Friday, 10 July 2015

Prague Spring 2015 - Mahler Symphony No. 3

Mahler: Symphony No. 3

Czech Philharmonic

Jiří Bělohlávek, conductor

Smetana Hall, Prague, 22 May 2015 


The Prague Spring music festival is an institution in the Czech capital and it was a privilege to hear the resurgent Czech Philharmonic orchestra in the marvellously resonant Smetana Hall.  

The Smetana Hall in Prague
After the fall of communism the orchestra’s quality had dwindled, but Jiri Belohlavek has masterminded the turnaround in the fortunes of the Czech Phil since he took it over again in 20012.  It is of course famous for its Czech music – Dvorak, Smetana, Janacek  - but its qualities also well suited this night’s programme of Mahler’s Third Symphony.

Jiří Bělohlávek

The mighty Third is written on a massive scale of 6 movements, with depictions of the natural and spiritual world at its core.  The creamy strings were a glory to listen to when they led the soaring melodies of the first and last movements. 

The primal nature of the eruptions in the first movement were also particularly arresting in this hall which has a wooden floor on the first floor up within the town hall complex.  The brass sound loomed up from the back of the orchestra and together with the percussion created a vibration that could be felt coming up through the legs of your seat.

Only the off-stage horn solo was not entirely achieved in the Scherzo.  The on-stage string sound was heavy and obscured the distant calls.  However Belohlavek’s interpretation was assured throughout, and very satisfying at its conclusion. 

Steinbach am Attersee, Austria where Mahler wrote some of the Third Symphony

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Brahms from Budapest

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Overture, The Magic Flute 
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto No.9 in E flat, K.271 
Johannes Brahms: Symphony No.1

Budapest Festival Orchestra 
Iván Fischer conductor 
Maria João Pires piano

Royal Festival Hall, London, 20 May 2015

Maria Joao Pires
This fantastic orchestra again brought an enormously cultured and intelligent programme to London’s Royal Festival Hall.

The opening Magic Flute overture of Mozart set the bar high.  The interpretation was detailed and well prepared.  Phrases were rounded with care, and sonorities were rich without losing the essential lightness of touch that this work requires.

With Maria Joao Pires as soloist in the Mozart 9th concerto there was never going to be a turn towards heaviness after the overture.  Pires draws you in, her simplicity of utterance feeling almost radical. In the chamber-like interplay between soloist and orchestra in the last movement Pires and Fisher were in their element; fine musicians, totally engaged in the score.  Her luminous encore from Schumann's Waldszenen rounded off her performance in true Pires fashion: eloquent, humble, haunting.

If one was to have any doubts about the exalted nature of the evening, it was the Brahms First Symphony that provided them.  Fisher and the Budapest players have a thoroughly considered view of this score.  Each phrase and detail was placed within an overall arc to the interpretation.  These are the kind of qualities you get from a Mariss Jansons or Krystian Zimerman also.  However there was a nagging suspicion that for all its sonic beauty and sculpted phrases and paragraphs, the last movement lacked a sense of abandonment when required.  Can surging excitement in music be so carefully prepared?

The encore was just wonderful.  The musicians put down their instruments and began to swap positions.  It then became clear the men and women were dividing into two halves standing around the conductor’s podium.  Fisher then directed the orchestra – now a choir – in an a capella Brahms motet.  The Budapest Festival Orchestra never fail to delight.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Ott's glorious Grandes études

Ludwig van Beethoven
Piano Sonata No. 17 in D minor Op. 31 No. 2 'The Tempest
Johann Sebastian Bach
Fantasia and Fugue in A minor BWV944 
Violin Partita No. 2 in D minor BWV1004 V. Chaconne (arr. Ferruccio Busoni) 
Franz Liszt
Liebesträume, 3 notturnos S541, II & III
Grandes études de Paganini S141 

Alice Sara Ott, piano

23 April 2015, Wigmore Hall, London
Alice Sara Ott

A game of two halves.  In the first, Alice Sara Ott was a reasonably brittle performer.  She was at her best in the reflective, moonlit moments of the Beethoven Tempest Sonata, but her ability to shape a coherent whole was less evident.  This was most lacking in the Busoni arrangement for piano of Bach’s famous Chaconne originally written for violin, which was episodic and failed to maintain an underlying pulse or a genuine sense of culmination at its majestic conclusion.  This was her Wigmore Hall debut and she did not appear totally at ease.

What a transformation after the interval then.  Sara Ott’s Liszt was a marvellous thing. Her Liebestraume were very fine, but it was the Paganini Grand Etudes which stole the show.  She was totally assured, each delivered like a delicately drilled clock mechanism, the hands spinning, whirring and crossing.  And most importantly each was first and foremost musical.  It was the polar opposite of Khatia Buniatishvili’s Liszt-murder on the same platform last month.  The technical and the musical inseperable.  Indeed, as legendary piano teacher Heinrich Neuhaus wrote:

"The word technique comes from the Greek word τέχνη meaning 'art'.  Any improvement of technique is an improvement of art itself and consequently helps to reveal the content, the hidden meaning; in other words it is the material, the real body of art."   

Amongst the technical challenges Sara Ott's unerring sense of fantasy remained, putting to shame many an expressionless performance of these works by other virtuosi, and revealing a whole world of art.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Argerich and Barenboim - a golden duo

Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.1
Richard Strauss: Ein Heldenleben

Staatskapelle Berlin 
Daniel Barenboim conductor 
Martha Argerich piano

20 April 2015, Royal Festival Hall, London

A concert featuring Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim?  Who could resist?  And with Stephen Kovacevich in the audience there were at least three master pianists at the Royal Festival Hall on the night.  This concert was burdened with the highest expectations, but for those who had travelled from far and wide to attend there was to be no disappointment.

The Beethoven First Piano Concerto commenced with the most hushed of openings from the excellent Berlin Staatskapelle, before blooming into a wonderful tutti.  The golden string section rippling attractively without over-romanticisation.  This classical approach was taken up by Argerich and a totally engaging performance developed.  Martha Argerich is probably incapable of being dull.  The subtle variation and weighting of passages, the crystalline attack on notes and chords, were sublime.

And the musicianship needed to be of a top level. The interpretation was daringly broad, at times almost static, but saved by the massive artistic command of the musicians and the sheer delight of the musicality of the performance.  How exquisite to hear such interplay, the free flowing meeting of musical minds.

That the performance was met with an ovation was perhaps to be expected.  What followed was not.  Out came an extra piano stool and Barenboim and Argerich proceeded to give a thoroughly leisurely account of Schubert’s Rondo for piano 4 hands.  The two pianists sat close together at the piano across almost 10 minutes of golden melody.  Unforgettable.

The Berlin Staatskapelle rounded off the evening with a very fine account of Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben.  The concertmaster was the most relaxed of violin soloists depicting the Hero’s wife, and Barenboim coaxed a satisfying shape and sonority to the quasi-Wagnerian conclusion.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

The Borodin at Wigmore Hall

Dmitri Shostakovich
String Quartet No. 10 in A flat major Op. 118
String Quartet No. 8 in C minor Op. 110
Ludwig van Beethoven 
String Quartet No. 14 in C sharp minor Op. 131

Borodin Quartet

19 April 2015, Wigmore Hall, London

It bears repeating.  Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his Eighth String Quartet in 3 days.  While it is based around his musical signature - his initials D S C H written into the score - the quartet treats this material in a wide variety of ways.  Its directness of utterance and sombre, strongly personal character make it one of the real impact quartets in the repertoire.

With the Borodin Quartet we were in the safest of hands.  This is a group with a historical connection to the composer.  The Eighth can get others over-excited.  Crucially the Borodin Quartet did not exaggerate the emotion.  This very fine quartet's evenness of tone and sound was again evident, as with their appearance in Wimbledon last year.   This had a wonderful effect in the rich major harmony of the String Quartet Number 10.

The inexhaustible Beethoven C# Minor Quartet formed the second half.  What a pinnacle of quartet writing it is.  Almost a meta-quartet, seemingly searching through the possibilities of the four instruments individually and collectively, before coming into focus in the last two of the seven movements.  On this night the detached, philosophical approach of the Borodin, together with its harmonious, blended sound made for a richly satisfying conclusion to the evening.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Buniatishvili destroys Liszt

Modest Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition 
Franz Liszt
Liebestraume No. 3
Mephisto waltz No. 1
La leggierezza 
Feux follets
La campanella
Grand galop chromatique S219 
Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C sharp minor (arr. Vladimir Horowitz)

Khatia Buniatishvili, piano

1 April 2015, Wigmore Hall, London

A most frustrating recital.   The Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili possesses a super technique, interpretative originality and intensity.  While these qualities remained focused, this resulted in a very memorable performance of Pictures at an Exhibition, mesmirising from the strikingly ruminative Promenade at the opening.
While there was some tendency to treat something like the Ballet of Unhatched Chicks as a finger exercise, each picture was strongly articulated and the performance climaxed with a genuinely hair-raising portrait of the witch Baba Yaga and an impressive Great Gate of Kiev.  Splendid.

The second half was all Liszt, much of it famously difficult.  What was the piece most concerning Buniatishvili?  Of course Feux follets - she was practising it all through the interval.  In the end this work was the high point of a dismal set of performances.

The Liebestraume started well enough but as Buniatishivili launched into the First Mephisto Waltz she became increasingly ill-disciplined. On a pure note playing level, many notes were bashed in a very short space of time indeed.   But faster and louder does not mean better, or even more exciting.  The piece lost all shape in a blur of notes, the musical impact was negligible. 

This lack of discipline contined. Liszt's favourite encore, the Grand Gallop was given a particularly ridiculous pulverising.  Despite an extraordinary velocity and volume, in this pianist's hands it had neither wit nor thrills.  The nadir was reached as the Hungarian Rhapsody Number 2 descended into a shapeless mash of notes and chords that were virtual sonic booms such was the exaggeration.

What can be said in conclusion?  Perhaps the less the better.  Much of the playing after the interval was borderline disrespectful to the compositions.  Liszt reduced to empty display.  Those that are hoping Khatia Buniatishvili's obvious talent will mature into great artistry must be harboring substantial doubts.
Noble Liszt - not at Wigmore Hall

Monday, 17 November 2014

Borodin Quartet in Wimbledon

Borodin Quartet
Ruben Aharonian violin
Sergey Lomovsky
Igor Naidin
Vladimir Balshin

Shostakovich String Quartet no.11 in F minor op.122
Beethoven String Quartet No 16 in F major Op 135 
Tchaikovsky String Quartet No 2 in F Op 22 

St John's, Wimbledon, 15 November 2014
This was a sublime evening, presenting one of the finest of all string quartets in the excellent acoustic of St John's church as part of the Wimbledon International Music Festival 2014.  Thanks to the good people at Meridian Audio and TechniQuest in Wimbledon for the tickets to attend.

The programme showcased the group's authoritative readings of the Russians, starting with a riveting Shostakovich Eleventh.  What a mysterious, ghostly work this is.  The whole  haunted by something undefined, yet also achieving moments of stasis.  The Borodin Quartet were effortlessly inside this music.  Their focus was total and the effect quite overpowering. 

A word on this quartet's sound.  It is marked above all by a remarkable unanimity and tonal control.  Nothing is forced, the individuals blend into eachother and at times one had to make special efforts to distinguish the violins from the viola.  It is a refined and balanced sound, of perfect intonation, delivered with a complete absence of histrionics.

The Borodin Quartet
Next up was Beethoven's very last string quartet, written in the penultimate year of his life.  Beethoven returned to a more classical form for his farewell to the genre and the Borodin reading was admirably restrained.  This bore particular fruit in a slow movement of hushed intensity, marvellously expressive.

After the interval the richer and more emotional landscape of Tchaikovky's Second String Quartet was delivered with total authority.  The acclaim of the audience was then rewarded with the same composer's Andante Cantabile - the slow movement of his First String Quartet. 

The Borodin is a master quartet, continuing to make music at an exceptional level almost 70 years after it was founded in 1945.  Their interpretations are settled and authoritative, but such is the quality of their ensemble that there is not a hint of routine. In general one is struck by the impression that you are hearing something close to an ideal.

The Borodin Quartet with Sviatoslav Richter in the 1970s