New class of musicians bringing fresh ideas to Philly

Conductor Teodor Currentzis, whose recording of Mozart's "Figaro" conveys fresh, deeper dimensions.
Conductor Teodor Currentzis, whose recording of Mozart's "Figaro" conveys fresh, deeper dimensions. (ANTON ZAVJYALOV)
Posted: January 20, 2014

After more than two centuries of continuous performances by the greatest artists of any era, how could Mozart's classic Marriage of Figaro reveal anything new? Not possible, some connoisseurs say. We can hope only that current performers live up to the gods of the past.

Suddenly, Figaro arrives in a fresh guise. Nearly every minute in the new Sony Classical recording, due out in March, is a new discovery. Ornaments, cadenzas, phrase readings I never imagined are everywhere.

It's part of a new series of Mozart operas recorded by the Greek-born, Russian-trained Teodor Currentzis, emanating from Perm (about 890 miles east of Moscow). Currentzis made the recording on the condition that he had unlimited rehearsal time and would perform only when good and ready. As a result, ornamental elements previously regarded as operatic frills feel essential. Characters are deepened, and the opera enters a dimension of immediacy I didn't think possible.

No voice in the wilderness (figuratively), Currentzis is one of a pack of classical musicians operating with an individual vision and freedom of expression unlike much of what I've heard over the last two decades. Revisionists are always with us - conductors Michael Tilson Thomas and Simon Rattle, pianists Peter Serkin and Jeremy Denk - but now there are more of them, something resembling a critical mass. And several are on their way to Philadelphia.

Contributing factors: It's widely agreed that each successive generation of performers has greater and greater command of their instruments. The important part is how musicians use that ability to achieve ever-greater precision of expression, with performances distinguished by greater detail and personality.

In his once-famous Beethoven violin sonatas recordings, Yehudi Menuhin no doubt had profound worlds of experience inside him, but his technique was such that rather little of it came out of his bow - at least compared to Isabelle Faust's Beethoven performances with the equally precise pianist Alexander Melnikov. Similarly, the Belcea Quartet's Beethoven is making the legendary Budapest Quartet sound like weary amateurs. In both cases, the music seems to have more to say, and says it better.

These performances show a new interpretive freedom, owing perhaps to the decline of the recording industry. During the 1990s CD boom, everybody was dressed for success and clinging to the middle of the road, in both the choice of repertoire and the way it was performed. I called them "me-too" performances. Now, career stakes are lower. Performers are willing to take more chances. Recordings are still made, for love rather than money, often with more control from the artist, avoiding the death-by-editing that once rendered recordings perfect but boring.

The historically informed performance movement is a strong if subterranean influence, (though very much in evidence in the new Figaro), giving musicians an alternative voice to the gods of the past. Even among mainstream orchestras, the range of possible sonorities has opened up enormously by taming use of vibrato.

Also, the new class of high-charisma performers is coming out of places without centuries of classical tradition to live up to - the Baltic Republics, Finland, French Canada, Siberia, and Latin America. And not with the usual instruments. Star accordion players are proliferating.

Less radical, voice types that haven't often assumed star roles are creating such higher-profile niches. Baritones such as Nathan Gunn and Gerald Finley came of age in a world that offered them secondary Verdi and Puccini roles. Now, they regularly sing leading roles in contemporary operas. Thus, when Finley arrives here Feb. 11 to perform Schubert's often-heard Die Winterreise (presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society), he will do so with a field of reference unlike anyone before, what with new operas such as Doctor Atomic and Anna Nicole, plus normally heavy roles he has rethought for his lyric baritone, such as Iago in Otello and Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger.

Others use recitals to carve out a unique statement, from Thomas Meglioranza's program of forgotten (and often hilarious) parlor songs in the 2009 season, to Simon Keenlyside's award-winning disc Songs of War.

While painting this rosy picture, however, I have to own that the risk factor is high and one's ideas are often challenged. At times, my favorite revisionists leave me confounded.

Faust and Melnikov will, indeed, bring their Beethoven violin sonatas to their recital Monday, presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society - but mixed in with the pair's more recent discovery, Carl Maria von Weber sonatas, which, to my ears, are too light to be worth their attention.

As enthralled as I am with the Figaro recording, I was puzzled as early as the first scene. The key role of Susanna (sung by Fanie Antonelou) is oddly wan and ghostly. I can't imagine why.

One must ask whether such singular music-making is possible outside the unique circumstances of Perm. Monitoring Currentzis' European radio broadcasts in recent weeks, I hear individuality nearly as palpable in guest appearances conducting music from Purcell to Prokofiev.

So, mainstream symphonic organizations need not be left out - assuming they hire that kind of talent. Boston's Andris Nelsons is a wonderful musician I always want to hear, but I don't sense any revisionist blood pumping in his veins. Gustavo Dudamel? Oh, yes. Definitely. He can't stop himself.

And Philadelphia's Yannick Nézet-Séguin? Not sure. He so easily pours his genie into existing bottles, his total personality may not be yet apparent. Rattle didn't show his true colors until his midlife appointment in Berlin. If forced to guess, though, I'd say Nézet-Séguin has a rabbit in the hat. Maybe nests of them.

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