Saturday, January 28, 2017

Elam Rotem's "Joseph and his Brethren" returns to Israel to be joined once more by the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra

The Profesti della Quinta Ensemble (photo:Maxim Reider)

Elam Rotem’s work “Joseph and his Brethren” may have  changed our concept of how we define a work as early Baroque music of the Italian style or as new music. Israeli-born harpsichordist, composer and bass Elam Rotem, with specializations in historical performance practice, in particular basso continuo and improvisation (Schola Cantorum, Basel, Switzerland) and a doctorate from the University of Würzburg (Germany), has taken the story of Joseph in the original Hebrew and set it in the musical style (seconda pratica) that flourished in Italy at the outset of the 17th century in tandem with that of Emilio de’ Cavalieri (1550-1602), a composer whose music Rotem has researched. Since its composition, “Joseph and his Brethren” (2014) has been performed worldwide and been recorded for Pan Classics by Rotem’s Basel-based ensemble Profeti della Quinta of five male singers, now returning to Israel to be hosted once more by the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, in the 2016-2017 subscription series. This writer attended the concert on January 25th 2017 at the Jerusalem International YMCA. Joined by JBO founder and musical director David Shemer (organ), violinists Noam Schuss (concertmaster) and Dafna Ravid, Ofira Zakai (theorbo), Chen Goldsobel (violone), also viol players Myrna Herzog and Tal Arbel (also on recorder) as well as the two instrumentalists working permanently with the Profeti della Quinta ensemble - Ori Harmelin (chitarrone) and lirone player Elizabeth Rumsey (Australia) – with Rotem himself at the harpsichord. Returning with some ensemble changes, the Profeti Ensemble today consists of countertenors Doron Schleifer and Ukraine-born Roman Melish, tenors Dan Dunkelblum and Lior Leibovici (Israel/France), with Elam Rotem singing the bass line.

With the indelible memory of two performances of the work heard – indeed, experienced – three years ago, would this be the déjà vu or a new encounter with the work? It was both and no less rewarding than three years ago. Here was one of the most moving and human stories ever told presented in Rotem’s majestic, silken and sensuous musical lines and performed with uncanny precision and superb vocal balance. Countertenor Doron Schleifer, in the role of what would be the Evangelist in a Bach Passion, narrates the story with natural articulacy and emotionally honest gestures, understatement and empathy, however, bringing out the story’s climactic moments in agitated- and more strident timbres. Take, for example, his rich melisma in “And he wept aloud” prior to Joseph’s unheralded, simply-expressed and moving “I am Joseph your brother, whom ye sold into Egypt”.

Served well by his substantial, well-grounded tenor voice, Dan Dunkelblum, stepping forward to address the audience, brought out some of the text’s most dramatic speeches, rich in imagery and human emotion. Young countertenor Roman Melish’s attractive singing displayed a richly coloured and fresh timbre. The work’s ensembles exhibited finely crafted blending, shape and precision.  In his vocal solos, Elam Rotem’s unforced bass voice gave imposing reverence to some of the work’s pivotal texts:

“Shed no blood, but cast him into this pit that is in the wilderness, and lay no hand upon him.”

No less significant is Rotem’s fine instrumental writing, with its delicacy, its variety of early dance rhythms, sophisticated counterpoint and transparency.  The sinfonias to each section play an important role in reflecting on what has just transpired and how the plot must move forward. Violinists Noam Schuss and Dafna Ravid’s discerning and informed playing of the upper parts made for fine listening. Altogether, Elam’s instrumentation produced a soundscape inviting the listener to immerse himself in the magic of period instruments. Constructed masterfully, I believe that “Joseph and his Brethren” will stand as one of the most outstanding sacred works of the early 21st century.


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