And it would have been four, except that I couldn’t face going out to the same concert venue four nights in a row; even I have my limits. So I skipped the very tempting Ensemble ACJW performance that was scheduled for Friday night and just went to Mitsuko Uchida on Wednesday, Iestyn Davies and Thomas Dunford on Thursday, and the Heath Quartet on Saturday. It was quite a week. Of the three events, only one—the performance by the young countertenor Iestyn Davies and even younger lutenist Thomas Dunford—featured the human voice. Yet it is voice that I came away thinking about after all three of these concerts.
Mitsuko Uchida doesn’t speak at all onstage; she just plays the piano. And yet she plays so individually that it is as if she is speaking to us at every moment. Her Schubert Piano Sonata in G Major is like no one else’s, and her Diabelli Variations is even less like anyone else’s. I had recently heard Andras Schiff play the strenuous Beethoven series (officially called “Thirty-Three Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli”) and I thought I knew how it would go. I did not. As performed by Uchida, it is a far more interior piece, with a great deal more self-questioning, some occasional violence, and a modicum of humor. In Schiff’s hands, it was an impressive achievement; in Uchida’s, it was a human document, surprisingly moving and appealing. I had thought I didn’t need to hear the Diabelli again (I was going just because I never miss Uchida when she is in town), but to my surprise, I did.
The Mitsuko Uchida concert filled Stern, Carnegie’s largest auditorium, because people already know how good she is. The other two concerts were in Weill, Carnegie’s smallest and most intimate hall, but Iestyn Davies’s reputation had no doubt grown since the booking, so his concert had been sold out for weeks. I had seen Davies twice before: in the 2012 Met production of Thomas Ades’s The Tempest and, at around the same time, in an evening of song at Le Poisson Rouge. He was captivating, especially in the smaller setting, so I looked forward to hearing him at Weill. And I was not disappointed. But it took me a while to settle into the sixteenth-century mode that began the concert. Those quiet lute-accompanied songs by the likes of Johnson, Danyel, and Campion can be hard to absorb after a day spent in frenzied New York. And though I was hearing Davies’s incomparable countertenor voice in the songs, I somehow felt he was at a remove.
This remoteness dissolved completely in the second half of the program, in part because Davies introduced the later pieces in his casual, endearing speaking-voice, and in part because the music he sang in the second half clearly meant a great deal to him. He began with a recent piece by Nico Muhly (who was seated in the audience and took a bow afterward), a charming, amusing song about the discovery of Richard III’s bones in a parking lot. Hearing “Old Bones,” of which every word was instantly comprehensible to me, I realized how much we miss when we listen to old songs: the music may be beautiful and the words poetic, but the diction is not ours. The struggle to overcome the gap is worth it, but it is nice occasionally to be spoken to in one’s own language. Oddly, the Dowland songs that came after the Muhly, though as archaic in diction as the Campion and Danyel had been, seemed to partake of some of this clarity, perhaps because Davies has thought about them so much. He made “In darkness let me dwell,” in particular, come to life by singing it to us in complete darkness—an especial challenge, I thought, for the lutenist. It was clear that Davies could not have given us these excellent performances without the enormously skilled playing of the twenty-six-year Dunford, who seems to understand Dowland from the inside out. It is Dunford’s fingers which speak for him (he uttered not a word throughout the evening), and they do so eloquently.
The final performance of my week was a Saturday concert by the Heath Quartet, a young English group I’ve never heard before. They were obviously good, even in the first half of the program, but the Beethoven quartet they chose (Opus 18, No. 6) felt like something they had studied, not something they had fully internalized, while the Bartok (Quartet No. 2), though impressively played, was not quite as thrilling as it should be. After the intermission, though, when they performed Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 2, it was as if they had woken up: they entered into every fluctuation of the music with verve and understanding, as if they had been born to play just this. Perhaps there was a psychological match between the young composer—Mendelssohn was only eighteen when he wrote this masterpiece—and the performers; perhaps the Heaths are simply at their best performing Romantic music (though they also did a lovely Tippett encore). I can’t say what made the difference. I can only say that I did not begin to hear their true voice until it mingled with that of Felix Mendelssohn, bringing both to life at once.