Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Great artists grace a new 2016-17 MPO season

The new Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO) season at the DFP Hall promises many musical delights. The new season is a testament to the very innovative and interesting programming led by the General Manager of the MPO, Timothy Tsukamoto, who is doing a superlative job which has resulted in some very delightful premieres for the coming concerts for 2016-17.

The choir of Clare College, Cambridge under its conductor Graham Ross kick off the season with a concert of Fauré's Requiem, Bernstein's Chichester Psalms and Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture in a choral version.

Famous maestros like Vladimir Ashkenazy and Roberto Abbado are the star attractions of the season. A key concert highlight is of Rimsky-Korsakov's Russian Easter Festival Overture (a premiere), Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations (with cellist Li-Wei-Qin) and Shostakovich's epic Symphony No 8 under maestro Ashkenazy.

Roberto Abbado offers two diverse programmes. One programme features an Italian theme with Berlioz's Roman Carnival Overture, Paganini's Violin Concerto No 5 (yet another premiere, with soloist Sergei Krylov), Berio-Boccherini's Ritirata notturna di Madrid and Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony. The other concert offering consists of extracts from Wagner's Parsifal and Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique.

There are also some excellent violinists who will perform mainly standard violin concerto repertoire like the Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky. The violinists are the 27-year old Ray Chen in the Beethoven, Kolja Blacher in the Brahms and Nemanja Radulovic in the Tchaikovsky.

Mahler also graces the season with performances of the First Symphony and songs from Das Knaben Wunderhorn (yet another premiere at the DFP Hall), with German baritone Matthias Goerne and conductor Guillaume Tourniaire. Maestro Yoel Gamzou returns this season with his very own completion of Mahler's Tenth Symphony after a very successful debut here in Mahler's Ninth Symphony earlier in 2016.

Popular piano works like the Grieg, Schumann and Beethoven's Fourth piano concertos are also to be heard this season, with soloists Vadim Kholodenko (Grieg), David Fray (Schumann) and Stephen Hough (Beethoven). Perennial local pianist Tengku Irfan performs Bartok's Second Piano Concerto in a colourful programme, led by one of the MPO's new resident conductors, Harish Shankar.

Other interesting musical fare are concerts of JS Bach's Brandenburg Concertos (also another premiere for the DFP), with 3 different conductors - Radek Baborak, Benjamin Bayl and Maurice Steger. Baborak also plays Glière's romantic Horn Concerto and leads the MPO in Dvorak's epic Seventh Symphony.

The 2016-17 MPO season promises many concerts of varied fare, with great artists in wonderful repertoire. For further information, visit or call (03) 2331 7007 or 2331 7008.

Friday, 2 September 2016

Buniatishvili’s brilliant Beethoven in Lucerne

After the superb Munich concert, we headed to Lucerne for the final leg of our musical tour. The Lucerne Symphony Orchestra, James Gaffigan and Khatia Buniatishvili performed at the KKL (Kultur und Kongresszentrum Luzern) concert hall on 8 June.

This concert opened with Weber’s lively overture from Euryanthe. Chief conductor Gaffigan set the orchestra off at a cracking pace, creating an upbeat mood throughout the evening.

Although the opera is rarely heard in its entirety, the overture encapsulates the hero’s two great themes, with the drama of martial music from woodwind and brass giving way to the lyrical eloquence of legato strings. An exuberant final flourish conveyed a feeling of triumph, which set the audience up nicely for the Beethoven Piano Concerto No 1 in C major.

Since Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 1 starts with a long orchestral ritornello, Buniatishvili fans were made to wait a while before her first notes. This gave the audience a chance to appreciate some of the exceptional qualities of the Lucerne SO. The strings produce the clear and crisp sound of a chamber orchestra, while giving each phrase a clearly defined dynamic contour.

When Buniatishvili joined in, her running passages were played with classical refinement and delicacy, contrasting with the power that she can muster when needed. She showed technical ability out of the very top drawer, playing Beethoven’s long rippling runs with perfect and chiselled precision and then handing over to the orchestra with resolute power. Buniatishvili dazzled in the first movement cadenza while retaining the elegance when needed.

The Lucerne SO delicately accompanied the soloist in her beautiful second movement melodies and she repaid the compliment when they took over the tune. The high jinks of the rondo theme in the final movement, first stated by the piano alone, then taken up by the orchestra, proved a rousing conclusion of a very stylish and immensely enjoyable performance.

After long and sustained applause, Buniatishvili rewarded the audience with a moving interpretation of Debussy’s Clair de lune from his Suite bergamasque.

Gaffigan led a performance of Dvořák’s New World Symphony that was subtly varied, with moments of melody and counterpoint, clarified orchestral textures, heighted rhythmic tension and release in the flute solo of the first movement. In the second movement, a gentle body of lovely string tone cushioned the exquisite cor anglais solo.

The third movement had a sense of urgency, but with relaxation in the slower middle section. In the last movement, Dvořák ties the whole symphony together, musically and dramatically. This performance was impassioned, with moments of utmost serenity.

It may be hard to imagine calling a performance of a warhorse like the New World Symphony thrilling, but James Gaffigan and the Lucerne SO made it so this time. It was apparent to the audience as well, with the conductor and orchestra being given a well-deserved and extended ovation and many curtain calls.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Zimmermann’s coruscating Tchaikovsky, Kirill Petrenko’s superb Richard Strauss

The next concert I watched in Munich was the major highlight of my European trip. This was a sold out event by the Bavarian State Orchestra under its general music director, Kirill Petrenko at the National Theatre on 6 June.

There were just two works on the programme, which were Tchaikovsky’s evergreen Violin Concerto with Frank Peter Zimmermann and the rarely played Sinfonia Domestica by Richard Strauss.

Zimmermann, sporting his newly loaned 1727 "Général Dupont" ex-Grumiaux Stradivarius, gave a coruscating interpretation of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, with some Leopold Auer variants replacing the score in places. He played with passionate commitment and searching beauty with endless and subtle variety of nuances and tone.

Every melodic phrase was carefully shaped; if repeated, it was shaped afresh. The virtuoso high-speed scales and passagework had a frenetic and demonic quality whilst the more tender passages were breathtakingly hushed and intense. Burnished lower notes gave way to nut-brown sweetness and lyrical intensity at the top range.

The first movement cadenza was a remarkable piece of storytelling, which flowed into the principal flutist’s lovingly lyrical entry to blend with Zimmermann’s gentle trills at the end of the cadenza. Petrenko made the mundane orchestral tutti passages sound alive and freshly minted.

The second movement ("Canzonetta") was spellbinding and achieved a chamber music-like intimacy particularly in the exchange between the solo violin and clarinet.

The finale was a vivacious and exhilarating Cossack dance featuring exciting tempo changes. Despite being fast and frenzied, the rhythms were precise and alive as Zimmermann, the BSO and Petrenko brought the concerto to a most thrilling close.

After many curtain calls, Zimmermann obliged the audience with a most unusual encore. This was not the typical solo Bach or Paganini, but Rachmaninov’s Prelude Op 23 No 5 in G minor transcribed from the piano version for solo violin by Ernst Schliephake who dedicated it to Ruggiero Ricci for his 75th birthday.

This was truly an astounding encore piece as the transcription to a four-fingered solo violin part from a ten-fingered piano part was stunning in Zimmermann’s near–perfect execution.

In the second half, we heard a most glorious account of Richard Strauss’ Sinfonia Domestica by Petrenko. Sinfonia Domestica in not generally in the list of popular Richard Strauss compositions (Don Juan, Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Also Sprach Zarathustra, Don Quixote, Ein Heldenleben and Eine Alpensinfonie for example).

When presenting one of Richard Strauss’ lesser-known tone poems, it helps to have one of the composer’s greatest living interpreters in Petrenko in total command of an orchestra on absolutely top form.

The Bavarian State Orchestra strings led by concertmaster David Schultheiss were at their sumptuous best in the central love scene. Petrenko encouraged a glorious and brilliantly majestic tutti sound from the orchestra both here and in Strauss’ grandiloquent coda. I found myself marvelling at the spectacle of Strauss’ riotously colourful score, as revealed by Petrenko, who will be the next Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra’s chief conductor and artistic director from 2019.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Wonderful jazz from Leonid Chizhik & Jeff Cascaro

We left Basel by direct train to Munich after the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concert the next morning. The scenery en route to Munich was particularly lovely, especially near the Lake Constance area.

An unplanned jazz concert on our summer trip that we watched in Munich was by Leonid Chizhik (piano) and Jeff Cascaro (voice and trumpet). The concert was held in the Kleines Theatre in a leafy Munich suburb called Haar.

Chizhik and Cascaro put on a show entitled "Broadway for Two". This was 2-hour show with a short intermission. This was an amazing jazz concert, which was entirely improvised and the two musicians did not have any performing score.

Chizhik (at 69 years old) performed with lots of energy at the piano, whilst Cascaro occasionally played the trumpet as he took a break from singing the American standards.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Daniil Trifonov shines in Basel

My 2016 summer holidays began in Basel with a concert by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (PSO) under its chief conductor Manfred Honeck and guest soloist Daniil Trifonov on 31 May. The concert was organized by the Allgemeine Musikgesellschaft (AMG) Basel and the performance was part of their World Orchestra series.

The concert venue was the MusikSaal at the StadtCasino, Basel. The concert attracted a full house and this unfortunately caused the 1,400-seat hall to be overly packed, as the air-conditioning could not keep up with the large audience.

Haydn's Symphony 93 in D major was the opening work. This symphony was played in the traditional symphonic manner, with no apologies to the historically informed manner of performance often favoured these days.

Honeck’s judicious choice of speeds allowed the PSO to articulate Haydn’s phrases well, without garbling in the first movement. One significant moment in the symphony is the bassoon fortissimo “fart” in the second movement. The PSO principal bassoonist executed this to perfection.

Lilting dance rhythms graced the third Minuet movement, whilst slinky and upbeat playing brought the final fourth movement to a spirited ending.

Next, the amazing Daniil Trifonov emerged to perform Liszt's First Piano Concerto. After a slightly fluffed start in his first cadenza of furious octaves due to an over-enthusiastically swift opening by maestro Honeck, Trifonov recovered well to enchant us with a most poetic as well as virtuoso rendition.

The variation in mood through the work is astounding, shifting from light, playful and impish to the full grandeur of arpeggios that traverse the whole keyboard. It is obvious that Trifonov was up to the task, remaining fully in control in his trademark fashion.

Regardless of Liszt’s impetuous technical demands, Trifonov delivered, executing delicate exquisite runs, octaves and trills of great length, whilst producing a tone of luminous quality. After long and sustained applause, Trifonov gave a gorgeously played encore in the shape of Medtner’s Fairy Tale Op 24 No 3.

In the second half, Honeck and the PSO gave us a reading of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony that was beautifully proportioned. In the opening movement, the main theme soared with idiomatic rubato. The gentle lilting 5/4-waltz movement provided gentle contrast to the passionate first movement. The scherzo, taken at a blistering pace, was a superb display of orchestral power and virtuosity. The mournful finale was the dramatic heart of the work.

The PSO and Honeck gave two delightful encores in the shape of the Panorama from Act 2 of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty and the Galop from Masquerade Suite by Khachaturian.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Gamzou’s extraordinary Mahler 9

Mahler’s Ninth is no ordinary piece for armchair or concert hall listening. This work in particular is fatally imbued with themes of his own approaching demise, constantly speaking of farewells that are loving and fervent as well as admiration for that which is left behind. Bitterness is also in abundance.

Encouraged by a friend who attended Yoel Gamzou’s MPO rehearsal as well as his concert on 23 January 2016, I sacrificed my Sunday afternoon nap on 24 January to watch an amazing performance of Mahler’s Ninth.

The concert opened with Mahler’s Five Rückert Lieder, warmly sung by the Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot. The MPO and Gamzou accompanied Szot discreetly.

Having being weaned on Herbert von Karajan’s award-winning DG live Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra recording from 1982, I found it very interesting that 28-year old Gamzou’s interpretation of the symphony managed to trump Karajan's reading in places and convince me of this young conductor's talent for Mahler’s music and very intimate knowledge of a piece which some conductors would not even touch at 50 years old.

The first movement (Andante comodo) was fully of intensity and beauty, played with secure technical command and with vivid characterisation. The second movement (Im tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers) was faster than usual, as Gamzou drove the MPO to great heights of virtuosity.

The Rondo Burlesque: Allegro assai was waspish at a fast pace and the MPO rendered this movement with heart stopping virtuosity too.

In the final Adagio, the collective MPO played well but lacked the last ounce of spirituality. At the end of the movement, a member of the audience rudely broke the spell of “dying away” (ersterbend) by clapping way too soon.

I'd be first in the ticket queue if Gamzou were invited back to conduct more Mahler with the MPO. He's a conductor who really studies the scores intently, conducts with clarity and balances the complex Mahlerian strands and textures perfectly.

A charitable Frühwirth recital

A charity concert held at the KL and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall in aid of PA Nepal and the Medical Aid Fund brought the renowned Austrian violinist David Frühwirth back to Malaysian shores in December 2015.

The programme opened with the first movement of Charles Auguste de Beriot’s Duo Concertante No 1 in G minor for 2 violins, with Frühwirth playing 1st violin and Liew Yen Nee on the 2nd violin. This was a good introduction to the evening as de Beriot fell into obscurity since his glory days as professor at the Brussels Conservatory between 1843 and 1852. This duet movement was delightful, with frequent alternations of the melodic line between Frühwirth and Liew.

The main feature of the evening was the following two pieces: Brahms' Scherzo in C minor (from the F.A.E. Sonata) and César Franck’s evergreen Violin Sonata in A major.

Accompanied by Ng Chong Lim, Frühwirth gave us a virile interpretation of the Brahms Scherzo with an upbeat speed that broadened out ever so slightly as the radiant C major “tierce di picardie” ending.

The true musical delight of the evening was the passionate performance of the Franck Violin Sonata. In this piece, Ng was an equal partner to Frühwirth, playing the opening movement at a lovely flowing pace. Frühwirth and Ng played the turbulent second movement with equal force and occasionally with some respite in the more tender moments.

The ruminative and improvisatory third movement saw both Frühwirth and Ng exploring especially extremes in pianissimo as well as use of high position notes on the violin by Frühwirth to very good effect.

The culmination of the sonata’s greatness is fulfilled by its canonic form as well as the cyclical form that Franck pioneered. Frühwirth and Ng brought the sonata to a grand conclusion, playing powerfully towards its magnificent ending.

The second half featured the Pastorale String Ensemble, conducted and led by Frühwirth from the violin in some pieces. Mendelssohn’s Vier Kinderstücke Op 72 and Haydn’s String Quartet Op 3 No 5 (1st movement) flanked Massenet’s Méditation from Thaïs and Kreisler’s Liebesleid, with Frühwirth playing wonderfully on his 1707 ex-Brüstlein Stradivarius.

The Kreisler was amazing in its suave Austrian delivery. Frühwirth was in his element here and the rubato and subtle Waltz inflections were just very close to Kreisler’s own rendition of a much loved favourite.

The hall resonance was lacking but the Stradivarius violin stood out in its full sonic glory. Sadly, the instruments of the Pastorale String Ensemble were poor and did not match well with Frühwirth’s violin.

The evening ended with McLean’s Tango and a Christmas encore.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Woeful brass mars Luisi's return visit

A return visit from maestro Fabio Luisi was a much-awaited event at the MPO on 7 Nov 2015. On a previous showing with the MPO, he drilled the often-maligned MPO musicians into a superhuman showing in Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.

On this visit, he offered just one piece – Mahler’s Seventh Symphony in E minor, which is about 80 minutes long. This time, even he was unable to work miracles with the MPO, which had quite a lot of substitute woodwind and brass players as usual.

Luisi tried to characterize Mahler’s musical intentions vividly. A guest leader (Marie Rossano) led the orchestra on the night. The MPO strings were indeed quite vivid in their characterization, as were the woodwinds.

The very obvious let down for the night were horns and the massed brass instruments, which were frequently woefully out of tune, had masses of cracked notes and were poor in ensemble playing.

This persistently poor brass playing in the first movement spilled over into the second movement. The opening horn solo has the notes (G, C, E, G, C, A flat and G) in the score but the principal horn player for the night played (G, C, E, G, B, A flat and G) instead, fluffing a very simple 2nd inversion C major arpeggio. One does wonder if the horn players employed at the MPO are truly professional.

Musically, the third and fourth movements improved with some better playing. Particularly, the fourth movement was quite well played with some lovely portamento playing from guest leader Rossano.

The poor brass playing reared its ugly head again in the fifth and final triumphant movement. The rowdy brass players in the previous concert I attended (of the Sibelius Violin Concerto where they played havoc with balances and obliterated the cutting edge of a 1707 Golden Period Stradivarius violin) were suddenly very shy and lacked sufficient power in Mahler’s final peroration of (G, E, D and C).

Sunday, 27 December 2015

Interview with David Frühwirth

RabinFan (RF): Welcome to Malaysia, David. It is your third time to Malaysia. What have you brought to our shores this time?

David Frühwirth (DF): I was here for two series of extended violin masterclasses previously. This time, I am here to perform the Sibelius Violin Concerto with the MPO under the auspices of the Austrian Embassy.

RF: Tell us how the concert was conceived please.

DF: The conductor for the concert conceived the idea of the concert as a 150th birthday celebration to both the composers (Sibelius and Nielsen) who are featured in the concert. They were both born in 1865.

RF: Are you aware of the original version of the Sibelius Violin Concerto? Are there many differences between the original version and revised version that you will play?

DF: Yes, I am aware of the original version and I have even bought an expensive copy of the score. It is fascinating to try to decipher Sibelius’ original thoughts against his revised version. I believe he wrote more music than he really needed for his violin concerto. So, the revised version which is most often played now represents a more concise and succinct representation of his musical thoughts. It is also interesting to see a “Polonaise” rhythmic accompaniment written below a first movement cadenza passage in the original version. Of course, the “Polonaise” idea is now purged from the revised edition’s first movement and makes it appearance in the last movement of the revised edition.

RF: What would be your pictorial description of the concerto?

DF: “Fire and ice” existing together.

RF: Which recordings of the Sibelius Violin Concerto are benchmarks for you?

DF: I like the version by David Oistrakh for its warm tone as well as that of the Israeli violinist, Ivry Gitlis, which has an element of “gypsy” about it. Of course, one also cannot be without Leonidas Kavakos’ recording on BIS, which contains both the original and revised versions of the concerto.

RF: Which are the versions that you do not like?

DF: Anne-Sophie Mutter’s (for its crazy speed for the third movement) and Jascha Heifetz’s (as the Russian violinist does not play the note values as written down by Sibelius).

RF: What else have you brought with you to help you in your performance?

DF: Of course, you are referring to the 1707 Stradivarius (the ex-Brüstlein), which is under a generous and extended loan from the Austrian National Bank. It is a marvellous instrument and I am very fortunate to have it for some years now. I use 2 German bows, which are a Nurnberger and a Grimm.

RF: What else is of musical interest to you?

DF: I like to discover music that is off the beaten track. Music like the Hungarian violinist and composer Jeno Hubay’s Third and Fourth Violin Concertos as well as the Italian composer Leone Sinigaglia’s Violin Concerto of 1917.

RF: Thank you for your time David and all the best for your performances with the MPO here.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Hair raising Shostakovich from Hadelich

Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto and Brahms’ First Symphony were concert bed-fellows in the debut for violinist Augustin Hadelich and conductor Andreas Delf at DFP on 12 September 2015. One of the most popular 20th century Russian violin concertos amongst concert violinists, this was an excellent choice for the 31-year old German violinist.

Sporting the superbly rich-toned 1723 Kiesewetter Stradivarius violin which was on loan from Chicago’s Stradivari Society, Hadelich gave a most impressive performance of the Shostakovich concerto.

The opening Nocturne was suitably eerie in feeling and mood, though slightly lacking in tonal colours in the arching and repetitive phrases. Hadelich played the diabolic second movement (Scherzo) with great rhythmic steadiness but with tremendous technical accuracy and laser-like and pin-point intonation. Conductor Delfs accompanied Hadelich well but there were some slight ensemble inaccuracies from the MPO in this movement.

Hadelich played the brooding Passacaglia with calm assurance. This led into the extended solo cadenza, which was played faster than usual with less obvious phrasing and point-making. The last movement was festive and virtuosically played, drawing immensely exciting playing from Hadelich. This was one of the very best performances of the Shostakovich in the DFP Hall.

The encore, was JS Bach’s Andante from the Solo Sonata No 2 in A minor BWV1003. This was a lovely rendition of this movement, with perfect balancing of the melody as well as the accompanying line.

Hadelich’s rising excellence as a front-rank violinist under 40 years old should stand him in good stead in the coming years. Perhaps it might be interesting to hear him in exciting repertoire like Paganini’s Violin Concerto No 4 in D minor in the coming years at the DFP.

In the second half, maestro Delfs gave us a typically Germanic interpretation of the Brahms First Symphony. The first movement was weighty and rhythmic and the second movement was lyrically songful with excellent solos from principal oboist Simon Emes and leader Peter Danis. After the brief third movement, the finale was suitably grand in the Karajan manner of interpretation but without the late Austrian maestro’s command and grandeur of sound.