Warhorses; Musical Events

By Ross, Alex | The New Yorker, September 27, 2004 | Go to article overview

Warhorses; Musical Events


Ross, Alex, The New Yorker


The breathtaking profanity of Mozart's letters--"Whoever doesn't believe me may lick me, world without end," and so on--has led one British researcher to conclude recently that the composer had Tourette's syndrome. What's interesting about this theory, which has become the goofball classical-music news item of the season, is that anyone would actually need a far-fetched medical explanation for the fact that a young male with healthy appetites swore a lot and liked to talk about sex. Mozart, like Shakespeare, moved with equal ease through the most refined and most raucous circles of his world. Only if classical music is confined to the fleshless end of the spectrum does Mozart's exaltation of the body become a psychological anomaly crying out for interpretation.

Rene Jacobs's recording of "The Marriage of Figaro" (Harmonia Mundi), the most startling and perhaps the best classical recording released so far this year, reconciles man and music, sacred and profane. The first bars of the overture serve notice that the "divine Mozart" is coming lustily to earth. Sforzandos land like sucker punches, legatos become greasy slurs. The four-minute overture is an event in itself: you sense the creation of a new political and cultural stage on which independent actors can seize the spotlight. Many great "Figaro" recordings of the past--Erich Kleiber's, Karl Bohm's, Carlo Maria Giulini's--have surveyed the scene from Olympian heights, as if to take the aristocracy's side in the central contest between the decadent Count Almaviva and his ascendant servant Figaro. This is "Figaro" told from Figaro's point of view.

Jacobs, a countertenor turned conductor, is a dizzyingly prolific musician who has also just released a strong recording of Haydn's "The Seasons." You'd think the quality of his work would suffer, but Jacobs seems to find new energy whenever he enters the studio. At every turn, the players of the Concerto Koln throw in some visceral accent, airy ornament, or arresting noise. This is the only "Figaro" I know where the recitative is as engaging as the arias: the fortepiano chimes in like some Hapsburg honky-tonk, cellos indulge in meditative Bachian solos, winds and brass mimic dance combos or military bands. Those who prefer their Mozart to purr along like one of Karajan's Porsches may not enjoy Jacobs's rugged style, yet there is no sacrifice of musical values. The climactic ensemble of forgiveness, in which the voices become buttresses of a weightless cathedral, is all the more stupendous for having risen up from such gritty ground.

Basses singing Figaro tend to indulge in a lot of gruff-voiced mugging. The vital young singer Lorenzo Regazzo takes a more serious approach to the title role. When Figaro declares that the Count will dance to his appointed tune, Regazzo deploys some unusually strong, stentorian tones, as if to hint at the social revolution that this opera is said to have prophesied. Simon Keenlyside, as the Count, also declines to play the buffoon, instead using his considerable virtuosity to create a manic, almost frightening character. Patrizia Ciofi and Angelika Kirchschlager, as Susanna and Cherubino, both sing with a delightfully wide range of inflections, which create a kind of stage action for the ears. Veronique Gens, as the Countess, stays closer to the usual refinement, but she stops short of high-end warbling. Many "name" singers have glided through "Figaro" as if leading a museum tour; these performers, however, aren't afraid to show some skin, vocally speaking, and in so doing they get closer to the flesh-and-blood Mozart than any other cast on record.

The gorgeous Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, who recently released a recital disk entitled "Sempre Libera," on Deutsche Grammophon, is in the process of entering that rarefied elite known as the Yo-Yo Club. Yo-Yos are classical musicians who have escaped from the relative anonymity that even such august talents as Gidon Kremer and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson inhabit; they have touched true-blue American celebrity, appearing on network TV, in glossy magazines, even in the movies. …

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