Saturday, December 8, 2018

Pianist Ariel Halevy discusses and performs Ballades of Brahms and Chopin at the Eden-Tamir Music Center (Jerusalem)

Photo courtesy A. Halevy
The Romantic Piano - Ballades, the third of the 2018-2019 “Musiversity” concert-lecture series (coordinator: Dr. Dror Semmel) at the Eden-Tamir Music Center took place on December 3rd 2018. Pianist and educationalist Ariel Halevy discussed and performed Ballades of Brahms and Chopin.  


Halevy opened by mentioning that the ballad was actually an early literary form, spoken or sung and, on occasions, even accompanied by dance. Johannes Brahms’ Ballades Op.10 (1854), an early collection (he wrote them when was 21 years old), described by him understatedly as “not too difficult to play and even less difficult to understand”, are the composer’s only contribution to the genre. Halevy mentioned that the Romantics showed much interest in literature of the Middle Ages. This was reflected in the first of Brahms’ Ballades, the only program work of the four; its inspiration is “Edward” a Scottish poem that tells a grisly tale of deception and murder in a medieval royal family. Brahms found the folk ballad in Johann Gottfried Herder’s anthology “Stimmen der Volker.” Originally written in Scots, it was later translated into German and English:
“Why does your brand so drop with blood, Edward, Edward?
Why does your brand so drop with blood, And why so sad go ye, O?
O I have killed my hawk so good, Mother, mother;
O I have Killed my hawk so good, And I have no more but he, O…”
It transpires that Edward, on the advice of his mother, has murdered his father. Halevy takes the listener into the work with gentle introspection, we hear the blood evoked drop by drop in the left hand and the work builds up dramatically. Halevy’s melodic lines and phrasing remain articulate, despite the pianist’s generous use of the sustaining pedal.


The remaining three Brahms Ballades speak of no extra-musical program, as far as the listener is concerned. In the second, an Andante in D-major, its pensive, lyrical opening expounding the composer’s motto in the notes f-a-f “Frei aber froh” (free but happy); Halevy guides the listener through Brahms’ processes into the dramatic, highly textured middle section and back to the original lyricism with the utmost of poignancy. Then to the third, the B-minor Intermezzo, its opening enigmatic and distinctive in jagged accented notes, Halevy then leading on to delicate moments, bell effects and weightless cascading figures, his precise, clean finger-work lending lucidity to each. In the B-major Andante con moto, a work so Romantic in mood, its darker colours revealing underlying sadness, Halevy’s playing of the richly-laden texture allows for the piece to breathe in playing that is sensitively layered, poetic and evocative.


Ariel Halevy referred to Frédéric Chopin as a master of miniatures and the pioneer of the instrumental ballade, a form that Chopin appears to have virtually invented for the piano, one in which the composer did not wish to have any extra-musical narrative content. There has, however, been some speculation as to influence of Chopin’s poet compatriot, Adam Mickiewicz on them. Chopin’s Ballades, four separate pieces, written between 1831 and 1842, products of his maturity, are perhaps the finest examples of his flair for musical shape and tonal organisation. Opening with noble gestures, Halevy’s splendid playing of No.1 Op.23 in G-minor reads into its emotions, featuring their turmoil but also their fragility and (typically Polish) melancholy, enlisting reticence and subtle flexing of tempi. Ballade No.2 Op.18 in F-major has sometimes been understood to relate in some way to Poland's increasingly precarious political status in the early 19th century and Russia's eradication of the last vestiges of Polish independence in 1831, a tumultuous situation that affected Chopin deeply on both personal- and political levels. Halevy, referring to its contrasting moods as “schizophrenic”, moved convincingly between the piece’s idyllic-, semplice-, sometimes haunting agenda and its intense, vehement outbursts. The artist spoke of Ballade No.3 Op.47 in A-flat major as the tightest and most organized of Chopin’s Ballades. His playing of it brought out its positive appeal, moments of Romantic yearning and its liberal-, sweeping- and wholehearted musical gestures (perhaps the allure and glitter of the ballroom). Ballade No.4 in F-minor, Op. 52, was composed in 1842 in Paris and Nohant and revised in 1843. It was dedicated to Baroness Rothschild, who had invited Chopin to play at her Parisian residence, there introducing him to her aristocrat guests. By then, however, Chopin’s health was deteriorating. Rich in variation and polyphony, Ballade No.4, considered by some as the composer’s finest composition, offers, in Halevy’s words “light- and dark moments, drama and poésie”. Starting, as it were, in the middle of a phrase, its bitter-sweet melodies are reflective, their lyrical narrative stopping now and then, as if to reconsider, then starting anew. Halevy gave the work’s tender, introspective gestures time, then provoking the piece to bloom into dazzling outbursts of passion and emotion. His playing invited the listener to indulge in the work’s expansive passages as well as in its intimate, personal agenda.


Though equipped with an easeful, virtuosic technique, Halevy’s playing is never muscular or showy. He avoids the excesses to which Chopin is regularly subjected, rather opting for vitality and beauty of expression. His concise, interesting explanations set the scene for each piece. Born in Jerusalem, Ariel Halevy studied with Ilana Gutmann, Viktor Derevianko, Chana Shalgi and Jonathan Zack, then under Nina Svetlanova and Diane Walsh at the Mannes School of Music (New York). He performs as a soloist and chamber musician in Israel and abroad. His CD of late piano works of Brahms (2014) received glowing reviews. Ariel Halevy teaches at various music schools, also at the Israel Arts and Science Academy (Jerusalem), which he himself attended in his youth.


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