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.

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