You know the old saying “Second verse, same as the first”? A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about a Dmitri Hvorostovsky recital. I described what those recitals are typically like.
The Russian baritone, quite naturally, sings groups of Russian songs (with a smattering of others). His fans are adoring. And they are not your regular classical-music fans. They come from a different world.
Hvorostovsky recitals have an air of pop concerts. The fans snap pictures. They applaud after every song (whether this is appropriate, in a traditional sense, or not). They have a ball. And classical music is the better for it.
On Sunday afternoon, it was Anna Netrebko’s turn to give a recital. This recital bore resemblance to a Hvorostovsky recital. And, like those recitals, it was very good.
The Russian soprano was making her New York recital debut. She is more an opera star than a recitalist. I did hear her give a recital in 2009, however. It was at the Salzburg Festival, and her pianist was Daniel Barenboim. My review of that occasion can be found in this chronicle.
Also, a CD came out of that recital: here.
In New York, Netrebko gave her recital in the Metropolitan Opera House. There’s no opera on Sunday. Why not use the house for something else?
Everyone says that the Met is a lousy place for a recital, being cavernous and all. I’m sure that’s right. But as I listened to Netrebko, I had this question: should it not be easier to hear her with a piano alone, rather than an orchestra playing Verdi, Prokofiev, or what have you?
I’m sure there are good answers.
Netrebko came out dressed a bit like Norma—if Norma had a dose of Las Vegas in her. During the recital, the fans used their cellphones for e-mail and so on. They took pictures freely. They undoubtedly made videos too. There was lots of noise.
Sitting next to me was a polite German, with an English accent. He asked, “Why are the people so rude?” I explained that this was not a normal classical-music event. It was something else.
An event, for one thing.
Netrebko sang a program of Rachmaninoff, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Tchaikovsky. Your correspondent could stay only for the first half—i.e., for the Rachmaninoff and Rimsky-Korsakov sets. But that was a nice long stretch.
The first note out of Netrebko’s mouth was a little rough. You know how someone will clear his throat before speaking? Something like that exists in singing, though singers try to avoid it.
Going forward, Netrebko was in good shape. Like Hvorostovsky, she is most at home in her native tongue (as most people are). Her voice sounds older now because, well, she is older. But it is still unmistakably Netrebko.
Recital though this was, Netrebko injected some opera into it—striking poses, doing some acting. When it came time for Rachmaninoff’s “Lilacs”—famous for the piano transcription he made of it—she went over to the flowers on the stage, running her fingers through them.
Were they lilacs? I couldn’t tell, but I don’t think so.
Amid her songs, Netrebko sang a real-live opera aria: Marfa’s, from The Tsar’s Bride, by Rimsky-Korsakov. She suffered some flatness at the end, which is unusual for her. (When Netrebko veers off pitch, she tends to go sharp.)
I’m reluctant to fault the recital on grounds of monotony. The fault probably lies in me, the listener. In any case, I’d like to quote from my recent post on Hvorostovsky:
Let me pause for a personal confession: I have always liked Russian songs, and they have always sounded essentially the same to me, no matter the composer. I’m sure this is a matter of cultural grounding. To Russians (and others), do all German art songs sound the same? Possibly so. (They sometimes run together for me too, honestly.)
I have gone too far in this review without mentioning Netrebko’s accompanist, but at least I’m not at the very bottom. (Gerald Moore, the late accompanist, used to say, “My mother reads reviews from the bottom up.”) Playing for Netrebko was Malcolm Martineau, from Scotland. He is one of the best in the business.
And in this recital, he was unobtrusive. Let me quickly explain what I mean by that. He was no bystander. But he was so unerring, so right, you barely noticed him. The playing was simply right. Every inflection, every nuance, every ruffle. “Seamless” and “fitting” would be better words than “unobtrusive.”
Speaking of words, there was one song to which Martineau gave a sweet propulsion. (This was a Rimsky-Korsakov song about a lark. You can’t have songs, or poems, without larks, or nightingales.) I have never written the words “sweet propulsion,” and may never again.
Sitting at the Met, listening to Netrebko, I could not help thinking of the first time—the first time I heard this soprano, which was at the Met in 2002. She was a slip of a girl, singing Natasha in War and Peace (Prokofiev). “Whoa,” I said. Whoa was right.
She will enter legend, like Tebaldi and others. Really, she already has.