I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by Marc Haegeman


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Happy Tchaikovsky from Herreweghe

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: The Nutcraker, Op. 71 (Excerpts) and Symphony #2 in C minor “Little Russian”, Op. 17
Royal Flemish Philharmonic Orchestra/Philippe Herreweghe
Concertgebouw, Bruges, 24 September 2016

Russia is the focal point of the 2016/17 season at the Bruges Concertgebouw. Several concerts of Russian music are scheduled throughout the year and both Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Dmitry Shostakovich take pride of place in the celebrations. In the first symphonic concert of the series Philippe Herreweghe and his Royal Flemish Philharmonic (aka deFilharmonie) paid homage to Tchaikovsky with a rather unusual pairing. With the Second “Little Russian” Symphony and a handpicked selection from the Nutcracker, works separated by some twenty years in the composer’s output, they offered primarily a happily smiling and vital Tchaikovsky.

Philippe Herreweghe isn’t a conductor you would expect in this repertoire. Yet it’s always interesting to hear how a musician steeped in early music and baroque approaches the 19th century scores. Some immediate benefits were obvious. With a smaller than usual orchestra, anchored on 5 basses, Herreweghe’s Tchaikovsky sounded refined, transparent and finely detailed. Remarkably, employing smaller forces didn’t result in lightness, yet the overall feel was energetic and vibrant. The balance between strings and woodwinds was impeccable, highlighting the brilliance of Tchaikovsky’s orchestration. The antiphonally placed violins opened up the sound, while extra care for the lower strings always provided a solid base. The Royal Flemish Philharmonic plays of course on modern instruments and power was at hand when needed, even though Herreweghe always kept things firmly under control.

It was all the more a shame that the selection culled from the Nutcracker was so short. The concert was dubbed “Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker” I suspect for marketing purposes, although it was the first work on the bill, and in retrospect the least convincing. Herreweghe added a few numbers to the usually heard ballet suite, like the Galop and the Entrance of the Parents from Act I and the Tarentella from the Pas de deux, but it no less remained a piecemeal offering. Some transitions sounded awkward and his selection avoided the more elaborate and darker pages of the score. Extremely colorful and vivid, with particular attention to the fine Philharmonic woodwinds, Herreweghe’s Nutcracker sparkled and superficially charmed but hardly ever got inside the score. Some numbers were tackled too briskly to breathe properly (Dance of the Reed Pipes, Sugar Plum Fairy), others were merely precise rather than evocative (Arabian dance).

The “Little Russian” Symphony (performed in its final version from 1879) however was a lot more successful. It was beautifully played and excitingly rendered without ever becoming demonstrative. Herreweghe never indulged in any eccentricities and made a very strong case for this often neglected symphony. Tempi were well-judged and a sense of discovery enlivened every movement. The Andante sostenuto instantly captured the right mood with magnificent solos from horn (Eliz Erkalp) and bassoon (Oliver Engels) – dreamy moments that soon gave way to sheer vivacity and joy. The march-like 2nd movement was well paced and Herreweghe imaginatively handled the variations. The Philharmonic strings were heard to great effect in the second theme. Sharp attacks and crisp phrasing characterized the boisterous scherzo, with the winds adding plenty of color. The clarity Herreweghe kept in the tutti, as well as his deft control of the ebb and flow made for a convincing and exhilarating final movement.

All in all, a fine homage to Tchaikovsky and I hope Herreweghe will explore this music further – the orchestral suites come to mind, or why not some complete ballet.

Copyright © 2016, Marc Haegeman

First published on Classical Net: http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/haegeman/20160924-herreweghe-tchaikovsky.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