Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra in "The Four Seasons" and more

For myself as a member of the board of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, the “Four Seasons” program February 21st 2012 in the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theatre was an important event for a number of reasons: first and foremost, the concert was dedicated to the memory of Aharon Kidron, who passed away a year ago. Aharon Kidron, dear to the hearts of all involved with the JBO, was the general director of the JBO from 2000 to 2010. Viennese composer and virtuoso violinist Johann Heinrich Schmelzer’s (1620-1680) outstandingly beautiful piece “Lamento sopra la morte di Ferdinand III” (Lament on the Death of Ferdinand III) was played to honor Aharon Kidron’s memory. The piece, probably uncommissioned and written spontaneously, was composed in memory of the Habsburg monarch Ferdinand, who died in 1657. He was Schmelzer’s employer and a fellow musician; Schmelzer was director of instrumental music at his court. The piece falls into a number of small sections, each of decidedly different character, from the somber depiction of the funeral procession with the sounding of the death knell, to an allusion to a madrigal written by Ferdinand himself, from florid passages to a little folk-like dance! Played by four string players, with Maestro David Shemer, founder and director of the JBO, at the harpsichord, the artists created the elegiac, fragile opening mystique, sustaining our interest throughout. First violinist Dafna Ravid’s expressive playing added to the poignancy of the performance.

During his employ in Leipzig (1723-1750), Johann Sebastian Bach was responsible for the music in four churches and for the music education of the boys of St. Thomas School. But he also wrote secular music for the community, most of which would have been performed by his Collegium Musicum. The Coffee Cantata BWV 211, composed some time between 1732 and 1735, could be viewed as a miniature comic opera (Bach wrote no operas). Its libretto, penned by Picander (Christian Friedrich Henrici), centers around the new fashion of coffee houses and coffee-drinking in European cities. The conservative older generation of the time was alarmed at the effect of caffeine on young people; indeed, for this reason, coffee was not served in German homes until the second half of the 18th century. It could be said that the Coffee Cantata is Bach’s endorsement of the counter-culture. Schlendrian (baritone Oded Reich), representing the attitude of the older generation, is up-in-arms at his daughter Lieschen’s (soprano Revital Raviv) coffee-drinking habit, warning her that if she continues he will give her no wedding breakfast, no beautiful dress and no ring. The theme of this witty minor drama is, in Shemer’s words, a “particular generation clash”. Lightly scored for three singers, strings, flute and continuo, the cantata opens with the narrator (tenor Nadav Inbar) introducing us to the situation and then only singing the final aria, finally joining the only vocal trio of the cantata, this ending the work. The JBO went all out to entertain its audience. As the orchestra is tuning up, the Narrator rushes onto the stage singing
‘Be quiet, chatter not,
Give ear to what will now transpire…’
Where he announces Schlendrian’s entry (one of the translations of “Schlendrian” is “inefficient”) the bass-line of the continuo is marked “con pompa”! Oded Reich, indeed, portrays Schlendrian with comical grandiloquence, the singer’s movements and facial expressions (at one point he pleads his argument with’ cellist Orit Messer-Jacobi) evoking the thick-headed Schlendrian. Reich’s rich, warm timbre and natural resonance are always a source of pleasure. Revital Raviv was well cast as the coquettish, manipulative Lieschen, her bright vocal color, fluidity and agility matched by attention to delicate details. Section 4 saw Raviv joined by Idit Shemer’s sensitive and subtle playing of the flute obbligato, the flute part, however, totally independent of the vocal line and rich in its own brilliant passagework. With Lieschen eventually agreeing to give up the habit in favor of her father’s finding her a husband, Schlendrian proves he is almost 300 years ahead of his time; to the delight of all present, he produces a mobile ‘phone and begins the selection process. The scheming Lieschen, however, has her own secret agenda, stipulating that the marriage contract include permission for her to brew coffee whenever she wants. Interestingly, this last twist of the text (no.9) is not in Picander’s text; it seems Bach added it himself.

Of Venetian composer Antonio Vivaldi’s (1678-1741) 500 concertos, “The Four Seasons” – four violin concertos – are probably the composer’s best known and most frequently performed. Published in 1725 as part of a set of 12 concertos under the title of “Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione (The Test of Harmony and Invention), it is known that Louis XV was extraordinarily fond of “Spring”, ordering it to be played at the most unexpected of moments! Among the most striking works of program music of the Baroque period, these four concertos for violin and string orchestra have been recorded countless numbers of times, used in films and have formed the basis for works by other composers. Vivaldi himself wrote descriptive sonnets to go with each of the movements, depicting the changing of the seasons in a pastoral landscape, the music being clearly evocative of the sonnets. Audience members, at the JBO concert, many of whom had previously been unaware of these texts, were able to read the sonnets on the printed program. Soloing and directing the work, we heard Russian-born Boris Begelman (b.1983); Begelman is no new face to Israeli concert-goers and to Baroque music audiences in particular. Begelman did not remain fixed to one spot on the floor: he led his players articulately, turning to and moving towards specific players at various times, his whole physical being taking on the role of leader and conductor as he inspired the orchestra to join him in what could only be called an outstandingly insightful and exciting performance of the work. On a musical canvas of dazzling variety, we experience the sultry Italian summer, a storm, the dripping of rain (played pizzicato on violins), we hear hunting horns and the hunters’ guns, bagpipes, bird calls (violinist Dafna Ravid), dogs barking, the buzzing of insects, swaying grass and bubbling brooks. The sensation of being in the icy cold of winter, almost palpably lowering the temperature in the Henry Crown Auditorium, opens the “Winter” concerto:
‘Trembling with cold amidst the freezing snow,
While a frightful wind harshly blows,
Running and stamping one’s feet every minute,
And feeling one’s teeth chatter from the extreme cold…..’
As to the human element, Vivaldi describes the celebrating peasant, drunkards slipping and sliding, a man walking on precariously thin ice and the little shepherd boy vulnerable to the elements:
‘The shepherd sobs because, uncertain,
He fears the wild squall and its effects.’
Fired with much violin know-how, virtuosic ease and youthful emotional energy, Begelman set before us emotions that are as changeable and varied as the “scenes” themselves – tranquility, longing, joy and celebration, vehemence, fear and wonder - in a performance that was one to remember! And as far as the JBO's programming is concerned, the whole concert was one of balance and excellence.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Rubato Appassionato, two of its members Israelis, record "El Carnaval de Madrid"

“El Carnaval de Madrid” – 18th Century Delights from Spain and the Low Countries” is the title of Rubato Appassionato’s recently issued CD. It was recorded in the Church of Saint Basil, Seville, Spain for the AccoustiCDelicatessen label. Rubato Appassionato was founded in 2000 at the Royal Conservatory of the Hague, where all three members were students. The ensemble – Antonia Tejeda (b.Barcelona 1975)-recorders, Eyal Streett (b.Jerusalem 1978)-Baroque bassoon and Sasha Agranov (b. St. Petersburg 1977)-Baroque ‘cello – focuses on Baroque music from Italy, Germany, France, the Netherlands, England and Spain, also researching forgotten and unknown Spanish and Dutch works. The ensemble has recorded and performed in Holland, Spain and Israel.

The first six works on the disc are dances from manuscripts and collections in the Biblioteca de Cataluña, Barcelona and the Santa Maria de la Geltrú archives – short melodies with or without a bass line.

The opening work is a Corrente and Ballete, played with stylistic and stylish verve, the bassoon and ‘cello furnishing a warm, mellow and solid bass for Antonia Tejeda’s fresh, energetic and easeful playing that is fired with temperament.

In the anonymous ‘El Carnaval de Madrid’ dances, compiled by Joachim Ibarra, the artists create a variety of improvisations using the existent melodies and/or ostinato basses, each piece receiving different treatment, Rubato Appassionato’s polished arrangements always taking into account the folk origins of the dances. In “La turca” (The Turk), Streett reminds us of the non-European origins of this dance association in his evocative, somewhat oriental-sounding ornamented melodic introduction. “La miscellanea” (The Miscellany) presents two alternating dances, bristling with early music features – the bass drone and an early fiddle double-stopping effect, the latter played with pizzazz by Tejeda. Returning to each of the dances offers a new listening experience worth waiting for.

The ensemble plays some anonymous dances from the NMI 41:59 collection from the Nederlands Muziek Institut in The Hague. In a Gigue, based on the Greensleeves theme, the artists use their musical fantasy to create a canvas rich in invention, with the ‘cello plucked to create a lute effect, reflecting the English origins of the theme. Following the Murky, a dance which, according to information accompanying the CD, flourished in Germany from the 1730s (its origins possibly Polish) begins with a curious ‘cello solo to a dotted bassoon accompaniment, the players pay due respect (infused with a touch of humor) to the higher social standing of “De Graven van Holland” (The Counts from Holland). An earthy March takes us back to the village band. Tasteful and economical use of percussion enhances some of the dances.

The anonymous “Sach dels gemechs” (found in the archive of Santa Maria de la Geltrú) is an early, modal bagpipe melody. In typical Rubato Appassionato style, the players’ performance of it is colored variously, the bagpipe drone is ever present, with the melodic line passed from one player to another. To complete the picture, we hear the “piper” filling the air bag prior to the piece and the bag deflating on its conclusion.

Moving into art music, Streett and Agranov perform Dutch composer and violinist Willem de Fesch’s ((1681-1761) Sonata VI in C major from the "Sonates a Deux vioncelles, Bassons ou Violles" (Amsterdam 1725). The title page of the publication makes no mention of the harpsichord but the bass line is a figured bass. Streett's comment regarding the latter is that the 'cello was used then as a harmonic instrument more frequently than we might have thought and that the choice of instrumentation was, in any case, flexible. Agranov and Streett begin by “preluding”, a common improvisational practice “just to feel at home in C major before the piece actually begins” in Eyal Streett’s words. In the Allegro Commodo movement, graced by Streett’s mellifluous playing of the upper line with a gentle inégal sway, Agranov’s elegant bass lines give harmonic support and elegance, agility and virtuosity, never obstructing the lucidity and expressiveness of the performance. Contrasting the poignant Sarabanda Largo, the artists present the Gavotta Allegro with buoyancy and the wink of an eye. The same sense of well-being continues on into the final two Minuettos, in which rhythmic give-and-take lend natural spontaneity to the written note.

The CD ends with a lengthy set of La Folia variations (Partes de Folias) based on those in the Biblioteca de Cataluña, Barcelona. The opening verse of the well-known harmonic-melodic ostinato, played pizzicato on ‘cello, sets an affecting and thoughtful atmosphere, the starting point from which the artists explore the large gamut of moods offered by the music, creating countermelodies and transitions as they go. Exploiting the very many techniques, timbres, combinations and possibilities of their instruments and their own invention, the players pace verse beginnings and endings sensitively; the music’s message here (the players avoiding the reckless speeds and cold acrobatics commonly heard in many performances of La Folia variations) is that the La Folia subject is not just sheer folly, that it has a noble side to it.

The beauty and depth of Rubato Appassionato’s performance can not be attributed solely to the artists’ knowledge of style, superb technique and intonation; it emanates from their natural aptitude at improvisation, their expressiveness, fine-tuned listening and a rare sense of teamwork. Their sound quality is one of the rare treats heard in today’s performance of early music.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The New Israeli Vocal Ensemble sings Brahms and more

The final performance of the New Israeli Vocal Ensemble’s second concert for the 2011-2012 season, “The Fascinating World of Brahms”, took place at the Jerusalem Khan Theatre February 4th 2012. It was conducted by the ensemble’s founder and musical director Yuval Ben Ozer.

The program opened with the “Sanctus” from G.P.da Palestrina’s (1525/6-1594) “Missa Papae Marcelli”, the most talked-about of the composer’s 104 Masses, due to the various stories surrounding it. The NIVE singers, spread around the stage not in voice sections, shed light on the work’s liturgical clarity, refinement and contrasts; the singers’ clean, rich vocal blend was not marred by vibrato, allowing for verbal audibility. This work was followed by J.S.Bach’s (1685-1750) motet “Lobet den Herrn” (Praise the Lord) (Psalm 117:1-2). Actually, there is some doubt as to the authorship of the work, despite the original being in Bach’s hand. An extremely challenging work for singers, its style mostly more instrumental in nature than vocal, it falls into three sections, the first and last both joyful and densely contrapuntal. Ben Ozer’s sensible choice of tempo (in contrast to the breakneck speeds in many of today’s recordings) presented light, clean passagework, contrast and fine collaboration between voices.

In his setting for women’s voices of Psalm 23 “Gott ist mein Hirt” (The Lord is my shepherd) D706 (1820), either commissioned or requested by Anna Fröhlich, a singing teacher at the Vienna Conservatorium, Franz Schubert (1797-1828) used philosopher Moses Mendelssohn’s German translation. The piece, justifiably, quickly became popular with the Viennese public, being much performed during the composer’s lifetime. Accompanied by Timur Shapira at the piano, the women members of the ensemble created the piece’s tranquil, pastoral atmosphere, from its florid opening textures to comforting stability reflected in Schubert’s word-painting in passages such as of “Thy rod and staff”. The audience enjoyed the feminine, silvery, carefully crafted sound of the singers and Shapira’s close attention to text, singers and the atmosphere of the piece. German pronunciation was mostly good.

Heinrich Schütz’ (1585-1672) 40 “Cantiones Sacrae” (1625) draw on meditative texts. The continuo plays a minor part in them, having been added at the request of a publisher, enabling the singers to focus on the counterpoint, chromaticism and intense expressivity of the music. Motets no. 63 and 64 pair well together, their texts both being from Song of Songs. The challenge in these two motets is to strike a fine balance between music that is sacred and biblical and the highly expressive, erotic love poetry of the Song of Songs.
‘I slept but my heart was awake.
Listen! My lover is knocking: “Open to me, my sister, my darling, my dove, my flawless one.
My head is drenched with dew, my hair with the dampness of the night.’ (Song of Songs 5:2)
Ben Ozer uses a light touch to evoke the texts, encourages transparency, much expression and an effective use of consonants to fire key words. In motet no.64 we heard some of the more intimate moments sung by small groups of singers.

And to the Brahms content of the concert: unbeknown to the audience seated in the Khan Theatre, they were to hear the Israeli premiere of a Brahms piano piece. The miniature in A minor, titled “Albumblatt” (Album Leaf) by the 20-year-old Brahms in 1853, written in full (not as a sketch), was discovered by conductor and scholar Christopher Hogwood in a book that had belonged to the director of music in Göttingen. Andras Schiff made the first recording of it in January 2012. Timur Shapira’s poignant playing of this single page of music created a hauntingly Brahmsian mood, despite limitations of the Khan’s piano, which has seen and heard better days.

Maestro Ben Ozer spoke of the influence earlier styles and musical forms had on Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). In fact, Brahms’ impressive output of a cappella sacred choruses and motets makes learned and creative reference to such Baroque masters as Gabrieli, Schütz and Bach. Add to this his skill in the writing of the unaccompanied Romantic choral song – the “Chorlied”. Motet opus 74 no.1 “Warum ist das Licht gegeben” (Wherefore is light given to him that is in misery), published 1879, is a fine example of this and is considered by some scholars to be the composer’s greatest a cappella work. It is an exemplary piece of canonic writing. (Brahms, a North German Protestant by birth, was an agnostic and had shed his Christian upbringing early on; he did occasionally use biblical texts, mostly choosing those to do with death, where he steered well clear of verses explicit to the Christian dogma, the resurrection, etc.) Clearly modeled on works of this kind of Bach, also concluding with a Lutheran chorale, there is no coincidence in the fact that Brahms dedicated the two opus 74 motets to the general editor of the Complete Bach Edition, published during Brahms’ lifetime, and to which he subscribed. In this verse motet, the subject is Brahms and death, with texts taken from both Old and New Testaments; they reflect the composer’s own innate pessimism and melancholy. The NIVE gave a sensitive and profound reading of the piece, beginning with the repeated and agonizing “Warum” (Why). Each verse brings a change of color, Brahms’ six-voiced counterpoint in the second- and third sections presented in articulate detail; the Lutheran chorale in the style of Bach was pleasing and satisfying in its rich, flowing melodic-harmonic course, ending on an optimistic D major chord.

Brahms’ “Lieder” opus 104 songs written for a cappella choir, most of which being scored for six voices (the doubling of altos harking back to the sonority of his predilection), are a gloomy expression of acceptance of the composer’s own mortality. They are Brahms’ last secular choral works. The NIVE gave a poignant and shaped reading of the first three songs of the cycle, infusing them not only with the lush tonings of Romantic vocal expression but with much attention to the poetic text – as in “seufzend” (sighing) in Nactwache I (Nightwatch) of Friedrich Rückert and the separating of one leaf from another in “Blatt um Blatt” from “Letztes Glück” (Last Happiness) of Max Kalbeck:
‘Leaf upon leaf floats lifelessly
Quietly and sadly from the trees;
Its hopes never satisfied,
The heart dwells in dreams of spring…’

Not long after composing the “German Requiem” Brahms conceived the “Schicksalslied” (Song of Destiny) opus 54 for mixed choir and orchestra; it takes its text from a poem by Friedrich Hölderlin. The poem deals with the contrast between the ideal, Elysian world of the gods and the perpetual struggle of mortals on earth. Brahms plays skillfully with color: the initially blissful and serene scene turns ominous and violent in order to depict the fate of mortals struggling with destiny. Brahms spent three years agonizing over the idea of the work ending with Hölderlin’s black, tragic vision.
‘Yet there is granted us no place to rest;
We vanish – we fall-
The suffering humans –
Blind from one hour to another,
Like water thrown from cliff to cliff,
For years into the unknown depths,’
The composer’s solution was to add a lengthy, calm and uplifting instrumental epilogue. The piano reduction we heard is Brahms’ own; altogether, the piano part is an equal partner in the task of presenting the musical and emotional course of the work; Shapira handled it convincingly. Singers and pianist set before us this unique work in a lucid mix of radiant tenderness, intense sorrow and demonic drama.

The New Israeli Vocal Ensemble presented an ambitious and highly interesting program, several of the works seldom (unjustifiably) heard on Israeli concert platforms. Ben Ozer’s work is detailed and searching, the singers’ control sometimes over-careful and limiting considering their overall excellence. Stronger singing from the basses would set up a more interesting play of tension between all voice sections, allowing for more personal spontaneity of expression. Kedem Berger’s program notes are detailed and informative.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

David Shemer performs Bach's Goldberg Variations at Christ Church,Jerusalem

Christ Church in Jerusalem’s Old City was the venue for a festive concert coinciding with the launching of a CD of J.S.Bach’s Goldberg Variations BWV 988, played on the harpsichord by conductor and Baroque specialist David Shemer, a leading figure in Israel’s early music scene. Dr. David Shemer is the founder and musical director of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra. Born in Riga, Latvia, Shemer graduated from the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, then specializing in Baroque performance practice in London, where he studied with renowned teachers, such as Christopher Kite, Jill Severs, Trevor Pinnock and Philip Pickett. A Doctor of Musical Arts was conferred on him by the University of New York at Stony Brook. A member of several chamber ensembles, Shemer teaches, holds master classes and performs widely.

Maestro Shemer opened the event with a few words to the audience. He talked of the disc as being the result of many years’ work and of the fact that it is the first to be issued on the JBO’s own label;he mentioned that more recordings are under way on the JBO label. He thanked the people of Christ Church for their cooperation over the period of recording the Goldberg Variations there, thanking Mrs. Sara Piro, director of the JBO, for her massive involvement in the project, musicians Elam Rotem and Yizhar Karshon for their guidance and advice throughout recording, Sharon Asis for her superb design of the disc cover and Avi Elbaz for his work as recording engineer.

I heard David Shemer performing the Goldberg Variations in 2008; at St. Andrews Scots Memorial Church, he performed the work on his double-manual Skowroneck harpsichord, as he did in the above-mentioned performance, on January 31st 2012. An aria with 30 variations, the Goldberg Variations were first published in 1741 and belong to the last series of keyboard music published by Bach under the title of “Clavierübung” (Keyboard Practice). It was the largest of all Clavier pieces written in the Baroque period and is considered by some scholars to sum up the entire history of Baroque variation. Mystery surrounds the real inspiration behind Bach’s composing of the work and why the composer, indeed, chose the variation form at a time when variations were written mostly for pedagogical use. The German galant-style Aria that opens and closes the work appears in Book 2 of the 1725 Clavierbüchlein (Little Clavier Book) for Anna Magdalena Bach. Copied in her hand, it bears the name of no composer. Based on this single ground bass theme, the variations display Bach’s boundless knowledge of all styles of the day; they also say much about his own performance ability: the work presents an extraordinary variety of seemingly insurmountable technical challenges.

With Shemer beginning to present the Aria, one’s visual focus lessened as the artist took his audience into the world of sounds, into the layers of the work’s text. Taking his time to spell out the contemplative, detailed meaning of the Aria, Shemer allowed the melodic course (right hand) of the Aria the freedom to defy the rhythmic basis of the left hand. Shemer’s performance then guided the audience across the broad canvas of the work as his tirelessly enquiring approach sought out the musical nucleus of each movement. The importance of chromatics and foreign notes was ever drawn to our attention as were the expressive powers of gentle, rhythmic flexing. The richness of Bach’s counterpoint flowed in a myriad of textures, flamboyant passagework and hand-crossing trickery; some movements proceeded attacca (without a break) keeping the level of excitement high; others demanded a second or two of silence in order to deliver a very different, new musical message. Lyrical movements, such as Variation 15, opened up space following intense textures; in Variation XV, one was invited to luxuriate in beautifully singing voices, the highest of them leading upwards to a breathtakingly high end. This was followed by a tight, muscular Variation 16 (Ouverture). Poignant moments contrasted with humorous moments as the work spiraled to dizzying heights of tension and technical acrobatics, almost shocking the mind in the layered trilling of Variation 28 and the clanging of bells and fast passagework of Variation 29. Then, that strange creature, the Quodlibet, cleverly constructed of strands of humorous German folksongs, reared its enigmatic head. Shemer gave it energy, steering well clear of cheap humor or sentimentality. And there again was the opening Aria, suddenly back upon us…like a moment of truth…compelling and thought-provoking, Shemer reminding us of where this mammoth set of variations had originated, a rare, intimate moment, ornamented anew, performed with sincerity and humility.

Playing J.S.Bach’s Goldberg Variations is surely one of the most meaningful high moments in the performing life of any harpsichordist. It was a privilege to be present at this event.