Looking back at some of my old music columns, I’ve discovered several overused adjectives. “Rigorous,” “probing” and “immaculate” seem to have been particular favorites. Fine words, but they tend to reinforce a widely held perception that the performance of classical music is an intensely serious business attended largely by people who put high-minded sentiments ahead of enjoyment. As I reread those columns, it occurred to me that not once had I used the adjective that best describes some of my most memorable musical experiences: “playful.”
It’s no accident that the word “play” is the verb we attach to the process of extracting music from an instrument. You don’t want to “hammer” at a piano or “saw” at a violin; although eye-hand coordination, digital agility, mental focus and physical strength are all involved, there’s nothing mechanical about the exercise. Getting the most out of an instrument, whether it’s an organ or a kazoo (or, for that matter, the human voice), requires imagination and a capacity to delight in the sheer doing of it—in other words, a love of play. The other week at Carnegie Hall, I heard three concerts that positively exulted in playfulness.
The Cleveland Orchestra is renowned as one of the most rigorous, probing and immaculate symphonic ensembles in the world, but under their young music director, the Austrian conductor Franz Welser-Möst, its musicians have learned to let go without losing any of their celebrated precision. One of the Cleveland musicians described to me the difference between making music under the genial Mr. Welser-Möst—who’s in his fourth season with the orchestra—and his predecessor, the august German maestro Christoph von Dohnányi: “With Christoph, you concentrated on achieving perfection of balance, color and rhythm within each unit of musical time. With Franz, you’re trying to achieve the same thing while looking forward to what’s coming next. Christoph uses a ‘northern beat’—the baton is always tamping you down. Franz conducts with a ‘southern beat,’ a longer, more fluid line, which encourages you to play up.”
This concert—a single stopover on the orchestra’s way to a European tour—gave New Yorkers their clearest evidence to date of how utterly “up” this brilliantly schooled group of musicians has become. Playing a program that, on paper, did not promise fireworks—two Brahms workhorses, the Academic Festival Overture and the First Symphony, bracketing the New York premiere of Si Ji (“Four Seasons”) by the Chinese composer Chen Yi—the Clevelanders held a packed house enthralled by the almost nonchalant zestfulness of their playing. The familiar overture started almost diffidently and then proceeded so naturally that “Gaudeamus Igitur” emerged as though a group of mellow undergraduates had breezily opened a window to flood the campus with song.
With scarcely a pause to catch their breath, the Clevelanders traveled from 19th-century Heidelberg to the dreamlike, sometimes nightmarish world of Chen Yi, who combines a deep knowledge of Chinese folk music (learned while she endured two years of forced labor during China’s Cultural Revolution) with an almost frighteningly sophisticated command of Western microtonality. It would be too much to say that they tossed off such a multi-patterned work, but in their hands every glittering detail emerged with the vivid immediacy of a Chinese landscape painting teeming with figures against timeless hills and sky. When musicians of this caliber are entirely comfortable in their diligence, they create a sense of air and light, much like the Alpine meadow that surrounds Mr. Welser-Möst in a photograph in the current Vanity Fair.
Brahms’ First Symphony, which was completed in 1876 after a long process of fits and starts, re-established the great symphonic tradition that had been on hold since the death of Beethoven and Schubert 50 years earlier. Its aspiration to gravitas can sometimes sound affected, as though Brahms were assuming a mantle he hadn’t yet earned. But thanks to the vibrant chemistry between Mr. Welser-Möst and his players, the four movements flowed with an elegant, almost casual insouciance that banished any trace of the work’s difficult history. The Clevelanders’ approach to the last movement’s famous paraphrase of the choral theme in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was refreshingly un-reverential: Here was Brahms rubbing shoulders collegially with the supreme master—with a contagious ease that spread through the hall.
THE ITALIAN MEZZO-SOPRANO CECILIA BARTOLI can be irrepressible to a fault, cheerleading the audience with grins and grimaces that seem like a redundant amplification of her vocal virtuosity. I’ve sometimes had to close my eyes during her recitals to feel the excitement she can build in her dazzling, perfectly strung scales, the delicate pathos with which she shades one of her aching laments. She can be so prodigal that I’ve wanted to shout, “Stop showing off! Let the music take you where it wants to go!”
Her latest appearance at Carnegie, in the company of a crackerjack band of period-instrument players, Orchestra la Scintilla of Zürich Opera, revealed that Ms. Bartoli is finally settling down to do what she does perhaps better than anyone else: just sing. To the consternation of some of her fans, who wish she’d venture into the 19th- and 20th-century repertoire, she has preferred to mine the 18th century’s apparently inexhaustible trove of vocal rarities. On this occasion, she devoted her program to arias composed in Rome during the first decade of the century, when opera went underground as “oratorio” in response to Pope Clement XI’s ban on theatrical performance. (Much of the program can be heard on her stunning new CD on the Decca label, Opera Proibita, with Les Musiciens du Louvre, conducted by Marc Minkowski.)
Yes, there were the familiar churning little fists, whipping the music along as fast as she could sing it. There was still that perpetual air of having just jumped out of a cake. But listening to her selection of arias by Handel, Caldara, Scarlatti and Corelli, I was utterly swept away by the range of feeling—longing, sorrow, savagery—that she packs into her exquisite instrument.
Ms. Bartoli was virtually raised in the Rome Opera, and perhaps only a Roman can navigate so unerringly the Eternal City’s fault line between the sacred and the profane. In the winter of 1703, Rome was struck by two earthquakes, which extended the papal ban on opera; who knows how long it would have lasted if Clement had suffered the earthquake called Bartoli.
THE FRENCH PIANIST PIERRE-LAURENT AIMARD pleasures of a cooler sort—a program of quicksilver delicacies that turned the big hall into a super-sophisticated salon. It was perhaps ill-advised to open with works as subtle as four of Debussy’s Préludes, given the habit so many New Yorkers have of coughing the moment they’re asked to sit still and pay attention to anything less arresting than the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Clearly exasperated by the throat-clearing that accompanied his tenebrous reading of the first prelude, Delphic Dancers, Mr. Aimard had to wait before starting the next one as a latecomer made her way to a seat near the stage, oblivious of the spell she’d broken. When the coughers introduced thunderclaps into Mr. Aimard’s account of The Wind on the Plain, he stopped and politely asked them to stop—which, amazingly, they did. As we enter the Sudafed season, I hope more recitalists summon the courage to be so outspoken. In my experience, only a protest from the artist can quell the city’s unconscionable wheezers and hackers.
Mr. Aimard is not one of those virtuosos who take no prisoners; he doesn’t chew up the keyboard and spit out the notes. Instead, he addresses the music with what may be the most finely tuned ears among current pianists; a surpassing sense of overall line; and a fearlessness acquired when Pierre Boulez appointed him solo pianist at the age of 19 with the Ensemble InterContemporain.
Mr. Aimard, who’s now 48, also has an immense sense of fun. As I listened to his impish playing of the master’s fearsome Piano Sonata No. 1 (1946), I realized my foot was tapping and jotted in my notebook, “Boulez boogie-woogie.” Mr. Aimard suffused Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit with a tenacious melancholy that made a heart-stopper out of what is usually a showstopper.
There’s perhaps something too organized in Mr. Aimard’s approach that prevents him from being an ideal interpreter of the unruly 19th-century Romantic repertoire. You could almost hear the quote marks around his sharply etched performance of the 22 vignettes in Schumann’s Carnaval—“majestic,” “tender,” “noble” and so on. Missing in the impressive sweep was that unpredictable, moment-to-moment vividness you feel in the most exhilarating realization of the work, Alfred Cortot’s 1928 recording. (Oddly, Mr. Aimard, normally the most fastidious of pianists, nearly matched the famously reckless Cortot for occasional clinkers.)
But Mr. Aimard addresses everything with a questing, adventurous edge that invites you to participate in the hunt. I don’t know of any pianist today who, for an encore, could pull one of Mr. Boulez’s mathematical Notations out of the hat and turn it into a winsome charmer. Mr. Aimard then closed the program with a real bonbon, Debussy’s The Girl with the Flaxen Hair. The choice was stunning both in its familiarity and its unexpected power to illuminate Mr. Boulez’s work—and, by implication, the whole of 20th-century French music. Mr. Aimard played it with a smile on his face.