I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by Marc Haegeman


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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)


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In old Napoli

Edvard Helsted, H.S. Paulli, H.C. Lumbye and Louise Alenius: Napoli
Alban Lendorf – Gennaro
Alexandra Lo Sardo – Teresina
Benjamin Buza – Golfo
Lis Jeppesen – Veronica
Alba Nadal – Giovanina
Mette Bødtcher – Flora
Jean-Lucien Massot – Peppo
Artists of the Royal Danish Ballet
Det Kongelige Kapel/Graham Bond
Choreography by Sorella Englund, Nikolaj Hübbe after August Bournonville
Opus Arte Blu-ray OABD7185D 105m Widescreen LPCM Stereo DTS HD Master Audio

Napoli

Napoli

Although the Royal Danish Ballet is one of the most prestigious and beloved companies worldwide, it has so far been largely overlooked by video producers. Centered around the repertoire of choreographer and ballet master August Bournonville the Danes preserve a cultural heritage unique in the world, begging to be preserved and shared on film. This new release on blu-ray and DVD by Opus Arte of the Bournonville classic Napoli carried all the promises of a step in the right direction. However, after seeing this video, I felt strongly tempted to paraphrase the old Bard, because clearly, all is not well yet in the state of Denmark.

This being more than anything the age that requires immediate social relevance for every public action and questions everything which has long been taken for granted, the hallowed 19th-century repertoire of Bournonville is now no longer safe from more or less drastic reinterpretations and interventions either. All very fine and large, yet the trouble is when tampering with a tradition that has been solidified for generations, you need to know very well what you are doing, what to change and what best to leave untouched, unless you want to end up with a caricature or a hack job, and had better start something entirely new. This new version of the romantic Bournonville ballet Napoli (originally dating from 1842) by Nikolaj Hübbe and Sorella Englund is neither, but still fails in the sense that it lacks the necessary authority and direction to fully support its claims as a theatrically viable alternative.

Originally a love story between a fisherman Gennaro and his girl Teresina set in the then beloved exotic locale of early 19th-century Naples, the ballet is brought forward to the 1950s in a Fellini-like setup – no more cute and lovely activity, but raw verismo with mafia references, bubblegum munching prostitutes and spaghetti sauce stains on the apron of the macaroni seller. For what it’s worth, this update is more amusing than really significant. Less convincing, however, is that the producers choose to erase the crucial religious element which was in Bournonville’s vision the cornerstone of the original story. Hübbe replaces it with love, but that’s not really enough. And even less convincing is that as a result of all the meddling Napoli now looks like a collection of three unrelated episodes. Crucial dramatic moments in the story (such as the drowning of Teresina and her miraculous reappearance) are confusingly staged or miss theatrical impact. Checking the synopsis in the booklet doesn’t help because you don’t see what you read. The second Act depicting Teresina in the sea was re-choreographed, with a newly commissioned score from the Danish composer Louise Alenius (° 1978) (something on which this release is bizarrely laconic, except for a brief note on the back of the slipcase) and that may well be the best novelty of the rework, even if dramatically the setup is as watery as the events it’s supposed to portray.

Elaborate new designs from Maja Ravn are visually striking and include some excellent stage effects, but often smother (at least on video) the dance. Even the famous third Act, which is by its feisty Bournonville choreography, gathering the whole company from children to principals on stage in a merry celebration of dance, a national Danish treasure (and remains thankfully largely unchanged in this production), looks boxed in by the obtrusive sets. Yet eventually it’s the filming which reduces this video to a dismal failure.

Shot on the Old Stage of the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen in March 2014 by Uffe Borgwardt and Peter Borgwardt, Napoli goes sadly down like the perfect example of how not to film a ballet. The hyperactive editing chops up bodies and lines in multiple angles, making it virtually impossible to follow the movements, let alone appreciate the larger structures of the choreography. Dancers are shown from all angles, except the right one, the cameras frequently zoom in on bystanders while the main action happens center stage. There is a particularly horrendous floor-level camera on the edge of the stage which distorts anything it captures and is very obviously in the sightline of other cameras.

Visuals are otherwise pretty impressive in the HD format (the close-ups reveal a wealth of details in faces and costumes), but the often bleached whites further hint at a lack of preparation and quality control. Sonics are fine even if they won’t blow you away, and March seems a particularly bad month for bronchial disorders in Denmark. There are no extras and the booklet only provides a synopsis and a short introduction from Hübbe.

All the more a shame because the dancers, especially the young leads Alban Lendorf and Alexandra Lo Sardo, are excellent. Characteristically joined by some of the older company artists like Lis Jeppesen, Mette Bødtcher and Poul-Erik Hesselkilde in mime roles, they all deserve far better than the Borgwardt team is able to give them.

Well performed, but fatally short on charm, clumsily told and abysmally filmed, here is hoping the next release from the Royal Danish Ballet will prove a better showcase of this wonderful company.

Copyright © 2015, Marc Haegeman
First published on Classical Net (http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/o/opu07185blua.php)