Monday, April 21, 2014

The Silver Garburg Piano Duo's CD of works by Mendelssohn

With the flourishing of the piano duet in the 19th century, infrequent attendance of public concerts, the absence of recorded sound and CDs, with the piano’s popularity as a house instrument and the prevalence of house music, people played four-hand piano arrangements of symphonic and choral works in the privacy of their homes, to familiarize themselves with the repertoire and for their own entertainment. The Silver Garburg Piano Duo’s CD “Mendelssohn – A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, recorded in 2010 for the OEHMS Classics label, takes the listener back to this all-but-forgotten era.

A gifted pianist, Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) was much involved in domestic music-making. He wrote relatively few original works for four hands but his oeuvre includes some 18 arrangements of his own works for four hands – two symphonies, a string quartet, several overtures and the complete score of his incidental music to Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. In the intellectual environment of his family’s home, these pieces would surely have been played by Felix and his sister Fanny. A passionate literary scholar and enamored by the works of Shakespeare in particular, Mendelssohn read Ludwig Tieck and August Wilhelm von Schlegel’s translation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in his youth. The Mendelssohn family made a practice of reading Shakespeare plays aloud and even acting them out in the parlor of their home. Felix composed the concert overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” opus 21, in 1826, at age 17, a work showing the young composer’s musical maturity and his mastery of the Romantic ideal of merging literature with music. The overture had Its first public performance in 1827. The score calls for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, an ophicleide (a now obsolete kind of bass bugle, nowadays often replaced by tuba or contrabassoon), timpani and strings. The four-hand setting of the Overture (originally for two pianos), first performed by Felix and his sister Fanny, quickly followed by the orchestral version. At the request of Frederick William IV, King of Prussia, Mendelssohn returned to the Shakespeare play in 1843, expanding the existing work to the 11-movement opus 61 score. (The composer made no changes to the overture, aware of the fact that it was conceivably his most perfect composition.) The first public performance of the complete work took place at the Berlin Schauspielhaus that year. This incidental music has remained one of the composer’s loveliest and most enduring works, however, rarely performed in conjunction with the play it was designed to accompany.

With vivid memories lingering in the minds of those familiar with the orchestral score, it is no small undertaking for artists to perform this work on piano, without woodwinds to add a glow to the chords of the Overture’s, strings to render the impish Scherzo light of foot, horns to color the noble, velvety Nocturne, brass instruments for the festive Wedding March and without women’s voices to charm and lull with
“You spotted snakes with double tongue,
Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen;
Newts and blindworms, do no wrong,
Come not near our fairy Queen…”

With the very first reticent chords of the Overture Silver and Garburg evoke the image of the storyteller choosing his words slowly and painstakingly as the duo pianists take the listener into the magic-filled woods near Athens, the overture offering a preview of the elements of Shakespeare’s play – the scurrying of fairies, the inelegant braying of the endearing ass and the young lovers. The artists “orchestrate” the piano, using dynamic change to create color, their buoyant playing never lacking direction, their attention to the various voices layering the score ever present. Their timing and use of pauses are strategic. As to the Notturno, Silver and Garburg create this night music imaginatively and with sublime, cantabile tranquility, each modulation effecting change. Then to the Wedding March, its main subject played with thrilling exuberance and majestic delight, its resilient bass chords avoiding unwanted heaviness of texture, the episodes charming and tender. The clown dance once again pays good-natured respect to the foolish and clumsy character of Bottom, the weaver, whose head has been transformed into that of a donkey. In the Finale, the artists’ brilliant, light and totally clean playing delight in its spontaneity, the occasional dreamy chord there to suddenly stop proceedings, reminding the listener that the storyteller and we are about to leave the scene. Silver and Garburg’s sparkling technique, their sense of color, shape and precision see them through the work with masterful ease, but it is their comprehension of the realm of fantasy, of kindly humor and the pristine world of childlike naiveté that make this performance so delightful, magical and so convincing.

Mendelssohn began writing his “Six Songs without Words” for solo piano opus 62 in 1841, completing them in 1842. Soon after that, at a dinner in London in the presence of Charles Dickens and William Thackeray, a proposal was made to arrange opus 62 for piano four hands and dedicate the transcription to Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert, both pianists. When the arrangements were almost completed, Mendelssohn learned that Queen Victoria’s favorite piece was “Dedication” from the opus 67 collection. The composer added it to the version for four hands, presenting the “Seven Songs without Words, opus 62 and 67” for piano duo to Prince Albert. In his dedication, the composer wrote “I have taken the liberty to arrange the fifth book of my Songs without Words for you…I have used hints of Czerny’s facile arrangement style…I have enclosed a still unpublished seventh song for four hands…”

Silver and Garburg played the pieces from the 1982 Barenreiter edition.Opening opus 62 with a piece sometimes referred to as “May Breezes”, Silver and Garburg present the piece’s exquisite, scented and flowing course, using a touch of rubato to flex the poetic language of the Romantic piano. No, 3, the Funeral March, in contrast to most of Mendelssohn’s “Songs without Words”, is, indeed, the transcription of an existing song, its mood is more somber than that of most of the “Songs without Words”. Preceded by a fanfare opening, Silver and Garburg treat the stately theme with noble understatement. Their playing of No.4, a Venetian Gondola Song, is played in cooling timbres, its idyllic calm tinged with nostalgia. It is followed by the well-loved “Spring Song”, with its plucked effect. As to the briefer miniatures, each a musically pleasing but fleeting moment, the artists expressed the quality and distinctive beauty of all. Mendelssohn’s four-hand settings of opus 62 and no.1 of opus 67 allow for fuller piano “orchestration” and more solid bass anchorage, these, however, never making for heaviness at the hands of Silver and Garburg. The recording itself is of a high quality and true of sound. In these rarely-performed pieces, Sivan Silver and Gil Garburg offer the listener another glimpse into the world of the Romantic miniature, into Mendelssohn’s rich and vibrant pianistic language that captures the intimacy and mood of the moment.

Both born in Israel, Sivan Silver and Gil Garburg studied with Professor Arie Vardi at the Rubin Academy of Music, Tel Aviv, then proceeding to studies at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater, Hanover, Germany. They perform and hold master classes throughout the world and are recipients of several first prizes in international competitions, both as soloists and as a duo.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Violinist Enrico Onofri directs and soloes with the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra in a program of Italian music

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s 5th concert for the 2013-2014 concert season featured Italian violinist Enrico Onofri as soloist and conductor. It was Onofri's first collaboration with the JBO. Born in Ravenna, Onofri’s career took wing when Jordi Savall invited him to serve as concertmaster of “La Capella Reial”. Onofri has worked with many ensembles and orchestras and is the founder of the “Imaginarium” Ensemble, a chamber group performing Italian Baroque repertoire. Enrico Onofri records widely. As of 2000, he has been professor of Baroque violin and Baroque interpretation at the Bellini Conservatory (Palermo), has tutored and conducted the European Union Baroque Orchestra and holds master classes in Italy, Europe, the USA and Japan.

In “La Follia Italiana”, on April 8th 2014 in the Henry Crown Symphony Hall of the Jerusalem Theatre, Onofri and the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra (with founder and musical director David Shemer at the harpsichord) took the audience on a whirlwind 150-year journey of Italian music, opening with a Canzona from Book II of Dario Castello ‘s (c.1590-c.1658) “Sonate concertate in stil moderno”. Castello was a composer and chamber musician at Saint Mark’s Basilica, Venice, at the time Monteverdi was maestro di cappella there. Promising an evening of exhilarating music, Onofri led the players through the work with the adventurous nuances, extreme dynamics and skilful playing typical of stile moderno in Italy and especially of Castello’s dazzling sonatas, utilizing expressive harmonies and theatrical effects. Then, via a communicative and sensitive reading of Giovanni Gabrieli’s (1557-1612) Sonata XXI con tre violini (Onofri, Dafna Ravid, Noam Schuss), its moods constantly changing, to the well-chiseled melodic lines and strongly Venetian style of Sonata in a minor for 4 violins and basso continuo from Giovanni Legrenzi’s (1626-1690) opus 10 “La Cetra” (The Lyre) of 1673 (Onofri, Ravid, Schuss, Ruth Fazal), its rhythms fiery, its transitions delicately ornamented by Onofri.

Less virtuosic than that of contemporaries such as Vivaldi, Albinoni’s music, in the hands of unaware players, runs the risk of ending up as rather pleasant background music. Not so here. In Tomaso Albinoni’s (1671-1751) Sonata V in B flat major for strings and basso continuo opus 2 no.9 from “Sei Sinfonie a cinque” beauty of melody, articulacy and variety were the key, with Onofri’s solo playing leaning into dissonances to give a gentle tug at the heartstrings without ever being too sugary.

The program included two of Antonio Vivaldi’s (1678-1741) violin concertos – Concerto no.8 in g minor RV 332 and no 9 in D major RV 230. Dealing with their glittering virtuosic sections with alacrity, high energy and radiance, Onofri’s playing was, nevertheless, a far cry from showmanship and pyrotechnic display; he riveted our attention on Vivaldi’s text, its shaping and its poignant, delicate and expressive aspects, inspiring players and audience alike. The fine-spun sounds of the theorbo (Eliav Lavi) added timbral gleam to the ensemble sound throughout the evening.

With Baldassare Galuppi’s (1706-1785) oeuvre largely made up of opera, sacred vocal works and solo harpsichord music, his small output of instrumental music tends to be overlooked. Musicologists date Galuppi’s concertos for string ensemble at around 1740; without a solo part and flexibly scored in high, Italienate style, these concertos are among the last of their kind. Rococo in style, highly melodic yet using early imitative practice, Concerto in D major offered much dialogue and made for fine ensemble fare. The program ended with Concerto Grosso no.12 in d minor, referred to by Maestro David Shemer in his program notes as “a creation of no less than three composers”, this work being Francesco Saverio Geminiani’s (1687-1762) orchestration of Corelli’s variations on an anonymous composer’s “La Follia” (Folly) melody, based on a dance of Portuguese origin. Geminiani’s setting of Corelli’s virtuoso part (Onofri) is mostly unchanged, but he went and deftly added a second solo violin part (Schuss). Other solo roles were performed by violist Daniel Tanchelson and ‘cellist Orit Messer-Jacobi. With concertino and ripieno juxtaposed to heighten contrasts between sections, here is a concert piece of the most exciting kind. Following the noble and forthright statement of the “La Follia” melody and harmonic scheme, we were presented with over twenty variations – from caressingly lyrical, cantabile variations, bristling with charm and fine ornamentation, to intoxicatingly thrilling moments, Onofri’s liberated expression inviting the other soloists to take part in the musical delight. Orit Messer-Jacobi’s solos were infused with energy and joy.

Punctilious about good intonation, Enrico Onofri addressed each player in order to tune with him between works. Onofri’s musical language and effervescent personality epitomize the energy and joyfulness of Italian music. His involvement and that of the JBO players on stage were transmitted to the audience. There was magic in the air!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Zsolt Nagy and the Israel Contemporary Players at the Jerusalem Music Centre

Concert no.4 of the Israel Contemporary Players’ 2013-2014 Discoveries Series was a program of premieres - premieres for the ensemble or new settings of existing works by composers. Taking place at the Jerusalem Music Centre April 6th 2014, the concert was conducted by Zsolt Nagy, the ICP’s chief conductor and artistic adviser as of 1999, with soloists Gao Ping (piano, voice) and Boris Filanovsky (voice).

Founded in 1991, the Israel Contemporary Players perform 20th- and 21st century works of composers from many countries, they receive regular commissions, perform and record works by Israeli composers and have premiered over 100 new Israeli works to date. The ensemble and series are under the artistic direction of Dan Yuhas and Zmira Lutsky.

“Rewind” by Ofer Pelz (b.1978) was composed in 2013 for a workshop of the Nouvel Ensemble Moderne. The final version of the work was, however, premiered by the Israel Contemporary Players and received the ACUM Prize for a work presented anonymously. As the name implies, “Rewind” makes reference to the world of digital music, in which “one can turn back and say the same thing again and again”, in the words of the composer. Performed on acoustic instruments, however, the work opened with a lot of very small, delicate effects (instrumental and otherwise) those including the crinkling of paper; it was constructed of short phrases, some of minimal sound, some of delicate, high pitches consisting of flageolets, with others more intense. Phrases were punctuated by silences, these pauses taking on more meaning as they accumulated, plunging the listener into a heightened state of concentration and bringing him into close contact with his own senses. The beauty of small gestures articulated cleanly and with delicacy is paramount in this work. One of Israel’s most prominent young composers, Ofer Pelz is currently engaging in doctoral studies at Montreal University. He was present at the concert.

Born in Leningrad in 1968, Boris Filanovsky recently immigrated to Israel. A graduate of the Rimsky Korsakov State Conservatoire and former student of Paul-Heinz Dittrich and Louis Andriessen, he performs as a vocalist/narrator, with dozens of works by Russian composers dedicated to him. Since 2000, he has been the director of “eNsemble”, the only contemporary music ensemble in Leningrad. “Words and Spaces” (2005) is scored for baritone parlando and nine players. The work is based on the last words of Dutch Schultz (born Arthur Simon Flegenheimer 1901-1935) a New York City German-Jewish mobster, who made his fortune in organized crime and was known for his ruthlessness, violence and temper. A strange stream-of-consciousness, the 600-word text presents the gangster’s final, disjointed, utterances after he had been shot. Filanovsky chose the specific scoring of flute, piccolo, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, contrabassoon, French horn, trumpet, trombone and double bass to create potency and intensity of mood. Performing the text in the original English in what was the Israeli premiere of “Words and Spaces”, Filanovsky’s reading strode well beyond the boundaries of poetry recital. Moving with the music, with the words taking on a theatrical dimension, from vehement shouting, to a kind of Sprechgesang and strange contortions of words, the composer/performer layered the text with “instrumental” effects as offered by the potential of certain words when presenting the confused delirium of the dying mob boss’s warped mind. The work’s instrumental textures moved hand-in-glove with the words in confrontational synchronization. Filanovsky is certainly an interesting artist. This was polished performance at its most expressive.

The second half of the program consisted of works by Chinese composers. Born on 1958 in a small village in southern China, Deqing Wen studied Composition in China, Switzerland and France. Today he is professor of Composition and Analysis of Performance of Contemporary Music at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. His creative style and inspiration bring together traditional Chinese music and complex western techniques. Wen is profoundly influenced by Chinese culture, in particular, philosophy, painting and the ancient art of calligraphy; “Ink Splashing” (2007) for nine instruments is indicative of the latter. Sensitively threaded into an evocative canvas alive with a great many textures, motifs and ideas, including blowing effects, glissandi, muted trombone-playing, vibraphone sounds and long, drawn-out notes sung by some of the players, all came together in a world of imaginings and ancient remembrances. Nagy and his players address the work’s textures, using dynamics ranging from the most fragile to a full-blown, sturdy instrumental statement.

The program concluded with “The Four Not-Alike” (2012), a concerto for multi-function pianist and chamber orchestra by Gao Ping, who was also soloist in his work. Born in the Sichuan Province in 1970, Gao Ping gained his keen interest in vocal music from his singer mother and in contemporary music from his father. A sought-after pianist on the international scene, Gao’s recitals often feature improvisations. He received his doctorate from the University of Cincinnati, taking up a lectureship in Composition at Canterbury University (Christchurch, New Zealand), currently serving as professor of Composition at Capital Normal University (Beijing). Similarly to Deqing Wen, Gao merges western and eastern styles, his music reflecting his interest in China and its multiple pasts. In an interview with Hanna Virtanen for the GBTIMES in July 2012, Gao said that, in his youth, Russian and French music had been the main influence on him, music he had learned and grown up with. “Then there is the other side, my Chineseness, and I think it is a mix.” “The Four Not-Alike” was composed in 2012 for the Forbidden City Chamber Orchestra, an ensemble whose members play on traditional Chinese instruments. The setting we heard at the Jerusalem Music Centre was an arrangement created especially for the Israel Contemporary Players. A vibrant work, Gao’s performance included fresh, buoyant, virtuosic playing, Chinese traditional opera-style singing – his range wide and flexible – and other effects: clapping, whistling, striking the piano, strumming the piano strings, etc. Within its opening notes, the first movement had drawn the audience into a kaleidoscope of vitality, jazzy rhythms and nostalgic Chinese-sounding melodies soaring above a robust instrumental texture. The second movement presented an exotic soundscape based on delicate, descending minor seconds, the flute (Naama Neuman) enouncing a haunting melody, with the third movement expressing deep, personal sentiments via short utterances, exhaling effects and Gao’s vehement singing. The final movement, energizing and full of timbral interest, brought the work to a close.

Zsolt Nagy and the Israel Contemporary Players’ meticulous and diligent performance gave meaning and depth to what was indeed, a fascinating program.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Barrocade Ensemble performs an all-J.S.Bach concert at Abu Gosh

“Happy Birthday, Bach!” was a celebration worth attending, even if the birthday celebrity was unable to be present. Conductor and violinist Andres Mustonen (Estonia) led the proceedings with soloists Kati Debretzeni-violin (UK/Israel), Shai Kribus-oboe/recorder, Geneviève Blanchard-flute, Ofer Frenkel-oboe, Ye’ela Avital-soprano, Ella Wilhelm-alto, Doron Florentin Dallal-tenor and Guy Pelc-bass. Barrocade – Israeli Baroque Collective – was joined by Barrocade Vocale. This writer attended the performance at the Kyriat Ye’arim Church, Abu Gosh, April 4th 2014.

The first half of the program consisted of three concertos of the Italian model – each having three movements (fast-slow-fast). It opened with J.S.Bach’s (1685-1750) Concerto for Oboe and Violin in c minor BWV 1060R, Bach’s own adaptation of a concerto for two harpsichords. Performing the solo parts we heard Andres Mustonen and Shai Kribus, with Mustonen using the violin part’s arpeggiated figurations, rhythmic flexing and ornaments to lend affect and excitement. Kribus’ wholesomely stable and expressive playing was indeed pleasurable. Following the slow movement, with the two artists trading pieces of the same long-lined melody to create a mood piece of lyrical tenderness, the final Allegro took off at a fast, frolicsome pace, Mustonen’s substantially accented and zingy devil-may-care reading of it making for a lively Saturday morning’s entertainment.

For Bach’s Concerto for Violin in E major BWV 1042, Mustonen took the seat of first violinist, with Kati Debretzeni now soloist. Her leading the instrumentalists consisted more of the language of eye contact and facial expressions than of large gestures, her tempi and intentions ever clear and secure as she lay emphasis on the expressive and the personal, on small details and much suave playing. Presenting the text made of the purest Bachian splendor, the well contrasted opening movement gave way to serene, spontaneous expressiveness in the Adagio, the Allegro Assai’s exuberance and virtuosity allowing for well balanced give- and- take of soloist and orchestra, reminding us that Bach was a German Lutheran, careful about the excesses of secular music.

The manuscript parts used in performance of the Concerto for Two Violins in d minor BWV 1043 date from around 1730 to 1731. With no documentary evidence to suggest that the work was composed any earlier, this makes sense stylistically as the work exemplifies the Bachian concerto at its most sophisticated and progressive. With Mustonen and Debretzeni as soloists, I was interested to hear on what wavelength two such different artistic personalities would meet in a work not only of solos, where imitation is taken to an extreme, but where Bach’s texture presents “one voice in two parts”. The result was rewarding, the density of polyphonic structures of the outer movements intense and interesting, with solo- and orchestral forces in ever-changing combinations. There was no need for either to give up on his/her signature style. In the poignant slow movement, the orchestral backdrop pared down, the soloists engaged in sensitive and bewitching dialogue.

Probably more transformed than most other Bach works, the “Easter Oratorio”, basically a large-scale Sunday cantata of 11 movements, began as a Baroque pastoral fantasy composed in 1725 for Duke Christian of Saxe-Weissenfels’ birthday. The composer later transformed it into “Kommt, gehet und eilet” (Come, go ye and hasten), a cantata for Easter Sunday, setting a new text to existing arias and adding new recitatives. In 1726 Bach once more reworked the original secular cantata to commemorate the birthday of Count Joachim Friedrich von Flemming, governor of Leipzig and a patron of the composer. In the mid-1730s, he expanded the Easter Cantata to an oratorio, then revising it a decade later, rearranging the third movement for 4-part choir.

Bach’s celebration of Easter is mostly a joyous one. From the lively and richly orchestrated opening jubilant opening Sinfonia, the Barrocade instrumentalists gave an evocative, energetic and rich “description” of the visual scene, with the wistful sounds of fine woodwind playing and “sigh” motifs descriptive of the sorrow of Easter morning in the ensuing Adagio. In choral sections, the eight Barrocade Vocale singers (musical direction: Yizhar Karshon) presented their sophisticated vocal lines bristling in unique individuality, inviting the audience to indulge in active listening. Singing the role of Mary Magdalene, alto Ella Wilhelm’s performance proved substantial, reedy and most pleasing, her forthright and dramatic aria “Tell me, tell me quickly” joined by oboist Ofer Frenkel in fine collaboration. In Mary Jacobi’s aria, Geneviève Blanchard gave an outstandingly beautiful and expressive reading of the obbligato part, its “circling” melody describing the laurel wreath and infinity, partnering in Ye’ela Avital’s agreeable and confident performance of the soul-searching soprano aria:
‘O soul, your spices need no longer be myrrh.
For only crowning with the laurel wreath will quiet your anxious longing.’

The focal point of this oratorio is the bourrée-lullaby in which Peter sings Death to sleep. To a pulsating bass line and bewitchingly continuous rippling of flutes/recorders, tenor Doron Florentin Dallal sculpted the text using shapes of words to do so, his gilded, distinctive voice filling the church with a timbre that speaks of color and vigor. John’s recitative was handled imposingly by bass Guy Pelc.

Throughout the concert, the Barrocade players (musical director - Amit Tiefenbrunn) indulged in well detailed and subtle orchestral playing.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Hortus Musicus (Austria) performs Gesualdo's "Sabbato Sancto" Responsories

Born in Naples, Don Carlo Gesualdo (1560-1613), Prince of Venosa and Count of Conza, was a composer and personality of untamed contrasts. A poet and a statesman, he murdered his wife and her lover - the Duke of Andria - later imprisoning two of his own concubines, tried and convicted of witchcraft, in his castle. The Vatican issued the composer “although divinely talented and of regal lineage” with a warning, to which he responded “I am both Nero and as the Pontius Pilate, untouchable in my actions”. Add to this the fact that he was into wild bouts of self-flagellation, spending his final days in a state of melancholia bordering on insanity. Towards the end of his life, Gesualdo began his ‘religious period’, his music obsessed with themes of guilt, pity and death. Gesualdo's “Responsoria for Holy Week”, as well as two massive volumes of madrigals, appeared in 1611. Interestingly enough, he was a mediocre musician, with no singing voice and no instrumental mastery, yet his compositional style was uncompromisingly experimental and sophisticated, wildly overstepping the boundaries of convention but boasting unique beauty. After his death, Gesualdo's vocal compositions faded into obscurity, with public interest remaining only in the gruesome details of his notorious deeds. However, the 1950s saw renewed interest in Gesualdo’s music on the part of musicologists. In 1960, Igor Stravinsky wrote a piece called “Momentum pro Gesualdo”, there are some 11 operatic works on the subject of Gesualdo’s life and, in 1995, Werner Herzog produced a fantastical pseudo-documentary called “Death for Five Voices”.

Prior to the performance of Gesualdo’s “Sabbato Sancto” by the Austrian vocal group Hortus Musicus on March 29th 2014 at the Austrian Hospice of the Holy Family, which is situated on the Via Dolorosa of Jerusalem’s Old City, Rector Markus Stephan Bugnyar made mention of the composer’s extreme character traits as well as the work’s relevance to Easter and Lent. “Sabbato Sancto” is the last work of the three “Responsoria” works sung on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Considered the composer’s masterpiece, its texts are taken from the Old- and New Testaments, focusing on the death of Christ and the destruction of Jerusalem.

In Tenebrae (Latin: shadows, darkness) services, held on the evening - or early morning of the last three days of Holy Week, the church’s candles are extinguished one by one until the congregation remains there in darkness. Taking place in the Austrian Hospice chapel, Hortus Musicus’ rendition of the “Sabbato Sancto” Responsoria followed this tradition. Its members - soprano Christa Mäurer, mezzo-soprano Waltraud Russegger, tenor Michael Nowak, bass Dietmar Pickl and the group’s musical director, baritone Günter Mattitsch – were joined by tenorino Michael Gerzabek to form a six-voiced ensemble. With Gesualdo's music generally fiendishly difficult to perform, the singers gave superb, articulate expression to the work’s emotional intensity, its subtlety of color and daring musical language. Each of the six voices offered both distinctive vocal colors and depth of expression of the verbal text, their integrative timbre vivid, stable, penetrating and gripping. Mattitsch and his singers’ reading of the musical- and verbal text also referred to the work’s multi-faceted content – from the sorrow of the darkness of the world and the solemnity of Easter to Gesualdo’s blatantly autobiographical references to torment, anguish, self-pity, humility and betrayal, all projected via the composer’s unorthodox, idiosyncratic, chromatic harmonic- and rhythmic language, a language in which surprise and dissonance play a focal part. Yet, free of delirium, superficial extravagance and singing displaying technical acrobatics, Hortus Musicus’ unmannered performance allowed the audience to be part of the somber, contemplative text that gradually lightens, shown through a fascinating interplay of voices, luxuriant vocal lines, finely chiseled shaping of phrases and timbral luminosity. A rare musical experience, this was surely one of the highlights of the current concert season.

The Austrian ensemble Hortus Musicus was founded in 1972, originally a vocal- and instrumental ensemble focusing on Gothic- and Burgundian music. As of 1990, the ensemble has consisted of five singers, its repertoire consisting of music of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance as well as contemporary music. Travelling and recording widely, Hortus Musicus is involved in the running of concert series, one of its goals being to make contemporary music accessible to the general public.