Is there a more passionate art form than opera? In what other mode is the uninhibited expression of feeling—tragic or comic—so central? More central than reason. Given the emotional liberation of great music, what can in a mere plot description appear to be absurd (a woman tossing the wrong baby into a fire; a “fallen woman” sacrificing her entire future and the happiness of her lover for the sake of her lover’s respectable sister; a man killing his best friend in a duel because he has flirted with his girlfriend; a nobleman secretly meeting his own wife in disguise—madness, murder, and deception) can become through music profound and moving, Revelation and Catharsis.
This was a great recital—almost. Richard Goode played the last three Beethoven piano Sonatas and a set of late Bagatelles, and was quite convincing, even revelatory, with all the material except the final Sonata, the forbidding Opus 111. This last came off well, it felt meant—and all those difficult notes were well articulated—but the full emotional daring of the piece was not quite there.
Reluctant to miss an opportunity to hear the great clarinettist Eric Hoeprich, especially after his sensitively nuanced performance of Mozart’s Kegelstatt Trio for the Boston Early Music Festival, I found it necessary, unfortunately, to miss an important BEMF evening in order to make the trek out to Brandeis. Daniel Stepner in fact apologized for the conflict, promising to avoid them in the future. Indeed, it would be to the advantage of Boston audiences if the two festivals could pool their resources to make it possible for BEMF audiences to hear the Aston Magna musicians, especially this one, devoted to a rarely heard, obsolete elder sibling of the clarinet, the chalumeau.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra is up and running and sounding very good after its holiday time off. New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert opened the winter season with a concert series beginning January 10th. Best of all was the opening work, Henri Dutilleux’s Métaboles of 1965, a piece in five movements played without pause for large orchestra, with much brass and percussion, harp and celesta. The piece is listenable and attractive, rich and serious, and full of musical wit. It asks and rewards an audience’s focus and concentration, which came about well on this occasion. The presentation made a case for what has often occurred to me, that challenging or relatively new work often goes over best when placed first on a program — people tend to be fresh and attentive and open. Métaboles proceeds by constant change and transformation of basic material, and one finds oneself every few minutes, taken unawares, as it were, in quite new territory — a new realm of orchestral color, of breadth of phrase, of rhythm — all of which has grown seamlessly out of what proceeded. The music sounds at moments like Messiaen or Stravinsky, but moves with the mercurial quality of Elliott Carter, or Mozart. Gilbert and the orchestra put the work across with freshness and commitment.
I’m sure I wasn’t alone in my keen anticipation of this reprise of the 2011 Tanglewood performance of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess — not to here an excellent performance of a “good” version of the opera once again, but to hear it properly for the first time. As I said in my preview of this performance, the Tanglewood performance was totally vitiated — ruined — by the extensive use of amplification for the singers. None of Berkshire Review writers who attended wanted to review it. Although virtually the entire cast consisted of established opera singers, it was thought necessary to provide them with individual microphones.
For a writer it is almost as daunting to write about Beethoven’s late quartets — which are pretty much the greatest music we have — as it is for musicians to play them. The depth of human experience and height of musical thought they hold is beyond anything else. Experiencing human expression at this level is something like looking straight into the sun: a few seconds can blind one for a few minutes; longer exposure can blind one permanently — or, in relation to the quartets, perhaps substitute the word “change” for “blind.” That is, the sort of change Sophocles’ Oedipus underwent in putting out his eyes and setting out in the wanderings that took him to Colonus. Beethoven in fact depicts this kind of human transformation literally in the third movement of his A Minor quartet. If one listens to Beethoven’s late quartets with attention, it is impossible to be casual about art, life, or illness.
The primary occasion for this writing was Emmanuel Music’s fine performance of Mozart’s last opera, La Clemenza di Tito, under Music Director Ryan Turner. However, two extraordinary recordings of works Mozart composed during those busy final months of his life have appeared, as downloads from Pristine Classics, and they are not only magnificent in themselves, but they provide an enlightening context for this somewhat elusive opera seria. These recordings are of the legendary 1951 Salzburg performance of Die Zauberflöte under Wilhelm Furtwängler in the spectacularly improved sound we have come to expect from Andrew Rose, and a magnificent studio recording of the Requiem under Sir Thomas Beecham from 1954-56.
This concert was without a doubt one of the great events of the season, whether in Boston or New York, and certainly a high point in the BSO’s unexpectedly patchy year, at least as far as guest conductors were concerned, which seemed almost miraculous on paper, given the short notice allowed by James Levine’s final health setback, but in practice greatly curtailed by the cancellation of some the most distinguished conductors. Riccardo Chailly’s coronary ailment forced him to cancel his two concerts and effectively put him out of the running for the empty music directorship. Andris Nelsons rather strangely decided to go on paternal leave barely more than a month before his scheduled concert. Ill-health made it necessary for Kurt Masur, one of the great interpreters of the Missa Solemnis, to back out of his engagement while already in rehearsal. It was, to say the least, reassuring to find Esa-Pekka Salonen appearing as scheduled with violinist Leila Josefowicz in an advanced stage of expectancy, much to the delight of her many fans in the audience.