Thursday, December 17, 2009

Songs of Solomon and David - music of the Jews of northern Italy - S.Rossi and B.Marcello

A lecture-concert at Jerusalem’s Beit Avi Chai December 12th 2009 focused on the subject of “The Songs of Solomon and David”, music of the Golden Age of north Italian Jewry. Professor Michael Melzer discussed and presented works inspired by the harmonious synagogue music of Venice and Mantua of the 17th and 18th centuries. Performing with him were soprano Yeela Avital, countertenor David Feldman, tenor Ya’acov Halperin and bass Yair Polishook; Yael Melzer and Michael Melzer played recorders, Amit Tiefenbrunn viol and Yizhar Karshon played spinet and organ.

The program consisted of instrumental- and vocal works by the Mantuan Jewish violinist, singer and composer Salamone Rossi Hebreo (c.1570-1630) and the Venetian composer Benedetto Marcello (1686-1739). Strange bedfellows? Well, not as strange as one might think. Melzer drew parallels and contrasts between the music of the two composers in a juxtaposition that offered a stimulating and enjoyable evening of music and ideas.

Marcello was born in Venice to a noble family. He combined a career in law and public service with music. The fact that he was financially secure meant that he felt no obligation to compose music that would prove “popular” to Venetian audiences. His oeuvre is diverse – church music, oratorios, hundreds of solo cantatas, duets, sonatas, concertos and sinfonias. He was, however, best known, during his lifetime and after his death, for his settings (using somewhat free Italian paraphrases by G.A.Guistiniani) of the first fifty Psalms, the work he called “Estro poetico-armonico” (Venice 1724-1727); the Psalms are scored for one to four solo voices with figured bass, with some pieces including solo instruments. In this collection, his last and most ambitious work, he used motifs from Venetian Jewish liturgy of his time, having heard music sung in the synagogues there. The texts are dominant, but the works themselves have much to offer to performers and listeners in a mix of sophisticated harmonies and counterpoint, melismas, modulations and dissonances. With his mission of reviving the “true” music of the Ancient World, Marcello advised that performance of the Psalms be “precise and without arbitrary ornament, particularly in the solo parts, keeping in mind that we are singing to God”… The performance at Beit Avi Chai, Melzer commented, would be the first of Marcello’s “Estro poetico-armonico” in Israel.

Serving at the court of the Gonzagas from 1587 to 1628, Rossi’s output includes sonatas and dances for string ensemble, madrigals, canzonettas, music for dramatic productions at Mantua and Psalms to the Hebrew texts. Rossi has been referred to as the “father of the trio sonata”. Despite his being a court composer, (he was exempted by his Christian patrons from wearing the badge of “shame”) Rossi lived in the Jewish ghetto of Mantua, as did his sister, a successful singer known as “Madame Europa”. An innovator in his instrumental music, Rossi was the first Jew to compose, perform and publish polyphonic settings of synagogue liturgy for mixed choir.

The concert opened with a Sinfonia and Galiarda by Rossi, performed on recorders, with basso continuo. In Rossi’s Sonata sopra la Bergamesca (the Bergamesca was a popular repeated bass line in Europe), the artists colored the variations with ornaments and differing textures. In his Sonata sopra l’aria di Ruggiero (the Ruggiero ground bass, in a major scale, consists of four short phrases) the players entertained the audience well, addressing the virtuosic nature of Rossi’s instrumental writing. Melzer, introducing another pair of court dances on the program, mentioned that some of the dances (despite their being composed for the entertainment at the Gonzago court) had been named after certain people in the Jewish ghetto of Mantua. The pleasing performance of these lilting galliards was supported by elegant and attentive continuo playing on the part of Tiefenbrunn and Karshon.

Rossi’s “Ha-shirim asher le-Shlomo” (The Songs of Solomon) were published in 1623. The 33 motets, set for from three to eight voices, include Psalms, hymns and prayers for Sabbath and holyday services as well as one wedding ode. The pieces, though reverential, are predominantly homophonic, polyphonic, decidedly early Baroque-style works, lacking in any association to traditional synagogue music, save the Hebrew texts. In publishing this work, Rossi relied on the spiritual support of his friend Rabbi Leone Modena (1571-1648), who issued a responsum in 1605, approving polyphonic singing in the synagogue. The “Ha-Shirim asher le-Shlomo” collection does not, in fact, include any texts from the biblical “Song of Solomon”, leading musicians to suppose that the title is actually a play on words referring to Rossi’s first name. We heard Keter (Kedusha) and Psalm 67 performed by the vocal quartet. (It is supposed that the songs were first performed by four singers only.) We heard fine choral singing, a combination of articulate, expressive melodic strands combined with rich, unaffected harmonies.

One hundred years after Rossi, Marcello’s Psalm settings present an entirely different musical approach. Melzer pointed out Marcello’s late Baroque less harmonioustendencies, his inclusion of dissonances and of unconventional harmonic turns. This non-conservative approach can be seen in Marcello’s choice of problematic verbal texts. Take, for example, Psalm 42, an expression of spiritual depression. Yair Polishook, in his solo performance of it, utilized his rich palette of vocal colors and agility to present a convincing reading of this theatrical piece, with its drama and mood changes. Marcello’s instrumental interludes added interest.

Most of Psalm 22 expresses David’s agony and suffering.
.. ‘Roaring lions tearing their prey
Open their mouths wide against me.

I am poured out like water,
And all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
It has melted away within me….’

With orchestration changing from one small section to the next, Marcello does not shy away from strange instrumental writing. The final melody of this miniature drama comes from Ashkenazi synagogue liturgy. The work was sung by countertenor David Feldman. His voice is mellifluous and pleasing. In this personal and vehement outpouring of the soul, however, he holds back, somewhat too unflustered by what he is expressing.

Psalm 37 compares the fate of godless people to that of the righteous. The vocal quartet performed with organ accompaniment, the singers’ articulate phrasing and expressiveness drawing out the polyphonic dimensions of the piece. Yeela Avital’s bell-like timbre and sense of the authentic quality of Baroque music never fails to delight her audience. A new face was young tenor Ya’acov Halperin, a student of the vocal faculty of the Jerusalem Academy of Music.

Michael Melzer’s lecture-concerts are highly enjoyable, well presented, informal yet well researched and accessible to audiences. A printed program would be still an advantage to those present.


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