Saturday, July 29, 2017

Violinist Fabrizio Longo (Italy) and Opera Qvinta in a recent recording of works by Giovanni Antonio Pandolfi Mealli

Fabrizio Longo (photo: Alessandro Ruggeri)
A new disc recorded by Opera Qvinto, led and directed by violinist and musicologist Fabrizio Longo, has brought to light more of the restricted surviving oeuvre of Giovanni Antonio Pandolfi Mealli, namely the “Sonate, Roma 1669”. The little that is known of the enigmatic violinist and composer, who was born in Tuscany in 1624 and died either in Madrid or Rome in 1687, is that he received his training in the chapel of San Marco, Venice, then from 1660 to 1669 serving as one of the chamber virtuosos at the court of Anna de’ Medici in Innsbruck. His surviving opuses 3 and 4 date from 1660, their brilliant writing finding its notable place at the beginning of the first great and influential Italian and Austrian schools of violin-playing. Some recordings of these two opuses exist. The 1669 Trio Sonatas, (Sonate Cio Balletti), bearing no opus number however, have received less attention. In 1978, Willi Apel was perhaps the first to note that these sonatas had remained almost completely unnoticed by modern scholars and performers. In his liner notes, Fabrizio Longo, an authoritative scholar of Pandolfi Mealli and his music, we learn of the dramatic events of the composer’s life: that he was later employed in the Cathedral Chapel of Messina (Sicily). It was there in the Duomo that the composer-priest murdered the Roman castrato Giovanni Marquett, consequently fleeing to France, and finally settling in Spain, where he was employed in the court of the Spanish Habsburgs. All of Pandolfi Mealli’s surviving works are preserved in the Civic Museum of Bologna.

The 1669  Sonatas were published in Rome by Amadeo Belmonte. The title page defines them as “Sonate cioé Balletti, Sarabande, Correnti, Passacagli, Capriccetti, e una Trombetta, a uno, e dui Violini, con la terza parte della Viola a Beneplacito”. they are generally associated with Messina, as the title page lists Pandolfi Mealli as a violinist in that city and also due to the fact that the sonatas are dedicated to eighteen musicians (as was his practice in opuses 3 and 4) who were known to have been employed at the Messina Cathedral. Longo mentions an anonymous and decidedly witty pasquinade (satire written and posted in a public place) appearing in Messina in 1666 that alludes to the persons inspiring each of the pieces, most of which are in the form of suites.

Take, for example, “Il Cara Capriccetto Quinto”. In Longo’s liner notes, we learn that this work refers to Placido Cara, to whom it was suggested that he abandon orchestra direction and return to his own playing. The small, well balanced suite opens with a noble processional, the imposing presence of the bass drum adding to its grandeur. The following Corrente, its dotted agenda rich in echoes and asides, is not taken at breakneck pace. Tambourine jingles add to its skipping, dance-like charm. The work concludes with a Sarabanda, its smooth, serious course devoid of percussion, offering the listener a deeper glimpse into its subtle timbral variety. The advice offered to singer Pietro Maurizio, the artist inspiring ”Il Maruritio, Capricett à violino solo”, was that, despite being complimented on his voice, he should avoid forays into its higher registers, lest his fate be that of Icarus! Here, we hear Fabrizio Longo soloing in the four miniature movements, his playing personal, flexed and spontaneous. Each movement emerges as a separate vignette, from the thoughtful playing of the Largo, to the Presto variations, to the semplice melody from which the Allegro unfolds, to the notes inégales infusing energy into the final movement.A curious connection to the composer’s own life events is the exquisite suite titled “Il Marquetto”, the work associated with the counter tenor whose life Pandolfi Mealli would take, its solemn, downhearted opening Adagio to a ground accompanied by the funereal sounds of the bass drum, followed by a plaintive, cantabile Arietta most sensitively played and ornamented. Impatient to make its entrance, the ensuing Brando (Italian version of the bransle), festooned with percussion, speaks of energy and ebullience.

A painful episode of Sicily’s history, the conflicts arising from Spanish presence, present in much art of the time, is referred to in “La Spata Fora”, a work dedicated to Prince Spatafora but also possibly to a trumpeter in the chapel by the name of Spatafora. Here, straightforward functional harmonies give rise to plangent melodies, contrasted by intense drum utterances and a sense of urgency, calling to mind the source of the suite.  Another point of interest in the disc is the instrumentation chosen by Longo. In addition to strings, theorbo, harpsichord and drum, he makes a point of engaging the traditional instrumental variety of Messina of the 1660s, for example, in the two “La Domenga” Sarabands: in the first, there is substantial use of the Jew’s harp, common in Sicilian folk music and referred to there as the "marranzanu"; in the second, the triple flute is played in its characteristic folk style.

Recorded on period instruments for the TACTUS label (2017), these mid-Baroque works, although influenced by the “stylus fantasticus”, are presented in balanced, suave, sensitive and articulate playing, its virtuosity employed as a means of expression.  Each small gem is delivered within its own context. Fabrizio Longo’s liner notes provide much valuable information on Pandolfi Mealli and his extraordinary music.


Sunday, July 23, 2017

The NFM Choir (Poland) performs a concert of Polish a-cappella liturgical and secular music in Jerusalem

Photo: Maxim Reider
On July 13th 2017, the National Forum of Music Choir (Wrocław, Poland) artistic director Agnieszka Frankow-Żelazny, the visiting choir of the Choral Fantasy Festival, performed a concert of Polish music at St. Andrews Scots Memorial Church, Jerusalem. The 20 singers were conducted by their artistic director Agnieszka Frankow-Żelazny.
The first part of the program featured sacred Polish music by composers born in- or writing in the 20th century. Texts were sung in Latin, Polish , with one work in Russian. The choir brought out the synthesis of early traditional influences and modern compositional styles apparent in this new surge of liturgical music, with its predilection for sonority - tone color. A bold example of this was Andrzej Koszewski’s (1922-2015) setting of the “Miserere”, in which the work’s development follows that of the text, opening with low, dark clusters which then brighten, soaring into vibrant intensity. “Beatus vir” of Miłosz  Bembinow (b.1978) opens with the choir’s splendid timbral blend of autumnal harmonies, concluding with a pure octave. Bembinow’s use of  the Polish text, with its distinctive consonant combinations,forms an integral element of the work’s soundscape. In Michal Zieliński’s (b.1965) modal-based “Laudate Dominum” for soprano and choir (2002), words are used as somewhat percussive rhythmic devices. Another highlight was  Marcin Tadeusz Łukaszewski’s  (b.1972) “De Profundis” (Psalm 130), its spine-chilling dark agenda and vehement moments, wrought in huge dynamic contrasts, wonderfully evoked by choir and soloist. The section of liturgical music concluded with Krzysztof Penderecki’s (b.1933) “O gloriosa Virginum” (2009), its style of passing dissonances within an otherwise diatonic/modal framework not atypical of  music of the past 20 years or so. Its antiphonal style ended with an imposing dramatic tutti declamation.
Following the intermission, the atmosphere in the hall changed from sacred to profane, as the male singers filed in singing a drone in a style that just might have been overtone singing. The song was Jacek Sykulski’s (1964) “Ice on the Prosna River”. Sykulski is a composer who constantly experiments with innovative and creative forms of expression, setting new trends in choral singing in Poland and internationally. The work has a distinctively folk-like sound, both in the singers’ vocal production and its early modal melodies, the latter supported by newer harmonies. The ensuing pieces, rich in nature descriptions, painted whimsical, playful, sometimes sad, sometimes unabashedly rough pictures of country people, of carefree leisure pastimes bristling with flirtation. Each, a small, lightweight theatrical piece, was polished and effectively performed, making for fine entertainment.

 Ms. Agnieszka Frankow-Żelazny’s direction brings together beauty of sound and precision in performance that is stylish and interesting. Her singers are all soloists, but they understand the art of vocal balance and blending. The NFM Choir’s program of Polish music, repertoire not known here, was inspiring.

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Haifa Studio Theatre premieres Aviram Freiberg's two chamber operas based on stories of S.Y Agnon

Ayelet Cohen,Alexamder Yagudin (photo:Sabrina da Rita)

The Studio Theatre (Haifa) has just premiered two chamber operas based on short stories of S.Y.Agnon - “The Lady and the Peddler” and “Splendour”. Aviram Freiberg adapted the texts and wrote the music for both. Jonathan Szwarc was stage director, with Tavor Gochman serving as musical director and pianist. Singers taking part were soprano Ayelet Cohen, tenor Alexander Yagudin and alto Liat Rockberger. This writer attended the performance on July 18th 2017 at the Jerusalem Khan Theatre.

“The Lady and the Peddler” (1966) tells of a Christian woman (Helena) who lives in isolation in the woods. A Jewish peddler (Joseph) stumbles upon her house, is ensnared by her charms, moves in and has carnal relations with her, only to discover that she has devoured her previous mates. Gradually, Joseph realizes that Helena intends to kill him, eat his flesh and drink his blood, as she hints she has done to her previous "husbands". She tries to kill him but fails, then killing herself. The story ends with Joseph leaving her house, with Helena’s frozen body left on the roof to be devoured by her own birds of prey. This horror story is laden with symbolism on all levels. In his interpretation, Freiberg focuses the relationship between the person dominating and the one who is dominated, attacker and attacked, the host and the parasite, the woman and the man. For the role of Joseph, he chooses to have him sung by a tenor singing in his low (and inconvenient) register to convey the uncomfortable (indeed threatening) situation in which Joseph finds himself. An interesting development is that Helena loses interest in killing and eating Joseph, while he is unaware of this change. In order to create integration of text and music, Freiberg chooses to use leitmotivs to suggest people, objects and ideas. The stage set consists of a table, serving as a house, a bed, roof etc., and a large length of red cloth whose final use is that of a shroud. Freiberg’s engaging but uncluttered musical score of clean, intelligible melodic lines invites the audience to follow the plot and its two characters with ease. Ayelet Cohen’s technical assurance, her creamy voice, easeful and richly colored in all registers, coupled well with her convincing enquiry into the role, her body- and facial language. Tenor Alexander (Sasha) Yagudin’s warm vocal timbre, musicality and comfortable stage presence gave credence to his portrayal of Joseph. Tavor Gochman’s musical direction and keyboard playing (in both operas) were vital, sensitive and strategic in timing.

Agnon wrote “Tehilla” in the 1950s. The story  is centred on a righteous old woman whom the narrator meets in Jerusalem’s Old City in the 1920s during the British mandate period. Tehilla herself personifies kindness and good deeds but has suffered tragedy in her life, which becomes apparent as the story unfolds. The narrator who is also a writer becomes involved in her story about sin, suffering, repentance and forgiveness. In the program notes, both Aviram Freiberg and Jonathan Szwarc relate to the characters and how they wish to portray them, hence Freiberg’s choice of a soprano (Ayelet Cohen) for the role of Tehilla and a contralto (Liat Rockberger) for the rabbi’s wife. Alexander Yagudin was the narrator. With the story deeply entrenched in Jewish tradition and thought, Freiberg’s score, guided by Agnon’s musically oriented language, included many associations of Jewish music. He also chose to use speech in different forms as a means of highlighting meaningful moments of the story’s development. The bleak stage set gave spine-chilling focus to the three personalities and what qualities each represented as did moments when the music played on and the characters were silent. On this shadowy, eerie background, singers and pianist convincingly unearthed the story’s horrifying family secrets and their results, nevertheless bringing Agnon’s story to its more positive outcome of forgiveness.


Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, the NFM Choir (Poland) and soloists perform Handel's "Messiah" in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv

Photo: Maxim Reider
The 2017 Vocal Fantasy, hosted by the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, followed the vision of the late Shimon Bigelman, who founded the festival in 2012. The six concerts, a celebration of choirs and voices taking place from July 12th to15th 2017 and with the endorsement of the Jerusalem Development Authority, was dedicated to Shimon Bigelman’s memory.

The event opening the festival (Jerusalem July 12th and closing it in Tel Aviv July 15th) was Georg Frideric Händel’s “Messiah”. Handel wrote the original version of “Messiah” in three to four weeks. Premiered in Dublin to an audience of 700 people on April 13th 1742, women were requested to wear dresses without hoops and men to leave swords at home in order to “make room for more company”. Conducting the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, the NFM Choir (Wrocław, Poland; artistic director Agnieszka Frankow-Żelazny) and soloists was JBO founder and musical director Maestro David Shemer. The festival’s visiting choir from Poland, singing in clear, British English, offered a careful blend of rich, well-anchored voices, coloring and contrasted gestures, highlighting key words, responding to orchestral textures and giving pleasing articulacy to the complexities of fugal sections as it propelled the work forward with impact and its uplifting messages.  Characterizing tenor Eitan Drori’s performance were his acute awareness of each shade of meaning, his timing and word-painting, as he found new expression for each turn of the text and its emotions. His is a large, lustrous tenor voice, maneuvered however with tenderness in the opening “Comfort ye”, then with hurtling fire to “laugh them to scorn” or “dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel”. Bristling with presence and descriptiveness, authority and contrast, bass-baritone Assaf Levitin presented his arias in definite colours, lending a keen sense of contrast to such passages as “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light” and triumph and joyousness in “The trumpet shall sound”, in which he was joined by Yuval Shapira’s fine handling of the natural trumpet. Soprano Hadas Faran Asia gave convincing balance to the solo soprano’s richly varied role of recounting the story and of emotional response to it - joyous and lyrical responses and the sense of awe of Händel’s own faith, as in her gently ornamented and dynamically varied singing of “I know that my Redeemer liveth”. Zlata Hershberg, her lower register occasionally obscured by the orchestra, wove peace and melodiousness into idyllic texts, whipping up the drama and tension as she sang of Jesus who “hid not His face from shame and spitting” in “He was despised”.

There was much buoyant- and beautifully shaped playing on the part of the instrumentalists and plenty of close communication between them and choir and soloists. With its drones, the sweetly bucolic and dreamy "Pastoral Symphony" (entitled Pifa) set the scene for the shepherds’ arrival in the fields. First violinist Noam Schuss delighted audiences with her ever well-spoken, lucid- and unmannered obligato playing.

And to the pinnacle of Händel’s “Messiah”, the Hallelujah Chorus, (for which audiences in some locations still rise to their feet in honour of this musical credo). On completing his writing of the piece which would take its place in history as the "Hallelujah Chorus", the composer, with tears streaming down his face cried out to his servant "I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself." The festival audiences in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv remained seated for the Hallelujah Chorus, but they certainly rose to their feet, shouted and whistled in appreciation at the conclusion of the majestic and exciting performance. The fact remains that this epic masterpiece is as fresh and inspiring as ever, still awing listeners 250 years after the composer’s death.


Wednesday, July 12, 2017

"The Symphonic Piano" - Ron Trachtman, Dror Semmel and Michael Zertsekel perform works on one, two and three pianos

M. Zertsekel,R.Trachtman,D. Semmel (Shmuel Semmel)
Referring to a recent concert of the Eden-Tamir Music Center (Ein Kerem, Jerusalem) as “The Symphonic Piano” was no play on words. The recital took place on July 8th 2017 in the magical setting of the Music Center. No new faces to the series, pianists Michael Zertsekel, Dror Semmel and Ron Trachtman performed works on one, two and three pianos. Introducing the program, Eden-Tamir musical director Alexander Tamir spoke of piano music for four and more hands as being one of the most popular genres of the 19th century. From the days before the wax cylinder, and in lieu of attending concerts, arrangements of orchestral music were often played by competent home pianists of the rising middle classes. Composers and music publishers quickly capitalized on this situation. Brahms, a fairly astute businessman, made sure to arrange all his symphonies for four hands, publishing the arrangements before the orchestral premieres, resulting in the fact that some of his audience would have been well familiar with the works by the time they attended the public concert.

The program opened with Ron Trachtman and Dror Semmel performing the two-piano setting of Brahms’ Symphony No.3. Certainly challenging to the artists, hearing the work on pianos challenges the listener no less - here is the most “Brahmsian” symphony -  the least under the cloud of Beethoven and the most concentrated in texture - but without his palette of orchestral timbres. Yet the piano setting proved to be no “ poor relation” of the orchestral score. In playing that was crisp, transparent and articulate, Trachtman and Semmel invited the audience to listen perhaps more actively than it might at a symphony concert to the character of each gesture, to mood and intensity. Intimate moments and large, intense tutti were all present as the two pianists gave subtle shaping to each utterance. Their long, surging Romantic melodic lines (as in the 3rd movement) drew the listener in via the senses, with Brahms’ characteristic longing and searching emerging in the performance. And for the intellect, the artists presented the composer’s brilliant contrapuntal technique, a technique not far removed from that of Bach. It was a mammoth undertaking and certainly most satisfying.

Paul Pabst (1854-1897) was a child prodigy, first performing in public at age 11. He studied with Rubinstein and Liszt, and by 1878 the Prussian pianist was appointed to the staff at the Moscow Conservatory, where he taught many famous pianists, including Rachmaninoff. He was a renowned pianist himself and his transcriptions were highly regarded. Michael Zertsekel performed Pabst’s Concert Paraphrase on themes from Tchaikovsky’s opera “Eugene Onegin” op.81. (Pabst and Tchaikovsky actually knew each other. Tchaikovsky greatly admired Pabst, referring to him as  "a pianist of divine elegance" and "a pianist from God".) A concert piece sometimes referred to negatively by critics and often performed as a cheap show of muscular virtuosity, Zertsekel shows us that the end result of opus 81 indeed depends on whose hands the paraphrase comes under! In its assemblage of well-loved melodies, Zertsekel shapes the piece with delicacy, artistry and freshness, presenting its changing moods, its hearty- and its nostalgic moments. Yes, it may be a compendium of piano techniques there to be performed by the virtuoso player, but Zertsekel chooses to take the listener into its richly colored-musical canvas. Treating us to some delightful scintillating fingerwork, his well-delineated playing gave expression to the many-layered texture of the work, as in the superb counterpoint of Lensky’s aria played in the left hand, with fragments of the waltz  floating dreamily above it in the right hand.  

Michael Zertsekel and Ron Trachtman then performed J.S.Bach’s Concerto for two Harpsichords in C-major BWV 1061 on two pianos. A work frequently heard with orchestral accompaniment (the latter not written by Bach), a mostly light and transparent addition, the autograph, in Bach’s hand, presents only the roles of the two keyboards. Zertsekel and Trachtman address the work’s fine detail as they engage in its dialogue, highlighting Bach’s multi-layered textures. Some brisk ornamenting gave expression to the concerto’s Baroque mindset, the artists’ bold playing of the fugue (3rd movement) following their pleasing, intimate reading of the  slow (2nd) movement. Bach invented the harpsichord concerto mostly for concerts at the local coffee house, Zimmermann’s. Zimmermann’s had two rooms, the largest, about 26’ x 32’, the size of a very ample living room. This is where the harpsichord concertos of Bach were premiered. The size, resonance and ambience of the Eden-Tamir Music Center’s hall seemed well suited to the work’s genesis.

The concert concluded with Michael Zertsekel’s arrangement for three pianos of the opening  movement (Molto Allegro) of Mozart’s Symphony No.40 in G-minor, K.550. Composed in 1788,  with the composer plagued by a constant lack of money and when Viennese audiences were only interested in light music for entertainment, having little love for Mozart’s challenging music, it was, nevertheless, an extremely productive period for the composer. In light of these circumstances, the Molto Allegro makes much of plaintive sighs, though gentle graceful melodies also appear and even occasional bursts of jubilation.  Charles Rosen (“The Classical Style”) has called the symphony "a work of passion, violence, and grief."  Zertsekel takes into account Mozart’s scoring - flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, strings but no trumpets and no timpani, hence the splendidly opulent and velvety tutti, with Mozart’s melodies and gestures shining through the texture together with his charm and Sturm und Drang references.

Here was another of Michael Zertsekel, Dror Semmel and Ron Trachtman’s programs offering interest and performance unique and uncompromising in quality.   


Saturday, July 8, 2017

The Atar Trio bows out of the 2016-2017 concert season with works of three women composers and the suite from Bernstein's "West Side Story"

Photo: Yaniv Druker

“From Kafka to Clara” was the title given to the Atar Trio’s last concert for the 2016-2017 season. The concert, on July 5th 2017  in the Ran Baron Auditorium of the Israel Conservatory, Tel Aviv, was also the Israel Women Composers Forum’s concluding event of the current season. Members of the Atar Trio are pianist and director Ofer Shelley, violinist Tanya Beltser and ‘cellist Kristina Reiko Cooper.
The evening opened with “Gregor’s Dream” by American composer Judith Shatin (b.1949), a work for amplified piano trio and electronics commissioned by the Atar Trio and premiered by it in a program titled “Dream within a Dream” in 2016. This is not the Atar Trio’s first collaboration with Shatin, who serves as professor at the University of Virginia and who founded the Virginia Center for Computer Music. “Gregor’s Dream” takes its inspiration from Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”, in which Gregor Samsa has a frightening dream, then to wake up to find he has turned into a horrible bug. In preparation of the magnetic tape, Shatin requested recordings of beetles from three bioacousticians (biologists researching animal sounds). Talking about the work, the composer writes “The mood of the anxious dream, and the ominous world into which Gregor wakes, suffused my musical imaginings. While there is some longing, it is mainly the fear of the ‘other,’ that permeates the story, or at least my reading of it. This poignant story is an important reminder that the ‘other’ is part of our own family.”  A demanding work, the players’ text constitutes a tense and terse, sometimes fragmentary, dialogue with the tape, the electronic effects ranging from ominous dark sounds, to what might sound like the squawking of large birds, to squeaking sounds, to high whizzing electronic auditory sensations. In well-measured cooperation with the tape and with each other, the Atar players joined with competent playing bristling with effects, including  strumming of the piano strings, in this work presenting players and tape as equal forces. Interestingly, at the work’s outset, and later at its conclusion, there was, woven into its dissonant agenda, a kind of solid anchor - a sense of tonic. Judith Shatin’s work is intense, uncompromising and powerful, its subject not for the faint-hearted!

Clara Schumann’s Romances for violin and piano op.22 were composed in 1853; this was a productive year of writing for the greatest woman musician of the time. She dedicated the op.22 Romances to the renowned violinist Joseph Joachim; the two artists took the pieces on tour. Joachim later performed them for King George V of Hanover. The romance was one of Clara’s favourite character genres, those of the opus 22, however, being among the last pieces she wrote. Kristina Reiko Cooper provided the audience with some interesting background information on Clara Schumann, the great virtuoso pianist, composer and editor, who had performed with the likes of Paganini and Mendelssohn and who was idolized by Goethe. Cooper also mentioned the fact that, in Clara’s day, a great virtuoso was required to perform his/her own works. Beltser and Shelley’s performance of the tri-partate pieces was personal and beautifully shaped, as they allowed the spontaneous character of the music itself to dictate pace. Beltser’s signature sound - her warm timbre and generous expressivity - is well suited to the plaintive Romantic lyricism of the works. With much dialogue between Beltser and Shelley, I felt that Shelley, at times standing back a little too much to give the violinist the stage, might have filled the soundscape more boldly, considering the fact that Schumann’s pianistic writing is no less luxuriant, intricate or idiomatic than that of the violin. A welcome addition to the program might have been a solo played by the Atar Trio’s newest member - renowned ‘cellist Ms. Reiko Cooper.

The Tel Aviv concert included the Atar Trio most recent commission - Jerusalem-born composer Dikla Baniel’s “If Forget Thee, O Jerusalem” (January, 2017), a work for piano trio and smartphones. It was premiered in the USA and has been performed to very different audiences. The composer, present at the concert, spoke of the “Binding of Isaac” as lying behind the work, of the three monotheistic religions addressed in it, of the constant conflict in the city and of the fact that Jerusalem is a city that brings out emotions in people. The work refers to holiness, sacrifice and religious fundamentalism. Where do smartphones come into the performance? Audience members were asked to open the Jerusalem-Atar YouTube app.and to each choose and play one of three recordings on it. With that, we were instantly transported to hustle and bustle of Jerusalem’s Old City, with a collage of crowd noise and prayers of all three monotheistic religions filling the hall - at times mingling, at times surfacing singly, at times silent. As to the sections of the instrumental score - intense and individual, as is Jerusalem - they are infused with clear musical associations of each of the three religions and also with the concept of violence, destruction and bloodshed. Between each instrumental section, the players are silent as the sounds heard in the Old City’s alleys serve to sweep away one association in readiness for the next. With the recordings silenced, the work ends on an eerie, thoughtful note. Dikla Baniel’s writing is intelligent, original and stirring. No easy work to perform, it makes for fascinating listening. The audience was deeply moved.

Ofer Shelley engages in much arranging for the Atar Trio. The concluding work of this concert was his new arrangement of Raimundo Penaforte’s Suite from Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story”, in which Shelley has expanded the violin-and-piano version into a five-movement work for piano trio. The Romeo-and-Juliet story (Tony and Maria) set in the urban underworld of New York, its brilliant blend of instrumental- and vocal music, dance, theatre and art  come together in Bernstein’s feverish, hypnotic score. What better vehicle could there be for a new arrangement than this rich canvas of sublime melodies, jazzy rhythms, calculated dissonances and raw emotion! In brilliant, colorful and polished performance, the Atar Trio players gave expression to the many aspects of this milestone work, especially to its tunes - the coquettish “I feel pretty”, “There’s a place for us” tugging at the heart strings, the pizzazz of “America” and the nostalgia of “Tonight”. Here was fresh, collaborative playing (also fine solos by all) bristling with jaunty banter, individual expression, energy and rhythmic dash, conjuring up New York with its city traffic sounds, bells, intensity and urgency, together with the human, touching aspects of “West Side Story”. Bernstein wrote:”This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” Ofer Shelley’s arrangement is splendidly crafted. As to the potential of the piano trio, I couldn’t agree less with Menahem Pressler who whimsically referred to the trio constellation as “a poor man’s orchestra”.


Thursday, July 6, 2017

Verdi's "Otello" direct from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Jonas Kaufmann,Maria Agresta (photo:Alastair Muir)
On June 28th 2017, Giuseppe Verdi’s “Otello” was shown in 1001 cinemas worldwide as the last  of the LIVE Cinema series of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London for the current season. This writer attended the screening at Cinema City, Jerusalem.

It was composer and librettist Arrigo Boito who approached the already-retired Verdi with an offer Verdi could not refuse - to compose an opera inspired by Shakespeare’s tragedy “Othello”. 280 years after Shakespeare’s “Othello”, Verdi’s “Otello”, his penultimate opera and final tragedy, had its successful premiering at the Teatro alla Scala, Milan, in 1887. The masterpiece has since remained an opera house staple. The Royal Opera House’s first performance of it in 30 years, this performance was conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano (UK), who has served as the Royal Opera House’s music director since 2002; it was directed by Keith Warner. In the role of Otello was German spinto tenor Jonas Kaufmann, Italian soprano Maria Agresta played Desdemona, Iago was portrayed by Italian baritone Marco Vratogna, with Emilia, Iago’s wife, by  Estonian mezzo-soprano Kai Rüütel, Montano - Simon Shibambu, Cassio - Frédéric Antoun, Roderigo - Thomas Atkins, herald - Thomas  Barnard, Ludovico - In Sung Sim.

For opera aficionados, Jonas Kaufmann’s debut in the title role was a definite drawcard. Avoiding the traditional Otello black make-up, Kaufmann nevertheless comes across as an outsider, initially glamorous, handsome and shy, as he then descends into the troubled loneliness and obsessions of his fracturing soul.  An effective touch was his looking into a mirror, one of the few props on stage, where he sees his own inner devil. The 48-year-old Kaufmann’s voice, which has been described as “baritonal”, is even in all registers, natural, richly coloured and lustrous, with a ready and sensitive use of dynamic expressivity. An intensely human Otello, Kaufmann will surely probe- and amalgamate more deeply with the role of a man undergoing emotional decay with each performance, to take the role to a higher degree of emotional pain and fury.

Maria Agresta made for a reliable and poised Desdemona, her face and body language leaving the cherubic look of a young woman in love to become a portent of what was in store. Despite occasional moments of detachment, her distinct, creamy and uncluttered soprano voice, young and fresh, were appealing, giving credence to the Desdemona role.

Marco Vratogna (a late substitute for Ludovic Tézier) revels in the cynicism and ill-will of the Iago role, authoritative and malicious  as he sets things in motion from the storm that opens the opera, singing his Credo to the  underworld  spectres there somewhere beneath the stage and becoming increasingly more malevolent as the action progresses. The audience loves a devil and Vratogna pulled out all the plugs to satisfy its wishes. After all, Verdi, at the peak of his dramatic power,  had considered titling the opera “Iago”.

Incisive and vital, Antonio Pappano’s conducting swept players and listeners into the spirit of the opera. Keith Warner’s understated staging - basically a black box, but one that cracks asunder to reflect the progressive decadence of the main characters -  with its attractive, delicate latticed panels designed by Boris Kudlicka, minimal as it is, comes across, in my opinion, as most effective, never distracting the audience’s  focus on the characters. Shades of other dark colours, greys,  midnight blue etc., take the tragedy through the course of events, with pastel colours and well-lit scenes reserved for those involving Desdemona. In the second half, graffitied walls serve to emphasize the deteriorating state of Otello’s mind - an interesting touch. Especially commendable was the beautifully-crafted, subtle and precise singing of the chorus (86 professional singers) under the direction of William Spaulding.

LIVE Cinema productions of the Royal Opera House offer an extra bonus to cinema goers - the chance to meet directors and singers, to take a glimpse behind the scenes and down into the orchestra pit, to learn more about the opera and what goes into producing it. Viewers can also enjoy having the best seat in the house!


Saturday, July 1, 2017

Pianist Amir Katz' recently issued disc of Chopin's Opus 10 and Opus 25 Etudes

Photo: Stéphane de Bourgies
Pianist Amir Katz’ recent recording “Frédéric Chopin ETUDES” includes the twelve opus 10 Etudes and the same number of pieces making up opus 25. The Etudes were written over some eight years. Three more Etudes (not recorded on this CD) followed in 1839. With the étude defined as a piece designed to aid a student in developing technical ability, those of Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) take for granted the pianist’s existing technical mastery. And, even more importantly, unlike the repetitive études of Czerny and Hanon that many of us were coerced into playing as young piano students, Chopin’s études, beyond their huge technical demands, form a kaleidoscope of dazzling tone poems - works concise in length but of immense effect. Having heard Chopin himself performing several of them, Robert Schumann proclaimed Chopin a “genius”, whimsically adding that “quite à la Chopin did he play them!” Constituting a new art form, the Romantic étude was taken up in a big way by Liszt, whose passionate études have of late been a focus of Katz, recently performed widely by him.


Chopin dedicated the opus 10 Etudes to Liszt, both composers being pivotal figures in the history of piano technique. Opus 10 was published in 1833. The composer was 23! One can go into great detail enumerating the myriad of new challenges met by the pianist in these pieces - the technique required for the playing of consecutive tenths of the first étude, the weaker fingers gently spelling out the seamless flow of chromatics of the A-minor etude (No.2), the running figures moving from hand to hand in the chromatically inflected molto perpetuo of No.4, the new hand position required for the “black key” étude (No.5) or Chopin’s concept of playing “cantabile” consecutive octaves (No.10). Katz’ playing, however, takes the listener into the gestures, the melodic- and harmonic magic and the emotional content of each small vignette - the proud, exhilarating wake-up call of No.1, the wistful gossamer-lightness of No.2 and in No.6,  splendidly and empathically sculpting Chopin’s melancholic melody, with each of its  notes strategically placed above the delicately bubbling left hand figure. Also, Katz’ spontaneity and flawless forays into the silken runs of No.8 and the overwhelming sense of wonder and light he creates in No.11, as he examines the new sensation of each tonality. His presentation of the lush fragility and  underlying sadness of No.9, with its faintly falling seconds of longing a reminder of Chopin’s later depression, was heart-rending.


The Opus 25 Etudes, published 1837 when Chopin was 27, were dedicated to Franz Liszt's mistress, Madame the Countess Marie d'Agoult, the reasons for which remain a matter of speculation. The Opus 25 Etudes take Chopin’s writing to a further degree of virtuosic bravura and synthesis, marking the next phase in the composer’s development as a virtuoso pianist and composer, with his use of a more innovative and integrated use of chromatics, color and texture, not to mention the unprecedented and consummate opulence of this collection. Katz take his cue from the sheer beauty of each  piece - the featherweight agility and longing of No.1, the restless, gracious playfulness of No.4 as its melody spells itself out on the back-beat, the whimsical, and decidedly dissonant effect of the stacking up of grace notes making up the fabric of No.5, its cantabile middle section offering temporary relief, the poetry and fantasy woven into No.6 by way of its cascading consecutive thirds and the dainty, iridescent  grace of No.9, referred to by some (not by Chopin) as “The Butterfly”. One notices how Katz deals with the gentle, concluding chords of several of the miniatures, taking that extra moment to place them thoughtfully, philosophically, with reverence. No.3 is buoyant, richly orchestrated and energizing; Katz does not let on as to its technical complexities, as he delights and entertains with its capricious, lightly galloping course. In No.7, led into by a single melodic line of warning, the artist gives poignant and personal expression to its sombre longing, its sad soulfulness, then to free it to spiral into a fuller soundscape. The stormy scene of No.10, with its uncompromising, chromatic octaves, receives a (physically and emotionally) powerful reading, its central lyrical section dispelling all the tumultuous surges of sound, if only temporarily. No less power and passion color infuse the  grand, noble and intense puissance of No.11, “Winter Wind” (not Chopin’s title). Deemed by Chopin as “treacherous and dangerous for the uninitiated”, Katz is secure as he balances the dashing treble figurations articulately and with poise above Chopin’s grandiose left hand chordal melody. The series ends with Chopin’s study in pianistic resonance, as No.12’s parallel arpeggios ascend and descend the keyboard and its chorale melody suggest the rigorous supremacy of the large forces of nature. Katz presents it convincingly; he does not, however, neglect its occasional tender and intensely human asides.
Born in Israel in 1973, Amir Katz, today residing in Europe, performs worldwide as soloist, chamber musician and recitalist. He made his Wigmore Hall debut in 2014. Since 2010, he has been accompanist to tenor Pavol Breslik. Of late, Katz has been focusing on cantabile works of Romantic piano repertoire. His CD of Chopin’s Etudes was recorded in April 2015 in Berlin for the ORFEO label. The disc’s sound quality is true and natural. Light of touch, Katz’ playing bristles with subtlety, clarity, assurance and technical perfection. As he enters the emotional sound world of Frédéric Chopin, he approaches its joy and sadness with clean brush strokes, sincerity and wonder.