Thursday, February 14, 2013

The 2013 Israeli Schubertiade

During Schubert’s lifetime, Schubertiades were generally informal, unadvertised gatherings held in private homes, some with the composer in attendance, others not. They were usually sponsored by some wealthy friend of the composer or by aficionados, some of the get-togethers including poetry readings, dancing and other sociable pastimes.  The Israeli concert scene has established its own tradition of Schubertiades. Under the auspices of the Ralph Kohn Foundation and under the musical direction of Raz Kohn, the 2013 Schubertiade took place in several venues, this writer attending the February 7th concert at the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship, Jerusalem International YMCA as part of the Jerusalem Music Centre’s Chamber Concert series.

The first half of the concert consisted of several vocal works by Franz Schubert (1797-1828) – both Lieder and ensemble pieces - performed by Israeli singers soprano Hila Baggio and countertenor Yaniv D’Or, British tenor Simon Wall and the Belgian-born baritone Kris Belligh. They were accompanied on the piano by Graham Johnson, who was in Israel to hold master classes for singers and pianists at the Jerusalem Music Centre.  Professor Graham Johnson (b.1950, Rhodesia), widely recognized as one of the world’s greatest accompanists and Lied experts, teaches at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (London). He has directed and accompanied recordings of all Schubert’s Lieder - 37 discs - for the Hyperion label. In the Schubertiade program notes, Johnson speaks of the task of choosing songs from the composer’s more than 700 for performance by four very different singers. The songs were grouped into themes. On the subject of the seasons, each soloist would sing one song. Johnson also emphasized the relevance of performing Lieder with texts of Jewish poets, reminding us that Salomon Sulzer - composer and cantor of the Seitenstettengasse Temple in Vienna – was one of Schubert’s close friends. In this connection, Johnson saw fit to add Schubert’s setting of Psalm 13 as translated into German by philosopher (and Felix Mendelssohn’s grandfather) Moses Mendelssohn. Other categories of Lieder in the program were those dealing with death and on the subject of shepherds and fisherman.

The evening opened with the five artists presenting a richly colored performance of “An die Sonne” (To the Sun) D439 (text: Johann Uz, a poet writing on moral themes). Of all his quartets for mixed voices, each having some degree of moral content, Schubert’s paean to the sun, composed in 1816, might be considered the most noble in character.  Against a piano accompaniment that is varied, pianistically interesting and majestic, we hear the singers paired and imitating, the rich canvas of the work offering block harmonies as well as  contrapuntal lines, the outer verses, set in the scale of f major, sparkling in the majesty of the heavens and an awareness of mortality. “Der Tanz” (The Dance) (1825), on the other hand, is a light-hearted, bright and jolly piece - a “pièce d’occasion” - for the enjoyment of performers and guests gathered at a non-professional venue.  Although warning youth of the overindulgence of partying, it is a piece of gentle humor. These vocal quartets, not heard frequently enough here in Israel, are well endowed in harmonic imagination and would probably have originally been sung with one singer on each voice, as heard at this concert.  The combined different timbral qualities of the singers at this concert made for an interesting, well contrasted and pleasing performance.

Israeli soprano, Hila Baggio, enjoying much success on opera stages at home and further afield, is also well suited to the Lied genre. Her bright, well-shaped phrases move along naturally with the verbal text – from her fresh, sympathetic, almost scented reading of “Frühlingsglaube” (Spring Belief), to the religious atmosphere created in Schubert’s setting of Psalm 13 as it progresses from recitative to aria to a 6/8 dance rhythm, to her lyrical reading of the 19-year-old Schubert’s less sacred but celebratory, gently humorous picture of heaven as a venue of the Viennese waltz in “Seeligkeit” (Blessedness). In the vocal quartets, Baggio both blends well and holds the solid top line competently.

Simon Wall is no new face to Israeli concert-goers. An English tenor, Wall is familiar to Israeli audiences for his convincing singing of the role of the Evangelist in Baroque sacred works. Tonight, we were to hear Wall in a very different genre and soundscape. Much thought had clearly been invested in selecting Schubert Lieder suited not only to Wall’s very uniquely bright, silvery, stable tenor timbre, but also to his innate sense of tranquility against which background he creates the setting to the more intimate and introspective of Lieder. In “Der Winterabend” (Winter’s Evening) he gradually unravels the calm thoughts, musings and mysteries of a person on such a cold evening. His fine vocal control and delicate pianissimo legato create a fragile mood of understatement, inviting the listener to join the mood.  In “Das Fischermädchen” (The Fisher Maid), a Heine text from the “Schwanengesang” (Swan Song), Schubert’s last collection of songs, we hear the lyrical barcarolle and gentle lapping of the water as the background to the poet’s mistaken trust in the maiden. Another boat song, “Des Fischers Liebeglück” (The Fisherman’s Luck in Love), set to a poem by C.G.R. von Leitner, constructed of unusually short lines and seven-line stanzas complete with halts, makes great demands on the singer. Here again, Wall does not disappoint as he creates a scene of rapture and timelessness.

Countertenor Yaniv D’Or’s solo career has mostly been in Baroque opera. Hearing D'Or or any countertenor singing Lieder raises a number of questions to which there is certainly no cut-and-dried answer. Singing Schubert’s late and much loved “Auf dem Wasser zu singen” (To Be Sung on the Water) to words that swing from the introspective to the carefree, a text written by the Danish diplomat, poet and classicist Friedrich Leopold Graf zu Stolberg, D’Or’s reading of it was spirited, using vibrato to enrich long notes. “Ihr Bild” (Her Portrait) (Heine) from the “Schwanengesang”, in its stark and enigmatic mood, demands much subtlety. D’Or sometimes seems too busy with the business of reading the text to allow himself to totally identify with the disturbing message of the song. Choosing Schubert’s perfect miniature set to Claudius’ “Der Tod und das Mädchen” (Death and the Maiden) was a courageous move after the many renditions  we have heard of this song over the last years. D’Or’s performance of it was impactful, his representation of the song’s two characters effective.

Belgian-born baritone Kris Belligh’s performance was intense and compelling throughout, from his  dramatic strength representing the present time in the black foreboding of Heine’s text of “Die Stadt” (The Town) to the fisherman’s expression of simple happiness in the less familiar Lied “Fischerweise” (Fisherman’s Ditty) to the almost visually descriptive, fragile and truly magnificent mood piece “Herbst” (Autumn), fashioned by Belligh and Johnson with strategic pacing, the resulting effect evoking restless unease and gnawing loneliness in a powerful performance.

The word “accompaniment” seems inadequate to describe Graham Johnson’s participation in these pieces with the singers. The piano role is part and parcel of the canvas of each Lied:  artfully and actively he adds richness of meaning, descriptive ideas and moods, underlying veiled elements, poetic and magically fashioned melodies as well as dramatic effects, some of the latter clothed poignantly in the subtlety of understatement! Johnson’s delicate, articulate gestures, his pianistic touch and tempi conjure up rich backdrops to the Lieder and ensembles as he constantly connects with Schubert’s understanding of the human soul as presented in these small dramas and vignettes.

After the intermission, we heard the Ariel Quartet – violinists Gershon Gerchikov and Sasha Kazovsky, violist Jan Grüning and ‘cellist Amit Even-Tov – joined by ‘cellist Michal Korman in Schubert’s String Quintet in c minor opus 163. Formed in Israel, the Ariel Quartet moved to the USA in 2004, today performing in Europe, North America and Israel. Born in Jerusalem, Michal Korman is an avid chamber musician, also soloing in her busy international career. Following reference above to Schubert’s “Scwanengesang”, Schubert's Quintet in c minor, composed in 1828 during the last weeks of his life, is his instrumental swan song. Sadly, the composer never heard the work performed. The Ariel Quintet and Korman gave a memorable performance of the quintet, displaying its intensity as well as its (Schubert’s) fragility, its harmonic freedom, its mellow double-‘cello sonority and its grave, haunting moments that contrast with a sense of well-being. In a performance of fine communication between players, each small gesture was addressed in a reading bristling with freshness and discovery and anchored in fine musical perspective.

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