I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by Marc Haegeman


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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)


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The Royal Ballet’s “La fille mal gardée”

Ferdinand Hérold: La fille mal gardée (The Wayward Daughter)

  • Natalia Osipova – Lise
  • Steven McRae – Colas
  • Philip Mosley – Widow Simone
  • Christopher Saunders – Thomas
  • Paul Kay – Alain

Artists of the Royal Ballet
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Barry Wordsworth
Choreography by Frederick Ashton
Music by Ferdinand Hérold arranged and orchestrated by John Lanchbery
Opus Arte Blu-ray OABD7187D 110m (+features 14m) LPCM Stereo DTS-HD Master Audio

fillemalgardeeThis is the third video release from the Royal Ballet in less than two years featuring Natalia Osipova. Following Giselle (Opus Arte Blu-ray OABD7151D) and Swan Lake (Opus Arte Blu-ray OABD7174D), the Russian ballerina now heads a fine cast in Frederick Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée and this is by far the most successful of the three titles. Incidentally, as was the case with Swan Lake, the Royal Ballet’s La Fille mal gardée performed by Marianela Nunez and Carlos Acosta was released on video by Opus Arte not even ten years ago. The company clearly believes in the drawing power of their Russian star and suggests box-office successes are transferrable to home video.

Ashton’s 1960 La Fille mal gardée (or The Wayward Daughter ) is of course one of the evergreen gems from the Royal Ballet repertoire. Based on a much older French comedy ballet by Jean Dauberval which dated from the French Revolution, with Fille mal gardée Ashton delivered not only an irresistibly charming and jolly essay on beginning love, he also gave English ballet a face.

The current revival of the original production, with the lovely designs from Osbert Lancaster, is wholly respectful and appropriate. The ballet clearly ages well and it’s a delight to see how the company continues to enjoy and illuminate every step and action. Principals Natalia Osipova and Steven McRae are terrific and attractive dancers, relishing Ashton’s technical challenges just as much as the manifold comical situations. Temperamentally and stylistically they come from a different stock, and some scenes look just a tad too studied, but don’t let this spoil your pleasure: this is classical ballet at its most enchanting. Ballet lovers who already own the previous Fille ma gardée needn’t worry, the dancers are so much different one can easily have both.

Barry Wordsworth proves a reliable guide for the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House in Ferdinand Hérold’s score, arranged and orchestrated by John Lanchbery. To make the feast complete, and another reason to own this new video, image and sound quality are topnotch in this Opus Arte release. Filmed live at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in May 2015, Ross MacGibbon delivers another expertly filmed ballet.

As has become a good habit in the Royal Opera House series from Opus Arte, some fifteen min of extras are included on the Blu-ray. The main dancers are seen chatting about their roles, and more interestingly, Lesley Collier, one of the best interpreters of the ballet of recent times and now coaching Osipova, reminisces about her own work with Frederick Ashton in the 1970’s.

Highly recommended for all old, and young, ballet lovers.

Copyright © 2016, Marc Haegeman

First published on Classical Net: http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/o/opu07187blua.php


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Italian tribute

Sergei Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43
Ottorino Respighi: Fountains of Rome, Pines of Rome, Roman Festivals

Lise de la Salle, piano
London Symphony Orchestra/Antonio Pappano
London, Barbican Hall, 31 January 2016

Two 20th-century composers, Rachmaninoff and Respighi, who by and large preferred to stay away from the atonal modernism of many of their contemporaries, formed the attractive pairing in this concert of the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) under Antonio Pappano. The subject was Italy, whether in Rachmaninoff’s tribute to the Italian violin virtuoso Paganini, or in the fascination of Respighi with the Italian capital.

French pianist Lise de la Salle replaced at short notice the injured Alice Sara Ott in Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. There was much to admire in her pianism even if ampler rehearsal time would undoubtedly have resulted in a more finished performance. Granted, Pappano didn’t make things easy. By his edgy, incisive and hard-driven yet precise approach he immediately made it clear this was a no prisoners event. It took De la Salle a while to settle the balance with the orchestra (she was drowned out in the opening pages) and make it clear she had something to say as well. Her steely fingers ran with admirable speed and articulation through the faster passages. At best it sounded as if soloist and conductor were sparking each other off, although her playing lacked shading and the power and excitement in the latter half of the piece all too often turned into breathlessness. Eventually it were the more introspective variations, where De la Salle’s piano blended with the superb contributions from the LSO soloists, that best demonstrated her musicality. Pappano’s sense of theatre was unfortunately heard at its worst in one of the schmaltziest eruptions in the famous 18th variation I have heard in a long time.

Ottorino Respighi’s three symphonic poems about Rome, composed between 1916 and 1928, weren’t meant to be heard in sequence and it takes some adjustment when doing so in order to avoid aural overkill. Maestro Pappano, whose affection for the music is not a secret, announced he would perform the trilogy in a different order than programmed. Instead of the chronological order he opened with Roman Festivals to conclude with Pines of Rome. To be sure, this setup makes for a more balanced evocation and moreover it allows ending the concert with the irresistible Appian Way march.

While Pappano’s traversal wasn’t without its weaker moments, the LSO was in stunning form throughout, including superb solos from all desks, a rock-solid ensemble, and a quite astonishing transparency in even the most demanding passages. This is spectacular music, but it takes a spectacularly gifted orchestra to tackle it with such jaw-dropping precision, panache and aplomb. And the LSO offered that in spades.

The colorful extravaganzas of Roman society and history were hammered home without any fear of excess or exaggeration by Pappano. Yet this was overall more Fellini’s Rome than Corot’s. Pappano’s heady approach worked best in the Festivals and the Pines of Rome, yet less so in the subtler moments of Fountains. Colors generously splashed all over the Barbican and while Respighi’s aural orgies knocked you out of your seat (as in the Circuses and the Epiphany), eventually I felt Pappano was leaning too much towards a loudness contest, at times sacrificing evocation to the purely demonstrative.

The Fountain of the Valle Giulia at Dawn opening the Fountains started too loud and was in spite of the superb strings and winds playing short on atmosphere. Pappano jumped dynamic markings again in the Triton Fountain by having the horn blasts as loud as the following rush of water. Trevi, too, was uniformly loud, without the surging crescendo, but the closing pages of the Villa Medici at Sunset acquired a feel of ravishing serenity.

In The Pines of Rome one had to admire the orchestral playing in the well-characterized Catacombs and the nocturnal evocation of the Janiculum (magnificent clarinet from Chris Richards), just as much as the very noisy cavorting kids in the Villa Borghese gardens or the deafening steamroller that flattened in a go for broke crescendo the Via Appia, adding superbly realized offstage brass. After all, this was more than anything the LSO’s night. At the end of this concert they could confidently say, paraphrasing the popular Roman line: “Make way, we are the LSO!”

Copyright © 2016, Marc Haegeman

First published on Classical Net  (http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/haegeman/20160131-delasalle-lso-pappano.php)


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The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Brussels

Richard Wagner: Tristan and Isolde – Prelude and Liebestod
Ingvar Lidholm: Poesis
Antonín Dvořák: Symphony #9 in E minor “From the New World”, Op. 95

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Herbert Blomstedt
Brussels, Centre for Fine Arts, 22 January 2016

This concert of Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (RCO) at the Brussels Center for Fine Arts marked the inauguration of the Dutch presidency of the Council of the European Union. A feisty event, attended by both the Dutch and Belgian royal couples and a host of excellencies – which accounted for an impossibly 30 minutes late start, but also proved for a city still in the throes of terrorist activity aimed at our way of life, that things can be normal after all.

And what better way is there to escape from grim-visaged reality than a concert with great music that sublimates our cultural achievements? The RCO was conducted by the veteran Swedish maestro Herbert Blomstedt. At 88 years and 7 months Blomstedt is, incidentally, the oldest guest conductor in the history of the orchestra, even surpassing the legendary Pierre Monteux who was “only” 88 and 4 months. Not that anybody would have been aware of this, because the vivid and impish personality of the Swede totally belied his age just as much as his music making. Conducting without a baton, and for most of the concert, from memory, Blomstedt offered a finely contrasting program with two popular works, Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde and Dvořák’s “From the New World”, framing a modern rarity (although “modern” here is already well over 50 years old too) Poesis from the Swedish composer Ingvar Lidholm (b. 1921).

From the opening Tristan it became clear that while Blomstedt would treat us generously to the beauty of the RCO – and he knows more than anybody to use that beauty in a constructive way – he would also keep everything solidly under control. One can imagine a more emotional Wagner, or indeed a more immediately dramatic one, yet Blomstedt capitalized fully on the silken strings and the mellow woodwinds of the RCO to let the lyricism of Tristan speak with unforced eloquence in some breathtaking crescendos.

While the orchestra was being rearranged, Blomstedt undeterred by the presence of royalty, picked up a microphone and introduced, in an often hilarious manner – vocal imitations and his familiar reference to mushrooms haphazardly growing in the forest and all – Ingvar Lidholm’s piece Poesis. Composed for the 50th anniversary of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic in 1963 and premiered by Blomstedt the following year, its experimental and seemingly chaotic modernity stood in stark contrast to the melodious, organized world of the preceding Wagner. Poesis remains a striking 20-minute sonic exploration, with startling crescendos and virtuosic solos, often challenging the orchestra to extremes and creating sound in unconventional ways, like dropping the lid prop of the piano or rustling sandpaper. Blomstedt clearly adores the work and just as in Tristan he was able to inspire the RCO musicians to sound their best. In the end, Poesis was a great deal of fun, with in particular superb solo passages from piano (Jeroen Bal), double bass and percussion.

Dvořák’s Ninth received an elegant but powerful, and often stunningly beautiful reading. Tempi were well-judged throughout, dynamics were controlled, yet if there was an emotion that Blomstedt was willing to share it seems to have been one of joy. I don’t recall hearing such an optimistic, sunny reading of the opening Allegro molto with lightly sprung rhythms, delicate textures and deft phrasing. Even the Largo, swiftly but attractively played, didn’t linger too much on melancholy or longing. This was mostly happy Dvořák, the “New World” symphony as a masterful continuation of In Nature’s Realm, admiring nature in all its richness of color and tones. The closing movement, with irresistible drive, was a logical culmination of joy. And how many times can you hear such a tight ensemble, such well-judged orchestral balance and transparency, and such colorful instrumentalists? The RCO brass, particularly the horns, were simply glorious.

The audience greeted orchestra and conductor with a well-deserved standing ovation. Blomstedt offered a Slavonic dance in return, naturally one of the most lifting ones, the fast Op. 46/1 in C Major. The RCO is a fabulous orchestra as Blomstedt was readily reminding us. He sent us home with a big smile, and what more can one ask, even if deep down we realized that this orchestra has even more in store than we were given tonight.

Copyright © 2016, Marc Haegeman

First published on Classical Net  (http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/haegeman/20160122-brussels-rco-blomstedt.php)


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Haitink’s Schumann

Robert Schumann:
Symphony #1 in B-Flat Major, Op. 38 (Spring)
Cello Concerto in A Minor, Op. 129 *
Symphony #4 in D Minor, Op. 120 (1851 version)

Overture “Manfred”, Op. 115
Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 54 **
Symphony #2 in C Major, Op. 61

* Gautier Capuçon, cello
** Murray Perahia, piano
Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Bernard Haitink
Concertgebouw Amsterdam, 13 & 15 November 2015

This year’s composer mini-festival from Bernard Haitink and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (COE) in Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw focused on Robert Schumann. In three concerts the Dutch maestro conducted Schumann’s four Symphonies and the Overture “Manfred”, as well as his Violin, Cello and Piano Concertos. I attended two of the evenings, leaving quite convinced that some conductors are definitely like great wines – they get better with age – and Haitink (86), who recently received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Gramophone Magazine, clearly wears that quality label. Distinguished soloists joined him for the concertos – on the evenings I saw, Gautier Capuçon for the Cello concerto and Murray Perahia for the Piano concerto. The harvest just doesn’t get any better than that.

In the Indian Summer of his long career Haitink has been rethinking his readings of the great symphonic repertoire. When you listen to his Schumann Symphonies traversal with the Royal Concertgebouw from some three decades ago there is no doubt this composer has also received a significant revamp in Haitink’s mind. The orchestral forces are now much smaller of course, but this Schumann new-style sounds utterly vivid, light and colorful, skillfully balancing energy with melodic eloquence. And far from mellowing with age, Haitink’s Schumann has become edgier, riskier and often dramatically more intense. The period-performance movement evidently has left its mark and while the characteristic Haitink qualities are still in place – like this unerring sense of musical structure, the spot-on gravitas, and warm sonority – the overall blend is more compelling than ever. Schumann himself appears as more complex and less predictable, more human in fact. The often heard criticism of clumsy orchestration is once again proven unjustified.

Bernard Haitink conducts Schumann

Bernard Haitink conducts Schumann

In the COE Haitink has found the ideal partner to bring these new insights to life. Orchestra and conductor worked together for years and it’s very obvious why Haitink called the ensemble “the greatest gift in the later stages of my career”. The evident chemistry between them was crystal-clear in these Amsterdam concerts by the responsiveness, alacrity and joy of the musicians. The maximum impact was achieved with the slightest of means. Haitink conducted everything with the score, always attentive to details and keeping everything under control with the smallest of motions.

It was great to hear how the individuality of each of the symphonies was characterized sonically, but also by a keen understanding of their internal logic. From the unbridled enthusiasm expressed in the First and also the Fourth Symphony (the latter performed in its 1851 reworking) with their transparent and limpid sound, to the struggling mood of the Second, brimming with excitement but also darkened by threatening intrusions. It made me regret I wasn’t able to hear them perform the “Rhenish”.

The orchestral balance was impeccable, but also slightly different, quite logically, from piece to piece. The antiphonally placed strings were a constant joy (perhaps nowhere more so than in the multilayered canvas of the Larghetto of the First Symphony and the hard-driven Allegro molto vivace of the Second). The woodwinds, first oboe and first clarinet especially, were no less impressive. The horns were fine, too, but I felt somewhat underwhelmed by the remainder of the brass sections, not always that focused or powerful. Timpanist John Chimes was however ever-reliable and clearly had his moment of glory in the Second Symphony.

Both the First and Fourth Symphonies were given superb readings, yet it was the Second which left the strongest impression. After a slightly hesitant introduction, Haitink unleashed the symphony with a passionate urgency virtually spanning the whole work in one single breath and leading towards an exhilarating, triumphant finale. Tempos were swifter than notated, the beautiful Adagio espressivo was fluent, but in effect this was one of the most convincing performances of a Schumann symphony I have heard recently: it had all the characteristics of the new manner, vivacious and transparent, but unlike most it retained its old-style grandeur and impact. The Haitink magic at its best.

Both soloists in the concertos were entirely on the same track with Haitink. Schumann’s Cello concerto is not an easy work to tackle in concert, parts of it are densely string-scored, yet French cellist Gautier Capuçon made a very strong case for it. All tonal refinement and unforced eloquence, Capuçon was even more remarkable by blending naturally within the orchestra, yet at the same time leaving no doubt he was the prime voice. Starting as if in an improvisatory manner, he captured the contrasting moods of Schumann’s inspiration – now determined then delicate – with exquisite taste and sensitivity.

Haitink also created a strong bond with pianist Murray Perahia throughout the years and seeing them together again at this stage of their careers was a moving experience indeed. Both musicians seem to feel each other instinctively and a more unified sense of purpose on a concert podium would be hard to find. Interestingly, Perahia (68) hasn’t softened with age either and the disarming naturalness of his earlier performances, including this concerto, has in places become more agitated and volatile, which frankly I don’t mind at all in Schumann. Especially when Perahia’s distinctive luminous, warm and silky tone and his crystalline articulation remain undiminished, and just as much in the fast passages as in the more meditative ones. The Piano concerto is one of Schumann’s most popular works but with artists of the caliber it continues to surprise.

The final evening featuring the Piano concerto and the C Major Symphony, opened with a fiercely dramatic account of the Overture “Manfred” and was dedicated to the victims of the terrorist attacks in Paris two days earlier. Orchestra leader Lorenza Borrani appropriately asked for a moment of silence at the beginning of the concert, but it was just as much the message of hope and strength that Haitink and the COE revealed with Schumann’s music that sent us home in a positive mood.

For Bernard Haitink this Schumann run was also a major personal triumph. The concerts were received with long standing ovations. He is Amsterdam’s local hero of course, but he deserves every bit of it. This was glorious music-making from a grand old master. Long may he continue.

Copyright © 2015, Marc Haegeman
First published on Classical Net (http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/haegeman/2015111315-schumann-fest-amsterdam-haitink.php)