viernes, septiembre 19, 2008

High times for symphonic music: the Hallé visits us

The third visit over the decades of the Hallé Orchestra from Manchester has marked an especially high spot in the musical scene. As the "biography" in the hand programme of the Mozarteum Argentino says nothing about earlier visits to our country (a common trait in material from abroad, but also an undiplomatic one that should be corrected) it must be stressed that the Hallé was here under the great Sir John Barbirolli (1968) and much later under Stanislav Skrowaczewski. Those with Barbirolli were memorable, those with the Polish conductor very professional but less interesting. Both were Principal Conductors of the Hallé, as is the case with Sir Mark Elder (local debut) since 2000. They offered two subscription concerts and a Midday Concert (the latter for free) all at the Coliseo.

Elder has had a substantial career marked by his years as Music Director of the English National Orchestra(1979-93) and guest conducting with prestigious concert and opera orchestras. He has an eclectic taste and a big repertoire.

The Hallé is the oldest professional orchestra in England and this year celebrates its 150th anniversary. In its current shape it is fully equal to its 1968 incarnation under Barbirolli, which is saying a lot. The Orchestra isn´t one of the biggest, but its 82 players sound like a hundred, are 100 % professional, keep a nice balance of ladies and gentlemen and of youth and maturity. Under Elder´s fine conducting the orchestra solves with perfect intonation and true virtuosism the greatest difficulties. It has a beautiful collective sound and a triggerlike response to every gesture of the Maestro.

I unfortunately couldn´t hear the first concert, which included Richard Strauss´ "Don Juan", Grieg´s Piano Concerto, Wagner´s First Act Prelude to "Lohengrin" and Elgar´s "Enigma Variations". Happily I caught the latter when it was included in the Midday Concert. The second concert started with Verdi´s Overture to "The Sicilian Vespers", followed by Liszt´s First Piano Concerto, four Preludes by Debussy (originally for piano, orchestrated by the Hallé´s composer-in-residence Colin Matthews and an Argentine premiere; both facts were omitted in the programme page) and Shostakovich´s First Symphony. The Midday Concert had "Don Juan" (which I couldn´t hear), three of the four Debussy Preludes and the "Enigma Variations". Along for the tour we met for the first time 27-year-old Polina Leschenko, a beautiful blonde born in St Petersburg that has built a solid career since her debut at 8-years-old; only 27 and almost 20 years of experience.

Now to what I heard. A sanguine, forceful and precise account of Verdi´s Overture. An admirable version of Liszt´s Concerto, adroitly accompanied and played by Leschenko, who showed not only a masterful technique but an approach both subtle, elegant and full of strength, almost like a young Argerich (who has promoted her). The encore was quite unusual: music lovers know well Chopin´s "Andante spianato and Grand Polonaise", but as a piano piece; here we were offered the piano and orchestra version! The orchestra hasn´t much to do, however, so we marvelled again at Leschenko´s delicacy in the "Andante" and strong rhythm coupled with the effortless solving of the many intricate passages of one of Chopin´s great showpieces, this particularly scintillating Polonaise.

It was the Orchestra that asked Mathews to orchestrate the Debussy Piano Preludes, and he did all 24. Frankly I see no need for this exercise, for the shimmering Debussy pieces are truly pianistic and orchestration (even a good one, as Mathews´), far from enriching them changes their essence. For the record, they were: "Homage to S. Pickwick, Esq., PPMPC", "Canope", "La puerta del vino" (in Spanish in the original) and "The hills of Anacapri". But the evening ended with a very detailed view of Shostakovich´s so impressive First Symphony, written at 19-years-old, still a student but already a master. The strongly contrasted score was rendered in all its sad nostalgia and ferocity with feats of very fine playing.

The encores mitigated a complaint of mine: no British music in the programme. But then, as Elder himself acknowledged, the logical British quota came to the fore in Elgar´s lovely "Sospiri" for strings (which I can´t remember having heard here) and the entrancing "Knightsbridge March " from Eric Coates´ "London Suite", heard only once here (Bedford with the B.A. Phil). It was a charming end to a significant concert. But on the following midday I was completely bowled over by a much bigger Elgar score, the wonderful "Enigma Variations" premiered here by Sir Malcolm Sargent. This has long been a Hallé specialty, and the Barbirolli version, along with the Boult, retain their places as the great references. But Elder´s minute control and total understanding, and the coruscating brilliance of the orchestra in the terribly difficult fast bits coupled with their full and noble sound in such a variation as "Nimrod", made for a fantastic version that had me in tears. It was the final cap on a great visit.

A personal wish which I hope will come true: we know admirable London orchestras as the Royal Philharmonic, the Philharmonia and the BBC, but we have never been visited by the other two superb organisms, the London Symphony and the London Philharmonic; I´ve heard them in their home city, but I do believe the Argentine public will welcome them with open arms.

For Buenos Aires Herald

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