Music October 2016
On performances of Die Liebe der Danae and Don Giovanni by the Vienna Philharmonic, selections from West Side Story performed by the Símon Bolívar Symphony, and additional performances from the Salzburg Festival.
Richard Strauss was a founder of the Salzburg Festival, along with Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Max Reinhardt, and some others. He gets plenty of play at the festival, Strauss does. But then, he gets plenty of play everywhere—and should.
One morning, a concert of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra began with Strauss’s suite Der Bürger als Edelmann, which we know in English as Le Bourgeois gentilhomme. (That’s a funny sentence, isn’t it?) This score is nimble, goofy, charming, and Viennesey. The vpo should be to the manner born. And they played it fairly well, although I would have appreciated even more Vienneseyness. The music was a little dry. Conducting was Riccardo Muti, the veteran Italian. He was a neat manager of the suite, and he navigated Strauss’s tricky rhythms with ease.
The suite has an extensive part for solo violin, which was assigned to the concertmaster, Rainer Küchl. He joined the vpo as a concertmaster when he was twenty years old. Forty-five years later, he is retiring.
After intermission, Muti led the vpo in a Bruckner symphony, though one rarely played: the Second. Bruckner’s symphonies are often thought of as “cathedrals in sound,” and the vpo knows how to construct a Brucknerian cathedral. It did not take me long to forget the orchestra, and Muti, and think entirely of Bruckner. Or music. The second movement, the Adagio, was warmly hymn-like. It reflected appreciation, and also longing. The rocking at the end was utterly even. In the Scherzo, Muti was tight but not choking. He had a superb sense of timing, including rests.
It did not take me long to forget the orchestra, and Muti, and think entirely of Bruckner.
As for the Finale, I think it is almost entirely without musical merit. I think it is unworthy of Bruckner. But I would not throw the baby out with the bathwater—I would not throw out the Second on account of its finale. And I may even be wrong about it.
That night, another Bruckner symphony was played, in a sense: a group of chamber musicians performed the composer’s String Quintet in F, which is like a smaller-scale symphony. A smaller-scale Bruckner symphony, I should stress. The musicians were members of the Vienna Philharmonic. Sitting in the first violin’s chair, and exerting quiet leadership, was another concertmaster, Volkhard Steude. He was excellent, as was the group at large. They played with understanding, commitment, beauty, and unity. I think Bruckner would have been grateful for their performance.
After intermission, these five were joined by another player—a cellist, for Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night). Their playing was almost indecent. I mean, they played with tremendous passion, even sensuality. I thought of a contemporary phrase: “tmi,” meaning “too much information.” The audience cheered for these six as for Callas after Tosca.
Then the group made a mistake, in my opinion: they played an encore, and an exceptionally long encore. Unless my memory is playing tricks on me, it was the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde (Wagner). In my view, an encore, especially one of this length, was unnecessary. The players had already given the audience a full and very satisfying meal. To add insult to injury, they did not play the encore very well. It seemed under-rehearsed. I was interested to note that, when I left the hall, I had the Schoenberg in my head.
Two footnotes, if I may: One of the cellists in this concert was Edison Pashko, born in Albania in 1973. (This was the teeth of the Hoxha dictatorship.) I’m fond of his name. Maybe his parents appreciated electricity? Also, the entire group—excluding a female violinist—was in white tie. This was a marked contrast with today’s standard black pajamas.
The next night was very much a black-pajama evening. Again, it was a chamber concert, and it was one with a musicological point to make: the relationship between Schumann and Kurtág (György Kurtág, the Hungarian composer born in 1926). Included in the program were two recent works, related to the evening’s theme, or point.
There were three players: Mark Simpson, clarinet; Antoine Tamestit, viola; and Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano. Aimard was part of Pierre Boulez’s outfit in Paris, way back. According to his official bio, he is “widely acclaimed as a key figure in the music of our time and as a uniquely significant interpreter of piano repertoire from every age.” Regardless, he is a good and smart musician. So is Tamestit. Indeed, he is one of the world’s outstanding instrumentalists. So is Simpson, an Englishman born in 1988. He is not only a clarinetist but a composer. And it was with his music that the evening began.
He wrote Hommage à Kurtág, for the three instruments assembled. The work is in four movements, and Simpson makes each part fit. That is, he weaves clarinet, viola, and piano lines expertly. The music is by turns bluesy, impish, rhapsodic, outré, haunting, desperate, mysterious, and nervous. Very, very nervous. As I keep saying, the current period in music ought to be known as the Age of Anxiety.
The second half of the concert began with the other recent work on the program: Hommage à Gy. K., which pays tribute to Kurtág’s Hommage à R. Sch. The recent work is by Marco Stroppa, an Italian born in 1959. He too once worked in Boulez’s shop. Throughout his seven movements, he has the clarinetist and violist occupy different positions on the stage. (The pianist is pretty much stuck.) He also has the clarinetist switch instruments—to bass clarinet. His music is full of squiggles, slides, flutters, and plucks. It is no doubt brainy. I must ask—pardon my rudeness—Do these composers write for one another, or do they intend to appeal to a general audience?
The current period in music ought to be known as the Age of Anxiety.
In any event, there were two Japanese children in the audience that night—and they were the soul of patience. Also, the three players, whatever they played, always exhibited technical skill and musical affinity.
Onstage the next night was a Strauss opera: Die Liebe der Danae, or The Love of Danae, or Danae’s Love. It is not very often performed. And it is utterly Straussian. What do I mean by that, given that Strauss had distinct periods, like Picasso and Stravinsky? Well, through all his periods, he was still Strauss: sinuous and sensuous. The third and final act of Danae is especially prized. And the entire opera owes everything—certainly a lot—to Wagner. Of course, that is true of much music post-Wagner.
Salzburg’s production was by Alvis Hermanis, the Latvian director. I deplored his Trovatore (Verdi). His Danae, however, proved wonderful: an Oriental, or quasi-Oriental, spectacle. It was somewhat psychedelic, to use a word from the Sixties. It had an elephant (fake) and a donkey (real). (So, both Republicans and Democrats were covered.) Dancers were wrapped entirely in gold. Naturally, I thought of an American group from the Eighties: the Solid Gold Dancers.
Also, there were burkas—which have been popping up in Salzburg productions. A local lady told me, “It used to be that everything was Nazis. Now everything is burkas.”
The tenor in Danae, portraying Midas (hence the gold), was Gerhard Siegel. He was rugged. The bass-baritone, portraying Jupiter, was Tomasz Konieczny, who was smooth, gleaming, and untiring. But enough of the men. Strauss was drunk on the soprano voice, and his Danae is a soprano, and he would have loved Krassimira Stoyanova, the great Bulgarian. She was radiant, warm, and good. That is, she radiated goodness. And she sang with complete freedom.
Honestly, Stoyanova as Danae was a peak operatic experience for me.
Arcadi Volodos, the Russian pianist, played a recital. Before it began, I had a bone to pick with him, mentally—a bone I had picked before. It went something like this: “Arcadi, you are one of the great virtuosos of the world. You can do things, technically, that few others can. Yet you insist on playing programs composed entirely of inward, poetic music—the kind that elderly Germans have long been renowned for playing. It’s like you’re saying, ‘I’m more than a Russian virtuoso, you know!’ We know. You have amply proven that. You can afford to take your fingers out for a walk once in a while. No one would hold it against you. Would it kill you to play a Rachmaninoff prelude? How about an inward one?”
Volodos began this latest recital with a relatively light work, Schumann’s Papillons. (And, to be sure, this piece requires some technique. Every piece does, in a sense.) He stumbled out of the gate—that is, he missed a note. He committed a clinker. Even Homer nods. Horowitz used to stumble out of the gate, too. People chalked it up to nerves. Volodos played Papillons well, of course. He showed his beautiful singing tone. He also demonstrated how to pedal, certainly in this work. Yet the music was a little heavy, for my taste. A little big. Somewhat deficient in humor, a little self-serious.
He continued with three Brahms pieces: the Intermezzos, Op. 117. These pieces are very personal. Personal to the listener, I mean. We all have a way we think they ought to go. We all have an ideal conception of them, in our own heads. Volodos plays them essentially the way I think they ought to go. He comes as close as anyone—which, obviously, is gratifying (to this listener).
After intermission, Volodos played one work, a late Schubert sonata, as is his wont. This one was the Sonata in A, D. 959. I found myself slightly resentful: How many times does a recital-goer have to hear this work? Can we give it a rest maybe? As we should give the even more exposed B-flat a rest?
Any resentment melted away shortly after Volodos started playing. The first movement was beautifully judged. I forgot Volodos—forgot interpretation—and listened only to Schubert. In fact, I want to say there was no interpretation. It was just Schubert. The next movement, the Andantino, was perfectly calibrated. And calibration is the name of the game in this movement.
The Scherzo requires no little technique—which, of course, Volodos has. This allows him to concentrate solely on the music. It allows his audience to do the same. As for the closing Rondo, it had more character than ever—but Schubert’s character, the music’s character, not a performer’s. All through this sonata, Volodos gave us an example of pure music-making.
I have been hearing pianists in recital since Horowitz and Gilels. I promise you, I have never heard a better one.
And I forgave him, mentally: “Arcadi, you can play this kind of program whenever you want. Never mind the virtuosic stuff.”
He played almost a “second recital,” as we used to say—offering a slew of encores. The first was his regular Schubert encore: the odd, clockwork Minuet in C-sharp minor, D. 600. It was exemplary, as usual. Then he played—lo and behold—a Rachmaninoff piece: his arrangement of a song, “Melody,” from Op. 21. His third encore was a little Impressionistic piece by Mompou, a composer Volodos favors and champions: Jeunes filles au jardin. It was lacy, delicate, and beguiling. Then he really took his fingers out for a walk—with his own, souped-up version of an old favorite, Malagueña, by the Cuban composer Lecuona. The piece was dazzling, thrilling, while never departing from musical taste.
Volodos bade farewell with another of his favorite encores: Bach’s Sicilienne in D minor, after Vivaldi. It was like a benediction—sublime. And Volodos didn’t try to do anything to it. He was practically matter-of-fact. He just let it do its simple, stunning work.
Above, I said that hearing Stoyanova in Die Liebe der Danae was a peak experience for me. This recital was another. I have been hearing pianists in recital since Horowitz and Gilels. I promise you, I have never heard a better one.
The next night, a native of Salzburg—Mozart—was on the stage, in the form of Don Giovanni. There are two men at the top, so to speak: Giovanni and his valet, Leporello. On this night, they were Ildebrando D’Arcangelo and Luca Pisaroni. They worked well together and singly. D’Arcangelo was a smoldering, volatile Giovanni, strutting around in his sleeveless shirt, showing off his physique. He was all danger and testosterone. No wonder women were falling for him, including women who should know better. Pisaroni is one of the most likable performers in opera, and he was an ultra-likable Leporello. He deployed the common touch, while singing uncommonly (uncommonly well). You could hardly take your eyes or ears off him.
D’Arcangelo and Pisaroni are both natives—native Italians, that is—and there is a lot of talking in this opera, especially between those two characters. Quick, slangy talking, a patter. It was a treat to hear the two leads do it. A native facility makes a difference.
Incidentally, I met a newcomer to Don Giovanni, a college student from England, at intermission. She was leaving. She was repulsed by the story, “as a modern feminist.” I told her that the Don would be sent down to hell. She was still leaving. One can understand.
On the following night, a foreign orchestra, from Cleveland, took the stage. They were conducted by an Austrian, their music director, Franz Welser-Möst. Joining them was a star soloist, Anja Harteros, the great German soprano. She would sing Strauss’s Four Last Songs. I figured this would be a highlight—if not the highlight—of the festival. It was fine. Did the songs work their magic? Did they achieve their transcendence? I would say not. I found the whole affair rather earthbound. At least one friend—a musician himself—disagreed with me, strongly. Concert life can be curious.
The next morning, Mariss Jansons stood in front of the Vienna Philharmonic. The first piece on their program was a Mozart piano concerto, that in E flat, K. 482. Mozart is a noble soul. So is Jansons. Mozart has a streak of mirth. Jansons can summon it too. He and this concerto were a good match (with the vpo doing its part too, of course). The soloist was Emanuel Ax, who played intelligently—often beautifully, too. He demonstrated smooth phrase after smooth phrase. If he occasionally lacked charisma, he never did anything ungainly or unmusical.
Earlier in this chronicle, I mentioned a long, and overlong, encore. For his part, Ax played a famous waltz by Chopin, that in A minor. It’s a little long for an encore, after a concerto, I think. It has several sections. And Ax hurried the piece, just slightly. Did he have a sense that it was an imperfect choice?
After intermission, Jansons conducted Bruckner’s Symphony No. 6. Talk about noble soul and noble soul. Moreover, the vpo poured forth its grateful sound, with the brass loud, loud, without blaring. (How do they do that?) I have reservations about the Sixth, but since I have already criticized the Second, I am laying off the Sixth. To spend an hour bathed by Bruckner, Jansons, and the vpo is to spend a fortunate hour indeed. And you were not only bathed but uplifted.
West Side Story should live forever, an American masterpiece, and a masterpiece, period.
That night, an American musical took the stage: Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. Cecilia Bartoli was Maria. The conceit of the production was this: Maria is now twenty years older than she was when Tony was shot dead, and she is remembering everything that happened. So Bartoli stood around, looking pensive, anxious, etc., while a young actress played Maria. Bartoli did the singing for Maria, whenever required. The Tony both acted and sang. In my view, the conceit was unnecessary. Bartoli would have made a believable Maria, certainly for people beyond the first rows. And may I remind you that Cio-Cio-San, in Madama Butterfly, is supposed to be fifteen? Often she is portrayed by a battle axe. The score requires it.
In Maria’s music, Bartoli tended to be breathy, and she was miked—like everyone else in this show. Also, she took some unwise liberties, warping the music. “Somewhere,” for example, should be relatively straight—it sells itself. But Bartoli’s sincerity and heart? They always win the day. Tony was Norman Reinhardt, an American tenor, and he filled the bill. That splendid aria “Maria” was beautiful and suitably wide-eyed, or giddy. A solid technique undergirded it. It was well-nigh Polenzani-esque. Gustavo Dudamel, conducting his Simón Bolívar orchestra from Venezuela, was idiomatic, sensitive, and exciting. He conducted the hell out of the score. Bernstein would have been pleased.
I don’t know how much of his classical music will last. But West Side Story? It should live forever, an American masterpiece, and a masterpiece, period.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 2, on page 59
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