Monday, 17 November 2014

Borodin Quartet in Wimbledon

Borodin Quartet
Ruben Aharonian violin
Sergey Lomovsky
violin
Igor Naidin
viola
Vladimir Balshin
cello


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
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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

Friday, 14 November 2014

Siberian bear tames Barbican

BALAKIREV Russia
RACHMANINOV Piano Concerto No 2
RACHMANINOV Symphony No 3


Valery Gergiev conductor
Denis Matsuev piano
London Symphony Orchestra


Barbican Hall, London, 13 N0vember 2014

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'The Siberian bear with the fastest paws in the Arctic and perhaps anywhere else'.  This is the quote Denis Matsuev's publicity used in advance of the night.  It's the kind of circus copy that Debussy lampooned:

"The attraction of the virtuoso for the public is very like that of the circus for the crowd. There is always a hope that something dangerous may happen: Mr. X may play the violin with Mr. Y on his shoulders; or Mr. Z may conclude his piece by lifting the piano with his teeth."

Matsuev does not need it really because his partnership with Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra in Rachmaninov's 2nd Piano Concerto was exceptional.   Matsuev was in total command, his style virile and assertive, but the weighting also well graduated. 
His tone is big and what a pleasure to hear the piano part rippling with such muscularity against the orchestra at full volume.  The interpretation felt totally authentic and committed, and the LSO responded with warmth and virtuosity. 

The whole thing was an unalloyed joy.  A performance well in the Argerich or, dare this blog say it, Richter category.  He received tumultuous applause afterwards, which was rewarded with a very expansive Rachmaninov A minor Etude-Tableau Opus 39/2.

This was framed by a potpourri of Russian themes from Balakirev, and the late Third Symphony of Rachmaninov.  Was it that it was heard during the aftershock of Matsuev, or is this late statement from a tiring composer simply not very good?

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Mariinsky Opera perform Boris Godunov original version

Mussorgsky Boris Godunov
Concert performance

Mariinsky Opera
Valery Gergiev conductor
Mussorgsky's gravestone, Tikhvin Cemetery

Mikhail Kazakov Boris Godunov
Mikhail Petrenko Pimen
Evgeny Akimov Prince Shuisky
Alexei Markov Shchelkalov
Andrei Popov Simpleton
Tiffin Boys Choir

Barbican Hall, London, 3 November 2014

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This, the most Russian of all operas, was premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre in 1874.  And now it was the Mariinsky Opera under the direction of Valery Gergiev that performed it as part of their Barbican residency. 
Boris Godunov

Boris Godunov was Tsar of Russia from 1598 - 1605, having been a counsellor under the equally famous Ivan the Terrible.  His reign was overshadowed by the rise of a pretender to the throne and dark rumours of the Tsar having murdered one of Ivan's sons.  Alexander Pushkin wrote a tragedy Boris Godunov which Mussorgsky adopted for his opera. Mussorgsky penned the libretto himself and it is an extended examination of the soul of Russia, brimming with suffering and resignation.  Its troubled commentator is the Simpleton, who mourns Russia's sorrow and its entry into a "long dark night".

Mussorgsky first took up the idea in 1868 and after a tortuous 6 years of working and re-working it was finalised and premiered.  The reception was ecstatic, with the composer reportedly taking 18 curtain calls from the packed Mariinsky Theatre.  The tangled history of the opera's composition has left many different versions in existence with some scenes regularly cut or re-ordered, and that is without even talking about Rimsky-Korsakov's controversial "improvement" of the orchestration.

It was the original 1869 version that the Mariinsky brought to the concert.  This was the version Mussorgsky submitted to the Russian censors, who then demanded changes (notable that a dramatic soprano role be included) prior to its 1874 premiere.  Inevitably in a concert performance the absence of staging was more keenly felt in the theatrical crowd scenes than the dialogues and monologue elsewhere.  Even so, the stage set up could easily have been better, with the singers having to contend with a forest of 10 seats and music stands, most of which were simply not required. Some, such as Kazakov, fully acted out their role around the stands.  Others, slightly bizarrely, stuck to their music as if in an oratorio.

At the very opening of the opera and his coronation as Tsar, Boris is beset by
Bass Feodor Chaliapin as Boris Godunov
the knowledge of his guilt.  This intensely psychological figure is one of the finest tragic characters in opera and undoubtedly the greatest of all Russian bass roles.  Here the challenge was taken on by Mikhail Kazakov who was at pains to really sing the role, emphasising its lyrical dimension as well as weight and emotion.  Only in the heroic moments such as the Coronation scene was the relatively light weight of the voice a limitation.  Kazakov‘s Boris was keen to behave well as a ruler despite his guilt, and was profoundly concerned that his children not bear responsibility for his crimes.

Around the central character are arrayed various classic Russian types: the holy monk Pimen, and the holy fool Simpleton who bears obvious similarities to characters such as Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky's The Idiot.  Most important of all are the chorus representing the long-suffering Russian people.

Of the other roles, the Pimen of Mikhail Petrenko and the Simpleton of Andrey Popov were both near ideal.  Petrenko had a very natural weight and nobility and brought a subtle light and shade that enlivened the long narrations in the second and fourth acts.  Popov created a memorable intensity of atmosphere in the scene with Boris outside St Basil’s cathedral.  The chorus were idiomatic and committed throughout as would be expected.


The Mariinsky Orchestra were the solid base of this performance.  Their body language suggested they were less than thrilled about the evening, but there was nothing half-hearted about the music-making.  Valery Gergiev looked similarly disinterested, but his conducting was superb, particularly noticeable in his masterly pacing of the Prologue.


With the awkward stage-management, the performance was always on the back foot in creating and maintaining atmosphere.  It was thus all the greater testament to the contributions of Kazakov, Popov and the chorus in particular that so much of this evening was so electric.


Boris Godunov as it wasn't at the Barbican.  Here a scene from the Mariinsky Theatre - the stage production by legendary Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky



Saturday, 11 October 2014

Karl-Heinz Steffens a more than capable replacement

Beethoven Leonore Overture No. 3
Mendelssohn Violin Concerto
Beethoven Symphony No. 5 in C Minor

Karl-Heinz Steffens conductor
Frank Peter Zimmermann violin
Philharmonia Orchestra


Royal Festival Hall, London, 2 October 2014 
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This was to have been the 85th birthday concert for Christoph von Dohnanyi.  He was the Philharmonia Orchestra's Principal Conductor for ten years from 1997, before being appointed Honorary Conductor for Life.  Alas, ill health forced his withdrawal just days before and Karl-Heinz Steffens stepped in.  A new name for me, he was the Berliner Philharmoniker's chief clarinet for many years before taking to the podium in 2007.

Steffens brought a robust and high-spirited approach to the podium.  Clearly revelling in the triumphant moments, a little less willing to let the more lyrical elements breath.  His sense of pacing was unerring throughout, even if the famous Beethoven Fifth did not create any moments of real magic.

Karl-Heinz Steffens

Frank Peter Zimmerman was as usual a superb soloist.  This was not the lightest or fastest of readings, but he was particularly concerned to bring out the "vertical" elements of the score when the violin part is built out of the orchestral score.  Very satisfying and representative of a highly intelligent evening of music-making.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Bruckner Ninth from the Concertgebouw Orchestra

Beethoven Piano Concerto No 1 (1800)
Bruckner Symphony No 9 (1896)

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam
Mariss Jansons
conductor
Lars Vogt piano


Barbican Hall, London, 5 April 2014
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The final concert of the Jansons/Concertgebouw Orchestra 3 day residency at the Barbican started with Beethoven's perennnially fresh First Piano Concerto.  At the piano was the thoughtful, refined and impish pianism of Lars Vogt.  As with the other nights the soloist was beyond reproach.  Vogt had particular fun projecting the Beethovenian humour in the first movement coda: teasing the audience with when it was going to end, and striving for maximum surprise when Beethoven throws out fortissimo chords after quiet interludes.  The Concertgebouw Orchestra were again attentive and cultured partners, with anything that the clarinet or oboe touched turning to musical gold.

And so the visit concluded with the last Bruckner symphony - the mighty, unfinished 9th.   What a composition this is and how very worthy a successor of that other D Minor work - the Beethoven Ninth Symphony.  The Barbican crowd was expectant– not least Jansons’ wife and the Concertgebouw Orchestra’s manager seated next to me.  

This was again a performance of exalted technical quality and Jansons’ usual attention to detail.  Speeds were brisk, and in the Scherzo there was some bizarre handling of tempo at the start which slowed up for the pounding bass notes, before regaining the original tempo as the first violins re-entered.  It was obviously prepared as such, but why?  The great Adagio developed to a massive climax and the final closing notes were wonderfully sustained by strings and brass.  What a sound the Concertgebouw Orchestra produce when on their game.

Mariss Jansons
This Bruckner residency never fell below the very high standards to be expected from the Jansons/Concertgebouw dream-team.  Jansons approach was beautifully crafted and detailed.  The sheer beauty of sound on offer will not be easily forgotten.  Ultimately that this was not a revelatory experience comes down to Jansons not being the most natural of Brucknerians.  Movements did not accumulate like they do at their best, tempi were a little too forced to allow maximum expression, and the structural sense was not as assured as that of a Skrowaczewski.   
 
Bruckner's gravestone


The applause at the end from the Barbican audience after the Bruckner was long and enthusiastic, but stopped short of a standing ovation.  Probably about right.   In the end it was the concerti that struck one as closer to ideal.  Thinking back over the three partnerships with Lars Vogt, Truls Mork and Frank Peter Zimmermann, I wouldn’t change a single aspect of any of them.


Sunday, 6 April 2014

Haydn overshadows Bruckner

Haydn Cello Concerto in C (1765)
Bruckner Symphony No 7 (1883)

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam
Mariss Jansons
conductor
Truls Mørk cello


Barbican Hall, London, 4 April 2014
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The residency of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra at the Barbican continued with the Bruckner Seventh Symphony.  Before that we were again treated to an immaculately presented classical concerto.  Tonight the Haydn C Major Cello Concerto.  Truls Mork was an ideal soloist, pure toned and elegant.  The easy rapport with the Dutch orchestra was again plain, and the whole performance projected a pleasing sense of joy in this delightful music.

With the Bruckner results were more uneven.  I had high hopes that the eloquence of the Concertgebouw strings would thrive in this most lyrical of Bruckner symphonies.  In the end, some of the shortcomings that were minor blots on the previous evening were now more troublesome.  The opening movement was rather brisk, and never allowed to breath naturally or achieve its full measure of grandeur.  Individual sections were carefully shaped but the whole never cohered.  By contrast, the great Adagio was thrilling, driven by the utterly glorious sound of the Concertgebouw Orchestra.  The strings were particularly impassioned and the famous climax (complete with triangle) was beautifully shaped.  Jansons again revealed himself unafraid of the pastoral interludes in the Scherzo which were lovingly done.  However the Finale never gained traction.  It is, of course, one of Bruckner's least successful movements, but the feeling that the wood had been lost for the trees was strong.


The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra at home in the Concertgebouw main hall in Amsterdam.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Jansons' Bruckner residency at the Barbican

Mozart Violin Concerto in G major (1775)
Bruckner Symphony No 4 in E flat (1880)


Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam
Mariss Jansons
conductor
Frank Peter Zimmermann violin


Barbican Hall, London, 3 April 2014

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Anton Bruckner
The great Mariss Jansons is best known for his interpretations of composers like Sibelius, Dvorak, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and Beethoven.  However in recent years he has increased his attention for Austrian composer Anton Bruckner.  Was it his brush with death 18 years ago that triggered this, when he had a heart attack on the podium conducting La Boheme?  Whatever the case, this most spiritual of composers was front and centre for the 3 concert residency of Jansons and his Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra at London's Barbican. Each night, the great symphonies 4, 7 and 9 were leavened by 3 classical concerti of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven.

Having Frank Peter Zimmerman, Jansons and this wonder-orchestra lavishing such attention on one of Mozart's lesser moments was certainly an indulgence.  But when the performance was so graceful, relaxed and poised, it came to seem a blessing rather than a waste.  Zimmerman was equally refined and intimate in his Bach encore.

The Bruckner Fourth Symphony so strongly evokes  German romantic moments set in forests and valleys, one can understand why a descriptive programme circulated on its release referencing hunting scenes, knight processions, medieval worlds...  Its opening must be one of music's most famous - a distant horn sounding across the musical landscape.

But that start was not auspicious.  The first horn splitting several notes only bars in.  Was it the ultra-dry Barbican Hall that unsettled him?  Bruckner wanted his symphonies played in cathedrals with their long reverberations.  Acoustically, the Barbican is a kind of anti-Bruckner hall. Whatever the case, the orchestra seemed to be slightly tentative and adjusting to the sound of the hall in the first movement.  

With the second movement the sound changed entirely: more blended, filling the hall more naturally.  In this movement, the nocturnal funeral march, almost imperceptibly Jansons drew us in until something at once beautiful and disquieting was in control.  This was his genius to draw out not only the village-pastoral simplicity of the dance motifs (here truly enjoyed) but also the ghostly, spirit-inhabited underworld of the Austrian forests of legend.  

Jansons' Bruckner starts off on the human scale.  His best moments were frequently bringing out the simple, village delights.  But this Andante brought an authentic sense of unease.  Its pastoral spirituality encountered the numinous but also the unknown, malevolent spirits of the mythic forest world, where humans can be tempted and brought undone.  It was classic Jansons: drawing out and making plain the logic, beauty and power of the "lesser" internal moments of the big symphonies.

The Scherzo was then on the surface the world of hunting calls, but also carrying a disturbing quality.  Jansons was totally at ease in the contrasting trio; bucolic and exuberant.  His Bruckner is not "cosmic", gazing down from the planets.  He embraces the pastoral v spiritual contrasts in the music but also attempts to make their rhetorical register not too far apart.

The great struggle to find a conclusion which is the last movement then carried extra weight of meaning after the darker experiences of those internal movements.  And this was Bruckner, so all of the previous 60 minutes then emptied into the great final coda, here quite electrifying.  The whole unfolding darkly, as if (as Jansons said in a recent interview) “God was wagging his figure at the the world. He was saying ‘you better be careful, you will be penalised if you continue in that direction’”.   Here the orchestra sound was at its finest: eloquent, rounded, the woodwind and brass playing through the string sound.  These Bruckner codas are some of the finest music on earth, and this performance entirely worthy of it.