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 true feast 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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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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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.


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Magnificent Mendelssohn and Brahms from Blomstedt and the Concertgebouw

Felix Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, “Scottish”, Op. 56
Wilhelm Stenhammar: Sången (cantata), Op. 44 (Intermezzo)
Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Herbert Blomstedt
Brussels, Centre for Fine Arts, 11 January 2019

© Martin U.K. Lengemann

Herbert Blomstedt (© Martin U.K. Lengemann)

Orchestras stay, while conductors come and go – so it normally goes. However, in the case of maestro Herbert Blomstedt you might think differently. He is 91, very active, and carries some 65 years of conducting experience with him. That’s more candles than many orchestras have to blow, including most of the period-instrument ensembles. Blomstedt brings a communicative sense of joy to music-making and his conducting seems alien to any sign of routine or tiredness. Returning to Brussels with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (RCO), Blomstedt treated us to a magnificent concert with utterly compelling readings of symphonies from Mendelssohn and Brahms.

Read the full review on Bachtrack.


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A manifesto against war: Dubugnon première impresses in Brussels, but Beethoven disappoints

Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21
Richard Dubugnon: Le Tombeau de Napoléon
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55 “Eroica”

Jan Smets, trombone
Orchestre Symphonique de la Monnaie, Alain Altinoglu
Brussels, Centre for Fine Arts, 25 November 2018

Part of an ongoing cycle of Beethoven symphonies from the Symphony Orchestra of La Monnaie under their music director Alain Altinoglu, this concert offset Nos. 1 and 3 with a world premiere by the Swiss composer Richard Dubugnon, called Tombeau de Napoléon. The spirit of the French emperor was, in effect, hovering over much of the proceedings, not only as a direct inspiration for two of the works but, in a less flattering sense, also in the martial approach of some of the music-making.

Read the full review on Bachtrack.


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Devastating and dark Pathétique from Gergiev and the Mariinsky on tour in Brussels

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: The Tale of Tsar Saltan, Suite, Op. 57
Igor Stravinsky: Symphony in C
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Symphony no. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74 “Pathétique”
Mariinsky Orchestra, Valery Gergiev
Brussels, Centre for Fine Arts, 18 November 2018

Valery Gergiev and his Mariinsky forces have been frequent guests in Brussels over the last 25 years: quite an extraordinary feat in itself, if you think about it. Several visits were memorable events, yet this all-Russian programme ranks as one of the finest I heard them perform in a long time and easily tops my list of favourite concerts this year. An absolutely thrilling journey with privileged guides, encompassing the mysterious fantasy world of Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky’s neoclassical outings as well as Tchaikovsky’s crushing emotional outpourings. Familiar repertoire it may be, but it emerged here with astonishing freshness and impact, reconfirming that old cliché that it takes Russians to play their own music.

Read the full review on Bachtrack.


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Superb Dvořák 7 from Blomstedt and Vienna Philharmonic in Brussels

Franz Berwald: Symphony No. 3 in C Major “Sinfonie Singulière”
Antonin Dvořák: Symphony No. 7 in D Minor, Op. 70

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Herbert Blomstedt
Brussels, Center for Fine Arts, 25 September 2018

This concert by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under Herbert Blomstedt was part of several events in Brussels focusing on Austrian culture and coinciding with the Austrian presidency of the Council of the European Union. Incidentally, we weren’t treated to an all-Austrian programme, but rather to the current opener of the Viennese subscription concerts which combines a rarity from Swedish composer Franz Berwald and a well-known symphony from Antonin Dvořák, the magnificent Seventh. The Brussels Centre for Fine Arts (Bozar) was transformed into a tiny turf of Austrian Heimat for the occasion by the presence of its most illustrious cultural ambassador on stage, a large number of Austrian patrons attending, and even the unavoidable Mozartkugeln distributed in the interval.

Read the full review on Bachtrack.