I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by Marc Haegeman

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Tchaikovsky Festival in Brussels

Pyotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky:
The Voyevoda, Op. 78
Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35
Symphony #6 in B minor “Pathétique”, Op. 74

Vadim Gluzman, violin
Belgian National Orchestra/Andrey Boreyko
Brussels, Centre for Fine Arts, 22 March 2015

For four days the Belgian National Orchestra (BNO) and their music director Andrey Boreyko paid homage to Pyotr Tchaikovsky. The choice of works in this mini-festival may have been limited but was nonetheless select, with two programs featuring the rarely heard symphonic ballad The Voyevoda, the Violin Concerto, and either the Suite No. 3 or the Sixth Symphony.

At the Brussels concert that I attended ending with the Pathétique Symphony, the highlight was once again the performance of the Violin Concerto. After Janine Jansen, not even three weeks ago, it was Ukrainian-born Israeli Vadim Gluzman who treated the audience in the Centre for Fine Arts to an extraordinary reading of this concerto. It’s great to hear that so many artists of the younger generations can find such fresh and interesting angles on an old warhorse like this. Less emphatic than Jansen, but no less compelling by his tonal beauty and superb intonation, genuine lyricism and natural bravura, Gluzman owns the secret to astonish without forcing anything. He had already received enthusiastic applause after the first movement before a lovingly shaped and subtly touching Canzonetta, topped by an excitingly driven Finale readily brought the house down. Andrey Boreyko was a very attentive and careful accompanist, even if the beguiling spectrum of color and warmth that Gluzman conjured from his instrument wasn’t always matched by the orchestra. Interestingly, Gluzman plays the Stradivarius owned by the dedicatee of Tchaikovsky’s concerto, Leopold Auer – who, as is well known, refused to perform it at first, but eventually did with his own alterations. A stunning instrument, played by a stunning artist.

The Voyevoda had in the opening pages plenty of thrust and a finely shaped middle section. Color and transparency are key in this fascinating late-Tchaikovsky score and at first it sounded that Boreyko was going to reveal plenty of unheard orchestral details. In fact, much of these “discoveries” resulted from a balance that favored woodwinds and brass. The slightly smaller than usual body of strings (anchored on only 6 basses) was frequently found at a disadvantage in both The Voyevoda and the symphony. (I never thought of The Voyevoda as a concerto for bass clarinet, but here we came close.) During softer passages there was plenty to enjoy with the BNO in good form and Boreyko paying attention to Tchaikovsky’s string textures. Yet as soon as more sections joined in, the winds began to dominate the sound picture and when the brass and percussion followed suit, the balance was often totally lost. Tutti were loud and harsh, and trombones and tuba sounded like an extra added section, rather than an integrated part of the ensemble. It may have been the sonority that Boreyko wanted, but it threw a lot of the composer’s careful dynamic and tempo indications overboard, and that’s seldom a good idea.

The recently heard Mikhail Pletnev with the Russian National Orchestra also paid a lot of attention to woodwinds and brass, but in their case the balance was wholly convincing, not to mention the special sonority of the Russian winds which makes the instruments of the Belgian orchestra sound rather indifferent, no matter how well played.

Boreyko’s traversal of Tchaikovsky’s final symphony, dark and unsentimental, packed quite a punch, although it was more outwardly spectacular than genuinely moving: generally well-paced (except for a lumbering third movement), very detailed, and underpinned by dark colors but also startling, sometimes grotesque sonic effects. It wasn’t the most subtle reading though, nor the most consistent. As said, the orchestral balance remained an issue and maestro Boreyko was more than once taking cue from his own musical instincts rather than from the composer’s. The changing climates of the first movement were fluently conducted, the development was exciting until the brass went all over the place in the climax, not to mention that the return of the principal theme marked Andante come prima was flawed by the loud entrance of the orchestra which ignored the “con dolcezza” notation. Winds and horns obscured the string lines in an otherwise agreeable Waltz, where the softer passages did hint at a deft handling of light and darkness. There was a long burst of applause after the third movement, although it was for my money the least convincing of all, ending in a rather demonstrative sonic explosion from percussion and brass. The Finale built up to harrowing climaxes, expressing rage rather than acceptance of fate. The bassoons and the stopped horns created brilliant effects, but there were also slips in the ensemble and unfortunately the closing pages took off too loud again for the final descent into oblivion.

A Belgian orchestra paying tribute to Tchaikovsky is far from obvious. A few bumps along the way are unavoidable, yet eventually this mini-Tchaikovsky festival stressed the music’s timeless appeal and had a revelatory performance from Vadim Gluzman to boast. And that’s no minor achievement.

Copyright © 2015, Marc Haegeman

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If love could be

Sergei Prokofieff: Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64
Musica Aeterna/Teodor Currentzis
Brussels, Centre for Fine Arts, 15 March 2015

Ballet music is occasionally programmed in concert halls, in the form of a suite or selection of fragments. Full-length ballets are understandably much rarer, yet the ones that are able to survive the absence of stage action can in the right hands become spellbinding experiences. This is exactly what happened with a concert performance of Sergei Prokofieff’s 1935 Romeo and Juliet by Musica Aeterna under Teodor Currentzis. Offering under the title “If love could be” a fortnight of music events focused on the themes of passion and love, this year’s Klara Festival – the only annual broadcasting festival in Belgium – couldn’t overlook Shakespeare’s famous star-crossed lovers. But nonetheless to have the complete Prokofieff ballet music in the concert hall was still something of a miracle.

Teodor Currentzis (photo Sander Buyck)

Teodor Currentzis (photo Sander Buyck)

Teodor Currentzis is artistic director of the Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre and of the Musica Aeterna ensemble which he formed in 2004 and currently resides in Perm as the theatre’s main orchestra. The Greek-born maestro studied in Athens and completed his formation as conductor at the St. Petersburg Conservatory with the famous Ilya Musin, teacher of among others Valery Gergiev and Semyon Bychkov. By all accounts a controversial personality, Currentzis has been dividing opinions as much by his conducting, as by his at times provocative statements and very Russian-styled manner of self-promotion. Be that as it may, his traversal of Prokofieff’s Romeo and Juliet at the Brussels Centre for Fine Arts was a real stunner.

To see him conduct his Musica Aeterna is already something of an experience. Anyone missing the dancers on stage? Currentzis replaced it with a bit of theatre of his own. A long lanky figure, hair in a tail, he is more rock star than maestro and you could hear people gasp the moment he entered the auditorium; a very Liszt-like persona in fact, half charmer, half demon – and by his attire, partly priest as well. Currentzis conducts without baton, but wildly waving his arms, hissing, tapping his feet, dancing and jumping, he seems to think he needs his whole body to draw the music out of his ensemble. It’s thankfully more than just cocky posturing and this performance proved amply that Currentzis not only has a complete understanding of this score, he also knows how to get exactly what he wants from his orchestra.

The 100 or so musicians of Musica Aeterna responded as one, playing as if their lives depended on it. That they were standing for the whole concert (only the cello players were seated) seemed to sharpen their focus. It was a sight to behold and you will be hard-pressed to find such collective fervor, dedication and joy at making music. Musica Aeterna boasts some excellent soloists too: all desk leaders of the string sections delivered magnificent solos, the first clarinet was outstanding, as was the first horn. The brass was as punchy and biting as you could wish for this music, and with the percussion clearly able to raise the dead. The strings proved a wonderfully flexible group, with Currentzis taking extra care of the polyphony of Prokofieff’s writing, revealing plenty of details in the orchestration hardly noticeable when played from the theatre pit.

The ballet came vividly alive with a great feel for theatricality, correct characterizations (even if Juliet seemed a very hot-tempered teenager during her first appearance), and without any fear of exaggeration. Taking no prisoners, Currentzis pushed dynamic contrasts to extremes and conjured the most improbable shades and colors from his orchestra, hijacking the listener for about two hours in an emotional rollercoaster.

The score was as good as complete. Currentzis cut the opening scene of Romeo (#2) after the Introduction, a few dances on the market in Act 2 as well as the second scene at Friar Laurence’s (#28), and replaced Juliet’s variation at the ball (#14) with the Morning Serenade (#48) – something which can only be explained by theatrical practice. Still, nothing essential was missing. It was played in two parts, with the interval occurring between Acts 2 and 3. This allowed Currentzis to treat each half as a continuous dramatic arch, building gradually in intensity and culminating each time in stark tragedy – the death of Tybalt in the first part, the suicide of the two lovers in the second. Musically as well as dramatically this made perfect sense as Prokofieff kept some of his most devastating music for these scenes – and Currentzis and his orchestra made sure we wouldn’t forget them that easily.

Played practically without any breaks between the numbers, as in a theatrical performance, the music gained tremendous sweep. Several scenes along the way knocked you out of your seat – the Dance of the Knights never sounded more threateningly arrogant and the two fortissimo chords of the Prince’s decree (repeated at the start of Act 3) were powerful enough to keep anyone mesmerized for the rest of the concert. Tempi were often on the fast side, but Currentzis knew when and how to slow down as in the beautifully played Madrigal offering a tender evocation of beginning love, or the comforting familiarity of friar Laurence depicted by warm cellos. The Balcony Scene, too, was lushly romantic and erupted in full-blooded passion, while the Bedroom duet breathed a sense of coming doom. The street brawls were particularly violent and the crowd scenes feted in vibrant colors.

Some minor slips notwithstanding (like the rhythmically blurred Dance with mandolins or the too prominent lower brass here and there) this was a mind-blowing performance which immediately shoots towards the top of the most memorable concerts I have attended in some time. And do we need better proof than this that ballet music of this caliber can stand on its own? Brilliant!

Copyright © 2015, Marc Haegeman

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The Sound of Bohemia

Bedřich Smetana: Moldau (Vltava) from “Ma Vlast”
Antonín Dvořák: Symphony #9 in E minor “From the New World”, Op. 95
Leoš Janáček: Sinfonietta

Anima Eterna Brugge/Jos van Immerseel
Bruges, Concertgebouw, 13 March 2015

Jos van Immerseel and Anima Eterna Brugge have long since gone beyond exploring the Baroque and Classical eras. Their “historically aware” performances from the last fifteen years now range from Monteverdi to Gershwin. Based on the use and implementation of historically accurate instruments and performance techniques, as well as extensive and critical archival research, their projects have often warranted a fascinating, at times revelatory rediscovery of familiar scores. Their current “Sound of Bohemia” heard at a concert in Bruges focuses on the three most significant Czech composers – Smetana, Dvořák and Janáček – and covers a time span of roughly fifty years. All three are presented with one of their most popular works: The Moldau (1874), the Ninth Symphony “From the New World” (1893), and the Sinfonietta (1926).
Read the full review on Classical Net

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Natalia Osipova in Giselle

Adolphe Adam: Giselle
Natalia Osipova – Giselle
Carlos Acosta – Count Albrecht
Thomas Whitehead – Hilarion
Johannes Stepanek – Wilfred
Christopher Saunders – The Duke of Courland
Christina Arestis – Bathilde
Hikaru Kobayashi – Myrthe
Elizabeth Harrod – Moyna
Akane Takada – Zulme
Artists of the Royal Ballet
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Boris Gruzin
Music revised by Joseph Horovitz
Choreography by Marius Petipa after Jean Coralli & Jules Perrot
Production & additional choreography by Peter Wright
Opus Arte Blu-ray OABD7151D 113m (+features 10m) LPCM DTS-HD Master Audio

Giselle - Royal Ballet

Giselle – Royal Ballet

This is the second video release of the famous Romantic classic Giselle by the Royal Ballet in less than ten years time. Not that you will hear anybody complain as this new Opus Arte disc features Natalia Osipova in the title role, and her performance is just as treasurable as the earlier one of Alina Cojocaru. Russian Osipova is one of the most significant dancers to emerge in the last decade. She started her career at Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet and is now firmly established in the international dance circuit. She took many by surprise when she decided to join London’s Royal Ballet in 2013.
Read the full review on Classical Net

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Janine Jansen’s Tchaikovsky

Paul Dukas: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
Pyotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35
Robert Schumann: Symphony #4 in D minor, Op. 120

Janine Jansen, violin
Orchestra dell’ Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Rome/Antonio Pappano
Brussels, Centre for Fine Arts, 4 March 2015

It was a packed and enthusiastic Centre for Fine Arts that greeted Sir Antonio Pappano, leading his Roman Orchestra della Santa Cecilia. Their visit guaranteed a notable Italian presence but of course music lovers in Brussels also fondly remember the glory days of the Monnaie Opera when Pappano headed it for some ten years before moving to London’s Royal Opera House in 2002. As it turned out, however, this evening it was Dutch violinist Janine Jansen who quickly became the focal point, delivering the most remarkable performance in an otherwise unremarkable concert.
Read the full review on Classical Net