06 December, 2018

Trio Solisti

December 2, 2018, Town Hall
Haydn: Trio in C Major, Hob. XV/27
Dvorak: Trio No. 2 in G minor, Op. 26
Brahms: Trio in B Major, Op. 8 (rev. version)

I can't remember the last time I heard a full Piano Trio recital. This is one of the most difficult formations to get right, and even on record I do not find too many favorites.

So kudos to Trio Solisti for delivering a consistently polished and balanced sound. Pianist Fabio Bidini plays idiomatically, still sometimes overwhelm things, but not often. Violinist Maria Bachmann is exceptionally steady and pure in intonation, though I sometimes wish she would play with a little more abandon. Cellist Alexis Pier Gerlach wears her heart on her sleeve and is excellent, though the dark sound of her instrument sometimes buries her in the mix.

The Haydn Trio is basically a piano sonata with string obligato, quite nice and pleasant. The following Dvorak Piano Trio No. 2 is much meatier, though rarely programmed. It is a rather concise work that nonetheless harbors all of Dvorak's mature style. The Brahms Piano Trio No. 1 is much better known and received a polished performance.

30 November, 2018

New York Philharmonic - Jaap - Lamsma 

November 30, 2018, Geffen Hall
New York Philharmonic - Jaap - Lamsma
Britten - Shostakovich

What a tough program for the musicians! I have to say, this was the most committed playing by the NYPO I have heard in a while.

Concert opened with Britten's Violin Concerto, ably played by Dutch soloist Simone Lamsma, whose CD's (Challenge) I have enjoyed. Both soloist and orchestra delivered idiomatic playing. However, for me Lamsma's tone on her strad, particularly in the midrange, was on the lean (though not gritty) side and not fully fleshed out, which does not matter that much in this piece.

The mammoth Shostakovich Symphony 7th received a gargantuan performance. The loud passages were truly epic, graphic, and terrifying - they made me uncomfortable, which was the purpose. Most gratifyingly, Jaap maintained a good flow and navigated all the transitions well. The musicians played wonderfully. The woodwinds with character, the brass fiery and strings penetrating. Perhaps the elegiac aspects of the score could have been brought out more, but I was involved.

There was tremendous applause at the end, but I somehow felt perhaps one should not. I had thought that there must be people in the audience who have lived through the siege of Lennigrad. I noticed the old lady close by did not clap, and so I said what I was thinking to her, and she replied: "...you know, I was there...". A poignant moment that attests to the success of the performance.

NYT Review

BSO Nelsons Mahler Gruber

Boston Symphony Orchestra - Andris Nelsons

November 19, 2018, Carnegie Hall
Boston Symphony Orchestra - Andris Nelsons - Hakan Hardenberger
Gruber - Mahler

The program is hinged on one thing: the trumpet. Andris Nelsons, the new BSO director and in hot demand elsewhere, was a trumpeter.

So it was not surprising that he programmed HK Gruber's Aerial, a trumpet concerto. As usual for this composer, the piece was stylistically all over the map. See the reviews on the same program in the Boston Classical Review and New York Times.

The Mahler 5th of course opens with a trumpet solo. I agree with both reviews that the Mahler was kind of disappointing. While I enjoyed very much the quality of playing, I too often found the lines sagging and tension wanting (particularly in the Finale).

18 November, 2018

Image result for amanda monaco flushing town hallAmanda Monaco Quartet

November 18, 2018, Flushing Town Hall
Amanda Monaco Quartet

Another concert in the very worthwhile Lioness series showcasing female jazz artists. Previously I reported on Roxy Coss, tenor saxophonist.

Led by Amanda Monaco, guitarist, the day's quartet's other members are Hammond Organist Brian Charette, Jeff Davis on Drums and Lauren Sevian on Baritone Sax.

They played mostly original compositions by Monaco, very much like reported here (though personnels are somewhat different). Unlike Roxy Coss, the style is straightforward, and Monaco was almost subdued, with brief soloing and mostly back up playing, ceding the spotlight generously to others, particularly Lauren Sevian, most unusually playing baritone sax exclusively. The rhythm was steady and nothing sounded edgy. Both drums and organ fit snuggly into the picture. The sound is harmonious (not so easily achieved, believe me) and I enjoyed it a great deal.

14 November, 2018

Philadelphia Orchestra - Yannick Nezet-Sequin - Joyce DiDonato

Joyce DiDonato and Yannick Nézet-Séguin pair their star power at Philadelphia OrchestraConcert Review: Philadelphia Orchestra - Yannick NezetSequin - Joyce DiDonato

Nov 13, 2018, Carnegie Hall
Philadelphia Orchestra - Yannick Nezet-Sequin - Joyce DiDonato
Wagner - Bates - Chausson - Respighi

I went to this concert for a single reason: I am a fan of Chausson, and it is a rare opportunity to hear his work. My view of the concert does not differ so much from the Philadelphia Inquirer review of the same program a week before (where the pic also comes from). Poeme de l'amour et de la mer was ravishing and hugely satisfying, though I do think DiDonato's French enunciation could be improved upon.

The program was intelligently planned. The first half opened with a well played Prelude to Act I of Wagner's Lohengrin, surely not unrelated to Chausson. Then came a relatively new piece (first premiered by CSO in 2014) by new music darling Martin Bates, Anthology of Fantsastic Zoology, a pictorial painting (tone poem really) of Borges' work of the same name, which depicts a succession of fantastical and imaginary beings. There were many shifting moods, and the playing was marvelously coordinated and the sonorities interesting. However, I happen to be well acquainted with Borges' writing and don't think the score was that successful in capturing the fantastical.

The second half closed with Respighi's Fountains of Rome. Yet again, I fail to be drawn into this composer's world. The reading was very good but not enough to transport me.

10 November, 2018

Image result for matsuevConcert Review: Dennis Matsuev

Nov 9th, 2018, Carnegie Hall
Dennid Matsuev
Beethoven - Rachmaninoff - Chopin - Tchaikovsky - Prokofiev

Keyboard Virtuosi today are a curious breed. Eager to sound more modern and different, yet longing also to belong to the romantic tradition, they frequently court controversy and put themselves as well as their audience into a conundrum.

In the case of Matsuev, there is another dimension. Like Gergiev, he is deemed by some Russian expats (likely Ukrainians) as a Putin Puppet - indeed there was a small demonstration against him right outside Carnegie Hall (Gergiev had received this treatment many times in NYC). They were a minuscule minority, as inside the venue there was a Russian diaspora, ney, occupation - I heard a lot more Russian than English.

There has never been the least bit of doubt on Matsuev's keyboard prowess, but questions about his artistry persist. I have known him through his mostly excellent concerto recordings with Gergiev on the Mariinsky label, but this is the first time I have heard him in person. Judged by this concert, he is definitely a titan capable of making truly colossal sounds, likely unrivaled (with all due respect to Freire, I'd have liked to have heard him playing the Brahms with Gergiev; see last post below). However, his affinity for composers seem to vary a great deal, and not all interpretations were successful.

The openers to both halves were not too successful. Beethoven's Op 2/3 is not an easy sonata to bring off, and Matsuev's rendition came off as highly idiosyncratic rather than personal and memorable. The disjointed first movement aside, the adagio was an attempt to create profundity, with only intermittent success; whereas the scherzo and finale's gaiety came across as forced. Chopin's Ballade No. 4 was more rounded and sometimes rousing, but it was fragmentary, a common failing in this genre, and Matsuev failed to rise above it.

The Chopin was followed by Tchaikovsky's Meditation, well played and with a touch of regret. The following Prokofiev Sonata No. 7 was sweeping and superbly executed. For me, the complete lack of struggle and total command of sonority (no acerbic sound allowed) sometimes worked against the work, but it was quite a performance nonetheless.

However, the crown jewel was what ended the first half, a magisterial rendering of Rachmaninov's Variations on a Theme by Corelli, which in lesser hands can be an utter bore. Uncommonly lucid and perfectly balanced, Matsuev revealed more of the work than anyone I have heard on record. Indeed, he made it appear not so far off from one of my favorite orchestral works, the Symphonic Dances. Whereas elsewhere (like in the Beethoven) his astonishingly powerful left hand can actually blur the inner voices, in this work he used it judiciously and coloristically, giving shape and a high degree of coherence and symphonic grandeur. A brilliant achievement, and one of the very best Rachmaninov, or any piano playing, I have heard. That alone was more than worth the price of admission.

Matsuev was straightforward in manner, walking briskly to and from the piano and giving a string of encores without prompting, though the wildly adulating audience could have gone on forever in applause. Five encores were performed, the best to me a touchingly simple traumerei.

02 November, 2018

Mariinsky Orchestra - Valery Gergiev - Nelson Freire

Image result for gergievMariinsky Orchestra - Valery Gergiev - Nelson Freire
November 1, 2018, Carnegie Hall
Mariinsky Orchestra - Valery Gergiev - Nelson Freire
Brahms - Strauss

Valery Gergiev and the Mariisky Orchestra seldom disappoint on record, but it is less common to hear them (on record) do non-Russian works. Gergiev has always had an affinity for German works, and is in fact now director of the Munich Philharmonic.

The swift opening of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 made clear it was not going to be the typical romantic reading. Indeed the string sonority was a little grainy at first. Like on records (mainly their own label), the orchestra just came across as occasionally coarse, but the sound certainly smoothed out as the piece went along. In the slow movement, the solo playing were memorable.

This piece is one of Nelson Freire's calling cards, and he had recorded an excellent version for Decca (still a benchmark). More than ten years on, he looked a little frail, his playing remained elegant, beautifully proportioned and fresh sounding, full of details which never stuck out. However, although he could still sound big, the piano tone was inevitably somewhat light, which disadvantaged him in tutti as he got covered by the orchestra. Most of the time however, Gergiev kept the balance and reined in the orchestra. Overall, stylistically this performance did not gel like the rapturous rendering delivered by Leonskaja/Fedoseyev in Shenzhen earlier this year (entry here). The Gluck/Sgambatti encore was ravishing.

Strauss' Ein Heldenleben, likely more suitable to Gergiev's style, has been in Gergiev's active repertoire for a while. His recent recording with the Munich PO (on their own label) has received great acclaim (a youtube snippet here, and the whole is also available), and so it was not surprising to find this performance full of rigor and, yes, majesty. Gergiev has always been dramatic, but he has never been pompous nor bombarding, and so it was here. The orchestra delivered playing of the highest order - the strings now sounded powerful but smooth and expressive; the winds, particularly in their characterizations of the "Hero's Adversaries", utterly pungent and characterful; and, my, the brass - powerful, yet golden and noble! All sections were vividly drawn out - the "Battlefield" rhythmically delectable; the "Companion" loving; but the most impressive was the long last section, "Hero's Escape from the World and Fulfillment", which most often receive performances that do not match the title - here it did in spades, as the music conveyed a rare nobility.

Incidentally, the musical Concertmaster, Lorenz Nasturica-Herschcowici, appears to be hold the position in both the Munich PO and Marriisky Orchestra.

As if that were not enough, for an encore the triumphant end of Stravinsky's Firebird was delivered with the same majesty.

29 October, 2018

Czech Philharmonic Semyon Bychkov

Image result for bychkov czech nytReview: Cezch Philharmonic - Semyon Bychkov

In the West, the once glorious Czech Philharmonic has been off the map for far too long. Its instability since the Velvet revolution meant a rapid succession of stop-gap directors, none of whom left much of a mark (see wiki entry). Aside from continual close performing and recording ties with Japan, its profile was lower than many more stable "newly" ascendent orchestras (like the Budapest Festival under Ivan Fischer, the Russian National under Pletnev, the Mariinsky under Gergiev, the Staatskapelle Berlin under Barenboim, even Academia di Santa Cecilia under Antonio Pappano). That just goes to show the importance of a strong and visionary director.

The tide started to turn when Jiri Belohlavek resumed leadership in 2012, culminating with a Decca contract and acclaimed recordings, which were put into uncertainty in 2017 by Belohlavek's sudden passing. Semyon Bychkov, a regular guest since 2013, was recently appointed the director (over two Czech principal guest conductors). However, although it seems Bychkov has been positively received, his Decca Tchaikovsky recordings had garnished only mixed reviews.

It has been the longest time been I heard the Czech PO, and I was ultra eager, especially since they are reported to be on the rise again. Though my expectations were largely fulfilled, they were not unmarred by question marks.

Saturday, October 27, 2018, Carnegie Hall, 8 PM
All - Dvorak with Alisa Weilerstein

I had heard Alisa Weilerstein live twice before in Elgar and own her recordings, and thus know her well. Much of what I said about her style still rings true for this performance. For my taste, the Cello Concerto was just too much on the indulgent, soft and "feminine" side - tenderness abound, but there was not much muscle. What bothered me even more was her tendency to scoop a little and the mildly, perhaps intentionally applied, portamenti. To me, The Dvorak is not like the Elgar, and needs more discipline. The orchestra played beautifully, in great detail, and with great feeling.

Like the Cello Concerto, the Symphony No. 7 was on the stately side. There are many approaches to this symphony, and obviously Bychkov preferred not to drive too hard nor rely on sheer "brilliance". Instead, he sculpted patiently and built structurally, resulting in a classically proportioned and lyrical performance. The orchestra sustained the journey, and every little detail, every little solo, was played with great insight, telling and delectable. Even if the big moments were not the "biggest", it was a winning performance.

For encores, two Slavonic Dances were played fastidiously, models of refinement rather than oomph.

Sunday, October 28, 2018, Carnegie Hall, 2 PM
Mahler 2nd Symphony
Elizabeth Kulman, Mezzo
Christiane Karg, Soprano
Prague Philharmonic Choir

Bychkov conducted Mahler's 2nd Symphony much as expected - patient, meticulous and, dare I say, somewhat dispassionate. Tempi were broader than usual. Again, lyricism is emphasized over grotesquerie.

The great satisfaction and anticipation derived from the previous evening was sustained for the first half of the work. The first movement's discourse was well planned out and the crescendos and climaxes well crafted. The orchestra's sonority was burnished - how the lower brass blended with the lower strings; and the fine horns and the exquisite winds. Never was there an ugly sound, which some would say is not the way for Mahler. The next three movements fared the best, Bychkov finding much beauty and fresh details, though contrast was less than usual.

As the gargantuan finale unwounded, the good feeling started to dissipate. I did not time it, but it just felt slow - almost excruciatingly so. The Prague Philharmonic Choir were superb in both soft and loud moments, and both soloists were excellent. However, the orchestra, particularly the brass, seemed to have tired and Bychkov seemed to be dragging things along. For me, there was little feeling of transcendence; the climaxes felt rather empty and the "resurrection" came too late.

The massive force deployed had seemed excessive for the deliverance. Perhaps I was alone, as the audience seemed wildly enthusiastic. One notes Bychkov had received almost universal praise in his performances of this piece, one of his calling cards, with many top orchestras. I'd be curious what teh NYT would say.

This was an afternoon concert and the orchestra had played a full program the previous night. I love the orchestra's sonority and wish to hear them any time. However, it did seem the CPO/Bychkov relationship would need a little more time to mature.

30 September, 2018

Jaap Conrad Tao Bruckner

Review: Jaap and Conrad Tao

Sept 27, 2018, Geffen Hall
New York Philharmonic - Jaap - Conrad Tao
Tao - Bruckner

Jaap programs more or less the same things in HK and in NYC, and so this NYC Bruckner's 8th was preceded by last year's HKPO concert (which I did not attend). Pianist/Composer Conrad Tao had appeared before in HK. This night premiers his newest commission, a sort of appendage before the start of Bruckner's 8th (for details, see the NYT review).

Everything Must Go uses the same orchestra as Bruckner's, with a third harp (desired by Bruckner) and extra percussions. It is fine by itself, though I do not find it particularly relevant. It ends quietly as the Bruckner begins.

As in many other Jaap concerts, as well played and meticulously dissected and planned as the Bruckner 8th is, it lacks mystery and grandeur. The first two movements fare better. I find the slow movement singularly lacking in feeling and the finale has no apotheosis. The low brass is awesome, probably the best I have heard - indeed organ-like. But I have trouble with the coarse tone of the horns and Wagner tubas. I miss Philip Meyers and I think the horn section was much more musical under his leadership.

The audience went wild, but I was non-plussed.

26 September, 2018

Roxy Coss Quintet, Niklas Sivelov

Two Events Around Flushing

Downtown Flushing is now basically a large Chinatown. Culturally speaking, Queens has always been lacking in comparison with other outer boroughs, like Brooklyn. However, occasionally, there are some worthwhile events.

The Future Is FemaleSeptember 23, Flushing Town Hall
Roxy Coss Quintet
Original Compositions

The Flushing Town Hall has particularly interesting jazz events this year, especially its Lioness series showcasing women artists. First up was Roxy Coss (event listing), an accomplished saxophonist and composer noted for her stand on gender equality in jazz (see her Blog).

The band played only Coss' original compositions, and they were varied and interesting, particularly the rather "progressive" (rhapsodic and dissonant) number composed after the election of Trump, which is on her latest album, The Future is Female (allaboutjazz review). Her sax sound has finesse, and is rich toned and powerful. I particularly enjoyed the sophisticated guitar playing of the other lead, guitarist Alex Wintz. Bassist Rick Rosato plays soulfully. The small gallery (L-shaped) is nice but I found the sound mix to be a little bass heavy, and the guitar and bass overwhelms the excellent piano playing of Miki Yamanaka, who can only be heard well in her few solo's. The drums of Jimmy McBride were rather too literal to my taste. Overall, the quintet makes great music, and the $5 admission was hard to beat! I am going to other events in this series!

September 24, LeFrak Concert Hall, Queens College
Niklas Sivelov, piano

Wonders never cease! Here is a Danish pianist (also composer) who has been completely off my radar; indeed even Google does not tell you much. And yet, this is one of the best piano recitals I have heard.

Right from the declamatory start of the Bach Partita No. 2 one knows this is a pianist of substance. Dramatic, finely spun, yet with nothing forced (an absolute no-no in Bach for me), the opening set the tone for the piece. the dance rhythms are naturally rendered, yet at times spontaneous and almost jazzy. The counterpoints and the balance between the two hands are always perfect. This is Bach playing of the highest order, and I have never heard better, live or on record.

The Beethoven Op 111 is equally awesome, opening also in a dramatic declaration. Sivelov's excellent technique ensures there is no ugly struggle, yet the uncommonly inventive music is deeply probed and hugely satisfying. The program I have to say is highly intelligent, and his playing makes us aware of the dance and jazzy elements common to both pieces. Bravo!

After a brief intermission, Sivelov plays a group of Scriabin, Sonata-Fantasy No. 2, Deux Morceaux (Op 57 and 59), and Feuillet d'album, Op 58. which are all rendered with the utmost color; the sometimes abruptly shifting vistas always sound interesting and never drifting, as they can be in lesser hands. The last piece was stirring account of Bartok's Sonata. As before, Sivelov's rhythmic command is unassailable.

The pianist is a bit of an eccentric (perhaps that accounts for his obscurity). His soft shoes do not go with his tux, but one understands why he wears them, as he is prone to tap on the floor. Even more unusually, he vocalizes extensively, but the sounds are not the usual sing-along type (Glenn Gould), nor moaning (Keith Jarrett), rather hoarser and closer to hissing and forceful exhalation. These antics can be distracting, but I'd gladly put up with them when the playing is on such lofty grounds.

This was a free lunch time recital on campus; the small LeFrak Hall is beautiful and cosy, and acoustically excellent. The program is going to be repeated at Town Hall today (also free); I almost feel like going again.

19 September, 2018

Inner Mongolia Performing Arts Troupe

Sept 15, 2018, Flushing Town Hall
Inner Mongolia Performing Arts Troupe

The Flushing Town Hall is a historic building that presents cultural events at affordable prices, focused mostly on upcoming ensembles in Jazz and World Music.

The ensemble is a Chinese government sponsored institution. While the music and dance are undoubtedly authentically Mongolian, the choreographed presentation is not without influence from the Soviet (Chinese) and other models. Indeed some numbers could pass for Russian folk dance or flamenco! World Music indeed.

For description of the program, read this cached link. From internet pictures it seems the ensemble is larger that what we saw on the day. Despite the small stage, the dancers gave energetic performances, and the band was excellent. It was hugely enjoyable and the audience (few Chinese) was highly enthusiastic.

06 August, 2018

Concert Review: Asian Youth Orchestra 2018

Concert Review: Asian Youth Orchestra 2018

As I bid farewell to HK, I managed to attend this year's AYO concerts, and I am happy to report it is one of the strongest yet.

August 4, 2018, CCCH
AYO - James Judd - Yu-Chien Cheng
Enescu - Barber - Rachmaninov

Compared to the previous night, from the first note, it was obvious the orchestra is a tighter ensemble under the direction of James Judd.

The opening Enescu Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 was well played and  a crowd pleaser. The Barber Violin Concerto that followed was fluidly played by Yu-Chien Tseng and received idiomatic support from the orchestra. Oddly, despite his fine Guarneri, I find the top registers a little too sharp.

The all-Rachmaninov second half opened with a restrained vocalise, which managed to tuck at the heart string at the last moment. But nothing prepared me for the sheer glory of the Symphonic Dances, which bettered the two performances (HKPO and RNO) I have heard in the last two years (here).

Judd's mastery of the long and tricky score is absolute - there was not a dull moment. Amazingly, the all-important winds played with immense character (unlike the HKPO) and the brass was refined. Before I forget, kudos to the most amazing saxophone solo (a kid from HK)! More importantly, even if the last degree of orchestral power is missing, the sentiment and sometimes wistful character of the score was captured to perfection. Tears rolled down my cheeks - it was that good. The previous night's Russian soloist Anna Tsybuleva, who was sitting with Richard Pontzious in the orchestra, was clearly moved and agitated by the performance, and I saw her wiping away her tears at one point. There can be no higher accolade.

August 3, 2018, CCCH
AYO - Richard Pontzious - Anna Tsybuleva
Wagner - Prokofiev - Rachmaninov - Gershwin

I am not sure why anyone would want to open a concert with Wagner's Die Meisteringer Overture. It is just a hard piece to keep together and keep flowing. On this occasion, the performance was decent, but not exceptional. Ditto Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, which never fails to please, but a bit more poetry would not have been amiss.

The second half raised the temperature. Pianist Anna Tsybuleva delivered a glittering account of Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini. Although her tone was just a little light, her rhythmic finesse carried the piece. To Pontzious' credit, the accompaniment was excellent, tight and fluent. Gershwin's An American in Paris crackled with energy, a piece well suited to Pontzious' usual driven style.

13 July, 2018

Two Wonderful Concerts in Shenzhen

These two wonderful concerts in Shenzhen's acoustically magnificent hall both unfortunately have low attendance. The artists deserve better!

Image result for repin korobeinikovpic from the Strad.

July 4th, 2018, Shenzhen Concert Hall
Vadim Repin - Andrei Korobeinikov
Debussy - Prokofiev - Grieg - Tchaikovsky

Last time I heard a Vadim Repin recital, he was partnered by Nikolai Lugansky (my Blog entry here). This concert instead featured his other regular partner, Andrei Korobeinikov, and I reckon it is an even better match.

The same Debussy Sonata received a very refined reading. Though very fine, again, like with Kyung Wha Chung, I wished for a little more abandon. The same can be said about the Prokofiev Sonata No. 2, which was meticulously played and styled, ironically not so "Russian" in feeling. In both, Korobeinikov proved an equal partner in every sense.

After Kyung Wha Chung's performance of the Grieg Sonata No. 3 in 2013 (entry here), I thought I would never hear its equal, but that happened here! The partnership raised the temperature in the second half and gave a disciplined but impassioned reading. This immensely satisfying reading of the masterpiece was bookended by equally meritorious readings of Prokofiev's Five Melodies and two miniatures, Tchaikovsky's Meditation and Valse Scherzo.

The substantial encore is familiar, likely by Sarasate, but I am not sure what it was. Virtuosity in full flight!

July 13th, 2018, Shenzhen Concert Hall
Shenzhen SO - Yang Tianwa - Peter Wilson
Lalo - Prokofiev

The current standard of violin playing is so high that there are many ladies with seemingly everything, technique, looks, you name it. It is almost like a beauty contest!

Yet, despite the parade of Beauty Queens, Yang Tianwa, rather plain and even somewhat awkward, has become my favorite, and I make sure to hear her whenever possible. To me, this lady is not only the best Chinese violinist (yes, even better than Ning Feng), but simply one of the top violinists, male or female, in the world! For more info on her, read an old entry of mine.

Here she played Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole, not so often heard in concert these days, which she has recorded for Naxos. Yang's greatest strength, her fluid phrasing that so captivated me in Sarasate, is in plentiful evidence here. Small moments and transitional passages were just natural. On the other hand, she also has the penchant to underplay the big themes (she is not one to play to the galleries). Together with her meticulous playing (one hears more notes than usual), this reading came across as jewel-like rather than a virtuosic vehicle. In some ways, Peter Wilson's conducting, somewhat brash and four square, was not fully complimentary, though there were fine moments, like the Wagnerian brass of the andante. An inward looking and meticulously dissected Bach encore was calming.

In Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, Wilson conducted with minimal fuss and efficiency, but the score could have used a little more tone-painting and shaping. The orchestra was big boned, though on this night the winds were a little raucous and the brass somewhat wobbly. No matter, this is a masterpiece that is impossible to ruin!

15 June, 2018

Geneva Camerata Greilsammer Mullova

Concert review: Geneva Camerata Greilsammer Mullova

June 14, 2018, HKU Grand Hall
Geneva Camerata - Victoria Mullova - David Greilsammer
Mendelssohn - Beethoven

After many years' absence (around 20 in fact) Victoria Mullova returned to HK. These days she has ventured into period performances, jazz and other things, so no wonder she was here partnered by the Geneva Camerata, a 5-year old ensemble under the leadership of the eclectic pianist David Greilsammer.

Each half opened with a recomposition by the Israeli composer Keren. The better was Debussy's Fireworks, from the Preludes. The orchestration reveals how "orchestral" the score is; indeed, many places revoke La Mer. Much less effective was the Variations on Gershwin's Porgy and Bess - not much swinging feeling, and the solo cello part felt perfunctory.

Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto was played in Mullova's usual literal manner, technically impeccable but without much tonal shading, not to mention the elan so needed in this work. The HIP styled accompaniment was way too lean for this work. In my opinion, the luxuriant style of Mendelssohn is much less suited to HIP styled performances than his more classical forbearers Beethoven and Mozart (as borne out by the second half). Indeed, this performance mirrors that of the Ibragimova recording with the period Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Jurowski. Mendelssohn should be a well made Riesling rather than a very dry but colorless white.

While I was not thrilled, the audience gave Mullova a great ovation. As an encore she played a composition by her son Misha Abbado (what a name; son of Claudio), Brazil. It is actually an interesting piece, redolent of Bach and Villa-Lobos, but, again, Mullova was too literal.

Beethoven's Symphony No. 8 fared much better. Despite its reputation of New Age, the orchestra was obviously much more at home here. The playing was lean and mean, yet with verve and elan. Ditto the encore, last movement of Mozart's Prague.

Throughout, the young and excellent players played with great enthusiasm. Obviously, there was not the classic blend. The small string section (5, 4, 3, 3, 2) sounded seriously deficient in the Mendelssohn, less so in Beethoven and Mozart. Thus configured, the winds and brass were prominent. The wind players were characterful but a bit loose, and the valveless horns were a matter of taste. I cannot really assess Greilsammer's conducting, such a hell-fire bent! For myself, when it comes to chamber orchestras, I like a more mellifluous blend, such as those achieved by some of the Czech ensembles.

11 June, 2018

Artemis QuartetConcert Review: Artemis Quartet

June 7th, 2018, CH
Artemis Quartet

I have followed the Artemis Quartet (on CD) for a long time. However, this iteration of the Artemis Quartet is not one I am familiar with. The library has a lot of their EMI/Virgin recordings, which were all led by the formidable Natalia Prishepenko. Since she left in 2012, there have been no new recordings until relatively recently (on Erato). In the interim, like the Alban Berg, the ensemble also suffered death of a member (see wiki entry).

It must have been a tall order to be Prishepenko's successor but, judging from this concert, Latvian Vineta Sareika has done an excellent job. The ensemble plays with well-nigh perfect intonation and integration, with not a hair out of place. No wonder they are still an ensemble of top standing.

Beethoven's Op 18/3 was stylish and fluid. Janacek's No. 1 and Schumann's No. 3, both difficult works to carry off, were exemplarily played - in fact, I'd prefer a little more struggle and vehemence in both of these pieces.

One thing I found interesting about this ensemble. They possibly have the most blended sound I have heard in a quartet. In most quartet's (and other ensembles too) the lead violinist almost always sound just a little sharper and stand out more, but not this Artemis ensemble. Though she leads faultlessly, Sareika simply does not dominate the sound picture.

29 May, 2018

Dang Thai Son

Concert Review: Dang Thai Son

A pianist who is famous for not being famous
This is what the Montreal Gazette calls Dang Thai Son in an early and very perceptive article that tells you quite a bit about the low-keyed artist (much better than our recent SCMP coverage).

Ever since I heard Dang more than 10 years ago (maybe close to 20; can someone fill in the year?) in HK, I have become one of his fans. But trying to find his CDs is quite a task.

Recordings of Limited Circulation
I have his very first and only recording for DG (LP) with his frail frame on the cover, and it is unfortunate this recording is not in international circulation.

Dang has been well known among the connoisseurs in Japan and Taiwan. If you browse Dang's Official Site, he has actually recorded a lot of Chopin for JVC (Japan), and these used to be appear in PRC incarnations (Polo Arts), but I am not sure about availability now. They are excellent.

The Library also has his excellent Polish Chopin Institute recordings of the Nocturnes and the Piano Concerti.

May 26, 2018, CH
Dang Thai Son Recital
Schubert - Chopin - Paderewski - Liszt

More a master pianist of great patience and inner strength, Dang is not a pianist who wears his heart on his sleeve. So in rather stately and inward readings there was no great sturm und drang in Schubert's Allegretto in C minor, not to mention 12 German Dances.

The Chopin numbers again reveals why Dang is regarded as a master Chopin pianist. Tempos were again on the slow side, but in the Barcarolle, one marveled at the motion and clearness, while the Andante spianato et Grande polonaise brilliante was positively stately and built to true grandeur.

After intermission, five Paderewski pieces were played with crystalline clarity, and each had its own character. I liked Liszt's Reminiscences de Norma ever better, as it unfolded leisurely but grandly.

For encore, Dang played some Schubert at very slow tempo, and here the intimations and undercurrents were captivating.

26 May, 2018

Concert Review: Vladimir Ashkenazy and Esther Yoo

Image result for yoo glazunovConcert Review: Vladimir Ashkenazy and Esther Yoo

May 25, 2018, CCCH
HKPO - Ashkenazy - Yoo
Glazunov - Beethoven

I have always enjoyed every concert of Vladimir Ashkenazy with the HKPO. And so I awaited this concert eagerly, more so since I have recently also discovered Esther Yoo. I was captivated by her Sibelius/Glazunov disc (DG) from the library.

Ashkenazy conducted in his typical no-nonsense, even somewhat mechanical fashion, yet the results he obtained from the HKPO were astonishing. Glazunov's Chopiniana, a pleasant piece, was lyrical and relaxed, tinged with a Russian feeling that the bland HKPO rarely could produce.

The team's rendition of Glazunov's Violin Concerto was much like the recording, though even better in its depth of feeling. Miraculously, Yoo's violin, "Prince Obolensky" Strad, sounded just as in her recordings, rich and totally without strain. More than most of her peers, she is a natural, projecting and playing with the utmost ease and without pretense. There was not a hint of "trying to be different". With such gorgeous playing, there is no need to. Her encore, a solo Bach (sarabande), was similarly divine.

TCHAIKOVSKY Violin Concerto / YooBut in some ways, the second half, Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, was even more amazing. HKPO has never really done great Beethoven, but this effort ranks with their very best. Ashkenazy coaxed a marvelously detailed, yet fluid and stylish performance out of the HKPO.

Those enamored of Yoo should investigate her more recent release of Tchaikovsky, for me even morememorable than her Glazunov/Sibelius disc. Since I borrowed it from the library, I could not stop playing it!

11 May, 2018

Nathalie Stutzmann and Orfeo 55

Quella Fiamma: Arie AnticheConcert Review: Nathalie Stutzmann and Orfeo 55

May 11, CH
Nathalie Stutzmann and Orfeo 55
From Venice to Versailles

We were fortunate to have heard this concert, part of Le French May festival. The program blends largely obscure Italian baroque contralto arias from Parisotti's collection Arie Antiche with a few instrumental pieces. Everyone will recognize the names of Handel, Vivaldi,  Scarlatti, but not so much Caldara, Cavalli, Bononcini, Conti, Durante and Falconieri.

The vocal program is largely culled from their recent CD, Quella Fiamma (details here), which has garnered much praise. But the instrumental numbers are quite different, with Lully and Rameau added to fit into the theme of Le French May, I suppose.

Nathalie Stutzmann sings very well. Her somewhat smoky voice is not particularly powerful, but it is well projected. She colors her voice as the music requires and her characterizations are vivid. There were no surprises - the best numbers were the best known, Ah! Mio cor, schernito sei from Handel's Alcina that closed the first half, and two by Vivaldi towards the end of the second.

Stutzmann is also a serious conductor (now principal guest conductor of Ireland's RTE), and it shows in how she lovingly shaped the instrumental numbers. The largely female Orefo 55 play radiantly with gut strings, with outstanding contributions from the principals, particularly the very fine cellist and first violin. I noted the violins were much better projected in the second half, likely due to tuning. The encore, the well known Plaisir d'amour, is also on the CD.

Simplement merveilleux!

01 May, 2018

Elizabeth Leonskaja and Vladimir Fedoseyev

Review: Elizabeth Leonskaja and Vladimir Fedoseyev

April 27, 2018, Shenzhen Concert Hall
Shenzhen Symphony Orchestra - Elizabeth leonskaja - Vladimir Fedoseyev
Brahms - Tchaikovsky

Utter Bliss! I still can't believe I heard the great Leonskaja!

Over the years, although I have heard quite a few of Elizabeth Leonskaja's recordings, and they have always pleased me, her true stature has actually eluded me - until 2016, when Warner re-issued all her Teldec Schubert recordings in a super-bargain box. More than any classical composer, Schubert's piano works, particularly the late works, with their constantly shifting vistas, are fathomless mines, wide open to philosophical injectures and interpretations. Heard as a whole, the box left me dumbfounded. Some of the readings were perhaps as wayward as other lauded ones (including the great Richter), but the probing behind the notes were supremely visceral and palpable, so much so that I went thorough the box several times in short succession. Desert Island material, indeed.

Imagine my excitement when I discovered this little-known concert in Shenzhen! Writing this article I went to her schedule on her website, which revealed that she had just come off a Schubert cycle in Tokyo - what I'd not have given to have attended!

Words cannot describe how wonderful the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 was. Although Leonskaja was more than able to pound it out when required, what greatly impressed was the teamwork in this work where the "solo" piano is more of a partner with the orchestra, but when her piano was to the fore, she displayed a cornucopia of pianistic genius - subtle rhythmic shifts and tonal shadings that I have not heard in a long time. Surprise of surprise, she gave an encore of Schubert that was even more transcendent! This is the best pianism I have heard since Elisso Virsaladzhe.

Image result for fedoseyevNo performance of a Brahms piano concerto would be complete without a sterling contribution from the orchestra, and here the SSO truly shined. The all-important first cello was magnificently fulfilled by Karen Kocharyan. Just as importantly, the winds played with great distinction, in solo and tutti, much more so than our somehow disparate HKPO counterparts. Vladimir Fedoseyev conducted without baton, with economical gestures, but was every step with the music. Simply magnificent! I have never heard a better Brahms piano concerto. The Schubert encore was icing on the cake.

Just as impressive was the second half. Long ago I had tired of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4, which received innumerable performances under HKPO, usually of the bang-it-out variety, under the batons of the likes of David Atherton. But this performance renewed my faith in the piece. Fedoseyev, long a leader of German orchestras, conducted without any undue sentimentality but rendered every true sentiment present. The score was presented with the uttermost detail, yet structurally intact. The best I have heard, by a long margin.

The SSO has gone to another level. There were many changes in personnel, seemingly all for the better. The strings have a new suppleness, and the first cellist noted above was a great joy, reminding me of the great Valentin Berlinsky. The SSO always had great flutes (under Zhang Bing 張兵) and clarinets (under Yi Cheng 衣丞), but now the winds were rounded out by the recruitment of oboist Cui Xiaocheng (崔曉崢). The circle is complete. A formidable wind section that is more than the sum of its parts, unlike that of the HKPO, which is the other way around.


12 April, 2018

Tongyeong Festival Orchestra

Concert Review:Tonyeong Festival Orchestra

April 10, CCCH
Tongyeong Festival Orchestra - Eschenbach - Midori
Yun - Bernstein - Dvorak

The Tongyeong Festival Orchestra is sort of a Korean take on the likes of Japan's Saito Kinen Orchestra and perhaps Mito Chamber Orchestra, with recruitment of foreign nationals, in this case mostly from Japan and HK (members of the HK Sinfonietta) but also some from the UK, Europe and Australia.

A crystalline performance of Isang Yun's Bara (an early work) opened the concert. The medium sized orchestra played with verve and a very transparent texture. Bernstein's Serenade was similarly well played but too safe by half. Midori, not one of my favorites, is as usual small toned in the big moments and more affective than effective. In particular, the concluding movement sorely needed more jazz inflection, and the overly careful orchestral playing was possibly tailored not to overwhelm the soloist. Midori's Bach encore, however, was quite wonderful and fluid.

Dvorak's New World, which Eschenbach conducted from memory, received a marvelously architectural reading. The strings played with precision, power and refinement, much more penetrating and satisfying than the larger HKPO strings. Despite an occasional moment of insecurity from the horns, the brass was burnished and powerful, thanks to a full bodied and steady trombone section. The winds were considerably less satisfying, particularly in the solo's (the cor anglais was downright pedestrian) though as a whole they sounded of one piece (HKPO is the other way around). Most importantly, Eschenbach had the full measure of the piece. Overall, this was a satisfying performance, though certainly not on the level of the Budapest Festival Orchestra I heard in NYC in 2014 (here).