lunes, julio 27, 2015

Tough stuff at the start of the Barenboim marathon

            The so-called Abono Estelar 2015 of the Colón started with chamber groups of the WEDO (West Eastern Divan Orchestra) conducted by Daniel Barenboim. In terms of what generally attracts a mainstream audience paying very high prices, it was a decidedly offbeat experience, and only Barenboim could pull it off. At the end there was huge applause for a 40-minute première by Pierre Boulez, as if it were a Beethoven symphony.

            A piece of advice: if you go to any other of these concerts or are a subscriber, do buy the big hand programme, where you will find descriptions of the programmed scores. With the "common" one you are given nothing at all. But you won´t find the roster of players anywhere. Why? In an earlier visit I was told that it was for security reasons, as the WEDO is made up mostly of Israelis and Palestinians. However, the soloists of the orchestra in other sessions are mentioned: if they risk identification, why not the others? I agree that they may have a point in this crazy world that makes pacifists a target, but the whole existence of WEDO implies a definite risk, and I do feel I have the right to know who are the players.

            The strangeness of this concert has at least two points: the size of the "orchestra" and the aesthetics of the chosen scores. We heard 13 players in the first work, 15 in the second and 9 in the third. Hardly a symphonic concert...

            Now to the aesthetics. Richard Wagner´s "Siegfried Idyll" is his only chamber work, but not in the habitual molds of quartet, quintet, etc: wholly "sui generis". It was written in 1870 and is one of the most beautiful birthday presents ever: his wife Cosima Liszt woke up at their charming home in Tribschen, small village on Lake Lucerne, to the sounds of a 20-minute tone poem written for 13 instruments and based on melodies from "Siegfried". It is lovely music of sustained lyricism and mostly slow.  The playing was as pliant and sweet as the music demands, with specially fine solos from the lady hornist.

            And now, a total contrast: acidity and defiant modernism in Arnold Schönberg´s "First Chamber Symphony", Op.9, incredibly written in 1906; it is still tough music with difficult access, but undoubtedly an early masterpiece. It is tightly built on a harmony by fourths, not thirds as in tradition. For non-musicians: traditional harmony by thirds is, e.g., C-E-G (do-mi-sol). On fourths: C-F-D flat (do-fa-si bemol). Of course, at that time Debussy and Scriabin were also experimenting with those departures from history; but not with such vocation for violent contrasts and dissonances (expressionism "avant la lettre").

            The piece was often played here in the 50s and 60s thanks to that wonderful Orquesta de Amigos de la Música, and with great conductors: Hans Rosbaud (1952), Paul Kletzki (1957), Zubin Mehta (1962) and Michael Gielen (1967). But in recent decades it has been rarely played, and more´s the pity, for it is a seminal score in the gradual dissolution of tonality that would bring atonality and afterwards the twelve-tone system (in both cases, Schönberg was the leader). The version was very good.

            Pierre Boulez is now 90, and an old friend of Barenboim who has been his champion for decades. Both as composer and conductor he has deep influence. In the second field of endeavor he has always had a special magic to obtain transparency from the most convoluted textures.

            As a composer and a writer on music he has always been an "enfant terrible". A passionate endorser of twelve-tone music  but in the extreme version of Anton Von Webern, Boulez pushed to total serialisation of all parameters and produced a piece of enormous importance, heard twice in BA: "Le Marteau sans Maître" (premièred here in 1970).

            The extreme difficulty of his music and its complexity have always proved hard nuts to crack and his music is programmed quite seldom. In recent decades he has been influenced by composers that have made sound itself (not harmony, melody or rhythm) the basis of their invention. "Sur incises" (Argentine première) doesn´t altogether disregard the mentioned parameters but gives paramount value to a very particular texture that I have never heard before: three pianos, three harps and three percussionists.

            "Sur incises" is a colossal expansion to 40 minutes from "Incises", a 3 ½ minute piano piece.  "Incise" in French means "sentence", "clause", in English. Well, in this case, according to Pablo Gianera, we hear "the amplification of a minimal gesture, an ´appoggiatura´ and a brusque gesture falling to the low register".  And Boulez said: "a mirror of the piano sound transformed by percussion and harp".

            There´s a lot of turbulent music and  rhythms based on "fortissimo" repetition of chords. To my mind 20 minutes would have been enough. But the textures were fascinating. The percussion was made up of marimba, bells, xylophone and big drums that sounded like the steel ones used for calypso in Trinidad. The combination with the pianos and the cascading harps often was either beautiful or mordant.

            The playing seemed splendid (of course, I had no score). The music sounded cohesive and  technically perfect under the control of Barenboim. One question: no orchestra has more than one piano player and two harps; so apparently they were brought here specifically for this score! 

For Buenos Aires Herald

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