15 June, 2019

MET Orchestra - Yannick Nezet-Sequin - Elina Garanca

Elina Garanca performed Mahler's "Ruckert-Lieder" with Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Met Orchestra Friday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Steve J. Shermanpic from the review of newyorkclassicalreview.

MET Orchestra - Yannick Nezet-Sequin - Elina Garanca

June 14, 2019, Carnegie Hall
MET Orchestra - Yannick Nezet-Sequin - Elina Garanca
Mahler - Bruckner

The MET Orchestra returned with this challenging program, which opened with a very fine rendition of Mahler's Ruckert Lieder, exquisitely sung by Latvian mezzo Elina Garanca. Here is a real mezzo with everything: a full range, power, diction and tonal allure. She certainly put last week's Isabel Leonard in the shades and one could not expect more. Although the full brass was too loud in Um Mitternacht, the orchestral contribution was equally ravishing.

As is usually his wont in large symphonic works, Yannick Nezet-Sequin's loving ways and batonless conducting was considerably less successful in Bruckner's Symphony No. 7. Although the playing, in particular the strings and winds, was very fine in general, and the brass chorales in the finale were awesome, there were moments of insecurity. But none of this would have been a problem were it not for the conductor's savoring too many details along the way. Tempi were slow and, beauty notwithstanding, the first movement did not really ebb and flow, as a great Bruckner performance must, and the coda felt like just another episode. Under Nezet-Sequin, the Brucknerian pauses did not feel organic enough to make one anticipate what came next. As the adagio went on, one did start to feel funereal and the dreaded longeur. As a whole, despite fine moments, it was bit disappointing.

13 June, 2019

Philadelphia Orchestra - Yannick Nezet-Sequin - Beatrice Rana

Philadelphia Orchestra - Yannick Nezet-Sequin - Beatrice Rana

June 7, 2019, Carnegie Hall
Philadelphia Orchestra - Yannick Nezet-Sequin - Beatrice Rana
All Russian Program

Concert opened with a rarity - Stravinsky's Funeral Song. The Philadelphians played with the utmost beauty and atmosphere, indeed throughout the concert.

Then came Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3, rendered effortlessly by Italian pianist Beatrice Rana. Brilliant as it was, as usual I'd prefer an even more accented and biting performance.

I grew up with Ormandy's Rachmaninov set, but this Symphony No. 1 was far removed from that lush recording. Despite Yannick Nezet-Sequin's brilliance and drive, much of it came across as episodic, though I shall concede that the finale was well built and thrilling.

05 June, 2019

MET Orchestra - Yannick Nezet-Sequin - Isabelle Leonard

Isabel Leonard performed with Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Met Orchestra Monday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Richard Termine pic from newyorkclassicalreview.

MET Orchestra - Yannick Nezet-Sequin - Isabelle Leonard

June 3, 2019, Carnegie Hall
MET Orchestra - Yannick Nezet-Sequin - Isabelle Leonard
Debussy - Dutilleux - Ravel

Two Song Cycles sung by mezzo Isabel Leonard, who is apparently very popular with the NY audience, bookended the intermission. We heard first Dutilleux's Le Temps L'Horloge, crafted with the composers usual scintillating palate. The flight of imagination of the poems in French at their relatively fast tempi is demanding for the singer, and here just too many syllables were dropped (a usual and perhaps necessary practice for singing French) for me. The voice is not particularly big and one often misses something at the top or bottom when it comes to mezzi, as was the case here. Unlike the Dutilleux, Leonard sang Ravel's Scheherazade without score, and the difference showed - a better command of the words and more fluidity, which of course is equally attributable to Ravel's jewel of an orchestration, which also lets the singer rest more.

Concert opened with Debussy's La Mer. The MET Orchestra's rendition of color, nuance and detail was superlative, as it has been, as evidenced from the last concert, but the difference here was the much greater control Nezet-Sequin was able to achieve. Coloristically, it was irreproachable, and the climatic perorations were uncommonly lucid, say, symphonic in its approach. Ditto Ravel's Daphne and Chloe Suite No. 2, which closed the program. However, in both pieces (particularly the Ravel), no matter how spectacular the playing, I missed a sense of pushing and pulling, of coiled tension, that I know is there.

It is particularly difficult to capture the essence of French music. The MET orchestra did a sterling job. This kind of program would never work for the HKPO.


20 May, 2019

MET Orchestra - Gergiev - Trifonov

MET Orchestra - Gergiev - Trifonov

May 18th, 2019, Carnegie Hall
MET Orchestra - Valery Gergiev - Daniil Trifonov
Schumann - Schubert

Daniil Trifonov played the Schumann Piano Concerto with his customary virtuosity, clarity and refinement but, as usual, one wondered if it was a bit narcissistic. From my seat I found the orchestral bass a little too prominent (actually part of the Gergiev style) as to be incongruent. The encore Schumann piece though was utterly compelling.

The Schubert 9th Symphony, "The Great", was notable for the sensitive playing of the MET Orchestra. I have always thought orchestras that play both orchestral and operatic works are the best, the best example being the VPO. The strings played with finesse, sweetness and detail; the winds characterful and the brass noble. Gergiev's conducting was a little surprising, somewhat restrained in dynamic swing. Although he brought out uncommon details (especially with the divided violins), as the piece unfolded, one did start to feel a little the dreaded longeurs in this very long work. I don't think it was nearly as bad as this review, but surely the piece should have a bit more momentum (in the past years I have listened to this piece twice with lesser orchestras and both times the flow was better; see here and here).

04 May, 2019

Katia and Marielle Labeque performed Bruch's Concerto for Two Pianos with Semyon Bychkov conducting the New York Philharmonic Thursday night at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Chris Leepic from New York Classical Review.

New York Philharmonic - Semyon Bychkov - Labeque Sisters

May 3, 2019, Geffen Hall
New York Philharmonic - Semyon Bychkov - Labeque SistersBruch - Strauss

The first half is a rarity, Bruch's Concerto for Two Pianos, which is basically owned and championed only by the soloists Katia and Marielle Labeque and Katia's husband, the conductor Semyon Bychkov, who have played them many times elsewhere.

I am basically not a fan of most piano duos, as most of them are not too inspiring. That goes for the Labeque Sisters as well as the much younger Jussen Brothers. There are of course exceptions, like  Robert and Gaby Casadesus, or Vronsky and Babin.

Unlike his Violin Concerto No.1 and Scottish Fantasy, this work has no memorable melody, especially for the pianos. But, the orchestral part is actually rather interestingly scored. Like many other Bruch works, it is, for lack of a better word, "atmospheric". The opening brass parts are particularly organ-like, and Bychkov brought out all the colors of the piece.

After Bychkov's recent Resurrection with the Czech PO (here), I was surprised at how incisive he was in Strauss' Ein Heldenleben. The opening, The Hero, was a little breathless and the low brass were rattling. No matter how exciting, this work needs some opulence, which was in short supply, but then this hall is definitely dry sounding. The Hero's Adversaries was almost too incisive and the same feeling applied. Then things started to turn. The orchestra played The Hero's Companion with depth of feeling and the sheen in the strings was surprising, though I found Concertmaster Frank Huang's solo too hyper-detailed and a little lean. The best was yet to come! Nothing prepared me for the absolute mastery of The Hero's Works of Peace and The Hero's Retirement. The orchestra played irreproachably, and the horn section for once was golden-toned. Bychkov's pacing was absolutely right and Frank Huang's wistful solo at the end was perfect.

This marked the third Ein Heldenleben I have heard this year. While The Royal Concertgebouw (here) had the better overall playing and Straussian opulence, this concert was even more insightful and surpassing in feeling. A TALL achievement for the NYPO!

03 May, 2019

New World Symphony - Michael Tilson Thomas - Yuja Wang

New World Symphony - Michael Tilson Thomas - Yuja Wang

May 1, 2019, Carnegie Hall
New World Symphony - Michael Tilson Thomas - Yuja Wang
Wolfe - Prokofiev - Berlioz

The New World Symphony, based in Florida and headed by Michael Tilson Thomas, is an academy for recent conservatory graduates, who receive fellowships to further train and develop. So it is not exactly a youth orchestra, like our own beloved Asian Youth Orchestra, rather, given its over 30 year history, older than something between Europe's more recent and better known Mahler Youth Orchestra and its spinoff Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

Michael Tilson Thomas has never thrilled me on records. Although he majors in romantic repertoire, unlike his mentor Leonard Bernstein he never seems to let his hair down. As a composer, he has excellent analytical power but again, unlike Bernstein, more often than not, something is missing, despite all the critical accolades.

The second-half's Berlioz Symphony Fantastique was fastidiously laid out by the conductor, architecturally superb, and very well played. The brass and percussion sections were particularly formidable. I enjoyed the playing very much, but ultimately the shade of coolness did not achieve the goal of Fantastique. Still, a very good performance.

The Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 5 featured the indefatigable Yuja Wang, half naked in a shimmering green dress, which actually mirrors her solo part, played with aplomb. However, MTT's conducting left much to be desired. He is not a Prokofiev conductor - much more punctuation and rhythmic pointing were needed. The strings in particular sounded emaciated, sometimes loud but without body, other times just vapid. As an encore, Yuja played a jazz-infused composition of MTT, which was just lovely.

Concert opened with Julia Wolfe's Fountain of Youth, an eclectic mix of motoric minimalism and the composer's "avant-garde" anything-goes Bang on a Can ensemble, extremely well played and enjoyable.

15 April, 2019

NYPO Simone Young

Simone Young conducted the New York Philharmonic in Mahler's Symphony No., 6 Thursday night at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Caitlin Ochs pic from New York Classical Review.

NYPO Simone Young

April 12, 2019, Geffen Hall
NYPO - Simone Young
Mahler Symphony No. 6


Jaap was supposed to conduct but his problematic shoulder got the better of him and Simone Young was summoned at the last minute to replace him. An that was my fortune!

As someone from HK, where one gets to hear Jaap often, I know Jaap's Mahler 6th. But nothing prepared me for Simone Young's interpretation.

I am familiar with Simone Young's work on recordings (Ohems) and she is an authority in Mahler and Bruckner. Still, nothing prepared me for this!

I agree with almost everything the NewYork Classical Review said, (the NYT is a non-review, increasingly so) and agree even more with one of the comments. She is the real thing!

Straightforward, but utterly natural and well paced. Highly detailed (like the dance elements) yet single-minded, marching inexorably to the last movement. This is one of the greatest Mahler finales's I have heard over 4 decades at the NYPO. The repeated struggle, calamity, attempt to recover, were so graphic as to be painful.

My words mean little, but I saw the Viola first chair (Cynthia Phelps) wiping her tears off just before her last notes. There cannot be higher accolade. In my decades of attending the NYPO, I have never seen a principal weep.

Make sure Simone Young returns in Mahler and Bruckner, which she does better than Jaap.

Istvan Vardai and Roman Rabinovich

Concert: Istvan Vardai and Roman Rabinovich

Official link

April 7, 2019, Town Hall
Istvan Vardai and Roman Rabinovich
Beethoven - Schubert - Rachmaninov

I only managed to attend the first half.

Of particular interest to string fans is that Istvan Vardai plays the famous DuPre-Lynn Harrell Strad Cello, but I am afraid judged by this outing the instrument is not entirely in good hands.

Grant you, many of DuPre's recordings are wayward, and I have never heard her live. But enthusiasm is not something that can be faked, and her recordings, warts and all, testify to her personality (aside from Elgar, I like her Brahms). I am lukewarm about Lynn Harrell, who is always correct (but no more), but I think Vardai is a poor successor.

Vardai plays sensitively but tends to linger and smell the roses and lack drive. Also, he makes the instrument sound very dark, not a good thing in cello. The Beethoven variations dragged on, and the Schubert Appregione needed more vitality.

Rabinovich is an excellent pianist, but too deferential.

20 March, 2019

Renee Fleming performed music from Richard Strauss's "Capriccio" with Andris Nelsons learning and Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Hilary ScottBoston Symphony Orchestra - Andris Nelsons - Renee Fleming

March 19, 2019, Carnegie Hall
Boston Symphony Orchestra - Andris Nelsons - Renee Fleming
All Strauss

I shall be brief on details. This Concert was an exact repeat of the concert given in Boston 3 days ago. The Classical Review has a detailed review (the pic is also from that article), and I agree with most of it.

Regarding the Sextet from Capriccio (in lieu of the usual overture), the lower voices were too prominent for my taste. I'd have preferred a little more rosin in the violins. It should be noted that, similarly, I found the concertmaster too subdued in the solo's in Thus Spake Zarathustra.

Renee Fleming has a huge fan base. Many in the audience went for her, as evidenced by the large number of empty seats after intermission. I enjoyed her singing, especially since there were supertitles. Listening to opera without knowing the words have never worked for me, and surely Richard Strauss would approve. Fleming is a great artist and I have listened to many of her albums (from the HK library). When it comes to Strauss though, even if she is renowned and performed regularly in Europe, I was never able to admit her into my top echelon. Perhaps all the recordings I have heard had spoiled me (Rosenkavalier is a personal favorite, and this excellent article will tell you about all the great Marchallins). Actually, in this performance, I found her characterization better than on records! But it was the encore in memory of Andre Previn that had me hooked. Now, I want to hear the whole Street Car Named Desire! It was too bad that there were no supertitles and, believe me, operas sung in English need it more than Italian or German!

As for Thus Spake Zarathustra, what can I say! A stunning performance of great detail and elegance. Most audiophiles I know just listened to the opening, but I have long loved the whole work and own many versions. Here my knowledge of all the great recordings did not spoil my experience - no audio system can reproduce the immensity of it all. And it is not just the big moments. Carnegie Hall unfortunately does not have a real organ. While the electric reproduction was good, the lowest bass notes just did not shake one as a real one would, not even quite as much as a recording, which has them highlighted. And the big percussion crashes, particularly with this most elegant orchestra, were impactful but not overwhelmingly loud (as NYPO and van Zweden would surely do). Not important at all, as the immensity of the canvas, the sheer beauty and shimmering details heard could not at all be reproduced at home. Andris Nelsons is a famous Straussian, and the concert showed why. This is the most satisfying Boston/Nelsons concert I have heard, better than even his Shostakovich, and definitely better than his Mahler. The playing and refinement of the orchestra is irreproachable.

10 March, 2019

Skride Piano Quartet

March 10, 2019, Town Hall
Skride Piano Quartet
Mahler - Mozart - Brahms

Latvian Baiba Skride, winner of 2001 Queen Elizabeth (the same year Singaporean Kam Ning placed second and Chinese Ning Feng placed fifth), is fairly well known in Europe, less so in America. The other members are also seasoned professionals. Sister Lauma Skride is the pianist. French Lise Bertaud is the violist. Dutch Harriett Krijgh, who has just become a member of the Artemis Quartet (which unfortunately seems to be in a great state of flux), is the cellist.

Perhaps because of the rain, attendance was low for a PSC concert.

Mahler's Piano Quartet in A minor, a work of his teens, has only one extant movement and is seldom heard. Judging from this performance, that is unfortunate. The foreboding opening on the piano and the soft string figures that followed had me hooked. The string players here had an ethereal quality in pianissimo. The foursome have a fanatical attention to rhythm, detail and balance that is highly cultured and, dare I say, European.

Leader Baiba Skride is unusually deferent to his colleagues, and I can see why - they are all great players and tonally ravishing. But when she does step out (she makes a slight turn so the violin projects directly to the audience), there is no mistaking that she is a player of power.

Though the pianist sometimes played quite spritely, the measured approach of the strings made Mozart's Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor come across as rather dark. During intermission, the fellow in front of me wondered how they were going to get through the second half; he said, apologetically to his female friends that some "testosterone" was missing. He was likely an amateur musician (many in the psc audience). He need not have worried.

The Brahms Piano Quartet in G minor, though superbly played, was not the kind of virtuoso display that I experienced previously with the Andsnes crowd (here). The Alla Zingarese that capped the piece was urgent, but less pungent than usual. The previous movements were well delineated and balanced, but in unearthing details and rhythm subtleties, the main melodies sometimes were not brought forth enough. Nonetheless, for me, it was an excellent and equally valid effort. Keep in mind this was an all minor-key concert!

16 February, 2019

RCO Harding Aimard

Daniel HardingRoyal Concertgebouw Orchestra - Daniel Harding - Pierre-Laurent Aimard

Feb 15, 2019, Carnegie Hall
Concertgebouw Orchestra - Daniel Harding - Pierre-Laurent Aimard
Connesson - Beethoven - Strauss

As I slowly made my way out of the hall, I said to myself: "...this separates the men from the boys..." Indeed, next to such playing, most orchestras sound emaciated.

In Strauss' Ein Heldenleben, the hall was literally awash in sound, and I was swooning and luxuriating in it all. The amazing thing was, the sound washing over you had a living feel, comprising of layers of orchestral tissue in a corporeal whole.

Compared to the Mariinsky's recent performance (here), it was like a different work. Whereas Gergiev underlined the brilliance and drama, under Daniel Harding the RCO delivered a much more  architectural, but tonally burnished and opulent account, with darker colors. Both are valid approaches, but for me the RCO is even more life-affirming.

The RCO was also heard in Chicago three days ago (somewhat different program), and I agree with the remarks on this work in the Chicago Classical Review. The Chicago Tribune is also interesting in comparing the RCO with their own, but for me the former has a deeper sound which makes the CSO seem just a little shallow spiritually. The RCO was also heard the next day in The Washington Post, and the review by Anne Midgette was decidedly negative. Incidentally, this is the same critic whose expose of #MeToo in classical music brought down RCO's last music director, Danielle Gatti.

While I can understand Anne Midgette's view of Beethoven's Emperor concerto, I enjoyed it much more than she did. Pierre-Laurent Aimard played with great subtlety and colors, making the frequent ascending and descending notes uncommonly beautiful and interesting. The finale is for sure less "rousing" than usual, but that is not the interpretive viewpoint here. For me, Harding's contribution was excellent.

Concert opened with a short piece by one Guillaume Connnesson, Eirene, ravishingly played by the RCO.


13 January, 2019

pic from NYT.

New York Philharmonic - Jakob Hrusa - Simon Trpceski

Jan 11, 2019, Geffen Hall
NY Philharmonic - Jakob Hrusa - Simon Trpceski
Janacek - Prokofiev - Rimsky-Korsakov

NY Phil Press Release

How he made them play! That was what I said to the lady next to me at the end of concert.

Jakob Hrusa is a young conductor very much in demand and on the rise. I knew him from recordings, but this was the first time I heard him live. He is now in charge of the Bamberg Symphony (an orchestra I have always liked; heard them under Jochum, in Bruckner no less) as well as principal guest conductor of The Philharmonia and Czech Philharmonic, all excellent orchestras. Here is a good interview. Judged by this concert, he is absolutely the real thing,

Concert opened with Janacek's Cunning Little Vixen Suite (arranged by Charles Mackerras), in a ravishingly played and atmospheric reading, but the piecemeal nature of the music, albeit highly interesting, still was not able to stop my mind from wandering off from time to time.

Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 received a solid reading from Simon Trpceski, who should be familiar to HK concert goers. Hrusa enabled a seamless partnership with the orchestra, which played with aplomb and vitality. Many details emerged quite naturally in this reading.

All of that did not prepare me for the sheer magnificence of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, a thrice familiar score which in Hrusa's hands seemed to reveal freshness in every page. What is truly remarkable is that all the details were revealed in a most natural way (unlike Jaap, for example), never losing the overall architecture of the music. In one stretch in the second movement, the string figures had a distinct sense of speech, and indeed the orchestral musicians overall were fully engaged in dialogue, and that is the utmost praise for a conductor. The music speaks!

The orchestra played magnificently. It goes without saying that the brass section was mighty, worthy of the Sultan! What was equally gratifying was the characterful playing of the woodwinds. And the strings on this occasion excelled themselves in nuance, refinement and discipline. Concertmaster Frank Huang, formerly of the Houston Symphony, played his all-important solo's subtly, not at all like what a reviewer made of him in a previous Houston Symphony performance with Hrusa, but the same reviewer's comments on Hrusa I could agree with wholeheartedly.

The NY Phil has had a generally good review these days from the NY Times. Yet the NYT Review that includes this concert complained of loudness without fullness. Part of that is the persistent second-rate acoustics of this hall, but from my seat, third tier and close to the stage, the problems were minimized and indeed the sound was exciting. The so called full view good seats, which a critic is likely to be seated in, more often than not do not sound too good.

A great concert.

06 December, 2018

Trio Solisti

December 2, 2018, Town Hall
Haydn: Trio in C Major, Hob. XV/27
Dvorak: Trio No. 2 in G minor, Op. 26
Brahms: Trio in B Major, Op. 8 (rev. version)

I can't remember the last time I heard a full Piano Trio recital. This is one of the most difficult formations to get right, and even on record I do not find too many favorites.

So kudos to Trio Solisti for delivering a consistently polished and balanced sound. Pianist Fabio Bidini plays idiomatically, still sometimes overwhelm things, but not often. Violinist Maria Bachmann is exceptionally steady and pure in intonation, though I sometimes wish she would play with a little more abandon. Cellist Alexis Pier Gerlach wears her heart on her sleeve and is excellent, though the dark sound of her instrument sometimes buries her in the mix.

The Haydn Trio is basically a piano sonata with string obligato, quite nice and pleasant. The following Dvorak Piano Trio No. 2 is much meatier, though rarely programmed. It is a rather concise work that nonetheless harbors all of Dvorak's mature style. The Brahms Piano Trio No. 1 is much better known and received a polished performance.

30 November, 2018

New York Philharmonic - Jaap - Lamsma 

November 30, 2018, Geffen Hall
New York Philharmonic - Jaap - Lamsma
Britten - Shostakovich

What a tough program for the musicians! I have to say, this was the most committed playing by the NYPO I have heard in a while.

Concert opened with Britten's Violin Concerto, ably played by Dutch soloist Simone Lamsma, whose CD's (Challenge) I have enjoyed. Both soloist and orchestra delivered idiomatic playing. However, for me Lamsma's tone on her strad, particularly in the midrange, was on the lean (though not gritty) side and not fully fleshed out, which does not matter that much in this piece.

The mammoth Shostakovich Symphony 7th received a gargantuan performance. The loud passages were truly epic, graphic, and terrifying - they made me uncomfortable, which was the purpose. Most gratifyingly, Jaap maintained a good flow and navigated all the transitions well. The musicians played wonderfully. The woodwinds with character, the brass fiery and strings penetrating. Perhaps the elegiac aspects of the score could have been brought out more, but I was involved.

There was tremendous applause at the end, but I somehow felt perhaps one should not. I had thought that there must be people in the audience who have lived through the siege of Lennigrad. I noticed the old lady close by did not clap, and so I said what I was thinking to her, and she replied: "...you know, I was there...". A poignant moment that attests to the success of the performance.

NYT Review
Boston Symphony Orchestra - Andris Nelsons

November 19, 2018, Carnegie Hall
Boston Symphony Orchestra - Andris Nelsons - Hakan Hardenberger
Gruber - Mahler

The program is hinged on one thing: the trumpet. Andris Nelsons, the new BSO director and in hot demand elsewhere, was a trumpeter.

So it was not surprising that he programmed HK Gruber's Aerial, a trumpet concerto. As usual for this composer, the piece was stylistically all over the map. See the reviews on the same program in the Boston Classical Review and New York Times.

The Mahler 5th of course opens with a trumpet solo. I agree with both reviews that the Mahler was kind of disappointing. While I enjoyed very much the quality of playing, I too often found the lines sagging and tension wanting (particularly in the Finale).

18 November, 2018

Image result for amanda monaco flushing town hallAmanda Monaco Quartet

November 18, 2018, Flushing Town Hall
Amanda Monaco Quartet

Another concert in the very worthwhile Lioness series showcasing female jazz artists. Previously I reported on Roxy Coss, tenor saxophonist.

Led by Amanda Monaco, guitarist, the day's quartet's other members are Hammond Organist Brian Charette, Jeff Davis on Drums and Lauren Sevian on Baritone Sax.

They played mostly original compositions by Monaco, very much like reported here (though personnels are somewhat different). Unlike Roxy Coss, the style is straightforward, and Monaco was almost subdued, with brief soloing and mostly back up playing, ceding the spotlight generously to others, particularly Lauren Sevian, most unusually playing baritone sax exclusively. The rhythm was steady and nothing sounded edgy. Both drums and organ fit snuggly into the picture. The sound is harmonious (not so easily achieved, believe me) and I enjoyed it a great deal.

14 November, 2018

Philadelphia Orchestra - Yannick Nezet-Sequin - Joyce DiDonato

Joyce DiDonato and Yannick Nézet-Séguin pair their star power at Philadelphia OrchestraConcert Review: Philadelphia Orchestra - Yannick NezetSequin - Joyce DiDonato

Nov 13, 2018, Carnegie Hall
Philadelphia Orchestra - Yannick Nezet-Sequin - Joyce DiDonato
Wagner - Bates - Chausson - Respighi

I went to this concert for a single reason: I am a fan of Chausson, and it is a rare opportunity to hear his work. My view of the concert does not differ so much from the Philadelphia Inquirer review of the same program a week before (where the pic also comes from). Poeme de l'amour et de la mer was ravishing and hugely satisfying, though I do think DiDonato's French enunciation could be improved upon.

The program was intelligently planned. The first half opened with a well played Prelude to Act I of Wagner's Lohengrin, surely not unrelated to Chausson. Then came a relatively new piece (first premiered by CSO in 2014) by new music darling Martin Bates, Anthology of Fantsastic Zoology, a pictorial painting (tone poem really) of Borges' work of the same name, which depicts a succession of fantastical and imaginary beings. There were many shifting moods, and the playing was marvelously coordinated and the sonorities interesting. However, I happen to be well acquainted with Borges' writing and don't think the score was that successful in capturing the fantastical.

The second half closed with Respighi's Fountains of Rome. Yet again, I fail to be drawn into this composer's world. The reading was very good but not enough to transport me.

10 November, 2018

Image result for matsuevConcert Review: Dennis Matsuev

Nov 9th, 2018, Carnegie Hall
Dennid Matsuev
Beethoven - Rachmaninoff - Chopin - Tchaikovsky - Prokofiev

Keyboard Virtuosi today are a curious breed. Eager to sound more modern and different, yet longing also to belong to the romantic tradition, they frequently court controversy and put themselves as well as their audience into a conundrum.

In the case of Matsuev, there is another dimension. Like Gergiev, he is deemed by some Russian expats (likely Ukrainians) as a Putin Puppet - indeed there was a small demonstration against him right outside Carnegie Hall (Gergiev had received this treatment many times in NYC). They were a minuscule minority, as inside the venue there was a Russian diaspora, ney, occupation - I heard a lot more Russian than English.

There has never been the least bit of doubt on Matsuev's keyboard prowess, but questions about his artistry persist. I have known him through his mostly excellent concerto recordings with Gergiev on the Mariinsky label, but this is the first time I have heard him in person. Judged by this concert, he is definitely a titan capable of making truly colossal sounds, likely unrivaled (with all due respect to Freire, I'd have liked to have heard him playing the Brahms with Gergiev; see last post below). However, his affinity for composers seem to vary a great deal, and not all interpretations were successful.

The openers to both halves were not too successful. Beethoven's Op 2/3 is not an easy sonata to bring off, and Matsuev's rendition came off as highly idiosyncratic rather than personal and memorable. The disjointed first movement aside, the adagio was an attempt to create profundity, with only intermittent success; whereas the scherzo and finale's gaiety came across as forced. Chopin's Ballade No. 4 was more rounded and sometimes rousing, but it was fragmentary, a common failing in this genre, and Matsuev failed to rise above it.

The Chopin was followed by Tchaikovsky's Meditation, well played and with a touch of regret. The following Prokofiev Sonata No. 7 was sweeping and superbly executed. For me, the complete lack of struggle and total command of sonority (no acerbic sound allowed) sometimes worked against the work, but it was quite a performance nonetheless.

However, the crown jewel was what ended the first half, a magisterial rendering of Rachmaninov's Variations on a Theme by Corelli, which in lesser hands can be an utter bore. Uncommonly lucid and perfectly balanced, Matsuev revealed more of the work than anyone I have heard on record. Indeed, he made it appear not so far off from one of my favorite orchestral works, the Symphonic Dances. Whereas elsewhere (like in the Beethoven) his astonishingly powerful left hand can actually blur the inner voices, in this work he used it judiciously and coloristically, giving shape and a high degree of coherence and symphonic grandeur. A brilliant achievement, and one of the very best Rachmaninov, or any piano playing, I have heard. That alone was more than worth the price of admission.

Matsuev was straightforward in manner, walking briskly to and from the piano and giving a string of encores without prompting, though the wildly adulating audience could have gone on forever in applause. Five encores were performed, the best to me a touchingly simple traumerei.

02 November, 2018

Mariinsky Orchestra - Valery Gergiev - Nelson Freire

Image result for gergievMariinsky Orchestra - Valery Gergiev - Nelson Freire
November 1, 2018, Carnegie Hall
Mariinsky Orchestra - Valery Gergiev - Nelson Freire
Brahms - Strauss

Valery Gergiev and the Mariisky Orchestra seldom disappoint on record, but it is less common to hear them (on record) do non-Russian works. Gergiev has always had an affinity for German works, and is in fact now director of the Munich Philharmonic.

The swift opening of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 made clear it was not going to be the typical romantic reading. Indeed the string sonority was a little grainy at first. Like on records (mainly their own label), the orchestra just came across as occasionally coarse, but the sound certainly smoothed out as the piece went along. In the slow movement, the solo playing were memorable.

This piece is one of Nelson Freire's calling cards, and he had recorded an excellent version for Decca (still a benchmark). More than ten years on, he looked a little frail, his playing remained elegant, beautifully proportioned and fresh sounding, full of details which never stuck out. However, although he could still sound big, the piano tone was inevitably somewhat light, which disadvantaged him in tutti as he got covered by the orchestra. Most of the time however, Gergiev kept the balance and reined in the orchestra. Overall, stylistically this performance did not gel like the rapturous rendering delivered by Leonskaja/Fedoseyev in Shenzhen earlier this year (entry here). The Gluck/Sgambatti encore was ravishing.

Strauss' Ein Heldenleben, likely more suitable to Gergiev's style, has been in Gergiev's active repertoire for a while. His recent recording with the Munich PO (on their own label) has received great acclaim (a youtube snippet here, and the whole is also available), and so it was not surprising to find this performance full of rigor and, yes, majesty. Gergiev has always been dramatic, but he has never been pompous nor bombarding, and so it was here. The orchestra delivered playing of the highest order - the strings now sounded powerful but smooth and expressive; the winds, particularly in their characterizations of the "Hero's Adversaries", utterly pungent and characterful; and, my, the brass - powerful, yet golden and noble! All sections were vividly drawn out - the "Battlefield" rhythmically delectable; the "Companion" loving; but the most impressive was the long last section, "Hero's Escape from the World and Fulfillment", which most often receive performances that do not match the title - here it did in spades, as the music conveyed a rare nobility.

Incidentally, the musical Concertmaster, Lorenz Nasturica-Herschcowici, appears to be hold the position in both the Munich PO and Marriisky Orchestra.

As if that were not enough, for an encore the triumphant end of Stravinsky's Firebird was delivered with the same majesty.

29 October, 2018

Czech Philharmonic Semyon Bychkov

Image result for bychkov czech nytReview: Cezch Philharmonic - Semyon Bychkov

In the West, the once glorious Czech Philharmonic has been off the map for far too long. Its instability since the Velvet revolution meant a rapid succession of stop-gap directors, none of whom left much of a mark (see wiki entry). Aside from continual close performing and recording ties with Japan, its profile was lower than many more stable "newly" ascendent orchestras (like the Budapest Festival under Ivan Fischer, the Russian National under Pletnev, the Mariinsky under Gergiev, the Staatskapelle Berlin under Barenboim, even Academia di Santa Cecilia under Antonio Pappano). That just goes to show the importance of a strong and visionary director.

The tide started to turn when Jiri Belohlavek resumed leadership in 2012, culminating with a Decca contract and acclaimed recordings, which were put into uncertainty in 2017 by Belohlavek's sudden passing. Semyon Bychkov, a regular guest since 2013, was recently appointed the director (over two Czech principal guest conductors). However, although it seems Bychkov has been positively received, his Decca Tchaikovsky recordings had garnished only mixed reviews.

It has been the longest time been I heard the Czech PO, and I was ultra eager, especially since they are reported to be on the rise again. Though my expectations were largely fulfilled, they were not unmarred by question marks.

Saturday, October 27, 2018, Carnegie Hall, 8 PM
All - Dvorak with Alisa Weilerstein

I had heard Alisa Weilerstein live twice before in Elgar and own her recordings, and thus know her well. Much of what I said about her style still rings true for this performance. For my taste, the Cello Concerto was just too much on the indulgent, soft and "feminine" side - tenderness abound, but there was not much muscle. What bothered me even more was her tendency to scoop a little and the mildly, perhaps intentionally applied, portamenti. To me, The Dvorak is not like the Elgar, and needs more discipline. The orchestra played beautifully, in great detail, and with great feeling.

Like the Cello Concerto, the Symphony No. 7 was on the stately side. There are many approaches to this symphony, and obviously Bychkov preferred not to drive too hard nor rely on sheer "brilliance". Instead, he sculpted patiently and built structurally, resulting in a classically proportioned and lyrical performance. The orchestra sustained the journey, and every little detail, every little solo, was played with great insight, telling and delectable. Even if the big moments were not the "biggest", it was a winning performance.

For encores, two Slavonic Dances were played fastidiously, models of refinement rather than oomph.

Sunday, October 28, 2018, Carnegie Hall, 2 PM
Mahler 2nd Symphony
Elizabeth Kulman, Mezzo
Christiane Karg, Soprano
Prague Philharmonic Choir

Bychkov conducted Mahler's 2nd Symphony much as expected - patient, meticulous and, dare I say, somewhat dispassionate. Tempi were broader than usual. Again, lyricism is emphasized over grotesquerie.

The great satisfaction and anticipation derived from the previous evening was sustained for the first half of the work. The first movement's discourse was well planned out and the crescendos and climaxes well crafted. The orchestra's sonority was burnished - how the lower brass blended with the lower strings; and the fine horns and the exquisite winds. Never was there an ugly sound, which some would say is not the way for Mahler. The next three movements fared the best, Bychkov finding much beauty and fresh details, though contrast was less than usual.

As the gargantuan finale unwounded, the good feeling started to dissipate. I did not time it, but it just felt slow - almost excruciatingly so. The Prague Philharmonic Choir were superb in both soft and loud moments, and both soloists were excellent. However, the orchestra, particularly the brass, seemed to have tired and Bychkov seemed to be dragging things along. For me, there was little feeling of transcendence; the climaxes felt rather empty and the "resurrection" came too late.

The massive force deployed had seemed excessive for the deliverance. Perhaps I was alone, as the audience seemed wildly enthusiastic. One notes Bychkov had received almost universal praise in his performances of this piece, one of his calling cards, with many top orchestras. I'd be curious what teh NYT would say.

This was an afternoon concert and the orchestra had played a full program the previous night. I love the orchestra's sonority and wish to hear them any time. However, it did seem the CPO/Bychkov relationship would need a little more time to mature.

30 September, 2018

Jaap Conrad Tao Bruckner

Review: Jaap and Conrad Tao

Sept 27, 2018, Geffen Hall
New York Philharmonic - Jaap - Conrad Tao
Tao - Bruckner

Jaap programs more or less the same things in HK and in NYC, and so this NYC Bruckner's 8th was preceded by last year's HKPO concert (which I did not attend). Pianist/Composer Conrad Tao had appeared before in HK. This night premiers his newest commission, a sort of appendage before the start of Bruckner's 8th (for details, see the NYT review).

Everything Must Go uses the same orchestra as Bruckner's, with a third harp (desired by Bruckner) and extra percussions. It is fine by itself, though I do not find it particularly relevant. It ends quietly as the Bruckner begins.

As in many other Jaap concerts, as well played and meticulously dissected and planned as the Bruckner 8th is, it lacks mystery and grandeur. The first two movements fare better. I find the slow movement singularly lacking in feeling and the finale has no apotheosis. The low brass is awesome, probably the best I have heard - indeed organ-like. But I have trouble with the coarse tone of the horns and Wagner tubas. I miss Philip Meyers and I think the horn section was much more musical under his leadership.

The audience went wild, but I was non-plussed.

26 September, 2018

Roxy Coss Quintet, Niklas Sivelov

Two Events Around Flushing

Downtown Flushing is now basically a large Chinatown. Culturally speaking, Queens has always been lacking in comparison with other outer boroughs, like Brooklyn. However, occasionally, there are some worthwhile events.

The Future Is FemaleSeptember 23, Flushing Town Hall
Roxy Coss Quintet
Original Compositions

The Flushing Town Hall has particularly interesting jazz events this year, especially its Lioness series showcasing women artists. First up was Roxy Coss (event listing), an accomplished saxophonist and composer noted for her stand on gender equality in jazz (see her Blog).

The band played only Coss' original compositions, and they were varied and interesting, particularly the rather "progressive" (rhapsodic and dissonant) number composed after the election of Trump, which is on her latest album, The Future is Female (allaboutjazz review). Her sax sound has finesse, and is rich toned and powerful. I particularly enjoyed the sophisticated guitar playing of the other lead, guitarist Alex Wintz. Bassist Rick Rosato plays soulfully. The small gallery (L-shaped) is nice but I found the sound mix to be a little bass heavy, and the guitar and bass overwhelms the excellent piano playing of Miki Yamanaka, who can only be heard well in her few solo's. The drums of Jimmy McBride were rather too literal to my taste. Overall, the quintet makes great music, and the $5 admission was hard to beat! I am going to other events in this series!

September 24, LeFrak Concert Hall, Queens College
Niklas Sivelov, piano

Wonders never cease! Here is a Danish pianist (also composer) who has been completely off my radar; indeed even Google does not tell you much. And yet, this is one of the best piano recitals I have heard.

Right from the declamatory start of the Bach Partita No. 2 one knows this is a pianist of substance. Dramatic, finely spun, yet with nothing forced (an absolute no-no in Bach for me), the opening set the tone for the piece. the dance rhythms are naturally rendered, yet at times spontaneous and almost jazzy. The counterpoints and the balance between the two hands are always perfect. This is Bach playing of the highest order, and I have never heard better, live or on record.

The Beethoven Op 111 is equally awesome, opening also in a dramatic declaration. Sivelov's excellent technique ensures there is no ugly struggle, yet the uncommonly inventive music is deeply probed and hugely satisfying. The program I have to say is highly intelligent, and his playing makes us aware of the dance and jazzy elements common to both pieces. Bravo!

After a brief intermission, Sivelov plays a group of Scriabin, Sonata-Fantasy No. 2, Deux Morceaux (Op 57 and 59), and Feuillet d'album, Op 58. which are all rendered with the utmost color; the sometimes abruptly shifting vistas always sound interesting and never drifting, as they can be in lesser hands. The last piece was stirring account of Bartok's Sonata. As before, Sivelov's rhythmic command is unassailable.

The pianist is a bit of an eccentric (perhaps that accounts for his obscurity). His soft shoes do not go with his tux, but one understands why he wears them, as he is prone to tap on the floor. Even more unusually, he vocalizes extensively, but the sounds are not the usual sing-along type (Glenn Gould), nor moaning (Keith Jarrett), rather hoarser and closer to hissing and forceful exhalation. These antics can be distracting, but I'd gladly put up with them when the playing is on such lofty grounds.

This was a free lunch time recital on campus; the small LeFrak Hall is beautiful and cosy, and acoustically excellent. The program is going to be repeated at Town Hall today (also free); I almost feel like going again.

19 September, 2018

Inner Mongolia Performing Arts Troupe

Sept 15, 2018, Flushing Town Hall
Inner Mongolia Performing Arts Troupe

The Flushing Town Hall is a historic building that presents cultural events at affordable prices, focused mostly on upcoming ensembles in Jazz and World Music.

The ensemble is a Chinese government sponsored institution. While the music and dance are undoubtedly authentically Mongolian, the choreographed presentation is not without influence from the Soviet (Chinese) and other models. Indeed some numbers could pass for Russian folk dance or flamenco! World Music indeed.

For description of the program, read this cached link. From internet pictures it seems the ensemble is larger that what we saw on the day. Despite the small stage, the dancers gave energetic performances, and the band was excellent. It was hugely enjoyable and the audience (few Chinese) was highly enthusiastic.

06 August, 2018

Concert Review: Asian Youth Orchestra 2018

Concert Review: Asian Youth Orchestra 2018

As I bid farewell to HK, I managed to attend this year's AYO concerts, and I am happy to report it is one of the strongest yet.

August 4, 2018, CCCH
AYO - James Judd - Yu-Chien Cheng
Enescu - Barber - Rachmaninov

Compared to the previous night, from the first note, it was obvious the orchestra is a tighter ensemble under the direction of James Judd.

The opening Enescu Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 was well played and  a crowd pleaser. The Barber Violin Concerto that followed was fluidly played by Yu-Chien Tseng and received idiomatic support from the orchestra. Oddly, despite his fine Guarneri, I find the top registers a little too sharp.

The all-Rachmaninov second half opened with a restrained vocalise, which managed to tuck at the heart string at the last moment. But nothing prepared me for the sheer glory of the Symphonic Dances, which bettered the two performances (HKPO and RNO) I have heard in the last two years (here).

Judd's mastery of the long and tricky score is absolute - there was not a dull moment. Amazingly, the all-important winds played with immense character (unlike the HKPO) and the brass was refined. Before I forget, kudos to the most amazing saxophone solo (a kid from HK)! More importantly, even if the last degree of orchestral power is missing, the sentiment and sometimes wistful character of the score was captured to perfection. Tears rolled down my cheeks - it was that good. The previous night's Russian soloist Anna Tsybuleva, who was sitting with Richard Pontzious in the orchestra, was clearly moved and agitated by the performance, and I saw her wiping away her tears at one point. There can be no higher accolade.

August 3, 2018, CCCH
AYO - Richard Pontzious - Anna Tsybuleva
Wagner - Prokofiev - Rachmaninov - Gershwin

I am not sure why anyone would want to open a concert with Wagner's Die Meisteringer Overture. It is just a hard piece to keep together and keep flowing. On this occasion, the performance was decent, but not exceptional. Ditto Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, which never fails to please, but a bit more poetry would not have been amiss.

The second half raised the temperature. Pianist Anna Tsybuleva delivered a glittering account of Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini. Although her tone was just a little light, her rhythmic finesse carried the piece. To Pontzious' credit, the accompaniment was excellent, tight and fluent. Gershwin's An American in Paris crackled with energy, a piece well suited to Pontzious' usual driven style.

13 July, 2018

Two Wonderful Concerts in Shenzhen

These two wonderful concerts in Shenzhen's acoustically magnificent hall both unfortunately have low attendance. The artists deserve better!

Image result for repin korobeinikovpic from the Strad.

July 4th, 2018, Shenzhen Concert Hall
Vadim Repin - Andrei Korobeinikov
Debussy - Prokofiev - Grieg - Tchaikovsky

Last time I heard a Vadim Repin recital, he was partnered by Nikolai Lugansky (my Blog entry here). This concert instead featured his other regular partner, Andrei Korobeinikov, and I reckon it is an even better match.

The same Debussy Sonata received a very refined reading. Though very fine, again, like with Kyung Wha Chung, I wished for a little more abandon. The same can be said about the Prokofiev Sonata No. 2, which was meticulously played and styled, ironically not so "Russian" in feeling. In both, Korobeinikov proved an equal partner in every sense.

After Kyung Wha Chung's performance of the Grieg Sonata No. 3 in 2013 (entry here), I thought I would never hear its equal, but that happened here! The partnership raised the temperature in the second half and gave a disciplined but impassioned reading. This immensely satisfying reading of the masterpiece was bookended by equally meritorious readings of Prokofiev's Five Melodies and two miniatures, Tchaikovsky's Meditation and Valse Scherzo.

The substantial encore is familiar, likely by Sarasate, but I am not sure what it was. Virtuosity in full flight!

July 13th, 2018, Shenzhen Concert Hall
Shenzhen SO - Yang Tianwa - Peter Wilson
Lalo - Prokofiev

The current standard of violin playing is so high that there are many ladies with seemingly everything, technique, looks, you name it. It is almost like a beauty contest!

Yet, despite the parade of Beauty Queens, Yang Tianwa, rather plain and even somewhat awkward, has become my favorite, and I make sure to hear her whenever possible. To me, this lady is not only the best Chinese violinist (yes, even better than Ning Feng), but simply one of the top violinists, male or female, in the world! For more info on her, read an old entry of mine.

Here she played Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole, not so often heard in concert these days, which she has recorded for Naxos. Yang's greatest strength, her fluid phrasing that so captivated me in Sarasate, is in plentiful evidence here. Small moments and transitional passages were just natural. On the other hand, she also has the penchant to underplay the big themes (she is not one to play to the galleries). Together with her meticulous playing (one hears more notes than usual), this reading came across as jewel-like rather than a virtuosic vehicle. In some ways, Peter Wilson's conducting, somewhat brash and four square, was not fully complimentary, though there were fine moments, like the Wagnerian brass of the andante. An inward looking and meticulously dissected Bach encore was calming.

In Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, Wilson conducted with minimal fuss and efficiency, but the score could have used a little more tone-painting and shaping. The orchestra was big boned, though on this night the winds were a little raucous and the brass somewhat wobbly. No matter, this is a masterpiece that is impossible to ruin!