29th October, 2008 - 6.30 pm - Steinway Hall, London.
Maestro Alberto Portugheis - live sketch, 2008 - by Ronald Stein
Alberto Portugheis is a lucky Maestro – even, an extremely lucky one – and by Jove! He deserves fully his providential good fortune. He is an extraordinary human being, totally devoted to his chosen field – Music, and chosen instrument – the Piano.
His performance career has resulted in several sought-after recordings, including besides the Khachaturian Piano Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra, such rarities as Rossini’s piano works.
Founder of the Iberian & Latin American Music Society (ILAMS) and its Chairman, Founder and Artistic Director of the Dorothea Law Piano Centre, Vice-Chairman of the Beethoven Piano Society of Europe, Vice-President of the European Piano Teachers’ Association … enough? For ordinary mortals, I would say, more than enough, but not for Maestro Portugheis – he is also, and wait for this, Vice-Chairman of the International Society for the Study of … Tension in Performance, not only in Music, but also Theatre and Dance!
Still, all the above activities that may floor someone half his age, is not enough for the Maestro, who also manifests young Goethe’s wanderlust – born and bred in La Plata, Argentina, of Russian and Rumanian parentage, now based in London, the Maestro has appeared in Canada, the USA, France, Hungary, Greece, Switzerland, Cyprus, Serbia, Nigeria … and won’t stand still – he tirelessly raises funds for the education of very poor children of the AmaZon Art charity founded by a virtuoso young Brazilian cellist, Diego Carneiro.
To top it all, Maestro Alberto Portugheis is also writing a book on the … language of Peace. Any wonder then that he has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize?
Cultured and compassionate, the Maestro is a gentle soul, always with a smile, an unassuming human being – Like Jesus washing the desert-worn feet of his disciples, it is rather moving to witness Maestro Portugheis sitting next to his piano students as a page-turner … turning the pages of their musical scores with a profound paternal affection.
And what was the Maestro’s extreme luck I was referring to?
The fact that four of his piano “students” he presented in a concert – Clare Jones, Katalin Csillagh, Jovanni de Pedro, Blagoy Filipov – are already technically speaking masters of the keyboard – each a concert pianist of virtuosic proportions – any one of them alone would bring honor to a teacher and their national cultures, let alone an incredible … Four of them at once, come here to London to attend three days of Masterclasses with the Maestro!
Clare Jones played quietly but firmly Schubert’s Sonata in A Minor (D.784) like Beethovenian Variations, enlightening me to the possibility that Schubert’s said work may indeed have been inspired at a deeper level by Beethoven’s variations … Ms Jones also manifested the right amount of zartlichkeit for a Schubert composition.
Katalin Csillagh, a Hungarian virtuoso, played Beethoven’s Sonata in F Sharp (Op. 78) with a Bach-like nobility, leaving no doubt whatsoever about Beethoven’s own study of Bach’s Counterpoint.
While the rich display of Beethoven’s Bach-like quality in itself was quite an achievement by Katalin Csillagh, I wished she could also simultaneously not lose occasionally the traditional passionate Beethovenian delight in musical dialectical contrasts, battles with exhausting and exhaustive contradictions rising into feisty crescendos. Of course I would not know if Maestro Portugheis’ gentleness had dampened down Miss Csillagh’s Beethovenian ardour.
Jovanni De Pedro on the other hand, had all the ardour, in fact in double and treble dosage … perfectly suited to Ginastera’s brash Sonata No. 1 (Op. 22) – an odd piece this – it begins with a harsh allegro marcato with referential melodies and rhythms all over the place – New Orleans Jazz, Duke Ellington, Carmen Jones (Ginastera lived in the USA for two years in 1945, and may have seen a revival of the original 1943 Broadway production) and, most of all, Aram Khachaturian … the latter’s Violin Concerto and Toccata for Piano providing Ginastera with a wealth of inspiration. Most originally though, the Right and the Left hands are used equivalently, as musical mirror reflections of one another.
The Second movement, in presto misterioso sounded like music for a ghost-film, with a Hollywood car-chase wrapped in a nightmare. The piano-playing hands though return to their conventional function, the Left being the base-line holder, the accompaniment to the melodic Right. Moreover, there is more passion here than in the next movement misnamed as adagio molto appassionato, which curiously had more 'mystery' in it than the previous movement supposed to be imbibed in misterioso – odd, very odd – either Ginastera had got it wrong – great people too can get it frequently wrong (including Popes!) – Or his interpreter Jovanni de Pedro could not deliver the composer’s dynamic markings – unlikely the latter, because Jovanni displays virtuosic musical grasp. It must therefore be Ginastera’s own emotional chaos.
What is remarkable, once again, was the functional use of the hands – now, back to the case of the first movement, where the Right and the Left were treated equilaterally, but in this movement with a subtle nuance – they no more reflect one another, but rather stay separate and independent, doing their own thing.
The last movement, ruvido ed ostinato is Khachaturian’s Toccata for Piano gone mad, and with exciting arpeggios truly ostinato! Jazz is forgotten, unless one insists that Khachaturian was being Stravinsky-like jazzy breathing fresh air into the close atmosphere during the Stalinist tyranny over the Soviet Arts.
Last but not least, Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures from (sic! I think at) an Exhibition (1874) is the kind of all-time masterpiece no modernist composer of any rank can do without – it has probably influenced everybody who is anybody in music. Endlessly transcribed for even a large orchestra (first by the French Maurice Ravel of the Bolero fame, in 1922), for Organ by Hansjörg Albrecht, there is a Swiss Jazz-band version by Mats-up, even a Rock-version by ELP = Emerson Lake & Palmers (who, interestingly, had also adapted the 4th movement of Ginastera’s first Piano Concerto and recorded it on an album Brain Salad Surgery in 1973 under the title Toccata). But it is good to hear Mussorgsky’s Pictures in its original conception as a piano solo with dense orchestral textures.
The Bulgarian Blagoy Filipov is undoubtedly a concert pianist of great virtuosic potential, but alas, alack, he did himself a great disservice by playing it from the score, rather than by-heart (pun intended). If there ever was a solo piece in the history of ‘western’ music that demands absolutely, the absolute use of one’s musical memory, it is this!
Mussorgsky’s piece, as good as a symphonic poem, is a peak of what I call visual narrative music (my term – instead of the commonly used, and I think silly term “program-music”) – the performer must inwardly soul-fully visualize practically every note, and it is simply humanly impossible to do so while reading the score during a concert performance. I can categorically refute any excuses for not doing so. I think Maestro Portugheis should have insisted on it being so.
The damage done to the performer was obvious from the very first few bars played too student-like, as if trying to get the notes right – architecturally constructed on the principle of the leitmotif later identified with Wagner’s oeuvre, Mussorgsky delineates I think a complex character of a visitor seeing these extraordinary paintings from an old castle (il vecchio castello) to the musically overpowering gate of the Bohatyrs of Kiev (La Porte des Bohatyrs de Kiev) – and you better not mess with a shaven-headed Ukrainian Khokhol-Cossack … 'Bohatyr' is a word of Persian origin, passed into the Ukrainian language via the Turkish, meaning a strong man, hence a hero!
Mussorgsky had created his Suite of piano pieces as a monument to a Jewish friend of his, Victor Hartmann, an architect whose Exhibition of about 400 designs – drawings, sketches and watercolours Mussorgsky had seen, before Hartmann died in 1873.
It took Mussorgsky almost a year to compose his masterpiece of new modernist sound, ironically by going back to the roots of the Russian language and folklore – he intended each piece to be a subjective musical emotional response – his own really! – to one of Hartmann’s paintings. Mussorgsky selected ten of them, then lined them up all on a 'Gallery' wall he imagined … himself being the sole Visitor walking about (Promenading) in the Gallery – what an inventive imagination of sheer creative genius!
And how daring politically, and in profound compassionate humanity – Mussorgsky belonged to Russia’s landed gentry, who were anti-Semitic, anti-Ukrainian, anti-Polish … anti-everythig really, and Mussorgsky chose a bosom friend (Hartmann) who was both Jewish and Ukrainian/Polish, and glorified them all in an extraordinary innovative sound-world which was profoundly … Russian, deeply rooted in his own people’s folklore. Thank god the Tsar’s censors (as all censors in political dictatorships) were too stupid to understand Mussorgsky’s humanitarian message of non-racist brotherhood to deport him to Siberia – they did not need to do him any harm either, as Mussorgsky drank himself to an early grave (*).
Blagoy Filipov’s score-ridden Promenade was the ambulation of a bore, visiting the exhibition like a dumb American tourist, looking at works of art through his home-made video-lens.
Filipov’s interpretative inadequacies had one stunning unintended consequence – it brought home and enlightened hitherto an un-acknowledged aspect of Mussorgsky’s musical genius.
What is hitherto regarded (in musicology) as the visitor’s simple leitmotif – a musical sticky tape bonding the different musical events (=pictures/paintings) together – a “melody repeated as an interlude between many of the paintings” as one ignoramus critic puts it, is in fact I think a complex, musically highly richly textured characterization in different keys and variations throughout, as profoundly individualized as in a Shakespeare play …
The Exhibition-Visitor’s deceptively tuneful melody that begins the piece with almost a childish nursery-rhyme ring to it, is in fact immediately and instantly variegated by a range of several different rhythms, and is then developed and enriched with extraordinary complexities right to the end of the piece.
This musically factual observation allows me to daresay that musicologists have got it all wrong – the ‘pictures’ are more of a side-show – precisely the reverse of what is understood hitherto – contributing to the central focal evolution of the Visitor’s dramatic characterization (as in a good play), and his emotive reactions to the paintings musically magnificently delineated throughout. The extraordinary range and variety of the pictures are there only to enhance Mussorgsky/Visitor’s (by proxy the Listener’s) experience of them – the latter’s emotional evolutionary entanglement with the pictures, Mussorgsky pictures (again, pun intended) before your very mind’s eyes …
I would go further and insist that Mussorgsky’s undoubtedly autobiographical Visitor to my mind is consciously a Portrait drawn of himself by himself as a pictorial “Self-portrait” par excellence.
There is a frightening musical feast of dramatic, wild and almost barbaric characterizations right at the end of the piece (at the awe-inspiring Gate of the Cossack Heroes – the Bohatyrs of Kiev);
The Visitor having just seen the scene of La cabane sur des pattes de poule (= The Hut on the paws of a Hen, a funny mad title this, thought to refer to Baba-Yaga, a fairy tale witch who crunches ... children’s bones and lives in a shed on … chicken legs!) – musically a kind of Beethoven scherzo evolving into … Tchaikovsky sugar-plum fairies, while echoing an earlier picture of an erotic Ballet des poussins dans leurs coques (=Chicks in their cocks! Surely, it must be the other way around … but perhaps Mussorgsky did not wish to blatantly scandalize the gay Russian aristocrats, misleading the critics into thinking that it merely means “un-hatched chicks”, still the dogma in musicology), musically unrelated to what follows but contrasting it dialectically, the ambulating Promenade/Visitor journeys through an extraordinary spiritual range of concentrated musical emotions ~ there is nothing like it in music ~ at the awesome Gates of Kiev, from the timid, when he can hardly tiptoe around, to dissonant chords and solemn heavy arpeggios in largo – a remarkable musical feat this – recovering his self-confidence, and finally rushing away hurriedly as a changed man – St Paul’s phenomenal conversion (epiphany) on the road to Damascus!
The separate identities of the ‘pictures’ are erroneously exaggerated in critical studies of Mussorgsky. Musically speaking, the whole thing is not a linear arrangement of separate pictures (themes) hanging on the walls of an Exhibition Hall, but a single tapestry of a single composition – I suggest the Promenade-theme – with extraordinary scenes – its variations – taking place in different locations but somehow deeply connected.
Thus, for example, the Bydlo painting (a Polish word meaning a heavy farm-cart, with wooden wheels, drawn by two oxen through the mud-mired fields of Northern Europe), musically speaking is a solemn variation on the lighter theme of the Promenade, as much as Samuil Goldenberg and Schmuyle is – impossible not to think of a Chagall-painting of stetl-jews, Goldenberg wealthy, and Schmuyle very poor, the first residing in London’s Edgware, the other in Manor House – while the Limoges market presents a complex alloy of variations on both the Promenade and the Ballet des poussins.
Ironically, I am of course most grateful for these path-breaking and vital musicological insights to Blagoy Filipov’s score-playing I would not condone!
(*) My instinct suggests to me – perhaps influenced sub-consciously by his first name Modest being the same as Tchaikovsky’s older brother’s name who was quite a liberated homosexual – that Mussorgsky (1839-1881) perhaps was gay himself and could not cope with its hypocritical persecution by the Russian-Prussian ... French-speaking ruling elite practicing it behind closed doors, while marrying women for Christian cover!! The great Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) himself was a perpetrator precisely of this kind of behaviour, against all advice to the contrary from his upfront brother and the latter’s aristocratic gay gang. Tchaikovsky was eventually forced into a suicide by the Tsar for seducing a young princeling – although the subject is still controversial among the experts of his biography.
I am deeply grateful to Ronald Stein, Advertising Consultant, for letting me publish exclusively and as a first on the World-wide Net his live-sketch of Maestro Portugheis above.
Ronald Stein has a magnificent collection of such sketches of world-class musicians drawn live over the years, during their concert performances. I hope he publishes them soon as an Art-Book with snippets of his memories attached to them individually.
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