According to Pinchas Zukerman, I wasted my time tonight, and yesterday afternoon as well. In a fairly rabid interview that appeared in the Orange County Register last week, Zukerman unloaded both barrels at the period-instruments movement... or "historically informed performance" (HIP), in the current nomenclature. "I disagree with everything they do," Zukerman said. "From the minute I heard that in 1972 until today (I said), 'What the (expletive) is that? These are professional musicians?'"
Dude, who dosed Mr. Zukerman's water bottle?
As far as I'm concerned, the historically informed movement breathed new life into 18th- and 19th-century music. That's not the same thing as saying that Böhm's Mozart and Furtwängler's Beethoven have been invalidated; that could never happen. But I see little point in denying the service that artists such as Harnoncourt, Hogwood, Pinnock and, yes, even the much reviled Norrington provided in stripping away decades of kappelmeisterish routine -- or worse, conductorial distortion -- from the core works of the baroque and classical repertoire.
I found Norrington's Beethoven cycle positively revelatory in its day, even if I don't actually listen to it all that often these days and have little use for his modern-instruments sequel on the Hänssler label. I fall far short of zealots who proclaim that there can be no other way to play this body of work; Osmo Vänskä's Beethoven, Louis Langrée's Mozart and most recently Janine Jansen's Vivaldi have demonstrated that lessons learned from the HIP movement can readily be applied to performances on modern implements. But Zukerman's comments about the inability of HIP conductors and musicians to perform at any kind of professional standard do nothing more than make me think that he probably hasn't checked out a concert during the last decade -- especially given that he's still harping on Hogwood and Norrington.
"If you hear them in public -- which I have -- one is amazed at how bad it sounds and out of tune," Zukerman says, suggesting that recorded performances by such groups serve to perpetuate a myth. Well, in just the last few years, I've heard public performances by Andrea Marcon's Venice Baroque Orchestra, the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra and Emmanuelle Haïm's incredibly sexy Le Concert d'Astrée that positively screamed to the contrary. So, too, did the two concerts given at Lincoln Center by John Eliot Gardiner's Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique.
About tonight's performance of Mozart's Symphonies Nos. 39, 40 and 41, I have little to add to Marc Geelhoed's report of the same program in Chicago, except to say that there was nothing at all unfiery about the "Jupiter" we heard in Alice Tully Hall. The venue's parched acoustics revealed Gardiner's canny dynamic gradations superbly -- admittedly, at the cost of tonal bloom. Tully is a room that doesn't afford poor tuning; Gardiner's players met its challenge, with natural trumpets and horns that sounded more secure than in many modern-instrument performances I've witnessed.
The Andante con moto movement of the Symphony No. 39 was delivered with ineffable sweetness; the Finale revealed some slight insecurities among the principal winds, but served up succulent timbres nonetheless. Standing out amidst the dark drama of No. 40, the strings were particularly sumptuous in the Andante. Throughout the concert, the flutist and first bassoonist stood out especially. But really, the entire ensemble deserves credit for a thoroughly engaging performance. As an encore, Gardiner led the ensemble in the Andante from Mozart's Symphony No. 1, prefacing the performance -- with perfectly believable incredulity -- by noting the similarity between the horn theme in Mozart's first known symphony (composed at age 8) and the "Jupiter," his last.
On Sunday afternoon, Gardiner and orchestra, plus the conductor's Monteverdi Choir, played Mozart's C-minor Mass and Requiem at Avery Fisher Hall, to still greater returns. This conductor recorded lasting versions of both pieces a decade ago with this same chorus and his previous band, the English Baroque Soloists. (That Gardiner's Requiem remains my benchmark recording despite the strictures of more recent scholarship suggests to me that there can be far more to a HIP-oriented performance than obsessive adherence to doctrine.)
In those earlier recordings, the conductor fielded a starry team of vocal soloists that included Barbara Bonney and Anne Sofie von Otter. Here, he relied upon members of his choir, and they did not fail him; in specific, Miriam Allan (in the Mass) sang with a bright, focused tone worthy of The Magic Flute, while Claudia Huckle (in the Requiem) offered a sumptuously chocolately mezzo of the sort in which one could positively bathe. Even so, Sunday afternoon's highlight was Gardiner's choir en masse, which delivered two of Mozart's most extraordinary works in a manner human enough to convince any listener of their eternal relevance.
So I put it to you respectfully, Mr. Zukerman: Where, exactly, does my dementia reside?
Two concerts from late last week deserve mention. Miller Theatre's Composer Portrait of young South African artist Bongani Ndodana revealed a creator capable of blending the timbral refinement of Debussy and Ravel with rhythms derived from African mbira music and call-and-response drumming traditions. An ad hoc ensemble did an admirable job of deputizing for the previously announced Ensemble Noir. Lalehani and Sons of the Great Tree, the pieces that closed the hour-long concert, proved the most involving works of the evening. Still, ultimately I felt as if I'd gone to a formal dinner and was met with a platter of hors d'oeuvres.
Unsated, I headed downtown for the
10pm 11pm set by Darcy James Argue's Secret Society. The concert more than proved that Argue is a stunningly skilled bandleader who steers an ensemble stocked fat with exceptional players -- Will Vinson, Erica vonKleist and Jon Wikan, especially. Argue's charts serve notice of a sophisticated composer, one who knows his Stravinsky and Ligeti as well as his Bob Graettinger and Thad Jones. I look forward to hearing more from this band... but I have to admit that during the performance, I despaired of hearing anything ever again. (And this from someone who feels that most metal gigs aren't cranked nearly enough lately.) The Bowery Poetry Club is a smallish space; why, then, should an 18-piece band be amplified as if it were Maynard Ferguson playing the Astrodome? Not Argue's fault by any means; just saying, is all.