He opens with Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Haydn, and something is wrong, desperately wrong. It is no good. Previn is usually superb in this music, but tonight he is indifferent, limp, uninspired. He and the orchestra are merely phoning it in. At one point, the orchestra gets horrifyingly tangled up?and in music so familiar! Previn does not even manage to generate enough sound at the end, which is astonishing. Rarely has he been so bad.
He continues with a work of his own, the Piano Concerto, written in 1984 for Vladimir Ashkenazy. The soloist is Horacio Gutierrez, a Cuban-American pianist of extraordinary agility. He is a tad sloppy tonight, but on the whole acquits himself well, as he usually does. As for the work itself, it is pure Previn, which is to say an amalgam of styles. Its opening is reminiscent of that of the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto (lead actor in the movie Shine a couple of years ago), and it also has touches of Prokofiev and Shostakovich. As with a lot of other Previn, the concerto is a little cute, a little clever and, yes, movie-ish. But it has splendid moments, including truly gorgeous suspensions. Its Andante recalls, somewhat, the (ravishing) slow movement of the Ravel G-major concerto; its rondo is raucous, jazzy and effective.
Concluding the evening is a work that Previn practically owns: the Enigma Variations of Elgar. Now that Adrian Boult is no longer with us, Previn is world champion here?and, fortunately, he is back on form. This is Elgar with real blood in it. Previn knows the arc and structure of this piece, conducting it, you might say, as a composer. He infuses the work with tremendous dignity and majesty. The unison playing of the strings is particularly powerful, hymn-like, with a religious intensity. The beloved "Nimrod" variation is no less than spellbinding. Previn has earned his ovation.
But why does he continue to be so underrated? It is possible?just possible?that there lingers a bit of anti-Hollywood snobbery. In which case, everyone should simply get over it.
Tuesday, Oct. 19 The Philadelphia Orchestra is in Carnegie Hall, with the Yugoslavian (that's what we used to call him, and them) pianist Ivo Pogorelich. Only he's not here. He has begged off for "personal reasons." Replacing him is Andre Watts, the monster technician from America (though his mother was from Hungary, mother of so many pianists).
Watts is?a fascinating disaster. Few can play the notes he can, at the speed he can; he is the epitome of relaxed power. To think of what a great musician could do with that technique! Tonight's concerto is the Rach Second, a piece that Watts has played a zillion times (and, a few of those times, perhaps even well). He and the Philadelphia's conductor, Wolfgang Sawallisch, have a serious disagreement over tempo: Watts wants to go faster; Sawallisch stubbornly ignores him. Also, the orchestra is strangely loud. Much of Watts' fingerwork, however dazzling, is for naught, because we can't hear it. The first movement is joltingly boxy: Sawallisch does not quite get the music's free-flowing Romanticism; Watts, as he so often does, plays in episodic fits. And, though we can see Watts pounding, this is a rather anemic performance. Whatever force there is is merely superficial.
Before the second movement begins, we have to wait for a stream of latecomers. Sawallisch, as is his wont, has started at 8 on the dot?which does no good at all, because everyone is simply made to wait after the first movement, interrupting the flow of the performance (not that this particular performance has much). Most people understand that a concert will begin about five minutes after the designated time; when this understanding is upset, this is what ensues.
The Adagio is, if anything, even more offensive than the Moderato. In the orchestra phrases go unfinished, and the flute and clarinet solos are pathetically weak. Watts is flat-out unmusical, with sudden and nonsensical crescendos and decrescendos, in a parody of musicality. In the final Allegro, Watts obviously can't wait to be alone, straining against the conductor's more sluggish pace. His octaves?"They are like a lawn mower!" he once boasted?are appalling. He has succumbed to sheer showmanship, and the performance is nauseatingly vulgar.
The audience, of course, goes stark-raving mad: standing, stomping, screaming, adoring. But Watts has delivered an insult, not least to another virtuoso, the composer, Rachmaninoff.
The second half of the evening, however, is as magnificent as the first was deplorable. Sawallisch and the Philadelphians traverse Shostakovich's Symphony No. 14, a great and bleak work, more a song-cycle than a proper symphony. The soprano is Christine Brewer, an American, and the baritone Hakan Hagegard, the veteran Swede. Brewer is incisive, unfaltering, heartbreakingly good; Hagegard is his usual solid and respectful self. Sawallisch penetrates to the very bones of this work?not that the audience comprehends what it has the privilege of hearing. They rudely stream out in the course of the symphony, though the piece has no breaks. They cough and mutter with abandon. At one point, someone's phone or beeper goes off, playing?can you believe it??the opening notes of Mozart's Symphony No. 40. Watts' carnival act may have received the bravos, but this Shostakovich 14 was as enthralling as any I, for one, ever expect to hear, and I leave the hall with real gratitude.
Thursday, Oct. 21 The Metropolitan Opera offers a Marriage of Figaro, conducted by the Dutchman Edo de Waart. He proves a capable enough manager, if a little mechanical. Truth is, the orchestra never sounds quite up to snuff when its maestro, James Levine, is away. When he returns, it is a different ensemble altogether.
Our Figaro is Ferruccio Furlanetto, the stylish Italian with the big, juicy baritone. He is almost without peer in these Mozart roles?his Giovanni and Leporello are both memorable?and he is a lively actor, to boot. The refreshing truth about Furlanetto: he simply does nothing wrong. Paul Plishka, the cagey old American bass, is thoroughly winning as Don Bartolo, the type of role to which he is increasingly suited, as he enters the autumn months of his career. Hei-Kyung Hong, however, is a flat and mannered Countess, a notch or two below the cast as a whole. She makes some pretty sounds in "Dove sono," but otherwise does little more than look nice. Dwayne Croft cuts a fine Almaviva, displaying the kind of technique that allows you to rest easy in your seat: he will not fall off the tightrope, or wobble.
The night's star, however, is Susan Graham, the canny mezzo-soprano who makes a delectable Cherubino. Her "Non so più" is rendered with great style, and her "Voi che sapete" is about as direct, secure and melting as any one can hear today?which easily crowns the night.
Friday, Oct. 22 In recital at Carnegie is Midori, the one-named Japanese-American wonder of the violin. The little prodigy is all grown up at 28, and she has become one of the most satisfying violinists now before the public.
She begins with Mozart's Sonata in A, K. 526, and gives a vigorous and strong performance, bordering on the Romantic. In the Andante, she takes a few liberties with tempo, and she fragments the movement somewhat, robbing it of its logic. In addition, her pianist, Robert McDonald, is overly loud. (Am I Too Loud? the famed accompanist Gerald Moore entitled his memoir. It is the perpetual and stereotypical worry of the accompanist, and in McDonald's case, the answer?at least in the Mozart?is yes.) McDonald has the lid open; perhaps he should swallow his pianistic pride and lower it.
Midori proceeds to the violin sonata by John Corigliano, the composer's first major work, published in 1963. It is a first-rate piece?Corigliano's father, by the way, was concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic?and Midori is a skillful advocate of it. Seldom has it been better played. The composer is present tonight, and he will go home aglow. Next is Schoenberg's Phantasy, Op. 47, which Midori handles with similar understanding and care. She manages the trick of being spiky and sonorous at the same time, a most useful trait in 20th-century music.
Last on the printed program is Franck's beloved sonata, interpreted by Midori in elegant and lush fashion. She might, however, employ a little more discipline, might tighten the reins on her reading just a bit. In the slow movement?as in the Mozart?she is somewhat formless. Also, she is pretty well spent for the climactic end of the piece, which is, therefore, not much of a climax at all.
Midori offers two encores: The first is Heifetz's transcription of the Debussy song Beau Soir, nicely played, but spoiled by the excruciating flatness of the final note. The second is Kreisler's irresistible Syncopation, which, in the hands of the Midorable one, would make the old Viennese master purr with approval.
Monday, Oct. 25 The Berlin Philharmonic, 800-pound gorilla of orchestras, is at Carnegie, with its music director, Claudio Abbado. They begin with Mahler's sublime Rückert Lieder. The soloist is Anna Larsson, a Swedish contralto known largely because Abbado insists on promoting her.
This performance is?shockingly?a bad one. Not just a less than excellent one, but, truly, a bad one. The work is clearly underrehearsed, or perhaps unrehearsed. The orchestra is not together, and there is?this is the Berlin Philharmonic?some actual bad playing from it. Larsson has a problematic sound, with a fuzz on it; she does not "hug the line," as is absolutely required in Mahler-singing, but seems rather unfocused. Her breath control in the concluding "Ich bin der Welt," it must be said, is admirable. A good performance of the Rückert Lieder is positively transfiguring; neither singer, nor orchestra, nor conductor seems to have had a clue here.
The main work on the program is Bruckner's mighty Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, a tribute, in a way, to the greatest Ninth of all. Abbado knows this piece inside out, and, in the opening movement, he coaxes?no, exacts?from the Berliners some of the finest, most unified orchestral playing you will ever hope to hear. I feel, in spots, as though I were hearing the piece for the first time. Abbado positively bristles with musical energy and intensity. I am reminded, too?for the thousandth time?that no recording can take the place of a live performance. In the second and third movements, however, there is a slight breakdown; a losing of the musical and logical thread, a sapping of the spiritual vitality of the performance. Abbado is perhaps less good in delicate music?as in the Trio of the Scherzo?or in ruminative music?as in sections of the Adagio?than he is in the music of big, bold statements. And, at the end, Abbado does something odd: the applause starts too quickly for him, and he stops it. In a lifetime of concertgoing, I have never before seen this. Abbado didn't want his (and Bruckner's) spell broken; only, sadly, there was no spell?which is why the audience began to applaud when it did.
Tuesday, Oct. 26 Tonight I attend a series of long intermissions at the Metropolitan Opera, interrupted by a performance of Aida. Really, can't something be done about these intermissions, their length and frequency? About a third of the time spent at the opera house tonight is given over to intermissions?which badly damages the continuity and wholeness (not to get uppity about it) of the performance. The socializers ought to be made to drink, eat and gab either before or after.
The evening does not begin very well, as our Radames, Fabio Armiliato, is having problems. In "Celeste Aida," he is dismayingly imprecise, and he is strangled, struggling, poor man, like a pop singer (and a not very good one). It could be that he is experiencing an especially bad night, but it is not often that you hear a singer at the Met who seems so out of place.
But our Amneris! In place! She is Olga Borodina, the mezzo-soprano whose recital of Russian songs at Alice Tully Hall last year was a highlight of the entire New York season. She has...everything: technique, musicality, smarts, presence, drama, elegance, power?it really doesn't end. She was born, it seems, to be a Verdi mezzo (as well as a Russian one). When she pours forth the sound, she does so without sacrificing an iota of beauty. She has the kind of voice?this is somewhat difficult to explain?that travels directly to the ear. Don't they all? No, actually?but when they do, the effect is thrilling.
To indulge in a critic's cliche, the opera tonight might well be entitled Amneris. Not that the Aida is too shabby: Deborah Voigt is one of the most radiant and fulfilling sopranos in opera today. Anyone who has heard her Chrysothemis in Strauss' Elektra won't soon forget it. But she is perhaps a more effective German singer than she is an Italian one. She performs admirably tonight, but by the time of "O patria mia" is encountering some vocal problems, having to cover and scramble like mad.
As for our Amonasro, never will you hear a more Russian one than Nikolai Putilin. And our conductor is Carlo Rizzi, whose tempos, refreshingly, are on the brisk side. He does his best to keep the momentum going?but there is not a lot that he, or Verdi, can do with these infernal intermissions.
Wednesday, Oct. 27 There is a Tosca at the Met this evening, but really only one story: Luciano Pavarotti. "The Fat Man," as he is known reverently among some of his fans (and enemies), is, as it happens, in glorious voice. From the beginning, he is clear, vibrant, secure, resplendent. When he sings his opening aria, "Recondita armonia," we have to ask: What year is this? Is it 1999 or 1979? We are traveling back in time. Pavarotti knows it, too; it is obvious from his demeanor and twinkle. He doesn't get many nights like this anymore, vocally, and he is enjoying it to the hilt. His Italian, we are reminded, is the best sung Italian in the world?bar none, no argument permitted. He is gimpy, and sings "Recondita armonia" sitting down; but he stands for his final B-flat ("Tosca, sei tu!"), which is sensational.
The other performers? Elizabeth Holleque as Tosca doesn't lay a glove on the part. She was commendable as Barber's Vanessa at the Washington Opera a few years ago, but tonight exhibits zero understanding of Puccini's little tragedienne. Juan Pons, the Scarpia, is acceptable, no more. But none of that matters: tonight it is the Fat Man, and only the Fat Man. When, in the second act, he sings, "Vittoria! Vittoria!," a thought comes to me, unbidden. It is corny as hell, and embarrassing, but I'm going to confess it. The thought came to me, "Remember that sound, because you'll never hear the likes of it again."