The Well-Tempered Music Guy

Simple thoughts by a simple listener on classical music

Monday, November 12, 2007

Viva Verdi

This month has been jam-packed with concert-goings, so now is a good time to clear the backlog of thoughts. I'll start with probably the most substantial helpings of great music, both emanating from Verdi's awesome brain -- Aida and La Traviata.

The genius of Verdi leaves the most significant impression on me when I hear these operas, although both featured notable performances in the female leads. Too often the audience's attitude towards operatic performances, particularly of Verdi, is that they're some kind of acrobatic feats of strength. So the biggest stories in the two performances were the female leads, Angela Brown and Renee Fleming, rising star and established star, respectively. I don't have much to say, other than both performed as billed -- Brown has a powerful, ringing voice, and Fleming sang with unparalleled tenderness and intelligence. My unprofessional opinion is that Brown has a future as a Wagnerian soprano, if she so chooses to go that route. Slap a horned helmet on that woman!

The performance of Aida suffered from some of the same unevenness and tinkering that I've complained about here before. It left me yearning for a James Levine performance. I also realized why I've never been thrilled with Olga Borodina -- she has a powerful voice, but has problematic timing. She lacks rhythm in her singing and does not attack the notes sharply, which is a fatal flaw in Aida, as Verdi characterizes Amneris with punchy, aggressive music. But as always, the opera as a whole was still immensely enjoyable.

La Traviata actually got me thinking about the under-appreciated Dwayne Croft, whom the Met took out of their backstage storage to sing Germont. Croft has sung over 350 performances at the Met, and the Met should be thankful. He has a warm voice and is an intelligent singer, and I think he is especially good at this role. One of my favorite parts of Traviata is the duet in Act II between him and Violetta, and Croft really nailed it.

Take just the word "Piangi," which Germont repeats several times to powerful effect in the duet. Croft sings the first syllable with no vibrato, building up to an emphasis on the second syllable, topping it off with some vibrato at the end. Contrast this approach with that of the legendary Sherrill Milnes on the Carlos Kleiber recording, which I listened to at home a couple days after the performance. Milnes sings the first syllable loudly, almost barking it out, then tapers the second syllable. It's perhaps blasphemous to say so, but I find Croft's approach both more convincing and kinder on the ear musically. It just sounds like a pleading cry. I also appreciate singers who use vibrato as an ornament (even an oft-used one), rather than as a constant part of their tone.

Marco Armiliato conducted the Traviata, and the Times gave him raves as one of the Met's "great finds." I thought his pacing was rather sluggish in many parts of the opera, though. But it's a tough opera to screw up, and the experience overall was a treat. Polenzani was even better than I expected as Alfredo.

Looking forward to seeing Fleming in Verdi again in February, as Desdemona in Otello -- perhaps our most perfect example of music drama.

Monday, October 22, 2007

"Happy Birthday dear Colin..."

After having to cancel on a couple concerts, I finally kicked off the season with a British invasion. I got tickets to all three terrific programs that the London Symphony did at Avery Fischer this past week. Colin Davis paired with the LSO is a special thing -- a unique combination of energy -- the players are practically jumping out of their seats -- and polish. Their concerts are always thrilling without being overly "interesting" (take notes, Mr. Maazel).

The first program was on Wednesday, all Mozart -- the Piano Concerto no. 27 and a certain Requiem. As the concert was set to begin, I was surprised to see the Chorus seated at the back of the stage. I've never heard of any arrangement of any Mozart piano concertos featuring a chorus, so I thought this was weird.

They sat there quietly and listened to the concerto, which I'm sure they enjoyed as much as I did. I didn't used to think that this concerto was one of the greatest, but it really has grown on me, especially the sublime slow movement. Imogen Cooper played lightly and sensitively, and the orchestra was at it's typical best.

At the end of the Concerto, as Cooper and Davis were taking a curtain call, they quickly wheeled out a giant cake, and the chorus and orchestra sang and played "Happy Birthday" ("... dear Colin!"). A program insert informed us that Davis turns 80 next month. May he live -- and conduct! -- for decades more. I can say he looks terrific -- if I just saw him, knowing nothing else, I would guess he's in his mid 60s. And he's one of the great musicians we have, a real treasure.

I don't think any performance of the Requiem could top the one I heard John Eliot Gardiner lead a couple years ago. A flawless, thrilling, and perfectly idiomatic performance. The Davis/LSO performance was also enjoyable, with characteristic verve and richness, but far less idiomatic. The big band approach to Mozart (and in particular the Requiem) has its appeal, but it's hard to go back to that once you're accustomed to the detail and sparkling loveliness of the more "period instrument" (style) performances, such as the Gardiner or, in the "style" category, the terrific Mostly Mozart performance this summer led by Louis Langree (going from Gerry Schwartz to Langree was like going from Jeff George to Payton Manning, for you sports fans -- Mostly Mozart is no longer something you grudgingly endure to tide you over). In the LSO performance, the woodwinds, so crucial and nice here and elsewhere in Mozartland, were completely swalled up by the enthusiastic, slightly mushy strings and the unnecessarily huge -- but excellent!!! -- chorus. Plus, slower tempi bugged me in a couple of the movements, particularly the Domine Jesu. Other movements, however, were especially powerful -- the Rex Tremendae and the Confutatis and Lacrymosa, for instance.

Next, on Friday, came an all-Beethoven program, featuring the Piano Concerto no. 4 and the "Eroica" Symphony no. 3. The Fourth Concerto is one of those pieces that keeps popping up in programs I go to -- no complaints! -- but this performance blew all the rest away, and that includes the starry Levine/Barenboim pairing from last year. Although in a way, it was just different. In fact, I've never heard it played like this, on recording or in concert. The Fourth concerto is usually treated as a graceful, austere work, and this approach certainly works. Davis on Friday led the most zestful, aggressive (but never harsh) reading I've ever heard, and I was swept away. The pianist, Paul Lewis, whom I had never heard of (not that that really means anything), was terrific. Consistent with Davis, he played energetically and with much detail, and was never overly dramatic or fussy. The incredible, unparalleled slow movement was the only part fell short of the Barenboim/Levine performance, which had me in tears in that section. Nobody can milk a great Romantic passage like Barenboim.

The Eroica was also great. Not much remarkable to say about it, just that every positive adjective I've applied above to Davis/LSO performances applied in spades to this performance. The ovation was thunderous.

On Sunday came Haydn's magnificent oratorio, the Creation. I'm generally not a big fan of Haydn -- I admire his music a lot, but I just don't really enjoy most of it. A lot of his music is brilliant and witty without enough warmth and beauty -- but NOT the Creation. In fact, the Creation is one of the warmest, most joyful pieces of music ever written. The program had a great note about the genesis of the work, speficically the way strong influences from Mozart and Handel came together in Haydn to produce this work, and it really does seem a cross between the Messiah and the Magic Flute.

Anyway, the performance was big, rich, gorgeous, bracing, and just a joy to hear. The London Symphony Chorus is your prototypical showcase of the Grand British Choral Tradition -- which, after all, is the Tradition that inspired this composition in the first place. After the first big fugal chorus -- one of the sections that has Handel smiling and nodding from his special corner of heaven -- there were audible gasps scattered around the audience, uttered by music lovers catching their breath.

I really hope Davis keeps accompanying the LSO to New York for years to come, even if new hire Valery Gergiev mainly takes the reins (as good as Gergiev can occasionally be). This year's tour lived up to this great team's great tradition, but I couldn't help thinking back to one of the greatest, if not the greatest, live performance I have ever heard -- their Verdi Requiem in Fall of 2005. I still think of this concert often, yearning to hear it again and wishing I could have somehow bottled up the experience and taken it with me. I even tried emailing the LSO archivist to track down some archival or broadcast recording done of the work that season, but no dice. It will have to live on only in my memory. Sigh.

(By the way, the summer was really no excuse, but especially now that the concert season is in full swing, I'll try to fill this space more often. Even if no one is actually reading this anymore, it's sort of personally cathartic to get these thoughts down -- it helps me preserve those performances, and other thoughts, that otherwise go un-recorded).

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Unspeakably Gorgeous

I had been looking forward all year to hearing Phillipe Herreweghe and the Collegium Vocale Ghent perform Bach's St. John Passion, and the day finally arrived on Sunday. It was everything I had hoped, a flawless performance of an incredible masterpiece.

First, I don't really understand why the St. John gets so much less attention and performance than the Matthew. The Matthew is great, of course, with some typically wonderful Bach. But I've always thought it's overlong, with some arias that are overlong by themselves and somewhat boring, by Bach standards. And these long, frequently occurring arias break up the drama of the recitatives and crowd choruses. I leave a performance of a Matthew feeling impressed but somewhat exhausted. I left the performance on Sunday trembling with awe (at Bach's genius and the talent of the performers -- no religious affinity here, although appreciating the religious meaning is important to appreciating the full impact of the music, just like the drama in an opera).

As I've grown to expect from this conductor and ensemble, the sound was just so beautiful. The chorus has a creamy, perfectly blended sound, even in relatively small numbers. The orchestra sounded terrific. The sound was smooth but the dramatic and rhythmic pulse was always there (in this respect, I think Herreweghe is sort of the Herbert von Karajan of early music). The soloists were all terrific, even though two of them -- the soprano and the bass who sings the arias -- were last-minute replacements. Most outstanding was Christoph Prégardien in the key role of the Evangelist. He had a wonderful sound but also sang with great expressiveness. And the recitatives were not done perfunctorily, but with great dramatic sensitivity. For instance, when the evangelist's line finished with, "and Jesus said" or the like, Konrad Jarnot as Jesus jumped in with his line while Prégardien was still beautifully tapering the phrase. And the crowd choruses were of course both thrilling and sung with pinpoint accuracy.

Anthony Tommasini, my favorite critic at the Times, had a couple comments about the performance I found a bit odd. First, he compares Herreweghe to Furtwangler in both style and tempi. Herreweghe's tempi might on average be slightly slower than most period groups, the difference between him and, say, John Eliot Gardiner in this regard is far smaller than between him and Furtwangler. In Sunday's performance, the speeds were actually quite typical for period performance, very similar to Gardiner's recording, which I'm familiar with from many listenings. The tempi were occasionally slightly slower than on the Gardiner, but they were also slightly faster in a few other numbers. Mostly, I hardly noticed a difference. Furtwangler, on the other hand...

Second, Tommasini says that the voices in the chorus "lacked uniformity." He doesn't really mean this as a criticism, but to my ears, the chorus sounded just as perfectly blended and unified as it does in recordings. I was actually surprised about the extent to which this was the case, considering the clear acoustics of Alice Tully and small size of the chorus' forces.

Third, he cites a "very troubled moment" when the soprano (Johannette Zomer) and the orchestra drifted apart, and some "inexplicable lapses with shaky intonation." I did notice when the soprano and the orchestra got disconnected, but I thought it was very slight and didn't last very long. I didn't notice any shaky intonation; might Tommasini just not be accustomed to the tuning of the original instruments? That might also help explain his odd contrasts of Herreweghe versus other original-instruments conductors. Or maybe I just didn't catch it. I was too entranced by Bach's genius.

Hewitt and Gould

A reader named Will Farnaby recently left the following comment on the Angela Hewitt interview from Bachfest 2005:

As talented and dedicated as she is, one cannot help but remark that Angela Hewitt really should come to terms with her inferiority complex vis-a-vis Glenn Gould.

Instead of denigrating Gould - as she does in various of her interviews - she would be much wiser to strive to decrease the vast gulf that exists between her and the transcendent pianism and musicality of Glenn Gould.

Obviously, I completely disagree that there is any such "vast gulf." I'm not a fan of Gould at all, and even those who are must ackowledge that he was extremely unique and idiosyncratic. Any such comparison is silly.

More importantly, this comment implies that she has a "complex," and by merely saying that she draws no influence from Gould she is somehow "denigrating" him. Gould was simply his own animal, and anyone who has heard Ms. Hewitt's playing style -- clean, light, unfussy, almost no pedal -- would realize that it is about as different from Gould's as can be. Imagine being in her position: her playing is completely unlike Gould's, a musician she has nothing to do with; and yet simply because they share a nationality and an affinity for Bach (such as Gould claimed to be playing), she always has to answer the same stupid question about him. It's really my fault, I should have realized how silly a question that was.

And how exactly would she "decrease" that gulf? By waving her head about wildly? Ignoring the scores she plays? Painfully drawing pieces out to show her great, wild angst and Epic Seriousness? Just generally acting like a total weirdo, such that people will shake their heads in wonderment and say, "Wow, those geniuses..."? I like her the way she is: displaying and paying homage to the composer's genius.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Oh, That Fickle Phil

The New York Philharmonic is a fantastic orchestra with a great big sound. But every once in a while, for reasons an outsider such as I cannot know, the orchestra just phones one in. The rumor is they're picky about the conductors they play for. It's possible that some of these times the orchestra is trying their best, but the conductor is just idiosyncratic and difficult to follow. At any rate, tonight was one of those times. The performance was mushy, limp, and lacked rhythmic drive.

The conductor was Alan Gilbert, who is the son of a violinist in the orchestra. It thus seems awkward and sad that the performance didn't go so well (at least to my ears).

Problems were immediately apparent with Stokowski's famous "Fantasia" orchestration of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor for organ (I read in the program this piece is now apocryphal -- who knew?). I always thought Stokowski's scoring was kind of lame, but tonight's performance lacked the sharpness that even Leopold's reconception of Bach requires. The music stopped and started, and the starts were hesitant and ragged. The fugue was rhythemless and mushy.

Next was the Ligeti Violin Concerto. I can't really comment on modernist pieces such as this. I defer to academics and musicians. All I, as a mere listener, can say is that it was unlistenable.

The first half opened with Webern's orchestration of a movement from Bach's Musical Offering. Not much to say about this either, just that the playing seemed in character with the evening.

Then came the reason I was there, Schumann's Rhenish Symphony. The opening of this piece should grab you immediately; it should hop along like a boy skipping down the banks of the Rhine (nice, right? okay, sorry). On this night, it was languid and sluggish. Gilbert hopped at times on the podium like he wanted some bounce, but he didn't get any. It seemed like he was over-conducting, trying to express every little feeling evoked by the score, rather than determine what must be done by the orchestra so that the score can speak for itself. He was dancing to the performance rather than firmly guiding it. I've never played under any conductor, so it is hard for me to imagine what playing for him would be like. But watching him, I thought his manner helped explain why the performance lacked any rhythmic consistency or drive. He was so busy expressing the music with his body that he could not maintain a steady beat at the same time.

From those loving expressions, it was also clear that he sought to shape and emphasize every little quirk and effect in the score. Yes, like Director Maazel. But distracting as Maazel's micro-management can be, the orchestra responds sensititively and with pinpoint accuracy to it. They were not nearly as responsive to Gilbert. They seemed just confused and disinterested.

The height of the disappointment was the opening to the weird and wonderful 4th movement. Half the orchestra, I think, expected a longer break. The jarring opening note was chaotically split into several. It was cringe-inducing.

This was actually my second shockingly-lackluster performance in a row. Glenn Dicterow (the common deminator, I suppose) and his Lyric Piano Quartet performed a pair of masterpieces on Sunday at the Barge: Schumann's E-flat and Brahms' G minor (the latter being one of the great pieces of music ever, period). The group was severely under-rehearsed, like I've never seen in a professional performance. There were screw-ups galore, and the playing was at once rough and feeble. Although those works are very difficult, especially the Brahms, these are extremely talented professionals; they clearly didn't take this event (or the venue?) very seriously. Which irked me, I have to say.

But you know what? They all still played a helluva lot better than I could.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Rite of Spring, and some other piece

It's Zubin Mehta week at the Philharmonic, apparently, and I got tickets to both of his programs. Not really because of Mehta, they happen to be good programs.

So Tuesday was the Rite of Spring, one of the most stupendous works to hear live. Although relatively popular for such a daring, still modern-sounding work, the place would not have been so full had the orchestra not also been playing Beethoven's Violin Concerto, one of the most inexplicable works in the core repertoire. I think this piece is a true turkey. Perhaps not on the level of Wellington's Victory, the Choral Fantasy, or Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, but when you consider the ratio of quality to frequency of performance, this piece tops them all. And when I say "them all," I mean all pieces ever written. Beethoven's Violin Concerto is astoundingly banal.

And yet, it packs the house! One reasons seems to be the strange, disproportionate popularity of violin concertos and violinists in general. I don't really understand why this is, for several reasons: first, the idea of a solo violinist on stage is not terribly novel -- in any orchestral work the stage is already mobbed with violinists; second, in a related story, the format just doesn't work very well, instrumentally and sonically speaking. The violin gets drowned out by all the other stringed instruments. Recorded sound was the best thing to ever happen to the violin concerto, as now the instrument can be closely and artificially enhanced. Third, the violin can't play with near the complexity of the piano, for the simple reason that it can only play at most two notes at once. That's a full eight fewer than the piano!

Beethoven's concerto wasn't particularly helped in this performance by the ponderous pace Mehta took, especially in the first movement. It just plodded along. The highlight was the cadenza, which was not Beethoven's but Kreisler's, played by Pinchas Zuckerman. It contained an almost Bachian simulation of counterpoint, very cool.

The finale had some energetic moments, and that one glimmer of beauty, the unexpected melody played by the bassoon. The bassoonist was busy that night, between that melody and the famous, opening to the Rite of Spring.

In fact, I thought the bassoonist milked that opening too much, reeeeeeeeeally drawing out those first few notes. It was a bit much. In general, I thought the performance was a little too romanticized and gushing. The real genius of Stravinsky is in the rhythms, and to really bring out his incredible rhythmic effects, the piece should be played sharply, with jagged, pointed phrases. Mehta seemed to be treating the work like a Strauss tone poem.

So of the three performances I've witnessed (that I can recall offhand), this was probably the least (the other 2 were Eschenbach conducting the Philharmonic, and David Robertson conducting his Lyon Orchestra). But it was still an absolute joy to hear, and when this orchestra plays big, it's a magnificent thing. What band would I rather hear beat out those incredible brass choruses? A feast for the eyes and ears.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Discovering new pieces

One of the great joys of classical music is its practically limitless nature. Although I frequently go to concerts and buy up CD's, I still regularly have the pleasure of discovering truly great pieces of music. The best is that period of time where you're just getting to know a piece well enough to hum along.

I'm in that honeymoon period with a couple of works right now. One is Handel's oratorio Semele. I of course love Handel in general, so bored a few weeks ago, I was browsing Amazon looking for potentially good recordings of oratorios I don't know. I generally ignore the operas -- it's not Handel's fault, I'll just come out and say it: opera seria is dull by nature, despite the sudden, recent movement to establish otherwise; it's like an emperor-with-no-clothes situation.

The piece I found actually proves this: Semele is very dramatic, basically an opera, but since he wasn't constrained by the opera seria straightjacket, Handel was able to let loose. Unlike some of his oratorios, which often have their boring sections, the music here is almost uniformly excellent. It contains some typically great Handelian choruses, but also some really inventive, moving arias and duets. The duet "You've undone me" in Act I merits the "back" button on my ipod for a repeat listen pretty much every time.

The name on the box that enticed me to grab the set was, of course, John Eliot Gardiner. The performance is typically excellent. It dates from the very early days of the Monteverdi Choir (1981), when Gardiner had not quite yet polished the group into the model of precision, clarity, and expressiveness it became a few years later. But they're still very good. And the cast of soloists is top notch: deserving special mention is the ever-reliable tenor Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, who is just so darn good in this kind of thing. Even better, though, is the mezzo Della Jones, who brings down the virtual house in the thrilling aria, "Hence, Iris, hence away!"

I'm generally not a huge fan of Papa Haydn. I admire his tremendous skills, but his music (especially the symphonies and quartets) usually fails to give me the deep pleasures that are ultimately what I'm looking for in great music. There's something cold and overly ironic and clever about much of his music. Just when you think something is building to a gorgeous melody or climax, it suddenly shifts to something else. Every tender moment is so fleeting it is barely there. It so often seems like a giant tease, as if Papa is saying: "You can see I could blow your mind with great music; but I'm just gonna mess with it instead."

One exception to this, I've always felt, is the Creation, where Haydn finally really seems to be letting lose and reveling in the pure beauty and ecstasy of nature. Well, casually browsing my uncle's CD collection on a Thanksgiving visit, I found another Haydn work to embrace: the Nelson Mass. It helps that the performance, on this Trevor Pinnock recording, is absolutely sublime. The pacing, the chorus, the sound, the soloists are all absolutely perfect. Felicity Lott is especially brilliant. The piece still doesn't take place among my very favorite masses, but it is full of wonderful and exciting moments. As if to prove it's not just the exceptional performance that's carrying the day, I was completely unimpressed with the Te Deum, which is at intervals either dumb and cheesy or just weird.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006


I noticed the Bachfest "schedule" is finally up on WKCR's website. It's rather vague. Are they doing to have a whole day of "discussion"? I should hope not, and I doubt it.

Gotta wonder about the new management, the first classical director(s) since I joined up in college that I haven't personally been acquainted with. They totally cut me out of the loop, even though I've been a regular, devoted, and I daresay positive contributor the past 6 years. The Bachfest is its shortest length ever, only a week. They didn't put the schedule up until the last minute, and that "schedule" is only a rough sketch of themes and "discussions."

Well, I hope it goes well. I mean, it can't exactly be bad as long as Bach's music is prominently involved.

Don Carlo

Finally, December 18 arrived -- Don Carlo! The Met's performance lived up to my expectations in every way, it was absolutely terrific.

At the outset, I was treated to something new. I had gotten to know the opera from the classic Giulini recording, and the Met's performance kicked off with an introductory scene involving Elisabeth and the chorus that is from a version not used in the recording. I gather from the program notes that this scene was cut just before the first performance and never published, but discovered some time later. I'm not sure when it was translated to Italian, as the original performance was in French. At any rate, the scene made a lot of sense, it helped set up Elisabeth's dilemma at the end of the Act. It's not essential to understanding that dilemma, but it beefed it up by providing more context. As for the music, it was typically nice Verdi, but nothing earth-shattering.

I don't think I had heard Patricia Racette before (although I've seen so many performances it's hard to remember every performance), so I didn't know what to expect. She was excellent as Elisabeth, with an impressive combination of prettiness and power in her voice. She also had the powerful low notes that are so necessary for this role. There was only the occasional moment when her voice lost some focus or had an edge for a few notes. Consistent difficulties with harder passages can detract from a performance, even when the performer is otherwise singing beautifully, because you start to anticipate the problems and brace for them, which is distracting. This was NOT the case with Racette, who handled many of even the hardest passages beautifully, so her occasional minor imperfections at odd times were easily ignored.

Johan Botha in the title role had a great night. I have heard him before as Walter in Meistersinger and Radames in Aida, and I've thought him a solid tenor with a nice, powerful voice. On Monday, he sounded even better than I remembered from those other performances, especially in how agile his voice was. Every note, even in fast passages (made especially fast by Levine's tempo choices), rang brightly and clearly, with perfect timing. He doesn't have the syrupy tone and smooth, flowing lines of Domingo or other great Italian-repertoire specialists, but the punchier, Vickers-like style can work just fine. Since I was used to listening to Domingo on record, it took me a few passages to adjust, but once I did, I was completely sold.

Rene Pape was as awesome as ever. One of the great things about the Met is that they have some truly excellent singers who they are able to get very frequently for even relatively small roles. They are house singers in a way. Pape is a great example of this, and the audiences really appreciate it. His great aria at the beginning of Act IV received the biggest ovation of the night.

The only hole in the cast, but one I anticipated, was Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Rodrigo (aka Posa). I have heard him before and not been impressed. He had a loud voice but a completely boring singing style. He sings with zero expressiveness or variation, every note sounds precisely the same. This style can sometimes be excused when the voice is beautiful enough, but I also find his tone rather cold. On Monday, he did not even sound as powerful as he had in the past, and was frequently drowned out by the other singers in this strong cast. This struck me especially in his big scene with King Phillip in the 2nd Act. The singing imbalance in favor of Phillip in both character and tone completely changed the tenor of this scene from what I was used to. On the Giulini recording, it is the Rodrigo (in the form of Sherrill Milnes) who dominates, and the Phillip (Ruggero Raimondi) who is rather weak and dull. When listening to the recording, the central character in the scene, the person whose feelings and motives seemed to be the focus, was Rodrigo, with Phillip being a mere foil. In Monday's performance, it was Phillip who I was concerned with; Rodrigo seemed merely to be a plot tool used to set up Phillip's development. This showed how the singers in an opera can affect fundamentally the shape of the drama.

Samuel Ramey still has a big voice, and unlike Hvorostovsky was not dominated by Pape in the great, great scene between the Inquisitor and Phillip in Act IV. Like Hvorostovsky, Ramey's performances (even in his prime) can be a bit monotonous, but his tone is more menacing, and that combination of menace and solemn monotony works perfectly for the Inquisitor. The performance of the key scene was thus ideal and one of the highlights of this great performance.

Olga Borodina is another reliable Met regular. She has a powerful but smoky and typically Russian mezzo voice. In a perfect world, I prefer the firmness of Horne, Verrett, Bumbry, or Cossotto in Verdi mezzo roles, but I very much enjoyed Borodina as Eboli all the same. She sang her big Act IV aria with great gusto.

Another great thing about the Met is that they fill the small roles with great, young talents looking to break out, such that the singers in the small roles can sound almost as impressive as the stars. Andrew Gangestad, who I happen to know is also an incredibly nice guy, excelled in the small but juicy role of the monk who the neurotic main characters mistake for the ghost of King Charles. The other small roles -- the page, the bass who announces the Grand Inquisitor, etc. -- were also filled out with some very good singers.

And the orchestra! They played with more beauty and precision than Giulini's orchestra, and the latter is a studio recording. Particularly impressive passages included the fast opening to the 2nd scene of Act III and the gorgeous orchestral opening of Act IV and Phillip's aria, especially the incredible cello solo. The playing had great expressive power and the phrases, especially in the Act IV passage, were shaped so effectively and convincingly by Levine.

As I've discussed before, Levine is a true master at Verdi. However, he did not seem quite as attentive to the rhythmic pulse of Verdi as I've found him to be in the past. He rushed and slowed passages more frequently than usual. But the performance was still very convincing overall, and the performers, singers and players alike, responded with great precision even in the "rushed" passages.

The only significant problem with the performance probably had nothing to do with the performers. In the big crowd scene, the Met, as they like to do, actually put on stage the trumpets being played in the action. But I'm not sure whether it was the direction the trumpets were facing, if they were placed too far back stage, or some other reason, but they were barely audible, and the orchestra was frequently drowning them out. Levine actually had to quiet the orchestra at odd times so that the trumpets could be heard. I have no idea how this problem has not been worked out over the course of the several performances this production has had already this season. Very strange.

But a mere quibble. It was overall a wonderful night involving one of the great masterpieces of opera.