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Hector Berlioz

Friday, May 26, 2017


Tribuna musical

May 16

Ups and downs of National Symphony: Ministerial bureaucracy, CCK logistics

Tribuna musical The Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional (National Symphony, NS) is one of the two top symphonic ensembles we have in our concert life; the other, of course, is the Buenos Aires Philharmonic. The latter has its home at the Colón and is costly; the NS plays at the CCK, at the Blue Whale and is always free. The Phil has solid financial backing, the NS depends on the Culture Ministry´s capricious and ineffective bureaucracy with its constant problem of non-payment of conductors and soloists and just as harmful, of orchestral material. Plus the CCK´s absurd policy of being totally free (no worthy orchestra in the world plays under such conditions) and allowing babies. And being a cultural centre, it depends on the Media chief, Hernán Lombardi, instead of the Culture Minister, Pablo Avelluto. And Lombardi doesn´t give the NS what it needs to feel at home, including appropriate offices and rehearsal times. So the NS season proceeds with constant alarms. And the orchestra is playing sometimes below expectations. But one thing holds fast: the audience fills the vast hall; is it only because they love the orchestra or because it´s free? Well, the Phil is expensive and generally has a close to full house. And is it because it´s free that the CCK seems unable to provide reservations to reviewers? A February night of Chinese music was postponed to a later date with a different conductor, and celebrated the 45th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and Argentina. Much later, in September, the NS might visit China and Korea if both Ministries (Cultural and Foreign Relations) understand the importance of giving the NS a foreign tour after so many years without that experience. The NS has programmed both the artists and the repertoire. Zhang Zheng was the conductor, and the soloists were Yuan Yi (violin), Duan Biyan (piano) and Yang Yue (erhu); all made their debut. The music was all Chinese except for Bernstein´s "Candide" Overture. To my Occidental ears the adaptation of Chinese culture to an European product such as the symphony orchestra sounds forced and superficial. It seems to veer between the bombastic and the excessive sweetness, and significantly I only found interesting ideas in the final piece, the tone poem "The Hani minority" by Shao En (the Hani are Tibeto-Burmese). The concert started with three short works by Bao Yuankai and was followed by the fourth movement of the Erhu Concerto "The Chinese Wall´s capriccio"; the erhu is the two-string Chinese violin and it´s amazing how varied and beautiful are the sounds that come from this apparently limited instrument, played with virtuoso panache by Yang Yue. But apart from the very professional Yuan Yi and Duan Biya, I found little to like in the fragments from the Violin Concerto "The butterfly lovers" by He Zhanhao and Chen Gang, and the third and fourth movements of the Piano Concerto written by six composers (!) based on the cantata "The Yellow River" by Xian Xinghai. The efficient conductor got decent playing from the NS in this repertoire almost wholly new to them. I skipped the next concert, too crossover for me (symphonic rock -Emerson- and tango –Schissi), and went on to the following one, in which Günther Pichler made his BA debut as a conductor, though we knew him as a member of the marvelous Berg Quartet decades ago. The programme couldn´t be more divergent with the two mentioned, and I enjoyed it a lot, for Pichler is a master of style and clarity, even in the score I would have thought not quite up his aisle: the splendid Overture to "Guillaume Tell" by Rossini. But otherwise we heard Mozart, and Pichler´s phrasing was a lesson to all: the NS did its best to assimilate his teaching and accompanied beautifully that early masterpiece, Concerto Nº9, and afterwards gave us an admirable "Jupiter" (Symphony Nº41). There was a further pleasure: the debut of Japanese pianist Yoko Kikuchi, utterly refined and precise, with interesting cadenzas. And equally notable in a contrasting encore: Liszt´s transcription of Paganini´s "La Campanella". Finally, after many years, the return of Yeruham Scharovsky to where he was born, after decades of professional conducting in Israel and from there to other 50 countries. The programme started with a favorite overture of mine, Weber´s "Oberon", in a middling version. But things promptly picked up when the twin clarinet players Daniel and Alexander Gurfinkel showed their fantastic technique and beautiful timbre in two works (both wrongly called in the hand programme, and as usual, with no comments on the music – another bad thing of the CCK). First, the Concert Piece (not Concerto) Nº 1, op.113, by Mendelssohn (originally for clarinet and corno di bassetto –a clarinet a third lower- and piano), a charming and typical score fast-slow-fast. The orchestration may be by Mendelssohn and at least in this version the music was a BA première. And so was the following work (both unannounced...): "De mis raíces" ("From my roots"), Concert variations (not a concerto) for two clarinets and orchestra, Op.41, by Aby Rojze, who was a violinist of the NS during more than four decades until his retirement some years back and during his mature years decided to start a parallel career as a composer. It's only fair that his beloved orchestra should give him a place in their programming. These variations are tonal and pleasant, with a curious orchestration of strings, trumpets and percussion and virtuoso interventions for the clarinets. The music indeed refers to his roots, which are Jewish and Argentine, so we hear a milonga but also parts that refer to the klezmer tradition, and the main melody sounds solemn and religious both at the beginning and the end. Wonderful playing by the twins, who added as encores two klezmer pieces, and committed accompaniment by conductor and orchestra. Rojze saluted the audience. Tchaikovsky created not only the six numbered symphonies but also the very impressive programmatic symphony "Manfred", on Lord Byron´s antihero (who also inspired Schumann). His Op.58 (1885), the score is huge, about 55 minutes, dominated by the ominous melody of the very start, which reappears in all movements (as its model, the "idée fixe" in the Fantastic Symphony by Berlioz). It is the doomed Manfred that is portrayed, he who has loved Astarte and lost her, he who has been damned and is in the deepest despair as he recollects stages of his life. But in the second movement , a scherzo with trio, the Alps Fairy appears under a cascade in exquisite balletic music later interrupted by Manfred´s theme. A charming Pastorale is an interlude before the terrible, devilish bacchanale of the fourth movement, until the spìrit of Astarte is evoked with solemn organ chords and Manfred dies. The orchestral imagination is prodigious almost throughout, and the work is very difficult though fascinating. Scharovsky had a brave go at it with some ups and downs but certainly with much expressive power; warts and all, this was a worthwhile occasion to meet a major Tchaikovsky creation. And the Klais organ certainly made a difference. The concert was dedicated to the clarinet player Eduardo Prado, who died recently and was member of the SN for decades. For Buenos Aires Herald

The Independant - Reviews

April 27

Schwizgebel/CBSO/Gabel Symphony Hall, Birmingham, review: An impressive and idiomatic performance

The Swiss-Chinese pianist Louis Schwizgebel performed music by Franck, Chopin and Berlioz in a concert dedicated to the late Louis Frémaux, principal conductor of City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Fabien Gabel




Classical iconoclast

April 22

Formula saves the BBC Proms !

Formula saves the BBC Proms 2017!  This may be the beginning of the end for Sir Henry Wood's dreams of the Proms as serious music. Fortunately The Formula, perfected by much-maligned Roger Wright, is strong enough to withstand the anti-music agendas of the suits and robots who now run the Proms.  Shame on those who rely on formula instead of talent, but in dire straits, autopilot can save things from falling apart.  So, sift through the detritus of gimmick and gameshow to find things worth saving   (Read here what I wrote about The Formula)   Danierl Barenboim is a Proms perennial, for good reason, so we can rely on his two Elgar Proms (16 and 17 July) especially the Sunday one which features a new work by Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Deep Time, which at 25 minutes should be substantial  Pascal Dusapin's Outscape on 19/7, 28 minutes, also substantial Anotherr "regular" Proms opera, Fidelio on 21/7, with a superlative cast headed by Stuart Skelton and Ricarda Merbeth, tho' Juanjo Mena conducts  Ilan Volkov conducts Julian Anderson's new Piano Concerto on 26/7 , tho's the rest of the programme, though good isn't neccesarily Volkov's forte  On 29/7 Mark Wigglesworth conducts David Sawer's The Greatest Happiness Principle  On 31/7, Monteverdi Vespers with French baroque specialists Pygmalion   On 1/8, William Christie conducts the OAE in Handel Israel in Egypt and on 2/8, John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists do Bach and my beloved Heinrich Schütz.  On 8/8 Gardiner returns with Berlioz The Damnation of Faust, with Michael Spyres. First of this year's four Mahlers is Mahler's Tenth (Cooke) with  Thomas Dausgaard and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra  Robin Ticciati, back with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra on 15/8 with an interesting pairing, Thomas Larcher Nocturne-Insomnia with Schumann Symphony no 2.   Throughout this season, there are odd mismatches between repertoire and performers, good conductors doing routine material, less good conductors doing safe and indestructable. Fortunately, baroque and specialist  music seem immune.  See above ! and also the Prom featuring Lalo, Délibes and Saint-Saëns with François Xavier-Roth and Les Siècles on 16/8   Perhaps these Proms attract  audiences who care what they're listening to  Schoenberg's Gurrelieder on 19/8 with Simon Rattle, whose recording many years back remains a classic but may not be known to whoever described the piece in the programme "Gurrelieder is Schoenberg’s Tristan and Isolde, an opulent, late-Romantic giant."  Possibly the same folk who dreamed up the tag "Reformation Day" like Nigel Faarage's "Independence Day" Nothing in life is that simplistic  The music's OK, but notn the marketing. Sakari Oramo conducts the BBC SO in Elgar Symphony no 3 (Anthony Payne) on 22/8   Potentially this will be even bigger than the Barenboim Elgar symphonies, since Oramo is particularly good with this symphony, which may not be as high profile but is certainly highly regarded by those who love Elgar   On 26/8, Jakub Hrůša conducts the BBC SO in an extremely well chosen programme of Suk, Smetana, Martinů, Janáček and Dvorák   More BBCSO on 31/8 when Semyon Bychkov conducts a Russian programme  Marketing guff seems to make a big deal of national stereotypes, which is short sighted  These programmes cohere musically, but that's perhaps too much to expect from the new Proms mindset On 1/9,  Daniele Gatti conducts the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Bruckner and Wolfgang Rihm  An odd pairing but one which will come off well since these musicians know what they're doing They are back again on 2/9 with  Haydn "The Bear" and Mahler Fourth  which isn't "sunny" or "song-filled".  It's Mahler,  not a musical.  Gergiev brings the Mariinsky on 3/9 with Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich Symphony no 5.  Another huge highlight on 7/9 : The Wiener Philharmoniker, with Daniel Harding in Mahler Symphony no 6 - so powerful that nothing else needs to be added to sugar the pill   For me, and for many others, that will be the real :Last Night of the Proms   Party time the next day, with Nina Stemme as star guest     



Classical iconoclast

April 7

Walter Braunfels Ulenspiegel on DVD

For the first time on DVD, Walter Braunfels' opera Ulenspiegel is now available. Braunfels's op 23 received its premiere in Stuttgart in November 1913. Two world wars intervened. Braunfels's Ulenspiegel was not performed again until 2011, as part of the Gera Festival.  An audio recording is available of that performance, conducted by Jens Tröster. This new DVD comes from the Linz Festival in 2014, and is conducted by Martin Sieghart, known for his recordings with the Bruckner Orchester Linz. Braunfels' Ulenspiegel is based on Uilenspiegel and Lamme Goedzak, by Charles de Coster (1867), which Braunfels would have known in the German translation published in 1910. Coster was a child when Belgium became independent from the northern Netherlands.  Coster understood the tensions that led to the 1830 revolution. Coster's Ulenspiegel does not follow the Ulenspiegel of medieval tradition, popular throughout northern central Europe. Instead, Coster quite pointedly turns Ulenspiegel into a hero of the Dutch wars of independence from Spain, and pits Ulenspiegel against the Duke of Alba, whose draconian policies of suppression inflamed revolt.  As a French speaker and a Catholic, Coster would have been well aware of the irony. In the 17th century, the Dutch fought off Counter-Reformatioin  Spain.  In 1830,  Dutch Protestants  opposed Belgian (and Catholic) freedom. This background is fundamental to understanding the opera.  Braunfels knew Richard Strauss Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (1895). Like Coster before him, Braunfels' Ulenspiegel was a completely different personality, clothed in medieval disguise.   The "merry pranks" here have purpose. Even at this early period in Braunfels' career, the underlying rationale behind his music is clear.  All his life, Braunfels  opposed militarism and fascism.  This is vital to the interpretation of his music.  His lush orchestrations are not in the least "romantic" in Hollywood terms. Rather, Braunfels is a Romantic in the true spirit of the revolution which transformed European culture, forging individualism and self-determination. Ulenspiegel escapes prison but there's no happy ending. The Linz production of Braunfels' Ulenspiegel took place in the Tabakfabrik, a disused factory. Hence the post-industrial set. Ulenspiegel and his friends are underclass.  The caravan they live in reminds us that mobility, physical ot social, is denied to the "peasants" of modern society.   There is nothing pretty about situations where the privileged can exploit the gullible with promises of Heaven, bought through Indulgences.  If the performance space is bleak, it fits meaning. Moreover, the Israel Chamber Orchestra are visible at all times, reminding us that opera is theatre, and music is art. The version of the score used here is an arrangement for chamber orchestra by Werner Steinmetz (2014) which makes performance more practical and requires a smaller chorus.  The essentials are retained. If anything, the percussion sounds even more hollow and ominous echoing in the open space of the Tabakfabrik, and the winds sound haunting. Though textures are less rich, they feel hardier - more "Dutch" than "Spanish". Although the EntArte Opera Choir sing well,  the relatively small ensemble doesn't quite give the impact of a vast force in uproar. On the other hand, the focus is greater on individual parts.  Marc Horus sings Ulenspiegel, capturing the prankster's rebellious spirit. When Ulenspiegel's energies are channelled purposefully, he becomes a genuine hero, rather than fool  as hero.  On film, we can also focus on detail. Close-ups are rewarding.  Ulenspiegel's father, Klas, sung by Hans Peter Scheidegger, is vividly characterized, though the role is killed off fairly early in the plot.  Christa Ratzenböck sings a strong Nele, Ulenspiegel's foster sister and lover. This DVD is welcome, but you do also need the  Tröster.CD version from 2011 for the full score. Neither performance is ideal, so I hope the opera gets done again soon, with better resources and an understanding of Braunfels'  idiom, on the level of Lothar Zagrosek's Die Vögel, (1997) so outstanding that all others pale before it. Ulenspiegel is a good opera, but what we really need is a decent recording of Der Traum ein Leben  which was done in Bonn not long ago. the only recording on the market is so badly recorded that it's unlistenable. Please also see a few of my other reviews of the works of Walter Braunfels: Walter Braunfels Orchestral Songs vol 1 Hansjörg Albrecht Walter Braunfels Orchestral Songs Vol 2 Hansjörg Albrecht Salzburg Braunfels : Medievalism as modernity (Jeanne d'Arc) Walter Braunfels : Jeanne d'Arc, Szenen aus dem Lebem der Heiligen Johanna Gothic Resistance Fighter : Walter Braunfels Die Verkündigung  Walter Braunfels : Fantastiche Erscheinungen eines Thema von Hector Berlioz Walter Braunfels : Lieder

Hector Berlioz
(1803 – 1869)

Hector Berlioz (December 11, 1803 – March 8, 1869) was a French Romantic composer, best known for his compositions Symphonie fantastique and Grande messe des morts (Requiem). Berlioz made significant contributions to the modern orchestra with his Treatise on Instrumentation. He specified huge orchestral forces for some of his works; as a conductor, he performed several concerts with more than 1,000 musicians. He also composed around 50 songs. His influence was critical for the further development of Romanticism, especially in composers like Richard Wagner, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Franz Liszt, Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler and many others.



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