Saturday, September 11, 2010

The 2010 Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival, concert September 4th

The 2010 Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival (August 31st to September 11th) centred around a number of themes: the music of Pierre Boulez, anniversaries of Schumann and Chopin (both born 1810) and Wolf (born 1860) and the influence of Brahms on composers of the early 20th century. The audience also heard the premiere of Israeli-born Matan Porat’s “Shooting an Elephant”, a work commissioned by the JICMS. The festival is in its thirteenth year, with pianist Elena Bashkirova as its artistic director.

This writer attended the evening concert of September 9th. It opened with a performance by Robert Holl and Shai Wosner of five of Hugo Wolf’s Moerike Lieder. All 53 Moerike Lieder were composed by Wolf in a manic fervour of creativity between February and November of 1888. Moerike, the Protestant minister, visionary and humanist was fascinated by the paranormal. The Moerike songs, therefore, reflect intensity, richness and the highly colored dramatic world of fin-de-siecle Vienna. Challenging, indeed. Dutch-born bass-baritone Robert Holl creates a mood, colors words and presents the complexity of the emotional content of each song. He takes on board the mystic and contemplative moments at hand in “Auf eine Christblume” (To a Christmas Rose). Holl weaves the grotesque, hallucinatory character of Abschied (Parting) into a small theatrical, dance-punctuated piece, its parody dragging the “critic” through the mire! Holl’s enormous voice is even in all registers. He grips his audience, bringing the text to the stage as theatre. Pianist Shai Wosner, born in Israel, now living in New York, is ever aware of the vocal line, sensitive to the evocative character of the songs, to their play of harmonic color, supportive and sensitive to the texts and to Holl’s reading of them.

Swedish ‘cellist Frans Helmerson and Russian-born Kirill Gerstein (now a USA citizen) performed Brahms’ ‘Cello Sonata no.1 in E minor, opus 38. Composed during 1862 and 1865, Brahms’ title for it was “Sonata for Piano and Violoncello”. In this work of powerful emotion and underlying dark intensity, Gerstein’s performance was confident and accurate, if occasionally too loud for the ‘cello. Helmerson’s playing was openly expressive, inspired and inspiring. Fired by the emotional message of the piece, at the same time coupled with personal humility, Helmerson communicated with- and moved his audience. The artists played along with the wistful, elegant nature of the second movement. Gerstein’s finely chiseled lines and clean passagework came to the fore in the third, fugal movement, both artists bringing the work to a brilliant conclusion.

Anton Webern studied composition under Arnold Schoenberg. His Passacaglia opus 1 was written as his graduation piece in 1908. Opus 1 it is, but many other pieces predate it. (The composer later arranged it for piano 6 hands, but this version has been lost.) A very international ensemble of mostly young players gave the piece a fresh-sounding reading of varied temperaments, the variations ranging from fragile and delicate to orchestral, highly colored and forthright. This performance was a celebration of instrumental timbres and contrasts.

Robert Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro opus 70, composed 1849, was written for either horn, violin or ‘cello and piano. At this JICMF event, we heard it performed on double bass (Nabil Shehata) and piano (Shai Wosner). Born in Kuwait, Nabil Shehata grew up in Germany. In addition to his illustrious performing career, Shehata also conducts. Following the singing, sweeping and kindly nuanced melodic lines of the Adagio, the audience was treated to an energetic, communicative and brilliant performance of the Allegro, with both artists collaborating in fine teamwork. What the performance lacked in brightness, due to the double bass line often placed below that of the piano, was made up by virtuosity, musicality and the joy and charm with which these two fine artists addressed and delighted their audience. Although Schumann composed the work to be played by amateurs in private homes, the work is both highly demanding of the players and a fine concert piece.

The evening’s concert ended with Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F minor opus 34. In its performance we heard Elena Bashkirova (piano), Mihaela Martin (1st violin), Michael Barenboim (2nd violin), Ori Kam (viola) and Alisa Weilerstein (‘cello). Brahms originally composed the work as a string quintet in 1862; Joachim found the work too weighty for strings, so Brahms transcribed it for two pianos. This version did not satisfy Clara Schumann, who suggested bringing back the strings, hence the final version for piano and string quartet, completed in 1864. It is a work that strikes a personally emotional level, boasting harmonic instability, capriciousness and youthful outpourings, yet tinted with underlying Brahmsian dark introspection. The players set it out with large gestures and a sense of urgency as well as lyricism. Romanian-born Mihaela Martin (playing on a 1748 Guadagnini violin) leads well and gives each musical gesture character, shape and meaning. Kam and Weilerstein’s playing is, indeed, impressive, secure and sensitive. The audience was enthusiastic and showed its appreciation. Despite some heaviness and thickness of texture, the performance of Brahms’ F minor Quintet was exhilarating.

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