Sunday, December 16, 2018

Pianist Amir Katz performs Chopin's Op.10 and Opus 25 Etudes to a packed house at the Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies

Photo: Stéphane de Bourgies
On December 9th 2018, Israeli pianist Amir Katz performed Frédéric Chopin’s Op.25 and Op.10 Études at a concert of the Sunday Evening Classics series of the Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies (Mormon University).

Chopin wrote the two collections over some eight years. Three more Études (not performed at the recital) followed in 1839. Written between the ages of 19 and 23, Chopin published his first études - Op. 10 - in 1833, by which time he had developed a considerable reputation in his native Poland and in the salons of Paris. He dedicated them “to my friend, Franz Liszt”. Op.25, published in 1837, was dedicated to Countess Marie d’Agoult (who happened to be Liszt’s mistress).  Unlike the studies that have been the drudgery of many a young piano student, Chopin’s études take for granted the pianist’s absolute mastery of the instrument; beyond their huge technical demands, they form a kaleidoscope of dazzling tone poems - works concise in length but of immense effect

A while ago, I spent time listening to Amir Katz’ CD of Chopin’s Etudes, a recording made in April 2015 in Berlin for the ORFEO label. The Jerusalem recital offered another opportunity to ponder these pieces and Katz’ interpretation of them. The pianist chose to open with the Op. 25 Etudes, these representing a crucial milestone in the composer’s development as a virtuoso pianist and composer. The artist reminded the listener of Chopin’s innovative use of chromatics, colour and texture and of the sheer opulence of the pieces. There is a lot happening and a lot to take in, as the pianist takes the listener on a whirlwind trip of Chopin’s seemingly unbounded world of fantasy -  to mention a few of the pieces: the opening study, its magical melody issuing each group of feather-light sextuplets, or the agitated but charming frivolity of No.4, as its melody rides the backbeat, and No.5, with its dissonant grace notes teasing the melody of the two outer sections, its languishing left hand melody in the middle section perhaps a message from Chopin begging the listener’s pardon him for his indulgent but ever-entertaining caper. Then there is the drama and intensity of No.10, with its extravagant, rapid octaves (to be played legato!!) and punctuated by a gentle, shell-shocked middle section (or is it the listener who is shell-shocked?). As to the suspenseful No.11, considered one of Chopin’s most difficult études; how fortunate and strategic it was that Chopin added the first few bars just before publication (on the advice of his friend Charles A. Hoffmann) before the pianist launches into “Winter Wind”, more the intensity of a tsunami; Katz does not allow its profusion of notes to blur the melodies existing in it. And then there are those breathtaking, magical moments - the gossamery featherweight, fast-flying No.2, over in the blink of an eye, and Katz’ playing of the C-sharp minor No.7, its reticent introduction issuing in a melody shaped and timed so sensitively by him and of indescribable and caressing beauty

To the Op.10 Études, opening with Katz’ ebullient and (literally) open-handed playing of the No.1 in C-major, cascading fearlessly up and down the keyboard, its broad arpeggiated theme sometimes spanning three or four octaves in a single bar, followed by his delicate, smooth treatment of No.2, the gliding right hand filigree chromatics belying the piece’s stringent technical demands. And how direct, wistful and personal his playing was of No.3 was, with its mix of melancholy and affection. As to No.5, Katz, staying well clear of the excessive speed and rough accents so prevalent in performances of this miniature, presents its floating magic and melodiousness in delicately crafted gestures, his playing no less weightless in the magical No.11, the étude’s enharmonic shifts weaving its dainty dreamworld. With the 12th Étude, all delicacy is swept away, to be replaced by the stark reality of the November Uprising (1831); Chopin, reacting to the Russian bombardment of Warsaw, exclaimed: "All this has caused me much pain. Who could have foreseen it?"  Katz’ presentation of the Revolutionary Étude conveyed the composer’s anger and despairing message in a dazzling, intense performance.


With the Op.10 dedicated "à son ami Franz Liszt", Amir Katz performed Franz Liszt’s dreamy (Chopin-tinted) “Consolation”. The pianist expressed his delight at playing on the hall’s fine Steinway Model D concert grand. It was his first appearance at the Mormon University.



Friday, December 14, 2018

"The Fall of the Angels" - the PHOENIX Ensemble celebrates 20 years of performance with guests in a concert of 17th century Italian music at Notre Dame, Jerusalem

Photo: Shlomit Mayer

“The Fall of the Angels”, a concert of 17th century Italian instrumental- and choral music was an auspicious event in Israel, bringing together the PHOENIX Ensemble (director: Myrna Herzog), members of the Ludovice Ensemble (Lisbon, Portugal) and students of the Vocal Department of the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music, Tel Aviv (Head of Dept: Prof. Sharon Rostorf-Shamir). Myrna Herzog initiated and directed the project, also conducting the concert. This writer attended the concert at “Our Lady of Peace”, the chapel of the Notre Dame Pontifical Institute of Jerusalem on December 5th 2018. The project received support from the Portuguese Embassy, Tel Aviv and the Italian Institute, Haifa..


The program opened with a Sinfonia à 6 by Giovanni Battista Vitali (1632-1692), a church musician and violone player, whose various methods of experimentation and innovation were instrumental in bringing about the emergence of the Baroque ensemble. Issued in by the drum (Rui Silva) the ensemble gave the majestic work, in all its (typically Italian Baroque) small sections of contrasting material, a brisk, suave performance, the winds engaging in ornamentation on repeats. It seems that Vitali was a student of another northern Italian composer - Maurizio Cazzati (1616-1709) - of whom we heard the Ciaconna from his “Varii e Diversi Capricci per camera e per chiesa” (Bologna, 1669) A figure almost unknown today, he is, nevertheless, one who ought to command our attention as one of the most prolific and successful composers of his day whose copious oeuvre covered every genre. In great demand as a musical director, Cazzati held the prestigious position of maestro di cappella at the Basilica of San Petronio (Bologna). At the Jerusalem concert, the ensemble’s vibrant mix of timbres, the conversational duetting of violins - Yaakov Rubinstein, Noam Gal -  (Cazzati established the Bologna school of violin music as the greatest of Modena, Venice and Bologna) and the players’ use of improvisation gave the ensemble’s reading of  the ostinato piece unstilted freshness and a living sense of connection between music written 350 years ago and what today’s players have to say.


In addition to holding numerous posts as organist, Pietro Andrea Ziani (c.1616-1684) composed various works throughout his lifetime, including operas, oratorios, masses, psalms, overtures, organ pieces, and several three- to six-part instrumental sonatas. Well connected, he was one of the first Venetians of his century to bring local music to Vienna, Dresden and Naples. And talking of connections, Ziani succeeded Cazzati as maestro di cappella at Santa Maria Maggiore, Bergamo, in 1657. The ensemble’s performance of Ziani’s Sonata Op.VII No.17 gave eloquent expression to the composer’s graceful melodic lines, his characteristic tremolo-style orchestration, echo effects and his penchant for chromatics. Guiding the listener through the work’s musical processes, the players (strings, organ) created a soundscape that was richly communicative, but also decidedly spiritual in mood. (Ziani was a priest, becoming a deacon in 1640).


All of what is known about Bernardo Storace (1637-1707) is printed on the title-page of his only collection of music, the “Selva di varie compositioni d’intavolatura per cimbalo ed organo”, published in Venice in 1664. Nobody has solved the mystery of the fact that, living in Sicily he published his music in Venice and that his keyboard works share more with North Italian keyboard writing than with the southern compositional style of Rome or Naples. Herzog transcribed Storace’s keyboard piece “Ballo della Battaglia” for the ensemble at hand, creating a spirited score, the performance profiting from the play of diverse timbres, as in the cheerful banter between violins and cornetto with recorder (Alma Mayer, Inbal Solomon). The Italians loved the feisty, descriptive character of the “battaglia”; this, however, was a hearty battle, bowing out with the wink of an eye…


An early representative of the Neapolitan operatic school, composer, organist and tenor Cristofaro Caresana (c.1640-1709) studied under Pietro Andrea Ziani in Venice before moving to Naples in his late teens, where he joined the theatre company of Febi Armonici which produced early examples of melodrama. Indeed, Caresana’s works have all the passion, the seamless fusion of sacred and profane and the glitter of musical colour characteristic of the Neapolitan Baroque. “La Vittoria del Infante” (Victory of the Child) is a quasi-theatrical Nativity cantata, stacked with comedy, drama and exuberant energy. Spanish associations in text and music - suggestions of bullfighting and the use of castanets - are anti-Spanish satire (condemning the oppressive rule of the Naples by the Spanish). Presenting the work’s urgency, moments of battaglia and triumph wrought in strong Neapolitan sentiments, Herzog, her ensemble and the singers also displayed its genuine beauty. Their close collaboration gave voice to the cantata’s interplay of solos, vocal ensembles and highly coloured instrumental writing. Baritone Hagai Berenson (Lucifero) was imposing and communicative; showing involvement and awareness of the work’s text and changes of mood, young countertenor Eliran Kadussi dealt laudably with the demanding role of San Michele.


When an angel challenges God this can only lead to turmoil in the heavens - whirlwinds, flashing lightning, palpable darkness and terribly bitter moans, roars, crying and shaking.and a sorry fate. This is the subject of Francesco Rossi’s oratorio “La Caduta dell’Angeli”, performed here for the first time in Israel, and from which the program took its title. Dr. Myrna Herzog outlined the story thus: “Based on the apocryphal book of Enoch, LA CADUTA DELL' ANGELI depicts the rebellion of angels led by Lucifer (then an angel of light = luce), their defeat by Archangel Michael and his army of good angels, and their fall into the abyss.” It was this story of arrogance, rebellion, hard-headedness, evil and justice that inspired librettist Salvatore Scaglione and composer, organist and maestro di cappella Francesco Rossi (b.1625) to produce a work that could only be deemed as “theatrical”! (Born in Bari, Rossi studied in Naples, moving to Venice in 1686, where he wrote operas and sacred music.) Following the course of the text, one cannot help being amazed by its universality, its lively, natural dialogue and emotions, all accessible long after being penned. Both soprano soloists - Shira Miriam Cohen, as Lucifero (angel of light) and Sharon Tadmor, in the role of San Michele - their voices bright and stable, performed with impressive confidence and conviction, addressing the audience and also blending well in duet sections. No less competent was tenor Daniel Portnoy (God) offering expressive and empathic singing and some tasteful ornamenting. After his fall from grace, Lucifer is then portrayed by a bass-baritone, an interesting effect of characterization; in this role, Yoav Ayalon reflected on the fate of a fallen angel expelled from Heaven in dark, dejected tonings:
“What terrible abysses
Fate has prepared here,
Death is visible in them.”
The work concluded with resplendent choral singing, as the final chorus brought us all back to earth with a lesson to be learned by the story:
“Whoever imitates Lucifer is awaited by Hell”.


Three guest instrumentalists joining the PHOENIX Ensemble - on violone, Brazilian-born Gio Sthel, today living in Stuttgart and conductor of the LALA HÖHÖ early music Ensemble, and the two members of the Ludovice Ensemble - its musical director Miguel Jalôto (organ continuo) and percussionist Rui Silva - added their superlative musicianship to the project. Altogether, the evening’s instrumental playing was stirring and inspiring. As to the young student vocalists, their diligent work under Myrna Herzog’s guidance (this early music style being a totally new musical experience for them) resulted in singing that was unencumbered by heavy vibrato without sounding forced, showing the primacy of the words; within a short period of time they had, in fact, achieved a vocal timbre authentic in style and tuning for 17th century Italian music.


The festive event was a special project marking twenty years of Ensemble PHOENIX’ authentic musical performance in Israel.  Founded and directed by Myrna Herzog, the ensemble’s performance of European and Latin American music, J.S.Bach, viol consort music, music from the Middle Ages, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical and even early Romantic periods, opera, Jewish- and Christian music, ethnic- and world music and solo recitals, have changed the Israeli music scene, encouraging Israeli musicians to embrace music of all periods and in the appropriate authentic manner. Herzog has introduced Israeli audiences to a host of renowned overseas artists and performed much previously unknown repertoire. Above all, PHOENIX is known for its performances of an uncompromising, high level. Since immigrating to Israel from Brazil, viol-player, ‘cellist and researcher Dr. Myrna Herzog has also opened listeners’ ears to the important role of the viol in early music and, in the field of music education, created a new generation of local viol players.


Saturday, December 8, 2018

Pianist Ariel Halevy discusses and performs Ballades of Brahms and Chopin at the Eden-Tamir Music Center (Jerusalem)

Photo courtesy A. Halevy
The Romantic Piano - Ballades, the third of the 2018-2019 “Musiversity” concert-lecture series (coordinator: Dr. Dror Semmel) at the Eden-Tamir Music Center took place on December 3rd 2018. Pianist and educationalist Ariel Halevy discussed and performed Ballades of Brahms and Chopin.  


Halevy opened by mentioning that the ballad was actually an early literary form, spoken or sung and, on occasions, even accompanied by dance. Johannes Brahms’ Ballades Op.10 (1854), an early collection (he wrote them when was 21 years old), described by him understatedly as “not too difficult to play and even less difficult to understand”, are the composer’s only contribution to the genre. Halevy mentioned that the Romantics showed much interest in literature of the Middle Ages. This was reflected in the first of Brahms’ Ballades, the only program work of the four; its inspiration is “Edward” a Scottish poem that tells a grisly tale of deception and murder in a medieval royal family. Brahms found the folk ballad in Johann Gottfried Herder’s anthology “Stimmen der Volker.” Originally written in Scots, it was later translated into German and English:
“Why does your brand so drop with blood, Edward, Edward?
Why does your brand so drop with blood, And why so sad go ye, O?
O I have killed my hawk so good, Mother, mother;
O I have Killed my hawk so good, And I have no more but he, O…”
It transpires that Edward, on the advice of his mother, has murdered his father. Halevy takes the listener into the work with gentle introspection, we hear the blood evoked drop by drop in the left hand and the work builds up dramatically. Halevy’s melodic lines and phrasing remain articulate, despite the pianist’s generous use of the sustaining pedal.


The remaining three Brahms Ballades speak of no extra-musical program, as far as the listener is concerned. In the second, an Andante in D-major, its pensive, lyrical opening expounding the composer’s motto in the notes f-a-f “Frei aber froh” (free but happy); Halevy guides the listener through Brahms’ processes into the dramatic, highly textured middle section and back to the original lyricism with the utmost of poignancy. Then to the third, the B-minor Intermezzo, its opening enigmatic and distinctive in jagged accented notes, Halevy then leading on to delicate moments, bell effects and weightless cascading figures, his precise, clean finger-work lending lucidity to each. In the B-major Andante con moto, a work so Romantic in mood, its darker colours revealing underlying sadness, Halevy’s playing of the richly-laden texture allows for the piece to breathe in playing that is sensitively layered, poetic and evocative.


Ariel Halevy referred to Frédéric Chopin as a master of miniatures and the pioneer of the instrumental ballade, a form that Chopin appears to have virtually invented for the piano, one in which the composer did not wish to have any extra-musical narrative content. There has, however, been some speculation as to influence of Chopin’s poet compatriot, Adam Mickiewicz on them. Chopin’s Ballades, four separate pieces, written between 1831 and 1842, products of his maturity, are perhaps the finest examples of his flair for musical shape and tonal organisation. Opening with noble gestures, Halevy’s splendid playing of No.1 Op.23 in G-minor reads into its emotions, featuring their turmoil but also their fragility and (typically Polish) melancholy, enlisting reticence and subtle flexing of tempi. Ballade No.2 Op.18 in F-major has sometimes been understood to relate in some way to Poland's increasingly precarious political status in the early 19th century and Russia's eradication of the last vestiges of Polish independence in 1831, a tumultuous situation that affected Chopin deeply on both personal- and political levels. Halevy, referring to its contrasting moods as “schizophrenic”, moved convincingly between the piece’s idyllic-, semplice-, sometimes haunting agenda and its intense, vehement outbursts. The artist spoke of Ballade No.3 Op.47 in A-flat major as the tightest and most organized of Chopin’s Ballades. His playing of it brought out its positive appeal, moments of Romantic yearning and its liberal-, sweeping- and wholehearted musical gestures (perhaps the allure and glitter of the ballroom). Ballade No.4 in F-minor, Op. 52, was composed in 1842 in Paris and Nohant and revised in 1843. It was dedicated to Baroness Rothschild, who had invited Chopin to play at her Parisian residence, there introducing him to her aristocrat guests. By then, however, Chopin’s health was deteriorating. Rich in variation and polyphony, Ballade No.4, considered by some as the composer’s finest composition, offers, in Halevy’s words “light- and dark moments, drama and poésie”. Starting, as it were, in the middle of a phrase, its bitter-sweet melodies are reflective, their lyrical narrative stopping now and then, as if to reconsider, then starting anew. Halevy gave the work’s tender, introspective gestures time, then provoking the piece to bloom into dazzling outbursts of passion and emotion. His playing invited the listener to indulge in the work’s expansive passages as well as in its intimate, personal agenda.


Though equipped with an easeful, virtuosic technique, Halevy’s playing is never muscular or showy. He avoids the excesses to which Chopin is regularly subjected, rather opting for vitality and beauty of expression. His concise, interesting explanations set the scene for each piece. Born in Jerusalem, Ariel Halevy studied with Ilana Gutmann, Viktor Derevianko, Chana Shalgi and Jonathan Zack, then under Nina Svetlanova and Diane Walsh at the Mannes School of Music (New York). He performs as a soloist and chamber musician in Israel and abroad. His CD of late piano works of Brahms (2014) received glowing reviews. Ariel Halevy teaches at various music schools, also at the Israel Arts and Science Academy (Jerusalem), which he himself attended in his youth.


Thursday, December 6, 2018

"The Indian Queen" - Maestro Andrew Parrott conducts the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra and singers in works of Purcell and Jeremiah Clarke

Photo: Yoel Levy
“The Indian Queen”, a selection of Henry Purcell’s secular music, plus a work of Jeremiah Clarke, was the title of the second concert of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s 2018-2019 season.  Conducted by Andrew Parrott (UK), the orchestra’s honorary conductor as of 2006, soloists were soprano Yuval Oren (Israel), tenor Simon Lillystone (UK), tenor Wolodymyr Smishkewych (USA) and bass Yair Polishook (Israel). JBO founder and director David Shemer was at the harpsichord. This writer attended the event at the Jerusalem International YMCA on December 2nd 2018. The concert was preceded by a lively and enlightening talk by historian Oded Feuerstein (Tel Aviv University) on Restoration England and the fickle character of Charles II.

As one of the greatest composers England and the Baroque era have produced, Henry Purcell (1659-1695) stands alone. The son of a musician in the employ of Charles II, it was royal service that was largely to become his creative environment as well. Henry Purcell began his musical life as a boy chorister at the Chapel Royal, in 1673 becoming an unpaid assistant to the keeper of the king’s instruments. His first formal royal appointment (1677) was as composer-in-ordinary for the violins (succeeding Matthew Locke), becoming one of the organists of the Chapel Royal in 1682. He was also organist of Westminster Abbey (succeeding John Blow). His oeuvre includes chamber music, church music and odes for royal occasions. The 1680s  saw Purcell starting to write for the theatre, composing songs and instrumental pieces for plays by distinguished Restoration dramatists, his one opera “Dido and Aeneas” and the semi-operas, of which “The Indian Queen” was his last, to be completed by his brother Daniel Purcell.

The bulk of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s program consisted of a number of sections of “The Indian Queen”, enough, however, to display Purcell’s consummate skills as a music dramatist. Based on Dryden’s play, Henry Purcell’s music for “The Indian Queen” presents the conflict between Mexican Queen Zampoalla and Peruvians in a classic story of love and war, in which things do not go quite as planned for the queen… With Parrott leading the instrumentalists through the exciting course of detail, colour and characterisation in the work’s symphonies, airs and dances, we were presented with some exquisite string playing, not to mention the colour, variety and beauty provided by trumpet (Amir Rabinovich), oboes and recorders (guest players Olivier Rousset, Nathalie Petibon). The ensemble’s stylish, precise reading of these sections was uplifting in its freshness and energy. In both the Purcell semi-opera and Jeremiah Clarke’s ode, the choir, consisting of the vocal soloists joined by soprano Maya Golan, mezzo-soprano Iphigenie Worbes, tenor Hillel Sherman and bass Hagai Berenson, displayed articulacy, emotional immediacy and a richly-coloured choral sound. With semi-opera being a hybrid genre of theatre and opera, it was clear that bass Yair Polishook was the right artist to portray Envy and Ismeron. His dramatic flair, humour and splendid grasp of British English brought out the small gems and symbols written into the pithy text, as he hissed his way through
“What flattering noise is this,
At which my snakes all hiss?”
In the scene opening Act III, where we meet Ismeron the magician in the conspirators’ cave singing “Ye twice ten hundred deities”, Polishook plays out each gesture, vocally highlighting such words as “round” and “lull” in melismatic word-painting and relishing each succulent English utterance. In the well-known “I attempt from love’s sickness to fly” Yuval Oren’s singing of the somewhat enigmatic rondo air was appealing, with some elegant, easeful embellishments adding interest on repeats. And, as any Purcell work of significance is sure to include a piece based on a ground (ostinato), we heard Purcell’s favourite musical form laced with political meaning in pleasing duets performed by tenors Simon Lillystone and Wolodymyr Smishkewych and Yuval Oren with mezzo-soprano Iphigenie Worbes:
“Greatness clogg’d with scorn decays,
With the slave no empire stays…”

Two chamber works, both also to ground basses, made for delightful interludes between the larger works: The Chacony in G, its lively minor course (characterised by the lowered 7th step) offering solos and duets and the refined Fantasia - three Parts upon a Ground, seasoned with variety, invention and virtuosity on the part of the JBO players.

Henry Purcell died on November 21st 1695 at age thirty-six; the music he had written for the funeral of Queen Mary only eight months earlier was performed again, this time at his own burial service. What then transpired was that several literary figures and composers paid tribute to Purcell by writing works in his memory. “Ode on the Death of Henry Purcell”, a deeply moving piece composed as a homage to Orpheus Britannicus, (as Purcell was referred to) by Jeremiah Clarke, one of Purcell’s younger colleagues at the Chapel Royal, reflects the younger composer’s admiration of Purcell. Clarke himself was also destined to die young. The JBO, under Andrew Parrott, performed the Israeli premiere of this spectacular work. The ode takes the form of a pastoral scene, opening with Arcadian revelling (Lillystone, trumpet, drum) interrupted by a messenger (Oren) who announces the death of “Strephon”. At that point the revelling becomes a lament. The soloists - Lillystone, Oren and Polishook - and choir weave Clarke’s sublime music through the tragic, seamless musical canvas in a performance of strong emotions set into its dialogues. In finely sculpted, noble singing, the choir gave expression to Clarke’s daring choral moments. The soloists enhanced and endorsed the work’s emotions with the various Baroque practices used in emphasizing key words. Musical associations take on more importance in the verbal text as the work draws to an close, with Yuval Oren’s articulate and convincing declaration:
“And see, Apollo has unstrung his lyre,
No more the sweet poetic choir;
The Muses hang their drooping head,
For Harmony itself lies dead.”
Following that, drum beat, strings and choir evoke a sombre funereal picture, adding that “All’s untuned” as the work concludes on a bleak octave and fifth.

A concert offering the elegance of Baroque music, high quality performance and interest.

Photo: Mica Bitton

Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Israel Chamber Orchestra hosts Dutch violinist Rosanne Philippens and Israeli jazz pianist Guy Mintus. World premiere of Guy Mintus' piano concerto "On Eagles' Wings"

Rosanne Philippens (photo: Merlijn Doomernik)

Directed by house conductor Ariel Zuckermann, the third concert of the Israel Chamber Orchestra’s 2018-2019 season, “Mendelssohn - Concerto”, included two familiar works of orchestral repertoire and the premiering of a work written for the ICO. Soloists were violinist Rosanne Philippens (Netherlands/Germany) and Israeli jazz pianist Guy Muntus, who soloed in the performance of his piano concerto.


The program opened with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No.2 in D-major op.36 (1802), a work dedicated to Prince Lichnowsky, one of the composer’s leading patrons. A turning point in Beethoven’s output, marking the transition between the first and second epochs of his compositional style, we hear him here intimating his ambitious plans for a new symphonic canvas. The writing of this symphony also coincided with Beethoven’s final acceptance of the fact that his increasing deafness was incurable. It was at this time that he wrote the Heiligenstadt Testament (actually, a kind of will), in which he described his grief and despair and increasing isolation from society. But, enigmatically, Beethoven’s Symphony No.2 is a work full of drive, energy and exhilarating good humour. Issued in by the composer’s slow, majestic introduction, Zuckermann guides the listener through the symphony’s vivacity, its passages of dialogue between instruments and its characteristic, subtle harmonic shifts, its drama, moments of delightful lightness and sturdy tutti. The players’ precision and freshness of sound invite the audience to take a new look at music so familiar to concert-goers and to be constantly involved in its process. In the radiantly beautiful Larghetto, devoid of trumpet and timpani, the ICO’s fine woodwinds add elaborate detail to its lyricism and warm melodiousness, to be followed by the Scherzo, with its sudden, volatile dramatic shifts, punctuated by a mellifluous Trio. No less quirky or capricious is the Finale, its humour and vitality endorsed by some fine playing by the wind sections.


In 1838, Felix Mendelssohn wrote to his childhood friend, violinist Ferdinand David, concertmaster of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra: “I would like to compose a violin concerto for you next winter; one in E-minor sticks in my head, the beginning of which will not leave me in peace.” The work would not give him peace for another six years, till he at last found time, the nerve and inspiration amidst his busy concert schedule to complete it. David became involved in every aspect of the concerto’s composition and served as its technical advisor. The work premiered in 1845 with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra with David as soloist and Niels Gade conducting. Mendelssohn was thirty-five years old when this composition was completed and was destined to live only another three years. As his last work for large orchestra, the Violin Concerto represents Mendelssohn's most mature orchestral style.  It is also one of his most painstakingly written works. Here, the composer introduced his own innovations into the concerto form: the three movements are ingeniously and seamlessly connected by a single bassoon note and the composer has done away with the convention of having the orchestra introduce all the melodic material in the first movement before the soloist enters. At the ICO concert, from the moment Rosanne Philippens (b.1986) opened with the first subject, her playing elegiac, impassioned and rhapsodic, the audience moved to the edge of their seats for a performance of uncommon personal expression. Playing by heart enabled the artist the freedom of eyeing conductor, orchestra or audience at strategic moments, of initiating, of shaping melodic lines and flexing rhythms and of spontaneity, as she delved into her large personal range of dynamics, soaring from robust volumes down to the most exquisite, gossamer pianissimi. In the (unconventionally placed) cadenza (first movement) she had the audience in the palm of her hand, focusing on its motifs ornamented with sparkling bariolage (repeated string crossings), spiccato (off-the-string bow stroke), and chords across all four strings. The Andante movement, emerging tranquil, cantabile and lyrical, gave way to the final Allegro, wistful at first, then bursting into effervescence (with a fleeting reference to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.) Ms. Philippens’ playing strikes a fine balance between virtuosity, deep musical enquiry and a sense of the personal in music.


Today, Israeli-born jazz pianist, teacher and composer Guy Mintus lives in New York but he spends much time on the go. The 27-year-old artist is as comfortable sharing the stage with jazz greats, composing for classical orchestras and collaborating with masters of traditional music as he is working with children. His solo- and ensemble performances have taken him all over the world - to Brazil, India, Turkey, Israel, throughout Europe, the USA and Canada. “On Eagles’ Wings”, a concerto for orchestra and improvising pianist, was written August-October 2018, but the concept of it has been processing in Mintus’ mind for the last year. It is his first concerto and it has programmatic content. The three movements follow the physical- and emotional process of a person uprooted from one culture and moving to another (familiar to him from his Iraqi-, Moroccan- and Polish background):  Al Tariqa - The Road, Intermezzo - Assimilation, Zikhrayat - Remnants of a Memory and Tikkun.  “Tikkun is an important term in the Jewish world, coming from Kabala. It covers many aspects but, most literally, it means fixing something. Within the context of the piece it's about coming the full circle, finding a home between identities, finding peace with one's own complexities”, in the composer’s words. In the work, the piano represents the individual. As to the title, “On Eagles’ Wings”, it was taken from that of the operation (1949-1950) that brought some 50,000 Yemenite Jews to Israel. An interesting aspect of the pianist’s role is that some piano sections are written out in full, some provide harmonic-, character- or other guidelines, whereas other sections are left entirely to the performer. Guy Mintus’ soundscape is vibrant, rich in rhythmic ideas, fresh and palpable, displaying some very fine orchestral writing. Its styles vary from jazz to western tonal/harmonic writing, to oriental monodic sections. Mintus’ handling of the piano sections, some solo, others integrating with just a few instruments or with the whole orchestra, was confident and virtuosic; he also made use of some plucking-, percussive- and other effects produced inside the piano, at one moment, doubling an oriental melody with his own singing. And then there were those special “Guy Mintus moments” - personal, touching, sensitive...fragile. Addressing the audience before the concert began, Maestro Zuckermann spoke of the ICO’s interest in promoting Israeli composers. The performance was wholehearted proof of this.

Guy Mintus (photo: Lena Gansman)

Friday, November 23, 2018

The Israeli premiere of Charpentier's "David et Jonathas". Patrick Cohën-Akenine directs soloists, Ensemble Barrocade and the Madrigal Singers

Photo: Yoel Levy
To commemorate the Saison France Israël, Ensemble Barrocade presented the Israeli premiere of the opéra biblique “David et Jonathas” by Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704). This writer attended the performance on November 17th 2018 at the Church of Our Lady of the Ark of the Covenant, Kiryat Yearim, some 10 kilometres west of Jerusalem. Guest conductor/lead violin Patrick Cohën-Akenine (France) was joined by soloists soprano Einat Aronstein, countertenor Yaniv D’Or and bass Arnaud Richard (France). Barrocade also hosted violone player François Poly (France) and Johannes Knoll (Austria/Switzerland) - oboe and recorder. The Madrigal Singers (conductor: Etay Berckovitch) performed the opera’s choruses and small ensemble sections.


Charpentier's “David et Jonathas” was commissioned by one of the most prominent Jesuit schools in France, the College Louis-le-Grand, to take place together with “Saul”, a play in Latin by Etienne Chamillard, one of the Jesuit Fathers. Charpentier's libretto, closely allied to the play (now lost) but independent of it, was by another Jesuit, François Bretonneau. “David et Jonathas” is what the French Baroque considered a “tragédie en musique” of the Lullian genre, but this work is stamped with Charpentier’s strong individuality, his harmonic richness and its affecting pathos. It was first performed at the College in February 1688, by which time Lully had died and the stringent ordinances presided over by him affecting theatre music now lifted. In his program notes, Barrocade harpsichordist Yizhar Karshon draws a comparison between King Saul’s jealousy of David and Lully’s jealousy of Charpentier. “David et Jonathas” (1688), of which we heard pivotal sections, consists of an overture, prologue and five acts, with the focus being on the portrayal and psychological development of the principal characters. However, in Act 5 the action comes to the fore as we see Saul beaten in battle and Jonathas mortally wounded. A striking difference between this biblical-based work and other French tragédies lyriques is the exclusion of ballet (although it is not known whether the original performance included dancers); dance was indeed the mainstay of French Baroque opera.


The scene opens close to Mt. Gilboa between Saul’s camp and that of the Philistines. From the very first bars of the overture, one is immediately made aware of Patrick Cohën-Akenine’s vigorous, robust instrumental sound, energizing and involving throughout. “David et Jonathas” abounds in instrumental movements, the players' substantial accenting evoking many a lively dance form, with the instrumental score also endorsing  emotions accompanying the course of events. This rarely-staged sacred tragedy offers so much in the way of instrumental expression - Charpentier was a master orchestrator- and Ensemble Barrocade, its members and guest players providing a lush and polished performance on period instruments, did not disappoint. As to Charpentier’s beautiful use of woodwind instruments, there was his engaging use of recorders (Shai Kribus, Johannes Knoll) to highlight the work’s tragedy and grieving in appealing, plangent utterances. Etay Berckovitch has done outstanding work with The Madrigal Singers, twenty or so singers possessing some excellent and interesting voices; the ensemble’s well blended, incisive and finely sculpted singing added prestige to the performance. One example was the impactful choral effect of the despairing cries of “Hélas!” (Alas) on Jonathan’s death in Act 5, Scene 5, each triggered by differing dynamics.  


In the role of David (probably sung originally by Charpentier himself) countertenor Yaniv D’Or’s singing and acting were passionate, committed and indeed moving in his portrayal of the conflicted, reluctant hero. Portraying Jonathan (originally sung by a boy) Einat Aronstein was radiant and poignant, her stable, ample voice communicating the gamut of emotions demanded by the role. Colouring each gesture of the text with the richness and resonance of his vocal- and emotional range and his theatrical panache, Arnaud Richard was authoritative and gripping as Saul, uncompromising and fervent and beset with suspicion.


The mise en scène was handled by Sharon Weller, who also guided the soloists in the use of historical gestures. There was no scenery and costumes were historically acceptable, allowing Cohën-Akenine and the artists to present the essence of the Old Testament parable in an elegant, ravishing and rapturous musical account of incorruptible love in all its complications, leaving some of the age-old questions of it (asked and answered by other productions of the opera) up to the listener.


Under the musical direction of viola da gamba player Amit Tiefenbrunn, Barrocade, the Israeli Baroque Collective, was founded in 2007.  

Amit Tiefenbrunn,Ophira Zakai,Yaniv D'Or,Einat Aronstein (Yoel Levy)

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

An all-Brahms concert at the Eden-Tamir Music Center Ein Kerem, including Symphony No.3 played on two pianos

Dror Semmel,Ron Trachtman (photo:Shirley Burdick)
Under the direction of pianist Dror Semmel, the first of the Brahms series titled “Four Symphonies for Two Pianos Four Hands and Four Quartets” took place at the Eden-Tamir Music Center, Ein Kerem, Jerusalem on November 10th 2018.


The event opened with Johannes Brahms’ Piano Quartet No.2 in A-major Op.26, performed by Dima Pocitari-violin, Gili Radian-Sade-viola, Hillel Zori-’cello and Dror Semmel-piano. Completed in 1861, when Brahms was 29, the work, with its natural, easeful linking of phrases and formal perspective, attests to the composer’s profound study of Schubert’s chamber music in the late 1850s. It also marks Brahms’ taking up residence in Vienna, the musical capital of German music and the city of Beethoven and Schubert, a move encouraged by Clara Schumann and Joseph Joachim. In the Op.26’s over fifty minutes of music, Brahms’ longest work; the artists’ wonderfully fresh and sculpted playing, however, drew the listeners at the Eden-Tamir Center into its extensive melodic content with some splendid solo playing, the highlighting of motifs and Brahms’ subtly rewarding mix of textures. In the opening movement (Allegro non troppo), the main theme, initiated by the piano alone, provides the two motives from which the movement is largely constructed. Throughout the work, Semmel wove the piano part in- and out of the limelight, soloing or amalgamating subtly with the strings, as dictated by the text. In the nocturne-like second movement (Poco adagio), with its arching melody, the sweeping, mysteriously ruminating arpeggios on the piano and ‘cello comments came together in luxuriant, songful tranquillity.  As to the third movement, enigmatically labelled Scherzo and furnished with a somewhat dramatic trio, it is followed by a vigorous finale, coloured by references to gypsy- and folk dance music; the players gave expression to its abundance of themes and moods and to its masterful structure.


The second work on the program was Brahms’ version of Symphony No.3 in F-major Op.90 for two pianos. We heard it performed by Dror Semmel and Ron Trachtman. Semmel spoke of the practice of writing the first draft of a symphony for piano four hands as the basis for planning and orchestrating the work. Brahms, however, having a sharp business sense, was also aware of the remunerative sheet-music market, with works for four hands popular for domestic use. Semmel  also mentioned that Alexander Tamir and Bracha Eden had played this work in concerts worldwide. On February 11, 1884, after hours of playing through the work in its two-piano version, Clara Schumann wrote to Brahms: “All the movements seem to be of one piece, one beat of the heart” and, in her picturesque use of language, that “one is surrounded from beginning to end by the secret magic of the life of the forest”.  Indeed, Brahms's Symphony No.3 is one of his most poetic, evocative works, with eloquently defined themes and their subsequent transformations. The work opens with the work’s rising F, A-flat, F motif in the top voice, Brahms’s monogram for “frei aber froh” (free but joyful); the motif makes itself heard again and again in the work.  Semmel and Trachtman’s playing reflected deep enquiry into the symphony's contrasting, transformative and pensive narratives, with the first movement emerging bold, at times tragic, and lyrical, its different melodies presented with a variety of pianistic textures. Both the second and third movements are introspective, with long sections that never rise above piano. In their “semplice” approach to the (underlying sophistication of the) Andante movement, the artists accorded it songful, personal expression. As to the beguiling Poco allegretto (third movement) with its lush, sensuous melodies, if the listener is able to detach himself from Brahms’ silken orchestration of it, here is the quintessential Romantic piano, with the artists’ rendition also reminding the audience of the artistic finesse proffered by strategic timing.


A chamber music concert to appeal to Brahms- and chamber music aficionados.