I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by Marc Haegeman


1 Comment

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


Leave a comment

Tchaikovsky Festival in Brussels

Pyotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky:
The Voyevoda, Op. 78
Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35
Symphony #6 in B minor “Pathétique”, Op. 74

Vadim Gluzman, violin
Belgian National Orchestra/Andrey Boreyko
Brussels, Centre for Fine Arts, 22 March 2015

For four days the Belgian National Orchestra (BNO) and their music director Andrey Boreyko paid homage to Pyotr Tchaikovsky. The choice of works in this mini-festival may have been limited but was nonetheless select, with two programs featuring the rarely heard symphonic ballad The Voyevoda, the Violin Concerto, and either the Suite No. 3 or the Sixth Symphony.

At the Brussels concert that I attended ending with the Pathétique Symphony, the highlight was once again the performance of the Violin Concerto. After Janine Jansen, not even three weeks ago, it was Ukrainian-born Israeli Vadim Gluzman who treated the audience in the Centre for Fine Arts to an extraordinary reading of this concerto. It’s great to hear that so many artists of the younger generations can find such fresh and interesting angles on an old warhorse like this. Less emphatic than Jansen, but no less compelling by his tonal beauty and superb intonation, genuine lyricism and natural bravura, Gluzman owns the secret to astonish without forcing anything. He had already received enthusiastic applause after the first movement before a lovingly shaped and subtly touching Canzonetta, topped by an excitingly driven Finale readily brought the house down. Andrey Boreyko was a very attentive and careful accompanist, even if the beguiling spectrum of color and warmth that Gluzman conjured from his instrument wasn’t always matched by the orchestra. Interestingly, Gluzman plays the Stradivarius owned by the dedicatee of Tchaikovsky’s concerto, Leopold Auer – who, as is well known, refused to perform it at first, but eventually did with his own alterations. A stunning instrument, played by a stunning artist.

The Voyevoda had in the opening pages plenty of thrust and a finely shaped middle section. Color and transparency are key in this fascinating late-Tchaikovsky score and at first it sounded that Boreyko was going to reveal plenty of unheard orchestral details. In fact, much of these “discoveries” resulted from a balance that favored woodwinds and brass. The slightly smaller than usual body of strings (anchored on only 6 basses) was frequently found at a disadvantage in both The Voyevoda and the symphony. (I never thought of The Voyevoda as a concerto for bass clarinet, but here we came close.) During softer passages there was plenty to enjoy with the BNO in good form and Boreyko paying attention to Tchaikovsky’s string textures. Yet as soon as more sections joined in, the winds began to dominate the sound picture and when the brass and percussion followed suit, the balance was often totally lost. Tutti were loud and harsh, and trombones and tuba sounded like an extra added section, rather than an integrated part of the ensemble. It may have been the sonority that Boreyko wanted, but it threw a lot of the composer’s careful dynamic and tempo indications overboard, and that’s seldom a good idea.

The recently heard Mikhail Pletnev with the Russian National Orchestra also paid a lot of attention to woodwinds and brass, but in their case the balance was wholly convincing, not to mention the special sonority of the Russian winds which makes the instruments of the Belgian orchestra sound rather indifferent, no matter how well played.

Boreyko’s traversal of Tchaikovsky’s final symphony, dark and unsentimental, packed quite a punch, although it was more outwardly spectacular than genuinely moving: generally well-paced (except for a lumbering third movement), very detailed, and underpinned by dark colors but also startling, sometimes grotesque sonic effects. It wasn’t the most subtle reading though, nor the most consistent. As said, the orchestral balance remained an issue and maestro Boreyko was more than once taking cue from his own musical instincts rather than from the composer’s. The changing climates of the first movement were fluently conducted, the development was exciting until the brass went all over the place in the climax, not to mention that the return of the principal theme marked Andante come prima was flawed by the loud entrance of the orchestra which ignored the “con dolcezza” notation. Winds and horns obscured the string lines in an otherwise agreeable Waltz, where the softer passages did hint at a deft handling of light and darkness. There was a long burst of applause after the third movement, although it was for my money the least convincing of all, ending in a rather demonstrative sonic explosion from percussion and brass. The Finale built up to harrowing climaxes, expressing rage rather than acceptance of fate. The bassoons and the stopped horns created brilliant effects, but there were also slips in the ensemble and unfortunately the closing pages took off too loud again for the final descent into oblivion.

A Belgian orchestra paying tribute to Tchaikovsky is far from obvious. A few bumps along the way are unavoidable, yet eventually this mini-Tchaikovsky festival stressed the music’s timeless appeal and had a revelatory performance from Vadim Gluzman to boast. And that’s no minor achievement.

Copyright © 2015, Marc Haegeman


Leave a comment

Janine Jansen’s Tchaikovsky

Paul Dukas: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
Pyotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35
Robert Schumann: Symphony #4 in D minor, Op. 120

Janine Jansen, violin
Orchestra dell’ Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Rome/Antonio Pappano
Brussels, Centre for Fine Arts, 4 March 2015

It was a packed and enthusiastic Centre for Fine Arts that greeted Sir Antonio Pappano, leading his Roman Orchestra della Santa Cecilia. Their visit guaranteed a notable Italian presence but of course music lovers in Brussels also fondly remember the glory days of the Monnaie Opera when Pappano headed it for some ten years before moving to London’s Royal Opera House in 2002. As it turned out, however, this evening it was Dutch violinist Janine Jansen who quickly became the focal point, delivering the most remarkable performance in an otherwise unremarkable concert.
Read the full review on Classical Net


Leave a comment

Nureyev’s Swan Lake and Nutcracker in Vienna

The Nutcracker
Liudmilla Konovalova – Clara
Vladimir Shishov – Drosselmeyer/The Prince
Artists of the Vienna State Ballet
Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera/Paul Connelly
Choreography by Rudolf Nureyev
Filmed live at the Vienna State Opera, 7 October 2012
Unitel Classica/C Major Blu-ray 718304, 102 min, LPCM Stereo / DTS-HD Master Audio

Swan Lake
Olga Esina – Odette/Odile
Vladimir Shishov – Prince Siegfried
Eno Peci – Rothbart, the Magician
Artists of the Vienna State Ballet
Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera/Alexander Ingram
Choreography by Rudolf Nureyev after Marius Petipa & Lev Ivanov
Filmed live at the Vienna State Opera, 16 March 2014
Unitel Classica/C Major Blu-ray 717704, 132 min, LPCM Stereo / DTS-HD Master Audio

The Nutcracker

The Nutcracker

C Major released two Tchaikovsky bonbons straight from Vienna – The Nutcracker and Swan Lake. As the main classical ballet company in Austria, the Vienna State Ballet (Wiener Staatsballett) isn’t particularly over-represented on home video, so these recent performances filmed live in high-definition at the Vienna State Opera are definitely welcome. The driving force behind these releases is without doubt former Paris Opera Ballet étoile Manuel Legris, who is leading the Viennese company since 2010 and has by all accounts established himself as a blessed gift for the thus far slumbering Austrian troupe.
Read the full review on Classical Net


Leave a comment

The Nutcracker in Bergen

The Nutcracker, Op. 71
Bergen Pikekor
Bergen Guttekor
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
Chandos SACD CHSA5144 84:35 Multichannel Hybrid

The Nutcracker

The Nutcracker

Someone in the Chandos art department seems to have a fixation on sleeping women. With the release of The Nutcracker Neeme Järvi and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra completed their Tchaikovsky ballet trilogy and, curiously, each of the CD’s in this series features a reclined lady on the cover. Fair enough in the case of The Sleeping Beauty, but that floating ballerina corpse for Swan Lake was bizarre and now again we get a sleeping girl with a nutcracker doll in her arms. If this is their idea of an art form which is all about movement and energy, then somebody needs to hand these guys at Chandos a few tickets to attend a ballet performance once. In any case, these Tchaikovsky recordings have been rather peculiar in general, thinking of the oddities in the scores that were used, like these anomalous harp cadenzas in both Swan Lake and Beauty, but above all because of a maestro who seemed determined to disprove that old myth that ageing conductors have a tendency to slow down and become sentimental. Not so 77-year-old Neeme Järvi.

The Nutcracker has been done on a single CD before. With 84:35 Järvi isn’t even the fastest in the world, but as we all know it’s not merely about tempo choices, rather about what you do with them and how you balance them in the light of the score’s intent. With such brisk speeds the Overture and the opening numbers of the ballet can still pass on disc, even if the first grins might appear and some listeners will be thinking that this Christmas party isn’t one they would send their kids to. Still, the Bergen Philharmonic miraculously continues to ensure magnificent color and detail. Where Järvi lets us down, however, is in the bigger numbers, when the music suddenly becomes “serious”, starting with Act I, Scene 6 (track 7 of the CD – usually called the Departure of the guests), the ensuing Battle with the mice (track 8) and the grand transformation of the room into the winter pine forest (or when the nutcracker doll turns into a dashing prince – track 9). Here his hasty conducting smothers every sense of feeling (forget poetry and magic), and unsentimental turns into uncaring. At this point Järvi also throws in this disc’s oddity by adding a rather hilarious bim bam clock chiming ten at the beginning of the Departure of the guests, only to be followed three minutes later by the clock striking midnight. This may work on stage, but Tchaikovsky did leave that ten o’clock out of the score for a good reason. The scene of the growing Christmas tree is a speed contest, the battle is running after its own tail and the crucial transformation misses theatrical impact. It suffices to relisten to Evgeny Mravinsky and the old Leningrad Philharmonic to understand what can be found behind the notes – and he wasn’t exactly a sentimental slob either.

Järvi’s own transformation seems to take place with Act II, at least for a moment. In the opening scenes he finds warmth, orchestral splendor and an agreeable flow. The Divertissement is mostly well handled, too, again with remarkable playing, particularly from woodwinds and harp. Yet the Waltz of the Flowers is disappointing by its lack of dynamic contrast, its brisk tempo and quickly tiresome rubato. The Andante maestoso is coolly dispatched and only of passing interest compared to those who hadn’t forgotten its connection with the theatre.

An admirably responsive and often brilliant Bergen Philharmonic, superb SACD sonics and instructive liner notes from David Nice can’t conceal this Nutcracker is a pretty uneven affair, as is the whole Tchaikovsky ballet series from Bergen and Järvi. And still some continue to pretend that ballet music is easy to play.

Copyright © 2015, Marc Haegeman
Read the full review on Classical Net


Leave a comment

Tchaikovsky feast in Munich

Piano Concerto #1 in B Flat minor, Op. 23
Symphony #5 in E minor, Op. 64

Alice Sara Ott, piano
Russian National Orchestra/Mikhail Pletnev
Munich, Gasteig, 26 January 2015

Mikhail Pletnev

Mikhail Pletnev

Mikhail Pletnev is an enigmatic conductor. Each time I have heard him in concert with his Russian National Orchestra he left quite a different impression than with his recordings. While in his discs he often sounds cold, underwhelming or merely eccentric, live I always found him a lot more exciting and even revelatory in the Russian repertoire. This time again, in a Munich concert, his traversal of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth was a gripping experience, offering remarkable musical insights and a sonority that convinced you he was really providing us a look into the composer’s soul. Or how ultra-familiar music can still surprise.
Read the full review on Classical Net


Leave a comment

The Chicago Symphony in Paris

Felix Mendelssohn: Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, Op. 27
Claude Debussy: La Mer
Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: Symphony #4 in F minor, Op. 36

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: The Tempest, Op. 18
Igor Stravinsky: The Firebird, Suite #2 (1919)
Robert Schumann: Symphony #3 in E-Flat Major, Op. 97 “Rhenish”

Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Riccardo Muti
Paris, Salle Pleyel, 25-26 October 2014

Riccardo Muti

Riccardo Muti (© Todd Rosenberg)

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) under their Music Director Riccardo Muti finished two magnificent concerts at the Salle Pleyel in Paris. Part of a European tour that took the orchestra from Poland to Austria, by way of Luxemburg, Switzerland and France, these Paris concerts were easily some of the most rewarding classical music acts I attended this year. The choice of repertoire was agreeable, but it was the outstanding quality of the CSO as well as Muti’s vision which caused most satisfaction.
Read the full review on Classical Net