Elza van den Heever is a young South African soprano—and one of triplets. That is an interesting datum from her bio. She made her Metropolitan Opera debut two seasons ago in Maria Stuarda, the Donizetti opera. She was not the title role: That was Joyce DiDonato, the great American mezzo. She was the other queen, Elizabeth, and she made an impression. Now she has made her New York recital debut, in Weill Recital Hall.

Her program was a throwback. It began with Baroque music, continued with German art songs, went to a French set, and closed with music personal to the singer. That’s how it was with Leontyne Price and many other singers. But that sort of program is old-fashioned now. Administrators, critics, and academics want “themes.” They want to teach some sort of musicological lesson. To me, at least, van den Heever’s throwback was delightful. It was practically subversive.

She opened with two opera arias by Handel. Her singing was like her program: a throwback, practically subversive. This was big, opulent Handel (the kind that Price sang). It was politically or musicologically incorrect. It was pre-Emma Kirkby Handel. Van den Heever was somewhat fuzzy on a few high notes. She did not execute much of a trill. But her bold, unapologetic singing was to be appreciated.

From Handel, she went to Schumann: the great cycle Frauenliebe und -leben. Usually, this cycle is sung by a mezzo-soprano, not a soprano, and certainly not a soprano of van den Heever’s type. It was gratifying to hear a big voice in a little recital hall. I would not have minded more voice, actually: One had the feeling that van den Heever was holding back.

After Schumann, she sang a Fauré set, and then, returning to German, a Brahms set. She was accompanied by Vlad Iftinca, a Romanian-born pianist (and capable). The singer’s technique came and went. Many notes were impure—breathy or, again, fuzzy. But she almost always sang with a basic musicality. She also sang with honesty. In nearly everything she did, she was winning. To her credit, she did not handle her French songs with sugar tongs, a common error of singers. She gave them drama, when they deserved it.

Here is a little bias of mine. In lesson after lesson, and master class after master class, teachers say, “Show it on the face, dear”—put the meaning of the words or music on your face. I believe this can be overdone. And I believe that Elza van den Heever overdid it. But, again, this is a little bias of mine.

Before she sang her last group of songs, van den Heever said they were “dear to my heart,” these songs. They were songs from her native land: South African songs, i.e., art songs in Afrikaans. This was unknown territory, at least for me. Van den Heever sang songs by Stephanus Le Roux Marais, John K. Pescod, and Petrus Johannes Lemmer. Pescod wrote “Oktobermaand,” or “October Month.” Speaking from the stage, van den Heever gave her audience a nice reminder: October, in South Africa, is springtime. Her final song was by Lemmer, “My siel is siek van heimwee” (“My soul is sick with nostalgia”), a gentle and affecting anthem.

In my view, some of these songs are a little dumb. But van den Heever sang them with such appreciation, they were not dumb at all. She was embracing her own literature, in this foreign hall, and offering something new under the sun (new to us foreigners).

Before she left, she sang one more South African song, as an encore. This was by Pie-ter de Villiers, known as “the composer who made the country sing.” Van den Heever sang this song as though touching a deep personal chord. And, as she sang it, I had a funny thought. When I was growing up, Afrikaans speakers were portrayed as beasts, persecuting innocent people. A lot of them were indeed such persecutors. But they were human beings, the Afrikaans speakers. And we heard a few remnants from their culture.

Above, I mentioned Handel—and Carnegie Hall hosted a performance of his opera Alcina. In any of Handel’s more than forty operas, you will find fabulous and hit arias. Alcina has—to mention just three—“Verdi prati,” “Tornami a vagheggiar,” and “Ah, mio cor!” (True, every opera in the Italian language has an aria that begins, “Ah, mio cor!”) This performance of Alcina was a concert performance, as befits Carnegie Hall, and it was led by Harry Bicket, the Baroque specialist. The orchestra was the English Concert, the band founded in the early 1970s by, among others, Trevor Pinnock, that splendid musician.

Arriving at Carnegie Hall, I saw the small collection of chairs on the stage. I sighed a bit and thought, “Are we in for four hours of ‘scratch, scratch, hoot, hoot’?” That is how Itzhak Perlman once described the sound of period bands. Some thirty years ago, he said, “I’m tired of turning on the radio and hearing scratch, scratch, hoot, hoot.” Also, how would Bicket do? Would he conduct more like a Baroque specialist or more like a musician?

He performed well, as it turned out (conducting from the harpsichord). There was not too much wheat germ in this Handel. It helped to have the orchestra on a stage, I think, rather than in a pit: The sound was ampler. Tempos, as a rule, were brisk but not offensively so. “Verdi prati” was surprisingly and blessedly unrushed. The principal cello, Joseph Crouch, played with burnished tone, sensible style, and excellent intonation. Sure, there was some hooting from a recorder or two—but into every period performance, some scratching and hooting must fall.

Operas are meant to be staged, but if you want to do a concert performance, you might as well do it of an opera seria, with aria after aria, solo turn after solo turn. The singers on this afternoon did some acting nonetheless. They also did some overacting, some hamming, in my judgment. What’s more, I find it odd to see people act and read from a score at the same time. Shouldn’t it be one or the other?

There were two main mezzos onstage—Joyce DiDonato, singing Alcina, and Alice Coote, singing Ruggiero—but there was a third one, too, with not insignificant work to do. She was Christine Rice, singing Bradamante. She was low and smoky and effective. There were other fine singers as well, and I hate to skip them, but let me get to the main event . . .

As they took turns singing arias, it seemed a bit of a sing-off between DiDonato and Coote. The latter was magnificent, of course. She is one of the best mezzos, and best singers, before the public today. She demonstrated control, strength, subtlety, and other important qualities. She scarcely put a foot wrong. And yet, DiDonato is . . . what? Historic? A friend of mine (a soprano) said during the first intermission, “I feel sorry for the other singers.” I did too, in a way—but perhaps they could appreciate the history being made.

Like other critics, I have run out of words to describe and praise DiDonato. I am even tired of writing the sentence I have just written. But I will make a few points about her. Often, she sings more like an instrumentalist than like a singer. Nathan Milstein, the great violinist, might have played Handel’s notes the way DiDonato sang them. But, with the voice, there is additional humanity. DiDonato’s intonation was like a laser. Shrewdly, she turned vibrato on and off (as she “played” her “original instrument”). She employed any number of colors. Sometimes, this performance of Alcina, from others, was a little monochromatic. When DiDonato opened her mouth, it was like a peacock unfurling its feathers. Aria or recitative was of no importance to DiDonato: She sang her best either way. Finally, this lyric mezzo can unleash a little power on you. Lyric though she is, she is not a powder-puff.

Typically, we overrate the past and underrate the present. Or else we are cautious about the present (reluctant to go out on a limb with our judgments). I have been privileged to hear many good and great singers since the mid-1970s. I doubt I have heard a better one than this present-day Kansan.

With the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert on the podium, Yefim Bronfman played Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3. People call it the composer’s “Mozart concerto.” Bronfman is a top-notch Mozartean, a top-notch Bartókian, and a top-notch everything else. I had been looking forward to this performance for weeks, if not months. Every once in a while, though, Bronfman will lay an egg on you. Usually the egg comes in the form of dullness. And so it was on this Tuesday night.

In the first movement, Bronfman was stiff, careful, logical—and dull. In the slow movement, that beautiful, ineffable thing, he was plodding, vertical, and square. His fingers came down on the notes like unthinking sausages. The final movement had no fire, no thrill, no impishness, no jazz, no charm, no spark, no electricity. It was so much pianistic clock-punching. What in the world?

If Homer nods, so can the great Bronfman. Maybe I expect too much from him. Maybe I expect him to be a paragon every time. But if this is my expectation, Bronfman, in his greatness, has conditioned it. Did Hofmann and Godowsky and Lhévinne nod too? They no doubt did. Frankly, this Tuesday-night performance of the Bartók Third was not terrible-terrible. It was just not Bronfmanesque (or Bartókian).

Christopher Rouse is now in his third season as composer-in-residence of the Philharmonic. That means we have heard a lot of Rouse out of the orchestra. This has its upside and downside. The upside is that the public gains a broad familiarity with the work of a contemporary composer. The downside is that other composers may be shut out. There are only so many slots for new music. And should you fill so many of them with one composer, when other guys are begging for a hearing? At any rate, Rouse is a worthy focus. For one thing, as I keep saying, he loves music, and writes as though he wants others to love, or at least like, what he has done. That cannot be said for every composer, far from it.

In a program conducted by Leonard Slatkin, the Philharmonic played Rouse’s Flute Concerto, with principal flute Robert Langevin serving as soloist. This is not a new work, but rather an old one: composed in 1993. According to the evening’s program notes, this flute concerto is the most frequently played of Rouse’s concertos. Is that on the order of celebrating the tallest building in Wichita, Kansas, as William F. Buckley Jr. once said in a different context?

The composer himself spoke of this concerto in a program note. “Although both of my parents’ families immigrated to America well before the Revolutionary War, I nonetheless still feel a deep ancestral tug of recognition whenever I am exposed to the arts and traditions of the British Isles, particularly those of Celtic origin.” This is an Irish concerto, written by that Mayflower American. I wonder whether Sir James Galway—“Jimmy”—has played it. The first and last movements are labeled “Amhrán,” Gaelic for “Song.” Rouse says that these songs bear some relation to the one-named Irish pop star Enya. The third of the five movements is an elegy (“Elegia”). Rouse wrote it in reaction to the murder of a child, which was in the news at the time, and haunted him.

In the first movement—the first “Amhrán”—the flute does some flitting around, as flutes do. Otherwise the music is sad and wistful. It could accompany some Irish movie, as the camera pans land or sea. The second movement is marked “Alla marcia,” and it provides a nice contrast. It is smart and snappy. The third movement is that elegy, and if you have been told about the event that occasioned it, you think about that event. And if you have not been told? Well, music without words means nothing, unless you insert “Happy Birthday” or a national anthem or something like that. The elegy is the centerpiece of the concerto—literally and otherwise—and it is obviously important to the composer. I hate to knock it. But it felt long to me. It felt like a compositional mistake. It seemed to halt the concerto and knock it off balance. The fourth movement, a scherzo, jolts us back to life. It is another flit-fest, and the flute does some demonic flitting, actually. The last movement, and second “Amhrán,” is a hymn of peace.

I am a Rouse fan. And we all have our sense of time, I suppose. I would be loath to tell him to “tighten that baby up.” But, in this one hearing of mine, I found that the concerto lost steam after the second movement, unable to get its groove back. Perhaps I need additional hearings.

Langevin is a very fine flutist—able both to flit and to sing. Curiously, he read the score, all through. Why some concerto soloists do this, I’m not sure. Slatkin conducted with vigor, precision, and grace. And let me say that the flute has grown on me over the years. I think that boys as a class have a bias against the flute: It’s a girly instrument. Yet it is amazingly versatile and beautiful, an indispensable part of the musical palette. And even when I was a kid, I knew that William Kincaid (the Philadelphia Orchestra’s principal) was extraordinary. If you will forgive me—and those who knew his playing will know exactly what I mean—he played like a man.

Into Carnegie Hall came none other than the Philadelphia Orchestra—the Fabulous Philadelphians, as we used to know them. They would play Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection,” conducted by their new music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin. I was worried. Would the conductor be callow? The Mahler Second is a long, sublime, profound symphony, requiring real musical maturity. Nézet-Séguin can be a wound-up little conductor, effective in some presto movement but unsatisfying elsewhere. I remember a Verdi Requiem from him: good in the fast parts—the parts that sort of play themselves, with limited interpretive choices—and maddening in the slower parts, requiring taste and judgment.

When he took the stage, his orchestra applauded him. That is highly unusual, in my experience. He began the symphony very well: tight and furious. A good beginning counts for a lot, as does a good ending. Would Nézet-Séguin last the long haul? He indulged in rubato too early, I thought—too much too soon. The long haul demands some straightness in early stages. Also, Nézet-Séguin was very liberal with portamento—which was Mahlerian, and nice. Some conductors are reluctant to go through with this. Still, the music threatened to dissolve into soup, under Nézet-Séguin’s baton. The first movement ended with admirable, necessary strictness.

The next movement, Andante moderato, ought to be the definition of clockwork grace. On this occasion, it was a touch heavy, and the conductor’s little ritards were annoying. There was some sloppiness in the orchestra—botched entrances and the like. And the concluding pizzicato was horrible. On the whole, though, this movement was rather good. And the third movement was superb—idiomatic, flavorful, and stirring.

Singing the “Urlicht” was Sarah Connolly, an English mezzo, a descendant, if you will, of Dame Janet Baker. She has some of those qualities. And she sang well—with dignity and self-possession. Singing really well, later on, was the soprano, Angela Meade. She was rich, easy, natural, and big. This music can stand a big voice. The soprano part in the Mahler Second is often a nothing—the mezzo is the vocal star—but it was very much present and accounted for on this night. The Westminster Symphonic Choir, a fixture on the New York music scene, performed surpassingly. Truly, I have never heard them better (in all these years).

As for Nézet-Séguin, he luxuriated in the music, but not grossly. I could pick at his conducting of the last movement. He did not quite convey Mahler’s hushed, quivering intensity. And there was too much stop-and-start for me in the final pages. I like more of a flow. But Nézet-Séguin was very, very good—vital and compelling—making me think, “Now I know why the orchestra was applauding him.” I applauded too, long and loud.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 33 Number 4, on page 59
Copyright © 2019 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com

Popular Right Now