Overflow: December 2008 Archives
Thais at the Met last week. According to the program notes, Anatole France -- author of the novella on which Jules Massenet's opera is based -- lavishly praised the composer for his treatment of the subject. There's no denying that the music is skillfully written or that each of the principal characters has a clearly delineated musical personality, but somehow or other the composition as a whole is undistinguished. The famous "Meditation" interlude is lovely, but when Massenet brings his hit tune back for the umpteenth time later in the opera you feel like blue-pencilling the score and scrawling the word "REDUNDANT!" here and there. There's a fair amount of Wagner-with-rouge in the work, and it seems clear that Massenet was thoroughly familiar with the musical exoticism of Aida, especially the opening of Verdi's third act, elements of which can be detected in Thais's Act II quartet. But it's equally obvious that Strauss picked up a trick or two from Thais before he wrote Salome.
Anatole France's hatred of sanctity and sanctimoniousness is mainly respected in Louis Gallet's libretto, but the novelist's brilliant irony -- which, after all, was his most salient characteristic -- is nowhere to be found. Agreed: communicating irony through music is extraordinarily difficult, but in this case no attempt whatsoever seems to have been made by either Gallet or Massenet; thus the story is automatically condemned to two-dimensionality.
In the punishing title role, Renee Fleming gave one of the finest performances I've ever heard from her, musically and dramatically, despite some shrillness once in awhile, whereas Thomas Hampson, in the less obviously virtuosic but equally tough and important role of Athanael, was dramatically convincing but vocally monochromatic. Jesus Lopez-Cobos conducted fluently but also rather flaccidly -- and this is an opera in which a bit of rhythmic drive every now and then would be welcome.
The first act and part of the third take place in the Egyptian desert (effectively stylized in this production by John Cox), with a group of religious eremites wearing the sort of ragged tunics that seem to have been de rigueur for fourth-century Christians in the wilderness. But in the second act we find ourselves in a modern palace in Alexandria, complete with rifle-toting guard; a swanky dressing-gown for Nicias (Thais's lover-of-the-week -- a tenor role, of course), formal evening garb for the guests, and a glittering palm tree that could have been stolen from a Miami Beach hotel lobby. We chumps in the audience are not supposed to ask why, in a modern Muslim country, folks would be praying to Venus and the other gods of ancient Rome.
But enough of that: it's holiday time! Concert life has slowed down, even in New York, and the last time I turned on the radio I heard, within a short time-span, "White Christmas" sung by -- if I'm not mistaken -- Bing Crosby, Benjamin Spock, Imogene Coca, T. S. Eliot, Kirsten Flagstad, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Buffalo Bob, Margaret Thatcher, and Leonid Brezhnev. Better to concentrate on CDs, of which some interesting examples have recently landed on my desk.
I've had many qualms, over the years, about quite a few British early music artists and ensembles, but I was greatly impressed last season by Harry Bicket's conducting of La clemenza di Tito at the Met. This made me curious to hear his recent recording, with the English Concert on the Virgin Classics label, of Bach sacred arias sung by countertenor David Daniels. The disc contains excerpts from the Mass in B minor, the St. John and St. Matthew passions, and three cantatas, and the results are excellent and profoundly moving throughout. These are artists well worth following.
EMI and Sony BMG have been reissuing valuable historic recordings from their vaults; these are in part consolation prizes -- meant, perhaps, to distract us from the realization that the "majors" are making relatively few studio recordings of today's artists -- but in themselves the re-releases are always more than welcome. From EMI comes a wonderful, seventeen-CD box of recordings by David Oistrakh, the centennial of whose birth passed largely unnoticed this past September. The great violinist's serious musicianship, technical mastery, beauty of tone, and expressive intensity are all to be heard here, in repertoire that stretches from the Baroque masters to his friends Prokofiev and Shostakovich. His interpretations of some of the earlier works may sound stylistically old-fashioned today, but the care that he lavished on every detail of every piece and the coherence with which he put those details together are always a great lesson. One of the reasons why I don't mind being over sixty is that I was able to hear Oistrakh live on many occasions.
I have a close relative who was born the same year (1917) as the remarkable Romanian pianist Dino Lipatti and who is still in excellent physical and mental shape, which makes it all the more difficult for me to absorb the fact that Lipatti, whose reputation and influence have never waned, has been dead for fifty-eight years. Nearly his entire recorded legacy can be heard in EMI's recent seven-CD release of his recordings of Bach, Scarlatti, Mozart, Schubert, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Brahms, Grieg, Ravel, and Bartok; the quantity is not vast, but the beauty and intensity of the playing have moved and continue to move generations of musicians and listeners.
And speaking of pianists: Sony BMG has reissued, in its "Original Jacket Collection", two ten-CD sets of RCA Victor recordings, one dedicated to Arthur Rubinstein (all Chopin), the other to Vladimir Horowitz (mixed repertoire). All but one of the Rubinstein CDs contain the well-known recordings that he made between the late 1950s and mid-1960s, when he was in his seventies (the remaining one dates from 1946); the sound is beautiful, the interpretations are often more cautious than what one heard from him in the concert hall during the same period, but they do give a very good idea of the Rubinstein phenomenon. The Horowitz set is spread over a longer time-span, from 1940, when the pianist was thirty-seven, to 1982, when he was seventy-nine, although there are gaps during the periods in which he was recording for Columbia and Deutsche Grammophon. I have never been and am not now a Horowitzian, but these CDs demonstrate not only his almost terrifying virtuosity but also his repertorial curiosity: Clementi, Scriabin, Barber, and Kabalevsky are heard alongside the more typical Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, et al. No Horowitz admirer who does not already own these recordings will want to be without them..
When Deutsche Grammophon's recording of Osvaldo Golijov's Ayre came out a few years ago, I was impressed by the effectiveness of the composer's eclecticism. I was looking forward to hearing his opera Ainadamar in concert performance at Carnegie on December 7, with the Orchestra of St. Luke's and many of the artists who had given the work's premiere in 2003, including conductor Robert Spano and soprano Dawn Upshaw. I enjoyed some beautiful arioso moments here and there throughout, as well as Golijov's inventive take on Cuban rhythms in the work's central segment, and the performance seemed completely secure. But whereas the mixture of genres, styles, and idioms worked most of the time in Ayre, in Ainadamar Golijov was perhaps trying to make a big tapestry out of very little substance. The stock Spanish melodic-harmonic material was almost embarrassingly trite in this context; the characterization of the pasionaria antifascist actress Margarita Xirgu and her hero, Federico Garcia Lorca, was ridiculously one-dimensional; and the whole work, although only eighty minutes long, seemed to go on forever. Granted, an opera is at a disadvantage when it is presented without stage action; nevertheless, no amount of visual distraction could have reduced the sensation that this music often meandered aimlessly. And then there was the thorny issue of amplification of voices and instruments: here and there, one could understand why it was necessary, but most of the time it seemed gratuitous, especially within Carnegie's fine acoustical environment.
At Zankel two nights later, Alisa Weilerstein offered Golijov's brief Omaramor for solo cello as a virtuosic bonbon amid weightier repertoire, and here the composer's eclecticism was much more subtle -- unobtrusive suggestions of tango, for instance, rather than tango-in-your-face. The eight-minute miniature worked much better than the eighty-minute opera.
Weilerstein is an outstanding cellist -- thoroughly musical, technically excellent, with a huge dynamic range (the piano was open full-stick but never threatened to overwhelm the cello), and poised and secure in public. The interpretation that she and the sensitive pianist Inon Barnatan brought to Beethoven's Op. 102 No. 2 provided another example of the Extreme Phrasing and Extreme Dynamics type of approach that I've been grumbling about in previous posts. Artists who make the listener hear the music's subtleties are rare enough, but the rarest of all are those who let the listener hear the music's subtleties. This struck me the other day while I was listening to Vladimir Ashkenazy's now vintage recording of Chopin's B minor Sonata: the inner voices in the Largo movement seem simply to exist, in all their quietly erotic beauty, as if by miraculous accident; they don't force us to hear them, yet they're irresistible. A performance is, among other things, necessarily a commentary on a work, but the best performances are those that don't draw attention to this fact. When every phrase is piled high with "meaning", the interpreter is putting him/herself in front of the work at hand. Once again, let me be clear: Weilerstein's and Barnatan's playing was excellent and the interpretation thoughtful; it simply went overboard.
The excess was less evident in the Chopin Cello and Piano Sonata, also beautifully played, but Weilerstein was at her most compelling in Kodaly's horrendously difficult Sonata for Solo Cello, Op. 8 -- one of those works that sound more interesting than they are, when you really think about them, but that nevertheless grip you when they are played with the sort of mastery that this young artist brought to this piece.
Much has been made of Weilerstein's head movements and "inspired" gazes into space, but she is certainly not the only instrumentalist to be so afflicted, or afflicting. For hundreds of years musicians have debated over whether emotion should be expressed only through the playing or also through physical attitude. During the Baroque period, the dominant ideal seems to have been sprezzatura (literally "contempt", but more accurately translated, in this case, as "nonchalance"): according to this philosophy, performers should always appear to be playing with ease and not to care about the effect made on the audience. But Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach believed, on the contrary, that "in languishing, sad passages, the performer must languish and grow sad;" that "in lively, joyous passages, the executant must again put himself into the appropriate mood;" and that "fitting expressions help the listener to understand our meaning." I very much favor the sprezzatura school -- I want instrumental music to affect me through my ears, not through my eyes -- but I can always turn my head or close my eyes if the onstage show is too much for me. Notice, by the way, that the more a conductor emotes and jumps around on a podium, the less the orchestra musicians watch him or her: the proportions are almost mathematical. Have a look at the old films of Erich Kleiber, Monteux, Mravinsky, Reiner, Toscanini, Walter, and compare them to the films of Bernstein and his emulators, and then tell me which group receives more attention from the orchestra.
Just as impressive as Weilerstein's recital was last Friday's "Musicians from Marlboro" concert at the Metropolitan Museum. Violinists Miho Saegusa and Jessica Lee, violist Mark Holloway, and cellist Na-Young Baek gave the most powerful and appropriately insane performance of Janacek's "Kreutzer Sonata" String Quartet that I've ever heard, and these four musicians plus violinists Scott St John and Yonah Zur, violist Maiya Papach, and cellist Susan Babini also gave one of the most fleet but intense accounts in my experience of Mendelssohn's youthful Octet. The interpretation that five of the same players brought to Mozart's Quintet in E-flat, K. 614, wasn't quite as refined and accomplished as their work on the other two pieces, but the whole concert was thoroughly enjoyable -- I left it feeling elated.
The musical event of last week in New York was without a doubt Elliott Carter's one hundredth birthday concert at Carnegie Hall. To reach that age in good health and with all one's marbles intact is no mean feat in itself; to do so while still in full command of one's creative powers and energies is simply flabbergasting. And there he was, occupying an aisle seat near the front of the historic auditorium (which was only seventeen years old when he was born), listening to his new, brief, but highly complex piano concerto, Interventions, with Daniel Barenboim as soloist and the Boston Symphony under James Levine. Afterward, Carter made his way slowly but surely onto the stage to receive the audience's ovation as well as a huge birthday cake from Carnegie's administrators and a rendition of "Happy Birthday" from the orchestra. Nor were there any concessions to age in the piece itself: from the orchestra's opening, insistent A, opposed immediately by the piano's opening, equally insistent B-flat, the work was full of Sturm und Drang, with little of the lyricism that can be heard, for instance, in some of Carter's other late-period work. (I'm thinking in particular of the Tempo e Tempi cycle of 1998-99, which was beautifully performed by soprano Susan Narucki with Levine and the Met Chamber Ensemble at Zankel last year.)
In the first half of the concert, which consisted of Schubert's profoundly moving Fantasy in F minor for piano, four hands, and Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto, Barenboim and Levine seemed ill-matched. Barenboim emphasized the Fantasy's surface brilliance, whereas Levine seemed more interested in the piece's introverted nature; and in the concerto, Barenboim gave us blocks of details (often interesting ones) while Levine seemed to be struggling to preserve structure. In any case, the evening's real feature was its conclusion -- one of the most (maybe the most) sweepingly dramatic yet thoroughly detailed performances of The Rite of Spring that I have ever heard. Yes, there were a few bloopers is some of the solo wind parts, but gimme a break: this was the conclusion of a long evening (the 8 o'clock concert wasn't over until nearly 11) that ended not with a whimper but with a bang -- and what a bang!