Sunday, November 24, 2013

Ayelet Karni and Gideon Meir play Italian and German music in Tel Aviv

The evening of November 16th 2013 was still balmy in Tel Aviv, with Autumn delaying its presence. Rothschild Boulevard was abuzz with people strolling, running and chatting, with dog-owners and café-sitters. Veering off the main road, I wandered through the maze of side streets of that old, established quarter of Tel Aviv. The event was a house concert performed by recorder player Ayelet Karni and harpsichordist/organist Gideon Meir.

Gideon Meir began piano lessons at age 8 with Malka Mevorach. In 1980, he went to London, where he studied harpsichord with Maggie Cole, later in San Francisco with Laurette Goldberg, them with Lisa Crawford at the Oberlin College Conservatory (Ohio). He has been studying the organ with Arin Maisky (Israel) and made his organ debut at the Redeemer Church, Jerusalem in 2010. Among his many and varied harpsichord recitals, Meir’s interest in Flamenco (he, himself dances Flamenco) has led him to harpsichord recitals with Flamenco dancers.

Ayelet Karni plays recorders, Baroque oboe and shawms. A graduate of the Jerusalem Academy of Music, studying recorder with Lara Morris, she went on to further recorder studies with Corina Marti at the Basel Schola Cantorum, now completing a second Masters degree there in Baroque oboe (Katharina Arfken). Karni has also taken studies at the Leipzig “Hochschule für Musik und Theater” under Antje Hensel (recorder) and Annette Spehr (historic oboe). As a soloist and ensemble player, she performs in Europe, the USA and Israel.

Seated in Gidi Meir’s music room, surrounded by his two harpsichords and a small pipe organ, we had gathered to hear Meir and Karni in the first recital to celebrate the newly-purchased organ. The two-manual organ, based on a 16th century positive instrument, was built by Gideon Shamir in 1986 for composer and violist Ze’ev Steinberg. On Steinberg’s death in 2011, the instrument was sold to Gidi Meir. Some changes and additions were made by Sharon Rosner, with the final voicing being carried out by Gideon Shamir.

Much of the evening’s program focused on the art of diminution, a skill which, by the end of the 16th century, saw the flowering of sophisticated instrumental variations, many based on madrigals, these, in the course of the 17th century becoming the root of instrumental virtuosity. The program opened with two works of Giovanni Bassano (c.1558-1617), a virtuoso on the cornett and principal instrumentalist at St. Mark’s Venice from 1585 to his death. Karni opened with Ricercata III in g from Bassano’s “Ricercate, passagi et cadentie” (Ricercars, Divisions and Cadenzas) of 1585, a book which details exactly how to ornament passages. Introducing the work by referring to the ricercar as a piece dealing with the idea of “seeking”, both on the part of the composer and of that of the player, Karni’s performance of this multi-sectional piece suggested much spontaneity, giving each section new meaning, color and temperament, embellishing it with the use of florid “passagi”, also offering the listener a surprise or two. The second Bassano piece, played on recorder and organ, was a set of diminutions based on an early 16th century chanson by Orlando di Lasso, “Susanne ung jour”.
‘Susanna faire, sometimes of love requested
By two old men whome her sweet looks allur’d
Was in her heart full sad & sore molested
Seeing the force her chastitie endur’d…’ (English translation: Nicholas Yonge’s “Musica Transalpina”, 1588).
With the melody mostly announced on the organ, we were presented with a great many variation ideas and ornaments in the recorder part, with the two instruments pleasingly balanced.

Still on the subject of variations, Gidi Meir played Dieterich Buxtehude’s Ciacona for organ in e minor BuxWV 160. Over a somber and stately, descending bass pattern, Meir presented the set of highly imaginative variations, building up the momentum, using brighter timbres, yet still preserving the work’s grandeur, signing out with a sense of well-being on a major chord. From the 19 surviving so-called free-form “Praeludia”, constituting Buxtehude’s most important contribution to 17th century German music, Meir played the well-loved Prelude in g minor BuxWV 149. A challenging work, making fine use of the organ’s palette of different timbres (Buxtehude left the choice of registration up to the player), Meir’s playing of free sections alternating with solemn fugal sections displayed the rich array of Buxtehude’s ideas and compositional genius.

Meir and Karni performed Giovanni Paolo Cima’s (c.1570-1630) Sonata in g minor (written originally for violin, violone and basso continuo) on soprano recorder and Meir’s Flemish harpsichord. In the style of music from northern Italy, now moving away from polyphonic textures towards solo melody, their playing was gently swayed, imaginative, with Karni weaving many connecting ornaments throughout the texture, indeed upholding Silvestro Ganassi’s credo that the recorder should imitate the songfulness of the human voice.
Giovanni Cima and Francesco Rognoni were both members of influential families of Milanese musicians. Like Bassano, Rognoni wrote a treatise on the art of embellishing and ornamenting music, so, like Bassono, his diminution piece has a pedagogical element in addition to showcasing the performer’s talents. Rognoni’s Diminutions on Palestrina’s madrigal “Vestiva I colli” (Clothed in the hills and the countryside) are found in “Selva de’ varii Passagi”, his instructional book on singing and instrumental playing. Francesco Rognoni (1570-1626), considered to be the first great violinist in the instrument’s history, wrote his diminutions for violin virtuosos like himself. With the organ holding the basic melody, Karni, on the soprano recorder, dealt with virtuosic passages with ease rather than ego-driven show as she presented their many moods.

If music is “played”, Frescobaldi’s Canzonas are true games. In Girolamo Frescobaldi’s (1583-1643) Canzona Seconda detta La Bernardina, the artists presented the small concentrated and capricious sections, flourishes and interludes and changes of meter and character in a compact miniature. With Meir’s gestures inviting her to embark on each new section, Karni’s recorder playing was enhanced by some nice harpsichord spreads. Light of texture, humorous, entertaining and also challenging, the piece was suddenly over with the wink of an eye.

We then heard the two artists in J.S.Bach’s canonic and sophisticated Chorale Fantasia on “Nun komm’ der Heiland” (Now come, Saviour of the heathens), the music and text based on a Gregorian hymn that was translated into German by Martin Luther in 1524. Gidi Meir spoke of Bach as being a deeply religious man and of the composer’s psychological approach to the coming of the Messiah. The organ role, suggesting a church processional, provided a firm basis for the staggered recorder phrases. Then, moving back in time, we heard what would have been Bach’s inspiration for the piece - Buxtehude’s chorale prelude on the same melody (c.1690). Against velvety, caressing organ- playing, Karni’s playing was warm and full of feeling.

The intimacy of a house concert makes for a true meeting between artists and audience. With organ lofts generally out of view or behind the audience, it is a rare experience to watch the player at work. Here was an opportunity not to be missed. Offering short explanations, Gideon Meir and Ayelet Karni gave a performance that was interesting, stylistically informed, unmannered and eloquent. They sent the audience off with a no-less-artistic rendering of the Beatles’ “Yesterday”, played on tenor recorder and organ.

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