I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by Marc Haegeman


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Haitink’s Schumann

Robert Schumann:
Symphony #1 in B-Flat Major, Op. 38 (Spring)
Cello Concerto in A Minor, Op. 129 *
Symphony #4 in D Minor, Op. 120 (1851 version)

Overture “Manfred”, Op. 115
Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 54 **
Symphony #2 in C Major, Op. 61

* Gautier Capuçon, cello
** Murray Perahia, piano
Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Bernard Haitink
Concertgebouw Amsterdam, 13 & 15 November 2015

This year’s composer mini-festival from Bernard Haitink and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (COE) in Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw focused on Robert Schumann. In three concerts the Dutch maestro conducted Schumann’s four Symphonies and the Overture “Manfred”, as well as his Violin, Cello and Piano Concertos. I attended two of the evenings, leaving quite convinced that some conductors are definitely like great wines – they get better with age – and Haitink (86), who recently received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Gramophone Magazine, clearly wears that quality label. Distinguished soloists joined him for the concertos – on the evenings I saw, Gautier Capuçon for the Cello concerto and Murray Perahia for the Piano concerto. The harvest just doesn’t get any better than that.

In the Indian Summer of his long career Haitink has been rethinking his readings of the great symphonic repertoire. When you listen to his Schumann Symphonies traversal with the Royal Concertgebouw from some three decades ago there is no doubt this composer has also received a significant revamp in Haitink’s mind. The orchestral forces are now much smaller of course, but this Schumann new-style sounds utterly vivid, light and colorful, skillfully balancing energy with melodic eloquence. And far from mellowing with age, Haitink’s Schumann has become edgier, riskier and often dramatically more intense. The period-performance movement evidently has left its mark and while the characteristic Haitink qualities are still in place – like this unerring sense of musical structure, the spot-on gravitas, and warm sonority – the overall blend is more compelling than ever. Schumann himself appears as more complex and less predictable, more human in fact. The often heard criticism of clumsy orchestration is once again proven unjustified.

Bernard Haitink conducts Schumann

Bernard Haitink conducts Schumann

In the COE Haitink has found the ideal partner to bring these new insights to life. Orchestra and conductor worked together for years and it’s very obvious why Haitink called the ensemble “the greatest gift in the later stages of my career”. The evident chemistry between them was crystal-clear in these Amsterdam concerts by the responsiveness, alacrity and joy of the musicians. The maximum impact was achieved with the slightest of means. Haitink conducted everything with the score, always attentive to details and keeping everything under control with the smallest of motions.

It was great to hear how the individuality of each of the symphonies was characterized sonically, but also by a keen understanding of their internal logic. From the unbridled enthusiasm expressed in the First and also the Fourth Symphony (the latter performed in its 1851 reworking) with their transparent and limpid sound, to the struggling mood of the Second, brimming with excitement but also darkened by threatening intrusions. It made me regret I wasn’t able to hear them perform the “Rhenish”.

The orchestral balance was impeccable, but also slightly different, quite logically, from piece to piece. The antiphonally placed strings were a constant joy (perhaps nowhere more so than in the multilayered canvas of the Larghetto of the First Symphony and the hard-driven Allegro molto vivace of the Second). The woodwinds, first oboe and first clarinet especially, were no less impressive. The horns were fine, too, but I felt somewhat underwhelmed by the remainder of the brass sections, not always that focused or powerful. Timpanist John Chimes was however ever-reliable and clearly had his moment of glory in the Second Symphony.

Both the First and Fourth Symphonies were given superb readings, yet it was the Second which left the strongest impression. After a slightly hesitant introduction, Haitink unleashed the symphony with a passionate urgency virtually spanning the whole work in one single breath and leading towards an exhilarating, triumphant finale. Tempos were swifter than notated, the beautiful Adagio espressivo was fluent, but in effect this was one of the most convincing performances of a Schumann symphony I have heard recently: it had all the characteristics of the new manner, vivacious and transparent, but unlike most it retained its old-style grandeur and impact. The Haitink magic at its best.

Both soloists in the concertos were entirely on the same track with Haitink. Schumann’s Cello concerto is not an easy work to tackle in concert, parts of it are densely string-scored, yet French cellist Gautier Capuçon made a very strong case for it. All tonal refinement and unforced eloquence, Capuçon was even more remarkable by blending naturally within the orchestra, yet at the same time leaving no doubt he was the prime voice. Starting as if in an improvisatory manner, he captured the contrasting moods of Schumann’s inspiration – now determined then delicate – with exquisite taste and sensitivity.

Haitink also created a strong bond with pianist Murray Perahia throughout the years and seeing them together again at this stage of their careers was a moving experience indeed. Both musicians seem to feel each other instinctively and a more unified sense of purpose on a concert podium would be hard to find. Interestingly, Perahia (68) hasn’t softened with age either and the disarming naturalness of his earlier performances, including this concerto, has in places become more agitated and volatile, which frankly I don’t mind at all in Schumann. Especially when Perahia’s distinctive luminous, warm and silky tone and his crystalline articulation remain undiminished, and just as much in the fast passages as in the more meditative ones. The Piano concerto is one of Schumann’s most popular works but with artists of the caliber it continues to surprise.

The final evening featuring the Piano concerto and the C Major Symphony, opened with a fiercely dramatic account of the Overture “Manfred” and was dedicated to the victims of the terrorist attacks in Paris two days earlier. Orchestra leader Lorenza Borrani appropriately asked for a moment of silence at the beginning of the concert, but it was just as much the message of hope and strength that Haitink and the COE revealed with Schumann’s music that sent us home in a positive mood.

For Bernard Haitink this Schumann run was also a major personal triumph. The concerts were received with long standing ovations. He is Amsterdam’s local hero of course, but he deserves every bit of it. This was glorious music-making from a grand old master. Long may he continue.

Copyright © 2015, Marc Haegeman
First published on Classical Net (http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/haegeman/2015111315-schumann-fest-amsterdam-haitink.php)


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Osipova in Swan Lake

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake
Natalia Osipova – Odette/Odile
Matthew Golding – Prince Siegfried
Elizabeth McGorian – The Princess
Gary Avis – An Evil Spirit (Von Rothbart)
Alastair Marriot – The Tutor
Francesca Hayward, Yuhio Choe,
Alexander Campbell – Pas de trois

Artists of the Royal Ballet
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Boris Gruzin
Choreography by Marius Petipa & Lev Ivanov
Additional choreography by Frederick Ashton & David Bintley
Production by Anthony Dowell
Opus Arte Blu-ray OABD7174D 133m (+18m features), LPCM Stereo DTS-HD Master Audio

Osipova and Golding in Swan Lake

Osipova and Golding in Swan Lake

London’s Royal Ballet continues to capitalize on the appeal of Natalia Osipova. This is the second video release of their production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake in less than six years. The performance was recorded at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden on 17 March 2015 and live screened in cinemas across the world before being rushed to home video by Opus Arte. Yet, while this will undoubtedly be treasured by the legions of Osipova fans, and Swan Lake always sells, there is no denying it’s far from being her defining moment.

As will be remembered, the Russian star ballerina Natalia Osipova joined the Royal Ballet in 2013. She has been cast in a wide range of roles, some utterly successful, others less so. As for this Swan Lake, it seems the filming came far too early in her career, or perhaps the role is just not her thing. While there are undeniably moments of greatness, overall her reading remains too studied and predictable. It may be that her energy in the theatre was striking, on film it doesn’t project. And, once again, as with her Giselle with the Royal Ballet (Opus Arte Blu-ray OABD7151D), you end up with the feeling she is essentially in the wrong production. If anything, more suitable productions of Swan Lake for her might be found on the banks of the Neva or the Moskva, but then again there is little chance she will ever dance this role in her homeland.

This being the 21st century wherein lasting partnerships in ballet are no longer valued, Osipova has been paired with various dancers. Here she is partnered by Matthew Golding, freshly arrived in the company from Amsterdam’s Dutch National. He is a magnificent dancer, but in this performance there is as yet, except for the standard expressions, very little chemistry between him and Osipova. There are moments of bad timing, as when Osipova almost knocks Golding off his feet at the beginning of the Pas de trois in the last Act, which should be avoided on video. In this respect, too, the filming came too soon.

The Royal Ballet performs Swan Lake in Anthony Dowell’s 1987 production, which incidentally is running its last season. While the choreographic text is first-rate, this version is disappointing by its lack of formal clarity. It is Swan Lake flattened beneath the fussy, overelaborate, Fabergé-eggs-inspired designs from Yolanda Sonnabend. Most scenes are overcrowded, anecdotal, while the dance looks, especially in the palace acts, stifled. The lakeside scenes have plenty of atmosphere – well rendered by the HD cameras – but unfortunately the swans’ tutus look like white hula dancers skirts. The decision to place the action in Tchaikovsky’s Russia instead of the traditional medieval setting doesn’t really help either.

Boris Gruzin conducts the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House in an unadventurous account of this beautiful score. This is mostly warm and cozy Tchaikovsky, polite and reserved, without any rough edges and very little heartfelt drama. For a theatrical performance it is actually quite bland.

All the more a shame, because visuals and sonics are, as we came to expect from this source, outstanding. It’s amazing what progress has been made in a few years. The 2009 Swan Lake was already pretty good but this new one wins on all fronts – contrast, dynamic range, color definition, detail, and sound fidelity. The barely lit lakeside scenes look absolutely stunning. Costumes reveal a marvel of detail. Ross MacGibbon directs with his usual skill, although he couldn’t avoid the claustrophobic feel of much of this production. The longshots reduce the stage and dancing space even more on film than in the theatre.

The sound mix, either in PCM 2.0 or DTS-HD Master Audio, is very impressive – warm, natural, detailed and with a very powerful bass.

Bonus features include some 18 minutes of studio rehearsal shots, chats with dancers Osipova, Golding, and ballet master Jonathan Cope, as well as an amusing tea with scones interview with producer Anthony Dowell by former Royal Ballet principal Darcey Bussell. Having extras on a ballet video is a great idea in itself, but then they should really become more substantial than what we are offered here, before we start to suspect that video producers think ballet audiences swallow nothing but the plain obvious.

In short, not a first choice for a Swan Lake video, but well worth trying for its superb image and sound quality.

Copyright © 2015, Marc Haegeman
First published on Classical Net (http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/o/opu07174blua.php)

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Netrebko’s Iolanta

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: Iolanta
Anna Netrebko – Iolanta
Sergey Skorokhodov – Count Vaudémont
Alexey Markov – Robert, Duke of Burgundy
Vitalij Kowaljow – King René
Lucas Meacham – Ibn-Hakia
Monika Bohinec – Martha
Slovenian Chamber Choir
Slovenian Philharmonic Orchestra/Emmanuel Villaume
Recorded Live November 2012
Deutsche Grammophon 4793969 2CDs 68:25+24:41 DDD

Anna Netrebko sings Tchaikovsky's Iolanta

Anna Netrebko sings Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta

On 18 December 1892 the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg premiered a Tchaikovsky double-bill consisting of the one-act opera Iolanta and the ballet The Nutcracker. While the ballet became one of the composer’s most popular works worldwide, Iolanta (or more exactly Yolanda) never gained firm ground outside of Russia. And yet, when you hear an inspired performance of this unconventional opera, like this new live recording with Anna Netrebko in the title role, you realize there is still plenty of light to be gained from obscurity. The Russians, and Netrebko in particular, who is the driving force behind this Iolanta, have known all along that Tchaikovsky’s final opera is a unique gem that craves to be better known. There are some memorable old recordings, including Mstislav Rostropovich with Galina Vishnevskaya and Valery Gergiev with the Kirov and Galina Gorchakova, yet this new one goes right to the top.

This is foremost a magnificent tour de force from Anna Netrebko, shedding off her star status and going for the essence. She deserves all praise for her utterly complete identification with the title role – something which is neither obvious nor easy. Yet the character clearly triggers a special emotional response from Netrebko and every nuance is rendered with disarming sincerity and love. “The music is a source of joy”, as she points out, and we can gladly add so is her singing. This is happy Tchaikovsky for once – although less than a year after the premiere the composer would be dead. But it’s also profound and poetic Tchaikovsky and the simple story of a blind medieval princess regaining her sight through love is musically sublimated by a continuous (and really uplifting) quest from darkness to light.

The remainder of the international cast, as well as the Slovenian Philharmonic Orchestra under the French conductor Emmanuel Villaume, may be totally unknown, but nothing is missing. Sergey Skorokhodov as the knight Vaudémont who falls in love with Iolanta and Alexey Markov as Robert the duke of Burgundy, are excellent singers from the Mariinsky troupe, and there is a remarkable performance by the American baritone Lucas Meacham as Ibn-Hakia, the Moorish physician summoned to cure the princess. Emmanuel Villaume revives this gorgeous score with finesse and detail.

Warmly recommended.

As a closing note, the Paris Opera schedules a staging of the Iolanta/Nutcracker double bill in March 2016, in a new production supervised by Dmitry Tcherniakov. Sonya Yoncheva is cast as Iolanta.

Copyright © 2015, Marc Haegeman

First published on Classical Net: http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/d/dgg793969a.php


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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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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


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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

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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