Saturday, March 26, 2011

The PHOENIX Ensemble performs J.S.Bach's "Musical Offering" at the Eden-Tamir Center, Ein Karem

In 1747, on his way to visit his daughter-in-law in Berlin (Carl Phillip Emmanuel’s wife) J.S.Bach made a stop in Potsdam at the royal place of King Frederick the Great of Prussia. (C.P.E.Bach was employed there as court harpsichordist.) Frederick, an amateur flautist and composer, invited “Old Bach” (aged 62) to play on his collection of Silbermann fortepianos, after which Bach asked the king to give him a theme on which to improvise. The subject the king had supplied Bach, that of the “Musical Offering”, hereafter referred to as the “royal theme”, was longer than usually used for a fugue subject. Unfazed, Bach responded with a complex and lengthy piece. On May 11th 1747, a Berlin newspaper reported that “Herr Bach found the theme submitted to him so exceedingly beautiful that he wishes to write out a formal fugue based upon it, to be subsequently engraved in copper”. On his return to Leipzig, Bach, with the feeling he had not yet realized the potential of the theme, developed it into a sequence of complicated contrapuntal movements – two ricercars, a trio sonata, a canonic fugue and nine canons - and, within a few months, sent the “Musical Offering”, engraved at his own expense, with a florid letter of dedication to the king in appreciation of his hospitality. Bach’s dedication was in German, but it also included the following sentence in Latin: “Regis iussu Cantio Et Reliqua Canonica Arte Resolute” (A theme and other things worked out in canon by the King’s command) an acronym for “ricercar” (precursor to the fugue) of which there are two in the work – one for three voices and one for six. There is no clear indication as to what order the pieces should assume, neither does Bach give performance- or instrumentation instructions. To further complicate matters, the canons are not written out fully in the score; they are enigmas that need to be figured out in order to be played.

Members of the PHOENIX Ensemble – Sarah Paysnick (Baroque flute), Yasuko Hirata (Baroque violin), Marina Minkin (harpsichord) and Myrna Herzog - the ensemble’s founder and musical director on viola da gamba - performed J.S.Bach’s (1685-1750) “Musical Offering” BWV 1079 to a full house at the Eden-Tamir Music Center, Ein Karem, Jerusalem March 19th 2011.

The concert opened with Marina Minkin playing the Ricercar a 3 on harpsichord, set out simply and nobly, if a little furtively. And then Bach begins his sophisticated, tricky games. Canon a 2, “cancrizans”, also played solo by Minkin, is a crab canon: the “royal theme” is in one voice, with another voice stating it backwards. Minkin’s life was not made easier by “Quaerendo invenietis” (Seek and ye shall find) canon a 2, a mirror canon, written as one voice in the alto clef right side up, with the other in bass clef upside down! Her fine playing did not belie the acrobatics involved in analyzing such a text. Canon a 2 “per augmentationem, contrario Motu”, played on viol and harpsichord, gently paced with some ornamentation, features rhythmic augmentation of the following voice moving in the opposite direction to the leading voice. Bach’s Latin inscription here translates as “As the notes increase, may the fortunes of the King do likewise”. Canon “perpetuus”, performed lyrically in gentle hues by all four players, is actually two canons fitted together, voices in the second half being a mirror image of those in the first. The Ricercar a 6, written at the king’s request, is the crowning piece of the collection. Herzog chooses to have it performed by all four players: unmannered and transparently articulate, all voices emerge clearly, enabling the listener to choose to which melodic line to listen at any given moment….and this is a game to be played by the listener. If vocal music represented the emotions for Bach, the ricercar (from the word to “search”) represents music of the intellect, a work that is learned and somewhat pedagogical. Herzog, Hirata, Minkin and Paysnick did an admirable job of reading and performing the pieces. Who knows if Frederick the Great understood their complexities or whether he dared penetrate the cryptic ideas of the canons; he was, after all, known to be a man of simple musical tastes.

Bach, however, did provide the king with a treat that probably felt more accessible to him – a four-movement trio sonata da chiesa, based on the fugue theme, for the King to play on flute, to be joined by C.P.E.Bach on harpsichord and possibly Franz Benda on violin. Sarah Paysnick performed the prominent flute part with elegance, her tone creamy and consistent. All four players wove melodic lines into the piece’s rich tapestry with a sense of balance that is the fine-tuning of high quality chamber musicians.

The last ten years of his life saw Bach greatly preoccupied with the technical and musical possibilities of strict fugal and canonic polyphony. Like Bach’s “Art of Fugue”, the “Musical Offering” shows the many possible ways of elaborating a single theme to produce a large, varied work composed of fugues and canons. A year ago, the PHOENIX Ensemble, under the direction of Dr. Myrna Herzog, performed Bach’s “Art of Fugue”. In Myrna Herzog’s sequence of concerts presenting her listening public with monumental works, the “Musical Offering” was in place. The Israeli concert public is privileged to hear these great works well researched and in the hands of Herzog and her group of carefully selected players.

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