I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by Marc Haegeman


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Luminous Beethoven and impetuous Connesson in Bruges

Guillaume Connesson: Flammenschrift
Ludwig van Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61
Sergei Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet, excerpts

Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider, violin
Brussels Philharmonic, Stéphane Denève
Bruges, Concertgebouw, 1 March 2019

The success story of the Brussels Philharmonic is one of the miracles of the Belgian classical music scene. Under conductors Michel Tabachnik and, since 2015/16, Stéphane Denève the stuffy, bureaucratic Flemish radio band from yesteryear happily morphed into a vibrant, independent formation of international fame and acclaim. This concert led by Denève with music by Connesson, Beethoven and Prokofiev duly demonstrated its strengths, as well as some limitations. A luminous performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto in D major by Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider considerably added to its attraction.

Read the full review on Bachtrack.


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If love could be

Sergei Prokofieff: Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64
Musica Aeterna/Teodor Currentzis
Brussels, Centre for Fine Arts, 15 March 2015

Ballet music is occasionally programmed in concert halls, in the form of a suite or selection of fragments. Full-length ballets are understandably much rarer, yet the ones that are able to survive the absence of stage action can in the right hands become spellbinding experiences. This is exactly what happened with a concert performance of Sergei Prokofieff’s 1935 Romeo and Juliet by Musica Aeterna under Teodor Currentzis. Offering under the title “If love could be” a fortnight of music events focused on the themes of passion and love, this year’s Klara Festival – the only annual broadcasting festival in Belgium – couldn’t overlook Shakespeare’s famous star-crossed lovers. But nonetheless to have the complete Prokofieff ballet music in the concert hall was still something of a miracle.

Teodor Currentzis (photo Sander Buyck)

Teodor Currentzis (photo Sander Buyck)

Teodor Currentzis is artistic director of the Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre and of the Musica Aeterna ensemble which he formed in 2004 and currently resides in Perm as the theatre’s main orchestra. The Greek-born maestro studied in Athens and completed his formation as conductor at the St. Petersburg Conservatory with the famous Ilya Musin, teacher of among others Valery Gergiev and Semyon Bychkov. By all accounts a controversial personality, Currentzis has been dividing opinions as much by his conducting, as by his at times provocative statements and very Russian-styled manner of self-promotion. Be that as it may, his traversal of Prokofieff’s Romeo and Juliet at the Brussels Centre for Fine Arts was a real stunner.

To see him conduct his Musica Aeterna is already something of an experience. Anyone missing the dancers on stage? Currentzis replaced it with a bit of theatre of his own. A long lanky figure, hair in a tail, he is more rock star than maestro and you could hear people gasp the moment he entered the auditorium; a very Liszt-like persona in fact, half charmer, half demon – and by his attire, partly priest as well. Currentzis conducts without baton, but wildly waving his arms, hissing, tapping his feet, dancing and jumping, he seems to think he needs his whole body to draw the music out of his ensemble. It’s thankfully more than just cocky posturing and this performance proved amply that Currentzis not only has a complete understanding of this score, he also knows how to get exactly what he wants from his orchestra.

The 100 or so musicians of Musica Aeterna responded as one, playing as if their lives depended on it. That they were standing for the whole concert (only the cello players were seated) seemed to sharpen their focus. It was a sight to behold and you will be hard-pressed to find such collective fervor, dedication and joy at making music. Musica Aeterna boasts some excellent soloists too: all desk leaders of the string sections delivered magnificent solos, the first clarinet was outstanding, as was the first horn. The brass was as punchy and biting as you could wish for this music, and with the percussion clearly able to raise the dead. The strings proved a wonderfully flexible group, with Currentzis taking extra care of the polyphony of Prokofieff’s writing, revealing plenty of details in the orchestration hardly noticeable when played from the theatre pit.

The ballet came vividly alive with a great feel for theatricality, correct characterizations (even if Juliet seemed a very hot-tempered teenager during her first appearance), and without any fear of exaggeration. Taking no prisoners, Currentzis pushed dynamic contrasts to extremes and conjured the most improbable shades and colors from his orchestra, hijacking the listener for about two hours in an emotional rollercoaster.

The score was as good as complete. Currentzis cut the opening scene of Romeo (#2) after the Introduction, a few dances on the market in Act 2 as well as the second scene at Friar Laurence’s (#28), and replaced Juliet’s variation at the ball (#14) with the Morning Serenade (#48) – something which can only be explained by theatrical practice. Still, nothing essential was missing. It was played in two parts, with the interval occurring between Acts 2 and 3. This allowed Currentzis to treat each half as a continuous dramatic arch, building gradually in intensity and culminating each time in stark tragedy – the death of Tybalt in the first part, the suicide of the two lovers in the second. Musically as well as dramatically this made perfect sense as Prokofieff kept some of his most devastating music for these scenes – and Currentzis and his orchestra made sure we wouldn’t forget them that easily.

Played practically without any breaks between the numbers, as in a theatrical performance, the music gained tremendous sweep. Several scenes along the way knocked you out of your seat – the Dance of the Knights never sounded more threateningly arrogant and the two fortissimo chords of the Prince’s decree (repeated at the start of Act 3) were powerful enough to keep anyone mesmerized for the rest of the concert. Tempi were often on the fast side, but Currentzis knew when and how to slow down as in the beautifully played Madrigal offering a tender evocation of beginning love, or the comforting familiarity of friar Laurence depicted by warm cellos. The Balcony Scene, too, was lushly romantic and erupted in full-blooded passion, while the Bedroom duet breathed a sense of coming doom. The street brawls were particularly violent and the crowd scenes feted in vibrant colors.

Some minor slips notwithstanding (like the rhythmically blurred Dance with mandolins or the too prominent lower brass here and there) this was a mind-blowing performance which immediately shoots towards the top of the most memorable concerts I have attended in some time. And do we need better proof than this that ballet music of this caliber can stand on its own? Brilliant!

Copyright © 2015, Marc Haegeman


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Stunning Romeo and Juliet Suite from Chicago

Sergei Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet Suite
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Riccardo Muti
CSO Resound CSOR9011402 DDD Live Recording 2013 48:52

Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

This is by far the most compelling selection from Serge Prokofieff’s Romeo and Juliet I have heard in a long time. Recorded live in October 2013 in Chicago, Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra not only depict each scene with an unerring sense of drama, but also a complete understanding of the fabrics of the score and the composer’s individual sonorities. The selection is culled from the First and Second Suites, yet in spite of the tragically short total timing (a meager 48:52), we are given Prokofieff’s Romeo and Juliet in a nutshell.
Read the full review on Classical Net


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A New Maestro in the Making and a Pianist on Fire

Richard Wagner: Siegfried Idyll
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 *
Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: Fantasy Overture “Romeo & Juliet”
Serge Prokofieff: Romeo & Juliet, Op. 64bis & ter (fragments)

* Khatia Buniatishvili, piano
Munich Philharmonic Orchestra/Gustavo Gimeno
Gasteig, Munich, 15 May 2014

Cancellations always carry their bit of disappointment. 84-year-old Lorin Maazel had to sit out all concerts with his Munich Philharmonic Orchestra in May due to illness; he was already replaced on the orchestra’s New York tour in April, but we are told the maestro is recovering. Enter Gustavo Gimeno, totally unknown as a conductor in the international arena. The 37-year-old Spanish-born principal percussionist of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra stepped in for his music director Mariss Jansons earlier this year and made a favorable impression in Amsterdam. Needless to say he has conducting experience and previously worked assisting old masters like Claudio Abbado and Bernard Haitink besides Jansons. Amsterdam clearly meant a huge break which put him on the map. Gimeno will soon quit playing percussion and devote himself full-time to conducting.
Read the full review on Classical Net


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Homage to Tchaikovsky in Paris

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky:
The Voyevoda, Symphonic Ballad, Op. 78; Piano Concerto #1 in B Flat minor, Op. 23; Symphony #5 in E minor, Op. 64
Romeo and Juliet, Overture-Fantasy; Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35; Symphony #4 in F minor, Op. 36

Evgeny Kissin, piano
Vadim Repin, violin
Philharmonia Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy
Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris, 7-8 January 2014

Vladimir Ashkenazy

Vladimir Ashkenazy (© Fred Toulet)

To start the year, Parisian music lovers were treated to a small but highly delectable Tchaikovsky homage when the Philharmonia Orchestra under their Conductor Laureate Vladimir Ashkenazy appeared for two consecutive nights at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées. Following the traditional setup of overture, concerto and symphony, both programs consisted of a trio of Tchaikovsky masterpieces, spanning with Romeo and Juliet (1869, rev. 1880) and The Voyevoda (1890) the majority of his creative activity. The presence of two sterling Russian artists, Evgeny Kissin and Vadim Repin, luminous soloists in respectively the First Piano Concerto and the Violin Concerto, added considerably to the attraction of this mini Tchaikovsky fest.
Read the full review on Classical Net