jueves, octubre 24, 2013

Our city´s main private opera companies announce their seasons

            Before World War I Buenos Aires teemed with opera theatres: the new Colón, the Opera, the Politeama, the Coliseo... After it conditions changed, and by 1930, apart from the popular Marconi, only the Colón was left. And so it was until the 1990s, although a subgenre, the zarzuela, had its home during many decades at the Avenida. But in that last decade of the Twentieth Century interesting things began to happen. A strange venue, La Manufactura Papelera, offered in its cellar opera with piano or with orchestra. Adelaida Negri presented in diverse theatres her seasons of bel canto opera, reviving many operas neglected by the Colón. At the doors of our city, the small, quaint Roma (Avellaneda) gave us little-known Verdi or Puccini. The enterprising producer Eduardo Casullo presented opera in diverse places. The Colón´s monopoly was over, as a symbol of the public´s renewed interest in opera.

            But in 2000 a new presence dominated what came to be known as "alternative" opera: Juventus Lyrica was born, intending to promote young artists and stage opera in a fresh, warm way, under the leadership of Ana D´Anna and with Antonio Russo as Musical Director. They are still in command. And in 2003, out of the crisis was unexpectedly born a rival, Buenos Aires Lírica (BAL). Led then and now by Frank Marmorek, they purported to be a reaction against what they believed to be the Colón´s decline.

            But both BAL and Juventus had and have a severe limitation: although the new Avenida (you will  remember that it was victim of a fire) is a beautiful theatre in the traditional horseshoe fashion, its pit can only hold 45 musicians, and so a very big part of the repertoire can´t be done unless it is reorchestrated with more or less felicity. I have never liked this, even if it is well done. Unfortunately the owner of the theatre is adamant and doesn´t want to enlarge it. And neither Juventus nor BAL accept the possibility of using the Coliseo, which does have a large pit.

            These paragraphs are the background for my comment on the recent announcement of the 2014 season of both enterprises. I of course admire their continuity (few things are as difficult as to maintain a private opera company, especially in a country with few sponsors). In 2013 our country´s economy suffered further disasters, affecting sponsorship among other consequences, and it showed: BAL offered four instead of five operas and Juventus only three instead of four.

            On first sight it would seem that things are looking up for 2014, as both associations announce a return to their habitual five (BAL) and four (Juventus) titles. Alas, in both cases the added one is an operatic concert, not an opera. I know that the Colón is doing the same trick (the recent Britten "War Requiem") but the only exception I accept is giving an interesting opera in full but in concert (the Colón did that with Händel´s "Rinaldo" in 2012): there´s plenty of beautiful music unheard here (a couple of suggestions with orchestras that fit the Avenida´s pit: Schubert´s "Fierrabras", Weber´s "Euryanthe").

            BAL´s most relevant title will be Donizetti´s "Anna Bolena", the best of his three British Queens (the others: "Maria Stuarda", "Roberto Devereux"), all three given in a tour de force by Negri, although in different seasons. "Anna Bolena" was splendidly offered by the Colón in 1970 (the others still wait) with Suliotis, Cossotto, Raimondi and Vincò. BAL will give it in March (21,23, 25, 27, 29) with Macarena Valenzuela, Florencia Machado, Santiago Ballerini and Christian Pellegrino, producer Pablo Maritano.

            The so-called "Wagner-Fest" will have fragments of "Tannhäuser", "Die Walküre" and "Götterdämmerung", with Carla Filipcic-Holm and Hernán Iturralde; conductor Pedro-Pablo Prudencio. The orchestra on the stage, presumably around 70 players (more aren´t needed for the dimensions of the Avenida). May 2, 4, 8, 10 and 13.

            "Adriana Lecouvreur" (Cilea) isn´t a good choice, for BAL has already included it in an earlier season.Daniela Tabernig, Eric Herrero, Adriana Mastrángelo, Omar Carrión. Conductor, Carlos Vieu; producer, Crystal Manich. June 6, 8, 10, 12, 14. I would certainly have preferred "Idomeneo" or "La Finta Giardiniera" to represent Mozart rather than "Don Giovanni" yet again. There is an intriguing rentrée, that of Nahuel Di Pierro, who left Buenos Aires very young for an European career and is probably still about 30. The others: Iván García, Oriana Favaro, Victoria Gaeta, Cecilia Pastawski, Santiago Bürgi, Mariano Fernández Bustina and Iturralde. Prudencio will be the conductor and Marcelo Lombardero the producer. August 22, 24, 26, 28, 30.

            Finally, Gounod´s "Roméo et Juliette" is a charming piece but there´s plenty of good French opera waiting in the aisles. Favaro, Ballerini, Ernesto Bauer, Pastawski, Peregrino, Iturralde. Conductor Javier Logioia Orbe. October 17, 19, 21, 23, 25.

            Juventus Lyrica are much less explicit in their announcement. Two of the titles seem to me quite unnecessary: Verdi´s "Rigoletto" and (already offered by Juventus) Offenbach´s "Les Contes d´Hoffmann". D´Anna and Russo are in charge for the first (April 4, 6, 10, 12) and the conductor for the second will be André Dos Santos (September 12, 14, 18, 20). The saving grace will be the première of the original French version of Cherubini´s "Médée", conducted by Hernán Schvartzman and produced by María Jaunarena (July 18, 20, 24, 26). The final "Great Anniversary Gala" has no dates yet.  

For Buenos Aires Herald

viernes, octubre 18, 2013

Study in contrast: a Deep South opera and a Verdi standard

            Strange things happen in our opera milieu. There are the standards, of course, but there are also mindless experiments wrongly called "operas" and out-of-the way operas that add some pep to the audiences´ normal regime.  There was recently a work for spoken words accompanied  by music; there´s a technical word for that, and it´s "melodramma", not opera as it was called. 

            Out-of-the-way opera indeed: Scott Joplin´s "Treemonisha", certainly an Argentine première and a valid one. I was especially asked to attend an advanced rehearsal, the pre-general, and there were minor matters to adjust, but I believe there´s a remote chance that the actual performances will have strong differences with it.

            You will probably remember a Robert Redford movie called "The Sting" ("El golpe"), and if so you had probably gone out of the cinema whistling a Scott Joplin rag. Fortunately he left us a good number of piano roll recordings, and I treasure two cassettes with two round dozens of rags by and with Joplin, an excellent pianist. He influenced such greats as Stravinsky (we have three rags from him!) and Hindemith (who manages to combine it with Bach...).  

             There may be more, but there are at least three operas about Deep South black people that are really attractive, and the best of the three is to my mind the best opera ever written in the USA: George Gershwin´s "Porgy and Bess". It is an amazing mystery that a first-generation American of Ukrainian Jewish extraction proved to have a profound empathy with the mores of Deep South black people and wrote his very best music for a tragic and moving love story, and this at a time when racism was still deeply ingrained (1935). "Porgy..." was done twice in BA, both times with an imported American company: 1955 and 1992; they count as highlights in my long experience of opera.

            Much earlier in 1904 the English composer Frederick Delius, living in Florida as a planter, wrote his black opera, "Koanga" (I have the excellent recording conducted by Charles Groves). Lighter and less idiomatic tham Gershwin´s, it´s still a charming piece well worth knowing and with an admixture of the Creole culture.

            Joplin´s "Treemonisha" (1915) is very different, a willingly simple fable with straightforward music, words by Joplin himself, duration 90 minutes. The original version is with piano. The ingenuity is already in the title: well, Monisha found a three-year-old girl under a tree and decided to adopt her; hence, Treemonisha! Gunther Schuller, the orchestrator of the splendid Houston recording, tellingly says: " it is a period piece full of innocent charm", "not a ragtime opera".

            The story is easily told: a wizard with a curious name (Zodzetrick) wants to sell Tremonisha an amulet, she rejects it; later on, she is abducted ; when she is about to be thrown into a cauldron a friend of hers, Remus, frightens the wizards with a scarecrow they take to be the Devil; in a final scene the abducters are pardoned. Simple moral truths: "ignorance is delictive at a time of illumination"; superstition must be fought; convert wrongdoers into good people. As Treemonisha is the only educated person among them, the community asks her to lead them.

            The music alternates between narrative recitatives, songs, choruses and dances. The opera was never performed in Joplin´s lifetime and was forgotten until his collected works were published in 1971 by Vera Brodsky Lawrence.

            The opera is set in Arkansas at a plantation in 1884. There are three acts and twenty-seven numbers, ending with "A real slow drag", sung and danced ("hop and skip").

            Three performances will be offered at the Empire by a new group, Oíd Opera. The musical director is also the orchestrator: Leandro Soldano. In the small orchestra two members seemed to me outstanding, the pianist and the trumpeter. Others need improving.  The producer, Nicolás Isasi, respected the piece´s naiveté with simple movements, and the stage props were essentially corn stalks, cotton plants and bales of hay (María Dubini).  The performers were in blackface, naturally enough (this isn´t a black company).

            The group of little-known but talented singers included especially the fresh presence of Natalia Albero as a tall, lithe Treemonisha with a bright soprano voice, well matched by her adoptive mother Monisha (Lucía Alonso, mezzosoprano), the booming bass of Ned, her "father" (Carlos Ammirata), the nice timbre of Matías Klemm (Remus, tenor). I found Ignacio Agudo as Zodzetrick too smooth, lacking in menace (baritone). The small choir was enthusiastic both in its singing and dancing.  Worth your while.

            I have to be brief about a concert version with about a half hour of cuts of Verdi´s "La Forza del Destino" at the Roma (Avellaneda). Two singers dominated: the easy professionalism of baritone Omar Carrión and the strong personality of soprano Haydée Dabusti, always intense and accurate (though I missed some softer singing at appropriate moments). Tenor Juan González Cueto started poorly but later found better line and voice. Luciano Straguzzi was a correct bass, Vanina Trifoglio an agreeable Preziosilla (she skipped some high notes), Antonello Tramonti a wholly inadequate buffo baritone and Pablo Basualdo a rather dry bass in three roles.

            Conductor César Tello was the dynamic conductor of a passable Orchestra (de la Municipalidad de Avellaneda) and an agreeable Chorus (Instituto Municipal de Música de Avellaneda; Armando Garrido, director).

For Buenos Aires Herald

Lahti Symphony brings Finland´s music to BA

            Jan Sibelius is Finland´s musical symbol for the rest of the planet, and the Lahti Symphony made a quantum jump in its international reputation when it recorded the complete symphonies under Osmo Vänskä for Bis. Although other integrals have had a great success (Colin Davis-Boston Symphony or Lorin Maazel-Vienna Philharmonic) this is the one of Finnish origin that wowed reviewers and audiences for its authenticity.

            That set made Vänskä and the Orchestra famous; one consequence was that the conductor was named at the helm of the famous Minnesota Orchestra (ex-Minneapolis) who had such major leaders as Mitropoulos, Ormandy, Dorati and Skrowaczewski. What Vänskä  couldn´t imagine was that he would become a victim of the financial crisis of American symphony orchestras; he recently resigned because of a management lockout that paralyzed the Minnesota.

            Okko Kamu, now in his sixties, is a talented Finnish conductor who won First Prize in the 1969 Berlin Von Karajan International Conductor Competition. He conducted our National Symphony in 1981 and he then premiered Sibelius´ Symphony Nº 6 as well as offering Nielsen´s Fifth. In another visit he was scheduled to première Sibelius´ Fourth, but mismanagement of the National Symphony forced a change of programme.

            Kamu returned decades later conducting the Stockholm Sinfonietta (or was it Chamber Orchestra?). And now he was back as the new Conductor-in-chief of the Lahti Symphony (why call it Finland Lahti Symphony?)  with two different programmes for the Mozarteum at the Colón.  In the hand programme biographies no mention is made of Kamu´s past visits, and quite unfairly Vänskä is completely ignored in the three paragraphs dedicated to the Orchestra.

            For the record, Lahti is a small  (100.000 people) industrial city North of Helsinki, and it is astounding that it has nurtured such a splendid orchestra, although a rather restricted one (only 61 players, at least on this tour). Kamu is also leader of their Sibelius Summer Festival. Also, let us remember that some years ago we had the visit of the very good Helsinki Philharmonic. It is certainly silly to call the Lahti "the most notable Scandinavian symphonic ensemble". First, Finland isn´t part of Scandinavia; second, such a statement diminishes the great talents of the Oslo and Stockholm Philharmonics, who were also guests here.  

            Necessary nitpicking apart, this was a very worthwhile visit. I had my doubts in the first concert when  the intense and dramatic "Manfred" Overture by Schumann had  some problems of ensemble and intonation, but conductor and orchestra soon recovered in Bruch´s famous First Violin Concerto, beautifully accompanied with great attention to detail and very firm orchestral ritornellos.

            I recently wrote about brilliant young violinists; I now add the debut of Elena Vähälä, born in the United States but of Finnish descent. Tall, handsome and blond, she cuts a fine figure, but of course what really matters is her playing, and she proved outstanding. Both she and the orchestra were unfazed by titillating lights in the first minutes (I was told that the backup system didn´t function well). Her playing was rich, tasteful, achingly expressive and mechanically outstanding.

            I had great expectations about their version of the marvellous Sibelius Fifth Symphony and I wasn´t disappointed, except in one aspect: the Lahti isn´t big enough to give proper density to the great climaxes, although they all play with intense commitment.  Most of the audience, myself included, had to share with Kamu and the Orchestra the disagreeable experience of having to wait until everyone was seated, including the Colón Director. Another system failure?

             But once the music began, we soon were under the spell of this unique music, phrased in  all senses as it should be. The mystery , the brusque contrasts, the innovations in texture and harmony, everything was there save for sheer impact. The disconcerting final chords separated by long silences are still one of the strangest endings for a symphony.  There were no encores, either from the violinist or the orchestra.

            I had a very pleasant surprise at the beginning of the second concert with the première (not announced as such) of Sibelius´  strangely named "Cassazione" (an old name for a Divertimento). Its twelve minutes proved chockful of interesting incident in pure Sibelian style, including a couple of splendid tunes. I found only two recordings in my CD catalogue (in his famous scores each has a myriad) so I thank Kamu for his enterprise.

            Followed a wonderful version of Sibelius´ Violin Concerto, perhaps the most perfectly integrated I have heard live. Vähälá was simply great in this most difficult of Concerti, never failing in her concentration and phrasing of the utmost fidelity to the score along with marvels of clean technique.  And the orchestra never put a foot wrong; just a small problem: the sound of certain woodwinds could have been fuller for such Romantic music.

            I was quite happy that Kamu chose Beethoven´s Fourth Symphony, a favorite of mine, to end the programme. He is an orthodox conductor in the best sense, articulating musical forms and dynamics with impeccable balance and continuity. I only differ in the tempo for the last movement, a bit too fast. The Lahti Symphony was generally very good, with great brio, though there were a couple of mistakes (horn, bad timpani tuning).

            Two lovely encores: Sibelius´ so special "Valse triste" and another very subtle piece that also sounded like that composer.

For Buenos Aires Herald


martes, octubre 08, 2013

A varied menu of orchestras from Germany and our city

            Some years back there was a magical and unexpected concert at the Colón. Almost at the last moment, it was possible to make an extension of a Brazil tour by the NDR Hamburg Symphony at the request of their great conductor, Christoph Von Dohnányi. There were several things that made it memorable: a) The NDR is the Norddeutsche Rundfunk, the North German Radio, and its orchestra is one of the very best from that country; b) Von Dohnányi managed to give enormous relief to the whole programme; c) he joined two pieces of metaphysical content separated by more than a century, and its deep interrelation came to the fore: Wagner´s Prelude to the First Act of "Lohengrin" and Ligeti´s "Atmospheres".

             When the return of the NDR was announced this year by Nuova Harmonia at the Colón I was quite happy because the orchestra in itself was a firm promise of outstanding quality. Their current conductor isn´t of the exalted standard of Von Dohnányi or of other illustrious Principal Conductors of the NDR¨s history such as Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt, Günther Wand, John Eliot Gardiner, Christoph Eschenbach or Herbert Blomstedt (who conducted them in their first visit to BA prior to Von Dohnányi) but Thomas Hengelbrock is having a good career. However, he fell ill and was replaced by Estonian conductor Arvo Volmer (debut), who has had posts in his country, Finland and Australia and been guest conductor in a long panoply of orchestras.

            Volmer respected Hengelbrock´s programme, unfortunately, for it was a trio of hackneyed standards (I mean "overplayed", no reflection on their value,  which is certainly outstanding). They even repeated the "Lohengrin" First Act Prelude in a good performance, though without the shimmer obtained by Von Dohnányi.

            Then came Rachmaninov´s Second Piano Concerto, where the soloist was Korean Hyun-Jung Lim, whose performance divided the audience; I am among the nay-sayers. Young and personable, with very fleet fingers, she is a type of player that doesn´t agree with my taste: over-vehement, flashy, her tone too light, her rhythm much too arbitrary, she was  better in the slow moments where her tone was deeper and beautiful. The NDR and Volmer were hard put to follow her and there were many unclear moments. Encores: a turbulent and ugly Korean piece and Debussy´s "Clair de lune", where she approximated the essence of the music.

             The Second Part compensated, for the Volmer-NDR combination proved admirable and Brahms´ First Symphony (certainly one of my favorites) was wonderful in all respects:  the conducting was orthodox in the best sense, every tempo exact, the phrasing always telling and according to the composer´s wishes; and the playing was gorgeous: outstanding soloists (horn, concertino, oboe, clarinet), mahogany-hued string color with perfect intonation, ideal ensemble.

            There was certainly no imagination in the encores, more Brahms (Hungarian Dance Nº1) and Wagner (Prelude to the Third Act of "Lohengrin") but the interpretations were treasurable, and there was an interesting point: Volmer chose not the habitual version of the Prelude but one with a short but elaborate coda where the villain Telramund appears with his Leitmotiv, as if to desecrate the upcoming Wedding March.

            The Buenos Aires Philharmonic was led by its Assistant Conductor, the young and talented Carlos Bertazza, in the 16th concert of the subscription series. He offered an intelligent and difficult programme: as a homage to the centenary of his birth, Britten´s famous Variations and fugue on a theme by Purcell; a typically bucolic score by Vaughan Williams, "Flos Campi"; and Prokofiev´s last Symphony, Nº 7. Just after the war (1946) Britten received an educational commission for a filmed documentary on "The instruments of the orchestra" and he called it "Young person´s guide to the orchestra"; there was a narrator describing the goings on. But nowadays it is most often played without narrator, as it was this time. It is a work of amazing perfection in every sense, and very hard to play; there were instrumental lapses in several bits.

            "Flos campi" is a rarity  for it uses a small mixed choir and a viola soloist on six wordless fragments from Solomon´s Song of Songs. The music has a strong modal influence and is unmistakably VW. Marcela Magin is first viola desk of the Phil since 1975; her performance was autumnal in its sobriety and taste, though  more volume was needed in certain fragments. Instead of a normal mixed choir, in this performance we heard a different option: a small men´s choir (Ensamble Vocal Cámara XXI prepared by Miguel Ángel Pesce) and the Colón´s Children´s Choir (César Bustamante) for the feminine voices.  The effect was charming and very musical. The chamber orchestra responded very well to Bertazza´s well-considered reading.

            Prokofiev´s Seventh Symphony was composed in the last months of his life; he died on the same day as Stalin! (March 5, 1953). It was created as the result of a commission from Moscow Radio, whose authorities wanted "a simple symphony for youthful listeners", but it is hardly that, even if it doesn´t attempt the depths of his marvellous Fifth. The music is melodious and beautiful, though it has its dramatic moments. Bertazza conducted with fine attention to detail, the orchestra played well, and there was the right decision for the concluding minutes: the original quiet ending instead of a boisterous one imposed on the composer by the Radio.

For Buenos Aires Herald

domingo, octubre 06, 2013

A feast of talented violinists


          Either in recital or accompanied by an orchestra, recent weeks have provided a lot of violinistic talent. Vadim Gluzman, Sami Merdinian, Marianna Vasilieva, Jeremías Sergiani, Erzhan Kulibaev: all artists that deserve close attention and confirm the great moment of violin playing in the world.

            The concert conducted by Enrique Arturo Diemecke with the Buenos Aires Philharmonic on September 26 had two points of interest: the splendid rendition of Prokofiev´s Second Violin Concerto by Gluzman and the revival after aeons of time of Richard Strauss´ first tone poem, "Aus Italien" ("From Italy").

            Born in the Ukraine (USSR) in 1973, Gluzman studied in Russia, Israel and the New York Juilliard School and his career was promoted by Isaac Stern. He plays a wonderful Stradivarius once owned by Leopold Auer  and now lent by the Stradivari Society of Chicago. I believe this was his local debut, and very welcome indeed, for he is a true representative of the best tradition.

            Prokofiev´s Concerto alternates between spikiness and singability, in typical style. Gluzman showed an admirably warm, beautiful tone, along with a polished mechanism that solved the tough problems without harshness. Diemecke´s accompaniment wasn´t as fluid as the music required and there were several moot areas. Gluzman provided as encore some slow Bach done with great purity.

            I welcome the opportunity of hearing live "Aus Italien", for although the 45 minutes of impressions rather than descriptions of Italy do have some longueurs, they are already admirably orchestrated, and at 22 (written in 1886) many traits unmistakably Straussian are already there. "In the Campagna", "At the ruins of Rome", "On Sorrento´s beaches" and "Popular Neapolitan life" give us many beautiful moments, and I wasn´t bothered by the incidental appearance of "Funiculì funiculà" (Denza´s song on the Vesuvian funicular). I have long enjoyed the recording of Kempe with the Dresden Staatskapelle, but hearing it in concert I appreciated many more details.

            Diemecke was very comfortable in this exuberant material and the Phil played well. He is surely one of the few conductors that have committed to memory this ample score.

            Again those functionaries that run the National Symphony didn´t even manage to provide a miserable flyer as hand programme of the concert conducted by Christian Baldini, a young (35) Argentine conductor working nowadays in California; so it was left for the artist to tell us (I was in better shape than others, for I had received a mail). The night started at the Auditorio de Belgrano with an expressive première, the "Elegy for Juana Ponce of Lavapiés" (a Madrilene borough) by Argentine composer Alejandro Civilotti, who lives in Cataluña but was present. The performance sounded convincing.

            Then we had the pleasure of hearing Saint-Saëns´ attractive Third Violin Concerto with Sami Merdinian, an Argentine from Córdoba who is living in the USA. This was distinguished playing, clean and musical, with accomplished technique and good taste in the phrasing, and he was very well accompanied. Merdinian interpreted Bach´s Sarabande from the Second Partita as an encore.

            A brilliant performance of Strauss´ "Don Juan" showed Baldini´s mettle, and the concert ended with a light piece, Shostakovich´s "Festive Overture" (I would have preferred something denser for better evaluation of Baldini´s considerable capacity).

            Although I couldn´t stay for the Second Part of a concert by the Orquesta Sinfónica Juvenil Nacional José de San Martín conducted by Mario Benzecry at the Facultad de Derecho UBA, I attended the First Part so as to hear the winners of the Competition Fundación Hebraica 2013. I was very favorably  impressed by Jeremías Sergiani, First Prize, who played beautifully Mendelssohn´s Violin Concerto; only 21, this Cordobés is studying with Miriam Fried at the New England Conservatory and is already very accomplished in mechanism and style.

            Soprano Jaquelina Livieri won First Mention in that competition and sang accurately but too incisively "Martern aller Arten" from Mozart´s "Die Entführung aus dem Serail". The programme had started with Esteban Benzecry´s agreeable "Obertura tanguera", well conducted by Mariano Fidanza. The hall´s reverberation wasn´t kind to the orchestra, sounding too loud and not very precise. In the more chamber-like passages the results were better.

            The Orquesta Académica del Instituto Superior de Arte del Teatro Colón had as guest conductor Jorge Lhez, an Argentine that is currently Principal Conductor of the Orquesta Sinfónica de Salta.  He did a progressively fine job, after a rather erratic reading of "El tarco en flor" by Luis Gianneo. He accompanied correctly Beethoven´s Violin Concerto, where Marianna Vasilieva played with subtlety and taste though lacking some impact; she won Second Prize at the Second Buenos Aires International Violin Competition (July 2012). Born in Saint Petersburg and formed by Dora Schwarzberg and Zakhar Bron, she has a fresh talent and showed her technique in a long encore, a Paganiniana whose author I ignore.

            Lhez was quite good, and so was the Orchestra, in a clear and stylish reading of Mozart´s Symphony Nº38, "Prague".

            I have to be too brief about Kulibaiev´s recital for the Mozarteum Midday Concerts at the Gran Rex. He hails from Kazakhstan, won First Prize in the above-mentioned competition and showed an amazing technique of millimetric precision. Finely accompanied by Paula Peluso, he gave us Debussy´s Sonata and four virtuoso pieces: Sarasate´s Habanera, Saint-Saëns´ "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso", Paganini/Kreisler´s "La Campanella" and Waxman´s "Fantasy on themes from Bizet´s ´Carmen´ ". Encores: Kreisler´s "Chinese tambourin" and Ponce´s "Estrellita".  Simply splendid.

For Buenos Aires Herald

miércoles, octubre 02, 2013

Britten´s “War Requiem”, an essential pacifist message

            Benjamin Britten was a lifelong pacifist, as were his companion Peter Pears and his friend the poet W.H.Auden. When WWII exploded he was in the USA, but he returned to Great Britain during the war and was accepted as conscientious objector and liberated from military service. Early examples of his commitment were the "Ballad of Heroes" Op.14 (1939) and the powerful "Sinfonia da Requiem" Op.20 (1940) in its parts "Lacrimosa", "Dies Irae" and "Requiem aeternam".

            His opera "Peter Grimes" put Britten in the front rank of British composers and several other operas, as well as his magnificent "Variations and fugue on a theme of Purcell", affirmed his reputation. But if one has to chose a towering creation, it surely must be his "War Requiem", Op.66 (1962), commissioned for the inauguration of the new Coventry Cathedral (the old one had been bombed by the Nazis in 1940).

            Ever since I attended the B.A. première of this mighty score I have been convinced that it is the most important choral-symphonic work composed after WWII. That event happened on October 30, 1966, at the Colón, with Alexander Gibson conducting and three first-rate vocalists: Heather Harper (who was the soprano at the world première), tenor André Turp and baritone Ángel Mattiello. I had my own musical magazine at the time and I felt that Gibson rated the front cover of that edition. In 1967 it was Britten himself who was in the cover, when he offered with Pears a unique recital also at the Colón.

            When the "War Requiem" was offered again in 1979, Antonio Russo did a great job of conducting and the vocal artists were even better: Harper, tenor Gerald English and baritone John Shirley-Quirk. By that time I had obtained the complete score (Boosey and Hawkes) and I followed with it that performance as I had with the marvelous records conducted by Britten himself with the artists he had wanted for Coventry: Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and English tenor Peter Pears (the men were present at Coventry but the soprano wasn´t allowed at the time to come out of the USSR). Quite obviously he had chosen them not only for their quality but as a symbol of reconciliation with the protagonist nations of WWII.

            Only 29 months after the 1979 BA performance, the Malvinas War ran counter to the "War Requiem" ´s message. Later on, there were more performances widely spaced led by Steuart Bedford and Pedro Calderón. As far as the values of the work go, it was obviously a fine idea to programme it again in our city. However, there´s a very moot point: the Colón opera season is miserably scarce, just eight titles when it should be of at least twelve, so to offer a Requiem substituting for an opera means that only seven are operatic, and if you add that one of the seven is an Argentine opera, you have just six out of the enormous world repertoire. And no Wagner in a Wagner year...

            The structure imagined by Britten is of great complexity and only a master hand could pull it off, which he triumphantly did. Apart from the soloists you need a mixed chorus, a boys chorus, a big symphony orchestra and a 12-piece chamber orchestra. Two basic elements alternate with dazzling variety: the Latin text of the Requiem Mass (soprano, both choruses and the symphony orchestra) and a series of poems on war written by Wilfred Owen, who died at the end of WWI on the front (1918) sung by two soldiers (tenor, baritone) with the chamber orchestra.

            The Owen poems are very powerful and tragic; the last one has a phrase that synthesizes its message: reconciliation ("I am the enemy you killed, my friend"). It amazes me the skill and the emotive punch with which the fragments of the Requiem cohere with their following poem almost overlapping, ruminative pieces contrasting with enormous climaxes, especially the "Lacrimosa", the "Libera me", the savage "Hosanna" and the final 48-pentagram piece, combining different texts from all participants. As should happen in any good performance of this music (and this one rated high) I was left speechless at the end,  with tears in my eyes.

            Guillermo Scarabino is now 70 and he has had a half-century career. Surely he has never done something better than this perfectly rehearsed, expressive but contained performance, in which every element was not only intellectually understood but also communicated to the artists and the public. "Tempi" may have been slightly fast but it never bothered me.

            The two orchestras (both from the "Estable") were in top shape, very incidental smudges weighing  little. The choirs were both admirable: the mixed Colón under Miguel Martínez, and the Children´s under César Bustamante (who also played the organ). The latter included girls along with the boys, but they sounded as one, strikingly pure and beautiful, magically placed in the chandelier  (the sound seemed heavenly).

            Of the soloists I especially liked baritone Víctor Torres, his voice in excellent condition, his singing always musical and expressive and with good English. Tamara Wilson (debut) at first had excessive vibrato but she soon tamed it and sang well (she replaced the originally announced Carla Filipcic Holm). I was disappointed by tenor Enrique Folger, whose emphatic and melodramatic singing, often harsh, isn´t what Britten wanted. But the overall result was worthy of a marvellous creation.

For Buenos Aires Herald