Sunday, October 30, 2016

J.S.Bach's funeral music for Prince Leopold of Coethen performed at the 50th Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival

Maestro Ron Zarhi (photo courtesy Ron Zarhi)
“Bach – Requiem for a Prince”, an event of the 50th Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival, took place in the Church of the Ark of the Covenant, Kiryat Yearim, near Jerusalem, on October 24th 2016. Under the direction of Ron Zarchi, we heard the Upper Galilee Choir, the Bach Ensemble and soloists Einat Aronstein-soprano, Avital Dery-alto, Eitan Drori-tenor and Yair Polishook-bass.

J.S.Bach’s Cöthen Funeral Music BWV “Klagt Kinder, klagt es aller Welt” BWV 244a (Cry children, cry to all the world) was composed in 1729 for the funeral of Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen who had died March 24th, some days prior to his 34th birthday. Bach had served as Kapellmeister to the Prince at the Cöthen court from 1717-1723. His allegiance to-and friendship with the prince, however, continued after he left Cöthen to take up his position as Kapellmeister at St. Thomas, Leipzig, returning to Cöthen once a year to direct his works at Leopold’s court.  As to the funeral cantata, the problem was that the text, written by Christian Friedrich Henrici (also known as Picander) survived but not the musical score. What is known is that Anna Magdalena Bach and son Wilhelm Friedemann were among the musicians took part in the 4-part cantata. The story of the work’s reconstruction is too long to recount here in detail. In 1873, working on restoring the work, German musicologist Wilhelm Rust noted that all the arias and two of the choral sections fitted convincingly into the construction of some from the St. Matthew Passion. Bach generally made a practice of reusing previously written material of his, this reworking referred to as “parody”. In 1951, Bach researcher Friedrich Smend pointed out the similarity between two of the choral sections of BWV 244a and two in BWV 198, a funeral ode for Princess Christiane Eberhardine of Brandenburg-Bayreuth. What could not be traced were melodies for the recitatives; most of those used in this concert were composed by young German musicologist and harpsichordist Alexander Ferdinand Grychtolik, with one by British conductor Andrew Parrott. 

The cantata falls into four sections, the first dealing with the concept of mourning, the second with the prince’s departing and salvation of his soul and the third with Leopold’s commemoration, with the fourth dealing with farewell and eternal rest. At the Abu Gosh Festival performance, the opening chorus, sung with depth of emotion and graced with poignant flute-playing (Esti Rofé, Avner Geiger), set the mood for a work imbued with sadness and sorrow:
‘Cry, children, cry to all the world,
Let even distant borders know it,
How your protection hath been shattered,
How this your sovereign father falls.’

Avital Dery’s genuine handling of the alto recitatives and arias was profound, gripping and moving, her rich, ample voice expressive in presenting the pain and sorrow of mourning, the few moments of joy, temporarily lightening the mood, floated and ornamented.  Tenor Eitan Drori’s articulate and distinctive resonant vocal timbre, clean intonation and well-pronounced German were well received. Aria No.5 - “Faint with grief”, “sighing-laden torment”, with “tears” and “no sorrow to be likened” could have done with more plangent treatment of its word-painting. One of the high points of the concert, however, was “Go, Leopold to thy repose”, an aria for two choirs (representing the mortals, the chosen) in which Drori, oboist Meirav Kadichevski and the choir intermingled and combined to produce an item of splendid shaping and refined expression. Soprano Einat Aronstein, whose contribution to the 50th Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival’s concerts was altogether outstanding, gave musical and verbal meaning to each word and gesture of the text. In sensitive collaboration with Esti Rofé’s appealing flute line, Aronstein gave an empathic performance of “With gladness be the world abandoned, For death to me great comfort seems”, her voice substantial and easeful in all registers, later to be joined by both oboes, as she counselled courage in “Hold in check thine anxious fretting”. German Baroque oratorio is a genre that fits baritone Yair Polishook like a glove. His full, deep timbre and focus supported the comforting message of the work; in, for example, the somewhat enigmatic aria “Let, Leopold, thee not be buried”, he was joined by ‘cellist Yotam Baruch’s eloquent, personally-expressed and embellished obbligato, later offering a wonderfully velvet-smooth and calming presentation of the lilting aria “Rest ye now in your repose”.

Israeli-born Ron Zarchi graduated from the Rubin Academy of Music, Tel Aviv, in Composition and Conducting, then specializing in Early Music in Germany. In his work with several Israeli choirs, he has conducted the gamut of Baroque choral music, also Jewish liturgical music of the 19th and 20th centuries. Today Ron Zarchi is a member of faculty of the Levinsky International College of Education (Tel Aviv), also directing the Hemiola Women's Choir in addition to the Upper Galilee Choir.

Under Maestro Ron Zarchi’s direction since 1985, the Upper Galilee Choir, numbering some 45 singers, performs widely in Israel as well as overseas. What stands out is its meticulous training, musicality and competence. The choral sections in the BWV 244a cantata excelled in beautifully chiselled phrases, a vivid understanding of the texts and depth of feeling. Add to that Ron Zarchi's sensitive and articulate conducting, the sympathetic instrumental playing of the Bach Ensemble and four fine soloists and one comes up with a performance off home-grown artists that is gratifying, totally pleasurable and moving.  

The Upper Galilee Choir at Abu Gosh (photo: Paul Gluck)

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Myrna Herzog directs Ensemble PHOENIX and singers in the world premiere of Michelangelo Falvetti's "Nabucco"

Left to right: Fabrizio Longo,Oshri Segev, Tal Arbel (photo:Eliahu Feldman)

On October 24th 2016, Ensemble PHOENIX (director: Myrna Herzog) performed the world premiere of Michelangelo Falvetti’s “Nabucco” - the complete oratorio - at the 50th Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival in the Church of Our Lady of the Ark of the Covenant, Kiryat Yearim, close to Jerusalem. Of the many works Falvetti (1642-1692) composed, only two large pieces have survived in full – “Il Diluvio Universale” (1682), performed by Ensemble PHOENIX the previous year, and “Il Dialogo del Nabucco” (1683). Heavily modified versions of “Nabucco” have taken place, but thanks to the research and editing work of violinist and musicologist Fabrizio Longo (Bologna, Italy), unearthing the two major Falvetti works and raising this great Messina composer out of oblivion, and Myrna Herzog's work on the manuscript, the complete and authentic “Nabucco” score for ensemble and six singers has been reconstructed, culminating in the first full performance of it in modern times, with Dr. Myrna Herzog conducting and Fabrizio Longo playing first violin.  In which case, this was an auspicious, ground-breaking event in the history of performance of Italian Baroque music. Ensemble PHOENIX was joined by sopranos Einat Aronstein, Liat Lidor and Yuval Oren, mezzo-soprano Anne-Marieke Evers, tenor Oshri Segev and baritone Guy Pelc.

Fabrizio Longo has done much research on Sicilian music.  At a talk at the Italian Cultural Institute (Tel Aviv), he gave a palpable picture of Messina of the time, stressing its importance as a great commercial and cultural centre at the peak of its splendour. He mentioned several men of letters from there, their academic activity connecting literature with music, astronomy, philosophy and medicine. He spoke of the influence these key figures had on each other in the meeting of opinions and of poets changing emphases or even facts in biblical stories to suit specific works, i.e. taking a sacred subject and viewing it through their personal prism. Falvetti’s librettist Vincenzo Giattini (1630-1697) made clear choices as to where to place his focus in the plot, inspired by Chapters 2 and 3 of the Book of Daniel. The two main musical genres of the time were the oratorio and the monodrama. Longo also mentioned the different techniques used for printing music in the region. In 1682, Falvetti, a Sicilian priest, took on the position of maestro di cappella in the Messina Cathedral. The Cathedral, originating from the 12th century, was an important centre of music, known to have had a paid orchestra and choir at hand. This was where such works as the two major Falvetti oratorios were performed.

The oratorio’s dramatic plot presents the story of the three Jewish youths condemned to be burned alive by Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar for refusing to worship the king’s gold statue and how they emerge unscathed from the flames. In Herzog’s words: “The opposition and defiance to this single statue embodying arrogance and idolatry become the main subject of the plot”.  The story was also used by composer and librettist to symbolize Sicily’s national struggle, following the arrival of the Spanish Viceroy Francisco Benavides to Messina after the 1674-78 rebellion, with the city deprived of ancient privileges and subject to harsh repression.  Thus, the work is infused with political reference. The story unfolds by way of dialogues launched in economic, seamless continuum via Giattini’s rapid directness, a style evocative in images and emotion. Falvetti matches this in immediacy, transparency of textures and a cogent build-up of tension.

Here is a true masterpiece, whose greatness is all written into the score, with no need of extra-textual material or editing. Longo had mentioned some uncertainty as to instrumentation due to composer’s use of terminology; Herzog’s finely balanced instrumental ensemble of 11 players on period instruments illuminated Falvetti’s mid-Baroque style with splendid delicacy, with sensuousness infused with Mediterranean expressivity and with involvement in the course of events. Especially enriching to the string section, which was attentively and elegantly led by Maestro Longo himself, were the early winds - cornett  (Alma Mayer), chalumeau (Gili Rinot), Baroque bassoon (Inbar Navot) and recorders ( Alma Mayer) – with the Baroque guitar (Ian Aylon) offering delicacy and poignancy. Other players were Aviad Stier-organ, Smadar Shidlowsky-violin, Tal Arbel-viola da gamba, Sonja Navot- Baroque 'cello and Dara Bloom-violone. Percussionist Oded Geizhals gave a subtle and sensitive underpinning to the ensemble, the castanets a bold and pronounced reminder of the fact that Messina had been under Spanish domination.
Ensemble PHOENIX was joined by members of its vocal group VOCE PHOENIX, featuring as follows: in the roles of the three young Jews from Judah – Anania, Azaria and Misaele – we heard sopranos Einat Aronstein, Yuval Oren and Liat Lidor in performance that was fresh, well blended, vibrant and interactional. Their bold, mocking of Nabucco in “Let it shine like the sun, the giant piece that proudly makes war on heaven”, its dance rhythm enhanced by tambourine and metal jingles, moves into tragic acceptance of death, then to return to courage and confidence in three exuberant solos extolling the beauty of flames in the language of metaphors. As Arioco, captain of the king’s guard, mezzo-soprano Anne-Marieke Evers was convincing and intense, her clean, unmannered singing occasionally lacking sonority in the lower register.  Baritone Guy Pelc, his large vocal presence authoritative, his singing highlighting and phrasing Giattini’s lofty language, was well cast as the larger-than-life prophet Daniel:
‘Let the arrogant ones be confused!
From the throne of Babylon
Nabucco believes to be able to make war on the stars, armed with a crown;
Yet he cannot banish the fear from his breast.’ (Translation: Myrna Herzog)
Tenor Oshri Segev did well at drawing together the threads of the Nebuchadnezzar personality - a soul troubled by dreams, his attempted tolerance and eventual fury – in singing that was communicative, vivid, resonant and pleasing in colour.

Straddling the genres of historical oratorio and “drama per musica”, Michelangelo Falvetti’s “Il Dialogo del Nabucco” is an extraordinary work, its musical canvas as rich instrumentally as it is vocally, one of both high drama and personal expression.  Myrna Herzog’s deep enquiry into the work and her exhilarating direction of it were meticulous and uplifting, resulting in Baroque performance of the highest order. Deeply moved, the audience showed its enthusiasm in lengthy applause, shouts and whistles. For those who missed the premiere, more performances of “Nabucco” are in the planning.

Photo: Eliahu Feldman


Sunday, October 23, 2016

Yair Dalal and Yotam Haimovich perform at the 50th Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival

Yair Dalal (photo: Elyasaf Kowner)

Entering the tranquil grounds of the finely preserved Benedictine Monastery of Abu Gosh (10 kilometres west of Jerusalem) one is confronted by one of the best-preserved Crusader churches of the area. It stands at the site of Emmaus. Visitors to the 50th Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival (October 21st -24th 2016) were sipping coffee with cardamom and eating rich sweet local pastries, spending time in the shade of the ancient olive and pine trees and enjoying the well-tended gardens before leaving the rest of the world behind them to enter the Crypt, its mighty and thick walls drawing one’s gaze upwards. A bubbling spring flows below the crypt.

“Sundown View” was the title of a concert in the early afternoon of October 21st performed by Yair Dalal (oud, violin) and Yotam Haimovich (sitar).  Except for one traditional Jewish Sephardic melody (sung before and on the Day of Atonement), all the pieces performed were original works by Yair Dalal. At the start of the event, that very specific calm, soul-searching atmosphere of Dalal’s style rose from a single ornamented melodic line played by him on the violin. In time, Haimovich entered in unison with the melody, having now become more dancelike; as the sitar took over the melody, Dalal provided a drone with the occasional “comment”. Some of the items were songs – sung sotto voce by Dalal – accompanied by oud and sitar, with a few people in the audience joining him in gentle humming. Haimovich, barefooted and seated on the floor, played in the Indian tradition. All the pieces used middle-eastern modes, never marred by western harmony. The program revolved around melodic improvisation, the art of embellishment, musical dialogue between the artists, each in his own personal emotional style, soloing to bourdons, drones and ostinati, a profound discourse in the musical language of the senses, of aesthetics, of human communication.

Playing guitar from age 10, Yotam Haimovich (b.1973) engaged in classical music, jazz, electronic music and Middle Eastern music. In 1994, he went to India, where he studied the sitar, Indian philosophy and the indigenous music for seven years with Pandit Shivnath Mishra, living in the master’s house, then completing his studies at Varanasi University. Having become a sitar master, Haimovich performed all over India, an unusual course for a western musician. He has performed widely with such artists as Michael Benson, Erez Munk and Yair Dalal. In an effort to amalgamate traditional Indian and western music, Yotam Haimovich has devised an instrument that combines the sitar with a synthesizer – a keyboard instrument that preserves the sitar character.

Born in Israel (1955) to Iraqi Jewish parents, Yair Dalal studied the violin. Classically trained, he became interested in Iraqi folk music and western rock. Taking up the oud, he began playing music with the Azazme Bedouin tribe, this inspiring him to write music that strives to bridge the gap between Israelis and Arabs. His belief is in the emotional and transformative power of music. Dalal is also involved in preserving the cultural heritage of Arab-Israeli music. He speaks of the inspiration for his music, “When I play or when I compose, many things are in my head and in my spirit: the Jewish prayer from the Synagogue, the Iraqi maqam which was played in the Baghdad coffee shops by the Jews and the folk songs that we have in Arabic. And also, the desert, which is my favourite place” (Shapiro, M. (2002) Global Rhythm).

The artists, the event and the magical location in which it took place, made for an inspiring start to the 50th Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival.
Yair Dalal,Yotam Haimovich (photo:Martina Koelsch)

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Israel Musicals premieres its production of Mel Brooks' "The Producers" in Jerusalem

On October 19th 2016 Israel Musicals premiered its production of “The Producers” at the Jerusalem Theatre. Based on a book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan, the show’s music and lyrics are by Mel Brooks. The musical is actually an adaptation of the 1968 film of the same name. Since its establishment in 2007, bringing together actors, actresses, musicians, choreographers, technicians, costumers and scenery artists of all ages, outlooks and backgrounds, Israel Musicals has produced seven shows, including this latest production, performing in several locations around Israel. Director of “The Producers” is Yisrael Lutnik, with assistant director-Malka Abrahams, musical director-Haim Tukachinsky, choreography-Avichai Barlinski and stage manager-Tammy Paul.

“The Producers” tells of two New York Jewish producers who plan to get rich by overselling interests in a Broadway flop. Their plan falls flat when the show unexpectedly turns out to be a success. We are presented with a hilarious satire of the business side of Hollywood, revolving around the crude, failed producer Max Bialystock (Howard Schechter) and the wimpy, panicked and hysterical accountant-turned-producer Leo Bloom (Shai Amoyal), both well-cast and convincing. Bialystock raises money for productions by seducing cheques out of little old ladies in exchange for “hanky-panky” games. The worst show the two find for their “failure” is “Springtime for Hitler” by the moronic and crazed neo-Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind (David Kilimnik). Roger DeBris, the cross-dresser (Dale David Boccaccio Honor), accompanied by his valet Carmen Giya (Erez Kantor), is the most incompetent director they can find for the project. With propriety now thrown out the window, the musical serves up such immoral heroes, joyful fraud, greed and lust and unprincipled behaviour that we all end up joining in the fun…and that means a comedic Hitler, Nazi armbands and the sending up of gays, show business and honest business principles. Heterosexuality is represented by the flirtatious, coquettish secretary Ulla, well played by Meital Segal.

Choosing a musical based on bad taste and immorality might look audacious on the part of Israel Musicals, but the team obviously understands that Mel Brooks is a winner. His script is not only daring and gregarious, it is brilliant, keeping the audience alert, surprised and laughing. And “The Producers” offers plenty of good, foot-tapping music. Apart from the somewhat dreary stage set and a few lighting blips, the performance was very well done – hearty, fast-moving, spoken and sung with fine diction and all these with dedication. Kudos to Haim Tukachinsky for his splendid and lively musical direction of the instrumental ensemble and split-second synchronization with what was happening on stage.

What might come as a surprise to all of us is that Mel Brooks looked to himself in creating the two main characters. In his own words, “Max and Leo are me, the ego and id of my personality. Bialystock – tough, scheming, full of ideas, bluster, ambition, wounded pride. And Leo, this magical child.”  The show’s printed program mentions friendship as one of the elements of the plot. “Till Him”, sung by Max of Leo, is touching evidence of the power of friendship, perhaps also of Brooks’ acceptance of the two contrasting sides of his own personality. On its site, Israel Musicals talks of its “sacred sense of duty to spread joy and happiness to audiences across Israel”. In my opinion, this theatre company has done just that!

Friday, October 21, 2016

The world premiere of Peter Gary's "A 20th Century Passion" October 17th 2016 in Jerusalem

Dr. Peter Gary (photo: Judy Estrin)

On October 17th 2016, A. Peter Gary’s “A 20th Century Passion” was premiered in the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theatre. Peter Gary (Grünberg) was born in 1924 to an upper middle class Budapest family. Musically gifted, he studied with Zoltán Kodály and Leo Weiner, taking master classes with Béla Bartók. In 1941, he and his mother were taken to the Hungarian-Polish border to be gunned down. His mother was killed protecting him. Peter Gary was one of four people to crawl out of the pit alive. He was interned in the Majdanek, Dachau and Bergen-Belsen death camps, surviving long enough to be freed by the British Army on his 21st birthday. He then went on to continue his music studies, receiving a Ph.D. in Musicology from the Sorbonne University. Dr. Gary immigrated to the USA in 1950, working in the Hollywood film industry, teaching as guest professor in the University of California and composing. He also studied rehabilitation medicine and worked in that field. In 1991, Gary immigrated to Victoria, BC., where he continued composing and worked untiringly with young people to spread the message of tolerance and compassion, telling thousands of pupils of his survival of the Holocaust. “A 20th Century Passion”, dedicated by the composer to children who perished in the Holocaust,  was composed over more than three years in the 1970s, then remaining unperformed. At the initiative of his wife, Judy Estrin, it was premiered on October 17th 2016 in the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theater. Sadly, the composer passed away a month prior to the premiere, on September 18th, never to hear his largest-scale work performed.

Scored for two choirs, orchestra, five vocal soloists and two narrators, most of the work’s verbal text was written by the composer himself, with some texts written by children who perished in the Holocaust. Conductor Barak Tal, musical director of the Tel Aviv Soloists Ensemble, travelled to Canada to meet with the composer in the summer of 2015, worked with him on the piece and decided to undertake direction of the premiere. Under Maestro Barak Tal’s baton, the Tel Aviv Soloists Ensemble and the Israeli Vocal Ensemble (music director: Yuval Benozer) were joined by sopranos Ayelet Cohen and Masha Shapiro, mezzo-soprano Nitzan Alon, tenor Moshe Haas, baritone Yair Polishook and narrators Zohar Sadan and Naomi Shalev.

The oratorio is chronological, starting out at the end of World War I, following the rise of Nazi power and concluding with the Nuremberg Trial. Recital of the “Kaddish” (mourners’ payer) is threaded through the opening Overture. From there the work proceeds in solos, duets and choral sections, the texts for most having been written by the composer. In certain of the more naïve sections, such as “The Butterfly”, Naomi Shalev’s sweetly childlike speaking of the text was echoed in pure, wistful and young sounds by soprano Masha Shapiro:

The last, the very last,
So richly, brightly, dazzlingly yellow.
Perhaps if the sun's tears would sing
against a white stone...

Such, such a yellow
Is carried lightly ‘way up high.
It went away I'm sure because it wished
to kiss the world goodbye.

For seven weeks I've lived in here,
Penned up inside this ghetto
But I have found my people here.
The dandelions call to me
And the white chestnut candles in the court.
Only I never saw another butterfly.

That butterfly was the last one.
Butterflies don't live in here,
In the ghetto.     (Pavel Friedman, 1921-1944)

Mezzo-soprano Nitzan Alon’s solos were articulate, her singing rich and refined; her somewhat distant singing of horrific descriptions, however, needed more vehemence and emotion. Tenor Moshe Haas was impressive in his recounting of the Holocaust story, his fine-timbred tenor voice fraught with anguish and a sense of hopelessness. Baritone Yair Polishook’s performance was powerful both vocally and emotionally, no tender or dramatic gesture unaddressed. A singer with a well-rounded, large voice and fine vocal control, Ayelet Cohen’s performance was gripping, as in “You’ll live, my child”, a text set to the melody of a Hungarian children’s song, reflecting a mother’s heartbreak at losing a child.  As per usual, the high-quality, musical and competent singing of members of the Israeli Vocal Ensemble gave due weight to both texts and music, with Maestro Barak Tal’s direction drawing all threads together with musical assuredness and dedication.

Peter Gary’s score, skilfully handled by players of the Tel Aviv Soloists Ensemble, is a succinct, tasteful soundscape of contemporary writing, sound orchestration, notable writing for piano and voices and plenty of variety of ideas. In Peter Gary’s own words: “We composers are a strange lot. Our creative art is the most abstract form of all other creativity. The most important factor in all of the arts is the need to express something by the artist. I hope I have done this, almost forty years ago. I feel I did owe it for surviving the Holocaust and giving the world an avenue to remember it.” In the work’s Finale, the singing of four male singers, representing judges at the Nuremberg Trials, is broken into by the choir entering pianissimo and rising to fortissimo, with the shouting of the quartet over the choir and orchestra indicative of Gary’s scepticism as to “This cannot happen again”. The concert, broadcast live to listeners in Canada, was dedicated to Peter Gary’s memory.


Monday, October 10, 2016

Michael Tsalka's recording of solo works of Ferdinand Ries on fortepiano

Michael Tsalka (photo: David Beecroft)

With today’s rising interest in music of the transitionary period between Viennese Classicism and Romanticism, the name of Ferdinand Ries (1784-1838) comes to the fore and not just in the capacity of his job as Beethoven’s secretary, copyist, transcriber, arranger and proof-reader.  It is true that Ries’ father sent him to Vienna, where Beethoven took him under his wing, teaching him the piano, with Ries, in turn, helping Beethoven with the technicalities of composing, publishing and finding living quarters (it was he who found Beethoven the lodgings in the Pasqualati House, now housing the Beethoven museum), assisting him more as his hearing failed. Ries came from a long line of Bonn musicians employed at the court of the Elector of Cologne in Bonn, he himself becoming a fine performing pianist and prolific composer. He was also a renowned interpreter of Beethoven’s music; together with Franz Wegeler he published a collection of reminiscences of Beethoven in 1838. Not a church musician, Ferdinand Ries’ oeuvre covers all other genres written at the time.

A performer on historic keyboard instruments and the modern piano, Michael Tsalka has chosen to record “Romantic Variations, Fantasies and a Rondo” of Ferdinand Reis on fortepiano…actually on three different fortepianos. Most of the pieces appearing on the CD were written between 1713 and 1824, successful years Ries spent in London performing on the newly fashionable square pianos in the parlours of London’s middle class, also teaching, writing and publishing works suited to these salons.  Ries’ prominence in London was due to the help of another Bonn musician - violinist, conductor and composer Johann Peter Salomon, who had moved to London in the early 1780s and who used his connections with the aristocracy there to arrange concerts for Ries.

In the liner notes (Michael Tsalka, Angélica Minero Escobar) Tsalka alludes to the purpose of his recording as adding “another dimension to the figure of Ries both as a prolific composer and piano virtuoso”. The works he chose to perform also attest to the composer’s cosmopolitanism. Although composed in London, Variations in F major on a Beloved French Song “La Sentinelle”, opus 105 no.1 are a reminder that Ries had spent two (productive but unhappy) years in Paris. Not only did Tsalka’s playing of this piece bring out its richly appealing Classical pianistic style, textures and fine craftsmanship, it also directed whimsical reference to the self-importance of the lowly soldier on sentry duty: the original subject is reintroduced here and there throughout the variations. Also from opus 105, we heard Variations in C major on a Favourite Scotch Air "The Old Highland Laddie”, its familiar folk melody, with its Scotch snap and unpretentious play of major and minor, moving into the finesse and diversity offered by the Classical piano variation style; Michael Tsalka’s playing of it was fresh and spontaneous. Ries left Bonn for Russia in 1811, where he gave concerts with his former teacher Bernhard Romberg. (The tour was cut short when Napoleon’s army marched into Moscow.) In preparation for the Russian tour, Ries composed the Variations in A minor on a Cossack Song opus 40 no.1 (Marburg, 1810). This outstanding, small but challenging work, based on a humble but endearing Russian folk tune, is indicative of the breadth of Ries’ musical fantasy. Michael Tsalka’s articulate and engrossing playing of it took on board the piece’s many swift changes of temperament, its drama, its moments of weightlessness, of wistfulness, its elegance and velvety songfulness. I would imagine this might have been one of the works considered too difficult by London amateur keyboard players.      

In the fantasy titled “The Dream” opus 49 (London 1813), Tsalka takes the listener into a heavier work, one of emotional content suggestive of a narrative, its multi-sectional musical agenda of one idea seamlessly flowing into the next a clear precursor of the Romantic fantasy. The pianist chose the silver-tongued tone of the Conrad Graf instrument (c.1824) to create a convincing reading of the piece’s gamut of moods, its mystery, its searching and drama. Tsalka   chose the same instrument for his performance of the programmatic Fantasy in A flat on Schiller’s poem “Resignation” opus 109 (Clapham, 1821). A work at times calling to mind Schubert’s piano music, Tsalka probed the psychological drama depicted here in an almost seamless and indeed unpredictable volley of different and contrasting phrases, gestures, timbres and pianistic effects.

According to its opus number – 184 – the Introduction and Rondo in E flat major “à la Zingaresco” was probably written in Frankfurt am Main, where Ries lived from 1827 to his death )1838(. Frankfurt was a town of wealth and culture and the Ries family’s music room was a meeting place for musicians and music aficionados.  Tsalka’s spirited and gregarious reading of the Introduction and Rondo is hearty and entertaining. Who knows if Ferdinand Ries did not play it for the Frankfurt intelligentsia in his own musical salon!

Recorded at the Schubert Club, St. Paul, Minnesota, USA in August 2014 for the NAXOS label, all the works on this CD, except for the two fantasias, are world premiere recordings. Regarding the fortepianos he has chosen for this recording – an instrument after Johann Schantz (c.1800), one after Nanette Streicher, née Stein (c.1815) and one after Conrad Graf (c.1824), Michael Tsalka writes that he chose the three Viennese instruments “because the articulative precision of fluency of Ries’ musical style seem to correspond more closely to the clarity of their tone and their fast, responsive action and damping”. Dr. Michael Tsalka is one of the artists presently raising Ferdinand Reis’ music out of an unjustified state of obscurity. He has paid homage to the composer and his keyboard music, to the importance of music written for the musical salon and, thanks to the recording’s lively sound quality, to the beauty, the expressive possibilities and unadulterated sound world of the fortepiano.

A versatile musician, Michael Tsalka (Netherlands/Israel) maintains a busy international concert schedule and has held over eighty master classes in academic institutions on all continents. He has been artistic director of festivals in China, Sweden and Finland. Tsalka currently serves as artistic director of the Geelvinck Fortepiano Festival, Amsterdam. Together with Angélica Minero Escobar, he is preparing a critical edition of Daniel Gottlob Türk’s thirty keyboard sonatas for Artaria Editions, New Zealand.