I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by Marc Haegeman


1 Comment

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


Leave a comment

Grigorovich’s Golden Age revived

Dmitri Shostakovich: The Golden Age
Nina Kaptsova – Rita, a young girl
Ruslan Skvortsov – Boris, a young fisherman
Mikhail Lobukhin – Yashka, a gang leader
Ekaterina Krysanova – Lyushka, Yashka’s accomplice
Vyacheslav Lopatin – Variety show compere
Artists of the Bolshoi Ballet

The Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra, Pavel Klinichev
Choreography by Yuri Grigorovich.
Filmed live at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, October 2016
BelAir Classiques Blu-ray BAC443, 103 min, PCM 2.0, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

The Bolshoi in The Golden Age

The Bolshoi in The Golden Age

After a two year break the successful “Bolshoi Ballet HD Collection”, released by the Paris-based video label BelAir Classiques, is back on track again with Dmitri Shostakovich’s The Golden Age, the last ballet from long-time Bolshoi director Yuri Grigorovich. “Last” may be somewhat misleading here, since The Golden Age – or The Age of Gold, as may be more common – was premiered as long ago as 1982, but turned out to be the final original creation of the Bolshoi master. And come to think of it, the age wasn’t particularly golden at the time of the ballet’s premiere, as criticism against Grigorovich’s authoritative rule and artistic output was gradually mounting and would eventually lead to his eviction some ten years later – but that’s another story.

Fact is, most of Grigorovich’s ballets remained in the Bolshoi repertory, often resurfacing after several years in a more or less updated guise. The Golden Age is performed only by the Bolshoi and has unlike other Grigorovich’s ballets never been staged elsewhere. In Moscow it was last danced ten years ago and recently revived again in the lead-up to the 90th anniversary celebrations of the choreographer earlier this year. While undoubtedly not a masterpiece, this is the first official release of the ballet on Blu-ray and DVD and will be most welcome to all devotees of the Bolshoi and Russian ballet.

Grigorovich’s The Golden Age is itself an adaptation of the 1930 production, which like all evening-length ballets composed by Dmitri Shostakovich fell out of grace and was banned soon after the premiere. The blatant Communist rejection of so-called bourgeois decadence of the original plot, culminating in a soccer match between soviet youths and bourgeois fascists, was recycled into a love story set against the conflict between pure white-clad fishermen and a depraved black-shirted gang of thugs in some 1920’s Russian seaport. It’s the same naive black and white opposition, but the luggage is far less heavy this time. The inclusion of references to Lenin’s New Economic Policy in the rework however will be lost on most viewers today.

Seeing the ballet again, for all its simplicity, I still feel it is confusingly told, while much of Grigorovich’s stylized choreography is too crude and repetitive to survive the 100 or so minutes running time. As for the Bolshoi’s current take on it, I guess it helps if you haven’t seen the original casts in the 1980s. Today’s Ruslan Skvortsov, Nina Kaptsova, Mikhail Lobukhin and Ekaterina Krysanova are excellent dancers, yet none will ever erase memories of an Irek Mukhamedov or a Gediminas Taranda, who could transform cardboard into intensely potent characters. But that’s just how it goes with revivals: different times, different dancers, same ballets. Surprisingly perhaps for the Bolshoi, it are the quieter moments, like the love adagio’s between Kaptsova and Skvortsov, that work best here.

This new installment in the “Bolshoi Ballet HD Collection”, filmed live in October 2016 on the smaller New Stage of the Bolshoi Theatre, is visually and soundwise a real treat. As we have come to expect from the Vincent Bataillon/François Duplat team The Golden Age offers a first-rate ballet-at-home experience. Thankfully gone are the days of shoddy Soviet filming, unable to master the frequent changes from bright to dark in these productions. The full HD transfer on Blu-ray looks particularly impressive with a wealth of detail and lovely, natural colors. Camerawork is as good as it gets with a well-judged mix between longshots and close-ups.

The sonics are equally superb in the 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio mix, enhancing the impact of Shostakovich’s brilliant music. His ballet scores remain largely unknown to the general public, except perhaps in the form of suites. This is the young composer at his most confidently satirical, exemplifying in his music the capitalist depravity with a series of parodied western dance forms like polka, tango and foxtrot. Grigorovich interpolated the slow movements from Shostakovich’s Piano Concertos for the lyrical moments in his adaptation. Interestingly, they give the score which can at times sound relentless a rounder appearance. It all comes vividly alive by the Bolshoi Orchestra under Pavel Klinichev.

This release comes without any extras. Bolshoi fans won’t hesitate to purchase this title, of course, and BelAir Classiques serves them well with splendid video and audio quality. Yet the older ones won’t be entirely convinced by the Bolshoi’s current way with The Golden Age.

© 2017 Marc Haegeman. All rights reserved