Friday, June 26, 2009

The Carmel Quartet at the Jerusalem Music Centre - Sounds of Spain

“Strings and More” is a series of concerts with explanations presented by the Carmel Quartet. Founded in 1999, the quartet - violinists Rachel Ringelstein and Lia Raikhlin, violist Yoel Greenberg and ‘cellist Tami Waterman – has performed internationally and is the recipient of prizes in the 2004 Aviv Competitions and the Prague-Vienna-Budapest Competition, making its Carnegie Hall debut in 2004. In “Sounds of Spain”, guitarist Hanan Feinstein joined the quartet at the Jerusalem Music Centre June 17th 2009.

Musicologist Yoel Greenberg begins to talk about 18th century Spain. Its status in Europe had become problematic due to the mix of cultures and the barbarous behaviour it was known for in other countries. Voltaire had claimed that Spain was like Africa. In an effort to become more European in character, Spanish musicians were sent to study in other countries (Arriaga was sent to study in Paris) and foreign composers were a welcome import, among them, the Italian composer and virtuoso ‘cellist Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805) who arrived in Spain in 1769, remaining there till his death. Employed by Don Luis, King Charles’ younger brother, he felt somewhat superior to the Spaniards and felt the need to “tame” the savage Spanish musician. (Due to his Classical style of writing, he had been spoken of as “Haydn’s wife”.) Boccherini wrote some 250 quintets, with ‘cello parts often moving into the higher register of the instrument. Greenberg mentions that Boccherini’s works, boasting less counterpoint and drama than those of Beethoven and Mozart, have been lost in history and that they should be understood in terms of Boccherini’s own musical language.

The Carmel Quintet and guitarist Hanan Feinstein performed Boccherini’s Guitar Quintet no. 4 in D major - “Fandango”. Finished in 1798, the work borrows all its movements from two of the composer’s previous quintets. The opening Pastorale is lyrical and flowing, its dynamics moving between piano and pianissimo; the Carmel Quartet gives voice to its nature sounds – bird calls, breezes and murmuring brooks. Feinstein’s large, expressive sound and choice of colour has presence and elegance. The Allegro maestoso movement bears the grand, distinctive Boccherini ‘cello sound and was given a forthright reading. Following the Grave assai, the work launches into the spirited Fandango movement – so Spanish in its demands on the guitar, its heavy steps, typical descending scale motifs and relentless movement and energy. Performed by all with verve and excitement, the ‘cello converses with the guitar in humorous glissandi, Feinstein uses some drumming effects and Waterman completes the scene with a few moments played on castanets. For Europeans, the fandango had been a symbol of Spain’s lack of finesse, representing the cultural distance between Spain and central Europe. Its countless repetitions rendered it “trance music”, it was considered a “wild, sexual and immoral dance”. But, it had, however, also become “exotic”. Boccherini’s Fandango quintet sheds its European guise to offer the listener a carefree Spanish celebration and the artists gave it their all.

Juan Crisostomo Arriaga’s (1806-1826) life story is a fascinating one, ending too soon with his death in Paris at age 19. He was born in Bilbao Spain on what would have been the day of Mozart’s 50th birthday. He actually saw himself as a reincarnation of Mozart, his oeuvre related to the latter’s style, beginning all his quartets in the Mozartean manner – a bold statement answered by a gentle one. (He has been referred to as the “Spanish Mozart”.) But his music also bears the stamp of his own originality. An assistant professor by the age of eighteen, he had already composed three string quartets, the only works to be published (1824) during his lifetime.

The Carmel Quartet performed Arriaga’s Quartet no. 1 in D minor. The Allegro opening movement begins in defined, dark unison strains, the second theme, introduced by the first violin, being Spanish in character. The players present Arriaga’s flair for melody-writing and brilliant string scoring with alacrity, bringing out the joy and restlessness of youth inherent in the music. Following the sad , vehement second movement, we hear an intense, moody minuet, its trio demanding the strumming of instruments to evoke a Spanish dance with guitars. Opening with a short Haydenesque Adagio introduction, the fourth movement breaks into a siciliano, returning to the adagio transformed at the end of the movement, demonstrating the composer’s grasp of form and his ability to flex it for his own use.

The Carmel Quartet’s fresh sound and attention to detail make for exhilarating performance and active listening, the individual musical personalities of each player not overlooked in the ensemble texture. Yoel Greenberg is articulate, informative and organized in his explanations which he presents informally, in fine British English and with humour. (Each concert is also presented with Hebrew explanations.) Other members of the quartet join him in illustrating musical points, in small vignettes and readings. The Carmel Quartet has much to offer in its programming, performance and the format of its concerts.

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