15 June, 2019

MET Orchestra - Yannick Nezet-Sequin - Elina Garanca

Elina Garanca performed Mahler's "Ruckert-Lieder" with Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Met Orchestra Friday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Steve J. Shermanpic from the review of newyorkclassicalreview.

MET Orchestra - Yannick Nezet-Sequin - Elina Garanca

June 14, 2019, Carnegie Hall
MET Orchestra - Yannick Nezet-Sequin - Elina Garanca
Mahler - Bruckner

The MET Orchestra returned with this challenging program, which opened with a very fine rendition of Mahler's Ruckert Lieder, exquisitely sung by Latvian mezzo Elina Garanca. Here is a real mezzo with everything: a full range, power, diction and tonal allure. She certainly put last week's Isabel Leonard in the shades and one could not expect more. Although the full brass was too loud in Um Mitternacht, the orchestral contribution was equally ravishing.

As is usually his wont in large symphonic works, Yannick Nezet-Sequin's loving ways and batonless conducting was considerably less successful in Bruckner's Symphony No. 7. Although the playing, in particular the strings and winds, was very fine in general, and the brass chorales in the finale were awesome, there were moments of insecurity. But none of this would have been a problem were it not for the conductor's savoring too many details along the way. Tempi were slow and, beauty notwithstanding, the first movement did not really ebb and flow, as a great Bruckner performance must, and the coda felt like just another episode. Under Nezet-Sequin, the Brucknerian pauses did not feel organic enough to make one anticipate what came next. As the adagio went on, one did start to feel funereal and the dreaded longeur. As a whole, despite fine moments, it was bit disappointing.

13 June, 2019

Philadelphia Orchestra - Yannick Nezet-Sequin - Beatrice Rana

Philadelphia Orchestra - Yannick Nezet-Sequin - Beatrice Rana

June 7, 2019, Carnegie Hall
Philadelphia Orchestra - Yannick Nezet-Sequin - Beatrice Rana
All Russian Program

Concert opened with a rarity - Stravinsky's Funeral Song. The Philadelphians played with the utmost beauty and atmosphere, indeed throughout the concert.

Then came Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3, rendered effortlessly by Italian pianist Beatrice Rana. Brilliant as it was, as usual I'd prefer an even more accented and biting performance.

I grew up with Ormandy's Rachmaninov set, but this Symphony No. 1 was far removed from that lush recording. Despite Yannick Nezet-Sequin's brilliance and drive, much of it came across as episodic, though I shall concede that the finale was well built and thrilling.

05 June, 2019

MET Orchestra - Yannick Nezet-Sequin - Isabelle Leonard

Isabel Leonard performed with Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Met Orchestra Monday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Richard Termine pic from newyorkclassicalreview.

MET Orchestra - Yannick Nezet-Sequin - Isabelle Leonard

June 3, 2019, Carnegie Hall
MET Orchestra - Yannick Nezet-Sequin - Isabelle Leonard
Debussy - Dutilleux - Ravel

Two Song Cycles sung by mezzo Isabel Leonard, who is apparently very popular with the NY audience, bookended the intermission. We heard first Dutilleux's Le Temps L'Horloge, crafted with the composers usual scintillating palate. The flight of imagination of the poems in French at their relatively fast tempi is demanding for the singer, and here just too many syllables were dropped (a usual and perhaps necessary practice for singing French) for me. The voice is not particularly big and one often misses something at the top or bottom when it comes to mezzi, as was the case here. Unlike the Dutilleux, Leonard sang Ravel's Scheherazade without score, and the difference showed - a better command of the words and more fluidity, which of course is equally attributable to Ravel's jewel of an orchestration, which also lets the singer rest more.

Concert opened with Debussy's La Mer. The MET Orchestra's rendition of color, nuance and detail was superlative, as it has been, as evidenced from the last concert, but the difference here was the much greater control Nezet-Sequin was able to achieve. Coloristically, it was irreproachable, and the climatic perorations were uncommonly lucid, say, symphonic in its approach. Ditto Ravel's Daphne and Chloe Suite No. 2, which closed the program. However, in both pieces (particularly the Ravel), no matter how spectacular the playing, I missed a sense of pushing and pulling, of coiled tension, that I know is there.

It is particularly difficult to capture the essence of French music. The MET orchestra did a sterling job. This kind of program would never work for the HKPO.


20 May, 2019

MET Orchestra - Gergiev - Trifonov

MET Orchestra - Gergiev - Trifonov

May 18th, 2019, Carnegie Hall
MET Orchestra - Valery Gergiev - Daniil Trifonov
Schumann - Schubert

Daniil Trifonov played the Schumann Piano Concerto with his customary virtuosity, clarity and refinement but, as usual, one wondered if it was a bit narcissistic. From my seat I found the orchestral bass a little too prominent (actually part of the Gergiev style) as to be incongruent. The encore Schumann piece though was utterly compelling.

The Schubert 9th Symphony, "The Great", was notable for the sensitive playing of the MET Orchestra. I have always thought orchestras that play both orchestral and operatic works are the best, the best example being the VPO. The strings played with finesse, sweetness and detail; the winds characterful and the brass noble. Gergiev's conducting was a little surprising, somewhat restrained in dynamic swing. Although he brought out uncommon details (especially with the divided violins), as the piece unfolded, one did start to feel a little the dreaded longeurs in this very long work. I don't think it was nearly as bad as this review, but surely the piece should have a bit more momentum (in the past years I have listened to this piece twice with lesser orchestras and both times the flow was better; see here and here).

04 May, 2019

Katia and Marielle Labeque performed Bruch's Concerto for Two Pianos with Semyon Bychkov conducting the New York Philharmonic Thursday night at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Chris Leepic from New York Classical Review.

New York Philharmonic - Semyon Bychkov - Labeque Sisters

May 3, 2019, Geffen Hall
New York Philharmonic - Semyon Bychkov - Labeque SistersBruch - Strauss

The first half is a rarity, Bruch's Concerto for Two Pianos, which is basically owned and championed only by the soloists Katia and Marielle Labeque and Katia's husband, the conductor Semyon Bychkov, who have played them many times elsewhere.

I am basically not a fan of most piano duos, as most of them are not too inspiring. That goes for the Labeque Sisters as well as the much younger Jussen Brothers. There are of course exceptions, like  Robert and Gaby Casadesus, or Vronsky and Babin.

Unlike his Violin Concerto No.1 and Scottish Fantasy, this work has no memorable melody, especially for the pianos. But, the orchestral part is actually rather interestingly scored. Like many other Bruch works, it is, for lack of a better word, "atmospheric". The opening brass parts are particularly organ-like, and Bychkov brought out all the colors of the piece.

After Bychkov's recent Resurrection with the Czech PO (here), I was surprised at how incisive he was in Strauss' Ein Heldenleben. The opening, The Hero, was a little breathless and the low brass were rattling. No matter how exciting, this work needs some opulence, which was in short supply, but then this hall is definitely dry sounding. The Hero's Adversaries was almost too incisive and the same feeling applied. Then things started to turn. The orchestra played The Hero's Companion with depth of feeling and the sheen in the strings was surprising, though I found Concertmaster Frank Huang's solo too hyper-detailed and a little lean. The best was yet to come! Nothing prepared me for the absolute mastery of The Hero's Works of Peace and The Hero's Retirement. The orchestra played irreproachably, and the horn section for once was golden-toned. Bychkov's pacing was absolutely right and Frank Huang's wistful solo at the end was perfect.

This marked the third Ein Heldenleben I have heard this year. While The Royal Concertgebouw (here) had the better overall playing and Straussian opulence, this concert was even more insightful and surpassing in feeling. A TALL achievement for the NYPO!

03 May, 2019

New World Symphony - Michael Tilson Thomas - Yuja Wang

New World Symphony - Michael Tilson Thomas - Yuja Wang

May 1, 2019, Carnegie Hall
New World Symphony - Michael Tilson Thomas - Yuja Wang
Wolfe - Prokofiev - Berlioz

The New World Symphony, based in Florida and headed by Michael Tilson Thomas, is an academy for recent conservatory graduates, who receive fellowships to further train and develop. So it is not exactly a youth orchestra, like our own beloved Asian Youth Orchestra, rather, given its over 30 year history, older than something between Europe's more recent and better known Mahler Youth Orchestra and its spinoff Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

Michael Tilson Thomas has never thrilled me on records. Although he majors in romantic repertoire, unlike his mentor Leonard Bernstein he never seems to let his hair down. As a composer, he has excellent analytical power but again, unlike Bernstein, more often than not, something is missing, despite all the critical accolades.

The second-half's Berlioz Symphony Fantastique was fastidiously laid out by the conductor, architecturally superb, and very well played. The brass and percussion sections were particularly formidable. I enjoyed the playing very much, but ultimately the shade of coolness did not achieve the goal of Fantastique. Still, a very good performance.

The Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 5 featured the indefatigable Yuja Wang, half naked in a shimmering green dress, which actually mirrors her solo part, played with aplomb. However, MTT's conducting left much to be desired. He is not a Prokofiev conductor - much more punctuation and rhythmic pointing were needed. The strings in particular sounded emaciated, sometimes loud but without body, other times just vapid. As an encore, Yuja played a jazz-infused composition of MTT, which was just lovely.

Concert opened with Julia Wolfe's Fountain of Youth, an eclectic mix of motoric minimalism and the composer's "avant-garde" anything-goes Bang on a Can ensemble, extremely well played and enjoyable.

15 April, 2019

NYPO Simone Young

Simone Young conducted the New York Philharmonic in Mahler's Symphony No., 6 Thursday night at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Caitlin Ochs pic from New York Classical Review.

NYPO Simone Young

April 12, 2019, Geffen Hall
NYPO - Simone Young
Mahler Symphony No. 6


Jaap was supposed to conduct but his problematic shoulder got the better of him and Simone Young was summoned at the last minute to replace him. An that was my fortune!

As someone from HK, where one gets to hear Jaap often, I know Jaap's Mahler 6th. But nothing prepared me for Simone Young's interpretation.

I am familiar with Simone Young's work on recordings (Ohems) and she is an authority in Mahler and Bruckner. Still, nothing prepared me for this!

I agree with almost everything the NewYork Classical Review said, (the NYT is a non-review, increasingly so) and agree even more with one of the comments. She is the real thing!

Straightforward, but utterly natural and well paced. Highly detailed (like the dance elements) yet single-minded, marching inexorably to the last movement. This is one of the greatest Mahler finales's I have heard over 4 decades at the NYPO. The repeated struggle, calamity, attempt to recover, were so graphic as to be painful.

My words mean little, but I saw the Viola first chair (Cynthia Phelps) wiping her tears off just before her last notes. There cannot be higher accolade. In my decades of attending the NYPO, I have never seen a principal weep.

Make sure Simone Young returns in Mahler and Bruckner, which she does better than Jaap.

Istvan Vardai and Roman Rabinovich

Concert: Istvan Vardai and Roman Rabinovich

Official link

April 7, 2019, Town Hall
Istvan Vardai and Roman Rabinovich
Beethoven - Schubert - Rachmaninov

I only managed to attend the first half.

Of particular interest to string fans is that Istvan Vardai plays the famous DuPre-Lynn Harrell Strad Cello, but I am afraid judged by this outing the instrument is not entirely in good hands.

Grant you, many of DuPre's recordings are wayward, and I have never heard her live. But enthusiasm is not something that can be faked, and her recordings, warts and all, testify to her personality (aside from Elgar, I like her Brahms). I am lukewarm about Lynn Harrell, who is always correct (but no more), but I think Vardai is a poor successor.

Vardai plays sensitively but tends to linger and smell the roses and lack drive. Also, he makes the instrument sound very dark, not a good thing in cello. The Beethoven variations dragged on, and the Schubert Appregione needed more vitality.

Rabinovich is an excellent pianist, but too deferential.

20 March, 2019

Renee Fleming performed music from Richard Strauss's "Capriccio" with Andris Nelsons learning and Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Hilary ScottBoston Symphony Orchestra - Andris Nelsons - Renee Fleming

March 19, 2019, Carnegie Hall
Boston Symphony Orchestra - Andris Nelsons - Renee Fleming
All Strauss

I shall be brief on details. This Concert was an exact repeat of the concert given in Boston 3 days ago. The Classical Review has a detailed review (the pic is also from that article), and I agree with most of it.

Regarding the Sextet from Capriccio (in lieu of the usual overture), the lower voices were too prominent for my taste. I'd have preferred a little more rosin in the violins. It should be noted that, similarly, I found the concertmaster too subdued in the solo's in Thus Spake Zarathustra.

Renee Fleming has a huge fan base. Many in the audience went for her, as evidenced by the large number of empty seats after intermission. I enjoyed her singing, especially since there were supertitles. Listening to opera without knowing the words have never worked for me, and surely Richard Strauss would approve. Fleming is a great artist and I have listened to many of her albums (from the HK library). When it comes to Strauss though, even if she is renowned and performed regularly in Europe, I was never able to admit her into my top echelon. Perhaps all the recordings I have heard had spoiled me (Rosenkavalier is a personal favorite, and this excellent article will tell you about all the great Marchallins). Actually, in this performance, I found her characterization better than on records! But it was the encore in memory of Andre Previn that had me hooked. Now, I want to hear the whole Street Car Named Desire! It was too bad that there were no supertitles and, believe me, operas sung in English need it more than Italian or German!

As for Thus Spake Zarathustra, what can I say! A stunning performance of great detail and elegance. Most audiophiles I know just listened to the opening, but I have long loved the whole work and own many versions. Here my knowledge of all the great recordings did not spoil my experience - no audio system can reproduce the immensity of it all. And it is not just the big moments. Carnegie Hall unfortunately does not have a real organ. While the electric reproduction was good, the lowest bass notes just did not shake one as a real one would, not even quite as much as a recording, which has them highlighted. And the big percussion crashes, particularly with this most elegant orchestra, were impactful but not overwhelmingly loud (as NYPO and van Zweden would surely do). Not important at all, as the immensity of the canvas, the sheer beauty and shimmering details heard could not at all be reproduced at home. Andris Nelsons is a famous Straussian, and the concert showed why. This is the most satisfying Boston/Nelsons concert I have heard, better than even his Shostakovich, and definitely better than his Mahler. The playing and refinement of the orchestra is irreproachable.

10 March, 2019

Skride Piano Quartet

March 10, 2019, Town Hall
Skride Piano Quartet
Mahler - Mozart - Brahms

Latvian Baiba Skride, winner of 2001 Queen Elizabeth (the same year Singaporean Kam Ning placed second and Chinese Ning Feng placed fifth), is fairly well known in Europe, less so in America. The other members are also seasoned professionals. Sister Lauma Skride is the pianist. French Lise Bertaud is the violist. Dutch Harriett Krijgh, who has just become a member of the Artemis Quartet (which unfortunately seems to be in a great state of flux), is the cellist.

Perhaps because of the rain, attendance was low for a PSC concert.

Mahler's Piano Quartet in A minor, a work of his teens, has only one extant movement and is seldom heard. Judging from this performance, that is unfortunate. The foreboding opening on the piano and the soft string figures that followed had me hooked. The string players here had an ethereal quality in pianissimo. The foursome have a fanatical attention to rhythm, detail and balance that is highly cultured and, dare I say, European.

Leader Baiba Skride is unusually deferent to his colleagues, and I can see why - they are all great players and tonally ravishing. But when she does step out (she makes a slight turn so the violin projects directly to the audience), there is no mistaking that she is a player of power.

Though the pianist sometimes played quite spritely, the measured approach of the strings made Mozart's Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor come across as rather dark. During intermission, the fellow in front of me wondered how they were going to get through the second half; he said, apologetically to his female friends that some "testosterone" was missing. He was likely an amateur musician (many in the psc audience). He need not have worried.

The Brahms Piano Quartet in G minor, though superbly played, was not the kind of virtuoso display that I experienced previously with the Andsnes crowd (here). The Alla Zingarese that capped the piece was urgent, but less pungent than usual. The previous movements were well delineated and balanced, but in unearthing details and rhythm subtleties, the main melodies sometimes were not brought forth enough. Nonetheless, for me, it was an excellent and equally valid effort. Keep in mind this was an all minor-key concert!

16 February, 2019

RCO Harding Aimard

Daniel HardingRoyal Concertgebouw Orchestra - Daniel Harding - Pierre-Laurent Aimard

Feb 15, 2019, Carnegie Hall
Concertgebouw Orchestra - Daniel Harding - Pierre-Laurent Aimard
Connesson - Beethoven - Strauss

As I slowly made my way out of the hall, I said to myself: "...this separates the men from the boys..." Indeed, next to such playing, most orchestras sound emaciated.

In Strauss' Ein Heldenleben, the hall was literally awash in sound, and I was swooning and luxuriating in it all. The amazing thing was, the sound washing over you had a living feel, comprising of layers of orchestral tissue in a corporeal whole.

Compared to the Mariinsky's recent performance (here), it was like a different work. Whereas Gergiev underlined the brilliance and drama, under Daniel Harding the RCO delivered a much more  architectural, but tonally burnished and opulent account, with darker colors. Both are valid approaches, but for me the RCO is even more life-affirming.

The RCO was also heard in Chicago three days ago (somewhat different program), and I agree with the remarks on this work in the Chicago Classical Review. The Chicago Tribune is also interesting in comparing the RCO with their own, but for me the former has a deeper sound which makes the CSO seem just a little shallow spiritually. The RCO was also heard the next day in The Washington Post, and the review by Anne Midgette was decidedly negative. Incidentally, this is the same critic whose expose of #MeToo in classical music brought down RCO's last music director, Danielle Gatti.

While I can understand Anne Midgette's view of Beethoven's Emperor concerto, I enjoyed it much more than she did. Pierre-Laurent Aimard played with great subtlety and colors, making the frequent ascending and descending notes uncommonly beautiful and interesting. The finale is for sure less "rousing" than usual, but that is not the interpretive viewpoint here. For me, Harding's contribution was excellent.

Concert opened with a short piece by one Guillaume Connnesson, Eirene, ravishingly played by the RCO.


13 January, 2019

pic from NYT.

New York Philharmonic - Jakob Hrusa - Simon Trpceski

Jan 11, 2019, Geffen Hall
NY Philharmonic - Jakob Hrusa - Simon Trpceski
Janacek - Prokofiev - Rimsky-Korsakov

NY Phil Press Release

How he made them play! That was what I said to the lady next to me at the end of concert.

Jakob Hrusa is a young conductor very much in demand and on the rise. I knew him from recordings, but this was the first time I heard him live. He is now in charge of the Bamberg Symphony (an orchestra I have always liked; heard them under Jochum, in Bruckner no less) as well as principal guest conductor of The Philharmonia and Czech Philharmonic, all excellent orchestras. Here is a good interview. Judged by this concert, he is absolutely the real thing,

Concert opened with Janacek's Cunning Little Vixen Suite (arranged by Charles Mackerras), in a ravishingly played and atmospheric reading, but the piecemeal nature of the music, albeit highly interesting, still was not able to stop my mind from wandering off from time to time.

Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 received a solid reading from Simon Trpceski, who should be familiar to HK concert goers. Hrusa enabled a seamless partnership with the orchestra, which played with aplomb and vitality. Many details emerged quite naturally in this reading.

All of that did not prepare me for the sheer magnificence of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, a thrice familiar score which in Hrusa's hands seemed to reveal freshness in every page. What is truly remarkable is that all the details were revealed in a most natural way (unlike Jaap, for example), never losing the overall architecture of the music. In one stretch in the second movement, the string figures had a distinct sense of speech, and indeed the orchestral musicians overall were fully engaged in dialogue, and that is the utmost praise for a conductor. The music speaks!

The orchestra played magnificently. It goes without saying that the brass section was mighty, worthy of the Sultan! What was equally gratifying was the characterful playing of the woodwinds. And the strings on this occasion excelled themselves in nuance, refinement and discipline. Concertmaster Frank Huang, formerly of the Houston Symphony, played his all-important solo's subtly, not at all like what a reviewer made of him in a previous Houston Symphony performance with Hrusa, but the same reviewer's comments on Hrusa I could agree with wholeheartedly.

The NY Phil has had a generally good review these days from the NY Times. Yet the NYT Review that includes this concert complained of loudness without fullness. Part of that is the persistent second-rate acoustics of this hall, but from my seat, third tier and close to the stage, the problems were minimized and indeed the sound was exciting. The so called full view good seats, which a critic is likely to be seated in, more often than not do not sound too good.

A great concert.