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.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Mechetti bows out with a memorable Romantic concert

From the very memorable concert of Fabio’s Mechetti’s Mahler Sixth in May 2015, it was good to re-acquaint with maestro Mechetti and the MPO in three Romantic works in the shape of Berlioz’s Le Corsaire Overture, Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini and Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony on 29 August.

Berlioz’s Le Corsaire Overture was an effective curtain raiser, with its impulsive string opening and its grand tunes. Maestro Mechetti coaxed an impressive performance from the MPO, with tight ensemble playing and rounded tones from the whole orchestra.

The most impressive performance of the night was in Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini, where the variegated moods were characterized with infinite care and patience. Adopting very subtle rubato and pacing, maestro Mechetti painted a very colourful and dramatic portrayal of the lovers Paolo and Francesca in Tchaikovsky’s rarely played symphonic poem.

After the interval, Mechetti enchanted us with a Romantic performance of one of the greatest Russian symphonies (besides Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony) in the shape of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony. We witnessed further fine playing from the MPO with lush and singing strings, colourful and characterful woodwind playing and rounded brass tones.

The performance was in an older style of pacing, whereby there was less lingering over the phrases and more swiftness in the overall tempos (in the mould of Kurt Sanderling’s famous DG recording of the symphony). However, there were 2 points of musical contention that were doubtful, which were the omission of the first movement exposition repeat and the added timpani thwack on the last chord of the same movement.

Nevertheless, it was a hugely exciting concert by Mechetti. The MPO will miss playing superlatively under him and the audience here would also miss hearing great interpretations from maestro Mechetti following his resignation from the orchestra.

Monday, 31 August 2015

Dudamel's magnificent Mozart & Mahler in the Berlin Philharmonie

The billing on the BPO website was a concert of youthful works by Mozart and Mahler by the young Gustavo Dudamel on 11 June 2015. Personally, it was a first for me to hear the Berlin Philharmonic in their Philharmonie Hall in Germanic repertoire. Having heard the BPO in London and Lucerne under Karajan and in Singapore under Rattle, this was entirely a superlative musical experience for me.

The concert began with the Mozart Serenade No 9, K320 (Posthorn); sans the two D major Marches K 335 Nos 1 and 2 that sometimes precede and follow the Serenade.

A full-capacity Philharmonie greeted Dudamel with rapturous applause as he came on to conduct the Mozart. This was a full-blooded BPO Mozart performance with no apologies to the absence of period performance mannerisms. Led by the experienced concertmaster Daniel Stabrawa, the BPO strings were a delight with sufficient tonal heft but sweetness and lightness whenever necessary.

Particularly affecting were the Trio of the first Minuet, the Concertante and the Rondeau movements, which had major solos especially for the flute and oboe, taken by the golden-toned Emmanuel Pahud and Albrecht Mayer respectively.

Their florid parts dovetailed intimately, but projected well into the far reaches of the Philharmonie. Dudamel chose an apt and flowing speed for the Andantino and therefore did not turn the movement into a dirge as some conductors make it out to be.

The remaining two movements (the second Minuet and Finale) were suitably festive in atmosphere. A slight intonation blip by Gábor Tarkövi on the posthorn marred his golden-toned solo in the second Minuet.

Using very spare hand gestures, Dudamel took the final Presto at a spanking pace and the BPO rose to the challenge and brought the festive movement to its glorious conclusion. A very mature performance of the Mozart from the youthful Dudamel, who had previously hidden his conducting immaturity behind the more Romantic and modern works in the repertoire.

In the second half, we heard a most gloriously conceived Mahler Symphony 1 from Dudamel. He exuded fantastic control over the opening harmonics and the 7-octave drone on A, which some commentators have mentioned is like a “musical walking on eggshells”.

Exerting steady control and gradual changes of pace, Dudamel directed a gloriously conceived and structurally sound first movement, which concluded with an energetic burst from the fantastic horn and trumpet sections of the BPO.

Another unsung section of the BPO is the double bass group that began the Ländler in a very appropriate “heavy” manner. It was lovely to hear a double section that plays so clearly and well. The superb violins answered the double basses and Dudamel coaxed some really luscious “glissandi” from them in the Trio section of the second movement.

A supremely legato and lyrical interpretation of the third movement’s opening solo by BPO principal double bassist, Matthew McDonald set a wonderful tone for the movement. The BPO played the “Klezmer section” with an appropriate swing before the contemplative section, which features material from the fourth song from Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Die zwei blauen Augen) that almost lulled me to sleep.

The opening dissonant chord of the fourth movement, which Mahler denoted “as an outcry of a deeply wounded heart” was stunning in tonal depth and execution as Dudamel and the BPO tore into the movement known as “From the Inferno to Paradise”.

Other standout moments include a passionately played D flat section by the superlative BPO strings between Figure 18 and 19 of the Universal Edition score and a gut-wrenching fugato initiated by the creamy-toned violas just before Figure 45.

However, nothing was as magnificent as the ending, with Dudamel spurring the superb BPO horns and trumpets to stratospheric heights and bringing Mahler’s earliest symphonic opus to a really grand conclusion. Dudamel and the BPO enjoyed numerous curtain calls and the resounding applause certainly marks him out as a maestro who is fast-maturing and of genuine class.

Footnote: One may watch this concert via the Digital Concert Hall website:-

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Sanderling & Kempf in Beethoven (Dresden)

This summer I travelled to Germany (Frankfurt, Dresden and Berlin). Amongst the usual sight-seeing activity, I incorporated some concert-going as well. It was only natural that I attended some concerts with some great Austro-Germanic repertoire in Germany. It was a disappointment that I could not get tickets to see the fabled Dresden Staatskapelle Orchestra but watching the Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra under Michael Sanderling with piano soloist Freddy Kempf was some musical compensation instead.
The programme comprised 3 Beethoven works - the Egmont Overture, the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Sixth Symphony. The concert took place in the Schauspielhaus, Dresden on a cloudy Sunday morning on 7 June.
The opening opus was the "Egmont" Overture, which was played in a lively and historically informed manner. Apart from some tonal heft that was lacking, chief conductor Michael Sanderling found suitable drama in this most Beethovenian of all Beethoven's overtures.
Next up, pianist Freddy Kempf emerged to play Beethoven's lyrical Fourth Piano Concerto. The tempo that was set for the first movement (Allegro moderato) was way too swift for the soloist to articulate the florid piano writing in this most gentle of the five piano concertos. Often, Kempf either missed clusters of notes or fluffed Beethoven's ornate sequences of notes in this movement. The slow movement was much better played and one could imagine Orpheus taming the Furies at the gates of Hades. Sanderling and Kempf found a suitable speed and the lively third movement brought about some lovely playing from the pianist. Kempf duly obliged the audience with a Rachmaninov encore.
In the second half of the concert, we enjoyed a thoroughly magnificent performance of the "Pastoral" symphony. The Dresden PO and Sanderling were in their element and all aspects of Beethoven's pictorial and picturesque symphonic content were explicitly and lovingly played. The symphony was magnificent in all its rustic aspects, the vivid thunderstorm as well as the final shepherd's gentle song of thanksgiving.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Spano's metrical planetary explorations

Robert Spano's 16 May 2015 debut with the MPO seemed to be well attended. The programme for the night was two orchestral and planetary spectaculars, namely Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra (made famous by Stanley Kubrick in his 2001: A Space Odyssey) and Holst's The Planets.
For a famous Grammy Award winner, the performances were quite disappointing as Spano was more concerned about the ensemble playing and the metrical aspects of both the scores, whilst neglecting the musical aspects. The two pieces were played generally quite fast, loud and without much consideration for the phrasing and musicality of the pieces. In the Holst's Planets, the last movement Neptune is scored for a wordless ladies choir which seemed to be non-existent on the night as well.
After the fantastic showing of the Mahler 6 by the MPO and Fabio Mechetti from the previous week, Spano and the MPO's performances were a large let-down. The rest of the massed audience did not think so (unlike me) and gave him two huge bouts of rousing applause.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Mechetti's definitive Mahler 6

Two supreme Brazilian musicians treated the KL audience to some of most sumptuous music making heard in recent years with the MPO on 9 May 2015. Pianist Arnaldo Cohen made his KL debut with Liszt's Second Piano Concerto.
The more original Second Piano Concerto (relative to the First Piano Concerto) needs extra teamwork between soloist and conductor to make the short but unusual musical structure work. This is what pianist Cohen and conductor Fabio Mechetti served up in spades. Cohen's touch was lovely and sure. Virtuoso passages were cleanly articulated, whilst accompanying passages in the piano part took a lovely "chamber music" feel. Principal cellist Czaba Koros performed his cello solo brilliantly, with a warm rich tone and a generous vibrato.
After a coruscating finale, Cohen and Mechetti received warm and deserved applause from the audience. Cohen treated the audience to more Liszt for his encore, which was the Consolation No 3 in D flat major S. 172.
Usually in a MPO concert after the concerto, the second half is a let-down. Not this concert! If anything, the Mechetti performance of Mahler's Sixth Symphony was a stunner. We had heard some laboured Mahler Sixth Symphony performances from Kees Bakels before. However, this performance outstripped all previous performances of the Sixth that have been heard in the DFP Hall since its inception. Not only was this the best Mahler Sixth that was performed at the DFP Hall, it was one of the most memorable concerts ever given by the MPO since its inception. From the grim tread of the opening march to Alma's passionate love theme, Mechetti's characterisation was spot-on. His balancing of the orchestral textures was perfect too, as were his myriad tonal adjustments and miniscule tempi changes which were beautifully and smoothly done. The performance used Mahler's original thoughts of placing the Scherzo second and Andante third, which is my own personal preference (the Erwin Ratz edition). Characterization in the Scherzo was also very accurate, with the unrelenting march rhythms played out to their full effect. The trio's gentler character was also spot-on, with principal oboist Simon Emes making a more rustic tone compared to his usually limpid and beautiful sound. The Andante was beautifully played and provided great relief from the relentlessness of Mechetti's first two movements. The nihilistic last movement was superbly played. Punctuated by only two (rather than three) hammer blows, the shattering ending brought on a very deserved and long standing ovation for maestro Mechetti and the MPO. Mechetti held up the orchestral score as a homage to Mahler's genius. It was a very great pity that at the time of these extraordinary Mahler concerts, we learnt of maestro Mechetti's resignation as Principal Conductor of the MPO. After such a magnificent and overwhelming Mahler Sixth, it seems that the DFP management would be hard-pressed to find a replacement for such a modest and professional maestro who does his work unassumingly and produces fantastic performances that even more renowned conductors find it difficult to replicate.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Barnstorming Montero, musical Angelico

25 April 2015 brought very fine debutants to the DFP in the shape of pianist Gabriela Montero and conductor Francesco Angelico. The programme of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto and Brahms' Symphony No 4 provided the unashamed core familiarity and obviously displayed the excellent musicality of both these two fine musicians. The opening of the Tchaikovsky was broad, grand and singing for its famous opening fanfare. What was also obviously fine about the interpretation that Montero and Angelico forged for us was the concern for structure. The often-diffuse musical structure was coherent in terms of tempo and mood. Montero produced such a massive range of nuances as well as a full-bodied rich round tone in all dynamics that any mishits that she made were forgiven in the passion of her playing. The DFP's usual Steinway grand piano never had such a good workout since Arcadi Volodos' piano recital about 10 years ago. The second movement was delicate in its opening section, with some fine solo contributions from flautist Hristo Dobrinov, oboist Simon Emes and cellist Csaba Koros. Montero dazzled in the central Prestissimo section, with amply full tone despite very fluid playing at high speeds.
The last movement brought high jinks from Montero in its initial Cossack-like dance tune, with Angelico providing much needed give and take in the tempi adopted to maximize the mounting excitement of the massive double octave passages before a coruscating run to a grandly triumphant conclusion. After numerous curtain calls following the Tchaikovsky, Montero gave a rare treat in the form of improvisations on tunes suggested by the audience (Getaran Jiwa and A Spoonful of Sugar (from Mary Poppins)) as well as the third on a theme of her own in honour of political prisoners in Venezuela and the rest of the world.
After the interval, we often get a lacklustre orchestral performance but this was not the case this night. Angelico directed a fantastic performance of Brahms' Fourth Symphony. Angelico magically crafted the right sort of dreamy and melancholic mood for the opening movement. The MPO responded with fine rhythmic and Romantic playing. The second movement was ideally paced for its songful and autumnal lyricism. The scherzo third movement was duly festive in Angelico's interpretation, whilst the final Passacaglia movement was cogently played.
In view of the excellent performances by both Montero and Angelico, I sincerely hope that the DFP management would offer them future musical engagements at the DFP hall. Montero has now become a fully developed artist, but maestro Angelico looks to forge ahead in his rising career as a excellent conductor.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Janine Jansen's magnificent Mendelssohn Violin Concerto

An ideally crafted Romantic programme of Tchaikovsky's The Tempest Op 18, Mendelssohn's perennially evergreen Violin Concerto Op 64 and Sibelius's lush Second Symphony was the basis of a fine concert which brought the husband and wife team of Daniel Blendulf and Janine Jansen over to the DFP. The hall was at full capacity for Jansen's performance of the Mendelssohn.
Tchaikovsky's The Tempest Op 18 is rarely played in the concert hall or on CD. Therefore, it was an excellent programming move by Blendulf to educate the KL audience. For a rarely played piece, it was surprisingly well-played by the MPO musicians with few minor ensemble imprecisions. Blendulf managed to portray Tchaikovsky's various evocative moods like the opening seascape, the tempest as well as Ferdinand and Miranda's love theme into one coherent musical structure. The star of the evening was Janine Jansen, playing the very fine 1727 "Baron Deubroucq" Stradivarius. The interpretation of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto was one of sweetness and light. The speeds adopted for the first two movements were quite fast. In the first movement, the speed worked against the molto appassionato marking. Jansen's bowing was immaculate at the swift speeds, even spiccato triplets and the "ricochet" bowing in the cadenza. What was missing from the performance of first movement was variety of tone and dramatic intensity - partially due to the 1727 Strad's lacking of carrying power, though the lyric beauty was never in doubt. The final coda was satisfying in its mounting excitement at the end of the movement.
The flowing speed for second movement was indeed welcome as some players now adopt a too sluggish pace for this Andante. I felt that the pacing adopted by Jansen and Blendulf was just right. Again, the development section lacked just an ounce of dramatic intensity. The final movement was a touch slower than usual, and missed Mendelssohn's elfin-like "Midsummer's Night Dream" characterisation. However, despite some tempo short comings, this was a very impressive Mendelssohn Violin Concerto by Jansen, which surpassed Josef Spacek's performance from last year. Following a long ovation, Jansen treated us to a movement from solo Bach, the Sarabande from his Second Partita in D minor BWV1004.
In the second half, Blendulf and the MPO gave a rather rushed performance of Sibelius's Second Symphony. This young conductor will improve with age and I believe he would re-think the swifter speeds that he adopted especially for the first and last movements. The final movement really sounded rushed, rather than lush.