domingo, julio 06, 2008

Wonders of chamber music at the Mozarteum

The Mozarteum Argentino is an oasis of pleasure in our grim reality: its 2008 season is so far one of their best, and that's saying a lot. I have already written about the four magnificent Barenboim/ Berliner Staatskapelle concers. Now is the turn of music for piano in the gifted hands of Sergio Tiempo, the Vilnius Festival Orchestra (really a string ensemble), the fantastic recital of violinist Joshua Bell and pianist Frederic Chiu, and the unforgettable farewell concert of the Berg Quartet; all at the Coliseo, whose acoustics may not be warm but certainly are clear.

Sergio Tiempo is a member of a gifted pianistic family: his grandparents are Antonio De Raco and Elizabeth Westerkamp, his mother is Lyl de Raco and his half-sister is Karin Lechner. Since early youth he has shown an uncanny facility and now that he has turned 36 (and looks ten less) he is having a distinguished world career.

He started with a clean, crisp execution of Haydn's Sonata Hob. XVI/37. Then, Chopin's Sonata No.3 played in the grand manner in the first three movements almost came to grief in the fourth, unwisely taken at such a ferocious clip that even Tiempo's privileged fingers stumbled several times. No reservations about a fantastic performance of Ravel's "Gaspard de la Nuit", where full due was given both to the watery impressionism of "Ondine" and to the wild and sinister expressionism of "Scarbo". A calm interlude with a beautiful performance of Liszt's "Consolation No.3" before an imaginative and virtuoso "Mephisto Waltz No.1". Encores: Chopin's slow Prelude No. 4 and vertiginous Prelude No. 16 and a modern score that sounded like a dainty jukebox with wrong notes.

Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki is now 75; he has come often through the decades to conduct his controversial music, both of his avantgarde first period and his milder later production. His latest visit let us know the Vilnius Festival Orchestra, a vigorous string ensemble from Lithuania where the ladies dominate; there are some men in a proportion of 1 to 4 in a total of 19, a number that gives them some density. Their repertoire –at least the one they offered here- is of the 19th and 20th century. They started with Shostakovich's Chamber symphony op.110 bis, an adaptation by Rudolf Barshai of that composer's strongly autobiographical and dramatic Quartet No. 8. It was a strong, astringent performance. Then, the premiere (wrongly not announced as such) of Penderecki's "Sinfonietta per archi", a transcription of his 1991 Trio. Influenced by Bartok but in a rougher vein with at times a grotesque bias, this concise three-movement work is thought out like a "concerto grosso" with solos for violin, viola and cello; curiously the composer , after starting things with an opening gesture, retreated to the back of the stage and let the orchestra play on its own, which they did with remarkable assertiveness.

To finish, a basic repertoire work done with charm and professionalism: Dvorák's Serenade . Interesting encores: Tchaikovsky's beautiful third movement from his sextet "Souvenir de Florence" in an augmented string version; and Penderecki's Chaconne (in memoriam of the Pope John Paul II), an expressive piece in local premiere, at times redolent of Piazzolla!

American violinist Joshua Bell made a fine impression in his first visit five years ago; his second was even more successful. Youthful-looking and flexible, he has undoubted charisma. He shows a transcendent technique and a beautiful sound, never spiky; of course it helps that he plays on a 4-million dollar Stradivari. An added pleasure was the Argentine debut of pianist Frederic Chiu, who proved to be a full partner in the essential sonatas that formed the gist of the programme: Beethoven's No. 9, "Kreutzer", and Prokofiev's No.1 (Chiu has recorded the integral piano music of this composer). In both these marvelous works their interplay was ideal, for both are not only virtuosi but also masters of phrasing; their Beethoven had moments of uncanny beauty coupled with the strength and exhilaration that the "Kreutzer" calls forth; those trained in the European tradition may have felt it was a bit too "New World" but I enjoyed it deeply, and the Prokofiev was simply ideal.

I didn't care much for the interpretation of Tartini's "Devil's Trill Sonata", quite far from the late Baroque style. But Tchaikovsky's "Melody" (No.3 from "Souvenir d'un lieu cher") was delightful, and Sarasate's "Introduction and Tarantella" truly dazzling. The encores were perfect: two transcriptions by Heifetz of Ponce's "Estrellita" and Prokofiev's March from "The love for three oranges".

The Berg Quartet has long been recognized one of the very best. This visit was melancholy in a way, for it is their farewell tour and they will be sorely missed. They were in top form, to my mind better than in their previous stay here. The great violist Thomas Kakuska died in 2005 but he was replaced by the young and admirable Isabel Charisius, who blends uncannily well with the glorious veterans Guenter Pichler and Gerhard Schulz (violins) and Valentin Erben (cello).

I will make no distinctions between the interpretations of such divergent scores as Haydn's Quartet No.8l, op.77 No.1, Berg's Quartet op.3 and Beethoven's Quartet No.15, op.132: they were practically note-perfect, stylistically ideal and of intense nobility of spirit. We were sent home wih a sublime encore: the Cavatina from Beethoven's Quartet No. 13, op.132.

For Buenos Aires Herald

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