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Weekend Report: Massenet’s Werther at the Metropolitan Opera & Brahms’s Cello Sonatas at Carnegie Hall

Posted on: February 23rd, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

I was mired in the 19th century for my musical weekend. On Saturday afternoon, I attended a performance of Jules Massenet’s opera, “Werther,” at the Metropolitan Opera, and on Sunday afternoon, the first Isaac Stern Memorial Concert at Carnegie Hall, a recital of music for cello and piano by Johannes Brahms, performed by Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax.

Massenet’s opera, inspired by Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, is not a first-rate piece in my book. Although Massenet was certainly a proficient composer, in terms of technical skill in harmony and orchestration, and the piece is sufficiently dramatic to sustain interest, at least in the last two acts, I find the music undistinguished and the first act rather boring. That said, Saturday’s cast did about all that could be done for it, and one couldn’t ask for a better Werther than Jonas Kaufmann or a better Charlotte than Sophie Koch. Conductor Alain Altinoglu kept things moving, the Met orchestra did a great job with Massenet’s orchestration (which provides lots of great solo opportunities for the woodwinds in particular), and I was impressed by the excellent production. I don’t understand why one would bother to update the story from the late 18th century to the late 19th century, and in one respect the updating was bungled: there is a reference in the libretto to Charlotte singing songs to Werther’s harpsichord accompaniment, and they left that reference in. Nobody would be playing a harpsichord in a German village in the 1890s! (What was a harpsichord doing in Charlotte’s room in Act 3, anyway? Should have been a piano….) This is a new production, replacing one that debuted in 1999. Why bother? There are other Massenet operas that the Met hasn’t done lately. If they want to do Massenet, why spend a fortune on a new production of a piece they were performing a decade ago? I remember an entertaining production of Massenet’s Don Quixote at City Opera decades ago, which would be more of a novelty to revive, and how about Le Cid with the fantastic ballet music. (No dancing, really, in this Werther, apart from a brief waltz at the ball.) Or how about Manon, the one Massenet opera with music really worth reviving….? Well, a house like the Met can hardly please everybody, and I suppose one should be grateful for a production that is at least consonant with the story that is being presented, rather than weird abstract patterns suspended from the ceiling and putting ancient myths in the equivalent of outer space… No Eurotrash here, thankfully.

At Carnegie, it was “old home day” for Ma and Ax, who used to play chamber music on that stage regularly with Isaac Stern, and made many recordings with him as well. Hearing them in the Brahms sonatas was no novelty – after all, they made two recordings of the sonatas, one for SONY when they were young, and one for RCA when they were middle-aged, and now heading towards old age they are playing them again. I generally don’t like recitals that are entirely turned over to one composer, and although I love Brahms in chamber music, by intermission I was getting to think that an entire recital of Brahms sonatas would be too much. They started with Cello Sonata No. 1, Op. 38, an early work in which Brahms was still struggling with how to combine the cello and the piano, instruments that he didn’t feel really worked well together. The piece has always struck me as a bit overextended. Brahms originally composed 4 movements, then dropped the slow movement (Adagio affettuoso) because it made the piece too long, but the remaining three movements take almost half an hour, and the middle movement, despite the allegretto time signature, really sags in the middle. I thought Ma’s playing, while beautiful, was rather understated, and Ax was so restrained and smoothed out that the piece seemed quite somnolent. They followed this up with Paul Klengel’s transcription for cello and piano of the composer’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in G, Op. 78. Klengel moved it down to D Major to accommodate the cello’s range, but I was dubious about how effective this would be, especially since Ma’s unassertive approach continued in this piece. As I said, coming in to the intermission I was not wildly excited about the forthcoming second half.

But, of course, the Op. 99 Cello Sonata is from that wonderful final period when Brahms’s mature compositional style could not place a foot wrong. He built the piece around the slow movement he had rejected from the first sonata, but the concise writing he had achieved by this point in his life could accommodate a four-movement work that is, in total, about the same length of the earlier sonata. But this time the themes are more memorable, worked out in a more interesting way, and both Ma and Ax seemed to have taken a livelier approach as well. Ax, in particular, seemed less restrained and more involved in the drama of the piece, and Ma became more assertive. Perhaps the heroic opening of the first movement helped in that respect. Anyway, I found myself totally absorbed and glad that we had the 2nd Sonata. I think the program would have benefited by some contrast in the first half. All-Brahms is a heavy sell.

They also played Brahms for an encore. Now, here’s a silly thing. After intermission, Ma and Ax used microphones to make a few remarks about Isaac Stern’s role in their careers and his important work in saving Carnegie Hall, and introduced some members of Stern’s family who were present. But then when it came to announced the encore, Ax did not pick up a microphone (they were sitting on a small table behind the piano, where the accompanist had placed them after the announcements), instead speaking unamplified and, generally, unheard. They played the slow movement from another sonata, but I didn’t hear the announcement so I’m guessing it was a slow movement from one of the viola sonatas, but it could be one of the other violin sonatas. I’ll have to check scores when I get home. But, c’mon guys. They had a mic on stage. Why not use it?

And a note to Carnegie Hall from a long-suffering patron (going back to 1977). Do something about the inadequate restroom facilities. Figure out a way to put restrooms on the balcony level. Get some architects in. It can be done if you really care to do it.

PS – The Carnegie Hall website says that the encore was the slow movement from Brahms’s Violin Sonata No. 3.