Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Pianist and musicologist Jascha Nemtsov performs "Preludes and Fugues" at the first Bach in Jerusalem Festival

Jascha Nemtsov (photo: Maxim Reider)
An auspicious event of the first Bach in Jerusalem Festival (March 17th-21st 2016) was a recital titled “Preludes and Fugues performed by pianist Jascha Nemtsov. It took place at the Jerusalem Music Centre, Mishkenot Sha’ananim on March 20th.

With his program taking a cue from the music of J.S.Bach at the core of the festival, Professor Nemtsov opened his recital with pieces from Book I of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier - a contemplative, gently expansive reading of the Prelude in E major, followed by its bold partner fugue. His poetic rendering of the F-minor Prelude highlighted key notes; then, to the Fugue with its enigmatic, atonal subject, clearly highly inspirational to Nemtsov, whose poly-dimensional playing was variously and imaginatively orchestrated at each stage of the piece.

Many of us were especially drawn to the recital to hear the pianist’s first Israeli performance of a number of the 24 Preludes and Fugues of Ukraine-born composer Vsevolod Zaderatsky (1891-1953), an artist systematically persecuted, excluded from Soviet musical life, exiled and twice imprisoned. Much of his music was destroyed. He did, however, compose six piano sonatas, three programmatic piano cycles, two operas, symphony- and ensemble scores and the cycle of 24 Preludes and Fugues. The Preludes and Fugues (1937-1938) constitute the central work of the composer’s musical legacy (there are also some literary works), having miraculously survived and made it into the hands of the composer’s son who, in the 1970s deciphered what was written in the Kilyma camp of Siberia mostly on telegram forms, copying the pieces out in full. The cycle of Zaderatsky’s Preludes and Fugues was first performed in its entirety by Nemtsov in 2015 at the 6th International Shostakovich Days (Gohrisch, Germany). 2015 also saw the publishing of the work as well as Nemtsov’s double CD recording of the complete set for the Profil label. At the Jerusalem recital, Jascha Nemtsov’s performance of this highly varied group of pieces convincingly displayed Zaderatsky’s kaleidoscope of ideas and his fine (and highly challenging) pianistic writing; beyond those qualities, Nemtsov sketched a picture of the man himself and the breadth of fantasy and emotion that may well have been what saw him through ordeals in the gulag that many do not survive. The pieces also attest to the composer’s mastery at the piano. If Bach’s C-major Prelude of the WTC I is bathed in light and tranquillity, Zaderatsky’s C-major is ghostly, intense, confrontational, sometimes atonal. The splendid A-minor Prelude, with its hectic, bright and cascading agenda, as well as its drone presence, breathes optimism, as does its richly chordal accompanying Fugue, which ends on an octave-and-fifth, pared-down Renaissance-type chord. In the G-major Prelude, with its agile, weightless “Flight-of-the-Bumblebee” texture, Nemtsov’s virtuosic performance displayed the piece’s play of colours and humour. The G-Major Fugue, however, follows by conjuring up a complex soundscape. After the atonal, floating “seascape” of the E-Minor Prelude, the E-minor Fugue, with quotes threaded through the texture, its voices shaped with individual expression, ended on three decisive minor chords. A true gem, the B-Minor Prelude’s fine gossamer melody wrought of parallel seconds took one’s breath away with its beauty; its modal/atonal partner fugue taking on a much weightier character, its texture offering a suggestion of bells. With the F-sharp minor Prelude’s shining, high melodic line and poignant bell-like textures, we were raised up to a more celestial place; its Fugue splendidly chiselled, with each phrase growing out of its predecessor. Nemtsov’s total immersion in the music and in the workings of Zaderatsky’s intellect and soul left the audience humbled and moved.

First silenced as a “degenerate” composer due to his Jewish ancestry, Czech composer Viktor Ullmann composed the “Variations and Fugue on a Hebrew Folk Song”, the fifth and last movement of Sonata No.7, his final work, when interned in Theresienstadt. Against all odds, Ullmann was very creative there. “Theresienstadt was and is for me a school of structure”, he wrote. “I must stress that I have bloomed in my musical work…without inhibition…” In 1944, however, shortly after completing the piece, he was transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, soon perishing in the gas chambers there. The Hebrew folksong on which the movement is based is a Zionist song sung by Yehuda Sharett. It sets a poem by the poet Rachel. Ullmann’s variations bear resemblance to a Slovak national anthem (banned by the Nazis) and a Hussite hymn, also quoting the Protestant hymn “Now thank we all our God”. Apparent in this final movement are, in fact, a comprehensive array of the elements making up Ullmann’s musical-, emotional- and intellectual existence (references to Bach, to Christianity versus Judaism, folk music, the fugue, tonal- versus atonal music) or might it be an utterance of defiance of his Nazi captors? Nemtsov’s free, playful and brilliant performance of the work reflected the composer’s unshakable optimism. In his introductory words, the artist referred to Ullmann’s Fugue as a “kind of vision”. With BACH motif appearing in the fugue, here was another connection to the festival itself.

When Dmitri Shostakovich went to Leipzig in 1950 for events marking 200 years of J.S.Bach’s death, he heard young virtuoso pianist Tatiana Nikolyeva performing pieces from both books of The Well-Tempered Clavier. Returning to Moscow, he began to sketch out his own 24 Preludes and Fugues, a work alluding to the music of Mussorgsky, Borodin and Russian folk music but also to the world of counterpoint. This diverse and imaginative collection of pieces takes the listener through the wide range of the composer’s emotional world, from bleak despair to exaltation, from the grotesque to devil-may-care jollity. It was Nikolyeva who then premiered the Shostakovich work in 1952. At his Jerusalem recital, Jascha Nemtsov played three pairs of Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues opus 87, opening with the C-Major pair - autumnal, harmonically rich, gently dissonanced yet breathing a sense of C-Major purity and directness, its Fugue played with fragile beauty. Nemtsov, having mentioned that the F-Sharp-Minor prelude included motifs from Klezmer music, presented the agitated, feisty miniature with playfulness, cynicism and a touch of whimsy, then drawing the listener into the disturbing banality-cum-dissonance of the Fugue subject and its complex workings, a piece as bewitching as it is disturbing. As to the D-Minor Prelude, Nemtsov highlighted its noble character, giving a natural and free voice to the richly varied emotional agenda of the consequent Fugue. Professor Nemtsov’s playing sensitively plumbs the depths of Shostakovich’s mind, his elegant and nimble touch presenting the pieces with masterful eloquence, his deep enquiry into each revealing its truth.

Pianist and musicologist Jascha Nemtsov was born in Magadan (Siberia), growing up in St. Petersburg and graduating with distinction from the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Since 1992, he has lived in Germany, with a busy international career performing both solo- and chamber music. Nemtsov’s repertoire covers a wide range of works and styles, from Classical- and Romantic repertoire to music of the 20th- and 21st centuries, with emphasis on Russian music – Shostakovich, Zaderatsky, Weinberg and other composers. As a performer and musicologist, he has focused on Jewish art music of the early 20th century and performs works of composers who suffered at the hands of the Nazis. He has been active in salvaging forgotten works of the New Jewish School (Russia, early 20th century). Jascha Nemtsov’s many recordings have won him several prizes. He today holds the chair of History of Jewish Music at the University of Music Franz Liszt Weimar and serves as academic director of the Abraham Geiger College (the Reform rabbinic/cantorial seminary attached to the University of Potsdam, Berlin.)

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