Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Atar Trio accompanies the Manes Sperber exhibition from Jerusalem, to Vienna and Bratislava

The Atar Trio – pianist Ofer Shelley, violinist Tanya Beltser and ‘cellist Marina Kats – a Jerusalem ensemble - played a concert at the Austrian Hospice of the Holy Family in Jerusalem’s Old City August 23rd 2009. The occasion was the closing of an exhibition of the life and work of Manes Sperber. The trio is accompanying the exhibition and will perform at the Jewish Museum of Vienna October 22nd and, finally, at the Jewish Community Center in Bratislava October 24th. Manes Sperber (1905-1984) was a Jewish Austro-French novelist, essayist and psychologist who lived through the threats of both world wars.

The Austrian Hospice, situated on the Via Dolorosa, was opened in 1863. In 1939, it was confiscated by the British who claimed it was “German property” and the house was used as an internment camp for Austrian, German and Italian clergy. After British withdrawal from Palestine, the Jordanian government converted it into a civilian hospital. In 1985 it was returned to its rightful owners and officially reopened in 1988, welcoming pilgrims and other guests to its guesthouse. We were seated in the salon, an ornate room, the side walls of which were painted by Austrian painters F.Eichele and J.Kaltenbach. The ceiling ,depicting four biblical scenes, was painted by an unknown traveling artist. Markus Bugnyar, the hospice’s rector, welcomed the audience and spoke of the importance of preserving Austrian Jewish culture and of the Austrian Hospice’s role in creating a bridge between cultures, countries and religious identities.

The program began with James Oswald’s (1710-1769) Scottish Sonata. Oswald, a Scots composer, gatherer of Scottish works and music publisher, became chamber composer to George III. In 1761. Listening to this small Rococo-style work, one understood how his music, gently infused with Scottish reels, would have appealed to the English public.

Despite their being composed for gifted amateurs, Joseph Haydn’s (1732-1809) late piano trios (H. XV) present a great challenge to the pianist, with the ‘cello role more subordinated. Composed during Haydn’s second visit to London (1794-5) and dedicated to Theresa Janson (a gifted pupil of Clementi whom Haydn had befriended), the Trio in C major H.XV no.27 was given a fresh, spirited reading by the Atar Trio. Shelley’s playing was clean and elegant, keeping his use of the sustaining pedal to a minimum. The artists addressed the harmonic tensions and mood contrasts of the work, the Haydnesque joy of the final Presto rendered somewhat ragged towards the end.

Switzerland and France were the last two stops in Manes Sperber’s life, hence the choice of a work by Frank Martin (1890-1974). Composed in 1925, Martin’s “Trio on Popular Irish Melodies” represents Martin’s fascination with Greek- and Bulgarian rhythms and those of the Far East. This early work, a brilliant, multi-layered collage of old Irish melodies, constructed in three movements, is set against constantly changing experimental textures and polyrhythms. The Atar players take on board the individual character and workings of each role, the complexities and mood changes; they take join this “game” of diversity set out by the composer, from ominous, mysterious piano gestures, to wistful, well-crafted ‘cello melodies, to the sound of the Irish fiddle. The final “Gigue” is, in fact, an Irish “Jig”. The audience enthused over this colorful, energetic concert piece.

Born in Lithuania, Joseph Achron (1886-1943) became a violin prodigy. Involved in the Jewish Folk Art Society, he was intent on promoting the cause for traditional Jewish folk music in the concert hall. His Lullaby opus 35, no. 2, abounding in eastern European Jewish motifs, was performed by Beltser and Shelley. The artists gave this short work an intense and convincing performance.

The program ended with Spanish composer Joaquin Turina’s (1882-1949) “Circulo” opus 91. The work, a tone painting in three movements, takes the listener through the course of a day. Beginning with early morning ‘s gentle awakening, sketched in lush seventh-chord harmonies with a smattering of bird calls, the work blossoms into daylight to a larger, major scene peppered with pizzicati, jazzy moments lending brightness and a sense of well-being, The work ends sounds of muted strings suggesting the tranquility of dusk. The Atar Trio’s reading of the work was evocative, the players’ use of colors and fantasy realized by fine playing.


Sunday, August 23, 2009

Portuguese sacred music performed at the Queen's College, Oxford UK

The Coro de Santa Maria de Belem, Lisbon, Portugal, a mixed choir of 40 singers, was established in 1990 in order to take part in the weekly Solemn Mass of the Church of Jeronimos. Under its founder and conductor Fernando Pinto, the choir’s mission is to perform, teach and keep alive the immense musical heritage of the place in which it was created. The Coro de Santa Maria de Belem was in England for a summer concert tour of five concerts and performed a program Portuguese music in the chapel of the Queen’s College Oxford on August 2nd, 2009. The exquisite chapel, noted for its excellent Frobenius organ, was consecrated by the Archbishop of York in 1719 and has stood virtually unchanged since being built.

The program opened with Missa Veni Sponsa Christi and Nos Autem Gloriari Oportat by Manuel Cardoso (1566-1650), most of whose career was spent as resident composer and organist at the Carmelite Convento do Carmo in Lisbon. In these works, both a cappella in the Palestrinian polyphonic style, sections were dynamically contrasted, sometimes by the thinning out of forces, with energy invested in articulate contrapuntal textures, clean vowel- and consonant changes. The choir’s luxuriant sound, unmarred by vibrato, rang into the building’s structure. These pieces were followed by a moving and spiritual performance of the Spanish-Portuguese composer Estevao Lopes Morago’s (c.1575-1630) motet “Oculi mei”, in which the composer’s expressiveness is formed by dissonance and harmonic audacity. Also representing the golden age of Portuguese polyphony, Duarte Lobo (c.1565-1646) was the most famous composer of his time in Portugal. The choir performed his “Pater peccavi”, a motet which quotes the soggetto ostinato (a brief melodic unit reiterated persistently in the same voice) from Josquin’s “Miserere mei Deus” as a fourfold ostinato in the superius.

In the 1600’s, Lisbon and Evera were places of musical excellence. Don Joao IV, himself a composer, nurtured the arts, protected and promoted his musicians encouraging them to develop their originality. Among them was Diogo Duas Melgaz (1638-1700). The choir performed his “Popule meus”. Joao Rodrigues Esteves (1700-c.1751) was a key practitioner of Latin sacred composition in Lisbon, the majority of his writing in the stile antico style. The choir gave his “Regina Caeli” an articulate and joyful reading. Composer and organist Francisco Antonio de Almeida flourished from 1722 to 1752. Like Esteves, he may have perished in the 1755 earthquake in Lisbon. A composer of vocal music, he composed the first Italian-style opera in Portugal. In “Miserere quatuor vocibus” the chant was presented pleasingly by a tenor member of choir, the overall effect of the work uplifting.

We heard three organ solos played by Sergio Silva, teacher and titular organist of the Basilica of Estrela and at the Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus at Telhal. Elements of virtuosity of style and use of dissonance were present in the forthright “Obra de Primeiro tom sobre a Salve Regina” by Pedro de Araujo (1662-1705). Silva also performed Carlos Seixas’ (1704-1742) Organ Sonata in G major, showing the main interest to be in its melodic lines. In a very different vein, we heard “Choral” by composer, teacher, musicologist and critic Luis de Freitas Branco (1890-1955), a leading figure in Portuguese musical life who had introduced Impressionism and Expressionism into his country’s music. He also researched Portuguese Baroque composers, publishing a book on the musical works of King John IV of Portugal (referred to above as Don Joao IV.) An expressive piece, its somber opening leads into a number of sections – some bold and brassy, others veiled, bluesy and autumnal. Making fine use of the organ’s different timbres, this mood piece boasts an interesting duality; Silva infused it with color and life.

Remaining in the 20th century, we heard two of “Three Songs Without Words”(1998) by Eurico Carrapatoso (b.1962). Written for 4-part mixed choir, the first explored sounds of resonant humming, with closed- and later open mouths. The second was a joyful play of vowels, undisturbed by words. Back in the realm of sacred music, the concert ended with Manuel Faria’s (1916-1983) introspective “Sangue de Cristo”, a motet woven of a lush harmonic language peppered with dissonances, expressive and spiritual. This was surely a celebration of the human voice.

Conductor and organist Fernando Pinto, a native of Lisbon, has specialized in the performance of sacred music, his professional life revolving around the Coro de Santa Maria, with which he has worked since 1990. The choir has a large repertoire, has performed widely and has made recordings. Pinto’s work is profound and detailed, his singers showing a deep understanding of both the musical- and verbal text. Their performance was superb.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Nicholas Clapton, Jonathan Watts and Jenny Ward Clarke perform at Dartingon Hall,Devon,UK

Works by Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725) and Henry Purcell (1659-1695) were performed by countertenor Nicholas Clapton, Jonathan Watts (harpsichord) and Jenny Ward Clarke (Baroque ‘cello) in the Great Hall, Dartington Hall, Devon (UK) July 26, 2009.

Nicholas Clapton was born in Worcester, UK, and has pursued an international career in opera, oratorio and recital. His repertoire includes the heroic castrato repertoire, contemporary music and he has long been a pioneer in the performance of Romantic music for the countertenor. A professor at the Royal College of Music and at the Budapest Academy of Music, Clapton is one of today’s finest and most wide-ranging countertenors.

Welsh-born Jonathan Watts has studied early keyboard techniques but he is equally at home with classical piano works, organ- and harpsichord music. Trained at both Cardiff and Oxford Universities, Watts accompanies singers, instrumentalists and choirs and directs musical theatre.

Jenny Ward Clarke has been a pioneer in the exploration of historical performance practice in England. Also being active in contemporary performance, she was a founding member of The Fires of London and the London Sinfonietta. She has taught at the Menuhin School, Trinity College, the Royal College and the Royal Academy of Music in London.

A fitting opening to the concert was “’Tis Nature’s Voice” from Purcell’s “Hail, Bright Cecilia”, a work set to a poem by the Reverend Nicholas Brady, in which he praises St. Cecilia, music and the instruments of music. “’Tis Nature’s Voice” tells of the affects of music: to move the heart, to “strike the ear”, to garner the emotions and to “captivate the mind”. This was followed by Purcell’s ground bass masterpiece “O Solitude, My Sweetest Choice” (c.1687) translated from a French text by the English poetess Katherine Philips. Purcell’s melody is fashioned over some surprising harmonic changes that color the melodic line and connect it to the text. Clapton’s performance, set against the mesmerizing and mellifluously unrelenting ostinato, draws his listeners into the introverted, sweet sadness and word-painting of the song.

The artists performed two of A. Scarlatti’s secular cantatas – “Clori vezzosa e bella” (Charming, beautiful Chloris) and “Mi ha diviso il cor dal core” (Our hearts are rent asunder) – both works focusing on the anguish of love. Although his reputation rests on his operas, A.Scarlatti’s (some 500 solo voice) cantatas were held in high value by cognoscenti of the time, secular cantatas at that time being more popular in Italy than sacred cantatas, the intimacies of the cantata enabling these erudite listeners to pick up the subtleties present in them. In his program notes, Clapton mentions that most of the A.Scarlatti cantatas would have been sung by castrati “whose inimitably high chest voice would have produced a clarion timbre far more powerful than any falsettist”. Here was a fine opportunity to hear these not-often-enough performed chamber works. Against the descending chromatic scales that spell despair, Clapton is compelling, with the basso continuo adding their melodic line to his expressiveness.

Jonathan Watts played Henry Purcell’s Suite no. 8 in F major Z 669. These eight harpsichord suites were published posthumously in 1696 by Purcell’s widow and Henry Playford and dedicated to Princess Anne of Denmark. The volume includes a table of graces and ornaments used at the time. The four short movements of Suite no. 8 form a suite of simple style and some use “style brise” (“broken style”, an arpeggiated texture in keyboard music suggesting lute figuration.) The final movement, a humble Minuet (taken from the composer’s incidental music to “The Double Dealer” of 1693), gives the top line the melody throughout. Watts’ delicate and articulate reading of the work provided a welcome relief from the heartrending outpourings of most of the vocal works on the program.

The program ended with Henry Purcell’s highly tragic soprano solo “Incassum, Lesbia, rogas” (The Queen’s Epicedium) published in 1695 by Henry Playford as one of “Three Elegies upon the Much Lamented Loss of our Late Most Gracious Queen Mary”. The text is by “Mr. Herbert” (possibly Robert Herbert) but the author of the Latin version is not known. Queen Mary II had been greatly loved by her subjects.
‘The Queen, alas, the Queen of Arcady is dead!
O loss inexpressible!
Not by sighs nor groans,
Nor even the plaintive unquiet sobbing of the heart.
Poor Arcadians, so much you mourn!
The joy of your eyes is torn from your sight,
Never, oh never to return.
Her fixed star shines beyond the heavens.’
Clapton guides his listener through the ornate and passionate declamatory of this epicedium (funeral lament.) The vocal part includes wide leaps and a large range, large both vocally and emotionally. Purcell’s writing is innovative: it is daringly dissonant and he gives the poetic text accessibility through rhythmic shifts. Clapton’s dynamic range and palette of vocal colors give life to both the pastoral imagery as well as to the anger and despair expressed in the work; his pianissimo moments are as moving and dramatic as the fortissimo parts.

As an encore, Purcell’s “An Evening Hymn” on a ground (text William Fuller) provided a tranquil and poignant end to the program.