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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Italian tribute

Sergei Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43
Ottorino Respighi: Fountains of Rome, Pines of Rome, Roman Festivals

Lise de la Salle, piano
London Symphony Orchestra/Antonio Pappano
London, Barbican Hall, 31 January 2016

Two 20th-century composers, Rachmaninoff and Respighi, who by and large preferred to stay away from the atonal modernism of many of their contemporaries, formed the attractive pairing in this concert of the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) under Antonio Pappano. The subject was Italy, whether in Rachmaninoff’s tribute to the Italian violin virtuoso Paganini, or in the fascination of Respighi with the Italian capital.

French pianist Lise de la Salle replaced at short notice the injured Alice Sara Ott in Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. There was much to admire in her pianism even if ampler rehearsal time would undoubtedly have resulted in a more finished performance. Granted, Pappano didn’t make things easy. By his edgy, incisive and hard-driven yet precise approach he immediately made it clear this was a no prisoners event. It took De la Salle a while to settle the balance with the orchestra (she was drowned out in the opening pages) and make it clear she had something to say as well. Her steely fingers ran with admirable speed and articulation through the faster passages. At best it sounded as if soloist and conductor were sparking each other off, although her playing lacked shading and the power and excitement in the latter half of the piece all too often turned into breathlessness. Eventually it were the more introspective variations, where De la Salle’s piano blended with the superb contributions from the LSO soloists, that best demonstrated her musicality. Pappano’s sense of theatre was unfortunately heard at its worst in one of the schmaltziest eruptions in the famous 18th variation I have heard in a long time.

Ottorino Respighi’s three symphonic poems about Rome, composed between 1916 and 1928, weren’t meant to be heard in sequence and it takes some adjustment when doing so in order to avoid aural overkill. Maestro Pappano, whose affection for the music is not a secret, announced he would perform the trilogy in a different order than programmed. Instead of the chronological order he opened with Roman Festivals to conclude with Pines of Rome. To be sure, this setup makes for a more balanced evocation and moreover it allows ending the concert with the irresistible Appian Way march.

While Pappano’s traversal wasn’t without its weaker moments, the LSO was in stunning form throughout, including superb solos from all desks, a rock-solid ensemble, and a quite astonishing transparency in even the most demanding passages. This is spectacular music, but it takes a spectacularly gifted orchestra to tackle it with such jaw-dropping precision, panache and aplomb. And the LSO offered that in spades.

The colorful extravaganzas of Roman society and history were hammered home without any fear of excess or exaggeration by Pappano. Yet this was overall more Fellini’s Rome than Corot’s. Pappano’s heady approach worked best in the Festivals and the Pines of Rome, yet less so in the subtler moments of Fountains. Colors generously splashed all over the Barbican and while Respighi’s aural orgies knocked you out of your seat (as in the Circuses and the Epiphany), eventually I felt Pappano was leaning too much towards a loudness contest, at times sacrificing evocation to the purely demonstrative.

The Fountain of the Valle Giulia at Dawn opening the Fountains started too loud and was in spite of the superb strings and winds playing short on atmosphere. Pappano jumped dynamic markings again in the Triton Fountain by having the horn blasts as loud as the following rush of water. Trevi, too, was uniformly loud, without the surging crescendo, but the closing pages of the Villa Medici at Sunset acquired a feel of ravishing serenity.

In The Pines of Rome one had to admire the orchestral playing in the well-characterized Catacombs and the nocturnal evocation of the Janiculum (magnificent clarinet from Chris Richards), just as much as the very noisy cavorting kids in the Villa Borghese gardens or the deafening steamroller that flattened in a go for broke crescendo the Via Appia, adding superbly realized offstage brass. After all, this was more than anything the LSO’s night. At the end of this concert they could confidently say, paraphrasing the popular Roman line: “Make way, we are the LSO!”

Copyright © 2016, Marc Haegeman

First published on Classical Net  (http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/haegeman/20160131-delasalle-lso-pappano.php)


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Rachmaninoff in Rotterdam

Sergei Rachmaninoff:
Piano concerto #1 in F-sharp minor, Op. 1 (1)
Piano concerto #2 in C minor, Op. 18 (2)
Piano concerto #3 in D minor, Op. 30 (3)
Piano concerto #4 in G minor, Op. 40 (4)
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 (5)
Symphony #3 in A minor, Op. 44
Vladimir Tarnopolski: Tabula Russia

1 Alexei Volodin, piano
2 Dmitry Masleev, piano
3 Alexander Gavrylyuk, piano
4 Sergei Babayan, piano
5 Behzod Abduraimov, piano
Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
The Doelen, Rotterdam, 11-12 September 2015

Valery Gergiev (© Hans van der Woerd)

Valery Gergiev (© Hans van der Woerd)

The 20th edition of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra Gergiev Festival was a celebration of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s music. This remarkable annual music event in the Dutch city of Rotterdam may have shrunk throughout the years from the initial ten to a mere three days, the programming remains no less intense, the purpose no less noble. In three days, under the tireless artistic leadership of Valery Gergiev, a substantial chunk of Rachmaninoff’s musical legacy was revived. The foyer and corridors of Rotterdam’s music center The Doelen were decorated with large photographic banners of the composer and his family; there were talks and publications, all helping to bring the man back alive again. But above all there was his music: lots of it. You need to be maestro Gergiev to conduct all four Piano Concertos in a single day, accompanying four different soloists. He also found the energy to perform the three Symphonies, the Symphonic Dances and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Other concerts offered solo piano works, songs, and choral work. In fact, too much in too short a time to take it all in. With the kind invitation of the Rotterdam Philharmonic press department I attended three concerts – including the four Concertos, the Paganini Rhapsody, Symphony #3 and a world-premiere from the Russian avant-garde composer Vladimir Tarnopolski – and even that was something of a crash experience.

This Rachmaninoff festival was quite naturally a piano event, as much as an homage to the Russian piano School, still very much a treasure trove. While some pianists like Dmitry Masleev and Behzod Abduraimov are only at the start of their career, one couldn’t help feeling dazzled by the wealth of talent that Gergiev assembled. The appeal of Rachmaninoff’s music, especially his concertos, remains particularly strong judging by the sold out signs – this edition allegedly attracted 42% more visitors than last year – but also by the vivid, refreshing readings from often young artists heard here. To have five first-rate pianists in a row moreover offered a fantastic opportunity to compare. Hearing them individually would arguably have led to different appreciations, but this is how it goes with such an embarrassment of riches.

The four Piano Concertos were performed in two concerts on September 12, all accompanied by the Rotterdam Philharmonic under Gergiev. The afternoon concert featured Concerto #1 and #2. The First was the least appealing. Alexei Volodin (38) recreated the image of the traditional Soviet powerhouse virtuoso – bold, grand and powerful, yet not always that subtle. While the youthful bravura was hammered home with predictable effortlessness, the cantilena quality of the concerto remained underexposed and slower passages were drawn out rather than sung.

By contrast, one of the revelations of this Festival was Dmitry Masleev, this year’s first prize winner and gold medalist at the International Tchaikovsky Competition. Looking by his boyish appearance a lot younger than his 27 years, his playing demonstrated plenty of maturity and understanding. In effect, his rendition of the Second Piano Concerto, a work full of pitfalls, was wholly convincing and brimming with personal insights. Masleev shares the easy virtuosity of Volodin, but his pianism sounded a lot more nuanced and his natural expressivity and warmth suited the prominent lyricism of the piece. Nothing sounded overblown or forced; his flexibility of dynamics and phrasing seemed to serve the music only and never became a goal in itself. The first movement gained tremendous drive, going for a passionate climax, and leaving once subsided that feeling of melancholy Rachmaninoff had the secret of. The Adagio sostenuto further highlighted Masleev’s sensitivity to color and phrasing, his piano in an ideal balance with the orchestra. Both conductor and soloist kept the tempo flowing and the ending left one with a profound sense of loss again.

The encore, Rachmaninoff’s arrangement of Felix Mendelssohn’s Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream was ideal. The rhythmical incisiveness and flow, the light textures without a hint of heaviness all pointed at a genuinely gifted artist. Dmitry Masleev is a pianist to look out for.

The evening concert began with Sergey Babayan’s performance of the Fourth Concerto. With his 50 years the oldest of the pianists, Armenian-American Babayan is a noted pedagogue who has his own academy at the Cleveland Institute of Music. He is also a fantastic pianist. The rarely heard Fourth is allegedly his favorite and there wasn’t any doubt he owns every bar of it. The outer movements had tremendous drive in his hands, at times in the finale pushing the orchestra out of the comfort zone; the Largo was particularly dark, fully supported by Gergiev. A fascinating work, no less, that doesn’t deserve its obscurity within Rachmaninoff’s legacy.

Alexander Gavrylyuk (© Anna Sanfeliu)

Alexander Gavrylyuk (© Anna Sanfeliu)

All were however eclipsed by Alexander Gavrylyuk’s electrifying performance of the magnificent Third Piano Concerto. Performances in this Festival were enthusiastically received by the audience, but the packed auditorium spontaneously exploded at the end of the D minor, and rightly so. From start to finish the playing of the Ukranian pianist held the public spellbound, gradually building up the tension and eventually generating enough energy to light up the whole of Rotterdam, harbor included. His astonishing grip on the work’s structure was magnified by constant tonal beauty, judicious tempi, enviable stamina, and immaculate timing – the buildups in the first and second movements were just as exciting and dramatic as the climaxes itself. The superbly shaped and effortless first-movement cadenza (the original long one) would in itself have been worth the price of admission. Like Masleev, Gavrylyuk owns the secret to find tremendous depth underneath the lightest of surfaces. The bravura passages were stunning, exhilarating feats but it was just as much in the slower, less spectacular passages that Gavrylyuk showed his true artistry. None of the aggravating mannerisms of Daniil Trifonov or the hard-fisted bashing of Denis Matsuev here – this was phenomenal, totally compelling playing, lucid and subtle, ready to take a place among the legendary accounts of Rachmaninoff’s Third. As an encore we were treated to a knockout performance of the Rhapsody on the Wedding March from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Liszt and Horowitz.

The concert of September 11, called “Memories of Russia”, paired two major Rachmaninoff works from the last period of his life – Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with the Tashkent-born Behzod Abduraimov (25) as soloist, and the Third Symphony. Composed for the occasion at the request of Gergiev, a new piece by Vladimir Tarnopolski Tabula Russia was added as an opener.

Behzod Abduraimov stood out as a supreme colorist in the Paganini Rhapsody, a refined magician of the keyboard, shading the Rhapsody with an extraordinary array of dynamics and tones. Each section became a microcosm, cut razor-sharp, living and boasting plenty of wit. The famous 18th variation was breathtaking, begun simply by the piano but taken into full bloom by the orchestra. As Masleev he dug right into the music without ever falling into flashiness or brutality. There is quite obviously nothing Abduraimov cannot do, but in the end it was his musicality rather than his technical prowess which made the most impact. Tchaikovsky’s Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Op. 19 #4 followed as delightful encore. Here’s another young talent to follow.

The success of these concertos wouldn’t have been possible without Gergiev and the Rotterdam Philharmonic of course. In spite of the dense programming the conductor appeared utterly engaged and able to transmit his belief in the scores to the players. He also created with all soloists a successful rapport – most were familiar faces, but Gavrylyuk had never performed with him before. Gergiev has been working with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra since 1988 and his tenure as the orchestra’s principal conductor from 1995 until 2008 has been hailed as a golden era. The Rotterdam musicians evidently know how to decipher Gergiev’s noisy, hand-fluttering conducting style and nobody is any longer surprised his toothpick batons guarantee that even the slightest inflections are registered. Occasional rough edges or slips in balance in the heat of the action weren’t entirely avoided, but in general this was magnificent and often thoroughly exciting playing. The orchestra boasts fine woodwinds and horns sections, yet it were the strings that left the strongest mark.

This was a very colorful if mostly darkish, sometimes impulsive and brazing Rachmaninoff: an approach that highlighted the beauty, inventiveness and modernity of much of the writing, especially in the later works. The performance of his final Symphony had all these characteristics in spades. Gergiev evidently knows how to dose the contrasting moods of Rachmaninoff’s inspiration in exile; movingly tender in the exposition of the themes, then blooming with passionate strokes and often verging on the edge of a maelstrom of much darker emotions. The first-movement exposition was repeated to superb effect. The final movement, brilliantly performed by the Rotterdam Philharmonic, gained tremendous momentum but also left a bittersweet taste.

Tarnopolski’s Tabula Russia was a powerful piece scored for a huge orchestra, including triple woodwinds and an extensive percussion section. Tapping into the specific sonority of the traditional Russian bells and liturgical chant, which also feature prominently in Rachmaninoff’s music, the music developed in several long crescendos, leading towards cacophonic interruptions and exploring some remarkable percussive effects before dying out. The overall mood was pretty morose, but then again the composer defined his work as metaphoric for the Russian conscience always in search of a new identity. An interesting work, and strongly performed, if arguably too opaque for immediate public appeal.

After the last concert Valery Gergiev expressed his gratitude and also a bit of relief that this Festival of his is still running after 20 years. May there be many more years to come!

Copyright © 2015, Marc Haegeman
First published on Classical Net (http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/haegeman/2015091112-rachmaninoff-rotterdam-gergiev.php)


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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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Rachmaninoff by Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (part 2)

Sergei Rachmaninoff: Dances from “Aleko”, Symphony #2, Op. 27
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
EMI 915473-2 73:05 DDD

Vasily Petrenko

Rachmaninoff Symphony #2 by Vasily Petrenko

For the second installment of their Rachmaninoff symphonies cycle for EMI, Vasily Petrenko and his Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra cover the most popular and significant of the corpus, the Second Symphony in E minor. If anything, this release is a ready reminder of how difficult this work is by its length, complex thematic material and emotional content. Yet today’s major labels confidently invest in less than foremost ensembles to fulfill the task. And why wouldn’t they? The hype is doing the rest. Reviewers already promoted the Liverpool forces to convincing interpreters of the Russian Romantic repertory. Sure they are. Bizarre then that by comparison the Rachmaninoff from old-school Russian maestros sounds like coming from a different solar system. With Petrenko/Liverpool there is very little of the dramatic grip and even less of the soulful lyricism and sometimes savage epic imagery that a Evgeny Svetlanov or a Kirill Kondrashin conjured with Rachmaninoff’s symphonic work.
Read the full review on Classical Net


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Tchaikovsky in Korea

Piotr Tchaikovsky: Symphony #6 “Pathétique”, Op. 74
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Vocalise, Op. 34 #14

Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra/Myung-Whun Chung
Deutsche Grammophon 476490-2 DDD

Chung

Tchaikovsky by the Seoul Philharmonic

The Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra was founded in 1948 and has always played a key role in the development of the classical music scene in South Korea. The appointment of the respected Myung-Whun Chung as music director and principal conductor in 2005 heralded an artistic renaissance for the orchestra. And now that the famous German yellow label has, by way of maestro Chung, taken the Seoul Philharmonic under its wings, the ensemble also seems destined for brilliant horizons outside of the Korean border.
Read the full review on Classical Net


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Richter’s Rachmaninoff

Sergei Rachmaninoff:
Piano Concerto #1
Piano Concerto #2 *
Prelude, Op. 23 #1
Prelude, Op. 32 #9
Prelude, Op. 32 #10
Prelude, Op. 32 #12

Sviatoslav Richter, piano
USSR Radio and TV State Symphony Orchestra/Kurt Sanderling
* Leningrad Symphonic Orchestra/Kurt Sanderling
Praga Digitals SACD PRD350056 Hybrid Stereo

Sviatoslav Richter

Historic Rachmaninoff

In spite of his gigantic recorded legacy Sviatoslav Richter left us relatively little Rachmaninoff. Of the famous concertos he only recorded the First and Second, and not even that many times. Hearing these Russian live documents from the 1950’s again, reissued by the Czech label Praga Digitals (the first in yet another “Richter Edition”), can but increase our regrets he didn’t return to them more often.
Read the full review on Classical Net