Classical Diary

Written by Jay Nordlinger on . Posted in Posts.

March 23:
The Prokofiev operas are being performed with ever more frequency,
which is good news for Prokofiev, and good news for opera. At the Met tonight
we have The Gambler, based on the Dostoevsky novella. The cast is (nearly)
all Russian, and is led by the conductor Valery Gergiev, who is Ossetian. (These
distinctions may not be important to us–they’re all Russkies, aren’t
they?–but, boy, do they matter there.) The tenor carries the great load in
this opera, and tonight’s, Vladimir Galouzine, can handle it. More than,
really. He turns in a tour de force. The part of Alexei is heavy, punishing and
sustained–and Galouzine never brays or barks; nor does he show any signs
of giving out, even at the mad, delirious end. That technique must be very well
honed. And listening to his Alexei makes you want to hear his Otello–and,
later in his career, the Wagner roles.

her Met debut is the soprano Olga Guryakova, an intelligent singer and a fine
actress. She makes the most of her voice, which may not win any prizes for beauty,
but which is interesting all the same, with some steel in it. And appearing as
the grandmother is the veteran Russian mezzo-soprano Elena Obratzsova. This really
is Old-Timers Day. We had another one a couple of seasons ago, when the Swedish
soprano Elisabeth Söderström came in to play the Countess in Tchaikovsky’s
Pique Dame. Obratzsova, like Söderström, sings like an old lady,
but an old lady with power and wit. She retains an especially juicy lower register.
Her Grammy–I refer to her character, not to any music award–is hysterical,
but not necessarily inappropriately so. In the pit, Gergiev leads everything in
classic, crackling Russian style. The orchestra is blazing, hyperresponsive.

is very much a symphonic opera, with the voices acting almost like
additional (and, of course, prominently featured) instruments. The entire production
conveys the desperation and absurdity of the work. All the extramusical elements
are apt: the stage direction, the set, the costumes (down to the millinery). Even
the lighting is outstanding. And speaking of extramusical elements, I feel I should
mention this: Elena Obratzsova is fingered by her one-time colleague, the soprano
Galina Vishnevskaya (wife of the cellist-conductor Mstislav Rostropovich), in
her phenomenal memoir Galina, as an awful, Communist, informing hack–the
kind that made the Soviet Union a hell. Frankly, I feel a bit of a twinge while
applauding her.


March 29:
Tonight it is Wagner time, with an "Easter-season" Parsifal,
featuring Placido Domingo, the Parsifal of this age. Before we get to him, though,
we have to talk about this production’s Kundry, Violeta Urmana, who makes
her Met debut–the kind that can be described as "storybook." Odd
name, isn’t it? Violeta Urmana is a Lithuanian, and we might as well learn
the name, for it should be a major one. She has a rich, dark mezzo, extremely
well controlled. Her high B’s are not quite ringing, but they are effective.
As a singing actress, she is genuinely moving. She succeeds in conveying the unusualness
of Kundry, a most unusual character (or characters, we should say, because Kundry
is more than one). And–again, addressing the extramusical–although she
is not a svelte woman, she is a knockout in her way, and totally believable as
a siren. Tonight is star-is-born stuff.

good, too, to hear John Tomlinson, the veteran British bass who debuted at the
Met only in 1999, as the sun was beginning to set on him. As Gurnemanz, he is
sturdy and resplendent. And may I interject something totally off-the-wall, or
from-the-sky? When the swan falls down, having been shot by Parsifal, I can’t
help thinking of Bjork at the Oscars a few nights ago. Surely I’m not the
only one.

now, Domingo: many of us never fail to get a kick out of this creamy Italianate
voice in a Wagner opera. He is an heroic tenor–a heldentenor–to be sure,
but he’s also a Rodolfo or an Alfredo, making him very heroic, indeed. Tonight,
the years seem to roll off him. And, needless to say, the old charmer looks right
at home with his second-act bevy of sirens.

matter how great, or poor, the singers, Parsifal rises or falls with the
conductor–talk about a "symphonic opera." The key, or one of them,
is to conduct this holy music freely, naturally, not handling it with sugar tongs,
not being intimidated by its profundity. Blessings on a conductor who’ll
let it flow–and James Levine does. Probably everyone in attendance feels
that he is witnessing a great performance. I myself have no expectation of seeing
or hearing a better one–which, perversely, you might say, leaves me kind
of depressed.


April 11:
The American pianist Abbey Simon is said to be "a link to the
golden age"–and so he is. He’s 79, but, more important, he studied
with Josef Hofmann, the very symbol of golden-age pianism, wherein feeling, expressiveness
and individuality count for a lot.

begins his recital at Carnegie Hall with one of the great works of the Classical
literature (or the Classical-Romantic literature), Beethoven’s Sonata in
A flat, Op. 110. His playing is a study in elegance. Every phrase is beautifully
shaped, and he uses a beautiful singing tone. Here is limpid, graceful Beethoven,
as befits this piece (or certainly its first movement). Simon is an intimate communicator:
he makes this sonata talk to us. His approach is both Classical and Romantic,
as, again, befits the work. He is quite liberal with the sustain pedal, but not
obtrusively so. And he groans and sings (I mean, vocally, this time) like Glenn
Gould–which is slightly obtrusive, but part of the Simon style, and
the Simon experience. In the sonata’s denser, faster pages, Simon betrays
some loss of technique–of incisiveness and punch–but he still has plenty:
enough to continue to earn the title "supervirtuoso." He plays the Adagio
as a romanza. In fact, he makes it sound like Chopin, but like Beethoven, too:
it is a Chopinized Beethoven, and perfectly acceptable. The great fugue that ends
the piece is just a little sloppy, but the performance as a whole has been masterly,
one of the most satisfying of this signal work I have yet to hear.

proceeds with the group of pieces known as Kreisleriana, by Schumann. He
proves, once more, that he is a remarkably "horizontal" pianist–that
is, his legato is supreme, as he stitches over everything. His playing almost
always has a sense of forward motion, or of latitude. He gives the impression
of a continuum, of something like water flowing. His playing occasionally threatens
to get soupy, but it manages to stay defined enough.

is extraordinary beauty and care in Simon’s work. You get the impression
that he couldn’t do anything ugly at the keyboard if he tried. He closes
the printed program with a set of Chopin: a couple of mazurkas and the E-major
Scherzo. In this, his playing is memorably poetic. The famous A-minor mazurka
he plays as you might imagine Chopin did, in his salon. Simon grasps the inner
meaning of this music, sort of communes with it, or with its composer. He tires
somewhat toward the end–the fingers get sluggish; he gropes a little–but
it hardly matters.

encores are "golden age," indeed. First there is a transcription of
the Liebesleid by Fritz Kreisler (no relation to Schumann’s Kreisler–well,
sort of a spiritual relation, actually). And then there’s a Petrarch sonnet
of Liszt. Simon certainly can’t be accused of failing to play to his strengths.
He leaves his audience in a reverie–or multiple ones–and we sigh in
appreciation that the golden age is still here.


April 12:
The Met’s Lulu is supposed to feature the sensational
German soprano Christine Schäfer. She is indisposed, though, allowing the
American Cyndia Sieden to make her debut. And what an opportunity: a debut in
a big-time role, in practically a one-woman opera, conducted by the world’s
great Berg champion, Levine. The young debutante responds with a respectable effort,
if not a star-making one, a la Violeta Urmana.

begin with, Sieden looks a lot like Lulu should (as does Christine Schäfer–and
as their great, mercurial predecessor, Teresa Stratas, surely did). Sieden has
a light, high coloratura voice, and she handles it well. It seems underpowered,
however. It’s often hard to hear her–even toward the front of the house–and
it is even difficult to hear her spoken work. But she seems to gain strength and
poise as the (very long) evening wears on, bringing off this strange, demanding
part with real style, real pluck.

some others I have mentioned lately, Sieden is an obviously fine actress–and
not merely in the good-enough-for-opera sense. And the character of Lulu herself?
There is no end of interpretive blather about this woman: her complexity, her
moral responsibility. I would like to venture a harsh, unnuanced, boobish opinion:
despite decades of attempts to humanize this wretched being, she is… well, she
is what MUGGER calls the junior Senator from New York. But that’s probably
unfair to the dear Lulu, who did, after all, have a horrid childhood.


Classical Diary

Written by Jay Nordlinger on . Posted in Posts.

Dec. 29:
Some people are licking their chops over Kurt Masur’s impending
departure–his tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic ends
next season. Me, I’m beginning to mourn. The old German stands accused
of having an insufficiently wide repertory. This is ridiculous–his repertory
is plenty ample–but even if it weren’t, what’s wrong with excelling
at the best that has been thought and composed?

critics would be especially miffed at tonight’s concert, devoted to two
canonical works of Brahms: the Piano Concerto in B-flat and the Symphony in
E minor. The soloist in the concerto is Elisabeth Leonskaja, a Russian pianist
much talked about but little heard in this country. She is an elegant, intelligent
musician, and she gives that sort of reading to the Brahms. The opening Allegro
is nicely layered; Leonskaja pays attention to every detail, smothering nothing.
Her tempo is unusually slow, but she (and Masur) stick to it, which is the key
thing. Some would call this performance a little underpowered; I would call
it refreshingly modest and sensitive. This music need not be heaven-storming.

for Masur, he draws an exceptionally warm sound from the orchestra. His phrasing
is beautiful. At times, the piece–a big, sprawling affair–comes off
as chamber music. Leonskaja knows not to overtax herself, physically, which
is admirable. In the second movement, Allegro Appassionato, I might ask for
a tad more abandon, but I enjoy the pianist’s care and grace. The Andante
is the reverie it should be; the entire movement can be summed up in that classic
oxymoron "sweet sorrow." The rondo would benefit from a bit more snap–but,
again, musicians are entitled to their (reasonable) interpretations, and Leonskaja

the symphony, my main thought was: pity this has to end, the relationship between
Masur and the Philharmonic. They are playing so well together now. Masur accords
everything the right space, and the right pace; he knows what to emphasize,
keeps in mind the entire arc of the work. The slow movement is unbelievably
creamy, warmer than warm. The third movement has great strength and vigor–a
Beethoven-like movement played in a Beethoven-like way. It is possible that
no one else in the world is leading Brahms symphonies so well at the moment.
The composer himself would be well pleased, which is the ultimate standard.


Jan. 4:
At the Metropolitan Opera tonight is La Traviata, in the
Zeffirelli production. The old Italian’s work (I’m speaking of Zeffirelli
here, not Verdi) is criticized by detractors as "over-the-top," and
praised by admirers as "sumptuous." I guess I fall into the "sumptuous"
camp. If you don’t want to do grand opera grand, leave it alone.

is the American soprano Ruth Ann Swenson. Her voice has always been limpid,
flexible and lovely, and in recent years, it seems to have acquired some heft
as well. Best, she always seems to take pleasure in her singing, enjoying the
sound of her own voice (as well she should). Tonight she has a bad Act I, however:
she is tentative, and she is flatting all over the place. At the end of her
big scena, she refrains from going for the high E-flat–she must
have known it would be a risk, and she (wisely) didn’t want to fall on
her face.

an even worse act is Alfredo, the Argentine tenor Marcelo Alvarez. It is perhaps
his extreme flatting that is pulling down Swenson (this sort of thing can be
contagious). Alvarez is exuberant–even overexuberant–but he is prone
to bumbling, musically and otherwise. The conductor Jun Maerkl is not helping
matters; he has trouble even fulfilling the elementary responsibility of keeping
orchestra, singers and chorus coordinated.

II, however, shows a nice improvement: Alvarez rights himself somewhat, and
Swenson unravels admirably (that is, her Violetta falls apart as she should,
poor girl). The soprano’s "Dite alla giovane" is hushed, exquisite,
heartbreaking. All of a sudden, we’re listening to great singing–it
pays to stick around in the opera house.

American baritone Dwayne Croft, singing Germont, is his usual solid self. His
voice is beautifully masculine, and his understanding of the role is complete.
Ideally, the very end of this opera is ferocious, feral, appalling–everyone
in the house should be numb or sobbing. We don’t get this here; we’ve
had a weirdly uneven performance–but that’s better than a failed one,


Jan. 5:
Well, here is something unusual from Maestro Masur and the Philharmonic:
Sechs Monologe aus Jedermann by Frank Martin, the 20th-century Swiss
composer. It is a religious song cycle for bass-baritone and orchestra, and
tonight’s soloist is Thomas Quasthoff, a much-acclaimed German. Quasthoff
has a big, plush voice, with some gold in it. The lower register is rumbling
and stimulating; the upper register is sweet and burnished. Quasthoff is a steady
singer, too–you can get comfortable with him. When it comes to German baritones,
all roads, for better or worse, lead to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and Quasthoff
does indeed share some of the great singer’s qualities. His traversal of
the Martin is superb; Masur is equally effective.

the second half of the concert, we get Brahms’ Requiem (which must
drive the conductor’s foes nuts). Done well, the Requiem sinks into
a holiness; a spell is cast over all who hear it. This does not quite occur
tonight. Masur and his forces seem somewhat in the doldrums, rather phoning
it in. The movement known in English as "How lovely is Thy dwelling place"
is a little rushed, and lacking in tenderness. But Quasthoff, one of the two
soloists, is excellent: his "Herr, lehre doch mich" (a moving prayer,
or plea) is beautifully judged. Also excellent is Heidi Grant Murphy, an American
soprano with a light, high, gossamer voice. Her own solo is exquisitely shaped,
coming as a zephyr from some pleasant blue. But, again, the performance as a
whole never jells, and Masur cannot be satisfied.


Jan. 8:
Here is one of the most anticipated events of the Met season: the
company’s premiere of Busoni’s Doktor Faust, written in the
late 1910s and early 20s. The musical sophisticati have been especially eager
to hear this work; Philip Glass, for example, is in attendance.

Busoni is one of the intellectual supermen of music, known chiefly as a prolific
transcriber of Bach keyboard works, but an important scholar, pianist, composer,
theoretician and all-around thinker. He labored for years on his most ambitious
(and tortured) project, this Faust opera. He was never to complete it; that
was left to others.

is a complex, ruminative, psychologically probing work. Put it this
way: it ain’t Gounod. The Met’s production of it is first-rate. The
company’s artistic director, James Levine, was scheduled to conduct, but
he withdrew, complaining of sciatica. In his place is the Frenchman Philippe
Auguin, who does an impressive job. He knows the score through and through,
and he paces the performance expertly. In the title role is the American baritone
Thomas Hampson, whose singing is both beautiful and authoritative. Other parts
are commendably handled as well. In all, it would be hard to imagine a finer,
more persuasive presentation of this work.

what of that work? There is no denying that it is a weighty achievement, the
product of an extraordinarily powerful mind. But would I, willingly, hear Doktor
again? No, I’m afraid. A critic makes such an admission at his
peril–he can be laughed off by the stupid as a candy-loving simpleton.
But this opera, which has so much, misses the critical ingredient that I can
only sum up as musical genius: that which elevates a work above the merely humanly
clever. A composer such as, say, Anton Bruckner–a barely lettered rustic
(in some depictions)–may come up several dozen IQ points shy of a Busoni,
but his work will be listened to forever, owing to its quotient of inspiration,
of genius. In music, we are reminded over and over and over, the mind is not


Jan. 12:
Giving a recital at Carnegie Hall this evening is Olli Mustonen,
a popular young Finnish pianist. He begins with the D-major sonata of Beethoven
known as the Pastoral, one of the smallish glories of the piano literature.
As Mustonen plays, the notes seem familiar; they are in the right order, but
it isn’t Beethoven; it seems to be Beethoven as reimagined, or recomposed,
by this upstart. Mustonen’s interpretation is beyond the individualistic
or idiosyncratic; it is vulgar and musically impermissible. The phrasing is
foreign. Wrong accents abound. Notes are crudely clipped. There is staccato
where there ought to be legato–that sort of thing.

happens to be a composer, and he perhaps confuses the roles of creator and performer
(the latter being a servant of the former). Absurdly, Mustonen conducts (or
does something) with his hands, fluttering about, sort of like David Copperfield
in a Vegas lounge. Some teacher should have slapped him long ago. Now, I (almost)
never mention any physical aspect of a performance; music is a strictly aural
art. But I mention the conducting bit because it is revealing of a mentality–one
destructive of a score, and of a composer.

leave after the Beethoven. When a pianist announces himself like that, you don’t
have to stay for more. A guy has a purple mohawk and a nose ring: do we need
to check for tattoos? And here’s the real pity about Mustonen: he’s
such a good pianist. Full of talent. If only he had his head screwed on right.