Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Carmel Quartet opens its 2011-2012 season with "Bohemian Rhapsody"

The Carmel Quartet opened its 2011-2012 season, the fifth of the commentated concert series “Strings and More”, with “Bohemian Rhapsody”. This writer attended the English language concert-lecture on November 23rd 2011at the Jerusalem Music Centre. Established in 1999, the Carmel Quartet is among Israel’s leading string quartets, has won prestigious prizes and performs in Israel and abroad. The quartet’s Carnegie Hall debut received an enthusiastic review in The New York Times. The Carmel Quartet has performed together with many renowned musicians. Members of the quartet are violinists Rachel Ringelstein and Lia Rakhlin, violist Yoel Greenberg and ‘cellist Tami Waterman.

The evening’s program began quite unconventionally: Rachel Ringelstein entered wearing a butchers’ apron, complete with a rubber chicken hanging off it, and read out a document publicly attesting to Anton Dvořak’s completion of a butcher’s apprenticeship. Musicologist Yoel Greenberg proceeded by informing the audience that that the butcher’s document was false, but that it was positive for the composer’s image in society! Anton Dvořak (1841-1904) was not from the upper echelons of society; his father, in fact, was a butcher. Greenberg then discussed the complications of being a Czech composer at a time when Czech music was considered “cheap”: Czech music was played in the streets of Vienna, in Europe the Czechs were considered “savage”; the German musicologist Hugo Riemann referred to the Czechs as “partially civilized” and George Bernard Shaw (who was also a music critic) felt he could not accept Czech music as serious! Dvořak, due to his social status, was no typical Romantic composer, and was referred to as a “wonder”. The truth is that audiences liked the “rustic charm” of his Moravian dances and the composer played along with this image, writing in a letter “…I still remain just what I was – a simple Czech musician…” Dvořak’s music was popular in Europe. Greenberg reminds us that conveying simplicity can sometimes be complicated!

The first violinist of the Florentine Quartet (Italy) had asked Dvořak to write a “Slavonic” quartet for the ensemble, the result being the Quartet in A major, opus 51 (1878-1879). Greenberg refers to the idea as an oxymoron, for the composer had come up with a sophisticated work in four movements. The folk elements include polkas (1st movement), a Dumka (2nd movement), a country “scene” (3rd movement), with the 4th movement – Allegro assai – representing a leaping dance. The Carmel Quartet’s performance brought out the work’s youthful fervor and warmth, clothing it in melodiousness and richness of sound - from soothing, mellifluous moments to the humor of the wink of an eye and to the hearty unbridled joy of a rustic celebration. Their playing, nevertheless, gave careful attention to detail, the variety of textures and melodic lines.

Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942), conversely, was born to a family of musicians. He had actually been recognized as a child prodigy by Dvořak. A compulsive innovator, his music has mostly fallen into obscurity. Contrary to Dvořak, Schulhoff had no identity, or, according to Greenberg, he had a multiplicity of identities, this being evident in his compositional style, in which he mixed styles irreverently. A friend of German artist George Grosz, Schulhoff became associated with the Dada movement. Inspired by the latter style, the middle movement of his “In Futurum” is written exclusively as rests and marked “with feeling”. The audience at the JMC was able to see the score on a screen. (Greenberg reminded us that John Cage’s “4’33” was composed 30 years later.) Schulhoff toured Germany, France and England as a piano virtuoso. In the 1930’s, he and his works were blacklisted due to his radical politics and the fact that he was Jewish, his music being declared “degenerate” by the Nazi regime. He became a Russian communist, even writing a cantata based on the Communist Manifesto, was arrested as a “Russian” before he had the chance to leave Czechoslovakia and he died of tuberculosis in a concentration camp in Bavaria.

Schulhoff’s Quartet no.1, composed in 1924, expresses the composer’s rejection of Romantic tradition, favoring a more direct approach. It is fiery and dramatic, its sense of urgency dominant from the beginning. The Carmel Quartet’s brilliant, well-chiseled performance created the vivid canvas of earthy, rustic elements, boisterous utterances, jaunty modern dance rhythms, grotesque humor and mimicry, catchy melodies and Slovak folk-type melodies. Especially bewitching was the final movement, unconventionally an Andante, with its ghostly high ‘cello melody, veiled static effects evoked by harmonics, etc. The artists’ crisp, energetic reading of the quartet threw light on the composer’s own very individual direction among the 1920 modernists, offering the audience the opportunity to experience and understand this very unique work and its background. Greenberg and his fellow musicians possess the knack of drawing their audiences into the endlessly rich world of music.

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