jueves, septiembre 27, 2007

Ars Hungarica: a fit homage to Kodály

For years Ars Hungarica has done stalwart work helping the public to know the rich musical heritage of Hungary. As its Artistic Director, Sylvia Leidemann has applied her multiple talents as interpreter (conducting and playing) and musicologist (numerous study trips have had as a result the resurrection of valuable old scores) to the cause of her ancestors' music. In recent years there have been landmarks such as the recording of "Harmonia Coelestis" by Prince Esterházy or the premiere of some Liszt Masses. Dr. Miklós Székessy has been a conscientious and firm President of the institution.

In a further sense Ars Hungarica has shown amplitude of spirit: it has collaborated with the Embassies of various European countries (with, of course, the support of the Hungarian Embassy) so as to give joint panoramas of their musical art, not only with frontier countries such as Romania but also remoter ones such as Finland (with whom Hungary however shares a linguistic group). This year they presented a conspectus of sixteenth-seventeenth century Polish music and eighteenth-century Hungarian music at the ideal venue of the Museo de Arte Decorativo's main hall, warm and beautiful. About 50 artists were led by Leidemann with her usual care, knowledge and intensity, and they included the Chamber Choir of Ars Hungarica, the Choir of the Argentine/Polish Association, the Rosario Baroque Orchestra, a group of vocal soloists featuring sopranos Marcela Sotelano and Silvina Sadoly and some invited players, notably the Hungarian trumpetist Gábor Hegyi.

From Poland we heard works from Mikolaj Gomulka (1535-91), some sincere and simple psalms (choir, trombones and cornetto); Marcin Mielczewski (1590-1651), a canzona on the Giovanni Gabrieli mold for 2 violins, dulzian (a soft-timbred old type of oboe) and continuo, and a splendid Psalm 112 ("Laudate pueri Dominum"), for six vocal soloists, six-part choir, trombones, dulzian, strings and continuo; and Damian Stachowicz (1658-99), expressive "Litaniae de Beata Virgine" for vocal quartet, choir, trumpets, strings and continuo, and a brilliant hymn, "Veni Consolator", for soprano (Sadoly), trumpet (Hegyi) and continuo (the latter a particularly good performance). From Hungary, fragments from the only extant work of Johann Patzelt (whose dates are unknown), his school opera for a Jesuitic school "Castor et Pollux" (in latin), from 1743, nice Baroque music; and finally, from Benedikt Istvanffy (1733-78) , the offertory "Veni Sancte Spiritus"

crowned by a vigorous Alleluia, typical Classicist sacred music. The interpretative level was generally high, apart from some blemishes of intonation.

A very different but even more important concert was the homage to Zoltan Kodály which took place at the Auditorio de Belgrano commemorating the 125th anniversary of his birth. Although Béla Bartók is better known and certainly the greater composer (an absolutely essential personality of powerful originality and influence), Kodály is also very important and still underappreciated here. Under the auspices of the Hungarian Ministry of Culture and Education and the International Kodály Society Foundation, the occasion allowed the hearers to have a useful and valuable cross-section of the creator's work in several genres. Kodály joined his friend Bartók in the painstaking field recollection at the beginning of the twentieth century of hundreds upon hundreds of recordings done with cumbersome equipment of the true Magyar folklore in song and dance, thus setting at rest the erroneous identification of Gypsy Hungarian music with the authentic folk idiom of the country. Much of this material was eventually harmonized by them in wonderful examples of adaptation to academic language keeping the original flavor. Kodály was also a seminal figure as a teacher, and his choral music is extensive and fundamental for the growth of different types of choirs in Hungary.

The programme started with three choruses by the reinforced Ars Hungarica Choir, who was in fine fettle, accurate and intense. The funny and fast "The gypsy eats curd", "The peacock takes flight" (on which Kodály based his admirable "Variations on the peacock song" for orchestra), a poetic, refined piece; and the variegated "Scenes from the Mátra region", quite difficult in its contrasts.

Then, a series of pieces sung by tenor Jószef Csák, from the Budapest Opera, a veteran artist of vast experience . He certainly knows the style although the voice is rather hard. He was accompanied rather dully by Daniel Trufero. We heard two songs transcribed from folk material, a song from the folk opera "The knitting room " ("Székelyfonó"), and two from the opera "Háry János", "Recruitment" and "Toast", both full of character.

The First Part closed with the adventurous Sonata for cello and piano, well played by pianist Lucas Urdampilleta but rather weakly by cellist Martín Devoto.

The Orchestra of Ars Hungarica numbered 45 and was generally good and enthusiastic . Apart from a bad horn croak, the playing in the "Dances from Galánta" was full of charm and rhythm under the idiomatic conducting of Sylvia Leidemann. Unfortunately Hungary lost big chunks of its historic territory after World War I, among them Galánta, currently a part of Slovakia.

The concert ended with what is probably Kodály's greatest score, the "Psalmus Hungaricus", tragic and with a profound national feeling. It is based on David's Psalm 55 as adapted in the sixteenth century by Mihály Vég Kecskeméti. Written in 1923, full of grief and rebellion, it was offered with true conviction by Csák, the choir and orchestra, all led with fervor and high attainment by Leidemann.

Para el Buenos Aires Herald


lunes, septiembre 24, 2007

Europe sends three admirable orchestras

These recent weeks have been a blessing for the amateur of symphony orchestras. No less than three have visited us from Europe and all gave deep satisfaction. It's no surprise that two of them could be heard at the Mozarteum Argentino , for they have a stunning record of distinguished foreign orchestras through the decades. Another valuable institution , Nuova Harmonia, shared one of the orchestras and presented another.

There was a wonderful debut concert by the Symphonica Toscanini under its founder, now 77-year-old Lorin Maazel, still fit and as usual a wizard of orchestral sonorities, as he demonstrated in his many visits with orchestras from the USA , France , Italy and Austria. The sense of the tour was to pay homage to Toscanini in the 50th anniversary of his death, and also because the 11-year-old Maazel, a prodigy, astonished the old master with his precocious conducting talent back in 1941. The Orchestra is very young; it was born on the 1st of May 2006; and enormous: 200 players alternate ; 109 came to BA. They have as antecedent the Toscanini Philharmonic, and their city of residence is Rome. The concert was non-subscription.

The programme was marvelous, a synthesis of Maazel's most apposite repertoire. Roussel's Second Suite from "Bacchus et Ariane", the Dance of the Seven Veils and the final scene from Richard Strauss' "Salome" and two Respighi masterpieces: "Fountains of Rome" and "Fountains of Rome". Fantastically colorful material done ideally by an extremely professional orchestra and a maestro who is always at his very best in this sort of music, with his uncanny ear for transparence and picturesqueness. And with the added pleasure of hearing Nancy Gustafson in her long-delayed debut ; thrice she was announced by the Colón, the first time singing the same Salome scene, and thrice she cancelled due to disagreements. A singer of immense versatility, she doesn't have the clarion voice of a Nilsson but the timbre is good and the volume acceptable, and these rather neutral assets are compensated by an acute musical and dramatic intelligence that gave us a believable Salome even without the stage action.I disagreed with the idea of having an offstage voice (Salo Pasik) telling the plot with melodramatic exaggeration to the audience. Supertitles broke off minutes before the end.

The other concert by the Toscanini was for Nuova Harmonia and I couldn't hear it; it seemed less interesting, with Beethoven's Fifth, repetition of "Pines of Rome" and two Italian overtures. It replaced the cancelled visit of the Verdi Symphony Orchestra.

For both subscription series the Mozarteum presented the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester under Philippe Jordan in two different programmes with baritone Thomas Hampson ; all made their local debuts; it was one of the greatest occasions of the year.The Orchestra was founded by Claudio Abbado in 1986 in Vienna, who remains its Musical Director, and it is considered the best European youth organism. The players range from 18 to 26-years-old and there's a goodly proportion of girls. I couldn't hear the first concert, all-Mahler : a selection of his early songs and the Sixth Symphony. But the second was roundly splendid. Two of the greatest symphonic scores (among my personal favorites) were chosen by the conductor and had performances of superlative quality: Richard Strauss' "Death and Transfiguration" and Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring". Immensely difficult music in deep contrast to each other (the strongest Postromanticism and the twentieth-century purest monument to rhythm), the orchestra showed extraordinary accuracy and enthusiasm under the guidance of the brilliant young conductor, certainly one of the best of his generation. The results were electrifying all the way.

But there was a further attraction, the belated debut of Hampson, one of the best lyric baritones of his generation (he is close to 50) along with Skovhus and Hvorostovsky, who were heard in BA years ago. Hampson's voice is very beautiful, even poetical, and he uses it with high intelligence and refinement. He sang four of the five Rueckert Lieder (why not all five?), enchanting in "Ich atmet' eine linden Duft", deeply dramatic in "Um Mitternacht" and almost metaphysical in "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen". He also did two early songs in the fine orchestrations by Luciano Berio (probably premieres): "Ich ging mit Lust" from "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" and "Erinnerung" , text by Richard Leander; his "pianissimi" in the former were perfect.

I was pleasantly surprised by the return visit of the "Sinfónica de Euskadi" (Nuova Harmonia) who had been here in 2000 under its conductor Gilbert Varga, a Londoner of Hungarian extraction. Their return showed the orchestra in fine shape and very cosmopolitan in its composition (plenty of Slavs along, naturally, Basque players and from other places) and Varga a most proficient conductor. Their traversal of Shostakovich's desolate and turbulent Tenth Symphony had impact, accuracy and tensile strength, with very good playing from all sectors and intelligent, controlled conducting.

There was a further motive for joy: Bruno Gelber gave his best performance in years solving the difficulties of Rachmaninov's redoubtable Third Concerto with thorough professionalism. The Orchestra lacked some fine points, though. The programme was completed by Francisco Madina's short suite "Orreaga", which means "Roncesvalles"; I felt little sense of history in the pleasant enough music. Encores: a delicate Guridi piece, "Amorosa" (from "Ten Basque Melodies") and Dvorák's Slavonic Dance op. 46 No. 1.

Para el Buenos Aires Herald

domingo, septiembre 02, 2007

The reign of the song recital

Since the beginning of historical times the human voice has been the most sensitive of instruments. Any concert season provides a rich panorama of composers and interpreters that have honored the expressive possibilities of the voice, and so it is in 2007. Herewith a selection with ups and downs of what I heard in recent weeks.

I will start with a true rarity, the recital at AMIJAI of the very talented Argentine countertenor Franco Fagioli accompanied by the guitarist Pablo González Jazey. I have never before heard that particular combination of sound, and the chosen repertoire was a premiere: original works and arrangements by Mauro Giuliani (1781-1829), well-known to guitarists through his three Concerti but also, as transpired on this occasion, a sensitive writer for the voice in the tradition of Italian bel canto. We heard the "Six ariette" op.95 on poems of the famous eighteenth-century librettist Pietro Metastasio, nice music mostly, with one of them in the minor mode showing an attractive refinement; and the "Six cavatine" op.39, going through many moods similar to those of the bel canto operas. And also arrangements by Giuliani of pieces by composers such as Cimarosa and Mayr (and of Rossini as an encore, the famous "Di tanti palpiti" from "Tancredi"). All very melodic and ornamented, quite difficult to sing and with skillful accompaniments.

Fagioli is having a brilliant European career, with main roles in Baroque operas led by illustrious specialists. Logical enough, for he is the possessor of a most beautiful voice with a wide register that encompasses contralto and soprano tones, and he uses it with consumate command of the most arduous florid lines and an appealing dramatic sense. Everything was finely sung and I especially enjoyed the minor mode song referred to above and the virtuoso display of "Di tanti palpiti". The guitarist, born in Tucumán, was absolutely impeccable, his very clear technique abetted by a natural sense of phrasing and perfect ensemble with the singer.

Also at AMIJAI, there was a fine recital by one of our best sopranos, Carla Filipcic-Holm, admirably accompanied by pianist Silvia Kersenbaum, a great solo player that seems to find the world of song quite congenial. There were in the programme two rarities, songs by Clara Wieck (Schumann's wife) written in her husband's style and an intense one, "In the garden of my father", by Alma Mahler , along with Schumann's cycle "Frauenliebe und Leben" ("Love and life of women"), three Grieg songs in German translations and Ravel's "Scheherazade", that exquisite cycle of Oriental evocation. Encores: "Alfonsina y el mar", the famous song by Ariel Ramírez and Félix Luna (the latter was in the audience) and more Grieg ("A Swan"). The soprano was in full form and I would make no distinction between interpretations, for everything was carefully considered and communicated, with her lovely timbre very well handled. I would only add that she surprised me in Ravel, for she is German-oriented but found the proper style .

A very special recital was offered at the Museo Fernández Blanco by soprano Sylvie Robert accompanied with admirable accuracy by Andrea García : an all-Webern programme! It may seem difficult for the listener, but in fact I found it refreshing and interesting. The ten songs of youth (probably a premiere) are still Late Romantic, whilst the four opuses chosen are atonal (op.3 and 4,on Stefan George, 1909 , and op.12 on varied texts from writers such as Strindberg and Goethe) and with a gradual concentration of the musical elements, or twelve-tone ("Three Lieder on poems by Hildegard Jone", op.25). The surprise for those who may feel that Webern is of forbidding complication was how well he writes for the voice. And the communicative musicality of Sylvie Robert made it quite convincing. Ans she is versatile too, witness her unexpected encore, a picaresque song from Messager's operetta "L'amour masqué" done with great charm.

Another special recital was offered by baritone Víctor Torres accompanied by lutenist Igor Herzog at the Jockey Club for Ars Nobilis. The First Part was dedicated to great Elizabethan composers: songs by John Dowland and lute pieces by William Byrd. The Second Part featured some beautiful Purcell pieces for voice and lute and as contrast, leaving England, lute scores by Ennemond Gaultier, a French composer. Although the baritone wasn't in his best voice, he displayed his honest , expressive art in what is a new field for him; his English was good. Herzog is a true virtuoso and played Renaissance lute in the First Part and Baroque lute in the Second.

La Bella Música in an intimate hall of the Sofitel presented baritone Burkhard Von Puttkamer, who payed a return visit to BA and tackled the arduous Schubert cycle "Die Winterreise" ("The Winter Voyage") accompanied by Philip Mayers, an Australian (debut). In 2006 I felt that the baritone had little voice but showed good taste and musical professionalism; in 2007 I thought that the enormous interpretative and vocal challenge was too much for his means, although again he knew the music well and had fine intonation; but this music is for a bigger, darker voice and for an artist capable of delving the ultimate depths. I was happier with the pianist's clean traversal of the 24 Lieder, though with too little insight on the dramatic significance of some Schubertian figurations.

For Buenos Aires Herald