A concert of the New York Philharmonic opened with a new work by Jörg Widmann, a German composer born in 1973. I say a “new work”: It was written in 2008. Close enough. Its title is Con brio, and its subtitle, if we can use that term, is “Concert Overture for Orchestra.” The piece is loaded with timpani, and imaginative timpani at that. There are also squirmy strings, at least one breathy flute, and other exotic or semi-exotic effects. From every corner, there are snappy rhythms. The piece is a kind of scherzo: an angry scherzo. There is much commotion. In some stretches, I thought of movie music: music to accompany a pit of writhing snakes, or a swarm of insects. Think of Indiana Jones, suddenly covered in leeches, having to find a way out of this jam: That’s the sort of thing this music could accompany.
The piece is smartly crafted, and I would like to hear it again. Also, it’s the right length: not a moment too long, which is part of that smart craftsmanship. As I’ve said many times, composers today have an almost obsessive focus on rhythm. This comes at the expense of melody and the other elements of music. I find this most curious. Con brio is a festival of rhythm. In its favor, it has liveliness. So much of today’s music is determinedly grim and bleak. Last month, I wrote about another composer, the Englishman Thomas Adès. His music is often described as “ludic” or “playful.” And so it is. Composers who will take a break from grimness and bleakness are to be applauded.
Widmann’s concert overture is supposed to have something to do with Beethoven. Indeed, the Philharmonic’s program notes contained this sentence: “Con brio is a work of homage to Widmann’s noted predecessor in the central symphonic tradition, Ludwig van Beethoven.” I had to smile at that line—particularly at the “noted predecessor.” “William Shakespeare is Jay Nordlinger’s noted predecessor in writings that touch on music, politics, and sundry other matters.”
The Philharmonic had a guest conductor on this occasion, the German-born, Hungarian-rooted Christoph von Dohnányi. In Con brio, Dohnányi had amazing brio. He was taut, bristling, incisive—almost kid-like. The conductor is an octogenarian, like another conductor I have written about in recent chronicles: Sir Colin Davis. And, like Sir Colin, Dohnányi has a tremendous shock of white hair. After the Widmann, he conducted a work by another of that composer’s noted predecessors in the central symphonic tradition: Robert Schumann. (I’m teasing about those program notes, but don’t let me tease too much: They were written by James M. Keller, just about the best in the business.)
The work was Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 in D minor. As it began, Dohnányi was all judgment. Everything was appropriately measured, but not in the least dull. The music was big with anticipation: Exciting things were ahead. Dohnányi’s transition into the faster part of the first movement was thrilling. He then conducted with a feeling of solidity, even gravitas, while keeping the music moving. This is one of the things a pro does—and that lesser conductors do not. They’re more likely to skip along the surface. Like another pro, the Philharmonic’s former music director Lorin Maazel, Dohnányi knows how to cut off a phrase or note, not letting it linger sloppily. All in all, he captured the nobility—I dare say the morality—of Schumann’s first movement. The subsequent movements did not rise to this level. But they were good enough.
In the second half of the program, the pianist Yefim Bronfman appeared. He has a relationship with Jörg Widmann. In a 2008 recital at Carnegie Hall, he premiered Widmann’s Eleven Humoresques. With Dohnányi and the Philharmonic, he played Brahms’s Concerto No. 2 in B flat. So, here was one of our best pianists in one of our best piano concertos. The concerto requires a pianist who is both a poet and a steamroller. A pianist with Mozart qualities, Beethoven qualities, Liszt qualities, Rachmaninoff qualities—even Debussy qualities. (Part of the first movement can sound like Reflets dans l’eau.) And should I not be mentioning Brahms qualities? It’s his concerto, after all. In any case, Bronfman is your man.
As he played, you could take his technique and accuracy for granted: The notes would be there. You were free to concentrate on the music. Bronfman and Dohnányi were musical warriors in the stirring, stormy second movement. One of them, or both, chose an excellent tempo for the third movement—the slow movement, or “slow” movement, I should say. It proceeded at a nice, unsluggish pace. “Andante,” which is the relevant marking, is not to be confused with “Adagio” or “Lento.” Carter Brey played the cello solo with unfussy, chin-high beauty. In the last movement, the rondo, Bronfman’s hands coursed wonderfully and impishly over the keyboard.
The concert I attended was a Thursday night. The program was to be repeated on Friday and Saturday nights. I have a feeling that those later performances were better. Why? Thursday’s was plenty good. But there was a sense of carefulness about it, a lack of abandon, a tentativeness. All involved seemed to be feeling their way along, not completely comfortable. I just have a feeling the next two performances were more confident, a little more daring, more knockout.
Le Poisson Rouge, a club on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village, has become a popular venue for classical music—certainly an offbeat one. (By the way, Gian Carlo Menotti wrote an opera called The Saint of Bleecker Street in the mid-1950s.) Sitting at a table, or at the bar, you can eat and drink as you listen to the pianist Hélène Grimaud play Mozart—just as you would when listening to a jazz clarinetist or cabaret singer. A recent evening featured a blending of classical music and jazz. In the spotlight was Stuart Isacoff, who is an intellectual, a writer, and a music scholar. Ten years ago, he published a gem of a book: Temperament: How Music Became a Battleground for the Great Minds of Western Civilization. He is also a pianist. Once, he told Earl Wild, the late pianist-composer-transcriber, “I’m learning your ‘Liza’” (i.e., Wild’s transcription of the Gershwin song). Wild said, “It’s hard, you know.” Isacoff said, “Oh, yes, I know.”
His program at Le Poisson Rouge was called “Classical-Jazz Connections: Explorations through Improvisation.” This sort of blending has a proud tradition. Do you know Art Tatum’s version of Dvorák’s famous Humoresque? It’s ingenious and delightful. Another jazz pianist, Dick Hyman, will give you, for example, the Pilgrim’s Chorus from Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Isacoff gave us a number of apt and pleasurable pairings. I’ll cite two of them. The Andante from Schubert’s Sonata in A, Op. 120, blended into “America the Beautiful.” A sonata by Soler blended into something by Jobim, the bossa nova king. Not one of the pairings sounded forced. Together with a bassist, David Ruffels, Isacoff played with sensitivity and, above all, a clear love of music.
As I see it, Le Poisson Rouge takes some getting used to. Tell you what I mean. A couple of weeks after I heard Isacoff, I went back to hear another pianist, Joshua Rifkin. He played Bach, Joplin, and Ernesto Nazareth, a Brazilian composer of tangos. Naturally, there are bar-and-restaurant noises at Le Poisson Rouge: the clattering of dishes and so on. These didn’t bother me much during the rags and tangos (no disrespect to them, at all). During the Bach pieces? Yes.
The Budapest Festival Orchestra came to town for two concerts in Avery Fisher Hall. This is the orchestra founded by Iván Fischer and Zoltán Kocsis (the great pianist) in 1983. Fischer is their music director. And he duly led them in New York. Each of the programs mixed two composers: Haydn and Stravinsky. There was no claim of a special connection between these two, so far as I’m aware. They are just a good pairing, among many, many equally good pairings. Music administrators, critics, and others can invent musicological rationales, if they like.
The Budapesters’ second concert began with two short, fetching Stravinsky pieces, the Scherzo à la russe and the Tango. The majority of the orchestra, seated on the stage, began the Scherzo without a conductor. (At least, I think it was a majority of the orchestra.) Then, Fischer, plus additional players, walked in. The additional players stayed standing on either side of the seated orchestra (if I have remembered correctly). The conductor kind of walked around, among the players, sometimes facing the audience, and conducting all the while. It all seemed terribly gimmicky to me—but harmlessly so. During the Tango, two of the players danced. I mean, literally danced, at the front of the stage. They were competent, if not stylish.
Then it was time for Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C, whose soloist was Miklós Perényi. Some seasons ago, I heard him with the pianist András Schiff in Beethoven sonatas. Schiff is an international star, a household name (where households appreciate classical music). On this particular evening, the relatively anonymous cellist far outclassed him. This season, in the Haydn concerto, Perényi was tasteful, elegant, and refined. His sound was unforced, which was welcome—but it was also a bit small for the hall. In the middle movement, Adagio, he sounded like a singer, performing a Classical aria. And Fischer and the orchestra caught Haydn’s bending grace. The closing Allegro molto was tidy and correct—but also maybe a little dull. An ounce or two more excitement would have been in order. But Perényi is a good, honest musician, and this was good, honest music making.
After intermission came more Haydn, the Symphony No. 92 in G, nicknamed the “Oxford.” Fischer is a colorful, animated guy, and this was a colorful, animated performance. The first movement had lots of character without being obnoxious. The third movement is a minuet: Talk about music to dance to. It is at least as danceable as Stravinsky’s Tango (though everyone stayed seated). The finale, Presto, was jazzy, infectious, and fun. Fischer has an affinity for Haydn’s humor. Does he have an affinity for Stravinsky’s Firebird? He does. The printed program ended with the suite from that ballet. The Firebird ought to be spooky, beguiling, kaleidoscopic, dazzling, a little cuckoo—a wild ride. And so it was. Fischer and the orchestra lost some momentum toward the end. They did not climax as they might have. But they still gave satisfaction, much.
They also gave us an encore—an American one, The Typewriter, by Leroy Anderson. The bfo’s typist had another instrument along with him: a laptop computer. He switched to it midway through the piece. Does a laptop make enough noise to serve as an instrument? In any case, the performance was sloppy, out of coordination, the only poor, or poorish, one of the night. Still, it was a nice gesture.
Across West 65th Street from Avery Fisher Hall, Joshua Bell played a recital in Alice Tully Hall—not on the same day as the bfo concert, I hasten to add. Bell, as you know, is the violinist from Indiana. He had with him a pianist from England—Sam Haywood. It has long been clear that Bell is a musician of a very high order. What I did not know is that Haywood is an outstanding musician, too. I hadn’t heard of him. I certainly have now. For me, he was the revelation of the afternoon.
The recital began with a Brahms sonata, the Sonata No. 2 in A major. In the violin’s opening measures, Bell applied too much rubato, and schmaltzy rubato, in my view. These measures would have been better off straighter. But it was hard to fault him thereafter. The second movement, in Bell’s hands, was a simple, beautiful F-major song. If I had my way, the last movement would have started a little slower, and more religioso. I thought it was a little skippy and superficial. But Bell had his own view. By the way, I like very much the way he handles applause between movements. He gives a polite nod.
Next on the program came Schubert’s Fantasy in C major. For my money, Haywood could have stood to be a little more assertive in the Brahms. He was fully equal here. Both he and Bell played with complete maturity. Haywood was limpid and Schubertian in his passagework, and in all other matters too. There was no unwanted percussiveness, no harshness. There were no lumps in his porridge, unless he wanted to put them there. This is a rounded, smooth pianist. Notable about Bell was his rhythm, especially when the music was at its jauntiest. He made you sit up straight, smiling.
The second half of the program began with Grieg’s Sonata No. 2 in G. Bell has a keen understanding of Grieg, long has. He makes the classical and the folkloric elements blend beautifully. He exhibits no condescension whatever. The last movement of this particular work had tremendous gaiety and charm. And the whole sonata had a feeling of sweep. What I mean is, Bell, with Haywood, swept his way through it, giving no hint of segmentation. After his final flourish, the woman sitting next to me said—involuntarily, I think—“Wow.” She was quite right. When he plays this way, Bell is truly the son of Kreisler—the most Kreislerian violinist before us today.
He announced the final works from the stage. First came Sibelius’s Romance, which he rendered with an alert dreaminess. That is, the music was dreamy but the violinist had his feet firmly on the ground. Then he said he was going to play “somewhat of a showpiece, you might say.” I like the way he put that. What he played was Wieniawski’s Polonaise brillante, and he did so with huge panache. To conclude the afternoon was a transcription. Here is how Bell announced it: “They call Wieniawski ‘The Chopin of the Violin.’ I would now like to play something by The Chopin of the Piano: Chopin.” He played the Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Op. posth. (in I believe the Milstein transcription). He demonstrated, among other things, a superb sense of line. Even with much embroidery going on—violinistic filigree—he kept his eye and ear on that line, the musical line. If Chopin could have heard it, he might have regarded his nocturne as a violin piece.
Around this time, I read an item in the news: A recital of Bell’s in Bethesda, Maryland, had been snowed out. But some people showed up, and Bell played a little for them in the lobby. I thought of a story about Heifetz—related by Schuyler Chapin at Bill Buckley’s table. Chapin had been Heifetz’s tour manager, among many other roles in life. One night, Heifetz was to play a recital in one of the Dakotas. There was a terrible snowstorm. Just a few people managed to make it to the hall. Heifetz came to the foot of the stage and said, “Seeing as there are so few of us, why don’t we skip the music and retire to my hotel for a nice dinner?” A man at the back called out, “Mister, I drove here two hours in a blizzard, and I’m not leaving until you sing something!” (Should I say that Heifetz was a violinist?)
A great concern of the music world has been the health of James Levine. He took the stage of Carnegie Hall for a concert with his Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. He did so with the help of a cane. Then he climbed into his chair, a swivel chair on the podium—and conducted with tremendous energy and flair. At one point, he did a 360 in that chair. The audience both giggled and gasped. Someone remarked to me, “He ought to get a seatbelt.” Five nights later, he was in similarly fine form: this time sitting in the opera pit. The work was Simon Boccanegra, that Verdi masterpiece. As he so often does, Levine told the story through his conducting. To put it another way, he told it orchestrally. At the end, he did not take the stage for a bow. He waved from the pit, with a spotlight on him. May he return to the stage, post-operas, soon.
In the title role of Simone was Dmitri Hvorostovsky, the Siberian tiger. He did not have his best vocal outing: For one thing, he did a lot of sharping. But his overall operatic abilities, so abundant, won out. Besides, he looked smashing in Michael Scott’s costumes: those capes and swords and so on. Ferruccio Furlanetto, the great Italian bass, was Fiesco. He started roughly, but by the end he was singing with authority both terrifying and touching. Ramón Vargas was Adorno. This Mexican tenor owns a beautiful voice, and he has always been adequate, or a little better. I had heard him sing maybe twenty times. Thirty? I had never heard him sing like he did on this night: like a star.
Simon Boccanegra is a very manly opera, with hardly a woman to be seen. The female character is Amelia, and she was portrayed by Barbara Frittoli, the Italian soprano. She almost stole the show from all those vaunted men. Frittoli has always been an endearing singer. She exudes goodness, purity, graciousness. For this reason (among others), she makes an excellent Desdemona, in another Verdi opera. And an excellent Amelia. She sang this role with beauty of sound, technical control, and musical-theatrical understanding. And bear with me while I make an analogy to golf. In golf, we sometimes refer to a player as “sneaky long.” That means you don’t think of him as a power hitter. But, somehow, he gets it out there. In some quiet, unostentatious way, he has hit it 285 yards. Well, Frittoli has sneaky power. She is a dear lyric soprano, yes. But all of a sudden, you think, “Whoa—that’s loud. As well as poised and beautiful.”
Giving a recital in Carnegie Hall was Jean-Yves Thibaudet, the French pianist. His program was all-Liszt: This is the bicentennial of that composer’s birth. Thibaudet played Consolations, Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este, Deux légendes, and more. Perhaps I could begin this short review by saying what was wrong with his playing. It won’t take long.
He was often quite dry in his sound. His fortes and fortissimos were brittle or muted. In fact, the whole piano, upon that Carnegie stage, sounded muted—strangely dampened. The action seemed terribly light, allowing for maximum speed along the keyboard (as well as for other things). Thibaudet played his Liszt like a Frenchman, like an Impressionist. That’s all right by me, but some people prefer a more traditional Liszt: Romantic, swashbuckling, lush, and brilliant. Thibaudet’s approach to Liszt does not really differ from his approach to Debussy or Ravel. Finally, he committed one bad accent—it occurred on a little chord in the right hand, which came off too harshly. It did not fit the line.
And what was right? Well, Thibaudet is a genius of the piano, to put it bluntly. He has a Horowitzian technique—a ridiculous technique, a circus technique, a Lisztian or Cziffra-esque technique—and a profoundly musical soul. He is the most singerly pianist imaginable: the King of Cantabile, the Sultan of Smooth. His sense of line, and weight, is positively supernatural. Even amidst Liszt’s torrents of notes, the line was observed. In pedaling, he is exemplary: knowing when to be clean, knowing when to blur, able to achieve all the gradations. Sometimes the piano sounded like no piano at all—the furthest thing from a percussion instrument—but like a zither or something. Sometimes you could not tell how the keys were being depressed: Thibaudet simply floated. Never has the légende about St. Francis and the birds sounded so birdy; never have the water pieces sounded so watery. If there was ever a case for Liszt as Impressionist, Thibaudet made it.
I could go on, but I will end with this: Sooner or later, when Thibaudet is creaky or planted, he will be universally acclaimed as a pianistic genius. An immortal. Might as well accept it now. No one likes a bandwagoneer.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 29 Number 7, on page 58
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