Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra performs Alessandro Scarlatti's "Hagar and Ishmael Exiled"

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra presented Alessandro Scarlatti’s (1660-1725) oratorio “Agar et Ismaele esiliati” (Hagar and Ishmael Exiled) November 23rd 2010 at the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship of the Jerusalem International YMCA. Dr. David Shemer, the JBO’s founder and conductor, directed the performance from the harpsichord. Soloists were mezzo-soprano Inbal Hever, sopranos Ye’ela Avital, Keren Motzeri and Anat Edri and bass-baritone Christian Immler (Germany).

Alessandro Scarlatti’s oratorios span the period from 1683 to 1720, reflecting the development of opera of the time. Their texts are based mostly on hagiography (biography of saints or venerated persons) and the Bible. The early oratorios, “Hagar and Ishmael Exiled” (libretto: Giuseppe de Totis) being among them, represent the type of libretto and musical style most characteristic of the late 17th century. We enter the story of Abraham, Sara, Hagar and Ishmael (Genesis, chapter 21) to witness Abraham’s wife Sara insisting that Abraham banish the slave Hagar and her son Ishmael in order to protect their son Isaac’s inheritance. Ishmael was fathered by Abraham before Isaac’s birth, when Sara was still considered barren. Abraham, torn, reluctantly agrees to banish Hagar and Ishmael to the desert, where they almost die of thirst; in the end, on the point of death, they are saved by an angel. In this two-part oratorio - there are no choruses or large orchestral sections (after the overture) - Scarlatti created a compact, tightly constructed work. Many of the arias are accompanied by basso continuo only, creating intimate moments and emphasizing the verbal text. David Shemer, in his program notes, writes of “Hagar and Ishmael Exiled”, composed when Scarlatti was only 24 years old, as the product of the “amazingly profound psychological insight of such a young composer”.

Following the overture – a piece built of slow, brooding, foreboding sections giving listeners time to languish in the dissonances, breaking into energetic sections – Sara (Keren Motzeri) walks purposefully onto the stage. Motzeri’s performance is fluent, musical and technically masterful, her lively melismatic passages propelling her towards key notes and words. Exuding color, freshness and ease, she uses dynamics and melodic shape to create situations and emotions.

Inbal Hever is convincing, empathic and intense as Hagar – a woman at times resigned to her fate, at times angry - her vocal color pleasing, if a little understated at times. Accompanied by the lower stringed instruments, Hever portrays Hagar now falling into the depths of despair:
‘Here the rays of the sun
Are darts lit with death.
Ah, it seems that here heaven
Is ablaze with the fierce heat of the underworld…’

Ye’ela Avital’s portrayal of the child Ishmael was appealing and delicate, her singing floating and mellifluous. She and Hever communicate in their common fate, the tragedy of her role spiraling into the scene where Ishmael, dying of thirst in the desert, hallucinates and calls out. Avital makes use of small pauses to evoke her waning strength.
‘In these burning lands
I feel my strength succumb,
If heaven holds no relief for my torment..’

David Shemer speaks of Abraham as torn between his wife’s demands and his own feelings towards Hagar and Ishmael (his son); he considers Abraham to be the real victim of the tragedy. Christian Immler’s portrayal of Abraham is, indeed, fraught with suffering. His use of vocal color is gripping, depicting the different stages of Abraham’s complex predicament. No newcomer to the Israeli concert scene, Immler sings with conviction, his pleasing voice boasting a palette rich in colors and warmth.

Entering the hall from the back, young Israeli soprano Anat Edri’s appearance as the Angel swept the audience off its feet. Edri is expressive, competent, and confident, her creamy voice resonant and forthright, rich and effortless.

David Shemer’s vision of Alessandro Scarlatti’s oratorio “Hagar and Ishmael Exiled” is one of many dimensions. Singers enter and leave the stage, providing the effect of movement and change. One’s eyes are, naturally, focused on the singers in such a performance, but that is not to say that the listener was not constantly aware of the finest of detail and the exquisitely soave elegance of each and every phrase played by the instrumentalists. The players were clearly aware of the fragile textures and details in the score; under Shemer’s direction, the JBO provided the ideal environment for high quality singing. A superb piece of musical drama, an unforgettable performance of the JBO and a treat for lovers of Baroque music at its best.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Scenes from Giuseppe Sinico's opera "I Moschettieri" performed at the Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies

Giuseppe Sinico was born in Trieste in 1836 and died there in 1907. Of Jewish origin, he composed “Inno di San Giusto”, a sort of Triestine anthem. He taught voice and directed the Reyer Singing School and was choral conductor at the Trieste Synagogue and the Greek Basilica. There was some talk of his having been James Joyce’s voice teacher; at any rate, Joyce uses Sinico’s name in his book “The Dubliners”. (The character is, however, a certain Captain Sinico, the captain of a merchant ship and not a musician.) “I Moschettieri” (The Musketeers) (1859), based on Alexandre Dumas senior’s “Les Trois Mousquetaires”, was Sinico’s first opera.

Scenes from the opera were presented at a concert in the Sunday Evening Classics series at the Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies (Mormon University) November 21st, 2010. This performance was the sixth and last event of the “Non Solo Verdi” Project, in which Professor Jehoash Hirshberg (Department of Musicology, Hebrew University, Jerusalem), together with his research team – Dr. Na’ama Ramot, Sonya Mazar, Ramona Paul, and Meir Stern - had researched, edited and revived twelve forgotten Italian operas of the 213 written between 1860 and 1870, the decade of Italy’s unification. The project was supported by a research grant from the Israel Science Foundation. Pianist and vocal coach Sonya Mazar (b. Ukraine,1971) served as musical director and pianist for the project.

Professor Hirshberg, dressed as a judge, complete with a dramatic silvery wig, introduced the evening’s program. The auditorium of the Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies was filled to capacity with people interested to familiarize themselves with a new opera, to take time out from reality and indulge themselves in the extravagances of 19th century opera. Sonya Mazar played the overture, its foreboding atmosphere punctuated with lush cantabile melodies. The opera plot focuses on the musketeers’ struggle with the cunning aristocrat Miledi, Athos’ wife, a ruthless murderer. The fleur-de-lis tattooed on her shoulder by the hangman is a sign of her wicked past. To summarize the plot, Athos, having discovered the ill-fated fleur-de-lis tattoo (perhaps more acceptable today than 150 years ago) after marrying Miledi, throws her into the sea. The musketeer d’Artegnan (Yevgeni Nezhnets) declares his love to Miledi (yes, she survived the ordeal), under his breath asking forgiveness from his true love, Alice. Miledi demands that he kill Vades as a sign of his love to her. The love letters she thought were from Vades had actually been written by D’Artegnan. When D’Artignan sees the fleur-de-lis, he realizes that the “lady” is Athos’ wife. Furious with him for tricking her, she wants to stab him with her dagger, D’Artegnan threatens her with his sword, she faints (standard female strategy) and he escapes. In another scene, Athos, his face masked, captures Miledi in an inn, reveals his identity to her and forces her at dagger-point to surrender the royal decree that had given her freedom to act till then as she wished. Athos (Andrei Trifonov) sings a song of triumph, this leading into a richly-colored duet with Miledi (Julya Plakhina).

Things only get worse. Alice, the queen’s chambermaid and confidante (Valeria Fubini-Ventura), who is in love with D’Artegnan, receives a message to meet him before he leaves for battle. She is seen running from the palace. Miledi has poisoned Alice as a revenge to D’Artegnan. The instrumental accompaniment forewarns the listeners and evokes the mounting, stressful situation. Miledi hides in an inn; her vengeance has brought no peace to her heart and she is haunted by her victims. D’Artegnan and Athos burst into the room at the inn, preventing her escape. It is time for Miledi’s come-uppances. D’Artegnan wants to kill her but Athos stops him, ushering in the judge, who is no other than Jehoash Hirshberg himself. With a nonchalant wave of the hand, the judge agrees to the verdict, condemning Miledi to death.

Baritone Andrei Trifonov, born in Siberia, played Athos with intensity and drama. Mezzo-soprano Julya Plakhina was born in the former Soviet Union. Her portrayal of Miledi was expressive and feminine, he voice rich and expansive. Soprano Valeria Fubini-Ventura, born in Italy, has performed with “Non Solo Verdi” since its inception. Playing the role of Alice, she combines delicate, shapely melodic lines with her appealing stage presence. Tenor Yevgeni Nezhynets, played a convincing D’Artegnan. Nezhynets is a soloist with the Israeli Opera. Sonya Mazor has a fine sense of the genre. She holds the production together, her artistic and tasteful playing not only supporting her singers but creating the atmosphere of the story, warning, describing and delighting. She never oversteps the boundaries of good taste. Francoise Coriat’s attractive costuming added much to the visual enjoyment of the evening.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Leon Botstein conducts the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra in a concert of music from Vienna at the turn of the 20th century

The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra opened its 2010-2011 Great Vocal Series and Four Musical Cities series in the Henry Crown Auditorium, Jerusalem Theatre, November 17th 2010, with a concert of music written in Vienna around the turn of the 20th century. It was directed by the JSO’s conductor laureate Leon Botstein. The concert was dedicated to the memory of violinist Shimon Mishori; Mishori, the JSO’s concertmaster for many years, passed away November 16th.

The concert opened with Anton Webern’s (1883-1945) Passacaglia, opus 1 (1908). Not by any means Webern’s first composition, his Opus 1 was the last and most ambitious work written under the guidance of Arnold Schoenberg. Although rooted in the nominal key of D minor, Webern moves into shifting, vague and sometimes vague tonalities. The work begins with a pizzicato theme on which the variations are based. Botstein directs the orchestra and his listeners through the 20-odd variations, each different in orchestration, temperament and texture, presenting the tense, compelling, late Romantic orchestral sound with the same clarity as the moments in which the orchestra takes on chamber proportions, occasionally reducing to a disquieting, introspective, single, muted melodic line. If Webern’s interest was “to recognize sounds, to experience them sensuously…” Maestro Botstein and the JSO’s lush, fresh and richly-colored reading of the work was true to the composer’s intention.

Some of Gustav Mahler’s (1860-1911) “Kindertotenlieder” (Songs on the Death of Children) were composed in 1901, others in 1904; the order in which the songs were written is not clear. The German poet Friedrich Ruckert (1788-1866) wrote over 400 Kindertotenlieder, of which Mahler chose five for his song cycle, choosing those that focus on the idea of light.

‘Now the sun will rise as brightly
As if the night had brought no cause for grief.
The grief was mine alone,
The sun shines for all alike..’

Ruckert had lost a son. Mahler lost a daughter in 1907, that is, after he had composed the song cycle, but his own childhood was clouded in the tragedy of death, with eight of his siblings having died, including his favorite brother Ernst; Ernst happened to be the name of Ruckert’s son who had died. Israeli-born mezzo-soprano Edna Prochnik, an opera singer who performs in Europe, the USA and Israel, includes the Mahler song cycles in her concert repertoire. Her deep reading into the text made for a compelling performance, one of good taste, to be enhanced by her fine diction. Prochnik’s voice boasts a varied and richly-colored lower range together with a powerful and dramatic higher register. She contends well with the orchestra, phrasing naturally, creating poignant, haunting moments and saving her vocal strength for the more emphatic and tragic climaxes. Above all, Prochnik works the verbal- and musical text together with Botstein, Botstein using his orchestral palette to color and reinforce the gesture of each moment. The storm of the fifth song gives way to that magical appearance of light, as issued in by the glockenspiel, with the childlike naivete of the flute melody, the work finding its tranquility and finality in the D major cadence. It was an impressive and moving performance.

Anton Bruckner’s (1824-1896) symphonies have sometimes been referred to as “cathedrals of sound”, a pertinent remark, considering the fact that the composer was from a pious Catholic family and had served as cathedral organist before leaving Linz for Vienna. In Vienna, his life became a series of controversies and strife, his symphonies, radical in scope, sometimes received with hostility. From 1889 to 1896, Bruckner worked on his 9th Symphony, but died suddenly, leaving an unfinished symphony of three complete movements, with sketches for a finale. As luck would have it, Bruckner’s 9th Symphony was greeted with mostly enthusiastic reviews when premiered posthumously in 1903. It is an elegy, a personal and religious work, a reflection on life and death. Botstein, conducting the symphony (without a baton) brings out its orchestral sonorities, the large, powerful, uncompromising expression of the brass section contrasting with lyrical, thought-provoking moments. Maestro Botstein’s performance of the work is noble and sincere, his transitions are sensitively paced,his mix of orchestral textures never defying clarity.

Well programmed, this was an interesting, inspiring and rewarding evening for those who enjoy good orchestral playing. The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra pleased the audience with its vitality. The JSO’s program notes are detailed and informative and included excerpts from an article of Botstein’s on Bruckner.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Natalie Rotenberg and Alexander Rosenblatt play harpsichord music in "Fancy for Two"

One does not hear many concerts performed on two harpsichords here in Israel. In fact, pianist and director of the Eden-Tamir Center (Ein Kerem, Jerusalem) Alexander Tamir, introducing artists Natalie Rosenberg and Alexander Rosenblatt at a concert of “Fancy for Two” at the Eden-Tamir Center on November 6th 2010, claimed that this would be the first recital of its kind at the venue; the Eden-Tamir Center is now into its 42nd concert season. In this concert, we heard the harpsichord not as a member of a continuo section, but as a solo instrument, played with four hands, as a duo with equal roles in works written for two instruments and also in works adapted for the two instruments by Rotenberg and Rosenblatt.

Born in Vitebsk, Belarus, Natalie Rotenberg emigrated to Israel in 1999. A composer and arranger, she plays piano, harpsichord and positif organ, is involved with the Musica Eterna Vocal Ensemble, the Ankor Choir and the In Mixto Genere Ensemble. Natalie performs and records; she teaches harpsichord at the High School of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, where she also works as a vocal coach. She regularly performs in festivals in Israel, in the Ukraine, in Belgium, etc., and is a recipient of the Keren Sharett American-Israel Foundation Cultural Foundation Scholarship.

Pianist Alexander Rosenblatt, born in Sverdlovsk (former USSR), graduated in piano performance from the Mussorgsky Music Academy, after which he taught music theory and composition and also performed. He emigrated to Israel in 1990. Having studied harpsichord maintenance and restoration in Germany and Holland and early music performance in Czechoslovakia, Alexander performs and records with various early music ensembles. He teaches harpsichord performance and is curator of early keyboard instruments at Bar Ilan University and is a member of the Fellowship of Makers and Researchers of Historical Instruments (Oxford).

The artists performed on a replica of a French double-manual harpsichord, a large instrument built by Knud Kaufmann (Brussels, 1974), to which Rosenblatt has added a transposing keyboard. This harpsichord was recently donated to the Eden-Tamir Music Center by the Rieger family in memory of Ro’i. The second instrument is a Zuckermann Flemish harpsichord, assembled by Edmond Smagge (c.1976), which Rosenblatt has completely rebuilt with parts from the harpsichord workshop of Gerrit Klop (Garderen, Holland); Rosenblatt studied harpsichord-building with Klop in 1991.

The concert opened with J.S.Bach’s Concerto for Two Harpsichords in C major BWV 1061a, probably written during Bach’s time in Cothen. Richly textured and displaying density, with the instruments constantly switching roles of solo and tutti, the work was given an exhilarating reading by the artists, opening with a movement rife with complexity and festive energy. The second movement - Adagio overro Largo – singing, ornamented and elegant, was followed by a well-paced and articulate fugue.

We then heard two short so works by Antoine Forqueray (1672- 1745). A court musician, Forqueray was one of the foremost viola da gamba players of his time, representing a new school of French viol-playing under the influence of Italian taste. After his death, his son, Jean-Baptiste Forqueray, published some of his works. A number of his suites were transcribed from for keyboard from the original viol version, with the solo melody given to the right hand and a more highly embellished bass line to the left hand. The transcriptions, however, preserve the original range, being placed within the middle- and lower registers of the harpsichord, the titles of the pieces, having probably been added by son Jean-Baptiste. Rotenberg’s effortless playing highlighted the improvisational character and unusual textures of “La Rameau”. Rosenblatt chose to play “La Couperin”, an enigmatic piece built of weighty blocks of chords locked together with melodic fragments, evoking the intensity of heavy bowing of the viol.

“Fancy for Two to Play”, from which this concert took its title, is a work for four hands by English organist Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656), to be played either on organ or virginal. Most of Tomkins’ prolific output comes from his time as organist and master of choristers at Worcester Cathedral. This delicate “mood” piece (played on one harpsichord) is a fine example of the composer’s mastery in contrapuntal writing.

Rotenberg played D.Scarlatti’s Sonata in D major K.96 “La Chasse” (The Hunt) using the harpsichord’s lute register, its plucked effect somewhat detracting from the brightness of the brassy fanfares and galloping of horses associated with hunting. And on the subject of the lute, Rosenblatt, also utilizing the lute register of the Flemish harpsichord, performed the Sarabande from J.S.Bach’s Suite for Lute in E minor BWV 996. The E minor Suite, the composer’s earliest work for lute, written for the Baroque lute, may also have been performed on a “Lautenwerk” or lute-harpsichord, of which none of the original instruments have survived. This strange instrument was reputed to imitate the lute’s timbre and delicacy. Rosenblatt’s reading of the Sarabande was pensive and expressive, his gentle flexing the tempo lending a spontaneous quality to the beauty and fragility of the piece.

At this point in the program, Alexander Rosenblatt revealed his emotional need to be a singer, informing the audience of his intention to sing a sad song - “Lasciatemi morire” (Let me die) from Claudio Monteverdi’s pastoral tragedy “Arianna”. Natalie Rotenberg’s arrangement of it offered Rosenblatt the opportunity of singing the most heart-rending phrase wherever it appeared, with Rotenberg filling in the rest of the vocal melody instrumentally along with the harpsichord accompaniment. The audience appreciated this whimsical moment.
‘Let me die,
And who do you think can comfort me
In such harsh a fate…’

The Catalan composer and conductor Fernando J.Obradors (1897-1945) wrote many settings of Spanish folk poetry. “Con amores, la mi madre” (With love, oh mother) is a resetting of an early Baroque text by Juan de Anchieta, a composer at the court of Queen Isabella of Castile. Rotenberg’s colorful, forthright and competent singing of it, against the “plucked” guitar-type accompaniment, was in keeping with the saucy, Spanish mood of the piece.

The concert ended with Rosenblatt and Rotenberg’s arrangement of five choruses from G.F.Handel’s “Israel in Egypt”. The oratorio was penned in 1738, its premiere being in 1739. The artists’ ambitious undertaking meant arranging one of the most colorful, descriptive and dramatic works written for instrumental ensemble, double choir and soloists for two harpsichords. They did, indeed, manage to create a rich, intense and varied canvas, presenting the power of “And their cry”, depicting the horror and fear of “He sent a thick darkness”, the savage message of “He smote all the first-born”, the majesty of “He rebuked the Red Sea” and the rolling, relentless billows of the sea closing over Pharoah’s army in “But the waters overwhelmed their enemies”. A daring idea well handled !

The hall of the Eden-Tamir Center is ideal for a harpsichord recital, its acoustic projecting every musical idea and gesture, inviting the audience to be involved. This was a concert of interest, variety and excellence, offering listeners the best of repertoire for the instrument along with some new ideas.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Barrocade Ensemble opens its 2010-2011 season with a concert focusing on the viola da gamba

The Barrocade Ensemble recently opened its 2010-2011 season, its Jerusalem concert taking place at the Khan Theatre November10th, with a concert titled “Tous les matins du monde” (All the World’s Mornings). The title is that of a novel written by Pascal Quignard in 1991, with Alain Vorneau directing the screen adaptation of a film of the same name. It is the story of the French composer and viol player Sainte-Colombe, its title referring to the fact that “each day dawns once”. Jordi Savall plays the sound track of the film. Viol player and instrument builder Amit Tiefenbrunn talked of this Barrocade concert being dedicated to the viola da gamba as a solo- or accompanying instrument as well as in ensembles. The Barrocade Ensemble, composed of early music specialists, performs mostly without a conductor, with musical- and administrative issues shared equally among ensemble members.

The concert opened with four of Giovanni Gabrieli’s (c.1557-1612) “Canzone per sonare” for four viols from a collection issued by Alessandro Raverii in 1608. Attractive examples of the light polyphonic style that had developed during the 16th century from the French chanson, the Barrocade quartet’s playing of them lacked warmth of sound and was somewhat bland.

Things livened up, however, with Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber von Bibern’s (1644-1704) Sonata for Trumpet and Strings in D major. A violin virtuoso, Biber composed and published extensively, being best known for his violin music and his use of scordatura (non-standard tuning of the violin) but his interest in innovative contrapuntal- and melodic invention is also evident in his works for the trumpet. Biber’s first published set of ensemble music, the “Sonatae tam aris, quam aulis servientes” (Sonatas as Much for the Alter as for the Table), contains twelve works for trumpets and strings, two of them being scored for one trumpet and strings. Yuval Shapiro, playing a Baroque trumpet, graced the string ensemble with his splendid velvety tone, playing with the entertaining metrical contrasts of the piece, soloing but also blending with the strings. He plays an American replica of a Nurenberg natural trumpet.

G.P.Telemann (1681-1767) composed six quartets for flute and continuo in 1730; the unscrupulous French publisher Le Clerc went and published them without the composer’s consent. Undaunted, the composer reworked and enriched them when visiting Paris in 1738, the result being the six “Paris” Quartets which constitute some of the finest Baroque chamber music there is. The Paris Quartet no.6 in E minor introduces French dance rhythms and beautiful melodic writing. Genevieve Blanchard (Baroque flute), Tal Arbel (viol) and Shlomit Sivan Jacobi’s (flute) performance was imbued with French delicacy, Sivan Jacobi ever careful to match, converse- and blend with Blanchard, and vice-versa. This was chamber music at its best, with virtuoso playing never overshadowing the work’s mix of temperament and elegance.

Marain Marais (1656-1728), the central figure of the French school of bass viol composers and a musician at Louis XIV’s court, was one of very many composers to have composed variations to the La Folia theme. Portuguese in origin meaning “mad” or “empty-headed”, La Folia was a fast dance until the 1670’s, adopting a slower pace after that time. Marain Marais composed his La Folia variations at age 21. His published version of “Les Folies d’Espagne” omitted some of the technically difficult variations that appear in the original manuscript, probably to encourage less virtuoso players to buy the book. Tal Arbel and Amit Tiefenbrunn playing bass viols, with Yizhar Karshon on harpsichord, gave a varied and colorful performance of the work in all its “Spanish” moods, the viol players each taking the opportunity to present the more solo role, the work’s poignant moments as thrilling as its energetic ones.

Francois Couperin, also a musician at the court of Louis XIV, wishing to cater to the fashion of Italian taste in France at the time, wrote (and performed) “La Sultane” under an Italian name, claiming the piece to be that of a musician in the service of the King of Sardinia. Somewhat of an enigma, scholars are not sure when this quartet sonata was composed or who the titular “sultaness” might have been. At any rate, despite Couperin’s intention, the work remains French in flavor, its two bass viol parts independent of the continuo bass. The players, leaning gently into its dissonances, gave the piece a sonorous and suave performance.

Giuseppe Torelli (1658-1709) was one of Bologna’s finest violinists and a composer of concertos. Bologna, being home to a number of virtuoso trumpeters, was developing a rich tradition in trumpet-playing. Around 1690, Torelli began writing works for trumpet. His Concerto in D was probably performed on feast days at the San Petronio Basilica. Barrocade’s fresh reading of the piece featured Yuval Shapiro playing the solo, the Baroque trumpet’s warm, expressive sound no indication as to its tough technical challenges!

Soprano Yeela Avital gave the aria “Hark!” from Henry Purcell’s (1659-1695) “The Fairy Queen” an energetic, joyful performance; although not all words were totally clear, Avital’s onomatopoeic description of the flapping of wings added charm and humor.
‘Hark! now the echoing air a triumph sings.
And all around pleas’d cupids clap their wings.’

The evening’s program ended with Yeela Avital and Barrocade performing G.F.Handel’s (1685-1733) cantata “Tra le fiamme” HWV170 (Into the Flames) (1708), one of the finest cantatas written when Handel was in Rome. These cantatas would have been performed in private homes. “Tra le fiamme” tells the allegorical story of Icarus who, with the wings made for him by Daedalus his father, flies too near the sun. Avital presents the emotions and detail of the story convincingly. She and the ensemble address its drama and urgency, building up to Aria 3 where Icarus is flying in the air, but also flying out of control. The voice (Avital) and flute (Blanchard) duet, evoking the sense of flying and weightlessness, created a superb and evocative moment.

The Barrocade Ensemble’s players have studied and performed in Europe, returning to Israel, the most recent returnee being the very outstanding viol player Tal Arbel. Mention should be made of Yizhar Karshon’s continuo playing which is always reliable, tasteful and interesting.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Carmel Quartet presents "Family Portraits" - Felix Mendelssohn and Fanny Hensel (Mendelssohn) - at the Jerusalem Music Centre

The Carmel Quartet - violinists Rachel Ringelstein and Lia Raikhlin, violist Yoel Greenberg, 'cellist Tami Waterman - opened its 2010-2011 and fourth season of “Strings and More” commented concerts with “Family Portraits”, a discussion of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) and his sister Fanny Hensel (Mendelssohn) (1805-1847). Presented three times in Hebrew, this writer attended the English language lecture-concert on November 3rd 2010 at the Jerusalem Music Centre.

Violist Yoel Greenberg set the scene with information about the Mendelssohn family – a family with abundant talent that had overcome racial boundaries, taking a leading part in German culture. To this end, Abraham and Leah Mendelssohn, believing that Jews should assimilate, converted to Lutheranism in 1816, together with their four children. The Mendelssohn family provided the ideal cultural environment for their children – with private tutors, education in the arts, languages and the sciences and trips to European capitals. Both Felix and Fanny were both highly educated by the age of 11. Felix, at age nine, gave his first public appearance, playing the solo of a Dussek piano concerto. Fanny, at age 13, learned to play the whole of J.S.Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier in honor of her father’s birthday. On the subject of a musical career, however, their father wrote to Fanny that for her it “can and must only be an ornament”.

Felix Mendelssohn was a phenomenon – a prolific composer, an outstanding pianist and improviser, he painted beautifully (painting scenes from his tours around Europe), showed literary talent, spoke a number of languages, translating and editing, played chess, etc. and he was endowed with a sense of humor. Greenberg stressed the fact that Felix was encouraged to make public appearances, was taken around Europe to meet important cultural figures such as Goethe, for whom he performed, whereas Fanny, as the daughter of well-to-do people, led a more private musical life. Felix, however, was proud of Fanny’s musical accomplishments, even publishing some of her works under his name, later revealing them to be hers. Fanny herself composed prolifically – some 400 works - but was always very involved in Felix’s oeuvre, revising and correcting many of his works. Fanny, however, did have exposure of her works and performance in the private ladies’ salon, the salon being quite sizable, with guests numbering up to 250.

When she was 17, Fanny met Wilhelm Hensel, a young artist of great promise. Hensel, later to become Fanny’s husband, made a sketch of the members of their circle in the form of a wheel. The spokes show members of the society; Hensel sketched himself as flying in at the top, making his way into the circle. Felix is seen as the centre of the wheel. Felix, was, indeed, the focus of the family, his brilliance and fame being proof of Germany’s acceptance of the family into the country’s cultural scene. One of the questions in Yoel Greenberg’s discussion was whether Felix’s success was a hindrance to Fanny’s musical achievement. It seems, however, that the problems of gender and social status were what kept her musical activity more secluded than Felix’s and prevented her from enjoying the right to publish her works. Felix and Fanny were very close spirits, Fanny being Felix’s muse and confidante, the ultimate authority when it came to his compositions. She was involved in the creative process of every one of his works, correcting them and offering him advice.

In the afternoon of May 14th 1847, Fanny was rehearsing Felix Mendelssohn’s cantata “The First Walpurgis Night” with her small choir when she collapsed, dying a few hours later. Her last musical activity was, symbolically, dedicated to her connection with Felix. Felix was plunged into despair at Fanny’s death. He was unable to compose for months following the tragedy; he was only able to draw. He himself was to die in a similar manner in November of the same year.

The Carmel Quartet performed two quartets, the first being Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel’s String Quartet in E flat major (1834). Dedicated to Beethoven, it begins unconventionally with a slow movement - a singing, personal piece - whereby Hensel, not obliged to cater to the conventions of an opening movement in sonata form, presents a fantasia whose two themes freely mix in other melodic ideas. The second movement – Allegretto – bears the Mendelssohn stamp of warmth, lightness, fantasy and well-being, its fugue constituting the middle section reminding us of her and Felix’s admiration of Bach. The third movement is a lyrical songful Romance, a piece reflecting the composer’s use of drama, lyricism and contrast. The joyful, lilting Allegro molto vivace demonstrates Hensel’s fine sense of instrumentation and layering.

Felix Mendelssohn composed his String Quartet in F minor opus 80 in July of 1847 as a Requiem to his sister Fanny. His last major work, the work is that of an anguished, changed person, a man beset with pain and grief. Greenberg referred to motifs in the first movement – Allegro vivace assai – as those of tremors and shrieks. The first theme evokes a sense of trembling, contrasted by a somber second theme, with the bleak atmosphere returning after a temporary respite. The second movement is a kind of “dance of death”, its ghostly trio peppered with jarring accents. Some of the work’s heaviness lifts in the third movement – a long, elegiac Adagio – where despair mingles with moments of happiness expressed in a lyrical, songlike melody. In the fourth movement, the composer returns to his rage and grief. This final movement is a virtuosic piece, making great demands on all players, especially on the first violin.

Musicologist Yoel Greenberg’s presentation is clear, eloquent, amusing and always interesting. His talks place emphasis on social, historical and biographical detail, leaving detailed musical analysis to other forums. Musical motifs, however, are demonstrated before the quartet performs a complete work, guiding the listener as to key melodies and ideas. Other members of the quartet read, quote and present small vignettes. Established in 1999, the illustrious Carmel Quartet reads deeply into the musical text of each work, offering its audience performance of the highest quality. “Family Portraits” was a thought-provoking lecture-concert. Greenberg’s talks are always well researched. The audience was both moved and reminded of the importance of exposing Fanny Hensel Mendelssohn’s music. The event was well attended, with English-speaking Jerusalem music lovers there to enjoy and appreciate an interesting and meaningful evening at the JMC.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The PHOENIX Early Music Ensemble opens its 2010-2011 season with Beethoven's Scottish Songs opus 108 and the Gassenhauer Trio

The PHOENIX Early Music Ensemble, under its director and founder Dr. Myrna Herzog, opened the 2010-2011 concert season with “Beethoven in Scotland”, presenting Beethoven’s Scottish Lieder and his Piano Trio no. 4 in B flat major (Gassenhauer) opus 11. The Jerusalem concert took place October 30th at the Eden-Tamir Center, Ein Karem. Performing were mezzo-soprano Karin Shifrin, Yasuko Hirata (violin), Myrna Herzog (‘cello) and Alex Rosenblatt playing on the recently acquired Baas fortepiano (Paris,1800) which he had, personally, restored.

Between 1809 and 1820 L.van Beethoven (1770-1827) composed settings for 179 folk song melodies, the majority of them Irish, Scottish and Welsh. Twenty Five Scottish Songs opus 108, for voices, violin, ‘cello and piano, were published in London and Edinburgh in 1818 and in Berlin in 1822. The arrangements were commissioned by the Scottish publisher and folk song collector George Thomson, whose aim was to cater to the taste of musical amateurs interested in singing and playing folk music. Thomson started out as neither publisher nor businessman; he had been a clerk of the Board of Trustees for the Encouragement of Literature and Manufactures in Scotland. He was forced into the publishing business by his plans to rescue the Scottish folk song, to “furnish a collection of all the fine airs, both of the plaintive and lively kind, unmixed with trifling and inferior ones…”. He had offered various composers a part in the challenge, the best known of those who had obliged being Haydn and Beethoven.

The audience at the Eden-Tamir Music Centre was offered the rare treat of hearing the songs as they would have been performed in Beethoven’s time. The Baas fortepiano, or square piano, was an instrument of a kind that would have been found in the homes of musical families. Hirata and Herzog played Baroque ‘cellos, these instruments still having been made till after the turn of the 19th century, the two string players using classical (or transitional) bows, these being copies of bows from the late 18th century.

Beethoven’s Scottish (and other folk) songs have unjustly been pushed into the background of the composer’s oeuvre. Beethoven, however, did not view them as of poorer quality, referring to them as “compositions” rather than “settings”. Thomson repeatedly requested him to rework and simplify his accompaniments, but Beethoven was unwilling to do so, claiming that “any partial change alters the character of the composition”. One song Beethoven did grudgingly consent to change was “Faithful Johnnie”, with the second version’s instrumental ensemble punctuating the change of voices with a recurring interlude. Its richly textured accompaniment cushioned Shifrin’s expressive singing of the dramatic line.

‘When will you come again, my faithful Johnnie,
When will you come again?
“When the corn is gathered
And the leaves are withered,
I will come again, my sweet bonnie,
I will come again”.

Then winter’s winds will blow, my faithful Johnnie,
Then winter’s winds will blow.
“Though the day be dark with drift,
That I cannot see the lift,
I will come again, my sweet bonnie,
I will come again”.

Then will you meet me here, my faithful Johnnie,
Then will you meet me here?
“Though the night be Halloween,
When the fearful sights are seen,
I would meet thee here, my sweet and bonnie,
I would meet thee here!”

Scottish folk songs mostly tell of war or love, often of both in the same song, and bloody wars the Scots did fight. Such a song is that which opened the concert – “The Lovely Lass of Inverness” (1816), a Highland drama to words of Robert Burns. The instrumentalists set the scene with an intense and bleak sonority. Karin Shifrin’s compelling, weighty timbre matches the bleak atmosphere and allows the story to unfold. Inspired by a visit to Culloden Moor, Burns tells the grim story of a young woman who has lost her father and three brothers there in the battle of 1746. In the strophic song “Dim, dim is my eye”(1815) to a text by William Brown (1590-1645) Shifrin’s performance of the beautiful legato Scottish melody was moving. “Bonnie laddie, Highland laddie” (1815) (Beethoven later used the melody as a theme for variations) poses questions regarding the battle of Waterloo, and he uses a drone, evocative of the Scottish bagpipes, echoing in the background.

The love songs, many telling of longing, cheating, suffering and broken hearts, were convincing and entertaining. Shifrin presents the texts with warmth and humor, her pronunciation faithful to that of Scottish airs, her facial expression hinting at messages “written” between lines of the texts. In “Farewell to the muse” (1818) to words by Sir Walter Scott, the poet bemoans his life without his “Enchantress”; the melody, in contrast, presents a jolly, leaping ditty, with Shifrin taking its characteristic large vocal leaps effortlessly. “O Mary, at thy window be!” (1817), to a poem by Robert Burns, evokes Scottish dance rhythms. In his setting of William Smyth’s “Again my lyre” (1815) Beethoven embellishes the song with a small vocal cadenza.

Then there are the Scottish songs suggesting good times and revelry, probably doused with a good shot of Scottish whisky. In “O sweet were the hours” to a poem of William Smyth, the ensemble makes capital of mood- and tempo changes, with the fortepiano suggesting the ticking of a clock. Their performance of Beethoven’s setting of Henry Carey’s “Sally in our alley” (1817) chose a rollicking, suggestive approach to the song, the mix of rhythmic ideas adding to its energy and lighthearted atmosphere. The original Sally may have been Sally Priddon, a famous courtesan and inhabitant of Mother Whyburn’s bawdy house, but there is also a possibility Carey had dedicated the poem to his own wife, Sarah. It seems PHOENIX chose the former candidate!

Beethoven’s Piano Trio no.4 in B flat major opus 11 (Gassenhauer), composed 1798, originally scored for clarinet, ‘cello and piano, was then published, with minor alterations, for violin as the treble instrument. Hearing it performed on Baroque strings with the Baas fortepiano meant challenging the audience to free itself of associations with conventional recordings and of all preconceptions of how chamber music of 1800 is played nowadays. We were invited to hear and examine new timbres and sound relationships. These instruments, having less volume, however, waste no time in reminding us that this is, indeed, chamber music, personal and intimate, but with much to say. The three players find themselves on an equal footing. The Baas instrument, interestingly, with its mix of tonal color, boasts its own gregarious, untamed sound; all three instrumentalists meet and match, with each part holding onto its individuality of expression. And here is Beethoven opening with an atypically positive, bouncy and unburdened first movement, entertaining and tricking the listener with his changes of tonality. The middle movement – Adagio – is solid and serious, with occasional gentle hints in the minor middle section, at the darker side of the composer’s moods. The third movement variations are based on a jolly and folksy melody popular at the time, quoted from Joseph Weigl’s (1777-1846) opera “The Corsair”. The PHOENIX players were as entertained by the variations as was their audience - these variations offer ideas of improvisation, caprice, a canon, a funeral march, one variation just for piano, one a duet for violin and ‘cello, with Beethoven eventually reaching the point where he dismembers the subject, pulling out all the plugs to bring the final moments to a dancing, carefree close.

Myrna Herzog has been dreaming of performing Beethoven’s Scottish songs for many years. Never afraid of deviating from mainstream musical thinking and practice, she offers her audience an enriching musical experience in this concert and the chance to hear this wonderful repertoire. A risk-taker by nature, she stands firm ground, however, when it comes to choosing her fellow musicians. Yasuko Hirata’s experience, reliability and good taste are ever evident, Herzog’s viola da gamba has been temporarily laid aside for her to celebrate Beethoven on the ‘cello and Alex Rosenblatt offers us the new soundscape of the Baas fortepiano, exploring its possibilities and daring personality with freedom, energy and musicality. The ensemble’s playing of the Scottish songs was exhilarating, rich and continuously interesting, their performing of the Gassenhauer Trio passing off its technical demands with the wink of an eye! Karin Shifrin’s profound and sincere reading into the Scottish Songs allowed for their true meaning to be enjoyed and sensed; she touched the hearts of those present. The printed program was informative.