Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Notes from the 2017 Eilat Chamber Music Festival - "Portraits" and "To the Memory of a Great Artist"

Marianna Vasileva,Mikhail Bereznicky,Hillel Zori,Martti Rousi (photo:Maxim Reider)
Concert No.1 “Portraits” (February 1st) of the 2017 Eilat Chamber Music Festival opened with Robert Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro in A-flat major op.70 for horn and piano, composed in February of 1849. Written for the newly-developed valve horn that began appearing in orchestras in the 1830s, the work reflects Schumann’s interest in wind sonorities. But it also reflects his wish to publish works, especially, for the “Hausmusik” (house music) market tailored to amateur music-making in the home. In which case, it is not surprising that the A-flat Adagio and Allegro was also published with alternative parts for either violin, viola or ‘cello. Following a rehearsal of it at the Schumann home with Clara Schumann at the piano and the Dresden Orchestra’s first horn player, Clara declared it a “magnificent piece, fresh and passionate…” At the Eilat concert, we heard it performed by Israeli artists Hillel Zori-‘cello and Amir Katz-piano. Their performance of the work was imaginative, expressive and multifaceted, the broad melodic lines of the Adagio richly coloured, lyrical and tender, the rondo of the Allegro marked “rasch und feurig” (fast and fiery) a mix of intense- and calm moments, enhanced with the déjà vu of the Adagio. What the artists handled exquisitely was the work’s fine balance of solo and background in dialogue of both statement and listening.

Whereas Schumann in 1849 had written “I have never been busier or happier with my work”, his Sonata in A-minor for violin and piano op.105 No.1, composed at a feverish pace within a few days in September of 1851, reflects the composer’s altered mental state; he was now suffering from violent mood swings and was tormented by demons. Performing the work at the Eilat Festival, violinist Grigory Kalinovsky (USA) and Amir Katz (piano) set the scene, with the profound searching ruminations of its opening moments, depicting Schumann’s unsettled soul and sense of striving. The artists made use of subtle rhythmic flexing and dynamic variety to achieve this, punctuating the music’s course with moments of fragility. With Kalinovsky’s delicate, finely-chiselled cantabile playing, the artists created the introverted poignancy of the more serene and kindly Allegretto (second) movement, with its enigmatic ritardandi and pauses, to be followed by the shadowy nervousness of the third movement, with Katz’ weighty chordal statements spelling severity in the already disturbing, unrelenting sixteenth-note perpetuum mobile of the movement. Katz and Kalinovsky gave an intelligent voice to the work’s passion, its poetic ideas and richness of textures, making a strong case for hearing and experiencing this work more frequently on the concert platform.

Paul Hindemith’s Sonata for viola and piano in F-major op.11 No.1 (1919), an early work not yet epitomizing the composer’s role on the European avant-garde scene, nevertheless represents some important influences and ground-breaking aspects in the composer’s career. The first of these is what would become his prolific writing for the viola, which was to become his main performance instrument. Then there is his interest in the duo sonata medium. No.1 of his opus 11 reveals the influences of Brahms, Reger and Debussy. We heard the sonata performed by violist Mikhail Bereznicky (Russia) and pianist Michael Zertsekel (Israel). Consisting of three movements played in continuum, the mystery-hued opening Fantasie provided a fine vehicle for Bereznicky’s wonderfully smooth tone and virtuosic playing and Zertsekel’s magical and flexible touch, with their concept of the Fantasie taking the listener to the unexpected by means of fine balance, eloquent phrasing and diverse textures. In playing that was virtuosic, at times dramatic, at others delicate, they addressed the shape and meaning of each gesture.
If the idea of festivals is to offer less-performed repertoire, Anton Arensky’s “Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky” for string quartet op.35A did just that! Performed in Concert No.16 (February 4th) titled “To the Memory of a Great Artist”, the work was originally composed as the slow movement of his String Quartet No.2 in A-minor (1894). The piece, unique in that it is scored for violin, viola and two ‘cellos, was written as a tribute to Arensky’s friend and colleague Pyotr Tchaikovsky a year after Tchaikovsky’s death. The variation theme is that of “Legend: Christ in His Garden” from Tchaikovsky’s obscure Sixteen Children’s Songs op,54, the song actually a translation into Russian of “Roses and Thorns” by American poet Richard Henry Stoddard. Arensky’s treatment of the theme and seven variations is more-or-less conventional. The final variation, however, presents Tchaikovsky’s theme in reverse. (Arensky explained this as imitating military funerals, in which guns were held upside down.) With the ‘cello-weighted dark sonorities contributing to the piece’s elegiac mood, violinist Marianna Vasileva (Israel/Russia), violist Mikhail Bereznitsky (Russia/Hungary) and ‘cellists Martti Rousi (Finland) and Hillel Zori (Israel) addressed the work’s personal message, its contrasts, embellishments, its mystery and pathos and what sounded to me like a prayerful aspect (its homophonic playing possibly evoking liturgical chant), all four artists exploring the score’s tonal and textural possibilities and Arensky’s forays into all registers of the instruments. Especially moving were the solos.

“Forgive me, dear friend” Pyotr Tchaikovsky wrote to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck in November 1880, following her request that he write a piano trio “I would do anything to give you pleasure, but this is beyond me…I simply cannot endure the combination of piano with violin or ‘cello…” Four months after Tchaikovsky’s answer to von Meck, Nikolai Rubinstein, founder of the Moscow Conservatory, died, leaving Tchaikovsky bereft at the death of his teacher, mentor and long-time friend. Some months later he began work on the Piano Trio in A-minor op.50, his only work for piano and strings, dedicating it “To the Memory of a Great Artist”. A large-scaled chamber work in all respects, it basically consists of two movements – “Pezzo eligiaco” (Elegiac piece), followed by a monumental series of eleven variations, its concluding “Variazione finale e coda” powerful and orchestral, also relating to the opening themes and message of the work. There is no denying the significant frames of reference inspiring the work - the composer’s grief on Rubinstein’s death, the virtuosic (at times, concerto-like) writing for piano, (Rubinstein was a superb pianist) and the element of folk melody (Rubinstein was known for his liking of folk music.) Yet, hearing violinist Grigory Kalinovsky, ‘cellist Hillel Zori and pianist Amir Katz performing the work at the Eilat Festival brought home how many other aspects there are to performing it beyond the stamina needed for the gargantuan work: the artists created the fitting coloration as suggested by Tchaikovsky’s score, their delicate balance of solo-, duo- and trio moments in the collage of articulate strands ever present as they gave expression to the work’s deep intensity but also to its lyricism and warmth. Their treatment of the first movement, its sweeping melodies bathed in melancholy, was wholehearted, their small hesitations suggesting a sense of spontaneity and the moment. As to the second movement variations, the artists gave a bold voice to Tchaikovsky’s kaleidoscope of ideas – bells, a music box, a waltz, a complex fugue, a Mazurka, to mention just a few – and its abundance of textures and moods. But then we are confronted by the return of the composer’s dark despair, the piano’s statement of the funeral march and the fading out memory of the opening gesture in the strings. It was a poignantly thought-provoking performance, one of the finest and most gratifying of the 2017 Eilat Chamber Music Festival.

Grigory Kalinovsky,Amir Katz,Hillel Zori (photo: Maxim Reider)

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