Thomas Quasthoff and the Perfection of God's Creation
Haydn's "Creation" dominates the concert programming at this spring's Salzburg Easter Festival, with its second and final performance set for Easter Sunday. Haydn' text descends from Milton and paints a benign Enlightenment view of God as the world's divine architect. The seven days of the creation conveniently end before the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, though there is a hint at the very end that "false madness" might one day taint their idyll. Before such madness can work is snaky wiles, though, everything God does is perfect. Very much including the creation of man (and women, though women play second fiddle here) "in his image".
With all due respect to the fluty soprano Genia Kuhmeier and the beefily earnest tenor Michael Schade, and to the ethereal, sturdy singing of the Berlin Radio Choir and the brawny (those trumpets!) playing of the Berlin Philharmonic and the
no-nonsense conducting of Simon Rattle, the star of the night was the German bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff, as Raphael and Adam.
Quasthoff is a sovereign lieder singer, sensitive yet unmannered, and his voice, now more a bass than a baritone, sounds ideal in size and range for these parts. To hear him sing, over and over, each time more beautitfully than the last, the couplet "Leise rauschend gleitet fort/im stillen Tal der helle Bach" ("The bright streams glides, lightly rippling, through the silent valley") was worth the $750 ticket price, or whatever those who had to pay paid for a ticket.
Quasthoff is now nearly 50. He was a thalidomide baby, meaning he has a normal sized head and torso but flipper-like hands and feet. Needless to say, this is more his problem than that of anyone, like members of a concert audience, who looks at him. Yet a discomfort, a disquietude about physical deformity is widespread in our culture. I myself was deeply disturbed when the first thalidomide photos came along and still will not see the film "Freaks." I turn away from pictures of two-headed calves and six-legged frogs, let alone of human Siamese twins.
The Verbier Festival has taken to offering streaming video performances on its web site, and last summer I heard and saw a chamber concert in which Quasthoff sang lieder. He introduced the songs from the stage, in English, and he was warm, welcoming, endearing. This was charming in itself, but it also served neatly to defuse any lingering discomfort in the audience.
In Sazlburg he didn't talk to the public, but in his smiles and body language he was just as compelling as a person as he was as an artist. To watch this imperfectly formed man sing about God's perfect creation made one (all right, made me) rethink the entire notion of what human perfection might be. Perhaps Quasthoff in private can be grumpy or mean to his pets. But if he is "challenged," to use one of the sillier euphemisms of the day, he has risen to the challenge magnificently. As an artist and a man, he seems about as ideal an image of God's creation as Milton or Haydn might have wished.
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