Isabel Leonard, the budding American mezzo star, gave a recital in Zankel Hall. Accompanying her was a Romanian pianist with the distinctive name of Vlad Iftinca. I have said that Leonard is “budding,” but the truth is she has budded. She has already appeared on Sesame Street, like Renée Fleming, Plácido Domingo, and Marilyn Horne before her. That’s stardom.
Her program in Zankel Hall was half-Spanish and half-American. (In remarks from the stage, she mentioned that her mother is from Argentina.) The Spanish songs were familiar to anyone who attended recitals by Victoria de los Angeles, the late and great soprano. A critic said at intermission, “I half expected Isabel to bring out a guitar” (as de los Angeles used to do). Leonard was in splendid form, both technically and musically. She has no end of poise. And she sang with purity, clarity, and charm. A prayer by Falla had amazing tenderness. And an habanera by Montsalvatge featured some delicious humming.
On the American half were three new songs, by Jennifer Higdon, Glen Roven, and Ben Moore. Roven set Emily Dickinson’s “Wild Nights,” as Lee Hoiby once did: Leontyne Price had huge success with that song. Leonard was excellent in English, as she had been in Spanish. (English is a challenging language to sing in, even for native speakers.) A Ned Rorem song, “What if some little pain,” had particular honesty of communication. And in a Cole Porter number—“Where, Oh Where”—Leonard sang two high B flats. The first one was shaky. I think she sang the second one to make up for it.
At age thirty or so, Leonard seems to be at her zenith. She is full of “dynamism,” to use a word that Rorem once used about Price. After the recital, I posed an indiscreet, almost verboten question to an acquaintance: “How much of an audience’s response to Isabel has to do with her looks?” (Leonard makes Audrey Hepburn look pitiable.) In any event, she is a superb singer. It is quite possible that a person’s self-confidence is bolstered by physical attractiveness. But I should leave such questions to the psychologists.
The New York Philharmonic gave a concert whose conductor was David Robertson and whose soloist was Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the French pianist. They are critics’ darlings, these two. But I must not snark: I have darlings of my own, as we all do. Aimard first played a Mozart concerto, the late A-major one. He had a poor outing. I will confine myself to the Adagio: which was about as ugly as you could ever hear from a professional.
Aimard and Robertson moved on to a new work, and that is a big reason for their status as critics’ darlings: They champion modern music. The new work was, is, Le Désenchantement du monde, by Tristan Murail. He calls it a “symphonic concerto for piano and orchestra.” Murail is a Frenchman born in 1947. He studied with Messiaen. Later, he taught at Columbia, and now he teaches at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. Murail is an exponent of “spectralism.” This is a compositional school that has to do with the computer analysis of sound.
I would call Le Désenchantement du monde an example of “sound design.” That’s a phrase coined, as far as I know, by a friend of mine. Murail’s piece is sometimes kaleidoscopic, sometimes a bleakscape (to use a coinage of my own). It often makes an interesting racket. But does it add up to music? Music of a kind, to be sure. Either you succumb to a piece like this or you don’t. The same is true of minimalism, much of it. I did not succumb on this occasion—and I think Murail is too generous with himself where length is concerned. But anyone can see that he is a gifted and learned man.
Over at the Metropolitan Opera, they did Handel’s Giulio Cesare—though you may not have been able to tell from the production. In the pit was Harry Bicket, the Baroque specialist from England. The overture did not go well. It started with a wretchedly botched entrance, and thereafter was cramped, whiny, and airless. We seemed to be in for a long, long night. But Bicket proved respectable, and sometimes he was stylish: as in the opening of the aria “Se pietà di me non senti,” when he had the orchestra surge and heave.
Natalie Dessay, our Cleopatra, sang that aria like a teenager doing a pop song. For much of the night, she was slight and uncertain. But she also had some polished moments, and she acted and danced up a storm, as we have come to expect. David Daniels, the acclaimed countertenor, was Caesar, or Cesare. At first, he seemed diminished: diminished in sound and technical ability. But as the evening wore on, he sang more like himself. Having a very good night, all through, was another countertenor, Christophe Dumaux, singing Tolomeo. He brought off his part with panache. Our two mezzos were Patricia Bardon and Alice Coote (Cornelia and Sesto, respectively). They elevated the proceedings—with their lushness, good sense, and all-around class.
The production, new to the Met, is the brainchild of David McVicar. I believe the production is supposed to lampoon the British Empire. (There’s a daring tack.) It is also a campy farce: part Soul Train, part La Cage aux Folles, part other things. It is the kind of show in which an ancient wears sunglasses and takes a golf swing with an umbrella. There is also much physical abuse—torture—in this show, which is a modern fashion. I will pose my usual question when it comes to “imaginative” productions: Does the director like the opera? Or is he trying to mock, undermine, or transform it? I don’t know the answer, in this case. I do know that audiences have liked or loved the show, which I can well understand: I enjoyed watching it myself. It has a lot of fun in it. But I’m not sure it’s Giulio Cesare.
Into Carnegie Hall came the Staatskapelle Dresden, for two concerts. The Dresderers were led by their principal conductor, Christian Thielemann. Their first concert was all-Brahms—beginning with the famous, much-loved Academic Festival Overture. Famous and loved as this piece is, it is not programmed much, in my experience. Too familiar from concerts long ago and recordings? Thielemann conducted the piece with confidence and authority—he is a leader. But the overture was a little sober, without its true mirth.
Then Lisa Batiashvili joined the orchestra for Brahms’s Violin Concerto. My colleague Fred Kirshnit and I once joked that we could write “pre-concert reviews.” There was no reason to go to the concert; you could read our reviews beforehand. And yet, the concert world is full of surprises, which is part of what makes it wonderful. Before this night’s concert, I predicted to friends, “Batiashvili will play the concerto beautifully—even spiritually—but it will be small-scale. It won’t be big enough.” I was wrong. It was beautiful, spiritual—and plenty big enough. There should have been more sound at the end of the first movement, but that is a minor complaint.
Thielemann ended the concert—the printed program, I should say—with the Fourth Symphony. In the second movement, the orchestra’s sound was poor, and the horns struggled, as is their wont, and right. The third movement, that shout of joy, was very good—just as Brahms ordered. There was an encore, another shout of joy: the prelude to Act III of Wagner’s Lohengrin. This was the Dresdeners’ best playing of the night. They were assured, articulate, spirited. I would have welcomed the rest of the opera.
The next night, Mitsuko Uchida took the stage of Carnegie Hall, for a recital. The veteran pianist still has the deepest bow in music—though she is now rivaled, I think, by the young pianist Daniil Trifonov. Uchida began with Bach, some pieces from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II. She tended to thump or hit the notes. The effect was mechanical. You could virtually see every hammer strike. But she took obvious pleasure in her Bach, and this helps an audience take pleasure too. She then played Schoenberg’s Six Little Pieces, Op. 19. And she played them with supreme delicacy and grace. This told us something: that she played her Bach the way she did because she wanted to, not because she had to.
The rest of her printed program was devoted to Schumann. First, Waldszenen. These scenes, “forest scenes,” include “Hunter in Ambush,” “Haunted Place,” “Friendly Landscape,” and “The Prophet-Bird.” In Uchida’s hands, this last piece was truly un oiseau exotique. Uchida played the entire set with Mozartean taste and childlike simplicity. Her playing was descriptive. What I mean is, you could hear the scenes—see the scenes—in Uchida’s playing.
She next played Schumann’s Sonata in G minor, and that, I’m afraid, was too small. It must be bigger, stormier. But Uchida was in her element in the Gesänge der Frühe, or Songs of Dawn. This is late Schumann, very seldom programmed. Uchida found the sublimeness in these “songs.”
The adoring audience wanted encores, and Uchida played two—first, a sonata by Scarlatti, that in D minor, K. 9. It was a study in delicacy and grace, positively Haskilesque. Finally, she played Mozart, a composer she dearly loves (as do we all). This was the Andante cantabile from the Sonata in C, K. 330. I regret to say that she was precious, handling the notes with sugar tongs, instead of going ahead and playing them.
After their night off, the Dresdeners returned to the stage for one piece: Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 (in the Haas edition, for those keeping score at home). Their initial entrance was lousy. And their sound, once more, was subpar. Thielemann, though, moved the music along, conveying urgency and intensity. He did not dawdle inappropriately. The opening of the second movement, the Scherzo, ought to tingle with anticipation. You should barely be able to sit still in your seat. From these forces, however, it was nothing special. And the movement at large was workaday. But Thielemann must be credited with sharp dynamic contrasts, and smart bits of rubato.
The third movement, the slow movement, requires some floating: some beautiful floating. This, the orchestra was not up to. And I scribbled the following note in my program: “ww’s ugly as hell.” I’m afraid the woodwinds did not produce an admirable sound. The cellos did, however, in their unison playing. Thielemann started the Finale like a house afire. And he went on to shape the movement intelligently, convincingly. The final notes were eccentric—unusually, kind of confusingly slow. But they were not ineffective.
At the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert conducted an all-American program. It began with an OOMP, i.e., an obligatory opening modern piece. It also began with oomph: with a new piece by Christopher Rouse, Prospero’s Rooms. The title does not allude to The Tempest but to a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, “The Masque of the Red Death.” Rouse has composed a winning ten-minute ride.
The piece begins low, slumbering, and stirring—the dragon in Siegfried? It soon becomes phantasmagoric, to use a word habitually applied to Berlioz. I also thought of Bluebeard’s Castle, the opera by Bartók. Rouse’s piece builds demonically, noisily, and excitingly. I look forward to hearing it again (and if I had a nickel for every time I’ve typed those words in these pages—I’d have, what, twenty cents?).
Second on the Philharmonic’s program was Bernstein’s Serenade, which is to say his violin concerto, really. The soloist was Joshua Bell. He was at his best, and so was the conductor, Gilbert. For one thing, they blended Bernstein’s jazz and classical elements beautifully. Bell was nimble and stylish, making his sweet Kreislerian sounds. Gilbert was alert and clean—well-nigh immaculate. This was an exemplary performance of the Serenade, a work I regard as one of Bernstein’s strongest, in the classical division. I still think the last movement is harmfully long.
After intermission, we had an extravaganza, the Symphony No. 4 of Ives. Gilbert, typically, proved an adept manager of affairs. He is undaunted by big and complicated pieces. He leads them with calm, a calm that comes from preparedness, I think (and ability). Sensibly, he had an assistant conductor on hand to help him: a second conductor on the stage, who took charge of some of the forces, at tricky junctures. This conductor has the amazing name of Case Scaglione. More amazingly, he appeared in traditional concert tails—as though he were Stokowski in 1932 or something. Here is one conductor who evidently doesn’t go in for the de rigueur black Mao suit.
This was a good period for Ives symphonies, by the way: In Carnegie Hall, Leonard Slatkin conducted his Detroit Symphony Orchestra in all four of them.
Maurizio Pollini has taken to playing recitals on Sunday afternoons, Horowitz-style. At least he does so in Carnegie Hall. On a recent Sunday afternoon there, this senior statesman of the piano played a program of Chopin on the first half and Debussy on the other. His Chopin consisted of a prelude, two ballades, four mazurkas, and a scherzo. In general, he suffered from some stiffness—stiffness of execution and stiffness of expression. Yet there were some electric moments. Debussy was represented by his Préludes, Book I. The last of these is “Minstrels.” If I had not been in the hall, I would not have believed that this piece could be played with so little enjoyment.
Pollini played three encores, beginning with a Debussy étude. Then there was a Chopin étude—the “Revolutionary.” Then came the third ballade of the afternoon, Chopin’s No. 1 in G minor. That is an exceptionally long piece for an encore. And, you know? Pollini’s playing in these encores was his best of the whole day. He was freer, more accurate, more musical. I have been saying this a lot lately: “The encore was the best part”; “So-and-so really came alive in the encores.” This is a phenomenon that requires some analysis, and maybe an essay of its own.
Not long after Pollini gave his recital, Richard Goode arrived at Carnegie, for an all-Beethoven recital. Goode is another senior statesman of the piano. And he did the trick of playing the last three Beethoven sonatas. This does not quite make a program, so he filled it out with a group of bagatelles, which preceded the final sonata (Op. 111). Goode used music, which is to say sheet music, on this evening. There is precedent for this—in fact, Goode is in fine company: that of Hess and Richter, for example.
Goode played his Beethoven sensibly. He was sensible in his tempos, sensible in his phrasing, sensible in almost everything. Have I made him sound boring? I don’t mean to. Admirably, Goode did not try to make the music profound, knowing that it is profound already. He was content to let the music speak for itself. Op. 111 had an unusual share of clinkers, i.e., missed notes. But at least they let you know you were not listening to a studio recording.
Among Goode’s teachers was the late, great Serkin, and I wish to mention a phenomenon: Students do not necessarily play like their teachers. There is much to praise Serkin for, and much to praise Goode for. But Serkin, for all his virtues, was often tight and jabbing, guilty of severely misplaced accents. Goode is very obedient to the musical line, with scarcely an accent out of place.
Keeping with tradition, he did not play an encore after Op. 111, music so transcendental that it must be the last word. I have a memory of some tradition-breaking. In Carnegie Hall about ten years ago, Thomas Quasthoff sang some of the profoundest, holiest music there is: Bach’s “Ich habe genug” and “Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen.” He then told the audience there must be no encore after these pieces—but went ahead with an encore. “Ol’ Man River.”
Evgeny Kissin, too, played Op. 111, in his own Carnegie Hall recital. This was the concluding piece on the first half of the program; so it could not be the final word. But at least there was an intermission before more music was heard. The program began with a Haydn sonata, followed by the Beethoven. After intermission, there were four Schubert impromptus. A friend of mine commented, “The program suggests young Kissin is moving into middle age.” The only showpiece on the program was the last item, a Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody.
The Haydn was the Sonata in E flat, Hob. XVI: 49. In the first movement, Kissin did very little of the thumping that once marred his playing. He was fairly sparkling and limpid. The middle movement was big and rather dramatic, but still Haydnesque. The Finale was just a little boxy and square—but it had its humor at the end, and I think Haydn would have loved it, the whole performance. As for Op. 111, it began arrestingly. Never have I heard this sonata begin with such command and drama. The Arietta did not begin well, in my judgment. Kissin was plodding, doing some of his thumping. I could see every bar line. But gradually the music did its job of transcendence.
It was in the Schubert that Kissin really shone. The impromptus were inward, musical, Schubertian. I thought to myself, “An immortal. Kissin has joined the ranks of the immortals.” The Hungarian Rhapsody was the twelfth one, in C-sharp minor. And Kissin played it thrillingly. There was pandemonium in the hall. Can anyone in music, outside of opera, cause such pandemonium? A fellow critic of mine suggested Lang Lang. I’m not sure about that. And I’m not sure that anyone in opera can outdo Kissin in pandemonium.
Only once on this evening did Kissin disappoint, I think. That was in his first encore, the Melody from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, in the arrangement by Giovanni Sgambati. Kissin was as blunt as possible, thumping and jabbing. A lyrical line was out the window. But this was an evening to remember (as the word “immortal” more than suggests).
The pandemonium around Kissin is in part fueled by his stage presence—or so I suspect. He is very formal, a throwback to previous generations. He doesn’t “reach out” to an audience with remarks from the stage and so on. He doesn’t “let his hair down”; he keeps it up. He “reaches out” to the audience with his playing. On this occasion, while the frenzy was in progress, a woman handed up to him, not a bouquet, but a teddy bear. Kissin smiled warmly. Holding that teddy bear, he continued to bow, with his usual dignity and formality.
Let’s end at the Metropolitan Opera—with Poulenc’s masterpiece, Dialogues des Carmélites. We had a Frenchman in the pit, Louis Langrée. He and the orchestra were somewhat shaky, not least in their entrances. And the score did not quite transfix, in my view. This was the first Dialogues of the run, and I imagine subsequent performances were better. Also, I have very high standards for this conductor, and the Met orchestra. Speaking of high standards, the woman with whom I began this chronicle, Isabel Leonard, portrayed Blanche. She deserves to be gushed over for what she did in this opera, but let me say simply that her French was practically as natural as her Spanish and English.
Patricia Racette was Madame Lidoine—a.k.a. the Second Prioress—and she demonstrated her usual combination of strength and lyricism. Erin Morley was endearing as Constance. Elizabeth Bishop was an excellent Mother Marie, with unforced power. The veteran mezzo Jane Shaulis was touching in the small role of Mother Jeanne. Dialogues des Carmélites is not without men, and I will mention one of them: the tenor singing the Chevalier de la Force, Paul Appleby. He was fresh and apt.
Now we come to Felicity Palmer—Dame Felicity Palmer, who did her Madame de Croissy, the First Prioress. I have said before that this may be the best portrayal in opera today, along with Ferruccio Furlanetto’s Philip (in Don Carlo) and a few other portrayals. “But the First Prioress is an easy role to impress in,” you might say, “with all that dramatic God-questioning and dying.” You would have a point. But the role can be overdone, underdone, inadequately done—and Dame Felicity gives an abiding lesson in it.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 Number 10, on page 52
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