domingo, julio 29, 2007

Distinguished visitors grace musical scene

In recent weeks our city has been graced by admirable visitors from abroad who have offered distinguished recitals in major concert institutions. Probably the best was given at the Coliseo for the Mozarteum Argentino by the marvelous team of Vadim Repin (violin) and Itamar Golan (piano). Both have been here before and were a success, but their current form showed them at the top of their profession. One hears very rarely playing of the smoothness and accuracy produced by this Siberian violinist born in 1971, or piano execution of such rotund perfection as that presented by the Lithuanian pianist. If I want to quibble, here and there a bit more accent from the violinist wouldn't have been amiss. It helped that no less than three major sonatas were presented, only one of them habitual repertoire (Brahms' No. 3); the others were a homage to Edvard Grieg in his centenary year (No.3, his best) and the fascinatingly quirky Janácek Sonata, with its strong rhythmic and melodic contrasts.

The programme was completed with Chausson's lovely "Poem" and the pyrotechnics of Franz Waxman's Fantasia on Bizet's "Carmen", done astonishingly well by Repin. Encores: a melancholy piece by Tchaikovsky, the Bartók-Székely Romanian Dances and the soulful and devilish "Gypsy airs" by Sarasate; all were treats in such talented hands and minds.

Another brilliant violin-piano team was made up of Shlomo Mintz and Peter Jirikovsky ; their recital was at AMIJAI. Last year they had played in the same hall. In comparison I found the pianist much improved, his interpretations deeper and the technical side a great deal richer and firmer, particularly his tone has acquired a new roundness and beauty. On the other hand, I still feel that Mintz's tone has lost serenity and terseness; it's true that he makes things too difficult for himself by his choice of programme, for the majority of the pieces were ultravirtuosic. In less demanding but musically rewarding pieces the spikiness was also noticeable, but the savvy phrasing compensated and gave pleasure. I don't want to exaggerate, a lot of what he did was impressive; Mintz is still redoubtable but he has lost some of his amazing ability.

The First Part gave us two scores of similar period: Beethoven's fresh Sonata No.8 and Schubert's Sonatina No. 2 in A minor (the programme wrongly said in D major). Too nervous-sounding in Beethoven (especially in the first movement), Mintz settled down in Schubert and got the best results of the evening; so did Jirikovsky; there was lyricism, good taste and charm. The Second Part accumulated hurdles: the almost impossible "Tzigane" by Ravel was followed by no less than five pieces by fabled violinist-composer Pablo de Sarasate, all of them fingerbreakers. And the encore gave no respite: Saint-Saens' "Introduction and Rondo capriccioso".

Pianist Andrea Lucchesini had played here before, with orchestra, and had left a good impression. But his recital for Nuova Harmonia at the Coliseo showed him now as a major artist, of consummate technical command and very interesting interpretation. His tastes lean to Classicism and his touch is of extreme precision and clearness. Emotional turbulence doesn't come easily to him, but scintillating brilliancy does.

The mature Clementi sonatas are astonishing and certainly influenced Beethoven; Lucchesini chose Op.34 No.2, a pre-Romantic score that I knew through Horowitz's ground-breaking recording. The Italian pianist gave us a very clean and tasteful traversal, somewhat short on drama. The Op. 90 Impromptus by Schubert were done with consumate skill and delicacy. Fantastic is the word for Lucchesini's immaculate and fast execution of three D. Scarlatti Sonatas (K.491, 454 and 146). Schumann's "Carnival" is a kaleidoscope of emotions and of trascendental difficulties; the latter were roundly met, the former less so. Refined, no doubt, but also lacking in deep tone and truly Romantic phrasing. The encore was Chopin's passionate Prelude No.24, whose hurdles were solved with ease.

When I heard that Paul Badura-Skoda was returning to BA after many years of absence, I had mixed feelings. When I was a student in Washington in 1956, I got wonderful Schubert records of this pianist, who was then in his twenties, and I felt that his Impromptus Op.90 and his "Moments musicaux" were ideal specimens of the best young Viennese school, models of style and fluent technique. A couple of decades after that he gave here for the Mozarteum what may have been the best all-Schubert recital I have heard; but in other instances his results have been erratic . He has recorded enormously and is famous for both his collection of fortepianos (historic) and of original ("Urtext") scores. Now he is over eighty and the temporal side must be taken into consideration analyzing his recent recital at the Museo de Arte Decorativo, a non-subscription Festivales Musicales date and a benefit.

The programme was short, only the Impromptus op.90 and the "Moments musicaux". Before , the pianist adressed the public in good Spanish with a nice informality; alas, he decided to play a Chopin Etude "to warm my fingers" and it was pretty disastrous. The Schubert pieces were disconcerting: alongside sensitive phrasing there were whole pieces played harshly, difficult passages perfectly done were succeeded by others hectic and dishevelled. Age has affected not only the technique but also his artistic judgement and he is no longer stylish. Encores: more Schubert: Allegretto and a selection of waltzes. Back to my wonderful records.

Para el Buenos Aires Herald


Bach reigns as ever

No musical season is complete without the major Johann Sebastian Bach sacred scores. This is a good year for his repertoire: Festivales Musicales has given us in two sessions the Christmas Oratorio conducted by Mario Videla, Artistic Director of both Festivales and its adjunct, the Bach Academy. And Andrés Gerszenzon has offered Bach's mightiest challenge, the "Saint Matthew Passion".

It is theoretically possible to play and sing the Christmas Oratorio in one long concert of almost three hours (after all, the "Saint Matthew" is longer than that if done without cuts), but as it really is a succession of six cantatas with the common theme of Christmastime, it makes sense to hear it in two sessions (this would never do in the Passions, whose narrative can't be interrupted). And it allows for more thorough preparation. In these "after the crisis" years Festivales hasn't been able to import Helmuth Rilling and his admirable ensembles as it used to, so Videla, a specialist in his own right, has undertaken the task of performing the big Bach scores. He has been acquiring more skill in conducting, although he is still more a stylist than a commanding chief; I commend his Christmas Oratorio as the best performance of the series of big Bach scores he has been giving the Festivales public in recent years. He still doesn't quite get that last measure of excitement of the great occasions and there were a few misadjustments, but no one went away dissatisfied.

The cantatas were written in 1734-5 and are based on the Gospel according to St Luke and St Matthew and some additions by Picander or by Bach himself. The first three cantatas deal with the birth of the Child and the visit of the shepherds. The other three, with Circumcision and the Arrival of the Magi. The Evangelist tells us the story ; there are wonderful choirs of jubilation and lovely arias. The Bach Academy instrumental ensemble boasted some splendid players, such as Pablo Saraví (concertino), Edgardo Zollhofer (cello), and Andrés Spiller (oboe and oboe d'amore) at the top of his form. The vocal soloists were well chosen: tenor Christophe Einhorn (debut) comes from Strasburg and made a positive impression as the Evangelist and in the tenor arias: a firm, clear voice, a sense of drama and fantastic fluency in florid singing. There was delicacy and style in the others: Mónica Capra (soprano), Virginia Correa Dupuy (mezzosoprano) and Víctor Torres (baritone). The Orfeón de Buenos Aires under Néstor Andrenacci and Pablo Piccinni made a valuable contribution to the total effect with fresh young voices singing with great accuracy. A note on the performing version: Videla shortened most of the aria da capos.

The venue was the Auditorio de Belgrano, also chosen by Gerszenzon for his account of the Saint Matthew Passion. This is the mightiest (and the longest) challenge in the sacred music repertoire. One could wish in dramatic terms for a tauter design but if you empathize with Bach's constant inspiration you grieve when arias are eliminated or given partially. Gerszenzon made some cuts, which kept the duration under three hours.

The conductor has shown in earlier seasons that he is a conscientious musician though not a charismatic one. He was certainly audacious in having chosen this enormous score and he managed to give us a respectful view of this great Baroque music. He has toiled for six months coaching the Choir and Orchestra of the UBA (University of Buenos Aires) of which he is their Director. The results were dignified and honorable, and it is of course laudable that university singers and players should tackle such a task, but there were weaknesses in vocal projection in the 46-strong choir and some substandard playing in the 32-piece orchestra (divided into two 16-piece organisms in those fragments where Bach specifies two orchestras). I would single out as especially good Roberto Rutkauskas (concertino), Pablo Angiletta (viola da gamba), the veteran oboist Pedro Cocchiararo and Manuel de Olaso (organ). In their only intervention the Coro Nacional de Ninos under Vilma Gorini sang well their chorale.

The vocal soloists were a mixed bag. Pablo Pollitzer as the Evangelist was stylish but small-voiced; the other tenor, Maico Hsiao, took on the arias with nice timbre and taste. Sergio Carlevaris is a big-voiced bass baritone but he sings rather wildly. Mariano Fernández Bustinza was a bland Jesus. Soprano Selene Lara sang replacing Andrea Maragno and did reasonably well. On the other hand, Verónica Cánaves (contralto) was weak and uninteresting, and she has some of the best music. Acceptable, no more, two singers of multiple bit parts, Armando Garrido and Javier Lezcano. In all, a worthwhile effort but not a great experience for the listeners; I have no doubt that it was quite positive for singers and players: to be in contact during six months with such imposing music certainly leaves a valuable trace in their hearts and minds.

The Capella Seicento led by Federico Ciancio gave us a valuable experience at the Bach Academy (Central Methodist Church): seven fine historicist players and five solo singers (who also made up the Chorus) offered the premiere of Bach's Cantata No. 18, "Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee" ("As rain and snow"), an early work from Weimar, and Buxtehude's well-known cycle of short cantatas "Membra Jesu nostri". Beautiful music well played and sung.

Para el Buenos Aires Herald

lunes, julio 09, 2007

Study in contrasts: "Samson et Dalila" and "Clone"

The Colón at the Coliseo presented Camille Saint-Saens' "Samson et Dalila" in a concert version whose main attraction was the return of famous Argentine tenor José Cura. The CETC (the Colón's Center for Experimentation) reopened after thorough restoration effected under the Master Plan and offered Antonio Zimmerman's "Clone" (world premiere), in total aesthetic contrast to the French composer's masterpiece.

Very probably the Colón's Artistic Director Marcelo Lombardero chose "Samson..." because it is one of Cura's best roles. The controversial tenor sang at the Colón only once, when he did Verdi's "Otello" nine years ago. The last Colón "Samson..." was offered in 1997 with no less than Plácido Domingo as Samson and in a very interesting staging by Beni Montresor. At the time I felt that Cecilia Díaz was just adequate as Delilah, below the level necessary to accompany the best Samson there was. Ten years later I still feel that she doesn't create a strong character and sings it unevenly, though she grew in the part after a rather boring First Act. It would have been useful to get to know any of the outstanding European mezzos (quite a few) that haven't visited us. Not only Díaz was cast in the same role, but also Luis Gaeta as the High Priest, though in this case I must say that he was quite good then and now; in fact, he gave us the best singing of the evening (I'm writing about the first performance).

After the poor impression made by the very restricted acting seen at Boito's "Mefistofele" in the recent concert version, Lombardero understood that something better had to be attempted, and although he was uncredited, he was the author of a rather convincing handling of the singers (what he called "puesta en espacio", translatable as "setting in place"): in front of the choir (immovable, frontal and on steps) the artists acted as they sang, reacting to each other with meaningful gestures. Of course, no stage designs, and one had to imagine such things as the falling of the temple or the mill. Delilah wore an attractive dress and for the men evening clothes were avoided in favor of dark neuter garments.

And Cura? Well, he certainly has a commanding presence and always holds the interest. After nine years of absence there were intriguing questions as to the purely vocal aspects, for his Otello had ups and downs. Singing is a dicey profession and artists often veer rather widely from one performance to another; so I can only report on the one I heard. And these are my conclusions: when he sings loud and high, his tone becomes unfocussed and metallic; as decibels become lower and the music descends from the heights , Cura's singing sounds controlled and beautiful, with poetic accents.

The two bass parts of Abimelech and the Old Hebrew were quite well taken by Ariel Cazes and Carlos Esquivel, and the cast was completed acceptably by Fernando Chalabe, Gabriel Renaud and Walter Schwarz. The score has often been considered an opera-oratorio due to the abundant and serious choral music it contains; the Colón Choir under Salvatore Caputo naturally could read its parts which certainly facilitates things, but this doesn't diminish the good quality of their singing, apart from some passages that were too soft to be heard with comfort.

Rodolfo Fischer , who last year conducted at the Colón Mozart's "Cosí fan tutte", seemed comfortable in the French idiom after some initial trouble with balance and intonation. But the Orchestra sounded increasingly warm and brilliant and the final result was satisfactory. Also, there were no disfiguring cuts as had happened in "Mefistofele".

One bad point: dates were changed and the first was a non-subscription performance ("extraordinaria") instead of being as it should a "Gran Abono" night.

I was quite happy by the results of the CETC's restauration. Of course you can't change the basic architecture of this subterranean space with its vast columns which impede both stage movement and good sightlines, but a lot was done that was possible and is positive: a much improved access stairway with full lighting; comfortable toilets; new dressing rooms; modernized video, sound and lighting; better lighting in the hall and a less claustrophobic ambience; spick-and-span cleaning of the premises; much-improved fire prevention; and enhanced coloring of the brick structure.

Unfortunately, I didn't like "Clone". The idea isn't bad; it is based on Julio Cortázar's homonymous short story adapted by Alejandro Tantanian: a modern madrigal ensemble rehearses Gesualdo's Book V and a parallel to the composer's true story becomes apparent: the tenor madrigalist kills the soprano (or so it is intimated) presumably for similar motives to those Gesualdo had: the composer found his wife in bed with her lover and killed them both. It could have been dramatic and taut, but the morose and redundant music and the static and inert libretto make the 70 minutes it lasts very long. Good singers (especially Selene Lara and Ricardo González Dorrego) and players (an original combination of bandoneon and viola da gamba) compensate partially. I didn't feel that the staging by Cristián Drut did much to improve the piece. I will mention the only bit that impressed me: at the very beginning the handsome soprano wears a magnificent Renaissance dress (by Cecilia Zuvialde) whilst she sings the only theatrical music in those long minutes.

For Buenos Aires Herald