Pyotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky:
The Nutcracker, Op. 71 – fragments
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23
Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 36
Ivan Bessonov, piano
Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre, Valery Gergiev
Elisabeth Center, Antwerp, 17 January 2018
This concert, which I could attend thanks to the generosity of the organizing company Cofena, resembled to some extent Valery Gergiev’s recent Tchaikovsky CD on the Mariinsky label, coupling The Nutcracker with the Fourth Symphony. It had much the same qualities and flaws as on the recording. Overall these were analytical rather than emotional performances. The sonority of the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra was admirable throughout. As an ensemble they are hard to beat. Even with their grueling performance schedule, they still do better than most. The characteristic emphasis on darker tones, punctuated by the lower strings and brass, works extremely well for this late-Tchaikovsky ballet and the symphony. Gergiev opens up the sound with meticulous precision and he lets you hear details you may never have noticed before. Yet this now comes at a heavy price. Many of his tempi have become slow to the point of inertia and some of his pacing impossibly contrived.
The concert started late, but that’s not unusual with maestro Gergiev, and it opened not with the scheduled Overture of The Nutcracker but immediately with the Departure of the guests. His handpicked selection largely emulated Evgeny Mravinsky’s famous live recording from Leningrad, although unfortunately that is as far as the comparison went. For this being the most exciting section of the ballet, including dramatic passages like the Battle with the mice, the Pine forest in Winter and the Waltz of the Snowflakes, Gergiev’s traversal turned out to be a pretty uneventful affair. There was orchestral detail to delight within every bar, and one would be hard-pressed to find an ensemble that knows this music better than the Mariinsky, but where was the life, the imagination, the frisson that sets these pages apart? For a conductor who has given us one of the most electrifying recordings of The Nutcracker on disc (in 1998), Gergiev appears to have developed a bizarre attitude towards the work. Or perhaps he simply wasn’t there yet this evening. The climaxes sounded flat and underwhelming and while the orchestral balance favored the – otherwise superb – lower brass, I could hardly hear the timpani from my seat at the back of the parterre. By the time they tackled an uneventful Waltz of the Flowers and a dangerously dragging Andante maestoso it seemed everybody had given up. Some 20 years ago I heard Gergiev and the Mariinsky in a complete Nutcracker concert. They blew off the roof with their full-blooded reading, displaying magic and drama in every bar. Yet hearing this now, this seems like a very long time ago indeed.
The best part of the evening was undoubtedly the performance of 15-year old Ivan Bessonov in Tchaikovsky’s 1st Piano Concerto. Born in St. Petersburg in a family of musicians, Bessonov has been playing the piano since he was six. He garnered the first prize in several youth competitions, among others the International Frédéric Chopin Youth Competition (2015) and the International Anton Rubinstein Competition The Piano Miniature in Russian Music (2016), both in St. Petersburg, as well as the international Grand Piano Competition for young pianists in Moscow. Long and lanky, with a mop of hair, he resembles a 1970’s rock star. His performance of the Concerto was by all means quite astonishing – for any age: keyboard touch and color were impressive, his technique rock-solid. But above all he appeared fearless, undisturbed by a few slips in the beginning moments. His musicality seems pretty straightforward, for now devoid of too many distracting mannerisms and tics. There is no doubt this man is going to go places. The clarity of his articulation and the directness of his delivery were completely matched by Gergiev who appeared in a much better doing here than the rest of the evening and secured a thrilling performance, deservedly greeted with a standing ovation.
Every time I hear Gergiev conduct Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, I am less convinced by his approach. The mannerisms seem to increase by the season, as does the running-time. In the concerts from 2011 the Fourth was already by far the least persuasive of the Tchaikovsky symphonies cycle and Gergiev’s recent CD recording only confirmed the impression of artificiality and incoherence. He clearly has something special in mind with this work, but what exactly is anybody’s guess. Gergiev’s unwarranted lingering in the first and second movements produced far too many drops of tension. In effect, by now the symphony has fallen into a succession of episodes, some undeniably beautiful (as the opening of the slow movement, thanks to the magnificent Mariinsky woodwinds), others merely bland (as the return of the fate motif in the first movement, or the endless conclusion of the Andantino, due to Gergiev’s obsessive scrutiny of every orchestral detail), but eventually inconsequential. Even the buoyant Scherzo failed to take flight. The symphony is too drawn out, takes forever to end, and fails to make any impact as a whole. One could argue that Gergiev overplays the symphony’s dark beauty, but in the process he has totally smothered its passion and excitement.
The Lullaby and the grandiose finale of Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird which allowed the orchestra to open its big guns one more time, was a very generous encore for an already long evening. Of the dozens of concerts and operas conducted by Valery Gergiev I attended in the last 25 years or so, this has to be one of the most dispiriting. Works that once sounded great in his hands now fizzled out or morphed into cluttered, unconvincing personal statements. Yet, not all was lost, as this concert allowed us to get acquainted with a rare new talent, Ivan Bessonov, from whom we will surely hear again in a not too distant future.
Copyright © 2018 Marc Haegeman
Sposalizio, S161/1 (orch. Salvatore Sciarrino)
A Faust Symphony, S108
Alice Sara Ott, piano
Brenden Gunnell, tenor
Gentlemen of the London Symphony Chorus, Simon Halsey, chorus director
London Symphony Orchestra, Antonio Pappano
Barbican Hall, London, 26 November 2017
Come to think of it, concerts devoted to a single composer – jubilees and special anniversaries notwithstanding – are quite unusual. The well-considered “Total Liszt” program from the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano gave ample proof that evenings like this do work and make perfect sense. “Total Liszt” put the Hungarian composer in a propitious light, offering variety, a discovery, but above all outstanding music-making and plenty of thrills.The discovery came in the shape of Sposalizio, originally the sublime opening part of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage, Second Year: Italy for solo piano, yet here in a 2015 orchestration by the Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino (1947-). By using a modernist, sophisticated instrumentation (including bells and glockenspiel), Sciarrino pulls the work resolutely towards himself, yet the result is that the graceful evocation of the Marriage of the Virgin, as Liszt saw it in Raphael’s painting in Milan, ends up somewhere in modern-day Cinema Paradiso. Plenty of attention-grabbing sonic effects (piccolo and bass clarinet joining forces), with some weird pauses thrown in, and you were listening to the sound rather than the content. Although intently and lovingly performed by Pappano and the LSO, Sposalizio in Sciarrino-style was something of an oddity.
The following Totentanz grabbed the attention as well, but for very different reasons. Liszt’s fascination with death and the diabolical, partly fueled by his traveling and interest in arts, never found a more frightening expression as in this short work for piano and orchestra, adroitly variegating the Dies irae theme, as well as pushing the limits of harmony and piano technique. The Totentanz was given a knockout performance by pianist Alice Sara Ott. Appearing in a black gown, as if dressed for an infernal ball, she left little doubt she wanted to have a great time. And so did we.
The Totentanz has been in Ott’s repertory for some years and it’s clear she knows how to bring it with devastating impact. Her innate classical poise prevents her from pushing the piece over the edge, yet it’s exactly this flirting with the abyss which makes the Totentanz such an exciting ride. Alternately burning and melting the piano, she delivered the ferocious runs (including these jaw-dropping glissandos) with breathtaking speed, articulation and clarity, while the reflective moment in the fourth variation acquired a mesmerizing beauty in her hands. This was death equally creepy as well as beguiling. A close connection with Pappano and the LSO in great form added to the overall excitement and success. Alice Sara Ott received a thunderous applause and returned with a contrasting encore, the C-sharp minor Nocturne from Chopin in a ravishing gossamer delivery.
As rarely performed in the concert-hall as the Totentanz is the Faust Symphony in its complete 1857 version, including the finale with tenor solo and male-voice choir. Antonio Pappano offered overall a fine, often very beautiful, if eventually not entirely convincing reading of the Faust Symphony. Focused, attentive to every detail, coherently shaped and without a single drop in tension, the first two movements stood out: Faust appeared as a wild, edgy and volatile character, while Gretchen breathed tenderness and innocence to delight. Mephistopheles however would have benefited from more abandon and profounder work on the instrumental color. Perhaps it was the onslaught of the preceding Totentanz still fresh in mind, or simply the emphasis of the first movement which made Mephistopheles sound somewhat underwhelming. But in any case the contrast between the outer movements was too little pronounced, with Faust appearing as vivid and unsettling as his diabolic reflection. The “Chorus mysticus” finale, adding a spiritual dimension to the human conflicts evoked in the symphony, was however properly grand and powerful, with splendid vocal contributions from the American tenor Brenden Gunnell and gents from the London Symphony Chorus.
The playing of the LSO was a constant pleasure this evening, nary a weak link in the ensemble. With his detailed approach and care for orchestral balance, Pappano capitalized on the divided strings of the massive ensemble, highlighting the often brilliant writing of the symphony. Nowhere more so as in Gretchen, where Liszt at times reduces the orchestral forces to a chamber music scale. The admirable LSO woodwinds, especially Bobby Cheng’s oboe and Adam Walker’s flute, often in dialogue with groups of or even solo strings, always set the proper tone and atmosphere.
“Total Liszt” was a superb evening. Alice Sara Ott’s performance of the Totentanz was in a class of its own and in spite of some minor quibbles, A Faust Symphony remained a remarkable achievement as well. Running well over 70 minutes the symphony can be a daunting prospect, yet performances of such constant high quality as here by Pappano and the LSO are liable to convince you it has to be this way. The label of “heavenly length”, as in the case of Schubert’s later works, wouldn’t be inappropriate.
Copyright © 2017 Marc Haegeman
Charles Gounod: Walpurgisnacht Ballet
Maurice Ravel: Sonatine, La Valse
Georges Bizet: Symphony in C
New York City Ballet
Choreography by George Balanchine
Orchestre Prométhée/Daniel Capps
Recorded in Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, July 2016
BelAir Classiques BAC 439, 1080i Full-HD, PCM 2.0 / DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, 106 mins
What a superb idea it was, then, to film the company while on tour in Paris in the summer of 2016, performing a selection of its traditional repertory. The choice was, I assume, readily made. The connection between Balanchine and the French capital is legendary. All four ballets assembled here are set to French music and both Walpurgisnacht and Symphony in C were even created for the Paris Opera. Often with nothing but light as setting and very simple costuming (except La Valse with its hints of a ballroom and slightly decadent gowns), and utterly delightful music (Gounod, Bizet and Ravel) to boast, this program is a continuous joy and may serve as an antidote against those trying to reduce dance to darkness, violence and angst. In these troubled times a shot of Balanchine is by all means a very welcome night out. By their intelligence, musicality, sense of harmony and purity of intent, his ballets are beacons of light and hope, and by their perennial modernity, continuing sources of delight and inspiration.
Try the lovely Sonatine from 1975 on a rainy day: just two dancers and a pianist on stage, yet it all is brought with effortless dignity, simple charm, and sunlit grace by Megan Fairchild and Joaquin De Luz. In no time you will feel better. This is also a disc to admire the New York City Ballet dancers of today. Like the wonderful Sara Mearns in the romantically wild and theatrical Walpurgisnacht Ballet. Or Sterling Hyltin and Amar Ramasar both superb in La Valse (combining Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales with La Valse proper), offering dramatic contrast. Finally, the irresistible Symphony in C, originally made as Palais de Cristal for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1947, a magnificent showcase for the company’s health and strength. Soloists and ensemble appear in tremendous form and if this performance is in any way representative of the current state of New York City Ballet, then the company is doing really well indeed.
With François Duplat and Vincent Bataillon as the producer-director team, well known from the successful “Bolshoi Ballet HD Collection” distributed by BelAir Classiques, we are in good hands too. They know their trade and have given us some of the best filmed ballet performance videos in recent times. “New York City Ballet in Paris” is no exception. The camerawork and editing is in effect pretty simple and straightforward, but you always see what you need to see in a ballet.
This video comes without any bonus features, but here is the dance speaking for itself as only Balanchine could master it, and it deserves a place in any serious ballet video collection. New York City Ballet brought several programs on its extensive 2016 Paris tour. May we hope for some more goodies, and not only the historical repertory but also new creations, from the treasure chest?
© 2017 Marc Haegeman. All rights reserved
Dmitri Shostakovich: The Golden Age
Nina Kaptsova – Rita, a young girl
Ruslan Skvortsov – Boris, a young fisherman
Mikhail Lobukhin – Yashka, a gang leader
Ekaterina Krysanova – Lyushka, Yashka’s accomplice
Vyacheslav Lopatin – Variety show compere
Artists of the Bolshoi Ballet
The Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra, Pavel Klinichev
Choreography by Yuri Grigorovich.
Filmed live at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, October 2016
BelAir Classiques Blu-ray BAC443, 103 min, PCM 2.0, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Fact is, most of Grigorovich’s ballets remained in the Bolshoi repertory, often resurfacing after several years in a more or less updated guise. The Golden Age is performed only by the Bolshoi and has unlike other Grigorovich’s ballets never been staged elsewhere. In Moscow it was last danced ten years ago and recently revived again in the lead-up to the 90th anniversary celebrations of the choreographer earlier this year. While undoubtedly not a masterpiece, this is the first official release of the ballet on Blu-ray and DVD and will be most welcome to all devotees of the Bolshoi and Russian ballet.
Grigorovich’s The Golden Age is itself an adaptation of the 1930 production, which like all evening-length ballets composed by Dmitri Shostakovich fell out of grace and was banned soon after the premiere. The blatant Communist rejection of so-called bourgeois decadence of the original plot, culminating in a soccer match between soviet youths and bourgeois fascists, was recycled into a love story set against the conflict between pure white-clad fishermen and a depraved black-shirted gang of thugs in some 1920’s Russian seaport. It’s the same naive black and white opposition, but the luggage is far less heavy this time. The inclusion of references to Lenin’s New Economic Policy in the rework however will be lost on most viewers today.
Seeing the ballet again, for all its simplicity, I still feel it is confusingly told, while much of Grigorovich’s stylized choreography is too crude and repetitive to survive the 100 or so minutes running time. As for the Bolshoi’s current take on it, I guess it helps if you haven’t seen the original casts in the 1980s. Today’s Ruslan Skvortsov, Nina Kaptsova, Mikhail Lobukhin and Ekaterina Krysanova are excellent dancers, yet none will ever erase memories of an Irek Mukhamedov or a Gediminas Taranda, who could transform cardboard into intensely potent characters. But that’s just how it goes with revivals: different times, different dancers, same ballets. Surprisingly perhaps for the Bolshoi, it are the quieter moments, like the love adagio’s between Kaptsova and Skvortsov, that work best here.
This new installment in the “Bolshoi Ballet HD Collection”, filmed live in October 2016 on the smaller New Stage of the Bolshoi Theatre, is visually and soundwise a real treat. As we have come to expect from the Vincent Bataillon/François Duplat team The Golden Age offers a first-rate ballet-at-home experience. Thankfully gone are the days of shoddy Soviet filming, unable to master the frequent changes from bright to dark in these productions. The full HD transfer on Blu-ray looks particularly impressive with a wealth of detail and lovely, natural colors. Camerawork is as good as it gets with a well-judged mix between longshots and close-ups.
The sonics are equally superb in the 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio mix, enhancing the impact of Shostakovich’s brilliant music. His ballet scores remain largely unknown to the general public, except perhaps in the form of suites. This is the young composer at his most confidently satirical, exemplifying in his music the capitalist depravity with a series of parodied western dance forms like polka, tango and foxtrot. Grigorovich interpolated the slow movements from Shostakovich’s Piano Concertos for the lyrical moments in his adaptation. Interestingly, they give the score which can at times sound relentless a rounder appearance. It all comes vividly alive by the Bolshoi Orchestra under Pavel Klinichev.
This release comes without any extras. Bolshoi fans won’t hesitate to purchase this title, of course, and BelAir Classiques serves them well with splendid video and audio quality. Yet the older ones won’t be entirely convinced by the Bolshoi’s current way with The Golden Age.
© 2017 Marc Haegeman. All rights reserved
Piano concerto #3 in D minor, Op. 30
Symphony #2 in E minor, Op. 27
Two Russian Orthodox Chants (“Thy tomb, O Saviour”, “Serene Light”)
Alexander Gavrylyuk, piano
Latvian Radio Choir
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Thomas Dausgaard
Royal Albert Hall, London, 13 August 2017
London’s Royal Albert Hall can be a difficult venue to play. The Ukranian pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk left an unforgettable impression two years ago in Rotterdam with a superb rendition of the very same Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 under Valery Gergiev. Gavrylyuk is a subtle artist and clearly knows how to dose his Rachmaninoff. His playing reveals enormous depth underneath the lightest of surfaces and refuses every bit of flash or showiness. The slower passages sound compellingly tender and introverted in his hands, standing out just as much, if not more, as the technical fireworks. This time, in his BBC Proms debut, Gavrylyuk still had me convinced by his approach, even if compared to his Rotterdam performance I felt that the Royal Albert Hall audience was somehow shortchanged and part of the emotional intent of his message simply vaporized within the immense space of the hall – as in the very opening of the Concerto and in the Intermezzo: Adagio. (I suspect people who followed the concert live on TV or on the radio were able to appreciate the range of his playing a lot more than we did).
But this is how it goes in live music-making and to be sure this was still a magnificent performance. The tonal beauty of Gavrylyuk’s piano, his grip on the work’s structure as well as his mercurial speed in some of the passages and the exciting, well-judged buildups held the audience spellbound. Thomas Dausgaard stuck very closely to his soloist – literally leaving him rarely out of sight – and ensured the most sympathetic accompaniment from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, including beautiful solo work from woodwinds and horns.
As an encore Gavrylyuk performed Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise in the transcription by Vladimir Horowitz. Again, the audience seemed mesmerized by his reflective pianism – one could hear a pin drop and it took a long time after the last note subsided before they erupted in applause.
Music of the Russian Orthodox Church has been a great influence on Rachmaninoff’s style and it was a fine idea to preface both major works of this evening by ancient monastic chants, performed by the Latvian Radio Choir. The likeness between Thy tomb, O Saviour and the opening theme of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto has been pointed out (although the composer denied any direct origins) and was well illustrated here. Preceding the Concerto members of the Latvian Radio Choir entered the hall processing down to the arena through the audience before disappearing under the stage.
The concert continued with Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony, again introduced by an Orthodox chant Serene Light from the Latvians, effectively performed this time from the top Gallery. Conducting from memory, Dausgaard led an outstanding performance of the massive symphony, well-shaped and phrased throughout. Swift, lean and often vigorous, he kept things going, enough so in the first movement to justify the exposition repeat, while the dynamic divided strings of the BBC Scottish Symphony unraveled Rachmaninoff’s polyphonic textures to delight. This is a long work, but it didn’t feel this way here. I missed some of the darker colors in the brass and the bass strings sounded from where I was sitting slightly underwhelming. This was undoubtedly more a problem of the hall’s acoustics again. Solos were without exception beautifully performed, though, especially the clarinet solo from Yann Ghiro in the Adagio and the first horn. In short, a superbly rewarding Rachmaninoff evening at the Proms.
Copyright © 2017 Marc Haegeman
Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: The Seasons, Op. 37a
Robert Schumann: Kreisleriana, Op. 16
Igor Stravinsky: Three Movements from Petrushka
Denis Matsuev, piano
EuroArts DVD 3075408 – NTSC 16:9 – PCM Stereo/Dolby Digital 5.0/DTS 5.0 – 105 mins
The policies of the music labels are sometimes hard to follow. Take this new release from EuroArts. A live recital from one of the top pianists of the moment in one of the world’s best concert venues is filmed in high-definition, only to be released on a DVD instead of a Blu-ray. As if to underline this aberration EuroArts uploaded a tantalizing clip on Youtube in full HD, as if to say: “This is what we could have given you, but we still preferred to give you a downgraded version in lossy sound.” Go figure.
All the more a shame because this Denis Matsuev concert is beautifully filmed, lit and edited (courtesy of Sébastien Glas and the French Idéale Audience team), taking full advantage of the magnificent Amsterdam Concertgebouw setting. I attended this recital in October 2015 and back then it was with the ravishing Tchaikovsky Seasons, not often heard in complete form in the concert-hall, that Matsuev left the strongest impression.
Revisiting the recital now from the comfort of the living room, it’s still the Tchaikovsky that’s worth the price of admission for me. Matsuev is a fabulous pianist, as we all know. Yet he isn’t always the most subtle musician. His technique allows him to tackle about everything with complete freedom. Yet it’s exactly this freedom which can get the better of his musical intelligence and poetic instinct. At his best, though, Matsuev finds a balance between his big, overwhelming sound-sculpting and the nuances of the text. When he does, he can be utterly compelling, as in most of the Tchaikovsky here. When not, he can be utterly monochrome and even cartoonish. As in Schumann’s Kreisleriana and, perhaps surprisingly, in parts of Stravinsky’s Petrushka too.
In Tchaikovsky’s Seasons Matsuev captures the character of each of the pieces with precision. He is mesmerizing when he slows down and lets the music breathe in sheer contrast to the more eruptive passages. Characteristically for Tchaikovsky, the often deceptively joyous air is balanced by a darker undercurrent, effortlessly captured by the pianist. Every month may be crafted into a miniature gem, it’s Matsuev’s sense of unity, which makes you forget Tchaikovsky composed them on a monthly basis, that is the most impressive.
I wasn’t that convinced by Matsuev’s rendition of Keisleriana and neither I am now. It’s German 19th-century romanticism in an average modern, 21st-century Russian translation. While obviously focused and articulated, Matsuev is emphatic and relentless, even aggressive, verging on the demonstrative in the more turbulent passages. His sonority turns uniformly loud and booming, lacking in contrast and color. It isn’t the recording, I had the very same impression live in the Concertgebouw where the acoustics inflated the basses even more.
Stravinsky’s Petrushka kicks off well enough, lively and well-shaped, but also loses its interest in the final Shrovetide Fair part which Matsuev turns into a steamroller of big sound (again these booming basses), rather than an attempt to bring out the harmonic and percussive possibilities of the instrument. Impressive as a knockout display of stamina and powerhouse pianism, perhaps, but hardly the stuff for repeated listening.
The recital ended with a well-constructed and well-played series of encores. From Lyadov’s Musical Snuffbox, Op. 32, over Tchaikovsky’s superb Méditation, Op. 72/5 and the rare Sibelius’ Etude in A Minor, Op. 76/2 (it’s so rare that EuroArts even forgot to list it in the booklet) to Scriabin’s turbulent Etude in D-sharp Minor, Op. 8/12 and Matsuev’s own dazzling and funny Jazz Improvisations.
Denis Matsuev fans won’t hesitate although they too will be disappointed by the lack of true HD in image and sound. Others will mainly go for the beautiful performance of a Tchaikovsky rarity.