I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by Marc Haegeman


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Gergiev versus Gergiev

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker, Op. 71 – Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 36
Valery Gergiev, Orchestra and Choir of the Mariinsky Theatre
Mariinsky MAR0593, 2 SACD (Includes multi-channel 5.0 and stereo mixes), 129 min.

Valery Gergiev frequently returns to music he recorded earlier. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but curiously I still haven’t heard a refill of his that actually betters the older attempt. And this isn’t happening either in this new release on the Mariinsky label, coupling his 2015 re-recording of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and Fourth Symphony.

Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker and Symphony No. 4

Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker and Symphony No. 4

Gergiev and his Mariinsky Theatre forces gave us a magnificent Nutcracker back in 1998. After the marketing hype for being “the first complete Nutcracker on a single CD” had settled, this not only turned out to be a tremendously exciting high-voltage traversal, a riot of color, but also a visionary piece of fantasy-theatre with a dark undercurrent that dumped most other recordings of the ballet in the candy store kids department. Most of all, it had a clarity of purpose and the sparkle of discovery.

Fast-forward to 2016 and here is Gergiev again with the same orchestra. Gone is the sparkle of discovery and so is the vision that electrified the older recording. It’s not exactly a bad Nutcracker (actually it’s pretty good one when compared to other recent attempts by Rattle, Järvi and Pletnev), but it’s simply not as compelling or revelatory as the previous one. That Gergiev is marginally less fast (84 against 81 min), is not the main issue (although the Chinese Dance is now bizarrely heavy-footed and the Andante maestoso of the Pas de deux suffers from several drops of tension – for example from 2 min. 20). More important is that this Nutcracker has lost its edge and momentum. Gergiev still reveals a detailed, often dark palette of color and it’s always a delight to hear the superb Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra in their repertoire, but the fact remains that overall this is a less focused, much cozier, play safe reading, taking its place among the many. It suffices to listen to the long dramatic passage starting with the Departure of the Guests through the Waltz of the Snowflakes. The Battle is now a whole lot less eventful and fierce, and Gergiev’s pacing in the ensuing Pine forest and the Waltz no longer grabs you by the hand (or the throat) as he did so brilliantly in his older disc. The Mariinsky recording is warm and detailed, emphasizing the lower brass to good effect, although the timpani could ideally have been balanced more forwardly.

What prevents me from giving this release a wholehearted recommendation however is the recording of the Fourth Symphony. Tchaikovsky’s Fourth has to my ears always been the least successful of the six in Gergiev’s hands and this recent take seems to have gone even further south. The flaws and mannerisms of the earlier live recording filmed in Paris in 2011 (available on DVD and Blu-ray), or noted in the concerts I attended that year, are now a major letdown. Gergiev seems bent on underplaying the anguish of this symphony with an ultra-refined treatment and extra careful tempi. Yet the result is a first movement that sounds hesitant, almost timid, with climaxes that make no impact whatsoever. Gergiev’s tempo fluctuations are often gratuitous, and nowhere more so than in the development section just before the return of the fate theme. Worse, the Andantino is no longer in modo di canzona but resembles a sluggish religious procession which turns in circles. The Scherzo makes a better impression, while the Finale kicks off with plenty of drive and brilliant orchestral playing, only to return to dragging mode when the main theme is heard in the strings only (at 3 min. 45). Again, there is so much to admire in the playing of the Mariinsky Orchestra (what beautiful woodwinds), but it all feels like a huge waste.

For the Fourth Symphony the old (now historic) favorites Mravinsky, Svetlanov, Fricsay, Karajan, and others still hold their ground, while for the full-length Nutcracker one can safely stick with Dorati, Jansons, Rozhdestvensky, and… Gergiev 1998.

Copyright © 2016, Marc Haegeman


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Transcendental Liszt in double

Franz Liszt: Etudes d’exécution transcendante, S.139
Kirill Gerstein, piano
Myrios MYR019, SACD hybrid (64 min)

“Transcendental”
Franz Liszt: Etudes d’exécution transcendante, S.139; Two Concert Etudes, S.145; Three Concert Etudes, S.144; Grandes Etudes de Paganini, S.141

Daniil Trifonov, piano
Deutsche Grammophon 0289 479 5529 0 – 2 CD (66:04 & 51:24 min)

Franz Liszt most likely had his bit of fun when he published his Etudes d’exécution transcendante. Although his final edition from 1852 may be more accessible than its earlier incarnation, as is well known even these aren’t studies for the beginner or the advanced amateur, but fiendishly difficult pieces (Daniil Trifonov describes them as “technically challenging poems” or “existential meditations”) for virtuoso pianists at the top of their game, and then some. Performing all 12 Etudes live in concert has long remained a rare feat, still both pianists considered here have successfully accomplished this several times. It wasn’t so long ago that the Etudes were the exclusive domain of mature Liszt specialists who tackled them on disc as the crowning achievement in this repertoire. Yet, Kirill Gerstein is 36, Daniil Trifonov is barely 25, and these are their first Liszt-only discs. Times are changing.

These new discs recorded in the studio are superb achievements by any means and can be recommended wholeheartedly. Both Russian pianists share an irresistible joy of performing. They traverse the Etudes with seemingly effortless ease and find a convincing balance between jaw-dropping virtuosity and inspired musicality, drawing attention to the lasting value of Liszt’s oeuvre as the invention of the modern piano. Needless to say, there are differences too. Moreover, Trifonov’s generous “Transcendental” set for DG also gives us the 5 Concert Etudes and the Grandes Etudes de Paganini on a second disc.

Transcendental etudes

Gerstein performs Liszt

Kirill Gerstein is an intelligent, inquisitive musician. (He recently also set the record straight regarding the score of Tchaikovsky’s famous First Piano Concerto.) Gerstein clearly sees the Etudes as a coherent cycle to be played as a complete set, starting with the virtuosic try-out of the keyboard in the Preludio and culminating in the truly transcendental, modernist sonorities created in Chasse-Neige. Gerstein’s structural grip is obvious when considering the pieces individually, especially the more elaborate ones like Mazeppa, Ricordanza (in a terrific rendering), Harmonies du soir and Chasse-Neige, but is even more impressive when the cycle is heard in its entirety. As he explains in the informative interview published in the booklet of this Myrios release, it helps coming to grips with the Etudes by thinking of them as a collection of pairs, not just tonally but also by character. This approach sheds new light on the cycle, creating extra dramatic contrast.

Transcendental

Transcendental by Daniil Trifonov

While Daniil Trifonov also performs the complete Etudes d’exécution transcendante in concert, in this recording I was less struck by the coherence of the cycle than in Gerstein’s hands. Arguably most listeners won’t be bothered by this, because Trifonov’s pianism is such a stunner (he is more controlled and above all more accurate in the studio than live, and is also slightly better served by the engineers than Gerstein). His remains a tremendously exciting journey, always articulate and brilliantly colorful, but by his seemingly impromptu approach the individual character of the pieces tends to dominate the bigger architecture. Trifonov can be very theatrical, allying telling silences with fierce attacks or dazzling fusées, but I missed some of the gravitas that Gerstein sensitively conveys in the more melancholic passages. However, where Trifonov remains unequalled is by the lightness and transparency of his textures, weaving these ultra-delicate but flexible tapestries of sound in notably Paysage and Feux follets, as well as in the lyrical Concert Etudes La Leggierezza and Il Sospiro, and the impressionistic Waldesrauschen and Gnomenreigen. He also makes a very strong case for the underrated Paganini Etudes, including a very refined rendition of La Campanella, a marvelously handled Arpeggio and an eloquent La Chasse.

In short, these are utterly rewarding releases, new frontrunners in this repertoire that deserve a place in every serious Liszt or piano collection.

Copyright © 2016, Marc Haegeman