23 September, 2012

Concert Review: Hong Kong Sinfonietta - Maxim Rysanov

picture-6Concert Review: Hong Kong Sinfonietta - Maxim Rysanov

September 22, CH
HK Sinfonietta - Maxim Rysanov - Yip Wing-sie
Prokofiev - Bartok - Chan - Stravinsky

Let me not mince words: Maxim Rysanov is one of the greatest string players I have heard. From the way he phrases the opening of the Bartok Viola Concerto (completion Tibor Serly) to the Romanian (gypsy) flourish of the Finale Rysanov was a model of an utterly natural musical sense wedded to formidable technical assurance. Under his hands, the Guadagnini viola not only has great tonal allure, but is also superbly transparent, with not a hint of the lugubrious quality one finds in lesser violas, more like a violin with richer tone. The orchestra played with discipline and assurance, and the whole was eminently satisfying.

The ambitious program opened with Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1, Classical. The opening was rather guarded, but the performance lightened up as it went along. I have said previously, the current iteration of the HK Sinfonietta is much stronger than before, and it was a commendable account, even if the last degree of flourish was missing from time to time.

The second half was not quite on the same level. Chan Hing-yan's 陳慶恩 'Twas the Thawing Wind 一霎好風 for sheng 笙 and orchestra started promisingly. The sheng has a limited range of color and dynamics, but it was effectively played by Loo Sze-wang 盧思泓. The program note by the composer mentioned, among others, Dowland, but the sonic landscape reminded me rather of the works of Part, Vask and Kancheli. Ultimately, the piece is too long for its materials, and the endless repetitions, rather than adding to, ended up detracting from its supposed poetry. The composer mentioned his fixation to the wind, but for a modern (after Debussy) masterpiece of that descriptive inclination one needs to look to Kancheli's Mourned by the Wind, also for viola and orchestra, which I had the fortune of hearing in Carnegie Hall played by the St Petersburg under Yuri Temirkanov, an unforgettable experience.

The concert closed with a cautious account of Stravinsky's Pulcinella Suite. Like the Prokofiev, this is a score that is very difficult to bring to life, and the Sinfonietta was only periodically successful.

Aside from the Bartok, the HK Sinfonietta is taking the program on the road of their North American tour.

19 September, 2012

Concert Review: Chamber Concert at Artis Tree

Concert Review: Chamber Concert at ArtisTree

September 19, ArtisTree
Musicians of HK Sinfonietta
Yun - Rabe - Bartok

I have long noticed this series, but only managed yesterday to attend for the first time. I'd not miss the Bartok masterpiece for the world! The space was a barely camouflaged commercial space, with pillars obstructing those sitting on the side. But Bartok is not everyone's favorite, so most got to seat in the unobstructed center. Every piece got a nice introduction by the performer(s).

Bassoonist Chin Hing-sang opened with Isang Yun's Monolog for bassoon (first version was for bass clarinet). Indeed, as he said the piece was somewhat folk-tinted, but I found it rather repetitive and other pieces of this composer (like his cello concerto) more exciting.

Folke Rabe's Basta fared better under trombonist Jonathan Watkins. In this small space, the sound of the trombone was very rich; not a bit of glare!

The main course was the Bartók Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, and for a moment the current Chinese-Japanese dispute was forgotten. From where I sat, the pianos sounded unfortunately somewhat opaque. Pianist Alan Chu played accurately, but surely the Hungarian spirit was missing. Guest pianist Helen Cha was almost inaudible. In contrast, the sound of percussionist Rieko Koyama was sharp and incisive, and the playing of tympanist Akihiro Muramoto was excellent as usual (I am his fan). Despite my reservations I enjoyed the live performance very much.

Here is Bartok himself playing the piece with his wife Ditta:

And a more ferocious but highly exciting version by Richter and friends:

17 September, 2012

Concert Review: Hong Kong Philharmonic-Antoni Wit-Ingrid Fliter

Concert Review: Hong Kong Philharmonic - Antoni Wit - Ingrid Fliter
September 14,  CCCH
HKPO - Antoni Wit - Ingrid Fliter
Franck - Saint Saens - Beethoven

For years I have admired the Naxos recordings of Antoni Wit. Also, I have avidly followed pianist Ingrid Fliter's EMI recordings (most available from the library). So I went to the concert with great anticipation. My wishes were not only fulfilled, they were exceeded. Indeed, it was one of the best HKPO concerts ever.

Antoni Wit lost no time showing his true colors. Franck's Le Chasseur Maudit is a difficult piece to bring off, but Wit cajoled the HKPO players to play like possessed, which is exactly what the piece needs. Succesive waves of orchestral colors were a treat for the ears, making one forget its length and repititions.

Ingrid Fliter's playing has been familiar to me from recordings. In concert there seemed to be even more spontaneity. The extreme dynamic spread, strong accents and colors did not always work to the advantage of Saint Saens's Piano Concerto No.2. Indeed some notes sounded rather odd. One misses the patrician elegance and elan of Arthur Rubinstein. However, there was not a dull moment and one admired greatly the spontaneity. The orchestra was somewhat Germanic in response but fully in sync. The encore was a great treat: the 3rd movement of Beethoven's Tempest (just out on EMI) showed off Fliter's temperament to great effect. Indeed, one gives thanks for the masterpiece as well as the utterly fresh reading! Enjoy her youtube below, but I can assure you it was even better in concert!

Beethoven's Eroica received an appropriately grand reading under Wit, who squeezed every drop out of the HKPO. The smallish orchestra sounded big and confident. Wit brought out an incredible amount of details, yet maintained a natural flow. The dynamic contrasts were superbly shaded and climaxes truly thrilling. Here is a true master who can work the divided violins to the work's advantage (many lesser conductors fail, including EdW). This is by far the best Beethoven Symphony I have heard from the HKPO.

Come back soon, Antoni Wit! And how about a recital from Ingrid Fliter?

youtube of Ingrid Fliter playing Tempest:

Here is the seraphic Wilhelm Kempff playing the same:

And here is God Richter playing:

And here is God's teacher Heinrich Neuhaus playing (how wonderful!)

17 August, 2012

Concert Review: HK Sinfonietta - Yang Tianwa

Galerie Tianwa YangConcert Review: HK Sinfonietta - Yang Tianwa

August 11, 2012
Hong Kong Sinfonietta - Yip Wing-sie - Yang Tianwa
All Mendelssohn

Yang Tianwa is a miraculous violinist that many of us avidly follow. My violin-playing friend BenYC even thinks she is the best living violinist before the public! I tend to agree!

In the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, Yang was ardent, yet supremely assured in her playing. There was not a trace of struggle. Phrasing and dynamics all seemed perfectly natural, and her supple tone easily filled the hall. No wonder the concert was sold out! Two virtuosic encores were immaculately rendered.

The Sinfonietta seems to be on a good stretch. The woodwind playing was supple and cohesive. The new lady horn player was assured. Despite the small size (only 8 first violins), the Italian symphony received a tight and satisfying reading that illuminated much inner details. Just a little abandon would have been welcome! They also played the two fillers very well; the Overture and Nocturne from A Midsummer Night's Dream were atmospheric and refined.

Yang is apparently going on tour with the Sinfonietta, playing the Prokofiev!! Now, I'd must hear that in the near future!

14 August, 2012

Concert Review: Asian Youth Orchestra 2012

James JuddConcert Review: Asian Youth Orchestra 2012

August 10, 2012, CCCH
Asian Youth Orchestra - James Judd
Mahler 9th Symphony

Every year the AYO concerts comprise one of the highlights of the year. I have attended every year but last, and that was because they could not book CCCH and tickets sold out quickly.

I have greatly admired James Judd, and his work with the AYO have been marvelous. Two works stood out in particular, an excellent Mahler 5th in 2010 and a valedictory Shostakovich 5th in 2008. Prior to Judd, the AYO had also played a wonderful Mahler 4th in 2006 under the baton of the great Okko Kamu. With all that in mind, I went to the concert with great expectations for the Mahler 9th. Alas, they were not all fulfilled.

As there was no intermission the concert was delayed for too long (a full ten minutes) to accommodate the many latecomers. The first movement started quite promisingly but soon showed cracks at the seams. From mezzi to fortissimi the orchestra played with fervor, but quieter passages grew rather stale and static. In general, the winds and low brass played with character, but the horns were woefully inadequate, and often distracting. I don't know what happened; in past years the horns had been quite good. After what seemingly was an interminable struggle, Judd regained control in the closing pages.

The middle movements fared much better, though just a bit too cautious. Best was the last movement, where Judd worked miracles with the strings. One sensed farewell, and the woodwinds also had their poignant moments. A marvelous achievement.

Judd was rather irritated during the breaks between the movements, when latecomers were allowed in. Of course, applause broke out immediately at the end, despite Judd keeping his baton raised. There was no encore.

01 July, 2012

Concert Review: HKPO - Faust - Rizzi

Concert Review: HKPO - Faust - Rizzi

June 29, 2012, CCCH
Hong Kong Philharmonic - Carlo Rizzi - Isabelle Faust
Schumann - Bartok

It was a miracle the concert happened at all amid Tropical Storm Doksuri. It left us with just enough time to hurry home before Signal 8 was hoisted. The concert was very poorly attended, and that was not just because of the typhoon. Ticket sales was abysmal and HKPO even called up friends and gave tickets away. I am pretty sure HKPO shall not program much Schumann or Bartok in the future. The poor attendance was just too bad. Both soloist and conductor deserved a much larger and wider audience. Coming right after Germany's European Cup loss to Italy, the German Italian partnership on this stage was admirable, in a program that is remarkable for its freshness and intelligent planning.

Isabelle Faust was scheduled to appear with HKPO back some years ago, but cancelled at the last minute due to urgent family matters. It has been a long wait too for the return of Carlo Rizzi, whose gut-wrenching performance of Mahler 6th in 2003 left indelible marks on us who were fortunate enough to have attended - it went straight to the heart in a way the over-rated Edo de Waart could never have emulated. The wait for both artists proved eminently worthwhile.

Opening the program was an oddity - the uncompleted two-movement Zwickau Symphony of Schumann. As an ardent fan of Schumann's symphonies, I must say I thoroughly enjoyed the suave and idiomatic performance, no easy thing in Schumann.

Another two-movement (uncompleted in reality too) work followed - Bartok's Violin Concerto No. 1. Isabelle Faust had previously demonstrated her deep understanding of Bartok in her recording of Bartok Violin Sonatas, and that understanding was much in evidence in the performance of this concerto. Faust's command of tonal color (on the marvelous sounding "Sleeping Beauty" Strad) and sense of the long line simply made bar lines disappear, a miracle when it comes to Bartok. The orchestral contribution was similarly distinguished. After the intermission, she performed another rarity, Schumann's Fantasy in C. For me, Faust went over the top a little and in general the orchestra was less distinguished too than in the opener. A bit of Bach nicely rounded out her appearance.

Finally, back to Bartok, and what a performance of the Miraculous Mandarin Suite! This colorful piece is for me is a little like an amalgamation of Petrouchka and Rite of Spring, though even more difficult to carry off. Here Rizzi showed his operatic strength, a superb ability to tone paint - he got colorful sounds from the orchestra and made the character of the Mandarin virtually leap out of the music! The finale was rousing.

More than most concerts, this entire program was made of pieces much better heard in the concert hall than at home. What a rewarding evening!

Come back soon, Carlo Rizzi and Isabelle Faust!

22 June, 2012

Concert Review: Shenzhen Symphony - Scott Weiss- Hao Duanduan 郝端端

Concert Review: Shenzhen Symphony - Scott Weiss- Hao Duanduan 郝端端

June 15, 2012, Shenzhen Concert Hall
Shenzhen Symphony Orchestra - Scott Weiss- Hao Duanduan 郝端端

This could be the best concert of the year! The concert proved to be a great surprise. I had never heard of either the conductor nor the pianist beforehand, but just went for the program. Information on the performers are scanty, so let me introduce them a little here.

There is very little on the internet on Conductor Scott Weiss (best biography is on Naxos ). Aside from his university career, he seems to be primarily a conductor of wind bands. From the Chinese program book, he seems to have an active career in China, having conducted many of the major Chinese orchestras.

More could be found on 22 year-old Pianist Hao Duanduan 郝端端. Brief biographies can be found in English again at the Naxos site and more info at this French site.

郝端端(DUANDUAN HAO,1990年出生,四岁开始学琴,2001年考入上海音乐学院附小,师从盛一奇教授,2003年由于成绩优秀,免试直升上海音乐学院附中,随后赴法国留学深造至今,师从多米尼克.默赫莱(Dominique Merlet)大师。
2008年5月,获第六届法国”Teresa Llacuna”国际钢琴比赛第一名
2010年10月,获第二十一届意大利“Rina Sala Gallo”国际钢琴比赛第三名
    郝端端十四岁便与上海交响乐团合作演出柴科夫斯基第一钢琴协奏曲,现在他的职业演奏足迹遍及欧洲,参与了德国”Mecklenburg- Vorpommern”艺术节,瑞士音乐节,法国肖邦艺术节,法国广播电台艺术节,法国里尔钢琴艺术节,法国音乐节等欧洲大型音乐活动。
    他的演奏非常准确地抓住了音乐的内涵,奔放热情,但也具有阴沉忧郁的格调,表现出一种内在、沉思的诗意;他的演奏技巧令人敬畏,眼花缭乱,音色铿锵有力, 光彩夺人,展示了他过人的才华,让人领略到他对乐曲高度的艺术鉴别力,精确的音量控制和令人陶醉的音色,令当今音坛最具传奇色彩的钢琴大师阿尔多.奇科里 尼(Aldo Ciccolini)曾当场称赞“一个世纪才出现一位的辉煌艺术家”。
Although my appetite was whetted by a surprisingly cogent and engaging reading of Beethoven's Fidelio Overture, I was still not quite prepared for the magnificent Mozart Piano Concerto No. 23 that followed. Hao played with extreme economy but the directness of utterance went straight to the heart. His chiseled but damped tone was very beautiful and somewhat reminiscent of the fortepiano. The outer movements were straightforward and the orchestra and conductor were with him all the way, but it was in the sublime Adagio that the performers made time stood still. Here we came face to face with Mozart at his greatest - the music literally sang to us in this deceptively artless rendition. After a hectic day, amid pouring rain, the music was catharsis for tired bodies and minds. Yes, it was the best Mozart I have heard.
In the first half I was impressed by the conducting of Weiss, who although economical in gesture kept the orchestra in deft balance between discipline and expressiveness. Both the Beethoven and Mozart were stylishly rendered, no easy matter. The same guidance gave the Shostakovich Symphony No. 5 a rare freshness and purpose. Although shorn of superficial display or bombast, the performance went from strength to strength, turning from inner reflection to a full cry on a dime. The performance had real stature and was among the best I have heard.

I must say I continue to be impressed by the characterful playing of the SZ woodwind players. The percussion section was also superb. It must also be mentioned the important violin solo in the Shostakovich was played to perfection by the leader, a Russian who I think is new to the orchestra.

21 May, 2012

Concert Review: Hong Kong Philharmonic - Ohlsson - Wildner

Concert Review: Hong Kong Philharmonic - Ohlsson - Wildner

May 19, 2012, CCCH
HKPO - Garrick Ohlsson - Johannes Wildner
Britten - Debussy - Brahms

Austrian conductor Johannes Wildner has had long ties with Hong Kong, and should be familiar to many through his early Naxos recordings. On this occasion, his affable manner and musicianship was much in evidence.

Britten's Peter Grimes: Four Sea Interludes opened the program. Although I don't listen much to this piece at home, in the concert hall the colorful orchestration proved quite entertaining. It was not the most atmospheric, but the good playing ensured drama aplenty.

The HKPO has never been able to bring out the flavor in the French repertoire, especially Debussy's works. Although La Mer was reasonably well played and well controlled by Wildner, it felt more Germanic than French. At least on this occasion, things moved and did not become stagnant or flabby.

Brahms is again not a composer the HKPO feel entirely comfortable with, but soloist Garrick Ohlsson and conductor did a magnificent job of collaboration in the Piano Concerto No.1. Ohlsson's playing was outwardly self-effacing, but careful listening revealed a strong personality. His bronze tone, subtle variations of tone color and meticulous balance of chords proved more endurable than what more excitable soloists usually offer. When called for, he hammered it out effortlessly, but what impressed even more was the way he blended into the orchestral fabric in this most symphonic of concertos. The conducting too was magnificent, fluid and urgent when needed. This was not a performance that stressed youthful ardor or attempt to be heaven-storming, but it was ravishing in its maturity - I still savor it as I write!

Ohlsson played three encores, immaculate renditions of two Chopin and Scriabin. A wonderful evening!    

02 May, 2012

Concert Review: Philadelphia Orchestra Simon Rattle

pic from NYT

Concert Review: Philadelphia Orchestra - Simon Rattle

April 27, 2012 Carnegie Hall
Philadelphia Orchestra - Simon Rattle
Brahms - Webern - Schumann

Every classical record collector knows Simon Rattle from the start of his remarkable career. Long before his ascension to the top post of the BPO, his long tenure with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) was amply and meticulously documented by EMI in a huge body of recordings. Many of the CBSO recordings, such as the Mahler 2nd, garnered rave reviews, and I listened to many of them over the years, but I have to say few really touched me, and as a result I never scrambled to hear him. I did try sometime ago to listen to his BPO Brahms cycle at Carnegie, but it was sold out. Imagine my surprise about the program of this concert with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

The Brahms Symphony No. 3 that opened the program was thoroughly captivating. Rattle had good structural grasp, but what impressed me the most was the unforced lyricism of the reading. Many passages had an almost chamber music like transparency. Even more impressive was the fact that Rattle achieved this without micromanagement or podium histrionics; rather, his economical gestures generated fluidity.

I have always liked Webern's Six Pieces, but on this evening it was the first time I REALLY heard all the foreboding and tragedy that are supposedly in the score. The playing was stunningly expressive. The Schumann "Rhenish" that followed was very good but I would have preferred a more driven account.

All in all, a most impressive concert. I have always enjoyed the Philadelphia in Carnegie Hall. On this occasion, although there were a few more bluffs than usual, the sound was most sumptuous. In fact I could not help thinking that the works were concert staples of Rattle's predecessor at the BPO. The surprise was that at times the smoothness and clarity of the playing did remind me of Karajan (at his best).

Addendum: NYT review

28 April, 2012

Concert Review: Jazz at Lincoln Center - The Paul Simon Songbook

April 20, Rose Hall
Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra - Wynton Marsalis
Paul Simon and band
Special Guest: Aaron Neville

For jazz, I prefer acoustic jazz, and preferably small combos performing in small and intimate venues, like any number of downtown jazz clubs. Big bands, even one as good as Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO) with Wynton Marsalis, are less of a priority, not to mention concerts that fuse jazz with pop. And so this concert, part of a fund-raising event, wasn't on my agenda, but an invitation that included a pre-theater dinner was just too good to pass up.

I enjoyed the superb playing of the JLCO; the caliber of the players, many of whom highlighted by solos, was just beyond reproach. As for Paul Simon, no matter what the reviews say, I like his folk side much more that his latter day "world music". I bought Graceland when it came out, but was disappointed by the whole thing: it has always seemed Paul Simon is just Paul Simon; no matter what rhythm is in the background there is no relationship. And yes, I listened more to the black musicians in the background than paid attention to the vocals. And my impression was not altered by this collaboration between Paul Simon's band and JLCO.

Neville live!

Best of all to me was guest star Aaron Neville, one of my heroes, whose trenchant and heart-breaking Bridge over Troubled Water must count as one of my most memorable live experience. In this I agree with the concert review in Jazztimes, rather than that in NYT. His rendition now joins his Ave Maria (from my favorite album - pictured) as my choice cuts.

Below is a youtube of Neville singing the song; I must get the album :

Concert Review: Jonathan Biss Recital

Concert Review: Jonathan Biss Recital

April 15, Town Hall
Beethoven - Janacek - Ludwig

I first discovered Jonathan Biss on a well-reviewed EMI Schumann recital borrowed from the library. and was immediately captivated by the directness of utterance. In fact, as I don't always take to Schumann's piano works and like performances only far and in between, against all odds it became one of my favorites.

Biss is now an Onyx artist and has just issued the first disc of a complete Beethoven set. He has taken the Beethoven works on tour. This NYC concert was reviewed in the NYT. Among others, a similar recital was reviewed in the Guardian.

Briefly, although the playing was at times a bit coarse and overly ferocious, I admired the direct and thoughtfully structured pianism. The Op 10/1, a difficult work to bring off, lacked poetry, but I was eminently satisfied by the "Moonlight" and "Les Adieux". Even better was Janacek's In the Mists, finely spun and felt. A curiosity on the program was a pleasant but light new work by American David Ludwig, called Lunaire Variations, inspired by Schoenberg of course.

Biss wrote an long essay on Beethoven, available as a Kindle single. I am almost tempted to buy the Kindle Fire just to download it. Would someone do it so I can read it?

And can someone tell me what the model of the JBL speakers are?

Postlude Aug 6, 2012:  I accidentally found out these may be the Cinema Series of the JBL 4670D, comprising the 2446H HF Driver and 2380A horn.