I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by Marc Haegeman


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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


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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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Superb Tchaikovsky in French manner

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker, Op. 71
La Maîtrise des Hauts-de-Seine, Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble/Marc Minkowski
Brussels, Centre for Fine Arts, 13 November 2016

Marc Minkowski

Marc Minkowski © Marco Borggreve

Marc Minkowski and his Musiciens du Louvre, on tour in Europe, brought a pleasant surprise by performing Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker full-length in concert. The surprise was not so much to hear Tchaikovsky on period instruments (that has been done before by Jos van Immerseel and Anima Eterna, among others), neither that an ensemble steeped in the baroque and early classical repertoire ventures into late 19th-century music. No, this was purely and simply one of the finest readings of the ballet I have ever heard, in or out of the theater. Played by the French orchestra this Nutcracker sounded extraordinary, often thrilling, at times revelatory, yet it was above all Minkowski’s way with the score which made this concert such a standout.

Part of the success stems from the fact that Minkowski conducts The Nutcracker for what it is: music for the theater. While much of the score can sound like an orchestral spectacular (and is often interpreted that way), this seemed like the last thing Minkowski had in mind. He rather was looking for refinement and character, and preferred to dig deep into Tchaikovsky’s sound-world. It didn’t matter either there was no stage action. When conducted with so much understanding and passion as here the score easily stands on its own and evokes a whole world of imagery and emotions. As a seasoned opera conductor Minkowski clearly knows how to tell a story and captured the changing climates of the score with total conviction. A French take on Russian music, but one that removed layers of dust and familiarity.

The period instruments proved a tremendous asset to Tchaikovsky’s brilliant orchestration. As usual with Les Musiciens du Louvre the focus was essentially on the music, without a trace of sterile stylistic exercises in authentic performance. Textural transparency and refined orchestral balance, harmonic color and rhythmic flexibility all contributed to recreate this uniquely enchanting atmosphere that saves The Nutcracker from dreaded yuletide dirge and secures it a place as genuine masterpiece. Tender evocations of a child’s imagination contrasted with at times creepy passages of darkness. Even the opening numbers which are in the hands of many conductors merely to mark time, became small gems – none more than the Presto of No. 4 and the Grossvater Tanz in No. 5, theatrically heavy-footed and full of benign humor.

No detail in the orchestration was left untouched and Minkowski wasn’t afraid to enhance the dramatic contrasts, yet without losing track of the musical flow. The long section opening with the Departure of the Guests, featuring the Battle with the mice and the Waltz of the Snowflakes was stunningly rendered. Minkowski knew exactly when and how to slow down. The orchestra bloomed in the Christmas Tree sequence, wonderfully paced, reminding that it doesn’t take modern strings to play in a passionate manner. Twenty girls from La Maîtrise des Hauts-de-Seine chorus provided beautiful vocal support in the Snowflakes – even when pressed rather hard by the slow tempo in the final section. I was never before so much aware that snow is gently falling down. Pure magic.

In this respect it was regrettable that in the second part Minkowski somewhat changed the order of the score. As he announced during the short tuning break between acts, he preferred to open with the Pas de deux followed by the Divertissement and ending with the Waltz of the Flowers. The opening numbers of Act II – which offer some ravishing music – were dropped, as well as the first variation in the Pas de deux. Minkowski didn’t fail to stress the French influence on The Nutcracker and noted in passing that the celesta played by his orchestra was a French Mustel from the late 19th century, an instrument undoubtedly quite close to the one Tchaikovsky knew and introduced in Russia with this ballet.

As it was, the Divertissement became a truly festive moment, totally apt as a brilliant culmination of the story. Very few conductors I heard in concert capture the character of the different dances with such accuracy. The Spanish dance was sparkling and colorful, the Arabian variation exuded the exquisite perfume of the Orient, and in the Trepak one could easily imagine boots stomping in the snow. Woodwinds and percussion were exquisite.

Les Musiciens du Louvre are a superb formation indeed. They played like possessed and evidently had a great time performing this music. Solos were magnificent throughout, most notably from flutes, oboe and harp. The hard-working violins were divided left/right, with the four basses at the back center. A smaller than usual orchestra for Tchaikovsky when it comes to the strings, although judging from the balance and weight that Minkowski obtained, all it takes.

Minkowski offered two encores from Georges Bizet’s L’Arlésienne, the Prélude and the introspective Adagietto, which he dedicated to the victims of terrorist attacks in France and Belgium from the last year. The solo saxophone was heard to great effect, but it was undoubtedly the link between the music of Tchaikovsky and Bizet, both great melodists and orchestrators, which was most exposed here.

The Brussels Centre for Fine Arts was sadly half empty for this concert. The Nutcracker as a ballet is normally box-office safe. Yet many are probably still convinced that ballet music doesn’t stand much of a chance in a concert-hall. Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre have disproven that, once again, completely. A superb concert.

Copyright © 2016, Marc Haegeman

First published on Classical Net: http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/haegeman/20161113-minkowski-tchaikovsky.php


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Happy Tchaikovsky from Herreweghe

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: The Nutcraker, Op. 71 (Excerpts) and Symphony #2 in C minor “Little Russian”, Op. 17
Royal Flemish Philharmonic Orchestra/Philippe Herreweghe
Concertgebouw, Bruges, 24 September 2016

Russia is the focal point of the 2016/17 season at the Bruges Concertgebouw. Several concerts of Russian music are scheduled throughout the year and both Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Dmitry Shostakovich take pride of place in the celebrations. In the first symphonic concert of the series Philippe Herreweghe and his Royal Flemish Philharmonic (aka deFilharmonie) paid homage to Tchaikovsky with a rather unusual pairing. With the Second “Little Russian” Symphony and a handpicked selection from the Nutcracker, works separated by some twenty years in the composer’s output, they offered primarily a happily smiling and vital Tchaikovsky.

Philippe Herreweghe isn’t a conductor you would expect in this repertoire. Yet it’s always interesting to hear how a musician steeped in early music and baroque approaches the 19th century scores. Some immediate benefits were obvious. With a smaller than usual orchestra, anchored on 5 basses, Herreweghe’s Tchaikovsky sounded refined, transparent and finely detailed. Remarkably, employing smaller forces didn’t result in lightness, yet the overall feel was energetic and vibrant. The balance between strings and woodwinds was impeccable, highlighting the brilliance of Tchaikovsky’s orchestration. The antiphonally placed violins opened up the sound, while extra care for the lower strings always provided a solid base. The Royal Flemish Philharmonic plays of course on modern instruments and power was at hand when needed, even though Herreweghe always kept things firmly under control.

It was all the more a shame that the selection culled from the Nutcracker was so short. The concert was dubbed “Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker” I suspect for marketing purposes, although it was the first work on the bill, and in retrospect the least convincing. Herreweghe added a few numbers to the usually heard ballet suite, like the Galop and the Entrance of the Parents from Act I and the Tarentella from the Pas de deux, but it no less remained a piecemeal offering. Some transitions sounded awkward and his selection avoided the more elaborate and darker pages of the score. Extremely colorful and vivid, with particular attention to the fine Philharmonic woodwinds, Herreweghe’s Nutcracker sparkled and superficially charmed but hardly ever got inside the score. Some numbers were tackled too briskly to breathe properly (Dance of the Reed Pipes, Sugar Plum Fairy), others were merely precise rather than evocative (Arabian dance).

The “Little Russian” Symphony (performed in its final version from 1879) however was a lot more successful. It was beautifully played and excitingly rendered without ever becoming demonstrative. Herreweghe never indulged in any eccentricities and made a very strong case for this often neglected symphony. Tempi were well-judged and a sense of discovery enlivened every movement. The Andante sostenuto instantly captured the right mood with magnificent solos from horn (Eliz Erkalp) and bassoon (Oliver Engels) – dreamy moments that soon gave way to sheer vivacity and joy. The march-like 2nd movement was well paced and Herreweghe imaginatively handled the variations. The Philharmonic strings were heard to great effect in the second theme. Sharp attacks and crisp phrasing characterized the boisterous scherzo, with the winds adding plenty of color. The clarity Herreweghe kept in the tutti, as well as his deft control of the ebb and flow made for a convincing and exhilarating final movement.

All in all, a fine homage to Tchaikovsky and I hope Herreweghe will explore this music further – the orchestral suites come to mind, or why not some complete ballet.

Copyright © 2016, Marc Haegeman

First published on Classical Net: http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/haegeman/20160924-herreweghe-tchaikovsky.php


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Cloning Tchaikovsky

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: The Queen of Spades
Misha Didyk (Hermann), Alexey Markov (Tomsky/Zlatogor), Vladimir Stoyanov (Prince Yeletsky), Andrei Popov (Tchekalinsky), Andrii Goniukov (Surin), Mikhail Makarov (Tchaplitsky), Anatoli Sivko (Narumov), Morschi Franz (Major Domo), Larissa Dyadkova (the Countess), Svetlana Aksenova (Lisa), Anna Goryachova (Polina/Milozvor), Olga Savova (the governess), Maria Fiselier (Masha)
Chorus of the Dutch National Opera, New Amsterdam Children’s Chorus, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Mariss Jansons
Direction: Stefan Herheim
Dramaturgy: Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach
Sets and costumes: Philipp Fürhofer
Light: Bernd Purkrabek
Seen in Muziektheater Amsterdam, 18 June 2016

Who won? The music or the direction? As with many contemporary opera productions this was the question that came to mind at the end of the new staging of Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades by the Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam, presented as part of the annual Holland Festival. Music and direction are frequently at loggerheads. The Norwegian director Stefan Herheim doesn’t consider the original libretto sufficient. He thinks he has better ideas. Here’s one: The Queen of Spades needs to confront us with Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality and lifelong emotional distress rather than with the tragic fate of Hermann, Lisa and the Countess as adapted by the composer from Pushkin’s tale. There is nothing original about this reinterpretation, yet Herheim fails to convince us he is on a better course. His hand is unsure, his direction fussy, his storytelling fatally confusing. With the superb Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in the pit conducted by Mariss Jansons, Herheim was fighting a lost cause. The music won.

Herheim opens his fantasy world before the music starts by adding a homoerotic scene between a Tchaikovsky lookalike and a man who turns out to be the opera’s main hero Hermann. Tchaikovsky pays the man for his services. Mozart’s Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen plays on a music box in a birdcage. Worse was yet to come. Herheim puts Tchaikovsky center stage. He is everywhere, all the time. There are countless references, factual or questionable, to the composer’s life. He is busy creating the music that plays, he is interacting with the opera characters, he interferes in the story, and if that wasn’t distracting enough, every member of the male chorus on stage is a Tchaikovsky clone. “You, you here?” stammers Lisa, looking at the Tchaikovsky figure instead of Hermann at the end of Act II. Spot on, he had no place there. Perhaps worst of all, in Herheim’s hands the composer is a pathetic little man. Tchaikovsky is a poor old sucker, a precarious weakling who is tossed around and ridiculed by all, including the audience. By letting him die several times in the opera, Herheim joins the many who hear Tchaikovsky’s music from his final years as nothing but a product of a terminally depressed man. He really needs to listen again then. Of course, Herheim readily accepts the debatable fact that Tchaikovsky met his untimely death from deliberately drinking a glass of contaminated water. To make sure we get that message, he repeats it ad nauseam and even lets the old Countess commit suicide by drinking a glass of water. Is this Herheim’s answer to the composer’s supposed emotional suffering as a homosexual? Frankly, I couldn’t care less about what he thinks about it. Nyet, this is the Queen of Spades, based on Pushkin. Not a pamphlet to lament the fate of homosexuals in 19th century Russia. Eventually, he should have listened to the Countess in Act 2: “Stop that nonsense!” Herheim forgot Pushkin, Modest Tchaikovsky’s libretto, and he forgot the music. Yet the music won.

Svetlana Aksenova (Lisa) & Misha Didyk (Hermann) - © Karl & Monika Forster

Svetlana Aksenova (Lisa) & Misha Didyk (Hermann) – © Karl & Monika Forster

Herheim not only adds to the confusion by inventing this fling between the composer and Hermann, the man who is supposed to be in love with Lisa, but also by making this omnipresent Tchaikovsky figure a double of the opera character Prince Yeletsky, who is engaged to Lisa. There are two guys involved, one the baritone Vladimir Stoyanov, the other the pianist Christiaan Kuyvenhoven. I challenge you to tell who’s who at the end of the run. Not that it matters. The music won.

Incoherence and absurdity reign in this Queen of Spades. Are we in Tchaikovsky’s time? Or rather in the 18th century when Empress Catharina the Great ruled, as supporting roles like Tomsky, Surin and Tchekalinsky seem to suggest? Nobody seems to know or care. It makes the Mozartean divertissement in Act 2 look totally incongruous and by far the weakest part of the production. When Tchaikovsky composed his opera members of the Russian imperial family couldn’t be shown on stage. Now the Tsarina turns out to be a man in drag (Hermann – him again). Times have changed.

Every scene plays indoor, mostly in the composer’s room. As has become a feature of many opera productions characters are frequently singing words that don’t correspond or connect with the stage action. Why is everybody worried about the storm in Act I when they are all inside a house? Why is Tchaikovsky acting like he is suffering from kidney stones while the chorus of children and women are joyfully welcoming a sunny day? The deeper one analyzes, the less Herheim’s fantasy hijack makes sense.

Evidently, no expenses were spared for this visually striking production, boasting richly detailed costumes (mostly just black, white or grey) and impressive mobile sets designed by Philipp Fürhofer and evocatively lit by Bernd Purkrabek. Some scenes were effectively staged, with especially a spectacular ghost scene in Act 3, others merely malapropos (the storm in Act 1, the death of the Countess). At the end of Act 2 the chorus appears in the stalls, raising the audience to its feet to salute the Empress, and thus mock Tchaikovsky.

Morschi Franz (Major Domo, Vladimir Stoyanov (Yeletsky) and the Chorus of the National Opera - © Karl & Monika Forster

Morschi Franz (Major Domo, Vladimir Stoyanov (Yeletsky) and the Chorus of the National Opera – © Karl & Monika Forster

As said, it was the music that offered most joys in this Queen of Spades. Mariss Jansons returned to lead the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra a year after his retirement as the ensemble’s Chief Conductor (2004-2015). His affinity with Tchaikovsky has never been a secret. A well-deserved warm ovation from the Amsterdam public greeted his every appearance.

Much of the blurred drama on stage sounded crystal clear in the pit. Jansons conducted with finesse and ear for detail. His flair for tempo and atmosphere was impeccable while the balance between orchestra and voices was in most cases well-judged. Or one could simply wallow in the sonorous beauty of the Concertgebouw Orchestra. The warm strings were divided left-right with the basses in the middle, securing an always solid yet transparent sound. The characterful Dutch woodwinds revealed Tchaikovsky’s impressive range of color and the brass and percussion were powerful when required. The modernity of much of the score, especially in the second half of the opera, was fully credited and reminded us this is truly great Tchaikovsky indeed.

Jansons led a largely Slavonic singing cast. Unfortunately, I wasn’t entirely convinced by Misha Didyk’s Hermann. True, the production allows neither of the protagonists to fully form their characters. They remain as greyish as their costumes and the duets between Hermann and Lisa, scuttled by Herheim’s meddling, failed to make the proper impact. I never believed this Hermann ever had any genuine love interest for Lisa – but then again how could he in this ambivalent setup, where he is even declaring his love while facing the audience instead of his beloved. The Ukranian tenor is widely considered the Hermann of his generation, even if to my mind he is as yet unable to replace Galuzin, Atlantov and the likes. His habit to jump towards the high notes, belting them out, grows old quickly, although arguably this could be interpreted as the unbalanced side of Hermann’s character. I was more impressed by the young Russian soprano Svetlana Aksenova as Lisa, blending vocal splendor and strength with feminine warmth and a hint of vulnerability.

Vladimir Stoyanov (Prince Yeletsky) and Larissa Dyadkova (the Countess) - © Karl & Monika Forster

Vladimir Stoyanov (Prince Yeletsky) and Larissa Dyadkova (the Countess) – © Karl & Monika Forster

The best vocal performances were however found among the supporting roles. The Russian baritone Alexey Markov was ideal as Tomsky. His rich, refined voice and commanding stage presence made his ballad of the Countess’ past in the first scene absolutely compelling. He was no less delightful in his impish song in Act 3. And what joy to have Larissa Dyadkova as the Countess, a role I first heard her sing some twenty years ago. The quality of her delivery, the complete understanding of her character (to hear and see the Countess recall times long past with the surprise act of Madame Pompadour as a climax, was in itself worth the price of admission) made you nearly forget Herheim’s disrespectful treatment of her role. Nothing but praise too for the Bulgarian baritone Vladimir Stoyanov for his acting (as the ubiquitous Tchaikovsky) and his noble rendition of Yeletsky’s love aria in Act 2. Both Andrei Popov and Andrii Goniukov, as Tchekalinsky and Surin respectively, were first-rate. Although she was announced as suffering from a slight cold the Russian mezzo Anna Goryachova sang Polina (and her hauntingly sad romance in the 2nd Scene) with melting beauty.

Magnificent work, finally, from the Chorus of the National Opera. They have an important part in the opera and they made every minute count. The male group lamenting the death of Hermann (or actually Tchaikovsky) was especially memorable. The music won.

That we are still enjoying an opera created some 125 years ago is because we recognize and value its intrinsic musical and dramatic qualities, not because it’s a vehicle for fanciful producers. Stefan Herheim’s staging is in essence not about The Queen of Spades. In spite of the fixation on the composer’s sorry plight, imagined or not, this production is eventually about Herheim rather than Tchaikovsky, and I still need to be convinced that’s of any consequence. The real Tchaikovsky was alive by his music, magnificently performed by Jansons and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, not by Herheim’s multiple clones. “Imagination is fine, as long as it connects with the intentions of the composer”, concludes maestro Jansons in an interview in the Dutch National Opera’s magazine. If only this advice had been followed.

© 2016 Marc Haegeman. All rights reserved

Performances at Amsterdam’s Muziektheater run through July 3. More information here: http://www.operaballet.nl/en/opera/2015-2016/show/pique-dame