Catharsis on the Nile

One of the purposes of art as formulated by Aristotle in his Poetics is catharsis. “Despite the indefiniteness of its content and despite our failure to explain the meaning of this term in the Aristotelian sense,” writes Lev Vygotsky, Soviet pioneering psychologist. Let us simplify the term as an emotional purification or cleansing, “there is no other term in psychology which so completely expresses the central fact of aesthetic reaction, according to which painful and unpleasant affects are discharged and transformed into their opposites. Aesthetic reaction as such is nothing but catharsis, that is, a complex transformation of feelings.”

Published on 20 May 2010 in Al Ahram Weekly

In a previous issue of this newspaper, I wrote about the Prince Mohamed Ali Palace Golden Hall and musical activities held there under the auspices of the International Music Centre. Since that review of a cello and piano recital which took place in January 2010, the Golden Hall has hosted, on a monthly basis, international musicians like the Cropper Welsh Roscoe Trio, three of Britain’s major chamber musicians, the Feeling Brass Quintet, formed by artists from the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Chamber Orchestra conducted by Sherif Mohie Eldin.

On 9 May, once again, that special Golden Hall flavour captivated a large audience despite its coincidence with an African Champions League football match. Conducted by Hisham Gabr, with soloist Amira Fouad on the piano, the Cairo Ensemble, a formation consisting of 30 musicians, worked miracles.

Hisham Gabr’s conducting career goes back to 2002, when he excelled at the international conducting workshop held at the Cairo Opera House. Since then he has conducted the Cairo Symphony Orchestra, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Chamber Orchestra and others, presenting a variety of symphonic and chamber works by international and Arab composers.

This time, Gabr treated us to Rossini, Mozart and Haydn. Rossini’s Overtures have almost become a genre in their own right. No other composer can be as proud as Rossini, whose shorter works, usually the introductory portions of big operas, are staples of symphonic concert halls. Their musical allure and vitality never fail to cheer up listeners.

Many of Rossini’s Overtures carry amusing elements with farcical accents in which woodwinds, especially flute and piccolo, almost flirt with the orchestra. Apart from big operas, Rossini also wrote five one-act operas ( L’inganno felice, La cambiale di matrimonio, L’occasione fa il ladro, Il signor Bruschino and La scala di seta ) for a smaller orchestra formation in order to be able to tour with them. It is a pity that such brilliant one-act operas by Rossini are rarely performed in Egypt despite their modest budget demands. La scala di seta ( The Silken Ladder ) is the most famous of the five and is always a lovely beginning for an evening of classical music.

Rossini was followed by Mozart’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra no 20 in D-minor, Op. 466. Mozart’s piano concertos are the coronation of his orchestral work. It is one of only two concertos for piano — out of almost 30 — composed by Mozart in the minor scale (the other being concerto No. 24 in C-minor, Op. 491). Mozart’s father, Leopold, recognised this concerto as one of the most appealing compositions, and it was also the only Mozart concerto ever performed by Beethoven, who also added a cadenza (another was written by Brahms.)

Played the concerto with Beethoven’s cadenza, Amira Fouad was remarkable. She has had a versatile career as a pianist with a large number of performances for international audiences in many concert halls. She is a guest soloist with orchestras such as the Windsor Symphony Orchestra, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and the Cairo Symphony Orchestra. Her most recent performance was last March at the Cairo Opera House Small Hall.

But it was after Rossini and Mozart that the Cairo Ensemble performed the jewel of the evening: Haydn’s Symphony no. 104.

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) is the composer whose enormous contribution to the development of symphony granted him the fully justified title of Father of Symphony. Haydn’s influence on a classical form of the symphony was unprecedented stylistically by the aesthetic standards of the era. In his work Haydn’s symphonic form emerged from an earlier three-part Italian structure (known in works by composers such as Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, J.S.Bach’s son) to a fully developed, four-movement symphonic form which would become a model for many great composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, to name but a few; it would persist for centuries.

Even the most prolific composers do not measure up, quantitatively, to Haydn’s symphonies. Haydn’s 104 symphonies (in addition to symphonies A and B) were composed over four decades and besides introducing new artistic values, they are a testimony to a new ripening sensitivity. His last 12 symphonies were called the “London Symphonies” but over the time this name has been reserved uniquely to the last one, no. 104.

That symphony, in D major, was first performed on 4 May, 1795 in London’s King’s Theatre. The night also featured another symphony, The Military (no. 100), which was already known to the audience. That concert of 1795 went down in the history as one of the greatest triumphs of Haydn in London. In his diary he noted: “The whole company was thoroughly pleased and so was I. I made 4,000 gulden on this evening: such a thing is possible only in England.” Haydn’s symphony no. 104 is the best example of Haydn’s musical style, just like Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is of Mozart’s.

A grand and dramatic Adagio, opening in D minorm resonated harmoniously in the hall, where music and architectural splendour complemented each other, leading to a vibrant Allegro in the main tonality of D major. The orchestra captivated the audience with the swift and astounding changes of nuance required by the classical era music style.

Andante (the second movement) carries an expressive theme which invites listeners to a melodious and deeply touching journey that makes one wonder how Haydn, the classical master, managed such romantic content. The pauses with solo flute were inspiring and the fortissimo closures followed by pianissimo made a strong impact.

The third movement (minuet and Trio) holds many charming phrases played by the woodwinds. The Cairo Ensemble gave particular stress to the off-beat accents which characterise the minuet. Although the conductor introduced a certain freedom to the tempo in Trio, it remained within the necessary stylistic boundaries.

In common with several previous symphonies, in the finale of no. 104 — which is the highlight of this symphony — Haydn reached for elements of folk music. The main leitmotif of this part stems from a Croatian folk song, “Oj, Jelena, Jelena, jabuka zelena” (Oj, Jelena, Jelena, my green apple) which Haydn heard during his stay in Eisenstadt, the winter residence of Prince Esterhazy, yet some music critics identify the melody with an English street-cry (“Hot cross buns”). Gabr managed to bring out many rapid changes of nuance resulting in a joyful, witty atmosphere present in his last symphonic finale.

Such a fulfilling evening was met by infinite ovations. For the longest time the applause continued; no one seemed to want to leave the hall. Gabr thanked the audience with an encore. The orchestra played, once again, the brilliant La scala di seta. The rapid and joyful melodies played by violins and oboe topped the wonderful evening.

Rossini: La scala di seta Overture; Mozart: Piano Concerto no. 20 in D minor, Op. 466; Haydn: Symphony no. 104 “London”; Cairo Ensemble; Amira Fouad (piano); Hisham Gabr (Conductor): Prince Mohamed Ali Palace Golden Hall, 9 May

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