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.

Friday, 9 June 2017

Gamzou's magnificent Mahler Tenth

No-one before or since has had more to say in a symphony than Mahler. He remains the most complex of all symphonists, and this daunting prospect in itself may account for the large number of empty seats in the DFP Hall in late May 2017. Despite the presence of a very brilliant Mahler conductor Yoel Gamzou, who previously directed a most moving Mahler Ninth Symphony in August 2016 at the DFP, the singular work of Mahler's Tenth Symphony in Gamzou's own realisation and elaboration of the late Austrian composer's unfinished drafts failed to attract a large KL audience.

Gamzou first came in contact with the Adagio from Gustav Mahler’s unfinished Tenth Symphony when he was about 12 or 13 years old, whilst fishing curiously amidst a jungle of books and scores in a local library. When he discovered that it was only the first movement of a large unfinished symphony, he instantly started investigating and was immediately confronted with the commonly accepted misinformation that the piece was a mere skeleton, a "preliminary sketch", and that it was of no use to get one’s hopes up about finding any "real symphony" out there.

One day, Gamzou suddenly felt as if the few bars in the middle of the Purgatorio (the third movement of the symphony) started telling him exactly how they wanted to be heard. His hand, almost unintentionally, took a pen and some music paper and started jotting down a few bars. Before he realised it, his Purgatorio was complete, fully orchestrated and annotated.

Frans Bouwman, a Dutch scholar who was first and foremost a musician, has dedicated his entire life to Mahler in a very selfless manner. Few people have ever amassed such an amount of knowledge about Mahler's Tenth as Bouwman has, and Gamzou believes nobody possesses such understanding of its meaning as he does.

Bouwman went on to help Gamzou for almost 10 years, providing material, allowing him glimpses into previously unpublished sketches, accompanying early performances and try outs, spending weeks and weeks correcting, proof reading and offering his knowledge, experience and above all his love for Mahler’s music with endless generosity. This is how the only "completed" version that has been prepared by a living conductor came into being. (The late Rudolf Barshai is the other conductor who has done a Mahler Symphony No 10 completion.)

In concert, the first movement (Adagio) opened with a meandering, barely tonal melody in the violas before they were joined by the whole orchestra, with a heartbreakingly beautiful melody in the violins. The movement inexorably led towards a dissonant climactic chord, which contained 9 of the 12 notes of a scale (known as the first announcement of the apocalypse), before quietly withdrawing; as if Mahler were reluctantly accepting his own impending death.

In the first Scherzo (Schnelle Viertel), Gamzou guided the MPO expertly through the frantic and exceedingly tricky changing metres of the scherzo as well as the sudden gearshifts of dynamics. The musical phrases took on a mocking tone, with the alternating Ländler-like sections being quite grotesque.

The third movement (Purgatorio) brought something resembling a sense of calm, but with violent outbursts potentially lurking behind every turn. The final outburst plunged straight into the fourth movement and second scherzo of the symphony (The Devil is dancing with me), a violent, tempestuous contrast to the seeming sense of peace of the former movement.

The very beginning of the fifth and final movement is very terrifying: twelve strokes of a muffled bass drum, played as loudly as possible; twelve universal, devastating strokes even more terminal than the hammer strokes of the Sixth Symphony, twelve strokes comprising the last hour of the universe, each one more shocking and rattling than the previous one.

Out of this, a soaring flute melody beautifully and hauntingly played by Hristo Dobrinov provided a glimmer of hope. The ensuing main section brings back the agitation of the Purgatorio, ending in a return of the nine-note dissonance. In its wake, an ethereal, hymn-like passage for the strings concluded the work, with Gamzou motionless for over a full minute before tumultuous applause erupted.

In a future season, it may be good to see Gamzou with the MPO again in Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, prefaced by a short Mozart symphony, say like No 33 in B flat major K 319.

Monday, 5 June 2017

Blacher's absolutely brilliant Beethoven Fourth

It was excellent to welcome violinist Kolja Blacher back to the DFP to play and lead the MPO in a concert of Austro-German classics after his stupendous concert here of Britten, Mozart, Beethoven and Mendelssohn in 2013. This time the concert comprised core repertory items: Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro Overture, Brahms' Violin Concerto and Beethoven's genial Fourth Symphony.

Blacher set off in a sprightly fashion with Mozart's overture to The Marriage of Figaro. After the hushed unison chromatic string passages, this was Mozart played with full vitality and high spirits. The tempo was always moved forward, giving the performance a sense of daring and anticipation, which the precise MPO playing never allowed to falter.

Next, Blacher launched the opening tutti of the Brahms Violin Concerto at a cracking pace, perhaps wanting to set the land speed world record time for the opening first movement of well below 19 minutes. The honour of the fastest speed of the first movement probably belongs to Jascha Heifetz and Fritz Reiner on RCA at 18 minutes and 55 seconds. However, Blacher's overall tempi in concert probably sound faster than Heifetz with phrasing that was a touch too breathless as well.

The Brahms Violin Concerto is probably one of the very toughest in the repertoire to perform, even with the help of an experienced conductor. To play it like Blacher did without the aid of a conductor was very daring indeed. Balance with the orchestra was generally very good, with the exception of the opening solo flourish in sextuplets and quintuplets, where the solo oboe part almost covered the solo violin's elaborate figurations.

Apart from the fast speed and breathless phrasing, Blacher's interpretation was very good in terms of structural integrity. Without much recourse to the odd slowing down and speeding up that is traditionally done, the initial tempo set ran throughout the movement without much obvious change. This lent an excellent coherence to Brahms' massive first movement structure.

Blacher's violin playing was generally very good. His superb intonation and silvery tone was clear and reminiscent of the late Nathan Milstein, obviously aided by the sweet-toned 1730 “Tritton” Stradivarius. His bowing is fluid and unforced (unlike Maxim Vengerov), abetted by a modern French bow made by Nehr.

At times despite very good technique, Blacher's notes were sometimes slightly garbled due to the fast speeds set. As a result, he had to cleverly miss out some of the running notes. In the solo cadenza by Joachim that most violinists favour, his playing also seemed hurried and there were many spots where he could have taken a bit more time to breathe and lavish care over the phrasing.

Tempi concerns faded in the second and third movements, when Blacher adopted more traditional approaches to speed. In one of the classic stories of the 19th-century virtuosi, Pablo de Sarasate refused to play the Brahms Violin Concerto on the basis that the only melody in the slow movement was given to the oboe, rather than the soloist. In the case of this concert, the solo oboe part as played by the superb Simon Emes was a celebration of the smooth liquid tone he brings to the MPO. The second movement was beautifully played, with the exposition and recapitulation sections being intensely hymn-like over Blacher's elaborate figurations over the latter but a not overdone turbulent middle development section.

There was a festive atmosphere in the last movement, which was interpreted in a straightforward manner, without any mannerisms or excess rubato as well. When the third final chords ended a very good performance by Blacher and the MPO, loud and sustained applause broke out from the capacity crowd.

In the second half, we were treated to possibly the best performance of Beethoven's Fourth Symphony that I have ever heard in my life ever since I went to top class classical concerts from 1980 in London and Europe. The Fourth Symphony is sometimes considered a slighter work than many Beethoven symphonies and had been described by Robert Schumann as a “slender Greek maiden” (between the Nordic giants of the Third and Fifth symphonies).

After the slow, mysterious B flat minor introduction to the symphony, the moment the MPO hit the Allegro the sound was just perfect in terms of its size and scale, neither too big and symphonic nor too small and chamber-like. Blacher encouraged a lighter style of playing in the athletically played and ideally paced Allegro vivace (bringing Haydn to mind), with very clear woodwind solo textures from the flute, clarinets and bassoons especially.

The second movement (Adagio) was again ideally paced and had a beautifully singing cantabile quality right throughout the flowing movement, despite the insistent rhythmic heartbeat treads and occasionally martial brass and timpani outburst interjections. The joining phrases across the sections were mainly seamless, barring one unfortunate intonation blip from the horn on a high E flat. A lovely clarinet nocturne with tender ornate string accompaniment ended this very well played movement.

There was earthy energy to the Scherzo-like third movement, but the mood was calmer in the more serene Trio section. The very rapidly played Finale probably exceeded Beethoven's idea of an Allegro ma non troppo. However, Blacher challenged the MPO to be at its virtuosic best, supported by finely controlled playing in the MPO string section with all players declaiming like Berlin Philharmonic concertmasters (which it is rare to witness with the MPO strings). The wind played with equal panache and care for the line, and the furiously quick string passages built great excitement, carrying a joyful arc of sound to the magnificent close that drew long and rapturous applause from the capacity DFP audience.

It makes sense to see Kolja Blacher back at the DFP with the MPO in future seasons, perhaps to play-lead pieces like the Beethoven "Kreuzter" Sonata (as transcribed by Richard Tognetti) and Schönberg's Verklärte Nacht.

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.