Thursday, 18 May 2017

A magnificent Tchaikovsky concert from Milanov

A capacity audience was at the DFP Hall to witness the Malaysian debut of conductor Rossen Milanov. Given the predilection for Klang Valley Malaysians to go outstation for a long weekend, it was unusual to see the hall filled to the brim on 29 April just before the long Labour Day holiday.

The concert started off with Dmitri Kabalevsky’s Colas Breugnon Overture. Its light-hearted high jinks and dazzling writing for the whole orchestra brings to mind that of Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmilla Overture or Shostakovich’s Festive Overture without the panache or wit of either of those pieces. Nevertheless, it served as a fun concert opener and adequately served as a virtuoso showpiece for the MPO and Milanov, though in a slightly muted performance.

The rest of the programme was of Tchaikovsky, with an extended version of the Swan Lake Suite in the first half and the rarely-played Symphony No 1, nicknamed “Winter Daydreams” making its appearance after the interval.

Swan Lake is perhaps the world’s favourite ballet and this could be the reason for the capacity crowd. The first movement of the ballet suite entitled Scene comes from Act 2 No 10 where Prince Siegfried and friends watch the swans circle silently on the moonlit lake’s surface. Principal oboist Simon Emes, a stalwart of the MPO since its inception, played the yearning Swan leitmotiv with a penetrating and luscious tone, duly taken up by the MPO violins in a very romantic response.

Milanov did not cue the opening pizzicato precisely of the next Waltz movement and the idea of the opening tempi varied throughout the string section. Ensemble soon settled down and Milanov and the MPO gave us a warm interpretation of this waltz movement from Act 1 No 2 depicting the dance interlude for Prince Siegfried’s 21st birthday celebrations and his need to choose a bride.

For the next number Dance of the Swans (Act 2 No 13), Milanov encouraged the MPO oboists to play with a marionette-like staccato and this was much in keeping with the character of the piece. After the opening lovely harp flourish from principal harpist Tan Keng Hong, we heard the Pas de deux from Act 2 No 13, which was from music that Tchaikovsky re-hashed from his discarded opera Undine. Although the piece is in a very difficult key signature of G flat major, it was quite well performed by Peter Danis on the violin (symbolising Odette) and Csaba Koros on the cello (symbolising Siegfried). Danis' interpretation was a bit nervy, though his intonation was spot on. Koros however was in his element with accurate notes plus an extremely expressive tone enhanced by rich vibrato usage.

Next up was the Hungarian Dance (Czardas) from Act 3 No 20 where the lassu (slow) portion was nimbly played but the friss (fast) section was performed with panache and vigorous stamping rhythms that yielded Milanov a bout of unexpected applause from the audience.

Before the applause could die down, Milanov began the next Spanish Dance (Act 3 No 21). The initial ensemble was a bit unsteady, but the MPO soon settled down after the clicking castanets and vehement dotted rhythms to play a warmer central tune and bring the dance to a brilliant and festive conclusion.

The next dance from Act 3 No 22 (the Neapolitan Dance) featured a cornet soloist who did not have the richest sound but played well enough especially the latter flutter tonguing section. The final concluding Polish Dance (Mazurka) (Act 3 No 23) was deftly played at a fast pace to show off the MPO's brilliance. The fast speeds that Milanov chose were alright for concert purposes but if he were accompanying ballet dancers, the speeds would be just a touch too swift for the dancers.

The second half was devoted to an early work from Tchaikovsky, his Symphony No 1 Op 13, which is a work that is sadly under-exposed in world concert halls. Milanov conducted with tremendous passion and expression, eliciting a thrilling performance from the orchestra that held the audience's attention from start to finish.

The opening movement “Dreams of a winter journey” was played with vigour and an abundance of restless harnessed energy, the main theme skilfully darting through the orchestra. Dynamic and tempi changes were crisply and authoritatively handled, creating a great sense of drama and excitement throughout.

“Land of desolation, land of mists”, the second movement, was played with great warmth and expressiveness by the strings especially from cello section led by Csaba Koros and the haunting oboe solo from Simon Emes was both beautiful and poignant. The Mendelssohnian Scherzo had abundant grace and lightness and was played with great light and shade, and the Trio, Tchaikovsky at his most lyrical, was played with charm.

The Finale was stunning – energetic playing, plus a surging explosive energy emanating from Milanov, delivered with authority and a superbly handled build-up to a terrific climax that ended triumphantly in G major.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

St. Clair's heroic Ein Heldenleben

Carl St. Clair made his debut at the DFP Hall with the MPO in an attractive programme of Austro-Germanic repertoire comprising Haydn's Symphony No 88 in G major and Richard Strauss' epic symphonic poem Ein Heldenleben. Music director for the Pacific Symphony Orchestra for the past 27 years, St. Clair was the general music director for the Komische Oper in Berlin from 2008 to 2010, succeeding the current Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra chief conductor designate, Kirill Petrenko.

Time-wise, the programme was a bit succinct with an estimated time of 23 minutes for the Haydn and 40 minutes for the Richard Strauss works. However with St. Clair's wide German conducting experience, the musical quality of his interpretation more than made up for the concise length.

Adopting fairly lively tempi overall for the Haydn, the opening movement's Adagio and Allegro was played in an animated manner by the MPO players who performed mainly standing with the exception of the cellists, hornists, bassoonists and timpanist.

Apart from a poorly co-ordinated unison solo oboe and cello theme that opened the second movement, the sedate Largo flowed nicely under St. Clair's direction. St. Clair emphasised punchy entrances in the Minuet, and brought to the fore the open-fifth drone in the Ländler, highlighting the earthy and jovial quality of this movement.

St. Clair took the finale at a fair lick but always staying on the side of good taste. St. Clair’s Haydn smiled amiably. Speeds were fast but unforced, with the gentle humour in the witty finale. Woodwinds were blended perfectly with a clear and homogenised sound and the strings sculpted their phrases with care.

My first concert experience of Richard Strauss' Ein Heldenleben was in April 1985 at London's Royal Festival Hall when Herbert von Karajan brought his Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and preceded it with Beethoven's Fourth Symphony. The English Testament label (SBT1430) had released this magnificent performance which was recorded for posterity by the BBC.

Carl St. Clair's interpretation in Kuala Lumpur with the augmented MPO (with a number of considerable substitute players) was very commendable. From the first upward-leaping arpeggio of the opening section "(Der Held)" (The Hero), the whole MPO string section and the horns lacked just a bit of tonal heft. However, St. Clair and the MPO recovered swiftly to paint a vivid and biting depiction of Strauss' critics in "Des Helden Widersacher" (The Hero's Adversaries).

Peter Danis’ solo in the "Des Helden Gefährtin" (The Hero's Companion) was initially quite sedate and less extrovert than usual, but he characterised the ‘hero’s companion’ more capriciously as the movement wore on and this portrait was very much in line with Strauss' comment on his wife being "very complex, a trifle perverse, a trifle coquettish, never the same and changing from minute to minute".

St. Clair and the MPO rendered the romantic love scene with sumptuous tone before the three off-stage trumpets heralded the "Des Helden Walstatt" (The Hero at Battle) battle scene, which was also well-played but not quite matching the tonal splendour and opulence of the Berlin Philharmonic.

The final two sections of "Des Helden Friedenswerke" (The Hero's Works of Peace) where Strauss quotes from his various works like Guntram, Don Quixote, Don Juan, Macbeth, Death and Transfiguration, Also Sprach Zarathustra and Till Eulenspiegel among others and "Des Helden Weltflucht und Vollendung" (The Hero's Retirement from this World and Completion) were moving, especially leader Peter Danis' final meltingly played violin solo which blended affectingly with Grzegorz Curyla's lovely horn solo.

St. Clair's Austro-German debut with the MPO was an impressive showing indeed, working musical miracles with an augmented MPO, laden with substitute players in such a complex work as Ein Heldenleben and conducted very convincingly from memory. There were very rare instances of bad ensemble and poor intonation. Instead, balances and tempi were immaculate, execution was generally exemplary with an affecting touch and thorough musical understanding of this supreme work of the Richard Strauss oeuvre.

Monday, 17 April 2017

A beautifully played Brahms Second

Honoured guests to the DFP Hall, Stephen Hough and Mark Wigglesworth returned with a lovely Germanic programme of Beethoven and Brahms in March 2017.

Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto is a very unique piece. It is special as the composer dispensed with the typical Classical concerto form of beginning with orchestral tutti and the piano solo following that. Stephen Hough’s interpretation of the opening statement was unusual, as he arpeggiated the opening chord that Beethoven wrote.

The first movement of the concerto, which is about half of the length of the entire work, is a wonderful example of the composer’s ability to create a theme and develop it so that it returns in various creative and compelling ways.

Hough and Wigglesworth adopted a very sane and stable tempo to allow the myriad notes and florid ornamentation that Beethoven wrote for this very lyrical concerto to come through clearly. Hough drew a bright tone out of the instrument, paying careful attention to every nuance. In the cadenza, Hough held the audience spellbound as he probed its dramatic depths.

In the short recitative-like slow movement often associated with the imagery of Orpheus taming the Furies at the gates of Hades, Wigglesworth insisted upon a very sharply dramatic sound from the MPO strings at a faster than normal tempo, answered here meltingly by Hough, using every opportunity given to him to produce a gentle tone of touching sweetness.

The third movement arises directly out of the second without break and develops into a bold and energetic rondo section. Hough is not prone to histrionics and he coaxed a wonderfully clean and clear sound from the piano. The finale generated plenty of excitement and jocular abandon. A marginal tempo surge at the end brought the concerto to a triumphant close. As an encore treat, Hough played for the capacity audience a gentle and reflective Träumerei (Dreaming) from Schumann’s Kinderszenen (Scenes of Childhood).

Wigglesworth then led the MPO through a lovingly played Brahms’ pastoral Second Symphony after the interval. Adopting very flexible tempi throughout the first movement, the opening has a dreamy atmosphere that grew more agitated as the rhythms became more martial-like.

The second theme of this movement played by the violas and cellos was especially enjoyable and provided a fresh contrast before returning to its first theme. Principal hornist Grzegorz Curyla made up for the blip in bar 183 by bravely playing a superb solo between bars 454 and 477.

The second movement that followed had a weighty passion as the cellos played the initial brooding theme. In contrast, the third movement showcased a playful oboe solo in its novel and changing 2/4 and 3/8 time meters.

An overloud brass chord that submerged the strings welcomed the bright and spirited fourth movement that drew us irresistibly into its exciting string and brass ending. This was generally a superb interpretation of the symphony, which Wigglesworth imbued with a lot of love and care in the musical details.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Baborak plays a gorgeous Gliere Horn Concerto

The return of star hornist, the Czech Radek Baborák to the DFP Hall saw him offering an unusual programme pairing of JS Bach, Glière and Dvořák. This time, Baborák’s dual role was conductor as well as solo hornist, whilst he only played the horn under Barry Tuckwell’s direction previously.

This evening was the first in a series of 3 concerts in which a couple of JS Bach Brandenburg Concerti were paired with other works for variety and musical colour. The first Brandenburg Concerto was first up, with the high lying horn parts taken by Grzegorz Curyla and Laurence Davies. Simon Emes, Ruth Bull and Niels Dittmann played the 3 oboe parts, whilst Peter Danis took the charge of the solo violin part.

The performance of the first Brandenburg Concerto was disappointing to say the least. Balance, intonation and ensemble problems persisted throughout the first and third movements especially. The horns often suppressed the oboes and violin in the tonal balance, whilst their high lying parts were not played with conviction, intonational precision and security.

The three oboes acquitted themselves well in the mournful second movement. However, Peter Danis’ violin playing in the third movement also left much to be desired with iffy timing, multiple stopping and intonation issues. Baborak’s tempo for the fourth movement was a touch ponderous and the various episodes here felt overlong and too prolix.

Gliere’s Horn Concerto with Radek Baborak doubling his role as soloist as well as conductor was the next offering. This piece was written for Valeri Polekh, the solo horn player with the Bolshoi Theatre in the 1940/50s. For a piece that was written in that vintage, it was surprisingly very lyrical, tonal and tuneful as well as akin to the melodious Korngold Violin Concerto, Kabalevsky Third Piano Concerto and Richard Strauss Oboe Concerto of the same musical era.

Gliere conceived the idea of treating the horn as a virtuoso instrument in his Horn Concerto, using Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto as a musical model. Baborak was in superb form throughout the concerto, playing with great reserves of power and long sustained legato phrasing in the epic first movement.

The gorgeous creamy and expressivo tones of Baborak’s horn conjured up a dreamy and romantic atmosphere in the second movement, which had an explosive central climax. The high jinks and virtuoso portions of the last movement also did not hold any terrors for Baborak. This gorgeous première performance at the DFP Hall drew loud and thunderous applause from the audience.

To quote some words from Flanders and Swann's Ill Wind (modelled on Mozart's Fourth Horn Concerto), Baborak's superb horn playing gave us a sound, a beautiful sound that is so rich and round. Surely, Baborak must now be one of the world's best and foremost hornists, with a luscious heldentenor-like tone of massive proportions. It would be a dream to see him in KL once again in future, perhaps offering us the Richard Strauss or Mozart Horn Concertos.

In the second half, we were treated to decent performances of Bach's Third Brandenburg Concerto, led by Peter Danis in better form than in the first half. Baborak then led a good performance of Dvorak's Seventh Symphony from the podium, with subtle changes of tempi and colour. Nevertheless, it was not an epic performance in the mould of great Czech conductors of the past like Karel Sejna or Rafael Kubelik.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Abbado's Fantastic Symphonie fantastique

After the unforgettable Italian-themed concert the week before, maestro Roberto Abbado returned with a German-French night with the MPO. The first half comprised a potpourri of Wagner’s greatest orchestral hits from his mystical and timeless opera Parsifal.

Abbado opened with the Prelude to Act 1. From the slow burning Love Feast Motif throughout the undulating crescendi and diminuendi, he sustained great sensual tension via vibrato from the MPO strings, which played with more intensity than usual. The woodwind and brass also took to their roles very well, with especially rounded tones from the latter contributing wonderful sound colours of solemnity and mystical beauty.

Taking a quick break, Abbado returned for the Prelude to Act 3 and the Good Friday Music. His performance was something to be cherished. The Prelude to Act 3 depicts Parsifal’s search for the holy spear, through the dangerous realms of the evil Klingsor.

Abbado led the orchestra in a performance that felt almost as epic as the full opera. There was a perfect sense of pace and the dynamics were deftly graded. Most importantly, when the only one true fortissimo in the work came, one had no doubt this was the true climax of the piece, giving a sense of the music’s grand architecture, that is so vital, but so often missing, in performances of Wagner.

There was no let up in energy for Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique. The real fun may be saved for the last two movements of the work, but the earlier three movements possessed a bewitching intensity. There was fragility in the first movement's portrayal of the swooning artist, always on the brink of darkness, with the violins often thinning to a trembling thread.

Duetting harps opened the second movement Un bal with the lilting waltz carried in the strings. The waltz phrase lacked some elegance as Abbado chose to seriously under-play the rallentando marking. The idée fixe was heard in the clarinets before matters concluded in a waltzing frenzy, taken at an extremely fast pace. Exaggerating the animez and serrez markings superbly, Abbado conjured up the brilliant impressions of the whirling dancers almost waltzing out of control.

The expansive Scène aux champs presented a captivating pastoral vision, with the cor anglais answered in the offstage oboe. By the movement’s end, the forlorn cor anglais calls were only countered by the increasingly menacing thunder in the timpani, signalling the impending storm.

The terrifying opium-induced dream world, and the Marche au supplice were given with good power and kinetic energy, though the winds and brass were not encouraged to almost double-dot their quaver and semiquaver figurations. Clarinetist Gonzalo Esteban gave one last appearance of the idée fixe before it was cut short by the fall of the guillotine.

In the concluding Songe d'une nuit du sabbat, the idée fixe, once a statement of beauty and nobility, has been reduced to the grotesque; its reappearances on the E flat clarinet now thin, shrill and distasteful.

The myriad of ingenious effects, from the rumbling Dies Irae in the low brass to the col legno strings and bells which were slightly off-pitch, washed over the DFP Hall in a stunning display of sheer intensity of sound.

This was quite a fantastic performance of the Symphonie fantastique by maestro Abbado, although it may not have effaced memories of an even more wonderful interpretation, that of Fabio Luisi at gala concert here in September 2014.

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.