Blythe spirit

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  May 17, 2010

“Shit happens,” German bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff announced near the end of his latest Celebrity Series of Boston lieder recital at Jordan Hall, when a frog in his throat forced him to restart the second of his three encores. He’s been dealing with bucket loads recently — his mother’s death, a brother diagnosed with cancer. “Shit happens” might also be the theme of his bleak program, which started with three Schubert settings of Goethe on the subjects of suffering, both God-inflicted (“Prometheus”) and self-inflicted (“Grenzen der Menschheit”), and mortality (the chilling “Erlkönig,” in which Quasthoff’s voice alternated among terrified child, complacent father, and seductive demon). Even “Im Frühling,” with its exquisite piano accompaniment (played by Justus Zeyen with modest understatement — as he played everything), was a memory of lost love. Quasthoff followed with Swiss composer Frank Martin’s 1943 Sechs Monologe aus “Jedermann” (a rarity), dissonant settings of grim Hugo von Hofmannsthal poems in which the title character fears first for his riches, then for his afterlife. The second half included Brahms’s five beautiful but heavy-hearted and bitter Opus 94 Fünf Lieder and his profound late masterpiece, Vier ernste Gesänge, which is based on passages from Ecclesiastes and Corinthians about death, suffering, and, finally, love. Quasthoff sang these from memory.

It was clear that he was more concerned with powerful, heroic, even declamatory communication of feeling than about beauty of tone — though in the Brahms he had more vocal velvet. Each year, his lower register seems to get darker and deeper while the top notes hint more of strain. Having turned 50 last November, he’s announced that he’ll be cutting back on his heavy concert schedule to devote more time to family and teaching. His didactic impulse included requesting the audience not to text or cough between songs (he congratulated us when we didn’t), and he concluded by urging us not to let the planet fall into ruin (“It’s the only planet we have”).

He’s also quite the comedian (the bass-baritone Itzhak Perlman?). The concert took place the day after the big water-main break in Weston, and he was wearing sparkling white shirtsleeves, he told us, “to show you how clean Berlin water is.” “What happens after the USA wins the World Cup?” he asked out of nowhere. “I turn off my Game Boy.” Maybe he felt this dark program needed comic relief. But his uncompromising artistry hasn’t diminished, and even after three encores, the sellout crowd didn’t want him to stop.

The BSO season ended with conductor emeritus Bernard Haitink leading two programs. First there was a lovely coupling of Mozart — a leaping Haffner Symphony and, in its very first BSO-subscription-concert appearance, the Horn Concerto No. 2 (substituting for a violin concerto because Eyjafjallajökull ash kept Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos from leaving Europe), with BSO principal horn James Sommerville — and Richard Strauss’s enchanting 18th-century-style Bourgeois gentilhomme Suite, which incorporates some delicate orchestrations of Lully. The following week, we got Beethoven’s grand Leonore Overture No. 2 and Fourth Piano Concerto with Emanuel Ax, plus the most famous of all BSO commissions, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra — gorgeously played and opting for lucidity over ferocity. In Beethoven’s most mysterious and inward concerto, Ax showed little connection with Haitink, and even less with Beethoven. The slow movement can sound as if Beethoven were at the edge of a spiritual abyss, finally refusing the pull of death. But here was little tension, no crisis, no mystery. It wasn’t about anything but pretty sound. Ax began by playing the familiar unsettling chords as rolled arpeggios. Not what we’re used to, but so what?

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