Once again, I've had so many concerts to attend over a short period of time that I have fallen behind in writing about them individually, so herewith a quick summing up:
May 1 – Matthias Goerne, baritone, and Leif Ove Andsnes, piano, in recital at Carnegie Hall, Stern Auditorium. Goerne and Andsnes carefully selected from among the songs of Gustav Mahler and Dmitri Shostakovich to create a thematic recital , intermingling selections from Mahler's Knaben Wunderhorn and Ruckert settings with songs from Shostakovich's collection using Russian translations of poetry by Michelangelo Buonarroti, the common theme being death as contemplated from different times in life. The result was a rather "heavy" evening of portentous verses and generally sober music, with only occasional glimmers of relief and transcending mood. These were expert performances that preserved the mood and gripped the listener, but by the end one was emotionally wrung out. No light contrast for an encore: Beethoven's "An die Hoffnung" preserved the mood of the concert. Seeing Goerne literally enact these songs with his body language was an important aspect of the event.
May 3 – New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert conducting, with Yefim Bronfman as piano soloist for the world premiere of Magnus Lindberg's Piano Concerto No. 2, written over the time of his "composer-in-residence" service at the NYP, now coming to an end. Gilbert surrounded the piano concerto with an overture (Dvorak's Carnival, Op. 92) and a symphony (Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 36). The apparent disconnect between the 19th century mainstream classics and the piano concerto was not as great as one might have anticipated, for Lindberg has written a surprisingly listener-friendly piece in an almost grandly romantic style. This sounded very different to me from his other works that have featured on Philharmonic programs over the past three years, sounding at times like a strange mixture of Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev… indeed, many of the giants of early to middle 20th century concert music seemed to be present, at least by proxy, and yet the piece had its own original core. Bronfman was heroic. I had just heard his Carnegie Hall recital a few weeks earlier and had been overwhelmed by his Prokofiev 8th Sonata. To follow so soon with a world premiere of a long, difficult piece was worthy of enthusiastic cheers. The Dvorak was noisy, as it should be, and full of high spirits. The Tchaikovsky symphony was also full of high spirits. Despite the disruptions in the composer's life around the time of its composition — his ill-fated marriage and subsequent nervous breakdown intervened in the process — the piece emerged triumphant, although sometimes it is hard to tell whether the jollity of the finale is forced through gritted teeth as Tchaikovksy puts a folk-song through numerous repetitions, ever more frenetic. The orchestra was in top form, preparing to take this program on the road for a West Coast tour that will include premiere performances of the Lindberg Concerto in L.A. and S.F.
May 4 – Metropolitan Opera: Benjamin Britten's "Billy Budd," with David Robertson conducting, Nathan Gunn in the title role, Jahn Daszak (Met debut) as Captain Vere, and James Morris as the Master-at-Arms, John Claggart. I first saw this 1978 John Dexter production when it was new, and the Met's rendition at that time really put the opera on the international map, whereas previously it had found little favor outside of Britain. The piece is very challenging for opera audiences, featuring an all-male cast, the claustrophic world of a naval ship at sea, and a grim tale of evil destroying good. The composer and his librettist collaborators, E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier, recast the original Melville novella into a flashback by the elder Captain Vere recalling the fateful days of Billy Budd's brief service and execution. The May 4 performance was the first of a short revival, the work not having been given at the Met since the 1990s. Nathan Gunn has made a triumph of the lead role in productions elsewhere, and he continues to sing it quite wonderfully, but he is now a bit mature, in my opinion, to be playing the beautiful young innocent who is called "Baby" by his shipmates. That doesn't quite wash, through no fault of Mr. Gunn, who energetically dashes about the stage. Mr. Daszak as the captain was superb, and Mr. Morris as the evil Claggart was … the embodiment of evil. All the other shipmates made a fine contribution with brilliant stage direction by David Kneuss. The Met chorus did a great job of cleaning the decks while singing the ominous chorus and enlivening the off-duty sea chanty songs. And here is a great mechanical set that works!!
May 5 – Back to the Metropolitan Opera for Leos Janacek's "The Makropoulos Case," with Jiri Belohlavek conducting a stellar cast headlined by Karita Mattila as Emilia Marty, the 300+ year-old opera singer whose secret drives the musings of a colorful assortment of characters. Janacek based his opera on a play by Karel Capek that marks a rare venture into science fiction for early-20th century opera. The Met production, by Elijah Moshinsky, dates from 1996, and seems to have updated the action of the play, perhaps to the 1960s or thereabouts, judging by the costumes, the design of the law office in Act I, and the rotary telephones on display. This requires a bit of adjustment of arithmetic on dates, but does no real violence to the story. I found Act I a bit overlong with much exposition, but Acts II and III were absolutely gripping – even over-the-top. I dozed through parts of this opera back when I saw the production in its initial Met presentation, but not this time, and Mattila had much to do with that, super-charging the stage every time she appeared. This one is a must-see.
May 5 – Finally, concluding an intense musical stretch, I was at Washington Irving High School Saturday night for the Peoples' Symphony Concert series's last presentation of the Tokyo String Quartet, a group that has announced plans to retire after the 2012-13 season. For the first part of the program, they played Josef Haydn's String Quartet in Eb, Op. 76, No. 6, and Claude Debussy's String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10. After intermission, they were joined by Israeli pianist Alon Goldstein for Johannes Brahms's Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34. Despite the very conservative program (which could have been presented as early as 1893, the date of the latest composition, the "early" Debussy quartet), this assemblage of the works of three of music's greatest geniuses held me spellbound. Why is the Tokyo retiring? They are playing at the top of their game. The Haydn was trim and propulsive, the Dvorak shimmering with the special instrumental effects creating glorious sonic textures, and the Brahms – with the added dose of youthful enthusiasm from Goldstein – lived up to its reputation as one of the most perfect examples of German romantic chamber music. (There are many competitors for the title, but I think that Brahms was the greatest chamber music composer of the 19th century.) A welcome treat was an encore performance of the scherzo from Dvorak's Piano Quintet, a piece that will be heard in full at the last PSC program on May 19 when Peter Serkin will collaborate with the Shanghai Quartet in a program that also includes Beethoven's first string quartet (Op. 18, No. 1) and Bartok's 3rd Quartet.
PSC remains one of the great bargains of NYC. Anybody who loves chamber music (and is willing to put up with the hard wood seats of Washington Irving High School's acoustically wonderful auditorium) should sign up on their website to receive an announcement for the next season. Single tickets are still available for the May 19 concert, which should be a thriller!