If I had my way, the great instrumentalists of the world would play yearly recitals in Carnegie Hall. The great singers of the world would give recitals, too. Many of the great instrumentalists do appear regularly in the hall. (The singers, not as often, sad to say.) One of those instrumentalists is Yefim Bronfman, the pianist. His latest program was mostly Beethoven. (Incidentally, the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center has not quite revived, since the onset of the pandemic.) Bronfman played three sonatas by Beethoven and one by Galina Ustvolskaya.

Yefim Bronfman at Carnegie Hall. Photo: © 2022 Steve J. Sherman.

Who? Exactly. She has long been known to connoisseurs, having almost a cult following, but not to the general public—including the general concertgoing public. She was a Russian composer who lived from 1919 until 2006. She studied with Shostakovich, who admired her a great deal. Bronfman played her Sonata No. 4, written in 1957. It is in four movements, without breaks. Hearing it, I thought of the word “strange”—as in Harold Bloom’s usage. The late literary critic applied “strange” to works that were highly individual—like nothing or little else. Later, I read what Ustvolskaya said about her work in general: “There is no link whatsoever between my music and that of any other composer, living or dead.”

Bronfman played her sonata with conviction, a conviction he transmitted to the audience. I mean, we were convinced, too, by the playing. Bronfman was both beautiful and logical. I found myself wishing that the composer could be hearing her sonata, played by this major pianist in America’s most prestigious concert hall.

The Ustvolskaya began the second half of the recital. Opening the recital was Beethoven’s Sonata No. 11 in B-flat major, Op. 22, followed by his Sonata No. 7 in D major, Op. 10, No. 3. Beethoven wrote thirty-two piano sonatas. Some are better than others, as is the way of things. But every one of them is a prize. With some regularity, we hear maybe ten of the sonatas—especially those with nicknames: “Pathétique,” “Moonlight,” “Pastoral,” “Waldstein,” and so on. Also in the top ten, so to speak, are Beethoven’s last three sonatas: Op. 109, Op. 110, and Op. 111. Interestingly, all those escaped a nickname.

It was good to see Bronfman play the two sonatas he opened with. Honestly, even No. 1 is a prize—the very first piano sonata of Beethoven, which is in F minor, Op. 2, No. 1. Alicia de Larrocha used to open recitals with it. So have others.

Now, I would not say that Bronfman muffed the opening figure—which is repeated—of Op. 22. But he did not play it as clearly and crisply as he can. All of our lives, we have heard pianists—even great ones—muff this opening figure. Also that of the Sonata No. 3 in C major, Op. 2, No. 3. Also that of the Sonata No. 18 in E-flat major, Op. 31, No. 3. (Yuja Wang muffed, or quasi-muffed, the opening figure of Op. 31, No. 3, in a Carnegie Hall recital the week before Bronfman’s.) Beethoven practically specialized in muffable openings.

Bronfman was Bronfman, playing with his usual elegance, intelligence, and assurance.

Regardless, Bronfman was Bronfman, playing with his usual elegance, intelligence, and assurance. Some of his playing was a little subdued for me—too inward for its own good, possibly. But you could appreciate the pianist’s eschewal of display. It may sound odd to say, but this performance was not “performative.” The closing rondo was nicely unhurried and mature.

The Sonata No. 7 in D features one of the outstanding slow movements in all of Beethoven—in piano sonatas, string quartets, symphonies, or anything else. It is marked “Largo e mesto” (mesto meaning “sad”). It is virtually a little opera. Bronfman let it have its proper shape, and he played with a rich, masculine sound. Could the faster movements have had more spirit and sparkle? For my taste, yes. But there is scarcely a pianist I would rather hear play Beethoven than this one.

He closed the printed program—after the Ustvolskaya—with one of the nicknamed sonatas: the “Appassionata,” which is the Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57. Can you hear this work again, after a thousand hearings? You can—especially if it is well played. Beethoven does not stale. Bronfman was superb in this sonata. The first movement had an electric undercurrent. The middle movement, Andante con moto, was absolutely beautiful. It was also a study in evenness—sheer evenness. Like the first, the final movement had electricity. And I will tell you something curious about the coda: I had never heard the left hand so prominent and so consequential. Or so effective.

After the fire and drama of the “Appassionata,” we needed a slow encore. Would it be one of Beethoven’s bagatelles, to keep the theme of this (mostly) Beethoven evening? No, Bronfman turned to Chopin: the Nocturne in D-flat major, Op. 27, No. 2. Bronf­man had given us one absolutely beautiful thing in D-flat major: that middle movement of the “Appassionata.” Now he was giving us another.

He could not end on it, though. There had to be another encore, fast and furious, to send the audience home. Bronfman sat down to play one of the fastest and most furious pieces in all of Chopin: the “Revolutionary” Étude. He is a formidable virtuoso, Yefim Bronfman, and a thoroughly musical mind.

Have you heard any good viola jokes lately? There are lots of them. Sample: “Why is lightning like a violist’s fingers?” “Lightning never strikes the same place twice.” And a classic: “How can you tell whether a violist is playing out of tune?” “You see his bow moving.” These jokes are absurd and unjust, of course. But I have to tell you a story. Years ago, I did a public interview of Lawrence Dutton, the violist of the Emerson String Quartet. I asked, “Why do people make viola jokes?” He gave a very surprising answer. He said that a lot of second-rate musicians gravitate to the viola, with the first-rate ones gravitating to the violin. Dutton wanted the general standard of viola playing to be raised.

I will indulge in one more joke: “How do you keep a violin from being stolen?” “Keep it in a viola case.”

Second-raters aside, there are many first-rate musicians playing the viola, and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center hosted a recital by one: Paul Neubauer. He has been part of cms since the 1980s. At twenty-one, he was the principal viola of the New York Philharmonic. He has spent his career, however, as a soloist and chamber musician. He played his recital along with the pianist Gloria Chien. They played in a small venue, the Rose Studio, up in a Lincoln Center tower. This venue is just right for a viola recital, or most any recital. Too many recitals get swallowed—lost—in the bigger halls.

Mr. Neubauer wrote a program note for the evening. It began,

Paul Hindemith, William Primrose, and Lionel Tertis. In the first half of the twentieth century, these three legends of the viola were responsible not only for expanding the viola repertoire, but also for bringing the viola the recognition that it deserves as a solo instrument. This program honors these three great icons.

Neubauer ended his note by saying that, all in all, the recital would be an “ ‘homage’ to all things viola!” I myself heard several pieces for the first time. What’s more, I heard of several composers for the first time.

The first half of the program had three works, the first and last of which are relatively familiar. The evening began with a Baroque piece by Gaspar Cassadó, a Spanish cellist who lived from 1897 to 1966. I should have put “Baroque” in quotation marks. Cassadó passed off this toccata as a piece by Frescobaldi. To conclude the first half of the recital was the Hindemith Sonata for Viola and Piano. And in between?

Another sonata, this one by Alan Paul, a Brit who lived from 1905 to 1968. He was a staff composer for the bbc, as Kathryn Bacasmot told us in her excellent program notes. “In his over thirty years of employment there,” she said, “he wrote upwards of 3,700 works.” And in his spare time, he wrote music such as his viola sonata.

Listening to it, and admiring it, I thought, “Why isn’t this sonata played more often?” I then had to laugh (at myself): “Well, how often do you hear a viola recital?”

For twenty or more years, I have written the same things about Paul Neubauer’s playing, because they are true. “He plays with sovereignty,” I wrote in 2016. “There is almost an arrogance about his playing, or an aristocracy, if you like.” He also has one of the best string sounds around. Often it is fat and purple. What a glorious sound this glorious instrument makes, in the best of hands. The instrument is half violin, half cello, and all viola (if that math adds up). At the piano, Gloria Chien was a more than able partner. She played with poise and musicality. She was neither mouse nor gorilla, but a true collaborator.

The second half of the duo’s recital was made up of fascinating bonbons, to borrow Sir Thomas Beecham’s word.

The second half of the duo’s recital was made up of fascinating bonbons, to borrow Sir Thomas Beecham’s word. (The great conductor meant brief and pleasurable pieces, usually of a light nature, though bonbons are fattening.) Among them were Two Pieces for Viola and Piano, by Francis Casadesus (1870–1954). The Casadesus clan in Paris produced a great many musicians. Robert Casadesus, the pianist, was a nephew of Francis. The uncle’s two viola pieces are “Romance provençale” and “Danse.” The latter piece has such a smile. It is so French, so debonair.

Speaking of debonair, Fritz Kreisler was on the program, represented by his Berceuse romantique and also by La Précieuse. (Kreisler tried to pass off the latter piece as Couperin. Nice try, Fritz.) I am used to hearing these pieces on the violin, so to hear them lower was startling, at first. But the ear adjusted and Neubauer played his Kreisler in fitting style. He was—what higher compliment can you pay?—Kreislerian.

The duo played two pieces by William Wolstenholme, an Englishman (1865–1931). He belongs to the tradition—a long one—of blind organists. And how about Mana-Zucca, born Gussie Zuckermann in New York, in 1885? How about Arthur Benjamin, an Australian born in 1893? How about Georges Boulanger?

He was no relation to Nadia and Lili Boulanger, as far as I know. A Romanian, he was born George Pantazi, in 1893. Neubauer and Chien played a piece by him for an encore. It is American Vision, an ingenious, jazzy, delightsome little thing. The duo played it with wit and accuracy—with terrific comic timing.

From the early 1960s to the late 1990s, there was a TV program: ABC’s Wide World of Sports. Music is a wide, wonderful world too, and there is all sorts of repertoire to be unearthed, and re-unearthed, if it is reburied. During the intermission of the recital, I texted a violist friend of mine, to say where I was and what I was hearing. He replied, “May you come out of the recital with a renewed love of the best instrument there is.”

The New York Philharmonic played a concert in Carnegie Hall. That would have been a completely unremarkable statement, once upon a time: Carnegie Hall was the Philharmonic’s primary home for a cool seventy years—1892 to 1962. But the orchestra is only an occasional visitor to the hall now. The recent program was French-accented, and it began with a piece that is utterly French: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, by Debussy.

Jaap Van Zweden conducting the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. Photo: © 2022 Chris Lee

On the podium was the New York Philharmonic’s music director, Jaap van Zweden. He let the Prélude develop properly. He was blessedly unslow. He did not hurry—he smelled the flowers—but he kept walking. Some conductors just stop. The Philharmonic’s principal flute, Robert Langevin, contributed his beguiling sounds. And the pizzicatos at the end were right on the money. This is nearly a miracle. Pizzicatos, in my experience, are born to be botched.

Following the Prélude was a new piece: a concerto for two pianos and orchestra by Nico Muhly, the American born in 1981. His concerto has a nickname, or an outright name: In Certain Circles. “The French Baroque musical ideas of Jean-Philippe Rameau,” said our program notes, “served as a point of departure” for the concerto. Unlike our friends Cassadó and Kreisler, Muhly is not doing any passing off. His is a modern piece, with Rameau lurking in and around it.

Following the Prélude was a new piece: a concerto for two pianos and orchestra by Nico Muhly, the American born in 1981.

If the concerto isn’t French, it is Frenchish. It has colors and mystery. It has “lull” and “wash.” I believe it is meant to be spell-casting, and maybe the spell was cast, for some audience members. The piece is no doubt intelligent, and it would be interesting to look closely under the hood, understanding the composer’s logic. In any event, there is a new double-piano concerto in the world, to go with, for example, Poulenc’s, from 1932.

Joining Van Zweden and the Philharmonic for the concerto were the veteran duo pianists Katia and Marielle Labèque. They played with their usual commitment and élan. Though they are sisters, they are not twins—but they do dress alike (or at least did so on this occasion).

After intermission, Van Zweden led the orchestra in two standard works—two “greatest hits”: the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, and La mer, by Debussy. So, we had three standard works—three greatest hits—on the program, beginning with the Debussy Prélude. Critics tend to scoff at the playing of these standards while audiences tend to love it. How about players? Do they love it? My impression is, they do.

From Van Zweden, the Wagner was disciplined, no-nonsense, and intense. Very satisfying. I could have stood a little more mysticism. The reading was a bit too this-worldly for me. But I would rather have this music Van Zwedenesque than limp.

When orchestras play the Prelude and Liebes­tod, and the Liebestod starts, I always wonder where the voice is. Where the soprano is, where the Isolde is. It seems to me a cheat not to have the singing, no matter how fine the playing is. There is a company called Music Minus One. The company produces recordings of concertos, among other things—concertos played by an orchestra, but without the solo part. You yourself can play the solo part, along with the recording. It seems to me that an orchestral Liebestod is a music minus one—a very important one.

How about La mer, at the end of this New York Philharmonic evening in Carnegie Hall? I could have stood it woozier, gauzier—more Impressionistic. But Van Zwedenesque clarity and rigor had their own pleasures, and Debussy scored once more.

The next night in Carnegie Hall, Emanuel Ax played a recital, all Chopin. Why? Was it Chopin’s birthday? No, just because. After all, Chopin is a great composer, and the variety of his piano music can sustain an evening, or a string of evenings. Ax played some nocturnes, some mazurkas, an impromptu, a scherzo, a sonata, the Barcarolle, and so on. He didn’t even touch a prelude, an étude, a ballade, or a waltz.

Emanuel Ax. Photo: © Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

Mr. Ax has had a very good season in New York. In December, he played a superb Mozart concerto (No. 17 in G major, K. 453) with the New York Philharmonic and Van Zweden. In March, he was again superb in a piano-trio concert with Leonidas Kavakos (violin) and Yo-Yo Ma (cello). How about his Chopin-a-palooza?

Ax hardly put a foot wrong. His playing was reasonable, mature, and often beautiful. I’m not sure I heard a missed note. And the pianist’s phrasing was unerring. In the past, I have called another American pianist, Richard Goode, “Mr. Smooth.” There are no lumps in his porridge. Ax is a Mr. Smooth as well. Any objections? To my taste, the pianist was sometimes too polite in his Chopin. Too careful or conservative. I would have liked a little more daring or abandon. Still, Ax’s way is a fine way (a “fine way to treat a Steinway,” wrote Irving Berlin).

Carnegie Hall publicity said, “Emanuel Ax is an audience favorite and one of the most accomplished pianists of his generation.” This is PR that is true.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 10, on page 62
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