Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Jaap van Zweden

This week the New York Philharmonic Orchestra announced their new Music Director: Jaap van Zweden, who currently is in charge of the Dallas Symphony and the Hong Kong Philharmonic. He'll take over in New York in 2018, which gives us some time to check him out before his regime begins. I thought I'd do just that, and report back here.

Van Zweden's latest recording project is a Ring Cycle from Naxos, with the Hong Kong Philharmonic and an impressive lineup of singers. I reviewed Das Rheingold earlier this month, and praised van Zweden's control and musicality, but found the live performance a bit wanting in passion.

The conductor gives off an intense, serious vibe, and his discography leans toward weightier works. I'm listening to his 2010 CD of Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony and 4th Suite 'Mozartiana', which mixes it up a bit. He's quoted in the liner notes:
"These two works require different skills and approach from a conductor and an orchestra, The Symphony No. 4 shows us Tchaikovsky’s dark, Russian side, while Mozartiana demonstrates his softer, feminine side. It is the difference between a surgeon and a neurosurgeon. Mozartiana wants the neurosurgeon. Every little note matters. It is as open and transparent as any Mozart or Haydn work."

I love Tchaikovsky's tribute to Mozart, and it's the best part of this album. The neurosurgery going on here reminded me of the late Pierre Boulez's recording of another pastiche: Stravinsky's Pulcinella. Both conductors are meticulous but respectful, and leave at least a portion of the fun in each of these puzzle-box musical contraptions. I was less impressed with the Symphony, which again seemed a bit too careful.

Speaking of weighty, Van Zweden recorded Parsifal with his European orchestra, the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, in 2010. Jerry Floyd said this about the recording at
Van Zweden’s straightforward, modernist approach lies somewhere between the mysticism of some mid- and late-twentieth-century Germanic conductors and the astringent style favored by Pierre Boulez and his adherents.
The word 'straightforward' is not necessarily what you want to hear, not after also hearing 'too careful' and 'lacking in passion'. But I wonder if van Zweden might pull out the stops when he has a higher-powered orchestra in front of him. Watch this clip of him conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in Brahms:

This is not a routine run-through with a guest conductor and an orchestra who could play this music blind-folded. A former concert-master, van Zweden coaxes an amazing sound from the strings. Yet in spite of turning things up a notch, there's still that feeling of control, which you need when you're taking a Ferrari through hair-pin turns. Okay, in this case let's call it a Porsche 550.

I mentioned van Zweden's background as an instrumentalist, and he's still an active violinist, performing chamber music in concert and the recording studio. Here he is playing a lovely version of Villa-Lobos's Aria from Bachianas Brasileiras no. 5, along with guitarist Robby Faverey.

There are interesting times ahead in New York!

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