Saturday, April 27, 2019

The Cuckoo, the Nightingale and the Organ - the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, Yuval Rabin, Gefen and Tchelet Rabin in works for organ and string ensemble at the Redeemer Church, Jerusalem

Photo: Noam Bitton

“The Cuckoo, the Nightingale and the Organ”, a collaboration of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra and the International Organ Festival (Israel Organ Association), was an afternoon concert of organ and strings on April 24th 2019 at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. Well attended, the concert featured organist Yuval Rabin (Israel/Switzerland), seven JBO players (leader: Zohar Alon) and Rabin’s daughters Gefen and Tchelet.


The program opened with Georg Friedrich Händel’s Organ Concerto in F major HWV 295 “The Cuckoo and the Nightingale”, composed in 1739 to be played in between the first and second acts of “Israel in Egypt”. Following the brief overture, the Allegro movement presented cheerful back-and-forth echoing of orchestra and soloist in bell-like organ timbres; an extended passage for the organ began a series of cuckoo calls, later continuing with the warbling gesture associated with nightingales. As to the third movement, Handel asked for an organ improvisation, Rabin filling it with a majestic, festive opening and an aria-type piece. This was followed by a radiant, vigorous Allegro movement.


With the Redeemer Church’s Schuke organ especially suited to German music of the 17th and 18th centuries, Rabin chose to perform J.S.Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in A minor BWV 543, one of Bach's great virtuoso works, filled with rapid figurations and requiring a very high level of dexterity. Highlighting the difference between unaccompanied and harmonized passages, Rabin’s playing of the Prelude was gripping, then taking the fugue theme through its many keys and numerous contrapuntal combinations, giving less prominent colouring to its episodes, the counterpoint then withdrawing to present another prelude-like passage of quasi-improvisatory freedom. From father to son, it is thought that Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s Organ Concerto in G major (1755) was written for Anna Amalia, Frederick the Great’s younger sister. She was an enthusiastic player but not able to play the pedals, probably explaining why the work has no pedal part. At the Jerusalem concert, continuo and organ gave a lively, well-coordinated performance of the work, a piece displaying Bach’s unflagging interest in exploring formal schemes and the relationship between solo and tutti, with Rabin juxtaposing two different registers in the opening Allegro, an unusually ambitious, sprawling concerto movement for the pre-Classical period. All maintained the tension of the cantabile Largo movement, to sign out with dynamic contrasts and festive organ sonorities.of the final Presto.


For the final work on the program, Rabin and the JBO string players left the organ loft to perform Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto in C major for violin, ‘cello and organ in the chancel of the church. They were joined by Rabin’s twin daughters Gefen (violin) and Tchelet (‘cello). Of Vivaldi’s 600 or so concertos, those for organ (or harpsichord) are less known than many others, numbering nine in all. The keyboard style also reflects the writing of Vivaldi the violin virtuoso, with the right hand playing violin-like figurations, while the left is mostly reduced to a continuo accompaniment. With no pedal part included, and the organ part engaging only one manual, meaning that the keyboard instrument Vivaldi had in mind was clearly a chamber organ, as was played at this concert. In the spirit of C major, this concerto is joyous and light-hearted; that is not to say it is a simple work to perform for any of the soloists. Composed during Vivaldi’s time as music master at the girl’s orphanage Ospedale della Pietà in Venice, it would have been played by the Pietà’s gifted pupils during intervals in the Pietà’s church services. Playing the work by heart, eleven-year-old Gefen and Tchelet’s competence, fine technique and chamber music know-how were most impressive. The audience showed its appreciation!


Born in Haifa in 1973, Yuval Rabin studied at the Dunie Weizmann Conservatory (Haifa), the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance (organ, theory, Baroque music, education), the Basel Academy of Music (organ, modern improvisation) and the Schola Cantorum Basiliensas (harpsichord, clavichord). Today, Rabin participates in festivals, performs internationally with ensembles, orchestras and choirs on harpsichord and clavichord and records. His CD “Organ Music from Israel” for the MDG label has received excellent reviews. Rabin lives in Basel, Switzerland, but remains involved in Israel’s music life.


Monday, April 22, 2019

"Bohemian Rhapsody" - the Carmel Quartet discusses and performs quartets of Janáček and Dvořák

Rachel Ringelstein,Tali Goldberg,Tami Waterman,Yonah Zur (photo:Yoel Levy)
“Bohemian Rhapsody” was the title of lecture-concert No.4 of the Carmel Quartet’s 2018-2019 Strings and More season. Founded in 1999, the Carmel Quartet is directed by violist Dr. Yoel Greenberg. This writer attended the event at the Jerusalem Music Centre, Mishkenot Sha’ananim on April 10th 2019. Taking part in the (English language) event were Rachel Ringelstein and Tali Goldberg-violins and Tami Waterman-’cello; also, guest violist Yonah Zur, who gave the audience much information on the evening’s two composers - Janáček and Dvořák – and the works performed.


Born to a peasant family, Czech composer Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) was born in Hukvaldy in north-eastern Moravia and grew up within a folk-song tradition. His parents sent him to study in Brno, where he became a choirboy and studied organ. Later, in Prague, he became an organ student of Dvořák, and a lasting friendship was formed between the two. A restless, stubborn person, Janáček moved to Leipzig, to Vienna and back to Brno. He felt he did not belong to any one place; neither did he identify with the late Romantic musical language of Richard Strauss, Mahler and Bruckner. Janáček was fascinated by the sounds around him, such as bird calls and thunder, noting and notating them in a notebook he carried around with him; he also wrote down phrases he heard people saying, referring to them as “speech melodies”. In 1917, he met a young married woman - Kamila Stösslová - at the Moravian spa town of Luhačovice. His infatuation with her resulted in over 700 letters written to her (the women players read some excerpts from them) and the dedication of a character to her in each of his last operas. When he died, she, and not his wife, was at his side. Janáček’s Quartet No.2 “Intimate Letters”, played at the Jerusalem concert, was yet another of the works dedicated to Kamila Stösslová. Each of the movements represents a real or imagined stage in Janáček’s relationship with Stösslová. The Carmel Quartet’s vigorous and informed reading of the work addressed its lyricism and sentimentality, but also the many less conventional effects woven into the score, producing coarse or otherworldly sounds. Following the third movement, imitating dance forms and forming the work's emotional climax, the players emphasized the composer’s yearning written into the fourth. Their performance displayed the vocal origin of Janáček’s melodies, the nationalist vernacular, the naturalistic and the personal emotions behind the work.


Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904) was born in Nelahozeves near Prague. Yonah Zur spoke of him as “easily the most-travelled composer of his age”, adding that he adopted musical elements from wherever he had been. The studies in Prague he took with German teachers provided him with his “musical mother tongue”. In his 20s, Dvořák served as a theatre violist, the work familiarizing him with Italian and French opera; he was influenced by the Nationalist movement and by the music of Smetana and Wagner. He also looked eastwards to Slavic influences. Brought to the USA to “launch American music”, it was there that he heard such genres as music of Native Americans and Irish music. At the Jerusalem concert, the Carmel Quartet performed Dvořák’s String Quartet No.13 in G major, Op.106. Written at the end of 1895 soon after the composer’s return home from America, his mood extraordinarily happy; an affirmation of life and nature, this quartet, revealing the composer’s total mastery of the medium, was (in Zur’s words) Dvořák’s “swan song” to his German musical background. With the Carmel players’ signature richness of timbre and exemplary care over internal balance, they gave credence to the work’s lyrical melodic freshness and folk idioms, addressing each gesture with meaning and shape. As to the Adagio movement, the centrepiece of the quartet and one of the composer’s finest string quartet movements, the artists integrated its eloquence with a measure of contemplative intensity. The exuberance of the Finale, its positive, assertive manner reminiscent of the opening movement, was interspersed with moments of wistfulness colouring the atmosphere prior to work’s affirmative, joyful conclusion.


Saturday, April 20, 2019

The Meitar Ensemble performs works from Mozart to Erel Paz at the Israel Conservatory, Tel Aviv

Photo: Janna Menhel

The Meitar Ensemble’s recent concert at the Chamber Music Centre (direction and production: Dr. Raz Binyamini) of the Israel Conservatory Tel Aviv on April 13th 2019 was proof yet again that no two concerts of this group are alike or predictable.  Established in 2004 by pianist Amit Dolberg and based in Tel Aviv, the Meitar Ensemble consists of a group of virtuosic young Israeli musicians specializing in contemporary music; it has commissioned and premiered over 200 new works to date. Appearing at some of the most prestigious venues and festivals worldwide, the group is also the ensemble-in-residence of the Israel Conservatory of Music, Tel Aviv. Acclaimed for its significant contribution to the development of Israeli culture and music, the ensemble has initiated a number of major educational projects.


The program spanned a number of genres - ballet, opera, stage music, radio and video art - including such elements as jazz, folk music and children’s songs. Two of the works were accompanied by video films produced by students of the Sapir College’s School Department of Media and Communication. Off to a surprisingly Classical start, the concert opened with ‘cellist Yoni Gotlibovich’s arrangement of the Overture to W.A.Mozart’s “Magic Flute”, a lush, well-grounded and festive offering.


A substantial part of the program focused on European works of the first half of the 20th century, its times and influences, repertoire often neglected into today’s programming. Maurice Ravel’s “Mother Goose” Suite, five tableaus inspired by ancient French fairy tales, originally written for piano duet (1910) and orchestrated by the composer In 1911, was heard here in the Meitar Ensemble’s own arrangement, based on that of David Walter. The players’ detailed and delicate shaping of phrases and exquisite mix of timbres gave vivid musical elucidation to each tableau - the Pavan danced around a sleeping princess, Tom Thumb’s disheartening wanderings through the woods depicted by seemingly endless phrases and meter changes, to the exotic colours depicting the Empress of the Pagodas in turn-of-the-century orientalism styled by pentatonic scales, to their articulate depiction of the characters and touching dialogues in “Beauty and the Beast” with their poignant solos and with their sense of mystery, magic and fantasy, to conclude with serene, almost beatific, calm and delicate sonority celebrating all that  is good and beautiful in “The Enchanted Garden”. The student video film shown simultaneously, depicting a young woman meeting a friend, dancing, then covering her clothes and herself from head to toe in thick paint, “providing new realistic levels connecting Ravel’s work to a contemporary, locational experience” (program notes) seemed a poor, uninformed and irrelevant interpretation of the beguiling innocence and imagination of Ravel’s “cinq pièces enfantines,” as he himself called these magical vignettes.


With his use of music constituting a didactic synthesis of the tumultuous times and the very contradictions in which he lived and worked, composer Hanns Eisler’s Septet No.1 Op.92a ("Variations on American Children's Songs") (1941) for flute, clarinet, bassoon, and string quartet, represents the composer’s search for a new simplicity with new resources. Septet No.1 is a fine vehicle for the Meitar players: its canvas rich in sophisticated scoring is largely atonal, with the charming (tonal) children’s songs threaded into the weave one by one. Articulate and transparent, the members’ performance bristled with humour, vibrancy and nostalgia, their solos and duets played with fastidious, delicate shaping and expression, forming an auspicious meeting-point of compositional savoir faire and the wide-eyed world of children’s song.


With the 1920s being radio days, Paul Hindemith believed in a strong link between music and social needs, regarding the composer as a craftsman, as someone who could provide for those needs. Thus, he composed several pieces for the emergent radio, his style of writing adhering to the confines of recording restrictions of the time. “Drei Anekdoten für Radio” (1925), scored for violin, double bass, piano, trumpet and clarinet, bears the stamp of his unconventional and eclectic chamber music, tonal but not devoid of dissonances. The artists gave succinct and characterful expression to each of the three miniatures: the whimsical Scherzando with its jazzy tonings, followed by “Langsame Achtel’ (slow eighth-notes) its melancholic scene set by the violin (Moshe Aharonov) with clarinet (Gilad Harel), a muted trumpet (Yuval Shapiro) and a sizable piano section (Amit Dolberg), to burgeon into a stylish mood piece of many strands, with  the playful, forthright canvas of “Lebhafte Halbe” (Lively half-notes) forming the last movement..


Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů’s 1927 jazz ballet “La Revue de Cuisine” (Kitchen Review), consists of ten movements for violin, cello, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet and piano, in which the composer demonstrates the possibilities of jazz in a chamber setting without percussion. With jazz all the rage in Paris at the time, the war and its aftermath brought American dance bands to Europe. Incorporating such popular dances as the Charleston, tango and the foxtrot dances into the unlikely tale of a kitchen utensil love-triangle, Martinů’s work was premiered in Paris in 1930. The Meitar artists’ vivid reading of it breezed through its very complicated time schemes with ease, displaying the whimsy and temperament of Martinů’s writing as heard in the soloistic banter (such as coquettish bassoon utterances - Nadav Cohen) between instruments and highlighting the jazz influence through such features as the Dixie-style clarinet writing, the shifting meters of the piano’s rhythmic role and the jazz band timbre of the muted trumpet.


Israeli composer Erel Paz (b.1974) composed “A Happy Song?” in 2006 for the Meitar Ensemble. Based on an Eastern European children’s song (originally sung in Yiddish) the composer remembers its “Israeli form” from his childhood.  In the program notes, the composer writes that the song text is both jolly and cheeky, its minor tonality, however, making reference to some underlying sadness, hence the question mark in the title. Paz also explains that his piece is made up of elements broken down from the song melody, meaning that there is no longer any possibility of recognizing the song itself. Conducted by flautist Hagar Shahal at the Tel Aviv concert, the listener became aware of recurring elements such as a drone or descending glissandos and also of rapid movement as opposed to time more static. Complementing the musical work, Noa Dolberg and Tamar Tal’s video film, with its relentless black-and-white erratic, hurtling flight through skies and forests contrasted by serene scenes, such as the face of a sleeping woman, reflected both the music’s duality and its somewhat disquieting essence, both music and visuals to conclude with the tranquillity of a pine forest scene.


An evening of the fine performance quality that comes of profound scrutiny of works and styles and sensitive collaboration. Taking part were: Hagar Shahal-flute, Gilad Harel-clarinet, Nadav Cohen-bassoon, Yuval Shapiro-trumpet, Moshe Aharonov, Noam Lilior Gal-violins, Lotem Beider Ben Aharon-viola, Yoni Gotlibovich-’cello, Eran Borovich-double bass, Amit Dolberg-piano



Monday, April 15, 2019

At a house concert in Jerusalem, Trio Noga performs works from the 18th- to the 21st centuries

Orit Messer-Jacobi,Idit Shemer,Maggie Cole (courtesy Trio Noga)
Trio Noga (Idit Shemer-flute, Orit Messer-Jacobi-’cello and Maggie Cole-piano) has recently given a series of concerts in various locations in Israel. Formed some four years ago, the trio undertakes two concert tours a year. With individual careers in period instrument performance as well as a shared appreciation of "modern" instrument timbres, the trio members bring their audience uniquely personal and sensitive interpretations of repertoire ranging from the late 18th century to the early 21st century, also premiering works of contemporary Israeli composers. This writer attended the concert at a private home in Jerusalem on April 8th 2019.


The program opened with Joseph Haydn’s Trio in G major, Hob.XV:15 (1790), the second of three of the composer’s trios for flute, ‘cello and piano. If necessity is the mother of invention, here is a classical (Classical!) case: with the flute a favourite instrument of the aristocracy and of London’s genteel bourgeoisie, Haydn, who had previously written little music for the instrument, received a commission for a set of three trios for piano with flute and ‘cello, bringing him to London. Not that the three instruments are equal players: in what refers back to Baroque instrumentation, the ‘cello here is still mostly closely linked to the left-hand of the piano, functioning in a supporting role. In spirited tempos and well-defined rhythms, the Noga players gave freshness to Haydn’s abundance of invention, cheerful sense of well-being and Haydnesque surprises, with the forays into minor keys, darker, pensive moments but never tragic, always to find their way back to joyful utterances. Shemer and Cole engaged in close dialogue. Haydn’s wit was never far away, evident in such gestures as the prolonged piano cadenzas.


Claude Debussy’s "Petite Suite" was originally written for four hands piano in 1889. Debussy was 27. It has also been transcribed several times - for orchestra, clarinets, for harp, brass band, and for chamber wind ensemble. The arrangement we heard was by Israeli ‘cellist, pianist and composer Doron Toister. The first tone poem  “En bateau” (On a Boat) probably inspired by Paul Verlaine’s poem of the same name, a sensuous text set on a skiff that floats across dreamy, moonlit water, was illuminated by Idit Shemer’s silky floating, long-spanning melody winding its way nostalgically above the murmur of gently rolling piano chords, pizzicato and occasional melodic comments on the part of Messer-Jacobi. “Cortège” (Procession) another, somewhat more curious poem from the Verlaine collection, describes a genteel lady preceded by her pet monkey, the train of her dress carried by a helper. Here, the artists’ individual expression melds into lively tutti sections, punctuated by occasional reflective moments. Out of the weave of  the vivid timbres making up the fabric of the Menuet, Debussy’s winsome  quasi-oriental, quasi-modal melody emerges, to be followed by “Ballet”, its outer sections majestic and hearty, its middle section coy and reticent.


As young piano students, many of us have played pieces by Kuhlau. He also wrote much and well for the flute and, although referred to as the “Beethoven of the flute”, was not a flautist.  Having fled from Germany to Denmark in 1810, his influence on Danish music was considerable. Outside of Denmark, he was known primarily as a concert pianist. Friedrich Kuhlau’s Grand Trio Op.119 (1831), one of his last works, was originally written for two flutes and piano; the composer himself arranged the second flute part for ‘cello (or bassoon), elevating that role to the status of an equal partner with the other instruments. Trio Noga’s performance of the hearty work highlighted the composer’s natural gift for melodic writing, for exploiting the timbres and technical prowess of each and the interaction between them. A congenial and entertaining work performed in its most natural setting - the private music salon!


Israeli-born composer/singer Ayala Asherov’s “Seasons” (2010), taking its inspiration from four poems of Israeli poet laureate Chaim Nahman Bialik, the work winning her the 2011 Chamber Music Composition Award at the biennial Athena Music Festival, is a set of tone poems of a lyrical and rhapsodic character. I had the privilege of hearing the work performed by Trio Noga in 2018, with the composer herself reading the poems. A work well suited to the Noga players with their precise and profound reading of it presenting nature descriptions intertwined with the composer’s personal ruminations, each piece concludes with an underlying sense of sadness, or was it Asherov’s pining for her homeland when away for a number of years? The artists set the scene with a magical, dreamy summer soundscape; “Fall” opened with Cole’s reticent arpeggios over which flute and ‘cello proceeded to converse, the scene evoking autumnal melancholy. Then the uncompromising, harsh image of winter, its squalls and malevolence created by driving rhythms and dramatic textural intensity, to be followed by the re-awakening of nature and the human spirit in “Spring” played in a celebratory manner, with allusions to Israeli folk dances, nevertheless to take its leave deep in thought. Shemer, Cole and Messer-Jacobi have probed and processed Asherov’s fine work with insight.


The artists took advantage of the informal house concert situation to offer just a few explanations on each work. Playing on a high-quality electronic piano, Maggie Cole gave convincing renditions of the four works, each of which, she explained might have been played on a different piano! Once again, the outcome of Trio Noga’s fine teamwork and artistic enquiry was performance of the highest level.


The audience gently hummed along as Trio Noga members concluded the evening with a sensitive and lavishly melodious performance of Israeli composer Avi Bar-Eitan’s arrangement of Oded Lerer’s familiar melody “I Ask for Forgiveness” to a poem of Lea Goldberg.


Thursday, April 11, 2019

J.S.Bach's St. John Passion performed under the baton of Maestro Joshua Rifkin at the 2019 Bach in Jerusalem Festival

Photo: Yoel Levy
Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. John Passion was the centr
al work of the 2019 Bach in Jerusalem Festival, an annual festival with events in Jerusalem and other locations in Israel; it is under the auspices of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra and directed by the JBO’s founder and director Prof. David Shemer. Directed by eminent visiting conductor Joshua Rifkin (USA), the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra was joined by soloists soprano Keren Motzeri (Israel/Holland), alto Avital Dery (Israel), tenor Richard Resch (Germany) and baritone Drew Santini (Canada/Holland) and by ripieno singers Liron Givoni-soprano, Iphigenie Worbes-alto, Hillel Sherman-tenor and Hagai Berenson-bass. This writer attended the performance at the Jerusalem International YMCA on March 25th 2019.

Composed in 1721, the St. John Passion, a work on which Bach clearly placed high value, was one of the few works he revised and revived intermittently till the end of his life. Robert Schumann, who conducted it 1851, considered it “more daring, forceful and poetic” than the St. Matthew Passion. John Eliot Gardiner has called it “the more radical of Bach’s surviving passion settings.” Directly dramatic and focused on telling the story, the structure of the St. John Passion closely follows the drama itself, giving it a more “operatic” feel, especially in the extraordinarily intense trial scene. The drama is played out on multiple levels: arias take us outside the tragic narrative at strategic points to reflect on the action, and chorales, providing moments of stability, bring us forward into the present day to focus on the congregation. The Passion is in two parts. Bach’s anonymous librettist drew on poetry from various writers for the aria texts. The gospel narrative is from St. John; however, in order to heighten the drama, Bach inserts two dramatic episodes from the Gospel of St. Matthew — the crowing of the cock after Peter denies knowing Jesus and the earthquake that follows the crucifixion. In recent decades, many people have been uncomfortable with the St. John Passion due to its depiction of the Jews and this issue has been much addressed. Yet, despite the fact that it may trouble our modern sensibilities, the work speaks to our time, not just to Bach’s, via all its profound and magnificent music.

Joshua Rifkin’s St. John Passion was a process - the narrative, the utterances and emotions of the main characters, the crowd and the minor characters (the latter roles sung my members of the ripieno choir) - but, in this performance, the process seemed to burgeon no less powerfully within the mind and emotions of the listener as the work proceeded. This was triggered by the tension and the feeling of unrest created by very chordal structure of the opening overture/chorus, with the long sequence of deep stresses of “Herr, Herr, Herr” in compelling exchange from voice to voice, this symbolizing the deep-seated conflict of good versus evil about to unfold. We were immediately transported to another world, one teaming with profound and complex emotions

In the mammoth role of the Evangelist and tenor soloist, Richard Resch, no new face to the Israeli Baroque concert scene, his voice resonant, warm and generous, his performance displaying interpretive expressiveness and subtlety, guided the listener through the chronicle with a sense of fervent involvement. This was inherent in his melismatic singing of “weinete” (wept) set against the orchestra’s anguished falling chromatic notes to describe Peter weeping bitterly (item 12) or his spine-chilling aria “My Jesus, ah! Your bitter, painful suffering” (item 20) - tender, empathic, wonderfully shaped in sotto voce colourings, this endorsed by velvety, muted string playing. In the role of Jesus, Canadian-born baritone Drew Santini, making his Israeli debut, gave credence and poetically understated meaning to the narrative, as in item 16, singing the final “Aber nun ist mein Reich nicht von dannen” (My kingdom is not here) where Bach clearly portrays Jesus thinking about his real kingdom, the one in heaven. Hence the major key. Santini’s singing was rich, intense, supple, warm and unstrained. Articulate musically and in diction, soprano Keren Motzeri was convincing and personal in “I follow thee also” (item 9), represented poignantly by Bach in having the voice enter and the flutes (Idit Shemer, Geneviève Blanchard) following together at a short interval. Motzeri’s singing was elegant, touching and engaging and graced with gentle rubato in “Dissolve, my heart” (item 35) with flute obbligato (Shemer), her finely-controlled “piano” singing reaching all corners of the hall. In the alto aria “From the bonds of my sins” (item 7), Avital Dery’s eloquent and profound performance (at certain moments masked by the woodwinds) offered new musical and verbal meaning to the repeat of the first section. In "Es ist vollbracht!” (It is accomplished), essentially a viola da gamba solo and alto aria, we were better able to appreciate her wonderful voice and interpretation as she and gambist Myrna Herzog joined to exquisitely convey the intense tragedy of the moment (Christ’s last words and death), the aria’s almost disturbing sudden outburst of joy, momentarily celebrating the “hero from Judah”, ornamented with vocal melismas, then to succumb to the movement’s original grief. Herzog and Dery’s collaboration and emotional interpretation at this crucial moment of the Passion were, indeed, a highlight of the evening’s performance.

In what was almost a one-performer-per-part ensemble, the JBO players achieved a remarkably rich and lush amalgamation of timbres. With the practice of composers harmonizing traditional Lutheran hymn tunes reaching its absolute summit in the hands of Bach, the St. John Passion abounds in a magnificent collection of chorales. The singers addressed them with reflective and spiritual enquiry. The choruses, representing crowd scenes in highly dramatic, emotionally-charged episodes, achieved the desired result. The performance offered a pleasing balance between the instrumental and vocal forces. A moving and memorable event of the 2019 Bach in Jerusalem Festival.

For the duration of the Bach in Jerusalem Festival, festival-goers could visit an interesting and informative exhibition on Bach, the St. John Passion and its times brought to Israel by director of the Bach House (Eisenach, Germany) Dr. Jörg Hansen and colleagues. Also, in conjunction with the festival, an international symposium was held on March 26th at the Jerusalem International YMCA. Moderated by Dr, Uri Golomb, Dr. Alon Schab, Dr. Jörg Hansen and Maestro Joshua Rifkin discussed various aspects and performances of the St. John Passion.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Ensemble PHOENIX performs quintets for clarinet and strings at the 2019 Felicja Blumental International, Tel Aviv

Matan Dagan,Tali Goldberg,Myrna Herzog,Rachel Ringelstein,Gili Rinot (photo:Yoel Levy)
To my left was Gustav Klimt’s extraordinary painting of Friederike Maria Beer set against an imaginary oriental screen (1916); directly ahead, the eye-catching play of colour in Wassily Kandinsky’s Untitled Improvisation V (1914), somewhat abstract, yet revealing identifiable forms - mountains, hills, trees and a galloping horse. The venue was the Tel Aviv Museum of Art’s Mizne-Blumental Gallery and the occasion was Ensemble PHOENIX’ concert of “Quintets for Clarinet and Strings”, an event on March 30th of the 2019 Felicja Blumental International Music Festival. Playing on historic instruments were violinists Matan Dagan and Tali Goldberg, Rachel Ringelstein-viola, Gili Rinot-clarinet and basset clarinet, with PHOENIX founder and director Myrna Herzog on the ‘cello.


Arousing much curiosity among the audience, the program opened with Quintet in E-flat major for clarinet and strings, Op.57 by German violinist, composer and court musician Andreas Romberg (1767-1821), Not really a familiar figure to today’s audiences, Romberg’s oeuvre includes eight operas, ten symphonies and twenty violin concertos. It was in Bonn in the 1880s that he and his cousin Bernhard Heinrich Romberg played in the orchestra of Maximilian of Austria - the orchestra in which Antonín Reicha (1770-1836) played 2nd flute and Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) played viola! After spending time in Paris, Andreas Romberg settled in Hamburg, where he became a central figure in the city's musical life, in 1815 succeeding Louis Spohr as music director at the court of the Duke, in Gotha, Thuringia. Scored for clarinet, violin I, viola/violin II, viola II, and ‘cello, the PHOENIX artists performed the two-violin option, with Matan Dagan playing first violin. They gave explicit expression to the sense of well-being prevailing in Romberg’s music, maintaining diligent balance between strings and clarinet, giving attention to motifs and the individual colour of each key visited. How warm, amiable and well-shaped Rinot’s playing of the Menuetto melody was, with the minor-key Trio given a suave reading by Dagan, the interpolated Allegretto hinting at the country dance style, but devoid of bucolic heaviness. There was a building up of tension in the following Larghetto, but not reaching dramatic proportions.  As to the Finale, the players coloured each gesture and change (Romberg is not able to stay away from exuberant utterance for very long) as they good-naturedly teased the listener with the occasional tempo change and other kindly surprises. Inventive, melodious and inviting players to engage in Classical directness and fine musicianship, Romberg’s E-flat major Quintet, clearly paying homage to Mozartian charm, deserves to be heard more often.


Then, to Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet in D minor, Hob.III:43 Op.42, 13 minutes of pure beauty, a mature work (the autograph is marked 1785) showing the composer’s heightened attention to the ‘cello role (and, in fact, to that of the viola), as its score displays Haydn’s perfection of balance and proportion. From the first movement, with its puzzling inscription of “Andante ed innocentemente” (Herzog commented that Haydn was far from naive) presented as elegant, serene and profound but not austere, the PHOENIX players indeed highlighted the joyous sophistication created by the interplay of instruments as well as that of its phrases. For the second movement, they engaged in the juxtaposing of textures in playing of charm and delicacy, this to be followed by Dagan’s reflective and poetic playing of the melodic course of the third movement. Goldberg then whisked the listener into the Haydnesque freshness and energy of the Finale, as all four artists “breathed” the music as one in a radiant ensemble blend, giving meaning to its gestures and small silences.


Gili Rinot re-joined the string players to perform W.A.Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A major, K 581, this time on a basset-clarinet. Referring to its “soft, sweet breath”, Mozart loved the clarinet, considering it ideal for chamber music with strings. A new instrument still undergoing change, Anton Stadler, the second clarinet of the Viennese Imperial Court orchestra and a member of the Kaiser's wind octet, was motivated to experiment with extending the instrument's “chalumeau” (lower register) through the addition of length and several keys. The resulting instrument was the basset clarinet, nowadays almost universally recognized as the correct instrument for performance of the Mozart Concerto K 622, of this quintet and the late operas. Gili Rinot referred to the basset clarinet as an “impractical instrument” which quickly sank into obscurity, only now enjoying a revival. Rinot’s basset clarinet is a replica made by Agnès Guéroult (Paris). The A major Quintet is not a work for solo clarinet and string accompaniment; Rinot and the string players were equal partners where the clarinet blended splendidly with the strings, as individual strings occasionally took centre stage, to be accompanied by the clarinet. Mozart’s wealth of sublime themes and their development emerged via the unique magical sound world created by Mozart’s mix of the five instrumental timbres.  Add to that the first movement’s string solos graced by a variety of appealing clarinet comments and ornamenting, sensitive melodiousness passed from Dagan to Rinot in the tranquil Larghetto fashioned with punctilious coordination, the appealing Menuetto with its two Trios - the first for violin, with Dagan’s gentle flexing pulling at the heart strings, the second, a Ländler-type dance for clarinet - and the Allegretto with its set of variations - good-humoured, reticent, serious and moving - with the fourth showcasing the virtuosic ability of the clarinet.


PHOENIX members play on period instruments, on gut strings and with early bows, stimulating a warmth of sound and natural timbral beauty that go hand-in-glove with Classical works of the kind performed at the Tel Aviv concert. Clearly delighted by the evening’s program, the festival audience sensed it was in the hands of five outstanding musicians, their renditions of the three works the result of deep, detailed and informed enquiry enmeshed with emotional involvement. The spacious Mizne-Blumental Gallery, surrounding the listener with its 19th- and 20th masterpieces, made for a most delightful concert venue.


Wednesday, April 3, 2019

The Tel Aviv Wind Quintet performs works for trio, quartet and quintet at the Willy Brandt Center, Jerusalem

Photo courtesy the Tel Aviv Wind Quintet
On March 29th 2019, the Tel Aviv Wind Quintet, now into its tenth season, performed a concert of works from the Baroque to the 20th century at the Willy Brandt Center, Jerusalem. Founded by young Israeli musicians seeking to bring fine woodwind repertoire and commissioned works to wider audiences, the ensemble performs more than 20 concerts per season. Its international tours have included Switzerland (2017) and France and Germany (2018); the quintet will tour China in May of 2019. The TAWQ makes a practice of performing and recording music of leading Israeli composers of both the older and younger generation and has recorded two discs.  Quintet members are Roy Amotz-flute, Yigal Kaminka-oboe, Itamar Leshem-horn, Nadav Cohen-bassoon and Danny Erdman-clarinet. The musicians are each also involved in solo careers.


The Jerusalem program opened with Gioachino Rossini’s Quartet No.4 in B-flat played on flute, clarinet, horn and bassoon; a very early work (Rossini was 12 when he wrote it) it was originally scored for strings but also heard in other settings. Very much a solo work for the flute, the work is not without interplay among the four voices, with each of the instruments given a say. Placed between two exuberant movements, the Andantino emerged lush with cantabile melodiousness, to be followed by the Allegretto, a playful rondo featuring lively dialogue between flute and clarinet, this already displaying Rossini’s penchant for the Italian opera buffa style.


We then heard György Ligeti’s  Sechs Bagatellen for woodwind quintet (1953), written when the composer was still a young man in Budapest. Ligeti derived the Six Bagatelles from an earlier set of eleven short movements for solo piano titled “Musica Ricercata” (1951-53). He relied on pitch class variety as the organizing element of the pieces as each inhabits its own world in terms of structure. However, their associations.referring to the composer and his times play no lesser role, as was heard in the explanations preceding the performance and indeed in the quintet’s performance of the work, which was Informed and profound. Ligeti expressed his hatred of the ideology-bound cultural world of dictatorship. In his own words: ''I am in a prison. One wall is the avant-garde, the other is the past. I want to escape.'' Two Bagatelles make reference to his Hungarian background: Strident and bathed in dissonances, Bagatelle No.2, for example, elegiac, at times nostalgic, at others even eerie in mood, pays homage to the Hungarian folk song genre, to end enigmatically on a major chord. Bagatelle No.5, “Béla Bartók in memoriam”, with its eastern-style melody on flute, insistent chords and dejected ending, was clearly an expression of pain. The artists however also highlighted the character and originality of the faster bagatelles - Bagatelle No.3’s quirky cross-rhythm staccati against the most singing of melodies, No.4 with its feisty, wild Balkan dance rhythms and No.6, considered “dangerous” by the authorities, who claimed that chromaticism dangerous to the public!  The work, one of the most significant for wind quintet, encompasses splendid writing for the instruments, with the TAWQ's performance giving expression to its playfulness, cynicism, grief, contentment and its vibrant soundscape.


J.S.Bach, the great musical recycler, would surely have enjoyed hearing Mordechai Rechtman’s arrangement of Bach’s organ Trio Sonata BWV 529 in C major performed by Amotz, Erdman and Leshem. In fact, Bach’s unique collection of trio sonatas for organ BWV 525-530 is largely the reworking of some of his favourite works – now mostly lost. Highly challenging for the organist, playing the work on three wind instruments is also a test of the players’ dexterity, with Bach writing in the Italianate concerto style and challenging the instrumentalist with wide leaps and rapid arpeggios. The artists juxtaposed textures in the lively outer movements, maintaining articulacy and tension deriving from tempi that never allowed textures to become dense or inarticulate. In the serene, richly-harmonized Largo, they gave emphasis to poignant, well-crafted melodic shaping, with Amotz adding some Baroque-style ornamentation. As to the final Allegro, the artists’ playing of its vivid and intricate fugal textures kept the listener at the edge of his seat and definitely involved.


The concert concluded with Paul Hindemith’s “Kleine Kammermusik” (Little Chamber Music) for Wind Quintet, Op. 24, No. 2, one of a series of ensemble works. Of the finest wind pieces to come out of the 20th century, it is a five-movement “suite”. Presenting Hindemith’s characteristic writing, such as smooth disposition and use of dissonant counterpoint, to the present-day listener, it is a genial, humorous piece (with a touch of cynicism), but for audiences (and quintet players) in 1922, who had grown up listening to music in the Romantic style (not yet dead), Hindemith’s quintet was a major departure in almost every way. Following the lively and energetic first movement and the following languid yet appealing waltz - here Amotz switches to piccolo to add a further touch of wispiness - the third movement marked “Ruhig und einfach” (peaceful and simple) is much like an elegy, not surprising coming from a composer who had served on the front lines during the end of the World War. Blending its autumnal colours with gentle, appealing sentiments, the TAWQ players created a thought-provoking mood piece. Intense and frenetic, the fourth movement, only 23 bars long, was nevertheless another opportunity to hear some brilliant playing, with cadenzas for each instrument. As to the forthright Finale, sounding march-like at times, it gave the stage to different groups within the quintet.


For their encore, the artists played the Overture to Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” (a piece new to their repertoire) giving freshness and appeal to Bernstein’s profuse musical canvas and to the wit, élan, and sophistication associated with the operetta genre. Comprising five outstanding players, the Tel Aviv Wind Quintet never fails to please and entertain, offering dedicated performance of the highest level.