Friday, March 25, 2016

Under the baton of guest conductor Joshua Rifkin (USA), J.S.Bach's St. Matthew Passion opens the first Bach in Jerusalem Festival

Maestro Joshua Rifkin (
The first Bach in Israel Festival, directed by David Shemer and hosted by the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, took place from March 17th to 21st 2016. Most of the festival events took place in and around Jerusalem, with some concerts performed in Tel Aviv and Zichron Ya’acov.
The work opening the festival was J.S.Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, conducted by Maestro Joshua Rifkin (USA). Founder and director of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, Maestro David Shemer spoke of Felix Mendelssohn’s performance of the St. Matthew Passion in Berlin 1829 (the first since Bach’s death) as symbolizing “the beginning of the modern period of western music…marking the revival of past music and, in particular, works of Bach”.

This writer attended the first of three performances of the monumental work on March 17th in the Mary Nathanial Golden Hall of Friendship, International YMCA, Jerusalem. As Bach was primarily a church musician, the only people who heard the St. Matthew Passion at his time would have been congregants in the churches in which he served. It was first heard at St. Thomas Church, Leipzig on Good Friday of 1727. As the congregation heard the music coming from the balcony at the back of the church, each listener could meditate on the text, finding his own meaning in it. It would probably have surprised and shocked the conservative Leipzig congregations of Bach’s time.  The St. Matthew Passion was then performed only a few more times, always under Bach’s direction, with a modest number of church musicians. The work, however, remained of greatest importance to the composer: he went to considerable trouble in later age to repair the manuscript, resewing the score by hand, strengthening the writing of its double-chorus/continuo and highlighting biblical words in red ink. Those few who saw the manuscript after Bach’s death considered it unfathomable; it remained unpublished and unheard till 1829. Under Joshua Rifkin’s baton, the Bach in Jerusalem Festival performance was presented according to the criteria to which Bach himself had adhered, those having been researched by Rifkin himself. This meant two orchestral ensembles, each paired with a vocal quartet (the singers in Chorus I have double the amount of arias and include the Evangelist, with chorus II serving as a ripieno group some of the time), the singers taking on the solo roles as well as forming the two choirs. Bach's librettist Picander (Christian Friedrich Henrici) referred to Choir I as "The Daughters of Zion" and to Choir II as "The Faithful". At the Jerusalem performance, three other singers – Tchelet Levin, Lior Inbar and Yoav Weiss - sang smaller roles. The work was sung in the original German, with English- and Hebrew translations of the text flashed onto a screen.

Maestro Rifkin did a formidable job of bringing together players and singers, many previously unknown to him - members of the JBO, local singers, Israelis residing overseas and some overseas artists – a mammoth undertaking when performing what is considered by many as Bach’s grandest composition. We were presented with some superbly rich and suavely blended orchestral playing, the eight wind players (flute, recorder, oboe, oboe d’amore, oboe da caccia) adding resonant plangency and colour to the ensembles as well as poignant obbligato playing to some of the arias. There is much to be said for the unique effect of small choral groups, forming the choruses that depict the angry crowd, priests, officials and more, then stepping outside the action to voice emotional reactions to the story. Their singing of the chorales - breaking the tension at strategic moments, their harmonisations becoming progressively more complex -  was silky. balmy and inviting.

As to the many soloists, there was some fine, vibrant singing from bass Yoav Weiss; tenor Doron Florentin’s open, large, bright timbre in “Geduld, Geduld” (Forbear/ Though deceiving tongues may sting me) (obbligato: Nima Ben David, viol); lively, light and natural singing of soprano Channa Malkin (Holland); alto Anne-Marieke Evers (Holland) in competent, uncluttered and pleasing performance and bass Yair Polishook’s mix of richness and transparency of voice together with his attention to text.  Soprano Keren Motzeri’s arias were outstandingly rich in dynamic variety and detail. In the intimate, pared-down scoring (with no bass instruments to provide any earthly anchor) of “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben” (Out of love my Saviour is willing to die) with its languid flute obbligato (Idit Shemer) and two oboes da caccia (Aviad Gershoni, Neven Lesange) Motseri sculpted the melody, weaving into it each minute detail as she evoked the soul of the believer. Understanding the nature of the role of Jesus as per Bach’s (non-realistic) portrayal, bass Guy Pelc sang Bach’s arioso writing (something between recitative and aria) with conviction, displaying a deep affinity with the text as he and the Evangelist (Richard Resch) coordinated comfortably in the delivery of narrative and commentary. Pelc’ voice and personality are highly suited to this genre, to its dramatic moments as well as to its reverent, introspective agenda. In his last aria, following Jesus’ final cry in his state of isolation sung, in Hebrew “Eli, eli, lama asabthani?” (My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me), Pelc gives voice to the personalized experience of the individualized believer in the fluid and calming “Mache dich, mein Herze rein” (Make thyself clean, my heart).

Handling the heavy demands made on the Chorus I alto, Avital Dery, served well by her quiet inner presence, a well-anchored, richly coloured, stable voice and her deep enquiry into the text, communicated with the audience as she infused emotion and meaning into each solo, be it her empathic reading of “Buss’ und Reu’” (Guilt and pain) with its obbligato of two flutes, the melancholy “Erbarme dich” (Have mercy) its sad and serene obbligato violin role presented and ornamented with delicacy by Noam Schuss (Rifkin chose a rather fast tempo for this, considering the aria’s subject of betrayal and remorse) or the unique “Ach Golgotha”, in which Bach uses all 12 chromatic pitches!

German tenor Richard Resch made for an imposing Matthew the Evangelist, his rich, buoyant and highly-coloured voice finding its way to all corners of the YMCA hall and to the audience’s heart as he carried the actions forward in vivid word-painting, recounting the course of events with energy and articulacy. One highlight was “O Schmerz! hier zittert das gequälte Herz” (O pain! Here trembles the tormented heart), featuring two oboes da caccia and recorders, these portraying the dark agony of Gethsemane, with Choir II singing the chorale, into which Resch intermittently wove the solo line, describing the atmosphere of Christ’s agony in rich detail.

Maestro Joshua Rifkin, players and singers, issued in the first Bach in Jerusalem Festival with an eloquent and majestic performance of the “Great Passion”, as it was known in the Bach family circle. It was an impressive opening to the first Bach in Jerusalem Festival.

Chorus I:Keren Motzeri,Avital Dery,Richard Resch,Guy Pelc(photo:Maxim Reider)
Choris II:Yair Polishook,Doron Florentin,Anne-Marieke Evers,Channa Malkin(photo:Maxim Reider)


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