Music April 2021
On recent livestreams by Leif Ove Andsnes, Sonya Yoncheva, Mikhail Pletnev & the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Spivey Hall hosted Leif Ove Andsnes, the Norwegian pianist, in recital. Spivey Hall is on the campus of Clayton State University in Morrow, Georgia, about fifteen miles south of Atlanta. Andsnes was not present in Georgia, however; he was in Bergen, Norway, where he lives. Such is concert life in the pandemic.
Andsnes played in the Edvard Grieg Museum. What is called a “museum” is a compound, really, consisting of Grieg’s villa; his composing hut; an exhibition center, complete with gift shop and café; and a concert hall. Andsnes played in the hall, with a great big window to his left. When my grandmother toured the villa in the early 1970s, she sat down and played Grieg’s piano; by the time I got there, in the 2000s, you could not play it. The piano was behind a velvet rope.
In his “Spivey” recital, Andsnes played Grieg, yes. But he began with Beethoven: the Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13, “Pathétique.” The opening chord is important to get right: it must be full, with all the notes sounding, proportionally; it must be arresting without being crazy. From Leif Ove Andsnes, it was exactly right. So was the sonata in general. Andsnes chose wise tempos, and he played with great clarity. His sound was rich and firm. Rhythm was intelligent and precise. Pedaling was light and discreet. The listener was not really aware of interpretation. This was “ur-Beethoven,” you could say.
Over the years, I have used a phrase about Andsnes: “not a hair out of place.” This is true of his music-making, and it is true of him, personally. Great hair! Andsnes is tidy and immaculate, both in his playing and in his person (at least when he concertizes).
I have one criticism of his “Pathétique,” and it is not a small one. For me, the sonata was sometimes too cool, too polite. I would have liked a few hairs out of place. The middle movement—that famous song—I would have liked warmer. Overall, there is an emotional charge in this sonata that did not necessarily come through.
By Grieg, Andsnes played four of the Lyric Pieces. I have always appreciated his lack of fuss in these pieces. The lack of sentimentalism, the absence of perfume. From Andsnes, the Lyric Pieces are fresh, pure, and cleansing. He conveys the mystery and joy of Grieg. On this occasion, he played the “Norwegian March,” which offers a dance, called the “gangar.” Andsnes played it in an enchanting, powerful, incredibly exciting manner. Reader, I listened to it three times. (You can do this, while you are watching a repeat of a livestream.) I was hoping to hear it a fourth time: Would Andsnes play it as an encore, at the end of the recital? I would have.
The pianist closed his program with Dvořák—not a composer known for piano music, though he wrote plenty of it. Indeed, he wrote one of the most famous piano pieces of all time: the Humoresque. Actually, Dvořák wrote eight of these humoresques, but the one that we call Humoresque—the one that Art Tatum improvised on, ingeniously—is No. 7, in G flat. Some people consider it the most famous small piano piece outside of Für Elise (Beethoven).
Still, “Dvořák’s piano music is really not known outside the Czech Republic.” This is what Leif Ove Andsnes said, in remarks to the audience (or to the camera, if you like). Andsnes had programmed a group of Dvořák’s Poetic Tone Pictures, Op. 85. There are thirteen of these “pictures,” and Andsnes played eight of them. They are “full of character,” he said, with “great melodies” and “rich harmonies.” Moreover, they are “prime-time Dvořák,” coming from the same period as the Piano Quintet in A major, and the Symphony No. 8. “I am very happy to champion these pieces,” said Andsnes.
They are something like Czech Lyric Pieces. I also think that we have some Lyric Pieces of our own, we Americans: Edward MacDowell’s Ten Woodland Sketches, of which “To a Wild Rose” is the most famous. Dvořák’s Poetic Tone Pictures are pleasant, no doubt, and maybe they would grow on me, if I listened to them more. One of the pictures that Andsnes played is “Goblins’ March.” I thought, “Ah, you can tell it came from the composer of Rusalka,” the opera, with its Ježibaba, the witch.
In the end, there was no encore—neither “Norwegian March” nor anything else. Maybe the Dvořák pictures had been eight encores?
The Metropolitan Opera streamed a recital from the Schussenried Abbey, in southwestern Germany. Onstage were Sonya Yoncheva, the starry Bulgarian soprano, and Julien Quentin, a French pianist. He was playing the introduction to the first aria as she strode, with operatic purposefulness, toward the stage. The aria was “Ritorna vincitor!” from Verdi’s Aida. In that introduction, Quentin was crisp and authoritative. As for the choice of aria, was La Yoncheva sending a message? I am returning, triumphant, to the stage, to sing for an audience (albeit an online one).
You have heard the opening phrase more arresting. But Yoncheva got better, as the aria went on. She was focused, mentally and vocally. Yoncheva has a juicy voice, with a “bottled” quality in the lower register. (That’s how they used to describe Callas’s lower register: “bottled.”) She showed the necessary pliancy in this aria. Also, she made the aria unusually intimate. This is perhaps easier to do in recital, with a piano, than on a proper opera stage, with the orchestra in the pit. At the end of the aria, there was some unfortunate flatting.
Yoncheva’s program consisted of eleven opera arias—all very familiar—and one song (also very familiar). The languages were Italian and French, with two wild cards thrown in: an aria in Czech and another in English. I will touch on a few highlights.
The “Song to the Moon”—speaking of Rusalka—was absolutely beautiful. It began matter-of-factly, as it should. You don’t want to express too much too soon. And it developed enrapturingly. Yoncheva sang this aria—called a “song,” nonetheless—with memorable love and beauty.
She later sang two Baroque arias: Dido’s Lament, from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, and “Lascia ch’io pianga,” from Handel’s Rinaldo. At the Salzburg Festival one year, I heard Yoncheva sing an entire concert of Baroque arias, along with a period band. I thought, “How unusual, for an opera star such as Yoncheva to devote an evening to the Baroque.” In fact, Yoncheva had ample early training in Baroque music, working under the famed period practitioner William Christie and others. She sings her Baroque arias tastefully, and also with a certain opera-star freedom. Think of Leontyne Price and Renée Fleming, before her.
In Dido’s Lament, Yoncheva was smart and moving. The aria was well and interestingly ornamented. “Lascia ch’io pianga” was superbly judged, with Monsieur Quentin contributing due pianistic strength.
“Un bel dì,” from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, is hackneyed, isn’t it? I had forgotten how good it is—great, in fact. Yoncheva sang the aria with something approaching maximum sensitivity and drama. Next came the Mirror Aria from Massenet’s Thaïs, which Yoncheva sang with skill and ardor—but without the high note that we, or some of us, wait for. This is forgivable. At the end of the Habanera (Bizet’s Carmen), Yoncheva threw her rose to—or rather, at—the pianist.
Before she said goodbye, Yoncheva spoke to the audience about love, primarily, and its unifying power. She then sang a song—a Piaf number, “Hymne à l’amour” (music by Marguerite Monnot, words by Édith Piaf herself). Winningly and lovingly done.
Let me confess something: I was not especially looking forward to hearing a program of hit arias sung by a soprano—however good—I have reviewed many times. Even worse, these arias were to be accompanied (necessarily) on piano. But Sonya Yoncheva drew me in. Midway through the recital, I was hooked. This is artistry, along with a first-class voice and a secure technique. Yoncheva is the real McCoy.
Mikhail Pletnev, the Russian pianist, played a recital in the Teatro Petruzzelli, Bari, Italy. (Bari is in the southeast of the peninsula, on the heel of the boot.) Pletnev was born in 1957, and in 1978 dazzled the world when he won the gold medal at the Tchaikovsky Competition. He is one of the greatest pianists in history.
He is not an even pianist, not a consistent pianist. He has off nights: eccentric, self-indulgent ones. But he always does extraordinary things, and you can usually learn from him. When Pletnev is “on”—there is almost nothing like it in the musical kingdom. On this occasion in Bari, he was very much on.
Pletnev walked onto the stage, turned to the audience—or what would have been the audience—and bowed solemnly, as usual (for the audience on the Internet). He sat down in his chair—not a piano bench, but a chair, with a back. The piano said “Shigeru Kawai” on the side. (Seldom do you see a piano from East Asia in a recital by a major pianist.)
His opening piece was Chopin’s Polonaise in C-sharp minor, Op. 26, No. 1. The piece had its idiomatic character. Pletnev has the dance within him. Do you remember how Vladimir Horowitz played Chopin mazurkas? He, too, had the dance within him. This can scarcely be taught. There is such a thing as “timing.” We tend not to use the word in music, as we do in comedy and maybe acting. But Pletnev has “timing,” in abundance—a cousin to rhythm, but not exactly the same thing. It’s all bound up in style. Pletnev’s polonaise was a thing of perfection.
The program was all-Chopin—familiar pieces, one after another. I imagine that Pletnev has lived with them—most of them—since boyhood (the Barcarolle, for example). He never got up from his chair. He paused just a few seconds between pieces. He never forgot which one came next. There was no sheet music in sight. Often, Pletnev looked straight ahead, rather than down at the keyboard.
Timing, rhythm—they never erred, throughout the program. Pletnev played the notes on the page. In fact, he was technically formidable, almost studio-perfect. But he went way beyond the notes on the page. He gave a clinic in musicianship, without eccentricity. He got the most beautiful sounds out of that piano. This was not the instrument, but rather the player. Pletnev could coax beautiful sounds out of a bordello upright. In an interview with me, Joshua Bell, the violinist, once joked, “Playing the piano? Might as well be typing.” But a few, such as Pletnev, can make a piano bend, melt, and glow.
He was ever elegant. He was subdued when he had to be, and more showy when that was called for. The absence of an audience—an in-person audience—possibly made him more inward, less “performative,” than usual. His playing was both “poetic,” if you will allow that, and “manly” (if you will allow that). He pedaled shrewdly, creating a blur or blend when he wanted to. Let me stress how beautiful this playing was—as beautiful as you can ever expect to hear. And compelling. “The cardinal sin of performance,” said Liszt, “is dullness.” Never was Pletnev dull.
Only at the end, I believe, did Pletnev falter. The final piece on the program was another polonaise, the one in A flat, Op. 53, called “Heroic.” It was simply too subdued, and strange, and unheroic. Unstirring. But, at this point, some faltering could not blight the recital.
When all was said and done, Pletnev got up from his chair, bowed his solemn bow, and walked off the stage.
This recital reminded me of the genius of Chopin—who is often poorly played, and needs help. It also confirmed that Pletnev is still a pianist (to put it mildly). He does a fair amount of conducting, but unlike some others who take up the baton, he has kept up with his instrument. In addition to playing and conducting, Pletnev composes. (He is also a famous and phenomenal arranger, of Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, and others.) Maybe he will want to spend more time on that in coming years?
As I listened, and watched, I was grateful that this Bari recital was recorded—and filmed. In the future, people will have more than the legend of Mikhail Pletnev. They can click (or whatever it is they will be doing).
The day before I clicked on the Bari recital, I read an obit of Roger Englander, a television director and producer. He was best known for producing Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts. He was also involved in a televised recital that Horowitz gave in 1968. Horowitz was reluctant to submit to television. “I think what finally broke down Horowitz’s resistance,” Englander told a reporter, “was the question: ‘Don’t you wish there had been film in Franz Liszt’s time so you could see him play the piano?’ ”
Again, I’m grateful that Pletnev was captured in this clinic of Chopin, this clinic of musicianship.
At the moment, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is not giving concerts—orchestral concerts, that is. But members of the orchestra are getting together for chamber concerts. The players observe “social distance” and wear masks—all except the wind players, who need those chops exposed. One concert began with a clarinet quintet. Mozart’s? Brahms’s? No, that of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.
He wrote it in 1895, when he was a student at the Royal College of Music (London). Brahms had published his clarinet quintet four years before. Coleridge-Taylor’s teacher, Charles Villiers Stanford, said, “Write a piece using the same instrumentation, but make the music different.” Coleridge-Taylor did, like a prize student.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was born in London in 1875. His mother, Alice Hare Martin, was an Englishwoman; his father, Daniel Peter Hughes Taylor, was from Sierra Leone. His mother—a single parent—named the child “Samuel Coleridge Taylor.” She named him after the poet, of course—Samuel Taylor Coleridge—or rather, she gave him a variation on the poet’s name. Grown up, the composer adopted a hyphen. In the first decade of the twentieth century, he toured the United States, three times. New Yorkers dubbed him “the African Mahler.” In Washington, Theodore Roosevelt received him at the White House. Coleridge-Taylor died in 1912, at thirty-seven.
His Clarinet Quintet in F-sharp minor, Op. 10, is well worth getting to know. I thought of Dvořák, writing in an American vein. Though a student piece—or a piece written by a student—it is far from immature. It is well wrought and full of beauty. The piece was given a proud performance by the cso players, with Stephen Williamson serving as clarinetist. Now the principal in Chicago, we knew him in New York, when he was the principal of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and then of the New York Philharmonic.
The second and final piece on this program was by Bach: the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, in D major. But isn’t this a keyboard concerto, more or less? It is, yes. Was the player plucked from the orchestra? No, he was a ringer, a Chicago-based harpsichordist, Mark Shuldiner. He was joined by six cso players, including Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson, the principal flute. Mr. Höskuldsson is an Icelander, as his name tells you, and he made beautiful sounds in the concerto.
I’m happy to report that the performance had life. Vitality. I don’t know about you, but I am tired of dull Bach: mechanical, plodding, joyless Bach. This Brandenburg Concerto is shot through with delight, and so was its reading, by the Chicagoans. The middle movement—which people turn into a dirge—had the right momentum. The last movement piped and danced merrily.
Mr. Shuldiner executed his part with skill, but I will end this chronicle with a confession: my heretical ear doesn’t mind a piano in that role. “I love a piano,” wrote Irving Berlin. (I’m tempted to suggest that Bach would, too.)
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 8, on page 58
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