Friday, February 14, 2014

Philip Pickett directs Barrocade in John Blow's "Venus and Adonis"

“Venus and Adonis” was the title of Barrocade’s – the Israeli Baroque Collective - third concert for the 2013-2014 concert season. This writer attended the performance at the Kiryat Ye’arim Church, Abu Gosh on February 1st 2014. Joining the first class instrumental ensemble were soloists - sopranos Revital Raviv and Ye’ela Avital, countertenor Alon Harari and bass Oded Reich – Barrocade Vocale (directors: Yizhar Karshon, Ye’ela Avital) and the Young Efroni Choir (director: Shelley Berlinsky). Philip Pickett (UK), whose Israeli production of Händel’s “Acis and Galatea” in 2012 was truly memorable, was both recorder soloist and conductor in this program of English music.

There has been much talk of the Barrocade performance of John Blow’s “Venus and Adonis”, and more about that presently; the first part of the program “A Banquet of Musick” - a selection of 17th century pieces – however, certainly deserves more than a mention. If John Playford’s 1657 “Banquet of Musick” promised “A collection of the newest and best Songs Sung at Court and at Publick Theatres, being most of them within the Compass of the Flute [recorder]... with a Thorow-Bass for the Theorbo-Lute, Bass-Viol, Harpsichord or Organ…composed by several of the Best Masters…the Words by the Ingenious Wits of his Age” we were in for some hearty fine entertainment.

It opened with selected pieces from Henry Purcell’s (1659-1695) “Abdelazar” Suite. The Barrocade players’ lively, energy-infused playing of the incidental music written for “Abdelazar” or “The Moor’s Revenge”, one of the last plays for which Purcell wrote music, conjured up the theatre scene of the time. Actually, the verbal text was the work of the prolific dramatist Aphra Behn, one of several women playwrights active during the Restoration. (A writer criticized for her lewdness, she was also a spy for the British crown!) In Pickett’s reading of Purcell’s “Three Parts Upon a Ground”, an all-out favorite of 17th century consort repertoire, with the three "parts" played by violinists Shlomit Sivan, Yasuko Hirata and Dafna Ravid, variety of exploration was the keyword - from effervescent, virtuosic playing, to tranquilly singing moments to dancelike gestures; the artists’ attentive playing showed Purcell’s way of wildly straying from the harmonic scheme. From the 1694 “Ode for the Birthday of Queen Mary”, “Strike the Viol” offered the audience the full-on joy of music-making, with a hearty, involved performance by soprano Ye’ela Avital, fine recorder-playing at the hands of Pickett and Yigal Kaminka, with a delicate percussion underlay. In Corydon and Mopsa’s flirtatious duet from Act 3 of “The Fairy Queen”, bass Oded Reich (Corydon) and countertenor Alon Harari (Mopsa in a short black dress), careering on and off stage, pulled out all the plugs with a hilarious slapstick performance of the bucolic haymakers’ “No, no, no, no; no kissing at all”.

Philip Pickett’s setting of the Dutch song “When Daphne from Fair Phoebus did Fly” was enormously rewarding: verses were sung eloquently in fine British English by soprano Revital Raviv, punctuated by recorder-playing by both Pickett and Kaminka, the latter based on Jacob Van Eyck’s clever variations on the song. Their playing was spontaneous, free and expressive. Pickett’s use of fuller instrumental forces and sparer also added to the beauty of the cohesive arrangement of myth and music telling of Daphne’s infatuation.

Pickett and Kaminka also collaborated in stylish playing of William Williams’ (1677-1704) Trio Sonata no.6 in F “In Imitation of Birds” (1703). A work indebted to Jacob van Eyck’s use of bird calls (especially in the opening), the two recorder players engaged in real duo communication, in warm, living sound and blending, also bringing out the work’s occasional “strange” notes.

A different aspect of Baroque English music was heard in Thomas Baltzar’s (1630-1663) Divisions on “John Come Kiss Me Now” from John Playford’s “The Division Violin”. German-born violin virtuoso Baltzar brought new European violin-playing techniques to England. Biographer and writer on music Roger North spoke of him as showing “so much mastery upon that instrument”…”but altogether his playing was like his country: rough and harsh”. Sensitive and personal in approach, Israeli violinist Moshe Aharonov started out by reminding the audience in a most cantabile manner that the variations were based on a song. He then took the listener through the a range of imaginative division options, from flexing a line in languishing gestures, to whimsy, to exciting virtuosic moments and much personal expression.

John Blow’s (1649-1708) “Venus and Adonis” was written for private court entertainment - “A Masque for the Entertainment of the King” - the king being Charles II. In its first performance in Oxford in 1681, Venus was played by Mary "Moll" Davis, the king’s mistress, with their 10-year-old daughter in the role of Cupid. Recent research has revealed the librettist to be a woman – Anne Kingsmill - and she took the opportunity to incorporate into her setting of the mythological episode from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” references to court morals. The plot tells of the goddess Venus, who falls in love with the mortal and virile Adonis. He leaves her to join a hunt and is mortally wounded by a boar.

The all-Israeli line-up of singers presented the work on all its levels. As Venus and Adonis, Revital Raviv and Oded Reich, suavely outfitted in trendy, modern dress, were intense and compelling, their singing eloquent and articulate, their demeanor bringing out the underlying message as to Charles II’s pleasure-loving regime. Raviv’s crystal-clear, stable and pleasingly bright voice dealt admirably with the challenges of Blow’s vocal writing as she presented Venus’ flirtatious, cunning, womanly stratagems; her stage ease and a direct line of communication with the audience were convincing and moving as were her tempting, comic and enticing laughter and womanly control, eventually turning to despair. Oded Reich, an ardent, amorous and infatuated Adonis, gave an impressive performance, his luxuriant, highly colored and true vocal timbre supporting his depiction of a man controlled, his expressive qualities giving emotional backing to the role. In the major role of Cupid, soprano Ye’ela Avital was vivacious and entertaining as she reveled mischievously in the role’s satire, instructing her army of apprentice cupids (little girls from the Young Efroni Choir) in their craft (that of causing people to fall in love with the wrong person). The choruses, performed by Barrocade Vocale plus guests, dressed as simple country folk, offered much fine, sensitive and dynamic ensemble singing, their plangent final chorus sending the audience home with a sorrowful heart. Barrocade’s instrumental playing was pure delight: fresh and subtle, the instrumentalists’ presentation of the work’s popular dances and interludes bristled with beauty and vitality (also, much fine recorder playing) suggestive of each new mood.

A work not heard enough in today’s concert halls, possibly due to its fate of being a precursor to Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas”, Blow’s “Venus and Adonis” is indeed a masterpiece; covering a range of moods, it bears French and Italian influences, yet it is ever so English. A high point of the 2013-2014 local concert season, here was Baroque pastoral opera at its best. For Philip Pickett, music is theatre and theatre is music; his recorder-playing is inspiring and his productions are not to be missed.

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