I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by Marc Haegeman


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Matsuev at the Royal Concertgebouw

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

Denis Matsuev at the Royal Concertgebouw

Denis Matsuev at the Royal Concertgebouw

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.


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Farewell of an étoile

Jules Massenet: L’Histoire de Manon
Aurélie Dupont (Manon)
Roberto Bolle (Des Grieux)
Stéphane Bullion (Lescaut)
Alice Renavand (Mistress of Lescaut)
Benjamin Pech (Monsieur GM)
Karl Paquette (the Jailer)
Artists of the Paris Opera Ballet
Paris Opera Orchestra/Martin Yates
Choreography by Kenneth MacMillan, set by Karl Burnett and Gary Harris
Music by Jules Massenet arranged by Leighton Lucas, re-orchestrated by Martin Yates
Sets by Nicholas Georgiadis
BelAir Classiques BAC435, 1080i Full-HD, PCM 2.0 / DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, 125 mins (ballet) + 11 mins (bonus)

Aurelie Dupont as Manon

Aurelie Dupont as Manon

Parisian étoiles leave in style. In-house rules oblige the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet to retire at the age of 42, yet in the case of their leading dancers who bear the coveted title of “étoile” for life, the French know how to take leave of them. A festive evening is dedicated to the departing stars, a special night-out, ideally featuring a ballet of their choice. Filmed live on 18 May 2015, at the Paris Palais Garnier, this BelAir Classiques video documents the farewell performance of Aurélie Dupont, who was for more than 25 years one of the most brilliantly versatile and respected ballerinas of the company, as well as a popular artist abroad. While arguably no film could ever hope to render the nostalgia and emotion of the live event, including the particular atmosphere of the packed opera house and standing ovations that seem to go on for ages, director Cédric Klapisch at least provides a fair idea of the real thing and makes me wonder why these Parisian farewell events haven’t been released before on video.

The long opening shot which has the camera travelling from the typical straight Parisian boulevards towards and into the Palais Garnier, up the monumental staircase, across the plush auditorium and stage, and finally into the gorgeous “Foyer de la danse” where Dupont is seen rehearsing, has to be one of the most exciting intros to a ballet performance ever put on film.

Aurélie Dupont danced Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet L’Histoire de Manon for her final show. What better farewell is there than to appear one last time in an emotionally-charged role like Manon, offering passionate pas de deux and guaranteed to knock out the audience with an utterly poignant death of the heroine in the final scene? While created for London’s Royal Ballet in 1974 the French have made the ballet their own, providing an alternative approach to this eternal crowd-pleaser. A couple of older films of the Royal Ballet in Manon are still available on DVD, yet a recording of the Paris version is welcome.

For the occasion Dupont was joined by Italian star Roberto Bolle as Des Grieux. The natural elegance and sophisticated manner of both dancers upgrades the ill-fated characters in MacMillan’s graphic interpretation of Abbé Prévost’s novel considerably, especially in the last Act where they are somewhat less convincing. But overall this is a magnificent performance with a ballerina at the height of her art. Paris étoiles Stéphane Bullion, Alice Renavand, Benjamin Pech and Karl Paquette form a first-class supporting cast. Excellent support also from the Orchestra of the Paris Opera, conducted by Martin Yates who successfully gave the Massenet compilation score a new sound and life in 2011.

The picture quality in this BelAir Classiques release is unfortunately not one of the best – the monochrome, brownish designs from Nicholas Georgiadis in Acts 1 and 2 don’t fare well on screen. In longshots the spotlighting seems slightly overblown and one of the cameras has an obvious dust spot on the lens.

There are some moments where the camera seems to love Dupont a bit too much at the expense of other dancers (the evening was broadcast live in European movie theaters), but generally this is a highly recommendable ballet film. Klapisch included a short bit of the curtain calls, often more emotional than the ballet itself. However, the 11 minutes of interview with Dupont are all too short an extra. Klapisch’s 2009 documentary on the ballerina (Aurélie Dupont danse l’espace d’un instant), re-screened with the French TV broadcast of her farewell, would have been the ideal bonus for this release.

As ballet fans know, Aurélie Dupont’s farewell was far from the end of her career at the Paris Opera. In February 2016 she was appointed director of the ballet company.

Copyright © 2017 Marc Haegeman


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Aurora in Bananastan

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: The Sleeping Beauty, Op. 66
Iana Salenko (Princess Aurora)
Marian Walter (Prince Désiré)
Rishat Yulbarisov (Carabosse)
Sarah Mestrovic (Lilac Fairy)
Michael Banzhaf (King Florestan)
Beatrice Knop (The Queen)
Soloists and Corps De Ballet of the Berlin State Ballet
Orchestra of the German Opera, Berlin / Robert Reimer

BelAir Classiques BAC 131; 1080i HD, 16/9; PCM Stereo, DTS Master Audio 5.1

The Sleeping Beauty

The Sleeping Beauty

We know what the ballet The Sleeping Beauty looks like and above all what it’s worth. We know it since 1890. In case the historical productions performed by Russian and English companies to this very day aren’t proof enough, then there are still the recent reconstructions of Sergei Vikharev and Alexei Ratmansky to remind the sceptics this is a timeless creation which needs very little upgrading, least of all by the wrong hands. Why on earth contemporary dance-maker Nacho Duato was asked to make a new version of the ballet will undoubtedly puzzle future generations – provided, of course, it survives the test of time. There have been contemporary adaptations and reworkings of Beauty before, but unless they headed on a radically original course, none ever came close, let alone surpassed the original as it was conceived within the Imperial Theatres in St. Petersburg by the combined talents of director Ivan Vsevolozhsky, choreographer Marius Petipa and composer Piotr Tchaikovsky.

Neither does Duato’s version. Duato created his Sleeping Beauty in 2011 during his brief stint as director of the Mikhailovsky Ballet in St. Petersburg. The brave idea allegedly was to produce a Sleeping Beauty for the 21st century. Yet that turned out to be more of a fairytale than the ballet’s subject itself. If anything the production was proof that money cannot buy everything. Duato’s Beauty still presents itself as a classical ballet, albeit one that is scuttled by a basic mistrust of text, spirit and music. The result is by and large a very unhappy wedding between classical and contemporary styles. Pointework in convulsion mode; Martha Graham as princess Aurora. Forget the multilayered complexity of the original, the fairytale atmosphere, or the enchantment.

With its truncated narrative, botched choreography and mutilated score, Duato’s staging doesn’t stand much of a chance. Tottering between hilarious (the Prologue variations, the nervous courtiers) and properly embarrassing (the scenes with that fearful Carabosse in drag), it doesn’t matter that echoes of Petipa ring through the key moments, Duato never finds his own voice. Worst of all, while this is one of the richest and most profound dance scores ever made, Duato does nothing with it. In short, a travesty of The Sleeping Beauty rather than the version for the 21st century.

The elegantly fresh sets and pastel-tinted costumes from Angelina Atlagic run away with the honors in this production. The present release from BelAir Classiques documents a performance by the Berlin State Ballet, the company Duato is heading since 2014. By all accounts the production wasn’t well received in the German capital either, which makes its release on HD video rather bizarre. Iana Salenko and Marian Walter are excellent dancers, yet in spite of their fluent partnership they never manage to crack the ice. Neither does the rest of the cast, laboring through it all with blind devotion. They deserve better than this.

Robert Reimer’s conducting is about as undramatic and bland as the activity on stage. The Orchestra of the German Opera sleepwalks through most of the score, unable to avoid some jarringly unbalanced sonorities (as in Aurora’s Variation in Act 2).

For what it’s worth, the performance is agreeably filmed by Andy Sommer. The HD cameras cope well with the sometimes harsh stage lighting of the production. The sonics are impressive and detailed, if somewhat bass heavy in the DTS Master Audio 5.1 format. This release offers no bonus materials – not that we would have been craving for any. To be shelved under forgettable.

Copyright © 2017 Marc Haegeman


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Bohemia in Paris

Bedřich Smetana: Má Vlast (My Country), 6 symphonic poems
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim
Paris, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, 20 December 2016

Má Vlast, the cycle of six symphonic poems composed by Smetana between 1874 and 1879, makes for highly attractive concert programming. It forms the perfect antidote for those who think that the traditional three-part concert offering has had its day. While not as long as most concerts, one still doesn’t feel short-changed by the 75 or so minutes, because when heard in one sitting without a break, the rich and diverse microcosm of Má Vlast turns out to be quite an engrossing musical experience. Forget the famous Moldau too often heard as a single evergreen. Only when placed within the cycle the river flows with a purpose and Smetana’s thematic structure and vivid imagination can be appreciated better than ever.

Daniel Barenboim (© Riky Davila Klein)

Daniel Barenboim (© Riky Davila Klein)

Daniel Barenboim and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra are touring Europe with Má Vlast in preparation of the opening concert of next year’s prestigious Prague Spring International Festival. This is undoubtedly a daunting task as much as a great honor, but the concert in a packed Paris Champs-Elysées Theatre showed both conductor and orchestra in tremendous doing and left a powerful impression. And even if the most chauvinistic music critics in Prague next May will probably tell you differently, the Viennese seem to connect naturally with the lyricism and rhythms of Bohemia. In this respect it’s good to remember the orchestra recorded Má Vlast at least three times in the last 60 years – with conductors as different as Rafael Kubelik, James Levine and Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

Strongly dramatic, often darkly colored, but also grand and festive when required, this performance of Má Vlast under Barenboim was fascinating from start to end. Not the call-to-arms as exemplified by Kubelik and the Czech Philharmonic at their most patriotic, but nonetheless a stirring exploration full of contrasting sonorities and carried by very flexible but never disagreeable tempi and dynamics, which (Barenboim hasn’t been conducting at Bayreuth for almost two decades for nothing) also frequently reminded us of Smetana’s predilection for the music of Liszt and Wagner. Barenboim, who conducted from memory, demonstrated a firm grip on the structure of each poem, but equally kept the bigger picture in mind. He appreciated the affinity of the Viennese players with this music and knew exactly how to balance a certain amount of freedom with exacting precision. The consistency of his approach enhanced the impact of the cycle as a whole just as much as it displayed the ingenuity of Smetana’s vision. The final appearance of the Vyšehrad theme at the end of Blanik sounded like a homecoming after a long and emotional voyage that had started with the simple harps in Vyšehrad. The two final poems Tábor and Blanik, strongly linked, appeared like a suspenseful quest from darkness to light, allying often mysterious sonorities with telling silences and well-judged releases of tension to balance the drama.

Color was also elemental in Vltava and From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields highlighting beautiful solo work from the Viennese woodwinds (clarinet and flute, especially), and the sometimes rugged horns adding extra spice. The brass practically covered the whole width of the stage and while Smetana uses them frequently to great effect, Barenboim avoided all bombast. It was however more than anything the magnificent strings ensemble, homogenous and precise to delight, that brought the whole picture to life and gave this Má Vlast a beating heart – whether in the romantic flowing of Vltava, the passionate events electrifying Šárka, the superb fugal passage in From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields or the high-octane drive in Tábor. Antiphonally placed, Barenboim dosed them carefully, now as leading sections, then again in a supporting role.

Concerning the orchestral balance, here and there I missed some weight in the lower strings sound, although that might have been caused by the placement of the orchestra in this venue. The Champs-Elysées Theatre doesn’t have a very wide stage and the double-basses, placed at the far left, were partly hidden behind the proscenium arch. In the heat of the action the woodwinds also tended at times to be a tad too prominent, while on the other hand the timpani, placed towards the left side, didn’t always produce the same impact. Yet these are minor quibbles about what was by all means a wonderful concert that should, eventually, do the Vienna Philharmonic and Daniel Barenboim in Prague proud.

Copyright © 2016 Marc Haegeman


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Deadpan Rachmaninoff and magical Tchaikovsky

Dmitry Shostakovich: Festive Overture in A Major, Op. 96
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto #3 in d Minor, Op. 30
Pyotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake, Op. 20 – Excerpts (arr. M. Pletnev)

Seong-Jin Cho, piano
Russian National Orchestra / Mikhail Pletnev
Concertgebouw, Bruges, 14 December 2016

The Russian music season at the Bruges Concertgebouw continued with a visit of Mikhail Pletnev and his Russian National Orchestra (RNO). They brought a solid program of Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky, and although the organizers billed primarily on Rachmaninoff’s famous Third Piano Concerto, highlighting the young Korean Seong-Jin Cho as soloist, it was by and large Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake that became the most memorable event of the evening.

Seong-Ji Cho pianist

Seong-Ji Cho (© Bartek Sadowski)

Winner of the latest International Chopin Piano Competition, championed by the almighty Valery Gergiev, and a contract with the famous yellow record label fresh in his pocket, Seoul-born Seong-Jin Cho (22) seems firmly set on the tracks of an international career, come what may. His debut Chopin disc is a multiple platinum seller in his home country and, as we are told, like many of his talented young colleagues he brings flocks of newcomers to classical music. His performance of the Rachmaninoff Third was nonetheless underwhelming. Once the pleasant discovery of his excellent technique and crystal-clear articulation gone, we were left with a soloist who was musically mostly at a loss with Rachmaninoff’s lyrical outpourings. Cho played his Rachmaninoff hard and loud, invariably so, and without much sense of direction or imagination. He wasn’t drowned out by the orchestra, yet his habit to attack loudly backfired soon when he reached the limits of his piano before the climaxes. There was little or no trace of individual coloring or emotional engagement. Mindful of the composer’s predilection for color, this was gray, deadpan Rachmaninoff. All the notes (well, most of them) were there. But there was nothing behind them.

Some passages were brilliantly executed (the Più mosso section in the first movement), yet others suffered from ill-judged rubato or misplaced and banged accents (the first movement cadenza). At times it sounded like a Prokofiev concerto, but in the end, the most satisfying passages were the orchestral ones, transparent, detailed and often beautifully shaped by Pletnev – as the introduction of the Intermezzo, or the remarkable espressivo played by horn, bassoons and clarinet that closes that movement. The audience clearly weren’t averse to cold fish and gave Cho a standing ovation. So much for reputations.

pletnev

Mikhail Pletnev (© Artom Makeyev)

The concert opened with Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, Op. 96, always an irresistible curtain-raiser. However, after the break the Mikhail Pletnev enigma fully took shape again with a stunning rendering of a handpicked selection of Tchaikovsky’s ballet music for Swan Lake. Not the usual 6-part suite, but a different and more elaborate survey arranged by Pletnev himself. And while his complete studio recording of Swan Lake on disc is to my mind one of the dullest, inane versions from recent years, in concert the Pletnev magic worked again. It’s not just the recording engineers who seem to disadvantage him on many of his discs, it’s also his way with the score which turns out to be so much more fascinating in concert. With an outstanding RNO he galvanized Swan Lake into a compelling cocktail of color and atmosphere, beautifully poetic and full of fairytale magic, with that typical Tchaikovsky mix of theatrical drama and aristocratic elegance always in perfect balance. The pure dance sections were particularly well characterized: light-footed in the Pas de trois variations, grand and stately in the Pas des coupes from Act I. The dramatic narrative scenes (the extensive symphonic finale of the ballet) thrilled with tremendous power and impact.

The RNO appeared totally responsive and without a weak spot in the ensemble. The orchestral balance was even in the wildest scenes superb, the dynamic range impressive. The vivid string playing always a joy to behold. Woodwind solos, so important in this work, were astonishing, especially the oboe from Olga Tomilova, leading all the great themes, and the flute from Maxim Rubtsov. Brass and percussion knocked you out of your seat. Orchestra leader Alexei Bruni and principal cello Alexander Gottgelf performed ravishing solos in the Pas d’action (the White Swan pas de deux for the ballet fans). One regret perhaps. This Swan Lake selection begged for more and I would rather have had the ballet music in full than Seong-Jin Cho’s tryout in the Rachmaninoff. But other than that pure Russian concert magic.

Copyright © 2016 Marc Haegeman


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Gergiev versus Gergiev

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker, Op. 71 – Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 36
Valery Gergiev, Orchestra and Choir of the Mariinsky Theatre
Mariinsky MAR0593, 2 SACD (Includes multi-channel 5.0 and stereo mixes), 129 min.

Valery Gergiev frequently returns to music he recorded earlier. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but curiously I still haven’t heard a refill of his that actually betters the older attempt. And this isn’t happening either in this new release on the Mariinsky label, coupling his 2015 re-recording of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and Fourth Symphony.

Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker and Symphony No. 4

Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker and Symphony No. 4

Gergiev and his Mariinsky Theatre forces gave us a magnificent Nutcracker back in 1998. After the marketing hype for being “the first complete Nutcracker on a single CD” had settled, this not only turned out to be a tremendously exciting high-voltage traversal, a riot of color, but also a visionary piece of fantasy-theatre with a dark undercurrent that dumped most other recordings of the ballet in the candy store kids department. Most of all, it had a clarity of purpose and the sparkle of discovery.

Fast-forward to 2016 and here is Gergiev again with the same orchestra. Gone is the sparkle of discovery and so is the vision that electrified the older recording. It’s not exactly a bad Nutcracker (actually it’s pretty good one when compared to other recent attempts by Rattle, Järvi and Pletnev), but it’s simply not as compelling or revelatory as the previous one. That Gergiev is marginally less fast (84 against 81 min), is not the main issue (although the Chinese Dance is now bizarrely heavy-footed and the Andante maestoso of the Pas de deux suffers from several drops of tension – for example from 2 min. 20). More important is that this Nutcracker has lost its edge and momentum. Gergiev still reveals a detailed, often dark palette of color and it’s always a delight to hear the superb Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra in their repertoire, but the fact remains that overall this is a less focused, much cozier, play safe reading, taking its place among the many. It suffices to listen to the long dramatic passage starting with the Departure of the Guests through the Waltz of the Snowflakes. The Battle is now a whole lot less eventful and fierce, and Gergiev’s pacing in the ensuing Pine forest and the Waltz no longer grabs you by the hand (or the throat) as he did so brilliantly in his older disc. The Mariinsky recording is warm and detailed, emphasizing the lower brass to good effect, although the timpani could ideally have been balanced more forwardly.

What prevents me from giving this release a wholehearted recommendation however is the recording of the Fourth Symphony. Tchaikovsky’s Fourth has to my ears always been the least successful of the six in Gergiev’s hands and this recent take seems to have gone even further south. The flaws and mannerisms of the earlier live recording filmed in Paris in 2011 (available on DVD and Blu-ray), or noted in the concerts I attended that year, are now a major letdown. Gergiev seems bent on underplaying the anguish of this symphony with an ultra-refined treatment and extra careful tempi. Yet the result is a first movement that sounds hesitant, almost timid, with climaxes that make no impact whatsoever. Gergiev’s tempo fluctuations are often gratuitous, and nowhere more so than in the development section just before the return of the fate theme. Worse, the Andantino is no longer in modo di canzona but resembles a sluggish religious procession which turns in circles. The Scherzo makes a better impression, while the Finale kicks off with plenty of drive and brilliant orchestral playing, only to return to dragging mode when the main theme is heard in the strings only (at 3 min. 45). Again, there is so much to admire in the playing of the Mariinsky Orchestra (what beautiful woodwinds), but it all feels like a huge waste.

For the Fourth Symphony the old (now historic) favorites Mravinsky, Svetlanov, Fricsay, Karajan, and others still hold their ground, while for the full-length Nutcracker one can safely stick with Dorati, Jansons, Rozhdestvensky, and… Gergiev 1998.

Copyright © 2016, 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