Monday, November 28, 2016

The Carmel Quartet and friends engage in "Viennese Gemuetlichkeit" for the opening concert of the 2016-2017 season

Rachel Ringelstein,Einav Yarden,Yoel Greenberg,Naomi Shaham,Tami Waterman (photo:Stanley Waterman)
The Carmel Quartet (Israel) opened its 10th season of Strings and More in November 2016 with a concert titled “Viennese Gemütlichkeit”. This writer attended the English language lecture-concert on November 16th at the Jerusalem Music Centre, Mishkenot Sha’ananim. Not the usual Carmel Quartet line-up, players included quartet members Rachel Ringelstein-violin, Yoel Greenberg-violin/viola and Tami Waterman-‘cello; they were joined by Einav Yarden-piano and Naomi Shaham-double bass. The Strings and More Series is directed by Dr. Yoel Greenberg. Established in 1999, the Carmel Quartet appears in Israel, Europe and the USA, having made its China debut tour in 2013.

The German word “Gemütlichkeit”, whose loose translation might be “cosiness” or “geniality”, a central concept of the Biedermeier period in Central Europe between 1815 and 1848, reflected in artistic styles influencing literature, the visual arts, interior design and music. Yoel Greenberg, with the help of his fellow musicians and some interesting visuals, spoke about the Biedermeier “subplot” of the Romantic period, having originated in stories about an imaginary schoolmaster by the name of Gottlieb Biedermeier and representing honest, pious and unambitious people. The solid, conservative style of Biedermeier furniture is indicative of these values, reminding the audience that much Biedermeier art was evident in the home environment, no less in the form of house concerts.

Among opera composers of the time, Gioachimo Rossini was most popular for the melodiousness of his works. The evening’s music began with the last movement - Tempesta:Allegro - from Rossini’s Sonata for Strings No.6 in D-major, one of a set of six string sonatas the composer wrote in 1804 at age 12. The players gave articulate and lively expression to the storm brewing and dying down and rising again in this descriptive piece, to its effects of tempestuous, rapidly descending scales, bird calls, etc., to its vitality and to the composer’s astute separation and highlighting of ‘cello and double bass parts. Too often performed by larger ensembles, it was fitting and rewarding to hear the movement presented in its original one-to-a-part setting.

Referring the private Viennese salons, Greenberg pointed out that most of Schubert’s Lieder were first aired there. To create the atmosphere of such house music, the artists at the Jerusalem concert – four singing, with Einav Yarden at the piano – gave a hearty performance of Franz Schubert’s miniature “Der Tanz” (The Dance) D826, one of the composer’s 130 part songs. Greenberg also pointed out that every respectable home at this time would now have a piano (an item of Biedermeier furniture), usually played by girls and young women and that, in the music salon, amateur players were often joined by one professional. Such was composer Johann Nepomuk Hummel, a dazzling piano virtuoso, the bulk of his compositions being written for the piano. Hummel’s Piano Quintet in E-flat major opus 87, composed in Vienna in 1802, is a masterpiece. Typical of music of the congenial Biedermeier sound world in its familiar-sounding melodious style, it would have appealed to 19th century audiences as it did the audience at the Jerusalem Music Centre. Unusual in scoring, it is written for violin, viola, ‘cello, piano and double bass. The challenging piano part (surely performed by the composer), its flamboyance and effervescence evident throughout, was splendidly handled by Einav Yarden in colourful, easeful playing, with the string players’ contribution warm, full and rich. From the quintet’s sombre, dark-hued opening, to the folksy reference of the second movement Ländler, with the brief, evocative Largo leading directly into the Finale, the latter’s Rondo creating a full music canvas with some frenzied piano utterances and other pleasing solos on the part of the strings, the players kept the audience involved in this seldom performed piece.

The program concluded with Franz Schubert’s Piano Quintet in A-major D.667, The Trout. Greenberg reminded the audience that many of Schubert’s works were heard in the Viennese salon, with baritone Johann Michael Vogel premiering many of the composer’s songs in Vienna’s private homes. Then there were the Schubertiades, as so wonderfully depicted in Moritz von Schwind’s 1868 drawing, events sponsored by Schubert’s wealthier friends or by Schubert aficionados.  Greenberg also spoke of the Biedermeier concept of uncomplicated enjoyment as in the musical description of the fish swimming on a sunny day and of the fact that the variations were on Schubert’s own Lied - “Die Forelle”. Then there is the genesis of the work, the 22-year-old Schubert’s response to the request of the work by Sylvester Paumgartner, a wealthy amateur ‘cellist from Upper Austria and to be played by a group of musicians coming together to play Hummel’s rearrangement of his (Hummel’s) Septet for the same instrumental combination. No rarely performed work, the Jerusalem rendition spoke in favour of live performance from the work’s very first notes. Superbly led and coloured by Carmel Quartet’s 1st violinist Rachel Ringelstein, the players brought to life every palpable gesture of the work in playing that was transparent, richly sonorous, with both personal playing and that and wrought of the players’ exceptional ensemble skills. The top-class quality playing of guest artists Einav Yarden and Naomi Shaham conformed to the Carmel Quartet’s unflagging standards of excellence.



Sunday, November 20, 2016

"Baroque Decadence" - Enrico Onofri (Italy) leads and soloes with the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra in the opening concert of the 2016-2017 season

Maestro Enrico Onofri (photo: Maria Svarbova)

On November 14th 2016 in the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship of the Jerusalem International YMCA, the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra opened its 28th concert season with “Baroque Decadence”. Violinist Maestro Enrico Onofri, on his second appearance with the orchestra, led and soloed throughout the evening. The pioneering ensemble of Baroque music in Israel, the JBO was founded by Dr. David Shemer, who continues to serve as artistic director and house conductor. Andrew Parrott (UK) is the orchestra’s honorary conductor.

Born in Ravenna, Italy, Enrico Onofri began his career as concertmaster of Jordi Savall’s La Capella Real, followed by engagements with Concentus Musicus Wien, Ensemble Mosaiques and Concerto Italiano. From 1987 to 2010 he was concertmaster and soloist of Il Giardino Armonico. In 2002, Onofri launched his international conducting career. Since 2006, he has been principal guest conductor of Orquesta Barroca de Sevilla. Many of his recordings have been awarded prestigious international prizes. Since 2000, Enrico Onofri has served as Professor of Baroque violin, also teaching interpretation of Baroque music, at the Conservatorio Bellini (Palermo).

The program opened with Georg Philipp Telemann’s “Ouverture des Nations anciennes et modernes” for strings and basso continuo, one of more than 100 orchestral suites penned by possibly the most versatile composer of the first half of the 18th century. Opening in the grand French style, Telemann draws on the German, Swedish and Danish styles and in older national styles, those not just contemporary to him, constantly contrasting the more staid “ancient” manner with the racier, more vigorous modern style.  With his distinctive fresh, precise direction, Onofri leads the players through the series of colourful and witty sketches of other nationalities with plenty of dynamic contrasts and some elegant ornamenting. ‘Cellist Orit Messer-Jacobi’s solo bristled with allure and expressiveness.

Then to the more intimate setting of the Ciaccona from Arcangelo Corelli’s Sonata No.12 opus 2, in which Messer-Jacobi, Ophira Zakai (theorbo) and David Shemer on harpsichord provided the basso continuo, anchoring the variations to a familiar four-note descending figure, over which Onofri and the JBO’s first violinist Noam Schuss  engaged in musical dialogue, in mutual exchange based on listening and enquiry, fine blending and the dovetailing of imitations, with the opulent ornamenting of the return of the slow tempo never detracting from the piece’s noble spirit. Connecting with this was Francesco Geminiani’s Concerto Grosso for two violins, ‘cello, strings and basso continuo, one of Geminiani’s orchestrations of 12 sonatas of Corelli, his teacher. Leading the JBO through the movements’ typically Italian series of mood changes via some virtuosic florid openings and transitions, Onofri reminds us that Geminiani’s setting has added not only embellishment to the sonatas, but also sonorities and contrapuntal voices. In playing that was sensitive, warm and exuberant, the players’ reading into the work was true to both composers.

And for another connection, George Frideric Händel had met Corelli in Rome and had played for him. Published in London in 1740, Händel’s Concerti Grossi opus 6 form a kind of answer to Corelli’s opus 6 Concerti Grossi, despite exploring a different sound world of expanded proportions. In Händel’s Concerto Grosso No.1 opus 6 in G major, one of the Twelve Grand Concertos, Onofri was joined by core JBO musicians Dafna Ravid and Orit Messer-Jacobi to form the concertino section. Onofri’s direction highlighted the composer’s more theatrical and generously proportioned approach to the concerto grosso as written for English taste,  in daring dynamic contrasts, in highly coloured, fired tutti alternating with intimate pianississimo tutti and gentle asides, adding a little whimsy here and there, yet never unleashing wild tempi that might undermine rhythmic stability. With Ravid not standing next to Onofri, and somewhat hidden from view, I felt the audience was missing some of the visual aspect of their interaction.

Adding Venetian colour to the evening, the program included two works of Antonio Vivaldi. The Sinfonia in G-major for strings and basso continuo RV149 also bears the title “Il core delle muse” (Choir of the Muses). In an extravagant event in honour of Prince-Elector Frederick Christian (son of the King of Poland and Elector of Saxony) it was originally performed prior to a cantata of the same name by a certain Gennaro d’Alessandro, a Neapolitan composer who was appointed maestro di cappella in 1739 at the Ospedale della Pietà, where Vivaldi was employed, to be dismissed in 1740, disappearing from Venice and from history. In an exuberant, energetic performance of the Sinfonia, with Onofri once again sometimes paring the sound down to his quintessential pianississimo (still heard at the back of the hall!), one was reminded of those who would have played the work - the all-female orchestra of orphan girls. Ravid and Onofri’s gentle duet in the Andante movement would surely have been performed by Vivaldi’s finest pupils, the virtuosic Anna Maria and Chiara (they had no family names) of the Ospedale. Here was a glimpse into what might be for some listeners a lesser-known part of Venice’s history.  Concluding an evening of grand aristocratic music, we heard Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto for violin, strings and basso continuo in D major RV208 “Il Grosso Mogul”, with Maestro Enrico Onofri as soloist. “Il Grosso Mogul” refers to the Indian court of the Grand Moghal, Akbar. This character was obviously the inspiration for the zesty, fiery outer movements and the intense, brilliant cadenzas, which were dealt with articulately, with joy and pizzazz by the soloist. As to the elaborate and mysterious solo violin part in the central movement, here was an Italian musician presenting a heartfelt Italian “narrative”.

So what is the relevance of “Baroque Decadence”? In Maestro David Shemer’s program notes, he explains that the late Baroque, “this era, characterized by the full-blown and crystallized Baroque style, bears the seeds of its dissolution…” With a minimum of gestures, Enrico Onofri, at times facing the audience, at others, facing the orchestra, communicates comprehensively and in depth with his fellow musicians and with the audience, producing music that is elegant, alive and exciting. He conducts with his whole being.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Michael Tsalka, Izhar Elias and Alon Sariel perform works for piano and plucked instruments at the Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies

Izhar Elias,Michael Tsalka,Alon Sariel (photo: Sonja Bauermann)

On November 13th 2016, the Sunday Evening Classics series at the Jerusalem Center for Near
Eastern Studies (Brigham Young University) featured Alon Sariel-mandolin (Israel/Germany), Izhar Elias-guitar (Holland) and Michael Tsalka-piano (Israel/Holland) in a program of works all based on a song of Paisiello. The three artists, sharing a passion for historical performance and contemporary music, all having busy international careers, meet a number of times throughout the year to perform together. Composers from Europe, Canada, Israel and Australia have written works for this unique trio. The works heard at the Jerusalem concert appear on the trio’s first album “Paisiello in Vienna” (Brilliant Classics). The trio’s recently issued CD “Sharkiya” (IMI) presents the world’s first recording of original music for a plucked trio (harpsichord, guitar and mandolin) by Israeli composer Yehezkel Braun (1922-2014).

“Nel cor più non mi sento” (In my heart I no more feel) appears in Giovanni Paisiello’s 1788 comic opera “L’amor contrasto”, better known as “La Molinara”. A simple and sweetly sentimental melody, indeed, a vehicle for ornamentation by singers of the day, it has served as the theme for a host of instrumental works by several European composers. The program opened with Alon Sariel and Izhar Elias’ performance of Bartolomeo Bortolazzi’s Variations in G-Major opus 8 on the song. There is some doubt as to this almost obscure Italian composer’s exact dates (possibly 1772-1846); what, however, is known is that he was a central figure in the field of plucked instruments, touring Vienna, Leipzig, Dresden and London as a mandolin virtuoso and singer. He wrote instrumental and vocal music, becoming the author of two important books on mandolin- and guitar methods. In 1809 he moved to Brazil, where he had connections with local music, theatre, politics and masonry. Sariel and Elias’ reading of the work rode on Sariel’s beautifully crafted, cantabile playing, on fine balance between the two artists, on the constant variety that well-written variations offer and on playing in which charm and directness enjoyed an equal footing.

Born in Pressburg (Slovakia), Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837) dedicated his Grande Sonata in C-major opus 37a (1810) to Bortolazzi. Hummel’s cosmopolitan style straddles Classical- and Romantic styles (Hummel studied with Mozart, Haydn, Salieri and Clementi). The Grande Sonata can be played on mandolin or violin and harpsichord or piano. In the “Paisiello in Vienna” CD, Tsalka performs all the keyboard roles on fortepiano, well in keeping within the character of salon music of the time and whose sound meets plucked instruments at eye level. Playing on the BYU’s Steinway grand piano at the Jerusalem concert, Tsalka deftly pared down its volume to meet that of the mandolin, his touch lighter but shaped and expressive, their interaction imaginative, highlighting the different sound world of each tonality. Sariel took up the Andante movement’s enticement to add much embellishment, with both artists’ skilful and flexible rendering of the Rondo an intermixture of differently presented episodes, peppered with a dash of humour. Italian composer, guitarist, ‘cellist and singer Mauro Giuliani was one of the principal composers writing for piano and guitar, a seemingly unlikely combination. His Introduction and Variations in A-Major opus 113, written in the composer’s Vienna period, gave the audience the opportunity to hear and delight in Izhar Elias’s finely honed solo art. Following the unhurried piano introduction, Elias and Tsalka took turns to handle the melody and the piece’s whims and textures, with Elias engaging in ornately wrought phrase endings and transitions, building up momentum to end this fine concert piece with vigour.

Then to Ludwig van Beethoven’s Six Variations in G-Major WoO 70 for solo piano, one of the composer’s minor pieces, tossed off by Beethoven within a night to please a noblewoman next to whom he had been seated at an opera performance. Conforming to performance practice of the time, Michael Tsalka took the liberty to add just a few tasteful transitions and embellishments. And, with the variations’ rapid runs, filigree textures and busy left hand moments, the audience was treated to elegant, finely detailed piano music, devoid of thick, heavy textures and certainly a far cry from the angry musings of Beethoven’s later works. The program concluded with all three artists performing prolific Bohemian composer J.B.Vanhal’s Six Variations in G-Major opus 42, for violin/flute and guitar/fortepiano. Following the piece’s opening flourish, the artists varied the work’s scoring and timbral colour by allotting a different instrumental combination to each variation, keeping the listener on his toes both visually and audially. Once again, each artist’s personal and different expression was instrumental in creating the ambiance of the salon of the Viennese aristocracy. We may not have been seated in the plush music room of a wealthy Austrian family, but we were certainly able to hear every filigree sound and fragile gesture played by the artists in the BYU auditorium.

Taking the audience back to the Middle East, the artists performed “Sharkiya” (East Wind) from their new CD, a work by Israeli composer Yehezkel Braun (1922-2014), its modal, inebriating soundscape delicately perfumed with exotic oriental rhythms and melodies.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra in an evening of "Hidden Treasures of the Orchestra"

Maestro Shmuel Elbaz (photo:Natan Yakobovich)

The Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra’s second concert for the 2016-2017 season offered an evening of “Hidden Treasures of the Orchestra”, a concert in which the soloists were all members of the orchestra. This writer attended the event on November 5th 2016 at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Shmuel Elbaz, the orchestra’s house conductor, directed the concert, briefly introducing the works on the program as well as the soloists.

The concert opened with J.S.Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.4, in which Daphna Itzhaki and Michal Tikotsky played the flute parts and concert master Gilad Hildesheim the solo violin role. In true Baroque style (but on modern instruments) most of the instrumentalists played standing rather than sitting. Vivid, graceful and buoyant, the Allegro movement set the mood for a lively performance, Itzhaki and Tikotsky’s playing delicately shaped and well-coordinated, with Itshaki’s echoing of Tikotsky in the Andante movement indulging in some tasteful ornamenting and gentle flexing. Following a couple of rough edges in his playing at the start, Hildesheim engaged in the ensuing violin sections splendidly and with some spontaneity (Brandenburg 4 has at times been referred to as a solo violin concerto!). Elbaz took the final seriously contrapuntal movement at a lively pace, its tempo nevertheless feeling comfortable and controlled, with direction that was clear and dynamic.

Composed when Antonin Dvořák was at the height of popularity in his native Czechoslovakia as well as in Austria, his Serenade in D-minor for winds, ‘cello and double bass opus 44 (1878) took him only two weeks to write. Bristling with Slavonic folk melodies, rhythms and harmonies – as in the sousedská (a calm Bohemian dance danced in pairs) in the wistful second movement – the score calls for two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, three horns, ‘cello and double bass, its sound world an association with the hearty sounds of the “harmonie” band, popular at the end of the 18th century.  Placed in a semi-circle around the stage, the NKO instrumentalists performed the work without the conductor; the players, watching each other closely, infused the work with freshness, energy and lightness, highlighting the unique timbral colours and textures offered by its specific instrumental combination. But, above all, the players created the work’s sense of well-being, its whimsy, its vigour and dynamic potential, as well as the jubilance of folk dances. Each player could be heard, with outstanding solos from oboist Hila Zabari-Peleg and clarinettist Igal Levin.

Then to Maestro Shmuel Elbaz’ solo – Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto in C-major for mandolin and orchestra. Despite the fact that, of Vivaldi’s very many concertos, this is the only concerto for one mandolin, the composer’s writing sits very well with the instrument. And Elbaz brought out the colour, directness and vigour inherent in Venetian art, with orchestra and mandolin engaging in layered, Baroque-style dynamics. His easeful playing bristled with energy, his skilful ornamenting, at times quite florid, never concealing the melodic line. In the Adagio movement, he wove the fragile filigree strands of its arpeggios into a pensive mood piece. A little less microphone amplification would have sufficed…or perhaps none at all.

Prior to the next item, clarinettist Igal Levin recounted the curious story of how Felix Mendelssohn’s Konzertstück No.1 in F-minor for two clarinets and orchestra (the original version was for clarinet, basset horn and piano) came about. It was when Munich court musicians clarinettist Heinrich Joseph Bärmann and his basset hornist son Carl visited the Mendelssohn home in Berlin in 1832 that a deal was struck: the court musicians would roll up their sleeves and prepare the composer some Dumpfnudeln (steamed dumplings) and Rahmstrudel (sweet cheese strudel) if, while they worked in the kitchen, Mendelssohn would write them a piece for them to perform on their upcoming tour to Russia. Mendelssohn produced the work the same evening, only needing to add a few minor instrumental changes following its completion. He orchestrated it three weeks later. The challenging score attests to the high quality of the two Bärmanns’ playing. The NKO’s performance featured clarinettists Igal Levin and David Lobera. A work of three brief movements, its scoring of double winds – flutes, oboes, bassoons, horns and trumpets – was indeed suited to the strengths of the NKO. Soloists and orchestra gave dedicated expression to the work’s hearty, lush Romantic textures, its drama and songful melodies, its tranquillity and agitation, with Levin and Lobera engaging in musical banter, speedy figurations and exuberant hell-for-leather runs.

Bringing the orchestra together to conclude the concert, we heard Josef Haydn’s Symphony No.96 in D-major, the first of his “London Symphonies”, erroneously named “Miracle” due to a near-catastrophe when a chandelier fell from the ceiling when Haydn was conducting Symphony No.102 in London in 1795. Elbaz led his orchestra in playing of substantial orchestral quality, of Haydnesque good humour and richness of contrasts.  And there were plenty of solos here, too, some minor utterances, others more generous: the two principal violinists are featured in solo passages, as well as all principal wind players. In the Andante (2nd movement), the focus is indeed on the winds and first violin, the latter possibly a token of appreciation of Haydn to impresario Johann Peter Salomon, who, in addition to producing Haydn’s London concerts, happened to also be his concertmaster.  In the Trio of the Menuetto (3rd movement) we once again heard outstanding oboist Hila Zabari-Peleg in an eloquent rendering of the Ländler.  Altogether, Maestro Elbaz and the NKO presented Haydn’s light, expressive scoring and appealing earthiness, bringing to an end an evening of fine music, in which the orchestra’s treasures certainly did not remain hidden!


Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Marco Frezzato (Italy) opens the American Colony Hotel's new concert season with three Bach Solo 'Cello Suites

Violoncellist Marco Frezzato
©Ribalataluce Studio
On November 2nd 2016, the American Colony Concert Music Series opened its 2016-2017 season
with a solo Bach recital by violoncellist Marco Frezzato (Italy). Classical music has always played an important role in the cultural history of the American Colony Hotel. In fact, the hotel’s archives house an impressive collection of scores and music written at- or for the hotel. Initiated and organized by Ms. Petra Klose (K und K Wien), the first concert series opened in Autumn of 2015, with events all taking place in the exquisite Pasha Room of the hotel. The series features several internationally renowned artists performing music from the Baroque period to that of contemporary composers.

Born in Padua in 1973, Marco Frezzato studied ‘cello with Mario Brunello, Antonio Meneses and Amedio Baldovino and chamber music with the Trio di Trieste, doing postgraduate work at the Fiesole Music School, the Chigiana Academy (Siena) and the Duino International School of Music. From an early age, Frezatto has been drawn to performance practice on original instruments, taking studies in early music under Gaetano Nasillo, Laura Alvini and Lorenzo Ghielmi (Civic School of Music, Milan). Mr. Frezatto serves as principal ‘cellist with several orchestras and ensembles and has taken part in numerous recordings and in radio and television broadcasts. In 2002, he co-founded the AlcaEnsemble, with the aim of exploring performance of string quartet repertoire of the Classical and Romantic periods on original instruments.

The genesis of J.S.Bach’s six Suites for ‘Cello has remained unclear. It is thought that they date from the early 1720s, when Bach served as Kapellmeister at the Court of Prince Leopold at Cöthen, composing much instrumental music there. He may have written the ‘cello suites to be performed by gamba player and composer C.F.Abel or by a ‘cellist by the name of Lingke, both members of the court orchestra, but there is no evidence to prove this assumption. The first German solo works for ‘cello solo, they remained in near obscurity till a 13-year-old ‘cello student Pablo Casals found a second-hand copy of the suites in a Barcelona bookshop in 1890. Casals’ recording of the suites re-established them as major and treasured works of ‘cello repertoire.

Marco Frezzato, performing on a 1941 ‘cello built by Marino Capicchioni, and changed to a Baroque set-up, played three of the Bach Suites à Violoncello senza Basso, opening with Suite No.5 in C-minor BWV 1011. Right from the work’s French-style Ouverture, one gets a sense of how Frezzato allows Bach’s musical text to dictate pace and timbre changes, from spontaneity in the broad, pensive opening to small pauses on key notes, highlighting the dialogue of the ensuing tripla. As he moves into the dance movements, we find the artist’s reading of them exploring their creative potential more as music of the senses than as pure dance forms, his free playing of the Allemande and Courante traversing bar-lines in deference to phrases and personal expressiveness. In his playing of the Sarabande, Frezzato presented Bach’s stark, melancholy, otherworldly agenda, taking time to place the more dissonant, bare leaps that are so heart-rending. Springy and free, but not over-light-hearted, his performing of the Gavottes - as articulate as they were thought-provoking, with the second Gavotte tender and detailed in virtuosic, understated runs - was followed by a rubato Gigue of various colours, a riveting journey through textures and keys.

Emerging from the darker regions of the soul (C-minor), Frezzato then took his audience into the very different sound world - the sunny, crystal clarity of the tonality of G-major - of Suite No.1 BWV 1007, with the tonality enhanced by the freedom and resonance the open g string offers. We were drawn into the course of the Prelude’s energetic, joyful arpeggiation, to arrive at the mirthful, virtuosic yet noble Courante via the suave Allemande. And to the Sarabande - deep, singing and meditational under Frezzato’s bow - a bewitching moment taking one’s breath away, a moment that should not have to end - followed by the charm of the Minuets, the second, in D-minor (!),poignantly played with just a touch of reticence. The G-major Suite’s brief athletic Gigue provided Frezzato’s final personal statement on Bach’s G-major Suite.

Suite No.4 in E-flat major BWV 1010 is different again: its key creates a sense of power and complexity, making great technical demands on the player, with its zig-zag-shaped figurations. In Frezzato’s playing of the broad, richly harmonic Prelude, with its decorative transitions, one has a sense of the artist’s own curiosity as to where each arpeggio could lead, then creating another unpredictable journey in the Allemande, with its wide-ranging figurations and brisk rhythms, finished and a lively spread. Frezzato entertained us with his mischievous and virtuosic play of textures in the Courante, his breathlessly hasty section repeats keeping the listener perched at the edge of his seat. The Sarabande of the E-flat major suite always strikes me as if Bach has taken up the narrative mid-phrase; characterizing his gently lilting pace of the Sarabande, Frezzato’s focus lay in intensity of sound and the discriminating placing of each and every note. The joy, lightness-of-touch and the dash of devilry with which he infused the Bourrées were carried over to the Gigue, its frenetic mood nevertheless clear in direction.

How fortunate it was that Bach’s second wife Anna Magdalena had put the ‘cello suites to paper, of course, with no indications as to articulation and bowing, leaving much to the ‘cellist’s discretion. Frezzato’s playing placed Bach’s score in the foreground, the artist’s economic use of embellishment never obscuring the music’s noble greatness, his virtuosity a means to an end and not the focus of the recital. Marco Frezzato embraced the suites through his own very personal reading of them. The audience filling the Pasha Room was moved, privileged to be a part of the profound and inspiring experience.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Laudatus Te Choir (Stuttgart) and the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir perform Mendelssohn's Songs of Praise in Jerusalem

Photo: Tamar Balter

“Mendelssohn’s Songs of Praise”, the second concert in the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra’s Vocal 
Series and the first of its Liturgical Series, featured the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir and the Laudamus Te Choir (Stuttgart). Conductors were Naama Nazrati-Gordon (Jerusalem) and Monica Meira Vasques (Germany), with soloists sopranos Daniela Skorka, Alla Vasilevitsky and Jennifer May Owusu and tenor Alexander Yudenkov. This writer attended the concert on October 27th 2016 in the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theatre; this and the concert following in Tel Aviv completed yet another joint project of the two choirs, in which they had performed the same program in Stuttgart some days prior to the Israel concerts.

The program opened with Felix Mendelssohn’s Psalm 42, opus 42 “As Pants the Hart”, conducted by Naama Nazrati-Gordon, with Daniela Skorka performing the solo role. Mendelssohn wrote 19 settings of Psalm texts, prompted by the high esteem he held for J.S.Bach’s music and by his love of Martin Luther’s hymns. Opus 42 was composed in 1837, when Mendelssohn and his bride Cécile were on their honeymoon. Usually a severe critic of his own music, the composer, in letters to his sister Fanny and other friends, referred to the work as his “very best sacred composition”. Opening with the image of the hart (stag, deer) yearning for fresh water, the absence of both shows becomes apparent, with the water appearing as tears, rushing streams and surging waves. At the Jerusalem performance, Nazrati-Gordon directed the choirs in a fragile, poetic reading of the opening chorus, the later more forthright choral utterances vehement and intense but steering way from roughness of sound. Contending well with orchestra and choir, Daniela Skorka, her voice bright, ample and easeful, shaped words into eloquent phrases, giving meaning and emotion to the texts, some delightful oboe-playing-playing accompanying the first soprano aria. Movement 6, in which Skorka was joined by tenors Alexander Yudenkov and Ori Batchko, baritone Dor Magen and bass Dov Faust, formed a sonorous and rich ensemble piece. The JSO players presented the vivid score with elegance, highlighting the variety, colour and beauty of Mendelssohn’s evocative instrumental writing.

In 1838 or 1839, Mendelssohn began writing a symphony in B-flat major. Having later received the commission to write one of the works celebrating the 1840 quadricentenary of Gutenberg’s movable type for a Leipzig festival, the composer returned to the symphony sketches, using them and new material as the basis of the three-movement sinfonia that would be followed by a series of nine vocal movements involving choir and soloists to form the mammoth Symphony No.2 in B-flat major opus 52 “Lobesgesang”. The “Hymn of Praise” texts, most of which are taken from the Bible, praise God and mankind’s progress from darkness to enlightenment. Mendelssohn’s most ambitious undertaking, it enjoyed much popularity during his lifetime, becoming a rarity on the concert platform after that, a strange fact considering its celebration of the German Reformation and literacy (to which Gutenberg had contributed), of German church music and Bach’s weighty influence (chorales, fugal writing) on him. The work also merges music of the concert hall with church music, forming a hybrid genre breaking the tradition of separating the two. Symphony No.2 was premiered at St. Thomas Church Leipzig, where Bach had served as Kapellmeister for 17 years.

Monica Meira Vasques conducted orchestra, choir and soloists in the “Lobesgesang” Symphony. In the three movements of the Sinfonia, the trombones open with a noble, Luther-like hymn tune that proceeds to thread its way through sections of the three orchestral movements, setting the scene for the choral movements. Tenor Alexander Yudenkov, his voice warm and substantial, possesses fine musical presence: his gripping rendering of the texts was both articulate and convincing, at times narrative, at others, emotional, raising the dramatic level:

‘The sorrows of death had closed all around me,
And hell’s terrors had got a hold upon me
With trouble and deep heaviness; (Psalm 116)

Opera singer Alla Vasilevitsky displayed flexibility, power and lyrical beauty of timbre, her collaboration with Yudenkov in “My song shall always be Thy mercy”, highlighting key words, producing a fine duet. In her duet with Jennifer May Owusu, the two soprano voices did not find an ideal balance, possibly due to the fact that the two were standing too far away to hear each other, Owusu’s rich, creamy voice not quite audible enough, and more the pity! The choir’s singing of choruses was well prepared and engaging, however, often drowned out by the orchestra, rendering the verbal text unintelligible.

Formed in 1987, the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir, numbering some 140 singers and performing repertoire from early to contemporary music and folk music, works in separate groups and with different conductors, the groups joining up once or twice a year to perform a large choral work. Oratorio ensembles have performed in the UK, Italy, Romania, France and Germany and have recorded eight CDs. Naama Nazrati Gordon is currently musical director of the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir.

Laudamus Te (Stuttgart) was formed in 2007 by current conductor Monica Meira Vasques. It consists of a chamber choir, a project choir, an orchestra and various smaller vocal ensembles, their repertoire spanning from Baroque- to contemporary music. Laudamus Te performs in the Stuttgart region as well as outside of Germany. With Vasques’ strong emphasis on sacred music, a close friendship with Israel has developed, their association with the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir existing since 2008 and resulting in several joint performances both in Germany and in Israel over recent years.

With the Henry Crown Hall full to capacity, the ambitious undertaking by both choirs and conductors in “Mendelssohn’s Songs of Praise” made for a vivid, festive affair.