As part of the Brazil Festival in Amsterdam, which offers for two months a rich sample of art forms ranging from dance, visual arts, film and architecture to economics, gastronomy, theatre and music, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Iván Fischer programmed a remarkable concert of, well, not Brazilian music, but at least music partly inspired by it. More than anything, however, it was a marvelous opportunity to see and hear a great orchestra letting its hair down and sharing a great deal of fun.
Hungarian Iván Fischer has been a frequent guest with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. Recently named Principal conductor of the Konzerthausorchester Berlin, he is also founder-director of the Budapest Festival Orchestra and has given ample proof he isn't afraid of trying out alternative approaches to classical concerts.
A merry atmosphere was quickly established by the opening piece. Darius Milhaud's ballet La Création du Monde was composed during the back-to-the-origins-of-mankind trend in Europe in the 1920's inaugurated by Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. The music is less grave than the title might suggest. It's above all a rare and successful example of western music assimilating jazz. Fischer and the ensemble of 17 soloists, including alto saxophone, piano and drums, had assimilated it as well and were swinging and cakewalking with irresistible gusto and skill. Superb woodwinds and a brilliant saxophone provided extra spice.
Stage and orchestra underwent a complete transformation for the following Noches en los jardines de España from Manuel De Falla. This magnificent but rarely heard work got a totally enchanting performance from Fischer, joined by the Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire. The Concertgebouw ensemble was nothing less than stunning by its evocative power and flexibility, now fiery and sensual, then again spiky and strident with extremely pliant orchestral sections blending to create devilishly seductive or rousing sounds. Nelson Freire added his own share of magic. Warm and supremely elegant, boasting an old-style aristocratic refinement, he struck a convincing balance between evoking colorful images and rhythmic zest. He phlegmatically left us unaware of the piece's technical difficulties but caught the spirit of each section with uncanny precision. Whether accompanying the orchestra with the guitar-imitating figures or playing solo as in the final part, Freire gave De Falla an otherworldly beauty.
Milhaud returned after the interval with his famous Le boeuf sur le toit, an orchestral medley incorporating nearly 30 Brazilian melodies. Interestingly, Brazilian singer Ceumar, accompanying herself on guitar, introduced the performance by bringing one of the tunes used by Milhaud. Fischer and the orchestra enthusiastically rushed into Milhaud's shimmering carousel of samba, rumba and tango rhythms. The carefree atmosphere, however, didn't prevent the orchestra from playing with precision as well as character.
Two popular works from Maurice Ravel completed the concert. There wasn't anything hackneyed about either the Pavane pour une infante défunte and the Boléro though. Fischer secured convincing tempos in both and with an orchestra of this level every page sounded like a discovery. The Pavane, transparent and polished, moved without losing its dignity, while the Boléro was spellbinding and building towards a truly exhilarating, collapsing climax. Fischer kept a tight grip and only let loose at the very last moment. But in the meantime he treated us to a fabulous parade of instruments. With such constant high quality it is unfair to pick out only one orchestral soloist, yet the oboe d'amore sounded quite out of this world today. The Boléro naturally brought the house down. Lucky Amsterdam to have such an orchestra – and such a concert-hall.
Copyright © 2011, Marc Haegeman