Wednesday, September 19, 2012

2012 Jerusalem International Chamber Festival September 12th.

Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky

In the 13th concert of the 2012 Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival, September 13th in the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship of the Jerusalem YMCA, the majority of works were by Russian composers. As in several other JICMF concerts this year, the opening work was one of Ohad Ben-Ari’s instrumental arrangements of movements from Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky’s (1840-1893) piano work “The Seasons”. The joyful, busy rural scene of “July: Song of the Reapers” was scored for flute-Guy Eshed, clarinet-Shirley Brill, bassoon-Nadav Cohen, horn-Marie-Luise Neunecker, violins-Tamaki Kawakubo and Petra Schweiger, viola-Madeleine Carruzzo and ‘cello-Tim Park. The playing of this charming, suggestive miniature left one wishing to hear all twelve pieces performed consecutively.

Among the Russian composers who emigrated to the west, Arthur-Vincent LouriĆ© (1892-1966) was a relatively obscure figure. Largely self-taught, he took his early style from the Futurist movement in art and poetry and was influenced by the plastic arts, philosophy and religion; his experiments with atonality, microtones and unusual score formatting were bold for their time. However, he placed great importance on melodic inventiveness, holding fast to his Russian heritage. LouriĆ© composed “Pastorale de la Volga” in his dacha in the summer of 1916, dedicating it to the Symbolist poet Theodore Sologub. A descriptive mood piece infused with Russian folk melodies, at times homophonic, with parallel octaves eventually twisting into parallel major sevenths, allowed for expressive and beautifully crafted moments for oboe (Meirav Kadichevsky), ‘cello (Andreas Brantelid) and bassoon (Nadav Cohen). Joining them were violists Madeleine Carruzzo and Tatjana Masurenko.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) submitted a string sextet and the Quintet in B flat major, dating from 1873, to a chamber music competition promoted by the Russian Music Society. (Neither brought him prizes; the composer put the quintet’s failure down to the poor performance of the pianist.) We heard the work performed by Denis Kozhukhin-piano, Guy Eshed-flute, Shirley Brill-clarinet, Mauricio Paez-basssoon and Marie-Luise Neunecker-horn. Although Rimsky-Korsakov did not consider himself a chamber music composer, the work is, nevertheless a hidden gem, offering performers and audience moments that highlight each instrument. Following an insouciant, even earthy, well-profiled opening Allegro con brio, the ensemble wove Ravelian magic into the Andante, Neunecker’s fine, competent playing of its poetic horn opening graced by Kozhukhin’s sensitive and generally outstanding reading of the piano part, all addressing its noble, tranquil mood. The dance-like Rondo Allegretto was no less rewarding, with brilliant cadenzas for horn, flute and clarinet peppered with virtuosic comments on bassoon.

One of three violin sonatas composed in the spring of 1816 by the 19-year-old composer, Franz Schubert’s (1797-1828) Sonata for Violin and Piano in A minor D.385 is among the composer’s more neglected works; referred to sometimes as “lightweight”, the three do not lack sophistication. Based on the Mozartean model, these violin sonatas may have been written for domestic use. We heard the A minor sonata performed by Nikolaj Znaider-violin and Saleem Abboud-Ashkar-piano. Their playing was energetic, intelligent and clean, but, despite fine musicianship on the part of both artists, the Danish-born Znaider (1975) and Abboud-Ashkar (b. Nazareth, 1976) seemed to have separate agendas for the work. Znaider’s rich timbre and virtuosic playing were, at times, oblivious of the pianist’s sensitive addressing of Schubert’s fragile, multi-layered piano textures.

Born in Perm, Russia, soprano Anna Samuil performs widely in Europe, in particular at the Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin. Samuil and JICMF musical director pianist Elena Bashkirova (b. Moscow) performed five miniature songs by Rimsky-Korsakov. The composer composed his songs in fits and bursts – 22 when a student of Balakirev in the 1860s (op. 2,3,4,7,8), returning to the genre in the late 1870s, then composing 47 more romances during 1897-1898. In his earlier songs, Rimsky-Korsakov’s compositional method was to begin with the harmonic progression and allow the melody to arise from it in an instrumental manner, producing contemporaneous Romantic salon music. By 1897, he had changed his method to starting with the melody as dictated by the rhythm and inflections of the poetry. In “Captivated by the Rose” opus 2/2, written by the 22-year-old composer, a sensuous, melismatic, modal song inspired by Persian poetry and suggesting longing for the east, Samuil’s easeful vocal technique took her soaring into her mellifluous high register with effortless pianissimo control. “The Lark’s Song Rings More Clearly” (1897) (text: Aleksey Tolstoy) abounds in nature images, the artists infusing the song of the arrival of spring with a sense of urgency; “It Was Not in the Wind” was given a lyrical, bright and dynamic reading. In touch with her native repertoire, Samuil shifted emotional emphasis within songs, bringing out undertones of meaning through her palette of colors and temperament. Bashkirova brought to life the pianistic beauty and meaning of Rimsky-Korsakov’s accompaniments.

Tchaikovsky’s songs (or Romances, as this genre of Russian song was called) are not frequently enough heard on the Israeli concert stage; more virtuosic than those of Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky composed over one hundred for solo voice and piano to lyrics by Russian composers who were his contemporaries. Composer and music critic Nicolas Slonimsky referred to Tchaikovsky’s songs as “the most poignant creations of his genius”. They bear the stamp of personal experience, this often being failed love and psychological complexity, as in “So Soon Forgotten” (1870), in which Samuil and Bashkirova were convincing in creating both intimate- and dramatic elements, weaving into one process its mix of ecstasy and despair. The artists worked hand-in-glove, addressing both the lyrical- and obsessively autobiographical aspects of Tchaikovsky’s use of the genre: Samuil’s use of facial expression and body language were pertinent to the underlying despair of the songs, whereas Bashkirova’s role frequently sketched in hints defining or confirming the meaning of a song.

Taking time out from his duties at the Moscow Conservatory and from the unhappiness of his private life, Tchaikovsky spent time in Italy, mostly in Florence, where he once wrote to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck that it was in that sunny country that he had spent the happiest months of his life; after having spent the winter of 1890 in Florence, he returned to Russia with sketches for a new string quartet. He stressed that he was composing six solo parts that would combine in a unique way. “Souvenir de Florence”, in four movements, is scored for two violins-Nikolaj Znaider, Michael Barenboim, two violas-Tatjana Masurenko, Madeleine Carruzzo and two ‘cellos-Andreas Brantelid and Kyril Zlotnikov. The audience “basked” in a sense of joy and lightness unfamiliar in most of Tchaikovsky’s concert music (save for an element of melancholy in the third movement), in the warmth of a well-anchored string sound, the second ‘cello allowing for first ‘cello solos, and episodes such as singing melodic conversation in the second movement between first violin and first ‘cello - Znaider and Zlotnikov. With Znaider leading articulately, the performance was a celebration of lush, singing melodies, some definitely flavored with Russian elements, as in the buoyant, contrapuntal last movement.

Kudos to musical director Elena Bashkirova for another event-packed Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival, for bringing together well-established as well as promising young musicians from many countries, for introducing local concert audiences to works seldom performed here, for challenging festival-goers to open their minds and ears to new works and for some memorable, sensitive piano accompaniments for singers.

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