In our September issue, I wrote about Mieczyslaw Weinberg, the Polish-born composer who spent most of his life in the Soviet Union. He was a friend of Shostakovich, who helped him along. Last summer, the Lincoln Center Festival staged Weinberg’s opera The Passenger. That’s why I was writing about him. More recently, his music was featured in a recital at Carnegie Hall.
Onstage were Gidon Kremer and Daniil Trifonov. This was a nice May–September pairing. Kremer is the veteran Latvian violinist; Trifonov is the young Russian pianist. Among the works on the first half of their program was Weinberg’s Violin Sonata No. 5, composed in 1953, and dedicated to Shostakovich. I was glad to make the acquaintance of this work. All the movements are labeled with tempo markings. I will describe the piece briefly (all too conscious that there is no substitute for hearing).
The first movement is sad and folk-like. It is also smart and skillful. Furthermore, it’s sort of Romantic, expressing a beauty that might have seemed old-fashioned at the time. The second movement is restless, rhapsodic. It has some Shostakovich-like menace and snap. This movement is obviously fun to play, as it is to listen to.
By now, you are fully engaged in the piece (as you sit in the hall, listening). The third movement begins with some unaccompanied Hebraic fiddling. The movement as a whole is “scherzesque,” as I sometimes say: I mean scherzo-like, essentially. This movement is stamped with either a Jewish or a Gypsy influence—sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. The fourth and final movement has much the same feeling, or flavor. Indeed, a fair amount of this sonata is Jewish as only a violin piece can be, probably.
Incidentally, do you know who was an excellent “Jewish” composer? The non-Jew Shostakovich.
Weinberg’s sonata shows a fine imagination. His music seems to be natural, unforced, in its composition. The last movement has the simple and folkish writing that is often called “disarming.” It ends with a straightforward calm. Hearing this sonata, I felt I had met a new friend.
Kremer played it intelligently and thoughtfully, as expected. He is a violinist with a much reduced sound now. That sound is thin, sometimes anemic. But he makes his case with it. At the keyboard, Trifonov made many beautiful sounds, which was no surprise: he is a pianist unusually concerned with beauty of sound.
The young man had begun the recital by himself, with Mozart’s Fantasy in D minor. This is a student piece, or, I should say, one very often played by students. I have almost never seen it on a professional’s program. And it is, of course, a gem. Trifonov played it very liberally, very Romantically, with lots of pedal, for example. He played it as one might play a Chopin nocturne. But it worked very well. He had the important qualities of evenness and intensity (a quiet intensity). His love of the piece was evident, and that made you love it all the more. When he got to the D-major section, he was cheerful and shapely—neatly Mozartean.
After intermission, Kremer played another Weinberg sonata, by himself—an unaccompanied sonata, written in 1979. I regret that your correspondent was unable to stay to hear it. A few days later, I got a notice from a publicist: a recording of Weinberg’s Violin Concerto and Symphony No. 3 was about to be released. A few days after that, I saw that an album of Weinberg’s music, made by Gidon Kremer and friends, had been nominated for a Grammy. Until last summer, I had never heard a note of Mieczyslaw Weinberg, that I remember. Now it’s raining Weinberg.
I very much looked forward to hearing a recital in Zankel Hall. It was to be played by Alexandre Tharaud, a French pianist. He has made some of my favorite recordings in recent years. Especially fine is Autograph, an album of encores. It is one of the best albums of piano miniatures I know (and there are many). Yet I had never heard Tharaud in the flesh. And there is no substitute for live.
His program was certainly an appetizing one. It began with a Mozart sonata, then went to a flurry of pieces by Couperin—a composer for whom Tharaud is well known. After intermission, there were Schubert’s German Dances, D. 783. To end the printed program, a late, great Beethoven sonata: the one in A flat, Op. 110.
The Mozart sonata was the one in A major, K. 331—with the Turkish rondo at the end. And the first thing to note about Tharaud is that he used music: sheet music. He would do so all through the recital. It’s not often that top-flight pianists use music, but Tharaud is in good company, company that includes Myra Hess and Sviatoslav Richter. Usually, however, pianists who use music are in the twilight of their careers. Tharaud is in his mid-forties and looks younger. But if you need music, what can you do? You simply go ahead, unembarrassed.
Tharaud’s Mozart began respectably. He employed some unusual ornamentation and accentuation. He also hit an unusual number of wrong notes and did not seem quite settled. I wondered whether he was nervous. Throughout the sonata, Tharaud opted for little hesitations, little pauses. Some of these were musical and interesting, some of them less so. The Turkish rondo had some interesting rhythm and dynamics, but was just a little stiff.
I couldn’t help thinking ahead to encores. Two pianists of today, Arcadi Volodos and Fazil Say, have made boffo arrangements of the Turkish rondo. Maybe Tharaud could play one of them.
In the Couperin, he did some excellent playing: some elegant, nicely sculpted playing. He knew for sure that he was playing the piano, making bold use of his concert grand. He was not trying to mimic Baroque style (or some people’s idea of it). Many of the pieces were highly ornamented, intricately ornamented. They were lacy, à la francaise. And Tharaud was almost always sensitive. But there were some strange, harsh accents, out of nowhere. I thought of a line from Laugh-In, the old TV show: “Sock it to me.” Tharaud was socking those notes mercilessly, and not musically.
There was no socking—and nothing unmusical—in the Schubert. Tharaud played the German Dances outstandingly well. He played them like the pianist I know through the recordings. The dances had character, refinement, and Gemütlichkeit.
By rights, the Beethoven sonata should have crowned the evening. In reality, it was okay. Tharaud showed a decent singing tone in the first movement. The second movement was marred by some banging, to go with some awkward rhythm. My favorite part of the whole performance, I think, was the beginning of the fugue: which was lovely, surprising, and matter-of-fact. Tharaud just played it, doing nothing to it. As he continued the fugue, he showed power and authority.
If anyone knows encores, Tharaud should, given his album of them. He did not play a Turkish rondo, but he did play two pieces that appear on the album. The first was a Bach prelude in B minor in the arrangement of Alexander Siloti. It was beautiful, dreamy, and perfect. I want to call this piece a “raindrop” prelude, like Chopin’s. The second encore was the Scarlatti sonata in D minor, K. 141. This is a rapid-fire number—single notes are repeated, rapidly—and Tharaud was somewhat tight in it. But, like the recital at large, it was respectable.
I had long wanted to hear this piano hero of mine in the flesh. I have a feeling he can do better. Those German Dances were the true him, I think (and so was the Bach-Siloti).
The Mariinsky Orchestra of Saint Petersburg played two concerts in Carnegie Hall. The orchestra was led by its music director—who is approaching a legend—Valery Gergiev. He opened the second concert with a piece by Rodion Shchedrin, whom he has championed. Shchedrin was born in 1932 and married notably: his wife is Maya Plisetskaya, one of the greatest ballerinas of the twentieth century. She married notably too. There is a lot of talent under that roof.
Gergiev conducted one of Shchedrin’s most popular pieces, his Concerto for Orchestra No. 1, written in 1963. It’s nicknamed “Naughty Limericks.” Shaw—or somebody—said, “There are two kinds of limericks, dirty and bad.” Shchedrin’s piece is beyond “scherzesque,” to use my earlier word: it is ribald and hilarious.
It is also not so easy to hold together, which Gergiev did, with relative ease. He conducted this piece with his best batonless flair. All through the concerto, an electric current was running. What was responsible for this current? Both the conductor and the composer, I would say. Shchedrin put it in, and Gergiev had to bring it out.
In last month’s chronicle, I wrote about Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1, not often played, and happened to remark, “I’ve always wondered why the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2 doesn’t get more play.” Lo and behold, there it was, on this Mariinsky program. One reason the piece is seldom played is that few pianists can manage it. In this same hall, Carnegie, I heard Mikhail Pletnev play it, in the 2000–01 season. He was immaculate and brilliant. It was one of the greatest pianistic feats I have ever witnessed.
The Concerto No. 2 has some things in common with the same composer’s Grand Piano Sonata in G, including the key. It has pomp and majesty, and it also has blowsiness and bombast. Now and then, the concerto reminds me of slightly Russified Liszt. (I guess I don’t mean that as a compliment. My apologies to Liszt lovers, of whom I am one, sometimes.) But there is some lovely music in the slow movement, and the closing rondo is a delight. It is also frightfully difficult (like the concerto in general).
On hand to perform with Gergiev was Denis Matsuev, a Russian pianist of about forty. Like Pletnev, he was brilliant, and almost as accurate. He played with burly virtuosity, a muscular virtuosity. This was athletic pianism, though not unmusical. Some of Matsuev’s flourishes were a little square, a little boxy. But complaints about this performance would be cavils. In the rondo, Matsuev’s leaps were amazing (i.e., amazingly accurate). Often, his hands were a blur, and those hands knew what they were doing. Here was a pianist reveling in his own ability, and in the opportunities that Tchaikovsky had given him.
The crowd went wild, appropriately, and Matsuev sat down for an encore—a very long encore. It was Rachmaninoff’s Etude-tableau in A minor, Op. 39, No. 2. This piece requires a technique very different from burly virtuosity. The pianist must have supreme evenness, taste, sensitivity, and balance. He must also have a sense of quietude and mystery. Matsuev delivered on all fronts. He was perhaps even more impressive in this piece than he had been in the concerto-circus.
Long as the Etude-tableau was, Matsuev sat down for yet another encore. I could not remember hearing two encores after a concerto. This time, Matsuev played one of the most exciting pieces in the entire piano literature: Scriabin’s Etude in D-sharp minor, Op. 8, No. 12. Horowitz, among many others (many other Russians), used to electrify audiences with this piece. From Matsuev, it was too loud, too unvaried, too pumped up. It did not have electricity, it just had brawn and drive. Perhaps the pianist let the adrenalin of the occasion, this wildly successful night, get the better of him.
On the second half of the program, Gergiev conducted a symphony: No. 5 of Prokofiev. As I have said for about twenty years now, Gergiev is either on or off. And when he’s on, look out. On this night, he was on. The Prokofiev crackled, seduced, and riveted. The slow movement had some of the aching beauty of the composer’s Romeo and Juliet. If you know this symphony, you know what’s coming, on every page. And yet Gergiev (and Prokofiev) made it seem so surprising.
For a recent issue of National Review, I wrote an appreciation of Ernst Bacon, the late American composer. In 1963, he published a wonderful little book called Notes on the Piano. In it, he quotes Liszt, to the effect that the cardinal sin of performance is dullness. I know that Gergiev agrees with this. Bacon himself writes, “If there is one trait common to all great interpreters, it is their capacity for intensification.” Gergiev has this capacity, and is an exemplification of it.
He conducted an encore, the Adagio from the Grand pas de deux found in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. It was glowing, majestic, and filling. It filled you up. It was also terribly, almost unbearably moving. I thought of Gergiev’s friend Shchedrin, who many years ago was asked an interesting question: “What music are you prepared to listen to right now?” He said he was always prepared to listen to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker—“because each and every section of the score is a masterpiece.” That is a rare declaration for a modern composer to make. Shchedrin is an honest man, and a musician of taste.
As I have said, Shchedrin is married to a prima ballerina, and I happened to meet another one on this night. Before the concert, a friend of mine introduced me to Irina Kolpakova, a star of the Mariinsky (or Kirov, as it was then called) years ago. This added to the wonder of a banner evening.
We haven’t had any singing yet. Let’s close with it—while sticking to a Russian theme. Giving a recital in Carnegie Hall was Ildar Abdrazakov, the star bass. He was accompanied by Mzia Bakhtouridze, a pianist from Georgia (not Jimmy Carter’s). They did not do an all-Russian program. The first half was Russian: Glinka, Tchaikovsky, and Mussorgsky. The second half brought Liszt, Ravel, and Fauré. I think I would have done the Russian half second. Or alternated between the Russian and non-Russian. In any event, there was an interesting song in the Tchaikovsky set: “Serenata di Don Giovanni.” The words are by Tolstoy, though not Leo. They are by A. K. Tolstoy (1817–75). Abdrazakov may have included this song as a nod to one of his signature roles in the opera house.
He has a beautiful voice, a velvet carpet of a voice, and if you didn’t like what he was doing interpretively, you could simply bathe in the voice. But Abdrazakov gives you other things too. He sings in tune (as I have long noted). And he sings intelligently. Furthermore, he’s a pleasing stage personality. The enthusiastic audience applauded after each song, no matter how inappropriately. Abdrazakov did not scowl or scold (or encourage). He just rolled with the evening.
We know he is a bass, because after his name there is a comma and the word “Bass.” But let me tell you something: he had next to no low notes on this evening. Even C’s and B’s were hard to hear. By contrast, his high notes were easy and wonderful. An F, for example, was a piece of cake. If he is a bass—and I trust that he is—he is a baritonal bass, I would say. He had almost no technical problems, but sometimes his piano was not quite right. That is, his soft singing was manufactured, impure.
Outstanding on his program were the Songs and Dances of Death (Mussorgsky). Abdrazakov did not characterize them “operatically.” But he did not shrink from characterizing them. And they found their chilling mark.
The audience was in the mood for an encore, and Abdrazakov gave them three. He started with the Serenade from Don Giovanni—not a Tchaikovsky song, but the Mozart aria. I have never heard it sung more stylishly or winningly. Never. Then he sang a chestnut, “Granada”—or at least I think it was “Granada.” It was hard to tell, because his low notes were hard to hear and his diction was indistinct. To bid farewell, he turned to something American: “Over the Rainbow.” His rendition was a little odd, but it was sincere, and appreciated.
“Over the Rainbow” is not so much American as universal, of course. I wondered, “Did Arlen and Harburg realize they had written an immortal hit?” When I got home, I Googled. They must have: they wrote the song in 1939, for The Wizard of Oz, and they lived into the 1980s. By then, they must have known, which is nice.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 33 Number 7, on page 47
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