24 October, 2009

Concert Review: HKPO-Rozhdestvensky

Concert Review: HKPO-Rozhdestvensky

October 24, 2009, CCCH
Sasha Rozhdestvensky, violinist

Yet another HK surprise. Years ago, I was ecstatic to have caught up with the legendary Sviatoslav Richter, who had an aversion to America. That was truly a once-in-a-lifetime concert. This time I am very happy to have finally heard 78 year old Gennadi Rozdhestvensky, who is now also legendary. He must have appeared in NYC before but I had never heard him. Rozhdestvensky is very well known in the UK since early days, as chronicled in his bio and evidenced by the many BBC Legends issues of his live recordings (many available in the library). His appearances in the US was and is more sporadic. A wikipedia entry revealed some unfortunate unpleasantries with the BSO.

From the orchestral introduction to the Beethoven Violin Concerto, it was immediately apparent we're listening to a true master and not an also-run. A fragile figure, doing without the podium (apparently customary), with minimal but clear motions, and slow tempi that would have been deadly in lesser hands, Gennadi Rozhestvensky drew noble sonorities and superbly concentrated playing from the orchestra. The sound was golden, full and supple, yet louder and more powerful when released. Crescendos had a natural quality and pianissmos palpable.Unlike over-rated lesser conductors who only know to drive hard and push the orchestra to frantic and edgy delivery, the master achieved precision and delivered power effortlessly.

That said, the slow tempi were not for everyone. Clocking in a shade under an hour, one had to listen hard, particularly after dinner. Son Alexander (Sasha) is a fine violinist who has a beautiful tone, but his true and rare gift is a supple sense of the long line. One did not feel the bars, as one phrase just imperceptibly flowed into the next. At this tempo, one missed a little passion, but, occasional intonation problems notwithstanding, this was excellent playing.The Schinttke cadenzas (which involve the tympani) were played wonderfully and I wished they were playing one of Schnittke's violin works instead (Gennadi was and is the greatest champion of this composer; have you ever heard his recordings with Kremer and Tatiana Gridenko? Wow!)). I did not like the Bach encore.

The Shostakovich Symphony No. 10 was also quite slow. No detail was slighted and the performance was precise and atmospheric. In the first three movements the slow tempi did not bother me, as it allowed for much fine and insightful playing that stressed the phantasmagorical rather than the gritty, sarcastic and acidic. However, I did feel the finale could have used more force and attack. But then this Shostakovich symphony is a paradox open to interpretation, is it not? The reception at the end was tumultuous. I must mention again the very fine playing of the orchestral members. To cite just two, I have never heard Kam Shui play so loud and full, and the bassoon is an important figure here; and Mark Vines was absolutely splendid and confident in his delivery.

Hoi had also gone to the Thursday concert, which he said was even slower. He also mentioned the soloist was better last night. The Saturday concert was broadcast live by RTHK, but the program shall be repeated on 29 October at 2 pm. Make sure you tune-in (the slow tempi likely works less well on the air relay) and catch this rare moment. It is unlikely we shall get to hear him again in HK.

Below is a fantastic youtube footage of the pair performing Schnittke's Violin Concerto No. 4! Click the link and find Parts 2-4 in the sidebar.

19 October, 2009

Concert Review: Haydn Creation

Concert Review: Haydn Creation

Octorber 19, 2009, CCCH
Orchester der Klangwaltung/Chorgemeinschaft Neubeuern
Enoch zu Guttenberg, conductor

lcsd website/artist info
Official site

When the choir and orchestra came onstage I was rather excited by their unusually well-designed costumes. While the men in the choir donned Bavarian jackets (similar to Austria's loden jacket, or our Zhongshan, or India's Nehru), the ladies wore subtly patterned dresses. The orchestral ladies were even more spectacular. While their male counterparts wore the usual suits and tails, many of the women wore clothing with unusual cuts and complex non-primary colors that embrace the range from near-orange to near-purple. As in the photo in their promo material, they project a suave image.The designer behind the package should be credited!

The somewhat HIP (historically informed) orchestra used largely modern instruments and was of reduced string size (strings 10, 8, 7, 5, 3) compared to the full woodwinds. The trumpets and trombones were smaller horns than what we usually see. The continuo is unusually a painoforte.

Part I opened with a nice flourish, the vibrato-less string sound and bold tympani eerily evocative. However, as things progressed I became less engaged. The orchestral members played in a highly individual manner but did not quite gel into an ensemble that could deliver forcefully when asked to. This was partly due to the limited size of the strings (in this large venue) and partly due to the approach of the conductor (who bears some resemblance to Tennstedt), who conducted in a somewhat choppy manner, frequently clipping things, even fortissimi, in the wings. While there was much beauty in the tone-painting of the creation of light, water and animals, there was a lack of organic flow and hence, lack of momentum.

The chorus was apparently well-grilled. They sang with unison (even sounding one-voiced sometimes) and wonderful diction. But they were unfortunately placed on the stage rather then in the surrounding balcony. The sound was not as projected as I'd have liked. I say this for a reason. In 04/2004, the London Philharmonic Chorus gave a thrilling Creation with the HKPO under Samuel Wong, and the choral sound then was phenomenally full.

The soloists were excellent. The singing of bass-baritone Klaus Mertens (Raphael) was partician, beautifully projected and just about perfect. Soprano Miriam Meyer (Gabriel; and she was like an angel) has a beautiful voice, sang passionately and ravishingly and was positively beaming in her fortissimos. The Uriel of tenor Colin Blazer was slightly below their level, but still had good command of the style. In Part III, I liked the solid Adam of baritone Thosmas Scharr more than the smokily operatic Eve of soprano Elisabetta Lombardi, who also had the least clear diction.

During the intermission the performers were seen puffing away hard outside. True Europeans! And when they returned, they turned the throttle one notch up. The ensemble improved and the climaxes were more thrilling. The audience was enthusiastic.

Overall, this was a performance that shone light on many details, with meticulous attention to balance and the meaning of the words. However, in terms of coherence and overall excitement it was quite a bit behind the more traditional LPO chorus/HKPO performance mentioned earlier. That performance gave unbirdled passion and joy, and is that not more appropriate for an oratorio that glorifies God?

15 October, 2009

Concert Review: Chopin Society-Joy of Music--Oct-15

Concert Review: Chopin Society-Joy of Music festival

October 15, 2009, CH
Members of LCO chamber group-Pascal Roge

Official Website

This is return engagement for both pianist Pascal Roge and the London Chamber Orchestra chamber group. Previously I had heard and greatly admired their playing, and so I attended with high expectations. Attendance was rather abysmal, though the small audience was enthusiastic and informed.

The excellent cellist Pierre Doumenge was the only member left of this LCO quartet that had appeared here before. This incarnation was led by the Andrew Haveron, no sophomore given his leadership of the Brodsky Quartet! The viola Joel Hunter too was notable for his passion and big tone. Only second violin Magnus Johnston was comparatively reticent and served mostly as a subdued inner voice, sometimes difficult to hear behind the bright tone of Haveron.

The highlight of the concert was Faure's rarely heard Piano Quartet No. 2. The playing of the LCO group astonished me yet again (see below for 2007). With ensemble that was superior to many a more famous quartet (like the Emerson, Hagen etc), the threesome plumbed great depth in this piece which they likely had never played before. The ebb and flow of Faure's music were better conveyed through their kind of incisive playing than performances that are softer. Haveron was positively virile in his playing, which is appropriate in Faure's music that is imbued with (sexual) undertones. From my sixth-row-center seat the piano sound was not quite completely released but, an odd moment here and there notwithstanding, pianist Pascal Roge was caught up by the passion of the strings and delivered playing that was a little soft in volume but idiomatic. Given the difficulties in balancing a piano quartet I was very pleased by this performance. there was plenty of contrast between troubled, stormy episodes and tender moments; between drama and quiet passages of reflection.

The Shostakovich Quartet No. 1 was given another fine performance that lacked only a little in quicksilver about-turns and that sense of the macabre that Shosty's music almost always harbors. In other words, though aggresively played, it was not really gritty.

The ensuing Brahms Clarinet Trio benefitted from the excellent clarinet playing of LCO member Timothy Orpen. Although emotionally slightly cool, his tone and control left little to be desired. Here, Roge's piano playing was more troubling, almost never coming to the fore (except near the end). The ensemble hence lacked a give-and-take quality that prevented Brahms' music to be completely unfolded.

Concert opened with Two Waltzes from Dvorak's Op 54, given a slightly polite delivery.

I re-read my old notes, appended below. Despite personnel changes, much about the LCO chamber playing hold true, though I heard from 2 different sources Gary Graffman was electrifying this year.

Many audiophiles showed up, and I had a good time chatting with ken1967, icefox, jules, whlee, Hoi, sokps, Wesley (sans elegant wife this time), mansanwai, 一休大师, Robin etc. Afterwards, four of us went to have some German beer in Lan Kwai Fong. Wonderful evening!



Chopin Society/Joy of Music Festival

LCO Quartet/Graffman



Like last year, this was a week-long festival, featuring the London Chamber Orchestra String Quartet, Pascal Roge and many others. I had really wanted to attend the Wednesday recital of Anna Vinnitskaya (First Prize, 2007 Queen Elizabeth), and the Thursday concert that featured Roge playing Faure’s piano quintet #1 and Brahms piano quartet #3. Alas, previous commitments precluded my attendance. But I was lucky to have attended the final concert.

Gary Graffman must be around 70 years old now. He opened the concert with a Scriabin etude and an obscure Reineke sonata, both left-hand pieces. His accounts were troubled. While there were some nice tonal shadings, technical failings were difficult to ignore, and the Reinecke was further hampered by a lack of flow. Quite disappointing.

Things got a lot better with the London Chamber Orchestra String Quartet. The Schnittke Piano Quintet was very well played by all parties, atmospheric, by turn funereal and nostalgic. Graffman played with both hands and had some nice sonorities.

The second half featured Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden”, played urgently. The blend of the four strings, while not perfect, was decidedly superior to many a more famous ensemble. Vasko Vassilev, first violin, stood out for his incisive, even vehement playing. He phrasing was sharp, his tone often declamatory, yet his iron grip proved the perfect foil for his softer sounding colleagues. If the playing sometimes lack a lyrical side, it was always engaging.

Attendance was not too good. Andrew Freris’ customary address at the start of the concert took almost 10 minutes. Given that now there are program notes (pretty good) I see no good reason why the audience is obliged to listen to his pedestrian delivery.

08 October, 2009

Book: The Rest is Noise

Book: The Rest is Noise - Listening to the Twentieth Century by Alex Ross

Author's own description of the book
Official Page Publisher MacMillan (Farrar, Strauss, Giroux)
Praise from The Guardian
Praise from the New York Times Book Review

Alex Ross is currently classical music critic for The New Yorker. For those not acquainted with this wonderful magazine, it's highly geared towards the arts, and has always had top writers on their staff. Ross' illustrious predecessors include the famous classical music critic Andrew Porter (referred to by Norman Lebrecht here) .

Taking advantage of the internet's audiovisual ability, author Ross has created on his Blog an AUDIO GUIDE to his book. It's quite entertaining and can stand on it's own. Some of the musical examples are quite familiar to me, but I also learnt a lot of new things. It shall take you quite a while to finish, but the effort shall be amply rewarded. Highly recommended.

Incidentally, the book is available from the library. And if you don't know the man with the gramophone, he's Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog's masterpiece Fitzcarraldo, one of my desert island films. And if you don't know this Kinski you may want to recall his ravishingly beautiful daughter, the actress Natasha Kinski (photos), the one on the CD cover of the Paris, Texas soundtrack.