Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Melzer Recorder Consort in a Program of Laments at Beit Avi Chai, Jerusalem

On July 20th 2009, the Melzer Recorder Consort performed a concert at Jerusalem’s Beit Avi Chai. A family affair, the ensemble consists of Michael Melzer, his wife Yael Shimshoni-Melzer and Michael’s brother, Ezer Melzer. In the days preceding the fast day of the 9th of Av, the Hebrew date commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples of Jerusalem, Jews observe mourning. The theme of the concert was that of mourning - “There we sat and wept” (Psalm 137).

The scene was set with the introspective Chaconne from Henry Purcell’s “Dioclesian” (1690). We then heard an arrangement of the J.S.Bach’s keyboard piece “Capriccio on the Departure of his Dearly Beloved Brother” BWV 992 (c.1705). Bach’s brother, Jacob, was leaving to join the Swedish Guard. The piece itself includes the descending minor tetrachord ostinato in the bass line, a motif symbolizing lament. This was the young J.S.Bach’s attempt to write a program work, and, in fact, the composer described details of the minor drama in words on the manuscript itself. The work was performed on soprano- and bass recorders.

The Italian composer and violinist Salamone Rossi of Mantua was a member of the illustrious Italian-Jewish “de Rossi” family, a family which included the controversial Bible scholar Azariah de Rossi and several fine musicians. Rossi’s ancestry can be traced back to their exile from Jerusalem. Rossi is known for his innovative writing of synagogue music; however, the Melzer Consort began by playing a group of his miniature Sinfonias for three recorders. Fine fare for recorder-players, the pieces were presented articulately and were skillfully ornamented. From the composer’s “HaShirim Asher liShlomo” (Songs of Solomon) published in 1623 using the original Hebrew texts, we heard Rossi’s “Kaddish”, composed in the style of the balletto – the most popular vocal form in 17th century Italy. Performing it on soprano-, alto- and tenor recorders, the trio gave expression to its typically Italian mood changes, from serious duple passages to the more joyful triple meter sections. For their instrumental version of Psalm 137 on two alto recorders, tenor and bass, young Shaked Engelberg joined the ensemble in this cantabile, flowing piece which depicts the suffering of exiled Jews and their longing for Jerusalem. Rossi’s dissonances were woven delicately into the cantabile texture, as was the finely crafted end of the piece.
‘By the rivers of Babylon - there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked us for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion”.
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?’

English lutenist and composer John Dowland’s (c.1563-1626) “Lachrimae” (Tears) cycle of pavans, composed in a variety of scorings, is a personal, emotional and spiritual journey, presenting some of the greatest music of Dowland’s time. It also represents the cult of melancholy running through 16th century art, literature and music, and the works quote his song “Flow my Tears”, the beginning of each sounding the four-note descending “tear motif” mentioned above. The work’s importance is also reflected in its use as the basis for works by several other composers. We heard Michael Melzer playing Jacob van Eyck’s variations on Dowland’s Lachrimae. Van Eyck (c.1589-1657) a blind nobleman, was a scientist, carillonneur, a recorder virtuoso and composer from Utrecht. His collection of “Der Fluyten Lust-hof (The Recorder’s Pleasure Garden) contains variations on secular and sacred tunes familiar at the time and offers a rare insight into late Renaissance and early Baroque variation techniques. It is clear that the variations were the results of Van Eyck’s own brilliant improvisations and they are, indeed, more than challenging to perform. We heard Michael Melzer performing van Eyck’s Variations on Dowland’s “Lachrimae” (published 1644) on a Renaissance recorder. He draws his listeners into meaning of the melodic line, giving it time to breathe, then moving on to the increasing intricacies of each variation, never allowing the virtuosic nature of the work to camouflage the musical line. With the unadorned melody returning at the end, Melzer once again reminds us of Dowland’s lament and the theme of the evening.

The cosmopolitan German Baroque composer, organist and keyboard virtuoso Johann Jakob Froberger (1616-1667) is known for his highly idiomatic and personal harpsichord pieces, these being considered early examples of program music. Such was his “Lamento sopra la dolorosa perdita della Real Maesta di Ferdinando IV Re de Romani”. As the first movement of his Partita no 12 (1656), this allemande mourns the death of the eldest of the Emperor’s sons, who was later to have ruled Austria. The movement, scored for soprano-, tenor- and bass recorders, is slow in tempo – a veritable lament - offering Michael Melzer on soprano recorder much scope for expression. It ends with a rising C major scale, possibly symbolizing the 21-year-old’s ascent to heaven.

An interesting item on the program was a Bach duet (Michael and Yael Melzer) followed by a transitional section leading the audience away from the High German Baroque into the oriental fragrances of Ladino song. “Nani,nani” is a Ladino lullaby telling of a wife whose unfaithful husband comes home from visiting his lover. Michael Melzer’s arrangement of this beautiful melody is masterful in its rich array of ideas, his varied use of recorders (and voice) and its attention to style and to exotic effects. The artists’ performance of the work was polished and alluring.

Composer, ‘cellist and teacher Joachim Stutshewsky (1891-1982) was born in the Ukraine to a family of klezmer musicians. He immigrated to Israel in 1938. His “Romance” for solo flute (1956) is an example of the synthesis he endeavored to create of his own musical background with the Yemenite, Ladino and Arabic musical style he was hearing in Israel. Professor Michael Melzer, himself fascinated by the wealth of musical styles from different ethnic groups in Israel, has reworked the piece for three alto recorders, yet carefully preserving the composer’s concept of a single melodic line. This melodic line is passed from one player to the next, to be punctuated by an occasional cluster which rapidly dissipates, restoring the texture to the single thread. The overall effect was poignant, one of sadness but also of hope.

The program included two trio sonatas – one transcribed from J.S.Bach’s organ sonata in D minor BWV 527, the concert ending with a trio sonata by Salamone Rossi Hebreo. The Melzer Consort’s program was thought-provoking, its quality of performance reflecting profound reading into works and a high standard of recorder-playing .

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The PHOENIX Ensemble - In the Green Fields of Scotland

The evening of July 12th 2009 was balmy. Through the large arched windows of the auditorium of the Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies (Mormon University), manicured gardens meet the eye; the background is the Old City of Jerusalem, spread out before us, with its countless square, stone buildings, small towers dotted here and there and the wall surrounding it. The gold on the Dome of the Rock Mosque sparkles in the last rays of daylight as the sky slowly turns from beige to indigo blue.

The PHOENIX Ensemble was presenting “In the Green Fields of Scotland” in the Brigham Young’s series of Sunday Evening Classics. Those performing were Brazilian-born researcher and teacher Myrna Herzog, the ensemble’s founder and musical director on treble and bass viols, Marina Minkin - harpsichord and organ - and soprano Tamar Kleinberger.

‘High in the misty Highlands,
Out by the purple islands,
Brave are the hearts that beat
Beneath Scottish skies.
Wild are the winds to meet you,
Staunch are the friends that greet you,
Kind as the love that shines from fair maiden’s eyes.’

The above verse is taken from “Scotland the Brave”, one of the traditional bagpipe tunes played by Herzog on the treble viol. Herzog’s performance of them was evocative and true to bagpipe style, with the artist adorning the beautiful melodies with a wistful touch of the characteristic drone. Her reading of “Amazing Grace” was moving.

Israeli soprano Tamar Kleinberger has a wide repertoire and has performed widely in Israel, England and Europe. Her years of study in Britain and fine command of British English make her well suited to singing Scottish songs. She uses her stable, silvery voice to convey the gestures of each song, never overstepping the bounds of good taste. The 16th century songs she performed speak of May - the season of love, of fidelity, of parting and of unreciprocated love. Andro Blackhall (c.1535-1609) was the most important of the first generation of post-Reformation Scottish composers. His jolly “Adieu, o desie of delyt” is in the form of a letter from a man to his lady. The anonymous “Let not, I say, the sluggish sleep” has religious content, its words suggesting that one’s soul should be examined before drifting into sleep at night. In this song, Herzog takes the melody of one stanza into the high register of the bass viol, creating an interesting timbre. Her arrangements of all these strophic songs delight the senses, offer instrumental solos and allow for a little ornamentation; she has the bass viol double the melody or add an extra melodic line to the song. Minkin’s fineness of taste and elegant harpsichord technique give the songs an air of delicacy. Unfortunately, not all the words came across clearly. Whether an issue of diction or balance, or both, it would have been helpful to have words of the songs printed on the program.

A pleasing combination was of the cantabile 17th century Scottish song “Tweedside” sung by Kleinberger, followed by Italian composer and violinist Francesco Maria Veracini’s (1690-1768) Scottish Sonata upon Tweedside for viola da gamba and continuo. Veracini was never in Scotland but spent time in London, where Scottish songs were all the craze. Herzog and Minkin gave a contrasted performance of this sonata, starting with its gentle first movement and moving into the abrasive introduction of the second, in which the song is then quoted. The resulting Scozzesse is a clever fusion of Scottish and Italian styles, with the following expressive Largo changing the mood once again. The work, itself, offers both artists opportunities for individual expression and was much enjoyed by the audience.

For a change of atmosphere, Marina Minkin, born in the Ukraine and in Israel since 1981, played an “In Nomine” by the English composer, keyboard player and organ builder John Bull (c.1562-1628). An organ piece of gradual harmonic and contrapuntal development, Minkin’s leisurely pace showed the listener through the text of the “In Nomine”. This work was well suited to the organ of the auditorium.

The concert ended with a group of Scottish folk songs, including the much discussed “Loch Lomond”. The style of Herzog’s settings reflects the fact these songs are “early music”. Her poignant setting of “I’m owre young to marry yet” for voice and viol was a treat.

In this momentary journey, the PHOENIX Ensemble placed before us the fresh greenness of Scotland’s scenery, its history and its poetry, in a concert beautifully presented and worked in fine detail.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Barrocade's "Alla Neapolitana" at the Jerusalem YMCA

Barrocade, the Israeli Baroque Collective, brought its second concert season to a close July 2nd 2009, at the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship of the Jerusalem YMCA with “Neapolitan Sounds”. The ensemble plays without a conductor, all members contributing ideas as to how each work is to be performed.

Neapolitan composers of the early 18th century were famous for their operas. The works heard in this concert, however, remind one of the wonderful instrumental writing of the time. The concert opened with Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s (1710-1736) Sinfonia in F major, scored for strings and continuo. A fitting, Italian-style aperitif, it was played with grace and humor.

Giovanni Paisiello (1740-1816), one of the most successful and influential opera composers of his time, had a colorful life. Educated in Naples, his professional life took him to Vienna, Paris and Russia, but he returned to Naples. He composed more than 80 operas, 40 masses and some instrumental music. Jacob Reuven was the soloist in Paisiello’s Mandolin Concerto in E flat major. (Actually, there is some doubt as to whether this concerto was really composed by Paisiello.) A work of delicacy, the first movement – Allegro maestoso – features several duet passages involving mandolin (Reuven) and violin (Shlomit Sivan), in which both artists collaborated very closely, the violin never overpowering the gentle mandolin. In the second movement - Larghetto grazioso – the ensemble’s bass instruments were a little too heavy for Reuven’s cantabile passages. His tiny cadenza was a pleasing treat. In the final dancelike allegretto, Reuven frolics and glides through the movement with ease and charm.

Pergolesi, himself, was a brilliant violinist. His gift for vocal writing shines through in his forceful yet elegant Violin Concerto in B flat major. Soloist was Israeli violinist and violist Nitai Zori. From the very first notes of the opening Allegro, Zori is commanding in his energy and forthright approach. Playing with virtuosity and temperament, he breathes life into the score, watching his fellow players all the way, using small rests for dramatic effect. In the Largo, Zori, shapes and colors the Siciliano-type line; he follows this with an articulate and brilliant performance of the final Allegro. This was Zori’s first performance on Baroque violin, and a gripping performance it was, too.

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) was the only outsider in the concert, visiting from Venice. His Concerto for Two Mandolins, Strings and Continuo in G major, RV 532, composed some time before 1732, was probably intended for the mandolino, a 6-stringed instrument popular in Venice at the time. Soloists were seasoned performers - Alon Sariel and Jacob Reuven. In the opening Allegro in ritornello form, soloists Sariel and Reuven interact, joining the carefree, lightly crisp tempo. In the Andante movement, in D minor, with the mandolins backed only by pizzicato violins and violas, Sariel and Reuven weave melodic lines, overlap and imitate, their finely coordinated and ornamented phrases crafted with exquisite delicacy. The last movement, also in ritornello form, returns us to the earlier driving rhythms, the two soloists dealing with its intricacies with ease and youthful joy.

After intermission, the concert audience was transported from the Jerusalem YMCA hall to a small venue in Naples, perhaps a restaurant by the port. The lighting may have been turned low and we could have been seated around heavy wooden tables, with handsome Italian waiters pouring us glasses of wine from carafes. We were to hear a selection of Neapolitan songs performed by opera singer - soprano Amalia Ishak. Born in Israel, Ishak has spent time in Italy, studying at the Cherubini Conservatory in Florence. She invites her audience to emote with her, to shed its concert hall formality and join her in the extravagancies of Italian song. She opens with Vincenzo D’Annibale’s “O paese d’o sole” (O Land of Sun.), and, with the nostalgic strains of mandolins suggesting a Mediterranean summer’s day, we join Ishak in her flamboyant presentation of Italian joy, here and there tainted by bitterly disappointed love.
‘Today I am so happy
That I feel like crying.
Is it true, can it be,
Have I returned to Naples?
Am I here?
The train was still in the station
When I heard the first songs of the mandolins.”

Ishak has a large voice, she uses the space of her stage and indulges in the sentiments the songs depict as if her own. Salvatore Cardillo (1874-1947) composed the beautiful Neapolitan song “Core ‘ngrato” (Ungrateful Heart) in 1911 for Enrico Caruso. Ishak’s performance of it is melodramatic but she shows fine control of piano passages.

The ensemble played a vibrant and spirited arrangement of G. Rossini’s (1792-1868) tarantella “La Danza”, much to the enjoyment of the audience. The Barrocade Ensemble had put a lot of time and hard work into the instrumental arrangements of song accompaniments, some of which were adapted from poorly handwritten copies. Some were even played from chord schemes, with the players improvising around them. The end result was most effective.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Israel Camerata Jerusalem "Sacred and Profane". Works by Aharon Harlap, Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel and Felix Mendelssohn

Bringing its 25th season to a festive end, the Israel Camerata Jerusalem presented “Sacred and Profane”, the sixth concert in “The Human Voice” series June 29th 2009 at the Henry Crown Symphony Hall of the Jerusalem Theatre. Commemorating 200 years of Felix Mendelssohn’s birth, the program included two works by the composer, one by his sister Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel, the concert opening with Aharon Harlap’s “Psalms”.

Canadian-born composer Aharon Harlap (b.1941) immigrated to Israel in 1964. The recipient of several awards for composition, he conducts and is a member of faculty at the Jerusalem Academy of Music. Harlap’s “Psalms” were initially composed for soprano, piano and clarinet and first performed in 2002. The performance we heard was the first in its new scoring for strings, clarinet and soprano. Psalm 122 “I rejoiced with those who said to me/ “Let us go to the house of the Lord.”, Psalm 113 “Praise the Lord./ Praise, O servants of the Lord/ Praise the name of the Lord” and Psalm 43 “Vindicate me, o God/ And plead my cause against an ungodly nation;/ Rescue me from deceitful and wicked men” make up the three movements of the work, each different in character. Harlap’s orchestration is masterful, lush and expressive; clarinet and vocal line are both prominent and part of the texture. Psalm 113 was joyful and had jazzy colorings, with Psalm 43 contrasting in its vehemence and poignancy. Israeli soprano Efrat Carmoush, aware of each verbal- and musical gesture, gave a meaningful performance of the work. Her voice boasts color and presence. Clarinetist Ilan Schul’s performance was lyrical and polished.

Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel (1805-1847), Felix Mendelssohn’s elder sister, a fine pianist and composer in her own right who was underappreciated for many years, has since become recognized as a major 19th century composer. Although her career was restrained by early 19th century attitudes to women wanting careers, her oeuvre consists of over 250 Lieder, 125 piano pieces, a string quartet, an overture, a piano trio and cantatas. Goethe had spoken of her as Felix’s “equally gifted sister”. Many of her works were performed in the “Sonntagmusik” (Sunday music, the Mendelssohn family salon concerts which she had herself had revived.) The opportunity to now have her works performed inspired her to write four cantatas from 1831 to 1832. In the Camerata concert, we heard the Israeli premiere of “Hiob” (Job) – a cantata for choir and orchestra, a work of meticulous structure, excellent orchestration and layered choral writing. Fanny Mendelssohn’s strong grounding in late Baroque music (her only son was named Sebastian) makes itself felt. The Chamber Choir of the Jerusalem Academy of Music’s (Stanley Sperber – conductor and musical director) performance was finely chiseled, its training, technique and musicianship giving expression to the rich texturing of the work as well as to the verbal text.

Felix Mendelssohn’s (1809-1847) referred to his setting of Psalm 42 “Wie der Hirsch schreit nach frischem Wasser” (As the Hart Longs for Running Streams) opus 42 composed in 1837, as “my best sacred piece…the best thing I have composed in this manner…” and required that the work be performed with particular tenderness. Built of seven sections, Biron opened with the first, much-loved chorus paced not too fast, the result being a clean, poignant and impressively noble reading of the movement. This was, indeed, a highlight of the concert. In the second section, the superb oboe accompaniment played by Muki Zohar, sets the scene for Carmoush’s expressive treatment of “Meine Seele duerstet nach Gott” (My Soul Thirsts for God). Her German pronunciation is pleasing and clear.

Mendelssohn’s Symphony no. 4 in A major opus 90 “Italian” was begun in 1832, during his two-year stay in Italy, and completed on his return to Berlin. It was inspired by the art, the natural surroundings and the happy temperament of the Italian people. From the outset, the Camerata’s fine woodwind section gave authenticity to the typical Mendelssohn orchestration of this exuberant work. The second movement – Andante con moto – was played with delicacy and charm. In the fourth movement, a saltarello – a Neapolitan dance of hops and leaps - Biron gives Mendelssohn’s dynamics front stage, yet still sketching in fine, filigree melodic lines. Avner Biron is leading the Israel Camerata Jerusalem from strength to strength. His programming is creative, offering orchestral concerts of a high quality that delight his audiences.