Friday, September 23, 2016

Members of Ensemble PHOENIX recreate the Paris salon, taking listeners to the Isle of Cythera

Tal Arbel, Marina Minkin, Myrna Herzog (photo: Eliahu Feldman)
“Journey to the Isle of Cythera” was the curious title of a house concert in Ra’anana, a small city in the central area of Israel, on September 15th 2016. Performed by PHOENIX members – founder and director Myrna Herzog and Tal Arbel (viols) and Marina Minkin (spinet) - the program consisted of French Baroque works as well a few Italian pieces. Making this event unique was seeing and hearing two beautifully crafted French pardessus viols built by Louis Guersan and Benoist Fleury and a quinton made by Nicolas Chappuy, heard in performance, in my opinion, for the first time in Israel.  We were about to take part in the experience of the musical salon. The French salon, a result of the Enlightenment of the early 18th century, acted as an extension of the royal court, providing women with an alternative to the court in order to gain status in the elite echelons, offering them a positive role in the public sphere of French society. As to the ladies’ choice of instruments, Herzog spoke of the violin (and ‘cello) as considered too vulgar for women to play in the salon. Women of the time were more likely to choose the harpsichord or the “pardessus de viole” (a sopranino viol of five or six strings, the highest pitched member of the viol family) instruments popular from the late 17th century up to around 1760. The five-string quinton, shaped like a violin, is the subject of discussion in Dr. Myrna Herzog’s article “Is the quinton a viol? A puzzle unravelled” (Early Music, 2000) in which she writes that the quinton is “a viol with a violin-like shape”. With these small instruments played mostly by women, Herzog recounts that “one of the most important [performers] was Mlle. Levi, who delighted all Paris with her performances of the ‘Concert Spirituel’ in 1745”.

J-A Watteau’s painting “The Embarkation for Cythera” (1717) hangs in the Louvre, Paris. It depicts lovers about to sail to the Greek island of Cythera, or are they, in fact, returning from the island in pairs? The lush oil painting, a true Rococo masterpiece of the then-new “fêtes galantes” genre that depicted courtly scenes in idyllic country settings, captures the sense of excitement and carefree prevailing in French aristocratic society of the time. With the Greek island of Cythera claiming to be the birthplace of Aphrodite (goddess of love) the above-mentioned painting, from which the PHOENIX Ensemble concert took its title, has fired the imagination of many a European artist dreaming of such an amorous escapade.

Whetting our taste for a true salon concert, the artists opened with an excerpt from Alexandre de Villeneuve’s (1677-1756) “Le Voyage de Cythère” (1727). A secular cantata for soprano and basso continuo, it features obbligato flute and violin. The composer’s introductory letter was not addressed to any royal patron but to the women who would be singing the cantata. We heard Tal Arbel on recorder, with Myrna Herzog playing the vocal line; Herzog and Arbel presented an excerpt from the text welcoming the lovers to the island, read in the original French and in a Hebrew translation. And on the subject of love, what could be more pertinent than one of François Couperin’s “Concerts Royaux”, composed for the “little chamber music concerts to which Louis XIV summoned me almost every Sunday”, in the composer’s words, and in which Couperin played the harpsichord. His Ninth Royal Concert – “Ritratto dell’Amore” evokes the various facets of love. The artists highlighted its grace, wit and elegance of court dance music in gently-swayed gestures.

Tal Arbel and Marina Minkin performed the Prelude from “Pièces de Viole” Book II, (1738) of Roland Marais (one of the celebrated Marin Marais’ 19 children), a leading viol player of the reign of Louis XV. Composed for bass viol and figured bass, Arbel’s playing focused attention on the piece’s agenda, with Minkin giving the harpsichord plenty of say. Even more daring was Jean-Baptiste Forqueray’s piece “Jupiter”, in which Arbel presented the demonic, dark gestures, the extrovert and the unpredictability of this small, unconventional work.

So why does a program of French Baroque chamber music include two sonatas of Arcangelo Corelli? Corelli’s music was known in France due to its extensive publication, its numerous editions pervading every corner of Europe, serving as models for violinists and composers. Editions were bought by people wanting to perform the music, these including the growing number of amateurs.  The Corelli trios were performed from a hand-written copy for two pardessus viols by Alexandre de Villeneuve. The Ra’anana house concert offered maximal conditions for hearing the finest details of Corelli’s Opus 3 No.2 and Opus 4 No.8 trio sonatas in this scoring and in all the text’s articulate detail, highlighting the imitative interaction between Herzog and Arbel and much elegant shaping of phrases. Neapolitan-born composer Francesco Guerini wrote a number of sonatas for two flutes, with the option of playing them on two  pardessus de viole. Herzog and Arbel played the Allegro from Duetto IV (1761), music both charming and accessible. 

Returning to French music, of the works of Jean-Philippe Rameau on the program, Marina Minkin played two solo pieces - the joyful “Les Sauvages” (inspired by two Louisiana Indians Rameau had seen performing in a Paris theatre) performed with verve and inventive ornamenting. In “L’Enharmonique” we meet Rameau the intellect and theorist in unprecedented writing for the harpsichord, in which he examines the effects of enharmonics and to where they lead, and surprising effects they were! With Minkin’s articulacy and artistic discretion, the pieces sounded especially convincing on the spinet, an instrument built for Herzog by Abel Vargas (Brazil) in 1992. Rameau’s “Musette and Tambourin” closing the evening soirée with delicacy and spirit were taken from viol virtuoso Ludwig Christian Hesse’s arrangements of Rameau works for two viols (and harpsichord), the viols thought to have been played by Hesse and his pupil Prince Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia.
In his painting, “Pilgrimage to Cythera” as well as in its variation “The Embarkation for Cythera” (1718), Antoine Watteau has created an idyllic scene in which Parisian ladies and gentlemen are about to engage in a “fête galante” under the watchful eye of Aphrodite’s statue. The tiny island of Cythera does really exist northwest of Crete; it boasts beautiful landscapes – forests, waterfalls, cliffs, gorges and an incredible wealth of wildflowers. We can see pictures of the lush island on the Internet or even take an idyllic vacation there. Members of the Paris salon would have only Watteau’s paintings on which to base their imaginings. Myrna Herzog’s musical ventures bring together ideas and fine playing. Her concerts never fail to take the listener into other worlds of sound, of fantasy and of interest, revealing so much about the essence of early music, its background and the people who created it.

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