26 March, 2009

Concert Review: LSO/Repin/Gergiev

Concert Review:

April 24, Avery Fisher Hall
Prokofiev Symphonies 2, 7; Violin Concerto No. 1

It was hard choosing which of the 4 concerts in the LSO/Gergiev Prokofiev cycle to attend. I chose this concert because of the rarely heard Symphony No.2 and because of Repin. Prokofiev must not be too popular as the upper tiers sides were largely empty, though they are acoustically superior. After I sat down I started chatting with the next fellow who told me how wonderful they were the night before, in Piano concerto No. 2 (Feltsman) and Symphonies 1 and 6. I regret not having heard the 6th in particular.

Barely one minute into the Symphony No. 2 one realized one is in the midst of greatness, in both orchestral playing and conducting. There was tremendous discipline behind the violent caccophony of the first movement, played for all its worth by the LSO. Not since Alexander Nevsky in Carnegie Hall (a remarkable performance by PO/Muti) almost three decades ago have I heard such loudness. Yet it was supremely detailed, the orchestra responding to the mesmerizing motions of Gergiev's bare hands (undulating fingers; pawing hands and the lot) with beautifully characterized solo's and immaculate ensembleship. After the titanic first movement that felt like a longer Scythian suite, the second movement was an almost welcome antidote.

For me, the Violin Concerto No. 1 was rather wayward and not quite satisfactory. Vadim Repin played with his usual unearthy tone on his Guarneiri, but on this night he was even tighter than usual, his temperature lower and his volume sometimes reduced to bare audibility. The first movement lacked an ethereal quality and excitement. By the end of the second movement, fanned on by the percussion, things started to catch on and the third movement was the most satisfactory. Perhaps as the program book described, this concerto is in the classical style, but I missed the romance others have brought to the piece. The second part of the second movement was repeated as an encore and the playing was much better and relaxed.

The Symphony No. 7 is one of my favorite pieces, but there was little that was familiar this evening. Gergiev played it not in a lyrical vein (like Previn, Kurtz etc) but rather as something with a troubled program (which it does have), so much so that the soaring strings in its big moment in the first movement brought no reprieve. The ending was particularly well done, tentative and grim and I felt in my body that it was a big question mark. After tumultuous applause, the March from Love for Three Oranges was played as an encore (Tybalt's Death the night before).

Utterly gripping experience of Prokofiev the enigmatic. The fastidiously detailed interpretations were mostly rather unrelenting. One sometimes yearned for the lyrical moments to be less fleeting, but there was never a dull moment. The orchestra's playing was truly awe-inspiring. I think it was on an even higher plane than when I heard them sometime ago in Verdi's Requiem. Most impressive were the growling basses and fierce percussion. The average age is young and this is now one of the top orchestras.

Click here to read the NY Times review

Short Blog by Alex Ross, music critic of The New Yorker

The LSO/Gergiev Prokofiev symphony cycle on Philips (pictured) is now a tremendous bargain at budget price.

I am looking forward to next week, the Fifth! I wonder how it would compare to the Munich/Celibidache we heard in Hk some years ago?

25 March, 2009

Listening Log 25/03/09: Bach and Beyond

Listening Log 25/03/09: Bach and Beyond

Tatiana Nicolayeva's Moscow recordings that were previously issued on Olympia now fetch a good sum on the second-hand market. Fortunately REGIS has now issued all the Shostakovich and Bach. I listened to this potpouri of Bach's smaller pieces and was once again enthralled by the fully pianistic treatment they get from her. This is old fashioned sonority, powerful to the point of near-brutality at times, but tender when called for. Full bodied recording. You should grab all of her recordings on REGIS.

For those who prefer lighter "Bach", Gabriela Montero on EMI serves up solo Bach, but with improvisation. Although always tasteful and not carried to extremes, her improvisations feel freer than Jacques Loussiers', who otherwise has the advantage of the support of bass and percussion. This should appeal to both open-minded classical and jazz fans. Superbly recorded.

Vivaldi's Mandolin concerti are my favorites after the string ones. No one plays them better than ERATO's (now Warner) I Solisti Veneti under Claudio Scimone. This orchestra is more stylish than I Musici and yields nothing to the famous Italian chamber ensembles of our times (Europa Galante, Il Giardino Armonico, Concerto Italiano etc). The sound of the LP is stunning.

Moving on to Haydn. Alban Berg Quartet's EMI readings of Haydn's Op 76 are sadly oop. Too bad, Haydn reveals the ABQ at their finest and most polished, largely without the idosyncracies that sometimes mar their Mozart and Beethoven. Surprisingly, the Revox-sponsored Swiss Carmina Quartet on DENON in Haydn almost get up to their level in ensembleship. Why are they so little known? This morning I listened to the Carmina's Szymanowski quartets (coupled with a little early Webern). Superbly done and atmospheric. A little-known quartet playing music of a little-known composer, who died in absolute poverty.

The Beethoven 4th and Schumann piano concerti were played with incredible artistry by Wilhelm Kempff (BPO/Leitner and BRSO/Kubelik) on DG. I should have visited the Schumann (not to be confused with his earlier account) sooner. Schumann rarely sounds so free, or improvisatory. This is my favorite now, and it sounds great on LP; but it surprises me that this seems not to be available on single CD. In comparison, Richter's Beethoven 3rd (VSO/Sanderling) on the same label is a little too subdued.

A rare LONDON LP of OSR/Ansermet in Sibelius 4th is hughly satisfying. Ansermet's reading is not the darkest, but it's brooding enough and his structural grasp kept the waves coming and the listener is ultimtaley exhausted and overwhelmed by the grandeur. Another great recording by the great Ansermet. Shattering sonics. It is just now available on Australian Eloquence. You must grab it asap.

Lastly, 2 great RCA LPs showcase the synergy between Szeryng and Rubinstein. The Brahms sonstas are refined and the early Beethoven is energized.

I have always liked the works of Berthold Goldschmidt, a composer of Entartete Musik (degenerate music). His Cello concerto was played with fire by Yo-Yo Ma (Montreal/Dutoit) and the violin concerto was played beautifully by the dedicatee Chantal Juillet (PO/composer). Many supremely talented composers of those years either languished in obscurity or worked for Hollywood. A loss to music. Superb DECCA CD.

On BIS, Yevgeny Sudbin plays Scriabin with great clarity and beauty, yet with inevitability freuqently missing in Scriabin interpreters (particularly non-Russian ones). Mot much mist here, and some of the music, like the mazurkas, actually sound better that way! Very good recording.

21 March, 2009

Concert Review: Yevgeny Sudbin

Concert Review: Yevgeny Sudbin

March 14, 2009
Washington Irving High School

Sudbin's Official Site

I was delighted to find out last minute that there was a recital by this new Russian star. Fortunately for me, non-subscription tickets for this was not sold until 2 hrs before curtain time. This is because tickets are $10 and $12. Yes, you read it right. If I am in NYC all-year I'd subscribe!

First a little introduction. Click here for this worthwhile "People's Symphony Concert" series at the Washington Irving High School. Particularly check out "history", since the series was created "to bring the best music to students and workers at minimum prices". Sounds a little Marxist? You bet, at the start of the century.

Washington Irving High School was built in the 1800's and it doesn't look even like a school. While the exterior is great, it's the interior of the concert hall that fascinates! See pics on top. It's about 2/3 the size of HK's City Hall, I'd say, and the lack of restoration gives it an old-world feeling. Doesn't this remind you of a lesser Moscow Concert Hall? I wonder whether that old organ works or not. The seats are wooden and many are in disrepair. DON'T FORGET TO CLICK ON THE PICS ABOVE TO ENLARGE!

The audience are mostly senior citizens, rather noisy on this occasion, even raising the eyebrow of Sudbin occasionally. Nonetheless, I felt this was a wholly appropriate place for a Russian artist to appear in. :-)

The acoustics of the hall is very clear, even a little bright for the Steinway. Sudbin opened with 2 Scarlatti sonatas. He conveyed the lightness, but not really the whimsy behind them, rather concentrating on rare moments of gravitas. Immediately apparent was his excellent technique: superbly clear and walking bass line allied to a smooth treble, although as with most young pianists his trills seemed perfunctory. The Haydn went rather like the Scarlatti, not quite classical enough, but not listless as the performances of Haydn and Bach by Sergio Tiempo in HK recently. Next came 4 Chopin Mazurkas, played forcefully if not entirely subtly.

Sudbin was transformed in the second-half, from a good pianist to a great one in the Russian program. 2 "Fairy Tales" of Medtner were played exquisitely, with appropriately Lisztian breath. The best was for last, the Prokofiev "War sonata" No. 7 ("Stalingrad"). Hey, wasn't that what Tiempo was supposed to play in HK before he changed everything? I am grateful that I can finally hear it, and I was not disappointed. Sudbin brought out every dynamic and coloristic facet of the score. Even when pounding bass (exceptionally clear) he did not forget to bring out the sardonic wit inherent in the treble. Rhythm was well sprung and the feeling of inexorable progress was pervasive. I enjoyed it even more than listening to Horowitz and Richter on record; that sound slike hyperbole, but it's not.

My faith in Russian musicians is once again affirmed. A great recital! I hope he comes to HK!

p.s. For another opinion, here is a blog on this concert.

Listening Log: 21/03/09

Listening Log

With this article I shall start a new series that logs what I have listened to date, at least for what's worthwhile. In contrast to more comprehensive surveys in my other Blogs (CD Library A and B), each CD/LP entry in this series shall be only briefly treated, mostly with no links provided. Should you be interested, it's easy to search for the CDs with Google.

The CDs mentioned in this session were obtained from the Flushing public library.

For me, up to now Hilary Hahn's DG discography has not met the same standards, artistically and sonically, of the SONY releases earlier in her career. My impression has changed with this newest release. Although not an echt-romantic Sibelius (and some may not like this), this is a FRESH and fluent account that benefits from the exceptionally detailed accompaniement of the Swedish Radio SO under Salonen. The coupled Schonberg is arguably even more of a marvel. Hahn's impeccable phrasing made this piece seem not nearly as difficult (took her 2 years to learn) or acerbic as usual. A fine effort in all. Very good sound.

For those not aversive to period performances in Mozart, Minkowski's Mozart Symphonies CD (DG) is refreshing. Les Musiciens du Louvre (Based in Grenoble) play with real bite in the Jupiter, imparting a sense of inevitability that the No. 40 narrowly misses. The Idomeneo ballet filler is crakling. Overall, a great effort, complemented by an excllent recording.

It took me a while to warm up to Giuliano Carmignola's DG 2-CD set of Mozart violin concerti with Orchestra Mozart (one of Abbado's youth orchestras) under Abbado. This is not in the old style of Grumiaux or Szyerng, but Carmignola's playing, besides boasting a sweet and variegated violin tone (that confuses you momentarily that he's playing Vivaldi), illuminates all kinds of details, yet knitting them (unlike Kremer) into an organic whole. Speed is fast, and the orchestra plays with utter committment, digging deep and with little vibrato, in period style. Abbado's conducting is stylish. Although likely not for those who like "sweet" Mozart, these non-sentimenatl accounts reward repeated listening. Excellent recording.

I have always liked Ernest Bloch's much neglected music. There's a lot more than Schelomo! His chamber music, notably the quartets, are particulalrly fine. On Hyperion, the 2 excellent piano quintets are played by Piers Lane and the Australian Goldner String Quartet. They are very well played, though even more bite would have been welcome. As usual, Hyperion's sound, though not bad, is a little veiled (likely too much added reverberance) for me. Note that I am usually NOT a fan of this label. But this is unduly neglected music, and I look foward to hearing more in the Hyperion/Bloch canon.

After the Schwarzkopf/Szell, it's hard to listen to other versions (with the exception of the creamy Gundula Janowitz/Karajan) of Strauss' Four last Songs. The reason for this preference is that these songs, written a year before Strauss' death, really need interpretation and word-pointing. Ricarda Merbeth does better in the softer, rueful, and regretful, moments. Overall she's very good, better than many. The Weimar Staatskapelle play beautifully and Wit conducts cogently. Good recording. Another excellent Naxos release.

With Reservations
Rafal Blechacz, 2005 Chopin Competition Gold medalist and the only Pole after Zimerman, has seen a meteoric rise. I could not get tickets to his Chopin concerto last year with the NYPO. His DG Chopin Preludes show an individual mind at work. He plays with excellent color, but since the overall tempo is a little slow and he pulls things around a little too much for a first listen, a little feeling of homogeniety sets in from time to time. However, some of it is strangely memorable and I should like to return to this CD and see whether things shall grow on me. Afterall, is there a complete Chopin preludes set that is NOT wilful at some point? One thing is for sure, he is a pianist to follow. Recording is fine but not exceptional.

I am a fan of Osmo Vanska, and have heard him to good effect live with the HKPO and the Minnesota Orchestra. However, I have mixed feelings about the first Beethoven CD I have heard, a coupling of Symphony No. 1 and 6. The playing is excellent, with stupendous bassline (just as in concert with the MO). The No. 1 receives a strong performance, but the No. 6 is less distinctive, even less attractive than the live performance with the HKPO. This is a BIS hybrid SACD/CD, which at least on the CD layer has a somewhat veiled sound that does not help.

08 March, 2009

Concert review: SZO/Ehwald/Mahler 6th

Concert review: Shenzhen SO/Ehwald/Mahler 6th

06/03/2009, SZ Concert Hall

Mahler Sixth Symphony

The bad weather that preceded the concert could have been used as a metaphor for what I went through to hear this concert, the first of SZO's spring season.

Up till a few weeks ago, only the unreliable SZSO website listed this concert, It took another week to find out it was to be played in the SZ Concert Hall. However, as the SZ Concert Hall website (a more reliable one) did not show the concert I was deeply suspicious of the accuracy of the info. Two weeks ago I decided to call the SZSO. From the website I only got the personnel department, which did answer me that the tickets were not on sale yet. Finally, one week ago I saw this concert listed in the Concert Hall website and knew it was for sure.

The weather cleared in time for the concert. It was not well attended, perhaps at 60% capacity. This was lower than usual; I guess Mahler fares just as badly across the border as in HK. Even fewer ticket sellers outside (usually there are many, probably selling free tickets from the sponsor bank).

Originally, the Schubert "unfinished" was the opener. It was not until I sat down that I found it was eliminated. Just as well, though I did wonder whether they had run out of rehearsal time. The performance bore out my theory a little.

Ehwald conducted a cogent account, but the expanded orchestra's performance fell shy of the regular orchestra's standard. The symphony was lauched energetically. Although tension sagged a little here and there, overall the dramatic tension was well maintained, and Ehwald graded his dynamics carefully and kept the long line integral. Although the scherzo successfully conveyed the macabre with a myriad of rather refined details, it lacked a certain brusqueness and was ultimately a little tame for my taste. Ehwald throughout balanced the winds prominently and this in the slow movement's meant the string surges lacked a little in sweep. Here too it was also clear more sweetness in the strings would have been beneficial. The finale was structurally sound and it was clear Ehwald had carefully built the climaxes and kept things moving. However, I did miss a sense of menace and struggle, which made the hammer blows less meaningful.

As a whole, although well paced and finely graded in dynamics, this unsentimental account missed some of the struggle in the rhetoric. The orchestra tried hard but it was obvious ensemble and tone (particularly the brass) could have used more polish. In his solo moments, concertmaster Zhang Le was singularly uninsipiring. Nonetheless, given the lack of Mahler experience (much more so than the HKPO) and better instruments I'd say Ehwald did a sterling job (as he did for the previous Brahms, Bartok and Schubert that I heard). I shall continue to try to hear this fine but little known conductor as often as possible.

p.s. ex-HKPO oboe principal Huang Zheng is now principal oboist of the SZO.

03 March, 2009

Concert Review: Amsterdam Baroque - Ton Koopman

March 3, 3009, CH
Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra/Ton Koopman

Thanks to jules, I attended the first of a pair of concerts by this ensemble.

On record I have heard their Bach, which is very fine. In concert I had heard Koopman work his magic with a student orchestra in NYC, again in Bach. So the concert came as a disappointment.

The orchestra for this occasion is smaller than pictured: strings 5,4, 2,2,1; 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns' and no trombones; trumpets but no oboes for for next day's Bach) The Handel Water Music Suite No. 1 set the tone for the evening. Koopman conducted from the harpsichord in an animated fashion, but the orchestra was just plain dull. The balance was exemplary, the strings beautiful in tone and rich in shadings, yet they lacked vitality and rhythm was rather four-square. The ensuing music, in the form of a suite, from Rameau's Dardanus was a little more animated, but not enough so. The articulation was too studied for music that should concentrate on flair and drama.

Koopman stood up to conduct Haydn's Symphony No. 83, "The Hen", one from the Paris set, and the result was much better. The fine balance and refinement were still apparent, but allied to greater rhythmic elan. Koopman managed to infuse some much-needed drama and, although not the most humorous Haydn, the whole was satisfying. Overall, I feel this period orchestra is not quite in the top echelon. Previously, in the same hall, Phillip Herreweghe and Frans Bruggen had given us much more uplifting performances with their period orchestras.