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.

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