Monday, December 27, 2010

"The Peasant in the Palace" - the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra performs works of J.S.Bach and G.P.Telemann

“The Peasant in the Palace” is the title given to the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s third concert of the 2010-2011 season; it took place December 21st at the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship, Jerusalem International YMCA and in Tel Aviv. Conducted from the harpsichord by David Shemer, founder and director of the JBO, the program focused on works of J.S.Bach and G.P.Telemann.

It is thought that in 1719, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), on a mission to Berlin to approve and bring a very fine harpsichord back to Cothen, played for the Margrave of Brandenburg. The Margrave requested from Bach a score to add to his extensive music library. It seems Bach sent him the “Six Concerts Avec Plusieurs Instruments” as an application for a new job. Bach was refused the job and the six Brandenburg Concertos may never have been performed during his lifetime. The manuscript passed through private hands, ending up in a library. Brandenburg Concerto no.5, possibly the last of the set of six concertos to be written, is scored for flute, violin and harpsichord, with violin, viola and basso continuo support. Demonstrating the possibilities offered by the high quality harpsichord Bach brought back in 1719, it is the first chamber work in which the keyboard player is the “star”, the status of the harpsichord being raised from continuo instrument to soloist. Soloists in the JBO performance of this work were Laura Pontecorvo (Italy)-traverso (Baroque flute), Boris Begelman-violin and David Shemer performing on his Martin Skowroneck harpsichord. From the outset of the opening Allegro, the ensemble wove gossamer-fine melodic lines around each other in a pleasing blend of sound, with Begelman and Pontecorvo striking a fine balance. In the first draft of the first movement, Bach had written a cadenza of eighteen bars for harpsichord, later expanding it to sixty five. Shemer’s handling of the mammoth cadenza was brilliant in execution, clean, exciting and articulate in its silvery cascades of glittering sounds, ending with a breathtaking chromatic passage before handing over to the ensemble to wind up the movement. In the Affetuoso movement, with the scoring pared down to the soloists, the artists created a sensitive and sensuously fragile texture, Pontecorvo and Begelman selective and careful in their ornamenting. The final gigue-like Allegro, delicate yet energetic, opened with flute and violin conversing, the harpsichord, indulging in dense 16th-note passagework and trilling, assuming a major role once more. Pontecorvo gives life and shape to each phrase; Begelman is listening, attentive and careful never to override in volume, his playing always inspiring. A rare treat.

Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) spent the greater part of his musical life (1721-1767) in Hamburg, where he worked with tireless energy. In 1732 a posting in one of the Hamburg newspapers read “Music lovers can expect in the following year a great instrumental work called Musique de Table, penned by Telemann….Subscriptions are accepted every quarter..” Almost 250 people (including Handel) subscribed from many countries in Europe and from England – people from the bourgeoisie, magistrates, ministers, clergy, kapellmeisters as well as professional- and amateur musicians. The “Tafelmusik” consists of three volumes, referred to by Telemann as “productions”, each of them sharing the same design and boasting a wealth of invention, melodic richness and variety of styles. The Concerto for flute, violin, ‘cello, strings and continuo in A major (Tafelmusik 1/3) is a true chef d’oeuvre. Soloists in the JBO performance of it were Laura Pontecorvo, Boris Begelman and ‘cellist Orit Messer-Jacobi; they played singly, in pairs and as a trio. Their performance – chamber music at its most communicative – created constant interest. Their playing of the intimate Grazioso movement was flattering and elegant, short phrases and fragments pieced together with perfection. The final Allegro was a display of youthful energy, humor and virtuosity, with Messer-Jacobi’s soloing brilliant, joyful and in good taste. In a letter to a friend, Telemann wrote “I do hope the work will one day contribute to my fame”. The importance and depth of the “Tafelmusik” have certainly reached far beyond the function of “dinner music”.

The “Peasant Cantata” BWV 212 “Mer hahn en neue Oberkeet” (We have a new lord of the manor) (1742) shows the formal, intellectual and deeply religious J.S.Bach in a very different light. To celebrate the 36th birthday and appointment of Heinrich von Dieskau as Provost of the vicinity of Leipzig, where Bach was based, Picander (Christian Friedrich Henrici) and Bach joined forces to create this secular cantata “en burlesque”. (A long-standing partnership, the two had collaborated on writing the St. Matthew Passion, the St. Mark Passion and a number of sacred- and secular cantatas.) Picander, a government official responsible for collecting liquor taxes in the region, had his reasons for writing the libretto, probably wishing to ingratiate himself with his new employer. The setting is Klein-Zschocher - an estate southwest of Leipzig, consisting then of 90 houses, brickworks, sheep, a shepherd’s house, a rectory, a church and a school - the two characters in the cantata being a peasant girl Mieke (soprano Revital Raviv) and her nameless suitor (baritone Yair Polishook). The story is as simple as its rustic characters: “he” makes a “suggestion” to Mieke; Mieke shows disdain for such vulgarity. Talk then centers round praise of the new squire and good, earthy entertainment. The libretto is in the dialect of local country folk, with Bach’s music less complex than was his convention: he quotes from popular songs and country dances of the day and borrows from other works – from his Goldberg Variations and from the “La Folia” harmonic ground bass. Instrumental soloists were Dafna Ravid-violin, Daniel Tanchelson-viola and Orit-Messer-Jacobi-‘cello. The cantata opens with a Sinfonia bristling with popular tunes and good humor, setting the scene. And so into the light-headed patter of gossip, whimsical vulgarity, discussion of taxes, money, the chamberlain and his wife, the songs of sophisticated people versus those of peasant folk and, of course, talk of drinking and reveling. Soprano Revital Raviv is a coquettish and flirtatious Mieke. She assumes her role with ease, uses facial expression and body language, reacts to Polishook’s texts, her pearly voice and vocal ease delighting the audience. In the following aria - an expression of sincerity and goodwill - she is joined by Pontecorvo’s brilliant and tasteful flute obbligato, surely a high point of the performance.
‘Klein-Zschocher ever
Be sweet and tender
As purest almonds to taste.
Within our goodly parish
Nought else today should flourish
But blessings rich and chaste.’

Baritone Yair Polishook, his large, natural, richly-colored voice stable and fetching, seemed, at times, a little too gentlemanly for the role a brazen country bumpkin. But in the following aria, rife with double entendres, performed with Ravid, Messer-Jacobi and Shemer, Polishook is freer, hearty and jovial, laughing together with Ravid’s violin.
‘Thine increase be steady and laugh with delight!
Thine own bosom’s virtue fair
Doth for thee thy fields prepare
In which shall bloom thy might.’

Performing a fine choice of works, the JBO’s superb solo-work, subtle playing and silken, finely-blended sound characterized the evening.

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