As part of the Barenboim-Argerich marathon, the subscribers to the Colón´s Abono Especial were promised a fun night, and they got it: Les Luthiers joined them in Stravinsky´s "L´histoire du soldat" and Saint-Saëns´ "Le carnaval des animaux". Predictably, they weren´t done in an orthodox way, they got the Luthiers treatment, but Barenboim and the members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, plus Martha Argerich, were there to ensure that the music´s quality was respected: impeccably in the case of Stravinsky, and with considerable leeway as concerns Saint-Saëns, but the piece can take it.
"L´histoire du soldat" ("The Soldier´s Tale") is a morality fable with a bad ending written in the last year of World War I in the neutral country: Switzerland. Ernest Ansermet conducted and the purpose was to have a cheap-to-produce show and bring it over Swiss cities to provide much needed money to the artists and the composer. The instruments are few: violin, bass, cornet, trombone, bassoon, clarinet, percussion. They are admirably used, with difficult music that requires rhythmic accuracy and perfect ensemble. The violin, following the plot, is the leader .
The French text by the Swiss Charles Ramuz is based on a Russian tale by Alexandr Afanasiev. It involves three spoken parts: Narrator, Devil, Soldier, and a dancer as the Princess. The soldier´s violin is coveted by the Devil, who gives the Soldier richness in return for the possession of the instrument; but later the Soldier recovers the violin and playing it he cures an ailing Princess, thus becoming heir to the realm according to the King´s promise. However, the Soldier´s power is lost when he goes beyond the frontier; the Devil wins the Soldier´s soul.
Three Luthiers in their usual garb were seated at the left of the players; Marcos Mundstock impersonated the Devil with his habitual skill to color his voice as an Old Man or an Old Woman (always the Devil); Daniel Rabinovich played his Soldier straight, not finding the inflexions that would have given character to the part; and Carlos López Puccio was a whimsical Narrator, posing incongruous questions added to the original text (translated by Les Luthiers).
I was surprised that the hand programme didn´t mention a dancer; eventually, as the first of the three Dances started (a Tango) an insinuating woman appeared, later joined by a man, both in conventional (uncredited) steps; but by the middle of the Waltz Barenboim, essaying some steps of his own, led them both out of the stage, and the Ragtime remained wrongly un-danced. Only the Princess should dance, and should look like one. The following day after the performance the Press Office sent me spontaneously the names of the dancers: Jésica Gómez and Krishna Olmedo.
The playing was very good, and Michael Barenboim executed the violin´s music very accurately, less reticent than when he played with his mother Bashkirova two months ago in the Jerusalem Chamber Ensemble. The tough challenges for other instruments such as the cornet were met with professionalism. Daniel Barenboim conducted with perfect style and firm control of the rhythmic structure.
"The animals´ Carnival" is defined by the author as a "great zoological fantasy for eleven instrumentalists" and is made up of fourteen descriptive fragments, including quotes from himself and others. Dated 1886, the composer wrote it as a "divertissement" for himself, and allowed its publishing only after his demise. It is an accomplished humorous score except for one piece, "The swan", that led Michel Fokin to choreograph it as a very famous short ballet, "The swan´s death".
Central in the orchestration are two pianos; Martha Argerich played the first and Daniel Barenboim the second, as well as coordinating the whole thing. The other instruments are: flute and piccolo, clarinete, Glass Harmonica (rarely heard, it gives an ethereal sound), xylophone, two violins, viola, cello and bass. The virtuoso pianists had a field day and I can safely say that I never heard their music executed so swiftly and exactly, except in "Pianists", where (as Saint-Saëns wanted) they played as badly as possible the parody on Hanon and Czerny. Two other players in the very good ensemble deserve mention: Guy Eshed in flute and piccolo, and Hassan Moataz playing incredibly well the rudimentary "cello" presented to him by López Puccio.
Mundstock presented each number as a sarcastic comment made by Johann Sebastian Mastropiero demolishing Saint-Saëns´s music. A lot of it was witty, though some remarks fell flat and one, a play on the "f" word and Fokin, was not the sort of thing one should hear at the Colón. And in various numbers (fortunately played in the right order although the hand programme suggested it might not be so) the battery of "instruments" invented by Les Luthiers with some help from others made their hilarious entry, superimposed on the Saint-Saëns music.
To mention a few in literal translation: donotforgetmebidet, natural gum-horn, dactilophone, coconut marimba, bass-pipe, piston organ, ball harmonium. Barenboim and Argerich seemed quite amused and so was the ensemble. And the audience at times laughed so loud that the music couldn´t be heard, especially when all five (the others are Carlos Núñez Cortés and Jorge Maronna) "danced" a ludicrously slow can-can (taken much slower than marked by the musicians).
Curiously the only encore was done by Les Luthiers, a "gato" called "El explicado", in their inimitable style.
A fun night with good music splendidly played.
For Buenos Aires Herald