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

Friday, 14 November 2014

Siberian bear tames Barbican

RACHMANINOV Piano Concerto No 2

Valery Gergiev conductor
Denis Matsuev piano
London Symphony Orchestra

Barbican Hall, London, 13 N0vember 2014


'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


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