I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by Marc Haegeman


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A sunny matinee at the BBC Proms with Joshua Bell and the ASMF

Felix Mendelssohn: Overture A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 21
Camille Saint-Saëns: Violin Concerto #3 in B minor, Op. 61
Frank Bridge: Lament (Catherine, aged 9, “Lusitania” 1915)
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony #4 in B Flat Major, Op. 60

Joshua Bell, violin
Academy of St Martin in the Fields/Joshua Bell
London, Royal Albert Hall, 12 August 2018

The Academy of St Martin in the Fields (ASMF) brought an utterly delightful matinee concert at the BBC Proms under their music director, violinist Joshua Bell. The joys were manifold. For one thing, it was a beautifully varied bill, including a couple of rarities. But above all this was a concert that demonstrated the pleasure of making music together, by a first-class ensemble of 40 musicians breathing as one and visibly enjoying their moment in the spotlights. Acting both (or simultaneously) as conductor and as soloist, Joshua Bell appeared a true inspirational force. Conducting from the leader’s chair (if not playing, wielding his bow as baton) in Mendelssohn, Bridge and Beethoven, he went centre stage to play and direct Saint-Saëns’ Third Violin Concerto. And all from memory.

The concert took off with Mendelssohn’s Overture for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The woodwinds had a bit of a rough start but pretty soon everything fell into place and this rendition was teeming with youthful energy and imagination. The different scenes and moods of Mendelssohn’s microcosmic distillation of Shakespearean fantasy came vividly alive now with transparent textures, then again with warm colors and subtle shading. While Bell kept things going at a lively pace, the sound quality of the ASMF was outstanding throughout.

The concertos from Camille Saint-Saëns are rarely heard in the concert hall. Of his five Piano concertos only the Second is occasionally performed, and his Violin concertos fare even worse. And come to think of it, his symphonies aren’t exactly flooding the concert programs either. Interesting to read in the Proms program notes that Saint-Saëns was pally with Proms founder-conductor Henry Wood and that his Third Violin Concerto was a popular favorite at the time, receiving no less than 16 performances between 1898 and 1928 – although apparently only the slow movement initially. But only one in the following 90 years (in 1989).

The current revival by the ASMF was in this respect all the more welcome and with Bell’s authoritative reading we couldn’t have had a stronger advocate to get this lovely piece back in the mainstream concerto repertoire. It was quite a stunning tour de force for the soloist/conductor, alternatively facing the public and his orchestra. Ever graceful in projection and warmly attractive in timbre, Bell immediately hit the right balance between virtuoso display (it was written for legend Pablo de Sarasate after all) and romantic lyricism. The barcarolle-like Andantino quasi Allegretto sung in all its elegance, fusing violin with woodwinds in a ravishing dialogue. Naturally, Bell was the soloist and he got the brilliant parts (which he negotiated effortlessly), but the success and conviction of this reading was eventually due to the admirable teamwork, or rather companionship, between him and the orchestra. As said, an irresistible sense of making music together was running strong the whole concert, but this quality was never more palpable as in the concerto.

After the interval Bell and the string players of the Academy performed Frank Bridge’s short Lament, composed to commemorate the brutal sinking of the “Lusitania”, a British ocean liner by a German submarine in 1915, taking 1,200 passengers to the bottom of the Atlantic. Bridge was friends with the Crompton family who perished in the disaster and composed this 5 minute Lament in memory of 9-year old Catherine Crompton. Again, a rarity for the Proms as the piece hadn’t been performed there since its premiere in 1915. A remarkable work in its dense but subtle string writing, and most impressively done here.

In order not to interrupt the impact of the memorial piece Bell wanted to segue from the Lament into the following Beethoven Fourth Symphony, however due to a slight hesitation of his part all good intentions were torpedoed by premature applause from eager Prommers. Still, once under way after the searching introduction, this Beethoven was pure sunny joy, excitingly muscular and crisp in the outer movements, warm and tender in the Adagio, but always full of ‘joie de vivre’. A convincing orchestral balance, clear textures, excellent solo work and impressive dynamics highlighted the quality of the ensemble again and under Bell’s direction the whole work seemed infused with an unstoppable drive running through all the movements. To his credit, Bell clearly doesn’t consider the Fourth Symphony a mere “divertissement”, but really a worthy companion for the usually higher esteemed Third and Fifth. It didn’t matter this was a small ensemble playing the gigantic Royal Albert Hall, this sweeping account of Beethoven’s Fourth made a very strong impression indeed.

It is now 7 years that Joshua Bell took over the music directorship of the ASMF from the late Sir Neville Marinner, but judging from this concert the orchestra is in the best of hands and can definitely look forward to its 60th anniversary in the 2019/20 season in full confidence.

Copyright © 2018 Marc Haegeman

First published on Classical Net.


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Alice Sara Ott and Edo de Waart bring magnificent Mozart and Dvořák to Antwerp

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 13 in C Major, KV 415 (KV 387b)
Antonin Dvořák: Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95, “From the New World”

Alica Sara Ott, piano
Antwerp Symphony Orchestra, Edo de Waart
Antwerp, Elisabeth Center, 19 May 2018

The Antwerp Symphony Orchestra (ASO, formerly known as the deFilharmonie or the Royal Flemish Philharmonic) is a superb formation, one of the finest in the country. The quality of this ensemble was undeniable in an utterly delightful Mozart and Dvořák matinee concert in Antwerp’s Queen Elisabeth Hall under the ASO’s Conductor Laureate, Dutch maestro Edo de Waart. The presence of Alice Sara Ott as soloist was icing on the cake.

Read the full review on Bachtrack


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Thrilling Beethoven and Mahler from Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra in Antwerp

Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 36
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D Major “Titan”

Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen
Elisabeth Center, Antwerp, 18 April 2018

In Antwerp, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra offered a symphonic feast, with insightful and thrilling readings of Beethoven’s Second and Mahler’s First. In effect, it was not unlike visiting old friends who suddenly appeared younger, more vibrant and congenial than you remembered them. Conductor and orchestra demonstrated once again that, in the right hands, familiar repertory can still prove compelling and even surprising. In other words, they possess the formula for bringing a great concert.

Read the full review on Bachtrack


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Total Tchaikovsky in Antwerp

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky:
The Nutcracker, Op. 71 – fragments
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23
Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 36

Ivan Bessonov, piano
Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre, Valery Gergiev
Elisabeth Center, Antwerp, 17 January 2018

tchaikovsky

Tchaikovsky by Nikolai Kuznetsov in 1883

The concept of a concert devoted to a single composer may not be that rare after all, as was demonstrated by this performance of the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra under Valery Gergiev in Antwerp. The Russians brought a full, and as it turned out, very long evening of Tchaikovsky music in the splendidly refurbished Elisabeth Center in downtown Antwerp. A copious selection from The Nutcracker, the First Piano Concerto introducing whiz kid Ivan Bessonov, and the Fourth Symphony formed a program that ran well over three hours. Any lover of Tchaikovsky’s or Russian music will naturally welcome such a generous evening, yet as to why it ran so long was bound to raise a few eyebrows.

This concert, which I could attend thanks to the generosity of the organizing company Cofena, resembled to some extent Valery Gergiev’s recent Tchaikovsky CD on the Mariinsky label, coupling The Nutcracker with the Fourth Symphony. It had much the same qualities and flaws as on the recording. Overall these were analytical rather than emotional performances. The sonority of the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra was admirable throughout. As an ensemble they are hard to beat. Even with their grueling performance schedule, they still do better than most. The characteristic emphasis on darker tones, punctuated by the lower strings and brass, works extremely well for this late-Tchaikovsky ballet and the symphony. Gergiev opens up the sound with meticulous precision and he lets you hear details you may never have noticed before. Yet this now comes at a heavy price. Many of his tempi have become slow to the point of inertia and some of his pacing impossibly contrived.

The concert started late, but that’s not unusual with maestro Gergiev, and it opened not with the scheduled Overture of The Nutcracker but immediately with the Departure of the guests. His handpicked selection largely emulated Evgeny Mravinsky’s famous live recording from Leningrad, although unfortunately that is as far as the comparison went. For this being the most exciting section of the ballet, including dramatic passages like the Battle with the mice, the Pine forest in Winter and the Waltz of the Snowflakes, Gergiev’s traversal turned out to be a pretty uneventful affair. There was orchestral detail to delight within every bar, and one would be hard-pressed to find an ensemble that knows this music better than the Mariinsky, but where was the life, the imagination, the frisson that sets these pages apart? For a conductor who has given us one of the most electrifying recordings of The Nutcracker on disc (in 1998), Gergiev appears to have developed a bizarre attitude towards the work. Or perhaps he simply wasn’t there yet this evening. The climaxes sounded flat and underwhelming and while the orchestral balance favored the – otherwise superb – lower brass, I could hardly hear the timpani from my seat at the back of the parterre. By the time they tackled an uneventful Waltz of the Flowers and a dangerously dragging Andante maestoso it seemed everybody had given up. Some 20 years ago I heard Gergiev and the Mariinsky in a complete Nutcracker concert. They blew off the roof with their full-blooded reading, displaying magic and drama in every bar. Yet hearing this now, this seems like a very long time ago indeed.

The best part of the evening was undoubtedly the performance of 15-year old Ivan Bessonov in Tchaikovsky’s 1st Piano Concerto. Born in St. Petersburg in a family of musicians, Bessonov has been playing the piano since he was six. He garnered the first prize in several youth competitions, among others the International Frédéric Chopin Youth Competition (2015) and the International Anton Rubinstein Competition The Piano Miniature in Russian Music (2016), both in St. Petersburg, as well as the international Grand Piano Competition for young pianists in Moscow. Long and lanky, with a mop of hair, he resembles a 1970’s rock star. His performance of the Concerto was by all means quite astonishing – for any age: keyboard touch and color were impressive, his technique rock-solid. But above all he appeared fearless, undisturbed by a few slips in the beginning moments. His musicality seems pretty straightforward, for now devoid of too many distracting mannerisms and tics. There is no doubt this man is going to go places. The clarity of his articulation and the directness of his delivery were completely matched by Gergiev who appeared in a much better doing here than the rest of the evening and secured a thrilling performance, deservedly greeted with a standing ovation.

Every time I hear Gergiev conduct Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, I am less convinced by his approach. The mannerisms seem to increase by the season, as does the running-time. In the concerts from 2011 the Fourth was already by far the least persuasive of the Tchaikovsky symphonies cycle and Gergiev’s recent CD recording only confirmed the impression of artificiality and incoherence. He clearly has something special in mind with this work, but what exactly is anybody’s guess. Gergiev’s unwarranted lingering in the first and second movements produced far too many drops of tension. In effect, by now the symphony has fallen into a succession of episodes, some undeniably beautiful (as the opening of the slow movement, thanks to the magnificent Mariinsky woodwinds), others merely bland (as the return of the fate motif in the first movement, or the endless conclusion of the Andantino, due to Gergiev’s obsessive scrutiny of every orchestral detail), but eventually inconsequential. Even the buoyant Scherzo failed to take flight. The symphony is too drawn out, takes forever to end, and fails to make any impact as a whole. One could argue that Gergiev overplays the symphony’s dark beauty, but in the process he has totally smothered its passion and excitement.

The Lullaby and the grandiose finale of Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird which allowed the orchestra to open its big guns one more time, was a very generous encore for an already long evening. Of the dozens of concerts and operas conducted by Valery Gergiev I attended in the last 25 years or so, this has to be one of the most dispiriting. Works that once sounded great in his hands now fizzled out or morphed into cluttered, unconvincing personal statements. Yet, not all was lost, as this concert allowed us to get acquainted with a rare new talent, Ivan Bessonov, from whom we will surely hear again in a not too distant future.

Copyright © 2018 Marc Haegeman


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New York City Ballet in Paris – Balanchine, New York – Paris

Charles Gounod: Walpurgisnacht Ballet
Maurice Ravel: Sonatine, La Valse
Georges Bizet: Symphony in C

New York City Ballet
Choreography by George Balanchine
Orchestre Prométhée/Daniel Capps
Recorded in Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, July 2016
BelAir Classiques BAC 439, 1080i Full-HD, PCM 2.0 / DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, 106 mins

New York City Ballet in Paris

New York City Ballet in Paris

Of today’s top ballet companies, New York City Ballet is one of the least well represented on home video – a sorry fact the American dancers share with their colleagues from the Royal Danish Ballet in Europe. The company preserves one of the most significant and groundbreaking choreographic legacies on the planet – with George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins at its core – and is a foremost promoter of contemporary work. Yet, even in these multimediatized times, performance videos which highlight repertory and current dancers of New York City Ballet remain a precious rarity.

What a superb idea it was, then, to film the company while on tour in Paris in the summer of 2016, performing a selection of its traditional repertory. The choice was, I assume, readily made. The connection between Balanchine and the French capital is legendary. All four ballets assembled here are set to French music and both Walpurgisnacht and Symphony in C were even created for the Paris Opera. Often with nothing but light as setting and very simple costuming (except La Valse with its hints of a ballroom and slightly decadent gowns), and utterly delightful music (Gounod, Bizet and Ravel) to boast, this program is a continuous joy and may serve as an antidote against those trying to reduce dance to darkness, violence and angst. In these troubled times a shot of Balanchine is by all means a very welcome night out. By their intelligence, musicality, sense of harmony and purity of intent, his ballets are beacons of light and hope, and by their perennial modernity, continuing sources of delight and inspiration.

Try the lovely Sonatine from 1975 on a rainy day: just two dancers and a pianist on stage, yet it all is brought with effortless dignity, simple charm, and sunlit grace by Megan Fairchild and Joaquin De Luz. In no time you will feel better. This is also a disc to admire the New York City Ballet dancers of today. Like the wonderful Sara Mearns in the romantically wild and theatrical Walpurgisnacht Ballet. Or Sterling Hyltin and Amar Ramasar both superb in La Valse (combining Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales with La Valse proper), offering dramatic contrast. Finally, the irresistible Symphony in C, originally made as Palais de Cristal for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1947, a magnificent showcase for the company’s health and strength. Soloists and ensemble appear in tremendous form and if this performance is in any way representative of the current state of New York City Ballet, then the company is doing really well indeed.

With François Duplat and Vincent Bataillon as the producer-director team, well known from the successful “Bolshoi Ballet HD Collection” distributed by BelAir Classiques, we are in good hands too. They know their trade and have given us some of the best filmed ballet performance videos in recent times. “New York City Ballet in Paris” is no exception. The camerawork and editing is in effect pretty simple and straightforward, but you always see what you need to see in a ballet.

This video comes without any bonus features, but here is the dance speaking for itself as only Balanchine could master it, and it deserves a place in any serious ballet video collection. New York City Ballet brought several programs on its extensive 2016 Paris tour. May we hope for some more goodies, and not only the historical repertory but also new creations, from the treasure chest?

Warmly recommended.

© 2017 Marc Haegeman. All rights reserved


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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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Bohemia in Paris

Bedřich Smetana: Má Vlast (My Country), 6 symphonic poems
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim
Paris, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, 20 December 2016

Má Vlast, the cycle of six symphonic poems composed by Smetana between 1874 and 1879, makes for highly attractive concert programming. It forms the perfect antidote for those who think that the traditional three-part concert offering has had its day. While not as long as most concerts, one still doesn’t feel short-changed by the 75 or so minutes, because when heard in one sitting without a break, the rich and diverse microcosm of Má Vlast turns out to be quite an engrossing musical experience. Forget the famous Moldau too often heard as a single evergreen. Only when placed within the cycle the river flows with a purpose and Smetana’s thematic structure and vivid imagination can be appreciated better than ever.

Daniel Barenboim (© Riky Davila Klein)

Daniel Barenboim (© Riky Davila Klein)

Daniel Barenboim and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra are touring Europe with Má Vlast in preparation of the opening concert of next year’s prestigious Prague Spring International Festival. This is undoubtedly a daunting task as much as a great honor, but the concert in a packed Paris Champs-Elysées Theatre showed both conductor and orchestra in tremendous doing and left a powerful impression. And even if the most chauvinistic music critics in Prague next May will probably tell you differently, the Viennese seem to connect naturally with the lyricism and rhythms of Bohemia. In this respect it’s good to remember the orchestra recorded Má Vlast at least three times in the last 60 years – with conductors as different as Rafael Kubelik, James Levine and Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

Strongly dramatic, often darkly colored, but also grand and festive when required, this performance of Má Vlast under Barenboim was fascinating from start to end. Not the call-to-arms as exemplified by Kubelik and the Czech Philharmonic at their most patriotic, but nonetheless a stirring exploration full of contrasting sonorities and carried by very flexible but never disagreeable tempi and dynamics, which (Barenboim hasn’t been conducting at Bayreuth for almost two decades for nothing) also frequently reminded us of Smetana’s predilection for the music of Liszt and Wagner. Barenboim, who conducted from memory, demonstrated a firm grip on the structure of each poem, but equally kept the bigger picture in mind. He appreciated the affinity of the Viennese players with this music and knew exactly how to balance a certain amount of freedom with exacting precision. The consistency of his approach enhanced the impact of the cycle as a whole just as much as it displayed the ingenuity of Smetana’s vision. The final appearance of the Vyšehrad theme at the end of Blanik sounded like a homecoming after a long and emotional voyage that had started with the simple harps in Vyšehrad. The two final poems Tábor and Blanik, strongly linked, appeared like a suspenseful quest from darkness to light, allying often mysterious sonorities with telling silences and well-judged releases of tension to balance the drama.

Color was also elemental in Vltava and From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields highlighting beautiful solo work from the Viennese woodwinds (clarinet and flute, especially), and the sometimes rugged horns adding extra spice. The brass practically covered the whole width of the stage and while Smetana uses them frequently to great effect, Barenboim avoided all bombast. It was however more than anything the magnificent strings ensemble, homogenous and precise to delight, that brought the whole picture to life and gave this Má Vlast a beating heart – whether in the romantic flowing of Vltava, the passionate events electrifying Šárka, the superb fugal passage in From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields or the high-octane drive in Tábor. Antiphonally placed, Barenboim dosed them carefully, now as leading sections, then again in a supporting role.

Concerning the orchestral balance, here and there I missed some weight in the lower strings sound, although that might have been caused by the placement of the orchestra in this venue. The Champs-Elysées Theatre doesn’t have a very wide stage and the double-basses, placed at the far left, were partly hidden behind the proscenium arch. In the heat of the action the woodwinds also tended at times to be a tad too prominent, while on the other hand the timpani, placed towards the left side, didn’t always produce the same impact. Yet these are minor quibbles about what was by all means a wonderful concert that should, eventually, do the Vienna Philharmonic and Daniel Barenboim in Prague proud.

Copyright © 2016 Marc Haegeman