Saturday, January 24, 2015

Puccini's "La Rondine" at the Israeli Opera

The Israeli Opera’s most recent production has been Giacomo Puccini’s “La Rondine”. Conceived as a commission from Vienna’s Carltheater in 1913, this was Puccini’s only attempt to write a hybrid Italian-opera-Viennese-operetta, much as the idea of the operetta element displeased him. Puccini, however, made his conditions clear - that there would be no spoken texts, only sung. Once working together with librettist Giuseppe Adami, he did become amenable to the idea of writing a light, romantic opera. The premiere and its location had to be changed, due to constraints of World War I, and the opera was premiered in 1917 at the Grand Theatre de Monte Carlo, on neutral territory. This writer attended the performance at the Israeli Opera House in Tel Aviv on January 17th 2015.

“La Rondine” is set in Paris and the French Riviera in the mid-19th century. The least known of Puccini’s later operas, it tells of the lavishly kept woman of a rich, elderly banker; she, however, craves romantic love and falls for Ruggero, a naïve, earnest younger man from a respectable family. She, Magda, is the “swallow” (rondine), a bird which flies towards the sun. Magda (Aurelia Florian) and her young lover Ruggero (Zoran Todorovich) enjoy an idyllic existence, living on borrowed time, until he presents his marriage proposal to her; she then reveals her past, telling him she can never be his wife and the opera ends with both of them heartbroken as she returns to her former life. Then there is the other, even less likely couple - Lisette, Magda’s maid, played by Hila Baggio and the poet Prunier, portrayed by Romanian tenor Marius Brenciu.

In a story of sweet sentimentality and seductive charm, showing life of the French upper crust and not-so-upper, the audience was presented with a feast for the eyes, both in sets and costumes: the first scene is the fashionable, elegant party scene at Magda’s Paris salon, followed by the buzzing, vibrant ever-so-French café scene, its stage crowded with people of different elements of society – stylish people, revelers and the risqué dancing of can-can girls and their sleazy partners; the final scene is set in an exotic, opulent summer house. And if “clothes make the man”, we were presented with all the most exquisite dress sense the late 19th century. But if the audience is bothered by a storyline that is somewhat on the lightweight side, there is always Puccini’s music which is rich and caressing, its dance rhythms intertwined into soaring melodic lines and daring, sophisticated, shifting harmonies.

The singers were of a high quality. Bass-baritone Vladimir Braun made for an authoritative Rambaldo Fernandez (Magda’s protector). Israeli soprano Hila Baggio, as Lisette, was coquettish, youthful and appealing, her brightly colored vocal timbre and whimsy both delighting the audience. Romanian tenor Marius Brenciu, no newcomer to the Israeli Opera, was an aloof, elusive and polished Prunier (a role he has sung at the Metropolitan Opera.) As Ruggero, lirico-spinto tenor Zoran Todorovich partnered Aurelia Florian with polish and much fine singing. Romanian soprano Florian, displaying natural theatrical ability and endowed with a voice abounding in flexibility, a palette of interesting colors and a large range of dynamic variety, gave her all to the role of Magda - feminine charm, passion and emotion - winning the audience over with her total involvement. The Israel Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Maestro Frédéric Chaslin, performed with elegance, at times with reserve.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Michael Tsalka performs Bach's Goldberg Variations on clavichord

Photo:Rami Tsalka
Ever since Glen Gould’s five recordings of J.S.Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” on piano, his
interpretations of them have been discussed endlessly. Then came Wanda Landowska’s first performance on harpsichord in 1933. In the meantime, many, many more recordings have come onto the scene, played on all manner of historical- and less historical keyboard instruments - on organ, guitar, harp, marimba, flute and piano, string trio, orchestra, etc. All these performances attest to the fact that fascination with this one hour of almost constant G major music based on a much-used 32-note ground goes well beyond what the composer referred to on the title page as variations “composed for connoisseurs, for the refreshment of their spirits.” Having previously performed them on harpsichord, chamber organ, square piano, fortepiano and modern piano, Dr. Michael Tsalka has now recorded the Goldberg Variations BWV 988 on two clavichords, taking the listener into a very different sound world. In his liner notes, Dr. Tsalka explains how he chose to alternate between the two instruments, both built by Sebastian Niebler (Berlin) – a clavichord of a “lyrical timbre”, based on a 1796 instrument by Johann Christoph Georg Schiedmayer (Boston Museum of Fine Arts) and a more “robust-sounding” instrument based on South German and Swedish models from the late 18th century, such as those built by Christian Gottlob Hubert, Jacob Specken and Schiedmayer. “Some listeners might “This was not the case; quite a few decisions were taken in the spur of the moment, an intuitive response to the technical and expressive requirements found in each variation”. The work was recorded in Berlin in 2012, for the PALADINO label - PMR0032.

So why play the Goldberg Variations on clavichord? One reason is probably that a work as personal as the Goldberg Variations would surely have been played within the confines of the Bach home and the clavichord is indeed a house instrument of the time. Another reason would be that the clavichord is one of the most expressive, responsive and sensitive of keyboard instruments; the depression of the key strikes the string, thus offering variation of touch as well as the possibility to produce a form of vibrato. So once a key is struck, the sound needs continuous nurturing, demanding much skill and listening on the part of the player. As to the instrument’s soft voice, easily masked by the most minimal of background sounds or even by the player’s breathing, research has shown that the clavichords on which Bach played were not as weak in volume as those built in the early 20th century’s revival of the instrument. But, most importantly, Johann Nikolaus Forkel, Bach’s first biographer, wrote that the clavichord was Bach’s favorite keyboard instrument, allowing him to “express his most refined thoughts”.

Listening to this recording, one is embarking on a unique listening experience, one only to be compared with that of hearing the clavichord played at very close range. It presents an opportunity to tune into a timbre whose directness needs no cosmetic help in presenting Bach’s wealth of ideas and use of several high Baroque forms. In the opening galant-style Aria, Tsalka not only plays with spontaneity, he offers the singing quality of the (vocal) aria as a message to the listener – that we are about to hear this instrument really “sing”. We are then lured into the sound world of each variation, be it the embellished energy of Variation IV, the vivid harmonic coloring tugging at one’s heart strings in the meditative Variation XIII, the uncompromising, confrontational power of tension in Variation XIV, Tsalka’s acknowledging of Bach’s quirky humor in Variation XIV or the probing, soul-searching process of (the minor) Variation XXV, its staggered voices and expressive dissonances played out by the artist with his own sense of wonder and discovery. I found myself not wanting to part from this movement. From here, Tsalka launches into the sweeping intensity of the final variations, a mammoth web of Bach’s most sophisticated, complex and dense counterpoint. Rather than place a musical joke after these compelling variations, Dr. Tsalka chooses a direct, fresh and noble reading of the Quodlibet (Variation XXX). And, prior to the return of the Aria, how relevant it is that the recording technicians did not delete the sound of the artist inhaling in preparation of the final gesture: here was the Aria that had inspired the work, played by the artist with understatement and humility.

This is a recording to interest, surprise and delight listeners. Michael Tsalka’s performance of the Goldberg Variations on two clavichords is articulate and brilliant, allowing for projection of Bach’s counterpoint and subtly shaped inner voices and bass lines, neither being lost in the complex textures. In playing that bristles with creativity and emotion, he makes fine use of both instruments’ palette of colors.

Born in Tel Aviv, Israel, Michael Tsalka is a versatile artist. He plays solo and chamber music repertoire from early Baroque to contemporary repertoire, performing throughout Europe, the USA, Canada, Asia and Latin America. He is currently teaching keyboard performance at the Lilla Akademien in Stokholm and is visiting professor at the Celaya Conservatory in Guanajuato, Mexico.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Early music at the 2015 Eilat Chamber Music Festival

From February 4th to 7th, the 2015 Eilat Chamber Music Festival will take place at the Dan Hotel Eilat. Established in 2006 by violinist and conductor Leonid Rozenberg, who continues to serve as its artistic and general director, the festival, celebrating its tenth year, is one of Israel’s most prestigious, attracting both local- and overseas concert-goers interested in the best of chamber music. Most of the artists of the 2015 festival hail from Europe and the UK, with one Canadian; these musicians will be joined by a number of Israel’s finest musicians. Master classes will be held there for music performance undergraduates and graduates as of February 2nd.

With a rich variety of music and genres, early music aficionados will be well catered for. The Kölner Vokalsolisten (Cologne Vocal Soloists) will open the festival with “Carpe Noctem” (Seize the Night), a program of Renaissance-, Baroque music and more. As its title infers, the mood will be one of night, the glowing signature sound of these six singers lighting the audience through the many musical and poetic avenues of this ever-mysterious theme.

Those of us who heard the Accordone Ensemble at the Israel Festival some years back will be excited to hear that the group will be presenting two concerts at the upcoming Eilat Chamber Music Festival. Fired by their passion for pre-Bach music and original instruments, Guido Morini and Marco Beasley formed Accordone in 1984. In its fresh and informed approach to interpretation, and inspired by the values, poetics and skill of early musicians, the group focuses on Italian music for voice and continuo from the 16th and 17th centuries. With the attention the Accordone musicians give to theatrical elements, each concert is bound to be a dramatic and spirited experience. Performed by 10 members of the ensemble and joined by Italian folk dancer Silvia Pirone, “Storie di Napoli” will create a fresco of Neapolitan music from the 16th century to the present day. In “La Bella Noeva” festival-goers will hear music ranging from Gregorian chant to Monteverdi, from the tarantellas of Salento to music composed by Guido Morini himself. Singer and composer Marco Beasley is an artist of striking natural musicality and charisma.

In addition to concerts presenting some of the greatest works of Classical, Romantic and later chamber music repertoire, one very different and significant event will be the Israeli premiere of British composer (and rock musician) Julian Marshall’s 2009 chamber cantata “Out of the Darkness”, based on texts of the very great Jewish German poet Gertrud Kolmar, who perished in the Auschwitz Extermination Camp. This event will bring together the Kölner Vokalsolisten, conductor Ansgar Eimann, French ‘cellist François Salque, Israeli instrumentalists and Israeli sopranos Claire Meghnagi and Rosemarie Danziger. To let one’s hair down at a late-night jazz concert, “Brassfire” will feature the celebrated Canadian trumpeter Jens Lindemann, who will perform with three local jazz players. And to wind up the festival with excitement and passion, "Flamenco al Natural" will send festival-goers off home with a fill of color and emotion created by renowned Falemenco dancer Maria Juncal, performing with a large ensemble of musicians and dancers. Still, for those dominated by that constant hankering to hear more Renaissance and Baroque music, you will find some early music works interwoven into other programs: an interesting meeting of artists and cultures will be seen and heard "East and West", in which the Fitzwilliam Quartet (UK) will host local singer Mira Awad in a program of music rearranged for string quartet as well as Baroque music performed by Awad. Marin Marais’ Suite from “Alcione” will be played in “The Reign of the ‘Cello” (Camerata Geneva, David Greilsammer-conductor, Stephen Isserlis-‘cello), J.-P. Rameau’s Suite from “Platée” in “La Casa del Diavolo” (Geneva Camerata, David Greilsammer-conductor and pianist) and music of Bach in “Shem Tov Levi and a String Trio” - featuring Levi himself and some of his music.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra and soloists perform A.Scarlatti's "Hagar and Ishmael"

In celebration of the very recent issue of its recording of A.Scarlatti’s oratorio “Hagar and Ishmael”, the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra performed the work at its recent concerts in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. This writer attended the concert on December 29th 2014, at the Jerusalem International YMCA. Joining the string players of the JBO were soloists Avital Dery as Hagar, Tal Ganor – Ishmael, Keren Motseri – Sara, Yoav Weiss – Abraham and Adaya Peled as the Angel. Conducting the performance was the JBO’s founder and musical director David Shemer.

In his program notes, Shemer reminds us of Pope Innocent XI’s disapproval of opera in late 17th-century Rome, with opera-lovers shifting their attention to oratorio. Oratorios were usually performed as concerts, but, apart from that difference, artists really had enough freedom to satisfy the Roman aristocracy’s thirst for theatrical works. The subject of “Hagar and Ishmael” (1683) is the biblical story (Genesis, chapter 21) of Abraham, his wife Sara, her Egyptian slave Hagar and Ishmael, son of Abraham and Hagar. Because Sara had not managed to become pregnant, Sara suggested that her husband have a child by Hagar. But when Sara unexpectedly fell pregnant, giving birth to Isaac, she became jealous of Abraham’s older son, persuading Abraham to exile Hagar and Ishmael. Giuseppe de Totis weaves a libretto presenting spousal manipulation, paternal guilt and filial despair. Scarlatti’s sensitive and expressive treatment of the libretto, adding moral implications to the story, cannot but lure the listener into the fraught situation, also due to the timeless human forces playing out in this set of relationships. Add to these elements graceful recitatives, arias fuelled by fury and fire and, then, tender, dark arias probing and describing sentiments arising from the deepest parts of the human soul. The somewhat otherworldly character of the angel, appearing to save young Ishmael, who is about to die of thirst in the desert and promising him a prestigious future, breaks the tension of what is to be a tragic outcome, bringing the oratorio to a positive, elated conclusion.

Constructed in two parts, this (opera pretending to be an) oratorio has no chorus, nor are there significant orchestral sections; arias are accompanied by continuo or by orchestra, there are smooth-flowing recitatives and occasional duets. The soloists in this JBO performance retained the work’s tension with convincing immediacy. Soprano Keren Motseri depicted Sara as both tender and loving and as an obstinate, domineering, strong-willed woman. A captivating singer utilizing her beauty of sound, intelligence, temperament and fine vocal skills, she is as comfortable on stage as she is managing melismatic, dramatic passages. As Abraham, bass Yoav Weiss gave the convincing and heartfelt performance of a man whose soul is tragically conflicted. With timbral warmth and sympathy, he conveyed the great sadness of the situation:
‘Who does not know what pain is
Knows still that pain which exceeds
All others, that in the middle of the heart
Hides always in silence…’
Accompanied by ‘cello (Orit Messer-Jacobi) and theorbo (Bari Moskovitz), this was a soul-searching moment where the audience might now start to ask itself where its allegiance lay. Avital Dery made for a superb Hagar: expressive, maternal, articulate, communicative and subtly dramatic, her well-rounded vocal sound reached out to the listener as she portrayed both the strength and the hopelessness of a mother in such a situation. These moments were all the more effective and moving with the dark timbre of lower strings:
‘The desire of a covetous heart
Has no limits or end.
Like a languishing soul in burning pain,
No abundance of fluid
Can extinguish the ceaseless craving
Of its impious thirst…’
Well suited to singing Baroque repertoire, soprano Tal Ganor displayed a deep understanding of the role of Ishmael. Never excessively dramatic or operatic, her depiction of the boy dying of thirst was understated yet profound, appealing and well within the boundaries of good taste. Unmannered and natural, her singing was expressive and superbly controlled. As the Angel, young soprano Adaya Peled created the effect of radiance and surprise to turn the plot around and pronounce that Ishmael had been “chosen by heaven
To propagate the empires of a vast people…” and that
“Violets bloom
After frost and cold”.

Here was an impressive home-grown line-up of soloists to join Maestro David Shemer and the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra in a sensitive and highly convincing reading of “Hagar and Ishmael”. The instrumental playing was excellent; kudos to the continuo players for their sympathetic accompaniments.