As is its wont, the Berlin Philharmonic blew into Carnegie Hall for a three-concert stand. This world-important orchestra was under the baton of its music director, Sir Simon Rattle. They like a “theme”—Mahler symphonies, for example, or Strauss essays—and, for this stand, they had one: Brahms and Schoenberg. Every concert featured this pairing. The first concert, however, was unusual: a big Brahms work on the first half, a big Brahms work on the second half, and nothing else. Where did Schoenberg come in? The first half offered Brahms’s Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, orchestrated by Schoenberg in 1937. This quartet is one of the greatest pieces of chamber music in the repertory. Does it need an orchestration? No, but if you’re going to have one, Schoenberg is a good man to do it. If you heard the orchestral version, and did not know that it was an arrangement, would you think that it was a proper Brahms symphony? I think so, yes: although you might think it was a chamber symphony. The Berlin Philharmonic played the Schoenberg arrangement pretty much flat-out, not caring a great deal about lightness and transparency. That was all right, in my view. If you have a Steinway grand for a Bach French suite, you might as well use it. And if you have the Berlin Philharmonic for the Brahms Piano Quartet No. 1—you might as well use it.

The Berliners sounded magnificent in the quartet, as they usually do (and the acoustics of Carnegie Hall do them no harm). Their sound, overall, was dark—and it was not hard to guess the reason. The Berlin strings tend toward darkness anyway; and then we have the work’s minor keys. Rattle handled the score shrewdly, alertly, and energetically. He applied the right amount of incisiveness and the right amount of cushion, by which I mean: a warmth, or plushness, or tonal friendliness. Several of the Berlin principals shone, and I will single out the clarinetist, who made a good Gypsy. (Remember Brahms’s affinity for things Hungarian.) The orchestra was not immaculate, however: Some of its pizzicatos were terrible, just as you would expect from, say, the Des Moines Sinfonietta.

After intermission, it was Brahms’s First Symphony, and I will say just a word about it—a word about Simon Rattle, specifically. He is an enviable guy, or so it would appear. He always seems relaxed, serene, carefree. I think of him as Californian. And his account of the Brahms First was rather like that: happy, sunny, laid-back. It had little struggle, or intensity, or strength, and, in the end, it was short on uplift. If Rattle is indeed too content to convey drama of a certain kind: more power to him, I have to say.

A different conductor conducted a different orchestra: Riccardo Muti stepped in before the New York Philharmonic as a guest. He does not take over the music directorship of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra until Fall 2010, and has time for other gigs. With the Philharmonic, he conducted a program beginning with Liszt’s well-loved “symphonic poem” Les Préludes. How would you like this piece, ideally? I say: compact, tight, with a bounce; shorn of bombast, to the extent possible; warm, in spots, and not forgetting a touch of pomp and circumstance. Muti met all requirements, superbly. He then turned to Elgar’s concert-overture In the South. Does that refer to Somerset, Devon, and Cornwall? No, to Italy, where Elgar and his wife sojourned in 1903. Muti conducted this piece much as he had the Liszt: straightforwardly, sweepingly. In his hands, the music was not picturesque or quaint, but rather muscular and dramatic. Could there have been a little more gentleness, more Englishness (no matter the official locale)? I think so, yes. And I had this, somewhat wistful thought: Sir Colin Davis and André Previn are master Elgar conductors, probably the best we have. Both are in their eighties. After them, who? Someone, surely.

Muti devoted the second half of his Philharmonic concert to Prokofiev’s masterpiece of a ballet, Romeo and Juliet—to excerpts from that score, I should say. He performed at a high level. The music was tender, harsh, sweet, teasing, blunt—like Prokofiev. In all the years I have been observing Muti, I have never seen him so worked up, physically, as he was in The Death of Tybalt. I have two criticisms of what Muti did with the excerpts, one of the criticisms minor, the other major. The final pages of The Death of Tybalt can be drawn out, swoony, heady, and marvelous. Muti did not conduct them this way: He treated them as a brisk, straight-ahead march. I believe this was a mistake, though it was certainly a choice. How about Romeo at Juliet’s Grave? The music here is some of the most heartbreaking extant—excruciating in its pathos. But not the way Muti handled it. To borrow an expression I associate with my colleague Fred Kirshnit, there was not a wet eye in the house. Therefore, we were cheated.

Before I leave Muti and the Philharmonic, a word about podium manners: After The Death of Tybalt, the audience applauded a bit. Muti, without turning around, shushed them with his hand—shook his hand at them, annoyedly, cutting them off. He almost literally gave them the back of his hand. You should have seen it: I believe this was the most jerkish move I have ever seen a conductor make. Contrast this behavior with that of Neeme Järvi, which I noted in last month’s chronicle. When some in the audience applauded after a movement of a Mozart symphony, he half turned to make a dignified, respectful nod-bow. Artur Rubinstein used to rise from his piano bench, if the audience applauded between movements. I have seen a contemporary pianist, Yefim Bronfman, do the same. A performer does not have to be as gracious or indulgent as that. But what Muti did? Some people like this haughty and cutting behavior, regarding it as maestro-like. Some of us dissent.

Glide into Alice Tully Hall for a song recital—courtesy of Angelika Kirchschlager, the Austrian mezzo-soprano. She does credit to Salzburg: and I don’t mean the annual summer festival, but the city itself, for she is a native. When a girl, she sang in the children’s chorus of Carmen. Kirchschlager is an intelligent and musical person, a musician who happens to sing, rather than a singer pure and simple. (Not that there is anything wrong with the latter!) She was a piano student at the Mozarteum, before she switched to voice. Her program in New York was a pleasure even before she emerged from the wings: because she had chosen twenty-five of the best, or most enjoyable, songs we have. Twenty-seven, if you count the encores.

Let us stipulate that she was very good—with her, we can “take that as read,” as the English say. And now we go on to some criticisms. She opened with a Brahms set, and Brahms wants, ideally, a different mezzo sound from Kirchschlager’s: a warmer, richer, deeper, more embracing, more enveloping sound. Kirchschlager is basically a Mozartean mezzo, which is a wonderful thing to be, of course. And, if Eileen Farrell had a right to sing the blues, Angelika Kirchschlager more than has a right to sing Brahms. After that first set, she sang six Mörike songs of Wolf. And here I need to say something about understatement: You can overdo it. That is, you can be overstated in your understatement. And Kirchschlager is sometimes guilty of this. The line between refined and bland can be thin. And what Kirchschlager needed, in her Wolf, was more “juice,” as Leontyne Price might say. In other words, more color, more life, more incisiveness—maybe even more volume. You don’t have to do the full Schwarzkopf (and I’m talking about Elisabeth, not Norman). You don’t have to be as animated as she. But more aliveness is in order. “Auf einer Wanderung” is brimming with character, and Kirchschlager obscured this. “Er ist’s” should administer a happy shock—and from this singer, it did not.

She had at her side a wonderful pianist, Warren Jones: not so much an accompanist as a pianist who chooses to accompany. He is always respectful, and deferential where necessary, but he is also free. In “Auf einer Wanderung,” he was strangely lifeless, however. He did not take advantage of that marvelous part. But this was an aberration.

After intermission, Kirchschlager sang a set of Reynaldo Hahn, which was delicious—well-nigh perfect. This set was in French, and all the others were in German, Kirchschlager’s native language, but she was in her element nonetheless. She closed the printed program with Mahler—six songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, which were rendered with Kirchschlagerian intelligence and musicality. As a bonus, she did another Knaben Wunderhorn song. And she sent the audience home with Brahms’s lullaby. It was only 6:45, hours away from bedtime, but still, one could have floated off …

Return to the New York Philharmonic, under a different guest conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Finnish maestro late of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He now presides over the Philharmonia Orchestra in London. He had a busy period in New York, working not only with the Philharmonic but also at the Metropolitan Opera, where he conducted Janacek's From the House of the Dead. (Composed in 1927, it was being done at the Met for the first time.) Salonen is brainily musical, and he seems to have a modernist soul. The Janacek score suited him, and vice versa. Remember, too, that he composes as well as conducts—though it is the latter activity that makes the bank account bulge.

On a particular Friday morning—11 o’clock start—Salonen conducted the Philharmonic in Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. It was composed in 1936, and is generally accepted as a touchstone work. Elliott Carter told me something interesting—this was when I interviewed him in November 2008, shortly before his hundredth birthday. He said that the “old music,” by which he means everything up to about Wagner, does not speak to modern man the way twentieth-century music does. He cited Bartók’s 1936 piece as something that especially speaks to us. I don’t quite understand this opinion—Bach will never stop speaking to me, or to the world—but Carter is a brilliant man whose words bear consideration.

Bartók’s first movement is marked Andante tranquillo. If you can find anything tranquil about it, however, your ears are different from mine. The music conveys huge unease. And, the way Salonen conducted it, you could hardly sit in your chair. He had complete control over the score and the orchestra, but not an over-control, which is important. And he let the movement build properly. The second movement is marked Allegro, and it was appropriately martial and slashing. Salonen made sure the music had its little knife cuts, and its touch of impishness, too. How about that creepy third movement (Adagio)? It was indeed creepy, somewhere between mad and fanciful. The last movement (Allegro molto) should come as a relief, and it did. But it did not have to be so grim. This music can be far gayer, sprightlier, more enlivening. From Salonen and the Philharmonic, it was rather workaday and blunt. But this had been a fine, satisfying, and faithful account, overall.

Here is a modest footnote: You may think that, in the minutes leading up to a concert, a conductor immerses himself in a score, or communes with the ghost of Arthur Nikitsch. Could be. But I happened to spot Maestro Salonen outside, near the stage door, about ten minutes before concert time. He was in his civvies, yakking on his cell phone. When the appointed hour came, however, he was on the podium, giving the downbeat.

Move across the plaza to the Met, for a new production of The Tales of Hoffmann, Offenbach’s hit from 1880 (the composer’s final year). In the title role was Joseph Calleja, the tenor sensation from Malta. He owns a fabulous instrument, kissed by youth. It has a quiver in it, though not an outright bleat, mercifully. The night I attended, he did a lot of sharping, especially early on. But this did not kill Bjoerling, and it did not kill Calleja, either. He tackled the challenging, rewarding part of Hoffmann with relish and honor. Antonia was Anna Netrebko, the Russian star. She sang with her usual dark, alluring soprano sound. Her high notes were free, and her soft singing was exemplary. Oddly, she had problems with rhythm in her aria “Elle a fui, la tourterelle.” But this did little harm to her portrayal at large. Olympia was a newcomer, Kathleen Kim, a young Korean- American soprano. In her singing, she was pert, pretty, and accurate. And she charmed the entire house. The role of Nicklausse was taken by Kate Lindsey, a mezzo who is making waves throughout the opera world. She demonstrated an excellent technique—rock-solid—and her acting skills are more than opera-acceptable. The villains, all four of them, were Alan Held: cagey and capable.

There were other singers in this busy show, of course, but space does not allow a full airing: Suffice it to say that no cast member was unsatisfactory. The owner of the show, however, was the conductor in the pit. The Met’s music director, James Levine, returned after an absence for back surgery. He loves Offenbach’s score, and you could tell: Every page was infused with life, beauty, wonder, or anything else necessary. The Barcarolle was both delectable and disciplined. It was devoid of sentimentalism, and missing nothing in its loveliness. In brief, Levine conducted The Tales of Hoffmann as though it were a masterpiece. Is it? If you did not think so after this performance, you never will. Incidentally, Shostakovich, one of the great ecumenists, liked to say that he loved all of music “from Bach to Offenbach.”

The Met’s new production is the work of Bartlett Sher, of Broadway fame (The Light in the Piazza, South Pacific). Actually, he has some Met fame, too, having done The Barber of Seville, deserving of its acclaim. His Tales of Hoffmann is farcical, grotesque, colorful, flashy, bizarre. He has said that his inspirations were Kafka and Fellini, and that is evident. Did you ever see Moulin Rouge!, the 2001 movie by Baz Luhrmann? The production reminded me of that. And I think that Offenbach would appreciate Sher’s imaginings of Hoffmann’s drunken dreams. I could not endorse every detail in this production—who could?—but I found myself absorbed and dazzled, while not distracted from the main event, which is the music. Considering cast, production, conducting, playing: I left the house thinking I had experienced The Tales of Hoffmann in full.

Back once more to the Philharmonic, for a third guest conductor: Christoph von Dohnányi, the German maestro who is the grandson of a famous Hungarian composer (Ernst von Dohnányi). (He is also the nephew of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the illustrious and heroic pastor.) Best known in America for his tenure at the Cleveland Orchestra (1984–2002), he is now with the NDR Symphony Orchestra in Hamburg. Dohnányi joined the ranks of the octogenarians in September. Sometimes a conductor reaches full flower in this decade.

With the Philharmonic, Dohnányi conducted Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4, the “Romantic.” It was the composer himself who christened the work this way, and the symphony is indeed Romantic—Wagnerian, in fact. It is a fantastical journey, reminding you of Siegfried, perhaps, or other parts of The Ring. In any case, it is thoroughly, 100 percent Brucknerian. Under Dohnányi, the opening measures were alive, tense, anticipatory—they got your attention and held it. And Dohnányi, with Bruckner, held our attention all through. That may seem like faint praise, but really it is something. Dohnányi, scoreless, conducted the symphony with total authority. All of his intelligence, experience, and musicality were brought to bear. He sculpted and paced the work inarguably. He did not fuss and he did not bull through. He let the symphony unfold naturally, organically, with a sense of wonder. He did not make anything happen; he simply allowed it to happen, as though receiving the music on the spot. He was gracious and judicious. When you say “judicious,” people can hear “boring,” but that is not at all what I mean. The symphony had plenty of excitement, in its Scherzo, for instance: a jolter. And the Finale was great-souled, like Bruckner in general. What Dohnányi showed was a thorough understanding, and an ability to act on this understanding. You had the sense that here was a man, on the podium, doing what he lives to do.

The orchestra responded very well to him. Overall, its sound was dry—too dry—but this could be overlooked, given the musicality of the performance. This symphony demands much of the French horns, and, the evening I attended, Philip Myers and the rest of the section came through.

I might sneak in a tonsorial note: You know the expression “a shock of white hair”? The expression was invented for what Dohnányi has. His thick, bright-white mane is shocking indeed. And we all know the place of hair in the history of conducting. Have I told you this story before? Two ladies are sitting in a Philadelphia café, during the time of Wolfgang Sawallisch at the Philadelphia Orchestra. Sawallisch was what some call “tonsorially challenged.” And one lady said to the other, “Say what you will about Muti [Sawallisch’s predecessor], but, my God, what hair.”

Before I talk about Chanticleer, let me say something about Josquin Desprez, whom the group sang early in its Christmas concert at the Metropolitan Museum. He was born in the middle of the fifteenth century, Desprez was. There was so much music ahead of him (which is to say, after his life). Yet he seems complete, lacking nothing. He seems to have as many tools as Stravinsky. Chanticleer—the twelve-man a cappella group from San Francisco—sang a program stretching from Gregorian chant to today. They were nearly impeccable in their technique, as they usually are. Their ability to stay on pitch is positively weird. Individuals sag, when they sing. Groups even more so—wherever two or more are gathered, to sing, they sag. Not Chanticleer. But even more impressive than their technique is their musicality, and even spirituality, dare we say. “O Weisheit,” a beautiful piece by Arvo Pärt, breathed pure sincerity. And consider a traditional carol, “Angels We Have Heard on High.” It was angelic, all right—but not goody-goody angelic; it was maturely and unself-consciously angelic. At the end of the evening, Chanticleer sang some spirituals, Christmas spirituals, such as “Oh, What a Pretty Baby.” Here they demonstrated what you might call elegant jamming—joyous and right. The Berlin Philharmonic, with which I began this chronicle, is a first-class ensemble, no doubt. But Chanticleer is a first-class ensemble, too. And I cannot tell you, here and now, that the orchestra—exalted as it is—gives more satisfaction.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 28 Number 5, on page 57
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