I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by Marc Haegeman


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Total Liszt

Franz Liszt:
Sposalizio, S161/1 (orch. Salvatore Sciarrino)
Totentanz, S126
A Faust Symphony, S108

Alice Sara Ott, piano
Brenden Gunnell, tenor
Gentlemen of the London Symphony Chorus, Simon Halsey, chorus director
London Symphony Orchestra, Antonio Pappano
Barbican Hall, London, 26 November 2017

Come to think of it, concerts devoted to a single composer – jubilees and special anniversaries notwithstanding – are quite unusual. The well-considered “Total Liszt” program from the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano gave ample proof that evenings like this do work and make perfect sense. “Total Liszt” put the Hungarian composer in a propitious light, offering variety, a discovery, but above all outstanding music-making and plenty of thrills.

Franz Liszt

Franz Liszt

The discovery came in the shape of Sposalizio, originally the sublime opening part of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage, Second Year: Italy for solo piano, yet here in a 2015 orchestration by the Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino (1947-). By using a modernist, sophisticated instrumentation (including bells and glockenspiel), Sciarrino pulls the work resolutely towards himself, yet the result is that the graceful evocation of the Marriage of the Virgin, as Liszt saw it in Raphael’s painting in Milan, ends up somewhere in modern-day Cinema Paradiso. Plenty of attention-grabbing sonic effects (piccolo and bass clarinet joining forces), with some weird pauses thrown in, and you were listening to the sound rather than the content. Although intently and lovingly performed by Pappano and the LSO, Sposalizio in Sciarrino-style was something of an oddity.

The following Totentanz grabbed the attention as well, but for very different reasons. Liszt’s fascination with death and the diabolical, partly fueled by his traveling and interest in arts, never found a more frightening expression as in this short work for piano and orchestra, adroitly variegating the Dies irae theme, as well as pushing the limits of harmony and piano technique. The Totentanz was given a knockout performance by pianist Alice Sara Ott. Appearing in a black gown, as if dressed for an infernal ball, she left little doubt she wanted to have a great time. And so did we.

The Totentanz has been in Ott’s repertory for some years and it’s clear she knows how to bring it with devastating impact. Her innate classical poise prevents her from pushing the piece over the edge, yet it’s exactly this flirting with the abyss which makes the Totentanz such an exciting ride. Alternately burning and melting the piano, she delivered the ferocious runs (including these jaw-dropping glissandos) with breathtaking speed, articulation and clarity, while the reflective moment in the fourth variation acquired a mesmerizing beauty in her hands. This was death equally creepy as well as beguiling. A close connection with Pappano and the LSO in great form added to the overall excitement and success. Alice Sara Ott received a thunderous applause and returned with a contrasting encore, the C-sharp minor Nocturne from Chopin in a ravishing gossamer delivery.

As rarely performed in the concert-hall as the Totentanz is the Faust Symphony in its complete 1857 version, including the finale with tenor solo and male-voice choir. Antonio Pappano offered overall a fine, often very beautiful, if eventually not entirely convincing reading of the Faust Symphony. Focused, attentive to every detail, coherently shaped and without a single drop in tension, the first two movements stood out: Faust appeared as a wild, edgy and volatile character, while Gretchen breathed tenderness and innocence to delight. Mephistopheles however would have benefited from more abandon and profounder work on the instrumental color. Perhaps it was the onslaught of the preceding Totentanz still fresh in mind, or simply the emphasis of the first movement which made Mephistopheles sound somewhat underwhelming. But in any case the contrast between the outer movements was too little pronounced, with Faust appearing as vivid and unsettling as his diabolic reflection. The “Chorus mysticus” finale, adding a spiritual dimension to the human conflicts evoked in the symphony, was however properly grand and powerful, with splendid vocal contributions from the American tenor Brenden Gunnell and gents from the London Symphony Chorus.

The playing of the LSO was a constant pleasure this evening, nary a weak link in the ensemble. With his detailed approach and care for orchestral balance, Pappano capitalized on the divided strings of the massive ensemble, highlighting the often brilliant writing of the symphony. Nowhere more so as in Gretchen, where Liszt at times reduces the orchestral forces to a chamber music scale. The admirable LSO woodwinds, especially Bobby Cheng’s oboe and Adam Walker’s flute, often in dialogue with groups of or even solo strings, always set the proper tone and atmosphere.

“Total Liszt” was a superb evening. Alice Sara Ott’s performance of the Totentanz was in a class of its own and in spite of some minor quibbles, A Faust Symphony remained a remarkable achievement as well. Running well over 70 minutes the symphony can be a daunting prospect, yet performances of such constant high quality as here by Pappano and the LSO are liable to convince you it has to be this way. The label of “heavenly length”, as in the case of Schubert’s later works, wouldn’t be inappropriate.

Copyright © 2017 Marc Haegeman


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Rachmaninoff at the BBC Proms

Sergei Rachmaninoff:
Piano concerto #3 in D minor, Op. 30
Symphony #2 in E minor, Op. 27
Two Russian Orthodox Chants (“Thy tomb, O Saviour”, “Serene Light”)

Alexander Gavrylyuk, piano
Latvian Radio Choir
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Thomas Dausgaard
Royal Albert Hall, London, 13 August 2017

London’s Royal Albert Hall can be a difficult venue to play. The Ukranian pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk left an unforgettable impression two years ago in Rotterdam with a superb rendition of the very same Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 under Valery Gergiev. Gavrylyuk is a subtle artist and clearly knows how to dose his Rachmaninoff. His playing reveals enormous depth underneath the lightest of surfaces and refuses every bit of flash or showiness. The slower passages sound compellingly tender and introverted in his hands, standing out just as much, if not more, as the technical fireworks. This time, in his BBC Proms debut, Gavrylyuk still had me convinced by his approach, even if compared to his Rotterdam performance I felt that the Royal Albert Hall audience was somehow shortchanged and part of the emotional intent of his message simply vaporized within the immense space of the hall – as in the very opening of the Concerto and in the Intermezzo: Adagio. (I suspect people who followed the concert live on TV or on the radio were able to appreciate the range of his playing a lot more than we did).

But this is how it goes in live music-making and to be sure this was still a magnificent performance. The tonal beauty of Gavrylyuk’s piano, his grip on the work’s structure as well as his mercurial speed in some of the passages and the exciting, well-judged buildups held the audience spellbound. Thomas Dausgaard stuck very closely to his soloist – literally leaving him rarely out of sight – and ensured the most sympathetic accompaniment from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, including beautiful solo work from woodwinds and horns.

As an encore Gavrylyuk performed Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise in the transcription by Vladimir Horowitz. Again, the audience seemed mesmerized by his reflective pianism – one could hear a pin drop and it took a long time after the last note subsided before they erupted in applause.

Music of the Russian Orthodox Church has been a great influence on Rachmaninoff’s style and it was a fine idea to preface both major works of this evening by ancient monastic chants, performed by the Latvian Radio Choir. The likeness between Thy tomb, O Saviour and the opening theme of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto has been pointed out (although the composer denied any direct origins) and was well illustrated here. Preceding the Concerto members of the Latvian Radio Choir entered the hall processing down to the arena through the audience before disappearing under the stage.

The concert continued with Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony, again introduced by an Orthodox chant Serene Light from the Latvians, effectively performed this time from the top Gallery. Conducting from memory, Dausgaard led an outstanding performance of the massive symphony, well-shaped and phrased throughout. Swift, lean and often vigorous, he kept things going, enough so in the first movement to justify the exposition repeat, while the dynamic divided strings of the BBC Scottish Symphony unraveled Rachmaninoff’s polyphonic textures to delight. This is a long work, but it didn’t feel this way here. I missed some of the darker colors in the brass and the bass strings sounded from where I was sitting slightly underwhelming. This was undoubtedly more a problem of the hall’s acoustics again. Solos were without exception beautifully performed, though, especially the clarinet solo from Yann Ghiro in the Adagio and the first horn. In short, a superbly rewarding Rachmaninoff evening at the Proms.

Copyright © 2017 Marc Haegeman


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The Royal Ballet’s “La fille mal gardée”

Ferdinand Hérold: La fille mal gardée (The Wayward Daughter)

  • Natalia Osipova – Lise
  • Steven McRae – Colas
  • Philip Mosley – Widow Simone
  • Christopher Saunders – Thomas
  • Paul Kay – Alain

Artists of the Royal Ballet
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Barry Wordsworth
Choreography by Frederick Ashton
Music by Ferdinand Hérold arranged and orchestrated by John Lanchbery
Opus Arte Blu-ray OABD7187D 110m (+features 14m) LPCM Stereo DTS-HD Master Audio

fillemalgardeeThis is the third video release from the Royal Ballet in less than two years featuring Natalia Osipova. Following Giselle (Opus Arte Blu-ray OABD7151D) and Swan Lake (Opus Arte Blu-ray OABD7174D), the Russian ballerina now heads a fine cast in Frederick Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée and this is by far the most successful of the three titles. Incidentally, as was the case with Swan Lake, the Royal Ballet’s La Fille mal gardée performed by Marianela Nunez and Carlos Acosta was released on video by Opus Arte not even ten years ago. The company clearly believes in the drawing power of their Russian star and suggests box-office successes are transferrable to home video.

Ashton’s 1960 La Fille mal gardée (or The Wayward Daughter ) is of course one of the evergreen gems from the Royal Ballet repertoire. Based on a much older French comedy ballet by Jean Dauberval which dated from the French Revolution, with Fille mal gardée Ashton delivered not only an irresistibly charming and jolly essay on beginning love, he also gave English ballet a face.

The current revival of the original production, with the lovely designs from Osbert Lancaster, is wholly respectful and appropriate. The ballet clearly ages well and it’s a delight to see how the company continues to enjoy and illuminate every step and action. Principals Natalia Osipova and Steven McRae are terrific and attractive dancers, relishing Ashton’s technical challenges just as much as the manifold comical situations. Temperamentally and stylistically they come from a different stock, and some scenes look just a tad too studied, but don’t let this spoil your pleasure: this is classical ballet at its most enchanting. Ballet lovers who already own the previous Fille ma gardée needn’t worry, the dancers are so much different one can easily have both.

Barry Wordsworth proves a reliable guide for the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House in Ferdinand Hérold’s score, arranged and orchestrated by John Lanchbery. To make the feast complete, and another reason to own this new video, image and sound quality are topnotch in this Opus Arte release. Filmed live at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in May 2015, Ross MacGibbon delivers another expertly filmed ballet.

As has become a good habit in the Royal Opera House series from Opus Arte, some fifteen min of extras are included on the Blu-ray. The main dancers are seen chatting about their roles, and more interestingly, Lesley Collier, one of the best interpreters of the ballet of recent times and now coaching Osipova, reminisces about her own work with Frederick Ashton in the 1970’s.

Highly recommended for all old, and young, ballet lovers.

Copyright © 2016, Marc Haegeman

First published on Classical Net: http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/o/opu07187blua.php


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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


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Halloween in London

Ludwig van Beethoven: Coriolan Overture, Op. 62
Franz Liszt: Piano Concerto #2 in A Major
Hector Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14

Khatia Buniatishvili, piano
Philharmonia Orchestra/Tugan Sokhiev
London, Royal Festival Hall, 30 October 2014

Beethoven, Liszt and Berlioz formed an explosive Romantic trio in the hands of Tugan Sokhiev and the Philharmonia Orchestra in this London concert. The opening moments of Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture made it clear that this wasn’t going to be an evening for relaxation. The Roman general’s dilemma was initially brushed with such muscular vigor and dark colors it made you wonder whether he was ever going to give in. It was quite a large-scaled formation for Beethoven, too, but Sokhiev has been a regular guest with the Philharmonia Orchestra and easily carved a convincing balance and lightness of texture, preventing our hero from tipping from grand into heavy.
Read the full review on Classical Net


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Buniatishvili in London

Jean Sibelius: Karelia Suite
Edvard Grieg: Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16
Antonin Dvorak: Symphony #7 in D minor, Op. 70

Khatia Buniatishvili, piano
Philharmonia Orchestra/Paavo Järvi
London, Royal Festival Hall, 7 April 2013

At first glance, the concert of the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Paavo Järvi at the London Royal Festival Hall on April 7 couldn’t have been further removed from the “blazing originality” label that the orchestra’s 2012/13 cycle at the Southbank Centre brandishes on its posters and programs. Sibelius’ Karelia Suite, Grieg’s Piano Concerto and Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony seem rather safe Sunday matinee fare instead. Yet with an electrifying Khatia Buniatishvili bringing insight and character to the Grieg, with an inspired maestro and above all a Philharmonia in tremendous doing, the concert was nothing short of revelatory.
Read the full review on Classical Net


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Yuja Wang at the BBC Proms

Aaron Copland: Fanfare for the Common Man
Arnold Bax: Symphony #2
Samuel Barber: Adagio for Strings, Op. 11
Béla Bartók: Piano Concerto #2
Serge Prokofieff: Symphony #4 in C Major, Op. 112 (1947 version)

Yuja Wang, piano
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Litton
BBC Proms – London, Royal Albert Hall, 16 August 2011

The 43rd Prom featuring the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andrew Litton was without doubt one of the most generous of the season, running well over three hours with two twenty minute intervals. A copious, but at times also rather heavy meal of 20th-century music, with two symphonies, a piano concerto, and two shorter orchestral pieces. The concert also included the Proms debut of the acclaimed 24-year old Chinese pianist Yuja Wang.
Read the full review on Classical Net