Saturday, December 28, 2013

Duo Gurfinkel and Julia Gurvich in "The Romantic Clarinet" at the Eden-Tamir Music Center

“The Romantic Clarinet” was the title given to a concert in The Best of Chamber Music series at the Eden-Tamir Music Center, Ein Kerem (Jerusalem) on December 21st 2013. Artists performing in the concert were duo clarinetists Daniel and Alexander Gurfinkel and pianist Julia Gurvich. Born in Israel in 1992, Daniel and Alexander Gurfinkel began their music education in 2000. They have appeared with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and other Israeli orchestras. Their busy international performing schedule has taken them to Europe, the USA, Hong Kong and South Africa. Duo Gurfinkel, the third generation of Gurfinkel clarinetists, is also involved in contemporary music and with premiering new works. Julia Gurvich was born in Russia and graduated from the Gnesin Music Academy (Moscow). For 11 years, she was a soloist and accompanist with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra. Gurvich performs extensively in Israel and abroad and is presently a faculty member of the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music (Tel Aviv) and of Keshet Eilon.

A fitting opening to the concert was Carl Baermann’s Duo Concertante opus 33 for 2 clarinets and piano by German clarinetist and composer Carl Baermann (1810-1885). The son of Heinrich Baermann, for whom Weber composed his clarinet works, Carl Baermann’s influence on clarinet-playing was very great through his pedagogical writings, editorial contributions, compositions and the Baermann-Ottensteiner key system for the clarinet. The modern German clarinet is a direct descendant of Baermann’s clarinet model. The Duo Concertante, known to have been performed in Paris by Heinrich and Carl Baermann, is a classic example of clarinet virtuosity in Romantic colors, spiced with some Slavonic influence. The Gurfinkel twins brought out this concert piece’s different moods – its intensity, lilting lyricism and wit – in a myriad of coloristic possibilities. Julia Gurvich gave interest and presence to the piano part.

An interesting item on the program was the first movement of Johannes Brahms’ (1883-1897) Sonata in f minor opus 120 as arranged for two clarinets by the legendary Belgian clarinetist Gustave Langenus. Composed in 1894, this and the E flat Clarinet Sonata were the composer’s last chamber works and remain among the masterpieces for the Romantic clarinet. Taut and concentrated, the f minor sonata exploits the clarinet’s wide expressive range and such technical demands as the ability to rapidly change register. With the lower instrument representing much of the piano bass in Langenus’ arrangement, one heard more intense, muscular voice play than chords, with Brahms’ lush harmonies less present to cushion the texture. With impressive instrumental mastery and natural and instinctive responsiveness, the Gurfinkel brothers, however, presented the drama of the piece, its temperament and its Brahmsian underlying nostalgia.

It was due to German clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld’s brilliant playing that Brahms composed his Trio in a minor opus 114 for piano, clarinet and ‘cello. The composer wrote to Clara Schumann “You have never heard such a clarinet player as…Mühlfeld. He is absolutely the best I know. At all events, this art has, for various reasons, deteriorated very much. The clarinet players in Vienna and many other places are fairly good in orchestra, but in solo they give one no real pleasure”. The arrangement we heard of this piece was by Arkady Gurfinkel, Daniel and Alexander’s grandfather, who was present at the Ein Kerem concert. In this intimate work, the artists created its autumnal mood with wonderful byplay between the clarinets, presenting Brahms’ emotional palette. With full-blown expression and fragile moments, the artists evoked the pensive tranquility of the Andante Grazioso second movement, the hearty waltz and Ländler of the third movement and the spirited, virtuosic gypsy music of the final movement, with its feisty cross rhythms. The Gurfinkel brothers colored the two late Brahms works on this program with warm, mellifluous lower register hues so suitable to this music of affection, yearning and introspection, contrasted by bright, legato cantabile playing in upper registers.

We then heard four of Max Bruch’s (1838-1920) “Eight Pieces for Clarinet, Viola and Piano” opus 83 arranged by Arkady Gurfinkel for two clarinets and piano. Bearing no programmatic titles, these mood pieces composed when Bruch was 70, were written for his son, Max Felix, a renowned clarinetist. (The arpeggio style in the piano part of numbers 5 and 6 suggests that Bruch had also intended to include harp, but the plan was never realized). The pieces, not intended to be performed as a group, bristle with folk-type melodies and harmonic color. Rich in mellow instrumental tonings, they are all in minor keys, barring no.7. The arrangement for two clarinets works well due to the fact that Bruch treats the two melodic instruments on an equal footing; Gurvich met the technical challenges of the piano part with richly colored gestures. The artists opened with a superbly lush and “conversational” rendering of no.1 (E flat major), followed by no.4, a Scherzo presented in sweeping, singing and well-shaped phrases. In the traditional Rumanian melody of no.6, lyrical and haunting moments were displayed with fine dynamic control. In no.7 in c minor (considered by the composer to be the most important of the miniatures) the poignantly cantabile low clarinet melody was set off by other gestures bristling with energy and gregarious temperament.

The recital concluded with another arrangement by Arkady Gurfinkel, that of the Scherzo movement of the 1945 Piano Trio by Russian neo-Romantic composer Georgy Sviridov (1815-1998), a composer of mostly choral music, whose music is not frequently heard outside of Russia. With much virtuosity, intensity and up-front energy, the artists gave expression to the work’s singing qualities, its energy and its wit. Echoes of Shostakovich, Sviridov’s teacher, pervaded the vigorous piece.

Julia Gurvich and Duo Gurfinkel presented the listening public with a thought-provoking program of works rarely performed and with familiar works in a new setting, throwing new light on the arranging of works, a practice common in Renaissance- and Baroque music. The three artists collaborated in performance of the highest standard, pleasing and entertaining the audience.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra performs a program of "War and Love"

The third concert of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s 2013-2014 concert series was “War and Love”. It was conducted by the orchestra’s founder and musical director Dr. David Shemer. This writer attended the concert at St. Andrew’s Scots Memorial Church Jerusalem on December 19th 2013.

The program consisted of works by two Italian contemporaries – Falconieri and Monteverdi. The evening opened with “Battalla de Barabasso yerno de Satanas” by composer and lutenist Andrea Falconieri (1585/6-1656). Born in Naples, he spent ten years in Parma, then, after much wandering, moving back to Naples in 1647 to take up the position of “musician of theorbo and archlute” and later of maestro di cappella at the royal chapel. His Neapolitan heritage places him at the nexus of Italian and Spanish musical culture. The two Falconieri pieces on the program come from his instrumental collection of 1650, the only such collection published in southern Italy at the time. Music describing battles forms a minor but distinctive category of music from the 16th- to the early 19th centuries. This music was characterized by extroverted and dramatic expression. Falconieri’s music draws its color from Iberian-Neapolitan culture, with its richness and variety of instrumental timbres. Linking religious allegory to programmatic battle music, “The Battle of Barabbas, Son-in-Law of Satan” imitates trumpets, fifes, drums, canons and guns, ending with a victory march stemming from the melody and ground “La Girometta”, a popular dance. Here, violins feature largely (Noam Schuss, Dafna Ravid), with guitar (Alon Sariel) adding the Falconieri signature element to this joyful, colorful piece. In variations over an elaborated bass accompaniment, the JBO players presented Falconieri’s “Passacalle” with delightful play of the violins, delicate shaping and cohesive instrumental balance. Shemer’s reading of these pieces was stylish and variously colored, offering the concert-going audience a chance to hear and discover the excitement of these seldom-heard works.

“Il Ballo delle Ingrate” is one of the more substantial works of Monteverdi’s Eighth Book of Madrigals – “Madrigals of Love and War” – concluding the section of pieces pertaining to love. In his secular duties to the Gonzaga family of Mantua, a family known for its lavish festivities, Claudio Monteverdi’s (1567-1643) “Il Ballo delle Ingrate” (The Ball of the Ungrateful Ladies) was an unexpected and exotic item of the festivities surrounding the wedding of Francesco Gonzaga to Margherita of Savoy in 1608. The libretto probably owes its existence to theatrical performances Ottavio Rinuccini attended at the court of Henry IV of France. A central feature of this work was a ballet danced by eight men and eight women, those including the prince and his father, Duke Vincenzo. The framework for the dance was provided by a dramatic plot sung in the recently evolved stile recitativo. The setting is the mouth of hell; here, Venere directly addresses the ladies of the audience. The ensuing action shows the fate of those ladies who reject men’s romantic overtures. At the entreaties of Amore and Venere (Venus), eight ingratiates are permitted by Plutone to appear at the opening of the underworld as a dreadful warning to other women who may choose to deny love. As Venere, mezzo-soprano Avital Dery’s performance was gripping, articulate and dramatic. Dery’s voice is warm and substantial, her vocal ease seeing her through melismatic passages with panache. She and mezzo-soprano Shachar Lavi blended sympathetically in duo. Young Shachar Lavi’s voice is agile and rich in timbre; she was convincing in her role of Amore. Keeping the audience on the edge of their seats, bass Yair Polishook played an imposing Plutone, his large, marvellously resonant voice and musicality coupled with a fine sense of theatre. The fact that he paced the stage now and then added to the importance of the authoritative Plutone, his sidelong glances in the direction of the “offenders” giving strength to- and hinting at the underlying court scandal behind the writing of work itself. Soprano Adaya Peled dealt well with her role as one of the ungrateful women, reminding the listener that Monteverdi’s melodic tools of despair do not stop short of dissonant leaps. With Peled, Lavi, Dery and Doron Florentin’s lush, a cappella rendering of the passionate farewell, the work concluded and the ladies were sent back to the underworld to mourn their fate indefinitely. The instrumental ensemble – harpsichord and strings, with Alon Sariel now on theorbo, reflected the pathos of the drama, also giving eloquence to short dance movements.

The dramatic scene “Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda” belongs to the section pertaining to war in Monteverdi’s Eighth Book of Madrigals. The text is taken from Torquato Tasso’s epic poem of 1581, “Gerusalemme liberate”. The setting is the wall of Jerusalem. Tancredi, a Christian knight, has fallen in love with Clorinda, a Muslim maiden. Later, when he comes across a warrior in battle, he is not aware that it is Clorinda under the armor and wounds her mortally. When he finally recognizes her, she asks him to baptize her before she dies. In this operatic “scena”, Monteverdi gives Tancredi (Yair Polishook) and Clorinda (Adaya Peled) brief parts to sing. Polishook’s use of different vocal colors made for timbral interest. Peled was feminine and appealing, her performance poignant. The major role by far, however, is that of Testo, the narrator. The role is complex, with Testo both the objective observer and a witness to the horrific scene itself. In this emotionally turbulent role, tenor Doron Florentin displayed involvement, good stage presence and competence. His large, richly colored, resonant and stable tenor voice and dramatic flair are ideal for such a pressing role; he spiced it with much emotion, dynamic variety and subtle ornamentation. With Monteverdi’s concitato style use of tremolo and pizzicato, repeated notes and agitated leaps, there was much instrumental evocation of the combat of war. At one stage, Florentin joined in the affect with skilful, rapid verbal patter (à la Gilbert and Sullivan). Altogether, this major solo role was handled superbly by the artist…certainly a feather in Doron Florentin’s cap!

This was a concert of delights and finely balanced programming. The small instrumental ensemble played with delicate shaping and much attention to style and detail.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Piano and opera artists perform at Romania's 2013 National Day celebrations in Tel Aviv

A special concert of piano- and opera works was held as part of the 2013 National Day of Romania Celebrations at the Enav Cultural Center, Tel Aviv, on December 10th. Artists performing were soprano Dika Pilosoph and pianists Sofia Mazar and Andrei Licaret.

Dr. Gina Pană, director of the Romanian Cultural Institute in Tel Aviv, opened the most significant day of the Romanian nation by pointing out that 2013 has been a year of very many Romanian cultural projects in Israel, a year also commemorating 65 years of bilateral relations between the countries. Among these cultural activities, many of interest to Romanian-born Israelis, she mentioned the fact that four Romanian opera soloists had performed here of late. Next year, the Romanian Cultural Institute in Israel will be celebrating ten years since its establishment.

Following words of welcome from Mrs. Andreea Păstârnak, Romanian Ambassador to Israel, Dr. Irina Cajal-Marin, Undersecretary of State of the Ministry of Culture of Romania, spoke of the evening's event as rich in classical music and folk culture. She mentioned the long-standing presence of Jewish culture in Romania, an important example being that the Jewish Theatre in Romania, established in 1876 under the management of Avram Goldfaden, was the first Yiddish theatre group.

Prior to the concert, guests were shown a part of “Wild Carpathia” (2011), a film by Charley Ottley (UK) giving insight into the breathtaking natural beauty of the Carpathian Mountains and Forests - this great European wilderness, its villages, its animal life, traditions and history.

Accompanied by pianist Sofia Mazar, Romanian-born soprano Dika Philosoph performed three opera arias. The singer opened with a fresh, theatrical rendering of Marguerite’s aria - the “Jewel Song” - from Charles-François Gounod’s “Faust”; she gave a spicy, coquettish performance of the aria sung by Marguerite, a village maiden, whose head is turned by a handsome stranger and by jewels. As the Sicilian duchess held hostage in Giuseppe Verdi’s “I Vespri Siciliani”, Philosoph used the stage well, her easeful singing dealing with the aria’s vocal challenges. Philosoph concluded with an intense, sensuous and heartrending performance of “Quando men vo” from Act 2 of Giacomo Puccini’s ”La Bohème”, in which the young Musetta is attempting to attract the attention of her ex-lover Marcello:
‘When walking alone on the streets,
People stop and stare
And examine my beauty
From head to toe…
And then I savor the cravings
Which from their eyes transpires
And from the obvious charms they perceive
The hidden beauties…’
In Israel as of 2005, Dika Philosoph is a member of the Israeli Opera’s Opera Studio. Her natural stage presence, dramatic flair and large, energetic and flexible voice made for convincing and gripping performances of these 19th and early 20th century opera numbers. Sofia Mazar’s skilful piano accompaniments evoked the different moods of these arias. Born in the Ukraine, Mazar today is a doctoral student in the Faculty of Musicology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; she also teaches piano and works as a vocal coach.

Romanian pianist Andrei Licaret (b. Bucharest, 1982) began piano studies with his father at age five and made his orchestral debut when he was 11. He has performed concerts and recitals all over Europe, in the UK, the USA and Israel. Licaret opened with Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Sonata no.15 in D major opus 28, the name “Pastoral” having being added not by the composer but by his publisher. Composed in 1801, this is the most conventional of the group of sonatas composed by Beethoven at that time, but it is in no way pedestrian. Andrei Licaret recreated its tranquility with youthful energy. He presented its unity and mastery, giving the opening movement a poetic reading, its outbursts moderate, without disturbing the movement’s sense of well-being. The processional Andante, with its quasi-pizzicato accompaniment, includes a whimsical Trio, the Andante subject much ornamented on its return. Licaret’s playing of the Scherzo brought out the movement’s humor and temperament. His playing of the Finale evoked its rich variety of ideas and moods - from pensive to charming, from hearty to dramatic. The pianist’s performance was pleasingly unmannered, Classical in concept, clean and transparent.

The Pavane from George Enescu’s Suite no.2 in D opus 10 provided the concert’s Romanian content. Enescu composed the suite for a composition competition run by the French music magazine “Musica” in 1903, submitted it anonymously and won first prize. Infused with distinctively Debussyian, Impressionistic French flavor, hinting at the harmonic subtlety of Enescu’s teacher Gabriel Fauré, this piano repertoire is unjustly neglected in today’s concert halls outside of Romania. Licaret revealed the piece’s delicacy and extraordinary detail in playing that was imaginative, sensitively layered and light of touch.

The concert concluded with Andrei Licaret’s performance of Frédéric Chopin’s Sonata no.3 opus 58. Composed in the summer of 1844, before the composer’s health was to deteriorate due to tuberculosis, no.3 is his last piano sonata and large-scale work. Licaret launched into the rich and majestic opening subject of the first movement, juxtaposing it with the singing, gossamer textures of the second subject, one gesture emanating from the former and gliding effortlessly into the next. Following his agile, light and sparkling playing of the Scherzo, we heard the lengthy Largo movement, with its cantabile and graceful gestures. Here, the pianist’s playing offered breadth and respite. In the Finale, a piece of unsurpassed difficulty, Licaret presented its urgency, vigor and excitement with brilliant passagework, building it up strategically and consolidating its musical ideas. An outstanding and profound artist!

Following the festive concert, all adjourned to the foyer of the Enav Cultural Center, where Dr. Paulina Popoiu, General Director of the National Village Museum opened “Portraits of People”, an exhibition of traditions from ethnic communities living in Romania, emphasizing Romania’s multiculturalism in which ethnic entities have each preserved their own cultures.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Israeli Vocal Ensemble opens its 2013-2014 season with a program of Psalms

The Israeli Vocal Ensemble, conducted by founder and musical director Yuval Benozer, opened its 2013-2013 concert series – the Vocal Experience – with “Cantate Dominum Canticum Novum” (Sing to the Lord a new song, Psalm 96:1) a program of psalms of the great composers and of some contemporary composers not familiar to all. With the psalm one of the oldest forms of sacred song in western culture, the Israeli Vocal Ensemble’s program presented a variety of works inspired by these texts. This writer attended the concert at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on December 1st 2013. Aviad Stier (organ) and Haggai Zehavi (double bass) participated in some of the works performed

Established by Yuval Benozer in 1993, the Israeli Vocal Ensemble is a small group of professional singers. The ensemble sings repertoire spanning from the Middle Ages to contemporary music. Performing widely in Israel and further afield, also with many Israeli orchestras, the singers work with a variety of world-renowned choral conductors, have premiered three new works, participated in many festivals and won prizes in international choral competitions. Yuval Benozer has conducted prominent orchestras in Israel, Europe and South America. He is also the musical director of the Kibbutz Artzi Choir and chairman of the Israeli Choir Organization.

With the stage of the Recanati Auditorium darkened, the program opened with American composer Eric Whitacre’s (b.1970) “Alleluia”. Written for the Sidney Sussex College Choir and premiered by it at Cambridge University (UK) in 2011, the piece represents a new trend in the composer’s work. Having previously avoided the setting of liturgical texts, singing in the Sidney Sussex College Choir for a year brought Whitacre “awareness of the deep wisdom in the liturgical service”, finding himself “suddenly open to the history and beauty of the poetry”, in his words. He adapted “October”, a piece he had written for wind symphony, to the simple and spiritual single-worded text –“Alleluia”(done previously by Randall Thompson). In a performance evoking the mystery and rapturous wonder of the word, we heard singing that was pure, weightless in the work’s layering, its clarity the result of superb control. Soloists were Taliya Dishon and Oded Amir.

As choirmaster of St. Mark’s Cathedral, Venice, for the last 60 years of his life, Monteverdi wrote much sacred music, exploring the sonic possibilities and effects of that complex space. In Claudio Monteverdi’s (1567-1643) motet “Cantata Domino canticum novum”, from which this program took its title, a setting for six voices, the singers were joined by Aviad Stier and Haggai Zehavi. Opening homophonically, the piece welds Monteverdi’s madrigal style into a motet form. The two vocal trio groups gave expression to the piece’s arioso style and exuberance, interacting with each other, with the psalm text moving back and forth between them. Next to his Vespers of 1610, Monteverdi’s 1641 “Selva Morale e spiritual” (The Moral and Spiritual Forest), 37 motets, psalms, Mass settings and madrigals from different stages of his creative years, is Monteverdi’s most significant and virtuosic collection. From this book, the IVE gave the “Confitebor alla francese”, in its many small sections, a sense of immediacy, clarity and precision. Soloists were soprano Taliya Dishon and alto Avivit Menachem,

Lithuanian choral conductor, educator and composer Vytautas Miškinis (b.1954) has written over 400 secular works, some 150 sacred words and over 100 folk song arrangements for various combinations. His oeuvre is almost exclusively choral. In one of his several settings of “Cantate Domine canticum novum” (1997), this uplifting version of the piece was sung by women only. Miškinis’ music is in the tonal world, his chords gently colored by dissonances and added notes. The IVE singers brought out this music’s accessive melodiousness, the composer’s reverence for the text and the user-friendly catchy, lilting, almost jazzy rhythm of the piece. Kudos to the IVE for introducing this beautiful and unfamiliar choral repertoire to the local concert-goer!

Another modern work was Finnish composer Jaako Mäntyjärvi’s (b.1963) “Canticum Calamitas Maritimae” in eight voices. The work was inspired by the sinking of the cruise ferry MS Estonia in 1994 and is dedicated to the 852 people whose lives were lost in one of the worst peacetime maritime disasters of the 20th century. Texts used, from Psalms and the Catholic Requiem Mass, appeared in surtitles above the stage. Yuval Benozer and his singers created a skilful and sensitive collage of the many elements of this work, from the initial exhaling-and sighing sounds setting the scene – symbolizing the sea, perhaps - the women then randomly, hauntingly speaking a phrase from the Requiem Mass creating the collective-individual effect of prayer, this followed by a wordless, sole, folksong-like melody, sung as if from afar by soprano Nava Sahar, standing at the back of the hall. Following the report in Latin of the sinking ship, the text moved to Psalm 107, speaking of those “who go down to the sea in ships”, with the basses singing in eerie parallel fifths. The work then built up to a clamorous climax before dropping into the uneasy calm of “Requiem aeternum”, the fifths returning as if a warning, and, once again, the mournful solo soprano voice. Peter Simpson sang the bass solo. In this very moving performance, the IVE presented the work on its three levels – the individual, the objective and the collective.
‘Some went out on the sea in ships;
They were merchants on the mighty waters.
They saw the works of the Lord,
His wonderful deeds in the deep.
For he spoke and stirred up a tempest
That lifted high the waves.
They mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths;
In their peril their courage melted away. Psalm 107:23-26

The Israeli content of the program consisted of Tzvi Avni’s (b.1927) “Mizmorei Tehillim” (Psalm Songs) composed in 1967 for a cappella 4-voiced mixed choir. Opening with the forthright ”Clap your hands, all you nations” (Psalm 47) peppered with strident parallel octaves and syncopations, Psalm 48 “Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise” begins in a more relaxed, mellifluous vein, eventually building up massively, its modal soundscape filled with contrasts. In “Hallelujah” (Psalm 50) the bare octaves return, to be punctuated by large chunks of harmonies and vivid choral textures. The choir’s razor-sharp diction added to the direct expression of these three fine miniatures.

The second half of the program, focusing on German music, included Heinrich Schütz’ (1585-1672) “Die mit Tränen säen” SWV 378, one of the 29 motets from the “Geistliche Chormusik” (Spiritual Choral Music) published in 1648, the year ending the “Thirty Years’ War”; besides the heavy mood of this genre of German music, one of the effects of the war was that the Dresden court, of which Schütz was musical director, was working with fewer musicians. The IVE showed this aspect by having the motet performed by organ and just five singers: Taliya Dishon, Naomi Brill-Engel, Gabriel Goler, Eliav Lavi and Ronen Ravid. A combination of the Venetian polychoral concertato style, giving equal weight to both voices and instruments, and Protestant German tradition, we know that the German performers of Schütz’ time found this cutting-edge music extremely difficult to perform. In a beautifully shaped and fervent reading of this funeral motet, observing its quick mood changes, the singers leaned into dissonances and the meanings of words, the latter highlighting the idea of hope at the end:
‘They who sow with tears will reap with joy.
They go out and weep and carry worthy seed
And return with joy and bring their sheaves’. Psalm 126:5-6

Singing Felix Mendelssohn’s (1809-1847) a cappella setting of Psalm 43, “Richte mich, Gott” (Give sentence with me, O God), the singers presented the composer’s “concerto” effect with his coloristic use of vocal textures - here, women’s voices in answer to phrases sung by the men, sonorous double choir passages and interesting contrasts between the piece's three sections, and all articulated in well-pronounced German. Johannes Brahms’ (1833-1897) a cappella choral pieces use a musical idiom learned from his study of Renaissance- and very early Baroque counterpoint. “Schaffe in mir, Gott, ein rein Herz” (Create in me, O God, a pure heart), composed in 1889, features a text drawn from Psalm 51, its structure bristling in canonic writing. In five voices, unusual in its two bass parts, the singers showed themselves responsive to both words and music.

The concert concluded with J.S.Bach’s (1685-1750) motet “Singet dem Herr ein neues Lied!” (Sing to the Lord a new song). Composed possibly in Leipzig in 1727, Bach used texts from Psalms 149 and 150 and a hymn by Johann Gramann. Written for double choir without instrumental accompaniment, Yuval Benozer chose a performance practice used in Bach’s day - that of doubling voices with instruments (organ and double bass). One of the most challenging of choral works in complexity and density, this motet requires “instrumental” virtuosity from its singers and much sensitivity. Avoiding any form of over-dramatization, Benozer led his singers through this taxing work with clarity, freshness and rhythmic vitality. Lightening melodic lines with springy textures, double-choir sonorities never emerged as turgid; they allowed for the intricacies of the counterpoint to meet in voice play of the most sophisticated kind. The use of a solo quartet for the chorale statements interspersed through the second movement added poetry and naïve beauty to the performance. Aviad Stier and Haggai Zehavi’s playing was sensitive to the singers.

Yuval Benozer has assembled an attractive group of competent singers, producing a well-balanced and finely blended choral ensemble. Each very different project taken on by him and the Israeli Vocal Ensemble is carried out with dedication, in-depth work and fine musicianship. Cantate Dominum Canticum Novum was rewarding and enriching.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Early instruments in still life at the Israel Museum

Photo; The Israeli Museum
On visiting the Israel Museum on December 3rd 2013 to view four new exhibitions opening that day, we walked into the gallery housing COLLECTING DUST in Contemporary Israeli Art, in  which fifteen artists are exhibiting items that transform dust into contemporary works that explore temporality, memory and Israel’s environmental landscape. However, on entering the gallery, a very different item met our eyes: a work of oil on canvas “Still Life with Musical Instruments and Books”, painted by Bartolomeo Bettera.

Bartolomeo Bettera was born in Bergamo, Italy in 1639, where he was a student and then producer in the studio of the priest and painter Evaristo Baschenis. Baschenis (1617-1677) painted a few religious subjects, but, being also a musician with an impressive collection of instruments and scores, his works concentrated on the painting of poised and polished still lifes of musical instruments. They carry an air of silence and the instruments lie on a table, covered with a layer of dust. So Baschenis’ main claim to fame was that he established the subgenre of still-life paintings of musical instruments, the instruments appearing almost three-dimensional. Bettera followed this teacher’s style faithfully, in the tradition of Caravaggio. In fact, so strong was his teacher’s influence that there is some doubt as to which of the two painted “A Girl with a Still Life”, in which a girl stands behind a table covered with a dark cloth, on which we see musical scores, a violin and bow and a magnificent bass recorder with one key, with possibly two more recorders leaning on the folds of a tasseled drape.

Following Baschenis’ death, Bettera moved to Milan, where he remained till his death, some time after 1687. In his still lifes, the instruments depicted would have been played by chamber ensembles that performed for guests in private homes. The instruments are rich in symbolism; the lute, for example, was used to accompany amorous songs. In “Still Life with Instruments and Books”, the two lutes are dusty and abandoned. One is placed on a virginal; a viol, at the back, is leaning on the virginal. The lush table cloth has a silky glow. Each instrument appears illuminated. Guiding us around the exhibition, art curator Mira Lapidot remarked that it had been important to inform the museum cleaner that the dust on this exquisite still life was part of the painting!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Charlotta Chorale of Tel Aviv at Christ Church, Jerusalem

The Charlotta Chorale of Tel Aviv performed a concert of short works at Christ Church, Jerusalem, on November 23rd, 2013. Eli Gefen, the choir’s founder and musical director, conducted and soloed. Anna Korochik accompanied on the piano. Choir members include people born in Israel, Russia, England, Japan and Korea. Named in memory of Eli Gefen's mother, the Charlotta Chorale would like to be seen as a witness to the hopes and values of those who long for peace and friendship. Maestro Eli Gefen was born in Bratislava. His father, a distinguished cantor, was offered a job in Vienna and the family consequently moved there. As a child, Gefen studied violin and, later, the bassoon. He has sung from a young age from the days when he sang in his father’s synagogue choir.

The program opened with the chorale from J.S.Bach’s Cantata no.140:
‘Gloria to Thee be sung now
With mortal and angelic voices
With harps and with cymbals, too…’
We heard two choruses from Felix Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” (1845-1846) – the women’s trio “Lift Thine Eyes” and “Guardian of Israel” (Psalm 121), P.I.Tchaikovsky’s setting of “Let My Prayer Ascend” (Psalm 141) sung in Russian, American composer Randall Thompson’s fragile “Alleluia” and two pieces by British composer John Rutter (b.1945). Eli Gefen’s predilection for John Rutter’s music is all to the advantage of the Israeli listening audience: this music is direct, expressive and accessible. “Bogorodistse” (Rejoice, O Virgin) comes from Sergei Rachmaninoff’s a-cappella “All-Night Vigil” (1915), a work considered by some as being the composer’s finest composition.

Of a very different genre, I.Singer’s nostalgic Yiddish song “Fate”, sung unaccompanied, was gentle and moving. Gefen, himself, sang the solo. We heard one of Stephen Foster’s most beautiful serenades, the sweetly sentimental “Beautiful Dreamer”, sung with delicacy and natural shaping. Basque-Spanish Pablo Sorozábal (1897-1988) was mostly known as a conductor. One of his best remembered pieces for choir (and orchestra) is the Basque song “Maite” (Our Lady) from the soundtrack of the 1945 movie “Jai-Alai”. The Charlotta Chorale gave a pleasingly lilting reading of the song. For the program’s Israeli content, the choir sang “Eli, Eli”, David Zahavi’s setting of a poem of Hannah Szenes, in a magical rendering, including a delicate soprano solo. The “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” from Verdi’s 1842 opera “Nabucco” made for a hearty encore; pianist Anna Korochik dealt well with the piano accompaniment, despite the poor state of the piano at Christ Church.

I have been following the Charlotta Chorale in recent years and have heard them perform most of the items in the above program. The choir sings in as many styles and languages as its members, all of whom display much dedication. What has eventuated since the choir’s re-organization is a silken, warm, sensitive choral blend of real beauty and musicianship. Eli Gefen encourages well-coordinated singing, dynamic variety and careful vocal control. The Charlotta Chorale is certainly a chamber choir of excellence.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

"Du aber. Daniel", Baroque German vocal and instrumental music performed by the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra and the Barrocade Ensemble

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s second concert of the 2013-2014 season “Du aber, Daniel”, a concert of German Baroque music, was a collaboration between the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra and the Barrocade Ensemble. Harpsichordist Yizhar Karshon (Barrocade) conducted from the harpsichord; vocal soloists were soprano Ye’ela Avital and baritone Guy Pelc, with vocal ensemble Barrocade Vocale performing ensemble pieces – Ye’ela Avital, alto Avital Dery, tenor Doron Florentin and bass Joel Sivan. Instrumental soloists were recorder player Corina Marti (Switzerland) and Benny Aghassi (Israel/Holland). This writer attended the concert at St Andrews Scots Memorial Church, Jerusalem, on November 21st 2013.

The concert opened with Schütz’ Italian-style Easter piece “Feget den alten Sauerteig aus” (Discard the old yeast So that you may be a new dough). Referred to by Johann Mattheson in 1740 as the “father of musicians, to whom the Germans…were indebted”, Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) was probably the most important and influential composer of 17th century Germany. “Feget den alten Sauerteig aus” works on two levels: its joyful, highly colored musical texture, concluding with the uplifting “Alleluja” and a deeper lesson. The First Letter to the Corinthians uses the metaphor of unleavened bread to juxtapose former hypocrisy with new sincerity and truth in the spirit of sacrifice and ritual. A kind of vocal-instrumental concerto from the composer’s Symphoniae Sacrae lll (1650), voices and violins combine in homogenous sonorities to form a complex motet-like structure. Karshon’s vivid instrumental mix, with recorders (Corina Marti, Shai Kribus) adding interest and their specific brightness, allowed for individual vocal timbres to come through in Luther’s translation of the Bible, writings so important to the composer, a text Schütz aimed to “translate into music”. In “Es steh Gott auf” (Psalm 68, Let God arise) from Schütz’ Symphoniae Sacrae ll (1647), a motet for two sopranos or two tenors modeled after two Monteverdi madrigals “, we heard Ye’ela Avital and alto Avital Dery in a piece equating voices with violins, intensified by the text’s dovetailed phrasing, yet preserving the rhythm and accentuation of spoken German. A performance bristling with dynamic color, the singers joined with the players in a forthright (almost battaglia-like) reading of the dazzling Italienate vocal lines reflecting the vehement text:
‘Let God arise so his enemies will be destroyed,
And those that hate him will flee from him.
Drive them, as smoke is driven,
As wax melts in the fire,
So must the godless be destroyed before God...’

Johann Rosenmüller also provided a clear and important link between German- and Venetian music, but on the instrumental scene. Trained in Venice, he was later to return there where he worked as trombonist and composer. From his highly acclaimed “Sonatae à 2, 3, 4 è 5 stromenti da arco & alti et basso continuo” (1682), these works show the influence of the German suite (his early teacher was Heinrich Schütz) and the Venetian “sinfonia di opera”. Karshon’s reading of “Sinfonia prima” displayed the astonishing beauty of Rosenmüller’s blend of conservative North German musical tradition with Venetian flair, from the formal, strongly chiseled and punctuated opening Sinfonia to the dances themselves, their affects, dissonances, rhythmic games, polyphonic passages and differing moods, the instrumental scene highly colored and anchored to a firm bass.

One of the chief figures in North German music of his time, Dieterich Buxtehude (1637-1707) left over 120 vocal works using a wide range of texts, scorings, genres and compositional styles. “Alles was ihr tut” (Whatsoever ye do in word or deed) BuxWV4, one of the composer’s greatest masterpieces, was Buxtehude’s most popular cantata during his lifetime. A work of unwavering faith, its general theme is the proper relationship between the individual and community. It comprises a combination of different texts: from the Old- and New Testaments, a Lutheran chorale as well as some German poetry. In the work, Buxtehude juxtaposes all three of the most common cantata types in his repertoire: the concerto type (setting a prose Biblical text), the strophic aria type and the chorale cantata (text and melody taken from a chorale). After the overture, the first chorus, uncharacteristically homophonic in style, was followed by an aria, this being sung by the Barrocade Vocale singers in strict homophony. The text for this is an anonymous poem (perhaps by Buxtehude himself) in which the players give life to a ritornello and short interludes between verses. The second Biblical text, Psalm 37:4, was sung by bass Joel Sivan, his voice addressing the sacred- and arioso style of the piece, his vocal timbre transparent, warm and flexible:
‘Take delight in the Lord,
And he will give you the desires of your heart.’
The closing chorale, two stanzas of a hymn by Georg Neige to an anonymous 16th century melody, with instrumental interludes separating each phrase, started with a pleasing rendering by soprano Ye’ela Avital, then taken over by the vocal ensemble. Certainly an interesting work, it was performed with energy and contrasts, delightful instrumental playing balancing weight with clarity and communication between soloists and vocal ensemble.

In his Concerto for recorder, bassoon, strings and basso continuo in F major, we meet Georg Philipp Telemann in one of his unconventional pairings of instruments (this one also, however, used by Vivaldi). Recorder and bassoon are treated on a strictly equal footing as they exchange musical material, partly through imitation. This is music to be enjoyed from within as much as from without and the name of the game is dialogue. From the sympathetic opening Largo movement, layered with charm, flexed figures and much expression, Corina Marti and Benny Aghassi were in league, communicating in a way so directly as to allow for the spontaneity of the moment. In their hands, the Vivace movement took on the spirit of adventure in virtuosic dexterity, peppered with ornaments. Poignant minimal gestures in the violins set the scene for the Grave movement,in which the soloists engaged in carefully shaped and sensitive dialogue. The final Allegro presented Telemann at his most vivacious; with attention to detail, the artists engaged in call and response, playing with a wealth of vigor and humor. Fresh and joyful, the performance coupled academic understanding with the musical personalities of these very excellent artists.

While Telemann’s instrumental music features frequently in Baroque music programs, his sacred music tends to take a back seat. Seldom heard in this part of the world, the funeral cantata “Du aber, Daniel” (Go Thy Way, Daniel) (of the 1400 Sunday cantatas Telemann composed, of which 13 are funeral cantatas) is among his most distinguished works in this genre. Probably written while the composer was in his twenties, it is an early manifestation of the expressive delicacy and melodic lyricism of Telemann’s own idiom. Representing the new cantata style, its recitatives alternate with da capo arias set to texts in madrigal style; the opening and closing chorales are settings of biblical texts. The madrigalesque verses present themes that give the listener a glimpse into Lutheran pietism – distrust of the world, ardent longing for death and hope in eternal bliss stemming from the eschatological revelation made to Daniel of things to come:
‘But go thou Daniel on thy way and take thy rest,
For thou shalt receive thy just share at the end of days.’ (Daniel 12:13)
Scored for violin, oboe, recorder, two viols, ‘cello, positif organ and four singers, the cantata is remarkable for its affecting and beautifully crafted text setting, lightness of scoring (considering the somber, austere subject matter) and its myriad of details. From the first languishing sounds of the overture, Karshon and his fellow musicians had the audience totally engrossed in the work and its atmosphere. With the lion’s share of the solos, young baritone Guy Pelc was compelling, driving home the work’s solemn message, with changes in the text reflected in dynamics and timbre; his sonorous, stable voice embraced the hall. Ye’ela Avital’s singing was sensitive, delicate and appealing: her rendering of the Bachian soprano aria was a high point of the performance as she addressed its fragility and compassion, her singing graced by Telemann’s sublime instrumental scoring. Altogether, this was a polished performance - equally attentive to literary and musical detail.

Concerts of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra usually have a thread running through the choice of works. In his program notes, Maestro David Shemer put much emphasis on the emotional climate in Germany during- and after the Thirty Years’ War, the music of composers “like Heinrich Schütz, Johann Rosenmüller, Dieterich Buxtehude and others” voicing “pain and unease”. To understand the religious philosophy behind them, it might be worth noting that “Luther’s belief in the reality of the devil was as strong as his belief in God and that music was for him one of the principal antidotes to the devil’s work” (John Butt). And yet, in all its weightiness, this music is intensely rewarding and riveting. Throughout the concert, Karshon delved deeply into the delicacy of the works; his phrasing and incisive dynamics made for exciting listening. The JBO players gave a meticulous performance. Yizhar Karshon’s inventive concept of timbral colors encouraged magical moments on oboe, recorder, bassoon and viola da gamba, moments that would have passed unnoticed without first class players.