Monday, March 26, 2018

From Magnificat to Magnificat at the 2018 Bach in Jerusalem Festival

Philippe Pierlot  - Magnificats of J.S.Bach, C.P.E.Bach  (Maxim Reider)
The 3rd Bach in Jerusalem Festival, under the auspices of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, took place from March 17th to 21st 2018, the final day of the festival falling on Johann Sebastian Bach’s 333rd birthday! Prof. David Shemer, founder and director of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, serves as musical director of the Bach in Jerusalem Festival.

With the central theme of this year’s Bach in Jerusalem Festival being the Magnificat and its various settings, visiting conductor Philippe Pierlot (Belgium) conducted the Cecilia Soloists Ensemble (director: Guy Pelc) and Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra players in two Bach Magnificats - that of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and that of the elder Johann Sebastian Bach. This writer attended the concert at the Jerusalem International YMCA on March 17th.  Both Magnificats are written in the festive key of D-major. In his program notes, Maestro David Shemer wrote: “We cannot...ignore the fact that Carl Philipp Emanuel, still a young composer in his 30s when he composed his Magnificat, was not entirely free of his father’s influence. Even so, the musical language of both Magnificats is different, clearly pointing to a difference of style between that of the older Bach, whose work constitutes a high point of the Baroque period, and that of his son, who was now turning to the new galant manner of expression…” Pierlot’s energetic direction highlighted the immediacy of Carl Philipp Emanuel’s music — its abrupt harmony shifts, strange modulations, unusual turns of melody, changes of texture and dramatic pauses - with its delicacy accomplished by assimilating Baroque ornamentation into his new style. Offering fine opportunities to soloists, we heard the “Quia respexit” (He hath regarded the low estate) sung expressively by soprano Tom Ben Yishai, a skillfully handled and gripping ”Quia fecit” (He that is mighty) by tenor Richard Resch (Germany),Guy Pelc’s portrayal of  strength in in the “Fecit potentiam” (He has shown strength) and Avital Dery’s  gracefully engaging “Suscepit Israel” (He has helped his servant Israel), the latter joined by Idit Shemer and Geneviève Blanchard on flutes. Adding to the work’s joyful, triumphant mood were the three D trumpets - David Staff (UK), Jean-Charles Denis (France), Einat Kalitzky (Israel-Switzerland) - the “Et misericordia” (Mercy) with its dynamic changes from piano to forte depicting the scope of all generations and, finally, the two richly scored contrapuntal closing movements. C.P.E.Bach certainly stood by his belief when he claimed that “music must, first and foremost, stir the heart”.

J.S.Bach’s Magnificat, also in the key of D-major, followed with no less elation and exaltation, freshness and vitality. There can be few choral movements more exciting or arresting than the pulsing “Omnes generationes” (All generations), the generous word-painting firing the “Fecit potentiam”, the five-part fugal structure of Sicut locutus est (As He spoke to our fathers) or the work’s dazzling conclusion. Small in number, the effective and powerful presence of the small  Cecilia Vocalists Ensemble performing here in both Bach Magnificats were yet another endorsement of Maestro Andrew Parrott’s claim to this practice as being authentic. As to the work’s solos and duets, mezzo-soprano Avital Dery’s singing of the “Et exultavit” (My soul magnifies the Lord) was all shape and meaning, soprano Hadas Faran-Asia’s bright lucidity of sound coupled pleasingly with the somewhat melancholy oboe d’amore (Aviad Gershoni) in the “Quia respexit”, bass Yoav Meir Weiss’s gracefully flowing and rich vocal colors in the “Quia fecit” were rewarding, with Richard Resch’s forthright “Deposuit potentes” depiction of “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly” and alto Zlata Hershberg’s touching “Esurientes” (The hungry he has filled with good things) joined by the poignant flute sounds of Shemer and Blanchard. Maestro Pierlot’s direction made for an inspired and inspiring presentation of both Magnificats.

Taking place in the intimate surroundings of the auditorium of the Jerusalem Music Centre, Mishkenot Sha’ananim on March 21st, “The Small Magnificats” was a chamber concert of  settings of the Magnificat by a number of other Baroque composers as well as other works inspired by it. The concert was directed by Prof. David Shemer, founder and director of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra. Making up the vocal ensemble were young artists Adaya Peled-soprano and Jonathan Suissa-tenor, together with David Feldman-countertenor and Yair Polishook-bass. They were joined by violinists Dafna Ravid and Sharon Cohen, Tami Borenstein-viola, Lucia D’Anna-’cello and Hagai Zehavi-double bass, with David Shemer conducting from the organ. Works of Johann Pachelbel, beginning with his well-known canon, constituted a major part of the program. Pachelbel’s small but complete four-voiced Magnificat P.246 (also in D-major!) lasting all of five minutes consists of mostly homophonic movements following in close succession. Young soprano Adaya Peled held the top (melodic) part competently. Among the most expressive pieces ever composed for organ or keyboard are Pachelbel’s 95 short, preludial fugues on the Magnificat. Displaying the composer’s mastery of harmony and counterpoint, many of these works do not require a pedal. To the great interest and delight of the audience at the Jerusalem Music Centre, David Shemer performed four of them on the positiv organ. And there were two more choral Magnificats to follow. One was Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Magnificat H.73 for three male voices, two violins and continuo. A brilliant composition, it is set as an extended ostinato aria over a g-minor tetrachord ground. The singers presented a spirited reading of its text of ideas, key words and rhetoric over the 89 ground figures, daring harmonies and textures. With the three very different singers - Jonathan Suissa with his young, lively natural vocal sound, Yair Polishook’s well-sculpted richly-colored bass and David Feldman’s substantial counter tenor timbre - there was much interest provided by the instrumentalists, whose exuberant ensemble sections dovetailed in with the sung sections.The other and final Magnificat setting was  that of Antonio Vivaldi, in which singers and instrumentalists created a fine blend of Vivaldi’s choral styles in and around brief solo sections, retaining the work’s intensity and emotional content. Choruses were impactful and exciting, with the “Et misericordia” creating a marvellous and moving moment. Soloists were Adaya Peled and David Feldman.

Festival-goers interested to hear more on the subject of Magnificat settings were invited to attend a symposium at the Jerusalem Music Centre on March 21st, the actual day commemorating Johann Sebastian Bach’s birth 333 years ago. Convened and opened by Dr. Alon Schab (Haifa University), we heard Mr. Benjamin Leins of the Bach House (Eisenach, Germany) outlining the origins and history of the Magnificat setting, Dr. Yonatan Bar Yoshafat (The Open University of Israel) talking about C.P.E.Bach’s Magnificat and Dr. Boriss Avramecs (Latvian University) discussing contemporary settings of the Magnificat in the USA, UK, Europe and, in particular, by composers around the Baltic Sea.


Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Carmel String Quartet presents its views on Bartok's String Quartet No.5 and Beethoven's String Quartet in F-major op.135

Yoel Greenberg,Rachel Ringelstein,Tami Waterman,Tali Goldberg(Shuli Waterman)

“Noble Savages” was the somewhat enigmatic title given to the Carmel Quartet’s recent concert of the Strings and More series. This writer attended the concert at the Jerusalem Music Centre, Mishkenot Sha’ananim, Jerusalem, on March 12th 2018, in which explanations and readings were given in English. Directed by violist Yoel Greenberg, the series adds lively discussion as to the music played, with all members of the quartet taking part in that aspect of the event. Artists taking part were violinists Rachel Ringelstein (1st violin) and Tali Goldberg, Yoel Greenberg-viola and Tami Waterman-’cello.


In his humorous and lively manner, Dr Yoel Greenberg opened the evening with a quiz. Audience members were asked to identify from what period various snippets of music came. This turned out to be no easy task! All the examples were taken from Bela Bartok’s String Quartet No.5 and Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet in F-major op.135. The first half of the evening would focus on the 1934 Bartok quartet. Greenberg spoke of Bartok’s Hungarian identity, his research into folk music (not just of his native Hungary) and his search to find natural sound, free of “Romantic grandiloquence”. Bartok’s fifth quartet brims with folk influence, one outstanding example being the asymmetrical Bulgarian dance of the third movement. Greenberg spoke of the work’s symmetrical arc structure and of two other visual/sound associations with which Bartok was fascinated - that of insects and of the sounds of night. The combination of the above-mentioned elements is what caused Bartok’s music to have both objective and subjective aspects. The Carmel Quartet’s performance of the highly virtuosic work was incisive and uncompromising, yet addressing its moments of empathy, the mystery of the world of insects and the composer’s strangely humorous removal of a folk song from its own tonality (2nd movement), the compound rhythm of the Bulgarian peasant dance (3rd movement) followed by the delicate, desolate otherworldly 4th movement, to return to the driven, acerbic, intensive effect on reaching the 5th movement. The artists presented the composer’s world of strange effects - of hisses, sighs, drones and pulses – existing together with classical forms on one musically rich and complex canvas, both shimmering and acerbic, yet always articulate, profound and sincere.


In reverse chronological order, Beethoven’s String Quartet in F-major op.135 occupied the second part of the program. Beethoven’s last complete work, composed in October 1826, written only a few months before his death in March 1827, this quartet differs from the monumental, soul-searching and sprawling late quartets (and piano sonatas). Beethoven’s personal life had descended into swirling chaos; he himself wrote much about his own suffering. This work, however, with its airy, transparent texture, its smaller proportions and playful nature, seems enigmatically removed from the struggle and suffering expressed in the above-mentioned late works. But it does ask questions, namely in the final movement bearing Beethoven’s strange inscription “Der schwer gefasste  Entschluss” (The Difficult Resolution) and on whose manuscript he asks “Muss es sein?” (Must it be?), later to answer in the affirmative. Greenberg spoke of Beethoven’s humour, his liking for puns, the work’s multiplicity of unconnected themes and the fact that, for the composer, there was little distance between comedy and seriousness. In the first movement, one as spare in texture as any quartet movement Beethoven had ever written, the Carmel players, in fine communication with each other, focused on objective playing and beautiful melodic shaping. They displayed the Vivace (2nd) movement’s humour in its “uncoordinated”, bumptious utterances and eruptive fortissimo section, to be followed by the profound, soul-searching character of the third movement, referred to by Greenberg as “one of Beethoven’s most moving”, as the instruments’ lower registers presented its theme. Then to the final movement, with Beethoven’s questions, its teasing playfulness alternating with anguished sounds. Yoel Greenberg suggested that Beethoven’s dilemma was to do with the complications of writing a string quartet. In a letter to his publisher, Beethoven wrote: “Here, my dear friend, is my last quartet. It will be the last; and indeed, it has given me much trouble. For I could not bring myself to compose the last movement. But as your letters were reminding me of it, in the end I decided to compose it. And that is the reason why I have written the motto: “The difficult resolution–Must it be? It must be, it must be!” A black sheep among Beethoven’s late repertoire, this was certainly a very curious and interesting work to discuss and present at the Carmel Quartet’s Strings and More series. As to its moods and gestures, Yoel Greenberg summed up his own thoughts with “we can never be sure which Beethoven we are looking at”.


Saturday, March 10, 2018

Di Tsaytmashin performs Yiddish Baroque Music in Jerusalem

Photo: Dani Machlis

Yiddish Baroque music is not a genre one is likely to come across very often. It was curiosity that motivated this writer to attend a concert of an ensemble calling itself “Di Tsaytmashin” (The Time Machine) at Beit Hagat, a venue well hidden away in the tranquil, narrow streets of Jerusalem’s magical Ein Kerem village, on March 7th 2018. Beit Hagat (a historic building housing an old olive press) is an informal venue hosting workshops in various fields, lectures, regular classes, concerts, theater and performance events, jam sessions, film showings and more. It  provides a space to encourage joint and independent creation and for cultural and religious dialogue.The event was the official Israeli launch of Di Tsaytmashin’s CD “Yiddish Baroque Music - from the Book of the Rejoicing Soul”. Members of the ensemble are  Avishai Aleksander Fisz-vocals,  Bari Moscovitz-theorbo, lute, Ayela Seidelman-’cello, Daniel Hoffman-violin, Adi Silberberg-recorders and Oren Fried-percussion.


“Seyfer Simkhes Haneyfesh” (The Book of the Rejoicing Soul) is an ancient book of Yiddish songs by Rabbi Elkhanan Kirchen, published in Germany some 300 years ago. Located in Oxford, UK, it has been studied in depth by Aleksander Fisz, who accompanied the evening with much information as to the songs, their musical styles, the texts themselves and the work undergone by him and his fellow musicians to decipher the notation and arrange the music in an acceptably authentic manner. Fisz is well familiar with the language used - West Yiddish - the language spoken by Jews in western- and central Europe at the beginning of the 18th century. He mentioned the various curious forms of notation found in the book, in his opinion, probably due to the copyist being more well-meaning than professional.  The songs are long, some having 20 or 30 verses, meaning that each is rich in information and they are written in skillful rhyme; despite the complexity of some of the melodies, they are morality songs to be sung in the Jewish home.


We heard the Di Tsaytmashin artists performing songs for various festivals. Woven through the songs’ Baroque-style European melodies were melodic motifs of Jewish music. A countertenor with access to the tenor and baritone range, Fisz’s presentation of each song is alive and articulate, also theatrical, and the arrangements allow for much individual solo expression on the part of each artist, for duet interaction and improvisation. In the song for Passover, for example, the text deals with practical details of the festival - the pre-Passover cleaning and even details regarding the baking of the unleavened bread and its enemies - mice, humidity, etc. The piece  begins with an embellished recorder solo melody (Silberberg), the melody then taken by the theorbo (Moscovitz) and followed by a ‘cello solo (Seidelman). The violin duets with the singer, after which the recorder interacts with Fisz. One of the most astounding pieces, indeed a whole small theatrical performance, is the song for New Year/Day of Atonement, a time whose main theme is the torture awaiting those who have sinned. The players set the scene of the Day of Reckoning with a ‘cello drone, a ghostly “screen” of mixed instrumental sound, a wailing sopranino recorder and a fateful slow drum beat (Fried). Fisz’s performance expresses frantic fear. Hoffman’s heart-rending violin solo is imbued with motifs of Jewish music. The piece’s major ending, however, reflects optimism, expressing the fact that whoever is devout will be saved. Fisz spoke of the book’s clumsy notation of the song for Purim. “Allow yourself the freedom to sing this song in Purim, when already drunk…” we read in the liner notes. The song’s ungainly notation seems to represent quarter tones in a piece imitating Turkish music and Fisz gives us a decidedly oriental interpretation of it as the instrumentalists let their hair down to evoke the jocular atmosphere of the traditional reading of the Book of Esther. We learn of another interesting ritual in a song to be sung to a bride as she is having her hair plaited: the wedding jester aims to make her cry as he tells her of the hardships of wedded life as a punishment for Eve’s deeds. Fisz gives a colorful rendering of the text as he enlists his large vocal range.


Avishai Aleksander Fisz is considered a leading authority in the field of Yiddish folk repertoire. Di Tsaytmashin was established by him in 2012 in order to perform the pieces from Kirchen’s fascinating and timeless “Book of the Rejoicing Soul”. The artists’ performance is informed, polished and entertaining, as it bristles with life and interest. The disc was recorded in 2014 for the Brilliant Classics label.