I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by Marc Haegeman


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A sunny matinee at the BBC Proms with Joshua Bell and the ASMF

Felix Mendelssohn: Overture A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 21
Camille Saint-Saëns: Violin Concerto #3 in B minor, Op. 61
Frank Bridge: Lament (Catherine, aged 9, “Lusitania” 1915)
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony #4 in B Flat Major, Op. 60

Joshua Bell, violin
Academy of St Martin in the Fields/Joshua Bell
London, Royal Albert Hall, 12 August 2018

The Academy of St Martin in the Fields (ASMF) brought an utterly delightful matinee concert at the BBC Proms under their music director, violinist Joshua Bell. The joys were manifold. For one thing, it was a beautifully varied bill, including a couple of rarities. But above all this was a concert that demonstrated the pleasure of making music together, by a first-class ensemble of 40 musicians breathing as one and visibly enjoying their moment in the spotlights. Acting both (or simultaneously) as conductor and as soloist, Joshua Bell appeared a true inspirational force. Conducting from the leader’s chair (if not playing, wielding his bow as baton) in Mendelssohn, Bridge and Beethoven, he went centre stage to play and direct Saint-Saëns’ Third Violin Concerto. And all from memory.

The concert took off with Mendelssohn’s Overture for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The woodwinds had a bit of a rough start but pretty soon everything fell into place and this rendition was teeming with youthful energy and imagination. The different scenes and moods of Mendelssohn’s microcosmic distillation of Shakespearean fantasy came vividly alive now with transparent textures, then again with warm colors and subtle shading. While Bell kept things going at a lively pace, the sound quality of the ASMF was outstanding throughout.

The concertos from Camille Saint-Saëns are rarely heard in the concert hall. Of his five Piano concertos only the Second is occasionally performed, and his Violin concertos fare even worse. And come to think of it, his symphonies aren’t exactly flooding the concert programs either. Interesting to read in the Proms program notes that Saint-Saëns was pally with Proms founder-conductor Henry Wood and that his Third Violin Concerto was a popular favorite at the time, receiving no less than 16 performances between 1898 and 1928 – although apparently only the slow movement initially. But only one in the following 90 years (in 1989).

The current revival by the ASMF was in this respect all the more welcome and with Bell’s authoritative reading we couldn’t have had a stronger advocate to get this lovely piece back in the mainstream concerto repertoire. It was quite a stunning tour de force for the soloist/conductor, alternatively facing the public and his orchestra. Ever graceful in projection and warmly attractive in timbre, Bell immediately hit the right balance between virtuoso display (it was written for legend Pablo de Sarasate after all) and romantic lyricism. The barcarolle-like Andantino quasi Allegretto sung in all its elegance, fusing violin with woodwinds in a ravishing dialogue. Naturally, Bell was the soloist and he got the brilliant parts (which he negotiated effortlessly), but the success and conviction of this reading was eventually due to the admirable teamwork, or rather companionship, between him and the orchestra. As said, an irresistible sense of making music together was running strong the whole concert, but this quality was never more palpable as in the concerto.

After the interval Bell and the string players of the Academy performed Frank Bridge’s short Lament, composed to commemorate the brutal sinking of the “Lusitania”, a British ocean liner by a German submarine in 1915, taking 1,200 passengers to the bottom of the Atlantic. Bridge was friends with the Crompton family who perished in the disaster and composed this 5 minute Lament in memory of 9-year old Catherine Crompton. Again, a rarity for the Proms as the piece hadn’t been performed there since its premiere in 1915. A remarkable work in its dense but subtle string writing, and most impressively done here.

In order not to interrupt the impact of the memorial piece Bell wanted to segue from the Lament into the following Beethoven Fourth Symphony, however due to a slight hesitation of his part all good intentions were torpedoed by premature applause from eager Prommers. Still, once under way after the searching introduction, this Beethoven was pure sunny joy, excitingly muscular and crisp in the outer movements, warm and tender in the Adagio, but always full of ‘joie de vivre’. A convincing orchestral balance, clear textures, excellent solo work and impressive dynamics highlighted the quality of the ensemble again and under Bell’s direction the whole work seemed infused with an unstoppable drive running through all the movements. To his credit, Bell clearly doesn’t consider the Fourth Symphony a mere “divertissement”, but really a worthy companion for the usually higher esteemed Third and Fifth. It didn’t matter this was a small ensemble playing the gigantic Royal Albert Hall, this sweeping account of Beethoven’s Fourth made a very strong impression indeed.

It is now 7 years that Joshua Bell took over the music directorship of the ASMF from the late Sir Neville Marinner, but judging from this concert the orchestra is in the best of hands and can definitely look forward to its 60th anniversary in the 2019/20 season in full confidence.

Copyright © 2018 Marc Haegeman

First published on Classical Net.


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Tchaikovsky Festival in Brussels

Pyotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky:
The Voyevoda, Op. 78
Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35
Symphony #6 in B minor “Pathétique”, Op. 74

Vadim Gluzman, violin
Belgian National Orchestra/Andrey Boreyko
Brussels, Centre for Fine Arts, 22 March 2015

For four days the Belgian National Orchestra (BNO) and their music director Andrey Boreyko paid homage to Pyotr Tchaikovsky. The choice of works in this mini-festival may have been limited but was nonetheless select, with two programs featuring the rarely heard symphonic ballad The Voyevoda, the Violin Concerto, and either the Suite No. 3 or the Sixth Symphony.

At the Brussels concert that I attended ending with the Pathétique Symphony, the highlight was once again the performance of the Violin Concerto. After Janine Jansen, not even three weeks ago, it was Ukrainian-born Israeli Vadim Gluzman who treated the audience in the Centre for Fine Arts to an extraordinary reading of this concerto. It’s great to hear that so many artists of the younger generations can find such fresh and interesting angles on an old warhorse like this. Less emphatic than Jansen, but no less compelling by his tonal beauty and superb intonation, genuine lyricism and natural bravura, Gluzman owns the secret to astonish without forcing anything. He had already received enthusiastic applause after the first movement before a lovingly shaped and subtly touching Canzonetta, topped by an excitingly driven Finale readily brought the house down. Andrey Boreyko was a very attentive and careful accompanist, even if the beguiling spectrum of color and warmth that Gluzman conjured from his instrument wasn’t always matched by the orchestra. Interestingly, Gluzman plays the Stradivarius owned by the dedicatee of Tchaikovsky’s concerto, Leopold Auer – who, as is well known, refused to perform it at first, but eventually did with his own alterations. A stunning instrument, played by a stunning artist.

The Voyevoda had in the opening pages plenty of thrust and a finely shaped middle section. Color and transparency are key in this fascinating late-Tchaikovsky score and at first it sounded that Boreyko was going to reveal plenty of unheard orchestral details. In fact, much of these “discoveries” resulted from a balance that favored woodwinds and brass. The slightly smaller than usual body of strings (anchored on only 6 basses) was frequently found at a disadvantage in both The Voyevoda and the symphony. (I never thought of The Voyevoda as a concerto for bass clarinet, but here we came close.) During softer passages there was plenty to enjoy with the BNO in good form and Boreyko paying attention to Tchaikovsky’s string textures. Yet as soon as more sections joined in, the winds began to dominate the sound picture and when the brass and percussion followed suit, the balance was often totally lost. Tutti were loud and harsh, and trombones and tuba sounded like an extra added section, rather than an integrated part of the ensemble. It may have been the sonority that Boreyko wanted, but it threw a lot of the composer’s careful dynamic and tempo indications overboard, and that’s seldom a good idea.

The recently heard Mikhail Pletnev with the Russian National Orchestra also paid a lot of attention to woodwinds and brass, but in their case the balance was wholly convincing, not to mention the special sonority of the Russian winds which makes the instruments of the Belgian orchestra sound rather indifferent, no matter how well played.

Boreyko’s traversal of Tchaikovsky’s final symphony, dark and unsentimental, packed quite a punch, although it was more outwardly spectacular than genuinely moving: generally well-paced (except for a lumbering third movement), very detailed, and underpinned by dark colors but also startling, sometimes grotesque sonic effects. It wasn’t the most subtle reading though, nor the most consistent. As said, the orchestral balance remained an issue and maestro Boreyko was more than once taking cue from his own musical instincts rather than from the composer’s. The changing climates of the first movement were fluently conducted, the development was exciting until the brass went all over the place in the climax, not to mention that the return of the principal theme marked Andante come prima was flawed by the loud entrance of the orchestra which ignored the “con dolcezza” notation. Winds and horns obscured the string lines in an otherwise agreeable Waltz, where the softer passages did hint at a deft handling of light and darkness. There was a long burst of applause after the third movement, although it was for my money the least convincing of all, ending in a rather demonstrative sonic explosion from percussion and brass. The Finale built up to harrowing climaxes, expressing rage rather than acceptance of fate. The bassoons and the stopped horns created brilliant effects, but there were also slips in the ensemble and unfortunately the closing pages took off too loud again for the final descent into oblivion.

A Belgian orchestra paying tribute to Tchaikovsky is far from obvious. A few bumps along the way are unavoidable, yet eventually this mini-Tchaikovsky festival stressed the music’s timeless appeal and had a revelatory performance from Vadim Gluzman to boast. And that’s no minor achievement.

Copyright © 2015, Marc Haegeman