Monday, April 18, 2016

Maestro Andrew Parrott (UK) conducts the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, the Chamber Choir of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and soloists in a program of music of Henry Purcell

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s fifth concert for the 2015-2016 season was “Come Ye Sons of Arts”, a program of music of Henry Purcell (1659-1695). Joining the JBO was the Jerusalem Academy of Music Chamber Choir (director: Stanley Sperber), tenor soloist Doron Florentin, with some solos sung by members of the choir. Directing the performance was Maestro Andrew Parrott (UK), honorary conductor of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra.

Valuable information and inferences from Parrott’s decades of work and thoughts have recently appeared  in his authoritative book of essays “Composers’ Intentions? Lost Traditions of Musical Performance” (Boydell Press, 2015), focusing mostly on vocal and choral matters in performing works of Monteverdi, J.S.Bach and Henry Purcell. Directing the Taverner Choir and Taverner Players (formed by him in 1973) Parrott’s direction of two CDs of “Purcell: Music for Pleasure and Devotion”, compiled in 2003 from many different performances, presents a cross-section of Purcell’s oeuvre – incidental theatre music, instrumental pieces, songs and sacred music. Israeli audiences were privileged to hear some Purcell works of most of those categories in the JBO concerts performed in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa under his direction this April. This writer attended the concert on April 14th 2016 in the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship, Jerusalem International YMCA.

The program opened with the Symphony to Purcell’s ode “Hail! Bright Cecilia” Z.328 (1692), the masterful overture composed in a series of short, contrasted sections, its majestic trumpet/oboe calls answered by strings, elaborate fugal writing, pensive soul-searching moments and a rich sprinkling of Purcell’s unusual and beguiling harmonic progressions, with many more of the latter to grace the rest of the program. To quote Paul McCreesh, “Hail! Bright Cecilia is probably the first substantial piece of English music to use the full orchestra…an extraordinarily forward-looking work…”  Maestro Parrott left the podium as violinists Noam Schuss, Dafna Ravid and Smadar Schidlovsky engaged in the discourse of a stylish, buoyant and creative reading of Purcell’s “Fantasia: Three Parts upon a Ground” Z.731, their brilliant playing enhanced by some delicate and poetic theorbo sounds (Ophira Zakai) and ‘cellist Orit Messer-Jacobi’s ebullient solo. Purcell was about 21 when he began writing music for theatre; this body of music became a significant part of his output; with William and Mary on the throne there was vastly less music at court, encouraging Purcell to compose music to 43 plays. There is little probability that any of us will see woman playwright Aphra Behn’s “Abdelazar or the Moor’s Revenge” let alone “The Gordian Knot Unty’d” whose writer is not known and little is known of the play. With a little luck we might have the fortune to attend a performance of the composer’s last semi-opera “The Indian Queen”. Andrew Parrott offers a glimpse into the London theatrical scene of the time in his charming collection of incidental pieces taken from these works, in which we heard trumpeter Yuval Shapira’s deftly fashioned Trumpet Overture (“The Indian Queen”) and the ensemble’s performances of a Rondeau, Chaconne and Symphony and Dance that were both bold, elegant and entertaining.

Then to one of the most solemn and mournful choral pieces from the Baroque period – Purcell’s “Funeral Sentences” Z.860 (1677). Purcell was responsible for organizing the music for the funeral of young Queen Mary II on March 5th 1695. Much of the music performed was by Morley; research has revealed that only the third version of “Thou knowest Lord” as well as the March and Canzona (the latter two not performed at the JBO concert) were played at her funeral. Perhaps the “Funeral Sentences” were intended for Purcell’s teacher Matthew Locke. What is known is that the deeply melancholic and resigned anthem was soon to be performed at Purcell’s own funeral the very same year. Focusing on the transitory nature of life, fear of divine judgement and the hope for mercy, it contains some of Purcell’s most spine-chilling word painting - daring leaps, chromaticism and jarring dissonances. Parrott’s performance of it employed two separate one-to-a-voice ensembles as well as the whole choir - some beautiful voices. Somewhat disadvantaged at their being placed at the back of the YMCA stage, we seem to have missed out on some of the choir’s resonance; the singers might have given the work more compelling urgency had they been placed closer to the audience. As to the 8-voiced anthem “Hear My Prayer, O Lord” – Psalm 102 Z.15 (only a part of an incomplete work), also with a continuo of organ (David Shemer) and violone (Dara Blum) at this concert, conductor and choir gave vehement expression to the piece’s daring and powerful mix of seemingly simple vocal lines as they took on the relentless, seamless flow of the work, its build-up and soaring of tension throughout,  conveying in Purcell’s complex harmonic language the text’s anguish, to then find peace in the final understated open fifth C-minor chord.

The celebratory anthem “Jubilate Deo” Z.232 was first performed on St. Cecilia’s Day in 1694 in London. In Purcell’s fresh, lively setting of the text, in which full Baroque tutti sections interject and alternate with more reflective prayerful passages, tenor Doron Florentin exhibited involvement, warmth of sound, eloquence and vocal stamina as he conversed with the trumpet line and dueted with soprano Ayelet Kagan and with bass Asaf Benraf, the latter two also members of the Chamber Choir, all forces joining to make for a fine performance of the final contrapuntal tutti.

“Come Ye Sons of Arts” Z.323 is Purcell’s final birthday ode for Queen Mary. The opening tri-partite Symphony proved to be a fine vehicle for the JBO, and especially festive for the winds, as Parrott and the instrumentalists gave meaning to each gesture and mood change, the wistful Adagio given time to unfold naturally and to take an extra tug at the heart strings. With the opening chorus gently swayed, the instruments sounded as connected to the words as were the singers.  In lieu of two countertenors, Doron Florentin and mezzo-soprano Tamara Navot performed “Sound the Trumpet” with some nice imitation and word-play despite their being ill matched volume-wise. With the recorders (Myrna Herzog, Shai Kribus) poignant in expression and beautifully matched in spirit and tuning in the obbligato role of the ode’s centre piece “Strike the Viol”, Florentin shaped and sculpted the vocal line, energized by Purcell’s inebriating rhythmic insistence and instrumental setting. Bass Asaf Benraf’s solos were pleasing, musical and carefully handled. Soprano Yuval Oren’s communicative manner and competent singing of “Bid the Virtues” were charmingly balanced with the oboe obbligato (Ofer Frenkel), Oren joining Benraf in duo in the final movement. Ending the program with this joyful ode, a work comprising some of Baroque music’s finest “hits”, our attention was drawn by Maestro Parrott to the specific and subtle agendas of both choir and orchestra throughout.



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