Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Tel Aviv Collegium Singers, the Israel Brass Quintet and organist Aviad Stier perform at the Dormition Abbey, Jerusalem

Photo: Uri Zur

The Tel Aviv Collegium Singers (director/conductor: Yishai Steckler), Aviad Stier (organ) and the Israel Brass Quintet joined forces to present “Life and Death Experience - a Journey through the Liturgical Music of England & France”. The concert took place on May 12th 2018 at the Dormition Abbey, Mt. Zion, Jerusalem.
The program opened with Aviad Stier’s resourceful and focused performance of William Byrd’s Fantasy in A-minor, its many different sections proceeding in a rapid flow of quasi-improvisatory ideas. Then, to a number of Romantic choral works, the first being Edward Elgar’s 3 Motets, Op.2 (1887) - Ave Verum Corpus, Ave Maria and Ave Maris Stella - for soloist, mixed chorus and organ. Adding to the choir’s finely-blended timbre and highly dynamic singing was soloist soprano Sarah Even Haim’s calm, articulate and tasteful singing. Not one of Elgar’s more frequently performed works, its deep spirituality throughout and compositional style show the composer to have been a highly skilled and expressive composer of sacred choral music.
Gabriel Fauré’s “Messe basse” (Low Mass), the French analogue of the Missa brevis, was written originally for the village church of Villerville in Normandy. The final version, heard at this Jerusalem concert, written for upper voices, soloist and organ, is one of the few existing settings of the Mass for female voices and organ. Once again, Sarah Even Haim featured as soloist. Fauré’s “Cantique de Jean Racine”, composed when the composer was twenty years old, is very much a precursor to the Requiem, with similarly lush, intense choral writing layered on top of its sparse organ accompaniment. Clearly inspired by the work’s beauty and delicacy, Steckler and his singers’ reading of it offered musical phrases of graceful archlike contours hovering above solemn harmonies. The work displays Fauré’s skilful blending of the French chanson genre and the liturgical motet, enhancing and underscoring Racine's sacred text.
Known for his operas and his popular “Ave Maria”, one is not always aware of the fact that Charles Gounod had written hundreds of vocal and choral sacred works. Accompanied by Aviad Stier on organ, the choir’s performance of Gounod’s restrained but lavish “Ave Verum Corpus” (1879) was beautifully shaped, direct and appealing and indicative of Gounod’s deep religious piety. Also well presented was César Franck’s setting of the Latin communion hymn “Panis Angelicus” (1872), one of the composer’s most enduring and most frequently arranged vocal pieces, its straightforward and lyrical melody set above a subtle and complex counterpoint.
Digressing from the concert’s French/English theme, the Israel Brass Quintet took the audience to Baroque Germany and Italy, opening with Contrapunctus IX from J.S.Bach’s “Art of Fugue”, the players’ lively interaction and clearly defined melodic lines making for an exciting performance of the challenging double fugue. Samuel Scheidt’s “Battle Suite” (1621), actually three separate pieces often performed as a group, was originally written for five viols, but Scheidt himself indicated that it could be performed on other instruments. As to the work’s possible programmatic content, it seems that the trumpets (Guy Sarig, Yuval Shapiro) represent the two battling sides in the “Galliard Battaglia”. The “Courant Dolorosa”, indeed dolorous, was given a tender and profound performance, the piece’s slower tempo allowing for some genial ornamentation. As to the joyful “Canzona Bergamasca”, the final piece, the artists highlighted its vivid play of imitation in some dramatic musical language. An impressive choice for this fine ensemble. Then, to Italian Jewish court composer Salamone Rossi’s (Hebrew) setting of Psalm 8. Rossi was the composer of the only extant collection of polyphonic music for the synagogue (Hashirim Asher Lish’lomo) to appear in print before the 19th century. Despite the absence of the verbal text in the Israel Brass Quintet’s rendition, the members created a performance that was beautifully crafted, pensive, expressive and luxuriant.
The concert ended with the Israel Brass Quintet joining the Tel Aviv Collegium Singers and Stier to perform Henry Purcell’s “Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary”. For her funeral ceremony in March 1695, Purcell composed a brass canzona and the anthem “Thou know'st, Lord”, the ceremonial music also including previously-composed material, including two funeral anthems. For the Jerusalem concert, the brass quintet, together with choir assistant Itay Berkovich on drum, was located in an upper gallery of the church. The quintet’s uncompromising and majestic  brass playing (the work’s majestic and impactful character endorsed by the drum) was punctuated by the choir’s contemplative, devout and occasionally vehement singing of the funeral texts, their spirit anguished when not serene and reflective. Via diction that was articulate, the singers gave expression to the work’s tragic meaning and message. Queen Mary had been one of England's most beloved monarchs and her death from smallpox just after Christmas of 1694 plunged the nation into genuine grief.
“Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and ne'er continueth in one stay” (Book of Common Prayer, Order for the Burial of the Dead)
Maestro Steckler and the artists gave a gripping performance of one of the English Baroque’s most heartfelt and melancholy works.


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