Saturday, March 3, 2012

Natalie Rotenberg and Alex Rosenblatt play Bach on harpsichord and piano

On the morning of February 25th 2012, the village of Ein Kerem (Jerusalem) was bathed in winter sunlight. Trees and the abundant foliage shone green and revitalized and the gold, onion-shaped domes of the Gorny “Moscovia” Monastery on the hill gleamed in all their splendour. Leaving Mary’s Well on our left, we made our way up through the leafy gardens of the Eden-Tamir Music Center to the concert hall. The occasion was a concert of the Musica Antiqua series - “At Ferdinand’s Court” or “Bach for Two” - with Natalie Rotenberg (harpsichord) and Alex Rosenblatt (harpsichord, piano). Alex Rosenblatt addressed the audience, mentioning what the harpsichord and pianoforte have in common and the dichotomy between them “popular nowadays”, in his words.

The Concerto for Two Keyboard Instruments in C major BWV 1061a, composed some time around 1733 in Leipzig, is probably J.S.Bach’s (1685-1750) only work written originally and expressly for two harpsichords. (He later provided an alternative version with a string ripieno in the first- and third movements.) Technological advances of harpsichord construction in France and Germany during the 1700’s had made the instrument more powerful and Bach was now experimenting with its solo qualities. The work might have had its first performance by members of the Collegium Musicum in a congenial Leipzig coffee house – perhaps Zimmermann’s on Catherine St. -with Bach, its director and among the greatest keyboard virtuosos of his day, playing one of the harpsichords. Rotenberg and Rosenblatt performed the concerto on a two-manual Kaufmann harpsichord (Brussels, 1975) and a Klop (Holland) spinet. The two different instruments, tuned to perfection, allowed for fine blending as well as for clear imitation and individual expression, the second movement (Adagio ovvero Largo) including the sharing of melodic lines, rich embellishment and robust chordal spreads. The outer movements bristled with energy and interaction; supporting voices took on shorter notes to give centre stage to main melodies. Tutti passages versus thinner textures were indicative of the concerto style.

Natalie Rotenberg then performed Bach’s Toccata in E minor BWV 914 on the two-manual harpsichord. The work, from Bach’s earliest period, was probably composed before 1708, “its passion and temperament that of youth” (in Rotenberg’s words), its formal structure not as strict as in later works. The German toccata of Bach’s time had developed into a complex form, referring back to the earlier extroverted Italian toccata, but combining it with serious counterpoint. Indeed, what style could have suited young Bach better than this? Rotenberg’s reading of the work gives free reign to Bach’s invention and spontaneity, from the flexed, improvisatory opening movement, to fugato sections, to highly melodic utterances, to varied textural ideas and strict counterpoint. This was an interesting and adventurous performance, reminding the listener of Bach’s daring as a composer and of his greatness as an improviser.

In their programs, Natalie Rotenberg and Alex Rosenblatt will always offer audiences a new approach to familiar (or non-familiar) repertoire. Rosenblatt spoke of each era as bringing its own inspiration to the performance of Bach’s music, in Glen Gould’s playing and jazz versions, for example. In the following item – a Sarabande Suite, compiled by Rosenblatt – the artist’s aim was to use his extensive knowledge of Baroque music and authentic performance in playing Bach on the piano. The Sarabande, usually the third movement in a Baroque suite, has its own motley history: possibly of Mexican origin, or originating from a Spanish dance with Arabic influence, it was considered disreputable in 16th century Spain, in the 17th century, however, making its way into the French court via Italy as a slow, processional triple-time dance, also becoming a stylized musical form when not danced. Hearing four Sarabandes played consecutively was to be a new experience. The first two Sarabandes Rosenblatt performed were from keyboard suites, beginning with the Sarabande from English Suite no.3 in the imposing scale of G minor, its grandness embellished with abundant ornaments, a gregarious range of piano touches as well as the use of the sustaining pedal. The second, from Bach’s French Suite no.1in D minor, contrasted nicely in its intimate and poignant character. The third and more enigmatic Sarabande was taken from an anthology issued in Russia called “From My Childhood”, a piece in A minor attributed to Bach. A highly ornate piece, it was played beautifully and in a forthright sound befitting the modern piano. The fourth Sarabande was an arrangement made by Rosenblatt of that from Bach’s Solo Violin Partita no.2 in B minor, its voice strata articulate, with chord spreads expressive and adding richness to the soundscape. Blown away by the beauty of these pieces on the piano as well as Rosenblatt’s rich and sensitive playing of them, I think the Baroque authenticity devotees among us were shaken out of their (our!) presumptuousness and have since spent time in deep thought about Bach’s music and the wide range of possibilities for performing it.

J.S.Bach’s Concerto for Two Keyboard Instruments in C minor BWV 1060 (1735) was a transcription of a concerto for two violins (or possibly violin and oboe), the score of which has been lost. The composer is thought to have arranged it for two harpsichords and orchestra in 1736. It was then reconstructed as a concerto for oboe, violin, strings and basso continuo. Rotenberg and Rosenblatt, in the tradition of Bach, have transcribed the concerto once again, this time for harpsichord and piano (this is not a typo!) in order to achieve a three-dimensional effect. The harpsichord's sound was slightly amplified for this work. Rosenblatt, playing the piano, lightened his touch and played more detached textures, never overshadowing the harpsichord when they played together. When soloing, he allowed the piano more volume. (Fortunately, he was not trying to make the piano emulate a harpsichord.) Yet, I felt a sense of leaping back and forwards through the centuries as the focus moved from one instrument to the other. It was an interesting experiment and performed with much thought by these two fine artists.

An all-Bach concert is always interesting. Paderewski claimed that Bach “could weave counterpoint as a spider weaves its web – up to the sky and back again”. The Rotenberg-Rosenblatt Duo’s concert provided a morning of delight. It also posed some new questions to all of us present.

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