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.


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The American Dream still lives in Antwerp

John Adams: Two Fanfares for orchestra
Bohuslav Martinů: Violin Concerto No. 2

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74 “Pathétique”
Josef Špaček jr, violin
Antwerp Symphony Orchestra, David Zinman
Antwerp, Queen Elisabeth Hall, 3 May 2019

David Zinman (© Priska Ketterer)

David Zinman (© Priska Ketterer)

This concert of the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra was part of “The American Dream” theme this season, focusing on American composers and musicians, as well as European artists who for one reason or another travelled or worked stateside. The respected David Zinman led the orchestra in an interesting programme, offering next to Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony an absolute rarity with Bohuslav’s Martinů’s Violin Concerto no. 2, composed and premiered in the US. The American presence was further ensured by the Two Fanfares for orchestra from John Adams.

Read the full review on Bachtrack.


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Magnificent Rachmaninov tribute from Lugansky and Denève in Ghent

Samy Moussa: Nocturne (2014)
Sergei Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 1 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 1
Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 44

Nikolai Lugansky, piano
Brussels Philharmonic, Stéphane Denève
Ghent, Bijloke, 4 April 2019

Nikolai Lugansky (© Marco Borggreve)

Nikolai Lugansky (© Marco Borggreve)

The Brussels Philharmonic and their music director Stéphane Denève seem to be on a high. They just completed their first North-American tour with success and now, back in Belgium, resume with a splendid tribute to Sergei Rachmaninov. More than just an homage though, this concert was testimony to both the quality of music-making the Brussels Phil has reached and the mutual trust that developed between orchestra and conductor. To introduce the concert maestro Denève, in his delightful Gallic English, paraphrased Rachmaninov when asked how to define music: “Music comes straight from the heart and talks only to the heart: it is love!” And this concert was exactly that.

Read the full review on Bachtrack.


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Mischa Maisky shines in Tchaikovsky in Brussels

Hans Werner Henze: Der Erlkönig, orchestra fantasy
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Variations on a Rococo Theme in A major, Op. 33
Franz Liszt: A Faust Symphony, S 108

Mischa Maisky, cello
Hugh Wolff, Belgian National Orchestra
Brussels, Centre for Fine Arts, 22 March 2019

Like the Brussels Philharmonic, Belgium’s national band has Anglicised its name into Belgian National Orchestra (BNO), thereby putting the confusing Dutch/French labelling happily to rest. But the real good news is that, at least judging from this concert, the BNO has become a more attractive formation, more polished, focused and committed than I can remember them. Led by their current music director, Hugh Wolff, they made a fine impression in a demanding programme which included Liszt’s Faust Symphony and a stellar performance of Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a rococo theme by Mischa Maisky.

Read the full review on Bachtrack.


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Luminous Beethoven and impetuous Connesson in Bruges

Guillaume Connesson: Flammenschrift
Ludwig van Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61
Sergei Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet, excerpts

Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider, violin
Brussels Philharmonic, Stéphane Denève
Bruges, Concertgebouw, 1 March 2019

The success story of the Brussels Philharmonic is one of the miracles of the Belgian classical music scene. Under conductors Michel Tabachnik and, since 2015/16, Stéphane Denève the stuffy, bureaucratic Flemish radio band from yesteryear happily morphed into a vibrant, independent formation of international fame and acclaim. This concert led by Denève with music by Connesson, Beethoven and Prokofiev duly demonstrated its strengths, as well as some limitations. A luminous performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto in D major by Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider considerably added to its attraction.

Read the full review on Bachtrack.


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Electrifying Rach 3 from Giltburg in Rotterdam

Sergei Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74 “Pathétique”
Boris Giltburg, piano
Rotterdam Philharmonic, Stanislav Kochanovsky
Rotterdam, De Doelen, 10 February 2019

Boris Giltburg (© Sasha Gusov)

Boris Giltburg (© Sasha Gusov)

Can you ever get tired of Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto or Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique? Not with the right performers, the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra must have thought. And the Dutch always have a way to find the right people. They invited a couple of exciting young musicians and offered this high-pathos Russian double-bill on their home turf, De Doelen, no less than three times in four days. With great success too: an electrifying rendition of Rach 3 by Boris Giltburg reminded us how overwhelming this work can be, while Stanislav Kochanovsky highlighted Tchaikovsky’s supreme mastery of the orchestra in his final opus. There’s no way you can get tired of this music.

Read the full review on Bachtrack.


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Isabelle Faust shines in German early romantics programme from Gardiner and the LSO

Carl Maria von Weber: Euryanthe, Overture
Ludwig van Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61
Robert Schumann: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major ‘Rhenish’, Op. 97

Isabelle Faust, violin
London Symphony Orchestra, John Eliot Gardiner

Antwerp, Queen Elisabeth Hall, 30 January 2019

© Felix Broede

Isabelle Faust (© Felix Broede)

Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the London Symphony Orchestra visited Antwerp with a splendid programme of German early Romantic music. They captured the exalted homages from Weber and Schumann to the Germany of olden times in vivid and dramatic readings that made a good case – barring some rough edges – for traditional orchestras adopting period-style influences. Eventually it was a stellar performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major by Isabelle Faust that made the evening really memorable.

Read the full review on Bachtrack.