Sunday, February 15, 2015

Notes from the 2015 Eilat Chamber Music Festival (1)

The 2015 Eilat Chamber Music Festival, taking place at the Dan Eilat Hotel, celebrated its 10th anniversary with a high quality line-up of events and artists. Running from February 2nd to 7th, 15 concerts made up the actual festival, with master classes for outstanding young players taking place behind the scenes. Concerts were held in two well-appointed halls of the hotel – the Tarshish Hall and the larger Big Blue Hall – with the high standards of the Dan Hotel’s service and unflagging attention to guests enriching the festival experience. The concept of Eilat having an annual chamber music festival of a very high level was that of violinist Leonid Rozenberg; his determination and professional know-how have turned the dream into reality. Rozenberg continues to be the festival’s musical director. Gilli Alon-Bitton (Carousel Artists Management and PR) is artistic consultant and coordinator.

The opening event (February 4th) “Carpe Noctem” (Seize the Night) was an a-cappella concert performed by the Kölner Vokalsolisten (Germany), a small ensemble of six singers (three men, three women) who chose to perform works with associations of night – art songs, folk songs, spiritual music and more. Founded in 2007, the ensemble focuses largely on modern music, but chose here to perform works from the Renaissance to contemporary music. The singers achieve a superb blend and display fine intonation but some of the mood pieces fell short of convincingly creating the mystery of night in its expression of the uncharted and the exotic, and of creating the variety of moods, magic and the unexpected as suggested in several of the texts; we could have done with more moments of truly lush, gregarious sound from these fine singers. But there were memorable moments, to mention a few, the clean, uncluttered English style of sacred music in Henry Purcell’s “Evening Service”, lively voice-play and solid vocal sound in William Byrd’s “Vigilate” and an elaborate screen of tonal- and atonal sonorities in “Carpe Noctem”, a work by member of the ensemble Fabian Hemmelmann (b.1977).
‘…and the night threw a cloak all around
Much goes astray at night…
And my soul stretched its wings out far…’ (Eichendorff)

On his second Israeli visit, French pianist Éric Le Sage performed a recital of Beethoven and Schumann works (“Fantasies”, February 5th). An eminent representative of the French piano school, Le Sage is considered to be one of the leading pianists of his generation. He has recently completed recording all of Schumann’s piano music. The artist opened with L.van Beethoven’s Sonata for Piano No.21 opus 53 “Waldstein”, in playing that was subtle, singing and clean. Le Sage’s reading of the work gave voice to Beethoven in his middle period with a fine balance of intensity, transient idyllic moments and intimacy, with occasional glimpses into the composer’s stormy soul. Then to one of Beethoven’s last sonatas – No.30 opus 109. Following the tender opening of the work, Le Sage opened Beethoven’s palette of ideas to the listener, presenting moments of delicacy and fine simplicity never overloaded with sentimentality and moments of seriousness that were never overlaid with roughness. In his hands, the variation movement is a kaleidoscope of ideas to captivate, fascinate and challenge both player and listener. Le Sage is an artist who stands back with humility to present the musical text with objectivity. The second part of the program was devoted to music of Robert Schumann, beginning with the “Fantasiestücke” opus 111 (1851), in which Le Sage’s richly endowed sound and detailed reading of each of the three pieces was personal, gently flexed and indeed contrasted with the “personalities” of Florestan and Eusebius. Schumann’s motto for the opus 17 “Fantasie” was to be found in a poem of Friedrich Schlegel, referring to “the quiet tone that only he can hear who listens secretly”. To his bride Clara, Schumann wrote that the first movement “is probably the most passionate thing I have ever done”. Le Sage showed the audience through Schumann’s rich canvas of human emotion, a compelling mood always giving way to the vulnerable and nostalgic, with articulacy, sensitive timing between gestures and clear layering. Yet his playing also speaks of pianism and the beauty and magic of touch.

In “Duo Français” (February 6th) French artists - pianist Éric le Sage and ‘cellist François Salque - joined to perform a program of French music and Beethoven works. They set the scene with Gabriel Fauré’s Romance & Élegie, played with Romantic, virtuosic intensity (never foraying into the over-muscular), some magically fine-spun “whispered” sotto voce moments and French transparency, Salque’s solos providing a glorious example of Fauré’s melodic style, with Le Sage’s playing fragile, attentive and nuanced. Especially evocative was the second movement of Francis Poulenc’s Sonata in E major (completed in 1948), an autumnal Cavatina woven of filigree lines, Le Sage’s playing subtle and mellow. In Claude Debussy’s Sonata for ‘cello and piano, one of the three late chamber works of the composer’s creative life, the artists presented the wealth of ideas inherent in this experimental and enigmatic work – its daring utterances, references to jazz, its minimal moments and those of whimsy, placing all into a soundscape colored by brash pizzicati, ponticello passages, floating flautandi high up on the fingerboard, rhythmic interjections, short bursts of accented notes, sudden tempo changes and far-flung harmonic wanderings.

Working in well with the French repertoire on the program, Beethoven’s Sonata for ‘cello and piano No.1 opus 5, the young composer’s first, was joyful and communicative, with the celebration of piano and ‘cello now on an equal footing (thanks to the fact that Beethoven, sorely in need of a patron, was out to impress King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia, who was a keen ‘cellist.) The question of balance was addressed sensitively by Salque and Le Sage as they brought out the challenging writing and sense of pleasure of a Beethoven not yet obsessed by his own troubled existence. Then, to one of the first works of Beethoven’s final period, a period of reflection - Sonata for ‘cello and piano No.5 in D major opus 102. Here the dynamic, full-blooded first movement was followed by the quintessential Beethoven adagio, introverted, moving and personal; here, both artists engaged in personal outpouring. In the following Allegro fugal movement, Le Sage and Salque, relaxed and displaying joie-de-vivre, giving way to each other in animated melodic exchanges, bringing to life Beethoven’s claim that to “make a fugue requires no particular skill” but that “today a new and really poetical element must be introduced into the traditional form.” This rewarding recital presented the fine tuning of music performed by two artists who have been performing together for many years.

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