One of Gorbachev’s last acts, when he ran the USSR—when there was a USSR—was to establish the Russian National Orchestra. Or rather, to allow the establishment of it—it was established by Mikhail Pletnev, the pianist. He is also a conductor, and a composer, to boot. Easier to say that he is a musician, and an invaluable one. It was as a conductor that Pletnev appeared in Avery Fisher Hall, leading his RNO.

They began with a tone poem of Tchaikovsky: Francesca da Rimini. (Actually, the composer described this as a “Symphonic Fantasy After Dante.”) Francesca is not necessarily Tchaikovsky’s best piece, but it’s no dog, and the right conductor can make it a knockout. Pletnev proved such a conductor.

On the podium, he is unassuming and economical. But, like many conductors who are that way, he gets bracing results. Francesca was unusually strong, impassioned, and stringent. There was not a drop of soup in it, or not an ounce of fat. I have never heard this piece so gripping. That is not to say it didn’t have loveliness and bloom, where those are desired. The love music was duly swooning. But you were always at the edge of your seat, or near it. When the hellish winds came, you were buffeted, like Francesca and her beau.

Pletnev is a modest guy, onstage (with much to be immodest about), and when the piece was over he stood amidst the orchestra, letting them soak up the glory. The audience called him back over and over, which is unusual after the first piece on a program. They would barely let him get on with the concert. They acted as though something extraordinary had taken place, and they were right.

Eventually, Nikolai Lugansky came out to play Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini. Now, Pletnev is one of the best Rachmaninoff pianists in the world (and one of the best pianists period). I wondered what was going through Lugansky’s mind. Was he slightly nervous? Or was he spurred to play better than ever? In any case, Lugansky can hold his own, as he showed here.

I have frequently said, “He’s the son of two scientists, and plays like it.” Indeed, I believe I first used that line in these pages, about five years ago, when Lugansky was relatively new on the international scene. He is brainy, disciplined, and exacting. So he was in the Rachmaninoff. He was also clear, logical, and precise.

Tempos were fast, but not hasty. Soloist and conductor (and orchestra) were admirably together. Lugansky was methodical—scientific, you might say—but not plodding or predictable (in the undesirable sense). He did not make an especially beautiful sound: It was definitely not a fat, Rubinstein-esque sound. It was on the bright and hard side. But it was never ugly, and it was not ineffective.

You may ask, “How did the Eighteenth Variation go?” (This is that D-flat-major beauty, the one the whole world loves, as well it should.) It was tasteful and unmilked. Lugansky knows that it requires no milking, Rachmaninoff having done the work. And Lugansky played an encore—more Rachmaninoff: the Prelude in G-sharp minor. Horowitz loved this piece, and played it frequently, and Lugansky rendered it in Horowitzian fashion: It was cool, gleaming, and haunting.

As I have insisted to you before, Lugansky is the genuine article—and he is only thirty-five, meaning that listeners should have decades more to enjoy him. And then there’s the immortality of recordings …

After intermission, Pletnev conducted some Glazunov: the Symphony No. 6 in C minor, Op. 58. Glazunov has undergone something of a revival—or has at least been in the public eye (ear?)—thanks to recordings by José Serebrier, the Uruguayan conductor (and composer), and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. These recordings are on Warner Classics, and I would particularly recommend the Symphony No. 5. The last movement of this work—a maestoso movement—is stirring almost beyond belief.

The Symphony No. 6 is probably an inferior work, but it’s worth an acquaintance—and Pletnev, with his RNO, made a very strong case. The playing was swirlingly Romantic, as it must be, but also stringent, as in Francesca da Rimini. In the second movement, particularly—a theme and variations—Pletnev breathed beautifully, creating the right space. The RNO’s brass were warm and solid, and the orchestra as a whole glittered. I thought, in the final variation of this movement, “This orchestra is really a virtuosic machine.”

Like the Fifth, the Sixth ends with a maestoso movement, although it is not as successful as the other. Still, Pletnev gave it just about all the majesty, pride, and fervor that can be mustered. If you don’t like Glazunov after Pletnev is through with him, you probably can’t like Glazunov.

But Pletnev wasn’t through with him—not on this concert. He obliged his adoring audience with an encore, and it was Glazunov’s Spanish Dance: giddy, tight, and delightful.

Incidentally, I don’t believe I have heard the RNO play any music other than by Russian composers when they have toured in America. There is no law that says Russian orchestras must stick to Russian composers when abroad. After all, the New York Philharmonic does not confine itself to Ives and Copland. And Señor Serebrier and those Scots do extremely well with Glazunov. Music is largely a universal pursuit.

But if you’re going to show off the homeland, you might as well do it with style and conviction, and the Russian National Orchestra surely does.

Leave the orchestral realm now to consider a voice recital—one by Gerald Finley, a Canadian bass-baritone. This event took place in Zankel Hall, the new space (né 2003) downstairs in the Carnegie building. Finley has a multifaceted career, and he is perhaps especially known for the low-male Mozart roles: Don Giovanni, Figaro, and the gang. (Don Giovanni is a very low male, but I was thinking in vocal terms.)

In his recital, Finley began with one of the most cherished song-cycles, the Dichterliebe of Schumann. Just think of the songs that man composed! (And some 170 of them in one year: the miraculous 1840.) If he had never written anything else—none of the symphonies, not a note of piano music, no chamber music—we would still consider him a great, certainly an important, composer. As for Dichterliebe, it is sung by all types, and it bears all types: from a bassy Hans Hotter to a light lyric Barbara Bonney.

From the beginning, it was clear that Finley was not in top form. His onsets were rough, and there did not seem to be enough air flowing through his sound. His pitch was low—not flat-flat, but south of center. Things would continue this way throughout the Dichterliebe, and for much of the recital. It’s not so much that Finley had a “case of the flats,” as I sometimes say; it’s more that he had a case of the sags. And his singing in general was a bit unpolished.

But he did some good things in Dichterliebe. The bass notes of “Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome” were stern and impressive—Barbara Bonney can’t do that (although she can do other things). And “Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen” was nicely suave and understated. But Dichterliebe was less involving and transfixing than it should be; it fell short of its full effect. Take “Ich grolle nicht,” probably the most popular item in the cycle (for good reason): It was oddly plain, barely touched.

Having a good outing in the Schumann was the pianist, Julius Drake. He was supportive, authoritative, and musical from first song to last. He is not always that way, in the many recitals he accompanies—but then, who is?

After intermission, the Canadian Mr. Finley was all-American—maybe not quite an All-American, but all-American. He sang groups of Ives, Rorem, and Barber (in that order). The first of the Ives songs was—nice touch—“Ich grolle nicht.” Ives set this Heine poem when he was in his mid-twenties, and the song is not very Ivesian—but it is a wonderful song, with a beautiful nobility. Finley sang it fittingly.

Next came “The Swimmers,” which calls for a cataract of sound from the piano—Drake provided it. And Finley was rightly big-voiced, at times virtually shouting. A much different song is “The Housatonic at Stockbridge.” (How Ivesian a title is that?) It is dreamy, slow, and mesmerizing, and both musicians performed it superbly. Later, Finley sang “Tom Sails Away.” And he did so with what I hope I am permitted to call a manly sensitivity.

The Rorem set was War Scenes, from 1969 (aha!). It treats Specimen Days, the Civil War diary of Walt Whitman. In these songs, Rorem makes plain his detestation of war. Boy oh boy, does he hate war—really, really hates it. Unlike the rest of us ignorant and bloodthirsty barbarians. These are not Rorem’s best songs, but that is no great concern: He has countless more. And “Inauguration Ball” is quite good, with its creepy dancing.

Finley did well in War Scenes, although he was still fighting the sags (speaking of fighting). The best thing he did was avoid the maudlin—if these songs become maudlin, they’re ruined.

And I should report that the composer was there, as he usually is when his music is performed (at least in New York). He had on his trademark white tennis shoes, and looked understandably pleased. Do you know Rorem’s famous definition of a concert? “That which precedes a party.” I bet that Rorem, who celebrated his eightieth birthday four years ago, attended a post-concert party.

Finley concluded his program with six songs of Barber, some of them well-known, some of them relatively obscure. He did not quite have the beauty and lyricism to pull off “There’s Nae Lark,” and the same was true with the entrancing “Sleep Now.” He was more persuasive elsewhere. The last Barber song was that anthem of baritones, bass-baritones, and basses: “I Hear an Army.” Finley was duly robust and jaunty.

But low-voiced men aren’t the only ones who sing this song: Marilyn Horne was terrific in it. Then again, thanks to all those trouser roles in military operas—khaki roles?—they called her “General Horne,” didn’t they?

Back to the realm of orchestras, for a concert by the New York Philharmonic. It was conducted—guest-conducted—by Alan Gilbert, who is considered a candidate to succeed Lorin Maazel as music director. That day is scheduled to come at the end of the 2008–2009 season. Gilbert makes a nice Philharmonic “story”: His father was a violinist in the orchestra, and his mother still is. He is now leader of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, as well as the Santa Fe Opera.

Gilbert’s program in New York was a Bachian one, and it began with Leopold Stokowski’s famous arrangement of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. (It is now widely thought that Bach didn’t write this piece, but A: he should have, and B: we will not entertain that debate now.) I applaud Gilbert—or whoever is responsible—for programming this arrangement. Stokowski wrote it in 1926, and it was a runaway hit. We see that the public is not always wrong.

In the Toccata, especially, Gilbert was less straight than Stoki was. (The old wizard was much more rigorous than he is remembered as being.) Gilbert went in for some big, somewhat stagey gestures. And the Fugue was a little slow, a little languid. But the guest conductor had the Philharmonic making magnificent sounds—organ-like sounds. Stokowski wanted opulence, and opulence is what these forces gave him.

Remember the phrase “sonic spectacular,” seen on many an LP cover? This was a good old-fashioned sonic spectacular.

The concerto on this program was Ligeti’s Violin Concerto, composed in the early 1990s. It is a brainy piece, made from daunting craft, but it is also emotional. I believe it represents Ligeti at his best. The orchestration is heavy on the percussion, in the modern fashion (almost obligatory). There are even Swanee whistles—and they ain’t whistlin’ “Dixie.”

A brainy, talent-filled concerto deserves a brainy, talent-filled performer, and it got one in Christian Tetzlaff, the German violinist. He did everything Ligeti asks. He played with amazing technical facility, and he was musical in every bar. To every microtone—and there are many—he was alert. At times he was jazzy, at times he was stark, at times he was melting. One section is marked Presto fluido—and that is exactly what we heard.

I should say, too, that Tetzlaff crafted his own cadenza, harkening back to an earlier practice. (Ligeti of course sanctions this, and even demands it.) I should say further that Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic were equal to the soloist, and to the concerto. This was a solid, even dazzling, performance all round.

And the second half of the program began with an arrangement of what is indisputably Bach. I’m speaking of Webern’s treatment of the Fuga (Ricercata) from the Musical Offering. Webern, as you know, had a wonderful musical mind, and Bach must have given him endless fascination. He made this arrangement in the mid-1930s—and Gilbert and the Philharmonic played it just as he intended: with beauty and balance.

And to end the program was a Schumann symphony—the third one, in E flat, called the “Rhenish.” What a glorious, gladdening symphony (making one appreciate that Schumann did not confine himself to songs)! Under Gilbert, the first movement expressed appropriate Romantic heroism—it was big-boned and a little blustery, but not bombastic. There were a number of problems, however. For example, accents were overemphasized, as though the conductor wanted to say, “I know where the stresses are, yes, I do!” Gilbert has a weakness for striking poses, musical and otherwise.

Indeed, he often uses big, emphatic, somewhat lumbering gestures, which elicit relatively little reaction from an orchestra. Different conductors—Fritz Reiner, most famously, and the aforementioned Mikhail Pletnev—can give minimal indications and produce jolts.

Schumann’s second movement was given a nice ländler feel, and also had some sweep, some excitement. In the third, the orchestra did not quite play together, but was otherwise unobjectionable. The fourth movement calls up a cathedral—Cologne’s, to be specific—and is satisfyingly Bachian. Gilbert could have made this music more solemn, portentous, and grand; the horns could have made fewer errors—but the music made its point.

And how about the fifth and final movement? Gilbert was a little relaxed, loose, and flagging here. Additional strength and energy would have helped—even a dash of giddiness. Still, it was a pleasure to hear this symphony, capping a varied and most interesting program.

I should not dwell long on Murray Perahia, having written about him so much in these pages over the years. You may know my line by now: Once upon a time, Perahia was just about the most refined, graceful, and admirable pianist alive. He had tons of technique, and plenty of fire, but he had taste above all. He was a model, not just for pianists, but for every musician.

Then something happened to him: He apparently decided he was too small-scale and poetic a pianist, and he wanted to be a thunderous virtuoso, a keyboard-eater. He started to play Liszt—and to pound, bang, and generally behave in an un-Perahia-esque fashion. Indeed, an anti-Perahia-esque fashion. In his recitals today, you can hear a mixture of the Old Perahia and the New—although I am hearing ever less of the Old, and the New Perahia is getting a little long in the tooth. Perahia has been this way for about fifteen years now.

At Avery Fisher Hall, he played a recital of Beethoven, Bach, Schumann, and Chopin. His Beethoven consisted of two sonatas, the one in E major, Op. 14, No. 1, and its successor: the Sonata in G major, Op. 14, No. 2. These are marvelous early Beethoven pieces, and they must not be played like the “Hammerklavier.” Perahia did some lovely and intelligent things in them, and I will single out the Andante of the G-major: It was beautifully shaped.

But the New Perahia, unfortunately, carried the day. The playing was often way too big, and it was occasionally crude and coarse. It used to be there was never an accent out of place—not anymore. Perahia used an excess of rubato, and he especially liked to indulge in little rushings. These made no musical sense. And even his technique was suspect: For instance, turns were uncrisp.

Between the two sonatas, Perahia played a Bach partita—the third one, in A minor. It was good to hear this work, for, in recitals, we usually hear just three of the partitas: Nos. 1, 2, and 6, in B flat, C minor, and E minor. Perahia did some thoughtful playing in the A minor. But some sections—particularly the first and the last, the Fantasia and the Gigue—were rattled off mechanically. Once, Perahia would have presented them with pure fluidity.

His Schumann was Op. 12, the Fantasiestücke, or Fantasy Pieces. Perahia used to own them; no one could touch him in them. And, at Avery Fisher Hall, he played some of the simpler, quieter pieces respectably. But the larger ones, he tended to bang and slop his way through. He tried to make these pieces bigger than they are, and some of his interpretations were downright absurd. I’m afraid, however, that his worst playing was yet to come.

It came in Chopin’s F-minor Ballade, the last piece on the printed program. This, too, was overly big, and overly sloppy. Perahia applied rubato far too early; his emphases were unnatural; he missed a slew of notes; he pulled and pushed the piece out of shape. And the coda had no excitement whatsoever—zero. This was a guy merely flailing away at the piano, and that is not Chopin, and that, really, is not Perahia.

But he got his usual ovation, and he played three encores. I have been attending Perahia recitals since the mid-1970s, and I have never not heard him play Schubert’s Impromptu in E flat at encore time. But he did not play it on this occasion. Instead, he played Brahms and Chopin, and I found myself looking at my watch, wanting to leave—which shocks me, even all these years into the New Perahia.

But what was I saying, earlier, about recordings, and the immortality they afford? For a dose of the True Perahia, spin an old CD. And he will even give you doses today, live and in the flesh—which provide some consolation.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 Number 9, on page 53
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