Within the space of a week, there was a lot of piano virtuosity in Carnegie Hall. Denis Matsuev, the brawny Russian, played a recital. (My review of him last season was headed “The Brawniest Pianist Alive.”) Then, Marc-André Hamelin, the veteran Canadian, played a recital. Then Behzod Abduraimov, the young man from Tashkent, played a concerto—Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. The first and third pianist, I reviewed at The New Criterion’s website. Let me take up the subject of Hamelin.
He is an old-fashioned virtuoso, a throwback. This is no putdown, trust me. He plays Romantic music, often off the beaten track. And he rolls his own, which is to say, he composes his own music, and makes his own arrangements, as performers once did routinely. In the first half of his recital at Carnegie Hall, he played some Feinberg, thereby honoring the ancestors.
Samuil Feinberg was a Russian pianist who lived from 1890 to 1962. Some years ago, Sergei Babayan, the Soviet-born pianist from Armenia, urged me to listen to Feinberg’s Bach—particularly to his recordings of The Well-Tempered Clavier. I did, with great pleasure and satisfaction. It is not “correct” Bach, maybe, by modern lights—but it is musical Bach, and therefore “correct.” Furthermore, Feinberg was a marvelous arranger or transcriber of Bach, though not as prolific or renowned as Ferruccio Busoni. Feinberg’s arrangement of the Largo from Bach’s Organ Sonata No. 5 in C major, bwv 529, is a classic. Arcadi Volodos, among others, plays it.
Hamelin played real Feinberg, which is to say, original Feinberg: his Piano Sonata No. 3, written in 1916–17 (as World War I raged). It is a stormily Romantic affair. You can tell the Romanticism in some of Feinberg’s tempo markings: “Lento assai, ma sempre inquieto e rubato molto”; “Lugubre e maestoso”; “Allegro appassionato.” These markings have Romanticism written all over them.
The sonata is Scriabinesque, and also Lisztian. There is ample chromatic agony in it, making me think of Rachmaninoff (as well as Scriabin). About Liszt, I have sometimes joked that, in some pieces, he writes as though paid by the note. I thought of this gibe as I listened to the Feinberg sonata. It is often pretty, and often impressive, but is it substantial? Does it stick to the ribs? Maybe not, but that does not mean that it didn’t deserve its showcasing by Hamelin. (Never before had the Sonata No. 3 been played in Carnegie Hall.)
Hamelin began his recital with music by Scriabin himself: the Fantasy in B minor, Op. 28, written in 1900. This is not the best piece by that master, and I’m not sure it would be played if it were not by him. But it is certainly worth knowing. After the Fantasy, and before the Feinberg, Hamelin played Prokofiev’s Sarcasms, Op. 17, those five pieces written between 1912 and 1914. These pieces are well named: they are tart, snorting, impertinent—sarcastic. In my view, Hamelin was a little polite in them. Maybe, as a Canadian, he is simply too nice to play the Sarcasms?
His interpretation is a fine one. It may not be mine, however (or yours).
The second half of his recital was given over to one work—a sublime masterpiece, Schubert’s Sonata in B flat, D. 960. One season in New York, about twelve years ago, this sonata was played by four pianists within the space of two weeks, I think. Or was it five pianists? I can’t remember. In any case, pianists want to play D. 960, to prove their worth and to glory in the music. Hamelin clearly loves this sonata, as we all do, and he is entitled to his interpretation, needless to say. His interpretation is a fine one. It may not be mine, however (or yours). I thought some of his rubato—license with time—interrupted the flow of the music. I particularly had my doubts about the many little ritards, or hesitations, throughout the work. But, again, Hamelin is entitled to his approach to this masterpiece.
He played three encores, beginning with a Fauré barcarolle (No. 3 in G flat, Op. 42). It was beautifully judged, beautifully played. Then there was a Debussy prelude, a nicely wacky one: “Général Lavine—eccentric.” Hamelin rendered it in due style. He finished the evening with a piece of his own, a novelty called “Music Box.” Hamelin honors the ancestors and continues their line, for which, honor to him.
The Metropolitan Opera staged Orfeo, or, to give it its full name, Orfeo ed Euridice. It is a 1762 work by Gluck, or, to give him his full name, Christoph Willibald Gluck. (There was a radio announcer in Detroit, near where I grew up, who loved to give the full name. Are mothers naming their sons “Willibald” anymore?) The Met’s production is that of 2007 by Mark Morris.
Orfeo is a three-singer opera, but the most important performer, as in so many operas, is the conductor.
Orfeo is a three-singer opera, but the most important performer, as in so many operas, is the conductor. He sets the tone of the evening. He governs the work as a whole. In the pit for the Met was Mark Wigglesworth, a British conductor, who is the author of a recent book: The Silent Musician: Why Conducting Matters. It is an excellent book. It really teaches you the whys and wherefores of conducting. Wigglesworth is a smart musician, obviously, and you could see this in his conducting of Orfeo. Nothing was silly, nothing was incorrect. Yet I think the music may have been too stately for its own good. I would have appreciated more blood, more vitality. Also, the orchestra made a smallish, thin sound in this vast house. In the early going, I thought, “Is the lack of vibrato in that trumpet really necessary? Is it musicologically commanded? Is it a benefit?”
That very day, I had read an obituary of Raymond Leppard, the British-American conductor, who died at ninety-two. He was one of the great revivers of Baroque opera. He did not handle these works with sugar tongs, either. Let me quote from the obit (by Daniel J. Wakin, in The New York Times):
His versions were full-blooded, with lush strings and reasonably large orchestras—and, purists alleged, vulgarizing distortions. These critics included early-music enthusiasts who championed the use of period instruments and performing practices . . .
Mr. Leppard expressed little but contempt for those specialists.
. . . The originalist approach, he said, was “a wretched, inadequate view of what authenticity is.” . . .
His job, Mr. Leppard believed, was to do whatever it took to bring a work alive, theatrically and musically . . . “No halfhearted attempt hampered by academic restraint will do: Performing these works again is like a love affair,” he wrote . . .
Mr. Leppard eventually acknowledged that his approach had come to seem old-fashioned as the authenticity movement grew. “Pupils of mine were playing in the newly ‘authentic’ way, and I felt it was their turn—they should get on with it,” he told The Times of London in 1997.
On YouTube, you can find an Orfeo from the Salzburg Festival in 1959. The conductor is Karajan and the orchestra and chorus are from the Vienna State Opera. The singers are Simoniato, Jurinac, and Sciutti. Is it correct? It is certainly musical, and filling, and gratifying. I think Gluck would be out of his mind with approval and joy. (He is unavailable for comment.)
She was spunky, unafraid, and assured. A pixie, she flew around the stage on a wire (or two), like Sandy Duncan as Peter Pan.
Singing the title role—the first of them, Orpheus—at the Met was Jamie Barton, the mezzo-soprano from Rome, Georgia. A clean, smart singer, she hardly put a foot wrong. Her intonation was secure, her diction was good. She handled the opera’s hit aria, “Che farò senza Euridice?,” with genuine feeling. Was there anything wrong? Well, I believe her voice is undersized for the house. Some people think of her as a big-voiced mezzo. The Met cast her as Ježibaba in Rusalka (Dvořák’s opera). I think such decisions are questionable.
Providing ample volume, and other good things, was the South Korean soprano Hera Hyesang Park, portraying Amor. She was spunky, unafraid, and assured. A pixie, she flew around the stage on a wire (or two), like Sandy Duncan as Peter Pan. This singer has an ingredient—a special ingredient—that Diana Damrau, Joyce DiDonato, and a lucky few others have: adorability.
There was another soprano from South Korea on the stage (if not flying through the air): Hei-Kyung Hong, that beloved veteran. She sang Eurydice tenderly and elegantly.
Overall, there was much to commend in this Orfeo. Solid musicianship—from the conductor, the singers, and the orchestra (and the chorus). But I must tell you, as your honest correspondent, that I was bored at almost every turn. The opera, which is short, felt as long as Les Troyens. I hope that others had a happier experience.
The Munich Philharmonic came to Carnegie Hall, for a two-concert stand. The first one had the Tchaikovsky concerto on it—Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, played by Behzod Abduraimov, whom I mentioned earlier. It, and he, were spectacular. For an encore, Abduraimov played a lullaby—a Tchaikovsky song, “Lullaby”—arranged for piano by Rachmaninoff. It was a thing of beauty. Gentle beauty. After intermission, the orchestra played Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7, one of the greatest of all symphonies. On the podium—Valery Gergiev.
But isn’t he the capo of the Mariinsky Theater, in Saint Petersburg? Yes, but he also has a side gig or two, including the music directorship of the Munich Phil.
The second concert opened with an oomp, which is to say, an obligatory opening modern piece. It was Con brio, by Jörg Widmann, a German born in 1973. He wrote this piece in 2008. I reviewed it in these pages during the 2010–11 season—for it had been played by the New York Philharmonic. “The piece is smartly crafted,” I said, “and I would like to hear it again.” The Munich Phil. gave me another chance.
Having discussed it at length the first time around, I will confine myself to a few words here. Con brio is a rhythm-fest. It expresses a pleasant chaos. And it is true to its name. In all candor, I wondered why it was being played on this concert. There is a felt need for an oomp, but why else? Probably because Herr Widmann is Carnegie Hall’s composer-in-residence this season.
Con brio is a rhythm-fest. It expresses a pleasant chaos. And it is true to its name.
But the piece seemed to me a little out of place. It was certainly out of order—chronological order. The next pieces were masterworks by Brahms and Shostakovich. The scheduling of the piece seemed to me an exercise in box-checking, and perhaps an insult to the composer (although composers, as a rule, want to be heard, no matter what the circumstances). I thought of something written by my colleague Allan Kozinn many years ago. I have to go from memory. The New York Philharmonic opened its concert with a brief piece from the Second Viennese School, I believe. Allan wrote something like this: “It was like they were getting this piece out of the way, so as to move on to the ‘good stuff.’ ”
Well, the Brahms Violin Concerto is good stuff, and so is Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. The soloist in the former was Leonidas Kavakos, the Greek violinist who doubles as a conductor (although he let Maestro Gergiev do the honors in the Brahms). As he reached the center of the stage, he gave the concertmaster a hug. The concertmaster has one of the most distinctive heads of hair in all of music: a white helmet, or curly crown. He also rejoices in one of the best names in all of music: “Lorenz Nasturica-Herschcowici.” Beat that, as Bill Buckley would say.
I am being lighthearted, but please be advised that Mr. N.-H. is an excellent violinist, appreciated by colleagues far and wide.
Kavakos, Gergiev, and the Munich Philharmonic gave an adequate reading of the Brahms—sometimes rising above adequacy. The middle movement—Adagio—touched the transcendent (as Brahms does). Rather than give a blow-by-blow, I would like to make a couple of extraneous points, which may be of interest.
Above, I said that Gergiev was “on the podium” for the Bruckner Seventh. That is just a figure of speech. In actuality, Gergiev had his feet on the floor, even with the orchestra, as is his practice. For the Widmann piece, he was on a podium—a short podium. That podium was removed for the Brahms, and stayed removed for the Shostakovich symphony. Gergiev was on the floor. Why? Why the difference? I don’t know.
I also wish to report that there was a little applause after the first movement of the Brahms. Why should I report that? It is perfectly routine, right? Yes, but, curiously enough, there had been no applause after the first movement of the Tchaikovsky piano concerto. Not a bit—dead silence. Not even the sound of one hand clapping. Applause is “practically begged for” at the end of that movement, as I wrote in my (Web) review. Here is some more from that review:
I think Tchaikovsky, and other men and women of the nineteenth century, would have said, “What’s the matter, you didn’t like it?”
Audiences often applaud after movements when they really have no business doing so. And yet, they can withhold, too, mystifyingly.
Like Abduraimov, Kavakos played an encore, as Gergiev stood at the side of the stage, listening. He played some Enescu—a piece by George Enescu, the great Romanian violinist whose career spanned the first half of the twentieth century. He was also a composer, obviously, and a very good—a very good—pianist and conductor. A real, all-around musician. Kavakos played a movement from Enescu’s Impressions d’enfance, Op. 28. He played niftily and wonderfully. Kavakos, too, is a man of gifts, although I can’t say he has anything in the drawer (i.e., composed).
In due course, Gergiev took the podium, or took the floor, for Shostakovich Five. It is possible to make too much of nationality in music—real conductors can conduct anything, and real players can play anything. But I wondered what this Fifth would be like, from the Munich Phil., even with Gergiev standing before them. Gergiev has conducted this piece with Russian orchestras a thousand times, no doubt. Would there be enough fear in the music, from this non-Russian, non-Soviet bunch? Would there be enough dark humor in the second movement, which is like a scherzo?
Yes, to all of that. It was basically a Gergiev Fifth. A good one.
Interpretation lies with the performer, especially as the piece—the time of its composition—grows ever more distant.
There is always a lot of comment about the ending of this symphony. Some conductors have conducted it triumphantly. Others say, No, no, this is meant to be a forced, false triumph—you are going along, saying “Rah, rah,” under duress. I believe the latter interpretation. But I also think that, once a piece of music leaves a composer’s hands, all bets are off. Interpretation lies with the performer, especially as the piece—the time of its composition—grows ever more distant. In any event, Gergiev conducted the ending in in-between fashion, I think: not quite triumphant, and not quite a weary, tight-smiles slog.
In Weill Recital Hall—the pretty upstairs annex in the Carnegie building—Golda Schultz, the South African soprano, gave a recital. I have reviewed her in these pages several times, but only in opera. She is a shaft of sunshine. In her recital, she was accompanied by Jonathan Ware, an American pianist who works out of Berlin.
The first half of their program consisted of German art songs: Schubert and Strauss. The opening song was “Der Morgenkuss,” which sounded much like that—a morning kiss. One of the Strauss songs was “Ruhe, meine Seele,” which Elisabeth Schwarzkopf loved to sing. In my view, the song was stagnant from Schultz and Ware: sung line by line, or fragment by fragment, rather than as a comprehensive, moving whole.
Golda Schultz has a good voice, a good technique, and a good mind.
After intermission, there were the Three Browning Songs by Amy Beach, or Mrs. H. H. A. Beach, as we used to know her. These include “Ah, Love, but a day,” which was sung by many greats of a golden age, including Jussi Bjoerling, the Swedish tenor. From Golda Schultz, the songs were overwhelmingly wonderful, full of beauty, intelligence, and feeling. After Beach came Ravel: Shéhérazade, that three-songed essay in exoticism and sensuousness. Schultz had the right qualities, and the French language was delicious in her mouth. She ended the printed program with John D. Carter’s Cantata, a treatment of spirituals. This was extraordinarily intense and soulful.
Getting to her final encore, Schultz said, “I hope I don’t cry.” She then sang a song in Afrikaans, expressing nostalgia for the veld and so on.
Golda Schultz has a good voice, a good technique, and a good mind. Frankly, there are plenty of those in singing. What does she have above and beyond? An inner light, a spirit: an obvious love of music, love of the audience, and love of life. This was a gift of a recital, a peak experience.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 4, on page 54
Copyright © 2020 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com