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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Grigorovich’s Golden Age revived

Dmitri Shostakovich: The Golden Age
Nina Kaptsova – Rita, a young girl
Ruslan Skvortsov – Boris, a young fisherman
Mikhail Lobukhin – Yashka, a gang leader
Ekaterina Krysanova – Lyushka, Yashka’s accomplice
Vyacheslav Lopatin – Variety show compere
Artists of the Bolshoi Ballet

The Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra, Pavel Klinichev
Choreography by Yuri Grigorovich.
Filmed live at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, October 2016
BelAir Classiques Blu-ray BAC443, 103 min, PCM 2.0, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

The Bolshoi in The Golden Age

The Bolshoi in The Golden Age

After a two year break the successful “Bolshoi Ballet HD Collection”, released by the Paris-based video label BelAir Classiques, is back on track again with Dmitri Shostakovich’s The Golden Age, the last ballet from long-time Bolshoi director Yuri Grigorovich. “Last” may be somewhat misleading here, since The Golden Age – or The Age of Gold, as may be more common – was premiered as long ago as 1982, but turned out to be the final original creation of the Bolshoi master. And come to think of it, the age wasn’t particularly golden at the time of the ballet’s premiere, as criticism against Grigorovich’s authoritative rule and artistic output was gradually mounting and would eventually lead to his eviction some ten years later – but that’s another story.

Fact is, most of Grigorovich’s ballets remained in the Bolshoi repertory, often resurfacing after several years in a more or less updated guise. The Golden Age is performed only by the Bolshoi and has unlike other Grigorovich’s ballets never been staged elsewhere. In Moscow it was last danced ten years ago and recently revived again in the lead-up to the 90th anniversary celebrations of the choreographer earlier this year. While undoubtedly not a masterpiece, this is the first official release of the ballet on Blu-ray and DVD and will be most welcome to all devotees of the Bolshoi and Russian ballet.

Grigorovich’s The Golden Age is itself an adaptation of the 1930 production, which like all evening-length ballets composed by Dmitri Shostakovich fell out of grace and was banned soon after the premiere. The blatant Communist rejection of so-called bourgeois decadence of the original plot, culminating in a soccer match between soviet youths and bourgeois fascists, was recycled into a love story set against the conflict between pure white-clad fishermen and a depraved black-shirted gang of thugs in some 1920’s Russian seaport. It’s the same naive black and white opposition, but the luggage is far less heavy this time. The inclusion of references to Lenin’s New Economic Policy in the rework however will be lost on most viewers today.

Seeing the ballet again, for all its simplicity, I still feel it is confusingly told, while much of Grigorovich’s stylized choreography is too crude and repetitive to survive the 100 or so minutes running time. As for the Bolshoi’s current take on it, I guess it helps if you haven’t seen the original casts in the 1980s. Today’s Ruslan Skvortsov, Nina Kaptsova, Mikhail Lobukhin and Ekaterina Krysanova are excellent dancers, yet none will ever erase memories of an Irek Mukhamedov or a Gediminas Taranda, who could transform cardboard into intensely potent characters. But that’s just how it goes with revivals: different times, different dancers, same ballets. Surprisingly perhaps for the Bolshoi, it are the quieter moments, like the love adagio’s between Kaptsova and Skvortsov, that work best here.

This new installment in the “Bolshoi Ballet HD Collection”, filmed live in October 2016 on the smaller New Stage of the Bolshoi Theatre, is visually and soundwise a real treat. As we have come to expect from the Vincent Bataillon/François Duplat team The Golden Age offers a first-rate ballet-at-home experience. Thankfully gone are the days of shoddy Soviet filming, unable to master the frequent changes from bright to dark in these productions. The full HD transfer on Blu-ray looks particularly impressive with a wealth of detail and lovely, natural colors. Camerawork is as good as it gets with a well-judged mix between longshots and close-ups.

The sonics are equally superb in the 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio mix, enhancing the impact of Shostakovich’s brilliant music. His ballet scores remain largely unknown to the general public, except perhaps in the form of suites. This is the young composer at his most confidently satirical, exemplifying in his music the capitalist depravity with a series of parodied western dance forms like polka, tango and foxtrot. Grigorovich interpolated the slow movements from Shostakovich’s Piano Concertos for the lyrical moments in his adaptation. Interestingly, they give the score which can at times sound relentless a rounder appearance. It all comes vividly alive by the Bolshoi Orchestra under Pavel Klinichev.

This release comes without any extras. Bolshoi fans won’t hesitate to purchase this title, of course, and BelAir Classiques serves them well with splendid video and audio quality. Yet the older ones won’t be entirely convinced by the Bolshoi’s current way with The Golden Age.

© 2017 Marc Haegeman. All rights reserved


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Deadpan Rachmaninoff and magical Tchaikovsky

Dmitry Shostakovich: Festive Overture in A Major, Op. 96
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto #3 in d Minor, Op. 30
Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake, Op. 20 – Excerpts (arr. M. Pletnev)

Seong-Jin Cho, piano
Russian National Orchestra / Mikhail Pletnev
Bruges, Concertgebouw, 14 December 2016

The Russian music season at the Bruges Concertgebouw continued with a visit of Mikhail Pletnev and his Russian National Orchestra (RNO). They brought a solid program of Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky, and although the organizers billed primarily on Rachmaninoff’s famous Third Piano Concerto, highlighting the young Korean Seong-Jin Cho as soloist, it was by and large Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake that became the most memorable event of the evening.

Seong-Ji Cho pianist

Seong-Ji Cho (© Bartek Sadowski)

Winner of the latest International Chopin Piano Competition, championed by the almighty Valery Gergiev, and a contract with the famous yellow record label fresh in his pocket, Seoul-born Seong-Jin Cho (22) seems firmly set on the tracks of an international career, come what may. His debut Chopin disc is a multiple platinum seller in his home country and, as we are told, like many of his talented young colleagues he brings flocks of newcomers to classical music. His performance of the Rachmaninoff Third was nonetheless underwhelming. Once the pleasant discovery of his excellent technique and crystal-clear articulation gone, we were left with a soloist who was musically mostly at a loss with Rachmaninoff’s lyrical outpourings. Cho played his Rachmaninoff hard and loud, invariably so, and without much sense of direction or imagination. He wasn’t drowned out by the orchestra, yet his habit to attack loudly backfired soon when he reached the limits of his piano before the climaxes. There was little or no trace of individual coloring or emotional engagement. Mindful of the composer’s predilection for color, this was gray, deadpan Rachmaninoff. All the notes (well, most of them) were there. But there was nothing behind them.

Some passages were brilliantly executed (the Più mosso section in the first movement), yet others suffered from ill-judged rubato or misplaced and banged accents (the first movement cadenza). At times it sounded like a Prokofiev concerto, but in the end, the most satisfying passages were the orchestral ones, transparent, detailed and often beautifully shaped by Pletnev – as the introduction of the Intermezzo, or the remarkable espressivo played by horn, bassoons and clarinet that closes that movement. The audience clearly weren’t averse to cold fish and gave Cho a standing ovation. So much for reputations.

pletnev

Mikhail Pletnev (© Artom Makeyev)

The concert opened with Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, Op. 96, always an irresistible curtain-raiser. However, after the break the Mikhail Pletnev enigma fully took shape again with a stunning rendering of a handpicked selection of Tchaikovsky’s ballet music for Swan Lake. Not the usual 6-part suite, but a different and more elaborate survey arranged by Pletnev himself. And while his complete studio recording of Swan Lake on disc is to my mind one of the dullest, inane versions from recent years, in concert the Pletnev magic worked again. It’s not just the recording engineers who seem to disadvantage him on many of his discs, it’s also his way with the score which turns out to be so much more fascinating in concert. With an outstanding RNO he galvanized Swan Lake into a compelling cocktail of color and atmosphere, beautifully poetic and full of fairytale magic, with that typical Tchaikovsky mix of theatrical drama and aristocratic elegance always in perfect balance. The pure dance sections were particularly well characterized: light-footed in the Pas de trois variations, grand and stately in the Pas des coupes from Act I. The dramatic narrative scenes (the extensive symphonic finale of the ballet) thrilled with tremendous power and impact.

The RNO appeared totally responsive and without a weak spot in the ensemble. The orchestral balance was even in the wildest scenes superb, the dynamic range impressive. The vivid string playing always a joy to behold. Woodwind solos, so important in this work, were astonishing, especially the oboe from Olga Tomilova, leading all the great themes, and the flute from Maxim Rubtsov. Brass and percussion knocked you out of your seat. Orchestra leader Alexei Bruni and principal cello Alexander Gottgelf performed ravishing solos in the Pas d’action (the White Swan pas de deux for the ballet fans). One regret perhaps. This Swan Lake selection begged for more and I would rather have had the ballet music in full than Seong-Jin Cho’s tryout in the Rachmaninoff. But other than that pure Russian concert magic.

Copyright © 2016 Marc Haegeman