The old-fashioned term “virtuoso,” which in the heyday of Vladimir Horowitz and Jascha Heifetz connoted the utmost in musical brilliance, has become something of a pejorative in classical music, suggesting a player who has a dazzling but mindless-or heartless-technique. And yet there remain those few musicians whose command of their instruments is not just physically astonishing but somehow complete, who can make us feel that they are bringing more to bear on the music than we had thought humanly possible. These, to my mind, are the true virtuosos: players distinguished by the fact that they show an extraordinary degree of musical virtue -intellectually, emotionally, imaginatively, even spiritually.
One of them is Mitsuko Uchida, who is at her formidable best in a new recording of Beethoven’s first and second piano concertos with the Bayerische Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Kurt Sanderling (Philips 289 454 468-2). The sovereign quality of Ms. Uchida’s playing has always been its luminosity (witness her famously strobe-lit Mozart recordings)-her ability to give each phrase a kind of inner glow that allows us both to hear and see each note as sound, thought and image in a gold-threaded tapestry. More than any pianist I know, she puts you immediately on intimate terms with the music-which is exactly where you want to be in these two early, sunny, least stentorian of the Beethoven concertos. The lovingly cushioned geniality of Maestro Sanderling, an old pro at this stuff, makes him an ideal partner for this beautiful pointillist.
The most spectacular set of piano concertos in our century-the five concertos of Sergey Prokofiev-has been given what must be its most fully realized performance on disk by the pianist Alexander Toradze and the Kirov Orchestra, conducted by Valery Gergiev (Philips 289 462 048-2). Mr. Toradze is one of the last exemplars of the more-is-more school of pianism, and he and Mr. Gergiev take almost shocking delight in revealing the Soviet showman’s bulging bag of tricks in all their gaudy swagger. Has anyone thrown fistfuls of notes so gleefully in the air as these two old friends, whose grinning camaraderie on the album’s cover suggests that they are involved in some epic joke. But Mr. Toradze goes well beyond razzle-dazzle. His supersonic flights through Prokofiev’s manic “chase” sequences never lose sight of the marvelous inner colors and rhythmic wit-even the usually lumpen Fifth Concerto dances with incisive grace. The delicacy and depth of feeling he brings to the relatively quiet moments (notably in the opening of the great Second Concerto) are, weirdly, rich and bleak at the same time-utterly Russian.
A couple of seasons back at the Metropolitan Opera, the Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos , as sung by the French lyric coloratura soprano Natalie Dessay, was an unforgettable knockout, not only for Ms. Dessay’s spot-on vocal agility but for the warmth and charm she brought to what is generally the most cardboard of characters. Honest-to-goodness vivacity, of the Gallic School variety, has been largely absent since the glittering days of Lily Pons in the 1930′s and 40′s. But here was a chic warbler who, unlike her sparkling predecessor, could even sing in tune.
Ms. Dessay’s timbre may lack the bell-like ping that was the Pons hallmark, but its slightly chalky, dark-hued grain is perfect for the exotic flights of ornithological fantasy on display in her new album Vocalises , in which she is accompanied by the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Schonwandt (EMI Classics 7243 5 56565-2). Most of these display pieces from an earlier age of affectionate kitsch (by, among others, Rachmaninoff, Saint-Saëns, Ravel and Johann Strauss II) are songs without words, bringing back memories of Rima, the bird girl, in W.H. Hudson’s Green Mansions . This makes it all the easier to savor the almost onanistic (but never too indulgent) delight Ms. Dessay takes in letting her cloud-hopping soprano wander where it will above the treetops-hold the stage smoke, please.
He’s too young for full-virtuoso status yet, but I am pleased to report that Max Levinson, the American Wunderkind whose triumphant New York debut I wrote about several weeks ago, has produced a stunner of a second album, Out of Doors , devoted entirely to the piano music of Béla Bartók (N2K 10028). Much of this music was the fruit of Bartók’s ethnomusical fascination with the folk idioms of his native Hungary and Romania, with their spiky rhythms and archaic melodies; these pieces are stirring reminders that, along with Stravinsky, he was the century’s most sophisticated “primitive.” Mr. Levinson is rigorously alive to the wild Bartókian swings, from bacchanalian frenzy to lyrical wistfulness-above all, to the music’s sheer sense of fun.
If the term “virtuoso,” with its mixed connotations, can be applied to any modern composer, it is Krzystof Penderecki, the Polish polymath whose works over the past four decades have swept up just about every “ism” in the book, rearranged them with breathtaking assurance, and grabbed audiences by the throat, or whatever else came immediately to hand. I have generally found Penderecki’s music more fustian than profound-it’s always coming at you. However, I was enthralled by his Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, No. 2, titled “Metamorphosen,” as played by the violinist for whom it was composed-Anne-Sophie Mutter-and the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the composer (Deutsche Grammophon 289 453 507-2). As a teenager, Mr. Penderecki considered becoming a virtuoso violinist, and he has written a hugely demanding work that puts the soloist through the most extreme paces of propulsive frenzy, hushed sinuosity, and broad, almost Brahmsian soulfulness.
The typical Penderecki vehemence is always present-has he never not been portentous?-but his narrative line is thrillingly taut, and since no idea (or effect) is allowed to linger too long, you at least get the illusion that all this gorgeous writing must be going somewhere. If anyone can polish off Mr. Penderecki’s work with utter dispatch, Ms. Mutter can, and the clarity with which she skitters, darts and knifes through this 38-minute work is breathtaking. Accompanied by her usual splendid pianist, Lambert Orkis, she is in even more impassioned form in the rhapsodic thickets of Bartók’s Second Sonata for Violin and Piano, which rounds out the program.
Finally, a crossover to the most rewarding vocal album I’ve heard in years-and that includes those labeled “classical”: Pennies From Heaven (Angel 7243 5 56625-2), a program of 11 songs written for the movies during the Great Depression, as performed by Mary Cleere Haran with the pianist and sometime singer Richard Rodney Bennett. Ms. Haran, who is currently performing these songs at the Manhattan Theater Club, is as true a virtuoso in what she does as any more rarefied musician you might care to name. She and the superlative Mr. Bennett plainly agree that what got America through its most dismal economic collapse was not just F.D.R’s New Deal, but Tin Pan Alley’s care package of songs, with titles like “Love Is Just Around the Corner,” “When My Ship Comes In,” “I’m in the Mood for Love,” “Breezin’ Along With the Breeze,” and “I Only Have Eyes for You.” Ms. Haran’s dusky pipes and pull-up-a-chair enunciation can flutter, wail, scat, soar, sass and moan in ways that recall-but never merely imitate-singers as various as Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald and Lee Wylie. There is no corny homage going on here, though, just a lot of singing that’s really smart, really sly and really sweet-qualities that should be in every virtuoso’s arsenal.