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a blog about music by 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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Cloning Tchaikovsky

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: The Queen of Spades
Misha Didyk (Hermann), Alexey Markov (Tomsky/Zlatogor), Vladimir Stoyanov (Prince Yeletsky), Andrei Popov (Tchekalinsky), Andrii Goniukov (Surin), Mikhail Makarov (Tchaplitsky), Anatoli Sivko (Narumov), Morschi Franz (Major Domo), Larissa Dyadkova (the Countess), Svetlana Aksenova (Lisa), Anna Goryachova (Polina/Milozvor), Olga Savova (the governess), Maria Fiselier (Masha)
Chorus of the Dutch National Opera, New Amsterdam Children’s Chorus, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Mariss Jansons
Direction: Stefan Herheim
Dramaturgy: Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach
Sets and costumes: Philipp Fürhofer
Light: Bernd Purkrabek
Seen in Muziektheater Amsterdam, 18 June 2016

Who won? The music or the direction? As with many contemporary opera productions this was the question that came to mind at the end of the new staging of Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades by the Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam, presented as part of the annual Holland Festival. Music and direction are frequently at loggerheads. The Norwegian director Stefan Herheim doesn’t consider the original libretto sufficient. He thinks he has better ideas. Here’s one: The Queen of Spades needs to confront us with Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality and lifelong emotional distress rather than with the tragic fate of Hermann, Lisa and the Countess as adapted by the composer from Pushkin’s tale. There is nothing original about this reinterpretation, yet Herheim fails to convince us he is on a better course. His hand is unsure, his direction fussy, his storytelling fatally confusing. With the superb Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in the pit conducted by Mariss Jansons, Herheim was fighting a lost cause. The music won.

Herheim opens his fantasy world before the music starts by adding a homoerotic scene between a Tchaikovsky lookalike and a man who turns out to be the opera’s main hero Hermann. Tchaikovsky pays the man for his services. Mozart’s Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen plays on a music box in a birdcage. Worse was yet to come. Herheim puts Tchaikovsky center stage. He is everywhere, all the time. There are countless references, factual or questionable, to the composer’s life. He is busy creating the music that plays, he is interacting with the opera characters, he interferes in the story, and if that wasn’t distracting enough, every member of the male chorus on stage is a Tchaikovsky clone. “You, you here?” stammers Lisa, looking at the Tchaikovsky figure instead of Hermann at the end of Act II. Spot on, he had no place there. Perhaps worst of all, in Herheim’s hands the composer is a pathetic little man. Tchaikovsky is a poor old sucker, a precarious weakling who is tossed around and ridiculed by all, including the audience. By letting him die several times in the opera, Herheim joins the many who hear Tchaikovsky’s music from his final years as nothing but a product of a terminally depressed man. He really needs to listen again then. Of course, Herheim readily accepts the debatable fact that Tchaikovsky met his untimely death from deliberately drinking a glass of contaminated water. To make sure we get that message, he repeats it ad nauseam and even lets the old Countess commit suicide by drinking a glass of water. Is this Herheim’s answer to the composer’s supposed emotional suffering as a homosexual? Frankly, I couldn’t care less about what he thinks about it. Nyet, this is the Queen of Spades, based on Pushkin. Not a pamphlet to lament the fate of homosexuals in 19th century Russia. Eventually, he should have listened to the Countess in Act 2: “Stop that nonsense!” Herheim forgot Pushkin, Modest Tchaikovsky’s libretto, and he forgot the music. Yet the music won.

Svetlana Aksenova (Lisa) & Misha Didyk (Hermann) - © Karl & Monika Forster

Svetlana Aksenova (Lisa) & Misha Didyk (Hermann) – © Karl & Monika Forster

Herheim not only adds to the confusion by inventing this fling between the composer and Hermann, the man who is supposed to be in love with Lisa, but also by making this omnipresent Tchaikovsky figure a double of the opera character Prince Yeletsky, who is engaged to Lisa. There are two guys involved, one the baritone Vladimir Stoyanov, the other the pianist Christiaan Kuyvenhoven. I challenge you to tell who’s who at the end of the run. Not that it matters. The music won.

Incoherence and absurdity reign in this Queen of Spades. Are we in Tchaikovsky’s time? Or rather in the 18th century when Empress Catharina the Great ruled, as supporting roles like Tomsky, Surin and Tchekalinsky seem to suggest? Nobody seems to know or care. It makes the Mozartean divertissement in Act 2 look totally incongruous and by far the weakest part of the production. When Tchaikovsky composed his opera members of the Russian imperial family couldn’t be shown on stage. Now the Tsarina turns out to be a man in drag (Hermann – him again). Times have changed.

Every scene plays indoor, mostly in the composer’s room. As has become a feature of many opera productions characters are frequently singing words that don’t correspond or connect with the stage action. Why is everybody worried about the storm in Act I when they are all inside a house? Why is Tchaikovsky acting like he is suffering from kidney stones while the chorus of children and women are joyfully welcoming a sunny day? The deeper one analyzes, the less Herheim’s fantasy hijack makes sense.

Evidently, no expenses were spared for this visually striking production, boasting richly detailed costumes (mostly just black, white or grey) and impressive mobile sets designed by Philipp Fürhofer and evocatively lit by Bernd Purkrabek. Some scenes were effectively staged, with especially a spectacular ghost scene in Act 3, others merely malapropos (the storm in Act 1, the death of the Countess). At the end of Act 2 the chorus appears in the stalls, raising the audience to its feet to salute the Empress, and thus mock Tchaikovsky.

Morschi Franz (Major Domo, Vladimir Stoyanov (Yeletsky) and the Chorus of the National Opera - © Karl & Monika Forster

Morschi Franz (Major Domo, Vladimir Stoyanov (Yeletsky) and the Chorus of the National Opera – © Karl & Monika Forster

As said, it was the music that offered most joys in this Queen of Spades. Mariss Jansons returned to lead the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra a year after his retirement as the ensemble’s Chief Conductor (2004-2015). His affinity with Tchaikovsky has never been a secret. A well-deserved warm ovation from the Amsterdam public greeted his every appearance.

Much of the blurred drama on stage sounded crystal clear in the pit. Jansons conducted with finesse and ear for detail. His flair for tempo and atmosphere was impeccable while the balance between orchestra and voices was in most cases well-judged. Or one could simply wallow in the sonorous beauty of the Concertgebouw Orchestra. The warm strings were divided left-right with the basses in the middle, securing an always solid yet transparent sound. The characterful Dutch woodwinds revealed Tchaikovsky’s impressive range of color and the brass and percussion were powerful when required. The modernity of much of the score, especially in the second half of the opera, was fully credited and reminded us this is truly great Tchaikovsky indeed.

Jansons led a largely Slavonic singing cast. Unfortunately, I wasn’t entirely convinced by Misha Didyk’s Hermann. True, the production allows neither of the protagonists to fully form their characters. They remain as greyish as their costumes and the duets between Hermann and Lisa, scuttled by Herheim’s meddling, failed to make the proper impact. I never believed this Hermann ever had any genuine love interest for Lisa – but then again how could he in this ambivalent setup, where he is even declaring his love while facing the audience instead of his beloved. The Ukranian tenor is widely considered the Hermann of his generation, even if to my mind he is as yet unable to replace Galuzin, Atlantov and the likes. His habit to jump towards the high notes, belting them out, grows old quickly, although arguably this could be interpreted as the unbalanced side of Hermann’s character. I was more impressed by the young Russian soprano Svetlana Aksenova as Lisa, blending vocal splendor and strength with feminine warmth and a hint of vulnerability.

Vladimir Stoyanov (Prince Yeletsky) and Larissa Dyadkova (the Countess) - © Karl & Monika Forster

Vladimir Stoyanov (Prince Yeletsky) and Larissa Dyadkova (the Countess) – © Karl & Monika Forster

The best vocal performances were however found among the supporting roles. The Russian baritone Alexey Markov was ideal as Tomsky. His rich, refined voice and commanding stage presence made his ballad of the Countess’ past in the first scene absolutely compelling. He was no less delightful in his impish song in Act 3. And what joy to have Larissa Dyadkova as the Countess, a role I first heard her sing some twenty years ago. The quality of her delivery, the complete understanding of her character (to hear and see the Countess recall times long past with the surprise act of Madame Pompadour as a climax, was in itself worth the price of admission) made you nearly forget Herheim’s disrespectful treatment of her role. Nothing but praise too for the Bulgarian baritone Vladimir Stoyanov for his acting (as the ubiquitous Tchaikovsky) and his noble rendition of Yeletsky’s love aria in Act 2. Both Andrei Popov and Andrii Goniukov, as Tchekalinsky and Surin respectively, were first-rate. Although she was announced as suffering from a slight cold the Russian mezzo Anna Goryachova sang Polina (and her hauntingly sad romance in the 2nd Scene) with melting beauty.

Magnificent work, finally, from the Chorus of the National Opera. They have an important part in the opera and they made every minute count. The male group lamenting the death of Hermann (or actually Tchaikovsky) was especially memorable. The music won.

That we are still enjoying an opera created some 125 years ago is because we recognize and value its intrinsic musical and dramatic qualities, not because it’s a vehicle for fanciful producers. Stefan Herheim’s staging is in essence not about The Queen of Spades. In spite of the fixation on the composer’s sorry plight, imagined or not, this production is eventually about Herheim rather than Tchaikovsky, and I still need to be convinced that’s of any consequence. The real Tchaikovsky was alive by his music, magnificently performed by Jansons and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, not by Herheim’s multiple clones. “Imagination is fine, as long as it connects with the intentions of the composer”, concludes maestro Jansons in an interview in the Dutch National Opera’s magazine. If only this advice had been followed.

© 2016 Marc Haegeman. All rights reserved

Performances at Amsterdam’s Muziektheater run through July 3. More information here: http://www.operaballet.nl/en/opera/2015-2016/show/pique-dame


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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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Tchaikovsky’s Maid of Orleans

Piotr Tchaikovsky: The Maid of Orleans
Irina Arkhipova (Joan)
Yevgeny Vladimirov (Thibaut)
Vladimir Makhov (King Charles)
Klavdia Radchenko (Agnes Sorel)
Vladimir Valaitis (Dunois)
Sergey Yakovenko (Lionel)
Lev Vernigora (Archbishop)
Andrey Sokolov (Raymond)
Viktor Selivanov (Bertrand)
Vartan Mikaelian (Soldier)
Academic Choir & Symphony Orchestra of All-Union Radio & Television, Scene & Wind Orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre/Gennady Rozhdestvensky
Melodiya CD 1002053 ADD 3CDs: 53:26, 67:30, 52:51

Tchaikovsky's Maid of Orleans

Arkhipova sings the Maid of Orleans

In remarkable contrast to the preceding Eugene Onegin, Tchaikovsky’s fifth surviving opera The Maid of Orleans (1878-81) emulates French grand opera, mixing grandiose pageantry with melodramatic passages against a pseudo-historic background – the intervention of Joan of Arc in the Anglo-French war in the early 15th century. Unlike its predecessor, The Maid of Orleans never achieved a firm place in the international opera repertory. Riddled with a flawed, patchwork libretto penned by the composer himself (largely based on Schiller’s tragedy, but also the libretto by Jules Barbier and other sources) the opera may be overblown and dramatically uneven, yet it doesn’t deserve its status of virtually complete neglect amongst Tchaikovsky’s output either. There is plenty of splendid music to enjoy, in effect quite a lot more than in several other, more reputed operas – try the famous aria in Act 1, sometimes heard in concert programs, where Joan takes leave of the world she has known since childhood, but also her narration in Act 2, the two love duets with Lionel in Act 3 and 4, and the final scene.
Read the full review on Classical Net


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Lutosławski, Liszt and Tchaikovsky in Paris

Witold Lutosławski: Concerto for Orchestra
Franz Liszt: Piano Concerto #2 in A Major, S. 125
Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: Suite #3 in G Major, Op. 55

Khatia Buniatishvili, piano
Orchestre de Paris/Andrey Boreyko
Paris, Salle Pleyel, 12 June 2013

Paris celebrates the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Polish composer and conductor Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994) with a series of concerts, performed by local and invited ensembles throughout the year. The Orchestre de Paris has worked on different occasions with the composer and revives a couple of his works. The Concerto for Orchestra, dating from 1950-54, remains one of his most popular works. For the occasion, at the Paris Salle Pleyel, it was somewhat awkwardly squeezed into a program which also featured Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto, with Khatia Buniatishvili as soloist, and Tchaikovsky’s rarely heard Third Suite.
Read the full review on Classical Net


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Loud, louder, loudest

Jean Sibelius: The Swan of Tuonela (from Lemminkäinen Suite, Op. 22/2)
Edvard Grieg: Piano Concerto, Op. 16
Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: Symphony #5, Op. 64

Alice Sara Ott, piano
National Orchestra of Belgium/Stefan Blunier
Brussels, Centre for Fine Arts, 23 November 2012

In the Meet & Greet that preceded the performance, Swiss-born conductor Stefan Blunier pointed out how difficult it is to start a concert with Sibelius’ Swan of Tuonela. That was unfortunately proven true in this concert with the National Orchestra of Belgium on the next to the last day of the Brussels Bozar Marathon Week. The program was dubbed “Strong musical stories”. Strong they may have been, but the stories sounded surprisingly similar in Blunier’s hands. Leading a massive orchestra for Sibelius’ Swan, Blunier opted for a slow pace but remained more analytical than atmospheric and allowed far too outspoken contrasts and brusque interruptions of orchestral sections (especially brass and bass drum). The cor anglais made a commendable contribution but he was too prominent as if it was his concerto and a swifter tempo would have saved him from some uncomfortable moments. The violins, massed to the left, sounded rather cold, yet the lower strings created an impressive sonority.
Read the full review on Classical Net


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Russians in Paris

Sergei Prokofieff: Violin Concerto #2, Op. 63
Piano Concerto #3, Op. 26
Romeo and Juliet, Suites #1 & 2 (fragments), Op. 64bis & ter
Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: Symphony #4, Op. 36

Boris Belkin, violin
Nikolai Demidenko, piano
St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra/Yuri Temirkanov
Paris, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, 17 & 18 November 2012

The St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra is a frequent guest at the Paris Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. Last November, the orchestra and their artistic director and principal conductor Yuri Temirkanov returned for an all-Russian weekend, performing music by Prokofieff and Tchaikovsky.
Read the full review on Classical Net