The National Symphony Orchestra, in Washington, D.C., was established in 1930. It has had some notable music directors, including Mstislav Rostropovich from 1977 to 1994. He came out of the Soviet Union in 1974. It was extraordinary to have this great exile conduct the National Symphony Orchestra. The nso has always been a good orchestra, or long been. (I have fond memories of the Doráti years! Antal Doráti, the well-traveled Hungarian, was the music director from 1970 to 1977.) Some of us, however, have thought that an outfit called “the National Symphony Orchestra” should be a little better. At any rate, it is a good and valuable one.
Since 2017, the nso’s music director has been Gianandrea Noseda, that excellent Italian. He and the orchestra came to Carnegie Hall, for a program beginning with George Walker. This composer, an American, was born in 1922 and died in 2018, when he was ninety-six. I knew him in his last years. He worked until the end. He was also very concerned about performances—getting performed. Since the George Floyd protests of 2020, he has been performed quite a lot, as presenting organizations have made it a point to program black American composers. In the last few seasons, I have thought, “If only he had lived a little longer . . .”
The nso played the Sinfonia No. 4, “Strands,” which Walker wrote when he was about ninety. Noseda conducted it with affection and care—also some stringency, which was welcome. He was logical all through.
Then came the evening’s concerto—the Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 16, by Prokofiev. This is one of the hardest concertos in the entire literature. It requires extreme virtuosity. On hand to play the concerto was a man well equipped to do so: Daniil Trifonov. He was impressive, as how can he not be? But I will lodge some complaints.
His tone was often thin, when a richer, plumper, riper tone was desirable. The flow of the concerto was occasionally interrupted, with strange hesitations or awkward rubato. Certain notes were angrily—weirdly—accented. There was sometimes too much banging, and more bombast than the concerto needs.
Trifonov is an intense and formidable musician.
Trifonov did not have his best outing. But I will take his second-best, or third-best, over many people’s best. Trifonov is an intense and formidable musician. Clearly, he would play an encore, and it would probably be more Prokofiev: I was thinking one of the Sarcasms (which Trifonov likes to play). Instead, he made the delightful choice of an excerpt from Cinderella—the Gavotte—arranged for the piano by the composer (a very good pianist himself). Here, Trifonov was spiky, graceful, impish—thoroughly Prokofiev-like.
After intermission, Noseda led the nso in a Stravinsky ballet: The Firebird. This ballet works very well in a concert. It sounds like an orchestral piece, no dancers required. How about another Stravinsky ballet, The Rite of Spring? I think much of it works well as an orchestral piece, yes. How about yet another, Petrushka? This, I think, works least well: the visual is an indispensable element. In any case, the nso’s Firebird featured clear lines—Noseda does not allow mush—and right colors.
For many years, people brought scores to concerts, to look at while the music played. I have seen this less often in recent years. Yet on this evening, there was a young man a couple of seats away from me—a tall, East Asian kid—following the score on his computer tablet. A conducting student? Anyway, I found it heartening to see.
Two nights after this concert, Beatrice Rana came to Carnegie Hall for a recital. She is an Italian pianist, aged thirty. (Daniil Trifonov is thirty-two.) Her program consisted of three masterpieces—the first of which is by that supreme master, Bach. Rana played his French Suite No. 2 in C minor. It is filled with beauty and inspiration, to go with the customary craftsmanship. (To be sure, Bach’s beauty and inspiration are customary, too.) Oddly, this suite is hardly ever performed in public.
Out of curiosity, I checked the Carnegie Hall archives. They disclosed that the C-minor French Suite has been played at Carnegie a handful of times since the hall opened in 1891. Never has it been played by a pianist (or harpsichordist) of note—until now.
Rana played the opening Allemande with assurance and good sense. Ornamentation was intelligent. Rana took liberties, but not extreme ones. She was playing the piano—and happy to do so—and not trying to imitate a harpsichord. She made subtle and helpful use of the sustain pedal. The week before, another young pianist, Seong-Jin Cho (aged twenty-nine), played a Handel suite: No. 5 in E major (“The Harmonious Blacksmith”). I kept staring at his feet—they never left the floor. He never got near the pedal. Yet he played an exemplary, rippling legato.
The second movement of Bach’s French Suite is the Courante—which Rana attacked. Truly attacked—pounced on. She was not perfectly clean or together. And she was more clattering than dance-like. Yet the rest of the suite was admirable, with the pianist lovely, lithe, and lacy. (A hallmark of French music, or “French” music, is laciness, certainly in the Baroque.)
Maybe I could make a point about the choreography of a concert, so to speak. After Rana finished the Bach, she left the stage and returned quickly. She started the next piece before latecomers had a chance to sit down. This happens frequently. If I were the Czar of Concerts, I would choreograph them so that latecomers could sit.
In any event, Ms. Rana sat down to Pour le piano, by Debussy. How that composer loved the past—his Baroque forebears, in particular—
and built on it! (So do all great composers, really.) Pour le piano has three movements: Prélude, Sarabande, and Toccata. In Rana’s hands, the first had great vitality, bordering on aggressiveness. The second was beautiful and beguiling. The pianist really enjoyed the sonorities and the modulations. It was her best playing of the night. And the closing movement, the Toccata? Virtuosic and beautiful, both.
After intermission, Rana played a Beethoven sonata, and not just any: the “Hammerklavier” (Op. 106, in B flat). As with Trifonov and his Prokofiev Second, I could list complaints. The third movement, the Adagio, was unsuccessful, in my judgment. Rana was too inward, if you like—mousy. Her soft playing was insubstantial. The music did not sing. Neither did it transport. Yet the “Hammerklavier” is not so much a sonata to play as a mountain to scale—an Everest of the piano literature. Scale it Rana did, in her own way. Moreover, her approach to the sonata will change, as she plays it over the next fifty years or so.
From Beatrice Rana, it was lovely, dreamy, consoling.
She played two encores, ending with more Debussy: the Étude No. 6 (“For eight fingers”), which was potent and nimble. The first of the encores was The Swan, by Saint-Saëns, in the arrangement by Leopold Godowsky. This is one of the best piano arrangements ever made (with Godowsky adding his own wonderful touches, not merely transcribing Saint-Saëns). From Beatrice Rana, it was lovely, dreamy, consoling. I was mistaken, earlier: this was her best playing of the night. Liszt wrote pieces called “Consolation” (six of them). On this evening, the Godowsky-arranged Swan could have been called “Consolation.”
The Metropolitan Opera revived La bohème, the Puccini work, in the 1981 production of Franco Zeffirelli. The preceding sentence, one could have written practically anytime in the last forty years. It is a boffo production, as the public knows, and as the cognoscenti know—a nice convergence. I went to a Bohème recently for the main purpose of reporting on the singer in the role of Mimì: Eleonora Buratto, the Italian soprano. She is a favorite of Maestro Riccardo Muti. And she has become one of the leading Puccini sopranos of our time, certainly at the Met. I would like to report chiefly, however, on the conductor in the pit.
He was Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Met’s music director. He was sensational on this particular night, bringing out the glory of La bohème. Look: if you don’t like Bohème—if you don’t love it—don’t conduct it. Or play it. Or sing it. Or direct it. There’s no point. It was obvious that Nézet-Séguin loves the work, and understands it. There is great exuberance in this opera—bohemian high spirits—and exuberance is one of Nézet-Séguin’s prime qualities. There is also, of course, great pathos, this being a tragedy.
Nézet-Séguin was utterly involved. He was alert to every detail—yet he did not fuss over the music. Act II can be very tricky. (This is the Café Momus act.) Many a conductor “falls on his behind” in Act II, as Franz Welser-Möst, the Austrian maestro, once remarked to me. Nézet-Séguin brought it off deftly. He conducted La bohème as though the task were the most important thing in all the world. As though it were a privilege to be assigned it. In my experience, he is not a phoner-in. This was not “Another Bohème, another buck.”
Eleonora Buratto? I would have wished her warmer at times, but she was, as usual, strong, smart, and satisfying. Partnering her as Rodolfo was Stephen Costello, the American tenor. You could ask for more Italianate. You could ask for louder—Costello is maybe a size or half-size too small for Rodolfo, especially in so big a house as the Met. But he sang with beauty and intelligence, which counts for a great deal.
Like most veteran critics, I suppose, I have sat through many, many Bohèmes. I must report, however, that when “O soave fanciulla” (the love duet that concludes Act I) started, I felt shivers—literal, physical shivers—down my spine. He’s still got it, Puccini. Especially when the conductor serves him well.
Into Weill Recital Hall came the Verona Quartet—which I sort of assumed was Italian. But it turns out that this quartet—a string quartet, by the way—is composed of English-speaking folk: a Singaporean, a Canadian, an American, and an Englishman. They are the quartet-in-residence at Oberlin. Why “Verona”? According to publicity, it has something to do with Shakespeare and his prowess at storytelling.
The group began with Grażyna Bacewicz and her String Quartet No. 4. “It’s springtime for Bacewicz,” I thought. This was an exaggeration. Earlier this season, the New York Philharmonic played her Overture for Orchestra. Bacewicz was a Pole who lived from 1909 to 1969. Her String Quartet No. 4 is a canny and immediately endearing work, building the Classical into the Modern. The Verona played it incisively—with incisiveness of rhythm. Also with unity. And with beauty of sound. The cellist, Jonathan Dormand, in particular, made a beautiful sound, or sounds, in all registers of his instrument.
As always, it helps to have a “right size” hall—which little Weill is, for a string quartet.
So, the concert was off to a good start. I was looking forward to Bartók’s String Quartet No. 3. Then one of the players—the violist, Abigail Rojansky—started to talk. She gave a speech, a little lecture in elementary music appreciation: composers express themselves intimately in string quartets, etc. It was not a bad speech, at all. But it was a speech, and it changed the atmosphere in the hall, at least to my sense. Talking introduces the ordinary into a concert. It brings a concert down to the level of the mundane. It dispels the magic.
But mine, I feel, is a minority opinion. (Christopher Hitchens’s column in The Nation was called “Minority Report.”) How did the Bartók go? Competently, or better. The first violinist, Jonathan Ong, gave an example of strong lyricism (as he did throughout the concert).
To their credit, the players breathed along with Beethoven.
The second half of the program began with another talk, this one by Mr. Dormand. It was a fine talk, like Ms. Rojansky’s. But was it necessary? He told some of the anecdotes that were printed in our program notes. These talks are almost always, among other things, duplicative. The Verona proceeded to play one of Beethoven’s “Razumovsky” quartets, the one in F major, Op. 59, No. 1. To their credit, the players breathed along with Beethoven. That is so much of string-quartet playing, and music-making in general, isn’t it? Breathing right.
There was one encore, and here, it makes sense to talk, if only to tell the audience what you’re going to play. Jonathan Ong said that he and his colleagues would play a piece by Wu Man, with Uyghur folk elements. The quartet played skillfully and beautifully—touchingly. Sitting there, I thought of a young friend of mine, Jewher Ilham, a Uyghur activist in America. Her father, Ilham Tohti, is a prominent academic and advocate of Uyghur culture. Like so many others, he has been disappeared into the Chinese government’s gulag.
Back up from Washington was Gianandrea Noseda, who conducted the New York Philharmonic. This program, too, included George Walker, and another sinfonia: his Sinfonia No. 1, written in 1984. The National Symphony Orchestra, under Noseda, is in the process of releasing all five Walker sinfonias—releasing recordings of them, that is. My late friend is indeed “having a moment.”
The concert began with Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor. It is arguably Shostakovich’s best work. But so is the Symphony No. 5, so is the String Quartet No. 8, so is the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk—so are a lot of things. Suffice it to say that the Violin Concerto No. 1 is a masterpiece, and one of the best violin concertos in the whole repertoire. It is noble, fearful, zany, profound. After it’s over, you should feel throttled. You should be sweat-soaked, maybe. You should feel like you’ve been through a kind of war. On this occasion, the concerto left you untouched—at least it had that effect (non-effect?) on me. Emotions were at a minimum. The performance was conservative, cautious—well-nigh bland.
Our soloist was Leonidas Kavakos, who at least made a beautiful—very beautiful—sound, as usual. The audience wanted an encore, and he gave them a Bach sarabande: the one from the Partita No. 1 in B minor. Hilary Hahn played this same sarabande in this same hall two months before. In fact, she played the whole partita. And a whole solo Bach recital. The renovated David Geffen Hall, with its new acoustics, invites such a recital. Kavakos played the B-minor sarabande with understanding, facility, and (of course) beauty. The violinists in the orchestra, it seemed to me, looked on with rapt appreciation. Then they applauded heartily. Which is high praise.
To conclude the program, Noseda led the orchestra in Feste romane—“Roman Festivals”—by Respighi. It concludes his Roman Triptych, which begins with Fountains of Rome and proceeds with Pines of Rome. Festivals is the least often played of the three, and the least appealing, probably—or the least immediately lovable. But appealing and lovable it is, and Noseda and the Philharmonic gave a satisfying account of it. The low brass shone, and glowed. Joseph Alessi, the principal trombone, was superb. Robert Rearden, the French horn, was stable and supple. Sitting in the concertmaster’s chair was Michelle Kim, who showed flair. Noseda conducted it all with affinity and assurance.
So, viva Respighi, and Rome, too.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 10, on page 60
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