Friday, June 21, 2013

The Atar Trio at the Redeemer Church, Jerusalem

On a tranquil, balmy Saturday evening in Jerusalem, on entering the German Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in the Muristan Compound of Jerusalem’s Old City, one leaves the busy lanes of the market behind to enjoy the tranquility of this historical building. Ascending the stairs, one is met by the sight of luxuriant flowering plants cascading down into the medieval cloister courtyard. The event there on June 15th 2013 was a concert of the Atar Trio, taking place in St. John’s Chapel. The chapel, built in the early 12th century, as part of a large pilgrim hostel and convent, was one of the many structures erected in Jerusalem by the Crusader Knights of St. John. In 1995, the chapel and courtyard were restored to reflect their 12th century character. The chapel is uncluttered, with rough stones forming the walls, a rib-vaulted ceiling and stained glass windows of geometric designs.

The Atar Trio was established in 1996 by pianist Ofer Shelley; joining him are violinist Tanya Beltzer and ‘cellist Marina Katz. Born in Israel, Ofer Shelley studied piano at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, taking postgraduate studies in Musicology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Shelley writes arrangements, produces musical projects and works in music education. Born in the Ukraine, Tanya Beltzer immigrated to Israel in 1994, taking postgraduate studies at the Jerusalem Academy of Music. Her repertoire spans many musical styles and she is also a recitalist. Beltzer has performed much music of Israeli composers and is also involved in teaching music. Marina Katz came to Israel from Riga, Latvia, in 1994, where she continued her studies at Tel Aviv University and the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. The recipient of several prizes, she is an orchestral player and recitalist, currently serving as principal ‘cellist in the Kibbutz Chamber Orchestra.  The Atar Trio runs a busy performing schedule, playing chamber music concerts and in various other productions and projects. It has enjoyed the guidance of such renowned musicians as Professor Benjamin Oren, Professor David Chen and Professor Jerome Lowenthal and has also worked with the Altenberg Trio (Vienna).

Following words of welcome from organist and musical director of the Redeemer Church Gunther Martin Goetsche, the concert began with J.S.Bach’s (1685-1750) Trio Sonata in c minor BWV 1017. Composed as a violin and keyboard sonata, adding a lower instrument to strengthen the (harpsichordist) bass line would certainly have tied in with Baroque performance practice. In the present format, Katz’ playing of the ‘cello added to the lush setting. In the opening swaying, Sicilienne-type movement, Beltzer’s expressiveness colored each phrase. In the demanding second movement – Allegro – there was close interaction between Beltzer and Shelley, with Shelley’s somewhat detached treatment of fast notes keeping the texture from being overly dense. The atypically Baroque third movement – Adagio – with its triplet right hand accompaniment invited each instrument to speak in its own idiom. In the final movement, the artists were articulate in their reading of its packed fugal texture. It is a fact that musicians of the authentic Baroque movement, playing on period instruments and carrying out research as to how Bach’s music must have sounded in the composer’s times, have gained the upper hand in performance over the last decades. The question of authenticity is a complex one. The Atar Trio offers its audience Bach on modern instruments, playing the music with crispness, not, however, ignoring Baroque stylistic considerations; happily, the players avoided over-romantic playing or an attempt at imitating Baroque instruments, making for a satisfying performance.   

Moving in a very different direction, Beltzer and Shelley performed two Spanish dances by the Spanish-born violinist and composer Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908), whose four volumes of Spanish dances for violin and piano (1878-1882) have seen a revival of late. The first book, opus 21, contains the Malagueña and Habañera, which we heard at this concert. The Malagueña, written in ternary form, bristles with soulful, sweeping violin melodies; Beltzer was free and spontaneous with them, spicing textures with a feisty smattering of agile spiccato and pizzicato playing, with Shelley presenting a folksy melody. No less virtuosic in demands, the colorful Habañera (a dance of Cuban origin) once again made use of different effects on the violin for its earthy mix of drama and sweetness. Despite the Iberian temperament of these concert pieces, Beltzer and Shelley kept a safe distance from over-showy and aggressive playing.

An undeservedly forgotten composer over the last hundred years,  Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837) and his music are enjoying a long overdue revival. Born in Bratislava, Hummel was a pupil of Mozart, Clementi and Salieri, becoming admired by Chopin and Schubert. A fortepiano- and piano virtuoso and a renowned improviser, he composed seven piano trios from c.1803 to 1822. His Piano Trio in E flat major opus 96 is the last of them. The Atar players presented this work with its grace and elegance. In the middle movement – a charming theme with variations – there was much communication between the players, with each also clearly heard in individual utterance. In the final Rondo alla Russa, a popular Russian folk tune constitutes the main theme; the artists used strong gestures and plenty of timbral color to evoke its origins, displaying the composer’s expert writing, humor and his forecasting the Romantic era. There was much enjoyable music-making in the Atar Trio’s performance of the work; the artists’ playing radiated warmth and contagious immersion.

Returning to Spain to conclude the concert, we heard Joaquín Turina’s (1882-1949) “Circulo”, one of the most unique works in the ensemble’s repertoire. The “Turina sound”, combining the influence of French music with Spanish, presents melodic invention, infectious indigenous rhythms, harmonic parallelisms, shimmering sonorous effects and sensuality, all bound together with a sense of form and order. The “Circulo” Fantasy for piano trio opus 91 (1936) was the composer’s final piano trio. In keeping with Turina’s penchant for cyclical forms, this work traces the progress of a single day from dawn through midday to dusk. With this programmatic contour explained to those present, the Atar Trio players left the filling in of associations of the changing scene to the audience’s fantasy.  With Marina Katz setting the early morning scene with expressive, mysterious sounds in the ‘cello’s lower register, the richly detailed canvas soars upwards with suggestions of morning brightness, bells, exuberance, associations with Spanish music set in Spain’s sultry landscape, exotic modal melodies and energy, all finally dissipating with the tranquil arrival of  evening. With competence and much individual utterance, the players gave a vivid performance that was rich in color and rhythmic intensity, reflecting a deep enquiry into Turina’s style.

Presenting a not-entirely-mainstream program, here were three fine players, each with much to say, all inspired by the possibilities offered by the chamber music concert platform and interaction with the audience. The acoustics of St. John’s Chapel are as congenial as the chapel itself; the Steinway & Sons piano is delightful.   

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