Sunday, February 7, 2010

"From the Depths" - works of J.S.Bach and Heinrich Schutz performed by The New Israeli Vocal Ensemble and the Barrocade Collective

The New Israeli Vocal Ensemble (musical director Yuval Ben Ozer) joined the Barrocade Collective Tuesday January 26th 2010 at St Andrews Scots Memorial Church in Jerusalem for a concert of mostly Bach works titled “From the Depths”. Guest conductor was Frieder Bernius. Born in Germany in 1947, Bernius has become one of the leaders of the historically informed performance movement, focusing on the balance between vocal and instrumental forces.

The concert opened with J.S.Bach’s (1685-1750) Motet BWV 226 “Der Geist Hilft” (The Spirit Comes to Aid our Weakness) composed for the funeral of the Thomasschule rector J.H.Ernesti in 1729. Composed for double choir, Bach’s scoring calls for strings doubling the first choir and reeds doubling the second. In this performance, however, we heard mostly strings, with Amir Backman on Baroque oboe, with the continuo part (Yizhar Karshon-organ, Alon Portal-violone) providing a solid bass for the motet. The New Israeli Vocal Ensemble’s singing was fresh and flexible, with detached notes making for more articulate enunciation (no mean feat in the acoustics of Scottish Church.)

It was viol-player Amit Tiefenbrunn’s idea to have the Barrocade Ensemble perform a number of J.S.Bach’s fifteen Three-Part Inventions (Bach actually called them Sinfonias), his reason being that they could be played by whatever different instrumental combinations there were present for any given concert. Composed for keyboard for pedagogical use, the Three-Part Inventions first appeared in 1722 together with the Two-Part Inventions in the Clavier Buechlein compiled for Bach’s then young son Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, composed for the purpose of teaching the mastering of the “cantabile style” and as studies in counterpoint, motivic writing and more. Not merely for students, these small gems are worth hearing at the hands of professional musicians. We heard five of them played on strings, theorbo, organ and oboe; articulately drawing out each melodic voice, the play of timbres, textures and light ornamentation created colors and dynamics in elegance and good taste.

In Heinrich Schutz’ (1585-1672) Motet SWV 37, “An den Wassern zu Babel” (By the Waters of Babylon) Psalm 137,for double choir and basso continuo, we heard beautifully crafted phrases and a nice juxtaposition of sections, a reminder that Schutz’s profound approach to sacred texts rides on emotional fervor.

Two J.S.Bach cantatas formed the centerpiece of the concert. The funeral cantata “Actus Tragicus” BWV 106 (God’s Time is the Very Best Time), one of the best known of Bach’s early cantatas, was probably composed in 1707 in Muhlhausen, where the composer served as organist for two years. The texts, consisting of Bible verses and chorale strophes, were drawn together by an anonymous compiler. Bach’s scoring for four-part chorus, two recorders (Katya Polin, Reuvena Hod), two viola da gambas and basso continuo create the soul-searching (but not continuously tragic) soundscape for this unique work. Bernius produced a pleasing and moving performance of the cantata, the intertwining of vocal solos and choral phrases articulate, expressive and richly colored, choir and instruments wedded in a fine balance. David Nortman’s golden vocal color and musicality go hand in hand. Soprano Avigail Gortler’s delightful, stable vocal performance glittering with a touch of ornamentation pleased the audience, as did Noa Doron’s rich, bright alto voice. Outstanding Israeli baritone Yair Polishook, a versatile singer and musician with good stage presence, gave an impressive and compelling reading of the texts. (Polishook’s German pronunciation needs some work.)

Bach’s Cantata BWV 131 “Aus der Tiefen” (Out of the Depths Have I Called), also composed in 1707 or 1708, was composed at the request of Georg Christian Eilmar, the Archdeacon of St. Mary’s in Muhlausen, and a close friend of the composer. It is thought that Eilmar may have been the author of the texts, which are based on Psalm 130 and which include a chorale by Bartholomaus Ringwaldt. Bernius’ tempi allow for word-painting and clear expression of all melodic strands, with languishingly haunting superimposed chorale passages set against arias. Tenor Tal Koch, an musician involved in theatre, composition and original performance, was convincing in expressing the soul’s yearning for the morning.
‘My soul waits for the Lord
From one morning watch until the next.’

The New Israeli Vocal Ensemble is attractive to the listener in that it balances blend with individual vocal color. Frieder Bernius, working with the NIVE and the creative, high quality Barrocade Collective as well as with young Israeli soloists, produced a Baroque concert of beauty and meaning. Baroque oboist Amir Backman’s performance throughout the evening was impressive.

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