It´s been quite a week. Following his incredible marathon, Daniel Barenboim conducted Beethoven´s "Choral" Symphony at the Colón, and as a special feat, premiered Pierre Boulez scores at the enormous Gran Rex. At the end of these seven days, he commanded La Scala forces in Verdi´s "Aida", of course at the Colón (I will leave this for my next article). But these days also brought the local debut of one of the great pianists of today, Andras Schiff, both in recital and with the Buenos Aires Philharmonic.
After the first eight Beethoven symphonies for the Mozarteum, the Ninth was offered in the Bicentenary Subscription Series. I was told (I didn´t stay that long) that at the end the audience applauded for half an hour. Nevertheless, I felt that the occasion wasn´t as completely convincing as I had hoped, considering my enthusiasm for the six symphonies I heard earlier (see The Barenboim Marathon, Part I). There were more orchestral slips (none grave, but they accumulated); the soloists were a good but not an outstanding group; and for once Barenboim´s own interpretation wasn´t uniformly splendid. Of course, his command of the material was impressive, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra gave all it could at the end of an extenuating week, and there were many moving and unforgettable moments. But: a) very close to the beginning, two big chords went so awry that it shocked me; b) the slow movement didn´t have the aura of inspiration I felt sure the conductor would provide; and c) the big tune of the fourth movement was played so "pianissimo" at first that it didn´t register, and it must; also, it was too slow and only later picked up speed, certainly not Beethoven´s wish.
The Colón Chorus under José Luis Basso (an Argentine with a brilliant European career) was the best thing of the evening; true, of the 110 listed members for the occasion 16 are under contract (not "estables") and 15 were reinforcements. Anyway, the sound was wonderful, honest, in tune and coordinated. The soloists were recruited from Slav countries; is there an element of lower fees in this choice? For I like Germanic voices in this material (as I prefer Slavs for Mussorgsky). Polish baritone Andrzej Dobber came closer to the mark, with a powerful voice of fine timbre, though marred by some "verista"exaggerations. Czech tenor Pavel Cernoch has an arid voice of little volume, although he was correct. Muscovite soprano Marina Poplavskaya sounded full and grateful to hear, though not with ideal "dolcezza" in the highest range. Contralto Ekaterina Gubanova, presumably Russian, did well in her rather ungrateful part.
Boulez is one of the most complex contemporary composers; only two people could conceivably do the feat I witnessed at the Gran Rex: Boulez himself and Barenboim. The Midday Concerts of the Mozarteum generally last one hour, from 1 to 2 p.m.; this time it started at l,20 p.m. and finished at 2,50 p.m.! Only the premiere of "Dérive 2" had been announced; it lasts 50 minutes. Barenboim added "Dérive 1" (7 minutes) and an illustrated explanation of the music (half an hour!). "Dérive 1" seems tame compared to the enormous "Dérive 2", for 11 instruments (three woodwinds, three strings, French horn, vibraphone, marimba, harp and piano) providing a fascinating spectre of color handled with consumate skill. The textures and the structure are intricate but lucid, and I found this avantgarde music surprisingly listenable, though overlong. It was also fantastically well played by members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (Daniel´s son, Michael, was the violinist) and conducted with enormous acumen .
At 57 Hungarian pianist Andras Schiff belongs to the Parnassus of pianists led by such names (absent from our city) as Maurizio Pollini and Krystian Zimerman. His long awaited Buenos Aires debut with a recital for the Bicentenary Subscription Series was an important event. Schiff is a stickler for authenticity and first versions; almost no pianists heed Beethoven´s indication at the beginning of Sonata Nº 14 (wrongly called "Moonlight": Schiff forbade this mention) to play with the pedal lowered throughout, which produces an intended haze of sound, almost pre-Impressionistic; but Schiff did it. Less comprehensible was in the fast Finale his decision to emphasize the left hand at the expense of the vertiginous upward runs of the right hand.
Schumann´s First Sonata, op.11, isn´t his best score by a long shot, but it couldn´t be in better hands: with stunning clarity and sensibility Schiff vanquished its enormous difficulties and gave it as much sense as possible. And surely Schumann´s Fantasia, an undoubted masterpiece, was marvelous, apart from very minor slips in the impossible coda of the second movement; the ending was different than the habitual one, for Schiff played Schumann´s original version. I have very seldom heard great performances of Beethoven´s Sonata Nº 21, "Waldstein"; this was of that select group. I was particularly moved by the ethereal, intensely poetic phrasing of the Finale´s main melody, and surprised by the feat of playing in octaves (as written) an almost unplayable (and famous) bit of the coda. The encores added to the pleasure: Schubert´s lyrical Impromptu op.90 Nº 3; Mendelssohn´s lithe "Song of the Spinner"; and a Schiff specialty, Johann Sebastian Bach: the first movement of the Italian Concerto. Lack of space forces me to review the B.A.Phil concert at a later date.
For Buenos Aires Herald