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.
The excellent Stephane Denève chose two works of Hector Berlioz for his TMCO concert. Wholly remarkable was a performance of Les Nuits d’Été. The maestro gave these songs a sound I’ve never heard before. It was ravishingly quiet to begin with, not unlike the nearly silent playing Simon Rattle can achieve in his Mahler performances. It was like something in the air. Even more unforgettable was the coaching he had done with the young singers, each a Fellow of the Tanglewood Music Center. So diaphanous was the orchestral environment for each of the songs, the young voices could merely whisper and be heard. “Au Cimitière” in particular benefitted from this. Sara Lemesh said the words as much as she spoke them.
Over the past months chamber music lovers have found a few important changes in their universe, above all the retirement of the Tokyo String Quartet and David Finckel’s departure from the Emerson. Both of these developments made themselves felt in the summer festivals. The Tokyo played their farewell concert at Yale’s Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, where they have been a fixture for years. It was a characteristically unsentimental affair, although one could see that fans had travelled considerable distances to fill the Norfolk Music Shed on that stifling summer evening. The Emerson played at Tanglewood with their superb new cellist, the distinguished soloist and conductor, Paul Watkins, and David Finckel appeared at the South Mountain Concerts with his wife Wu Han and violinist Philip Setzer of the Emerson, marking his even busier schedule as a member of a duo and trio. Listen to my interview with David Finckel and Wu Han for a full account of the changes in his life.
The musical event I was most looking forward to all summer was the premiere of Mark Morris’s production of Benjamin Britten’s Curlew River (1964), the first and probably the most beautiful and moving of what he called his three “parables for church performance”—essentially conductorless one-act chamber operas on spiritual themes. William Plomer’s libretto takes Juro Motomasa’s 15th-century Japanese Noh play Sumidagawa (“Sumida River”), Christianizes it, and transfers the location to England’s East Anglian Fenland (the other two church parables, The Burning Fiery Furnace and The Prodigal Son, are more directly biblical). The new production would be paired with Morris’s Dido and Aeneas (1989), his unforgettable dance version of Henry Purcell’s operatic masterpiece choreographed the year of its tricentennial. And Britten loved Purcell.
Last November Mark Volpe, Managing Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Anthony Fogg, Artistic Administrator, and members of the orchestra presented the 75th anniversary season of the festival in a low-key event, which, as relaxed and friendly as it was, brought back memories of old Boston in its restraint. No one attempted to hide his pride in this important anniversary of what is undoubtedly the key music festival in North America, but nobody did anything that would be out of place at the Somerset Club either.
This preview of this year’s Tanglewood season has been revised twice already, and here come James Levine’s cancellations of all his Tanglewood engagements. The Pelléas et Mélisande will be replaced by a TMC Orchestra concert. The other programs will proceed as scheduled. Levine’s replacements will be announced in June. I’ll discuss the wider implications of this later in The Boston Musical Intelligencer. In the last version of this preview I introduced the following paragraph to mitigate the peevish tone in which I began. It still holds true, I think.