Monday, November 2, 2015

Israeli artist Ariel Halevy records Brahms' late solo piano works

Not long ago I came across Ariel Halevy’s very recent recording of Johannes Brahms’ late piano works. The works heard on it are Seven Fantasias op.116, Three Intermezzi op.117, Six Pieces op.118 and Four Pieces op.119. In his detailed and informative program notes, Halevy refers to Brahms’ life from 1892 to 1893, when these works were composed, a time the composer was suffering from malaise and problems of health and aging; he was also grieving over the death of his older sister Elise and that of his friend Elisabeth von Herzogenberg. This is the autumnal and joyless setting for these 20 pieces - small, personal works disclosing no programmatic content via their titles but demanding layers of probing and musical meaning that take the pianist far beyond dexterity.

Born in Jerusalem in 1976, Ariel Halevy began piano studies at the age of seven, studying with Ilana Gutman at the Jerusalem Conservatory of Music and Dance, before becoming a pupil of Prof. Viktor Derevianko at the Tel Aviv Academy of Music. In 1995 he moved to New York to study at the Mannes College of Music on a full scholarship, first with Nina Svetlanova and later with Diane Walsh. On graduating from there with a master’s degree, he went on to study at the Purchase Conservatory, State University of New York. He has also worked with piano pedagogue and writer Madeline Bruser. A prize-winner of the World Piano Competition (1995, Cincinnati) and of the Artist International Debut Award (2000, New York), Halevy has soloed with orchestras and played recitals in Israel, the USA and Europe; he holds lecture-recitals and is a dedicated teacher.

There are several interesting recordings of the late Brahms piano pieces; this one offers much fine interpretation, reflecting Ariel Halevy’s profound thoughts on each piece. Since his teen years, Halevy has been making a deep enquiry into the essence of Brahms’ music, examining his own connection with it - music influenced by so many strands of influence yet defined by its differentness and total uniqueness. In the opus 116 Fantasias, Halevy brings out the contemplative, philosophical tone of the pieces, in the first Intermezzo showing how section connects to section and how important strategic timing is, the piece’s urgency always remaining noble. In the second Intermezzo, addressing the Classical side of Brahms, the artist creates a mood piece from so few strands, the careful placing of a note or two creating a small gesture not to be missed by the active listener. In the last opus 116 Capriccio, Halevy’s playing is personal, shaped and sensitive, taking a sober look at the piece as he highlights the imaginative harmonies to take the piece to a magical conclusion.

Then to the artist’s wonderfully crafted playing of Brahms’ musings in the Three Intermezzi opus 117, referred to by the composer as “lullabies”, then sardonically redefined by him as a “lullaby of an unhappy mother or of a disconsolate bachelor”.  In Halevy’s hands, the three pieces hang together well, their intimacy of the soul and small mysteries expressed with gently flexed simplicity, meaningful tiny pauses and a velvety touch.

Originally dedicated to Clara Schumann, though temporarily forgotten as concert pieces shortly after being written, the Six Piano Pieces opus 118 cover the range of the composer’s emotions at  the time. Halevy takes the listener into the mood of each with subtlety rather than with brooding and rashness. His treatment of the Ballade is energetic and elastic, while his reading of the third Intermezzo is exciting rather than nervous, showing the Romanze’s enigmatic, strange and embellished manner as opposed to the melodic-chordal approach of the piece’s outer sections.

Then to Johannes Brahms’ final solo piano works - Four Piano Pieces opus 119 – its opening Intermezzo dreamy and eloquent, wonderfully shaped, all its gestures and strata present. The second Intermezzo is infused with emotion and performed in a suspenseful, exciting and rewarding manner with a touch of melancholy. In its whimsy that defies bar-lines, Halevy presents the third Intermezzo with charm, this followed by the Rhapsody, its resolutely noble moments dissolving into sprinklings of light-hearted musings, this final piece presenting recollections of gypsy music from Brahms’ youth.

The artist’s fine control, his crystal clear voicing, his understanding of Brahms’ rich polyphonic textures and his tasteful use of the sustaining pedal make for transparence and articulacy that never form dense, overloaded textures. In playing that keeps a safe distance from the subjective, gushy sentimentality too often heard in performance of these works, He calls attention to the poetic and contemplative nature of Brahms’ late writing for piano, presenting its pianistic and emotional sound world.  Ariel Halevy’s playing is meticulously crafted, coherent and economical.  Recorded at the Jerusalem Music Centre on a Hamburg Steinway concert grand, the CD for the RomeoRecords label, was issued in 2015.   

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