I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by Marc Haegeman


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Thrilling Beethoven and Mahler from Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra in Antwerp

Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 36
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D Major “Titan”

Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen
Elisabeth Center, Antwerp, 18 April 2018

In Antwerp, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra offered a symphonic feast, with insightful and thrilling readings of Beethoven’s Second and Mahler’s First. In effect, it was not unlike visiting old friends who suddenly appeared younger, more vibrant and congenial than you remembered them. Conductor and orchestra demonstrated once again that, in the right hands, familiar repertory can still prove compelling and even surprising. In other words, they possess the formula for bringing a great concert.

Read the full review on Bachtrack


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Total Tchaikovsky in Antwerp

Pyotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky:
The Nutcracker, Op. 71 – fragments
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23
Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 36

Ivan Bessonov, piano
Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre, Valery Gergiev
Elisabeth Center, Antwerp, 17 January 2018

tchaikovsky

Tchaikovsky by Nikolai Kuznetsov in 1883

The concept of a concert devoted to a single composer may not be that rare after all, as was demonstrated by this performance of the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra under Valery Gergiev in Antwerp. The Russians brought a full, and as it turned out, very long evening of Tchaikovsky music in the splendidly refurbished Elisabeth Center in downtown Antwerp. A copious selection from The Nutcracker, the First Piano Concerto introducing whiz kid Ivan Bessonov, and the Fourth Symphony formed a program that ran well over three hours. Any lover of Tchaikovsky’s or Russian music will naturally welcome such a generous evening, yet as to why it ran so long was bound to raise a few eyebrows.

This concert, which I could attend thanks to the generosity of the organizing company Cofena, resembled to some extent Valery Gergiev’s recent Tchaikovsky CD on the Mariinsky label, coupling The Nutcracker with the Fourth Symphony. It had much the same qualities and flaws as on the recording. Overall these were analytical rather than emotional performances. The sonority of the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra was admirable throughout. As an ensemble they are hard to beat. Even with their grueling performance schedule, they still do better than most. The characteristic emphasis on darker tones, punctuated by the lower strings and brass, works extremely well for this late-Tchaikovsky ballet and the symphony. Gergiev opens up the sound with meticulous precision and he lets you hear details you may never have noticed before. Yet this now comes at a heavy price. Many of his tempi have become slow to the point of inertia and some of his pacing impossibly contrived.

The concert started late, but that’s not unusual with maestro Gergiev, and it opened not with the scheduled Overture of The Nutcracker but immediately with the Departure of the guests. His handpicked selection largely emulated Evgeny Mravinsky’s famous live recording from Leningrad, although unfortunately that is as far as the comparison went. For this being the most exciting section of the ballet, including dramatic passages like the Battle with the mice, the Pine forest in Winter and the Waltz of the Snowflakes, Gergiev’s traversal turned out to be a pretty uneventful affair. There was orchestral detail to delight within every bar, and one would be hard-pressed to find an ensemble that knows this music better than the Mariinsky, but where was the life, the imagination, the frisson that sets these pages apart? For a conductor who has given us one of the most electrifying recordings of The Nutcracker on disc (in 1998), Gergiev appears to have developed a bizarre attitude towards the work. Or perhaps he simply wasn’t there yet this evening. The climaxes sounded flat and underwhelming and while the orchestral balance favored the – otherwise superb – lower brass, I could hardly hear the timpani from my seat at the back of the parterre. By the time they tackled an uneventful Waltz of the Flowers and a dangerously dragging Andante maestoso it seemed everybody had given up. Some 20 years ago I heard Gergiev and the Mariinsky in a complete Nutcracker concert. They blew off the roof with their full-blooded reading, displaying magic and drama in every bar. Yet hearing this now, this seems like a very long time ago indeed.

The best part of the evening was undoubtedly the performance of 15-year old Ivan Bessonov in Tchaikovsky’s 1st Piano Concerto. Born in St. Petersburg in a family of musicians, Bessonov has been playing the piano since he was six. He garnered the first prize in several youth competitions, among others the International Frédéric Chopin Youth Competition (2015) and the International Anton Rubinstein Competition The Piano Miniature in Russian Music (2016), both in St. Petersburg, as well as the international Grand Piano Competition for young pianists in Moscow. Long and lanky, with a mop of hair, he resembles a 1970’s rock star. His performance of the Concerto was by all means quite astonishing – for any age: keyboard touch and color were impressive, his technique rock-solid. But above all he appeared fearless, undisturbed by a few slips in the beginning moments. His musicality seems pretty straightforward, for now devoid of too many distracting mannerisms and tics. There is no doubt this man is going to go places. The clarity of his articulation and the directness of his delivery were completely matched by Gergiev who appeared in a much better doing here than the rest of the evening and secured a thrilling performance, deservedly greeted with a standing ovation.

Every time I hear Gergiev conduct Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, I am less convinced by his approach. The mannerisms seem to increase by the season, as does the running-time. In the concerts from 2011 the Fourth was already by far the least persuasive of the Tchaikovsky symphonies cycle and Gergiev’s recent CD recording only confirmed the impression of artificiality and incoherence. He clearly has something special in mind with this work, but what exactly is anybody’s guess. Gergiev’s unwarranted lingering in the first and second movements produced far too many drops of tension. In effect, by now the symphony has fallen into a succession of episodes, some undeniably beautiful (as the opening of the slow movement, thanks to the magnificent Mariinsky woodwinds), others merely bland (as the return of the fate motif in the first movement, or the endless conclusion of the Andantino, due to Gergiev’s obsessive scrutiny of every orchestral detail), but eventually inconsequential. Even the buoyant Scherzo failed to take flight. The symphony is too drawn out, takes forever to end, and fails to make any impact as a whole. One could argue that Gergiev overplays the symphony’s dark beauty, but in the process he has totally smothered its passion and excitement.

The Lullaby and the grandiose finale of Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird which allowed the orchestra to open its big guns one more time, was a very generous encore for an already long evening. Of the dozens of concerts and operas conducted by Valery Gergiev I attended in the last 25 years or so, this has to be one of the most dispiriting. Works that once sounded great in his hands now fizzled out or morphed into cluttered, unconvincing personal statements. Yet, not all was lost, as this concert allowed us to get acquainted with a rare new talent, Ivan Bessonov, from whom we will surely hear again in a not too distant future.

Copyright © 2018 Marc Haegeman


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Vaughan Williams by Sir Adrian Boult

Ralph Vaughan Williams: A Sea Symphony (1,2,a); A London Symphony (2); A Pastoral Symphony (3,c); Symphony #4 in F minor (3); Symphony #5 in D Major (2); Symphony #6 in E minor (3); Sinfonia antarctica (1,2,b); Symphony #8 in D minor (2); Symphony #9 in E minor (2)
(a) Sheila Armstrong, soprano
(a) John Carol Case, baritone
(b) Norma Burrowes, soprano
(c) Margaret Price, soprano
(1) London Philharmonic Choir
(2) London Philharmonic Orchestra/Adrian Boult
(3) New Philharmonia Orchestra/Adrian Boult
Recorded between 1967 & 1971
Warner Classics (EMI) 87484-2 5CDs ADD

Vaughan Williams Symphonies

Sir Adrian Boult plays Vaughan Williams

For anyone looking to explore the symphonies of Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) this famous set recorded by Sir Adrian Boult for HMV/EMI between 1967 and 1971, and reissued by Warner Classics at an attractive price, is still a clear first choice. While clearly not neglected on disc Vaughan Williams’s symphonies are hardly ever heard in the concert-halls. There are first-rate complete sets by Bernard Haitink, Vernon Handley, and André Previn among others, yet one doesn’t get any closer to his particular and ever-changing sound-world than with Sir Adrian Boult, who knew the composer since his Oxford student-days, premiered three of his symphonies and remained a close friend and lifelong champion of his music.
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


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Brahmsfest in Paris

Johannes Brahms:
Symphony #1 in C minor, Op. 68
Symphony #2 in D Major, Op. 73
Symphony #3 in F Major, Op. 90
Symphony #4 in E minor, Op. 98
Piano Concerto #1 in D minor, Op. 15
Piano Concerto #2 in B Flat Major, Op. 83
Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77
“Double” Concerto for Violin, Cello & Orchestra in A minor, Op. 102

Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano
Arcadi Volodos, piano
Leonidas Kavakos, violin
Julian Rachlin, violin
Enrico Dindo, cello
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Riccardo Chailly
Paris, Salle Pleyel, 26-27 October and 1-2 November 2013

Coinciding with their CD-release of the Brahms Symphonies, Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra toured London, Paris and Vienna with the complete Symphony and Concerto cycle. Marketing-wise it doesn’t get any better than that. Music-wise it was a true Brahms feast.
I was able to attend the whole series at the Paris Salle Pleyel – and would like to thank Philippe Provensal and his press team for their generous assistance. Spread over four concerts, with each of the symphonies paired to a concerto, maestro Chailly and his Leipzig ensemble offered a unique opportunity to (re)visit one of the most significant symphonic legacies of the 19th century. Riccardo Chailly has been Gewandhauskapellmeister since the start of the 2005/6 season. With its 270 years of history the Gewandhaus Orchestra is not only the oldest in the world, it boasts a long tradition of championing Brahms’s music. The composer himself conducted and performed no less than 16 times in Leipzig, where during his lifetime a true personal cult had developed. In the 1913/14 season of the Gewandhaus a first Brahms cycle was brought under the baton of Arthur Nikisch, whom the composer had known as orchestra leader. Now, a hundred years later, Chailly continues this tradition in grand form.
Read the full review on Classical Net