Thursday, 8 March 2018

Kochanovsky's triumphant Mahler 7

Having missed Stanislav Kochanovsky's previous appearances with the MPO in ballet performances of Prokofiev's Romeo & Juliet, Adam's Giselle and Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker, I was determined not to miss his concert of two mainstream Romantic German works in the shape of Mahler's Seventh Symphony and Wagner's Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

The Seventh is consistently dubbed a "problem" symphony because, for all its attractiveness, the musical arguments do not always seem to hang together. Kochanovsky's solution was to go for a sane and measured approach in the first movement, whilst playing the middle three movements characteristically and making the triumphant fifth movement an exhilarating wild roller-coaster ride.

After the opening "oars" motif of the first movement, Kochanovsky encouraged tenor hornist Marques Young to play his doleful solo forte (as written in the score). Often, this solo is presented too apologetically and not like what Mahler called "a roar of nature". There was a broad nobility to the all-important march theme in the winds that followed. Kochanovsky ensured that tempo relationships in this huge first movement were always logical, with minimum manipulation of tempi, as each section segued quite naturally into the next. Tension throughout the movement was properly cumulative, meaning that Mahler’s climactic suspension at the coda unfolded as it should, without the need for additional agogic emphasis.

The second movement of the Seventh Symphony is a nocturnal march. The MPO hornists played the call and response motif to open the movement before the main march theme (with a rhythm from his Das Knaben Wunderhorn song "Revelge") was taken up by the orchestra. Colourful elements such as cowbells in the distance and warbling woodwind bird calls instilled the movement with a pastoral feel throughout, evoking comparisons to Rembrandt's painting The Night Watch.

Kochanovsky made the third central movement downright strange and spooky. Creative touches in orchestration punctuated this movement which was replete with various waltz tunes and Ländler. Whether it was the slurping sounds of the violins playing the melody with glissandi up to their highest notes, the swirling viola parts, the Bartok-pizzicati in the cello and double bass parts or the shrieking of trumpets and woodwinds, Kochanovsky characterized every oddity at each turn. After all, Mahler marked the movement Schattenhaft (shadowy).

Kochanovsky’s baton-less response to the second Nachtmusik’s Amoroso marking was to apply a simple sensuality whose fervour stood in stark contrast to the macabre mood in the previous movement. Here, Peter Danis’ warm violin solo supported by Csaba Körös' sensuous cello line lent a tenderness and style to Mahler’s gentle interlude, with the orchestra’s "plucked" section (mandolin, guitar and two harps) adding a squeeze of zest to temper the sweetness.

In the Rondo-Finale, Kochanovsky and the MPO truly shone. Kochanovsky’s compact, crisp conducting style helped create a forward momentum to the end, important in a movement with seven iterations of the Rondo theme. The MPO brass came into their own here. In particular, the guest solo trumpet (Sergio Pacheco) sounded especially magnificent in Mahler’s stratospheric writing. It was a thrilling ride to the end of the movement, with the percussion section creating an irresistible rhythmic drive. The exuberant final chord was met with rapturous, well-deserved applause. This technically and interpretatively superb performance of the Mahler Seventh definitely trumped the dismal 2015 MPO outing with Fabio Luisi previously.

Kochanovsky chose to close the concert with Wagner's Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, obviously recreating the sequence of the programme of its Dutch premiere with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam on 2 October 1909 under Mahler himself. The Prelude was played in a grand and stately manner with rich and luscious string tone, which had been lacking in some recent MPO performances.

On this showing, Kochanovsky's star is deservedly on the rise, with appearances with top world orchestras like the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, Orchestre de Paris and Russian National Orchestra for 2017/18. Perhaps it could be time for the MPO to consider Kochanovsky for its vacant music director post.

Monday, 22 January 2018

Youthful musical vigour

Billed as the "Elixir of Youth" concert, the MPYO presented us with a varied programme that worked backwards in time from 2017 to 1893. The offering from 2017 was a world premiere that the MPYO commissioned from 19-year old Tengku Irfan, entitled What Does It Take to Dance? We were fortunate to witness a very good performance of the piece which featured elements of dance like Waltz, Ländler and Zapin conducted impressively by the youthful composer.

Tengku Irfan then conducted the most notable performance of the afternoon - Barber's Second Essay Op 17 from 1942. The Essay is a colourfully orchestrated work. Tengku Irfan highlighted its wistful moments by the expressive woodwinds at the outset which were countered by dramatic tensions in which timpani and brass made an impressive impact. A warm patina of string tone also contributed to a fine and heartfelt performance by Tengku Irfan and the MPYO.

The final offering of the first half was clearly intended to be the showstopper of this concert. Having watched the thirteen-year-old Low Zi Yang perform well at a couple of high level masterclasses in KL with Nemanja Radulović and Renaud Capuçon in demanding pieces like Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto Op 64 (first movement), Paganini's 24th Caprice and Ravel's Tzigane before, I was a touch disappointed as Zi Yang initially seemed slightly overawed by the occasion.

Zi Yang seemed a touch nervous in the opening lassu soliloquy on the violin's lowest G-string of Ravel's Tzigane of 1924, often over-pressing with the bow on the on-loan mellow-toned Andreas Postacchini violin. With over-pressing of the bow as well as the fast and wider-than-tolerable vibrato, his intonation suffered at the higher reaches of the G-string. Perhaps a better violin with "Guarneri-like" characteristics could have aided Zi Yang's solo debut with the MPYO.

His form improved as the piece wore on, gaining in confidence as the opening soliloquy was repeated in octaves. As he played the faster "friss" section, he had the self-assuredness to tackle the myriad of double-stops, natural and artificial harmonics, left-hand pizzicatos and glissando with aplomb. Conductor Naohisa Furusawa, who had taken over the podium, had to adjust the balance of the orchestra judiciously as the Postacchini violin had a weak E-string and lacked the brilliance and carrying power to cut through some of Ravel's heavier orchestral textures. Interpretatively, Zi Yang's earnest performance of Ravel's Tzigane was slightly earth-bound and lacked the gypsy fire that is inherent in the music.

The concert concluded with a good performance of Dvořák’s beloved Symphony No.9 “From the New World” of 1893. Tackling the popular score impressively from memory, Furusawa led the symphony at high tempi, often driving the three swift outer movements at breathless speeds, verging on a hectoring approach. He was fairly faithful to the score though and observed the exposition repeat in the first movement where some questionable woodwind tuning intruded.

Furusawa and the MPYO were quite surprisingly good in the Largo, and the beautifully intoned cor anglais solo was also taken up by the principal oboist. Dvorak's lovely melodies flowed with a gentle lilt throughout this gorgeous movement.

Furusawa reverted to the hectoring approach in the final two movements. There was little gracefulness apparent in the charming and lilting Trio section of the third movement, whilst the highly-strung approach towards the fourth movement was the fastest I have ever heard. Dvorak's most popular symphony needs a symphonic approach with a patient hand over the transitional passages as the great Czech conductors like Karel Ančerl, Rafael Kubelík and Václav Talich could provide. Furusawa's interpretation definitely fell by the wayside of the great Czech conductors.

The MPYO and Furusawa acknowledged the generous applause by rewarding the audience with an encore in a dashingly virile account of the Main Title from Star Wars, in anticipation of the release of the latest The Last Jedi blockbuster.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Hans Graf's genial concert

Billed as "Heroic Strauss and Beethoven", the concert given by Hans Graf, Grzegorz Curyla and the MPO was quite well attended. I personally wanted to see the venerable Austrian conductor lead performances of pieces other than Mozart that he is justly famous for.

The concert opened with Richard Strauss' youthful one-movement Serenade for winds in E flat major, which was probably influenced by Mozart's Serenade K 361. This piece was aptly chosen as Graf's gentle manner of conducting brought out the chamber nature of this youthful opus. It flowed beautifully here, helped by some intricate and accurate playing by the MPO wind players.

Next up, the MPO's principal hornist Grzegorz Curyla strode up to give us the premiere performance of Richard Strauss' Second Horn Concerto in E flat major at the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas. The Second Horn Concerto is a much subtler work than his youthful and ebullient First Horn Concerto, which suited Curyla's conservative style of horn playing.

Over the course of the three movements, Curyla's assured playing and muted tone seemed to blend homogeneously with the orchestra, rather than standing out as a soloist. His intonation was generally secure and with very few cracked notes. What was missing was a rich open tone and round sound, reminiscent of super hornist, Radek Baborak (previously of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra) who played superbly here twice in Kuala Lumpur in the last few years.

Nevertheless, the less sophisticated audience who applauded between movements of the horn concerto gave Curyla a good ovation and he rewarded them with a solo encore in the shape of Olivier Messiaen's 'Appel Interstellaire' from Des canyons aux étoiles... Curyla made all sorts of unusual sounds from the French horn, which was hugely enjoyable. The techniques that Curyla had to employ were flutter-tonguing, closed notes, glissandos, and faintly-sounded oscillations produced with the keys half-closed. This was indeed masterly horn playing here.

In the second half, maestro Graf led a very good performance of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony. Using a large MPO string section, the notes and the sense of ensemble were in place. However, Graf's reading proved to be beautiful and slightly less bellicose than revelatory. The expansive first movement was stately, but I would have preferred an edgier, less cautious reading, particularly leading up to the strikingly dissonant chords and syncopation in the development.

In the solemn second movement Marcia funèbre, Graf’s reading at a faster than usual tempo lacked the intrinsic tension and mournfulness that underlies the score. The Allegro vivace Scherzo third movement enlivened the mood and there was some good brass playing, especially in the section for three horns.

The emotional range of the thematic variations of the fourth movement was explored well and some particularly fine flute playing underlaid a sensitive and mature reading of the finale. A standout moment was the very "gypsy manner" in which the violins performed the G minor episode. This was a Beethoven interpretation of rounded, rather than muscled, heroism from Graf.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Wigglesworth's great Rachmaninov Third

Having missed the first instalment of the Beethoven Piano Concerto series which began in late September, I was determined not to miss the second in the series especially when it featured, besides a concerto, a spiffing overture and a lovely Romantic symphony.

The concert opened on an upbeat note with Shostakovich's rousing Festive Overture Op 96. The opening trumpet fanfares were tentative and off-pitch, typical of the weak MPO trumpet section often singled out as the Achilles heel of the orchestra. However, conductor Mark Wigglesworth skilfully smoothed things out with a mix of commanding presence and relaxed gestures at a fast pace, placing emphasis on the whirring upper strings, the wonderful singing ostinato line in the cellos, fine solo performances in the woodwinds especially the flutes and the clarinets as well as the dramatic, pulsating tension of the percussion section that led to a rousing ending.

The evening continued next with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor Op 37 featuring Foo Mei Yi, who is no stranger to the Kuala Lumpur audiences at the DFP Hall. Wigglesworth and the orchestra laid firm foundations with an account of the first movement’s orchestral exposition that managed to be airy yet serious, but Foo's account of the solo part stressed the more lyrical aspects of the concerto at the expense of the brio aspects of the piece. It was as if she was trying to eschew a "Sturm und Drang" interpretation of Beethoven's only piano concerto in a minor key. There were also some occasional mishits, over-pedalling in some spots and weaker bass lines which dampened her limp interpretation of the first movement.

Things improved in the slow movement which was forward-moving yet lyrical and expressive. Foo made the long lyrical lines of the Largo sing, with the solo flute and bassoon encased in her enveloping warm-toned interpretation.

The final Rondo followed almost immediately, rousing us from the reverie of the previous movement. Foo invested the perky theme with great mischief and the final cheeky C major Presto of the thrilling coda was especially full of joy. The audience were thunderous in their applause and Foo obliged them with an unusual encore in the shape of “For Rico” (1981) by the Austrian pianist Friedrich Gulda, a classically conceived tripartite piece in the outer sections, with an improvised jazzy middle section.

In the second half of the concert, Wigglesworth treated the audience to a great performance of Rachmaninov's Third Symphony instead of the more-often played and popular Second Symphony. Composed at Villa Senar, Rachmaninov's house on Lake Lucerne, this symphony seems to hark back with a strong element of nostalgia for his native Russia.

The orchestra played with very full and warm tones generally, especially the strings, led by concertmaster Peter Danis. Avoiding any sentimentality, Wigglesworth gave us a strong, authoritative performance with well-paced tempi and subtle rubato as well as carefully graded climaxes in the first movement.

Wigglesworth imbued the second movement with an emotional yearning as Rachmaninov makes his impassioned plea for the Russia he could not return to, with expressive and beguiling solo work from the concertmaster and principal flautist. The triumphant finale was played energetically and with tightly-reined rhythm and Wigglesworth drove home the finale with a charismatic flourish, with the MPO brass and percussion in full cry.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Denève's ravishing Russian Fairy Tales concert

Having missed previous Stéphane Denève concerts here in Kuala Lumpur with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, I was determined not to miss his Russian Fairytales concert especially when it also featured Renaud Capuçon, the premier French violinist of our times.

The opening piece was Tchaikovsky's Andante Cantabile, which was the adapted second movement for string orchestra from his First String Quartet Op 11. Denève drew the most luscious and velvety string textures from the muted MPO strings, often fining down the already soft tones to an even more hushed dynamic and giving us a most moving interpretation of this short but beautiful movement.

We next heard a terrific account of Bartók’s kaleidoscopic Second Violin Concerto. With Denève and the MPO taut and disciplined, this provided an ideal stage for the soloist Renaud Capuçon, a rich-toned and fearlessly virtuosic protagonist, to shine in the Bartók concerto.

Bartók offers the violinist almost no respite for the concerto’s 36-minute duration. Capuçon was indefatigable, supple and assuredly precise as he navigated the rapid transitions in this mercurial score - by turns lyrical, mocking, joyful and playful. His technical assuredness was awe-inspiring and he produced a round, warm sound that at its loudest easily carried to the furthest extremes of the DFP Hall without distortion, while at its softest, excelled with clearly defined delicacy.

His reading of Bartók’s complex score drew attention to many fine details, with crystal clear phrasing that was subtle and playing that was full of pathos. The pin-point clarity of the fastest sections, the brilliant crispness of the demanding chordal passages and his multi-faceted vibrato allowed the concerto to shine brightly.

Aided by a superb François Tourte bow, Capuçon's 1737 "Panette" Guarneri del Gesù sang throughout uninhibitedly with rich lower string tones, reminiscent of a powerful cello, whilst the upper strings had a rounded warmth as well. It was one of the two best sounding Guarneri del Gesù violins I had heard in over 35 years of concert-going, the other being the 1741 "ex-Kochanski" del Gesù, on which Aaron Rosand performed the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto.

After tumultuous applause, Capuçon gave us his possibly favourite encore piece, Gluck's Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Orfeo ed Euridice. Played solo sans any accompaniment, it afforded us another chance to appreciate the chased golden tones that this superb violin could muster.

Despite a brilliant performance of the Bartók, the comment amongst the most experienced Kuala Lumpur concertgoers was that they could not appreciate the concerto. Perhaps, Capuçon could offer us the Lalo Symphonie Espagnole or the Vieuxtemps Fourth or Fifth Violin Concertos on his next visit to KL.

After the interval, we heard two top Russian composers' musical impressions of fairy tales - those of Prokofiev's Cinderella Suite and Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty Suite. Although Prokofiev later distilled the ballet into a triptych of orchestral suites, Denève elected to cherrypick his preferred excerpts – twelve in all, lasting some 30 minutes in a more or less chronological sequence.

In the Prokofiev, somber strings characterised the Introduction whilst the Shawl Dance exuded nervous energy and showcased the scintillating clarinet playing of Gonzalo Esteban. Sumptuous cello lines were at the heart of the Grand Waltz, whilst the most captivating movement had to be that of the clock; riotously signalling the midnight hour with lurching brass, screeching winds and "ticking" woodblocks, as Denève give it full, terrifying force like a clock that had gone entirely mad.

The second half ended gloriously with Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty Suite, that enabled us to luxuriate in its rich and ravishing sound world which Denève and the MPO replicated passionately. There was just the right amount of rubato. Denève allowed the music to speak for itself, with drama and passion where needed but with subtlety and magic when appropriate too.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Bloxham's brilliant MPO debut

A much-awaited concert was the DFP debut of Jonathan Bloxham with the MPO in August 2017. 30-year old Bloxham is the assistant conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO), which is an orchestra renowned for picking outstanding conducting talent at tender ages and maturing them into famed household names like Sir Simon Rattle (later of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra), Sakari Oramo (later of the BBC Symphony Orchestra) and Andris Nelsons (later of the Boston Symphony and Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestras).

An initial impression of the concert was that the content of the programme remained too much in the minor keys. The opening piece, Estonian composer Arvo Pärt's Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten, which I first heard in London in 1982 at a London Philharmonic Orchestra concert under Rudolf Barshai, brought back memories of how poignant Pärt's composition was.

Bloxham and the strings of the MPO brought a hypnotic stillness to the Cantus, with a slowly building intensity throughout interspersed with a three-note motif on a tubular bell, as the single Aeolian melodic motif diverged throughout the string lines and spiralled downwards with a gravitational inevitability to the final A minor chord. The MPO gave it a somewhat warmer, lusher timbre than that with which this spare, pure piece is often performed.

Bloxham then directed the MPO from the cello, playing Vivaldi's Cello Concerto in C minor RV401. This was a very engaging performance of the cello concerto, played in an exceptionally vivacious manner, reminiscent of the way the Venice Baroque Orchestra and Andrea Marcon perform Vivaldi with normal concert tuning (A=440Hz) but with great character and vivacity as well as wide dynamic contrasts.

Due to the vivacious speeds set in the outer movements, there were a few garbled notes produced by Bloxham and the top A-string notes on the very warm-toned 1710 Giuseppe filius Andrea Guarneri cello (on loan from Florian Leonhard Fine Violins, London) sounded a mite weaker than its lower strings.

Next up, Bloxham and the MPO served us with an exceptionally warm interpretation of Webern's Langsamer Satz of highly Romantic intertwining threads and superb string playing from the MPO.

We were treated to yet another Vivaldi Concerto next, his Concerto in D minor for 2 violins and cello RV565 (Op 3 No 11). Peter Danis and Timothy Peters, the leaders of the 1st and 2nd violin sections of the MPO strings took on the solo parts, whilst Bloxham played the cello. This was yet another vivacious performance of the Vivaldi, with a beautifully sustained and lyrical Siciliano second movement led by Peter Danis.

After the interval, we saw Bloxham's talent in leading the MPO to a soaring interpretation of Brahms' grand Symphony No 1. His approach was classically sculptured and precise, with steady traditional pacing right through the whole symphony. Bloxham captured the weightiness of the opening movement at a comfortable tempo until a melancholy oboe solo played exquisitely by Simon Emes broke the initial turbulent atmosphere. The first movement (played sans the exposition repeat) was cogently argued and well balanced, without the raging timpani overpowering the orchestra.

The second movement flowed smoothly and provided a mesmerisingly peaceful reprieve from the turbulent first movement. The trio of solo violin (Peter Danis), horn (Grzegorz Curyla) and oboe (Simon Emes) was particularly beautiful with lyrical melodies that seemed to soar out of their instruments. The third movement then followed with Bloxham imparting an appropriately genial character to it.

The fourth movement is the trickiest for any conductor to master. Bloxham managed all the difficult tempi changes superbly, especially the pizzicato accelerando section twice and the transitioning of the Piu Andante section to the hymn portion marked, Allegro non troppo, ma con brio.

Everything here felt just right: from the brief trombone chorale (later triumphantly revisited), to the hymn that famously echoes the Ode to Joy theme, through to the vigorous coda that was full of excitement and spark. Bloxham made no big pullback for the brass chorale and the final pages made for a very grand and thrilling close.

With Bloxham's brilliantly conducted MPO debut, it would be great to see him back in KL in the near future in more Romantic and Baroque fare like Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) Op 4 in an orchestral guise and Vivaldi's Concerto in A minor for 2 violins RV522 (Op 3 No 8) respectively.

Friday, 1 September 2017

MPO's 20th season brings many veritable musical delights

The 2017-18 MPO season celebrates the orchestra's 20-year tenure with veritable musical delights from top conductors and soloists specially invited for this exciting year. The rising British conductor Jonathan Bloxham debuts with the orchestra in a colourful programme that includes Brahms' magnificent Symphony No 1.

The MPO devotes two concerts to the centenary tribute to Leonard Bernstein with a concert of the centenarian's Broadway music and another concert of his Symphony No 2 with pianist Conrad Tao and Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, led by Bernstein's protege, Eiji Oue.

Returning Japanese conductor Kazuki Yamada inspires us with 2 musical views of Byron's Manfred, with Schumann's Manfred Overture as well as Tchaikovsky's epic Manfred Symphony.

Experienced maestro Roberto Abbado brings us a lovely programme that includes Mahler's heavenly Symphony No 4, with the American soprano Lauren Snouffer.

Russian conductor Stanislav Kochanovsky brings us two programmes of varied fare, with Mahler's triumphant Seventh Symphony as well as a vocal Russian night with Rachmaninov's The Bells and scenes from Tchaikovsky's lyric opera Eugene Onegin.

One of the perennial favourite conductors here with the MPO, Mark Wigglesworth returns with two excellent programmes featuring Beethoven's dramatic Third Piano Concerto with Malaysian soloist Foo Mei Yi and Rachmaninov's lyrical Third Symphony as well as Bruch's evergreen Violin Concerto No 1 with soloist Joshua Bell and Bruckner's majestic Seventh Symphony.

Veteran Austrian conductor, Hans Graf brings us a heroic programme of Richard Strauss' Horn Concerto No 2 and Beethoven's epic Eroica Symphony.

German-Japanese conductor Jun Märkl delights us with a youthfully exuberant programme of Debussy's Children's Corner Suite, Beethoven's First Piano Concerto and Richard Strauss' Don Juan and Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks.

Other star violinists who are making their debut in the MPO's 20th season include the French violinist Renaud Capuçon who brings us Bartok's folksy Second Violin Concerto and the Latvian violinist Baiba Skride, who plays the technically challenging Sibelius Violin Concerto.

Pianists who also grace the season are Tengku Irfan, who performs Beethoven's regal "Emperor Concerto", Jean-Yves Thibaudet with his rendition of St Saens' exotic Fifth Piano Concerto ("Egyptian"), Bobby Chen in Beethoven's lyrical Fourth Piano Concerto and Loo Bang Hean in Beethoven's youthful Second Piano Concerto.

A key visiting orchestra this year is the Singapore Symphony Orchestra under Lan Shui and they bring us an attractive Brahms' programme, which includes the sunny and lyrical Second Symphony.

Fun and laughter will be the order of the concert as the zany violin and piano duo of Igudesman and Joo bring their own unique style of superlative music making and comedy in their new show called Upbeat.

Ella, Malaysia's Queen of Rock will present the first ever solo concert in DFP featuring a local rock artist, backed by a fully symphonic Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra.

The 2017-18 MPO season promises many concerts of varied fare, with great artists in wonderful repertoire. For further information, visit or call (03) 2331 7007.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

A romantic MPYO outing with Shankar and Kőrös

The MPYO under the MPO’s resident conductor Harish Shankar gave a concert with a very attractive Romantic programme in mid-June. Shankar opened the programme with a concert hall rarity in the shape of Grieg’s concert overture In Autumn Op 11. The MPYO coped bravely with Grieg’s unfamiliar work with some erratic bouts of ensemble and dubious woodwind and brass intonation.

A better-known Romantic masterpiece followed, with Dvořák’s evergreen Cello Concerto with soloist Csaba Kőrös from the MPO. Characterful clarinets articulated the first movement’s principal theme, setting up the justly celebrated horn solo, played with eloquence and quiet assurance.

Kőrös championed the work with a deeply burnished tone well suited to its rich Romanticism, with Shankar’s accompaniment sensitive and nuanced. The orchestra occasionally masked the soloist, although Dvořák was very careful in his balancing and orchestration of this most superb of all cello concertos. Tempi in the first movement were a tad too fast and in places, Kőrös sometimes struggled with the immense technical difficulties that Dvořák posed.

Opening with a choir of winds, the slow movement gave way to long, arching cello lines drawing out a sublime melody. This was the best-played movement in the whole concerto as Kőrös took his time to phrase Dvořák’s arching melodies and gave us a richly played and nuanced interpretation.

The jaunty finale had a distinctively Slavic feel. In one of the movement’s more inward-looking moments, the concertmaster for the first half Issywan Musib engaged in an intimate musical conversation with soloist Kőrös. Speeds were again a touch too fast for clear articulation, but the audience thoroughly enjoyed the interpretation that Kőrös and Shankar gave.

The best performance of the concert came in the second half, where orchestra and conductor were most comfortable with each other. Sibelius' gorgeous and sunny Second Symphony was their offering in the second half, with the MPYO led by Low Zi Yang, who had impressed at the Nemanja Radulovic master class the day before with Paganini’s 24th Caprice and the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto Op 64.

The strings throbbed for the opening of the Allegretto and expanded into thick velvety textures. The brass was on stronger form, more precise than previously and with a good perkiness in the horns, while lugubrious bassoons and clear oboes stood out in the woodwind.

Keen pizzicato, again benefiting from the DFP hall’s magnificent acoustic, in the Andante flickered evocatively against the bassoon theme. Shankar’s tempi were apt, allowing for a poetic unfolding of the slow movement.

Less-than-fleet string playing opened the third movement before a fine limpid oboe solo introduced the Trio. The finale burst out of the preceding movement and here the string and brass playing reached new heights, ending the symphony in a blaze of glory.

Shankar gave us a fitting encore in the shape of Grieg’s jaunty Norwegian Dance Op 35 No 4 to end an enjoyable afternoon out with the MPYO.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Nemanja Radulović conquers KL in Tchaikovsky

Having bought Nemanja Radulović's Deutsche Grammophon Paganini Fantasy debut CD in 2014, I had a great wish that the magnificent Serbian violinist would come over to Kuala Lumpur for his long awaited debut here. And what an absolutely fantastic debut it was!

Publicity for the June 2017 concert was focused squarely on Nemanja Radulović. Walking on stage humbled by the capacity audience in the DFP hall, who were already rapturously applauding before having heard a single note of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, Radulović with a cloud of big fizzy hair looked greatly at odds with the surrounding orchestral musicians in concert tails and was surreally dressed in black leather trousers and jacket with knee-length Goth boots.

After an expectant and stylish tutti expertly led by Mark Wigglesworth, Radulović fined down his tone to a bare whisper, even below the requisite piano dynamic for the yearning opening section played in a quasi-improvisatory manner. Adding more warmth to his tone, he imbued the first subject with more vibrato and expression and it grew more agitated as double stops were added. Every melodic phrase was carefully shaped; if repeated, it was presented afresh with a vastly different tonal palette. The virtuoso high-speed scales and passagework had a crystalline but demonic quality whilst the more tender passages were breathtakingly intense and expressive.

Radulović infused the ben sostenuto il tempo section with a playfulness at a slower tempo. Again when the music expanded into sextuplets and demisemiquavers, Radulović instilled more boldness and attack into his playing and then refined his tone down for the warmly played second subject, which he imbued with a gorgeous singing tone and much romantic feeling. As the music picked up pace at the poco piu mosso section, we heard great variation between detache and spiccato in the exciting passage leading up to the next orchestral tutti, which burst forth in a full-blooded Polonaise rhythm.

Radulović played the following molto sostenuto il tempo, moderatissimo section with great delicacy and then after the second orchestral tutti, we heard a superb interpretation of the cadenza of much varied tone colour and character. As the recapitulation ushered in the flute solo, gorgeously played by Hristo Dobrinov, Radulović fined down his tone on his trills and looked at Dobrinov as if they were in a violin-flute love duet. The magnetic playing of the tender sections coupled with the virtuoso and coruscating close of the end of the first movement brought about much applause before the second movement could commence.

The second movement ("Canzonetta") achieved a chamber music-like intimacy particularly in the exchanges between the solo violin and orchestral flute and clarinet played lovingly by Hristo Dobrinov and Gonzalo Esteban respectively. Radulović's very hushed and intense playing in a sotto voce mode was still easily audible in the far reaches of the DFP hall, thanks to its lovely acoustic.

The finale was a vivacious and exhilarating Cossack dance featuring many exciting tempo changes. Despite the speeds of Radulović and Wigglesworth being exceptionally fast (After all, Tchaikovsky marked the basic tempo for the movement Allegro vivacissimo), the rhythms were extremely precise and alive. In the poco meno mosso section, Radulović's tone high up on the G-string resembled a rich cello sound, whilst in the more delicately scored sections; his artificial harmonics rang out clearly and sweetly. With mounting excitement in the coda with alternating multiple stopping and scampering semiquaver runs, Radulović, the MPO and Wigglesworth brought the concerto to a most thrilling close.

This magnetically Romantic and wonderful interpretation of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto brought tumultuous applause from the capacity audience. Rhythmic clapping (which is only reserved for the topmost echelon artists who visit KL) coaxed Radulović to play his favourite encore, the coruscating Paganini Caprice No 24 and Caprice No 5 in a pastiche arrangement by his compatriot, Aleksandar Sedlar.

The evening had begun earlier with Ravel's quaint Mother Goose Suite. Under Mark Wigglesworth's graceful gestures, the MPO brought out the variegated colours and elegance of Ravel's magical score. The opening “Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant” (“Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty”) was placid and unassuming with beautiful solos from the flutes led by Hristo Dobrinov. The solo oboe and cor anglais played by Simon Emes and Sven Buller respectively introduced the protagonist in “Petit Poucet” (“Tom Thumb”) dropping bread crumbs to find his way back, as noisy birds played by the woodwinds pecked them up.

Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas glittered, coloured by the exquisite harp playing by Tan Keng Hong, sensuous flutes and playful pentatonic scales by the MPO percussion section. In Les entretiens de la Belle et le Bête (Beauty and the Beast), the intertwining themes on clarinet and contrabassoon felt as if the Beauty and Beast were waltzing across the stage. The movement that felt truly magical was the closing one, Le jardin féerique (The enchanted garden) with its grand climactic conclusion.

In the second half of the concert, Wigglesworth and the MPO gave us a stunning interpretation of Stravinsky's Petrushka in its original 1911 version. It was a veritable performance of colour, rhythm, and mordant humour as Wigglesworth steered the orchestra through the work's polyrhythmic complexities with apparent ease and the MPO players responded with impressive precision.

The Shrovetide Fair tableau was exuberant, energetic and bursting with ebullience. The music related to the Moor was mysterious and menacing. Every section of the orchestra performed flawlessly, from the burnished sound of the violins, to the unusually crisp and in tune French horns, and the nicely articulated woodwinds. The concertmaster Peter Danis’ violin solos were affecting. The piano and celesta combination was also highlighted. The important contrabassoon punctuations were precise and rich, whilst the principal trumpeter was also very impressive in his many high-lying solos.

Mark Wigglesworth's performance was exceptionally vibrant, overtly dramatic and theatrical. The MPO had played Pétrushka many times in the last 20 years but they responded very well to Wigglesworth's interpretation. At the end, there was a great sustained ovation for both conductor and orchestra.

If my memory serves me right, this was the best Petrushka I've heard since 24 November 1981 in London with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Riccardo Muti. On the basis of this superb concert, Wigglesworth should be invited back to the MPO as its music director. Since the departure of Claus Peter Flor, the MPO had been meandering musically. I believe that Mark Wigglesworth could provide the MPO excellent musical direction, rebuild up their playing style and inspire them to greater music heights once again.

I remember years ago when Lorin Maazel conducted the MPO, it was talked about as the night the MPO played like the New York Philharmonic Orchestra (Maazel was the music director of the NYPO then) in Mussorgsky-Ravel's Pictures at an Exhibition. Well, in the case of this Radulović-Wigglesworth concert, the MPO played like the Bavarian State Orchestra (BSO) under the next Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conductor designate, Kirill Petrenko. I watched my last Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in Munich in 2016 and the soloist Frank Peter Zimmermann, the Bavarian State Orchestra and Kirill Petrenko were absolutely fantastic. (

One final wish is that Nemanja Radulović should be brought back soonest to the DFP for another concert of virtuoso fare like a Paganini Violin Concerto (maybe No 1, 2, 4 or 6), either of the Wieniawski Violin Concerti or Vieuxtemps' Fifth Concerto. He is such a magnetic personality on the violin, with a very wide range of dynamics and tonal palette, an excellently applied vibrato, pin-point intonation and a gorgeously rich tone. No wonder his autograph queue (longer than Ray Chen's and Sarah Chang's) spiralled the DFP Hall after the concert.

If I were a film maker and I were to re-make Peter Schamoni’s Spring Symphony film of 1983, I’d cast Nemanja Radulović in the role of Paganini playing his own Caprice No 17 at the beginning of the film. Nemanja Radulović is Paganini personified.