Monday, May 30, 2016

Juilliard Chamber Music: Mendelssohn, Schubert and Mozart

On Friday afternoon at Paul Hall I attended the annual Juilliard String Quartet Seminar that this year showcased the playing of two ensembles I had not previously heard in recital.  The program featured works by three masters of the string quartet form - Mendelssohn, Schubert and Mozart.

The recital began with Mendelssohn's String Quartet No. 4 in E minor, Op. 44, No. 2 (1837, revised 1839) performed by the Heimat String Quartet consisting of Patrick Shaughnessy and Aubrey Holmes, violins; Chung Han Hsiao, viola; and Aaron Fried, cello.  For some reason, Mendelssohn's quartets have appeared on a number of programs I've attended recently.  To be honest, I've always considered this composer's work to have been written more with the head than the heart in the sense that Mendelssohn, more classicist than romantic, assiduously cultivated his own image and consciously wrote works that reflected the erudite persona he chose to present to the public.  That was never so true as in this quartet, written on Mendelssohn's honeymoon immediately after his marriage to Cecile Jeanrenaud.  The piece is thoroughly charming and genteel but never rises to the level of greatness.

The next ensemble to take the stage was the Belka Quartet whose members include Beatrice Hsieh and Charles Gleason, violins; Matthew Geise, viola; and Daniel Blumhard, cello.  They performed Schubert's String Quartet No. 13 in A minor, D. 804 (1824).  This work has become a great favorite of the Chamber Music Honors program - I have heard it performed on three different occasions this season by the Calliope Quartet - and for good reason.  The piece takes its nickname the "Rosamunde" from the incidental music to the eponymous drama, one of whose themes appears here in the second movement.  This was the first of Schubert's three great quartets following the 1820 Quartettsatz and was written at approximately the same time as the Quartet No. 14, Death and the Maiden.  It made a striking contrast to the Mendelssohn piece played immediately before.  While the former is carefully composed and calculated, Schubert's quartet seems to gush forth fully formed from some wellspring of creativity deep within him and overwhelms the listener with its emotional power.

After intermission, the Heimat Quartet returned to perform Mozart's String Quintet No. 4 in G minor, K. 516 (1787).  The additional viola part was taken by guest Joseph Lin, a member of the Juilliard Quartet and one of the most highly regarded violinists now active.  Those familiar with Mozart's oeuvre know that key of G minor had a special meaning for the composer.  It was in this key that he composed some of his greatest works, such as the Symphony No. 40, and its use invariably connoted a sense of tragedy and grief.  Certainly, Mozart during this period had reason to feel sorrowful.  In poor health and straitened circumstances, he had seen his career in Vienna reduced to a few odd commissions.  As his music grew too advanced for his audiences to easily follow, he was no longer able to stage the lucrative subscription concerts that had previously sustained him.  One feels in listening to this work that he is here giving way to his feelings and expressing his despair.  What then to make of the joyful allegro with which the work closes?  I think Mozart felt a need to pull back from the bleak outlook that stretched before him.  Perhaps he found it too unbearable to contemplate any longer.  Or it may be that he decided that the work would not be sellable (H.C. Robbins Landon has hypothesized that the composer wrote this and its companion, the K. 515, on speculation "hoping to sell manuscript copies to amateurs by subscription.") if the dark mood were not at least to some extent relieved.

As I was returning to my seat at the end of intermission I met another member of the Juilliard Quartet, Joel Krosnick who will be retiring as the ensemble's cellist at the end of this season.  I felt honored to have the opportunity to tell him how much I had enjoyed his musicianship over the years. I recalled with special fondness when speaking with him a performance of Bach's Die Kunst der Fuge I had heard the Quartet perform many years ago.

The playing by both ensembles at this recital was top notch.  It seems that every year the Juilliard faculty somehow manages to routinely produce string quartet ensembles of the highest caliber.  When listening to these exceptionally talented musicians, however, I cannot help but wonder whether there still exist audiences for the music they play.  Even in New York City, supposedly one of the country's cultural centers, there are never many people present at the chamber music recitals I attend and I usually see the same faces over and over in the audience.  It's disheartening that such fine performances of great music do not draw more listeners.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Carnegie Hall: James Levine Conducts Wagner

Yesterday evening, the Met Orchestra, once again led by James Levine, performed the final concert of their Carnegie Hall series.  With the assistance of soloists Christine Goerke, soprano, and Stefan Vinke, tenor, the orchestra concluded its season in grand style with excerpts from Wagner's epic tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen.

The Ring Cycle stands firmly apart from the standard opera repertoire.  According to its creator, the four works that comprise it - Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung - are not really operas at all but "dramas."  (Wagner also preferred to categorize the overall structure, in deference to classical Greek tragedy, as a trilogy with a prelude rather than as a tetralogy.)  Premiered in its entirety in 1876 at the first Bayreuth Festival, it was intended as an immersive experience for the audience.  I have attended a complete performance at the Met Opera myself and can attest that over the course of four evenings the listener is pulled ever deeper into The Ring's mythological world so that at its conclusion he or she cannot help but experience an overwhelming sense of catharsis.

There have been many attempts to interpret the "meaning" of The Ring.  This began with Wagner himself who revised the ending to Götterdämmerung several times as he came under the spell of successive philosophers, from Feuerbach to Schopenhauer, and has continued to our time.  I don't believe it's necessary to conduct any such analysis, however, in order to appreciate the music.  Whatever his failures as a human being, Wagner was a superb composer and, like it or not, The Ring stands as one of the great monuments of Western music.  Ironically, though, Wagner's great opus, which was once seen as the standard bearer of modernism, is now regarded as the last flourish of Romanticism.  So successful was it in fulfilling the movement's promise that there was nowhere left to go afterwards.  The Ring was, in Debussy's words, "a magnificent sunset that was mistaken for a sunrise."

Yesterday evening's performance was divided into two parts.  In the first half, the orchestra performed one selection from each of the first three operas - "Entry of the Gods into Valhalla" from Das Rheingold, "Ride of the Valkyries" from Die Walküre, and "Siegfried and Brünnhilde's Love Duet from Siegfried.  In the second half of the program, the three selections performed by the orchestra were all taken from Götterdämmerung - "Dawn, Duet, and Siegfried's Rhine Journey," "Siegfried's Death and Funeral March," and "Brünnhilde's Immolation Scene."

I had seen earlier this season a selection of excerpts from Götterdämmerung performed by the Vienna Philharmonic under the direction of Valery Gergiev.  I thought yesterday evening's performance was, if anything, even more powerful.  James Levine demonstrated once again that he has no peer as a conductor as he tirelessly led the orchestra through the long program (two and a half hours including one intermission).  Stefan Vinke, who replaced Johan Botha who was forced to withdraw due to illness, gave a strong performance; but it paled beside that of Christine Goerke.  I had seen the soprano earlier this season in the title role of Struass's Elektra in a concert performance given by the Boston Symphony under the direction of Andris Nelson and thought her excellent.  Yesterday evening, however, she reached new heights as she gave one of the finest renditions of Brünnhilde I have ever heard.  All in all, this was a magnificent performance by everyone involved and a fine way for Carnegie Hall to end its season.  I also thought it highly appropriate that after all the drama surrounding James Levine's retirement as Music Director he should choose to conclude the Met Orchestra's season with selections from Götterdämmerung.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Carnegie Hall: Renée Fleming Sings Strauss

Yesterday afternoon the Met Opera Orchestra performed an all-Strauss program in the second of its series of concerts at Carnegie Hall.  James Levine was most unfortunately not able to conduct this performance as originally planned; his place at the podium was taken by David Robertson, music director of the St. Louis Symphony.  Thankfully, soprano Renée Fleming, whose forte I've always considered to be her interpretations of Strauss's lieder, was still available as soloist.

The program opened with the early tone poem Don Juan, Op. 20 (1888).  Coincidentally, I had just heard last month a performance at Juilliard of this same work and was interested in comparing it to the present rendition by the Met Orchestra.  This, of course, was the work with which the young Strauss first established his reputation.  And deservedly so, though the piece is not nearly as innovative as it first appears.  While Strauss is often credited with having originated the tone poem as a genre, the term had in fact been used earlier by Liszt in describing several of his own works.  If one chooses to look even further back, the concept of affixing a program to a symphonic work had been introduced decades earlier by Beethoven in his Sixth Symphony, the Pastoral.  Nevertheless, the work is a remarkable achievement for so young a composer and of historical importance for the impetus it gave to his career.  In it, Strauss successfully adapted the influence of Wagner to create a style that was uniquely his own and that he was to successfully develop over the coming years.  Moreover, the work has a charm that is missing from Strauss's later and more bombastic tone poems.

Next came the real heart of the program, Vier letzte Lieder ("Four Last Songs"), composed several months before the composer's death at age 84 and premiered posthumously.  These were his last major compositions and, as such, must be considered his final testament.  It is really the late Strauss that I've always found most fascinating.  What must it have been like for him during the war years to have witnessed his country, once the proud cultural center of Europe, bombed into rubble?  He never spoke publicly about his feelings, but shortly after composing his masterpiece Metamorphosen he confided to his diary:
"The most terrible period of human history is at an end, the twelve year reign of bestiality, ignorance and anti-culture under the greatest criminals, during which Germany's 2000 years of cultural evolution met its doom."
The composer who wrote the Four Last Songs was not the same individual who had completed Don Juan sixty years before.  He had seen and suffered too much in the interval.  There is no trace of self-pity but only a pervading sense of resignation when at the end of the last song Im Abendrot, whose text was written by the nineteenth century Romantic poet Joseph von Eichendorff, he asks "Ist dies etwa der Tod?"

After intermission, Ms. Fleming returned to the stage to perform a selection of Strauss's lieder - Meinem Kinde, Liebeshymnus, Das Bächlein, Ruhe, meine Seele, and Die heiligen drei Könige aus Morgenland.  The choice of Das Bächlein was surprising as this was the infamous piece that Strauss, after having been newly appointed president of the Reichsmusikkammer, had not only dedicated to Goebbels but had then gone on to close with the odious sentiment, "Der mich gerufen aus dem Stein,/Der, denk ich, wird mein Führer sein."

The program concluded with the orchestra's performance of Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30 (1896).  Eight years separate this work from Don Juan, and in the interim its composer had gone on to become the most highly lauded musical figure of his time, the very personification of the German fin de siècle ethos.  Not surprisingly then, what first strikes one when listening to the work's dramatic, over-the-top opening is Strauss's hubris that was to become even more evident in his self-referential Ein Heldenleben written two years later.  In taking his inspiration from Nietzsche's concept of the "superman," Strauss could not have but helped but see in himself its very incarnation.  Little could he have suspected then how discredited the term would become in the twentieth century after the Nazis had betrayed its meaning to further their own nightmarish purposes.  It could also never have occurred to Strauss that the genre that had so elevated his reputation was essentially a musical dead end, one which he himself would abandon as his country descended into the cataclysm of World War I.  Ironically, what later saved this work from becoming an anachronism was its use in popular culture, i.e., the soundtrack of Kubrick's classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey.  It gave the work a new popularity that ensured its continued place in the repertoire even as its original meaning faded from the memory of its listeners.

This was a strong performance.  David Robertson's conducting, if not inspired, was workmanlike and satisfactory.  Renée Fleming was excellent as she sang the repertoire with which she has always been most comfortable.  It was a feast for the audience to hear so many great Strauss lieder performed so brilliantly.  As for the musicians, I consider the Met Orchestra right now to be the best in the world, on a par or even ahead of the great European ensembles.  It will be interesting in the coming seasons to see how well the company fares under a new music director.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Carnegie Hall: James Levine Conducts Glinka, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky

There has been a great deal of drama these past few months surrounding the departure of James Levine as Music Director of the Met Opera.  While it's always wrenching to see any great artist's career curtailed by poor health, it's particularly regrettable in this case.  Those who have attended performances led by Mr. Levine over the years know fully well that he is irreplaceable. It was particularly exciting then to see the revered conductor take the podium yesterday evening to lead the Met Orchestra in his first concert as "Music Director Emeritus" in an all-Russian program that included works by Glinka, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky.

The evening began with Glinka's Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila (1836-1842).  Glinka's opera was not notably successful in its own day and, except for the lively overture, is largely forgotten today outside Russia where the composer is still venerated as the inspirational force behind the "Mighty Handful."  Part of the blame for the opera's failure can be attributed to the death of Aleksandr Pushkin on whose poem the opera was based.  The poet was to have written the libretto, but his collaboration with the composer ended abruptly when he was killed in a duel and Glinka was forced to rely instead on an undistinguished text written by Valerian Shirkov.  The poor quality of the libretto, however, did not have any effect on the glistening overture.  Despite Glinka's importance in creating a truly Russian style of classical music, he had already been familiar with the work of Rossini before meeting both Bellini and Donizetti while visiting Italy in 1830 and the sprightly Italian influence can clearly be heard in the overture.  

The next work was Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18 (1900-1901) and featured the highly acclaimed Evgeny Kissin as soloist.  In the case of most musical works, the dedication is no more than a formality.  But behind this piece's simple wording, "To Monsieur N. Dahl," lies so fascinating a tale that no one can help referring to it when discussing this work.  Briefly, after the disastrous premiere of his First Symphony, Rachmaninoff was so traumatized by the work's poor reception that he found himself unable to compose.  Only through the intervention of a hypnotist, said Nikolai Dahl, could Rachmaninoff bring himself to undertake the present concerto.  Whether this really has anything to do with the music is questionable, but it certainly does seem that in this work Rachmaninoff had achieved a new level of self-assurance.  This can immediately be heard in the piano's dramatic opening chords and the ease with which soloist and orchestra change places back and forth as accompanist to one another.  Rachmaninoff did not trust his own judgment however.  He first played the second and third movements, which he had composed while traveling in Italy and the Crimea, at a concert in December 1900.  Only after Rachmaninoff had satisfied himself that the work had been well received did he then compose the first movement.  The full concerto was premiered in Moscow in November 1901 with Rachmaninoff as soloist and Alexsandr Siloti conducting and was an overwhelming success.  Since then the work has become, along with Tchaikovsky's First Concerto, one of the most popular in the entire repertoire.  

Continuing in the spirit of Russian Romanticism, the orchestra returned after intermission to perform Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 (1893), entitled the Pathétique.  While the work is obviously dark, I do not think there is any reason to believe, as many critics have written, that the composer felt while writing it a foreboding of his own death.  Such claims make for a great story, especially those that hold Tchaikovsky was forced by a "court of honor" to commit suicide, but I personally think it much more likely that Tchaikovsky, unhappy over the reception given The Nutcracker and Iolanta the previous year, determined to move in an entirely different direction.  And certainly nineteenth century Russian artists - one thinks immediately of Dostoevsky - never hesitated to explore the depths of despair and suffering in their works.  Nor is Tchaikovsky's No. 6 all gloom and desolation.  It is true that the indeterminate end of the final movement with which the work concludes refuses to provide the listener any sense of comfort.  Nevertheless, if, as some have noted, the order of the third and final movements had been reversed the entire symphony would have had an entirely different and more uplifting character.  As it is, though, one feels when listening to the final notes a powerful surge of empathy rising within oneself.  There can be no doubt that this is Tchaikovsky's most powerful work, the one in which he most fully revealed his inner self.

I thought Mr. Levine's conducting throughout the performance as superb as ever.  It has been suggested that the Parkinson's from which he suffers causes his hands to shake so badly that the musicians are unable to follow him, but I was close enough yesterday evening to follow his hand movements attentively and saw no sign of any such affliction.  As for Evgeny Kissin, he was masterful in his interpretation of the Rachmaninoff concerto.  This is a work in which the soloist must work more closely with the orchestra than usual and at times put himself in the background as an accompanist to it.  Mr. Kissin's interaction with the orchestra was flawless and a great triumph for both.  He well deserved the standing ovation he received.  The encores which he performed afterwards were equally impressive.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Jupiter Players Perform Beethoven, Pärt, Mozart and Shostakovich

On Monday, the Jupiter Players performed their last recital of the season at Good Shepherd Church.  The ensemble, which specializes in presenting lesser known chamber works, on this occasion broke with tradition and instead chose a program of works by some of classical music's most famous composers.  This lent the event an appropriately festive air.  The program, entitled Distant Orbits, featured works by BeethovenArvo Pärt, Mozart and Shostakovich.

The first half of the program was dedicated to Mozart's music, even if none of the pieces was presented in the form in which he had originally composed it.  Instead, the opening work was Beethoven's Variations on the Theme Là ci darem la mano, WoO 28 (1795) taken from the aria, “There we will give each other our hands,” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni.   This is the moment in the opera when Don Giovanni attempts to seduce Zerlina after first having gotten his rival Masetto out of the way.  Beethoven - who early in his career routinely produced variations on popular pieces - had arranged the duet for two oboes and an English horn, but in a transcription of a transcription it was here presented for flute, clarinet, and bassoon.  I thought the piece worked very well in this arrangement.  It was light and charming and thoroughly captivated the audience.

The next work was Pärt's Mozart-Adagio (1992).  The piece was written both as a tribute to the late violinist Oleg Kagan, who had been a close friend of Pärt, and as fulfillment of a commission from the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio.  While Kagan had been staunch champion of the modern repertoire, he had also been a great admirer of Mozart's music.  It was fitting then that the bulk of this piece consisted of an adaptation of the second movement adagio from the Piano Sonata No 2 in F, K. 189e (K. 280) (1774).  The original movement was in the form of a siciliana and was notable, especially considering how young Mozart was at the time he wrote it, for its tragic air.  It was fascinating to hear the great composer's music adapted for Pärt's tintinnabulist style.  It allowed one to view a classic through the lens of a contemporary master. 

The first half concluded with Mozart's Grande Sestetto Concertante transcribed by an unknown arranger for string sextet from the Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat Major, K. 364 (1779), originally composed for violin, viola and orchestra.  The Sinfonia Concertante, what today would be termed a double concerto, has always been one of my favorite works by Mozart and the arranger here was very successful in capturing both the spirit and complexity of the piece.  I don't believe anything was lost in this reduction for a much smaller group of instruments.

After intermission, the ensemble performed Shostakovich's Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 57 (1940).  This is without doubt one of the greatest chamber works of the twentieth century and a high point in Soviet musical history.  Shostakovich, whose work was so often charged with "formalism," was even awarded a Stalin Prize for his effort.  Listening to the piece, it's easy to understand why it was so successful.  This a sophisticated modernist work composed in an unusual five-movement format that drives relentlessly forward.  At the same time, though, it possesses an emotional range that renders it easily accessible to its audience.  Considering the troubles Shostakovich endured with Stalin and his censors throughout his career, I thought it was completely fitting that piano part was played at this performance by Ignat Solzhenitsyn, the son of the famous dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who was forced into exile by the Soviets.  An accomplished conductor and musician - he was the last student of Artur Schnabel - Solzhenitsyn seemed to possess an intuitive understanding of exactly how the music should sound.  This was an outstanding rendition of a true classic.

Due to scheduling conflicts, I hadn't been able to attend nearly as many of the Jupiter Players' performances in the second half of this season as I would have liked.  This is really a first class ensemble, and I was reminded of that again as I listened to Monday's performance.  The company also has a wonderful roster of guest artists who rarely appear elsewhere in the metro area.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Juilliard Chamber Music: Fauré, Glière and Mozart

I went to the last of the this season's Sunday afternoon chamber music recitals at Morse Hall this past weekend.  The room was for some reason much more crowded than it had been for the last several weeks, and I was happy for the musicians' sake that they had gotten such a good turnout.  The program lasted about 75 minutes with one ten minute intermission and featured the work of Gabriel Fauré, Reinhold Glière and Mozart.

The recital began with Fauré's Violin Sonata No. 1 in A major, Op. 13 (1875-1876) performed by Cindy Lin, violin, and Jae Young Kim, piano, and coached by violinist Lara Lev.  I have to admit at the outset that I've never been a great fan of Fauré's music.  Like much of the nineteenth century French repertoire, it's always seemed to me to represent a triumph of style over substance.  The sonata was dedicated to Paul Viardot, son of the great singer Pauline Viardot and brother of Marianne Viardot who broke off her engagement to Fauré, for reasons never given, after only three months.  The work was performed, however, by another violinist, Marie Tayau, at its 1877 premiere with Fauré at the piano.  The sonata was championed enthusiastically by Saint-Saëns and has become a staple of the repertoire.  Following its first appearance, seemingly every major French composer attempted to work in this format with varying degrees of success.

The next work was a selection of five movements from Glière's Duos pour Violin et Bass, Op. 39 (1909).  These included the Prelude, Gavotte, Berceuse, Intermezzo and Scherzo.  No reason was given why the other three movements were not included in the performance.  Though Glière is not very well known in the West, he was a stalwart of the Soviet musical establishment, one of the few who survived from the pre-Revolutionary period to become highly honored during Stalin's regime.  I thought the present piece interesting for its unusual combination of instruments but even more so for its traditionalism.  It's hard to believe that Glière and Shostakovich were both active during the same period.  It must have seemed highly unfair to the latter that Glière was so highly honored (four first-degree Stalin prizes) while he himself had to live in fear of his life for having created music that did not adhere to the strict party line.  The musicians here were Rachel Minjae Kim, violin, and Yu-Chen Yang, bass; their coach was Eugene Levinson.

After intermission, the program concluded with Mozart's Duo for Violin and Viola in G major, K. 423 (1783) performed by Zhenyang Yu, violin, and Jiali Li.  The coach was once again Lara Lev.  The famous story behind this work, at least according to Mozart's wife Constanza, is that during a visit to Salzburg the composer pitched in when his friend Michael Haydn became too ill to complete a commission for six duos from Mozart's old nemesis Archbishop Colloredo.  Mozart supposedly wrote two duos anonymously and then presented them as Haydn's work.  It was only recently that Mozart had relocated to Vienna after having been fired by the Archbishop, and it's tempting to imagine him having fun with such a deception at the latter's expense.  The truth, though, is that Mozart's style of composition for these instruments differed significantly from that of his friend.  Mozart was an expert violist and in fact sometimes played that instrument when performing quartets with Michael's brother Joseph.  He was therefore much better able to balance the two instruments than was Michael whose work placed the violin in a dominant position while the viola was assigned only a supporting role.  In any event, the duo is a sparkling work that expertly plays off the two sets of strings one against the other in truly enjoyable fashion.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Orion Quartet Performs Mendelssohn, Kirchner and Beethoven

I rode the subway down to the Village on Thursday evening to hear the Orion Quartet perform the last of their four recitals this season at Mannes.  These are the only performances sponsored by the school that I still attend since it moved last year from its old home on 85th Street.  I feel it's worth enduring even a ride on the C train to hear an ensemble of this quality.  It helps too that their programs are so well thought out.   Thursday was no exception - the featured composers were Mendelssohn, Leon Kirchner and Beethoven

The evening began with Mendelssohn's String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 13 (1827).  It's no coincidence that this piece was composed in the same year as Beethoven's Op. 131, played in the second half of this recital.  Though Beethoven's late quartets had not yet come to be appreciated as the masterpieces they were, and for that matter would not be for many years to come, Mendelssohn was already able, at only age 18, to discern the greatness within them.  He studied the scores and then implemented a number of elements from them, including their cyclic structure, in this his first quartet (the Quartet No. 1 in E flat major was actually written two years later though published first).  It is surprising then that Mendelssohn's work, a conscious tribute to a beloved master, sounds so utterly different from anything Beethoven himself ever composed.  Instead, the Quartet No. 2 is one of the most lyrical pieces ever written, an expression of passionate longing that perfectly typifies the Romantic temperament.  One has to remember that Mendelssohn, however precocious a craftsman he may have been, was at the same time still a teenager.  It's obvious listening to the work that he was in love at the time he wrote it.  Whether this was an actual full blown love affair or a momentary infatuation is beside the point.  The work, which incorporates in its score the title of his song Ist es wahr?, is thoroughly sentimental in character and it is really this that makes it so appealing to listeners today.  It represents one of those rare occasions when Mendelssohn put aside his carefully cultivated genteel persona and allowed his audience a glimpse of the individual who stood behind it.

The next work was Kirchner's Quartet No. 3 for strings and electronic tape (1967).  With all due respect to Kirchner, this piece, which actually won the Pulitzer Prize, can only be described as bizarre.  This is what happens when a talented composer attempts to reinvent himself and sound "up to date," in this case by interspersing with instrumental music electronic sound effects created on a synthesizer.  Unfortunately for Kirchner, the sounds are exactly the same as those which we now associate with low budget sci fi films from the 1950's.  (Think Earth v. the Flying Saucers and you get the idea.)  The instrumental music is at times intriguing but the bothersome noises that intrude upon it keep the listener from being able to fully appreciate it.  Not surprisingly, Kirchner gave up working with electronic music soon after having completed this piece.

After intermission, the program concluded with a performance of Beethoven's String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 131 (1826).  Beethoven's late quartets were not composed in the order of the opus numbers assigned them.  The Op. 131 and the Op. 135 were not part of the original commission from Prince Galitzin and were the last to be written.  Much is always made of the fact that early nineteenth century listeners did not know how to react to Beethoven's late quartets, but the truth is that even today it's hard to know what to make of them.  It's a world away from Mendelssohn's Op. 13.  The late quartets constitute the composer's last testament, but what exactly was he trying to express in them?  Almost two hundred years have passed and, despite innumerable learned articles, we are still no closer to the answer.  These works, the Op. 131 paramount among them, will always be a mystery.  The best we can do is to listen as closely as possible and to admire Beethoven's stunning achievement that transcends musical technique to offer a truth that cannot be put in words, that slips away even as one tries to explain it.  The Orion Quartet's performance of this work on Thursday evening was masterfully executed, and it provided the audience an invaluable opportunity to appreciate one of the greatest musical works of all time. 

This was the first time I'd attended an event at Mannes's new auditorium on Fifth Avenue at 13th Street.  Like the rest of the building, it's done on a grand scale.  There is no raised stage, but the portion of the floor allotted to performance space is huge.  The important thing, of course, is its acoustics.  They turned out to be excellent if a bit dry.  I could hear each instrument distinctly.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner at Galerie St. Etienne

The Galerie St. Etienne on West 57th Street has long been one of New York City's foremost venues for the viewing of modern German art; its present exhibit of work by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner represents a rare opportunity to view drawings, watercolors and graphic works by one of the most prominent Expressionists, a co-founder of the artists' group Die Brücke.

There are roughly fifty works on view at the exhibit, most of them drawn from the collection of Robert Lehman.  They cover the period from 1906 at the very inception of Die Brücke through the mid-1920's when Kirchner had already relocated to Switzerland.  They thus provide a comprehensive overview of the development of the artist's singular style.

Kirchner had originally come to Dresden to study architecture at Königliche Technische Hochschule, and it was while enrolled there that he met fellow students Fritz Bleyl, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Erich Heckel with whom he was to found Die Brücke.  This was probably the happiest and most creative part of Kirchner's life.  Together with his associates he lived a thoroughly bohemian lifestyle.  As described on the gallery's website:
"Here naked women cavorted freely, seemingly unburdened by any residue of Christian shame. Young girls were portrayed as avatars of prelapsarian purity, titillating yet chaste. Like little Eves, they appear unaware of their nudity. The goal, in Kirchner’s words, was to depict 'free human beings in free naturalness.'"
Kirchner's favorite model during the Dresden years was Doris Große, known as "Dodo," and there are several lithographs and drawings of her on display that are notable for their total lack of artifice.  The works I found most interesting from this period, however, were those done outside the studio, such as Costumed Female Dancer (watercolor and graphite, 1910) and Gentleman with Lap Dog in Café (two-color woodcut, 1911).

In 1911, Kirchner relocated to Berlin where he and fellow Expressionist Max Pechstein opened a private art school.  He also found in Berlin a new model, Erna Schilling, who was to be his companion for the remainder of his life.  But things did not go smoothly for Kirchner in Germany's huge metropolis.  First the art school failed, and then Die Brücke dissolved amid a great deal of acrimony.  Left on his own, Kirchner managed to organize a successful solo show at the Essen Folkwang Museum but changing tastes in art left him without a major dealer to represent him in Berlin.  The worst crisis, however, came with the commencement of World War I.  Kirchner enlisted in 1915 but before having seen any action suffered a complete breakdown and entered a sanatorium for the treatment of drug and alcohol abuse.  Though he achieved some success and created a number of important artworks upon his return to Berlin, Kirchner had had enough and in 1917 emigrated to Switzerland.  He remained there until 1938 when he committed suicide.

Though there are any number of interesting works shown at the current exhibit, for me the high points are the woodcuts, a medium in which Kirchner excelled and in which - in my opinion at least - he created his most distinctive works.   There are three masterpieces on display: Frau Professor Goldstein (Kohnstamm Sanatorium), 1916; Couple (Lovers), 1921; and Portrait of a Man and a Woman (Mr. and Mrs. Schiefler), 1923.  It was worth the trip to 57th Street just to see these.

The exhibit continues through July 1, 2016.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Juilliard Chamber Music: Vivaldi, Brahms, Ohanessian and Beethoven

I took advantage of the sunny weather on Sunday afternoon - the first in several days - and went to the one o'clock chamber music recital at Morse Hall.  It turned out to be a full length performance that featured the works  of Vivaldi, Brahms, Beatrice Ohanessian and Beethoven.

The program opened with two pieces by Vivaldi, the Sonata for Violin and Cembalo in G minor, RV 27, and the Concerto for Lute in D major, RV 93.  Both pieces had been transcribed by the two performers, Andrea Fortier, viola, and Alberta Khoury, guitar, for their respective instruments.  Their coach was the violinist Lara Lev.  The RV 27 was the first of the twelve violin sonatas that comprise Vivaldi's Op. 2 and was composed in 1709, the same year the entire set was first published by Antonio Bortolio.  The RV 93, written in 1730, was a much later work written while Vivaldi was visiting Prague.  The most affecting movement in the latter piece was the second, marked largo, distinguished by its shifts in meter.  I thought the arrangements were very well done and sounded quite natural when played on viola and guitar.

The next work was Brahms's Cello Sonata No. 2 in F major, Op. 99 (1886).  The musicians, who had been coached by Joel Krosnick and Catherine Cho, were YiQun Xu, cello, and Yandi Chen, piano.  The Op. 99 was written when Brahms was already 53 years old but so romantic is it in character, especially in the tender second movement adagio affettuoso, that it sounds like the work of a much younger composer.  In this respect it resembles the other works, the Piano Trio in C minor, Op. 101 and the Violin Sonata in A major, Op. 100, written during this same summer holiday that Brahms spent happily in Hofstetten near Lake Thun in Switzerland.  For whatever reason (Brahms had written to his friend Max Kalbeck, "I'd also just mention that there's a ton of Biergartens...) the surroundings must have made Brahms feel like a young man again.  He was able to put aside the fussy perfectionism that caused him to obsessively labor over his music, often to its detriment, and instead to indulge in the spontaneity that is at the heart of the Romantic ethos.  Perhaps as Brahms entered his late period he finally gained enough confidence in his abilities, after years spent hearing the footsteps of Beethoven behind him, that he was finally able to enjoy himself.  One can almost hear him humming to himself as he composed this work.

After intermission the program continued with a single movement solo piano work entitled The Dawn that had been written by Beatrice Ohanessian, an Iraqi composer of Armenian descent.  I have to admit I had never heard of this composer before attending the recital and had to do some research afterwards just to find out who she was.  Her biography, as set forth in Wikipedia, gives no indication of the difficulties she faced in working in Hussein's Iraq but they must have been considerable.  The work performed, about fifteen minutes in length, was complex and appeared technically demanding, though pianist Wenting Shi handled it with great confidence and virtuosity.

The program concluded with Beethoven's String Quartet in B-flat major, Op. 18, No. 6 (1801).  The performers were Bomsori Kim and Dasol Jeong, violins; Hahnsol Kim, viola; and Nathan Chan, cello.  Their coach on this piece was the cellist Timothy Eddy of the Orion Quartet.  The quartet was composed near the end of Beethoven's Early Period and, though it would still be some time before he wrote his famous Heiligenstadt Testament, it's clear from the last movement that he was already experiencing the depression over his loss of hearing that would eventually lead him away from the Classical style toward the brooding introspection that characterized his Middle Period.  This movement, titled La Malinconia, marked a turning point in Beethoven's artistry.  True, he had not yet resolved to heroically overcome his affliction but was at this point still attempting to come to terms with it.  And yet the decision to express his feelings so explicitly in a musical work (he marked the score "Questo pezzo si deve trattare colla più gran delicatezza") was unprecedented in his oeuvre and effectively removed him from the tradition of  Haydn and Mozart.  The return to a more upbeat mood in the allegretto that closes the work is not at all convincing, but the listener senses that it was not intended to be.  It is as if Beethoven were putting on a brave face for form's sake but wanted to make it clear to all that his heart was not really in the gesture.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Carnegie Hall: Yefim Bronfman Performs Prokofiev's War Sonatas

On Saturday evening at Carnegie Hall, Yefim Bronfman performed what was to have been the third and final installment of the complete cycle of Sergei Prokofiev's piano sonatas.  But the second, which was originally to have taken place on March 9th, was rescheduled and will instead be performed on June 18th at Zankel Hall.  The three sonatas Mr. Bronfman played on Saturday evening were the Nos. 6, 7 and 8, collectively referred to as the "war sonatas."  The title is misleading, though, since Prokofiev had begun work on all three in 1939 when the Soviet Union was, however uneasily, still at peace.  Since Prokofiev worked on the three compositions simultaneously, it is necessary to see each as part of a whole and to understand the relationships and dynamics they share among themselves.

The Piano Sonata No. 6 in A Major, Op. 82 that opened the program was completed in 1940.  As mentioned above, at the time the Soviet Union, still adhering the protocols of the Nonaggression Pact with Germany, was not yet at war.  Still, the the pervading mood, expressed immediately in the opening bars, is one of desperation and of fear barely held under control.  It is an awareness of the horror lurking in the shadows and waiting only the right moment to manifest itself.  (It could, of course, be argued that this had as much to do with the paranoia generated by Stalin's purges as with the war then raging in Western Europe.  Prokofiev's friend Vsevolod Meyerhold and his wife Zinaida Reich had both been arrested and murdered by the NKVD shortly before he began composing the sonatas.)  The opening movement is filled with dissonance as each hand plays in a different key, the one in A major and the other in A minor.  There is no stability here, only a sense of impending collapse.  It is impossible for us living in the twenty-first century to imagine what it must have been like for those who had lived through the horrors of World War I, touted as the "War to End All Wars," to once again see their world slipping inexorably into the cataclysm of death and destruction they thought they had left behind once and for all.  It must have seemed to these poor people, Prokofiev among them, that they were trapped in a relentless cycle from which there was no escape.  I think it was this scenario, the sense of being caught up in a nightmare from which one could not awaken, that inspired the mood of the No. 6.  The interludes of calm, as in the third movement marked Tempo di valzer lentissimo, are only brief respites before the madness begins all over again.  The final movement is one of unstoppable violence as an unrelenting mechanized first theme smashes against a softer second theme filled with yearning.

Prokofiev completed the second of the series, the Piano Sonata No. 7 in B-flat Major, Op. 83 two years later in 1942 but had already begun sketching it out as early as 1939 when he was already at work on the No. 6.  The work was premiered in Moscow in January of 1943 by the great Soviet pianist Sviatoslav Richter.  By then the Soviet Union was at war and fighting for its survival as the decisive Battle of Stalingrad raged.  The work captures perfectly the spirit of the times.  If anything, the mood of desperate uncertainty expressed in the No. 6 is only heightened in this work whose opening movement is marked allegro inquieto.  As Richter later remarked:
"With this work, we are brutally plunged into the anxiously threatening atmosphere of a world that has lost its balance. Chaos and uncertainty reign. We see murderous forces unleashed. But this does not mean that what we lived by before thereby ceases to exist. We continue to feel and to love. Now the full range of human emotions bursts forth. In the tremendous struggle that this involves, we find the strength to affirm the irrepressible life-force."
The most interesting movement, for me at least, is the second marked Andante caloroso.  This part could at first be mistaken for the work of Rachmaninoff, so completely does it recall the Russian Romantic tradition.  Though Prokofiev could never have admitted it, the work seems filled with nostalgia for the pre-Revolutionary Russia.  To Soviet citizens living through the horrors of war and Stalinism the old days must have seemed in retrospect an ideal time now lost forever.

After intermission, Mr. Bronfman returned to the stage to perform the Piano Sonata No. 8 in B-flat Major, Op. 84 completed in 1944 but again begun much earlier.  The soloist at its premiere was Emil Gilels.  This work was in a sense anticlimactic.  The end of the war was now in sight and the world could once again return to normal.  Not only that but Prokofiev had found some degree of personal happiness in his romance with Mira Mendelson who was to become his second wife.  (After the USSR issued a proclamation announcing that all marriages of Soviet citizens to foreign nationals were annulled, Prokofiev's first wife Lina was sentenced to prison where she would remain until 1956 despite the composer's efforts to have her released.)  Prokofiev himself stated that the sonata was primarily "lyrical in character" and included in it themes taken from his incidental music to both The Queen of Spades, Op. 70, and Eugene Onegin, Op. 71.  This should not be taken to indicate, however, that the No. 8 was in any way inferior to the two sonatas that had preceded it but rather that it provided a resolution to the conflict raised within them.

Yefim Bronfman is one of the finest pianists now active and he once again demonstrated that convincingly at Saturday evening's recital.  Dressed simply in black, he came onstage, sat down at the piano and performed the works at hand without indulging in any drama or theatrical flourishes but instead showed total respect for Prokofiev's music.  His performance of these technically demanding works was masterful and as authoritative as one could hope to find.

Friday, May 6, 2016

CMS Webcast: Benjamin Beilman and Yekwon Sunwoo

Yesterday the Chamber Music Society hosted a live webcast of a recital by violinist Benjamin Beilman and pianist Yekwon Sunwoo that featured the music of Fritz Kreisler as well as the legendary violinist's arrangements of works by other composers.

Kreisler was not only one of the greatest virtuosos of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries but also among the most beloved.  Every account paints him as a considerate caring man who touched everyone he met.  He was an Austrian patriot who served honorably in World War I only to be forced - like so many other artists and intellectuals - to flee Europe in 1938 when the Nazis rose to power.  To many he was the last link to the carefree cafe society that flourished in Belle Époque Vienna.

As the evening's Program Notes point out, Kreisler at one point admitted that many of the "transcriptions" he had completed of famous composers' works were in fact his own original compositions.  I don't know why he did this but don't see any great harm in it.  Certainly, no one suffered from this genial hoax and the violin repertoire was expanded as a result.  That Kreisler was able to carry off the deception so well is testament to his talent.

The program for this recital, as shown before, was an excellent introduction to the range of Kreisler's repertoire and thoroughly enjoyable.

  • Kreisler: Praeludium and Allegro for Violin and Piano (1910)
  • Bach: “Prelude” and “Gavotte en Rondeau” from Partita No. 3 in E major for Violin and Piano, BWV 1006 (arr. Kreisler) (1720)
  • Corelli: Concerto Grosso in D minor for Violin and Piano, Op. 5, No. 12, “La Folia” (arr. Kreisler) (1700)
  • Viotti: Concerto No. 22 in A minor for Violin and Piano, G97 (c. 1793-94)
  • Kreisler: Tambourin Chinois for Violin and Piano, Op.3 (1910)
  • Kreisler: Caprice Viennois for Violin and Piano, Op. 2 (1910)
  • Schubert: Rosamunde, Fürstin von Zypern for Violin and Piano, D. 797 (arr. Kreisler) (1823)
  • Kreisler: "Lotus Land" for Violin and Piano (after Cyril Scott’s Op. 47, No. 1)
  • Kreisler: Viennese Rhapsodic Fantasietta for Violin and Piano (1941-42)

Of the above works I had been most interested in hearing the excerpt from Schubert's incidental music for Helmina von Chézy's lost play Rosamunde. Hitherto I had only been familiar with this music through the second movement of the Quartet No. 13 and had long wanted to hear more.

I was also intrigued that Kreisler chose to arrange the Bach Partita that opened the recital since I've always considered the three partitas and the three sonatas to be finest works ever composed for solo violin.  I'm not sure that the addition of a piano part added anything substantive to the work and only served to draw away attention from the violin part.

Both the young musicians at this recital gave exemplary performances of Kreisler's work and are in any event to be commended for helping to keep his memory alive.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Met Opera: James Levine Conducts Die Entführung aus dem Serail

On Tuesday, James Levine returned to the Met's podium to conduct Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail.  This was the first time I'd seen Mr. Levine since he announced his retirement last month.  As usual, he was greeted by thunderous applause in a genuine display of affection as he moved to podium before the opening of the first act.

Die Entführung is technically not an opera at all but rather an example of singspiel, a German music hall tradition that is more of a spoken play with musical numbers interspersed among the dialog.  Mozart was to revisit this genre at the end of his career in the masterpiece Die Zauberflöte.  When he did, he no doubt had in mind the success he had enjoyed with this earlier work that had established him, only newly arrived in Vienna from Salzburg, as a major composer.  It had also brought him to the attention of Joseph II, the liberal emperor and patron of the arts who had established the Nationalsingspiel in order to celebrate German culture and whose patronage was essential when Mozart later went on to compose the Da Ponte operas.

The libretto was completed by the Prussian Gottlieb Stephanie who had somehow managed to go from having been interned in Vienna as a prisoner of war to having been appointed director of the Nationalsingspiel.  His work was not so much an adaptation of an earlier book by Christoph Friedrich Bretzner as an outright theft and none too good at that.  Mozart complained in a letter to his father that "you are quite right so far as Stephanie's work is concerned. ... I am well aware that the verse is not of the best."  Even under the best of circumstances it was never intended as anything more than a lighthearted crowd pleaser, but it still provided Mozart with a vehicle for some wonderful music that otherwise would not exist.

One of the more interesting aspects of Die Entführung is its fascination with Turkish culture, what Said would later refer to as "Orientalism."  This was no idle curiosity on the part of the Viennese.  The Battle of Vienna, fought almost exactly one hundred years before in 1683, had marked a turning point in European history when the Turks, then at the height of their power, had been defeated by forces of the Holy Roman Empire.  The Turkish setting provided Mozart the opportunity to indulge in so called "Turkish music" lightly based on the actual music of Janissary bands.  There was no real authenticity in Mozart's attempts, of course, but he did include in his instrumentation the triangle, bass drum and cymbals which were not then standard in Western orchestras.

The performance on Tuesday evening was excellent.  Mr. Levine has always been one of the foremost interpreters of Mozart's music.  It was he who in 1979 brought Die Entführung back into the Met's repertoire after an absence of more than thirty years and opera lovers owe him a great vote of thanks for having done so.  This is a seriously underrated work.  While it may not rise to the level of the Da Ponte operas, it is nevertheless a mature work in which Mozart fully demonstrated his skill  as an operatic composer.  This is nowhere so evident as in the second act when Mozart gives to Konstanze the thrilling arias  Traurigkeit ward mir zum Lose and Martern aller Arten one after the other. 

Despite all the controversy that has arisen in the wake of Mr. Levine's announced retirement as Music Director, his conducting - at least from the listener's point of view - remains as impeccable as ever.  Mozart's music has always been one of Mr. Levine's specialties, and it was a privilege to once again hear his interpretation of this work.

I had not been familiar with the Tuesday evening's cast, but coloratura soprano Albina Shagimuratova did full justice to the role of Konstanze while soprano Kathleen Kim was highly effective as Blondchen.  As usual, the role of Osmin, here ably played by bass Hans-Peter König, was a show stealer in providing comic relief.

The production by the late John Dexter appeared more worn than ever after all these years.  Surely such an important work merits a new production by now. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Juilliard Chamber Music: Schumann, Ligeti and Schubert

It was a rainy Sunday afternoon in NYC, and there weren't many people at all at the 1:00 p.m. chamber music recital I attended at Morse Hall.  Those who were there heard an interesting program that featured the work of Schumann, Ligeti and Schubert.

The program opened with Schumann's Violin Sonata No. 3 in A minor, WoO 2 [27] (1853) as performed by Hikaru Yonezaki, violin, and Wei Lin Chang, piano; and coached by Vivian Weilerstein and Earl Carlyss.  Before having attended Sunday's performance I had been under the impression that Schumann had composed only two violin sonatas (the Op. 105 in A minor and the Op. 121 in D minor).  When I did some research afterwards I found that the No. 3 had a fairly complicated history.  It seems that shortly after Schumann had met Brahms, the two were joined at the Schumanns' home in Düsseldorf by Albert Dietrich, one of Schumann's students, in anticipation of a visit by the famed violinist Joseph Joachim.  While awaiting Joachim's arrival, Schumann suggested that the three jointly compose a violin sonata.that Joachim could perform during his visit.  Accordingly, Dietrich was assigned the first movement, Brahms the third, while Schumann himself composed the second and fourth movements.  The resulting collaboration came to be known as the F.A.E. Sonata after Joachim's motto Frei aber einsam ("free but lonely").  Joachim did indeed play the sonata at the Schumann's home on October 28, 1853 with Clara providing accompaniment on piano, but the work was not published until 1935.  Immediately after the impromptu performance, Schumann rewrote the movements that had been composed by Brahms and Dietrich so that all four movements in the newly constituted Violin Sonata No. 3 were original compositions by Schumann himself.  Although both Brahms and Clara initially admired the new sonata, Clara later came to associate its composition with the madness that shortly thereafter afflicted her husband and did her best to destroy whatever copies of the manuscript she could locate.  As a result, the Sonata No. 3 was not published until 1956, over a hundred years after its composition.  (Unaccountably, it is identified as WoO 2 on some recordings and as WoO 27 on others.)  Having heard this rarely performed piece, I have to think Clara was mistaken in her misgivings.  It's actually a highly accomplished work of chamber music and there is nothing that I heard in it to indicate any incipient madness on the part of its composer.

The next work was Ligeti's Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet (1956).  The work is an adaptation of an earlier set of eleven bagatelles for solo piano.  In the original work, the bagatelles formed a series marked by ascending stages of complexity.  In the first, only one note was used with a second appearing at the very end; in the second the two notes from the first bagatelle were used with a third appearing at the end; and so on until all twelve notes of the chromatic scale were made use of in the final bagatelle.  The six bagatelles in the quintet are all short pieces, but even in so early and brief a work Ligeti's distinctive style is immediately apparent.  The fifth, an adagio mesto, is a tribute to Béla Bartók while the sixth, molto vivace capriccioso, whose performance was proscribed by the Soviets as being too "dangerous," is marked in the score to be performed "as though insane."  The musicians were Olivia Staton, flute; Lauren Williams, oboe; Andrew O'Donnell, clarinet; Roy Femenella, horn; and Harrison Miller, bassoon.  Their coach was Erik Ralske.

After intermission, the program concluded with Schubert's String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D 810 (1824), nicknamed "Death and the Maiden" after the composer's lied Der Tod und das Mädchen which provides the theme of the second movement.  Although written some four years before the composer's untimely passing, the quartet - perhaps because at the time he wrote it Schubert was experiencing an outbreak of the syphilis that was eventually to kill him - is filled with foreboding.  This is one of the most literally haunting works in the repertoire and the presence of death can be felt in every note.  In fact, this is true to such an extent that some musicologists classify the work as programmatic rather than absolute music.  It might be for this very reason that the piece went unappreciated during Schubert's lifetime and was only published in 1831, three years after his death.  It contains some of Schubert's darkest music, but I'm not sure that at the time he wrote it he realized his own death was so imminent.  More likely it was an expression of the depression he was then experiencing in which his lack of success as a composer was just as much a factor as his health.  Regardless, it is the very grimness of the music that makes it so compelling.  One is reminded in the final movement's tarantella of Bergman's classic film The Seventh Seal in whose stark closing scene the figure of Death leads the characters in a final dance.  The performers, coached by Darrett Adkins, were Ashley Park and Angela Kim, violins; Emily Liu, viola; and Chloe Joo Yeon Hong, cello.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

John Singer Sargent

I attended this past summer an exhibit at the Met Museum of John Singer Sargent's portrait work and gained there a new appreciation of the artist and his abilities.  Without ever having taken the time to study his work, I had previously regarded him primarily as a society painter, technically proficient perhaps, but superficial and mannered in his approach to art.  He had always seemed something of an anachronism, a holdover from the nineteenth century who was still working in the academic tradition at the same time Picasso and Matisse were revolutionizing modern art.  The exhibit helped me better understand the artist's formidable technique and his uncanny knack for capturing the personality of his sitters as well as his ability to absorb the lessons taught him by Manet and other Impressionists.

John Singer Sargent by Carter Ratcliff turned out to be an excellent companion to the exhibit.  Though I would have preferred a more in-depth biography of this complex artist who moved easily in high society and yet was never fully comfortable within it, the book does provide at least an outline of the artist's life and personality.  Still, there are significant gaps.  For example, while the book covers fairly well the training Sargent received in Paris from Carolus-Duran, it fails to pay sufficient attention to the impressions he had received in childhood while viewing the work of the old masters in Italy and the influence that these had on his later work.

The book, however, does cover all the major episodes of Sargent's life.  An entire chapter is devoted, as it should be, to the scandal surrounding the 1884 Portrait of Madame X that had been the centerpiece of the Parisian section of the Met exhibit.  The notoriety the portrait garnered - incomprehensible now to the twenty-first century viewer - effectively ended Sargent's career in France and forced him into virtual exile in England.  There are also chapters devoted to the time Sargent spent on the Boston murals and to the paintings he completed during World War I.  Although most of the latter were little more than attempts at patriotic propaganda, the painting Gassed surpassed these and became a powerful indictment of the horrors of modern warfare.  The time spent at the front lines showed an entirely new side to Sargent's personality.

Ratcliff also goes to a great deal of trouble to emphasize the painter's relationship to the novelist Henry James.  Though it's true both were expatriate Americans living in England, the differences between them were far more profound than the similarities no matter how good friends they may have been.  One can never imagine James at home anywhere but in the gas lit parlors of British upper crust society, but Sargent was much more a maverick and often impatient with the social obligations foisted upon him by virtue of his success.  At the root of his desire to give up portrait painting was the longing to escape the very milieu in which James reveled.

One of aspect of Sargent's work that is not addressed at all in this study is the influence exerted upon him by Orientalism.  Though Ratcliff dutifully notes in passing the time the artist spent in the Mideast (Sargent produced a number of major paintings during his visit to North Africa in 1879 and again in Egypt in 1890), the author astonishingly offers no detailed commentary on any of these.  One of Sargent's most important works in this vein, Fumée d'Ambre Gris, is reproduced only in small format and in black & white.  In the same manner, Ratcliff has nothing to say about The Nude Egyptian Girl other than to offer a banal quote from a review in the Magazine of Art regarding the work's execution, this even though the image is the only oil Sargent ever painted of a female nude.  Certainly the painting has as much to say about European attitudes toward the Mideast as anything produced by Gérôme.  Would Sargent ever have attributed to a Western woman the overt sensuality with which he imbues his Egyptian model, or would he have been too afraid of offending staid European proprieties?

The book is profusely illustrated but too many of the paintings are reproduced in monochrome rather than color and are often in too small a size to be conveniently studied.  And some major works are inexplicably left out altogether.  Most notable among these omissions is the portrait of Edwin Booth, a penetrating study that captured very well the dilemma faced by this great actor who was forever haunted by his brother's crime.  Instead, too much prominence is given to what really are no more than routine society portraits.  Granted, though, some of these commissions, such as Lady Agnew of Lochnaw are masterpieces of the genre.

The epilogue, which deals with the circumstances surrounding the painting of the Sitwell portrait, seems anticlimactic and a non sequitur.  This was not one of Sargent's most significant works and he had no special attachment to the Sitwells who were, to say the least, a rather idiosyncratic family.  Though the children, particularly Edith, went on to become prominent in mid-twentieth century British literary circles, that was long after Sargent had passed on and was in no way the result of his influence.