Saturday, January 7, 2012

The JBO hosts violinist Walter Reiter (UK) in "Celebrating Chanukah and Christmas"

As a member of the board of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, I was interested to hear the orchestra’s third concert of the 2011-2012 season at the Enav Cultural Center (Tel Aviv) December 29th 2011. Violinist Walter Reiter (UK) led and soloed in “Celebrating Chanukah & Christmas”, a program of European Baroque instrumental music. Walter Reiter, very prominent on the Baroque music scene today, is principal player in The English Concert and leader of The Sixteen. He is Professor of Baroque Violin at The Royal Conservatory of the Hague, at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music (London) and teaches in Cuba. When living in Israel over 20 years ago, Reiter taught several young Israelis who are today making fine careers as concert players.

Prior to the concert at the Enav Center, Reiter gave an informal, informative talk about works to be performed that evening.

Georg Muffat’s (1653-1704) Concerti Grossi were among the earliest German examples of the genre. His “Auserlesene Instrumental Musik” (1701) (Selected Instrumental Music) was an early collection of concerti grossi in the style developed by Corelli. The JBO performed Concerto no.5 in D of this volume, with Walter Reiter, Noam Schuss and Orit Messer-Jacobi (violins and ‘cello) forming the concertino. It was a performance richly spiced in the language of gestures, the JBO’s sympathetic orchestral timbre graced with some fine oboe-playing (Shai Kribus, Shira Ben Yehoshua). Of his merging of styles, Muffat wrote: “The notes, the strings, the sweet sounds of music give my life a sense of fulfillment, all the more because I mingle the French style with the German and Italian, without inciting a war; but, rather, holding up a mirror to the longed-for harmony and dear peace which these people so greatly desire.” With the same concertino combination we heard Arcangelo Corelli’s (1653-1713) Concerto Grosso Op.6 no.8 “Fatto per la Notte di Natale” (Made for the Night of Christmas), also referred to as the “Christmas Concerto”; it would have been played at the Christmas festivities in one of the great Roman houses of the time (these including the palaces of cardinals and the Pope) or at the Mass itself at the Vatican or at other churches. Its alternating fast/slow tempi include several joyous dances, the concluding Pastorale evoking images of shepherds in the fields, with angels hovering over Bethlehem. A superb combination of elegance, effective transitions and transparency characterized the playing of this work; Schuss and Reiter were very much on the same wavelength, with Messer-Jacobi highly articulate and expressive.

Jean-Féry Rebel (1666-1747) was only eight when he began studying violin and composition with Lully. Rebel became a court musician to Louis XIV, eventually taking the post of “batteur de mesure” (conductor) at the Royal Academy of Music. He made the “Symphonie de Danse” a form of his own, “Les Charactères de la Dance” (1715) being one of them, and providing inspiration for the ballerina Mlle. Prévost. The work is a seamless stream of dance fragments, one of the longest - a Musette - lasting about one minute, the suite ending with a stormy Sonate. It seems the charismatic Mlle. Prévost gave a spectacular performance as she was invited to do so again for Tsar Peter the Great. Despite their brevity, the many small sections each enjoyed different orchestration in the JBO reading of it (Rebel’s orchestral score did not survive) – in the Sarabande, we heard only recorder (Katharine Abrahams) and viola (Daniel Tanchelson) – providing royal entertainment that was over in the wink of an eye.

Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644-1704), one of the most significant composers of the early 17th century Viennese violin style, was influenced by Italian composers such as Marini and Uccellini. The “Sonatae Tam Aris, quam Aulis Servientes” (for secular- and sacred use), the composer’s earliest collection, consists of twelve short sonatas for few instruments, each single-movement work falling into a series of small, connected sections, as in the earlier Italian canzona model. We heard Sonata IX, played by strings, theorbo and harpsichord, the changes in meter and tempo giving the work captivating unpredictability. Biber’s music was the main thread running through the evening’s program.

And back to the Christmas content of the evening: the “Noëls pour les Instruments” (c.1690) by prolific French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704) who wrote mostly sacred choral works, were composed around 1690 but published only in 1973! Charpentier may have been the first composer to set noëls (popular Christmas carols) for groups of instruments. Composed probably when he was choirmaster for the Jesuits, consciously or not, there may have been some hidden agenda in the music, and how better way to convert could there be than with fine music peppered with popular tunes, some stemming from dance airs. Musicologist Catherine Cessac refers to the “grandeur and originality of Charpentier’s music” as “due to a combination of exceptional musical talent and deep faith”. One of the attractions of the “Noëls pour les instruments” is the delightful pairing of recorders in the score and the JBO did not disappoint: Katharine Abrahams and Shai Kribus added the pleasing, spirited timbre of recorders and much musicality to the buoyant, uplifting performance of the JBO, with Reiter’s delicate touch ever present, sculpting phrases and phrase-endings in filigree threads.

The concert’s Chanukah content consisted of the Overture to Georg Frideric Händel’s (1685-1759) “Judas Maccabeus”, a commissioned work, written in 32 days and premiered at Covent Garden (London) in 1747. The oratorio is in three parts and describes the changing moods of the people with the fluctuating situation of the Jews. Its Overture is one of Händel’s greatest; here, the composer borrows from one of his duets (Sono liete) and from Telemann’s “Tafelmusik”. For the Overture, Walter Reiter relinquished his violin to conduct the stately, dotted opening slow Grave, in its solemn, minor mode and characterized by angular leaps, followed by a fugue and French-styled Lentement. Fine oboe-playing gave color to Reiter’s intense, exciting reading of this piece.

A rare treat of the concert was the performance of two of Biber’s “Mystery Sonatas”. Composed around the mid-1760s and published only in 1905, this collection, also referred to as the “Rosary” Sonatas, constitutes one of the high points of violin literature. The 15 sonatas come with a figured continuo bass; engravings in the manuscript copy depict each of the scenes represented in the work – the music is not really program music - the latter grouped under the following titles: “The Joyful Mysteries”, “The Sorrowful Mysteries” and “The Glorious Mysteries”, these followed by a Passacaglia titled “The Guardian Angel”. In addition to the daring contrapuntal- and technical demands in Biber’s writing, there is much use of “scordatura” (deliberate mistuning of the violin strings in order to produce unusual effects). Walter Reiter performed two of the sonatas – nos.1 and .3, with Dr. David Shemer, founder and musical director of the JBO, playing the continuo role on the organ (a positive built by Gideon Shamir). Creating an atmosphere of mystery and awe, Reiter and Shemer evoked the emotional reactions to the events inspiring the composition in a range of effects so personal, languid and thought-provoking that one was not concerned with or even totally aware of the incredible range of complex violin techniques needed to produce the intricacies of such music. Reiter has made a much-celebrated recording of the complete work (Signum label). Hearing the concert at the Enav Cultural Center was advantageous – it gave listeners the opportunity of drinking in every wonderful sound and gesture of the timeless “Mystery Sonatas”.

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