A cello recital is rare enough—but a solo-cello recital? That is, one that is unaccompanied, sans piano? Almost unheard of. Often, a cello recital includes a solo piece—a Bach suite, of course. Or the Kodály sonata. But a cellist does not go a whole evening without a piano (unless he is playing all six Bach suites).
A solo-violin recital is rare, too. Maxim Vengerov played one in Carnegie Hall in the 2002–03 season. Last season—which is to say, twenty years later—Midori did the same. She played her recital in Zankel Hall, whereas Vengerov had played his in Carnegie’s main hall, which is dubbed “Stern Auditorium” (for Isaac).
Carnegie has a third venue: Weill Recital Hall, the smallest. That is where Sheku Kanneh-Mason, the young Brit (twenty-four), played a solo-cello recital. It is just the right hall for such an evening—intimate, cozy, yet at the same time elegant and formal.
Kanneh-Mason began with a Bach suite, as is natural. He played the one in D minor. Later, he played a Britten suite (No. 1, Op. 72). To close the printed program, he played Cassadó’s lone suite. Gaspar Cassadó, remember, was the Spanish cellist and composer who, like Kreisler, penned “hoaxes”—pieces that he passed off as rediscovered works by Frescobaldi and other “ancients.” But he wrote music under his own name, too: music such as his suite.
So, Kanneh-Mason played those three established suites. But he also played new music, by three different composers. Before getting to that, I will say a general word about the young man’s playing.
It is very good. Kanneh-Mason has technical facility and musicality. He communicates directly with an audience, making his instrument talk. He achieves a balance of freedom and discipline. He is not apt to do anything eccentric; he is not apt to do anything dull either.
When he plays, Kanneh-Mason looks like a rocker: biting his lip, looking skyward, shaking his head. It could be that Yo-Yo Ma has paved the way to free physical expression for all cellists.
After the opening Bach, Kanneh-Mason took a microphone to talk to the audience. Uh-oh. He had already talked with his cello so well. Throughout the recital, he talked, briefly. He said what he had just finished playing and what he would play next. Musicians routinely do this—as though we, in the audience, didn’t have programs. Kanneh-Mason did not do any lecturing; he did not engage in music appreciation. Mainly, he announced. I had the feeling that his heart wasn’t in it—that someone had asked him to do it, explaining it was de rigueur. But maybe that is wishful thinking on my part.
The Bach suite was followed by a piece written in 2021 by Gwilym Simcock, a Brit born in 1981. Simcock is both a classical musician and a jazzman. He plays in the Pat Metheny Quartet. In my experience, Metheny (one of the most prominent of jazz guitarists) is admired by classical musicians.
Simcock’s piece for solo cello is Prayer for the Senses. It is woozy, slidey, and twangy. Also a little Bachian. What does the title mean? I’m not sure, and I’m sure it doesn’t matter. It is a piece without words—and a good musical mind is behind it.
Kanneh-Mason began the second half of his recital with a sonata by Leo Brouwer, the Cuban composer born in 1939. (He is not to be confused with Leo Sowerby, the American composer who lived from 1895 to 1968.) Brouwer is the grand-nephew of Ernesto Lecuona, of Malagueña fame. He wrote his Cello Sonata No. 1 in 1960. He wrote his Cello Sonata No. 2 a cool sixty years later—and wrote it expressly for young Mr. Kanneh-Mason.
Our program notes for the evening included a statement by Brouwer: “It is really very difficult for me to talk or write about my music; I prefer to compose it and not explain it.” That is one of the most likable and endearing statements I have ever heard from a composer.
This sonata—the Cello Sonata No. 2—is in three movements, without markings. It is tautly written and has something to say.
Before closing the program with Cassadó’s suite, Kanneh-Mason played Five Preludes for Solo Cello, written by Edmund Finnis in 2021. Finnis is another Brit, born in 1984. These little pieces are smart and varied, with touches of minimalism. The final one ends modestly rather than showily. This ending is even self-effacing—which, in a way, is daring.
Sheku Kanneh-Mason played one encore. I thought he might play one of Cassadó’s “hoaxes.” Then again, did he write such a piece for solo cello? I can’t remember. In any event, Kanneh-Mason played a piece of his own devising: a transcription of a Bob Marley song, “She Used to Call Me Dada.” In Kanneh-Mason’s hands, the song was delicate, beautiful, and nonchalant.
This was a satisfying recital. And it is always good to hear worthy new music. (It can be a relief, too.) I must say, however, that I found a solo-cello evening just a little monotonous (varied as the music was). Irving Berlin wrote a song called “I Love a Piano.” So do I, I guess.
In the late 1990s, James Levine started the Met Orchestra Chamber Ensemble. (Levine was at the helm of the Metropolitan Opera from the mid-1970s to the mid-2010s.) The ensemble played its concerts in Weill Recital Hall. Interesting music was heard, in interesting combinations. The tradition continues under the Met’s current capo, Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The ensemble appeared in Weill the night after Kanneh-Mason’s recital.
First on the program was Strauss’s Serenade for Winds in E flat, Op. 7. The composer wrote it when he was seventeen. That’s the age at which Bizet wrote his Symphony in C. Mendelssohn has them beat, in a sense, given that he composed his Octet in E flat—a masterpiece—at sixteen. But who’s counting, really?
In the opening week of the Carnegie Hall season, Riccardo Muti led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Strauss’s Aus Italien, which is sort of a starter symphony—a work that the composer himself called a “symphonic fantasy.” He wrote it at twenty-two, inspired by a trip to Italy. In Aus Italien, you can really hear Richard Strauss—the hallmarks are there.
Can you hear him in his Serenade for Winds? Only if you squint. And even then, it may be your imagination. In any case, it is a well-wrought, impressive piece.
The Met players’ concert continued with a piece by Santos Cota, a Mexican composer born in 1960. This was his Elegía for English Horn, Bassoon, and Strings, composed in 2012. The piece had never been heard before this evening, eleven years later. Why? I don’t know—a curious lag. Cota’s is a worthy, affecting piece.
Our program notes quoted the composer: the Elegía is “a lament on the disappearance of Bertrand, the son of some acquaintances of mine and one of the hundreds of ‘desaparecidos’ that vanish every year in Mexico.” The bassoon and the English horn represent Bertrand’s parents.
Because I had read the program notes, I listened to the piece with the background, the intention, in mind. And if I had not read the notes? If I had been ignorant of the background and intention? Honestly, I’m not sure I would even have found the elegy especially sad. Such is the way with music without words.
Gabriela Lena Frank is an American composer born in 1972. In recent years, she has written a work called Conquest Requiem and an opera about Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. The Met has announced that it will present both of those in coming seasons. In 2001, Frank wrote a string quartet titled Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout. The first half of the Met chamber concert concluded with that.
Leyenda is Spanish for “legend.” There are six of them in Frank’s work, “told,” or musicalized, in six movements. I read about the legends in our program notes. Therefore, they are what I “heard.” But without the aid of program notes? All bets are off. The music, at any rate, is intricate, transparent, and flavorful. It includes some humor—an ingredient not often enough used by today’s musical chefs. In my judgment, the piece is overlong, but regular readers will know that this is a frequent judgment of mine.
The second half of the concert comprised just one work, an American masterpiece: the suite from Copland’s Appalachian Spring. The ballet is scored for thirteen instruments (including a piano). The suite, originally, had the same scoring. Copland later made a version for full orchestra. In Weill Recital Hall, we heard the suite as originally scored. I prefer this. The full-orchestra version, I think, can sound too rich, big, and lush.
While I’m on the subject: I like Verklärte Nacht as Schoenberg originally wrote it—for string sextet. But the piece really flew ’round the world when he arranged it for string orchestra. À chacun son goût.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin presided over this evening with his familiar combo of qualities: heart, taste, commitment, and sheer love of music. A good combo.
Three days later, Maxim Vengerov came to Carnegie Hall for a recital. Unlike twenty years ago, he was accompanied, or partnered—by the pianist Polina Osetinskaya. Same as last season in Carnegie Hall. This season, the two of them played a program of German Romanticism in the first half and Prokofiev in the second.
The first began with the Three Romances, Op. 22, of Clara Schumann. They are good pieces. But let me ask a rude question: would they be played if they weren’t by Robert’s wife? Next on the program was Brahms’s Scherzo from the “F-A-E” Sonata. This was followed by Schumann’s—Robert Schumann’s—Violin Sonata No. 3 in A minor. Let me ask another rude question: if this sonata weren’t by Schumann, a great composer, would it be played? Was he compos mentis—composer mentis—when he wrote it?
Speaking of rudeness: Vengerov did not acknowledge applause or even look at the audience between the three works. He was treating them as a unit. I thought this was dubious—and Vengerov has long been one of the warmest and most ingratiating personalities on the stage.
Ms. Osetinskaya is a remarkable pianist. Outstanding among her abilities is legato—a fluidity, a seamlessness. She can sing on a piano. She matches the violin with violinistic phrases. You can hardly sense the hammers moving up and down. About Vengerov, there is little left to say. We have said so much, over the last thirty years. He is one of the great musicians of our time. And he was in good form on this Sunday afternoon in New York.
The Prokofiev pieces were the Five Melodies and the Sonata No. 2 in D. Vengerov and Osetinskaya brought everything you need for Prokofiev: simplicity, childlikeness, danger, spikiness, lyricism, nuttiness, lovability . . .
They played three encores, three Russian chestnuts (in the fondest, least pejorative sense): the Vocalise (Rachmaninoff), the March from The Love for Three Oranges (Prokofiev), and the Eighteenth Variation (Rachmaninoff again). This was an afternoon of first-rate musicianship. It had the ingredient that is hard to define but that we hint at in the word “charisma.”
The Met staged an opera by Daniel Catán, a Mexican who lived from 1949 to 2011. It was his Florencia en el Amazonas, which premiered in 1996. The libretto is by Marcela Fuentes-Berain, also a Mexican, who studied with Gabriel García Márquez. There is indeed magical realism in the story (a story original to the librettist). A cast of characters is on a ship, carrying them through the Amazon. They are working out their various problems.
As an American, I could not help thinking of The Love Boat, the television series of yore. The evening’s captain, David Pittsinger (a bass-baritone), even looked a little like Gavin MacLeod, who played Captain Stubing on the show.
The opera’s title character, Florencia, is a diva, a singer, like Tosca and Adriana Lecouvreur. (Granted, the latter is an actress, but she is still a diva.) The story is a little screwy—then again, this is an opera. (Said André Previn about Rigoletto: “A girl in a bag? Really?”)
Catán’s score is colorful and cinematic, with streaks of the exotic. It has a sheen and a sparkle. It is also heart-on-sleeve. The score is “old-fashioned” in that it has arias, duets, and other traditional elements of opera. It welcomes, and expresses, passion. Daniel Catán obviously had a heart for opera.
Singing Florencia was Ailyn Pérez, the American soprano. The Metropolitan Opera House is maybe too large for her (as it is for most people), but she portrayed her character with great dignity, skill, and persuasiveness. Yannick Nézet-Séguin was in the pit, all commitment and care, as usual. He treats contemporary operas—or any—as if he were conducting The Ring. That is a very good quality in a maestro.
The production is overseen by Mary Zimmerman, the American stage director. It is as colorful as the score. “The stage looks like a cockatoo or a toucan,” I thought—or like the Amazon (in the popular imagination). Utterly fitting, and enchanting.
Afterward, I talked to a man who did not like the opera. “Too nineteenth-century,” he said, “rather than twentieth-century,” to say nothing of the twenty-first. “It sounded like Puccini or Strauss.” I thought of something I once heard from my grandmother in another context: “You say that like it’s something bad.”
Daniel Catán earned his Ph.D. at Princeton University, where he studied with, among others, Milton Babbitt, a modernist’s modernist. But you have to compose the music that is in you. Evidently, Catán did that—for which, bravo.
It should not take an Estonian conductor to show us a worthy Estonian composer—but that is a service that Paavo Järvi rendered when he conducted the New York Philharmonic. He opened the program with a piece by Veljo Tormis (1930–2017). Tormis is known, if he is known at all, as a choral composer, but, in 1959, he composed his Overture No. 2. What’s it an overture to? Nothing: it is a concert piece. It is exciting, neatly constructed, and storytelling. But what story is it telling? That is left to a listener’s imagination.
Järvi conducted the overture as he conducts most things: with tightness (in a positive sense), exactitude, and what I will call a “bristlingness.” Music often bristles under his baton. Fritz Reiner would have loved Paavo Järvi.
He ended the overture with perfectly timed—and tricky to time—notes. He then smiled at the orchestra as if to say, “Yes. Good.”
Alena Baeva took the stage to play the Britten Violin Concerto. She has had a tempest-tossed life. It began in Kyrgyzstan, in 1985. Her family fled to Kazakhstan. Then she studied in Moscow. Today, she is a citizen of Luxembourg. In the Britten concerto, she was liquid, agile, and interpretively alive. She has a touch of the Gypsy about her, as every violinist should. I wondered which Bach sarabande she would play as an encore. Throwing a curveball, she played Ysaÿe: the first movement of the Sonata No. 5.
After intermission, Järvi conducted a Prokofiev symphony: the Symphony No. 6. He did so with his accustomed qualities—qualities that may be particularly well suited to Prokofiev. The Sixth Symphony is seldom heard. Valery Gergiev conducted his Mariinsky Orchestra in it at Carnegie Hall in November 2017. I believe I stand second to none in my admiration of Prokofiev. He has been a happy constant of my life, as of many. But I have never been sold on the Symphony No. 6. Maybe someday.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 42 Number 5, on page 56
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