Orchestral music

Berlin Phil/Petrenko: Schoenberg, Tchaikovsky

Date: August 26, 2019
Location: Großes Festspielhaus, Salzburg.

Schoenberg – Violin Concerto Op. 35
Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 5

Berliner Philharmoniker

Kirill Petrenko, conductor
Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin)

 

Schoenberg’s violin concerto is as much a violin concerto as a concerto for violin and orchestra. Wind solos often dominate, intermittently receiving from, and passing on the melodic line to, the solo violin. Percussive instruments also often rise to the fore, with long, prominent lines of melodic and rhythmic significance intertwined with the solo violin. The fabric of the sound palette is thus all the more scrumptious and exquisite, when the solo violin is paired with a capable orchestra. Such was very much the case here. Whether it was Mathieu Dufour picking up the melodic train with some exquisite playing, or Albrecht Mayer handling runaway notes with aplomb, or Franz Schindlbeck dancing between violin lines with rampaging xylophone solos, everything was audibly accessible, and treated with great care and diligence.

Kopatchinskaja was in this evening a feisty performer, radiating warmth and energy through her confident body language and the occasional dollop of friendly smile. With this Schoenberg, impeccable technique and boundless confidence were a given, and were plentifully on display here; otherwise, some other piece would have been heard. Schoenberg’s lines sang all evening: the lines surely did not, nor were they intended by Schoenberg to, resolve to a definitive somewhere; but the music never stood still, but instead steadfastly aiming to go forward, if only vaguely somewhere. On execution, if Hilary Hahn’s famed treatment of the score was akin to a Joan Miró with finely delineated, abstract strokes, Kopatchinskaja’s was that of a Jackson Pollock, with seemingly hysterical but deliberate dancing patterns.

Petrenko’s Tchaikovsky was clean and clear, with singing melodic lines anchored with solid rhythmic tensions below. Solo winds were given ample space to inspire and fly; strings painted with such broad strokes as to remind us of vast oceans in far-flung corners of the Earth. Tchaikovsky’s dynamic swelling and swooning unfurled with due care. Pacing was just a tad on the swift end of things, especially in the final movement; other than a few passages that felt rather rushed, the overall product was a triumph of coherence and fine structure.

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Orchestral music

Berlin Phil/Petrenko: Berg, Beethoven

Date: August 25, 2019
Location: Großes Festspielhaus, Salzburg.

Berg – Lulu Suite
Beethoven – Symphony No. 9

Berliner Philharmoniker
Rundfunkchor Berlin

Kirill Petrenko, conductor
Marlis Petersen (soprano)
Elisabeth Kulman (contralto)
Benjamin Bruns (tenor)
Kwangchul Youn (bass)

 

Ushering the Berlin Philharmonic into the Petrenko era was a series of Beethoven 9 concerts, with two concerts in Berlin followed by stints at successive European summer festivals in Salzburg, Lucerne and Bucharest. This review from Salzburg was therefore Petrenko’s third concert as Chief Conductor of the orchestra. The program featured two works that could not be more contrasting in mood and nature: that of Berg, a plot of humanity’s despair and disintegration; and that of Beethoven 9, humanity’s hymn for universal brotherhood.

The Berg’s score, in the hands of an average orchestra, could feel weighty and muddled. But here, instrumental lines flowed in mid-air, with rhythms of four against three and two against three crisscrossing each other, like a feisty swarm of butterflies fluttering their wings vibrantly, yet cleanly and without touching each other. A good example was in the Rondo, with the music in reference to the escape plot to bring Lulu to Paris. Lulu is pretending to be an invalid, and the music that accompanies her act is lightweight, borderline comical. The woodwind counts in two and plays in triplets of notes, while the piano counts in three and plays triplets. The music was moving so quickly that the sequence would have been easily missed. But here, the Berliner’s execution was clean and clear, with rhythms held aloft in a delicious call and response. Another good example was how each long line of the Act 2 trombones, often as anchor or trailer to bright trumpet moments, never seemed muddled. Their exhibition was a masterclass of rhythmic diligence and persuasive phrasing.

Marlis Petersen, as Lulu, gave an impassioned performance. Her voice was suitably prepared at her entrance, as if she had been warming up her voice and singing Lulu’s part anyway while the Suite was in motion. Her diction was clear; and her delivery was supple.

If the ambiguously resolution of the last chords of Berg was intent to sink the audience hearts, the latter piece’s beginning fifths by Beethoven, if purely by its embryonic and yet-to-be-shaped intention, did not immediately prove to repeal the former. It was not until the triple forte section, when the third was finally introduced, that there was no longer any doubt about how, after Berg’s total repudiation of humanity, the evening was about to be rehabilitate. What came after was a rebuilding, chord by chord, layer by layer. Petrenko was patient, taking his time through the first three movements to build up motions, occasionally suppressing them just enough so as to enable a long arch leading to the fourth movement’s climactic end.

The Schreckensfanfare, approached with an unrelenting fury, ruptured the tension built heretofore. The double basses’ introduction of the title theme was so united in intonation, color and clarity, as if the basses were forged into one giant instrument. Tempo picked up slowly with briskness, in a statement of an increasingly vibrant life, even flirting slightly with the rushed side of things, as if to illustrate the vivacity in human emotion. But where the orchestra seemed to be juicing just above comfort, its sound came across more as confidently urgent than blindly hard-driven. When the proceedings got hot, musicians cooled down by playing farther behind the baton, most evidently by Emmanuel Pahud’s solo at the poco ritenente, just before the baritone’s first entrance.

Petrenko was not the only one making a prominent debut on this occasion. Benjamin Forster, who replaced the retiring Rainer Seegers as solo timpanist, made a glorious debut as solo timpanist, in this all-important part of the instrument’s classical repertoire. His playing style was minimalist and scrupulously efficient. And he seemed shy when Petrenko singularly called him out during the extended and thunderous applause.

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Orchestral music

Mozarteumorchester Salzburg/Fischer/Jussen and Jussen: Mozart

Date: August 25, 2019
Location: Stiftung Mozarteum Grosser Saal, Salzburg.

Mozart – Symphony No. 34, KV 338
Mozart – Concerto for Two Pianos, KV 365
Mozart – Symphony No. 38, KV 504

Mozarteumorchester Salzburg

Ádám Fischer, conductor
Lucas Jussen and Arthur Jussen (piano)

 

This late morning matinee concert was delightful, not only because of the overall quality of the performance but because, on this Sunday morning with crisp air and blue sky, this was one of the few Mozart-only concerts in the entire Festival. Fischer was an animated conductor, but not merely aesthetically: the orchestra reacted with each beating of his baton, whether a tempo pickup, a long-planned crescendo, or that sudden subito piano. Melodically, the oboe pair’s series of harmonic counterpoints in the first movement was delicious, warm and airy. The Jussen brothers had a disastrous start in the piano concerto for four hands: in the middle of the first movement, an unknown beeper started to cause some confusion, if not between the pianists or within the orchestra, then certainly with the audience, in which many angry heads were frantically looking for the offending culprit. No one accepted fault, but the beeping died down eventually. The Jussens held fort, but the orchestra’s output seemed somewhat stranded, in terms of confidence, amidst all the confusion. The second movement began with glaringly constricted oboes and smudged horns, but order was soon restored when the pianos intervened. The roam to finish was resolute and strong, and the Jussens rewarded a ferocious ovation with a triptych from Bizet’s Jeux d’enfants, Op. 22. Le bal (#12) stood out particularly with the Jussens taking great care of, and having fun while hacking away at, the dancing rhythms and flowing melodic lines. After intermission, Fischer led a fine treatment of the Prague. Brass glimmered like lush summer willow, while woodwinds nourished their lines with great care, like butterflies picking nectar elegantly away. The pictorial reminded the audience what a great day it was in Salzburg, even if the music was not programmatic in its intent. The overall sound inside the Mozarteum was fantastic, with just enough reverberation to sound warm but not too much to muddle.

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Orchestral music

Verbier Festival Chamber/Cheung/Capuçon: Beethoven, Saint-Saëns etc.

Date: March 23, 2018
Location: Hong Kong City Hall, Hong Kong.

Mozart – Symphony No. 35, K.385
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 4, Op. 58
Saint-Saëns – Cello Concerto No. 1, Op. 33
Schubert – Symphony No. 5, D.485

Encores:

J. Strauss II – Hungarian Polka Op. 332
Rossini – Overture to Guillaume Tell (with a twist)

Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra
Gabor Takács-Nagy, conductor
Rachel Cheung (piano)
Gautier Capuçon (cello)

The fervent energy of the Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra capped off an exciting month of programming at the Hong Kong Arts Festival. Culled from the best musicians from professional orchestras around the world, Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra is currently touring in Asia and the Middle East, as part of its celebration of the Festival’s 25th anniversary. This evening, Gabor Takács-Nagy led the procession, with joyous and jubilant reading of the Mozart and the Schubert. With the beginning of Schubert, Takács-Nagy’s phrasing and dynamic control led us into a world of agony, the sort of wandering misery that Schubert is fond of projecting. But Schubert never intends his fifth symphony as a treatise on romanticism. Instead, he aims to allude to the classical era where formalities in harmony are at the forefront, and the piece would develop as such. The seamless transition in the interim is what made this evening most interesting: the orchestral sound ebbed and flowed, but what seemed to be an emerging didactic imagery slowly but surely gave way to pure sonorous beauty. Takács-Nagy’s handling of the call and response between the upper strings and lower strings in the final movement was one that conjured up less of visual symbolism than a professorial pursuit of harmonic balance. Never mind that Takács-Nagy tended to tap his shoes along with the music, thus revealing his perhaps even more illustrious past as a chamber musician: as an orchestral conductor, he was thoughtful, vivacious, and complete.

Cheung is a gifted pianist who gave a thoughtful display of perhaps Beethoven’s most lyrical piano concerto. Her intonation, especially in the slower second movement, was ethereal and controlled. In the faster passages, Cheung’s performance was handicapped by a Steinway piano muddling away, especially in the middle registers, and seemingly unwilling to project more clarity that perhaps Cheung, and most certainly Beethoven, surely would have sought. Capuçon’s cello lines had long, overarching phrasings that wove nicely with the orchestral lines. Melodic subjects were repeated with slight tweaks to intonation to yield a richly woven fabric of sound. If Cheung was seeking perfection in individual notes, Capuçon was clearly more committed to channeling meaning through shapely and refined paragraphs. Two encore pieces followed: a cheerful Hungarian Polka, by Strauss II, and a vocal-only rendition of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell overture (yes, orchestra members sang the overture) that confirmed just how much fun members of this festival orchestra are having on their tour.

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Orchestral music

Ethereal is the Moon

Date: March 12, 2017
Location: Hong Kong City Hall, Hong Kong.

Chan Hing-yan – Ethereal is the Moon
Ravel – Piano Concerto in G
Shostakovich – Symphony No. 9

Hong Kong Sinfonietta
Wang Ying-chieh (huqin)
Colleen Lee (piano)
Yip Wing-sie (conductor)

Premiered during Sinfonietta’s tour in Taiwan back in November 2016, “Ethereal is the Moon” is the sixth of composer Chan Hing-yan’s commissions for the orchestra. The composition was originally conceived to celebrate the 20th anniversary of collaboration between the composer and the orchestra (their first collaboration, “Enigmas of the Moon”, was premiered in 1998). After Chan completed “Ethereal” in September 2016, two years earlier than planned, the piece was swiftly picked for the orchestra’s tour.

The piece is cast in five movements, each elaborating on one line of Chan’s five-lined, eponymous poem:

Scrawny Horse’s Hooves on Waning Crescent
Moon-embalmed, a Dead Flower Lies in State —
Full Moon Leans to Outline Raven Shadows
Frost-bruised Blossoms Hide the Moonbeam’s Chill —
Lunar Halo Mourns the Mountain Demons

In the music, the first, third and fifth assert with dominant themes. The second and fourth, offering light orchestration and mellow musical structures, not only act as connecting interludes but mirror the motionless sensibility of the poem’s second and fourth lines. This alternating structure further reminds us of the Shostakovich, also structured in five movements, with two mellow movements on either side of the scintillating third. The third movement of “Ethereal” includes a rapid-firing huqin motif that repeats throughout the movement. Played here by Wang Ying-chieh, the motif reminds us of the foundation motif in the second movement of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11. In terms of construct, “Ethereal” is comparable to Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9. In terms of tonal color, solemn themes and overall melancholic mood, however, the Russian composer’s Symphony No. 11 seems more related.

The opening first movement of “Ethereal” is funereal, almost to the point of apocalypse. Here, Wang’s huqin was juxtaposed frequently in semi-tonal digression by the first violins. The effect was hauntingly surreal. A suffocating air of bleakness seemed to creep in slowly, turning the evening into one of near lifelessness. The second and fourth movements offer no particularly discerning theme, but the harmonic structure is completed with intricate layers of long holding notes by lower strings and lower brasses — a treatment that may well be a tribute to Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11. Whether Shostakovich’s music has actually influenced “Ethereal” is a question yet to be explored, but “Ethereal” very well holds its own in terms of contrasts, details, and its expressiveness. The huqin line offered by Wang is both poetic and vivaciously detailed, and reveals Chan’s committed effort to showcase the instrument’s versatility as a purveyor, respectively, of melody and of texture.

The showcase of versatility was unfortunately not continued in Colleen Lee’s performance in Ravel. Lee’s piano playing was precise and clinical, but was powerless as a voice or as a dramatic device. The piece’s famously jazzy lines were rendered with a Bach-like rigidity. Even a hint of Mozartean playfulness could have offered a more forceful impact. In moments where horns and woodwinds soared with blood-boiling, high-wired dramatics, the piano line failed to answer with a properly balanced counterpoint. That was not to suggest that Lee, who is a past Chopin prize winner, limped to a finish; it was simply that, even as Lee breezed through the Ravel without any difficulty, there was very little emotional or dramatic dialogue between the orchestra and the concerto instrument.

After intermission, we were brought back to “Ethereal”’s structural twin but emotional nemesis. The sole purpose of Shostakovich’s comedic piece could be, jokingly, referred to as a dramatically futile mad dash from the start to the finish. If “Ethereal” is sincere and serious, this Shostakovich is probably anything but. Curiously, Yip offered a cerebral account of the first two movements, as if appearing to stall, or at least slow down, the inevitable dash to the end. The upper violins offered lush phrasings that veered towards Brahmsian sentimentality. Slowly but surely, Yip began to build momentum in the third, but may have overshot her pace so much so that the first bassoon, which holds perhaps the key to the entire work, was barely catching up with the rapid fingering. In the end, the orchestral coloring could be said to be more heroic than comedic, more romantic than satirical. The output would have pleased Stalin, but probably not, at least not necessarily, the composer himself.

Ethereal is the Moon: a program presented under Hong Kong Arts Festival. Photo credit: Hong Kong Sinfonietta.

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Orchestral music

HK Phil/Behzod Abduraimov: Prokofiev, Elgar

Date: July 1, 2016
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Prokofiev – Piano Concerto No. 3
Elgar – Symphony No. 1

ENCORE (after Prokofiev)

Bach/Vivaldi – “Siciliano” from Concerto in D minor, BWV 596

Hong Kong Philharmonic
Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor)

Closing Hong Kong Philharmonic’s 2015/16 season was a pair of concerts featuring Uzbek sensation Behzod Abduraimov on the piano. The programming was not as curious as it was stale: just over a year ago, a similar concert featured a big Elgar piece (Engima Variations), a finger-breaking piano concerto (Rach 3), and the wizardry of Abduraimov. Surely, Abduraimov is always eagerly anticipated, while the music of Elgar deserves to be heard. But what purpose does setting up similar programs serve? The program notes surely could, and should have offered an explanation, lest the programmers be accused of simply being lazy for repeating what worked before?

That being said, the concert did not fail to impress. In his Third Piano Concerto, Prokofiev scores something that frenetically switches between the lyrical and the grotesque. This evening, Abduraimov juggled a well-balanced act by deftly altering between primal lyricism and blinding hysteria, all the while keeping an absurd level of energy. Some of his peers might pound out Prokofiev’s chords in nihilistic brutality, but Abduraimov’s approach to the keyboard was better thought out, with a combination of cultured sophistication and civility. The young pianist beamed with fiery and authoritative confidence, and did not for a moment sounded muddled or indecisive. This concerto requires an equal partner in the orchestra and the soloist, and Abduraimov was clearly attentive to his partner’s sonic motions here. He leaned forward a la Glenn Gould, but would often look up to synthesize with Ashkenazy’s conducting, which gave plenty of leeway to the pianist and the various orchestral soloists to shine through. The performance probably could have benefited from a slight pick-up in pace, as there were a few instances when the orchestra (especially the brass section) was moving too far behind Abduraimov. With “Sicilienne”, Abduraimov found the perfect coupling to calm down a delirious audience eager for some more. His pace was well-measured; his touch was airy; and his phrasing was smooth as floaty silk. His phrasing of the baroque material could bother a few with a slight romantic inclination, but otherwise no fault could reasonably be found in this incredibly well-executed encore. Here, he showed great potential in a much wider repertoire, away from oft-heard, finger-breaking piano concertos.

Elgar’s First is probably the most definitive British symphony, if only because Elgar unabashedly advocated its “Britishness”. That being said, it is well documented that Elgar might have borrowed from, or influenced by, the music of Wagner and Brahms. The construction of some lower strings points to Wälsung music in Die Walküre, while various woodwind harmony reminds one of Siegfried. Here, Ashkenazy seemed ready to peel away the gargantuan piece in piece-meal bits, slowly revealing and highlighting each and every important solos. This Elgar never sounded so much like a multi-instrument concerto, each with equal prominence over the course of the symphony. Ashkenazy’s pace was thoughtful and didactic, though a brisker pace would have been preferred. Overall, the Hong Kong Philharmonic sounded quite fine, if more Germanic than British, and was clearly more attentive and lively with Elgar than with Prokofiev.

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Opera, Orchestral music

Leipzig Gewandhaus: St. Matthew Passion

Date: March 5, 2016
Location: The Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Hong Kong.

Thomanerchor Leipzig
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig
Gotthold Schwarz, conductor
Sibylla Rubens, soprano
Marie-Claude Chappuis, alto
Benjamin Bruns, tenor (Evangelist)
Martin Petzold, tenor
Klaus Häger, bass (Jesus)
Florian Boesch, bass

Bach supposedly wrote five Passions, but only two were completed and survived to this day. St. Matthew Passion precedes St. John but arguably surpasses its predecessor with lush framework and heavenly aesthetics. It would however be a mistake to characterize this evening’s performance merely as a clinical display of this framework or an apt conveyor of Bach’s beauty, however valid these two characterizations may be. Conductor Gotthold Schwarz meticulously built the magnum opus layer by layer, and eventually un-caged an all-consuming, ecclesiastical giant that reverberated into the evening long after the last note sounded. Soloists, Thomanerchor Leipzig and Gewandhausorchester Leipzig cooperated seamlessly, in what could handily be the highlight of this year’s Festival.

The genesis of Bach’s masterwork is beyond doubt; it is nevertheless safe to say that few pieces in the entire canon of western music demand such a breath of challenge for the musicians, as vibrant music is matched eagerly with rhetorical implications; or for the conductor, as the piece’s sheer size demands an all-encompassing cohesion. In baroque music, and particularly in this Bach, there is very little room for the conductor to spray his own aesthetic nourishment to the proceedings, save for a measured enthusiasm here and there. That being said, Schwarz was able to conjure up something real and gripping, even if his sentiment remains loyal, and his delivery academic. About the only freedom that Schwarz took was going light on those end-of-phrase fermata, and by doing so, he was able to slim up the evening’s procession. The only time when Schwarz seemed to have lost his authority was at #35 (of 78 sections), when a growing impatience seemed to launch from nowhere to force a temporary and clearly audible mismatch in tempo between the orchestra and the male side of the chorus.

Marie-Claude Chappuis gave early promises of the evening’s high level of quality, with exceptionally well-crafted and nurtured singing in her #10 da capo piece d’resistance. Her version of events at #61 overflowed with melancholy, while the mournful dynamics between her voice and the upper strings bereaved the audience, as if each trying to out-languish the other. The Evangelist, a task bearer with very little melodic means to please, was sung by Benjamin Bruns, whose voice was meticulously controlled yet warmly refined. An explosion of textural coloring and dynamic range at #73, which came towards the end of the Passion, enacted with no inkling of exhaustion. In revealing Peter’s reckoning (#46), Bruns’ voice was especially wholesome and intimate, as if unveiling a sad story to a dear friend. Sibylla Rubens lent a dependable soprano voice, with good breath control and lyricism amidst the wide tessitura and long phrases in the fiendishly difficult #58. Martin Petzold and Klaus Häger had a fine evening musically as tenor and Jesus, even if neither of them brought enough charisma to their singing. The weakest link was Florian Boesch. His voice did not warm up enough at the start to comfortably output in his specified range. At #51, Boesch had trouble jumping from lower notes into the various mid-octave E-naturals. More tellingly, his transparent vibratos and declamatory timbre seemed ill-suited for this sort of Bach singing, which probably explained why, in the romantic universe of things, his Winterreise was so well received at Wigmore Hall.

The choir was in an enviable form all evening. The Leipzig boys produced a range of emotions, from frenzy at #43 to self-doubt at #15. In calling out “Barrabam” (at #54), the infliction of pain by the mob was excruciating. At #59, the layering of anger filled the concert hall with exactly the sort of passion that Bach must have intended. The lesser characters were all well rendered by young male voices in the chorus.

Indispensable in St. Matthew Passion was the obbligato playing, which was performed by the Gewandhaus musicians so masterly that they would have warranted a spotlight all to themselves but yet so humbly that they never really drew attention to themselves. Sebastian Breuninger’s violin solo at #51 was simply delightful to hear and luxurious to watch: his sound vibrant, and his body movement energetic. Hearing him attack, without timidity, the various sets of demisemiquavers would bring joy to anyone who has some musical training. While Boesch soldiered on with the bass line, a consensus could possibly be built in the audience that the true duet was between the swaying Breuninger and his instrument. As the piece drew to a close, a sullen, almost sinking atmosphere solidified so haunting and conclusively gloomy an image that one would be forgiven to forget that the certainty of resurrection was merely, by definition, a few days away. The music was never beyond the musicians’ grasps, and it remains a miracle that the choir boys, despite having to travel on a tight schedule (they are on a whirlwind Asia tour), drowned with jetlag, were able to maintain a heightened level of musical sensitivity for the entire two-plus hours of the work such a monumental work.

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