24 October, 2017

MSO Nagano Vengerov Santa Cecilia Pappano Hannigan

Review: Two Wonderful Orchestras

It is commonly said that globalization has homogenized the world's orchestras, and I agree with that. Many orchestras, able or less so, just sound generic (including our own HKPO) and rather devoid of personality. Even at the highest level, orchestras like the BPO, LSO and the CSO, not to mention the NYPO, unless matched with a visionary conductor, play without much personality. But there are exceptions: the VPO, the various German orchestras that originated from former East Germany, the Budapest Festival Orchestra and even the Oslo Philharmonic come to mind.

So, in the span of one week in NYC, it is heartening to hear two more orchestras that, despite the trend towards homogenization, have managed to own clear identities, two that I'd gladly hear over many of their more famous brethren.

Click pic to enlarge. Note all the camouflaged loudspeakers at the periphery.

Oct 18, 2017, Carnegie Hall
Montreal Symphony Orchestra-Nagano-Vengerov

Concert opened with Samy Moussa's A Globe Itself Infolding, for organ and orchestra. In my opinion, this kind of piece, where the organ is kept very busy, is not quite suitable for halls without a real organ. While the massive electronic amplification was clean enough and reached deep, it did not at all  convey the hushed atmosphere that a real organ could. The result was a bit like a film score, no bad thing, but kind of repetitive too.

Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra received a subtly detailed reading. A little slow, this was not a fire and ice reading. Rather, it carefully explored the lyrical and folk elements so often neglected in lesser performances. The orchestra, especially the winds, played very beautifully, and with great character; many passages reminded me of Debussy (La Mer; Images).

The Brahms Violin Concerto featured Maxim Vengerov. His entry surprised me by its tentativeness and smallness, but his tone expanded as things moved on, and was almost faultless throughout, though not as opulent as one would wish in this regal work. The orchestra played very well, especially the oboe solo in the slow movement.

For encore, a perfect rendition of Meditation from Massenet's Thais. The lady next to me was sobbing.

Overall, I am very impressed by the musicianship on offer; a subtle elegance pervaded everything. Wonderful!

NYT Review

Oct 21, 2017, Carnegie Hall
Orchestra dell'Academia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia-Pappano-Hannigan

The HK library has a lot of Pappano's recordings with this orchestra, and I have been an avid follower, even a fan, but hearing them live is of a much more exalted order!

Salvatorre Sciarrino's La Nuova Euridice secondo Rilke opened the program, after a speech by the conductor. Using innovative blowing techniques, helped by the strings playing close to the bridge, the winds conjured up a delicate, strange and believable picture of the underworld. New music diva Barbara Hannigan sang/declaimed by turns the altered text of Rilke. An effective piece that accomplished what it set out to do.

The Mahler 6th was astonishing in its orchestral opulence. Pappano's was a straightforward, but skillfully managed reading. The mettle of the opera conductor showed in the myriad ways the orchestra imparted great color to everything, from big climaxes to minor outbursts. Sonorities were golden and orchestral playing of utmost character, something we don't usually expect from well known Mahler conductors and orchestras, as they would usually serve up a more consciously "aesthete" approach to emphasize the angst we have come to expect. But Pappano's approach and the orchestras effort are irreproachable in their beauty and perhaps even more faithful to the score. I love it!

NYT Review

18 September, 2017

Concert Review - Kyung Wha Chung Recital

Sept 17, 2017, CH
Kyung Wha Chung - Kevin Kenner
Debussy - Faure - Brahms

How time flies! Has it really been four years since the same team's last visit (reported here)? Consider this, the last concert is still very much on my mind, which is one definition of memorability.

I'd actually urge you to read my last report, as it would almost double for how I feel about this concert. My appreciation for the sheer commitment of seventy year old Chung was one reason why I chose to attend this concert despite my current conditions, and I was even more satisfied than last time.

I sat in the balcony.

Like before, the program was not only on the heavy side, but delivered with ferocity. The first half, like last time, contained two substantial sonatas, but this time French. The opening Debussy Sonata was perfectly executed, but in this most difficult of all pieces (my opinion) I would have liked even more abandon and mercurial shifts, which the meticulously crafted performance (with Kenner a bit too safe) was just shy of. Nonetheless, a valiant effort. Like last time (Grieg), the second less often played sonata provided the highlight for the evening. I'd say there are less than a handful of violinists who would dare to program Faure's Sonata No. 1, a masterpiece without a really catchy tune (problem with this composer). Like the Grieg of four years ago, this piece separates the women from the girls, or, let's say, Chung from the rest (men and women). Chung's absolute mastery of the long line maintained coherence and revealed the piece's considerable glories. This is not to say there were no insightful highlighting (far from it); rather everything was woven into a total fabric. Kenner also played with more freedom. I'd never expect to hear a better performance.

The second half was devoted to Brahms. The F.A.E Scherzo fragment was nicely turned, but it revealed Chung had started to tire. She fought on valiantly in the Sonata No. 3. As expected, the performance was more yang than yin, which bothered some of my friends, but it was OK with me. Two Debussy small pieces closed the evening to tumultuous applause. The line for autograph was like that for a rock star.

Chung is an extremely powerful player, probably more than most of the big names today. Her sound just filled the hall and never got covered by the piano, which was not played exactly gingerly, as with "accompanists" of lesser violinists. In particular, I was mightily impressed by the slashing bowel sounds of her violin in the Brahms Sonata, which was just audibly and harmoniously at one with the piano part. In my years of concert going, I have never heard that. Surely what one may expect in a salon with an older fortepiano, but a veritable miracle in a modern concert hall! The duo must have spent countless hours working on this. My hats off.

My friends commented on her beautiful sound, but in the first half, that is not what I'd exactly call it. In the second half, though she has tired, the viloin's tone was more beautiful and different. I wonder what made the difference; tuning? a different violin, who knows!

Chung's teachers were the best, in my opinion. Ivan Galamian was the pedagogue par excellence. He made relatively few recordings, but I have always regarded his quartet's Debussy and Ravel Vanguard recording as a hidden gem. As for Szigeti, little need to be said. At the same age, Chung's technique is vastly superior to his teacher's. But Chung made me curious, so I pulled out her teacher's Schubert recordings, and they are superb! Technique is not everything, it must be put to the service of the music. I did find the imprint of Szigeti in Chung.

Also, after this concert, I re-listened to her latest recordings of the solo Bach works. They are growing on me.

1989 Chung Strad Interview

12 September, 2017

Concert Review: HKPO-Jaap-Yuja Wang

Concert Review: HKPO-Jaap-Yuja Wang

Sept 9, 2017, CCCH
HKPO-Jaap-Yuja Wang

I kind of suspect, in a way, perhaps young and flamboyant Yuja Wang, one of my favorites, is trying to ape Martha Argerich, in her repertoire, that is.

Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2 is an Argerich staple, and she has recorded it at at least three times. I am delighted Yuja Wang elected to play this, for otherwise we would not get to hear the piece.

Yuja Wang played the piece in her customary virtuosic but non-sentimental manner, just what this classical piece needs. The orchestral contribution was secure but a little too heavy and over-inflected for my taste.

Yuja Wang played two encores. It was the first time I heard the Volodos-Say re-composition (arrangement doesn't come close to what it is) of Mozart's Turkish Rondo, and it was a delight. Then, a beautiful Gluck-Sgambatti Melodie closed the program.

I did not stay for the Mahler.

Note: I came across this excellent New Yorker article on Yuja Wang, worth a read! 

29 June, 2017

Concert Review: HKPO-Jaap-Renaud Capucon

June 17, 2017, CCCH
HKPO-Jaap-Renaud Capucon

Renaud Capucon is a reliable violinist with secure intonation and good tone, but passion is not his strongest suit. It showed in the Berg Violin Concerto, which needs more fire and angst, something that can also be said of the accompaniment.

Schubert's 9th fared better, to an extent. The orchestra played well for Jaap, who as usual focused on drama, often idiosyncratically. However, as usual too, theatricality came at the expense of depth. There was no sense of Schubertian flow, languor, not to mention intimations of undercurrents. In many ways I preferred the recent performance of the same piece under Christoph Poppen (roll down below),
Concert Review: Jean-Guihen Queryas Solo Recital

June 8, 2017, CH
Jean-Guihen Queryas Solo Recital
Bach-Ivan Fedele-Jonathan Harvey-Gyorgy Kurtag

The library has many of Queryas' CD's (Harmonia Mundi), and I find them of unfailingly high standard and frequently inspiring, so it is satisfying to find that here is one artist who delivers the same high standards in the concert hall (not at all a given).

It is fashion now in recordings to pair Bach's (solo) music with shorter modern works. In this case, the concert is Part I of Queryas' Bach Project, which precedes each of the Solo Suites with a commissioned "Pre-Echo". Here, the first 3 suites were preceded by works by Ivan Fedele, Jonathan Harvey and Kurtag. Only the Kurtag was not commissioned, a short suite comprised of three short works. Of the three works, I found Harvey's the weakest, and Fedele's the most appropriate appetizer.

The Suites themselves were played with elan. Not particularly period influenced, nor indulgently romantic. Queryas played crisply, with nuance and good flow, and gave each movement good character and color, no easy task.

I enjoyed it greatly.

29 April, 2017

Concert Review: Sinfonietta-Poppen-Quero

Concert Review: Sinfonietta-Poppen-Quero

April 29, 2017, CH
HK Sinfonietta-Christoph Poppen-Ramon Quero

An ambitious program and another triumph for the HK Sinfonietta!

The unusual opener was a Chorale Prelude by James Cuddeford, Concertmaster, which is meant to be just the first part of a larger Triptych. It is a surprisingly ambitious work and quite interesting to my ears. I'd like to hear the rest of it.

Then came Richard Strauss' Oboe Concerto, given an immaculate performance by the Principal Oboe of the esteemed Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Ramon Quero. His tone is big and full. Poppen guided the orchestra expertly and maintained a firm pulse, no easy task in this work, which lacks a good melody.

Beforehand, I had wondered how the Sinfonietta would fare in the big work that is Schubert's 9th. I hadn't need to worry! Poppen obviously know the work well, paced it absolutely masterfully, managed all the transitions with ease, and gave the work a fluidity that many lesser conductors would envy. The much exposed woodwinds and brass played very well. A bit more character and bite fromt he players would lend the work more tragic demeanor, but overall this is a tall achievement for the HK Sinfonietta, and once again I was mightily impressed by Poppen.

28 April, 2017

Concert Review: HKPO-Jaap, or Gone Largo and Sponsor's Poor Taste

April 26, 2017, CCCH
HKPO-Jaap-Storioni Trio

The concert did not start well. In Beethoven's Triple Concerto, all of us were not satisfied with the cellist of the Storioni Trio, whose small tone was apparently not matched in volume to the other two. Their performance just did not flow well. The orchestra was obviously toned down, and the whole thing just lacked Beethovenian sweep.

Compared to the previous proceedings, the orchestra was like an awakened giant in Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony, playing with precision and power. While the climaxes were thrilling, the slow passages (many and lengthy) lacked a feeling of foreboding or lament (not a Jaap specialty) central to the music. I was particularly taken aback by the largo, which was bland and passed unduly quickly.

Attendance was very poor, at maybe 50%, which made the sound a bit aggressive.

The concert was sponsored by Macallan. Their name was projected onto the wall before concert started and during intermission. Instead of the de rigeur bouquets, I was stunned when two orchestral members went backstage to procure three bottles of scotch for the trio. At the end of concert, Jaap also received a bottle.

I have never seen this happen anywhere. If you ask me, Poor Taste on the part of Macallan and the HKPO!

03 April, 2017

HKPO Elim Chan

Concert Review: HKPO - Elim Chan

April 1, 2017
HKPO - Stephen Hough - Elim Chan
Smetana - Beethoven - Rachmaninov

When I tried to buy a ticket for this concert some time ago, I was surprised to find it sold out on both nights. Fortunately, a friend procured me one ticket, second row, center balcony. I guess many people are curious to hear this LSO conducting competition winner, who has served as assistant for the LSO and now is chief conductor of Swedish NoorlandOperan.

With Smetana's Ma Vlast, Elim Chan immediately showed her youthful energy and solid command. Being dimunitive, her highly raised arms conducted in large arcs. The river flowed a little faster than usual.

Elim Chan's conducting in Beethoven's Emperor Concerto was absolutely stunning. Impeccably timed and full of dynamic fervor, it was as it should be, and much superior to the work of most other conductors I have heard in this work. However, there was an obvious dichotomy - soloist Stephen Hough's playing, though tidy and shaped, in contrast lacked dynamic nuance and sparkle, of utmost importance in this piece. Hence, although there was no question of syncing, subjectively the strange perception was a slow piano part and a fast orchestra accompaniment. Some of my friends felt the same. Hough's strange choice of Claire de Lune as an encore did him no favor, as it was played with virtually no atmosphere.

Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances received a well shaped performance. The waltz in the Andante was sensitively shaped yet well sprung - just marvelous. Overall, however, the performance lacked a certain Russian fervor, perhaps wistfulness. This is often true of the matter-of-fact HKPO, who do not do well in this repertoire (unless under a Russian conductor).

The Rachmaninov again illustrated the long time weakness of the HKPO - a weak wind section which played all the notes but had no wholeness. This hampered in particular the first movement. One heard the strings and the brass well, but struggled with the winds.

The center balcony is beloved by audiophiles, but imho the sound there is on the dry and sterile side. Big brass climaxes also sounded overloaded and coarse. I prefer more to the sides.

HKPO should invite Elim Chan back every year!

31 March, 2017

Review: National Theater Brno, Oslo Philharmonic

The magnificent Orchestra and Chorus of the National Theater Brno.

Concert Review: Three More Great Concerts

Previously I have mentioned why I rarely attend HK Arts Festival events: expense, conservative programming (repetitive), mainstream artists (few surprises) and a very different crowd (more glamorous but less interested in the arts; more to be seen than to see).

Happily, this year's events are truly exceptional. Aside from the artists reviewed in the last two articles, much belatedly here are more:

National Theater Brno (Orchestra and Chorus of the Janacek Opera, Jaroslav Kyslink, Conductor)
Feb 26, 2017, CCCH
Dvorak Stabat Mater

Feb 28, 2017, CCCH
Janacek Sinfonietta, The Eternal Gospel, Glagolitic Mass

Aside from the instrumental Sinfonietta, these are all choral pieces I have never quite taken to in my own home listening. Although my equipment can convey the atmosphere of large pieces with aplomb, I do think choral works, especially these in a strange tongue, ultimately stresses any home reproduction and, more than any music, demand to be heard live. More dramatic operas and Requiems fare better in the home system.

Take the Dvorak Stabat Mater as an illustration - you absolutely need the real concert hall dynamics to appreciate this piece, and I am talking about soft passages even more than loud ones. This chorus is outstanding, easily the equal of, if not superior to, the top-drawer LSO Chorus. The tonal quality, ensemble, as well as control of the softest passages to outbursts are well nigh beyond reproach. The conductor, long a choral conductor, obviously was completely in charge and brought out every nuance of the work. In comparison, home listening would be like compressed music.

For me, Janacek's Glagolitic Mass is a more exciting work than Dvorak's. It also received a perfect performance. Except for the tenor (which I prefer), the solid soloists were the same as in Dvorak. I would single out the soprano and bass for praise. However, the real surprise was The Eternal Gospel, a haunting work of rarefied beauty.

As much credit should go to the conductor and the marvelously sensitive orchestra. Although not as big as a symphonic orchestra, this opera orchestra played with great tonal allure and nuance. Everything flowed seamlessly. In terms of refinement, they yield nothing to their counterpart Czech Philharmonic, which I have heard in Rudolfinum.

Bravo! And kudos to the Arts Fest for braving this "second tier" ensemble, which obviously did not sell as many tickets as other more famous ensembles. I hope the Arts Fest shall continue to be more adventurous! We don't need the "big five" or "top ten"!

Oslo Philharmonic, Truls Mork, Vasily Petrenko
March 15, CCCH

Concert opened with excerpts from Geirr Tveitt's 100 Folk Tunes from Hardanger. Sensitively played, they sound much more interesting than on record. Truls Mork's Elgar Cello Concerto is a known entity. The performance was solid but lacked magic, with virtually no intimation of loss or wistfulness, and that does not a success make.

The second half was a wake-up call. Vasily Petrenko shaped every phrase of the Sibelius Second Symphony with great care, particularly in the gradation of dynamics, and the orchestra was totally responsive. The Crescendos and Decrescendos were like tidal waves and no detail was glossed over. Although Petrenko did not wear his heart on his sleeve (like Barbirolli), his meticulous performance not only miraculously escaped being literal (what happens to lesser conductors and orchestra who claim "faithfulness to the score"), it kept building up in grandeur. The long and difficult finale was all of one piece. The best Sibelius Second I have ever heard live, by a substantial margin. 

What a Year!

24 February, 2017

Concert Review: Elisso Virsaladze and David Oistrakh Quartet

February 18, CH
Elisso Virsaladze Solo Recital

Virsaladze, now 74, is acknowledged yo be a Schumann "specialist", her playing of this composer praised by none other than the formidable Richter. Now, I am not a fan of Schumann's piano works, yet I hereby do attest that hers was the best Schumann playing I have heard.

Too much had been made of the Florestan-Eusebius thing, and I don't subscribe to it at all. Indeed, many pianists carry this so-called "duality" too far, ending up sounding just piecemeal and impulsive. Not so Virsaladze, who played with unrivaled coherence. What utter harmony, and coordination between the hands! The Arabeske was an enticing opener. The Fantasiestucke, usually fragmented in lesser hands (and not a personal favorite), sounded of one piece. The Liszt arrangement of Widmung was an pleasant exotica.

The first half concluded with a stirring Prokofiev Sonata No. 2, played with brilliance and maturity, not just banging it out. The concert ended with Liszt's Rhapsodie Espagnole, which to me was lacking in Spanish flavor.

The first encore was Mozartian, but I am not sure what it was, maybe a Beethoven variation? Beautiful playing. The second was an impeccable Chopin.

We were lucky to have heard her, and I sure wish she would come back soon. During intermission, I rushed out and bought the ticket for the concert below.

February 20, CH
Elisso Virsaldze and David Oistrakh Quartet

I have heard recordings by the members of this quartet, yet this was the first time I heard them as a quartet. The playing was virtuosic and without flaw, yet I found them strangely lacking in the first half. The Brahms Piano Quintet was just too lean and devoid of a bronzen sonority (difficult to achieve I know), the balance not helped by Virsaladze's self-effacing contribution. Part of the reason was first violinist Baranov's unusually prominent tone, which eclipsed the inner voices. Then, a miracle! The Schumann Piano Quintet was well nigh perfect. Baranov toned down a little, balance improved and Virsaladze was bolder and absolutely divine. Great stuff!

February 21, CH
David Oistrakh Quartet

I missed the short Haydn opener. The quartet was in fine form. The Shostakovich 8th was very well played, but I wished for a little more struggle and danger. Tchaikovsky's No. 2 was always tricky, and I cannot say they have overcome every hurdle. The concer ended with 2 Paganini arrangements, delightful.

17 February, 2017

Review: Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra

February 15, 2017, CCCH-Sascha Goetzel-Vadim Repin
Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra

Hallelujah! A miracle has been bestowed upon us.

This is an orchestra that SWINGS! More than any other orchestra, and more than most of today's jazz bands, I kid you not!

I have long followed this orchestra on record. The library has two of their exceptional recordings on Onyx (pictured), which contain pieces played on this tour. They are even better live, and although the promo material humbly declares their striving to be one of the world's greatest orchestras, I'd say they are there already.

Being cultural ambassador for embattled Turkey, concert opened with Capriccio à la Turque by Tüzün. As titled, it is a colorful romp, skillfully crafted and firmly tonal, replete with Turkish rhythms. It was immediately apparent that the orchestra is top drawer and conductor Sacha Goetzel comfortably in charge.

Then came a big surprise in programming, the Violin Concerto by James McMillan (whom I have admired through his many CDs in the library, and I even have a few). Soloist is none other than Vadim Repin. As usual, it has an amalgamation of styles, with a heavy percussion battery. Some passages reminded me of Messiaen. In the slow movement is a surprisingly tender interlude. Repin has lost his boyish fat and now look quite distinguished. The encore was marvelous.

Rimsky-Kosakov's Scheherazade was utterly marvelous. I cannot single out a particular soloist, as all of the solo passages were rendered magnificently. In comparison with this simultaneously virile and tender rendition, the last HKPO performance I attended was merely an exercise in sight reading.

This is not a very large orchestra (strings: 14, 12, 10, 9, 6) yet, like the best orchestras (think the recent visit of the Moscow Philharmonic), they make a very big, full and rounded sound. Not a single ugly moment. Most importantly, all the musicians played like soloists and individuality, making all the solos stand out. The Turks are a famously musical people, and their own traditional music has intricate rhythms and colors. This shows in their performances, full of subtle phrasing and rhythmic emphasis, and swagger in the big moments.

The musicians are almost completely Turk, and excel. I think of the HKPO, which simply does not nurture Chinese and local talents enough. There are now plenty of good Chinese (HK and mainland) wind and brass players (many studied overseas) yet they don't show up on our stages. The HKPO claims to be world class, but a comparison with this Turkish orchestra shows they are not. What HKPO should do is to develop its own character and promote local talents, rather than be a "world-class" wannabe. Don't get me wrong, HKPO is good, but they do not live up to the hyped up promo material their officials give us.

22 January, 2017

Concert Review: HKPO-Jaap-Siegfried

Concert Review: HKPO-Jaap-Siegfried

Jan 22, 2017, CCCH
Wagner Siegfried Opera-in-Concert

Time flies! A blink and the third installment in the Ring cycle is upon us.

Three singers have appeared before in the same roles and here maintained the same standards:  Matthias Goerne's voice has darkened a little, otherwise his portrait of Wotan has remained largely the same, though it should be said that his role in this opera is a relatively small one.  Deborah Humble as Erda (this time I noticed her low notes were on the lean side); David Cangelosi as Mime gets a much larger role this time, and is indeed central to the opera.

Two singers who have appeared before have switched roles: Falk Struckmann's Fafner is just as imposing and enticing as his Hunding (Walkure); as Brunnhilde, Heidi Melton may not characterize as well as Petra Lang (Walkure), but it was hard to resist her vocal opulence. In a few passages, I did notice in her voice some gravels not previously present (as Sieglinde) - I hope she shall not be another big voice who gets burned out too soon.

Three singers are new: Werner van Mechelen's role as Alberich is a small one in this opera; Valentina Farcas may not be the definitive Woodbird, but she was very good and her stunning presence unequivocally contributed to the wonderment (call me shallow; but, yes, visuals are helpful!); Simon O'Neil, apparently a well seasoned heldentenor, was a disappointment as Siegfried - apart from his voice being not big and full enough (granted, the orchestra should have been in the pit), his diction and characterization also failed to captivate me. My seat faced the left cheek of Jaap, but I could still hear every singer well, except him.

Overall, the First Act was the best. Both the Second and Third Acts fared less well in their second halves. What should have been high drama between Siegfried and Mime, and between Siegfried and Brunnhilde, felt diluted in the long run. As Mime and Brunhilde sang very well, I put this down to my inability to respond to Siegfried. This was less damaging in the Second Act, as the interchanges are short and terse. But the same is not true for the ending to the opera: one needs to feel wave after wave of intensifying frenzy, but O'Neil was completely out-sung by Melton, not to mention drowned out by the big brass. Despite the common factor of Melton, the love and passion that we felt between Sigmund and Sieglinde in Walkure was not reproduced here. I miss Stuart Skelton! Another factor in this was the contribution of the orchestra: despite still very good playing, understandably there is less layering as the acts went on (and on).

Musing: I delightfully learnt that my friend Andrew, not to mention his wife, both harbor the same dislike for Siegfried as I. For me, this is one reason why the end of this opera is rarely as touching as Walkure, which feels more genuine (though still on Wagner's terms). Wagner envisioned the fusion between music and theater, but quite often, if I dare say, his synthesized and recycled philosophy gets in the way. Here I must say I am not the usual opera fan. Usually, even in Italian opera, I go for the orchestral part, as there is too much good music there that one would not hear otherwise in the concert hall. My personal feeling is that Wagner had not achieved his ideal, as he is greater in his music than in his theater, not to mention his philosophy. In a strange way, I count myself an ardent Wagnerian, but one almost entirely geared towards the orchestral part; any good contribution from the vocals is a plus, disappointment the usual. That said, the opera has more atmosphere in the opera house (if not ruined by the egoistic director) and the Opera-in-Concert is a compromise, even for those who have watched the proceedings before in the opera house. Funny that after the concert, in the supermarket I ran onto Luce, the percussionist, and he said: "the orchestra should have been in the pit". I agree.

Jaap Van Zweden, as before, proved himself a very good Wagnerian. The HKPO played valiantly and with feeling. All in all, a great effort!

p.s. it should be noted that among the many extra players were EIGHT brass players (mostly horns and Wagner tubas) from mostly German orchestras, a higher count than any other concert in memory. Indeed it can be said that the horn section we heard is largely NOT the HKPO. I shudder to think of the expense incurred.

Concert Review: HK Sinfonietta-Christoph Poppen-Alina Pogostkina

Concert Review: HK Sinfonietta-Christoph Poppen-Alina Pogostkina

Jan 21, 2017, Tsuen Wan Town Hall
HK Sinfonietta - Christoph Poppen - Alina Pogostkina

Concert opened with Webern's early In Sommerwind, intelligently connecting to the Brahms of the second half. Commendably, the fluid performance effectively tied up the contrasting moods of the various episodes.

Alina Pogostikina played the Beethoven Violin Concerto with leisure and substance, but it was not an interpretation for all tastes. Here is a violinist who is different, with a rich and nuanced tone; even the high notes of the Strad sounds luxurious (rather than parched, as in lesser hands). She favored more legato and long phrases than usual, and her bow seemed always very close to the strings. I am not schooled in violin technique, but occasionally I was not comfortable with what I thought were intonation anomalies which might have been due to the employment of small scoops and slides. My violin-playing friend BenYC said it did not sound very "Beethoven", which I agree. Orchestral contribution was tidy. Despite a couple of jarring wrong notes, the Bach encore was uncommonly compelling.

Despite the small forces, Brahms Third Symphony received a cogent reading. Christoph Poppen is obviously much attuned to the composer. With minimal fuss, he managed all the transitions with ease. The many lyrical episodes were particularly rewarding. Aided by the exceptional sonics of this hall (a smaller replica of the Town Hall in Central; with I think even better sonics), the performance has that Brahmsian warmth that is often lacking in performances by more high profiled orchestras, including the HKPO.

The HK Sinfonietta seems to have entered a more stable period, with fewer personnel changes and generally very good playing.

13 December, 2016

Concert Review: HKPO Jaap Mahler 3

Dec 10, 2016, CCCH
HKPO-Jaap-Kelly O'Connor-HK Children's Choir-Ladies of the HKP Choir
Mahler Symphony No. 3

With NYPO/Haitink's valedictory 2014 performance of Mahler's Symphony No.3 (here) still fresh in my mind, this performance did not quite measure up, but made for an interesting contrast.

The sprawling first movement showed most of Jaap's traits. Although meticulously detailed and with powerful climaxes, there were sagging moments, mostly in softer passages. Part of this had to do with the orchestra - the strings in particular, as usual, often had a leaden quality, lacking in subtlety and color. However, much of this also had to do with Jaap's pacing, as his smelling of roses sometimes got lost in the forest. The second and third movements also did not quite achieve a natural flow. Contrast this with Haitink, who with minimal intervention let the NYPO bring out much more the light and shade of the score. Indeed, this symphony is supposed to be a paen to nature, and Jaap's rendition seemed too studied in comparison.

The movements with vocal parts always played themselves, and it was no exception here. Kelly O'Connor had a rich voice which seemed perfect for me. Both her top and bottom were more alluring than Haitink's Bernada Fink. I must say, although usually Mark Wilson's oboe playing was not to my liking (as in much of this performance), his solos were nicely turned here. Laudably and delightfully, both the Ladies of the HK Philharmonic Choir and the HK Children's Choir sang clearly and with commendable diction, better than the NYC choirs for Haitink! As one of my friends remarked, a little more zing in the boy's voices would have been perfect. Also, whoever made them up deserves credit - the ladies in particular looked lithe and elegant.

The string dominated first part of the last movement had a good flow, but subsequent development was not entirely devoid of the aforementioned problems. Again, I somehow did not like the perfromance of Luce on the bassdrum and timpani, all sharpness and no color. Nonetheless, overall it was a very fine performance and the audience reception was tumultuous.

09 December, 2016

Concert Review: Two Russian Conductors

It has taken me a long time to get to writing up these two concerts, so it will be a little briefer than usual.

November 1, CCCH
Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra/Yuri Simonov/Chen Sa


Event of the year that I almost missed were it not for my friend wss!

This was NOT the usual government LCSD offering, but a presentation by the awkwardly named "Hong Kong Association for Studies of World Literatures and Arts in Chinese" 世界華文文藝研究學會 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the monthly magazine of daily newspaper Mingpao 明報 (a publication with literary aspirations). For the longest time, there was NO publicity except for some ads in Mingpao, and NO internet info available in HK. I only learned of the concerts (I only attended the first one; there was another program the second day) from my friend wss, who saw the ad in Mingpao. SHAME!

The only internet info I found was their Shenzhen concerts a few days earlier, the same programs as in HK. I was ecstatic to find Yuri Simonov was the conductor. Simonov had appeared with the HKPO decades ago, and he GREATLY impressed me. HKPO was very uneven in those days, BUT under a great guest conductor they frequently managed to deliver visceral excitement (unlike now, better playing but less thrills). Imagine Bruckner under Russian Simonov (many orchestral mishaps, but undeniably exciting)!

One caveat. Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra does not have a website, and internet search does not turn up anything. It is well known Russian orchestras are constantly in flux and many have changed names. I remember years ago, in 2000, a so-called MPO visited HK (I did not attend) and caused a scandal (link here). So I was not without apprehension until I actually heard them.

Just a few notes of Shostakovich's Festive Overture were enough to dispel any doubts. Here was a virile orchestra with power and precision! Great stuff!

Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2 was meat and potato to the orchestra, but soloist Chen Sa lacked the last ounce of power and panache to make it really take off, despite Simonov's discrete action of toning down the orchestra.

The orchestra came into its own in Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 2, playing with considerable panache and precision. The string sections had to be among the best I have ever heard. With no more than 12/13 members, the violin sections outplayed (by far) the 16 or so members of the HKPO, playing not only with power and precision, but incredible nuance and subtlety. Simonov's fluid and natural phrasing kept one riveted by Rachmaninov's genius, with none of the longeurs that lesser conductors are wont to bring. The winds were distinctive and the brass strong - so biting, in fact, that some of my friends found them too acerbic (I didn't).

A GREAT Russian orchestra and a GREAT conductor. Come back soon!

November 25-26, CCCH
HKPO-Vassily Sinaisky-Alban Gerhardt


Vasilly Sinaisky last time stepped in last minute for Mahler (here). I liked his style and looked forward to his Tchaikovsky Manfred. I was not disappointed  His Manfred was not histrionic, but rather layered and detailed, coherent and lucid, a symphonic exposition of great satisfaction. The orchestra played very well.

First half was Dvorak's Cello Concerto. I am a fan of cellist Alban Gerhardt, who had appeared in HK before (2010 AYO). But on this evening his tone seemed smaller than last time and I had trouble hearing him sometimes, even if Sinaisky had considerately toned down the orchestra. In all, a rather subdued performance shorn of grandeur.

10 October, 2016

pic from SCMP.

Concert Review: Murray Perahia

October 9, 2016, CCCH
Murray Perahia

On this evening, I met up with quite a few music-loving friends, but caught no sight of the usual audio friends who flock to Mahler.

Haydn's Variations in F minor was beautifully crafted and impressively coherent. The typical "pianistic", full-bodied sound of Perahia meant not much stylistic difference from the ensuing Mozart K310. The central slow movement was particularly beautiful, but the outer movements were a little severe. Pretty, dainty Mozart this was not, and you'd not expect that of Perahia.

A set of Brahms late pieces found the pianist finely honing his finger work. I confess that, except for some of the slow intermezzi, I don't usually take to Brahms piano works, and so it proved on this occasion as I liked the singular slow one the most.

Everyone was looking forward to Beethoven's Hammerklavier, and this listener was not disappointed. Perahia was particularly fired up, and gave the music a rock solid pulse. Everything unfolded inexorably, and the slow movement was beautiful. Only in the fugal last movement did I wish for a little more flexibility, a little stretching of the music, which less technically endowed pianists do. In late Beethoven, the pianist's struggle can sometimes be exciting and many insecure pianists, like Serkin and Schnabel, can shed light in their own way. Of course, Perahia will never be willing to show any insecurity. There was no encore.

Quite a few of my friends were disappointed. One complained of lack of color; another accused him of pedestrian phrasing. In a way, I understand their complaints; Perahia's foremost concern has always been a steady pulse. Pausing and smelling the roses have never been for him. On the other hand, his steady pulse always steered the music on, and never suffered awkward moments. Some like more risk taking, but to each his own.

The concert was reviewed by SCMP., which also ran an Interview.

The same program was played in Los Angeles (LA Times Review) and Manchester (Bachtrack review).

25 September, 2016

Concert Review: Takacs String Quartet

September 20, 2016, Hong Kong University, Grand Hall
Takacs String Quartet
All Beethoven

I try not to miss a good string quartet. Even in HK, in recent years I got to hear the Borodin (multiple times), Hagen, Alban Berg, Emerson, Zehetmair, Shanghai, to name a few. I even follow younger quartets (in NYC), like the Artemis, Belcea, Parker and Jupiter. Since the early 80's, I have heard quite a few esteemed ensembles, like the Juilliard with Robert Mann as leader, and the incredible Talich and Stamic. However, there are just too many of them to catch up with, and somehow I have missed the Takacs, surely one of the world's most prestigious string quartets, until now.

I have however heard many of their CD's. I owe many of their older Hungaroton recordings, which with time are now displaced by their later, and more widely distributed Decca and Hyperion equivalents. As an example, I have both the 1985 Hungaroton (reviewed here by NYT) and the widely acclaimed 1998 Decca Bartok cycles, and they are very different, yet the equally superb Hungaroton is almost forgotten these days. Our public library has most of their recent Hyperion recordings, and I have heard all of them.

The now Colorado based quartet has two original members, second violinist Karoly Shranz and cellist Andras Fejer. Juilliard trained Englishman Edward Dusinberre has been the first violinist since 1993, and the current violist is American Geraldine Walther.

The quartet is over forty years old and has had quite a few personnel changes - that's enough turmoil to cause even great ensembles to disintegrate or deteriorate. Yet the Takacs have managed to stay on top of the game, quite a feat!

Edward Dusinberre has just written a book Beethoven for a Later Age: The Journey of a String Quartet, which has been well received. Some reviews (Telegraph, Independent) allow us peripheral glimpses into the inner workings of the quartet. The author himself introduces his book and in The Guardian touches on his life with the Takacs. A revealing passage in this article described Dusinberre's doubts when recently performing the Op. 132: "...Struggling on stage to maintain my energy, I could not judge if we were communicating an appropriate sense of repose or merely sounded lethargic. Typically, Beethoven’s musical phrases tell a rapidly evolving story, requiring a sense of direction and clear shaping, but here the pace of events is extraordinarily slow.."

I suspect during some parts of the performance Dusinberre would have entertained the same doubts again, as we did too. The first few numbers of the Op. 131, which concluded the concert, felt rather piecemeal and devoid of vitality. Fortunately, the quartet seemed energized by the Presto, and played expressively in the Adagio and Allegro that ensued. Overall, Beethoven's elusive and mercurial shifts in his late works were not caught; and a certain spiritual sense, be it struggle or longing, were not in view. A certain pallidness also pervaded the opener, Op. 18/2, sounding over-studied, hence lacking in classical repose and fluidity, the latter in my opinion the most important element in the early quartets.

Make no mistake, the Takacs are a supremely accomplished ensemble. No matter the composer, the current incarnation on records never stray far from a proper style, and that is no easy thing and must have taken a lot of work. At their best, their playing was at ease, their sonority blended and full-bodied, as evidenced by the accomplished performance of the Op. 95. In terms of sonority, this performance mirrors closely what I have heard on Hyperion.

Chemistry is an interesting and elusive thing. One of the greatest and most cathartic chamber music experience of mine was first hearing the Borodin Quartet in Macau with only one of its founding member, the immortal Valentin Berlinsky. That evening, Borodin's Second String Quartet, not a usual favorite (nor mine), was played and I was astonished that suddenly tears streamed down my cheeks. In the ensuing years, after Berlinsky passed away, I heard the quartet a couple more times. Despite the fact that the first violinist, Ruben Aharonian, is a superb violinist (who I think can walk the line and live more dangerously than Dusinberre, though I'd hate to compare them this way) and had achieved rapport with Berlinsky in the lineup, subsequent performances just suffered in comparison. One sighs. Things change and can never be the same.

That was my first time in the Grand Hall of Hong Kong University. It is similar in construction (plan and material) to the various good-sounding City Halls. The sound was good, though my friends complained the cello was not loud enough. I rather think the dynamics was a little subdued. Somehow I suspect that played a role in what I heard. An enigma.

06 July, 2016

Concert Review: HKPO - Bezhod Abduraimov - Ashkenazy

Concert Review: HKPO - Bezhod Abduraimov - Ashkenazy

July 1, 2016, CCCH
HKPO - Bezhod Abduraimov - Vladimir Ashkenazy
Prokofiev - Elgar

I was really looking forward to the return of both soloist and conductor, and I was not disappointed.

Behzod Abduraimov played a most enticing Rachmaninov 3rd last year, but this year's Prokofiev 3rd Piano Concerto was even more heaven storming. From start to finish, basically he tore up the piano. I have never heard anyone bang louder in the middle registers. In comparison, the bass was less clear and the treble somewhat monochromatic and percussive, though this is par for the course for Prokofiev. In comparison, Wang Yuja in 2010 (here) and 2012 (here) got more nuance out of this concerto. The orchestra under the Russian born Ashkenazy naturally got the full measure of this concerto, playing with power, precision, even some wit and sardonic edge when called for. In all, a fine effort. Although the piano had deteriorated sound by then, the Gluck-Sgambatti Melodie made a perfect encore.

Askenazy is a relatively late comer to Elgar, but his understanding is formidable. He has recorded much of Elgar for Exton and other labels, to almost universal acclaim. As he has delivered outstanding performances of the composer's In the South and Cello Concerto in HK in 2014 (here),  I was really looking forward to his Elgar 1st Symphony, and I was not disappointed.

The only reservation I had was the mammoth first movement, which Ashkenazy did not manage to completely hold together. The tempo was somewhat slow and from the middle on sometimes the quieter passages seemed rather episodic, not helped by HKPO's somewhat mechanical sounding strings. However, from the second movement on, the symphony went from strength to strength, with a positively thrilling finale. Ashkenazy's taut conducting and perfect balance had one's attention riveted. The brass played valiantly, even more heroic than in Bruckner. The winds' comparative weakness showed, but mattered little in this symphony.

I stood up and yelled "bravo" twice; had not felt like that in quite a while!

20 June, 2016

Concert Review: HKPO - Jaap - Karen Gomyo

Image result for karen gomyoConcert Review: HKPO - Jaap - Karen Gomyo

June 18, 2016, CCCH
HKPO - Jaap van Zweden - Karen Gomyo
Rossini - Bruch - Borstlap - Respighi

A spirited reading of Rossini's La Gazza Ladra Overture opened the program. The main attraction, Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1 received a tidy performance from the team. Karen Gomyo has a nice tone and played smoothly, but the feeling was somewhat small-scaled. Jaap delivered an excellent accompaniment (as he always does), but wanting was the piece's sense of brooding and melancholia.

Second-half opened with a surprisingly tonal (in the twentieth century sense) newly commissioned work by Borstlap, Solemn Night Music. The program extravagantly introduces the composer as "...one of the first composers in Europe to explore the possibilities of a revival of the classical tradition...", and the music "...which absorbs the musical style of the 20th century, presents related ideas which are constantly varied and almost never repeated literally, so that we hear the same things in ever newer forms...". Unfortunately, while we hear snippets here and there reminiscent of Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht, these were indeed "varied" to go nowhere. Borstlap's tepid "night music" is devoid of fantasy and not a patch on Schoenberg's masterpiece. One of the most boring piece of new music I have heard.

Respighi's Pines of Rome suits Jaap to a "T", who brought out every nuance in the luxurious score, and the orchestra was responsive to his every whim, though the piece remained music without much spiritual element. I wished the organ was louder.

17 June, 2016

Concert Review: HKPO Bruckner 4th

Image result for van zwedenImage result for louis lortieConcert Review: HKPO Bruckner 4th

June 11, 2016, CCCH
HKPO - Jaap van Zweden - Louis Lortie
Mozart - Bruckner

Concert opened with Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 22, which the sometimes wayward Lortie (in recordings) played surprisingly in a straight and fluid fashion. Although stylish, the last ounce of tonal and rhythmic refinement was missing, and his tone was not the biggest. The orchestral accompaniment was stylish and tight - commendable.

Bruckner's Fourth Symphony (Haas) received an excellent performance. All sections played at an elevated standard. Even more than the strings, the woodwinds seemed more fortified than usual. The brass was largely excellent, with steady and atmospheric horns. More importantly, Jaap van Zweden, an acknowledged Bruckner conductor, mostly had the right feeling of ebb and flow so important to Bruckner. He was also able to coax a full and truly thrilling sound in the climaxes, yet keep things tight and eventful in the equally important softer moments.

However, his approach did not fully carry the last movement. Maybe this sounds like heresy: like the Brahms Fourth, personally I have always found the ending problematic (the alternate editions too), as the ending "blaze" is to me not as thrilling as the first climaxes. Also, there are many start and stop passages, which under Jaap's literal rendition had a feeling remarkably close to the first movement of the Fifth Symphony (this is not as it should be, as the 5th inhabits a completely different world, with a less radiant, more mysterious atmosphere). Thus, in the last movement grandeur was only intermittently evident; my own feeling is you need some more shaping and stretching to achieve true atmosphere, and HKPO had achieved this before in this symphony (under Yuri Simonov and Gunther Herbig; see my write-up here). Lu Jia had also achieved more atmosphere in this symphony with his Macau Orchestra (here).

The HKPO strings are part of the problem. They played with accuracy and power, but not much radiance so important in Bruckner (which Lu Jia/Macau did well). Places like the repetitive figures in the last movement, and the Trio, just felt mechanical and earthbound. But overall, I am satisfied.

vs Philadelphia Orchestra/Yannick Nezet-Sequin's Bruckner 4th
Take all this with a grain of salt, as I did not attend the performance, having only heard it through the radio. It is pathetic that these are the only two performances of Bruckner in HK this year, that it had to be the same symphony and that they came within a month of each other!

I thought the Philadelphia rendition clearly rendered and very well played (as usual for this orchestra), but it had almost the same problem as the same team's Bruckner 9th I heard in Carnegie Hall (here), namely a lack of spiritual dimension in the last movement (Jaap did not escape from this either). In terms of flow, overall I prefer Jaap's conception.

Opinions among my friends were quite divided. Some reveled in the Piladelphia's sonority, while others found a curious lack of spiritual journey. At the HKPO concert, I ran into a dozen acquaintances - they were divided too but surprisingly the majority preferred the HKPO/Jaap performance. There is some brand loyalty and US-bashing here I think, but that is par for the course.

A thought: In the quest for precision, many performances under younger conductors to a variable degree miss the spiritual side of things. This is across the board, a world-wide phenomenon.