I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by 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