Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Carmel Quartet at the Jerusalem Music Centre

The Carmel Quartet – violinists Rachel Ringelstein and Lia Raikhlin, violist Yoel Greenberg and ‘cellist Tami Waterman – opened its third season of narrated concerts - Strings and More - with “A Night at the Opera”. This writer joined the many people attending the evening narrated in English October 28th at the Jerusalem Music Centre. The subject of discussion centred around attitudes to vocal- versus chamber music, with W.A.Mozart’s Quartet in D minor, K.421 and G.Verdi’s Quartet in E minor on the program.

Yoel Greenberg opened his talk by reminding the audience of how Mozart had taken the galant style and turned it into a sophisticated language, not that all audiences of his time liked this complexity. W.A.Mozart’s (1756-1791) Six Quartets Dedicated to Haydn (published 1785), each constructed of four movements, are, indeed, formed according to Haydn’s new approach – that all instruments have much to say individually, not being subservient to the first violin. At a party in February 1785, Haydn spoke of Mozart as having “taste and, what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition.” Greenberg quoted J.J.Mattheson in his treatise “Der Vollkommene Kapellmeister”(1739) as having referred to vocal music as representing the “mother” guiding her “daughter” (instrumental music); he also mentioned J.G.Sulzer’s (1720-1779) writings on aesthetics referring to the powers of vocal music. Mozart arrived in Vienna in 1781, composing operas (and in need of the money they brought him) but he, nevertheless, devoted four years to writing instrumental music, heralding, in Greenberg’s words, the radical aesthetic shift viewed in the 19th century as confirmed in E.T.A.Hoffmann’s (1776-1822) writings. The listening public was to change its listening approach from seeking to “personify” each movement to listening to music bearing no programmatic content.

The Carmel Quartet then presented a performance of Mozart’s Quartet in D minor, K.421. The opening movement – Allegro moderato – with its falling octave motif was a canvas of well-defined singing melodic lines, vehemence and drama and a wealth of phrases boasting different characters. The Andante movement, its subject peppered with constant-, often harsh “interruptions”, was carefully paced, its dancelike gestures elegantly non legato; Rachel Ringelstein’s solo was expressive. The third movement, referred to by Greenberg as suggesting the vindictive world of Don Giovanni, was forthright and sinewy, contrasted well by the sweetness of the middle section spelled out freely. The subject of the fourth movement – Allegro ma non troppo - is a beautiful, lilting Siciliano, with the following variations a fine vehicle for the Carmel Quartet’s gamut of emotions and gestures. We were witness to several facets of Mozart’s personality – the elegant, humane and the daring, to name but a few.

Talking about 19th century Europe, Greenberg referred to the Germans (excepting Wagner) as writing few operas, with the Italians writing a great many works in the genre. (Donizetti had called his quartets “exercises”.) The quartet had now risen to the status of being the ultimate test in composing. However, Italians living under Austrian rule had an aversion to anything Viennese: for them, opera could express what instrumental music was incapable of doing. To transport the audience at the JMC to 19th century Italy Rachel Ringelstein sang a “La seduzione” -The Seduction - (text Luigi Balestra) , an early Giuseppe Verdi(1813-1901) art song with a verbal text more melodramatic than its music belies. Her performance of it was most pleasing.

By 1870, with Italy no longer ruled by Austria, Verdi felt free to write a quartet, his only surviving chamber work. It was written in Naples in 1873, when rehearsals of Aida were delayed due to the illness of one of the singers. Verdi, furtively feeling his way into this genre, initially as a private diversion, later agreed to have the quartet published and even arranged it for string orchestra. It is a substantial work in the chamber music repertoire, interesting in musical invention and structure. The Carmel Quartet’s reading of the work produced a rich and exciting performance of it, the opening movement’s nostalgic fragrance setting the scene. The quartet’s timing in the second movement – Andante – allowed for expression of its nostalgic, bittersweet and harmonically adventurous character. Tami Waterman’s playing of a singing, folk-like theme in the Prestissimo movement made for contrast in the middle section. Appreciating Verdi’s brilliant fugal writing of the final movement, the players emphasized the humorous and entertaining moments threaded through its complexity.

The Carmel Quartet’s four outstanding players read deeply into works they perform. Their stirring playing invariably involves their listeners, with the fine acoustics of the JMC auditorium encouraging each musical gesture. Yoel Greenberg is articulate, the quartet’s narrated concerts are well researched, informative and entertainingly presented.

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