Thursday, March 22, 2012

Notes from the 2012 Eilat Chamber Music Festival

Peacefully situated away from the bustling Eilat town centre, the Princess Hotel, surrounded by pine trees and well tended flower beds, tranquilly looking out onto the bluest sea, was the ideal setting for the 2012 Eilat Chamber Music Festival March 12th to 17th. In its seventh year, this unique Israeli festival was founded by Leonid Rozenberg, who remains its general director.
Despite Eilat’s beckoning blue skies and winter sunshine, the concerts (and two short lectures) drew music-lovers into the halls in a whirlwind of orchestral concerts, recitals, ensemble music and even opera. And, as befits the festival scene, we were presented with a new take on works familiar to many of us. This was the case in the orchestral concert (Concert no.6) performed by the Mokum Strings Orchestra from Amsterdam (Joan Berkhemer – conductor and violinist) March 15th. Beginning with an arrangement of César Franck’s Chorale in B minor no.2, I felt that Mokum’s cultured string orchestra performance did not reflect the excitement and brassy brilliance of the work on the pipe organ, for which it was written. Berkhemer’s 1992 arrangement of Franz Liszt’s 1854 Piano Sonata in B minor poses many technical and other challenges to a string orchestra. Dedicated to Robert Schumann, its fusing of the five motivic elements into a single, sprawling structure is addressed by Berkhemer, with melodic strands allotted different instrumentation; he also addresses its lyrical, dramatic, fateful and melancholy traits. But the cushioning of Liszt’s work in the string timbre detracts from its eruptive drama and intrinsically pianistic character. Dmitri Shostakovich’s Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and String Orchestra no.1 in C minor opus 35 (1933), conducted here by Berkhemer, was referred to, by Yossi Shiffmann, who emceed the Eilat concerts, as the first Soviet concerto. Composed when Shostakovich was enjoying popularity on the Leningrad concert scene, in theatre and in film music, it reflects the young composer’s predilection for satire, lyricism and boisterous street music as well as his encounter with many musical styles. Pianist Oxana Yablonskaya (USA) delighted the audience with her articulate, light and agile playing and whimsical interpretation. She and Israeli trumpeter Yuval Shapiro collaborated and communicated in a performance that was indeed tasteful, sparkling, elegant and amusing.

Concert no.7
One of the events attracting Baroque music- and opera lovers to the 2012 Eilat Chamber Music Festival was surely the premiering of Antonio Vivaldi’s (1678-1741) opera “L’Olimpiade” (1734) (libretto Pietro Metastasio, adapted for Vivaldi by Bartolomeo Vitturi) in its present and revamped form. A suitable choice for this Olympic Games year, the opera will be taken back to Britain and on to Europe. Violinist, Italian Baroque scholar and founder and director of the “La Serenissima” Ensemble Adrian Chandler created the present performing edition from Vivaldi’s score, the original being housed in the Biblioteca Nazionale of Turin. In a short talk given by him, Chandler reminded us that from 1713 to1739 Vivaldi was writing 3-act operas every year, with Venice having several theatres producing operas at the time. Composed for performance at the San Angelo Theatre, Vivaldi’s orchestra typically called for the inclusion of two horns (probably trumpets) and two harpsichords. The plot of “L’Olimpiade” is way too detailed (and a trifle fantastical) to mention here. Suffice it to say that we were presented with operatic performance of a consistently superb standard on the part of singers, all of whom sing the gamut of opera repertoire. No less outstanding, and somewhat more authentic in sound, was the instrumental ensemble, with Chandler leading his Baroque instrumentalists, his eye seldom leaving the singers on stage. The banal stage setting and action (do we really want to see opera singers all singing into mobile ‘phones, or using them in asides?) left much to be desired, but that indeed proved secondary to what was gracing our ears.
Concert no.8
Aficionados and devotees of choral music filled the Eilat Hall of the Princess Hotel March 16th to hear “From Gabrieli to Penderecki”, a combined performance of the State Choir of Latvia (chief conductor Maris Sirmais) and instrumental ensemble Hortus Musicus, the concert conducted by the latter’s violinist and artistic director Andres Mustonen. Most of the program, spanning 400 years, focused on music of Christian devotion.
The State Choir of Latvia, celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, has been directed by Maris Sirmais since 1997. The recipient of several awards, the choir sings in major European venues and under many of today’s well-known conductors. Hortus Musicus (Estonia) was founded in 1972 by Andres Mustonen and maintains a busy international performing schedule of European music from Gregorian music to that of the Baroque period, but it also ventures into very different styles, such as in ancient Indian music, early Armenian Christian music, and more.
The concert opened with music by Giovanni Gabrieli (1553-1612): in the exuberant, 8-part motet Jubilate Deo (Shout to God with joy) (Psalm 99) of 1597, the audience was introduced to the State Choir of Latvia’s clean, bright timbre giving expression to the music’s contrapuntal play, imitation and the text itself. The two ensembles created the Gabrieli signature sound of voices and instruments, as would have been heard in St. Mark’s Venice, on an equal footing in “Angelicus ad Pastores” (The angel says to the shepherds), as did Monteverdi’s “Cantate Domino” (Sing unto the Lord a new song), in which tenor- and bass soloists displaying fine technique and musical competence, the vitality of Mustonen and his players’ vitality and fine tradition of early music playing defying all compromise.
From Kryzysztof Penderecki’s (b.1935, Poland) “Polish Requiem”, a work dedicated to his country’s suffering, we heard the “Agnus Dei”(1981), a movement written on the day the composer heard of the death of his friend Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński. Mustonen’s broad-gestured conducting gave the piece a sensitively-colored reading, its inner voices as clear as its outer voices, the piece’s scintillating choral clusters gently supported by the instrumental ensemble. The work’s compelling message combines sacred music with reality, Penderecki’s paintbrush dipped in “zal” (Polish: sadness or gloom pervading Polish art forms). It ends on a dark minor chord. John Tavener’s (b. 1944, UK) “Hymn to the Mother of God” mixes tonality with what I hesitate to call “dissonance”, the State Choir of Latvia weaving intervals of the second through chords in pastel brightness, concluding the work on a majestic major chord.
To German Romantic music: in Felix Mendelssohn’s essentially diatonic, syllabic and homophonic treatment of Psalm 100, its dynamics and nuances present in detail, Mustonen’s phrase endings allowed time to stand still. And Anton Bruckner’s first major composition, the seven-part “Ave Maria” (1861) was performed with control and both vehemence and humility.
With the spotlight turning to Spain and South America, sacred music, folk music and dance merge to become one joyous form of expression. Hernando Franco (1532-1585) was born in Spain, moving to Guatemala and then Mexico City. His vibrant “Santa Maria”, in the Aztec language, was followed by a colorful, spontaneous performance Juan Garcia de Zéspedes’(1619-1678) “Convidando esta la noche” (Night-time was an invitation), the latter using both African rhythms and European counterpoint.
Relocating back to England, some Elizabethan pieces provided a change of style and atmosphere. In Anthony Holborne’s consort music from the “Pavans, Galliards and Almains” of 1599, we enjoyed a hint of rakish, rustic frivolity, with Mustonen on the violin joined by the distinctive sound of the shawm, gentle percussion and satisfying “remplissage” on the part of Ivo Sillamaa on the organ. In Thomas Morley’s (c.1557-1602) small jewel “April is in My Mistress’ Face” (1594), we heard three men singers together with instrumentalists singing of love’s illusions and eventual suffering. A different take on Morley’s popular “Now is the Month of Maying” started out with just one male soloist singing alone, then building up, with one verse played on instruments, ending with the women of the choir joining in the “fa la las”. The madrigals were sung in good British English.
The concert finished with Monteverdi’s “Lauda Jerusalem, Dominum” (Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem) (Psalm 147) from “Vespers for the Blessed Virgin” (1610) performed by choir and ensemble capturing the work’s splendor, its majesty and ecstasy. In a program of great variety, excellent choral singing and a chance to enjoy the timbres of early instruments, Andres Mustonen wielded choir, instrumentalists and his outstanding vocal soloists with crisp incisiveness in an inspired and inspiring approach to music-making.
Concert no.9
This was a solo piano recital by Stephen Kovacevich (b.1940, USA). Also well-known as a conductor, Kovacevich performs with chamber ensembles, with major orchestras and records. When still a student with Myra Hess, it was becoming clear that the pianist was attracted to Ludwig van Beethoven’s (1770-1827) music, in particular, to his later works. Kovacevich’s recording of all the Beethoven sonatas was issued in 2003. Beethoven’s Bagatelles opus 126 (1825), dedicated to the composer’s brother Johann, were his last published works for solo piano; the composer contended that these brief character pieces were the best of his three sets of Bagatelles. Despite the word Bagatelle (French) translating as “trifle”, Beethoven’s opus 126 pieces challenge the player’s ability in the technical pianistic techniques of Beethoven’s late music, not to speak of creating a mood within a miniature, the style and short form forging ahead into Romantic free styles. In pieces 1,2,5 and 6, Kovacevich, generous in his use of the sustaining pedal, took the listener into Beethoven’s state of mind and the capriciousness of these intimate pieces – from the spontaneity of arpeggiated, cadenza-like passages, to a sense of urgency, and from Viennese charm to stormy and, indeed, fearful moments.
To perform Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no.31 opus 110 in A flat major (1821) is a weighty choice at a festival and, especially in a hall that does not exude intimacy. Presenting the interrelated structure of movements of the mammoth work, from its opening lyricism through the erratic avalanche of musical ideas, the meditative, soul-searching Adagio, ending in the grandeur of the super-human fugue of the Finale, Kovacevich convincingly presented Beethoven’s innermost thoughts with delicacy and restraint, standing back to allow the music to speak, the pianist steering clear of showy acrobatics.
Franz Schubert’s (1797-1828) Piano Sonata in B flat major D960, his last, was composed less than two months before his death. Once again, Kovacevich presents a composer’s very late work, that of young Schubert gravely ill, facing his own death, yet still feverishly writing masterpieces and putting the finishing touches on his “Winterreise” song cycle. The artist’s playing was articulate and transparent, melodic strands carefully delineated, dramatic and sad moments juxtaposed with both bright, dark and serene sections.
Stephen Kovacevich chose the Sarabande from J.S.Bach’s Partita no.4 in D major BWV 828 for his encore. Taking his cue from the temperament of the piece, he challenged the listener to follow him through gently lyrical course graced with tiny ornamental figures. It was a delicate and subtle ending to the recital.
Concert no.11
Presenter Yossi Shiffmann spoke of one of the Eilat Chamber Music Festival’s aims as bringing young artists to perform in the concerts, mentioning that although 25-year-old violinist Valeriy Sokolov (Ukraine) may be young, he has performed widely and recorded. Playing with Sokolov was pianist Evgeny Izotov (b.1979, Russia) an artist who has performed much in Europe and the UK; Izotov teaches at the St. Petersburg State Conservatory and is visiting professor at Silla University (South Korea). The works we heard in this recital are to be recorded by the two artists in the near future.
The “Sonata for Violin and Piano” was the last work Claude Debussy (1862-1918) completed before his death. It was premiered in May of 1917, with violinist Gaston Poulet and Debussy at the piano; this was also the composer’s last public performance. Moving away from his former Impressionistic style, the work nevertheless breathes fantasy, freedom and emotional warmth. In a different kind of duet relationship, in which neither instrument accompanies the other, Sokolov and Izotov created Debussy’s specific sonority and tension in a kaleidoscope of musical ideas that included cantabile, humorous, fantastical and sensitive elements. Izotov’s delicate touch and constant attention was matched by spider-web delicate playing on the part of Sokolov.
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) was also of the opinion that the violin and piano were essentially incompatible; in his Sonata for Violin and Piano in G major, his final chamber work, this premise shows clearly in the friction heard throughout the first movement. The artists played out both intense and bitter-sweet qualities of the somewhat jazz-influenced second movement (Blues: moderato), this being followed by a thrilling performance of the Perpetuum mobile (third movement), a veritable tour de force for the violin, with Sokolov handling its virtuosic demands with aplomb. The artists’ delving into fine detail and elegance of expression were woven into fine teamwork.
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), completed his Sonata for Violin and Piano no.1 opus 80 in 1946, although some of the material dates from 1938. It was dedicated to- and performed by David Oistrakh; in fact, the composer collaborated with Oistrakh while working on the sonata, the result being a work demanding virtuosity on the part of both players. Composed in wartime Russia, Prokofiev himself referred to it as “serious in mood”. Sokolov and Izotov took on board the various aspects of the work – from the foreboding character of the opening movement, the terse, unsmiling reality of the second, the expressive searching of the third and the impactful rush of ideas and gestures of the fourth. Not an easy undertaking for young people, the artists dealt admirably with the fraught canvas of the work, using timing strategically, contrasting heavy textures with light and communicating its emotional message to the audience.

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