Sometimes, piano recitals come in bunches, instead of being nicely spread out—so it is with violin recitals, chamber concerts, and other events. On three consecutive days, New York had recitals by major pianists: Vladimir Feltsman, Ivan Moravec, and András Schiff. Despite the longstanding inconsistency of two of those pianists, all three recitals were first-rate. It was a banner stretch for pianism in New York.

Moravec, a Czech born in 1930, is a quite consistent pianist. Aristocratic, learned, tasteful, he is a model for others. In fact, he is one of those you call a “pianist’s pianist.” That phrase is common enough, but what does it mean? To me, it means the pianist fairly teaches as he plays. Other pianists want to hear him, and emulate him. He is devoted to craft, and to music, not to ego. He embodies something important in the instrument’s tradition, or traditions. He is a perpetuator of that which is invaluable.

At Carnegie Hall, Moravec played a program of Janá?ek, Debussy, and Chopin. In the Impressionism—and here I include the Janá?ek, In the Mists—he was nuanced, nimble, and excellent. He painted the pictures as he should have, without exaggeration or artifice. The biggest of the Chopin pieces—the Fantasy in F minor and the Ballade in G minor—were perhaps a little too big for Moravec at this point, although he retains plenty of technique. In any case, Moravec made his case in each of these pieces, as he did in all the others.

Jewels in the evening were the encores. Moravec played three, starting with Chopin’s Prelude in A major, one of the briefest pieces in the literature. Moravec played it with unpretentious grace, and perfect grace. Then he offered a polka by Smetana, rendered with knowledge and affection. And finally, more Debussy: “The Serenade of the Doll,” from The Children’s Corner. You may recall that this was a favorite encore of Horowitz’s, too. Moravec was exquisite in it.

András Schiff, one of Hungary’s many pianists, is an uneven performer. He can play like a god one night, like a fink the next. At Avery Fisher Hall, he was much more god-like. His program consisted of Haydn and Beethoven, and this program emphasized wit. Schiff began with a Haydn capriccio, that based on the folk song “Acht Sauschneider müssen sein.” (It has to do with a castrated pig, I’m afraid.) He also played Beethoven’s Sonata in G major, Op. 31, No. 1, one of the most humorous works Beethoven ever penned. It’s full of jokes, tricks, and snorts. Schiff conveyed all of them, or most of them.

He can be just a little stiff in his technique, needing more lyricism and freedom. This was true in Haydn’s F-minor Variations. But it was not true in the program’s closing work, Beethoven’s Sonata in C major, Op. 53, the “Waldstein,” which was sweeping, noble, and exemplary. Schiff’s was the kind of performance that reminds you what a great piece the “Waldstein” is.

In his one encore, the pianist departed from Haydn and Beethoven, to play some Schumann: the Arabeske. I wouldn’t have left my evening’s composers—I probably would have played a Beethoven bagatelle—but Schiff adores Schumann, and he played the Arabeske so nicely, you couldn’t blame him.

Vladimir Feltsman, in addition to being a major pianist, is a figure from the late Cold War. You may remember that, in 1979, this Russian-Jewish musician fell out of favor with the Soviet regime. (He was a refusenik.) In 1986, Reagan’s ambassador, Arthur Hartman, invited him to play at Spaso House; the KGB sabotaged the piano, almost preventing the recital from going forward. When Feltsman was finally sprung— in 1987—he went straight to the White House, for another recital. He became a U.S. citizen in 1995.

Despite his nationality and upbringing, I have always thought of Feltsman as a Germanic pianist. I remember, particularly, a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini—in fact, it was with a Russian orchestra and conductor. And I remember thinking that it was the most Germanic, un-Russian account of that work I had ever heard—despite the fact that everyone onstage was Russian-born (presumably). No, nationality is not destiny, as significant an influence as it is. I might also mention that, three seasons ago under the auspices of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Feltsman curated a series called “Masterpieces of the Russian Underground.” That was a fine deed both musically and otherwise.

At Carnegie Hall, Feltsman played a program both German and Russian—consisting of Beethoven and Mussorgsky. But can we attach a nationality to so universal a personage as Beethoven? That I have asked the question gives my answer.

Feltsman started with Beethoven’s Sonata in C minor, Op. 13, the “Pathétique”—and it was nearly a revelation. As I indicated above, Feltsman is an inconsistent pianist, but on this occasion he was outstanding. The introductory section of the sonata’s first movement was beautifully judged: ruminative, quasi-Romantic, suspenseful. And when the Allegro came, it was fast and exciting, but also limpid and refined. Feltsman made excellent use of rests, knowing that they are a vital part of the music. Technically, he had no problem—and his sound was rich, virile, Beethoven-like.

The second movement (Adagio cantabile) is an A-flat-major song, one of the loveliest songs Beethoven ever wrote. Some readers will recall that the late Karl Haas used it as the theme of his radio program, Adventures in Good Music. Feltsman demonstrated a beautiful singing line, and he did not neglect the accompaniment of the melody. Those notes weren’t mere background noise or filler.

The closing Rondo was surprisingly slow and relaxed, but it was not flabby, and Feltsman showed that he can sing as well with his left hand as with his right. Overall, the pianist’s concept of the “Pathétique” was individual and distinctive, but faithful to Beethoven. As with Schiff and the “Waldstein,” Feltsman reminded us what a splendid sonata the “Pathétique” is. It is extremely famous—but rarely played in the concert hall. It is famous from recordings, and from piano lessons.

Feltsman next played another Beethoven sonata, the late A-flat-major, Op. 110. He imbued it with what I can only call masculine spirituality—Feltsman is both a tough-minded pianist and an elevated one. This disposition comports well with late Beethoven, and with all Beethoven, really. Least successful in Op. 110 was the second movement, which was slightly clumsy and wayward—ritards were exaggerated, unexpectedly. But the following Adagio was duly sublime, and the concluding fugue was enthralling. Feltsman began it softly, matter-of-factly, which was startling. As he continued, he made sure that you could hear every part. This music can be sprawling and unwieldy, but Feltsman caused it to cohere. Altogether, he did justice to this sonata, which is no small achievement.

On the second half of the program was Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, which, in these hands, was not a Russian showpiece—or not merely a Russian showpiece—but a thoroughly compelling piece of music. We knew we were in for an unusual account right at the beginning, with the first Promenade: Feltsman pedaled it interestingly, creating strange and wondrous overtones. In general, his Pictures was brisk, no-nonsense, and tight, but he gave it room to breathe. Each section had its proper character—for example, Tuileries sounded like those gardens look.

The sections leading to the Great Gate of Kiev built inexorably, irresistibly, and when we got to that gate, we had a lovely surprise: As in Beethoven’s fugue, Feltsman started very softly—he knew he had a long distance to travel, sonically. He didn’t pound this section, which was almost a miracle: Everyone pounds in the Great Gate of Kiev! Feltsman instead played with stirring authority, and his final note was so purposeful, it was almost moral. This is the sort of musician Feltsman is.

He played one encore, Liszt’s arrangement of the Schumann song “Widmung.” The middle section had the resolution of Christa Ludwig (the great, retired German mezzo-soprano). Earlier that day, you might not have thought you wanted to hear Vladimir Feltsman in a program of very familiar music—but if you went, you were glad you did so.

Of course, other pianists were in town, and I will mention a few of them. Gilbert Kalish is another “pianist’s pianist,” a musician of taste and erudition. He has long been associated with chamber music, and with thoughtful singers—for example, he enjoyed a famous collaboration with the late mezzo Jan DeGaetani. Kalish was the featured performer in a concert of the Chamber Music Society. It began with Poulenc’s Trio for Oboe, Bassoon, and Piano, which is full of that composer’s wit and punch. Kalish did his part absolutely winningly. And the concert closed with one of the great, transcendent Brahms pieces, the Piano Quartet in A major. Kalish was again winning, though in a much less impish, Poulencian way!

Jean-Yves Thibaudet appeared with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by James Levine. He played Gershwin’s Concerto in F, which was unsurprising: French pianists for generations have loved Gershwin, and jazz. I might mention that Philippe Entremont’s recording of the Concerto in F with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra is still on the market. As you would expect, Thibaudet did a lot of things right in the concerto; but he did not do everything right. In that marvelous slow movement, he was guilty of odd accents—banged notes—and he fussed with rhythm. He did some more fussing with the last movement, which needs no interpretive interference whatsoever. But still, this was Thibaudet, and he was far from bad.

And speaking of Entremont: He put in a very rare New York appearance, conducting the Munich Symphony Orchestra (not to be confused with the Munich Philharmonic, the first orchestra of that city, and the one that Levine recently left, to assume the helm in Boston). Thirty years ago, Entremont was one of the most prominent pianists in the world. Then his career went a bit quiet, or rather, shifted: He took up the baton, holding posts in New Orleans, Denver, Amsterdam, Vienna, Tel Aviv, and elsewhere. In 1997, he founded a music festival in the Dominican Republic. He is principal guest conductor of this Munich Symphony Orchestra.

When he appeared with them, at the Metropolitan Museum, he played the piano too, conducting from the keyboard. His concerto was Mozart’s No. 21 in C major, nicknamed the “Elvira Madigan” (because its slow movement was used in that movie). It was a relief to discover that Entremont can still play. And he can conduct, too. He may be no threat to Pierre Monteux’s reputation, but—as he led a Weber overture and a Brahms symphony—it occurred to you that this was not a famous pianist playing at conductor, but a bona fide conductor, whether an admirable one or not.

Still, it would have been pleasant to hear him in recital!

I will devote the rest of this chronicle to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, but first, a word about the New York Philharmonic—or rather, about one of its guest conductors, Itzhak Perlman. Yes, he brought his violin, too: and he played it extremely badly. At least this was true in one of the two Mozart pieces he performed, the Rondo in C major, K. 373. (In the Adagio in E major, K. 261, he was respectable.) I have said this before about Perlman, although perhaps not so bluntly as now: He may want to consider whether he is willing to do the work necessary to keep playing the violin in public. There is no way such a great instrumentalist—such a great musician, such a great man—should play so badly. Minimum technical standards should be maintained. Actually, more than minimal standards should be met. It is in part a matter of dignity.

Can he conduct? Yes. He cannot conduct as well as he can play the violin, when his head and fingers are in it, but virtually no one can. When he led the Philharmonic in Schubert’s Symphony No. 3, he was passable, and in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, he was quite good. He was able to communicate some of his abundant musicality to the orchestra. As with Entremont, you had the feeling of listening to a real conductor, not merely to a star soloist who can do whatever he likes in the music business.

And here is a subject I hesitate to broach, but will anyway: Participating in concerts seems ever more a struggle for Perlman, physically. Getting on and off the stage seems ever more painful, and getting on and off a podium seems even worse. These days, audiences do not continue their applause until Perlman exits the stage—he moves too slowly (or they stop too soon). We are reminded: He may have untold talent, fame, wealth, and adulation; he may have a loving wife and family—but it can’t have been easy. Not easy at all.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra came to Carnegie Hall for a three-concert stand. Their music director, Daniel Barenboim—a pianist, speaking of those who double up—is stepping down at the end of this season. He will have been there fifteen years. Can it really be that long since Barenboim took over from George Solti (who had been boss of the CSO for twenty-two years)? Afraid so. And the Barenboim years have been good ones, largely. Inconsistency is a theme of this chronicle—perhaps a quality, too!—and Barenboim is an inconsistent conductor. Also an inconsistent pianist. Last season, he gave one of the worst piano performances in memory—of Book I of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. He also gave one of the best—of Bartók’s Concerto No. 1. (The problem was that he played the Bach and the Bartók in roughly the same way. Emphasis on “roughly.” And this was much to the Bartók’s advantage.)

(Frankly, I have described a kind of consistency, haven’t I?)

Barenboim’s three recent programs featured big—indeed, colossal—symphonies, by Austrian composers, as it happened. On the first night, it was the Bruckner Fifth; on the second, it was the Schubert “Great” C-major; and on the third, it was the Mahler Fifth. Chances were, one of those performances would be magnificent—and if you were lucky, two of them would be. If all three were, that would be an orchestral extravaganza to savor for a long time to come.

As it turned out, one of the performances was magnificent—stupendous—and the others weren’t bad.

The first program began with a Mozart work, his Sinfonia concertante in E flat for Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon, and Horn. This is a relative rarity, and its provenance is somewhat shady, but it certainly seems like Mozart. Besides which, it gave the CSO an opportunity to show off some of its first-deskmen: the oboist Alex Klein; the clarinetist Larry Combs; the bassoonist David McGill; and the hornist Dale Clevenger. (Actually, Klein is the former principal oboe. He had to retire last year, owing to a neurological problem. He can now play only for fairly brief periods—and when he does, he plays well.) Years ago, the Philadelphia Orchestra recorded a series of LPs entitled First Chair. That was a good idea. The records featured various Philadelphia principals in concertos and other pieces. This introduced the public to some top-notch musicians, and to some unusual repertoire, too—for example, the Concertino for Marimba by Paul Creston.

Barenboim is a convincing Mozartean. He tends to be bold, substantial, undainty—though not without grace. In this Sinfonia concertante, he breathed well, and shaped all movements effectively. His quartet of soloists played superbly. Dale Clevenger, in particular, is remarkable. He has been principal horn of the CSO since 1966, and is simply one of the outstanding orchestra players in recent history. In fact, I might note that three of the four soloists—the exception is the bassoonist, McGill—sport silver or white hair. Wind and brass playing is supposed to belong to the young, but not necessarily.

And then there was Barenboim in the Bruckner Fifth. I have written before something odd to write: that Barenboim can conduct like a football coach. What I mean is, he can be blunt, hard-charging, straight-ahead, a little bluff. He exhorts his troops. You can almost see him in a T-shirt, with a whistle around his neck. The Bruckner Fifth is a profound and spiritual piece, like most of the Bruckner symphonies. (It is also his most Bach-besotted, and this was a totally Bach-besotted composer.) Barenboim’s reading was not terribly profound or spiritual; it was more like the coach I have described. But at least it wasn’t pretentious or self-indulgent, and that was to be appreciated. Besides which, it was a privilege simply to hear this great work—it is a gift from God, as Bruckner would be the first to insist.

To begin the CSO’s second concert, we had another first-deskman, the flutist Mathieu Dufour. What is it about Frenchmen and the flute? But then, Jimmy—Sir James—Galway is Irish, isn’t he? Dufour played Mozart’s Concerto in G major, K. 313, and did so with sense and style. He revealed a pleasing sound, a nimble technique, and a respect for the dictates of Classical playing. In the slow movement—Adagio ma non troppo—Mozart provides a song, which Dufour piped purely.

Barenboim continued the concert with a piece by Elliott Carter, whose music has been all over New York this season. It seems that I hear it, and see him, every week. Carter is now ninety-seven, and it is sort of a thrill to have him in the hall. Barenboim conducted a brand-new piece, Soundings, commissioned by the CSO. It includes a piano part—played by Barenboim—and is, in a word, Carteresque. The greatness of this composer is not apparent to everyone. But it is apparent to some of our best musicians—e.g., James Levine—and that fact must be confronted.

What was abundantly apparent was the greatness of Barenboim’s performance of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C major, called the “Great” to distinguish it from a smaller C-major symphony, No. 6. Schumann famously referred to No. 9’s “heavenly length”—well, sometimes that length is heavenly, and sometimes it is just long. It depends on the performance. From Barenboim, this symphony went by like a Bach gigue, so bracing, vivid, and right was it. The score simply jumped off the page, seizing you and not releasing you till its ultimate triumph.

Less triumphant was Barenboim’s effort in the Mahler Fifth, on the third night. He could have been more like a football coach here—the symphony suffered from some ill-judged toying, some indiscipline. But the Adagietto was beautiful and transporting, and Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra—which had preceded the Mahler—hit the mark too, logical and committed. Oh, how they wailed—Chicagoans and others—when Solti left, to be replaced by this upstart. They will probably wail when he leaves, too. They may have a point.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 24 Number 4, on page 65
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