Friday, March 31, 2017

Bach's Journeys - the Ricercar Consort (Belgium) performs at the 2017 Bach in Jerusalem Festival

Philippe Perlot,Maude Gratton,Enrico Gatti (Maxim Reider)
Three members of the renowned Ricercar Consort performed on the opening day of the second Bach in Jerusalem Festival (March 20th-25th 2017). The concert – “Bach’s Journeys” – took place in the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship of the Jerusalem International YMCA. Performing the concert were the ensemble’s director Philippe Pierlot (viola da gamba), Enrico Gatti (violin) and Maude Gratton (harpsichord). Formed in Belgium in 1980 along with the Ricercar label, the Ricercar Consort, focusing mostly on music of the 17th century, is one of the foremost groups performing Baroque music.

Two works from Dietrich Buxtehude’s opus 1 and 2 Sonatas, their scoring typical of the north German chamber tradition, were played with much charm, refinement and the excitement of the then new “stylus phantasticus”.  The players exercised both close collaboration and freedom in playing that set the yardstick for an evening of intelligent and balanced performance, devoid of tasteless affectations.  A rare treat was hearing two solo J.S.Bach sonatas with harpsichord (of which there are so few), first the Violin Sonata in E-minor BWV 1023, in which Gatti set out the work’s narrative with linear clarity and with emotion, tugging at the heart strings as he lingered just a little longer on a dissonance yet to be resolved; in the BWV 1029 Sonata, with Pierlot and Gratton’s interweaving of melodies creating vivid interest, meeting on poetic dissonance in the intimate central Adagio movement, then launched into their rich, energetic realization of the final Allegro movement.

Harpsichordist Maude Gratton’s sparkling solo playing included three movements from Bach’s Partita No.6, opening with the complex, mammoth Toccata, in which she juxtaposed intellect with depth of expression; her playing of the Ricercar à 3 from the Musical Offering made a strong case for the work probably largely being written for keyboard as she researched and explored the living textures of the piece Bach chose to call “ricercar” rather than “fugue”.

The Ricercar Consort concluded its concert with J-P. Rameau’s Troisième Concert, their reading of the work, unique in its setting for harpsichord with accompanying instruments, reflecting the variety, temperament and moments of the unanticipated in Rameau’s expressive mature style, the artists’ gently-swayed playing of the hypnotic undulating thirds of “La Timide” (2nd movement) followed by a pair of jaunty, revved-up Timbourins, the Provençal dance quite a favourite in Rameau operas.

The three Ricercar Consort players’ eloquent and subtle playing delighted the festival audience with the best of Baroque music for violin, viola da gamba and harpsichord.


Monday, March 27, 2017

W.A.Mozart's "Impresario" - a collaboration of the Israel Chamber Orchestra and singers of the Vienna-Tel Aviv Vocal Connection

Photo courtesy the Israel Chamber Orchestra

Taking place in the Recanati Auditorium of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on March 23rd 2017, the Israel Chamber Orchestra’s recent all-Mozart concert offered a broad range of repertoire, covering orchestral music, opera and theatre. Conducting the somewhat non-mainstream event was Stanley Sperber. The program opened with W.A.Mozart’s Symphony No.38 in D-major K.504, “Prague”, so-called because it was premiered in that city in 1787, where the composer was enjoying great popularity. It is clear that this symphony was not originally written to be played in Prague: it was heard in what ensued as a number of triumphant concerts for him there, resulting in the commission for “Don Giovanni”. From the separate, ceremonious utterances of the brooding opening Adagio, Maestro Sperber (choosing to conduct without a baton) brought into play the various elements indicative of Mozart’s mature symphonic craft – exuberance, energy, melodiousness, the composer’s economy of ideas, purity of expression, his skilful use of dissonance and his subtlety of layering – in performance incisive, eloquent and flavoured with a sense-of-wellbeing. Some fine woodwind playing characterises the ICO’s splendid orchestral sound.

Following intermission, the stage took on a different guise: the right side was now occupied by a grand armchair, a door frame and a glistening motorcycle in preparation for Rosemarie Danziger’s adaptation and stage direction of Mozart’s Singspiel “Der Schauspieldirektor” (The Impresario) composed to a libretto by Gottlieb Stephanie jnr.  Since 2013, Danziger has been directing the Vienna-Tel Aviv Vocal Connection (founded by Sylvia Greenberg and conductor/vocal coach David Aronson). All the singers of this ICO production have been participants in seminars of the Vienna-Tel Aviv Vocal Connection.

The comic chamber opera, a farcical look behind the scenes of an opera company, satirizes the rivalries and divas of show business. As the ICO sets the scene with its effervescent playing of the overture to “Impresario” (the only part of the opera really familiar to most concert-goers) the music offers a sneak preview of the naïve melodiousness of the ensuing arias and of Mozart’s characteristic tongue-in-cheek wit, but also of his generous orchestral scoring. And as we hear the overture, La Roche (the opera director, portrayed by actor and pantomimic Fyodor Makarov) is seeing to his appearance – powdering his face, plastering down his hair, donning his jacket and bow-tie. And in readiness for the proceedings, the stage needs vacuum-cleaning. The vacuum cleaner pipe will then serve La Roche (in a non-singing role) as a kind-of hoarse, massive wind instrument joining the orchestra at certain moments throughout the production; a comical touch, for, after all, Makarov is a very fine clown. As to the other characters on stage, all (except for Ayelet Amots-Avramson) are dubious characters. Mezzo-soprano Zlata Hershberg, for example, (as Clairon) plays the part of a leather-clad, whip-wielding sadist with oomph, her ample, well-grounded voice, joy and natural stage presence making for fine, jocose entertainment. Soprano Avigail Gurtler-Har-Tuv plays the scantily-clothed Madame Herz; here, the young opera singer’s creamy soprano timbre and already secure coloratura merge comfortably with her waggish penchant for comedy as she sails effortlessly through registers of her voice in delightful solo- and ensemble singing. Her rival, Madame Silberklang, is played by soprano Christina Maria Fercher (Austria); in her performance, as colourful as her outfit (Fercher made the transition from musical comedy to opera) her powerful voice making its statement, as does her skilful dancing of the Charleston, with the ICO digressing momentarily from Mozart to accompany it with a reminder of the ebullient music of the Roaring 20s. As Buff, La Roche’s handsome assistant, Brazilian-born baritone Robson Bueno Tavares displayed fine vocal ability, spending much of his time on stage flirting with the young ladies. Endowed with a powerful, rich and warm voice, young Austrian-born tenor Franz Gürtelschmied, a singer fast making his mark on the European opera-, Lied- and church music scene, played Vogelsang, an opera agent working for La Roche, luring lady singers to their company by means of his beloved motorcycle. And he is owed money!

A whimsical touch is that Makarov and each of the singers is speaking his/her own language: we hear Hebrew, German, Russian, English and Portuguese spoken; it is somewhat possible to grasp the gist of what is being said.  And then, a certain Madame Krone, the exquisitely-dressed Ayelet Amots-Avramson, appears on the scene looking totally out-of-place among this motley collection of characters. She observes what is happening, is impartial to the changes being discussed and is about to leave. In her quiet self-assurance, Amots-Abramson is convincing on stage; her strong, resonant voice and fine diction invite the audience to listen. The pompous La Roche, aware that all those around are rebelling, holds a grandiloquent speech in order to bring about order and harmony…to make new laws. The speech, based on La Roche’s speech from Richard Strauss’ opera “Capriccio”, might well be inferring to the state of the local Israeli culture scene.

Stephanie (himself an impresario) was given the idea for the opera by Emperor Joseph II. Not an original plot, the subject appealed to Mozart, who would have been familiar with the difficulties encountered by an impresario endeavouring to assemble a theatrical company in Salzburg. Mozart’s original score comprises only five numbers – each masterful and funny - and the opera has passed through many hands, undergoing much adaptation. Danziger has made several changes, among them, the addition of four arias from other Mozart operas, these working in well with the characters and plot. Maestro Sperber, entering into the convivial spirit of the production, drew all musical threads together in music-making that was high-spirited, energetic and appealing. In this production, the Israel Chamber Orchestra really let its hair down! I think Mozart would have liked it a lot.


Wednesday, March 22, 2017

A classical Irish soirée at the American Colony Hotel (Jerusalem)

Rita Manning,Deidre Brenner,Tara Erraught (Petra Klose)
Marking St. Patrick’s Day (March 17th), a classical Irish concert soirée took place on March 18th 2017 in the Pasha Room of the American Colony Hotel, Jerusalem.  On their first visit here, the three artists – pianist Dierdre Brenner, mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught and violinist Rita Manning – are Irish, all with international careers. Words of welcome were offered by Jonathan Conlon, representative of the Office of Ireland in Palestine. Addressing the international audience, which included members of the Irish Parliament and the diplomatic community, Mr. Conlon spoke of St. Patrick’s Day as when Irish people all over the world gather to celebrate Ireland and “Irishness”. He also thanked Ms. Petra Klose (K und K, Wien) for her organization of the concert.

The program opened with W.A.Mozart’s Sonata for piano and violin in E-minor, K.304 (1778), the only of the composer’s violin and piano sonatas written in a minor key; in keeping with most in the set published in Paris, it consists of two movements. Manning and Brenner gave intensity and expression to the work’s wistful mood. In the Tempo di Menuetto (2nd movement) also serious (a far cry from its light-hearted courtly ancestor) the artists’ small hesitations allowed for a feel of spontaneity, its splendid dolce E-major middle section played with charm and tranquillity. Then to Erraught and Brenner’s performance of Joseph Haydn’s “Scena di Berenice”, a single scene the composer set to the text from Metastasio’s libretto for “Antigono”. In her presentation of the work’s dramatic recitatives, short ariosos and a final powerful aria, Erraught gave a gripping and convincing portrayal of Berenice, overwhelmed and delirious in her desire to accompany her lover to the underworld. The various aspects of Berenice’s emotional plight were displayed not only in her strategic use of vocal colour but also in the singer’s body language.  Brenner’s piano accompaniment formed an integral part of the passionate and impactful performance.  The first section of the program concluded with Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Violons dans le soir” (1907) to a text by a young contemporary of the composer – Comtesse Anna de Noailles. The text describes the sobbing evening music of the violin as disturbing the calm of the natural world. In the quite different five short stanzas of this “mini-cantata”, Erraught, Brenner and Manning struck a fine balance, with voice and violin obbligato engaged in dialogue, the violin echoing (at times, uttering strident comments) as interaction between the two took on vivacity, the two alternating or joining to present independent agendas. Brenner ‘s attentive piano accompaniment was subtle and sensitive. A challenging work to perform, and one seldom heard here on the concert platform, the artists created its bewitching mood, offering a satisfying performance.

Following intermission, all the works the works performed were Irish, beginning with two movements of Charles Stanford’s Six Irish Fantasies, op.54. In addition to his time spent studying with German masters, honing his compositional art, Stanford had made contact with some of Europe’s greatest violinists. The Irish Fantasies display his skill at writing miniatures, but they were also composed as a response to the interest in Irish music at the time, this not just within Ireland. Manning and Brenner’s vigorous and wholehearted performance of “Caione”, a concert piece bristling with temperament, was followed by the Jig:  opening with the spirit of this Irish folk dance and with traditional fiddling, the piece deviates from the jolly dance to proceed as a set of variations, to return to the jig only in the coda. Fine solo fare not just for the violinist, Brenner’s playing of the piano part attested to Stanford’s own competence at the piano. In “Molly on the Shore”, Kreisler’s arrangement of a piece Percy Grainger wrote in 1907 featuring two authentic Irish reels, Brenner and Manning’s buoyant playing challenged some members of the audience to remain seated, as the artists tossed it off with the wink of an eye. This was followed by Tommy Laurence’s arrangement of “Danny Boy”, a version seasoned with some discretely different harmonies.

Then to Hamilton Harty’s settings of Irish texts for voice and piano. The first was “Sea Wrack”, (wrack meaning seaweed) to a poem of Moira O’Neill. With Brenner’s playing no less dedicated to the song’s content, Erraught re-created its tender narrative and resulting tragedy:
‘There' a fire low upon the rocks to burn the wrack to kelp,
There' a boat gone down upon the Moyle, an' sorra one to help!
Him beneath the salt sea, me upon the shore,
By sunlight or moonlight we'll lift the wrack no more.
The dark wrack,
The sea wrack,
The wrack may drift ashore.’
Set to a traditional Irish air from County Donegal and discovered by Herbert Hughes, “My Lagan Love” (The Lagan: an Irish river) presented Erraught’s warm, poignant rendition of the tender love-song and her rich palette of vocal colours, complemented by Harty’s poetic piano part.

Tara Erraught introduced the last bracket of songs as favourites of hers from a young age. Her gently droll performance of “The Stuttering Lovers” was followed by the rapt, captivating mood she inspired for “I will walk with my love” and the understated heartbreak almost whispered in “She moved thro’ the fair”. A fitting conclusion to the program was “The Leprechaun”, a song about the most important Irish fairy, the little imp dressed in green, of course!





Sunday, March 19, 2017

Israeli pianist Shira Shaked releases her first solo CD - RED

Photo:Jiyang Chen
“RED”, pianist Shira Shaked’s first solo CD covers a lot of ground. Choosing to open with the Fantasia in F sharp minor, H.300, Wq.67 (1787) of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Johann Sebastian’s second oldest son (and the most avant-garde of the four composer sons), Shaked challenges the listener to join her in some of the quirkiest keyboard music emerging from the 18th century. Shaked’s reading of this late work engages, first and foremost, in the improvisational character of the piece, re-creating Emanuel’s own style of “Empfindsamkeit”, characterised by eccentric, wild emotionalism, of sudden contrasting moods but also of much sublime melodiousness. Her minimal use of the sustaining pedal serves her well stylistically, as does her careful pacing, as she examines the shape and fibre of each motif. Fast, extravagant passages are well controlled, displaying fine, light finger-work and she presents some with a touch of whimsy. Shaked pays tribute to Bach’s belief in “freedom that eliminates anything slavish”, her playing creating a coherent whole in performance that is highly personal, as would have been the case in C.P.E.Bach’s ruminations on the keyboard.

Shaked’s playing of W.A.Mozart’s Piano Sonata No.13 in B flat major K.333 breathes the charm and grace of this gem, as she reminds the listener of the lightness and beauty inherent in two-part keyboard textures occasionally visited by fuller chords. In presenting its different subjects and profusion of melodies, she addresses the subtlety of contrast present only under the fingers of a sophisticated pianist, never launching into thick, unwieldy textures, as its darker moments emerge from the natural qualities of the minor mode, rather than from agitated expression. And how unique the final movement is in its concerto allegro form, with the pianist playing all roles. Shaked’s playing of the jaunty movement is crisp, her melodies clean; she gives individuality to the diversified elements of the (genuine) cadenza, lingering at its end to make room for the return of the “orchestra” for the bracing closing section. Mozart would have played the work on his 1782 Anton Walter fortepiano. Recording it on a Model D Steinway & Sons piano, Shira Shaked has made an informed effort at evoking the real sound-world of this galant work. 

And to the art of the miniature. For this, Shaked has chosen Alexander Scriabin’s Trois Morceaux opus 45 (1905), written during his six-year sojourn in western Europe - three tiny pieces, the longest of them lasting just over a minute. Shaked engages in the mystery and rapture of these vignettes as well as in the unconventionality balanced with discipline of the idiomatic style of Scriabin’s middle period that straddled tonality and his own gentle move towards atonality. Shaked’s splendidly sculpted playing of the contemplative, bitter-sweet “Feuillet d’Album” (Album Leaf), allowing for just a touch of Romantic sentimentality, is followed by the volatile, unpredictable “Poème Fantastique”, dazzling and roguish, its atonal agenda closing with the surprising gesture of a tonal cadence.  And back to Scriabin’s more contemplative mood and his hyper-refined sensibility, with Shaked’s sympathetic rendering of the wistful “Prelude” richly wrought in sweeping phrases, some of them diminishing upwards into pastel arpeggii.

In April of 1844, Heinrich Heine wrote: ”When I am near Chopin, I quite forget his mastery of piano technique and plunge into the soft abysses of his music, into the mingled pain and delight of his creations, which are as tender as they are profound.” Chopin was 34 years old when he composed his Piano Sonata No.3 in B-minor, op.58. His health was now beginning to decline. The sonata, his last for piano, was written mostly during the summer spent at George Sand’s estate in Nohant, but never played by Chopin in public. In her performance of this masterpiece, Shira Shaked addresses the hallmarks of Chopin’s style. The opening Allegro maestoso is a typical Chopin piano soundscape: we hear its myriad of lyrical melodies, shifting moods and textures flowing at an unrelenting pace, each examined for its shape and content as she orchestrates their Romantic language in playing that is crystal clear.  With nimble, agility, Shaked highlights the elusive, entertaining spirit of the Scherzo, its middle section darker in register and more introspective. The ominous chords opening the Largo give way to some graceful and fragile melodies, to references of Bach’s counterpoint and to personal expression on the part of the artist, all these woven into an opulent fantasia.  In the Finale, Shaked addresses the finest of details together with the richness of its content, her masterful playing of it never lapsing into ostentatious show or melodrama. This is a rewarding, insightful performance of the sonata, capturing the beauty and power of Chopin’s music.

Recorded in 2015 at HaTeiva, Jaffa, Israel, the disc’s sound quality is distinct, warm and intimate (Noam Dorembus – recording engineer, Udi Koomran – mixing and mastering). Ilana R. Schroeder's comprehensive liner notes make for interesting reading. The four different works heard on RED provide a convincing picture of Shira Shaked’s grasp of style and outstanding musicianship. A graduate of the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music (Tel Aviv) and the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, Shira Shaked graduated as a Doctor of Musical Arts from the State University of New York, Stony Brook, where she was a student of Prof. Gilbert Kalish.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

"Eternal Light" - Franz Herzog (Austria) conducts the Israel Vocal Ensemble in a program joined by saxophonist Eyal Aizik

Maestro Franz Herzog (photo: Peter Purgar)

“Eternal Light” was the title of the Israeli Vocal Ensemble’s recent concert directed by guest conductor Franz M. Herzog (Austria). Also taking part in the event was saxophonist Eyal Aizik. This writer attended the concert at St. Andrews Scots Memorial Church, Jerusalem, on March 2nd, 2017.

Born in 1962, conductor, composer and music educationalist Franz M. Herzog today serves as artistic director of the Vocalforum Graz (chamber choir) and was founder and chief conductor of the Cantanima, a Styrian youth choir (2004-2013). He is currently head of choral conducting at the Johann Joseph Fux Conservatory (Graz) and lecturer at the Graz University of Music and Performing Arts. As a composer, his oeuvre largely focuses on choral- and vocal music. This was his first Israeli concert tour.

Established in 1993 by Yuval Benozer, who continues to serve as its music director, the Israeli Vocal Ensemble, comprising professional singers, is among Israel’s finest choral chamber choirs. With its own concert series, the IVE performs in major Israeli concert venues, also taking part in local festivals and overseas. The ensemble’s repertoire ranges from medieval to the most contemporary of works; it has also recorded film music. The Israel Vocal Ensemble is supported by the Ministry of Culture and Sport, Mif’al Hapais and private donors.

“Eternal Light”, a program of mostly European pieces, many sacred and (almost all)  a-cappella from the Renaissance through Romantic music to that of the 21st century, took the listener on a spiritual journey through the course of a day, starting out in the sparkling light of daybreak. The program opened with the Lenten hymn “Christe, qui lux es et dies” (O Christ who are light and day) by Robert White (1538-1574), a sophisticated, imitative piece, its polyphonic verses built around the chant.  Via the densely-interwoven textures and descriptive effects of György Ligeti’s (1923-2006) “Morning”, we were presented with a performance of young Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo’s (b.1978) stunning spiritual- and richly blended 8-voiced “O magnum mysterium”, with saxophonist Eyal Aizik’s mellifluous playing of phrases weaving into-, complementing- and conforming with the work’s vocal lines.

Of great interest to singers and audience alike were two works of Franz Herzog himself, their first Israeli performances. We heard the Kyrie and Gloria of his Missa “Lux caelestis” (2004), a richly-coloured multi-dimensional canvas of ostinati creating vital rhythms, of clusters, the enmeshment of seconds and contrasts between lighter and darker timbres - music of excitement and conviction. “Laudato si, mi Signore” (2011) uses a text from St. Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Sun of 1224 and in the original Umbrian dialect of Italian.  Here, Herzog’s writing threads his evocative use of syllables and words effectively with the natural beauty of voices in a gripping kaleidoscope of lush, introverted textures then spiralling into powerful grandeur, expressive of the text’s message of both suffering and forgiveness.

An interesting reflection on the text of Heinrich Schütz’ exquisite motet “Herr, nun lässest Du deiner Diener” (Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace) from the burial service for Prince Heinrich von Reuss, a Dresden nobleman, was the division into a low 5-part choir and a smaller ensemble of two sopranos and bass and set apart. In the latter, the bass represented the soul in bliss, with the sopranos as two seraphim. With each choir singing a different text, the IVE singers highlighted the work’s extraordinary texture in unforced singing and fine projection of words, even at moments when both texts were intertwined.

Another fascinating motet was Felix Mendelssohn’s setting of Psalm 43 (opus 78 No.2) (1844), its five double verses divided into four sections, with basses and tenors singing the melody in unison against sopranos and altos in harmony, then moving into “O send your light and your truth” soaring into eight-part harmony. The work concludes with the composer (texturally and musically) revisiting the cry of suffering from his setting of Psalm 42, a heartrending personal gesture. Rich in Romantic harmonies, Edvard Grieg’s “Ave, maris stella” (Hail, star of the sea) was given a personal and dynamic reading, poignant in its gentle echoes.  Probably his best-known sacred work, Joseph Gabriel Rheinberger’s (1839-1901) subtly introspective, syllabic six-voiced "Evening Song" (1873) was sensitively shaped and richly satisfying. Another fine miniature was “O nata lux” (O Light born of Light) from “Lux Aeterna” by one of America’s most acclaimed and widely-performed choral composers Morton Lauridson (b.1943), its economic use of pure triads and those coloured by an added second or fourth flowing in in a stream of undulating melodic lines in the composer’s glistening treatment of the theme of light. And to “Stars”, a mysterious and mystical night piece in four voices by Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds (b.1977) to the text of American poetess Sara Teasdale’s poem of the same name.  Ešenvalds’ unique setting calls for water-filled glasses of specific pitches and sounded by the singers themselves by running a wet finger around the rim. Herzog led the singers securely through this work of floating, magical timbres with its underlay of clusters created by the water-tuned glasses (and their overtones) and the sonorous choral writing of fluctuating crescendos and diminuendos as its spacious, otherworldly mood was crowned by a weightlessly-suspended high soprano “a”.

‘Alone in the night
On a dark hill
With pines around me
Spicy and still,
And a heaven of stars
Over my head,
White and topaz
And misty red…’

Turning to a different kind of repertoire, we heard “Amazing Grace” William Cowper’s hymn text to words by Anglican minister John Newton, published 1779, nowadays mostly sung to the melody of “New Britain” and referred to by Gilbert Chase as “the most famous of all the folk hymns”. In Israeli composer/conductor Tzvi Sherf’s evocative and imaginative arrangement of the song, IVE bass Ronen Ravid soloed with splendid natural mastery, at one point joined by soprano Talia Dishon to give the performance a fleeting Afro-American touch.

An unusual and unique addition to such a program, Eyal Aizik’s hearty-, imaginative- and intermittently intimate saxophone improvisations, taking their cue from the program’s repertoire, added an enriching and indeed profound dimension to the event. The “timeline” agenda of Maestro Herzog’s program effected the integrating of works of all eras into a fluid and satisfying continuum, with the obvious rapport between him and the IVE singers resulting in interesting, high-quality choral performance of exceptional depth and beauty.



Thursday, March 9, 2017

At the Mormon University, Jerusalem, Ensemble PHOENIX presents "Glamour and Fashion: London on the 18th Century"

Moshe Epstein,Marina Minkin,Myrna Herzog,Lilia Slavny (photo:Eliahu Feldman)

For some strange reason, chamber music from Georgian England is rarely performed on our concert platforms. Of course, one major explanation might be the attitude that “no music of any worth was composed between that of Purcell and Britten”. Another might be that this instrumental repertoire was mostly performed in the private salons of the wealthy, an institution now almost forgotten.  For Dr. Myrna Herzog, founder and musical director of Ensemble PHOENIX, this music, belonging to the world of “Glamour and Fashion: London in the 18th Century”, has as much delight to offer audiences as it has to its players. 18th century London was alive with culture, with nightly performances at the Covent Garden and Haymarket Theatres, with more than 60 ostentatious pleasure gardens offering amusement. As to British music of the second half of the 18th century, straddling the Baroque and Classical styles, the London scene was enhanced by the presence of such figures as violinist Felice Giardini, Johann Christian Bach and Carl Friedrich Abel, Joseph Haydn and Carl Stamitz.

This writer attended the PHOENIX concert on March 5th at the Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies (Mormon University). One of Jerusalem’s most scenic concert venues, the Center’s beautiful building and extensive landscaped gardens sit high up on Mount Scopus overlooking the Mount of Olives. Artists performing on period instruments were Moshe Aron Epstein-flute, Lilia Slavny-violin, Marina Minkin-harpsichord and Myrna Herzog-‘cello.

The evening opened with Trio in G-major of German-born Carl Philipp Stamitz, a virtuoso player on the violin, viola and viola d’amore. Stamitz (1745-1801) travelled extensively throughout Europe, his short sojourn of 1777-1778 in London bringing him much success. Performed by Epstein, Slavny and Herzog, the G-major trio set the scene for an evening of appealing, uncluttered music of genial charm. With Moshe Epstein playing the upper, more soloistic part and Slavny’s subtle, dedicated partnering, the artists offered performance rich in dialogue, in suave focused tone and delicate nuancing.

 In 1784, the European Magazine and London Review published an article that began thus: “To the honour of the present times, England is no longer to be pointed as barren of masters in the polite arts. Music, which formerly derived little advantage from natives of this island, now can boast of several Professors, who rival the Italian and German masters both in performance and in composition. The English school, we trust, will continue to do honour to the science of music: and it will afford us great pleasure to record occasionally the lives of such of the professors of the art, as, from their abilities and virtues, deserve to be transmitted to posterity.” The journal’s “composer of the month” was blind London-born organist and violinist John Stanley (1712-1786), a prominent figure in London’s musical life, a performer whose original organ voluntaries drew large crowds to the various churches and are performed to this day. A transitional composer between Händel and J.C.Bach, his musical style moved from the Baroque organ style to the pre-Classical concept. In Stanley’s Solo in D for German Flute op.1 No.7 (1740) a sonata in all but name, Herzog and Minkin played the continuo role (sympathetically realized on that of the composer). Moshe Epstein conveyed the clarity and sweetness of Stanley’s writing for flute; especially touching was the Siciliano (3rd movement), to be followed by the elegantly stepping 4th movement, with its deftly handled flute variations most pleasurable.

Joseph Haydn’s Six Divertimenti à 3 opus 38 for flute, violin and ‘cello, were first published in London in 1784. The composer’s first chamber music to include the flute (possibly a gesture to the Earl of Abingdon, who had invited Haydn to come to London and was an enthusiastic flautist) the Divertimenti provided the middle classes with high quality entertainment.   Actually, much of the material of Trio No.4 is taken from one of his trios for baryton (a bizarre, ‘cello-type instrument). Displaying the delicate balance of togetherness and individuality, Epstein, Slavny and Herzog highlighted the heart-warming intimacy, the felicity, spontaneity and melodic beauty of this London Trio –  a hidden gem.

House composer at Drury Lane, London-born Thomas Arne (1710-1778) was known as a composer of masques, songs and fashionable Italian-type opera; he is also known for having composed “Rule Britannia” and “God Save the King”. Much of his output was burned in the Drury Lane fire of 1809; whatever remained was then forgotten for two centuries. The PHOENIX performance of his Trio op.3 No.6 in B-minor served as a reminder to listeners of his sophisticated, skilful instrumental writing, with each miniature movement a carefully-polished gem. The artists leaned into strategic dissonances, gave expression to tiny details, to chromaticism and tasteful ornamentation, all taking part in the lively banter of the final Allegro.

A contemporary, German court musician Carl Friedrich Abel (1723-1787), the last of the great viol players, moved to London in 1758, where he quickly established himself as a significant writer of chamber music. Slavny, Minkin and Herzog (the ‘cello here joining as an equal player, not in the continuo role) performed Abel’s Sonata No.2 in C-major op.9 No.1, (c.1772) a galant, lyrical bipartite work of the style of light chamber music popular in Georgian London. In the opening Moderato movement, Slavny’s elegant ornamenting of the repeats added to the work’s dapper feel as did the players added a touch of the inégal and made use of cadential dissonance, with detached textures chosen for the ensuing Vivace.  Their playing created a musical portrait Abel himself, a genteel character who hobnobbed with London’s artists, engravers and designers, those including Gainsborough and Cipriani.

Commissioned by The King’s Theatre in London to write two operas for the 1762-63 season, Johann Christian Bach (J.S.Bach’s youngest son) moved to London at age 27, making his home there, dwelling in prestigious locations and receiving the position of music master to Queen Charlotte and her family. In 1764, the younger Bach (1735-1782) began collaboration with Abel (who had studied with Johann Sebastian) in what was known as the Bach-Abel concert series; it was in those concerts that the two aired many of their works. Published in 1763 and dedicated to Queen Charlotte, J.C.Bach’s six opus 1 concertos were written for both the concert hall and for amateur musicians in the home. At the Jerusalem performance, this vibrant work made for fine concert fare. Its opening movement bristled with effervescent joie-de-vivre. In the Andante movement, the harpsichord solo shone through, accompanied by pizzicato (staccato on flute) chords. Then to the variations on “God Save the Queen”, conveyed with warmth of sound, its tutti punctuated by plenty of solo sections on the part of Minkin. The “London Bach”, steering away from his northern German background, was paving a new way for the concerto in the chamber music setting.

There can be no doubt that performing this music on period instruments conjures up all the timbres and intentions the above-mentioned composers would have had in mind. The flute Moshe Epstein was playing is an original Rudall & Rose instrument from London (1827), i.e. an early Romantic flute, its sound indeed similar to that of flutes heard in 18th century England. It is totally different to the modern flute, having a much gentler, more modest sound; an instrument with totally different fingering, so quite challenging to play, Epstein sounded perfectly at home on it. The violin Lilia Slavny was playing is a copy of a 1734 Guaneri del Gesù instrument built by British violinmaker Roger Hargrave (Bremen). She and Herzog alternated between Classical and Baroque bows. For this program, Myrna Herzog chose to play a truly Baroque ‘cello made by Johann Adam Reigeld (Germany, c.1730); this unique instrument has a penetrating sound and what could only be described as a “very swollen belly”. Marina Minkin was playing her Flemish harpsichord, built by Klop (Holland).  

Not hosted by singer and actress Susannah Cibber (Thomas Arne’s sister) at her Sunday evening salons, where she was hostess to “a constellation of wits, poets, actors and men of letters” (according to Burney, who also attended), not seated on Chippendale chairs or drinking tea from Wedgewood cups, the Jerusalem audience was indeed offered a delightful and authentic taste of 18th century English salon music in another of Myrna Herzog’s meticulously-researched and enlightening programs.


Thursday, March 2, 2017

"Bells and Orchestra" - the 2017 Mustonenfest Estonian-Israeli Music Festival, the Arsis Handbell Ensemble, the Israel Camerata Jerusalem conducted by Andres Mustonen

The Arsis Handbell Ensemble,conductor Aivar Mae (photo:Maxim Reider)

“Bells and Orchestra”, a unique concert of the fourth Tallinn-Tel Aviv Mustonenfest (February
13th-March 1st 2017) took place in the Recanati Auditorium of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on February 25th. No new face to Israeli concert audiences, festival musical director and violinist Andres Mustonen conducted the Israel Camerata Jerusalem. The concert also featured the Arsis Handbell Ensemble, Tallinn with its conductor Aivar Mäe.  

Known for his indomitable energy, Andres Mustonen will always keep his audience on its toes, playing works rarely heard in the concert hall or offering a different view on repertoire familiar to the concert-going public. The former was the case at the Tel Aviv concert, as he conducted Josef Haydn’s Symphony No.60 in C-major, Il Distratto (The Absent-minded One), actually incidental music to a German language version of “Le Distrait” (François Regnard), a comedy performed in 1774 at Esterháza, the home of Prince Esterházy, Haydn’s patron. The six movements parallel the play’s action, in which Leandre, in his absent-mindedness, dresses his valet instead of himself, on leaving a party alights the wrong carriage, taking him to someone else’s home, where he climbs into bed with a sleeping woman, then to be confronted by her furious husband, etc. Reading with relish into the work’s humorous programmatic content, Mustonen entertains the audience with its comical effects, such as when the music dies away in the first movement to depict Leandre forgetting what he was about to say…to suddenly return in boisterous utterance. The middle movements weave folk music into the comical score, the last laugh occurring in the final movement: coinciding with Leandre forgetting to go to his own wedding, the music screeches to a halt for the violins to tune their instruments. Mustonen’s fresh, crisp reading of this somewhat outlandish work was definitely in keeping with Regnard’s play and of course enhanced by Haydn’s sparkling sense of humour, reminding the listener that music is there to entertain us.

And the program held another surprise: a setting of the Chaconne from J.S.Bach’s Partita No.2 for violin BWV 1004 by Estonian singer and composer Tõnis Kaumann. Kaumann (b.1971) is a post-modern composer, whose music blends a number of styles, from pop and jazz to the Viennese Classical style, to Gregorian chant and more. His writing is characterized by its technical fluency, humour and, sometimes, by his liking for the absurd.  In this arrangement, Kaumann has added an orchestral role to the solo violin piece. At the Tel Aviv event, Andres Mustonen played the violin solo. As he played the well-known virtuoso piece with vim and vitality, Kaumann’s orchestral agenda added interesting harmonic and textural dimensions to it, also creating a strong rhythmic (at times, quite jazzy) pulse. Then there were small duets played with Mustonen by orchestra members. At times, the orchestra gave the stage to Mustonen, providing a minimal background to intense moments of the solo violin role, at others, engaging in virtuosic interaction together with him or enhancing the violin part with rich tutti textures. In sections where the violin was left to play without orchestra, the effect was of that of a cadenza. The arrangement also evoked the dark, dramatic aspect of the Chaconne’s minor middle section. Kaumann’s intelligent and exhilarating setting made for an excellent concert piece, proving that Bach’s music is flexible and that it can work well with the originality and invention of another daring composer.

An especially interesting section of the concert was devoted to works of Estonian composer Peeter Vähi, who was present at the Tel Aviv event.  Vähi (b.1955) is a composer whose style arises from his academic training, his experience in pop music, in electric sound and processing, also from his deep enquiry into the roots of oriental culture as well as his own spirituality and deep faith. This has resulted in music that is highly personal, at the same time creating connections between epochs and cultures. In recent decades, he has cooperated with musicians from Tibet, India, Japan, Uzbekistan, China, Japan, Siberia and from other parts of Asia. The first of his works played at the Tel Aviv concert, “Forty-Two” for oboe and chamber orchestra (1997), was dedicated to Elvis Presley, Joe Dassin and Vladimir Vysotsky; the Israel Camerata Jerusalem’s principal oboist Muki Zohar played the solo. The tonal, noble piece, one of great delicacy, its pensive, nostalgic oboe melodies set against the slow-stepping orchestral course, was addressed with beauty of sound and sensitiveness by Zohar. In Memorium HM (2005), actually written for early music consort, has a decidedly oriental flavour, with its dark-hued drone and focus on parallel octave melodies (solos: Mustonen and Zohar). Imposing and uncompromising in its stark message, the percussion ostinato added a funereal element to this haunting mood piece.

Following the intermission, the Arsis Handbell Ensemble (Tallinn), conducted by its artistic director Aivar Mäe, performed a number of pieces. Established in 1993 as part of the Arsis Chamber Orchestra, the ensemble consists of professional players using 7+4 octave sets of handbells and a 7-octave set of hand chimes. Opening with Tõnu Kõrvits’ arrangement of “Awake, My Heart”, an Estonian folk song, they proceeded to the delicately cascading sounds of Händel’s Passacaglia, to the perfect tranquillity of the Largo from Händel’s “Xerxes”, to the beguiling gypsy world of Liszt’s music ending with the nimble, virtuosic whirring of thousands of bees’ wings in Rimsky Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee”. The young players of the Arsis Ensemble displayed superb timing and musicality with the virtuosic skill acquired from first-class training and dedication.

The event concluded with Peeter Vähi’s Handbell Symphony (1995), a work for seven-octave handbell ensemble and chamber orchestra. Seemingly unlikely allies, Vähi proves that handbells orchestra can find a modus vivendi when approached with sensitive scoring and balance. Following the intensity and seriousness of the opening movement, with ‘cellos and double basses making for a menacing atmosphere, the second movement presented a bright, hearty and delightfully coloured canvas, with some effects, such as breathy utterances, temporarily taking the listener into an otherworldly mood. The third movement offered a mix of delicate, charming solo bell passages, punctuated by a feisty chord here and there, with the addition of some nice woodwind solos, oriental touches and an unleashed sense of freedom. Peeter Vähi’s symphony, fine festival fare, was a work to be experienced both visually and audially.

The Israel Camerata Jerusalem’s high quality musicianship added much to the evening’s enjoyment and excellence.

Composer Peeter Vähi (photo:Kauopo Kikkas)