Thursday, June 18, 2009

"War and Peace" - Music in the wake of the Thirty Years War

An astounding outcome of the 1618-1648 Thirty Years War was the intense musical creativity in a divided and war-torn Germany of the time and in the decades to follow. To perform some of these marvelous works, the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, under its founder and conductor Maestro David Shemer, was joined by the PHOENIX Early Music Ensemble, with its founder and musical director Myrna Herzog, and the Oratorio Chamber Choir (conductor-Ronen Borshevsky.) Singing in small ensembles were sopranos Naomi Engel and Carmit Natan, countertenor Doron Schleifer, tenor David Nortman and baritones Assif Am-David and Yair Polishook. The concert, June 6th in the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship of the Jerusalem YMCA, was the sixth in the JBO’s 2009-2009 series.

Organist Heinrich Schutz (1585-1672), Germany’s greatest 17th century composer, had spent time in Venice, returning to Germany with the musical techniques practised there he had studied. His “Symphoniae Sacrae” show the influence of Monteverdi in dramatic solo singing and of Gabrieli in his use of instrumental color and vocal sonority. He exploited the Italian concertato idiom to the full, engaging choirs of voices or instruments in dialogue with each other. We heard two works from Schutz’ third book of Symphoniae Sacrae (1650), “Seid barmherzig, wie auch euer Vater barmherzig ist” (Be merciful, as is your Father), (Luke 6) and “Herr, wie lang willst du mein so gar vergessen” (Lord, how long will you forget me) (Psalm 13). Thrilling music for the concert hall, they boast a lavish and richly layered canvas, the small vocal ensemble and its brief solos shining brightly through the textures. Recorder players Drora Bruck and Adi Silberberg interacted with the other instruments and with themselves.

Organist and teacher Johann Rosenmuller (1619-1694) had also spent time in Venice and was also instrumental in the transmission of Italian styles to northern Europe. We heard two of his Sinfonias, each consisting of an opening movement, followed by a series of dances. Shemer addressed the unexpected rests, unconventional accents, comments and mood changes peppered through these works. Bari Moskovitch’s competent theorbo playing added delicacy to the rich ensemble sound. Violinists Lilia Slavin and Yasuko Hirata, somewhat hidden from view, delighted the audience with a very fine and attentive performance.

Franz Tunder’s (1614-1667) importance lies in the fact that he was a link between the early German Baroque style (based on Viennese models) and the later Baroque style culminating in J.S.Bach. He was also important in the development of the chorale cantata. As organist at the Lubeck Marienkirche, he instituted the “Abendmusiken” (evening concerts), the first series of public concerts in Germany; his seventeen vocal concertos were composed to be performed at these concerts. “Nisi Dominus” (Except the Lord build the house) (Psalm 127) is relaxed and not overly grandiose. Shemer, in his program notes, talks about the dark, soft quality of sound produced by Tunder’s liking for the blend of violins and viols. It seems the composer had fine bass singers at hand, as several of the vocal concertos make great demands on bass singers. Yair Polishook took on board these demands, engaging the listeners with his delicately ornamented lines, pleasing them with the timbre of his voice.
The concert ended with Dietrich Buxtehude’s (1637-1707) church cantata ”Gott hilf mir”(Lord help me) (Psalm 69). In this highly emotional work, Buxtehude indulges in descriptive instrumentation and word painting in order to convey despair and, eventually, hope. The bass solo represents the psalmist into whose troubled soul the waters have entered. Polishook was impressive, addressing his audience, his fine diction conveying the German text. The Oratorio Chamber Choir, in the role of the Lord, was soothing and mellifluous, well blended, yet held its own with the orchestra. The aria for two sopranos and bass “Ach ja, mein Gott hilf mir” (O yes, God help me) was, indeed, one of the highlights of the work, with the recorders commenting lyrically between phrases.

Dr. David Shemer, with the JBO, PHOENIX and the Oratorio Chamber Choir, together with excellent, young Israeli solo singers, presented an concert of interest and excellence. The audience was more than enthusiastic.

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