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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Osipova in Swan Lake

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake
Natalia Osipova – Odette/Odile
Matthew Golding – Prince Siegfried
Elizabeth McGorian – The Princess
Gary Avis – An Evil Spirit (Von Rothbart)
Alastair Marriot – The Tutor
Francesca Hayward, Yuhio Choe,
Alexander Campbell – Pas de trois

Artists of the Royal Ballet
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Boris Gruzin
Choreography by Marius Petipa & Lev Ivanov
Additional choreography by Frederick Ashton & David Bintley
Production by Anthony Dowell
Opus Arte Blu-ray OABD7174D 133m (+18m features), LPCM Stereo DTS-HD Master Audio

Osipova and Golding in Swan Lake

Osipova and Golding in Swan Lake

London’s Royal Ballet continues to capitalize on the appeal of Natalia Osipova. This is the second video release of their production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake in less than six years. The performance was recorded at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden on 17 March 2015 and live screened in cinemas across the world before being rushed to home video by Opus Arte. Yet, while this will undoubtedly be treasured by the legions of Osipova fans, and Swan Lake always sells, there is no denying it’s far from being her defining moment.

As will be remembered, the Russian star ballerina Natalia Osipova joined the Royal Ballet in 2013. She has been cast in a wide range of roles, some utterly successful, others less so. As for this Swan Lake, it seems the filming came far too early in her career, or perhaps the role is just not her thing. While there are undeniably moments of greatness, overall her reading remains too studied and predictable. It may be that her energy in the theatre was striking, on film it doesn’t project. And, once again, as with her Giselle with the Royal Ballet (Opus Arte Blu-ray OABD7151D), you end up with the feeling she is essentially in the wrong production. If anything, more suitable productions of Swan Lake for her might be found on the banks of the Neva or the Moskva, but then again there is little chance she will ever dance this role in her homeland.

This being the 21st century wherein lasting partnerships in ballet are no longer valued, Osipova has been paired with various dancers. Here she is partnered by Matthew Golding, freshly arrived in the company from Amsterdam’s Dutch National. He is a magnificent dancer, but in this performance there is as yet, except for the standard expressions, very little chemistry between him and Osipova. There are moments of bad timing, as when Osipova almost knocks Golding off his feet at the beginning of the Pas de trois in the last Act, which should be avoided on video. In this respect, too, the filming came too soon.

The Royal Ballet performs Swan Lake in Anthony Dowell’s 1987 production, which incidentally is running its last season. While the choreographic text is first-rate, this version is disappointing by its lack of formal clarity. It is Swan Lake flattened beneath the fussy, overelaborate, Fabergé-eggs-inspired designs from Yolanda Sonnabend. Most scenes are overcrowded, anecdotal, while the dance looks, especially in the palace acts, stifled. The lakeside scenes have plenty of atmosphere – well rendered by the HD cameras – but unfortunately the swans’ tutus look like white hula dancers skirts. The decision to place the action in Tchaikovsky’s Russia instead of the traditional medieval setting doesn’t really help either.

Boris Gruzin conducts the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House in an unadventurous account of this beautiful score. This is mostly warm and cozy Tchaikovsky, polite and reserved, without any rough edges and very little heartfelt drama. For a theatrical performance it is actually quite bland.

All the more a shame, because visuals and sonics are, as we came to expect from this source, outstanding. It’s amazing what progress has been made in a few years. The 2009 Swan Lake was already pretty good but this new one wins on all fronts – contrast, dynamic range, color definition, detail, and sound fidelity. The barely lit lakeside scenes look absolutely stunning. Costumes reveal a marvel of detail. Ross MacGibbon directs with his usual skill, although he couldn’t avoid the claustrophobic feel of much of this production. The longshots reduce the stage and dancing space even more on film than in the theatre.

The sound mix, either in PCM 2.0 or DTS-HD Master Audio, is very impressive – warm, natural, detailed and with a very powerful bass.

Bonus features include some 18 minutes of studio rehearsal shots, chats with dancers Osipova, Golding, and ballet master Jonathan Cope, as well as an amusing tea with scones interview with producer Anthony Dowell by former Royal Ballet principal Darcey Bussell. Having extras on a ballet video is a great idea in itself, but then they should really become more substantial than what we are offered here, before we start to suspect that video producers think ballet audiences swallow nothing but the plain obvious.

In short, not a first choice for a Swan Lake video, but well worth trying for its superb image and sound quality.

Copyright © 2015, Marc Haegeman
First published on Classical Net (http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/o/opu07174blua.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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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.

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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


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Tchaikovsky’s ballets

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake, Op. 20
The Sleeping Beauty, Op. 66
The Nutcracker, Op. 71

Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
Decca 4784273 6CDs DDD

Tchaikovsky ballets

Tchaikovsky’s Ballets

A box grouping the ballets of Piotr Tchaikovsky may not be particularly original, but this Decca reissue of Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker performed by the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra under Valery Gergiev nonetheless requires extra attention. The new liner notes by Julian Haylock coming with the set fail to remind us that these ballets were either created for St. Peterburg’s Mariinsky or made famous by that theatre and to this day never left its repertory. Both The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker were commissioned by the Russian Imperial Theatres and premiered on the Mariinsky stage, respectively in 1890 and 1892. Swan Lake was premiered and flopped in Moscow in 1877, but was revived after Tchaikovsky’s dead by his brother, Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov in 1895 at the Mariinsky to become the success it still is in theatres around the world. In short, the musicians performing here are continuing a tradition started and groomed by their predecessors for over a century.
Read the full review on Classical Net