Monday, February 15, 2021

"The Gut Feeling: Art and Science of the Baroque Violin", a two-day on-line event celebrating Walter Reiter's recently-published book - "The Baroque Violin and Viola: a 50 Lesson Course"

Walter Reiter (Timothy Kraemer)


To celebrate the release of Walter S. Reiter’s comprehensive new book - “The Baroque Violin and Viola: a 50 Lesson Course” (OUP, 2020), the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra presented a concert on February 6th 2021. On February 7th, the JBO collaborated with the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance Research Authority to hold an international symposium - “The Gut Feeling: Art and Science of the Baroque Violin”. Following the symposium, Professor Reiter held a master class for young Israeli Baroque violinists and violists. The two-day event was especially meaningful as Walter Reiter spent many years in Jerusalem, had strong connections to the Baroque music revival there, till today, continuing interaction with JBO founder and director Prof. David Shemer.  Several of Reiter’s former Jerusalem students have gone on to making prestigious performing careers. 


“The Baroque Violin and Viola: a 50 Lesson Course”, a two-volume 700-page publication, is written in a style that is informal, accessible and authoritative. It consists of five modules - on ornamentation, four “Interludes” of historical and cultural interest as well as lessons focusing on topics as diverse as temperament, shifting, vibrato and dance. Of the book, John Eliot Gardiner wrote: “It shows Walter Reiter to be an expert guide in defining a rich cultural context for music-making - and not just violin-playing - and with the potential to shatter dull preconceptions. His practical experience, learning and articulacy combine to enrich and extend our purview of instrumental music extending over five centuries.” British violinist, conductor and Baroque specialist Rachel Podger has referred to the book as “a journey of discovery covering all technical aspects of playing the Baroque violin, from sound-production to the history of national styles via affect, articulation, rhetoric, intonation and temperament, ornamentation and improvisation.” 


Opening the concert program, David Shemer spoke of Walter Reiter and his long history in the performance of Baroque music, expressing his admiration for him. Commencing with an anonymous ensemble piece inspired by “My dove, in the clefts of the rock” (Song of Songs), the works in the February 6th concert were performed and filmed in various locations. Not only did this JBO production work very well, it also featured some of Reiter’s outstanding former Jerusalem pupils. In two movements from Sonata in A minor Op.9 No.5 for violin and basso continuo by Jean-Marie Leclair, Lilia Slavny’s definitively daring-, emotionally involved- and richly ornamented playing was well suited to the work’s multifarious requirements, both technical and expressive, and to Leclair’s style of writing. Joining David Shemer-harpsichord, Ophira Zakai-theorbo and Tal Arbel-viola da gamba, JBO first violinist Noam Schuss dedicated her performance of Dietrich Buxtehude’s Sonata in G minor Op.2 No.3 for violin, viola da gamba and basso continuo to Walter Reiter. With her knack of keeping a line alive from beginning to end, Schuss gave free rein and bracing, suave, personal expression to the constant alternation between the fantastic and contrapuntal styles making up Buxtehude’s sonic world, with Arbel’s zestful, buoyant solos threaded seamlessly through the weave and reminding one of the composer’s preference to follow German tradition by using the gentler-sounding viola da gamba rather than the ‘cello. Listening to this performance, one is left wondering why Buxtehude’s instrumental chamber music has remained so neglected until recently. Schuss was then joined by flautist Idit Shemer to perform G.Ph.Telemann’s Concerto for flute and violin in E minor, the performance displaying the natural balance and insight acquired from the many years the two artists have been playing together. Especially charming was the lucid Adagio in G major, with the soloists playing the gentle cantilena against the “lute” accompaniment of pizzicato strings. The work signed out with an Allegro movement - an exhilarating celebration of Telemann's love of folk music. 


Violinist Kati Debretzeni referred to Reiter’s new book as “beautifully written and exhaustively researched”, and as one that will serve generations of players. For this concert, she chose to play the Passacaglia from Heinrich Biber’s Mystery (Rosary) Sonatas, a work she had heard played by Reiter many years ago, his performance having left a lasting impression on her. Biber’s only surviving work for solo violin, the extended Passacaglia (certainly no standard concert fare) spins variations over a simple 4-note descending bass pattern which is heard throughout. Clearly aware of the spiritual content of the piece, Debretzeni’s playing was transparent, sensitive and meticulously detailed - at times fragile, at others, robust and even elaborate - skillfully paced, personal and thought-provoking.


Though Giovanni Bassano was a composer of considerable skill, he is probably best remembered today as a musical pedagogue, the author of an influential volume “Ricercate, passaggi et cadentie”; the book’s content deals with methods of decorating contrapuntal lines, using motets and other works by Willaert, Clemens non Papa etc. Written in 1585, at the dawning of the Venetian Baroque, Walter Reiter’s choice to perform Bassano’s Ricercata VIII was not an unpredictable option: Reiter spoke of this style as looking towards the Levant, suggesting a connection to Jerusalem. Referring to the piece as “written down improvisation”, Reiter’s playing of the Ricercata was free and spontaneous as he addressed each motif and its course. We then heard the Largo from J.S.Bach’s Sonata for solo violin in C major BWV1005, with the artist viewing its dark mood as a memorial to Bach’s (first) wife Maria Barbara, who had died when the composer was away in Karlsbad. Reiter, finding the work appropriate to the mood of the present Covid-19 pandemic, gave a profound and moving reading of the Largo, its melodic, florid line, emerging from within the voices, sung over a simple bass.


Violinists Lilia Slavny, Noam Schuss, Kati Debretzeni and Dafna Ravid, also flautist Idit Shemer, all spoke warmly of Walter Reiter’s teaching, his wisdom, influence and mentorship. 


Seeing in the international symposium on the morning of February 7th, welcoming those present and thanking those organizations involved in joining the JBO for the event - namely, the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance Research Authority and the Jerusalem Music Centre (Mishkenot Sha’ananim) - was Gilli Alon-Bitton, CEO of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra. The first speaker was Prof. David Shemer, who began by reminding viewers of the first steps of Baroque performance in Jerusalem taken by him and Walter Reiter in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He talked of Reiter’s playing as being characterized by “meaningfulness”, by playing that “tells a story”, always making one think. Maestro Shemer went on to extol the qualities of Reiter’s new book with its creative pedagogy, references to major sources and its insight into Baroque music. He spoke of it as mandatory reading for all Baroque musicians, not only violinists and violists, and also as being useful for modern string players making the transition to performing in the Baroque style.


Noam Schuss, first violinist of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, today teaching both modern- and Baroque violin and conducting a young people’s Baroque orchestra, spoke of her violin studies with three prominent teachers - Ilona Feher, Ora Shiran and William Preucil (Cleveland Quartet) - and of being trained in the “grand, large violin sound”. Then, 25 years ago, she met Walter Reiter, who was teaching at the Jerusalem Early Music Workshop. At the Eastman School of Music, she had played Bach on a modern violin with a Baroque bow, but now, playing repertoire new to her, such as Corelli, she was being informed and inspired by Reiter, who was encouraging her to be freer within the historical context. Schuss’ musical roots were taking a turn! Helping her move away from the traditional track, Reiter was convinced she was meant to play Baroque-style music. Reiter then introduced her to David Shemer. Thinking back to those early days, Noam Schuss has been mesmerized reading Reiter’s book, which counsels that “nothing is just for technique” and that playing this music means being an explorer. Schuss emphasizes the importance of taking time to experiment in these fast times. She refers to rehearsals of her youth orchestra as a “Baroque laboratory”. 


The next speaker was Prof. David Irving, a leading Australian musicologist, cultural historian and Baroque violinist, currently based at the Institució Milà i Fontanals-CSIC (Barcelona). His research revolves around the role of music in intercultural exchange, colonialism, and globalisation from c.1500 to c.1900, with particular focus on Southeast Asia. His talk put Walter Reiter’s book into a global-historical context, showing illustrations of early bowed instruments and tracing their dispersal worldwide through colonialism, traders, etc. Irving discussed the kinds of wood used in the making of violins and bows and the choice of wood’s influence on playing and technique. He mentioned that Biber’s bow was made of snakewood.  Prof. Irving told of the arrival of the violin in China by way of a missionary, Pedro Pedrini, possibly a pupil of Corelli, who was writing sonatas similar in style to those of Corelli. Pedrini taught the Emperor musical notation, who, in turn, began to write music. We heard two movements of a Pedrini sonata performed by Nancy Wilson (violin) and Joyce Lindorff (harpsichord). Irving stressed the importance of violinists playing together with musicians of different cultures.


Prior to the printing of ”The Baroque Violin and Viola: a 50 Lesson Course”, Walter Reiter had requested violinist Rachel Podger to read through it. Podger felt honoured to do so. She spoke of Reiter’s wisdom and believes that students will find the book’s research attractive, encouraging them to go on to do more. Among Reiter’s many teaching strategies, Podger loves the singing and playing exercises using Italian words and the inspiration of sounds heard in one’s mind or even prompted by objects when “turning marble into sound”. She originally met Reiter when both were leading with the English Concert in the early 1990s and she has always felt a musical affinity with him. Podger made reference to conversations with him and to the humour and creativity of his word games and puns.


Musicologist, violist and director of the prestigious Israeli Carmel Quartet Dr. Yoel Greenberg studied modern violin with Reiter in the 1980s. Reiter was his first teacher. Although Greenberg did not go in the direction of Baroque performance, Reiter did introduce him to Baroque music, to the world of chamber music, giving him much musical background and arousing his interest in musicology. Today, Greenberg finds Reiter’s reliance on 18th century pedagogy a meeting point between the two of them. We then heard members of the Carmel Quartet playing a section of what sounded like a coherent and balanced piece of galant music. Greenberg then revealed that it actually consisted of fragments from works of Haydn, Dittersdorf, Mozart and Pleyel pieced together quite companionably, a manoeuvre impossible in styles later than the Classical style. He referred to the stringing together of schemata as researched by Robert O. Gjerdingen, a scholar of music theory and music perception, and to composer and music theorist J.P. Kirnberger (1721-1783), who had engaged in the replacement or addition of passages. Greenberg concluded his talk by saying that the two years of study with Maestro Reiter had given him a whole world. 


The afternoon was taken up with on-line master classes, in which Walter Reiter worked with young Israeli Baroque violinists and violists, concluding a festive and enriching two-day event in honour of his new and most significant book.




Monday, January 25, 2021

The Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra commemorates the 2021 International Holocaust Remembrance Day in a unique setting

Photo: Nurit Mozes


On January 27th 1945, Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration- and death camp, was liberated by the Red Army. Today, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, marking the tragedy of the Holocaust of the Second World War, resulting in the deaths of 6 million Jews and 11 million others at the hands of the Nazi regime and its collaborators, takes place annually on January 27th. In light of restrictions imposed on concert performance in Israel due to the current Covid-19 pandemic, the Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra presented a unique and meaningful event to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day, 2021. One of the people behind the program, entrepreneur and site preservation expert Roni Dotan, spoke of the decision to carry out this year’s commemorative event in a very different manner - to perform a few representative works in an authentic German railway carriage built in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century and used by the Nazis to transport Jews to the extermination camps. The cattle carriage was brought to Netanya in January 2014. The car, known as "munchen12-246" was found in 2013 by Roni Dotan and Tatiana Ruge, Ms. Ruge specializing in commemoration of the Holocaust. It now stands in the precincts of Beit Yad Lebanim, Netanya. Dotan explains: "While researching my family history, I visited a museum in Berlin, where they provided me with documents about family members I had no idea had perished in the Holocaust. Working with Tatiana Ruge, we found all of the material documenting how they had met their untimely and heinous deaths. That was when I decided that, from this point on, my work would revolve around the spiritual satisfaction from this discovery. Thanks to Netanya Mayor Feirberg-Ikar, non-profit organizations and good people such as the Friedman family, who all rallied to support this project, we were able to bring the car to Netanya…”


The 2021 memorial concert was performed by four members of the NKO - concertmaster Gilad Hildesheim-violin, Svetlana Kaminsky-violin, Pavel Levin-viola and Irena Sokolov-’cello.  Works played included the theme song composed by John Williams for “Schindler’s List”, two Yiddish songs arranged by Pavel Levin and “Hatikvah” (the Israeli national anthem). Some eighty years ago, the sounds emanating from this carriage would have been those of pain and despair. Here, hearing these fine instrumentalists in playing that was inspired and thought-provoking, poetic and moving, provides the listener with the opportunity to remember and think back to those people deported to the camps in such carriages. Roni Dotan reminds us that music was played in the camps as prisoners left for a day’s hard labour and as they returned. Today, this music is played in memory of those who perished in the Holocaust and in honour of those who survived. The film also shows a number of Netanya artists busy working at their easels outside the carriage, drawing inspiration for their painting from the music played by the quartet inside the carriage. 


NKO CEO Hila Dagan adds that it is the moral human duty of all of us to pay tribute to the memory of the millions of victims who perished in the Holocaust and to honour those who survived. 



Photo: Nurit Mozes

Saturday, January 23, 2021

The Kanazawa-Admony Piano Duo presents a lecture-concert celebrating 250 years of Beethoven's birth

Tami Kanazawa,Yuval Admony (courtesy K-A Duo)


One of the many international events celebrating 250 years of  Ludwig van Beethoven's birth, “A Piano Duo's Perspective on Beethoven: From Grosse Fugue to Tailor's Patch”, was an event of the Webinar Mini Winter Series of the Tel Hai International Piano Master Classes (Israel). Taking place on January 10th 2021, the lecture-concert’s live-streaming production presented Beethoven’s four-hand setting of the Great Fugue, Saint-Saens’ Variations on a Theme by Beethoven and Two (of four) Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli Waltz, the latter composed and played by Yuval Admony. The first two works were performed by Tel Hai faculty members duo pianists Tami Kanazawa and Yuval Admony, with Admony’s talk sharing their experiences of playing the works, offering information on them and discussing each of the pieces from the perspective of duo pianists. Welcoming viewers, several being Tel Hai International Piano Master Classes alumni and introducing the event and artists was Tel Hai alumna and staff member Didel Bish. 


Talking of Beethoven’s Great Fugue, a work dating from the final months of the composer’s life, Yuval Admony spoke of the piano score, missing for over a century and important in its inclusion of Beethoven’s editing markings, as having been rediscovered in a Philadelphia archive. Sold for one million English pounds at Sotheby's auction house in New York, the purchaser then generously donated the hand-written score to the Juilliard School of Music. Originally composed for string quartet (Op.130), the Great Fugue was so dissonant and advanced in its innovations that critics of the time found it unfathomable; indeed, it was only in the 20th century that critics began to read into its meaning, recognizing it as one of the composer’s greatest achievements. Admony finds it incredible to think that Beethoven, by then totally deaf, was able to hear all the fugue’s sounds in his head, to look far ahead into the future and compose music that he himself would never have heard. Referring to Beethoven’s 4-hand piano setting (Op.134), Admony feels that this version “might have a thing or two to add to the original quartet setting”, bringing out its percussive effects and in its many roles, themes and voices colliding and mixing in a bubbling mix. Visually, he feels it might be easier for listeners to focus on two performers playing on one instrument rather than following four players, with the “shocking” effect of pouring all the material into one blend being more condensed in the former. Admony adds that the work presents a challenge to both players and the listeners. He proceeds by giving an analysis of the work, after which we view a performance of the Grosse Fuge by the Kanazawa-Admony Piano Duo, filmed in 2009 at St. James Piccadilly Church, London for the Beethoven Piano Society of Europe. Charged and impactful, yet controlled, articulate and intelligent, the artists’ reading of the Grosse Fuge presents the work’s complexity and multi-layering, its multifaceted canvas of stark-, at times dancelike-, at others, frenetic moments, its flashes of optimism, also moments of silken tranquillity, the latter giving the impression of an eternity. Kanazawa and Admony‘s playing also brings out how naturally pianistic Op.134 is, with its many sweeping, billowing trills, for example. They unveil the psychological, physical, and spiritual states inherent in the piece, endorsing Stravinsky’s referral to it in the 1960s as “an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever”.


Yuval Admony continued with discussion of how composers approach the writing of variations to subjects borrowed from other composers, referring to this practice as a warm appreciation of the composer quoted. Camille Saint-Saëns’ Variations on a Theme of Beethoven Opus 35 (1874) takes its subject from the trio of the third movement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata in E-flat, Op. 31, No. 3. We listened to Daniel Barenboim playing the theme from the sonata; marked “moderato grazioso”, Barenboim’s rendition was reflective, despite the trio’s minor outbursts. Admony comments that Saint-Saëns, on the other hand, identifies with the theme’s potential playfulness and that he creates a piece both light in touch, of carefree character, also with touches of humour, its funeral march indeed emerging winsome rather than bleak. At one stage, Saint-Saëns resorts to turning the theme upside down. The fugue, Admony adds, can also be regarded as a tribute to Beethoven by Saint-Saëns. Viewing Kanazawa and Admony’s performance of the variations, filmed at the Casals Hall, Tokyo in 2000, one becomes acutely aware of the artists’ highly streamlined teamwork, as they pass gestures back and forth in an entertaining play of delicacy, lushness and delight, colouring their playing with the piano’s rich palette of colours and textures. Engaging in subtlety of touch and timing, the work’s lively and technically demanding course emerges with precision, as in the rapid alternating chords between the two pianos. The duo's playing is as exciting and experiential to watch as it is to hear. 


In 1994, concluding his master’s thesis on Beethoven’s “33 Variations on a Waltz by A. Diabelli”, Yuval Admony thought it might be an interesting idea to write some variations of his own. The fact that Beethoven had dismissed Diabelli’s theme as a “tailor's patch” (Schusterflecken) raises the question of the criteria for writing a theme suited to variations. Admony summarizes the ideal kind of theme as having a clear shape, usable, identifiable motifs, both harmonically and melodically, and easily followable harmonic progressions, continuing that Diabelli’s theme ticks all the boxes, the proof of which being that 50 composers have used Diabelli’s theme on which to write variations. We heard  tastes from those of Liszt, Schubert, Czerny and Hummel. Using this theme, Admony himself has composed four variations for piano (two hands), two of which we heard, performed by him with consummate artistry - “Diabelli’s Lament” (Variation II) melancholy in its chromaticism, pensive and imaginative in character and “Last Dance” (Variation IV) a tone poem floating on delectable, featherweight textures. Both pieces are Romantic in approach. I was left curious to hear the other two variations, referred to by Admony as “more technical and pianistic”.


Yuval Admony is the author of a recently-published book - "Musical Fun - Thoroughly Done", 4-hands teacher-pupil pieces, all addressing basic aspects of music theory and including fables and illustrations.  


The Webinar Mini Winter Series event concluded with Tami Kanazawa and Yuval Admony responding to questions and comments of viewers.  


Thursday, December 31, 2020

Ensemble PHOENIX performs Labadie's transcription of Bach's Goldberg Variations at the 2020 Desert Sounds Festival

Noam Schuss,Noam Gal,Marina Minkin,Rachel Ringelstein,Myrna Herzog (Dror Heller)


“J.S.Bach’s Goldberg Variations - Beyond the Harpsichord”, an event of the Desert Sounds Festival and of the Felicja Blumental Music Center, was performed by Ensemble PHOENIX on December 24th 2020 and relayed to audiences on live streaming. Performing Bernard Labadie’s transcription of the work were violinists Noam Schuss and Noam Gal, Rachel Ringelstein-viola, Marina Minkin-harpsichord and PHOENIX founder and director Myrna Herzog-viola da gamba.


In 1741, J.S.Bach published the fourth and final volume of his Clavier-Übung, this consisting “of an Aria with diverse variations for the harpsichord with two manuals”. As in the previous three volumes of the series, the composer added that the work was “prepared for the soul’s delight of lovers of music.”  The Goldberg Variations represent the final stage of Bach’s rigorous and systematic exploration of writing for the keyboard that began with the Two- and Three-Part Inventions and the Well-Tempered Clavier and end with the four volumes of the Clavier-Übung. The Goldberg Variations are among the most technically demanding works for the harpsichord. Bach avails himself of the many resources of the instrument, including a number of variations requiring complex hand crossings, the latter technique unique in Bach’s keyboard writing.. He wrote the variations for a double-manual harpsichord, specifying which variations were to be played across the two keyboards (in some cases to facilitate hand crossings, in others, to colour specific variations differently.) The aria which precedes the variations and closes the variations is actually a Sarabande written over a bass line of 32 bars, the latter form and its implied harmonies (and not the Sarabande melody) forming the material on which Bach builds the variations. The composer’s fascination with numbers can be observed in his division of the variations into groups of three, each group culminating in a canon; the canons start at the unison and progress stepwise to a canon at the ninth. So, it could be said that the Goldberg Variations are, in many ways, the perfect balance between art and science. As much as can be said about the stringent technical challenges facing the performer, any virtuosity and mastery Bach demands of the player pales in comparison with the virtuosity and mastery he presents here as a composer. If one considers Bach’s own practice of reusing pre-written movements for later repertoire, it stands to reason that. a work of such universality is apt to fare effectively in different instrumental settings



Enter prominent Baroque and Classical conductor and opera specialist Bernard Labadie (b.1963, Québec, Canada). In 1997, he began his transcription of J.S.Bach’s Goldberg Variations for string orchestra and continuo. (Russian violinist and conductor Dmitry Sitkovetsky made a note-for-note transcription of the work for string orchestra prior to Labadie’s setting). Labadie’s aim was to transcribe the Goldberg Variations in the manner that might be chosen by an 18th century composer. Because of new possibilities offered by different instrumentation, Labadie sees his transcription as a new opus “which should not be compared to the original”, (easier said than done!), referring to the project as “a dangerous and stimulating process”. 


Ensemble PHOENIX pays respect to Bach, deciding to have the first section of the Aria played by the harpsichord alone (Minkin), however, bringing in bowed instruments on the repeat. Then, as one follows the PHOENIX performance with the original score, one sees how natural it was for Labadie to determine the instrumental settings for each variation. The work is no longer a keyboard solo, with the artist in communication with himself. Not lost, however, is the work’s intimacy, now created by close communication between the players, here, playing one to a part on period instruments, now engaging in the intimate chamber music genre. We are presented with string trios, as in Variation 9, with its occasional unorthodox harmonies, Schuss’ playing shining in fine shaping and expressiveness, or Variation 25 (Schuss, Ringelstein, Herzog) in the minor mode, its soul-searching, daring narrative wrought of large, unconventional leaps and dissonances, leaving the listener somewhat disquieted but deeply moved. There are quartets, there are tutti and there are duets, the power of Bach’s consummate two-voiced writing inviting thrilling teamwork and splendid delivery, as in Variation 11 (Schuss, Ringelstein) or in Variation 17, with the same two artists decoding Bach’s intense volley of notes with clear phrasing,  flexing and rubato, indeed, giving the movement their own personal stamp; and  Bach’s humour is present, as in the jocund hide-and-seek of Variation 20 (Gal, Ringelstein) representing the nimble and formidable hand-crossing acrobatics Bach demands of the keyboard player. As opposed to many artists who toss off Variation 27 in a blurred whirl of accelerated bravado, Schuss and Herzog, taking their cue from Labadie's tempo marking, pace their playing to outline Bach’s plan of action as inherent in the piece's playful dialogue. Labadie’s setting offers  much timbral variety. In Variation 7, however, PHOENIX chooses to have harpsichord and strings alternate, whereas Labadie's setting calls for only strings. The Goldberg Variations comprise uplifting tutti sections and solos, these and the above to be handled only by virtuoso players. The PHOENIX musicians gave expression to moments of Baroque courtly eloquence. PHOENIX also addresses Bach’s most original timbral inferences. In Variation 29, with the strings engaging in triumphant, homophonic, fanfare-type utterances, the PHOENIX players add the contrasting element of the  harpsichord part (Minkin) alternating the brassy chord texturess with its own agenda, indeed, playing totally different- and typically keyboard textures. If the Quodlibet, in its simple folk-like format, brings us back down to earth, it is the original Sarabande, now differently scored, with Schuss presenting the wistful melody throughout, completing the rich, meaningful musical experience that was offered online by Ensemble PHOENIX. And it was also a rich visual experience, with attentive camerawork inviting us to view the players’ every gesture and facial expression (unfortunately, we saw less of Marina Minkin, who was seated behind the string players) giving the audience the privilege of being involved in the musical process unfolding throughout the work... certainly a more visible experience than for people seated in a concert hall.  

A slightly different team of Ensemble PHOENIX players performed Labadie’s Goldberg Variations transcription in 2012. Always a “work in progress”, Dr. Myrna Herzog’s aspiration to revisit the Goldberg Variations is commensurate with the desire of many harpsichordists who perform and re-examine the mammoth work more than once throughout their professional lives. The PHOENIX players’ intelligent, virtuosic, profoundly inquiring, sensitive and nuanced performance confirms that the greatness of the Goldbergs goes far beyond the keyboard, opening the floodgates for new interpretative possibilities of this ingenious work, all wrought of the same harpsichord score.

Friday, December 25, 2020

Vespro a due voce - Ophira Zakai, Tal Arbel, Nour Darwish and Tal Ganor perform Italian instrumental and liturgical music in Nazareth

Nour Darwish,Tal Ganor,Tal Arbel,Ophira Zakai (Yoel Levy)


 “Vespers for Two Voices”, an event of the Nazareth Liturgical Festival, was relayed on live streaming from the Synagogue Church, Nazareth, on December 18th 2020. Performing early 17th-century Italian works were sopranos Tal Ganor and Nour Darwish, Tal Arbel-viola da gamba and Ophira Zakai-theorbo/direction. Tal Arbel and Ophira Zakai gave brief explanations on the program content and on the historic instruments they were playing. Now belonging to the Greek-Catholic community, the Synagogue Church, located in the heart of Nazareth’s Old Market, its exposed stone walls decorated with impressive wall paintings, provided a tranquil and atmospheric venue for the concert.

Tal Arbel and Ophira Zakai opened with Recercada IV by leading Spanish composer Diego Ortiz (living in the viceroyalty of Naples) and author of “Trattado di glosas” - the first printed instruction book on ornamentation for bowed string orchestras. Zakai drew the listener’s attention to the fact that the writing of some of the instrumental music on this program was experimental for its time, indeed, considered avant-garde! This was evident in three pieces of the German-Italian lute virtuoso Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger, one of the most successful (and least conformist) composers of his time, as heard in Arbel and Zakai’s crisp, hearty performance of “Kapsberger”  to a ground (a musical self-portrait?), a hearty “Ciaconna”  and the refined, introspective “Toccata arpeggiata”, the latter performed by Zakai alone, its perpetuum mobile manner accompanied by expanding harmonic development. Playing G.Frescobaldi’s canzona “L’Ambitiosa” on two instruments gave the artists the option of passing melodies back and forth, as they revealed the pronounced contrasts of the piece’s Italian-style writing of short sections, these including some decidedly dance-style episodes. As to Aurelio Vitgiliano, a theorist of Italian music of the late Renaissance and early Baroque period, known for his three books on performance practice and no less for his collection of virtuoso works, Tal Arbel’s alluring and versatile performance of Ricercar No.13 displayed its wide range of viol techniques, as she gave individual expression to each melodic voice and gesture.


Sacred soprano duets with basso continuo by Claudio Monteverdi figured prominently at this concert, with Nour Darwish and Tal Ganor conveying the subtle nuances and invention of the pieces, as the singers engaged in much eye contact, their fresh, mellifluous voices well matched, interweaving the melodic- and harmonic web and rhythmic vitality of these rich, complex pieces. Each item emerged intuitively and rich in contrasts, not only vocally but also instrumentally, with Zakai  and Arbel luxuriating in Monteverdi’s harmonic language, adding a variety of textures and sonorities to the soundscape. Ganor’s singing of the ostinato-based “Laudate Dominum” was buoyant, celebratory and coloured with some fine melismatic passages. Alessandro Grandi (for a time as Monteverdi's assistant at St. Mark's in Venice) took the text for “O quam tu pulchra es” (O how sweet you are) from Song of Songs. In her sparkling, dynamic performance of it, Nour Darwish gave intense expression to the array of changing emotions evolving from this monody - reflective, poignant, joyfully dancelike and, finally, languishing.


Bringing this superb music to the listener, some works pared down to chamber scoring, the artists’ performance was characterised by profound and detailed inquiry into the works, polished performance and sheer beauty of sound.



Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Rami Bar-Niv's autobiography “Blood, Sweat and Tours - Notes from the Diary of a Concert Pianist”

Pianist/composer Rami Bar-Niv (Courtesy R.B-N)

Pianist and composer Rami Bar-Niv has spent the many years of his outstanding (and ongoing) professional life performing in North-, Central- and South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand and Israel. He has performed as a soloist with orchestras, is a recitalist and chamber musician. Often sent abroad by the Foreign Ministry to represent Israel on the concert platform, he has become a goodwill ambassador for the country. Bar-Niv made history by being the first Israeli artist to perform in Egypt following the Begin-Sadat peace treaty. His recordings have met with great success and his compositions have been published, recorded and performed worldwide. Bar-Niv has engaged in educational activities worldwide, giving lectures, teaching private lessons and holding master classes and workshops. As of 2006, he has been running week-long piano camps for adults. His articles appear in music magazines and on Internet forums and groups. His first book “The Art of Piano Fingering: Traditional, Advanced and Innovative” (AndreA 1060) was published in 2012. His autobiography “Blood, Sweat and Tours - Notes from the Diary of a Concert Pianist” (AndreA 1070) came out in 2020. Today, Rami Bar-Niv and his American-born wife Andi live in Raanana, Israel.


Rami Bar-Niv was born in Tel Aviv in 1945. His parents immigrated to Israel before World War II, his mother from Poland and his father from Romania. Genia, his mother made her living as a piano teacher, giving him his first seven years of piano instruction; Aharon, his father, was a fine amateur violinist (as is Bar-Niv’s brother, Yair) and composer. The first section of the book deals with Bar-Niv’s childhood, his teenage years and studies in the USA. From 1969, he then dedicates a brief chapter to each year up to 2019. The book covers all major events and a myriad of other details of Bar-Niv’s life, as we are swept into accounts of his private- and professional life, travel for work and for pleasure and the many colleagues and friends he has collected on his way. A classical musician by training, Bar-Niv has also engaged in jazz and other popular genres of music, accompanying artists performing in many different styles. And Bar-Niv is a family man: the reader meets all immediate family members, reads of their joys, sorrows, also of the tragic death of Rami and Andi’s son Shai at age 15. Son Tal is a professional trumpeter. Daughter Sheli, also musical, decides to become a chef. The many photos add much to familiarizing the reader with the many, many people accompanying Bar-Niv on his rich and varied personal- and musical journey.


The prolific detail appearing in Bar-Niv’s memoirs may seem overdone to the general reader, but it will be much appreciated by his family, with information that will be especially interesting and relevant to the younger generations. Music lovers, potential- and professional musicians will, however, find interest in his discussion on management, piano practice, programming, performance and in Bar-Niv’s own compositions, a detailed list of which appears at the end of the book.  “Blood, Sweat and Tours - Notes from the Diary of a Concert Pianist” is readable and entertaining. Readers will enjoy Bar-Niv’s honesty and positive approach to people and life as well as his humour, as in accounts of a few unforeseen situations encountered by the artist, (probably not always as amusing at the time.) Although I feel the text should have undergone English editing, I found the book a good read and enjoyed its clear, pleasing format. It feels like time to revisit Rami Bar-Niv’s performances and compositions.


Thursday, December 17, 2020

Mozartiana - Michael Tsalka performs works of W.A.Mozart on keyboard instruments of the Classical period

(Design: Alastair Taylor)


Pianist and early keyboard artist Michael Tsalka brings Mozart’s authentic sound world to the listener with his new disc “Mozartiana - Rarities and Arrangements Performed on Historical Keyboards”. Dr. Tsalka has been considering the possibility of recording Mozart works on period instruments for some time. However, what triggered the project was when early keyboard restorer Pooya Radbon informed the artist that he had recently restored a Berner tangent piano (late 18th century) and a rectangular Maucher pantalon (c. 1780), prompting Tsalka to go ahead and record rare arrangements of Mozart’s incomplete works.


The first works on the disc are performed on the tangent piano (Tangentenflügel), an instrument whose strings are struck by freely-moving wooden posts, giving it the advantage of combining the timbres and potential of the fortepiano, the clavichord and the harpsichord, but with more strength than salon keyboard instruments of the time, indeed, serving the new aesthetic demands of the early Classical period. Tsalka actually opens with a work familiar to listeners, the composer’s (complete) Adagio in B minor, K.540, referred to by Alfred Einstein as “one of the most perfect, most deeply felt, and most despairing of all his [Mozart’s] works”. Touching, but not dwelling on the sense of desolation as heard by many pianists playing the work, Tsalka undeniably also gives expression to the work’s positive energy, his adeptly paced playing contrasting the three-chord dramatic interruptions with cantabile passages, highlighting the work’s expressive harmonic progressions, also engaging in ornamenting and interspersing some original transitions.


In 1771, Mozart was present at the decadent and extravagant Venetian carnival, acquiring a taste for the Commedia dell’Arte so closely linked with the Italian carnival tradition. The visit to Venice inspired him to write the ballet-pantomime “Pantalon and Columbine” K.446-Fs twelve years later, in which he played Harlequin, with Aloysia, his sister-in-law (and first love) playing Columbine. Of this pantomime neither score nor script survive, only the autograph of a first violin part. The manuscript, however, includes stage directions, thus giving some clues as to the content of this piece. “Columbine”, meaning "little dove", a stock character of the Commedia dell'Arte, is desperately in love with the cheeky Harlequin, but betrothed by her father Pantalon to a man she despises. She is locked in her house and guarded by the mischievous servant Pierrot. Harlequin and Columbine secretly hatch a plan to escape the house and elope. In this world premiere recording, Tsalka, playing the series of sparkling, spirited miniatures from the completed, edited and arranged version by German musicologist Franz Beyer (1922-2018), provides the listener with fine entertainment, giving the lively, uninhibited tangent piano carte blanche to evoke the exaggeration, coquettishness, pseudo-dramas, humour and, above all, the devil-may-care and flamboyant sauciness that are part and parcel of the Commedia dell'Arte tradition.. 


Then, to pieces written by the very young Mozart. Following a small piece written by the 10-year-old Mozart, Tsalka takes us into the sound world of the fledgling composer, choosing to play excerpts from the 43 tiny, untitled pieces of the Londoner Skizzenbuch K.ANH 1096 (London Sketchbook, 1765) on the pantalon square piano, its marvellously true, rich timbre offering him “a special opportunity to explore the instrument’s ethereal, undamped sonorities”, in the artist’s words. According to some Mozart scholars, the aim of writing these pieces was for Mozart, who had just learned how to use pen and ink, to write down the harvest of his own inspiration without needing help. (Corrections by his father Leopold appear in pencil only.) Tsalka’s playing features not only the young Mozart's joie-de-vivre, his inspiration and invention, but also his curiosity to experiment, as heard in some daring forays into the bountiful medium of harmony. As to the dance forms of the time, we hear the rustic origins of the Contredanse (K15h) and the graceful, swaying of little Mozart’s not-unsophisticated Siciliano in D minor (15u). 


Michael Tsalka returns to the tangent piano to perform pieces from “Mozartiana: Kompositionen des Meister'' (Compositions of the Master), a collection of pieces, several of them miniatures, compiled, edited and arranged for piano by Swiss pianist/conductor Edwin Fischer. Tsalka opens with three small Minuets, all childhood compositions, inviting us to revisit (indeed to reconsider the potential of) pieces we played as very young piano students. He approaches them with an air of freedom, whimsy and some modifications, yet preserving the freshness and naivety of these small gems. More miniatures: K.236 – Mozart’s arrangement of the theme of “Non vi turbate, no”, an aria from Gluck’s opera “Alceste”, c.1782 (did the composer intend it to serve as the basis for a set of variations?), a piano reduction of the programmatic Contredanse in D major “Das Donnerwetter” (Thunderstorm) for orchestra K.534, its uncompromising depiction of the pelting rain punctuated by calmer episodes, and also the totally delectable Romance in A flat major. Then there are the Variations on an Arietta from G.Sarti’s “I Finti Eredi” (originally attributed to Mozart, but possibly penned by Emanuel Aloys Förster). Tsalka’s varicoloured and captivating reading of the work is clearly inspired by the potential inherent in the tangent piano. Mozart’s Fantasia in F minor K.608, composed in the last year of his life, was written for a large table clock that included a pipe organ, the best of those organs being serious instruments, serving music aficionados in Europe’s stately homes. Count Joseph Deym was one such an enthusiast of mechanical clocks. Mozart’s F minor piece, commissioned by Deym, was not originally titled “Fantasia”, but its content certainly attests to the genre. Tsalka’s gripping playing of the piece, disclosing all the trademarks of the seasoned composer, does indeed emerge splendidly at odds with the circumstances of its original performance on a Spieluhr: he gives depth of emotion and expression to its French-style overture, the Andante and the spectacular fugue, the latter a reminder that Mozart had, indeed, studied Bach's music.


In the disc’s liner notes, Michael Tsalka talks of Mozart as a prisoner of the marketing forces of his time, compelling him to write simpler, popular music, hence the composer’s “repeated escapes into the parallel worlds of buffoonery and riddling, freemasonry, opera and the carnival…” The artist is convinced that “Mozart would have been happy to listen to interpretations of these piano arrangements on two marvellous and original historic instruments, restored and revived almost 230 years after his death.”   Recorded for GRAND PIANO (GP849) at the Rochuskapelle, Wangen im Allgäu (Germany) in October 2018, this disc will provide much delight to Mozart lovers and to those of us curious to hear performance of his music on authentic instruments.


Michael Tsalka (Geelvinck Muziek Musea)