I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by Marc Haegeman


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Deadpan Rachmaninoff and magical Tchaikovsky

Dmitry Shostakovich: Festive Overture in A Major, Op. 96
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto #3 in d Minor, Op. 30
Pyotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake, Op. 20 – Excerpts (arr. M. Pletnev)

Seong-Jin Cho, piano
Russian National Orchestra / Mikhail Pletnev
Concertgebouw, Bruges, 14 December 2016

The Russian music season at the Bruges Concertgebouw continued with a visit of Mikhail Pletnev and his Russian National Orchestra (RNO). They brought a solid program of Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky, and although the organizers billed primarily on Rachmaninoff’s famous Third Piano Concerto, highlighting the young Korean Seong-Jin Cho as soloist, it was by and large Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake that became the most memorable event of the evening.

Seong-Ji Cho pianist

Seong-Ji Cho (© Bartek Sadowski)

Winner of the latest International Chopin Piano Competition, championed by the almighty Valery Gergiev, and a contract with the famous yellow record label fresh in his pocket, Seoul-born Seong-Jin Cho (22) seems firmly set on the tracks of an international career, come what may. His debut Chopin disc is a multiple platinum seller in his home country and, as we are told, like many of his talented young colleagues he brings flocks of newcomers to classical music. His performance of the Rachmaninoff Third was nonetheless underwhelming. Once the pleasant discovery of his excellent technique and crystal-clear articulation gone, we were left with a soloist who was musically mostly at a loss with Rachmaninoff’s lyrical outpourings. Cho played his Rachmaninoff hard and loud, invariably so, and without much sense of direction or imagination. He wasn’t drowned out by the orchestra, yet his habit to attack loudly backfired soon when he reached the limits of his piano before the climaxes. There was little or no trace of individual coloring or emotional engagement. Mindful of the composer’s predilection for color, this was gray, deadpan Rachmaninoff. All the notes (well, most of them) were there. But there was nothing behind them.

Some passages were brilliantly executed (the Più mosso section in the first movement), yet others suffered from ill-judged rubato or misplaced and banged accents (the first movement cadenza). At times it sounded like a Prokofiev concerto, but in the end, the most satisfying passages were the orchestral ones, transparent, detailed and often beautifully shaped by Pletnev – as the introduction of the Intermezzo, or the remarkable espressivo played by horn, bassoons and clarinet that closes that movement. The audience clearly weren’t averse to cold fish and gave Cho a standing ovation. So much for reputations.

pletnev

Mikhail Pletnev (© Artom Makeyev)

The concert opened with Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, Op. 96, always an irresistible curtain-raiser. However, after the break the Mikhail Pletnev enigma fully took shape again with a stunning rendering of a handpicked selection of Tchaikovsky’s ballet music for Swan Lake. Not the usual 6-part suite, but a different and more elaborate survey arranged by Pletnev himself. And while his complete studio recording of Swan Lake on disc is to my mind one of the dullest, inane versions from recent years, in concert the Pletnev magic worked again. It’s not just the recording engineers who seem to disadvantage him on many of his discs, it’s also his way with the score which turns out to be so much more fascinating in concert. With an outstanding RNO he galvanized Swan Lake into a compelling cocktail of color and atmosphere, beautifully poetic and full of fairytale magic, with that typical Tchaikovsky mix of theatrical drama and aristocratic elegance always in perfect balance. The pure dance sections were particularly well characterized: light-footed in the Pas de trois variations, grand and stately in the Pas des coupes from Act I. The dramatic narrative scenes (the extensive symphonic finale of the ballet) thrilled with tremendous power and impact.

The RNO appeared totally responsive and without a weak spot in the ensemble. The orchestral balance was even in the wildest scenes superb, the dynamic range impressive. The vivid string playing always a joy to behold. Woodwind solos, so important in this work, were astonishing, especially the oboe from Olga Tomilova, leading all the great themes, and the flute from Maxim Rubtsov. Brass and percussion knocked you out of your seat. Orchestra leader Alexei Bruni and principal cello Alexander Gottgelf performed ravishing solos in the Pas d’action (the White Swan pas de deux for the ballet fans). One regret perhaps. This Swan Lake selection begged for more and I would rather have had the ballet music in full than Seong-Jin Cho’s tryout in the Rachmaninoff. But other than that pure Russian concert magic.

Copyright © 2016 Marc Haegeman


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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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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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The Nutcracker in Bergen

The Nutcracker, Op. 71
Bergen Pikekor
Bergen Guttekor
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
Chandos SACD CHSA5144 84:35 Multichannel Hybrid

The Nutcracker

The Nutcracker

Someone in the Chandos art department seems to have a fixation on sleeping women. With the release of The Nutcracker Neeme Järvi and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra completed their Tchaikovsky ballet trilogy and, curiously, each of the CD’s in this series features a reclined lady on the cover. Fair enough in the case of The Sleeping Beauty, but that floating ballerina corpse for Swan Lake was bizarre and now again we get a sleeping girl with a nutcracker doll in her arms. If this is their idea of an art form which is all about movement and energy, then somebody needs to hand these guys at Chandos a few tickets to attend a ballet performance once. In any case, these Tchaikovsky recordings have been rather peculiar in general, thinking of the oddities in the scores that were used, like these anomalous harp cadenzas in both Swan Lake and Beauty, but above all because of a maestro who seemed determined to disprove that old myth that ageing conductors have a tendency to slow down and become sentimental. Not so 77-year-old Neeme Järvi.

The Nutcracker has been done on a single CD before. With 84:35 Järvi isn’t even the fastest in the world, but as we all know it’s not merely about tempo choices, rather about what you do with them and how you balance them in the light of the score’s intent. With such brisk speeds the Overture and the opening numbers of the ballet can still pass on disc, even if the first grins might appear and some listeners will be thinking that this Christmas party isn’t one they would send their kids to. Still, the Bergen Philharmonic miraculously continues to ensure magnificent color and detail. Where Järvi lets us down, however, is in the bigger numbers, when the music suddenly becomes “serious”, starting with Act I, Scene 6 (track 7 of the CD – usually called the Departure of the guests), the ensuing Battle with the mice (track 8) and the grand transformation of the room into the winter pine forest (or when the nutcracker doll turns into a dashing prince – track 9). Here his hasty conducting smothers every sense of feeling (forget poetry and magic), and unsentimental turns into uncaring. At this point Järvi also throws in this disc’s oddity by adding a rather hilarious bim bam clock chiming ten at the beginning of the Departure of the guests, only to be followed three minutes later by the clock striking midnight. This may work on stage, but Tchaikovsky did leave that ten o’clock out of the score for a good reason. The scene of the growing Christmas tree is a speed contest, the battle is running after its own tail and the crucial transformation misses theatrical impact. It suffices to relisten to Evgeny Mravinsky and the old Leningrad Philharmonic to understand what can be found behind the notes – and he wasn’t exactly a sentimental slob either.

Järvi’s own transformation seems to take place with Act II, at least for a moment. In the opening scenes he finds warmth, orchestral splendor and an agreeable flow. The Divertissement is mostly well handled, too, again with remarkable playing, particularly from woodwinds and harp. Yet the Waltz of the Flowers is disappointing by its lack of dynamic contrast, its brisk tempo and quickly tiresome rubato. The Andante maestoso is coolly dispatched and only of passing interest compared to those who hadn’t forgotten its connection with the theatre.

An admirably responsive and often brilliant Bergen Philharmonic, superb SACD sonics and instructive liner notes from David Nice can’t conceal this Nutcracker is a pretty uneven affair, as is the whole Tchaikovsky ballet series from Bergen and Järvi. And still some continue to pretend that ballet music is easy to play.

Copyright © 2015, Marc Haegeman
Read the full review on Classical Net


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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.

Bewaren


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Missed opportunity

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto #1 in B Flat minor, Op. 23; Symphony #4 in F minor, Op. 36
Denis Matsuev, piano
St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra/Yuri Temirkanov
Filmed live at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris, 2 December 2007
BelAir Classiques DVD BAC086 80m Mono

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: Symphony #5 in E minor, Op. 64
St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra/Yuri Temirkanov
Filmed live at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris, 3 December 2007
BelAir Classiques DVD BAC087 46m Mono

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: Romeo and Juliet, Overture-Fantasy
Variations on a Rococo Theme for Trumpet, Op. 33
Symphony #6 in B minor “Pathétiqué”, Op. 74

Sergei Nakariakov, trumpet
St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra/Yuri Temirkanov
Filmed live at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris, 5 December 2007
BelAir Classiques DVD BAC088 87m Mono

Tchaikovsky concerts of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic

Tchaikovsky concerts of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic

By the looks of it, this BelAir Classiques release had to be a true winner – three all-Tchaikovsky concerts of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic under their music director Yuri Temirkanov, recorded live on tour in Paris. Recent concert footage of this famous Russian formation is still quite rare, so three discs documenting the Philharmonic in their core repertory are most welcome. Yet as soon as you open the DVDs, you realize there is trouble ahead. “Unlike what is stated in the opening and closing credits of the program the orchestra conducted by Yuri Temirkanov is the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra”, warns the paper sleeve. The screen credits indeed claim this is the St. Petersburg Academic Symphony Orchestra, but to make sure (and for the better) it is the more famous Philharmonic alright. By opening the keep cases we also learn these concerts were already filmed as long ago as December 2007 during a stint at the Paris Théâtre des Champs Elysées. The Russian orchestra and Temirkanov are regular guests at this Paris venue, yet why it took almost seven years to release these films will remain a mystery.
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