Alexander Sladkovsky

Guest Writer, Ateş Orga

The Christmas/New Year break may understandably have been dominated by Riccardo Muti’s New Year’s Day concert, and speech, from Vienna. But it wasn’t the only good thing about. Here, in no particular order, are some recent YouTube uploads, all of superior audio quality and HD definition. Just as classy. Just as enlivening. And not without a surprise or two.

Beethoven Symphony No.9 Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, Andrew Manze. Rotterdam was largely destroyed in May 1941, flattened by Luftwaffe bombing. Opened in 1950, the Ahoy convention centre formed part of the city’s post-war reconstruction. Filmed here, among potted shrubs and stark spotlights, Manze’s physically distanced Ninth, freed of concert etiquette, did just about everything right, from the unanimity of downward rushing violin and viola scales at the start (a stumbling block in so many performances), through a notably eloquent Adagio, to heroically paced final pages. Spacious paragraphing, glowing phrasing, breathed punctuation. Drama, adrenalin, yet free of histrionics or gratuitous gesture. Secure quartet of soloists, raked right of podium – Susanne Bernhard (soprano), Olivia Vermeulen (mezzo-soprano), Benjamin Bruns (tenor), Tareq Nazmi (bass). Modestly strengthened but vocally strong choir (Rotterdam Symphony Chorus), behind the conductor – in everyday clothes going about their business, redolent of prisoners escaped from Fidelio, close-up shots penetrating faces with stories to tell. I found it compulsive viewing, in an inexplicable way its humanity and optimism reminding me of that grainy footage of a virile young Celibidache in 1950 conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in Egmont among the ruins of the old Philharmonie, night-bombed by the RAF in January 1944.

Grieg Piano Concerto Alice Sara Ott (piano), HR-Sinfonieorchester, Andrés Orozco-Estrada. Ott has always had a particular affection for the Grieg Concerto, occasionally mannered but invariably loving, coaxing out of the phrases whatever expression and underlining she can find. Even by her impeccably high standards, this Frankfurt account was something special. Symphonic tension more than popular tunes to the fore, Orozco-Estrada crafting an acutely shaped structure, the orchestra, German gold standard, rising to the challenge, Spanish solo flautist inevitably so (Clara Andrada de la Calle). Split-second accord. Four moments from Ott stood out: the climactic stature of the cadenza; the suspended dream-state roulades of the Adagio; the extraordinarily slow arpeggiated cadence of the Finale’s middle section (utmost ppp control); and the octave-stressed hands-shared low chordal A propelling the closing peroration. Aristocratic command, thrilling.

Mitt hjerte alltid vanker Mari Eriksmoen (soprano), Oslo Philharmonic cellos. Purity of voice, simplicity of presentation and long phrasing in a resonantly biased acoustic made this Scandinavian nativity carol to words by the eighteenth-century Danish hymnist Hans Adolph Brorson a Christmas offering with a difference, devotional more than commercial in address. Set to a Swedish melody (with later Norwegian variants) first written down in 1816, Øystein Sonstad’s contemporary arrangement, idiomatically mixing drones with more energised polyphony, worked well, Klaus Mäkelä leading eight members of his orchestra’s cello section with an intensity and quality of tone matched comfortably by his customary first cellist, Louisa Tuck, playing number two.

Poulenc Concerto for Two Pianos Lucas & Arthur Jussen (pianos), WDR Symphony Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach. Poulenc, summer 1932, “gay and direct”. In theatrical, youthfully energised form, Eschenbach kept structure, contrasts and details of ensemble under tight classical rein, his beat (no baton) textbook clear, the WDR SO responding with alacrity and refinement, the balance crystal bright. The jazzy Ravel references were tart, the odd glances at Prokofiev teased, the Mozartean Larghetto (paraphrasing the Romanza of K466) bloomed lusciously. The Rondo’s pianism emphasised incisive brilliance in its dry attack and note repetitions, though not without dreamily pedalled episodes as magically stilled as the first movement’s closing pages. Predictably, the firebrand Jussen brothers made light of the technical expectations, here dazzlingly pointed, there plumbing the depths with feathers of sensuality. Sabre-toothed attack, steely resolve (stunning fortissimo togetherness at the start and in the percussive tutti chording subsequently), less gratuitously dwelling than some.

Schumann Symphony No 2 Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, Klaus Mäkelä. It isn’t often you’ll find Schumann’s Second Symphony preceded by Dowland’s 1604 Lachrimae Antiquae. And rarer still to meet a conductor who’d even think of the juxtaposition, let alone dovetail the two with scarcely a breath in between. Mäkelä, a young man with determinedly his own reasoning, showed that the mix can work, the slowness of the one preparing for the sostenuto of the other, with C as a long-term pivotal pitch (A in the short term). His handling was clear, direct and unfussy, letting the music flow and gather momentum, encouraging the orchestra to interact and relish the journey. A warmly diapasoned sound-world, mellow and enveloping, prominent but unsensationised timpani come the end.

Tchaikovsky Capriccio Italien Tatarstan National Symphony Orchestra, Alexander Sladkovsky. In my student days Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio used to get rubbished – a good reason, I considered, to look further, find the best bits … and like it all the more. Considered a vulgar patchwork, Beecham though believed in it, his 1950 Columbia Symphony mono release prompting The Record Guide to comment that he “extracts more music from this rumbustious piece than we had thought possible”. From last August’s Kazan Autumn International Opera Festival, this concert performance – open-air, heavily microphoned – is up there with the best around. Now in his mid-fifties, Sladkovsky, these days a high-profile conductor, gets to the heart, drama and colour of the piece, his early military training yielding handsome dividends in terms of discipline, rhythm and crispness of attack. With rapier tempo changes, laser-piercing eyes and variably rotund body language, he doesn’t miss a trick, his fine, organised orchestra (founded in 1966) characterful in all departments, well up the international ladder. Showcase commitment.

Vienna Ball Mariinsky Stradivarius Ensemble, Lorenz Nasturica-Herschcowici. The St Petersburg way of seeing in the New Year, Mariinsky Theatre-style. Рolkas, waltzes, excerpts from operettas by Johann Strauss II, Kálmán, Lehár and Verdi. Three singers, eight dancers, the girls in white ball gowns, the ladies of the orchestra in dresses of muted colour alla André Rieu’s band minus the garishness. In charge, since 2013 in fact, a violinist who doesn’t mind his instrument carrying the tune well above everyone else, lending the better known dances, witness the Blue Danube, a silvery sheen. A man once described in the German press as the “all-embracing embodiment of a violin-devil, in playing as in life” – from the back mistakable for Loris Tjeknavorian, from the front Celibidache’s, currently Gergiev’s, distinctively jowelled Munich concertmaster, Lorenz Nasturica-Herschcowici. A full-blooded musician, Romanian Jewish, with an inborn feeling for style, period manner and middle/eastern European rubato romance, leading his musicians unfailingly, picking up his instrument with an authority and bravado, a freedom of spirit, Maazel never ever quite managed in Vienna (nor Dudamel). Of the singers the Ukrainian soprano Ekaterina Sannikova, one of the Mariinsky’s rising young stars (no surprise there), held the stage with refined poise, adept at singing and acting, gracious and groomed in embracing her audience. Four highlights of the second half seduced. Lehár’s “Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiss”, “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz” and “Lippen schweigen” (the latter two duets with the Azerbaijani baritone Gamid Abdulov); and “Brindisi” from Verdi’s La traviata (an alluringly deliberated pulse, strings digging deep, the tenor Alexander Trofimov joining in, dancers and champagne flutes completing the scene). Haven’t enjoyed myself so much in ages.