Stefan Grondelaers

Eliane Rodrigues conducting August 17, 2018

The cosmopolitan village of Saas-Fee is the end of the world, imprisoned in an amphitheatre of glaciers and four-thousand-metre mountain peaks. Música Romântica ventures there where motorised traffic cannot go: the festival of Belgian piano virtuoso Eliane Rodrigues. And the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1940 and with a magnificent track record that includes a huge list of guest conductors, including giants such as Kurt Masur and Christophe Eschenbach).

During the rehearsal for the first concert, one of the first things you notice is the venerability and seriousness with which the orchestra approaches the rehearsal. The Lithuanian orchestra members, clad in summer outfits, are in a holiday mood, but this is only apparent during the breaks: onstage the joy of making music, a solid work ethic and total concentration prevail. Principal conductor Modestas Pitrénas adds the finishing touches, relaxed and efficiently.

Monday evening's concert illustrates Música Romântica's greatest asset: the original programming that does not shun hits (see the next concert), but also ensures that there is ample space left for the unjustly forgotten fringes of music history. The concert kicked off by repairing Liszt's honour: although he went down in history as a piano virtuoso, he was in fact the inventor of programme music: his Fantasy on Themes from Beethoven's "The Ruins of Athens" is a musical gem that is not played frequently enough. Another work of an equally programmatic nature on tonight's programme was In the Forest by the fascinating Lithuanian composer Mikalojus Čiurlionis, who was equally celebrated as a painter and could hear colours and see sounds. The orchestra rendered a lush and visually charged performance of this work, in which the concentration and intensity that were notable during the rehearsal turned this concert into an experience.

There were, of course, several works on the programme that embody aspects of the festival's star Eliane Rodrigues, Música Romântica's hostess, pianist, storyteller, bewitcher and ‘temptress'. Ravel's Concert Rhapsody Tzigane is such a piece, even if the solo violin is intended for another ‘gypsy': Russian violinist Tatiana Samouil rises to the occasion to step into the shoes of Jelly D'Aranyi, to whom Ravel dedicated his ‘diabolically difficult piece', which ‘will bring the Hungary of my dreams back to life'. Still, even more so than Ravel's Tzigane, Eliane Rodrigues resembles Stravinsky's Petrushka - the mischievous rag doll that incessantly provokes the orchestra from behind the piano, but ultimately gives in to it. But not before she has sent her fellow musicians and the audience home with memories of her highly precise, yet feverishly scintillating piano playing. A grand evening!

On Wednesday the Russians take over the stage with regard to the programme (Tchaikovsky & Rachmaninov) and the conductor Yuri Serov. The audience is served three classics that are embedded so deeply into our musical DNA that there is virtually no concert organiser alive today who would make the effort to include them on a programme. Fortunately, Música Romântica did. First, there is Tchaikovsky's poignantly sensitive Romanticism, embodied in the Swan Lake ballet suite and the Capriccio Italien, a sublimely glued together collage of Roman impressions and inspirations recorded by the composer when he visited Italy in 1879. The orchestra approaches the heart-warming mix of kitsch and great emotions (everything ranging from ecstasy to depression) powerfully and tastefully, succeeding marvellously in keeping the entire programme within the confines of good taste.

After the interval, it is Eliane Rodrigues' turn to enter into the battle with one of the greatest challenges of the modern concert literature, Rachmaninov's Second piano Concerto. Rachmaninov had to resort to hypnotism in 1900 to finish this monumental concerto when he was suffering from a writer's block and depression, and the result is therefore an opus of extremes: gigantic yet intimate, theatrical and pompous, but also lyrical and sensitive. Although Rachmaninov scored the concerto for a gigantic orchestra, the orchestration is intimate and chamber music-like. Despite her delicate posture, Rodrigues is able to deliver the technical proficiency, the poetry and the large gestures that are needed to give a performance of this tour de force credibility. The audience is given the opportunity to enjoy repertoire that can almost match the grandeur of the four-thousand-metre mountain peaks sparkling in the moonlight.

On Friday evening, the church of Saas-Fee is transformed into a theatre-cum-cinema for the final concert which is dedicated entirely to film music. Born from the desire to neutralise the unpleasant noise initially made by film projectors, film music has, in the meantime, grown into a full-fledged partner on the silver screen.

On Monday evening, the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra had already demonstrated its ability to transform the stories behind Liszt and Čiurlonis' programme music into sound. This is no different at the final concert, also thanks to Eliane Rodrigues' tight conducting - she is a passionate conductor in addition to a brilliant pianist - where hits from the Pink Panther, Charlie Chaplin and Harry Potter films were dazzlingly brought to life.

However, Eliane Rodrigues would not be herself if she were unable to display some musical fireworks in a solo piano work at the closing concert. The Pianist tells the story of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Jewish pianist of Polish origin who is able to escape from deportation during WWII, but is ultimately forced to go into hiding. When the end of the war is in sight, he is discovered by German officer Wilm Hosenfeld. However, Szpilman is able to convince Hosenfeld, who is a music lover, to spare his life by playing him Chopin's first Ballade, a rendition that begins timidly but becomes increasingly triumphant towards the end. Rodrigues saves our evening with the same ballad, which she performs delicately, apparently incoherently, but with sensitivity and breath-taking intensity. Her playing not only shows us why Chopin's music and Szpilman's performance of it transcended the Nazi ideology of hate and destruction: it made us look forward eagerly to next year's music and virtuosity set against the most beautiful concert backdrop ever.

Stefan Grondelaers - Radio Klara - Radboud University of Nijnemegen