Lera Auerbach has a braggy bio, as most musicians do. Actually, she has more than one such bio, published in different places. It must be said, though, she has a lot to brag about. One bio tells us that, in addition to being a composer, Auerbach is “a prizewinning poet and novelist.” She has just had the premiere of an opera, Gogol, in Vienna. It is based on a play of her own writing. Another of the bios says, “A virtuoso performer, Auerbach continues the great tradition of pianist-composers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and her upcoming engagements as a soloist include . . . the world premiere of her piano concerto with [the] Stuttgart Philharmonic.” Doubtless, she is a talented woman, Lera Auerbach.
She was born in Russia—the Soviet Union—in 1973. She went to the United States in 1991, and studied at Juilliard. In 1999, when she was twenty-five and twenty-six, she wrote three sets of preludes—twenty-four in each set, as is standard. The sets were for piano, cello and piano, and violin and piano. Schumann had a famous “year of song,” 1840, when songs simply poured out of him, in a great gush of inspiration. Nineteen-ninety-nine seems to have been Auerbach’s “year of preludes.”
We heard some of them in Zankel Hall, in a recital by Leonidas Kavakos, the violinist, and his pianist, Enrico Pace. They played ten of the preludes from, of course, the violin-and-piano set. In these preludes, the violin and the piano have equal importance. The ten that these musicians gave us have a great variety. Some are frankly Romantic, some are Modern, even Stockhausen-like. There is a range of moods, as the composer’s markings suggest: “Tragico,” “Agitato,” “Misterioso,” “Adagio sognando” (i.e., a dreaming adagio). Several of these preludes are quite simple, and it is to Auerbach’s credit that she’s not afraid to be simple: “’Tis the gift to be simple,” goes an old hymn. Also, the preludes tend to be the right length: not too short and, blessedly, not too long.
Listening to Kavakos and Pace—and Auerbach—I found myself looking forward to seeing what the next prelude would bring. As she puts pen to paper, Auerbach is trying things out, feeling her oats, exploring music with its various keys (twelve major and twelve minor) and moods. I would call the preludes “exercises,” but they are more than that: They’re accomplished compositions. (Scarlatti called his keyboard works esercizi, but they are accomplished, for sure.) Moreover, Auerbach gives the impression, in these preludes, of loving music: loving music and its fabulous possibilities. I think you hear a sense of discovery and satisfaction.
It’s heartening, too, to see composers writing preludes, after all these years, after these several centuries. It is an excellent form. A man in Bonn, Christian Gottlob Neefe, gave his student Ludwig van Beethoven the two books of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. They showed him music and its possibilities, and they stood him in good stead all career through. By the way, where are Auerbach’s fugues?
The violin-and-piano recital started at 7:30. Starting at 8, an opera was heard in Carnegie Hall: Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, from 1902. It was a concert performance, of course, and the star was Angela Gheorghiu, the Romanian soprano. The co-star was Jonas Kaufmann, the German tenor. The two of them did this opera at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, last season. You may not know the opera, but you may well know two arias from it, both for soprano: “Poveri fiori,” a verismo scorcher, and “Io son l’umile ancella,” a beautiful, arching, soaring thing. The latter aria is a statement about art: “I am but the humble servant of the creative Spirit.” Do you know any sopranos who could be classified as humble servants? Anyway, it’s a deservedly famous piece. Leontyne Price almost never gave a recital without including it as an encore. Once, as she held that glorious final note, she exited the stage, waving. Or maybe I simply remember it that way.
Gheorghiu had a ball as Adriana, singing her heart out, milking the part for all it was worth. Say what you will about her—and people say many things, for and against—she has extraordinary musical and theatrical instincts. Also, has anyone ever loved a crowd more? Did Caruso? Speaking of Caruso, he was the Maurizio of his time (as he was many characters of his time). Kaufmann took this part, and took it by storm. He sang with correctness and ardor. Never had I heard him more commanding. He’s enjoying a big career, Kaufmann is, as evidenced by the fact that he was accorded a solo recital in, of all places, the Metropolitan Opera House. This was in October.
Adriana Lecouvreur came to us courtesy of OONY, the Opera Orchestra of New York. They present operas that are seldom staged, and this is a great favor. I have never heard Donizetti’s last opera, Dom Sébastien, except from OONY. It is a meritorious opera, too. Five years ago, they gave us the “other” Cilea opera, L’arlesiana, known in English as The Girl from Arles. That was a wonderful night. OONY is a little underappreciated in the press, but manifestly appreciated by the public, who pack the hall for these events.
Ian Bostridge and Thomas Adès occupied the same hall, Carnegie, for a recital. They are prominent Englishmen, the former a tenor, the latter a composer—and a pianist. I have lauded the composer’s abilities as a pianist many times. In 2005, I intended to write about the Adès piano quintet, new on CD. I did so. But I was perhaps more enthusiastic about Adès’s playing in another piano quintet, Schubert’s “Trout,” with which his own work was paired. Adès is not just a composer who happens to play the piano: He’s a real pianist. And Bostridge is a real tenor. He is known as cerebral, tasteful, and pure—some people’s idea of a recitalist. In my view, singers of all types make good recitalists: cerebral and pure ones, “operatic” and lusty ones, all sorts. What it comes down to, besides repertoire, is musicality. Do you have it or not?
Bostridge and Adès began their program with a Dowland song, “In darkness let me dwell.” It was good to see them honoring their national musical heritage. Then, without pause or applause, Adès played a piano piece of his own, Darknesse Visible—which is meant as a response to the Dowland song. As Adès played, Bostridge sat in a chair at the other end of the piano, sipping water. Again there was no pause, and no applause, and Bostridge returned for a song by György Kurtág, “Hölderlin: An . . .” Once more, no pause, no applause: The two went right into Schumann’s song-cycle Dichterliebe (composed, as you might imagine, in “the year of song,” 1840).
That was really weird. I can understand no pause between the Dowland song and the Adès piece, because the living composer intends the two to be connected. But should there have been seamlessness between Darknesse Visible and the Kurtág, and between Kurtág and Dichterliebe? Come on. This was a false seamlessness, in my opinion—a strained one. A conceit. It seems that everyone likes to make musicological or intellectual points. They are beloved by concert programmers and critics. I don’t think they are beloved by audiences, and I believe that, in this case, the audiences are right.
Singing the Dowland song, Bostridge suffered a bit of flatness, but he obviously knows what to do with this music. And Adès obviously knows how to play his own pieces. Some composers make good advocates of their music, even definitive ones; other composers, not at all. Bostridge negotiated “Hölderlin: An . . .” adequately. By the way, this has been a very good New York music season for Friedrich Hölderlin, a German poet who lived from 1770 (the year of Beethoven’s birth as well) to 1843 (he had sixteen more years than Beethoven, although Hölderlin’s was a very sad life). Merkin Hall hosted a concert of music by Michael Hersch, an American born in the same year as Adès, 1971. One of the pieces on the program was a violin-and-viola piece called After Hölderlin’s Hälfte des Lebens.
Dichterliebe? Singers of many types have sung it, and can sing it: male and female, high and low, heavy and light. What do you regard as the ideal voice for this cycle? I say, again, that much depends on musicality—the question of whether you can convince or not. Christine Schäfer, a light lyric soprano, is a singer of Schubert’s Winterreise. Traditionally, Winterreise is associated with a bass or baritone such as Hans Hotter. But Schäfer can really and truly convince. Our recitalist, Bostridge, makes a fairly thin, small sound. It is not to everyone’s taste. There is a touch of the English choirboy about it. But Bostridge has gone far with that voice, and it is usually governed by a musical intelligence.
Some songs in Dichterliebe were more successful than others. “Ich grolle nicht,” that arresting, powerful thing, was unsuccessful. It was simply too low for Bostridge. And it had no power, no oomph, no anything. Adès, however, accompanied the song with exemplary resoluteness. All through the cycle, Bostridge faked his low notes. But he had other notes, and he contributed many an admirable moment. One of them was at the beginning of “Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen”: Those passages had the beauty, eagerness, and appreciation they need.
As you may be able to tell, this recital got me thinking about voice types, and what is legitimate and what is not, and what is desirable and what is not. I thought of Schwarzkopf and her singing of “Care selve,” the aria from Handel’s Atalanta; I thought of Price, and her singing of the same. They both handled this aria superbly, and, in fact, unforgettably. But they did not sing it like a Handel specialist. They sang it like a masterly singing musician. I will happily listen to the Handel specialists, too—but musicality must rule.
The Met revived Handel’s Rodelinda, placing in the pit Harry Bicket, the English Handel specialist. The beginning music was painful, to my ears: fast, airless, and cramped. The Met orchestra sounded like Musica Antiqua Köln. Why? Can’t a person go to Köln for that? There is obviously a middle ground between the wheat-germ approach to Baroque and Baroque-as-Aida. The Met, in my opinion, should stand on this ground. Five years ago, I heard Bicket conduct a Messiah, and, I swear, it was a Messiah to make you forsake religion. When the chorus sang, “For unto us a Child is born,” you got the distinct impression they weren’t happy about it.
After the Rodelinda overture, it came as a great relief to hear a human voice—and not just any voice, but one of the best around, Renée Fleming’s. At last we had air through the sound. At last we had color and warmth. Fleming, of course, was singing the title role, and she had an outstanding night. She reminded you why she became famous—why she rose to the top of the heap—in the first place. She gave a clinic in breathing, phrasing, rhythm, accentuation, and other things. Her intonation was solid. She can trill more easily than many singers who are supposed to specialize in such tricks as trilling. A natural Handelian, she sang with freedom while never leaving the bounds of taste. “Musicality,” in a word.
Opposite Fleming as Bertarido was Andreas Scholl, the German countertenor. He is a very good one. But his voice proved small—pathetically small—for the Metropolitan Opera House. His singing was on the pathetic side too. Bertarido is the character who sings “Dove sei,” that wonderful aria that we used to know in English as “Art thou troubled?” (“Music will calm thee.”) Scholl did not lay a glove on it. It was without life, dull, not itself. As Scholl smashed up the set at the end of an act, I thought, “A character who sings so weakly should not have the strength to do that.” One interesting thing about Scholl’s performance is that he showed a flash of baritone. Beneath more than a few countertenors lies a baritone.
The Met’s production of Rodelinda is in the hands of Stephen Wadsworth. He does his best to ensure that the cast does not stand and sing. (Scholl, after all, smashes up.) But, you know? In opera, there is naturally a lot of standing and singing, and this is perhaps especially true of Baroque opera. There is no need to move around, to act up, just for the sake of doing so. In the middle of some nice Handel aria, Wadsworth will have the singer furiously throw an object against a wall. It’s as though the director is saying, “I am not a potted plant! I have a job!” There is an old adage, or counter-adage, that goes, “Don’t just do something, stand there.”
I have been hard on Maestro Bicket—as well as on others—but he is clearly a learned and capable man (so is Wadsworth, of course). Certain parts of the score benefited from his vigor, incisiveness, and propulsion. But often the score calls for more stateliness, more bloom, a relaxed fist. And before leaving this opera, I’d like to relate something that Renée Fleming said in an interview earlier this year. Some operagoers have a complaint about Rodelinda, she said. Oh, what’s that? It has a happy ending, and, by golly, when you go to the opera house, you deserve a tragic ending, or at least a sad one.
The Borromeo String Quartet played a concert in Weill Recital Hall. The group’s program consisted of two works, both in D minor: Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 1 and the Schubert quartet known as “Death and the Maiden.” Before the players played, they talked. Or at least the first violinist did. Someone had decided that the Schoenberg work, written in 1904 and 1905, needed some special pleading, or special explanation. So, we got a little concert-lecture, complete with demonstrations. (“Then you will hear this little tune . . .”) It used to be, you could read the program notes or not. But now they recite the program notes from the stage, and you are hostage. You may not have signed up for a music-appreciation class—but you’re going to get one, whether you like it or not. Is there anything that can kill a musical evening faster than talk?
In the end, the Borromeos played the Schoenberg very well. They had three key ingredients: attentiveness, integration, and understanding. The first violinist, Nicholas Kitchen, for all my kvetching about him, was very assured. The others were hardly less so. Schoenberg’s concluding D major—a masterstroke—was not quite in tune, but good enough. The Borromeos had “sold” the piece with their playing, not their talking.
Visually, there were some curious things to note on the stage. First, the Borromeos used a configuration you don’t see very often: Sitting next to the first violinist—i.e., to his left—was the violist. Next to her was the cellist. And next to her, on the end, was the other violinist. Second, one of the players, the violist, was great with child. This baby must have heard a lot of music already, up close and personal. And baby has heard music of a very intense kind. Finally, were those laptops on the players’ music stands? They were—big, shiny, silver laptops. The players stared at them intently. I did not see how they turned pages.
At intermission, a friend of mine went up to the stage and spotted pedals—evidently, you turn the pages with your foot. (Am I the last to know?) Another friend made a noteworthy point: “I’m glad I’ve lived long enough to hear ensembles play Schoenberg’s First Quartet without a lot of struggle. Without confusion. By this time, it’s another piece in the repertoire, not some forbidding mountain to climb.”
Before the “Death and the Maiden,” there was no talking from the stage. The players simply played—and played magnificently. Their suspensefulness in the first movement was extraordinary. In the second movement, Andante con moto, they did not forget the “moto,” but neither did they rush. The music had a quality of sad merriment, a Schubertian quality indeed. The Borromeos played with a distinct lack of fear; this was so throughout the four movements. The players were bold, unafraid, not handling this music with sugar tongs. They played it like it was a piece, not a masterpiece, if you know what I mean. They were free of the wrong kind of awe or carefulness. In the second movement, the cellist, Yeesun Kim, was so authoritative, I am tempted to call her leader-like.
Let me jump to the concluding Presto: I like its opening measures on little cat feet; from this group, it was heavier and blunter than that. I like the movement as a whole to be subtle and nimble; this group was more straight-ahead, almost steamrolling. And they were persuasive in all they did. Their coda—Schubert’s coda—was smoking hot. Also, you had to admire the brevity of their final chord, which is to say, their refusal to hold that chord too long. These are smart musicians, knowing the score, literally. The applause in Weill Recital Hall was boisterous, more like the applause after Tosca than after a chamber concert.
For many years, I have praised the twelve men of Chanticleer for their unity, precision, and pitch. How can this a cappella group remain in tune, note after note, song after song? In a Christmas concert at the Metropolitan Museum, Homer nodded a bit: There was some disunity, and imprecision, and flatness. It showed that Chanticleer was human. But they were still pretty much nonpareil—not as human as all that.
In the middle of their program came a Polish carol—a carol-lullaby—called “Lulajze, Jezuniu.” It had been arranged—“adapted” was the word used in the program notes—by Steven Stucky, a contemporary American composer. In this adaptation, it is otherworldly and surprising, something new under the sun (or at least to me). Not quite new is Die Stimme des Kindes, though it’s by another contemporary composer: Chanticleer included it on their 2001 Christmas album. The piece is by Jaakko Mäntyjärvi, a Finn (though the second part of his last name makes me think of the Estonian family of musicians, the Järvis). Die Stimme des Kindes is hauntingly beautiful, pleasantly woozy in its modulations. Gentle waves wash over you as you listen. According to those program notes, Mäntyjärvi “is currently employed as a translator and computer system manager at The English Centre Helsinki, a private translation company.”
At the group’s performance of familiar carols, I could pick. “O Holy Night” was weirdly, and wrongly, I believe, anthemic. I could pick at soloists too: The men were better as a group than they were individually, which I suppose is to be desired. One singer who did not have a solo was Cortez Mitchell, who once sang just about the most beautiful “Summertime” this side of Leontyne. What cannot be picked at is the group’s general disposition. A musician friend of mine said, “Did you see the expressions on those faces? They actually enjoyed making music. You could tell that they counted it as a privilege. Do you know how rare that is in our business?” All too.
Traditionally at these concerts, Chanticleer ends its printed program with a medley of spirituals or gospel songs. Tucked into the most recent medley was “Oh, What a Pretty Little Baby.” As Chanticleer sang it, I thought, “This may be the happiest I have been all year.” It was that wonderful.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 Number 5, on page 69
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