December 10 is Human Rights Day—because, on that date, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in 1948. December 10 is also the day on which the Nobel Prizes are awarded, in Stockholm and Oslo. That is sheer coincidence: on December 10, Alfred Nobel, the establisher and benefactor of the prizes, died (in 1896).
Last December, a Human Rights Day concert was given on the twelfth, which is close enough to the actual date. The concert had extra significance in 2020, in that it also marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of the U.N. This concert was a piano recital—played by Grigory Sokolov, the great Russian born in 1950. According to the concert’s publicity, Sokolov is “perhaps the most revered pianist alive.”
You know, publicity or not, that’s true.
The recital took place in Geneva, at the Palace of Nations, the onetime home of the League of Nations. Specifically, the recital took place in the Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room, which used to be known as “Room XX.” It was refurbished in 2008, and its outstanding feature is its ceiling—or rather, the painting on it. This work is marvelously colorful. The artist is Miquel Barceló, of Spain. More particularly, Barceló is from Mallorca, which has a place in musical history: it was there that Chopin and George Sand spent time together.
Not many were in attendance when Sokolov gave his recital (owing to pandemic restrictions). But he bowed to the handful with his usual gravity.
He opened with Schumann, and not common Schumann, either: the Four Fugues, Op. 72. Schumann wanted to have his say, or have a go, in this old form, and these pieces are interesting. You can think of them as fugues à la Schumann. Sokolov then moved on to more Schumann: something slightly more common, but still not often heard in the recital hall (or a palace of nations).
This is, or these are, the Bunte Blätter, or “Colored Leaves,” Op. 99, a collection of fourteen pieces. They are very much like Schumann: child-like, ingenuous; subtle, clever; dark, disturbed. He is a somewhat mysterious composer, as well as a great one. Many of his pieces here, as elsewhere, are like songs—essentially songs without words (to borrow Mendelssohn’s designation of pieces of his own). How did Schumann decide which melodies, or ideas, would be songs—proper songs, with words—and which would be songs without words? I think he had so many good melodies and good ideas, it hardly mattered.
Grigory Sokolov played the songful pieces songfully. He has great lyricism in his fingers. Sokolov has an uncanny ability to sculpt a phrase. Yet his playing still had plenty of crunch and bite, when those qualities were called for. (The piano is, in the end, a percussion instrument.) “ ’Tis the gift to be simple,” goes an old hymn. You need such simplicity in the Bunte Blätter, and Sokolov has it. Also, he played with great clarity, with no blurring whatsoever, except when he desired it. I noticed, too, that he was using very little pedal. He is so smooth, so lyrical, he does not really need the aid of the pedal.
Throughout the fourteen pieces, Sokolov kept absolute focus, the way you would want a surgeon to perform brain surgery (or any). He played as though this activity were the most important thing in the world. And these pieces were firmly committed to memory (his). They were also note-perfect, virtually—studio-perfect. This is not required, but it’s a bonus. Mainly, the pieces came out naturally. I had no sense of interpretation. The Bunte Blätter were “ungainsayable,” as William F. Buckley Jr. would say—immune to contradiction. Sokolov played them the way they go.
Finally, I’d like to tell you a secret: they can be dull, these Bunte Blätter. But Sokolov got the maximum music out of them. And he did so with no forcing or trickery at all.
In the final segment of his program, Sokolov played Chopin. About Chopin, Schumann made one of the most famous comments in musical history: “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius.” Yes. Sokolov played polonaises, four of them. Two are little known—Op. 26, No. 1, in C-sharp minor, and Op. 26, No. 2, in E-flat minor—and the other two are very well known: Op. 44, in F-sharp minor, and Op. 53, in A flat, the “Heroic.”
Sokolov being Sokolov, the pieces were well played, of course. But, frankly, they were a little subdued for me. I like more swagger, more élan, more panache. Do I just want showboatery? No, but these pieces have a charge, and this went largely unfelt, this day in Geneva.
The Metropolitan Opera presented a concert from Wuppertal, Germany—a city about twenty miles east of Düsseldorf. The venue was the Wuppertal Stadthalle, a sight (and site) to behold. Our singers were a soprano and a tenor: Sondra Radvanovsky, who grew up in Illinois and Indiana; and Piotr Beczała, who grew up in southern Poland. They were accompanied by a pianist, Vincenzo Scalera, who grew up in New Jersey. I first heard him in the 1980s, when he accompanied Bergonzi. There was a gig for a young man (and Scalera more than merited it).
As you would expect, the program from Wuppertal was a mixture of arias and duets. Most of them were from Italian opera—there were three selections from Andrea Chénier (Giordano), for example. Yet the program ended with three selections from Rusalka (Dvořák). Beczała also gave us an aria from his homeland—from the opera Halka, by Stanisław Moniuszko, which premiered in 1854. This was a nice, educational touch.
For years, I wrote, in review after review, “The story of Sondra Radvanovsky is simple: When she’s ‘hooked up’ and in tune, she is world-beating. When she’s not, she’s not.” I also remember something I wrote when she was singing one of the Three Queens (Donizetti) at the Met: “When did Sondra Radvanovsky become, not just a very good soprano, but a historic, pantheonic one?” She had.
The concert from Wuppertal opened with a soprano aria by Verdi: “Pace, pace, mio Dio,” from La forza del destino. This aria comes toward the end of the opera; Leontyne Price used to close the first half of her recitals with it. Radvanovsky was somewhat brave to begin with it, I think.
Her first note was splendid: a soft high F, crescendoing. She held it forever, and it was beautiful. “She’s hooked up,” I thought. “She’s on.” Soon after, she took some liberties with tempo that I thought were unwise. In any event, Vincenzo Scalera was right with her, old pro that he is. As she sang the aria, Radvanovsky was not especially Italianate. But this did not especially matter. The aria had its strength, delicacy, and drama.
At the end of this aria comes a series of curses: “Maledizione! Maledizione! Maledizione! Maledizion! Maledizion!” Price used to let out a little yelp at the very end. Radvanovsky did not do that—no one does—but she did something very interesting: she grabbed the final n, hard; she made a point of the consonant. This was very effective.
Piotr Beczała, too, opened with Verdi—with “Quando le sere al placido,” from Luisa Miller. I tend to associate this aria with Richard Tucker (and, later, Plácido Domingo). From the beginning, it was evident that Beczała, like Radvanovsky, was “hooked up.” He was in tune, secure, confident. That marvelous instrument of his is maybe not as sweet as before; but it is amply beautiful, and fully mature. He sang his aria with a lyrical power, plus pathos.
Maybe the highlight of the concert was the love duet from Un ballo in maschera (again, Verdi). As long as I’m walking down Memory Lane, let me say that Leontyne Price and Luciano Pavarotti sang this duet in the Met’s centennial gala, on October 22, 1983. From Radvanovsky and Beczała—and Scalera, don’t forget—it was magnificent. It was exciting, yes, and beautiful, and moving. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it so sensitive and intimate. Is this because the duet was accompanied by a piano, not an orchestra, and in an empty hall? Possibly, yes.
Along the way, Radvanovsky sang “La mamma morta,” from Andrea Chénier. This is a verismo scorcher, to be sure. But in this atmosphere, it had elements of an art song, too. There’s a combination for you! Verismo and art song.
As has become traditional in these Met livestreams, the singers talked to the audience (the worldwide audience, in Internet-land). Beczała spoke of “the healing power of opera.” (We could have a debate about that.) Radvanovsky said, “There is no substitute for hearing the human voice live”—but maybe a transmission of this sort is second best. She broke down a little as she spoke.
She broke down again when she announced her final aria—her “very favorite aria,” she said. It is “Song to the Moon,” from Rusalka. She was going to sing it for her father, she said. (Some Googling tells me that Radvanovsky’s father was Czech, and died when Sondra was seventeen.) As she wiped away a tear, she said, touchingly, “Excuse me.”
When Radvanovsky had sung “Song to the Moon,” Beczała sang another aria from Rusalka: the Prince’s Aria. Then the two sang the final duet from the opera. Scalera played superbly, as he had throughout the concert: with savvy, musicality, and pianistic skill. These opera accompaniments on the piano can be pretty cheap-sounding. Not from this fellow.
But return to an earlier juncture in the concert. After Radvanovsky and Beczała had sung the Ballo duet, I thought of an old line: “Sometimes the ‘good ol’ days’ are now.”
Onstage at Wigmore Hall, in London, were the Britten Sinfonia, Jennifer France, and Jack Sheen. The Britten Sinfonia is a chamber group founded in 1992. Publicity tells us that the group is “heralded as one of the world’s leading ensembles.” That is news to me, but publicists can be forgiven their hyperbole, possibly. Jennifer France is a British soprano. And her name, “France,” makes me smile at a memory.
When I was young, I assumed that John Ireland (1879–1962) was an Irish composer. He was English, however, born outside Manchester.
As it happens, Jack Sheen is from Manchester, and he is a composer and conductor. He is not yet thirty, born in 1993. The Wigmore concert featured him in various roles: composer, conductor, arranger, and player (of an unusual kind, or kinds).
Interspersed on the program were three arrangements that Sheen has made of music by Hildegard of Bingen, the abbess, writer, philosopher, etc., from Germany. May I call a person who lived in the twelfth century a “Renaissance woman”? You will take my meaning regardless. Hildegard was impressively versatile. The Wigmore program also included music by Oliver Knussen, Sheen, and, finally, Jürg Frey.
Knussen was born in Glasgow in 1952, and died in Snape, Suffolk, in 2018. On American shores, at least, he is probably best known for a children’s opera, Where the Wild Things Are. He is also known for another children’s opera, Higglety Pigglety Pop! Both of these works are based on books by Maurice Sendak, who supplied the operas’ librettos. It will not surprise you to know that Knussen also wrote Hums and Songs of Winnie-the-Pooh—a work performed in this concert.
It is quirky and playful, as you might expect. Also ominous, creepy—a little nightmarish. I would place the work in the category of British Weird. This is not necessarily a pejorative designation.
From Jack Sheen himself, there was a new work: Hollow propranolol séance. The second word refers to a heart medication, a beta blocker. I am not sure what the word “hollow” means in this context. In the piece, there are pops, bleeps, and slides—and heartbeats. The music is very soft, hardly audible (at least as livestreamed on my laptop). It moves slowly, deliberately, putting me in mind of works by Morton Feldman, the twentieth-century American. Hollow propranolol séance strikes me as one of those works more interesting to compose and to play than to hear. But about its intelligence—particularly its inner logic—I have no doubt.
For the final work on the program, Sheen played cymbals and “manipulated silver foil,” as the bbc announcer put it afterward. (In the New World, we’re apt to say “aluminum foil.”) The work was Circular Music No. 2, by Jürg Frey, a Swiss composer born in 1953. He has written at least ten such “circular” pieces.
About the others, I can’t tell you, but No. 2 is very slow-moving, requiring patience on the part of the listener. Also requiring “buy-in.” The same is true of Jack Sheen’s piece.
As I listened impatiently to the Frey, I thought of Wagner and Debussy. To be entranced by Parsifal—drugged by Parsifal—you have to submit to Wagner and his sense of time (or lack of time). You have to give in, letting the cares and concerns of your own world go for a while. You have to do the same with Debussy’s opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, I would say.
At some point—I was not young—I was willing to do this for Wagner and Debussy (and myself). Should I be willing to do it for Frey? I think so, yes. There is magic in Circular Music No. 2, if only I would let it work on me.
They keep coming, as they have since—when? Sometime in the second half of the nineteenth century? I’m talking about Russian piano virtuosos. And thank heaven for this stream. The latest is Alexander Malofeev, age nineteen. He recently played a concerto with the Spanish Radio and Television Symphony Orchestra, in Madrid. The conductor was George Pehlivanian, a French American who was born in Beirut into a family of Armenian background. (Not all lives or identities are cut and dried, are they?) Young Malofeev wore a black mask as he played. It kept sliding down—as they do—and Malofeev kept pushing it back up. The conductor, too, wore a mask, as did members of the orchestra—all except the wind players.
The concerto was the Saint-Saëns No. 2 in G minor. People like to snicker at this piece, and they always have. A famous quip goes, “Begins with Bach, ends with Offenbach.” (The quipper was Zygmunt Stojowski, a Polish pianist and composer who lived from 1870 to 1946.) But pianists and audiences have always loved this concerto, with good reason. Artur Rubinstein championed it, proudly. And Alexander Malofeev played it . . . consummately. I feel sure—I would bet my own money—that Rubinstein would agree with me.
Malofeev played the first notes with authority and resonance. (Important.) He calibrated the opening pages shrewdly. (Also important, and tricky.) Throughout the first movement, he played with virtuosity (effortless), beauty, and maturity. You forgot you were listening to a youngster. He sang in his right hand, accompanied himself in the left. His playing was clear and limpid. His trills were exemplary—creamy, smooth. He knew when to take his time. He was in the skin of the music.
The second movement, for many, is the pièce de résistance. It is the Scherzo. From Malofeev, it was just what the doctor orders: fleet, crisp, elegant. Also fun. Malofeev does not think the music is trash. He knows better. The closing Presto, he played with rhapsodic barreling (a phrase that will make sense if you know the music). Furthermore, he never banged, even when he was loud—very loud. He never did anything—not one thing—vulgar. The music was exciting while at the same time Frenchly elegant.
On concluding, Malofeev exchanged forearm bumps with the conductor and the concertmistress. Then he played two encores—two Russian beauties: Rachmaninoff’s arrangement of his song “Lilacs,” and Mikhail Pletnev’s arrangement of the Pas de deux from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. In playing these pieces, Malofeev was honoring the ancestors. He played them with great appreciation, and, more than that, love.
So, yes: here’s another one. I hope that audiences listen to Alexander Malofeev—and learn from him and thrill to him—for another sixty years, at least.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 7, on page 52
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