lunes, agosto 30, 2010

The Barenboim marathon, Part II, and Schiff´s marvelous debut

            It´s been quite a week. Following his incredible marathon, Daniel Barenboim conducted Beethoven´s "Choral" Symphony at the Colón, and as a special feat, premiered Pierre Boulez scores at the enormous Gran Rex. At the end of these seven days, he commanded La Scala forces in Verdi´s "Aida", of course at the Colón (I will leave this for my next article). But these days also brought the local debut of one of the great pianists of today, Andras Schiff, both in recital and with the Buenos Aires Philharmonic.
            After the first eight Beethoven symphonies for the Mozarteum, the Ninth was offered in the Bicentenary Subscription Series. I was told (I didn´t stay that long) that at the end the audience applauded for half an hour. Nevertheless, I felt that the occasion wasn´t as completely convincing as I had hoped, considering my enthusiasm for the six symphonies I heard earlier (see The Barenboim Marathon, Part I). There were more orchestral slips (none grave, but they accumulated); the soloists  were a good but not an outstanding group; and for once Barenboim´s own interpretation wasn´t uniformly splendid. Of course, his command of the material was impressive, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra gave all it could at the end of an extenuating week, and there were many moving and unforgettable moments. But: a) very close to the beginning, two big chords went so awry that it shocked me; b) the slow movement didn´t have the aura of inspiration I felt sure the conductor would provide; and c) the big tune of the fourth movement was played so "pianissimo" at first that it didn´t register, and it must; also, it was too slow and only later picked up speed, certainly not Beethoven´s wish.
             The Colón Chorus under José Luis Basso (an Argentine with  a brilliant European career) was the best thing of the evening; true, of the 110 listed members for the occasion 16 are under contract (not "estables") and 15 were reinforcements. Anyway, the sound was wonderful, honest, in tune and coordinated. The soloists were recruited from Slav countries; is there an element of lower fees in this choice? For I like Germanic voices in this material (as I prefer Slavs for Mussorgsky). Polish baritone Andrzej Dobber came closer to the mark, with a powerful voice of fine timbre, though marred by some "verista"exaggerations. Czech tenor Pavel Cernoch has an arid voice of little volume, although he was correct. Muscovite soprano Marina Poplavskaya sounded full and grateful to hear, though not with ideal "dolcezza" in the highest range. Contralto Ekaterina Gubanova, presumably Russian, did well in her rather ungrateful part.
            Boulez is one of the most complex contemporary composers; only two people could conceivably do the feat I witnessed at the Gran Rex: Boulez himself and Barenboim. The Midday Concerts of the Mozarteum generally last one hour, from 1 to 2 p.m.; this time it started at l,20 p.m. and finished at 2,50 p.m.! Only the premiere of "Dérive 2" had been announced; it lasts 50 minutes. Barenboim added "Dérive 1" (7 minutes) and an illustrated explanation of the music (half an hour!). "Dérive 1" seems tame compared to the enormous "Dérive 2", for 11 instruments (three woodwinds, three strings, French horn, vibraphone, marimba, harp and piano) providing a fascinating spectre of color handled with consumate skill. The textures and the structure are intricate but lucid, and I found this avantgarde music surprisingly listenable, though overlong.  It was also fantastically well played by members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (Daniel´s son, Michael, was the violinist) and conducted with enormous acumen .
            At 57 Hungarian pianist Andras Schiff belongs to the Parnassus of pianists led by such names (absent from our city) as Maurizio Pollini and Krystian Zimerman. His long awaited Buenos Aires debut with a recital for the Bicentenary Subscription Series was an important event. Schiff is a stickler for authenticity and first versions; almost no pianists heed Beethoven´s indication at the beginning of Sonata Nº 14 (wrongly called "Moonlight": Schiff forbade this mention) to play with the pedal lowered throughout, which produces an intended haze of sound, almost pre-Impressionistic; but Schiff did it. Less comprehensible was in the fast Finale his decision to emphasize the left hand at the expense of the vertiginous upward runs of the right hand.
            Schumann´s First Sonata, op.11, isn´t his best score by a long shot, but it couldn´t be in better hands: with stunning clarity and sensibility Schiff vanquished its enormous difficulties and gave it as much sense as possible. And surely Schumann´s Fantasia, an undoubted masterpiece, was marvelous, apart from very minor slips in the impossible coda of the second movement; the ending was different than the habitual one, for Schiff played Schumann´s original version.  I have very seldom heard great performances of Beethoven´s Sonata Nº 21, "Waldstein"; this was of that select group. I was particularly moved by the ethereal, intensely poetic phrasing of the Finale´s main melody, and surprised by the feat of playing in octaves (as written) an almost unplayable (and famous) bit of the coda. The encores added to the pleasure: Schubert´s lyrical Impromptu op.90 Nº 3; Mendelssohn´s lithe "Song of the Spinner"; and a Schiff specialty, Johann Sebastian Bach: the first movement of the Italian Concerto. Lack of space forces me to review the B.A.Phil concert at a later date.
For Buenos Aires Herald

martes, agosto 24, 2010

The Barenboim marathon, Part I

            The Event of the Year has one name: Daniel Barenboim. In his nineth visit since 1980, this Protean artist is undergoing (by his own will) an incredible artistic marathon: six symphonic concerts presenting the complete Beethoven symphonies and two chamber ones with his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra; and three presentations with the Milan La Scala forces (choir and orchestra) of Verdi scores: two "Aidas" (concert version) and the Requiem Mass.  All this in fourteen days! 
            The Beethoven symphonies, at the Colón, were divided thus: for the Mozarteum, Nos. 1 and 2, and 5 and 6 for their First Cycle of Subscribers; Nos.3 and 4, and 7 and 8, for their Second Cycle. The Ninth will be heard in the so-called Colón Abono del Bicentenario. But the conductor added an open-air concert facing the Obelisk with the Fifth Symphony and the Overture Leonore Nº 3, in front of 50.000 people (the Leonore had been a complement to the first concert of the series). Such an intense activity certainly challenged the mettle of the young members; some  played three concerts in 24 hours ( no labor union restrictions for them!). Barenboim´s legendary energy seeemed unfazed at 68-years-old.
            In a speech prior to Beethoven´s "Eroica" he said some strong things: a) he was here to be in Buenos Aires on the day of the sixtieth anniversary of his first public concert in this city (at the Salón Breyer); b) the public affection of this public moves him enormously (and with reason: I´ve never heard such a huge ovation for a conductor as the one after the Fifth Symphony at the Colón); c) this Orchestra embodies peace, comprehension and union and as such is an example for the Middle East: he has no hope that an orchestra can change things in a place where such values don´t exist on either side (at least not in sufficient quantity) but he wants to show that there is an alternative way of living.
            The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra takes its name from a Goethe creation, "West-Östliche Divan", this last word meaning a collection of poems. So, poetry represented by music unites East and West.  It´s a beautiful name for an organism sited in Seville and largely made up of Israelis and Palestinians, plus some Spanish players and at least one on this occasion from Barenboim´s Berliner Staatskapelle, the cellist first chair.  They meet for about three months a year and their founding fathers were Barenboim and the now deceased Edward Said. Barenboim pronounced it as "the most important thing I have done in my life".   
            The integral Beethoven symphonies are one of the main challenges of the repertoire, along with the complete Brahms and Mahler. I´ve heard several series, especially that of Kurt Masur with the Gewandhaus Orchestra (Leipzig). And I must say that even with such exalted maestros as Erich Kleiber and Masur, I´ve never been so bowled over. No, the Orchestra isn´t quite as good as the Gewandhaus, but it´s certainly a very profficient organism that one always listens to with pleasure. But the point is elsewhere: the conjunction of a conductor of marvelous insight with a young, intensely motivated orchestra, playing with high involvement throughout.
            Barenboim has long been a great conductor, and his last visit with the Berliner Staatskapelle combining two years ago the last three Bruckner symphonies with Schönberg scores was a thing to remember. With the same Orchestra but back in 1995 he had already done some Beethoven symphonies here. Ever since he was a kid Barenboim has had enormous respect for the great performers of the time, and has often acknowledged his enthusiasm for Furtwängler or Klemperer . Well, he combines the flights of inspiration of the former with the solid architecture of the latter, but adding a particular drive, so that his interpretations are always faithful to the score but full of life: he has total control of dynamics, which are the very soul of Beethoven, and he gives full value to each incident but never loses the overall view.
            I don´t accept that the members are not listed, they merit to be: and as when they play in chamber music they are identified, I don´t believe in the explanation that the absence is due for security reasons. Apart from a few smudges from the horns and one slip from the oboe, the playing was consistently accurate, strong or delicate when needed; I especially liked the first clarinet and first bassoon. But the organism was admirable most of the time, and Barenboim never faltered. I´m deeply sorry that unforeseen private circumstances forced me to give up the concert with Symphonies 7 and 8.
            The chamber concert wasn´t quite as satisfactory. Especially Beethoven´s Septet suffered, for although the wind players were quite good,  the violin leads most of the time, and I found Guy Braunstein often harsh and not virtuosic enough; the other strings were much better. The Schumann Quintet was dominated by Barenboim, although the cellist Kyril Zlotnikov (from Berlin) was very good. But the concert was worth it for the local premiere of the Webern arrangement for two pianos of Schönberg´s "Five pieces for orchestra", magnificently played by Barenboim  and his wife, Elena Bashkirova. I prefer the colors of the orchestra, but the talent of the players did much to  render evident the enormous modernity of these 1909 pieces.
For Buenos Aires Herald

lunes, agosto 16, 2010

Manon´s dissolute times

                        As I wrote earlier in the season, we are having a surfeit of Manons: the MacMillan ballet, the Puccini opera ("Manon Lescaut") have already come and gone. The trilogy is now completed with Jules Massenet´s "Manon" at the Colón. 
            Apart from revivals at other theatres, "Manon" was seen at the Colón in 2003, so it was hardly necessary to have it back. Anyway, two comparisons  were thus available: a) with the different handlings of the plot by MacMillan and Puccini; b) with previous Colón stagings.  In the first case, the main difference is that in Massenet Manon dies at Le Havre, not in Louisiana. In the second,  previous stagings since 1945 (the first one I saw, when I was 6)  had the splendid décors of Nicola Benois (first seen in 1931, but since 1945 also in 1952, 1954 and 1959), the charming ones of Jacques Dupont in Margarita Wallmann´s tasteful régie in 1970, the relatively renewed vision of Graciela Galán in 1984 and the traditional concept of Rubén Berasain in 2003. We now had David McVicar´s production from Chicago, following the dangerous García Caffi trend of importing everything when he has a theatre of integrated production at his disposition.
            I´m afraid McVicar seems to have read the wrong book: his inspiration apparently comes not by the Abbé Prévost´s opus but by the Marquis de Sade.  Indeed, Prévost´s "The story of the Chevalier Des Grieux and of Manon Lescaut", first published in 1731 and then revised in 1753, although hypocritically considered "scandalous" at that time, is mild indeed compared to any of De Sade´s perverse writings, and it is also written in very classic style. And of course Henri Meilhac and Philippe Gille´s libretto, according to Mssenet´s sweet temperament, avoids starkness and is often oversentimental. Manon is fifteen at the start and has already been a naughty girl, so her family wants to send her to a convent; but Des Grieux falls in love with her and knowing that old Guillot plans to sequester her, he elopes with Manon to Paris. There they live happily until De Brétigny offers her a life of wealth; but she remains enamoured of des Grieux, "rescues" him from Saint Sulpice, where as a prospective priest is much admired by the ladies; she leads him to gamble at the Hotel de Transylvanie, and there Guillot avenges himself: she as a prostitute is sent to the colonies (Louisiana); but in this version she dies at Le Havre.
            She´s not really a prostitute, rather a woman in love of both Des Grieux and luxury, and the Chevalier is too weak to resist her. Lescaut, her soldier cousin, is an accomplice of De Brétigny and a gambler. Important points: De Brétigny is tax collector-in-chief, and Guillot, no less than the Minister of Finance! (maybe that was what provoked scandal, rather than Manon). As a picture of dissolute mores, "Manon" is certainly interesting, but always with taste, elegance and witty phrases. McVicar transforms it into a catalog of lewdness and voyeurism, everything heavily accented, often tasteless and overwrought. I disliked it in the Barcelona Liceu DVD (saved by the singing of Villazón and Dessay) and I was even more bothered seeing it in the theatre, with rather explicit couplings and nakedness. The stage design by Tanya McCallin looks like a bullfight arena  and is a unit set: its justification appears to be that it offers  several rungs of people looking at the happenings and commenting on them by gestures. It has nothing to do with an Amiens tavern, a Paris apartment, the Cours la Reine, Saint Sulpice, the Hôtel de Transylvanie or the road to Le Havre. McCallin´s costumes are much better, and accord to eighteenth-century styles. The mock-Baroque ballet by Michael Keegan-Dolan was rather funny. The lighting by Paule Constable was at times crude and bothersome. They all made their local debut, though represented by curators.
            Musically things went much better. Philippe Auguin, with a brilliant and long career, conducted  (debut) with admirable control and musicality, and the orchestra responded fully. The Chorus had bad French but sang well. Anne Sophie Duprels (debut) was a provocative and incisive Manon, very professional and with strong projection; but I missed the delicacy a Manon should have: my parameters are Victoria de los Ángeles (1952 and 1954) or Beverly Sills (1970). John Osborn (debut), a trifle arid in the First Act, found his best voice in the Saint Sulpice scene and to my mind was the outstanding artist of the evening: his singing was admirable in phrasing, Gallic style and refinement; not quite in the level of Nicolai Gedda in 1970, but certainly the best Des Grieux I´ve heard since. Víctor Torres, even hindered by his very considerable girth, sang beautifully and moved with dramatic sense as Lescaut. Carlos Esquivel sang a dignified Comte Des Grieux, though his makeup should have made him older. The three cocottes were passably taken by María José Dulín, Daniela Tabernig and Gabriela Cipriani Zec. Gustavo Gibert gave us an elegant De Brétigny. But Osvaldo Peroni´s Guillot was a disaster: a grotesque gargoyle badly sung and with impossible French; no, the "vieux galant" is a vanitous minister and should be played and sung with impeccable taste and elegance, such as Nino Falzetti did in all revivals between 1954 and 1984. The rest were in the picture, especially Fernando Grassi as the Tavern-keeper.
For Buenos Aires Herald

miércoles, agosto 11, 2010

The wonderful world of song

           There´s no good musical season without a reasonable amount of recitals where song reigns supreme. Fortunately, this is the case in 2010. All those I comment on are Argentine and first-rate; but for the sake of variety and information it would have been nice to have a guest or two from Europe.
            I give pride of place to Bernarda Fink, to my mind the best and most renowned in Europe of our lady singers. At the top of her vast career, she´s especially sought in the Baroque repertoire but I find her splendid in other styles. For Festivales Musicales she gave a model concert at the Avenida,  with the added advantage of a very talented pianist, the American pianist Anthony Spiri (debut) based in Munich, who throughout the night showed the most sensitive touch and impeccable cleanness of execution. 
            Her programme was cunningly formulated, with three lovely Clara Schumann Lieder between scores of her husband Robert, "Lied der Braut I " and "II", from "Myrthen", and the intimate cycle "Frauenliebe und Leben". Granting that a more extrovert and assertive way with the music can be fascinating in the throats of Lotte Lehmann or Christa Ludwig, I find Fink more attuned to the exquisite restraint and beauty of Kathleen Ferrier or Janet Baker, to name some reference parameters. The Argentine mezzo is an aristocrat of phrasing and intonation and she has perfect German.
            All the Second Part was devoted to songs in Spanish. "La maja dolorosa" is a minicycle of three sad and beautiful pieces by Enrique Granados from his collection of "Tonadillas" (1910). Then, the surpise of the rarely sung but very beautiful pieces by one our best composers, Luis Gianneo: "Seis coplas populares argentinas".  Although the title is in Italian, the "Quattro liriche di Antonio Machado" by Luigi Dallapiccola are in fact in Spanish, and are an astonishingly florid and melodic series from a twelve-tone composer. The  "Cuatro madrigales amatorios" by Joaquín Rodrigo, based on old "Siglo de Oro" pieces, also require considerable agility.  In all this attractive material, Fink´s realisations were close to ideal. The pleasure was extended in the encores: Guastavino´s "La rosa y el sauce" and Schumann´s "Ständchen", op.36 Nº 2.
            At a venue new to me, the Museo Rómulo Raggio at Vicente López, of resonant acoustics but a pleasant place, two valuable artists combined I believe for the first time: baritone Víctor Torres and pianist Alexander Panizza. They tackled the Schubert posthumous collection "Schwanengesang" ("Swan´s song"), fourteen marvelously varied Lieder, some of them masterpieces ("Ständchen", "Der Doppelgänger", "Der Atlas"). They decided to precede it with "Herbst" ("Autumn"), whose link with the other Lieder is that they all datre from 1828, the year of Schubert´s death; but nobody announced it, so, many people were disconcerted.  The concert was outstanding. Panizza, who is a pianist of powerful sound and mechanism, knew how to subdue the decibels when required and played with the easy command of a quality solo recitalist.
            There are two types of singer for this music: the dark, tragic timbre (Hotter) or the expressive but lyrical (Prey, Fischer-Dieskau). Torres is of course of the second sort; he was in splendid voice, with his innate musicality intact and excellent German; he even rose to the challenge of the exhausting "Der Atlas".
            Soledad de la Rosa is a soprano of unusual purity of timbre and emission, and very accurate intonation; an admirable instrument indeed. But the world of Lieder calls for an emotional involvement that isn´t always within her reach. Thus the strengths and occasional weaknesses of her long recital in homage to Schubert for Ars Nobilis at the Salón Anasagasti of the Jockey Club. "Myrthen" ("Myrtles") , op.25, is a big collection of 26 Lieder, extremely diverse, most of them very beautiful, with jewels such as "Der Nussbaum" and "Widmung". It is  rarely sung whole, so this was a real contribution. The "Liederkreis" ("Song circle") op.39 is better-known, twelve songs,  two of which are especially attractive: the dreamy "Mondnacht" and the exalted "Frühlingsnacht". I found Claudio Santoro a tasteful and very musical accompanist, with fine technique.
            Alicia Nafé is a mezzosoprano with an impressive and long European career; although Argentine, she has come home to sing only a few times; her Carmen is especially remembered. Now a veteran, she still can be effective in a well-chosen programme such as she sang at the Museo de Arte Decorativo for the Fundación de Música de Cámara. She was eclectic and interesting in her choices. The refined "Chansons de Bilitis" by Debussy were followed by the still Post-Romantic Four "Gesänge" op. 2 by Alban Berg . The First Part ended with the "Cinco canciones populares argentinas" by Ginastera. Then, a pleasing rarity, "Quattro rispetti" ("Four amorous songs") by Wolf-Ferrari; the "Five Northeastern Songs from the Brazilian folklore" by Ernani Braga; and the often done and charming "Cinco canciones negras" by Montsalvatge". Encores: "Polo" (Falla) and "Canción al árbol del olvido" (Ginastera). Accompanied by an accomplished pianist, Laura Manzano (from La Plata), Nafé showed her professionalism and ability in five languages.
            A brief comment on another programme of the Fundación Música de Cámara, offered twice: for their cycle and for the twentieth anniversary of Lodenhaus (the one I saw). It was called "Little works by great Austrian composers" and sung by a group of young singers and pianists with uneven but generally charming results.

martes, agosto 03, 2010

Valid revivals with misconceived productions

            I am usually happy when worthwhile operas are revived or exhumed  but in two recent instances the pleasure has been strongly mitigated by the current plague of misconceived productions. It was certainly meritorious on the part of Marcelo Lombardero, the Teatro Argentino´s Artistic Director, to programme for the first time a Händel opera; but it was a fatal mistake to put it into the hands of the team led by Gustavo Tambascio. And Buenos Aires Lírica had the good idea to include in their season Donizetti´s "Belisario", but unfortunately both the production and the casting had grave flaws.
            "Giulio Cesare" is the only Händel opera that has had multiple stagings in our country. It was premiered in 1959  by  the Asociación de Conciertos de Cámara. Then there was the great production by Ernst Pöttgen in 1968 at the Colón conducted by Karl Richter and with such first-class singers as Sills, Treigle, Crass, Forrester and Schreier . And finally a rather poor historicist version about ten years ago at the Margarita Xirgú.
            Bärenreiter has edited the piano reduction calling it "Giulio Cesare in Egitto", and it was thus called at the Argentino. The recordings I know and all the previous versions I saw  call it plainly "Giulio Cesare". The libretto by Nicola Francesco Haim indeed happens in Egypt; it is based on another libretto written by Giacomo Francesco Bussani for an opera by Antonio Sartorio. It is a typical "opera seria" involving a mix of political and Romantic factors, the other characters being Cleopatra, Tolomeo, Cornelia (widow of Pompeo) and Sesto (son of Pompeo),  Achillas (an Egyptian general of Tolomeo), Nireno (confidant of Cleopatra) and Curio (a Roman tribune). It has the defect of all "opera serias", an almost unbroken succession of recitative and aria da capo (ABA´), only relieved by two duets, perfunctory choirs and some instrumental bits. But what inspired music almost throughout!
            Facundo Agudín, an Argentine living in Europe, has studied at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis. As he worked with the Orquesta Estable del Argentino, his approach could only be partially historicist and it showed in the lack of bite and strong attack of the strings. But there were some efforts in that direction: a continuo made up of harpsichord, cello, theorbo and harp sounded very well in the recitatives; and although there were notorious mistakes, the horn obbligato in Giulio Cesare´s "Va tacito e nascosto" was played in a natural instrument. Tempi were correct and da capos were ornamented.
            The best singers were Adriana Mastrangelo as an intense Sesto, the Spanish countertenor Flavio Oliver (debut) as Tolomeo (a castrato role) and Paula Almerares as an accurate Cleopatra (though not quite as radiant as the best exponents of this part). Cecilia Díaz as Cornelia was too chesty in her tones for the Baroque style but expressive; Sebastián Sorarrain seemed not quite comfortable as Achillas, though professional. I have no empathy with Nidia Palacios´ dry timbre and mechanical florid singing as Giulio Cesare (another castrato part). Damián Ramírez (countertenor) did well as Nireno and Mariano Fernández Bustinza was a dramatic Curio .
            Gustavo Tambascio as producer condemns himself with these declarations: "The second Act starts in an interior that could be the house of Zully Moreno or Argentina Sono Film. Another segment of that Act is placed at the Recoleta cemetery, the most Baroque spot in Argentina".  His outlandish idea is to make Cleopatra an Evita placing her suffrage for feminine voting from her ill bed. Tolomeo is a drag queen, there´s an orgy that amounts to soft porn, the costumes of Giulio Cesare and Achillas seem parodies to make generals the object of ridicule, and a big etcetera. For me he and his team ruined this premiere, although I have to acknowledge that the workshops of the Argentino showed their great capacity. For the record, stage designs were by Daniel Blanco, costumes by Jesús Ruiz, choreography by Yolanda Granado (the least offensive factor).
            I´ll be brief about "Belisario", the sad story of the downfall of the great Byzantine warrior. The libretto by Salvatore Cammarano is very poor. We owe to the redoubtable baritone Renato Bruson the Colón exhumation of 1981. Although it takes some time to find the level of the best Donizetti, there are lovely moments in the Second and Third Acts, and I certainly enjoyed hearing such beautiful bel canto music. But I have to admit that the cast did little to make the experience a full one. Omar Carrión was the best, but even he didn´t project enough involvement. A Chilean import proved a disappointment: María Luz Martínez certainly doesn´t have the means to sing the tough role of Antonina, Belisario´s estranged wife. Christian Peregrino as the Emperor Giustiniano was vibrato-ridden. Santiago Bürgi replaced Sergio Spina as Alamiro, and although he is too lyrical for the part, he did acceptably. Vanina Guilledo was colorless as Irene, Belisario´s daughter. The other four singers, in the picture.
             I liked the straightforward conducting of Javier Logioia Orbe and the Choir under Juan Casasbellas sang with fortitude and fine intonation. Casasbellas had the added merit of reconstructing the orchestral score, which had disappeared when Venice´s La Fenice burned down, and the result was quite Donizettian. Marcelo Perusso tried to give a Byzantine ambience (he was producer, stage and costume designer) but I´m afraid the result was kitschy and unconvincing.
For Buenos Aires Herald