Friday, June 23, 2017

Harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani in a recital at the "See the Sounds" series at the Israel Museum

Mahan Esfahani. Photo: Miri Shamir (Moritz Daniel Oppenheim Marriage Portrait of Charlotte von Rothschild
"See the Sounds" is a unique classical festival taking place from May 29th to June 24th  2017 at the Israel Museum. Presenting soloists and ensembles from around the world, the concerts take place in the galleries, with each gallery venue chosen in keeping with the kind of music and each event preceded by a gallery tour to provide the broader context and make connections between visual and audial content. Featuring different genres and styles, from liturgical music to the Classical masters, to 20th century music and jazz, the festival aims to reflect the relevance of Jerusalem as a centre of European- and other culture. Directed by Daniel Kühnel, it is a collaboration between the Israel Museum and the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (Federal Republic of Germany). Iranian-born Mahan Esfahani's harpsichord recital on June 10th in the intimate venue of the Gallery of European Art was his first in Israel. No event could be more fitting to such a festival.

Esfahani opened with a Pavan by Welsh-born Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656). Tomkins spent his creative life composing keyboard music (for both organ and virginals), some of it lost. Much of what survives was written in the last decade of his 84 years, resulting in one of the largest outputs in this style, only comparable in size to that of his teacher William Byrd. In highly ornamented playing of the adventurous, virtuosic text (from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book), Esfahani presented the Pavan's beguiling chromatic agenda, its poetry and its passion, as he created effective contrasts between the different sections. Here was a fine opportunity to experience the fantasy inspiring the keyboard music of the last of the English virginalists.

Remaining in England, Esfahani performed Giles Farnaby’s (1563-1640) “Woody Cock”, one of the composer’s 52 pieces appearing in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. In this  increasingly elaborate set of variations, based on a relatively simple English folk tune, one senses how Esfahani is enticed into exploring the character, mood and numerous ideas of each. Esfahani guided the listener through its six variations, entertaining the listeners with its contrasts, his stylishly smooth, relentless runs, the piece’s noble moments and its overall cumulative excitement - a true tour de force in which his playing never, however, loses sight of the work’s melodic content, shining through all textures.


We then heard Mahan Esfahani in a performance of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach’s Sonata No.6 in E-flat major F5. Introducing the work, Esfahani referred to Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (1710-1784) as a “loser”. Indeed, J.S.Bach’s eldest son’s lifestyle proved disappointing to his family, employers, to town elders and, finally, to himself. Yet, with one foot in the High Baroque and one in the Rococo style, Friedemann Bach has been referred to by some as the most brilliant of the four Bach composer sons and the last great German Baroque organist. Mahan Esfahani reads into Friedemann Bach’s playful, unconventional musical language, relating to each gesture, contrast and mood change, taking spontaneity as the benchmark of the compositional style of the illustrious German improviser, phrasing the work’s unexpected twists and turns with small hesitations and tasteful rubati. Not a performer to stand back and observe harpsichord music with sang-froid and objective chill, Esfahani takes on the vivacity, daring and expressiveness of the sonata with pizzazz and the wink of an eye.


The program concluded with J.S.Bach’s French Overture in B-minor BWV 831 from Part Two of the composer’s Clavier-Übung, published in Leipzig in 1735. Bach’s only complete mature ouverture-suite for solo keyboard, it straddles the genres of the English Suite, the Partita and, indeed the concerto concept, with “tutti” sections marked “forte” and solo passages as “piano” in Bach’s manuscript, thus requiring the use of the two-manual harpsichord. Esfahani opened the mammoth composition of eleven movements with his majestic, richly ornamented rendering of the extensive French Overture with its noble dotted rhythms, spreads, ornate trills, flourishes and the intricacies of its fugal central episode. Moving into the various dance movements, each emerges as a small gem, its character stamped with the artist’s personal taste and ideas, as, here and there, he holds the final chord a little longer to allow the listener to bask in its beauty before proceeding to the next. His playing of the Sarabande is meditative, spontaneous and personal. Then, following the infectious energy of  the dotted skipping, somewhat teasing construction of the Gigue, through whose processes Esfahani leads the listener, he then pulls out all the plugs to present Bach’s whimsical addition - the genial, indeed, exhilarating and joyous Echo movement. If the Clavier-Übung is an encyclopaedic overview of Baroque keyboard composition, Esfahani’s playing of this work certainly supports this.


For his encores, the artist played pieces of Purcell and Rameau.


An artist with flair, virtuosity and a vigorous musical personality, Mahan Esfahani’s performance is full-bodied and vibrant. His is a fine balance of intelligence and emotion. Under his fingers, the harpsichord springs to life with power, expressiveness and excitement. Mahan Esfahani today serves as professor of harpsichord at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London.




Thursday, June 22, 2017

Ensemble PHOENIX, the Upper Galilee Choir, soloists and overseas guests perform Brazilian music on authentic Classical instruments

The PHOENIX Classical Orchestra. Ricardo Rapoport (left),Myrna Herzog (right) Photo:Ami Shamir

A unique event of the 51st Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival (May 30th – June 3rd 2017) was Ensemble PHOENIX' A Brazilian Requiem for a Portuguese Queen”, taking place at the Kriyat Yearim Church on June 3rd.  PHOENIX is known for its performance of Renaissance-, Baroque- and South American music on authentic instruments. This program, researched and conducted by Brazilian-born PHOENIX founder and director Myrna Herzog, offered festival-goers a totally new listening experience, with the ensemble transformed into a full orchestra performing on period instruments from the Classical period. Overseas guest artists soprano Sofia Pedro (Portugal), violinist Lilia Slavny and Brazilians - violinist Luis Otávio Santos (Brazil) and Classical bassoonist and cavaquinho player Ricardo Rapoport - were joined by Israeli soloists: mezzo-soprano Anne Marieke Evers (Holland-Israel), tenor Oshri Segev, baritone Yair Polishook and clarinettist Gili Rinot. Making up the playbill were the PHOENIX Ensemble instrumentalists and the Upper Galilee Choir (director: Ron Zarchi). Myrna Herzog expressed her appreciation to the Portuguese- and Brazilian Embassies for their support in bringing the four overseas artists.

From the opening sounds of José Maurício Nunes Garcia's (1767-1830) orchestral overture, featuring virtuosic playing on the part of clarinettist Gili Rinot, one becomes aware of the downy, smooth textures of the Classical orchestra. It was followed by Damião Barbosa de Araújo’s (1778-1856) “Memento Baiano” (a prayer traditionally recited in the house of a person recently deceased) for choir and orchestra. The composer was Chapel Master in the Cathedral of Bahia, before moving to Rio, where the whole of this program takes place, around 1816. As to the work itself, the choir's careful diction and bracing tutti, colored with much highly expressive presence of the clarinet (Gili Rinot) highlighted its moods, its style indicative of the European influence on Brazilian church- and court music, both genres embraced by de Araújo.

Marcos Portugal (1762-1830) was not only the most prolific Portuguese-born composer ever, but also the most successful, both in Portugal and abroad (he died a Brazilian citizen). For Sofia Pedro's warm and appealing singing of Portugal's "Cuidados, tristes cuidados" (Worries, Sad Worries), featuring all four overseas guest artists, Herzog joined the players to play the 'cello in this tender and unabashedly sentimental modinha (traditional Brazilian love song). We also heard Pedro in "Qual piacere e qual diletto" (What pleasure, What Enjoyment) from Portugal's opera buffa "Oro non compra amore" (Gold Does Not Buy Love). Her luxuriant, easeful and substantial voice reached all corners of the Kiryat Yearim Church, as she eyed her audience, teasing it with the word-painting of the love-struck aria. Gili Rinot's playing of the clarinet obbligato role was suave and richly shaped.

Creating the flavor of Afro-Brazilian traditional dance, a smaller all-Brazilian ensemble of bowed and plucked instruments – Baroque violinist Luis Otávio Santos, accompanied by Ricardo Rapoport on the cavaquinho, with Herzog herself playing the rabeca (north Brazilian fiddle) – played a lundu, a flirtatious couple dance of typical Brazilian propulsive rhythm, its backing typified by alternating tonic-dominant harmonies.

With 2017 the 250th anniversary of the birth of the most important Brazilian colonial composer José Maurício Nunes Garcia, it was Myrna Herzog's aim to introduce his music to the Israeli public, with the Israeli premiering of his "Requiem for the Portuguese Queen Maria I, the Mad" (1816). Of this Afro-Brazilian composer and organist, the grandson of slaves, 240 works survive. When the Portuguese Royal Family took refuge in Brazil in March 1808, clerics who accompanied them tried to remove Garcia from his position because of his race.  However, Padre José Maurício Nunes Garcia was one of the greatest exponents of Classicism in the Americas.  Nunes Garcia's music was strongly influenced by Italian opera from the beginning of the 19th century. His membership in a literary society brought him into contact with a leader of the Brazilian struggle against Portuguese rule, and led him to add Brazilian popular music and folk music to his liturgical compositions. Nunes Garcia put into practice all the techniques and coloristic possibilities of the large orchestra he conducted. He also explored all the virtuosic possibilities of the excellent singers he had at his disposal. This Requiem is considered to be one of his most outstanding works.  The composition, in the key of D minor, shows parallels in several places to Mozart’s Requiem, which Garcia himself directed two years later (1819) for the first time in Brazil. Myrna Herzog's performance of Garcia's Requiem presented its genesis and the rich possibilities of the work. Her large orchestra (although not numbering the 100 players Garcia had in his court orchestra) highlighted the score's vibrant colors. It included natural horns (Alon Reuven, Ruti Varon) still a rarity in Israel; no less rare were the presence of two Classical clarinets (Gili Rinot, Nurit Blum), two Classical bassoons (Ricardo Rapoport, Alexander Fine), Classical flute (Moshe Aron Epstein) and natural timpani (Nadav Ovadia). The result was an orchestral canvas of great richness and subtlety, offering as much interest to the players as to the audience. The Upper Galilee Choir gave a most impressive, finely detailed, well blended and meaningful performance, its choral sound fresh and flexible.  The vocal quartet’s teamwork (Pedro, Evers, Segev, Polishook) produced a sympathetic and sensitive blend. Tenor Oshri Segev's full and mellow timbre and musicality were well suited to the work. Especially imposing was Yair Polishook's performance – his vivid mix of bass timbres, careful pacing and compelling dramatic sense drawing the listener with him into the work’s emotional fabric.  Myrna Herzog's production of Garcia's Requiem was electrifying.  Once again, she has introduced Israeli audiences to repertoire not previously heard in this country and in the most uncompromising and authentic manner.  In this ground-breaking event of great interest and beauty, the audience was swept into the excitement experienced by the artists involved in the performance.

Soprano Sofia Pedro (Photo Ami Shamir)

Monday, June 19, 2017

Harpsichordists Jochewed Schwarz and Emer Buckley's CD of J.S.Bach's Six Trio Sonatas BWV 525-530

Jochewed Schwarz (Sivan Farag), Emma Buckley (Veronique Allio-Vitrac)

                                       Johann Sebastian Bach

                                          “a 2 clav. Et pedal”

Six Trio Sonatas BWV 525-530 for two harpsichords

Emer Buckley & Jochewed Schwarz     CD PLUS (2012)

Among Johann Sebastian Bach’s extant trios of 19 trio sonatas, six are specified by Bach for “two manuals and pedal”, either to distinguish the three voices of the pieces or referring their performance on organ, pedal harpsichord or pedal clavichord.  The latter two instruments were commonly found in the homes of organists, in particular. Bach himself kept a pedal harpsichord at home, enabling him to practice of organ works there. Composed 1727-1731 in Leipzig, Bach’s Trio Sonatas BWV 525-530 served as instruction material in composition and organ-playing for his eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann; having been written for pedagogical purposes does not rule out the fact that these six works constitute one of the zeniths of organ repertoire.  As an organ teacher, it is clear that the older Bach wished to present his son with formidable technical challenges; he placed emphasis on clarity of texture, skill, coordination and complete independence of hands and feet. Johann Sebastian’s rigorous training paid off, for in 1733, Wilhelm Friedemann was offered the prestigious post of organist at the Sophienkirche in Dresden.

Played on the organ, the Trio Sonatas give the two melody voices to two different manuals and the basso continuo to the pedals; in first movements, the pedals mostly supply bass support, whereas in last movements they assume greater melodic involvement. The counterpoint is played mainly by the upper voices. Yet, as organ fare, these works do not especially resemble Bach’s other organ repertoire in pathos, majesty and power, their grace and joy rather sounding like the traditional Baroque trio sonata. These small-scale sonatas offer some of Bach’s most delicate counterpoint; they are Bach’s chief works of this description, bearing the stamp of Italian music, adopting the three-movement form of the Vivaldian concerto. Bach was a keen recycler of his own music; several movements of the Trio Sonatas are re-workings of other works or would serve as later works, and he would surely have been quite happy about the many arrangements these trio sonatas have undergone, from the 18th century to today, including some by Mozart for string trio.

Born in Dublin, Ireland, Emer Buckley studied at University College, Dublin, continuing her studies in France and Italy. She moved to Paris to perform as a soloist and continuo player; she teaches harpsichord and continuo at the Conservatoire de Rayonnement Régional de Lille, France. Born in Tel Aviv, Israel, Jochewed Schwarz studied at the Rubin Academy of Music (Tel Aviv), the Schola Cantorum (Basel) and in Paris, then returning to Israel, where she performs, directs and produces concerts. Buckley and Schwarz met at the von Nagel harpsichord workshop in Paris. They enjoy every opportunity to perform together.

So what are the advantages of playing these works on two harpsichords? (E. Power Biggs recorded them on pedal harpsichord in the late 1960s.) With no play of organ registrations, other elements come to the fore. One prominent quality is tonal freshness; fast passagework can sound blurred in the acoustic of organ venues.  Enhanced by Buckley and Schwarz’s spirited, crystal-clean execution and internal rhythmic precision, one has a sense that the artists’ aim is to present Bach’s text as it is. Clean fingerwork and textural transparency are paramount in outstanding teamwork that presents playing that is vivid, shaped and robust.

With rhythmic flexing and ornamentation used sparingly, Buckley and Schwarz’s playing is intelligent and objective, staying well clear of subjectivity and sentimentality. This line of reasoning (and natural temperament) could lead to tempi falling just short of natural energy. Some listeners may hanker after breakneck speeds and showier playing of outer movements. This is not Schwarz and Buckley’s style. Clarity and transparency are never sacrificed for flamboyance.  Take, for example, the first movement of Sonata no.1 in E flat major, BWV 525. Bach gives no tempo indication here; some performers take it at a very fast pace. Buckley and Schwarz do not lose their heads; their playing of it is fresh and vital, energetic and well defined.  In the second movement of Trio Sonata no.5 in C major – Largo – the artists, however, strike a fine balance between the movement’s introspection, its harmonic and melodic course and its sheer beauty. They lean into key notes and dissonances, their playing inviting the listener’s ear to follow them through Bach’s fascinating text.

Harpsichords used for the recording were built by Reinhard von Nagel. Emer Buckley played on a harpsichord after an antique signed N. & François Blanchet, Paris, 1730 and Jochewed Schwarz played on an instrument after an antique by Michael Mietke, Berlin, c.1710. The disc, produced by Jochewed Schwarz, was recorded at the von Nagel workshop (Paris) in 2012, the result being that the sound is true, lively, intimate and unhampered. The liner notes are informative without being effusive.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Maestro Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra host Russian pianist Denis Matsuev in a program of Haydn and Mozart

Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (photo:Marvin Hamlisch)
With Maestro Zubin Mehta retiring from his position in October 2019 as music director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, the orchestra with which he has been involved for half a century, being present a concerts in which he directs the orchestra is be enjoyed at any opportunity. Such was the case when this writer attended a subscription concert of the IPO’s 81st season in the Charles Bronfman Auditorium, Tel Aviv, on May 27th 2017. Soloists were Russian pianist Denis Matsuev, violinist and IPO concertmaster David Radzynski, the IPO’s principal ‘cellist Emanuele Silvestri, IPO principal oboist Dudu Carmel and the IPO’s principal bassoonist Daniel Mazaki.

The program opened with Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No.88 in G-major, a work with a strange history: Johann Peter Tost, a violinist in Haydn’s orchestra, took the scores of this and another symphony along with six string quartets to Paris in 1788, selling them (and a symphony of a second-rate composer, claiming it to be by Haydn) to a Parisian publisher by the name of Sieber. Haydn was indeed tricked, but the truth is that Haydn’s own musical skullduggery in Symphony No.88 constitutes trickery of a brilliant and good-natured kind, with such effects as an offbeat motive shifting to the downbeat, a melodic line disappearing into the texture to resurface unexpectedly and an accompanying idea that becomes a theme...and who would have expected trumpets and timpani to make their first appearance in the mostly sedate Largo movement?  As to Haydn’s Menuetto, its Trio, complete with drone, is unabashedly rustic. Mehta’s reading of the work breathes the Classical idiom of eloquence and balance, contrast and shape, as he  presents the richly varied agenda of the concluding rondo - Allegro con spirito -  its fabric a mix of folkish character, counterpoint and complex canon - with Haydnesque good cheer, good taste and clarity.
We then heard W.A.Mozart’s Concerto No.17 in G-major for piano and orchestra K.453 with guest artist pianist Denis Matsuev. As Mozart’s piano concertos were progressively finding more favour with the Viennese public, the composer wrote to his father that they “were written in such a way that the less learned cannot fail to be pleased, though without knowing why” - no great compliment to the listening public! Concerto No.17 in G-major has a number of different aspects to attract the listener’s awareness: Composed in 1784, it was one of the rare concertos not written for Mozart to perform. It was premiered the same year by his 19-year-old student Barbara Ployer. Matsuev’s performance was positive and full-bodied, highlighting Mozart’s melodic extravagance with brightness of tone and a rich play of textures, his rippling passagework and rhythmic zest imbued with both a sense of spontaneity and superb control. Arriving at the first movement cadenza, the artist opened with a touch of reticence, then to captivate the listener with the rich potpourri of Mozart’s musical ideas. In the Andante, summed up by Leonard Bernstein as “Mozart at the peak of his lyrical powers, combining serenity, melancholy and tragic intensity”, Matsuev takes time to pace its events, to shape the trills and articulate its many voices, to offer a personal, contemplative dimension to the cadenza. As to the last movement, a set of Rococo variations, the artist entertained the audience with the combination of drama and complexity performed with grace, wit and playfulness, its minor variation striking a serious note. Despite the concerto’s modest instrumentation, even in terms of the 18th century orchestra (it includes neither trumpets, drums nor clarinets) the IPO’s woodwind solos and horns gave poignant expression to the work’s beauty of orchestration.
Following the concerto, Denis Matsuev returned to the stage to perform two encores, the first a lively, elegant and touching performance of Sibelius’ Piece for Piano No.2, op.76. Playing the third movement of Prokofiev’s Sonata No.7 (one of the composer’s War Sonatas) Matsuev had listeners perched on the edge of their chairs as he tossed off its demanding agenda - a demonic, intense and darkly chordal toccata - with pizzazz!
nvited to London in 1790, Haydn arrived there in 1791 and was immediately asked to compose a sinfonia concertante by the London impresario Johann Peter Saloman. Haydn chose to feature a solo group of oboe, bassoon, violin, and cello for the simple reason that this unusual grouping would highlight the strongest players in Saloman’s ensemble. Written within two weeks, the Sinfonia Concertante in B-flat major op.84 was an instant success, with the Morning Herald critic praising it as being “profound, airy, affecting and original”. A work in which all four roles bristle with virtuoso music, here was a splendid opportunity to hear the four IPO players in elegant, collegial  dialogue. In the fast outer movements, the solo quartet emerges, then to recede into the orchestral weave (the cadenza at the conclusion of the opening movement features all four), with the slow, more quiescent, pastel-coloured F-major movement giving the stage to the quartet more prominently. What a treat it was to follow both visually and audially as  Radzynski, Silvestri, Carmel and Masaki engaged in the work’s give and take, playing alone or entwined in the conversation of Haydn’s sophisticated contrapuntal discourse. Energetic and inventive, it was hard to imagine the Sinfonia Concertante, his only work in this Baroque-influenced genre, as written by the older Haydn. Once again, Zubin Mehta and the IPO’s Haydn was fresh, suave and vital.