I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by Marc Haegeman

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Hilary Hahn’s Mozart and Vieuxtemps

Wolfgang Mozart: Violin Concerto #5 in A Major, K. 219
Henri Vieuxtemps: Violin Concerto #4 in D minor, Op. 31

Hillary Hahn, violin
German Chamber Philharmonic, Bremen/Paavo Järvi
Deutsche Grammophon 4793956

Hilary Hahn plays Mozart and Vieuxtemps

Hilary Hahn plays Mozart and Vieuxtemps

Hilary Hahn never hesitated to bring unusual couplings in her discs. For her most recent Deutsche Grammophon release, combining Mozart’s Fifth Violin Concerto with Vieuxtemps’ Fourth, there is however a simple explanation. As she writes in the liner notes, she became acquainted with both concertos at a significant moment in her career. The Vieuxtemps was the last major piece she studied with Klara Berkovich, who had been her teacher for five years. The Mozart was the first she learned with Jascha Brodsky who had just become her professor for 7 years at the Curtis Institute for Music. Brodsky himself had been taught by Eugène Isaÿe, star-pupil of Vieuxtemps. She was 10 and ever since these works have been pillars of Hahn’s active repertory.

Perhaps it was this lifelong respect for the scores which kept her from giving their full due on disc. I heard Hahn perform the Vieuxtemps Fourth in concert with the Berlin Philharmonic last year and if memory serves well it was a much more exciting performance than the one recorded here in the studio with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen (dating from August 2013). At least in the concert we didn’t have to wait until the final movement before imagination and expressive freedom join the trademark tonal beauty and technical mastery to kick the piece really alive. The preceding Scherzo with its leaden pace is underwhelming.

Paavo Järvi’s accompaniment is detailed but as often with him distant and bland. The Bremen ensemble sounds thin and cannot muster the necessary drama nor these dark tones which the music needs. It suffices to compare with Itzhak Perlman’s recording with the Orchestre de Paris under Daniel Barenboim. But then again they opted for a full-blooded romantic approach, while in Hahn’s case it never becomes clear which way they wanted to go.

The Vieuxtemps Fourth Concerto isn’t recorded much and as Hahn reminds us performing it is for most ensembles a discovery. It could have been a (re)discovery for us as well, but I for one rather stick with the old Perlman and Heifetz recordings.

The Mozart Concerto isn’t a big revelation either. The playing is vivid and attacks are firm (Allegro aperto), yet for somebody this long familiar with the work, in spite of the formal beauty, Hahn stays curiously outside of the music (Adagio). I don’t feel a real common sense of purpose between soloist and conductor. The Joachim cadenza in the first movement is performed with a romantic emphasis which doesn’t connect with the surrounding accompaniment. In the end you end up damning this whole period performance movement and the fallout it had on traditional orchestras. In the old days they might have over-romanticized classics like this, but at least everybody was on the same track.

Copyright © 2015 Marc Haegeman
First published on Classical Net (http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/d/dgg793956b.php)

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Netrebko’s Iolanta

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: Iolanta
Anna Netrebko – Iolanta
Sergey Skorokhodov – Count Vaudémont
Alexey Markov – Robert, Duke of Burgundy
Vitalij Kowaljow – King René
Lucas Meacham – Ibn-Hakia
Monika Bohinec – Martha
Slovenian Chamber Choir
Slovenian Philharmonic Orchestra/Emmanuel Villaume
Recorded Live November 2012
Deutsche Grammophon 4793969 2CDs 68:25+24:41 DDD

Anna Netrebko sings Tchaikovsky's Iolanta

Anna Netrebko sings Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta

On 18 December 1892 the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg premiered a Tchaikovsky double-bill consisting of the one-act opera Iolanta and the ballet The Nutcracker. While the ballet became one of the composer’s most popular works worldwide, Iolanta (or more exactly Yolanda) never gained firm ground outside of Russia. And yet, when you hear an inspired performance of this unconventional opera, like this new live recording with Anna Netrebko in the title role, you realize there is still plenty of light to be gained from obscurity. The Russians, and Netrebko in particular, who is the driving force behind this Iolanta, have known all along that Tchaikovsky’s final opera is a unique gem that craves to be better known. There are some memorable old recordings, including Mstislav Rostropovich with Galina Vishnevskaya and Valery Gergiev with the Kirov and Galina Gorchakova, yet this new one goes right to the top.

This is foremost a magnificent tour de force from Anna Netrebko, shedding off her star status and going for the essence. She deserves all praise for her utterly complete identification with the title role – something which is neither obvious nor easy. Yet the character clearly triggers a special emotional response from Netrebko and every nuance is rendered with disarming sincerity and love. “The music is a source of joy”, as she points out, and we can gladly add so is her singing. This is happy Tchaikovsky for once – although less than a year after the premiere the composer would be dead. But it’s also profound and poetic Tchaikovsky and the simple story of a blind medieval princess regaining her sight through love is musically sublimated by a continuous (and really uplifting) quest from darkness to light.

The remainder of the international cast, as well as the Slovenian Philharmonic Orchestra under the French conductor Emmanuel Villaume, may be totally unknown, but nothing is missing. Sergey Skorokhodov as the knight Vaudémont who falls in love with Iolanta and Alexey Markov as Robert the duke of Burgundy, are excellent singers from the Mariinsky troupe, and there is a remarkable performance by the American baritone Lucas Meacham as Ibn-Hakia, the Moorish physician summoned to cure the princess. Emmanuel Villaume revives this gorgeous score with finesse and detail.

Warmly recommended.

As a closing note, the Paris Opera schedules a staging of the Iolanta/Nutcracker double bill in March 2016, in a new production supervised by Dmitry Tcherniakov. Sonya Yoncheva is cast as Iolanta.

Copyright © 2015, Marc Haegeman

First published on Classical Net: http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/d/dgg793969a.php

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Monumental Schubert from Harnoncourt and the Berliner

Franz Schubert:
Symphony #1 in D Major, D 82
Symphony #2 in B Flat Major, D 125
Symphony #3 in D Major, D 200
Symphony #4 in C minor “Tragic”, D 417
Symphony #5 in B Flat Major, D 485
Symphony #6 in C Major, D 589
Symphony #7 in B minor “Unfinished”, D 759
Symphony #8 in C Major “Great”, D 944
Mass #5 in A Flat Major, D 678 *

Luba Orgonášová, soprano
Birgit Remmert, contralto
Kurt Streit, tenor
Christian Gerhaher, bass
Mass #6 in E Flat Major, D 950 *
Dorothea Röschmann, soprano
Bernarda Fink, contralto
Jonas Kaufmann, tenor
Christian Elsner, tenor
Christian Gerhaher, bass
Alfonso und Estrella, D 732 (Opera in 3 Acts) *
Dorothea Röschmann (Estrella)
Kurt Streit (Alfonso)
Christian Gerhaher (Froila)
Jochen Schmeckenbecher (Mauregato)
Hanno Müller-Brachmann (Adolfo)

* Rundfunkchor Berlin
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Bonus video – Nikolaus Harnoncourt in conversation
Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings BPHR150061 8CD+Blu-ray [Full HD 16:9, Region Code: ABC (worldwide)]

Franz Schubert from Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings

Franz Schubert from Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings

To mark Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s 85th birthday, as much as the successful cooperation between the Austrian conductor and the Berlin Philharmonic during some 25 years, Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings (BPHR), the orchestra’s own label, releases a monumental Schubert box-set, including all the symphonies, two late Masses and the virtually unknown opera Alfonso und Estrella. Recorded in concerts at the Berliner Philharmonie between 2003 and 2006 and spread over eight CDs and one Blu-ray disc, this deluxe edition arrives in a lavish box, designed like last year’s Schumann/Rattle cycle from BPHR as a beautiful but hard-to-store landscape-sized book. (The discs are available separately as well for download on Qobuz in Studio Master quality and on iTunes and Amazon in low-res AAC and MP3.)

The Blu-ray disc contains all the music in PCM 2.0 Stereo 24-bit/48kHz as well as in 5.0 DTS-HD Master Audio (24-bit/48kHz), plus a 38-minute interview with the conductor (from 2014) about his passion for Schubert and his work with the Berliner. The box also offers a code for free download of the high resolution audio files of the whole edition and a seven-day ticket for the Digital Concert Hall, the Berliner’s video streaming venue. A 104-page book (in German and English) guides the listener through the music with articles, commentary from Harnoncourt, and the libretto of the opera and the masses texts.

The trouble, so to speak, for this new Schubert edition is that Nikolaus Harnoncourt already left us an outstanding, hard-to-beat Schubert Symphonies cycle with the Royal Concertgebouw Amsterdam back in 1992 (on Warner/Teldec, now available as a bargain box-set of four CDs). Needless to say, Harnoncourt’s insightful style, the incisive combination of timbres and vibrant textural analysis of the music, and above all his understanding of Schubert’s particular Viennese lyricism, remain in a class of their own. Harnoncourt sees the confrontation of the dancelike vitality with the sense of grief and ever-present nearness of death, a reflection of the so-called Viennese ‘joie de vivre’ at the edge of the grave, as the principal expressive level in Schubert’s music. The extraordinary array of dynamic inflections, harmonic shifts and energized rhythms he reveals prove hugely original and place even the earliest symphonies, often disparaged when seen from the perspective of the famous two last ones, on a higher level. Moreover, the Berliners have throughout the years just as successfully as their colleagues from the Concertgebouw adapted to Harnoncourt’s approach, especially in a time when historical performance practice was anything but taken for granted by a conventional formation.

Still, there is no denying that Harnoncourt is overall less consistent and persuasive in the new Berlin set. The message of sadness is hammered home a bit too emphatically. Take the lovely Andante of the First Symphony which in Amsterdam delicately changed its prevalent poetic mood by alternating major and minor tonalities, becomes in Berlin a pretty anguished piece from start to finish. The sound has somewhat thickened too (although the recording and venue might be partly to blame) and above all the natural flow which was quite miraculously handled in the older recordings is now more often sacrificed to mannered phrasing and tempo shifts (the Scherzo of the “Great” C Major is a prime example). In some cases the balances between movements as well as inside the movements themselves were better judged in the Amsterdam traversal. There are first-rate renditions of the Fourth and Sixth symphonies, but Harnoncourt’s tempi frequently slowed down – as for example in the Menuetti of the Second and Fifth symphonies, sounding weightier in their Allegro sections and blurring the contrast with the respective Trios. More worrying is however the ultra-slow “Unfinished” (the Allegro moderato runs 2:20 min longer than in Amsterdam) and while Harnoncourt knows better than anybody how to defend his approach, the ponderous and massive pre-Brucknerian quality he suggests here won’t be to everybody’s taste. The two first movements of the C Major (called here the Eighth as Harnoncourt uses the New Schubert Edition) no longer flow as easily either with over-emphasized accents and moments of indulgence – and truth be told the Berlin woodwinds and brass are simply outgunned here by their Dutch colleagues in sheer character. Climaxes are more theatrical but less subtle (as in the Allegro ma non troppo of the opening movement). The Finale is excitingly driven, but all in all the older Concertgebouw “Great” C Major remains preferable.

The two last Masses are definitely worth having and performed here with tremendous dramatic fervor and a genuine sense of awe. These are extraordinary works, most likely composed out of impulse, according to the conductor even as efforts to come to terms with death – once you heard the dark-colored sonorities of the Kyrie of the E-flat Major, you’ll understand what he means. Harnoncourt’s transposition of period manners into a traditional environment worked tremendously well here and succeeds in bringing out the originality of much of the writing, combining incisive choral singing, superb orchestral parts – and some remarkable solo singing from Dorothea Röschmann, Jonas Kaufmann and Christian Elsner in the et incarnatus est and the Benedictus of the 6th Mass.

Equally rewarding is Schubert’s 1822 opera Alfonso und Estrella, which never found a place in the repertory (and was actually premiered by Franz Liszt in 1854 as an “act of reverence”). Unconventionally written, a reaction against the standard Italian opera pattern which ruled Vienna at the time, Alfonso und Estrella may be hard to stage in the theatre but on disc it’s foremost a small treasure trove of melodic invention, while Harnoncourt makes the utmost of the orchestration. It’s well sung, too, although Jonas Kaufmann would have been preferable to Kurt Streit in the role of Alfonso.

The Berlin Philharmonic offers playing of warmth and virtuosity yet is not particularly well served by the recording, which lack presence, bite and naturalness of timbre. In this respect, too, the older Teldec box remains unsurpassed.

Bottom line is that no real Schubert enthusiast will probably want to be without this box, even if it is something of a mixed blessing when it comes to the Symphonies. Those in possession of the older Concertgebouw set needn’t put that one too far away. Remakes of complete symphonies cycles are apparently much like movie remakes; they are only very rarely better than the original attempt.

Copyright © 2015, Marc Haegeman

First published on Classical Net: http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/b/bpr50061a.php