I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by Marc Haegeman


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Superb Tchaikovsky in French manner

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker, Op. 71
La Maîtrise des Hauts-de-Seine, Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble/Marc Minkowski
Brussels, Centre for Fine Arts, 13 November 2016

Marc Minkowski

Marc Minkowski © Marco Borggreve

Marc Minkowski and his Musiciens du Louvre, on tour in Europe, brought a pleasant surprise by performing Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker full-length in concert. The surprise was not so much to hear Tchaikovsky on period instruments (that has been done before by Jos van Immerseel and Anima Eterna, among others), neither that an ensemble steeped in the baroque and early classical repertoire ventures into late 19th-century music. No, this was purely and simply one of the finest readings of the ballet I have ever heard, in or out of the theater. Played by the French orchestra this Nutcracker sounded extraordinary, often thrilling, at times revelatory, yet it was above all Minkowski’s way with the score which made this concert such a standout.

Part of the success stems from the fact that Minkowski conducts The Nutcracker for what it is: music for the theater. While much of the score can sound like an orchestral spectacular (and is often interpreted that way), this seemed like the last thing Minkowski had in mind. He rather was looking for refinement and character, and preferred to dig deep into Tchaikovsky’s sound-world. It didn’t matter either there was no stage action. When conducted with so much understanding and passion as here the score easily stands on its own and evokes a whole world of imagery and emotions. As a seasoned opera conductor Minkowski clearly knows how to tell a story and captured the changing climates of the score with total conviction. A French take on Russian music, but one that removed layers of dust and familiarity.

The period instruments proved a tremendous asset to Tchaikovsky’s brilliant orchestration. As usual with Les Musiciens du Louvre the focus was essentially on the music, without a trace of sterile stylistic exercises in authentic performance. Textural transparency and refined orchestral balance, harmonic color and rhythmic flexibility all contributed to recreate this uniquely enchanting atmosphere that saves The Nutcracker from dreaded yuletide dirge and secures it a place as genuine masterpiece. Tender evocations of a child’s imagination contrasted with at times creepy passages of darkness. Even the opening numbers which are in the hands of many conductors merely to mark time, became small gems – none more than the Presto of No. 4 and the Grossvater Tanz in No. 5, theatrically heavy-footed and full of benign humor.

No detail in the orchestration was left untouched and Minkowski wasn’t afraid to enhance the dramatic contrasts, yet without losing track of the musical flow. The long section opening with the Departure of the Guests, featuring the Battle with the mice and the Waltz of the Snowflakes was stunningly rendered. Minkowski knew exactly when and how to slow down. The orchestra bloomed in the Christmas Tree sequence, wonderfully paced, reminding that it doesn’t take modern strings to play in a passionate manner. Twenty girls from La Maîtrise des Hauts-de-Seine chorus provided beautiful vocal support in the Snowflakes – even when pressed rather hard by the slow tempo in the final section. I was never before so much aware that snow is gently falling down. Pure magic.

In this respect it was regrettable that in the second part Minkowski somewhat changed the order of the score. As he announced during the short tuning break between acts, he preferred to open with the Pas de deux followed by the Divertissement and ending with the Waltz of the Flowers. The opening numbers of Act II – which offer some ravishing music – were dropped, as well as the first variation in the Pas de deux. Minkowski didn’t fail to stress the French influence on The Nutcracker and noted in passing that the celesta played by his orchestra was a French Mustel from the late 19th century, an instrument undoubtedly quite close to the one Tchaikovsky knew and introduced in Russia with this ballet.

As it was, the Divertissement became a truly festive moment, totally apt as a brilliant culmination of the story. Very few conductors I heard in concert capture the character of the different dances with such accuracy. The Spanish dance was sparkling and colorful, the Arabian variation exuded the exquisite perfume of the Orient, and in the Trepak one could easily imagine boots stomping in the snow. Woodwinds and percussion were exquisite.

Les Musiciens du Louvre are a superb formation indeed. They played like possessed and evidently had a great time performing this music. Solos were magnificent throughout, most notably from flutes, oboe and harp. The hard-working violins were divided left/right, with the four basses at the back center. A smaller than usual orchestra for Tchaikovsky when it comes to the strings, although judging from the balance and weight that Minkowski obtained, all it takes.

Minkowski offered two encores from Georges Bizet’s L’Arlésienne, the Prélude and the introspective Adagietto, which he dedicated to the victims of terrorist attacks in France and Belgium from the last year. The solo saxophone was heard to great effect, but it was undoubtedly the link between the music of Tchaikovsky and Bizet, both great melodists and orchestrators, which was most exposed here.

The Brussels Centre for Fine Arts was sadly half empty for this concert. The Nutcracker as a ballet is normally box-office safe. Yet many are probably still convinced that ballet music doesn’t stand much of a chance in a concert-hall. Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre have disproven that, once again, completely. A superb concert.

Copyright © 2016, Marc Haegeman

First published on Classical Net: http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/haegeman/20161113-minkowski-tchaikovsky.php


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Transcendental Liszt in double

Franz Liszt: Etudes d’exécution transcendante, S.139
Kirill Gerstein, piano
Myrios MYR019, SACD hybrid (64 min)

“Transcendental”
Franz Liszt: Etudes d’exécution transcendante, S.139; Two Concert Etudes, S.145; Three Concert Etudes, S.144; Grandes Etudes de Paganini, S.141

Daniil Trifonov, piano
Deutsche Grammophon 0289 479 5529 0 – 2 CD (66:04 & 51:24 min)

Franz Liszt most likely had his bit of fun when he published his Etudes d’exécution transcendante. Although his final edition from 1852 may be more accessible than its earlier incarnation, as is well known even these aren’t studies for the beginner or the advanced amateur, but fiendishly difficult pieces (Daniil Trifonov describes them as “technically challenging poems” or “existential meditations”) for virtuoso pianists at the top of their game, and then some. Performing all 12 Etudes live in concert has long remained a rare feat, still both pianists considered here have successfully accomplished this several times. It wasn’t so long ago that the Etudes were the exclusive domain of mature Liszt specialists who tackled them on disc as the crowning achievement in this repertoire. Yet, Kirill Gerstein is 36, Daniil Trifonov is barely 25, and these are their first Liszt-only discs. Times are changing.

These new discs recorded in the studio are superb achievements by any means and can be recommended wholeheartedly. Both Russian pianists share an irresistible joy of performing. They traverse the Etudes with seemingly effortless ease and find a convincing balance between jaw-dropping virtuosity and inspired musicality, drawing attention to the lasting value of Liszt’s oeuvre as the invention of the modern piano. Needless to say, there are differences too. Moreover, Trifonov’s generous “Transcendental” set for DG also gives us the 5 Concert Etudes and the Grandes Etudes de Paganini on a second disc.

Transcendental etudes

Gerstein performs Liszt

Kirill Gerstein is an intelligent, inquisitive musician. (He recently also set the record straight regarding the score of Tchaikovsky’s famous First Piano Concerto.) Gerstein clearly sees the Etudes as a coherent cycle to be played as a complete set, starting with the virtuosic try-out of the keyboard in the Preludio and culminating in the truly transcendental, modernist sonorities created in Chasse-Neige. Gerstein’s structural grip is obvious when considering the pieces individually, especially the more elaborate ones like Mazeppa, Ricordanza (in a terrific rendering), Harmonies du soir and Chasse-Neige, but is even more impressive when the cycle is heard in its entirety. As he explains in the informative interview published in the booklet of this Myrios release, it helps coming to grips with the Etudes by thinking of them as a collection of pairs, not just tonally but also by character. This approach sheds new light on the cycle, creating extra dramatic contrast.

Transcendental

Transcendental by Daniil Trifonov

While Daniil Trifonov also performs the complete Etudes d’exécution transcendante in concert, in this recording I was less struck by the coherence of the cycle than in Gerstein’s hands. Arguably most listeners won’t be bothered by this, because Trifonov’s pianism is such a stunner (he is more controlled and above all more accurate in the studio than live, and is also slightly better served by the engineers than Gerstein). His remains a tremendously exciting journey, always articulate and brilliantly colorful, but by his seemingly impromptu approach the individual character of the pieces tends to dominate the bigger architecture. Trifonov can be very theatrical, allying telling silences with fierce attacks or dazzling fusées, but I missed some of the gravitas that Gerstein sensitively conveys in the more melancholic passages. However, where Trifonov remains unequalled is by the lightness and transparency of his textures, weaving these ultra-delicate but flexible tapestries of sound in notably Paysage and Feux follets, as well as in the lyrical Concert Etudes La Leggierezza and Il Sospiro, and the impressionistic Waldesrauschen and Gnomenreigen. He also makes a very strong case for the underrated Paganini Etudes, including a very refined rendition of La Campanella, a marvelously handled Arpeggio and an eloquent La Chasse.

In short, these are utterly rewarding releases, new frontrunners in this repertoire that deserve a place in every serious Liszt or piano collection.

Copyright © 2016, Marc Haegeman


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Mata Hari revived in Amsterdam

Tarik O’Regan: Mata Hari

  • Anna Tsygankova – Mata Hari / Margarethe
  • Casey Herd – Rudolph McLeod
  • Jozef Varga – General Kiepert
  • Artur Shesterikov – Vadim de Masloff
  • Young Gyu Choi – Shiva
  • Wen Ting Guan – Temple Dancer
  • Dancers of Dutch National Ballet, Students and pupils of Dutch National Ballet Academy

Music by Tarik O’Regan
Dutch Ballet Orchestra/Matthew Rowe
Choreography by Ted Brandsen
EuroArts Blu-ray 2061624 Widescreen / PCM Stereo and DTS-HD Master Audio / 95m + 26m bonus

Mata Hari by the Dutch National Ballet

Mata Hari by the Dutch National Ballet

A brand new evening-length narrative ballet with a newly commissioned score, eye-catching designs, and a rather unusual subject is a rarity today. Mata Hari is an extraordinary ballet, a real tour de force, created this year in Amsterdam for Dutch National Ballet and now available on video courtesy of EuroArts.

Women spies – or spies in general, for that matter – don’t make an obvious subject for a ballet. Yet, the Dutch Margaretha Zelle (1876-1917) aka Mata Hari, suspected of being a double agent and shot by a French army firing squad, had also been an infamous dancer in her time. On the crest of the Belle Epoque’s fascination with exoticism she became an international sensation overnight when she performed a daring Javanese temple dance in 1905 Paris. She later wanted to join Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes, but was unsuccessful. In any case, her unusual and very turbulent life from small-town petty bourgeois girl to worldly-wise femme fatale enclosed enough drama for Ted Brandsen, artistic director of Dutch National Ballet, to turn it into a remarkable ballet.

It’s remarkable that in these lean times for the arts no expenses and efforts were spared for bringing Mata Hari to the stage. Ted Brandsen took care of the choreography and assembled an international artistic team – the Dutch dramaturge and author Janine Brogt gave shape to Mata Hari’s life in the libretto, the British composer Tarik O’Regan set it to music in a 90-minute score for large orchestra, the Dutch designers duoClement & Sanôu conceived the framework of decors and lights, and the French designer François-Noël Cherpin created more than 300 costumes from key episodes in Mata Hari’s life – including late 19th-century Friesland, Dutch colonial life on Java, and Paris in the Belle Epoque.

Involving a cast of 60 dancers and an orchestra of 76 musicians, Mata Hari opened in Amsterdam’s Muziektheater on 6 February 2016, quickly becoming a box-office success. It is ballet on an epic scale and of a superhuman sweep we hardly ever see any more. Brandsen’s choreography is firmly rooted in the classical idiom, but adds formal freedom for expressive purposes. The title role was created on Dutch National’s first soloist Anna Tsygankova who gives a performance of a lifetime. She is joined by several leading dancers, including Casey Herd as Margarethe’s husband Rudolph McLeod, Jozef Varga as the German general Kiepert, and Artur Shesterikov as her final Russian lover Vadim de Masloff. With its almost continuous succession of ensembles, duets and solos, as a ballet Mata Hari is company work at its most inspired.

Filmed in the opening run by the independent Amsterdam-based production company 3 Minutes West, Mata Hari was initially broadcast live on worldwide Mezzo TV and is now available on Blu-ray and DVD, looking and sounding pretty stunning. Attractively directed by Jeff Tudor, the visuals of this release are a treat. The high-definition cameras reveal Cherpin’s brilliantly colorful costumes with startling detail. Tarik O’Regan composed in his first effort for ballet a compelling score, which shares influences of American minimalism and Benjamin Britten (his music for the ballet Prince of the Pagodas comes to mind), but finds his own voice in its complex rhythmic layering and memorable lyrical passages. It offers the ideal accompaniment for the narrative and is performed with great impact by the Dutch Ballet Orchestra. Beautifully recorded in surround sound and PCM stereo, the Blu-ray offers a highly enjoyable evening at the ballet in your home.

Mata Hari includes a useful “The Making Of” documentary (26 min.) which could well serve as a model for future new ballet releases. It accompanies the viewer through the three-year-long creative process with short but well-chosen interviews and rehearsal clips. Brandsen describes Zelle’s life as “a raging torrent” and emphasizes her uncanny talent for transformation and reinvention. In his ballet, scenes flash by in cinematographic manner, but no matter the intensity, the image of an extraordinary woman shines through, a willful character in a male dominated society, but eventually victim of her own mythomania. Her execution following her involvement with high-ranking army officers can be read as the ultimate statement of disapproval by a society not ready yet for women of her caliber. Mata Hari may be more timeless than we expect.

If ever a contemporary ballet deserved to be captured on film it had to be Dutch National’s Mata Hari. Warmly recommended.

Copyright © 2016, Marc Haegeman

First published on Classical Net: http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/o/opu61624blua.php
Photography from the production: http://www.for-ballet-lovers-only.com/matahari-hnb/index.html

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Happy Tchaikovsky from Herreweghe

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: The Nutcraker, Op. 71 (Excerpts) and Symphony #2 in C minor “Little Russian”, Op. 17
Royal Flemish Philharmonic Orchestra/Philippe Herreweghe
Concertgebouw, Bruges, 24 September 2016

Russia is the focal point of the 2016/17 season at the Bruges Concertgebouw. Several concerts of Russian music are scheduled throughout the year and both Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Dmitry Shostakovich take pride of place in the celebrations. In the first symphonic concert of the series Philippe Herreweghe and his Royal Flemish Philharmonic (aka deFilharmonie) paid homage to Tchaikovsky with a rather unusual pairing. With the Second “Little Russian” Symphony and a handpicked selection from the Nutcracker, works separated by some twenty years in the composer’s output, they offered primarily a happily smiling and vital Tchaikovsky.

Philippe Herreweghe isn’t a conductor you would expect in this repertoire. Yet it’s always interesting to hear how a musician steeped in early music and baroque approaches the 19th century scores. Some immediate benefits were obvious. With a smaller than usual orchestra, anchored on 5 basses, Herreweghe’s Tchaikovsky sounded refined, transparent and finely detailed. Remarkably, employing smaller forces didn’t result in lightness, yet the overall feel was energetic and vibrant. The balance between strings and woodwinds was impeccable, highlighting the brilliance of Tchaikovsky’s orchestration. The antiphonally placed violins opened up the sound, while extra care for the lower strings always provided a solid base. The Royal Flemish Philharmonic plays of course on modern instruments and power was at hand when needed, even though Herreweghe always kept things firmly under control.

It was all the more a shame that the selection culled from the Nutcracker was so short. The concert was dubbed “Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker” I suspect for marketing purposes, although it was the first work on the bill, and in retrospect the least convincing. Herreweghe added a few numbers to the usually heard ballet suite, like the Galop and the Entrance of the Parents from Act I and the Tarentella from the Pas de deux, but it no less remained a piecemeal offering. Some transitions sounded awkward and his selection avoided the more elaborate and darker pages of the score. Extremely colorful and vivid, with particular attention to the fine Philharmonic woodwinds, Herreweghe’s Nutcracker sparkled and superficially charmed but hardly ever got inside the score. Some numbers were tackled too briskly to breathe properly (Dance of the Reed Pipes, Sugar Plum Fairy), others were merely precise rather than evocative (Arabian dance).

The “Little Russian” Symphony (performed in its final version from 1879) however was a lot more successful. It was beautifully played and excitingly rendered without ever becoming demonstrative. Herreweghe never indulged in any eccentricities and made a very strong case for this often neglected symphony. Tempi were well-judged and a sense of discovery enlivened every movement. The Andante sostenuto instantly captured the right mood with magnificent solos from horn (Eliz Erkalp) and bassoon (Oliver Engels) – dreamy moments that soon gave way to sheer vivacity and joy. The march-like 2nd movement was well paced and Herreweghe imaginatively handled the variations. The Philharmonic strings were heard to great effect in the second theme. Sharp attacks and crisp phrasing characterized the boisterous scherzo, with the winds adding plenty of color. The clarity Herreweghe kept in the tutti, as well as his deft control of the ebb and flow made for a convincing and exhilarating final movement.

All in all, a fine homage to Tchaikovsky and I hope Herreweghe will explore this music further – the orchestral suites come to mind, or why not some complete ballet.

Copyright © 2016, Marc Haegeman

First published on Classical Net: http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/haegeman/20160924-herreweghe-tchaikovsky.php


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Cloning Tchaikovsky

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: The Queen of Spades
Misha Didyk (Hermann), Alexey Markov (Tomsky/Zlatogor), Vladimir Stoyanov (Prince Yeletsky), Andrei Popov (Tchekalinsky), Andrii Goniukov (Surin), Mikhail Makarov (Tchaplitsky), Anatoli Sivko (Narumov), Morschi Franz (Major Domo), Larissa Dyadkova (the Countess), Svetlana Aksenova (Lisa), Anna Goryachova (Polina/Milozvor), Olga Savova (the governess), Maria Fiselier (Masha)
Chorus of the Dutch National Opera, New Amsterdam Children’s Chorus, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Mariss Jansons
Direction: Stefan Herheim
Dramaturgy: Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach
Sets and costumes: Philipp Fürhofer
Light: Bernd Purkrabek
Seen in Muziektheater Amsterdam, 18 June 2016

Who won? The music or the direction? As with many contemporary opera productions this was the question that came to mind at the end of the new staging of Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades by the Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam, presented as part of the annual Holland Festival. Music and direction are frequently at loggerheads. The Norwegian director Stefan Herheim doesn’t consider the original libretto sufficient. He thinks he has better ideas. Here’s one: The Queen of Spades needs to confront us with Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality and lifelong emotional distress rather than with the tragic fate of Hermann, Lisa and the Countess as adapted by the composer from Pushkin’s tale. There is nothing original about this reinterpretation, yet Herheim fails to convince us he is on a better course. His hand is unsure, his direction fussy, his storytelling fatally confusing. With the superb Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in the pit conducted by Mariss Jansons, Herheim was fighting a lost cause. The music won.

Herheim opens his fantasy world before the music starts by adding a homoerotic scene between a Tchaikovsky lookalike and a man who turns out to be the opera’s main hero Hermann. Tchaikovsky pays the man for his services. Mozart’s Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen plays on a music box in a birdcage. Worse was yet to come. Herheim puts Tchaikovsky center stage. He is everywhere, all the time. There are countless references, factual or questionable, to the composer’s life. He is busy creating the music that plays, he is interacting with the opera characters, he interferes in the story, and if that wasn’t distracting enough, every member of the male chorus on stage is a Tchaikovsky clone. “You, you here?” stammers Lisa, looking at the Tchaikovsky figure instead of Hermann at the end of Act II. Spot on, he had no place there. Perhaps worst of all, in Herheim’s hands the composer is a pathetic little man. Tchaikovsky is a poor old sucker, a precarious weakling who is tossed around and ridiculed by all, including the audience. By letting him die several times in the opera, Herheim joins the many who hear Tchaikovsky’s music from his final years as nothing but a product of a terminally depressed man. He really needs to listen again then. Of course, Herheim readily accepts the debatable fact that Tchaikovsky met his untimely death from deliberately drinking a glass of contaminated water. To make sure we get that message, he repeats it ad nauseam and even lets the old Countess commit suicide by drinking a glass of water. Is this Herheim’s answer to the composer’s supposed emotional suffering as a homosexual? Frankly, I couldn’t care less about what he thinks about it. Nyet, this is the Queen of Spades, based on Pushkin. Not a pamphlet to lament the fate of homosexuals in 19th century Russia. Eventually, he should have listened to the Countess in Act 2: “Stop that nonsense!” Herheim forgot Pushkin, Modest Tchaikovsky’s libretto, and he forgot the music. Yet the music won.

Svetlana Aksenova (Lisa) & Misha Didyk (Hermann) - © Karl & Monika Forster

Svetlana Aksenova (Lisa) & Misha Didyk (Hermann) – © Karl & Monika Forster

Herheim not only adds to the confusion by inventing this fling between the composer and Hermann, the man who is supposed to be in love with Lisa, but also by making this omnipresent Tchaikovsky figure a double of the opera character Prince Yeletsky, who is engaged to Lisa. There are two guys involved, one the baritone Vladimir Stoyanov, the other the pianist Christiaan Kuyvenhoven. I challenge you to tell who’s who at the end of the run. Not that it matters. The music won.

Incoherence and absurdity reign in this Queen of Spades. Are we in Tchaikovsky’s time? Or rather in the 18th century when Empress Catharina the Great ruled, as supporting roles like Tomsky, Surin and Tchekalinsky seem to suggest? Nobody seems to know or care. It makes the Mozartean divertissement in Act 2 look totally incongruous and by far the weakest part of the production. When Tchaikovsky composed his opera members of the Russian imperial family couldn’t be shown on stage. Now the Tsarina turns out to be a man in drag (Hermann – him again). Times have changed.

Every scene plays indoor, mostly in the composer’s room. As has become a feature of many opera productions characters are frequently singing words that don’t correspond or connect with the stage action. Why is everybody worried about the storm in Act I when they are all inside a house? Why is Tchaikovsky acting like he is suffering from kidney stones while the chorus of children and women are joyfully welcoming a sunny day? The deeper one analyzes, the less Herheim’s fantasy hijack makes sense.

Evidently, no expenses were spared for this visually striking production, boasting richly detailed costumes (mostly just black, white or grey) and impressive mobile sets designed by Philipp Fürhofer and evocatively lit by Bernd Purkrabek. Some scenes were effectively staged, with especially a spectacular ghost scene in Act 3, others merely malapropos (the storm in Act 1, the death of the Countess). At the end of Act 2 the chorus appears in the stalls, raising the audience to its feet to salute the Empress, and thus mock Tchaikovsky.

Morschi Franz (Major Domo, Vladimir Stoyanov (Yeletsky) and the Chorus of the National Opera - © Karl & Monika Forster

Morschi Franz (Major Domo, Vladimir Stoyanov (Yeletsky) and the Chorus of the National Opera – © Karl & Monika Forster

As said, it was the music that offered most joys in this Queen of Spades. Mariss Jansons returned to lead the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra a year after his retirement as the ensemble’s Chief Conductor (2004-2015). His affinity with Tchaikovsky has never been a secret. A well-deserved warm ovation from the Amsterdam public greeted his every appearance.

Much of the blurred drama on stage sounded crystal clear in the pit. Jansons conducted with finesse and ear for detail. His flair for tempo and atmosphere was impeccable while the balance between orchestra and voices was in most cases well-judged. Or one could simply wallow in the sonorous beauty of the Concertgebouw Orchestra. The warm strings were divided left-right with the basses in the middle, securing an always solid yet transparent sound. The characterful Dutch woodwinds revealed Tchaikovsky’s impressive range of color and the brass and percussion were powerful when required. The modernity of much of the score, especially in the second half of the opera, was fully credited and reminded us this is truly great Tchaikovsky indeed.

Jansons led a largely Slavonic singing cast. Unfortunately, I wasn’t entirely convinced by Misha Didyk’s Hermann. True, the production allows neither of the protagonists to fully form their characters. They remain as greyish as their costumes and the duets between Hermann and Lisa, scuttled by Herheim’s meddling, failed to make the proper impact. I never believed this Hermann ever had any genuine love interest for Lisa – but then again how could he in this ambivalent setup, where he is even declaring his love while facing the audience instead of his beloved. The Ukranian tenor is widely considered the Hermann of his generation, even if to my mind he is as yet unable to replace Galuzin, Atlantov and the likes. His habit to jump towards the high notes, belting them out, grows old quickly, although arguably this could be interpreted as the unbalanced side of Hermann’s character. I was more impressed by the young Russian soprano Svetlana Aksenova as Lisa, blending vocal splendor and strength with feminine warmth and a hint of vulnerability.

Vladimir Stoyanov (Prince Yeletsky) and Larissa Dyadkova (the Countess) - © Karl & Monika Forster

Vladimir Stoyanov (Prince Yeletsky) and Larissa Dyadkova (the Countess) – © Karl & Monika Forster

The best vocal performances were however found among the supporting roles. The Russian baritone Alexey Markov was ideal as Tomsky. His rich, refined voice and commanding stage presence made his ballad of the Countess’ past in the first scene absolutely compelling. He was no less delightful in his impish song in Act 3. And what joy to have Larissa Dyadkova as the Countess, a role I first heard her sing some twenty years ago. The quality of her delivery, the complete understanding of her character (to hear and see the Countess recall times long past with the surprise act of Madame Pompadour as a climax, was in itself worth the price of admission) made you nearly forget Herheim’s disrespectful treatment of her role. Nothing but praise too for the Bulgarian baritone Vladimir Stoyanov for his acting (as the ubiquitous Tchaikovsky) and his noble rendition of Yeletsky’s love aria in Act 2. Both Andrei Popov and Andrii Goniukov, as Tchekalinsky and Surin respectively, were first-rate. Although she was announced as suffering from a slight cold the Russian mezzo Anna Goryachova sang Polina (and her hauntingly sad romance in the 2nd Scene) with melting beauty.

Magnificent work, finally, from the Chorus of the National Opera. They have an important part in the opera and they made every minute count. The male group lamenting the death of Hermann (or actually Tchaikovsky) was especially memorable. The music won.

That we are still enjoying an opera created some 125 years ago is because we recognize and value its intrinsic musical and dramatic qualities, not because it’s a vehicle for fanciful producers. Stefan Herheim’s staging is in essence not about The Queen of Spades. In spite of the fixation on the composer’s sorry plight, imagined or not, this production is eventually about Herheim rather than Tchaikovsky, and I still need to be convinced that’s of any consequence. The real Tchaikovsky was alive by his music, magnificently performed by Jansons and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, not by Herheim’s multiple clones. “Imagination is fine, as long as it connects with the intentions of the composer”, concludes maestro Jansons in an interview in the Dutch National Opera’s magazine. If only this advice had been followed.

© 2016 Marc Haegeman. All rights reserved

Performances at Amsterdam’s Muziektheater run through July 3. More information here: http://www.operaballet.nl/en/opera/2015-2016/show/pique-dame


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Pittsburgh Symphony in Brussels

Franz Joseph Haydn: Symphony #93 in D Major, Hob. I:93
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Concerto for Piano #2 in C minor, Op. 18
Richard Strauss: Symphonic Rhapsody “Elektra”

Daniil Trifonov, piano
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck
Brussels, Centre for Fine Arts, 1 June 2016

As part of a European tour the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and their music director Manfred Honeck paid a single visit to Belgium. Their Brussels program encompassed the classical elegance of Haydn’s 93th Symphony as well as the dissonant expressionism of Strauss’s Elektra in an orchestral adaptation, allowing us to appreciate the excellence and the generally high-octane performance style of the orchestra. There is little doubt, however, that for most in the Brussels audience, the return of the acclaimed 25-year-old Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov in Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto, made the icing on the cake.

The magnificent Haydn 93rd Symphony, one of the earliest in his London series, was delightfully performed – luminous, lively, and witty. Any fears that with such a large formation Honeck would treat us to some outmoded big band, string-driven Haydn were soon dispelled by the transparent, antiphonally placed Pittsburgh violins radiating warmth and elegance, and by his impeccable phrasing. The string quartet opening the second movement provided a striking contrast and Haydn’s ever-inventive orchestration, including remarkable solos from principal oboe Cynthia Koledo DeAlmeida, was always carefully exposed. Honeck gave the Menuetto an irresistible swing and rounded off with an imaginatively paced Finale.

Imagination was also running high in the Rachmaninoff concerto, but here the results were far less persuasive. Daniil Trifonov possesses – need one repeat it – a phenomenal technique which effortlessly deals with the work’s virtuosic demands and allows him to conjure the most astonishing sonorities from his instrument. But just as in his traversal of Rachmaninoff’s Third, which I heard in London last year, I was left with the feeling that bigger structures seem to elude him and this was mainly work in progress.

Trifonov’s playing was sonorous and crystal-clear, even in the most demanding passages, and I haven’t heard that many pianists in concert who aren’t drowned out by the orchestral tutti, yet eventually this turned out to be part of the problem. Trifonov seems to treat everything as a solo part and hardly ever takes a back seat. Every note, and we all know Rachmaninoff gives us many, is highlighted in his hands. This surgical treatment often reveals unheard details but also stretches the longer lines to breaking point. His preference for slow tempi and lingering mid-way may be considered as expressive freedom but when pushed this far they undermine the musical sweep, as in the first movement where he reached the sonic limits of his Steinway too soon, only to hold back immediately afterwards and flunk the Maestoso passage with loudly hammered chords. The first movement took forever to end and blurred the contrast with the following Adagio sostenuto.

In the second movement, with Trifonov’s microscopic, meandering approach the overall effect was overwrought rather than affecting. Truth to be told the sense of fragmentation was reinforced by Honeck’s reliance on extreme dynamic shifts. The fortissimo orchestral passages, topped by the brass section overpowering everybody else, were simply too demonstrative.

By the time they reached the third movement Trifonov was in characteristic vein with his nose on the keyboard, sweating profusely, as if in a trance. It was sufficient to convince the Brussels’ audience they were in the presence of greatness and give Trifonov a standing ovation. Trifonov is a remarkable pianist, let there be no doubt. Yet compared to some of his generation from the Russian school, like Dmitry Masleev or Behzod Abduraimov who both featured in the Rachmaninoff festival in Rotterdam last September, he still has some way to go.

What may have sounded loud in the Rachmaninoff was dwarfed by what the orchestra had in store after the interval. But here the sonic excesses were duly warranted. The Elektra Symphonic Rhapsody had been the crowning achievement of the Pittsburgh’s Symphony’s homage to the composer’s 150th birthday in 2014. Manfred Honeck and composer Tomas Ille bravely arranged a 35-minutes suite from Strauss’s extraordinary opera and while I have never been a great fan of such posthumous opera-without-words medleys, at least this Elektra Rhapsody proved a cleverly convincing showcase for the orchestra. No matter that those unfamiliar with the opera plot will remain mostly in the dark as to what this music is depicting – with the characters’ leitmotifs and chords preserved a synopsis might come in handy – one can revel in the stunning sound world of Strauss at his most daringly avant-garde. The arrangers made sure to balance tension with texture and a massive Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra captured the changing moods, from lyrical to brutally terrifying, with aplomb and utter conviction. The outsized brass section and percussion could easily have stolen the show, if it wasn’t for the continuous quality of the string playing. In short, a fitting tribute to Richard Strauss, but foremost to the Pittsburg Symphony Orchestra clearly in splendid form.

Copyright © 2016, Marc Haegeman

First published on Classical Net (http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/haegeman/20160601-trifonov-pittsburgh-honeck.php)