Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Krylov and Abbado in a magnificent Italian night

This was maestro Roberto Abbado’s second concert in Kuala Lumpur. Having missed his debut here last time, I was glad that I caught the still youthful looking 64-year old maestro this time. Billed as an “Italian Symphony” night, there was a predominance of the A minor and A major keys in this concert.

Berlioz’s “Roman Carnival Overture” was the fine concert opener, especially with Abbado’s swift and upbeat tempi. The creamy-toned MPO viola section canonically answered the superbly played cor anglais solo by Michael Austin in the Andante sostenuto section. After a chromatic flourish in the woodwinds, the whole orchestra performed brilliantly to open this Italian themed concert with much flair and aplomb.

The Paganini Violin Concerto No 5 in A minor was the next piece in the concert. The excellent Russian soloist, 46-year old Sergej Krylov made his debut in Kuala Lumpur in the concerto, which was also receiving its premiere performance in the DFP Hall.

From the dramatic opening tutti which bears familiar resemblance to an earlier Paganini piece, the Sonata Varsavia, Abbado and Krylov worked hand in glove to present this rarely performed concerto in an excellent musical light.

With the composer’s brilliant high-wire writing of spectacular scales and arpeggios, double and triple stops, artificial harmonics and ricochet bowing, Krylov’s marvellous technique showed literally no sign of strain. More importantly, Krylov’s interpretation was a musical success as the lyrical portions were given their due.

Abbado worked in hand with Krylov, making minor slowing in tempi to accommodate the lyrical and melodious portions, whilst making minor accelerandos to emphasize the more dramatic and operatic sections of the concerto.

The only musical issue in the first movement was the choice of Krylov’s cadenza that seemed a bit prolix and did not make much use of the musical material of the first movement. Perhaps it might have been better to use the Remy Principe/Salvatore Accardo cadenza, which is found on Accardo’s 1970s DG recording.

The second movement was a superb performance from Krylov in terms of cantabile and legato bowing, akin to a very smooth operatic aria sung on the violin. Lovely and modulated vibrato usage also aided the very succulent Italianate tone that Krylov drew from his instrument.

The final third movement gave Krylov yet more chances to display his musical vivacity coupled with abundant technical fireworks. This time, the display included a cheeky and impish Rondo theme that delighted the audience on its myriad repetitions.

That superb performance drew endless applause from the KL audience and Krylov obliged them with yet more Paganini, his famous 24th Caprice in A minor. This encore was also stunning in its execution especially the variation in tenths that was taken very swiftly and the difficult left-hand pizzicato section.

The audience refusing to let him go after the 24th Caprice, Krylov played yet another encore. This time, he did not announce the encore but launched straight into Paganini’s 13th Caprice in B flat major. With its opening descending chromatic thirds, Krylov managed to make the notes to sound like “The Devil’s Laughter”, which is what this Caprice is fondly nicknamed.

The second half of the program began with Luciano Berio's Four Original Versions of "Ritirata notturna di Madrid" after Boccherini's String Quartet in C major, nicknamed Night Music of the Streets of Madrid.

The work begins with soft snare drums, which are then followed by additional instruments joining in the festivities. After the grand crescendo is reached, the music begins a slow and steady decrescendo. The MPO and Abbado obviously enjoyed playing this delightful piece.

The final work was Mendelssohn's familiar Symphony No 4 in A major "Italian". Maestro Abbado took the first movement at joyous pace. Played with the full lead-back into exposition repeat, this was very fulfilling as we were able to hear Mendelssohn’s immense joy on seeing Italy for the first time.

The second movement provided a good opportunity for the MPO winds to demonstrate their warmth and subtlety, depicting a procession in Naples. The violins flowed smoothly in their legato portions in the third movement, whilst the French horns played well without any spilt notes in the Trio portion of that movement.

The final movement (Saltarello) was taken at a brisk pace with some really fine and rhythmic staccato violin playing. Maestro Abbado and the MPO sounded really well together and enjoyed many rounds of deserved and loud applause.

It would be very nice to watch yet another Italian night here in future with Abbado and Krylov. Perhaps a programme like Rossini’s Italian Girl in Algiers Overture, Paganini’s Fourth or Sixth Violin Concerto, Respighi’s Pines of Rome and Tchaikovsky's Capriccio Italien may appeal to audiences here.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Blomstedt's brilliant Beethoven 9 in Tokyo

Some musical traditions never die, especially in Japan. Classical music at the end of the year traditionally is the occasion for Beethoven’s perennial Ninth Symphony and December 2016 was no different in an appropriately grand performance at the NHK Hall with the NHK Symphony Orchestra under the venerable 89-year old Herbert Blomstedt.

Having seen Herbert Blomstedt before in Kuala Lumpur with the superb Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in Mozart's Jupiter Symphony and Richard Strauss' Ein Heldenleben some years ago, it was good to catch up with the octogenarian conductor once again.

When maestro Blomstedt walked out onto the NHK Hall platform before the opening of the concert, he was greeted with a huge round of loud applause by the capacity Japanese audience which was as thunderous as I have probably heard reserved for another octogenarian before - Herbert von Karajan in the 1980s.

After the orchestra awakened in the Allegro non troppo, the NHKSO strings revved up like a powerful engine. As the timpani thundered beneath, Blomstedt with inviting gestures propelled the movement’s momentum forward. When the throbbing strings’ texture intensified, the strong double-bass section in particular roared, ensnaring the listener in their thickening tapestry.

In the Molto vivace, Blomstedt showed off his orchestra’s capacity for transparency in the fugue, which was a nice contrast to its earlier muscular display. The falling octaves and the pounding of the timpani packed a lot of punch that was nicely contrasted by the delicate string spiccatos.

In the Adagio molto e cantabile, maestro Blomstedt missed the mark ever so slightly. Blomstedt seemed to like having things at a more flowing pace, but this resulted in a slight loss of the magic that this gorgeous movement can bring. There was a good balance of sound, but I could not help feeling that things were a tad rushed with the florid first violin parts sounding more like a technical exercise than a stream of beautiful legato lines.

The final movement fared a lot better. The cello recitatives interjected by the orchestra provided drama in the beginning of this movement which was then ended by the coming of the familiar “Ode to Joy” motif. When bass Jongmin Park began, I was impressed by the power of projection that he had. His voice had a good depth in it with fine German diction.

The Tokyo Opera Singers Chorus were able to produce a great range of dynamics in unity, and when forte was asked of them, it was a forte that was worthy of the romantic period. They enunciated the words with good clarity and fluidity throughout the text. Soprano Simona Šaturová and mezzo-soprano Elisabeth Kulman both did very well but the tenor Joel Prieto lacked tone and projection in his solos and was the weakest link in the vocal ensemble.

A grandly played finale brought about long and well-deserved applause as well as a standing ovation from the capacity Tokyo audience.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Goerne steals the Mahler show

We witnessed Matthias Goerne's debut in a Mahler premiere at DFP of Des Knaben Wunderhorn on 20 November 2016. Since the inception of the hall nearly 20 years ago, we had seen repeated performances of the Mahler symphonies but have never heard Des Knaben Wunderhorn before. It was an inspired stroke of concert programming.

Goerne offered a selection of 7 songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Opening with Rhinelegendchen (Little Rhine Legend), Goerne’s interpretation had a jolly agility. His tone and timbre darkened significantly for the second haunting and grim song, Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen (Where the Fair Trumpets Sound) with its off-stage trumpet scoring. The third song (Das irdische Leben) (The Earthly Life) in which a starving boy keeps asking his mother for bread, displayed the plethora of emotion that Goerne mined from these deceptively simple texts. His interpretation portrayed the boy's anguish and the hopeless desperation of his mother.

Mahler used Urlicht (Primal Light), the fourth song in this concert, as the penultimate movement in his Second Symphony. Goerne exposed the emotional depth of the music and communicated directly with the audience. It also made sense to follow on with the fifth song in the concert, which was the basis of the third movement of Mahler's Second Symphony. Goerne gave us a humorous portrayal of "Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt" (St Anthony’s Sermon to the Fishes), a fairly overt allusion to and critique of various religious convictions.

Goerne also gave us a memorable performance of the sixth song, Revelge (Reveille). Goerne's bewildering range of expression made this a performance to remember. His powerful and variegated voice from a soft liquefied piano to a massive roaring forte allowed him to revel in this sinister song with much expressive detail. Goerne's devastating performance of the last song Der Tamboursg’sell (The Drummer Boy) crowned this sovereign performance by Germany's greatest baritone singer post-Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

In the second half, Tourniaire led a reasonable performance of the First Symphony. In the first movement, I heard some decent good soft playing that was marred by violent changes from a moderate tempo for the slower portions to exceptionally swift speeds for the louder bits. These wide changes felt quite jarring indeed and the transitions lacked mystery. I felt that the conductor was not working towards Mahler's marking of the movement of Langsam, schleppend (Slowly, dragging) Immer sehr gemächlich (very restrained throughout) as well. The tone of the orchestra was also often harsh and unyielding, often in contradiction with Mahler's own dreamy description of "the awakening of nature at the earliest dawn".

In the second movement, Tourniaire continued with his hectoring approach. The Scherzo portion was able to take this approach a bit better than the first movement, though he underplayed the "lift" needed in the string parts on the third beat slurs with dots over the second note of the slurs. The Trio fared worse again as Tourniaire failed to overplay the obvious glissandi in the string parts and thus robbed this section of the inherent charm and Austrian "Gemütlichkeit".

In the third movement, I was glad that the conductor chose to play the opening with a single double bass rather than a current questionable orchestral practice of performing the minor mode "Frère Jacques" round with the whole double bass section. However, principal double-bassist Wolfgang Steike's opening solo was slightly disjointed and not as smooth as Mahler's marking of 1 slur/phrase per bar. Another bone of contention was that the brass counterpoint overpowered the main melody in the woodwind tune in the klezmer band section.

The fourth movement (Dall'inferno al Paradiso in Mahler's original descriptive programme notes of the premiere performance) took to Tourniaire's hectoring approach best. The fire and brimstone portions were played daringly, whilst the more melodious portions had the requisite yearning feeling. The finale and coda were stunning in their execution and garnered a good ovation.

All in all, Tourniaire's interpretation of the Mahler First Symphony is still a young conductor's work in progress and does not reach the lofty interpretations I heard in the last few years like the MPO under Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, and the Berlin PO under Gustavo Dudamel (in Berlin) and Sir Simon Rattle (in Singapore).

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Ray Chen in a brilliant Beethoven Violin Concerto performance

Beethoven’s incidental music to King Stephen, Op 117 was commissioned to mark the opening of the Hungarian Theatre in Pest in 1811. The lively overture is characterised by Magyar themes primarily in the winds, with colourful orchestral effects.

Although the overture is rarely performed, it served as a Hungarian-spiced space-filler to the violin concerto highlight of this all-Beethoven MPO concert led by the Hungarian conductor Gábor Takács-Nagy on 22 October 2016.

27-year old violinist Ray Chen then made memorable his DFP debut. Takács-Nagy launched the opening tutti in an unashamedly grand symphonic manner. How was this slight young man, calmly holding the 1715 Strad that once belonged to the great Joseph Joachim, ever going to rise above such a big orchestral sound? But from his first broken octave entry, Ray Chen’s playing was heart stopping.

With maestro Takács-Nagy’s sensitive conducting and judicious terracing of the orchestral dynamics, Chen’s playing in the first movement combined sensitive and melodious phrasing of the cantabile portions allied with virile bowing in the running semiquavers.

This was a traditional interpretation of the first movement, with a slight slowing in the G minor development section and a corresponding speeding up in the broken octave triple passage leading up to the requisite original tempo for the recapitulation.

Chen’s talents were firmly at the service of the music and every aspect of his performance showed intense focus and concentration. Opting to play Auer’s cadenzas (edited by Heifetz and Rosand), he delivered them with incisive brilliance and profound musicality. The restatement of the principal theme in the first movement coda was particularly moving before its vigorous conclusion.

In the calm second movement, his playing was ethereal and sublime, tempered with sensitive and narrow vibrato. The brisk tempo in the Rondo finale was sustained with varied detache and spiccato bow strokes as well as subtle changes in tonal colour and nuances inflected by clever use of the bow. At the triumphal conclusion, Takács-Nagy and the MPO musicians were as rapturous as the audience in their applause of the soloist.

This was a Beethoven Violin Concerto performance to be reckoned with, and Chen followed it up with two amazing encores, Paganini's Caprice No 21 in A major Op 1 and JS Bach’s Gavotte et Rondeau from the Third Solo Partita in E major BWV1006.

After thanking the capacity audience for such warm welcome, Chen’s Paganini was stunning in its lyrical execution of the singing sixths, with the reprise of the tune on the lower and upper strings given a more intense and wider vibrato. The coruscating clear up-bow staccato in the finale was dazzling in Chen’s dextrous execution. The Bach was light and dancing in character with judicious voicing of its complex melodious double-stops.

Maestro Takács-Nagy offered a very good interpretation of the Pastoral Symphony after the interval with excellently judged tempi and fine playing from the MPO in the first two movements.

However, in the third movement that is marked only Allegro by Beethoven, Takács-Nagy made a questionable tempo decision to play the beginning of the movement at almost Prestissimo and the MPO players had great trouble keeping up. A resultant massive slowing down (which again ran contrary to Beethoven’s marking of sempre piu stretto before the 2/4 time “drone” section) was not in keeping with the score.

The “storm” of the fourth movement was vicious in its execution, but unfortunately the pastoral fifth movement was marred by a very badly out of tune MPO horn solo in bars 5-8. Otherwise, maestro Takács-Nagy’s interpretation was very good and most of the MPO played very well.

The evening however belonged to Ray Chen, who gave the large numbers of the capacity audience autographs during the interval and after the concert. Since coming first in the Menuhin and Queen Elisabeth competitions in 2008 and 2009 respectively, he has had a glittering career. He possesses a phenomenal technique, a virile and silvery tone reminiscent of Nathan Milstein in his heyday, a judiciously fast and tastefully judged vibrato and a creamy legato. Chen is no longer a competition winner but a fully-fledged violinist in the uppermost echelon of his profession playing today.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Ray Chen - a great ambassador for music

The 27-year old violinist Ray Chen pranced on the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas (DFP) concert-hall stage. As he took a brief break during the rehearsal of the tutti parts of the 3rd movement Rondo: Allegro of Beethoven's Violin Concerto, he seemed relaxed but was poised like tiger waiting to pounce for his next entry.

After a solid 45 minutes of rehearsing this movement, conductor Gabor Takács-Nagy and Chen seemed pleased with their efforts and the rehearsal with the MPO drew to a close, eliciting a warm and sustained round of applause from the members of the orchestra. Ever the perfectionist, Chen stays back on the stage to practise the complex first movement cadenza alone before we are able to meet for the interview.

Chen is pleasantly surprised with the lovely acoustics of DFP concert hall, this being his first visit to Malaysia - a country of very warm people in his opinion. He is to present Beethoven's Violin Concerto, a masterwork and key staple of the repertoire with the MPO on 21 and 22 October.

I ask him about the Olympian Beethoven concerto that he would be presenting. "The Beethoven concerto is very different from the earlier violin concertos of Mozart say. The Mozart concertos are generally very light and happy, but the Beethoven has a solidness and gravitas as well as light and shade whilst respecting the earlier composers' tradition for violin concertos," says Chen.

Tradition also plays another part in what Chen will do with the Beethoven concerto in Kuala Lumpur. He will be using the Leopold Auer cadenzas in all the 3 movements. Chen's teacher at the Curtis Institute, Aaron Rosand was a student of Efrem Zimbalist, who was in turn a pupil of the famed Russian teacher Leopold Auer, who also taught Jascha Heifetz. According to Chen, the cadenzas that he will be playing are a derivative of the Auer-Heifetz-Rosand version.

Another interesting link back to tradition is that Chen now plays the 1715 Joseph Joachim Stradivarius, on loan from the Nippon Music Foundation. Coincidentally, it was the 13-year old Joachim who revived the Beethoven Violin Concerto in London in 1844 after much neglect in the composer's lifetime.

Chen's current two main musical priorities lie in maintaining his concertizing at the key musical centres of the world at a very high professional level as well as engaging the younger generation of music lovers and fans via social media. Spreading the love of classical music and reaching out is Chen's prime passion and musical mission.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Ashkenazy's riveting Russian programme

It was very good to welcome maestro Vladimir Ashkenazy back to the MPO with a delightful and colourful Russian programme on 1 October 2016. The concert opened with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Festival Overture, a rich and lively work despite its roots in orthodox plainchant. Written just after the Capriccio espagnol and Scheherezade, it shares the fabulous colourful orchestration that makes those works favourites in the concert hall. It served as a great calling card for the MPO; the strings producing a clear sound and the brass relishing every moment in the spotlight.

Ashkenazy’s pacing in the overture was slightly sluggish and the various sections did not gel together as well as they should. Special mention should go to the MPO leader Peter Danis, principal cellist Csaba Koros and flutist Hristo Dobrinov who were absolutely extraordinary in their ravishing solos.

For Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme, Ashkenazy used a reduced-size orchestra, which lent a chamber-music feeling to this charming work, with its consciously mid-18th century theme. The variations never stray far from the tune, even when the soloist plays intricate filigree of the utmost virtuosity.

Li-Wei Qin and Ashkenazy proved excellent collaborators. They seemed in sync with each other's musical ideas. Variation III, with its long legato lines, and the mournful Variation VI were especially effective. Variation V, with its mini-cadenzas, showed Li-Wei Qin’s technical prowess with unswerving sweetness of tone and security of intonation. The perpetual motion of the final variation and coda earned the performers a long and well-deserved ovation. Li-Wei Qin's deliciously played encore of Piatigorsky's arrangement of Prokofiev's March Op 65 for solo cello from "Music for children" was in keeping with a lovely Russian night out.

The Shostakovitch 8th Symphony contrasts starkly with the famous 7th in that it is much darker and oppressive. In fact, there are many parallels between the 8th and the popular 5th Symphony, in that they share certain features, such as structure, melodic development, and execution. The major difference is that the 8th is very much larger in scale, a huge behemoth that reflects the long weariness of the participants in the war.

Ashkenazy was in full control of the orchestra, although there were a few raggedy moments at some sections. Speeds were a touch slower than those performed under the baton of Yevgeny Mravinsky, the original dedicatee of the symphony - particularly in the first two movements. However, by the third piston-like rumble of the third movement, they had got into the full swing, giving an interpretation that was suitably acerbic.

The flute/piccolo was a touch wobbly and unsure at certain points of the second movement, as were the trumpets and the horns. Meanwhile, the lower strings and violas were precise, whereas the main body of strings struggled slightly to come to grips with the work in the first movement. However, Ashkenazy's magnetism and intellectual explanations did seem to have a positive effect on the playing. By the end, all the musicians were as physically and emotionally exhausted as the audience, which bodes well as an interpretation for such a stark and gloomy piece.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

A good start to the new MPO season

The first serious concert of the 2016-7 MPO season featured the Clare College Choir, Cambridge under their music director Graham Ross on 17 September 2016. The programme was innovative and inspiring as the familiar Fauré Requiem and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture were cleverly juxtaposed with Dukas’ Fanfare from La Péri, Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man and Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms.

In the French first half of the concert, the evening got off to a rousing start with the fanfare from the ballet La Péri (The Fairy) by Dukas about Prince Iskender’s encounter with a fairy, from whom he steals the flower of immortality. Dukas added the fanfare shortly before the ballet’s première. Featuring only the brass section of the MPO, the work is an uplifting three minutes of exultant pomp and circumstance, fully reflecting the regal grandeur of a princely caravan procession.

After the Dukas, the Clare College Choir joined the MPO for a premiere performance of the 1893 version of Fauré’s Requiem at the DFP. The opening to the Introit and Kyrie was ethereal and sustained by the choir with deep sonorities that generated a calm atmosphere. Baritone Stephen Matthews gave an assured rendition in the Offertoire, which was followed by the choir’s ethereal response.

The Sanctus was lovingly rendered. However, some ensemble problems with the harp and the solo violinist Peter Danis intruded on this gentle rocking movement. Soprano Alice Halstead grew into the breath-defying Pie Jesu as the movement progressed. Impeccable control at the end led to an appreciative hush before proceedings resumed with the Agnus Dei.

Stephen Matthews again shone in Libera me, before the combination of crystal clear female voices, harp and organ was particularly delightful in the closing and angelic In Paradisum movement. The choir’s phrasing, diction and projection were all quite impressive under Ross’ direction.

After the interval, we heard Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man that jolted the audience to attention with its violent drumbeats and powerful brass melodies that unfolded regally under Ross' baton.

Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms is an exuberant and challenging work, particularly the first part in infectious 7/4 time. The MPO and Clare College Choir began with exciting dissonant chords whilst the percussion players kept busy. The Clare College Choir and soloists Alice Halstead, Henrietta Box, Alexander Porteous and Stephen Matthews were on splendid form throughout this lively work.

Written to commemorate the defence of Moscow against Napoleon’s onslaught in the Battle of Borodino, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture borrows folk and nationalistic sources to concoct a programmatic melee of sadness, belligerence and triumph. Fragments of “God Save The Czar”, “La Marseillaise” and a battle hymn alternate with two bouts of romantic outpouring, and it leads to an explosion replete with simulated cannon shots. As church bells announce the retreat of French troops, there is a triumphant Russian conclusion.

This MPO performance of 1812 was solid and somewhat exciting, and the incorporation of choral parts to the opening, middle and ending of the piece was certainly compelling. The central fugato section revealed a more polite rather than vigorous manner of the first and second violins tussling away. The recorded cannon shots sounded almost too resonant, whilst the massed strings of the MPO sounded too puny for a massive Napoleonic invasion of Russia. Nevertheless, it was tremendous fun to watch this choral version of 1812 under Ross' steady musical direction.

Thursday, 29 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.

Saturday, 3 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.