Friday, December 2, 2016

Mariss Jansons and BRSO in Taipei 2016/12/1

Time: 2016/12/1, 19:30-21:30 (approximately)
VenueNational Concert HallTaipei
PerformersMariss Jansons (conductor), Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks (official)

Program (or here):


What a marvellous orchestra Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks (Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, BRSO) is! This is the Rolls Royce of the orchestras. For once, one needs not worry about anything mechanical; just relax and enjoy the drive. The gear-shifting was so smooth that one barely noticed it -- such as in Richard Strauss' tone poem when the melodies were often played by a sequence of instruments in turns.  I have heard Berliner Philharmoniker and Staatskapelle Berlin and, to my ears, BRSO is every inch their equal, with phenomenally good musicians. Mariss Jansons picks two pieces for today's program. From the early pioneers of Classical symphony, we have one of Haydn's London symphonies: Hob. I/100 in G major. And then, a twentieth-century non-symphony Sinfonie: Strauss' tone poem Eine Alpensinfonie, Op. 64. He couldn't have found better programs to showcase his wonderful orchestra.

Jansons is renowned for his impeccable musicianship and technical facility. His superb command of rhythm is in ample display in Haydn's G major "Military Symphony". The very "exposed" writing of Haydn poses a great challenge to the conductor and the players. It is either played right, or else dull and falling apart. Jansons and his team rose to the occasion and gave it an idiomatic performance, full of wit and vibrancy. He also added theatricality by having the three musicians of the "Turkish instruments" (triangle, cymbals and bass drum) leave the stage after the conclusion of the second movements, knowing fully well that they would be needed at the end of the last movement. I thought it was utterly unconventional to have musicians leaving the stage only to come back later (and whispered to Ping as such). Little did I know that these three musicians would show up from behind the audience at the key moment, marching toward the stage with an additional person carrying the Austro-Hungarian imperial emblem of the Double-headed Eagle. A stunt, yes, but what an entertaining one!

After the intermission, it was Richard Strauss' biggest (with wind machine and thunder sheet to start with), and longest tone poem (only Ein Heldenleben Op. 40 and Aus Italien Op. 16 approach it in length). Eine Alpensinfonie is also Strauss's farewell to this music form. He would continue to compose many outstanding operas and lieder among others, but Eine Alpensinfonie remained his last tone poem. The sheer size and thick texture of the orchestration present serious problems for the performers. Some of the brass parts are also fiendishly difficult. Listen to the occasional messy brass passages in the live recording (Proms 2012) with Wiener Philharmoniker and Bernard Haitink, you see that even VPO can be fallible. (The performance was good nonetheless.) However, under good hands, it is a terrific vehicle to showcase the virtuosity of the orchestra and the conductor. Jansons and the orchestra were nearly perfect in the execution of this enormous piece. It had all the momentum and drive, but still maintained a degree of transparency for Strauss' contrapuntal writing. To listen to orchestral playing of such superlative level live in concert was sheer joy!

If I could wish for anything on top of this wonderful performance, I would ask for just a touch more vitality in Haydn, such as in Leonard Bernstein's legendary recordings. (*1) In Strauss,  a tiny bit more visceral impact and even better clarity and transparency in the orchestral playing, as in Herbert von Karajan's classic account(*2), would have made it an instant classic. Note however, this is really quibble to a nearly perfect concert. The only genuine fault of the entire evening was the preconcert talk, in which the speaker made a few blatantly false statements without being challenged on spot.(*3) Since this concert was sponsored by the National Theater & Concert Hall, I was surprised by the carelessness of the planning in this regard. Needless to say, I appreciate NTCH's efforts of bringing this wonderful team to Taichung and Taipei and have nothing but praise otherwise.(*4)

The hall is very near sold-out for the evening, if any seat was left at all, while the next day's performance was completely sold out months in advance. (I knew it as I had sought tickets in vain....) Jansons gave no encore at the end, but really there was no need to add to near perfection.

(*1) Strangely enough, as much as I admire Lenny's Haydn, I have always felt that the Military was my least favorite Haydn from this maestro. Is this a particularly difficult piece to pull off perfectly, I wonder.
(*2) In general, I am not a great admirer of Karajan. However, I feel that his recordings on Richard Strauss and especially Arnold Schoenberg have never been equaled. Indeed, it is nothing short of magic to be able to perform Schoenberg with such clarity.
(*3) The reader might wonder why I should show up in the preconcert talk at all. Well, I am a visitor, and I consider these talks my opportunity to feel the pulse of the local music activities and attend them whenever I can.
(*4) NTCH has been very good in selecting knowledgeable speakers for preconcert talks in the past in my very limited experience. I wonder what went wrong with this supposedly major event.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Trio HANTAÏ - baroque chamber music, Taipei 2016/11/26

Time: 2016/11/26, 19:30-21:30 (approximately)
Venue: Recital Hall, National Concert HallTaipei
Sponsor: Taiwan Early Music Society and Formosa Baroque Ensemble
Jérôme Hantaï (
Viola da Gamba)
Marc Hantaï (
Baroque Flute)
Pierre Hantaï (


unidentified (1:05:21)Kuijken et al, (on similar pieces)
Trio sonata in G for 2 flutes and b.c., BWV 1039 (version for flute, viola da gamba and basso continuo)
Pièces de clavecin en concertsLa Laborde from RCT 8, La Timide from RCT 9, La Marais from RTC 11


I have admired Pierre Hantaï's harpsichord performance for years, treasuring especially his 1992 recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations. His ongoing project of recording all keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti has received universal acclaim. It was therefore really exciting for me to be able to hear him with his brothers Marc and Jérôme in concert.

And what a lovely concert it was! I only felt a bit restless during Bach's BWV 1039, transcribed from two flutes to flute + viol. (Perhaps I was too used to hearing it in two flutes?) Marc H's baroque flute seemed to take a while to warm up and the beginning of Hotteterre had problems with intonation and breath control. There was also a small problem with balance in Hotteterre, where the flute was often overpowered by the viol. Other than that, the concert was pure delight. I was particularly impressed by their Leclair and Rameau and wished there was a concert devoted entirely to Rameau's Pièces de Clavecin en Concerts. Not since I heard of the classic recording by Rousset et. al. have I heard of such a fine performance! It was a pity that they only programmed 3 pieces out of 15 in five suites (RCT 7-11). For encores, Hantaï brothers played another piece from Ramea's Pièces de Clavecin en Concerts, followed by a piece by François Couperin (le grande).

Thank you, friends in Taiwan Early Music Society and Formosa Baroque Ensemble, for making this concert possible!(*) If there is any concert by the Formosa Ensemble in the near future, I am going!

(*) Unfortunately, Ping has other plans and can not go to the Sunday recital.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Andreas Staier Taiwan Debut 2016/11/23

Time: 2016/11/23, 19:30-21:30 (approximately)
Venue: National Concert HallTaipei
PerformersAndreas Staier (piano)


J. S. Bach: French Suite No. 5 in G, BWV 816 - Sarabande (cf. Rousset (at 5:24), Schiff)

This is Andreas Staier's first visit to Taiwan and my first concert with Staier while "vacationing" in Taiwan, so I was anxious to learn about it. Unfortunately, it was hard to guess what was to happen from the scanty information provided by Blooming Arts. The only thing I was relatively sure was the instrument would be the fortepiano. After all, I know of no recital or recording by Staier on any modern piano. Personally, I was impressed by Blooming Arts for inviting Staier and curious about the trouble it must have gone through to locate a fine fortepiano for the occasion, knowing that while a fine harpsichord is available locally, a fortepiano might not.... -- How wrong I was!

Staier performed on Monday 11/21 and Wednesday 11/23, and I only attended Wednesday concert. An unfortunate decision was made to perform both recitals on Steinway Concert Grand Model D, provided by the National Concert Hall, likely due to availability. Staier opened the Wednesday recital with selected pieces from Schumann's Album for the Young. His tone was round and beautiful, with quite a heavy dose of sustain pedal and sometimes sostenuto one. At first it was quite enjoyable, but very quickly the relative shortage of tone palettes started to show and sonic fatigue set in. This was a striking contrast with the richness of his fortepiano recordings. Listen, for example, to his own performance on fortepiano of Schubert's B-flat major sonata, and the difference is almost like day and night. Schubert's infinite tonal meandering, especially in the second movement, produced much more striking effects there. This phenomenon really drained part of enjoyment from this recital, and I was expecting a lot for it. (Not unreasonably, I think, given what I heard from his recordings.) Why, may I ask, that we have to have Staier flying hundreds of miles only to perform on the instrument he is perhaps not entirely comfortable with?

Staier's encore piece of Sarabande from Bach's French Suite No. 5 was exquisite, even on the Steinway. By the way, Staier performed all pieces with sheet music but without page turner.

My heart was heavy after the recital. I don't know about the Monday recital, but the Wednesday one was very poorly attended, only about a quarter of designated seats (excluding the 4th floor) were occupied. With disappointing attendance and wrong choice of instrument, I am afraid the Taiwanese audience will not have the second chance of Staier, now at 60. Hopefully, the next time a more sensitive organization, like the Taiwan Early Music Society, will take charge of such events. By the way, I look forward to the concert they sponsored in a few days.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Paavo Järvi, Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen 2016/11/12

Time: 2016/11/22, 19:30-22:00 (approximately)
VenueNational Concert HallTaipei
PerformersPierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Paavo Järvi (conductor), Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen (official)



Pollini completeOp. 11Pollini, Gould, Op. 19Pollini, GouldBeroff
Hungarian Dances, Nos. 3, 6

From the first note of Schumann's Overture to Genoveva, we knew we were listening to a vibrant orchestra with an energetic director. The conductor Paavo Järvi was named the prestigious 2015 Gramophone Artist of the YearDeutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen has been on the rise since Järvi's arrival in 2004. This team has impressed the musical world with The Beethoven Project, a name given to its refreshing and vital accounts of Beethoven's symphony cycle. From there we can already deduce many characteristics of this team. It is obvious to any discerning ears that its interpretations are strongly influenced by the historically informed performance practice, even as they play the modern instruments: Järvi conducts at tempos very close to Beethoven's metronome marks and often pushes the tempos and dynamics beyond the usual boundaries for novel effects. He also favors leaner string texture and sports sharp attacks on the down beats, much like one would expect from Nikolaus Harnoncourt or John Eliot Gardiner, to name two familiar figures in the HIP movement. Even though the Bremen orchestra does not have star soloists in its roster, it is remarkably responsive to Järvi's every direction. This is indeed extraordinary as Järvi takes elastic tempos and rarely let a music phrase go by without taking his baton to lovingly shape the music one way or the other.

In the Genoveva(*) overture, Järvi paid special attention to harmonic shifts. Owing to the relatively smaller size of the orchestra and especially to Järvi's direction, the Schumann gained much contrapuntal clarity and each part can be heard clearly even during the orchestral tutti. It was the "chamber-music-like" quality in the best sense of the word, as the name of the orchestra might have suggested.

With a small pause allowing the stage workers to place the piano in the front center of the stage, and other small changes of instrumentation, we were joined by Pierre-Laurent Aimard in the Beethoven's E-flat concerto, Op. 73. Aimard is of course especially renowned for his sensitive and authoritative interpretations of the twentieth-century masters, e.g., Olivier MessiaenPierre Boulez among others, having studied with Yvonne Loriod and worked in Ensemble InterContemporain under the direction of Boulez. One fully expected that he would bring different insights into the work from his distinguished background and from his recordings with Harnoncourt.

Indeed, from the piano arpeggio following the opening E-flat chord we knew immediately this was not just "another Emperor". The boldness of the interpretation was extraordinary. Aimard often stretched the tempos to the extreme, even far more than the conductor would allow himself. Instead of hammering the keys to produce sonority rising above the orchestra, he caressed them with low wrist position to produce singing tones. Together with the conductor, he underlined any major events and emphasized contrasts, as in the development of the opening movement. Aimard and Järvi dispensed the more traditional, romantic slow movement, favoring faster tempi and more classical, Mozart-like, approach. They were both fired up in the final Rondo, with a hair-rising ending.

In the end, if one has strong opinions about how Beethoven should be played, one might find Aimard's approach idiosyncratic or even eccentric. Whatever one's opinion was, there is no denial that Aimard was superbly equipped to play this, but he and Järvi chose not to play the E-flat concerto like a warhorse. Instead they opted to explore and discover the nuances by trying out unusual phrasings and novel way of accents and attacks. It was a remarkably refreshing and interesting performance, if sometimes a bit too extreme for my taste. There were also occasions of sonic imbalances between the piano and the orchestra, especially in the first two movements, due in part to Aimard's refusal to produce "bigger" sound, I think. Still my listening partner CY liked it a lot and Ping immediately requested to hear Aimard's recordings with Harnoncourt when we will return home in a few weeks.

Before the encore, Aimard spoke about the "missing composer" from today's program of three Austro-German masters: Arnold Schoenberg. He then played Schoenberg's Op. 11 No. 3, followed by Nos. 1 and 2 from Op. 19. Here one could see how his piano tone production was strongly influenced by his training in the modern piano repertoire, paying special attention to timbre and attuned to extreme low dynamics (pppp), as in, e.g., Anton Webern, and Boulez. 

After the intermission, Järvi and his band played Brahms with chamber-like quality alluded above. With smaller forces and different articulations and attacks, they brought revelatory clarity and sonic dynamism into Brahms. Like Wilhelm Furtwängler, whose Brahms I consider still far and away the best I have ever heard, Järvi employed elastic tempos throughout. This is a risky approach, as the elasticity could produce incoherence or total collapse if the structure isn't there. Fortunately, Järvi made it work and raised the symphonic narrative and theatricality to the next level. (Make no mistake, however, their approaches are absolutely completely different on the surface. WF would have none of these HIP-inspired gestures.) In the end Järvi managed to conjure up one exciting Brahms' c minor symphony, indeed one of more exciting I have heard in recent years.

For encores, Järvi and his forces played two of Brahms' beloved Hungarian Dances, with the tempi playfully stretched to the extremes, even more pronounced than their recorded performances (No. 3 and No. 6). Interestingly, in a way this seemed very apt for the occasion (as encores).

(*) The story of Genevieve of Brabant was quoted in Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Yuja Wang, Michael Tilson Thomas and San Francisco Symphony 2016/11/13

Time: 2016/11/13, 20:00-22:30 (approximately)
Venue: National Concert Hall, Taipei
Performers: Yuja Wang (piano), Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), San Francisco Symphony (official)


Yuja Wang: Franz Liszt's piano transcription of Franz Schubert's lied Gretchen am Spinnrade, (12 Lieder von Franz Schubert, S. 558, No. 8). (Listen: Kissin, Wang)
MTT/SFS: no encore

What an amazing musician Yuja Wang is! At 29, she has already dazzled the world for more than 10 years. Chopin's f minor concerto was written when he was at the tender age of 19. The composer crammed extravagance of fantastic ideas and fountains of beautiful melodies into apparent Classical structure, so the balance between the Classicism and Romanticism is a delicate issue. Further complicating this is that the piano part is written in the Style Brillant with relatively weak (IMHO) orchestral part. Therefore, the majority of the work lies on the soloist. Wang brought to this familiar piece her artistry and youthful exuberance. Here is Chopin of elegance, warmth and thoughtfulness, while never lacking in personality. A rare combination! For encore, she played Liszt/Schubert's Gretchen am Spinnrade beautifully, showcasing her affinity with Romantic genre. As any pianist would know, the most difficult part of Liszt's piano transcriptions of lieder lies in the voicing of the original melodies, often in the middle register and shared between the two hands. Wang performed phenomenally well.

On the other hand, MTT, now 71, seemed a bit tired. I had the impression that he just went through the motion for today's performance. Surely nobody doubts his immense talents in music and management. He has created fine business models for the symphony orchestras in the 21st C., for example. However, I miss the energy he brought to music when he just joined SF Symphony as music director in 1995.(*) I want bolder gestures and more personal statement. In Beethoven's c minor symphony, for example, the interpretation is surprisingly conventional and uninvolving. Decades of scholarly works and experiments by other conductors/orchestras mean little to him, I guess. Perhaps like Arturo Toscanini before him, it is more important to study the scores to "get ideas from Beethoven himself". If so, our understanding of the music must be very different. The instrumental balance, for example, sacrificed the countermelodies in the cellos/DB in favor of higher registers. The forward momentum, which I personally consider a crucial element in the work, is barely there. This is not Beethoven as revolutionary, but very relaxed, almost museum-piece Beethoven. (Comparisons: Calos KleiberFurtwängler 1947.)

MTT fared better in his own work of Agnegram, some kind of symphonic march written for SF Symphony's patroness Agnes Albert. MTT uses A-G-E-E flat-A-A-B flat-E-D-B for Ag(n)es Albert as the motif, and from this many (all?) themes are drawn. With "Agnes theme" opening the work, the piece is filled with jazzy rhythm and occasional quotations. It is immediately identifiable as a composition by a living American composer. (Many can blindly guess it. I did.) The work is in ABA form, with noisy opening section, somewhat episodic middle section, and ending with the entire orchestra blaring cacophony juxtaposed with "happy tunes". The orchestra gave MTT's occasional piece a zesty reading.

The performance of 1919 version of Firebird Suites was fine, but, to me, did not entirely capture the vivid exotic colors and rhythms Stravinsky bestowed on this popular piece. Listen to Stravinsky's own recording (video), or Boulez / CSOGergiev / VPO for example, and the difference is there for everyone to hear.

Still, this is an enjoyable evening, if only for Yuja Wang's playing. I understand that piano recital is, strangely, not particularly popular in Taipei, but would anyone consider brokering a piano recital by Yuja in Taipei in the near future?

(*) Perhaps MTT has stayed in SF Symphony for too long, which is bad for him and for the Symphony. SFS may have been one of the highest paid orchestra in the world, and MTT one of the highest paid musical directors, but the result is not very encouraging. Surely the level of proficiency has progressed since 1995, but at that time SFS was not nearly as well paid if memory serves. -- Am I becoming too critical? If so, it is only because I like SFS (my first "home symphony") and would love to see more young American conductors as music directors of major American orchestras, much like MTT/SFS in 1995.

NSO What is Composition II - Magic, Madness, and Macabre, 2016/11/13

Time: 2016/11/13, 14:30-16:45 (approximately)
VenueNational Concert HallTaipei

Meng-Chun LIN
Tung Nguyen HOANG

"In der Fremde" (No.1) and "Waldesgespräch" (No.3) from Liderkreis, Op. 39
Canción del amor dolidoDanza ritual del fuego, Canción del fuego fatuo, from El Amor Brujo
"Stride la vampa" from Il Trovatore
Marfa's Divination (Scene 2) from Khovanshchina
Mysteries of the Macabre, 3 arias from Le Grand Macabre

Vera Hsu's contribution is immense in this lecture/recital. She appears in all 7 works and had to do some vocalization in Ligeti's Mysteries of the Macabre. The insider's information states that it is half a year's hard work. Hats off to Vera! All other soloists are more than competent. I have not heard the popular Brod's oboe piece and Reinecke's flute piece for a long time, so it is a welcome reunion for me. Good programming, Dr. Chiao!