Joshua and I stayed in town over the February holiday weekend, and we made use of a bit of free time to attend a couple of concerts.
On Friday evening, February 18, we went to Jordan Hall to hear the Takacs Quartet.
On the program were Haydn’s Quartet No. 55 (1793), Bartok’s Quartet No. 3 (1926) and Schubert’s Quartet No. 15 (1826).
Membership of the Takacs Quartet has been in flux over the last several years. What began as a quartet with exclusively Hungarian membership has become a quartet one-half Hungarian, one-quarter British and one-quarter American.
The Takacs in its current incarnation lacks a uniform sound. The quartet’s sound is that of four disparate string players. The lack of a uniform sound became a serious shortcoming in the Schubert, where absence of tonal allure became tiresome if not fatal to the integrity of the performance.
I enjoyed the Haydn and Bartok performances. Both performances were energetic and focused if in no way memorable or distinguished.
The Schubert was another matter.
The performance did not work at all. Schubert’s final quartet demands concentration coupled with relaxation, Beethovenian drama matched with Mozartean grace, and the Olympian detachment of Goethe offset by the Viennese sentiment of Grillparzer. All are seemingly opposite requirements—yet without a perfect balance of these qualities, a performance of Schubert’s Quartet No. 15 quickly becomes interminable.
And the February 18 performance was indeed interminable. The musicians were unable to sustain forward momentum—Schubert’s “heavenly length” became nothing so much as a trial to endure—and there were no offsetting compensations. It was a performance without elegance, refinement, style or grace.
I saw several concert-goers nod off—and one awoke with a pronounced start and made a loud exclamation, which an idiot reviewer writing for one of Boston’s small newspapers attributed to mounting excitement from an appreciative audience.
The Takacs concert soured Josh on quartet performance for the present.
We had anticipated obtaining tickets for the Emerson Quartet’s Boston appearance (an appearance already come and gone)—but Josh, having endured the Takacs in Schubert, put paid to that notion.
The Boston Globe needs to do something about its music coverage. The newspaper’s reviews are laughable.
A Globe stringer—Matthew Guerrieri—covered the Takacs concert. I have no idea whether he was genuinely in attendance at the concert, but I suspect not, as his review discussed the music rather than the performance. Guerrieri’s review was a total hoot, a splendid example of how spectacularly bad music criticism in the United States has become.
Until I read Guerrieri’s foolish blathering, I had never before witnessed so many bald-faced clichés paired up with so many fevered, overwritten Barbara Cartland phrases, all packed into a mere four paragraphs: “high-concept thematic programming”, “a well-curated selection”, “a dialogue between historical repertoires”, “collective fluidity”, “sharp-edged bowing”, “a firmly enunciated rhetoric”, “energy that percolated from the center”, “a concentrated bustle of conversation”, “gateway drug to atonal modernism”, “hung on intricate intellectual scaffolding”, “dark dissonant swirl”, “the birth of the quartet as audience clarification”, “the modernist frisson of challenging audience expectations”, “grand, picaresque epic”, “crackling with electricity”, etc.
One feels the need to shower after emerging from such appalling muck. Guerrieri’s review was camp, an embarrassment both to the newspaper and to Guerrieri himself.
Does not the Globe employ copy editors? And did not Guerrieri take first-year remedial writing courses in college? The entire review should have been scratched out with red pencil.
On Sunday afternoon, February 20, Josh and I went to Symphony Hall to hear The Handel And Haydn Society perform Handel’s oratorio, “Israel In Egypt”.
“Israel In Egypt” is one of the greatest of Handel’s oratorios. Indeed, some musicologists have argued that it is THE very greatest of all Handel oratorios.
“Israel In Egypt” is unusual in that the burden is placed almost exclusively on the chorus. There are a handful of arias in “Israel In Egypt”, but their number is small. The chorus is relied upon to tell the story; the soloists have less significance than in almost any other Handel oratorio. (In Boston, the soloists were drawn from the chorus.)
The Boston performance included Parts I, II and III. Sometimes Part I is omitted from performances of “Israel In Egypt”—Part I, with alterations, is also performed as an independent, standalone work, “The Ways Of Zion Do Mourn”—but the Boston performance included Part I.
I enjoyed the performance—Josh did not—despite the fact that one had to overlook the quality of the choral work.
The chorus was not as fine as it should have been. The sound quality was not up to standard, unanimity was not in evidence, intonation was spotty—and I have no idea what kind of blend the chorus master was going for (and I doubt that the late Robert Shaw would have had a clue, either).
It was very much laissez faire choral singing that was on display February 20—and I feel compelled to echo Tim Page’s assessment from a few years ago that choral singing in Boston is nowhere near as good as its reputation and nowhere near as good as in most other large cities.
The “Israel In Egypt” performance was conducted by Harry Christophers. I thought Christophers was quite good, given the circumstances. Using fast tempos, Christophers moved things along enthusiastically and obtained a fair degree of drama from his forces. There was a suitably rousing quality to the afternoon, although the nobility of Handel’s music was certainly shortchanged.
My father has noted that it is one of the singular laws of music performance that conductors good in Handel are invariably good in nothing else. I have found my father to be correct in all judgments on all subjects at all times.
I have had the misfortune of hearing Christophers conduct Mozart, and Christophers most assuredly is not a competent conductor of Mozart. I suspect that Bachian counterpoint would leave Christophers equally flummoxed, and that his Bach would come out sounding much like Handel.
Christophers should continue to ply his trade where he is shown to best advantage.