14 December, 2014

Concert Review: HKPO - Zimmerman - van Zweden

Dec 12, 2014, CCCH
HKPO - Zimmerman - van Zweden
Sibelius - Prokofiev

After his wonderful 2012 HKPO performance of Beethoven, Zimmerman returned for the Sibelius Violin Concerto (interview with Zimmerman on this piece). He played with his usual fastidiousness and "considered spontaneity", and the tone he obtained on his ex-Kreisler Strad was fabulous. Jaap's accompaniment was tidy. But the whole was dispiriting. Where were the passion and grand sweep of Sibelius? A friend who went the next day was even more dismissive, saying "it sounded like a rehearsal". The Bach encore, however, was immaculate!

Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony is one of my favorites, and I had high hopes for Jaap, whose showmanship should suit this sort of stuff. Again, the orchestra played accurately, but the result was bland. Tidiness of the violins robbed the stratospheric passages of dissonance and atmosphere. The finale, while cacophonous, lacked rhythmic swagger, and the coiled tension that should have been there was nowhere in evidence. Ah, I miss Celibidache, whose performance of this piece in HK was so incredibly lively!

Jaap has been disappointing. Aside from his stunning HK debut with the Shostakovich 8th, his Mahler 1st, 4th and now Prokofiev have all been sharply played but musically non-satisfying.

09 December, 2014

Concert Review: Ivo Pogorelich Recital

Image result for pogorelichConcert Review: Ivo Pogorelich Recital

Dec 9, 2014, CCCH
Liszt, Schumann, Stravinsky, Brahms

In a way, it is not possible to review a Pogorelich concert. The pianist has his own rules and one is best to discard convention in listening.

The first half had a Fantasia theme, which was exploited in full by the pianist. Tempi were slow; gears changed abruptly; rhythms were idiosyncratic, and pauses could last an eternity. This can be said to suit the lurid world of the Liszt Dante Sonata. Pogorelich certainly made a meal of the bass ripples, while the treble was always beautiful in tone. But the same approach made the Schumann Fantasy in C thoroughly idiosyncratic, not so much Florestan and Eusebius as all-Pogorelich.

The more structural pieces of the second-half were (just) a little more  straightforward. Stravinsky's 3 Movements from Petrouchka was brilliant but the rhythms did not feel Russian. The Brahms Paganini Variations is not one of my favorite pieces; I have always felt it rather straight-laced. The free rein Pogorelich gave it actually made more involving listening, for me at least. No encore was offered, as is appropriate after such a heavy program.

One thing I thought: for all the tonal beauty and pianistic display, there was not much rhythmic subtlety, nor humor.

Here is a UK comment on his 2014 London concert of the same program.

19 October, 2014

Concert Review HKPO Sinaisky

scmpost_16oct14_ns_russian1_46194443.jpg Pic of Vasily Sinaisky in SCMP interview.

Concert Review: HKPO-Sinaisky

October 18, 2014, CCCH
HKPO-Vasily Sinaisky

Vasily Sinaisky stood in for injured Jaap. See the interesting SCMP interview.

Sinaisky conducted without a baton, and as usual with this breed, warm sound and relaxed music-making take priority over precision and drama.

I have always been lukewarm to Tchaikovsky's Suites, including the one on the program, No. 4, "Mozartiana", which received a warm reading. HKPO rarely succeeds in portraying the lighter and airy side of Tchaikovsky, and indeed the performance was somewhat earthbound. Best was the immaculate solo of concertmaster Wang Jing, which had breath and depth beside tonal beauty.

Mahler received a performance that is the antithesis of most approaches, including those of Jaap van Zweden and Edo de Waart. Eschewing tempo and dynamic exaggerations that mar many Mahler performances (such as Jaap's Mahler 1 and 4), Sinaisky's way with Symphony No. 5 was more straightforward, with generally fast tempi. The lack of lingering, and hence ruefulness and regret, gave the proceedings a much warmer hue and positive tone than usual. Largely bereft of angst, I'd think the reading will divide Mahlerians. I myself have mixed feelings.

The outer movements worked reasonably well with the fast tempi and even approach, but the sprawling scherzo could have used more characterization. The adagietto was very beautifully done, not sentimental at all, as it should be. In this performance, one noticed the warmth of strings. The woodwinds were less ideal. The brass played strongly even if the lead trumpet was shaky at first. I do not quite like the rather nervous bass drum playing of Luce (I prefer Woo).

Audience response was tremendous.

07 September, 2014

The Hong Kong International Photo Festival

Yesterday afternoon I visited Andrew,who has just returned from a photo show at Taikoo Plaza:


I browsed the catalog and the photos of Raghu Rai are simply amazing. Apparently, he was assistant to Henri Cartier-Bresson and a Magnum photographer.

I was struck immediately by the semblance of his photos to the paintings of Breugel, one of which is attached below.

Of course, the experience was enhanced by Yoichi Single Malt poured over a chunky piece of ice.

02 July, 2014

Brief Concert Reviews: Mariss Jansons, Vladimir Jurowski and Ivan Fischer

Brief Concert Reviews: Jansons, Jurowski and Fischer

Belatedly, three wonderful concerts in brief, the most recent first.

pic from NYT

June 2, Avery Fisher Hall
Budapest Festival Orchestra - Ivan Fischer - Daniel Muller-Schott
All Dvorak

The Budapest Festival Orchestra travels a lot. I only just heard them in HK, and then this concert, one of a pair, in NYC. I am not complaining.

Daniel Muller-Schott played sensitively, though his tone was a little small for me. Nonetheless the account of the Dvorak Cello Concerto was still quite good under Ivan Fischer's careful leadership. But in the New World Symphony the orchestra came into their true selves. What a blazing finale! The beautiful woodwind playing and brazenly perfect brass playing also helped deliver the jewel-like Legend No. 10 and Slavonic Dance, Op 72, No. 6.

You must read the NYT Review for description of the wonderful encores.

pic from NYT

May 23, Avery Fisher Hall
NYPO - Vladimir Jurowski - Nicola Benedetti
Szymanowski - Prokofiev

Credit must be due to Nicola Benedetti, who replaced Janine Jensen at the last minute and gave a perfect performance. Together with the expert conducting of Vladimir Jurowski, the performance of the Szymanowski Violin Concerto No. 1 caught all the mercurial moods and exotic color of this great piece (a favorite of mine). The performance was even better than the one she recorded for DG. Her tone was ravishing, if just a little smaller than the regal Jensen.

One often gets to hear Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet but not his Cinderella, and this performance of extended excerpts prove that should never have been the case. Jurowski coaxed incisive playing out of the NYPO, and the brilliant writing and graphic portrait made the characters virtually leap out of the pages. Fantastic!
NYT Review

pic from NYT

May 17, Carnegie Hall
Bavarian Radio Symphony - Mariss Jansons - Michiko Uchida
Beethoven - Shostakovich

Finally I caught up with them! A couple of years ago I bought tickets for a Sunday concert but forgot it was in the afternoon. Just like last time, it was a string of three concerts, and I heard the middle one.

Given the soloist Michiko Uchida, the performance of the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 is not the yin-yang exchange it can sometimes be. Rather, her classicism and refinement was refreshing. The partnership was tight.

Mariss Jansons in Shostakovich Symphony No. 5 is a known entity. The brilliant Bavarian Radio Symphony (which gets better and better) played perfectly. In fact, the immaculate performance reminded me of Haitink's Concertgebouw reading. Emotionally, I am not sure what more can be wrenched out of this evergreen.

NY Times review

18 May, 2014

Haitink Mahler 3

pic from NYT.
Concert Review: New York Philharmonic - Haitink

May 16, Avery Fisher Hall
New York Philharmonic - Bernard Haitink - Bernada Fink
Women of the New York Choral Artists - Brooklyn Youth Chorus
Mahler Symphony No. 3

This was part of the international celebration of Bernard Haitink's 85th birthday and his 60th year as conductor. This led me to contemplate how time flies! When I first heard Haitnk and the Concertgebouw in the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique in Carnegie Hall around 30 years ago I knew nothing about him, but the incredibly natural flow of the performance gripped me and made me an instant fan of his. Since then I had avidly followed him on records, though I think, like quite a few other conductors, he is definitely better heard live. Then some years later there was a performance for the ages of Mahler's Ninth with the BPO, again in Carnegie Hall, which ranked with Karajan's performance of the same work in the same hall as two of my most cherished Mahler experiences.

All I can say is that the performance of Mahler's Third was a ear-opener, a true revelation. The first movement was a little slow, but it picked up in momentum. It is too bad the brass sound has always been a little white from my seat in the second tier (I prefer one flight up). The next two movements were startling in the alternation of light and darkness, and the NYPO, to my surprise, played with chamber-like refinement and intimacy that was breath-taking. The orchestral playing was so absorbing that I was not as receptive to mezzo Bernada Fink as some others. She sang well, but I found both the top and bottom of her range not as well delineated as I'd like. And I also think both choruses were competent but not exceptional. The orchestral contribution never let up and the last movement, surely one of Mahler's finest, was eloquent.

As usual, Haitink conducted with minimal fuss, and focused on the score in front of him, but the fluid line and tonal colors he got were simply awesome. No podium antics, no turn-on-a-dime effects, but the music speaks for itself (the last something used by lesser conductors as an excuse, but it is a completely different matter here). In fact, I have never heard so many details in any recording, and it re-opened my eyes. 

p.s. The week before, Haitink had led the NYPO in Beethoven's Eroica and the Berg Violin Concerto with Leonida Kavakos. The concert got mixed reviews.But the Mahler Third fared better with the NY Times review.

15 May, 2014

Concert Review: Philadelphia Orchestra - Sequin - Batiashvili

Concert Review: Philadelphia Orchestra - Sequin - Batiashvili

May 2, 2014, Carnegie Hall
Philadelphia Orchestra - Yannick Nezet-Sequin - Lisa Batiashvili

The Philadelphia Orchestra is one of my favorites, an orchestra that consistently delivers in Carnegie Hall. Yannick Nezet-Sequin is their hot new director, someone I have heard previously only on records, so I looked forward to this concert! My feelings differ in a few ways from that of the NY Times review.

The Barber Adagio was played in a straightforward manner, which I like, yet I felt the gradation of dynamics was not the most subtle and the music lacked the last degree of flow.

Lisa Batiashvili often performs in NYC, and her popularity is well deserved. Here is someone who plays with the same strength and intelligence in concert as on records. The Bartok Violin Concerto had flair, and the orchestral contribution was wonderful too. Most importantly, her Guarnieri is golden in sound, richer than on records (which I follow closely)! The top has that smoothness allied to power, never prone to the sort of etchiness as a Strad could in the wrong hands.

I most looked forward to the Bruckner 9, and here my feelings were mixed. Nezet-Sequin's grasp was impressive for one so young, although he is occasionally prone to overdrive. But what sound he got out of the helden trombone player! It must rank among one of the most thrilling in my concert experience! The first movement moved well and erected a grand edifice. The scherzo was brilliant. Alas, the all-important third movement to me smoothed out the dissonance and failed to covey the dissolution that I deem essential to the music. Still, a very good performance. 

07 April, 2014

Concert Review: HKPO-Ashkenazy-Gabetta

 Sol Gabetta press photo 2013 / CD "Il progetto Vivaldi 3" - Photo 1Concert Review: HKPO-Ashkenazy-Gabetta

April 4, 2012, CCCH
HKPO-Ashkenazy-Sol Gabetta

I have long followed Ashkenazy and Sol Gabetta on record (many available from the library).  So I was eagerly awaiting the concert.

Vladimir Ashkenazy conducted in a matter-of-fact style that was almost mechanical, but the result he got was outstanding. The orchestra was under total control in the splendid account of Elgar's In the South, long one of my favorites. Control, yes, but what passion we got too!

Elgar's Cello Concerto received a marvellously individual account from Sol Gabetta. Her playing had an almost improvisatory feeling, which suited her just fine as the particular cello she played on is ravishing in tone and she was a superb colorist too. In comparison, the orchestral contribution was poassoibly a little too controlled. Two superb encores drove the audience crazy.

I did not stay for the second half. I was told Ashkenazy's version of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition has its own strong points heard live. I know the record, which did not do too much to me.

23 March, 2014

Concert Review: Shenzhen Symphony Orchestra - Rosel - Ehwald

Concert Review: Shenzhen Symphony Orchestra - Rosel - Ehwald

March 21, 2014, Shenzhen Concert Hall
Shenzhen Symphony Orchestra - Peter Rosel - Christian Ehwald
All Brahms

Peter Rosel must be one of the most under-rated pianist. I have long admired his extensive recordings on Berlin Classics (see his discography); most to me are top tier, including his Rachmaninov and Prokofiev (not surprising given his Russian training with teachers like Bashkirov and Oborin). So I was really excited about the concert.

Needless to say, Rosel had the full measure of Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1, sounding unhurried and bringing out many inner details. As usual, Ehwald and the Shenzhen Symphony delivered idiomatic Brahms. Overall, however, I would have preferred a bit more drive, a more youthful perspective. The end result was just a bit on the plain side, disappointing considering what I have heard on records.

Brahms Symphony No. 2 opened with a leisurely tempo. Ehwald took his time with the next 2 movements too. Compared to his previous performance in 2010 the orchestra obviously played with more beauty (particularly in the winds) and Ehwald was able to cultivate beautiful tutti and chords (so essential in Brahms). However tension sagged a little until the last movement, which was taken at a surprisingly fast tempo, a little coarse for my taste.

11 March, 2014

Concert Review: Shenzhen Symphony - Ehwald - Li

Johnson ZHongxin LiConcert Review: Shenzhen Symphony - Ehwald - Li

March 7, 2014, Shenzhen Concert Hall
Shenzhen Symphony Orchestra - Christian Ehwald - Johnson Zhongxin Li 李仲欣

As they say, good things come in pairs, or so I thought. It is not so often one gets to hear Bruckner in Hong Kong. But the day after the magnificent performance of Bruckner 9 in HK (see last post) there was a Bruckner 4 next door in Shenzhen! I was tired but still decided to go.

Concert opened with a straightforward Wagner Meistersinger Overture I could have done without. Nothing prepared me for the wonderful performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto 1 by Hong Kong's own child prodigy Johnson Li Zhongxin 李仲欣. Judging from what I read on the internet, he must be 11 now, not 9 as the program bio (largely copied from other material) claimed. Although dynamics and shading were not quite comparable with good adult pianists, Li nevertheless played with verve and in a sonorous manner. The interpretation was straightforward and articulate, well supported by the orchestra.

I was quite surprised by the slow tempo Ehwald adopted for Bruckner's Symphony 4, clocking in at more than 70 minutes, and that is almost Celibidache territory. Although Ehwald had the full measure of this symphony and easily managed the tricky passages, the Shenzhen Symphony, good as they are and valiant in their effort, was only periodically successful. One could not help but feel (and endure) the glacial tempo. Not everyone is Celibidache!

09 March, 2014

Concert Review: Budapest Festival Orchestra - Ivan Fischer

Concert Review: Budapest Festival Orchestra - Ivan Fischer

March 6, 2014, CCCH
Budapest Festival Orchestra - Ivan Fischer
Mozart - Bruckner

Ever since I encountered the Budapest Festival Orchestra and Ivan Fischer on their early Hungaroton recordings, I have followed them, particularly through their Philips and Channel Classics recordings; the latter are especially splendid. I was also fortunate enough to have heard them in 2004 (Beethoven and Brahms). I was really excited when I knew they would do Bruckner this time. I googled but found little on them in Bruckner. My considerable expectations were amply fulfilled.

I cannot imagine Mozart's Symphony 40 done any better. Fischer is not a man who wears his heart on his sleeve, and conducted with economy and clarity. The interpretation did not milk the dark undercurrents, but its classicism revealed layers after layers of music, AND emotion, including a tinge of sadness where appropriate. The orchestra was so perfectly balanced that we could hear everything even behind the orchestra. The strings (divided violins) in particular were outstanding, rendering lucid counterpoints. The winds and brass (valveless horns) were likewise perfectly balanced.

Fischer had the full measure of Bruckner's Symphony 9. While the transparent reading did not emphasize angst (like the dissonance in the Adagio), there was a sense of inevitability that led one to contemplate whether Bruckner achieved peace.The seating arrangement was most unusual (but effective) in that the 5 horns were placed upfront in a semi-circle surrounding Fischer, with the 4 Wagner tubas behind them.

Encore was a blissfully serene and incredibly refined Bach Air on G String.

Gramophone had the BFO as the world's 9th best, but IMHO they are among the very top. The strings in particular are second to none, the VPO included.

20 February, 2014

Brief Concert Reviews: HKPO - 2 Concerts - Jaap and Wildner

A belated report on 2 concerts I attended.

December 19, 2013
Jaap-Jussen Brothers-Chen Reiss

I attended the second night. The first night of the 2 concerts was cancelled at the last minute; supposedly, the sudden death of an administrator the same afternoon caused the musicians much distress. The decision was regrettable - it is a show biz rule that the show must go on. In any case, on the second night, the HKPO played very well but the concert proved to be most uninspiring.

Mozart's K365 two-piano concerto is a rarity in concert, but the rendition was disappointing. I did not find the playing of the Jussen Brothers particularly inspiring. The accompaniment was dutiful but the whole was only competent.

Although Mahler's 4th Symphony had its moments and was well executed, Jaap's manipulations resulted in an episodic performance that never gelled. Chen Reiss sang well, but was unable to raise the emotional temperature by then. The performance did not even come close to the last year's sublime Shenzhen Symphony effort under Ehwald.

So far, Jaap still has to prove he is a great Mahlerian.

January 24, 2014
Johannes Wildner - Zhang Haochen
All Schumann

This turned out to be one of the best concerts I have attended.

I was eager for Wildner's return; his previous concert with the HKPO (with Ohlsson in Brahms) was impressive. If anything, he is even better this time.

Seldom have I heard Schumann symphonies played so idiomatically. The great Rhenish was by turn impetuous, mysterious and luminous. No period practice, no lumpy textures, just great music in a fluid performance of elegance and transparency. The lesser Symphony No. 4 also received an equally beguiling performance.

In comparison, Zhang Haochen did not fulfill my high expectations. The Piano Concerto was solidly played but, despite the excellent orchestral contribution, somehow did not quite take flight. Zhang's playing was a little four-square and did not show much of the tonal splendor he is certainly capable of.