Thursday, March 9, 2017

At the Mormon University, Jerusalem, Ensemble PHOENIX presents "Glamour and Fashion: London on the 18th Century"

Moshe Epstein,Marina Minkin,Myrna Herzog,Lilia Slavny (photo:Eliahu Feldman)

For some strange reason, chamber music from Georgian England is rarely performed on our concert platforms. Of course, one major explanation might be the attitude that “no music of any worth was composed between that of Purcell and Britten”. Another might be that this instrumental repertoire was mostly performed in the private salons of the wealthy, an institution now almost forgotten.  For Dr. Myrna Herzog, founder and musical director of Ensemble PHOENIX, this music, belonging to the world of “Glamour and Fashion: London in the 18th Century”, has as much delight to offer audiences as it has to its players. 18th century London was alive with culture, with nightly performances at the Covent Garden and Haymarket Theatres, with more than 60 ostentatious pleasure gardens offering amusement. As to British music of the second half of the 18th century, straddling the Baroque and Classical styles, the London scene was enhanced by the presence of such figures as violinist Felice Giardini, Johann Christian Bach and Carl Friedrich Abel, Joseph Haydn and Carl Stamitz.

This writer attended the PHOENIX concert on March 5th at the Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies (Mormon University). One of Jerusalem’s most scenic concert venues, the Center’s beautiful building and extensive landscaped gardens sit high up on Mount Scopus overlooking the Mount of Olives. Artists performing on period instruments were Moshe Aron Epstein-flute, Lilia Slavny-violin, Marina Minkin-harpsichord and Myrna Herzog-‘cello.

The evening opened with Trio in G-major of German-born Carl Philipp Stamitz, a virtuoso player on the violin, viola and viola d’amore. Stamitz (1745-1801) travelled extensively throughout Europe, his short sojourn of 1777-1778 in London bringing him much success. Performed by Epstein, Slavny and Herzog, the G-major trio set the scene for an evening of appealing, uncluttered music of genial charm. With Moshe Epstein playing the upper, more soloistic part and Slavny’s subtle, dedicated partnering, the artists offered performance rich in dialogue, in suave focused tone and delicate nuancing.

 In 1784, the European Magazine and London Review published an article that began thus: “To the honour of the present times, England is no longer to be pointed as barren of masters in the polite arts. Music, which formerly derived little advantage from natives of this island, now can boast of several Professors, who rival the Italian and German masters both in performance and in composition. The English school, we trust, will continue to do honour to the science of music: and it will afford us great pleasure to record occasionally the lives of such of the professors of the art, as, from their abilities and virtues, deserve to be transmitted to posterity.” The journal’s “composer of the month” was blind London-born organist and violinist John Stanley (1712-1786), a prominent figure in London’s musical life, a performer whose original organ voluntaries drew large crowds to the various churches and are performed to this day. A transitional composer between Händel and J.C.Bach, his musical style moved from the Baroque organ style to the pre-Classical concept. In Stanley’s Solo in D for German Flute op.1 No.7 (1740) a sonata in all but name, Herzog and Minkin played the continuo role (sympathetically realized on that of the composer). Moshe Epstein conveyed the clarity and sweetness of Stanley’s writing for flute; especially touching was the Siciliano (3rd movement), to be followed by the elegantly stepping 4th movement, with its deftly handled flute variations most pleasurable.

Joseph Haydn’s Six Divertimenti à 3 opus 38 for flute, violin and ‘cello, were first published in London in 1784. The composer’s first chamber music to include the flute (possibly a gesture to the Earl of Abingdon, who had invited Haydn to come to London and was an enthusiastic flautist) the Divertimenti provided the middle classes with high quality entertainment.   Actually, much of the material of Trio No.4 is taken from one of his trios for baryton (a bizarre, ‘cello-type instrument). Displaying the delicate balance of togetherness and individuality, Epstein, Slavny and Herzog highlighted the heart-warming intimacy, the felicity, spontaneity and melodic beauty of this London Trio –  a hidden gem.

House composer at Drury Lane, London-born Thomas Arne (1710-1778) was known as a composer of masques, songs and fashionable Italian-type opera; he is also known for having composed “Rule Britannia” and “God Save the King”. Much of his output was burned in the Drury Lane fire of 1809; whatever remained was then forgotten for two centuries. The PHOENIX performance of his Trio op.3 No.6 in B-minor served as a reminder to listeners of his sophisticated, skilful instrumental writing, with each miniature movement a carefully-polished gem. The artists leaned into strategic dissonances, gave expression to tiny details, to chromaticism and tasteful ornamentation, all taking part in the lively banter of the final Allegro.

A contemporary, German court musician Carl Friedrich Abel (1723-1787), the last of the great viol players, moved to London in 1758, where he quickly established himself as a significant writer of chamber music. Slavny, Minkin and Herzog (the ‘cello here joining as an equal player, not in the continuo role) performed Abel’s Sonata No.2 in C-major op.9 No.1, (c.1772) a galant, lyrical bipartite work of the style of light chamber music popular in Georgian London. In the opening Moderato movement, Slavny’s elegant ornamenting of the repeats added to the work’s dapper feel as did the players added a touch of the inégal and made use of cadential dissonance, with detached textures chosen for the ensuing Vivace.  Their playing created a musical portrait Abel himself, a genteel character who hobnobbed with London’s artists, engravers and designers, those including Gainsborough and Cipriani.

Commissioned by The King’s Theatre in London to write two operas for the 1762-63 season, Johann Christian Bach (J.S.Bach’s youngest son) moved to London at age 27, making his home there, dwelling in prestigious locations and receiving the position of music master to Queen Charlotte and her family. In 1764, the younger Bach (1735-1782) began collaboration with Abel (who had studied with Johann Sebastian) in what was known as the Bach-Abel concert series; it was in those concerts that the two aired many of their works. Published in 1763 and dedicated to Queen Charlotte, J.C.Bach’s six opus 1 concertos were written for both the concert hall and for amateur musicians in the home. At the Jerusalem performance, this vibrant work made for fine concert fare. Its opening movement bristled with effervescent joie-de-vivre. In the Andante movement, the harpsichord solo shone through, accompanied by pizzicato (staccato on flute) chords. Then to the variations on “God Save the Queen”, conveyed with warmth of sound, its tutti punctuated by plenty of solo sections on the part of Minkin. The “London Bach”, steering away from his northern German background, was paving a new way for the concerto in the chamber music setting.

There can be no doubt that performing this music on period instruments conjures up all the timbres and intentions the above-mentioned composers would have had in mind. The flute Moshe Epstein was playing is an original Rudall & Rose instrument from London (1827), i.e. an early Romantic flute, its sound indeed similar to that of flutes heard in 18th century England. It is totally different to the modern flute, having a much gentler, more modest sound; an instrument with totally different fingering, so quite challenging to play, Epstein sounded perfectly at home on it. The violin Lilia Slavny was playing is a copy of a 1734 Guaneri del Gesù instrument built by British violinmaker Roger Hargrave (Bremen). She and Herzog alternated between Classical and Baroque bows. For this program, Myrna Herzog chose to play a truly Baroque ‘cello made by Johann Adam Reigeld (Germany, c.1730); this unique instrument has a penetrating sound and what could only be described as a “very swollen belly”. Marina Minkin was playing her Flemish harpsichord, built by Klop (Holland).  

Not hosted by singer and actress Susannah Cibber (Thomas Arne’s sister) at her Sunday evening salons, where she was hostess to “a constellation of wits, poets, actors and men of letters” (according to Burney, who also attended), not seated on Chippendale chairs or drinking tea from Wedgewood cups, the Jerusalem audience was indeed offered a delightful and authentic taste of 18th century English salon music in another of Myrna Herzog’s meticulously-researched and enlightening programs.


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