A composer and his friends in an afternoon of song.
It is not uncommon for a star singer who is appearing at the Metropolitan Opera to give a recital in Carnegie Hall—at some point in the run of the opera, I mean. What if you’re a composer who is having an opera staged at the Met? One that you’re conducting as well?
Beginning October 26, Thomas Adès, the British composer, will be conducting his Exterminating Angel at the Met. This is an opera based on the surrealist movie of Luis Buñuel (1962). I reviewed it from the Salzburg Festival in 2016. In addition to being a composer and a conductor, Adès is a pianist, and a good one. He is the compleat musician, enjoying a Britten-like career.
In 2007, he gave a piano recital at Zankel Hall, the basement venue within the Carnegie building. (I reviewed the recital here.) Three years later, he played a recital in the main hall. (Reviewed here.) Two years after that, he partnered Ian Bostridge, the British tenor. (Here.) And so on.
Yesterday afternoon, he was in Zankel again, with a group of singers from his Exterminating Angel cast. He served as the pianist—the accompanist—all through. The program was eclectic, as you can expect from Adès: he loves to mix it up. He also likes the weird, or eccentric. And before the concert began, he came out to talk.
Et tu, Thomas? Even you are engaging in this obnoxious habit of talking before, or during, concerts? But he had an excuse. He had to tell the audience that there would be three singers instead of the scheduled four. Alice Coote, the British mezzo-soprano, was out sick. Owing to her absence, the program had to be shifted around a bit.
So, I could excuse Adès—and also for this reason: he has impeccable British manners. He referred to one of his singers as “Miss Matthews.” That went out in America in about 1975. To hear it yesterday did my heart good. Moreover, Adès apologized, by implication, for having had to come out and talk.
The concert began with four songs by Schubert, sung by Joseph Kaiser, the Canadian tenor. He has a beautiful voice, as you may well know. On this afternoon, however, he had some trouble. When he went high, his beautiful voice tightened, even sounding strangled. He even cracked a bit. Also, his intonation betrayed him from time to time. But, all in all, he acquitted himself honorably.
Like Kaiser, Adès did not have a particularly good start. He was reticent, too retiring. “Das Zügenglöcklein” could have used more of a pulse. That whole song was sleepy, without drama. In the next song, “Auf der Bruck,” Adès sort of slapped at the keyboard, sloppily. This is uncharacteristic.
Next to sing was Iestyn Davies, the British countertenor, who began with some Purcell: “By beauteous softness,” from Now does the glorious day appear (an ode). This song—if “song” is the word—was “realized” by Thomas Adès. “Realized” means, in effect, arranged and/or gussied up. Davies sang the music pleasantly, but without the haunting soulfulness it can have.
He then turned to a Schubert song, yanked out of context: “Tränenregen” from the great song-cycle Die schöne Müllerin. Is that kosher? Does it work? Yes and yes. Davies, now warmed up, perhaps, sang beautifully, and Adès played the same way.
The two of them moved on to a set by the pianist himself, The Lover in Winter, which treats some medieval Latin poetry. The other day, I described some music by Philip Glass—his recent concerto for two pianos—as “gay.” I would like to describe the songs of The Lover in Winter as “queer.” I regret that these words have come to be used almost exclusively in sexual contexts, because they can be the mots justes when describing music, and other things.
These songs by Adès are peculiar, off-kilter, askew, somehow. They are also very brief, almost Ligeti-like. They have an occasional austerity, which Iestyn Davies enhanced with a near–vibrato-less voice. The final song has some smart and tricky intervals, which the singer navigated nicely. A good and interesting set of songs, well performed.
Then it was two more songs of Purcell, realized by Adès. These are from The Tempest, Purcell’s semi-opera. Adès has written his own Tempest, an out-and-out opera. And I should say that there is doubt about whether Purcell actually wrote the songs in question.
In any case, the first of them was “Come unto these yellow sands.” It was too low for Davies, or so it seemed to me. And his intonation went awry. He did help me with something linguistic, however. The last word of the song is “Chanticleer”—that famed rooster. The twelve-man a cappella group from San Francisco is named for that bird. And there is a longstanding debate over pronunciation: Is the “Ch” like the “ch” in “chant” and “church”? Or do you say “Shanticleer”? Davies sang “Shanticleer.”
The second Tempest song was “Full fathom five.” In Adès’s realization, I heard some Parsifal: the Procession of the Knights of the Holy Grail. Was I hearing things? Probably. At any rate, both Davies and Adès performed this song very well.
Davies ended his time upon the stage with a novelty: Stravinsky’s treatment of The Owl and the Pussy-Cat, by Edward Lear.
The earlier-mentioned Miss Matthews began with another novelty, or piece of whimsy: “The Turkish Mouse,” from Three Cautionary Tales, by John Woolrich, a British composer born in 1954. The singer is Sally Matthews, the British soprano, whom I first heard in 2007. Sir Colin Davis had brought the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus to Avery Fisher Hall. They did Haydn’s Creation, with Matthews as a soloist. I was stunned by her singing—its purity, intelligence, and musicality.
The next year, I was writing a preview of coming attractions. I singled out a C-minor Mass (Mozart). I further singled out the soprano soloist. “She is one of the best singers you’ve never heard,” I said of Sally Matthews. “And if you have—you’ll want to hear her again.”
I’ll tell you what she brought to that “Turkish Mouse” song: color, animation, and flair. If you can say that a singer so tasteful as Matthews can “sell” a song, she did. She really sold it.
Then, like Joseph Kaiser, she sang four songs of Schubert. In “Der Unglückliche,” she was pure and beguiling. Her low voice was as good as her high (which was very good). There was plenty of drama in the song. It had the right combination of the operatic and the songful. In “Seligkeit,” she reflected pure enjoyment. One should, as the song is about bliss. Also, Matthews sang in tune—utterly in tune—which I never take for granted, from any singer.
In “Nacht und Träume,” that transporting song with its long, transporting lines, Matthews did not show her best voice. But she transported all the same. And “Gretchen am Spinnrade” was just what the doctor ordered, from both singer and pianist. He played alertly; she sang like an angel.
An aside about the angel: She used music—sheet music—in this song. Really? In “Gretchen”? Maybe so as not to forget the words. But I thought, “Using music in ‘Gretchen’ is like a pianist’s using music in ‘Für Elise’”—or “Chopsticks.”
So, that ended the first half of the concert. I left the hall, with the welcome sound of Sally Matthews in my head. Also in my head was admiration for Thomas Adès and his all-around career.
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