Tuesday, December 3, 2013

"Du aber. Daniel", Baroque German vocal and instrumental music performed by the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra and the Barrocade Ensemble

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s second concert of the 2013-2014 season “Du aber, Daniel”, a concert of German Baroque music, was a collaboration between the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra and the Barrocade Ensemble. Harpsichordist Yizhar Karshon (Barrocade) conducted from the harpsichord; vocal soloists were soprano Ye’ela Avital and baritone Guy Pelc, with vocal ensemble Barrocade Vocale performing ensemble pieces – Ye’ela Avital, alto Avital Dery, tenor Doron Florentin and bass Joel Sivan. Instrumental soloists were recorder player Corina Marti (Switzerland) and Benny Aghassi (Israel/Holland). This writer attended the concert at St Andrews Scots Memorial Church, Jerusalem, on November 21st 2013.

The concert opened with Schütz’ Italian-style Easter piece “Feget den alten Sauerteig aus” (Discard the old yeast So that you may be a new dough). Referred to by Johann Mattheson in 1740 as the “father of musicians, to whom the Germans…were indebted”, Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) was probably the most important and influential composer of 17th century Germany. “Feget den alten Sauerteig aus” works on two levels: its joyful, highly colored musical texture, concluding with the uplifting “Alleluja” and a deeper lesson. The First Letter to the Corinthians uses the metaphor of unleavened bread to juxtapose former hypocrisy with new sincerity and truth in the spirit of sacrifice and ritual. A kind of vocal-instrumental concerto from the composer’s Symphoniae Sacrae lll (1650), voices and violins combine in homogenous sonorities to form a complex motet-like structure. Karshon’s vivid instrumental mix, with recorders (Corina Marti, Shai Kribus) adding interest and their specific brightness, allowed for individual vocal timbres to come through in Luther’s translation of the Bible, writings so important to the composer, a text Schütz aimed to “translate into music”. In “Es steh Gott auf” (Psalm 68, Let God arise) from Schütz’ Symphoniae Sacrae ll (1647), a motet for two sopranos or two tenors modeled after two Monteverdi madrigals “, we heard Ye’ela Avital and alto Avital Dery in a piece equating voices with violins, intensified by the text’s dovetailed phrasing, yet preserving the rhythm and accentuation of spoken German. A performance bristling with dynamic color, the singers joined with the players in a forthright (almost battaglia-like) reading of the dazzling Italienate vocal lines reflecting the vehement text:
‘Let God arise so his enemies will be destroyed,
And those that hate him will flee from him.
Drive them, as smoke is driven,
As wax melts in the fire,
So must the godless be destroyed before God...’

Johann Rosenmüller also provided a clear and important link between German- and Venetian music, but on the instrumental scene. Trained in Venice, he was later to return there where he worked as trombonist and composer. From his highly acclaimed “Sonatae à 2, 3, 4 è 5 stromenti da arco & alti et basso continuo” (1682), these works show the influence of the German suite (his early teacher was Heinrich Schütz) and the Venetian “sinfonia di opera”. Karshon’s reading of “Sinfonia prima” displayed the astonishing beauty of Rosenmüller’s blend of conservative North German musical tradition with Venetian flair, from the formal, strongly chiseled and punctuated opening Sinfonia to the dances themselves, their affects, dissonances, rhythmic games, polyphonic passages and differing moods, the instrumental scene highly colored and anchored to a firm bass.

One of the chief figures in North German music of his time, Dieterich Buxtehude (1637-1707) left over 120 vocal works using a wide range of texts, scorings, genres and compositional styles. “Alles was ihr tut” (Whatsoever ye do in word or deed) BuxWV4, one of the composer’s greatest masterpieces, was Buxtehude’s most popular cantata during his lifetime. A work of unwavering faith, its general theme is the proper relationship between the individual and community. It comprises a combination of different texts: from the Old- and New Testaments, a Lutheran chorale as well as some German poetry. In the work, Buxtehude juxtaposes all three of the most common cantata types in his repertoire: the concerto type (setting a prose Biblical text), the strophic aria type and the chorale cantata (text and melody taken from a chorale). After the overture, the first chorus, uncharacteristically homophonic in style, was followed by an aria, this being sung by the Barrocade Vocale singers in strict homophony. The text for this is an anonymous poem (perhaps by Buxtehude himself) in which the players give life to a ritornello and short interludes between verses. The second Biblical text, Psalm 37:4, was sung by bass Joel Sivan, his voice addressing the sacred- and arioso style of the piece, his vocal timbre transparent, warm and flexible:
‘Take delight in the Lord,
And he will give you the desires of your heart.’
The closing chorale, two stanzas of a hymn by Georg Neige to an anonymous 16th century melody, with instrumental interludes separating each phrase, started with a pleasing rendering by soprano Ye’ela Avital, then taken over by the vocal ensemble. Certainly an interesting work, it was performed with energy and contrasts, delightful instrumental playing balancing weight with clarity and communication between soloists and vocal ensemble.

In his Concerto for recorder, bassoon, strings and basso continuo in F major, we meet Georg Philipp Telemann in one of his unconventional pairings of instruments (this one also, however, used by Vivaldi). Recorder and bassoon are treated on a strictly equal footing as they exchange musical material, partly through imitation. This is music to be enjoyed from within as much as from without and the name of the game is dialogue. From the sympathetic opening Largo movement, layered with charm, flexed figures and much expression, Corina Marti and Benny Aghassi were in league, communicating in a way so directly as to allow for the spontaneity of the moment. In their hands, the Vivace movement took on the spirit of adventure in virtuosic dexterity, peppered with ornaments. Poignant minimal gestures in the violins set the scene for the Grave movement,in which the soloists engaged in carefully shaped and sensitive dialogue. The final Allegro presented Telemann at his most vivacious; with attention to detail, the artists engaged in call and response, playing with a wealth of vigor and humor. Fresh and joyful, the performance coupled academic understanding with the musical personalities of these very excellent artists.

While Telemann’s instrumental music features frequently in Baroque music programs, his sacred music tends to take a back seat. Seldom heard in this part of the world, the funeral cantata “Du aber, Daniel” (Go Thy Way, Daniel) (of the 1400 Sunday cantatas Telemann composed, of which 13 are funeral cantatas) is among his most distinguished works in this genre. Probably written while the composer was in his twenties, it is an early manifestation of the expressive delicacy and melodic lyricism of Telemann’s own idiom. Representing the new cantata style, its recitatives alternate with da capo arias set to texts in madrigal style; the opening and closing chorales are settings of biblical texts. The madrigalesque verses present themes that give the listener a glimpse into Lutheran pietism – distrust of the world, ardent longing for death and hope in eternal bliss stemming from the eschatological revelation made to Daniel of things to come:
‘But go thou Daniel on thy way and take thy rest,
For thou shalt receive thy just share at the end of days.’ (Daniel 12:13)
Scored for violin, oboe, recorder, two viols, ‘cello, positif organ and four singers, the cantata is remarkable for its affecting and beautifully crafted text setting, lightness of scoring (considering the somber, austere subject matter) and its myriad of details. From the first languishing sounds of the overture, Karshon and his fellow musicians had the audience totally engrossed in the work and its atmosphere. With the lion’s share of the solos, young baritone Guy Pelc was compelling, driving home the work’s solemn message, with changes in the text reflected in dynamics and timbre; his sonorous, stable voice embraced the hall. Ye’ela Avital’s singing was sensitive, delicate and appealing: her rendering of the Bachian soprano aria was a high point of the performance as she addressed its fragility and compassion, her singing graced by Telemann’s sublime instrumental scoring. Altogether, this was a polished performance - equally attentive to literary and musical detail.

Concerts of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra usually have a thread running through the choice of works. In his program notes, Maestro David Shemer put much emphasis on the emotional climate in Germany during- and after the Thirty Years’ War, the music of composers “like Heinrich Schütz, Johann Rosenmüller, Dieterich Buxtehude and others” voicing “pain and unease”. To understand the religious philosophy behind them, it might be worth noting that “Luther’s belief in the reality of the devil was as strong as his belief in God and that music was for him one of the principal antidotes to the devil’s work” (John Butt). And yet, in all its weightiness, this music is intensely rewarding and riveting. Throughout the concert, Karshon delved deeply into the delicacy of the works; his phrasing and incisive dynamics made for exciting listening. The JBO players gave a meticulous performance. Yizhar Karshon’s inventive concept of timbral colors encouraged magical moments on oboe, recorder, bassoon and viola da gamba, moments that would have passed unnoticed without first class players.

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