Wednesday, August 5, 2020

"The Baroque Violin & Viola" - a new and comprehensive book on Baroque performance practice by violinist, teacher and conductor Walter Reiter

Walter S. Reiter (Timothy Kraemer)

On July 27th 2020, I met with violinist Walter Reiter at his London home to discuss his upcoming publication - “The Baroque Violin & Viola, a Fifty-Lesson Course”, published by Oxford University Press in 2020 (available August in the USA and September, UK). In two volumes, the 700-page publication, written in a style that is informal, accessible and authoritative, consists of five modules - on ornamentation, four “Interludes” of historical and cultural interest as well as lessons focusing on topics as diverse as temperament, shifting, vibrato and dance. Of the book, John Eliot Gardiner wrote: “It shows Walter Reiter to be an expert guide in defining a rich cultural context for music-making - and not just violin-playing - and with the potential to shatter dull preconceptions. His practical experience, learning and articulacy combine to enrich and extend our purview of instrumental music extending over five centuries.” British violinist, conductor and Baroque specialist. Rachel Podger has referred to the book as “a journey of discovery covering all technical aspects of playing the Baroque violin, from sound-production to the history of national styles via affect, articulation, rhetoric, intonation and temperament, ornamentation and improvisation.” 


PH: Walter, what kind of a treatise is it and to whom is it aimed?


WR: Basically, it is like a do-it-yourself Baroque violin manual. I’m sure people will find it useful, because a lot of people don’t actually want to go to a conservatory and also because today many modern instrumentalists are much more open to how we play Baroque music than in past years. For example, you just have to listen to the Berlin Philharmonic when it plays Mozart: it does not sound like Karajan is directing it anymore! The dead weight has come off it. Today, stylistic interpretations have become more important. I also believe that people get really fed up with the repertoire that they play, because when I was teaching children, all the concerto repertoire was Romantic (Rieding, Küchler, etc.) - which is very beautiful - and then on to works of Seitz and eventually onto Bruch and Mendelssohn. After that, they do a bit of Classical, “because you should” and also Bach “because you should”. But then they don’t actually know how to situate Bach in his time. This is really important, especially when you are talking about the court dances of the Partitas and Suites. So, all about the world- and performance of Baroque music, it is a detailed résumé of all my thoughts over many years of teaching. There do exist musicological books on Baroque music. Some of them are so “clever” that you can’t understand a word but, of course, there are books that are readable and there are books about the Baroque violin written in encyclopaedic form, which are very useful. But there isn’t any book of this kind. It’s such a shame that people don’t do more of this kind of thing. When teachers stop teaching after many years (I haven’t yet stopped teaching, by any means), all their experience becomes hidden. I had some wonderful teachers in Israel who, unfortunately, never wrote anything. Neither did they give interviews. Knowingly or unconsciously or not, their students pass it on in one form or another. 


PH: How did the project start?


WR: I have been teaching for many years. In fact, my first teaching job was when I was 15 or 16 years old when still at school. I taught in Germany while I was studying there, but it was in Jerusalem that I really got into teaching in a big way, teaching modern violin at the Conservatory and the Jerusalem Academy of Music for some 30 hours a week, also playing part-time in the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. I had some very talented students, a lot who have gone on to be professionals. I was lucky with the talent I had even in my first year of teaching there. With my great love for teaching, I have always tried to find ways of doing it better. Having taught the Baroque violin for some years, I nowadays teach at Trinity Laban Conservatoire in London and also at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague, Holland. It occurred to me that what I was doing was quite inefficient: you get someone coming to class and you show them this and this and this, and then it’s time for them to go. Then somebody else comes into the room and you tell them almost the same thing. So, I needed to reorganize this method. I discovered that a 1st-year undergraduate student might get through ten pieces - sonatas, let’s say - in the first year, together with all the other things involved in adapting to the Baroque instrument - temperament and intonation, rhetoric, posture, holding the violin, all the very basic things. By the time the student has actually played one piece, he is well into the first term...which I thought was unreasonable. I had this idea when I was teaching in London, where fees are very high, that I would write down information about ten basic, seminal works, the idea being that the student could prepare the music on his own and then, when he came to the classroom, he would have the one-to-one tuition that was necessary and I would not have to repeat such things as the harmonic processes, the spadework you have to do, all the detail in the work being studied, with each student. So that is when I started writing out indications on how to play these pieces. This really worked for those students who took it seriously and has proved to be a much more efficient way of teaching


PH: How did the strategy develop further?


WR: After two or three years, I thought I could actually turn this information into a book. So, I approached a UK publisher specializing in early music, who liked the idea. But then my wife, soprano Linda Perillo, pointing out that the book was not specifically for Baroque violinists, but for anybody wanting to know about the Baroque violin, to know why we do what we do, suggested I write to Oxford University Press. Not being a scholarly-, but a practical book, I doubted OUP would be interested, but OUP (USA) was very interested and asked me to send them some samples. They then led me on for a couple of years, not knowing fully what would be in the completed book (they didn’t know and I also didn’t know!) and suggested I take time to finish it and submit it, which is what I did. It took me ten years to write the book. It has been a huge adventure; I have written the book in trains, planes, boats, in cafés and hotel rooms, and, frequently, in the quiet of libraries anywhere I was on tour, most of my touring being with The English Concert. 


PH: How does one manage such an undertaking?


WR: It is extremely difficult. When you start, you know something. You know what somebody says in some quote, where they said it, but it all needs to be looked up. For me, it was an incredible learning process, going over all the work I have been doing over the last thirty years but in a more conscious way. There are some 20 pieces in the book that I really examine bar by bar, showing what there is to know in each. Some of the pieces have 20,000 words written about them over three chapters! Wherever possible, I use a lot of sources to justify things, but, of course, sources create a very incomplete picture. So, a lot of what I say is what I have figured out over the years. (I wasn’t allowed to include jokes - the funny things I say to people when teaching.)


PH: Why specifically the Baroque violin?


WR: The more you go into the Baroque violin, the more different playing it is from the modern violin. The world we live in today has really taken on board what we Baroque musicians do in the sense that there are a lot of great soloists - people like Isabelle Faust  and Alina Ibragimova - playing in Baroque style, or orchestras like the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra where you ask yourself whether the players are using period instruments or not...often, we don’t really know, because they are very good at imitating. They might often get someone in to guide them in playing in the Baroque style, and they copy. That’s all well and good, but it’s not what I call “learning how to play the Baroque violin”. What they manage to do can only be done with mid-18th century fairly run-of-the-mill repertoire - Vivaldi, Handel and, to an extent, Bach, as well. But, as to all the other repertoire - 150 years of repertoire, and there is a lot of it - they would struggle with that. In some cases, such as the French repertoire, they would not even know how to read the scores and they don’t know how to improvise. 


PH: So, who are today’s Baroque violinists?


WR: There are two types of Baroque violinists today. One who, as our students do, goes through the whole Baroque style from 1600 to around 1750. The other kind is someone who just takes a Baroque instrument or a modern instrument with gut strings and a Baroque bow and basically plays it the modern way. I’m afraid the latter case covers the majority of violinists in Baroque orchestras in some countries. So, I decided to try to put this right and really go through the whole process in a written form.


PH: How do you begin teaching the Baroque violin?


WR: To start with, learning the Baroque violin means unlearning some of the habits one has accumulated on the modern violin. For example, we spend so many hours practising to get a completely smooth, lyrical sound with the bow. This thing called “detaché” bowing, which doesn’t exist in Baroque terminology, is the complete antithesis of what rhetorical playing is all about. The “speaking” bow has many different kinds of articulation. Much Baroque music is not melodic in nature. Of course, there is melody in it, but most Baroque music is actually much closer to speech and dance than it is to song. One needs to learn how to use the bow in a completely different way. I start (and always have) by imagining you have the menu of an Italian restaurant and you want to order risotto con funghi; I ask you to order (play) it by using the Italian rhythms and inflexions of speech. The difference between an approximation and the real thing is drastic! And I get students to speak such words as “Michelangelo” This is how I get them to free up. Indeed, the speaking Baroque violin is really the “Baroque bow”. Also, the way to actually hold the instrument is so important. A lot of people take the Baroque violin without its chinrest and just “grip” it. The whole thing about the Baroque violin is the freedom you have of both sides of the body, as opposed to just one side, in order to make the gestures you need to make. It’s really quite contradictory, because the number of square centimetres that the chinrest covers is very minimal and the whole idea of not having your body against the instrument is that the body stifles the resonance of the instrument. So those are the first steps with which I introduce students to playing the instrument.


PH: Why don’t you have recordings of all the works on the book’s site?


WR: It was suggested early on that I record all the pieces, but then we would be back to the “easy” way of learning, which is copying how the teacher plays. There are a few videos where I do explain certain techniques, but I wanted to avoid the above-mentioned trap. For me, to copy is not to learn. To learn is to understand.  It was Quantz who said: “A good teacher is one who makes the pupil understand and doesn’t just allow him to copy as if he were training birds”. One of the things I really inherited from Ramy Shevelov, my wonderful teacher in Israel, was getting students to listen to the music in their imaginations and then to copy that. I always say that the only thing worth copying is what one hears in one’s mind and I think that is so true when playing Baroque music, where there are no right and wrong ways of doing things. Of nine out of ten questions that pupils ask me regarding sound and phrasing, for example, I manage to get them to answer themselves: “Listen to it, sing it in your imagination, copy your imagination”. I get a pupil to play something and then ask him to give a score of 1 to 10 to evaluate how near it is to what he had imagined. The point is that if the result is so different from how you heard it, you have not done the work. You have to play the way you hear it and, if you don’t, what am I supposed to do or say? With my encouragement, they should come to those conclusions by themselves. Where teachers say the pupil should do it “this way and not how you were doing it”, the pupil copies but learns nothing. In truth, it takes some discipline on the part of the teacher not to resort to that practice! 


PH: Would you give an outline of the book’s contents?


WR: It goes through different styles, starting off with fairly standard repertoire, just giving understanding as to how music is made, like why it is so important to understand or to feel the harmony, because that affects what and how we play. I always say that learning from a single part is like learning Romeo’s part without having any clue of what Juliet says to him. I cover all the very basic questions that need to be answered and in a style which is accessible. Not written in a scholarly style, the book is very detailed but easy to read: you can read it even if you are not going to do all the work. In fact, a lot of it is completely intelligible, even to non-violinists; it will make sense to anybody playing a top-line instrument. The book is visually attractive too, with quite a few designs. I wanted to make it readable and interesting. It is very comprehensive, but it is not about instrumentalism or about “this is the way you play”, rather, about “this is the way the music is and let’s see how we can make it work using what knowledge we have”. I talk a lot about the vocal roots of instrumental playing, not just about the rhetorical aspect of the words, but actually how the development of vocal music at the time of Caccini, with the beginning of basso continuo and the separation from top- and bottom lines, as opposed to 16th century counterpoint,  leading to opera and instrumental music. I also talk about how the first treatises were written for singers or players of any instruments. That is very important when we are talking about the early Italian sonata, because that’s all there is. There aren’t any particular instrumental treatises from then, so we have to use the vocal treatises. Thus, together with being a very practical book, it will also give cultural background.


The first volume deals with all the basics and goes as far as the first Corelli and Vivaldi sonatas. The second volume deals with works of Biber and Schmelzer, but also with works of the early Italians. Early Italian music is more esoteric, if you like. You can imitate Vivaldi on a modern violin, but you can’t know what to do with the early material without some guidance. Actually, I start with material that is much earlier than the Baroque period, because one of the things we have to teach students is improvisation and ornamentation, which are individual to each style. 


PH: It must be tricky to teach ornamentation and improvisation via a book.


WR: Yes. The early ornamentation comes from much before the Baroque. The question is: how do you ornament and how do you overcome your hang-ups about doing it? There are some violinists and other instrumentalists who can play Sibelius wonderfully, but, if you ask them to make something up, they are completely flummoxed and panicked, which is a shame. There must be something wrong with the way we are taught. Anyway, I introduce ornamentation in a totally a-stylistic way. Then the book goes on to using, for example, Ganassi’s 1535 pre-Baroque treatise on divisions (not related to any specific style); I use it to free people up, as I used it to free myself up in the beginning. Later on, I go via Ortiz to composers such as Bassano.  


PH: How do the Interludes fit into the contents?


WR: There are five Interludes, which aim to give cultural background, which is so important. When you study the modern violin, as I did, the background is not considered very are learning to play the instrument and the instrument is played a certain way according to the fashion of the day, with the style somewhat adapted to each composer; and there’s not that much difference between playing any of them. But the question is: can you really understand how to pay Couperin if you don’t know something about the standards of court behaviour at Versailles? There are so many styles within Baroque repertoire and each one needs some special knowledge about where this music comes from. John Eliot Gardiner has spoken of actually “feeling your way into a work of art”. Many years ago, I led an orchestra in Rome. We were walking across the bridge that links Rome to the Vatican. There are statues on both sides of the bridge and we started musically imitating these statues… it is not such a bad idea to take a statue (or a painting) and “think” your way into it, to experience what that person is feeling and then express it in terms of sound. Then there are such questions as to Bach and the influence of French music, what the E-major Partita has to do with France, indeed, what Bach has to do with France. I explain that Bach didn’t go to France, but that France came to him. 


PH: I see there is a section of Questions and Answers. Can you give some examples?


WR: Yes. 

Q: Is there a correct way to play Baroque music?

A: No. There never was and there never will be, although there are some wrong ways.

Q: Can a book be a substitute for a teacher?

A: No. But it can be a substitute for no teacher.

Q: From reading this book, one could assume that all your pupils play in exactly the same way. Is that true?

A: Absolutely not. Bringing out the special qualities of each pupil is always uppermost in my mind when teaching. Obviously, such discernment is not possible in a book.

Q: But if one hundred people put into practice every detail of one of your lessons, surely, they must all end up playing in an identical way.

A: No. They may play in a similarly informed way, but they will all sound different. That is one of the mysteries of violin-playing.

Q: What would you say if someone read your suggestions and then did exactly the opposite?

A: That too is possible. The teacher’s job is to inform and inspire, not to dictate. 


PH: How does the book apply to violists?


WR: When I started teaching the Baroque viola, the problem was that there was no repertoire for it. There is much orchestral- and chamber music repertoire, but almost no solo music. So I looked around to see what Baroque viola teachers were teaching. They were mostly teaching the Telemann concerto and the Bach Suites for solo ‘cello. Yet, the point is that violists were so important in early Italian music and in the Austro-German music of Schmelzer, Biber and Muffat and, of course, in French music, in which there are often three viola parts and just one top part...even up to Bach, actually. There is no point in learning Baroque viola if you don’t study those styles, and the only way to do that is by studying violin music. So, some of my Baroque viola students actually decided to switch to the Baroque violin in order to learn the repertoire. However, for the benefit of this book, all the violin parts (except for the solo Bach works) are transcribed for the viola. The parts are on the website. (It is impractical to play off such a thick book, so works can be printed off the website. Every bar is numbered, making the material easy to discuss.)


PH: Professor Reiter, thank you for sharing so many ideas behind this remarkable undertaking.




Born in England to Viennese parents, Walter S. Reiter graduated from the Royal Academy of Music in London and continued his studies in Israel with Rami Shevelov, a former Galamian assistant, and in Germany with Sandor Vegh and Michael Gaiser. Having studied towards a Master's Degree in Violin Pedagogy at the Jerusalem Academy of Music (with Felix Andreiewsky, former assistant of Prof. Yankelewitch in Moscow) he completed his studies with Piotr Bondarenko, who had been David Oistrakh’s assistant in Moscow.  Internationally recognised as a leading Baroque violinist, teacher, leader and conductor, Walter Reiter is professor of Baroque Violin at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague and at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance (London).


Thursday, July 23, 2020

"Baroque Gems" - The Israel Chamber Orchestra in suave performance of vocal and instrumental works at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art

Maestro Ariel Zuckermann, players of the Israel Chamber Orchestra (Courtesy ICO)

Despite there being no audience present in the Recanati Auditorium of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on July 15th 2020, concert-goers were able to enjoy the Israel Chamber Orchestra’s concert of “Baroque Gems” on live streaming. Performing under the ICO’s house conductor Ariel Zuckermann, soloists included countertenor Alon Harari, orchestra members and Zuckermann himself on the flute. Joining the players was harpsichordist Aviad Stier. 


The event opened with the Overture to George Frideric Handel’s “Rinaldo”, the first original Italian opera ever to be performed on the London stage and the work that was to gain the composer the widespread recognition that he would maintain throughout the rest of his musical career. Handel composed Rinaldo quickly, borrowing and adapting music from operas and other works that he composed during the four years spent in Italy. The Overture was taken from the 1708 cantata “Arresta il passo”.  Zuckermann led his players through its French overture structure in spirited, stylish playing, addressing careful attention to rhythmic and dynamic detail, enhanced by some masterful violin and oboe soloing. “The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba”, a sinfonia for two oboes and strings, heralding King Solomon’s eagerly awaited guest opens Act III of Handel’s “Solomon”, an oratorio today rarely performed in its entirety. Zuckermann’s reading of the piece was fresh and celebratory, with oboists’ Keshet Seedel and Lior Virot’s duetting meticulous and vivid.


Of the arias on the program, "Frondi tenere e belle, Ombra mai fu"  (Tender and Beautiful Fronds...Never Was There Shade), the opening aria from Handel’s light and elegant 1738 opera Serse (Xerxes), was presented by Alon Harari with smooth intensity and warmth of sound, his subtle embellishing woven naturally through the vocal line. With its lilting siciliano-like 12/8 time, “Erbarme dich” (Have mercy), from J.S.Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, was poignant and affecting, the obbligato violin (Elina Gurevich) evocatively introducing and mirroring the anguish expressed in the aria. From Act 1 of Handel’s “Orlando”, we heard Harari in fresh, vigorous and energizing singing of the bravura aria “Fammi combattere” (Let me fight against any monster); here, Orlando declares that he could never love anyone but Angelica and would do anything to prove it, including fighting off fierce monsters. One of the program’s highlights was "Sol da te mio dolce amore" (Solely through you, sweet love) from Vivaldi’s opera “Orlando furioso”. The aria is sung by Ruggiero on falling victim to the snares of the enchantress Alcina, the casting of her spell depicted by the bewitching and sweetly suggestive sounds of the flute (Zuckermann), as it alternates teasingly between Vivaldi’s seductive vocal melody and its underlying tensions. Partnering Harari’s wonderfully crafted, sensitive and melancholically intense vocal line, Zuckermann’s playing emerged as spontaneous, his brilliant technique giving rise to imaginative ornamentation of Vivaldi’s haunting flute melody, the latter role often considered one of the most challenging flute solos in Baroque repertoire. 


Ariel Zuckermann also soloed in C.P.E.Bach’s Concerto in D minor, H. 426 (1747), one of five flute concertos written by J.S.Bach’s second son C.P.E.Bach, who spent many years employed as court harpsichordist for King Frederick II (the Great), the latter an avid amateur flautist. Following the delightful arpeggiated dialogue between Zuckermann and his instrumentalists of the opening Allegro movement, the flautist gave a captivating, delicate and lyrical performance of the second movement, with its brief moments of drama. As to the fiery agenda of the finale, showcasing an instrument that has, since its invention, been noted for its brilliance and virtuosic capabilities, Zuckermann navigated the Allegro di molto with precision and aplomb, presenting Emanuel Bach’s striking individuality but never sacrificing the work’s musical content for show. Would Frederick have met the demands of this piece? Probably not. It may well have been performed by the renowned flute teacher, flute maker and composer at the Prussian court J.J.Quantz, who held the exclusive privilege of approving or disapproving of the King's playing by shouting or withholding a “bravo”!


Closing with Handel’s “Rinaldo”, we heard “Lascia ch’io pianga” (Let me weep over my cruel fate), in which Almarena, mourns her captivity in Jerusalem and the absence of her lover. Alon Harari gave a poignant, warm-timbred performance of the aria, adorning the repeat section with some imaginative and daring ornaments. 


Despite not being performed on historic instruments (apart from the harpsichord), the modest size of the ICO ensemble was well suited to the performance of this repertoire, the refinement and good taste associated with Baroque music addressed throughout the program.

Countertenor Alon Harari (Ofer Amir)



Thursday, July 16, 2020

French Baroque music in a new light: Myrna Herzog and Giomar Sthel record harpsichord pieces of François Couperin on two viols

Cover design: Giomar Sthel
Born in Paris in 1668, François Couperin was a member of a musical dynasty, unique in France and only overshadowed in the history of music by the Bach family. Generations of Couperins held the post of organist at the church of Saint-Gervais in Paris from 1653 to 1826. Although their family origins were rustic (Couperin's great-grandfather was a farmer in Brie as well as a music teacher), the Couperins were time-honoured musicians at the court of Louis XIV, serving as organists of the Chambre du Roi and, in François' case, also teaching harpsichord to the dauphin and other children of the royal family.


Indeed, François Couperin’s musical life cannot be fully understood without relating to his strong connection to the lifestyle and mannerisms of the reign of the Sun King and, most importantly, to the art of dance. The elegance of dance, grace of movement, the art of gesture and fine deportment were major emphases in the general education of the French nobility. But there are additional characteristics to Couperin’s writing that set him apart from his contemporaries. Most Baroque keyboard composers furnished their scores with minimal ornamentation, phrasing marks, tempo markings and with some hints as to interpretation, then to depend on the "good taste" of the player to guarantee a high-quality performance. Not relying on keyboard players, indeed, incensed by poor performances of his music, Couperin took to providing his harpsichord scores with punctilious markings, challenging the player to decipher them and integrate them naturally into the weave of the music. His 1716 treatise “L'Art de Toucher le Clavecin” (The Art of Playing the Harpsichord) was and continues to be one of the most valuable instruction books for keyboard players.


Written Between 1713 and 1730, Couperin’s 27 suites, or " Ordres " as he called them, each consist of between four and 24 miniatures, their ornamentation prevailing as the core of the music, stimulating expressiveness and indicative of the gestures and mood of each piece, many of them "pièces de caractère". So unique is this repertoire that it somehow resists traditional analysis. The picturesque titles that Couperin, ever the individualist, gave the pieces have aroused much curiosity, their sketchy references, ambiguities and quizzical possibilities begging to be unravelled by players from the time they were penned.


So, what prompted Brazilian-born viola da gamba artists Myrna Herzog (today living in Israel) and Giomar Sthel (living in Germany) to embark on recording a number of these keyboard pieces on two viols? It was Sthel (also a keyboard player) who suggested adding three of them to a program the two artists were preparing for performance in Germany. The artists liked the pieces so much that they were motivated to put together a whole program comprising movements from the ordres. Indeed, in his preface to Book 3, Couperin encourages the playing of them on various instruments, even offering advice as to how to adapt them to specific instruments. He writes “Pieces of this kind, actually, will be suited to two flutes or oboes, to two violins or two viols, as well as to other unison instruments; it is evident that those who perform them will adapt them to their instruments.” Herzog and Sthel went ahead to perform complete programs of them in German churches and also in small venues in Israel, recording them a year later at St. Andrews Scots Memorial Church, Jerusalem (recording: Eliahu Feldman, mastering: David Feldman; Herzog herself edited out some street noise.) Apart from transposing some of the pieces and a changed octave here and there, the artists make no changes to the musical texts. On this recording, both play historic, 7-stringed viols.  Due to the more penetrating, treble-like timbre of the early 18th century German instrument she plays here (maker unknown), Herzog performs the upper line in all pieces except for on track 4, with Sthel taking the lower line on a 1744 Castagneri instrument, their choice of two different viols highlighting the beauty and distinctive timbres of two different schools of instrument-makers. 


Some of the pieces offer allusive, albeit seductive “portraits” of ladies at court; the manner in which each lady moves in the ballroom becomes almost visual in each vignette. “La Ménetou” refers to a truly gifted young woman - Françoise-Charlotte de Seneterre de Mennetoud (b.1680) - a child prodigy on the harpsichord; she composed music from the age of nine and is said to have performed for the king himself. Engaging freely in notes inégales and style luthé (lute style) or brisé (broken style, i.e. of never playing  the melody notes  and those of the bass or of the middle voices quite together) Herzog and Sthel’s reading of the piece, with its long, expressive melodic lines, suggests a lady of tranquil and mysterious independence, the middle section offering her the chance to show her prowess on the dance floor. It is thought that “La Chazé” is a description of Sister Liée Magdeleine of Sainte Elisabeth Bochart de Champigni; whether or not, Herzog and Sthel sweep her and the listener into a hearty, triple-time dance - perhaps a passepied, this dance introduced (now changed to a dance in triple time) to the court at the time of Louis XIV. Then there is “La Couperin” - François Couperin’s self-portrait. A thoughtful piece, coloured by chromatic moments, it is tinged with Couperin’s characteristic melancholy. The artists’ sympathetic, wistful rendition of it uses effective use of legato bowing as against amusing, non-legato textures, the latter perhaps evoking the composer himself pacing energetically through the opulent halls of the Palace of Versailles.


Some of the pieces reflect Couperin’s tender sympathy for everyday life and his understanding that the simple and the serious can easily coexist in one style. Such is “Le Carillon de Cythère”, describing the bell-ringing from a church on Kythera, an island located between the Greek mainland and Crete. Playing “Les Regrets”, appropriately set in the key of C minor, Herzog and Sthel invite the listener to be part of the crestfallen mood of the piece, as they pace it carefully in playing that is sincere, introspective and unmannered. Tragic and grand at the same time, “La Ténébreuse” (The Dark One), possibly written after the death of one of the French princes, is a dark, melancholic tombeau. Then there are the two rondeaus that make up “Le Dodo” ou “L'Amour au Berceau” (The Dodo, or Love in a Cradle), the lullaby, with its wavelike motion representing the rocking of a cradle, so soothing, almost mesmerising under the fingers of Herzog and Sthel. It is only in this piece that we hear Sthel on the upper part; in the opening phrase, a “tremblement” (trill) he plays produces an astounding dissonance, its minor-major mix sounding much like a cluster! And, being a rondeau, it recurs several times. Indeed, this effect emerges more boldly on bowed instruments than on the harpsichord.


With echoes from the commedia dell’arte, we hear Couperin’s “L’Arlequine” (The Harlequin’s Piece) a movement in a marked and stylized triple rhythm. Herzog and Sthel portray the comic servant character with empathy, allowing the piece’s quirky rhythmic surprises and hemiolas to give expression to the composer’s performance direction of “Grotesquement”. And, in keeping with Le Theatre Italien, a genre enjoying great popularity in the 1720s, there is Couperin’s “La Pantomime”, a colourful portrayal of actor Tiberio Florilli, also known as “Scaramouche”, the most famous actor of his time of the Commedia dell’Arte and a star in Paris of the Italian Troupe. The piece is performed here with “une grande precision”, some lighter textures punctuating its noble agenda. As to “La Lutine” (The Elf), a whimsical, carefree miniature perfect in construction but over in the blink of an eye, this represents the character of a goblin introduced into theatrical performances of the time to add an element of light-hearted entertainment. 


It is clear that Couperin’s descriptive pieces serve to fire the performing artist’s imagination. Herzog and Sthel’s effervescent and nuanced dialogue in “L’Anguille” (The Eel) evokes a vivid picture of the eel’s erratic movements and, perhaps, the stirring of the water as well. But it is those pieces bearing the more obscure titles that challenge players and listeners alike, transporting them into the world of boundless imagination. Take, for example, “Le Tic-Toc-Choc ou Les Maillotins”, published in 1722 in Book 3. The Maillot were a famous family of rope-dancers. According to Furetière’s Dictionnaire Universel, “Tic-toc” is an onomatopoeic term suggesting a “beating, a reiterated movement, a pulse that beats, a horse that walks, the pendulum of a clock or a hammer that knocks.” Herzog and Sthel give expression to this vivid perpetuum mobile, its unbridled energy and joy, at the same time, taking the listener through its harmonic development and melodic comments. “Les satires chèvre-pieds'' (ordre No.23) refers to goat-footed satyrs. Depicting the sylvan deity from Greek mythology that bears certain characteristics of a horse or goat and engages in Dionysian revelry, Herzog and Sthel set before the listener an image of this peculiar, grotesque figure in a clumsy, heavy, somewhat off-centre dance, their playing of the second half suggesting that the creature is not devoid of endearing qualities.


As performers and interpreters of French music, Myrna Herzog and Giomar Sthel display astounding musical rapport. They probe each of the Pièces de Clavecin here in depth, providing fascinating insight into the musical world of Couperin le Grand, its innate lyricism and elegance, its  intensity, its wit and charm, its nobility of sentiment, its theatre influences, its fantasy and into that elusive “esprit d'élégie” that so often pervades Couperin’s music. Enlisting the viola da gamba’s plethora of expressive, coloristic and textual possibilities, the artists' playing of these musical jewels offers an extraordinarily rich listening experience. Add to that the collection's true, high-quality recording sound. As yet, “François Couperin, Pièces de clavecin à deux violes” has not been issued as a CD, but it is available on all the current digital platforms. 


Saturday, June 20, 2020

“Kühl, nicht lau” - Tami Krausz (8-keyed flute) and Shuann Chai (fortepiano) in a new recording of works by Beethoven and Kuhlau

“Kühl, nicht lau” (Cool, Not Lukewarm) might seem a somewhat enigmatic title for a disc, but this is actually the name of a small, whimsical canon that represents the connection between Friedrich Kuhlau and Ludwig van Beethoven, as presented here in works of both composers performed by flautist Tami Krausz and pianist Shuann Chai. Performing on period instruments, Shuann Chai plays a fortepiano by Johann Zahler, Brünn (Brno) c.1805, restored by Gijs Wilderom and on one by Michael Rosenberger, Vienna , c.1802, restored by Edwin Beunk; Tami Kraus plays on an eight-keyed flute made by Rudolf Tutz, Innsbruck, 2000, after Heinrich Grenser, Dresden c.1810.. 


It was in 1825 on a visit to Vienna that Kuhlau met Ludwig van Beethoven. In the disc’s liner notes, Chai and Krausz explain that the “inspiration to juxtapose the music of Beethoven and Kuhlau...came from the delightful account of their first and only personal encounter.” It seems the two composers got on rather well, judging by their exchange of compositional canons as souvenirs. German-born Kuhlau had emigrated to Denmark and introduced much of Beethoven’s music to audiences in that country.


The first work on the recording is Beethoven’s Serenade in D major for piano and flute (or violin) Op.41, a piece based on the composer’s Opus 25 for flute, violin and viola. Op. 25 (c.1801), published in 1802. Due to its popular appeal, an arrangement was made a year later for flute and piano by another composer (possibly Franz Xaver Kleinheinz), corrected and approved by Beethoven himself and published as Op. 41. Tami Krausz and Shuann Chai’s reading of the Serenade presents music of a young, carefree Beethoven (less familiar to listeners than the burdened person he was to become), here, a composer writing music possibly to entertain and delight guests attending a Viennese garden party. Light-hearted and recreational, this is, nevertheless, no background music in the hands of these two artists, who give rich expression to its jovial hide-and-seek banter, its naivety, its cantabile moments and almost folk-like dances, as well as to the many contrasts created by textures and piano timbres. Displaying fine teamwork, Chai and Krausz colour gestures with understated rhythmical flexing and some playful but florid and imaginative ornamenting, the latter sitting well with the eight-keyed flute and on the easeful action of the Zahler fortepiano. 


Considered the most important composer of flute music in the early 19th century, Friedrich Kuhlau has been referred to as “Beethoven of the flute”. Of his some-300 works, more than a quarter include the flute - the favoured instrument of gentlemen amateurs of the early 19th century - thus ensuring the composers of some nice profits. The Capriccio in D minor No.9 Op.10b (published 1810) is one of Kuhlau’s 12 Variations and Solos for solo flute, a collection of pieces based on familiar French and German folk melodies. Krausz’ performance of the Capriccio combines the piece’s rich agenda of expressive writing with opportunities for bravura performance, as she fashions and defines each motif and phrase with involvement, appealing capriciousness, articulacy and good articulation throughout the range of the instrument. Such writing suggests that Kuhlau must have been a virtuosic flautist. In 1814, however, the composer explained to his publisher Breitkopf & Härtel “I play this instrument only a little, but I know it exactly”. On matters of the instrument, he is known to have consulted with the flautist of the royal orchestra in Copenhagen.


In the late summer of 1826, Kuhlau moved to Lyngby, eight miles north of Copenhagen, where he spent his time composing and enjoying nature to the full in beautiful rural surroundings. One of the composer’s most substantial works for flute and piano, the Grande Sonate Concertante in A minor for piano and flute Op. 85 (1827), is a product of this period; it is the last of several sonatas composed for flute and piano. Krausz and Chai give vivid expression to Kuhlau’s free use of musical ideas, to the work’s grand gestures, its charm, changes of temperament and compelling textures, as in the opening movement (Allegro con passione), to the skipping, lilting, entertaining lightness of the Scherzo, to the tranquillity dictated by the Adagio and to the good-natured vivacity of the final movement (Rondo); in  the latter, Chai makes economical but hearty use of the Rosenberger piano’s drum-and-bell Janissary stop. In Krausz and Chai’s hands, Kuhlau’s rich harmonies, virtuosic writing and user-friendly melodiousness take on fluency, spontaneity, suave shaping and some lavish and elegant ornamentation. How alive this music emerges when performed on authentic instruments!


The title of Beethoven’s canon à 3 'Kühl, nicht lau' WoO 191 is a play on Kuhlau’s name. Written under the influence of a few glasses of champagne, the opening of the small canon’s somewhat strange course, floating in and out of tonality, is based on the B-A-C-H cryptogram (B-flat, A, C, B-natural) . On this disc we hear pianist/mathematician Joris Weimar’s reworking of the canon for three voices, piano and flute. The instrumentalists are joined by João Moreira (tenor), Matthijs van de Woerd (baritone) and Marc Pantus (bass baritone). Referring to Weimar’s arrangement of the canon, Chai and Krausz write: “We hope that it brings modern-day listeners closer to a time when extemporization and musical riddles were a regular part of musicians’ lives.” Recorded in The Netherlands in 2019 under exclusive license to Outhere Music, the disc’s lively, fresh and rich sound quality does justice to the artists’ informed, profound and dedicated musicianship.



Shuann Chai, Tami Krausz (Photo: Karni Arieli)

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Music and wine in live streaming - the Tel Aviv Wind Quintet performs works from J.S.Bach to Nino Rota

Hagar Shahal,Yigal Kaminka,Itamar Leshem,Nadav Cohen,Danny Erdman (Courtesy TAWQ)
Happy hour took place at 14:00, a little earlier than usual, but any time of day is right for sipping a glass of wine while attending a live online concert. The initiative of  “Divas and Gentlemen”, a new organization set up by experienced young Israeli performers and producers to present online concerts during the coronavirus crisis, presented its pilot live streaming Wine Concert on May 22nd, 2020, offering people attending the Tel Aviv Wind Quintet’s concert the opportunity of listening to good music while enjoying imported wines from Premium Wine Ltd., and in the comfort of their own homes. In keeping with the project and its theme, the Keoss Recording Studio (Tel Aviv) was set up as a bar. Performers - Hagar Shahal-flute, Danny Erdman-clarinet, Yigal Kaminka-oboe, Itamar Leshem-French horn and Nadav Cohen-bassoon - offered a few words of explanation prior to each work. 


The concert opened with Mordechai Rechtman’s arrangement of Mozart’s Adagio for 2 clarinets and 3 basset horns in B flat major, K. 411. With Mozart by far the most notable composer writing for the basset horn, his inclusion of three of them in the Adagio would place it in the sound world of sonorous, velvety textures. This still emerged in the TAWQ’s performance of the small gem, as the members subtly played into the dissonances of Mozart’s lush harmonic language in a rich blending of timbres. So well suited to performance on three melodic instruments, J.S.Bach’s Trio sonata” in E minor BWV 528, transcribed by Rechtman from organ (two manuals and pedal), was performed by Hagar Shahal (flute), Danny Erdman (clarinet) and Nadav Cohen (bassoon). With much lively and expressive dialogue between flute and clarinet, the players were convincing in setting out the work’s trio construction, dynamic energy and elegance, its variety of moods and tonality changes. In the final movement, Un poco allegro, the bassoon joins the two “manuals” to engage in the imitative fugal process. 


Of Giachino Rossini’s six (major-key) string quartets, written in 1804, when the composer was twelve years of age, we heard Sonata No.4 in B flat major. Originally scored for two violins, ‘cello and double bass, it stands to reason that the wind setting, produced by a (forgotten) contemporary of the composer, should be for flute, clarinet, bassoon and horn. Listening to its fluency, interplay of instruments and moments of virtuosic writing, I was struck by the work’s wealth of catchy, bel canto-type melodies penned by the child who was to compose 39 entertaining operas as an adult. The players gave the work much Italian sparkle and joie-de-vivre, also, highlighting the pensive, expressive character of the Andante movement (profound writing for a 12-year-old). In later years, Rossini disparagingly referred to the string sonatas “‘six terrible sonatas that I wrote… in my earliest years... all composed and copied out in three days, and performed in a doggish manner and myself as 2nd violin – no less doggish than the others”. What a misjudgement! 


Providing interesting background information on Paul Hindemith’s “Kleine Kammermusik” (Small Chamber Music) Op.24, No.2, Yigal Kaminka spoke of Hindemith being affected by the Nazi Regime’s cultural policy (propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels denounced him as an “atonal noise maker”) and that the echoes of war are woven into the fabric of the work. The TAWQ’s playing of the five movements gave poignant expression to the work’s many layers - firstly, to Hindemith’s fine writing for winds, but also to its neo-Classical Stravinskian language in all its terse realism. The very opening of the first movement swiftly takes the listener into the pungent, cerebral sound world that pervades the work. The players also brought out its mix of wit and cynicism, as in the strange, joyless waltz (2nd movement). Reflective, haunting but also lyrical, the third movement was a vehicle for some fine, wistful solo- and duet-playing. Following the unique fourth movement, its 23-bar agenda of five tiny solos, punctuated by a feisty refrain of repetitive figures, the work bows out with a sophisticated, bracing literally off-beat dance. Whether one perceives the work as light and entertaining or as disturbing in its message (or perhaps both?), the TAWQ’s performance of it showed that music that is complex in its own terms can still be easily accessible to the ear.


Nino Rota is best known for his many film scores, but, time and time again, Rota demonstrated that he was a remarkable chameleon, capable of providing the full spectrum of musical forms, styles and instrumentation. Not to be ignored is his output of chamber- and orchestral music (including ballet music), choral music and opera. In recent years, his concert music has been emerging from obscurity. Rota’s “Piccola offerta musicale” (Small Musical Offering), paying homage to the genius of Johann Sebastian Bach, was written in the dark time of 1943.  Scored for wind quintet, the single-movement piece of some 3.5 minutes, swings between drawn-out, cantabile sections and a busy, devil-may-care musical joyride, to finally land on a major chord. The TAWQ’s articulacy, technical teamwork, finesse and richness of tone produced a congenial soupçon of pizzazz.  Rota once said, "I'd do everything I could to give everyone a moment of happiness. That's what's at the heart of my music." 


Providing the audience with just enough time to empty another glass, the quintet took leave with a hearty arrangement of the Drinking Song from Verdi’s “La Traviata”:
“Let’s drink, let’s drink from the joyous chalices
that beauty so truly enhances.
And may the brief moment be inebriated
with voluptuousness.
Let’s drink for the ecstatic feeling
that love arouses...”


Friday, May 15, 2020

Father, Son and the Godfather - Ashley Solomon (UK) performs unaccompanied flute works at a house concert in London

Photo: Jonas Sacks
On April 28th and May 5th and 12th 2020, British flautist and early music specialist Ashley Solomon performed three solo recitals in the conservatory of his London home. Tuning in on ZOOM, viewers from far and wide heard the artist perform and offer brief explanations on what he described as “almost all the unaccompanied solo works written for the transverse Baroque flute"  (traverso).  Prof. Solomon called his three concerts “Father, Son and the Godfather''. They included works of J.S.Bach, C.P.E.Bach and G.P.Telemann; the latter was godfather to Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach. 


In the first recital, we heard J.S.Bach’s Solo Partita in A minor BWV1013, referred to by Bach as “Solo pour la flûte traversière”;  Bach’s only known work for flute solo, it is, nevertheless, one of the undisputed gems of flute repertoire. When Bach was still working in Weimar, he met the French flautist Pierre Gabriel Buffardin on a visit to Dresden and it is very likely that he composed this partita as a result of hearing a true master of the transverse flute for the first time. Engaging in the different characters and  influences of its various dance styles, Solomon’s performance offered insight into the challenges Bach has set the flautist - rapid fingering changes, running 16th-notes, large leaps, minimal breath opportunities and its large range, from the instrument’s lowest  note to the sublime high ‘a” at the end of the Allemande.


The second program included C.P.E.Bach’s Solo Sonata in A minor Wq132. Interestingly, Johann Sebastian’s fifth child and second surviving son also chose the key of A minor for his only work for solo flute. With its three movements Poco Adagio, Allegro and Allegro, Carl Philipp Emanuel’s Sonata unequivocally belongs to the “empfindsam” style of the mid-18th century. It was composed in Berlin in 1747, the year the composer had taken a permanent position as chamber harpsichordist to King Friedrich II. The king was an accomplished flautist, his tutor no other than J.J.Quantz, but whether the work was actually written for- or played by Friedrich is not known. In keeping with Emanuel’s freedom of spirit, Solomon’s playing of the sonata invited the work’s agenda, with its improvisational, experimental, and dramatic characteristics, to suggest tempi, rubati and to engage in his palette of dynamics.


Despite his great love for the works of J.S.Bach, Ashley Solomon holds a special predilection for Telemann’s Twelve Fantasias for Solo Flute TWV 40:2-13, enjoying the constant discovery their invention and musical originality invite. Solomon recorded them for Channel Classics in 2017.  Arranged by key, progressing more or less in order from A major to G minor, leaving out (most of the) keys that do not sit comfortably on the instrument, the Flute Fantasias were published (curiously, or rather, erroneously) as “Fantasie per il Violino senza Basso” (Fantasias for Solo Violin) in Hamburg (1732–33).  A compendium of styles and genres of the period, they are concise, sharply profiled, individually crafted, well suited to flute idiom and of great artistic and didactic value to "connoisseurs and amateurs". However, considering Telemann was, himself, a virtuoso flautist, it is no wonder that this collection offers the soloist the opportunity to display to the full his and the instrument's potential for virtuosity, range of colours and expressive abilities. What was special about Solomon’s three recitals was hearing all twelve Fantasias, how they contrasts with each other and each within itself and how the movements stack up in the listener’s memory. Solomon’s playing displayed the rich kaleidoscope of diverse styles fashionable in Germany at the time, presenting courtly dances and songful, highly melodious pieces alongside folk-influenced movements. Enlisting the traverso’s timbral range, Solomon’s playing was at times infused with profound, pensive searching, at others, with vivacity and joie de vivre, with certain pieces delighting the listener with playfulness and humour. Solomon’s is the art of subtly recreating layers within a so-called "single melodic line" and of performing the miniature musical form, fashioning each pocket-sized piece into a complete whole, as he engaged in economical ornamenting and the heightening of key notes with just a hint of vibrato.


The artist offered interesting explanations on the various Baroque flutes he played. An extra treat was hearing pieces of Van Eyck and J.S.Bach performed on the recorder. Although attended by people in many locations, the intimacy of the artist’s private home made for a fitting venue for hearing musical repertoire of such a personal nature.


Combining a successful career across both theory and practice, Ashley Solomon is chair and head of Historical Performance at London's Royal College of Music, also holding masterclasses and lectures worldwide. As director of Florilegium, much of Solomon’s time is spent working and performing with the ensemble he co-founded in 1991. In 2002, Florilegium became involved with Bolivian Baroque and, since 2003, Prof. Solomon has been training vocalists and instrumentalists there, in 2008 becoming the first European to receive the prestigious Bolivian Hans Roth Prize.