Wednesday, April 5, 2017

At the second Bach in Jerusalem Festival, harpsichordists Marina Minkin and David Shemer perform Bach and works from "Conversations" - their new CD of modern music for two harpsichords

David Shemer and Marina Minkin (Photo:Avi Elbaz)

“Conversations” - one of the more intimate and unique concerts of the second Bach in Jerusalem Festival (March 20th-25th 2017) – took place at the Jerusalem Music Centre, Mishkenot Sha’ananim, on March 23rd. Performing on two harpsichords -  built by Martin Skowroneck (2001) and Michael Johnson (1985) - we heard Marina Minkin and David Shemer in some of the works from “Conversations”, their recently-issued disc of works of contemporary music for two harpsichords. The CD also includes two solo works.

David Shemer, musical director of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra and of the Bach in Jerusalem Festival, spoke of the CD as being a highly important project for Marina Minkin and him. He expressed the hope that more works would be written for two harpsichords; he drew the audience’s attention to the fact that one harpsichord produces a delicate sound, whereas two played together resound substantially. 

Indeed, the list of works for two harpsichords even from the Baroque period – the harpsichord’s heyday – is short: there are those by F.Couperin, L.Couperin, Gaspard Le Roux, Antonio Soler and, of course, J.S.Bach and his sons. Bach, in fact, went as far as to write concertos for three and four harpsichords! In his program notes, Shemer sees the harpsichord’s renewed lease of life reflected in the growing body of modern solo- and ensemble repertoire for the instrument – from Poulenc to de Falla, via Ligeti to the present day.

When one considers the amount of duet repertoire of all kinds and levels for two pianists (on one piano or two) it is understandable that Shemer writes: “I, personally, have yet to meet a harpsichordist who does not view playing duets with another player as one of the greatest of musical pleasures”. In her unflagging determination to find little-known works for two harpsichords, Minkin came across Austrian church organist Peter Planyavsky’s “Four Pieces for Two Harpsichords” (1978). This was what led to the disc. It was also the work that opened the recital at the Jerusalem Music Centre. The Prelude, pensive in sound, presented conventional chords combined in such a way as to produce a non-tonal soundscape…perhaps suggesting the clanging of church bells. The second piece – a whimsical “Valse Inégale” – reflects the composer’s fascination with unusual rhythmic patterns. The 10/8 Lullaby proceeds in constantly moving harmonies and smudged harmonies, to conclude on a single tonic note. The “Caprice Fugée” is fired by sets of entries, each refuelling the piece’s feisty vigour, driving it on to end in a giant cluster.

Uri Brener’s “Ciacona alla Zappa” (2014) was commissioned for the Minkin-Shemer Harpsichord Duo. An unconventional meeting between the classical Renaissance chaconne form and Brener’s tribute to rock musician Frank Zappa (referred to by Brener as “one of the great musicians of the late 20th century”) the piece constitutes a vibrant mix of jazzy chords, different tempi, runs, clusters, thick textures and single-note utterances, with a quotation of a familiar early ostinato ground present.  Fine concert fare…also very challenging. Composer, pianist and arranger Uri Brener (born Moscow, 1974) writes in a wide variety of styles and genres. The composer was present at the event.

A work not included on the disc but included in honour of the Bach in Jerusalem Festival and of the first concerto for two harpsichords, Minkin and Shemer played the original version of J.S.Bach’s Concerto for two harpsichords in C-major BWV 1061. (A later version with string ripieno, probably by the composer, is often performed in concert halls.) Hearing the work takes us back to Zimmermann’s Coffee House in Leipzig of the 1730s, a venue not only fashionable but, due to its owner’s deep interest in music, equipped with the best and most up-to-date of musical instruments. It was here that the work would have had its first performance and where the harpsichord’s status rose to that of a major instrument, a solo instrument, an instrument more audible and commanding. Following Minkin and Shemer’s ample, forthright and noble playing of the opening movement, inviting the listener to ponder each of Bach’s different and enterprising musical forays between its ritornelli, the Adagio, rich in textures, slightly flexed and ornamented, in a serious vein, yielded to the lively and virtuosic fugue; in congenial and witty collaboration, the artists reminded the listener of Bach’s ingenious play of counterpoint.

The recital ended with two small pieces that have fallen into obscurity - a Polka and Waltz for two harpsichords (1936) by Prokofiev; the reason they have not been heard much (or recorded) is that they were written for Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin”, a play that was never performed.  The ball scene calls for two (out-of-tune!) harpsichords placed off stage. Minkin and Shemer’s colourful performance of the Polka presents the state of social chaos in the play as the composer endeavours to stretch the boundaries of tonality; the poignant, bitter-sweet, somewhat dejected-sounding Waltz also suggests the breakdown of decorum running through the scene.

The CD, recorded in 2014 for the Omnibus Classics label, also includes works by Anna Segal, Netta Aloni, Jacov Jakulov and Oded Zehavi.



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