Saturday, December 4, 2010

Myrna Herzog in a solo viola da gamba recital

Dr. Myrna Herzog, born in Brazil and living in Israel for the last 18 years, is a researcher, teacher, instrumentalist and the founder and director of the prestigious PHOENIX Ensemble. She is, however, first and foremost, a viol player. Her solo recital “Heart to Heart”, which took place at the Eden-Tamir Music Center Ein Kerem (Jerusalem) November 27th 2010, was, as the name implies, representative of Herzog’s most personal connection with the viola da gamba and its repertoire. Herzog was playing on a 7-stringed bass viol (using gut strings) made by Andrea Castagneri (Paris,1744). She dedicated the recital to her teachers - Judith Davidoff, Wieland Kuijken and the late Ibere Gomes Grosso.

The program opened with two ricercars by Italian Renaissance composers, examples of the earliest ricercars written by composers who were, themselves, virtuoso players or teachers. The first was “Recechar terzo” by Sylvestro Ganassi (1492-mid-16th century). Ganassi wrote a treatise on viol-playing, guiding the player both technically and in the affects of musical style. Giovanni Bassano (1558-1617) was also a pedagogue, writing on methods of decorating the contrapuntal line. Herzog’s playing of the two ornate, monophonic pieces highlighted the improvisatory character written into the text, but with her own sense of spontaneity.

Moving to the French Baroque, Herzog played a “Fantasie” by Nicolas Hotman (1614-1663); born in Germany or Belgium, Hotman lived in Paris for most of his life, was a court musician and known to be a fine lute-, theorbo- and viol player. Hotman’s “Fantasie” is expressive and singing, making use of the richness and beauty of the color and temperament of the viol. M. de Sainte-Colombe (possibly Jean sieur de Sainte-Colombe, c.1630-c.1700), whose teacher was Hotman, was the first of a number of French composers who brought the viol considerable prestige. Little is known about him besides the fact that he was a great master and teacher of the instrument and that he is thought to have initiated extending the viol range downward by the addition of the seventh string, enabling stronger contrasts, range, timbre and richness in the bass range. Herzog’s playing of Sainte-Colombe’s “La Vielle” (hurdy-gurdy) reflected the rough edges of the hurdy-gurdy sound together with its folksy, joyful and insistent character. She ends the piece with a gradual diminuendo, suggesting the hurdy-gurdy- player’s walking off into the distance. Sainte-Colombe’s son, Sainte-Colombe le fils (c.1660-c.1720), a composer and instrumentalist in his own right, composed many solo works for the viol. In Herzog’s finely embellished reading of his “Fantaisie en Rondeau”, the audience was moved by the tenderness, melodiousness and emotion, pain and eloquence of the composer’s writing.

Remaining in the French Baroque, Herzog ties more family links. Court musician Antoine Forqueray’s playing rivaled that of Marain Marais (1671- 1745); A.Forqueray (1671-1745) was the more flamboyant, his taste leading him to perform much Italian music. The sinuous, descriptively circular motion of his “La Girouette” (The Weather Vane) was punctuated by sections implying different moods, Herzog suggesting that the latter represent a change of mind or mood. She then performed “La Eynaud”, a piece by Antoine Forqueray’s son, Jean-Baptiste Forqueray, a leading proponent of the viol and tutor to Louis XV’s daughter. Who the subject of this harmonically and technically demanding musical portrait is in a piece written in the specific idiom of 18th century French viol music, is an enigma. The humorous main subject of the piece, played in thirds in the lower register of the instrument, might describe the strutting of a formal, authoritative, self-important man sporting a monocle, the episodes perhaps describing other of Monsieur Eynaud’s character traits. Marain Marais (1656-1728), a pupil of Antoine Forqueray, and composer in royal service, who devoted his energies to viol music, paid his mentor the highest musical tribute among French composers in his “Tombeau pour Monsieur Ste Colombe” (Tomb= In memory of Monsieur Sainte-Colombe) . Herzog, however, chose to play his lighter, bagpipe-inspired dances “Musettes I et II”, the two contrasted gently in tempo. Roland Marais (c.1685-c.1750) was Marain Marais’s best known son. His “Le Noeud d’Amour” (The Love Knot) was performed with gentle, earnest grace.

The viola da gamba was popular both in France and in England. Tobias Hume (c.1569-1645), a British soldier by profession, served as a mercenary in the Swedish and Russian armies, among others. With the lute enjoying more popularity in England, Hume made it clear that he gave preference to the viol - “the statefull instrument”. His music reflects his eccentricity and sense of humor, his illusions, his travels and his international military career. (His piece “An Invention for Two to Play upone One Viol” calls for two players, two bows and one viol, with one player sitting on the other’s knee!) He, himself, was a very fine player; he may have been the first to use the bow con legno (played on the wood) We heard three of Hume’s pieces: “Adue Sweete Love” (as a mercenary it seems he frequented brothels and pubs), “A Pollish Jigge” and “Jigge”. Herzog’s sensitive, singing and ornamented playing of the pieces reminds us that Hume’s music is imbued with a wide range of dynamics, full-blown sonority and wonderful, cantabile melodic lines and that his music is unmistakably original.

Myrna Herzog talked of coming from a musical family. Her maternal grandfather, Nikolaus Schaak, made a transcription for zither of J.S.Bach’s “Gavotte en Rondeau” from the Partita in E major BWV 1006. As had her grandfather, Herzog used both the lute- and violin version in creating her version for the bass viol.

Herzog spoke of German composer and viola da gamba player Karl Friedrich Abel (1723-1787) as being the last famous player of the instrument. He was probably a member of J.S.Bach’s Collegium Musicum in Leipzig, also studying with him. Abel moved to London, where he performed together with Johann Christian Bach. (Sometimes referred to as the “London Bach”, Johann Christian was J.S.Bach’s eleventh- and youngest son.) Together they established the Bach-Abel concert series, in which the two were the main performers. By this time, the viol was rarely played, but Abel’s performances revived interest in the instrument in London, his practice of “Sensibility” – the articulating of direct or strong emotions - suiting the approach in the arts at the time. His friends spoke of Abel as improvising at home in front of the fire “when he took flight into fine airs, double stops and arpeggios”. We heard four of Abel’s pieces, all written around 1770, in which Herzog expressed the sincerity and intimate quality of this viol music. Abel’s use of the whole instrument and its dynamics is nevertheless melodious and demure, his pieces set in an uncluttered soundscape.

Israeli educator, trumpeter and composer Aharon Shefi’s (b.1928) “Known Direction” was originally composed for violin and transcribed for the viol in 2010 by the composer for Myrna Herzog. The work is inspired by the story of his uncle, Bernard Spitzen, a noted violinist, who, when deported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, played Jewish melodies on his violin to create a few moments of joy for the other deportees in the face of fate. Herzog’s performance of it reflected the heavy, contemplative atmosphere pervading the work, its motifs and melodies painting a picture of Jewish life in eastern Europe.

Three world premieres were included in the program. Dina Smorgonskaya (b.1947) emigrated to Israel from Belarus in 1990. Her oeuvre consists of solo-, choral, orchestral and chamber compositions, light opera, cinema- and theatre music and music for children. “Elegy” (2010), based on a song fraught with searching and sadness, offers an interesting collage of musical ideas, from a melody over a drone, to pizzicato passages, to spiccato, etc., the variety of textures and timbres creating a canvas suggesting different voices or instruments.

American composer David Loeb (b.1939) has composed extensively for traditional Japanese and Chinese instruments as well as for early instruments, in particular the viola da gamba. His “Lyric Pieces Composed in Chinese Scales” (2007) present three descriptive pieces to delight the senses, creating images in the listener’s mind. From the sweeping phrases in lower register of “Windsong” to the “Moon Gate” (a gate found in many Chinese gardens, placed there to frame a view) to “The Long Road Home”, a thought-provoking, carefully paced piece, these miniatures are, indeed, exquisite.

It was fitting that Myrna Herzog should sign off with Brazilian composer Luiz Otavio Braga’s (b.1953) two-part “Nordestina” (for Myrna), composed in 2010, a daring work bristling with sinewy, outspoken melodies, Brazilian modes and harmonies, rhythmic interest and the intermittent plucking sound of the guitar. A challenging work for player and audience, it presents the mix of color, earthy styles and temperament of Brazilian life and music.

Myrna Herzog’s recital spoke much of family relationships – those of composers and those of her own. Taking the listener on a comprehensive and fascinating journey of viol works from the Renaissance through to the 21st century, this concert was surely a landmark in the artist’s career, reflecting her taste, knowledge and the personal relationship she strikes up with each work. Charles Burney commented on Karl Friedrich Abel’s ability to “breathe” the notes as he played them. Myrna Herzog breathes each phrase.

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