Whenever Tosca begins, I think of Tito Gobbi, the late, great Italian baritone—and a famous Scarpia (the villain of the piece). Tosca begins with Scarpia’s entrance music. (Scarpia happens not to enter just then, but we’ll leave that to one side now.) When it came time to write his autobiography, Gobbi printed this music from Tosca, right at the top. He said he couldn’t begin without it.

At the Metropolitan Opera, the role of Scarpia was sung by Željko Lučić, the Serbian baritone. He fills one Italian role after another. Sometimes he is workaday, sometimes he is good, sometimes he is very good. On this night in Tosca, he was superb. He sang and acted Scarpia with chilling iniquity. I have seen and heard many more famous Scarpias (and flashier ones). I have never seen or heard better.

I have seen and heard many more famous Scarpias. I have never seen or heard better.

A brief, personal story. Last summer in Salzburg, I talked with a Serbian taxi driver. I brought up Lučić. The driver said proudly that he knew him—and showed me the “contacts” on his phone to prove it. I found that somewhat touching.

The headline stars of a Tosca are the soprano and the tenor, who play Tosca and Cavaradossi. At the Met, these were Sonya Yoncheva and Vittorio Grigolo. With the role of Tosca, you have a diva playing a diva. Floria Tosca is a celebrated singer—and a diva—and she has been portrayed by many real-life Toscas. Yoncheva filled the bill. She was not at her best in the Act I duet, blowing the big climax. It was not a climax at all. But she was admirable thereafter. In “Vissi d’arte,” she was not prayerful or pure, as some are (especially when they sing this aria outside the context of the opera). She was scalding and imploring, which was just right.

Puccini’s Tosca, directed by Sir David McVicar.  Photo: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera

Grigolo’s worst moment was Cavaradossi’s opening aria, “Recondita armonia.” It was sloppy and swoony, even clownish. Grigolo sounded like a caricature of an Italian tenor. But for the whole rest of the opera, he was a model, not a caricature. He sang with both ardor and sense. His breath control in “E lucevan le stelle” was exemplary.

In the pit, Emmanuel Villaume conducted with just the right blood and sweep. The Met orchestra played like the top-drawer group of its reputation. On the stage was a new production, by Sir David McVicar. It looked and felt and smelled like a Tosca. There were some unusual and welcome directorial touches, such as in Act II: Tosca stabs Scarpia not once but twice, getting another bite at the apple. Yoncheva took advantage of this with gusto.

By the way, what a genius piece. If anyone ever gives you a hard time about Puccini, simply respond with two syllables: “Tos-ca.”

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam came to Carnegie Hall for a two-concert stand. The orchestra was led by its chief conductor, Daniele Gatti. On one side of Carnegie’s stage was an American flag, on the other the Dutch. On the rco’s programs were four works—two on each night. The first night brought Wagner and Bruckner—the Prelude to Act III and Good Friday Spell from Parsifal, and the Symphony No. 9.

The Wagner was a study in seamlessness and horizontality. I was not aware of instruments entering. I did not hear onsets. From nowhere, sound simply appeared. This is very hard to pull off, for both conductor and players. The music had a quiet churning. There was a chamber-like quality to the playing. When the music ended, I did not hear an “off,” if I may put it that way. There was no real “stop.” It’s just that . . . the music wasn’t there anymore, except in mind.

I suspect that Wagner imagined this music much the way we heard it in Carnegie Hall, from the rco and Gatti.

Daniele Gatti and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Photo: Richard Termine

The Bruckner Ninth was just fine, as how could it not be, given the forces at hand? Yet it was a little cool for me. I would have liked more warmth, and more emotion. I don’t require bathos, heaven knows. I’m a big proponent of letting music “speak for itself.” Yet I’m not sure it spoke in its full voice on this occasion.

The second of the rco’s concerts began with a popular violin concerto, Bruch’s in G minor, played by a popular violinist, Janine Jansen, a Dutchwoman (to go with the orchestra). I found the performance surprising—because it was merely okay. Nothing special. Indeed, rather pedestrian. The Bruch Concerto is a much better piece than these performers let on. After intermission came a Mahler symphony, No. 1, the “Titan.” It was fine, just fine. There was a surprising amount of smudging in the brass, but I reminded myself that “life is not a studio recording,” as I sometimes say. Still, I might have expected a more powerful, more involving Mahler experience.

And I could not have told you, before the two concerts began, that the opening Wagner would be the peak experience of the stand.

The night after the Amsterdam orchestra left, Denis Matsuev arrived in Carnegie Hall, for a recital. He is a Russian pianist. He had programmed three sonatas: two by Beethoven and one by Tchaikovsky. The Tchaikovsky was—what else?—the Grand Sonata in G major. The Beethoven sonatas were the “Tempest,” in D minor, and Op. 110, in A flat. Matsuev is a brawny, athletic pianist, loaded with testosterone. Does he have more than that?

Matsuev is a brawny, athletic pianist, loaded with testosterone. Does he have more than that?

Yes, he does. The first movement of the “Tempest” was bold and virile, but it was also thoughtful and sensitive. Matsuev employed some interesting pedaling, causing some interesting blurs. The middle movement, Adagio, was nicely sung. It was both tidy and free (somehow). The closing movement was “daringly slow,” as we say. Rather, it was allegretto, just as the movement is marked. Matsuev did not forget the “-etto.” And he made the music bristle all the same. This is a pianistic achievement. The music does not play itself.

In Op. 110, Matsuev proved himself a real Beethoven pianist. He had the right weight, the right lyricism, the right sense of structure. The closing fugue was beautiful, absolutely beautiful—not just big and thorny and brawny, but beautiful. And I’ll tell you something.

I heard in Op. 110 something I had never heard before—the Ninth Symphony, clear as a bell. I heard the notes corresponding to “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!” They are quiet, in the third movement, sometime before the fugue begins. Now that I’ve heard them, I will never not hear them, when this sonata is played.

Denis Matsuev. Photo: Steve Sherman

From Matsuev, Tchaikovsky’s Grand Sonata was grand, to be sure. But, in the first movement, it was also pounded and banged. There is a stateliness in this music that was missing. But the second movement, the slow movement, went better. Especially good were the repeated chords at the end. They were nearly transfixing. The subsequent Scherzo was nicely impish, but a little muddy—far from crystalline. And the Finale barreled capably home. On finishing the piece, Matsuev stuck his tongue out, as if to say, “What an effort!” And it is.

The pianist then offered a generous slate of encores, starting with the “Horowitz encore,” “Träumerei,” from Schumann’s Kinderszenen. It was lovely. Then he played the Sibelius étude that many play as an encore now. I believe that Leif Ove Andsnes started this trend (and it’s a good one). Then we had “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” the Grieg favorite—but in an arrangement by Grigory Ginzburg (1904–61). It is a splendid, exciting arrangement, and Matsuev played it just that way.

Finally, he gave us his usual jazz, playing around with “Take the ‘A’ Train.” It is a stupendous technique, a circus technique. Who else, in recent memory, has possessed such fingers? Cyprien Katsaris?

During the encores, people near the front had their phones up, taking pictures and making videos. Ushers policed the area the whole time (as they surely must). I wonder what can be done to mitigate this distracting scene for the rest of the patrons.

Two days after Denis Matsuev left, Janine Jansen was back in Carnegie Hall, with a number of partners—including Jean-Yves Thibaudet, the famous pianist. He is a keen chamber musician. He also likes to accompany singers. Jansen, too, is a keen chamber musician—but violinists sort of have to be, more than pianists do. Don’t they?

The first half of this concert consisted of two violin sonatas—Debussy’s and the second of Grieg. Sometimes the pairing of two stars, such as Jansen and Thibaudet, doesn’t work out very well. Heifetz’s regular pianist was Brooks Smith. He was no star, but, with Heifetz, he got the job done. Heifetz was comfortable with him (and obviously the boss). In any case, our two stars, Jansen and Thibaudet, got the job done—and more.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Debussy Sonata was perfect. It was shiveringly French. It was subtle, refined, exquisite, and delicious. It had a delightful French gauze, but it was never airy-fairy. It was totally alive. The two performers thought and played as one—every shiver, every nuance. I’m sorry I missed Thibaud and Cortot (that famed duo from the first half of the twentieth century). But, honestly, I would not trade what I heard from Jansen and Thibaudet for any other pairing.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Janine Jansen. Photo: Steve Sherman

On the second half of the program was one work, the Concert for violin, piano, and string quartet by Ernest Chausson. In this, Jansen and Thibaudet were joined by the Dover Quartet. Chausson’s Concert is a fine work, which you and I would be proud to have written. But it made me think about how good the music of great, and near-great, composers really is. How wide the gap is between great or near-great music and music that is merely commendable, let’s say.

Think of Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E flat, or Brahms’s Piano Quintet in F minor, or Dvořák’s Piano Quintet in A, Op. 81. I don’t raise this in order to put Chausson down. I am simply struck by the talent—the immense talent—of those other composers, to have written music of that higher order.

Once, a professor of music told me a story. A student of his said, “Isn’t Mendelssohn a second-rate composer?” Probably the student thought of first-rate as Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. The professor answered, “Why, yes, you could say that. But do you know how good that is?” I might add that third-rate is good too—dizzyingly good—if your second-rate is the likes of Mendelssohn.

Also coming to Carnegie Hall was the Cleveland Orchestra, under its music director, Franz Welser-Möst. They played Mahler’s Symphony No. 9. Is that a full concert? It can be, lasting about an hour and twenty-five minutes. But some orchestras stick a short work at the beginning—which is what the Cleveland did. You could say that they played an oomp, i.e., an obligatory opening modern piece.

Johannes Staud. Photo: Miller Theatre

It was by Johannes Staud, an Austrian (like Welser-Möst). Our program notes said, “Staud’s music is intellectually based.” Uh-oh. But they went on to say that “it is also grounded in a musical language that—though spanning a large horizon—includes connections to music’s history and evolution.” Whew. This particular piece was Stromab, inspired by a 1907 novella by Algernon Blackwood, The Willows. This is a horror story about a canoe trip down the Danube River.

Our program notes said, “Staud’s music is intellectually based.” Uh-oh.

Stromab is full of sound effects. It is busy, spooky, and meandering (like a river?). Staud uses the whole orchestra, and interestingly. There is lots of low brass, and lots of percussion. It was clear that the composer had learned his orchestration. His piece is also marked by playful, whimsical touches. I found the piece very interesting measure for measure (to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare). But I wasn’t sure it worked as a whole. I wondered whether the pudding had a theme. Still, the music is unexpected and imaginative, and I would like to hear it again, before putting my thumb firmly up, down, or sideways.

Now to the Mahler Ninth. The Cleveland Orchestra is a wonderful, gleaming machine. The symphony was superbly executed, by the concertmaster and less-visible players. The Clevelanders played beautifully and immaculately. Maestro Welser-Möst had a clear vision of the piece and executed it. (By the way, as my friend and colleague Fred Kirshnit pointed out many years ago, Welser-Möst looks like Mahler.) In general, the music was on the fast side and very straight. Unmilked. This is an approach to Mahler—and to Mahler 9—and there is much to be said for it. Welser-Möst delivered a highly intelligent reading.

But I must say—not for the first time in this chronicle—it was a little cool for me. A little Apollonian. I’m not saying it has to be Bernsteinian. You don’t need to go the full Lenny. But I think that more feeling, more pathos, was in order. Am I becoming a big musical softy? I don’t think so. Often, Mahler wears his heart on his sleeve, and it pays a conductor to follow suit. I also thought of something, from long ago.

When I was a teenager, I talked with a pianist, who was also a major teacher. I thought he was a wizened old sage—he was probably fifty-five or so. He said, “These days, I care only about beauty. When you’re young, you care about the intellect and excitement and all that. The older you get, the more you care about beauty.” I imagine that others have felt the same way.

Here is another story, of much more recent vintage. About a week after this Cleveland Orchestra concert, I got a text message from a young friend of mine. He is fifteen, I believe, the son of two musicians, who are old and dear friends of mine. All three of their boys are musical. The fifteen-year-old, the youngest, is drinking in music every day. Drinking it in by the gallonsful. He texted me, “After listening to Mahler 9 for the first time, I can say I’m now a different person.” In my note back, I said, “It’s pretty much the best thing ever written, right?” He answered, “Let’s just say that everything Mahler wrote is the best thing ever written.”

In the education wing of Carnegie Hall, Marilyn Horne gave a masterclass. This was part of her annual mini-festival, “The Song Continues . . .” She began it in 1997. Now the fabled American mezzo will hand the reins to a fabled American soprano: Renée Fleming.

Horne said that, when she began the festival, she was not using a cane, as she is now. “It’s hard, getting old. No, what am I saying? It’s hard being old.” The first student in the masterclass sang “Bist du bei mir.” This is a “chestnut,” Horne said, “but we have to deal with the chestnuts, because they’re chestnuts for a reason: they’re the pieces that people want to hear.” This one starts out, “If you are with me, then I will go gladly unto death and to my rest.” “Everyone is terrified of death,” Horne observes. “But the older you get, the more interesting it becomes.”

Who wrote “Bist du bei mir”? “On my music, it said ‘Bach,’ ” Horne notes. For many years, the song was indeed attributed to that master. Now it is attributed to Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel. At any rate, it is one of the greatest songs ever penned. “I used to think of it as a religious song,” says Horne. In fact, it is a love song, “with religiosity in it,” as she points out.

Marilyn Horne. Photo: Pete Checchia

She insists that the student get the consonants right. Pronounce the “t” in “Bist” before singing “du.” She also demonstrates the right kind of turn, or trill. Horne can really sing, at eighty-four. And she can produce a lot of sound, when she feels like it. Good sound, too.

Truly, she is a master teacher, finding ways to communicate, whether in words or in demonstration. If one way doesn’t work, she’ll try another, until the concept clicks in the student’s mind. Horne’s English is both eloquent and plain. To a pianist in Respighi’s song “Nebbie,” she says that the opening notes must be more distinctive—“like they’re painful.” That is exactly right. To a singer, she talks about secrets of the breath. “Tighten the boots and you’ll get two more beats out of it.” Or does she say glutes? Probably the latter. Either way, I love the phrase. Horne speaks from both her ample intelligence and her long, long experience in singing.

I have always thought she would make a fine conductor. In conversation with me, she has denied it, but I would like to see it tested. The conducting she does at a masterclass is natural and right. I wanted to hang on every word, and every gesture, and every sound, of this class. Horne is a treasury of knowledge, and flair. And when she appears before us no more? There are recordings—hundreds of them. Not the same, but better than nothing.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 7, on page 52
Copyright © 2017 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com

Popular Right Now