lunes, agosto 22, 2016

Vengerov and Saitkoulov: from correction to brilliance


            Maxim Vengerov, born 1974, was a child prodigy who won great competitions at an early age: the Wieniawski at ten and the Carl Flesch at fifteen.   He went on to have a great career and be recognised as one of the leading violinists of our times, fortunately prodigal  in this specialty. Nowadays he is also a conductor and teacher, and has his own Festival. An interesting point: during the recent decade he took a three-year sabbatical from playing; during that time he studied conducting .

            He came to Buenos Aires several times, the last playing a Chinese concerto with the Shanghai Symphony; although his playing was admirable, the work was subpar and hardly up to his capacities. But late in 2011 he gave a splendid recital of sustained quality, blending ideally intellectual comprehension with virtuoso realisation. Unfortunately I don´t keep archives and can´t vouchsafe if his pianist was Roustem Saitkoulov, but he is Vengerov´s habitual partner, it might have been him.

            Hand programme biographies should provide information about earlier visits to BA, but they are always  mere translations of a standard international biography. I remember that years ago the Mozarteum made it a point of mentioning previous contacts with the artists; I wish they did that again in the future.

            Saitkoulov is  a distinguished pianist in his own right; also,H he does a lot of chamber work. Born at Kazan, Russia, he studied with the great Elisso Virsaladze at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory (she came twice here) and then completed his training in Munich. He won important competitions: the Ferruccio Busoni (Bolzano), Géza Anda (Zürich), Marguerite Long (Paris). He has played with important orchestras and given recitals throughout the world. By the way, he accepts the French version of his name and surname; for us or for Great Britain and USA, it should be Rustem Saitkulov (we write Mussorgsky, not Moussorgsky).

            So there were good reasons to expect from this Mozarteum concert (repeated with the same programme) a very high level. Technically it was of course impeccable, but the interpretations  began coldly, more so in the case of Vengerov. The sonatas chosen were enticing: Schubert´s Sonata in A, D.574, pompously called "Grand Duet"; and Beethoven´s marvelous Sonata Nº 7, in C minor, Op.30 Nº2.

            Schubert´s sonata was written young, at 20, but his personality is clear from the very beginning, a delicious Allegro moderato. Who else wrote such melodies or was so subtle in the harmonic modulations?  He also wrote three other sonatas, a bit less inspired and developed, called Sonatinas by the editor. All of them were published posthumously, the same sad destiny of his symphonies 8 and 9.

            I fell in love with the sonata in my youth with the wonderful recording by Kreisler and Rachmaninov, for it has charm and beauty: Kreisler sings with captivating timbre, and the great Russian virtuoso adapts to the intimate style perfectly.Too much sliding from Kreisler? Agreed, but he is irresistible. And that´s contrary to what I felt from Vengerov: an academic, correct reading with no involvement. During the interval, a veteran friend said: "it´s as if he were afraid of producing any sound that isn´t round and smooth". Yes, all exact but with little energy and attack. Saitkoulov was better;  however,  the final result was placid in the wrong sense.

            As Claudia Guzmán rightly says in her comments referring to Beethoven´s Seventh Sonata: "never until then a work for piano and violin had displayed such dramatic intensity nor had required similar temporal proportions".  It is a C minor masterpiece in the same rank as the "Pathetic" Piano Sonata and the Third Piano Concerto. No namby-pamby approach can deal with such a score.

            Things went gradually better, fired by the greater intensity and virtuoso playing of Soutkulov, but only got to the desirable grade of electricity from both in the last movement. Said my friend: "there I found Beethoven".

            But things changed, and the whole Second Part, as well as the four encores, went swimmingly. Both showed complete identification with that peculiar Ravel Second Sonata: he believed that piano and violin are incompatible and the music echoes that idea: the players oppose each other instead of being complemental. And you know, it works!  The Blues is the best movement and it was played with ideal sinuosity.

            And then came a final virtuoso section starting with a violin solo piece: Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst´s Variations on "The Last Rose of Summer", Nº 6 of the Polyphonic Etudes for solo violin. The piece on the lovely Irish tune  is the devil to play and rarely done; Vengerov at twelve presented it at the Tchaikovsky International Competition. Here he showed the complete range of his fantastic technique.

            A quiet and reflexive Paganini, the Cantabile Op.17, originally for violin and guitar, was done in a transcription for violin and piano. The final score was the Kreisler arrangement for violin and piano of Paganini´s "I palpiti" for violin and orchestra, Introduction and Variations on a theme from Rossini´s "Tancredi" (the aria "Di tanti palpiti"), a true catalogue of Paganini´s technical innovations, splendidly played.  

            Four encores: two of those inimitable Kreisler pieces that Beecham would have called "lollipops": the famous "Viennese Caprice" and the dynamic "Chinese tambourine". Rachmaninov´s beautiful Vocalise, transcribed from the original for orchestra. And Brahms´ ever so popular Hungarian Dance Nº5, in the Joachim arrangement. All done with panache by the artists.

For Buenos Aires Herald


From muddy “Don Juan” to imperfect “Perfect Lives”

            I have referred in recent articles to two installments of the Festival Nueva Ópera Buenos Aires, a project of the CETC (Centro de Experimentación del Teatro Colón). Now I will complete it  with"Don Juan", chamber opera by Santiago Villalba on Leopoldo Marechal´s literary text, presented at the CETC; and "Perfect Lives" (in English in the original), labeled as a TV opera (it isn´t) with music and libretto by Robert Ashley; this was seen at the Colón´s Salón Dorado.

            First, a reminder. "Don Juan" has already been an opera by Juan Carlos Zorzi, with symphony orchestra, premièred at the big hall on 1998. It was a good shot at musicalizing Marechal´s idea of an aging Don Juan coming back to his hometown near the river (probably in Southern Entre Ríos close to the Paraná). The local witches predict that he´ll have a bad ending. He makes love to Inés and her father Don Luis seeks revenge but is killed by Don Juan. He is drawn to Hell by a seductress witch.

            The shorter newcomer was worth knowing. Villalba won with it the First Competition of New Opera organized by the Colón´s Instituto Superior de Arte and the CETC. And in a valid transversal collaboration, the chamber chorus came from the Damus-UNA (the National University of the Arts).

            The staging by Julián Ignacio Garcés forced a complete adaptation of CETC´s peculiar cellar. His Leitmotiv equation can be described thus: earth plus water equals mud, and this is a symbol of dirty souls. So, during the first ten minutes the audience was uncomfortably perched on hard seats whilst the Three witches wallowed in mud, the tall blonde among them giving us clues on Don Juan´s destiny (an admirable mezzo of strong firm tones, Gabriela Kreig), and in the final minutes appears Aymé, the seductress (Natalia Salardino, a soprano of intense high register and sensual movements). All this was in a lateral small hall to the right.

            Then we were transported to what is usually the performance hall, in which the usual seats were replaced by steps distributed center, right and left.  Thus most of the space was at the disposal of singers and actors, using little of the awkward stage (the original sin of the CETC is its lack of functionality, sustained as it is by huge columns that can´t be taken away and block view and passage).

            The eleven voices of the Ensamble Vocal Contemporáneo del DAMUS-UNA  sometimes were heard from the aisles and at other moments were part of the action. Only six players were needed and they found their place behind the left grades: flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, percussion and synthesizers. For some reason two singers weren´t credited: tenor and bass, both young, probably sons of Don Luis. There´s a spoken role, an Old Man who knows a lot about the place´s past and dialogues cautiously with a nervous Don Juan. This was well acted by Carlos Said.

            Th strange "mise en scène"  causes two consequences: the capable conductress (Natalia Salinas) needed help by an assistant conductor (Juan Saavedra) for in certain passages she can´t be seen by all the singers; and even if you risk torticolis you, the spectator, miss some bits of the acting stage at certain points. By the way, there´s no libretto credit, just "based on the homonymous work by Marechal". And it´s true that one recognizes many phrases that are pure Marechal; but all of them? Hmmm...

            Once Don Juan comes in the drama grows in density. Mariano Gladic is a baritone of convincing presence and firm solid voice of good timbre, well handled except in some soft high notes that lose quality. Don Luis is the powerful bass-baritone Pol González, a  paterfamilias in defense of his daughter´s vertue. And Inés, fragile and in love, was nicely sung by soprano Ana Sampedro.

            The final minutes are a muddy pandemonium of real impact, as the population, the witches and the seductress conspire to vanquish Don Juan.  Villalba has talent; his music creates the right dramatic climate and gives real singing lines to the artists. And Garcés portrays, as he writes, a "Don Juan that takes into account the consequences of his acts and is melancholic". This opera works.

            But "Perfect Lives" doesn´t because it isn´t an opera and it was an absurd choice of Miguel Galperin. What we saw is a reduction to three parts of the original seven and it´s a classical case of you´re pulling my leg; a total and irritating bluff with no value. I´ll admit that Mike Amigorena can read Ashley´s text in excellent American English at all speeds, but to what avail?

            Description: First Episode: The Park. Two groups of the public sit looking at identical screens from opposite sides, and in the middle there´s a pianist (Alejandro Franov) and a group of men in curious uniforms. Although Lolo and Lauti are credited with the staging, I saw no such thing; and the same goes for the presumed musical direction of Galperin. Twenty-five minutes looking at a screen where the words mixed with emoticons and computation symbols are reproduced.

            II, The Market: at least it has some nice images of fields and food, but otherwise it´s as inane as the first. VII, The backyard: three guys on a traveling cabin are the sole image of another boring stretch of words.

            Enough silliness. Goodbye.



For Buenos Aires Herald

Chamber music at its best: Petrus, Gintoli and Panizza

            Once in a while you get the near ideal combination of important chamber music rarely played with fully professional artists that do them justice. That happened in the last Midday Concert of the Mozarteum Argentino at the Gran Rex.

            The Petrus Quartet is currently our best; it is made up of Pablo Saraví and Hernán Briático, violins; Adrián Felizia, viola; and Gloria Pankaeva, cello. They not only play admirably all four, but they are cultivated people who know how to choose repertoire. In this case they put together Juan Crisóstomo de Arriaga´s First Quartet and that sui generis score, Ernest Chausson´s Concerto for piano, violin and string quartet. In the latter the Petrus were joined by Rafael Gintoli, violin, and Alexander Panizza, piano.

            The only thing that surprised me was the length of the concert, for they generally start about 1,03 pm and finish by 2 pm. Although it´s true that they began at 1,08, Arriaga lasts 26 minutes and Chausson, 41. And they gave us a bonus repeating the Sicilienne (6 minutes) of Chausson. So, 73 minutes plus the delay, the applause and the necessary adding of the piano and the violin soloists. We went out at 2,30, but everyone seemed happy. And they should be, for all was well.

            Arriaga was an amazing case: he lived only 20 years (1806-26) but he was the best Spanish composer of the period. He left us particularly three notable quartets and a splendid  symphony. It was a terrible time for Spain, with the Napoleonic war and the loss of the colonies, and little was left of the tradition of Boccherini. But Arriaga went to Paris and was guided by Cherubini, who wrote beautiful quartets. And this, plus the Spaniard´s immense natural talent, explains why to hear the First Quartet is such a discovery: for he was a teenager but the music is mature, innovative and beautiful. And the Petrus was completely up to the challenge.

            Chausson, along with D´Indy, was Franck´s great disciple. Which means dense, chromatic music imbued with Late Romantic intensity and firm structure. Double Concerti are generally for two violins, two pianos or violin/cello, but here the combination is a leading violin urged on by powerful and virtuoso piano writing, and the orchestra is supplanted by a string quartet. It makes for a novel and fascinating texture. In style there is the influence of Franck´s magnificent Piano Quintet but also a personal imprint. It is dated 1891.

            From the start the understanding between soloists and quartet was complete. Gintoli has had a long career but keeps his technique impeccable, with  clean sound , exact tuning and musicianly phrasing. He knows when to lead and when to blend. He only lacks a richer sound . Well, this isn´t a problem for Panizza, a pianist in the grand manner that gave character and accuracy to the difficult writing without covering the others. And the Petrus accompanied with skill or took relevance where the music needs it. The final movement carried all before it with passionate fast dialogues.

            One knows when the artists have enjoyed themselves; they certainly did and it communicated to the audience.  

For Buenos Aires Herald

"El fiord”, opera on Osvaldo Lamborghini´s porno politics

            Osvaldo Lamborghini´s "El fiord" invites polemics, for its whole text is a pornographic-scatological indictment of Argentine politics as they were in 1968, the year of the Cordobazo. César Aira and Alan Pauls defend him, others attack him.

            He is called a "poeta maldito" ("damned poet") but I hardly feel that he bears comparison with such illustrious specimens as Lautréamont ("Les chants de Maldoror"), Baudelaire´s marvelous "Les fleurs du mal" or Rimbaud´s fantasies. Their texts reflect decadent societies with dystopic views of reality though with beautiful literary language, never having recourse to the lowest possible level of words reflecting sex and bodily functions. Lamborghini isn´t earthy or picaresque as Rabelais or Boccaccio, he is simply dirty. There´s no eroticism in what he does nor is he crude and gross in the manner of "revista" comedians.

             What he does may be novel but not valid: corporize political ideas in chaotic and Surrealistic dialogues and gestures of an absolutely constant porno-scatological pouring out. You get easily saturated for you soon find out that it leads nowhere. Both Osvaldo and Leónidas (brothers) were writers and peronistas, but Leónidas never went to the extremes of his brother although being frankly militant.

            Militant writing can be good, witness the Weill-Brecht collaboration in "Grandeur and decadence of the City of Mahagonny", an attack on Capitalism of real quality and coherence. But both this and "El Fiord" end with people filling the stage with placards in which we read completely contradictory things, in both cases showing the tremendous confusion of society. It is one of the few salvageable things of Lamborghini´s opus.

            You can also think of it as predicting the disastrous way of Argentina to state terrorism. Said Osvaldo: "on March 24, 1976, I became mad, homosexual, marxist, drug addict and alcoholic". Those are the words that auto-describe one of the characters, Atilio Tancredo Vacán, one of the products of Carla Greta Terón, a vast woman that is always being made pregnant and giving birth.

            Everything is led (sort of) by El Loco Rodríguez, a ludicrous tyrant whose ideological line is quite unclear, seconded by the yells of the frantic leftist Alicia Fafó. And the Narrator is also a character who eventually is harassed by El Loco. But there´s a fantasmagoric "Woman of the Fiord" who is according to the Narrator the ghost of his dead wife (twice) and dead mother (once); these ghosts seem to evoke better times. Eventually El Loco gets his comeuppance and the others literally eat him up, not forgetting his most important part, the testicles. 

            One hears all sorts of political references, some understandable, many others cryptic.  But even in Surrealistic terms, all you have is chaos. One parallel can be made, Alfred Jarry´s "Ubu Roi", but there the cruel, absurd tyrant is deeply parodied, and Penderecki´s opera on the subject (seen at the Colón) was quite interesting.

            What led Diego Tedesco (composer) and Nacho Bartolone (libretto) to believe that O.L.´s material was viable as an opera I don´t know, but I feel they were wrong and that an institution like the Colón (through the CETC) can´t support such a text; Miguel Galperin, the CETC´s Director, has crossed a line, for nothing so dirty has been seen in opera. It´s true that the Colón is having a very permissive bent in what is staged at the big hall, certainly a bad trend, but this is too much at least for me.

            Paradoxically, producer Silvio Lang was good, in the sense that it is a vivid imaging of the text´s madness. He opted for stressed grotesque in gestures, costumes and lighting, abetted by Leonardo Ceolin (stage design), Endi Ruiz (costumes and art direction) and David Seldes (lighting). Everything was brutal, visceral, with touches of crazy humor. Colorful, with fast action.

            There are only two singing parts: El Loco, baritone (who also talks) and the Woman of the Fiord (soprano). The others are actors.  The gigantic figure of Víctor Torres is cconvincing for El Loco, and of course he sang well. And Johanna Pizani produced pure, high notes. Of the actors I would single out the Narrator, Hernán Franco, who has intensity and adequate diction. The others almost constantly yell lustily, well, that´s what director  Lang instructed them to do.

            MusicaQuantica Voces de Cámara are nine voices led by Camilo Santostefano; they don´t participate in the action and are placed in opposed rows near the audience. They sang  moody music very well. The Ensemble Bracelet was led with good control by Juan Martín Miceli; the eight members play different instruments, providing timbric variety in music that mostly seems relegated by the stage outrages. 

            I have to record that the very "décontracté" audience seemed to enjoy the stage meal provided; maybe they have good training in alternative theatres where the equivalent of the F word in Scorsese´s gangster pictures runs rampant. One thing, though: O.L. has a much wider variety of expletives.


For Buenos Aires Herald

Jonas Kaufmann triumphant: the plenitude of a great artista

            I won´t mince words: the most important  tenor chamber recital in more than four decades. Jonas Kaufmann, a week after the ill-planned ending of the Barenboim Festival, came back for a song session (mainly Lieder) with his longtime accompanist, Helmut Deutsch. And this time he sang a perfect programme with groups of songs by Schubert, Schumann, Duparc, Liszt and Richard Strauss. This was at the Colón on last  Sunday´s afternoon and for the Abono Verde.

            He had the support from the beginning of an anxious, knowledgeable and packed audience, who grew more and more enthusiastic. What happened after the last note of Strauss was an euphoric delirium as an incredible string of seven encores, proof not only of generosity but also of joy and gratitude, allowed us to hear him in opera and operetta. Kaufmann had conquered Buenos Aires with the highest vocal art; he demonstrated that, here as in Europe, the audience discriminates and not only reacts to tenors with splendid high Cs.

            Kaufmann is a linguist: Munich-born, his Italian is quite good and his French admirable. His memory is faultless: I followed with a score the majority of the songs and his always clear diction never missed a syllable; and, like that ideal baritone, the young Fischer-Dieskau, he gives dramatic sense to all he sings without ever going overboard, and the musical values are exact, following carefully every nuance indicated by the composer. By the way, if you are intrigued by who sang an impeccable recital more than forty years ago, he was Nicolai Gedda, but he did it at the Metro, not the Colón.

            His stance is revealing: he stands close to the piano and he concentrates totally in the song, scarcely moving, giving occasionally emphasis with the hands with sober gestures. His timbre is particular, hardly the typical tenor; it is never totally open. Don´t expect from him the stratospheric highs of Alfredo Kraus, he of the purest bel canto. But Kaufmann is the consumate master of the chiaroscuro, his breath control is amazing, and no other tenor in my experience has his ability to sing "piano-pianissimo" a "normal" high note and grow it to "forte".

            A special paragraph on the Viennese Helmut Deutsch, the veteran and still wonderful accompanist, whose work throughout was simply ideal. Mind you, he was the accompanist for twelve years of Hermann Prey, the only baritone that could match Fischer-Dieskau. Later, at Munich, he was professor of vocal interpretation for 28 years and taught and accompanied not only Kaufmann but first-rate artists as Diana Damrau and Michael Volle. He has recorded over a hundred CDs.

            Nobody has told me but I have no doubt that the programme was designed by both singer and pianist. It was unfailingly right. The Schubert started with two joyful pieces: "Der Musensohn" ("The Son of the Muses", on a Goethe text), all merry jumping, and the famous "Die Forelle" ("The Trout"). Then, the delightful watery "Der Jüngling an der Quelle" ("The young man at the source"), sung subtly and softly (but his projection is such that you hear him well if you are in the Gallery). And that "Lindenbaum" ( "Linden tree") whose melody seems folkish but is part of the stark "Die Winterreise" ("The Winter Voyage").

            Then came the Schumann group, a selection of the "Twelve poems by Justinus Kerner" Op.35,  very attractive and with the best schumannesque style.  Of the chosen five I would single out the dramatic power of "Lust der Sturmnacht" ("Lust of the stormy night") and the Romantic impulse of "Stille Tränen" ("Silent tears"). Kaufmann gave us each mood with moving sensibility.

            And then, the so special case of Henri Duparc, born in 1848 and by 1885 no longer a composer after having produced some of the most exquisite "chansons d´art"; a strange mental condition cut off his creativity until his death in 1933. The four sung by our tenor are gems: the exquisite "L´invitation au voyage" ("The invitation to travel") on that often quoted text by Baudelaire that includes "order and beauty, luxury, calm and lust"; the dramatic "Le manoir de Rosemonde" ("Rosemonde´s country house"); the "Chanson triste" ("Sad song"), which mirrors that feeling admirably; and "Phidylé", a love song. I have long believed that these songs had their definitive interpretations by baritone Gérard Souzay; now I realize that a German tenor can be just as persuasive.

            But the best was yet to come. Most know Liszt´s "Petrarch Sonnets" in their piano transcription, but they were born as elaborate, refined songs.  You will never hear them in such subjugating interpretations as Kaufmann gave us: with unbelievable feats of subtle vocality he went higher and sweeter, and higher...until you were convinced that this was an unmatched experience.

            And then, the Strauss group, in which I have my sole complaint: "Ich liebe dich" and "Freundliche vision" were changed and we were not told.  Anyway, the expansive writing let him free his voice in "Heimliche Aufforderung" ("Secret Invitation") and the final "Cäcilie", and the composer´s humour came forward on two Von Schack songs, Op.19, where the tenor showed that he had also mastered that style.

            The encores were a separate recital and destroyed any doubt that might be left. For once in your life you heard the final phrase of Bizet´s "Flower aria" from "Carmen" and the Verdian "Celeste Aida" as they are written, ascending to a pianissimo; but his Radames lacked no power. Then, Verista expression in "L´anima ho stanca" from Cilea´s "Adriana Lecouvreur"; a Refice song, "Ombra di nube". "Nessun dorma" from Puccini´s "Turandot", where the tenor showed the solidity of his means and the audience officiated admirably as choir in the fragment where Calaf doesn´t sing. Then, like a born Neapolitan, "Core ´ngrato" ("Catarí") by Cardillo. And finally, that glorious Lehár aria from "The Land of Smiles", "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz" ("Yours is my whole heart"), as beautifully sung as Tauber.

            Please come back with an operatic recital with the Colón´s Orquesta Estable!

For Buenos Aires Herald


Lang Lang´s return: true to form, dazzling but controversial


            Lang Lang is certainly the most mediatic pianist in the world. As you read the biography in the hand programme, you find precious little about music, but plenty of kudos about his influence; and he´s only 32. He played at the 2008 Beijing Olympics for four thousand million people; he collaborated with pop dancer Marquese "Nonstop" Scott, Julio Iglesias and Herbie Hancock. He is a Messenger for Peace of the United Nations and he has his own Lang Lang International Music Foundation with stress on giving children access to good music through education. Steinway even designed the Lang Lang piano for China.

            He is a staple in presentations before Presidents and is chosen for commemorative concerts such as the one for Queen Elizabeth II´s Diamond Jubilee at Buckingham Palace. He was one of the Global Leaders of the World Economic Forum (a musician!). But no mention is made about his training or his recordings or his early appearances.

             Lang Lang has been coming regularly during the last decade, so he seems to find the Colón attractive. In this recital of the Abono Verde (Green Subscription Series) the audience was quite varied, for apart from music lovers you had the mediatic seekers. The premices were full and increasingly enthusiastic; by the time the encores were played, the response was almost delirious; and he, as the showman he also is, saluted with charm and signed programmes. It helps that he is personable and very cordial.

            Now to the music. Lang Lang is realistic and he only squeezes small Chinese pieces in the encores. I have often wondered about the Oriental capacity to adapt  to the Occidental world, for it doesn´t work the other way around. From this artist´s teens critics have recognised his amazing dexterity with something of the acrobatic mixed in; well, the best acrobats are Chinese. Apparently he can play faultlessly anything written for the piano, no matter how difficult. That´s the dazzling side, always present.

            But of course style matters and the success of the interpretation depends on it. In the same piece with Lang Lang you can hear a beguiling passage and seconds later a distorted view of the score, though note-perfect. That has been so in every visit, and there´s no sign that the problem will disappear. Nevertheless, the experience of hearing him is always interesting and worthwhile, and a good many minutes will be of very high rank.

            His recitals have always brought different programmes and sometimes his choices were intriguing. E.g., being such a virtuoso, why choose an easy Mozart sonata? He can also bring over some beautiful music very rarely heard, as he did this time with Tchaikovsky´s "The seasons". And he can disconcert playing it before, not after, Johann Sebastian Bach´s "Italian Concerto".

            "The seasons" is a misnomer for what should be called "The months". It was the result of monthly pieces written for a Saint Petersburg music magazine, afterwards edited by Jurgenson as Op.37a (Op.37 is the Great Piano Sonata in G). Beginning of course in January, an intimate piece called "Close to the chimney", each month has different character and title, sometimes brilliant and fast ("Carnival", "The Hunt") but more frequently melodic in the inimitable tchaikovskian way ("Barcarolle", "The lark´s song"). The last two are November ("Troika") and December ("The salon waltz").

            In my long years of concert going I had never heard the whole suite in one concert, and Lang Lang is to be thanked for this discovery, though of course there are recordings (Ashkenazy, Bronfman, Pletnev; Ilona Prunyi plays them very nicely). Exciting but exaggerated in the fast ones, Lang Lang showed the subtility of his touch in the melodies, molded delicately and phrased with taste. His memory always seems excellent, you never see or hear a hesitation; you may disagree with some of his decisions, but he never improvises: he is sure of himself at all times.

            Bach´s marvelous Italian Concerto (called thus although written for one instrument)  is of course a staple of the repertoire of harpsichordists (preferable) and pianists. Lang Lang uses the full resources of the modern piano but he doesn´t abuse the pedals and he has the sort of total independence of hands needed to keep the constant counterpoint clear. So, although slightly fast, he kept a steady rhythmic pulse.

            The four Chopin Scherzi are among his most important creations, wholly his in conception and technique, and equally mature from op.20 to Op.54. They all have a main Presto and a contrasting slow, moody melody. They can be played quite fast but not willfully, such as Orozco, Argerich or Rubinstein did; but Lang Lang suddenly sprints off when he resumes the Presto material at a double-fast clip not asked for by the composer, and the balance deteriorates.  The perfection of the playing survives, but not the spirit. However, how lovely and contained were the quiet moments.

            In two of the encores he was at his worst: a wild, brutal "Fire Dance" from Falla´s "Love the Magician" ("El Amor Brujo") and a disheveled "Danza cubana" by Lecuona.(Listen respectively to Rubinstein and the author to know how they should sound). And in the middle, an inocuous slow Chinese melody, nicely done.

            Will he change in the future? I bet he won´t. He will remain fascinating and irritating. He likes things his way and that´s that.

For Buenos Aires Herald


Strasnoy´s pastiche of Bach and Kafka proves to be tricky

            The CETC ( Colón Center for Experimentation) has organized an audacious cycle of what might be called Argentine New Opera (within chamber limitations). Miguel Galperin, its Director, had to recur to several venues, for the CETC´s cellar couldn´t possibly shelter the six selected works. Nor can any reviewer cover all six. In fact, collisions with other events made it impossible for me to see  "Av. De los Incas", music and libretto by Fernando Fiszbein, at the Sala Argentina of the CCK. And I couldn´t see "Genealogías"; it isn´t an opera but a scenic concert made up of pieces of "emblematic XXth Century works that marked the way to the new opera": Svetlichny, Schwitters, Schnebel, Berio, Duchamp, Cage, Kagel and Aperghis, with the peculiar Swiss duo UMS´n JIP (voice, flute, electronics). This happened at the UNSAM Center of the Arts.

            I was able to be present at the Usina del Arte´s Auditorium; it offered the Argentine première of a staged version of a vocal work by Oscar Strasnoy with the troublesome German original denomination "Hochzeitsvorbereitungen (mit B und K)", which translated in Spanish as "Preparativos de bodas" and in English "Preparations for a wedding". Strasnoy has premièred two operas here: one I found revulsive, "Cachafaz" on Copi´s text; the other, a full-fledged opera, was presented with success at the Colón: "Requiem", on Faulkner.

            In what is indeed a strange conflation, Strasnoy in his libretto takes texts by Franz Kafka (K) and contrasts them with Johann Sebastian Bach´s (B) lovely  Cantata Nº 202, one of his most tuneful and happy scores and the best of several cantatas of that sort. It was premièred in December 2000 at Edenkoben, Germany, conducted by the composer. Curiously it was a command to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Bach´s death. There were two other versions in 2002 at Stuttgart, and in 2005 at Paris´ Auditorium of Radio France, a definitive revised version.

            Says Strasnoy: "Stylistic  purity has no sense in our time. There´s nothing more antimodern than dogma".  The first phrase is wrong: purity isn´t easy but it is possible and desirable. I agree with the second phrase; the problem is that so many don´t know what is modern and create according to trends. Neither Stravinsky nor Schönberg followed trends: they found new roads. But there are no geniuses nowadays: competent technicians galore, instead.

            Strasnoy is one of them: he has skill. But he can´t do what Stravinsky did in "·Pulcinella":  convert Pergolesi (or fake Pergolesi) into Stravinsky so perfectly that the fusion gives us both worlds. Here the wonderful Bach arias are merely retouched but suddenly we have yuxtaposed Strasnoy, and need I say it? Bach 1, Strasnoy zero.  Yes, pastiche is tricky.

            This  badly assorted musical couple, however, does mirror what we are seeing: increasing signs that this bride and bridegroom won´t make it to the wedding. I´m not an expert on Kafka but I venture to say that the choice of material could have been more relevant to the story Strasnoy wanted to tell; anyway the bridegroom seems more hysteric than the bride.

            Soprano Chantal Santon was impressive, veering easily from  fine Bach singing to increasingly distempered Strasnoy. The choice of a countertenor (not a tenor or baritone) tends to underline the growing tension of the relationship, though that doesn´t justify the frequent harsh timbre of Daniel Gloger, very Expressionist in singing and gesture.

            The stage direction by Edgardo Mercado and Mariana Ciolfi is probably responsible for the intervention of a dancer who is simultaneously the one that brings things and removes them according to the needs. This was done brilliantly by Carla Di Grazia, agile, personal and impish, on good choreographic steps by Mercado.  The stage design is basically an enormous white tissue  that initially veils the bridegroom and will eventually disappear by bits. Is the obsession with a wedding cake of both protagonists Strasnoy´s or Mercado´s idea? I don´t know, but they end up with a whipped-cream (or meringue?) masque.

            In the final stretch of this 50-minute piece comes a surprise: the producer taking advantage of the hall´s architecture, 45 girls in white wedding suits slowly climb the right-side ramp, proceed to the far back of the stage and then start going down the left-side ramp. In the strange ending, the man covers himself (he is in underpants) with female garb and jumps into the procession, whilst the bride does the same...Bad marriage ahead, no doubt.

            Eleven excellent players (such as oboist Michelle Wong or violinist Lucía Luque) were conducted metronomically by Annunziata Tomaro. Good costumes by Magda Banach and lighting by Claudio del Bianco and David Seldes.

            Anecdote: the CETC sent a mail weeks ago looking for volunteers to participate in this production;  among the takers was  the daughter of a friend of mine.

For Buenos Aires Herald

Andriessen´s “De Materie”, rare conflation of dissimilar things



            As I commented recently, La Plata´s Teatro Argentino is now run by Martín Bauer, known for the Colón Contemporáneo cycle and for two decades the November Cycle of contemporary music centered on the Teatro San Martín. Now he has followed his bent for current trends presenting Louis Andriessen´s "De Materie", a  scenic concert, not an opera; an Argentine première.

            Louis Andriessen was born in 1939 and is the son of distinguished Dutch composer Hendrik Andriessen. The Dutch school of composition has been important during almost the whole of last century, but very little of its vast output has been known in Argentina. Those of us who believe in the power of records cherish the Donemus collection, in which the recordings were accompanied by the scores.

            Louis Andriessen has delved in many styles and from a minimalist base has added many other conceptions of sound,  a trend that in good hands can lead to interesting results, such as Tippett´s profane oratorio "A child of our time", but also to unpalatable jumbles such as Bernstein´s Mass. Well, for me "De Materie" is half-and-half.

            The composer has had singular accolades in recent years, such as festivals dedicated to his music at London´s Southbank and Barbican, or New York´s Lincoln Center. But Philip Glass has also been much promoted and a lot of what he does isn´t good. However, mixtures of all kinds are the rage also in popular music during the last three decades and "purity" is looked upon as passé. However, some of us deplore it, and I´m not even elaborating about the lack of true theatre or of great easel painting.

            In the case of "De Materie", I´m surprised that there exists a recording of just the music by Reinbert De Leeuw, for a lot of it means very little by itself. It is long, about 110 minutes, and there are parts of it so basic that you can doze for three minutes and wake up and you would be hearing the same boring chords.

            But why is it called "De Materie" ("Matter")? Well, this 1988 work is a series of episodes with scenic but not argumental continuity. As the hand programme says, Andriessen incorporates noisism (yes, noise as a style), impressionist orchestral textures, influences of Bach and Stravinsky, traditional Dutch song and rock (here I differ, I heard jazz but not rock).

            "Built in four different parts, for soprano, tenor, two speakers, eight voices and  atypical orchestra, it reflects on the connexions between matter and spirit". Tall order, indeed. As the action progresses, we will have as materials "the 1581 Dutch declaration of Independence, a 1690 book on naval construction, a 1651 philosophical and scientific essay, the religious and erotic vision of a XIIIth Century nun, a manifest on the History of Art, a private note on Piet Mondrian and the diary of Marie Curie" (mixed with fragments of her Nobel Prize speech).

            There are elevated intellectual aims in this choice of materials;  their yuxtaposition sometimes worked but also could seem quite incongruous. This is the second production of the work, and I can´t compare Heiner Goebbels´ views with those of his predecessor. I haven´t seen a score and don´t know which visuals are indicated by the author and which are not. But I surmise that many things are Goebbels´ aesthetic views. Those that saw in March his strange "Stifters´ Dinge" at the Colón know that he likes to relate wildly divergent things, and as this seems to be Andriessen´s own credo, I suppose the composer probably agrees with Goebbels´ inventions.

            We have choreography, projections, a strange filming that looks like old mute  cinema in very poor condition but with modern cars...; and aggressive lighting directed to the spectator whose effect is to make unintelligible the supertitles.

            I disliked most of Part I because it is based on wretchedly repetitive fortissimo chords, but one element was worth hearing: the brilliant tenor Robin Trichter (a Mozartian) singing perched on high  the texts of Gorlaeus (1591-1612, strangely short life) about the atomic structure of matter. Part II was enjoyable: after a long string introduction, the nun sings Hadewych´s Seventh Vision, an ample vocal line that gets very high and has emotional intensity. It was beautifully sung by Oriana Favaro. With low candlelight it had the proper climate, and especially it veered from the stated  idea.

            Part III mixes Mondrian with mathematician Schoenmaekers´ thoughts about "the pure straight line", and as the music gets jazzy with the admirable Spanish Sigma Project ensemble of four saxophones, we have a choeography by Edgardo Mercado for six Teatro Argentino dancers. The music and the dancing were quite pleasant but I fail to see the relationship with  Mondrian.

            Part IV: as in Part I, the excellent Nonsense Vocal Ensemble of Soloists (eight-strong) gave their contribution, this time more rewarding musically, with sonnets by Dutch poet Willem Kloos. But the Madame Curie final episode is hardly helped by the aforementioned film, as dim in its looks as in its meaning, so the ending is anticlimactic, even with the good actress Analía Couceyro.

            Specialised conductor Peter Rundel (debut) led a 62-piece orchestra that included two synthesizers, two electric guitars and an electric bass, metal boxes, three marimbas, three pianos and a celesta. Minou Maguna and Andrés Denegri collaborated with Goebbels in the projections.

            Something different, with a couple of high points.

For Buenos Aires Herald


Brilliant programme by Benzecry´s Juvenil San Martín



            Not long ago I waxed enthusiastic about an all-Ginastera programme by the Sinfónica Juvenil Nacional José de San Martín led by Mario Benzecry. Now I welcome a splendid combination of two scores by these forces at the Blue Whale: that surprising cantata by Mendelssohn, "The First Night of Walpurgis"; and one of the greatest symphonic challenges, Gustav Holst´s magisterial "The Planets".

            The cantata has been heard in recent years and I´m glad that it no longer is a rarity, for I find it the most dynamic and dramatic work of choir and orchestra from  this fundamental Romantic composer, only comparable to some bits of the great oratorio "Elijah" though very different. Although I´ve written before about this "Walpurgis" (on Goethe´s text) it´s worth remembering the main facts (unfortunately those that went to the concert got no help at all: neither comments nor texts).

            It starts with a long and tumultuous Overture called "Das schlechte Wetter" ("Bad weather"). And then, the cantata recounting a reunion of pagans and druids to celebrate the feast of the first Night of Walpurgis; they disguise themselves as demons to rout intruding Christians. A tenor recitative with chorus celebrates the coming of Spring; an old woman warns about the chastisements they might suffer if discovered by Christians. A Druid Priest wants to prepare a sacrifice; a choir of Druid Guards tells that they will protect the attenders; a Druid Guard calls for disguise. A rhythmic, ominous Choir "Come with points and pitchforks" gets more and more intense, until the final words, "owls and ravens, howl with us, and scare the cravens".

            Now the Druid Priest leads the celebration, and shortly after the Christians think they see Demons and run away. The final music is majestic: "Unclouded now, the flame is bright!".

            This half hour of  fantasmagory is a masterpìece, and it had a `performance to remember. Benzecry gave to each number the exact weight and dramatic sense, the orchestra played beautifully, and the Coro Lagun  Onak, 50-strong, led by Rubén Pesce, was in very good form. Of the soloists I was particularly impressed by Alejandro Meerapfel whose powerful voice and command of style were ideal. Tenor Ricardo González Dorrego and mezzosoprano Victoria Correa Dupuy are very experienced artists who gave their best.

            In Great Britain Holst´s "The Planets" was always considered an amazing feat of imagination and orchestration, but it was only in the Long Play era that the score came into its own with dozens of recordings by British and foreign conductors. It was Eduardo Mata that revealed the work to our concert audiences; I believe it was in 1974. Since then it has been done several times, but not quite enough: perhaps because Holst incorporates a small treble choir in the final three minutes (that may also be the reason that foreign orchestras have never played it here).

            The suite is in seven contrasting parts each with its character. "Mars, the bringr of War" has tremendous impact. "Venus, the bringer of Peace" is serene. "Mercury, the Winged Messager" is, well, mercurial..."Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity", is a splendid concatenation of melodies in different speeds. "Saturn, the bringer of Old Age", is appropriately mournful. "Uranus, the Magician", after its forceful beginning, a scherzo full of surprises. And "Neptune, the Mystic" is slow and metaphysic, ending with just the voices.

            Benzecry showed the confidence he has in his young charges, for only quality orchestras can do justice to such a creation. But the conductor seems to be going through an Indian Summer, for at 79, spry and communicative, he didn´t put a foot wrong: everything was played according to Holst´s indications. And the orchestra responded with admirable solidity, with never a moment of hesitation, and with high technical ability.

            On this showing, the Juvenil San Martín is clearly our best Youth Orchestra and can play as well as the B.A.Phil or the National Symphony. The feminine  sector of the Coro Polifónico Nacional de  Ciegos (Osvaldo Manzanelli)  sang nicely.

            A final phrase: how incredibly modern is this 1916 score coming from what was musically a very conservative country. So, we commemorate its centenary.

For Buenos Aires Herald

Barenboim/Kaufmann, an anticlimax closing the Festival

This is a sad review, for after calling the preceding concert (Barenboim/Argerich/WEDO) the event of the year, readers may expect a rather enthusiastic response to the last session of the Festival. But I went to the Colón in morose mood, for three facts were inexorable: the programme was too short; it presented the famous tenor in baritone repertoire; and it´s simply and irrevocably unethical to repeat a major score in the same subscription series.

            What drove me mad was the fact that the season programme, distributed in March, says: "we will present the dashing debut of German tenor Jonas Kaufmann, who will delight our public with the music of Richard Wagner, avid to know one the maximal lyric expressions of our time". And this is what we got: the Prelude to the Third Act of Wagner´s "The Mastersingers"; Gustav Mahler´s "Songs of a Wayfarer"; and Mozart´s Symphony Nº41, "Jupiter".

            I can accept the first item (it was the encore of Concert Nº5; the encore, not one of the announced fragments). But baritone Mahler? And the repetition of Mozart´s "Jupiter" (played in the initial concert along with Nos. 39 and 40)? Sorry, there´s a limit to arbitrariness, even coming from world figures like Kaufmann and Barenboim.

            About Mahler: was it the tenor´s wish? Or did he propose something else and Barenboim vetoed it? I don´t know, but I give you a piece of news: Kaufmann will sing in Santiago de Chile a programme of operatic arias from Italian and French composers: "Tosca", "Aida", "Carmen", "Cavalleria Rusticana", "Le Cid", "Andrea Chenier" and "Turandot". Mouth-watering indeed, although it has no Wagner.

            Two ways to have done a decent programme: a) change the Wagner symphonic pieces in the concert with Argerich with, say, Brahms´ Fourth Symphony, and play the same symphonic fragments around Kaufmann, singing arias from "Lohengrin", "Die Walküre" and "The Mastersingers" (he has just sung the complete "Mastersingers" in Munich). b) Do the same programme as in Santiago, adding symphonic opera music to round it off.  

            I have perused the CD R.E.R. catalogue of 2000 in the entry: Mahler: "Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen" ("Songs of a wayfarer"). The character of the songs is clearly manly, but several ladies of great career haven´t resisted the temptation and have recorded the lovely music. But not one tenor risked recording it and for good reason: hear the young Fischer-Dieskau with Furtwängler and then recollect what you heard at the Colón with Kaufmann, and what a falling off! Is it an experiment and he decided to try it here? For I read that he has an even stranger idea: to sing both the tenor and the baritone parts in Mahler´s masterpiece "Das Lied von der Erde" (Song of the Earth"); and that lasts an hour!

            The voice sounded veiled and out of register, but the man is an artist and of course he phrased with expression and taste, splendidly accompanied by Barenboim and his WEDO (West-Eastern Divan Orchestra). Then came the very partial saving grace, after just 18 minutes of singing: the lovely "Winsterstürme", Siegmund´s aria from "Die Walküre". There his real voice appeared. And then, helpers moved the piano and Barenboim accompanied him in the Tristanesque "Träume", last of the Five Wesendonk Lieder: beautifully done, though he was poaching in soprano repertoire. At least in this case Kaufmann has two antecedents: Melchior and Kollo, but both with orchestrations not done by Wagner. 

            Readers may remember that two years ago I wrote enthusiastically about his Alvaro ("La Forza del Destino") in Munich: even in a horrid staging there was no doubt about his exalted category. So he owes us a second visit singing opera and has shown bad judgment in his debut. I do hold great hopes for his forthcoming Lieder recital.

            It transpired that both Argerich and Barenboim were affected by the flu, markedly so when they repeated the fifth programme, in which there were no encores; and that Barenboim wasn´t cured on the concert with Kaufmann.  There was no encore after the "Jupiter", to my mind played with less rhythmic bite than on the first concert (of course everyone was fresher then).

            I do hope that next year Barenboim will be more careful and ethical: he owes it not just to the public, but to himself. This is a very expensive series, and two concerts in it were clearly below par; a third one is a controversial decision, that of Arabic music. Let´s have a real Festival where everything is topnotch.

            A personal desire: he has expressed his enthusiasm with Elgar: wouldn´t it be a great contribution to bring the powerful Second Symphony?

For Buenos Aires Herald




Verdi´s “Ernani” makes a welcome comeback at the Avenida

            Buenos Aires Lírica presented Verdi´s "Ernani" in 2006 and it was an excellent idea, for it is one of the best of Verdi´s First Period operas, and the Colón incredibly presented it only in 1965. Ten years later the Colón seems  uninterested to program it, so it is quite justified to bring it back.

            The 2006 occasion had been  convincing in two key roles: Gustavo López Manzitti as a stalwart Ernani and Omar Carrión as a noble Carlo. Svetlana Volosenko was a good Elvira and Homero Pérez-Miranda a dramatic though rather woolly Silva. The sure hands of Carlos Vieu led the orchestra and Mario Perusso did an acceptable staging.

            This time the strongest link in what may be called a Mercosur cast was the powerful Brazilian bass Sávio Sperandio and the weakest the Platense Lisandro Guinis as Carlo: he lacks presence and a fluid vocal line.  Elvira was interpreted by the Paraguayan soprano Monserrat Maldonado with a sense of drama though little refinement and Ernani by the Uruguayan Nazareth Aufe, expressive and correct; however, he needs more metal in the timbre.

             Juan Casasbellas was the very musical conductor, and the American Crystal Manich did the traditional staging, blessedly not changed to the present century but according to the libretto, placed in 1519-20. The stage designs of Noelia González Svoboda were good in the initial two acts but the chapel is poor, and the last act isn´t "a terrace"; the use of the same woody drop of the First Tableau was a mistake. Good costumes by María Emilia Tambutti and adequate lighting (Rubén Conde).

            In my early teens I read in French Victor Hugo´s "Hernani" along with its famous Prologue, and I understood why it provoked a scandal at the time of its première in 1830. As Claudio Ratier writes in his excellent comments (I wish the Colón were as thorough as he is) it is "the banner of French Romanticism, a proclamation in defense of freedom".

            Hugo´s theatre has long been considered old hat, but his intense belief in values that are now forgotten  appealed to me, and they still do. And they persist in the libretto of Francesco Maria Piave for Verdi, although for some reason Hugo didn´t like it.

            Later in my teens I had two experiences that convinced me of the quality of Verdi´s opera. One was the  Cetra recording, with the magisterial Carlo of Giuseppe Taddei. The other was the viewing of "Ernani" at the beautiful old Met ("The Golden Horseshoe") in New York, with a fantastic masculine cast: Leonard Warren, Mario Del Monaco, Cesare Siepi; only Zinka Milanov was in decline by then. The 1965 Colón performances also had admirable singers: Cornell MacNeil´s magnificent Carlo, and the very good Ernani of Flaviano Labò and Silva of Jerome Hines;  Margherita Roberti was a step below but still good; and Previtali was a convinced Verdian.

             The French have always been interested in Spain and you may remember Corneille´s "Le Cid" as a basic reference. I read an article about "Ernani"  that calls Silva the villain: he isn´t, Carlo is until the Third Act. Carlo is no less than Charles I of Spain, crowned Charles V of the Sacred  Roman Germanic Empire precisely in the Third Act, at Charlemagne´s Chapel at Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen now), in 1520.

            Remember: Spain in 1519 (first two acts) is a country of extremes: in 1492 Columbus discovers America but both the Moors and the Jews are chased out of Spain; Torquemada is the terrible chief of the Inquisition. A unified Spain from then on, but one with frequent abuses. Charles was born in Ghent; crowned Charles I in 1516 when he was only 16, he knew almost no Spanish. Son of Juana la Loca, grandson of the Catholic Kings (Ferdinand and Isabel), he had to mature fast, but it was only after 1522 and a bloody purge of the revolt of the "comuneros" that Spain began to accept him. Before then, however, he took lands of noblemen. And that´s when Hugo´s Ernani comes in, for he is of noble family, but Carlo runs him into exile by a "bando"(edict); he becomes a "bandit" (that´s the real sense of the word).

            Three men love Elvira but she only loves Ernani; Silva (her uncle) and the young King are the other pretenders. When Ernani disguised as a pilgrim is accepted in Silva´s castle by the laws of hospìtality he learns that Silva will marry Elvira (she thinks Ernani is dead); Ernani reveals himself and both are about to duel when the King´s arrival is announced;  Silva shows an hidalgo´s loyalty and he hides Ernani. Carlo claims the bandit but Silva has given his word to save him. Honor is above all, "the Silvas don´t lie". The King takes Elvira as hostage; the others plan revenge.

            But the conspirators lose in the Third Act, and the new Emperor, invoking Charlemagne, pardons them. In the Fourth Act Silva accomplishes his revenge: he has warned Ernani that if he hears three horn calls he must commit suicide; Ernani fools himself into believing that Silva would pardon him, but the old man is inexorable and Ernani obeys (he had given his word: values again).

            All this with music that boasts several splendid arias, duets, trios and concertantes, plus a chorus, "Si ridesti il Leon di Castiglia",  that Italians took as a call to independence.

For Buenos Aires Herald




Argerich/Barenboim/WEDO: the event of the year

            The Colón concert of Thursday, August 4th, was truly memorable. It was the fifth of the Abono Azul (Blue Subscription Series) and was repeated the following day (Función Extraordinaria, non-subscription). The artists were Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim leading the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (WEDO).

            This time the programme was long and satisfying, and all concerned were at their best. One general conclusion: Argerich and Barenboim are at the top of their profession and in their early seventies they show no decline. And the WEDO has improved greatly: it is astonishing that young people on a seasonal (not permanent) orchestra should show such maturity, both in the command of their instruments and in the integration of a common concept. There´s real talent in all of them, though of course they have the privilege of a great conductor that gives them style and unity.

            The concert began with a première: "Con brio" by Jörg Widmann. Barenboim had already promoted him in two chamber concerts with different programming of the Mozarteum Argentino (in the second he also played clarinet). This score for full orchestra lasts 11 minutes and although it isn´t divided into two parts it changes sharply after the first minutes, characterised by violent attacks followed by deep silences and by the mixture of musical sounds with noise as defined by Britannica: sound that interferes with other sounds that are being listened to. I wasn´t attracted  so far, but later we hear recognisable melodies as well as fanfares and the mix becomes intriguing. My wife´s imaginative phrase accords with my reaction: "noises, echoes and resonances of bellicose actions in an inhospitable jungle".

            Barenboim led the piece with strong impact and the WEDO responded with exemplary discipline. The author made his bow and was warmly applauded.

            Franz Liszt´s Piano Concerto Nº1 is the most innovative and personal of Romantic concerti. In it (as in the Sonata) rhetorics are never vain; the ideas are substantial, moving and coherent. It is terribly difficult to play: Liszt did for piano technique  what Paganini had done for the violin: an extraordinary expansion of the possibilities of each instrument. And his orchestration gives lovely solos for diverse players dialoguing with the piano.

            You need a true virtuoso that is also a great artist, and a very attentive and collaborative conductor: Sviatoslav Richter and Kyrill Kondrashin are a good reference, and so is Argerich on record with Abbado;  live with Barenboim on this occasion will long be in the memories of those who were at this concert. I heard Argerich  with Dutoit and the National Symphony in this concerto back in 1969; she was young and an amazing powerhouse. Forty-seven years later her incredible technique and stamina remain untouched (if I except her rushed and not altogether clean first entrance). The final minutes were as exciting as they were musical, always abetted by the best collaboration from the WEDO and Barenboim.

            There was a wonderful surprise: her encore wasn´t a short and easy piece from Schumann´s "Scenes from  childhood" as she generally does, but an ideal performance of the best of Ravel: "Ondine", first number of "Gaspard de la Nuit". The fluidity of the playing in this devilishly intricate piece and the subtlety of her touch were an object lesson of Impressionism (as is her recording of 1974).

            The second part was simply the best Wagner playing heard here in a very long time. Maybe as far back as Leitner and Leinsdorf in the Sixties. Barenboim conducted at the Bayreuth Festival from 1981 to 1999, and he did the unparelleled feat of doing the ten great operas in a period of a few weeks in Berlin. Wagner is perfect for him: music of enormous technical accomplishment in which the system of Leitmotiven proves to be an astonishingly flexible array of moods and emotions. Wagner´s continuity imbricates easily with Barenboim´s rich intellect. The chosen 45 minutes are among the greatest orchestral music of the Nineteenth Century and had glorious performances: the interpretations were simply beyond reproach and the playing proved that the WEDO is strong in all departments, very minor smudges apart: the mellowness and musicality of the brass, the fine woodwind solos, the mahogany-hued strings always disciplined and intense, all made for a constant state of direct communication with the music.

            The "Tannhäuser" Overture (Dresden version) went swimmingly both in the solemn pilgrim melodies and in the bacchanical frenzy of the Venusberg. The most dramatically complex music came from "The Twilight of the Gods": the Dawn after the Norns´ scene is joined in the concert adaptation with the final pages of the Siegfried-Brünnhilde duet and goes straight on to the jubilant "Siegfried´s Rhine Journey". But Barenboim cunningly omitted the brilliant coda and went on as in the opera, where the atmosphere becomes gloomy as the hero approaches the Gibichung Palace, for in it looms Hagen, who will kill him in the Third Act; and this version even adds a transformed fragment from the end of the Second Act, that terrible conspiratorial Trio.

            It would have been better to go on without applause to "Siegfried´s Funeral Music" but that was not to be; anyway, that magnificent evokation was spine-tingling in this version.  And the best possible conclusion for the programme, the Overture to "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg", to my mind the greatest  ever written. The encore was complementary: the serene and sad Prelude to the Third Act of the same opera.

For Buenos Aires Herald

​Arabian music at the Barenboim festival


            On August 8, 2015, the Herald published an article of mine about various concerts, containing one that was given at the Colón in the Barenboim Festival. I quote myself: "There was a completely unexpected inclusion: a chamber concert of Iranian and Arabic music". Then I raised several points; two bear repeating: "if you believe (as I do) that the Colón is for classical music, this concert is as out of place as Argentine folk music or bossa nova... If I accept the idea, what I want is true music of those origins, no fusion. And this didn´t happen".

            But I neglected to add a major matter:  the whole purpose of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is to obtain a musical camaraderie between Israelis and Palestines; wouldn´t it have been much more in accord with this philosophy to offer a concert in two parts, one with Arabic music and the other with Jewish? For outside their respective communities, the authentic sound of those cultures is little-known to the public at large, and such a concert would have not only a factor of entertainment but also an attempt to tell didactically what their music is about.

            In one sense, this year´s concert is an improvement, for the presentation of the Al Diwan Ensemble was closer to the mark as regards authenticity; but it was only Arabic music. Furthermore, the presentation in the hand programe is a disaster: a) not one word of explanation, when no other concert of the Festival needed it so much. b)  if you have any change of programme, put it in writing; in the Second Part one of the players announced confusedly and in low voice that there would be changes (more on it further in this review). c) Arab titles without translation are surely unhelpful and there were none except in three numbers.

            I have to mention a further question: the sounds of enthusiasm in the audience were very youthful, and indeed there were many young people; as the tickets were very expensive, they probably were invited, maybe with some intervention from Arabian embassies. That´s alright, but worth mentioning, for the habitual Colón goers know little about this music.

            Now let´s make a distinction: our Argentine folklore is consumed in four different ways: the pure thing as recopilated by Vega, Aretz or Valladares; what is called folkloric projection, going from the traditional Ábalos to artists with more modern conceptions such as Juárez; fusion with other cultures but still popular music; and the stylisations made by classical composers such as Ginastera. I surmise without being sure that something similar may occur in Arabic music, for no less than seven pieces have authors: all dead except one, but all Twentieth Century.

            I confess my ignorance about Arabic composers creating music for symphony orchestras but in Arabic style, such as Bloch has done for the Jewish heritage in "Schelomo". Anyway, the Al-Diwan Ensemble was, according to the programme, "formed specially for this concert with members of Arabic origin of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra to interpret with various autochtonous instruments the best instrumental music of the Arabic world". I beg to differ in two matters: surely three violins, one viola, one cello and one bass are not Arabic but normal instruments of an Occidental orchestra; and there were also vocal pieces.

            But some instruments are autochthonous: the oud (transformed in the Occident, for it´s the lute); the qanun, a zither (there are similar but not exactly alike instruments in Europe); and among the percussion, the darabukka (a small drum of particular shape). And of course they were  the ones that gave more character to the music.

            It serves no practical purpose for readers to mention the names of the composers and the titles of the pieces (sample: Salim el Helou: Sama´Isuthdel). Three titles are also in English: "My memories", "Music immortal river" and "The beauty".

            Characteristics: melody either soloistic or in unanimous group accompanied by rhythm; no counterpoint; and no vertical harmony (chords) although the music has a tacit harmony. My reaction as a critic raised on the Occidental tradition: I liked the music and found it had its own coherence. Solo string playing is sinuous and sliding, with little vibrato. Changes of speed within the same piece; feeling of rhythmic pulse in two or three beats. Impressed by the virtuosity of the kanun player (Gilbert Yammine).

            Now to the vocal pieces: they were sung by Ilona Danho, an attractive girl with agreeable timbre and a knack for communication. Ilona sounds Hungarian to me, but she seemed completely at home in the repertoire she did. There was a major change and I regret it: she was supposed to sing Aramaeic and Syrian music of the Fifth Century, as sung in the Mesopotamia (intriguing for two facts: they are not geographically or historically of the Mesopotamia; and what kind of notation did they have in the Fifth Century? Occident had no notation until the Eleventh Century). She sang instead music billed as being Assyrian of the Tenth Century;  it did sound older than the rest, but only a specialised musicologist could tell me the truth. Other pieces were described as Traditional from Aleppo (Syrian), Syria and Irak.

            The concert ended with the deliriously fast and rhythmical "The beauty", which sounded to me much too modern for the dates of the author Sayed Darwish (1892-1923).

​For Buenos Aires Herald

miércoles, agosto 03, 2016

Mozarteum presents uneven Barenboim chamber concert


            The Mozarteum Argentino has a long and recurrent relationship with Daniel Barenboim. He returned to our city in 1980 after decades abroad, conducting the Orchestre de Paris, and from then on  came frequently, both as pianist and conductor. It´s a curious thing that his biography in the Mozarteum hand programme doesn´t include references to that musical trajectory in our main concert institution, but it is quite explicit in the programme of the Barenboim Festival: no less than ten times, playing Bach or Beethoven, conducting the Berlin Staatskapelle and the Chicago Symphony, and in 2005 the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (WEDO).

            The festival is now in its third year, and each time in parallel there have been two concerts for the Mozarteum ( two cycles). When he conducts the WEDO there are inevitable duplications with the festival, a bad thing because the audience often attends both. So a chamber concert with members of the orchestra avoids that problem.

            The dense agenda of this musical week forced a decision on this reviewer: although part of the programme was changed for the second cycle and was more attractive than the first, I had to go on Monday, for on Wednesday there is a major event: the National Symphony revives the complete "Roméo et Juliette" by Berlioz, 43 years after its première.

            In both nights the composer Jörg Widmann is featured with premières, but on Monday the pieces are for violin and cello; on Wednesday they are for clarinet and piano and we have another facet of his art, for he plays that instrument. But the second concert is also longer, for added to Widmann´s  Fantasy for clarinet Barenboim will play with him Schumann´s Three fantasy pieces Op.73 and Berg´s Four pieces Op.5. There was a change: the cellist was Kian Soltani, WEDO´s first desk, instead of the formerly announced Adi Tal.

            All was well in the first item, perfectly coherent with the start of the Festival with the three final Mozart symphonies, for his Trio in C, K.548, along with another, K.542, were written in the same period. It is beautiful music, though not innovative as the symphonies; the expansion of the Piano Trio genre will come with Beethoven and Schubert, and with stronger pianos. The playing of Daniel was light, refined and harmonious, and he was abetted by his son Michael (violin) and Sultani.

            Then came a selection of Widmann´s 24 Duos for violin and cello; born in 1973, he wrote them on 2008. Michael and Sultani played five of them, all very short, just seven minutes; except for a sarcastic Bavarian Waltz, I wasn´t impressed. Apparently they were played competently.

            And now we come to the problematic choice: Tchaikovsky´s enormous Trio, Op.50, 1882, to the memory of Nikolai Rubinstein. An Elegiac Piece in several speeds, and a Theme with eleven contrasted variations plus a final one and a lugubrious coda. It is played more often nowadays, but it remains a tough nut to crack, for although the elegiac side suits the composer, there´s a lot of virtuosic flimflam for the piano, so much so that it is as difficult as the ultrafamous First Piano Concerto but with less substance.

            Even the greatest artists have more affinity with certain styles, and frankly I was intrigued by this choice, for Barenboim is the man for music of deep import, not for empty display. He has an impressive technique, but not of this kind, and there were  mistakes that aren´t usual in his generally impeccable playing. Also, speeds weren´t right from the very start, and his sound was too chunky in the frequent block chords.

            A further problem was that the piano part is very heavy; to complement it you need strings with a big rich sound: Sultani has it but not Michael, so the general balance was affected. And the charm of certain bits (the Waltz, the Mazurka), was lost.

            The encores atoned for this unsatisfactory Tchaikovsky: the second (slow and singing) and the third (a scintillating Scherzo) movements of Mendelssohn´s First Trio are Barenboim territory, and the interpretations were delectable.