by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, September 27, 2004
The breathtaking profanity of Mozart’s letters — “Whoever doesn’t believe me may lick me, world without end,” and so on — has led one British researcher to conclude recently that the composer had Tourette’s syndrome. What’s interesting about this theory, which has become the goofball classical-music news item of the season, is that anyone would actually need a far-fetched medical explanation for the fact that a young male with healthy appetites swore a lot and liked to talk about sex. Mozart, like Shakespeare, moved with equal ease through the most refined and most raucous circles of his world. Only if classical music is confined to the fleshless end of the spectrum does Mozart’s exaltation of the body become a psychological anomaly crying out for interpretation.
René Jacobs’s recording of “The Marriage of Figaro” (Harmonia Mundi), the most startling and perhaps the best classical recording released so far this year, reconciles man and music, sacred and profane. The first bars of the overture serve notice that the “divine Mozart” is coming lustily to earth. land like sucker punches, legatos become greasy slurs. The four-minute overture is an event in itself: you sense the creation of a new political and cultural stage on which independent actors can seize the spotlight. Many great “Figaro” recordings of the past — Erich Kleiber’s, Karl Böhm’s, Carlo Maria Giulini’s — have surveyed the scene from Olympian heights, as if to take the aristocracy’s side in the central contest between the decadent Count Almaviva and his ascendant servant Figaro. This is “Figaro” told from Figaro’s point of view.
Jacobs, a countertenor turned conductor, is a dizzyingly prolific musician who has also just released a strong recording of Haydn’s “The Seasons.” You’d think the quality of his work would suffer, but Jacobs seems to find new energy whenever he enters the studio. At every turn, the players of the Concerto Köln throw in some visceral accent, airy ornament, or arresting noise. This is the only “Figaro” I know where the recitative is as engaging as the arias: the fortepiano chimes in like some Hapsburg honky-tonk, cellos indulge in meditative Bachian solos, winds and brass mimic dance combos or military bands. Those who prefer their Mozart to purr along like one of Karajan’s Porsches may not enjoy Jacobs’s rugged style, yet there is no sacrifice of musical values. The climactic ensemble of forgiveness, in which the voices become buttresses of a weightless cathedral, is all the more stupendous for having risen up from such gritty ground.
Basses singing Figaro tend to indulge in a lot of gruff-voiced mugging. The vital young singer Lorenzo Regazzo takes a more serious approach to the title role. When Figaro declares that the Count will dance to his appointed tune, Regazzo deploys some unusually strong stentorian tones, as if to hint at the social revolution that this opera is said to have prophesied. Simon Keenlyside, as the Count, also declines to play the buffoon, instead using his considerable virtuosity to create a manic, almost frightening character. Patrizia Ciofi and Angelika Kirchschlager, as Susanna and Cherubino, both sing with a delightfully wide range of inflections, which create a kind of stage action for the ears. Véronique Gens, as the Countess, stays closer to the usual refinement, but she stops short of high-end warbling. Many “name” singers have glided through “Figaro” as if leading a museum tour; these performers, however, aren’t afraid to show some skin, vocally speaking, and in so doing they get closer to the flesh-and-blood Mozart than any other cast on record.
The gorgeous Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, who recently released a recital disk entitled “Sempre Libera,” on Deutsche Grammophon, is in the process of entering that rarefied élite known as the Yo-Yo Club. Yo-Yos are classical musicians who have escaped from the relative anonymity that even such august talents as Gidon Kremer and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson inhabit; they have touched true-blue American celebrity, appearing on network TV, in glossy magazines, even in the movies. Netrebko, who is thirty-three, first reached international audiences as part of Valery Gergiev’s stable of Russian singers, then moved on to the deluxe circuit of the Salzburg Festival, Covent Garden, and the Metropolitan Opera, where she captivated audiences in Prokofiev’s “War and Peace” in 2002. This year, she went so far as to appear in the movie “Princess Diaries 2,” singing “Sempre Libera” from “La Traviata."
Whenever a performer joins the Yo-Yo Club, a certain brand of connoisseur automatically questions the seriousness of his or her artistry. The move from excited murmuring to skeptical muttering has happened amazingly fast in Netrebko’s case: critics have already accused her of subjugating her talent to D.G.’s marketing strategies, which, by modern big-media standards, are meek in the extreme. Do a few come-hither poses or would-be MTV videos really diminish a singer’s artistry? Or do they diminish a critic’s ability to judge her on vocal merits alone? To my ears, Netrebko has lost none of the radiance that she displayed in her first appearances. If anything, her voice is more lustrous and more substantial than before—the lower range darker and richer, the high notes brilliant if not totally secure, the legato phrases luxuriously long.
The repertory on the new D.G. disk is ambitious. Netrebko rides deep into the heart of Callas territory, singing the Act I scena from “Traviata,” the mad scenes from “Lucia di Lammermoor” and “I Puritani,” and the climactic sleepwalking scene from “La Sonnambula.” She also sings the Willow Song and the Ave Maria from “Otello” and “O mio babbino caro,” from “Gianni Schicchi,” which are Renée Fleming signature pieces—a shot across the bow of the reigning “beautiful voice.” Netrebko creates no psychological drama of the Callas variety, nor does she plot her way intelligently through each phrase, as Fleming lately has done. Instead, she sails through the music without apparent effort, navigating these arias as if they were a calm Aegean bay. What depths there are come from Claudio Abbado, conducting the Mahler Chamber Orchestra; few recitals have an accompaniment so voluptuously nuanced. Until Netrebko becomes a recurring character on “CSI: Salzburg,” I’d say that she deserves the hype she has received.
René Jacobs, in his recording of “Figaro,” takes command of a familiar masterwork by reinvigorating every phrase. Netrebko invests famous Italian arias with the eternal novelty of a fresh voice. The young Austrian pianist Till Fellner does something stealthier but no less impressive in a new recording of another well-worn classic: Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” Book I, on the ECM label. The initial impression is of an unusually serene, even placid reading of Bach’s twenty-four preludes and fugues. After the high-tension drama of Glenn Gould’s recording of this cycle, or the philosophical journeys of Edwin Fischer or Rosalyn Tureck, Fellner may seem too dispassionate in his approach. Yet his unerring musicality is almost monumental in itself. This may not be the most intellectually imposing “Well-Tempered Clavier” ever recorded, but it is possibly the most sensuous and seductive. If Fellner can sustain such unbroken concentration in live performance — he will appear at Zankel Hall on December 1st — he will become a major artist.
The pianist is a protégé of Alfred Brendel, but he is quite unlike Brendel in his desire to maintain at all times a natural musical flow. He has an almost compulsive attachment to clean, rounded piano tone; a virtuoso of the soft and sustaining pedals, he uses them to put a kind of lacquer finish on Bach’s sometimes rough and dissonant harmony. (He is helped by the inimitable “halo” effect of ECM’s sound engineering.) Before you can bliss out completely to the beauty of the playing, however, carefully shaded crescendos and clipped attacks create a sense of mounting drama. The central minor-key fugues — especially the C-sharp minor, the F minor, the B-flat minor, and the twelve-tone-ish B minor — acquire an ominous density before they make their final turns into the major. In the faster-paced pieces, Fellner executes runs of stroboscopic evenness and clarity. The weight dissolves and the architecture dances.