Sunday, June 3, 2012


May 29, 30 & 31

A fine Fidelio from Hrůša, center, and the Philharmonia.

From the opening notes, it was clear that something special was underway in the performance of Fidelio at the Rudolfinum on Wednesday night. Conductor Jakub Hrůša established a commanding tone with the Prague Philharmonia in the overture that never let up, making the orchestra the strongest, most agile voice on a stage filled with good opera singers.

I’m hearing colors I’ve never heard before,” veteran soprano Carol Wilson, who has sung the role of Leonora many times, said at a press conference the previous day. For Prague audiences used to the special chemistry that Hrůša has with the Philharmonia, which he leads as chief conductor and music director, the vibrant colors, deep dynamics and sensitive control that characterized the Fidelio performance were nothing new. But the conductor does most of his opera work abroad, chiefly for Glyndebourne. So seeing him work with a cast of singers, even for a concert performance of Beethoven’s only opera, was a revelation.

Hrůša’s support for the singers was outstanding, recalling another comment Wilson made: “It helps to have a really good conductor who is working with you, not against you.” The music caressed the singer’s voices and emotions through the more delicate passages, and added propulsion and urgency to dramatic scenes like Don Pizzaro declaring that Florestan must die, sung with authority and flair by Adam Plachetka. Occasionally the orchestra overwhelmed the high soprano of Kateřina Kněžíková and the duskier voice of Wilson, who quite frankly sounded past her prime. Otherwise, it was that rarest of accompanists for the singers, a collaborator who not only showcased their best work but supplemented it with stylish brushstrokes.

And who knew the Prague Philharmonic Choir could sound so good? A visitor could have walked into the closing minutes with no knowledge of what was being performed and immediately recognized not just the signature chords, but the noble ideals and soaring aspirations of a Beethoven chorale. More than a powerful finale, it was a full blossoming of the energy that drove the entire production – passionate yet controlled, rich in ideas, bursting with enthusiasm and true to the composer. Beethoven could not have asked for better.

Moravec, reaching back.
The quieter moments at the Rudolfinum this past week were just as compelling. Ivan Moravec, who at 81 still has the fine touch that ranked him among the great pianists of the late 20th century, reached back to some of his earliest recordings in his Tuesday night recital. Those records, made for the Connoisseur Society in New York in the 1960s, were critical in launching his international career.

A pair of Debussy Préludes still sounded fresh, as did subtle shadings of Ravel’s Sonatine. True to Moravec’s style, the pieces were more lyrical than impressionistic, a quality particularly evident in three Debussy Estampes, which had a rich, full-blooded sound. The high point of the evening was a trio of Chopin pieces. Moravec’s 1991 recording of Chopin Nocturnes (on Nonesuch) is considered definitive, and he showed why with a glowing rendition of the Nocturne in D flat major, Op. 27 No. 2. That was followed by a ballade and barcarolle, both sensitively phrased and well-articulated, carried by the precise rhythm that underpins all of Moravec’s work.

The final notes of the barcarolle brought the audience to its feet, yelling and applauding wildly – less for the performance, perhaps, than as a sign of the esteem in which Moravec is held. One doesn’t go to his concerts for flawless playing, or the brilliance of his early work. Hearing Moravec perform now is like stepping back in time, to an earlier era of classic interpretations and dignified styles and the restraint that comes with respect for the composers. The sound is pure, elegant and in its best moments, absolutely mesmerizing.

Vasilyeva, fluent and focused.
Still in the early stages of her career, 26-year old Russian violinist Marianna Vasilyeva weaves spells of her own with technically dazzling and sophisticated playing that belies her age. Czech pianist Miroslav Sekera provided accompaniment for her Thursday recital, which opened with a dramatic version of Franck’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in A major. Vasilyeva followed that with a skillful rendition of Wieniawski’s Fantaisie brillante, Op. 20, a piece that she inhabits with great focus and intensity while finding tender moments, particularly in the later passages.

Ysaÿe’s Poème élégiaque, Op. 12 is more about style and color, which Vasilyeva played just short of florid, tempering emotion with authoritative control. Hubay’s Fantaisie brillante, Op. 3 on themes from Carmen is a technically challenging piece that she managed to have some fun with, running playful trills on top of the “Toreador.” And she built Saint-Saëns’ Introduction et Rondo Capriccioso, Op. 28, another technically demanding work, with care and precision, climaxing with a set of seemingly effortless virtuoso flourishes.

Vasilyeva is physical player, roaming the stage and employing a lot of body language, often setting herself and stepping into more difficult passages. There are certainly young players of comparable skill, though none with the breezy confidence and light-hearted intelligence that she brings to her performance. That’s no accident. Vasilyeva started playing professionally at the age of 11, and quickly caught the eye of Mstislav Rostropovich and Valery Gergiev. This was her second appearance in Prague Spring after winning the festival’s 2010 competition. Judging by what she showed on Thursday, it won’t be the last.

Photos by Ivan Malý

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