Monday, January 13, 2014

The Carmel Quartet and Duo Silver-Garburg in "Reviving Bach"

With a concert focusing on the subject of “Reviving Bach”, it is no wonder that the auditorium of the Jerusalem Music Centre, Mishkenot Sha’ananim, was packed to capacity on January 8th 2014 to hear the second concert of the Carmel Quartet ‘s 2013-2014 commentated “Strings and More” series. The series takes place in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa. This writer attended the English language lecture-concert offered only in Jerusalem. Guest artists were duo pianists Sivan Silver and Gil Garburg. The Carmel Quartet, established in 1999, performs widely in Israel and further afield, and has won several awards and competitions. Its members are violinists Rachel Ringelstein and Lia Raiklin, violist Yoel Greenberg and 'cellist Tami Waterman.

Dr. Yoel Greenberg opened by referring to J.S.Bach’s music as “above time, for eternity, a cosmic truth.” Greenberg was to talk about the reasons for this, the reasons why Bach’s music “went out of fashion” and the Bach revival. With Bach’s life having little bearing on the timelessness of his music, and with his music not intended to express feelings, philosophy or politics, the answer, according to Greenberg, is that it sought to reflect the Harmony of the Spheres, an ancient philosophical concept regarding the proportions and movements of celestial bodies and “tones” of energy, its balance to be imitated by man. This concept was observed up to Bach’s time, with counterpoint being considered the greatest reflection of it. This is seen in the fugue form, in which all instruments (or voices) are equal in importance. Greenberg remarked that in Bach concertos all lines still have equal melodic importance, upholding the concept of the Harmony of the Spheres. Thus Bach’s Double Concerto for two violins and orchestra in d minor, at this concert heard in the composer’s own setting in c minor for two keyboards and strings, was originally titled a “concerto for six instruments”. With Bach free from ecclesiastical duties (and with an instrumental ensemble in situ) when in the service of the Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen from 1717 to 1723, he took the opportunity to compose concertos. With Sivan Silver and Gil Garburg joining the Carmel Quartet players, the concerto opened with fresh exuberance, with effective differentiation between phrases. The pianists’ clean, buoyant, light-of-finger touch hinting at Baroque keyboard sound, left Romantic pianism for later in the program. In the expansive Adagio, bristling with echoing, crisscrossing and dialogue on the part of the pianists, a fairly cerebral mood was kept well clear of sentimentality; the pianists, however, indulged in a little too much rubato for my taste. The fugal Allegro, taken at a rapid speed, was precise and vital, with all nuances colored. The performance presented a nice balance of Italian grace and verve with the complexities and layering of Bach’s fine contrapuntal writing.

Formed in 1997, Duo Silver-Garburg runs a busy international performing schedule. Sivan Silver and Gil Garburg, also partners in real life, have performed in more than 40 countries; they are considered one of the most remarkable piano duos of today.

Yoel Greenberg made mention of Bach’s “Art of Fugue”, referring to it as the “end of counterpoint”; Charles Burney had even criticized the work for its “cleverness”. With the composer taking centre stage in music, Bach’s writing went out of fashion and his music sank into temporary oblivion. Greenberg traced the Bach revival, referring to Felix Mendelssohn’s directing of the St. Matthew Passion as of March 1829. Baron Gottfried van Swieten, an amateur musician, considered eccentric in his interest in music that was not contemporary, brought Bach and Händel manuscripts to Vienna, commissioning Haydn, Mozart and Dittersdorf to write arrangements of them. In April 1782, Mozart wrote to his father Leopold of his weekly Sunday visits to the Baron, where “nothing is played but Händel and Bach”, encounters that were eventually to have a profound influence on Mozart’s own compositional style. Rachel Ringelstein, Yoel Greenberg and Tami Waterman then performed Prelude and Fugue no.3 in F major, one of the Mozart settings of six Preludes and Fugues for violin, viola and ‘cello K 404a. Each pair consists of a fugue – five being transcriptions of those of J.S.Bach and one of Wilhelm Friedemann – each fugue preceded by a prelude – four preludes written by Mozart and two which are rewritings of Bach preludes. Strange bedfellows as the no.3 pieces are, the artists played the prelude in a cantabile and aria-like Mozart style, the melody emanating from the violin part; preserving the same sense of well-being and brightness, the instrumentalists launched into the strict Bach fugue with all its detail and sophistication. Kudos to the Carmel Quartet for offering listeners the opportunity to hear this unusual and interesting repertoire!

Yoel Greenberg went on to discuss the Bach revival of the beginning of the 19th century, mentioning Johann Karl Friedrich Triest’s 1801 essay on the development of art music in Germany and the J.N.Forkel Bach biography. Bach had become an important cultural figure once again and a patriotic symbol. The German composer, musical theorist and critic A.B.Marx claimed the Bach’s music was bringing back the spirit of Christianity. Greenberg also made mention of two women involved in the Bach revival – Fanny von Arnstein and her sister Sarah Levy, both of whom possessed Bach manuscripts. Berlioz claimed there was no God but Bach and that Mendelssohn was his prophet! Robert Schumann, however, could not be considered active in the Bach revival; still, he referred to the Well-Tempered Clavier as the Book of Books and, together with his wife Clara, played Bach fugues daily. His own music made reference to Bach’s in its use of counterpoint and specific keys. He felt that Bach’s music had freed composers from writing in the shadow of Beethoven (with Schubert also becoming a Beethoven alternative.)

The final work of the program was Robert Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E flat major opus 44; composed in 1842, following his three opus 41 quartets which were written with frenzied energy within two months, this was a wholly new genre, allowing Schumann to combine his mastery of Romantic keyboard writing with the string quartet genre. Greenberg mentioned composers who had influenced the work – the Beethoven idea of the first themes recurring at the end of the work, Schubert’s style in the Hungarian-type themes and that of Bach in the fugue of the final movement. Taking on this large and demanding role (the keyboard has only six bars of rest in the entire composition) Gil Garburg displayed total involvement in style and spirit, communicating closely with the strings all the way; his playing was articulate and finely shaped. Altogether, the players gave the work effusive Romantic exuberance, urgency, lyricism and poignancy, bringing to the fore the work’s melodiousness and intensely human emotions, its moods contrasting from the heroic and gentle opening movement with its lovely ‘cello utterances (Tami Waterman) to the haunting funeral march, from associations with gypsy music to the complexity of the double fugue.

The Carmel Quartet, led with confidence and warmth by 1st violinist Rachel Ringelstein, continues to play with freshness and verve, the players’ inspired performance drawing in their audiences. “Reviving Bach” was indeed a fascinating and well-balanced program, combining familiar works with less familiar and bringing all together in outstanding performance. Duo Silver-Garburg’s playing and depth of enquiry added to the quality of the event. Yoel Greenberg guides his listeners through the evening in a relaxed, articulate and pleasant manner, offering much interesting information (and never too much), yet allowing the music to have the last word. Excerpts from writings of the time were well presented by women members of the Carmel Quartet.

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