Festivales Musicales de Buenos Aires is an admirable institution created over 30 years ago by Leonor Luro and Mario Videla as an unstated but evident successor to Amigos de la Música. It maintained for a long time a policy of festivals on a single subject, some of them truly memorable (e.g., "From Purcell to Britten"), with special emphasis on J.S.Bach, and gave birth after a few seasons to a splendid "daughter", the Academia Bach. After Luro´s death, programming was gradually more flexible and commercial, with less premieres and unfortunately waning sponsorship. Festivales is still one of the Big Three, but undoubtedly in the third place. It is to be hoped that it will find sponsors even if some are no longer there (one was the Fundación Szeterenfeld, who after an admirable seven-year lapse folded because the money fund is now exhausted).
Anyway, it made a good start at the Colón, with the debut of the Heinrich Schütz Ensemble conducted by Martin Steidler. It is in fact a choir and comes from a very small Bavarian village, Vornbach, close to Passau (the frontier German city on the Danube). Steidler founded it in 1993 and molded the singers into a well-based institution grounded on both tradition and a degree of innovation. Fortunately concert life isn´t as degraded as opera in Germany, and at least some percentage of young people still believe in the permanent values of Schütz, Bach and Brahms. And Kapellmeister of solid background nurture their groups and keep fidelity to them, such as Steidler, certainly a good and dedicated musician, though lacking the special illumination that permits an interpret to transcend to the highest plane.
The main attraction was the so-called "London version" of Brahms´ mighty German Requiem, where the orchestra is substituted by four-hand piano; the transcription is the composer´s own. The work was offered in an orthodox, able version, where apart from some strain in the higher soprano range, the choral singing was tasteful and accomplished. Hernán Iturralde (baritone) was good but not quite as much as I hoped, and Mónica Capra (soprano) was refined in her solo (a late addendum to the score). Fernando Pérez and Silvia Lester were the proficient players.
Mario Videla, Festivales´ Artistic Director, made some announcements before the start of the concert but things weren´t quite as he said. Indeed they eliminated an important (8-minute) motet by Mendelssohn, but the third Schütz piece ("Psalm 126") didn´t materialize; a short Guastavino arrangement on a Falú original did. As they are wont to be specialists in Schütz, the Ensemble was fine in the two selected Sacred Symphonies, although I certainly prefer them with instruments, as the original version has them (the purely choral versions are the composer´s). The other creators are contemporary: an expressive Elegy by Thomas Jennefelt; an agreeable arrangement by Wolfram Buchenberg of a German Romantic folk piece; and a funny rhythmic score , "El Hambo", by Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi, with clapping and gestures added. The choir gave spirited versions much enjoyed by the audience, which should have been less sparse.
The Bach Academy had a splendid start at their habitual venue, the Central Methodist Church. Always led by Videla, who is a genuine specialist although he talks too much, this year the programming basically combines J.S. Bach with Telemann.
The Academy is thirty this year, and the lovely Trio-Sonata in C minor, TWV 42 c5, by Telemann, was executed by four players, three of them having participated in the very first concert of the Academy: Videla (chamber organ), Andrés Spiller (oboe) and Marcela Magin (viola); the fourth , bassist Fernando Fieiras, is also an old friend.
The two chosen Bach cantatas (the Academy´s greatest contribution through the decades) had been done in these cycles, but I welcome them: both come from the early Weimar period and are chamber cantatas with subtle instrumentation and astonishing innovations. In the 12-minute "Der Friede sei mit dir" (Nº 158) there is a fascinating baritone aria with virtuosic violin obbligato and the interspersing of a chorale melody in the soprano voice. A small transgression: the final chorale should be sung by a chamber choir and not by two solo voices and two instruments (but it was quite impractical to have a choir available for one minute of music). And the 19-minute Nº 152, "Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn", has the sweetest and most delectable combination: soprano, baritone, recorder, oboe, viola d´amore, viola da gamba and thorough-bass (organ and bass). It has a lovely opening Sinfonia and finishes not with a chorale but with a vivacious duet between Jesus and the Soul. This was the first cantata done in the history of the Academy.
Sergio Carlevaris is billed as baritone but for me he is a full-range bass (and he had some extremely low notes to sing); apart from some details of German diction in recitatives his work was outstanding, with very fluid florid singing and fine intonation. I have heard soprano Silvina Sadoly with less incisive attack, but she knows the style. The players were excellent, and also included Ricardo Grätzer in recorder, Pablo Saraví in violin and Ricardo Massun in cello and viola da gamba. Videla was a capable coordinator and phrased with acumen.
The Bach Academy is an essential combination of important Baroque music (often in premieres) and of well-intentioned didacticism. May it continue to warm the heart of music lovers.
For Buenos Aires Herald