Back in the LP days, if a singer wanted to show some sophistication, s/he sometimes put out an album of songs by famous composers set to the poems of one poet: for example, Phyllis Curtin’s much-admired 1964 disc of Debussy and Fauré songs to poems by Verlaine, with pianist Ryan Edwards (available now as a CD from VAI).
Nelson Freire is a past master in multiple senses. His virtues as a pianist have been well-known for decades. But his playing brings to us hints of older school virtuosity, not only of his own generation (including his friend and musical partner Martha Argerich) but of even earlier schools of pianists, including the Hoffmann-Friedman-Rachmaninoff generation. He shares with those legendary virtuosi not only a technique that barely recognizes technical difficulties, but also a kind of sprezzatura, a slightly off-handed way of tossing off passages, runs, glittering ornaments, and the rest of the grand pianistic arsenal (or clap-trap, depending on your point of view) that others have approached with either gritty determination or a show-off’s urge to impress.
Gunther Schuller was the toughest mentor I ever had. He expected professionalism from day one—no introductory foolishness. Gunther challenged us, particularly at New England Conservatory, to do things we thought we were incapable of. What other conservatory would put on performances of Wozzeck and Gurrelieder within a few months of each other?
I am extremely proud to present, as our single concert of this season, a piano recital by Stephen Porter, a musician of supreme intelligence, sensitivity, and learning. His pianism is equally developed on the fortepiano as on the modern piano, and we are fortunate that his curious ear for historical instruments has drawn him to the unique qualities of the House of the Redeemer’s Grotrian-Steinweg grand in the intimate acoustics of its Library.
I’d have to affect an especially severe attitude to deny that this was a rewarding summer at Tanglewood, although the token single program by a period instrument group, which is always well-attended and in fact important to Tanglewood, if the festival is to represent music-making as it is today, was missing, and I found rather little to attract me into the Music Shed. The post-Levine formula of revered white-haired visitors is wearing thin, and now that a music director has been appointed, there is no longer the titillation of a possible music director emerging from one of the younger guest conductors. The whit heads will carry on through the next seasons at Symphony Hall and Tanglewood, until Andris Nelsons, the Music Director Designate, takes over full-time…if that actually happens, we begin to wonder.
The wise have shown us down the generations that beautiful spirits can hold two contrary ideas in the mind, carrying their weight and feeling their lightness. Through some kind of serendipity these last weeks have asked this of me. First, motion and music. I am thinking of the suave Stéphane Denève and the awe-inspiring performance of Debussy’s Jeux he conducted with the orchestral Fellows at Tanglewood. He conjures shapes which in turn conjure sounds. Rythymic complexity becomes ease.
Here we are, a hundred years later, and so much of Claude Debussy’s music still beguiles with its freshness! As Michael Tilson Thomas led the San Francisco Symphony through an accomplished performance of Jeux last Sunday, I was reminded how much the daily bread of sound in our own lives comes from Debussy’s late style.
Huntley Dent has written on these pages “two musical instruments rise above all others in their humanity — the violin, because it comes closest to imitating the singing voice, and the piano, because it comes closest to conveying human nature.” So in the simple pairing of the two, a pair of thoughtful and sensitive musicians can ‘say’ more while ‘speaking’ less than many symphonies. Such are Anthony Marwood and Aleksandar Madžar, who play with such humanity to a listener, with originality and directness, with much thought and care. They play with emotional directness even while bravely and generously plumbing the emotional complexity and ambiguity of the difficult music they have chosen.