Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra in a concert of much harpsichord music

As a member of the board of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, I was keen, and indeed curious, to attend the orchestra’s concert July 9th 2012 in the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theatre, this being the final event of the 29th season of the “Etnachta” (Hebrew: pause, break) weekly chamber music series. Under the auspices of the Voice of Music (Israeli Broadcasting Authority), these Monday afternoon concerts are produced and hosted by Hayuta Devir and broadcast live.

This was to be a unique concert; indeed, the Henry Crown Hall was bursting at the seams with so many people interested to hear the all-Bach program featuring some works that are not often heard in Israeli concert halls. On entering the hall, we were met by the sight of four harpsichords on the stage; that, in itself, is an unusual spectacle. Those playing them would be JBO founder and director David Shemer, Yizhar Karshon, Noam Krieger (Holland/Israel) and Tilman Skowroneck (Sweden/Germany).

Harpsichordist, fortepianist and musicologist Tilman Skowroneck (b.Germany, 1959) is no newcomer to the Israeli Baroque music scene. Living in Sweden, he performs both solo recitals and in ensemble concerts, teaches and is especially interested in practice techniques. His research covers the early piano, its construction and repertoire, the performing of Beethoven’s early keyboard works and the development of Viennese pianos after 1800. On his current visit to Israel, in addition to participating in the JBO concert, Skowroneck held a two-day workshop for local harpsichord players – professionals and students – on harpsichord maintenance.

Noam Krieger studied orchestral conducting, musicology and harpsichord in Tel Aviv, The Hague and Paris and has performed with such groups as "Les Arts Florissants" (William Christie), “Le Concert des Nations" (Jordi Savall) and "Concerto Vocale" (René Jacobs) and in early music festivals. In the Montreal Early Music Festival he conducted the first performance of J-B.Lully’s “Les Ballets d’Impatience” since 1601. Krieger has taught in Versailles, Amsterdam and Tel Aviv and is on the editing staff of a French project to publish all of Lully’s works.

The program opened with Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no.5 in D major BWV 1050, one of six concerti grossi sent to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg in 1721, with Bach hoping to receive employment from him. With no job forthcoming, the concertos found their way into the margrave’s library and were later added to the Berlin Royal Library collection. Brought to light in the 19th century Bach revival, the Brandenburg Concertos were published in 1850. Playing in the concertino section were violinist Dafna Ravid, flautist Idit Shemer and David Shemer - harpsichord. The worked opened with panache and elegance; the audience was kept on its toes following the magical threads of the texture. Seated close to the stage, I was able to enjoy the nuances of Idit Shemer’s well-fashioned and sophisticated reading of the flute part. The massive and unique harpsichord solo later in the first movement, there to display the possibilities of the newly-acquired two-manual harpsichord built by Michael Mietke that Bach had brought back from Berlin, was handled strategically by Shemer. Establishing a solid, measured pace at its outset, Shemer allowed the cadenza to spiral gradually and naturally into a feat of elaborate and astounding torrents of sound layers and textures. Following the intimate Affettuoso movement, with much melodic discourse between Idit Shemer and Ravid, the work concluded with the balance of delicacy, energy and sincerity of the Allegro movement.

Like the Brandenburg Concertos, the Concerto for two Violins in D minor BWV 1043 may have been composed in Cöthen between 1717 and 1723, also commissioned by the Margrave of Brandenburg, although the manuscript parts Bach used in performance date from around 1730-1731. Following the extended opening tutti, Bach’s more modest orchestral scoring handed the display of skill to the two soloists, in our case, Noam Schuss and Dafna Ravid, whose challenging roles, including descending scales and angular upward leaps, formed the basis for shape, color and musical meaning. In a potent synthesis of concerto and fugue, we heard subtle interplay between soloists and orchestral strings. The sublime Largo ma non tanto middle movement, with the soloists soaring above the simple accompaniment in a continuous stream of sinuous melody, took the listener into the poignant expressiveness of the intertwining and imitating of violin lines, the artists addressing dissonances and solutions. In the third movement, soloists and orchestra engaged in Bach’s play of imitation, energy and an unconventional placing of accents in its rhythmic vivacity. Not to be ignored was the meaning and shape etched into the continuo line by ‘cellist Orit Messer-Jacobi.

There has been much discussion of scholars as to whether the Concerto for Three Harpsichords and Strings in D minor BWV 1063 was, indeed, composed by J.S.Bach, and, if so, whether it is a transcription of a lost work of his. Supposing it is Bach’s work, it was possibly composed in 1730 and written for domestic music-making, to be played by the composer and his two eldest sons Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel, probably with Johann Sebastian himself playing the more challenging first harpsichord part with its two cadenzas in the first movement.
At the JBO concert, we heard Noam Krieger playing first harpsichord. He was joined by Skowroneck and David Shemer. Despite the fact that here the work was performed in the Henry Crown Hall, a larger than Baroque-type venue, the subtlety, virtuosity and distinctive, alluring timbre of three harpsichords were thrilling both in their intense- and its sotto voce effects. The middle dancelike movement, punctuated by Dafna Ravid’s violin solo, was both stately and sensuous, with Orit Messer-Jacobi’s understated comments gracing the third movement, yet allowing the harpsichord timbre to emerge.

Remaining within the realm of secular music, we heard J.S.Bach’s Cantata no.209 “Non sa che sia dolore” (He does not know what it is to suffer). The date of composition is unknown (the use of a virtuoso flautist in three of the five movements might suggest it was written around 1724-1725, with the existence of such a player in Leipzig); the poet is thought to have been from Ansbach, a town with a court strongly inclined towards Italian culture. Modeled on the cantata form of A.Scarlatti, the text, quoting passages from Guarini and Metastasio, tells of a young man’s departure to sea to enter military service. Also here, we had not entirely left the Baroque concerto form; the lively Sinfonia opening the work is, indeed, a concerto for flute and strings. Altogether, flautist Idit Shemer’s well handled ornamental role played a focal part in the cantata. The musical text adds descriptive ideas, such as the rocking of the boat in a storm, with the vocal melismas evoking the sea itself. Soloist was soprano Carmit Natan, who has been a student of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, nowadays soloing in much Baroque performance on the Israeli concert platform, her lustrous, fresh-sounding vocal color pleasing and promising. Her singing from the printed score, however, detracted from what could have been a more spontaneous, vivid and flexible reading of the work without it.

To complete the harpsichord extravaganza, the JBO and guest harpsichordists performed the Concerto for Four Harpsichords and Strings in A minor BWV 1065. Twenty years following Bach’s Weimar transcriptions of Vivaldi concertos for organ and harpsichord, Johann Sebastian returned to Vivaldi’s “L’Estro armonico” (The Harmonious Inspiration) collection of 1730-1733, arranging Vivaldi’s Concerto in B minor for Four Violins, Strings and Continuo Rv 580 as his Concerto in A minor for Four Harpsichords (the only harpsichord concerto in which Bach did not recycle his own material). In rearranging Vivaldi’s work, Bach improved and expanded Vivaldi’s counterpoint, enriched harmonies and made the solo parts both more transparent and more complex. the work was most probably performed with the University Collegium Musicum (Bach served as its director from 1729-1741) at the weekly concert in Zimmermann’s Coffee House in Leipzig, with Johann Sebastian and sons Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Gottfried Bernhard at the keyboard, all fine harpsichordists. The JBO’s performance was one of floating, fresh and joyful sounds; string players were sensitive never to conceal filigree harpsichord parts. With virtuoso sections in the two outer movements, at no time did harpsichord textures sound thick or opaque. The middle movement – Largo e spiccato- is one of Bach’s enigmatic pieces, with all harpsichords playing differently articulated arpeggios in an unusual tonal combination.

In a program presenting Bach’s music as a vehicle of communication, rather than as a show of technical acrobatics, the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra and friends signed out of the 2011-2012 season with much to interest and delight their audiences, sending them home with a taste for more.

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