Monday, February 20, 2012

Europe’s Answer To Hilary Hahn

In recent days, Joshua and I attended three concerts.


On Wednesday evening, we (along with my parents) went to Saint Paul to hear Munich-born and –based violinist Julia Fischer in recital.

Fischer was, by and large, disappointing. Fischer is a serious musician and a fine instrumentalist, but she has not yet become interesting. Her playing exhibits little personality and character, and she has a limited color palette.

Fischer is only in her late twenties—yet, in their late twenties, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Maxim Vengerov and Nikolaj Znaider (to cite only three examples) were fully-formed artists, with commanding personalities and unique individual voices. My instinct tells me that Fischer will never acquire the one-of-a-kind, larger-than-life qualities necessary to place her in the front rank of violinists.

The program was not chosen to reveal Fischer at her best. Fischer is known for her restraint, purity of line, and concentration in music of repose and contemplation—making her, above all, a Bach player. However, Fischer offered Twin Cities audiences not Bach but music of Mozart, Schubert, Debussy and Saint-Saens—and Fischer had nothing specific to say about any of those composers.

I had looked forward to hearing Fischer in Mozart’s Sonata In B Flat Major, K. 454, but it became immediately apparent that Fischer is not a Mozart musician: she could not keep more than one emotion going at a time. Fischer gave an indifferent performance, causing me to question why she had elected to perform this particular work.

Josh and I had most recently heard K. 454 fifteen months ago, when Pinchas Zukerman and Yefim Bronfman had played the work at a Boston recital. More than five years ago, all of us had heard Mutter and Lambert Orkis play K. 454 in Saint Paul. Both Zukerman’s and Mutter’s renditions of Mozart’s finest sonata for violin and keyboard had been vastly superior to what Fischer offered.

Fischer was at her best in Schubert’s seldom-performed Rondo Brilliant In B Minor, which concluded the first half of the program. Fischer obviously liked the piece, and she played it as serious music (and not as an empty virtuoso showpiece, which is how Christian Tetzlaff and Leif Ove Andsnes had treated the work three years ago, when Josh and I heard Tetzlaff and Andsnes play the Schubert Rondo in Boston). Nonetheless, the Schubert Rondo is not a work around which to build a recital program.

The best music of the evening came immediately after intermission: Debussy’s Sonata In G Minor, one of Debussy’s most striking and most original compositions. Fischer held my attention in the Debussy—any competent violinist will hold the listener’s attention in the work—but the performance was unremarkable and unmemorable, the kind of performance regularly heard on Saturday mornings on Radio Luxembourg.

The Saint-Saens Sonata No. 1 In D Minor—pleasant and virtuosic—that concluded the program was unobjectionable, yet I am surprised that violinists would ever choose such an empty work to conclude a recital (Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk had done the same four years ago in the same hall).

Fischer is not, I believe, a master of French music—but her accompanist, Ukrainian pianist Milana Chernyavska, certainly was. Chernyavska, dutiful in the Mozart and Schubert, came alive in the Debussy and Saint-Saens, revealing herself to be a fine pianist in French repertory, where color and flair are at a premium.

We live in an age of great violinists. There are probably close to twenty active violinists on the world’s musical stages that, without any exaggeration, may be called great. (In comparison, one may count today’s great pianists on the fingers of one hand.) In fact, there are so many great violinists today that the second tier of artists is bound to get lost in the shuffle.

Fischer is destined, I suspect, always to be in that second tier.

Josh summed up the conundrum nicely after Fischer’s recital: “I don’t know what Mutter has—but, whatever Mutter has, Fischer certainly hasn’t got it.”

My father had a more acidic comment to make about Fischer after the recital: “Julia Fischer is Europe’s answer to Hilary Hahn.”

My mother’s rejoinder: “Wait! I thought she [Julia Fischer] WAS Hilary Hahn!”

My response: “You mean there’s a difference?”


On Friday evening, Josh and I (and my parents, who have the Minnesota Orchestra Friday night subscription) heard another violinist at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. That night, Russian-born Israeli violinist Vadim Gluzman joined the Minnesota Orchestra for a performance of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2.

To the best of my recollection, I had never heard Gluzman before—but I very well may have forgotten, because Gluzman, too, is not a memorable musician. Gluzman offered a reading of Prokofiev’s finest concertante work that was very much rote and by-the-book, as if his interpretation, phrasings and bowings had been dictated to him by Dorothy DeLay (once Gluzman’s teacher).

In his defense, Gluzman may have been required simply to survive his Minnesota Orchestra engagement.

The orchestra devoted only two days of rehearsal to the program we heard, squeezing four full rehearsals into a single 48-hour period. Further, the orchestra was offering Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 (“Leningrad”) on the same program—and it was the Shostakovich that had received the bulk of the rehearsal time.

Under such circumstances, it was probably unreasonable to have expected Gluzman to deliver something memorable.

The Minnesota Orchestra, guided by guest conductor Andrew Litton, provided very fine playing in the Shostakovich. The musicians gave an excellent account of themselves.

Litton programmed lots of Shostakovich when he was Music Director of the Dallas Symphony, and he is widely regarded as a fine conductor of Shostakovich. However, as one who used to hear Yuri Temirkanov lead the music of Shostakovich with the Baltimore Symphony, I find Litton to be no more than competent in Shostakovich.

Friday night’s Minnesota Orchestra performance of the Leningrad Symphony was very much an American affair. The sound of the orchestra was far too bright, there was too little soul and too little irony in the music-making, and Litton varied his tempi too little as well as phrased with too little specificity. What we heard, in essence, was a very glib performance of what is supposed to be an epic if not tragic work.

I am not a fan of the Shostakovich Seventh. The musical materials are not inherently interesting, the composer stretched those musical materials to the breaking point, and the work has no structural integrity. However, the Leningrad Symphony CAN be made to work, as Temirkanov (if no one else) has demonstrated.

Temirkanov’s RCA recording with the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic is a miracle. By constantly altering tempi, by inserting pauses, by frequent use of rubato and by demanding very specific phrasing from the musicians, Temirkanov somehow made the sprawling work cohere. Temirkanov’s was a work of alchemy, akin to what Furtwängler used to do in Bruckner symphonies.

None of Temirkanov’s magic got passed down to Litton. Litton was more or less in command of the Technicolor aspects of the score, but the stark grimness beneath the surface was never realized in a convincing fashion.

Opportunities to hear the Leningrad Symphony are not frequent. We were pleased that the Minnesota Orchestra gave the work a rare performance—and we were disappointed that the performance was fundamentally vapid.


On Saturday evening, Josh and I (by ourselves) returned to Saint Paul to hear the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra under guest conductor Ludovic Morlot.

Mozart’s Symphony No. 31 (“Paris”) began the concert, and it provided the highlight of the evening. The SPCO is a very good Mozart orchestra, and the musicians played the Paris Symphony beautifully.

The concert continued with Debussy’s Le Livre de Baudelaire in the orchestral version by John Adams. Soprano Dawn Upshaw was soloist.

I thought Upshaw was unsatisfactory. If Le Livre de Baudelaire does not come across as magical, there is no point in performing the work—and Upshaw was anything but magical. Upshaw’s voice is now dry—whatever gleam was once there is now gone—and she did nothing to color the music or text. The performance was uninspired, even pedestrian. We might as well have been attending a faculty recital at Macalester College.

Upshaw returned after intermission to sing Ravel’s Five Greek Folk Songs. Upshaw was better in the Ravel than in the Debussy, perhaps because the Ravel songs are easier to sing. However, once again, it was impossible not to note the lack of opulence in the voice, and the restricted color choices available to the artist.

We last heard Upshaw four years ago, when she had appeared with the SPCO in music of Schoenberg and Berio. Upshaw’s vocal state has deteriorated significantly over the intervening four years. Whether or not her vocal decline is health-related, it is time for Upshaw to contemplate retiring from the concert stage. The basic instrument is going, and Upshaw is not the type of singer that can get by on “artistry” alone.

The concert concluded with Ravel’s “Mother Goose” Suite. A chamber-orchestra reduction of the Ravel is hardly the most advantageous way to hear one of Ravel’s most voluptuously-orchestrated works. As if to compensate for the lack of a full orchestra, Morlot emphasized clarity in the performance—and, as such, his reading was fully satisfactory.

Oddly, across town, the Minnesota Orchestra was also playing Ravel’s “Mother Goose” Suite the very same evening.


  1. Shostakovich 7 isn't much of a symphony, granted. The bare melancholy of the Russian soul which can be heard underneath the surface glitz is what captivates me. The Composer's best music in this form may actually be his First, written before the Soviets began to suffocate his originality and, more importantly, his musical honesty.

  2. Robert Craft has written eloquently about the music of Shostakovich. According to Craft, Shostakovich was unable to master sonata form, and never properly learned the principle of development. As a result, Shostakovich’s music, above all, is repetitive, forced to rely upon constant variation in dynamics and orchestration to sustain interest.

  3. He was a Russian version of Samuel Barber in that respect.

  4. Each Barber composition that has managed to maintain some kind of hold on the repertory contains one good idea—but only one good idea. I can name the one good idea in practically every Barber work.

    Wasn’t it Pierre Boulez who said that anyone can write a work with one good idea, but that at least two good ideas are necessary to create a successful composition? Barber was a one-idea composer.

    “But nothing changes me . . .”