Saturday, February 22, 2020

The 7th Estonian-Tel Aviv Music Festival presents J.S.Bach's St. John Passion - Andres Mustonen (Estonia) conducts the Israel Camerata Jerusalem, the Collegium Musicale Chamber Choir (Estonia) and soloists at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art

Maestro Andres Mustonen (photo: Yoel Levy)
One of the twenty events of the 7th Mustonenfest Tallinn-Tel Aviv, taking place in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other Israeli locations, was J.S.Bach’s St. John Passion, featuring the Israel Camerata Jerusalem (director: Avner Biron), the Collegium Musicale Chamber Choir, Estonia, (director: Endrik Üksvärav) and Estonian vocal soloists. Conducting the performance was Andres Mustonen (Estonia), founder and conductor of the Estonian-Israeli music festival. This writer attended the performance in the Recanati Hall of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on February 15th, 2020. 


The St John Passion was composed during Bach‘s first year as director of church music in Leipzig, where he served as cantor at the St. Thomas School, composer for the city’s two principal Lutheran churches - the Thomaskirche and Nikolaikirche - also supervising and training the musicians at two other Leipzig churches. The St. John Passion was first performed there on Good Friday, April 7th 1724. Altogether, it was heard four times during the composer’s lifetime, each time with substantial alterations, according to availability of instruments or players, because of changes in theological fashion and possibly due to Bach’s own desire for perfection. 


The St John Passion is perhaps the most intensely human of Bach’s great sacred works, its writing perfectly balancing the theatrical and devotional. In his setting of the Passion of Christ as told in the Gospel of John, the biblical passage running throughout tells of how Jesus was captured, led before Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate, judged, crucified and put to death. It is not known who compiled and adapted the libretto. For the solo arias, Bach enlists poetry from popular German Passion anthologies. A dramatic work – albeit not as comforting and consoling as the St. Matthew Passion - it is as close to writing an opera as Bach was ever to come.  At its core is the narrative, the text of the Gospel itself, sung in recitative by a tenor representing the Evangelist (Anto Õnnis, Estonia), with Christ’s words sung by a bass (Aare Saal, Estonia); in addition, the smaller roles of  other characters (Peter, Pilate, etc.) were undertaken by choir members, while the utterances and exclamations of the crowd are voiced, succinctly (but sometimes with almost hysterical intensity) by the chorus. 


Taking on the mammoth tenor role, Anto Õnnis, no new face to Israeli audiences, sang with articulacy and freshness, marking sensitive and dramatic gestures and engaging in shaping, word-painting and strategic timing. Eying the audience in his storytelling may have resulted in more highlights. A cantabile, touching, deeply musical moment was given fine expression by Õnnis in the following aria, with its two-violin obbligato:
“Ponder well how his back bloodstained all over is like the sky;
Where after the deluge from our flood of sins has abated,
There appears the most beautiful rainbow as a sign of God’s mercy!”

Bass-baritone Aare Saal (Estonia) gave a performance rich in colour and resonance, at times tending more to the operatic than the sacred. At home in the oratorio medium, alto Iris Oja was a little understated in her first aria, then rising to the occasion in “Es ist vollbracht” (It is ended), as she and 'cellist Marina Katz gave moving expression to this key moment, evoked by the timbrally low and sonorous solo viola da gamba (in Bach’s time, the viola da gamba was associated with death) merging descending musical lines in the solo vocal and instrumental parts to describe grief and despair after Jesus has expired. In the course of the aria, the two artists lead the aria from its mournful lament to becoming one of sombre, poignant faith and resignation. Katz’ playing was convincing and affecting.  A singer of outstanding stage presence, soprano Maria Valdmaa delighted the audience with her sparkling, vivacious timbre and vocal agility, as she shaped each gesture of the text and its emotion into the arias, enhanced by some splendid flute and oboe obbligato playing. 


The Collegium Musicale Chamber Choir offered some crisp, effective, incisive, dramatic and well-phrased performance, addressing importance to the two large “bookend” choruses  - the strangely haunted and anxious opening chorus and the extended, sublime valedictory lullaby, “Ruht wohl” (Rest well), surely one of the most poignant choruses that Bach has penned, the Passion closing with a chorale expounding triumphant affirmation of faith. The choir members’ German pronunciation, lacking in clarity of consonants, needs work. In the orchestra’s significant role, the Israel Camerata Jerusalem’s instrumentalists gave fine support to the works “comments”, to obbligato playing and to endorsing choral crowd scenes, in which the orchestra adds still more voices to the already intricate counterpoint. In its concise, clearly-defined structure, Bach's St. John Passion is gloomy, stressful, highly emotional and powerfully meditative. Its depth comes from its subtlety. Bach has created a moving work with musical, spiritual,and psychological unity of form. As to Maestro Mustonen’s reading of the work, the communal element, brimming with urgency, musical variety and intensity, emerged stronger than its meditative, reflective and profound spirituality. 


Monday, February 17, 2020

The Tel Aviv Wind Quintet hosts pianist Alon Goldstein and oboist Dudu Carmel at a concert of works of Beethoven and 20th century composers

Alon Goldstein (photo courtesy AICF)
Under the auspices of the Felicja Blumental Music Center, the Tel Aviv Wind Quintet’s recent concert commemorated 250 years of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven. Hosting pianist Alon Goldstein (Israel-USA), the event, in memory of Annette Celine, took place in the Zucker Hall of Heichal Hatarbut, Tel Aviv, on February 22nd, 2020. TAWQ members performing were Roy Amotz-flute, Danny Erdman-clarinet, Itamar Leshem-horn and Nadav Cohen-bassoon. Due to illness of the quintet’s oboist Yigal Kaminka, Dudu Carmel, principal oboist of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and a founding member of the Israel Woodwind Quintet, stepped in to fill in for Kaminka, offering outstanding performance throughout the evening. The Tel Aviv Wind Quintet was established in 2009. The ensemble performs a wide repertoire, including several works of Israeli composers and will record its third disc in September 2020 in Chicago.


The event opened with Beethoven’s Quintet for piano and winds Op.16 in E-flat major, written when the composer was 26 years of age. With Beethoven having become all the rage among the gentry for his dazzling displays of improvisational skill and keyboard virtuosity, the work, premiered in 1797, catered to the taste of the Viennese aristocratic audience, to be played at soirées in their elegant city palaces. Although the work shows the strong influence of Mozart and Haydn, its writing is still very much a product of its creator and time. Early on in the work, the piano announces its intention to be primus inter pares, but there are plenty of opportunities to hear personal expression from individual wind instruments. The TAWQ's performance placed strong emphasis on both the piece's hearty melodiousness and its poignancy, excelling in judicious shaping of phrases and subtle sonorities. Endorsed by his signature fragility of touch, Goldstein wove the virtuosity of the piano part, with its ornamentation and transitions, through the texture’s elegant fabric, with the Op.16 Quintet’s writing still a product of the joyful, optimistic composer, whose youthful buoyancy would, within a half-dozen years, change with his growing deafness and the unprecedented deepening of his art. 


Introducing Beethoven’s Piano Sonata (“Moonlight”) in C sharp minor, Op.27, no.2 (Sonata quasi una Fantasia), Alon Goldstein referred to the composer’s new approach to matters of form and structure in the piano sonata and to the choice of the somewhat “otherworldly” key of C-sharp minor. He reminded the audience that the “Moonlight” subtitle was neither given by- nor known to Beethoven and that the composer had specified that the opening movement should be played throughout “with the greatest delicacy and without dampers” (i.e. with the sustaining pedal held down!)  Of course, the action of Beethoven’s piano was different to that of the modern concert grand. In playing a far cry from the too-frequently-heard sugar-coated concept of this piece, Goldstein’s rendition took the listener into the mysterious soundscape of the opening Adagio movement, his playing of the gently-arpeggiated texture agile and sotto voce, its soprano utterances emerging crystal clear despite his liberal use of the sustaining pedal. In the ensuing unrushed Allegretto, there remained some of the pensive aura of the first movement, swiftly to disappear into thin air with the final Presto agitato’s urgency and virtuosity, as the pianist gave focus to moments of melodiousness, also to intimacy of expression, the movement's outbursts never sounding aggressive or rough-edged.


A work well-suited to the Tel Aviv Wind Quartet’s members is Luciano Berio’s “Opus Number Zoo”, a musical theatre piece written in 1951 for wind quintet and narrator, the 1971 revised version allocating recital of Rhoda Levine’s four poems to the players. Described by Berio as an “occasional piece written for young people”, the texts are quasi-Aesopian animal tales, their underlying dark message, however, echoing the horrors of human violence, the desire to possess what belongs to others and referring to those who  “blast all that is lively, proud and gentle” clear to adults. With stage direction by Ari Teperberg, and using Elisha Shefi (and the players’) effective Hebrew translation, the artists’ presentation was polished and confrontational, but also entertaining with touches of whimsy, nevertheless justifying the work’s subtitle of “Children’s Play”. Theatre it was, indeed, but not to be ignored was the instrumentalists’ adept treatment of Berio’s succinct and vibrant Neo-Classical writing, its bold rhythms, pungent harmonies and deft counterpoint, as they manipulated the music and poetry by means of the dramatized voice and physical movements.


Leonard Bernstein’s operetta “Candide”, based on the 1759 novella of the same name by Voltaire, was first performed in 1956 with a libretto by Lillian Hellman; in Bernstein’s brilliant score, European dance forms like the gavotte, waltz and polka intertwine seamlessly with bel canto arias, Gilbert and Sullivan-style comedy, grand opera and Bernstein's own "Jewish tango”. Following the Overture's first concert performance by the New York Philharmonic under the composer's baton in 1957, its content mirroring the wit, passion and sophistication of the operetta, it was quick to earn a place in the orchestra repertoire. Don Stewart made a transcription of it for wind quintet. With Roy Amotz alternating between flute and piccolo, the TAWQ members gave fresh and vibrant expression to the piece’s jazzy, bustling collage of motifs and jocularity as well as to the lyricism of vocal melodies quoted from the operetta. The “Candide” Overture remains a splendid concert piece.


First performed on March 20, 1956, American composer Samuel Barber composed “Summer Music” with the players of the New York Wind Quintet in mind and utilizing their “favourite effects”. The germ of the work, both in its melodic and rhythmic  essence, is to be found in the first bars, as they then give rise to a rhapsodic, quiet, contemplative, pastoral mood; Barber displays masterful handling of each instrumental voice, exploiting the unique timbres and colouristic possibilities of the individual instruments, resulting in writing that is most demanding in terms of sonority and virtuosity. At the Tel Aviv concert, the work’s solos came over most effectively, with the lion’s share going to nostalgic, beautifully crafted oboe melodies (Dudu Carmel); and how connotative the horn (Itamar Leshem) and bassoon (Nadav Cohen) are when describing the languid listlessness of summer! Taking on board Barber’s shifts between lyrical, dramatic and motoric passages, the TAWQ players produced a finely compatible, evocative canvas infused with Barber’s individual and unmistakable deep feeling fort Neo-Romantic poeticism, yet inviting the listener probe his own associations, experience, and mood. It was Barber himself who, with a touch of irony, referred to the work as “supposed to be evocative of summer – summer meaning languid, not killing mosquitoes.”


Despite contact with Francis Poulenc and the “Groupe des Six” and his liking for French Impressionism and the Stravinsky’s Neoclassicism, French composer Jean Françaix never felt committed to any particular musical ideology, claiming that the only goal of his composing was to "give pleasure". He chose to write in a style that was tonal, melodically elegant and rhythmically incisive.  His instrumental music includes chamber music and concerti, showing keen interest in writing for wind instruments. He was also successful as a concert pianist and toured extensively throughout Europe and the United States. Scored for wind quintet and piano, “L'heure du berger” (“Shepherd’s Hour”, roughly translated as “Happy Hour”) and subtitled “Musique de Brasserie”, was composed as background music for a noted Parisian restaurant, with each of the small movements depicting clientele in a restaurant scene. The TAWQ players brought each tableau to life: “Les Vieux Beaux” (“The Old Dandies”) is jolly in its piano part but the winds add a dimension of nostalgia. With the piano silent and the clarinet soloing in “Pin-Up Girls”, Danny Erdman’s playing was polished, whimsical and suitably teasing, the other winds making their own bumptious statement, with the movement ending on a droll flourish. As to the final movement, also concluding an evening of fine performance and variety, the players gave precise expression to its good-natured energy and dash, to its web of melodic lines propelling against each other in offbeat, dazzling movement and to its suggestions of such dances as the Charleston. 


Alon Goldstein (b.Israel, 1970) is considered one of the most original and sensitive pianists of his generation; he is admired for his musical intelligence, dynamic personality, artistic vision and innovative programming. He performs worldwide as a soloist and in chamber music, records and has premiered several works.  Mr. Goldstein graduated from the Peabody Conservatory, where he studied with Leon Fleisher, then serving as his assistant..

Roy Amotz,Dudu Carmel,Itamar Leshem,Nadav Cohen,Danny Erdman(Yoel Levy)

Saturday, February 8, 2020

More notes from the 2020 Eilat Chamber Music Festival: early English music - Dowland, Purcell and Henry Lawes

Maria Keohane, Alon Sariel (photo: Maxim Reider).
Early music featured at two events of the 15th Eilat Chamber Music Festival (Dan Eilat Hotel, January 22nd to 25th, 2020). “The Mozart Requiem” (Concert No.6) featured the NFM Choir (Wroclaw, Poland, musical director: Agnieszka Franków-Żelazny), the Israel Camerata Jerusalem (director: Avner Biron) and soloists. The concert was conducted by Maestro Paul McCreesh (UK). To the surprise and delight of many there, the concert opened with two of John Dowland’s lute songs performed by soprano Maria Keohane (Sweden) and Alon Sariel (Israel-Germany) - theorbo. For just a small taste of the music of the greatest composer of the English lute song, a genre flowering briefly late in the reign of Elizabeth I and through James I’s reign, we heard the artists in two of Dowland’s 87 songs. Both, as typical of these songs, are written to early dance rhythms: “If My Complaints Could Passions Move” follows the rhythm of the galliard and “Flow My Tears” mirrors a pavane. Keohane’s singing was articulate and clean and her use of vibrato suitably sparing as she and Sariel gave expression to the melancholy mood and to the references to unrequited love proverbial to Dowland’s songs. Sariel’s playing added interest, with eloquent comments, transitions and ornate phrase endings. The lute songs provided an introduction to the work that followed - Benjamin Britten’s Lachrymae for viola and strings - performed with delicate subtlety by violist Vladimir Percevic (Serbia) and the Camerata Orchestra. “Come, heavy sleep”, the Dowland song on which Britten’s piece is based, appears only at the very end of the work, ending it with wistful, touching poignancy.
‘Come, heavy Sleep, the image of true Death,
And close up these my weary weeping eyes,
Whose spring of tears doth stop my vital breath,
And tears my heart with Sorrow's sigh-swoll'n cries.
Come and possess my tired thought-worn soul,
That living dies, till thou on me be stole.’

Concert No.14, “A Dialogue on a Kisse”, offered a festival program of English Baroque songs and instrumental pieces, most of which coming from the pen of Henry Purcell. It was presented by the prestigious Belgian Ricercar Consort. Performing the works were soprano Maria Keohane (Sweden), tenor Anders Dahlin (Sweden), harpsichordist François Guerrier (France) and founding member of the Ricercar Consort Philippe Pierlot (Belgium) on the viola da gamba. Actually, the program took its name from “Among thy fancies (A Dialogue on a Kisse)” by Henry Lawes’ (1596-1662); in this song, we heard Keohane and Dahlin engaged in whimsical discussion to define the “creature born and bred betwixt the lips all cherry red”. 

In the minimalist medium of solo song, Henry Purcell left pieces of an astonishing range in style and function, setting a wide variety of lyrics. Of his 85 secular songs, whether tender, witty or tragic in character, there lies a wealth of interest and sophistication. Anders Dahlin’s fine singing of “‘Tis Nature’s Voice” from “Ode to St. Cecilia” (1692) gave fine expression to its vigorous word-painting and melismas. “O Let Me Weep” from “The Fairy Queen, one of the many Purcell songs attesting to the composer’s consummate skill in writing works to a ground (recurring bass), was beautifully crafted: Keohane’s expressive and easeful singing brought out the song’s woe and despair, as Pierlot soloed, endorsing and colouring such utterances as “his loss deplore”. Of Purcell’s songs with a Scottish flavour, we heard Keohane and Dahlin (complete with a bagpipe-associate bourdon played by Pierlot on the viol) in a whimsical, somewhat risqué discussion of a relationship lacking love in “Jenny, ‘gin you can love me”, concluding with the couple’s hearty resolution:
‘Then since ill Fortune intends 
Our Amity shall be no dearer;
Still let us kiss and be friends,
And sigh we shall never come nearer.’

From one of Purcell’s finest odes, “From hardy Climes and dangerous Toils of War”, we heard Dahlin and the instrumentalists in one of the composer’s most exquisite ground bass solos - “The Sparrow and the Gentle Dove”. Dahlin’s singing was both touching and finely shaped, giving the lush and effusive text centre stage. As to another great Purcell masterpiece, “Sweeter than Roses”, Maria Keohane presented the song’s build-up of emotions, from its meditative start to the jubilant celebration of “victorious love”. Above Purcell’s forays into unexpected harmonic regions, she indulged wholeheartedly in the wealth of word-painting and suggestion offered by the mere seven lines of text, weaving through it some lavish and stylish, melismatic passages. Taking the listener into rural England, “Let us wander not unseen” from “The Indian Queen” (text: Dryden) concluded the recital with a duet imbued with contentment and a sense of well-being.

The instrumental pieces performed at this concert gave the stage both to the stylistic expertise of François Guerrier and Philippe Pierlot and to two genres of music prevalent in England - that of divisions common in 16th- and 17th-century music and of works written on- or improvised to a ground (ostinato) bass. 

Philippe Pierlot,Francois Guerrier,Maria Keohane,Anders Dahl (Maxim Reider)

Sunday, February 2, 2020

"Lieder Ohnegleichen" (Songs without Equal) - a recent recording of Schubert Lieder by Austrian tenor Daniel Johannsen and Christoph Hammer (Germany) on fortepiano

One of the most profound and fascinating recordings of Schubert Lieder to appear of late is
“Lieder Ohnegleichen” (Songs without Equal) performed by tenor Daniel Johannsen (Austria) and historic keyboard artist Christoph Hammer (Germany). In keeping with the sound world and balance with which the composer and his contemporaries would have been familiar, Hammer chose to play (“accompany” would be the wrong word here) a fortepiano from c.1827 by Viennese piano builder Conrad Graf. The instrument, boasting five pedals, is part of the Christa and Reinhold J. Buhl Collection.


Franz Schubert was, of course, the originator of the “Liederabend” (evening song recital), the extraordinary musical environment that featured nothing but a singer and pianist, bringing about a thrillingly direct form of communication between artists and listeners.  Of the composer’s some 600 Lieder, Johannsen and Hammer leave aside Die Schöne Müllerin”, “Winterreise” and many frequently-performed Lieder to explore a number of other jewels of the Schubert vocal canon. Several of the Lieder appearing on the disc display the composer’s preoccupation with the nature-centric poetry of his day, yielding rich musical landscapes and depictions of the human experience in nature, setting before the listener Romantic attitudes and ethics.


The artists open with “Das Lied im Grünen” (Song in the Country: words: J.A.F.Reil), abundant in the joy of youth and springtime, with Johannsen effusively highlighting the text’s sumptuousness  against the busy, sparkling and subtly-flexed piano part, coloured with just a touch of melancholy. Alongside the subject of the seasons, the life of the fisherman and reminiscences of love, poetry inspired by the mystery of the night provides the settings to many of the recording’s songs - the pansophical, stable moon, the benevolent stars, the dark, fateful brooding in “Bertha’s Nocturnal Song” (words: Franz Grillparzer) or the otherworldly image of the fisherman and his sweetheart in Karl Leitner’s “Des Fischers Liebesglück” (The Fisherman’s Luck in Love) as they “drift on blissfully, in the midst of darkness, high above the twinkling stars…” Differing from the bulk of the disc’s works is “Glaube, Hoffnung und Liebe” (Love, Hope and Love; words: Christoph Kuffner) offering a glimpse into German moral teachings of the time. And, apart from the comforting image of a window shining or hopefully shining light into the night, suggesting the possible presence of a lover, Hammer and Johannsen mostly present Schubert Lieder in which the voice is that of a person alone with his thoughts in the wondrous world of nature.  But it is the artists’ deep inquiry into the smallest, most subtle details and allusions of the verbal- and musical texts of each song, the highlighting of a single word, the gentle flexing of a phrase, a tiny but strategic hesitation, a comment offered by the piano and predominantly the Romantic gamut of ever-shifting human emotions that make listening to this disc such a rare and involving experience. Johannsen and Hammer present each Lied as a small but complete theatrical piece, revealing its various levels and the sophistication of Schubert’s writing throughout. In “Herbst” (Autumn; words: Ludwig Rellstab), for example, the piano’s right hand evokes the blustery, unsettled weather associated with Autumn, with the left hand weaving mellifluous melodic phrases in and out of the texture, as Johannsen endorses the song’s disquieting message put to music by the composer in 1828, the last year of his own life: “Winds blow cold over the hillside! So do the roses of life die.”


Daniel Johannsen’s voice is fresh, rich in colours and pleasing in all registers, his free, poignant and affecting singing reflecting every turn of emotion. Christoph Hammer’s playing is rich in temperament and ideas, easeful, alive and responsive, bringing into play the fortepiano’s warmth and distinctive palette of colours. Hammer and Johannsen’s finely-consolidated Schubert performance is clearly the result of much discussion and collaboration. “Lieder Ohnegleichen” was recorded in April 2018 in Grafrath, Germany for the SPEKTRAL label. The sound quality is true and vivid. The disc offers program notes that are interesting and informative.


Christoph Hammer, Daniel Johannsen (