Karel Nijs

Eliane Rodrigues, Nina Smeets, Carlo Willems & Koen Wilmaers

The very first Música Romântica Festival took place in Saas-Fee exactly 20 years ago, and this edition also featured a wide range of engaging music works that captivated the hearts of the listeners. Six evening concerts featuring world-renowned artists and blockbusters, on the one side, and scores that are more than worth discovering, on the other. Fortunately, the weather this year was drier and sunnier than last year, which made the visitors' holiday in the Alps even more festive.

During the first concert on Wednesday, 8 August I heard the National Symphony Orchestra of Lithuania for the first time. Although this ensemble may not be as well known internationally at present, insiders know that it has an exceptionally strong artistic reputation. Right they are. Eliane Rodrigues conducted the orchestra's string section in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's snappy, high-spirited Divertimento in D Major. The pleasure these musicians take in making music and their unique orchestral sound is unprecedented! A wonderful interplay of light and dark, Italianate chiaroscuro, tempered contrasts: a miniature opera without words. A wonderful taste of what is to come! Eliane Rodrigues conducted the orchestra from the keyboard in Mozart's Piano Concerto No.12, just as the composer-pianist would have done. Not everyone is capable of convincingly filling both shoes, but she has been doing this for years with exceptional flexibility. It was an effervescent concerto, full of unexpected developments and with many changes in mood. What Mozart wrote about this work still rings true today: "Mittelding zwischen zu schwer und zu leicht" (‘somewhere in between too heavy and too light'). Brilliant, but not ‘hollow' or superficial, and equally satisfying to regular music lovers as connoisseurs.

Before she started, Eliane Rodrigues spoke to the audience about what this concerto means to her personally: this is the music that her daughter Nina heard when she regained consciousness following a coma several years ago. This evening's rendition opened itself like a flower in impassioned enthusiasm, graceful concerto-style conversations and a wide array of pianistic subtleties, from exhilaratingly joyful to profoundly lyrical. Of course, the trademark facets of her playing - attention to subtle grey areas, nuances in tone, dynamics and colour - were present, as ever.

The interval was followed by Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, a forty-five-minute feast of energy and an inexhaustible wealth of ideas but, above all, a dancelike flair and compelling rhythms. Eliane Rodrigues opted for a stark and limber approach that was not as focused on the suspense-rich contrasts and effects that we have become used to from interpretations based on period performance practice. Instead, her emphasis was on the gracefulness of the connecting lines, a fluid and forward-moving legato, bringing out a silky gloss and nuances in colour and ‘noblesse', from the opening movement all the way to the tempestuous finale: a perfectly justifiable approach that was consistently magnificently executed by the orchestra.

The second concert, held on Friday, 10 August, featured varied nineteenth and twentieth-century repertoire, presented by the Lithuanian orchestra's principal conductor Modestas Pitrénas. The famous Waltz Rosen aus dem Süden by Johann Strauss Jr. is far more than just a catchy tune - if you can let the orchestral pleasure of this waltz shine through, as it should. The orchestra complied, with ardour. The next piece was Erich Wolfgang Korngold's hardly-known Cello Concerto (1946). A revelation indeed! A condensed, intense musical synopsis of the film Deception, for which Korngold had first written the soundtrack. This was the first time that cellist Justus Grimm performed this concerto: the passion of a dramatic Hollywood love story sublimated to a gripping musical narrative. A top-class soloist. The intensity with which the Lithuanian musicians listen to one another and their musical interaction was also striking. This was also notable in Sergei Rachmaninov's monumental symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead. A meditation on life transformed into death, dark colours, music that slowly swells up, two carefully built-up climaxes... ebbing away into silence. Intense.

Lastly, Eliane Rodrigues performed as the soloist in Edvard Grieg's famous Piano Concerto, a work that you think you have already ‘known' for years, listened to so often that the grooves on the record have almost faded away, but played this evening with such freshness, alternately tempestuous and tenderly lyrical, that began to sound as if it had been composed only yesterday. Music that continues to reverberate even after the concert has ended.

On Sunday, 12 August, we had a comparable experience with substantially fewer people and resources. First, Franz Schubert's sublime Second Piano Trio, Opus 100, with its famous second movement, Andante con moto, pulsating with a shuddering slowness. This was framed by a fiercer Schubert, forceful and joking, and bittersweet as well. Eliane Rodrigues found top-level chamber music partners with great sensitivity and integrity in violinist Tatiana Samouil and cellist Justus Grimm. The ability to retain the musical tension required by this piece for three quarters of an hour demands mastery and intensive understanding. Concentration and surrender. And that moves you.
After the interval, Eliane Rodrigues played Claude Debussy's Ballade, flanked by a surprising combination of music scored for pianos, percussion and double bass. Flemish musical Jack of all Trades, Alexander Ponet, presented the world première of his own composition, Reflection, in which he played the vibraphone and Gabriele Basilico the double bass parts. This subtle composition appears to be improvised and is meditative in nature, with classical developments as well as jazz influences. Ponet is a talented young musician to keep an eye on.

Another original addition to the programme was the peculiar yet pleasant transcription for two pianos and percussion of George Gershwin's famous Piano Concerto. Eliane Rodrigues and Nina Smeets notably enjoyed their performance at both pianos and percussionists Carlo Willems and Koen Wilmaers delighted in the heavenly sounds produced by a wide range of percussion instruments. Their collective joy in music-making was infectious and spurred them to choose yet another adaptation as an encore; this time of Leonard Bernstein's scintillating overture to Candide.
A colourful evening with eight musicians; a chamber music concert to cherish. Original and with panache. Typical to Música Romântica.

Karel Nijs - 30 years Klara