Sunday, December 2, 2012

Carmel Quartet in "Shall We Dance?"

The Carmel Quartet opened its 2012-2013 “Strings and More” commented concert series with “Shall We Dance?”  The concert-lectures are performed in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem, with one of the Jerusalem events given in English, to the delight of the English-speaking concert audience in the capital. This writer attended the performance at the Jerusalem Music Centre, November 28th 2012. Members of the quartet are violinists Rachel Ringelstein and Lia Raikhlin, violist Yoel Greenberg and 'cellist Tami Waterman. ‘Cellist Ira was standing in for Tami Waterman, who is on maternity leave.

The artists entered playing an early folk dance. We heard a brief account of early dance music, from that of the early Greeks to the status of the dance in instrumental music of the Classical period. With some historical pictures of dance on the screen, the quartet played some Renaissance dances in a convincing and stylistically pleasing manner, temporarily abandoning their extensive training in vibrato playing for the pure, straight sounds of early music. Throughout the evening, violist Yoel Greenberg, who gave the talk, helped here and there by the other artists, referred to Richard Wagner’s adoption of the Darwinist model as present in his essays of 1859 to 1861, the exact time Darwin first published the “Origin of Species”, applying it to his own understanding of the history of music. Wagner’s wish to realize his destined place in evolution might be regarded as an excuse to plug his own music, Greenberg suggested. Greenberg did liken Darwin’s discussion of the gradual disappearance of the tail on the development of man to the dance in music no longer danced, to be used as instrumental forms only. Having Givol play a few bars of an Allemande from one of Bach’s solo ‘cello suites provided enough proof that here was a dance to which one could no longer dance.  Moving to the Classical period, and to Joseph Haydn’s (1732-1809) String Quartet opus 20 no.2, Greenberg reminded us that this was no longer a suite, the titles of three of its movements (the third is a Minuetto) making no reference to dances forms. However, Greenberg and his colleagues demonstrated how similar to the Allemande the first movement is in rhythm and pace and that the character and rhythm of the last movement’s theme is reminiscent of the Gigue, a dance commonly concluding the Baroque suite. Greenberg then asked how and what the reasons were for moving from the suite to the string quartet. At the time Haydn wrote the opus 20 quartets (1772-1773), he was in the service of Prince Nicolaus of Esterházy. Haydn, himself the son of a wheelwright, having grown up in an Austrian village, was brought up with rustic music. However, singing in a church choir, he was also familiar with the church modes. This “dowry” of Haydn’s shows its presence in the quartet, a work also needing to answer to the demands of the prince. However, with the composer also being a shrewd businessman, he wanted these works bought and played by the rising middle classes. So the music needed to be both sophisticated and communicative. Greenberg referred to the second movement as a Capriccio – a free form of expression – and Haydn is radical in freedom of expression in this movement, allowing the ‘cello’s lament-like melody to be rudely interrupted. Greenberg mentioned Haydn and Nicolaus’ passion for puppet theatre (Haydn had composed a number of operas for puppet theatre) and suggested the middle section of the second movement would fit the bill for this genre. The Minuet follows on without a break; here, Haydn returns to his rustic origins, his Minuet no aristocratic dance with its reference to the musette – the French bagpipes – with its constant drone. The ‘cello melody of the trio of the second movement harks back to church music. By composing the fourth movement as a fugue with four themes, Haydn proves his knowledge of music history, music theory and his ability to use complex musical forms. Greenberg points out that, almost to the end, the movement is played sotto voce (very quietly), perhaps suggesting that it is a “voice from the past” and reminding the listener of the fact that early instruments have less volume. Haydn’s String Quartet opus 20 no.2, in which case, presents past and present, nature versus artifice and elements of rustic music together with those of church music.
The Carmel Quartet’s choice of this Haydn work was more than interesting. Haydn’s opus 20 quartets, sometimes referred to as the “Great Quartets”, take him into a style of more emotional intensity, more complex polyphonic textures and energy.  The Carmel Quartet players gave clean, unmannered expression to its moments of simplicity, to its naïveté but also to its severity at times, complexity, capriciousness and unpredictability. Tonal and harmonic changes were all addressed as well as the smallest fine details – such as first violinist Rachel Ringelstein’s small pauses between fragments in the second movement. The quartet certainly emphasized the unusual character of the final movement, creating a haunting soundscape.  The performance bristled with zest, color and sensitivity.

Referring to Wagner’s evolutionary theories once more, Yoel Greenberg emphasized that Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was of a very different school of thought. Brahms, together with music historian and critic Friedrich Chrysander, violinist and conductor Joseph Joachim and music critic Eduard Hanslick, believed that traditional forms still had much to offer. The young Brahms, in fact, composed a dance suite and the fourth movement of his Symphony no.4 is a passacaglia, the latter musical form originating from an old Spanish dance form. Brahms composed and destroyed some twenty string quartets. Three have survived. Although we do not associate Brahms with dance music, his String Quartet opus 76 no.3 (1875) includes many dance rhythms, with three of the four movements having their roots in the folk idiom the composer loved. 

In the first movement – Vivace – in which Brahms looks back to Schumann, Liszt and Wagner, the composer moves from dance to dance, including a peasant dance. The second movement, in ternary form and devoid of dance associations, presents a lyrical strong melody spun over throbbing chords. Greenberg associated the middle section with the Baroque French Overture, which is characterized by dotted rhythms. The third movement – Agitato – a scherzo, in effect, might suggest the Austrian folk dance - the Ländler. The composer gives the viola the solo throughout, the other three instruments using mutes. Greenberg suggested the hushed sound might represent early instruments. The theme for the final movement’s set of eight variations is in the style of a folk song; the viola features in the first two variations, with the violin in the third and fourth. Material from the first movement finds its way into this Poco Allegro con variazione, bringing the work the full circle, the dance themes also connecting old music to the Romantic period. Reading into the score’s many layers, the players created the richness of Brahms’ chamber music textures, his intensity of expression. All four superb artists wove into the work’s fibre via their own emotions, playing with- and entertaining with the rubati of dances and folk-type melodies. With the viola figuring extensively in the work, Greenberg gave his solos color and presence, Ringelstein leading with compelling articulacy and with many charming touches. ‘Cellist Ira Givol’s sensitive playing registers and shapes each musical gesture; a guest of the Carmel Quartet, his communicative playing made for fine collaboration with the other players.

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