Stuff at night

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  April 29, 2010

This new Neruda cycle is sadder, milder, more lugubriously one-note, and more sentimental than the earlier sequence. It begins with a masterstroke, a rapturous cello solo (gorgeously played by Martha Babcock) with accompanying cellos, and ends — perhaps echoing too heavily the final bars of the “Abschied” (“Farewell”) from Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde — with the baritone (the magnificent Gerald Finley, John Adams’s “Doctor Atomic”) quietly repeating the word “Adiós” (not Neruda’s word) four times. The orchestration is both lush and transparent, with suggestions of Spanish melodies and rhythms (and a predictably rising note on almost every accented syllable). It brought some friends of mine to tears, but to me it was both a little obvious and a little familiar. Perhaps Levine would have given it more edge. Ogren had good moments in the Sibelius pair and the Schubert Great C-major Symphony that closed the program, but neither had a strong musical profile, and I missed Levine’s visionary breadth and sense of mystery in the Schubert.

Yo-Yo Ma’s umpteenth Celebrity Series of Boston Symphony Hall recital made me think of the great collaborations between cellists and pianists: Casals and Cortot, Fournier and Schnabel, Piatigorsky and Rubinstein, Rostropovich and Britten. Ma is up there with the great cellists, but whether because of economics, recording contracts, or his loyalty to his friends, he has rarely played with an equal partner. Frequent accompanist Kathryn Stott is a fluent and intelligent musician, but her limited coloristic, dynamic, and rhythmic imagination is no match for his, especially in major works like Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata, Shostakovich’s D-minor Sonata, or the transcription of Franck’s Violin Sonata. The most thrilling item was the final encore, Saint-Saëns’s inevitable “The Swan”: Ma played it with heartbreaking, understated insinuation, and here the subordinate accompaniment was all that was needed.

An unfortunate illness in the Cantata Singers audience detracted from a rare performance of Stravinsky’s solemn but pungent Mass (1944–1948), which — along with Poulenc’s more romantic yet also Stravinskyan 1937 Mass in G — created a fascinating counterpoint to liturgical works by Monteverdi and Schütz. This is the Cantata Singers’ Schütz season, and director David Hoose is a master of illuminating chronological comparisons. Beauties abounded, but nothing quite matched the zest and sheer joy of the opening Monteverdi Laetatus sum (“I rejoiced”), whose 106 four-note bass-line repetitions Hoose describes as “the Boléro of the 17th century.”

American Classics, a/k/a Ben (Sears) and Brad (Connor), presented “I’ll Take Manhattan,” a delightful program of classic songs about guess which helluva town that ended with a sing-along of Lawlor & Blake’s “The Sidewalks of New York” (“East Side, West Side”). Great to hear lovely operatic soprano Maria Ferrante in this new context — her sultry version of Lombardo & Loeb’s “Seems like Old Times” was a highlight, and likewise her duet with Korland Simmons in NY mayor Jimmy Walker’s nostalgic “Will You Love Me in December As You Do in May?” and her duet with Sears in Comden & Green’s hilarious “Catch Our Act at the Met” (she: “I’ll sing Lucia”; he: “I’ll sing Sextet”). Then there was Mary Ann Lanier’s medley combining Billy Strayhorn’s cool “Take the ‘A’ Train” with Sondheim’s desperate “Another Hundred People,” and Heather Peterson’s Harberg & Suesse torch-song rarity “Moon About Town.” Coming up soon: Ben and Brad in the first modern revival of Irving Berlin’s Yip! Yip! Yaphank, the WW1 show that gave us “Oh, How I Hate To Get Up in the Morning.”

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