Saturday, April 30, 2016

"Paisiello in Vienna" recorded in 2015 by Izhar Elias, Alon Sariel and Michael Tsalka

Giovanni Paisiello  (
Paisiello in Vienna – Variations on “Nel cor più non mi sento” (Brilliant Classics) features performance by Izhar Elias (guitar) Alon Sariel (mandolin) and Michael Tsalka (fortepiano). It  was recorded at the Museum Geelvinck Hinlopen Huis, Amsterdam in 2015.

Born in the Kingdom of Naples, Giovanni Paisiello (1740-1816) was trained in Naples and established his reputation as an opera composer there. He and his librettist Giambattista Lorenzi collaborated to write fast-moving comic operas as well as larger, dramatic operas. In 1776, the composer moved to St. Petersburg at the suggestion of Empress Catherine II, remaining there for eight years, during which time he composed most of his operas. In 1774, Paisiello spent a short time in Vienna in the employ of Emperor Joseph II, where his comic operas enjoyed much popularity. He returned to Naples to serve as theatre composer in the court of King Ferdinand IV. Hearing that Napoleon was an admirer of his music, Paisiello left for Paris in 1802, returning to Naples in 1804. He was known to have composed more than 80 operas, some 40 Masses and other sacred works, symphonies and various other instrumental works. “Nel cor più non mi sento” (In my heart I no longer feel) is sung twice in his opera “L’Amor contrastato” or “La Molinara” (1788) - first by the beautiful Rachelina, to be reiterated by playboy Calloandro, then to be sung by her again, this time answered by the notary Pistolfo, who is also in love with her. Not music of any complexity, the simple song has been and remains a longstanding staple of voice students. It has also been used by as the subject for variations by such composers as Bartolomeo Bortolazzi, Hummel, Beethoven, Johann Baptist Wanhal, Paganini, Sor, Friedrich Silcher, Giovanni Bottesini, Luigi Castellacci, Joseph Gelinek, Christoph August Gabler, Moritz Lichnowsky, Ferdinand Kauer, Nicola Antonio Manfroce and Mauro Giuliani. This disc presents a selection of the variations.

The second focus of the disc is the popularity of the mandolin and guitar in Vienna. During the first decade of the 19th century, for example, Bartolomeo Bortolazzi (1778-1820) a key figure of the mandolin and six-string guitar, who moved to Vienna in 1805, was known in Vienna as a virtuoso artist, composer of instrumental- and vocal music and author of two best-selling methods for the mandolin and guitar. Alon Sariel, playing an original 1850 Pilade Mauri mandolin, accompanied by Izhar Elias on an original 1812 Carlo Guadagnini guitar, presented the solo with elegance, refined ornamentation and a hint of flexing and inégal mannerism, the two artists excellently coordinated in a reading rich in vivacity. Of the greatest guitarists of his time, Mauro Giuliani (1781-1829) was one of the principal composers writing for guitar and the combination of piano and guitar. He arrived in Vienna around 1806. Elias and Michael Tsalka perform Giuliani’s Introduction and Variations in A on Paisiello’s “Nel cor più non mi sento” opus 113, followed by the Polonaise Allegro in A. Tsalka is playing a ca. 1820 Joseph Böhm fortepiano and what a wonderful balance this instrument strikes with the guitar. In a rewarding rendering of the Giuliani piece, both artists address detail, shape and gestures, highlighting the beauty and charm of Classical clarity. Topping off Giuliani’s variations is the hearty, more challenging Polonaise, its momentum building up to a triumphant ending.

Variations were popular fare for the many pianists and piano students in Vienna. From 1793 to 1801, his first decade in Vienna, Beethoven composed some twelve or more sets of variations on popular melodies; all were snapped up by the publishers. The story has it that Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) wrote his “Six Variations in G” Wo070 (1795) for a lady who had been seated next to him at a performance of “La Molinara”, completing the work overnight. In his articulate and spontaneous presentation of the work, Tsalka’s playing goes beyond displaying the different figuration of each variation, as he addresses questions of ornamentation, scoring, timbre and texture. And how appealing and authentic the variations sound played on the fortepiano! Prolific Bohemian composer Johann Baptist Wanhal (1730-1813) went to Vienna in 1760, studying with Karl Dittersdorf, then returning there in 1780, where he supported himself as a freelance composer. He was much published and the Viennese public appreciated the music of this important and influential figure. His “Six Variations in G” opus 42 on the same Paisiello song were originally scored for violin/flute and guitar/fortepiano. Elias, Tsalka and Sariel present it with mandolin, guitar and fortepiano. The liner notes remind the listener that “the liberty of substituting one melodic instrument for another was a fairly common practice during the Classical and Romantic Eras”. The artists’ performance of the Wanhal work - rich and hearty, bristling in cantabile playing and in fine collaboration, with a touch of caprice and humour – highlights the composer’s warmth and independent spirit. With Wanhal an unduly neglected composer, Michael Tsalka is drawing attention to this master in live performance and in his recording of Wanhal’s Capriccios.

Other works here not based on Paisiello’s modest opera melody include another three attractive Beethoven works, in which Sariel and Tsalka collaborate superbly in playing that is a celebration of the freshness, energy and invention of the young composer not yet engrossed in the brooding and suffering of his later life. Then there are two stylish works by eminent Austrian composer, concert pianist and improviser Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837), the last representative of the Viennese Classical School. Elias joins Tsalka in Hummel’s “Pot-pourri” opus 53, entertaining with its quotes from popular operas, as guitar and fortepiano communicate, express and interweave engagingly in this work of variety and joie-de-vivre. 

The third focus of the CD is the genre of house music in Vienna, activity decisive in the shifting of musical patronage from the aristocracy to the upper middle class. These salon concerts often required performance by all attendees, regardless of whether they were amateur or professional players (or singers). It also boosted music publishing and the piano industry. The works on this disc call to mind the repertoire for private performance in the homes of the bourgeoisie, the body of Hauskonzert works all too easily overlooked today and sadly neglected.  The bright, vivid quality of “Paisiello in Vienna” presents every detail of this music with articulacy as performed by three outstanding artists, together with the genuineness and refreshing naiveté of music of the Classical era. 


Sunday, April 24, 2016

Vag Papian conducts the Ashdod Symphony Orchestra, two Oratorio Choirs and soloists in "Song of Destiny" at the Jerusalem YMCA

Maestro Vag Papian (
“Song of Destiny” – a program of Romantic works – was performed by the Ashdod Symphony Orchestra, the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir (musical director: Kate Belshé) and the Jerusalem Oratorio Bel Canto Choir (musical director: Salome Rebello). All were conducted by Maestro Vag Papian, who serves as principal conductor of the Ashdod Symphony Orchestra. The concert took place on April 19th 2016 in the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship, the Jerusalem International YMCA.

The program opened with a performance of Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No.3 in a-minor opus 56, “Scottish”. On his visit to Scotland in 1829, Mendelssohn, deeply impressed by the rugged ruins of Holyrood Palace (the official residence of the British monarch in Scotland) wrote “I believe I found today in the old chapel the beginning of my Scottish Symphony”. An accomplished painter, the composer returned from his trip with some 30 dated pencil drawings and pen-and-ink sketches; his musical sketches, however, were laid aside, not to be completed as a symphony till 1842. When Mendelssohn conducted its premiere, he presented the work as “absolute” music; indeed, it includes no Scottish melodies and was probably largely influenced by the spirit of the Scottish literature the composer had read as well as the Scottish landscape. Maestro Papian and the Ashdod Orchestra gave expression to the large work, from the first movement’s sombre opening “Holyrood” theme, its tension and agitation, its plaintive and stormy moments and its pictorial and poetic aspects. Following the scurrying staccato Vivace movement, with its fanfare interjections (an association of the composer’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream”), the players stressed the Adagio’s dramatic, at times reflective and sweeping intensity. In the final movement, the orchestra juxtaposed the threatening first subject with the second more wistful idea, bringing the work to a powerful and majestic close. The performance indeed captured the heavy, brooding, sometimes martial character of much of the work (punctuated by the lightness and grace of the second movement), offering some very fine wind playing throughout.

One of the four Masses written in his teen years, Franz Schubert’s Mass No.2 in G-major (1815),  a work scored for mixed choir, string orchestra and organ, was written within six days. The Jerusalem performance highlighted the work’s lyricism, moments of grandeur and innate tunefulness, the Oratorio Choirs (joined by both conductors in the soprano section) opening with velvety singing of the Kyrie, then competently weaving Schubert’s largely homophonic textures into and around the lines sung by the three soloists. Soprano Efrat Vulfsons’ substantial, richly coloured voice added emotional weight to the Christe, conveying tranquillity and the element of personal utterance in the Agnes Dei as the choir represented the collective plea. Bass Yoav Meir Weiss, his voice mellifluous and fresh, joined Vulfsons in the Gloria, as they transformed its jubilance into the more grievous Domine Deus. Ron Silberstein’s full-bodied tenor voice formed a trio with Vulfsons and Weiss in the Benedictus. In their splendid singing of the stile antico Credo, the choirs presented its simple, hymnlike melody set against the detached, moving bass line, their singing infused with eloquence and displaying a finely blended choral sound.  A drawback in the YMCA hall was having the choirs surrounding the orchestra from the back and sides; the tenors and altos were not sufficiently audible, which was unfortunate.

Johannes Brahms “Schiksalslied” (Song of Destiny) opus 54 was begun in 1868. It took three years to complete and was premiered in October 1871, with Brahms himself conducting. The poem itself appears in Friedrich Hölderlin’s novel “Hyperion” (1799), in which the title character is an 18th century Greek who fights against the Ottoman Empire and ponders the rift between the ideal perfection of unity and the destructive effects of suffering borne of personal freedom. The work is scored for 4-part mixed choir and orchestra. In contrast to the mainstream choral fare performed by many Israeli choirs,  the Oratorio choirs took on board the musical- and emotional challenges of this intensely Romantic tone poem; devoid of soloists, the choirs engaged in the contemplative, philosophical character of the text, its contrasts and its unanswered questions, performing the work in pleasingly intelligible German. No less integral to the work’s message, the orchestra contributed much to the unique work, as it opened with a slow, ominous instrumental Adagio. Still in the Adagio vein, the choirs then extol the peace of the Olympian gods, who are “free from care”. Then the tables turn, with the choir then setting before the audience the pitiful lot of man, the suffering of humanity, the choral part then fading away:

‘To us is allotted
No restful haven to find;
They falter, they perish,
Poor suffering mortals
Blindly as moment
Follows moment,
Like water from mountain
To mountain impelled.
Destined to disappearance below.’ (Translation: Edwin Evans)

Leaving the choir “wordless”, the orchestra takes over, concluding on a more positive note with the composer finally spreading a message of peace in the postlude.  Orchestra and choirs collaborated closely in conveying the work’s profound text and mood most effectively.

A graduate of the Moscow and St. Petersburg Conservatories, Vag Papian’s international career as a conductor has covered orchestral music and opera; he also continues to perform as a pianist. Since immigrating to Israel in 1990, he has conducted- and soloed with several Israeli orchestras.  Today musical director of the Ashdod Symphony Orchestra, Vag Papian is also a professor at the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music (Tel Aviv).  His engaging and hearty direction at the Jerusalem concert drew players, choristers and soloists into the program material with commitment.    




Monday, April 18, 2016

Maestro Andrew Parrott (UK) conducts the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, the Chamber Choir of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and soloists in a program of music of Henry Purcell

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s fifth concert for the 2015-2016 season was “Come Ye Sons of Arts”, a program of music of Henry Purcell (1659-1695). Joining the JBO was the Jerusalem Academy of Music Chamber Choir (director: Stanley Sperber), tenor soloist Doron Florentin, with some solos sung by members of the choir. Directing the performance was Maestro Andrew Parrott (UK), honorary conductor of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra.

Valuable information and inferences from Parrott’s decades of work and thoughts have recently appeared  in his authoritative book of essays “Composers’ Intentions? Lost Traditions of Musical Performance” (Boydell Press, 2015), focusing mostly on vocal and choral matters in performing works of Monteverdi, J.S.Bach and Henry Purcell. Directing the Taverner Choir and Taverner Players (formed by him in 1973) Parrott’s direction of two CDs of “Purcell: Music for Pleasure and Devotion”, compiled in 2003 from many different performances, presents a cross-section of Purcell’s oeuvre – incidental theatre music, instrumental pieces, songs and sacred music. Israeli audiences were privileged to hear some Purcell works of most of those categories in the JBO concerts performed in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa under his direction this April. This writer attended the concert on April 14th 2016 in the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship, Jerusalem International YMCA.

The program opened with the Symphony to Purcell’s ode “Hail! Bright Cecilia” Z.328 (1692), the masterful overture composed in a series of short, contrasted sections, its majestic trumpet/oboe calls answered by strings, elaborate fugal writing, pensive soul-searching moments and a rich sprinkling of Purcell’s unusual and beguiling harmonic progressions, with many more of the latter to grace the rest of the program. To quote Paul McCreesh, “Hail! Bright Cecilia is probably the first substantial piece of English music to use the full orchestra…an extraordinarily forward-looking work…”  Maestro Parrott left the podium as violinists Noam Schuss, Dafna Ravid and Smadar Schidlovsky engaged in the discourse of a stylish, buoyant and creative reading of Purcell’s “Fantasia: Three Parts upon a Ground” Z.731, their brilliant playing enhanced by some delicate and poetic theorbo sounds (Ophira Zakai) and ‘cellist Orit Messer-Jacobi’s ebullient solo. Purcell was about 21 when he began writing music for theatre; this body of music became a significant part of his output; with William and Mary on the throne there was vastly less music at court, encouraging Purcell to compose music to 43 plays. There is little probability that any of us will see woman playwright Aphra Behn’s “Abdelazar or the Moor’s Revenge” let alone “The Gordian Knot Unty’d” whose writer is not known and little is known of the play. With a little luck we might have the fortune to attend a performance of the composer’s last semi-opera “The Indian Queen”. Andrew Parrott offers a glimpse into the London theatrical scene of the time in his charming collection of incidental pieces taken from these works, in which we heard trumpeter Yuval Shapira’s deftly fashioned Trumpet Overture (“The Indian Queen”) and the ensemble’s performances of a Rondeau, Chaconne and Symphony and Dance that were both bold, elegant and entertaining.

Then to one of the most solemn and mournful choral pieces from the Baroque period – Purcell’s “Funeral Sentences” Z.860 (1677). Purcell was responsible for organizing the music for the funeral of young Queen Mary II on March 5th 1695. Much of the music performed was by Morley; research has revealed that only the third version of “Thou knowest Lord” as well as the March and Canzona (the latter two not performed at the JBO concert) were played at her funeral. Perhaps the “Funeral Sentences” were intended for Purcell’s teacher Matthew Locke. What is known is that the deeply melancholic and resigned anthem was soon to be performed at Purcell’s own funeral the very same year. Focusing on the transitory nature of life, fear of divine judgement and the hope for mercy, it contains some of Purcell’s most spine-chilling word painting - daring leaps, chromaticism and jarring dissonances. Parrott’s performance of it employed two separate one-to-a-voice ensembles as well as the whole choir - some beautiful voices. Somewhat disadvantaged at their being placed at the back of the YMCA stage, we seem to have missed out on some of the choir’s resonance; the singers might have given the work more compelling urgency had they been placed closer to the audience. As to the 8-voiced anthem “Hear My Prayer, O Lord” – Psalm 102 Z.15 (only a part of an incomplete work), also with a continuo of organ (David Shemer) and violone (Dara Blum) at this concert, conductor and choir gave vehement expression to the piece’s daring and powerful mix of seemingly simple vocal lines as they took on the relentless, seamless flow of the work, its build-up and soaring of tension throughout,  conveying in Purcell’s complex harmonic language the text’s anguish, to then find peace in the final understated open fifth C-minor chord.

The celebratory anthem “Jubilate Deo” Z.232 was first performed on St. Cecilia’s Day in 1694 in London. In Purcell’s fresh, lively setting of the text, in which full Baroque tutti sections interject and alternate with more reflective prayerful passages, tenor Doron Florentin exhibited involvement, warmth of sound, eloquence and vocal stamina as he conversed with the trumpet line and dueted with soprano Ayelet Kagan and with bass Asaf Benraf, the latter two also members of the Chamber Choir, all forces joining to make for a fine performance of the final contrapuntal tutti.

“Come Ye Sons of Arts” Z.323 is Purcell’s final birthday ode for Queen Mary. The opening tri-partite Symphony proved to be a fine vehicle for the JBO, and especially festive for the winds, as Parrott and the instrumentalists gave meaning to each gesture and mood change, the wistful Adagio given time to unfold naturally and to take an extra tug at the heart strings. With the opening chorus gently swayed, the instruments sounded as connected to the words as were the singers.  In lieu of two countertenors, Doron Florentin and mezzo-soprano Tamara Navot performed “Sound the Trumpet” with some nice imitation and word-play despite their being ill matched volume-wise. With the recorders (Myrna Herzog, Shai Kribus) poignant in expression and beautifully matched in spirit and tuning in the obbligato role of the ode’s centre piece “Strike the Viol”, Florentin shaped and sculpted the vocal line, energized by Purcell’s inebriating rhythmic insistence and instrumental setting. Bass Asaf Benraf’s solos were pleasing, musical and carefully handled. Soprano Yuval Oren’s communicative manner and competent singing of “Bid the Virtues” were charmingly balanced with the oboe obbligato (Ofer Frenkel), Oren joining Benraf in duo in the final movement. Ending the program with this joyful ode, a work comprising some of Baroque music’s finest “hits”, our attention was drawn by Maestro Parrott to the specific and subtle agendas of both choir and orchestra throughout.



Rudolf Lutz (Switzerland) in "The Art of Improvisation" at the Dormition Abbey, Jerusalem

Organist Rudolf Lutz (

One of the Israel International Organ Festival’s concerts (taking place in Jerusalem and Haifa) “The Art of Improvisation” was the title of a recital given by Rudolf Lutz (Switzerland) April 16th 2016 at the Dormition Abbey, Mount Zion, just a few steps away from the Zion Gate that leads into the Old City of Jerusalem. Dedicated in 1910 by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, the Dormition Abbey is home to monks of the Benedictine community and hosts theological students from Germany, Switzerland and Austria in Jerusalem on a one-year program. Father Ralph Greis is the Abbey’s permanent organist.  The Dormition Abbey’s large pipe organ, encased in white oak was made by the German Oberlinger firm to fit the exact measurements of the central gallery. The organ was inaugurated in 1980 and completely revamped in 1992.

Artist and works performed at the concert were introduced by founder and president of the Israel Organ Association Mr. Gérard Levi. The program opened with works in the style of J.S.Bach, the first inspired by “Ein feste Burg” BWV 80 (A Mighty Fortress is Our God) a well-known melody based on Martin Luther’s hymn setting of Psalm 46; Lutz’ majestic extemporization was rich in colour, finely constructed, a bonus comprising his singing and a reference to the Hallelujah Chorus from Händel’s “Messiah”. The artist’s enormously skilful improvisation of a two-subject fugue in the style of Bach embraced various timbres, combined and contrasted the first subject of leaps with the second of descending chromaticism, to culminate in a virtuosic fantasia. The only original Bach work on the program was “O Mensch, Gewein dein Sünde gross” (O man thy grievous sin bemoan) one of 46 chorale preludes from Bach’s Orgel-Büchlein (Little Organ Book), the artist presenting its pensive, tragic Passiontide text in veiled, mysterious and intimate timbres and highlighting its expressive character, the work’s elaborate course leading to a totally unexpected C-flat major chord via a rising chromatic bass line.  

Then to improvisations on a piece of Rudolf Lutz himself, a work inspired by birds and by the very place in which we were gathered. “Birds on Mt. Zion” consisted of three pieces: quoting the “Spring” concerto from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”, “My Heart is Like a Bird in Spring” was sunny and ebullient, the artist’s use of the glockenspiel evocative of birds; not utilizing the bass register, Lutz depicted “Sad Birds in a Cage” with melancholy, his occasional small hesitations adding to the piece’s introspective mood; at times evoking the sound of a music box (or was that my subjective listening?) “A Parrot in Golden Park” was a celebration of timbres, with reedy woodwind sounds but also many magical, golden tone qualities.  Opening with grand “orchestration”, “An English Fantasy”, included allusions to the Grand Amen and to Hubert Parry’s powerful 1910 setting of William Blake’s “Jerusalem”. In the course of the piece, Lutz hones the textures down to personal hymn-singing level, only to allow them to spiral once again to the imposing opulence so characteristic of the pipe organ, to be joined by his own substantial singing voice.

Using the text of Psalm 8 as his inspiration, Rudolf Lutz created the mystery and wonder of night and stars, setting its reflective melody against velvety clusters, his use of the Zimbelstern (cymbal star) stop delicately sprinkling the sky with myriads of stars.

‘When I consider your heavens,
The work of your fingers,
The moon and the stars,
Which you have set in place,
What is mankind that you are mindful of them,
Human beings that you care for them?’ (Psalm 8, 3-4)

In three pieces based on traditional songs, the first two being Israeli melodies, we heard “Dona, dona” its melody set against a jaunty, bucolic and whimsical wooden cartwheel movement-like accompaniment. In the third item of the group, a Swiss hymn-style folk song from the Bernese Alps, the artist sang verses in tenor- and then falsetto voice, introducing references to Swiss mountain music as well as some interesting harmonic strategies.

Rudolf Lutz called the final work on the program “Elijah on Mt. Horeb”. In the lush style of Romantic organ music, the five movements presented vivid musical descriptions, as in the gripping depiction of the storm in “God is not in the storm”, the frenetic, feisty portrayal of fire, its flames almost visually flaring up in “God is not in the fire”, the dramatic and menacing description of the earthquake in the fourth movement, then finally presenting a sense of tranquillity in “God is in the soft wind”, its soundscape bathed in light and caressing lyricism, its optimism and longing borrowed from Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony, to conclude with the soothing sounds of Brahms’ “Lullaby”.

Conductor, organist, harpsichordist, pianist and composer, Rudolf Lutz (b.1951) studied in Switzerland and Austria. Organist of the St. Laurence Church (St. Gallen, Switzerland), he was appointed artistic director of the St. Gallen J.S.Bach Foundation, establishing its choir and orchestra for the foundation’s mission to perform J.S.Bach’s complete vocal works. A highly acclaimed teacher of historical improvisation, Lutz performs and lectures in Europe, today teaching at the Basel Schola Cantorum and the Basel University of Music. His diverse musical activities include chamber music performance, playing the dulcimer in “Alpenglühn” (the original Appenzell string ensemble) and appearances as a jazz musician! This was Maestro Lutz’ first visit to Israel.

Prior to the concert, Rudolf Lutz spoke of his language as being music, of the fact that almost all the works he was to perform would have no score, would be with the listener as they were played and then promptly vanish. Indeed, for over an hour, he had the audience at the edge of their seats. An artist of exceptional creativeness and technique, Maestro Lutz’ recital was indeed memorable.


Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Koelner Akademie (conductor: Michael Willens) and Ronald Brautigam (fortepiano) perform Mozart and Haydn at the 2016 Felicja Blumental Festival (Tel Aviv)

Maestro Michael Willens (

An event drawing a large audience to the 2016 Felicja Blumental International Music Festival (April 4th -9th, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art) was “Mozart Concertos for Fortepiano” on April 6th in the Recanati Hall of the Museum. Performing in Israel for the first time, Ronald Brautigam (Holland) soloed in two Mozart concertos with the Kölner Akademie, conducted by Michael Alexander Willens. The concert was supported by the Goethe Institute.

Die Kölner Akademie (the Cologne Academy) performs repertoire from the 17th to 21st centuries and on period instruments. In order to fully realize the composer’s intentions and present historically informed performance, the ensemble plays from Urtext editions and with the appropriate number of players for each work.  Receiving wide acclaim, the ensemble performs worldwide and has recorded more than 40 CDs. The Kölner Akademie is recording all 27 Mozart piano concertos with Brautigam as soloist on fortepiano and conducted by Michael Willens.  An American conductor based in Cologne Germany, Michael Alexander Willens, musical director of the Kölner Akademie, studied at the Juilliard School of Music (New York.) He also studied with Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood and choral conducting with Paul Vorwerk. A conductor of international standing, Willens engages in performance of repertoire from the Baroque to today, but he is also at home in jazz and popular music.  Willens is dedicated to performing works of lesser-known contemporary American composers, premiering several of them.

The Tel Aviv program opened with W.A.Mozart’s Symphony No.29 in A-major K.201. Composed in 1774 on the 17-year-old composer’s return to Salzburg from a visit to Vienna with his father and scored for the usual Salzburg orchestra constellation - strings, two oboes and two horns – it is one of the masterpieces of Mozart’s youth. Delicate and contrasted, the Cologne orchestra’s reading of the work was accurate and dynamic, presenting the sunny disposition of the A-major tonality. The work’s inner turbulence and tenderness were initially somewhat underplayed. The instrumentalists’ playing of the impetuous final movement – Allegro non spirito – however did indeed highlight the work’s dramatic aspect, with vivid playing of the natural horns, their uniquely lyric, vocal quality pleasing throughout the evening.  Indeed, with the score’s pointed use of wind instruments, the Kölner Akademie’s very fine wind players infused rich textural content and light and shade to the playing of the symphony.

Mozart wrote Concerto in C-major K.246 in 1776 for Countess Antonia von Lützow, a niece of Mozart’s employer, the Archbishop of Salzburg; von Lützow was probably a pupil of Leopold Mozart.  What quickly became clear with this performance of the work was that Maestro Willens and Ronald Brautigam have worked much together, the small orchestra and fortepiano’s strategic- and carefully balanced timbres making for rewarding listening. In the second movement, they created a poignant mood piece prophetic of many great Mozart slow movements to come in the composer’s career. Brautigam engaged in the work’s filigree details and small gestures, his gentle flexing making for a live, spontaneous rendition. In the outer movements, the pianist’s joie-de-vivre connected with that of Mozart as he delighted the audience with much clean, agile and effortless passagework.

In a very different mood, Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No.49 in F-minor “La Passione” (1768) was representative of a time in which Haydn was interested to explore his own potential for stormy or tragic expression, as influenced by the Romantic Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) literary movement, this resulting in his producing a series of exceptional symphonies in minor keys. With the title referring to the fact that the symphony was probably first performed on Good Friday, the form used is also the composer’s final reference to the earlier sonata da chiesa form. The mellow timbral quality of the kinds of instruments played by the Kölner Akademie befitted the work’s introspective aspect, its pathos (and occasional angry outbursts) making up the emotional agenda of Symphony No.49. All four movements are written in the minor mode. With its abrupt transitions, its sober Minuet and whirlwind drama of the final Presto, the only moment of repose and brightness (and appearance of the key of F-major) was provided by the happier Trio of the Minuet. The natural horns contributed much to the work’s ominous agenda.  A beautifully crafted rendition, Michael Willens and his players gave expression to the work’s austere and intense beauty.

In 1781 Mozart moved to Vienna, “the land of the piano” as he referred to Vienna in a letter to his father in June 1791, establishing his career there as a pianist. His Piano Concerto in E-flat major K.449 (1784), was dedicated to his piano/composition student Barbara Ployer, daughter of a tax collector and timber merchant, but, more importantly, the niece of court councillor Gottfried Ignaz von Ployer, the agent of the Salzburg court in Vienna. Clearly a fine pianist, she premiered it at a private concert, with the composer as soloist in its first public airing. The latter event coincided with Mozart’s realization of his own greatness as a composer; the E-flat Piano Concerto was the first work the composer entered into a thematic catalogue he was to keep until his death.  The concerto, a work of modest scale and sonority and the shortest of his mature concertos, bristles with life and surprises, and the substantial, beguiling piano role was taken on by Brautigam with zest. His agility and clean passagework in the opening Allegro vivace were threaded effectively into the general score and partnered well with the orchestra, Brautigam offering subjective expression in its cadenza. The Andante followed with moving, intimate and highly expressive songfulness, its subtle harmonies graced with lavish embellishments.  Under the fingers of Ronald Brautigam, the final Allegro non troppo, sounding precise and balanced, once more attested to the articulacy and exciting sound of the fortepiano, as Brautigam and the orchestra entertained the audience with the movement’s rigour and charm. The concert offered listeners the rare opportunity of experiencing these works as Mozart and Haydn would have heard them.

Spending six months performing on the fortepiano and six on the modern piano, Ronald Brautigam (b. 1954, Amsterdam) first studied with Dutch pianist Jan Wijn, later studying in the UK and America. One of his teachers was Rudolf Serkin. He regularly soloes with European orchestras and is a devoted player of chamber music. His many recordings include the complete works of Mozart and Haydn on the fortepiano.

Ronald Brautigam (

Monday, April 4, 2016

Pianist Marouan Benabdallah performs works of composers from the Arab world and Saint-Saens' "Africa"

Marouan Benabdallah (
“Arabesque” was the title of a recital given by pianist Marouan Benabdallah at the American Colony Hotel, Jerusalem, on April 1st 2016. The American Colony Hotel concert series is managed by Ms. Petra Klose of K und K Wien (Vienna). Mr. Thomas Brugnatelli, manager of the ACH, introduced the artist and welcomed guests assembled in the Pasha Room. The “Arabesque” concert series is the result of Banabdallah’s personal search for piano works written by composers from the Arab world.  In his search for this repertoire, the artist has discovered works by some 70 composers from almost all Arab countries and has selected what he considers the best of them to present to the public.  Many of the pieces have not been published or recorded; receiving permission to perform works of living composers has not always been an easy task for the artist. Common to composers of the works we heard at this recital is the fact that all come from Arab countries but have spent time in- or have relocated to Europe or the USA. What remains not common to them is their difference of background. Benabdallah says the project is “about mutual discovery”, both for listeners in Arab countries and for those in the western world and that it is “in our interest to foster better understanding and dialogue between cultures and people”.

Born 1982 in Rabat, Morocco to a Moroccan physicist father and a Hungarian musician mother (his first teacher), Marouan Benabdallah moved to Budapest at age 13 to pursue his musical studies at the Bela Bartok Conservatory and the Franz Liszt Academy. His international career began in 2003 following success in both the Hungarian Radio Piano Competition and the Andorra Grand Prize. He made his Carnegie Hal- and Kennedy Center debuts in 2011. Although describing himself as an “heir to the great Hungarian musical tradition”, Marouan Benabdallah finds himself as comfortable with music of Arab classical composers as with conventional European concert repertoire. As to the works we heard, they all formed a meeting point for music of both worlds.

The recital opened with “La nuit de destin” (Night of Destiny) by Syrian-born composer, conductor and teacher Dia Succari (1938-2010). At age 15, Succari went to study at the Paris Conservatoire (one of his composition teachers was Olivier Messiaen), where he remained, becoming a professor at three institutions. Via an effective presentation of western writing with some Impressionistic associations, then intense, playing of taksim (melodic improvisation) passages suggestive of oriental plucked instruments, the piece evoked the atmosphere of a night of prayer and spiritual illumination in timbres that were both exotic and fervent. Benabdallah drew the listener’s attention to the fact that Succari, a Maronite, had written a work celebrating the holiest night of Ramadan.

Born in Algeria in 1975, instrumentalist, composer, musicologist and teacher Salim Dada has spent time in Italy and France; his music has been referred to as a “message of peace and dialogue between the Arab-Muslim world and Europe”. Benabdallah’s performance contrasted the character of two of Dada’s “Algerian Miniatures” (2009) – the first a traditional melody existing hand-in-hand with western harmony, the second a virtuosic, fiery dance bristling with splendid piano textures. Zad Moultaka (b.1967), another member of the younger generation of composers that straddles two worlds, is both Lebanese and French, both pianist and composer, also a painter. In 1993, he terminated a prestigious piano solo career in order to focus on composition, grappling with the question of how to combine western compositional techniques with elements of Arabic music stemming from oral tradition and where to find within this his own musical “voice”. Benabdallah’s skilful performance of “Two Mouwashahs” (both an Arabic poetic form and a secular musical genre) used different effects - strumming on the piano strings, playing melodic passages on the strings, holding a damper almost down to create a muted effect – as he presented the composer’s fast flow of ideas, the ornamented octaves characteristic of Arabic music, canons etc. in a richly “orchestrated” soundscape.

One of the most sophisticated and frequently-heard voices of his generation, Mohammed Fairouz (b.1985), known for his cosmopolitanism and involvement in social issues, has spoken of himself as “obsessed with text”. His work of 2013 “El Male Rachamim” (God, full of mercy), three sections of which were played by Benabdallah, takes its name from a poem by Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and, in particular, from the Jewish funeral prayer that accompanies the ascension of the soul. The composer dedicated the work to the memory of Hungarian Jewish composer György Ligeti, who had been one of his teachers. The pianist gave poignant and profound expression to the work’s tenebrous, plangent and sometimes indignant emotional context, to evoking the cantor’s beseeching voice singing the prayer and to the piece’s prayerful intimacy; the second section’s insistence and restless mood were followed by the vigorous scoring and embellishment of the hugely demanding third movement.

Composer, arranger, pianist and teacher Boghos Gelalian (1927-2011) resided in Beirut, Lebanon. Born in Alexandrette (then Syria), he grew up in a community of survivors of the Armenian genocide, hearing Armenian and Turkish music but receiving a classical, western music education.  His music is conspicuous for his use of both Armenian and middle eastern modes and is a reminder of his familiarity with European avant-garde music, but it also reveals his personal signature style. Gelalian received recognition for his contribution to Lebanese cultural life. Marouan Benabdallah performed Gelalian’s “Canzona e Toccata”, taking his listeners into the brooding mood of the Canzona, with its coherent, soul-searching coupling of modal and atonal elements, to be followed by the intense, mesmerizing and almost frenzied Toccata, the pianist’s forging of its spiralling, relentless chromatic strands never concealing the piece’s melodic content.

Moroccan composer and musicologist Nabil Benabdeljalil (b.1972) studied composition with Ivan Fedele at the Strasbourg Conservatory. His doctoral dissertation there (2007) was on heterophony in music of the 20th century. Marouan Benabdallah’s reading of two Nocturnes of Benabdeljalil highlighted the strong influence of Chopin’s piano music on the composer as he embraced their nostalgic, oriental-tinted melodies played to lush, caressing and rhapsodic Chopanesque accompaniments.

The recital ended with Benabdallah’s own arrangement of Camille Saint-Saëns’ (1835-1921) most colourful concertante work, the “Africa” Fantasy opus 89 (1891), a version in which Benabdallah has combined orchestral- and piano roles (not to be confused with the composer’s own one-piano version.) Saint-Saëns’ study of North African music is apparent here (a self-fashioned cosmopolitan, he collected much indigenous music from the region) using themes of songs and dances from Egypt and Algeria; the climax of the piece is based on a Tunisian folk tune. In this rarely performed single-movement work, a flashy, virtuoso piece reflecting vistas of the orient, Benabdallah negotiated the work’s changes of mood, key and tempo, carrying it off with effortless pizzazz.

Marouan Benabdallah communicates easily with his audience. The artist’s fresh, brilliant and powerful technique, his sensitive attention to detail and rich palette of piano timbres, together with his natural curiosity, invite the listener to discover this sophisticated and unique repertoire together with him.