I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by Marc Haegeman


Leave a comment

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


Leave a comment

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)


Leave a comment

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)


Leave a comment

If love could be

Sergei Prokofieff: Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64
Musica Aeterna/Teodor Currentzis
Brussels, Centre for Fine Arts, 15 March 2015

Ballet music is occasionally programmed in concert halls, in the form of a suite or selection of fragments. Full-length ballets are understandably much rarer, yet the ones that are able to survive the absence of stage action can in the right hands become spellbinding experiences. This is exactly what happened with a concert performance of Sergei Prokofieff’s 1935 Romeo and Juliet by Musica Aeterna under Teodor Currentzis. Offering under the title “If love could be” a fortnight of music events focused on the themes of passion and love, this year’s Klara Festival – the only annual broadcasting festival in Belgium – couldn’t overlook Shakespeare’s famous star-crossed lovers. But nonetheless to have the complete Prokofieff ballet music in the concert hall was still something of a miracle.

Teodor Currentzis (photo Sander Buyck)

Teodor Currentzis (photo Sander Buyck)

Teodor Currentzis is artistic director of the Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre and of the Musica Aeterna ensemble which he formed in 2004 and currently resides in Perm as the theatre’s main orchestra. The Greek-born maestro studied in Athens and completed his formation as conductor at the St. Petersburg Conservatory with the famous Ilya Musin, teacher of among others Valery Gergiev and Semyon Bychkov. By all accounts a controversial personality, Currentzis has been dividing opinions as much by his conducting, as by his at times provocative statements and very Russian-styled manner of self-promotion. Be that as it may, his traversal of Prokofieff’s Romeo and Juliet at the Brussels Centre for Fine Arts was a real stunner.

To see him conduct his Musica Aeterna is already something of an experience. Anyone missing the dancers on stage? Currentzis replaced it with a bit of theatre of his own. A long lanky figure, hair in a tail, he is more rock star than maestro and you could hear people gasp the moment he entered the auditorium; a very Liszt-like persona in fact, half charmer, half demon – and by his attire, partly priest as well. Currentzis conducts without baton, but wildly waving his arms, hissing, tapping his feet, dancing and jumping, he seems to think he needs his whole body to draw the music out of his ensemble. It’s thankfully more than just cocky posturing and this performance proved amply that Currentzis not only has a complete understanding of this score, he also knows how to get exactly what he wants from his orchestra.

The 100 or so musicians of Musica Aeterna responded as one, playing as if their lives depended on it. That they were standing for the whole concert (only the cello players were seated) seemed to sharpen their focus. It was a sight to behold and you will be hard-pressed to find such collective fervor, dedication and joy at making music. Musica Aeterna boasts some excellent soloists too: all desk leaders of the string sections delivered magnificent solos, the first clarinet was outstanding, as was the first horn. The brass was as punchy and biting as you could wish for this music, and with the percussion clearly able to raise the dead. The strings proved a wonderfully flexible group, with Currentzis taking extra care of the polyphony of Prokofieff’s writing, revealing plenty of details in the orchestration hardly noticeable when played from the theatre pit.

The ballet came vividly alive with a great feel for theatricality, correct characterizations (even if Juliet seemed a very hot-tempered teenager during her first appearance), and without any fear of exaggeration. Taking no prisoners, Currentzis pushed dynamic contrasts to extremes and conjured the most improbable shades and colors from his orchestra, hijacking the listener for about two hours in an emotional rollercoaster.

The score was as good as complete. Currentzis cut the opening scene of Romeo (#2) after the Introduction, a few dances on the market in Act 2 as well as the second scene at Friar Laurence’s (#28), and replaced Juliet’s variation at the ball (#14) with the Morning Serenade (#48) – something which can only be explained by theatrical practice. Still, nothing essential was missing. It was played in two parts, with the interval occurring between Acts 2 and 3. This allowed Currentzis to treat each half as a continuous dramatic arch, building gradually in intensity and culminating each time in stark tragedy – the death of Tybalt in the first part, the suicide of the two lovers in the second. Musically as well as dramatically this made perfect sense as Prokofieff kept some of his most devastating music for these scenes – and Currentzis and his orchestra made sure we wouldn’t forget them that easily.

Played practically without any breaks between the numbers, as in a theatrical performance, the music gained tremendous sweep. Several scenes along the way knocked you out of your seat – the Dance of the Knights never sounded more threateningly arrogant and the two fortissimo chords of the Prince’s decree (repeated at the start of Act 3) were powerful enough to keep anyone mesmerized for the rest of the concert. Tempi were often on the fast side, but Currentzis knew when and how to slow down as in the beautifully played Madrigal offering a tender evocation of beginning love, or the comforting familiarity of friar Laurence depicted by warm cellos. The Balcony Scene, too, was lushly romantic and erupted in full-blooded passion, while the Bedroom duet breathed a sense of coming doom. The street brawls were particularly violent and the crowd scenes feted in vibrant colors.

Some minor slips notwithstanding (like the rhythmically blurred Dance with mandolins or the too prominent lower brass here and there) this was a mind-blowing performance which immediately shoots towards the top of the most memorable concerts I have attended in some time. And do we need better proof than this that ballet music of this caliber can stand on its own? Brilliant!

Copyright © 2015, Marc Haegeman


Leave a comment

Janine Jansen’s Tchaikovsky

Paul Dukas: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
Pyotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35
Robert Schumann: Symphony #4 in D minor, Op. 120

Janine Jansen, violin
Orchestra dell’ Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Rome/Antonio Pappano
Brussels, Centre for Fine Arts, 4 March 2015

It was a packed and enthusiastic Centre for Fine Arts that greeted Sir Antonio Pappano, leading his Roman Orchestra della Santa Cecilia. Their visit guaranteed a notable Italian presence but of course music lovers in Brussels also fondly remember the glory days of the Monnaie Opera when Pappano headed it for some ten years before moving to London’s Royal Opera House in 2002. As it turned out, however, this evening it was Dutch violinist Janine Jansen who quickly became the focal point, delivering the most remarkable performance in an otherwise unremarkable concert.
Read the full review on Classical Net


Leave a comment

Venezuelan Wall of Sound

Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony #5 in C minor, Op. 67
Richard Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen (fragments)
Julián Orbón: Tres versiones sinfónicas
Gustav Mahler: Symphony #5

Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela/Gustavo Dudamel
Brussels, Centre for Fine Arts, 11-12 January 2015

Touring Europe, the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela (SBSO) under their Music Director Gustavo Dudamel performed two concerts in Brussels. Dudamel already guested in 2009 with the Gothenburg Symphony, but for the orchestra it was a long overdue debut in the Belgian capital. The arrival of El Sistema’s crown jewel and its brightest gem had been well prepared in the media and not surprisingly on both nights the Centre for Fine Arts was filled to capacity. Perhaps not so much the new audience that is often mentioned in connection with “the Dude”, but people of all ages who still made it quite clear for what reason they attended the concerts. That recently the praised Venezuelan educational system received a fair amount of flak, or that the country itself is going through rough times, wasn’t going to spoil the fun. Dudamel and the Bolivars were in town.
Read the full review on Classical Net


Leave a comment

Abdel Rahman El Bacha Saves the Day

Francis Poulenc: Orchestral Suite “Les Biches”
Maurice Ravel: Piano Concerto in G major
Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker, Op. 71, Act II

Abdel Rahman El Bacha, piano
Belgian National Orchestra/Andrew Litton
Brussels, Centre for Fine Arts, 2 October 2013

With ballet music – Poulenc’s Les Biches and Act 2 from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker – framing the Piano concerto from Ravel, the Belgian National Orchestra under American guest conductor Andrew Litton promised an evening full of elegance, color and sophistication. Soloist for the Ravel was the Franco-Lebanese pianist Abdel Rahman El Bacha, laureate of the Queen Elisabeth Competition in this very same place in 1978, then a mere 19-year old. The present concert was in aid of CAP 48, a fundraising initiative of the Belgian TV network working hard for the integration of disabled people – though sad to see in this respect that the concert hall was only two thirds filled this evening.
Read the full review on Classical Net