The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center staged a noteworthy concert—only it wasn’t at Lincoln Center. Alice Tully Hall, CMS’s home, is undergoing renovation (like much of the Lincoln Center campus). So this concert was at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, a few blocks away at Sixty-fourth Street and Central Park West. You might consider this a temple of humanism, and it is beautifully built—with abundant wood. In gilt letters over the stage is a small-s scripture: “The Place Where People Meet to Seek the Highest Is Holy Ground.” Under such a banner, one has almost a duty to play well.

And the St. Lawrence String Quartet plays well. They are a group from Canada, as the name should tell you, and, in 2006, they made an outstanding recording of three Shostakovich quartets (for EMI Classics). Their guests in the CMS concert were Heidi Grant Murphy, the celebrated soprano from Washington state, and her husband, Kevin Murphy, a pianist and conductor associated with both the Metropolitan Opera and the Paris Opera. The first work on this program was the Chanson perpétuelle for soprano and piano quintet by Ernest Chausson. He is the French composer who lived in the second half of the nineteenth century and died—in 1899—at the age of forty-four. Chanson perpétuelle sets a poem by Charles Cros, a contemporary of Chausson. And this is the composer’s final work (completed work). It’s a wonderful piece, melancholy but serene, blending words and notes with mastery, and offering a dose of the fantastic.

“HGM,” as the soprano is sometimes known, and the piano quintet performed this work very well—exquisitely. “Exquisite,” in whatever form, can be a bad word, suggesting perfume and daintiness—an overprettiness. But the exquisiteness of this performance was that of good, French taste. The performers maintained an intensity, never becoming too soupy, cautious, or delicate. HGM is perpetually described as “luminous,” or “radiant,” and that she was. The piece was like a dream, taking you to a distant place, and not even car horns outside could invade the atmosphere.

The St. Lawrence String Quartet, without the Murphys, continued with Franck, the Belgian, his Quartet in D, from 1889. This is widely considered a masterwork, although I am not quite onboard: I find it markedly inferior to Franck’s Violin Sonata, for example. And I believe that the quartet suffers from an excess of length. But it must be acknowledged that Franck has done all right in the world without me or my advice. And the SLSQ gave a fine account of his quartet. They were often not pure or neat, and they would not have won prizes for sound. But they were committed, passionate, and sincere. The main problem with this performance is that it lapsed into a monotony, indeed a dullness. Whether this was more the piece or the players, I can’t say with total confidence.

And after intermission, Schumann, his String Quartet in F, Op. 41, No. 2. This is a not-terribly-famous work by a terribly famous composer—and, of course, a distinguished work. Schumann being Schumann, he can’t help including a song or two in his string quartet. He wrote songs as naturally as other people write e-mails—actually, more naturally, probably. Eighteen-forty was his legendary “Year of Song,” during which he wrote between 130 and 150 of them (tallies differ). But every year, for him—no matter what he was writing—was a year of song, really.

The Chamber Music Society concert ended with a new work—of songs, in fact. This was Songs from the Diaspora for soprano and piano quintet by Roberto Sierra, a Puerto Rican-born composer in his mid-fifties. He studied with Ligeti, among others, and has long taught at Cornell. In CMS’s program notes, Christopher Costanza, the St. Lawrence cellist, wrote something interesting. You could even say that he confided it. Originally, he said, the SLSQ “programmed the piece in that safe ‘new music’ slot, before intermission, with meaty, intense quartet repertoire filling the second half.” But when they spent a little time with the Songs,

we realized that we had a true tour de force on our hands—a beautiful, varied, inspired, creative, and memorable work nearly 30 minutes in length. There was only one place on the program for such a profound work, we decided: it would have to close the program. What a huge compliment to Roberto Sierra that his remarkable new piece has proven to be, over several performances … , a fully successful program closer!
You may want to remember what this cellist has said next time you see a recent composition placed right before intermission: “Ah, the safe new-music slot!”

And I can endorse what he has said about the Sierra work: It is beautiful, varied, creative—all that. There are seven songs here, all using Spanish texts. Singers from every nation love to sing in this language, a most musical—and singer-friendly—language. In the course of Sierra’s songs, we get some Hebraic wailing and other features of Sephardic music. “Mi suegra la negra” (“My Mother-in-Law the Evil One”!) is terrifically high-spirited, viperous. It may remind you of something out of Falla’s Siete canciones populares españolas (speaking of cycles with seven songs). Of special note is Sierra’s “El rey de Francia tres hijas tenía” (“The King of France Had Three Daughters”). I have said that the Chanson perpétuelle is dream-like, or can be. This song, too, is a dream, relating a dream. Where the text says, “she became sleepy,” the music follows admirably.

As I listened to this new cycle, I thought of how the late Victoria de los Angeles would have enjoyed singing these songs. But Roberto Sierra would be hard-pressed to find a better advocate than Heidi Grant Murphy. She sang them luminously, purely, seamlessly, but also with plenty of character—with flavor and bite. There are a lot of Sephardic songs in the world; de los Angeles sang many of them. But they keep coming, and Sierra’s work deserves a proud place among them.

You are not accustomed to reading about Salzburg and its festivals at this time of year—at least from me. The Easter Festival is at, well, Easter, and the summer festival is in late July and August. And yet these festivals staged a couple of events in New York, to provide some music, stir some interest, raise some money—to plant a flag on American soil. First to do this was the Easter Festival, while the Berlin Philharmonic was in town. The Berliners are the orchestra of the Easter Festival. And they were at Carnegie Hall for a series called “Berlin in Lights.” On a night off, some of them dropped by the Knickerbocker Club, at Fifth Avenue and Sixty-second Street. There was a reception, a concert, and a dinner. The concert—which concerns us—was held in a stately, not-very-large room, with a sumptuous chandelier overhead. Knickerbockers past looked on soberly from their oil portraits.

Beginning the concert, Sir Simon Rattle, who conducts the Berlin Philharmonic, played the piano. That is, he accompanied the famed bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff in two songs of Mahler. Before touching the keyboard, Sir Simon made some charming remarks to the audience. He explained that he was no pianist, but occasionally served as one. People had been nice to him—but their compliments usually had the air of, “Better not give up your day job.” Sir Simon proved true to his word: He is no pianist. But he was game, and it was kind of fun to see him play. His musical intelligence was noticeable. And was he any worse than one of his predecessors in Berlin, Wilhelm Furtwängler (who can be heard, on disc, in a recital with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf)? Maybe not.

The professional singer, Mr. Quasthoff, was not in good voice, not in good form—was simply off. He can sing those two songs from the Rückert Lieder—“Liebst du um Schönheit” and the sublime, transcendent “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”—infinitely better. The audience was appreciative nonetheless (and why not?).

After this marquee duo, members of the Berlin Philharmonic played Schubert’s String Quartet in A minor, known as the “Rosamunde.” These were the players that form the Philharmonia Quartet, and it was interesting to hear them play in this salon. You had a sense of what it must have been like when the “Rosamunde” was first performed. When was the last time you heard a string quartet played in a room—in private quarters—rather than in a concert hall? The Philharmonia handled Schubert’s work satisfactorily. They played with a certain purity, not of sound or technique, but of thought. In the second movement, Andante, we get that piping little song, and the group duly piped. But they also reflected subtlety and depth. Where the final movement is concerned, I would have liked a little more mirth, and I believe Schubert would have, too: The music was unnecessarily and overly earnest. But it did not slip over into the grim.

The Philharmonia Quartet played an encore, and a surprising one: the Twelve Microludes for String Quartet of György Kurtág, the Romanian-born Hungarian-Jewish composer born in 1926. These “microludes” are not exactly a crowd-pleaser. Like so much else of Kurtág, and of modern music, they are bleak, disquieting. They come to us, these brief little things, like phantoms, and I thought of a title from Prokofiev: “Fugitive Visions.” The Philharmonia played Kurtág’s music with considerable sensitivity and skill. And then the crowd went to dinner—somewhat pleased, actually.

Two weeks later, a larger event—a fuller concert—was staged by the Salzburg Festival, which is to say, the summer festival. This was at the Morgan Library, and the program was as follows: reception, announcement, concert. Announcement of what? Of the festival’s 2008 program, which has a theme (natch—music administrators can’t live without themes, even if audiences, and music, can). That theme is “Love is strong as death,” drawn from the Song of Solomon. And the concert presented five singers associated with Salzburg, accompanied by the pianist Bradley Moore.

First to sing was Michael Schade, the German-Canadian tenor, a “Wunderlich for our time,” I’ve called him (repeatedly). He sang a Schumann set, four songs. And before he began, he spoke to the audience, giving his credo: “Prima la parola, dopo la musica,” or, “First the word”—words—“then the music.” He may believe this, and proclaim this, but, fortunately, he doesn’t really sing like it. Schade is not text-bound, or overly text-conscious, as some singers are. He does not overintellectualize; he isn’t reciting poetry. He’s singing songs, and very, very musically. In my estimation, the music comes first: as a general proposition, and for Schade in particular. But this extraordinarily gifted man, of course, is entitled to say and think whatever he likes.

In the Morgan Library’s fetching new auditorium, Schade was in his best form: The voice was so beautiful, it was almost shocking, unreal; the technique was locked-in secure; and the musical expression was inarguable. He brought out one of Schumann’s special characteristics: beautiful nobility. And this lyric tenor can spring power on you whenever he feels like it (particularly in a smallish hall). Later in the concert, he sang Tamino’s aria from Mozart’s Magic Flute, “Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön.” He sculpted it perfectly—dangerous word to use, but apt—providing a model of Mozart singing. What more can one say?

Following Schade onstage was Barbara Bonney, the soprano from New Jersey and Maine, who now lives in Salzburg. She sang two songs of Grieg—and was a long way from her best. But she later appeared for the Vilja Lied from Lehár’s Merry Widow, and sang that nicely. She even floated a nifty B at the end—Bonneyesque. And, to close the program, she did a duet with Schade, by Oscar Straus, another operetta composer. In this, she was delicious.

Simon Keenlyside is a British baritone, sure to be Sir Simon in the future. One biographical fact that I like about him is that he studied zoology at Cambridge. In New York, he sang four songs of Schubert, displaying his beautiful, resonant instrument. Yet that instrument tended to fray when he sang either high or soft. You could not fault him for the artistry with which he sang his Schubert. But you might fault him for this: He talked before each song, explaining to the audience what they were going to hear. This allowed no musical spell to take hold. He talks well, yes. But couldn’t he save it for a classroom, or an interview?

Genia Kühmeier is a hometown girl: not from New York, but from Salzburg. (In this, she is like Angelika Kirchschlager, the superb mezzo-soprano.) She has had success in a Magic Flute role, Pamina. And in this concert she sang two soaring, rhapsodic songs of Strauss: “Heimliche Aufforderung” and “Cäcilie.” She sang them correctly and cleanly. Yet these songs needed far more rhapsody, more rapture, and more release—vocal release. Think of Price or Fleming, really spinning it. And “Cäcilie” needs far more lushness of voice than Kühmeier could provide. After her Strauss, she sang the “Song to the Moon” from ~DVORAK’s Rusalka—same story, essentially. The aria was almost Mozartean, and there were things to admire about it. But it was not quite the “Song to the Moon.”

Out stepped a Russian—a new Russian—the young mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova. She sang a song by Borodin and two by Rachmaninoff. And when she opened her mouth, your own mouth fell open, and your hair stood on end. This is a big, big, ultra-Russian, glorious voice, with some serious smoke in it—Slavic smoke. And her singing, quality of voice aside, was utterly arresting. She seemed to wake up, not only the hall, but the entire city. After the Russian music, she went to an Italian aria, “O mio Fernando” from Donizetti’s Favorita, demonstrating some versatility. Her singing of this music was idiomatic, and she showed both strength—huge strength—and refinement. This is a lucky combination. And we obviously have a new Verdi mezzo. I must say, this relative unknown sent shivers up and down my spine.

Out of Russia, the singers—musicians in general, but especially singers—keep pouring. One after another they come, making Western audiences sit up. I thought of an ad against illegal immigration, aired in California some fifteen years ago: “They keep coming, and coming …” So it is with Russian singers.

I have not said anything about the accompanist, but he—whoever he is—is used to being last, if he is mentioned at all. (Gerald Moore liked to say that his mother was the only person who read reviews from the bottom up.) Bradley Moore is not only an accompanist: He is a pianist, and an excellent one. Throughout the concert, he played with a sure technique, keen understanding, and collaborative sympathy. And though he was sympathetic, he was no patsy. Indeed, sometimes he was a leader, musically. His playing of the opening of “Heimliche Aufforderung”—no piece of cake—was like glass. The repeated notes in the “Song to the Moon” were skillful. And in the Vilja Lied, he was neither silly nor sentimental—which is difficult to manage. Moore is a young man, an assistant conductor at the Met. It will be interesting to see where his career goes.

Russian opera has a friend in Valery Gergiev, one of the best friends it has ever had. The conductor from the Caucasus champions it all over the world, and he has introduced it to people who might not otherwise have heard it (beyond Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, and maybe one or two others). For three days, Gergiev brought Russian opera to Carnegie Hall—this was opera-in-concert. He also brought some ballet. His forces were those he has long led in St. Petersburg, namely the Kirov Orchestra and Chorus, along with a slew of vocal soloists. Gergiev conducted Glinka, Stravinsky, Borodin, and Rimsky-Korsakov. Some of these performances were merely so-so, and at least one was downright thrilling—I might as well tell you about that.

On a Sunday afternoon, Gergiev presided over The Snow Maiden, the opera Rimsky-Korsakov wrote in 1881. The conductor was firing on all cylinders, totally engaged, and his forces responded heartily. The orchestra was soulful, pure, gritty, shimmering, majestic, ravishing—accurate. And the chorus was no worse. This is an opera of fantasy, and the Kirov gave us that kind of performance. The Snow Maiden may not qualify as a masterpiece, no matter how good it is. But the thing is, Gergiev conducted it as though it were. At the Metropolitan Opera two seasons ago, I heard him do this with Mazeppa, the Tchaikovsky opera. It is an invaluable conductorial, and musical, trait: to advocate something to the nth degree.

I have said that they keep coming and coming: and on Carnegie Hall’s stage for The Snow Maiden were twelve Russian sing- ers, six on either side of the podium. Virtually all of them were interesting and individual, and virtually all of them had striking instruments. There was plenty of Slavic throbbing on that stage. Indeed, so good was this cast that when one of them was ordinary—as one was—he stood out. Among the best singers were the soprano Anastasia Kalagina; the mezzos Tatiana Pavlovskaya, Olga Savova, and Ekaterina Semenchuk; and the bass Alexei Tanovitski. Some of the twelve singers are stars back home, though unknown in the West. And so deep was the cast that even the Second Herald was great.

You might never have known that one of your most memorable nights at the opera would be an afternoon concert at Carnegie Hall.

Finally, a word about the name of these guys: “Kirov.” This is a subject of some controversy. And in a public interview last summer (Salzburg), I asked Gergiev about it. When the Bolsheviks took over, they renamed the Mariinsky Theater the State Academic Theater. Later, when Sergei Kirov was assassinated—in murky circumstances—they renamed it for him. When the USSR dissolved, the theater reassumed the original name: Mariinsky. But when they travel in the West, they still go by Kirov, reasoning that we all grew accustomed to this name, during those long Soviet decades. They don’t want anyone to say, “What’s a Mariinsky?” (and, by the way, I have a friend—a former ballerina—who insists on, not only the old name, but the old transliteration, too: Maryinsky).

Gergiev said that the theater will drop the name “Kirov” in due course, and be the Mariinsky everywhere, even in Topeka. But when will that be? No one can say. The Soviet Union ended in 1991. It has already been sixteen years, and, personally, I don’t see a reason to wait much longer. The theater isn’t waiting until Russia re- communizes, is it?

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 26 Number 5, on page 50
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