Sunday, April 1, 2018

More notes from the 2018 Bach in Jerusalem Festival

Ensemble PHOENIX The Art of Fugue (photo: Ami Shamir)

The 3rd Bach in Jerusalem Festival, under the auspices of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, took place from March 17th to 21st, the final day of the festival being the actual date of Johann Sebastian Bach’s 333rd birthday! Prof. David Shemer, founder and director of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, is musical director of the Bach in Jerusalem Festival.


Opening the festival events, “Homage to Johann Sebastian Bach”, an organ recital performed by István Ella (Hungary), and in collaboration with the Israel Organ Association, took place at noon on March 17th at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem’s Old City. With the church’s Karl Schuke organ proving to be especially suitable to performance of J.S.Bach’s music, István Ella’s  recital attracted a large audience, making for a festive first event as he opened with Bach’s dramatic, virtuosic and exhilarating Prelude and Fugue in A-minor BWV 543.The concert’s centrepiece was the Partita “Sei gegrüsset, Jesu gütig," (I Greet Thee, Merciful Jesus), in whose subject and variations Ella presented a fascinating kaleidoscope of organ timbres and techniques. The recital concluded with the Toccata and Fugue in F-major BWV 540, the work’s daring harmonic forays woven into its grand utterances and proportions.  István Ella’s playing combines articulacy, majesty and freshness with his exciting palette of diverse registrations.


A special event of the festival was devoted to J.S.Bach’s “Art of Fugue”. This took place on March 19th at the Jerusalem YMCA. Festival-goers filled the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship of the Jerusalem International YMCA to learn about- and experience more in one of the most enigmatic works of Bach and the Baroque period in general, and to hear some of its movements. Playing it on period instruments we heard Ensemble PHOENIX (this time, including some new faces): Yaakov Rubinstein-violin, Shai Kribus-oboe, oboe d’amore, recorders, Netanel Pollak-viola, Tal Arbel-viola da gamba, with PHOENIX founder and director Dr. Myrna Herzog also on viola da gamba. Musicologist Dr. Alon Schab’s discussion of the different movements performed at the concert was succinct, enlightening and entertaining, no mean task considering the fact that the sequence of 20 fugues and canons, grouped according to the contrapuntal devices they employ actually lacks all indications as to how they might be played. Schab certainly had his audience focused and keen to follow the course of each fugue. His and Herzog’s aim was to work from the manuscript as much as possible, rather than from printed editions. Having two bass viols meant that all the score’s notes could be sounded and having five players offered the opportunity for different scorings and timbral mixes. With the strings joined by the oboe in Contrapunctus II, their timbre was somewhat dominated by the more strident wind instrument, whereas the larger, mellower sound of the oboe d’amore blended splendidly with them, as in Contrapunctus IV. The artists also engaged in “colla parte” playing, a Baroque practice in which the highest instrument is doubled by another instrument, as in Contrapunctus VII, in which the recorder doubled the violin, the result being a very different and “new” instrumental timbre coming to the surface! So, one could say that, with each fugue, audience members were not only invited to follow the treatment of the fugal subjects but also to make their own personal decisions as to the effect of each different instrumental combination. For does the Baroque style not engage in questions of colour and taste? And how could the listener not ignore Bach’s daring utterances, as in the unconventional, somewhat wild, writing in Contrapunctus XI? As to the work’s conclusion (or lack thereof) are not most listeners shocked and disturbed in Contrapunctus XIV as the mammoth “Art of Fugue” trails off unfinished in the throes of this climactic four-part fugue, a piece which would have crowned the work as well as Bach’s career? And woven inside Contrapunctus XIV is the musical notation spelling out his name . . . B A C H. The PHOENIX players’ approach to the Art of Fugue was intelligent, articulate and devoted as they delved deeper and deeper into the mysteries of Bach’s counterpoint, its possibilities and expressive potential. Of the two new faces, there was young Jerusalemite Netanel Pollak (Baroque viola), a graduate of the Juilliard School of Music and violinist Yaakov Rubinstein, a soloist and concertmaster with a prestigious international performing career on the modern violin. Rubinstein was concertmaster of the PHOENIX Orchestra's performance of the 19th century Brazilian Requiem. This was Rubinstein’s first foray into the world of Baroque violin. In keeping with PHOENIX's practice, both Pollak and Rubinstein took on board the minute details, complexity and subtelties of the work, collaborating impressively with the other players. It is hoped they will continue to appear in future PHOENIX projects. 


Once again, the Bach House in Eisenach (Germany) has added much interest to the Bach in Jerusalem Festival, setting up yet another fascinating exhibition in the YMCA foyer. Showing festival-goers around were the museum’s managing director Dr. Jörg Hansen and Mr. Benjamin Leins. Items of interest included the original manuscript of J.S.Bach’s Magnificat and the St. Matthew Passion, “Bach in Berlin”, the Bach goblet, “Numeric  Symbols in Bach’s Music”, a recording (and x-ray of the hands) of harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, who had given the ground-breaking concert in Eisenach in 1911 (she was the first artist to record the Goldberg Variations) and, finally, the spectacular reconstruction of Bach’s face which the museum commissioned in 2008 and carried out using casts of the skull that was unearthed in 1894. The Bach House has been in operation for 111 years.


“Love Me Or Leave Me” was certainly a very different festival event. Drawing people of all ages to the Eden-Tamir Music Center, Ein Kerem on March 18th, Noam Vazana (vocals/ trombone/piano) hosted Ofer Portugali(piano), Arie Volnitz(bass) and Eitan Itzkovich(percussion) in an evening that included a selection of songs by Nina Simone. How does Nina Simone fit into a festival of Bach’s music? It turns out that she was a classically-trained pianist with a love of Baroque music and of Bach in particular. In fact, her dream was to become the first black American concert pianist. But, as fate and her lack of finance would have it, she began playing and singing in bars and clubs; in her songs and performance one can hear a strong influence of classical music and even quotes from works of J.S.Bach! Her song “Love Me or Leave Me” came about when she was attempting to write a fugue in the style of Bach. A versatile instrumentalist/singer, Noam Vazana is classically trained and the recipient of several awards. Her richly coloured voice, large vocal range, jazzy style, spontaneity and articulate English re-created the sentiments and messages of such Nina Simone numbers as “I Got Life”, “Little Girl Blue”, “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” and “Four Women”. Another touching piece was “Boi” (Come with Me), a song Noam Vazana herself composed after having moved to Europe, a song addressed to herself, “to the child within me”. Here we heard her singing, playing piano and trombone. Adding to the musical interest and richness of the event was Vazana’s collaboration with three first class artists. Introducing each number, Noam Vazana, in her relaxed, upbeat manner, gave the audience the feeling that we were her guests.


The 3rd Bach in Jerusalem Festival signed out with the solo recital of violinist Dmitry Sinkovsky (Russia), in which he performed two of J.S.Bach’s solo Partitas. The festive closing concert took place at the Jerusalem International YMCA on March 21st. Although many people tend to view Bach as a keyboard virtuoso, he was also, however, as was his father, a highly skilled violinist and it was as a violinist that he obtained his first public appointment, playing in the Weimar Court Orchestra. Carl Philipp Emanuel spoke of his father as playing the violin “purely and penetratingly and thus kept the orchestra in best order, much better than he could have done from the harpsichord.” The pinnacle of Johann Sebastian’s writing for the violin is unquestionably the six unaccompanied works he wrote for the instrument and completed in 1720, when he was Capellmeister to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. Sinkovsky opened with Partita No.1 in B-minor BWV 1002, setting the scene with his bold, exciting and finely-chiselled playing of the Allemanda. The Corrente emerged in a finely delineated manner, with the artist’s use of broad gestures together with his rich palette of dynamics in the Sarabande exuding a sense of discovery, this followed by the substantial textures of the Tempo di Borea. But what typifies Partita No.1 is the Double following- and based on each dance movement. In these, Sinkovsky’s dazzling playing offered fresh meaning, flexibility and colour. Then, to the very different Partita No.2 in D-minor BWV 1004. Following the artist’s leisurely, sensitive rendition of the Allemanda, came the dotted, Italian-style light-of-foot Corrente, an inspired Sarabanda and the artist’s buoyant and stirring playing of the Giga.  Sinkovsky’s performance of the mammoth Ciaccona theme and variations presented its world of techniques, textures, gestures and emotions in one organic, architectonic tripartite continuum, reminding the listener of how tender the central major section really is and how touching the return to the minor mode can be to the human spirit. Sinkovsky’s easeful virtuosity and clear musical vision took the listener, via rapid scale passages, double stopping and arpeggios, to the world of illusion of separately moving and interweaving voices. One of today’s most prestigious Baroque violinists, Dmitry Sinkovsky was playing on gut strings. A conductor and countertenor, Sinkovsky communicates warmly with his audience. This was his first Israeli performance.

Dmitry Sinkovsky (photo: Maxim Reider)



1 comment:

Shirley B. said...

We didn't make it to the Festival; but reading your blog brought us there....thank you, Pamela!!