I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by Marc Haegeman


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Matsuev at the Royal Concertgebouw

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: The Seasons, Op. 37a
Robert Schumann: Kreisleriana, Op. 16
Igor Stravinsky: Three Movements from Petrushka

Denis Matsuev, piano
EuroArts DVD 3075408 – NTSC 16:9 – PCM Stereo/Dolby Digital 5.0/DTS 5.0 – 105 mins

Denis Matsuev at the Royal Concertgebouw

Denis Matsuev at the Royal Concertgebouw

The policies of the music labels are sometimes hard to follow. Take this new release from EuroArts. A live recital from one of the top pianists of the moment in one of the world’s best concert venues is filmed in high-definition, only to be released on a DVD instead of a Blu-ray. As if to underline this aberration EuroArts uploaded a tantalizing clip on Youtube in full HD, as if to say: “This is what we could have given you, but we still preferred to give you a downgraded version in lossy sound.” Go figure.

All the more a shame because this Denis Matsuev concert is beautifully filmed, lit and edited (courtesy of Sébastien Glas and the French Idéale Audience team), taking full advantage of the magnificent Amsterdam Concertgebouw setting. I attended this recital in October 2015 and back then it was with the ravishing Tchaikovsky Seasons, not often heard in complete form in the concert-hall, that Matsuev left the strongest impression.

Revisiting the recital now from the comfort of the living room, it’s still the Tchaikovsky that’s worth the price of admission for me. Matsuev is a fabulous pianist, as we all know. Yet he isn’t always the most subtle musician. His technique allows him to tackle about everything with complete freedom. Yet it’s exactly this freedom which can get the better of his musical intelligence and poetic instinct. At his best, though, Matsuev finds a balance between his big, overwhelming sound-sculpting and the nuances of the text. When he does, he can be utterly compelling, as in most of the Tchaikovsky here. When not, he can be utterly monochrome and even cartoonish. As in Schumann’s Kreisleriana and, perhaps surprisingly, in parts of Stravinsky’s Petrushka too.

In Tchaikovsky’s Seasons Matsuev captures the character of each of the pieces with precision. He is mesmerizing when he slows down and lets the music breathe in sheer contrast to the more eruptive passages. Characteristically for Tchaikovsky, the often deceptively joyous air is balanced by a darker undercurrent, effortlessly captured by the pianist. Every month may be crafted into a miniature gem, it’s Matsuev’s sense of unity, which makes you forget Tchaikovsky composed them on a monthly basis, that is the most impressive.

I wasn’t that convinced by Matsuev’s rendition of Keisleriana and neither I am now. It’s German 19th-century romanticism in an average modern, 21st-century Russian translation. While obviously focused and articulated, Matsuev is emphatic and relentless, even aggressive, verging on the demonstrative in the more turbulent passages. His sonority turns uniformly loud and booming, lacking in contrast and color. It isn’t the recording, I had the very same impression live in the Concertgebouw where the acoustics inflated the basses even more.

Stravinsky’s Petrushka kicks off well enough, lively and well-shaped, but also loses its interest in the final Shrovetide Fair part which Matsuev turns into a steamroller of big sound (again these booming basses), rather than an attempt to bring out the harmonic and percussive possibilities of the instrument. Impressive as a knockout display of stamina and powerhouse pianism, perhaps, but hardly the stuff for repeated listening.

The recital ended with a well-constructed and well-played series of encores. From Lyadov’s Musical Snuffbox, Op. 32, over Tchaikovsky’s superb Méditation, Op. 72/5 and the rare Sibelius’ Etude in A Minor, Op. 76/2 (it’s so rare that EuroArts even forgot to list it in the booklet) to Scriabin’s turbulent Etude in D-sharp Minor, Op. 8/12 and Matsuev’s own dazzling and funny Jazz Improvisations.

Denis Matsuev fans won’t hesitate although they too will be disappointed by the lack of true HD in image and sound. Others will mainly go for the beautiful performance of a Tchaikovsky rarity.


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Aurora in Bananastan

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: The Sleeping Beauty, Op. 66
Iana Salenko (Princess Aurora)
Marian Walter (Prince Désiré)
Rishat Yulbarisov (Carabosse)
Sarah Mestrovic (Lilac Fairy)
Michael Banzhaf (King Florestan)
Beatrice Knop (The Queen)
Soloists and Corps De Ballet of the Berlin State Ballet
Orchestra of the German Opera, Berlin / Robert Reimer

BelAir Classiques BAC 131; 1080i HD, 16/9; PCM Stereo, DTS Master Audio 5.1

The Sleeping Beauty

The Sleeping Beauty

We know what the ballet The Sleeping Beauty looks like and above all what it’s worth. We know it since 1890. In case the historical productions performed by Russian and English companies to this very day aren’t proof enough, then there are still the recent reconstructions of Sergei Vikharev and Alexei Ratmansky to remind the sceptics this is a timeless creation which needs very little upgrading, least of all by the wrong hands. Why on earth contemporary dance-maker Nacho Duato was asked to make a new version of the ballet will undoubtedly puzzle future generations – provided, of course, it survives the test of time. There have been contemporary adaptations and reworkings of Beauty before, but unless they headed on a radically original course, none ever came close, let alone surpassed the original as it was conceived within the Imperial Theatres in St. Petersburg by the combined talents of director Ivan Vsevolozhsky, choreographer Marius Petipa and composer Piotr Tchaikovsky.

Neither does Duato’s version. Duato created his Sleeping Beauty in 2011 during his brief stint as director of the Mikhailovsky Ballet in St. Petersburg. The brave idea allegedly was to produce a Sleeping Beauty for the 21st century. Yet that turned out to be more of a fairytale than the ballet’s subject itself. If anything the production was proof that money cannot buy everything. Duato’s Beauty still presents itself as a classical ballet, albeit one that is scuttled by a basic mistrust of text, spirit and music. The result is by and large a very unhappy wedding between classical and contemporary styles. Pointework in convulsion mode; Martha Graham as princess Aurora. Forget the multilayered complexity of the original, the fairytale atmosphere, or the enchantment.

With its truncated narrative, botched choreography and mutilated score, Duato’s staging doesn’t stand much of a chance. Tottering between hilarious (the Prologue variations, the nervous courtiers) and properly embarrassing (the scenes with that fearful Carabosse in drag), it doesn’t matter that echoes of Petipa ring through the key moments, Duato never finds his own voice. Worst of all, while this is one of the richest and most profound dance scores ever made, Duato does nothing with it. In short, a travesty of The Sleeping Beauty rather than the version for the 21st century.

The elegantly fresh sets and pastel-tinted costumes from Angelina Atlagic run away with the honors in this production. The present release from BelAir Classiques documents a performance by the Berlin State Ballet, the company Duato is heading since 2014. By all accounts the production wasn’t well received in the German capital either, which makes its release on HD video rather bizarre. Iana Salenko and Marian Walter are excellent dancers, yet in spite of their fluent partnership they never manage to crack the ice. Neither does the rest of the cast, laboring through it all with blind devotion. They deserve better than this.

Robert Reimer’s conducting is about as undramatic and bland as the activity on stage. The Orchestra of the German Opera sleepwalks through most of the score, unable to avoid some jarringly unbalanced sonorities (as in Aurora’s Variation in Act 2).

For what it’s worth, the performance is agreeably filmed by Andy Sommer. The HD cameras cope well with the sometimes harsh stage lighting of the production. The sonics are impressive and detailed, if somewhat bass heavy in the DTS Master Audio 5.1 format. This release offers no bonus materials – not that we would have been craving for any. To be shelved under forgettable.

Copyright © 2017 Marc Haegeman


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Gergiev versus Gergiev

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker, Op. 71 – Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 36
Valery Gergiev, Orchestra and Choir of the Mariinsky Theatre
Mariinsky MAR0593, 2 SACD (Includes multi-channel 5.0 and stereo mixes), 129 min.

Valery Gergiev frequently returns to music he recorded earlier. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but curiously I still haven’t heard a refill of his that actually betters the older attempt. And this isn’t happening either in this new release on the Mariinsky label, coupling his 2015 re-recording of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and Fourth Symphony.

Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker and Symphony No. 4

Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker and Symphony No. 4

Gergiev and his Mariinsky Theatre forces gave us a magnificent Nutcracker back in 1998. After the marketing hype for being “the first complete Nutcracker on a single CD” had settled, this not only turned out to be a tremendously exciting high-voltage traversal, a riot of color, but also a visionary piece of fantasy-theatre with a dark undercurrent that dumped most other recordings of the ballet in the candy store kids department. Most of all, it had a clarity of purpose and the sparkle of discovery.

Fast-forward to 2016 and here is Gergiev again with the same orchestra. Gone is the sparkle of discovery and so is the vision that electrified the older recording. It’s not exactly a bad Nutcracker (actually it’s pretty good one when compared to other recent attempts by Rattle, Järvi and Pletnev), but it’s simply not as compelling or revelatory as the previous one. That Gergiev is marginally less fast (84 against 81 min), is not the main issue (although the Chinese Dance is now bizarrely heavy-footed and the Andante maestoso of the Pas de deux suffers from several drops of tension – for example from 2 min. 20). More important is that this Nutcracker has lost its edge and momentum. Gergiev still reveals a detailed, often dark palette of color and it’s always a delight to hear the superb Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra in their repertoire, but the fact remains that overall this is a less focused, much cozier, play safe reading, taking its place among the many. It suffices to listen to the long dramatic passage starting with the Departure of the Guests through the Waltz of the Snowflakes. The Battle is now a whole lot less eventful and fierce, and Gergiev’s pacing in the ensuing Pine forest and the Waltz no longer grabs you by the hand (or the throat) as he did so brilliantly in his older disc. The Mariinsky recording is warm and detailed, emphasizing the lower brass to good effect, although the timpani could ideally have been balanced more forwardly.

What prevents me from giving this release a wholehearted recommendation however is the recording of the Fourth Symphony. Tchaikovsky’s Fourth has to my ears always been the least successful of the six in Gergiev’s hands and this recent take seems to have gone even further south. The flaws and mannerisms of the earlier live recording filmed in Paris in 2011 (available on DVD and Blu-ray), or noted in the concerts I attended that year, are now a major letdown. Gergiev seems bent on underplaying the anguish of this symphony with an ultra-refined treatment and extra careful tempi. Yet the result is a first movement that sounds hesitant, almost timid, with climaxes that make no impact whatsoever. Gergiev’s tempo fluctuations are often gratuitous, and nowhere more so than in the development section just before the return of the fate theme. Worse, the Andantino is no longer in modo di canzona but resembles a sluggish religious procession which turns in circles. The Scherzo makes a better impression, while the Finale kicks off with plenty of drive and brilliant orchestral playing, only to return to dragging mode when the main theme is heard in the strings only (at 3 min. 45). Again, there is so much to admire in the playing of the Mariinsky Orchestra (what beautiful woodwinds), but it all feels like a huge waste.

For the Fourth Symphony the old (now historic) favorites Mravinsky, Svetlanov, Fricsay, Karajan, and others still hold their ground, while for the full-length Nutcracker one can safely stick with Dorati, Jansons, Rozhdestvensky, and… Gergiev 1998.

Copyright © 2016, Marc Haegeman


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Superb Tchaikovsky in French manner

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker, Op. 71
La Maîtrise des Hauts-de-Seine, Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble/Marc Minkowski
Brussels, Centre for Fine Arts, 13 November 2016

Marc Minkowski

Marc Minkowski © Marco Borggreve

Marc Minkowski and his Musiciens du Louvre, on tour in Europe, brought a pleasant surprise by performing Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker full-length in concert. The surprise was not so much to hear Tchaikovsky on period instruments (that has been done before by Jos van Immerseel and Anima Eterna, among others), neither that an ensemble steeped in the baroque and early classical repertoire ventures into late 19th-century music. No, this was purely and simply one of the finest readings of the ballet I have ever heard, in or out of the theater. Played by the French orchestra this Nutcracker sounded extraordinary, often thrilling, at times revelatory, yet it was above all Minkowski’s way with the score which made this concert such a standout.

Part of the success stems from the fact that Minkowski conducts The Nutcracker for what it is: music for the theater. While much of the score can sound like an orchestral spectacular (and is often interpreted that way), this seemed like the last thing Minkowski had in mind. He rather was looking for refinement and character, and preferred to dig deep into Tchaikovsky’s sound-world. It didn’t matter either there was no stage action. When conducted with so much understanding and passion as here the score easily stands on its own and evokes a whole world of imagery and emotions. As a seasoned opera conductor Minkowski clearly knows how to tell a story and captured the changing climates of the score with total conviction. A French take on Russian music, but one that removed layers of dust and familiarity.

The period instruments proved a tremendous asset to Tchaikovsky’s brilliant orchestration. As usual with Les Musiciens du Louvre the focus was essentially on the music, without a trace of sterile stylistic exercises in authentic performance. Textural transparency and refined orchestral balance, harmonic color and rhythmic flexibility all contributed to recreate this uniquely enchanting atmosphere that saves The Nutcracker from dreaded yuletide dirge and secures it a place as genuine masterpiece. Tender evocations of a child’s imagination contrasted with at times creepy passages of darkness. Even the opening numbers which are in the hands of many conductors merely to mark time, became small gems – none more than the Presto of No. 4 and the Grossvater Tanz in No. 5, theatrically heavy-footed and full of benign humor.

No detail in the orchestration was left untouched and Minkowski wasn’t afraid to enhance the dramatic contrasts, yet without losing track of the musical flow. The long section opening with the Departure of the Guests, featuring the Battle with the mice and the Waltz of the Snowflakes was stunningly rendered. Minkowski knew exactly when and how to slow down. The orchestra bloomed in the Christmas Tree sequence, wonderfully paced, reminding that it doesn’t take modern strings to play in a passionate manner. Twenty girls from La Maîtrise des Hauts-de-Seine chorus provided beautiful vocal support in the Snowflakes – even when pressed rather hard by the slow tempo in the final section. I was never before so much aware that snow is gently falling down. Pure magic.

In this respect it was regrettable that in the second part Minkowski somewhat changed the order of the score. As he announced during the short tuning break between acts, he preferred to open with the Pas de deux followed by the Divertissement and ending with the Waltz of the Flowers. The opening numbers of Act II – which offer some ravishing music – were dropped, as well as the first variation in the Pas de deux. Minkowski didn’t fail to stress the French influence on The Nutcracker and noted in passing that the celesta played by his orchestra was a French Mustel from the late 19th century, an instrument undoubtedly quite close to the one Tchaikovsky knew and introduced in Russia with this ballet.

As it was, the Divertissement became a truly festive moment, totally apt as a brilliant culmination of the story. Very few conductors I heard in concert capture the character of the different dances with such accuracy. The Spanish dance was sparkling and colorful, the Arabian variation exuded the exquisite perfume of the Orient, and in the Trepak one could easily imagine boots stomping in the snow. Woodwinds and percussion were exquisite.

Les Musiciens du Louvre are a superb formation indeed. They played like possessed and evidently had a great time performing this music. Solos were magnificent throughout, most notably from flutes, oboe and harp. The hard-working violins were divided left/right, with the four basses at the back center. A smaller than usual orchestra for Tchaikovsky when it comes to the strings, although judging from the balance and weight that Minkowski obtained, all it takes.

Minkowski offered two encores from Georges Bizet’s L’Arlésienne, the Prélude and the introspective Adagietto, which he dedicated to the victims of terrorist attacks in France and Belgium from the last year. The solo saxophone was heard to great effect, but it was undoubtedly the link between the music of Tchaikovsky and Bizet, both great melodists and orchestrators, which was most exposed here.

The Brussels Centre for Fine Arts was sadly half empty for this concert. The Nutcracker as a ballet is normally box-office safe. Yet many are probably still convinced that ballet music doesn’t stand much of a chance in a concert-hall. Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre have disproven that, once again, completely. A superb concert.

Copyright © 2016, Marc Haegeman

First published on Classical Net: http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/haegeman/20161113-minkowski-tchaikovsky.php


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Happy Tchaikovsky from Herreweghe

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: The Nutcraker, Op. 71 (Excerpts) and Symphony #2 in C minor “Little Russian”, Op. 17
Royal Flemish Philharmonic Orchestra/Philippe Herreweghe
Concertgebouw, Bruges, 24 September 2016

Russia is the focal point of the 2016/17 season at the Bruges Concertgebouw. Several concerts of Russian music are scheduled throughout the year and both Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Dmitry Shostakovich take pride of place in the celebrations. In the first symphonic concert of the series Philippe Herreweghe and his Royal Flemish Philharmonic (aka deFilharmonie) paid homage to Tchaikovsky with a rather unusual pairing. With the Second “Little Russian” Symphony and a handpicked selection from the Nutcracker, works separated by some twenty years in the composer’s output, they offered primarily a happily smiling and vital Tchaikovsky.

Philippe Herreweghe isn’t a conductor you would expect in this repertoire. Yet it’s always interesting to hear how a musician steeped in early music and baroque approaches the 19th century scores. Some immediate benefits were obvious. With a smaller than usual orchestra, anchored on 5 basses, Herreweghe’s Tchaikovsky sounded refined, transparent and finely detailed. Remarkably, employing smaller forces didn’t result in lightness, yet the overall feel was energetic and vibrant. The balance between strings and woodwinds was impeccable, highlighting the brilliance of Tchaikovsky’s orchestration. The antiphonally placed violins opened up the sound, while extra care for the lower strings always provided a solid base. The Royal Flemish Philharmonic plays of course on modern instruments and power was at hand when needed, even though Herreweghe always kept things firmly under control.

It was all the more a shame that the selection culled from the Nutcracker was so short. The concert was dubbed “Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker” I suspect for marketing purposes, although it was the first work on the bill, and in retrospect the least convincing. Herreweghe added a few numbers to the usually heard ballet suite, like the Galop and the Entrance of the Parents from Act I and the Tarentella from the Pas de deux, but it no less remained a piecemeal offering. Some transitions sounded awkward and his selection avoided the more elaborate and darker pages of the score. Extremely colorful and vivid, with particular attention to the fine Philharmonic woodwinds, Herreweghe’s Nutcracker sparkled and superficially charmed but hardly ever got inside the score. Some numbers were tackled too briskly to breathe properly (Dance of the Reed Pipes, Sugar Plum Fairy), others were merely precise rather than evocative (Arabian dance).

The “Little Russian” Symphony (performed in its final version from 1879) however was a lot more successful. It was beautifully played and excitingly rendered without ever becoming demonstrative. Herreweghe never indulged in any eccentricities and made a very strong case for this often neglected symphony. Tempi were well-judged and a sense of discovery enlivened every movement. The Andante sostenuto instantly captured the right mood with magnificent solos from horn (Eliz Erkalp) and bassoon (Oliver Engels) – dreamy moments that soon gave way to sheer vivacity and joy. The march-like 2nd movement was well paced and Herreweghe imaginatively handled the variations. The Philharmonic strings were heard to great effect in the second theme. Sharp attacks and crisp phrasing characterized the boisterous scherzo, with the winds adding plenty of color. The clarity Herreweghe kept in the tutti, as well as his deft control of the ebb and flow made for a convincing and exhilarating final movement.

All in all, a fine homage to Tchaikovsky and I hope Herreweghe will explore this music further – the orchestral suites come to mind, or why not some complete ballet.

Copyright © 2016, Marc Haegeman

First published on Classical Net: http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/haegeman/20160924-herreweghe-tchaikovsky.php


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Cloning Tchaikovsky

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: The Queen of Spades
Misha Didyk (Hermann), Alexey Markov (Tomsky/Zlatogor), Vladimir Stoyanov (Prince Yeletsky), Andrei Popov (Tchekalinsky), Andrii Goniukov (Surin), Mikhail Makarov (Tchaplitsky), Anatoli Sivko (Narumov), Morschi Franz (Major Domo), Larissa Dyadkova (the Countess), Svetlana Aksenova (Lisa), Anna Goryachova (Polina/Milozvor), Olga Savova (the governess), Maria Fiselier (Masha)
Chorus of the Dutch National Opera, New Amsterdam Children’s Chorus, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Mariss Jansons
Direction: Stefan Herheim
Dramaturgy: Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach
Sets and costumes: Philipp Fürhofer
Light: Bernd Purkrabek
Seen in Muziektheater Amsterdam, 18 June 2016

Who won? The music or the direction? As with many contemporary opera productions this was the question that came to mind at the end of the new staging of Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades by the Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam, presented as part of the annual Holland Festival. Music and direction are frequently at loggerheads. The Norwegian director Stefan Herheim doesn’t consider the original libretto sufficient. He thinks he has better ideas. Here’s one: The Queen of Spades needs to confront us with Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality and lifelong emotional distress rather than with the tragic fate of Hermann, Lisa and the Countess as adapted by the composer from Pushkin’s tale. There is nothing original about this reinterpretation, yet Herheim fails to convince us he is on a better course. His hand is unsure, his direction fussy, his storytelling fatally confusing. With the superb Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in the pit conducted by Mariss Jansons, Herheim was fighting a lost cause. The music won.

Herheim opens his fantasy world before the music starts by adding a homoerotic scene between a Tchaikovsky lookalike and a man who turns out to be the opera’s main hero Hermann. Tchaikovsky pays the man for his services. Mozart’s Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen plays on a music box in a birdcage. Worse was yet to come. Herheim puts Tchaikovsky center stage. He is everywhere, all the time. There are countless references, factual or questionable, to the composer’s life. He is busy creating the music that plays, he is interacting with the opera characters, he interferes in the story, and if that wasn’t distracting enough, every member of the male chorus on stage is a Tchaikovsky clone. “You, you here?” stammers Lisa, looking at the Tchaikovsky figure instead of Hermann at the end of Act II. Spot on, he had no place there. Perhaps worst of all, in Herheim’s hands the composer is a pathetic little man. Tchaikovsky is a poor old sucker, a precarious weakling who is tossed around and ridiculed by all, including the audience. By letting him die several times in the opera, Herheim joins the many who hear Tchaikovsky’s music from his final years as nothing but a product of a terminally depressed man. He really needs to listen again then. Of course, Herheim readily accepts the debatable fact that Tchaikovsky met his untimely death from deliberately drinking a glass of contaminated water. To make sure we get that message, he repeats it ad nauseam and even lets the old Countess commit suicide by drinking a glass of water. Is this Herheim’s answer to the composer’s supposed emotional suffering as a homosexual? Frankly, I couldn’t care less about what he thinks about it. Nyet, this is the Queen of Spades, based on Pushkin. Not a pamphlet to lament the fate of homosexuals in 19th century Russia. Eventually, he should have listened to the Countess in Act 2: “Stop that nonsense!” Herheim forgot Pushkin, Modest Tchaikovsky’s libretto, and he forgot the music. Yet the music won.

Svetlana Aksenova (Lisa) & Misha Didyk (Hermann) - © Karl & Monika Forster

Svetlana Aksenova (Lisa) & Misha Didyk (Hermann) – © Karl & Monika Forster

Herheim not only adds to the confusion by inventing this fling between the composer and Hermann, the man who is supposed to be in love with Lisa, but also by making this omnipresent Tchaikovsky figure a double of the opera character Prince Yeletsky, who is engaged to Lisa. There are two guys involved, one the baritone Vladimir Stoyanov, the other the pianist Christiaan Kuyvenhoven. I challenge you to tell who’s who at the end of the run. Not that it matters. The music won.

Incoherence and absurdity reign in this Queen of Spades. Are we in Tchaikovsky’s time? Or rather in the 18th century when Empress Catharina the Great ruled, as supporting roles like Tomsky, Surin and Tchekalinsky seem to suggest? Nobody seems to know or care. It makes the Mozartean divertissement in Act 2 look totally incongruous and by far the weakest part of the production. When Tchaikovsky composed his opera members of the Russian imperial family couldn’t be shown on stage. Now the Tsarina turns out to be a man in drag (Hermann – him again). Times have changed.

Every scene plays indoor, mostly in the composer’s room. As has become a feature of many opera productions characters are frequently singing words that don’t correspond or connect with the stage action. Why is everybody worried about the storm in Act I when they are all inside a house? Why is Tchaikovsky acting like he is suffering from kidney stones while the chorus of children and women are joyfully welcoming a sunny day? The deeper one analyzes, the less Herheim’s fantasy hijack makes sense.

Evidently, no expenses were spared for this visually striking production, boasting richly detailed costumes (mostly just black, white or grey) and impressive mobile sets designed by Philipp Fürhofer and evocatively lit by Bernd Purkrabek. Some scenes were effectively staged, with especially a spectacular ghost scene in Act 3, others merely malapropos (the storm in Act 1, the death of the Countess). At the end of Act 2 the chorus appears in the stalls, raising the audience to its feet to salute the Empress, and thus mock Tchaikovsky.

Morschi Franz (Major Domo, Vladimir Stoyanov (Yeletsky) and the Chorus of the National Opera - © Karl & Monika Forster

Morschi Franz (Major Domo, Vladimir Stoyanov (Yeletsky) and the Chorus of the National Opera – © Karl & Monika Forster

As said, it was the music that offered most joys in this Queen of Spades. Mariss Jansons returned to lead the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra a year after his retirement as the ensemble’s Chief Conductor (2004-2015). His affinity with Tchaikovsky has never been a secret. A well-deserved warm ovation from the Amsterdam public greeted his every appearance.

Much of the blurred drama on stage sounded crystal clear in the pit. Jansons conducted with finesse and ear for detail. His flair for tempo and atmosphere was impeccable while the balance between orchestra and voices was in most cases well-judged. Or one could simply wallow in the sonorous beauty of the Concertgebouw Orchestra. The warm strings were divided left-right with the basses in the middle, securing an always solid yet transparent sound. The characterful Dutch woodwinds revealed Tchaikovsky’s impressive range of color and the brass and percussion were powerful when required. The modernity of much of the score, especially in the second half of the opera, was fully credited and reminded us this is truly great Tchaikovsky indeed.

Jansons led a largely Slavonic singing cast. Unfortunately, I wasn’t entirely convinced by Misha Didyk’s Hermann. True, the production allows neither of the protagonists to fully form their characters. They remain as greyish as their costumes and the duets between Hermann and Lisa, scuttled by Herheim’s meddling, failed to make the proper impact. I never believed this Hermann ever had any genuine love interest for Lisa – but then again how could he in this ambivalent setup, where he is even declaring his love while facing the audience instead of his beloved. The Ukranian tenor is widely considered the Hermann of his generation, even if to my mind he is as yet unable to replace Galuzin, Atlantov and the likes. His habit to jump towards the high notes, belting them out, grows old quickly, although arguably this could be interpreted as the unbalanced side of Hermann’s character. I was more impressed by the young Russian soprano Svetlana Aksenova as Lisa, blending vocal splendor and strength with feminine warmth and a hint of vulnerability.

Vladimir Stoyanov (Prince Yeletsky) and Larissa Dyadkova (the Countess) - © Karl & Monika Forster

Vladimir Stoyanov (Prince Yeletsky) and Larissa Dyadkova (the Countess) – © Karl & Monika Forster

The best vocal performances were however found among the supporting roles. The Russian baritone Alexey Markov was ideal as Tomsky. His rich, refined voice and commanding stage presence made his ballad of the Countess’ past in the first scene absolutely compelling. He was no less delightful in his impish song in Act 3. And what joy to have Larissa Dyadkova as the Countess, a role I first heard her sing some twenty years ago. The quality of her delivery, the complete understanding of her character (to hear and see the Countess recall times long past with the surprise act of Madame Pompadour as a climax, was in itself worth the price of admission) made you nearly forget Herheim’s disrespectful treatment of her role. Nothing but praise too for the Bulgarian baritone Vladimir Stoyanov for his acting (as the ubiquitous Tchaikovsky) and his noble rendition of Yeletsky’s love aria in Act 2. Both Andrei Popov and Andrii Goniukov, as Tchekalinsky and Surin respectively, were first-rate. Although she was announced as suffering from a slight cold the Russian mezzo Anna Goryachova sang Polina (and her hauntingly sad romance in the 2nd Scene) with melting beauty.

Magnificent work, finally, from the Chorus of the National Opera. They have an important part in the opera and they made every minute count. The male group lamenting the death of Hermann (or actually Tchaikovsky) was especially memorable. The music won.

That we are still enjoying an opera created some 125 years ago is because we recognize and value its intrinsic musical and dramatic qualities, not because it’s a vehicle for fanciful producers. Stefan Herheim’s staging is in essence not about The Queen of Spades. In spite of the fixation on the composer’s sorry plight, imagined or not, this production is eventually about Herheim rather than Tchaikovsky, and I still need to be convinced that’s of any consequence. The real Tchaikovsky was alive by his music, magnificently performed by Jansons and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, not by Herheim’s multiple clones. “Imagination is fine, as long as it connects with the intentions of the composer”, concludes maestro Jansons in an interview in the Dutch National Opera’s magazine. If only this advice had been followed.

© 2016 Marc Haegeman. All rights reserved

Performances at Amsterdam’s Muziektheater run through July 3. More information here: http://www.operaballet.nl/en/opera/2015-2016/show/pique-dame


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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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