I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by Marc Haegeman


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Magnificent Sibelius and Rachmaninoff on Speed

Jean Sibelius: Nightride and Sunrise, Op. 55
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto #3 in D minor, Op. 30
Jean Sibelius: Symphony #5 in E Flat Major, Op. 82

Daniil Trifonov, piano
Philharmonia Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy
London, Royal Festival Hall, 17 May 2015

Jean Sibelius

Jean Sibelius

The 150th anniversary of Sibelius’ birth is celebrated by the Philharmonia and Vladimir Ashkenazy with three concerts this spring at London’s Royal Festival Hall. Ashkenazy is of course a foremost Sibelius conductor (he recorded the complete Symphonies cycle and the major orchestral works with both the Philharmonia and more recently the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic) and while not aiming for completeness these concerts offer a fine anthology of well and lesser known works of the Finnish composer. This was the second concert in the series, and one that somewhat bizarrely added Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto headlining Daniil Trifonov to the Sibelius bill. The Royal Festival Hall was packed for the occasion, yet clearly not because of Sibelius, or indeed Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia.

Ashkenazy opened with the intriguing but rarely heard tone poem Nightride and Sunrise. Skillfully negotiating the changes in climate, keeping the piece well together, he coaxed a vividly evocative reading. The luminous string playing in the opening section was pure joy.

His account of the Sibelius Fifth which closed the concert was no less affecting. Aided by a Philharmonia in superb doing, with the woodwinds conjuring a seemingly inexhaustible spectrum of color, Ashkenazy’s Sibelius struck a convincing balance between lyricism and ruggedness. The transitions throughout the symphony were handled with a sure hand, although Ashkenazy started in a rather relaxed way. As by magic however a climate full of tension was installed – the soft passage with the semiquaver strings figures and the eerie bassoon of Robin O’Neill was absolutely time suspending. The long run towards the end gained tremendous momentum. The quality of the orchestra, assuring textural clarity and detail, made the Andante mosso, quasi allegretto another standout.

The final movement was solemn, grandly exhilarating without ever becoming demonstrative. The brass (horns and trombones) created a majestic flow in the famous swan theme, while the strings prepared the way to it in a thrilling manner. All in all, this is magnificent Sibelius, successfully continuing the Philharmonia’s special relationship with this composer that started back in the Walter Legge/Herbert von Karajan days.

Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov is quite an astonishing performer. He’s 24, a multiple competition laureate and has already been labeled the new Horowitz and other ungrateful visionary titles of precocious greatness. As seen some years ago in Baden-Baden, in concert he’s something to behold. His boyishly innocent appearance transforms into a demonic trance once behind the piano. Images of the great 19th century heartthrob virtuosos like Paganini and Liszt come to mind, just as well as these cartoonish battles to pound the instrument into submission. Sweating profusely, inelegantly humpbacked with his face virtually on the keys, it’s all very amusing and part of the show. But how was the playing? Needless to say, Trifonov has unlimited abilities and if only he can find a way to channel his fearless impetuosity and unbridled imagination into something constructive, a place among the great might be secure.

As for now, however, his Rachmaninoff Third was very much work in progress. Extreme, exaggerated, brimming with ideas, far too many for his own good actually, Trifonov seems to be locked in a cocoon during his performance, high on his come-what-may-search for originality which all too often throws musical judgment out of the window. Tempos and dynamics were pulled about, the bigger picture was sacrificed to uneven snapshots, some genuinely brilliant, others merely erratic. Softer passages, often played almost inaudibly soft (as in the slow movement), had a hesitant feel, if they didn’t stall, and starkly contrasted with the jaw-droppingly fast runs. It was a miracle Ashkenazy was able to stay with him at all, although in some instances he didn’t quite make it. At best, you could call this Rachmaninoff Third a surprise discovery by a supremely talented artist reinventing an old warhorse, but at the other end also looms an aggravatingly mannered circus act.

Naturally, Trifonov chose the original long first movement cadenza, yet frankly that sounded and looked like an ordeal. He also has the habit of stumbling in a buildup too loud too soon, engaging in what seems a titanic struggle with his Fazioli piano and accompanied by theatrical panting. On several occasions he reached the limit of volume that the instrument can handle, and that was often way too soon. When Ashkenazy beautifully opened the Intermezzo: Adagio in an already slower than usual tempo, you could bet Trifonov was going to take over even slower, interrupting the set climate. The climaxes in that movement sounded overwrought and missed their impact.

A laborious transition by Ashkenazy segued into a superfast Finale delivered with a furious energy, outsized contrasts, a piano that frequently brought everything to a standstill, and final pages that dragged beyond recognition – but then again, following the composer’s markings never really seemed to be on Trifonov’s agenda. A delirious public received it all with a thundering ovation. Time will tell.

And speaking about time, at the end of the concert, maestro Ashkenazy addressed the audience, announcing that principal timpanist Andrew Smith is retiring. For no less than 42 years Andy “Thumper” Smith has been a crucial lynchpin of the Philharmonia sound and an unforgettable presence. And as the Sibelius Fifth readily reminded us, they will have a hard time replacing him.

Copyright © 2015, Marc Haegeman

First published on Classical Net: http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/haegeman/20150517-trifonov-philharmonia-ashkenazy.php

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Ashkenazy and Tchaikovsky’s Manfred

Alexander Scriabin: Rêverie, Op. 24
Wolfgang Mozart: Violin Concerto #5 in A Major, K. 219
Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: Manfred Symphony, Op. 58

Eric Silberger, violin
Philharmonia Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy
London, Royal Festival Hall, 19 April 2015

Conductors might start to think twice before programming Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony in London. Back in November 2002 the famous Russian maestro Evgeny Svetlanov was scheduled to head the Philharmonia Orchestra in an all-Tchaikovsky program at the Royal Festival Hall, with the rarely performed Symphony as the main course. Sadly, Svetlanov died some months before the concert. And now again, it was Lorin Maazel who would guide the Philharmonia through Manfred’s dramatic wanderings, yet he passed away last summer. On both occasions Vladimir Ashkenazy, the orchestra’s Conductor laureate, jumped in and while both maestros leave an irreplaceable void, there is no doubt that Ashkenazy saved the evenings in the most brilliant way.

Of course, Ashkenazy as well as the Philharmonia share an excellent record with Tchaikovsky’s Manfred. Ashkenazy’s account with the Philharmonia from 1977 has stood the test of time rather well, while the orchestra also recorded the Symphony with Paul Kletzki and Riccardo Muti – the latter remaining one of the finest versions on disc ever.

Manfred is often considered a pretty hard deal, but Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia made the magic work again. Sonority, orchestral balance and transparency, sense of architecture, well-judged dynamics and keen dramatic timing coalesced into a magnificent reading, viscerally thrilling in its highly-charged dramatic convulsions but also compelling by its emphasis on Tchaikovsky’s search for unusual instrumental color. The huge orchestra, anchored on 8 basses, showed no weak spots and responded as a crack team. The quality of the desk leaders (Samuel Coles’ first flute and Gordon Hunt’s first oboe in particular), the warmth and flexibility of the strings were exemplary throughout. The brass, often helped by Andrew Smith’s tremendous timpani, sounded glorious and were well integrated in the orchestral mass.

Ashkenazy knows his orchestra can handle his brisk tempi in the first two movements with little or no loss of detail or accuracy. The swifter than usual tempo for the opening section made the ensuing buildups and sonorous climaxes sound even more ineluctable. He also knows exactly how far to push the orchestra and while tutti generated a lot of heat, they never became shrill or coarse. With playing of this conviction and brilliance all criticism about the work being overlong becomes pointless. Performed without any cuts, unafraid to show its colors and ending with the Royal Festival Hall organ in full splendor: this is, take or leave, Tchaikovsky’s Manfred as it should be.

In interesting contrast with the massive forces needed for Manfred, the orchestra appeared before the break in a slimmed-down formation for Mozart’s 5th Violin Concerto, with American violinist Eric Silberger as soloist. Silberger is a laureate of the XIVth Moscow International Competition and the Michael Hill International Violin Competition in 2011. He was also mentored by Maazel at his Castleton Festival in Virginia. He played the concerto in what many would consider an old-styled way – and in fact there is no need to imagine anything negative with that: warm, big, unaffected, firmly rooted within the orchestra, with an effective brief cadenza of his own, this was magnificent violin playing. Ashkenazy’s accompaniment was equally elegant and balanced.

This performance also reminded us this is a live concert, where even at this level things can occasionally go wrong, as they did in the Rondeau. What sounded like a blackout right before the so-called “Turkish” section threw everybody off track for a few seconds. It didn’t spoil an otherwise excellent performance, however, and Silberger returned with a vengeance with some brilliant playing for Mozart’s Hungarian rhythms. An appreciative audience was gratified with an encore of Paganini’s Caprice No. 24, which Silberger dedicated to maestro Maazel and dispatched with superb panache.

Most of this concert’s program was kept as Maazel had planned it, yet Ashkenazy added the Rêverie from Alexander Scriabin (who died a hundred years ago) as a miniature curtain-raiser. This is a short work – the composer’s first attempt at orchestral writing – and unlike some of his more famous later pieces very restrained and devoid of any excesses. Ashkenazy clearly loves this music and by coaxing magnificently transparent string playing, brightened by ravishing winds, he was able to show us why.

Copyright © 2015, Marc Haegeman