Gems from the 'odds and ends' of a concert schedule
New York — The concert schedule here is immense. As so often happens, I go to events that do not fit into a particular column, and those events then hang in limbo until this sort of ''odds-and-ends'' piece needs to be written.
One of the great pleasures of this concert season was a series of three recitals by the American soprano Benita Valente.
In this age of the superstar and superconcert, the intimate recital has plummeted to near-oblivion. Yet as Miss Valente demonstrated on all three evenings, there is no substitute for the experience gained by living with the recital literature and ferreting out every facet of interpretive shading. Miss Valente has proved herself on the opera stage as one of the special lyric sopranos of the day. She brings to that work a lieder artist's sensibilities, which is perhaps why she has remained the pet of the cognoscenti rather than the darling of the general operagoing crowd.
Miss Valente is not a media event, and whereas this fact has kept her career from skyrocketing, it has also protected her from the current madness that has afflicted even the sanest and finest singers of the day.
Hence, Miss Valente can be a cherishable concert singer. She can ravish her audience with the sheer beauty of her voice, while she unfolds the interior landscapes of a song by Wolf, say, or Schubert. She is a generous colleague. She gave time on her programs to both her extraordinary accompanists - Richard Goode and Cynthia Raim - to show their particular strengths as solo artists.
Most singers prefer employing the popular accompanist-type pianists who recede ever so skillfully, to give full focus to the singer. With both her accompanists, Miss Valente was a sharer in the musical experience - once the ideal in a purer day when singers preferred to give their audiences an artistic event, not an empty vocal showcase.
Miss Raim shone in Ravel's ''Le Tombeau de Couperin,'' as she did in the Schubert songs. Mr. Goode has the vision of Brahms's ''Clavierstucke'' Op. 76, Book II, that many of his elders lack. Miss Valente was at her very finest in songs by Brahms and by Wolf. In that literature, the fusion of two artists into one unique entity was especially fine.
She chooses her programs daringly, not always going for the most familiar, but for the most interesting. How delightful to encounter Strauss's ''Ophelia Songs'' or selections from Haydn's ''English Canzonettas.'' In truth, the only disappointments in the three programs was a labored Schumann Trio Op. 63, with Mr. Goode, cellist Timothy Eddy, and violinist Felix Galimir - and, on the same program, Earl Kim's ''Exercises en Route.''
The latter, written for the soprano, never seemed to make up its mind about what it wanted to be - virtuoso vehicle, mood piece, or fragmented, ultracontemporary reverie. But even then, for a singer to program an entire half of a program with such a work is just the sort of bold thinking that made the three evenings so refreshing, so rewarding. Soloists unified
Yo-Yo Ma is probably the finest cellist of the day. Emanuel Ax is one of the most interesting and promising younger pianists around. Alone they are both stimulating musicians, not mere technical showmen. It is therefore not surprising they would make superb music together.
I first heard them together when they were joined by the violinist Young-Uck Kim in an evening of trio music. It was the finest trio playing I had ever heard. Ax and Ma together as a duo are pretty remarkable as well. Their Beethoven-Brahms program at Carnegie Hall a month and a half ago was a superior evening on all counts.
It is rare when soloists with busy careers sit down and make memorable music together. Usually such events smack of instant performances. But Ax and Ma are clearly on the same wavelength. Musically they even breathe together. They both delve deep below the surface of the music, and they bring out the best in one another.
Mr. Ma is a master of the melancholic, yet few players can then get so much smile into their playing. Mr. Ax responds instantly to Mr. Ma's moods, and in Brahms in particular, he comes in and out of focus with consummate skill, always allowing the cellist room to take his moment, without receding into the background.
Their performing schedules do not permit them to play this sort of music very often (and the trio shows up even less frequently). Clearly they love it, which is rare among important soloists. It is a mark of their special place on the concert scene that these two artists are as at home together as each is in front of an orchestra or on the stage solo. In all contexts, Mr. Ax and Mr. Ma are unique. Mellow keyboard master
When Emil Gilels's Carnegie Hall recital was hurriedly announced for mid-April, people immediately began hoping this signaled a thaw in the US-Soviet cultural exchange freeze that went into effect after Afghanistan.
There are no further signs of that thaw, but Mr. Gilels's performance will remain as one of those very special pianistic events. A keyboard master who mellows and matures wisely and well offers insights outside the realm of possibility for the younger firebrands.
Rough edges have tended to mark Mr. Gilels's early playing in the West - as heard on recordings, both live and in-studio - but over the years these have smoothed out. The Gilels that showed up in Carnegie Hall for a program of Brahms and Schumann has gained in insight, has simplified his performing style, and plays straight from the heart. Be it the bravado of the first book of the Brahms Paganini Variations (Op. 35) or the brooding, often severe vistas of the seven Fantasias, Op. 116, Gilels refuses the flashy for the poetic, the obvious for the subtle.
The pinnacle of the afternoon, however, was the performance of Schumann's ''Symphonic Etudes,'' a master's performance that only a mature pianist could elicit. The playing went beyond technical excellence, beyond tonal appeal, beyond mere mood painting, right to the profound core of each variation.
Playing that comes straight from the heart is a rarity in this increasingly alienated day and age. Many artists feel that delving deep into the emotions of a piece is too difficult, too risky, too draining. Indeed, Mr. Gilels looked drained after this program, and he played no encores. But if he was drained, so was the audience - and exulted, too. For him the risk is clearly worth it, for without that risk, communication is not possible in music.
Communication - on an exceptional level - is what Gilels's playing is all about.