13 December, 2016

Concert Review: HKPO Jaap Mahler 3

Dec 10, 2016, CCCH
HKPO-Jaap-Kelly O'Connor-HK Children's Choir-Ladies of the HKP Choir
Mahler Symphony No. 3

With NYPO/Haitink's valedictory 2014 performance of Mahler's Symphony No.3 (here) still fresh in my mind, this performance did not quite measure up, but made for an interesting contrast.

The sprawling first movement showed most of Jaap's traits. Although meticulously detailed and with powerful climaxes, there were sagging moments, mostly in softer passages. Part of this had to do with the orchestra - the strings in particular, as usual, often had a leaden quality, lacking in subtlety and color. However, much of this also had to do with Jaap's pacing, as his smelling of roses sometimes got lost in the forest. The second and third movements also did not quite achieve a natural flow. Contrast this with Haitink, who with minimal intervention let the NYPO bring out much more the light and shade of the score. Indeed, this symphony is supposed to be a paen to nature, and Jaap's rendition seemed too studied in comparison.

The movements with vocal parts always played themselves, and it was no exception here. Kelly O'Connor had a rich voice which seemed perfect for me. Both her top and bottom were more alluring than Haitink's Bernada Fink. I must say, although usually Mark Wilson's oboe playing was not to my liking (as in much of this performance), his solos were nicely turned here. Laudably and delightfully, both the Ladies of the HK Philharmonic Choir and the HK Children's Choir sang clearly and with commendable diction, better than the NYC choirs for Haitink! As one of my friends remarked, a little more zing in the boy's voices would have been perfect. Also, whoever made them up deserves credit - the ladies in particular looked lithe and elegant.

The string dominated first part of the last movement had a good flow, but subsequent development was not entirely devoid of the aforementioned problems. Again, I somehow did not like the perfromance of Luce on the bassdrum and timpani, all sharpness and no color. Nonetheless, overall it was a very fine performance and the audience reception was tumultuous.

09 December, 2016

Yuri Simonov, Vassily Sinaisky

Concert Review: Two Russian Conductors

It has taken me a long time to get to writing up these two concerts, so it will be a little briefer than usual.

November 1, CCCH
Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra/Yuri Simonov/Chen Sa


Event of the year that I almost missed were it not for my friend wss!

This was NOT the usual government LCSD offering, but a presentation by the awkwardly named "Hong Kong Association for Studies of World Literatures and Arts in Chinese" 世界華文文藝研究學會 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the monthly magazine of daily newspaper Mingpao 明報 (a publication with literary aspirations). For the longest time, there was NO publicity except for some ads in Mingpao, and NO internet info available in HK. I only learned of the concerts (I only attended the first one; there was another program the second day) from my friend wss, who saw the ad in Mingpao. SHAME!

The only internet info I found was their Shenzhen concerts a few days earlier, the same programs as in HK. I was ecstatic to find Yuri Simonov was the conductor. Simonov had appeared with the HKPO decades ago, and he GREATLY impressed me. HKPO was very uneven in those days, BUT under a great guest conductor they frequently managed to deliver visceral excitement (unlike now, better playing but less thrills). Imagine Bruckner under Russian Simonov (many orchestral mishaps, but undeniably exciting)!

One caveat. Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra does not have a website, and internet search does not turn up anything. It is well known Russian orchestras are constantly in flux and many have changed names. I remember years ago, in 2000, a so-called MPO visited HK (I did not attend) and caused a scandal (link here). So I was not without apprehension until I actually heard them.

Just a few notes of Shostakovich's Festive Overture were enough to dispel any doubts. Here was a virile orchestra with power and precision! Great stuff!

Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2 was meat and potato to the orchestra, but soloist Chen Sa lacked the last ounce of power and panache to make it really take off, despite Simonov's discrete action of toning down the orchestra.

The orchestra came into its own in Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 2, playing with considerable panache and precision. The string sections had to be among the best I have ever heard. With no more than 12/13 members, the violin sections outplayed (by far) the 16 or so members of the HKPO, playing not only with power and precision, but incredible nuance and subtlety. Simonov's fluid and natural phrasing kept one riveted by Rachmaninov's genius, with none of the longeurs that lesser conductors are wont to bring. The winds were distinctive and the brass strong - so biting, in fact, that some of my friends found them too acerbic (I didn't).

A GREAT Russian orchestra and a GREAT conductor. Come back soon!

November 25-26, CCCH
HKPO-Vassily Sinaisky-Alban Gerhardt


Vasilly Sinaisky last time stepped in last minute for Mahler (here). I liked his style and looked forward to his Tchaikovsky Manfred. I was not disappointed  His Manfred was not histrionic, but rather layered and detailed, coherent and lucid, a symphonic exposition of great satisfaction. The orchestra played very well.

First half was Dvorak's Cello Concerto. I am a fan of cellist Alban Gerhardt, who had appeared in HK before (2010 AYO). But on this evening his tone seemed smaller than last time and I had trouble hearing him sometimes, even if Sinaisky had considerately toned down the orchestra. In all, a rather subdued performance shorn of grandeur.

10 October, 2016

pic from SCMP.

Concert Review: Murray Perahia

October 9, 2016, CCCH
Murray Perahia

On this evening, I met up with quite a few music-loving friends, but caught no sight of the usual audio friends who flock to Mahler.

Haydn's Variations in F minor was beautifully crafted and impressively coherent. The typical "pianistic", full-bodied sound of Perahia meant not much stylistic difference from the ensuing Mozart K310. The central slow movement was particularly beautiful, but the outer movements were a little severe. Pretty, dainty Mozart this was not, and you'd not expect that of Perahia.

A set of Brahms late pieces found the pianist finely honing his finger work. I confess that, except for some of the slow intermezzi, I don't usually take to Brahms piano works, and so it proved on this occasion as I liked the singular slow one the most.

Everyone was looking forward to Beethoven's Hammerklavier, and this listener was not disappointed. Perahia was particularly fired up, and gave the music a rock solid pulse. Everything unfolded inexorably, and the slow movement was beautiful. Only in the fugal last movement did I wish for a little more flexibility, a little stretching of the music, which less technically endowed pianists do. In late Beethoven, the pianist's struggle can sometimes be exciting and many insecure pianists, like Serkin and Schnabel, can shed light in their own way. Of course, Perahia will never be willing to show any insecurity. There was no encore.

Quite a few of my friends were disappointed. One complained of lack of color; another accused him of pedestrian phrasing. In a way, I understand their complaints; Perahia's foremost concern has always been a steady pulse. Pausing and smelling the roses have never been for him. On the other hand, his steady pulse always steered the music on, and never suffered awkward moments. Some like more risk taking, but to each his own.

The concert was reviewed by SCMP., which also ran an Interview.

The same program was played in Los Angeles (LA Times Review) and Manchester (Bachtrack review).

25 September, 2016

Concert Review: Takacs String Quartet

September 20, 2016, Hong Kong University, Grand Hall
Takacs String Quartet
All Beethoven

I try not to miss a good string quartet. Even in HK, in recent years I got to hear the Borodin (multiple times), Hagen, Alban Berg, Emerson, Zehetmair, Shanghai, to name a few. I even follow younger quartets (in NYC), like the Artemis, Belcea, Parker and Jupiter. Since the early 80's, I have heard quite a few esteemed ensembles, like the Juilliard with Robert Mann as leader, and the incredible Talich and Stamic. However, there are just too many of them to catch up with, and somehow I have missed the Takacs, surely one of the world's most prestigious string quartets, until now.

I have however heard many of their CD's. I owe many of their older Hungaroton recordings, which with time are now displaced by their later, and more widely distributed Decca and Hyperion equivalents. As an example, I have both the 1985 Hungaroton (reviewed here by NYT) and the widely acclaimed 1998 Decca Bartok cycles, and they are very different, yet the equally superb Hungaroton is almost forgotten these days. Our public library has most of their recent Hyperion recordings, and I have heard all of them.

The now Colorado based quartet has two original members, second violinist Karoly Shranz and cellist Andras Fejer. Juilliard trained Englishman Edward Dusinberre has been the first violinist since 1993, and the current violist is American Geraldine Walther.

The quartet is over forty years old and has had quite a few personnel changes - that's enough turmoil to cause even great ensembles to disintegrate or deteriorate. Yet the Takacs have managed to stay on top of the game, quite a feat!

Edward Dusinberre has just written a book Beethoven for a Later Age: The Journey of a String Quartet, which has been well received. Some reviews (Telegraph, Independent) allow us peripheral glimpses into the inner workings of the quartet. The author himself introduces his book and in The Guardian touches on his life with the Takacs. A revealing passage in this article described Dusinberre's doubts when recently performing the Op. 132: "...Struggling on stage to maintain my energy, I could not judge if we were communicating an appropriate sense of repose or merely sounded lethargic. Typically, Beethoven’s musical phrases tell a rapidly evolving story, requiring a sense of direction and clear shaping, but here the pace of events is extraordinarily slow.."

I suspect during some parts of the performance Dusinberre would have entertained the same doubts again, as we did too. The first few numbers of the Op. 131, which concluded the concert, felt rather piecemeal and devoid of vitality. Fortunately, the quartet seemed energized by the Presto, and played expressively in the Adagio and Allegro that ensued. Overall, Beethoven's elusive and mercurial shifts in his late works were not caught; and a certain spiritual sense, be it struggle or longing, were not in view. A certain pallidness also pervaded the opener, Op. 18/2, sounding over-studied, hence lacking in classical repose and fluidity, the latter in my opinion the most important element in the early quartets.

Make no mistake, the Takacs are a supremely accomplished ensemble. No matter the composer, the current incarnation on records never stray far from a proper style, and that is no easy thing and must have taken a lot of work. At their best, their playing was at ease, their sonority blended and full-bodied, as evidenced by the accomplished performance of the Op. 95. In terms of sonority, this performance mirrors closely what I have heard on Hyperion.

Chemistry is an interesting and elusive thing. One of the greatest and most cathartic chamber music experience of mine was first hearing the Borodin Quartet in Macau with only one of its founding member, the immortal Valentin Berlinsky. That evening, Borodin's Second String Quartet, not a usual favorite (nor mine), was played and I was astonished that suddenly tears streamed down my cheeks. In the ensuing years, after Berlinsky passed away, I heard the quartet a couple more times. Despite the fact that the first violinist, Ruben Aharonian, is a superb violinist (who I think can walk the line and live more dangerously than Dusinberre, though I'd hate to compare them this way) and had achieved rapport with Berlinsky in the lineup, subsequent performances just suffered in comparison. One sighs. Things change and can never be the same.

That was my first time in the Grand Hall of Hong Kong University. It is similar in construction (plan and material) to the various good-sounding City Halls. The sound was good, though my friends complained the cello was not loud enough. I rather think the dynamics was a little subdued. Somehow I suspect that played a role in what I heard. An enigma.

06 July, 2016

Concert Review: HKPO - Bezhod Abduraimov - Ashkenazy

Concert Review: HKPO - Bezhod Abduraimov - Ashkenazy

July 1, 2016, CCCH
HKPO - Bezhod Abduraimov - Vladimir Ashkenazy
Prokofiev - Elgar

I was really looking forward to the return of both soloist and conductor, and I was not disappointed.

Behzod Abduraimov played a most enticing Rachmaninov 3rd last year, but this year's Prokofiev 3rd Piano Concerto was even more heaven storming. From start to finish, basically he tore up the piano. I have never heard anyone bang louder in the middle registers. In comparison, the bass was less clear and the treble somewhat monochromatic and percussive, though this is par for the course for Prokofiev. In comparison, Wang Yuja in 2010 (here) and 2012 (here) got more nuance out of this concerto. The orchestra under the Russian born Ashkenazy naturally got the full measure of this concerto, playing with power, precision, even some wit and sardonic edge when called for. In all, a fine effort. Although the piano had deteriorated sound by then, the Gluck-Sgambatti Melodie made a perfect encore.

Askenazy is a relatively late comer to Elgar, but his understanding is formidable. He has recorded much of Elgar for Exton and other labels, to almost universal acclaim. As he has delivered outstanding performances of the composer's In the South and Cello Concerto in HK in 2014 (here),  I was really looking forward to his Elgar 1st Symphony, and I was not disappointed.

The only reservation I had was the mammoth first movement, which Ashkenazy did not manage to completely hold together. The tempo was somewhat slow and from the middle on sometimes the quieter passages seemed rather episodic, not helped by HKPO's somewhat mechanical sounding strings. However, from the second movement on, the symphony went from strength to strength, with a positively thrilling finale. Ashkenazy's taut conducting and perfect balance had one's attention riveted. The brass played valiantly, even more heroic than in Bruckner. The winds' comparative weakness showed, but mattered little in this symphony.

I stood up and yelled "bravo" twice; had not felt like that in quite a while!

20 June, 2016

Concert Review: HKPO - Jaap - Karen Gomyo

Image result for karen gomyoConcert Review: HKPO - Jaap - Karen Gomyo

June 18, 2016, CCCH
HKPO - Jaap van Zweden - Karen Gomyo
Rossini - Bruch - Borstlap - Respighi

A spirited reading of Rossini's La Gazza Ladra Overture opened the program. The main attraction, Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1 received a tidy performance from the team. Karen Gomyo has a nice tone and played smoothly, but the feeling was somewhat small-scaled. Jaap delivered an excellent accompaniment (as he always does), but wanting was the piece's sense of brooding and melancholia.

Second-half opened with a surprisingly tonal (in the twentieth century sense) newly commissioned work by Borstlap, Solemn Night Music. The program extravagantly introduces the composer as "...one of the first composers in Europe to explore the possibilities of a revival of the classical tradition...", and the music "...which absorbs the musical style of the 20th century, presents related ideas which are constantly varied and almost never repeated literally, so that we hear the same things in ever newer forms...". Unfortunately, while we hear snippets here and there reminiscent of Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht, these were indeed "varied" to go nowhere. Borstlap's tepid "night music" is devoid of fantasy and not a patch on Schoenberg's masterpiece. One of the most boring piece of new music I have heard.

Respighi's Pines of Rome suits Jaap to a "T", who brought out every nuance in the luxurious score, and the orchestra was responsive to his every whim, though the piece remained music without much spiritual element. I wished the organ was louder.

17 June, 2016

Concert Review: HKPO Bruckner 4th

Image result for van zwedenImage result for louis lortieConcert Review: HKPO Bruckner 4th

June 11, 2016, CCCH
HKPO - Jaap van Zweden - Louis Lortie
Mozart - Bruckner

Concert opened with Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 22, which the sometimes wayward Lortie (in recordings) played surprisingly in a straight and fluid fashion. Although stylish, the last ounce of tonal and rhythmic refinement was missing, and his tone was not the biggest. The orchestral accompaniment was stylish and tight - commendable.

Bruckner's Fourth Symphony (Haas) received an excellent performance. All sections played at an elevated standard. Even more than the strings, the woodwinds seemed more fortified than usual. The brass was largely excellent, with steady and atmospheric horns. More importantly, Jaap van Zweden, an acknowledged Bruckner conductor, mostly had the right feeling of ebb and flow so important to Bruckner. He was also able to coax a full and truly thrilling sound in the climaxes, yet keep things tight and eventful in the equally important softer moments.

However, his approach did not fully carry the last movement. Maybe this sounds like heresy: like the Brahms Fourth, personally I have always found the ending problematic (the alternate editions too), as the ending "blaze" is to me not as thrilling as the first climaxes. Also, there are many start and stop passages, which under Jaap's literal rendition had a feeling remarkably close to the first movement of the Fifth Symphony (this is not as it should be, as the 5th inhabits a completely different world, with a less radiant, more mysterious atmosphere). Thus, in the last movement grandeur was only intermittently evident; my own feeling is you need some more shaping and stretching to achieve true atmosphere, and HKPO had achieved this before in this symphony (under Yuri Simonov and Gunther Herbig; see my write-up here). Lu Jia had also achieved more atmosphere in this symphony with his Macau Orchestra (here).

The HKPO strings are part of the problem. They played with accuracy and power, but not much radiance so important in Bruckner (which Lu Jia/Macau did well). Places like the repetitive figures in the last movement, and the Trio, just felt mechanical and earthbound. But overall, I am satisfied.

vs Philadelphia Orchestra/Yannick Nezet-Sequin's Bruckner 4th
Take all this with a grain of salt, as I did not attend the performance, having only heard it through the radio. It is pathetic that these are the only two performances of Bruckner in HK this year, that it had to be the same symphony and that they came within a month of each other!

I thought the Philadelphia rendition clearly rendered and very well played (as usual for this orchestra), but it had almost the same problem as the same team's Bruckner 9th I heard in Carnegie Hall (here), namely a lack of spiritual dimension in the last movement (Jaap did not escape from this either). In terms of flow, overall I prefer Jaap's conception.

Opinions among my friends were quite divided. Some reveled in the Piladelphia's sonority, while others found a curious lack of spiritual journey. At the HKPO concert, I ran into a dozen acquaintances - they were divided too but surprisingly the majority preferred the HKPO/Jaap performance. There is some brand loyalty and US-bashing here I think, but that is par for the course.

A thought: In the quest for precision, many performances under younger conductors to a variable degree miss the spiritual side of things. This is across the board, a world-wide phenomenon.

Concert Review: Richard Galliano

Image result for galliano bach
Concert Review: Richard Galliano

June 10, 2016, CH
Richard Galliano - City Chamber Orchestra - Jean Thorel
Vivaldi - Villa-Lobos - Piazolla - Galliano

I came to know polyglot musician Richard Galliano through his magnificent Bach album, which I first borrowed from the library. I liked it so much that I bought the CD.

The first half comprised an arrangement of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, for bandoneon, two violins, viola, cello and bass (same as in the Bach album). Although Bach himself had arranged much of Vivaldi successfully, Galliano's working of Vivaldi, unlike his Bach, was only intermittently successful. The bandoneon frequently gets tripped in both fast and slow passages. The string players of the CCOHK are marvelous. In particular, the playing of Concertmaster Amelia Chan was magnificent, completely fluid, and she frequently stole the limelight from Galliano!

Second-half opened without soloist, in a tidy rendition of Villa Lobos Bachianas Brasilerias No. 9, but I personally would like a larger orchestra (or a smaller space) for this composer's mostly sec works.

Piazolla's Aconcagua Concerto found Galliano in his true elements. Simply magnificent, and imho as good as the master's own! If only the strait-laced percussion (drum and tympani) had more Latin flavor!

Then came Galliano's La Valse a Margaux, a beautiful old-styled waltz played to perfection.

The encores were magnificent. The first was a potpurri - I think Galliano's own, maybe partly improvised. I heard everything, a trace of Bach here, maybe Widor too? And then Piazolla and so forth. Great stuff! Then came Piazolla's smoky Oblivion (with orchestral accompaniment) that rounded out a very nice evening.