For many years, Christoph von Dohnányi has been a gray eminence of the podium—white eminence, actually. Now that Colin Davis is gone, he has the best shock of white hair in music. He guest-conducted the New York Philharmonic in two canonical works: the Brahms First Piano Concerto and the Schumann Second Symphony. Before the concert began, I talked a bit with a senior music critic. He said, “Dohnányi has always been a snore.” My answer is, he is sometimes a snore, and sometimes superb. And even when he’s a snore, he is musically respectable. This particular evening, I’m sorry to say, was quite snorey.
He had some help from Paul Lewis, an English pianist. In the opening pages of the Brahms, Dohnányi was slow and stately, which is fine—but there was no intensity. When he came in, Lewis was fussy, hesitant. Moreover, his sound was thin and dry. As the movement proceeded, he gave us little strength or virility, little drive or turbulence. The music could not make its impact. In the Adagio, that sublime thing, Lewis played some nice phrases, and there was no doubting his sincerity. But the music had little of its spirituality or glow. And the last movement, that spicy D-minor rondo—a descendant of the rondo from Mozart’s own D-minor piano concerto—was bland. It was sleepy, careful, a wet noodle. Adding insult to injury, the Philharmonic’s brass section had a terrible time.
Dohnányi had a chance to redeem the night with the Schumann Second, but he was simply not feeling it. By and large, the music was monotonous, pedestrian, workaday. Entrances were poor. The horns made their worst sounds. The last movement had a certain nobility—nobility being a Dohnányi specialty—but it was too little, too late. The conductor can do a lot better, and so, going back to the Brahms, can the pianist.
Regardless, it was a pleasure to hear the music, and I had this thought about Schumann: He was an impressively versatile composer. He wrote great songs, like Wolf. He wrote great piano pieces, like Chopin. He wrote his symphonies and chamber music. He was not triumphant in opera, but he shines in practically everything else. We can say the same of Brahms.
Shortly after this concert, another English pianist, Stephen Hough, came to Lincoln Center to play a recital. He is not just a pianist but a writer, too: a blogger for the Telegraph, the London paper. His recital program had many little pieces on the first half, and one big piece on the second half. Among the first half’s composers were three who are renowned for little piano pieces: Strauss, Wagner, and Bruckner. I’m being sarcastic, of course: They are renowned for no such things.
The Strauss piece was Träumerei (Dreaming), not to be confused with the famous Schumann piece of the same title. This Träumerei is unmistakably Straussian, sounding like the piano accompaniment of one of his songs, with an extra finger or two for the vocal line. The Wagner piece on the program was an Albumblatt, an album leaf, a trifle in C major. It sounds like Wagner, with its chromaticism, its flow, its rising and falling. Do I think that because I know the ditty is by Wagner? Possibly. As for the Bruckner piece, it was Erinnerung, meaning “Reminiscence.” It is deliberate and profound, hovering between sad and not. The composer’s signature qualities—including decency—somehow come through this little thing.
Hough played these pieces beautifully and intelligently, as he can be expected to do. But there is something curious about him: He sometimes departs from cantabile—from a smooth singing line—to go all Serkin on you. He will jab or stab the keyboard, unwantedly and mystifyingly. But then, plenty of people—like a whole universe—loved Serkin (as I did, with reservations).
The evening’s program began with Schoenberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces, which are simultaneously brainy and musical. Hough played them just this way. And to his credit, he did not handle them with sugar tongs. They are delicate, even fragile, but you must play them affirmatively, without fear. The first half of the recital ended with Brahms’s Fantasies, Op. 116. These are four intermezzos and three caprices. They are seldom played as a set. The most famous of them is the Intermezzo in E, Op. 116, No. 6. (I provide specifics because there are two intermezzos in E in this set.) You have heard that Brahms is a mixture of the Classical and the Romantic, a merger of the two? Hough reflected this mixture or merger in his playing.
I pause now to make one of my periodic notes about audience behavior: I don’t see why one cellphone doesn’t signal another. That is, once people hear one go off, don’t they think about whether theirs are on? Hough’s recital kept being interrupted by ringing, throughout the auditorium.
The big piece on the second half of the program was the Liszt Sonata. In my experience, and perhaps in yours, this piece either has its magic, its wizardry, or it doesn’t. On this occasion, it did not quite have it, in my view. When the music was inward, Hough was very good—as he was in the earlier miniatures. When the music was outward, bristling, diabolical, he was less good, I think. He was a little careful, calibrated, and cerebral—a little cool. Some delirium is in order. Hough played this piece essentially as he would play, say, Schumann’s Papillons, I bet. A few days before, Khatia Buniatishvili, the young Georgian, played this same sonata in Weill Recital Hall. Her performance was not nearly as polished as Hough’s, not by a long shot. In spots, it was a bangy mess. But it was somehow more Lisztian, I believe.
Hough sat down for some encores, beginning with a song-like number I had never heard before. I thought it might be one of Hough’s own compositions. (He composes, in addition to playing and blogging.) It turned out to be his arrangement of a song by Granville Bantock, a British composer who lived from 1868 to 1946. That song is “Song to the Seals.” From Hough, it was simple, refreshing, touching, disarming, and perfect. Hough next played another lollipop (as Beecham would say), something from Don Quixote, the ballet by Minkus, again arranged by him. Few pianists are as good at exploring the byways of music. (Perhaps Marc-André Hamelin is his equal in this respect.) Finally, Hough played a Chopin nocturne, the one in F-sharp major. It was lightly pedaled and could have used more “sauce,” in my opinion. But it was very good.
An evening in the company of Stephen Hough is an evening in the company of a very civilized man.
Sick of civilization, I will move to the opera house. (Just kidding.) (Mainly.) The Metropolitan Opera staged I puritani, the Bellini work. As the opera opened, the horns were stable—which is a reassuring way to start an evening. It lets you sit more comfortable in your seat. Of the singers, I will discuss just two, the soprano and the tenor. The soprano, singing the role of Elvira, was Olga Peretyatko. She did not have a distinguished beginning, but she did not have a bad one. She was short on sweetness, purity, and technical security. A trill was subpar. “Son vergin vezzosa,” her first aria, had little enchantment or limpidity. But it was competent, as was her singing generally. In due course, however, she woke up, or hit her stride. She sang very well indeed. Her mad scene was understated, maybe to a fault, but it was not ineffective. Her ability to sustain a note, including softly and on pitch, is impressive.
The tenor, singing Arturo, was Lawrence Brownlee—who has always been a good singer. He is now bidding fair to be a great one, a bel canto exemplar. He already is, really. He sang so well, he was almost cocky, commanding the stage, taking pleasure in his ability, and taking his time, too: He wasn’t rushing his work. The voice was creamily beautiful. And he could sing the highest, trickiest passages without straining, which is almost cheating.
Leading the night in the pit was an Italian maestro, Michele Mariotti, who is married to our Russian Elvira, La Peretyatko. He was competent from beginning to end. But there was some disunity in the orchestra, particularly on entrances. Some chords were not together, adding a feeling of raggedness to the evening. And the score overall was a little tame, a little gray. Sitting there, I thought of something Leontyne Price once said in a master class. She was asking a student to put a little more emotion, color, or flair into a Mozart aria. “It’s not anti-Mozart,” she said. Hoping for more drama out of Puritani, I thought, “It’s not anti-Bellini or anti–bel canto, maestro.” The horns, by the way, held steady, playing unerringly all through.
The production is Sandro Sequi’s from 1976. It is square, I’m afraid, even for a square like me. The back cover of the Met’s program booklet was taken by an ad for Talbots, the clothing store. Appropriate, I thought: for our tenor, Arturo, is Lord Arthur Talbot.
Have another piano recital, in the form of Richard Goode’s program at Carnegie Hall. The veteran American began with Janá?ek: selections from On the Overgrown Path, Book I. These pieces are naturalistic and Dvo?ák-like. They are also not great Janá?ek, but that is a separate discussion. Goode played these pieces smoothly, beautifully, and lyrically. There was not a single objectionable accent or instance of phrasing. In other words, Goode played as he usually does. He also used music, as he would throughout the recital. He has this in common with his great predecessors Hess and Richter, among others. He seems really to look at the music, too, not just having it there for comfort.
From the Janá?ek, he moved to Schumann, namely the Davidsbündlertänze. These pieces are seldom played, complete (or even singly). They are wonderful, though—and very difficult. Schumann wrote a lot of these multipart piano works, the pianistic equivalent of song-cycles, maybe. One thinks of Papillons, Kinderszenen, Carnaval, Kreisleriana, etc. As in a song-cycle, you have to have a sense of the arc of the whole work. Pacing is key. Goode proved very good at this, as at virtually everything else. I say “virtually” for one reason: He was not as good in the big, stormy pieces as he was in the smaller, whimsical pieces. The bravura was not as fine as the intimacy.
I will pause again for a note on audience behavior: Funny how people think that glaring at someone who is coughing will stop him from coughing. There are at least five glarers for every cougher—it does no good at all, except maybe to make the glarer feel superior.
The second half of Goode’s program was devoted to Debussy’s Preludes, Book I. It goes almost without saying that Goode played beautifully and intelligently. But since he is such a high-level player, I will pick on him as follows: The preludes could have been more French—more nuanced, more subtle, more blurred, more piquant. They were not much different from the Schumann, or the Janá?ek. They were a little bland, needing more flavor along the way.
Before Goode sat down to his encores, I thought of Aldo Ciccolini, who used to play an entire recital of French Impressionism, then clear the air, so to speak, with a couple of Scarlatti sonatas, all crisp. Goode played some more Debussy—another prelude, this one from Book II (“Ondine”). Then he played some more Schumann, the Arabeske—which was, honestly, perfect.
Return to the Met, for another bel canto opera, this one by Rossini: La Cenerentola. The conductor was Fabio Luisi, who did not lead a successful overture. It was workaday, with a modicum of mirth. For most of Act I, the orchestra was ragged and limp. Those are two things Rossini is not, ever. But at some point, Luisi woke up, and conducted the opera in fine Rossinian fashion. The cast was strong, including three Italian men: the baritone Alessandro Corbelli as Don (Not So) Magnifico, the baritone Pietro Spagnoli as Dandini, and the bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni as Alidoro. The production—the Met’s first and only, by Cesare Lievi in 1997—is silly, slapstick, and barely defensible. I kind of like it. When Juan Diego Flórez mounted the giant wedding cake at the end, I thought of Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s crack about Thomas E. Dewey (“the little man on the wedding cake”).
Before the 2013–14 season began, I wrote that La Cenerentola would probably be a highlight. That was because of the star mezzo and the star tenor. In the title role (Cinderella) was Joyce DiDonato, from Kansas; in the role of her prince was Flórez, from Peru. Flórez was at his best, singing with ease, freshness, and ping. He relished every moment. As for DiDonato, I have run out of words, after all these years. Let me say this: Her technical ability and musical intelligence are so great, they may obscure the fact that she owns a really beautiful voice (from bottom to top). I can’t think of a single thing she lacks. I don’t recall her singing German art songs. In any event, she is a pantheonic singer.
Some years ago, Flórez gave a recital in Carnegie Hall, singing encore after encore, late into the night. I saw Marilyn Horne, the great mezzo-soprano, on her feet, applauding, asking for more. Earlier this year, I interviewed another great mezzo, Christa Ludwig, and I asked her to name some standout singers of today. She gave me two: Anja Harteros, the Greek-German soprano, and DiDonato. If you have Horne or Ludwig in your corner, you hardly need praise from me.
End with another opera, but one not staged in the opera house. Rather, it was given in concert, in Carnegie Hall. The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra offered the opera by Howard Hanson, Merry Mount (his only opera). For decades, Hanson has been best known for his Symphony No. 2, the “Romantic.” Merry Mount was commissioned by the Met and staged there in 1934. But it received its first performance the year before, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. That, too, was a concert performance, with the composer on the podium. (Forgive an autobiographical aside: Ann Arbor is my hometown.) After a brief run at the Met, Merry Mount pretty much disappeared. Years ago, I had a snippet of it on a Lawrence Tibbett album. The great American baritone was the lead at the Met.
For forty years, Hanson was the director of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, so the RPO’s Carnegie performance was, in a sense, an act of local piety. A contingent from Rochester came, waving purple handkerchiefs in solidarity. Purple was the color of the night, as members of the orchestra wore it, too. The story of Merry Mount is about wicked, murderous Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. (Yes, another Puritani.) The score is lush, a little blowsy, and distinctly American. It has an interesting variety, I find. There is fire and brimstone, followed by something like a scherzo section, with a children’s chorus. There is a Berliozian witches’ Sabbath, a ravishing love duet, and an Indian war dance. The opera ends à la Wagner, with an immolation scene. (“Not a moment too soon,” cracked a weary, unenchanted wag.)
In the Tibbett role of Wrestling Bradford, the preacher, was Richard Zeller. He wrestled with his part—high and difficult—manfully. Sara Jakubiak was the ill-fated love interest, Marigold, and she sang beautifully and feelingly. Michael Christie was on the podium, “committed” to the music, as they say. The music may not threaten Fidelio’s reputation, but I was glad to hear it, and would like to see the opera staged.
Many years ago, a conductor friend of mine said, “We’re expected to perform new music, and that’s right. But we should also perform old and forgotten music that’s worthy.” On my Tibbett album, there was also a selection from The Emperor Jones, the opera by Louis Gruenberg (on the play by Eugene O’Neill). This was “Standing in the Need of Prayer.” The Emperor Jones premiered at the Met the year before Merry Mount. Maybe it, too, will reappear, somewhere.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 32 Number 10, on page 52
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