Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra presents a program of "Sacred and Secular Dances" and more

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra presented a concert of “Sacred and Secular Dances” at the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship of the Jerusalem International YMCA February 23rd 2010. Guest artists were conductor and violinist Walter Reiter (UK) and soprano Revital Raviv (Israel). Works were performed on strings and theorbo (Bari Moskovich), with the JBO’s musical director, Dr. David Shemer, at the harpsichord.

The program opened with Johann Heinrich Schmelzer’s (c.1629-1680) “Musikalische Fechtschule” (Musical Fencing School). Schmelzer, a highly influential Austrian instrumental composer and brilliant violinist, was the first non-Italian to be Capellmeister in Vienna. In addition to three collections of chamber music, he composed much ballet music to be used for entertainment at the court of Leopold I from 1665 to 1680. The “Musical Fencing School” was probably written as a ballet. Its programmatic content adds a whimsical layer to the dance suite: in the penultimate movement, titled “Fechtschule”, the violinists’ part suggests swordplay, with the final aria describing the bathhouse attendant! Composed in 1668 or 1669, the suite is typical of its times, in its vivid style (Musica representativa). Reiter’s reading of it was highly shaped, elegant and precise and with the crafted, fragile delicacy of string playing we were to hear throughout the evening.

Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644-1704), also a celebrated violin virtuoso, was a pupil of Schmelzer. His twelve “Fidicinium Sacro-Profanum Sonatas” (c.1682) present somewhat of a conundrum. Commissioned by the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg Maximilian Gandolph von Kuenburg, the cover of the volume reads “Music sacred and profane for stringed instruments, arranged with art for the court and for the church.” Sonata no. 1 in B minor, scored for two violins, two violas and continuo, with its imposing opening, is serious but never solemn, and brings to mind a new emphasis on harmony. Reiter and Dafna Ravid took the solo violin parts. Reiter then performed Biber’s Passacaglia for (unaccompanied) Solo Violin in G minor (c.1676). This sonata belongs to the Mystery Sonatas, most of which are violin sonatas, the basis of this passacaglia being a deceivingly simple descending tetrachord. (The four-note motif may possibly be a reference to the traditional hymn to the Guardian Angel.) Reiter’s playing puts emphasis on the personal and intimate character of the piece, its contrasts, moods and textures and he provides the “space” necessary to express them. Yes, it is certainly a showcase for virtuoso musicianship, with the passacaglia motif breaking up the 65 statements grouped into five sections, but Reiter takes an introspective approach. The audience was moved.

The subject of “Sacred and Secular Dances” sets one thinking. The question of whether a composer like Biber was concerned with the sacred or the profane was not an uncommon one of the time; the transference from one style to the other was also common practice.

The second half of the concert combined the JBO’s commemoration in the 2009-2010 season of 350 years of Purcell’s birth with the 250th anniversary of Handel’s death.

Henry Purcell’s (1659-1695) masque “The Fairy Queen” (1692) is a setting of an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. In the excerpts chosen from the semi-opera, Reiter presents Purcell’s distinctive sparkle and vitality while identifying strongly with the composer’s daring musical imagination. Soprano Revital Raviv’s singing of arias boasts pleasing voval color and stability and true understanding of the style and text; her convincing expression of the words provides a fitting partner to Reiter’s elegant phrasing. Raviv’s English is decidedly British and articulate.
‘O, let me forever weep:
My eyes no more shall welcome sleep.
I’ll hide me from the sight of Day,
And sigh, and sigh my Soul away.
He’s gone, he’s gone, his loss deplore;
And I shall never see him more.’ (Plainte)

It is not known for what occasion Purcell composed his Chacony in G minor (originally for 4-part viol consort); it is, however, thought to have been written around 1678. David Shemer writes the following: “An article by our colleague, the Israeli musicologist Alon Schav, which is about to be published, corrects some long standing errors in the printed editions of the piece. We are proud to be among the first who perform the work in its corrected version.” Reiter, inviting the audience to revel in the harmonies in the Chacony, refers to Purcell as the “Schoenberg of the 17th century”. Taking a musical form that is relatively new in England, Purcell uses each of his variation techniques twice and, indeed, stretches the limits of harmonic imagination. Reiter’s dynamic range lures, involves and transports his listeners every time.

Revital Raviv performed two Italian, secular arias by Handel. Georg Frideric Handel (1685-1759) composed “Orlando” for the Royal Academy of Music in 1719. Shepherdess Dorinda’s pastoral aria “Quando Spieghi” (When You Recount Your Torments) from this opera is full of poetic phrasing and imagery, with Dorinda talking to a bird in the trees whose singing describes her own pain. Raviv’s silky cantabile hues and expressiveness are both delicate and intense. Her singing evokes the bird’s song. In “Da Tempeste” (When the Ship, Broken by Storms) from “Giulio Cesare” (1724), Raviv takes on the character of the wily, seductive and saucy Cleopatra, savoring the long phrases, melismas and ornaments of the aria with feisty joy, as did the audience. Not to be ignored in this piece is Handel’s extraordinary orchestration, addressed in detail by Reiter.

The concert ended with Handel’s Concerto Grosso Opus 6 no.4. Handel composed his 12 Opus 6 Concerti Grossi in the space of a month in the Autumn of 1739, his choice of 12 works probably reflecting a gesture of respect towards Corelli’s influential Concerti Grossi Opus 6. It is Reiter’s belief that these Handel pieces would have been performed by a large group of players. The concertino consists of two violins and a ‘cello. As throughout the evening, Reiter both conducted and played, often conducting the first notes before beginning to play. Textural, dynamic and melodic contrasts made for delightful listening.

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra attracts some of today’s finest soloists and conductors. Programs are fresh, balanced and alive with interest and variety, introducing concert audiences to a host of wonderful Baroque works not heard here as yet.

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