I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by Marc Haegeman


Leave a comment

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


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

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)


Leave a comment

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

Bewaren