Monday, January 22, 2018

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra and keyboard specialist Gili Loftus perform Mozart and C.P.E.Bach on period instruments

Gili Loftus (Maria Rosenblatt)
“CEMBALO COL PIANO E FORTE”, the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s third concert of the 2017-2018 season, offered audiences a very different program to its usual repertoire. Marking 230 years of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s death, the concert presented works of C.P.E.Bach, J.S.Bach’s fifth- and second (surviving) son together with works of his contemporary, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Guest artist Gili Loftus soloed on the fortepiano. JBO founder and director conducted the orchestra and soloed on the harpsichord. This writer attended the concert in the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship of the Jerusalem International YMCA on January 17th, 2018.

One could say that this program focused on Classical repertoire as played on authentic instruments, music of a time when  the harpsichord and the fortepiano were both still in use. It also focused on two unique musical personalities. Opening  with a genre particular to C.P.E.Bach, we heard Prof. Shemer and the orchestra in the Sonatina in D-minor for harpsichord, two flutes, viola and ’cello Wq 107. Carl Philipp’s twelve sonatinas for one or two keyboards and orchestra constitute a distinct segment of his oeuvre, existing somewhere between chamber and orchestral music and between the suite and the concerto. Written in rapid succession in the years 1762–64, near the end of the composer’s time in Berlin in the employ of Frederick the Great, they are all scored for keyboard, two flutes, and four-part strings; the keyboard parts are entirely written out and largely double the accompanying parts.There are no exact parallels to these sonatinas among the works of earlier composers in Berlin or in North Germany generally; so, we take it that this genre was Carl Philipp Emanuel’s own creation. His incorporation of music composed for amateur circles and the stylistic accessibility of the sonatinas are indications that, at least initially, he intended them for a broader musical public. The JBO players presented the sonatina’s refined, undramatic but charming  writing, with its directness of octave playing and a myriad of small comments punctuating the tutti, some woven in  by the flutes (Idit Shemer, Geneviève Blanchard). In a genre not professing to be  a concerto, Bach invites his keyboard player to multi-task: at the harpsichord, David Shemer (in addition to conducting) both soloed and accompanied, introducing thematic material and adding small solo comments, also some more virtuosic material, the latter showing how pianistic Carl Philipp’s writing was becoming.

Including C.P.E.Bach and Mozart in one program had its reasons. It was  C.P.E.’s playing, compositions and writings that led Mozart to comment on his pervasive influence: “He is the father, we are the children. Those of us who know anything at all learned it from him; anyone who does not admit this is a scoundrel.” Gili Loftus, whose focus is exploring the different sound worlds of the piano, fortepiano and harpsichord, soloed in W.A.Mozart’s Concerto in C-major for piano and orchestra K.415. The JBO’s audiences were in for a new experience - hearing the fortepiano as soloist, recreating the sound world that would have been closest to Mozart’s own. Completed early 1783, the K.415 is the third of the early Vienna concertos and  it is considered the most brilliant of the three. A major factor in Mozart’s initial success in Vienna was the concerts he put on with himself as soloist, with the Piano Concerto No. 13 in C major being one of them. Regarding the JBO performance of it, one could mention the fanfare motives and bright textures in the tutti sections of the first movement, somewhat more evocative of a symphony or opera overture than of a concerto, the graceful pastorale-type middle movement and the final movement, a gigue in rondo form, its high-spirited character sharply contrasted by two plaintive Adagio episodes. But what especially stood out in this performance, even beyond the fortepianist’s articulacy, her crystal-clear fingerwork, her delightful lightness of touch, the dynamic variety she offered and her total technical competence, was her true understanding of Mozart himself. As she played out each gesture, the charming small rubati, as she spelled out each emotion, each small whimsical riposte, each surprise and good-natured wink-of-an-eye detail, she stood back to present Mozart the humanist, the joyful, fallible, devil-may-care genius whose contribution to music has been so great. If we consider Mozart’s aim of creating  "a happy medium between what is too easy and too difficult...pleasing to the ear, and natural, without being vapid." in his early Vienna concertos, Loftus’ performance was just that. It was exemplary.

Despite their late Köchel number,  Mozart’s Five Contredanses for Orchestra K.609 were probably among the first dances he composed following his appointment as Imperial Chamber Musician, writing  dance music for balls at the Redoutensaal, the famous ballroom in Vienna patronized by  Emperor Joseph II. Despite his lowly salary, how fitting it must have seemed to the composer to provide dance music for people of all ranks of society, their rank, however, protected by masks and Carnival costumes. Mozart himself was known to have been a skilful dancer. The K.609 Contredanses were  probably created for the 1791 carnival season, although in at least two cases they were based on earlier music (the first quotes the aria "Non più andrai" from Mozart's opera The Marriage of Figaro). They are of modest scoring, including drum, here offering violist Daniel Tanchelson a different orchestral role!  In a performance that was fresh, energetic and efervescent, the orchestra’s playing of the dances made for fine entertainment.

And to some house music...Mozart’s Andante and Variations in G-major K.501. By the time they were written (1786), the fortepiano would have been the norm, rather than the exception, in most venues and certainly in the home. The set is based on an unidentified theme, simple and folklike and was probably composed by Mozart himself; it falls into two parts, the second of which briefly enters the minor.  At the JBO concert, the work was played by Gili Loftus and David Shemer, this being Shemer’s first foray into the world of fortepiano. Following the subject, each variation teased the listener into engaging in its style and timbre, elaborate textures and bravura or simplicity, playfulness or pensiveness (Variation IV) as the banter of passagework was tossed from one player to the other.

Despite having lost many of his nearly 1000 compositions to the ravages of time, C.P.E. Bach’s surviving repertoire is an extraordinary demonstration of the confluence, contrasts and diversity of the pervading musical and cultural styles of his day. His quite remarkable Concerto in E flat for harpsichord and fortepiano, Wq. 47, scored for 2 horns, 2 flutes and strings in addition to the two keyboards, was composed in the last year of his life. It serves as a predominantly light-hearted but vivid summary of the CPE Bach keyboard legacy, with the sheer peculiarity of having the old harpsichord and its new-fangled replacement, the fortepiano, playing almost equal roles.  In playing that was fresh and appealing, Loftus and Shemer recreated Bach’s dialogue between the two instruments, as well as between  soloists and orchestra.. We heard some especially beautiful and lyrical flute writing (Idit Shemer, Geneviève Blanchard) interwoven with the solo keyboard lines throughout the first movement. Melodies subtly shifted from soloist to soloist, with moments of imitation prompting some intense and virtuosic interaction between them. In the tender, pared down Larghetto (2nd movement), it was astounding how the dynamically challenged harpsichord and the softer tone of the fortepiano blended and complemented each other, with the final Presto movement an unashamedly joyful game between the soloists, supported by some fine orchestral playing.

Despite the large proportions of the modern concert hall, it was enlightening to hear the natural elegance and balance offered by instruments of the Classical period. Of course, the experience could be further enhanced when attending the event in one of the sumptuous reception halls of Sanssouci, the summer palace of Frederick the Great  of Prussia, in Potsdam, near Berlin, a venue counted among the German rivals of Versailles. Next time...perhaps.


Sunday, January 7, 2018

"Maestro Elbaz's World of Wonders" - the Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra hosts the Gilad Ephrat Ensemble

The Gilad Ephrat Ensemble (photo: Yoel Culiner)
The Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra’s third concert of the 2017-2018 season - “Maestro Elbaz’s World of Wonders” - remained true to the current season’s “north-south-east-west” theme, as usual, also including Israeli content. The NKO hosted the Gilad Ephrat Ensemble (Gilad Ephrat-double bass,Keren Tannenbaum-violin/vocals, Hilla Epstein-’cello and Shmuel Elbaz-mandolin). Shmuel Elbaz, the orchestra’s house conductor directed the orchestra and played as a member of the quartet, also soloing on the mandolin. This writer attended the event in the Recanati Auditorium of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on December 30th 2017.

The three works by European composers took the listener to different points of the compass, beginning with the Overture to French composer Adrien Boieldieu’s (1775-1834) opera “The Caliph of Baghdad”.(1800), eastern in subject matter, but definitely European in musical style, although Boieldieu’s vibrant use of percussion would have been an association or the orient for European audiences of that time. Charming and joyful, albeit conventional, the piece was good concert fare, setting the scene for an evening of genial music. Gioachino Rossini’s Overture to “The Italian Girl in Algiers” (South) (Rossini wrote the opera at age 21!)  was a fine opportunity to hear one of Rossini’s most sparkling overtures and some of the NKO’s finest players in solo moments, a substantial amount of the solo work was played by Hila Zabari-Peleg, the orchestra’s very fine 1st oboe. Taking us westwards, Jewish-Hungarian composer Leó Weiner’s (1885-1960)  “Three Hungarian Folk Dances” were originally written for piano solo. Arrangements for piano duet and for violin and piano exist. Shmuel Elbaz has arranged the work for mandolin and orchestra. Opening with the lively “Fox Dance”, Elbaz and his players present the vivacious dances, each from a different region of Hungary, with much zest and exuberance, With the wink of an eye, Maestro Elbaz challenges the audience to follow him through the whimsical rubato of the “Ronde from Marossék”, as he pulls out all the plugs in the virtuosic abandon of the “Peasants’ Dance”,  a type of fast Csárdás.

Following the above whirlwind world trip, the rest of the concert all comprised contemporary Israeli repertoire. Oded Zehavi (b.1961) composed his Fantasy for mandolin and orchestra (Concerto No.2) in 2017 for the Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra. This concert was the work’s world premiere.  Prof. Zehavi’s program notes discuss where he stands as regards Israeli music and the elements that go to make up this work: modal patterns, sounds heard in music of this region and outside of it, rhythms taken from the debka and hora dances and the concept that a symphony orchestra can sound somewhat informal. Opening with a long oboe solo, the first movement, with its octave melodies and homophonic utterances, bristled with associations of Arabic music. The Andante (2nd movement), communicating a sense of well-being, took on a more western character, with the final Rondo allegro seeming to bring east and west together in a seamless, busy soundscape. The piece sits well on the mandolin, with Elbaz articulately addressing its challenges and fine details and the mandolin easily heard at all times. Oded Zehavi speaks to his listeners through sounds and gestures that are intelligible, accessible and indeed pleasurable and with which they can identify.

Continuing the NKO’s project of presenting short new works by students of both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv Academies of Music, we heard “The Sun Was Dark at Givon” by Naama Zafran (b.1988), a masters student of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. Composer, arranger, pianist and teacher, Zafran’s already comprehensive oeuvre includes chamber music, works for orchestra, for theatre, for video art and cinema. “The Sun Was Dark at Givon”, a program work set in 1207 B.C., describes a solar eclipse. “A solar eclipse is perhaps the most  spectacular natural event people will see”, writes the composer. “During the day, the sun is hidden by the moon, with the stars briefly seen in a sky illuminated with the pink light of dusk…” A mysterious violin melody leads the listener into Zafran’s rich, intense and dramatic musical canvas, wrought of maqam associations, but not just, of articulate melodic strands, energy and compelling orchestral writing.

For the rest of the program, the Gilad Ephrat Ensemble joined the Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra in a selection of Israeli and other numbers arranged by Eugene Levitas. The pieces featured the four ensemble members, with the NKO mostly joining them in tutti support. The quartet’s upbeat, polished and understated style and individual solo improvisations made for sophisticated performance, be it in the sultry, typically Spanish “Murcia”, “Iri-An” with its Irish motifs and pizzazz, Chick Corea’s bouncy, jazzy “Sea Journey” or Ephrat’s “Stockholm”, (dedicated to the NKO’s musical director Maestro Christian Lindberg) the latter weaving folk-like motifs with jazzy sounds. In Moshe Vilensky’s “Lighthouse” and the caressing, nostalgic “Song of the Valley” (Marc Lavry/Rafael Eliaz), Keren Tannenbaum’s low-key singing and more folklike use of the violin added spontaneity to the performance. Established by composer and double bass player Gilad Ephrat, the ensemble’s virtuosic artists perform music of a style that brings together jazz, classical music,ethnic- and Israeli music. The ensemble recently returned from a concert tour of Brazil and South Korea.

The Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra goes for different and daring programming, with Israeli music always high up in its priorities. It is much to the NKO’s credit that its audiences are curious and open to new ideas. And they were kept on their toes at this unusual concert, examining and enjoying the less familiar, the surprises and the challenges of the program. Maestro Elbaz presented his wonders in high-standard, polished performance.



Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Jerusalem Opera and guests perform Mozart's "Magic Flute"

Photo: Elad Zagman

The Jerusalem Opera is a non-profit association, debuting  with a Gala Event in  2012 and performing  "Don Giovanni", its first fully staged opera in 2013 at the Citadel of David. The Jerusalem Opera presents a full-scale opera production annually. The company’s present production of Mozart’s “Magic Flute” was performed both in Jerusalem and Ashdod. Directed and conducted by Omer Arieli, stage director was Monica L. Waitzfelder, assistant stage director - Ari Teperberg. The Jerusalem Opera Choir and members of the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir (chorus master: Oded Shomrony) were joined by soloists and the Ashdod Symphony Orchestra (concertmaster: Bella Portnov). This writer attended the performance on December 28th 2017 in the Sherover Hall of the Jerusalem Theatre.


When viewing this enchanting opera, in all its originality and splendid music, it is difficult to imagine how difficult Mozart’s life was at the time of the work’s genesis. Mozart had fallen on hard times: 1790 was a hard year, with the composer’s constant concern over money and his wife Constanze’s health, not to speak of his own feeling of not being fully appreciated. With no official commissions, the situation looked increasingly dire. His old friend, actor, singer and poet Emanuel Schikaneder came up with a suggestion - a play about magic, a subject that was all the rage in Vienna! And so it came about that “The Magic Flute”, their joint work, despite needing some time to be fully appreciated in all its depth, became one of the most popular and most performed operas in history. Whimsical and entertaining as it may be, with its motley collection of rustic and fantastical characters, the work expounds some deep convictions, with the triumph of good over evil and the serious scenes of the choir of priests – reminiscent of a gathering of freemasons –  the work is deeply imbued with humanistic idealism.

Monica Waitzfelder’s stage direction kept all the latter in mind as the cast and the very many people behind the scenes and in the orchestra pit recreated a world of beauty, magic and naivety (infused with some negative elements). There was much fantasy in the pastel-hued stage sets, lit by lanterns and populated by animals, large, lifelike puppets and some quirky costumes, such as those of the three Ladies, charmingly portrayed by Mima Millo, Noa Hope and Anna Peshes. One could say that, with simple means, the visuals of the production were attractive. There was a line-up of excellent singers - soprano Na’ama Shulman as an empathic, appealing and convincing Pamina, bass Denis Sedov as an imposing Sarastro and soprano Ayelet Kagan playing the part of Papagena with youthful charm. Tenor Semjon Bulinsky (Switzerland), in his debut with the Jerusalem Opera, played a steadfast, energetic Tamino. As Monostatos, tenor Jean-Christophe Born (France), a supple, limber artist, is portrayed as a lovable, buffoon-like fellow (a far cry from the original racist view of a black man who is not to be trusted). In love with Pamina, he is the typical loser, and more the pity!
'Everyone feels the joys of love,
Bill and coo, flirt, snuggle, and kiss,
And I am supposed to avoid love,
Because a Black is ugly,
Because a Black is ugly.
Have I, then, been given no heart?
I am also fond of girls,
I am also fond of girls,
Always to live without a woman
Would truly be the blaze of hell,
Would truly be the blaze of hell…’

Hungarian soprano Viktoria Varga made for a splendid Queen of the Night, her creamy coloratura voice soaring up and through the vocal registers with ease, certainly delighting the audience. As Papageno (originally played by Schikaneder himself!), baritone Samuel Berlad (entering the stage on a scooter!) shone, giving life, warmth and sincerity to the role of the clumsy, comical but amiable coward, his rich voice and fine German taking him through the feathered person’s naive gaffes to finally team up with his Papagena. The chorus, robed in gold, presented well-balanced and polished performance, with the Ashdod Orchestra offering fine musical support. .

One problem of staging “The Magic Flute” in Israel is the text’s large quantity of spoken German, quite a challenge to Hebrew speakers. Spoken sections were certainly articulate, but some of them sounded stilted and Teutonic. A huge undertaking, involving a host of dedicated people on stage and off., the Jerusalem Opera’s performance of “The Magic Flute” presented the opera’s marvellous music and fairy tale world in a most delightful manner.


Thursday, December 28, 2017

Pianist Ishay Shaer's recently issued disc - LATE BEETHOVEN

Photo: Oren Hayman
Considered one of the leading Israeli pianists of his generation, Ishay Shaer has performed extensively throughout the world, also winning national and international prizes. In recent years, he has been establishing himself as a reputable chamber music performer. His arrangement for piano trio of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No.17 “Tempest” was received with enthusiasm. Here are some thoughts and impressions on his recently issued disc  - “Late Beethoven” - recorded in 2017 in the Concert Hall, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, UK (recording producer: Andrew Keener) for the Orchid Classics label.

Piano Sonata No. 28, Op. 101 is the second of the series of Beethoven's "Late Period" sonatas, with the composer’s writing now taking on a more personal character, but steeped in a sense of freedom and fantasy. It coincides with the composer’s decision in 1816 to Germanize the Italian terminology traditionally used in musical literature. Beethoven himself described Piano Sonata No.28, composed in the summer of the same year, as "a series of impressions and reveries". By this stage of his life, his deafness was almost total,  leaving him to grapple with his own isolation, hence the self-contemplative character of the later sonatas. One pitfall of pianists performing these highly personal works is over-identification, in which the performer assumes Beethoven’s suffering as his own. Fortunately, this is not the case with Shaer, a young artist who approaches each movement with objective, fresh energy, presenting the opening movement “Etwas lebhaft, und mit der innigsten Empfindung”  (Somewhat lively, and with the most heartfelt expression) with relaxed warmth and tenderness of sound. Shaer takes on board the second movement’s nervous dotted Romantic-style march in playing that is carefully delineated, disquieting  and exciting, but ever free of coarseness of touch. Following his sensitive reading of the poetic and introspective third movement, with its flashbacks to the opening movement, he gives articulate expression to the fourth movement’s rich, high-powered offering of ideas - fugal, waltz-like, muscular and occasionally delicate - its occasional outburst of the falling third motif of the subject there to be heard. A well-balanced reading of the work.

Beethoven’s three sets of Bagatelles, referred to by him as “Kleinigkeiten” (small things) consist of  Op.33  published in 1803, the 11 “New” Bagatelles Op.119 (1823) and the Six Bagatelles Op. 126 (1825). From the composer’s sketchbooks, we know that these years of publication are not necessarily relevant to when each individual piece was composed. Ishay Shaer’s recording includes the Op.119 and 126 Bagatelles. In his playing of the Op.119 Bagatelles, in which he displays clarity and a fine concept of the transparent fingerwork required for essentially Classical moments, he presents the listener with the delightful and unconfined yet disparate world of the miniature. Reading deeply into the meaning of each small delicacy and, indeed, into Beethoven’s directives, he evokes the coy naiveté of No.1 (Allegretto), the whimsical dialogue between soprano and bass in the following Andante con moto, the intrinsic sincerity of the Andante cantabile (No.4) to be contrasted by the fuller, galloping setting of a one-minute Risoluto. He opens No.6 (Andante-Allegretto) with the  Beethoven’s “posing of questions”, to be answered by a fantasia of varied utterances. After the diversely created fabric and concluding outburst of No.7 (Allegro, ma non troppo), he invites the listener to bask in the pensive tranquility of No.8 (Moderato cantabile)...but not for long, for here come the enticing sweeping arpeggiated Vivace moderato (No.9) and the syncopated urgency of the minuscule syncopated Allegramente (No.10). The final bagatelle (Andante, ma non troppo), measured and kindly, seems to step out,  restoring graceful order in gently embellished playing. As we listen, we find each piece  stamped with Beethoven’s genius, with no hint as to the financial distress, illness and drawn-out lawsuits undergone by the composer in the early 1820s.  Shaer’s playing, refreshingly minimal in his use of the sustaining pedal, speaks of textures, moods, contrasts and registers in a language of gestures and imagination, furnished with both tasteful spontaneity and control.

Beethoven began the Six Bagatelles of Op 126 towards the end of 1823, after having almost completed the last movement of the Ninth Symphony, and finishing them early in the following spring. Aware of their excellence, he described them as “6 Bagatelles or Trifles for solo piano, some of which are rather more developed and probably the best pieces of this kind I have written”. Ishay Shaer’s performance of them supports this, showcasing the subtle craftsmanship of Beethoven’s last work for piano and how the composer defies conventional forms, only to engage in his own sophisticated structures. Shaer makes a profound study of the pieces’ rich array of emotions - the noble tranquility of No.1, the lush, tender musings of No.3 and the unabashed and semplice Quasi allegretto of No.5. These are, however, punctuated by the drama, capriciousness and split personality of the No.2 Allegro and the fast flow of ideas and moods of the larger-scale Presto of No.4, to conclude with the gripping momentary outbursts and feisty fragments of No.6, these surrounding an expansive lyrical Andante. A fulfilling listening experience!

In Ishay Shaer’s handling of Piano Sonata No.30 in E-major Op.109, he enlists his splendidly rich and articulate piano technique to bring alive the musical text of this most unique work, a work indicative of the experimenting carried out by the composer in his late artistic endeavors. Following its opening, curiously seeming to take up in mid-phrase, he plays out its text with freshness and wonderment, exploring each gesture, each new tonality and the expressive meaning of each dynamic change. In its fast flow of changing gestures, the Prestissimo (2nd movement) springs forth, its erupting, insistent and scherzo-like intensity juxtaposed with mysterious and intimate material. However, it is the last much lengthier movement that offers the listener the greatest wealth of Beethoven’s originality of expression, its set of variations arising from its “gesangvoll” (cantabile) opening subject. With brilliance and the most nimble of fingerwork, the artist  takes the listener through and beyond the pianistic kaleidoscope of the variations, leading into one of the most emotional climaxes in all of Beethoven’s music and back again to the warm, empathic balm of the movement’s opening. Ishay Shaer’s deep enquiry into the sonata’s text brings out the sheer beauty and bloom of this work.

In this recording, the listener is invited to relish both the lush timbre of the piano used for the recording and the disc’s superb, mellifluous sound quality. Ishay Shaer’s profound, insightful performance reflects the enigmatic mix of simplicity and complexity of these late Beethoven pieces. Hearing Shaer’s interpretations of them proves that late Beethoven repertoire is not reserved only for the world-weary!


Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Three Pianists and Four Strings at the Eden-Tamir Music Center, Ein Kerem, Jerusalem

Dima Pocitari,Dror Semmel,Nitzan Ben Canetty,Ron Trachtman,Gili Radian-Sade,Michael Zertsekel,Gal Nyska   Photo: Guy Sepak

One of the most unique ensembles in Israel is the three-piano combination of Dror Semmel, Michael Zertsekel and Ron Trachtman. Their latest performance “Three Pianos and Four Strings” took place to a full hall at the Eden-Tamir Music Center, Ein Kerem (Jerusalem) on December 16th 2017. As the title implies, they were joined by a string quartet for this concert - violinists Dima Pocitari and Nitzan Ben Canetty, violist Gili Radian-Sade and ‘cellist Gal Nyska - all young, all soloists and all members of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

The concert opened with J.S.Bach’s Concerto for Two Harpsichords in C-major BWV 1061, played by Ron Trachtman, Michael Zertsekel and the string quartet. Probably Bach’s only harpsichord concerto not originating as a transcription from other instruments, the first version was for two unaccompanied keyboards. The addition of orchestral parts would be assumed not to be that of Bach as the orchestra adds very little to the dialogue. Tension and contrast are essential to a concerto, but in this case the keyboard instruments play less "against" the orchestra than they do against each other in an antiphonal manner.  Discussion of playing a Bach concerto on historical instruments or not is irrelevant here...or is it?   Hearing it at the Eden-Tamir Center (and at close range) obliges any authentic movement purists in the audience to listen objectively and re-evaluate the flexibility of Bach’s music. What was rewarding in this performance was the fine, carefully-balanced and living sound, sensitive support on the part of the string-players and forthright, complementing and mirroring of the pianos, with bold and direct tutti moments always preserving a richly cushioned sound. Trachtman and Zertsekel gave the Adagio (2nd movement) a delicate reading, offering clarity of contrapuntal layers and some ornamentation.

W.A.Mozart’s Concerto in F-major K.242 (1776) was originally written for three pianos. It is sometimes referred to as the “Lodron” Concerto due to the fact that it was commissioned by Countess Antonia Lodron (hostess to Salzburg’s leading musical salon) to be played by her two daughters, Aloysia and Giuseppa. The part for the younger Giuseppa is less demanding. When Mozart himself eventually played this concerto in 1780, in one of his last public performances in Salzburg, he rearranged it for two pianos, a version that makes greater demands on the soloists. This was the version played by Semmel,Trachtman and the string quartet at the Ein Kerem concert. Although Alfred Einstein in his Mozart biography looks down his nose at “the purely galant Concerto”, there is no denying that at barely twenty years of age, Mozart was capable of writing a full-blown concerto. As opposed to the Bach C-major Concerto, the strings here indulge in much more melodic material. Semmel and Trachtman delighted the audience in their dialogue of precise, clean Classical fingerwork, their attention to each nuance and its transparency of sound never clouded by over-abundant use of the sustaining pedal. The performance reflected Mozart’s sunny temperament, his particular brand of humane, cantabile expression and the practice of creating small transitions.  Despite the lack of oboe- and horn timbres of Mozart’s scoring, the performance made for delightful listening.

Following the intermission,  the string quartet performed Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet in D-major op.20/4. Opus 20, Haydn’s six  “Sun” quartets, represents an unprecedented flowering of his string quartet writing, now straddling styles and ideas and drawing on the furthest reaches of his musical imagination. Led securely by Moldavian-born Dima Pocitari, the IPO players,  highlighted Haydn’s richness of ideas, temperament and contrasts of mood in incisive playing. The second movement was given an expressive reading, with Pocitari adding his own poignant personal touch on the repeat of the Adagio. The zesty, syncopated gypsy-style Minuet,  with its ‘cello solo, a testimony to  the composer's many excursions into the area of folk music, was followed by the virtuosity and pizzazz of the final Presto movement.

Johann Sebastian Bach composed his Concerto for Three Harpsichords and orchestra BWV 1603 in the key of D minor some time  between 1735 and 1745. It was only first published in 1846. As with almost all of J.S. Bach's harpsichord concertos, it has been speculated to be based on an existing concerto for a melodic instrument. However, the source for this concerto is still unknown. It is also said that Bach's sons may have been involved in the work’s composition, or at least in its performance. The artists at the Jerusalem concert were quick to draw the audience into the ebullient musical agenda of  the opening movement, their hearty playing of its wonderfully complex musical tapestry carefully delineated. Following the long, silken melodic lines of the  tranquil, chromatic Alla Siciliana, with the solo lines handed from one pianist to another, the demanding, the vibrant  Allegro had each pianist dueting with the ‘cello (Gal Nyska). Sensing the idea of camaraderie in such a performance, it was not difficult to imagine Bach and his  two eldest sons, Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philip Emmanuel, in joyful domestic music-making.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Ensemble PHOENIX hosts overseas artists in a chamber concert on the subject "Of Love and Sin"

Myrna Herzog,Marina Minkin,Sofia Pedro,Ricardo Rapoport (Jonathan Szwarc)

“Of Love and Sin” was the title of Ensemble PHOENIX’s recent chamber concert. This writer attended the event at the Umberto Nahon Museum of Italian Jewish Art in downtown Jerusalem on December 12th 2017. Artists performing the concert were soprano Sofia Pedro (Portugal), Ricardo Rapoport (Brazil) on bassoon and cavaquinho, Marina Minkin (harpsichord) and PHOENIX founder and director Myrna Herzog playing viola da gamba.

For the evening’s concert, we were shown to a small, quite unusual room. Its vaulted ceiling displayed simple frescoes of biblical scenes and quotes in German, Latin, Hebrew, Greek, Turkish and other languages; its seemingly wood-panelled walls turned out to be a painted effect. This was certainly a unique setting for what was to be a different kind of program, a program challenging two bass instruments to join- and strike a balance with harpsichord and the soprano voice. “Of Love and Sin” was a program bringing together music from Portugal, Brazil, Belgium, France and Italy.

The quartet opened with a festive rendition of the Italian traditional melody of “Maoz Tzur” (Rock of Salvation), as notated by  Benedetto Marcello. The song is traditionally sung during the Feast of Lights. Sofia Pedro contended especially well with the Hebrew text! This was followed by all four artists performing the same Benedetto Marcello’s joyful setting of  Psalm XV:11 (1724) a Psalm of David from his “Estro poetico-armonico” collection. It uses the “Maoz Tzur” melody as compositional material. Benedetto Marcello and his older brother Alessandro were important personages in the musical life of Venice in the first half of the 17th century. Written in the sonata da chiesa form, Benedetto Marcello’s Sonata 2 op.1 for viola da gamba and basso continuo is an elegant, dignified work but not without some intense, exciting moments. Alongside Herzog’s vital and elegantly ornamented playing of the viol part, the bassoon at times (by nature of its timbre) sounded a little too prominent. In the slow movements, the harpsichord (Minkin) added moments of textural and melodic beauty. J.S.Bach's solo keyboard arrangement of  Alessandro Marcello’s Oboe Concerto in D-minor BWV 974 dates from around 1715. In playing that was subtle, gently flexed, precise and decidedly gripping, Minkin highlighted the sophistication of Bach’s arrangement, exposing its marvellous array of textures in the outer movements, Bach’s reworking of it still adhering to its  concerto origin. Her eloquent playing of the Adagio (2nd movement) invited the fantasy to unfold  via  its harmonic course. Minkin was playing on an Italianate instrument built by Thomas Wolf in 1970; a historical replica of a harpsichord by Giacomo Ridolfi, 1665.

 A more sombre piece, and one probably new to the local audience was Belgian composer Joseph-Hector Fiocco’s “Lamentations” (1730s). Pedro’s singing was focused, expressive and devotional, as each movement took the listener into its subject matter  with long, contemplative melismatic passages. In Rapoport’s hands, the unique bass role, often displaying its own very different agenda, was rich in melodic and rhythmic interest, at times creating dialogue with the singer, at others, taking an individual stand. In Joseph Bodin de Boismortier’s Sonata No.2 Op.50 in G for bassoon and continuo, a work straddling both French and Italian Baroque styles and showcasing many of the compositional techniques that characterize  Boismortier’s writing, Ricardo Rapoport’s playing was sympathetic, playful and good-humoured; his splendid legato quality emerging warm and appealing as he created contrasts between the movements. At the very conclusion of the 3rd movement rondo, he held onto the final dissonance just that bit longer in a whimsical, gently teasing Baroque touch.

 And to love, its complications and the underhand tricks lovers play in Michel Pignolet de Montéclair’s chamber cantata “Le triomphe de la constance”, scored throughout for soprano, obbligato bass viol, and continuo. Montéclair is known to have given a more prominent role to his obbligato instruments than any other composer of cantatas before his time, as is clear by the use of totally independent bass lines. In fact, his music to “La triomphe de la constance” features extensive substantive solo passages for the bass viol, here played evocatively by Herzog. In close collaboration with the players, Sofia Pedro’s rendition of the work was dramatic, spontaneous and finely crafted. With her natural theatrical flair and the wink of an eye, she concludes by drawing all the text’s cunning threads together with a few home truths:
‘Let us not yield to inconstancy;
Let us flee its perilous traps
And let our perseverance
Make us worthy of happiness.
We seek new pleasure in vain new attachments;
It is only with constant devotion
That we can fulfill all our desires.’
Marcos Portugal (1762-1830) was not only the most prolific Portuguese-born composer but also the most successful, both in Portugal and abroad (he died a Brazilian citizen). We heard two of his modinhas (traditional Brazilian love songs). Pedro’s performance of the strophic, cynical “Você trata amor em brinco” (You are making fun of love) was coquettish and saucy. For her warm and appealing singing of Portugal's "Cuidados, tristes cuidados" (Worries, Sad Worries), a  tender and unabashedly sentimental song, Ricardo Rapoport joined the ensemble with the beguiling and energetic sound of the cavaquinho (a small guitar played with a plectrum). Brazilian composer Ronaldo Miranda (b.1948) wrote much material for Myrna Herzog’s ensemble in Brazil in the 1980s. “Cantares”, a poignant and fragile love song, coloured with just a touch of nostalgia, made for a delightful and tranquil end to the program.

Ensemble PHOENIX caters to the curious music-lover. Offering new and inspirational musical experiences, Dr. Myrna Herzog continues to bring captivating repertoire to concert halls and with performance of the highest standard.




Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra celebrates Georg Philipp Telemann with church cantatas and concertos

Photo: Maxim Reider

“A Christmas Special”, the second concert of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s 29th season was an all-Telemann concert marking 250 years of the composer’s death. This writer attended the event at the Jerusalem International YMCA on December 6th, 2017. Under the direction of JBO founder and musical director David Shemer, orchestra and soloists presented little-known works of Telemann alongside more familiar works - three church cantatas and two concertos.

In his program notes, Maestro Shemer mentioned the fact that Georg Philipp Telemann’s oeuvre comprised over 3000 works, his church cantatas alone numbering more than 1000, with the mind-blowing fact there was no “existing instrument or chamber ensemble for which Telemann did not write a work” and that “in all these he displayed complete command ...retaining his high- and uncompromising standard of composition”.  

 Subsequent to his posts in Sorau/Silesia and Eisenach, Telemann (16811767) held the position of Frankfurt’s ‘Städtischer Musikdirektor’ (i.e. the city’s musical director) for almost nine years, from 1712 to 1721. With his sacred and profane music written during these years, he laid the foundation of his international fame.  As his Frankfurt post required him to arrange church music for Sundays and holidays, he would compose sacred cantatas on a regular basis. All three cantatas performed at the JBO concert stem from this Frankfurt period. The program opened with “Weg, nichtige Freuden” (Go away, fine pleasures) the cantata’s tutti and ensuing arias forming one lilting, dance-like continuum, taken up by each singer in turn, the timbre of instrumental scoring indeed more alluring and luminous for its inclusion of  recorders (Drora Bruck, Idit Shemer).  “Kommt alle, die ihr traurig seid” (Come all ye who are sad)  from Telemann’s French Cycle, offers more variety of cantata elements - arias, recitative, chorus and a genuine chorale. Its message of comfort in times of need was well expressed by the singers, as they highlighted key words. The final tutti, with its exuberant fugal entries, ended somewhat enigmatically on the dominant chord, suggesting it would have been followed by another work or movement. For me, the highlight was Telemann’s early Frankfurt cantata “Sei getreu bis in den Tod” (Be faithful, even to the point of death) written when Telemann was still in his  twenties. Here, the composer gives us four arias for the separate voice types, the only tutti section, opening and concluding the work, sung by all four singers, guaranteeing better-than-choral ensemble singing. The effect was very intimate and just right for the meditative quality of the work, which would have been written for normal occasions of Lutheran worship rather than for festivities. Highlights were baritone Guy Pelc’s vivid word-painting and the alto aria, its text sensitively expressed by Avital Dery and joined by the violin obbligato splendidly shaped and ornamented by Noam Schuss and Hillel Sherman’s stirring and involving performance of the final aria:
'O God, grant that my soul remains true to Thee for ever,
So that when that awesome day  summons me to rise from the grave’s pit,
My eyes will be able to see thy Divine Face in the sapphire-like heavens.’
Young soprano Adaya Peled’s singing is informed and precise. Her performance of  “Contemptible world”, with its “vain pleasures”, “pain and grief” might have benefitted from  more emotional- and vocal intensity.

Telemann’s Concerto for three violins, strings and b.c. in F-major, following the Vivaldian model, comes from the second production of Telemann’s “Tafelmusik” (or “Musique de Table”) , the endorsement of Telemann’s conception of  ‘mixed taste’, in which elements of Italian, French and German musical styles come together with the influence of the street music of Poland and Silesia. In all three movements Telemann interweaves the virtuosity of the single violin with the variety of colours he conjures up from the three playing together, structurally held together by the ripieno passages for the full string section. The audience at the Jerusalem YMCA auditorium was witness to how each gesture was played out with subtlety and intelligence and handed on by violinists Noam Schuss, Dafna Ravid and Rachel Ringelstein. Theirs is the art of listening, balance and good taste, the artists’ individuality nevertheless emerging in their playing. Definitely a performance to be observed, not just heard.

If Telemann’s Concerto for flute and recorder in E-minor, the only one of its kind,  is a crowd-pleaser, there is every justification for the fact. There was a conspicuous number of recorder players in the Jerusalem audience, professional and amateur players, all probably aware of Telemann’s own proficiency on the recorder and the resulting technical challenges in his many works written for the instrument. If Johann Mattheson’s description of the scale of E-minor as “deep-thinking, grieved and sad” is accurate, Drora Bruck (recorder) and Idit Shemer’s (Baroque flute) performance of the opening Largo, with its sensibilité and elegant shaping of phrases, including some splendid ornamentation, suited the concept. The artists achieved an impressive blend of sound, engaging in the fine dialogue of the second movement (at times overshadowed by the orchestra) then presenting the fragility and intimacy of the third movement, an E-major Largo. The secret is eye contact. The ebullient and genial stomping Polish rondo dance of the last movement, with  its octave- and insistent bass notes, allowed players and audience to let their hair down, sending all home with the devil-may-care joy of the eastern European folk dance.