Friday, March 14, 2014

Highlights from the 2014 Eilat Chamber Music Festival

The 2014 Eilat Chamber Music Festival took place at the Dan Eilat Hotel from February 24th to March 1st. In its 9th year, the festival’s general- and artistic director is violinist and conductor and founder of the festival Leonid Rozenberg. Gilli Alon-Bitton of Carousel Artists Management & PR was artistic consultant and coordinator. Yossi Shiffmann presented each of the concerts. The festival offered 14 concerts as well as master classes for young musicians. Concerts took place in two halls at the Dan Hotel – the Tarshish Hall and the larger Big Blue Hall.

“Trees, Walls, Cities”, its title taken from the final work in the concert performed by the Brodsky Quartet and mezzo-soprano Lore Lixenberg, was one of the high points of the 2014 Eilat Chamber Music Festival, both in the concert’s distinctive performance and its original programming. In a very atypical opening to a concert of this kind, the Brodsky Quartet and Lore Lixenberg shake the chamber music audience out of any conventional expectations by performing Icelandic composer-singer Björk’s philosophical song “Cover Me”. We are now already a party to the quartet’s delicate approach and Lixenberg’s multi-faceted art. It transpires that the Brodsky Quartet has recorded with Björk, herself.

With convention happily out of the way, it was smooth sailing into Franz Schubert’s “Du bist die Ruh” (You are Rest and Peace), with quartet and singer floating the sensuous, almost spiritual course of the song in rich tranquility, with Lixenberg moving seamlessly from forte to fragile piano, losing no sonority on the way. This was followed by a memorable performance of Schubert’s “Der Tod und das Mädchen” (Death and the Maiden), the miniature but powerful dialogue playing out in Lixenberg’s convincing and controlled depiction of both characters, ending with Death’s voice depicted in dark, soothing tones. In “Dido’s Lament”, from Henry Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas”, Lixenberg and the quartet held onto the piece’s mellifluous calm, Lixenberg using key words to color and build towards the piece’s vehement ending in a performance that was intensely personal. Turning to a different genre, yet connecting with the mood of the preceding pieces, we then heard the Brodsky Quartet in a performance Schubert’s String Quartet no.13 in a minor D.804 opus 29, “Rosamunde”. The players – violinists Ian Belton and Daniel Rowland, violist Paul Cassidy and ‘cellist Jacqueline Thomas - paid respect to the work’s introspective character, its darkly, lyrical mood created by the suffering of an ailing Schubert. With an economical use of decisive, forte playing, the players wove its nostalgic beauty in sculpted, filigree lines, Schubert’s brighter moments clothed in warmth and charm rather than pulsing energy. Taking its name from the great Russian violinist Adolf Brodsky, the Brodsky Quartet, not restricted to merely performing string quartet repertoire in its 40-year existence, tackles non-mainstream theatrical-musical material.

”Trees, Walls, Cities”, a newly commissioned song cycle for the Brodsky Quartet and Lore Lixenberg is, in the words of Ian Ritchie, initiator of the project and director of the London Festival, involved in the brokering of peace. The project, created by the City of London Festival in partnership with the Walled City Festival and brought together by Nigel Osborne, links Derry-Londonderry, the City of London, Utrecht, Berlin, Vienna, Dubrovnik, Nicosia and Jerusalem via eight songs of local poets and composers in the message that trees symbolize freedom, nourishment, environmental planning and peace, whereas as city walls can exist either as historic, defensive structures surrounding people or as modern means of keeping people apart. At its Israeli premiere at the Jerusalem International YMCA on February 26th 2014, composer and oud player Habib Hanna Shehadeh (b. Rama, a Galilee village, 1974) spoke of the work as a “journey of love”. The songs were varied in style and message; Lixenberg took on the character of each, her sturdy voice once operatic, once folk-sounding, producing bird calls (music-Jocelyn Pook, Richard Thomas-lyrics, London), the reality of spoken text (Theo Verbey-music, Peter Huchel-lyrics, Utrecht), to the entwining of her voice around the sensuous text of the Song of Songs (Hanna Habib Shehadeh-music, Jerusalem). The challenging instrumental settings allowed for much imagination and expression, from the prominent, evocative string part of “Once There Was an Island” (Christopher Norby music, Matt Jennings-lyrics, Derry-Londonderry), to the complex intensity of “Just Outside” (Søren Nils Eichberg-music, lyrics, Berlin), to the atonal, mixed textures of the frenzied “When God Was Creating Dubrovnik (Isidora Žebeljan-music, Milan Milišić-lyrics, Dubrovnik) to the evoking of inner- and outer voices in fragmented word-play uttered by the instrumentalists against Lixenberg’s singing of incomplete Turkish phonemes in the sad, haunting “Walls Have Ears” (Yannis Kyriakides-music, Mehmet Yashin-lyrics, Nicosia) to the energetic, tonal chords but oriental rhythms wedding the Palestinian composer’s music education with the traditions of his background in “Song of Songs”. Born in the UK, singer and director Lore Lixenberg has a palette of timbral colors to match her extensive emotional scope; her repertoire ranges from opera to recitals and concert repertoire and to music-theatre, with much focus on contemporary classical music.


In his piano recital in the Tarshish Hall of the Dan Eilat Hotel on February 28th, Daniel-Ben Pienaar played all 24 preludes and fugues of Book 1 of J.S.Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier”. Born in South Africa, Pienaar moved to London at age 18 to study at the Royal College of Music, where he is now Curzon Lecturer in Performance Studies. After so many of us have followed the authentic movement’s roller coaster re-education on the subject of Baroque music performance practice, here is a pianist aware of all the performance styles Bach’s music has been through and, refuting none of them, brings his own ideas of playing Bach on the piano to the concert platform. Performing the whole of one book of the WTC would have been unheard of in Bach’s time; Bach wrote the pieces for personal enjoyment and for educational purposes. His manuscript consisted only of the musical text with almost no markings for the performer, thus inviting the keyboard player to form his own interpretation of these perfectly formed small pairs of pieces. Pienaar has made a deep enquiry into the micro and macro of Book 1 of the WTC, has formulated his own ideas on each piece and how they all “stack up”, in his words. Utilizing his superb technique, his fantasy and the possibilities of the modern piano, Daniel-Ben Pienaar takes us on a truly exciting journey through the pieces, showing the uniqueness of each as well as how the pieces can be contrasted with each other. Prelude no 3 in C sharp major, for example, is played with light, buoyant brilliance, its fugue fresh and bold. Following it, Prelude no. 4 in C sharp minor’s mystery unfolds via Bach’s surprising harmonic course, its fugue bathed in a sense of almost religious awe. Prelude no.15 was played a sense of weightlessness, the incredible speed and agility with which the artist took it ruling out neither articulacy or nor direction. The fugue was a celebration of Bach’s literally offbeat rhythmic ideas. Pienaar is into the use of textures and color and sees his use of the sustaining pedal here as inter-connected with other musical techniques and ideas. Another strategy he uses is taking tiny pauses between pieces or not, using the latter to keep tension high by proceeding directly with no breath between pieces. Listeners were kept at the edge of their seats throughout, finally arriving at Prelude no. 24 in B minor. Here, Pienaar took the listener into both the inner regions of the mind and into the sophistication of Bach’s canonic thinking, then concluding with the mighty 4-voiced B minor fugue (actually marked Largo by Bach), its subject using all 12 semi-tones, a work atonal well before its time, bringing to an end a recital bristling with interest, creativeness and aesthetic beauty.


Founded in 1997 and taking its name from Vivaldi (who was both a priest and a redhead) “Red Priest” is an English quartet of early music specialists – Piers Adams-recorders, Julia Bishop-violin, Angela East-‘cello and David Wright-harpsichord – who combine music, theatre and visual effects in performance that is unrestricted by academic formalities, yet well grounded in knowledge of the music. The opening of the “Venetian Carnival” program on Friday February 28th in the Dan Eilat Hotel’s Big Blue Hall saw the Red Priest players performing a Vivaldi concerto (“The Nightmare Concerto”) with frenzied energy; looking satanic in black cloaks, their faces also covered, with images of fire flashed onto the screen and the occasional thunder clap mixing in with the music, the artists were inviting listeners to let down their guard and join them in a musical-theatrical-visual experience that was about as unorthodox as it gets! With cloaks out of the way and faces now in view, the Red Priest players gave their unique take on a number of small works: these included an energetic ostinato-propelled Ciaccona of Mauricio Cazzati, Händel’s “Aria Amoroso” with Piers Adams’ expressive and caressing recorder playing inclusive of interesting ornaments played to scenes showing Venice, ‘cellist Angela East’s luxuriantly resonant and naturally flexed playing of the Prelude from J.S.Bach’s ‘Cello Suite no.1 and Piers Adams’ virtuosic performance of one of the Van Eyck sets of variations, beginning with the theme whistled. Their performance of Corelli’s “La Folia” Variations bowled one over with its variety of fiery moments, a brilliant harpsichord variation, jazz references and the virtuosic Adams making use of different recorders. In the two concerts Red Priest performed at the festival, we were to discover that Piers Adams is the ultimate quick-change recorder artist. And to fuel the satanic mood with which the event began, we heard Robert Johnson’s (1911-1938) “The Witches’ Dance” on violin, ‘cello and harpsichord, its ghostly moments peppered with much brilliant violin playing (Julia Bishop) as well as strange effects and witchlike laughs. (A famous blues guitarist, it was said that the devil gave Robert Johnson mastery of the instrument in exchange for his soul.)

Following the intermission, with the artists’ demonic black and red clothes all but forgotten, the artists appeared dressed as country characters in light colors for the pastoral mood of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”; on the screen, nature scenes and poetry added to the mood. In this work, the instrumentalists were joined by dancers Mario Bermudez Gil and Shani Licht, both members of the Batsheva Ensemble (Israel); expressive and masterful, the dancers added much interest and beauty to the performance. The players themselves presented the moods of each season theatrically and musically, with much pizzazz and the wink of an eye.

In Red Priest’s new program, “Händel in the Wind”, performed March 1st, we heard several of the composer’s celebrated works, however, with the ensemble’s own approach. In his program notes, Piers Adams provides the audience with some background to Red Priest’s decisions, mentioning the fact that Händel was known to have played the harpsichord “at whirlwind speed”, that “in Baroque times the personal whim and creativity of the performer were paramount” and that “some accounts” of concerts of the time “describe scenes more akin to modern day rock concerts than classical recitals”. The performance in hand presented several movements from “Messiah”, the idea initiated by ‘cellist Angela East. The pieces were infused with bird calls (played by Adams on two recorders), an energizing performance of “Every Valley”, “The Trumpet Shall Sound” being replaced by “The Recorder Shall Sound” played by Adams as festively as any trumpet would and with more ornamentation, poignant violin melodies (Julia Bishop), small whimsical quotes, some blue notes and a … jazzy “Hallelujah Chorus”!

In Red Priest’s treatment of Georg Frideric Händel’s soprano aria “Lascia ch’io pianga”, recycled a number of times by the composer himself, the soulful melody was initially presented most expressively by ‘cellist Angela East:
‘Let me weep
My cruel fate
And sight for liberty.
May sorrow break these chains
Of my sufferings, for pity’s sake.’
This was followed with skilful variations on violin and concluding with a boogie-woogie-based recorder version. In “The Harmonious Blacksmith”, a melody first heard by the composer when whistled by a London blacksmith, the ensemble gave it a folksy atmosphere, with virtuosic performances from East and Adams.

Harpsichordist David Wright’s scintillating performance of the Prelude of Händel’s B flat major Keyboard Suite highlighted the composer’s lavish style, spontaneity and fantasy, its energy and unpredictability. Of Händel’s sonata repertoire, we heard vivid readings of Sonata in F major opus 2 no.4 and Recorder Sonata in B minor in which contrast, beauty of sound and brilliance of technique made for music-making that was vital and spirited.


I wish to mention some of the works in which pianist Amir Katz played. “Trios”, which took place on March 1st in the Tarshish Hall of the Dan Eilat Hotel, opened with Robert Schumann’s “Märchenbilder” (Fairytale Pictures) for viola and piano, opus 113. The set of vignettes composed in 1851 (subtly shaded with the early signs of Schumann’s approaching madness) and centred on the D tonalities (major and minor) was played by Lise Berthaud (France) and Amir Katz (Germany/Israel). In this delightful work, not frequently performed on the concert stage, the artists displayed much give and take and a good measure of fantasy. They used fragile understatement, inner sensibility and play of color; the magical escapism of the world of fairy tales was sensitively balanced with both the forthright- and submissive sides of the composer’s character (referred to by Schumann himself as Florestan and Eusebius).

This was followed by Felix Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in D minor, performed by violinist Anton Barachovsky (Novosibirsk, Russia), ‘cellist François Salque (France) and Amir Katz (b. Ramat Gan, Israel). Creating a rich kaleidoscope of Romantic textures and moods, these three very fine artists wove together the threads of the work’s personal voice. Amir Katz opened the second movement with a solo infused with the delicate grace of what could easily have been one of the “Songs without Words”. The artists gave the Scherzo - fleet, capricious and devilishly virtuosic – a touch of the playful magic, as heard in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, this to be whisked away by the powerful rush of the final movement, at times orchestral in proportions, in which Katz dealt no less skillfully with its dizzying arpeggios and chromatic octaves as with the work’s lyricism. The performance brought together playing possessing freshness, ideas and total involvement.

Following the series of Beethoven sonatas he performed throughout Europe throughout last year, pianist Amir Katz is laying that specific repertoire aside to engage in recitals of Romantic music. In the festival’s Grand Finale, taking place in the Big Blue Hall on March 1st, Katz performed Frédéric Chopin’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra no.2 with the Igor Lerman Chamber Orchestra from Russia (conductor - Igor Lerman) the resident orchestra for the 2014 Eilat Chamber Music Festival. Chopin wrote his two piano concertos within a year, with Concerto no.2 in F minor actually written first; the composer was only 20 when he completed it. Following the long orchestral exposition of the opening Maestoso movement, Katz tempered the virtuosic piano part with a sense of well-being and poetry; filigree melodic strands, “hidden” voices and delicate details cascading forth were cushioned in the warmth of Chopinesque harmony. Orchestra and soloist struck a fine balance in the Larghetto movement, something of a Nocturne, Chopin’s delicate, dream-filled and limber melodies overlaid with sensual ornamentation that was never marred by excessive use of the sustaining pedal; here, we heard Katz producing some bewitching, glowing, bell-like piano colors. Resplendent with brilliance, the Allegro Vivace, with its piquant references to Polish dances, was not used as a vehicle for showmanship in Katz’s hands: passagework meant direction, with key changes ever shading the music differently.

Once again, the 2014 Eilat Chamber Music Festival offered a fine variety of concerts and repertoire and the opportunity to hear some of today’s most interesting artists.

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