A few performances to remember - 2
The first installment of my backward glance at the just-ending New York musical season was all about the Met. This time I'm thinking about some of the events that I attended at Carnegie Hall in 2007-08 -- first and foremost, Andras Schiff's four magnificent recitals (two in October, two in April) that covered, more or less chronologically, the first 17 of Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas.
Schiff often does "bulk programming" of composers -- cycles of works by Bach, Schubert, Bartok, and others. Although I am sure that he has been familiar with the Beethoven sonatas since student days, he waited until he was about 50 (he was born in 1953) to consider and then perform these monuments of the keyboard repertoire as a single corpus.
Which is not to say that he places these monuments on pedestals. On the contrary: his interpretations are characterized above all by enlivening freshness -- a freshness that can be achieved only by artists who are willing to contemplate a work from every angle and, for each detail, to discard one solution after another until they hit upon the one that seems to fit most naturally into the whole concept. Intellectual rigor, emotional intensity, and musical imagination abounded in all of these performances, which were conveyed with the tremendous conviction and technical security that are part of this great artist's basic equipment. I am already looking forward to the remaining four recitals next season.
Among other fine piano recitals at Carnegie this season, Radu Lupu's January appearance was memorable for a brilliant performance of Book I of Debussy's Preludes. The following month Alfred Brendel movingly performed a mixed program (Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert) as part of his final American tour; he will retire completely from the concert circuit next January. In March, Emanuel Ax, whose artistic growth in recent years has been practically exponential, gave outstanding performances of two Beethoven sonatas (Op. 2, No. 2, and the "Appassionata") and Schumann's Humoreske and Papillons. And in April, Leif Ove Andsnes presented a mixed program of which the highlight, as in Radu Lupu's recital, was a series of luminous interpretations of Debussy's Preludes -- in this case, a selection of eleven pieces from Books I and II. Far less successful, to my way of thinking, were recitals, in Carnegie's beautiful, mid-sized Zankel Hall, by Stephen Hough, who played on the surface of Mendelssohn's Variations serieuses and Beethoven's Sonata Op. 111, and Till Fellner, whom I had heard play beautifully in Switzerland a few years ago but who now, in a strange potpourri of a program (Mozart, Schumann, Liszt, Holliger, Ravel) seemed intent on demonstrating that he isn't "merely" a serious, Central European pianist but also a brilliant virtuoso. Virtuosity and depth ought to be mutually beneficial, but in this case the former often seemed to have been achieved at the expense of the latter.
I apologize if I'm boring you, but my enthusiasm for James Levine's work in the Met's pit this past season was carried over to his Carnegie concert appearances. Particularly noteworthy was a program in October by the MET Chamber Ensemble at Carnegie's Weill Recital Hall: the first half consisted of amazingly accomplished performances of complex works by three living American masters -- Elliott Carter (nearly 99 at the time), Milton Babbitt (91), and John Harbison (a babe of 69), all of them present at the event -- and in the second half the same three composers became Soldier, Devil, and Narrator, respectively, in an exhilarating interpretation of Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale; the narration, rewritten for the occasion, was witty enough that it would surely have won the composer's approval. I confess that I still can't get the hang of Babbitt's works, but the soprano Judith Bettina deserved a medal, at the very least, for her virtuosic and virtually non-stop traversal of his densely packed, 22-minute The Head of the Bed. In January, the same ensemble, again under Levine, played six Second Viennese School works, including Berg's Chamber Concerto, with pianist Yefim Bronfman and violinist Gil Shaham, and Schoenberg's Pierrot luanire, with soprano Anja Silja, with polish and conviction. The following month, Levine and the whole Met Orchestra gave a shattering performance of Webern's Six Pieces, Op. 6, at the start of a memorable concert that also comprised Mozart's C minor Piano Concerto, K. 491, with Brendel (a few days before the aforementioned recital); Berg's Three Pieces, Op. 6, and the final scene from Salome, with Deborah Voigt in top form.
Also in February, two concerts by the Chicago Symphony under Pierre Boulez included the New York premiere of Matthias Pintscher's Osiris, which I found hard to fathom (the limitation is mine, of course), and music by Bartok (the Third Piano Concerto, with Mitsuko Uchida, in a performance that began too preciously but intensified from movement to movement), Debussy (all three of the Images), Berio, Berlioz (Les Nuits d'ete, beautifully interpreted by Susan Graham), and Stravinsky (the 1911 version of Petrouchka). I doubt that I will ever hear clearer, more luminous, or more brilliantly executed performances of the Debussy or the Stravinsky, and yet both suffered from that lack of forward movement that afflicts Boulez's interpretations when he seems to be concentrating more on bar-by-bar sound than on a work's overall architecture: you can't see the forest for the trees. It was like listening to a brilliantly analytical rehearsal rather than to a completely communicative performance.
In November Zankel Hall was the site of a fine performance by the Zehetmair String Quartet (Mozart, Hindemith, Schumann), but the most remarkable event that I witnessed there this season was the Lucerne Festival Academy Ensemble's performance, in January, of Boulez's Le Marteau sans maitre and sur Incises under the composer's direction, and with a pre-performance conversation between Boulez and Ara Guzeliminian, Carnegie's former artistic administrator. To my taste, sur Incises is a much more attractive work than Le Marteau, which has become a classic of the 20th century's avant-garde; in any case, both were played with apparent ease by these virtuosic young musicians from all over the world, under the nearly 83-year-old master's guidance.
For me, the Carnegie/Zankel season ended pleasantly on May 11 with a concert by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra conducted by Douglas Boyd and with Dawn Upshaw as the fine soloist in some Stravinsky songs (Two Poems of Konstantin Balmont and Three Japanese Lyrics), Ravel's Three Poems of Stephane Mallarme, and Osvaldo Golijov's not terribly effective arrangements of four Schubert lieder. (Why has there been a resurgence of interest in old and new orchestrations of Schubert's songs? No matter how skillful the arranger, the pieces simply don't sound as good with orchestral accompaniment as they do in the original voice-and-piano blend created by the composer.) The other works on this program were Dvorak's Serenade for Winds and Stravinsky's Pulcinella Suite (1949 revision), deftly and arrestingly executed by this fine Minnesota ensemble.
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