Music January 2023
New York chronicle
On performances by Sondra Radvanovsky, Hannu Lintu with the New York Philharmonic, Ying Fang & Hélène Grimaud.
Sondra Radvanovsky, the Illinois-born soprano, gave a recital in Carnegie Hall—as you would expect. She is one of the leading opera singers in the world. Carnegie Hall is probably America’s foremost concert venue. Why shouldn’t she sing a recital in that hall? She should. But voice recitals are getting fewer and fewer, or so it seems to me. I’m glad for each one that materializes.
When I was growing up—do I remember correctly?—voice recitals were plentiful. This was in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in the 1970s and ’80s. We had Sills, Sutherland, Price, de los Angeles—and that is only to name sopranos, and only to name big stars. There were many others as well.
In an interview about ten years ago, Anne Sofie von Otter, the Swedish mezzo-soprano and an exemplary recitalist, told me that audiences could no longer really sit through an evening of songs. Something had changed in our culture (our broad Western culture). On the evening of the Radvanovsky recital in Carnegie Hall, a music-industry pro told me that voice recitals don’t really sell—unless the singer is a big star (à la Sills and those others).
Sondra Radvanovsky is a big star, or big enough. She is a Verdi soprano and also what you might call a dramatic coloratura—the kind that sings the Three Queens of Donizetti (Anne Boleyn, Mary Stuart, and Elizabeth I). The current season at the Metropolitan Opera opened with Radvanovsky singing Medea—the title role in the Cherubini opera, which most of us know as a Callas vehicle.
At Carnegie Hall, Radvanovsky sang a very old-fashioned program, I’m pleased to report. It was diverse, offering a little of this, a little of that. Songs and arias from various periods, in various styles, in various languages.
The program began with arias by Purcell and Handel. It continued with three songs of Duparc. Then there were three songs of Rachmaninoff. To close the first half, there were the Petrarch sonnets of Liszt. And after intermission? Four of Strauss’s best songs. A couple of songs by Verdi (who is not often heard in song). A chestnut, “O del mio amato ben,” by Stefano Donaudy. A brand-new piece by Jake Heggie. Then a verismo aria, by Giordano.
If we live in an age that prizes diversity, the world should have hailed this recital program.
Radvanovsky came out looking fit and glamorous, in a bare-shouldered gown. The crowd went nuts, hootin’ and hollerin’, as after Tosca or something. Then Radvanovsky launched into Dido’s Lament. About her singing, in the recital at large, I will make some general remarks.
The voice tended to have a husk to it, not unpleasant. It was at times worn, or frayed. But usually it was warm, and beautiful too. Moreover, Radvanovsky sang without fear. When a high piano was not necessarily pretty or secure, she did not engage in a cover-up. She simply stood exposed, and admirable. About interpretation, you and I could have quarreled with the singer, here and there. But she did nothing unreasonable. Let me say, too, that Radvanovsky did not have a “song” voice and an “aria” voice: Now I am a proper recitalist, now I am an opera star. She treated the songs and arias as music, essentially.
We are talking about a big voice. And if Carnegie Hall is sometimes unsuited to a voice recital—too large, not intimate enough—it was the right size, or at least not a wrong size, on this night.
At the piano was Anthony Manoli, who teaches at one of the New York conservatories, Mannes. He played pianistically, which may seem a strange thing to say, but what I mean is that he played freely and confidently, without an accompanist’s inhibitions, while never forgetting his singer.
After Dido, Radvanovsky picked up a microphone and began to talk. Uh-oh. She said that she liked an audience to get to know her, personally, during a recital. Double uh-oh. Apparently, Radvanovsky was going to serve as the emcee of her recital. She was like a cabaret host. She was going to talk throughout the evening. We were in for a long, trying night.
Soon into her initial remarks, Radvanovsky said something startling. This had been an annus horribilis for her: “My mother passed away, and I am getting a divorce.” Her recital program dealt with loss and grief, hope and love. It was all very, very personal. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. Couldn’t all this be unspoken, simply heard or imagined in the music (with its texts)? I thought of initials: tmi, standing for “too much information.” Yet I would change my mind, as the evening progressed.
Before she sang her Rachmaninoff songs, Radvanovsky spoke of Dmitri Hvorostovsky, the late Russian baritone. She and he had been friends, and he taught her these songs, she said. Hvorostovsky died in 2017, at fifty-five.
After intermission, Radvanovsky took the stage in a new outfit and began her Strauss songs. She was especially warm, and soulful, in them. (Those are good qualities to have in Strauss.) I thought of a saying in music: “You play who you are.” You sing who you are, too, at least some of the time. (Opera roles are a different story.) The audience was somewhat rowdy, during the Strauss and all recital long. Inappropriately so? Well, rowdiness is better than indifference or tepidity. But this crowd whooped and hollered after “Morgen!” and “Befreit.” Those songs should occasion more like hushed awe or reflection. But what can you do?
Our program booklet contained a note by Radvanovsky. In it, she calls Jake Heggie “my friend and America’s foremost composer.” The second part is debatable—but Sondra Radvanovsky certainly has a right to debate. Heggie composed for her “If I Had Known,” a lovely and thoughtful piece. The words are by the singer herself:
If I had known
That day would be the last I’d really see you
The last you’d really see me
If I had known
Your final words would be: “I miss you, my daughter.”
Too much? Too raw? I can say that everything about this evening was sincere and, ultimately, moving. Radvanovsky introduced two people in the audience and had them stand: her mother’s doctor and nurse. Any discomfort I had felt melted into pure appreciation. I “bought in” to the spirit of the evening, you might say.
Radvanovsky ended her printed program with “La mamma morta,” the aria from Andrea Chénier (Giordano). A little maudlin, or macabre, under the circumstances, right? The aria begins (I will give an English translation), “They killed my mother at the door of my room.” But as Radvanovsky explained, this is a hopeful and affirmative aria, full of love. She went on to sing it freshly and potently. Indeed, this was possibly the freshest and most potent singing she had done all night. She had a lot of gas left in the tank.
Her first encore was “Io son l’umile ancella,” from Adriana Lecouvreur (Cilea), and her second was “Vissi d’arte,” from Tosca (Puccini). The aforementioned Leontyne Price sang these arias at encore time in almost every recital she gave. Radvanovsky was once more—twice more!—fresh and potent. This was after a couple of hours of singing.
She sang one more encore, a song, rather than an aria—a song that she had sung at her best friend’s wedding over the summer, she said. A song imbued with hope and goodness: “Over the Rainbow.” Her singing of it, to a rapt Carnegie Hall audience, was flooring.
This was one of the strangest and most affecting recitals or concerts I have ever attended. And as a friend and I were discussing afterward, there is nothing like a voice recital. The music world offers an excellent and appetizing menu: orchestra concerts, chamber-music concerts, instrumental recitals, operas—but nothing can beat a voice recital for sheer emotional connection and overall satisfaction.
A concert of the New York Philharmonic was guest-conducted by Hannu Lintu, from Finland. Where else? In that country, they have almost as many conductors as they do cross-country skiers, or saunas. You may wonder whether Maestro Lintu conducted Sibelius with our New York band. He did—the program concluded with the Symphony No. 7.
I thought of Esa-Pekka Salonen, the most famous of the Finnish conductors, who told me that he went through an anti-Sibelius period. This was when he was young, and rebelling. He fled to Italy to study, wanting a “Sibelius-free zone,” as he put it. But, in a shop, he chanced upon a copy of the Symphony No. 7. The score was on sale “for the price of an espresso,” as Salonen said. He bought it—and marveled at the symphony, never turning away from his national composer again.
Lintu conducted it with precision and fluidity. Everything was seamless, everything cohered. It was hard to tell whether the piece was a symphonic work or more like a chamber work.
On the first half of the program, there had been a concerto, by Bartók: his concerto for two pianos and percussion (and orchestra, of course). Didn’t Bartók write a sonata for two pianos and percussion? Yes, and he later made a concerto version of it. One rarely hears the concerto version. In fact, the last time the New York Philharmonic had played it was in 1966.
The piano soloists this season were Sergei Babayan and Daniil Trifonov, born in the Soviet Union thirty years apart. Trifonov was born in March 1991, when the Soviet Union had about nine months left. Trifonov grew up to study with Babayan, in Cleveland. It was nice to see teacher and student have this moment, this concerto, together. They were good, and so were their percussion partners.
Incidentally, a cellphone went off at the beginning of the concerto, playing a Finnish tune—or rather a Spanish one, by Francisco Tárrega (1852–1909). But a Finnish company, Nokia, spread this tune around the world, as a ringtone.
Earlier, I was lamenting a paucity of voice recitals. The Park Avenue Armory, doing its part, presented Ying Fang in its Board of Officers Room—a splendid place for a voice recital. As a bonus, the chairs in this room are the most comfortable of any venue in New York. You feel like an officer yourself.
Ying Fang is a Chinese soprano, now in her mid-thirties. Many of us first heard her in Wagner’s Tannhäuser at the Metropolitan Opera. That was at the beginning of the 2015–16 season, and Ying Fang sang the small part of the Shepherd. She made an impression in it, however. Her singing was pure and beautiful. The next season, she made an impression in Mozart, singing Exsultate, jubilate with the New York Philharmonic. Speaking of Mozart: Ying Fang was part of an outstanding cast in Idomeneo at the Met earlier this season.
In the Board of Officers Room, she was accompanied by Ken Noda, a distinguished pianist who spent some thirty years on the Met staff.
When Ying Fang took the stage, some in the audience whooped and hollered as for Sondra Radvanovsky in Carnegie Hall—only, in this little room, the greeting was somewhat awkward. There were young Chinese fans in the room, understandably adoring of Ying Fang.
Like Radvanovsky, she sang a mixed program, whose first half was all in German: Bach, Schubert, and Strauss. As usual, she sang purely and sincerely. As usual, she sang in tune. And, as usual, I could snipe at her diction. Even in familiar songs, I had trouble getting the words. You certainly had no trouble hearing Ying Fang. One thing this recital proved, or confirmed, is that a singer needs a right-sized hall for his or her recital. In the Board of Officers Room, this light lyric soprano was downright loud, drilling a hole through your head with her focused sound.
The second half of her recital opened with three French songs—by Hahn, Debussy, and Chausson. The Hahn song was “À Chloris,” which Susan Graham, the American mezzo, calls her favorite song. (Good choice.) Ying Fang sang it superbly. Honestly, I have not heard better, even from French singers. (Graham is from Midland, Texas, but is French by musical adoption.)
After her French songs, Ying Fang sang in English: the Six Elizabethan Songs of Dominick Argento (1958). Many of us learned these songs when Barbara Bonney recorded them with André Previn at the piano. Ying Fang was effective in them (and so was Ken Noda). If it is not too rude to say, Ying Fang had a bout of lisping—lisping I had not noticed in German or French. That happens to singers. The aforementioned Beverly Sills used to have bouts of lisping, and could only laugh at them.
I keep mentioning Leontyne Price, too. She sang recital after recital in Europe, always including spirituals at the end. Her attitude, she said, was, “I have sung your songs, now you will hear mine.” I thought of this when Ying Fang concluded her printed program with five Chinese art songs, by five different composers. She was charming and personable in them, and I trust idiomatic.
For an encore, she did what Sondra Radvanovsky did, at the end: sing “Over the Rainbow”—touchingly. Afterward, in the hallway outside the Board of Officers Room, her young Chinese fans met her, as excited as bobby-soxers for Sinatra, or as today’s young fans for Taylor Swift. This was touching to observe.
Programming is an interesting art, I think we can agree. In the orchestra world, overture–concerto–symphony is a convention. A wonderful convention, never improved on. People like to play and conduct big symphonies: Bruckner ones, Mahler ones. Short pieces often get short shrift, going unplayed. This is especially true in an age—our current one—when orchestras seldom play encores. In the piano world, people like to play a late Schubert sonata, say, on the second half of a program. On the first half, they may like two pieces, or three, max.
Hélène Grimaud, the veteran French pianist, came to Carnegie Hall for a recital. Veteran French pianist—how odd to write those words, because it seems like yesterday that she was a teenager, winning and melting every heart (as she still does)! The first half of her program had thirteen—count ’em, thirteen—pieces. Little short ones. They were by four composers: Chopin, Debussy, Satie, and Silvestrov. This last composer is Valentin Silvestrov, a Ukrainian born in 1937. The thirteen pieces were of a piece, you could say: tending to be delicate, lyrical, simple, inward, beautiful. They suited La belle Hélène to a T, and she suited them, equally. Some of the thirteen pieces were common, such as “Clair de lune” (Debussy). Some were uncommon, such as selections from the Pièces froides of Satie. Another, Grimaud sort of brought back: “La plus que lente” (again, Debussy). Rubinstein used to play this piece, regularly.
After intermission, Grimaud played one piece: Schumann’s Kreisleriana. And yet, this is a set of eight smallish pieces, isn’t it? In any event, a pianist needs imagination, and a Romantic sensibility, to play Kreisleriana. A portion of virtuosity helps, too. And Grimaud gave a fine account of this work.
What do you play for an encore, when you’ve played a program of encores, so to speak? Grimaud played four encores, regardless: a Chopin étude, two Rachmaninoff Études-tableaux, and one more Silvestrov piece. Not only did Hélène Grimaud perform a recital—a first-class one—she performed a service, by offering a wonderful assortment of shorties.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 5, on page 59
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