I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by Marc Haegeman


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Alice Sara Ott and Edo de Waart bring magnificent Mozart and Dvořák to Antwerp

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 13 in C Major, KV 415 (KV 387b)
Antonin Dvořák: Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95, “From the New World”

Alica Sara Ott, piano
Antwerp Symphony Orchestra, Edo de Waart
Antwerp, Elisabeth Center, 19 May 2018

The Antwerp Symphony Orchestra (ASO, formerly known as the deFilharmonie or the Royal Flemish Philharmonic) is a superb formation, one of the finest in the country. The quality of this ensemble was undeniable in an utterly delightful Mozart and Dvořák matinee concert in Antwerp’s Queen Elisabeth Hall under the ASO’s Conductor Laureate, Dutch maestro Edo de Waart. The presence of Alice Sara Ott as soloist was icing on the cake.

Read the full review on Bachtrack


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Leipzig Gewandhaus dazzles but fail to move in Brussels

Thomas Larcher: Chiasma
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, KV 550
Pyotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74 “Pathétique”

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Andris Nelsons
Brussels, Centre for Fine Arts, 29 April 2018

Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G Minor and Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” form quite a formidable pairing in concert. Emotional music that packages beauty with nostalgia and sadness, yet expressed in such an individual manner that performing the symphonies back to back proves extra challenging. In Brussels, on his maiden tour as Kapellmeister of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Andris Nelsons faced that challenge with brilliant and often spectacular readings, which were dazzling rather than moving.

Read the full review on Bachtrack


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Thrilling Beethoven and Mahler from Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra in Antwerp

Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 36
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D Major “Titan”

Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen
Elisabeth Center, Antwerp, 18 April 2018

In Antwerp, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra offered a symphonic feast, with insightful and thrilling readings of Beethoven’s Second and Mahler’s First. In effect, it was not unlike visiting old friends who suddenly appeared younger, more vibrant and congenial than you remembered them. Conductor and orchestra demonstrated once again that, in the right hands, familiar repertory can still prove compelling and even surprising. In other words, they possess the formula for bringing a great concert.

Read the full review on Bachtrack


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Total Tchaikovsky in Antwerp

Pyotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky:
The Nutcracker, Op. 71 – fragments
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23
Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 36

Ivan Bessonov, piano
Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre, Valery Gergiev
Elisabeth Center, Antwerp, 17 January 2018

tchaikovsky

Tchaikovsky by Nikolai Kuznetsov in 1883

The concept of a concert devoted to a single composer may not be that rare after all, as was demonstrated by this performance of the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra under Valery Gergiev in Antwerp. The Russians brought a full, and as it turned out, very long evening of Tchaikovsky music in the splendidly refurbished Elisabeth Center in downtown Antwerp. A copious selection from The Nutcracker, the First Piano Concerto introducing whiz kid Ivan Bessonov, and the Fourth Symphony formed a program that ran well over three hours. Any lover of Tchaikovsky’s or Russian music will naturally welcome such a generous evening, yet as to why it ran so long was bound to raise a few eyebrows.

This concert, which I could attend thanks to the generosity of the organizing company Cofena, resembled to some extent Valery Gergiev’s recent Tchaikovsky CD on the Mariinsky label, coupling The Nutcracker with the Fourth Symphony. It had much the same qualities and flaws as on the recording. Overall these were analytical rather than emotional performances. The sonority of the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra was admirable throughout. As an ensemble they are hard to beat. Even with their grueling performance schedule, they still do better than most. The characteristic emphasis on darker tones, punctuated by the lower strings and brass, works extremely well for this late-Tchaikovsky ballet and the symphony. Gergiev opens up the sound with meticulous precision and he lets you hear details you may never have noticed before. Yet this now comes at a heavy price. Many of his tempi have become slow to the point of inertia and some of his pacing impossibly contrived.

The concert started late, but that’s not unusual with maestro Gergiev, and it opened not with the scheduled Overture of The Nutcracker but immediately with the Departure of the guests. His handpicked selection largely emulated Evgeny Mravinsky’s famous live recording from Leningrad, although unfortunately that is as far as the comparison went. For this being the most exciting section of the ballet, including dramatic passages like the Battle with the mice, the Pine forest in Winter and the Waltz of the Snowflakes, Gergiev’s traversal turned out to be a pretty uneventful affair. There was orchestral detail to delight within every bar, and one would be hard-pressed to find an ensemble that knows this music better than the Mariinsky, but where was the life, the imagination, the frisson that sets these pages apart? For a conductor who has given us one of the most electrifying recordings of The Nutcracker on disc (in 1998), Gergiev appears to have developed a bizarre attitude towards the work. Or perhaps he simply wasn’t there yet this evening. The climaxes sounded flat and underwhelming and while the orchestral balance favored the – otherwise superb – lower brass, I could hardly hear the timpani from my seat at the back of the parterre. By the time they tackled an uneventful Waltz of the Flowers and a dangerously dragging Andante maestoso it seemed everybody had given up. Some 20 years ago I heard Gergiev and the Mariinsky in a complete Nutcracker concert. They blew off the roof with their full-blooded reading, displaying magic and drama in every bar. Yet hearing this now, this seems like a very long time ago indeed.

The best part of the evening was undoubtedly the performance of 15-year old Ivan Bessonov in Tchaikovsky’s 1st Piano Concerto. Born in St. Petersburg in a family of musicians, Bessonov has been playing the piano since he was six. He garnered the first prize in several youth competitions, among others the International Frédéric Chopin Youth Competition (2015) and the International Anton Rubinstein Competition The Piano Miniature in Russian Music (2016), both in St. Petersburg, as well as the international Grand Piano Competition for young pianists in Moscow. Long and lanky, with a mop of hair, he resembles a 1970’s rock star. His performance of the Concerto was by all means quite astonishing – for any age: keyboard touch and color were impressive, his technique rock-solid. But above all he appeared fearless, undisturbed by a few slips in the beginning moments. His musicality seems pretty straightforward, for now devoid of too many distracting mannerisms and tics. There is no doubt this man is going to go places. The clarity of his articulation and the directness of his delivery were completely matched by Gergiev who appeared in a much better doing here than the rest of the evening and secured a thrilling performance, deservedly greeted with a standing ovation.

Every time I hear Gergiev conduct Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, I am less convinced by his approach. The mannerisms seem to increase by the season, as does the running-time. In the concerts from 2011 the Fourth was already by far the least persuasive of the Tchaikovsky symphonies cycle and Gergiev’s recent CD recording only confirmed the impression of artificiality and incoherence. He clearly has something special in mind with this work, but what exactly is anybody’s guess. Gergiev’s unwarranted lingering in the first and second movements produced far too many drops of tension. In effect, by now the symphony has fallen into a succession of episodes, some undeniably beautiful (as the opening of the slow movement, thanks to the magnificent Mariinsky woodwinds), others merely bland (as the return of the fate motif in the first movement, or the endless conclusion of the Andantino, due to Gergiev’s obsessive scrutiny of every orchestral detail), but eventually inconsequential. Even the buoyant Scherzo failed to take flight. The symphony is too drawn out, takes forever to end, and fails to make any impact as a whole. One could argue that Gergiev overplays the symphony’s dark beauty, but in the process he has totally smothered its passion and excitement.

The Lullaby and the grandiose finale of Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird which allowed the orchestra to open its big guns one more time, was a very generous encore for an already long evening. Of the dozens of concerts and operas conducted by Valery Gergiev I attended in the last 25 years or so, this has to be one of the most dispiriting. Works that once sounded great in his hands now fizzled out or morphed into cluttered, unconvincing personal statements. Yet, not all was lost, as this concert allowed us to get acquainted with a rare new talent, Ivan Bessonov, from whom we will surely hear again in a not too distant future.

Copyright © 2018 Marc Haegeman


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Total Liszt

Franz Liszt:
Sposalizio, S161/1 (orch. Salvatore Sciarrino)
Totentanz, S126
A Faust Symphony, S108

Alice Sara Ott, piano
Brenden Gunnell, tenor
Gentlemen of the London Symphony Chorus, Simon Halsey, chorus director
London Symphony Orchestra, Antonio Pappano
Barbican Hall, London, 26 November 2017

Come to think of it, concerts devoted to a single composer – jubilees and special anniversaries notwithstanding – are quite unusual. The well-considered “Total Liszt” program from the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano gave ample proof that evenings like this do work and make perfect sense. “Total Liszt” put the Hungarian composer in a propitious light, offering variety, a discovery, but above all outstanding music-making and plenty of thrills.

Franz Liszt

Franz Liszt

The discovery came in the shape of Sposalizio, originally the sublime opening part of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage, Second Year: Italy for solo piano, yet here in a 2015 orchestration by the Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino (1947-). By using a modernist, sophisticated instrumentation (including bells and glockenspiel), Sciarrino pulls the work resolutely towards himself, yet the result is that the graceful evocation of the Marriage of the Virgin, as Liszt saw it in Raphael’s painting in Milan, ends up somewhere in modern-day Cinema Paradiso. Plenty of attention-grabbing sonic effects (piccolo and bass clarinet joining forces), with some weird pauses thrown in, and you were listening to the sound rather than the content. Although intently and lovingly performed by Pappano and the LSO, Sposalizio in Sciarrino-style was something of an oddity.

The following Totentanz grabbed the attention as well, but for very different reasons. Liszt’s fascination with death and the diabolical, partly fueled by his traveling and interest in arts, never found a more frightening expression as in this short work for piano and orchestra, adroitly variegating the Dies irae theme, as well as pushing the limits of harmony and piano technique. The Totentanz was given a knockout performance by pianist Alice Sara Ott. Appearing in a black gown, as if dressed for an infernal ball, she left little doubt she wanted to have a great time. And so did we.

The Totentanz has been in Ott’s repertory for some years and it’s clear she knows how to bring it with devastating impact. Her innate classical poise prevents her from pushing the piece over the edge, yet it’s exactly this flirting with the abyss which makes the Totentanz such an exciting ride. Alternately burning and melting the piano, she delivered the ferocious runs (including these jaw-dropping glissandos) with breathtaking speed, articulation and clarity, while the reflective moment in the fourth variation acquired a mesmerizing beauty in her hands. This was death equally creepy as well as beguiling. A close connection with Pappano and the LSO in great form added to the overall excitement and success. Alice Sara Ott received a thunderous applause and returned with a contrasting encore, the C-sharp minor Nocturne from Chopin in a ravishing gossamer delivery.

As rarely performed in the concert-hall as the Totentanz is the Faust Symphony in its complete 1857 version, including the finale with tenor solo and male-voice choir. Antonio Pappano offered overall a fine, often very beautiful, if eventually not entirely convincing reading of the Faust Symphony. Focused, attentive to every detail, coherently shaped and without a single drop in tension, the first two movements stood out: Faust appeared as a wild, edgy and volatile character, while Gretchen breathed tenderness and innocence to delight. Mephistopheles however would have benefited from more abandon and profounder work on the instrumental color. Perhaps it was the onslaught of the preceding Totentanz still fresh in mind, or simply the emphasis of the first movement which made Mephistopheles sound somewhat underwhelming. But in any case the contrast between the outer movements was too little pronounced, with Faust appearing as vivid and unsettling as his diabolic reflection. The “Chorus mysticus” finale, adding a spiritual dimension to the human conflicts evoked in the symphony, was however properly grand and powerful, with splendid vocal contributions from the American tenor Brenden Gunnell and gents from the London Symphony Chorus.

The playing of the LSO was a constant pleasure this evening, nary a weak link in the ensemble. With his detailed approach and care for orchestral balance, Pappano capitalized on the divided strings of the massive ensemble, highlighting the often brilliant writing of the symphony. Nowhere more so as in Gretchen, where Liszt at times reduces the orchestral forces to a chamber music scale. The admirable LSO woodwinds, especially Bobby Cheng’s oboe and Adam Walker’s flute, often in dialogue with groups of or even solo strings, always set the proper tone and atmosphere.

“Total Liszt” was a superb evening. Alice Sara Ott’s performance of the Totentanz was in a class of its own and in spite of some minor quibbles, A Faust Symphony remained a remarkable achievement as well. Running well over 70 minutes the symphony can be a daunting prospect, yet performances of such constant high quality as here by Pappano and the LSO are liable to convince you it has to be this way. The label of “heavenly length”, as in the case of Schubert’s later works, wouldn’t be inappropriate.

Copyright © 2017 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