Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The PHOENIX Ensemble performs J.S.Bach's organ Trio Sonatas in several venues around Israel

J.S.Bach composed the Trio Sonatas BWV 525-530 for organ or pedal clavichord (an instrument the Bach household possessed, possibly for practicing works to later be played on pipe organ). They were found in an autograph dating from the composer’s first few years in Leipzig, where he lived from 1723 till his death in 1750. In his 1802 Bach biography, Johann Nikolaus Forkel writes that the works were written for Bach’s eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, to give him practice in dexterity on the organ. In which case, they join other pedagogical collections of keyboard works, such as the Inventions. And we know that Wilhelm Friedemann went on to have a brilliant career as organist. The sonatas demand outstanding coordination of hands and feet, with three lines played on two keyboards and pedal. There is much variation in the registrations organists choose for these pieces. Some believe in selecting three different timbres for the three voices, allowing for every detail of the counterpoint to be heard. Others are of the opinion that the sonatas benefit from similarity of timbre in the voices. Here, Bach is offering a wide scope in how the player may concern himself with “good taste”. Even more of Bach’s flexibility is displayed by that fact that Bach was constantly reworking pieces to use them in new settings: the first movement of Trio Sonata in e minor BWV 528 began its existence as an instrumental trio for oboe d’amore, viola da gamba and harpsichord in Cantata no.76, whereas the Adagio e Dolce from Sonata in d minor BWV 527 was later recast as the middle movement of the BWV 1044 Triple Concerto.

It is highly likely that Bach wrote a lot of chamber music that has been lost and there is quite a choice of arrangements of these trio sonatas for chamber ensembles. Indeed, here Bach himself was imitating a chamber genre in the three-movement Italian model. Consider the fact that these works are not the flamboyant organ toccatas and fugues, nor are they characterized by the mysticism of the organ chorale-preludes. So it is fitting that Myrna Herzog, founder and director of the PHOENIX Ensemble, should choose to play a concert of these pieces on four instruments, a true trio sonata line-up of violin–Noam Schuss, flute-Na’ama Lion (USA/Israel), harpsichord-Marina Minkin and with Herzog herself on viol. This writer attended the concert on May 31st 2014 at St. Andrews Scots Memorial Church, Jerusalem.

From the very first sounds of Trio Sonata in G major BWV 525, one became acutely aware of the Scottish Church’s receptive acoustic, displaying the clarity and beauty of these period instruments. In probably the first of the six to be written, offering a fusion of sonata- and concerto styles, the players set out the musical narrative with crystal clarity and freshness. Schuss and Lion created dialogue that was joyful, bristling with interest and appealing, each retaining her- and the instrument’s individuality. However, all instruments had much to say and I found myself needing to tune in to the melodic and harmonic richness of each individually. Sonata in d minor BWV 527 was presented as a suave gamba sonata, the harpsichord part being an obbligato role. Herzog and Minkin engaged in discourse of the most mellow of coloring in a relaxed setting, their tempi carefully paced, their flexing subtle. Sixteenth notes and arpeggii were threaded into the lush text with delicacy and understatement, the artists’ message being that this was no showpiece, rather the noble music of a Lutheran church composer. Trio Sonata in D major opened with a lively soundscape, its imitative style giving flute and violin a green light to intertwine their thoughts in a texture where the flute took the upper strand, with Schuss the middle (left hand on the organ), as they played with sixteenth notes that oscillated around a fixed pedal point followed by lively eighth notes. In the Lento, the artists expressed the Siciliano movement’s profound three-voiced dialogue, careful not to over-embellish, lest they camouflage the nuances of melodic lines.

PHOENIX presented Sonata in C major BWV 530 as a flute and obbligato sonata. Together with its sparkling, virtuosic character, very much of the Vivaldian concerto style, Na’ama Lion (her well-anchored sound defying the “shrinking violet” character adopted by many Baroque flautists) chose to show the listener through the text’s course, with Marina Minkin’s rich and elegant playing highlighting prominent moments. Their playing was celebratory, intelligent and interactive. Sonata in e minor BWV 528 was performed as a violin sonata with obbligato harpsichord. Harpsichord and viol provided a solid bass through which continuum Schuss threaded the upper line. Noam Schuss’s playing is directional, secure and informed, always rewarding. As all address the serious character of the work, Schuss moves through its expansiveness and textural density, also standing back to give Minkin the stage. Dr. Myrna Herzog referred to Trio Sonata in d minor BWV 526 as “the most loaded”. Opening with graceful, buoyant playing of the Vivace, the players’ reading of it was both perceptive and introspective, the haunting Largo movement, with Minkin making use of the lute register, gentle, mellifluous and contemplative. The players had their listeners sitting on the edge of their chairs as they presented the choral-style fugue, its subject fanfared by two noble whole notes, a tour-de-force of compositional brilliance and beauty to end the concert.

This program was the result of much searching work, discussion and decisions of all four artists. To anyone not familiar with these works on organ, it might have seemed that these trio sonatas were scored for the PHOENIX quartet instrumentation. In tailored melodic lines that “sang”, at no time overloaded with showy ornaments, the players’ clarity of texture and lightness were all to the good of Bach’s ingenious counterpoint. This was playing of commitment, of beauty of melodies, of inner dialogue, of sincerity and musical persuasiveness. In an anonymous quote of 1788, some wise person (was it C.P.E. Bach?) wrote: “Bach’s trios still sound good; they will never grow old, but, on the contrary, will outlive all revolutions of fashion in music.”

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