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No Arms, No Legs, All Heart 

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Photo by Achim Deterding

George Bernard Shaw was on my mind recently, always a welcome visitor. With an insight that should make any music-involved person weep with envy, Shaw singled out the arias for Sarastro in Mozart’s Magic Flute as “the only music that would not sound out of place in the mouth of God.” That divine music, beyond question, is the voice of Thomas Quasthoff.

There was no Mozart on Quasthoff’s recital program at Royce Hall last month, but a recent RCA recording of the major arias will back up my esteem. This time he sang Brahms and Liszt, Debussy and Ravel, and, as encores, more Liszt and, would you believe, “Deep River.” I yelled out “Schubert” during the encores; “Next time,” he answered. Now I can tell my descendants I had a conversation with Thomas Quasthoff.

There is no reason to belabor the miracle in the balance between Quasthoff’s physical affliction and the extraordinary wisdom, cloaked in the extraordinary musical apparatus, of his performance art. In a culture that bestows heroism upon a Helfgott hobbling his way through trashy showpieces and a Bocelli passing off a travesty of serious operatic singing on high-paying audiences, Quasthoff is the true freak, the anomaly wherein a crippling that could have invalidated any but a minimal existence, inflicted through ill-considered medical progress, has had no influence whatsoever on the flowering of a musical talent of the highest probity.

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The Royce program bore this out most handsomely: the nine songs of Brahms’ Opus 32, rarely heard except for the final, ecstatic “Wie bist du, meine Königin”; the three “Petrarch Sonnets” of Liszt, difficult enough as piano pieces, miraculous with the added vocal lines; Debussy’s Villon settings and Ravel’s songs for Don Quichotte. A thought-provoking program, in other words, and also one that projected the singer’s deserved respect for the superlative collaboration, through uncommonly demanding repertory, of pianist Justus Zeyen. Was there time, amid these treasures and their execution, to think about the ravages of Thalidomide, to wish for an operatic career and wonder how to bring it about (Sarastro in a glorious chariot, perhaps? Leporello in any shape?)? Bemoan the fates that have made existence for Thomas Quasthoff a constant struggle against impossibility, and bless the fates that bring him, triumphant, to our midst.

Splendid sounds can emerge, as well, from a violin in a virtuoso’s hands; Malcolm Goldstein is, beyond question, some kind of a violin virtuoso. What kind? The array of shrieks, squawks and squeals that made up Goldstein’s contribution to a recent California EAR Unit concert at the County Museum taxed both the ear and the credulity. Less than a week later, however, you might have thought that Goldstein was back in quadruplicate, since some — but not all, I note with relief — of the Penderecki Quartet’s brave program in that same hall also called for a fair amount of aggression upon what I take to be expensive and potentially expressive instruments. The Penderecki, formed originally in Poland with the blessing of its illustrious composer/namesake, now resides in Toronto, where — judging from this program and from what I know of that city’s conservative tastes — it must figure on the roster of terrorists.

Yet it was possible to hear the sense and the drama as, in the First Quartet by Henryk Górecki, clusters of tense, dense, abrasive sonority thinned out over and over, each time with heightened imagination, to luminous, sunlit single notes. This I could hear as important, communicative music, as I could the even more violent onslaughts upon self-respecting instruments in the Tetras of Iannis Xenakis and the First Quartet by the quartet’s namesake. At the end there was the rich, multicolored eloquence of the First Quartet of Bartók, a pathfinding work in its time (1909, in that amazing decade when most of today’s musical language was formed) and yet almost ancestral in the context of what we’ve learned since its time.

Two weeks ago, the Philharmonic gave one of the most interesting concerts of its season, under a fine young German conductor who is obviously on his way up. There was the Beethoven Second, nice and crisp, and two works from Germany in midcentury, both new to local audiences, both great works by composers, Bernd Alois Zimmermann and Karl Amadeus Hartmann, whose importance and breadth remain to be recognized. The audience was pathetically small. The “Surprising Encounter” on Sunday morning, one in the rewarding series of get-togethers where interesting musical matters are thrashed out informally over free doughnuts, drew a similarly paltry crowd. Does the Philharmonic no longer maintain a savvy publicist to talk up the livelier and more challenging side of its programming? Was this part of Willem Wijnbergen’s housecleaning? Or does the fact that Zubin Mehta’s Beethoven can still draw a full house — as it did this past week, on no significant merit — suffice as proof that the orchestra is still doing swell?

The program had been poorly promoted: no feature in the Times, no radio support. This is only partly the Philharmonic’s fault, but there are times when you suspect that the press department has simply given up. Of the two classical radio stations, KMZT (formerly KKGO) labors under a ridiculous stricture against contemporary music; KUSC, noncommercial, NPR-affiliated, no longer lends much support to local events and actually charges for cultural announcements that used to be free. Thus does our noncommercial cultural jewel assume the mantle of commercial radio in all but name. Do I hear somebody asking whatever happened to Bonnie Grice?

Ingo Metzmacher was the conductor, new to the Philharmonic although he led a creditable Così fan tutte with the L.A. Opera some time ago. His luggage this time included the Trumpet Concerto by Zimmermann, with Hakan Hardenberger as soloist, and the Sixth Symphony by Hartmann: works composed almost simultaneously, in 1953 and ’54. Both composers were sorely bruised by the war: Hartmann, the energetic, athletic classicist who dabbled in atonality but left music of gripping, neo-romantic expressiveness; Zimmermann, the neurotic, banner-waving activist who took his life in 1970, at 52.

Zimmermann’s concerto, like his stupendous opera Die Soldaten, stands for a disturbed postwar Germany torn in many directions. Jazz plays a part, a heavy-handed, posturing kind. The old tune “Nobody Knows de Trouble I See” is referenced, but tentatively; its melodic gambit, the descending major sixth, could just as easily pass for Chopin’s Andante Spianato or Louise’s pretty aria “Depuis le jour.” The solo writing is kicky, a meal for the great Hardenberger, but the work is more about incertitude than resolve — understandable in light of Zimmermann’s fate.

The Hartmann — and perhaps one or two others among his eight solid if a trifle stolid symphonies — deserves its place in its century’s memorable works. Its finale, razzle-dazzle under Metzmacher’s sure, knowing direction, delivers three fugues one by one and then runs them simultaneously in a breathless outpouring of sheer complexity. You could almost see old J.S. Bach smiling in the wings; his truth goes marching on.

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