Wednesday, February 1, 2012

David Shemer performs Bach's Goldberg Variations at Christ Church,Jerusalem

Christ Church in Jerusalem’s Old City was the venue for a festive concert coinciding with the launching of a CD of J.S.Bach’s Goldberg Variations BWV 988, played on the harpsichord by conductor and Baroque specialist David Shemer, a leading figure in Israel’s early music scene. Dr. David Shemer is the founder and musical director of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra. Born in Riga, Latvia, Shemer graduated from the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, then specializing in Baroque performance practice in London, where he studied with renowned teachers, such as Christopher Kite, Jill Severs, Trevor Pinnock and Philip Pickett. A Doctor of Musical Arts was conferred on him by the University of New York at Stony Brook. A member of several chamber ensembles, Shemer teaches, holds master classes and performs widely.

Maestro Shemer opened the event with a few words to the audience. He talked of the disc as being the result of many years’ work and of the fact that it is the first to be issued on the JBO’s own label;he mentioned that more recordings are under way on the JBO label. He thanked the people of Christ Church for their cooperation over the period of recording the Goldberg Variations there, thanking Mrs. Sara Piro, director of the JBO, for her massive involvement in the project, musicians Elam Rotem and Yizhar Karshon for their guidance and advice throughout recording, Sharon Asis for her superb design of the disc cover and Avi Elbaz for his work as recording engineer.

I heard David Shemer performing the Goldberg Variations in 2008; at St. Andrews Scots Memorial Church, he performed the work on his double-manual Skowroneck harpsichord, as he did in the above-mentioned performance, on January 31st 2012. An aria with 30 variations, the Goldberg Variations were first published in 1741 and belong to the last series of keyboard music published by Bach under the title of “Clavierübung” (Keyboard Practice). It was the largest of all Clavier pieces written in the Baroque period and is considered by some scholars to sum up the entire history of Baroque variation. Mystery surrounds the real inspiration behind Bach’s composing of the work and why the composer, indeed, chose the variation form at a time when variations were written mostly for pedagogical use. The German galant-style Aria that opens and closes the work appears in Book 2 of the 1725 Clavierbüchlein (Little Clavier Book) for Anna Magdalena Bach. Copied in her hand, it bears the name of no composer. Based on this single ground bass theme, the variations display Bach’s boundless knowledge of all styles of the day; they also say much about his own performance ability: the work presents an extraordinary variety of seemingly insurmountable technical challenges.

With Shemer beginning to present the Aria, one’s visual focus lessened as the artist took his audience into the world of sounds, into the layers of the work’s text. Taking his time to spell out the contemplative, detailed meaning of the Aria, Shemer allowed the melodic course (right hand) of the Aria the freedom to defy the rhythmic basis of the left hand. Shemer’s performance then guided the audience across the broad canvas of the work as his tirelessly enquiring approach sought out the musical nucleus of each movement. The importance of chromatics and foreign notes was ever drawn to our attention as were the expressive powers of gentle, rhythmic flexing. The richness of Bach’s counterpoint flowed in a myriad of textures, flamboyant passagework and hand-crossing trickery; some movements proceeded attacca (without a break) keeping the level of excitement high; others demanded a second or two of silence in order to deliver a very different, new musical message. Lyrical movements, such as Variation 15, opened up space following intense textures; in Variation XV, one was invited to luxuriate in beautifully singing voices, the highest of them leading upwards to a breathtakingly high end. This was followed by a tight, muscular Variation 16 (Ouverture). Poignant moments contrasted with humorous moments as the work spiraled to dizzying heights of tension and technical acrobatics, almost shocking the mind in the layered trilling of Variation 28 and the clanging of bells and fast passagework of Variation 29. Then, that strange creature, the Quodlibet, cleverly constructed of strands of humorous German folksongs, reared its enigmatic head. Shemer gave it energy, steering well clear of cheap humor or sentimentality. And there again was the opening Aria, suddenly back upon us…like a moment of truth…compelling and thought-provoking, Shemer reminding us of where this mammoth set of variations had originated, a rare, intimate moment, ornamented anew, performed with sincerity and humility.

Playing J.S.Bach’s Goldberg Variations is surely one of the most meaningful high moments in the performing life of any harpsichordist. It was a privilege to be present at this event.

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