Tuesday December 16th, 2014 - New York City Ballet have Balanchine's NUTCRACKER; The Philharmonic offers the MESSIAH; and The Met's giving holiday performances of HANSEL & GRETEL. But it's Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center who give us an extra-special gift every year in the run up to Christmas Eve: the complete Brandenburg concertos of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Last year the Society scheduled two performances of this programme, both of which were sold out. This year they have added a third performance, which is the one Dmitry and I attended tonight. And on Thursday they'll take the Brandenburgs on the road, to the Harris Theater in Chicago.
A large crowd this evenng, with additional rows of seating near the stage. A pair of fidgety neighbors were a bit of a distraction, but at least they were silent. The concertos, played in a different order each year, unfolded magically; each has its own complement of players and the Society assembled a roster of excellent musicians who traded off 'seatings' from one concerto to the next. So nice to see principal artists from The New York Philharmonic (Robert Langevin, flute, and Timothy Cobb, double-bass) and TheMetropolitan Opera (Julia Pilant, horn) joining CMS from their neighboring home theatres. Mr. Cobb and John Gibbons (immaculate playing at the harpsichord) performed in all six concertos. The programme looks long on paper, but actually the evening flew by with a savourable mixture of virtuosity and expressive poetry.
The performance opened with the #1 concerto in F-major, which sounds so Handelian to me. This is the concerto with two horns and a trio of oboes. Ms. Pilant and Julie Landsman sounded the brightly-harmonized horn calls with assurance, whilst Stephen Taylor, Randall Ellis, and James Austin Smith piped up delightfully with their oboes, joined by Marc Goldberg on bassoon. Oboe, violin, bassoon and bass sound the poignant adagio, then the high horns ring out briskly in the allegro. You think it's over, but there's a surprise fourth movement - it veers from minuet to polonaise - in which separate choirs of winds and strings summon up the rhythms of the dance.
In concerto #6 (B-flat major) which follows, a trio of cellos (Pauk Watkins, Eileen Moon, Timothy Eddy) bring a particular resonance to the score. The adagio - one of Bach's most movingly melodious inventions - opens with the solo viola (Lily Francis) who passes the theme to violinist Lawrence Dutton. This is a passage that one wants to go on and on. But the closing allegro sweeps us inexorably forward.
Violinist Benjamin Beilman took the lead in the 4th concerto (in G-major); the satiny sheen of his sustained tones and his very deft management of the coloratura passages were indeed impressive, and he is an animated, deeply involved musician. The duo flautists Sooyun Kim and Robert Langevin warbled with silvery sweetness in the fleet phrases of the outer movements and blendied serenely in the central andante. Ben Beilman's striking virtuosity and his elegant lyricism marked a high point in an evening loaded with superb playing.
After the interval, in the 5th concerto (D-major), John Gibbons' harpsichord artistry was to the fore, giving great pleasure in a long, complex and brilliantly etched 'mega-cadenza' at close of the first movement. The central affetuoso movement brings the sterling flute of Mr. Langevin and the poised violin phrasing of Sean Lee, mingling their 'voices' with the keyboard textures Mr. Gibbons so impressively evoked. Yet again, we feel Bach's genius being transmitted to us in all its poignant clarity. The mood and pace then bounce back emphatically with a brisk final allegro.
The 3rd concerto, in G-major, is unique in that the expected central slow movement is replaced by a mere couple of chords before going immediately into allegro overdrive. Thus the entire piece simply rushes forward in a whirlwind of animated playing. The all-strings setting (plus harpsichord, of course) features a large ensemble and much rhythmic and melodic variety whilst always sailing onward.
The evening's final work, the 2nd concerto (in F-major), arrived far to soon. In flourishing flights to the upper range, David Washburn's Baroque trumpet gave the arcangel Gabriel a run for his money. Equally scintllating to the ear was Sooyun Kim's limpid flute playing: both in agility and in sustained, luminous tone, she made a wonderful impression. In the andante, a particularly fine blend of timbres from Ms. Kim, Stephen Taylor (oboe), Lawrence Dutton (violin) and Paul Watkins (cello) made me again want to linger; but the trumpeter's silvery calls in the final allegro assai swept us on to the evening's celebratory conclusion.
The young violinist Sean Lee, playing the concertos with CMS for the first time, wrote movingly of the experience in a Playbill note: "I cannot think of a more joyous, warm, celebratory set of pieces to revel to, as if gathering around a fire during these winter months." Amen to that!
Above: Claudio Abbado and soprano Janis Martin prior to a performance of Schoenberg's ERWARTUNG at La Scala, 1980
Following yesterday's news of the death of Irene Dalis, more sad tidings in the opera world today with the passing of Janis Martin, the American mezzo-turned-soprano, a singer who loomed large in my opera-going career. A Met Auditions winner in 1962 (she sang Dalila's "Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix" at the Winners' Concert), Martin sang nearly 150 performances at the Metropolitan Opera, commencing in 1962 as Flora Bervoix in TRAVIATA. As a young opera-lover, I heard her many times on the Texaco broadcasts. She eventually progressed to "medium-sized" roles: Siebel, Nicklausse, Lola in CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA. Martin left The Met in 1965 and built a career abroad, moving into soprano territory. She returned to The Met and from 1974 thru 1977; during these seasons, she was my first in-house Kundry, Marie in WOZZECK, and Sieglinde. Another hiatus, and then she was back at Lincoln Center from 1988-1992, singing the Witch in HANSEL & GRETEL, the Dyer's Wife in FRAU OHNE SCHATTEN, Senta, the Foreign Princess in RUSALKA, and two performances of TOSCA.
In the past couple of months, I've taken a renewed interest in Janis Martin's singing, after first hearing her as Gutrune in a recording of a tremendous GOTTERDAMMERUNG from Bayreuth 1975. This prompted me to pursue her further, acquiring her Senta in a 1972 Vienna HOLLANDER. Waiting in my pile of "to-listen-to" CDs is her WALKURE Fricka, from Bayreuth 1968. I also searched out my old cassettes of her Met broadcast as the Dyer's Wife (she sings tirelessly, and with great vocal thrust and considerable beauty of tone) and I purchased her commercial recording of ERWARTUNG with Pierre Boulez conducting, which is very impressive.
Janis Martin sings two songs from Hindemith's Drei Gesänge op.9 here. The songs are "Meine Nächte sind heiser zerschrien" (text by Ernst Wilhelm Lotz), and "Weltende" (text by Else Lasker-Schüler).
Another of my great idols from my early years of opera-going has passed away: Irene Dalis - who, after a long singing career went on to run Opera San Jose - has died at the age of 89.
In 2007, I wrote an appreciation of Dalis for my blog and a few months afterward she either found it or it was pointed out to her, and she sent me a lovely note of thanks. I still have the Christmas cards she used to send me back in the '60s and '70s when she was singing at The Met.
Here's Irene at her best, singing Ulrica's incantation "Re dell'abisso, affrettati" from Verdi's UN BALLO IN MASCHERA. And how lovely to find a photo she signed for me midway thru the recording!