Classical Diary

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Friday, 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?

Masur's 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.

As 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 convinces.

During 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.

Thursday, 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.

Violetta 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.

Having 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.

Act 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.

The 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, yes?

Friday, 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.

In 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.

Monday, 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.

Ferruccio 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.

Doktor Faust 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.

And 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 Faust 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 enough.

Friday, 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.

Mustonen 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.

I 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.

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