As Pierre Boulez’s “house pianist” at Ensemble Intercontemporain for many years, Pierre-Laurent Aimard could have been expected to be very brainy, in command of the most complex and challenging modern scores, with an artistic temperament on the cool side, eschewing virtuosic display and temperament. His deep insight into contemporary music has been amply demonstrated in his many past Tanglewood appearances, but may give the impression that he is a specialist in this area. This would be mistaken. As demonstrated in recordings and in these concerts, his virtues as a musician benefit a wide-ranging repertory, including (in his solo recital) the baroque Louis-Claude Daquin, the romantic Robert Schumann, and the earlier 20th century Maurice Ravel.
Just call me Caesar!
Several weeks out and here I am, pulse quickened, still in thrall to legions from the Pines of Rome passing in review beneath my feet! The kaleidoscopic power of Respighi’s music hasn’t faded in my ears. Most patrons think of their car-keys within moments of a concert’s end. I’m still growling-out my version of “Catacombs” in the shower and banging kettledrum fists on the tiles three weeks later… But I was fortunate to sit a few rows above the trombones during the second half of the Vasily Petrenko’s recent stint with the San Francisco Symphony, and the acoustic perspective there provided an astonishingly powerful, sonically blended experience. So much for seating. But it says something about a conductor, too, when you are still marching about weeks later, barely able to contain within yourself the excitement you experienced!
Her view of the Tchaikovsky was a fraction slower than the usual ones built around the big tuttis—but all the better for the subtlety this permitted. There were literally moments when the orchestra, playing as quietly as it knew how, could not match her for delicacy. One of the mesmerizing features of Arabella Steinbacher’s stage presence was the way she swayed to the orchestra—leaning slowly to one side for several bars, then slowly back the other way for an equal number of bars—a mesmerizing dance to the orchestra’s basic pulse. It kept all eyes on her. Indeed, the absence of any sudden movements was the captivating feature of her presence. Just to lower her head and look down could be measured in the bar lines and pulse of the music. This special elegance has already been noted elsewhere in her career and and compared to the special dignity of Grace Kelly. I must say I concur. There are worse characterizations than for a violinist to be known as “Her Serene Highness.”
Loved to dearth. Without remembering any legal documents I signed that had Satan written in the small print, just when I forget how tawdry and thin Liszt’s Faust Symphony is, it comes around again and I give it another chance. Too late. I hear the old guy cackle and the doors of Albert Hall clanging shut. The only way to overcome the symphony’s clattering banality is for the conductor to bash the score within an inch of its life. The thing won’t die — no fear of that — and if there is truly inspired leadership, as from Leonard Bernstein and Jascha Horenstein in their classic recordings, the music will bring genuine pleasure, like the circus.
The Emerson Quartet has become our honored eminence grise of chamber ensembles—they have recorded much of the literature (excluding critical 20th-century repertory by Schoenberg and Carter but including the complete Shostakovich) in performances that are regarded as definitive. Their concerts have taken on the aura that I recall experiencing a generation or two ago with the Budapest and then the Guarneri Quartets. The high-mindedness of the string quartet genre performed by the ensemble known to be the best there is induces in audiences a state of meditative reverence that is sustained by beautifully polished, superbly controlled performances. There is even a moral component involved: rather than relegate one performer to a subordinate role (that of second violinists Alexander Schneider or John Dalley) the Emersons are egalitarian: Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker share first and second violin duties. Their textural preferences are for rich, even-voiced sound that easily allows the viola and cello to speak through, and the balances are almost perfectly calibrated to display the endless resourcefulness of the composers.
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.
The winter music season in Boston made a strong beginning with James Levine leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra in what turned out to be his last set of concerts with the orchestra for the year—and perhaps forever. Levine’s spring BSO concerts were cancelled for health reasons, and, of course he has resigned as Music Director. […] The notion is creeping up on one that Boston has become a remarkably good place for opera. —How about some Wagner?
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.