Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Melzer Recorder Consort in a Program of Laments at Beit Avi Chai, Jerusalem

On July 20th 2009, the Melzer Recorder Consort performed a concert at Jerusalem’s Beit Avi Chai. A family affair, the ensemble consists of Michael Melzer, his wife Yael Shimshoni-Melzer and Michael’s brother, Ezer Melzer. In the days preceding the fast day of the 9th of Av, the Hebrew date commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples of Jerusalem, Jews observe mourning. The theme of the concert was that of mourning - “There we sat and wept” (Psalm 137).

The scene was set with the introspective Chaconne from Henry Purcell’s “Dioclesian” (1690). We then heard an arrangement of the J.S.Bach’s keyboard piece “Capriccio on the Departure of his Dearly Beloved Brother” BWV 992 (c.1705). Bach’s brother, Jacob, was leaving to join the Swedish Guard. The piece itself includes the descending minor tetrachord ostinato in the bass line, a motif symbolizing lament. This was the young J.S.Bach’s attempt to write a program work, and, in fact, the composer described details of the minor drama in words on the manuscript itself. The work was performed on soprano- and bass recorders.

The Italian composer and violinist Salamone Rossi of Mantua was a member of the illustrious Italian-Jewish “de Rossi” family, a family which included the controversial Bible scholar Azariah de Rossi and several fine musicians. Rossi’s ancestry can be traced back to their exile from Jerusalem. Rossi is known for his innovative writing of synagogue music; however, the Melzer Consort began by playing a group of his miniature Sinfonias for three recorders. Fine fare for recorder-players, the pieces were presented articulately and were skillfully ornamented. From the composer’s “HaShirim Asher liShlomo” (Songs of Solomon) published in 1623 using the original Hebrew texts, we heard Rossi’s “Kaddish”, composed in the style of the balletto – the most popular vocal form in 17th century Italy. Performing it on soprano-, alto- and tenor recorders, the trio gave expression to its typically Italian mood changes, from serious duple passages to the more joyful triple meter sections. For their instrumental version of Psalm 137 on two alto recorders, tenor and bass, young Shaked Engelberg joined the ensemble in this cantabile, flowing piece which depicts the suffering of exiled Jews and their longing for Jerusalem. Rossi’s dissonances were woven delicately into the cantabile texture, as was the finely crafted end of the piece.
‘By the rivers of Babylon - there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked us for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion”.
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?’

English lutenist and composer John Dowland’s (c.1563-1626) “Lachrimae” (Tears) cycle of pavans, composed in a variety of scorings, is a personal, emotional and spiritual journey, presenting some of the greatest music of Dowland’s time. It also represents the cult of melancholy running through 16th century art, literature and music, and the works quote his song “Flow my Tears”, the beginning of each sounding the four-note descending “tear motif” mentioned above. The work’s importance is also reflected in its use as the basis for works by several other composers. We heard Michael Melzer playing Jacob van Eyck’s variations on Dowland’s Lachrimae. Van Eyck (c.1589-1657) a blind nobleman, was a scientist, carillonneur, a recorder virtuoso and composer from Utrecht. His collection of “Der Fluyten Lust-hof (The Recorder’s Pleasure Garden) contains variations on secular and sacred tunes familiar at the time and offers a rare insight into late Renaissance and early Baroque variation techniques. It is clear that the variations were the results of Van Eyck’s own brilliant improvisations and they are, indeed, more than challenging to perform. We heard Michael Melzer performing van Eyck’s Variations on Dowland’s “Lachrimae” (published 1644) on a Renaissance recorder. He draws his listeners into meaning of the melodic line, giving it time to breathe, then moving on to the increasing intricacies of each variation, never allowing the virtuosic nature of the work to camouflage the musical line. With the unadorned melody returning at the end, Melzer once again reminds us of Dowland’s lament and the theme of the evening.

The cosmopolitan German Baroque composer, organist and keyboard virtuoso Johann Jakob Froberger (1616-1667) is known for his highly idiomatic and personal harpsichord pieces, these being considered early examples of program music. Such was his “Lamento sopra la dolorosa perdita della Real Maesta di Ferdinando IV Re de Romani”. As the first movement of his Partita no 12 (1656), this allemande mourns the death of the eldest of the Emperor’s sons, who was later to have ruled Austria. The movement, scored for soprano-, tenor- and bass recorders, is slow in tempo – a veritable lament - offering Michael Melzer on soprano recorder much scope for expression. It ends with a rising C major scale, possibly symbolizing the 21-year-old’s ascent to heaven.

An interesting item on the program was a Bach duet (Michael and Yael Melzer) followed by a transitional section leading the audience away from the High German Baroque into the oriental fragrances of Ladino song. “Nani,nani” is a Ladino lullaby telling of a wife whose unfaithful husband comes home from visiting his lover. Michael Melzer’s arrangement of this beautiful melody is masterful in its rich array of ideas, his varied use of recorders (and voice) and its attention to style and to exotic effects. The artists’ performance of the work was polished and alluring.

Composer, ‘cellist and teacher Joachim Stutshewsky (1891-1982) was born in the Ukraine to a family of klezmer musicians. He immigrated to Israel in 1938. His “Romance” for solo flute (1956) is an example of the synthesis he endeavored to create of his own musical background with the Yemenite, Ladino and Arabic musical style he was hearing in Israel. Professor Michael Melzer, himself fascinated by the wealth of musical styles from different ethnic groups in Israel, has reworked the piece for three alto recorders, yet carefully preserving the composer’s concept of a single melodic line. This melodic line is passed from one player to the next, to be punctuated by an occasional cluster which rapidly dissipates, restoring the texture to the single thread. The overall effect was poignant, one of sadness but also of hope.

The program included two trio sonatas – one transcribed from J.S.Bach’s organ sonata in D minor BWV 527, the concert ending with a trio sonata by Salamone Rossi Hebreo. The Melzer Consort’s program was thought-provoking, its quality of performance reflecting profound reading into works and a high standard of recorder-playing .

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