Sunday, March 11, 2012

Barrocade Vocale's inaugural concert in Ein Kerem, Jerusalem

Claudio Monteverdi

“Lamento della Ninfa” was the title given to the inaugural concert March 3rd 2012 of Barrocade Vocale - soprano Ye’ela Avital, alto Ella Wilhelm, tenor Doron Florentin, tenor Eliav Lavi and bass Joel Sivan. The venue was the chapel at Notre Dame de Sion, Ein Kerem (Jerusalem); nestling in luxuriant gardens, the setting breathes tranquility. Harpsichordist Yizhar Karshon, artistic director of the vocal ensemble, and veteran Barrocade member Ye’ela Avital, went to great lengths to select and match the five voices that make up Barrocade Vocale. In this concert of mostly secular Italian music of the Renaissance and Baroque – you might call it “love and death Italian-style” - the singers were joined by Barrocade instrumentalists Shlomit Sivan-violin, Amit Tiefenbrunn-viola da gamba, Eliav Lavi-lute and Yizhar Karshon-harpsichord.

The concert opened with a rush of energy with Giovanni Paolo Cima’s (c.1570-1630) Sonata for Violin, Violone and Basso continuo in G minor, a work representative of the development of early Baroque music in northern Italy that was now moving away from polyphonic texture towards solo or duo melodies, supported rhythmically and harmonically by a continuo bass. Sivan and Tiefenbrunn’s vivid playing of its complex melodic lines made for exciting listening. Italian lutenist and composer Francesco da Milano (1497-1543), referred to as “Il Divino” by his admirers, was both foremost lutenist and the greatest lute composer of his time, his oeuvre including many ricercars. Eliav Lavi’s playing of Francesco da Milano’s “Recercario undecimo” was sensitive and well shaped, his melodic lines articulate, the lute timbre, even when pianissimo, sounding articulate in the welcoming acoustic of the chapel. Violinist, organist and opera-composer Michelangelo Rossi (c.1602-1656) has been referred to as Frescobaldi’s most gifted pupil. Yizhar Karshon’s playing of Rossi’s “Toccata settima” for harpsichord revealed the progress of the toccata in Rossi’s hands: no tame piece of music this, Karshon pulled out the plugs to present Rossi’s unpredictable, extraverted temperament and cascading figures with nimble energy and a sense of adventure, the dramatic toccata ending on an unexpectedly naïve major chord! Diego Ortiz (c.1510-1570) published “Trattado de Glosas” (Rome, 1553) a book of music for viol, with guidance as to ornamentation as well as pieces, namely Recercadas. Tiefenbrunn’s playing on the bass viol of two of the Recercadas highlighted Ortiz’ practice of dividing long notes into groups of many agile short notes in subtle patterning, the basic melodic line sounding present throughout.

And to the impending subject: idyllic love, bucolic love, love’s torments and death. From being employed as a singer at St. Mark’s Venice, Alessandro Grandi moved up to becoming Monteverdi’s assistant. Grandi was the first composer to use the term “cantata” in the modern sense, but he was also important for his many collections of solo songs. The sensuous “O, quam tu pulchra es” (Oh, how beautiful you are), the text taken from the Song of Songs, was expressive and bright in timbre, Avital and Lavi allowing the words to fashion the pace of the work. Karshon’s short, improvisatory transition led into the motet version for three voices in which Wilhelm, Florentin and Sivan’s fine vocal interplay was infused with discretion and subtlety in an almost madrigalian setting.

Franco-Flemish composer Jacques Arcadelt (c.1507-1568) spent time in Venice, wrote sacred music, his interest, however, lying mostly in secular music; he was an important composer of madrigals, of which he wrote more than 200. Avital, Wilhelm, Florentin and Sivan performed Arcadelt’s fragile “Il bianco e dolce signo” (The white and sweet swan), in which the narrator contrasts the gentle swan’s dying moments with his own death. This piece is considered the paradigm of the Italian madrigal. The quartet gave shape to its lush harmonies, guiding its sensual textures into finely-chiseled phrase endings.

Also on the subject of death, we heard Carlo Gesualdo’s (c.1560-1613) “Sparge la morte” of 1596 (Death spreads over my Lord’s face). Gesualdo, one of the boldest, most unconventional and idiosyncratic composers of his time, was quite conversant on the subject of death, having murdered his wife with her lover. The piece we heard, one of his more restrained, was painted in dark, somber shades by Barrocade Vocale, Gesualdo’s audacious use of color and daring harmonic changes addressed.

It stands to reason that a vocal group of this kind will present its credentials, at least partially, with the singing of Monteverdi madrigals. “Cruda Amirilli” (Cruel Amaryllis) the first piece of the composer’s 5th Book of Madrigals, its text from Guarini’s “The Faithful Shepherd”, is no simplistic pastoral madrigal: telling something of the emotional tangles of a tragic love triangle, Barrocade Chorale presented Mirtillo’s side of the story in all its angst – his hopeless love of Amaryllis. The singers leaned into the dissonances Monteverdi used to symbolize the complexity of Mirtillo’s desire and suffering.

Amorous dialogues – depicting risqué exploits desires and dreams - form an important part of 17th century dialogue repertoire, with nobility sometimes playing at being Arcadian shepherds and nymphs. Avital and Florentin’s performance of Monteverdi’s canzonetta “Bel pastor dal cui bel guardo” (text: Rinuccini) (c.1651), is a playful dialogue between nymph and shepherd. Avital’s coquettish enquiring and manipulations are not answered to her satisfaction by the not-very-forthcoming shepherd (Florentin’s embarrassment was convincing.)
“Handsome shepherd whose lovely grace shoots flame that burns me completely, do you love me?”
“Yes, my heart.”
“As I desire?”
“Yes, my heart”.
“Tell me how much.”
“So much, so much…”

Another dialogue “Ardo e scoprir” (I burn and, alas, I do not have the courage to reveal the burning which I bear hidden in my breast), first printed in the 8th Book of Madrigals, takes a more serious stand in its D minor tonality. Eliav Lavi and Doron Florentin express the lover’s paralyzed speechlessness in the face of his lady. In two-voice recitative, they poignantly present the plangent outpouring of the piece, its mood changes, verbal fragments and word-painting.

Composed when he was 71, Monteverdi’s 8th Book of Madrigals – “Madrigals of War and Love” – constitutes the synthesis of the composer’s experience in the realm of secular music and the culmination of the Italian madrigal. Lavi and Florentin and Sivan performed “Gira il nemico insidioso, Amore”, an intense, impulsive and masculine piece bristling with energy, fast changes and humor.
‘The enemy, insidious Love
Is encircling the citadel of my heart.
Take action quickly, for he is not far from here.
Take up your weapons!’

The concert ended with one of Monteverdi’s greatest madrigals “Lamento della Ninfa” (The Nymph’s Lament) for 4 voices, also from Book 8, this Barrocade concert taking its name from the piece. Accompanied by harpsichord and viol, Ye’ela Avital, standing in an elevated position behind the other singers, gave an affecting representation of the nymph, launching her passionate complaints over lost love, to a chaconne bass played by Karshon and Tiefenbrunn, with Lavi, Florentin and Sivan (three fauns!) expressing utterances of sympathy at the nymph’s suffering and sorrow. Convincingly performed, the audience was able to override the platitudinous content of the mini-drama to delight in and be moved by this fine piece of choral music. Karshon’s imaginative harpsichord improvisations added much richness to the musical scene.
‘On her pale face
Grief could be seen,
Often from her heart
A deep sigh was drawn….

So amidst disdainful tears
She spread her weeping to the sky;
Thus, in lovers’ hearts
Love mixes fire and ice.”

Developing a distinctive blend, Barrocade Vocale promises to fill a void in the local early music scene, in which small early music vocal ensembles are rare. The singers’ profound understanding of style and repertoire, their musicianship and secure technique were clear to all present. As to the individual voice timbres – Ye’ela Avital’s silvery voice is, indeed, at its best (her use of vibrato in this repertoire could be more sparing), Ella Wilhelm’s rich, dark alto color is stable and pleasing, as is Doron Florentin’s warm, bright and expressive voice. Eliav Lavi adds a grainier color into the vocal mix, much competence and the option to perform lute songs. Joel Sivan’s bass voice is neither heavy nor overpowering; rather, a focused, warmly blended, flexible sound, well suited to early music. And, vital to such an ensemble, the instrumentalists were well aware of their role of harmonic support and the need for careful shaping to emphasize rhetorical aspects of the sung text, transmitting its emotional significance to the listener.

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