Overtures to the summer lull
Amal Choucri Catta delights in season's end
Beethoven Festival; Cairo Symphony Orchestra; Cairo Opera House Main Hall, 3 to 31 May
As the season closed, we have continued moving from one symphonic festival to another. After the Arabic Perspectives Festival last January, an excellent 20th Century Music Festival took place in March, followed by a marvellous Ludwing van Beethoven Festival throughout May. The Cairo Symphony Orchestra has always found the right stimulus in Beethoven; and this occasion was no exception. Performances were brilliant, concerts were enthusiastically received and audiences numerous. The festival included Beethoven's five piano concertos, his major overtures and his third to seventh symphonies, with Japanese, Italian and Ecuadorian conductors as well as Ahmed El-Saedi.
The first concert, comprising the fifth concerto for piano and the fifth symphony, with soloist Ramzi Yassa and El-Saedi, was unsurpassed. The second offered the Overture to Fidelio, Beethoven's only opera. The opera originally had four overtures, one for each version composed from 1805 to 1814. Leonore No.1 was composed for a performance to be held in Prague, Leonore No. 2, the first to be written, was presented at the premiere in 1805 and Leonore No.3 belongs with the 1806 revival of the opera. The fourth emerged in 1814 for a reinvented version of the opera when Beethoven was already famous; and it was then that the title changed to Fidelio, the name Leonore assumes when, disguised as a young man, she follows her husband to prison in an attempt to save him.
A sombre composition, with nostalgic sequences, the Overture was followed by the second piano Concerto in B-flat major, Opus 19, its most notable aspect being soloist Yasser Moukhtar at the piano. Born in 1968, Moukhtar joined the Cairo Conservatoire aged seven, graduated with honours and pursued higher studies at the Tchaikovsky Conservatoire in Moscow, as well as post-graduate studies in Berlin where he now lives. Touring extensively, he is gaining popularity in Europe. The second piano concerto's three movements were executed with charming virtuosity, perhaps most evident in the long and demanding cadenza. A dialogue between piano and orchestra in the first movement showed Moukhtar at his best.
Under Japanese conductor Toshihiko Matsunuma, the orchestra closed the concert with Beethoven's third symphony in E-flat major, Opus 55, generally known as Sinfonia Eroica. A transformative venture, it was Beethoven's first departure from the limitations of form and style inherited from Haydn and Mozart. The Eroica is twice as long as Beethoven's first symphony, created only three years earlier and dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte. When premiered in Vienna in 1805, the Eroica was given many names, ranging from "extravaganza" to "wild fantasy"; the public found it "strange and violent". The first movement opens with two chords that embody the tension of the theme, giving way to harmonic dissonances and syncopated rhythms. The second movement, a solemn funereal march, is filled with grief in memory of dead soldiers. The third, however, is joyful, remembering the heroes and leading up to the allegro molto of the fourth movement, an exultant vision of worlds unknown.
The third concert opened with Beethoven's sixth symphony in F-major, Opus 68, the Pastoral, a melodious work with chirping birds and summer storms. Conducted by the Italian Giuseppe Lanzetta, the symphony was brilliantly performed. The concert then presented the third piano concerto in C-minor, Opus 37, with Swedish soloist pianist Kjell Baekkelund at the piano. He is no newcomer to Cairo's Opera House, having given excellent recitals over ten years ago. Marked by a dramatic allegro con brio, followed by a solemn largo, the concerto culminates in a vigorous rondo allegro. With unwaning brilliance, Baekkelund projected his own conception of Beethoven and the concerto. The concert ended with the celebrated Coriolanus, Opus 62, an overture based on Heinrich von Collin's play Coriolan. A thrilling piece of music, beautifully executed.
Moushira Issa, the only Egyptian lady- concert-pianist, was much applauded at the fourth Beethoven Festival concert, delivering a fascinating fourth concerto in G-major, Opus 58, with Ahmed El-Saedi conducting. This time, the piano, not the instrumentalists opened the concerto, the stormy beginning gradually giving way to the main theme. A thrilling dialogue between soloist and orchestra ensued -- pleasant, witty, ambiguous, it could have gone on for ever. Everything about this concert was a sensation, with the third Overture to Leonore, in C-major introducing an initial adagio based on the hero Florestan's aria, "In the springtime of life", followed by a vivid allegro and a glittering presto. The concert ended with the fourth symphony in B-flat major, Opus 60, "nimble, joyous, of a heavenly sweetness", as Berlioz had remarked. Ahmed El-Saedi's baton mesmerised the entire audience, creating a memorable impression.
Tragedy came in the end with the festival's fifth and last concert. It opened with the Egmont overture, Opus 84, evoking Goethe's tale of the Flemish freedom fighter, executed while attempting to liberate the Netherlands from Spanish domination in the 16th century. A victorious and triumphant, if still sad, overture, it was followed by the first piano concerto in C- major, Opus 15, with the excellent young Egyptian soloist Mohamed Shamseddin at the piano. Shamseddin's accuracy was phenomenal, and his individual touch a delightful addition to an already beautiful performance. Masterfully conducted by the Ecuadorian Patricio Aizaga, the concert came to a majestic close with the beautiful seventh symphony in A-major, Opus 92. Eloquent, vivacious and colourful, it typified the entire Beethoven Festival this year -- an outstanding success.