Classical Diary: Lorin Maazel Plays Violin, Barely; Carnegie Hall's "Choral Classics"; The Met's Carmen

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Tuesday, Jan. 16: Lorin Maazel is in Carnegie Hall, for what must be the thousandth time?but he's playing the violin. Now 70 years old, the acclaimed conductor is, in fact, making his Carnegie recital debut. Many moons ago he was a child prodigy, as both a violinist and a conductor. But he hasn't played the violin seriously since he was in short pants (or just slightly after).

His program is the three sonatas of Brahms for violin and piano, and his partner for the evening is Yefim Bronfman, a fine professional pianist. Is Maazel a professional violinist? Certainly he is being paid for this gig, but he is not a professional in the meaningful sense. His playing is tentative, awkward, precarious. His intonation is poor. His tone is feeble. He misses notes, his fingers seeming foreign on the instrument. In short, this is the playing of an amateur, though a gifted one.

I am reminded of the conductors Bruno Walter and Wilhelm Furtwaengler, who used to sit down at the piano to accompany great singers in song recitals. They shouldn't have (by the evidence of the recordings), but they had the clout to do so, and it was a sexy idea, commercially, so they did.

A much different case is that of Artur Schnabel, the legendary pianist. He was a composer, in his spare time, and longed to be taken seriously as a composer. But he refused to program his own works, considering it an abuse of his position (as one of the most respected and sought-after concertizers of the day). Quaint, huh?

So, has Maazel abused his own position in arranging for this violin recital? Sure?but the public obviously loves it. Okay, then, maestro.


Wednesday, Jan. 24: Of the many smart things Carnegie Hall does, one of the smartest is the "Choral Classics" series, whose name explains enough. Tonight we have Neville Marriner leading the Orchestra of St. Luke's and the Carnegie "workshop" chorus in the Gloria of Vivaldi and the Stabat Mater of Rossini.

The concert features some of the finest soloists around, including the soprano Heidi Grant Murphy and the mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer. In the Vivaldi, Murphy gives us beautiful, lyrical and unforced singing. Mentzer gives us her juicy, bold mezzo?there is nothing hooty about it, as in the "period" performances that win so much respect. What a relief to hear a big voice in this music! Not that Mentzer's is a "big" instrument, exactly?rather, it is substantial and natural and human. Again, a relief.

The Gloria is a great work, a glory, if you will, of the Italian Baroque. Marriner handles it with his usual authority and taste. The contributions of this conductor to music must be acknowledged as staggering. Tonight he strikes his customary balance between "period" bleakness and 19th-century overlushness. This Marriner balance carries the force of correctness. I will no doubt hear different performances of the Vivaldi Gloria, but I wouldn't bet the ranch on hearing a better one.

Rossini's Stabat Mater is a problematic piece, not least for the tenor, who has some murderous music to traverse. Stanford Olsen produces a nice, ringing sound, but comes a cropper in those murderous bits. He has a case of the squeaks and cracks. It's hard to condemn him, though, when merely showing up for the part is an act of bravery. His fellow singer, the bass-baritone John Relyea, has a far smoother night, displaying a gorgeous sound and a solid technique, including astonishing low notes. His F's, for example, are bell-clear, not indistinct rumblings. And his high F?that is, two octaves above the low one?is magnificent, too. I should confess here that I have always had a fundamental problem with the Stabat Mater: I find it difficult to take seriously. It's as though church music were plunked down in the middle of Il turco in Italia. It's as though a talented composition student had decided to write liturgical music in the style of Rossini, to amuse his friends or impress his teachers. Ah, but that is my problem, surely.


Wednesday, Jan. 31: So good to hear Carmen, a work that is hackneyed because it is great?the full, surprising flowering of Georges Bizet's many gifts. The conductor at the Met is Bertrand de Billy, who seems not to enjoy the music, or not to want others to do so. Under his baton, everything is rushed, snipped off?does he have a plane to catch? Nothing in the score is savored, or relished, or given its due.

As Don José, the usually reliable Richard Leech is in poor form, suffering from some ailment, as confirmed in a mid-performance announcement from the stage. Still, Leech manages gamely, and does better than many a Don José without a slip from the doctor. He is probably an underrated tenor, in this age of supertenors?though being given leading parts at the Metropolitan is at least some sign of being rated highly. As Micaëla, Janice Watson sings prettily, making (more or less) the best of an unrewarding role. As Escamillo, Franck Ferrari is acceptable.

But any Carmen is about Carmen, and tonight we have Olga Borodina, a Russian mezzo-soprano lauded?and rhapsodized about?in this column before. She is a hugely appealing Carmen, as good in this role as in that of Amneris (from Aida), which she has just been singing, in this same house. The Borodina Carmen is Russian through and through?and wonderfully so. We should've known that the Sevillean hussy would work so well with Russian bravura. Borodina simply pours on voice, and technique, and style, making for a Carmen that can't be forgotten. In my estimation, she has knocked off Denyce Graves as the Carmen of our day, and has joined the ranks of Conchita Supervia, Risë Stevens, and every other woman who has ever slain the part.


Monday, Feb. 5: One more in Carnegie Hall's "Choral Classics" series, and how's this for a choral classic? Beethoven's Missa Solemnis. It is led by Wolfgang Sawallisch with his Philadelphia Orchestra and the Princeton-based Westminster Symphonic Choir.

My first thought is: they sound like the Philadelphia Orchestra! But don't they always? No. Here, though, is that unmistakable sound, passed down through Stokowski and Ormandy, with a detour for Muti. It is rich, resonant and stunning. It is clean, yet not dry?there is water clinging to it. And it proves perfectly right for the Beethoven. The performance is, among other things, a sonic orgy?although this cannot be the right word for such inspired playing in a work so holy.

The soloists are able, especially the mezzo-soprano Marjana Lipovsek, who exhibits a pleasing, Slavic sound. (Why is it that Slavic singers always sound Slavic? A topic for another time.) The soprano, Christine Brewer, is always satisfying. She struggles some tonight, consistently under pitch?but she is an intelligent singer, which tends to overwhelm other things.

As for Sawallisch, he obviously has the letter of the Missa, and its spirit, too. This is "mainstream" Beethoven in that we hear Beethoven and not a particular conductor?thank God for it. I have not always praised Sawallisch. But in these, his final years, he is a superb match for this mighty work. Frankly, I feel lucky to have attended.


Wednesday, Feb. 14: The King's Singers are one of the most delightful experiences in music. The group is not only charming?a key, surely, to their worldwide popularity?but impressively musical. They are a model of ensembleship. Their repertory is vast, ranging from the Middle Ages to arrangements of pop songs written yesterday. And everything they do is pervaded by taste.

Sadly?and surprisingly?they are well below their standard for their Valentine's Day concert, given in the great, sprawling St. Bartholomew's Church (at 50th St. and Park Ave.). Of the music of love, there is no end; in fact, finding vocal music about other subjects can be a chore. But the Singers' program is oddly unvaried. Oh, it is considerably varied in nationality and period?but not in feeling. Most everything is gentle, introspective and wispy. And the group's singing is oddly unvaried, too: it is bloodless?too cautious, too careful, as though they're handling fragile roses whose petals might fall off at any moment.

Could be that the Singers have not been advantaged by recent changes in personnel. In St. Bart's, they lack spontaneity, a natural musicality, a basic joy in musicmaking?which has been a trademark of theirs. The trademark, probably. Even when they let their hair down?in the pop arrangements at the close of the concert?they are rather flat (meaning, in spirit). I am prepared to write off the evening as an aberration. The King's Singers remain one of the most delightful experiences in music. But what a night for a letdown!


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