22 July, 2011

CD Recommendations: Concierto de Aranjuez

CD Recommendations: Concierto de Aranjuez

The blind composer Rodrigo wrote one masterpiece, the Concierto de Aranjuez for guitar and orchestra. For more info on this piece, read the wikipedia entry, which is lively and informative, though far from complete. I am sure you already know much of the music. If you think you don't, listen to the youtube clips supplied below and you shall realize you do.

There are literally hundreds of recordings available (click here), and it is hard to make a bad recording of this transcendentally beautiful music. Personally I'd opt for a Spanish guitarist accompanied by a Spanish orchestra if possible. Narcisco Yepes recorded it several times, but some versions seem to be out of print (for available ones, see here). All of them are delightful, so I'd go for the budget one shown (Universal/DG).

Yang Xuefei's version (EMI) is easily available, and has interesting fillers. I am not sure how "Spanish" she is, but she as always plays with character (to me much more interesting than those Japanese female guitarists). The Spanish orchestra and conductor are good too.

The wiki entry neglected to mention that the composer himself arranged his work for harp (for the great Zabaleta) and this version is performed to perfection in a new Sony/RCA issue (info in German; artist's website), which I recently found in the library! Xavier de Maistre, harpist of the VPO, is magnificent, strong, fleet, nuanced, indeed better than some guitarists! And the fuller sonority of the harp is a great pleasure. This may not be easy to source but is worth it.

Jazzed Up
Over the years there have been numerous arrangements of this syblime music. Most famous is Miles Davis' version (arranged by Gil Evans), which Miles delivers in his sparse style (Columbia).

But last year I chanced on the Jim Hall version and fell in love with it (CTI; info here). The Hall version stays quite close to the original and I prefer it because of its use of guitar, which is still best in delivering that certain sultry feeling.

You can listen to Miles and Hall in the youtube clips below. Many other arrangements veer too much towards pop and should be avoided if you have heard or love the originals.

There are tons of videos on this music. I have selected a few, mostly of the slow movement, for your enjoyment/comparison. First, classical guitarist Xuefei Yang's Proms performance is not for the full classical orchestra, but it is atmospherically shot. I particularly like Yang's rather individual, even somewhat masculine, way. The EMI promo for her CD is great to watch too.

The Miles Davis version is great, but I still like the guitar better:

It's too bad Miles' version is the one every jazz lover thinks of, but I think Jazz guitarist Jim Hall's version (with a great band) is actually better, more atmospheric and closer to the original. You get the best of all worlds here, guitar and trumpet!

16 July, 2011

Concert Review: Shenzhen SO - Fred Buttkewitz - Shostakovich

Concert Review: Shenzhen SO - Fred Buttkewitz - Shostakovich

8 July, 2011, Shenzhen Concert Hall
Fred Buttkewitz - Bai Ming 白明

White birds flying against a terrible black sky
Before I went into this concert, I tried to dig up info on the rather anonymous German conductor Fred Buttkewitz. The only detailed info was available in German, on the website of the National Youth Orchestra of Hamburg, of which he is Chief Conductor (Google translation of bio). It would appear he is yet another of those German kappellmeisters who came up through the ranks of their substantial network of radio orchestras (which is good training, no doubt). I did not have much expectation, but I was surprised from the start.

Borodin's In the Steppes of Central Asia is nothing if not atmosphere, and the marvelous winds delivered it right from the start, and beautiful strings followed. It was also clear Buttkewitz was not into micro-management and focused on the long line. The next piece for viola and small orchestra (no upper strings), Hindemith's Der Schwanendreher, proved more problematic. This is difficult music that takes more than good playing to come off. Although the orchestra and soloist (section leader) Bai Ming 白明 played safe, and Buttkewitz showed good control, the performance was too soft to display the neoclassical flavor and the jagged rhythmic patterns so essential to this composer's works. Nonetheless, a good try at a piece of difficult music that is certainly not a crowd-pleaser. A bonus came in the form of the contribution by the Russian lady harpist, of subtle and great beauty; and she in the encore of Chinese transcription outshone the violist!

The second half of the substantial program was a magnificent, and magnanimous, account of the Shostakovich Symphony No. 11. Compared with the 6th, this symphony perhaps is not as difficult to bring off, but with last year's seemingly definitive (I'd say immortal) June 4 performance by HKPO under Alexander Lazarev still fresh in the mind, before the performance I had thought I might be disappointed.

Quite the opposite happened: the performance in this sonically resplendent hall was a "symphonic" revelation that taught me much about the music and to look beyond the graphic episodes. For insight on this symphony, I'd refer to to the excellent CSO program notes.

The first movement was a little slower than usual, a little plain even, but it unfolded steadily and inexorably under Buttkewitz' steady baton, with hardly any rubato, building up quite powerfully to the second movement. The musical jostling before the massacre was well conveyed. The events of January 9th, 1905, were depicted with great power. I had thought it would not happen, but slowly and surely tears rolled down my cheeks. The SSO was perhaps not as vehement and graphic as the HKPO under Lazarev, but the playing was precise and superlative, with the weightiest sonority I have heard yet from this orchestra.

After the brilliance of the first two movements, many performances (both live and recorded) lose ground in the next two movements, which in lesser hands become anti-climatic. Emphatically not so here. As a matter of fact, under the steady direction of Buttkewitz I became intensely aware for the first time of what Shostakovich was trying to convey in the second-half of the symphony. Reminiscence, remembrance, yes; but to overcome is the riding goal. The music may sometimes collapse or lurch forward awkwardly but it is always forward, no matter the cost. The past (in musical quotation) comes back to haunt us, but is always beaten back by heroic calls of change (in musical quotation). There is always something new in the horizon, but never just exchanging one form of brutality for another, instead something more magnanimous and forgiving of the unspeakable past. In this performance, the symbolism of the kaleidoscopic shift of material became clear as day. In this respect, the second half even surpassed the HKPO-Lazarev performance in elucidating Shostakovich the enigma.

Attendance was abysmal, but the crowd was speechless and enthusiastic at the end. For once, in SZ, I was not at all the only person yelling "Bravo!" My hats off to the conductor and orchestra.

The great Anna Akhmatova said of Shostakovich's use of old songs (from CSO notes) in this symphony: “Those songs were like white birds flying against a terrible black sky.” And so I understood at the time of performance.

The greatest music are unfathomable, and it takes a lifetime to plumb the depths. Reckonings during a live performance are moments of magic and uncommon. For this, I am grateful for this wonderful performance.

去年的六四,Alexander Lazarev 指揮的港樂給了我們一個永遠難忘的蕭氏第十一號 (點擊這裡)。我以爲這次深交的演出一定會給比了下去,但令人雀躍地,事實並不是這樣。在默默無名的 Fred Buttkewitz 領導下,深交的演出面面俱全, 感人之餘極具深度,再次證明好的音樂是無窮盡的,只待有心人去演繹。

指揮很有耐性,把曲子處理得有條不紊,非凡地一氣呵成。用畫面點的語言來形容的話,在漫長的第一樂章乃至第二樂章大屠殺高潮前,指揮緩而有力地營造了各種躍動,不安,恐懼與威脅的氣氛。大屠殺的刻畫理性,毫不揭斯底理,但仍然異常震撼,令人愕然淚下。 最難得的卻是下來的兩個樂章,結構性強的處理令我聽到了蕭氏各主題裏的主導性和相互關係: 各主題互相的鬥爭,在巨大犧牲後,時代的巨輪下擠出了艱苦的勝利。


上半場先是 Borodin 《亞細亞草原》,可喜地奏出了氣氛。下來的 Hindemith《烤天鵝的人》中提琴協奏曲,曲目艱深,中提琴首席白明演出穩健,但缺神采;樂隊也一樣,沒能奏出曲子應有的節奏感。

08 July, 2011

Concert Review: Shenzhen SO -Zhang Guoyong - Shostakovich

Concert Review: Shenzhen SO - Zhang Guoyong - Shostakovich

17 June, 2011, Shenzhen Concert Hall
Zhang Guoyong 張囯勇 -Gao Tianyang 高天陽
All Shostakovich

For the world, I wouldn't miss most Shostakovich concerts, not to say one conducted by the wonderful Zhang Guoyong 张国勇, whom I wrote about in great length after hearing
his magnificent performance last year of Shostakovich Symphony No. 15.

That valedictory performance of an enigmatic work still resounds in my mind as if freshly minted. For this concert, I applaud Zhang for choosing yet another enigmatic work from the composer's cannon. Shostakovich symphony No. 6 seems to be gaining in status, and I refer you to this plainspoken but excellent program note for more info.

This symphony is difficult to bring off in concert or on records. Despite my profound admiration for Zhang, I regret to say I found the performance not entirely successful. Needless to say, Zhang shaped the piece well, and the orchestra played very well for him, but the work needs more management than usual, more color, more sarcasm, and less politeness when called for. Ultimately, the performance lacked the magic brought by the wonderful Mark Elder in a 2008 performance with the HKPO.

A similar plainness marred the performance of the Violin Concerto No. 1. I felt the 19 year-old soloist Gao Tiangyang 高天阳 was technically secure but he not surprisingly skimmed over the surface of the score. The opening Festival Overture fared better.

(像第 5,7-12 號) 比較容易定位及找到演出方向;另一些卻比較困難,而可嘉的是 張囯勇 這兩年在深交演的都屬於後者。去年的 第 15 號 令我大爲震撼,但今年的 蕭氏交響樂第 6 號 卻沒能再次替我帶來同一程度的驚喜。說老實話,我是認爲這曲子是更難更深的。樂隊表現雖然不錯,而 張囯勇 的演繹也平穩明確,但整體缺乏了必需的神來之筆,效果遠不及 2008 Mark Elder 港交的演出

上半場的 小提琴協奏曲第一號 有點乏味。
小提琴獨奏 高天陽 才十九嵗, 技術沒有問題,但沒能演繹出曲子應有的風格及變化;同樣深交,比起 2009 年 Antje Weithaas 的演出 相差甚遠。開場的 節日序曲 平穩之餘也嫌喜慶不足。

附錄:小提琴独奏高天阳生于1992年,5岁习琴,曾获得2001年上海“索乐杯”少儿小提琴比赛第一名,2005年罗马尼亚国际小提琴比赛少儿组第一 名,2006年第八届中国小提琴演奏比赛少年组第二名及少年组“中国作品演奏奖”,2008年在梅纽因国际小提琴大赛中也取得了好成绩。