Friday, January 21, 2011

The PHOENIX Ensemble performs Mozart's Church Sonatas in Jerusalem

The venue was The Wine Press (Beit Hagat), a house hidden away in a lane of the leafy, magical suburb of Ein Kerem, Jerusalem. Built in 1870, the house was once a flour mill and olive press for the adjacent Sisters of Zion convent. An imposing olive press, complete with crushing stone and palm Ekel olive baskets, is situated in the centre of the large room where we were gathered. Today, the Wine Press offers various activities for the promotion of understanding between people of different religions as well as cultural events. The PHOENIX Ensemble performed “Mozart: The Church Sonatas” there on January 13th, 2011. Those performing were Yasuko Hirata and Dafna Ravid (Baroque violins), PHOENIX founder and musical director Dr. Myrna Herzog (Baroque ‘cello) and Yizhar Karshon (organ).

Instrumental music was a part of 18th century church services. W.A.Mozart (1756-1791) composed the seventeen “Church Sonatas”, also referred to as “Epistle Sonatas” or “Organ Sonatas”, to be played between the Gloria and the Credo of Solemn Mass at Salzburg Cathedral, where Mozart took up the appointment of Concertmaster in 1772. The Church Sonatas were composed between 1772 and 1780.

Formally, they are all single-movement sonata-allegro movements with an abbreviated development section and all in major keys. Most of the church sonatas are scored for two violins and bass (organo e basso) with three of the later sonatas scored for larger ensembles, including oboes, horns, trumpet and timpani. The number of instruments playing each part was not specified by Mozart. Herzog chose to have one player on each part in the manner of the Italian sonata da chiesa. The continuo style of the bass suggests it would have been played on one of the smaller organs in the cathedral; some of the organ parts are notated as figured bass, whereas others are written out in full. Karshon played the pieces on a positif organ built by Israeli organ builder Gideon Shamir; its timbre was more than pleasing!

Certainly not sacred music in character, the Church Sonatas are truly joyful pieces for both players and audience. The PHOENIX players’ sense of color, fine balance and collaboration brought out the beauty of these chamber music jewels, their sound full and sensuous, the acoustic of The Wine Press, with its vaulted ceiling, welcoming and gracious. Yasuka and Ravid were each heard in the role of first violin.

The organ takes on a progressively greater role as the series progresses. Church Sonata no.15 in C major K.336 features delightful obbligato organ solos; Karshon wrote his own cadenza sparkling with originality and motifs from the piece.

In 1783, after Mozart had left Salzburg for Vienna, Archbishop Hieronymus of Salzburg decreed that the Church Sonatas be replaced by vocal Gradualia, with new works taking the place of the Church Sonatas.

Although Mozart had referred to the organ as “the king of instruments”, The Church Sonatas and his pieces for mechanical organ are the sum total of the composer’s organ works. The Andante for mechanical organ in F major K.616, one of three composed by Mozart in the final year of his life, was requested by Count Joseph Deym von Strzitez, an eccentric Viennese aristocrat who owned several curious mechanical organs that were powered by clockwork. Karshon’s performance of this little piece evoked the timbre and character of a mechanical organ; using tactical pauses before forging into a new section, he played it with aplomb and the wink of an eye.

Another interesting item was a piece from eight-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus’ “London Sketchbook” (1764-1765). The Mozart family took a three-year tour of Western Europe from 1763 to 1766, finally traveling to London from Calais. During their sojourn in London, Wolfgang and his sister Nannerl gave a number of concerts, some at Buckingham Palace for George III and his wife Charlotte; there they met some of the best-known composers of the time there, including Johann Christian Bach. Then Wolfgang’s father Leopold became very ill and the family relocated to Chelsea. There, the children were forbidden to play music as the house was to be kept quiet. Mozart filled his sketchbook with pieces - beginning with miniature keyboard pieces and moving to more ambitious works, already paving the way to sonatas and symphonies. It was there that Mozart composed his first two symphonies. The developing, imaginative potential of young Mozart’s mind and his background in the works of J.S.Bach are heard in the pieces here. Although the sketches leave the work of filling out to the player, the child’s melodic and harmonic invention are present as in this “Allegro non tanto” (Gigue) KV15z that Yizhar Karshon performed.

Myrna Herzog is an artist with many ideas for creative programming. With “Mozart: The Church Sonatas” she, once again, brings seldom-performed works to the concert platform. The audience enjoyed these early Mozart works and, no less, the PHOENIX Ensemble’s high quality performance of them.

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