I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by Marc Haegeman


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Total Tchaikovsky in Antwerp

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

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

tchaikovsky

Tchaikovsky by Nikolai Kuznetsov in 1883

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2018 Marc Haegeman


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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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The Berlin Philharmonic launches its own record label

Robert Schumann: Symphony #1 in B Flat Major “Spring”, Op. 38; Symphony #2 in C Major, Op. 61; Symphony #3 in E Flat Major “Rhenish”, Op. 97; Symphony #4 in D minor (first version, 1841)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Simon Rattle
Recorded in 2013
Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings 140011 2CDs (125 min) + 1 Blu-ray (175 min)

The Berlin Philharmonic plays Schumann

The Berlin Philharmonic plays Schumann

Last May, following the example of many top orchestras, the Berlin Philharmonic launched its own record label, Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings. The twilight of the great recording labels has moved into another phase. The former flagship of Deutsche Grammophon and of EMI is going to market its discs itself. The inaugural release of Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings is a splendidly packaged Robert Schumann Symphonies cycle conducted by Simon Rattle, recorded during concerts throughout 2013. The Berliner wouldn’t be the Berliner if the presentation wasn’t extra special. In the form of a landscape-sized linen-bound book with quality paper decorated with motifs from the posh Berlin porcelain factory, this Schumann box not only contains two CDs, but also a Blu-ray disc offering the concerts in Pure Audio 24-bit/96 kHz (2.0 LPCM Stereo or 5.0 DTS-HD MA) and in High Definition Video (Full HD 16:9/PCM Stereo or 5.0 Surround DTS-HD). Moreover included are a download code for high resolution audio files of the entire album (in 24 bit/up to 192 kHz) and a 7-day ticket for the Digital Concert Hall, Berlin Philharmonic’s video streaming service. This is sheer audiophile heaven.
Read the full review on Classical Net