Masur Conducts Bach; Gil Shaham Plays Carnegie Hall

Written by Jay Nordlinger on . Posted in Posts.

It’s not
every day that a major orchestra does a Bach oratorio, so this is a special
occasion. Along with associated choruses, the New York Philharmonic is performing
the St. John Passion–not as well known or beloved as the St.
Matthew Passion
or the B Minor Mass, but a work of Bach, and, as such, a
divine creation. It is Easter season, and this is liturgical music of the utmost
intensity. Thus does Avery Fisher Hall take on some of the character of a church.

Kurt Masur,
the Philharmonic’s music director, is a competent manager of this piece
and these forces. If a conductor brings out the acute spirituality of the Passion,
that’s gravy; if he only manages it properly, that’s really good enough.
Masur, tonight, is good enough. His tempos are brisk; the general feeling of
the orchestra and combined chorus is light. The orchestra, though, doesn’t
always play clearly or in tune and in spots is choppy and inexact. The chorus,
containing only men and boys, is a little bit hooty, but this has what some
people regard as the virtue of authenticity.

The workhorse
of the evening is the esteemed tenor Peter Schreier. He handles both the Evangelist’s
recitatives and the tenor arias, which is somewhat unusual. Schreier is a veteran
Bach hand, and he is always serviceable. Sometimes he’s even lovely and
affecting. But he is nearing the end of his career, and his resources are diminished.
His intonation is shaky, there’s not much air coming through his sound
and he can be dangerously strangled. At this stage of the game, he resembles
no one so much as the late Peter Pears (which is not intended, in this instance,
as a compliment). But he is a savvy, pragmatic singer, and does what he must
to get through the evening with dignity. Besides which, Bach is murder on tenors,
whatever their age or condition.

Among the other
soloists is the mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson, whose voice is rich and pleasing
although a little underpowered. The orchestra–even this reduced one–at
times overwhelms her. Our soprano is Heidi Grant Murphy, who scored as Sophie
earlier this season in the Met’s Rosenkavalier. She has very much
a Sophie voice: light, high and airy. As she tackles her part tonight, I can’t
help thinking, "Sophie sings Bach!" But I shouldn’t smirk: Murphy
is an effective, even a stylish, Bach singer. Then there is Hakan Hagegard,
in the part of Jesus Christ. The Swedish baritone is his usual excellent self,
sonorous and characterful.

This is not
a terribly memorable performance. But it is a performance. And when it comes
to a work so mighty as the St. John Passion, that is the gratifying thing.

April 18

In recital
at Carnegie Hall is Gil Shaham, the young Israeli-American violinist who is
a darling of audiences everywhere. His program tonight is diverse, beginning
with the Bach Sonata in E Major. Shaham is an up and down player, which is better
than being merely down. He has a rather thin tone, and his playing tends to
be a little loose, careless. His Bach is, as they say in the trade, "unabashedly
Romantic"; in fact, he plays this sonata as Heifetz would play Brahms–but
this is not a strict matter of right and wrong.

Shaham is a
happy performer–happy in his work, which makes those who hear him happy.
The Allegro of his Bach is fine and sprightly, and the Romanticism of the Adagio
is hard to resist, showing that Bach is a man for all seasons, and most styles.
The E-major sonata is a splendid, magical work.

Next comes
Beethoven’s No. 7, in C minor, one of his most demanding sonatas. Shaham’s
intonation is poor, and his technique generally is sloppy. Not helping much
is the pianist Akira Eguchi, who rushes terribly, and overall gives the impression
of not being quite mature enough for this music. Shaham seems weirdly out of
it–indifferent, a little lazy, not fully engaged. If you have to fall apart,
this is not the sonata in which to do it.

On, then, to
Prokofiev, and his Five Melodies, Op. 35b. In putting over these pieces,
it helps to be more of a singer on the violin than Shaham is tonight. Even so,
it’s a pleasure to hear the Melodies, which are infrequently played.
They make up somewhat for the paucity of the songs that Prokofiev produced.
Shaham proceeds to Copland’s Ukulele Serenade, composed in 1926.
This is, as you might guess from the title, a corny little thing, but Shaham
plays it in a lively way; he is idiomatic and fun. Also appealing is a violin-and-piano
arrangement of Strauss’ Rosenkavalier Waltzes, although Eguchi plays
his part with an almost comical lack of feeling or understanding. Shaham, fortunately,
has some Viennese wit about him. Amazing, isn’t it, how this music remains
utterly winning, in any of its many forms.

To close the
program is Bartok’s Rhapsody No. 2, and here Shaham is at his strongest:
clear, sensitive, correct; nimble, sleek, intelligent. He knows this music to
the bone, and his commitment to it is total. He plays like a conservatory-trained
Hungarian peasant. Once Gil Shaham gains a little consistency, he will be not
only an interesting and talented violinist, but a superb one.

April 25

It is the Philharmonic,
as usual, but in Carnegie Hall–not as usual. The opening work is one that
the orchestra commissioned last year: Two Paths: Music for Two Solo Violas
and Symphony Orchestra
by Sofia Gubaidulina, whose nationality can best
be described as ex-Soviet (otherwise, it’s too complicated). This is a
most unusual work, showcasing the Philharmonic’s top violists, Cynthia
Phelps and Rebecca Young. Players of this instrument have long been the butt
of cruel jokes from other musicians; it’s about time they had some new,
and creditable, music to play.

Two Paths
is imaginative both in its conception and in its execution. It is expressive,
dramatic and rather extravagant, sometimes resembling a film score. In practically
every measure, there is that typical Soviet anxiety–a nervousness, an agitation.
The work can be monotonous, as the composer works a few motives almost to death;
but she is thoughtful enough to vary the mood just in time. Most people wouldn’t
care to hear this music more than twice a year, but it contains a certain stark
power, a logic, and also something of an emotional pull. A smart commission.

The latter
half of the program is given over to Mahler: his Symphony No. 1, sometimes called
The Titan. In his ripened years, Kurt Masur has become a first-rate Mahlerian.
The tense beginning of the First, taken from Beethoven (aren’t they all?),
is astoundingly controlled and suspenseful, as Mahler takes several minutes
waiting to launch his maiden symphony. The entire first movement is beautifully
phrased, making the work seem fresh and new. Masur handles the composer’s
bursts of song joyfully, but in a businesslike fashion. The movement is slightly
fast, and Masur could savor it more; but at least he isn’t slow or ponderous.
This is robust, manly Mahler, from a robust, manly conductor. It is "vertical"
and no-nonsense, almost an extension of Beethoven.

The second
movement is somewhat hasty and loud, but again, no wallowing. The klezmer-style
funeral march is mesmerizing, and we hear some classy oboe-playing. The G-major
middle section Masur treats with tenderness and sensitivity.

The final movement
is all grandeur, truly a titanic undertaking. This is terrifically precise playing–correct
and elegant. George Szell used to say that only when all technical matters are
settled can musicmaking begin. Here, everything technical has been squared away;
the musicmaking is brilliant. Pervading it all are Mahler’s genius and
Masur’s musical common sense. And could there be a more thrilling ending
in all of music?

April 27

The Cleveland
Orchestra has spent a lot of time in Carnegie Hall this season, and it is here
again under its music director, Christoph von Dohnanyi, grandson of the Hungarian
composer Ernst. Cleveland’s Dohnanyi, however, was raised a German; his
musically formative years were in Munich and Frankfurt. Even so, he will perform
Bartok tonight, recognizing, probably, that this is his birthright.

But he begins
with American music, the strange and fascinating Unanswered Question
by Ives. All through this gorgeous little piece there runs a current that must
be sustained; lose it, and the whole thing collapses. Happily, Dohnanyi never
loses it. The pitch of the orchestra is even, and the playing is almost spookily
clean. Dohnanyi draws out the considerable power of this brief work. I should
note, too, that he does not hold the final note mindlessly; he cuts it off at
the indicated time. Of such small considerations are the most honest performances

The Bartok
is the well-loved Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, which Dohnanyi
accords exactly the right touch. His account is light and modest, making the
piece sound very much like chamber music. The legato is so legato that there
isn’t a curd in it. The Allegro has bite, yet it is refined, always elegant,
even in its fierceness. The Allegro Molto is exciting, teeming with agony and
strife. I have always had reservations about this work: it can seem bloodless
and antiseptic. But you could not ask for a more thoughtful and assured performance
than tonight’s.

After intermission,
we have a Beethoven symphony–which is sort of news. I was just saying to
another critic that we have had a profusion of Mahler this season, as we have
for the last several years. Where, I was complaining, was that shunned composer
Beethoven? "Oh, there’s nothing left to say about Beethoven,"
said my critic friend. This is untrue, but it is sadly true of Dohnanyi and
the Cleveland on this occasion.

Their Beethoven
is the No. 3 (Eroica), and it is frustratingly limp and feckless. There
is no edge to it, no vigor, little joy. It is technically shoddy, too, with
frequent lapses of unity–odd for this bunch. The funeral march is really
a yawn. The Scherzo doesn’t gleam, or startle or delight. The finale has
more energy–more Beethovenian oomph–but it is just too late. If Dohnanyi
and the orchestra have nothing new to say about this very familiar work, they
should at least state the old case, which is fulfilling enough.

May 4

And now for
something totally delicious–the American soprano Barbara Bonney, in recital
at Carnegie Hall. It is a beautiful spring night, and Bonney fits it in every
conceivable way. Her program is all-American, beginning with a set that she
has made a specialty: Dominick Argento’s Six Elizabethan Songs (which
opens with the giddy, exuberant "Spring"). This music is an ideal
match for Bonney. Her voice is high and light, but also vital and stirring.
She exhibits complete control over her vocal apparatus. Her dynamics, for example,
are exquisite, the result of ample technique, especially as it concerns breathing.

The Bonney
sound is clean, refreshing and classically American; flexible and transparent,
capable of revealing many things. In "Winter," it is quicksilver and
precise. In Shakespeare’s great "Dirge" ("Come away, come
away, Death"), it is commanding. For a singer like Bonney, the question
arises: Can the voice take on gravitas? It really can’t, physically; it
must come through the communicative skills of the artist. These Bonney has in

As It Fell Upon a Day is a fairly insipid thing, but Bonney makes the
most of it. With her high palate and overtones, she gives the illusion of having
octaves beyond her top. She also sings music of her friend Andre Previn, who
is in attendance, beaming. His Four Songs for Soprano, Cello, and Piano
(text by Toni Morrison) is not his most inspired work, but it has its moments,
most of them bluesy. Bonney gives these songs the royal treatment. This is a
voice that kisses the ear all night long.

In the second
half of the recital, we hear Copland’s Twelve Songs to Poems of Emily
. Two things are said of this cycle: that it is wickedly exposed
for the singer; and that its intervals are fearsome. Both claims are true, but
for Bonney they are nothing. With her, everything is cool, clear water. The
lines of her singing are eerily undisturbed, her musical instincts are dead-on
and her vocal range is astonishing: Twice, she gives us an absolutely ravishing
low B-flat–as thrilling as any high note she’ll ever sing. You could
quibble with some aspects of her performance, but this account of America’s
most celebrated song cycle is about as good as it gets.

I should probably
mention that Bonney is beautiful, which hardly hurts a singer’s career.
I think of the old story about Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who was once dubbed "the
most glamorous woman in Europe": she walks out onstage and a first-timer
gasps, "And she sings, too?"

May 10

The musical
season is winding down, and it’s time to hear James Levine’s Metropolitan
Opera Orchestra, out of the pit and strutting its stuff at Carnegie Hall. This
orchestra is becoming one of the most admired in the country–not bad for
an opera band, and just about unprecedented. Also, the critics complain that
there is nothing left to say about Levine: What can you say about such continual
excellence? What can you say about the Grand Canyon or the Chartres cathedral?
That it is still there, and remarkable.

concert is virtually all-operatic, beginning with the overture to Verdi’s
Forza del destino: bam-bam-bam. Levine exerts his customary control,
and the orchestra displays its customary sound–lush, dark and burnished.
Their performance has both passion and precision. The woodwinds, in particular,
are clear and linear. Levine is in no rush, letting the music unfold as it must,
fatefully. Conductor and orchestra are a smooth, beautiful machine.

Up next is
the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, followed by the
Polka from Smetana’s Bartered Bride. We’re in the midst of
a pops concert, which reminds one of the virtues of James Levine: he works just
as hard on chestnuts like these as he does on, say, a Mahler symphony. In treating
this music with respect, he elevates it. So it is with the Dance of the Seven
Veils from Strauss’ Salome (which, tragically, includes no nudity).
When the smoke clears, this is a dull and bombastic piece, albeit from a great
opera. It has noise, but little else. Yet Levine gives it his all: rarely, for
instance, do we hear so many parts so clearly.

The concert
concludes with the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.
Now, concerning Levine’s Wagner, there is truly nothing left to say. But
try this: he makes this music breathe, palpably. His baton affects your own
breathing. His phrasing is both elegant and simple, and he imparts to the music
an uncommon energy. This is strong, coherent Wagner, not lost in Romantic soup.
And how can the Liebestod–even in its orchestral version–still transport,
after a million hearings? It can, in the right hands. This performance is perfectly
paced, perfectly expressed, perfectly thought out. It is great to be alive in
the time of Levine.