I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by Marc Haegeman


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Ashkenazy and Tchaikovsky’s Manfred

Alexander Scriabin: Rêverie, Op. 24
Wolfgang Mozart: Violin Concerto #5 in A Major, K. 219
Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: Manfred Symphony, Op. 58

Eric Silberger, violin
Philharmonia Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy
London, Royal Festival Hall, 19 April 2015

Conductors might start to think twice before programming Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony in London. Back in November 2002 the famous Russian maestro Evgeny Svetlanov was scheduled to head the Philharmonia Orchestra in an all-Tchaikovsky program at the Royal Festival Hall, with the rarely performed Symphony as the main course. Sadly, Svetlanov died some months before the concert. And now again, it was Lorin Maazel who would guide the Philharmonia through Manfred’s dramatic wanderings, yet he passed away last summer. On both occasions Vladimir Ashkenazy, the orchestra’s Conductor laureate, jumped in and while both maestros leave an irreplaceable void, there is no doubt that Ashkenazy saved the evenings in the most brilliant way.

Of course, Ashkenazy as well as the Philharmonia share an excellent record with Tchaikovsky’s Manfred. Ashkenazy’s account with the Philharmonia from 1977 has stood the test of time rather well, while the orchestra also recorded the Symphony with Paul Kletzki and Riccardo Muti – the latter remaining one of the finest versions on disc ever.

Manfred is often considered a pretty hard deal, but Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia made the magic work again. Sonority, orchestral balance and transparency, sense of architecture, well-judged dynamics and keen dramatic timing coalesced into a magnificent reading, viscerally thrilling in its highly-charged dramatic convulsions but also compelling by its emphasis on Tchaikovsky’s search for unusual instrumental color. The huge orchestra, anchored on 8 basses, showed no weak spots and responded as a crack team. The quality of the desk leaders (Samuel Coles’ first flute and Gordon Hunt’s first oboe in particular), the warmth and flexibility of the strings were exemplary throughout. The brass, often helped by Andrew Smith’s tremendous timpani, sounded glorious and were well integrated in the orchestral mass.

Ashkenazy knows his orchestra can handle his brisk tempi in the first two movements with little or no loss of detail or accuracy. The swifter than usual tempo for the opening section made the ensuing buildups and sonorous climaxes sound even more ineluctable. He also knows exactly how far to push the orchestra and while tutti generated a lot of heat, they never became shrill or coarse. With playing of this conviction and brilliance all criticism about the work being overlong becomes pointless. Performed without any cuts, unafraid to show its colors and ending with the Royal Festival Hall organ in full splendor: this is, take or leave, Tchaikovsky’s Manfred as it should be.

In interesting contrast with the massive forces needed for Manfred, the orchestra appeared before the break in a slimmed-down formation for Mozart’s 5th Violin Concerto, with American violinist Eric Silberger as soloist. Silberger is a laureate of the XIVth Moscow International Competition and the Michael Hill International Violin Competition in 2011. He was also mentored by Maazel at his Castleton Festival in Virginia. He played the concerto in what many would consider an old-styled way – and in fact there is no need to imagine anything negative with that: warm, big, unaffected, firmly rooted within the orchestra, with an effective brief cadenza of his own, this was magnificent violin playing. Ashkenazy’s accompaniment was equally elegant and balanced.

This performance also reminded us this is a live concert, where even at this level things can occasionally go wrong, as they did in the Rondeau. What sounded like a blackout right before the so-called “Turkish” section threw everybody off track for a few seconds. It didn’t spoil an otherwise excellent performance, however, and Silberger returned with a vengeance with some brilliant playing for Mozart’s Hungarian rhythms. An appreciative audience was gratified with an encore of Paganini’s Caprice No. 24, which Silberger dedicated to maestro Maazel and dispatched with superb panache.

Most of this concert’s program was kept as Maazel had planned it, yet Ashkenazy added the Rêverie from Alexander Scriabin (who died a hundred years ago) as a miniature curtain-raiser. This is a short work – the composer’s first attempt at orchestral writing – and unlike some of his more famous later pieces very restrained and devoid of any excesses. Ashkenazy clearly loves this music and by coaxing magnificently transparent string playing, brightened by ravishing winds, he was able to show us why.

Copyright © 2015, Marc Haegeman


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Little known opera’s by Rimsky-Korsakoff

The Tsar’s Bride
Galina Vishnevskaya
Vladimir Atlantov
Irina Arkhipova
Evgeny Nesterenko
Choir & Orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre/Fuat Mansurov
Melodiya MELCD1001876 2CDs ADD

Mlada
Sinfonietta on Russian Themes in A minor *

Alexey Korolev
Tatiana Turaginova
Vladimir Makhov
Alexey Bolshakov
Great Choir of the All-Union Radio
Male Group of the Choir of the Bolshoi Theatre
Great Symphony Orchestra/Evgeny Svetlanov
* State Academic Symphony Orchestra of the USSR/Evgeny Svetlanov
Melodiya MELCD1001829 3CDs ADD

The Tsar's Bride

The Tsar’s Bride

Further exploration of the Russian Melodiya vaults gave us this reissue of two historical recordings of fascinating but little-known opera’s from Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakoff. The Tsar’s Bride dating from 1899 may be Rimsky-Korsakoff’s most popular opera in Russia, abroad it remains still very much a gem to discover. Even rarer is Mlada, a mythological opera-ballet extravaganza with a Wagnerian, Ring-influenced orchestration, premiered in St. Petersburg in 1892, wherein, curiously, the title role is taken by a dancer rather than a singer.
Read the full review on Classical Net


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Borodin Anthology

Alexander Borodin:
Symphony #1 in E Flat Major
Symphony #2 in B minor
Symphony #3 in A minor
Petite Suite (orch. by Glazunov)
In The Steppes of Central Asia
Overture “Prince Igor”

USSR State Symphony Orchestra/Evgeny Svetlanov
Melodiya MELCD1001946 2CDs ADD

Alexander Borodin

Borodin Anthology by Svetlanov

With Melodiya continuing to reissue chunks of its historic catalogue lovers of Russian music are in for a treat. This two-CD set from Evgeny Svetlanov and his USSR State Symphony Orchestra groups the essence of Alexander Borodin’s symphonic work. Although recorded over some twenty years, between 1963 and 1983, Svetlanov’s survey shows remarkable cohesion in approach and result. All titles considered here have been released several times, yet Borodin isn’t particularly overrepresented either on disc or in the concert-hall, making this nicely packaged twofer very welcome. Incidentally, Svetlanov went on to record another Borodin Symphonies cycle for RCA in the 1990s, but this older Melodiya set is by all means preferable.
Read the full review on Classical Net


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Svetlanov’s Raymonda

Alexander Glazunov: Raymonda
Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra/Evgeny Svetlanov
Melodiya MELCD1001959 2CDs ADD

Glazunov's Raymonda

Glazunov’s Raymonda

Unlike the Tchaikovsky ballets there is little chance that Raymonda will mean much to outsiders. Alexander Glazunov’s first ballet, created as a 3-act production at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in 1898 and performed by companies around the world to this day, remains nonetheless one of the finest scores in the genre. In many ways, Raymonda was continuing the trend set by Tchaikovsky, upscaling ballet music to an unsuspected level of sophistication and art, and making an essential contribution to the apotheosis of Russian Imperial Ballet at the close of the 19th century.
Read the full review on Classical Net