Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Florilegium (UK) performs Baroque works at the 2011 Israel Festival

The Henry Crown Auditorium (Jerusalem Theatre) was the venue for a concert performed by Florilegium, the prestigious British ensemble, June 5th, as part of the 2011 Israel Festival. Co-founded by recorder-player and flautist Ashley Solomon in 1991, Florilegium focuses on music spanning from the Baroque to the Romantic period; the ensemble plays on period instruments. Performing widely, Florilegium is a flexible ensemble, presenting works for small chamber works to large-scale orchestral pieces and has been Ensemble in Association at the Royal College of Music since 2008. Director Ashley Solomon performs all over the world as a soloist but invests much of his energy nowadays in his work with Florilegium.

The program opened with Antonio Vivaldi’s (1678-1741) Concerto “Il Gran Mogol”, a flute concerto composed in the late 1720’s or early 1730’s as one work of a set of four concertos representing the culture of different countries. The other three have been lost; this concerto was also missing till 2010, when it was rediscovered in Scotland. A small gem, the concerto typifies Vivaldi’s vitality and sense of color. Florilegium’s reading of it allowed the temperament of its phrases to dictate movement and shape, Solomon’s mellifluous playing of the melodic line of the Larghetto movement elegant and fetching.

We then heard Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s (1710-1736) Salve Regina in C minor, a setting of a traditional Latin prayer and possibly the last work by the composer, written in a Franciscan monastery, where he spent the last two months of his short life. Joining Florilegium to perform the solo in this work was Canadian soprano Gillian Keith. An opera singer in demand, Keith also sings oratorio. Her performance of the Pergolesi Salve Regina was spiritual and compassionate, her lyrical, sweet-timbred voice, tempered with much vibrato (for Baroque music) supported by instrumental playing of real beauty. Also featuring Gillian Keith, we heard J.S.Bach’s (1685-1750) cantata “Ich habe genug” BWV 82a (It is enough). To an anonymous text based on a story in the Book of Luke, it was originally composed in 1727 for bass, oboe and strings; we heard the 1731 reworking of the cantata for soprano, flute and strings. An intimate work of religious conviction in the face of death, Keith’s performance of it was sympathetic and imbued with feeling and humility, her bright upper register boasting fine presence, her lower range somewhat less. In “Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen” (Close in sleep, you weary eyes), Keith’s meditative, tranquil reading of the aria reflected the timelessness and transcendence and hope evident in Bach’s own deeply religious existence. The audience was involved and enthusiastic.

G.F.Handel (1685-1759) is estimated to have written over 1000 da capo arias throughout his creative life. “Sweet Bird”, an aria for soprano and flute obbligato, is found in Part 1 of his oratorio “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato” (The Joyful Man and the Contemplative Man). Premiered in 1740, the work belongs to the period of Handel’s interest in large-scale English works and reflects his liking for pastoral imagery. Keith and Solomon play out the avian discourse, the flute’s birdlike warbling and slightly flexed comments filling each gesture with meaning, Keith’s crystalline timbre suited to bird imagery as she negotiates each leap with ease. Following the minor middle section, void of bird calls but upholstered with steadily pulsed chords on the strings, the artists profusely ornamented the da capo section. There was much charm in the performance of the work.
‘Sweet bird, that shun’st the noise of folly,
Most musical, most melancholy!
Thee, chauntress, oft the woods among,
I woo to hear thy even-song….’

Two of Henry Purcell’s (1659-1695) chaconnes provided a nice instrumental diversion from the vocal works on the program. Purcell was fascinated by the creative possibilities offered by works composed to a ground. In the Chacony in G minor (c.1678), based on an eight-bar ostinato, the ensemble, led articulately by first violinist Bojan Cicic, colored the variations with different instrumentations, creating constant interest and leaning into Purcell’s surprising harmonies based on altered notes. Moving swiftly into the Chaconne from “Timon of Athens”, Florilegium gave light and rhythmical expression to the frisky dancelike character, its economy of gestures adding to the ensemble’s sophisticated approach.

Of late, J.S.Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no.5 seems to have been the flavor of the month in Jerusalem, not a bad thing at all! Throughout much of the evening we heard South African-born Erik Dippenaar playing the organ. Here, he was at the harpsichord, joined by Solomon and Zagreb-born Cicic to form the concertino section. Florilegium’s playing of the opening Allegro was articulate, elegant and subtle. Dippenaar paced the start to the long cadenza carefully, allowing for breaths between the various sections of it, its virtuosity shining through the artist’s sincere and understated approach. The lightly scored Affetuoso was sensitive and gently swayed, the violin occasionally covering the flute. The closing Allegro movement was delicate and fragrant, its many-faceted texture delicate and transparent.

The Florilegium concert was surely one of the most enjoyable musical events of the 2011 Israel Festival, an evening appealing to the senses and to those seeking good taste and excitement in Baroque performance.

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