I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by Marc Haegeman


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Pittsburgh Symphony in Brussels

Franz Joseph Haydn: Symphony #93 in D Major, Hob. I:93
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Concerto for Piano #2 in C minor, Op. 18
Richard Strauss: Symphonic Rhapsody “Elektra”

Daniil Trifonov, piano
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck
Brussels, Centre for Fine Arts, 1 June 2016

As part of a European tour the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and their music director Manfred Honeck paid a single visit to Belgium. Their Brussels program encompassed the classical elegance of Haydn’s 93th Symphony as well as the dissonant expressionism of Strauss’s Elektra in an orchestral adaptation, allowing us to appreciate the excellence and the generally high-octane performance style of the orchestra. There is little doubt, however, that for most in the Brussels audience, the return of the acclaimed 25-year-old Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov in Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto, made the icing on the cake.

The magnificent Haydn 93rd Symphony, one of the earliest in his London series, was delightfully performed – luminous, lively, and witty. Any fears that with such a large formation Honeck would treat us to some outmoded big band, string-driven Haydn were soon dispelled by the transparent, antiphonally placed Pittsburgh violins radiating warmth and elegance, and by his impeccable phrasing. The string quartet opening the second movement provided a striking contrast and Haydn’s ever-inventive orchestration, including remarkable solos from principal oboe Cynthia Koledo DeAlmeida, was always carefully exposed. Honeck gave the Menuetto an irresistible swing and rounded off with an imaginatively paced Finale.

Imagination was also running high in the Rachmaninoff concerto, but here the results were far less persuasive. Daniil Trifonov possesses – need one repeat it – a phenomenal technique which effortlessly deals with the work’s virtuosic demands and allows him to conjure the most astonishing sonorities from his instrument. But just as in his traversal of Rachmaninoff’s Third, which I heard in London last year, I was left with the feeling that bigger structures seem to elude him and this was mainly work in progress.

Trifonov’s playing was sonorous and crystal-clear, even in the most demanding passages, and I haven’t heard that many pianists in concert who aren’t drowned out by the orchestral tutti, yet eventually this turned out to be part of the problem. Trifonov seems to treat everything as a solo part and hardly ever takes a back seat. Every note, and we all know Rachmaninoff gives us many, is highlighted in his hands. This surgical treatment often reveals unheard details but also stretches the longer lines to breaking point. His preference for slow tempi and lingering mid-way may be considered as expressive freedom but when pushed this far they undermine the musical sweep, as in the first movement where he reached the sonic limits of his Steinway too soon, only to hold back immediately afterwards and flunk the Maestoso passage with loudly hammered chords. The first movement took forever to end and blurred the contrast with the following Adagio sostenuto.

In the second movement, with Trifonov’s microscopic, meandering approach the overall effect was overwrought rather than affecting. Truth to be told the sense of fragmentation was reinforced by Honeck’s reliance on extreme dynamic shifts. The fortissimo orchestral passages, topped by the brass section overpowering everybody else, were simply too demonstrative.

By the time they reached the third movement Trifonov was in characteristic vein with his nose on the keyboard, sweating profusely, as if in a trance. It was sufficient to convince the Brussels’ audience they were in the presence of greatness and give Trifonov a standing ovation. Trifonov is a remarkable pianist, let there be no doubt. Yet compared to some of his generation from the Russian school, like Dmitry Masleev or Behzod Abduraimov who both featured in the Rachmaninoff festival in Rotterdam last September, he still has some way to go.

What may have sounded loud in the Rachmaninoff was dwarfed by what the orchestra had in store after the interval. But here the sonic excesses were duly warranted. The Elektra Symphonic Rhapsody had been the crowning achievement of the Pittsburgh’s Symphony’s homage to the composer’s 150th birthday in 2014. Manfred Honeck and composer Tomas Ille bravely arranged a 35-minutes suite from Strauss’s extraordinary opera and while I have never been a great fan of such posthumous opera-without-words medleys, at least this Elektra Rhapsody proved a cleverly convincing showcase for the orchestra. No matter that those unfamiliar with the opera plot will remain mostly in the dark as to what this music is depicting – with the characters’ leitmotifs and chords preserved a synopsis might come in handy – one can revel in the stunning sound world of Strauss at his most daringly avant-garde. The arrangers made sure to balance tension with texture and a massive Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra captured the changing moods, from lyrical to brutally terrifying, with aplomb and utter conviction. The outsized brass section and percussion could easily have stolen the show, if it wasn’t for the continuous quality of the string playing. In short, a fitting tribute to Richard Strauss, but foremost to the Pittsburg Symphony Orchestra clearly in splendid form.

Copyright © 2016, Marc Haegeman

First published on Classical Net (http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/haegeman/20160601-trifonov-pittsburgh-honeck.php)


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Italian tribute

Sergei Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43
Ottorino Respighi: Fountains of Rome, Pines of Rome, Roman Festivals

Lise de la Salle, piano
London Symphony Orchestra/Antonio Pappano
London, Barbican Hall, 31 January 2016

Two 20th-century composers, Rachmaninoff and Respighi, who by and large preferred to stay away from the atonal modernism of many of their contemporaries, formed the attractive pairing in this concert of the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) under Antonio Pappano. The subject was Italy, whether in Rachmaninoff’s tribute to the Italian violin virtuoso Paganini, or in the fascination of Respighi with the Italian capital.

French pianist Lise de la Salle replaced at short notice the injured Alice Sara Ott in Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. There was much to admire in her pianism even if ampler rehearsal time would undoubtedly have resulted in a more finished performance. Granted, Pappano didn’t make things easy. By his edgy, incisive and hard-driven yet precise approach he immediately made it clear this was a no prisoners event. It took De la Salle a while to settle the balance with the orchestra (she was drowned out in the opening pages) and make it clear she had something to say as well. Her steely fingers ran with admirable speed and articulation through the faster passages. At best it sounded as if soloist and conductor were sparking each other off, although her playing lacked shading and the power and excitement in the latter half of the piece all too often turned into breathlessness. Eventually it were the more introspective variations, where De la Salle’s piano blended with the superb contributions from the LSO soloists, that best demonstrated her musicality. Pappano’s sense of theatre was unfortunately heard at its worst in one of the schmaltziest eruptions in the famous 18th variation I have heard in a long time.

Ottorino Respighi’s three symphonic poems about Rome, composed between 1916 and 1928, weren’t meant to be heard in sequence and it takes some adjustment when doing so in order to avoid aural overkill. Maestro Pappano, whose affection for the music is not a secret, announced he would perform the trilogy in a different order than programmed. Instead of the chronological order he opened with Roman Festivals to conclude with Pines of Rome. To be sure, this setup makes for a more balanced evocation and moreover it allows ending the concert with the irresistible Appian Way march.

While Pappano’s traversal wasn’t without its weaker moments, the LSO was in stunning form throughout, including superb solos from all desks, a rock-solid ensemble, and a quite astonishing transparency in even the most demanding passages. This is spectacular music, but it takes a spectacularly gifted orchestra to tackle it with such jaw-dropping precision, panache and aplomb. And the LSO offered that in spades.

The colorful extravaganzas of Roman society and history were hammered home without any fear of excess or exaggeration by Pappano. Yet this was overall more Fellini’s Rome than Corot’s. Pappano’s heady approach worked best in the Festivals and the Pines of Rome, yet less so in the subtler moments of Fountains. Colors generously splashed all over the Barbican and while Respighi’s aural orgies knocked you out of your seat (as in the Circuses and the Epiphany), eventually I felt Pappano was leaning too much towards a loudness contest, at times sacrificing evocation to the purely demonstrative.

The Fountain of the Valle Giulia at Dawn opening the Fountains started too loud and was in spite of the superb strings and winds playing short on atmosphere. Pappano jumped dynamic markings again in the Triton Fountain by having the horn blasts as loud as the following rush of water. Trevi, too, was uniformly loud, without the surging crescendo, but the closing pages of the Villa Medici at Sunset acquired a feel of ravishing serenity.

In The Pines of Rome one had to admire the orchestral playing in the well-characterized Catacombs and the nocturnal evocation of the Janiculum (magnificent clarinet from Chris Richards), just as much as the very noisy cavorting kids in the Villa Borghese gardens or the deafening steamroller that flattened in a go for broke crescendo the Via Appia, adding superbly realized offstage brass. After all, this was more than anything the LSO’s night. At the end of this concert they could confidently say, paraphrasing the popular Roman line: “Make way, we are the LSO!”

Copyright © 2016, Marc Haegeman

First published on Classical Net  (http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/haegeman/20160131-delasalle-lso-pappano.php)


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The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Brussels

Richard Wagner: Tristan and Isolde – Prelude and Liebestod
Ingvar Lidholm: Poesis
Antonín Dvořák: Symphony #9 in E minor “From the New World”, Op. 95

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Herbert Blomstedt
Brussels, Centre for Fine Arts, 22 January 2016

This concert of Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (RCO) at the Brussels Center for Fine Arts marked the inauguration of the Dutch presidency of the Council of the European Union. A feisty event, attended by both the Dutch and Belgian royal couples and a host of excellencies – which accounted for an impossibly 30 minutes late start, but also proved for a city still in the throes of terrorist activity aimed at our way of life, that things can be normal after all.

And what better way is there to escape from grim-visaged reality than a concert with great music that sublimates our cultural achievements? The RCO was conducted by the veteran Swedish maestro Herbert Blomstedt. At 88 years and 7 months Blomstedt is, incidentally, the oldest guest conductor in the history of the orchestra, even surpassing the legendary Pierre Monteux who was “only” 88 and 4 months. Not that anybody would have been aware of this, because the vivid and impish personality of the Swede totally belied his age just as much as his music making. Conducting without a baton, and for most of the concert, from memory, Blomstedt offered a finely contrasting program with two popular works, Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde and Dvořák’s “From the New World”, framing a modern rarity (although “modern” here is already well over 50 years old too) Poesis from the Swedish composer Ingvar Lidholm (b. 1921).

From the opening Tristan it became clear that while Blomstedt would treat us generously to the beauty of the RCO – and he knows more than anybody to use that beauty in a constructive way – he would also keep everything solidly under control. One can imagine a more emotional Wagner, or indeed a more immediately dramatic one, yet Blomstedt capitalized fully on the silken strings and the mellow woodwinds of the RCO to let the lyricism of Tristan speak with unforced eloquence in some breathtaking crescendos.

While the orchestra was being rearranged, Blomstedt undeterred by the presence of royalty, picked up a microphone and introduced, in an often hilarious manner – vocal imitations and his familiar reference to mushrooms haphazardly growing in the forest and all – Ingvar Lidholm’s piece Poesis. Composed for the 50th anniversary of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic in 1963 and premiered by Blomstedt the following year, its experimental and seemingly chaotic modernity stood in stark contrast to the melodious, organized world of the preceding Wagner. Poesis remains a striking 20-minute sonic exploration, with startling crescendos and virtuosic solos, often challenging the orchestra to extremes and creating sound in unconventional ways, like dropping the lid prop of the piano or rustling sandpaper. Blomstedt clearly adores the work and just as in Tristan he was able to inspire the RCO musicians to sound their best. In the end, Poesis was a great deal of fun, with in particular superb solo passages from piano (Jeroen Bal), double bass and percussion.

Dvořák’s Ninth received an elegant but powerful, and often stunningly beautiful reading. Tempi were well-judged throughout, dynamics were controlled, yet if there was an emotion that Blomstedt was willing to share it seems to have been one of joy. I don’t recall hearing such an optimistic, sunny reading of the opening Allegro molto with lightly sprung rhythms, delicate textures and deft phrasing. Even the Largo, swiftly but attractively played, didn’t linger too much on melancholy or longing. This was mostly happy Dvořák, the “New World” symphony as a masterful continuation of In Nature’s Realm, admiring nature in all its richness of color and tones. The closing movement, with irresistible drive, was a logical culmination of joy. And how many times can you hear such a tight ensemble, such well-judged orchestral balance and transparency, and such colorful instrumentalists? The RCO brass, particularly the horns, were simply glorious.

The audience greeted orchestra and conductor with a well-deserved standing ovation. Blomstedt offered a Slavonic dance in return, naturally one of the most lifting ones, the fast Op. 46/1 in C Major. The RCO is a fabulous orchestra as Blomstedt was readily reminding us. He sent us home with a big smile, and what more can one ask, even if deep down we realized that this orchestra has even more in store than we were given tonight.

Copyright © 2016, Marc Haegeman

First published on Classical Net  (http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/haegeman/20160122-brussels-rco-blomstedt.php)


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Haitink’s Schumann

Robert Schumann:
Symphony #1 in B-Flat Major, Op. 38 (Spring)
Cello Concerto in A Minor, Op. 129 *
Symphony #4 in D Minor, Op. 120 (1851 version)

Overture “Manfred”, Op. 115
Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 54 **
Symphony #2 in C Major, Op. 61

* Gautier Capuçon, cello
** Murray Perahia, piano
Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Bernard Haitink
Concertgebouw Amsterdam, 13 & 15 November 2015

This year’s composer mini-festival from Bernard Haitink and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (COE) in Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw focused on Robert Schumann. In three concerts the Dutch maestro conducted Schumann’s four Symphonies and the Overture “Manfred”, as well as his Violin, Cello and Piano Concertos. I attended two of the evenings, leaving quite convinced that some conductors are definitely like great wines – they get better with age – and Haitink (86), who recently received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Gramophone Magazine, clearly wears that quality label. Distinguished soloists joined him for the concertos – on the evenings I saw, Gautier Capuçon for the Cello concerto and Murray Perahia for the Piano concerto. The harvest just doesn’t get any better than that.

In the Indian Summer of his long career Haitink has been rethinking his readings of the great symphonic repertoire. When you listen to his Schumann Symphonies traversal with the Royal Concertgebouw from some three decades ago there is no doubt this composer has also received a significant revamp in Haitink’s mind. The orchestral forces are now much smaller of course, but this Schumann new-style sounds utterly vivid, light and colorful, skillfully balancing energy with melodic eloquence. And far from mellowing with age, Haitink’s Schumann has become edgier, riskier and often dramatically more intense. The period-performance movement evidently has left its mark and while the characteristic Haitink qualities are still in place – like this unerring sense of musical structure, the spot-on gravitas, and warm sonority – the overall blend is more compelling than ever. Schumann himself appears as more complex and less predictable, more human in fact. The often heard criticism of clumsy orchestration is once again proven unjustified.

Bernard Haitink conducts Schumann

Bernard Haitink conducts Schumann

In the COE Haitink has found the ideal partner to bring these new insights to life. Orchestra and conductor worked together for years and it’s very obvious why Haitink called the ensemble “the greatest gift in the later stages of my career”. The evident chemistry between them was crystal-clear in these Amsterdam concerts by the responsiveness, alacrity and joy of the musicians. The maximum impact was achieved with the slightest of means. Haitink conducted everything with the score, always attentive to details and keeping everything under control with the smallest of motions.

It was great to hear how the individuality of each of the symphonies was characterized sonically, but also by a keen understanding of their internal logic. From the unbridled enthusiasm expressed in the First and also the Fourth Symphony (the latter performed in its 1851 reworking) with their transparent and limpid sound, to the struggling mood of the Second, brimming with excitement but also darkened by threatening intrusions. It made me regret I wasn’t able to hear them perform the “Rhenish”.

The orchestral balance was impeccable, but also slightly different, quite logically, from piece to piece. The antiphonally placed strings were a constant joy (perhaps nowhere more so than in the multilayered canvas of the Larghetto of the First Symphony and the hard-driven Allegro molto vivace of the Second). The woodwinds, first oboe and first clarinet especially, were no less impressive. The horns were fine, too, but I felt somewhat underwhelmed by the remainder of the brass sections, not always that focused or powerful. Timpanist John Chimes was however ever-reliable and clearly had his moment of glory in the Second Symphony.

Both the First and Fourth Symphonies were given superb readings, yet it was the Second which left the strongest impression. After a slightly hesitant introduction, Haitink unleashed the symphony with a passionate urgency virtually spanning the whole work in one single breath and leading towards an exhilarating, triumphant finale. Tempos were swifter than notated, the beautiful Adagio espressivo was fluent, but in effect this was one of the most convincing performances of a Schumann symphony I have heard recently: it had all the characteristics of the new manner, vivacious and transparent, but unlike most it retained its old-style grandeur and impact. The Haitink magic at its best.

Both soloists in the concertos were entirely on the same track with Haitink. Schumann’s Cello concerto is not an easy work to tackle in concert, parts of it are densely string-scored, yet French cellist Gautier Capuçon made a very strong case for it. All tonal refinement and unforced eloquence, Capuçon was even more remarkable by blending naturally within the orchestra, yet at the same time leaving no doubt he was the prime voice. Starting as if in an improvisatory manner, he captured the contrasting moods of Schumann’s inspiration – now determined then delicate – with exquisite taste and sensitivity.

Haitink also created a strong bond with pianist Murray Perahia throughout the years and seeing them together again at this stage of their careers was a moving experience indeed. Both musicians seem to feel each other instinctively and a more unified sense of purpose on a concert podium would be hard to find. Interestingly, Perahia (68) hasn’t softened with age either and the disarming naturalness of his earlier performances, including this concerto, has in places become more agitated and volatile, which frankly I don’t mind at all in Schumann. Especially when Perahia’s distinctive luminous, warm and silky tone and his crystalline articulation remain undiminished, and just as much in the fast passages as in the more meditative ones. The Piano concerto is one of Schumann’s most popular works but with artists of the caliber it continues to surprise.

The final evening featuring the Piano concerto and the C Major Symphony, opened with a fiercely dramatic account of the Overture “Manfred” and was dedicated to the victims of the terrorist attacks in Paris two days earlier. Orchestra leader Lorenza Borrani appropriately asked for a moment of silence at the beginning of the concert, but it was just as much the message of hope and strength that Haitink and the COE revealed with Schumann’s music that sent us home in a positive mood.

For Bernard Haitink this Schumann run was also a major personal triumph. The concerts were received with long standing ovations. He is Amsterdam’s local hero of course, but he deserves every bit of it. This was glorious music-making from a grand old master. Long may he continue.

Copyright © 2015, Marc Haegeman
First published on Classical Net (http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/haegeman/2015111315-schumann-fest-amsterdam-haitink.php)


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Rachmaninoff in Rotterdam

Sergei Rachmaninoff:
Piano concerto #1 in F-sharp minor, Op. 1 (1)
Piano concerto #2 in C minor, Op. 18 (2)
Piano concerto #3 in D minor, Op. 30 (3)
Piano concerto #4 in G minor, Op. 40 (4)
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 (5)
Symphony #3 in A minor, Op. 44
Vladimir Tarnopolski: Tabula Russia

1 Alexei Volodin, piano
2 Dmitry Masleev, piano
3 Alexander Gavrylyuk, piano
4 Sergei Babayan, piano
5 Behzod Abduraimov, piano
Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
The Doelen, Rotterdam, 11-12 September 2015

Valery Gergiev (© Hans van der Woerd)

Valery Gergiev (© Hans van der Woerd)

The 20th edition of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra Gergiev Festival was a celebration of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s music. This remarkable annual music event in the Dutch city of Rotterdam may have shrunk throughout the years from the initial ten to a mere three days, the programming remains no less intense, the purpose no less noble. In three days, under the tireless artistic leadership of Valery Gergiev, a substantial chunk of Rachmaninoff’s musical legacy was revived. The foyer and corridors of Rotterdam’s music center The Doelen were decorated with large photographic banners of the composer and his family; there were talks and publications, all helping to bring the man back alive again. But above all there was his music: lots of it. You need to be maestro Gergiev to conduct all four Piano Concertos in a single day, accompanying four different soloists. He also found the energy to perform the three Symphonies, the Symphonic Dances and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Other concerts offered solo piano works, songs, and choral work. In fact, too much in too short a time to take it all in. With the kind invitation of the Rotterdam Philharmonic press department I attended three concerts – including the four Concertos, the Paganini Rhapsody, Symphony #3 and a world-premiere from the Russian avant-garde composer Vladimir Tarnopolski – and even that was something of a crash experience.

This Rachmaninoff festival was quite naturally a piano event, as much as an homage to the Russian piano School, still very much a treasure trove. While some pianists like Dmitry Masleev and Behzod Abduraimov are only at the start of their career, one couldn’t help feeling dazzled by the wealth of talent that Gergiev assembled. The appeal of Rachmaninoff’s music, especially his concertos, remains particularly strong judging by the sold out signs – this edition allegedly attracted 42% more visitors than last year – but also by the vivid, refreshing readings from often young artists heard here. To have five first-rate pianists in a row moreover offered a fantastic opportunity to compare. Hearing them individually would arguably have led to different appreciations, but this is how it goes with such an embarrassment of riches.

The four Piano Concertos were performed in two concerts on September 12, all accompanied by the Rotterdam Philharmonic under Gergiev. The afternoon concert featured Concerto #1 and #2. The First was the least appealing. Alexei Volodin (38) recreated the image of the traditional Soviet powerhouse virtuoso – bold, grand and powerful, yet not always that subtle. While the youthful bravura was hammered home with predictable effortlessness, the cantilena quality of the concerto remained underexposed and slower passages were drawn out rather than sung.

By contrast, one of the revelations of this Festival was Dmitry Masleev, this year’s first prize winner and gold medalist at the International Tchaikovsky Competition. Looking by his boyish appearance a lot younger than his 27 years, his playing demonstrated plenty of maturity and understanding. In effect, his rendition of the Second Piano Concerto, a work full of pitfalls, was wholly convincing and brimming with personal insights. Masleev shares the easy virtuosity of Volodin, but his pianism sounded a lot more nuanced and his natural expressivity and warmth suited the prominent lyricism of the piece. Nothing sounded overblown or forced; his flexibility of dynamics and phrasing seemed to serve the music only and never became a goal in itself. The first movement gained tremendous drive, going for a passionate climax, and leaving once subsided that feeling of melancholy Rachmaninoff had the secret of. The Adagio sostenuto further highlighted Masleev’s sensitivity to color and phrasing, his piano in an ideal balance with the orchestra. Both conductor and soloist kept the tempo flowing and the ending left one with a profound sense of loss again.

The encore, Rachmaninoff’s arrangement of Felix Mendelssohn’s Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream was ideal. The rhythmical incisiveness and flow, the light textures without a hint of heaviness all pointed at a genuinely gifted artist. Dmitry Masleev is a pianist to look out for.

The evening concert began with Sergey Babayan’s performance of the Fourth Concerto. With his 50 years the oldest of the pianists, Armenian-American Babayan is a noted pedagogue who has his own academy at the Cleveland Institute of Music. He is also a fantastic pianist. The rarely heard Fourth is allegedly his favorite and there wasn’t any doubt he owns every bar of it. The outer movements had tremendous drive in his hands, at times in the finale pushing the orchestra out of the comfort zone; the Largo was particularly dark, fully supported by Gergiev. A fascinating work, no less, that doesn’t deserve its obscurity within Rachmaninoff’s legacy.

Alexander Gavrylyuk (© Anna Sanfeliu)

Alexander Gavrylyuk (© Anna Sanfeliu)

All were however eclipsed by Alexander Gavrylyuk’s electrifying performance of the magnificent Third Piano Concerto. Performances in this Festival were enthusiastically received by the audience, but the packed auditorium spontaneously exploded at the end of the D minor, and rightly so. From start to finish the playing of the Ukranian pianist held the public spellbound, gradually building up the tension and eventually generating enough energy to light up the whole of Rotterdam, harbor included. His astonishing grip on the work’s structure was magnified by constant tonal beauty, judicious tempi, enviable stamina, and immaculate timing – the buildups in the first and second movements were just as exciting and dramatic as the climaxes itself. The superbly shaped and effortless first-movement cadenza (the original long one) would in itself have been worth the price of admission. Like Masleev, Gavrylyuk owns the secret to find tremendous depth underneath the lightest of surfaces. The bravura passages were stunning, exhilarating feats but it was just as much in the slower, less spectacular passages that Gavrylyuk showed his true artistry. None of the aggravating mannerisms of Daniil Trifonov or the hard-fisted bashing of Denis Matsuev here – this was phenomenal, totally compelling playing, lucid and subtle, ready to take a place among the legendary accounts of Rachmaninoff’s Third. As an encore we were treated to a knockout performance of the Rhapsody on the Wedding March from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Liszt and Horowitz.

The concert of September 11, called “Memories of Russia”, paired two major Rachmaninoff works from the last period of his life – Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with the Tashkent-born Behzod Abduraimov (25) as soloist, and the Third Symphony. Composed for the occasion at the request of Gergiev, a new piece by Vladimir Tarnopolski Tabula Russia was added as an opener.

Behzod Abduraimov stood out as a supreme colorist in the Paganini Rhapsody, a refined magician of the keyboard, shading the Rhapsody with an extraordinary array of dynamics and tones. Each section became a microcosm, cut razor-sharp, living and boasting plenty of wit. The famous 18th variation was breathtaking, begun simply by the piano but taken into full bloom by the orchestra. As Masleev he dug right into the music without ever falling into flashiness or brutality. There is quite obviously nothing Abduraimov cannot do, but in the end it was his musicality rather than his technical prowess which made the most impact. Tchaikovsky’s Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Op. 19 #4 followed as delightful encore. Here’s another young talent to follow.

The success of these concertos wouldn’t have been possible without Gergiev and the Rotterdam Philharmonic of course. In spite of the dense programming the conductor appeared utterly engaged and able to transmit his belief in the scores to the players. He also created with all soloists a successful rapport – most were familiar faces, but Gavrylyuk had never performed with him before. Gergiev has been working with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra since 1988 and his tenure as the orchestra’s principal conductor from 1995 until 2008 has been hailed as a golden era. The Rotterdam musicians evidently know how to decipher Gergiev’s noisy, hand-fluttering conducting style and nobody is any longer surprised his toothpick batons guarantee that even the slightest inflections are registered. Occasional rough edges or slips in balance in the heat of the action weren’t entirely avoided, but in general this was magnificent and often thoroughly exciting playing. The orchestra boasts fine woodwinds and horns sections, yet it were the strings that left the strongest mark.

This was a very colorful if mostly darkish, sometimes impulsive and brazing Rachmaninoff: an approach that highlighted the beauty, inventiveness and modernity of much of the writing, especially in the later works. The performance of his final Symphony had all these characteristics in spades. Gergiev evidently knows how to dose the contrasting moods of Rachmaninoff’s inspiration in exile; movingly tender in the exposition of the themes, then blooming with passionate strokes and often verging on the edge of a maelstrom of much darker emotions. The first-movement exposition was repeated to superb effect. The final movement, brilliantly performed by the Rotterdam Philharmonic, gained tremendous momentum but also left a bittersweet taste.

Tarnopolski’s Tabula Russia was a powerful piece scored for a huge orchestra, including triple woodwinds and an extensive percussion section. Tapping into the specific sonority of the traditional Russian bells and liturgical chant, which also feature prominently in Rachmaninoff’s music, the music developed in several long crescendos, leading towards cacophonic interruptions and exploring some remarkable percussive effects before dying out. The overall mood was pretty morose, but then again the composer defined his work as metaphoric for the Russian conscience always in search of a new identity. An interesting work, and strongly performed, if arguably too opaque for immediate public appeal.

After the last concert Valery Gergiev expressed his gratitude and also a bit of relief that this Festival of his is still running after 20 years. May there be many more years to come!

Copyright © 2015, Marc Haegeman
First published on Classical Net (http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/haegeman/2015091112-rachmaninoff-rotterdam-gergiev.php)


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Budapest Brahms in Bruges

Johannes Brahms
Symphony #1 in C minor, Op. 68
Symphony #2 in D Major, Op. 73
Symphony #3 in F Major, Op. 90
Symphony #4 in E minor, Op. 98

Budapest Festival Orchestra/Iván Fischer
Bruges, Concertgebouw, 21-22 May 2015

Ivan Fischer

Ivan Fischer

It doesn’t happen very often you that can hear the complete Brahms symphonies cycle almost in one breath. The magnificent Budapest Festival Orchestra under Iván Fischer took up residence in the Bruges Concertgebouw again and offered all four symphonies in order of creation in two consecutive days. At the end of the run you leave the concert hall dazzled, slightly tipsy by the richness and density of Brahms’ music, but also strengthened in your conviction that this symphonic corpus is indeed an inexhaustible monument.

Yet the Brahms symphonies are also a particular tough nut to crack and the trouble with these cycles in concert (or for that matter on disc) is that not many conductors manage to be equally convincing in all four of them. Recently, Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra came really close, but with Fischer it seems to be another matter. To his credit, he too wants to shed new light on these symphonies that have been performed, recorded and reinterpreted hundreds of times. Fischer favors warmth, elegance and opulence, pulling Brahms away from any classical rigor or astringency. There is a pervading feel of coziness and even at times complacency. It works to some extent, not in the least because Fischer can capitalize on an orchestra that is after a long standing cooperation able to translate exactly what he wants. But it also leads to disappointments and the Budapest Brahms won’t be for everyone.

Just so for the First Symphony: the first movement was a mostly relaxed reading with a few nervous moments thrown in. The special placement of the orchestra – violins divided left-right, eight double basses back center – promised more than it delivered. On the contrary, a bottom-heavy string sound didn’t allow anything to come through, not even the timpani. There was a lack of focus in the phrasing and tutti were loud but harsh. This was rather dull Brahms indeed and thankfully the exposition wasn’t repeated. The plush sound and gentle mood served the inner movements better, yet as such there was little or no contrast with the preceding one. The transition towards the main Beethoven-like theme in the finale wasn’t particularly convincing either (with a lugubrious pizzicato passage) although the theme itself moved gloriously.

Things cleared up considerably with the Second Symphony where the lyrical mood seemed to suit Fischer’s approach better. What there is of darker passages was only touched, never emphasized. The orchestral balance and textural variety were more convincing and for the first time this evening the quality of the Budapest brass and woodwinds could be fully appreciated just as much as the strings: the first horn from Zoltán Szöke, the two flutes from Gabriella Pivon and Anett Jóföldi, the oboe from Victor Aviat deserve special mention. Fischer isn’t afraid to stress expressive detail for effect, as during this moment of reversal in the first movement, where the horn begins a new theme. Ravishing moments, but also a practice that quickly becomes tiresome especially when heard repeatedly during two concerts.

Unlike the first evening, Fischer conducted Symphonies 3 and 4 with the score. Again, in the F Major symphony he gave us primarily elegance and warmth, with admirably refined timbres. This worked best in the inner movements, where the chamber-music like approach emphasized the contemplative quality and tender melancholy of Brahms’ inspiration. The strings were magnificent in the Allegretto. In effect, the beauty of the orchestra was intoxicating, yet the first movement Allegro con brio verged on preciousness. Slowish tempi and plenty of rubato exposed orchestral textures but also softened the music considerably. The exposition was repeated this time. Even the agitato section at the beginning of the development sounded almost like a waltz. It was only in the last movement that some drama and energy finally surfaced.

Interestingly, for being the most classical by form (and arguably the most difficult to pull off) the Fourth Symphony was by far the most successful of the cycle. Strings and winds blended beautifully, the orchestral color was magnificent throughout, and Fischer kept a convincing balance between the great lines and the details. The outer movements had plenty of edge. The Allegro giocoso radiated with a very Dvorak-like ebullience, but it was the last movement which impressed the most by the quality of the musicians. It’s one of Brahms’ most accomplished compositions and the Budapest Festival Orchestra made sure to remind us of it. The continually changing atmosphere of the variations was magnificently captured without loss of the bigger picture. And where can you hear such a melancholic flute solo as from Gabriella Pivon, or such noble beauty in the trombones?

Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra hadn’t given us their usual surprise of the concert yet. On the first evening it came with the encore, when the musicians stood up and regrouped themselves around Fischer, scores in hand, to sing Brahms’ Es geht ein Wehen durch den Wald a cappella. And they sang pretty well too. Fischer and the Budapest Festival were greeted with a standing ovation. No matter if their Brahms wasn’t the revelation that earlier visits may have led us to expect, having musicians of this stature in town always remains something of an event.

Copyright © 2015, Marc Haegeman

First published on Classical Net: http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/haegeman/20150522-brahms-bfo-fischer.php


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Magnificent Sibelius and Rachmaninoff on Speed

Jean Sibelius: Nightride and Sunrise, Op. 55
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto #3 in D minor, Op. 30
Jean Sibelius: Symphony #5 in E Flat Major, Op. 82

Daniil Trifonov, piano
Philharmonia Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy
London, Royal Festival Hall, 17 May 2015

Jean Sibelius

Jean Sibelius

The 150th anniversary of Sibelius’ birth is celebrated by the Philharmonia and Vladimir Ashkenazy with three concerts this spring at London’s Royal Festival Hall. Ashkenazy is of course a foremost Sibelius conductor (he recorded the complete Symphonies cycle and the major orchestral works with both the Philharmonia and more recently the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic) and while not aiming for completeness these concerts offer a fine anthology of well and lesser known works of the Finnish composer. This was the second concert in the series, and one that somewhat bizarrely added Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto headlining Daniil Trifonov to the Sibelius bill. The Royal Festival Hall was packed for the occasion, yet clearly not because of Sibelius, or indeed Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia.

Ashkenazy opened with the intriguing but rarely heard tone poem Nightride and Sunrise. Skillfully negotiating the changes in climate, keeping the piece well together, he coaxed a vividly evocative reading. The luminous string playing in the opening section was pure joy.

His account of the Sibelius Fifth which closed the concert was no less affecting. Aided by a Philharmonia in superb doing, with the woodwinds conjuring a seemingly inexhaustible spectrum of color, Ashkenazy’s Sibelius struck a convincing balance between lyricism and ruggedness. The transitions throughout the symphony were handled with a sure hand, although Ashkenazy started in a rather relaxed way. As by magic however a climate full of tension was installed – the soft passage with the semiquaver strings figures and the eerie bassoon of Robin O’Neill was absolutely time suspending. The long run towards the end gained tremendous momentum. The quality of the orchestra, assuring textural clarity and detail, made the Andante mosso, quasi allegretto another standout.

The final movement was solemn, grandly exhilarating without ever becoming demonstrative. The brass (horns and trombones) created a majestic flow in the famous swan theme, while the strings prepared the way to it in a thrilling manner. All in all, this is magnificent Sibelius, successfully continuing the Philharmonia’s special relationship with this composer that started back in the Walter Legge/Herbert von Karajan days.

Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov is quite an astonishing performer. He’s 24, a multiple competition laureate and has already been labeled the new Horowitz and other ungrateful visionary titles of precocious greatness. As seen some years ago in Baden-Baden, in concert he’s something to behold. His boyishly innocent appearance transforms into a demonic trance once behind the piano. Images of the great 19th century heartthrob virtuosos like Paganini and Liszt come to mind, just as well as these cartoonish battles to pound the instrument into submission. Sweating profusely, inelegantly humpbacked with his face virtually on the keys, it’s all very amusing and part of the show. But how was the playing? Needless to say, Trifonov has unlimited abilities and if only he can find a way to channel his fearless impetuosity and unbridled imagination into something constructive, a place among the great might be secure.

As for now, however, his Rachmaninoff Third was very much work in progress. Extreme, exaggerated, brimming with ideas, far too many for his own good actually, Trifonov seems to be locked in a cocoon during his performance, high on his come-what-may-search for originality which all too often throws musical judgment out of the window. Tempos and dynamics were pulled about, the bigger picture was sacrificed to uneven snapshots, some genuinely brilliant, others merely erratic. Softer passages, often played almost inaudibly soft (as in the slow movement), had a hesitant feel, if they didn’t stall, and starkly contrasted with the jaw-droppingly fast runs. It was a miracle Ashkenazy was able to stay with him at all, although in some instances he didn’t quite make it. At best, you could call this Rachmaninoff Third a surprise discovery by a supremely talented artist reinventing an old warhorse, but at the other end also looms an aggravatingly mannered circus act.

Naturally, Trifonov chose the original long first movement cadenza, yet frankly that sounded and looked like an ordeal. He also has the habit of stumbling in a buildup too loud too soon, engaging in what seems a titanic struggle with his Fazioli piano and accompanied by theatrical panting. On several occasions he reached the limit of volume that the instrument can handle, and that was often way too soon. When Ashkenazy beautifully opened the Intermezzo: Adagio in an already slower than usual tempo, you could bet Trifonov was going to take over even slower, interrupting the set climate. The climaxes in that movement sounded overwrought and missed their impact.

A laborious transition by Ashkenazy segued into a superfast Finale delivered with a furious energy, outsized contrasts, a piano that frequently brought everything to a standstill, and final pages that dragged beyond recognition – but then again, following the composer’s markings never really seemed to be on Trifonov’s agenda. A delirious public received it all with a thundering ovation. Time will tell.

And speaking about time, at the end of the concert, maestro Ashkenazy addressed the audience, announcing that principal timpanist Andrew Smith is retiring. For no less than 42 years Andy “Thumper” Smith has been a crucial lynchpin of the Philharmonia sound and an unforgettable presence. And as the Sibelius Fifth readily reminded us, they will have a hard time replacing him.

Copyright © 2015, Marc Haegeman

First published on Classical Net: http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/haegeman/20150517-trifonov-philharmonia-ashkenazy.php

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