LSM-ONLINE-LOGO2JPG.jpg (4855 bytes)


Back Issues
LSM Issues
LSV Issues

Throat Doctor
Concert Reviews
CD Critics
Books Reviews
PDF Files


About LSM
LSM News
Guest Book
Contact Us
Site Search
Web Search

On the Aisle



Carnegie Hall: Brendel, Uchida, Hampson, and Company

By Philip Anson / May 7, 2001
On the Aisle

Carnegie Hall: Brendel, Uchida, Hampson, and Company

Various Events
Carnegie Hall
New York, NY
May 7, 2001

The star-studded Carnegie Hall season is cooling off as early summer weather heats up New York. On April 4 the Orchestra of St. Luke’s contributed to a city-wide Czech music festival, with Dvorak’s Violin Concerto played by the estimable Japanese violinist Kyoko Takezawa. This slim young lady plays like Maxim Vengerov, with an aggressive attack that can lead to dicey phrasing and errors. Takezawa has chops, good doublestopping, and produces richly resonant overtones. No doubt she hopes that her muscular elan will carry the day, but there were oddities of intonation that threatened to undermine her spirited conception. Her "Hammer" Strad (1707) is a fine fiddle, sweetly loud even at the high end, never dry or sour, and with a nice sizzle. The rest of the program was devoted to a solid reading of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7 and an orchestral transcription of Janacek’s String Quartet No. 1, an unconvincing dilution of the highly-focused original.

Austrian-British pianist Alfred Brendel dropped in on April 5 for his annual recital. The rewarding evening opened with Haydn’s Sonata in G minor, Hob, XVI:44, which showed immediately how Brendel (unlike many pianists) can fill Carnegie Hall with warmly resonant sound. He poured out a gorgeous silvery gold sound in Mozart’s Fantasy in D minor, K. 397, with solid yet fluid runs and trills. Without leaving the stage he segued into Mozart’s Sonata in A minor, K. 310. The Allegro was majestic, almost pompous. Brendel played with a heaviness more Brahmsian than Mozartian, and the notes were piled on impasto, but it was a defendable choice. The Presto rang with bright Schubertian song, but one wished it had been played slower, that we might savor it longer. After the intermission, Beethoven’s vast Diabelli Variations made encyclopedic demands on our attention spans. This work deserves a program to itself. Brendel played it supremely well, with an Apollonian reserve that is paradoxically provocative. The quiet passages murmured like organ etudes or plainchant, with a Zen sense of calm. Then the bell-like cascading passages filled the hall with mellow sound. Brendel knows exactly how to engineer his sound, so that projection, echo, and decay are coordinated such that he is accompanied by his own reverberations. Yet has ever pianist played so impressively, with so little apparent emotion? Brendel always teeters on the brink of feeling, without ever letting a tear drop.

Japanese pianist Mitsuko Uchida pleased her fans on April 27 with a program of Debussy's Images (Set I), Chopin’s Polonaise in C minor, Op. 40, No. 2, and Chopin’s Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58. It was all thoughtfully and masterfully played, without any tawdry grandstanding (alas). Schubert’s Moments musicaux, Op. 94, D. 780, was a heavy extra burden on the long evening and seemed interminable. Encores, including Debussy’s Cathedral englouti and a slow movement from a Mozart sonata, brought this success d’estime to a close.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra closed their Carnegie Hall subscription season with what looked like a mouthwatering program - songs from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. But despite having performed this program in Boston to good reviews, in New York the BSO sounded distracted and underrehearsed. This was the first performance of a new critical edition of Mahler's songs on texts from 'Des Knaben Wunderhorn by Renata Stark-Voit in collaboration with 45-year old American baritone Thomas Hampson, who sang eight of the most famous. Hampson sounded under the weather, perhaps due to allergies. He fell short of his best in range and refinement. Moments of true vocal beauty were few. His emphatic passages were angry bellowing. What a difference from the tasteful, soulful singing of German baritone Thomas Quasthoff, heard recently in New York singing the same rep. If Hampson sang the new performing edition true, I prefer the old. The Shostakovich symphony was competent but routinely played. The BSO is expert enough to sound good without trying too hard. But this symphony lacked conviction, architectural forethought, irony, and horror. The Moderato lacked tension and cohesion. The Largo was slow but meaningless. The finale was loud but specious. Ozawa’s loud grunting for “emphasis” was unpleasantly audible throughout the hall.

Canadian baritone John Relyea made an impressive New York recital debut at Weill Hall, the smaller of Carnegie’s two performing spaces. The varied and demanding program opened with three Italian canzone by Caldara, sung with affecting simplicity. A set of four lesser-known German Lieder by Loewe, Schumann, Schubert, and Strauss revealed Relyea’s dramatic range and musicological savvy. Still, one would have preferred more familiar work in a debut recital. The obligatory nod to American song came with four Charles Ives songs, including the phantasmagoric General William Booth Enters into Heaven. Relyea delivered these with plenty of verve and a thick southern accent. Ibert’s Chansons de Don Quichotte were a daring choice, but sounded well, though Relyea’s high pianissimo/head voice needs polishing. Five Tchaikovsky songs displayed good diction and Russian bass-baritone potential. Encores included a comic rumba song and the "Calumny" aria from Rossini’s Barber of Seville.

The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra closed its popular Carnegie Hall season on May 6 with a monumental performance of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder. The stage was extended to accommodate the huge orchestra (4 harps, etc.) and chorus, which were often loud and occasionally deafening. That was just one of the problems with this show, which for all its starry attributes, didn’t gel into a meaningful or moving performance. The soloists were the best money could buy, but they were not encouraged to sing the words to each other with any sense of engagement. In addition, conductor James Levine saw fit to drown them out from time to time. Canadian tenor Ben Heppner sang Waldemar. He was as good as he gets, but was often overwhelmed by the orchestra and had to force his voice. Tove was soprano Deborah Voigt, swathed in a gigantic lilac tent dress. Like Heppner, she was at the top of her game, conveying everything but the heart of the part. The young tenor Matthew Polenzani was the cast member best matched to his role, with a fine trumpet-like voice and excellent diction and projection. Richard Paul Fink’s brief intervention as the Peasant went without mishap. Lithuanian mezzo Violetta Urmana, one of the finest new singers to arrive on these shores in years, sang the Wood Dove’s part with affecting warmth. Retired Swiss tenor Ernst Haefliger was a poor choice as the speaker. Over 80 years of age, he trembled like a leaf and croaked out his lines in a barely audible voice. The whole performance was a triumph of quantity over quality and a serious lapse of taste, conducted like a bloated epic instead of a love story with a fateful twist. Levine out-Wagnered Wagner by extorting grandiose pomposity and elephantine climaxes from the Met Orchestra. One longingly recalled Sir Simon Rattle’s brilliant performance of this work with the Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in January 2000. With more money, stars, and glamour, the Met Orchestra managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

> Carnegie Hall.

Copyright by Philip Anson (Questions or comments?


(c) La Scena Musicale 2000