Two thousand four was a Dvořák year, meaning … meaning what? The Czech composer died in 1904, meaning we were marking the centenary of his death, meaning we were playing him ad nauseam. You might say, “A composer on Dvořák’s level doesn’t need a ‘year.’” But then, you wouldn’t know the music world, which never misses a chance to overdo.

One of the last Dvořák concerts of the year took place on December 16 (Beethoven’s birthday, as it happens—talk about a composer who doesn’t need a “year,” but he gets his, rest assured). The concert occurred in Zankel Hall, and brought us “Steven Isserlis and Friends.” Who is Steven Isserlis? He is a British cellist, of thoughtful if not always stimulating disposition. And who are—or were—his Friends? Well, Joshua Bell, for one. He is the Indiana violinist who seems to grow in mastery every year (and he started out awfully good). Another Friend was Todd Phillips, the violinist who is best known for his membership in the Orion String Quartet. (His brother, Daniel, another violinist, also belongs.)

A third Friend was Paul Neubauer, the violist who is one of the best things about the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Neubauer boasts one of the most pleasing string sounds in the business. An additional violist-Friend was Robert Rinehart, who plays with the New York Philharmonic. Finally, the evening had a pianist: Kirill Gerstein, a youngish Russian who has won a slew of awards and honors.

Their program was … well, Dvořák, and only Dvořák. Why taint it with an outsider? On offer were the Piano Quintet No. 1 in A Major, Op. 5; the Piano Quartet No. 2 in E-flat Major, Op. 87; and the beloved String Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 97, dubbed the “American.” It was never quite clear to me why the group was “Steven Isserlis and Friends,” rather than, say, “Joshua Bell and Friends,” or “Paul Neubauer and Friends”—but so it was. Perhaps the cellist selected his teammates, rather like the neighborhood kid who owns the ball, or something.

It is a truism about chamber music that regular groups—say, the Budapest String Quartet, or the Beaux Arts Trio—play better than “motley crews,” musicians thrown together for a special chamber concert or two, especially star musicians. This is, indeed, a rule, but there are exceptions to it, and the Isserlis group proved one: These six, in whatever combination, played splendidly. And never were they more splendid than in that first work, the Piano Quintet No. 1 in A.

This work is seldom played, as illustrated by the amazing fact that, in December 2004, it was receiving its Carnegie Hall premiere. (Zankel, remember, is the smallish, newish hall in the Carnegie complex’s basement.) Why this quintet should be so neglected, I have no idea; it is as fine as several of Dvořák’s chamber works that are staples. The Piano Quintet No. 1 was written in 1872, when Dvořák was thirty-one, but revised when he was a more experienced forty-six.

I should say about Joshua Bell that it is somewhat startling to be reminded how good he is; so it was on this Dvořák night. He plays with extraordinary musical incisiveness—that is a word I keep returning to for him: incisiveness—and his technique is barely noticeable. That is, you don’t have to worry about it, or even think about it. His tones are various, and apt, and he has a great sense of the structure and spirit of music. I dare say, he led this fivesome, whether intentionally or not. All the others performed well, too. The pianist, however, showed a tendency to bluntness, an over-percussiveness. Gerstein sits very close to the keyboard, and seems a bit stiff. Then again, Horowitz sat quite close to the keyboard (and with flat, “incorrect” fingers)—and he managed all right, technically.

Dvořák’s first movement had a wonder- ful forward momentum, an insistence, an aliveness. The middle movement was scarcely less fine—and you should have heard Bell sing the melody. He did so modestly, but strikingly. His fellows were tasteful as well, with the pianist contributing some unblunt passages. Dvořák’s quiet, rapt moments—among others—require precision and judgment, and these players did not fail. They happened not to end together, but you can’t have everything.

The Finale—Allegro con brio—was fleet, on cat’s feet. Bell’s intensity and, again, incisiveness were astounding. Midway through, I thought, “This is about as dancing as music gets”—and it was touching to see Isserlis so enjoying himself, playing a lovable (and danceable) melody. I had thought him too contained a musician to reflect that kind of enjoyment; I was wrong.

Now and then, you hear a work that begins a program and think, “That’s enough —that is a concert in itself. I am satisfied, full.” This was true of Dvořák’s Piano Quintet No. 1, played by Steven Isserlis and his friends. But there was (much) more Dvořák to go, beginning with the Piano Quartet No. 2 in E flat. The first movement—Allegro con fuoco—had high tension, and drama. In the flowing Lento, Isserlis’s solos were adequate, if not distinctive. Gerstein did not quite match the lyricism and sensitivity of the others—and Bell did some flat playing. I mean, flat in intonation. No one’s perfect (but don’t tell Heifetz).

The third movement—Allegro moderato —is strangely beautiful, or beautifully strange. It is, indeed, one of the strangest things Dvořák ever penned. Isserlis & Co. brought all that out. And the closing movement—Allegro ma non troppo—is one of the most gladsome things Dvořák ever wrote. Our players brought that out, too. Gerstein’s octaves could have been more coordinated and musical—but I have picked on him enough.

So, that was the Dvořák concert—no, there was the entire second half to go, which consisted of that “American” string quintet. At last, the one-composer evening took its toll; we were overstuffed with Dvořák. Not that the five did not play this New World-y composition ably. It’s just that—certainly for my taste—the concert went a Dvořák chamber work too far.

It was a Janáček year too, you know—he was born in 1854, and if I failed to hear something from his oeuvre in 2004, it was not that the music world, in New York and beyond, didn’t try. (Sort of a pity that the Czechs had to suffer such a big blowout in one year. Thank goodness Smetana’s dates don’t end in the number 4. Oh, hang on: They do! Smetana was born in 1824 and died in 1884. Still, 180 and 120 aren’t anniversary-worthy.) The Janáček year was capped—certainly in New York—by the Metropolitan Opera’s staging of Káta Kabanová, an opera that the composer wrote in 1924 (uh-oh). Ká&ta is sort of a cousin of Jenůfa, which Janáček wrote in 1904 (I don’t believe it). The Met staged that two seasons ago, with Karita Mattila, the fabulous Finn, in the title role. She was Ká&ta, too.

It may be time to recognize that Mattila is the most arresting “singing actress” we have. Her Jenůfa was electrifying, her Káta was electrifying—and her Salome? Somewhere beyond electrifying. And I have left out (among other roles) Leonore (Beethoven), in which she is not so much electrifying as endearing and noble. Even ennobling, I would say. In Káta Kabanová, Mattila demonstrated every vocal gift, and also a deep understanding of the character. Watching her, you almost fear for her—for the soprano—the way you should fear for the character (alone). She and the character are scarily one. Years from now, we may be talking about Mattila performances the way we talk about Callas performances—“You should have been there when …” An unfortunate thing about the Finn is that recordings don’t quite capture what she offers in the opera house. And “quite” is too prissy a word: They don’t capture it at all. “There is no substitute for live,” is a cliché I often use, and it is especially applicable to Karita Mattila.

Her mezzo partner in the Met’s Káta was Magdalena Kozena, the formidable Czech who portrayed Varvara. Kozenais one of the better singers we have, of Czech music, certainly, but also (as it happens) of Bach. (See—or hear—a recording of arias on the Archiv label.) Kozena and Mattila seemed to have something we must call “chemistry,” for lack of a less tiresome word. They could turn out to be one of the memorable soprano-mezzo teams: I think of Callas and Stignani (so very, very different, but good together); then, later, Sutherland and Horne. Readers can no doubt come up with their own pairs.

Though it is February, can you stand a little Christmas, right this very minute? In December, I took in several Christmas concerts, and detected a pattern (one long in evidence): Christmas concerts can be some of the saddest and most deflating of the whole music season. They can be downright funereal. Why this should be so is a puzzlement.

One of the Christmas concerts I heard was by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, in St. Ignatius Loyola Church (Park Avenue and Eighty-fourth Street). This is a very old, very storied English group, combining “choral scholars”—young men—and “choristers” (boys). They sang a varied and inviting program, starting with Poulenc’s Four Christmas Motets, parts of which they handled exquisitely. They moved on to Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, and then to a set of carols both traditional and new, and finally to Vaughan Williams’s well-loved Fantasia on Christmas Carols. (Yes, this was a lot of caroling.) So, a more delightsome, more Christmasy program you could not have had.

I will now commit a national slur: The English have a remarkable talent for singing happy music unhappily. They have demonstrated this for generations. Of course, much to be prized is a degree of sobriety, or at least self-control. A kind of musical reticence is often better than exuberance. But the Choir of King’s College is in different territory altogether. As they sang, I sometimes thought, “Don’t they know it’s Christmas?” Take “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen”—which has the word “merry” right in the title. (Incidentally, “God rest you merry, gentlemen” is one of the most mispunctuated phrases in our Anglophonic civilization.) Three years ago, before he turned eighty, I interviewed Ned Rorem, who, discussing changes in musical fashion, said, “It wasn’t always the case, you know, that minor meant sad.” I asked for an example. He said, “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen.” But the scholars and choristers from Cambridge sang this carol quite sadly.

It was possible to leave this concert depressed—actually depressed. And you could have testimony from other attendees as well.

The gloom persisted at another church, St. Bartholomew’s, at Park and Fiftieth. There, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, with the New York Baroque Soloists, performed Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, under the direction of Mary Greer, a distinguished academic. This was part of a series called “Cantatas in Context,” which incorporates Bach into the liturgical year—a smart idea. Anyway, these forces performed the Christmas Oratorio timidly, weakly, almost apologetically. I should un-commit my national slur, because, as far as I know, nobody up there was English. Singers sometimes sang as if afraid to harm their throats, or wake somebody, and instrumentalists were equally gingerly. The opening chorus of the oratorio, “Jauchzet, frohlocket,” is one of the most joyous, most rousing pieces of music extant. It almost literally shouts good news. But from this group, it was a whimper. To play and sing with reserve and discretion is one thing; to retire from the field of performance—to negate the music—is an unacceptable other.

But there was good news on this day: The mezzo-soprano, Brenda Patterson, sang superbly, as well as anyone could in this music, be that person famous or (like Ms. Patterson) obscure. She showed solid technique, a beautiful—sort of juicy—voice, and, best of all, sure musical sense: sure Bach sense. Also impressive was the afternoon’s bass, Christòpheren Nomura, who not only dispatched his arias intelligently and musically, but also made his recitatives more than just talking, or filler: Those, too, were musical.

Lest you think that all Christmas con- certs were poor—except for some shining soloists—let me point out Chanticleer’s evening, which it does annually at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in the Medieval Sculpture Hall, in front of the big Christmas tree and the Baroque Neapolitan crèche. This group—a dozen men from San Francisco—sang a typical program ranging from earliest musical times to (what we used to call) Negro spirituals. A woman, leaving the hall, said, “Now it can be Christmas.” It certainly could. Chanticleer sings with as much reflection as anybody—but a spirit of joy ran through this concert, because it was, after all, Christmas: and these guys knew it.

At the New York Philharmonic, Kurt Masur, the former music director, returned for one subscription series and a special New Year’s Eve concert: a performance of the Ninth Symphony. (You’re supposed to assume it’s by Beethoven.) Masur left New York in 2002, and has since been concentrating on the London Philharmonic and the Orchestre National de France, both of which he heads. His subscription concert in New York was all Russian, beginning with Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead. Masur has a bead on this work: He knows how it builds, and calls forth its hypnotic effect. In the second half of the program, he conducted Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, but not in a familiar orchestration (e.g., the Ravel): He did the one he favors, that by Sergei Gorchakov, made in 1954. It is gritty, sinewy, Russian (in that stereotypical sense of “Russian”). Masur—with an assist from Gorchakov—made Pictures alive in a way you rarely hear it. And the conductor proved that, at seventy-seven, he is at the peak of his powers, if you will pardon yet another cliché in this chronicle.

In the 1970s and 1980s, he was not—in my judgment—at the peak of his powers. I heard him many times with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, and he struck me as creditable, but far from great. In his seventh and eighth decades, however, he bloomed —again, this is my evaluation. That sometimes happens with a conductor, and it makes all the more infuriating, and incomprehensible, the insistence of so many critics on younger conductors. There is nothing too sexy about Kurt Masur (although I suppose that depends on taste): He is simply an excellent conductor, possessing a lifetime’s wisdom, performing more compellingly than ever.

A word, too, about that Ninth Symphony. Before the Philharmonic played, the audience was informed that the performance was being “dedicated” to the victims of the tsunami, and that we were to think of them, along with our own good fortune. People are always doing this: “dedicating” performances of music, and freighting this or that work with a specific meaning, a meaning that may be foreign to it. This goes to the eternal question, What does music mean (if anything)? In my view, people ought to be free to think their own thoughts as music plays, or no thoughts at all. This is one of the glories, and mysteries, of music. Debussy said, “Music begins where human speech leaves off.” Of course, the Ninth Symphony contains human speech—that Schiller ode. And the impulse of the New York Philharmonic was unimpeachable. But there is a certain dignity in allowing music to speak for itself, and allowing individual listeners to make of it what they will.

A final word about Kurt Masur: After he was through with the Ninth, he led the orchestra, chorus, soloists, and audience in “Auld Lang Syne”—it was New Year’s Eve, remember. Telling about Kurt Masur was that he conducted this sweet little song with great musical and technical care. He is like that about music—all the best are. When Lorin Maazel conducts the national anthem at the beginning of a season, he does not merely toss it off, getting it out of the way; he treats it as important. (This is to say nothing of whether you like the way he conducts it—some don’t.) As I noted in these pages when reviewing—over three consecutive Septembers—the massive CD collection called Great Conductors of the 20th Century, if you want to gauge a conductor’s musical integrity, you may wish to do so in some small piece, even a trifle, like “Auld Lang Syne,” or a Strauss polka. This could tell you more about a conductor than a Bruckner Eighth would.

Appearing at the Goethe-Institut—right across from the Met Museum—was the pianist Janice Weber. She performed under the auspices of Piano Expression, Ltd., whose aim is to showcase “New York-based pianists at affordable prices.” (Tickets were $20.) Weber is Boston-based, as far as I know, but it was still good to hear her. She is a virtuosic pianist—very bright—who is known for playing forgotten music, often of a Romantic and technically hazardous na- ture. As her bio puts it, she travels down “uncommon avenues of the piano literature.” Moreover, she’s a novelist, the author of intriguing, clever, none-too-square tales. An all-around talent, Janice Weber.

At the Goethe-Institut, she began with the Three Dance Portraits of William Bolcom, written in 1986. Bolcom is the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based composer who is a king of eclecticism. Ragtime, cabaret, you name it—he contains multitudes. These “dance portraits” are pure Bolcom, sometimes reminding you of Prokofiev, sometimes taking you to Latin America. Of special interest is a piece called “Knock-Stück,” which has the pianist knocking out rhythms with his fists. (Her fists, in our case.) I mean, on the piano’s wood. We were always told that the piano is a percussion instrument, weren’t we?

Weber next played the Eight Preludes of Frank Martin, composed in 1948. They are dedicated to Dinu Lipatti, and are mysterious, intricate, probing. We ought to hear them more. And do you know the story of Leo Ornstein? What a story. He died three years ago at 109, having been born in 1892. You can have all sorts of fun with the numbers: Ornstein was born five years before Brahms died; he died five years after the Smashing Pumpkins won a Grammy. He was an acclaimed pianist who withdrew from the stage while in his thirties; he would have a few years left, mainly to compose. Weber played his rhapsodic Fourth Sonata, written way back in 1918.

After intermission, Weber went down a common, and sublime, avenue, playing the pieces constituting Brahms’s Op. 118. She did not wait for applause afterward, as if in recognition that this set is too holy to applaud. She concluded her recital with a transcription of Strauss’s Roses from the South by Hubert Giesen. Do you recognize the name? He was Fritz Wunderlich’s accompanist. And Giesen fashioned a romp of a transcription, harder than hell, just right for the talented Janice Weber.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 6, on page 47
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