the Metropolitan Opera, I attended a series of intermissions, punctuated by a performance of Aida.” So it was with Francesca: three intermissions, plus a pause between scenes in Act IV. There was almost as much intermission as opera. This does not benefit the momentum of a work, but sometimes it simply can’t be helped. And you should know this about Francesca: When Gianciotto stabs his wife, Francesca, and her lover, his brother Paolo, they die, and that’s it. Ordinarily in opera, the dead, or almost dead, sing on for a while, and so do killers. A murder is just an invitation for more opera. In this opera, the killer stabs, the victims fall, and the curtain falls too. Basta. It seems almost illegal.
The New York Philharmonic performed one of the holiest and best works in all the literature, Bach’s B-minor Mass. The opening Kyrie, to me, was shocking: It was relaxed, polite, matter-of-fact. It had little intensity, passion, or spirituality. It was a wet noodle. Much of the rest of the Mass was like this too, but the conducting got better—considerably better—which is the right direction. And all honor to the conductor, Alan Gilbert, for honoring and loving this work. The program note he wrote was perfect. For one thing, he pointed out that the “period” specialists do not have a monopoly on wisdom when it comes to Baroque music.
The Mass has four solo singers, of course, and the tenor and bass-baritone were just fine. But emphasis must be placed on the women: Dorothea Röschmann, soprano, and Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano. They are two of the finest singers of this time or any time. And they are a lot alike: tasteful, civilized, pure. I hope I have not made them sound boring. They’re not. They are total musicians, and artists. As the two of them stood side by side, about to sing a duet, I actually thought, “I can’t believe I’m about to hear this.” I also thought of President Kennedy’s quip, when all those Nobelists came to dinner: “the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” Röschmann and Von Otter side by side are almost too much talent for one stage, or hall.
They performed as expected. And as long as I am making large, but true, statements, let me say this: Each of them has Western civilization within her. Each is both a product of our civilization and an embodiment of it.
You will get no respite from my enthusing, because I must tell you about a concert of the Artemis Quartet. They are a Berlin-based ensemble, and they began with Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in F minor, Op. 80. The opening movement was shocking in its tension and excitement. For all the energy and speed, there was no sacrifice of accuracy (or of musicality). The second movement was much the same. The playing was impassioned, but not the least obnoxious. The third movement, the slow movement, was duly poignant, and the cello sang like a fine bass-baritone. All four players understood the arc of the music, which is important. And they played in tune, which is more important than most people know, I think. You realize the importance of intonation when it goes awry. In the final movement, the Artemis was brilliant, and so was Mendelssohn: His piece ended in an extraordinary F-minor storm.
That was enough for one concert, really—but the Artemis continued with a work by Ginastera, his String Quartet No. 2, Op. 26. They played in the ways that the composer mandates, and you can read those mandates in the tempo markings: “Allegro rustico,” “Adagio angoscioso” (i.e., “anguished”), “Presto magico,” “Tema libero e rapsodico,” and “Furioso.” The Artemis players were tight as a drum—and I mean tight in a good way, not a bad: united, correct, crisp. They ended the evening with a colossal and profound quartet, the one by Schubert in G major. They did it full justice, which is saying something. Not only was this concert one of the best of the 2012–13 New York season, it was one of the best chamber concerts you can hope to hear.
Seldom do I speak of attendance—full house, empty house, what does it matter, to music criticism?—but I might note here that the audience in Zankel Hall was on the meager side. This perhaps had to do with the fact that the concert was on a Sunday night. Zankel is the basement venue in the Carnegie building, as you may know—and I couldn’t help reflecting that one of the worst concerts of the season was a chamber concert that had taken place upstairs in the main auditorium. The house was pretty full then, as I remember. To quote JFK once more, life isn’t fair.
The night after the Artemis Quartet played in Zankel, Sol Gabetta played in Weill, the fetching little upstairs venue at Carnegie. She is a cellist from Argentina, though she has French and Russian parentage (and lives in Switzerland). Her piano partner was Alessio Bax, who may share a name with a renowned English composer but who is nevertheless Italian. They played three great works, three great sonatas for cello and piano: the Sonata No. 3 in A major by Beethoven, the sonata by Shostakovich, and the sonata by Rachmaninoff. It’s not necessary to play great works, only—critics often object. But now and then, it is pleasing.
I will suggest some generalities about Gabetta: She is a tidy, poised, disciplined player. You can see this quality, or these qualities, in her posture. Though she is tidy, poised, and so on, she is not unspontaneous or mechanical. She is reliably musical. She has an acute rhythmic sense. She does not make a big sound—and in the Rachmaninoff, for those great-hearted melodies, you want a fat sound. But she makes a fine one, with a proud buzz in it. Furthermore, she takes evident enjoyment in her playing, smiling often: This enjoyment is usually an aid in musical performance. As for Bax, he was elegant and virile, when he was at his best. Sometimes he was heavy-handed. In the Shostakovich, he was not really at home. For instance, he missed some of the wackiness (as did she, to a degree). But Bax is a creditable pianist.
He and Gabetta played two encores, both from Argentina: one by Piazzolla, the other by Ginastera. It’s not every week that you hear Ginastera two nights in a row. Gabetta played with idiomatic ease, and I think this ease stemmed not so much from birth as from musical sense, which is higher.
Into this same hall, Weill, came the Škampa Quartet of Prague—“recognized as one of today’s most exciting string quartets,” the bio says. They were not very exciting in their first piece. This was Mozart’s String Quartet in B flat, K. 589, one of his “Prussian” quartets. The players’ main problem was their sound: scratchy, severe, sour. They did not play in tune. Listening to their Mozart was a little like drinking milk that has gone off. After this beginning, they played a work by one of their own, Pavel Fischer. He is a violinist who co-founded the ensemble in 1989 and played in it until 2007. Then he turned to composing. He teaches in Manchester, England, does this son of Zlín, in Moravia.
His String Quartet No. 3 is nicknamed “Mad Piper,” and the piper he has in mind is Bill Millin: the Scotsman who piped at Normandy as the troops landed. Apparently, the Germans didn’t shoot at Millin because they thought he was crazy. Fischer’s work has plenty of Scottish music in it, but it has plenty of music from Central Europe too. The second movement is labeled “Carpathian.” The fourth and final movement is labeled “Ursari”—a name for bear-handling Gypsies. So we have a quartet by a Czech composer living in Manchester about a Scottish piper but also incorporating music from points East. Only in America.
The first movement has the same designation as the work overall: “Mad Piper.” The music is pleasantly skewed, not quite tonal and not quite atonal either. We do indeed hear the bagpipes, with the cello functioning as the drone. The Carpathian movement is nicely, rousingly Gypsy—and we should remember that every string player, wherever he comes from, is part Gypsy. (This is certainly true of violinists.) As the music went by, I thought I heard the first notes of a Gershwin song, “Lady Be Good,” I swear. “Oh, sweet and lovely lady . . .” The third movement is marked “Sad Piper,” and it is an affecting stretch of music: The viola pipes mournfully over dirge-like chords. And the last movement, with those bear-handlers? It’s like a Gypsy hoedown, raucous and wild. I’m not sure that the quartet as a whole is classical music. Whatever it is, it’s good music.
And the Škampa Quartet was marvelous in it. You could even buy that they are “one of today’s most exciting string quartets.” Of course, a work like Pavel Fischer’s requires much less purity than Mozart. I think of the old, true line: “Mozart is too easy for children, too hard for adults.”
The storm that opens Otello broke excitingly. The Met had hired a Paris-born conductor of Armenian parents from Istanbul: Alain Altinoglu. He did some smart and compelling conducting. But he had a tendency to drive the music too hard. More pliancy—a relaxed fist—was often called for. The worst part of the performance was the great Otello-Iago duet, “Sì, pel ciel marmoreo giuro.” It was so fast, and so unmusical, it might as well have been skipped. It had none of its nobility, swagger, or thrill.
Our Desdemona was the superb Krassimira Stoyanova, a Bulgarian soprano who ought to be on magazine covers. (Maybe she is, now and then, in one city or another.) She has almost everything desired: voice, technique, musicality. She can float a piano and then absolutely scald. Her onsets were amazingly pure. And she stayed in tune—even when her partner in the love duet did not, and it’s not easy to stay true when your partner is flatting. Her Ave Maria was a thing of beauty, an honest Ave Maria, without interpretive nonsense.
Otello was José Cura, the Argentinean tenor. The role is maybe a hair too big for him, but if you wait for an ideal Otello, you may well wait forever. Cura had a poor first act. He was rough and sloppy. Not only did he flat in the love duet, he indulged in some very unwise portamenti. But there was more opera to go: and Cura came on strong, giving us some genuine dramatic power. Incidentally, at this stage of his career, with a beard and all, he looks much like Abbie Hoffman, the late Yippie.
If you like your Iago short, fat, and ugly, you would not like Thomas Hampson. You might also claim that Hampson is not especially Italianate. But you would also appreciate that he is a canny stage animal and a marvelous, versatile singer. He was a believable Iago, even a delicious one—a hatefully delicious one. He conveyed “motiveless malignity,” to borrow the famous phrase. When it came to the notes, the higher the better, for Hampson—but he handled them all. If you wanted a low-low voice, you had one in Alexander Tsymbalyuk, a Ukrainian bass. He was Lodovico, and made splendid sounds.
Immediately after the Ave Maria, as Desdemona goes to bed, a lady in the front row got up and left. I believe I know how she felt: She didn’t have to go to the bathroom; she didn’t want to beat the madding crowd. She could not bear to see the end. Otello, or Othello, is very close to unwatchable.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra came to Carnegie Hall, for three concerts. Two of them were led by Daniele Gatti, who had recently led Parsifal at the Met. His first BSO concert was devoted to Mahler’s Third Symphony. And I thought of a story I once heard about Furtwängler. The great man was rehearsing a Schubert symphony, and after a few bars he stopped, to reproach the orchestra. “Gentlemen, this is Schubert!” he said. He said no more. He started the symphony again, and the playing was completely different: beautiful, tender, humane, Schubertian. As Gatti conducted and the BSO played, I thought, “Gentlemen, this is Mahler!”
The first movement was deficient in beauty, sentiment, and nostalgia. It was also not very Viennese. Phrases seemed planned, rather than arising naturally. I thought, “Leave it to an Italian to conduct like a cold German.” The second movement had very little lilt or charm. Mahler puts some schmaltz in, or schlag, if you prefer: and that was nearly absent. The third movement was adequate, and the fourth was special, owing to the singer: Anne Sofie von Otter. She sang relatively softly, but no less effectively or meaningfully for that. The next movement, the children’s chorus, was very heavy in the orchestra: cloddish. Then came the last movement, that overwhelming and irresistible thing. It is half hymn, half love song. On this night, I thought of an old line: “not a wet eye in the house.”
But there was one more night to go—an evening of Wagner excerpts. The first half of the program offered Götterdämmerung excerpts: Siegfried’s Rhine Journey and so on. And here, Gatti and the BSO were fabulous. The music was compact and disciplined, but also undulating and Wagnerian. You could not have asked for more. This was thrilling Wagner. The second half of the program included the overture to Tannhäuser and the prelude to Lohengrin’s Act I. These were rather fast and unsavored—but they were reasonable, and Gatti is entitled to this approach.
There was also some singing, by Michelle DeYoung, the American mezzo. She sang Kundry’s Narrative (Parsifal) and the Liebestod (Tristan und Isolde). “But the Liebestod is for soprano,” you say. True, but plenty of mezzos have sung it—Christa Ludwig, famously—and DeYoung is a ’tweener: part mezzo, part soprano. She sang just about the most glorious high C I ever heard. This was in Bluebeard’s Castle one summer. As for her Wagner excerpts, she sang them regally and securely.
When the Met orchestra started giving concerts about twenty-five years ago, many of us said, “It must be nice for them to get out of the pit and play some symphonic music—Beethoven symphonies and all.” The obverse may be true of an orchestra like the BSO: It’s nice to dip into opera now and then, especially when it is exalted Wagner.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 Number 9, on page 60
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