Some years back there was a magical and unexpected concert at the Colón. Almost at the last moment, it was possible to make an extension of a Brazil tour by the NDR Hamburg Symphony at the request of their great conductor, Christoph Von Dohnányi. There were several things that made it memorable: a) The NDR is the Norddeutsche Rundfunk, the North German Radio, and its orchestra is one of the very best from that country; b) Von Dohnányi managed to give enormous relief to the whole programme; c) he joined two pieces of metaphysical content separated by more than a century, and its deep interrelation came to the fore: Wagner´s Prelude to the First Act of "Lohengrin" and Ligeti´s "Atmospheres".
When the return of the NDR was announced this year by Nuova Harmonia at the Colón I was quite happy because the orchestra in itself was a firm promise of outstanding quality. Their current conductor isn´t of the exalted standard of Von Dohnányi or of other illustrious Principal Conductors of the NDR¨s history such as Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt, Günther Wand, John Eliot Gardiner, Christoph Eschenbach or Herbert Blomstedt (who conducted them in their first visit to BA prior to Von Dohnányi) but Thomas Hengelbrock is having a good career. However, he fell ill and was replaced by Estonian conductor Arvo Volmer (debut), who has had posts in his country, Finland and Australia and been guest conductor in a long panoply of orchestras.
Volmer respected Hengelbrock´s programme, unfortunately, for it was a trio of hackneyed standards (I mean "overplayed", no reflection on their value, which is certainly outstanding). They even repeated the "Lohengrin" First Act Prelude in a good performance, though without the shimmer obtained by Von Dohnányi.
Then came Rachmaninov´s Second Piano Concerto, where the soloist was Korean Hyun-Jung Lim, whose performance divided the audience; I am among the nay-sayers. Young and personable, with very fleet fingers, she is a type of player that doesn´t agree with my taste: over-vehement, flashy, her tone too light, her rhythm much too arbitrary, she was better in the slow moments where her tone was deeper and beautiful. The NDR and Volmer were hard put to follow her and there were many unclear moments. Encores: a turbulent and ugly Korean piece and Debussy´s "Clair de lune", where she approximated the essence of the music.
The Second Part compensated, for the Volmer-NDR combination proved admirable and Brahms´ First Symphony (certainly one of my favorites) was wonderful in all respects: the conducting was orthodox in the best sense, every tempo exact, the phrasing always telling and according to the composer´s wishes; and the playing was gorgeous: outstanding soloists (horn, concertino, oboe, clarinet), mahogany-hued string color with perfect intonation, ideal ensemble.
There was certainly no imagination in the encores, more Brahms (Hungarian Dance Nº1) and Wagner (Prelude to the Third Act of "Lohengrin") but the interpretations were treasurable, and there was an interesting point: Volmer chose not the habitual version of the Prelude but one with a short but elaborate coda where the villain Telramund appears with his Leitmotiv, as if to desecrate the upcoming Wedding March.
The Buenos Aires Philharmonic was led by its Assistant Conductor, the young and talented Carlos Bertazza, in the 16th concert of the subscription series. He offered an intelligent and difficult programme: as a homage to the centenary of his birth, Britten´s famous Variations and fugue on a theme by Purcell; a typically bucolic score by Vaughan Williams, "Flos Campi"; and Prokofiev´s last Symphony, Nº 7. Just after the war (1946) Britten received an educational commission for a filmed documentary on "The instruments of the orchestra" and he called it "Young person´s guide to the orchestra"; there was a narrator describing the goings on. But nowadays it is most often played without narrator, as it was this time. It is a work of amazing perfection in every sense, and very hard to play; there were instrumental lapses in several bits.
"Flos campi" is a rarity for it uses a small mixed choir and a viola soloist on six wordless fragments from Solomon´s Song of Songs. The music has a strong modal influence and is unmistakably VW. Marcela Magin is first viola desk of the Phil since 1975; her performance was autumnal in its sobriety and taste, though more volume was needed in certain fragments. Instead of a normal mixed choir, in this performance we heard a different option: a small men´s choir (Ensamble Vocal Cámara XXI prepared by Miguel Ángel Pesce) and the Colón´s Children´s Choir (César Bustamante) for the feminine voices. The effect was charming and very musical. The chamber orchestra responded very well to Bertazza´s well-considered reading.
Prokofiev´s Seventh Symphony was composed in the last months of his life; he died on the same day as Stalin! (March 5, 1953). It was created as the result of a commission from Moscow Radio, whose authorities wanted "a simple symphony for youthful listeners", but it is hardly that, even if it doesn´t attempt the depths of his marvellous Fifth. The music is melodious and beautiful, though it has its dramatic moments. Bertazza conducted with fine attention to detail, the orchestra played well, and there was the right decision for the concluding minutes: the original quiet ending instead of a boisterous one imposed on the composer by the Radio.