domingo, diciembre 21, 2008

Adventurous choral music

Recent weeks have given us a wealth of offbeat choral music with two high points: the revival after decades of negligence of two valuable twentieth-century scores: Arthur Honegger´s "Le Roi David" ("King David") and Benjamin Britten´s "Saint Nicolas".

I have cherished Honegger´s symphonic psalm ever since I first heard it live conducted by Albert Wolff in 1953. In 1956 I bought the version conducted by the composer; since then I obtained Leopold Hager´s excellent CD and heard it twice more in concert; but now it has been absent for almost three decades. It was high time for the audience to renew its acquaintance with this masterpiece written in 1921 when the composer was 29. Based on a drama by René Morax, it was initially conceived as a biblical drama or sacred opera but was soon transformed into an oratorio. There were two versions: the first had an orchestra of 23 player according to Zadoff´s notes, but the composer in his recording says they were 17; the second, a full orchestra. I had always heard the latter, but Néstor Zadoff, the conductor of this revival, chose the former and it was very interesting, although he further reduced the 23 or 17 to only 14, combining winds with percussion, alternated piano and organ and only two strings, cello and bass. The sound was stringent and salutary, providing quite enough support to the big (84-strong) veteran but fine-sounding Grupo Coral Divertimento. I take exception to the cuts Zadoff made, for after so much time we were entitled to hear the whole thing, and anyway it isn´t long; it lasted almost an hour with Zadoff, it lasts 66 minutes with Hager and no less than 79 with the composer conducting! Practical reasons may have led to the elimination of the contralto´s song of the handmaiden, but he also cut the choral Song of Praise and the psalm "In my distress". Nevertheless I hugely enjoyed the occasion, especially in the biggest number, the Dance before the Ark, which builds to a grandiose climax, and the final alleluias of pure "Bachian" beauty.

The choral and orchestral interpretation was very convincing. The Narrator (an innovation) was the excellent Augusto Morales, quite expressive and with perfect French diction. The very correct though not intense enough tenor was Ricardo González Dorrego, and soprano Rebeca Nomberto recovered from a weak start and went on to well-voiced melismas. The Witch of Endor was voiced with raucous, agonic projection by María Rosa Chiaravalloti.

I was present at the premiere of "Saint Nicolas" in our city: it was offered in 1954 by that wonderful institution, the Asociación de Conciertos de Cámara, conducted by Washington Castro. Since then I´ve been hoping for its revival (if there was one I missed it). It is a 50-minute cantata written in 1948 on the life of Saint Nicolas, converted later into Santa Claus, with an adequate text concocted by Eric Crozier. It assembles a mixed choir, a children´s choir and a chamber orchestra reinforced with organ and four-hand piano. Britten´s music is admirably fresh and varied, of course tonal, and it shows again his empathy with the sound of children. Premiered (and recorded) at the Aldeburgh Festival with Peter Pears as Saint Nicolas, it is the recording to have.

There were three performances in diverse venues; I heard the third at the church of Saint Ignatius, the oldest in BA. The subway strike and one of the habitual protests at the nearby Plaza 25 de Mayo led to an unconscionable delay of 70 minutes, but there was also bad planning: the local priest was still saying mass at 8,15 p.m. when the concert was announced at 8 p.m… Nevertheless I enjoyed this reencounter after so many years, for the combined Coro Polifónico Nacional (Roberto Luvini) and Coro Nacional de Niños (Vilma Gorini de Teseo) were quite good (the kids a bit overwhelmed in sound by the adults) and the competent ad-hoc orchestra (18-strong) were all led by Luvini with a clear hand . The weak link was tenor Pablo Travaglino, who doesn´t have the means for such a exposed part, although he read the music accurately.

Now to famous waters with Joseph Haydn´s mighty oratorio "The Creation" ("Die Schöpfung") offered at the Facultad de Derecho by Pedro Calderón leading the Coro Polifónico Nacional (Luvini) and the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional, both in fine shape. The three Archangels were sung superbly by Soledad de la Rosa (Gabriel) and quite well by González Dorrego (Uriel) and Marcos Nicastro (Raphael), and in the last part Norberto Marcos was a fine Adam and Silvina Sadoly a well-sung but rather pale Eva. Calderón showed again his versatility and conducted with command.

It was nice meeting Juan Pedro Esnaola´s 1826 Mass for four voices. The score was found by Juan Florentino La Moglie and transcribed by Norberto Broggini and this was the premiere of this pioneer Argentine sacred score written in the Italian style at only 18-years- old. As the Mass is incomplete they added a Benedictus from his still earlier Requiem and in place of the Agnus Dei the motet "Agnus innocens". All the interpreters were good, though soprano Elena López Jáuregui and tenor Carlos Ullán were more sonorous than tenor Pablo Pollitzer and bass Walter Schwarz. La Moglie conducted with professional acumen the Cappella Vocale and the Orchestra "Proyecto Esnaola". The venue was the very full Cathedral.

For Buenos Aires Herald

martes, diciembre 02, 2008

The everlasting magic of Mozartian opera

One of the main trends of the last thirty years has been the steady increase of Mozartian opera. In particular the Da Ponte trilogy and "The Magic Flute" have become quite as popular as "La Boheme" or "La Traviata". I believe this has to do with many factors: the eternal appeal of the composer´s music; his uncanny psychological penetration; the excellence of Da Ponte´s libretti who make for excellent theatre; the high degree of professionalism and training of contemporary singers; the historicist tendencies; the relative lower cost of stagings as compared to full-scale operas.

It doesn´t mean, however, that the world of Mozartian opera is free from the current plague of preposterous productions. The most recent batch, however, has avoided the worst pitfalls, especially the transposition in time to the present or the gross lapses into obscenity.

Buenos Aires Lírica (BAL) has given us "Don Giovanni" and Juventus Lyrica (JL) "The Marriage of Figaro" ("Le nozze di Figaro"), both at the Avenida. There were good points in both, though I incline to the latter for the best all-round effort.

In BAL there was one crucial casting mistake, the Giovanni, and some misguided markings from the Italian producer, Rita De Letteriis, but most of the evening was reasonably satisfying though it never delivered the special Mozartian magic alluded to in the title of this review. De Letteriis had a resonant debut in this city with her quite good Monteverdi "L´incoronazione di Poppea"). Mozart seems to agree less with her. There were an astonishing number of "non sequiturs" where she simply seemed not to have read the libretto and the singing actors seemed too often at sea in their relationships. There was nowhere as much fun as the libretto contains, and in the dramatic side there were ludicrous moments such as the totally unconvincing fall into Hell of Giovanni. On the other hand she kept to the Mozartian period.

In any production the stage and costumes designers follow the producer´s lead and if he/she is wrong, so quite often are they. I found the reticulated backdrop by Santiago Elder quite beautiful, the redeeming element of an otherwise minimalist staging that didn´t evoke the various ambits called for, and the stage props were at times absurd. Eduardo Lerchundi is a talented veteran costume designer and some of them were very attractive, but not Giovanni´s, who never looked like an aristocrat.

I said before that the Giovanni was miscast; indeed, Gustavo Ahualli, an Argentine who´s having a career in the USA, showed a serviceable voice, no more, with little insinuation and beauty, and as an actor was much too vulgar. Hernán Iturralde, usually excellent, seemed constrained by the producer: he sang well but with less humor than he showed in other circumstances, and acted rather stiffly. The outstanding artist was Carlos Ullán, who, although he exaggerated the recitatives, interpreted with sterling quality his two arias. Ricardo Ortale did with stalwart authority the "Commendatore", the stone guest. Gustavo Zahnstecher sang nicely as Masetto.

The best of the ladies was Carla Filipcic Holm as Donna Anna; her voice has grown a lot, and although there was some stridency in "Or sai chi l´onore", she found her stride afterwards. Andrea Nazarre was a late replacement for Gabriela Ceaglio as Donna Elvira, so she was comprehensibly nervous; quite young and with little experience, this tough role is still beyond her but she has good qualities. Ana Laura Menéndez sang correctly as Zerlina, but with little charm and innuendo.

Carlos Vieu showed his accustomed firmness and musicality as the conductor of a good orchestra, and the choir under Juan Casasbellas was correct. I was sorry that Elvira´s "Mi tradì" was cut, I suppose because of the replacement. Naturally the Avenida´s stage doesn´t have space for the three "orchestrinas" at the close of the First act, so the polyrhythms and stereophonies of that fragment went for nothing.

I found producer Ana D´Anna´s approach to "The Marriage of Figaro" quite refreshing. She narrated with ease, kept the story clear even in the intrincate Garden Scene and stuck to the original setting in time and place; I only object an excess of sexual play and slaps. The stage designs by Raúl Bongiorno were excellent, both beautiful, in style and functional, and the costumes by María Jaunarena showed a growing maturity.

Antonio Russo was an impeccable conductor, of perfect tempi and phrasing, and got the best out of the very professional orchestra. Pleasant work from the Chorus (Miguel Pesce). The cast I saw (there were three) had the special interest of the local debut of Chilean soprano Macarena Valenzuela as the Countess; I would call it a triumph, for she has a fine lyrical voice capable of much shade and very well used; also she looks right for the part. The very charming Laura Penchi was a vital, very physical Susanna and sang with much stamina and line, only faulted in the lowest notes. The Cherubino of Cecilia Pastawski was delightful in every way, and also moving. A well-sung Marcellina from Lara Mauro, a coquette Barbarina from Mariana Mederos and agreeable Peasants (Silvana Gómez, Marcela Marina).

Marcelo Otegui gradually became a sparkling Figaro, though the voice is impersonal. Fernando Grassi was a correct Count; I expected more from him. Barely acceptable Leandro Sosa (Don Bartolo), good Santiago Bürgi (Basilio), Sebastián Russo (Curzio) and Claudio Rotella (Antonio).

For Buenos Aires Herald

sábado, noviembre 29, 2008

The special aura of recitals

There is a special aura of anticipation in instrumental recitals: concerts for one or two artists. The player stands either alone or accompanied by one other player, and in most cases, the accompanist is really a full-time partner for his music is just as exacting. There´s nothing to occult their mistakes or to minimize their perfection: they are exposed all the time. This is a survey of piano recitals in recent weeks.

The piano dominates this repertory area. A Vietnamese, Dang Thai Son, offered the recital for Chopiniana that had been suspended last year due to an intoxication. I was deeply impressed by his artistry. He won in 1980 First Prize in the Tenth Chopin Competition at Warsaw. He alternates concert giving with recordings and professorships in Montreal and Tokyo. Dang Thai Son is an exemplar of the astonishing adaptability of Orientals to a completely alien culture, such as Occidental classical music. Urbane and contained, he showed an admirably clean technique up to any challenges and an exquisite taste, being particularly stylish in Impressionist music. His version of Ravel´s marvellous and rarely played "Miroirs" ("Mirrors") was outstanding in every way. So were Fauré´s Nocturnes 1 and 2, on the road to Debussy parting from Romantic bases. His Chopin was very solid and with no mannerisms: Ballads Nº.3 op. 47 and Nº.1 op. 23, 4 Mazurkas op. 24 and Scherzo Nº2 op.31, and as an encore, the Waltz op.9/2. The witty "Golliwogg´s cakewalk" from Debussy´s "Children´s corner" was the other brilliant encore.

Veteran Argentine pianist Aquiles Delle Vigne, who lives in Europe, made a poor "rentrée" in Chopiniana after many years. A very fallible mechanism and a marked eccentricity in phrasing were evident in Chopin´s Mazurkas op.6/2, 24/1 and 68/2, and in his Second Sonata. The pianist´s work was better in Mozart´s Fantasia K.475. The Gershwin "Rhapsody in blue" was billed as arranged by Delle Vigne but it sounded pretty much like straight Gershwin and was erratically played. The encores were Liszt´s "Consolation No.3 "(we needed to be consoled…) and some Piazzolla. By the way, the originally announced program was tougher, for it included Beethoven´s Sonata No. 12 and Rachmaninov´s Second Sonata.

Elsa Púppulo has for long decades been one of our most accomplished pianists. However, in recent years she has been disconcertingly uneven for an artist of such impressive mechanism. In her recital for Chopiniana, moreover, she seemed ill. I know she can play to perfection the terribly difficult Chopin Etudes, but this didn´t happen this time ; also, she changed the order without reason and it wasn´t announced. After the initial Franck "Prelude, chorale and fugue", played with acumen, an unconscionable amount of time passed before she appeared for the Chopin pieces, and she looked out of sorts. The Second Part started quite well with strong performances of Liszt´s Hungarian Rhapsodies Nos. 13 and 11. She then played a selection of Rachmaninov´s Preludes, mostly very well, but it was inconsiderate to the public to do a different selection than the printed one in the hand programme. Such matters must be taken care of by Martha Noguera, the enterprising pianist who is at the helm of Chopiniana. Two short pieces by Grieg and Chopin were the encores. The venue for this and the preceding concerts was the Teatro Santa María, a rather mournful hall who tends to put a pall on the proceedings.

A small but attractive venue is the Museo Fernández Blanco, who gives an intensive amount of concerts a year, some of them quite good. The Israelite pianist Immanuela Grunberg, also a Doctor in Music and active in the USA, presented a commented Schubert recital. She played one of the three admirable "Pieces for keyboard" ("Klavierstücke")-Nº 2-, the Four Impromptus op.90 and the great Sonata Nº 20. She wasn´t note-perfect but showed herself a good stylist, lyrical and dramatic. In the Sonata she chose her tempi well, though she was a bit hesitant in transitions and had some memory problems. But in all it was an interesting traversal of fine music.

Volker Ziemendorff is another pianist who may have some missteps but shows intellectual comprehension of the finer points of style and is always thoughtful in his interpretations. The venue was again the Fernández Blanco. A First Part dedicated to the

Classic Era with fine sonatas by Haydn (Hob. XVI/49) and Mozart (Nº 14, K.457) was presented with understanding and sense of form but also with mistakes and memory failures. In the Schubert "Moments musicaux" the contrast was even greater between the stylistic and the executional sides. Schubert´s Impromptu op.142/1 went better. Followed a good selection of our senior composers: Gianneo´s difficult "Bailecito" (the pianist had a false start), Guastavino´s simpler one, the charming Tango from "Aquel Buenos Aires" by Pedro Sáenz and Ginastera´s sweet "Danza de la moza donosa" from "Tres danzas argentinas". Finally, Chopin´s Scherzo No. 2 was rather satisfying until the final dishevelled pages.

At an unexpected but interesting venue, the Aguaribay in Mendoza 3821, occurred a special event: the complete performance of "…aus Märchenzeit" ("…from fairy-tale times") by one of our best composers, Luis Mucillo. It is a vast, 75-minute, seven-part suite of immense intellectual accomplishment and often fascinating sounds, and was admirably played by three pianists, Aldo Antognazzi, Alexander Panizza and Mucillo himself. The biggest and most complex was "Hoffmannesque tale: the sounding glass". All showed a transcendent imagination.

For Buenos Aires Herald

domingo, noviembre 23, 2008

The richness of the choral-symphonic repertoire

In recent weeks the music lover has had occasion to appreciate a good deal of the best of the beautiful choral-symphonic repertoire , albeit in different levels of interpretation. Hereby a synthesis of events.

Pride of place goes to the end-of-season concert of Festivales Musicales at the Auditorio de Belgrano, where the much-loved veteran maestro Michel Corboz showed yet again his acumen as a specialist of this texture. The programme combined two scores of different composers: Francis Poulenc´s "Gloria" and Puccini´s 50-minute "Messa di Gloria". The former lasts about 25´, dates from 1959 and is typical of the author in its beauty of melody and harmony and its contrast between sublimated numbers and others of jubilant nature and syncopated rhythm, which accords with the celebratory character of the Gloria. The Messa on the other hand is an early work (1880) by the future master of opera and responds to the family tradition of sacred music at his home town, Lucca. It shows the sureness of hand of the composer, even in elaborate counterpoint, although what we hear is the 1893 revision, surely more polished than the original. As was to be expected, there´s ample melody and warmness in this music, not transcendent but surely very pleasant to hear.

The Colón Orchestra didn´t sound completely assured in some moments of the Poulenc but seemed good enough in Puccini. The Colón Choir under Salvatore Caputo was strong and brilliant though not quite subtle enough in slow hushed passages. Soledad de la Rosa was admirably musical and crystal-clear in Poulenc, and in Puccini baritone Víctor Torres sung with his wonted refinement and tenor Enrique Folger forced his fine timbre with verismo excesses.

Johann Sebastian Bach´s Mass in G minor is the most monumental work of the repertoire and one of the most difficult, only surpassed by Beethoven´s shorter but mighty "Missa Solemnis". In the last three decades Bach has gone though a historicist revolution and we no longer accept versions of admirable beauty and accomplishment but with a Romantic outlook such as Von Karajan´s. On the other hand I feel that interpretations with modern instruments but with Baroque "manners" such as Karl Richter and early Helmut Rilling are still valid and moving. Late Rilling, Harnoncourt, Gardiner and others give us swift tempi, historical instruments and very transparent textures. It´s a streamlined Bach, to my mind less communicative but attractive in its exactness and timbres, but it demands a very high grade of professionalism.

This marvellous Catholic Mass produced by a Lutheran , incredibly unitary although it is a patchwork of new music and recycled material from earlier cantatas, is always astonishing in its unbounded imagination and superlative contrapuntal technique. It´s a tall order to offer it, but La Bella Música resolved to present it. The institution has presented valuable choral-symphonic works in recent years, generally with good results. This time they were mixed. Andrés Gerszenzon conducted some time ago a "St. Mathew Passion" that followed historicist principles but was often devitalized, and this happened again with the Mass. His tempi were generally well-chosen, he used trumpets and horn on the mold of the Baroque period, he innovated by assigning to soloists (on the basis of sparse accompaniment) fragments generally done chorally, but there was little tension and expression in the phrasing. When one isn´t moved by the "Crucifixus", something is wrong.

Care had been taken to try to assemble good players and singers but results weren´t quite what was expected. I do single out the notable first trumpet Valentin Garvie, Argentine though living in Europe, for his precision and intonation, but the horn player, imported from Brazil, was lamentabl The Baroque Ensemble "de la Bella Música", 26-strong, had well-known players (Marchesini, R. Rutkauskas, G. Massun, Barile, F. Ciancio) but the total result wasn´t as satisfactory as the work demands; I was surprised by considerable lapses of intonation and some playing didn´t have the right timbre (Barile). The Coral del Siglo XXI (40 singers) conducted by Guillermo Dorá acquitted themselves rather well, though they were the victims of inappropriate phrasing.

It was audacious to assign the contralto parts to a countertenor, something that both Harnoncourt and Leonhardt have done in the casting of cantatas, so I suppose there´s some basis for it. The very young Damián Ramírez has a beautiful timbre and he did an expressive "Agnus Dei" but I found him hesitant in "Qui sedes". Víctor Torres was admirable in "Et in spiritum sanctum" and less so in "Quoniam", perhaps upset by the horn player. I found Ricardo González Dorrego charmless though accurate in "Benedictus". The participation of sopranos Silvina Sadoly and Marisú Pavón was correct and that of Lídice Robinson as second soprano, unnecessary. The venue was the Coliseo.

About 35 years ago Purcell´s semiopera "Dioclesian" had a good premiere, I believe under Raymond Leppard. Its revival by the Sociedad Händel led by Sergio Siminovich was warranted by the quality of the piece but unfortunately was very poor due to the quite mediocre orchestral ensemble (intonation was awful) and the amateurish though enthusiastic chorus. Siminovich´s technique was as always confusing in its ample but imprecise gestures, though I grant him the merit of bringing to us interesting and neglected pieces. There was good work from sopranos Silvina Guatelli and Natalia Salardino and countertenor Damián Ramírez, less good by tenor Mario Martínez and bass Francisco Bastitta.

For Buenos Aires Herald

miércoles, noviembre 19, 2008

Kodo, the name for wondrous percussion

Many years ago, in 1969, the Mozarteum Argentino brought us a superb ensemble, Les Percussions de Strasbourg, and they came back about a decade ago, giving us the very best resources of percussion music in the Occidental tradition. Now, closing their season at the Coliseo, they left the audience spellbound with a marvellous Japanese ensemble, Kodo, bringing the utmost perfection in Oriental percussion.

"Kodo" means two things: the heart-beat, origin of all rhythm, heard by the foetus in the mother´s uterus ; and "children of the drum", a reflexion of Kodo´s desire to play with a child´s simplicity of heart. Although they preserve and reinterpret traditional Japanese arts, they are also influenced by the frequent "tournées" that Kodo has made since its already far-off inception, in 1981. It has offered about 3.100 performances in 45 countries; their year divides into three equal parts, 1/3 to their voyages abroad, 1/3 to performances in Japan and 1/3 to preparing new material in Sado Island.

In their repertoire there are three main elements: pieces based on traditional popular art; works by friends and mentors of the organisation (Maki Ishii, Shinichiro Ikebe), the Kabuki artists Roetsu Tosha and Kiyohiko Senba and the jazz pianist Yousuke Yamashita, and creations by members of the group incorporating inspirations from their trips all over the world.

The Artistic Director is Mitsuru Ishizuka and there are 13 interpreters: 10 men and 3 women. They are listed in the hand programme heading, but not identified in the various numbers. The show was continuous and comprised eleven numbers.

Before I go on to describe individual pieces, a general impression. As a Westerner with a superficial familiarity with the Japanese ethos, I was deeply impacted by the tremendous discipline and visceral power of the players. My images of Japan come from their drawings which were such an influence on the Impressionists, by their films, especially those of Akira Kurosawa, and by some books. An insular country, it has kept fiercely to its traditions, particularly in rural areas, but in the big cities has had a powerful input from the USA MacArthur plan after World War II, so that Tokyo is a strange mixture of profoundly dissimilar views of life. The composite image is that of an ethos in which we find side by side powerful images of the samurai past with its code of honor, its martial arts, the command of every fibre in the body (in common with the Chinese), its hara-kiri or seppuku, its kamikaze soldiers, along with delicate paintings, exquisite and morose soft music from the koto or the flute and women in elaborate and beautiful kimonos and heavily whited facies.

Kodo asks from its players awesome stamina and total precision. They certainly give of themselves generously, with "esprit de corps". Their main instrument is the "taiko", a drum that comes in very different sizes, from small to a gigantic one that presides over the proceedings from the back of the stage. They are aesthetically beautiful and the artists elicit from them an enormous variety of sounds, from extreme "pianissimo" to granitic "fortissimo". The Artistic Director knows how to dispose them with a true sense of show. The massed sound is overwhelming, although there are segments where the unrelenting battering gets monotonous, for they tend to stay in one rhythm for long periods. But when the drums tend to outstay their welcome comes the contrast of a ruminative soft flute, or of sweet-voiced singing (not the nasalized shrillness of the Chinese).

The programme starts with a thrilling number, "The tribe" by Leonard Edo, a telluric outburst of fantastic power. Then, "Door to the unknown" by Tsubasa Hori, where a metaphysical contact with other worlds is attempted. "The woodcutter´s song" is traditional and has at first an antiphonal vocal structure which leads to "Miyake", where the men strike implacably drums set in the ground. "Monochrome", by Maki Ishii, is a mixture of regular and irregular rhythmic patterns in a constantly spiralling dynamic progression. "Cymbals", by Ryutaro Kaneko, is a subtle interplay of small cymbals linked to Buddhist religious practices. "Three cold days, four hot days", by Eiichi Saito, refers to the end of winter and is a powerful piece of strong contrasts. "Butterfly", by Saito, has a refined choreography by Ayako Onizawa and offers a moment of poetic respite. "The path of dew" refers to the journey through life and prolongs the charm and subtlety of the preceding work.

But now came the greatest possible contrast. In a display of extreme strength and endurance, a half-naked player, all fiber, played during about 15 minutes the gigantic drum mentioned earlier in this review with almost terrifying speed and enormous sound. Frankly I feared for his heart. The training of such players surely implies special techniques of control and concentration.

The final number, "Taiko in festive chariots", is traditional, and makes a grand celebration to crown a very special experience. The communication with the audience was vivacious and authentic, the success particularly important considering that these were people attending a subscription series of Occidental classical music.

In fact, this was quite a gamble for the Mozarteum, but their instincts were unerring: they gave us a show of marked aesthetic and cultural value, moreover quite accessible due to its paradoxically primitive impact. They got us in touch with the real Japanese character. Thanks for that gift.

For Buenos Aires Herald

lunes, noviembre 10, 2008

Worthwhile music from the XXth and XXIst centuries

Although the bulk of the concert repertoire remains the music of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, we certainly need to know –and know well- the music that is closer to us in time, if not in sensibility; some musics of recent decades ("recent" meaning the last ten) remain problematic for the average audience, and some are so even for those of well-honed taste. But it´s certainly aesthetically unhealthy for the listener to remain isolated from the music of his contemporaries and even from that of his grandfathers´ time.

Fortunately this year there has been a good deal of interesting music from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. I will give pride of place to the concerts of the series "Classics of the twentieth century" organized by the Fundación Encuentros de Música Contemporánea which celebrates its forty years under Alicia Terzian´s direction. And her Grupo Encuentros commemorates its thirty years of activity. At AMIJAI they offered three concerts complementing the group with "friends" and totalling 17 players. I´m commenting on the first two; I couldn´t hear the third, dedicated to "Borges and the music of Buenos Aires".

Programmes were long and extremely varied. The first started with one of the most hermetic pieces of Ravel, the "Three poems of Mallarmé", sung by mezzo Marta Blanco rather reticently and accompanied by ten players. Seven instrumentalists gave us the fascinating "Chôros No. 7" (1924) by Villa-Lobos. Then, a world premiere, "Tenue brillantez" by Patricia Martínez (1973), a commission from Encuentros, deploying with professionalism the paraphernalia of the avant-garde. I was happy that one of the nicest pieces of our repertoire got a merited revival, Virtú Maragno´s "Baladas amarillas" (1952), well-sung by Blanco. The strangely called "Dramatic Polimaniquexixe" by the Chilean Jorge Antunes (1942) is a short suite billed as "largely erotic" and written for cello, clarinet and piano. Then, a very interesting experience, one of the first pieces conceived for quarter-tones, the Mexican Julián Carrillo´s "Cristóbal Colón" (1925) for voice and seven players. Followed the half-hour cantata "El martirio de Santa Olalla" created by Rodolfo Arizaga in 1952, a valuable composition in stylized Spanish archaism too long absent from our programmes (I was present at its premiere but had never heard it since). Finally, the clearly Armenian "Chant to Vahan" by Terzian herself, a suggestive composition with five small bells.

The often done "O King " by Luciano Berio is a homage to Martin Luther King and it started the second concert. The difficult "Dérive" (1984) is one of the few works by Pierre Boulez heard here, his symphonic works apparently beyond the possibilities of our orchestras; the ensemble played it well, quite a feat. The early "Cabaret songs" (1937-39) by Britten are light and agreeable and were well done by Blanco. Next, a revelation to me, the post-Romantic and very expressive "Der Wind" (1909) by Franz Schreker. Some of Shostakovich´s "Poems by A. Block", spare and stark, were heard, by voice and a piano trio that played separately or jointly in different poems. "Ascolta l´uccellino" is a commission by the Fundación Encuentros to Chilean composer Boris Alvarado and it mixed whistling, singing and avant-garde trademarks. I found Terzian´s "Les yeux fertiles" on Paul Éluard a bit too attuned to current European fingerprints, I prefer her in the Armenian-influenced scores; the piece is sung and spoken, a combination I find forced.

The ensemble is very professional and solid, and was well-rehearsed by Terzian, who also did the somewhat excessive comments. Make no mistake, these concerts were very useful and interesting and prove yet again that Terzian is a major figure in the promotion of the music I´m commenting on.

Apart from the AMIJAI concerts, the 40th International Festival of Encuentros included other sessions. I found particularly important the one dedicated to twentieth-century French music and basically featuring Olivier Messiaen. It happened at the Auditorium of the Consejo Profesional de Ciencias Económicas, a chamber venue of good acoustics at Viamonte 1549. The main work was the transcendental "Quartet for the end of times", an eight-movement instrumental work of moving mysticism written for clarinet, violin, cello and piano and composed at a relatively benign concentration camp in 1941, where it was premiered with the author at the piano. The proficient players were Claudio Espector (piano), Sergio Polizzi (violin, the only one with some difficulties not quite solved), Carlos Nozzi (cello) and Eduardo Ihidoype (clarinet). Also by Messiaen were "Three Melodies" from 1930 and "Le merle noir" for flute and piano. It was interesting to hear "Viens! Une flute invisible soupire…", a piece written for flute, piano and voice by André Caplet in 1900, and Roussel´s "Two poems of Ronsard" (1924) for flute and voice (without the habitual piano). Good jobs from mezzosoprano Marta Blanco and flutist Fabio Mazzitelli. Terzian coordinated.

An independent homage to Messiaen, and a very good one, was the premiere of his "Les corps glorieux", a 1939 score splendidly played by Argentine organist Diego Innocenzi, who resides in Switzerland. In 50 minutes and seven movements we hear "seven brief visions of the life of the reborn". This was at the basilica of the Santo Domingo convent, which holds a splendid organ of very full and varied registers, fully used by Messiaen. The work was impressive, especially in the "Combat between Death and Life". It was certainly useful to see the player via closed-circuit TV.

For Buenos Aires Herald

lunes, noviembre 03, 2008

Nuevo curso: Antonin Dvorak

A partir del próximo martes 4 de noviembre se dictará en el Club del Progresoun curso sobre la vida y la obra de Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904), a cargo del lic. Pablo Bardin.

Serán 4 clases los martes 4, 11, 18 y 25 de noviembre en el horario de 18.15 a 20.15.

Arancel total $100.

Sarmiento 1334


lunes, octubre 20, 2008

Great symphonic experiences

Nuova Harmonia ended its season with a marvelous symphonic experience at the Coliseo: the only concert of the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra Moscow under Vladimir Fedoseyev. It used to be called the Moscow Radio Symphony and it visited us under that name some years ago, led by the same conductor, who has been with it for 34 years and is now a spry 76-year-old. They brought us two standard Russian masterpieces: Rimsky-Korsakov´s "Scheherezade" and Tchaikovsky´s Fifth Symphony. Under normal circumstances I would attack the yuxtaposition of two such well-known scores and would call for something more innovative, but after hearing them I stand not only content but enthusiastic.

The orchestra has had great Russian conductors since its inception in 1930: Orlov, Golovanov, Gauk, Rozhdestvensky and for more than the last three decades, Fedoseyev. It was in 1993 that it took the current name. The fact that its 95 players have interpreted the chosen scores dozens of times under the same guidance certainly gives them an assurance that is reflected in the sovereign quality of phrasing they show. Fedoseyev isn´t a precisionist and this is felt in minuscule misadjustments that however don´t affect the paramount interpretations, of an authenticity in both composers that made for a memorable occasion.

The players are individually virtuosi and have both that unmistakable Russian expressivity and great discipline; it is uncanny to hear the massed violins to play with exactly the same bowing and attack. In "Scheherezade" both the concertino, Mikhail Shestakov, and the first cellist, Vladimir Nikonov, were wonderfully sweet and accurate. The myriad shadows of the score were ideally phrased, with a subtlety and beauty that made for ecstatic hearing. And Tchaikovsky´s Fifth, was simply ideal in tempi, timbres, tensions and releases, becoming a profoundly moving experience, as well as thrillingly virtuosic. A curious bit of data: both works were written in 1888.

Encores: both by Tchaikovsky: the "Panorama" from "Sleeping Beauty", too slow for comfort in Fedoseyev´s view, and the "Spanish Dance" from "The Nutcracker", on the contrary overfast but certainly exciting.

An impromptu visit was that of the Brazilian National Symphony Orchestra, 77-strong, sited in Rio de Janeiro, born in 1961 and making its local debut at the Avenida with the leadership of Ligia Amadio, well-known here for her concerts with the Buenos Aires Philharmonic. It was a pleasant surprise and it showed a marked advance in Rio´s symphonic life, which used to be quite poor decades ago . It isn´t on a par with the splendid Sao Paulo Symphony under Neschling, perhaps the best Latin-American orchestra nowadays, but the Rio players are quite good, and under the energetic and knowledgeable conducting of Amadio showed themselves very listenable.

I was sorry about the substitution of the very interesting early Ginastera work , Suite from the ballet "Ollantay", by the overdone dances from his "Estancia". And although I certainly enjoy Villa-Lobos´ "Bachianas Brasileiras No. 7", I would have preferred the originally announced Chôros No. 7, less played and quite advanced in idiom. But both were played with stamina and accuracy, except for some difficult writing in the final Fugue from the "Bachianas". I also liked Camargo Guarnieri´s "Three orchestral dances".

I was much impressed by the Brazilian pianist Linda Bustani, whom I hadn´t heard before, in a talented traversal of the scintillating Ravel Concerto, with fine style and exactitude. She was correctly accompanied. It was probably a local debut.

The Freiburg Young Philharmonic made its second visit to BA under its Chief Conductor, Andreas Winnen, at a Midday Concert of the Mozarteum at the Ópera. The disciplined orchestra showed again that it is well steeped in the best German tradition, although one couldn´t call Winnen imaginative, but I was really stunned by the wonderful playing of Annette von Hehn (violin) and Stefan Heinenmeyer (cello) in Brahms´ Double Concerto, strong, accurate and stylish. They also did themselves proud in the Handel/Halvorsen Passacaglia, adapted from the original for violin and viola.

The B.A.Philharmonic has offered some worthwhile concerts in recent weeks. Its Chief Conductor, Arturo Diemecke, showed again his mettle in the sprawling but fascinating programmatic symphony by Tchaikovsky, "Manfred", on Lord Byron´s ultra-Romantic account of an antihero, and the orchestra responded well to the very hard challenge. Before the interval we heard an accurate though a bit mechanical account of Schumann´s Piano Concerto by Evgeny Mikhailov, somewhat lacking in the poetry that Nelson Freire had offered us earlier this season.

Although I only heard the general rehearsal, I was very favourably impressed by the perfervid traversal of Rachmaninov´s intense First Symphony under Roslen Milanov. There was also a correct version of Alberto Williams´ First Concert Overture, and an agreeable one of Poulenc´s Piano Concerto, with very professional but rather heavy playing from Akiko Ebi.

The following concert was really important. Günther Neuhold directed with firm hand a very tough programme, eliciting good playing from the Phil, not quite perfect but always respectable. The pleasant Violin Concerto by Alicia Terzian, redolent of Armenian folklore, was splendidly played by Rafael Gintoli. Then came a very characteristic score by Olivier Messiaen, perhaps a premiere: "Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum", five fragments for winds that combine mysticism with quite modern procedures. And finally, Barshai´s string orchestra arrangement of the autobiographic Quartet No.8 by Shostakovich, which sounds well in its new attire as Chamber Symphony op. 110a. It was a co-production with the Fundación Encuentros Internacionales de Música Contemporánea.

For Buenos Aires Herald

lunes, septiembre 29, 2008

The variegated paths of Renaissance and Baroque music

In two successive days the Mozarteum Argentino gave us the return of Hespérion XXI in Ibero-American Renaissance music (at the Coliseo) . Both events were richly rewarding and demonstrative of the immense variety of those periods.

We had earlier visits from the specialist ensemble founded by Jordi Savall; it started as Hespérion XX and as the new century began, was renamed Hespérion XXI. As it came this year, it included four "viole da gamba", led by Savall in the smallest one, the others being Sergi Casademunt, Fahmi Alqhai and the Argentine Juan Manuel Quintana; Xavier Díaz-Latorre and Enrique Solinis in guitar and the "vihuela" (its cousin, so to speak); David Mayoral and Mehmet Yesilcay in assorted percussion; and Adela González-Campa in period castanets. The instrumentalists were complemented by another Savall-led ensemble, La Capella Reial de Catalunya, a flexible vocal ensemble that has often done choral work in its augmented form. Soprano Montserrat Figueras, Savall´s wife, was taken ill and splendidly replaced by the Argentine Adriana Fernández, who is having a fine career in Europe. The others were all men: countertenor David Sagastume (Basque), tenor Lluís Vilamajó (Catalan), Italian baritone Furio Zanasi, the stunning Venezuelan bass Iván García (with a curious hairdo) and bass Daniele Carnovich (Italian). As you see by the surnames Alkhai (probably Maghrebian) and Yesilcay (Turkish), and by the Italians and Latin-Americans, this is certainly a cosmopolitan ensemble based at Barcelona. By the way, Hespérion comes from Hesperia, an ancient name of the Iberian Peninsula.

Savall has been responsible with his different groups for a staggering 170 CDs, all of them highly professional in execution and musicologically up-to-date. The particular programme I heard is called "Encounters of musics of fire and air, from Old Iberia to the New World", and is designed in a total of twenty pieces, each part containing successively groups of four, two and four works. They purport to be good samples of musical hybridization ("mestizaje") between Spain and Latin America from the 16th to the 18th century. And viceversa, the influence of Latin American musical idioms on Spanish composers residing in Spain. Mostly this traversal was both instructive and enjoyable.

There was a cunning alternation of vocal/instrumental and purely instrumental pieces, almost all rather short. The first group began with a "Moresca" (Moorish-style) by Pedro Guerrero, followed by a hybridization: "Negrilla a 4", that is, a piece in Negro style for four singers, called "San Sabeya gugurumbé", by that great writer of "ensaladas" (quodlibets of melodies), Mateo Flecha, also author of the so-called "Dindirindin a 4", so-called because of the repetition of that onomatopoeic phrase, "Ande pues nuestro apellido". A Pavane and Galliard by Luis de Milán (here Catalanized as Lluís de Milá) completed the group. Milán started the second group of two with an imaginative "Fantasía VII". Bartomeu Cárceres curiously combines Gascon and Catalan in a dance of French origin, the "branle", called "Tau garçó la durundena". The final group of the First Part combined two Spanish resident composers , Diego Ortiz in two dances, "Romanesca y passamezzo moderno", and Antonio Martín y Coll in "El villano", with two transplanted Spaniards: Juan Pérez Bocanegra wrote down in 1631 an indigenous Quechua piece, the expressive "Hanacpachap cussicuinin", and from Juan García de Zéspedes (Mexico) came an astonishing villancico (Christmas carol) on the guaracha rhythm (!), "Ay que me abraso", written before 1678.

The second Part started with the "Obertura/Corrente italiana" by the great Catalan Joan Cabanilles, followed by "Todo el mundo en general", an anonymous piece praising the Virgin, "concevida sin pecado original" (period orthography). Then, "Glosas" (variations) on that same work written by Francisco Correa de Arrauxo, and a typical Spanish "Romance", "Desde las torres del alma", by Juan Blas de Castro. Then, from Martín y Coll, the exciting "Danza del hacha", and an anonymous piece, "Seguidillas en eco: De tu vista celoso". The final group began with an improvisation on the dance called "Canarios", with a funny false start by the guitarist, and virtuoso playing by Savall; there followed a piece characterized as "Mestizo e Indio": "Tleycantimo choquiliya", in a mixture of Spanish and Nahuatl (the Aztec language), by the Portuguese Gaspar Fernandes; a fine "Gallarda Napolitana" by Antonio Valente; and an overlong "Negro a 5" by the Portuguese Frei Filipe da Madre de Deus: "Antonya Flaciquia Gasipà", which means "Antonia, Francisca, Gaspar". The encore was an improvisation on the only four notes we have of the musicalization of the "Romance del Conde Claros".

Turning to the interpretation, Savall decides everything and does it admirably, for he is an expert musicologist as well as a first-rate virtuoso. All players are very good, but I would single out the percussion group (what an assortment of castanets and drums!), the principal guitarist and Casademunt. Of the singers I preferred Fernández, García and Zanasi; the others had flaws, such as breaking the vocal line or crooning too much.

The following day they gave a totally different programme with a very long title: "Lights and shadows in the century of Colón: History and poetry in dialogue with the Arab-Andalusian, Jewish and Christian musics of old Hesperia until the discovery of the New World". It would have been fascinating to attend, but I had an important date elsewhere: Festivales Musicales offered J.S.Bach´s "St. John Passion", and that is unmissable.

Once again, Hespérion XXI gave us much to enjoy.
For Buenos Aires Herald

Opera: admirable Gluck, flawed Rossini

Buenos Aires Lírica (BAL) and Juventud Lyrica proceeded with their seasons, the former with much better results. I don´t think that the inclusion by BAL of Gluck´s "Iphigénie en Tauride" was warranted, because last year we had a very worthy revival from the Compañía de las Luces led by Mauricio Birman. Much more necessary was the other "Iphigénie", "en Aulide", last seen at the Colón in 1949. But this said, I do admit that the BAL revival was valuable . I might add that the absence of the Colón has left the field wide open for BAL to be our most important BA opera organisation. It doesn´t mean that they are the equal of the Colón when this theatre is fully operative; of course, the resources available to a municipal theatre with a big budget aren´t comparable. And they, as the other companies that use the Avenida as venue, have the disadvantage of a small pit (45 players) that the Avenida´s owners stubbornly refuse to enlarge. But they have a consistently better level than other groups, for by careful planning and marketing they have managed to have full houses in all five performances of the operas they offer.

I have great sympathy for the aims of Juventus Lyrica (JL) founded before BAL by Ana D´Anna: to promote young singers is certainly laudable. Also, there´s great warmth and sincerity in what they do, which creates a specially nice ambience. Alas, they have two problems: they are underfinanced and that shows in the insufficient means for such items as scenery and clothing, and D´Anna has sometimes chosen badly her producers (other than herself). In the particular case I´m mentioning, producer Horacio Pigozzi ruined a "Barber of Seville" very well conceived musically by maestro Antonio Russo and with several worthwhile singers.

Now back to "Iphigénie en Tauride". The opera is the best of the "tragédies lyriques" composed by Gluck for Paris and made him the legitimate successor of Rameau. It was written in 1778 on a libretto by Nicolas Francois Guillard based on Euripides. The libretto is good and the music, noble, inspiring and dramatic.

The musical side of this revival was quite satisfying. I was really surprised by the sense of style of the young Argentine conductor Alejo Pérez, who is having a fine career in Europe, though associated rather with contemporary music. The result here, with an augmented Camerata Bariloche, was splendid: intensity, precision, beautiful playing and a dramatic approach that never went off bounds.

There was a fine cast. Virginia Correa Dupuy showed yet again that she is a special singer; the role is apt either for a dramatic mezzosoprano or soprano, and her voice has the timbre of a mezzo in the middle and low ranges but clears up in the high range and sounds like a soprano. Her musicality is refined (lovely pianissimo) and she acts with involvement. Tenor Carlos Ullán had one of his best nights in his well-sung and –acted Pylades, the bosom friend of Orestes, played and sung with excessive emphasis by baritone Luciano Garay but undoubted commitment. A new voice, Ernesto Bauer, sang an impressive Thoas, the Scythian tyrant. Crystalline singing from Eugenia Fuente (the goddess Diana), nice work from the Priestesses (Vanesa Tomás and Vanina Guilledo), a correct Greek woman (Andrea Nazarre) and forceful appearances of Mariano Fernández Bustinza (Scythian) and Claudio Rotella (temple minister). The young and well-chose finely prepared by Juan Casasbellas. The six dancers did agreeably in Cecilia Elías´ sober choreography.

Which brings me to the production and stage designs of Rita Cosentino. It was a mix of right and wrong. Right: the expressive interchange among the singers, always dramatic; the evolutions of the Chorus, functioning according to the Euripides play. Wrong: the use of a unit set (the ruins of a palace) to be both beach, prison, temple and room; the absurd stylistic solecisms, such as putting a twentieth-century armchair in a crucial scene. The costumes by Stella Maris Müller were pleasant for the women but unlikely for the men; the Greeks looked like informal boys of our age and Thoas was most un-kinglike. The lighting by Horacio Efron exaggerated the initial storm.

About the "Barber" I´ll be brief. Laura Penchi was a delightful Rosina, pert and fluid. Fabián Veloz was a convincing Figaro, no mean feat for a singer of little experience; he has a fine lyrical timbre. Duilio Smiriglia is overweight for Almaviva and hardly suggests a Count, but he has a nice voice, still undertrained. Alberto Jáuregui Lorda made an unconventional though credible Don Bartolo. Mario De Salvo is a good singer but lacks volume and presence for Don Basilio. Santiago Tiscornia was a sonorous Officer, Leonardo Menna a pleasant Fiorello, and poor Silvana Gómez had to deal with an outlandish marking of Bertha by the producer but sang acceptably. Very good playing from the orchestra and appropriate work from the Chorus under Miguel Pesce.

The production was unretrievable in every imaginable aspect. The completely incongruous Flamenco ballet (not bad in itself) in the Storm, the ridiculous restriction of space in the First Act, the tasteless, even obscene markings of the singers, the absurd clothes (the Count as a coya), the incredible transposition of the action to the twentieth century, etc.,etc. Mini Zuccheri is just as guilty in her clothing designs and the stage décor (Juan José Cambre) was very poor.

For Buenos Aires Herald

viernes, septiembre 19, 2008

Pianists galore this season

A salutary trend of recent seasons has been the comeback of piano recitals. Not in the big cycles (Mozarteum Argentino, Festivales Musicales, Nuova Harmonia) who keep to one pianist per season (I would say that two is the right proportion) but in smaller venues and organizations. A major factor has been the appearance of Chopiniana, the cycle led by Martha Noguera in which there is always something of Chopin, but no longer exclusively as at first. Now we have eclectic programmes, which I find much better. Also, there is the increased activity of the Museo Fernández Blanco and other places. Truth to tell, in full season there are about 35 concerts a week of varied types, and no critic can –or should- cover all of them (some are below par), but there remains a substantial quantity of good concerts.

First, a Big League one. I have stated before my belief that Nelson Goerner is the best Argentine pianist of his generation; he is now 39. This was triumphantly confirmed by his wonderful concert for Nuova Harmonia at the Coliseo. I now raise the odds and place him as among the very best of the globe. He unites in ideal proportions transcendental technique and a deep maturity in phrasing and style. He may look unprepossessing but don´t be influenced by this: just listen to him five minutes and only the music will matter.

His programme was solidly Central European and nineteenth-century, and as usual, he chooses well. The 31 minutes that Schubert´s extraordinary Three Pieces (D.946) lasted convinced me again that this very late piano music from this composer, considered extended Impromptus, is among his most innovative and personal. Marvellously apposite and thoughtful interpretation, note-perfect to boot.

I have heard Beethoven´s Sonata No.26, wrongly called "Les adieux" (it should be "L´adieu"), quite often in concert, but this one stunned me, especially the fantastically difficult final "Vivacissimo", played with uncanny precision. Very slightly controversial was his version of Brahms´ late "Fantasies" op.116, three fast and virtuosistic Capricci interspersed with four contemplative Intermezzi; I hold no reserves about the beautifully intimate version of the Intermezzi, but some of the phrasing in the Capricci seemed to me a bit awkward.

Liszt´s "Petrarch Sonnet No.2" was simply ideal; his frenetic and almost impossible to play "Spanish Rhapsody" had the most fantastic execution I´ve ever heard; yes, Goerner is the mature artist that can gives us a reference Beethoven sonata, but he is also the coruscating virtuoso in showpieces. One string broke during it but he proceeded unfazed; however, apart from comprehensible exhaustion, it was apparently the reason for not playing an encore.

I was very angry when a freak and uncomprehensible call "from Martha Noguera" left me a message telling me that the concert by Libor Novácek was cancelled; it wasn´t! Apparently a boycott? Noguera of course was sorry and flabbergasted. I had good references from his concert, however. But I could hear the following pianist, the Canadian Daniel Wnukowski (debut), of Polish descent, 27-years-old. After agreeable versions of two arranged (well) pieces based on J.S.Bach´s originals (Busoni´s version of the chorale "Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland", and the famous arrangement by Myra Hess of the chorus "Jesu, Joy of Men´s Desiring" from Cantata No. 147) we heard an appropriate but not impeccable Sonata Nº 10, K. 330, by Mozart, and a meritorious traversal of Beethoven´s last sonata, No. 32, where the initial movement seemed a bit too forceful and brusque but the second movement took its rightful time to develop from the initial slow theme to the intricate variations and innumerable trills of the last pages, finely done.

He came into his own in the enormously variegated 24 Preludes op.28 by Chopin, where he displayed not only his affinity with the style but also the big guns to deal with some of the atrociously difficult ones as if they were child´s play; this was great playing and show Wnukowski to be a distinguished Chopinian. And he manifested his virtuosism in the encore, the fun variations by Horowitz on Mendelssohn´s "Wedding March". The venue is unpleasant, the Teatro Santa María, dark and rather ugly, but the acoustics are good. After abundant vicissitudes, this third concert of the Chopiniana seemed to find a third and final piano for the cycle, a 1908 Steinway in good condition with its original ivory keys.

Another fine experience was offered by Ukrainian pianist Julia Bochovskaia at the Gran Rex/ Mozarteum Midday Concerts, a return visit since her 2006 local debut. Fresh, young and beautiful, she is solidly grounded and intelligent. Her traversal of Austro-German repertoire was both sensitive and solid, with finely honed technique and a keen sense of style. I could only hear the third movement from Haydn´s Sonata Hob. XVI:24 (due to BA´s infernal traffic), but it was clean and invigorating. She chose three beautiful Brahms pieces: the Intermezzi op.119 in C and op.117 in E flat and the strong Ballade op.118 in G minor; she handled them with expertise. Then she did a strange thing: she allowed no time for applause and went on directly to Schumann´s interesting "Humoresque" op.20, a mosaic of contrasting music: the Apollo/Eusebius introspective side and the fast, exhilarating Dionysos/Florestan side. Lovely playing all the way, complemented with two other Schumann pieces: the sanguine "Aufschwung" from "Fantasiestücke" op.12, and a slow one that my memory refused to identify.

For Buenos Aires Herald

High times for symphonic music: the Hallé visits us

The third visit over the decades of the Hallé Orchestra from Manchester has marked an especially high spot in the musical scene. As the "biography" in the hand programme of the Mozarteum Argentino says nothing about earlier visits to our country (a common trait in material from abroad, but also an undiplomatic one that should be corrected) it must be stressed that the Hallé was here under the great Sir John Barbirolli (1968) and much later under Stanislav Skrowaczewski. Those with Barbirolli were memorable, those with the Polish conductor very professional but less interesting. Both were Principal Conductors of the Hallé, as is the case with Sir Mark Elder (local debut) since 2000. They offered two subscription concerts and a Midday Concert (the latter for free) all at the Coliseo.

Elder has had a substantial career marked by his years as Music Director of the English National Orchestra(1979-93) and guest conducting with prestigious concert and opera orchestras. He has an eclectic taste and a big repertoire.

The Hallé is the oldest professional orchestra in England and this year celebrates its 150th anniversary. In its current shape it is fully equal to its 1968 incarnation under Barbirolli, which is saying a lot. The Orchestra isn´t one of the biggest, but its 82 players sound like a hundred, are 100 % professional, keep a nice balance of ladies and gentlemen and of youth and maturity. Under Elder´s fine conducting the orchestra solves with perfect intonation and true virtuosism the greatest difficulties. It has a beautiful collective sound and a triggerlike response to every gesture of the Maestro.

I unfortunately couldn´t hear the first concert, which included Richard Strauss´ "Don Juan", Grieg´s Piano Concerto, Wagner´s First Act Prelude to "Lohengrin" and Elgar´s "Enigma Variations". Happily I caught the latter when it was included in the Midday Concert. The second concert started with Verdi´s Overture to "The Sicilian Vespers", followed by Liszt´s First Piano Concerto, four Preludes by Debussy (originally for piano, orchestrated by the Hallé´s composer-in-residence Colin Matthews and an Argentine premiere; both facts were omitted in the programme page) and Shostakovich´s First Symphony. The Midday Concert had "Don Juan" (which I couldn´t hear), three of the four Debussy Preludes and the "Enigma Variations". Along for the tour we met for the first time 27-year-old Polina Leschenko, a beautiful blonde born in St Petersburg that has built a solid career since her debut at 8-years-old; only 27 and almost 20 years of experience.

Now to what I heard. A sanguine, forceful and precise account of Verdi´s Overture. An admirable version of Liszt´s Concerto, adroitly accompanied and played by Leschenko, who showed not only a masterful technique but an approach both subtle, elegant and full of strength, almost like a young Argerich (who has promoted her). The encore was quite unusual: music lovers know well Chopin´s "Andante spianato and Grand Polonaise", but as a piano piece; here we were offered the piano and orchestra version! The orchestra hasn´t much to do, however, so we marvelled again at Leschenko´s delicacy in the "Andante" and strong rhythm coupled with the effortless solving of the many intricate passages of one of Chopin´s great showpieces, this particularly scintillating Polonaise.

It was the Orchestra that asked Mathews to orchestrate the Debussy Piano Preludes, and he did all 24. Frankly I see no need for this exercise, for the shimmering Debussy pieces are truly pianistic and orchestration (even a good one, as Mathews´), far from enriching them changes their essence. For the record, they were: "Homage to S. Pickwick, Esq., PPMPC", "Canope", "La puerta del vino" (in Spanish in the original) and "The hills of Anacapri". But the evening ended with a very detailed view of Shostakovich´s so impressive First Symphony, written at 19-years-old, still a student but already a master. The strongly contrasted score was rendered in all its sad nostalgia and ferocity with feats of very fine playing.

The encores mitigated a complaint of mine: no British music in the programme. But then, as Elder himself acknowledged, the logical British quota came to the fore in Elgar´s lovely "Sospiri" for strings (which I can´t remember having heard here) and the entrancing "Knightsbridge March " from Eric Coates´ "London Suite", heard only once here (Bedford with the B.A. Phil). It was a charming end to a significant concert. But on the following midday I was completely bowled over by a much bigger Elgar score, the wonderful "Enigma Variations" premiered here by Sir Malcolm Sargent. This has long been a Hallé specialty, and the Barbirolli version, along with the Boult, retain their places as the great references. But Elder´s minute control and total understanding, and the coruscating brilliance of the orchestra in the terribly difficult fast bits coupled with their full and noble sound in such a variation as "Nimrod", made for a fantastic version that had me in tears. It was the final cap on a great visit.

A personal wish which I hope will come true: we know admirable London orchestras as the Royal Philharmonic, the Philharmonia and the BBC, but we have never been visited by the other two superb organisms, the London Symphony and the London Philharmonic; I´ve heard them in their home city, but I do believe the Argentine public will welcome them with open arms.

For Buenos Aires Herald