You will recall President Kennedy’s quip when he had gathered all those Nobel laureates in the White House: the greatest collection of knowledge and talent since Thomas Jefferson dined alone. Something like that applied in Carnegie Hall one Monday night: when Dorothea Röschmann and Yefim Bronfman gave recitals simultaneously. She is the German soprano, and one of the greatest singers we have; he is the Russian-American pianist, and one of the greatest pianists, or instrumentalists, we have. She started at 7:30 in Zankel Hall, the modest downstairs chamber venue in the Carnegie building; he started at 8 in the main space, called Isaac Stern Auditorium. I caught a half-hour of Röschmann before moving upstairs to Bronfman. What a cruel, cruel twist of scheduling!
Rather than complaining (further), I will tell you a little about Röschmann. She and her accompanist, Julius Drake, opened with Schumann’s cycle Frauenliebe und -leben. This is sung by both sopranos and mezzo-sopranos, but I have heard it, and enjoyed it, mainly from mezzos. To my ears, some of Röschmann’s low notes did not sound meaty enough—particularly in the beloved song “Er, der Herrlichste von allen”—and some of her high notes sounded too easy: effortless. But this is not so much a complaint as an observation. All through the cycle, Röschmann was unaffected, pure, and convincing. She made no attempt to gild the lily. She simply let Schumann and his poet, Chamisso, sing (although there were moments when you could have argued for a tad more emotion). Her diction is one of the wonders of German singing today: She kisses the “ch” in “Ich” as few others do. And she is so intelligent a singer, you can forget what a beautiful voice she has: a gift from nature, cultivated by Röschmann, no doubt, but essentially unearned. In this era, there is probably not a better lieder singer, and probably not a better Mozart singer on the operatic stage. She inevitably evokes comparisons to her great German predecessor Schwarzkopf.
Bronfman’s recital was a mixture of okayness and greatness. Okay was Schumann’s Faschingsschwank aus Wien (speaking of that composer). Bronfman was not at his most characterful or riveting. Great was Tchaikovsky’s Grand Sonata in G, that titanic opus, which in these hands was as manageable as a Clementi slow movement. And one of the encores was Liszt’s Paganini Etude No. 2 in E flat. You can go many a moon without hearing such virtuosity and stylishness on the piano. My hope is that someone made a surreptitious recording—they almost always do. This Monday night was a banner night, but, to say once more, what a cruel, cruel twist of scheduling. With all those days in a year, Bronfman and Röschmann on the same one?
Scheduling is not really a problem at the New York Philharmonic: The orchestra gives several versions of the same program. For instance, if you miss a Thursday-night concert, you can go on Friday afternoon, or Saturday night. On a recent program, Carter Brey was the featured soloist. He is principal cello in the Philharmonic, and I have mentioned before how lucky New York is in its cellists: Brey sits in the Philharmonic and Rafael Figueroa sits in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Each is a starry performer. Brey makes a solo appearance with his orchestra every season, which may well be a contractual matter. In any case, it’s a good idea.
With guest conductor Riccardo Muti, Brey played a concerto by Luigi Boccherini, who gave cellists so much to play. (The composer was a cellist himself.) This was the Concerto in D, G. 479—G for Gérard, Yves Gérard, who is a French musicologist. Brey looks like a patrician, and he plays rather that way too: with suavity, taste, and self-mastery. The night I heard him, he had a couple of problems: with articulation and intonation. But these problems were slight, hardly making an impact. Brey played somewhat like a chamber musician, making music with his longtime colleagues. He also played like a singer. When he dug into his lower register, he reminded me of a mezzo digging into her chest voice. And, speaking of singing, Boccherini’s second movement, Adagio, was completely aria-like. In the fleet closing movement, Brey imparted a speck of jazz, I swear—at least it was a speck of cool. And he had prepared his own cadenzas for this concerto. They made compositional sense, in addition to showing off the performer. Also, they were appropriately brief. As for Muti, he seemed to enjoy conducting this work by his eighteenth-century countryman.
A curious thing had happened with Muti earlier in the concert. Readers may recall that, a few months ago, I reported what I considered quite boorish behavior by the conductor: The audience understandably applauded after a particularly exciting movement from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. (The Philharmonic was playing a suite from that ballet.) Muti let his annoyance be known in the most highhanded way. Well, this time, the fault lay with the audience—or at least one audience member. After Muti had begun the slow movement of a Mozart symphony (No. 34 in C), the audience member clapped loudly. Muti stopped, gave a look of puzzled disgust, and then started again. After the second movement, and before the next movement began, the audience member—I assume it was the same one—again clapped loudly, and alone. Muti barreled ahead. It seemed to me that someone was messing with the conductor. Muti, boorish in the past, was a victim of boorishness.
Jonathan Biss, the young American pianist, played a recital at the 92nd Street Y. He is making a big career for himself: Next season, he will graduate to Carnegie Hall, playing a recital there. He opened his program at the Y with a Haydn sonata: the one in A flat, H. XVI:46. In the first movement, he was slightly mechanical—clattering, jumpy, and tight. Not much limpidity was in evidence; a greater sense of line was needed. But an overall maturity was present. Furthermore, Biss made a big, robust sound, which some people might have thought more Beethoven-like than Haydnesque. I found it welcome and effective. In the middle movement, the pianist did some lovely playing, following the contours of the music. Beauty of tone was not maintained when he was loud, however. And in the Finale, he released the wonderful energy that Haydn placed there.
He continued his recital with the Six Little Pieces, Op. 19, of Schoenberg. He played them with clear understanding. Just as important, he played them with pleasure. The last of the pieces had exactly the right touch, pedaling, and layering (all of which are related). Then he turned to Mendelssohn: three Songs without Words, followed by the Variations sérieuses. As I have said in many a chronicle, musical fashion—fashion in programming—is a strange thing: Mendelssohn used to be a staple on piano-recital programs; the Variations sérieuses used to be practically de rigueur. Now Mendelssohn appears only once in a while—and Biss is to be commended for performing him.
The Songs without Words need, perhaps above all, that aforementioned sense of line. They are songs, after all. Biss again could have been better in this department. Also, the accompaniments under the melodies were often too clattering. More generally, the songs were somewhat bigger than they needed to be. For example, the one in A major, Op. 102, No. 5, should have had much more delicacy. And the Variations? Some pages were missing their seamlessness, their undulating beauty. On the whole, though, Biss played beautifully enough. He is not one to misjudge accents, which is to his credit. And anything that required virtuosity was very impressive. From where I sit, Biss appears to have long, dexterous fingers, and he puts them to good use. The ending of the Variations was slightly overpedaled, but it was undeniably exciting.
One little footnote, please: I have remarked before that Evgeny Kissin, the Russian-born pianist, takes maybe the deepest bows in music. His forehead virtually touches the floor. Biss is a deep-bower too. They have similar frames—long and narrow—lucky guys.
Maurice Ravel was short and narrow—waifish. He was also a genius. And the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center devoted an afternoon to him. It began with the Introduction and Allegro for harp, flute, clarinet, and string quartet. That puts a little orchestra onstage, really. The wind instruments were played by two veterans: Ransom Wilson and David Shifrin. The string instruments were played by younger musicians, members of what’s known as Chamber Music Society Two, a kind of farm team (though my guess is CMS would not care for that description). The veterans entered Ravel’s piece with sure synchronicity. Then the strings came in floatingly, just as the doctor ordered. Thereafter, however, the strings were often too heavy and clumsy, depriving the piece of some of its character.
But not a word could be said against the harpist, Bridget Kibbey. It is the job of this instrument to play ethereally. Kibbey did —ethereally and musically. But she also avoided namby-pambiness, tucking into the music where desirable. All in all, she was dazzling. When the piece was over, the players bowed as a group, only. The harpist should really have had a solo bow. In an apparent acknowledgement of this, the savvy Shifrin turned to applaud Kibbey specifically, twice.
We then had Shéhérazade, the suite—or call it a little cycle—for singer, flute, and piano. Doing the singing was Sasha Cooke, a young mezzo-soprano, and with her were Wilson and the pianist Ken Noda. Cooke sang Shéhérazade rather like an oratorio singer. She was solid, direct, sturdy, elegant. Nothing in the world wrong with that. But she could have used more French fizz and flair. Be that as it may, she seemed to enjoy the language, and she sang it correctly. Also, she gets an A for concentration: never flinching during a festival of cell phones and coughing.
Readers have heard me say that acting in songs—faces, gestures, movements—is a matter of taste. I like less rather than more of it. Cooke prowled the stage, and kind of played with her hair, and struck a few poses out of Callas’s Medea. I thought this detracting. But, again, tastes differ here, and those tastes are equally legitimate.
After Shéhérazade, we heard Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello. And in the spotlight were two members of the string quartet from the Introduction and Allegro: Yura Lee and Jakob Koranyi. Given how that opening piece went, I was totally unprepared for the duo sonata: which was boffo. Absolutely rock-’em-sock-’em, mesmerizingly perfect: in rhythm, color, texture, dynamics, feeling—everything. The second movement, Très vif, was aggressive and biting while never losing musicality. The following movement, Lent, spoke what I can best describe as a straightforward sublimity. The players never put a foot wrong; they milked the sonata for all it was worth (which is a lot). Yura Lee was almost startlingly alive. I wondered whether the Sunday-afternoon audience would appreciate what they were hearing. They did, calling the players back again and again.
Afew years ago from the Salzburg Festival, I reported on Haydn’s opera Armida. I mentioned that a slew of composers have fashioned operas on this subject: Armida, the enchantress who does a number on the crusader Rinaldo. Rossini is in that slew. And the Metropolitan Opera gave us its first-ever staging of his Armida. It did so for the soprano in the title role, Renée Fleming. The Met has staged several operas expressly for this star. For example, it did another bel canto opera, Bellini’s Pirata, about ten years ago. Fleming is one of the most versatile of singers: a coloratura; a lush, sensual Straussian; a Handelian; a verismo belter and scalder; a Mozartean; an exponent of lieder, mélodies, jazz, and so on. Rare is the singer who is so complete.
People like to pick at her, for some reason—envy? a desire to knock a royal off her pedestal?—and I can do some picking as well. For example, she has a rich, juicy lower register, and I think she may overlike it: She sometimes leans into it, distorting the line she is singing. But, you know? At the end of the day, when all of the picking is over, she’s a great singer, pure and simple: one for the pantheon. And I thought of something while listening to her Armida: We often overlook rhythm in singers. That is, we expect rhythm in conductors and instrumentalists—certainly in percussionists!—but we are apt to ignore this quality, or its absence, in singers. Renée Fleming has great, natural rhythm, among other gifts.
And, seeing her in this show, I remembered something that the critic Bernard Holland once wrote. Fleming had worn kind of a fairy-princess dress in a recital, and Holland, wry, said something like, “I expected her to wave a wand at us.” In Armida, she waved a wand.
The opera requires six tenors, six Rossini tenors, and that is no easy order. The Met managed to get six who could do the job—and the lineup did not include Juan Diego Flórez, the go-to Rossini tenor of our age. It did include Lawrence Brownlee and Barry Banks, who are frequently-gone-to Rossini tenors. There were lots of high, ringing sounds onstage for Armida. Some tight and strained ones, but some excellent ones, too.
The production, by Mary Zimmerman, has one of the most striking openings I have ever seen: A little girl in a red dress comes twirling down from above on a red ribbon (if I remember correctly). She turns out to be a cupid. I have to say, I’m somewhat tired of cupids in opera productions: particularly that unicycling, juggling, torturing one in Salzburg’s Marriage of Figaro. Act I in this Armida looks something like South Florida as drawn by Dr. Seuss. There are blue plastic palm trees; there is a conehead holding a red umbrella. Zimmerman leans toward the campy and jokey, and this is not everyone’s approach: but it is an approach. Richard Hudson’s costumes are a treat. I confess I have doubts about slow-motion swordplay.
Presiding in the pit was Riccardo Frizza, who was competent, if not arresting. And I’m afraid you’ve heard me say it a thousand times: French horns have a terrible time, don’t they? A hard instrument to wrestle with.
The horn went through some hard wrestling in Stravinsky’s Zvezdolikiy, the opening work one Thursday night at the New York Philharmonic. The concert was part of a Stravinsky festival, led by Valery Gergiev, the mercurial Russian maestro. Seven programs were arranged for this festival. Zvezdolikiy, or The Star-Faced One, is an early work for chorus and orchestra. It is Debussyan, Scriabinesque, heavenly—heavenly but cut with a typically sinister Stravinskyan element. Gergiev conducted bluntly, as he sometimes does. His chorus—not a local group, but his Chorus of the Mariinsky Theater—sang beautifully and smartly.
Leonidas Kavakos then came out with Gergiev to play the Stravinsky Violin Concerto. Readers of my dispatches from Salzburg are well familiar with him: He is the Greek musician who until recently led the Camerata Salzburg. And a very fine musician he is, both with violin in hand and on the podium. He did not have his best outing in the Stravinsky Concerto. He, and Gergiev, slighted a certain innocence, or naivety, or ingenuousness in this work. It was all rather sober and mechanical. The last movement pulses and dances with D-major joy, along with some mischief and sass. From these forces, the music was—okay. Correct and okay.
The applause had almost entirely petered out, but Kavakos returned to the stage and pretended to ask the concertmistress permission to play an encore. He then scratched and scruffed his way through Tárrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra. As I said, not the best outing by a fine and proven musician.
Gergiev concluded the evening with an opera—an opera-oratorio, Oedipus Rex. Here, the maestro was gratifyingly engaged: mustering the tension and drama necessary for the score. His Oedipus was Anthony Dean Griffey, who was superb: He sang loud, high, and long without shouting. What a beautiful—and rugged-enough—instrument. Jocasta was Waltraud Meier, shrewd, smoking, and musical, as she can be relied on to be. Unfortunately, she was sometimes covered by Gergiev and the orchestra (and by Stravinsky?).
This opera, or oratorio, has a narrator, and he was Jeremy Irons, the famous English actor. He sometimes sounded like an actor playing a famous English actor. And he could not decide on the pronunciation of “Oedipus”: whether to pronounce the first syllable “Ee,” as Brits usually do, or “Eh,” as we Americans usually do. He bounced back and forth, annoyingly. He has a wonderful voice, however, and is no doubt, as my grandmother would say, a handsome Joe.
The Met closed its season with a quartet of shows: Armida, Lulu, Tosca, and Der Fliegende Holländer—Wagner’s Flying Dutch- man. As in most Wagner, the orchestra means a lot in this work, and the Met’s orchestra came through. It was, in fact, the star of the show. The brass were fearsomely good—I will lay off the horns, for once—and the low strings demonstrated a particular power of articulation. The Flying Dutchman is a heavily choral opera, too, and, like the orchestra, the Met’s chorus came through. Happy is the opera company whose everyday forces are top-notch. They were led on this evening by Kazushi Ono, a Japanese conductor. (Why should Seiji be the only one?) He handled Wagner’s score ably, eschewing extremes and eccentricity while not skimping on emotions and flavor.
Singing the Dutchman was a Finn, Juha Uusitalo. He started out decent and got better as the opera wore on—a desirable trajectory. By about the middle, he was secure and gleaming. Singing his tragic—or is she?—love interest, Senta, was Deborah Voigt, that great soprano from Illinois and California. She sang incisively and understandingly, as usual. But her voice did not sound like itself—and it is one of the most glorious voices we have known. I also might say a quick word about Russell Thomas, the young American tenor who sang the Steersman. Earlier in the season, he sang a Verdi role: Foresto in Attila. He isn’t pushing that youthful, radiant instrument he has, is he? We should hope not.
The Met is fretting, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra is fretting, about James Levine. He is music director at both places. He has recurring back problems, forcing him to forfeit many operas and many concerts. Managers at both places are thinking, “What’re we going to do?” Opera companies and symphony orchestras need conductors who show up in the pit or on the podium, dependably. A conductor on the disabled list is a huge hassle. Yet, if any conductor should be cut some slack, it’s Levine. I say (not that I was asked), take him when you can get him, and deal with the hassle, to the extent possible. Next season, he may be off the DL altogether—which would put an end to the fretting. Until the time comes for his retirement.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 28 Number 10, on page 51
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