I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by Marc Haegeman


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Pure magic from Gustavo Gimeno and the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: The Tempest, Op. 18
Maurice Ravel: Piano concerto in D Major ‘For the left hand’
Dmitry Shostakovich: Piano concerto No. 2 in F Major, Op. 102
Maurice Ravel: Daphnis and Chloé, Suite No. 2

Yuja Wang, piano
Gustavo Gimeno, Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg
Brussels, Centre for Fine Arts (Bozar), 3 June 2019

Two 20th-century piano concertos flanked by two short orchestral works made for an intriguing bit of programming in this concert of the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg (OPL) under their Music Director Gustavo Gimeno. It carried the promise of colour, brilliance and passion with works by Tchaikovsky, Ravel and Shostakovich, and featured super star pianist Yuja Wang as the soloist in both concertos. As the beginning of the orchestra’s European June tour, it turned out to be a highly propitious evening.

Gustavo Gimeno
(© Marco Borggreve)

The opening work was Tchaikovsky’s rarely heard symphonic fantasia after Shakespeare The Tempest, Op. 18, from 1873. The Bozar programme booklet, however, confusingly described at some length a totally different work: The Storm, an overture adapted from Alexander Ostrovsky’s play, which Tchaikovsky composed in 1864 while still a conservatory student. Although The Storm is not without merit, The Tempest is definitely far more rewarding. The opening seascape is one of Tchaikovsky’s most pictorial pages – both Rimsky-Korsakov and Rachmaninov would remember it well – and the ardour of the love theme is comparable to his more famous Romeo and Juliet overture. What the audience eventually thought they heard this evening in the Brussels Centre for Fine Arts, is anybody’s guess, since no correction was provided. In any case, it was clear that most in the packed hall were there for Yuja Wang.

The Tempest is not an easy work to open with and the evocation of the sea was initially somewhat wanting in atmosphere, while the seams between the episodes ideally could have been handled more imaginatively. Yet the quality of the OPL was undeniable and once the storm was unleashed everything fell into place. Gimeno, a calm figure on the rostrum, conducting with a clear beat and a gracefully drawing left hand that is more than a little reminiscent of the late Claudio Abbado, secured a visceral, highly theatrical reading. The storm scene itself, with ferocious brass, battling timpani and bass drum, and shrieking high flutes, contrasted with the full-blooded romance, at first gently sung by the muted cellos but emphatically developed by Gimeno and eventually played with wild abandon. The OPL’s brass excelled once again before the return of the sea theme, now more focused than at the beginning.

Two different piano concertos, Ravel and Shostakovich, two different worlds. They may be short, but to tackle them the same evening is quite a tour de force. Yet piano prodigy Yuja Wang isn’t one to be daunted easily. She has all the technical prowess it takes, and then some, to perform Maurice Ravel’s Piano concerto ‘For the left hand’, but I was left wondering if she also had the right temperament for it. The fortissimo piano entrance was superbly handled, though in spite of all her energy her playing lacked a true savage edge for this pitch dark score and somehow I felt she was outgunned (if not drowned out) by the magnificent orchestra. Ravel gave his orchestra plenty to say in this concerto, and Gimeno and the OPL delivered it all in an admirable manner.

Wang reappeared for Shostakovich’s 2nd Piano concerto after the break. It gave her time to change her dress from midnight blue into white. She also took her time to do so. As with the Ravel she kept the audience waiting for long minutes to arrive on stage. It’s all part of the Yuja show and just like the mechanical bows and the applause-milking, these diva manners don’t necessarily make her a more attractive performer. Not that many cared, I assume, clearly in thrall to her talent. They came here to be dazzled and have a good time, and to be sure, nobody left the hall indifferently.

Shostakovich’s generally upbeat concerto, written as a present for his son’s 19th birthday in 1957, suited her better than the Ravel. The opening Allegro was tremendously exciting and jolly good fun. Soloist and orchestra seemed to spark each other off and the lean orchestration gave Wang’s piano more breathing space. Rhythmically secure, orchestra and soloist worked up to an exhilarating first movement. Wang relished the jaunty finale with astonishing speed as well as clarity, although the bittersweet Andante felt a tad cool and uninvolved.

After eking out the ovation for a longer time than necessary, the enraptured audience was finally gratified with two encores out of Wang’s music-box, the delicate Melodie dell’Orfeo from Gluck arranged by Sgambati and the flashy Variations from Bizet’s Carmen from Horowitz which brought the hall to near hysteria.

The programming might have been slightly unconventional with the two piano concertos straddling the interval and ending with a short orchestral work. It was enough to confuse patrons who already wanted to leave after the Shostakovich. In any case they would have missed the best part of the evening, a stunning rendition of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé Suite No. 2.

While most of this concert was a splendid feat of colour and sound, the best was kept for last. Gimeno, guiding with a clear direction and purpose, struck an ideal balance between sweep and details in a Daphnis and Chloé, sans chorus, but brimming with life. The daybreak was breathtaking, veiled in mystery at the outset but morphing with colourful contributions from the winds, in deftly handled crescendos towards a saturated climax. The polish and textural clarity of the OPL strings, the magnificent solos (in particular the 1st flute from, I gather, Etienne Plasman in the Pantomime), the superbly judged dynamics and the impeccable balance contributed to a real sense of magic. A rousingly spectacular Bacchanale, topped by no-holds-barred percussion and brass, brought this unabashedly hedonistic moment to a thrilling end.

Gimeno generously sprinkled some more magic with Le jardin féerique, the apotheosis from Ravel’s Ma mère l’oye. This was a wonderful evening in many ways. Gustavo Gimeno has been heading the Luxembourg formation since 2015. Judging from this concert, their collaboration is a true winner.