Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The New Israeli Vocal Ensemble sings Brahms and more

The final performance of the New Israeli Vocal Ensemble’s second concert for the 2011-2012 season, “The Fascinating World of Brahms”, took place at the Jerusalem Khan Theatre February 4th 2012. It was conducted by the ensemble’s founder and musical director Yuval Ben Ozer.

The program opened with the “Sanctus” from G.P.da Palestrina’s (1525/6-1594) “Missa Papae Marcelli”, the most talked-about of the composer’s 104 Masses, due to the various stories surrounding it. The NIVE singers, spread around the stage not in voice sections, shed light on the work’s liturgical clarity, refinement and contrasts; the singers’ clean, rich vocal blend was not marred by vibrato, allowing for verbal audibility. This work was followed by J.S.Bach’s (1685-1750) motet “Lobet den Herrn” (Praise the Lord) (Psalm 117:1-2). Actually, there is some doubt as to the authorship of the work, despite the original being in Bach’s hand. An extremely challenging work for singers, its style mostly more instrumental in nature than vocal, it falls into three sections, the first and last both joyful and densely contrapuntal. Ben Ozer’s sensible choice of tempo (in contrast to the breakneck speeds in many of today’s recordings) presented light, clean passagework, contrast and fine collaboration between voices.

In his setting for women’s voices of Psalm 23 “Gott ist mein Hirt” (The Lord is my shepherd) D706 (1820), either commissioned or requested by Anna Fröhlich, a singing teacher at the Vienna Conservatorium, Franz Schubert (1797-1828) used philosopher Moses Mendelssohn’s German translation. The piece, justifiably, quickly became popular with the Viennese public, being much performed during the composer’s lifetime. Accompanied by Timur Shapira at the piano, the women members of the ensemble created the piece’s tranquil, pastoral atmosphere, from its florid opening textures to comforting stability reflected in Schubert’s word-painting in passages such as of “Thy rod and staff”. The audience enjoyed the feminine, silvery, carefully crafted sound of the singers and Shapira’s close attention to text, singers and the atmosphere of the piece. German pronunciation was mostly good.

Heinrich Schütz’ (1585-1672) 40 “Cantiones Sacrae” (1625) draw on meditative texts. The continuo plays a minor part in them, having been added at the request of a publisher, enabling the singers to focus on the counterpoint, chromaticism and intense expressivity of the music. Motets no. 63 and 64 pair well together, their texts both being from Song of Songs. The challenge in these two motets is to strike a fine balance between music that is sacred and biblical and the highly expressive, erotic love poetry of the Song of Songs.
‘I slept but my heart was awake.
Listen! My lover is knocking: “Open to me, my sister, my darling, my dove, my flawless one.
My head is drenched with dew, my hair with the dampness of the night.’ (Song of Songs 5:2)
Ben Ozer uses a light touch to evoke the texts, encourages transparency, much expression and an effective use of consonants to fire key words. In motet no.64 we heard some of the more intimate moments sung by small groups of singers.

And to the Brahms content of the concert: unbeknown to the audience seated in the Khan Theatre, they were to hear the Israeli premiere of a Brahms piano piece. The miniature in A minor, titled “Albumblatt” (Album Leaf) by the 20-year-old Brahms in 1853, written in full (not as a sketch), was discovered by conductor and scholar Christopher Hogwood in a book that had belonged to the director of music in Göttingen. Andras Schiff made the first recording of it in January 2012. Timur Shapira’s poignant playing of this single page of music created a hauntingly Brahmsian mood, despite limitations of the Khan’s piano, which has seen and heard better days.

Maestro Ben Ozer spoke of the influence earlier styles and musical forms had on Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). In fact, Brahms’ impressive output of a cappella sacred choruses and motets makes learned and creative reference to such Baroque masters as Gabrieli, Schütz and Bach. Add to this his skill in the writing of the unaccompanied Romantic choral song – the “Chorlied”. Motet opus 74 no.1 “Warum ist das Licht gegeben” (Wherefore is light given to him that is in misery), published 1879, is a fine example of this and is considered by some scholars to be the composer’s greatest a cappella work. It is an exemplary piece of canonic writing. (Brahms, a North German Protestant by birth, was an agnostic and had shed his Christian upbringing early on; he did occasionally use biblical texts, mostly choosing those to do with death, where he steered well clear of verses explicit to the Christian dogma, the resurrection, etc.) Clearly modeled on works of this kind of Bach, also concluding with a Lutheran chorale, there is no coincidence in the fact that Brahms dedicated the two opus 74 motets to the general editor of the Complete Bach Edition, published during Brahms’ lifetime, and to which he subscribed. In this verse motet, the subject is Brahms and death, with texts taken from both Old and New Testaments; they reflect the composer’s own innate pessimism and melancholy. The NIVE gave a sensitive and profound reading of the piece, beginning with the repeated and agonizing “Warum” (Why). Each verse brings a change of color, Brahms’ six-voiced counterpoint in the second- and third sections presented in articulate detail; the Lutheran chorale in the style of Bach was pleasing and satisfying in its rich, flowing melodic-harmonic course, ending on an optimistic D major chord.

Brahms’ “Lieder” opus 104 songs written for a cappella choir, most of which being scored for six voices (the doubling of altos harking back to the sonority of his predilection), are a gloomy expression of acceptance of the composer’s own mortality. They are Brahms’ last secular choral works. The NIVE gave a poignant and shaped reading of the first three songs of the cycle, infusing them not only with the lush tonings of Romantic vocal expression but with much attention to the poetic text – as in “seufzend” (sighing) in Nactwache I (Nightwatch) of Friedrich Rückert and the separating of one leaf from another in “Blatt um Blatt” from “Letztes Glück” (Last Happiness) of Max Kalbeck:
‘Leaf upon leaf floats lifelessly
Quietly and sadly from the trees;
Its hopes never satisfied,
The heart dwells in dreams of spring…’

Not long after composing the “German Requiem” Brahms conceived the “Schicksalslied” (Song of Destiny) opus 54 for mixed choir and orchestra; it takes its text from a poem by Friedrich Hölderlin. The poem deals with the contrast between the ideal, Elysian world of the gods and the perpetual struggle of mortals on earth. Brahms plays skillfully with color: the initially blissful and serene scene turns ominous and violent in order to depict the fate of mortals struggling with destiny. Brahms spent three years agonizing over the idea of the work ending with Hölderlin’s black, tragic vision.
‘Yet there is granted us no place to rest;
We vanish – we fall-
The suffering humans –
Blind from one hour to another,
Like water thrown from cliff to cliff,
For years into the unknown depths,’
The composer’s solution was to add a lengthy, calm and uplifting instrumental epilogue. The piano reduction we heard is Brahms’ own; altogether, the piano part is an equal partner in the task of presenting the musical and emotional course of the work; Shapira handled it convincingly. Singers and pianist set before us this unique work in a lucid mix of radiant tenderness, intense sorrow and demonic drama.

The New Israeli Vocal Ensemble presented an ambitious and highly interesting program, several of the works seldom (unjustifiably) heard on Israeli concert platforms. Ben Ozer’s work is detailed and searching, the singers’ control sometimes over-careful and limiting considering their overall excellence. Stronger singing from the basses would set up a more interesting play of tension between all voice sections, allowing for more personal spontaneity of expression. Kedem Berger’s program notes are detailed and informative.

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