As I have complained before, we are not in a great age for pianists; we are not even in a good age. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t great—or near-great—pianists among us, for there surely are: Mikhail Pletnev, Zoltán Kocsis, Yefim Bronfman, Ivan Moravec, Jean-Yves Thibaudet. You will want to add your own pianists (and perhaps subtract a couple of mine). But, in my view, the men I have named would be heralded in any age, for they are top-drawer. It’s just that, in our present condition, they stand out all the more.

Pletnev is a Russian, a few years under fifty, who is also a conductor. He founded the Russian National Orchestra in 1990. I don’t know how much composing he does, but he is—on the evidence of everything else—one of the most complete musicians we have. He certainly thinks like a composer, when he sits at the keyboard, or stands on a podium. He gets to the heart of a score, treating it with both fidelity and imagination (most of the time). On top of which, he is one of the monster technicians of all time. (I am speaking of his pianistic virtuosity.) Several seasons ago in these pages, I said that he made other big technicians look like Adagio players. That might have been an exaggeration, but not by much.

Recently, Pletnev made three appearances at Avery Fisher Hall, the first a recital—an event that opened Great Performers at Lincoln Center. Pletnev offered a meaty program, consisting of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms (known to pupils as “the three Bs”). The Bach was the Partita No. 6 in E minor, a work that Pletnev played keenly and sweepingly. He was pianistic, of course—he was seated at a piano—but he was thoroughly Bachian. Seldom have I heard Bach playing so fine; I believe I would have to go back to the young Perahia, and that was a long while ago.

Following the partita were three pieces of Brahms, including the Intermezzo in B minor, Op. 119, No. 1. Pletnev played it so Impressionistically, it might have passed for Debussy—but Brahms would have smiled. And the Beethoven? Pletnev played two sonatas, the first small and modest, the second grand and overpowering. The small one was the Sonata in G, Op. 14, No. 2, in which Pletnev took considerable license—probably too much. And yet he presented much to admire: The middle movement was peculiar, arresting, and the closing Scherzo was chockfull of humor. The bigger sonata was that in C major, Op. 53, known as the “Waldstein.” It’s curious about this sonata that, famous as it is, it is infrequently played, outside the student realm. Pletnev approached it in a spirit of fantasy—uncannily effective.

The next week, Pletnev joined up with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, conducted by Herbert Blomstedt. The orchestra was in town for two concerts belonging to the Great Performers series called “The Classical Romantic: The Music of Johannes Brahms.” (“Classical Romantic” is exactly right, incidentally.) The program for the first concert was the Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, and the Symphony No. 2 in D major; the program for the second was the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat, and the Symphony No. 4 in E minor. (If you have two concerts—done in concerto/symphony format—you can do the “complete” Brahms piano concertos, but only half of the symphonies. So the Leipzigers picked and chose.)

Blomstedt was born in America but grew up in Sweden; he took over the Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1998, replacing Kurt Masur, who had held that position for twenty-seven years. On the first night, Blomstedt and his bunch were dreadful, pretty much ruining the Piano Concerto No. 1, and making a hash of the Second Symphony—except for the last movement, where they at last woke up, performing like a professional orchestra. Pletnev, too, had a poor night, doing some marvelous playing in that concerto but also some eccentric, sloppy, and altogether unrepresentative playing. Night One did not bode well for Night Two.

But Night Two went better; put cynically, how could it not? Brahms’s B-flat concerto is one of the grandest and most sweeping we have, once called “a symphony with piano obbligato.” Pletnev played the first movement freely and, for the most part, persuasively, but he also continued with his eccentricity. I am not one to make much of nationality in musical performance—and I hope you aren’t, either—but, in both concertos, Pletnev did remind me he is Russian. This was a Russianized Brahms. As he played, Pletnev seemed to be searching out ways to make the music “fresh” or “interesting,” certainly to himself. It occurred to me that he might be just slightly bored with these works. I have thought similarly about Rostropovich and the Dvořák Cello Concerto. Players of that instrument find themselves performing that work over and over—do they endeavor, consciously or not, to keep themselves entertained (the score aside)?

As for the orchestra, it was better in the B-flat concerto’s first movement than it had been for most of the previous night, but, again, that was saying little. Entrances were blown, horns cracked badly, ensembleship fell down. We often speak of “European standards” of orchestral technique, which is to say low ones—but they are supposed to be balanced by knowing and heartfelt musicianship. On these nights, the Leipzigers often failed on both counts. Where Pletnev was engaged—or trying to be—the orchestra was indifferent, lethargic. And Blomstedt frequently came off as merely dutiful, kapellmeisterish.

I should elaborate: In the United States, “kapellmeister” is kind of a putdown term, referring to a Central European conductor who is uninspired and academic-minded, if competent. On the Continent, however—certainly in the German-speaking countries—“kapellmeister” is a term of honor. That, it should be, of course. Language involves unending robberies, and warpings.

In the second movement, Pletnev began with terrific impetus and drive, but Blomstedt and the orchestra quickly made the music anemic, creaky. One must have heard it—that creakiness. The pianist, persevering, treated parts of this movement almost as a scherzo, not so much playing the notes as playing with them. He came back, however, with suitable Brahmsian majesty. And his octaves were frighteningly fast and accurate. But he also missed a fair amount of notes, forgivable in the ordinary pianist, but unusual for this one. As for our poor horn players, they continued to crack, and flat, and otherwise horrify.

The Andante featured a badly out of tune oboe, but a decent cello. (The cello is a solo instrument in this movement, along with the piano.) Pletnev was once again uncharacteristic here: He committed some unseemly pounding. (You might say there is no other kind, but that is debatable.) Toward the end, however, he managed to project the right air of holiness.

The Rondo in this concerto is a surprise, marked Allegretto grazioso. Its admirers consider it a cup of relief, after all that Sturm und Drang; others scratch their heads over it, regarding it as mismatched with the rest of the concerto. In any case, Pletnev rendered this music both lightheartedly and substantially, which was a high achievement. He also couldn’t help conducting a little, from his seat—which was maybe not a bad idea.

You have heard me say it before, but I should say it again: It always pays to show up in a concert hall; you never know (for sure) what you’ll get. Something you think can’t miss, does; and something you figure will flop, scores, hugely. Herbert Blomstedt and the Leipzig Gewandhaus turned in a good performance of the Brahms E-minor symphony—a very good one. In place of dryness was bloom; in place of inertia was expressiveness; in place of amorphousness was definition (greater definition, I should say). Entrances were still botched, but these mattered less, for musicianship was heightened. The second movement summoned great warmth, and the third movement was virile and glad. The finale was gripping, bordering on savage. The previous night, they had woken up in the fourth movement; this time they were almost wildly awake, alive.

And that is the way it should have been. For one thing, if you’re going to play such familiar music in a capital like New York—music as familiar as Brahms symphonies—you’d better have something on the ball. Otherwise, why waste people’s time, and risk your own reputation?

The Leipzigers played an encore, and it was an inevitable one: Brahms’s Hungarian Dance in G minor. It had some dash, and some flair, but it really didn’t swing (the way Lorin Maazel, for example, would swing it). Blomstedt has much to offer as a conductor. He is more than a “kapellmeister,” in the (bastardized) American sense. But—born on these shores or not—he really doesn’t swing.

A man who swings and does any number of other things is Yuri Temirkanov, principal conductor of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic. Temirkanov took over this storied orchestra in 1988, and took it over from Evgeny Mravinsky, who led the Philharmonic for fifty years (a world record). Temirkanov—who is also conductor in Baltimore, by the way—is a peculiar musician, not the product of a textbook. Years ago, I was seated next to a distinguished critic when Temirkanov was guest-conducting the New York Philharmonic. At the end of a particular work, the critic said, “He’s so weird”—which he did not mean dismissively or even negatively. It was simply true: Temirkanov is highly individualistic in his podium technique and in his interpretations. What he has, chiefly, is musicality, a gift from above.

He came to Carnegie Hall with the St. Petersburg for three concerts, each featuring a concerto soloist. The first evening, it was Hélène Grimaud, the French pianist, who played the Schumann concerto—and played it superbly. Indeed, she presented a model of Romantic piano playing. I have made sharp criticisms of her in the past, so I should report this about her too, although she is not the focus of our St. Petersburg section. (In addition, she played an encore, a Rachmaninoff étude-tableau, which was as fine as the Schumann.) The rest of that concert brought Prokofiev’s “Classical Symphony” —peculiar, but beautiful and convincing—and Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances—flavorful and fun. The worst playing of the evening, sad to say, came in the first encore, which was “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.” Poor fairy: She wasn’t feeling well, apparently, and was heavy on her feet. I hope she soon recovered.

Night Two featured Vadim Repin, the young violin virtuoso, in the Tchaikovsky concerto, and the orchestra did a suite from The Love for Three Oranges (Prokofiev), and, after intermission, the Dvořák Eighth. I was not present for this concert … so will move on to Night Three, which began with one of the great Russian showpieces, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture. I have said that I dislike making much of nationality in musical performance, but I will violate my rule again to say that the sound of the St. Petersburg Phil. is overwhelmingly Russian—grainy, brawny, “soulful.” (That last is the most clichéd relevant adjective of all.) In Temirkanov’s hands, the overture was slowish, spooky, and—I’m afraid—soulful. This interpretation had a storytelling quality. At the same time, it could have been more visceral, more exciting. What’s a Russian band for?

Appearing as concerto soloist was Lynn Harrell, the American cellist, whose work was Shostakovich’s Concerto No. 1 in E flat. This concerto is indelibly associated with Mstislav Rostropovich, having been written for him, dedicated to him, and premiered by him (and also by Mravinsky and the St. Petersburg—or the Leningrad, as it was then called). Moreover, Rostropovich played it—plays it—surpassingly well. But this does not mean that other cellists shouldn’t have a go at it, and Harrell’s go was excellent.

In the first movement—as throughout—he employed what should be called a Russian sound (regardless of the sound-maker’s nationality). He did not play this movement as wildly or manically as others have; he was more measured. But he conveyed the appropriate fear, a huntedness, which Shostakovich imbeds. The second movement is justly famous and loved, a song, really. In it, Harrell issued a variety of tones—half ones, full ones, sweet ones, destitute ones. Never did he indulge in excess; this was strikingly mature playing. In fact, the whole concerto is a serious work that needs to be played by a serious man, as well as a musical one.

Following this songful second movement is an extended cadenza, which Harrell began almost murmuring to himself. He continued to talk—although to the audience as well—and his gauging of rhythms was notably smart. In the closing movement, we had some of that wildness, a raucousness, and Harrell displayed impressive agility. This concerto takes a little technique—consider the man for whom it was written. You can find rawer, more savage interpretations of Shostakovich’s Concerto in E flat (I think in particular of Natalia Gutman). But Lynn Harrell touched the heart of it, and—here I go with nationality again—it was not nothing to see all those (Russian) cellists in the orchestra applauding him.

Temirkanov concluded the concert—and his Carnegie residence—with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, the “Pathétique,” which is that composer’s awful farewell to the world. The conductor drew the opening from some primordial soup; then the music grew, organically. The orchestra’s sound was none too pretty, but the symphony benefited from this: The Pathétique is not a Hallmark card. The first movement was utterly unhurried, and yet it was not languid. Entrances were poor (not quite as poor as the Leipzig Gewandhaus’s), but these could be overlooked.

The second-movement waltz swirled and pulsed, and I, for one, had never heard the timpani so much: Temirkanov kept urging them on. The third movement—that brilliant march—was loose, ragged, lacking cohesion and precision. That was a pity, but even more pitiable was that the conductor could have done much more with the movement, musically. This has to be counted a disappointment.

The Pathétique includes one of the great false endings in music (symphonic branch): The end of the third movement, this march, seems the end of the work, and the audience always applauds, like mad. Temirkanov did something interesting: He began the Finale right in the teeth of that applause, not waiting for it to subside, but forcing it to subside, fairly quickly. The next day, I put on a George Szell recording, from the 1960s. He let the Blossom Festival audience applaud and applaud. From the sound of it, he could have turned around and bowed, or let the orchestra stand. It went on that long. But Temirkanov had a good idea—and he conducted the Finale compellingly. It was a little coarse, a little crude, but it also did its deathly job.

Surely, Temirkanov would offer an encore, and it would almost certainly be something fleet (following that slow, numbing finale). The “Trepak” from The Nutcracker? No—something from England, the Nimrod Variation, out of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Marvelously slow, and stately, and moving. I dare say, as the “Sugar Plum Fairy” was the worst playing of the first night, the Nimrod was the best playing of the third. Would something fast and showy follow it? No—Temirkanov led his players off the stage, having worked his peculiar magic again.

A few years ago, I was in conversation with a composer acquaintance of mine. He writes in esoteric languages, this composer, but he is utterly free of political (or artistic) correctness, and he is disdainful of much contemporary music. You can talk turkey with him. I said to him, “I’m always searching for composers to admire—contemporary composers. Tell me, who’s good? Who stands out?” And he answered, quick as a flash, “Charles Wuorinen.” He didn’t name anyone else. Wuorinen, he said, is a genius, absolutely off the charts. I had never loved Wuorinen’s music, although I could see that it was exceptionally intelligent, but I said that I would listen with extra care.

One certainly had a chance at City Opera. The company premiered Wuorinen’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, an opera based on the “fantasy novel” of Salman Rushdie. Given that this is, in part, a children’s opera, you might have thought that Wuorinen would loosen up a little—that he would relax his fearsome intellectuality and modernism. But, his hardcore fans will be happy to hear, he was “uncompromising.” The score is Wuorinenesque, through and through.

Yet there is much suggestion of fantasy. You can hear some childlike simplicity within the composer’s complicatedness, and some whimsy. I thought I heard a hint of the “Habañera” when seduction was afoot, and, later, a hint of “The Ride of the Valkyries.” Wuorinen undoubtedly refers to the blues, when a singer actually sings about the blues. But in general, the score is unrelenting and, in my judgment, unvaried, or insufficiently varied.

The story is one that Rushdie wrote for his son (who is meant to be Haroun, the hero). He wished to explain to the boy a) the mullahs’ fatwa and b) the collapse of the Rushdie marriage. There is much human feeling within this “magical tale for children and adults that is also a serious parable of free speech,” as the PR materials say. It includes what must be one of the best depictions of writer’s block in art. And the child of the parted parents wonders what he has done to cause the world to buckle.

So too, the libretto is a delight, fashioned by the poet James Fenton, who has given us a banquet of language—of rhythm, of wit, of wordplay. Virtually every sentence is interesting. One stayed riveted to the surtitles (which is no disparagement of the singers’ enunciation).

City Opera delivered a winning production, directed by Mark Lamos, and wonderfully costumed by Candice Donnelly. The cast handled a difficult score with aplomb, and George Manahan, the conductor, knew his business. We even got a happy ending: The writer’s pen is restored, the family is reunited, the bad guys are vanquished—hurray!

And yet, it would have been nice to whistle or hum something afterward. Does such an observation make one a Neanderthal? Maybe so. I trust that Charles Wuorinen is a genius, because people I respect tell me he is, and because his scores scream Major Brain. But genius is not always enough.


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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 4, on page 53
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