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.
Tuesday, 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.
Tuesday, 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?
Thursday, 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 made.
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.
Thursday, 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 abundance.
Copland's 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 Dickinson. 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?"
Wednesday, 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.
Tonight's 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.