Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The PHOENIX Ensemble in "Matters of Love"

Alon Harari

The PHOENIX Ensemble held a concert in Christ Church, Jerusalem on March 7th, 2012. In “Matters of Love” - earthly and celestial, in PHOENIX founder and director Myrna Herzog’s words - we heard Myrna Herzog on viola da gamba, Marina Minkin on harpsichord and countertenor Alon Harari.

Vivaldi composed 39 solo cantatas (that we know of), 12 of them written for the contralto soloist. Of this major vocal chamber music genre of the early 18th century, Vivaldi’s solo cantatas all comprise three or four movements. “Care Selve Amici Prati” RV 671 (Dear woods, friendly meadows) (c.1742) is of the more concise form - aria, recitative, aria. Alon Harari expounds the woes of a shepherd who loses his freedom and peace-of-mind to “treacherous hope and false love”, eventually finding contentment in his “beloved flock” and the “murmur of the waves”. With Minkin and Herzog’s varied and evocative textures an integral part of the canvas of this small pastoral picture, Harari sets forth the verbal text with compelling intensity, his melismatic passages woven through the melodic line with consummate artistry. From hearing this refined, superbly embellished work, that poses many challenges to the singer, demanding no less artistry and initiative on the part of the players, one is left regretting that these solo cantatas are heard so rarely. They certainly belong hand-in-glove with the performing repertoire of the PHOENIX Ensemble.

François Couperin’s (1666-1733) “Ritratto dell’amore” (Portrait of Love) is the ninth of a set of “concerts”, term “concert” referring to a piece for two or more instruments. In this “pièce de caractère”, the composer is “trying to write in the Italian style” (in Herzog’s words) resulting in a work using both French and Italian elements: the French style overture is followed mostly by dances. Titles given to the various movements certainly create the idea of love but also have an enigmatic, whimsical side to them; behind some of the titles there is a dance form - “Enjoyment” is an Allemande and “The Etc.” is a pair of Italienate minuets. Minkin and Herzog steered clear of showy tempi, rather spelling out straightforward melodic lines in a singing, sometimes inégal manner, Minkin’s playing filling out the harmonic soundscape (remplissage), the artists creating a sense of well-being and inviting audience members to decide whether Couperin’s flirtations were genuine or just the wink of the eye.

We tend to hear more concerts of Dietrich Buxtehude’s organ repertoire than of his other keyboard music. Marina Minkin’s playing of the “Allemande d’amore” from Suite no. VI gave the audience at Christ Church a small glimpse into the composer’s harpsichord suites, these representing the intimate, domestic aspect of the composer’s art. Her performance of the weighty Buxtehude-type Allemande was clear in direction, moderately flexed and richly embellished.

This was followed by Buxtehude’s Italienate “Jubilate Domino” (Psalm 98, 4-6) for alto, viola da gamba obbligato and continuo, a work indeed distinctive in its instrumentation. Beginning with a long instrumental introduction, the piece is a veritable tour de force for the viol, which moves in drastic leaps between its registers. Is it a sonata, a concerto, a cantata or all infused into one piece? Brazilian-born Dr. Myrna Herzog, in her program notes, presumes Buxtehude chose the bass viol as the obbligato instrument in order to represent the cithara – the lyre – mentioned in the psalm. The harpsichord part displays independence, while voice and viol are on equal terms; Harari addresses word painting and modulations, navigating melismatic passages nimbly, with intensity and confidence. Herzog’s superbly expressive playing did not belie the technical acrobatics demanded by the score.

Christ Church’s fine, clean acoustic always does justice to the harpsichord sound, thus a fine opportunity to hear two Domenico Scarlatti sonatas. Born in the Ukraine and in Israel since 1981, Dr. Marina Minkin began with one of the more massive of the bipartite sonatas - the K 132 in C major. Her agile playing highlighted the composer’s less-than-conventional mind-set, his extravagant use of dissonances and surprise modulations. No less adventurous was Sonata K 133, also in C major, in which the composer’s ideas come thick and fast, his palette brazenly mixing major and minor keys and superimposing harmonies into what could only be termed “clusters”. Minkin’s exuberant, energetic and daring playing revealed the flamboyance, sophistication and freshness of these unique works. The audience was right with her all the way!

Existing in both soprano and alto versions, “Nel dolce Tempo” HWV 135b (1708), one of G.F.Händel’s (1685-1759) better-known, early cantatas, was written, it seems, when the composer was in Naples for a visit, the reference in the text to the Volturno River pointing to this fact, according to Herzog. It was in Italy that Händel became acquainted with the chamber cantata genre. In “Nel dolce Tempo” (In the sweet time), a pastoral courting situation, the singer acts out responses of both shepherd and shepherdess. Harari’s performance was nuanced and superbly crafted, his voice control matching his focus on the text and key words. Returning to the first section of the da capo aria “Senti, dite, mio”, he paused strategically on the first syllable, producing a mellifluous, bell-like effect before the conclusion of the work.
‘Listen, my beloved,
Even though the birds from the woods to the streams sing of you….’

Alon Harari, joined by Herzog and Minkin in their own artistic and non-intrusive instrumental arrangements, performed two traditional Jewish Yemenite melodies - “O, Graceful Doe” a wedding song and “For Candle and Spices”, the latter marking the transition from the Sabbath or festival to a weekday. Harari’s singing, using the Yemenite dialect of Hebrew, was spontaneous, emotional and gripping. The audience was deeply moved. Alon Harari (b.1982, Israel) wields absolute control over his large, distinctive voice; his international career in opera, oratorio and other genres is soaring high and justifiably so.

Myrna Herzog’s programming is a high point of the PHOENIX concert season. Audiences are frequently exposed to rarely-performed repertoire in performance that does not compromise on excellence.

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