I well remember the 1992 Ravinia Festival, when I bought a ticket for the American debut recital of a singer I had read about, a Welsh farmer’s son who was creating a considerable stir in Europe. Although he had made a few recordings, they were not easily accessible in this country, and I came into the concert hall not having heard a single note sung by the then 27 year old Bryn Terfel. The program was simple and serious: Schubert’s Schwanengesang in the first half, and in the second the Op. 39 Liederkreis of Schumann. A huge man with shoulder length blond hair strode on stage followed by his pianist James Levine. The visual effect itself was striking enough—a Viking in full evening dress. I think that my jaw did actually drop at the first line of Liebesbotschaft: “Rauschendes Bächlein so silbern und hell.” The timbre of the voice was absolutely gorgeous and absolutely unique, dark and round and plummy, but with a cut and edge that filled every corner of the theater, the vocal equivalent of Chambertin from a great year. Never had I heard mezza voce singing of such beauty and technical command in these cycles—no question of its being falsetto; at the same time the sheer amplitude of sound in a song like Der Atlas was overpowering. Unique too was the way the voice got around the words. This is a quality that goes beyond German diction (which was perfect), but has to do with how vowels and consonants are formed and their relationship to the rhythmic flow of the music. One of the encores was Schubert’s Litanei, and I recall thinking that there could never have been a more beautiful “ee” vowel in the opening: “Ruh’n in Frieden… .” Welsh songs were among the encores, unknown to the audience, but sung with a melancholy loveliness and unaffected sincerity that had people at the end of the evening on their feet shouting bravo with tears running down their face.
Vassily Primakov’s piano recital has been the most anticipated event of the Tannery Pond season. It is hard to believe that he is only thirty and still viewed by many as a young or emerging artist. This is certainly not evident in his mature musicianship and in nature of his repertory, which includes some important contemporary works, like Poul Ruders’ Piano Concerto, which was written expressly for him, along with some challenging nineteenth century compositions outside the basic repertory, like Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons and Grand Sonata, the Dvořák Piano Concerto, and now Schumann’s Third Piano Sonata in F Minor, which he played in this recital in Schumann’s first version, which has an extra movement, a scherzo following the first movement—a rarity which was definitely among the treasures of the evening.
More years ago than I care to remember (OK, about ten), Edward Moore, my piano teacher at university, told me he used to be a great fan of Maurizio Pollini, but had grown disenchanted with him because he thought his playing had become completely dry, overly safe and devoid of emotion. Perhaps because he was by far the best teacher I’d ever had, I took this opinion seriously and allowed it to influence my perception of Pollini ever after, remaining a devout sceptic despite his evidently immense popularity.
The Beethoven C-Sharp Minor alone can exhaust both listeners and performers in its athletic compass of emotional extremes. But the deeply tragic and valedictory Britten Quartet, the program’s true centerpiece, was infused with such poignancy and despair that the tranquility of Tannery Pond’s almost ethereal grounds, with their assuring Shaker buildings and yawning fields, offered little succor. The rarely heard Schumann quartet, while having its share of Biedermeir charm, also shared some spectral affinities with the Britten, and evoked, at times, the melancholy of Caspar David Friedrich’s dark and mysterious landscapes. However, two hours later, one could not have been more satisfied and impressed with a performance that transformed the darkness into light with the sheer force of musical intelligence and immaculate technique.
There could not have been a more extreme contrast between Renée Fleming’s approach to Strauss’ Four Last Songs, recently reviewed in these pages, and Simon Keenlyside’s in this recital. For Fleming, the texts of Strauss’ songs are cushioned in her gorgeous production and phrasing, while for Keenlyside the text is the beginning and end of a performance which is essentially dramatic, no matter what beautiful moments his extremely varied—and variable—voice may produce along the way, and of course these moments are entirely expressive in purpose. Acting is second nature to him. In most of his selections he created a character before he uttered a phrase.
Riccardo Chailly, not only one of the great conductors of our time, but one of an even smaller group who have exercised a truly formative influence on contemporary musical life through his championship of twentieth and twenty-first century music—through his many recordings, most of them for Decca, which he has produced since the beginnings of his career in the late 1970s, and through his long tenure as chief conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam (1988-2004), and now, since 2005, as Kapellmeister of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. If you survey the most prominent music publications, you will find many accolades, “artist of the year,” “best recording,” etc., and you will find many of his recordings recommended as the best available or the “recommended choice.” His fresh, individual interpretations, always based on a close study of the score, as well as his close relationship with a single recording company over many years, have resulted in recordings in which his ideas and the sound of his orchestras and their halls are communicated with exceptional vividness and presence.
I yearn for the day when a thoroughly sympathetic view of Schumann emerges, one supplanting the lingering idea, passed on from biographer to musician to music-lover and back, insinuating that his music, while selectively inspired, was hampered by enough contrapuntal inexperience, unevenness in motivic invention, formal insecurity, and outright incompetence in orchestration that it should not be considered in the same sphere with Chopin’s, Liszt’s, or even Brahms’s.
My immediate reaction to Michael Miller’s commentary on the Karajan centenary [Oh no! He’s not back again, is he? – May 2, 2008] was rather choleric, but I’ve settled down a bit since then and can write this from a relatively balanced perspective.