domingo, abril 26, 2015

Moscow, Bremen and Buenos Aires: symphonic cities

            Moscow has always been a true symphonic city, with several orchestras of changing names through the decades. Two of them have left a lasting imprint of their visits to our city: the Philharmonic under Kyril Kondrashin and the State Academic Symphony of Russia led by Evgeny Svetlanov.  I still remember vividly the dazzling performances of Shostakovich´s Sixth Symphony by the former and of Scriabin´s "Poem of Ecstasy" by the latter.

            The special qualities of Russian orchestras came to the fore in those visits: extreme discipline, forthright approach, brilliant quality of sound, demolishing "fortissimi". They are at their best in colorful Romantic music and in tension-laden textures.

            True to this description, the inaugural concert of Nuova Harmonia let us meet again  the State Academic Symphony, now called Evgeny Svetlanov after the demise of the famous conductor. The venue was the Coliseo, whose clinical acoustics permit clear appraisal of the music but exaggerate the glassiness of violins in the high ranges.

            I was sorry that their famous current Principal Conductor Vladimir Jurowski, initially announced, couldn´t come (he´s also the PC of the London Philharmonic, one of the great orchestras that have never come to BA). However,  the replacement was interesting: the Norwegian Terje Mikkelsen is quite unknown here but has had an important career. Disciple of the great Finnish conductor Jorma Panula (a couple of years ago this distinguished old master had been invited by our Philharmonic, but for some reason it didn´t materialize), he was a collaborator of Mariss Jansons in Oslo and Saint Petersburg, and  PC of orchestras in Latvia, Lithuania, the Ukraine and Germany. He was also PC at Shanghai  and has recorded fifty CDs.

            By his appearance he seems fiftyish, and his rubicund face  is complemented by moustache, beard and floating long hair (curiously mirrored by the orchestra´s concertino). His presence meant a pleasant change in the programme. Instead of a Russian well-known piece (Mussorgsky/Rimsky-Korsakov´s "A Night in Bald Mountain") we took contact with a Norwegian composer, Johan Halvorsen, who was the son-in-law of Edvard Grieg. His First Norwegian Rhapsody (1920) may have been a local première (I´m not sure): firmly based on folklore, it is melodic, rhythmic and a bit too noisy. It was stunningly played.

            Dvorák´s Cello Concerto is the most important in history. Alexander Buzlov (debut) is a young (32) and talented Russian. Initially a bit rough, he soon found his form, and with the pliant support of Mikkelsen (some beautiful solo work in the orchestra and flexible phrasing) we heard a well-considered reading of this masterpiece, giving its due both to the virtuoso passages and the dreamy melodies, played with great sensibility.

            Tchaikovsky´s Fourth Symphony fared even better in the two last movements, practically perfect (an incredibly clean pizzicato ensemble in the Third, and enormous buoyancy in the Fourth), but the first two were also very good, the First with high drama and powerful sound, and the Andantino was indeed "in modo d´una canzone". The conductor showed his command throughout, and the orchestra was virtuosic.They sounded really big, though they are only 83-strong.

            The encore was an incredibly fast movement from Tchaikovsky´s "The Sleeping Beauty", a truly joyful end to a fine evening.

            I don´t recall that Bremen has ever sent us a musical embassy. On the evidence of their concert in the First Cycle of the Mozarteum Argentino at the Colón, the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen is a first-rate Mozart-size (36) orchestra. A German Chamber Philharmonic, as their denomination states. Bremen is a middle-sized city (about 600.000 inhabitants) with an important cultural life including a Music Festival in Summer. The Orchestra was founded in 1980 and their Artistic Director since 2004 is Paavo Järvi, a Finnish conductor that visited us years ago. But their leader on this occasion was Pekka Kuusisto, also Finnish (as is their concertino Janne Nisonen).  

            They started with a precise and suitably fast version of Mozart´s Overture to "Così fan tutte", with Kuusisto leading from the concertino seat. Then, a worthwhile première, Magnus Lindberg´s Concerto for violin (1958). I am an admirer of the Finnish school of composers with such talents as Rautawaara and Sallinen; I now add Lindberg. The music fluctuates between tonal and atonal, with wispy, mysterious passages followed by almost Expressionistic turbulences. Kuusisto played with magnetic concentration, abetted by an orchestra that faithfully partnered him (helped by the concertino, who sometimes conducted).

            After the interval, a funny thing happened. Incongruously Kuusisto started playing a Finnish folk melody and was joined by the concertino.  They stopped when a latecomer took up his post in the orchestra...

            I wasn´t convinced by Kuusisto in Mozart´s Concerto Nº5, "Turkish". His sound was very white and small, and his abundant cadenzas sounded arbitrary. The Orchestra was good, but you can be a Mozartian soloist with a full sound, witnesses Grumiaux or Szeryng.

            Instead, I liked a lot Kuusisto´s "conducting" from the concertino post of Beethoven´s First Symphony. Rather fast "tempi" (the Andante was Allegretto) but unfailingly exact in every phrasing, and a master of that Beethovenian trademark, the "sforzando", the strong accents that punctuate the phrasing. This First was exciting, a new world opening up.

            The energetic Beethoven Overture to his ballet "The creatures of Prometheus" was the welcome encore, very well played.  The Orchestra imterpreted a different programme for the second cycle; the concerti stayed, but the night was completed with "Prometheus" and Mozart´s 40th Symphony.

For Buenos Aires Herald 

“Werther”, Goethe seen through Massenet´s sensibility

            "Werther" is a special case in Jules Massenet´s career: his only opera based on a German subject has become the most famous of this very French composer, overpassing "Manon", his greatest success during his life and afterwards up to the Nineteen Sixties. In BA "Manon" reigned. It was offered in 29 seasons against the 13 of the Goethe-based opera (including the current one). But in the last half-century things have changed: 7 times "Werther" and only 4 "Manon". It must be added that we´ve seen many "Werthers"  outside the Colón. 

            Well,  "Werther" is attractive.  As the epistolar novel "The Sorrows of Young Werther" dates from 1774, it is curious that it took more than a century to find the composer who would transform it into an opera (premièred in Vienna -1892- and in German translation, for Massenet didn´t find support in Paris).

            It is a strange thing that this semi-autobiographical account of the desperate love of a young man for Charlotte (promised and then  married to another man) ends with a long-announced suicide, for this is supposed to be the "Mal du siècle" in the Nineteenth-Century, but fact is that in Germany there was a turbulent literary (and briefly musical) movement called "Sturm und Drang" ("Storm and Impulse"), clearly Romantic, represented both by Goethe and Schiller,  and this happened in what are supposed to be Classicist times (Mozart, Haydn).

            The libretto was written by three successive hands: Paul Milliet, Georges Hartmann and Édouard Blau.            Some of it is good, especially in the Third Act, but the opera should have been concentrated on the main characters. The tiring old drunkards Johann and Schmidt are quite out of place. The music reflects Werther´s rising anguish as well as Charlotte´s sadness in her two "airs" ("des lettres", "des larmes"). The contrast is provided by Charlotte´s 15-year-old sister Sophie and by her avuncular father, the Burgomaster, and the six smaller children.

            Why did "Werther" inaugurate this Colón season? It was a replacement for something much more difficult, expensive and important: the première of the complete version of "Les Troyens", the magnum opus by Hector Berlioz (only seen in a condensed version in 1964). It had to be discarded by former Colón Director Pedro Pablo García Caffi due to money problems. I  hope that the new Director, Darío Lopérfido, will take up the challenge and give us that indispensable opera next year.

            But García Caffi chose wrong: not only the Colón didn´t need another "Werther" (the last was as recently as 2007, when the Colón did its season at the Coliseo), but Buenos Aires Lírica had announced last year its own "Werther" for this season. Why not the long-awaited "Thaïs", missing since 1952? Or the première of "Le Cid"? Or the charming "Cendrillon", only done in the inaugural season , 1908?

            As to the double cast: the book of the season announces renowned tenor Ramón Vargas, but he cancelled allegedly because of ill health (the Colón as usual said nothing); so Mickael Spadaccini, of the second cast, passed to the first, and Gustavo López Manzitti was hired for the second. Unfortunately this left Juventus Lyrica without its first cast Andrea Chénier (in such collisions the Colón always wins).

            Other changes: the second cast Sophie, Olena Tokar, was replaced by Oriana Favaro; and Cristian De Marco was added as a second "Bailli" (Burgomaster).

            Spadaccini is a young personable Belgian with an Italian surname. The voice is fresh and beautiful; it sounds very French. He still has to ameliorate certain details of line but he can sing softly or passionately loud and he moves with the agility of his age, following the emotions of his desperate character. As ever, López Manzitti is reliable; the voice is powerful and firm and he acts with intensity; I only missed sheer beauty of timbre and more "piano" singing.

            Anna Caterina Antonacci had sung here almost twenty years ago a wonderful Monteverdi Poppea. Now her Charlotte impressed me as a distinguished singer in decline, especially short in volume, though always tasteful and intelligent. But Clémentine Margaine was a revelation: the best French voice heard here in ages, with impressive volume and a dramatic sense of phrasing similar to Crespin.

            Sophie was perfectly sung by Jaquelina Livieri, with the light timbre and easy phrasing the role needs, and Favaro was quite close to the mark. Albert shouldn´t look as mature as Hernán Iturralde, nor be sung with little involvement. The young Turkish baritone Sertkaya made a brilliant debut; the drama is intensified if the husband is young (Goethe specifies 25) and personable, and the voice is full and resonant.

            Alexander Vassiliev (debut) was a convincing Bailli, and so was De Marco. Fernando Grassi (Johann) and Santiago Burgi and Iván Maier (Schmidt) did reasonably well their thankless parts. The six kids of the Children´s Choir were splendid both singing and uninhibitedly acting.                      

            The Orchestra was in the experienced hands of Ira Levin, and the results were quite good, contrasting turbulence and subtlety.

            Hugo de Ana did everything stagewise: production, stage, costumes and lighting, plus abundant projections. I admire his skills but not his ideas. He transposes the action to Massenet´s time, clutters the proceedings with forced metaphores (the letters strewn all over the place, the cemetery) and does  a unit set that gives no ambience suggesting intimate spaces in Wetzlar. At least he marked well the dramatic instances. 

For Buenos Aires Herald 

Bach and Händel, the Baroque in its fullness

            The Mozarteum Argentino has begun its season at the Colón with the triumphant visit of the Bachakademie Stuttgart.  They are old friends of our city, for they came under Helmuth Rilling no less than three times, and are recognised as being among the best Baroque specialists in the world, even if they aren´t completely historicist.

            They are made up of two sterling ensembles: the Gächinger Kantorei, stunning choir that takes its name from a small city near Stuttgart, and the Bach-Collegium, a crack group of players. Only three years ago, the almost octogenarian Rilling took leave of our public with Bach´s enormous Mass in B minor. Now they came with the same marvelous score and with Hans-Christoph Rademann (debut here) as the successor of the aged wise man that did the feat of recording the totality of the extant Bach sacred cantatas. And for the second cycle they gave their interpretation of Händel´s "Messiah".

            I am of two minds about their choice of the most famous mass and oratorio of Baroque times. On the one hand, obviously to have them done by such splendid groups is quite attractive. But on the other, they could have been splendid in materials that are less often done, though well-known.  And I don´t forget that Festivales Musicales´ swan song last year was Bach´s Mass under Mario Videla, a disciple of Rilling and our foremost Bachian.

            In successive visits a change came over Rilling in matters of Bachian speeds: at each visit his timings were shorter: the older expansive Bach (not Romantic, mind you, but ampler in breadth) became faster and more clipped. Rademann has now taken that trend a step further, doing some of the pieces as fast as they can possibly go. It is undoubtedly exciting, and the articulation of the choir is amazing, but there´s also a more objective feeling, less emotionally communicative.

            Curiously, I have marginally preferred his Händel to his Bach. But perhaps the general impression has also to do with what I felt about the vocal soloists: two of them were a good deal better in Händel. And there´s another factor: Rademann misjudged the acoustics for Bach when he put his soloists close to the Choir; in Händel he gave them their proper place upfront.

            The economics of this sort of tour almost always determine that the soloists are often not quite the best part of it. In this case I would grade their merit thus: first the tenor Sebastian Kohlhepp, who showed a fine line and beautiful tone in the "Benedictus" of the Mass (abetted by the admirable flutist Catarina Laske-Trier), and he sang his "Messiah" arias nicely. Then, soprano Johanna Winkel, who seemed slightly under wraps in Bach, sang beautifully in Händel, with luminous timbre.

            Third, bass-baritone Markus Eiche has an important voice but has trouble in controlling the vocal lines in Bach: the singer was too gruff in the "Quoniam".  In Händel he found his best form only in his last aria, where he was accompanied with stunning effect by the trumpet player.

            I was disappointed by the Norwegian mezzosoprano Ann Beth Solvang, whose gray and low-volume singing wasn´t up to par for such intensely emotional arias as the Agnus Dei of the Mass or "He was despised" in "Messiah". Comparisons are odious, but I kept remembering Marga Höffgen or Janet Baker. All the soloists made their local debut.

            Maestro Rademann showed knowledge and aplomb, even if he was at times too fast or missed the hushed drama of the "Crucifixus". I was surprised by his approach to that evergreen, the "Hallelujah"from "Messiah": it´s the first time that I have heard the beginning sung and played "pianissimo"; then, in gradually heightened terraces, he got to the splendor of the last minutes, crowned by the trumpets and timpani. Also, I especially liked the final Amen. And in Bach, the astonishing clarity of the fugal entries with his nonpareil choir, 31-strong. The Bach-Collegium is fine in all categories, and I only cavil at the rather lame solo of the concertino in the Mass.

            And now, I go on to the first of the  Academia Bach programme for this year, played and sung at their usual home, the Iglesia Metodista Central with its ideal acoustics. I am so very glad that the Academia has survived the demise of its "mother", Festivales Musicales. Now they are independent, and I wish them the best of luck: they are necessary, and this starting concert showed the Academy in fine shape.

            The music was all by Johann Sebastian. The lovely Concerto for oboe d´amore (a third lower than the oboe) is reconstructed from a Harpsichord Concerto and was played with great skill by Andrés Spiller. Then, the great motet (19 minutes) "Jesu, meine Freude", sung by the Grupo de Canto Coral under Néstor Andrenacci, with instrumental support; the choir did an excellent job.

            Finally, yet another Videla première, J.S.B.´s Cantata Nº 47, with an enormous and fantastic opening Chorus, an equally enormous soprano aria very cleanly sung by soprano Soledad de la Rosa with the obbligato violin of Oleg Pishenin , fine work from baritone Alejandro Meerapfel in a recitative and aria, and a final Chorale. The whole was done with fine technique and impulse by the choir and the Soloists of the Bach Academy, led with predictable enthusiasm and accuracy by Mario Videla.

For Buenos Aires Herald

“Andrea Chénier”, a “Verismo” view of the French Revolution


            The French Revolution hasn´t fared well operatically. There are surely more, but the only operas that seem to have stayed in the repertoire are Umberto Giordano´s "Andrea Chénier" and Francis Poulenc´s "Dialogues de Carmélites". I saw in Vienna what would be a worthwhile piece to première in B.A., Gottfried Von Einem´s "Dantons Tod" ("Danton´s Death"); there´s a good recording of this score; and I have an interesting Massenet one-acter, "Thérèse".  I haven´t heard Mascagni´s "Il Piccolo Marat", but the author conducted it at the Colón in 1922.

            The neglect  is curious, considering that it was a fascinating time. Luigi Illica, famous Puccini librettist, wrote the story in the then trendy "verismo" style, which implies strong doses of rhetorics and exaggeration. "Andrea Chénier"  dates from 1896 and it was Giordano´s only lasting success. In fact, the Colón has offered it in fifteen seasons.

            Many will remember the last time it was presented; the year was 1996, there were good singers (Ben Heppner, Stefka Evstatieva, Anthony Michaels-Moore) and a brilliant production:  Joël, Frigerio and Squarciapino. So 19 years have elapsed, and the alternative companies haven´t taken it up until this season, when Ana D´Anna and Antonio Russo decided to start the Juventus Lyrica season with it. It was high time to meet "Chénier" again.

            The only other Giordano opera seen here after WWII was "Fedora", revived in 1998 with a starry cast: Domingo, Freni, Milnes. But in the Twenties "verismo" was still much appreciated, and our city saw the premières of other Giordano operas: "La cena delle beffe", "Siberia", "Il Re" and "Madame Sans-Gêne".

            Now "verismo" is much less presented all over the world, except some of Puccini´s operas  ("Tosca", of course; "Il Tabarro") and that immortal couple, "Cav-Pag" (Mascagni´s "Cavalleria Rusticana"  and Leoncavallo´s "I Pagliacci"), which will be seen this year at the Colón. Taste has changed, and crudeness is frowned upon. But I think that, once you accept the aesthetics, there´s a lot to enjoy in some of those now forgotten operas. 

            André Chénier was a distinguished poet of French Revolutionary times. He lived between 1762 and 1794. Says Richard Parker in Collier´s Encyclopedia: he was "considered a forerunner of Romanticism" in his poems, especially the "Iambics" written in prison. He deplored "the excesses of the Revolution and published courageous articles against the Jacobins and in favor of constitutional government". He was guillotined just three days before the Thermidorean reaction which could have saved him (Robespierre died three days after him!).

            In Illica´s libretto Chénier attacks the aristocracy in the First Act, is hunted by a spy of the Jacobins in the Second, tried and condemned to death in the Third, and in the Fourth accepting his fate with his love, Maddalena de Coigny, in a glorification of Eros and Thanatos.  The libretto is disjointed, with too many episodes and interruptions, and although Giordano´s music fits the words like a glove, one feels the need for greater continuity.  Apart from the admirable orchestration, one remembers the two Chénier arias, Gérard´s "Nemico della Patria" and Maddalena´s "La mamma morta".

            Two characters are of special interest: Gérard, the servant who becomes a Revolutionary, is in love with Maddalena but tries to save Chénier; and "L´Incroyable", the spy, as sly and wily as can be. The protagonists are straightforward, with no special traits. The Jacobins are gory, the Abbé, Fléville and the Countess of Coigny are symbols of the aristocracy, Bersi is the faithful helper of Maddalena, Roucher tries to help Chénier and the old Madelon offers her boy to the Army.

            I was sorry that Gustavo López Manzitti was taken up by commitments at the Colón ("Werther") but Darío Sayegh (of the second cast) proved to be able to handle a high and expansive part: the voice is strong, though not always beautiful, and he uses it firmly. Sabrina Cirera did her best job to date: her vibrato under control, she gave emotion and true style to her Madddalena. Pol González went over the top several times as Gérard, but he communicated; he has a powerful voice, though uncontrolled in several moments.

            I dislike the idea of singers taking several roles, especially in the case of Felipe Cudina Begovic, whose lanky figure was seen as Fléville (First Act), Roucher (Second) and Dumas (Third), confusing the audience. Less in evidence was the double presencxe of Milagros Seijó as the Countess of Coigny and Madelon, or Norberto Lara (the Abbé then becomes the Incroyable). Walter Aón also did three parts. That apart, Seijó and Lara were good. And Verónica Canaves as Bersi (her sole part) was fetching and sang nicely.

            The introduction of three young female dancers in the First Act with a traditional choreography by Igor Gopkalo was agreeable, though they used no points in the late XVIIIth Century.

            Kudos to Antonio Russo, splendid conductor of a very professional orchestra and an enthusiastic choir. At 80, he remains spry and vital, with the wiseness of well-acquired experience.

            Ana D´Anna´s production and costumes were in the spirit of those times; it was close to her best work. Attention to detail, well-oiled entrances, true sense of a team. The problem was the unit set of Gonzalo Córdova, with too many stairs (especially for the Palace), though it did provide hiding places for the Spy.

            All in all, an enjoyable "Chénier".

For Buenos Aires Herald

A musical trip from Bach to Mendelssohn

             On these last  twelve days I traveled musically from Johann Sebastian Bach to his great discoverer, Felix Mendelssohn.

            I started with Bach´s "St.John Passion", shorter (two hours) and more dramatic than the monumental "St Matthew". An old friend since the days I had the revelation provided by the interpretations of Fritz Lehmann (1954), Günther Ramin (the Thomaskantor of Leipzig) in 1955, and Karl Richter in 1964, I am always deeply moved by it. It´s not only due to its fantastic structure and variety, but also to the tragic sense of some arias and the savage brio of the "turbae", the brief choral interjections of the people against Jesus.

            Back in 1992, when I was Director General of La Plata´s Teatro Argentino, I programmed with Maestro Antonio Russo Bach´s Easter Oratorio plus a cantata during Holy Week and we had huge success at the Cathedrals of both La Plata and San Isidro. I´m glad that the Argentino´s current team saw fit to offer the St. John Passion twice in this special time at the big Opera House and for free.

            True, neither the Argentino´s Orchestra nor their Choir are historicist, as it is now trendy concerning Bach, but they managed to have a continuo section with theorbo, harpsichord, positive organ (a small chamber organ), bassoon, cello and viola da gamba. Of course, the orchestral strings had modern instruments and bows. The orchestration also has flutes and oboes. No trumpets, horns or timpani. The two violas d´amore of the Arioso Nº 31 and the Aria Nº32 were replaced by mellifluous violins. In several choruses the oboe d´amore was probably replaced by English horn (it has no solos). The aria Nº 58 had the proper obbligato of viola da gamba. In Nos. 62 and 63 the oboes da caccia were (also probably) replaced by English horns.

            As to the vocal soloists, I dislike the option of a countertenor for the contralto arias. If you are going to be historicist, you should use a boy contralto, but truth to tell, they are very rarely  able to convey the tragic content of the arias, so the best thing is to have a good adult contralto.

            The conductor was Diego Sánchez Haase, a Paraguayan who studied Bach with the eminent Helmuth Rilling. He gave me a rather mixed impression. On the one hand he gave evidence of knowing the score thoroughly; on the other his speeds were overfast in some arias (especially the tenor´s) and in the initial chorus,  the textures were heavy and opressive in those crucial starting minutes. But other things were right: the brio and tension of the "turbae", the easy flow of the chorales (no longer impeded by full rests at the end of phrases), the correct speeds in some other arias.

            I left implied above that for this orchestra Bach´s style isn´t easy, but they gradually grew better. The same was true of the Choir prepared by Hernán Sánchez Arteaga. Both organisms eventually arrived at a reasonable level of empathy with this great music.

            By far the best soloist was the bass-baritone Alejandro Meerapfel, who with authority, fine timbre and diction assumed the part of Jesus and sang the bass arias with admirable control and expression. Carlos Ullán managed to solve his two very difficult tenor arias with precision, although pressed by the conductor´s unreasonable speeds. Soledad de la Rosa was in a detached mood but sang cleanly. Unfortunately countertenor Pehuén Díaz Bruno was unacceptable, with little projection and many mistakes. Walter Schwarz was sonorous and true as Peter and Pilatus.

            A final paragraph on the Evangelist´s particular difficulties. He sings almost throughout in recitative telling the story or giving the cue to dialogues with Jesus, except two expressive moments on the words "geisselte" ("lashed") and "weinete" ("cried"), where he has to cope with long, intense phrases on one vowel. The writing is for high tenor and the voice must be imbued with the Passion´s tragic happenings; in the timbre a degree of whiteness is perfectly appropriate. Hugo Ponce, whose voice is thin but well projected and whose German was quite intelligible and meaningful, solved the part after some initial problems, showing command of the task.

            The Usina del Arte sometimes provides impromptu pleasures. Out of the blue came the Argentine debut of the Berliner Camerata, a distinguished cosmopolitan 11-member string ensemble led by the energetic Olga Pak. I wonder if there´s a true Berliner in the lot; some surnames: Shigabutdinova, San Quirico, Yáñez, Woo. The venue was the Chamber Hall, of warm acoustics. And it was free.

            They brought along the debut of a brilliant young pianist, Joseph Maurice-Weder, who played immaculately Mozart´s Concerto Nº 12 and Chopin´s Nº2, both in arrangements for piano and strings; rather indifferent in the first case, but negative in the second, written for full orchestra.  The pianist showed delicacy, impeccable taste and an admirable technique. The strings accompanied well.

            The concert had started with Mozart´s hit, the Serenade Nº 15, "A little Night Music", with  fast tempi and efficacious playing rather than inspired. But I was bowled over by Pak´s playing in that adolescent jewel, Mendelssohn´s Concerto for violin and strings, where she was abetted by  committed playing from her companions. It was Mendelssohn who resurrected Bach´s "St Matthew Passion", and so there´s a connection between the 15-year-old who knew his counterpoint and the greatest contrapunctic composer.

For Buenos Aires Herald 

lunes, abril 13, 2015

From St. Isidore´s way: worthy concerts

            Last week I informed our readers about a series of concerts called "El Camino del Santo" ("The Saint´s way"). As you may remember, it´s a programming  that goes from Wednesday to Sunday during Holy Week.  I attended three sessions and they were quite interesting.  Why St. Isidore? Because they all happened in San Isidro, whose Municipality is the main sponsor.

            The Colegio San Juan el Precursor stands alongside the Cathedral; you pass through a splendid courtyard with beautiful Spanish-style majolicas, and you arrive to a capacious hall (I´d say about 400 people) of good acoustics. Although Autumn had begun, the temperature was high and so some air conditioning was required; the wheeze was bothersome but necessary. The Colegio was the venue for two excellent concerts, and their hall was chock-full, which shows that "El Camino del Santo" is here to stay. Significant, considering that the music was valuable but not often played.

            Olivier Messiaen´s "Quartet for the end of times" is an impresive 43-minute 8-movement score for an unlikely but fascinating combination: violin, clarinet, cello and piano. Unfortunately, the rather conventional presentation (without microphone) by Martín Wullich and José Luis Juri didn´t mention an important point: the unusual instrumentation comes from the fact that the score was written when Messiaen was war prisoner of the Nazis in a rather lenient Silesian stalag where concerts were permitted, and among the people congregated there were three good players of the mentioned instruments to complement Messiaen, who was the pianist.

            The score is the only chamber music composed by Messiaen and you find in it at the highest level all his trademarks: Christian mysticism (it is based on the Apocalypse), bird song, exotic harmony, great sense of color, complicated rhythms and attractive melody. I met this music when it was premièred in BA back in 1953 (Mariano Frogioni and the Trío Ars)  and I have loved it ever since. The players this time around were first-rate:  Juri (piano), Rafael Gintoli (violin), Stanimir Todorov (cello) and particularly striking, Mariano Rey (clarinet), gave a splendid interpretation; my only cavil is that I would have liked a slower tempo in the two "Louanges" (praises).

            The varied programme on the following day (Friday) was quite attractive (though Sacred music would have been more apposite).  There were, yes, unwelcome photographers.  It started with the strong, dramatic Cello Sonata by Edvard Grieg, played with fortitude and accuracy by José Alberto Araujo and Fernanda Morello (the turbulent end of the first movement elicited applause).  After the interval, the bitterersweet, succinct Sonata for flute and piano by Poulenc was played with taste and cleanness by Jorge de la Vega (first desk of the Colón Orchestra for the last 32 years) and Morello, a very flexible and professional artist.

            There were changes in the programme: Piazzolla´s "Oblivion" was, in fact, forgotten...And four Poulenc songs were regrettably replaced by Ravel´s Vocalise (the original of his "Pièce en forme d´habanera"), for the refinement of mezzosoprano Virginia Correa Dupuy would have been most welcome in that exquisite repertoire of "chanson d´art".  Morello accompanied her both in the Ravel Vocalise and in the beautiful and rarely encountered Vocalise-Etude by Messiaen.

            I greatly admire the "Chansons Madécasses" (from Madagascar) by Ravel, with its imaginative accompaniment by piano, flute (and piccolo) and cello, and its idiomatic setting of the poems by Parny. However, their content is clearly male, and although I have heard them from no less than Jessye Norman, I definitely prefer them sung by a baritone. This said, I acknowledge that Correa Dupuy sang them with refinement in the outer songs and strong drama in the middle one ("Aoua! Don´t trust the white people"), as well as displaying perfect French . She was in very good voice.

            I recently read that Bruno Gelber has just come back from a long European tour in which he played no less than Rachmaninov´s Third Concerto. Considering that in recent years he has shown himself afflicted by bodily troubles and that he is 72 after being in front of the public for over sixty years, and also that the concerts I heard from him in 2013 and 2014 showed a certain degree of decline, I went to the closing concert of El Camino del Santo with some trepidation, but also hope for a recovery. I have followed his career decade after decade and during his best years he had no peer in our midst as a Beethoven-Brahms pianist.

            The venue was debatable: the Tatterhall of the San Isidro Hippodrome is easily accessible if someone brings you there, but pretty difficult if you have to park.  The hall is big and that´s probably why the organisers chose it. But an unmusical decision drove me mad and partially ruined my pleasure: the piano was wired to loudspeakers, and the sound came from the latter, altering the natural quality of the piano, especially in the bass range, which sounded mushy and exaggerated.

            However, Gelber played a difficult though familiar programme (quite similar to those he did of yore) with a technique that is still amazing -some smudges apart- and according to the style of the composer: strong and firm in Beethoven (Sonatas Nos. 3 and 15),  forcefulness contrasted with delicacy in Schumann (his marvelous "Carnaval") and fleet in Chopin´s virtuosic "Andante spianato and Grand Polonaise". Some chunkiness intrudes, but Gelber is still himself.

For Buenos Aires Herald