Saturday, May 13, 2017

"A Praise to God in Zion" - an all-Bach program performed by members of Ensemble PHOENIX

Alon Harari,Marina Minkin,Rachel Ringelstein,Myrna Herzog (photo:Eliahu Feldman)
“A Praise to God in Zion” was an all-Bach program performed by Ensemble PHOENIX. Artists taking part in the program were Alon Harari (counter-tenor), Rachel Ringelstein (violin), Marina Minkin (harpsichord) and PHOENIX founder and musical director Myrna Herzog (viola da gamba). This writer attended the concert on May 8th 2017 at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, one of the Monday Afternoon Concert Series.

Apart from two instrumental works, the program focused on arias from Cantatas of J.S.Bach, as well as from the St. John and St. Matthew Passions, sung by Alon Harari. In Dr. Herzog’s words: “Some of the most beautiful and moving arias were written by Johann Sebastian Bach for the alto voice”. The concert opened with the enigmatic “Bekennen will ich seinen Namen” (I will acknowledge His name) BWV 200, Bach’s transposed adaptation (c.1742-1743) of an aria from a passion-oratorio of Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel. A cantata fragment, the single aria is probably from a lost cantata. Harari and Ringelstein struck a wonderful balance of individuality and exchange, with violin melodies threaded throughout. (The original score calls for two violins). “Gott, man lobet dich in der Stille zu Zion (God, You are praised in the stillness of Zion) the opening aria of the BWV 120 Cantata, a work based on Psalm 65, celebrates the election of a new town council of Leipzig in 1727. Engaging in the detail and meaning of the text, with its ample use of melismatic passages, Harari highlighted the aria’s elegant, lively and ceremonious aspects. Considering the fact that its scoring calls for full orchestra, Herzog, Minkin and Ringelstein’s playing of the reduced and independent instrumental score made for rewarding listening.

In keeping with the darker agenda of the St. John Passion BWV 245, “Es ist vollbracht!” (It is finished/accomplished!), Herzog’s timbrally low, warm and sonorous opening viol solo set the mood of introspection and despair following the death of Christ, as Harari highlighted the grief of the aria’s word-painting in its descending lines. The aria’s sudden agitated and compelling middle section, referring to the battle conquered by the “hero out of Judah”, must be one of the most contrasted and drastic in the Baroque aria repertoire, breaking off in mid-fever to return to the opening statement, so beautifully paced by Herzog and Harari, ending with even more poignancy and heartbreak than at the beginning. Also taken from Bach’s Easter music, the artists performed “Erbarme dich, mein Gott” (Have mercy, my God, for the sake of my tears) one of the most sublime and powerful arias of the St. Matthew Passion BWV 244, with Harari and Ringelstein’s dovetailed interplay of the melodic lines forming a musical representation of remorse. Harari engaged his vocal palette to pour emotion and emphasis into key words, with the violin reflecting the aria’s plea for forgiveness.
Then, on a more optimistic note, Harari performed the opening aria of a cantata written in Leipzig in 1723 “Ein ungefärbt Gemüte” (An unblemished conscience) BWV 24, its serene vocal line suggesting tranquillity and virtuousness as set against an upbeat, hopping accompaniment. The violin obbligato role was beautifully shaped and meaningful under Ringelstein’s bow, its low range perhaps adding a sombre undercurrent to the aria’s discussion of morality. “Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen” (Fall asleep, you weary eyes) the central aria of from Cantata BWV 82 “Ich habe genug” (I am content) also works on different levels: the profound lullaby, mimicking the attraction of sleep, actually makes reference to death. Performing the aria at a flowing pace, the PHOENIX artists kept a safe distance from self-indulgent sentimentality, with Harari taking time to endow the piece’s low, extended notes with soothing, reposeful ambience.

The program included two movements from J.S.Bach’s Sonata in D-major for harpsichord and viola da gamba, the most virtuosic of the three harpsichord and gamba sonatas written probably in the 1740s; in scoring, they are somewhat trio sonatas, with the viol playing the first voice and the harpsichord the second- and third voices. Herzog and Minkin’s plangent, gently-swayed reading of the Adagio was courtly in mood, melodic and decorative. Punctuating the final Allegro movement’s intense working of ideas, Minkin’s lustrous playing of the extended cadenza-like section was a high moment of the Jerusalem concert. Also conforming to the three-layer texture, we heard Ringelstein and Minkin in the last two movements from Bach’s Sonata No.6 in G-major for violin and obbligato harpsichord BWV 1019, (50 years after the violin and harpsichord sonatas were written, C.P.E.Bach was still referring to them as “trios”), in which the violin and harpsichord trade off thematic material, sometimes presenting it in alternation and sometimes simultaneously. With Minkin and Ringelstein’s playing both balanced and stylish and including some tasteful ornamenting, the breathtaking display of Bach's contrapuntal mastery challenged the listener to choose how and where to focus on Bach’s brilliant violin writing partnered by fully worked out concertante parts in both hands of the keyboard.

Myrna Herzog’s programs run the gamut of early music repertoire. Her programming is known for being both informed and daring. Not deterred from using broader instrumentation in the chamber setting, she retained the character of the arias by allotting extra material to the players. The results were more than satisfying, with the three instrumentalists bringing together all important melodic strands from the aria accompaniments. For obvious reasons, the lion’s share of this reorganization was undertaken by Marina Minkin, and handled expertly. Alon Harari’s increasingly expanding, burnished vocal sound, secure and even in all registers, as well as his emotional engagement in Baroque repertoire, made for captivating listening. The acoustic of the lecture/recital hall of the Hebrew University’s Musicology Faculty provided the ideal environment in which to hear (and see) the music’s gestures and details and to experience the unique timbres of the counter-tenor voice, harpsichord and of Baroque bowed instruments played on gut strings, and at close proximity.

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