Saturday, January 14, 2012

The PHOENIX Ensemble performs Haydn on period instruments

The setting was Christ Church, close to the Jaffa Gate within Jerusalem’s Old City. The oldest Protestant church in the Middle East, its imposing white structure was built from 1840 to 1849. The pleasing and serene interior of the church was decked with tens of flickering candles for the evening’s event - “Arianna a Naxos” - a concert of music of Joseph Haydn, performed by the PHOENIX Ensemble (director: Myrna Herzog) January 5th 2012. Those performing were Karen Shifrin-mezzo-soprano, Avner Geiger-Baroque flute, Alex Rosenblatt-fortepiano and Dr. Myrna Herzog-Baroque ‘cello.

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) wrote at least 45 keyboard trios, of which we were to hear two of the three specifically scored for piano, flute and ‘cello (for Hob.XV:17, Haydn suggested either flute or violin, with piano and ‘cello). All the above three trios were composed in 1790 and presented to London publisher John Bland, who had earlier visited the composer at the Esterhazy estate in western Hungary in order to commission him to write three piano trios in which the flute was to replace the violin. Keyboard trios, i.e. works for piano with a treble and bass melody instrument, were in great demand for domestic music-making. The genre had formerly been considered an extension of the keyboard sonata, but with Haydn’s concept of the medium broadening during the 1780s, he began writing works giving what had been the “accompanying” melody parts original material of their own. In the Trio in G major, Hoboken XV:15, we sense a new approach to equality of roles, with the flute free to introduce themes and add constant interest; the ‘cello, however, fairly much follows the keyboard bass line. The PHOENIX players took listeners right into the very essence of these trios, presenting the myriad of details and gestures of the score clothed in intensity, good taste, Haydnesque humor and directness of human emotions. The very distinctive timbre and character of the Baas square fortepiano takes the audience into the sound world and musical climate of London house concerts of the 1790s; under Alex Rosenblatt’s fingers, the fiery instrument was “tamed” into articulate and virtuosic expression and joyousness. Avner Geiger’s performance was well shaped, mellifluous and whole-souled, with Herzog’s playing supportive of the keyboard and flute, finding delicate balance at all times. Repeats held small surprises, enhanced by subtle hesitations issuing them in. Our ears were titillated with the very distinctive sound qualities of each of the three instruments, the players’ sensitive balance and attention to each other luring the listener into a bewitching soundscape.

Information sent by Myrna Herzog prior to the event gave prospective concert-goers some valuable background information regarding Haydn’s “Arianna a Naxos” Cantata a voce sola Hoboken XXVIb:2, composed 1789-1790 to an anonymous Italian text. Herzog explained Haydn’s use of the Italian form of the name – Arianna - as due to the fact that Haydn would have attended operas in Vienna based on the same story by composers such as Carlo Agostino Badia and Nicolo Porpora and, of course, he would have been familiar with Monteverdi’s “L’Arianna” (1608). It turns out that Porpora was a music master at the Imperial Court of Vienna from 1752-1753 where the young Haydn was employed as his valet and accompanist. Haydn’s “Arianna” took London by storm in 1791, the soloist having possibly been the castrato Gasparo Pacchierotti. At a performance of “Arianna a Naxos” for Lord Nelson at the Esterhazy palace, Haydn himself accompanied the cantata on the fortepiano. We know from Haydn’s letters that the composer saw “my favorite Arianna” as one of his finest works.

The cantata is scored for voice and keyboard. (Haydn did not carry out his original intention of orchestrating it later on.) The work consists of two alternating, highly expressive recitatives and two arias, portraying the plight of the Greek heroine who begins by singing of her absent love.
‘Theseus, my love! Where are you?
I thought you were beside me,
But it was a sweet, false dream’
As the work progresses, Arianna gradually realizes the tragic plight of her being deserted and isolated, with her final outburst taking the form of an aria in the dramatic key of F minor.
‘Poor abandoned one, no one can console me.
The one I love so much is fleeing,
Barbarous and unfaithful.’
Jerusalem-born mezzo-soprano Karin Shifrin’s creamy, rich voice is stable in all registers; her general perspective of the text, its plot and musical development were reflected in her facial- and musical expression. Shifrin and Rosenblatt gave a flexible, hand-in-glove performance of the work, Rosenblatt wielding the fortepiano part strategically as the plot moved from joy, to urgency, to hope and finally to despair. Yet the artists held each mood under control, at no stage overstepping the bounds of good taste, the audience moving with them, experiencing and identifying with the hopelessness of Arianna’s predicament and with the finality of fate.

The concert ended with five of the English Canzonets Haydn set to words of the poetess Anne Hunter. The daughter of military surgeon Robert Hume, Anne Hunter (1742-1821) began publishing lyrical, nature poetry at a young age, eventually also writing melodies to some poems. After her marriage to a renowned London surgeon, she mixed with fashionable circles in London, one close friend being Haydn; her lyrics led the composer to write fourteen English salon songs, a genre to which he was partial (much of what Haydn composed in London was aimed at domestic music-making); the texts for at least nine were written by Hunter. Her poems meet the expectations of the style and bounds within which women writers were expected to express themselves in the late 18th century – propriety, modesty and understatement. The first set of Haydn’s English Canzonettas was published in 1794, the second in the following year. The American musicologist H.C.Robbins Landon, a Haydn scholar, wrote that it seemed clear that “Haydn’s intention was to compose technically easy songs which could be sung at sight by any educated music lover and played at the piano prima vista by the average lady of musical inclination.” Composed for voice and keyboard, the PHOENIX Ensemble added the flute and ‘cello to the fortepiano instrumentation, the result being a lushness of texture more than pleasing together with Karin Shifrin’s buoyant singing. Shifrin and the instrumentalists addressed the subject and spirit of each song, Shifrin’s performance of them well shaped, communicative and in keeping with their dignity. The PHOENIX artists opened with the playful, canonic “Mermaid’s Song”. In “The Wanderer”, Geiger’s introduction and subsequent ornamenting of it (later as an interlude) added beauty to the tragic undertones of the song, its gloomy intensiveness perpetuated by Haydn’s use of the lowered second step of the scale.
‘To wander alone when the moon, faintly beaming
With glimmering lustre, darts thro’ the dark shade,
Where owls seek for covert, and nightbirds complaining
Add sound to the horror that darkens the glade.’
Shifrin’s excellent English diction and slight flexing of rhythms allowed listeners to make what they wanted of the much-loved and decidedly feminine, strophic “Pastoral Song”, where the somewhat melancholy text is married to a cheerful melody. The keyboard part is lively and demanding, with only the most subtle harmonic hints as to the poem’s sadness.

“The Spirit’s Song” conveys Hunter’s Romantic concept of life after death; Haydn’s eerie introduction and imaginative keyboard writing take the listener by surprise, its message underlined by such effects as his sudden use of unison in “My spirit wanders free”. In the jolly “Sailor’s Song” (text anonymous), Shifrin uses the text’s consonants well to match Haydn’s onomatopoeic keyboard effects of bugles, cannons, rattling ropes, etc.

Hearing Haydn played on period instruments was a rare pleasure, this certainly enhanced by the fine acoustic of Christ Church. Once again, PHOENIX players offered audiences a high quality, new and enriching listening experience. People interested in historical instruments should not miss hearing the Baas fortepiano, its temperament (in more than one meaning of the word) daring and alluring. Avner Geiger, a newcomer to PHOENIX, is well suited to the ensemble’s enterprising musical approach. Karin Shifrin’s singing of these Haydn works is not to be missed.

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