I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by Marc Haegeman


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Aurora in Bananastan

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: The Sleeping Beauty, Op. 66
Iana Salenko (Princess Aurora)
Marian Walter (Prince Désiré)
Rishat Yulbarisov (Carabosse)
Sarah Mestrovic (Lilac Fairy)
Michael Banzhaf (King Florestan)
Beatrice Knop (The Queen)
Soloists and Corps De Ballet of the Berlin State Ballet
Orchestra of the German Opera, Berlin / Robert Reimer

BelAir Classiques BAC 131; 1080i HD, 16/9; PCM Stereo, DTS Master Audio 5.1

The Sleeping Beauty

The Sleeping Beauty

We know what the ballet The Sleeping Beauty looks like and above all what it’s worth. We know it since 1890. In case the historical productions performed by Russian and English companies to this very day aren’t proof enough, then there are still the recent reconstructions of Sergei Vikharev and Alexei Ratmansky to remind the sceptics this is a timeless creation which needs very little upgrading, least of all by the wrong hands. Why on earth contemporary dance-maker Nacho Duato was asked to make a new version of the ballet will undoubtedly puzzle future generations – provided, of course, it survives the test of time. There have been contemporary adaptations and reworkings of Beauty before, but unless they headed on a radically original course, none ever came close, let alone surpassed the original as it was conceived within the Imperial Theatres in St. Petersburg by the combined talents of director Ivan Vsevolozhsky, choreographer Marius Petipa and composer Piotr Tchaikovsky.

Neither does Duato’s version. Duato created his Sleeping Beauty in 2011 during his brief stint as director of the Mikhailovsky Ballet in St. Petersburg. The brave idea allegedly was to produce a Sleeping Beauty for the 21st century. Yet that turned out to be more of a fairytale than the ballet’s subject itself. If anything the production was proof that money cannot buy everything. Duato’s Beauty still presents itself as a classical ballet, albeit one that is scuttled by a basic mistrust of text, spirit and music. The result is by and large a very unhappy wedding between classical and contemporary styles. Pointework in convulsion mode; Martha Graham as princess Aurora. Forget the multilayered complexity of the original, the fairytale atmosphere, or the enchantment.

With its truncated narrative, botched choreography and mutilated score, Duato’s staging doesn’t stand much of a chance. Tottering between hilarious (the Prologue variations, the nervous courtiers) and properly embarrassing (the scenes with that fearful Carabosse in drag), it doesn’t matter that echoes of Petipa ring through the key moments, Duato never finds his own voice. Worst of all, while this is one of the richest and most profound dance scores ever made, Duato does nothing with it. In short, a travesty of The Sleeping Beauty rather than the version for the 21st century.

The elegantly fresh sets and pastel-tinted costumes from Angelina Atlagic run away with the honors in this production. The present release from BelAir Classiques documents a performance by the Berlin State Ballet, the company Duato is heading since 2014. By all accounts the production wasn’t well received in the German capital either, which makes its release on HD video rather bizarre. Iana Salenko and Marian Walter are excellent dancers, yet in spite of their fluent partnership they never manage to crack the ice. Neither does the rest of the cast, laboring through it all with blind devotion. They deserve better than this.

Robert Reimer’s conducting is about as undramatic and bland as the activity on stage. The Orchestra of the German Opera sleepwalks through most of the score, unable to avoid some jarringly unbalanced sonorities (as in Aurora’s Variation in Act 2).

For what it’s worth, the performance is agreeably filmed by Andy Sommer. The HD cameras cope well with the sometimes harsh stage lighting of the production. The sonics are impressive and detailed, if somewhat bass heavy in the DTS Master Audio 5.1 format. This release offers no bonus materials – not that we would have been craving for any. To be shelved under forgettable.

Copyright © 2017 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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Superb Tchaikovsky in French manner

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker, Op. 71
La Maîtrise des Hauts-de-Seine, Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble/Marc Minkowski
Brussels, Centre for Fine Arts, 13 November 2016

Marc Minkowski

Marc Minkowski © Marco Borggreve

Marc Minkowski and his Musiciens du Louvre, on tour in Europe, brought a pleasant surprise by performing Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker full-length in concert. The surprise was not so much to hear Tchaikovsky on period instruments (that has been done before by Jos van Immerseel and Anima Eterna, among others), neither that an ensemble steeped in the baroque and early classical repertoire ventures into late 19th-century music. No, this was purely and simply one of the finest readings of the ballet I have ever heard, in or out of the theater. Played by the French orchestra this Nutcracker sounded extraordinary, often thrilling, at times revelatory, yet it was above all Minkowski’s way with the score which made this concert such a standout.

Part of the success stems from the fact that Minkowski conducts The Nutcracker for what it is: music for the theater. While much of the score can sound like an orchestral spectacular (and is often interpreted that way), this seemed like the last thing Minkowski had in mind. He rather was looking for refinement and character, and preferred to dig deep into Tchaikovsky’s sound-world. It didn’t matter either there was no stage action. When conducted with so much understanding and passion as here the score easily stands on its own and evokes a whole world of imagery and emotions. As a seasoned opera conductor Minkowski clearly knows how to tell a story and captured the changing climates of the score with total conviction. A French take on Russian music, but one that removed layers of dust and familiarity.

The period instruments proved a tremendous asset to Tchaikovsky’s brilliant orchestration. As usual with Les Musiciens du Louvre the focus was essentially on the music, without a trace of sterile stylistic exercises in authentic performance. Textural transparency and refined orchestral balance, harmonic color and rhythmic flexibility all contributed to recreate this uniquely enchanting atmosphere that saves The Nutcracker from dreaded yuletide dirge and secures it a place as genuine masterpiece. Tender evocations of a child’s imagination contrasted with at times creepy passages of darkness. Even the opening numbers which are in the hands of many conductors merely to mark time, became small gems – none more than the Presto of No. 4 and the Grossvater Tanz in No. 5, theatrically heavy-footed and full of benign humor.

No detail in the orchestration was left untouched and Minkowski wasn’t afraid to enhance the dramatic contrasts, yet without losing track of the musical flow. The long section opening with the Departure of the Guests, featuring the Battle with the mice and the Waltz of the Snowflakes was stunningly rendered. Minkowski knew exactly when and how to slow down. The orchestra bloomed in the Christmas Tree sequence, wonderfully paced, reminding that it doesn’t take modern strings to play in a passionate manner. Twenty girls from La Maîtrise des Hauts-de-Seine chorus provided beautiful vocal support in the Snowflakes – even when pressed rather hard by the slow tempo in the final section. I was never before so much aware that snow is gently falling down. Pure magic.

In this respect it was regrettable that in the second part Minkowski somewhat changed the order of the score. As he announced during the short tuning break between acts, he preferred to open with the Pas de deux followed by the Divertissement and ending with the Waltz of the Flowers. The opening numbers of Act II – which offer some ravishing music – were dropped, as well as the first variation in the Pas de deux. Minkowski didn’t fail to stress the French influence on The Nutcracker and noted in passing that the celesta played by his orchestra was a French Mustel from the late 19th century, an instrument undoubtedly quite close to the one Tchaikovsky knew and introduced in Russia with this ballet.

As it was, the Divertissement became a truly festive moment, totally apt as a brilliant culmination of the story. Very few conductors I heard in concert capture the character of the different dances with such accuracy. The Spanish dance was sparkling and colorful, the Arabian variation exuded the exquisite perfume of the Orient, and in the Trepak one could easily imagine boots stomping in the snow. Woodwinds and percussion were exquisite.

Les Musiciens du Louvre are a superb formation indeed. They played like possessed and evidently had a great time performing this music. Solos were magnificent throughout, most notably from flutes, oboe and harp. The hard-working violins were divided left/right, with the four basses at the back center. A smaller than usual orchestra for Tchaikovsky when it comes to the strings, although judging from the balance and weight that Minkowski obtained, all it takes.

Minkowski offered two encores from Georges Bizet’s L’Arlésienne, the Prélude and the introspective Adagietto, which he dedicated to the victims of terrorist attacks in France and Belgium from the last year. The solo saxophone was heard to great effect, but it was undoubtedly the link between the music of Tchaikovsky and Bizet, both great melodists and orchestrators, which was most exposed here.

The Brussels Centre for Fine Arts was sadly half empty for this concert. The Nutcracker as a ballet is normally box-office safe. Yet many are probably still convinced that ballet music doesn’t stand much of a chance in a concert-hall. Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre have disproven that, once again, completely. A superb concert.

Copyright © 2016, Marc Haegeman

First published on Classical Net: http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/haegeman/20161113-minkowski-tchaikovsky.php


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Happy Tchaikovsky from Herreweghe

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: The Nutcraker, Op. 71 (Excerpts) and Symphony #2 in C minor “Little Russian”, Op. 17
Royal Flemish Philharmonic Orchestra/Philippe Herreweghe
Concertgebouw, Bruges, 24 September 2016

Russia is the focal point of the 2016/17 season at the Bruges Concertgebouw. Several concerts of Russian music are scheduled throughout the year and both Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Dmitry Shostakovich take pride of place in the celebrations. In the first symphonic concert of the series Philippe Herreweghe and his Royal Flemish Philharmonic (aka deFilharmonie) paid homage to Tchaikovsky with a rather unusual pairing. With the Second “Little Russian” Symphony and a handpicked selection from the Nutcracker, works separated by some twenty years in the composer’s output, they offered primarily a happily smiling and vital Tchaikovsky.

Philippe Herreweghe isn’t a conductor you would expect in this repertoire. Yet it’s always interesting to hear how a musician steeped in early music and baroque approaches the 19th century scores. Some immediate benefits were obvious. With a smaller than usual orchestra, anchored on 5 basses, Herreweghe’s Tchaikovsky sounded refined, transparent and finely detailed. Remarkably, employing smaller forces didn’t result in lightness, yet the overall feel was energetic and vibrant. The balance between strings and woodwinds was impeccable, highlighting the brilliance of Tchaikovsky’s orchestration. The antiphonally placed violins opened up the sound, while extra care for the lower strings always provided a solid base. The Royal Flemish Philharmonic plays of course on modern instruments and power was at hand when needed, even though Herreweghe always kept things firmly under control.

It was all the more a shame that the selection culled from the Nutcracker was so short. The concert was dubbed “Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker” I suspect for marketing purposes, although it was the first work on the bill, and in retrospect the least convincing. Herreweghe added a few numbers to the usually heard ballet suite, like the Galop and the Entrance of the Parents from Act I and the Tarentella from the Pas de deux, but it no less remained a piecemeal offering. Some transitions sounded awkward and his selection avoided the more elaborate and darker pages of the score. Extremely colorful and vivid, with particular attention to the fine Philharmonic woodwinds, Herreweghe’s Nutcracker sparkled and superficially charmed but hardly ever got inside the score. Some numbers were tackled too briskly to breathe properly (Dance of the Reed Pipes, Sugar Plum Fairy), others were merely precise rather than evocative (Arabian dance).

The “Little Russian” Symphony (performed in its final version from 1879) however was a lot more successful. It was beautifully played and excitingly rendered without ever becoming demonstrative. Herreweghe never indulged in any eccentricities and made a very strong case for this often neglected symphony. Tempi were well-judged and a sense of discovery enlivened every movement. The Andante sostenuto instantly captured the right mood with magnificent solos from horn (Eliz Erkalp) and bassoon (Oliver Engels) – dreamy moments that soon gave way to sheer vivacity and joy. The march-like 2nd movement was well paced and Herreweghe imaginatively handled the variations. The Philharmonic strings were heard to great effect in the second theme. Sharp attacks and crisp phrasing characterized the boisterous scherzo, with the winds adding plenty of color. The clarity Herreweghe kept in the tutti, as well as his deft control of the ebb and flow made for a convincing and exhilarating final movement.

All in all, a fine homage to Tchaikovsky and I hope Herreweghe will explore this music further – the orchestral suites come to mind, or why not some complete ballet.

Copyright © 2016, Marc Haegeman

First published on Classical Net: http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/haegeman/20160924-herreweghe-tchaikovsky.php


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Nureyev’s Swan Lake and Nutcracker in Vienna

The Nutcracker
Liudmilla Konovalova – Clara
Vladimir Shishov – Drosselmeyer/The Prince
Artists of the Vienna State Ballet
Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera/Paul Connelly
Choreography by Rudolf Nureyev
Filmed live at the Vienna State Opera, 7 October 2012
Unitel Classica/C Major Blu-ray 718304, 102 min, LPCM Stereo / DTS-HD Master Audio

Swan Lake
Olga Esina – Odette/Odile
Vladimir Shishov – Prince Siegfried
Eno Peci – Rothbart, the Magician
Artists of the Vienna State Ballet
Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera/Alexander Ingram
Choreography by Rudolf Nureyev after Marius Petipa & Lev Ivanov
Filmed live at the Vienna State Opera, 16 March 2014
Unitel Classica/C Major Blu-ray 717704, 132 min, LPCM Stereo / DTS-HD Master Audio

The Nutcracker

The Nutcracker

C Major released two Tchaikovsky bonbons straight from Vienna – The Nutcracker and Swan Lake. As the main classical ballet company in Austria, the Vienna State Ballet (Wiener Staatsballett) isn’t particularly over-represented on home video, so these recent performances filmed live in high-definition at the Vienna State Opera are definitely welcome. The driving force behind these releases is without doubt former Paris Opera Ballet étoile Manuel Legris, who is leading the Viennese company since 2010 and has by all accounts established himself as a blessed gift for the thus far slumbering Austrian troupe.
Read the full review on Classical Net


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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