Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Israeli Bach Soloists perform Bach Motets at St. Andrews Scots Memorial Church, Jerusalem

The Israeli Bach Soloists performed “Sing a New Song” December 8th 2011 at St. Andrews Scots Memorial Church, Jerusalem. The program consisted of Motets of J.S.Bach. The Israeli Bach Soloists, a vocal- and instrumental ensemble directed by Sharon Rosner, sets its targets at performing J.S.Bach’s liturgical works and those of other Baroque composers in a manner consistent with Bach’s style and performance. Founded in 2008 by Sharon Rosner and Zohar Shefi, the IBS bases its performance on historical research, placing emphasis on all aspects of the verbal text - diction, pronunciation and intonation. Rosner prefers to rely on Bach’s original texts, at the same time allowing his performers individual musical expression based on a common consensus as to the reading of each work.

The motet has enjoyed an uninterrupted history from the beginning of the 12th century. Its status has always been lofty in the realm of polyphonic musical artistry. During the 18th century, in the Leipzig churches of St. Thomas and St. Nicholas, where J.S.Bach worked from 1723 till his death, the motet constituted a fixed element in the service, being sung by boys and men following the introductory organ prelude. It seems Bach composed motets throughout his career; however, six survive: all are settings of sacred texts in German for choir and basso continuo and most are thought to be from his time in Leipzig. As Bach allowed the text to dictate musical form, each is differently structured and the motets bear no standardized form. Thought by some scholars to be funeral music, they are complex and original, demanding deep aesthetic study and technical virtuosity on the part of the singers. So why are these masterpieces performed so seldom?

The Israeli Bach Soloists performers were placed as two choirs – on one side Joel Sivan (bass), Oshri Segev(tenor), Sharon Rosner (alto and direction) and Shimrit Carmi (soprano), with Zohar Shefi (organ) and Ira Givol (violoncello) in the centre; on the other side - Hadas Faran Asia (Soprano, Avital Deri (alto), David Nortman (tenor) and Guy Pelc (bass).

The program opened with “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied” (Sing a new song to the Lord) BWV 225, probably composed in 1727. Using texts from Psalms 149 and 150 and an adaptation of a Lutheran hymn by Johann Gramann, the motet falls into four clear sections. The ensemble’s exuberant performance of the piece highlighted Bach’s word-painting, his distinctive, independent writing for each choir, complex layering and contrapuntal play. The singers’ fine diction and well-pronounced German added to the articulacy of the performance.

In “Ich lasse dich nicht” (I will not let You Go) Anh.159, Bach’s earliest known motet, had, for many years, been attributed to the Eisenach composer Johann Christoph Bach, who was J.S.Bach’s second cousin. It was later re-ascribed to J.S.Bach. Rosner and his singers availed themselves of word-shapes to form phrases and employed Bach’s economical use of strongly tonal and chordal musical material to inspire a compassionate, devotional and moving reading of the work.

“Fürchte dich nicht” (Be not afraid) takes its texts from Isaiah 41 and 43 and two verses from a chorale of Paul Gerhardt. The singers presented Bach’s strategic placing of texts carefully, moving from “weiche nicht” (Be not dismayed) to the powerful statement of “Ich bin dein Gott” (I am your God). “Ich starke dich” (I strengthen you) begins each time as a solo. Following the fugue, “Fürchte dich nicht” is completed by “du bist mein” (You are mine), a reminder of Bach’s deep religious conviction.

“Komm, Jesu, komm” (Come, Jesu, come) is a setting of a hymn by Paul Thymich that appeared in the Leipzig Hymnbook of 1697. The IBS singers painted the vivid imagery of the piece, from the effective separations of the repeated opening “Komm” (Come), uncompromising in its vehemence, to the expression of vulnerability via the symbolic thinning out of textures, introducing the plaintive “Die Kraft verschwindt je mehr and mehr” (My strength deserts me more and more), to a more bitter moment in the jagged melodic profile of “Der saure Weg” (The bitter journey), to the gently lilting and comforting 6/8 time “Du bist de rechte Weg” (Thou art the sure way).

“Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit” BWV 226 (The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness), composed in 1729 for the funeral of J.H.Ernesti, headmaster of the Thomasschule, draws on a text from Romans 8 and a hymn by Martin Luther. (It is the only Bach motet for which complete orchestral scores survive – with strings doubling the first choir and reeds doubling the second.) The Israel Bach Soloists utilized consonants to bring out key words in the text and showed mood changes of contrasting sections:
‘The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness
We do not even know how to pray
As we should pray,
But through our inarticulate groans
The Spirit himself is pleading for us…’
The chorale ended the work with a sense of well-being.

The concert ended on an optimistic note with one of the three verses Bach set of Johann Gramann’s chorale “Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren” (Now praise, my soul, the Lord) BWV 28/2.

It was clear the singers and instrumentalists alike were properly familiar with the German texts and the fact that Bach was a deeply religious man. The evening’s repertoire combined outstanding solo moments, high quality ensemble work, with the individuality of voices and personal expression of each artist adding much interest and drawing attention to Bach’s unique treatment of each vocal line. Performing were some of Israel’s finest Baroque singers. Zohar Shefi (organ) and Ira Givol (‘cello) provided a substantial instrumental basis; with much to say, they were never too prominent. Ira Givol’s innate musicality and involvement in every gesture of the music are ever present. Hearing these works - some of the finest and most profound Baroque sacred music - performed on such a high level was, indeed, both an uplifting- and humbling experience.

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