With Alessio Bax, the Italian pianist, Andreas Ottensamer played in Weill Recital Hall. He is an Austrian clarinetist and a member of a royal family: a royal clarinet family. His late father, Ernst, was a principal clarinetist in the Vienna Philharmonic. His brother, Daniel, is a principal in that orchestra today. Andreas himself is a principal in the Berlin Philharmonic. The Ottensamer family does not go below the top.
In a wind recital, you usually get music written for the instrument—music originally written for it—and music transcribed for it. So it was in Andreas Ottensamer’s recital. He had done most of the transcribing himself. As he explained in remarks to the audience, he had unexpected free time during the pandemic, and he used some of it to make transcriptions. What did he pluck? Well, he took some of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words (originally written for piano). He also took Gershwin’s Three Preludes (again, originally for piano).
I should make clear that Ottensamer did not fashion his transcriptions for clarinet alone; these transcriptions are for clarinet and piano, together.
You may recall that Jascha Heifetz, too, transcribed the Gershwin preludes—for violin and piano. As I wrote in my online review of Ottensamer and Bax, Heifetz “got a lot of mileage” out of the preludes, and he “gave other violinists mileage, too.”
In his transcribing, Ottensamer pulled a switcheroo. He begins with the Prelude No. 3 and ends with No. 1 (leaving No. 2—the beautiful slow prelude in C-sharp minor—in the middle, where it must be). In the final prelude—which is to say, No. 1—Ottensamer interpolates a bit of Rhapsody in Blue: the famous clarinet glissando that begins the work.
A little dessert was provided in Ottensamer’s encore: his transcription of a Debussy piano prelude, “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair.” Like Heifetz before him, Ottensamer has given himself mileage, and benefited his fellow clarinets as well.
Weill Recital Hall is the pretty little annex upstairs in Carnegie Hall. The night after Ottensamer and Bax played, Denis Matsuev came into the main auditorium. The Russian pianist opened with the last two piano sonatas of Beethoven. After intermission, he played Kinderszenen (Schumann) and Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor. “Matsuev is made for this music,” I wrote online. I was referring to the Rachmaninoff (though he played his Beethoven and Schumann commendably too). “He is a big man with big hands, commanding the keyboard like a toy. Earl Wild was such a pianist. So was Sergei Rachmaninoff.”
Matsuev’s recital was on February 9, about two weeks before Vladimir Putin launched his all-out assault on Ukraine. There were protesters outside Carnegie Hall, as there long have been whenever Matsuev appears. Matsuev is a strong and public backer of Putin, a kind of official artist. He was a torchbearer at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, for example. He played during the closing ceremony of those Olympics. Shortly after, he signed a letter supporting Putin’s (initial) aggression against Ukraine.
We will return to these themes in due course.
The night after the Matsuev recital, the New York Philharmonic played in Alice Tully Hall. I thought of something a conductor once told me. I had asked him a standard question: “Do performers have an obligation to program new music?” Yes, he said (though somewhat hesitantly). He then said, “Frankly, I think we should program music of the past that is never or seldom played, and ought to be known. We ought to rescue music whose light is under a bushel.” On this night in Alice Tully, the Philharmonic played Kodály’s Concerto for Orchestra—no, not Bartók’s, which is famous, but Kodály’s—and Martinů’s Symphony No. 1. Neither had ever been played by the New York Philharmonic. The Kodály was written in 1940, the Martinů in 1942. Leading this concert was Jakub Hrůša, a Czech conductor, who, by the way, is the president of the International Martinů Circle.
A week later, the Philharmonic’s program began with a new work: Saudade, by Žibuoklė Martinaitytė, a Lithuanian composer, now living in New York. The word saudade does not sound very Baltic, does it? It is Portuguese—and means, according to one dictionary, “a feeling of longing, melancholy, or nostalgia that is supposedly characteristic of the Portuguese or Brazilian temperament.” Does Ms. Martinaitytė’s piece express this feeling? It does, no doubt. Does one think that because of the title? Probably, yes. When it comes to music—music without words—we are always steered by titles. Frankly, I thought this new piece could serve as the soundtrack to an underseas documentary or movie. In one stretch, I could sense a great monster, stirring and emerging from the depths.
When the piece was over, the audience applauded warmly, but there was one booer—a lone booer. I thought, “No composer, no human being, could help hearing the booer, to the exclusion of the applause.” I also thought of George Rochberg, the late American composer. He told a composer friend of mine, when my friend was young, “It takes an iron stomach to be a composer.”
The following week, the New York Philharmonic was conducted by Manfred Honeck, the Austrian who is the longtime music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. He began with a work of his own arranging—or co-arranging, for he accomplished the task with Tomáš Ille, a Czech composer. Erwin Schulhoff was a Czech composer, too. He was born in Prague in 1894, and he died in the Wülzburg camp (Bavaria) in 1942. In 1923, he composed Five Pieces for String Quartet (dedicating the work to Darius Milhaud). It is those five pieces, that suite, that Honeck and Ille have arranged.
Schulhoff was keen on dancing, and the five pieces are dances, all. They constitute a kind of travelogue. They begin with a Viennese waltz—though in a distinctive, modern style. From there, we have a Spanish serenade, a Czech dance, a tango from Argentina, and an Italian tarantella. All I can say—or one of the things I can say—is, “Viva ‘cultural appropriation.’ ”
Honeck and Ille have made an appealing arrangement. It is full of color and provides solo opportunities for a roster of principals. The arrangement is also the right weight, I would say: having a transparency, a “chamber” feeling. The arrangement makes interesting use of percussion, and not overuse. Too much percussion can be like too much of one ingredient in a dish. Honeck conducted every piece—every dance—with knowledge and panache.
This arrangement is two things: an act of piety—a recognition of composers murdered in the Holocaust—and a neat addition to the orchestral repertoire.
Ray Chen came out to play the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. He was born in Taiwan, in 1989, and brought up in Australia. Members of the audience greeted him like a rock star. He has a very enthusiastic following. Chen carries himself like a bit of a rock star too. A handsome devil, he boasts cool hair and cool clothes. He is also a considerable violinist. He played the Mendelssohn like a Romantic athlete—an athlete of Romanticism. There is a more refined way to play this concerto. A more Mendelssohnian way, you could even say. But Chen’s traversal was perfectly legitimate and admirable. He relished playing the concerto. He played it as though it were an immense privilege to do so. In his stage manners, he was a bit hammy, maybe—but this is not unknown in performance, and it never killed anyone. The audience gave the performance a huge, screaming ovation. The violinists in the orchestra, too, gave Chen an enthusiastic response—which is a testimony.
Before his encore, Chen spoke to the audience with utter charm, and he spoke about “Waltzing Matilda,” which is virtually the national anthem of Australia. He then played his own version of the song, for solo violin. It is an intelligent and striking version, or arrangement, or recomposition—and Chen played it with extraordinary skill and musicality.
Reviewing this concert, a critic would typically emphasize the arrangement of the Schulhoff, and then make a few remarks about the violinist and the concerto. At the end, he would have a line or two about the second half of the concert: A standard conductor conducted a standard orchestra in a standard symphony. Another day, another Dvořák Eighth, ho hum. No. Yes, Manfred Honeck conducted the New York Philharmonic in the Symphony No. 8 of Dvořák. But this performance, for me, will stand as one of the highlights of the entire 2021–22 season in New York. Can we not beat around the bush, please? Honeck is a great conductor. There is no need to wait until he’s retired or planted to acknowledge it. Within Honeck is a world of music. He is worldly and Old Worldly, as we heard in the Dvořák. The music had Bohemian bonhomie, nobility, excitement, and all its other qualities. It certainly had dance. Honeck is another musician keen on dance. He does a little dancing on the podium, though unshowily. As Honeck conducted, I thought of a phrase from Lorin Maazel: “gestural equivalent.” Honeck knows how to find the gestural equivalent of the phrase or moment at hand.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Mariss Jansons headed the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, some of us thought that the pso was just about the best orchestra in America. It is one of the best now, too, under Manfred Honeck. I hope Pittsburghers know what they have.
While Honeck conducted the New York Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic was opening a three-concert stand in Carnegie Hall. Honeck once played in this orchestra—the viola. His brother Rainer is a concertmaster of the orchestra today. Serving as the conductor of the three concerts was Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the music director of both the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera. He was a last-minute substitute.
Scheduled to conduct had been Valery Gergiev, the great Russian. He is a longtime friend and ally of Putin. I mentioned the habitual protests outside appearances by Denis Matsuev in New York. There have long been protests outside Gergiev appearances too. Matsuev, in fact, had been scheduled as the concerto soloist for the first Vienna Phil. concert (the Rachmaninoff Second). Putin launched his assault on Ukraine, however. So both Gergiev and Matsuev were dropped, by both Carnegie Hall and the Vienna Philharmonic, according to reports. Substituting for Matsuev was Seong-jin Cho, the Korean. He flew in from Berlin.
The next night, Nézet-Séguin conducted two masterpieces of French Impressionism and a masterpiece of Russian Romanticism (streaked with Orientalism). The concert began with Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. It was beautiful, of course—I mean, the Vienna Philharmonic can’t help playing beautifully. And the acoustics of Carnegie Hall don’t hurt. Nézet-Séguin luxuriated in the score. He over-luxuriated, in my view. I thought the prelude was mannered and deliberate, without its natural unfolding. Then came the Suite No. 2 from Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe. It began with a heavenly shimmer. Nézet-Séguin conducted astutely and reasonably throughout. There was a premature entrance from the oboe, but that was of little import. It told us we were not listening to a studio recording. Several soloists stood out, including Daniel Ottensamer, brother of Andreas (and son of Ernst).
After intermission came Scheherazade, by Rimsky-Korsakov. The playing was good. How could it not be? But Scheherazade is one of the most passionate, most sensual—indeed, most erotic—pieces in the entire repertoire. This reading, in my view, was on the bland side. Borderline dull. Incidentally, I saw Scheherazade, the ballet—choreography by Fokine—in Kyiv in late 2019. It was paired with Carmen Suite. My review for The New Criterion’s website was headed “Some erotic evening.” Of the Scheherazade, I wrote, “Honestly, this performance should have come in a brown paper wrapper—it was that erotic, and that right. The entire audience afterward should have been smoking a cigarette. It was beautiful, too . . .”
Somewhat discouraged by the second Vienna Phil. concert, I did not attend the third. I thought I had heard enough.
But hang on. The night after the Vienna Phil.’s finale, Nézet-Séguin conducted Don Carlos (Verdi) at the Met. He was superb. Masterly, in every act, every scene. Two nights after that, he conducted Tosca (Puccini). Same excellence. I reviewed these performances online, and also the Met performance that came in between: a performance of Ariadne auf Naxos, the Strauss opera (conducted by Marek Janowski). Here and now, let me stammer out a few words about Lise Davidsen, the young Norwegian soprano, who sang the title role in the Strauss.
First, I give the floor to Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Finnish conductor, who made a recording with Davidsen. He recounted later, “The moment Lise sang the first phrase, everybody’s jaw dropped in the orchestra. I have never seen this kind of thing before. . . . It was like, Can this sound come out of a human? Because it was so full, so rich, so perfect.” I will now quote from my review of Ariadne: “This sound can’t last forever, because nothing does. Michael Jordan didn’t. LeBron James won’t. Hear it while you can. Don’t deprive yourself of this experience.”
The night after Tosca at the Met, Daniil Trifonov, the Russian pianist, appeared at Carnegie Hall for a recital. Before Trifonov took the stage, the executive and artistic director of Carnegie Hall, Sir Clive Gillinson, came out to give a brief speech. He said, in essence, this: There are Russian artists who are strong supporters of the Putin regime. There are many other Russian artists. Distinctions must be made. Russia has contributed gloriously to the high culture of the world.
Should such a speech have had to be made? No, but, under the circumstances, it seemed appropriate.
Trifonov played a very interesting program—not a program with a “theme,” thank heaven, just a good and interesting one. He began with the Sonata No. 3 of Szymanowski, written in 1917. Here is a composer who deserves to have friends in the world. The pianist Piotr Anderszewski, the composer’s fellow Pole, is one. Trifonov is clearly another. Szymanowski’s Sonata No. 3 is brainy and enjoyable, both. Trifonov lent it some of his familiar characteristics, including beautiful phrasing, intense concentration, and easy virtuosity.
He then turned to Debussy: the three-movement suite titled, simply, Pour le piano. In these pieces, you need intricacy, subtlety, dexterity. For the middle movement, Sarabande, you could use a sense of mysticism. Trifonov delivered on all counts. Pour le piano is right up his alley. I will also note something minor: Trifonov knows just how much time to allow between movements. He closed the first half of his recital with the five Sarcasms of Prokofiev. György Sándor, the Hungarian, used to play these. He was a rather glamorous figure in my hometown of Ann Arbor when he taught at the University of Michigan. Once more, Trifonov was equipped for the music at hand. For one thing, he knows the art of percussiveness: proper percussiveness, as distinct from banging.
The second half of the recital was devoted to a single work: Brahms’s Sonata No. 3 in F minor, Op. 5. This is one of Brahms’s proto-symphonies—titanic—with stretches of poetry. The second movement, Andante espressivo, has a Schubert-level sublimity. In saying this, I don’t mean to diminish Brahms; I mean to express awe at Schubert. In the sonata, Daniil Trifonov handled the titanic and the poetic. It has always been obvious that he is a very good and talented pianist. On this night, I was prepared to call him a great pianist.
He played no encore, though he was called back to the stage time after time. He bowed in a dignified, Old World manner. Some musicians play encores without really being asked; some are asked—even implored—and do not oblige. A friend in the hall remarked, “He was finished.” Yes. And now so am I.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 8, on page 69
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