Maxim Vengerov, the Russian-Israeli violinist, came to Carnegie Hall for a recital. He brought with him a Russian pianist, Polina Osetinskaya. She was a child prodigy. She wrote about her early years in a memoir, Farewell, Sadness. Sadness? She describes an abusive, monstrous father. Earlier this year, she denounced Russia’s assault on Ukraine, saying that it made her feel “horror, shame, and disgust.” As a result, she had some appearances in Russia canceled.
The program at Carnegie Hall comprised Bach and Beethoven on the first half and Russian music on the second. Vengerov and Osetinskaya began with Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in B minor, bwv 1014. Vengerov played respectfully, respectably, musically. Osetinskaya played richly, lushly, deep into the keys. She was a touch “Romantic,” you could say. She knew that she was playing a Steinway grand, not a harpsichord. She took advantage of her instrument. Was she unfaithful to Bach? No.
When the opening sonata was finished and applauded, Vengerov swooped his right arm up to begin another sonata, Beethoven’s “Kreutzer.” He began it beautifully. About the performance overall, one could lodge various complaints, and I will. Vengerov was not immaculate. His intonation sometimes faltered. There was questionable rubato, bordering on the cutesy. I could have used more intensity, especially in the closing Presto. Still, this was an enjoyable, commendable account. Vengerov simply revels in his playing, always has. There is a lot to revel in. But maybe I should say he revels in music, and is glad for the chance to make it. Here is something specific about Polina Osetinskaya: she is, among other things, a skillful and effective triller.
Above, I wrote, “Bach and Beethoven on the first half and Russian music on the second.” Why did I say “Russian music” when I could have—should have?—said “Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky”? After all, I did not say “German music,” instead of “Bach and Beethoven.” As I think about it, I suppose the answer is this: the Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky pieces that Vengerov played are wonderfully Russian-flavored. And he, with his pianist, played them so idiomatically, so well. Maybe this does not excuse me. We could engage in some debate over the question.
In any event, the performers began the second half with ten of Shostakovich’s Preludes from Op. 34. He wrote the Preludes—twenty-four of them—for piano, in 1932 and 1933. They were transcribed for violin and piano by Dmitri Tsyganov, the first violinist of the Beethoven Quartet, which was closely associated with Shostakovich (and vice versa). More precisely, Tsyganov transcribed nineteen of the twenty-four. Said Shostakovich, “When I hear the transcriptions, I forget that I actually composed the Preludes for piano. They sound so violinistic.”
Please note: the Preludes, Op. 34, are not to be confused with Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87, which he composed in 1950 and 1951. As it happened, Igor Levit, the Russian-German pianist, played Op. 87 in Carnegie Hall two nights before Vengerov and Osetinskaya arrived. That was a long, exacting, impressive evening.
In addition to being ingenious, the Op. 34 Preludes are a lot of fun. Some of them sound like high-class salon pieces. In Vengerov’s hands, the Preludes were delicious, and he relished them.
Vengerov showed himself a sure Romantic in these pieces.
From Tchaikovsky, there were four pieces, in a sense. Vengerov and Osetinskaya played Souvenir d’un lieu cher, which has three movements: “Méditation,” Scherzo, and “Mélodie.” The third of these has some stand-alone fame. The lieu cher in question, by the way—the “dear place”—is the estate of Tchaikovsky’s patroness, Nadezhda von Meck, in eastern Ukraine. Vengerov showed himself a sure Romantic in these pieces. The Scherzo had the spiky intensity that I was looking for—or looking for more of—in the Beethoven.
The printed program ended with Tchaikovsky’s Valse-Scherzo in C major, brought off with panache.
Of encores, there were but two—beginning with another scherzo, this one from Beethoven’s “Spring” Sonata. The performers rendered it niftily. They closed the evening with the slow movement from the Franck Violin Sonata. (This movement is marked “Recitativo-Fantasia.”) The music has a somber character, and it was interesting that Vengerov and Osetinskaya chose to bid goodnight with it. Regardless, they played the music with due soul.
Before leaving this recital, maybe I could offer a couple of footnotes. Vengerov, a gentleman, had Osetinskaya go before him, all night long. That is, she preceded him out of the wings and returning to them. Normally, the violinist would go first. I thought of the accompanist of Dmitri Hvorostovsky, the late, great baritone. He was Ivari Ilja, from Estonia. When he had a female page-turner, he would insist that she go before him. A nice bit of chivalry.
Also, there were a noticeable number of boys in the audience, with their parents—boys under the age of thirteen or so. Violin students, surely. The perpetuation of music? The keeping alive of such traditions as Maxim Vengerov represents? These things are of more than footnote importance.
Two days after the violin-and-piano recital, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, from England, came into Carnegie Hall. I think it right to say that Simon Rattle—later Sir Simon—put the cbso on the map, or at least the worldwide map and not the British one alone. He started in Birmingham in 1980; he went on to greater glory in Berlin. Since Sir Simon’s tenure—1980 to 1998—the cbso has had a string of excellent conductors: Sakari Oramo, Andris Nelsons, and the incumbent, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. She is a Lithuanian, born in 1986. And it was she who led the cbso in Carnegie Hall.
Their program began with a favorite—a British favorite—the Elgar Cello Concerto. Jacqueline du Pré put this concerto on the map in 1965, when, age twenty, she recorded it with the London Symphony Orchestra and Sir John Barbirolli. The cbso had another British cellist, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, age twenty-three. He has recorded the Elgar with the lso and Sir Simon. Kanneh-Mason shot to fame when he played at Harry and Meghan’s royal wedding in 2018. He already has “mbe” after his name. Last season, readers may recall, he played with the New York Philharmonic (the Dvořák Concerto).
In the Elgar, he was soulful, which the piece requires, while avoiding the mawkish, which spoils the piece. He was spontaneous without going crazy with spontaneity. In the slow movement, he phrased the melody—those wonderful B-flat-major lines—perfectly. I will note, as an aside, that Kanneh-Mason has the habit of looking upward when he plays, and of biting his lip, like a rock star. On the podium, Gražinytė-Tyla was alert to the soloist, alert to the score—just plain alert. In her gestures, she is both angular and graceful. She has the gift of “finding the gestural equivalent” of the music at hand, as Lorin Maazel would say.
In her gestures, she is both angular and graceful.
Sheku Kanneh-Mason is of Antiguan and Sierra Leonian ancestry. As he played the Elgar, I thought of a phrase, adapted from a famous American one: “He’s as British as mutton pie.”
He played an encore, and it was Bach—but it was not solo Bach. It was not a movement from a suite, as a cellist can be expected to play. It was “Komm, süßer Tod,” “Come, Sweet Death,” which the soloist had arranged for himself and four other cellos (if I counted correctly). The Bach was tastefully and beautifully played. And it was a nice way for a soloist to include his mates in the section—the relevant section.
Incidentally, Rostropovich was known to have a drink, or many drinks, with the cello section of an orchestra after he had played a concerto. For one thing, he knew they were dying to meet him and talk with him.
The second half of the cbso concert began with a new piece, The Exterminating Angel Symphony, by Thomas Adès, a Briton born in 1971. The symphony derives from his opera, The Exterminating Angel, which is based on a movie—a landmark of surrealism—of the same name. (The movie, from 1962, is directed by Luis Buñuel.) Adès’s opera premiered at the Salzburg Festival in 2016. Allow me to quote from my review:
His score is one of extremes: extreme emotions, extreme dynamics, extreme vocal ranges. . . .
The music is nervous and nutty. It depicts confusion, degradation, and hallucination. It is on the edge, and over it. The score includes martial music, love music, a ghoulish lullaby—whatever is necessary to tell the awful tale.
An awful tale it is. “Speaking for myself,” I wrote, “I would pay good money not to see this opera again. I liked it as much as nightmares. But I recognize its brilliance—and the general brilliance of its composer.”
And now he has gone ahead and symphonized it. Prokofiev did just this with his opera The Fiery Angel. (The result is his Symphony No. 3.) Hindemith, as I understand it, did the reverse: he took his symphony dubbed Mathis der Mahler and made an opera of it.
Adès’s Exterminating Angel Symphony is in four movements: “Entrances,” “March,” “Berceuse,” and “Waltzes.” I happily listened to it, and would happily listen to it again. Speaking for myself (once more, and as usual), I enjoyed the music without the story, or without the play, so to speak. The aural without the visual. I also believe that the symphony will find a place in the repertory. It is an interesting and virtuosic work, giving orchestra and conductor an opportunity to shine, which the performers in Carnegie Hall did.
They concluded the evening with a standard work—this one from France—La mer, by Debussy. There was no “personal stamp” on this music; it was just Debussy, as it ought to be. The performance had a judicious blend of clarity and blur—by which I mean Impressionistic blur, or gauziness. Every move that Maestra Gražinytė-Tyla makes on the podium is unmistakable. She is an exceptionally clear communicator, and what she communicates makes musical sense.
As the audience applauded, she had members of the orchestra stand, section by section: the trombones, the basses, and so on. This is unusual, in my experience, and a friendly gesture. I was hoping for an encore—a Pomp and Circumstance march? the Nimrod Variation?—but there was none. Home orchestras almost never play an encore; visiting ones often do. I felt a little cheated—but the concert had been full, not-short, and satisfying.
Three nights later, the Metropolitan Opera staged La traviata, the Verdi masterpiece (one of them). The current Met production has action on the stage during the prelude. It is a “flash forward,” I gather—a preview of the protagonist’s death, at the end of the opera. I thought of something that Riccardo Muti said to me last summer in an interview. The veteran Italian conductor was complaining about opera productions in general (and complaining righteously, in my opinion). He mentioned, specifically, action on the stage during preludes and overtures. The music ought to stand alone, he said, and speak for itself. I agree. And Verdi’s Traviata prelude is one of the most masterly things in that whole masterpiece.
In the title role at the Met was Nadine Sierra, the American soprano. Last season at the Met, she sang the title role in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. While I am quoting eminent figures in interviews last summer, let me say that Marilyn Horne, the great mezzo-soprano, told me it was a pity—a pity that Sierra had to sing Lucia in such an eccentric, wrongheaded production. (I agree with that, too.) Yet Sierra was outstanding as Lucia, and she was the same as Violetta (the traviata, the one who has gone astray).
I will quote one more big name, in an interview. Years ago, Beverly Sills told me about singing Violetta in Naples, at the Teatro San Carlo. In Act I, the soprano portraying Violetta is left all alone on the stage. There is absolute silence. Then she turns to the audience and sings, unaccompanied, “È strano”—which begins a long and demanding stretch of singing. So, there was Sills—“a girl from Brooklyn,” as she said—facing that audience of Italians, who were waiting to see whether she was worthy of being there. That was the moment of truth, Sills said. That was where the rubber met the road.
She triumphed, and so, at the Met, did Nadine Sierra. Violetta requires different types of singing: coloratura singing, “lyric” singing, “dramatic” singing. Sierra’s voice is smaller than the ideal Violetta’s. But she did everything required, and did it with skill, smarts, and conviction. Always, she was poised. Always, her voice was flexible, pliant, like the taffy that voice teachers talk about. “Pull the taffy,” some say: “Play with the taffy.” Sierra was shrewd in her dynamics; they were unusually varied. “Addio, del passato,” she spun with aching beauty. For generations—since the middle of the nineteenth century—first-rate sopranos have done justice to Violetta, and Sierra has joined them.
You have heard smoother and more beautiful renderings of this aria. But this one was quite human.
Her tenor, her Alfredo, was another American, Stephen Costello. He sounded and looked youthful. He was an entirely creditable Alfredo. You could object, however, that his singing was not especially Italianate. Germont was sung by Luca Salsi, an Italian baritone, who has also portrayed Scarpia (in Puccini’s Tosca) at the Met this season. As Germont, Salsi started out on uncertain ground. Vocally, he was not focused. It was hard to tell what notes he was singing. He came into focus, however, and sang a good “Di Provenza il mar.” You have heard smoother and more beautiful renderings of this aria. But this one was quite human—as though a man were talking to his son, and not performing an opera aria.
At the end of the evening, someone tossed a bouquet of flowers up to Nadine Sierra on the stage. She plucked out a bloom and handed it gratefully to the prompter. The house was packed, by the way—as in the old days at the Met. People love La traviata, and always will, and the people, in this case, are absolutely right.
David Geffen Hall has been renovated, transformed. This is the Lincoln Center facility long known as “Avery Fisher Hall,” and originally as “Philharmonic Hall,” for it is the home of the New York Philharmonic. The renovated hall is beautiful. It has a new-car, or new-auditorium, smell. The acoustics have been vastly improved, people say. Is it true? Probably. But I heard many performances in the old hall that sounded great. We have discussed this issue—the acoustics of this hall—ad nauseam, for decades. But perhaps I could say an additional word. (A politically incorrect one, too.)
In the bad old days, golfers would sometimes say, “It’s not the arrow, it’s the Indian.” In other words, what mattered was the skill of the golfer, not the club. But I grant you: a good club is better than a bad club, and a good auditorium is better than a bad auditorium, or a less good one.
On a gala evening, the New York Philharmonic, under its music director, Jaap van Zweden, began with some Gabrieli, to feature the Philharmonic brass and the reformed acoustics. The playing was somewhat blunt, but obviously professional. Then there was a new piece, written for the occasion: You Are the Prelude, by Angélica Negrón, who was born in Puerto Rico in 1981. For chorus and orchestra, this is an anthem, I would say, with a slightly New Age feel. It is pleasant, characteristically American, and—I regard this third quality as very important—sincere.
Then Van Zweden led his forces in Beethoven’s Ninth. I thought of Robert Graves, who said (something like), “The thing about Shakespeare is, he really is good.” So is the Ninth, so is Beethoven. So is Van Zweden. This performance was Jaap-like, and Beethoven-like: taut, rigorous, masculine, intense, smart—essentially right.
The new Geffen Hall has been christened. There will come a day when this version of the hall, like its predecessor, will be tired, worn, and despised. But here at the birth—A-1.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 4, on page 52
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