A Truly Moving Performance of Brahms Requiem by Yannick-Nezet Séguin and the Berlin Philharmonic: My Review

Serendipity

Who would have thought that I end up back at the Berlin Philharmonie so soon after the last concert by Simon Rattle just some days ago? Certainly not me.

This was really pure coincidence. I happened to stroll by the Berlin Philharmonic hall purely by chance. Suddenly, a guy approaches me, and asks “Would you want a ticket for the concert? Brahms, right now?” Well, who can say no to that? So 5 min later I find myself sitting in the Berlin Philharmonic hall watching as the BPO and the Rundfunkchor Berlin reassemble (I only got there during the break).

Ein Deutsches Requiem

I haven’t written that much about requiems yet on my blog. I have a certain respect for this category of music, as I always remember it is written for a very serious occasion, the death of a loved one. Maybe because of this I don’t listen to requiems enough.

I’ve previously mentioned Mozart´s requiem on my blog as part of My Must-have Mozart Albums. The other requiems I really love are Fauré’s (this really would need its own blog post), and obviously Brahms’.

Brahms German Requiem is a particular in many ways. First of all, it was written under very personal circumstances, around the death of Brahms own mother. Second, given Brahms´protestant background (he’s from Hamburg), he doesn’t use the traditional latin text of the catholic requiem, but instead parts of the Bible that are of personal importance to him. These are sung in German, hence the name.

Yannick Nézet Séguin – Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra – Rundfunkchor Berlin – Hanna-Elisabeth Müller – Markus Werba

I was indeed very lucky last night. Not only I get to see again the BPO, one of the best orchestras in the world, but also finally get to see Yannick Nézet-Séguin live.

I’ve written a lot about his recordings, from his Cosi Fan Tutte to his FigaroMost recently I did a more ambivalent review of his Mendelssohn symphony box. But taken together, he is one of the most relevant conductors of the 21st century.

Yannick Nézet-Séguinm, The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Rundfunkchor Berlin, Brahms German Requiem Oct 19, 2017
Yannick Nézet-Séguinm, The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Rundfunkchor Berlin

Given his previous recordings, I expected this concert to be a relatively fast and lean performance. Well, from the first measure I was proven wrong. This was BPO beauty in full blast, with relatively slow tempo throughout.

Actually, I’m glad he did. Given the nature of this work, the grandiose and emotionally charged way Nézet-Séguin conducted this just worked out perfectly.

A word about the soloists: they don’t really have such an important role in this work (maybe with the exception of the central soprano solo Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit), and overall the soloists did an good job, but were not the most memorable parts of the evening. The audience seems to think the same: they got decent applause, but nothing out of the the ordinary.

The true star of the evening was the Rundfunkchor Berlin, under Gijs Leenaars.  Their performance was just amazing. Not surprisingly, they received standing ovations at the end. Well deserved

Yannick Nezet Seguin Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem Oct 19 2017
The BPO hall organ was a major player in the performance

 

The highlight of the evening for me was the second movement, Und alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras.  The combined power of the BPO, the powerful BPO hall organ, and the 80+ voices power (but also nuances) of the choir made this a performance I will never forget.

Truly outstanding.

My rating: 5 star

P.S. If you want to see it yourself, and are not in Berlin (note that there are some tickets left for tonight Oct 20 and tomorrow Oct 21), you can also see the Saturday performance streamed live in the Digital Concert Hall.

 

François-Frédéric Guy Live at Maison de la Radio Paris – Sep 29, 2017

François-Frédéric Guy

I’ve written previously about Guy´s great recording of the Brahms piano sonatas. As I was in Paris last weekend, I noticed him giving a piano recital at the Maison de la Radio. Liszt, Beethoven, and Brahms sonata no. 3. I was lucky enough to still get tickets.

Guy is one of those underrated pianists that outside of his home country typically are not well known. But I heard good things about his Beethoven cycle as well, and had very high expectations.

François-Frédéric Guy: Clair de Lune – Liszt, Beethoven, and Brahms – Live at Maison de la Radio, Paris

Maison de la Radio, hidden in the quite 16th arrondissement of Paris, is a 1960s building that has housed French public radio for decades now.

They have several rooms for public concerts, but the biggest one is the beautiful Auditorium, very recently renovated.

Auditorium of Maison de la Radio, Paris
Auditorium of Maison de la Radio, Paris

Therefore I already had a visual treat, before the music even started

Auditorium Maison de la Radio, Paris
Auditorium Maison de la Radio, Paris

 

The concert itself started with Liszt, Bénédiction de Dieu dans la Solitude from his Harmonies poétiques et religieuses. Liszt these days often tends to be underestimated compared to the big names of Brahms and Beethoven. And maybe his orchestral work is not always top notch, and even his very large piano work sometimes tends to go a bit overboard.

But when Liszt gets it right, and is well played (not obvious, given the technical hurdles), it is really just outstandingly beautiful. This was the case here, I was mesmerized by the beauty of this piece.

François-Frédéric Guy at La Maison de la Radio (c) 2017 Musicophile
François-Frédéric Guy at La Maison de la Radio

After this fantastic start came the title piece of the concert, Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata no. 14, (Clair de lune in French). I wasn’t as taken by this part of the concert as I was by the Liszt. One part of the problem was potentially that a young teenager noisily dropped his cell phone and it fell several steps down in the middle of the quiet intense beginning. This kind of stuff really can ruin my mood for a bit.

It may also have been simply the fact that we all have heard the Mondscheinsonate so many times, that we form a certain idea in our head. Don’t get me wrong, it was beautifully played (even with the occasional false note in the Presto), with a lot of rubato in the slow movement, a very personal version. So let’s just blame it on the noisy kid that I couldn’t enjoy this part as much.

After the break, Guy started his Brahms sonata. And wow, he really played is as intensely as I’ve ever heard anybody play Brahms. You could literally see how physically exhausted he was after this long piece of music with its 5 movements. An outstanding experience.

François-Frédéric Guy at La Maison de la Radio
François-Frédéric Guy at La Maison de la Radio

Guy got the applause he deserved, and thanked us with not only one, but two encores.

After another Brahms, we were all ready to get up and leave, but he sat down again, and guess what he played: Für Elise. Yes, that one. the one that every piano student plays, the one that even people who don’t know anything about classical music recognize immediately. And guess what, it showed that there is so much more in this music than typically meets the eye.

A beautiful closure to an evening full of emotions.

My rating: 4 stars

Quatuor Ebène Plays Mozart & Beethoven – Tonhalle Zürich – June 11, 2017 – A Review

Quatuor Ebène

About a year ago I wrote about Quatuor Ebènes outstanding Schubert recording with Gautier Capuçon. For me, it was the album that should have won the Gramphone awards in 2016 in their category.

My first encounter with this young French quartet was even before that, with their excellent recordings of quartets by Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn.

They really are among the best string quartets out there in 2017, and this is not for a lack of competition.

So I was very pleased when I saw that they’d be coming to Zurich on a day where I’d be close by, yesterday, June 11, 2017

Tonhalle Zürich

A quick word about the Tonhalle Zürich. I’m actually not such a great fan of that venue (Luzern’s modern KKL is much nicer for my taste), but that said, both the big and small concert hall are have their end of 19th century luxury baroque style, and the 1930s incorporation of the old concert halls into the Zurich congress center is an interesting contrast of style.

Quatuor Ebene Tonhalle
Detail of Tonhalle Zürich Lobby

 

Between the two halls, I quite prefer the smaller one use for chamber music. I’ve had a number of fantastic concerts in here, including the great Quatuor Mosaiques with Haydn.

As a side note, the Tonhalle and the Kongresshaus will be renovated soon, and Zurich is currently preparing the Maag Music Hall in Zurich’s industrial “Kreis 5”, far away from the fancy shores of Lake Zurich, where the Tonhalle is a direct neighbor to the posh Hotel Baur Au Lac, to a completely different environment.

Maag Music Hall
Maag Music Hall back in January 2017

 

Quatuor Ebène at Tonhalle Zürich, June 11, 2017

But back to the good old Tonhalle.

Quatuor Ebène, dressed in black,  as the name (ebony) implies, started with Mozart.

Quatuor Ebène at Tonhalle Kleiner Saal Jun 11, 2017
Quatuor Ebène

But not with your Kleine Nachtmusik “Happy Mozart”, but with a romantic Sturm and Drang Mozart, the Mozart of Don Giovanni, sharing the same key, d-minor, somehow transporting Mozart directly into the 19th century. There is a lot of chiaroscuro, changing from shadows to the light in this work.

They have recorded this on their 2011 Mozart album, but this live interpretation went beyond what they recorded, there was an enormous passion in the room.

The move to Beethoven felt like a logical next step, with a very intimate connection to the Mozart.

They started with the latest of the “middle quartets”, op. 95, also known as Quartetto Serioso. Unlike some other nicknames like e.g. Moonshine, it appears that this name is genuinely by Beethoven.

It is not the most accessible of the middle quartets, it’s “seriousness” making it one of the most drastic works he’s ever written. This work mentally belongs much more to the late quartets.

Quatuor Ebene put all their energy into this and played as if their lives depended on it. The passion was tangible in the room.

After the break we returned to get the opus magnum of the evening. Just one number later in the list of Beethoven’s string quartets, no. 12 to be precise, op. 127. This work not only has the length of a symphony (and I’m talking Beethoven symphony), but also the power. Who would have thought that only 4 strings can fill a room with so much power?

But there wasn’t only power. The more than 16 minutes long Adagio was all subtleness, which transported the audience out of this world for the moment.

After the final movement, the Swiss audience simply didn’t want to stop clapping, clearly expecting an encore.

At the end, the four musicians came back out, without their instruments this time, explaining in a very friendly way that they felt that after such a work as op. 127, which they compared to the chamber equivalent of Beethoven’s Ode To Joy, there simply wasn’t any music they could play that wouldn’t be out of place.

I couldn’t have said it better.

What a concert. Magnificent

 

Bravo, Maestro? – No! Brava, Maestra! Alondra de la Parra at Tonhalle Zürich

Two premieres

Yesterday, I had two personal premieres:

I heard the Stravinsky’s Pulcinella suite for the first time live (and probably for the first time conciously, I have it on a Günter Wand album but never paid much attention).

And, more importantly, I was at my first live concert with a female conductor. This is a pretty sad fact given that we’re in the year 2017 and I attend classical concerts on a regular basis. But let’s look at the odds: right now there are only three female conductors I’d be able to spontaneously come up with: Simone Young in Hamburg, Marin Alsop, and closer to my heart, Emmanuelle Haïm. Can you come up with any other names? Wikipedia gives you a slightly (but really only slightly) longer lists with other names I’ve never heard of.

I actually had heard the name of Alondra de la Parra once before, on the radio. But that was  all I knew about this young Mexican conductor (who was born in NYC).

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Alondra de la Parra (Source: http://www.alondradelaparra.com)

So I was very curious to hear her, given that the Tonhalle Orchester had given her the opportunity of three consecutive concerts.

A little parenthesis on the Tonhalle-Orchester:  The only recently appointed current conductor, Lionel Bringuier, will soon be history. I’ve only heard him once with the Tonhalle, but really wasn’t convinced, so I’m not very sad about the change.

David Zinman did great things with the orchestra previously (even though it is still a bit short of being on par with the really big guys), and so I’m very much looking forward to whoever will be replacing him. Paavo Järvi has been mentioned, and given my affection for him, I’d be applauding.

But if de la Parra get’s 3 evenings, I’m just wondering, could she also be in the mix?

Alondra de La Parra Tonhalle Zürich February 2,2017

Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite

Well, this one will be quite quick, as I simply don’t have any reference to judge the performance from. All I can say is I was surprised I really liked the piece. I have a very difficult relationship with Stravinsky, I hate Le Sacre, I can listen to Petrouchka about once every 5 years, preferable in the piano version.

It’s generally just not my cup of tea. But this piece warrants further study.

Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 9 – Jan Lisiecki

Beyond Mrs de la Palla, Jan Lisiecki was the other motivation for me (plus being near Zurich anyhow that particular day) to go to see this concert.

He got very good reviews for his Chopin and Mozart, and so I was very curious to see this very young artist (22 years old) from Canada live. The first thing that’s a bit shocking is that he looks even younger than that. He wouldn’t be out of place in any US highschool movie.

Now, how did the two young stars play together? Well, let’s just say it was a really interesting experience. De la Parra lead the Tonhalle with a lot of energy, but overall the playing sounded a tiny bit heavy (maybe I’m also just too much used to historically informed performance these days). On top of that, Lisiecki had a rather firm grip on the Steinway.

Therefore, this well-known concert, which was written by the 21 year old Mozart, sounded a lot like Beethoven, and not even like his first two concertos, which still live the spirit of Mozart, but in parts this could have even been the 4th concerto.

And the 2nd movement got even more interesting, it sounded really much more like a Chopin concerto. Nothing wrong with all this, and it was a very pleasing experience, it is just different from what I’m recently used to hear.

Appropriately enough, Lisiecki gave us a Chopin encore, op. 48 no. 1, if my memory serves me well. This really was quite spectacular. Lisiecki gave it so much energy, especially in the second half, that I was occasionally thinking of being in the Grande Polonaise Brilliante. In any case, should you listen to this performance late at night (which the title Nocturne kind of indicates), you’d be wide awake by all the sheer brilliance. Very enjoyable.

The true highlight came after the break though.

Beethoven: Eroica

I love the Eroica. Actually, it is a mistake that I didn’t mention it in my 25 Essential Classical Albums (a mistake I’ll soon rectify by enlarging the list to 50). But it’s been ages since I last heard it live somewhere.

I was really hoping from some Latin power (mentally I was probably thinking of de la Parra as the female equivalent of Rodrigo, the slightly crazy Mexican conductor in Amazon’s TV series Mozart in the Jungle). 

But I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Boy, how positively surprised I ended up being. I spend the entire Eroica on the edge of my seat by the sheer energy she created. The poor musicians of the Tonhalle Orchester were clearly stretched to their limits, but they were following her with all the energy and passion they got. Wow!

In summary, as much as I’d like to see Paavo Järvi in Zürich, should the Tonhalle Orchester be daring and go for this amazing talent, I’d be all for it!

P.S. After the concert I read the review by the venerable Neue Zürcher Zeitung of the same concert the previous day, and they shared my enthousiasm.