Sunday, February 22, 2009

Handel the Entertainer , PHOENIX Ensemble

The PHOENIX Ensemble, under the musical direction of Myrna Herzog, presented an evening of music by Georg Frideric Handel (1685-1759). Artists performing in this delightful concert were Revital Raviv-soprano, Yasuko Hirata-Baroque violin, Myrna Herzog-viola da gamba and David Shemer-harpsichord.

The evening’s fare consisted mostly of arias and vocal pieces from Handel operas, oratorios and vocal works. Herzog’s program notes were helpful and informative, providing a brief outline of the plot of each and the specific situation wherein each aria appears. Israeli soprano, Revital Raviv, a graduate of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and the Royal Academy of Music (London) performs widely, singing Baroque opera and giving recitals.

Handel left Germany for England in 1711 in the entourage of the Duke of Hanover, who would become King George I of England. By the time George succeeded to the British throne, Handel was fully established as his loyal servant and his salary as court musician was raised. London aristocrats were developing a taste for Italian opera and, with the establishment of the Royal Academy of Music in 1719, opera was given more support, with the Queen’s Theatre offering subscriptions and becoming the London centre of opera. Here, from 1720 to 1728, Handel produced some of his greatest works for stage.

Composed to a libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym, “Julius Caesar”, premiered in 1724, was the composer’s most ambitious project to date. Richly orchestrated, it was a great success musically and as dramatic theatre. Israeli Soprano Revital Raviv, in the role of Cleopatra, with violin, harpsichord and supporting viol, performed two arias from the opera. In “Tu la mia stella sei”(You Are my Star) , Raviv presents a Cleopatra possessed with vengeance and greed for power, whereas in “Piangero la sorte mia” (I Will Cry for my Fate) she becomes a Cleopatra who alternates between cantabile lamenting and angry melismas of a scheming woman. Each phrase in the recitative, each idea, was given a different reading. In “Blessed the Day”, an aria graced with charm and dance rhythms, from the oratorio “Solomon” (1748), Raviv is amorous and coquettish, using facial expression and eyes to enhance her role as a queen recalling her wedding day.
‘Bless’d the day when first my eyes
Saw the wisest of the wise!
Bless’d the day when I was led
To ascend the nuptial bed!
But completely bless’d the day,
On my bosom as he lay,
When he call’d my charms divine,
Vowing to be only mine.’

In “Credete al mio dolore” (Believe my Pain) from “Alceste” (premiered in 1735), only viol and harpsichord play, with Herzog’s somber, rich, dark melodic lines contrasting vividly with the heart-rending chagrin expressed Raviv’s silvery register. Raviv sets the scene for the wonderful, soothing “Oh Sleep, Why Dost Thou Leave Me?” from “Semele”, a work that is more an opera than an oratorio, making use of her stable but controlled and delicate legato. Her diction is outstanding. (The Scottish Church’s acoustic puts any singer’s diction to test.) No less mellifluous was “Softly Sweet in Lydian Measures” sung by Thais, from “Alexander’s Feast” (1736), the setting being a banquet held by Alexander the Great and his mistress, Thais.

Three works on the program offered the audience an opportunity to hear each instrumentalist in a solo capacity. The Sonata in C major for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord Obbligato, performed here by Herzog and Shemer, had been found in Handel’s own hand and was initially attributed to him. It was later thought to have been composed by the German composer Matthias Lefloth (1705-1731) but this hypothesis has since been rejected, the work now being considered anonymous. We were presented with a communicative, brilliant and colorful performance, with melodic strands shining out and interweaving articulately, with Herzog assuming centre stage at a given moment, immediately stepping back to give the harpsichord the say at the next.

Japanese-born classical- and Baroque violinist Yasuko Hirata, in Israel since 2000, has studied and performed in Japan and Europe. Her commanding tone and reading of Handel’s Sonata for Violin and Continuo opus 1 no. 12 in F major, set off by Shemer’s fine continuo language, was a celebration of elegant, cantabile and dynamic playing, a myriad of nuanced phrases and varied textures.

Handel was among Europe’s best keyboard players. His 25 or so harpsichord suites are, however, a mixed bag; it seems he used them for teaching purposes, not originally intending to see them published. Some consist of only one movement. Two collections of them did eventually appear in print during his lifetime and another 12 remained unknown till the 20th century. Shemer, playing on a Klop harpsichord, performed Handel’s Suite in D minor HWV 436, from the second collection (1733). From the opening of the luxuriant Allemande, where Shemer allows each phrase to dictate pace and flexibility, through his fiery rendering of the Gigue, to the lilting final Minuetto con 3 Variazione, Shemer invites his audience to indulge in active listening, to be entertained at the royal court.

Dr. Myrna Herzog’s programming is creative and different. Each PHOENIX concert is a musical adventure and the players she chooses with whom to make fine music are of the highest quality. This concert was no exception.

“Handel the Entertainer”
Soloists of Ensemble Phoenix
Myrna Herzog-musical director, viola da gamba
Yasuko Hirata-Baroque violin
Revital Raviv-soprano
David Shemer-harpsichord
St Andrews Scots Memorial Church, Jerusalem
February 12, 2009

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