At the outset of Mahan Esfahani’s bio, we read that he “has made it his life’s mission to rehabilitate the harpsichord, bringing it into the mainstream of concert instruments.” Isn’t that true of every harpsichordist of the last hundred years or so, or many of them? I wish them luck. Classical music is a minority taste in the world, and the harpsichord is a minority taste within a minority taste. Those who love it, love it devotedly, and one can only smile on them.

According to the aforementioned bio, Esfahani works with today’s composers to augment the repertoire of his instrument. In Weill Recital Hall, however, he played a program of early music.

The music is interesting without being nourishing.

He began with three pieces by a composer with a beautiful name: Girolamo Alessandro Frescobaldi (1583–1643). In my view, the music is interesting, certainly historically, without being nourishing. Almost always nourishing is Rameau, who was represented on this program by movements of a suite—all in D major or D minor. Especially dear is “Les niais de Sologne.” After Rameau came Benda, Jiří Antonín Benda, a Czech composer long before Dvořák—Benda’s dates are 1722 to 1795. Is Benda a hidden treasure? He is worth knowing, certainly. Finally came the granddaddy of them all—of us all—Bach (in the form of bwv 831, his French-style Overture in B minor).

Mahan Esfahani is a wonderful advocate of his instrument, even an evangelist for it. He is animated and devoted. He is also smart and dexterous. Moreover, he knows how to toy with rhythm—to hesitate—as all harpsichordists must. Earlier in the day, I had done a podcast with Manfred Honeck, the Austrian conductor, who was guest-conducting the New York Philharmonic. In Mozart, he said, “timing is everything.” So it is in much harpsichord playing.

Mahan Esfahani in Weill Recital Hall. Photo: Jennifer Taylor

In my view, it is the organ, more than the harpsichord, that needs rescuing. It is a great instrument with a great, great repertoire (and is not replaced—pardon that word—by the piano). But how often do we hear the organ? It is not part of normal concert life. So a great deal is going to waste. Then we could talk about something related: choral music . . .

Move, now, to the Philharmonic. I sometimes refer to Sir Antonio Pappano as “the one that got away”—because, for years, I wanted him to succeed James Levine as the music director of the Metropolitan Opera. It was not to be. Manfred Honeck is not “one that got away”—though he would be an excellent music director of the New York Philharmonic. The orchestra has hired another excellent conductor, Jaap van Zweden. He and Honeck are two of the best in the world, the cream of the crop.

In his recent guest appearance with the Philharmonic, Honeck began with a piece of his own devising, namely Rusalka Fantasy, which is a treatment of Dvořák’s beloved opera. He does this. Honeck takes operatic scores and makes orchestra pieces out of them. He has fashioned suites from Jenůfa (Janáček) and Elektra (Strauss). All of these operas are particularly orchestral ones, ripe for the exploitation that Honeck has engaged in.

You may want to know, what does Honeck do with the “Song to the Moon,” Rusalka’s hit aria? He gives it to the concertmaster, making it a violin solo. Thus does the violin try to be Renée Fleming. Nothing can quite replace a voice in this aria, but Honeck has crafted an attractive fantasy. He conducted it with Romantic fervor and Classical discipline, if you will. On the podium, he does not appear to be doing much, but an orchestra responds to him, keenly.

The concert proceeded with a Romantic violin concerto, if we can call Sibelius that. (He is hard to classify.) Honeck was magnificent in it, and so was the Philharmonic: icy, explosive, precise, and incisive. The orchestra was not a mere accompanist to the violinist—who was Nikolaj Znaider, a Dane, no matter what his name says. Znaider showed an essential command over the music and his fingers. There were many, many glitches, but “life is not a studio recording,” as I sometimes say. The struggle showed, all through the concerto. But the struggle was on the whole worth it.

Let me add a note about concert etiquette. After the first movement, the audience applauded, as an audience can hardly help doing. Instead of scowling at the audience or ignoring them, Znaider smiled and nodded. A gentleman, as well as a fiddler.

After intermission, Honeck conducted another piece of his own devising, a suite from The Sleeping Beauty, lasting about forty-five minutes. When I was a kid, I didn’t care for The Sleeping Beauty or for ballet music in general. Too la-di-da, I thought. Too perfumed, too girlie. The kind of Tchaikovsky I liked was the Serenade for Strings (a Classical piece, basically). When I put off childish things, I recognized The Sleeping Beauty as a masterpiece. One afternoon, I interviewed the conductor Valery Gergiev and asked, “Why do people sneer at Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Puccini?” He said that this is in part the fault of conductors—because they conduct these composers in an insipid way. A limp, indifferent way. I agree with that completely.

From Honeck, The Sleeping Beauty was taut, brisk, and thrilling. It was newborn. I’m not sure you could have danced to it, but this was a concert, not a ballet. Honeck conducted the score almost as he would Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony—with the same rigor, sweep, and power. The Panorama was an example of controlled yet free singing. The fairies weren’t airy-fairy, if you know what I mean. They had a little bite, as well as a twinkle. Honeck ends the suite with the Adagio in E flat, warm and filling. I think it makes a better ending than Tchaikovsky’s own, in the complete ballet.

From Honeck, The Sleeping Beauty was taut, brisk, and thrilling.

Indulge me in a story from many years ago—I have told it in these pages before. The year was 1999 or so. Kurt Masur had conducted the Philharmonic in a Tchaikovsky symphony, and he, like Honeck, was disciplined and bracing. The critic sitting next to me said he thought it was too much so. I said, “Well, you can call it Tchaikovsky for people who don’t like Tchaikovsky.” He answered, immortally, “Anyone who doesn’t like Tchaikovsky is an”—rhymes with “brass bowl.”

In Zankel Hall, Daniil Trifonov, the young Russian pianist, played a recital. It had a theme, and, indeed, a title: “Decades.” As a rule, I’m not crazy about themes in recital programs: composers whose middle initial was M; songs with mentions of willow trees. Often, the theme is forced, and there is nothing wrong with an assortment of good or interesting music for its own sake. But Trifonov hit on a particularly good theme, or gimmick, or organizing principle: one piece from each decade of the twentieth century. It began with Alban Berg’s Piano Sonata, written in 1907–8, and ended with Thomas Adès’s Traced Overhead, written 1995–6.

That was the plan, anyway. A note inserted into our program booklet announced that Trifonov had decided to omit the Adès piece—so the recital would end with John Corigliano’s Fantasia on an Ostinato, written in 1985. Nine decades, rather than ten, is plenty.

Berg’s Piano Sonata is his Op. 1. I always think of the popular song of that title, written by Sy Oliver (music) and Sid Garris (lyrics) in 1943. (“Oh, baby, I’m a-rackin’ my brain, to think of a name/ To give to this tune, so Perry can croon/ And maybe old Bing will give it a fling/ And that’ll start everyone hummin’ the thing.”) Though Berg’s sonata is a herald of modernism, it has a Romantic heart, I believe. That heart can be discerned amid the modernism.

Daniil Trifonov in Zankel Hall. Photo: Jennifer Taylor

Trifonov continued his program with Prokofiev’s Sarcasms, Op. 17, written from 1912 to 1914. There are five of them. None of them is often heard, but the best known is No. 3, marked Allegro precipitato. It is marvelously demonic (and you recall that Prokofiev wrote another piano piece, Suggestion diabolique). Trifonov played No. 3 at Carnegie Hall earlier this season, as an encore after a concerto. The concerto was Trifonov’s own. The marking “Allegro precipitato” may put you in mind of the last movement of Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7, the famous Precipitato (which is also used as an encore, frequently). Well, the Sarcasm No. 5 is marked Precipitosissimo—which you can’t beat, for precipitousness.

After Prokofiev on Trifonov’s program came Bartók: his Out of Doors (1926), a suite in five movements. Despite the title, there is nothing particularly pastoral about this work. It adheres to pretty tough modernism. The same is true, or truer, of Copland’s Piano Variations (1930), which Trifonov played next. In my mind, this work is more like a study, or an experiment, than music designed to last. If Copland had continued in this vein, we would not know his name, or that name would be known mainly to specialists, I think.

Trifonov played his program without pause, without allowing for applause between pieces. This implied some connections that don’t necessarily exist. Also, it was confusing to the audience, I think, as you did not always know where you were in the program, especially given that most of the pieces had multiple movements or sections. Trifonov used music all through—sheet music. He stared at it too.

So, how did he play? Very, very well. Every piece, every moment, received his fierce concentration. He is very good at this concentration, this focus. So is a colleague of his, Igor Levit. Trifonov infused the music with something like maximum drama and tension. His fingers can do practically anything, of course. And he has mastered an important, sometimes overlooked art, pedaling.

The first half of the program was not necessarily an easy sit, with the thorns of modernism coming at you without respite. Respite, relief, was provided at the end of this first half with a movement from Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (1944). This was a balm, a reward, almost a benediction. The movement was “Le baiser de l’Enfant-Jésus.” It includes both tenderness and passion, and Trifonov played it just that way.

About the second half of the program, I can’t tell you, because I left Zankel Hall to go up to the main auditorium in Carnegie Hall to hear a great conductor conduct a great symphony.

That symphony was Beethoven’s No. 3 in E flat, “Eroica,” and the conductor was Mariss Jansons, the veteran from Latvia. The orchestra was the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, which Jansons has helmed since 2003.

Beethoven’s first movement, Allegro con brio, had a sense of just-rightness. It was accurate, well phrased, nuanced—and alive. It was equal parts beautiful and invigorating (just like Beethoven). I was very pleased to be enjoying this symphony, thrilling to it. “You can’t go home again,” said Thomas Wolfe. Can you return to the “Eroica” Symphony, one of the most familiar pieces of music in the whole repertory? Yes, you can, certainly with a conductor like Jansons and an orchestra like the brso.

Mariss Jansons. Photo: Digital concert hall

As so often, Jansons evinced a nobility. I have often referred to him as “great-souled”—and that is what mahatma means, actually: “the great-souled one.” Maestro Jansons is also Mahatma Jansons, according to some of us.

Beethoven’s second movement, the funeral march, was like the first: vivid. I could not take my ears off it. The third, the Scherzo, was friendly, but it was also a little slow, I thought, and not especially precise. The symphony began to lose momentum. And by the time it ended—well, I, personally, was ready for it to end.

I wish to tell you a secret: Like everyone else, I esteem the “Eroica” Symphony, acknowledging it as great, and also important in musical history (for it signals the end of one era and the beginning of another). But, you know? I have always felt a little dissatisfaction in it. I’ve always found it a little dull, frankly—even in great performances. The last movement seems to go on and on.

So you can imagine my relief when I was talking with a distinguished colleague, a leading critic, the next night—the night after the first brso concert, when Jansons and the orchestra played again. My friend had not been at the first concert. “Why?” I asked. He said, “If I never hear the ‘Eroica’ Symphony again, it’ll be too soon. So boring.” I was floored at this—and tickled (as we say in my native Midwest).

The second concert of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Mariss Jansons began at 8, in Carnegie Hall’s main auditorium. At 7:30, Les Violons du Roy played downstairs in Zankel Hall. They are a period band from Quebec City, led by Bernard Labadie, who founded them. This concert was all Bach, and it began with three chorale preludes, for organ. It continued with the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, bwv 582, also for organ. Transcribing all of these pieces was Labadie himself. He is ever transcribable, isn’t he? I’m talking about Bach. You can do anything to him, and he is still Bach. The Swingle Singers can sing him. A kazoo trio can play him. Bach will always be Bach, coming to the fore.

Bernard Labadie. Photo: Melanie Burford / National Public Radio

Labadie’s transcriptions are more than competent, and a pizzicato portion in bwv 582 is inspired. How was the playing? Well, you know. Many years ago, when the period movement was at its height, Itzhak Perlman made a comment. He said, “Every time I turn on the radio, I hear scratch, scratch, hoot, hoot.” I knew what he meant, and I still do. I’m not sure Bach would want musicians to be scratching and hooting their way through his music in 2018. In any event, some of the playing hit the mark, and I especially liked the growly pedal points.

When I listen to Bach transcribed—Bach arranged for something—I usually hear the arrangement for a bit, and then the playing (or singing) for a bit, and then only Bach. Just Bach. That’s what happened to me in Zankel Hall with Les Violons du Roy and Monsieur Labadie.

Upstairs, Jansons conducted a Mahler symphony, the Seventh—the sole work on the program. The symphony began with precision, which is reassuring to a listener (as imprecision is deflating). The horn was stable, and that was reassuring too. In this first movement, Jansons was robust and forthright, eschewing mystery. Some interpreters like to render this music mysteriously. I admired the instincts of Jansons. In the second movement—Nachtmusik I—he was puckish, whimsical, and, where appropriate, Jewish. He was also funny. This movement, which precedes the Scherzo, was scherzo-like. And the real Scherzo? Without precision, it has no chance, and Jansons and the Bavarians gave it all the precision you could have asked for. Earlier in this chronicle, I mentioned timing: in Mozart, “timing is everything,” said Manfred Honeck. Timing means a lot in this scherzo as well, and Jansons had it in spades.

For the fourth movement—Nachtmusik II—Jansons had his guitar player and his mandolin player front and center, sitting on little platforms. Stealing the show, however, were the cello solos and the horns, unstumbling and lyrical. There was a childlike happiness in this movement, and I thought of something that Leonard Bernstein once said: “When Mahler is sad, it’s a complete sadness. Nothing can comfort him. It’s like a weeping child. And when he’s happy, he’s happy the way a child is—all the way.”

Is Chopin’s Cello Sonata useless? Not exactly, but it is certainly subpar Chopin.

In the Finale (the Rondo-Finale, to be precise), I thought Jansons was maybe a little slow, or a little deliberate, let’s say. Then I checked Mahler’s marking: “Allegro moderato ma energico.” That is exactly what Jansons was expressing. The music was covered in magic. It had its air of celebration (a wedding-like celebration, I’ve always thought). You often hear that Beethoven is your friend, and that is so true: your friend, your advocate, your consoler. Mahler is your friend too. This finale, in Carnegie Hall on this night, made you feel good. And feel-good’s not bad.

Sol Gabetta. Photo: Lincoln Center

Let’s give our last dollop of space to Sol Gabetta and Bertrand Chamayou, who played a recital in Alice Tully Hall. She is an Argentinian cellist, he a French pianist. Their nationalities were not mentioned in their bios. (You can find them on the great, broad Net.) Bios in the music biz are not bios, really—they are lists of conductors, orchestras, and accolades. Useless. Is Chopin’s Cello Sonata useless? Not exactly, but it is certainly subpar Chopin, a stream of Romantic gestures. How about the Grand Duo on themes from Meyerbeer’s opera Robert le diable, which Chopin put together with his cellist friend Auguste Franchomme? A happy novelty. In any event, Gabetta played with her usual taste, intelligence, and sound—a handsome sound, which can include some graininess. She is capable of virtuosity, too. And she is always winning, endearing, which is one of those intangible things. Bertrand Chamayou is a very good pianist, with an especially good sense of line. When all was said and done and played, the audience cheered and cheered, for a civilized, excellent evening.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 10, on page 53
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