Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Love songs for voice and electric guitar: Tal Ganor and Yuval Vilner wind up the 56th Abu Gosh Festival with a different kind of concert

Photo: Maya Aruch

“Electric Guitar Named Love - from Purcell to Queen” - works of love arranged for voice and electric guitar - took place on October 21st 2019 in the Crypt of the medieval Benedictine Monastery of Abu Gosh.This was the closing event of the 56th Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival. Featuring soprano Tal Ganor and guitarist Yuval Vilner, the crossover concert appealed to festival-goers of all ages.


Over the last 400 years, lute songs from John Dowland’s First Booke of Songs or Ayres have been heard in a limited number of settings. Showing the perfect marriage of music and poetry of two - “Can she excuse my wrongs” and “Come again” - through a new prism, Tal Ganor and Yuval Vilner invited some of the purists among us to rethink our ideas on English Renaissance performance practice. Ganor’s light, creamy singing and emotional range are well suited to the intimacy, the somewhat whimsical confiding, the melancholy and sensuous double entendres of these small jewels. Vilner’s accompaniments, original utterances and occasional ornamenting were sensitive, tasteful and, indeed, informed. Unrequited love was also the theme of “Ojos, pues me desdeñáis” a “tonos humanos” of 17-century Spanish harpist/guitarist/composer José Marín. Ganor’s dramatic presentation was indicative of the song’s agenda of anger and heartbreak in a splendid arrangement highlighting Marin’s unexpected use of harmonic twists, his highly expressive vocal lines and rich word-painting. And how interesting it was to hear Vilner place a 19th-century Spanish instrumental piece as a prelude and postlude to Elvis Presley’s gently flowing, romantic and silken “Can’t help falling in love”, here spiced with some exotic harmonies. 


Who would have imagined that we would then be hearing the caressing sounds of the “Pie Jesu” from Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem as Vilner and Ganor collaborated seamlessly to evoke its tranquillity and awe and its personal utterance of loss and hope, with Ganor showing fine control and precise intonation, concluding the piece in smooth pianissimo tonings. Vilner then amalgamated a Baroque ensemble score into one guitar role to tastefully accompany Ganor in her impressive, well-shaped singing of the ostinato aria “Addio Corindo”, one of the high points of Antonio Cesti’s 1656 opera “Orontea”. For his solo, Vilner chose to extemporize on “When You Wish Upon a Star”. His presentation of it was free, breezy and appealing, adding a dimension of subtlety and sophistication to the 1940 song written by Leigh Harline and Ned Washington for Walt Disney’s movie “Pinocchio”.


Such an event would surely be incomplete without an Israeli song or two. The audience hummed along with the nostalgia created by the artists in their caressing, articulate rendition of Naomi Shemer’s “Endless Encounter” (lyrics: Nathan Alterman) and enjoyed the delicacy, sincerity and floating melismas produced in Yair Rosenblum’s “Song of a Weekday” (lyrics: Rachel Shapira). 


The whirlwind musical trip landed us back in England, with Ganor and Vilner’s performance of Dido’s Lament from Purcell’s opera “Dido and Aeneas”, the final aria delivered by Dido, Queen of Carthage, dying of a broken heart on learning that her fiancé, Trojan warrior Aeneas, plans to abandon her. Carefully paced and detailed, the artists delivered the aria’s content, preserving its timeless beauty, however, adding some touches of their own - some spontaneity, some unconventional ornaments and a sprinkling of 7th chords. And, as Ganor soared effortlessly up to the “Remember me” refrains that never fail to break one’s heart, one felt the aria was indeed present, unmarred by a few blue notes, still exquisite, still  gripping, but given the personal stamp of two outstanding young artists who dare to step outside the box. 


This was certainly fine festival fare, rich in variety and very well presented. For their encore, Tal Ganor and Yuval Vilner gave an expressive, honeyed and indulgently sentimental performance of Freddie Mercury’s 1975 ballad “Love of my Life” (originally performed by the British rock band Queen). 




Saturday, October 26, 2019

Ensemble PHOENIX hosts Gio Sthel (Brazil/Germany), Francesco Tomasi (Italy) and vocal students of the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music in a program of Italian Baroque music at the October 2019 Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival

© Yoel Levy

Drawing its audiences from all over Israel to four days of festive events, the 56th Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival (October 18th to 21st, 2019) was an opportunity for people to attend a variety of indoor- and outdoor concerts, to meet, relax and enjoy the last of the warm weather. As usual, the grassy area surrounding the Kiryat Yearim Church, with its stalls, was a hub of activity. 


Taking place at Our Lady of the Ark of the Covenant Church, Kiryat Yearim on October 21st 2019, “Neapolitan Surprise” performed by the PHOENIX Ensemble (musical director: Dr. Myrna Herzog) presented both instrumental- and choral works of the Italian Baroque. Visiting artists were violine player Gio Sthel (Brazil/Germany) and Francesco Tomasi (Italy) on theorbo and Baroque guitar. All the singers taking part are Vocal Department students of the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music, Tel Aviv (Head of Dept: Prof. Sharon Rostorf-Zamir). The audience was presented with some beautifully-crafted instrumental music - Giovanni Battista Vitali’s Sinfonia à 6, with its variety of small, contrasting sections and haunting drum ostinato (Dor Fisher), was followed by the charm, beauty, mesmerizing rhythms and ample dialogue between ensemble and violins (Ya'akov Rubinstein, Noam Gal) of a 1669 Ciaconna from the “Varii e Diversi Capricci per camera e per chiesa” by prolific composer and renowned maestro di cappella Maurizio Cazzati. Pietro Andrea Ziani succeeded Cazzati as maestro di cappella at Santa Maria Maggiore, Bergamo, in 1657. Ziani’s Sonata Op.VII No.17, performed here on strings and organ, is an outstanding work. The PHOENIX performance gave eloquent and incisive expression to its fugal elements, recurring motifs and its underlying solemnity, punctuating the second movement with dramatic pauses prior to a richly ornamented conclusion in a major mode. Myrna Herzog’s transcription of Bernardo Storace’s keyboard “Ballo della Battaglia” for ensemble wove much sparkle and timbral colour into the text’s jaunty dance rhythms, creating lively banter between violins and cornetto with recorder (Alma Mayer, Inbar Solomon), its “battaglia” energy endorsed by spirited playing on the part of Tomasi (Baroque guitar) and Fisher (percussion).


And to the Neapolitan connection: Pietro Andrea Ziani died in Naples. An early representative of the Neapolitan operatic school, organist and tenor Cristofaro Caresana had studied under Ziani in Venice before moving to Naples in his late teens, where he joined the theatre company of Febi Armonici. The Abu Gosh performance brought to life the rich canvas of Caresana’s cantata “La Vittoria del Infante” (Victory of the Child), a quasi-theatrical Nativity cantata, merging sacred and profane, comedy, drama, even references to the Spanish, and evoking the energy and sparkling musical style and sentiments characteristic of the Neapolitan Baroque. Under Herzog’s supervision, the young singers took on board the demands of this music, revelling in its vibrancy and directness of gesture. Baritone Hagai Berenson (Lucifero) was sonorous, communicative and compelling, with alto Shir Ordo ((San Michele) displaying a lustrous alto timbre and musicality. The choral ensembles were alive with the young singers' rich, fresh timbres and involvement. The recorders (Mayer, Solomon) accompanying the choir of angels added pastoral delight to the rich tableau vivant.


Francesco Rossi’s oratorio “La Caduta dell’Angeli” depicts the rebellion of angels led by Lucifer, their defeat by the archangel Michael and his army of good angels, and their fall into the abyss, a story of arrogance, rebellion, obstinance, evil and justice that inspired librettist Salvatore Scaglione and organist/maestro di cappella Francesco Rossi to produce a work of unbridled Italian emotion. Communicative and confident, soprano soloists Shira Miriam Cohen (Lucifer) and Sharon Tadmor (San Michele) presented the text’s meaning, addressing its gestures to the audience.  Articulate, expressive and communicative, tenor Daniel Portnoy (God) displayed good taste and empathy. An interesting effect of characterization is Rossi’s casting of Lucifer following his fall from grace as a bass-baritone; Yoav Ayalon was imposing and authoritative in this role. Engaging with the singers, the instrumentalists’ attentive and judiciously-balanced playing emerged in elegant, subtle and alluring timbres. Richly-coloured ensemble-singing drew the audience’s attention to key words, as the singers joined forces with the instrumental ensemble in choruses that emoted, endorsed gestures, wove song into courtly dances and interpreted the course of events in terms of light and darkness. Under the scrupulous guidance of Dr. Myrna Herzog, twelve budding opera singers courageously stepped outside of their standard repertoire to learn and experience the performance practice of this decidedly specific Baroque style. An auspicious event in this country, the results were exciting and rewarding to both performers and audience. 

Francesco Tomasi,Myrna Herzog,Gio Sthel (P.Hickman)

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Celebrating Zubin Mehta: one of Maestro Mehta's final concerts as conductor of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra - soloists: Mischa Maisky and Rudolf Buchbinder

Maestro Zubin Mehta (Shai Skiff)
In a series of concerts taking place in October 2019 and conducted by Zubin Mehta, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and its audience bid farewell to Maestro Zubin Mehta as its music director of 48 years. This writer attended a concert in the Lowy Hall of the Charles Bronfman Auditorium on October 14th 2019. Soloists were ‘cellist Mischa Maisky and pianist Rudolf Buchbinder. 


Zubin Mehta (b.1935, Mumbai, India) made a chance acquaintance with Israel when he was asked to substitute for Eugene Ormandy in 1961. Following the concert’s success, the IPO invited him back in 1963, returning to substitute for Carlo Maria Giulini in 1965 for the IPO’s tour of Australia and New Zealand. “It was there that my relationship with the Orchestra solidified” explains Mehta in an interview with executive director of the IPO Foundation, Tali Gottlieb. This would be followed by many concerts of historic importance - the first IPO concert in Germany, performances at the Good Fence (1981), behind the Iron Curtain (1987), etc. In the maestro’s own words. “I am very conscious of the fact that the IPO is the cultural ambassador of the State of Israel and its representative around the world, and I identify with this special role...I must honestly say that this unique feeling is reserved in my heart for the IPO alone and it is a part of my special bond with Israel…” Contributing to the unique IPO sound has been largely the result of Mehta ‘s rigorous selection of players He has conducted over 4000 IPO concerts!


One of Maestro Mehta’s regrets has been Israeli audiences’ conservatism regarding modern music. Opening the program with Concertino for Strings by Hungarian-born composer Ödön Pártos was, therefore, a significant gesture. The first Israeli composer to receive the Israel Prize (1954), Pártos served as principal violist of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra from 1938 to 1956. A student of Kodály in the early 1920s, his music continued the Bartók-Kodály approach to folklorism, then to be re-interpreted in Israel and consequently influencing the second generation of Israeli composers and musicians. The Bartókian style pervades the Concertino for strings, its neo-Classical score, originally a string quartet from 1932, written before the composer’s immigration to Israel (then Palestine) in 1938, then to be arranged by Pártos for string orchestra in 1953. The work displays Pártos’ hands-on knowledge of the string medium. In performance that was pleasing in its articulacy, Mehta led the players through the single-movement work’s terse, uncompromising, driving ostinatos, tricky rhythms and pungent harmonies, contrasting small ensemble moments with tutti textures, as it concluded somewhat unexpectedly on a major chord. 


Robert Schumann penned the Concerto for ‘cello and orchestra Op.129 in a short burst of creativity between darker phases of his emotional life. Instructing that the three movements be played without pausing, he titled the work “Konzertstück” (concert piece) rather than “Konzert” (concerto). Following extensive revisions, resulting in the finished score in 1854, the work was published the same year. However, with Schumann then confined to the sanatorium at Endenich, the ‘Cello Concerto remained unperformed. until 1860, after that, falling into virtual obscurity, only finding its place back into the concert repertoire in the early 20th century, thanks to Pablo Casals. Mischa Maisky and Maestro Mehta’s performance of the work emerged as a richly-coloured and emotional tableau, in keeping both with Maisky’s expressive manner and also with the highly-charged festive mood of the occasion. Maisky’s playing reflected his own personal connection to the work, as he addressed the shape and musical meaning of each gesture - sometimes of individual notes - with freshness and a sense of rediscovery. His warmth of sound and lush Romantic melodiousness pervaded, his daring, fine-spun pianississimo sounds making their way to all corners of the captivated Lowy Hall. Maestro Mehta and Mischa Maisky moved hand-in-glove all the way, watching, wielding an uncanny balance of well-defined sonorities between orchestral players and soloist throughout. Maisky sealed his concert farewell to Mehta with two of his signature pieces: the Prélude from Bach’s ‘Cello Suite No. 1 - playful, high-spirited and spiralling into an exciting conclusion - and the Sarabande from ‘Cello Suite No.5 - its mysterious musical agenda carefully spelled out with profound introspection.


The program concluded with L.van Beethoven’s Concerto No. 5 for piano and orchestra Op.73 in E flat major, “Emperor”, with legendary Austrian Rudolf Buchbinder as soloist. Much has been written about Beethoven’s fifth and last piano concerto and its background. With Napoleon’s army occupying Vienna in 1809, Beethoven wrote to his publisher Gottfried Christoph Hartel in Leipzig on July 26th, “The course of events has attacked me, body and soul… What a destructive, disorderly life I see and hear around me…and human misery in every form.” It was within this chaotic situation that Beethoven worked on the concerto. Much has been written about Beethoven’s fifth and last piano concerto and its background. Musicologist Alfred Einstein wrote an interesting study on "Beethoven's Military Style," a style considered present in most of Beethoven's concertos. But Buchbinder has much more to say about the work. From the very first notes of its extraordinary opening, in which a brilliant (notated) piano cadenza is punctuated by orchestral chords, he presents its many aspects. Beethoven’s writing is more brilliant here than in any of the earlier concertos; the opening Allegro’s development, for example, abounds in virtuosic 16th-note passages in both hands simultaneously, dashing octave runs, and expressive melodic motifs, often in very close succession. Influenced by bellicose annotations found in Beethoven’s sketches of the work ("victory", “combat", "attack"...) one hears so many of today's pianists hammering out the concerto in a show of muscular energy. With his quintessential, meticulous fingerwork, taste and control, Buchbinder, however, offers colour, shape and grandeur to the work’s intense textures and filigree fragility to its cantabile moments (fashioned with so many elegant trills), conversing with the orchestra, at times accompanying it and engaging in dialogue with  instruments, the last instance of which being the eerie penultimate moment of the concerto, with its suspenseful duo between solo piano and the solo timpani. Particularly identified with Austro-Germanic Classical and Romantic composers, Buchbinder has remained especially loyal to Beethoven, publishing “Mein Beethoven - Leben mit dem Meister”.in 2014. Zubin Mehta considers himself a Viennese-style conductor, with 80 percent of his repertoire made up of what might be referred to as the Viennese classics – from Haydn to Schoenberg. His and Buchbinder’s intuition and long association shone through each gesture of this memorable performance. 


The opening of the IPO's 84th season marked the end of an era. The audience showed its deep respect and appreciation for the many years of friendship, dedication and astute musicianship Maestro Zubin Mehta has devoted to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, the excellence of Israeli musical performance and to its audiences.

Rudolf Buchbinder,Zubin Mehta,Mischa Maisky (Timeline Photos)




Friday, October 11, 2019

"Bach in the White City" - Alon Sariel and Michael Tsalka record works of J.S.Bach and Yehezkel Braun on mandolin and piano

Michael Tsalka, Alon Sariel  © Viktória Fűrjes

“Bach in the White City” is a disc in which pianist Michael Tsalka and mandolin artist Alon Sariel bring together an unusual set of connections. The two Israeli-born artists have dedicated their recording of music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) and Yehezkel Braun (1922-2014) to the Bauhaus movement, in particular, to its strong influence on the architecture of Tel Aviv.


Arguably the most influential modernist art school of the 20th century, the Bauhaus movement was founded in 1919 in Weimar, Germany, by a group of young, visionary students who wanted to change the face of architecture through a new, avant-garde yet rational attitude to design. Their approach to teaching, and to the relationship between art, society and technology, was highly influential both in Europe and in the United States long after its closure under Nazi pressure in 1933. Due to large waves of immigration from Germany to Israel in the 1930s, including seventeen former Bauhaus students, the German style of Bauhaus architecture subsequently transformed Tel Aviv into the UNESCO-recognized “White City”.


So why Bach and Braun? The disc’s liner notes point out that “Bach, a symbol of Weimar and a pillar of classical music was, of course, an essential part of the cultural heritage which Jewish immigrants brought from Europe. Yehezkel Braun...was born in Breslau...at the same time as the Bauhaus movement...immigrated with his family to the British Mandate of Palestine...and received his musical education in Tel Aviv.”


Arrangements of the works on the recording are all by Sariel and Tsalka; Tsalka plays on a Mason & Hamlin piano (1960, USA) and Sariel on mandolins built by Tel Aviv luthier Arik Kerman. In writing the Concerto in Italian Style BWV 971 for the two-manual keyboard, J.S.Bach skilfully manages to recreate in miniature the Italian “concerto grosso” effect between a full instrumental ensemble and a soloist, allowing for clear delineation between the solo line on one manual and the orchestral textures on the other. In their setting, Sariel and Tsalka address this issue; the dynamic inequality of the instruments, however, somewhat limits the artists when engaging in the fuller more resonant, “orchestral” textures of the outer movements. More balanced is the Andante movement, emerging poignant with its austere accompaniment inviting Bach’s elegant, long, ornamented strands of melody to sing on the mandolin.  Preserved in a manuscript in the hand of C P E Bach, dating from the early 1730s, and in which Emanuel Bach attributes the piece to his father, the origins of J.S.Bach’s Sonata in C major BWV 1033 remain unclear.  Bach scholar Robert Marshall has even suggested that the existing score might be C.P.E.Bach’s effort to compose a continuo line to an unaccompanied flute sonata written by his father. The existing score - that of a chamber sonata for flute and basso continuo - is an easier proposition for piano and mandolin than the Italian Concerto, due to the less “provocative” nature of its content  and to the fact that, as a continuo sonata, the score provides the keyboard player with a skeletal figured bass line from which he fills in  harmonies and rhythms extemporaneously and in textures accommodating to the timbre of the second instrument. Sariel and Tsalka give it a sunny, elegant, at times, gently-swayed reading, with Sariel’s playing offering some attractive ornamentation. In what is, indeed, a group of miniatures, Tsalka and Sariel present what is substantive in each movement, with Tsalka’s understated, refined playing outlining the harmonic plan of each and interlacing some melodic material into the weave. It is supposed that J.S.Bach’s Partita in A minor BWV 1013 was written for solo flute, but what remains unclear is whether this is the original form in which Bach wrote it. What is clear is that it has lent itself to many transcriptions - for harpsichord, violin, viola, guitar, lute, bassoon, double bass and even tuba.  Alon Sariel’s performance of it is exquisite, capturing the elegance of each courtly dance, of dialogue between voices and the subtle fantasy of inferred harmony. His playing is contrasted, its rhythms “breathe” and repeated sections emerge splendidly embellished. He takes the listener into the delicate, expressive world of mandolin timbres, especially poignant in the Sarabande, as he furnishes it with a sense of mystery and occasional spreads, to be followed by spontaneity and energy in the final Bourrée Angloise.


Michael Tsalka’s performance of Yehezkel Braun’s “Four Keyboard Pieces” (1992) gives expression to the delicate, positive, breezy textures of these four miniatures as well as to Braun’s anti avant-garde style with its mix of influences, in which modality, tonality and atonality coexist naturally. Tsalka’s playing is personal and delightfully transparent, abounding in colour, dialogue, lush pianistic textures and imagination. Sariel and Tsalka’s rendition of Braun’s “Mesembrianthema” (Midday Flowers), Five Bagatelles for Violin and Piano (1985), is strikingly beautiful, giving consummate expression to the composer’s profuse and richly integrated instrumental language. The artists navigate the replete canvas - with its exotic, magical moments, its mystery and oriental references, its forays into wild, insistent and vibrantly-coloured intensity, its long, winding melodies and its almost pointillistic whimsy - with eloquence, prudent timing and fine-spun balance.


Michael Tsalka and Alon Sariel pull together the threads of their unique project in playing that is meticulous in detail, informed, polished and of superior taste. Alongside photos of Bauhaus buildings in Tel Aviv, the liner notes show some paintings of the same houses by Shalom Flash. Recorded in October 2018 at the Pianola Museum-Geelvinck Music Museums, Amsterdam for the Sheva Collection LTD, London, the sound quality of “Bach in the White City” is true and alive. A delightful disc.


Painting: Shalom Flash

Saturday, October 5, 2019

"Tangere" - Russian pianist Alexei Lubimov records works of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach on a tangent piano

Alexei Lubimov (photo:Francois Sechel)
“Tangere” (Latin: touch) is the title of Alexei Lubimov’s recording of “Fantasias, Sonatas, Rondos and Solfeggi” of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788), J.S.Bach’s fifth and second surviving son. Here, Lubimov performs the pieces on a tangent piano (German: Tangentenflügel) built by Späth & Schmahl, Regensburg (1794). An instrument whose strings are struck by freely-moving wooden posts (resembling harpsichord jacks), the tangent piano has the advantage of combining the timbres and potential of the fortepiano, the clavichord and the harpsichord, but with more strength than salon keyboard instruments of the time.


The tangent piano spread throughout Europe, in Italy being referred to as the ‘cembalo angelico’ and in France as the “clavecin harmonieux et céleste”. Franz Jacob Späth, a builder of pianos, clavichords and organs, was the most important of those producing tangent pianos in the second half of the 18th century, having built one for the Elector of Bonn in 1751. As demand for his tangent pianos increased, he took his son-in-law, Christoph Friedrich Schmahl, into the business as a full partner. Their tangent pianos were the prized instruments of some of the most eminent musicians of the time, including Mozart who, in 1777, referred to it as the “Späthisches Klavier”. By the early 19th century, Späth tangent pianos, now found in many European countries, boasted a range of six octaves. However, as the fortepiano was gaining more popularity than the harpsichord, the tangent piano was also on the losing side. After a short period of popularity, it sank into obscurity around the late 18th- or early 19th century. C.P.E.Bach’s keyboard concertos may or may not have been intended for the instrument, but it is an established fact that Johann Sebastian’s other musician sons wrote works expressly for the tangent piano. Some ten Späth and Schmahl tangents survive. Dating from 1780 to 1801, they all have the same action and compass of 5 octaves: FF – f3, but are of differing lengths - from 184- to 222 cm.


The tangent is activated by the player’s finger, striking the string to produce sound. Unlike the clavichord, where the tangent remains in contact with the string to keep the note sounding, the Tangentenflügel’s tangent leaves the string swiftly, allowing it to vibrate freely. The instrument has an intermediate lever, increasing the velocity with which the jack-striking post is driven towards the strings. Serving the new aesthetic of the early Classical period, the instrument offered a range of tone-changong devices, including an early damper system and a buff stop; the player was now in control of its volume by the strength with which he struck the keys, now free to engage the tangent piano’s choice of timbres in playing that was highly expressive, at times, quite intense! It is clear why this instrument, with its substantial expressive and coloristic potential, would appeal to Alexei Lubimov, an artist of much temperament and fantasy, just as it had fired the imagination of C.P.E.Bach, inspiring the composer to write daring new repertoire.


The disc offers a representative selection of C.P.E.Bach’s most concise keyboard pieces, many taken from the “Clavierstücke verschiedener Art” (Keyboard Pieces of Various Kinds, 1765) and from the “Musikalisches Vielerley” (Musical Miscellany, 1770). Four Fantasias feature here, some more chordal, some more contrapuntal, others a mix of both. Lubimov’s playing of them displays humour, offering lush spreads, “comments” and vibrant contrasting of subjects, as in the Fantasie in B minor Wq112/8. Exquisite miniatures, none exceeding one minute, each emerges in beautifully-sculpted- and satisfying durchkomponiert (through-composed) writing. And the same can be said of the disc’s four Solfeggi – some bristling with ornaments and brimming with good cheer, othersthe  spontaneous and improvisational in character. Especially impressive is Lubimov’s playing of the energetically arpeggiated C minor Wq117/2 (played by many of us as young piano students), buoyant, exciting and then gone in the wink of an eye. Then there is the charming, bell-like (probably pedagogical) “Clavierstück  für die rechte oder linke Hand allein” Wq 117/1 (Piano Piece for the Right- or Left Hand). Emanuel Bach’s Rondos sold well to the amateur music community, but there is no guarantee that Baroque house musicians would have read into them the suspense and caprice with which Lubimov lavishes Rondo II in D minor Wq 61/4!


In the recording’s two lengthier “Fantasien”, Lubimov gives bold expression to some of Bach’s most unique and unleashed utterances. Fresh, thrilling, unpredictable and inspiring in its sense of discovery, the C major Fantasie Wq 59/6 (1784) abounds in textural- and tonal changes, with Bach’s sentimental central melody appearing as an unexpected guest! Another highlight, the ‘Freye Fantasie’ (Free Fantasia) in F sharp minor Wq 67 (1787), probably the longest of the fantasias, comprises different sections (some repeated). It is as if Bach, a year before his death, wishes to present a kaleidoscope of keyboard practice of his era, indeed, a compendium of music from under the fingers of one of the greatest improvisers of all time. Alongside his display of contrasts in virtuosic figurations and imposing timbres, Lubimov’s personal and insightful playing also gives refined expression to the work’s introspective moments.


Of the more than 150 solo keyboard sonatas composed by C.P.E. Bach, two from ‘Für Kenner und Liebhaber’ (For Connoisseurs & Amateurs) appear on the disc. Lubimov’s suspenseful reading of Sonata VI in G major Wq 55 (1779) brings home the spirit of the “empfindsamer Stil” (sensitive style), perfectly timed- and suited to the discourse of Emanuel Bach’s impulsive, volatile temperament. (It should be noted that the composer’s musical mannerisms were no less astounding to his contemporaries than to today’s listeners.)  Note that Lubimov’s interpretation of Sonata II in D minor Wq 57 (1787), however, is more restrained and Classical in concept.


With a strong liking for music of the Baroque and the 20th century, soloist, chamber musician and accompanist Alexei Lubimov (b. Moscow, 1944) is a pianist who plays harpsichord and fortepiano. Founder of the Moscow Baroque Quartet and a co-founder of the Moscow Chamber Academy, he has been instrumental in the ‘Alternativa’ Avant-garde Music Festival. An artist enquiring deeply into the music of C.P.E.Bach, Lubimov harbours no doubts as to the fact that the tangent piano, with its forthright signature timbre, its dynamic possibilities and strong potential for contrast, is tailor-made to this unique repertoire. Lubimov’s inspired performance of it gives formidable expression to the temperament and fantasy, the unconventional beauty and excitement of the Hamburg Bach’s style. Recorded in Antwerp (2008) for the ECM New Series, “Fantasias, Sonatas, Rondos and Solfeggi” offers recording sound quality every bit as lively as the works it presents.


Friday, October 4, 2019

Conducted by Ethan Schmeisser, Handel's "Orlando", performed by singers of the Israeli Opera and with the Israel Camerata Jerusalem, plays in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem

Daniela Skorka, Alon Harari (photo:Maya Meidar Moran)
In collaboration with the Israel Camerata Jerusalem, the Israeli Opera performed Georg Frideric Handel’s opera “Orlando”. Directed by Shirit Lee Weiss, the conductor was Ethan Schmeisser. Soloists were Oded Reich, Alon Harari, Tal Ganor, Daniela Skorka and Anat Czarny. The opera was sung in the original Italian, with surtitles in English and Hebrew. This writer attended the performance in the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theatre on September 26th 2019.


Orlando (HWV 31), an opera seria in three acts, composed for the audiences of Georgian England, premiered at the King's Theatre in London in 1733. A roaring success, it fuelled the London craze for Italian opera seria, a genre focusing strongly on solo arias for star virtuoso singers. The opera’s origins are Ludovico Ariosto’s “Orlando Furioso”, a tale created for readers of the early 16th century, featuring characters taken from the 12th century French epic “La Chanson de Roland”, an imaginative account of Charlemagne’s vassal Roland’s heroism in a battle. The libretto for “Orlando” was adapted by Carlo Sigismondo Capece. How astonishing it is to think that this masterpiece lay in obscurity for 240 years, not to be revived until 1959, when it was performed at the Unicorn Theatre in Abingdon, England. 


With orchestra members seated at the back of the stage of the Henry Crown Auditorium, this was not your usual concert opera performance. With no backdrops and no background ballet, three “islands” in stage created locations, on which most of the opera’s action took place. And there were few props - just a number of tall, long-stemmed flowers, moved around and replanted by the singers from time to time. It was the singers and their emotional agendas, however, who filled the stage space in every respect. The artists, all of them Israeli opera singers, were splendidly cast. As the magician Zoroastro representing the force of reason, baritone Oded Reich, relishing one of the spiciest of Handel’s roles written for the low male voice, was powerful and authoritative in voice and action, lurking at the edges of all goings-on, observing  or advising (finally saving Orlando from his psychotic behaviour) and effectively engaging in the language of movement throughout. In the pants role of the Moorish warrior Medoro, offering some of Handel’s most beautiful music to sing, mezzo-soprano Anat Czarny, her smooth-toned and lustrous voice endorsing her compassionate role, addressed the fine detail of arias and duets, giving yearning and sensitivity to the part in one of the opera’s entangled love situations. The shepherdess Dorinda, betrayed by Medoro, was played by Tal Ganor, her delicate voice filling out in silvery agility as the opera progressed. Daniela Skorka in the role of Angelica, Queen of Cathay, was demonstrative, dramatically convincing, powerful and seductive through the various personae which the character assumes, whether playing up to Orlando's devotion which she cannot return, or in her more sincere, impassioned professions to Medoro, as she expresses all in competent, fine vocal form through the exhilarating music Handel lavished on the role. And then there is Orlando, here played by countertenor Alon Harari. Handel wrote the role of Orlando for a leading castrato of the day, Senesino, for whom he had previously created seventeen leading roles. Unlike most of these previous roles, that of Orlando lacked extended arias that would offer opportunities for showy ornamentation; incensed, Senesino left Handel's employ as a result. The role of Orlando is, nevertheless, technically demanding, requiring not only vocal prowess but also the ability to project a character who suffers from mental instability, a man wallowing in deranged passion, as he shifts between reality and illusion. Alon Harari took the bull by the horns, giving fine expression to Orlando's mad scene with the shifting harmonies and rhythms that evoke the sense of chaos and disorder that have afflicted the hero. Harari’s performance also displayed his fresh, stable and rich voice and his lush palette of colours.


Costumes (Maya Meidar Moran) were varied and reflected the different personalities - Dorinda dressed in naive, pastel colours, Medoro in modest beige, Zoroastro mostly in black (his "war-paint"  make-up somewhat sinister), Orlando in clothes as dark as his soul and Angelica in a titillating black dress. There were also long, blood-stained cloaks worn by singers at specific moments. 


The storyline of the opera juggles love, jealousy and values, as it mocks conventional beliefs that women are most attracted by proud heroes. Angelica and Medoro’s union, her falling in love with a gentle, vulnerable and humble youth, symbolises the victory of love over the brute force and cruelty, as represented by Orlando. Shirit Lee Weiss’ bold production plays down none of these elements, as it tingles with the potency of every aspect of the emotional roller coaster at hand, addressing human weakness and strength, and emphasizing the urgency and physicality of love. 


For the overtures, accompaniments and courtly dances, Maestro Ethan Schmeisser led players of the Israel Camerata Jerusalem with subtlety and elegance, shaping melodic contours and reflecting the beauty and power of Handel’s masterpiece. They were joined by harpsichordist Yizhar Karshon and Ophira Zakai on theorbo, endorsing the Baroque sound world.


Featuring five excellent young homegrown singers, the Israeli opera’s 2019-2020 Baroque Series has got off to a formidable start!


Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Pianist Shira Legmann performs three of J.S.Bach's Partitas at the Israel Conservatory, Tel Aviv

Shira Legmann (© Yoav Etiel)
Celebrating the launch of her debut classical solo piano album “J.S.Bach: Partitas 1, 3, 4” (℗ © 2019 Shira Legmann) pianist Shira Legmann performed the same three works at a recital in the Ran Baron Hall of the Israel Conservatory of Music, Tel Aviv, on September 21st 2019. 

These  keyboard works take their name (Partita or Partie) from the “Neue Clavier-Übung” of Johann Kuhnau, (Bach’s predecessor as cantor of the Thomaskirche, Leipzig) and are modelled on them.  On the title page of Partita No.1, published in the Autumn of 1726, Bach refers to the works as “Keyboard Practice, consisting of preludes, allemandes, courantes, sarabandes, gigues, minuets and other galanteries, composed for music lovers, to refresh their spirits…” It was the time when keyboard instruments - the clavichord, spinet and harpsichord, in particular - had become popular house instruments among the growing number of middle-class amateur musicians. The Partitas, however, with their sophisticated musical agendas and extraordinary demands of technical agility, would not have been within the ability of many of these amateurs; the works do, however, constitute a significant landmark in his career at this particular point in time.  Bach’s Partitas add new dimensions to the form, both in his high-minded key scheme, his treatment of Italian- versus French dances and in the freedom with which  he  expands on the inherent expressive possibilities of the dances.

Opening with Partita No.1 in B-flat major, Shira Legmann takes the listener into the work’s sunny tonality and accessibility as the mordent on a 32nd note triggers the Praeludium and she proceeds to spell it out with noble, articulate melodic lines and fine precision in both hands. No less transparent (despite elaborate use of the sustaining pedal) are the suite’s dances - the spritely Allemande, with its 16th-note chatter up and down the keyboard often split between the hands, in which all strands of the contrapuntal texture emerge clearly at any given moment, the joyful, Italianate romp of the Corrente and Legmann’s reflective, subtle playing of the Sarabande graced with some ornamentation. Following the Minuet galanteries, she explicates the drama of the Gigue, as impressive to observe as it is to hear, its  hand-crossing between the bass and treble giving rise to the movement’s antiphonal echo effect throughout. 

If the B-flat major is characterized by its luminous and delicate nature, Partita in A-minor BWV 827 shows Bach breaking the rules of the Kuhnau model and begging to differ. Legmann takes on board the intricacies and detail of the Fantasia, her playing addressing its two-voiced dialogue with intensity and suspense. Her playing of the Allemande, more relaxed, guiding the listener through its ornaments, arabesques and harmonic progressions and shaping them with gentle flexing, gives way  to the Corrente, her rendition of the latter entertaining in its asymmetry and intricacy, a reminder of the richness and fantasy on offer in the two-voiced texture. Her playing of the Sarabande, never sluggish or melancholy, emerges from an inner composure, as she engages in Bach’s  play of low and high registers. As for the two galanteries, the Burlesca and Scherzo (Bach’s only use of the Scherzo) are bold in touch and display dynamic contrasting, paving the way for the Gigue, wrought of the same energy, gregarious and celebratory and signing out with a lush flourish.  

The Fourth Partita in D-major, is arguably the most cohesive of the collection, also testifying to Bach's unfailing imagination and  rich variety of styles and moods. Richard Goode has referred to the work as “radiant, courtly and grand”. Legmann’s study of the substantial Ouverture is dramatic, agile, at times light and lilting, as she tosses melodies from hand to hand, embellishing with spreads and ornate connectors, then to present the no-less-substantial Allemande with tranquility and expressive depth. The Courante, embellished and light-of-touch with its left hand comments, and the jaunty Aria lead into the gently-paced Sarabande; here, time appears to stand still as Legmann’s small poignant silences create moments to explore inwards. Following the crisply non-legato Minuet (her playing bringing to mind the harpsichord lute register, dare I say), Legmann brings off the Gigue with a sense of urgency, as she highlights Bach’s resplendent contrapuntal web with dazzling energy.

Pianist Charles Rosen has spoken of the “strange notion that Bach didn't compose for the piano''. He reminds us that the composer was “familiar with the piano” that it “was invented during his lifetime, and he not only played the piano, but actually composed at least two of his pieces specifically for the instrument'' (Tim Page, New York Times, June 8th,1986). Bach owned an “improved” piano built by Gottfried Silbermann. András Schiff refers to one difference between Bach’s piano and the modern instrument, when he writes that “the sustaining pedal was not at his disposal on any of the keyboard instruments of his time” and warns pianists “not to underestimate the danger of damage that can be caused by indiscriminate use of the pedal” (Vancouver Recital Society, July 19th 2012). So here we have Shira Legmann performing J.S.Bach on the modern piano. Served by a fine technique, her playing is prudent, intelligent and tasteful, her enquiry into each movement/dance informed, colourful, attesting to Bach’s originality and as profound as her overall perspective on each Partita. As to her use of the sustaining pedal, abundant and skilful, she wields it in such a way as it leaves melodic lines, phrasing and harmonic progressions as clean as a whistle! 
Israeli-based concert pianist Shira Legmann (b.1981, Germany)  performs both classical- and new, experimental  music. Co-artistic director and member of Musica Nova Ensemble (Tel Aviv) a unique collective comprising musicians and sound artists, she also engages in improvisation, composing, curating  concerts and interdisciplinary work. .