I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by Marc Haegeman


Leave a comment

New York City Ballet in Paris – Balanchine, New York – Paris

Charles Gounod: Walpurgisnacht Ballet
Maurice Ravel: Sonatine, La Valse
Georges Bizet: Symphony in C

New York City Ballet
Choreography by George Balanchine
Orchestre Prométhée/Daniel Capps
Recorded in Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, July 2016
BelAir Classiques BAC 439, 1080i Full-HD, PCM 2.0 / DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, 106 mins

New York City Ballet in Paris

New York City Ballet in Paris

Of today’s top ballet companies, New York City Ballet is one of the least well represented on home video – a sorry fact the American dancers share with their colleagues from the Royal Danish Ballet in Europe. The company preserves one of the most significant and groundbreaking choreographic legacies on the planet – with George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins at its core – and is a foremost promoter of contemporary work. Yet, even in these multimediatized times, performance videos which highlight repertory and current dancers of New York City Ballet remain a precious rarity.

What a superb idea it was, then, to film the company while on tour in Paris in the summer of 2016, performing a selection of its traditional repertory. The choice was, I assume, readily made. The connection between Balanchine and the French capital is legendary. All four ballets assembled here are set to French music and both Walpurgisnacht and Symphony in C were even created for the Paris Opera. Often with nothing but light as setting and very simple costuming (except La Valse with its hints of a ballroom and slightly decadent gowns), and utterly delightful music (Gounod, Bizet and Ravel) to boast, this program is a continuous joy and may serve as an antidote against those trying to reduce dance to darkness, violence and angst. In these troubled times a shot of Balanchine is by all means a very welcome night out. By their intelligence, musicality, sense of harmony and purity of intent, his ballets are beacons of light and hope, and by their perennial modernity, continuing sources of delight and inspiration.

Try the lovely Sonatine from 1975 on a rainy day: just two dancers and a pianist on stage, yet it all is brought with effortless dignity, simple charm, and sunlit grace by Megan Fairchild and Joaquin De Luz. In no time you will feel better. This is also a disc to admire the New York City Ballet dancers of today. Like the wonderful Sara Mearns in the romantically wild and theatrical Walpurgisnacht Ballet. Or Sterling Hyltin and Amar Ramasar both superb in La Valse (combining Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales with La Valse proper), offering dramatic contrast. Finally, the irresistible Symphony in C, originally made as Palais de Cristal for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1947, a magnificent showcase for the company’s health and strength. Soloists and ensemble appear in tremendous form and if this performance is in any way representative of the current state of New York City Ballet, then the company is doing really well indeed.

With François Duplat and Vincent Bataillon as the producer-director team, well known from the successful “Bolshoi Ballet HD Collection” distributed by BelAir Classiques, we are in good hands too. They know their trade and have given us some of the best filmed ballet performance videos in recent times. “New York City Ballet in Paris” is no exception. The camerawork and editing is in effect pretty simple and straightforward, but you always see what you need to see in a ballet.

This video comes without any bonus features, but here is the dance speaking for itself as only Balanchine could master it, and it deserves a place in any serious ballet video collection. New York City Ballet brought several programs on its extensive 2016 Paris tour. May we hope for some more goodies, and not only the historical repertory but also new creations, from the treasure chest?

Warmly recommended.

© 2017 Marc Haegeman. All rights reserved


Leave a comment

Grigorovich’s Golden Age revived

Dmitri Shostakovich: The Golden Age
Nina Kaptsova – Rita, a young girl
Ruslan Skvortsov – Boris, a young fisherman
Mikhail Lobukhin – Yashka, a gang leader
Ekaterina Krysanova – Lyushka, Yashka’s accomplice
Vyacheslav Lopatin – Variety show compere
Artists of the Bolshoi Ballet

The Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra, Pavel Klinichev
Choreography by Yuri Grigorovich.
Filmed live at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, October 2016
BelAir Classiques Blu-ray BAC443, 103 min, PCM 2.0, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

The Bolshoi in The Golden Age

The Bolshoi in The Golden Age

After a two year break the successful “Bolshoi Ballet HD Collection”, released by the Paris-based video label BelAir Classiques, is back on track again with Dmitri Shostakovich’s The Golden Age, the last ballet from long-time Bolshoi director Yuri Grigorovich. “Last” may be somewhat misleading here, since The Golden Age – or The Age of Gold, as may be more common – was premiered as long ago as 1982, but turned out to be the final original creation of the Bolshoi master. And come to think of it, the age wasn’t particularly golden at the time of the ballet’s premiere, as criticism against Grigorovich’s authoritative rule and artistic output was gradually mounting and would eventually lead to his eviction some ten years later – but that’s another story.

Fact is, most of Grigorovich’s ballets remained in the Bolshoi repertory, often resurfacing after several years in a more or less updated guise. The Golden Age is performed only by the Bolshoi and has unlike other Grigorovich’s ballets never been staged elsewhere. In Moscow it was last danced ten years ago and recently revived again in the lead-up to the 90th anniversary celebrations of the choreographer earlier this year. While undoubtedly not a masterpiece, this is the first official release of the ballet on Blu-ray and DVD and will be most welcome to all devotees of the Bolshoi and Russian ballet.

Grigorovich’s The Golden Age is itself an adaptation of the 1930 production, which like all evening-length ballets composed by Dmitri Shostakovich fell out of grace and was banned soon after the premiere. The blatant Communist rejection of so-called bourgeois decadence of the original plot, culminating in a soccer match between soviet youths and bourgeois fascists, was recycled into a love story set against the conflict between pure white-clad fishermen and a depraved black-shirted gang of thugs in some 1920’s Russian seaport. It’s the same naive black and white opposition, but the luggage is far less heavy this time. The inclusion of references to Lenin’s New Economic Policy in the rework however will be lost on most viewers today.

Seeing the ballet again, for all its simplicity, I still feel it is confusingly told, while much of Grigorovich’s stylized choreography is too crude and repetitive to survive the 100 or so minutes running time. As for the Bolshoi’s current take on it, I guess it helps if you haven’t seen the original casts in the 1980s. Today’s Ruslan Skvortsov, Nina Kaptsova, Mikhail Lobukhin and Ekaterina Krysanova are excellent dancers, yet none will ever erase memories of an Irek Mukhamedov or a Gediminas Taranda, who could transform cardboard into intensely potent characters. But that’s just how it goes with revivals: different times, different dancers, same ballets. Surprisingly perhaps for the Bolshoi, it are the quieter moments, like the love adagio’s between Kaptsova and Skvortsov, that work best here.

This new installment in the “Bolshoi Ballet HD Collection”, filmed live in October 2016 on the smaller New Stage of the Bolshoi Theatre, is visually and soundwise a real treat. As we have come to expect from the Vincent Bataillon/François Duplat team The Golden Age offers a first-rate ballet-at-home experience. Thankfully gone are the days of shoddy Soviet filming, unable to master the frequent changes from bright to dark in these productions. The full HD transfer on Blu-ray looks particularly impressive with a wealth of detail and lovely, natural colors. Camerawork is as good as it gets with a well-judged mix between longshots and close-ups.

The sonics are equally superb in the 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio mix, enhancing the impact of Shostakovich’s brilliant music. His ballet scores remain largely unknown to the general public, except perhaps in the form of suites. This is the young composer at his most confidently satirical, exemplifying in his music the capitalist depravity with a series of parodied western dance forms like polka, tango and foxtrot. Grigorovich interpolated the slow movements from Shostakovich’s Piano Concertos for the lyrical moments in his adaptation. Interestingly, they give the score which can at times sound relentless a rounder appearance. It all comes vividly alive by the Bolshoi Orchestra under Pavel Klinichev.

This release comes without any extras. Bolshoi fans won’t hesitate to purchase this title, of course, and BelAir Classiques serves them well with splendid video and audio quality. Yet the older ones won’t be entirely convinced by the Bolshoi’s current way with The Golden Age.

© 2017 Marc Haegeman. All rights reserved


Leave a comment

Rachmaninoff at the BBC Proms

Sergei Rachmaninoff:
Piano concerto #3 in D minor, Op. 30
Symphony #2 in E minor, Op. 27
Two Russian Orthodox Chants (“Thy tomb, O Saviour”, “Serene Light”)

Alexander Gavrylyuk, piano
Latvian Radio Choir
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Thomas Dausgaard
Royal Albert Hall, London, 13 August 2017

London’s Royal Albert Hall can be a difficult venue to play. The Ukranian pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk left an unforgettable impression two years ago in Rotterdam with a superb rendition of the very same Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 under Valery Gergiev. Gavrylyuk is a subtle artist and clearly knows how to dose his Rachmaninoff. His playing reveals enormous depth underneath the lightest of surfaces and refuses every bit of flash or showiness. The slower passages sound compellingly tender and introverted in his hands, standing out just as much, if not more, as the technical fireworks. This time, in his BBC Proms debut, Gavrylyuk still had me convinced by his approach, even if compared to his Rotterdam performance I felt that the Royal Albert Hall audience was somehow shortchanged and part of the emotional intent of his message simply vaporized within the immense space of the hall – as in the very opening of the Concerto and in the Intermezzo: Adagio. (I suspect people who followed the concert live on TV or on the radio were able to appreciate the range of his playing a lot more than we did).

But this is how it goes in live music-making and to be sure this was still a magnificent performance. The tonal beauty of Gavrylyuk’s piano, his grip on the work’s structure as well as his mercurial speed in some of the passages and the exciting, well-judged buildups held the audience spellbound. Thomas Dausgaard stuck very closely to his soloist – literally leaving him rarely out of sight – and ensured the most sympathetic accompaniment from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, including beautiful solo work from woodwinds and horns.

As an encore Gavrylyuk performed Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise in the transcription by Vladimir Horowitz. Again, the audience seemed mesmerized by his reflective pianism – one could hear a pin drop and it took a long time after the last note subsided before they erupted in applause.

Music of the Russian Orthodox Church has been a great influence on Rachmaninoff’s style and it was a fine idea to preface both major works of this evening by ancient monastic chants, performed by the Latvian Radio Choir. The likeness between Thy tomb, O Saviour and the opening theme of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto has been pointed out (although the composer denied any direct origins) and was well illustrated here. Preceding the Concerto members of the Latvian Radio Choir entered the hall processing down to the arena through the audience before disappearing under the stage.

The concert continued with Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony, again introduced by an Orthodox chant Serene Light from the Latvians, effectively performed this time from the top Gallery. Conducting from memory, Dausgaard led an outstanding performance of the massive symphony, well-shaped and phrased throughout. Swift, lean and often vigorous, he kept things going, enough so in the first movement to justify the exposition repeat, while the dynamic divided strings of the BBC Scottish Symphony unraveled Rachmaninoff’s polyphonic textures to delight. This is a long work, but it didn’t feel this way here. I missed some of the darker colors in the brass and the bass strings sounded from where I was sitting slightly underwhelming. This was undoubtedly more a problem of the hall’s acoustics again. Solos were without exception beautifully performed, though, especially the clarinet solo from Yann Ghiro in the Adagio and the first horn. In short, a superbly rewarding Rachmaninoff evening at the Proms.

Copyright © 2017 Marc Haegeman


Leave a comment

Matsuev at the Royal Concertgebouw

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: The Seasons, Op. 37a
Robert Schumann: Kreisleriana, Op. 16
Igor Stravinsky: Three Movements from Petrushka

Denis Matsuev, piano
EuroArts DVD 3075408 – NTSC 16:9 – PCM Stereo/Dolby Digital 5.0/DTS 5.0 – 105 mins

Denis Matsuev at the Royal Concertgebouw

Denis Matsuev at the Royal Concertgebouw

The policies of the music labels are sometimes hard to follow. Take this new release from EuroArts. A live recital from one of the top pianists of the moment in one of the world’s best concert venues is filmed in high-definition, only to be released on a DVD instead of a Blu-ray. As if to underline this aberration EuroArts uploaded a tantalizing clip on Youtube in full HD, as if to say: “This is what we could have given you, but we still preferred to give you a downgraded version in lossy sound.” Go figure.

All the more a shame because this Denis Matsuev concert is beautifully filmed, lit and edited (courtesy of Sébastien Glas and the French Idéale Audience team), taking full advantage of the magnificent Amsterdam Concertgebouw setting. I attended this recital in October 2015 and back then it was with the ravishing Tchaikovsky Seasons, not often heard in complete form in the concert-hall, that Matsuev left the strongest impression.

Revisiting the recital now from the comfort of the living room, it’s still the Tchaikovsky that’s worth the price of admission for me. Matsuev is a fabulous pianist, as we all know. Yet he isn’t always the most subtle musician. His technique allows him to tackle about everything with complete freedom. Yet it’s exactly this freedom which can get the better of his musical intelligence and poetic instinct. At his best, though, Matsuev finds a balance between his big, overwhelming sound-sculpting and the nuances of the text. When he does, he can be utterly compelling, as in most of the Tchaikovsky here. When not, he can be utterly monochrome and even cartoonish. As in Schumann’s Kreisleriana and, perhaps surprisingly, in parts of Stravinsky’s Petrushka too.

In Tchaikovsky’s Seasons Matsuev captures the character of each of the pieces with precision. He is mesmerizing when he slows down and lets the music breathe in sheer contrast to the more eruptive passages. Characteristically for Tchaikovsky, the often deceptively joyous air is balanced by a darker undercurrent, effortlessly captured by the pianist. Every month may be crafted into a miniature gem, it’s Matsuev’s sense of unity, which makes you forget Tchaikovsky composed them on a monthly basis, that is the most impressive.

I wasn’t that convinced by Matsuev’s rendition of Keisleriana and neither I am now. It’s German 19th-century romanticism in an average modern, 21st-century Russian translation. While obviously focused and articulated, Matsuev is emphatic and relentless, even aggressive, verging on the demonstrative in the more turbulent passages. His sonority turns uniformly loud and booming, lacking in contrast and color. It isn’t the recording, I had the very same impression live in the Concertgebouw where the acoustics inflated the basses even more.

Stravinsky’s Petrushka kicks off well enough, lively and well-shaped, but also loses its interest in the final Shrovetide Fair part which Matsuev turns into a steamroller of big sound (again these booming basses), rather than an attempt to bring out the harmonic and percussive possibilities of the instrument. Impressive as a knockout display of stamina and powerhouse pianism, perhaps, but hardly the stuff for repeated listening.

The recital ended with a well-constructed and well-played series of encores. From Lyadov’s Musical Snuffbox, Op. 32, over Tchaikovsky’s superb Méditation, Op. 72/5 and the rare Sibelius’ Etude in A Minor, Op. 76/2 (it’s so rare that EuroArts even forgot to list it in the booklet) to Scriabin’s turbulent Etude in D-sharp Minor, Op. 8/12 and Matsuev’s own dazzling and funny Jazz Improvisations.

Denis Matsuev fans won’t hesitate although they too will be disappointed by the lack of true HD in image and sound. Others will mainly go for the beautiful performance of a Tchaikovsky rarity.


Leave a comment

Farewell of an étoile

Jules Massenet: L’Histoire de Manon
Aurélie Dupont (Manon)
Roberto Bolle (Des Grieux)
Stéphane Bullion (Lescaut)
Alice Renavand (Mistress of Lescaut)
Benjamin Pech (Monsieur GM)
Karl Paquette (the Jailer)
Artists of the Paris Opera Ballet
Paris Opera Orchestra/Martin Yates
Choreography by Kenneth MacMillan, set by Karl Burnett and Gary Harris
Music by Jules Massenet arranged by Leighton Lucas, re-orchestrated by Martin Yates
Sets by Nicholas Georgiadis
BelAir Classiques BAC435, 1080i Full-HD, PCM 2.0 / DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, 125 mins (ballet) + 11 mins (bonus)

Aurelie Dupont as Manon

Aurelie Dupont as Manon

Parisian étoiles leave in style. In-house rules oblige the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet to retire at the age of 42, yet in the case of their leading dancers who bear the coveted title of “étoile” for life, the French know how to take leave of them. A festive evening is dedicated to the departing stars, a special night-out, ideally featuring a ballet of their choice. Filmed live on 18 May 2015, at the Paris Palais Garnier, this BelAir Classiques video documents the farewell performance of Aurélie Dupont, who was for more than 25 years one of the most brilliantly versatile and respected ballerinas of the company, as well as a popular artist abroad. While arguably no film could ever hope to render the nostalgia and emotion of the live event, including the particular atmosphere of the packed opera house and standing ovations that seem to go on for ages, director Cédric Klapisch at least provides a fair idea of the real thing and makes me wonder why these Parisian farewell events haven’t been released before on video.

The long opening shot which has the camera travelling from the typical straight Parisian boulevards towards and into the Palais Garnier, up the monumental staircase, across the plush auditorium and stage, and finally into the gorgeous “Foyer de la danse” where Dupont is seen rehearsing, has to be one of the most exciting intros to a ballet performance ever put on film.

Aurélie Dupont danced Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet L’Histoire de Manon for her final show. What better farewell is there than to appear one last time in an emotionally-charged role like Manon, offering passionate pas de deux and guaranteed to knock out the audience with an utterly poignant death of the heroine in the final scene? While created for London’s Royal Ballet in 1974 the French have made the ballet their own, providing an alternative approach to this eternal crowd-pleaser. A couple of older films of the Royal Ballet in Manon are still available on DVD, yet a recording of the Paris version is welcome.

For the occasion Dupont was joined by Italian star Roberto Bolle as Des Grieux. The natural elegance and sophisticated manner of both dancers upgrades the ill-fated characters in MacMillan’s graphic interpretation of Abbé Prévost’s novel considerably, especially in the last Act where they are somewhat less convincing. But overall this is a magnificent performance with a ballerina at the height of her art. Paris étoiles Stéphane Bullion, Alice Renavand, Benjamin Pech and Karl Paquette form a first-class supporting cast. Excellent support also from the Orchestra of the Paris Opera, conducted by Martin Yates who successfully gave the Massenet compilation score a new sound and life in 2011.

The picture quality in this BelAir Classiques release is unfortunately not one of the best – the monochrome, brownish designs from Nicholas Georgiadis in Acts 1 and 2 don’t fare well on screen. In longshots the spotlighting seems slightly overblown and one of the cameras has an obvious dust spot on the lens.

There are some moments where the camera seems to love Dupont a bit too much at the expense of other dancers (the evening was broadcast live in European movie theaters), but generally this is a highly recommendable ballet film. Klapisch included a short bit of the curtain calls, often more emotional than the ballet itself. However, the 11 minutes of interview with Dupont are all too short an extra. Klapisch’s 2009 documentary on the ballerina (Aurélie Dupont danse l’espace d’un instant), re-screened with the French TV broadcast of her farewell, would have been the ideal bonus for this release.

As ballet fans know, Aurélie Dupont’s farewell was far from the end of her career at the Paris Opera. In February 2016 she was appointed director of the ballet company.

Copyright © 2017 Marc Haegeman


Leave a comment

Aurora in Bananastan

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: The Sleeping Beauty, Op. 66
Iana Salenko (Princess Aurora)
Marian Walter (Prince Désiré)
Rishat Yulbarisov (Carabosse)
Sarah Mestrovic (Lilac Fairy)
Michael Banzhaf (King Florestan)
Beatrice Knop (The Queen)
Soloists and Corps De Ballet of the Berlin State Ballet
Orchestra of the German Opera, Berlin / Robert Reimer

BelAir Classiques BAC 131; 1080i HD, 16/9; PCM Stereo, DTS Master Audio 5.1

The Sleeping Beauty

The Sleeping Beauty

We know what the ballet The Sleeping Beauty looks like and above all what it’s worth. We know it since 1890. In case the historical productions performed by Russian and English companies to this very day aren’t proof enough, then there are still the recent reconstructions of Sergei Vikharev and Alexei Ratmansky to remind the sceptics this is a timeless creation which needs very little upgrading, least of all by the wrong hands. Why on earth contemporary dance-maker Nacho Duato was asked to make a new version of the ballet will undoubtedly puzzle future generations – provided, of course, it survives the test of time. There have been contemporary adaptations and reworkings of Beauty before, but unless they headed on a radically original course, none ever came close, let alone surpassed the original as it was conceived within the Imperial Theatres in St. Petersburg by the combined talents of director Ivan Vsevolozhsky, choreographer Marius Petipa and composer Piotr Tchaikovsky.

Neither does Duato’s version. Duato created his Sleeping Beauty in 2011 during his brief stint as director of the Mikhailovsky Ballet in St. Petersburg. The brave idea allegedly was to produce a Sleeping Beauty for the 21st century. Yet that turned out to be more of a fairytale than the ballet’s subject itself. If anything the production was proof that money cannot buy everything. Duato’s Beauty still presents itself as a classical ballet, albeit one that is scuttled by a basic mistrust of text, spirit and music. The result is by and large a very unhappy wedding between classical and contemporary styles. Pointework in convulsion mode; Martha Graham as princess Aurora. Forget the multilayered complexity of the original, the fairytale atmosphere, or the enchantment.

With its truncated narrative, botched choreography and mutilated score, Duato’s staging doesn’t stand much of a chance. Tottering between hilarious (the Prologue variations, the nervous courtiers) and properly embarrassing (the scenes with that fearful Carabosse in drag), it doesn’t matter that echoes of Petipa ring through the key moments, Duato never finds his own voice. Worst of all, while this is one of the richest and most profound dance scores ever made, Duato does nothing with it. In short, a travesty of The Sleeping Beauty rather than the version for the 21st century.

The elegantly fresh sets and pastel-tinted costumes from Angelina Atlagic run away with the honors in this production. The present release from BelAir Classiques documents a performance by the Berlin State Ballet, the company Duato is heading since 2014. By all accounts the production wasn’t well received in the German capital either, which makes its release on HD video rather bizarre. Iana Salenko and Marian Walter are excellent dancers, yet in spite of their fluent partnership they never manage to crack the ice. Neither does the rest of the cast, laboring through it all with blind devotion. They deserve better than this.

Robert Reimer’s conducting is about as undramatic and bland as the activity on stage. The Orchestra of the German Opera sleepwalks through most of the score, unable to avoid some jarringly unbalanced sonorities (as in Aurora’s Variation in Act 2).

For what it’s worth, the performance is agreeably filmed by Andy Sommer. The HD cameras cope well with the sometimes harsh stage lighting of the production. The sonics are impressive and detailed, if somewhat bass heavy in the DTS Master Audio 5.1 format. This release offers no bonus materials – not that we would have been craving for any. To be shelved under forgettable.

Copyright © 2017 Marc Haegeman


Leave a comment

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