Sunday, February 14, 2016

Notes from the 2016 Eilat Chamber Music Festival - orchestras without conductors - Concerto Koeln (Germany) and Les Dissonances (France)

Concerto Koeln (photo: Maxim Reider)
The 2016 Eilat Chamber Music Festival featured two orchestras playing without conductors…in the conventional sense. Concerto Köln, one of the first orchestras to play in the festival’s 11-year existence, has been involved in historically informed performance for 30 years. As members of a self-governed orchestra, the musicians carry a high degree of responsibility for performance results. Concerto Köln is known for its interest in the performance of little-known Baroque works; this was evident in “Händel and the Italian Baroque”, the ensemble’s first concert on February 5th, which featured Dutch mezzo-soprano Rosanne van Sandwijk. Most of the audience would not have been familiar with the first work – Concerto Grosso opus 5 no.6 in D-major by Evaristo Felice Dall’Abaco (1675-1742) – the performance affirming the argument for hearing more of Dall’Abaco’s music. A composer and performer at the Austrian court of Maximilian II and influenced by Vivaldi’s style, Dall’Abaco’s works have been brought to the public “ear” by Concerto Köln. Other instrumental works on the program were a spirited and well contrasted performance of Vivaldi’s Concerto for ‘Cello, Strings and basso continuo in D-minor RV 407 (soloist: Werner Matzke)and Giovanni Battista Sammartini’s Sinfonia in A-major. Rosanne van Sandwijk performed a splended selection of excerpts from a number of Händel works, opening with “Donna, che in ciel di tanta luce splendi”, highlighting its drama as she held the players in constant eye contact. She gave elegance and delicacy to Ruggiero’s aria from “Alcina”, “Mi lusinga il dolce affetto”, contending well with its rapid Neapolitan runs and trills, offering a well ornamented performance of “Cara Speme” (Giulio Cesare). In (Giovanni Battista Ferrandini or) Händel’s sacred cantata “Il pianto di Maria Vergine”, Sandwijk gave gripping, poignant and vehement expression to Mary’s grief, reproachful anger and torment.

Concerto Köln’s second concert featured four of the six Brandenburg Concertos - Italian-flavoured concerti grossi presented by J.S.Bach to the Margrave of Brandenburg in 1721. With each concerto differently scored, here was an opportunity to hear Concerto Köln’s various players in different ensemble combinations. They began with a fresh, vivid reading of No.3, its minimal second movement remaining enigmatic to many of us, then to No.5, graced with transverse flute (Cordula Breuer) with Gerald Hambitzer giving life to the harpsichord solo - its first big break in concerto history. Then to No.6, with its unconventional scoring of strings and harpsichord but no violins, concluding with the hearty Concerto No.4, with its charming recorder duo team (Wolfgang Dey, Cordula Breuer) and truly inspired violin playing on the part of first violinist Evgeny Sviridov.

David Grimal (photo: Maxim Reider)
Also playing with no conductor, or might one say “self-conducted”, Les Dissonances (France), a small orchestral collective established in 2004 by violinist David Grimal, performs the major works of orchestral repertoire up to contemporary music. In “A Mozart Celebration” Grimal (soloist) and his players, many of them young, presented the last three of Mozart’s five violin concertos and, as in Mozart’s day, they were performed without a conductor, with Grimal glancing at players here and there but not engaging in actual conducting gestures. This approach makes more demands on the players, therefore, with the Dissonances members proving that they were indeed polished in the art of producing music with accuracy, coordination and clean entries, as they watched each other intently, sensing the music together. Their reading of Violin Concerto no.3 in G-major K.216 bristled with clarity, lyricism and some splendid wind-playing, with Grimal shaping phrases with much beauty. In the more extroverted and virtuosic Violin Concerto no.4 in D-major K. 218, its surprise package offering a stately gavotte played over a drone in the third movement, Grimal did not allow virtuosity to get in the way of the 19-year-old Mozart’s style of charm and elegance. As to Violin Concerto no.5 in A-major K. 219, Grimal and his players set before the audience the work’s originality, imaginative structure, drama and daring, some meaningful rubati adding to the graceful fragility of the second movement. Following this was Mozart’s unorthodox utterance within the gracious final Rondo movement – an aggressive, clanging, percussive reference to the faux-Turkish music popular at the time. With the violin concertos written without cadenzas, here was Grimal’s opportunity to express his own ideas of the cadenza improvisation. Even if some listeners were surprised or puzzled by some unpredictable turns, I think Mozart would have been happy with Grimal’s daring, his unconventional inventiveness and freedom.

In their second concert - “The Four Seasons” - David Grimal and Les Dissonances chose to perform Antonio Vivaldi’s “Le quattro staggione” in dialogue with Astor Piazzolla’s “The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires”, presenting each composer’s depiction of each season. The score of Vivaldi’s composition, written around 1723, one of the earliest examples of program music, was accompanied by poems (possibly written by Vivaldi himself) describing the feelings associated with each season:
‘Under the heavy season of a burning sun
Man languishes, his herd wilts, the pine is parched
The cuckoo finds its voice and, chiming in with it,
The turtle-dove, the goldfinch…’
Piazzolla’s original version of “Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas” (1965-1970), a set of four tango compositions describing the four seasons in Buenos Aires, was scored for violin (viola), piano, electric guitar, double bass and bandoneon (a large button accordion, of which the composer was a virtuoso player.) From 1966-1968, Russian composer Leonid Desyatnikov arranged the pieces to be more similar in construction to those of Vivaldi – each given three sections – and with some quotes from the Vivaldi work. Not the first ensemble to engage in this meeting of “strange bedfellows” forming an alliance of works from different two continents (in recognition of which Desyatnikov threads elements of Vivaldi’s “Winter” into Piazzolla’s “Summer”!) and composed 250 years apart, Grimal and Les Dissonances took the bull by the horns and presented the audience with the rich and changing canvases, their alternation presenting an exciting challenge to the listener. Some found the changes jarring. Not I. This was fine festival fare and superbly performed. The artists’ playing of the much-loved Vivaldi violin concertos was direct, fresh and poignant, rich in timbral variety and in the inspiration generated by living nature and its secrets, the concertos flexed in accordance with the music’s innate elasticity. Grimal’s playing was poetic, moving and personal in expression. Piazzolla-Desyatnikov’s tango-inspired work, sharing with Vivaldi’s the depiction of all four seasons and the violin solo-string orchestra setting, weaves a vivid tapestry of European musical features, jazz and Argentinean tango, of abrupt shifts and the use of strings in a percussive manner. Swinging between the devil-may-care boldness and melancholy of Piazzolla’s writing, Grimal and his players brought out the vitality, earthiness, the wit and unabashed sentimentality of the Buenes Aires personality, giving themselves to the raw reality, fire, passion and sensuality of the music of Piazzolla’s native Argentina…and all this with no conductor!

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