Friday, June 29, 2018

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra presents the first Israeli performance of Handel's "Aci, Galatea and Polifemo"

Yizhar Karshon,Shaked Bar,Claire Meghnagi (photo: Maxim Reider)

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra (founder and musical director: David Shemer) concluded its 29th concert season with “Beauty and the Beast”, the first Israeli performance of G.F.Handel’s cantata, or serenata a 3, “Aci, Galatea & Polifemo”. Yizhar Karshon conducted from the harpsichord. Soloists were Shaked Bar - Galatea, Claire Meghnagi - Aci and Denis Sedov - Polifemo. This writer attended the performance at the Jerusalem International YMCA on June 27th 2018.


Somewhat overshadowed by his English pastoral mini-opera written in London in 1718, the young Handel’s little-known, unstaged dramatic cantata “Aci, Galatea & Polifemo” was composed for a ducal wedding in Naples in 1708. With an Italian libretto, the musically rich “Aci” offers early hints as to Handel’s instinctive affinity for Italian opera, also highlighting the 23-year-old Handel’s fully mature style, Both Handel works are based on Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”, in which a romance between a shepherd, Acis, and a sea nymph, Galatea, is hindered by a monstrous one-eyed giant, Polyphemus. The jealous Polyphemus hurls a boulder at Acis, killing him.  Galatea has her father, the sea god Nereus, transform Acis into a stream, so that he can flow into her embrace forever.


Handel’s ravishing, ebullient score calls for three superior singers. In the trouser role of Aci (it is presumed that Handel cast Aci as a high soprano castrato) soprano Claire Meghnagi’s supple voice, her wide, easeful and accessible range and empathy with the role made for a convincing performance. One of the work’s most delightful moments was “Qui l’augel da pianta in pianta” (Here the bird flies from tree to tree), in which violin (Noam Schuss), oboe (Shai Kribus) and Meghnagi imitate and ornament to present birdsong effects:
“Here the bird from tree to tree happily flies,
Sweetly singing to distract the heart that languishes.
But it becomes a cause of sadness for me alone
Who, afflicted and alone oh Lord, cannot find peace.”


Mezzo-soprano Shaked Bar portrayed Galatea’s plaintive charms admirably, singing with much feeling, her voice natural, easeful and rich in colours. Before Aci is killed, she and Meghnagi engaged in a tender duet of ample contrasts, with Shaked Bar’s performance culminating in a heartbreaking outpouring of grief and anger on Aci’s death. The role of Polifemo, one of the most challenging of the bass repertoire, requires an almost unbelievably wide range and some enormous leaps to boot, these representing Handel’s way of evoking the monstrous nature of Polifemo. The composer must have had at his disposal a unique voice, even by early 18th-century standards!  Of a suitably towering stature, Denis Sedov, singing several of the most virtuosic sections by heart, was confrontational, powerful and intense in the role. His singing of “Fra l’ombre e gl’orrori” (In darkness and horror), with its two-and-a-half octave compass, in which the giant cyclops describes a moth desperately looking for the light of an extinguished lamp, was effective and spine-chilling.


Not to be underestimated are the demands placed by the young Handel on the fine instrumental forces that were obviously available to him at the time. In his profound, detailed and inspiring reading of the score, Yizhar Karshon imbued the music with verve, eloquence and variety, making for much articulate and splendid playing on the part of the JBO instrumentalists, both in tutti and in the most delicate of pared-down scoring for the more intimate pieces, and for precise collaboration with the singers. An exciting event to see out the 2017-2018 concert season!

Denis Sedov (photo: Maxim Reider)


Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Kemp English has recorded the complete Kozeluch Keyboard Sonatas - a few words on Vol.11

Kemp English (photo: Helen English)
Like several other composers in music history, Bohemian musician Jan Antonín Koželuch (1747-1818) set his sights at studying Law. While at Prague University, he continued music studies with his older cousin (also Jan Antonín Koželuch) and with Mozart’s future friend František Dušek. But, due to  his immediate success in ballet- and pantomime music, Koželuch abandoned his legal studies, moving to Vienna in 1778 (some three years before Mozart) having changed his first name to Leopold to avoid being confused with his cousin. It was there that he produced more than half of his 49 piano sonatas in the 1780s, many received with great enthusiasm. Like Mozart, the pianist, composer and teacher delighted the music-loving Viennese aristocracy. He was so well regarded there that he was offered employment by the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg. Koželuch began publishing his own works and in 1785 officially opened his own publishing house, also developing ties with many other European publishers. Having been a member of the team proofreading Christopher Hogwood’s Bärenreiter edition of the Koželuch keyboard sonatas, New Zealand keyboard specialist Kemp English completed the world premiere recording of the complete cycle of Koželuch solo keyboard sonatas in 2013. On KOŽELUCH Complete Keyboard Sonatas - 11, English plays three very early sonatas from the 1770s and two later works from 1809.


Kemp English plays Sonatas Nos. 44, 45 and 46, the earlier works, on an original 1785 harpsichord by Longman and Broderip, built for them by Thomas Culliford. Works bristling with freshness and Rococo charm, some movements more sophisticated than others, here is a fine sample of what able amateur players in Vienna and their guests enjoyed in the fashionable salons. In playing that is vivid, articulate in detail, sincere and tastefully ornamented, English takes his inspiration from the texts themselves and from the possibilities offered by the splendid, vigorous timbres of the instrument for which they were written.


Koželuch, however, lived at a time the harpsichord was being superseded by the more expressive fortepiano. He became an enthusiastic supporter of the newer instrument, using the fortepiano to express the clarity, delicacy, the light and shade he wished to be expressed in his music. He therefore would not accept students who did not wish to familiarize themselves with the fortepiano. The two first works on this disc are played on a fortepiano built around 1815 in Vienna by Johann Fritz. The zesty opening movement of Piano Sonata No.42 in F major, Op. 53, No.2 takes the listener into the richness and and variety of the Classical sonata style, with its fast flow of ideas and development of motifs. The hearty second movement (Rondo), with its small reminiscences of the opening movement, is also powered with a good measure of joie-de-vivre. Somewhat more understated, Piano Sonata No.43 in E flat major, Op. 53 No.3 makes for fine piano fare, its second (and final) movement also a Rondo Allegretto. In his highly informative program notes, Kemp English draws the listener’s attention to the bassoon stop engaged in this movement, producing a “charming buzzy effect”.


Considering the fact that Leopold Koželuch was a prominent figure on the robust Viennese musical scene populated by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, music history has not treated him favourably. Kemp English’s deep enquiry into the composer’s piano sonatas and his impeccable performance of them are a keen reminder to the listener that Koželuch, a transitional composer both admired and criticized, was nevertheless a major figure in the shaping of taste in keyboard music. Engaging in its buoyant recorded sound, Kemp English in KOŽELUCH Complete Keyboard Sonatas, Vol.11 (GRAND PIANO GP735) invites the listener to attend a fashionable late 18th century music salon in Vienna to hear music of the time performed in the most authentic manner.


Kemp English is one of New Zealand’s leading concert performers. Much in demand as a solo organist, collaborative pianist, and specialist fortepiano exponent, he enjoys performing music of a diverse array of styles and periods. Following a distinguished studentship at the Royal Academy of Music in London, he later completed a Master of Arts degree in music performance at the University of York. He took his doctoral studies at the University of Adelaide. In 2001 Kemp English was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy of Music – an honour recognising former students of the Academy who have achieved distinction in the profession. Four years later, after more than a decade as Executant Lecturer in fortepiano, organ and harpsichord performance at the University of Otago, he made the decision to freelance and concentrate on his performing and recording career. Dr. Kemp English continues to tour Australasia and Europe as both a solo and collaborative performer.


Saturday, June 23, 2018

Nicholas McGegan conducts the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, choirs and soloists in Handel's "Messiah"

Maestro Nicholas McGegan (photo: Steve Sherman)
Taking place on June 18th in the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theatre, the final concert of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra’s 2018-2019 Vocal Series was a performance of G.F.Handel’s “Messiah”. Guest conductor Nicholas McGegan (UK) directed the performance, in which the Shahar Choir (conductor: Gila Brill), the Adi Choir (conductor: Oded Shomrony) and the Jerusalem Oratorio Capellate Choir (conductor: Naama Nazrathy) joined to form one choral body for the event. Soloists, under the auspices of the Israeli Opera, were Tal Ganor, Alon Harari, Oded Reich and Irish-born tenor Robin Tritschler, making his JSO- and Israeli opera debut.


Handel wrote the original version of “Messiah” in three to four weeks. Premiered in Dublin in 1742, with the composer now already established in London, the work drew such a large crowd that audience members were requested to leave their hoop skirts and swords at home for fear of overcrowding at the concert hall. In his libretto, Charles Jennens interspersed texts from both the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament, frequently using metaphor — rarely narrative -  to depict the story of the Messiah.  Although the oratorio is primarily contemplative, with no speaking characters and hardly any action, it falls into three parts: Part One deals first with the prophecies concerning Christ’s birth. Part Two, the dramatic pinnacle of the work, tells of Christ’s passion, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension, with Part Three consisting entirely of commentary, principally on the resurrection and the theme of Christian redemption.


No new face in Jerusalem, Nicholas McGegan has conducted the JSO in several productions of Handel works. From the very opening sounds of the Overture at this performance, one is acutely aware of Maestro McGegan’s eloquent, finely chiselled approach to Baroque music and to Handel’s masterful instrumental score (here achieved, nevertheless, on modern instruments), uniquely reflecting the rhythmic quality and detailed dynamics of the speech patterns. The performance was served by four very fine soloists. A recitalist, oratorio- and opera singer today in great demand worldwide, tenor Robin Tritschler gave a performance that was expressive and splendidly served throughout by his clean, easeful and mellifluous timbre, as in his sensitive and compassionate rendition of “Behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto His sorrow”. Countertenor Alon Harari’s ample, stable voice, his ornamenting, sense of contrast and drama gave credence to the texts, obvious, for example, in his strategically-timed, dolorous singing of “He was despised”. Baritone Oded Reich created the specific mood of each piece, from the gripping “...I will shake the heavens and the earth” to the eerie “...people that walked in darkness” to the triumphant “The trumpet shall sound”, the latter enhanced by the trumpet obbligato role. Soprano Tal Ganor’s signature sound is bright, delicate, precise and pleasing. In “Rejoice greatly”, she negotiated the rapid melismatic moments with agility, assuredness and exuberance.


But the performance was also a celebration of Handel’s choruses, as the singers here highlighted the work’s emotional agenda and messages, the dramatic potential of each text and the astonishing variety of Handel’s choral writing, whose course constantly shifts between a kind of “speaking” music, which declaims speech patterns in the text, and a more lyrical “singing” music, with key words emerging for all to hear. The singers were highly attentive of McGegan, as they displayed confidence, the three choirs singing as one, their diction articulate (and British!), their performance of contrapuntal sections, however complex, well delineated. Their buoyant singing bristled with dynamic- and textural variety, at times subtly restrained, at others, gregarious and arresting. As to the pivotal Hallelujah chorus, the audience showed its appreciation. When completed by Handel, following much anxiety and distress, the composer reportedly told his servant, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself seated on His throne, with His company of Angels.”


Following the first performance of “Messiah” in 1742, one critic referred to it as the “Sublime, the Grand and the Tender, adapted to the most elevated, Majestick and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear.” In fact, “Messiah” is one of the few pieces in music history to enjoy popular success during its composer's lifetime and never fall out of favour since his death. Most of today’s audiences have heard the oratorio countless times, know it word for word and approach each presentation with just a touch of trepidation: will this be simply “another” performance of ”Messiah”? In the case of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra’s event, the answer was a definite “no”! Maestro McGegan pooled his forces into creating a production that was wholehearted, fresh, exciting and elegant.


Saturday, June 9, 2018

A richly imaginative production of Henry Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas" at the Israeli Opera, Tel Aviv

Photo: Yossi Zwecker

The Israeli Opera’s recent performances of Henry Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” brought together several Israeli artists and ensembles: Ensemble Barrocade, the Israeli Opera Chorus and soloists performed under the musical direction of Ethan Schmeisser. Stage director team Cecile Boussat and Julien Lubek, who directed, and designed the sets and costumes of “Dido and Aeneas” for the Opera de Rouen’s production of “Dido and Aeneas”, brought their creative production to Tel Aviv. This writer attended the performance at the New Israeli Opera, Tel Aviv, on June 3rd 2018. The all-Israeli line-up of vocal soloists (in this specific performance) comprised Anat Czarny-Dido, Oded Reich-Aeneas, Daniela Skorka-Belinda, Guy Mannheim-sorceress/ sailor, Moran Abouloff-Pick-2nd woman, Tali Ketzef & Nitzan Alon-enchantresses and Yaniv d’Or-spirit.


From its modest beginnings as a work composed for a girls’ boarding school run by Josias Priest in Chelsea, a work calling for a limited number of soloists, chorus and a few dancers (Josias Priest was the dancing master) “Dido and Aeneas laid the foundations for English opera and is today ranked among the most popular British lyrical works. However, due to the fact that the work’s dating is uncertain and that the original manuscript is lost, many questions regarding the work remain unanswered.  As to its librettist Nahum Tate, a negligible poet, Purcell kept only a part of his text, this taken from Book IV of Virgil’s “Aeneid”. With its astonishing economy of resources, one might refer to the work as a chamber opera, given its extreme brevity of three short acts, but it is the tragic love story of Dido and Aeneas in itself that inspired Purcell to write a work of strong emotions, offering the full range of dramatically intense feelings, those juxtaposing the conflict between duty and passion and resulting in the separation of the two lovers. The Queen of Carthage, abandoned by Aeneas, transcends her suffering by the beauty of her singing, before greeting the death she cannot escape after the hero leaves.


A number of features combined to make the Israeli Opera production of “Dido and Aeneas” enchanting. Possibly out of sight down in the orchestra pit but certainly not out of earshot were members of Ensemble Barrocade, the Israeli Baroque Collective, whose delicate, polished playing on period instruments from the very opening sounds of the French-, Lully-style overture (they later engaged in some Baroque-style improvising) imbued the performance with an aura of delicacy, elegance and authenticity.  Placed behind the instrumentalists were singers of the Israeli Opera Chorus. Their crucial contribution to the opera, participating in the denouement of the action, taking on multiple roles - of cupids, courtiers, huntsmen and witches - was carried out with splendid articulacy, timbral beauty and stylistic competence.


As to the soloists, here was a production rich in home-grown talent. Mezzo-soprano Anat Czarny gave a sensitive and convincing portrayal of the ill-fated Dido alongside baritone Oded Reich’s compelling, bold and tender handling of the role of Aeneas. Soprano Daniela Skorka was well cast as Dido’s sympathetic handmaid Belinda. A whimsical touch was the portrayal of the sorcerer as a giant octopus seated atop a craggy rock at sea, the part appropriately assigned to tenor Guy Mannheim. Then there were the enchantresses Tali Ketzef and Nitzan Alon, here in the guise of mermaids, descending from the ceiling on flying rigs. Intermittently, the stage was alive with dainty, young, Elizabethan-style female dancers and some wonderful acrobats, the latter at times portraying dark, slimy sea creatures; then in Act III, we see the same artists scampering up and down the ropes of Aeneas’ ship like the best of sailors. And then there was sylph-like acrobat Aya Dayan, suspended on a ring high above the stage, defying gravity and charming the audience with her repertoire of delicate dance movements.  With their background of mime, drama, acrobatics, dance and illusion, Cecile Boussat and Julien Lubek present staging that is imaginative and magical, with its seascapes of a myriad of blues, of waters inhabited by mermaids, the mauve shell serving as a safe refuge for the lovers in better times, as well as several humorous effects. And, finally, following Czarny’s poignant, finely crafted and richly ornamented rendition of Dido’s Lament, the stage is plunged into darkness and candles are extinguished one by one, depicting the Queen of Carthage’s tragic end. All that remains is for the chorus to request the "cupids to scatter roses on her tomb, soft and gentle as her heart”.


Kudos to the producers, to Maestro Ethan Schmeisser and to the many, many artists and opera team members whose performance presented a fine balance between drama, fantasy and Henry Purcell’s sublime music.

Photo: Yossi Zwecker