October 23, 2014
Mixed results from our two main orchestras
For the Herald
Recent weeks in the concerts of our two main orchestras have had mixed results. Two things were clear: a) the Buenos Aires Philharmonic is playing better than the National Symphony; b) both organisms sound their best with their Principal Conductors.
The NS seems tired and lacks enthusiasm, and although there are expectations about new perspectives if indeed the new concert hall at the ex-Correo Central comes to fruition in 2015, one feels that they are at the end of a long cycle with their now octogenarian PC Pedro Calderón. The concerts took place at the Auditorio de Belgrano.
The young Argentine conductor Pablo Assante (born 1975) after studying here and in Salzburg both choral and orchestral conducting has been active in German opera houses, especially Dresden, and now works at the Carlo Felice in Genoa. I liked his choice to make his début with the NS: the great cantata-symphony Lobgesang (Hymn of Praise) by Felix Mendelssohn (Nº 2, Op.52), done in full as it has to be (in 2009 the Phil played only the symphony in what was a very silly decision.)
After three normal symphonic movements there are nine with chorus plus three soloists (two sopranos and a tenor). The words come from the Bible, particularly the exulting Psalm 150, plus a traditional hymn, Nun danket alle Gott. The music shows the author’s consummate mastery of counterpoint and is often very beautiful; the tenor aria stands out and the soprano duet is also fine, apart from the splendid choirs.
Assante had good control of his forces and built the music efficiently, although with the substantial fault of overfast speeds in music that needs expansion; compared timings: Assante 63 minutes, Von Karajan 70. Dario Marchese got impressive results from the very good Coro Polifónico Nacional; the soloists came from the Choir and their quality showed that there are fine voices in it. Soledad de la Rosa and Laura Penchi were clear as bells, and Ricardo González Dorrego was musical and professional though he lacked some expressiveness.
I usually have nothing but high regard for the work of conductor Alejo Pérez, and of course his qualities of honest and certain intellectual analysis were there, but I was disappointed by his reading of a score I deeply admire, Richard Strauss’ Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration). Some of the failings came from players who were not up to par (the horns) but the music needs an amalgam of drama and sublimation that I missed in this performance; the nirvanesque growth of the transfiguration theme from almost nothing to spinetingling fortitude went only halfway.
The concert was dedicated to the memory of Gerardo Gandini, who was the pianist of the NS during a long period, and it started with his Eusebius: five nocturnes for orchestra, a delicate and transparent elaboration of Schumann’s introspective side as it appears in a slow piece from the Davidsbündlertänze (in an interesting idea Pérez asked Marcelo Balat, the current pianist of the orchestra, to play it before Gandini). Here the conductor was fully at home.
For a while Sebastián Forster was one of the most promoted young local pianists; born in 1975, in his early twenties he was a promising artist. He went North and for the last ten years he has been working mainly in the US but also in Europe. After that long period he made his BA rentrée on this occasion, with Beethoven’s Third Concerto. Now 39, he made in 2012 a recording of the Beethoven complete Sonatas. So he has immersed himself in that style thoroughly.
On the basis of this performance I found him uneven; his sound had the necessary solidity and his phrasing is knowledgeable, but perfectly solved fragments were followed by others with considerable mistakes; maybe it was the nerves of the contact with an Argentine audience after so much time. And the orchestra was only correct.
If there’s a surefire way of attracting the public, it’s the performance of the integral Beethoven symphonies. This task was taken by Calderón and I could only hear the concert that included the Fourth and the Seventh. The symbiosis that has gradually happened over his many years as PC with the NS (since 1994) still produces good results: the orchestra understands him, and the qualities of the old master are still there: a master-builder, he unerringly exposes the structures with fine judgment for the most adequate speeds and his phrasing is scrupulous; he does lack some lightness when that quality is required, but most of Beethoven doesn’t.
I only have the space to refer to a Buenos Aires Phil concert in which Philippe Entremont both played the piano and conducted. He is now almost 80 and his last visit was long ago as conductor of the Vienna Chamber Orchestra, but in his younger years he came as a highly professional pianist. I was amazed at his dexterity in Mozart’s Concerto Nº 20; his reading may have been a little low on tension (he played and conducted) but it was always musicianly. It was preceded by a very good interpretation of Mozart’s Overture to The Magic Flute.
I was less impressed with his Prokofiev Fifth Symphony, a marvellous but tough score. It needs more clarity and assurance than what we heard, and the Phil wasn’t quite as virtuosic as the music requires.