Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Three concerts - 2 viols and harpsichord - will take place in early February to celebrate Myrna Herzog's newly restored Lewis viol

Shlomo Moyal with Myrna Herzog (photo: Merav Moyal)
Dr Myrna Herzog’s two 17th century Lewis viols, bought in the space of 15 years, will  join in performance for the first time ever, following a long and almost-tragic saga. One, which had remained in Brazil, was severely damaged on an Alitalia flight some time ago. The scandalous occurrence made news worldwide. But there is a happy end to this tale. Over recent months, the instrument has undergone total restoration by Israeli luthier Shlomo Moyal. In Herzog’s words: “While I was considering to whom to give the instrument for such a vital restoration, Shlomo Moyal was highly recommended by friends whom I trust, among them one who is also a luthier. I then paid Shlomo a visit, saw the very high level of craftsmanship in the instruments he has made and in his restorations, and was convinced that the job could not be in better hands. And I was right. The result is AWESOME.”

To celebrate the instrument’s return to life and voice, the Israeli early music community will be able to join Myrna Herzog and Gio Sthel (Brazil/Germany) in recitals they will perform on the Edward Lewis viols, together with harpsichordist Marina Minkin. The concerts will present works of Forqueray, Corelli, Rameau, Schaffrath, Jenkins, Smorgonskaya and other composers.

 Wednesday 6th of February at 20:30
The Israel Conservatory of Music (Stricker), 25 Louis Marshall St., Tel Aviv
Reservations: 03-5466228

 Friday 8th of February at 12:00
The Eden-Tamir Music Center, Ein Kerem, Jerusalem
Reservations: 02-641-4250

Saturday 9th of February at 20:30 
The Studio, Beit Hecht, 142 HaNassi St., Central Carmel, Haifa
Reservations: 04-836-3804




Saturday, January 19, 2019

The upcoming Eilat Chamber Music Festival (February 6th to 9th) promises four days of high-quality performance

Russian violinist/countertenor/conductor Dmitry Sinkovsky (Marco Regrave)

On January 17th 2019, the Dan Hotel Tel Aviv hosted a press conference on the upcoming Eilat Chamber Music Festival (February 6th-9th) Gilli Alon-Bitton (Carousel Artists Management and PR) opened the meeting, showing a few short film clips - enough to whet one’s appetite for four days of good music in the sunny winter city.  First to address us was Yossi Chen of the Eilat Tourism Corporation. He talked about developments in Eilat - the new Ilan & Assaf Ramon Airport, improvements made to the promenade, about a campus for Law and Architecture studies, the planned international sport campus and the fact that the New York Times has graded Eilat as the sixth best vacationing resort in the world! This year, the Eilat Chamber Music Festival, one of the country’s finest, will be part of Eilat’s 70th anniversary celebrations. Since taking on the festival, the Dan Eilat Hotel, he added, has been offering hospitality of the highest standard!


Mr. Ronen Nissenbaum, the Dan Hotels' new President and CEO, will be celebrating his second Eilat Chamber Music Festival. With the Dan Hotels engaging in many cultural events, he is proud they are hosts of the “Partnership with Art” project. He promises guests many good surprises and much enjoyment - fine hospitality and good food, and reminded those present of the various accommodation-concert packages offered by the Dan Eilat for the festival. He concluded by mentioning Leonid Rozenberg’s experience and familiarity with Eilat.


Leonid Rozenberg, the Eilat Chamber Music Festival’s founder and musical director, spoke of the city’s long-standing support of the festival, referring to it as a mix of culture and vacation and singling out the Dan Hotels as “our family”, with outstanding hospitality offered by Dan Eilat Hotel’s manager Mr. Lior Mucznik and all the hotel workers. As to this year’s concerts, Rozenberg mentioned that family relations were an integral theme of the program, from members of the Elias Quartet (UK), to members of the Busch Trio (UK), to Russian violinist/countertenor/conductor Dmitry Sinkovsky’s wife performing with his ensemble, to the Jussen Brothers (duo-pianists, Holland), ‘cellist Jonathan Roozeman (Finland) and his pianist brother and to Israeli soprano Claire Meghnagi’s performance with Koby Aflalo, her brother-in-law. Rozenberg referred to this year’s festival as one of the most varied till now and that the concert of the three teenage pianists hailing from Moscow was sure to be a great attraction to guests. He also spoke of a unique performance featuring PA'dam’s singers and instrumentalists (Holland) in a new arrangement of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, adding that actor Dov Glickman (who shared a few informal words with the people at the press conference) would be accompanying it with readings from Bach’s own pen. And for those night owls wishing to hear high quality lighter music, there will be such events as a performance by London duo Koby Israelite and Annique and even a classical jam session!


The press conference ended with a glimpse into the final event of the festival - “The House of Bernarda Alba”,  a story of depression, money and love, based on a play by the Spanish dramatist Federico García Lorca. Introduced by Michal Natan of the Compas Dance Company, two dancers gave tender, expressive performances of Javier Latorre’s choreography set to a variety of musical styles.


Friday, January 18, 2019

Octopus, the Israel Pianists Quartet, performs works from Norway, Russia, Czechia, Hungary and a new Israeli work at the Mormon University, Jerusalem

Meir Wiesel,Ifat Zaidel,Tavor Gochman,Bart Berman (photo:Maxim Reider)
“40 Fingers around the World” was an apt title for the latest concert of Octopus - Israel Pianists Quartet - at the Sunday Evening Classics series of the Jerusalem Center for Far Eastern Studies on January 13th, 2019. Featuring four pianists playing on two pianos, Octopus was founded in 2013. Its eight hands are those of Ifat Zaidel, Bart Berman, Tavor Gochman and Meir Wiesel. Certainly a rare combination, the ensemble’s players are of diverse ages, hailing from Holland, Morocco and Israel. Much of their repertoire consists of arrangements; however, some new works have been written for the ensemble by Yosef Bardanashvili, Eran Ashkenazi, Naama Perel, Tzvi Avni and their own Meir Wiesel. Octopus will be performing at the Novi Sad Festival (Serbia) in July 2019.

The artists opened with a magical, picturesque reading of Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No.1 Op.46, as arranged by Adolf Ruthardt. Their delicate, evocative rendition of “Morning Mood” presented Grieg’s description of sunrise over the Moroccan desert, its melody singing over long-held, static bass notes and unfolding mysteriously. Following the artists’ buoyant and incisive playing of “Anitra’s Dance”, with its seductive melody and playful chromaticism, their rendition of  “The Death of Ase”, majestic yet intimate, ascribed  Peer Gynt’s mother more respect than did Gynt himself! Then to the underground palace “In the Hall of the Mountain King” and its dark caverns, its grotesque, hopping course and richly dissonant music becoming more and more menacing as it grew in volume and drama to an epic finale.

The piano arrangement of Alexander Glazunov’s orchestral fantasy “The Sea” Op.28 (1889) was penned by the composer himself, actually creating the vast seascape in no-less impressive dimensions than the orchestral version. The Octopus players’ descriptive presentation of the work, now decidedly pianistic, had the audience perched at the edge of their seats. Its rich agenda of nature’s moods, from squalls soaring to dramatic, tumultuous proportions, to moments of almost visual brightness and of restored serene tranquility, called forth the many facets of the sea, its beauty and its power. Glazunov’s own attached program, read by Wiesel, explains that the work depicts what is seen by a man looking out from the shore over a vast seascape; Glazunov adds his own personal message, claiming that  "everything the man had seen and all that he had felt in his soul, he recounted later to other men."

And to the world premiere of Meir Wiesel’s programmatic one poem “Ostinaton”, dedicated to fellow musician Bart Berman on the occasion of his 80th birthday. Wiesel set the scene with his eloquent narration of the work’s agenda: “Imagine you are walking in space. Everything is quiet, but, from time to time, interruptions occur. Aton, the Egyptian god of the sun, is watching you…” In an eerie, otherworldly manner, the chordal work evokes the person’s steps in chords some of a tonal nature, some with added dissonances, the ever-present steps occasionally diverting from rhythmic regularity, at others, punctuated by disturbing, grotesque comments (strange creatures?) or echoes. It’s quite a journey! Wiesel’s work creates a unique atmosphere, both beguiling and disturbing, as he takes the listener on a walk through infinity.

Back on terra firma, to Anton Dvořák’s Slavonic Dance in E-minor Op.46 No.2. Before orchestrating his two sets of Slavonic Dances, they were written as piano duets (one piano), indeed remunerative for both composer and publisher. The Slavonic Dances were arranged for eight hands by German music editor Robert Keller, who worked for the N.Simrock music publisher.  In dealing with his own native idiom, Dvořák did not use existing folk tunes in his dances, but created his own themes in the authentic style of Eastern European traditional  music, creating superb, idealized examples of their genres. The E-minor Slavonic Dance, in the form of a Ukrainian dumka, was performed with moments of lyricism and nostalgic yearning alternating with hearty, carefree sections. An infectious and  beautifully crafted performance. Remaining in Eastern Europe, Octopus concluded its world tour with a hearty Konzertstück - Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No.9, also known as “Carnival in Pest”; this, like the work before it, has also undergone a number of transcriptions, from  the original piano version, to a version for orchestra and for piano duet. Meeting Emil Kronke’s setting of it for eight hands at eye level, the players gave vivid expression to the work’s various tableaux, its Hungarian dances, its personal moments and its marvellously extravagant finale.

A fitting encore for their Jerusalem concert, the Octopus pianists performed Bart Barman’s artistic and sensitive arrangement of “Jerusalem of Gold” (Naomi Shemer), with its subtle  sprinkling of harmonic caprices. This was followed by their bold, zesty and high-spirited  playing of Aram Khachaturian’s  “Sabre Dance”. With its repertoire of various styles, the Israel Pianists Ensemble has much to offer its audiences, but it is the close collaboration of its members and their addressing of music’s smallest details that produce the quartet’s distinctive transparency- and beauty of sound.


Tuesday, January 15, 2019

A European Gathering: Gabriela Galván and Isidoro Roitman perform Baroque music for flute and lute at the Harmony Cultural Center, Jerusalem

Gabriela Galván, Isidoro Roitman (photo: Alejandro Held)
A concert of European salon music from 1700 and on was the bill for “Tertulias Europeas”, performed by Embouchure – Argentinean early music specialists  Gabriela Galván (Baroque flute) and Isidoro Roitman (lute) at the Harmony Cultural Center, Jerusalem, on January 9th 2019. Embouchure focuses on exploring the rich repertoire of sonatas for traverso and basso continuo of the 17th and 18th centuries. Isidoro Roitman spoke of all the works on the program as the genre written for leisure activity, music played in the home by people who knew how to dance and who played musical instruments. In fact, the Spanish word “tertulias” can refer to a social gathering or a regular informal gathering.


The whirlwind European tour began in Rome with Arcangelo Corelli’s Sonata Op.10 No.5 in F-major. Corelli published his only set of violin sonatas, Opus 5, on January 1st, 1700; they are arguably the finest and most influential ever assembled. Written in the Italianate style of his time, in its most polished and classic form, they became regarded as the hallmark of a musician’s skill and musicianship. In fact, all other Baroque sonatas can be defined as being pre- or post-Corelli. Existing as only a bass line and the unadorned violin part, with no harmonies, figurations or ornamentation, they also make demands on the player’s creativity and imagination. Sonata Op.10 No.5 is a suite, with four dances following an “abstract” prelude. From Galván’s pensive and highly expressive playing of the Prelude, she and Roitman presented the mood of each movement, balancing the sensitive gestures of the Prelude and Saraband with the forthright joy of the other movements, with Roitman adding more texture to repeats.  Galván’s playing was free, lush and ornamented, with some delectable concluding ornaments and flutters.


Another Italian composer Pietro Locatelli settled in Amsterdam, where he seems to have led the life of a freelance teacher, performer and composer. As a violinist, he was known as a fine improviser who jealously guarded his gifts. In one contemporary account we read that “Locatelli is so afraid of people’s learning from him that he won’t admit a musician into his concerts”. His Op.2 Sonatas were written for flute and continuo. Showing particular attention to the soft-toned flute and its articulation, the sonatas are well conceived for the instrument, exhibiting Locatelli’s galant writing to perfection. Galván and Roitman’s performance of Op.2 No.4 in G-major (1732), a sonata da chiesa, was performed with much elegance and with some stylish inégal moments. The artists highlighted the personal expression inherent in the third movement (Grave), amidst profuse ornamentation by Galván. An inventory of Locatelli’s possessions at his death in 1764 listed four violins, a viola, a double bass, two harpsichords, a fortepiano, two transverse flutes, one flûte d'amour and six music stands,  giving a lively picture of domestic music-making, it is highly probable that Locatelli was himself a flautist and played his own sonatas.


Sonata in E minor (HWV 375)  for flute and keyboard  (assumed to be) by Georg Friedrich  Händel, published in 1730 and referred to as Halle Sonata No. 2, is thought to be an early work, composed  before 1703, when Handel was a boy in Halle, but attribution is uncertain.(In 2001, Stanley Sadie wrote: “It is impossible to say how many flute sonatas were composed by George Frideric Handel, but the correct number is somewhere between none and eight “) Whatever its source, the artists performed the work with great refinement, Galván’s limpid traverso sound addressing and fashioning each small motif of the opening Adagio, taking on its chromatic leaps with agility and embellishing lavishly. Following the Allegro played with a sense of urgency and excitement, the small, pastoral Grave displayed some enchanting lute spreads and much expressiveness, with the elegance of noble court gallantry and French-mannered notes inégales seeing out the final Minuet.


Georg Philipp Telemann wrote the Metodische Sonate (Methodical Sonatas, 1728-1729)  to be performed either by solo flute or violin; written for the study of ornamentation, the score shows ornaments for the music below the staves with the melodies. This system invited players to either improvise ornaments or to make use of those suggested by the composer. A compendium of styles and genres of the period, well-crafted with a wealth of invention, one nevertheless tends to hear them played as didactic, pedestrian and “methodical” exercises. Galván and Roitman’s reading of Metodische Sonate Op.13 No.4 was, on the other hand, no wallpaper music, but playing finely sculpted in the opening Andante, intense in the Presto movement, then tender and ornate (Con Tenerezza) and concluding with the liveliness of the gigue-like Allegro.


The tour ended in Paris with French composer and flute virtuoso Michel Blavet’s Sonata Op.2 in G-minor “La Lumagne”. Perhaps the most distinguished French flautist of his century, Blavet, serving as first flautist in the orchestra of the Paris Opera, was well known for his purity of tone and brilliant technique. His second set of compositions, “Sonates mêlées de pièces pour la flûte traversière avec la basse” (1732), comprises sonatas of four alternating slow and fast movements, based on the Italian model. They are actually intended to be characterizations of persons, usually specified in the title; ”La Lumagne”,  a suite of dances, is no exception.  Galván certainly met the virtuoso demands made of the 18th-century flutist, combining elegance, subtlety and flair with energy and a substantial flute sound. Roitman’s playing offered interest and individual utterance. The final movement “Le Lutin” (the imp), a rhythmic character piece, combines the delicate with the intense, as Galván incorporated a profusion of lavish ornaments into the movement’s weave.


Lute and traverso concerts are rare to non-existing in Israel, and more the pity. Isidoro Roitman spent several years in Israel before leaving for London and eventually returning to Argentina. Today, he  works with early music ensembles and Baroque and Renaissance dancers in Argentina, Israel, Italy and England and has performed widely in Europe, South America and Australia. He has recorded CDs for Stradivarius and EWM and is a sought-after coach of singers, chamber groups and masterclasses. Playing on a lute lent to him for the concert, he missed the grandeur and flexibility of his own archlute. Gabriela Galván is a Baroque flautist of exceptional ability and emotional expression. She has performed on Baroque- and Classical flute in Germany, Brazil, Spain, Italy, Croatia, Israel and at the United Kingdom. With a passion for teaching, she works with groups of children and adolescents and teaches flute and chamber music at the Fine Arts School of the National University of La Plata. On an evening of decidedly European weather, the warm space of the Harmony Cultural Center provided a splendid environment for a social gathering to enjoy Baroque salon music.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Ensemble PHOENIX performs Mozart Flute Quartets at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem

Moshe Aron Epstein,Tali Goldberg,Myrna Herzog,Rachel Ringelstein (Eliahu Feldman)
On January 7th 2019, the hall in the Department of Musicology hosting the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Monday noon concerts was bursting at the seams with people interested to hear members of Ensemble PHOENIX performing three of W.A.Mozart’s flute quartets and on period instruments. The quartet consisted of Moshe Aron Epstein-flute, Tali Goldberg-violin, Rachel Ringelstein-viola and PHOENIX founder and director Myrna Herzog-’cello.


When staying in Mannheim at the end of 1777, 21-year-old Mozart met “a gentleman of means and a lover of all the sciences”. This man was Dutch surgeon Ferdinand De Jean, an amateur flautist, who commissioned Mozart to write three concertos and at least three quartets with strings for his instrument. Short of money, Mozart accepted the proposal. Despite the fact that, in a letter to his father, Mozart professed a disliking for the flute, he managed to finish three of the quartets (K. 285, 285a, and 285b) and two of the concertos (the second is actually a transposition of the Oboe Concerto from the preceding year) by the time he left Mannheim, settling with De Jean for just less than half of the original fee. What resulted are some of the Classical period’s most delightful works for flute.


Introducing the program, Dr. Myrna Herzog spoke of the three works on the program as having been composed within two months. From the very opening of the Quartet in G-major KV 285a, the second of the quartets commissioned by De Jean, one became aware of the mellowness of timbre when played on historic instruments, the warm delicate sound of gut strings integrating well with the sound quality of Epstein’s Classical flute. In the first movement (Andante), flute and violin engaged in dialogue, with viola and ‘cello also offering individual expression. The artists drew attention to the potential, sense of adventure and experimentation of the development section. The work’s second (and last) movement - Tempo di Menuetto - exuded appealing melodiousness, its small, playful gestures adding to the movement’s charm. In the Quartet in C-major KV Anh. 171, also of two movements, one experiences Mozart actively involving all players in the work’s weave. The Allegro movement was thoroughly convincing in its good humour, with close communication between the PHOENIX players as they bantered its motifs from one to the other. In the second movement, the modest but lovely subject gives rise to a set of six variations, the first given to the flute; this was amply embellished by Epstein. Variations two and three are led respectively by the violin and cello - in pleasing cantabile playing by Goldberg and Herzog, with some humorous comments from the viola (Ringelstein) - then moving into the C-minor variation, graced by melodic fragments and rich harmonic colour. Especially engaging in its separate agendas, the winsome fifth variation gave rise to delicate, sensitive playing, to be topped off by the spirited, dance-like gestures of the concluding variation.


Moshe Epstein spoke of the D-major KV 295 Quartet as being concerto-like in its writing - brilliant, technically challenging and fast. Indeed, right from the opening Allegro, it is clear that the composer’s intention was to endow the flute with great prominence, as the PHOENIX players communicated closely, addressing Mozart’s major-minor playfulness, giving voice to the movement’s secondary melodies and to its echoes of Mozart operatic gestures. The B-minor Adagio (referred to by Alfred Einstein as “the sweetest melancholy, perhaps the most beautiful accompanied flute solo that has even been written.”) was touching but tastefully restrained, its silken flute “aria” suspended above plucked string sonorities. Then, as the players launched into the final Rondeau, the movement’s Mozartian joie-de-vivre was reflected on the players’ faces as they all took on board its challenging text in debonair performance. One could not be angry at some audience members for humming along with the melodies, for is Mozart’s music not a source of happiness?


Regarding the instruments heard at the concert, Prof. Moshe Epstein played a flute built in England c.1800, an instrument thought to have been played in London at the first performances of Beethoven’s early symphonies. Dr. Myrna Herzog played an Andrea Castagneri Baroque ‘cello made in Paris in 1745, with an original Classical bow from the late 18th century. Rachel Ringelstein was playing on a German viola from the late 18th century (in unchanged original condition!)  with a replica of a Classical bow and Tali Goldberg played on a violin in Baroque reconditioning with a replica of a Classical bow.


So, did Mozart really dislike the flute? When he penned those disparaging words to his father in September 1778, he was struggling to fulfil the commission from De Jean. Also, the Mozart-era flute was much simpler and harder to play in tune than the modern flute, its holes placed according to the natural spread of the fingers, causing several notes to sound out of tune unless blown with the greatest of care. As the instrument was enjoying great popularity at the time, there would have been many amateur players trying their hand at it...and playing out of tune. Let’s just say Mozart was having an off-day when he wrote the letter!


Hearing these Mozart gems performed on period instruments and in a small hall was a true delight. Live performance is also about seeing and experiencing the players’ communication with each other and with the audience. Ensemble PHOENIX’ informed, polished and profound performance was well appreciated by the audience.  



Monday, January 7, 2019

"The Passinge Mesures" - harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani's recent recording of music of the English Virginalist School

Photo: Kaja Smith
Iranian/American harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani’s recent CD “The Passinge Mesures” offers a representative selection of music of the English (and Welsh) Virginalist school, much of it appearing in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, but not all. The artist takes the listener on a journey into the riches of this genre and into his own very personal relationship into it, a “repertoire which I increasingly came to feel I was born to play”, in the artist’s own words.


We are talking about an entire genre that developed and functioned over only a few of decades, the entire school dying out completely by the middle of the 17th century. William Byrd, the first great master of the English Virginalist school of keyboard composition, presided over this era.  Indeed, Esfahani’s playing of Byrd’s “The nynth pavian and galliarde, the Passinge Mesures” (from which the disc takes its title, “Passinge Mesures” apparently being an English miswriting of “passamezzo”), the two dances written in the 1570s to a passamezzo antico bass, bristles with ideas, buoyant figurations and registration changes.  Esfahani’s resourceful playing of the two dances and the variations on each is validation of the fantasy and exuberance there to be unleashed in this music. As to John Bull’s Chromatic (Queen Elizabeth’s) pavan and galliard, its opening pavan emerged meditative and bewitching, with the artist’s playing of the galliard, albeit ornate, still reminding the listener of the joyful dance’s leaps and hops and of its defining feature - a vigorous jump on the last two beats of a phrase.


The great Welsh composer Thomas Tomkins, Byrd’s last surviving pupil, is represented on the disc. His setting of the popular 16th century ballad tune “Barafostus Dreame” (it is not clear who this man was and what kind of dream he had) opens majestically; Esfahani’s playing of the work is stylish, varied and exhilarating, the artist’s hallmark dexterity and incisive playing spelling out the course of the eight variations as he highlights the individuality of each. To me, one of the disc’s highlights is the performance of Tomkins’ Pavana (FVB CXXIII), ceremonious, plangent, and eloquent, Esfahani’s ornamentation sometimes profuse, indeed always fascinating, as are the unexpected harmonic shifts embedded here and there in the score. Other dances featured include the elegant Pavin ‘M.Orlando Gibbons’ by Gibbons himself and “Nobodyes Gigge”, a cheerful, compact piece by Richard Farnaby (Giles Farnaby’s lesser-known son, employed to teach Sir Nicholas Saunderson of Fillingham’s children ‘in skill of musick and plaieinge uppon instruments’)


With the simple melodic style of popular songs and folk tunes serving as a starting-point for composers of the English Virginal School to engage in elaborate forays into keyboard virtuosity, the disc also includes a selection of pieces based on song melodies - an anonymous setting of John Dowland’s wistful “Can she excuse my wrongs?” and Esfahani’s serene playing of  William Inglot’s empathic setting (one of several) of “The leaves bee greene”, a popular tune of the late 16th. Century, also referred to as “Browning”:
‘Browning Madame, browning Madame,
So merrily we sing browning Madame,
The fairest flower in the garden green,
 Is in my love's breast all comely seen,
And with all others, compare she can,
Therefore now let us sing browning Madame.’

Then there are a number of song-based pieces by Giles Farnaby, whose cousin, Nicholas Farnaby, a maker of virginals, may have been instrumental in pointing him in the direction of keyboard music and his subsequent contributions to the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. I have heard performances of Farnaby’s “Wooddy-Cock” sounding like a lexicon of harpsichord techniques. Esfahani’s reading of it speaks of its temperament, invention and spirit; in his bold, unfettered playing of some variations, Esfahani does not waive articulacy in the name of harum-scarum complexity.


And if the fantasia is the composer’s unbuttoned invitation to spontaneity and free expression, this great keyboard artist meets him at eye level, as in John Bull’s Fantasia “Mr Dr Bull”, Esfahani identifying- and celebrating John Bull’s daring and individuality with his own, both their excursions into keyboard virtuosity taking the listener to the edge of his chair. Indeed, no less so in William Byrd’s “Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la”, also referred to as the “Hexachord Fantasia”, featuring the stepwise ascending and descending Guidonian hexachord as a recurrent subject (seventeen times, in fact) and including two song melodies. Esfahani, however, takes it a step further as he invites the piece to burgeon with the rich palette of his own natural and spontaneous expression.


Recorded in 2017 for the Hyperion label, most of the pieces are played on a double-manual harpsichord by Robert Goble & Son, Oxford (1990) based on an instrument made by Carl Conrad Fleischer, Hamburg (1710), with some works performed on virginals made by Huw Saunders, London (1989) and a copy of an instrument made by Thomas White, London (1642). The temperament used for the recording was quarter-comma meantone. The artist’s personal and informative liner notes make for interesting reading. Listening to the warm, richly resonant recording quality of “The Passinge Mesures”, with just enough of a hint of keyboard action heard, I felt as if I had been seated in Mahan Esfahani’s own music room to experience this music together with him. A disc of remarkable performance, conviction and originality! The album is dedicated to the memory of Canadian historic keyboard artist Bradford Tracey (1951-1987).

Photo: Miri Shamir

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Shir Semmel and Dror Semmel - the Jerusalem Piano Duo - perform works for two pianos at the Eden-Tamir Music Center, Jerusalem

Photo: Dan Porges

Inclement weather was no deterrent to the large audience which filled the hall of the Eden-Tamir Music Center Ein Kerem, Jerusalem, on December 29th 2018 to hear the Jerusalem Piano Duo - siblings Shir Semmel and Dror Semmel - in “The Glorious Sound of the Piano”.


W.A.Mozart composed Sonata in D Major for two pianos in the Autumn of 1781, dedicating the piece to Josepha Auernhammer, a student of his, who was to become known as one of the most famous piano soloists of her time. (Mozart, however, had some reservations about her playing.) Two years younger than Mozart, it seems, from the composer’s own writing, that she was in love with him, the sentiments not reciprocated by him. Surprisingly, Mozart must have dealt tactfully with the situation, as the piece was premiered by him and Auernhammer in Vienna in November of 1781. The work is recognized as being one of the most important of the repertoire for two pianos. In his opening remarks, Dr. Dror Semmel referred to it as “chamber music”. With their playing of the opening Allegro con spirito somewhat evoking the excitement and expectation inherent in a Mozart opera overture, the artists gave their performance of it Classical charm in playing that was fresh, alive and distinguished by clean fingerwork and a sense of discovery. The Andante was appealing and enchanting in its shaping, its dialogue touched by the occasional passing grey cloud. Could the dainty and enigmatically wistful major-minor motifs of the Andante movement have been an expression of Mozart’s feelings towards his pupil? As to the Allegro molto, the artists did not use it as a vehicle for showy bravura, rather as joyous entertainment, as it offered a few concerto-like opportunities for cadenzas with Mozartean elegance and sophistication.


Sergei Rachmaninoff originally called his Suite No. 1 Op. 5 “Fantaisie-Tableaux for two pianos”, envisioning the work as “a series of musical pictures” Dedicated to Tchaikovsky, the work’s vibrant textures and sweeping, abundant expressivity testify to Tchaikovsky’s style; however, the 20-year-old Rachmaninoff’s writing here also exhibits certain distinctive features of his own mature style. Shir and Dror Semmel set before the audience the work’s expansive canvases, each movement a pageant of energy, of vivid descriptive scenes, as in the opening Barcarolle’s evocative descriptions of water, its singing, lyrical melody juxtaposed with the  fragile but complex weave of the accompanying figures; then “La nuit...L’amour”, no tranquil, moonstruck night scene but one spiralling into an arresting, intense passionate utterance, rich in undercurrents wrought of extravagant passagework, yet permeated by the ever-present plangent call of the nightingale. The pianists’ masterful rendition of “Les Larmes” (Tears) showed the tear motif’s extraordinary transformative potential - both melodically and dynamically - its dimensions at times immense, at others, haunting, in a soundscape substantially awash with sustaining pedal but definitely articulate. And the finale, “Pâques” (Easter), a scene of vibrant colours and immense, spectacular proportions, its liturgical chant set against the repetitive tolling of Russian Orthodox church bells, building up to a cumulative effect emerging powerful and experiential. A memorable performance!


The final work on the program, Johannes Brahms’ Sonata for two pianos in F-minor, Op.34b, just one setting of a number made by the composer, the original being a string quintet (with two ‘cellos à la Schubert) from 1862 which the composer went and destroyed. (Brahms was a stern critic of his own work). When again embarking on a string quintet in the spring of 1882, he opted for the more common “Mozart” ensemble of two violins, two violas, and 'cello. The latter was revised in 1864 as a piano quintet (Op.34a). With the two-piano version appearing between the first two quintet settings, it is not sure whether or not it served as his personal ground plan for further scoring or as a means of introducing musicians and music lovers to the quintet. (Clara Schumann did not give it her approval, however, referring to it as an “arrangement,” and encouraging Brahms to produce the final piano quintet version.) Brahms, however, seems to have differed in opinion, premiering the two-piano version with Carl Tausig (a student of Liszt) in Vienna in 1864. It was dedicated to Princess Anna of Hessen, who was fond of this setting. (With neither of the two piano parts matching the piano part from the piano quintet, the scoring of each version is noticeably independent.) Dror Semmel referred to the two-piano version as “orchestral”. A dark work that spends much of its time in the middle and lower registers of the two pianos, the two artists’ like-minded, profound reading of it was vivid, Romantic and highly contrasted, never moving far from the yearning constantly welling up in Brahms’ soul. From the opening Allegro non troppo, with its brilliance, its percussive timbres, orchestral tutti, its pared-down, mysterious moments and the fragile character of the higher register, the fact that Brahms usually reversed the piano parts when analogous music returned emerged even-handed. The pianists gave a personal voice to the tranquil, Romantic agenda of the Andante and its sensibilité, the movement’s course defying bar-lines as it flowed into the unexpected. In sharp contrast and displaying split-second precision, they took on board the demands of the feisty Scherzo movement with its daring chordal textures, rhythmic trickery and power. Issuing in the Finale with the otherworldly, meditative, somewhat disturbing Poco sostenuto, Shir and Dror Semmel gave the movement’s many moods grandeur, warmth and ardour, all without excess and all without overstated sentimentality.


A graduate of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, the Mannes School of Music and Stony Brook University, Dror Semmel performs and teaches. He is the director of masterclasses and Young Pianists programs at the Aldwell Center for Piano Performance and Musicianship (Jerusalem) and serves as a juror for piano competitions. Soloist and avid chamber musician, Shir Semmel graduated from the Jerusalem Music Academy, completing her Master of Music degree at the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music. After spending four years at the Peabody Institute as a student of Leon Fleisher, she is currently pursuing her DMA at SUNY Stony Brook under the tutelage of Gilbert Kalish.Taking on some of the most challenging works written for two pianos, Shir and Dror Semmel’s playing radiates the joy of music-making, displaying deep enquiry into the works, polished performance and superb musicianship.