In Alice Tully Hall, Mark Padmore sang Winterreise, the Schubert song-cycle. Singers of various types sing this cycle: for instance, Christine Schäfer, the light, high soprano. But the most prominent advocates of the cycle have been low-voiced men: baritones, bass-baritones, and basses. Padmore is an English tenor. And he was not accompanied by a pianist, but by a fortepianist: Kristian Bezuidenhout, from South Africa. In the past, I’ve mentioned that he looks rather like Jeff Daniels, the American actor.
Alice Tully Hall was dead dark for this recital. You could not read your program. Instead, you had surtitles, giving an English translation of Müller’s poems. There is a case to be made for this approach—and against it. Some people may wish to read along in German.
To hear a light tenor sound in Winterreise was a bit of a jolt at first. To hear a fortepiano was another jolt. But the ear soon adjusted to both. And if a fortepiano is to accompany Winterreise, better that it accompany a light tenor, probably, than a bigger and lower voice.
Padmore sang his first note very well—which I mention because it is not easy to sing. A high and awkward one, it’s often grabbed for. Throughout the cycle, Padmore displayed a beautiful voice. Low notes are important in this cycle, and he had those. They were real low notes, not tenor ones, or lip-service ones: they had body and glow. The high notes were beautiful too. The middle ones were third best (as so often is the case). Also, Padmore displayed excellent diction. A German text was hardly necessary.
At his fortepiano—a fetching instrument to look at—Bezuidenhout played well, although he had some stiffness: for example, the repeated notes in “Die Post” did not come through. And I must say that I missed a traditional concert grand in a few of the songs, in particular “Erstarrung.”
Padmore sang the cycle as if it were one song, rather than twenty-four discrete ones. And there were any number of admirable touches, such as the stirring of the serpent in “Rast.” You could hear that slinky beast.
I am at last getting to the most important point: Mark Padmore did not sing Winterreise as though he were a tenor performing a holy piece of classical music. He was not a classical musician singing a collection of art songs. He was plenty refined, don’t get me wrong. But mainly he was a guy telling a story: a bleak, terrible story. It was natural, immediate, human, and raw. I have never heard Winterreise more moving, in years of hearings.
At the end, the spotlight on the singer dimmed. It was the only false note—the only touch of artifice—of the whole evening.
The next week, the New York Philharmonic opened a program with an OOMP: an obligatory opening modern piece. But this was a bit longer than the typical OOMP, at twelve minutes. It was Brahms-Fantasie, by Detlev Glanert, a German composer born in 1960. His aim in this piece is to evoke the opening measures of Brahms’s Symphony No. 1. That piece was on this same Philharmonic program, as was the Brahms Double Concerto. So this was an all-Brahms program, in a sense—Brahms plus Brahms-inspired Glanert.
Right away, Glanert’s piece displays some of the hallmarks of our age in composition: percussion, especially of the soft variety; blips and beeps and other such sounds; a pervasive anxiety. I sometimes say that our age in composition could be called the Age of Anxiety, as well as the Age of Percussion. Glanert’s piece builds suspensefully. Would I have guessed that it relates to the Brahms First, if I hadn’t been told in advance (by program notes)? No, not at all: and I am unusually attentive to these things (or like to think so). In fact, I thought I heard a touch of Wagner—a phrase that smacked of Tristan und Isolde!
A composer may aim for a particular effect, but a listener, for better or worse, hears what he hears. In any event, Glanert has written a good and interesting piece, even if to me, on first hearing, it seemed a tad long, relatively short though it may be.
Later that day—the Philharmonic had played a matinée—the American Composers Orchestra opened a concert in Zankel Hall with a piece by Michael-Thomas Foumai. Not to be confused with Michael Tilson Thomas, Mr. Foumai is a composer from Hawaii. His piece was The Spider Thread, which tells a story. The next piece on the program was by Melody Eötvös, an Aussie. Is she related to Peter Eötvös, the Hungarian composer and conductor? Not so far as I’m aware. Is the American Composers Orchestra allowed to play pieces by furriners? Apparently so. I will also note that, Ms. Eötvös’s distinguished last name aside, she has a good first name for a composer—Melody. There are too few of those these days. Her piece was Red Dirt / Silver Rain, which relates memories of her childhood: the dirt between her toes, the rain on the roof.
Would you know that her piece had to do with those things if you weren’t told? Of course not. Would you know that Michael-Thomas Foumai’s piece told a spider story? Of course not. Years ago, I interviewed Ned Rorem, who said, “A composer will go to some lengths to tell you that something is about something.” We think that La mer has to do with the sea because of its title, and because of discussion about the piece. The mind is steered. “A piece without a text, without a vocal line, can’t mean detailed things like Tuesday, butter, or yellow,” said Rorem, “and it can’t even mean general things like death or love or the weather, although a timpani roll can sound like thunder, and certain conventions about love come out of Wagner.”
A Spider Thread has soft, tingly percussion—de rigueur. It also has a certain drama (not de rigueur). It conveys a spidery chaos. It is loud, busy, and exciting. The orchestra that plays it must be virtuosic. The piece is cartoonish, and I don’t mean that in a pejorative way: I should probably say “cartoon-like.” Its ending is fun. There is a musical spirit behind this piece, not an academic drone. I would like to hear it again.
As I would Melody Eötvös’s piece, Red Dirt / Silver Rain. It, too, has modern hallmarks: percussion (including the standard tinkly bells), anxiety, busyness. I believe it suffers from overlength. I could change my mind, however, on that second hearing I desire. This Eötvös, like Peter, is a composer to pay attention to.
Next on the program came a break from the everyday: a harp concerto by Hannah Lash, who teaches at Yale. The concerto is in one movement, or no movements, which is standard for today. But also there is much that is not standard. This is a mature piece, with the composer going her own way. She has a clear affinity for the instrument, the harp. And she proves, or confirms, that it is both a virtuosic and a very interesting solo instrument. Her piece is blessedly not too busy. It rests now and then. There is a mystery about it. There is also a touch of the Baroque, I think. And of jazz. And of the East, in the Scheherazade sense. Ms. Lash has a good sense of rhythm, pacing, arc, and other elements of composition.
She herself was the soloist, and a superb one. (She used sheet music, curiously enough.) Happy are the composers who are powerful advocates of their own pieces! Lash’s playing was assured, and her composing is assured. As the audience applauded, I thought, “Too bad such a fine new concerto is not for a mainstream instrument,” such as the piano, violin, or cello. Then again, harpists should be delighted to get their hands on this thing.
Intermission in Zankel Hall having arrived, I ascended to the main hall at Carnegie to hear a recital by Lang Lang, the Chinese pianist. His program was an unusual one, and in an unusual order. Lang Lang began with The Seasons, by Tchaikovsky, which is rarely played—though it is scheduled to be played again in Carnegie Hall next January, by Denis Matsuev. Next came Bach’s Italian Concerto, which often begins a recital. After intermission, it was Chopin’s four Scherzos.
I could spend pages on Lang Lang’s recital but will instead be very brief. For the last fifteen years or so, I have written tens of thousands of words on Lang Lang. And I am tired of the Lang Lang Wars. He has his great admirers and defenders—such as the pianist and conductor Christoph Eschenbach—and legions of detractors and haters, who include most critics, I gather. I myself have heard Lang Lang play supremely, indifferently, and badly. Well, let me rephrase that: I often say that Lang Lang never plays badly. It’s just that he sometimes thinks badly. Those miraculous fingers can play whatever he wants.
In this most recent recital, he displayed his assortment of physical gestures and mannerisms, which drive people crazy: the cock-o’-the-walk strut; the Callas-like salute; the preening and mugging at the keyboard. I always say, “Music is an aural art, so no fair lookin’. ” A Pollini or a Brendel would never commit Lang Lang’s physical offenses. As it happens, those two can play very badly—atrociously—though critics seldom say so.
In The Seasons, Lang Lang did some miraculous things and some questionable things. In fact, they were sometimes the same things. About his Italian Concerto, this occurred to me: If you were a good teacher, listening to him play it, you would disapprove. You would also be in awe. And you’d say to him, “Much of what you’ve done is wrong. But don’t change a thing.” In Lang Lang’s hands, for example, Bach’s Andante never sounded more like a Baroque aria. You would not want to teach Lang Lang’s interpretation of the concerto to others, or take it to a desert island. But to hear it in a recital? A privilege.
As for Chopin’s Scherzos, the composer could well have written them in anticipation of Lang Lang! For Lang Lang, the pieces were cat-and-mouse games—high-class cartoons. And I recalled that Lang Lang first got interested in the piano when, age about two, he watched a Tom and Jerry cartoon about music. “Scherzo” means joke, and Lang Lang gets it. Do others?
Vive la différence, I say (though at other times I say, “Do it right, according to my understanding of right!”). Lang Lang is not Pollini or Brendel. He is Lang Lang. And a brilliant différence. My hope is that he ignores critics like me and continues to march to his own drummer. I guess there’s little danger that he won’t.
Two days after the Lang Lang recital, Valery Gergiev conducted his London Symphony Orchestra in David Geffen Hall (until recently, Avery Fisher Hall). I say “his”: this was Gergiev’s last concert as principal conductor of the LSO. He assumed that role in 2007. His program at David Geffen was all-Bartók, beginning with the Dance Suite of 1923. These dances should be precise, colorful, and arresting. They were. They should be elegant, kaleidoscopic, and occasionally savage. They were. Gergiev was wizardly; the LSO was virtuosic.
And I will give you an odd detail. Conductors are on the fifty-yard line, so to speak: in the center of the orchestra. Gergiev was on about the thirty-five, over on the right. I had never seen this before and have no explanation for you.
Yefim Bronfman came out to play Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 2—spectacularly hard, and terrifically musical. The best I had ever heard this concerto was at the hands of Bronf-man in 2005. That was in this very hall, with the New York Philharmonic under Daniele Gatti. With Gergiev and the LSO, he was just as good. He was a Russian bear yet a delicate bear at times—or a dancing bear, if you like. The last movement had amazing musical ferocity. Gergiev was downright demonic.
Afterward, Bronfman played his signature encore: the one he likes to play after loud and savage music. It was Scarlatti’s Sonata in C minor, K. 11. Gergiev waited at the back of the orchestra. Bronfman, evidently wanting to make his encore as brief as possible, omitted the repeats. And he played the thing perfectly. As they walked backstage, Gergiev patted him on the back.
When he returned to the podium, Gergiev conducted the Londoners in the Concerto for Orchestra. This is, in part, a test of an orchestra. The Londoners passed with flying colors. Their maestro was sometimes too blunt and too loud—the music could have used more mystery and modulation. But Gergiev was still interesting and commanding.
The LSO will be led by Sir Simon Rattle. He will be less controversial than his Russian predecessor. Will he be as exciting? Well, you can’t have everything.
As the LSO concert was ending, a concert of the Chamber Music Society, across the way in Alice Tully Hall, was beginning. On the program was a quintet by Albéric Magnard. And I thought of something a conductor told me once. We were talking about the obligation—or the perceived obligation—to perform new music. My conductor friend said, “Yes, but there ought to be an obligation to perform worthy music of the past that has been buried by time.”
Magnard was a Frenchman who lived from 1865 to 1914—September. He was killed at the beginning of the war, defending his property against German invaders. In 1894, he published his Quintet in D minor for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and piano. That is not an everyday combination. This work is full of music, to borrow a phrase from Artur Rubinstein. It seems to be aware of the history of music, and tries out all sorts of things. In my judgment—after a single hearing—the work runs out of steam in the fourth and final movement. The work deserves a better ending. But I am glad to have made the acquaintance of it.
There is such a thing as a little-known work by a well-known composer. One such is the Quintet in B flat by Rimsky-Korsakov. It is for flute, clarinet, bassoon, French horn, and piano. Where has it been all my life? This work is full of happiness, which is almost a verboten quality today: ours is an age of anxiety, gloom, and despair, musically. The closing Rondo is practically the definition of infectious. It is puckish, felicitous, and delightsome. I wanted to stand and demand an immediate reprise.
Outstanding among the players was the horn, Radovan Vlatkovi?. He played this very hard instrument with unseemly ease. They will kick him out of the guild, for making his fellow horn players look bad.
Shortly after the Rimsky-Korsakov, Gil Shaham began a recital in Zankel Hall. He played the solo-violin music of Bach—three sonatas and three partitas—while films by David Michalek played on a big screen behind him. Those films were created to accompany the music, I should specify.
Everything needs visual help these days. Song-cycles, including Winterreise, are choreographed, or staged. Same with Bach oratorios. In 1981, MTV came into being, and songs could not be just songs but had to be videos, too. When I am scheduled to give a speech somewhere, the presenters often ask, “Will you be using PowerPoint?” Magazines, and in particular their websites, are constantly being jazzed up with images. Recently, the writer Anthony Daniels—a.k.a. Theodore Dalrymple—said that one reason he was attracted to this magazine, The New Criterion, is that it was free of graphical distractions, relying on proper text.
Personally, I would rather hear Bach’s solo-violin music without looking at films to accompany them. I do not believe that Bach is enhanceable, though he is flexible, heaven knows. Protean. In any event, I have no doubt that Mr. Michalek made a sincere and worthy effort.
Shaham’s playing, I will not critique on this occasion, but will rather make a remark about the man: Between two movements of the first work he played—the Sonata No. 1 in G minor—members of the audience applauded. Shaham did not glare at them, or rebuke them, or ignore them. He looked up, smiled, and mouthed, “Thank you.” I have a feeling someone raised him right.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 34 Number 4, on page 61
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