HK Phil/Behzod Abduraimov

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.

Advertisements

Haochen Zhang recital

Date: December 12, 2015
Location: Grand Hall, Lee Shau Kee Lecture Centre, The University of Hong Kong.

Janáček – From the Street
Schumann – Kreisleriana Op. 16
Beethoven – Sonata No. 26 in E-flat major, Op. 81a, Les adieux
Scriabin – Poèmes, Op. 69 No. 1 & 2, 32 No. 1
Ginastera – Piano Sonata No. 1, Op. 22

ENCORES

Mozart – Rondo alla turca (arr. Volodos)
Brahms – Intermezzo No. 2 in A major

Haochen Zhang (piano)

One would assume that Haochen Zhang, who studied under Gary Graffman at Curtis, would perform with the sort of exuberant showmanship and unrestrained virtuosity that often define the performing style of Graffman’s other two star pupils from China, Lang Lang and Yuja Wang. That would have been fine, to be sure, as plenty of people are willing and happy to buy tickets to witness the perfect execution of that performing style. In this winter evening at HKU, Zhang offered a similar stomping execution, and then some. There were moments when Zhang flashed with more superficial thrills than musical sensibility, and there were other moments when tempo was modified more for frivolous excitement than for phrasal cohesion. For the better part of the evening, however, Zhang seemed singularly focused on slowly and tastefully unveiling each composer’s music, with audible evidence where he deferred to each composer’s dynamic and tempo signatures, especially in Kreisleriana and Les adieux. With Kreisleriana, Zhang collated various passages, each depicting a varying personality of Schumann’s subject matter (that would be Hoffmann’s Kreisler), with a kaleidoscopic alteration of texture. In Les adieux, Zhang provided a compelling contrast between the lyrical Abwesenheit and the more sonorous Das Wiedersehen. Whereas Lang and Wang often seem to treat the piano as an interpretive intermediary, Zhang’s approach to the keyboard this evening seemed more symbiotic, as if there is equal significance, and substance, between a willing pianist and a willing instrument. Here, the Steinway & Sons concert grand produced a gorgeous sound, with crisp tones at the upper registers and a steely support at the lower registers. Curiously, the middle sections got muffled up, especially on pedals in the Janáček. One would assume that to be an odd characteristic of the instrument. On more attentive listening, this peculiarity could (possibly?) be explained by Zhang’s tendency to overlap his transiting chords under pedal, which created a momentary whiff of cloudiness which then led to a muffling sensation. This overlap would create an incredible audible effect in dreamy music, but the non-linearity could irritate some. Elsewhere, the Beethoven could have sounded less like Rachmaninoff and more like, let’s say, Beethoven, but overall, Zhang’s meticulous and analytical effort paid off with a desirably practical amount of sincerity and authenticity. In the Ginastera, Zhang curtailed some of that analytical rendition and permeated the air with a more relaxed spontaneity. The choices for his three encores: Rondo alla turca a la Volodos, Brahms’ Intermezzo No. 2 in A major and a short Mozart sonata segment revealed not nearly as much technical notoriety as a strategy and desire to earn a reputation as a pianist with, more than just showmanship and virtuosity, a varied and versatile repertoire.

Anja Harteros recital

Date: June 30, 2014
Location: Bavarian State Opera, Munich.

Soprano: Anja Harteros
Piano: Wolfram Rieger

This evening, Anja Harteros displayed technical brilliance and artistic grace in the Nationaltheater, in a technically demanding lieder program of Schubert and Brahms. Her lines were well prepared and thoughtfully presented, with clear diction and warm phrasing. One of the endearing qualities of Harteros’ singing is a reserved modesty where the diva, projecting no particular vocal mannerism, always plays healthy subservience to the composer and the music. Her emotions were not pretentious but real, while all notes dropped in perfection and simple harmony with blinding accuracy. In Schubert’s An den Mond (D.193) in particular, Harteros released a tremendous sense of sadness, puncturing an air of warmth built up after a couple of love songs. In Nacht und Träume (D.827), she created a timeless space, almost devoid of oxygen and breath, that virtually no audience dared to provoke. In An die Musik and Seligkeit, two of four encores, she committed her phrasings with a relaxed, yet wholesome expressiveness. Even though her phrasing could be accused of being at times too clean and clinical, she made up with finesse and earnestness. In all honesty and seriousness, her voice seems slightly too operatic for lieder, but one wonders whether that is actually the case or simply the reality of having to sing in a 2000-seat opera house. That this is neither Wigmore Hall nor Schwarzenberg should not be lost on the audience when judging her timbre and output. (That being said, Prinzregententheater could surely have been a slightly better venue?) Wolfram Rieger, the gold standard of accompaniment, voiced the instrument with clarity and singular pleasure. He would match Harteros’ singing point by point, ready to assert as an equal partner but never intent to outshine. Rieger’s control of the tempo and dynamic was instinctive, creating enough contrast to entice but not provoke. Meanwhile, his pedaling work was sublime, and tempered the month-long, fist-pumping opera festival with a delicate evening of Hochkunst.

Anja Harteros and Wolfram Rieger in Munich. June 30.

Anja Harteros and Wolfram Rieger in Munich. June 30.

Dresden Philharmonic

Date: October 23, 2013
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Michael Sanderling led the Dresdner players in an evening of romanticism, featuring Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Dvorak’s violin concerto with the young and talented Julia Fischer, and finally Brahms’ Fourth Symphony. Julia Fischer’s violin playing was feisty and articulate, though her mannerisms on stage gave the impression that she did not feel particularly affectionate towards or comfortable with the piece. In her encore performance, Paganini’s Caprice No. 15, her fingering was feathery and not labored at all, despite all the technical traps of the piece. More importantly, the sort of delicate care that she placed into her phrasing and dynamics suggested that the work was deeply personal to her.

A Tristan Liebestod without a soprano voice was like eating dry pancakes without syrup; the best that could be said of Dresden’s performance here was that all notes were played and phrasal arches seemed to suggest some sort of dramatic consequence behind the music. But there was hardly any inkling that fate and death had anything to do with their clinical but unfortunately rather lifeless rundown. With Brahms, Michael Sanderling could not bring out the best of the players until the second movement, but by then damage has been done. During the development section of the first movement, strings and winds were supposed to converse in a series of call and response, almost like a gentle quarrel between two young, passionate lovers, but instead what was heard was a bland series of notes that happened in time but offered little else, even in the context of Brahms’ pure music. The horns’ second movement entry was timid and unfocused. The lower brasses, which were given plenty of attention by the composer in the fourth movement, were frequently hesitant – a fatal flaw in a movement where Brahms obviously played tribute to the structural clarity of classicism. But all was not lost. Brahms made a commitment, particularly in this last symphonic work of his, to highlight woodwinds not merely as a crucial harmonic support but as a defining one, even if often buried in the rest of the orchestral harmonics. The woodwind players duly complied and, in my life of hearing Brahms, I have not heard an oboist as devoted and as lyrical as the lovely Undine Röhner-Stolle, Dresden’s principal. Her playing beamed with lyrical beauty, like small lilac pedals floating mid-air in autumn breezes. Her phrasal entrances were clean and committed; her phrasing was sublime and heart-warmingly poetic.

I could not remember the last time when I was compelled, after a performance, to google to find out more about an orchestra member. Röhner-Stolle’s commitment seemed contagious too: players around her found themselves unchained and seemingly having a time of their life. As audience, we live for and cherish those moments.

Dresden in Hong Kong.

Dresden in Hong Kong.