Kurt Masur was music director of the New York Philharmonic from 1991 to 2002. Since then, he has returned as a guest conductor, as he did in mid-April. He conducted two works: Les Préludes, the tone poem by Liszt, and Brahms’s First Symphony. He did not conduct a third work on the program, Sofia Gubaidulina’s Two Paths, a concerto for two violas. That was taken care of by the Philharmonic’s assistant conductor, Daniel Boico (and taken care of very well, too). Masur conducted the premiere of this concerto in 1999. Why didn’t he conduct this recent performance? A note slipped into our programs told the tale: Owing to an eye infection, he could not read the score. As you might expect, he has the Liszt and the Brahms in memory.
Masur is in his mid-eighties now, and thinner than he was—also maybe slower of foot. But he is his essential self. He plants his feet firmly on a podium. No conductor takes a more powerful stance. You have the feeling that the Chicago Bears’ line could not dislodge him. His left hand was shaking badly on the night I attended. (Masur gave the concert in question three times.) Mainly, he gripped it on the rail behind him, and conducted with his right hand. No baton, as usual. And he conducted very, very well. The Liszt was stirring and noble. In politics—presidential politics—we used to talk about “gravitas.” Masur has that, in spades. And authority. He conducted the Liszt with a special blend of Romanticism and Classicism. He is not one to allow a blowsiness.
And the Brahms symphony? On the whole, it was superb. We heard more gravitas, more nobility, more authority. I remember something a critic once wrote, and I think it was Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times. Masur had conducted a particular work, said Tommasini, with “almost a morality.” That was a good observation. But Masur can adapt to the music at hand. Oddly enough, the best Boléro I ever heard was from Masur. He is sometimes painted as a sober, gruff kapellmeister, and I suppose he can be. But this Boléro was riveting. Anyway, back to the Brahms: whose tempos were slower than we are now used to. But they were by no means wrong tempos. My guess is, they were the tempos Masur grew up with, in the Brahms First. The third movement was like a pacific, and pacifying, stream. The buildup to the great C-major hymn at the end was deft and magnificent. The hymn was suitably glorious.
I attended on a Saturday night, the last of the Masur concerts. Was it the last one ever, with this orchestra? It was certainly not announced as such. But the evening had a valedictory feel. The audience was very reluctant to leave, staying and staying, and clapping and clapping. They even broke into rhythmic clapping, which is rare for an American audience. Masur hugged and kissed many members of the orchestra. An emotional occasion.
In March, Evgeny Kissin, the Russian pianist, gave a recital in Carnegie Hall, all-Liszt. It was a recital to linger in the memory. I have never heard him play so well, and I have heard him for many years. Some of us critics remarked that he seemed to have grown, musically. About a month later, he was back in Carnegie Hall, this time playing a concerto, and not Liszt: With the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra under James Levine, he played Chopin’s Concerto in E minor. Kissin will turn forty later this year. When he was twelve, he made a famous recording of the E-minor concerto, and the other Chopin concerto (in F minor). I can still picture him in his red Young Pioneers scarf. That scarf, like the Soviet Union, is now history. Kissin has traded it for concert tails. He is one of the very few who wear them. Not for Kissin is today’s uniform, that solid-black Mao-style jumpsuit. Thank heaven.
When he was twelve, Kissin played the E-minor concerto, and everything else he played, with uncanny self-possession. He still does. His concentration is absolutely unshakable. I have some complaints about his performance with the Met Orchestra, however. In the first movement, particularly, there was some bad rubato. I think especially of some pauses that were far from musical. Stabler rhythm would have been helpful. In the second movement, the Romanza, Kissin could have used a better singing line—which leads to a broader complaint: His sound overall was dry, bony, and percussive. I wish he would beautify it more often. In his favor, though, was his playing of the Rondo, which had great character. It was super-Polish, sharply and pleasingly etched.
Kissin played an encore, and it was more Chopin: the Scherzo in B-flat minor. This is an incredibly long piece for an encore after a concerto (with the orchestra sitting there, waiting, indulgent). It would be long even after a recital program. Some years ago, in Avery Fisher Hall, Leif Ove Andsnes played L’Isle joyeuse (Debussy) after a recital program. I thought that was wrongly long. L’Isle joyeuse is no encore; it belongs on a program. But the B-flat-minor scherzo was really audacious. Kissin might as well have sung Götterdämmerung.
A few days after Kissin played his Chopin, another Russian pianist, Nikolai Lugansky, played Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2 in C minor. This was also in Carnegie Hall, and it was with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, under Yuri Temirkanov. I must indict Lugansky on the same charge that I leveled against Kissin: a dry, bony, unsuitable sound. The Rachmaninoff requires a big, fat, lush sound, much of the time—a Rubinstein sound. The sound Lugansky made was one you might want in, say, middle Beethoven. But he has many strengths, and these were on display. Lugansky is a brainy, exacting, serious-minded pianist. How many times have I written, “He’s the son of two scientists, and plays like it”? Too many, probably. This Rachmaninoff Second had a clinical quality, which this concerto rarely does. And the last movement was amazingly well defined. But, again, this concerto requires a lushness, a splendor, that Lugansky could not bring. And I will say something about the very end of the concerto: those four notes, Rachmaninoff’s signature notes, in a sense. In my view, they ought to be played strictly in time. That’s how they pack their punch. Lugansky and Temirkanov put a ritard in them. Oh, well.
This pianist, like Kissin, played an encore, only it was much shorter: Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G-sharp minor, a perfect choice, exquisitely played.
I will mention one more pianist, this one an amateur, and a praiseworthy one. He is Stephen Schoenbaum, a doctor and executive in New York. He is a friend of mine. And he celebrated his seventieth birthday in fine, imaginative style. He invited his friends—and there are legions of them—to a concert. This was a chamber concert in which he served as pianist, alongside three professional string players. The professionals were secured by Mei Ying, who runs the Jupiter Symphony Chamber Players. This concert was held at the church where the Jupiter concerts are regularly held: the Good Shepherd-Faith Presbyterian Church near Lincoln Center.
I mention this event for two reasons. First to say that amateur musicianship is not dead, which is a relief. And second to say that, between piano quartets by Beethoven and Brahms, I was introduced to a new composer—a composer new to me, that is. She is Mélanie Bonis, a Frenchwoman who lived from 1858 to 1937. She was trained by Franck, among others. And, early in her career, she composed as “Mel Bonis,” to disguise her sex. Steve Schoenbaum et al. played her Piano Quartet in D, Op. 124, which contains much good music. It is a characteristic and enjoyable expression of French Romanticism. I don’t say that Bonis is an undiscovered genius. I do say that she is well worth knowing—and that it’s a pleasure to meet a new composer, 150-some years after that composer’s birth.
The St. Petersburg Philharmonic came to Carnegie Hall for two concerts. Lugansky was the soloist on the first concert, and Alisa Weilerstein did the honors on the second. Several years ago, I said, “Isn’t it interesting that two of the very best musicians in the whole world are girl cellists?” I was speaking of Weilerstein and Han-Na Chang, both born in 1982. Weilerstein’s concerto with the St. Petersburg forces was Shostakovich’s No. 1. She did some excellent playing, of course. Throughout the concerto, she showed rhythmic poise, tonal poise, poise in general. The second movement was beautiful, especially in its soft singing. And the cadenza was shrewdly handled.
You may sense a “but” coming, and here it is: This concerto is full of fear, suffering, panic, and similar emotions. They did not quite come through in this poised rendering.
In his two concerts, Maestro Temirkanov conducted several pieces, besides the two concertos. But I would like to speak here only of the encores. There was one on each night. In my experience, there are two encores that Russian orchestras like to play when abroad. First and foremost, they play the Trepak from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. They also play the Death of Tybalt, from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. But Temirkanov, I have noticed, favors Elgar. For his first encore, he conducted Salut d’amour, one of the dearest pieces ever composed. And he conducted it just that way. The next night, he conducted the Nimrod Variation, one of the most nobly beautiful things ever composed. And, again, he conducted it just that way. Oh, did Temirkanov love it, as he loves music at large: a precious trait, and not as common in a professional musician as you would think.
Il trovatore is one of the most Verdian of all Verdi operas, and the Met revived it in the production of David McVicar—a newish production, unveiled in 2009. It is a smokingly Verdian production, too. You can pick at it, and many of us did, at the premiere, but it still reeks of the opera—of Il trovatore—which is what a production should do. I attended on a hot Wednesday night this year. I am not speaking of a late-April balminess. I am speaking of the Verdian heat inside the house. Conductor, orchestra, cast, chorus—everyone did his part, everyone was in gutsy Verdian mode.
Singing the title role of Manrico—the troubadour or “trovatore”—was Marcelo Álvarez, the tenor from Argentina. He may not have had enough juice for “Di quella pira,” the character’s big aria; but he did justice to the part in general. Our Leonora was the go-to Verdi soprano of today, Sondra Radvanovsky. She poured forth her wonderful carpet of sound: a carpet that blends velvet and smoke. She was often flat, but she was always game, always brave, in this difficult and risky part. Dmitri Hvorostovsky was Luna, looking smashing, and singing in long, long lines. How many times did he take a breath all evening, twice? Renée Fleming once observed that he must have a third lung. Dolora Zajick, that miracle of longevity, was Azucena. She has sounded essentially the same for decades. And she made her usual impact. Tell you something strange, however. In 2009, her Azucena let out a wonderful cackle at the end. This year, she only smiled, with triumphant evil. I like the cackle.
The smaller parts were admirably filled, by Stefan Kocán, for example, and Maria Zifchak. (He was Ferrando, she was Inez.) In the pit was Marco Armiliato, full of fire from the opening note. Across the aisle from me, a man was snoring robustly. He must have been very tired. It was such an exciting evening. The periodic applause woke him up, and he would join in, which was nice.
Back to Carnegie Hall, which hosted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, right after the St. Petersburg Philharmonic left. The cso played three concerts, under its new music director, Riccardo Muti, the veteran Italian conductor. The third of these concerts began with one of Muti’s ancestors—musical ancestors, I mean: Luigi Cherubini. This conductor is a champion of his. I hasten to say, however, that Cherubini is not merely for Italians. Beethoven admired him. And Callas—a Greek American, or American Greek, though an honorary Italian—gave him a boost by singing the title role of his Medea so well. At Carnegie Hall, Muti conducted Cherubini’s Overture in G (1815). He conducted it in a neat, nifty fashion. The orchestra was in ideal balance. The playing was clean, very clean, without being sterile. Dynamics were expertly judged, and they were of the “terrace” variety: For example, the orchestra went from mezzo-piano to mezzo-forte without a surge, or crescendo, in between. Cherubini’s overture was both strong and graceful, with all the parts fitting.
The big work on the program was Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. Muti sculpted the first movement beautifully. He is that: a beautiful sculptor. I remember remarking on this last season, when he conducted Verdi’s Attila at the Met. And yet Shostakovich’s first movement was a little too pretty. As with the cello concerto I mentioned earlier, the music could have used more fear, more anxiety. Moreover, there were technical glitches, as in the part that features the piano. The piano, along with some other instruments, was out of synch. Unless I’m mistaken, Muti fixed the pianist with one of his notorious sustained glares. I really felt for the woman. The second movement, marked Allegretto, began with some terrific playing from the low strings. But this movement, like its predecessor, was not glitch-free. I mention this only because the cso is such a virtuosic machine.
How about the slow movement, one of the most beautiful slow movements in the entire symphonic literature? It was beautiful indeed, practically dreamlike. But the finale—for me, at least—was a letdown. Missing was rawness. And Muti did some strange interpreting, particularly where rhythm was concerned. Strange and stiff. The music was not itself, no matter how impressive the playing was.
Stay in Carnegie Hall, but depart from classical music. This year, the hall is celebrating its 120th anniversary. It honored what you might call “the non-classical Carnegie” with a star-studded gala. Who were some of the stars? Bette Midler, Barbara Cook, Steve Martin, and Sting, for four. What were these guys doing? They were representing vaudeville, folk music, Broadway, jazz, comedy, rock, and so on. Bette Midler sang “My Yiddishe Momme,” as hammily and jokily as possible. She could not hide that it is a moving song, however. Steve Martin both played the banjo and told jokes. He is very good at both. The gala had an emcee and dominant presence: James Taylor, the singer-songwriter. At the beginning, when Taylor strapped on his guitar, a man said to his wife, “Wow”—as though saying, “I can’t believe we’re lucky enough to hear what we’re about to hear.” He was rightly excited and grateful.
Taylor is one of the best of his breed. And Carnegie officials engaged him to do a “Perspectives” series in the hall, a series of four concerts. The second one, following the gala, was billed as a “Roots” concert. In the company of various guests, Taylor exhibited what he said was in his “dna”: Protestant hymns, Stephen Foster, Rodgers & Hammerstein, and more. Taylor is a musical ecumenist. He seems to be the type to appreciate what is good in all genres—which is one mark of a true musician. When he sings, he does so with ease. He is comfortable in his voice, and he makes an audience comfortable too. I will say, relatedly, that he is the most affable, most amusing, and most engaging talker to an audience I have ever heard in a concert hall. He knows just what to say—and how much.
As a songwriter? People have spoken about the “timelessness” of James Taylor’s songs. They are right. The best of them seem always to have existed. In fact, Taylor quoted someone—I didn’t catch who it was. Another songwriter. “It’s not so much that I have written these songs as that I was the first to hear them.” There is a reason Taylor’s albums have sold over 50 million copies. The buyers are not misguided. Taylor himself is in our “dna.” As I was listening to him sing his “Carolina in My Mind,” I thought of something Liberace said. The best compliment he ever received from a critic was this: “True, Liberace is no Rubinstein. But then, Rubinstein is no Liberace.” What James Taylor does, he does surpassingly well.
On my way out of the hall, after this Roots concert, I encountered a big figure in the music business—the classical-music business. I said, “For my money, this was one of the most musical evenings we’ll have all season.” She said, “No question. Totally musical.”
The beginning of this season saw the debut of the Met’s new production of The Ring of the Nibelung, Wagner’s mighty and sublime tetralogy. The production is in the hands of Robert Lepage, the Canadian director. In my November chronicle, I spilled a lot of ink on his Rheingold. (As you know, Das Rheingold is the first installment of The Ring, followed by Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung.) I did not spill friendly ink, either. Now we have seen Lepage’s Walküre. I will spill much less ink on this one. And it will be friendlier. The Walküre, in my opinion, is far better than the Rheingold: more interesting, more fitting, more worthy. I will pick just a little.
While Siegmund sings about his stormy past, we see flashbacks behind him: cartoon-like figures in silhouette. (These things are never very easy to describe—though I should not make excuses.) I think the flashbacks are distracting and unneeded. Wagner’s libretto and music suffice to tell the tale. When spring comes, the sky turns green, in kind of a paint-by-the-numbers way. Too blunt. When Fricka comes, she sits on a freaky, creaky throne. But there are some beautiful things in this Walküre, particularly in Act II. And I’m happy to report that Wotan has acquired an eye patch. In Das Rheingold last fall, part of his hair flopped over half of his face. This took the place of a patch. I thought I could tell that it was driving the Wotan, Bryn Terfel, nuts. It was driving me a little nuts, too.
In Die Walküre, the title warrioress—Brünnhilde, the number-one Valkyrie—was portrayed by Deborah Voigt. For years, she was Sieglinde in this opera, and a great Sieglinde she was. Unforgettable. She proved a savvy, capable Brünnhilde, even if her high notes were uncertain on the night I attended. Terfel, as Wotan, spared her from singing one of those notes during the hojotohos—because he goosed her with his spear, causing her to yelp. As I noted after Das Rheingold, Terfel makes an intensely, unusually human Wotan, as opposed to a godlike one. In Die Walküre, he often seemed a peer or sibling of Brünnhilde, rather than a father figure. But he had justification for everything he did. And a beautiful voice like his is a treat in Wotan’s Farewell.
Eva-Maria Westbroek is a justly famous and beloved Sieglinde, and she assumed that part at the Met—but only for an act or so. Under the weather, she was replaced by Margaret Jane Wray, who was splendid. I’ve never understood why this soprano doesn’t have a greater reputation. Jonas Kaufmann sang Siegmund in a dark, slightly hooded, virile manner—quite effective. Hans-Peter König was sturdy and arresting as Hunding. And Stephanie Blythe gave us her usual booming, authoritative Fricka. I don’t think this character needs to be so shrewish, however. The annoying thing about Fricka is that, when you get right down to it, she’s right. She may be a henpecker. But she’s a truth-teller, too.
Crowning this performance was James Levine, the conductor. He delivered his customary Beethoven-like Wagner. I don’t believe his approach to Fidelio differs much from his approach to The Ring. For decades, we have been able to take Levine for granted. By that I mean, we have been able to count on first-rate, sometimes revelatory conducting. He teaches you something about The Ride of the Valkyries: which has, not just strength and abandon, but beauty.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 29 Number 10, on page 53
Copyright © 2020 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com