Sunday, October 30, 2016

J.S.Bach's funeral music for Prince Leopold of Coethen performed at the 50th Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival

Maestro Ron Zarhi (photo courtesy Ron Zarhi)
“Bach – Requiem for a Prince”, an event of the 50th Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival, took place in the Church of the Ark of the Covenant, Kiryat Yearim, near Jerusalem, on October 24th 2016. Under the direction of Ron Zarchi, we heard the Upper Galilee Choir, the Bach Ensemble and soloists Einat Aronstein-soprano, Avital Dery-alto, Eitan Drori-tenor and Yair Polishook-bass.

J.S.Bach’s Cöthen Funeral Music BWV “Klagt Kinder, klagt es aller Welt” BWV 244a (Cry children, cry to all the world) was composed in 1729 for the funeral of Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen who had died March 24th, some days prior to his 34th birthday. Bach had served as Kapellmeister to the Prince at the Cöthen court from 1717-1723. His allegiance to-and friendship with the prince, however, continued after he left Cöthen to take up his position as Kapellmeister at St. Thomas, Leipzig, returning to Cöthen once a year to direct his works at Leopold’s court.  As to the funeral cantata, the problem was that the text, written by Christian Friedrich Henrici (also known as Picander) survived but not the musical score. What is known is that Anna Magdalena Bach and son Wilhelm Friedemann were among the musicians took part in the 4-part cantata. The story of the work’s reconstruction is too long to recount here in detail. In 1873, working on restoring the work, German musicologist Wilhelm Rust noted that all the arias and two of the choral sections fitted convincingly into the construction of some from the St. Matthew Passion. Bach generally made a practice of reusing previously written material of his, this reworking referred to as “parody”. In 1951, Bach researcher Friedrich Smend pointed out the similarity between two of the choral sections of BWV 244a and two in BWV 198, a funeral ode for Princess Christiane Eberhardine of Brandenburg-Bayreuth. What could not be traced were melodies for the recitatives; most of those used in this concert were composed by young German musicologist and harpsichordist Alexander Ferdinand Grychtolik, with one by British conductor Andrew Parrott. 

The cantata falls into four sections, the first dealing with the concept of mourning, the second with the prince’s departing and salvation of his soul and the third with Leopold’s commemoration, with the fourth dealing with farewell and eternal rest. At the Abu Gosh Festival performance, the opening chorus, sung with depth of emotion and graced with poignant flute-playing (Esti Rofé, Avner Geiger), set the mood for a work imbued with sadness and sorrow:
‘Cry, children, cry to all the world,
Let even distant borders know it,
How your protection hath been shattered,
How this your sovereign father falls.’

Avital Dery’s genuine handling of the alto recitatives and arias was profound, gripping and moving, her rich, ample voice expressive in presenting the pain and sorrow of mourning, the few moments of joy, temporarily lightening the mood, floated and ornamented.  Tenor Eitan Drori’s articulate and distinctive resonant vocal timbre, clean intonation and well-pronounced German were well received. Aria No.5 - “Faint with grief”, “sighing-laden torment”, with “tears” and “no sorrow to be likened” could have done with more plangent treatment of its word-painting. One of the high points of the concert, however, was “Go, Leopold to thy repose”, an aria for two choirs (representing the mortals, the chosen) in which Drori, oboist Meirav Kadichevski and the choir intermingled and combined to produce an item of splendid shaping and refined expression. Soprano Einat Aronstein, whose contribution to the 50th Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival’s concerts was altogether outstanding, gave musical and verbal meaning to each word and gesture of the text. In sensitive collaboration with Esti Rofé’s appealing flute line, Aronstein gave an empathic performance of “With gladness be the world abandoned, For death to me great comfort seems”, her voice substantial and easeful in all registers, later to be joined by both oboes, as she counselled courage in “Hold in check thine anxious fretting”. German Baroque oratorio is a genre that fits baritone Yair Polishook like a glove. His full, deep timbre and focus supported the comforting message of the work; in, for example, the somewhat enigmatic aria “Let, Leopold, thee not be buried”, he was joined by ‘cellist Yotam Baruch’s eloquent, personally-expressed and embellished obbligato, later offering a wonderfully velvet-smooth and calming presentation of the lilting aria “Rest ye now in your repose”.

Israeli-born Ron Zarchi graduated from the Rubin Academy of Music, Tel Aviv, in Composition and Conducting, then specializing in Early Music in Germany. In his work with several Israeli choirs, he has conducted the gamut of Baroque choral music, also Jewish liturgical music of the 19th and 20th centuries. Today Ron Zarchi is a member of faculty of the Levinsky International College of Education (Tel Aviv), also directing the Hemiola Women's Choir in addition to the Upper Galilee Choir.

Under Maestro Ron Zarchi’s direction since 1985, the Upper Galilee Choir, numbering some 45 singers, performs widely in Israel as well as overseas. What stands out is its meticulous training, musicality and competence. The choral sections in the BWV 244a cantata excelled in beautifully chiselled phrases, a vivid understanding of the texts and depth of feeling. Add to that Ron Zarchi's sensitive and articulate conducting, the sympathetic instrumental playing of the Bach Ensemble and four fine soloists and one comes up with a performance off home-grown artists that is gratifying, totally pleasurable and moving.  

The Upper Galilee Choir at Abu Gosh (photo: Paul Gluck)

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