Leif Ove Andsnes must be the No. 1 Sibelius pianist in the world—which is an odd-sounding statement. Sibelius is renowned for his symphonies and tone poems; he is virtually unknown for his piano works. But he wrote some, and Andsnes likes to play them. Thus does a Norwegian, the pianist, honor his fellow Northerner, the Finnish composer. Andsnes opens his 2006 CD of encores, Horizons, with a piece by Sibelius. And he opened his recent recital at Carnegie Hall with fully six Sibelius pieces—one of which has three movements.
Truly, Andsnes is a powerful advocate for Sibelius, as a piano composer. In Carnegie Hall, we heard the typical Andsnes. He was clear, logical, and tidy. He produced a singing line, often from his right pinkie. He was willing to let simple things be simple. It was as though he were engaged in simple talking, through notes. Also, I found myself taking his technique for granted, which one should not. That is, one should pause to acknowledge what a good technique it is. In his playing of the Sibelius pieces, he demonstrated what you might call a neat Romanticism, or a compact Romanticism. It had sufficient feeling, but there was not a hair out of place.
I was worried that Andsnes wouldn’t let his hair down in the next piece, a Beethoven sonata, that in E flat, Op. 31, No. 3. This is a sonata full of jokes and jolliness. Would Andsnes be too sober in it? No, certainly not in the first two movements (the second of which is a scherzo, or joke, marked Allegro vivace). He played with due impishness and sparkle. He was free-spirited and strict at the same time. He presented a controlled spontaneity, if you will. The slow, or slowish, movement, a minuet, was a simple song (even more than a dance). The final movement, marked Presto con fuoco, is one of the most spirited movements in all of Beethoven—but from Andsnes, it was a little unimpish and straight-ahead, frankly. It was borderline grim.
After intermission, Andsnes moved on to Debussy, a composer I don’t associate with him. I should. Andsnes played “La soirée dans Grenade” and three etudes. He was not particularly French, being a bit dry and unblurry. Sometimes more of a watercolor was called for. But there is more than one way to play Debussy, and Andsnes was very pianistic and musical. All four of these pieces were in proportion, at every moment. Lacking a better word, I often say “weightedness,” to describe piano playing. Andsnes knew which weight to apply to each note.
Ending the printed program was a Chopin set, comprising an impromptu, an etude, a nocturne, and a ballade. I will fault Andsnes on two counts. The nocturne, the one in F major, Op. 15, No. 1, was a little note by note. That is, it was not a seamless whole. And the nostalgia and wistfulness in this piece did not quite come off. The ballade was the one in F minor, Op. 52—which was pretty and intelligent, but lacking in blood and abandon.
For his encores, Andsnes stuck with Chopin, beginning with the Etude in F minor, Op. 25, No. 2. Ideally, it is a beautiful F-minor storm. In these hands, it was. After this piece, many in the crowd moved to leave, including, apparently, a woman in the row behind me. When Andsnes sat down again and began the Polonaise in A flat, Op. 53, she muttered, “Jesus.” It’s true: this piece is rather long for an encore. To add insult to the woman’s injury, the playing had too little command. It was fine, of course, but polite, including in the famous octaves, which had no smoke.
The next night, Lulu appeared on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. She is that “serpent” who was “born to spread misfortune.” And she is, of course, the title character of the great Berg opera. The Met’s music director, James Levine, is a longtime devotee of Berg, and of the other composers of the Second Viennese School. He was to conduct this latest run of Lulu. But he withdrew, or was withdrawn by management, owing to stubborn health problems. He was replaced—if “replaced” is the word—by Lothar Koenigs, a German conductor. But I must not slight Koenigs in order to praise Levine. On the night I attended Lulu, Koenigs conducted with sure understanding and skill.
He had one of the Lulus of our time: Marlis Petersen, the German soprano (who is also an outstanding Mozartean). She has sung Lulu for almost twenty years, and is now retiring the role, according to reports. On the night in question, she was at her best, I dare say. She was agile of voice and body. She threw herself into the role, but cannily. She was extraordinary as an actress, but did not forget to sing. We who experienced her Lulu over the years are really lucky to have done so.
You are lucky to see the Met’s new production, too. It is fashioned by William Kentridge, the South African artist and filmmaker. He was the one who made the Met’s Nose several seasons ago. The Nose is Shostakovich’s early opera, an absurdist thing, something of a lark or novelty. In a review, I said, “The music is tart, brash, sarcastic, nuts—you perhaps know Shostakovich in that mood. There is some lyricism, some relief, in this score, but very little. What comes at you, unrelentingly, is musical talking—‘sung speech,’ to use a familiar phrase.” Hailing Kentridge’s production, I said, “It is busy and farcical, filled with video clips, cartoons, poster art, and other devices. The production matches the score and the libretto to a T—which should be the aim of a production, though that is a very old-school notion.”
Just the same can be said of this new Lulu: it matches the score and the libretto to a T. It’s very busy, like the score. It’s cockeyed, off-kilter, like the score. It’s crude and offensive, but also sophisticated—like the opera. The look of the production is Weimary. The whole production conveys an atmosphere of screwy amorality. This Lulu is “all too human,” as they say, intensely human. It’s appalling and fascinating. In a very unusual touch, there are subtitles on the stage—sitting right there on the stage—which is maybe a little distracting at first. But, as the opera wore on, I got to appreciate the closeness of the words to the action. This is a matter of taste.
One thing about the production, I wrinkled my nose at: the two silent characters, loaded with symbolism, no doubt, “commenting” on the opera as it goes along. This is a fashion in opera now. For instance, there were two silent characters in the Salzburg Festival’s Fidelio last summer. These mimes or mutes or whatever we should call them tend to make audience members feel stupid. We know they’re supposed to be terribly profound, but we don’t understand them. One of Kentridge’s silents is a butler who resembles Lurch, from The Addams Family. What is the meaning of him and the other one? I don’t know and, frankly, I don’t care.
Seldom is it right to generalize about a cast in an opera—especially a large cast, as in Lulu—but I can make some general remarks about the Met’s: To a person, they were game, committed, “all in.” Their singing was often raw and elemental, like the opera. And the Met orchestra, with or without Levine, was wonderfully virtuosic—right down to the saxophones and the vibes. Lionel Hampton, I think, would have loved it.
Two nights later, the Takács Quartet opened a concert in Zankel Hall with Haydn. When it came time for the next piece, five people emerged from the wings, not four. Why? Would we hear a quintet? No, the fifth man was the composer, holding a microphone—not Haydn, but an American who had written the piece we were about to hear. He essentially recited his program note (available to all to read, if they wanted to). He gave a little lesson in music appreciation. It was harmless enough, but why do they do this? Why do composers contribute to the infantilization of concert life? Anyway, they do. This composer praised the Takács and thanked the commissioners of his piece, as I recall. That was nice. But this sort of thing lends an air of amateurishness to an evening, making it feel like a school event. Which a lot of people like, true.
The composer was Timo Andres, who is thirty. He grew up in Connecticut and lives in Brooklyn. His piece is called Strong Language, and it has “three movements and exactly three musical ideas.” I have quoted from his program note. The first of those movements is called “Middens,” as in, yes, piles of garbage or worse. The second is “Origin Story,” and the third “Gentle Cycling.” I have a feeling that the names mean more to the composer than to listeners—who would be just as satisfied with tempo markings.
Andres’s first movement is wavy, undulating. Actually, the music meanders as well as waves. It is sensible and interesting. There is some tapping of bows on strings. At some point, the music becomes repetitive, minimalistic. Then it slows, getting glacial. Before long, it starts waving again, and it builds, getting busier and louder—though the ending is calm. The second movement is a mournful song. It is Romantic and beautiful. Then the music starts to churn. In due course, it does something like exult. The last movement is a chaconne, and it begins with some plucking and noodling. Soon it becomes rhapsodic, and unrelenting. Eventually, the music assumes what I thought was a Brahmsian texture. And it ends, if I remember correctly, with a note from the cello alone—quite effective. I was glad to hear this piece, and would like to hear it again.
As I sat listening to the second movement, I had this thought about Timo Andres: “He has a great respect for the musical past.” Later in the movement, I had another thought: “His string quartet owes at least as much to Samuel Barber as to, say, Elliott Carter.” After the concert, I did some reading about Andres, and found this: “He has ‘re-composed’ Mozart’s ‘Coronation’ Piano Concerto, fleshing out the incomplete left-hand part in a decidedly un-Mozartean vein, and written a companion suite to Schumann’s Kreisleriana, cheekily titled It takes a long time to become a good composer.” Andres obviously knows a fair amount of music, which can only aid his composition. But don’t they all know gobs of music? I’m not sure about that, honestly.
The next afternoon, the New York Philharmonic played a concert in its Rachmaninoff festival—yes, a Rachmaninoff festival. Years ago, during Lorin Maazel’s tenure as music director, the Philharmonic staged a Beethoven festival. Some critics wrinkled their noses, resenting a festival devoted to this old, too-familiar composer, instead of one of their hipper favorites. Some years later, it got even worse for them: Maazel and the Philharmonic staged a Tchaikovsky festival. A Rachmaninoff festival is in that league (a wonderful league, certainly if the performing is good).
The star of the festival was Daniil Trifonov, the young Russian pianist, who played three of Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos plus the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. He has a great affinity for the composer, as demonstrated on a recent CD of his—which includes a work that he himself wrote when a teenager: Rachmaniana. This is a suite of pieces, honoring and evoking Rachmaninoff. On this particular afternoon with the Philharmonic, he played the last of the composer’s concertos, No. 4. I have written a lot about Trifonov lately, so will not go into detail. But let me say that he lacked nothing, either technically or musically. He has grown significantly in just the last few years, and he was brilliant before. The third movement of Rach Four was delicious and stunning: a devil’s workshop, or Totentanz.
On the podium was Neeme Järvi, and as I looked at the two together, I thought, “How nice it is when the young and the old perform together: one fellow at the beginning of his career, the other at the end. It’s nice for both parties, and also the audience.” Trifonov was born in 1991; Järvi was born in 1937. Conceivably, Trifonov will be able to tell people in 2075 about playing with this eminent conductor born in 1937, some 140 years before.
Järvi is indeed a world-renowned conductor, and he has held posts all over the globe, to say nothing of his guesting. But I have always found him underrated—insufficiently appreciated. Perhaps this is because he is not hyped or controversial, simply a splendid and versatile musician who hardly ever puts a foot wrong. He has two conductor sons, Paavo and Kristjan, and the former may at this point be more famous than his father. But I have profited from listening to Neeme over the years. Often, he looks like he isn’t doing much. He is economical in his movements. But orchestras know what he has to offer, and they respond. In the second half of this Philharmonic concert, he conducted Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 1, which was tight as a drum, though not stifled, and effective.
Moreover, he may be the courtliest gent in music, as when he bows to an orchestra. He is also a sport, as when he encourages an audience to clap louder for soloists in the orchestra, when they stand to be acknowledged.
End with one more opera—courtesy of Bare Opera, an “alternative” company in New York. You know the drill: “a fresh, modern take on the opera experience”; “innovative cross-arts productions”; “strive to break the stereotypes”; “create a sustainable future for the art form.” The stuffy old opera institutions, apparently, can’t make it. But have you noticed? The stuffy old institutions somehow limp on, generation after generation, providing enrichment to many. In any case, Bare Opera presented Goyescas in Bushwick, Brooklyn—at a place called the Bat Haus. (A fit venue for Die Fledermaus, i.e., The Bat?) As Alicia de Larrocha taught the world, Goyescas is a piano suite by Granados. He took his melodies and made a little opera, comprising three tableaux.
Before we saw the opera, we saw a dance performance. The music came from a piano suite by Albéniz, the Suite española, transcribed for orchestra. Three dancers danced to five pieces. Once, by the way, I talked with Plácido Domingo about his piano playing. He said that he was never good enough for Iberia, Albéniz’s major suite, but could handle the Suite española.
For the dancing and the opera alike, the orchestra was off on the side. The stage was relatively bare, as befits a presentation of Bare Opera. On the wall was a socialist banner. During the opera, titles were projected onto the wall. According to our program notes, the production of Goyescas was inspired by the filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar. The setting was Madrid in the 1980s. Throughout the opera, it was odd to hear melodies so familiar from the piano suite, in vocal and operatic form. Odd and pleasurable. (“La maja y el ruiseñor,” mind you, has long been known as a song.) The soprano was Larisa Martínez, a picture of aristocratic poise. She was occasionally a bit “low” on high notes, but she sang with beauty and control. The mezzo was Molly Boggess, a picture of bad-girl sultriness. She was more California blonde than Spaniard, but that did no harm. The cast at large was musical and spirited, clearly enjoying what they were doing. The same goes for the four-person chorus.
As above, I sometimes roll my eyes at the pretensions of alternative opera companies, but listen: I had never heard Goyescas, in its opera version, and may never again, and it was Bare Opera that provided the opportunity. Furthermore, this was a thoroughly delightful afternoon, beginning with Albéniz and the dancers. After at least two of its several performances, Bare Opera hosted a dance party. Not on this afternoon, though, meaning that I couldn’t bust out my moves—which was lucky for all, especially for me.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 34 Number 5, on page 75
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