Monday, June 29, 2015

The Jerusalem Baroque Soloists perform Restoration music at the Israel Museum

On June 26th 2015, the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra Soloists closed the 2014-2015 BAROQUE FRIDAYS series: Early Music in the Mirror of its Era with “The British Orpheus”, a lecture and concert that took place in the auditorium of the Israel Museum. Dr. Alon Schab Haifa University) called his talk “Return of the King: Music in Restoration England (1660-1700).

Relating directly to the concert to follow, musicologist Dr. Schab pointed out to the audience that all three composers represented in the concert – Henry Purcell, Daniel Purcell and John Blow – lived and composed in Restoration England. The music of Henry Purcell, it should be noted, is one of the main focuses of Alon Schab’s research interests. Schab opened his talk by filling us in on some details of British history, notably the Restoration and the Stuart period, a time characterized by constant political-religious complications, with the Protestant Church threatened by the return of Catholicism. Interestingly for those of us who enjoy this English repertoire, it was Anne of Denmark, wife of James VI and I, and, it seems, a more colorful personage than her husband, who introduced the masque – an elaborate form of entertainment involving acting, music and dance - commissioning and performing them at court. Following the execution of Charles I (1649), the Puritans, allied to the military regime headed by Oliver Cromwell, banned theatre but not singing, hence the development of opera in England. “The Siege of Rhodes”, considered to have been the first English opera, premiered in London in 1556. Consort music was performed for intellectual entertainment in the early university towns of Oxford and Cambridge, but when referring to “English music” of the time, this generally meant music in London. London was actually two cities – London and Westminster, and there was contention between them. As to the kinds of music of the time, there was music played in pubs, in the street, in private homes, in churches, in theatres and at court. As to the hierarchy of performed music, pub music was improvised, some of it quite sophisticated, some less, but it was not written down. There were different standards of house music. Much has been written about it: it often consisted of sacred and meditational music with keyboard accompaniment, the singer and accompanist sometimes being the same person. Churches preserved music in their own archives, many of which, however, were destroyed or burnt. Theatres also had archives, not all surviving. The score of Purcell’s “Fairy Queen”, a “Restoration spectacular”, written three years before Purcell’s death, was lost for 200 years, to be rediscovered only at the beginning of the 20th century. Court music, being of great importance, often carried political messages; for example, Purcell’s “Blessed are they that fear the Lord” was commissioned by James II for the Chapel Royal to celebrate his wife’s pregnancy. The text, taken from Psalm 128, was chosen both because it refers to begetting children, but, heavy with political messages, it also alluded to the desire to continue the Stuart rule. Alon Schab concluded by saying that in order to understand this or any music, it is necessary to understand the political complexity of its time.

The concert itself featured alto Avital Dery, countertenor Alon Harari, recorder players Drora Bruck and Gil Wallach, with Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra founder and musical director Dr. David Shemer at the harpsichord. The songs on the program focused largely on the subject of music. In reference to “Orpheus Britannicus”, a collection of Henry Purcell’s songs published posthumously, Henry Playford wrote that Purcell was “blessed with a peculiar genius to express the energy of English words, whereby he moved the passions of all his auditors”. The program opened with two songs of Henry Purcell (1659-1695) that talked of nature’s musicians – the birds – the first being “Hark! How the songsters” (from his masque “Timon of Athens”), a joyful, warm and well blended opener to the concert, the presence of recorders so delicate and appealing in this repertoire. Avital Dery and David Shemer then performed the famous arioso said to have been sung by Purcell himself “’Tis Nature’s Voice” (from Hail Bright Cecilia); Dery engaged in much word-painting, in the many appoggiaturas and melismatic passages, changing with each new emotion and communicating with her audience. In Harari and Shemer’s performance of “I attempt from Love’s sickness” from Purcell’s semi-opera “The Indian Queen”, Harari’s lightness and transparency of sound allowed the piece’s irony and wit to emerge naturally, reflecting its message of the futility of trying to escape one’s desires. As to “Strike the Viol” from “Come Ye Sons of Art” (1694), written for alto, two treble recorders and through-bass, here performed by both singers and all three instrumentalists, what could be heartier and more uplifting than this perfectly crafted gem, with its melodious and dance-like sweep and the charm of its dainty recorder utterances!

As to the instrumental content of the program, we heard Trio Sonata in d minor for two recorders and basso continuo by Daniel Purcell (1664-1717). An organist and prolific composer, Henry Purcell’s younger brother has not enjoyed enough credit on the concert platform. A work of short movements, it was given a sympathetic and cantabile reading by the artists, its moods and dissonances addressed, their playing offering some tasteful embellishments. From “A Choice Collection of Lessons for the Harpsichord or Spinnet” (1696), the first volume of English keyboard works by one composer, David Shemer performed Henry Purcell’s Harpsichord Suite in g minor, issuing it in with a fluid, imitative Prelude. Preserving the noble mood of the suite’s minor mode, Shemer’s playing was ornamented, highlighting its small dissonant surprises.

The program ended with “An Ode on the Death of Mr. Henry Purcell” (1696) by John Blow (1649-1708). There could have been no more fitting memorial to Henry Purcell than this fine setting of Dryden’s “Hark how the Lark and Linnet Sing” scored originally for two countertenors, two recorders and thoroughbass, this work being one of Blow’s greatest masterpieces and a major work of the Restoration. It is also Blow’s most Purcellian, with the choice of two countertenor roles as well as the use of recorders which evoke a funereal tone and a sense of the other-worldly. Purcell had been a student of Blow as a boy at the Chapel Royal and also later, then succeeding him as organist at Westminster Abbey. Both musicians benefited from the long association. Early death at that time was commonplace, but here Blow and Dryden are deploring the catastrophe of losing a friend and one of England’s greatest composers. Dryden’s poem begins by mentioning the singing of birds, but contends that their music is no challenge to Purcell. It ends with crediting heaven for Purcell’s music. The artists gave a satisfying performance of this major and challenging work, its course characterized by mournful and celebratory moments and colored with curious, unpredictable shifts of harmony.
‘The Heavenly Choir, who heard his notes from high
Let down the Scale of Musick from the sky:
They handed him along,
And all the way He taught, and all the way they sung.’

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Zvi Plesser and Jonathan Keren join the Carmel Quartet to discuss and perform Schoenberg's "Transfigured Night"

The Carmel Quartet concluded its 2014-2015 “Strings and More” series with “Transfiguration”, an explained concert on the subject of Schoenberg’s “Transfigured Night”. This writer attended the event at the Jerusalem Music Centre, Mishkenot Sha’ananim, Jerusalem, on June 23rd 2015.

Founded in 1999 in Jerusalem, the Carmel Quartet plays a wide range of repertoire, Israeli works included, performing throughout Israel, in Europe, the USA and further afield. The quartet made its Carnegie Hall debut in 2004. In 2013, the Carmel Quartet made its first tour of China, performing in the Forbidden City. For “Transfiguration”, quartet members violinists Rachel Ringelstein and Lia Raikhlin, violist Yoel Greenberg and ‘cellist Tami Waterman were joined by guest artists Zvi Plesser-‘cello and Jonathan Keren - viola for the performance of the Schoenberg work. “Strings and More”, with each concert/lecture presented three times in Hebrew and once in English, is directed by Dr. Yoel Greenberg.

The evening opened with a few moments of a recording of Schoenberg’s massive cantata “Gurre-Lieder”, its lush, lyrical, late-Romantic sounds reminding the listener of Schoenberg’s early compositional style. Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) composed “Verklärte Nacht” (Transfigured Night) Op. 4, a string sextet in one movement, in 1899. The tone poem takes its inspiration from- and is based on Richard Dehmel’s mystical poem of the same name. The poem describes a man and woman in love walking through the woods on a moonlit night. Ashamed, she reveals she is pregnant with another man’s child, a man she had never loved. The man walking with her responds with loving acceptance of her, accepting the child as his own. The unborn child, the woman and man and the night itself are transfigured from darkness into light. To introduce the audience to the still largely but not exclusively tonal early language of the composer who was to become the “bad boy” of modern atonal music, we were shown “Science and Charity”, the disturbingly realistic oil picture painted by the 15-year-old Picasso. Yet, according to musicologist Yoel Greenberg, despite its mostly conventional Romantic style, “Transfigured Night”, so well liked in today’s concert halls, met with quite some disapproval from the public when first performed. At that time, Schoenberg was already claiming that the triad was to be seen as an “effect”, despite the fact that “Transfigured Night” is bristling with triads in Brahmsian profusion. So why did critics and the concert-going public of Schoenberg’s time give the work a poor reception? People found it hard to accept the coupling of Dehmel’s text with the chamber medium, the most abstract musical setting of all, and there was much discussion as to whether the music reflected the text and whether it was a programmatic work or not. For Schoenberg, the concept was what was important; his argument was that different listeners had different demands on music. Despite his description of how each part of the work connected in parallel with the poem, he was, in fact, against having the poem itself printed with the music. His publisher, however, insisted on including it; Dehmel was, after all, a popular poet of the time. Greenberg talked of the leitmotifs threaded through the work, representing various elements of the poem: the slow march representing the two people walking through the forest, the moonlit night, that of the panicked woman and the man calming her, the unsettled music accompanying the woman’s confession of being pregnant from another man, that of her sense of loneliness, then the lullaby associated with the idea of pregnancy and the secure, optimistic message of transformation. These motifs appear up to the middle of the work, after which stage they receive more abstract treatment.

Yoel Greenberg spoke of the fact that that Schoenberg was an Expressionist composer, with the subjective, emotional aspect of his music ever at the forefront, also in the composer’s later, most avant-garde works. There was no mistaking this emphasis when Norwegian Expressionist artist Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” appeared on the screen. This was followed by two self-portraits by Schoenberg, whose paintings had been considered of a high enough quality to be exhibited alongside those of Kandinsky and Franz Marc, fellow members of the Blue Rider group. The second of Schoenberg’s self-portraits to be shown, that of 1910, a haunting reminder of that traumatic period of the composer’s life, is no less troubling than that of Munch. Also very interesting were Greenberg’s references to other art forms integrating the music and influenced by the mystical, psychological, erotic and fatalistic elements of the work: in literature, Israeli writer Nathan Shaham’s novel “The Rosendorf Quartet”; in cinema, Claude Chabrol’s “The Swindle”, Andrei Konchalovsky’s “Lumière and Company” and Jean-Luc Godard’s “New Wave” (1990.

A born storyteller, Greenberg has much interesting information up his sleeve, as he addresses his audience in an engaging, easygoing and humorous manner. Adding to this, the women members of the Carmel Quartet, all of whom have some theatrical training, presented the audience with some very charming vignettes – one in which two ladies of Schoenberg’s time read and discuss critiques of the work and one depicting Schoenberg in Hollywood, stubbornly making his own conditions and demands when offered the opportunity to write film music… this never eventuating. There was also a poignant and beguiling reading of a Hebrew translation of the Dehmel poem by all six musicians. Following the intermission, we were presented with a riveting, intense and subtle reading of Schoenberg’s “Transfigured Night”, from its first dark and dejected utterances, through fraught, full-blown sonority, via the work’s longing, introspection and intimacy, up to the silvery filigree sounds depicting moonlight and its associations, sounds that were almost visual in their radiance and delicacy. Led securely by first violinist Rachel Ringelstein, here was a performance of fine collaboration, still allowing for plenty of individual expression.

This was violinist Lia Raikhlin’s farewell performance with the Carmel Quartet. Yonah Zur will take her place as of the 2015-2016 concert season.