domingo, agosto 28, 2016

The unique case of the De Raco piano dynasty


            You may remember that last year I reviewed a film called "La calle de los pianistas" ("The pianists´ street") about the particular relationship of a family of pianists who live in Brussels next door to Martha Argerich´s house. It centered on the dialogues of a mother, Karin Lechner, and her daughter, Natasha Binder, plus interventions of the teenager´s uncle, Sergio Tiempo, and of Argerich. All of them are inhabited by music and the piano, and have been so since they were almost babies.

            Let me introduce some personal notes, for  their past mingled with mine in two periods.  This is the dynasty founded by Antonio De Raco, one of our best pianists, and Elizabeth Westerkamp, pianist and teacher and still alive at 102. They had two children and one of them was Lyl De Raco, a talented pianist who oriented her life to teaching of a special kind: children, including her own. When she was eighteen she had a friendship with my sister and played at our Pleyel.

            Afterwards she married Jorge Lechner, an admirable pianist who was an important repetiteur at the Colón, and their daughter was Karin. Antonio De Raco then lived at the same Palermo building of my mother, and Karin was about seven when she became inseparable with my niece, who lived with my mother; forty years later they are still close friends.

            Lechner had an untimely death, and Lyl remarried, with the diplomat Martín Tiempo (son of the writer César Tiempo). He was posted to Venezuela, and it was there that Sergio Tiempo was born. And of course, he too was a pianist. And then Karin grew and married; Natasha Binder was born and followed the same road as her mother, grandmother and uncle. And Lyl took Natasha as a special pupil.

            Karin and Sergio, either separately or together, made frequent tours to BA. And then came the surprise: Natasha Binder, nine years old, inaugurated seven seasons ago the BA Phil´s subscription series with Grieg´s Concerto, amazing the audience. Now she is sixteen and her career is launched.

            Enrique Arturo Diemecke, in his twelfth year as Principal Conductor of the Buenos Aires Philharmonic, had the idea of giving all five Beethoven piano concerti with different pianists. Two veterans played Nº 1 (Philippe Entremont) and Nº4 (Bruno Gelber). And in the Colón concert of August 25 we heard Nº2 with Binder, Nº3 with Tiempo and Nº5 with Lechner.

            For some reason the half-brothers interchanged concerti, for Sergio was supposed to play Nº5 and Karin Nº3 ; Diemecke announced it.

            This concert was an interesting experience, for it allowed the public to appreciate three Beethovenian compositional styles, but also because three players of formidable technical ability and of the same family gave very diverse readings.

            As the aforementioned film makes clear, there´s great love between mother and daughter, but Natasha has strong temperament and in the final analysis, although she hears the wise counsel of Lyl and Karin, she plays what she feels. By the way, Nº 2 is a favorite of Argerich and she played it last year with Barenboim. Contrary to what many say, it has little influence of Mozart and is already unmistakeably Beethoven, although it was written when he was in his late teens (the big cadenza was certainly added much later; it is in the dramatic style of  the "Pathetic Sonata").

            Natasha was firmly in charge fron the very beginning, with clean strong playing, perhaps too assertive but always musical. She managed the cadenza with bravura. The slow movement was sensitive, with delicacy of touch. But I differ with her very fast tempo for the final Rondo, marked Molto Allegro, not Presto as she played it. With so much speed the music lacks air and the orchestra has a hard time.

            Sergio Tiempo has immense technical ease and shines with authors like Liszt, Ravel or Prokofiev,  but his very modern and idiosyncratic ways go against the grain of Beethoven´s requirements. Yes, Nº3 is dramatic and powerful, but not willful, and that´s what we heard: a constant adding of extemporaneous accents, rushing, disregarding the score. He calmed down in the slow movement, where he showed his fine toucher. It was an oasis before the final Rondo; after leaving no space between second and third movements (ugly harmonic clash),  a headlong run, dazzling but empty.

            It remained for Karin to put things right and she did, in a beautifully balanced and played Nº5 ("Emperor"), scrupulously faithful to the score and immaculate. She even gave a perfect  reading of the strange galloping rhythm of the final Rondo. In fact, her Fifth has my vote as the best performance of the whole cycle.

            Diemecke adapted himself to the contrasting styles of the performers and conducted solidly the extensive orchestral introductions, notwithstanding some poor solo playing (e.g., the bassoon).

            It is a curious thing that Karin and Sergio have very different styles playing separately, but are completely unanimous when they give two-piano programmes. Both look much younger and have a playful disposition. It was a nice idea to give us as an encore, along with Natasha,   four-hand Ravel: "Les entretiens de la belle et la bête" ("The conversations of beauty and beast") from "Ma Mère l´Oye" ("Mother Goose"), displacing each other from the stool in a funny way, for all three played in turns, and beautifully.

For Buenos Aires Herald


Mahler´s enormous Third Symphony crowns Israel Phil´s visit

             Readers know already the magnificent results of the rentrée concert at the Colón of the Israel Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta. The same programme was repeated last Tuesday at La Plata´s Argentino with huge success. For that theatre it was a very special event, for they hadn´t received such a high-powered combination since 1923, when no less than Richard Strauss and the Vienna Philharmonic were there.

            I have partial information about a closed benefit concert presumably on Monday, which included a rare and difficult work: Schumann´s Concert Piece for four horns and orchestra.

            Apparently both conductor and orchestra are tireless, for in their second concert at the Colón for the Abono Verde (Green Subscription Series) they tackled no less than Gustav Mahler´s enormous (95 minutes) Third Symphony. Mehta brought along mezzosoprano Lioba Braun (debut) but the session was possible because the Colón contributed the women section of its Resident Choir (Fabián Martínez) and the Children Choir (César Bustamante).

            By the way, it is a curious circumstance that no less than four concerts of the Abono Verde happened in August, and two of them in consecutive days: Lang Lang and Jonas Kaufmann. And I have to mention that the best tickets were very costly, equivalent to about 300 dollars; the current economic situation makes such prices almost prohibitive, and even if they were famous artists, it showed in empty seats.

            And now to the Mahler Third. It was an audacious act by Gregor Fitelberg to première it in the early Thirties at the Colón, for the Mahler enthusiasm was forged in the Fifties worldwide thanks to the LP (long playing) record. My generation owes it to our great Mahlerian Pedro Calderón to have heard the whole lot, even the Tenth completed by Deryck Cooke. In 1973 Calderón and myself programmed the Buenos Aires Phil´s cycle, ad referendum of Artistic Director Antonio Pini; the conductor proposed to exhume the Third to launch the cycle, I agreed and Pini took the still audacious plunge: it was a complete success and the battle was won.

            Calderón repeated it in 2011 with the National Symphony and last year Rettig did it with the same orchestra. Franz-Paul Decker also conducted it in his almost complete cycle with the BA Phil. But no foreign orchestra ever ventured it here until now. And with all the undoubted merits of the previous occasions, we had the most radiant Third that BA has heard live.

            The Third was never recorded before the LP era: too long for the 78rpm times. Charles Adler had the privilege of the first recording in 1951, and after him, a cataract of 28 recordings up to 2000  (that´s as far as my RER catalogue goes) from most of the great conductors, including Mehta with the Los Angeles Philharmonic (1978).

            So all Mahlerian aficionados know it well by now, but its complexity leads to less frequent programming than others such Ns. 1, 4, 5 and 9. Mahler was a Summer composer; for the rest of the year he was one of the main conductors of his era. The continuous contact with orchestras allowed him to invent new textures, and in fact as an orchestrator his only rival was Richard Strauss.

            The period that goes from 1890 to 1910 is the last stretch of Postromanticism, gigantic and harmonically advanced. For Mahler, each symphony was a world, and in the Third his ambition was to reflect the world of Nature in seven movements; eventually he decided to postpone the seventh; he used it as the closing song of his Fourth Symphony.

            The first Movement is problematic due to its inordinate length (about 35 minutes) and loose construction, and –as all his symphonies- it includes a funeral march (he had a fixation with death). But that is contrasted with the very affirmative initial melody played by the massed horns; later two elements are essential: a solemn trombone solo and turbulently joyful music. Mehta followed scrupulously every instruction of the score; he doesn´t hurry the morose passages but knows how to grade the climaxes so that they seem the natural issue. In the impeccable playing two things are worth remarking: the clean unanimity of the horns and the admirable trombonist (Nir Erez).

            The lovely Second movement, Tempo di menuetto, in fact has plenty of variety in its rhythms and is supposed to portray the flowers. The phrasing and playing was simply exquisite. The Third is one of those inimitable Mahler scherzi of immense resource; its Trio is a long posthorn melody similar to the Carnival of Venice. I don´t think we heard a posthorn but the offstage trumpeter played pianissimo with the utmost delicacy and beauty.

            The Fourth incorporates the mezzo voice in a typical Nietzsche text, the slow and metaphysic "Night Song". The Fifth is the world of angels and bells; bim-bam sing the kids whilst the women give us  "Three angels sang" (poem from "Des Knaben Wunderhorn") interrupted by the mezzo evoking Peter´s remorse and Christ´s pardon. Lioba Braun sang well though her timbre isn´t the most alluring, and both choirs did nicely.

            But it is the sublime last movement that stays in the memory, for it concerns the love of God. The music is slow, noble and moving , gradually coming to an intense final climax. Mehta was masterful and the orchestra responded with total concentration. A memorable end to a great experience.

For Buenos Aires Herald

Gluck´s “Orpheus and Eurydice”: Juventus presents sad travesty

            Some operas have changed musical history: Christoph Willibald Gluck´s "Orfeo ed Euridice" is one of them. Born in 1714, his operatic career started in typical Italian form following the Metastasio model of "opera seria" based on myth or ancient history: recitatives and florid arias generally sung by castrati and sopranos; almost no duets or choirs or ensembles. From 1741 to 1760 he wrote 22. And from 1755 to 1761 a series of nine French comedy operas mainly for Schönbrunn, in a very different style from the Italian ones.

            So when we arrive to 1762 he had already created 32 operas in the two predominant styles of those times. He was 48 years old, a mature man.  It´s worth mentioning that in 1761 he had composed an astonishing "ballet d´action", "Don Juan" , scenario by Angiolini based on Molière, with very dramatic music  in the scene where Don Juan  falls to Hell. This showed that the right literary stimulus could change Gluck´s music, and in fact it was the poet Raniero Calzabigi´s libretto on the old Greek myth that compelled the musician to write differently.

            Indeed there are basic changes: the melodies in the arias are simple but expressive, with little ornament; there´s a lot of choral writing; and the "recitativo secco" (only with harpsichord) is substituted with the "accompagnato" of strings. The opera is short in three succinct acts, not overlong as many "opere serie" were. There´s a French influence in the inclusion of dances. But Orfeo is still a contralto castrato, not a tenor.

            Of course the Orphic myth was essential  when opera was invented by the Camerata Fiorentina: Jacopo Peri´s "Euridice", dated 1600, is the first opera that survived those seminal birth years. And Claudio Monteverdi´s "La favola d´Orfeo" (1607, Mantova), was a giant step forward.

            Gluck´s "Orfeo..." was called a reform opera, but he came back to Metastasio´s model several times. However, his "Orfeo..." had an impact, even if most composers followed the old model, and in 1767 Calzabigi spurred him on and the composer wrote "Alceste" for Vienna, going far beyond the reforms of "Orfeo...". As Gluck wrote in the preface: "I have striven to restrict music to its true office of serving poetry by means of expression  and by following the situations of the story".

            And then, from 1774 to 1779, came his period in Paris, where he succeeded Rameau as the greatest creator of French tragic operas, including an adaptation by Moline of Calzabigi´s "Orfeo...". There Orfeo is a tenor, and some wonderful pieces are added: the Dance of the Furies (derived from the closing pages of "Don Juan") and the beautiful Eurydice aria, "Cet asile aimable et tranquille", plus an expansion of the dances in the final Tableau.

             Berlioz adapted in 1859 the tenor part to the contralto voice of Pauline Viardot, and a new tradition began. This transposition soon was used also for the Italian version. In fact, many recordings have opted for this change (e.g., Horne with Solti), until more recently historicism tried something else: a countertenor substituting for the castrato. But baritones (Bacquier in BA, Fischer-Dieskau on records) have also sung the part, attracted by its serene beauty. The numerous recordings still list more contraltos than countertenors, and at the Colón from 1924 to 1953 sang contraltos or mezzos; then, Bacquier in 1966 and mezzo Zimmermann in 1977. But in 2009 Franco Fagioli sang the countertenor version at the Coliseo, where the Colón did its season.

            And this brings me to the musical side of the current presentation of "Orfeo..." at the Avenida by Juventus Lyrica, for they opted also for a countertenor, Martín Oro. Eurydice has always been sung by sopranos, and Amor is a light soprano,  also as usual. The 37-member historicist orchestra conducted by Hernán Schvartzman was very good; it included a cornetto and chalumeau (an early clarinet). Although Oro sang unevenly, with hooty highs, he knows the style; as Maria Goso (Eurydice) showed great improvement compared to her Merry Widow and Victoria Gaeta was sprightly and accurate, and furthermore the Choir under Hernán Sánchez Arteaga was enthusiastic, we seemed to have the makings of a correct evening, but it wasn´t so. A poor version, far too fast, of the famous "Che farò senza Euridice", didn´t help.

             Again the culprit was the production, for María Jaunarena had an unfortunate wrong concept. Instead of respecting Calzabigi and Gluck, she invented an ugly transposition to current times. At the start, Orfeo composes helped by a violin. Eurydice salutes him, goes out; a screech and crash: she is dead. Then a medical team attempts to revive a naked girl quite unlike Goso, to no avail, whilst heavy pseudomedical data is both yelled and projected, interfering the brilliant Gluck Overture.

            And then, the opera starts, interrupted many times, for Jaunarena has incorporated orphic texts and writings on the Orpheus myth, mostly recited by  Oreste Valente in clear Italian, plus several men and women; a particularly tasteless frequent parading of the dead girl was irritating. About twenty minutes of the music are ruined, and as several dances are cut (presumably to spend less), not much was left to be enjoyed.  The costumes by Jaunarena are nondescript, and both the lighting and stage designs of Gonzalo Córdova were negative. When you can´t recognize an opera looking at the stage something is  seriously amiss. And it was.

For Buenos Aires Herald

80th anniversary of Mehta and Israel Phil finds them in full form


            Zubin Mehta was recently eighty-years-old. His father Mehli Mehta was the founder of the Bombay Symphony and gave Zubin his first training, but he was promptly sent to Vienna to study with the famous Hans Swarowsky. Mehta soon won competitions in Liverpool and Tanglewood, and at the incredible age of 25 he had conducted the Philharmonics of Vienna, Berlin and Israel!

            Well, just one year after (in 1962) he was in BA conducting the Orchestra of Radio Nacional and that of Amigos de la Música; with the latter he included no less than Schönberg´s First Chamber Symphony. It would be the beginning of the enormous amount of visits we had from him, certainly the most assiduous of the great conductors. He had already been named head of the Montreal Symphony (1961-7) and of the Los Angeles Symphony (1962-78).

            In quick succession he became musical director of the Israel Philharmonic (1977) and the New York Philharmonic (1978-1990). From then on  he came innumerable times with the Israel and several with the New York. From 1985 to next year will have been his tenure at the Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, which he also brought to BA.

            One aspect of his intense life didn´t reach us: his strong connexion to opera, both at the MMF and from 1998 to 2006 Musical Director of the Bavarian State Opera (Munich). And of the mediatic connection as conductor of open-air concerts by the Three Tenors (Domingo, Pavarotti, Carreras). A gigantic career with special emphasis on Israel, as he is conductor for life of the Israel Phil.  In recent years he has been interested in promoting young talents at the Bombay Mehli Mehta Musical Foundation and at the Tel Aviv Buchmann-Mehta Music School.

            And now, the other important anniversary, that of the Israel Phil. It was created in 1936 by Bronislaw Huberman and no less than Toscanini conducted the first concert. Surely an act of faith in a then not existing country prior to WW II; after it there were the turbulent times of the creation of the State of Israel and the orchestra stood fast, always accompanying the growth of an identity and building up a reputation as one of the great orchestras of the world. I witnessed in 1972 a splendid concert at the modern Tel Aviv Mann Auditorium  (very good acoustics) in a memorable combination of Claudio Abbado and Isaac Stern.

             The players were admirable then, and generations after, with the influx of Jewish Russians but also of young Israelis, they keep their high standards and show love and discipline to their longtime Principal Conductor, now seconded during the season by the talented Gianandrea Noseda.

            Mehta has always shown a proclivity for the Late Romantic repertoire and the Impressionists, for in them an orchestra can fully show a variety of colors and textures, and the conductor has  a sharp perception of such music. Also, he has a dynamic and  strong personality that communicates enthusiasm to the players. But Mehta also adds a sense of form, a clarity of gesture that makes complex pieces transparent. He may not have been as attuned to the early German-Austrian School as to Tchaikovsky or Ravel or Strauss, but he has generally stuck to what he does best. In recent decades he has shown a growing interest in Mahler (I remember a memorable Second).

            At 80 he looks much younger and the stamina is still there, though with more controlled gestures. And the memory is still perfect. What he did in this concert was magisterial and he chose a programme that fits him ideally. More serene but with no loss of control or intensity, he brought to us the joyful "Carnival" Overture by Dvorák, the Second Suite of Ravel´s "Daphnis and Chloe" and Richard Strauss´ tremendous "A Hero´s Life" ("Ein Heldenleben").

            Dvorák´s lust for life and exuberance makes this Overture a favorite, and it has a contrasting nostalgic melody. In fact it is the first of three contrasting overtures that form a beautiful cycle; the others, much less done but quite interesting, are "In the Reign of Nature" and "Othello".

            The "Daphnis" Suite is the absolute masterpiece of Impressionism, almost a miracle, and has often been done wonderfully in BA during the last half century. We can now add that of Mehta and the Israel players. The marvelous subtlety of dynamics and color, the virtuoso solo playing (Yossi Arnheim), the dionysiac final dance, were memorable. And I recall Mehta conducting the same piece with the Vienna Philharmonic in February 1964 with as great a comprehension and control as now!

            I know that "Ein Heldenleben" (1898) will always find its detractors for it is an egocentric act: the hero is Strauss... But it is also a 46-minute marvel of six connected fragments of sustained inspiration and orchestral science, fantastically orchestrated and with a command of intricate counterpoint with no paragon. It is a thing of beauty as well as a testimony of enormous intelligence. Mehta´s version was among the best I ever heard live. The long violin solos of Ilya Konovalov were ideal, and so was the last dialogue between him and horn player James Madison Cox. And the cohesion and precision of the whole with no loss of impact deeply moved me.

            Two encores, Dvorák´s Slavonic Dance Op.46 Nº 8, and Mozart´s Overture for "The Marriage of Figaro", ended  an unforgettable evening.

For Buenos Aires Herald

Tosca: success of Marcelo Álvarez in long-awaited return

            This "Tosca" isn´t one more: Marcelo Álvarez was back after 19 years; in his Colón debut he had sung very well the  Duke of Mantua in "Rigoletto". He  had been flanked by Sumi Jo and Leo Nucci; also there was the revelation of Erwin Schrott as Monterone! And then, no more: our tenor, born in Córdoba, developed a splendid career in Europe and the USA, but no Colón Director either showed interest or managed to come to terms with Álvarez. 

            I won´t speculate about the reasons of this sorry state of affairs; Álvarez is an international star and demands to be treated as one. He says that he called Lopérfido and found him receptive. He is now 54 and feels that he is at the top of his form; he hopes to make the Colón one of his favorite theatres along with the Met and the Covent Garden.

            There are further reasons to welcome this "Tosca": foremost, that it is the first decent international cast in an Italian repertoire opera in a long time. In other words, one that could be seen in the mentioned houses, where they have that privilege very often. So it is one step (just one!) in the uphill recuperation of the Colón´s prestige.

            The other main reason is the homage to Roberto Oswald: his longtime collaborators, Aníbal Lápiz and Christian Prego, have presented with great care the production that had been seen in 1992, 1993, 1998 and 2003, with some changes along the way. For in these sad days to see a production that respects the libretto is a rare pleasure after so many disasters. The costumes designed by Lápiz are admirable and fully in accord with the Rome of the early Nineteenth Century. And the Te Deum that closes the First Act is stunning.  

            "Tosca" must happen in the places specified by librettrists Illica and Giacosa; First Act, the Church Sant´Andrea della Valle; Second, the Farnese Palace; Third, Terrace of the Castel Sant´Angelo. Oswald´s conception of the Church is very beautiful and well distributed; the only reservation is that the supposed painting looks like a fresco. The Farnese is impeccable and functional. But the Castel as imagined by Oswald, dominated by a spectacular statue, doesn´t have a nook in the wall that should serve for Tosca´s suicide jump, as has been traditional.  The solution he initially found wasn´t liked by the audience: breaking with the realistic style of all the rest, she didn´t  jump and a luminous halo surrounded her. On the following season he found an alternative, the one we saw now: she jumps, yes, but into a big hole on the terrace.

            And a final reason for the interest of this "Tosca" was the debut of an important Dutch soprano: Eva-Maria Westbroek. She sings Wagner, Puccini, Shostakovich, Janácek, Berlioz, Verdi, Strauss, in all the great theatres and with major conductors.

            How did this "Tosca" come out in its first performance (Gran Abono) on a Saturday? First the singers.

            Obviously this was a very special day for Marcelo Álvarez. He has measured up to big challenges during all these years and feels quite sure of his means, but there was a surcharge of emotion being in front of the Colón audience after so many years. However, he is a seasoned professional and showed no hesitation.

            First Act: he took no chances: his singing was extrovert, his gestures were expansive. The voice sounded firm and healthy, the musical phrasing attempted no subtleties. The good applause after his aria was reassuring.. Second Act: his Cavaradossi grew in intensity and there were some interesting details; e.g., after his frank attack on "Vittoria!" he had the stamina for the following denunciation of tyrants. Third Act: a very good "E lucevan le stelle" (great applause) and a duet with Tosca where he knew how to subdue his voice and find the soft shades that enrich an interpretation. He had won the battle. A personal reaction: I don´t find his timbre distinctive in the sense of being easily recognisable, as happens with Domingo or Björling or Pavarotti.

            Westbroek: I knew her from DVDs in which the big voice and strong presence made an impact. The same factors were there in her live performance of Tosca, but she was more uneven than I remembered: too much vibrato at certain points, and particularly two high notes that went awry (especially in that dangerous attack on "Io quella lama" when she narrates how she killed. It raised eyebrows of preoccupation as to her current vocal condition. But make no mistake, she is an artist of quality.

            There was another Álvarez, Carlos, the efficient Spanish baritone that had sung Iago with Cura some years ago. His Scarpia was well sung and acted though short on volume and dramatic projection.

            The seasoned Sacristan of Luis Gaeta was as good as ever; Mario de Salvo was correct as the fugitive Angelotti; Sergio Spina was properly slimy as the bailiff Spoletta; and there were fine voices even for Sciarrone (Fernando Grassi) and the Jailer (Carlos Esquivel). Julieta Unrein sang prettily as the offstage Shepherdess.

            Carlos Vieu conducted with the firmness and knowledge that make of him a guarantee of style; the Orchestra responded well, and both Choirs (adults and children) sang with ease and character.

            There will be a promising second cast with Eiko Senda, Enrique Folger and Fabián Veloz.

For Buenos Aires Herald

lunes, agosto 22, 2016

Vengerov and Saitkoulov: from correction to brilliance


            Maxim Vengerov, born 1974, was a child prodigy who won great competitions at an early age: the Wieniawski at ten and the Carl Flesch at fifteen.   He went on to have a great career and be recognised as one of the leading violinists of our times, fortunately prodigal  in this specialty. Nowadays he is also a conductor and teacher, and has his own Festival. An interesting point: during the recent decade he took a three-year sabbatical from playing; during that time he studied conducting .

            He came to Buenos Aires several times, the last playing a Chinese concerto with the Shanghai Symphony; although his playing was admirable, the work was subpar and hardly up to his capacities. But late in 2011 he gave a splendid recital of sustained quality, blending ideally intellectual comprehension with virtuoso realisation. Unfortunately I don´t keep archives and can´t vouchsafe if his pianist was Roustem Saitkoulov, but he is Vengerov´s habitual partner, it might have been him.

            Hand programme biographies should provide information about earlier visits to BA, but they are always  mere translations of a standard international biography. I remember that years ago the Mozarteum made it a point of mentioning previous contacts with the artists; I wish they did that again in the future.

            Saitkoulov is  a distinguished pianist in his own right; also,H he does a lot of chamber work. Born at Kazan, Russia, he studied with the great Elisso Virsaladze at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory (she came twice here) and then completed his training in Munich. He won important competitions: the Ferruccio Busoni (Bolzano), Géza Anda (Zürich), Marguerite Long (Paris). He has played with important orchestras and given recitals throughout the world. By the way, he accepts the French version of his name and surname; for us or for Great Britain and USA, it should be Rustem Saitkulov (we write Mussorgsky, not Moussorgsky).

            So there were good reasons to expect from this Mozarteum concert (repeated with the same programme) a very high level. Technically it was of course impeccable, but the interpretations  began coldly, more so in the case of Vengerov. The sonatas chosen were enticing: Schubert´s Sonata in A, D.574, pompously called "Grand Duet"; and Beethoven´s marvelous Sonata Nº 7, in C minor, Op.30 Nº2.

            Schubert´s sonata was written young, at 20, but his personality is clear from the very beginning, a delicious Allegro moderato. Who else wrote such melodies or was so subtle in the harmonic modulations?  He also wrote three other sonatas, a bit less inspired and developed, called Sonatinas by the editor. All of them were published posthumously, the same sad destiny of his symphonies 8 and 9.

            I fell in love with the sonata in my youth with the wonderful recording by Kreisler and Rachmaninov, for it has charm and beauty: Kreisler sings with captivating timbre, and the great Russian virtuoso adapts to the intimate style perfectly.Too much sliding from Kreisler? Agreed, but he is irresistible. And that´s contrary to what I felt from Vengerov: an academic, correct reading with no involvement. During the interval, a veteran friend said: "it´s as if he were afraid of producing any sound that isn´t round and smooth". Yes, all exact but with little energy and attack. Saitkoulov was better;  however,  the final result was placid in the wrong sense.

            As Claudia Guzmán rightly says in her comments referring to Beethoven´s Seventh Sonata: "never until then a work for piano and violin had displayed such dramatic intensity nor had required similar temporal proportions".  It is a C minor masterpiece in the same rank as the "Pathetic" Piano Sonata and the Third Piano Concerto. No namby-pamby approach can deal with such a score.

            Things went gradually better, fired by the greater intensity and virtuoso playing of Soutkulov, but only got to the desirable grade of electricity from both in the last movement. Said my friend: "there I found Beethoven".

            But things changed, and the whole Second Part, as well as the four encores, went swimmingly. Both showed complete identification with that peculiar Ravel Second Sonata: he believed that piano and violin are incompatible and the music echoes that idea: the players oppose each other instead of being complemental. And you know, it works!  The Blues is the best movement and it was played with ideal sinuosity.

            And then came a final virtuoso section starting with a violin solo piece: Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst´s Variations on "The Last Rose of Summer", Nº 6 of the Polyphonic Etudes for solo violin. The piece on the lovely Irish tune  is the devil to play and rarely done; Vengerov at twelve presented it at the Tchaikovsky International Competition. Here he showed the complete range of his fantastic technique.

            A quiet and reflexive Paganini, the Cantabile Op.17, originally for violin and guitar, was done in a transcription for violin and piano. The final score was the Kreisler arrangement for violin and piano of Paganini´s "I palpiti" for violin and orchestra, Introduction and Variations on a theme from Rossini´s "Tancredi" (the aria "Di tanti palpiti"), a true catalogue of Paganini´s technical innovations, splendidly played.  

            Four encores: two of those inimitable Kreisler pieces that Beecham would have called "lollipops": the famous "Viennese Caprice" and the dynamic "Chinese tambourine". Rachmaninov´s beautiful Vocalise, transcribed from the original for orchestra. And Brahms´ ever so popular Hungarian Dance Nº5, in the Joachim arrangement. All done with panache by the artists.

For Buenos Aires Herald


From muddy “Don Juan” to imperfect “Perfect Lives”

            I have referred in recent articles to two installments of the Festival Nueva Ópera Buenos Aires, a project of the CETC (Centro de Experimentación del Teatro Colón). Now I will complete it  with"Don Juan", chamber opera by Santiago Villalba on Leopoldo Marechal´s literary text, presented at the CETC; and "Perfect Lives" (in English in the original), labeled as a TV opera (it isn´t) with music and libretto by Robert Ashley; this was seen at the Colón´s Salón Dorado.

            First, a reminder. "Don Juan" has already been an opera by Juan Carlos Zorzi, with symphony orchestra, premièred at the big hall on 1998. It was a good shot at musicalizing Marechal´s idea of an aging Don Juan coming back to his hometown near the river (probably in Southern Entre Ríos close to the Paraná). The local witches predict that he´ll have a bad ending. He makes love to Inés and her father Don Luis seeks revenge but is killed by Don Juan. He is drawn to Hell by a seductress witch.

            The shorter newcomer was worth knowing. Villalba won with it the First Competition of New Opera organized by the Colón´s Instituto Superior de Arte and the CETC. And in a valid transversal collaboration, the chamber chorus came from the Damus-UNA (the National University of the Arts).

            The staging by Julián Ignacio Garcés forced a complete adaptation of CETC´s peculiar cellar. His Leitmotiv equation can be described thus: earth plus water equals mud, and this is a symbol of dirty souls. So, during the first ten minutes the audience was uncomfortably perched on hard seats whilst the Three witches wallowed in mud, the tall blonde among them giving us clues on Don Juan´s destiny (an admirable mezzo of strong firm tones, Gabriela Kreig), and in the final minutes appears Aymé, the seductress (Natalia Salardino, a soprano of intense high register and sensual movements). All this was in a lateral small hall to the right.

            Then we were transported to what is usually the performance hall, in which the usual seats were replaced by steps distributed center, right and left.  Thus most of the space was at the disposal of singers and actors, using little of the awkward stage (the original sin of the CETC is its lack of functionality, sustained as it is by huge columns that can´t be taken away and block view and passage).

            The eleven voices of the Ensamble Vocal Contemporáneo del DAMUS-UNA  sometimes were heard from the aisles and at other moments were part of the action. Only six players were needed and they found their place behind the left grades: flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, percussion and synthesizers. For some reason two singers weren´t credited: tenor and bass, both young, probably sons of Don Luis. There´s a spoken role, an Old Man who knows a lot about the place´s past and dialogues cautiously with a nervous Don Juan. This was well acted by Carlos Said.

            Th strange "mise en scène"  causes two consequences: the capable conductress (Natalia Salinas) needed help by an assistant conductor (Juan Saavedra) for in certain passages she can´t be seen by all the singers; and even if you risk torticolis you, the spectator, miss some bits of the acting stage at certain points. By the way, there´s no libretto credit, just "based on the homonymous work by Marechal". And it´s true that one recognizes many phrases that are pure Marechal; but all of them? Hmmm...

            Once Don Juan comes in the drama grows in density. Mariano Gladic is a baritone of convincing presence and firm solid voice of good timbre, well handled except in some soft high notes that lose quality. Don Luis is the powerful bass-baritone Pol González, a  paterfamilias in defense of his daughter´s vertue. And Inés, fragile and in love, was nicely sung by soprano Ana Sampedro.

            The final minutes are a muddy pandemonium of real impact, as the population, the witches and the seductress conspire to vanquish Don Juan.  Villalba has talent; his music creates the right dramatic climate and gives real singing lines to the artists. And Garcés portrays, as he writes, a "Don Juan that takes into account the consequences of his acts and is melancholic". This opera works.

            But "Perfect Lives" doesn´t because it isn´t an opera and it was an absurd choice of Miguel Galperin. What we saw is a reduction to three parts of the original seven and it´s a classical case of you´re pulling my leg; a total and irritating bluff with no value. I´ll admit that Mike Amigorena can read Ashley´s text in excellent American English at all speeds, but to what avail?

            Description: First Episode: The Park. Two groups of the public sit looking at identical screens from opposite sides, and in the middle there´s a pianist (Alejandro Franov) and a group of men in curious uniforms. Although Lolo and Lauti are credited with the staging, I saw no such thing; and the same goes for the presumed musical direction of Galperin. Twenty-five minutes looking at a screen where the words mixed with emoticons and computation symbols are reproduced.

            II, The Market: at least it has some nice images of fields and food, but otherwise it´s as inane as the first. VII, The backyard: three guys on a traveling cabin are the sole image of another boring stretch of words.

            Enough silliness. Goodbye.



For Buenos Aires Herald

Chamber music at its best: Petrus, Gintoli and Panizza

            Once in a while you get the near ideal combination of important chamber music rarely played with fully professional artists that do them justice. That happened in the last Midday Concert of the Mozarteum Argentino at the Gran Rex.

            The Petrus Quartet is currently our best; it is made up of Pablo Saraví and Hernán Briático, violins; Adrián Felizia, viola; and Gloria Pankaeva, cello. They not only play admirably all four, but they are cultivated people who know how to choose repertoire. In this case they put together Juan Crisóstomo de Arriaga´s First Quartet and that sui generis score, Ernest Chausson´s Concerto for piano, violin and string quartet. In the latter the Petrus were joined by Rafael Gintoli, violin, and Alexander Panizza, piano.

            The only thing that surprised me was the length of the concert, for they generally start about 1,03 pm and finish by 2 pm. Although it´s true that they began at 1,08, Arriaga lasts 26 minutes and Chausson, 41. And they gave us a bonus repeating the Sicilienne (6 minutes) of Chausson. So, 73 minutes plus the delay, the applause and the necessary adding of the piano and the violin soloists. We went out at 2,30, but everyone seemed happy. And they should be, for all was well.

            Arriaga was an amazing case: he lived only 20 years (1806-26) but he was the best Spanish composer of the period. He left us particularly three notable quartets and a splendid  symphony. It was a terrible time for Spain, with the Napoleonic war and the loss of the colonies, and little was left of the tradition of Boccherini. But Arriaga went to Paris and was guided by Cherubini, who wrote beautiful quartets. And this, plus the Spaniard´s immense natural talent, explains why to hear the First Quartet is such a discovery: for he was a teenager but the music is mature, innovative and beautiful. And the Petrus was completely up to the challenge.

            Chausson, along with D´Indy, was Franck´s great disciple. Which means dense, chromatic music imbued with Late Romantic intensity and firm structure. Double Concerti are generally for two violins, two pianos or violin/cello, but here the combination is a leading violin urged on by powerful and virtuoso piano writing, and the orchestra is supplanted by a string quartet. It makes for a novel and fascinating texture. In style there is the influence of Franck´s magnificent Piano Quintet but also a personal imprint. It is dated 1891.

            From the start the understanding between soloists and quartet was complete. Gintoli has had a long career but keeps his technique impeccable, with  clean sound , exact tuning and musicianly phrasing. He knows when to lead and when to blend. He only lacks a richer sound . Well, this isn´t a problem for Panizza, a pianist in the grand manner that gave character and accuracy to the difficult writing without covering the others. And the Petrus accompanied with skill or took relevance where the music needs it. The final movement carried all before it with passionate fast dialogues.

            One knows when the artists have enjoyed themselves; they certainly did and it communicated to the audience.  

For Buenos Aires Herald

"El fiord”, opera on Osvaldo Lamborghini´s porno politics

            Osvaldo Lamborghini´s "El fiord" invites polemics, for its whole text is a pornographic-scatological indictment of Argentine politics as they were in 1968, the year of the Cordobazo. César Aira and Alan Pauls defend him, others attack him.

            He is called a "poeta maldito" ("damned poet") but I hardly feel that he bears comparison with such illustrious specimens as Lautréamont ("Les chants de Maldoror"), Baudelaire´s marvelous "Les fleurs du mal" or Rimbaud´s fantasies. Their texts reflect decadent societies with dystopic views of reality though with beautiful literary language, never having recourse to the lowest possible level of words reflecting sex and bodily functions. Lamborghini isn´t earthy or picaresque as Rabelais or Boccaccio, he is simply dirty. There´s no eroticism in what he does nor is he crude and gross in the manner of "revista" comedians.

             What he does may be novel but not valid: corporize political ideas in chaotic and Surrealistic dialogues and gestures of an absolutely constant porno-scatological pouring out. You get easily saturated for you soon find out that it leads nowhere. Both Osvaldo and Leónidas (brothers) were writers and peronistas, but Leónidas never went to the extremes of his brother although being frankly militant.

            Militant writing can be good, witness the Weill-Brecht collaboration in "Grandeur and decadence of the City of Mahagonny", an attack on Capitalism of real quality and coherence. But both this and "El Fiord" end with people filling the stage with placards in which we read completely contradictory things, in both cases showing the tremendous confusion of society. It is one of the few salvageable things of Lamborghini´s opus.

            You can also think of it as predicting the disastrous way of Argentina to state terrorism. Said Osvaldo: "on March 24, 1976, I became mad, homosexual, marxist, drug addict and alcoholic". Those are the words that auto-describe one of the characters, Atilio Tancredo Vacán, one of the products of Carla Greta Terón, a vast woman that is always being made pregnant and giving birth.

            Everything is led (sort of) by El Loco Rodríguez, a ludicrous tyrant whose ideological line is quite unclear, seconded by the yells of the frantic leftist Alicia Fafó. And the Narrator is also a character who eventually is harassed by El Loco. But there´s a fantasmagoric "Woman of the Fiord" who is according to the Narrator the ghost of his dead wife (twice) and dead mother (once); these ghosts seem to evoke better times. Eventually El Loco gets his comeuppance and the others literally eat him up, not forgetting his most important part, the testicles. 

            One hears all sorts of political references, some understandable, many others cryptic.  But even in Surrealistic terms, all you have is chaos. One parallel can be made, Alfred Jarry´s "Ubu Roi", but there the cruel, absurd tyrant is deeply parodied, and Penderecki´s opera on the subject (seen at the Colón) was quite interesting.

            What led Diego Tedesco (composer) and Nacho Bartolone (libretto) to believe that O.L.´s material was viable as an opera I don´t know, but I feel they were wrong and that an institution like the Colón (through the CETC) can´t support such a text; Miguel Galperin, the CETC´s Director, has crossed a line, for nothing so dirty has been seen in opera. It´s true that the Colón is having a very permissive bent in what is staged at the big hall, certainly a bad trend, but this is too much at least for me.

            Paradoxically, producer Silvio Lang was good, in the sense that it is a vivid imaging of the text´s madness. He opted for stressed grotesque in gestures, costumes and lighting, abetted by Leonardo Ceolin (stage design), Endi Ruiz (costumes and art direction) and David Seldes (lighting). Everything was brutal, visceral, with touches of crazy humor. Colorful, with fast action.

            There are only two singing parts: El Loco, baritone (who also talks) and the Woman of the Fiord (soprano). The others are actors.  The gigantic figure of Víctor Torres is cconvincing for El Loco, and of course he sang well. And Johanna Pizani produced pure, high notes. Of the actors I would single out the Narrator, Hernán Franco, who has intensity and adequate diction. The others almost constantly yell lustily, well, that´s what director  Lang instructed them to do.

            MusicaQuantica Voces de Cámara are nine voices led by Camilo Santostefano; they don´t participate in the action and are placed in opposed rows near the audience. They sang  moody music very well. The Ensemble Bracelet was led with good control by Juan Martín Miceli; the eight members play different instruments, providing timbric variety in music that mostly seems relegated by the stage outrages. 

            I have to record that the very "décontracté" audience seemed to enjoy the stage meal provided; maybe they have good training in alternative theatres where the equivalent of the F word in Scorsese´s gangster pictures runs rampant. One thing, though: O.L. has a much wider variety of expletives.


For Buenos Aires Herald

Jonas Kaufmann triumphant: the plenitude of a great artista

            I won´t mince words: the most important  tenor chamber recital in more than four decades. Jonas Kaufmann, a week after the ill-planned ending of the Barenboim Festival, came back for a song session (mainly Lieder) with his longtime accompanist, Helmut Deutsch. And this time he sang a perfect programme with groups of songs by Schubert, Schumann, Duparc, Liszt and Richard Strauss. This was at the Colón on last  Sunday´s afternoon and for the Abono Verde.

            He had the support from the beginning of an anxious, knowledgeable and packed audience, who grew more and more enthusiastic. What happened after the last note of Strauss was an euphoric delirium as an incredible string of seven encores, proof not only of generosity but also of joy and gratitude, allowed us to hear him in opera and operetta. Kaufmann had conquered Buenos Aires with the highest vocal art; he demonstrated that, here as in Europe, the audience discriminates and not only reacts to tenors with splendid high Cs.

            Kaufmann is a linguist: Munich-born, his Italian is quite good and his French admirable. His memory is faultless: I followed with a score the majority of the songs and his always clear diction never missed a syllable; and, like that ideal baritone, the young Fischer-Dieskau, he gives dramatic sense to all he sings without ever going overboard, and the musical values are exact, following carefully every nuance indicated by the composer. By the way, if you are intrigued by who sang an impeccable recital more than forty years ago, he was Nicolai Gedda, but he did it at the Metro, not the Colón.

            His stance is revealing: he stands close to the piano and he concentrates totally in the song, scarcely moving, giving occasionally emphasis with the hands with sober gestures. His timbre is particular, hardly the typical tenor; it is never totally open. Don´t expect from him the stratospheric highs of Alfredo Kraus, he of the purest bel canto. But Kaufmann is the consumate master of the chiaroscuro, his breath control is amazing, and no other tenor in my experience has his ability to sing "piano-pianissimo" a "normal" high note and grow it to "forte".

            A special paragraph on the Viennese Helmut Deutsch, the veteran and still wonderful accompanist, whose work throughout was simply ideal. Mind you, he was the accompanist for twelve years of Hermann Prey, the only baritone that could match Fischer-Dieskau. Later, at Munich, he was professor of vocal interpretation for 28 years and taught and accompanied not only Kaufmann but first-rate artists as Diana Damrau and Michael Volle. He has recorded over a hundred CDs.

            Nobody has told me but I have no doubt that the programme was designed by both singer and pianist. It was unfailingly right. The Schubert started with two joyful pieces: "Der Musensohn" ("The Son of the Muses", on a Goethe text), all merry jumping, and the famous "Die Forelle" ("The Trout"). Then, the delightful watery "Der Jüngling an der Quelle" ("The young man at the source"), sung subtly and softly (but his projection is such that you hear him well if you are in the Gallery). And that "Lindenbaum" ( "Linden tree") whose melody seems folkish but is part of the stark "Die Winterreise" ("The Winter Voyage").

            Then came the Schumann group, a selection of the "Twelve poems by Justinus Kerner" Op.35,  very attractive and with the best schumannesque style.  Of the chosen five I would single out the dramatic power of "Lust der Sturmnacht" ("Lust of the stormy night") and the Romantic impulse of "Stille Tränen" ("Silent tears"). Kaufmann gave us each mood with moving sensibility.

            And then, the so special case of Henri Duparc, born in 1848 and by 1885 no longer a composer after having produced some of the most exquisite "chansons d´art"; a strange mental condition cut off his creativity until his death in 1933. The four sung by our tenor are gems: the exquisite "L´invitation au voyage" ("The invitation to travel") on that often quoted text by Baudelaire that includes "order and beauty, luxury, calm and lust"; the dramatic "Le manoir de Rosemonde" ("Rosemonde´s country house"); the "Chanson triste" ("Sad song"), which mirrors that feeling admirably; and "Phidylé", a love song. I have long believed that these songs had their definitive interpretations by baritone Gérard Souzay; now I realize that a German tenor can be just as persuasive.

            But the best was yet to come. Most know Liszt´s "Petrarch Sonnets" in their piano transcription, but they were born as elaborate, refined songs.  You will never hear them in such subjugating interpretations as Kaufmann gave us: with unbelievable feats of subtle vocality he went higher and sweeter, and higher...until you were convinced that this was an unmatched experience.

            And then, the Strauss group, in which I have my sole complaint: "Ich liebe dich" and "Freundliche vision" were changed and we were not told.  Anyway, the expansive writing let him free his voice in "Heimliche Aufforderung" ("Secret Invitation") and the final "Cäcilie", and the composer´s humour came forward on two Von Schack songs, Op.19, where the tenor showed that he had also mastered that style.

            The encores were a separate recital and destroyed any doubt that might be left. For once in your life you heard the final phrase of Bizet´s "Flower aria" from "Carmen" and the Verdian "Celeste Aida" as they are written, ascending to a pianissimo; but his Radames lacked no power. Then, Verista expression in "L´anima ho stanca" from Cilea´s "Adriana Lecouvreur"; a Refice song, "Ombra di nube". "Nessun dorma" from Puccini´s "Turandot", where the tenor showed the solidity of his means and the audience officiated admirably as choir in the fragment where Calaf doesn´t sing. Then, like a born Neapolitan, "Core ´ngrato" ("Catarí") by Cardillo. And finally, that glorious Lehár aria from "The Land of Smiles", "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz" ("Yours is my whole heart"), as beautifully sung as Tauber.

            Please come back with an operatic recital with the Colón´s Orquesta Estable!

For Buenos Aires Herald


Lang Lang´s return: true to form, dazzling but controversial


            Lang Lang is certainly the most mediatic pianist in the world. As you read the biography in the hand programme, you find precious little about music, but plenty of kudos about his influence; and he´s only 32. He played at the 2008 Beijing Olympics for four thousand million people; he collaborated with pop dancer Marquese "Nonstop" Scott, Julio Iglesias and Herbie Hancock. He is a Messenger for Peace of the United Nations and he has his own Lang Lang International Music Foundation with stress on giving children access to good music through education. Steinway even designed the Lang Lang piano for China.

            He is a staple in presentations before Presidents and is chosen for commemorative concerts such as the one for Queen Elizabeth II´s Diamond Jubilee at Buckingham Palace. He was one of the Global Leaders of the World Economic Forum (a musician!). But no mention is made about his training or his recordings or his early appearances.

             Lang Lang has been coming regularly during the last decade, so he seems to find the Colón attractive. In this recital of the Abono Verde (Green Subscription Series) the audience was quite varied, for apart from music lovers you had the mediatic seekers. The premices were full and increasingly enthusiastic; by the time the encores were played, the response was almost delirious; and he, as the showman he also is, saluted with charm and signed programmes. It helps that he is personable and very cordial.

            Now to the music. Lang Lang is realistic and he only squeezes small Chinese pieces in the encores. I have often wondered about the Oriental capacity to adapt  to the Occidental world, for it doesn´t work the other way around. From this artist´s teens critics have recognised his amazing dexterity with something of the acrobatic mixed in; well, the best acrobats are Chinese. Apparently he can play faultlessly anything written for the piano, no matter how difficult. That´s the dazzling side, always present.

            But of course style matters and the success of the interpretation depends on it. In the same piece with Lang Lang you can hear a beguiling passage and seconds later a distorted view of the score, though note-perfect. That has been so in every visit, and there´s no sign that the problem will disappear. Nevertheless, the experience of hearing him is always interesting and worthwhile, and a good many minutes will be of very high rank.

            His recitals have always brought different programmes and sometimes his choices were intriguing. E.g., being such a virtuoso, why choose an easy Mozart sonata? He can also bring over some beautiful music very rarely heard, as he did this time with Tchaikovsky´s "The seasons". And he can disconcert playing it before, not after, Johann Sebastian Bach´s "Italian Concerto".

            "The seasons" is a misnomer for what should be called "The months". It was the result of monthly pieces written for a Saint Petersburg music magazine, afterwards edited by Jurgenson as Op.37a (Op.37 is the Great Piano Sonata in G). Beginning of course in January, an intimate piece called "Close to the chimney", each month has different character and title, sometimes brilliant and fast ("Carnival", "The Hunt") but more frequently melodic in the inimitable tchaikovskian way ("Barcarolle", "The lark´s song"). The last two are November ("Troika") and December ("The salon waltz").

            In my long years of concert going I had never heard the whole suite in one concert, and Lang Lang is to be thanked for this discovery, though of course there are recordings (Ashkenazy, Bronfman, Pletnev; Ilona Prunyi plays them very nicely). Exciting but exaggerated in the fast ones, Lang Lang showed the subtility of his touch in the melodies, molded delicately and phrased with taste. His memory always seems excellent, you never see or hear a hesitation; you may disagree with some of his decisions, but he never improvises: he is sure of himself at all times.

            Bach´s marvelous Italian Concerto (called thus although written for one instrument)  is of course a staple of the repertoire of harpsichordists (preferable) and pianists. Lang Lang uses the full resources of the modern piano but he doesn´t abuse the pedals and he has the sort of total independence of hands needed to keep the constant counterpoint clear. So, although slightly fast, he kept a steady rhythmic pulse.

            The four Chopin Scherzi are among his most important creations, wholly his in conception and technique, and equally mature from op.20 to Op.54. They all have a main Presto and a contrasting slow, moody melody. They can be played quite fast but not willfully, such as Orozco, Argerich or Rubinstein did; but Lang Lang suddenly sprints off when he resumes the Presto material at a double-fast clip not asked for by the composer, and the balance deteriorates.  The perfection of the playing survives, but not the spirit. However, how lovely and contained were the quiet moments.

            In two of the encores he was at his worst: a wild, brutal "Fire Dance" from Falla´s "Love the Magician" ("El Amor Brujo") and a disheveled "Danza cubana" by Lecuona.(Listen respectively to Rubinstein and the author to know how they should sound). And in the middle, an inocuous slow Chinese melody, nicely done.

            Will he change in the future? I bet he won´t. He will remain fascinating and irritating. He likes things his way and that´s that.

For Buenos Aires Herald


Strasnoy´s pastiche of Bach and Kafka proves to be tricky

            The CETC ( Colón Center for Experimentation) has organized an audacious cycle of what might be called Argentine New Opera (within chamber limitations). Miguel Galperin, its Director, had to recur to several venues, for the CETC´s cellar couldn´t possibly shelter the six selected works. Nor can any reviewer cover all six. In fact, collisions with other events made it impossible for me to see  "Av. De los Incas", music and libretto by Fernando Fiszbein, at the Sala Argentina of the CCK. And I couldn´t see "Genealogías"; it isn´t an opera but a scenic concert made up of pieces of "emblematic XXth Century works that marked the way to the new opera": Svetlichny, Schwitters, Schnebel, Berio, Duchamp, Cage, Kagel and Aperghis, with the peculiar Swiss duo UMS´n JIP (voice, flute, electronics). This happened at the UNSAM Center of the Arts.

            I was able to be present at the Usina del Arte´s Auditorium; it offered the Argentine première of a staged version of a vocal work by Oscar Strasnoy with the troublesome German original denomination "Hochzeitsvorbereitungen (mit B und K)", which translated in Spanish as "Preparativos de bodas" and in English "Preparations for a wedding". Strasnoy has premièred two operas here: one I found revulsive, "Cachafaz" on Copi´s text; the other, a full-fledged opera, was presented with success at the Colón: "Requiem", on Faulkner.

            In what is indeed a strange conflation, Strasnoy in his libretto takes texts by Franz Kafka (K) and contrasts them with Johann Sebastian Bach´s (B) lovely  Cantata Nº 202, one of his most tuneful and happy scores and the best of several cantatas of that sort. It was premièred in December 2000 at Edenkoben, Germany, conducted by the composer. Curiously it was a command to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Bach´s death. There were two other versions in 2002 at Stuttgart, and in 2005 at Paris´ Auditorium of Radio France, a definitive revised version.

            Says Strasnoy: "Stylistic  purity has no sense in our time. There´s nothing more antimodern than dogma".  The first phrase is wrong: purity isn´t easy but it is possible and desirable. I agree with the second phrase; the problem is that so many don´t know what is modern and create according to trends. Neither Stravinsky nor Schönberg followed trends: they found new roads. But there are no geniuses nowadays: competent technicians galore, instead.

            Strasnoy is one of them: he has skill. But he can´t do what Stravinsky did in "·Pulcinella":  convert Pergolesi (or fake Pergolesi) into Stravinsky so perfectly that the fusion gives us both worlds. Here the wonderful Bach arias are merely retouched but suddenly we have yuxtaposed Strasnoy, and need I say it? Bach 1, Strasnoy zero.  Yes, pastiche is tricky.

            This  badly assorted musical couple, however, does mirror what we are seeing: increasing signs that this bride and bridegroom won´t make it to the wedding. I´m not an expert on Kafka but I venture to say that the choice of material could have been more relevant to the story Strasnoy wanted to tell; anyway the bridegroom seems more hysteric than the bride.

            Soprano Chantal Santon was impressive, veering easily from  fine Bach singing to increasingly distempered Strasnoy. The choice of a countertenor (not a tenor or baritone) tends to underline the growing tension of the relationship, though that doesn´t justify the frequent harsh timbre of Daniel Gloger, very Expressionist in singing and gesture.

            The stage direction by Edgardo Mercado and Mariana Ciolfi is probably responsible for the intervention of a dancer who is simultaneously the one that brings things and removes them according to the needs. This was done brilliantly by Carla Di Grazia, agile, personal and impish, on good choreographic steps by Mercado.  The stage design is basically an enormous white tissue  that initially veils the bridegroom and will eventually disappear by bits. Is the obsession with a wedding cake of both protagonists Strasnoy´s or Mercado´s idea? I don´t know, but they end up with a whipped-cream (or meringue?) masque.

            In the final stretch of this 50-minute piece comes a surprise: the producer taking advantage of the hall´s architecture, 45 girls in white wedding suits slowly climb the right-side ramp, proceed to the far back of the stage and then start going down the left-side ramp. In the strange ending, the man covers himself (he is in underpants) with female garb and jumps into the procession, whilst the bride does the same...Bad marriage ahead, no doubt.

            Eleven excellent players (such as oboist Michelle Wong or violinist Lucía Luque) were conducted metronomically by Annunziata Tomaro. Good costumes by Magda Banach and lighting by Claudio del Bianco and David Seldes.

            Anecdote: the CETC sent a mail weeks ago looking for volunteers to participate in this production;  among the takers was  the daughter of a friend of mine.

For Buenos Aires Herald

Andriessen´s “De Materie”, rare conflation of dissimilar things



            As I commented recently, La Plata´s Teatro Argentino is now run by Martín Bauer, known for the Colón Contemporáneo cycle and for two decades the November Cycle of contemporary music centered on the Teatro San Martín. Now he has followed his bent for current trends presenting Louis Andriessen´s "De Materie", a  scenic concert, not an opera; an Argentine première.

            Louis Andriessen was born in 1939 and is the son of distinguished Dutch composer Hendrik Andriessen. The Dutch school of composition has been important during almost the whole of last century, but very little of its vast output has been known in Argentina. Those of us who believe in the power of records cherish the Donemus collection, in which the recordings were accompanied by the scores.

            Louis Andriessen has delved in many styles and from a minimalist base has added many other conceptions of sound,  a trend that in good hands can lead to interesting results, such as Tippett´s profane oratorio "A child of our time", but also to unpalatable jumbles such as Bernstein´s Mass. Well, for me "De Materie" is half-and-half.

            The composer has had singular accolades in recent years, such as festivals dedicated to his music at London´s Southbank and Barbican, or New York´s Lincoln Center. But Philip Glass has also been much promoted and a lot of what he does isn´t good. However, mixtures of all kinds are the rage also in popular music during the last three decades and "purity" is looked upon as passé. However, some of us deplore it, and I´m not even elaborating about the lack of true theatre or of great easel painting.

            In the case of "De Materie", I´m surprised that there exists a recording of just the music by Reinbert De Leeuw, for a lot of it means very little by itself. It is long, about 110 minutes, and there are parts of it so basic that you can doze for three minutes and wake up and you would be hearing the same boring chords.

            But why is it called "De Materie" ("Matter")? Well, this 1988 work is a series of episodes with scenic but not argumental continuity. As the hand programme says, Andriessen incorporates noisism (yes, noise as a style), impressionist orchestral textures, influences of Bach and Stravinsky, traditional Dutch song and rock (here I differ, I heard jazz but not rock).

            "Built in four different parts, for soprano, tenor, two speakers, eight voices and  atypical orchestra, it reflects on the connexions between matter and spirit". Tall order, indeed. As the action progresses, we will have as materials "the 1581 Dutch declaration of Independence, a 1690 book on naval construction, a 1651 philosophical and scientific essay, the religious and erotic vision of a XIIIth Century nun, a manifest on the History of Art, a private note on Piet Mondrian and the diary of Marie Curie" (mixed with fragments of her Nobel Prize speech).

            There are elevated intellectual aims in this choice of materials;  their yuxtaposition sometimes worked but also could seem quite incongruous. This is the second production of the work, and I can´t compare Heiner Goebbels´ views with those of his predecessor. I haven´t seen a score and don´t know which visuals are indicated by the author and which are not. But I surmise that many things are Goebbels´ aesthetic views. Those that saw in March his strange "Stifters´ Dinge" at the Colón know that he likes to relate wildly divergent things, and as this seems to be Andriessen´s own credo, I suppose the composer probably agrees with Goebbels´ inventions.

            We have choreography, projections, a strange filming that looks like old mute  cinema in very poor condition but with modern cars...; and aggressive lighting directed to the spectator whose effect is to make unintelligible the supertitles.

            I disliked most of Part I because it is based on wretchedly repetitive fortissimo chords, but one element was worth hearing: the brilliant tenor Robin Trichter (a Mozartian) singing perched on high  the texts of Gorlaeus (1591-1612, strangely short life) about the atomic structure of matter. Part II was enjoyable: after a long string introduction, the nun sings Hadewych´s Seventh Vision, an ample vocal line that gets very high and has emotional intensity. It was beautifully sung by Oriana Favaro. With low candlelight it had the proper climate, and especially it veered from the stated  idea.

            Part III mixes Mondrian with mathematician Schoenmaekers´ thoughts about "the pure straight line", and as the music gets jazzy with the admirable Spanish Sigma Project ensemble of four saxophones, we have a choeography by Edgardo Mercado for six Teatro Argentino dancers. The music and the dancing were quite pleasant but I fail to see the relationship with  Mondrian.

            Part IV: as in Part I, the excellent Nonsense Vocal Ensemble of Soloists (eight-strong) gave their contribution, this time more rewarding musically, with sonnets by Dutch poet Willem Kloos. But the Madame Curie final episode is hardly helped by the aforementioned film, as dim in its looks as in its meaning, so the ending is anticlimactic, even with the good actress Analía Couceyro.

            Specialised conductor Peter Rundel (debut) led a 62-piece orchestra that included two synthesizers, two electric guitars and an electric bass, metal boxes, three marimbas, three pianos and a celesta. Minou Maguna and Andrés Denegri collaborated with Goebbels in the projections.

            Something different, with a couple of high points.

For Buenos Aires Herald