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. 





Friday, March 20, 2020

"Dowland" - a new disc of lute songs and lute pieces of John Dowland performed by Doron Schleifer-countertenor and Ori Harmelin-lute

“Dowland”, a recent recording by Doron Schleifer (countertenor) and Ori Harmelin (lute) presents a selection of lute songs and instrumental pieces of the great English Renaissance composer, virtuoso lutenist, and singer John Dowland (1562/3-1626), with just a few pieces by other composers. 


One could say that John Dowland is a composer renowned to have made a living out of being depressed. Feeding into his reputation as a great melancholic, he actually made a pun on his own name in a piece called “Semper Dowland, Semper Dolens” (Always Dowland, Always Doleful). He claimed his conversion to Catholicism had led to his not being offered a post at Elizabeth I’s Protestant court, that Britain had never appreciated him, leading him to spend much of his life looking for employment in France, Germany and Denmark. But, as to the mood reflected in much of his music, melancholy, at that time, was seen as the sign of a superior individual, of someone who was mature and capable of deep feeling and Dowland’s musical and creative brilliance give voice to what was considered an appropriate emotion.


In this disc, Schleifer and Harmelin offer a representative selection of Dowland’s songs, some throwing light on the various social circles in which Dowland moved and on the court of Elizabeth I, possibly voicing her mistreatment of courtiers in “If my complaints could passions move” and in the upbeat, lilting galliard (Elizabeth I’s favourite dance) of “Can she excuse my wrongs”. Hinting at court intrigues, the latter is associated with Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, who was later executed for treason. And how teasing is Schleifer and Harmelin’s stylish, nimble reading of the Almain “Say Love if ever thou didst find”, designed by Dowland to gain Elizabeth’s favour by flattering her as the “only queen of love and beauty”, their performance decidedly entertaining in its waggish play of single syllable sounds.


However, even in light of the Elizabethan penchant for dejection, the sombre John Dowland stands out as the high priest of melancholy, preoccupied with death and imbued with despair on all its levels. The artists’ rendering of “Sorrow stay” moves spontaneously, Schleifer’s plangent, bell-like timbre giving expression to the heart-rending, self-castigating text, with Harmelin engaging in the composer’s innovative idiomatic lute-writing, its harmonies and melodic motifs adding meaning. The disc includes a beguiling, fragile and intimate performance of “I saw my lady weep”, and the artists’ gently understated performance of Dowland’s signature song and most famous ayre “Flow my teares”, gives centre stage to the text’s wretchedness and despair. In Dowland’s time, sleep and death were understood to provide a longed-for release from earthly cares; the artists open each stanza of “Come heavy sleep” with the soothing serenity suggested by the tonality of G major, moving out of it to address the text’s more impassioned pleas, then to restore the sweetness of death (whether literal or in its erotic Elizabethan connotation) in the original mode.  As heard in the above songs, expression of human grief and a sense of hopelessness, together with optimism, the possibility of restoration and rebirth, are closely linked in art.and attitude of the time. But it is “In darkness let me dwell”, one of Dowland’s greatest masterpieces - a later, through-composed, declamatory song showing the influence of Italian monody - that takes the listener’s breath away, as Schleifer and Harmelin juxtapose the composer’s harmonic daring with prudent, unhurried timing in a spine-chilling performance; Schleifer gives a slight wavering of pitch to the word “hellish”, with the lute then abandoning the singer before the last word, an eerie, masterful effect on the part of Dowland..


“A shepherd in a shade” is certainly not melancholic, but it does offer a warning about love, referred to here as “a foolish thing”. As its double entendres merge with Dowland’s sudden chromatic shifts, the artists’ lightly-tripping, jaunty performance of the song is animated and whimsical.


Not only one of England's greatest song composers, John Dowland was also arguably its finest lute composer. His works are divided somewhat evenly between songs and solo lute compositions. In the course of the composer’s professional life, the lute, considered a "gentleman's instrument”, was continuously developing. Dowland would have started out on an instrument with only six courses but would have played a nine- or ten course lute in his maturity. With the tendency he had to revise his lute pieces, some can be found in as many as ten versions! As in his songs, interesting evidence of his connections with patrons and courtiers can be revealed by the dedications on many of the lute pieces. The King of Denmark’s Galliard, given a zesty, tastefully-ornamented reading by Ori Harmelin, is a reminder that Dowland was court lutenist to the Danish King Christian IV from 1598 to 1606. In the somewhat enigmatic “La Mia Barbara”, a pavin with divisions (which may or may not be those of Dowland) the artist takes the tempo at a relaxed pace to give space to a host of ornamental ideas. Harmelin also performs three of the composer’s 7 Fantasies (or Fancyes): merging expectation with the unexpected in the rich flow of ideas running through the toccata-like and Italianate Fancyes Nos. 5 and 6, Harmelin’s fertile imagination and melodic sense meet those of the composer in playing these small gems, reflecting Dowland’s expressive  personal, meditational world together with his range of compositional freedom. In the Forlorn Hope Fancy, also Italianate in style, one cannot but be captivated by the way the descending half-tone “tear” motif from “Flow My Teares” is woven seamlessly through the piece; Harmelin navigates its rich contrapuntal web and daring chromaticism with assurance, reminding the listener that Dowland was, indeed, a virtuosic player.


Other works on the disc appear in (son) Robert Dowland’s 1610 publication “A Musicall Banquet”. One of the many works inspired by- and based on Dowland’s “Lachrimae Antiquae” (instrumental pieces on “Flow my teares”) is “Mauritius’ Pavin” by Moritz, Landgrave of Hesse, who composed it “in honour of John Dowland, the English Orpheus” - its divisions possibly written by the honouree himself. Here, Caccini’s “Amarilli, mia bella” is given a spontaneous, fresh and flexed reading, with some splendid stylistic affects on the part of Schleifer. Also present is “Si le parler” by Pierre Guédron (c.1570-c.1620), one of the most renowned and influential composers of the early 17th century French court, an artist known for his writing of airs de cour (secular French pieces of that period) and for fuelling the phenomenal Parisian vogue for the genre. Schleifer addresses its agenda of courtly love (it also hints at undercurrents in Henri IV’s court) with pleasing French transparency and suaveness, the artists’ lilting performance evocative of the fact that dance was never far away from French court music. For the anonymous Spanish song “Vuestros ojos” (Your eyes contain I know not what of love), the artists adopt an urgency of pace as its speech rhythms cavort and break through bar lines, portraying the cruel message conveyed by the lady’s eyes.


Recorded in June 2017 for the SUISA label, the disc’s sound is uncluttered, endorsing the intimate nature of Dowland’s works. Doron Schleifer’s pure, easeful vocal timbre, his deep enquiry into texts and personal exegesis that steer well clear of the sameness of interpretation too often heard in performance of these songs, make for a rich listening experience. Playing on a 7-course Renaissance lute by Sebastian Núñez, Ori Harmelin’s delivery is poised, profound and intelligent, his polished, attentive performance served by consummate technical skill and integrated with invention and a diversity of ideas. The two Israeli-born artists, today residing in Basel and both members of the Profeti della Quinta ensemble, share their own “personal Dowland” (Harmelin's words) with exemplary teamwork. 


Doron Schleifer, Ori Harmelin (photo:Elam Rotem)


Saturday, March 7, 2020

"Twilight People" - pianist Tamar Halperin and countertenor Andreas Scholl's recent recording of atmospheric songs of the 20th and 21st centuries, including folk song settings

“Twilight People”, a disc recorded by countertenor Andreas Scholl and pianist Tamar Halperin, is a collection of songs carefully selected by the artists - songs of composers from Austria, England, America, of one born in Egypt and one in Israel, as well as settings of folk songs. 


The disc features three songs from Alban Berg’s “Jugendlieder” (1901-1908), a substantial collection written when Berg was studying with Arnold Schoenberg and that traces the young composer's musical transition from the late Romantic love song to a more modern idiom. Performing Berg’s setting of the Heinrich Heine poem Vielgeliebte schöne Frau” (Much-loved Beautiful Woman), Halperin and Scholl, with absolutely no affectation, evoke its mournful, bleak yet lush autumnal setting, with its pedal point in the bass moving down a half tone for one mystifying, staggering  beat, suddenly shedding light on the song’s chilling message. In “Ferne Lieder” (Distant Songs) to words of Friedrich Rückert, each mellifluous gesture is appraised by the artists, their reading of it emerging in lilting luxuriance and delicate flexing, endorsing Berg’s musical language that sees fit here to defy bar lines and conventional modulation,  Also lavish and tranquil in its melding of nature and the milieu of love is “Wo der Goldregen steht” (Where the Laburnum Stands), as Halperin and Scholl infuse it with a sense of spontaneity and well-being. 


Arrangements of folk songs form a major part of the disc. Benjamin Britten wrote 61 folk-song arrangements, many of them displaying extraordinarily imaginative piano accompaniments. His settings comprise songs of the British Isles, but also of some French melodies.  Halperin and Scholl’s performance of three settings was gently crestfallen and wistful: “The Salley Gardens”, an Irish tune with words by W.B. Yeats (a reconstruction of ‘an old song’ arranged in the early 1940s, as Yeats described it), with a deep sense of longing woven into its harmonies and a touch of word painting; the gloomy soundscape of “Greensleeves”, evoked by the piano's low strumming left hand (sounding very distant from the countertenor range) and its somewhat disturbing insistent single right hand note (mostly the 5th of the scale); and “The Ash Grove”, Britten’s first setting of a traditional Welsh tune, its opening accompaniment positive, light and buoyant, with the right-hand melody and its accompanying harmonies then moving away from the vocal line, as though distracted and  haunted by the poet's grief at  his beloved's death, to be followed by the return of a simpler harmonic language for the final two lines, restoring the song’s earlier feeling of reassurance. The richly flowing piano part of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ setting of “In the Spring” (My love is the maid), a Dorset folk-song as transcribed (in local dialect) by William Barnes, integrates the text’s profuse description of nature with the poet’s almost delirious love of a young woman;  Vaughan Williams adds his own comment in the form of a shadowy moment of reticence towards the end of the song. 


Aaron Copland’s two collections of Old American Songs (1950,1952), indeed, fine specimens of folk-song arrangements, are exquisitely presented on the disc. “The Little Horses” swings between the soothing caressing lullaby, accompanied by reposeful, seemingly random 5ths and sixths in the piano's upper register, and the expression of sheer childlike delight as inspired by the energetic rhythm of a trotting horse. “At the River”, a Methodist hymn by the Reverend Robert Lowry, dated 1865, begins pensively, gathering strength and spiritual conviction with calm simplicity as the accompaniment seems to evoke the steps of pilgrims making their way to the river.


Three songs of Ralph Vaughan Williams feature on the disc. From “The House of Life”, an early collection based on sonnets of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “Silent Noon”, sensuous, rhapsodic and cushioned in opulent harmonies, interlinks passion and nature. On his score of “The Twilight People” (1925), from which this disc takes its title, the composer writes that this setting of Seamus O’Sullivan’s poem (1905) may be sung either unaccompanied (suggesting its folksong-type character) or with the composer’s piano accompaniment. Here, the artists choose to do both, initially with Scholl alone expounding its unique, meandering, at times, unpredictable melodic contour with alluring timbral beauty, then to repeat the song, this time joined by Halperin, who adds its sparse, mysterious high-register accompaniment. Both versions leave the listener deep in thought and ensconced in its otherworldly aura. From “Four Last Songs” (1958), written two years before Vaughan Williams’ death, his settings of poems of his wife and muse Ursula, a highly respected British poet and novelist, we hear “Tired”. Composed within one day, it is the only example of a work in which the composer wrote music with himself as the direct subject. The artists give tender expression to this love song, sensitively weaving into it the poet’s recollections as well as the sense of peaceful contentment when lying near one’s beloved, its gently rocking piano accompaniment soothing but also offering some subtle ambiguity as to interesting touch.


The disc includes two contemporary works, opening with “The Rest”, from “wiping ceramic tiles”, a 5-part song cycle for countertenor and piano by Israeli-born American composer/librettist/producer Ari Frankel (b.1960).  Halperin and Scholl give expression to its almost luminous soundscape, with Scholl’s superb control of the largely static vocal line set against Halperin’s fragile, unhurried broken chords of poised single notes, the piece’s minor mode slowly becoming invaded by major associations, also a smattering of thought-provoking dissonances, to culminate in direct major-minor confrontation commenting on “I HOPE TO KNOW AND FEEL SAFE ONE DAY.” Twilight People ends with “Beauty is Life”, by London-based Australian oud player Joseph Tawadros (b. Egypt, 1983), who joins Halperin and Scholl in performance of the work. A breathing, palpable kaleidoscope of east meeting west, of set texts dovetailing with improvisation, of three outstanding artists who, taking their cue from the initial ideas expounded by the oud, join to produce a work of superb, instinctive, natural musicianship and gripping emotion.


“Twilight People”, recorded in 2019 for the MODERN Recordings label, is unique in atmosphere, moving beyond everyday experience into the somewhat inexplicable (at times, disturbing) regions of the human psyche, as plumbed by the poets represented here. Arranged in strategic order, the pieces, whether addressing man within the powerful forces of nature, recalling love or memories - frequently all - pass through the emotional prism of the artists, resulting in performance that mixes the objective with the subjective, in performance that is beguiling, rich in gestures, fine in detail, of rare sensitivity and superb teamwork. Tamar Halperin and Andreas Scholl invite the listener to take flight into the timeless depths of his own soul. 


Saturday, February 29, 2020

Singing of love potions and love, the Jerusalem Opera performs Donizetti's "L'Elisir d'Amore" at the Jerusalem Theatre; conductor: Omer Arieli

Avigail Gurtler-Har-Tuv,Pavel Suliandziga(Elad Zagman)

Love potions — and the results expected from them — have been around for a long time. Romance can be painfully hard to come by, and the idea of a magic formula that turns endless frustration into instant passion can be just so appealing! This is the theme of Gaetano Donizetti’s opera “L’Elisir d’Amore” (The Elixir of Love), the Jerusalem Opera’s production that took place in the Sherover Hall of the Jerusalem Theatre on February 24th, 2020. Jerusalem Opera musical director and founder Omer Arieli conducted soloists, the Jerusalem Opera Chorus (director: Inbal Brill) and the Israel Sinfonietta Beer Sheva in the performance of this opera, the most popular of Donizetti's works.


First performed in 1832 in Milan as well as in Berlin, the opera's popularity was quick to spread around the globe. "L'Elisir d'Amore" (libretto: Felice Romani) is a comic opera, with romance as its central plot, and winding up with a happy ending. A composer in great demand after the success of his 1830 work "Anna Bolena", it seems Donizetti wrote this opera in only a few weeks. (He composed 36 operas by age 34 mostly at breakneck speed). Indeed, this opera actually takes some detail from the composer's personal life: like the lead of the opera, Nemorino, Donizetti had his military service purchased by a wealthy female patron. 


Served by his richly-timbred, fresh and easeful singing, rich in legato, young tenor Pavel Suliandziga (Russia) was totally convincing in his portrayal of the shy, naive, awkward and love-sick country bumpkin Nemorino, his whole physical bearing changing when he finally realizes he has won the love of Adina (Avigail Gurtler-Har-Tuv). Looking up to the heavens, his performance of  the bittersweet aria "Una furtiva lagrima"  in Act 2, referring to his seeing "one furtive teardrop" in Adina's eye as a sign that he might still have a chance with her - he would sooner die than be with any other woman - was  sung with melancholy and great sensuality, emerging as a high point of the performance. Stripping everything else away, leaving Suliandziga alone on stage, focused our attention on the beauty of the melody and the humanity of the longing in Nemorino’s heart. Avigail Gurtler-Har-Tuv as Adina, a beautiful landowner, who spends much of the time tormenting Nemorino with her indifference, sang exquisitely, imbuing the character with effervescent charisma, engaging in the role’s technical demands with flare, boldly scaling its wide diapason as well as its emotional content. Bass-baritone Yuri Kissin (Russia-France), sporting a rich and powerful voice,  was marvellously cast in the “melodramma giocoso” role of the hood-winking travelling quack Dr. Dulcamara, contending effortlessly with the role’s large range as he convinced the clueless Nemorino of the need to drink the elixir of love, at the same time, offering the audience some mirthful, good-natured entertainment. Displaying some fine singing, but somewhat more restrained than the vendor of potions, German-American baritone Samuel Berlad, as army captain Belcore, more pompous than dashing, did, indeed, cut the figure of the army man. In her role of the pert Giannetta, mezzo-soprano Iphigenie Worbes (Germany-Israel) brought solid vocal ability, charm and geniality to the character.


With the Beer Sheva Sinfonietta members seated to one side of the stage, soloists and opera chorus managed well with half of the stage, on which there were a few props to suggest a rural setting. Attractive costuming would have added to the visual side of the performance. Maestro Arieli maintained good energy throughout the two acts, with the Sinfonietta’s players lending plenty of colour and sparkle to Donizetti’s score, with the opera chorus, competent and strong, always willing to share in the excitement and sorrow of the main characters, heartily endorsing all action on stage. 


The light-hearted opera, featuring a phony love potion that is nothing more than a bottle of cheap red wine, winking humour, human and endearing characters and a charming love story, set to masterful bel canto music, is filled to the brim with sumptuous arias and melodies. Perhaps along with all the laughs, Donizetti's unassuming comedy does present a measure of home truth - that, when it comes to love, the genuine article beats any potion-induced passion! The Jerusalem Opera’s high-energy, sassy and tasteful production gave the stage to all the above, at the same time, adding yet another feather to the Jerusalem Opera’s cap.

Yuri Kissin, opera chous (Elad Zagman)

Friday, February 28, 2020

The Profeti della Quinta (Basel, Switzerland) join the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra for a concert of music of Monteverdi and Elam Rotem to biblical texts; instrumental works of Salomone Rossi

Profeti della Quinta (Yoel Levy)

Concert No.4 of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s 31st season hosted the Profeti della Quinta ensemble No new faces to Israeli audiences or to JBO concerts, the Basel-based male vocal quintet - countertenors Doron Schleifer and Roman Melish, tenors Lior Leibovici and Jacob Lawrence and director Elam Rotem, with the group’s lutenist Ori Harmelin - performed  together with  members of the JBO, with Jerusalem. Baroque Orchestra founder and director David Shemer on the organ. This writer attended the concert at the Jerusalem International YMCA on February 23rd, 2020.


“Prophets, Scriptures”  was  a program of music of Claudio Monteverdi and Salomone Rossi, but also of works by harpsichordist, bass, researcher and composer Elam Rotem (b.Israel,1984). Of Monteverdi, a pivotal transitional figure in Venice between the Renaissance and Baroque periods, we heard works from his 1641 “Selva morale e spirituale” (Moral and Spiritual Forest) - the composer’s sacred anthology, one of startling stylistic range and variety. In the setting of  “Laudate Dominum” (Praise the Lord), Psalm 116, the shortest of all 150 Psalms, the singers called attention to the concise but vivid work’s “split personality” - its dancelike first section (interrupted by the curious descending chromatics colouring the word “misericordia”), as contrasted with the more formal, “Gloria Patri”, moving into homophony... very challenging vocal material, its instrumental score also offering plenty of interest. Written for six-part chorus (managed here by five) and soloists, with organ, basso continuo and two obbligato violin parts, in “Beatus vir” (Happy is the man), with its pairs or small groups of voices contrasting with the weight of the full chorus, the artists gave expression to the motet’s sheer joy, its lilting rhythms, solo moments and melismas, its recurring refrain exhilarating as it delivered its message over a sweeping ground  bass. Not ignored was the composer’s portrayal of the wicked man, “his desires thwarted, gnashing his teeth in angry envy” as compared to the blessed.


The largest-scale work on the program was Monteverdi’s 1624 “Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda” (Battle of Tancredi and Clorinda), set to a passage of Torquato Tasso’s epic poem “Gerusalemme liberata” (Jerusalem Delivered). This work – with its mix of love and violence, assimilation and confrontation, personal identity and agency, conflict of winner and victim, vocal and instrumental sections, a narrator occupying most of the composition (and two other characters who sing brief sections) - defies genre definition. With its vivid musical description of battle effects, as in the rapid repetition of sixteenth-notes, for example, it is considered to be the first instance of the “stile concitato”. The Jerusalem audience moved to the edge of its seats as tenor Jacob Lawrence (Australia) wielded its melodic and dramatic agenda with gripping, confrontational mastery. Engaging his well-anchored, substantial voice, given of easeful, natural sound production and flexibility, he set before the audience the piece’s many emotional aspects - its powerful dramatic urgency, its tenderness and pathos - as he narrated the many-faceted story word by word, gesture by gesture. The smaller vocal roles were handled well by soprano Liron Givoni and Lior Leibovici. A relatively new member of the Profeti ensemble, Jacob Lawrence has garnered experience in performance of opera and oratorio repertoire. Now based in Basel, he performs with leading European instrumental vocal and instrumental ensembles, singing music of the late medieval- to early Baroque periods. 

Israeli-born Elam Rotem, today residing in Basel, is a scholar whose research has, among other focuses, probed the music of Italian composer Emilio de' Cavalieri (c.1550-1602). Writing new works, Rotem has set several texts in Hebrew (his mother tongue), but in the musical style that flourished in Italy at the turn of the 17th century, the style contemporary to that of Cavalieri. His works form an important part of the repertoire performed by the Profeti della Quinta, with Rotem both singing the bass line and directing from the harpsichord. At the Jerusalem concert, we heard his richly contrapuntal setting of “Blessed is the man” (Psalm 1). Both sensuous and as sounding as richly “fragrant” as its very text, “Come with me from Lebanon” (Song of Songs) was given a spirited performance, offering the tenors the chance to duet, with a solo of finely-crafted, sensitive and bright singing by first countertenor Doron Schleifer, his voice warm, stable and of a convincing tessitura; the work concluded with dancelike exuberance:
“Come with me from Lebanon, my spouse, with me from Lebanon: look from the top of Amana, from the top of Shenir and Hermon, from the lions' dens, from the mountains of the leopards. How fair is thy love, my sister, my spouse! how much better is thy love than wine! and the smell of thine ointments than all spices! Thy lips, O my spouse, drop as the honeycomb: honey and milk are under thy tongue; and the smell of thy garments is like the smell of Lebanon.

Rotem’s motet “The Lamentations of David” (Samuel II,1:17-27) was premiered at this concert. Different from Monteverdi’s “Battle of Tancredi and Clorinda”, whose sonority endeavours to conjure up the actual battle scene, Rotem’s work evokes the emotional pain arising from the tragedy of war. With tenor (Jacob Lawrence) as narrator, it moved between the sentiments of official grieving and those of personal loss, subtly interweaving drama, anger, noble expression, tenderness and intensely sad, heartfelt gestures into the canvas. The singers’ profound enquiry into the work’s subject matter and elaborate musical fabric was direct, convincing and moving.

Interspersed between the vocal works, and creating fine balance and contrast in the program, we heard JBO players in a selection of instrumental works of Salomone Rossi. As a Jewish singer, violinist and composer at the court of Mantua from 1587 until 1628, he was ground-breaking in the field of synagogue music (with his settings of Hebrew texts). But In Rossi’s instrumental music, too often overlooked in today’s concert programs, he was no less innovating, with his application of the principles of monodic song, also his contribution to the development of the trio sonata and of an idiomatic and virtuoso violin technique. Of his four volumes of instrumental music (1607-1622), the JBO players performed Sinfonie and Sonatas in various “affetti” dance movements, giving much focus to fine playing on the parts of violinists Noam Schuss (leader) and Nahara Carmel. The instrumental combination, also including viols, theorbos, violone, harpsichord and organ, created a blend of exquisite timbres and delicacy. The concert concluded with an infectious, hearty performance of Rossi’s 1623 five-part strophic, largely homophonic setting of the Kaddish (“May his great name be exalted; sanctified is God’s great name”), joyous in its balletto style of writing, largely homophonic in texture and strophic in form. A concert of discerning programming and outstanding performance!

Ensemble Profeti della Quinta focuses on the vocal repertoire of the 16th and early 17th centuries, aiming to create vivid and expressive performances for audiences of today, at the same time, addressing period performance practices.  Based in Basel, Switzerland, where its members have been students of early music at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, the ensemble collaborates with colleagues from Switzerland, Japan and Australia. The Profeti della Quinta members have been active in performing and researching hitherto neglected repertoire as well as in recording music from the late Renaissance and works of Elam Rotem.


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.