Sunday, April 22, 2018

Throwing convention to the winds, Ensemble PHOENIX performs works of the Stylus Fantasticus genre

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

Ensemble PHOENIX, founded and directed by Myrna Herzog, has recently presented a program dedicated to the Stylus Fantasticus genre. Performing the works were Marina Minkin-harpsichord, Myrna Herzog-viola da gamba and guest violinist Lilia Slavny, who today resides in Holland. This writer attended the concert on April 16th 2018 at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


The Stylus Fantasticus represents a free and unrestrained form of composing, the effect at times being almost like written out improvisation, in which the music moves from key to key in a free and unconventional manner. Fast transitions and sudden changes in affect are very characteristic of this particular Baroque style. In her program notes, Dr. Myrna Herzog quotes German scholar Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), who in 1650 described music of the Stylus Fantasticus as “the most free and unrestrained method of composing...bound to nothing, neither to any words nor to a melodic subject...instituted to display genius and to teach the hidden design of harmony and the ingenious composition of harmonic phrases and fugues.”


The PHOENIX program opened with the Israeli premiere of (half of) Marin Marais’ “La Gamme en forme de petit OpĂ©ra”. The artists premiered the complete work some days prior to this in Haifa. "La Gamme" is a lengthy and unique work of movements that ascend the steps of the octave, producing a large canvas of character pieces that move swiftly from one to the next, as its frequently short transitions unpredictably sweep the listener into new tempi, textures and tonalities. Marin Marais was himself a great virtuoso on the viol, so it is little wonder that he demands the viol player take on a double role here, systematically dividing his (in this case, her) time between joining the harpsichord as a bass instrument and duetting with the violin (on occasions, playing above it!) Lilia Slavny lavished much expression on the work’s moods, songs and dances, whether they be fiery or touching or even folk-like in character.  Marin Marais’ harpsichord role bristles with interest and challenges.  Demanding virtuosity and much focus on the part of all three players, the work had the audience perched at the edge of their seats. It must have been as surprising and unconventional to audiences of Marin Marais’ time as it is to our ears today!  As to it being in the form of an “opera”, each audience member is invited to create his own libretto and plot.


Then to Georg Muffat, whose cosmopolitan career took him from his birthplace in Savoy to all of the Continent’s most brilliant capitals, including Paris, where he learned the Lullian orchestral style and Rome, where he became a member of Arcangelo Corelli’s circle. The Sonata a Violino Solo, Muffat’s earliest surviving work, was composed in Prague in 1677 following the composer’s year-long sojourn in Vienna. In Vienna, he was surely influenced by his encounter with Heinrich Biber, also an original personality and a violin virtuoso, whose compositions boasted colourful programmatic content. Biber’s 1677 Sonata is unlike any other piece of its period...and probably unlike any other sonata! Following Slavny’s serene and cantabile ornamented playing of the opening movement, with its split melodic exchange, she forged into the work’s daring forays that take on extravagant harmonic excursions and runs of virtuosic frenzy. Slavny presented its virtuosic runs with brilliant passagework in playing that was richly sonorous and articulate, her rhythmic flexibility giving the performance a sense of spontaneity. As to the other instrumental roles, her fellow musicians gave the continuo plenty to say.


We then heard Marina Minkin performing J.S.Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D-minor BWV 903, composed probably in the 1720s in Weimar,  one of the most challenging and virtuosic works written for the harpsichord; Bach’s extensive use of arpeggiated writing points to the fact that this piece was indeed intended for the harpsichord, as does its title “Fantasie chromatique pour le Clavecin”. Minkin’s playing of the Fantasie was a pertinent reminder that Bach was known as a great improviser, as she negotiated the large, expansive and wildly emotional piece, its bold harmonic structure and startling modulations with dexterity, intelligence and a sense of suspense… Minkin kept us aware of the fact that each following phrase would be a new, unpredictable adventure for the listener (Bach’s own careful, sleight-of-hand stratagem was present all the time) as we chose to revel in the wild, chromatically whirling abundance of runs, passages and arpeggios. Under her fingers, the recitative section emerged as subtle and thoughtful. From the outset of the fugue, there was a sense of order being restored, but we were soon to discover that the Stylus Fantasticus had waved its magic wand once again, producing a fugue with an element of freedom and uncertainty as it spiralled to its conclusion of bravura passagework, scales and octave-doubling in the bass. Marina Minkin was playing a Frank Hubbard harpsichord (1979).


The Hebrew University noon concert ended with a work by Giovanni Antonio Pandolfi Mealli (c.1630-c.1669), an Italian-born composer who first worked as a composer in the court of Ferdinand Charles, Archduke of Austria in Innsbruck before moving to Messina, where he was employed as a virtuoso violinist. There, he murdered castrato Giovanni Marquett, not before dedicating some of his songs to him. (This incident meant his having to flee Sicily, first to France and then to Spain.) Messina was, however, distinguished for its avant-garde cultural activity. Pandolfi Mealli’s Sonata Op.3/2 “La Cesta” would have certainly fit into this cultural setting. Slavny’s easeful technique and insightful reading of the text takes the listener through the work’s unconventional roller coaster ride of strong emotions and sudden outbursts, with the work, at times, pursuing unorthodox harmonic courses.


For an encore, the trio played one more section of Marin Marais’ “La Gamme”, its tender, appealing disposition suggesting that this must represent a love scene of the imaginary opera. Dr. Myrna Herzog’s latest program is proof that there were just a few Baroque composers who were ready to throw convention to the winds and let madcap individualism take over, hence the existence of this curious and intoxicating musical repertoire. Playing it is highly demanding on all levels and for all players. The audience was delighted to be a part of this exhilarating event!


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