sábado, junio 13, 2015

The genius of Kissin, the charms of the Chinese lute

            Nineteen years ago a 24-year-old Russian pianist stunned the Colón´s audience in a recital and a concert with the Buenos Aires Philharmonic. He was Evgueni Kissin, already famous after a meteoric career started when he was ten.  He showed then not only astonishing technical command but a mature view of style and phrasing.

            He is now 43 and in his first maturity he confirmed and deepened the impression of those far-off days, which left an imprint in true music lovers. Unfortunately three years ago he was scheduled to come but the death of his father of course prevented it. Now his recital was the shining light in what otherwise (except for a combination of Paula Almerares and Karin Lechner) is a disastrous subscription series called "Quinto Aniversario", made up of five popular events and two classical...at the Colón! Probably the worst programming idea of the García Caffi years.

            By the way, the high price of the stalls and loges provoked considerable empty places; from "Cazuela" up the people could pay and it was full. Only Barenboim and Argerich can get sold-out Colóns at elevated cost for the audience. But after all there´s always a VIP sector than can pay in other venues Rafa Nadal or Paul McCartney at even higher prices.

            Curiously enough, Kissin combined in the First Part the same two scores of Barenboim´s epochal recitals of August 2000 celebrating the 50 years of his first public presentation. First, Mozart´s Sonata Nº 10, K.330, one of his lightest, and in total contrast, Beethoven at his most dramatic, Sonata Nº 23, "Appassionata". Mozart in his hands was crystalline, wholly intelligible; he did a rather unaccustomed thing: he played all the repeats, even that of the last movement´s last section, seemingly conclusive, so that some people were understandably fooled and interrupted with applause.

            The "Appassionata" was strong and magisterial, fully controlled, stark where it should be, singing when required. I have to admit however that with such masterpieces one has engraved in memory some reference performances, and I can´t say I was as fully moved and convinced as  with Backhaus or the young Gulda or Rubinstein. But I was utterly convinced by the reading of Brahms´ introspective Three  Intermezzi, Op. 117; this was ideal in sensitivity to inner voices and textures.

            Then came another surprise: Kissin´s affinity with Spanish music. In a repertoire that I will forever associate with Alicia de Larrocha, the Russian master of the piano managed  a total immersion in its character and inflexions, plus of course marvelous feats of virtuoso playing. Four lovely pieces by Albéniz had splendid performances: "Granada" and "Cádiz" from the "Suite Española Nº 1", "Córdoba" and "Asturias" from "Cantos de España". Contemplative melodies alternated with scintillating dance-like episodes. And to top it all, the unabashedly virtuosic Jota "¡Viva Navarra!", by Joaquín Larregla, gave us cascades  in the high range and blind octaves at the end, both at unbelievable speeds but always under control.

            The aesthetic pleasure was by then in full cry, and the sensation was kept in the three encores: the very characteristic "Danza española Nº 5" by Granados; a fantastic rendition of Chopin´s "Heroic Polonaise" (those amazing left hand octaves!) and a beautiful one of his delicate Mazurka Op. 68 Nº 2.

            Last Thursday´s B.A. Phil concert under Enrique Arturo Diemecke will be remembered for the second score of the evening, for it was the first time that our city heard a pipa (Chinese lute) in concert. And the instrument has fascinating possibilities of expression, as was demonstrated by the soloist Gao Hong prior to the execution of Tan Dun´s Concerto for pipa and string orchestra. Of that composer we heard some years ago his Water Concerto for what he calls "aquatic percussion". He is the most famous Chinese composer nowadays,  but frankly that doesn´t amount to much.

            In fact this concert was supposed to have the debut of Chinese conductor Tan Li Hua and the two scores from that country were announced thus: "Tibetan Dance" (if you can believe that Tibet should be a part of China) by Sang Kejie; and "Concerto for pipa" by Zhao Jiping; and the pipa player was supposed to be Wu Man. As usual, no explanation was given by the Colón, but at least the basic idea of  offering Chinese music was respected.

            That said, I was  impressed by the beauty of the pipa´s sound and the  total command shown by Ms Gao Hong. Diemecke obtained a convincingly Chinese sound out of the Phil´s strings. Tan Dun´s music is basicaly a skillful play with effects though with little substance. But it was miles ahead of the frankly trivial first score of the night: "Lovers Besieged" by Ge Gan-Ru, born 1954. Here the mediocrity of the ideas made me lose interest after just a few minutes.

            I do hope that China is producing better music than this, but of course the infamous Cultural Revolution left indelible scars; maybe they need more time for after all they are assimilating Occidental ways of musical tradition when they write for a symphony orchestra.

            A  good performance of Tchaikovsky´s Fifth Symphony ended the evening, with Diemecke´s habitual expansive ways. I do think however that the famous horn solo at the beginning of the second movement was way too slow; but on the whole it was enjoyable.

For Buenos Aires Herald 

Diverse facets of opera during the Twentieth Century

            A current double bill at the Usina del Arte  gave food for thought about new ways to imagine opera during the previous century. A starry ad-hoc group was formed by producer Marcelo Lombardero to present two attractive works that have been long absent from our stages.

            The Janácek/Milhaud combination planned by Lombardero for the chamber hall of the Usina was very interesting. And it was helped by the intimate venue of warm acoustics. Janácek´s  "The Diary of one who disappeared" ("Zápisnik zmizelého") isn´t quite an opera, but that genre seems a better description for it than a song cycle, although my R.E.R. CD catalogue lists it in the latter category. It´s true that it can be offered without a staging, but I do believe that the piece works even better in a good production.

            I was present when it was premièred here as a straight concert in August 28, 1953 by that wonderful institution, the Asociación de Conciertos de Cámara, with Sante Rosolén, Ruzena Horáková and pianist Leo Schwarz.  And I was bowled over by the revelation: it was my first Janácek. Years later I saw almost all his operas in Prague and here and I have no doubt that he was one of the essential composers of the Twentieth Century.  

            Decades later I saw a very moving stage presentation with Carlos Bengolea (one of his best appearances) at an unlikely venue, the Museo de Arte Moderno at San Juan Avenue. The date  could be as much as twenty years ago, so I deeply welcome this admirable presentation with Pablo Pollitzer at his very best, the voice dramatic, the musicality perfect and the acting of great impact.

            By the time Janácek wrote in 1917-19 his song cycle on anonymous folk words his style was fully mature, for he had premièred his marvelous "Jenufa" in 1904. The 22 short fragments tell the story of a young peasant who falls in love with a gypsy girl and "disappears" in the sense that he leaves for ever his village for he can´t face his very traditional family (father, mother, sister). Significantly, after alternate dialogues with the gypsy Zefka and the added musical beauty of a trio of feminine voices, we hear the only piece for solo piano and it portrays the man´s loss of virginity. By the way, we never learn his name.

            The writing is typical Janácek: beautiful yearning melodies broken by harsh chords and rhythms and a total blend of text and music following the natural accentuation of the Wallachian dialect (thanks, Igor Herzog, for his advice). Mezzosoprano Florencia Machado sounded full and sensual as Zefka, the three voices were admirably sung by sopranos Ana Sampedro and Rocío Fernández and contralto Sabrina Contestábile, and pianist Carlos Koffman gave relief and exactitude to his intervention (when he took his bow at the end we were seeing a perfect clone of a very pilous Karl Marx!).

            The staging was very convincing. A transparent drop separated the peasant from the pianist, Zefka and the other girls, and on it the center was taken up by a road that went straight up surrounded by woods. The movements were spare and meaningful, the gestures were psychologically pregnant.

            "The poor mariner" ("Le pauvre matelot") is a succinct opera in three short acts with music by Darius Milhaud and text by Jean Cocteau. It is based on a true story that happened in France: a married mariner goes abroad for fifteen years; his wife remains faithful; when he comes back his physiognomy has changed. He fools her playing the part of a rich friend of her poor husband and tells her that he is alive and will come shortly; she doesn´t recognize him and kills him with a hammer so as to give his richness to her husband... Pretty gruesome and rather unbelievable, but it happened.

            In this 1927 opus Cocteau tells the story well and Milhaud´s music, written for four singers and a thirteen-member instrumental ensemble, is typical of his eclectic inspiration with jazzy and French pop inflexions. However, I would have liked a more dramatic music for the final minutes.

            In an adequately simple stage design (the wife lives with her father in a mediocre house) Lombardero moves his characters with dramatic logic. A friend of the mariner is the only one who recognizes him after a while; Víctor Torres sang it with his complete professionalism. The father was impeccably acted and sung by Hernán Iturralde, a deep bass-baritone as opposed to Torres´ lyric baritone.

            The wife is a psychopathic character and this was evident in Graciela Oddone´s tense acting and singing. I do have my doubts about Gustavo López Manzitti´s mariner, for he sang stentoreously throughout. I have Milhaud´s recording and I remember a previous staging here about 25 years ago, and the corresponding tenors didn´t do the part that way. I don´t have a score to check it out. Of course, although López Manzitti has a very strong voice, he is capable of singing softly, as he did recently in "Werther". And if the mariner didn´t want to be recognized he should have worn a beard (that of course is a producer´s decision).

            Lombardero´s team was completed with Noelia González Svoboda (stage desiggn), Luciana Gutman (costumes) and Horacio Efron (lighting). The players were very good and the  young conductor, Martín Sotelo, gave a good impression.

For Buenos Aires Herald 

Subliminal connection between the Maipo and the Argentino

            "Revista" denotes a special theatrical genre typical of Buenos Aires. There´s no English term that gives its exact translation; "Variety show" might be the closest. In fact here it evolved from the "varieté" of the early Twentieth Century  and eventually became a mixture of standup humor generally scatological, scantily clad "vedettes", lewd dancing and plenty of spangles, beads and feathers, strong lights and loud pop music. Plus a whole repertoire of characteristic gestures.

            The "revista" had a long period of supremacy in the frivolous side of our show business; it still exists but it tends to be replaced by increasingly similar "musical comedy", either foreign and adapted or Argentine. In other words, the world of the recent "Priscilla", the world of Valeria Ambrosio.

            Why do I mention a "subliminal connection between the Maipo and the Argentino"? Well, the Maipo has been the emblematic venue of the "revista" for many decades, and I´d say that it has deeply influenced the derived musical comedy of our times.  Ambrosio, currently the Argentino´s Directress, was the producer of the  La Plata "Carmen".

            She had no previous connection with opera.  It was crudely apparent in many scenes of this "Carmen". Ambrosio has been honest in interviews stating that she knows little about opera, so the culprit is Jorge Telerman, the President of the Instituto Cultural which rules over policy matters at La Plata´s Argentino; he chose her, and as she has stated, told her to programme only hits with the idea of having full houses. Over the board went the welcome programming innovations of Lombardero and Suárez Marzal,  destining the Argentino to routine bestsellers. I find it a very poor way of handling culture; Telerman is only interested in success as measured by seats sold.

            An essential fact wasn´t even mentioned in the whole hand programme: they played the "opéra-comique" version of "Carmen"; that is to say, the one with spoken fragments interspersed with the musical ones.  Later on, Ernest Guiraud wrote recitatives so as to be able to offer "Carmen" at the Palais Garnier, and as they are pretty good and thus eliminate the sensation of stop-and-go that one feels in the original, it was generally adopted. I dislike the original and anyway it might work in Paris but it doesn´t here, where the singers generally maul the French language when they speak (and they did!).

            Singers. Adriana Mastrangelo has done Carmen before and is an artist of vast experience. Very tall and with a fine figure, her voice was in good condition and she was especially attractive in the habanera and séguedille, but less convincing in the more dramatic bits of the two final acts. In recent years no one has sung Don José as often as Enrique Folger, a part that suits his strong temperament. He has some trouble with the subtler moments but he delivers in all the crucial instances.

            Emilio Estévez is a tall and muscular Escamillo, the "toréador". He sung the part in 2007 at the Argentino. Now his voice is less reliable in the higher range (he had some hard notes in the Third Act) but he is still a good exponent of the role. María Bugallo as Micaela has a charming presence; however, though her voice expands at climactic bits, she sounds weak in the center and low ranges.

            Walter Schwarz was an arrogant Zúñiga; in the Third Act Ambrosio made him play drunk. I found Sebastián Angulegui a rough Morales. The two friends of Carmen, Frasquita and Mercedes, were saddled with an absurd conception of their parts by the producer, who made them silly high-school followers of the bullfighter instead of gypsies, but they sang correctly (Victoria Gaeta and Rocío Arbizu). Sebastián Sorarrain was as usual an excellent Dancaire (the chief smuggler), and Remendado, his acolyte, was well done by tenor Patricio Oliveira. The spoken role of the tavern owner Lillas Pastia had more relevance in this version, and was avuncularly played by Fernando Álvar Núñez.   

            The big surprise was the conductor, Tulio Gagliardo (I presume son of the bass who sang so many seasons at the Colón), who has an interesting career in Europe and Turkey (he is chief conductor of the Izmir Opera). He proved quite good, firmly in command, subtle when needed, with correct tempi and fine relationship with the stage. The Orchestra, renovated in various posts, sounded effective and refined, and the mixed choir (Hernán Sánchez Arteaga) and the Children´s Choir (Mónica Dagorret) were involved and sonorous.

            A bad point was the completely unnecessary "alter egos" of Carmen, Jose and Escamillo by three unnamed (!) dancers in a choreography by Alejandro Ibarra that wasn´t ugly but didn´t enrich the staging.

            René Diviú is an able stage designer (I remember his splendid "Así es la vida") and when I saw that we had three intervals, I deluded myself believing that we were liberated from the omnipresent unit set, but no. Two rather handsome Spanish buildings on both sides of the stage served as a very reasonable First Act, and still worked for the Pastia tavern, but the Third Act (the mountains) was a disaster, and the Fourth (the arena) wasn´t convincing.

            Costumes were designed by Ambrosio and she decided to present us a contemporary "Carmen", which is less of a bother in this opera than in many others. The lighting by Willy Landin was professional, no more. 

For Buenos Aires Herald

Verdi´s misguided girl still moves audiences

"Traviata": misguided girl, led astray, leading a dissipated life. Verdi´s "La Traviata": one of a handful of super-hit operas. Almost no season goes by without a staging with orchestra in Buenos Aires or La Plata, plus those semiprofessional efforts with piano where young singers make their tryouts. This year the Ensamble Lírico Orquestal took up the challenge for three Sunday afternoons with two casts at the Auditorio de Belgrano.

            Some years ago I had the chance of reading in French the original novel by Alexandre Dumas Fils "La Dame aux Camélias" ("The Lady of the Camelias"). Markedly autobiographical, Dumas in his elegant prose explains in much detail the lives of these very expensive kept girls only affordable to aristocratic lovers with huge fortunes.

            Their life was very public; they threw expensive parties, showed off ever renewed fashion clothes and went often to the Paris Opera. Their promiscuity often led to venereal disease or tuberculosis, then called consumption (the Koch bacillus hadn´t been discovered yet).

            Giuseppe Verdi saw in it an opportunity to do something truly new: an opera on a contemporary subject. It was indeed a rather astonishing change from the habitual libretti about events on far-off times. But even in the edulcorated libretto by Francesco Piave, where the most audacious words words are "to enjoy" and "pleasure", it proved too much for the Austrian censure and Verdi was forced to accept a première with the action put back in the early XVIIIth Century, which anyway had a well-earned licentious reputation. Only later was he allowed to bring the opera to his time.

            So this was a revolutionary opera for that period (1853). Nowadays anything goes, and we are in an a-historical state of mind; but try to imagine the impact of a compassionate story about a high-class prostitute in love for the first time, just when her illness is becoming terminal, confronted with the father of Alfredo, who represents the self-righteousness bourgeois mentality and finds in her a threat to the family.

            Anyway, it became an immense success. Verdi´s music was and is magnificent, and the story continues to move audiences.

            Before I go on, two intriguing questions: a) why Violetta´s lovers aren´t struck by the same contagious illness?; b) was Germont being cynical or silly when he doesn´t seem to hear her confession that she is dying?  For in fact the problem would soon be solved by death.

            I empathize with the people of the ELO (Ensamble Lírico Orquestal). They are professional, hard-working and sincere. However, both last year and now they chose operas that are surefire whilst in other seasons they offered such novelties as Respighi´s "Sleeping Beauty" ("La Bella addormentata nel bosco") and Verdi´s "Un giorno di regno".

             Although their denomination leads one to believe that it is just an opera company, their Artistic Coordinator Gustavo Codina considers ELO as a group that can also offer orchestral and choral-orchestral concerts.  And this year after "La Traviata" they have programmed a Mozart session featuring the Requiem Mass and a Slav concert with music of Dvorák and Tchaikovsky among others.

            There were three performances of "La Traviata" with two casts; I saw the last one, with the first cast. ELO last year presented "Carmen" eliminating four rows of the stalls and placing the orchestra in the cleaned-up space; it worked well acoustically and visually, and this year they did the same. A 41-strong orchestra  of good level played there under the sensitive and knowledgeable conducting of Dante Ranieri, who as an ex-tenor has a natural feel for the needs of the singers. Just one cavil: the short Carnival chorus in the last act was done a cappella, but it should have off-stage instruments.  And a detail: the baritone cabaletta, rarely done, was included.

            There was a big choir on stage (71 singers), though I would have preferred a smaller one; the placing of part of it on the stalls´ right side for the First Act felt artificial. Called the Coral Ensamble, they were well prepared by Codina and sung with enthusiasm.        

            María José Dulín coped well with Violetta from the Second Act to the last, for she is expressive and a good actress, but "Sempre libera" showed her uncomfortable and rather strident. Nevertheless the final result is certainly positive. Fermín Prieto´s voice is  weak in the moments of expansion, though he phrases with taste and sings softly when required. Fernando Santiago as Germont is more a character baritone than a lyric one such as the part needs; however,  he sang with authority and played a stern Father.

            In the smaller parts, Nora Balanda was a disinvolt Flora, Vanina de Bonis a tasteful and slim Annina, Cristian Taleb a matinée-idol Gastone, Leonardo Menna a dour and rather young Douphol, Fernando Grassi a firm D´Obigny and Alejandro Di Nardo an authoritative Grenvil.

            As happened last year with "Carmen", Raúl Marego –bless him- presented a simple and natural "Traviata". With an agreeable unit set by Daniel Feijóo that works well for the first Three Acts, nice costumes by Mariela Daga and correct lighting by Ernesto Bechara, the staging was unexceptionable. Even the choreography by Margarita Fernández and the dancing of the two choruses at the beginning of the Third Act were quite pleasant and well done.

            As happens sometimes, the total result was greater than the  sum of its parts.

For Buenos Aires Herald

A golden concert and some wonderful instruments

            Some years ago I almost accomplished a dream, but a matter of timing made it impossible: I wanted to visit the two Esterházy palaces, the main building at Eisenstadt (Austria) and the Summer one crossing the Hungarian frontier, not far from the former.  Some days ago, I had the next best thing: the B.A. debut of the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Philharmonic, the Eisenstadt resident ensemble.  Conducted by guest Alexander Lonquich, who is also a world-class pianist, they offered a golden concert at the Colón for Nuova Harmonia.

            Indeed, the combination of the pianist-conductor, the Orchestra and the three greatest Austrian composers proved ideal. The generous programme was further extended with three encores, for a grand total of more than a hundred minutes of great music and playing.

            Franz Schubert wrote for sure eight symphonies but as a shadowy but probable seventh was never found there is a hiatus between the still classical Sixth and the palpably Romantic Eighth (Unfinished) and the enormous Ninth. Of the initial six only the Fourth, called "Tragic", has a markedly dramatic character. The Fifth, in B flat major, inhabits another world, made of charm and elegance. Played only once in 1816  and rediscovered 25 years later, its freshness is everlasting.

            The Orchestra was founded in 1987 by members of the Vienna Philharmonic and of important Hungarian orchestras gathered by conductor Adam Fischer. This was before the fall of the Iron Curtain and had as its aim to promote the Franz Joseph Haydn legacy and the musical communion of countries politically diverse. Although their biography tells us that they number 45 (the perfect size for the mature Haydn and Mozart symphonies) here only 30 were present, and this showed in some thinness of the strings (no matter how good the players, there´s a matter of lack of density in the sound). Between 1987 they recorded all 104 Haydn symphonies for Nimbus, and since 2004 they are doing it again for Dabringhaus and Grimm.

            Alexander Lonquich is a mature musician of great talent and proved an essential feature of this tour. He has a marvelously clean and precise piano technique and is also a very able conductor of great stylistic sense. As to the players, they are consumate professionals, but I would single out the lovely sound of the flute and the oboe.

            The Schubert Fifth went smoothly and lightly, as it should, and I am nitpicking if I missed some of the piquant humor of Beecham´s interpretation or found slightly fast tempi for the last two movements. Then, Mozart´s Concerto Nº 25, one of his grandest, with a first movement of almost 450 measures. Lonquich was magisterial and admirable in his playing, including a cadenza that seemed his own (we don´t have Mozart´s), and the Orchestra was almost impeccable.  They then offered -closing the First Part- an encore, splendidly done: the scintillating third movement of Mozart´s Concerto Nº 17, with an adventurous cadenza, I presume by Lonquich.

            Haydn´s Symphony Nº 92, "Oxford", was written just after he left his 30 years´ service as composer for Prince Nicolas Esterhazy (although almost at the end of his long tenure he composed several symphonies for Paris) and it precedes the famous and final Salomon symphonies (93 to 104).  The "Oxford" was belatedly called thus for he was given by the venerable university of that English city the title of doctor "honoris causa", but in fact it was a part of the Paris symphonies. It is a beautiful score contrasting sparkling fragments with slow, expressive ones.

            No wonder that with their vast experience on Haydn the players were in their element, and so was Lonquich as conductor, with stylish phrasing and firm command. The steady applause and their visible enjoyment gave us two Haydn encores: the last movements of Symphonies Nº 88 and Nº 73, "The Hunt" , both played with memorable qualities.

            The second concert I´m reviewing had special characteristics, for it started the first subscription series of the Museo Fernández Blanco dedicated to the Notable Musical Instruments of their colection, the best in South America. Presented by the Museum´s Director Jorge Cometti and by violinist Pablo Saraví with opportune and instructive information, it allowed the audience to hear great instruments played by the outstanding artists of the Cuarteto Petrus: violinists Saraví and Hernán Briático, violist Adrián Felizia and cellist Gloria Pankaeva (she was the only one that played a copy instead of an original, but the model was no less than a 1740 Venetian Montagnana).

            The programme started with two Johann Sebastian Bach pieces: the Contrapunctus 1 and 3 (not 2 as stated in the hand programme) of "The Art of Fugue"  played on Guadagnini and Cappa violins, a Mantegazza viola, and cello. Then, the wonderful Mozart Quartet Nº 15 in D minor, an incredibly intense and advanced work; the Venetian violins were by Santo Serafin and Francesco Gobetti and the viola by Lorenzo Storioni (the last great master from Cremona).

            Finally, the most famous of Dvorák´s Quartets, Op.96, "American", where the star instruments of the evening were the Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù played by Saraví, the Andrea and Giuseppe Guarnieri (by Briático) and the viola signed Giovanni Grancino (Milanese).  The artists were magnificent throughout the evening, and I was especially struck by the smoothness and beauty of sound obtained by the violist.

            Principal curators: Saraví, Cometti, Horacio Piñeiro and Leila Makarius. They did a great job.

For Buenos Aires Herald