Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Ensemble PHOENIX delights with vocal- and instrumental music of the Classical period at the Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival

Marina Minkin,Moshe Aron Epstein,Karen Shifrin,Myrna Herzog (M.A.Epstein)

Taking place in the historic Romanesque church in the town of Abu Gosh, an event of the 54th Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival on September 29th 2018 “When Louise Burned her Lover’s Letters…Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Scottish Love Songs” was performed by members of Ensemble PHOENIX - mezzo-soprano Karin Shifrin,  Marina Minkin-harpsichord, Moshe Aron Epstein-flute and PHOENIX founder and director Myrna Herzog on ‘cello.

As might befit any salon concert of the Classical period in central Europe, the program opened with the first movement of Joseph Haydn’s Piano Trio in G-major, Hoboken XV:15. One of only three Haydn works for this combination (Haydn wrote at least 45 keyboard trios), the trio was registered by Bland, the composer’s London publisher, as  “Second Trio for the Harpsichord or Piano Forte, German Flute & Violoncello”. It might be conjectured that Haydn chose the flute here due to its appeal to English aristocratic taste. Haydn’s chamber music never ceases to be exuberant and innovative, but the artists’ refinement and subtlety of expression here was also enhanced by their fine balance and the timbres of period instruments - the warmth of Epstein’s Classical flute, Herzog’s 1745 Andrea  Castagnery ‘cello played with an original classical bow from Mozart’s time and the small but definitely characterful spinet played  by Minkin. Then to three of Haydn’s  English Canzonettas to words of Mrs. Anne Hunter, whom Haydn met in London in 1791. Karen Shifrin’s committed singing gave expression to the subject of each vignette - the doleful mood underlying “The Wanderer”, “The Mermaid’s Song” with its gentle, underlying enticement and word painting set against the rise and fall of the sea and, finally, the typically English-type hale-and-hearty seafaring character of “The Sailor’s Song”. Displaying how naturally Haydn catered to the tastes of late 18th century English drawing room music, one becomes aware of the composer’s free and groundbreaking approach to the keyboard role. While adding flute- and ‘cello roles to all the songs throughout the concert, a joint effort of the part of the PHOENIX musicians, the artists’ playing remained faithful to the original texts, was lush and offered the addition of some beguiling solos.

In the guise of a simple song, W.A.Mozart’s “Das Veilchen” (The Violet) was played out effectively by Shifrin, with Goethe’s message of the need of human comfort and how the pain of love is then released by the peaceful death of the violet well expressed as the narrator and little violet speak alternatively. “Als Luise die Briefe ihres ungetreuen Liebhabers verbrannte” (When Luisa Burned the Letters of Her Unfaithful Lover), from which the concert takes its title, the personal sentiments of the jilted poet Gabriele von Baumberg take a much more dramatic approach: after Luise discovers her lover's infidelity, she thanks the flames for destroying his letters and songs to her. Then, calling upon the fire to eliminate all traces of the love she had felt for him, she realizes that her memory of the man still continues to burn within her. Here, the composer’s passionately descriptive instrumental agenda provided  powerful endorsement to Shifrin’s emotional  elucidation of the text. Whether or not Mozart composed the music to  Friedrich Wilhelm Gotter’s “Wiegenlied” (Lullaby) has never been proven. What was sure, by the festival audience’s gentle humming along with Shifrin’s singing of it, punctuated by a pensive verse given to the ‘cello, is that the song is a nostalgic childhood memory for many of us.

Back to Haydn: in the Andante second movement of the G-major Trio XV:15, Minkin and Epstein engaged in delightful dialogue, the use of flexing and small pauses attesting to Haydn’s sense of humour; then to the final movement, fresh and zesty, rich in Haydn’s inexhaustible abundance of surprising invention and no less witty than the second!

The program concluded with a selection of Beethoven’s strikingly beautiful settings of Scottish folk songs, published in London and Edinburgh in 1818 as “Twenty-five Scottish songs: for voice, mixed chorus, violin, violoncello and piano” opus 108. Beethoven had never visited Scotland, but wrote the settings in answer to an advertisement of  a certain George Thomson from Edinburgh, who was  interested to commission settings of folk songs for home performance. Hoping to sell them well, Thomson had requested the violin part be written in such a way that it could also be played on the flute.  In a letter to Thomson from May 1819 Beethoven, angry at him for his ongoing request for writing of more simplicity, explained that he could not regard this as a criterion and that he would, in which case, not find the courage to call the pieces his own.   Enlisting her vital and substantial vocal resources, Shifrin’s singing of the bitter-sweet melodies and texts, set to modal harmonizations, some referring to the many battles in which the Scots fought, was real and touching: the strophic “Dim, dim is my eye” with its story of brave William for whom “the sea is his grave”, two songs of a dejected nature - Sir Walter Scott’s melancholy “Sunset” followed by “Sympathy”, the introduction in the latter seemingly asking questions prior to those of the singer and, finally, “Bonnie Laddie, Highland Laddie”, the spirited, typically Scottish reel complete with bagpipe drone.

Not the chandeliered room of a wealthy Viennese family, the crypt of the Benedictine Monastery is nevertheless a suitable venue for such salon music; it offers a fine acoustic environment for chamber concerts. In their typically scrupulous and  profound enquiry into the works on all levels, the PHOENIX artists gave an inspired performance of some of the Classical period’s most splendid and immortal music.


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