Music January 2003
New York chronicle
On Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Maxim Vengerov, Hilary Hahn, Alicia de Larrocha and the Tokyo String Quartet & the Met’s Aida.
Now and then, a critic will experience a performance so bad that he hesitates to report on it. He may even question himself: Could it have been as bad as all that? But these are professional musicians, and everyone seems to like it. Listen to that applause! And the answer, sadly, is yes: It could have been that bad.
I thought of this while attending a chamber-music concert at Alice Tully Hall, featuring Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, violin, and Anne-Marie McDermott, piano. I know what you’re thinking, or may be thinking: This critic must be one in a huge army of Nadja-bashers. That’s a good guess, but it happens not to be true. It is certainly true that Salerno-Sonnenberg has probably received as bad a musical press as anyone over the last fifteen years or so. She is repeatedly condemned as overly Romantic, self-indulgent, emotional, and unrestrained. She is also twitted for her physical movements in performance. I have not joined this chorus of abuse (much). I have found a great deal of musical worth in her, including in her Bach, which is far too Romantic for some, but which I have considered moving and legitimate. In fact, some of us think that Salerno-Sonnenberg has been spooked by critical attacks and that this has harmed or skewed her career. I will say again that I am not an ingrained Nadja-basher.
But this outing at Alice Tully was alarming; it was truly astonishing; and it was at least as much the fault of the pianist as it was of the violinist. The opening piece on the concert was one of Beethoven’s greatest sonatas for piano and violin, that in C minor, op. 30, no. 2. Anne-Marie McDermott missed the opening figure, which was not a good omen. When Salerno-Sonnenberg came in, the tempo was switched—that was a second bad omen. Neither woman adhered to the written rhythm of the piece. McDermott, for example, got the dotted rhythms completely wrong, turning sixteenth notes into thirty-second notes, and even threatening sixty-fourths.
But the main problem was that the playing was unbelievably aggressive and rough. McDermott simply pounded and pounded. She appeared to be trying to break the piano. Salerno-Sonnenberg, for her part, appeared to be trying to break her violin. It occurred to me that this violinist, already on the wild side, does not need a recital partner who is even more wild. In the Adagio, McDermott exhibited no singing tone, and her accents were incredibly harsh. Salerno-Sonnenberg’s choices in dynamics were extremely odd, beyond individualistic. In the Scherzo, McDermott actually attacked the pedal with her foot—kept stomping on it, as though trying to kill a rat. And Salerno-Sonnenberg stamped her foot on the stage, making for a vulgar pas de deux. The final Allegro including more stamping, and stomping, and rushing, and ridiculous attacks.
Beethoven was absent from this performance; there was no sense of him, anywhere. This was, I’m afraid, loony-bin stuff.
As I say, one hesitates to report this kind of thing. Many people like their music criticism—or any kind of criticism—mild. Mild and safe. To raise no eyebrows, it is best to be either mildly disapproving or mildly approving. Any categorical disapproval or effusive praise is seen as suspect. To switch to the common football metaphor, many like their criticism between the forty-yard lines; not between, say, the tens.
The problem is, the real world—certainly the real musical world—is not like that. And honesty demands a correct telling. There are indeed a good number of routine, unremarkable, middle-of-the-road performances, but there is a great deal of very good and very bad. There are evenings of sheer brilliance, and evenings of disaster.
In this same period, there were two violin recitals that should live in the memory of everyone in attendance: one by Maxim Vengerov, the young Russian, and one by Hilary Hahn, the young (very young) American. I have stressed the age of these performers, but, really, that is ill advised. Vengerov is twenty-eight; Hahn is twenty-two. These data are almost irrelevant. In music, we tend to make too much of age, forgetting that musical maturity can set in early—indeed, almost immediately—and that a career is not necessarily a constantly upward trajectory, although we always hope for growth. To put it a little crudely: Either you got it or you don’t. And this can be manifest cruelly early.
Vengerov showed up at Carnegie Hall with his violin only—no piano, no accompanist. As he explained to the audience, he was trying to revive the spirit of the early Italians—Corelli, Tartini—and also of the great Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe (1858–1931), who wrote no fewer than six (unaccompanied) sonatas for violin, each intended for, and dedicated to, a noted and cherished colleague. Among these were Fritz Kreisler, Josef Szigeti, George Enescu, and Jacques Thibaud. Vengerov played three of these sonatas, and he did so magnificently. He is a natural and adaptable musician, with a technique almost super-human. Ysaÿe once said of his friend Szigeti, “I found in him that rare combination of the musician and the virtuoso.” The same is true of Vengerov.
Among the other unaccompanied music he played were Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, in a new transcription by Bruce Fox-Lefriche, and a sonata written by Rodion Shchedrin, the Russian composer, for the 300th anniversary of Bach’s birth in 1985. The Toccata and Fugue, of course, is one of the most transcribed pieces of all time; there must be versions for harmonica; the most famous (or notorious) of all, of course, is Stokowski’s for symphony orchestra. And the Shchedrin is written with the technique, innovation, and inspiration of Bach in mind. Vengerov recounted that he learned and memorized that piece at age ten, to play for the composer. Shchedrin must have been impressed. Vengerov has never stopped impressing those in the field, as well as audiences generally. And he is the very definition of musical charisma, as this strange, glorious, intangible quality simply pours out of him, in everything he tries. This is not a matter of ego, either; it is more a matter of kinship with music, and an unbounded love of it.
Hilary Hahn is a different musician—cooler—but she is equally impressive in her way. Everyone says, sort of pro forma, that she is “maturing,” or “coming along nicely.” I must dispute this; we are poised to say it, but it does not comport, in my view, with the reality. She practically emerged full-blown, and she is extraordinary now. Her performance of the Shostakovich Concerto No. 1 with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra last February was one of the highlights of the entire season. She is all-capable, and she understands that the purpose of a performance is to serve the composer and his score. She leaves room for individuality, of course, but she does not permit unwanted self to cover the music, and, when one hears her, one feels that one has heard music unadulterated. In other words, one can easily look past the violinist and see the very heart of the music being presented.
A critic recently wrote of her, “Part of Ms. Hahn’s talent is to make the difficult sound easy, even unspectacular. [In a particular piece] she offered every nuance, every dynamic in the range with ease, yet in serving the music well she didn’t always make it fully her own. There’s still a sense of obedience in her playing, a sense of excelling at the rules.” This was intended as negative criticism, mind you. In truth, the music is not fully the performer’s own. If the performer desires music of his own, he can trot down to the music shop, buy some manuscript paper, and commence to compose. Otherwise, one had better respect what springs from, and belongs to, the composer. And, as for obeying and excelling at the rules: May Hilary Hahn always. And may all others follow suit.
Back, now, to that chamber-music concert in Alice Tully Hall. This was a presentation of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and the Beethoven sonata was only the first item on the program. What followed was the Sextet for Clarinet, Horn, Violin, Viola, Cello, and Piano written by the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki in 2000. In this piece, Penderecki proves, as he has before, that he can do a lot with a motive or two: He knows how to make the most out of repetition. The sextet is intelligently crafted, featuring a nice interplay among the instruments. And the Chamber Music Society players were typically deft, led by the clarinetist David Shifrin. The Larghetto movement seems like a cello concerto at times, with the veteran cellist Fred Sherry doing an admirable job. The horn playing of William Purvis, too, was first-rate. And the harshness and bluntness of Anne-Marie McDermott at the piano was less ruinous here.
The second half of the program was given over to the Dvořak Piano Quintet, a composition beloved by me, and by many others. Salerno-Sonnenberg was to return, and her partner was to remain at the piano. I must confess that I did not have the heart to stay and hear it, having heard enough.
Some of us are wondering, Is Alicia de Larrocha done for good? The great pianist’s appearance at Carnegie Hall on November 25 was billed as her “farewell” to that hall—to that hall only. Yet she has no more concerts scheduled, anywhere. So, is this it—is that all she wrote? De Larrocha has always been one of the most persistent, indefatigable, and, indeed, peripatetic of performers. She has been constantly on the road. Her main address is a thousand hotel rooms. James Brown is called “the hardest-working man in show business.” For decades, de Larrocha has been about the hardest-working person in classical music.
She was born in 1923, the brightest musical light in Barcelona (along, one should say, with her friend and sometime recital partner, the soprano Victoria de los Angeles). In fact, her final appearance, if there has to be one, should probably take place in her native city. In the 1960s she burst onto the American scene like a spray of fireworks. She made us all familiar with Spanish music—Albéniz, Granados, Turina, and many others—and was prized for her Mozart (doing much, for example, to establish the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center). But de Larrocha could play anything. She was devoted to Bach; her Beethoven was authoritative; her Schumann was formidable (Romantic yet very disciplined). I remember an incandescent set of Rachmaninoff preludes at one recital. And her recording of that composer’s fearsome Third Concerto, with André Previn conducting, is superb. In all, when she was at her best, de Larrocha was a model of piano playing: incisive, correct, no-nonsense, clear, full of rhythm, smart, dazzling.
It’s hard to believe that she is going. I should say, however, that I have had concerns about her in recent years. Two seasons ago, she played an all-Spanish recital in Alice Tully Hall. Afterward, I resolved not to hear her again, preferring to remember her as she was.
But what critic could fail to be present on the 25th, to hear this “Carnegie Hall farewell”? This was not a piano recital. De Larrocha played Mozart’s little A-major concerto, K. 414, with the Tokyo String Quartet—in, of course, a string-quartet arrangement. If this was indeed her farewell, to the music world generally, then it was a modest one, in keeping with de Larrocha’s character. Her appearance was the middle insert in someone else’s concert—in an otherwise normal Tokyo String Quartet concert.
She enters a stage the same way she always has, eyes cast down, humble, almost apologetic. She looks the same too, although she seems shorter than ever (she started under five feet), and her hair is white rather than jet-Spanish-black, and she uses glasses while at the keyboard. When she begins to play, she is immediately de Larrocha—her sound and approach are instantly recognizable. Yet, like most true musicians, she never plays a piece exactly the same way twice. She once confided that she never listens to any of her recordings: A recorded performance is just a snapshot in time, and she would never play the piece in question the same way again.
In her later years, the fingers have been a little sluggish. She does not execute a turn, for example, quite as crisply as before. But in the Mozart, she demonstrated her usual clarity. She was a bit thumping and blunt in the Andante, but that, too, has been a de Larrocha trait. And in the final movement—Allegretto—she had her typical flow and sensibility, a kind of choppy fluidity (to indulge in a necessary oxymoron), along with that rhythmic excellence. De Larrocha’s Mozart is now permanent in our ears: the way she plays an Alberti bass, for instance (sort of detached yet even). She has always understood Mozart and imparted his spirit. Her musical intelligence has served him well—and everyone well.
When it was over, de Larrocha refused to take a bow without her quartet members. A giant, this little woman.
The rest of the concert, too, was a treat, for the Tokyo String Quartet is in very fine shape. There is a lightness, a buoyancy, and a transparency about their playing. They began the evening with the String Quartet in E-flat, D. 87, by Schubert, which was beautiful and rather streamlined. The Tokyo’s legato was exemplary. We could hear, in this performance, that Schubert was a master of song, and, in parts, the playing was quite Classical and Mozartean as well. The members of this quartet play together, in true ensembleship, having no “stars,” each member self-effacing but self-assured.
Schubert’s Scherzo was spunky and characterful—also very precise. The Adagio was perfectly composed and balanced. The Allegro had a shimmering vigor.
After intermission—and after Alicia de Larrocha had bidden farewell—the Tokyo played Beethoven’s String Quartet in F, op. 59, no. 1—one of the “Razumovskys.” Again, there was that lightness, transparency, and beauty. The first movement was tender and sweet (words not usually associated with Beethoven). Each part was exceptionally clear, and each locked in nicely with the others. The second movement (Allegretto) was subtle, refined, and neatly stenciled. The third movement—Adagio molto e mesto—featured a ravishing cello solo by Clive Greensmith. And in the fourth movement—Thème russe: Allegro—the folk aspects were jolly, but not obtrusive.
One was left with the impression of taste and civilization.
We should close with a little opera—a lot of opera, really, as Aida is definitionally grand. The Metropolitan Opera’s current conception of Aida—which was unveiled in 1988—is one of the great visual pleasures in all of opera. In a recent “chronicle,” I said just this about the Met’s Turandot, fashioned by Franco Zeffirelli. Well, the same is true of this Aida, produced by Sonja Frisell. The sets are almost impossibly monumental; the choreography is consistently interesting; the costumes and the sheer objects on the stage are all glorious to look at. We do not get elephants, but there are horses—close enough.
Is Aida a spectacle? Yeah, but so what? It also contains some of the best music Verdi ever composed.
The cast I will now discuss is perhaps not the most anticipated of the Met’s 2002–2003 season. Later, we will have Deborah Voigt as Aida and either Larissa Diadkova or Dolora Zajick as Amneris. Diadkova, for her part, has already delivered a stunning Azucena in the Met’s Trovatore, revealing a gorgeous voice, consummate vocal command, and a better-than-opera, theater-like ability to act.
But this Aida was nothing to sneer at. In the title role, it had Michele Crider, who is known for this part, and also for Cio-Cio San (Madama Butterfly). Crider has a big, big voice, and it is at times unwieldy. It is also subject to some stridency. But as I was listening to her, I was reminded that beauty and control are not everything in opera—and operatic singing must at times be separated from singing in general. Crider brought to “Ritorna vincitor” a biting characterization, an unusual desperation: The aria wasn’t pretty, but it was right. We are not dealing in Schubert. And in the great Act II, with all those voices, and all that chorus, and all that orchestra, Crider could be heard soaring over, and cutting through, everything: an asset.
Speaking of big voices, the Canadian tenor Richard Margison took the part of Radames. He also sings Otello and Florestan (Fidelio). This is not only a voice of the size and sturdiness those parts suggest, it is a beautiful and extraordinary one. Its owner had some problems, however, particularly at the beginning of Aida, where Radames must really shine. This is the moment for “Celeste Aida.” Margison engaged in some vulgar vocal sliding, and he and the conductor, Marco Armiliato, could not agree on tempos. (There were about five in the course of this aria.) The tenor’s high B flat was sort of strangled. There was nothing dreamy about this account: It was merely gotten through. But Margison settled down and acquitted himself with honor. With that voice—he can more or less write his own professional ticket.
Taking Amneris was the Russian mezzo-soprano Irina Mishura, who is also an Azucena and an Adalgisa (Norma). (The letter A is extremely important for operatic mezzos.) Mishura had some trouble with pitch, and she was not terribly nuanced. Particularly in the early going, she suffered from some wobbles. And this is a very, very Russian Egyptian princess—one had to remind oneself that one wasn’t listening to Mussorgsky. But Mishura handled herself imperially and imperiously, and she does extremely well with the resources she has. She is a woman of the operatic theater, and her Amneris is exciting.
The veteran Matti Salminen was a truck driver of a Ramfis, booming out that famous voice. Raymond Aceto was a solid King. And Yalun Zhang was Amonasro, offering lousy Italian but a rich, even inspiring, baritone.
One goes to an Aida—even a Met Aida—with some reluctance and weariness: Again? This bloated old thing? And yet Verdi delivers, over and over. So does this company. Big opera, big sets, big voices. Ain’t opera—or at least Aida—grand?
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 21 Number 5, on page 46
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