Music Chronicle

Music Chronicle

Dhuga, U S

INTENT AS EVER ON AVOIDING THE PREDICTABLE PROGRAMMING which Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center inevitably present us at each season’s start, I began autumn of 2003 seeking out performances of marked ingenuity. If ever you find yourself on Fifth Avenue at Fifty-second Street, do make a point of taking a quick look around the Austrian Cultural Forum, where the concert hall, despite (or perhaps because of) its bare pinewood construction, is, to my ear, one of the finest places in New York to hear chamber music. Not for the ACF the sumptuous interior of the Frick; but the shorter queues at the former make the starkness of the space more palatable.

The Haydn Trio Eisenstadt (named in honor of Haydn’s birthplace) commenced the ACF’s inaugural season on 19 September with an intelligent program, following upon Haydn’s Piano Trio in E flat major (Hob. XV/29) with composers born no less than two hundred years after Haydn-Tibor Nemeth (b. 1961, Brixlegg, Austria) and Ivan Erod (b. 1936, Budapest), both former Viennese students whose works are as sadly underperformed outside of Europe as are those of their precursors, Bartok and Kodaly. Such is the Eisenstadt’s refreshingly catholic taste for Viennese schools both past and present.

Violinist Verena Stourzh sauntered onstage in a blinding pink and orange scarf and black knit toque; but to my surprise her playing was quite conservative in its adherence to score. The buoyancy of the first movement was slightly exaggerated by all three musicians: the allegretto indication does, after all, bear the qualification poco. Pianist Harald Kosik, lanky, slouching, but with formidable presence-imagine, if you can, a thin, bashful Sviatoslav Richter-enunciated remarkably well while pedalling adeptly if rather liberally. This was Haydn as he should be played, with both sprightliness and patient attendance to his characteristically protean tempi, the transitions among which continue to move one no matter how often they have been heard. Benjamin Britten nicely characterized Haydn as “a rich and often strange figure.” The Eisenstadt possessed the vigor to bring out at once both that richness and that strangeness.

Throughout Nemeth’s “Trio di Centenario,” dedicated to Jeno Takacs for his 100th birthday, wonderful intimations of Bartok were apparent; but the piano’s confinement to blocked chords and unvaried, repetitive trills quickly became predictable and, frankly, boring. Erod’s Piano Trio No. 1 was more successful, presenting a beautiful dialogue between violin and cello, mediated by piano notes whose restrained tenderness brought to mind the First of Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues.

My memories of (again) Britten’s well-tempered expressiveness, both verbal and musical, drew me to the irresistible opening night of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, featuring Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings” in C major, Op. 48, for which I have always had an unflagging Romantic weakness. The Society’s artistic director, David Shifrin, rather paradoxically introduced the musicians as a “chamber orchestra”; nonetheless, the results justified the rather loose application of the word “chamber.” Britten’s interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade”-an improbable pairing, to be sure-with the English Chamber Orchestra at Snape Makings on 16 June 1968 stands, in my mind, as the finest interpretation of the piece among modern composers,1 combining Tchaikovsky’s emotionalism with Britten’s characteristic restraint. Memories of Britten notwithstanding, it was a wonderful and rare experience to hear the “Serenade” in such an intimate space as Alice Tully Hall, in which the clarity and distinctiveness of each string section was brought to the fore-no mean task as regards a piece which can tend towards soupiness in larger concert spaces. The breathtaking silences which punctuate the theme were beautifully observed and lingered upon, making each swelling of the strings so much more meaningful.

In a shift away from the strictly canonical, I turned to the Moritzburg Festival at Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall on 20 September, specifically to attend the North American premiere of Thomas Ades’ “Piano Quintet.” Ades, born in 1971, released his debut recording, Living Toys, in 1998, consisting of music composed between 1993 and 1994.2 Little known this side of the Atlantic, Ades looms large in England, as testified in part by a large, vibrant portrait recently installed at London’s National Portrait Gallery. Painter Philip Oliver Hale depicts the composer in Ades’ London home reclining-at once elegantly refined and unaffectedly insouciant-on an armchair with his feet resting upon an ottoman. (If you are not in London, it is well worth the time to look up Hale’s 2002 portrait of Ades on the National Portrait Gallery’s website.3) The portrait reflects perfectly Ades’ own artistic sensibility: his music is a conversation between the classical and the unconventional: he is unafraid simultaneously to repeat a Romantic exposition and to vary that exposition with instruments moving in altogether different time signatures. Written in a strict sonata form, the “Piano Quintet” was a beautiful, single movement, markedly more mature and coherent than the too often errant and disjointed movements of his earlier forays into chamber music, namely the quartet “Arcadiana, Op. 12” (1994) and the “Sonata da Caccia, Op. 11” (1993). Ades’ “Piano Quintet” is clearly a difficult piece to perform (and a difficult piece to listen to, but one well worth the effort), demanding of the musicians not a little stamina to sustain the consistent melody throughout its subtle transformations. But French pianist Louis Lortie-though prone to embarrassingly histrionic hand gestures and distractingly grotesque facial distortions-provided an experienced, reliable center of balance for violinists James Ehnes and Mira Wang.

The most memorable concert of autumn was, to my mind, that of the Kirov Orchestra on Friday, 3 October-an all Shostakovich program. I doubt whether the stage of Carnegie Hall has ever been so full. The magnificent Valery Gergiev led his massive orchestra first through Shostakovich’s (rarely performed) “From Jewish Folk Poetry,” Op. 79a (1948), a heartbreaking song cycle which the great aforementioned pianist Richter, in a 1979 journal entry, deemed “among the most sublime and inspired works written this century.” The work is dark and haunting: witness such song titles as Flach ob umershem mladence (“The Lament for the Dead Child”); ßroshennyj olec (“The Abandoned Father”); Pesnja o nuzdhe (“The Song of Misery”). Even the eleventh and last song of the cycle, Schast’je-“Happiness”-was anything but happy. Tenor Yevgeny Akimov shone, evincing a remarkable ability to rise even above the orchestra’s most forceful surges. And there was Gergiev, delivering a powerful swipe with the back of his hand across his sweating brow, as operatically and operativdy dramatic as his conducting. His body is so expressive that he apparently cannot be restrained to a rostrum-and-rail, nor use a wand: he stands on level with his players, moving them with his own lively frame and tireless arms. One was reminded of Yeats’s famous lines, “O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, / How can we know the dancer from the dance?”

After the intermission we were treated to a performance of the grand Seventh Symphony in C major, Op. 64, “Leningrad” (1941). I doubt whether I shall ever again hear the Seventh Symphony performed as powerfully as it was that night. Following the intermission there was hardly pause enough to take one’s seat: Gergiev lunged forward into the allegretto, his hands caressing the strings as if consoling an infant. I have never quite understood concertgoers who close their eyes-not in order to sleep, which is, alas, sometimes warranted-but in order to “appreciate fully” or to “absorb” the music or some such nonsense. The shut-eyed listener will have missed much in the second movement, the moderato-in which a triumphant drumbeat is faintly introduced in the distance-with Gergiev standing ramrod as a disciplined Soviet officer on guard, bringing out a stately theme from his followers in turn. Never have I heard an orchestra so marvellously and justifiably loud. In August 1942, Shostakovich and his emaciated symphony players were precariously flown into blockaded Leningrad, the city having been encircled by German soldiers. Legend has it that the concert-transmitted throughout the bombarded city via loudspeakers-was so loud as not only to lift the spirits of the citizenry, but to lower those of the enemy. Thus the Seventh Symphony, particularly its finale (the “Victory,” allegro non troppo), was popularly-and, of course, officially-recognized as the prelude to actual victory over the Germans three years after the storied performance. That evening at Carnegie Hall, listening to the marching drumbeat’s gradual rising and the cymbal’s crashing, one could not but believe the legend.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra, led by Amsterdam-born Bernard Haitink as Principal Guest Conductor, was in town for three nights also at Carnegie Hall. The third and final evening of the visit, a Wagnerian 22 October, featured pianist Emanuel Ax, round and jolly as ever. The program began with Wagner’s “Prelude to Act I of Parsifal” (1878), that opera which Adorno, in one of his characteristically sweeping and musically foolish declamations, referred to as “provocative nonsense,” and whose hero (Parsifal) Nietzsche wittily dismissed as “a candidate for a theological degree, with a secondary school education-the latter being indispensable for utter foolishness.” At any rate, Haitink brought out an enunciation from the cellos quite difficult to achieve in such an overwhelming “Prelude.” Much to my disappointment, the last violinists, when not playing, were visibly bored and slouching, staring out listlessly at the audience as though never before having seen an audience-an indication of, if nothing else, poor form and poor discipline. Nonetheless, when the strings were together, we were treated to a wonderful tremolo in the cellos, beginning as a mere susurrus, then pouring forth into a majestic sound.

The “Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde’ (1863) was more successful still: again, the cellists were the most remarkable part of the interpretation. Thus far I have not, perhaps to the reader’s pleasant or unpleasant surprise, mentioned Zankel Hall. I shall mention it now, for while the Boston Symphony Orchestra of course played in the Isaac Stern Auditorium-that is, Carnegie Hall proper-whatever event was taking place downstairs at Zankel Hall reverberated through the parquet floors of the prime orchestra seats, much to my own annoyance and apparently to the annoyance of not a few others, with the result that the most meaningfully quiet and even silent passages of the “Prelude and Liebestod” were practically spoiled. It was as though some unfortunate audience member’s mobile phone had begun preposterously to ring the tune of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons at the highest volume possible just as the orchestra’s strings had commenced the gentle quavering which opens Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony. For all the excitement that Zankel Hall has generated among New York’s popular press, that night Zankel Hall generated also a truly amazing interference with the sounds of the original Carnegie Hall. I imagine Haitink was appalled, and I do not think that such disruption was intended when Mr Carnegie expressed his own admirable dream that Carnegie Hall house three separate auditoria. Clearly, on this evening in particular, someone planned something wrong. I had not heard the disturbance before, nor have I since.

Emanuel Ax joined the orchestra for Cesar Franck’s “Symphonic Variations” (1885). Though Ax struck a few wrong notes in the opening bars, such expressiveness as led to those minor errors was, to be fair, all in the service of Franck’s own expressiveness. Zankel Hall had finished making its noise by now, allowing us to appreciate the quietude of this remarkably underperformed composition. Here the only reverberation felt through the parquet floors was that of the strings’ intermittent, powerful crests. Haitink skilfully brought out the joviality of the second half of the “Variations”-helped, no less, by the buoyancy of Ax-without becoming trite and cloying.

A far less conventional, far less rotund, but equally brilliant pianist-Peter Serkin-was featured at Lincoln Center’s delightful series of the complete Bach Keyboard Concertos. On 5 November, Jaime Laredo led the Brandenburg Ensemble as conductor and violinist. We are accustomed, of course, to hear Bach’s keyboard works played not on the harpsichord for which they were composed but on a modern piano (although Bach did, late in life, know the new fortepiano, parent of today’s Steinways and Busendorfers). The Brandenburg Ensemble nonetheless retained the harpsichord vis-a-vis Serkin’s piano, but to a quite simply unconvincing effect. The modern flute, like the modern piano, has a significantly larger sound than, respectively, the Baroque harpsichord and recorder, with the result that the harpsichord used that night sounded comparatively flat, distant, and unimpressive, which should not have to be the case. Witness Pierre Hantai-the finest living harpsichordist to my mind-play the Goldberg Variations on a gorgeous 1985 clavecin fashioned by Bruce Kennedy after a Michael Mietke built probably in 1702 in Berlin.4 It is the finest recording of the Goldberg Vanations I know. I fully support the historical instrument movement, but unless historical instruments are used by all instrumentalists, as they are in Andrew Manze’s Baroque group, Romanesca, the sound produced will be utterly confusing.

Peter Serkin, whose musical tastes are rather unlike those of late father Rudolf Serkin, is most often heard championing contemporary music. (He was featured at the Zankel Hall Opening Festival.) Though he struck several wrong notes in the Concerto No. 2 in E major (BMV 1053)-perhaps, I can only conjecture as an amateur pianist myself, because he shakes his head too much at a rate which exceeds the excitement of any Baroque trill-his enunciation was impressive. A brooding presence at the piano, Serkin shone in the solo passages, particularly in the second movement, the adagio, of Concerto No. 1 in D minor (BMV 1052), where the lyric melody in the bass clef is lent a tragic harmony by the right hand. The most enjoyable moment of the evening was the final movement, allegro assai, of Concerto No. 7 in G minor (BMV 1058), which closes in a spirited, wait/ing 9/8 time signature. The communication between piano and strings was at its finest here, and the harpsichord was-at last-more audible and nuanced, with both hands working through difficult and rapid progressions.

Also in November, the New York Philharmonic presented a wonderful if ill-named series entitled “The Beethoven Experience” (as if” that greatest of composers could possibly be distilled into one monolithic experience). On 7 November, Maazel led his musicians through the Eighth Symphony in F major, Op. 93, and the Ninth Symphony in D minor, Op. 125, “Chorale,” for which the Philharmonic was joined by soprano Christine Brewer, mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby, tenor Michael Schade, and bass Ferrucio Furlanetto (in his New York Philharmonic debut). Maazel certainly lived up to the con brio indication in the first movement of the Eighth, guiding his players with perfect pacing, neither too abrupt in the swifter movements nor too sentimental in the slower. Maazel’s own gaiety and lightness of foot conveyed perfectly his approach to the scherzando of the second movement, followed by a lovely transition into the menuetlo of the third movement. The brass section was slightly soupy, with an often inconsistent enunciation. But whatever the third movement lacked in clarity, the fourth and final allegro vivace made amends with remarkable force, yet without descending into the banal and bombastic as so many orchestras have done with the Eighth.

The Ninth Symphony was, as ever, bracing in Maazel’s hands. Though the opening maestoso-despite the adjective’s qualification by poco-was slightly exaggerated, the percussions were beautifully executed, spanning a difficult range of volume from a whisper to an outright boom. The third movement, adagio molto e canlabile, was just that: delicate, lyrical throughout. Maazel continued to handle deftly his musicians, bringing out in alternation the warmth and the severity of the strings in the fourth movement, presto. The Recuativo, ” O Freunde, nicht diese Tone,” was somewhat uneven. Michael Schade’s delivery was sober and balanced as ever; but Ferruccio Furlanetto, characteristically formidable in his projection, overwhelmed at times the tender voice of soprano Christine Brewer. The performance was marred, to my mind, by an appalling overhead display of the text in English, which would efface-visually and, for one who gazes too long upon the translations, semantically-the beautiful German which is of course essential to the music of the Ninth. Translations in the program are just fine by me: one can close the program if one so pleases, either knowing German or privileging, in a Nietzschean manner, sound as much as strict semantic meaning. But the supertitles were vulgar in the truest, etymological sense of the word, reducing to an un-lyrical, un-metrical, oversimplified and prosaic English what is, after all, poetry in the German. The absurdity of the textual display was sadly incongruous with the splendid display of the Westminster Symphonic Choir, abundantly arrayed as they were behind the powerful orchestra and solo vocalists. As memorable as the performance was, I’m afraid my memory of it will always be inextricably tied to the annoying-if, in hindsight, rather comical-intrusion of illuminated overhead text, in a ghastly outsize Arial font, upon the visual experience of the Ninth.

On 16 November I passed up New York’s concert halls for a benefit at the elegant Soho home of Judy and Stephen Gluckstern, where Andre Watts admirably volunteered his time and talent for Classical Action: Performing Arts Against AIDS, a charitable organization sponsored by the Michael Palm Foundation. (This remarkable series of benefit concerts continued in March 2004 with another evening, featuring violinist Joshua Bell accompanied by pianist Simon Mulligan.) It was a rare opportunity to see Watts-a charming and charismatic bon viveur-in such an intimate setting, performing on a beautiful 1883 Steinway veneered in Brazilian Rosewood. Watts rendered Schubert’s Sonata in A minor (D 784) with a Glenn Gould-like tendency to hum throughout certain lyrical passages-an interesting, if rather annoying, similarity given the fact that Watts earned his fame when he replaced a characteristically indisposed Gould in 1963 with Bernstein on the rostrum. Though Watts is a pianist who apparently values expressiveness over technical perfection, his delivery of Etude No. 9 in F minor, Op. 10, was nonetheless true to score, avoiding the thunderous ascents into forte which are so often irresistible when one plays Chopin. (One of my own several musical vices is to play, in a single practice session, the finale of Chopin’s Prelude No. 4, Op. 28, once observing faithfully the pianissimo Finale, and a second time taking it at a self-delighting if unruly fortissimo: I wonder perversely whether I might be capable of breaking my Steinway’s resilient strings.) Chopin’s Etude No. 1 in A flat major, Op. 25, was captivatingly rendered with lilting touch and pedalling, yet with a clear enunciation throughout of the melody in the treble clef. Watts ended the program with a mesmerizing performance of Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23, lifting the largo seamlessly into the moderato, and finally launching forcefully into the dizzying presto con fuoco, a movement that demands an athleticism which Watts was clearly capable of delivering. Not for Watts the famous adage of the great pianist and teacher Nadia Boulanger, “il faut chanter avec les doigts”: Watts’s lyrical strength came down upon the keys straight from his shoulders. He was perhaps too carried away with the fevered pitch of the movement, taking it at too quick a clip. Though I prefer a more sober pace throughout the presto, Charles Rosen’s sage advice must be kept in mind: “It is not illegal to play a piece of music at the wrong tempo: we risk neither a jail sentence nor even a fine.”

A similarly expressive evening was had at Carnegie Hall on 21 November, the second of two nights at Carnegie Hall offered by the Orchestre de Paris, led by Christoph Eschenbach-himself a virtuoso pianist of intense emotionalism who turned his attention toward conducting in the early 1980s. Americans should be pleased to know that Eschenbach will be the next conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra-yet another indication that philharmonic culture in America is thriving despite the apocalyptic prognoses of musical quidnuncs. Violist Tabea Zimmermann would be the highlight of the evening-and she heralded as much when she took to the stage for Hector Berlioz’s Harold en Italie, Op. 16 (1834) with the poise of a singer about to launch into song. Eschenbach brought out an exactitude in the strings’ phrasing which was met and indeed elevated by Zimmerman’s technical bravura. Reminiscences, however improbable, of Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644-1704)-particularly of his Passacaglia for solo violin-could be heard in the poignant, slow, repeated drawing of the bow full across the viola’s strings. But the third movement, the “Orgy of the Brigands”-however irresistible its title-is one which I have always found far too gimmicky, as two violinists and a cellist leave the stage (much to the audience’s suspense), perch themselves on the mezzanine (much to the audience’s consternation), and eventually join the orchestra for several supercilious flourishes intended to produce I know not what effect. But that nuisance, unavoidable for the Orchestre insofar as Berlioz himself designed it, was one which I managed to avoid by concentrating on the lovely movements and gestures of the lyrical violist Zimmermann: to borrow the words of poet Richard Lovelace, “So did she move; so did she sing.”

1 Available on Volume Two of the BBC’s compact disc series, “Britten: the performer” (BBCB 8002-2).

2 Available on EMI Classics’ “Debut” series (5 72271 2).

3 One can search through this wonderful (and free) resource by painter, sitter, date, medium, etc.

4 Available on the Opus 111 label (OPS 30-84).

Copyright Hudson Review Spring 2004

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