Earlier this season, I wrote of Leon Fleisher, the grand American pianist born in 1928. He has been very much a presence on our city’s music scene. You know the Fleisher story, if only because I’ve told it often in these pages: confined to the left hand alone for about thirty years, owing to an ailment called “focal dystonia”; restored to two hands sometime in the mid-1990s. Even though he now has options, he still plays left-hand music, as he did one evening with the New York Philharmonic. What he played was Hindemith’s Piano Music with Orchestra, Op. 29. Never heard of it? Well, it’s a new piece, in a way.
In 1922, Paul Wittgenstein asked Hindemith for some music. (Wittgenstein, remember, was the one-armed pianist who commissioned a good deal of our left-hand literature.) Hindemith came up with his Op. 29. But Wittgenstein never performed the piece, apparently disliking it. He held the rights, however, and he held on to those rights—no one else would play the piece, either.
Flash-forward to 2002: The Hindemith Foundation in Switzerland receives “a terse e-mail from an unidentified party in parts unknown.” (I am quoting from the New York Philharmonic program notes of James M. Keller.) Would the foundation like to purchase a long-lost, long-forgotten score? It had surfaced “in the Pennsylvania farmhouse where Wittgenstein’s effects had been stored after his death.” The foundation coughed up. And Piano Music with Orchestra was premiered in Berlin at the end of 2004, with Fleisher as soloist.
It’s a neat piece, too, and classically Hindemithian: logical, smart, and witty. In four movements, it is more or less a concerto, although Fleisher doesn’t want you to call it that. In a program note of his own, he wrote, “First of all, let’s get one thing straight: This is not a piano concerto.” Well, it has a typical opening movement, a slow movement, a scherzo, and a hard-driving finale. You can call it a grapefruit, for all I care, but it’s still a concerto, in essence. Nomenclature aside, it is a fine work, “one of [Hindemith’s] best,” as Fleisher wrote. Wittgenstein was a great man, but he made a serious misjudgment here.
And, with the Philharmonic, Fleisher played the piece terrifically, with all his authority. He played another concerto on this evening, too: Mozart’s K. 414, in A major. Fleisher plays this piece a lot—a whole lot—and I have had the cheek to call it his “Linus’s blanket.” That’s okay: Lots of musicians, and other people, have Linus’s blankets, and K. 414 is a great piece. It is often played by very young pianists, seeking to win competitions, for example. You might think of a little, confident girl in a pink dress. So it was interesting to hear the piece played by a wise old master—who played it wisely, and beautifully, and gratifyingly.
Not long after his date with the New York Philharmonic, Fleisher had a date with the New York String Orchestra. (Despite its name, this band is not without winds, brass, and percussion.) And he played a work very different from K. 414: Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor. They are alike in that they are immortally great. But the Brahms is a sprawling, difficult, virtuosic piece—the kind Fleisher would have tackled like a tiger, when young. And we have proof positive: See (hear) his 1956 recording with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra.
But how about now? I did not know what to expect, and was unusually curious. When I was a boy, I was enthralled with a recording of this work—the Brahms D-minor—that Artur Rubinstein made with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic. Rubinstein had recorded the work at least twice before, but here he was having another go, at the age of eighty-nine. The playing has some technical faults, as you might imagine, but, musically, spiritually, it is magnificent. I wore the grooves off. What would Fleisher do, in this autumnal time of life (although this pianist still has fire, as he showed in that Hindemith piece, for example)?
In the first movement, Fleisher had many problems: He was stiff, balky, just sort of getting through his part. The right hand, particularly, wasn’t working very well. Musically, too, Fleisher was off his game, indulging in some strange rubatos, perhaps trying to compensate for his technical trouble. I figured the second movement would be good, or at least better, and it was. This is one of the most sublime stretches of music Brahms ever wrote. And Fleisher did some exemplary singing in it: quiet, holy. But even in this movement some phrases were studied, rather than natural. And the Rondo, I’m afraid, was a mess, slopped through—and without musical merit. His final passages, Fleisher had no shot at. None. He didn’t even really approximate the notes.
The obvious question is, Should Fleisher have attempted the Brahms D-minor, at this stage? Is it simply beyond him now? I don’t know the answer to that. It may have been a lousy night. But man cannot live on K. 414 alone, and Fleisher can’t be blamed for adventuring (or returning to the old, cherished repertoire). By the way, he is scheduled to play the Mozart again with the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra on March 29 at the Metropolitan Museum.
Another “by the way”: The New York String Orchestra, conducted by Jaime Laredo, played a new work by Joan Tower. (She is an American composer born in 1938.) The piece is called Made in America—and the context of its presentation is interesting. I will quote from the relevant program notes:
The New York String Orchestra’s performance of Joan Tower’s Made in America is part of Ford Made in America, a partnership of the American Symphony Orchestra League and Meet the Composer. Ford Made in America is made possible by the Ford Motor Company Fund. This program is also generously supported by the National Endowment for the Arts.
You have heard me make this point before: Musical people tend to be the type to despise nationalism in all its forms—except when it comes to music. Then they get all blood-and-soil. And allow me to make a separate point: Um, shouldn’t Ford Motor be busy trying to save itself—trying to remain in the car business—without funding Joan Tower?
In any case, her Made in America is a fantasy on “America the Beautiful,” that wonderful national song. Years ago, there was a debate about whether to make it our national anthem, replacing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It seems to me that debate has subsided now, if not died altogether. I was very much against the replacement of the national anthem, on a number of grounds. I need not make time for them now. But the “America the Beautiful” people argued singability. Plus, a lot of them disliked the martial nature of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In its lyrics, “America the Beautiful” is a paean to the physical endowments of the country. (I’m talking about the first verse, the only one we ever sing.) “The Star-Spangled Banner” speaks to a spirit. Any old tyranny can preside over spacious skies and amber waves of grain. (Well, maybe not amber waves of grain, or much other food.)
Tower’s piece, playing off “America the Beautiful,” is busy, driving, and a bit kitschy. It is therefore like a good amount of other music written today, especially in America. But it is not an offensive piece: and it serves to remind what a lovely and ingratiating song “America the Beautiful” is. Every time it came to the fore, I was relieved, wanting to hear the whole thing, straight and uninterrupted.
Bernard Labadie is a Quebecker, and music director of Les Violons du Roy and La Chapelle de Québec. These are early-music groups, as you might have guessed, and Labadie founded both of them in the mid-1980s. He is a fine conductor and musician, and I was looking forward to his guest stint with a big orchestra: the New York Philharmonic, although it was pared down to (fairly) Baroque size.
The program, duly, was all Baroque, and it began with the Sinfonia from Bach’s Cantata No. 29, “Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir.” You know the sinfonia as the Prelude from Bach’s E-major Partita for Unaccompanied Violin; the master simply transcribed it for other purposes. And from Labadie et al. it was weak, off-pitch, and off-putting. There was no life or grace in it at all. You wanted to rush to the safety of your Milstein recording, or your Hahn.
The players continued with a little Corelli, his Concerto in G minor, Op. 6, No. 8, “Composed for Christmas night.” (A lovely subtitle, isn’t it?) I was interested to note that the Philharmonic had last played it in 1952, under Bruno Walter. I bet that was a thoughtful, correct, and enjoyable performance. This was not, with more bad intonation, more gracelessness, and other painful things. The Philharmonic was out of tune and out of sorts. Seldom have I heard them so poor.
They had one more shot, before intermission: This was in a Handel organ concerto, that in D minor, Op. 7, No. 4. The soloist was Richard Paré, a colleague of Labadie’s from Quebec. And let me tell you: When you make mistakes on the organ, you really make mistakes. You are completely exposed, out there alone, naked. Slips of the finger aside, Paré was careful, serious—and also dull, musically dull. The orchestra was no better, and technical standards were rock-bottom.
We were to have Handel’s Water Music—complete—after intermission, but I skipped out. I did so marveling at the vagaries of musical performance, where people can be champs one day, chumps the next. The element of surprise is either pleasant or unpleasant—but it’s almost always there.
Mozart’s Magic Flute has had a very good season at the Metropolitan Opera. And it is appearing in Julie Taymor’s famed 2004 production. Critical opinion is divided on the Taymor Flute, with some thinking it too busy and distracting—too magical, in a way. I and some others think it’s just about the most enchanting and delightsome thing ever to come down the pike. I believe Mozart and his librettist, Herr Schikaneder, would be tickled pink.
This Flute had its first appearance this season in October; it came back a couple of months later. Not long after that, it showed up in a new version: abridged and in English. This was a gift to the children, but not only to them: There is much to be said for an abridged and Englished Flute, for anybody. This version was supposed to be an hour and forty minutes long; but in practice, it was more like two hours. That’s a long sit, for kiddies, yes, and for you and me too. Not many acts in opera are that long. Fortunately, the Met suspended its policy of refusing reentry to patrons who have left for the bathroom, or for any other reason.
The score was abridged by the Met’s music director, James Levine, along with some helpers. J. D. McClatchy translated the libretto. McClatchy has been a constant presence in opera over the last couple of decades, particularly in American opera. He has written librettos for William Schuman, Ned Rorem, Lorin Maazel, Tobias Picker—everybody. And he did a fine job with Schikaneder. His translation is fun and funny, and smart and apt. It’s rhyming, too. Sometimes it is a little corny, even groan-making, but that goes with the territory.
I’ll give you a couple of sample lines, trusting that I have jotted them down accurately: “I’m Papageno, that’s my name, and catching birds, why, that’s my game.” And Tamino’s aria, “Dies Bildnis”? “This portrait’s beauty I adore, a wonder I have never seen before.” If you’re tempted to imagine that McClatchy’s task was easy, I suggest you try to better him at home.
Levine conducted the performance I attended, displaying his usual strengths in Mozart. It was strange not to hear the overture, which he omitted; but this was surely a wise decision—there’s a lot of music to condense. And I’ll tell you something amusing that happened at the very beginning: Taymor’s ferocious dragon was too much for a little boy sitting near me. He had to go out with his mother, then and there, two minutes in. Granted, that wasn’t very amusing for the boy—but he returned, and seemed okay with the rest of the production’s creatures.
The American tenor Matthew Polenzani was Tamino, and he was as expected: sweet, lyrical—Wunderlichian, in a word. And he showed an uncanny ability to project power without any straining whatever. Pamina was a Chinese soprano, Ying Huan. She, too, was sweet and lyrical, and warm and pure. She reminded me a little of Kiri Te Kanawa, frankly. The American baritone Nathan Gunn was Papageno, having a ball. He hammed it up, but far from inappropriately.
The Queen of the Night was Erika Miklósa, a Hungarian soprano. She is sought in this role all over the world, and for good reason: She is able and fearless. In the part of Sarastro was the American bass Morris Robinson. He was solid and correct, if a bit stentorian. And you can’t have René Pape every night (although the Met had him on subsequent nights).
I should say a word about the Papagena, too—not in this abridged, English version, but in the full-length, German ones. Papageno’s sweetie was Monica Yunus, born in Bangladesh but raised in New Jersey. She is the daughter of Muhammad Yunus, the banker and micro-lender who won the Nobel Peace Prize last fall. Monica sang at the ceremony: the aria from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, “O mio babbino caro,” or, “Oh, daddy dearest.” Feel free to sigh, if you like.
About Tan Dun’s new opera, The First Emperor, which premiered at the Met, I will say the briefest of words: I found the opera insuperably dull, despite touches of skill. Tan Dun has written better before, and he will again, thank goodness. But, those opinions aside, he represents something very important: a Chinese-American school, or a Chinese-Western school—an East-West fusionism. Other composers who write in this vein are Bright Sheng and Chen Yi. And we will have more such composers.
Every day, Chinese musicians, and Chinese-American musicians, and other East Asians, or those of East Asian origins, come to the fore. They are prominent in all areas of music (and not just string sections!). Not for nothing have they been called “the new Jews.” For the last twenty years or so, Western conservatories have been packed with students from East Asia. And this experience is bearing fruit. The news for music is refreshingly good—and refreshing may be just the word. Many people believe that the West at large is abandoning its cultural heritage, is waving goodbye to Bach and all that. I have my doubts. But if that is the case—someone has to pick up the slack. Besides which, it’s not a Western heritage, but a universal one.
One further note, please, from the opera world, and the Met: The company brought back Jenůfa, Janáček's masterpiece from the first decade of the last century. The production is Olivier Tambosi’s from 2003. And it’s funny about Jenůfa—maybe you agree: The better a performance, the harder the opera is to take. Jenůfa is a terrible thing (terrible in the first sense, of course). And, on the evening I attended, it was very hard to take.
The Met had assembled a cast of capable singers, including the two tenors: Jorma Silvasti, a Finn, and Raymond Very, an American. Silvasti has a gleaming, gorgeous voice, which he knows how to deploy. Very is reliable in every role he assumes. The part of the Kostelnička, as I need not tell you, is often sung by a woman nearing the end of her career, and it is an extremely rewarding part. On this evening, it was taken by Judith Forst, a Canadian mezzo; on other evenings, it was taken by Anja Silja, the semi-legendary German soprano. I can report that Forst was effective.
And the performance was superbly conducted by Jirí Bělohlávek. He was insightful, forceful, and gripping, much like Janáček’s score. Your hair stood on end, and dread filled your heart. The Met orchestra responded exceptionally well to Bělohlávek, too. One routinely hears bigger names conduct with far less success. May we hear more of this Czech maestro.
In the title role was … who else? Silvasti’s fellow Finn Karita Mattila. This soprano owns Jenůfa, for the moment, and also another Janáček heroine (of a sort), Kát’a Kabanová. We critics have run out of ways to describe and praise Mattila, who is a tremendous singing actress. She so inhabits a role like Jenůfa, you can barely watch her or listen to her. But if you choose to turn away, or shut your ears, you miss out on a lot.
Finally, a bulletin from the chamber-music sphere: The Cassatt String Quartet gave a concert at the Kosciuszko Foundation House, which has a small, elegant, Old World performing space. And you may notice a pattern in string-quartet names: In a recent chronicle, I wrote of the Miró Quartet. I don’t know if there’s a Picasso Quartet, but it would not surprise me. The Cassatt group, as its name might possibly tell you, is all-female. And they played a varied and appealing program, beginning with Mendelssohn and ending with Dohnányi.
Do you remember the Mills Brothers song “Opus One”? “Oh, baby, I’m a-rackin’ my brain, to think of a name, to give to this tune, so Perry can croon. And maybe ol’ Bing will give it a fling, and that’ll start everyone hummin’ the thing.” Well, Dohnányi’s Op. 1 is his Piano Quintet in C minor, written when he was eighteen, in 1895. It is bold, restless, and flavorful. It is also full of strength, heart, and hope. Perhaps above all, it is Brahmsian—and Brahms himself gave the piece his approval. In fact, he went so far as to arrange a performance of it in Vienna. And our own performers—the Cassatt String Quartet plus Roman Markowicz, a Polish-American pianist—did well by the piece. They reflected all the qualities I have mentioned.
And I recall another performance of a Dohnányi chamber work: This was a rendering of the Sextet in C, Op. 37, by the pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet and members of the New York Philharmonic. That concert took place at the 92nd St. Y a few seasons ago. And what a wild, wonderful, strange, giddy, uplifting, noble, beautiful, and lovable piece the sextet is! My point? They should be better known, these Dohnányi chamber pieces.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 Number 7, on page 50
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