Monday, June 27, 2011

The Carmel Quartet winds up its 2010-2011 lecture-concert season with "Simply Serenades"

The Carmel Quartet closed its 2010-2011 season of Commentated Concerts with “Simply Serenades”, the English language lecture-concert taking place June 22nd 2011 at the Jerusalem Music Centre. With the audience seated, lights were dimmed and the evening began with a slide show displaying several paintings of well-known artists titled “The Serenade”. These were shown to the strains of “Oh, Come to the Window” the serenade from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”, a genuine old-fashioned serenade to a plucked accompaniment. The audience was now in the right frame-of-mind to hear more about the genre, with the help of violist Yoel Greenberg and his co-players – violinists Rachel Ringelstein and Lia Rakhlin and ‘cellist Tami Waterman.

Greenberg referred to the “serenade” genre as not only a romantic song performed to the accompaniment of a plucked instrument but also as musical entertainment for parties and celebrations. Its etymological origins might have come from the same roots as “serene”; the serenade was also a form of “notturno”, “nocturne” or “Nachtmusik” – music to be played in the evening. Such music might be heard in the streets and parks of Vienna on summer evenings. In some serenades, such as the Hofstetter Serenade, (attributed to Haydn) an instrument, taking on the vocal role, might “sing” the melody. Greenberg referred to the serenade form as light, relaxed and easy-to-grasp, as “a musical greeting”. In 18th century Vienna (and some other cities in Europe) there was a serenade to match every occasion, many of these works being commissioned for specific events, such as weddings, public celebrations and private parties. This being the case, the serenade is a social and functional musical form, its length suiting the length of the occasion, its movements in accordance with the various activities of the occasion it accompanies. The serenade might start with a kind of march (Beethoven’s Serenade in D major for violin, viola and ‘cello opus 8 begins with a march; the first movement of Dvorak’s Serenade for Wind Instruments in D minor opus 44 is marked “Moderato, quasi Marcia”) or a fanfare to issue in important personages or guests.

Greenberg sees W.A.Mozart as the stage director of his Serenade no. 13 for Strings in G major K.525 (1787), a work more often referred to as “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” (A Little Night Music), its plan including gentle music, a small, intimate dance and joyful music to send the guests home in good spirits. The original second movement, a dance – probably a minuet and trio - was removed by someone in the 19th century and has subsequently been lost. Greenberg calls Mozart’s K.525 “a multi-contextual work, firmly embedded in the social reality of its time”, adding that the Mozart scholar Alfred Einstein spoke of it as “supreme mastery in the smallest possible frame”. The Carmel Quartet’s performance of the “Eine kleine Nachtmusik”, led by the singing violin of Rachel Ringelstein, was rich in melodiousness, fine detail, understated flexibility and human expression; the players’ use of light textures contrasted with resolute moments, Mozart’s humor and nobility of expression both present.

In the course of the turmoil of the 19th century, the changing of society, the scarcity of patrons and the focusing on highly personal emotions, the serenade should have disappeared. Greenberg, however, mentions the 19th century as seeing a renaissance of the serenade! He talked about Austrian composer Hugo Wolf (1860-1903), one of the greatest Lied composers whose “Italian Serenade” was the next work on the program. Greenberg, referring to him as the “quintessential Romantic”, spoke of Wolf’s bouts of depression alternating with periods of much composing, and his low self image. The composer worked as a teacher and music critic, having studied composition mostly on his own, a factor contributing to his originality and experimental approach. The Italian Serenade, an early work, composed within three days in 1887, was probably inspired by Josef Eichendorff’s “Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts” (From the Life of a Ne’er-Do-Well), the central figure of the novella being a talented, well-meaning musician, but a somewhat pathetic character. It seems Wolf identified with the novella’s hero. We heard the fine soprano voice of Rachel Ringelstein in an appealing and whimsical performance of Wolf’s “Der Soldat I” (The Soldier) from the Eichendorff-Lieder. The song is quoted in the serenade.

‘Although my horse may not look so handsome,
He is actually quite clever
And will carry me through the dark to a certain little castle
Quickly enough.

Although the castle is not very splendid,
Out of her door and into the garden
Steps a maiden, who, all night,
Will be friendly to me.

And although this small girl
Is not the fairest in the world,
There is still no other
That I like better.

But if she speaks of marriage,
I’ll leap onto my horse –
I’ll stay free
And she’ll stay at the castle.’

Wolf’s “Italian Serenade”, constructed in a loose rondo form, presents the Romantic style peppered with the wit of the work’s programmatic content, its irony and “simplicity” the basis of the young man’s serenading of his lady. On hearing the work, Max Reger spoke of it as “of such an enchanting tonal charm, of such a captivating highly original color that it will certainly inspire the greatest enthusiasm…” The Carmel Quartet’s reading of the work reflected its humor and rhythmic interest, its entertaining and appealing qualities, its instrumental- and extra-musical agenda.

And to an even later serenade – Hungarian composer and conductor Erno Dohnanyi’s (1877-1960) Serenade for String Trio in C opus 10, composed in 1902 and premiered two years later in Vienna with considerable success. Greenberg spoke of Dohnanyi (Ernst von Dohnanyi) as one of the greatest pianists and teachers of his time and a prolific composer, writing in the conservative style. Dohnanyi had received much support from Brahms, and the Serenade recalls Brahms in sonority and structure. Greenberg calls this serenade a “19th century reference to an 18th century serenade”. The concise first movement, marked Marcia, presents a lively and varied canvas, its fragmented march reappearing in the last movement. The tender Romanza’s thought-provoking main melody was stated on the viola (Greenberg), its theme placed either side of a stormy section. A Scherzo followed, a demonic, virtuosic and intense piece, bristling with many ideas. The modal, plaintive Tema con Variazioni reminds us of Dohnanyi’s Hungarian roots, the Carmel players’ reading of it evocative, creating an almost visual landscape. In one of the variations, the violin “sings” a serenade to the pizzicato accompaniment of viola and ‘cello. A high-spirited Rondo movement ends the work. The players capture Dohnanyi’s melodic invention and build a soundscape of full Romantic harmonies with conviction, their performance crisp, muscular and warm.

The Carmel Quartet’s “Commentated Concerts” are an auspicious contribution to Israel’s concert scene, each concert focusing on a subject, each highly informative yet informally presented. Yoel Greenberg does most of the talking, with his co-players adding charming vignettes and touches. The English language lecture-concert offers much enjoyment and musical enrichment to Jerusalem’s English-speaking community. The Carmel Quartet’s high quality of musicianship always makes for fine listening.

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