Recently, Anne-Sophie Mutter and Manfred Honeck recorded the Dvorak Violin Concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic. She is the starry German violinist; he is the should-be starry Austrian conductor who is music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. On a cold December night, they were guests of the New York Philharmonic, for a program that included the Dvorak concerto. Cold or not, Mutter performed with bare shoulders and bare arms, as she always does. It occurred to me that I have seen more of her shoulders and arms over the last thirty years than I have of my own. (Which is how it should be.)
Mutter was in a very odd mood, and she gave Dvorak’s first movement a very odd shape. And let there be no doubt: She was the shaper, with Honeck following. Some of her rubato, or license with time, was bizarre. Honeck was often heroic in his following. The violinist’s intonation was poor, and she made some sour and scratchy sounds that pained the ear. (So did the bad intonation, for that matter.) The middle movement was soup, crying out for more structure. And one instance of portamento, from Mutter, was gross: an unmusical slide. The final movement, she took like the wind. Would it be able to retain its (delicious) character? Not really. The music often threatened to go off the rails, or actually did so, and, whenever he had the chance, Honeck yanked it back on track. Mutter expended tremendous effort in her playing. As my colleague Eric Simpson remarked afterward, “You’re not supposed to work so hard in this piece!”
So, this was a sloppy, nutty, and at times amateurish performance. And yet there is always something compelling about Mutter, even when she is at her most undisciplined and least forgivable. And so it was here: She is a real musician, rain or shine. They said that Babe Ruth was impressive even when he struck out.
Four days later, Mutter gave a recital in Carnegie Hall, with her longtime piano partner, Lambert Orkis. The program was a nicely mixed one, including two premieres. It began with Lutoslawski’s Partita, written in the mid-1980s for Pinchas Zukerman. In it, Mutter was focused, accurate, and masterly. She delivered the piece with all the qualities it needed. Among these were finesse, delicacy, and emotional power. At the keyboard, Orkis matched her step by step. Who was this new violinist? Could it have been the same violinist who delivered that dog’s breakfast of a Dvorak concerto?
I was reminded of an expression from golf: If a player duffs a shot and then hits the next one flush, someone may remark, “Same guy, one swing later.” Mutter played a long recital, a generous recital: two and a half hours. And she never lost her poise and masterliness. I was reminded, “This is how she got famous in the first place. It wasn’t merely the glamour, the shoulders, the hourglass figure.”
After Lutoslawski came Schubert, his Fantasy in C. It begins with a blending of “Gross ist Jehova, der Herr!” and “Ave Maria”—both of them songs of Schubert, so he’s entitled. Mutter played the piece simply, which can be difficult (paradoxically). Orkis played with the same desirable simplicity. Mutter knew how to modulate the width of her voice, by which I mean she was able to widen or narrow her ribbon of sound. Both players were guilty of some sleepiness, I think: They were sometimes too retiring or relaxed. But this was still a satisfying performance, demonstrating purity of expression.
Then a stagehand came out, bringing a music stand—and I thought, for the hundredth time, “Why don’t performers do new music the honor of memorizing it, as they do everything else?” The first of Mutter’s two premieres was La Follia, by Krzysztof Penderecki, for solo violin. This is a throwback of a piece, as the title suggests: Follia means madness in Italian, and this word described a kind of dance. According to the evening’s program notes, Penderecki originally called the piece a chaconne, but changed his mind: It took “chutzpah,” he concluded, to use the same title as one of the most popular and greatest works for violin, the Chaconne in D minor by Bach. I’m not sure Penderecki needed to worry (though I understand, completely).
La Follia is a formidable piece, presenting modern Paganini, in a way. I think that violinists will want to play it for years and generations: because it is a rigorous, intellectual piece and a showpiece at the same time. Also, it’s a good length (ten minutes) and is unaccompanied. Penderecki, who once planned to be a violin virtuoso, has made a substantial contribution to the instrument’s repertoire, I think.
The second half of Mutter’s program began with the second premiere, André Previn’s Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2. He has written several pieces with Mutter in mind: She was his fifth wife, and has acted, apparently, as a violinistic muse. (Previn has not married for a sixth time, but I’m not ruling it out.) The first movement of this three-movement sonata is marked “Joyous,” and so it is. It is Romantic and extrovert. Suddenly, we’re listening to a Previn song, with lyrics by Dory (Wife No. 2). The middle movement, “Desolate,” is more dissonant, although it is not terribly desolate: It is rather agreeable, actually. The third movement, “Brilliant, quasi cadenza,” is sprightly, filled with Previnesque meanderings and doodles. In the final pages, there is a touch of Prokofiev.
Previn was on hand, sitting in a box. At eighty-five or so, he’s still the coolest cat in town. Penderecki was on hand, too, sitting in the orchestra. It might have been nice for Previn to take the piano part in his sonata. Then again, maybe a recital’s pianist should play the entire program.
Mutter closed their program with the Saint-Saëns sonata. (When you say “Saint-Saëns sonata,” you really mean the Sonata No. 1, for the second one is seldom played.) As in the Dvorak concerto, she took the last movement like the wind. It was mainly exciting, rather than mainly messy. As I listened to the sonata as a whole, I thought, “If Saint-Saëns was a stupid composer, as some like to say, why did he write so many smart pieces?”
In this, his comeback season, James Levine is conducting three operas. (Levine, the music director of the Metropolitan Opera, was sidelined by a host of physical problems for two years.) Those operas, dear to his heart, are Così fan tutte, Falstaff, and Wozzeck. One of the greatest displays of conducting I have ever heard was a Levine Falstaff in 2005. The better conductors have always relished Falstaff, probably because it is tricky, vibrant, and fun. It is like an extended operatic scherzo.
On a recent night, Levine was very good in it. He was especially good when the orchestra was jabbering, snorting, and harrumphing. He was less good in the lighter, lacier material. The orchestra was a tad heavy in this material. Also, the performance suffered from a slight lack of precision (which is very unlike Levine, of course). The opera began with a bad entrance. And there was some disunity thereafter. As I was leaving the house, I thought, “Only with Levine can you hear a very good performance and feel let down.”
Not at all a letdown in the title role was Ambrogio Maestri, the Falstaff of our day. Last summer, in an interview with me, Antonio Pappano could only shake his head at Maestri’s ability. (Pappano is the chief at Covent Garden.) To begin with, Italian out of Maestri’s mouth is a marvel and a joy. Without diction, you don’t have Falstaff. Furthermore, Maestri acts the part superbly. So good were his diction and acting, I had to remind myself that he was singing well, too. A phrase such as “L’onore! Ladri!” had tremendous character. And he danced a wonderful soft shoe to “Va, vecchio John.” This big man has a little Jackie Gleason in him.
Partnering him enjoyably was Stephanie Blythe, the mezzo singing Mistress Quickly. Americana though she may be, Blythe sings a beautiful and crisp Italian. She and Maestri were two outsize personalities onstage—yet they did not spoil things with ham. Angela Meade, a soprano, was Alice Ford, and she sang with power. But she also suffered from some wobbles. Still, she contributed a glorious high C in the final pages. I will mention just one other member of the cast, another soprano, who had a very good night: Lisette Oropesa, the Nannetta. She was lovely and winning in the role. She floated high notes and, at just the right moments, put a quiver in her voice.
For the last several seasons, the Met has been ditching productions by Franco Zeffirelli, and the Zeffirelli Falstaff is now ditched. In its place is a production by Robert Carsen. It updates the opera to mid-twentieth-century England. I’m not sure this is a good idea. But Carsen and his team have executed the idea very well, and the sets are a treat to look at. (They are designed by Paul Steinberg.) The Fords’ yellow kitchen is both striking and amusing. The last scene, which can be a bear to stage, makes use of some funny shadows.
I must say, there is one characteristic of modern productions whose passing I look forward to: slo-mo.
An evening at the Philharmonic began with an OOMP, though a piece a bit longer than the traditional OOMP (obligatory opening modern piece). It was Christopher Rouse’s Rapture, which unspools over about fifteen minutes. Rouse composed it in 2000 for the Pittsburgh Symphony, which at the time was led by Mariss Jansons, to whom the work is dedicated. It begins low and slow. The music is affirmative, consoling, almost medicinal. I thought, “A vision of the heavenly life?” (Mahler presents such a vision at the end of his Fourth Symphony.) Soon, solo instruments are prancing and exclaiming around chords. The music gets very noisy, not necessarily to its advantage. It is tense, tumultuous, and fast. Whitman said, “I sound my barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world,” and American composers have been doing this for years. Rouse does.
In the program notes, he was quoted as saying that, with one exception, Rapture “is the most unabashedly tonal music I have composed.” It occurred to me that, many, many times in my life, I have heard music described as “unabashedly tonal.” I have never once heard music described as “unabashedly atonal.” That says a lot about our age: what you’re supposed to be abashed about or not.
The concert continued with a piece composed in the last few years, the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Magnus Lindberg, a Finnish composer. The Philharmonic premiered this work at the end of the 2011–12 season, with Yefim Bronfman at the keyboard and Alan Gilbert on the podium. The same forces were in place in the concert I am now discussing. Lindberg’s concerto is in one movement but has distinct sections. This is very much the fashion these days. Hard to say why proper, separated movements are uncool.
At its opening, this concerto is strongly reminiscent of Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand. Later on, when the piano has a solo moment, the piece again sounds like the Ravel (in a deliberate homage, I must note, not some theft). Elsewhere, it is thoroughly Lindbergesque: big, cinematic, kaleidoscopic, sprawling, rhapsodic—virtually galactic. There is lots of percussion, including what I call “fairy bells,” a staple of modern composition. There are so many notes, Liszt might blush. There is so much bombast, Liszt might again blush. Toward the end, there is a nicely martial touch, and I think I heard a horn or two sneeze, as in the Dvorak Eighth.
So many notes, but are they nourishing? Does anything stick to the ribs? I’m afraid I don’t think so, on one hearing. The music is unrelenting, coming at you like a fire hose. It is also dull as dishwater (I found). It suffers from musical logorrhea, an excess of busywork. Perhaps I would discern more music in the concerto in a second hearing. It is widely admired, and a recording is available to all.
Whatever one thinks of the music, the solo part is stupendously hard—and Bronfman played it manfully and brilliantly. I remember hearing him play Bartók’s Concerto No. 2 some years ago. He played it as though it were a Clementi sonatina. I’m not sure a composer can write something too hard for Bronfman, although Michael Hersch might like to give it a go. Alan Gilbert handled both the Rouse piece and the Lindberg piece very well. He conducted them with an assuredness that must be very pleasing to an orchestra or a composer (or a soloist). A very good advocate of today’s composers, is Gilbert.
I have gone out of order a bit, because I’d like to end with Die Fledermaus on New Year’s Eve. The Philharmonic concert came two nights after that. The Met has a new Fledermaus, crafted by Jeremy Sams, the English director and writer (and several other things, including composer). In the pit was Adam Fischer, the Hungarian conductor. The overture to Die Fledermaus ought to be irresistible, as the work at large is. It ought to be charming, suave, insinuating, giddy, smile-making. On this particular night, it was okay. And the hours that followed were usually not as good. This was a Fledermaus without fizz, or with a deficiency of fizz. The evening was painfully flat.
The cast was quite competent. You could criticize each one of them, but they were competent—starting with Christopher Maltman as Eisenstein. He is a smart and suave English baritone. Eisenstein should be right up his alley. The tenor Michael Fabiano sang handsomely as Alfred. Orlofsky on this occasion was a countertenor, Anthony Roth Costanzo—who did not have his most polished night.
The Met’s new Fledermaus is in English, and it has lyrics by Sams and dialogue by Douglas Carter Beane. Some of those lines of dialogue are quite good—in fact, many of them are. One of them is an all-time winner. As I remember, Falke says to Rosalinde, “There is something I want you to see—something you don’t want to see, but something you should see.” She answers, “Is it an opera?” Other lines, in my view, are not very winning, for a variety of reasons. To cite one reason: A little double entendre goes a long way.
Fairly early on in the evening, you got the sinking feeling that nothing was working, or would work. Some of the laughter in the audience was nervous (in addition to sparse). It is painful to watch a show bomb. I don’t think the fault was in the lyrics or dialogue: I believe it was the execution, the delivery of the material. Opera singers must do some acting, but they are not actors, as a rule. At last, a Broadway actor, Danny Burstein, came on as Frosch—and you saw the difference. The lines worked, more or less.
Best about the evening, probably, was the look of it: the sets and costumes by Robert Jones. Act III takes place in a jail, and there’s only so much you can do with that, but Acts I and II in this production are glittering, Christmassy, New Year’s Evey, and Klimty (to coin a word). Oohing and ahing were permissible and right.
In the best performances of Die Fledermaus, you can hardly sit still—literally. It is hard to sit still in your seat as you listen to the pocket-watch duet, for example. Fledermaus on this night seemed longer than Götterdämmerung, or the whole Ring cycle. Instead of a frothy fling, it was a four-hour death march. Charm is such a mysterious quality. Why was Hermann Prey charming? (I have picked a famous Fledermaus performer.) I don’t know. I don’t think he knew. He just was.
Speaking of charming, let me close with a story about William F. Buckley Jr., as I did last month. (I promise I won’t make a habit of this. Rather, I’m sorry I can’t make a habit of this.) Once, he e-mailed me to say he would not be able to make a particular social gathering. He regretted it. I said, “Oh, don’t worry, Bill—you’ve attended so many of these things over the years, you’re entitled to a night off.” He said, “Yes, but who will be charming?”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 32 Number 6, on page 48
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