Elisabeth Leonskaja Plays Schubert at Wigmore Hall

Borscht and tears. It’s always fascinating — and enigmatic — to hear what a pianist will do with Schubert. The scores have few markings to lead the interpretation, and Schubert’s balancing act between simplicity and subsumed emotions is precarious. For a long time he wasn’t given the benefit of the doubt when it came to the basic issue of whether he knew how to write for the instrument. His sonatas, early and late, are marked by repetitiveness, peculiar key changes and abrupt mood swings that can seem eccentric, unless you accept that a genius knows what he’s doing even if we sometimes don’t. Beethoven tests a pianist’s moral character; Schubert tests a pianist’s ability to solve riddles.

Maurizio Pollini Plays Chopin, Debussy and Boulez

Lion in winter. Concert audiences now whoop and whistle for their artists, and I couldn’t help but wonder how this affects Maurizio Pollini. At sixty-nine, he has been before the public for fifty years, ever since winning the Chopin International Competition in 1960 at the age of eighteen. His white hair is wispy on top (this is art, so let’s call it an aureole). He still walks briskly to the piano and hits the first keys with unnerving alacrity. When Rosa Ponselle made her London debut, the veteran diva Nellie Melba gave her a friendly warning: nothing but nothing could induce British audiences to give a standing ovation. Dame Nellie was reportedly quite put out when her young American rival earned a standing ovation at Covent Garden every night. Pollini earns the same, even when he ends his program, as he did last night, with Boulez’s fearsome Piano Sonata no. 2. One way to insure that posterity will consider you a fool is to mock modern music, but in the annals of unapproachable and uningratiating works, the Boulez sonata must attain a kind of summa.

Iestyn Davies as Oberon and Anna Christy as Tytania in A Midsummer Night's Dream by Benjamin Britten, ENO, Photo Alastair Muir.

Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the English National Opera

Feral fairies. Anyone afraid of a sugar overdose had nothing to worry about at the English National Opera’s fiercely odd production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This is a company that often traffics between radical and gimmicky, every once in a while being capable of acts of metamorphosis. In this case the director, Christopher Alden, seems to have taken his cue from the first sound we hear: slithery glissandos in the lower strings that introduce the fairy world not with whimsy and a twinkle but a wave of sea-sick nausea. In a daring move, the entire production metastasizes from the queasiness of that sound. The initial effect was to travesty Shakespeare’s magical comedy — audience members who stalked up the aisle before the first act ended clearly didn’t appreciate such high-handedness — but the music has never sounded so disturbing, or so convincing.

Béla Bartók

Esa-Pekka Salonen and Christian Tetzlaff in Bartók with the Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall

The saint of Bleaker Street. Morose, manic, and methodical. They all alliterate with Magyar, the Hungarian spirit that ran through Bartók, and each term applies to his music. But the saddest match would be martyr. In God’s calculus of gifts, to those who suffer most, the most is given. Bartók’s soul must have believed in that formula. Like the other two titans of modernism, Schoenberg and Stravinsky, he was triply alienated, being a genius, an expatriate, and a logician of the abstruse. All three composers were forced to deal with their complex fates, yet Bartók made of his a via dolorosa.

Henry Moore Exhibition at the Tate Britain

Ship of state. In his long lifetime, which spanned the buggy whip and the atom bomb, Henry Moore’s sculptures were never derided for being “lumpy, swollen, etiolated, hunched, extruded, squashed, and dismembered” by anyone who championed modern art. Such disdain has been saved for our time. The quote is from a London daily’s art critic on the opening of Tate Britain’s large Moore exhibit, and she has no patience for the artist’s repetitiveness, lack of originality, overproduction (the museum culled over a hundred sculptures and drawings from a possible 11,000), endless borrowing from his betters (particularly Picasso), ubiquity as a favorite of corporations and colleges that need to art up the place (my college boasts a large, expensive Moore outside my old dorm), and so on. Such are the whines of twerpdom, which every iconic artist endures as the generations change. The only exception I can think of is the Teflon-coated reputation of Cezanne.

Daniel Harding, Renaud Capuçon, and the LSO play Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 and Bruckner’s Seventh

Dandies and philosophers. I hate the use of the word “warhorse” to describe beloved music that is taxed by being overly familiar. But almost nobody refers to the Bruch violin concerto in any other way. It’s a frayed Victorian valentine, relying on luscious melody, the scent of heliotrope, and moonlight over the Tyrol as its claim to fame. The young French violinist Renaud Capuçon accepted this without a blush or smirk. He was determined to give a reading as gorgeously romantic as taste would allow. His success centered on a honeyed but never syrupy tone. More than that, he knew how to blend into the orchestral strings, which served not to drown him out but to amplify his sound. (Here I think Capuçon was taking advantage of the three years when he served as first among equals as concertmaster of the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra.)

Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard, directed by David Leveaux

Brains at the boiling point. Critics mostly ate up the revival of Tom Stoppard’s 1993 puzzle comedy, Arcadia, with a spoon. So why on leaving the theatre did I find not a single idea revolving in my mind? Arcadia is stuffed with ideas—about chaos theory, literary ambition, Newton’s impact on physics, and much more—which whiz by like packed cars on the Piccadilly line. “Maybe they’re more thought-provoking,” my companion mused, “if you haven’t thought them before.” She was pointing to the relatively shallow level of discourse on stage. Half a dozen characters who pass for brilliant, or at least A-levels bright, are set in motion to produce talky-talk about deep subjects. But as one character observes tartly, a retort isn’t the same thing as an answer. And repartee is the opposite of revelation. which gives Arcadia, for all its manic verbiage, an air of chilliness. With tongues as pointed as épées, these people are ever on the retort, but their answers remain at the level of flash.

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