Jun 5th 2017

Sounds of Soviet Russia  are revived  in Bordeaux

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

The Orchestre National de Bordeaux Aquitaine added another feather to its cap last week (June 1-2) with the engagement of a leading international guest conductor, Michail Jurowski, who led the ONBA in two demanding orchestral pieces, the Shostakovich Symphony No. 6 and the Prokofiev Cinderella ballet music.

Jurowski brought with him a heavyweight legacy of his own Russian family antecedents plus his formative years alongside the great musical figures of the Soviet years – Oistrakh, Rostropovich, Kagan, Gilels and Khachaturian. As a youngster Jurowski knew Prokofiev personally and played four-hand piano pieces with Shostakovich.

The family friendship with Shostakovich has helped establish Jurowski as one of the foremost interpreters of the 15 symphonies. His Bordeaux appearance and his selection of music for the evening thus highlighted a rich legacy that few living conductors could claim today.

ONBA players were still abuzz with the experience after the engagement was completed. His natural authority and his sense of history had been clear even in rehearsal. One member of the orchestra told me his Russian background brought some intangibles such as the vivid colors behind the printed score. He made his ideas plain but “nothing was imposed by force,” the section player said, “but there wasn’t much room for discussion. There was a sense of Soviet authority about him.”

Jorowski speaks no French and little English but the language barrier was quickly overcome with hand signals and nods. “A raised finger was enough to silence us. He certainly was no pussy cat,” the player said. Occasional words in English were blurted out but he relied more on numbers. “He was very precise. But working with him was an enormous pleasure for all of us.”

The Sixth Symphony is perhaps not the most obvious of the Shostakovich oeuvre to excite a Bordeaux audience. Even its Moscow premiere in 1939 was criticized as starting too slowly and somberly, followed by two shorter and swifter movements, labeled respectively allegro and presto. The unusual structure puzzled the critics. One writer found it overly abstract, lacking in folk melodies and the heroic grandeur of the Fifth Symphony -- official requirements of the day. Worse, Shostakovich was in bad odor from his most recent flop, the controversial 1934 opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”, a tale of murder and adultery.

The Sixth began a gigantic monument to Lenin; the buildup in the Soviet press created expectations of choral-orchestral work with prominent soloists and patriotic text. Shostakovich never explained why he scaled it down to this more modest instrumental work.

The Bordeaux performance in the city’s cavernous Auditorium was an earnest reading by a committed orchestra but the material, to me, only meandered. “Abstract” is a good word to describe it. Jurowski worked hard to maintain tempos and polyphonic passages, interspersed with solo turns by flute, piccolo and woodwinds. Finally, the last two minutes grew to a din of brass and percussion that virtually shook the walls. If it was calculated to trigger applause, the Bordeaux audience responded. Jurowski, limping on a cane, returned for three curtain calls, and invited his featured players to take individual bows. The applause, including rhythmic clapping, went on for ten minutes.

The program also included Prokofiev’s “Cinderella” ballet music, a colorful piece of 50 scenes. Some ballet music can stand on its own as a symphonic creation, notably Prokofiev’s earlier and more successful “Romeo et Juliette”. But the complexities of rhythm and mood in “Cinderella” succeed mainly in one unintended aspect – making the listener yearn for a ballet troupe.

To be fair, the music echoes with stirring Prokofiev harmonies and melodies, the main one even overheard being hummed by some audience members at the smoke break (this is France) during intermission. Without surtitles of images, however, it was a stretch to follow the Perrault children’s classic story. True,  key moments such as the waltzing ball and the midnight chimes served as reference points.

In this recording, considered to be the gold standard, Vladimir Ashkenazy conducts the Cleveland Orchestra in familiar passages:


The grand waltz, in fact, was Prokofiev’s favorite passage. In the excellent program notes by Robert Pierron, Prokofiev is quoted as writing, “I strove to reveal in the dances the poetry of the love between Cinderella and the prince, which is the main subject of this musical canvas.”




To subscribe to Facts and Arts' weekly newsletter, please click here.

To follow Facts & Arts' Editor, Olli Raade, on Twitter, please click here.

 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Music Reviews

Jul 20th 2019
Extract --- Question: What is your view of stage antics of ambitious pianists – the swoons and hair-flicks (Khatia Buniatishvili), the miniskirts and six-inch heels (Yuja Wang), the eye makeup and winks to the audience (Lang Lang)? --- Answer: It’s all show-biz. All three of those pianists, though, really CAN play (though in varying degrees of success in varying repertoire). No matter how short Yuja Wang’s vestigial swath of skirt becomes, no matter how vertiginous her high heels, she knows her way around the ivories (I especially like her Prokofiev), and I think she makes music more fun for a wide variety of listeners. If she couldn’t play, all the short skirts in Christendom couldn’t save her career. Same goes with the emoting of Buniatishvili, and, of course, most of all, the ultimate showman, Mr. Lang, the classical world’s answer to Liberace.  
Jun 9th 2019
Australian pianist Shaun Hern Lee, 16, took first prize on Saturday in the final round of the Cliburn International Junior Piano Competition following 12 days of eliminations and associated activities in Dallas, Texas.
May 25th 2019
  In a rare combination of artistic talents, pianist Jack Kohl offers seven erudite essays on great classical music compositions and his favorite readings, merging both to make an exciting volume of fresh ideas. Bone over Ivory: Essays from a Standing Pianist (Pauktaug Press, New York) puts on display Kohl’s background as a classical pianist and his lifelong obsession with Ralph Waldo Emerson. Along the way, we encounter Gershwin, Fitzgerald, Thoreau, Dickens, Beeethoven and Master Yoda of Star Wars fame, among others.
May 9th 2019
"On the day before he was to play his marathon concerts, Maestro Buchbinder sat down with me in the 'Teddy Bar' of the Grand Théâtre de Provence to discuss his love for Beethoven. He was relaxed and cheerful and spoke freely......An edited transcript of our conversation follows."
May 6th 2019
One of the more exciting piano experiences of recent years is the development of a 108-key grand piano in Australia, built by Stuart and Sons and expanded with additional octaves at bass and treble extremes. The sound is new and audiences who have witnessed it tend to erupt in standing ovations.  If you don’t live in southern Australia, you probably will not hear it in all its glory but it’s worth a detour. I have recently had the privilege of listening to a high-definition recording, at 96 KHz, to be exact, of the inaugural concert performed a few months ago. The effect of the expanded keyboard, known as the Big Beleura, is stunning to mind and body. I sat with a friend in his music room in Bordeaux, listening for an hour, flabbergasted.
Apr 16th 2019
It’s heresy to say this, I know, but the great masterpieces of the 19th century piano composed by Liszt, Schumann, Schubert and Beethoven sometimes leave me exhausted. The complex structure and concentrated emotion, the moods, the arpeggios and stunning fingerwork demand an effort to reach true appreciation.  And so when I first heard the new CD “Musiques de Silence”  -- interwoven selections of Frederico Mompou, matched with Maurice Ravel, Erik Satie, Henri Dutilleux, Frederic Chopin, Toru Takemitsu, Claude Debussy, Enrique Granados and early Alexander Scriabin – I felt a surge of relief. (Eloquentia EL1857).  The repertoire is selected and beautifully braided together by the rising young French pianist Guillaume Coppola. 
Mar 1st 2019
The lingering resonances and extreme bass and treble notes are new to the piano world and the premiere audience knew it, rising at the end for a standing ovation. This was the recent premiere of Big Beleura, a 108-key grand piano built by the prestigious Stuart and Sons firm, the only practicing piano maker left in Australia. Some say the piano world will never be the same.  "It's important," explains the designer-developer of the instrument, Wayne Stuart of Tumut, not far from Canberra, "to realize that we perceive sound not only through our ears but all of our body."  That’s how Big Beleura gets to you. 
Dec 12th 2018
The work ethic among young piano students in China shows no sign of abating as their tiny fingers fly up and down the keyboard ten or twelve hours a day. Competitions are welcoming the new Asian talent and European concert halls are filled with admiring fans.  Some of us don’t quite know what to make of it.  It’s not all about Lang Lang, Yuja Wang or Yundi Li. Potential new superstars are emerging every year. Brace yourself for more in the years ahead. Some 20 million young Chinese are said to be practicing madly as our European and American kids diddle mindlessly with their smart phones and iPads. 
Nov 28th 2018
French pianist Bertrand Chamayou [in the drawing by the author, Michael Johnson] plunges into major composers one by one, reading works by and about them, traveling to their favorite haunts, and absorbing their art almost into his blood.  As he told me in an interview, he tries to immerse himself in the era of the composition, and to think of it as “new” for its time. In the past ten years he has done this with Liszt, Ravel and Saint-Saëns. 
Sep 24th 2018
The rich culture of the proud and ancient Basque people is sadly underexposed outside their homeland, a remote bi-national region where Southwest France meets northern Spain. Their language, Euskara, is a world in a bubble with no relationship to other living languages. Most outside interest in recent decades has sprung from the sometimes-violent Basque independence movement. Basque music, however, does travel well across cultures, and is worth a detour. The French sisters Katia and Marielle Labèque, born in Bayonne, grew up with Basque melodies and lyrics in their ears. Now an established two-piano duo, their new CD (KML Recordings) Amoria” groups14 disparate pieces of Basque music they researched over several years. It is a departure from their usual classical repertoire.
Sep 11th 2018
I know several professional pianists who will admit under pressure that they find their work ultimately unsatisfying. Not because of the crowded marketplace, the dreary practice rooms, the clapped-out pianos or too many exhausting tours. No, they are tired of something more basic — the endless repetition of notes penned by someone else. True artists seek self-expression, artistic adventure. They feel the urge to “own” their work. But written music places strict limits on all but the most marginal departures from notation. Some musicians eventually realize they are mere messengers whose teachers steer them relentlessly back to the page. This may explain why so many pianists and other professional musicians also paint.
Sep 7th 2018
With a large cast, full orchestra, and incredible jazz-inflected music, “Porgy and Bess” stands alone as the one American opera that is recognized around the world. Written by George Gershwin and premiered in 1935 on Broadway, it had to wait until mid-1980s to become a standard of the operatic repertoire. The jazz idiom that Gershwin used was surely one of the reasons that “Porgy and Bess” was adopted slowly by the operatic world. But another roadblock was the story, which told about the love between a crippled beggar, Porgy, and a drug-addicted woman, Bess, who live in an impoverished African-American community in the South.
Sep 5th 2018
Frederic Chopin left detailed markings of tempo, dynamics, phrasing, pedaling, even some fingerings, for his 21 Nocturnes to guide interpreters. Yet no two versions – and there are dozens of them -- are anything like the same. The essence of playing Chopin today is deciding how far to veer, how sharply to swerve, from the master’s ideas today without losing sight of his artistic intentions. The player must ask, “When does Chopin cease to be Chopin?” Now comes the rising French pianist François Dumont with a stunning new version that sets him apart (Aevea Classics). PICTURE: Dumont by Johnson.
Sep 5th 2018
Princeton University in the United States is best known for its big thinkers, top scientists and heavyweight historians but now is embarking on a determined effort to make a splash in the arts. Princeton’s new Lewis Center of the Arts is going about it in the most American manner, with millions of dollars upfront investment and a business plan to attract young talent into its music program. Nothing is left to chance. This fall, a new crop of music students have full access to 48 freshly minted Steinway pianos, a large enough stock to attract global attention among pianophiles.
Jul 19th 2018
San Francisco Opera’s revival of its Ring Cycle got off to a rousing start with a top notch performance of “Das Rheingold” at the War Memorial Opera House on June12. The production featured outstanding performances from top to bottom by an exceptional cast and new video projections that were even better than the ones used back in 2011.......
Mar 26th 2018

Johann Sebastian Bach’s B Minor Mass, performed at Symphony Hall on Friday (March 23) and again on Sunday (March 25), was delivered in impressive Baroque style by the Handel+Haydn Society orchestra and chorus.

Mar 15th 2018

The Brahms Scherzo Op. 4 opens with a delicate and playful theme, then carries us along on waves of emotion swinging from the filigree, to the lyrical, the thunderous, and back to the delicate.

Mar 9th 2018

Perhaps enough time has passed since the death of the famous French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger to step back and question her musical sainthood. After all, she was only human. 

Feb 21st 2018

A new “electronic opera” from Ireland, “Heresy”, broke new ground in contemporary opera a couple of years ago, bringing together Irish vocal talent and the synthesized music of much-decorated composer Roger Doyle.