Maazel, two composers and others acquit themselves

In an early-January column, I made some recommendations for the rest of the classical-music season. I said that Lorin Maazel would be conducting Don Carlo at the Metropolitan Opera. Some performances were bound to be “great,” others could be “humdrum.” You had to “pick your night carefully.” As it happened, I picked a superb night.

You could complain about Maazel, and I will. Some tempos were sluggish. There was some classic Maazelian overmanagement (particularly in the matter of ritards). The great tenor-baritone duet in Act II had some internal strength, but not enough external strength. It fell flat. And yet . . .

Maazel knows his Verdi. He showed a sure sense of the architecture of the work. He paced wisely. He did not ask more of the music than warranted, at any point. He always had the entire opera in mind. He brought out huge tensions, and fascinatin’ rhythms. He imparted a little jazz, as he can to almost any score. Eboli’s first aria, the Veil Song, is often a nothing. Not from Maazel, who made it an exciting Spanish dance. He likes to dance—through his baton, and sometimes on a podium, literally. The meeting between King Philip and the Grand Inquisitor was riveting. Spellbinding.

For many years, Maazel-bashing has been a popular sport in this town. During Act III, a musician friend sitting next to me whispered, “He conducts with the confidence of a man who thinks he’s the smartest person in the room. He doesn’t care what anyone else thinks.” I agree with that assessment entirely. I also agree with Maazel.

Outstanding in the Met’s cast was the Philip, Ferruccio Furlanetto. He is the Philip of this age, and, indeed, his Philip is arguably the greatest operatic portrayal around. I have heard him sing the king’s monologue many, many times, and I have never heard him better, or more moving, than on this particular night. Furlanetto might scoff at me, but I give the conducting some credit.

The next night, the Vienna Philharmonic started a three-concert stand at Carnegie Hall. Conducting them was a fellow Austrian, Franz Welser-Möst, who is also the conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra. The middle concert started with a Schubert symphony—No. 6—and ended with a Strauss tone poem—Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. The orchestra played beautifully and executed neatly. This is the rare orchestra that is an instrument, a performer, unto itself. As for the conducting, it was adequate, sometimes better. Till can be funnier, darker and more exciting.

Between the Schubert and the Strauss came a work by Jörg Widmann, composed in 2003. Widmann is a German composer and clarinetist. This particular work is Lied, meaning “Song”—and it is a kind of tribute to Schubert, or evocation of Schubert. It quotes several of that composer’s works.

The piece starts very, very quietly. In fact, Welser-Möst waited for a long time for a lady with a walker to reach her seat. He seemed quite annoyed, there on the podium. Lied is slow and arching, and takes its time to arch. It is essentially Romantic with modernist interventions and outbursts. Fittingly, Widmann gives the clarinetist a choice part. In my judgment, the piece is a little long for the material it has. It gets slightly tiresome.

But I’ll tell you what I admire about the piece: It is not an exercise in rhythm, percussion and freneticness, as so many of today’s pieces are. There are other elements of music. Widmann apparently knows this.

Stephen Hough knows it too. Once the Viennese cleared out, the English pianist gave a recital in Carnegie Hall, and among works by Chopin and other heavy-hitters, he presented a work of his own: his Piano Sonata No. 2, subtitled “Notturno Luminoso.” This is an unpredictable piece. It has a whiff of the cabaret lounge. Some perpetual motion. Some rhapsody. Some ripples, jabs and squiggles. Some Debussy. It feels improvisatory yet not unthought through. And I would like to hear it again, which may sound like faint praise, but is actually very high, for a new piece.

Moreover, we can appreciate a performer who rolls his own: who composes as well as plays. The performer and the composer were essentially one, till sometime in the early 20th century.

By the way, Hough used sheet music for his sonata, but not for the other composers’ pieces. He had a dispute with the page-turner, too: She turned too early once. I would rather pilot the space shuttle, blindfolded, than turn pages—some of the most nerve-wracking work there is.