I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by Marc Haegeman


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Deadpan Rachmaninoff and magical Tchaikovsky

Dmitry Shostakovich: Festive Overture in A Major, Op. 96
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto #3 in d Minor, Op. 30
Pyotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake, Op. 20 – Excerpts (arr. M. Pletnev)

Seong-Jin Cho, piano
Russian National Orchestra / Mikhail Pletnev
Concertgebouw, Bruges, 14 December 2016

The Russian music season at the Bruges Concertgebouw continued with a visit of Mikhail Pletnev and his Russian National Orchestra (RNO). They brought a solid program of Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky, and although the organizers billed primarily on Rachmaninoff’s famous Third Piano Concerto, highlighting the young Korean Seong-Jin Cho as soloist, it was by and large Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake that became the most memorable event of the evening.

Seong-Ji Cho pianist

Seong-Ji Cho (© Bartek Sadowski)

Winner of the latest International Chopin Piano Competition, championed by the almighty Valery Gergiev, and a contract with the famous yellow record label fresh in his pocket, Seoul-born Seong-Jin Cho (22) seems firmly set on the tracks of an international career, come what may. His debut Chopin disc is a multiple platinum seller in his home country and, as we are told, like many of his talented young colleagues he brings flocks of newcomers to classical music. His performance of the Rachmaninoff Third was nonetheless underwhelming. Once the pleasant discovery of his excellent technique and crystal-clear articulation gone, we were left with a soloist who was musically mostly at a loss with Rachmaninoff’s lyrical outpourings. Cho played his Rachmaninoff hard and loud, invariably so, and without much sense of direction or imagination. He wasn’t drowned out by the orchestra, yet his habit to attack loudly backfired soon when he reached the limits of his piano before the climaxes. There was little or no trace of individual coloring or emotional engagement. Mindful of the composer’s predilection for color, this was gray, deadpan Rachmaninoff. All the notes (well, most of them) were there. But there was nothing behind them.

Some passages were brilliantly executed (the Più mosso section in the first movement), yet others suffered from ill-judged rubato or misplaced and banged accents (the first movement cadenza). At times it sounded like a Prokofiev concerto, but in the end, the most satisfying passages were the orchestral ones, transparent, detailed and often beautifully shaped by Pletnev – as the introduction of the Intermezzo, or the remarkable espressivo played by horn, bassoons and clarinet that closes that movement. The audience clearly weren’t averse to cold fish and gave Cho a standing ovation. So much for reputations.

pletnev

Mikhail Pletnev (© Artom Makeyev)

The concert opened with Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, Op. 96, always an irresistible curtain-raiser. However, after the break the Mikhail Pletnev enigma fully took shape again with a stunning rendering of a handpicked selection of Tchaikovsky’s ballet music for Swan Lake. Not the usual 6-part suite, but a different and more elaborate survey arranged by Pletnev himself. And while his complete studio recording of Swan Lake on disc is to my mind one of the dullest, inane versions from recent years, in concert the Pletnev magic worked again. It’s not just the recording engineers who seem to disadvantage him on many of his discs, it’s also his way with the score which turns out to be so much more fascinating in concert. With an outstanding RNO he galvanized Swan Lake into a compelling cocktail of color and atmosphere, beautifully poetic and full of fairytale magic, with that typical Tchaikovsky mix of theatrical drama and aristocratic elegance always in perfect balance. The pure dance sections were particularly well characterized: light-footed in the Pas de trois variations, grand and stately in the Pas des coupes from Act I. The dramatic narrative scenes (the extensive symphonic finale of the ballet) thrilled with tremendous power and impact.

The RNO appeared totally responsive and without a weak spot in the ensemble. The orchestral balance was even in the wildest scenes superb, the dynamic range impressive. The vivid string playing always a joy to behold. Woodwind solos, so important in this work, were astonishing, especially the oboe from Olga Tomilova, leading all the great themes, and the flute from Maxim Rubtsov. Brass and percussion knocked you out of your seat. Orchestra leader Alexei Bruni and principal cello Alexander Gottgelf performed ravishing solos in the Pas d’action (the White Swan pas de deux for the ballet fans). One regret perhaps. This Swan Lake selection begged for more and I would rather have had the ballet music in full than Seong-Jin Cho’s tryout in the Rachmaninoff. But other than that pure Russian concert magic.

Copyright © 2016 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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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


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Swan Lake in Bergen, Norway

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake, Op. 20, Complete Ballet
James Ehnes, violin
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
Chandos SACD CHSA5124(2) 81:17 & 73:24

Swan Lake

Swan Lake

Once upon a time, ballet music used to be the territory of specialists. Musicians groomed in the theatre or with a special flair for drama gave ample proof that ballet scores didn’t have to remain limited to stage performances. Conductors like Ernest Ansermet, Pierre Monteux, Anatole Fistoulari, Antal Dorati, Evgeny Svetlanov, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, among others, brought elegant and vivid accounts of the great ballet scores by Tchaikovsky, Delibes, Prokofiev and Stravinsky which have stood the test of time. The appeal of these recordings didn’t stem from this often supposed suitability as dance accompaniment. Rather it was a profound understanding of the mechanics of these particular scores, reviving the particular spirit of each ballet on disc just like any seasoned opera conductor naturally would do, which secured them a place among the great orchestral works. Nowadays, however, when several ballet scores have been widely accepted as “serious” music, everybody seems ready to take a swing at them. And the results are variable.
Read the full review on Classical Net


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Missed opportunity

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto #1 in B Flat minor, Op. 23; Symphony #4 in F minor, Op. 36
Denis Matsuev, piano
St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra/Yuri Temirkanov
Filmed live at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris, 2 December 2007
BelAir Classiques DVD BAC086 80m Mono

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: Symphony #5 in E minor, Op. 64
St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra/Yuri Temirkanov
Filmed live at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris, 3 December 2007
BelAir Classiques DVD BAC087 46m Mono

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: Romeo and Juliet, Overture-Fantasy
Variations on a Rococo Theme for Trumpet, Op. 33
Symphony #6 in B minor “Pathétiqué”, Op. 74

Sergei Nakariakov, trumpet
St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra/Yuri Temirkanov
Filmed live at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris, 5 December 2007
BelAir Classiques DVD BAC088 87m Mono

Tchaikovsky concerts of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic

Tchaikovsky concerts of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic

By the looks of it, this BelAir Classiques release had to be a true winner – three all-Tchaikovsky concerts of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic under their music director Yuri Temirkanov, recorded live on tour in Paris. Recent concert footage of this famous Russian formation is still quite rare, so three discs documenting the Philharmonic in their core repertory are most welcome. Yet as soon as you open the DVDs, you realize there is trouble ahead. “Unlike what is stated in the opening and closing credits of the program the orchestra conducted by Yuri Temirkanov is the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra”, warns the paper sleeve. The screen credits indeed claim this is the St. Petersburg Academic Symphony Orchestra, but to make sure (and for the better) it is the more famous Philharmonic alright. By opening the keep cases we also learn these concerts were already filmed as long ago as December 2007 during a stint at the Paris Théâtre des Champs Elysées. The Russian orchestra and Temirkanov are regular guests at this Paris venue, yet why it took almost seven years to release these films will remain a mystery.
Read the full review on Classical Net


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The Dutch National Ballet in The Nutcracker and Cinderella

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker and the Mouse King
Clara Staalboom – Anna Tsygankova
Prince/Mr. Drosselmeyer’s nephew – Matthew Golding
Nutcracker – James Stout
Mr. Drosselmeyer – Wolfgang Tietze
Mouse King – Alexander Zhembrovskyy
Artists of the Dutch National Ballet
Holland Symfonia/Ermanno Florio
Choreography by Toer van Schayk and Wayne Eagling
Filmed live at the Music Theatre in Amsterdam, 2011
Arthaus Musik Blu-ray 108087 108m PCM Stereo DTS-HD Master Audio

Serge Prokofieff: Cinderella
Cinderella – Anna Tsygankova
Prince Guillaume – Matthew Golding
Stepmother Hortensia – Larissa Lezhnina
Stepsister Edwina – Megan Zimny Grey
Stepsister Clementine – Nadia Yanowsky
Benjamin – Remi Wörtmeyer
Artists of the Dutch National Ballet
Holland Symfonia/Ermanno Florio
Choreography by Christopher Wheeldon
Filmed live at the Music Theatre in Amsterdam, 26 December 2012
Opus Arte Blu-ray OABD7126D 139m (incl. bonus) LPCM Stereo DTS-HD Master Audio

Cinderella by the Dutch National Ballet

Cinderella by the Dutch National Ballet

The Dutch National Ballet, the sole classical company in The Netherlands, is doing well on home video. The Blu-ray/DVD catalogue of the Amsterdam-based troupe is steadily growing with interesting titles, often linked to the successful practice of live broadcasts in movie theatres. Both Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker and Prokofieff’s Cinderella are of course popular favorites, yet the Dutch productions boast plenty of individual qualities to justify their purchase. While cast in a traditionally classical mold, the ballets reviewed here are not only spectacularly staged with grand sets and magnificent costumes that benefit from the high definition transfer in widescreen, they are also splendidly danced.
Read the full review on Classical Net


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Tchaikovsky – Shakespeare

Pyotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: Hamlet, Fantasy Overture after Shakespeare, Op. 67
The Tempest, Symphonic Fantasy after Shakespeare, Op. 18
Romeo and Juliet, Fantasy Overture after Shakespeare

Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela/Gustavo Dudamel
Deutsche Grammophon 4779355 DDD 65:35

Gustavo Dudamel

Tchaikovsky – Shakespearian Fantasies

With this trio of Shakespeare-inspired compositions Venezuelan boy wonder Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra (the former “Youth” Orchestra has officially grown up) sign their second Tchaikovsky disc for Deutsche Grammophon. Unfortunately it is about as uneven and doubtful as the first (which paired “Francesca da Rimini” with Symphony #5). While the energy and enthusiasm at making music of this ensemble is certainly praiseworthy and may indeed serve as an example to many of the top orchestras, what is still missing here is an overall concept as much as a specific sound which could have pulled these pieces out of the unjustified category of mere sonic spectaculars. It’s not that Dudamel lacks imagination, yet judging by this recording from February 2010 he is as yet unable to frame his ideas and present them into a convincing whole, while his phrasing and tempi changes tend to sound contrived rather than spontaneous.
Read the full review on Classical Net