Friday, September 1, 2017

The "Sounding Jerusalem" Festival 2017 - concert at the Dormition Abbey, Jerusalem

Photo: Dr. Michael Borchard
Established in 2006, the “Sounding Jerusalem” Festival was back again after a hiatus of six years, presenting concerts in Jerusalem’s Old City and one in Jericho. Founded, developed and led by Austrian ‘cellist Erich Oskar Huetter, the festival has always aimed to offer musical experiences to people living in Jerusalem and the surroundings, irrespective of their ethnic-, social - or religious affiliations, its musical agenda of classical and innovative chamber music constituting a dialogue between European- and Middle-Eastern musicians. “About Possibilities” is the theme of the 2017 festival, inviting the listener to reflect on life’s perspectives, options and opportunities. This writer attended “Icons of Chamber Music” at the Dormition Abbey, Mount Zion, Jerusalem, on August 28th, 2017.

Welcoming guests to the concert, pastor of the abbey Fr. Nicodemus reminded those assembled that August 28th was the feast day of St. Augustine. Nicodemus drew parallels between the many spheres St. Augustine touched and the diversity of emotions in the music of Franz Schubert, whose String Quintet in C-major D.956 would be performed at the concert. Fr. Nicodemus recommended we listen to it “with emotional ears”.

The program opened with a seldom-heard and curious work - G.F.Händel’s Suite in D for trumpet and strings (or organ?) HWV 341. Referred to as “Mr. Händel’s Celebrated Water Piece”, the work is actually an anonymous hybrid arrangement of dances, incorporating some bits of Händel’s music. It was probably written in 1715, prior to the grander Water Music Suite of 1717. In its chamber arrangement (minus timpani), we heard violinists Eszter Haffner (Austria) and Suyeon Kang (Australia), violist Vicki Powell (USA) and ‘cellist Paolo Bonomini (Italy), with  Rainer Auerbach (Germany) in the solo trumpet role. As to the sections representing Händel’s writing, the Overture comes straight from his Water Music, with the stately March, the Suite’s final movement, taken from “Partenope”, one of the composer’s more obscure operas.The event’s highly international ensemble gave the work a fresh, buoyant and festive reading, its up-front agenda presented with articulacy. Auerbach’s splendid playing was characterized by dynamic variety and his rich timbre, and enhanced by some tasteful Baroque-style ornaments.

The core work of the concert was Franz Schubert’s String Quintet in C-major D.956, referred to by Huetter as “living a whole life”. Composed in September 1828, two months prior to Schubert’s death, it perhaps represents the composer’s summing up of his all-too-short life. What is unique to his final instrumental composition is its configuration for two ‘cellos, whether to cater to the particular string players present at his brother Ferdinand’s house or to add a sense of intensity and mellowness to the work’s gestures. From the very opening chords of the first movement, the players transported the listener into the work’s profound world of contemplation and emotions, its melodiousness, its delight and delicacy, its urgency and its kaleidoscope of moods, as the artists engaged in the uncompromising,  bold shaping of phrases. In the Adagio, its plaintive, otherworldly opening was highlighted by first violinist Eszter Haffner’s heart-rending gestures, the movement’s mood then abruptly becoming a frenetic scene of dramatic action. The artists conveyed the return of the introspective section, its dialogue between first violin and second ‘cello so human, with even more poignancy than in its original statement. Issued in with a fanfare, the boisterous, high-spirited Scherzo, whisking away any memory of the soul-searching Adagio, never fails to surprise and confound many listeners, but, for the Trio, the artists colored it with melancholy as a reminder of the profoundly sad feeling never far away in the quintet, with the Scherzo’s return reestablishing the work’s life-affirming statement, as does the final Allegretto, which was performed with charm, presenting its appealing Hungarian dance music and perhaps making reference to the lively Viennese cafe scene. The artists’ performance of the work gave expression to Schubert’s daring and revolutionary “orchestral” approach to writing for the small string ensemble, as they recreated its vast contrasts of light and color as well as Schubert’s serenity, eloquence and poetry, still enigmatically a vital element of the style of the dying composer now plagued by ill health and disappointment.

For their encore, Huetter decided that Austrian composer Joseph Lanner’s “Styrian Dances” opus 165 would tie in with the dances of the last movement of the Schubert Quintet. Joseph Lanner (1801-1843) and Johann Strauss Sr. were the original “waltz kings”. Sadly today, outside of Vienna, Lanner’s music is now forgotten. Dating from 1841, the “Styrian Dances” are based on folk melodies from the province of Steyermark (southwest of Vienna) and constitute one of Lanner’s most popular compositions. Once again, Eszter Haffner led the players with consummate skill, steering the sweetly sentimental music with rubato, variety, surprises and with the wink of an eye!


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