martes, julio 21, 2009

Monteverdi´s "Ulysses" lights up the season

Claudio Monteverdi´s three extant operas are the earliest masterpieces of the genre we have. The composer lived long enough (1567-1643) to start as a Renaissance creator and end as a full-blown Baroque. His first opera, "Orfeo" (1607), represented a giant step forward compared to the initial operas of Peri and Caccini (1597-1600). It is a real musical tragedy that only the marvelous Lament from "L´Arianna" has survived of the next ten operas he wrote between 1608 and 1640. In 1641 he wrote "Le nozze di Eneo con Lavinia" (lost) and fortunately still with us, "Il ritorno d´Ulisse in patria". Finally on the following year "L´incoronazione di Poppea". With the premiere by Buenos Aires Lírica of "Ulisse" at the Avenida, our city has finally seen and heard all three Monteverdi operas.

The work of a 74-year-old composer, "Ulisse" is an astonishingly imaginative and fresh opera, almost on a par with "Poppea". We only have a manuscript copy of "Ulisse" in Vienna, reprinted in 1921. Three different editions came out in 1927: D´Indy, Van der Borren and Westrup. Now there are several critical editions, notably that of Alan Curtis (2002), and some excellent recordings, such as those conducted by Harnoncourt and Jacobs.

"Ulisse" was originally premiered at the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice, either in 1641 (Grove´s Dictionary in the 1954 edition) or 1640 (Claudio Ratier in the hand programme of BAL), which had opened in 1637 as the first opera house in history opened for the general public. There was a Bologna version a few months later with some changes. Giacomo Badoaro´s libretto is based on Homer´s "Odyssey".

Baroque operas of those times have skeleton scores, just the melody line and the bass. The musical director of the BAL presentation, Juan Manuel Quintana, did "Ulisse" with René Jacobs in 2006 and certainly the Argentine conductor had a good model; although he did some things differently, his options were always in the style and well integrated. He used string quintet, flutes, "cornetti" (wooden trumpets), theorbos (archlutes), dulcian (bassoon-like), harpsichord and viola da gamba. His group is called I Febiarmonici and sounded splendid apart from very minor details. Quintana added some pieces by Rosenmüller and Kindermann. The opera lasted about 2 h 45´. One role was substituted: Euriclea, Ulysses´ nurse, disappeared and Melanto, Penelope´s maid, took her place.

Badoaro´s text is generally very good, but with one reservation: the climax comes at the end of the Second Act, when Ulysses kills the three Pretenders; if the love duet of Ulysses and Penelope had been added there, the drama would have ended satisfactorily. As it is, the protracted Third Act is unnecessary: a superfluous comic number for Iro the glutton is followed by several attempts to convince Penelope that Ulysses is indeed who he claims to be. So much of the music is beautiful that it´s hard to choose, but I especially like Penelope´s lament and Ulysses´duet with his son Telemaco.

The vocal level was very high, in fact up to the best European standards in at least five instances: Ulysses, Telemaco, Penelope, Eumeo the shepherd and the God Jupiter. In my recordings Ulysses is taken by tenors, but it sounds splendid in a high baritone such as Víctor Torres (the same happened in "Orfeo" back in 2002), who was in top form. Franco Fagioli´s countertenor has grown a lot and is now full-voiced; he sings with style, taste and resounding highs. Evelyn Ramírez was a severe but expressive Penelope, sometimes bursting with anger but never losing her line. Eumeo was sensitively sung by Carlos Ullán, very refined and with lovely timbre. And Gustavo Zahnstecher was brilliant and accurate as Jove.

I confess to some disappointment with María Cristina Kiehr, a specialist of this repertoire; her voice has lost beauty and top; although as Fortuna and Minerva she had fine moments, sometimes her singing went quite awry. Oreste Chlopecki did three parts: Neptune, Antinous (one of the Pretenders) and Time in the allegorical Prologue; he has the deep low tones required although his phrasing can be rough. Jaime Caicompai was in very good voice as Eurimaco. He did a torrid love scene with a nice-sounding and good-looking Pilar Aguilera as Melanto (she also sang Juno). I didn´t much like the prancing and mincing of the other Pretenders, Damián Ramírez and Pablo Pollitzer, although the former did well as Human Fragility in the Prologue. Osvaldo Peroni wildly exaggerated his Iro the glutton, leaving little music to appreciate. Nadia Szachniuk, a new name to me, was correct as Love. Three Choruses (of Phaeacians, in Heaven, at Sea) were sung by generally accurate solo voices. Quintana led voices and instruments with the fine authority of a true connoisseur.

Of the production the good point was the stage design: a huge tree opened up to show Penelope´s Palace, well-made in several levels (Alejandro Bonatto and Jerónimo Basso). But Bonatto, after a plausible First Act, grossly mismanaged the rest, with tasteless homo- and heterosexual goings on in full view of Penelope, and completely botched killing of the Pretenders. The dress code according to costume designer Sofía Di Nunzio varied from Pseudo-Greek to Renaissance to formal contemporary. Lighting by Gonzalo Córdova and choreography by Cecilia Elías were neuter in effect. But the total balance of the night was positive and we certainly have to thank BAL for completing the Monteverdi trilogy.

For Buenos Aires Herald

domingo, julio 12, 2009

The Emerson, Menotti and "Messiah": rampant diversity

In just four days, this reviewer saw and heard as dissimilar expressions of classical music as can be. Juventus Lyrica offered a Menotti double bill at the Avenida; The Emerson Quartet made its debut for the Mozarteum at the Coliseo; and Festivales Musicales gave us Handel´s Messiah at the Auditorio de Belgrano. Rampant diversity indeed. And all three defied the ban on shows imposed by the measures against the influenza A pandemia; it has affected all official musical activity and some of the privately organized events as well.

Gian Carlo Menotti was certainly one of the most successful opera composers of the twentieth century. Reviled by many colleagues and reviewers as a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, this creator managed to use tonality in a creative and theatrical way. He also proved to be a first-rate librettist of his own operas and of Barber´s "Vanessa". It was a brilliant idea of Juventus Lyrica to pair Menotti´s first two operas and I´m glad to say they made quite a success of it.

"Amelia al ballo" is a 65-minute "opera buffa" written in 1937 when the composer was 26. The Colón premiered it in 1954 with Arizmendi, Cesari and Falzetti, and revived it in 1982 with González, Gaeta and Ranieri. I was present both times and had fun with this "joujou" based on a very simple conceit: Amelia is frivolity itself and only cares about going to the first ball of the season; when the husband discovers she´s having an affair with a neighbor, both men after initial violence discuss the matter calmly; in a fit - it´s getting late for the ball- she crushes a flower vase on her husband´s head; when the police comes she accuses her lover of being a thief and the attacker of her husband, and she goes to the ball… with the police officer. The music is simple, clear and attractive, with some expansive moments for tenor and soprano. It was nicely sung and acted by Eleonora Sancho, Gustavo Feulien (The Husband) and Norberto Fernández in fine form as the Lover. Agreeable though a bit slow the playing under Leandro Valiente, and involved the singing of the Choir.Very adequate stage designs and sympathetic production by Florencia Sanguinetti, and beautiful gowns by María Jaunarena.

"The old maid and the thief" has more substance; it was also innovative in being the first opera originally conceived for radio broadcasting (NBC premiered it in 1939). The interesting idea in this 75-minute opera is the relativity of behavior: an old maid mistakes a hobo with a thief, but induced by her chambermaid makes him stay for a week, during which she of the impeccable life becomes a thief herself to supply the hobo/"thief" with goods. When she discovers the truth she goes out to denounce him to the police; during that while he, again induced by Laetitia the chambermaid, indeed robs the old maid and goes off with her car and Laetitia. The music is more elaborate, with telling concerted work. Our city had only seen a rather poor condensed version with piano at La Scala de San Telmo, so this real premiere certainly made sense.

There was brilliant singing and acting from Eugenia Fuente (Miss Todd, the old maid), Sonia Stelman (Laetitia), Sebastián Sorarrain (Bob, the hobo) and Vanesa Tomas (Miss Pinkerton, a gossipy friend). And a very intelligent job of producing and stage designing from Ana D´Anna and apposite costumes from Jaunarena. Valiente led the orchestra with a firm hand.

CDs had already told me that the Emerson Quartet is one of the very finest we have, but their debut here provided triumphant confirmation. They have existed for thirty years and two of the members (the violinists) are founders. They have two special characteristics: a) they are the only quartet I know where violinists and violist play standing, apparently to maintain greater vitality and attention; b) the violinists alternate between the posts of first and second violin. The foursome is made of true virtuosi with a total immersion in chamber-musical exchange: Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer (violins), Lawrence Dutton (viola) and David Finckel (cello). Drucker led Charles Ives´ already prophetic First Quartet (fine choice) and Schubert´s Quartet Nº 14, "Death and the maiden", Setzer led the Ravel Quartet and the Scherzo from Mendelssohn´s "Four pieces", op.81 (as encore). I won´t be redundant: all was played with supreme clarity and insight, although I have a preference for the immense subtlety displayed by them in the Ravel.

Everything has been said about Handel´s "Messiah"; it is a wonder and will always remains so. With the augmented Camerata Bariloche and the Orfeón de Buenos Aires (prepared by Néstor Andrenacci and Pablo Piccinni) Mario Videla´s conducting was orthodox and proficient, with animation in his phrasing and clearness of gesture. I was amazed by the quality of the choir, who sang with uncanny precision the very florid singing assigned to them. The orchestra was quite good too, with resounding solos from trumpet player Fernando Ciancio. The soloists ranged from high class (Víctor Torres and Carlos Ullán) to uneven though with fine moments (Martín Oro and Silvina Sadoly). The concert was recorded, and with the public present two baritone and trumpet passages were re-recorded. I don´t abide Videla´s deep cuts, however; I can accept the eight from the Appendix, but not another seven pieces. A blot in an otherwise satisfying session.

For Buenos Aires Herald

domingo, julio 05, 2009

Three admirable duets and a fearless pianist

There are some weeks when Buenos Aires seems a really important city for classical music. Between June 16 and 23 three international violin/piano duos and a local pianist tackling avant-garde material gave me the feeling of being in Paris or New York.

I will give pride of place to the marvelous debut of Hilary Hahn and Valentina Lisitsa at AMIJAI: not only the playing was of almost unbelievable quality but the programming was fascinating. Hahn is certainly one of the very best young artists we have: the purest violin school (Jascha Brodsky, last disciple of Ysaÿe) but also a humanist education that shows her as much more than a greatly gifted player. There´s sheer pleasure at hearing her full, burnished, clean sound of perfect intonation and her tremendous variety in articulation, but, more important, you have the impression that the logic and sense of ultimate direction are unerring. She played a programme that was both long and very difficult as well as unendingly adventurous and unhackneyed. And she had the privilege of a distinguished partner, for the Ukrainian Lisitsa is an astonishing pianist whom I hope will come back for solo recitals. She is a powerhouse when needed but also plays with refined softness and relaxation.

To include three sonatas by Charles Ives was audacious and rewarding (probably premieres here), for this Connecticut yankee was one of the great pioneers of modern music and his sonatas, written between 1909 and 1916, teem with harmonic and rhythmic "trouvailles". We heard No.4, "Children´s Day at the Camp Meeting", Nº 2, with movements named "In the barn" or "The revival", and Nº 1, with normal appellations for the movements (Andante or Allegro) but plenty of novelties. Hahn also did two of the six sonatas for solo violin created by the Belgian Eugène Ysaÿe in 1923, tough stuff indeed in terms of the hurdles involved but very interesting as music, especially Nº4; the one-movement Nº 6 is less valuable. And it was a real pleasure to hear a selection of Hungarian Dances by Brahms, presumably in Joachim´s arrangements, and the famous Romanian Folk Dances by Bartok as arranged by Székely. The lovely encore was Paganini´s "Cantabile".

Last year the recital by Joshua Bell and Frédéric Chiu was a high point of the Mozarteum season. Now I felt the same about their session for Nuova Harmonia at the Coliseo. They did an impressive sonata programme, featuring two of the best-known, the Franck and the Brahms Third, as well as Beethoven´s No.4, surely the most valuable of the early ones. Bell on his own played Ysaÿe´s Sonata Nº2, pervaded by the "Dies Irae" so often used by composers, as well as by Bach´s Third Sonata; an imaginative work of much power. Their encore was the exhilarating "Souvenir d´Amérique on ´Yankee Doodle´" by Vieuxtemps.

Apart from a few strained passages in the Franck by Chiu, the playing was throughout of a very high standard and fully integrated. Bell is admirably smooth and orthodox; you are always assured of accomplished music-making and impeccable taste, as well as superlative technique. Although Chiu´s special field is the twentieth-century, he is worth hearing in Romantic music for his intelligent phrasing and sense of form.

Clara Cernat, a stunning Romanian blonde, and Thierry Huillet, French pianist, are a couple in real life and their musical duet started in 1996. Their programme for the Mozarteum at the Coliseo reached a pinnacle in the Ravel Sonata Nº 2, which showed them at their very best: although her teachers weren´t French she has assimilated the Gallic style perfectly, probably because Huillet sounds like an ideal specimen of that school (the cleanest articulation and attack, suavity when required, enough volume but never massive). Their inflexions in the Blues, or their virtuosity in the "moto perpetuo" Finale, are things to remember. They had started with a pleasant execution of Beethoven´s First Sonata, already quite characteristic of the composer.

I wasn´t happy with the program of the Second Part, all transcriptions except Huillet´s own "Sacromonte", a good Andalusian image in modern terms, with a sector of the piano prepared to give a percussive sound. But the arrangement of Saint-Saëns´ "Dance macabre" was poor (and uncredited), and Liszt´s Hungarian Rhapsody Nº 12, although arranged by the composer, sounds much better in its piano original. Massenet´s "Thaïs" Meditation was probably heard in the Marsick arrangement (again uncredited). Although the playing was mostly beautiful, I think the striving for glamour was excessive. Encores: Monti´s "Czardas" and Cyprian Porumbescu´s "Ballad" (only Romanian music in the evening).

The all-Stockhausen session of Horacio Lavandera for the Colón CETC at the Teatro del Globo was in its own terms quite a success, whether you like the music or not. The composer was a lifelong avantgardist and his piano music was always central in his career. Lavandera combined the works in a special way and used not only piano but also various synthesizers, including a small one that sounded like a cross between a celesta and a typewriter. His command of all the music was crushing. He alternated four pieces in the small synthetizer taken from "Tierkreis" (quite tonal little pieces) with the "24 Natürliche Dauern" (24 Natural Durations) and three of his "Klavierstücke" ("Pieces for clavier"), IX, XI and XVI, the latter combined with an array of electroacoustic sounds. It was fun to see and intriguing to hear.

For Buenos Aires Herald