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.  



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