Who is the most complete musician in the world? You could argue for André Previn, composer, conductor, and pianist (to give the order he would probably prefer). You could argue for Daniel Barenboim or James Levine, although neither one of them composes. And you could argue —energetically —for Mikhail Pletnev, who, like Previn, is a pianist, conductor, and composer (to give the order most logical for Pletnev). Pletnev is one of the great virtuosos of this or any other age. He won the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1978 at age twenty-one. In 1990, when the USSR was on its last legs, another Mikhail, Gorbachev, allowed Pletnev to form the Russian National Orchestra, the first orchestra in the history of the Soviet Union to be independent from the government. Pletnev conducted the RNO for ten years, then turned the reins over to Vladimir Spivakov, a violinist who has proven his worth on the podium.

The RNO came to Carnegie Hall on February 15, with Spivakov wielding the baton and Pletnev as piano soloist. The concerto was the Tchaikovsky Second, distinguished mainly for not being the Tchaikovsky First. Critics like to gripe about how often the First is played, how hackneyed it is; truth is, you almost never hear it in a concert hall. I believe that I have heard the Second performed more often in the last ten or fifteen years—and it is vastly inferior, full of bombast and nonsense.

But it gives a pianist plenty of opportunity to show off technique, which Pletnev did. He is, to put it bluntly, a monster technician. He is capable of anything. He can burn up the keyboard, in the manner of his Russian forebears, yet he is solidly musical, putting his technique to strictly artistic ends. The first movement, he played with majesty and verve. This music is unwieldy, but he managed to tighten it, astonishingly. He plays like a composer, getting under the composer’s skin, making the best case for even a silly score. He brought out the melodic lines beautifully. His tone can take on a hard edge—classically Russian—but it is neither metallic nor unpleasant. A little severity in this repertory is no disservice. And, though Tchaikovsky gives the pianist more than enough to do, Pletnev seemed restless at the keyboard, gesturing with the occasional free hand, seeming to want to conduct. A couple of times, he looked at Spivakov as though he would seize the baton from him.

In the cadenza, Pletnev was dizzyingly fast, yet eerily accurate. I made a quick mental list of the finger-men—the “supervirtuosos”—I have witnessed over the years: Horowitz, Richter, Weissenberg, Berman, Watts, Wild, Argerich, Kissin, Volodos: this guy can make them look like Adagio players. And here is the key to his technique, or at least that part of it that relates to speed, accuracy, and smoothness: his arm is never, ever out of position. He never reaches with his hands; the entire arm is always right there, in front of the note to be played; the fingers, wrists, and forearms suffer zero strain.

Pletnev played the Andante with an exquisite singing tone, beautifully sustained. And the Rondo—a folkish movement that almost redeems the piece, musically—had not only a sprightliness, but a bracing strength. Pletnev has a keen sense of dynamics, and phrasing, and rhythm. His playing had a spectacular life, with the pianist romping around like a merry demon. This was, indeed, a stunning performance. To hear Pletnev—a sincere musician with the ability of an exhibitionist—is to absorb something historic.

Vladimir Ashkenazy is another versatile musician, conducting now about as much as he performs on the piano. On February 27 —also at Carnegie Hall—he led the Philadelphia Orchestra in an all-French program. They began with Le Tombeau de Couperin, Ravel’s homage to his Baroque ancestor. Immediately, it was apparent that we were in for a bath of that glorious Philadelphia sound, which shimmers and gleams and soaks. This has always been a delightful French orchestra, though not a particularly French-sounding one (and thank goodness for it). As for Ashkenazy, he conducts like he plays—there is no reason he should not. He is, of course, competent and thorough, but also a little calculated, a little blunt, a bit unnatural. Music in his hands sometimes lacks spontaneity or freshness. The Forlane of the Tombeau could have been gayer, jauntier; it was rather earthbound. And the Rigaudon had vigor, but not sparkle.

The cellist Steven Isserlis was featured in Henri Dutilleux’s Tout un monde lointain, a work that is a touchstone of French modernism. Isserlis played it with understanding and beauty. His sound is somewhat small and thin, but it nevertheless serves. Amusingly—or half so—he had trouble with his page-turning. The conductor turned at least one page for him—now there was a display!—and Isserlis fought back some other pages with his bow. Odd that he should not by now have committed this piece to memory.

The high point of the evening was the orchestra’s traversal of the Suite No. 2 from Albert Roussel’s ballet Bacchus et Ariane. Roussel is on practically everyone’s list of underrated composers, and some musicians have made him something of a cause. It was good to have him on the Philadelphia’s program. His Suite is both “romantic” and “impressionistic,” and its program is vivid. Ashkenazy allowed the orchestra to pour on that sound—how could he not?—and he brought out such elements as whimsy, sensuality, and brio. The audience quite properly screamed its approval.

To end the evening was Debussy’s La Mer, a work that the Philadelphians have glorified many, many times. Ashkenazy gave a perfectly competent reading, but we could see through the composer’s mists— not necessarily a good thing. Ashkenazy was disorientingly literal, matter-of-fact, leaving out some of the magic, sacrificing some of the mystery. He was somewhat plodding, too, and the climax was less than it should have been, the conductor having given too much, too soon. This performance had its strengths—chiefly, clarity—but La Mer is really La Mer when it is hazily Debussyan.

On the stage the following night was a much different orchestra, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, under Roger Norrington, its former chief conductor. Norrington is a leader of the “original instruments” movement, which is also devoted to “original performance practices.” He is usually a stirring musician, and his program at Carnegie was an appetizing one: a Mahler arrangement of various movements from Bach’s Orchestral Suites; a great and beloved Bach cantata (sung by Emma Kirkby); and the Mahler Fourth (with Kirkby as soloist).

Before beginning, Norrington made a little speech to the audience, explaining the links between the pieces to be performed, and offering a little apology, or defense: he is now interested, not only in original instruments and original performance practices, but in “original size,” and original everything else. He and the orchestra would attempt to perform all of these works just as they were done at the time of their debuts. Such things as the layout—the physical layout—of the orchestra would be the same. Most significantly, the strings would use no vibrato (called “the V word” by Norrington). The conductor regretted that we could not know for sure, for sure how the pieces sounded at the moment they were unveiled, in such matters as dynamics. You at times have to wonder whether Norrington and his comrades consider themselves real flesh-and-blood musicians or museum curators. The museum mentality seems to have taken over much of music.

When the Bach-Mahler began, the sound was shocking: this was the “period” sound to which we have become accustomed over the last couple of decades, but the orchestra was so large! It seemed either too many instruments for that sound, or the wrong sound for that many instruments. It also seemed something of a waste—neither fish nor fowl. Neither Stokowski-big and lush nor Norrington-small and airless. If you are going to do Bach with a large orchestra, why not do it the Stoki way, all out? Here we had the same sickly, scrubby sound as with the “period” bands, only more of it. Nor was the music-making impressive (and that is what matters most): the Badinerie for flute was sluggish, timid, and imprecise; the “Air on the G String” lacked both vibrancy and ethereality—and who can deny the glory of this piece on modern instruments, with a modern sound? It is sad to think that we will have to hold on to our old recordings if we are ever to hear Bach played “incorrectly”—but enrichingly —again.

Emma Kirkby is the vocal equivalent of one of those original instruments. Her cantata was Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut, and, whatever the quality of her soprano, her performance was without much life. It was dry and sterile, lacking heart and spirituality. There was a sameness, a monotony, to it. It was probably no help that her face was buried in the score most of the time. It is true that, with Kirkby, you reliably get clarity, cleanness, and good intonation. But her singing can be like dried fruit, when a bit of juice is desired—or like dried flowers, in place of real, fragrant blooms. The players who accompanied her were dry, too, lacking breath or aroma or soul. The maddening thing is that these forces arrogantly assume that they are revealing Bach to us, at long last, after centuries of abuse. Sometimes, it seems more like burying him.

The Mahler symphony, like the Bach-Mahler that began the program, had the shock of oddness: an oddness of sound; a seeming incongruity. Here was a Mahler symphony being played with a sound that seemed more suited to Lully (if him), although Roger Norrington had assured us that it was the correct one, vibrato not having been adopted until the 1930s, long after Mahler had departed. The performance was not without its moments, as Norrington is a shrewd musician: tempos were nicely brisk; the conductor allowed the slow movement to speak for itself (and it does, as Norrington had suggested in his pre-downbeat remarks, recall the “Air on the G String”); some oboe playing was excellent. But there was nothing special or memorable about the account either. Kirkby was okay as the last-movement soloist, affecting in her plain way. She even injected a trace of lyricism. But she was underpowered, drowned out by the orchestra in some vital spots. Almost certainly, Norrington and his people gave an historically accurate reading—but they also failed to give the true Mahler experience, which transports. Their Fourth was stubbornly mundane.

All in all, Carnegie Hall on this night seemed invaded by time travelers. And time travel has its place; for example, it can satisfy academic curiosity. But it can still leave an audience hungry for music.

Heidi Grant Murphy is one of the most appealing young singers currently on the scene. She boasts a high, beautiful, slinky voice. It can be both melting and bright, and although it is lightish, it is not without power. Murphy has been heard in New York a lot lately: as Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier at the Metropolitan Opera; as a soloist in the Brahms Requiem with the New York Philharmonic; and, again, as a soloist in the Vivaldi Gloria with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s (although not with Roger Norrington, but with his fellow Brit Neville Marriner). In each case, she demonstrated exquisite taste.

So her March 2 recital at Weill Recital Hall—the fetching little annex in the Carnegie complex—was eagerly anticipated. And it turned out, indeed, to be one of the most satisfying vocal recitals in recent memory. Murphy began with Castilian songs from the thirteenth century, accompanying herself on a variety of percussion instruments. Her singing was even, unforced, and utterly assured. It recalls the young Dawn Upshaw in some respects. I also thought of Victoria de los Angeles, emerging from the wings to accompany herself on the guitar, in songs very much like the ones Murphy was doing. Particularly impressive was that Murphy’s intonation was spot-on, even without the support of a piano; it would be so, unvaryingly, for the rest of the evening.

After this luminous beginning came a group of songs by Lili Boulanger, the tragic younger sister of the famed teacher Nadia Boulanger. (Lili died at only twenty-four, and it is not merely sentiment that regrets the promise unfulfilled.) Murphy exhibited easy breathing and a marvelous legato in long, expressive lines. She is able to change colors adeptly in the same breath. Hers is an active voice, tonally, with air going through it continually, keeping it alive and interesting. Her onsets are super-clean, and her singing is always clear, even when it is at its most romantic or lyrical. It is an odd physical point that she sings out of a crooked mouth—which obviously presents no impediment.

Her Wolf set (from the Spanish and Italian songbooks) was full of character, at turns decorous, biting, and flirtatious. “Auch kleine Dinge” was especially winsome, delicious. One nice thing about Murphy is that she sings with a minimum of fuss—there is no debris, no clutter, about her. She has few deficiencies, but one of them (and it is not a very great deficiency) is that she has the kind of voice—open, happy, guileless—into which it is hard to put somberness. Sighing and wistfulness, yes; somberness, despair, no. But this is more like a worry than an indictment. In a Rachmaninoff group, Murphy’s high notes were alternately gossamer and big. She can follow the crest of a song, aware of its contours. And her technical accuracy is positively uncanny.

At evening’s end, it was crossover time, with Murphy offering five not-very-well-known songs from Broadway shows. Seldom will you hear crossover singing so convincing. She did it without a hint of slumming, which is, of course, key. Surely these little numbers had never had it so good. Heidi Grant Murphy is seriously musical in everything she does. Her final encore was the Alleluia from Mozart’s Exultate, jubilate, clean and delightsome. An intelligent singer with a beautiful instrument and a first-rate technique: what more can the reasonable person ask?

Così fan tutte—Mozart’s outpouring of melody and invention—is a true ensemble opera, requiring six steady singers, with no real star among them. (Well, maybe Fiordiligi is the star—she is the primary soprano, after all.) The Met, for its performance on March 3, had a worthy sextet, if not a uniformly sparkling one. The Fiordiligi was Melanie Diener, a German little heard in this country, but enjoying a busy career in Europe. She had an unsteady evening, displaying a bland, somewhat hollow voice and a suspect technique. The sublime trio “Soave il vento” was marred slightly by the bluntness—the lack of pliancy—in that voice. And her big aria, “Come scoglio,” needed much more authority and incisiveness. Yet she strengthened as the night wore on, and by the time she got to the second act’s “Per pietà,” she was actually elegant and distinguished. The singing profession is undeniably a difficult one.

The mezzo-soprano was Susan Graham, who scored a major success in the Rosenkavalier whose Sophie was Heidi Grant Murphy. Graham, too, is a near constant presence on New York stages, her recital in Alice Tully Hall one of the highlights of the last season. As Dorabella, in Così, she was predictably apt and secure. Also having a strong outing was the third woman of the performance, Dawn Upshaw. A veteran now (which is hard to believe), she remains youthful and charming, and her portrayal of Despina was superb: appropriately comic, but without distracting ham. Upshaw has always been a clear, effective Mozartean, even if she sometimes succumbs to cutesiness, in the Kathleen Battle manner (or would it be more fair to Battle to call it the Dawn Upshaw manner?). There was not a trace of such cutesiness this time. Every phrase and inflection seemed right.

Leading the men was Paul Groves, the tenor of the hour for such roles as Così’s Ferrando. He has a high, sweet, open sound that goes down very easy, even if it does not stir the breast. His aria, “Un aura amorosa,” was nicely done, with some tasteful interpolations, but it was very slow~dash\probably too slow, and not especially Mozartean. Groves, unlike Melanie Diener, wavered as the opera progressed, and he was somewhat clumsy in his passagework. Beside him as Guglielmo was Rodney Gilfry, a sturdy, pleasant baritone who happened, two seasons ago, to give a fine recital in the Weill hall. On that occasion, he sang French songs with memorable distinction; he is a student of the legendary baritone and teacher Pierre Bernac. Gilfry is also known for creating the role of Stanley Kowalski in André Previn’s operatic treatment of A Streetcar Named Desire, and for recording it with vigor and conviction. In the Mozart, he acquitted himself adequately, although his sound seemed a bit indistinct and swallowed in the very large house.

The evening’s surprise—at least for me —was the Italian bass Michele Pertusi, who sang with skill and panache. He did everything Mozart asked of him, musically, and he attended to his comic duties with dignity—just as the part of Don Alfonso requires. On the podium was Patrick Summers. He did not cause anyone to forget, say, Karl Böhm. His tempos were on the sleepy side, and the opera occasionally slipped into dullness, seeming long. But he held the proceedings together and contributed some moments of sensitivity. Playing the continuo part—in a nice example of musical continuity in New York—was Kevin Murphy, an assistant conductor at the Met, and the husband of Heidi Grant Murphy, whom he had served as accompanist the night before. For now, Mr. Murphy must be known as the soprano’s husband—which is no shame.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 19 Number 8, on page 57
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