Saturday, June 11, 2016


                 (chandelier at the concertgebouw cafe - waiting for 6.15 dinner in the mirror room)

One of the great pleasures of Amsterdam is its Concertgebouw, about which I've made notes before here and here.

There are many others, not least its people whose civility and tolerance is palpable on even short stays although there appears to be cracks appearing, as in the whole European experiment, as those whom tolerance embraced now subvert the very principles that gave them succour.

As in Paris we did the AirBnB thing again (our hostess a classical pianist) in a huge apartment just outside Centrum with the Vondell Park, Museum Area and the Concertgebouw a short tram trip or a comfortable walk away. And as in Paris, it was mostly cool and showery but that suited us, escapees from the bright burning sun of a long summer. With a huge appartment, visitors from Rotterdam, and some business to attend to, we slipped into an easy and comfortable routine and we'd would be back in a heartbeat.

The street leading to the tram line into town was a daily (ex sunday) street market (mostly foods, mostly cheese and fish) and we were half a block from the old tram sheds now converted into a vast food hall, a cinema complex, specialty shops, a library, etc. It's all very cold climate - you could spend days and nights in there.

Back to the Concertgebouw, where we went to three concerts --- with three different Dutch orchestras!

The first was (I know, I know) Gergiev and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto with Nikolaj Znaidier (who is also principal guest conductor at Marinsky) and Prokofiev's Sixth Symphony. We sat close. The Beethoven was confident and brilliantly executed, but I found it cold, unmoving. The Prokofiev (1947) I wasn't familiar with, a dark and jarring work of impossible detail.

                                                    (Nikolaj Zanier receiving the flowers)

Prior, we went to dinner in the Mirror Room, under the concert platform, not for the first time, and it was again a great pleasure.  By the way, drinks - soft, red wine, white wine, juices - are free at intervals in the Concertgebouw, and how civilised is that? Not to mention easy and time sparing.

Second was Osmo Vänakä and the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra in an interesting programme of The Finnish composer Sebastian Fagerlund'Ignite, Bartok's second Violin Concerto with the very charismatic Greek Violinist Leonidas Kavakos, and Sibelius's 4th Symphony. I like Vänskä. Ignite was a short landscape work with apocalyptic tendencies, to my ear, and was really interesting. Mr. Fagerlund came on stage for  acclamation. The Bartok, which I read was premiered in the Concertgebouw (1939) was another new work for me, not that easy the first time, though I was rivetted on Mr Kavakos. The fourth wouldn't have been my first choice of Vanska and Sibelius (that would be the seventh) but I am incredibly grateful to have heard it live, with Vanska: it was, hardly surprisingly, completely absorbing and I felt I was hearing it the right way in the right acoustic, this mysterious introverted and uncertain work from the time of Freud and the Great War, and now will revisit it with heightened awareness.

                                            (concertmaster, Leonidas Kovakos, Osmo Vanska)

And then there was the third concert with Hartmut Haenchen and the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra playing Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks followed by Shostakovich's 8th. Strange programming I thought, although the Handel seems to be one of Haenchmen's fetish pieces, and ultimately the contrast (between the pieces and their execution) was revelatory. It was a brilliant concert of impeccable musicianship led by a master, in the wonderful acoustic, the clarity can be emphasised enough, of this special place. Outstanding.

The Handel (with full orchestra) was forward, bombastic and of course celebratory, if at once pompous and terribly British. The Shostakovich was another thing altogether, and a work I've listened to but now I realise, never heard.

1943 - thats what it's all about. 1943. The pain, the anguish, the brutality, the intolerable cruelty, the idiocy, the determination, the human spirit, the aching hopeful resolution, with just a hint of uncertainty, was delivered with an intensity that was bordering on unbearable. The audience was stunned. Mute. After the applause had started, and slowly crescendoed, till the audience rose in unison, the calls went on and on, and on, and people took to the aisles to head to the stage in acclamation.

                      (Hartmut Haenchen and the Nederlands Philharmonic after Shostakovich 8th)