Saturday, December 25, 2010

Jonathan Zak and Yossi Gutmann perform at the Felicja Blumenthal Music Center Tel Aviv

Pianist Jonathan Zak and violist Yossi Gutmann gave a recital December 18th 2010 at the Felicja Blumenthal Music Center, Tel Aviv.

Jonathan Zak, born in Israel and a graduate of the Julliard School of Music (New York) has performed as soloist with all Israel’s major orchestras and as an instrumental- and vocal accompanist in Israel, the USA, Europe and South America. He was one of the founders of the renowned “Yuval” Trio, performs regularly with pianist Irena Friedland, has recorded extensively and serves on the jury of international competitions. Professor Zak teaches chamber music and vocal accompaniment at the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music (Tel Aviv).

Born in Tel Aviv, Yossi Gutmann was brought to Europe by Yehudi Menuhin and studied there with Nadia Boulanger, Tibor Varga and Sergiu Celibidache. Former principal violist of the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Bayreuther Festspiele, the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra and the Amati Ensemble, Gutmann is presently focusing on solo performance. Gutmann made his American debut at the Orensanz Foundation concert 11th September 2010, where Tzvi Avni’s “Phoenix” had its USA premiere. The concert was cited by ArtForum as one of the top New York musical events of 2010. Gutmann is also involved in contemporary- and experimental music and in multimedia performances.

The program opened with J.S.Bach’s (1685-1750) Sonata in D major for viola da gamba and harpsichord BWV 1028. Bach’s three sonatas for viola da gamba and keyboard (BWV 1027-1029) have sometimes been attributed to Bach’s time in Cothen, where, as Kapellmeister, he had a small, outstanding ensemble of musicians at hand, but were more likely to have been composed in the Leipzig period in the early 1740’s, when he was occupied with the Collegium Musicum. The D major sonata, of the sonata da chiesa kind, is the most demanding of the three. Today, with much emphasis placed on authentic performance, with so many artists performing the work on viol and harpsichord today, I was interested to hear Gutmann and Zak’s reading of it on piano and viola. From the opening Adagio, with the arioso melody passed from one instrument to the other, via the ornamented Allegro, varied in its textures, through the peaceful and introspective Andante, leading into the joyful Allegro, the artists never overstepped the boundaries of good taste, so much a part of Baroque music. Zak kept melodic lines crisp and pedal-free, with Gutmann using textures for contrast. The artists at no stage overloaded the sound; neither did they endeavor to imitate the timbre of historical instruments. The result was a balanced, elegant and convincingly enjoyable interpretation.

Robert Schumann’s (1810-1856) Maerchenbilder (Fairytale Pictures) for viola and piano opus 113 (1851), a relatively late work, comprising of four pieces, take the listener back to the composer’s earlier fantasy pieces and miniatures. Zak and Gutmann focus on the character and mood of each moment, coloring each vignette with Schumann’s paintbrush of lush color and rich textures, with sweeping melodic phrases of yearning, urgency, melancholy, pomp and lyricism, Schumann’s last chance to escape into the welcoming world of imagination in the wake of oncoming madness. The artists’ playing of these true gems was varied, descriptive and richly colored, yet carefully paced and objective.

Tzvi Avni (b.1927, Germany), one of Israel’s foremost composers and the recipient of several awards, among them the Israel Prize, composed “Phoenix” (2001) for solo viola as an expression of his personal shock and horror of the September 11th terror attacks. He had the idea of dedicating the work to Rudolph Giuliani, then the mayor of New York,whose actions, in the wake of the tragedy, were those of a great and optimistic leader. The phoenix, a legendary bird that can be reborn any number of times, is the symbol of hope in Avni's work. Avni and Gutmann met a year ago after many years during which their paths had not crossed. Tzvi Avni felt Gutmann had “the right kind of soul” to perform the work as he had intended it and presented him with the score. Gutmann played its USA premiere. Constructed of two short movements, the piece’s textures are terse and compelling. The first movement, moving in single- and double lines, stating phrases separated by rests,expresses sorrow and pain. In the second movement, still intense, at times energetic, at others, soul-searching, Avni’s message of optimism is present, his hope in a better world coming from positive energies and actions. Gutmann’s performance of this sensitive and personal work was profound and detailed, its tragic tableau carefully and caringly spelled out.

By the time Franz Schubert’s (1797-1828) Sonata for Arpeggione and Piano D821 (1824) was published in 1871, the instrument for which it had been written – the arpeggione, a fretted instrument held between the knees, in effect, a large, bowed guitar with a warm sound quality – had descended into obscurity. Possibly the only significant work written for the instrument, Schubert made good use of its arpeggiating ability and extensive range; his dynamic markings in the score rarely reach higher than “piano”. To avoid an excess of leger lines and changes of clef, Schubert wrote the arpeggione part almost exclusively in the treble clef, demanding the player read it down an octave. Nowadays performed on a variety of instruments, the Arpeggione lends itself especially well to the tonality of the viola. Following the wistful opening Allegro moderato, we were treated to a cantabile, pensive Adagio, in which the artists made use of the most delicate of pianissimo tonings, the final Allegro, reminding us that Schubert was Austrian, creating a sense of well-being. Gutmann and Zak give Schubert’s score first consideration; their playing of it, not ignoring its virtuosic quality, is fine, noble and unmannered and (thankfully) free of the extravagances of license taken by too many performers of the work.

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