I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by Marc Haegeman


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Mata Hari revived in Amsterdam

Tarik O’Regan: Mata Hari

  • Anna Tsygankova – Mata Hari / Margarethe
  • Casey Herd – Rudolph McLeod
  • Jozef Varga – General Kiepert
  • Artur Shesterikov – Vadim de Masloff
  • Young Gyu Choi – Shiva
  • Wen Ting Guan – Temple Dancer
  • Dancers of Dutch National Ballet, Students and pupils of Dutch National Ballet Academy

Music by Tarik O’Regan
Dutch Ballet Orchestra/Matthew Rowe
Choreography by Ted Brandsen
EuroArts Blu-ray 2061624 Widescreen / PCM Stereo and DTS-HD Master Audio / 95m + 26m bonus

Mata Hari by the Dutch National Ballet

Mata Hari by the Dutch National Ballet

A brand new evening-length narrative ballet with a newly commissioned score, eye-catching designs, and a rather unusual subject is a rarity today. Mata Hari is an extraordinary ballet, a real tour de force, created this year in Amsterdam for Dutch National Ballet and now available on video courtesy of EuroArts.

Women spies – or spies in general, for that matter – don’t make an obvious subject for a ballet. Yet, the Dutch Margaretha Zelle (1876-1917) aka Mata Hari, suspected of being a double agent and shot by a French army firing squad, had also been an infamous dancer in her time. On the crest of the Belle Epoque’s fascination with exoticism she became an international sensation overnight when she performed a daring Javanese temple dance in 1905 Paris. She later wanted to join Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes, but was unsuccessful. In any case, her unusual and very turbulent life from small-town petty bourgeois girl to worldly-wise femme fatale enclosed enough drama for Ted Brandsen, artistic director of Dutch National Ballet, to turn it into a remarkable ballet.

It’s remarkable that in these lean times for the arts no expenses and efforts were spared for bringing Mata Hari to the stage. Ted Brandsen took care of the choreography and assembled an international artistic team – the Dutch dramaturge and author Janine Brogt gave shape to Mata Hari’s life in the libretto, the British composer Tarik O’Regan set it to music in a 90-minute score for large orchestra, the Dutch designers duoClement & Sanôu conceived the framework of decors and lights, and the French designer François-Noël Cherpin created more than 300 costumes from key episodes in Mata Hari’s life – including late 19th-century Friesland, Dutch colonial life on Java, and Paris in the Belle Epoque.

Involving a cast of 60 dancers and an orchestra of 76 musicians, Mata Hari opened in Amsterdam’s Muziektheater on 6 February 2016, quickly becoming a box-office success. It is ballet on an epic scale and of a superhuman sweep we hardly ever see any more. Brandsen’s choreography is firmly rooted in the classical idiom, but adds formal freedom for expressive purposes. The title role was created on Dutch National’s first soloist Anna Tsygankova who gives a performance of a lifetime. She is joined by several leading dancers, including Casey Herd as Margarethe’s husband Rudolph McLeod, Jozef Varga as the German general Kiepert, and Artur Shesterikov as her final Russian lover Vadim de Masloff. With its almost continuous succession of ensembles, duets and solos, as a ballet Mata Hari is company work at its most inspired.

Filmed in the opening run by the independent Amsterdam-based production company 3 Minutes West, Mata Hari was initially broadcast live on worldwide Mezzo TV and is now available on Blu-ray and DVD, looking and sounding pretty stunning. Attractively directed by Jeff Tudor, the visuals of this release are a treat. The high-definition cameras reveal Cherpin’s brilliantly colorful costumes with startling detail. Tarik O’Regan composed in his first effort for ballet a compelling score, which shares influences of American minimalism and Benjamin Britten (his music for the ballet Prince of the Pagodas comes to mind), but finds his own voice in its complex rhythmic layering and memorable lyrical passages. It offers the ideal accompaniment for the narrative and is performed with great impact by the Dutch Ballet Orchestra. Beautifully recorded in surround sound and PCM stereo, the Blu-ray offers a highly enjoyable evening at the ballet in your home.

Mata Hari includes a useful “The Making Of” documentary (26 min.) which could well serve as a model for future new ballet releases. It accompanies the viewer through the three-year-long creative process with short but well-chosen interviews and rehearsal clips. Brandsen describes Zelle’s life as “a raging torrent” and emphasizes her uncanny talent for transformation and reinvention. In his ballet, scenes flash by in cinematographic manner, but no matter the intensity, the image of an extraordinary woman shines through, a willful character in a male dominated society, but eventually victim of her own mythomania. Her execution following her involvement with high-ranking army officers can be read as the ultimate statement of disapproval by a society not ready yet for women of her caliber. Mata Hari may be more timeless than we expect.

If ever a contemporary ballet deserved to be captured on film it had to be Dutch National’s Mata Hari. Warmly recommended.

Copyright © 2016, Marc Haegeman

First published on Classical Net: http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/o/opu61624blua.php
Photography from the production: http://www.for-ballet-lovers-only.com/matahari-hnb/index.html

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Classic films of Herbert von Karajan’s Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven:
Symphony #5 in C minor, Op. 67
Symphony #9 in D minor “Choral”, Op. 125

Anna Tomowa-Sintow
Agnes Baltsa
René Kollo
José Van Dam
Choir of the Deutschen Oper Berlin
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
EuroArts Blu-ray 2072724 Widescreen Pillarbox (concerts) Fullscreen (bonus) PCM Stereo 119min

Karajan and the Berlin Phiharmonic play Beethoven

Karajan and the Berlin Phiharmonic play Beethoven

EuroArts has paired two remarkable historic films of Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in Beethoven on Blu-ray. Both the 1966 Fifth directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot and the 1977 New Year’s Eve Ninth are surely familiar to collectors, yet these fascinating documents receive now a welcome high-definition upgrade. The performances are in a class of their own, with the studio-recorded Fifth gaining immensely from the aesthetic vision of Clouzot and the live Ninth remaining a particularly fine demonstration of the Karajan-Berlin team at the top of their game.

French director Henri-Georges Clouzot produced in 1965-67 with Karajan a series of music documentaries dubbed “The Art of Conducting”. They may initially have been intended to acquaint the general public with some of the mysteries of orchestral direction, yet even with only 5 of the projected 13 films completed, they eventually solidified more than anything the image of Karajan as the all-powerful and infallible maestro. The visual and dramatic qualities of these films (they are indeed more “film” than filmed concert), as exemplified here by Beethoven’s Fifth, become all the more apparent when seen alongside Humphrey Burton’s efficient but conventional direction of the New Year’s Eve concert some ten years later. Don’t be surprised to find musicians changing places in this film (like the flutes are suddenly appearing to the right of the oboes in close-ups, only to be in their regular position during longshots). Shot in a stunning true “film noir” black and white, it’s all part of Clouzot’s imaginative and ultimately musical vision. Even almost 50 years after date, this prime example of “music to watch” has hardly ever been surpassed. A box-set release of the whole series of these groundbreaking films in HD may well be out of reach, so we better treasure what there is. (Dvorak’s Ninth and Mozart’s Fifth Violin Concerto with Yehudi Menuhin from this series were released on Blu-ray by the C-Major label, but Verdi’s Requiem and Schumann’s Fourth Symphony are still awaiting their HD upgrade).

In a 20-minutes bonus we see Karajan demonstrating an apprentice conductor how to rehearse the slow movement of the Fifth Symphony, and in conversation about the purpose of the series. Again, the maestro in total control of every detail.

The 1977 New Year’s Eve concert is one of Karajan’s best renderings of Beethoven’s Ninth, characteristically built on rock-solid basses and surging forward and upward with an extraordinary sense of shape. The last movement is particularly exciting, with a fine quartet (a superb José Van Dam) and excellent choral singing. Karajan conducts the singers with open eyes and on several occasions you see him watching them with admiration, carried away by the beauty of the moment. Even he was after all only human. Burton’s direction may be conventional, but at least he knew how to preserve this concert as a true event.

The 1966 Clouzot film looks very well in HD, rich in contrast, sharp and detailed. The damage appearing on the title cards initially lets you fear the worst, but the film itself is in much better shape. The 1977 concert is in color which shows its age more. Especially the images of Karajan – shot in his then preferred manner against a sidelight – appear quite dark and grainy compared to the better lit orchestra members and singers. While EuroArts announces PCM Stereo only the Ninth is in stereo (the previous DVD release of this concert included a 5.1 DTS Master). As it is, the sound is totally agreeable, detailed and with an especially impressive dynamic range for the concert. Highly recommended.

Copyright © 2015, Marc Haegeman

First published on Classical Net: http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/e/eas72724blua.php

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Simon Rattle – Berliner Philharmoniker

New Year’s Eve Concert 2007
Alexander Borodin: Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor; Symphony #2 in B minor
Modest Mussorgsky: Khovanshchina – Prelude, Dawn over the Moscow River; Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Maurice Ravel)
Dmitri Shostakovich: The Golden Age (Dance)

Russian Rhythms, Waldbühne 2009
Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker (Three fragments from Act 1, Pas de deux – Grand adage)
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto #3 in D minor, Op. 30 1
Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

European Concert 2007
Richard Wagner: Prelude to Parsifal
Johannes Brahms: Concerto for Violin & Cello in A minor, Op. 102, Symphony #4 in E minor, Op. 98

European Concert 2008
Igor Stravinsky: Symphony in Three Movements
Max Bruch: Concerto for Violin #1 in G minor, Op. 26
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony #7 in A Major, Op. 92

Yefim Bronfman, piano
Lisa Batiashvili, violin
Truls Mørk, cello
Vadim Repin, violin
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Simon Rattle
EuroArts Blu-ray 2059734 4Discs LPCM Stereo DTS-HD Master Audio

Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic

Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic

In a box simply called Simon Rattle – Berliner Philharmoniker EuroArts assembles four concerts in Blu-ray format. Captured between 2007 and 2009 these live performances document the orchestra and their current principal conductor in different venues as well as repertoire. From the timeless Berliner Philharmonie (New Year’s Eve concert 2007) and the horrors of the Kabelwerk Oberspree, a former Power and Cable Factory in Berlin (European concert 2007), to the historic Great Hall of the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory (European concert 2008) and the open-air concert at the Waldbühne (2009) which closes the season each year – the Berliner plays it all. The titles were previously available on separate discs, while the two European Concerts, the May 1st anniversary gigs of the Berlin Philharmonic, also make their appearance on Blu-ray here.

In all cases the high-definition transfers are a real joy to behold. The widescreen video quality is magnificent, even for the problematic open-air concert which was plagued by inclement weather. The sound is no less satisfying. All discs are offered with robust but crystal clear LPCM 2.0 Stereo tracks and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 tracks; the Waldbühne concert comes with LPCM mixes only, yet closely miked there is no way to miss anything – not even the rain during the performance of The Rite. The filming and editing is in all cases unsurprisingly traditional and notwithstanding the occasional misfired camera virtuosity (no, we aren’t interested in scrutinizing the girders of the Kabelwerk Oberspree during Brahms), will ensure an enjoyable home video experience.

The performances, however, cannot foster the same overall enthusiasm. This being the Berlin Philharmonic, there isn’t anything really bad, yet there isn’t anything really essential to discover either. The booklet coming with the box-set refers to the changes, most obviously in sound and repertoire, that the Berlin Philharmonic underwent after Herbert von Karajan’s longstanding tenure, starting with the appointment of the late Claudio Abbado in 1989 and continued with the arrival of Simon Rattle in 2002. Changes, unavoidable and necessary of course, but often needlessly placed in a confrontational black and white, opposing Karajan as the epitome of artistic stagnation against his successors as the Berliner’s saving grace. Yet precisely a selection of concerts like this questions not only which direction the orchestra has been heading, and what has been gained of real value, it also hints at the limitations of Sir Simon’s often admired versatility in choice of repertoire. (In this respect one wonders if these older maestros would ever have released four concerts in which not one single performance was at least something truly exceptional?)

In the liner notes Simon Rattle is quoted as saying that different composers need to be played differently. The first disc of the New Year’s Eve Concert from 2007, titled in the booklet as “the revolution in Russian music”, ironically seems to suggest the exact opposite. This sounds neither Russian and even less a revolution – not even a German one. It’s simply a run-of-the-mill, low-voltage concert with a conductor venturing on unfamiliar ground. The Borodin Symphony is bland and about as Russian as Hasenpfeffer and Pumpernickel, yet it are the Mussorgsky Pictures that suffer most of all from Rattle who apparently was in constant ritenuto mode this evening. The superficial brilliance of the Berliner cannot make up for some undistinguished solo playing from winds and brass and the massive sonority of the ensemble. It’s not Mussorgsky, it’s not even Ravel – and it’s definitely no consolation it sometimes comes close to Brahms.

The Waldbühne “Russian Rhythms” concert is primarily a happy open air bring-classical-music-to-the-masses event that nothing can and will spoil – who wouldn’t want to hear the Rite of Spring in a chilly night in the pouring rain? – and has arguably little value except as a souvenir for those present. It opens with three hastily dispatched Tchaikovsky Nutcracker bits, only emphasizing Rattle’s complete lack of affinity with this music (why bother with just the three first numbers from the ballet in a concert anyway?) His traversal of The Rite of Spring is on the other hand the perfect illustration of what Richard Taruskin called the “showcase of orchestral prowess” which Stravinsky’s most talked-about work has become. The Berlin Philharmonic plays impressively (the woodwinds are favored in the mix, yet not many formations can top such ravishing colors) but virtually all tension, darkness and surprise (except for the occasional Rattle mannerism) has disappeared. That there are still approaches possible that can pack a punch, however, is proven by Salonen, Jansons, Boulez, Dorati, Markevitch and the likes. In between, Yefim Bronfman’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s Third is more rewarding. It’s a polished reading, effortless, well-balanced and well accompanied, without pathos or excess but boasting a warm sonority.

The two European Concerts present Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic of the 21st century in a much more propitious light and are by far the most convincing of this box-set. The 2007 edition took place in a none too attractive old Berlin factory (the acoustics seem to be good) and offers core-German repertory which (although this is no guarantee for success) has been in the orchestra’s repertory for a long time. (Interestingly, the orchestra is placed differently in this venue as in the traditional Viennese manner with violins divided and the basses lined at the back.) Rattle’s Prelude to Parsifal may be more posh than profound, but the Brahms Double Concerto featuring the ideally attuned Lisa Batiashvili on violin and Truls Mørk on cello is a magnificent performance in every respect. Dedicated to the great Mstislav Rostropovich who had died four days earlier, Rattle’s accompaniment is sensitive and finely balanced, securing beautiful playing from both soloists and orchestra. His Brahms Fourth, however, is colorful and contemplative rather than incisive and taut, and appears less than ideally focused in the latter half.

The final disc covers the 2009 edition which took place in Moscow, exactly 40 years after the orchestra’s first visit under Herbert von Karajan, in this very same hall of the illustrious Tchaikovsky Conservatory. Times have changed, thankfully, as the liner notes remind us: no more KGB surveillance, no more formally attired musicians (count the multicolored ties) and patrons, but also no more Dmitry Shostakovich moved to tears congratulating the orchestra and its conductor for the overwhelming performance. A fine concert, nonetheless, especially for Vadim Repin’s subtly poetic rendition of Max Bruch’s 1st Violin Concerto, sympathetically accompanied by Rattle, and a flexible and joyous account of Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements. Rattle’s Beethoven Seventh however sounds like a work in progress; rhythmically alert and detailed, here too he brings out the fun, but little else – an efficient, but unsurprising reading. Compared to what Abbado and Karajan in their lifelong quests achieved in this symphony, or in Beethoven in general, with this same orchestra, this is more than a step back. But then again, theirs isn’t a tarnished legacy. It’s a tough act to follow.

Copyright © 2014, Marc Haegeman
First published on Classical Net.


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Abbado: A Life Dedicated to Music

EuroArts 2059588 8DVDs, Widescreen 749min, PCM Stereo/Dolby Digital/DTS

A life dedicated to music

Claudio Abbado

To celebrate the 80th birthday of Claudio Abbado EuroArts reassembled a box of 8 DVDs – 7 concerts and a documentary – dubbed for the occasion “A life dedicated to music”. “Life” may be slightly over-ambitious within this context, yet the box covers the years 1994 to 2007, in effect, a crucial period in the life and career of the Italian maestro, including his unexpected departure from the Berlin Philharmonic, his battle against cancer, and his miraculous recovery marked by a renewed interest in new-generation orchestral culture. In 1986 Abbado had already founded the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, soon followed by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. After Berlin he moreover established the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, continuing a project inaugurated by Arturo Toscanini in the late 1930s, while the Orchestra Mozart which he formed in Bologna in 2004 gathers young musicians from various European countries. All these orchestras are represented in this box.
Read the full review on Classical Net