I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by Marc Haegeman


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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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The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Brussels

Richard Wagner: Tristan and Isolde – Prelude and Liebestod
Ingvar Lidholm: Poesis
Antonín Dvořák: Symphony #9 in E minor “From the New World”, Op. 95

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Herbert Blomstedt
Brussels, Centre for Fine Arts, 22 January 2016

This concert of Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (RCO) at the Brussels Center for Fine Arts marked the inauguration of the Dutch presidency of the Council of the European Union. A feisty event, attended by both the Dutch and Belgian royal couples and a host of excellencies – which accounted for an impossibly 30 minutes late start, but also proved for a city still in the throes of terrorist activity aimed at our way of life, that things can be normal after all.

And what better way is there to escape from grim-visaged reality than a concert with great music that sublimates our cultural achievements? The RCO was conducted by the veteran Swedish maestro Herbert Blomstedt. At 88 years and 7 months Blomstedt is, incidentally, the oldest guest conductor in the history of the orchestra, even surpassing the legendary Pierre Monteux who was “only” 88 and 4 months. Not that anybody would have been aware of this, because the vivid and impish personality of the Swede totally belied his age just as much as his music making. Conducting without a baton, and for most of the concert, from memory, Blomstedt offered a finely contrasting program with two popular works, Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde and Dvořák’s “From the New World”, framing a modern rarity (although “modern” here is already well over 50 years old too) Poesis from the Swedish composer Ingvar Lidholm (b. 1921).

From the opening Tristan it became clear that while Blomstedt would treat us generously to the beauty of the RCO – and he knows more than anybody to use that beauty in a constructive way – he would also keep everything solidly under control. One can imagine a more emotional Wagner, or indeed a more immediately dramatic one, yet Blomstedt capitalized fully on the silken strings and the mellow woodwinds of the RCO to let the lyricism of Tristan speak with unforced eloquence in some breathtaking crescendos.

While the orchestra was being rearranged, Blomstedt undeterred by the presence of royalty, picked up a microphone and introduced, in an often hilarious manner – vocal imitations and his familiar reference to mushrooms haphazardly growing in the forest and all – Ingvar Lidholm’s piece Poesis. Composed for the 50th anniversary of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic in 1963 and premiered by Blomstedt the following year, its experimental and seemingly chaotic modernity stood in stark contrast to the melodious, organized world of the preceding Wagner. Poesis remains a striking 20-minute sonic exploration, with startling crescendos and virtuosic solos, often challenging the orchestra to extremes and creating sound in unconventional ways, like dropping the lid prop of the piano or rustling sandpaper. Blomstedt clearly adores the work and just as in Tristan he was able to inspire the RCO musicians to sound their best. In the end, Poesis was a great deal of fun, with in particular superb solo passages from piano (Jeroen Bal), double bass and percussion.

Dvořák’s Ninth received an elegant but powerful, and often stunningly beautiful reading. Tempi were well-judged throughout, dynamics were controlled, yet if there was an emotion that Blomstedt was willing to share it seems to have been one of joy. I don’t recall hearing such an optimistic, sunny reading of the opening Allegro molto with lightly sprung rhythms, delicate textures and deft phrasing. Even the Largo, swiftly but attractively played, didn’t linger too much on melancholy or longing. This was mostly happy Dvořák, the “New World” symphony as a masterful continuation of In Nature’s Realm, admiring nature in all its richness of color and tones. The closing movement, with irresistible drive, was a logical culmination of joy. And how many times can you hear such a tight ensemble, such well-judged orchestral balance and transparency, and such colorful instrumentalists? The RCO brass, particularly the horns, were simply glorious.

The audience greeted orchestra and conductor with a well-deserved standing ovation. Blomstedt offered a Slavonic dance in return, naturally one of the most lifting ones, the fast Op. 46/1 in C Major. The RCO is a fabulous orchestra as Blomstedt was readily reminding us. He sent us home with a big smile, and what more can one ask, even if deep down we realized that this orchestra has even more in store than we were given tonight.

Copyright © 2016, Marc Haegeman

First published on Classical Net  (http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/haegeman/20160122-brussels-rco-blomstedt.php)


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Fistoulari’s Swan Lake

Piotr Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake (highlights)
Steven Staryk, violin
Tibor de Machula, cello
Phia Berghout, harp
Concertgebouw Orchestra, Anatole Fistoulari
Recorded in the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam February 1961.
Decca

Swan Lake by Fistoulari

Swan Lake by Fistoulari

Performing ballet music on disc is vastly underestimated. Perhaps it’s linked to a dismissive attitude from many musicians towards the ballet genre – it’s not really “profound” music, is it, so how hard can it be? Yet some recent abysmal recordings of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake made me grab in despair at this old (1961) disc from Anatole Fistoulari with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. Re-listening to it is a vivid reminder of how much is overlooked and lost by not taking the music serious or without a careful analysis of its mechanics. Ukrainian conductor Anatole Fistoulari (1907-1995) may be virtually forgotten today – even if he made most of his career in the West, having fled the delights of communist Russia, and became the son-in-law of Gustav Mahler – but he surely knew his ballet music.

Fistoulari breathes life in every bar of the score, naturally blending the symphonic character of Tchaikovsky’s music with the theatrical requirements: the result is one of the most dramatic accounts of Swan Lake you’ll ever find on disc – Evgeny Svetlanov excepted. Pushing the orchestra to the limit, juggling with a complex array of phrasing and rubato, scenes (even only fragmented as here) are bustling with emotion and presence, dance moments shivering with elegance and zest. Just listen to the suspense he creates in the opening of Act 2, preceding the first encounter of Siegfried and Odette (not for nothing the dramatic core of the story), or the subtle details in the Dance of the Swans at the beginning of the last Act. Here is a conductor groomed in the ballet world and while he is not conducting a performance, there is still the feeling that everything is exactly in the right place. You wonder whether discs like this are ever listened to before embarking on a new recording.

For the petite histoire, the cello solo in the pas d’action is played by this prince of cellists, the legendary Tibor de Machula. Recruited by Wilhelm Furtwängler for the Berlin Philharmonic, Hungarian de Machula left Germany after the Second World War for Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, where he reigned supreme as one of the most respected musicians for three decades.

A true gem in vivid early 1960s Decca sound.
The CD is available as part of the Decca Sound: The Analogue Years 54-CD box (0289 478 5437 1), or as a single disc, released by Decca Eloquence (442 9032).

Copyright © 2014 Marc Haegeman. All Rights Reserved.

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Kondrashin plays Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff

Piotr Tchaikovsky: Suite Nr. 3 in G major, Op. 55
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances, Op. 45

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, Kirill Kondrashin.
Recorded live at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, 24 November 1974 and 21 November 1976.
Emergo Classics EC 3962-2

Kirill Kondrashin

Kondrashin plays Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff

Electrifying performances of Tchaikovsky’s Third Suite and Rachmaninoff’s final opus, miraculously captured by the Dutch Radio (NOS) and preserved for posterity by Emergo Classics in this hard to find 1994 release. Russian maestro Kirill Kondrashin (1914-1981) proves these often belittled scores are mind-blowing trips from start to end. Tchaikovsky’s rarely programmed Third Suite was only recently introduced for a concert at the Paris Salle Pleyel as “not very good Tchaikovsky”. Granted, it wasn’t particularly convincing what the Orchestre de Paris had to offer on that occasion, but Kondrashin shows one shouldn’t always blame the lack of inspiration on the composer. Both performances recorded in 1974 and 1976 are carried by a Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra on fire.

Copyright © 2013 Marc Haegeman. All Rights Reserved.


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Gergiev Reunited with Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw

Henri Dutilleux: Métaboles
Jean Sibelius: Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47
Sergei Prokofieff: Symphony #5 in B Flat Major, Op. 100

Leonidas Kavakos, violin
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
Brussels, Centre for Fine Arts, March 18, 2012

For being one of the world’s most sought-after conductors whose budding career moreover got a serious boost in the Netherlands back in the late 1980s with among others televised concerts, Valery Gergiev hasn’t been seen much at the helm of the country’s most illustrious ensemble, Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. He got firm ground in Rotterdam, crowned by an annual “Rotterdam Philharmonic Gergiev Festival”, but Amsterdam has reportedly always been a love/hate affair. The short tour this March with a program of 20th-century music and concerts in Amsterdam, Paris and Brussels reunited the Russian maestro with the Concertgebouw Orchestra after a break of more than 15 years.
Read the full review on Classical Net


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Lang Lang in Brussels

Franz Liszt: Piano Concerto #1 in E Flat Major
Frédéric Chopin: Andante spianato & Grande Polonaise brillante, Op. 22
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony #3 in E Flat Major, Op. 55, ‘Eroica’

Lang Lang, piano
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Daniel Harding
Brussels, Centre for Fine Arts, 4 October 2011

Any way you cut it, a concert headlining the Chinese star pianist Lang Lang is an event. He brings so many new people to classical music, as we are recalled. His flamboyant approach has been dividing opinions from the start, but recently hopeful signs of maturity were reported too. And didn’t the man himself declare in a pre-performance interview that it is not just a show? Has the showman grown into a musician then? He might have fooled you still, when he walked in a perfectly traditional outfit to his piano, greeted by a packed Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels. Yet as soon as he hammered home the opening chords of Liszt’s 1st piano concerto in such an attention-seeking manner, there no longer was any doubt. A sigh of grateful recognition swept through the hall and obviously many had come to witness this: Lang Lang was still his former self – at least for tonight.
Read the full review on Classical Net