I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by Marc Haegeman


Leave a comment

Magnificent Mendelssohn and Brahms from Blomstedt and the Concertgebouw

Felix Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, “Scottish”, Op. 56
Wilhelm Stenhammar: Sången (cantata), Op. 44 (Intermezzo)
Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Herbert Blomstedt
Brussels, Centre for Fine Arts, 11 January 2019

© Martin U.K. Lengemann

Herbert Blomstedt (© Martin U.K. Lengemann)

Orchestras stay, while conductors come and go – so it normally goes. However, in the case of maestro Herbert Blomstedt you might think differently. He is 91, very active, and carries some 65 years of conducting experience with him. That’s more candles than many orchestras have to blow, including most of the period-instrument ensembles. Blomstedt brings a communicative sense of joy to music-making and his conducting seems alien to any sign of routine or tiredness. Returning to Brussels with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (RCO), Blomstedt treated us to a magnificent concert with utterly compelling readings of symphonies from Mendelssohn and Brahms.

Read the full review on Bachtrack.


Leave a comment

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


Leave a comment

Birmingham in Paris

Johannes Brahms: Piano Concerto #1 in D minor, Op. 15
Igor Stravinsky: Petrushka (version of 1947)

Richard Strauss: Don Juan, Op 20
Johannes Brahms: Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77
Sergei Prokofieff: Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64bis & ter (fragments)

Hélène Grimaud, piano
Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
Paris, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, 15-16 March 2014

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) and their Music Director Andris Nelsons took up residence for a weekend at the Paris Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. Joined by pianist Hélène Grimaud and violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, their two concerts focused on Johannes Brahms (his first Piano Concerto and his Violin Concerto) but also offered some magnificent 20th-century ballet music from Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofieff.
Read the full review on Classical Net


Leave a comment

Brahmsfest in Paris

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
Piano Concerto #1 in D minor, Op. 15
Piano Concerto #2 in B Flat Major, Op. 83
Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77
“Double” Concerto for Violin, Cello & Orchestra in A minor, Op. 102

Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano
Arcadi Volodos, piano
Leonidas Kavakos, violin
Julian Rachlin, violin
Enrico Dindo, cello
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Riccardo Chailly
Paris, Salle Pleyel, 26-27 October and 1-2 November 2013

Coinciding with their CD-release of the Brahms Symphonies, Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra toured London, Paris and Vienna with the complete Symphony and Concerto cycle. Marketing-wise it doesn’t get any better than that. Music-wise it was a true Brahms feast.
I was able to attend the whole series at the Paris Salle Pleyel – and would like to thank Philippe Provensal and his press team for their generous assistance. Spread over four concerts, with each of the symphonies paired to a concerto, maestro Chailly and his Leipzig ensemble offered a unique opportunity to (re)visit one of the most significant symphonic legacies of the 19th century. Riccardo Chailly has been Gewandhauskapellmeister since the start of the 2005/6 season. With its 270 years of history the Gewandhaus Orchestra is not only the oldest in the world, it boasts a long tradition of championing Brahms’s music. The composer himself conducted and performed no less than 16 times in Leipzig, where during his lifetime a true personal cult had developed. In the 1913/14 season of the Gewandhaus a first Brahms cycle was brought under the baton of Arthur Nikisch, whom the composer had known as orchestra leader. Now, a hundred years later, Chailly continues this tradition in grand form.
Read the full review on Classical Net


Leave a comment

Batiashvili’s Brahms

Johannes Brahms: Concerto for Violin in D Major, Op. 77
Clara Schumann: 3 Romances for Violin & Piano, Op. 22

Lisa Batiashvili, violin
Alice Sara Ott, piano
Staatskapelle Dresden/Christian Thielemann
Deutsche Grammophon 4790086 DDD 48m

Lisa Batiashvili

Lisa Batiashvili plays Brahms

The Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili teams up for her second Deutsche Grammophon disc with the Staatskapelle Dresden and its principal conductor Christian Thielemann in this new recording of the Brahms Violin Concerto. The 33-year-old Batiashvili has quickly established herself as one of the most acclaimed and sought-after violinists of the day. She holds the position of “Capell-Virtuosin” in Dresden for the 2012/13 season, emphasizing her special relationship with the reputed orchestra and while falling short of being revelatory, her Brahms nonetheless makes a fine stand among the many reference recordings available.
Read the full review on Classical Net


Leave a comment

Dazzling Rollercoaster

Sergei Rachmaninoff: Etudes-Tableaux, Op. 39/4-6; Elegy, Op. 3/1
Gabriel Fauré: Ballade, Op. 19
Alexander Scriabin: Sonata #5
Johannes Brahms: 7 Fantasies, Op. 116
Isaac Albéniz: Triana (from Iberia)
Claude Debussy: La soirée dans Grenade (from Estampes)
Vladimir Horowitz: Variations on a Theme from G. Bizet’s “Carmen”

Yuja Wang, piano
Brussels Conservatory, 20 March 2012

The acclaimed Chinese pianist Yuja Wang made her debut in Belgium with the kind of disparate program that would have made giants like Sviatoslav Richter think twice, yet which seems designed primarily to demonstrate how dazzling a virtuoso she is. (Richter played what he felt like playing at a particular moment, but that’s another story.) Wang’s Brussels recital was largely culled from her coinciding new CD-release, imponderably titled “Fantasia” and sounded in spite of the hyped promise of “a poetic evening” for the most part like a no-brainer, rollercoaster collection of miniatures and bravura transcriptions by Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Debussy, Albeniz and Horowitz, wherein the difference between the official program and the encores eventually went completely adrift. The bits of late Brahms and Fauré thrown in for weight couldn’t dispel the frustrating feeling that this evening we only heard part of her talent. Or didn’t we?
Read the full review on Classical Net


Leave a comment

Volodos in Brussels

Franz Schubert: Piano Sonata #16 in A minor, D. 784
Johannes Brahms: 3 Intermezzi, Op. 117
Franz Liszt: Piano Sonata in B minor, S. 178

Arcadi Volodos, piano
Brussels, Centre for Fine Arts, 11 October 2011

With the previous week’s media attention and box-office success of Lang Lang fresh in mind, the concert hall in the Brussels’ Bozar/Centre for Fine Arts looked sadly empty with only two-thirds of the seats taken for the Arcadi Volodos recital. While 39-year old Volodos is at least as much the jaw-dropping technician, we know he doesn’t come to town with the extra-musical gigs that the Chinese superstar package contains. And even if his pianism doesn’t eschew the occasional bit of ostentation either, it hasn’t become oddball. Volodos’ stage manner is unassuming and ritualistically simple. After each piece he can be seen standing behind the piano, arms crossed in front, sharing a timid but content smile and a stiff bow. All through the concert stage and piano remain in pure Sviatoslav Richter-style sparsely lit while the hall is bathing in darkness. But it is Volodos who sheds the light for the evening with his playing, or rather the light in all its shades ranging from solar brightness to abysmal darkness.
Read the full review on Classical Net