Sunday, November 10, 2019

"The Brandenburgs" - hosting Lina Tur Bonet (Spain) and Dani Espasa (Spain), the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra opens its 2019-2020 season with instrumental works of J.S.Bach and Handel

Idit Shemer, Dani Espasa, Lina Tur Bonet © Yoel Levy
The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra opened its 31st subscription season with a concert devoted to instrumental music of Bach and Handel. Soloists in “The Brandenburgs” were Lina Tur Bonet (Spain) - conductor/solo violin, Dani Espasa (Spain) - harpsichord, Doret Florentin, Inbar Solomon - recorders and Idit Shemer - flute. This writer attended the concert at the Jerusalem International YMCA on November 4th 2019. Prof. David Shemer, JBO founder and musical director, offered words of welcome to the audience and spoke of the artists and programs awaiting the audience in the new season’s concerts. 


As its title implies, most of the program was devoted to J.S.Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos; there was also one work of G.F.Handel. Over the years, a number of inaccurate and bizarre stories have circulated concerning the Brandenburg Concertos. What remains clear is that Bach, no longer feeling secure in his position of Kapellmeister at the Calvinist court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen, was looking for employment elsewhere. In 1718 the composer was sent to Berlin by Prince Leopold to commission a harpsichord from the workshop of Michael Mietke, returning there in 1719 to collect it. In Berlin, Bach had occasion to play for Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg-Schwedt, who was so taken with his music that he asked him to send some of his compositions for his library. Bach dedicated a volume of six “concerts avec plusieurs instruments” (concertos for various instruments) to Christian Ludwig, sending it to the nobleman in 1721 in the hope of being offered employment by him. There is no record of a reply from the Margrave, and Bach eventually accepted a lucrative combination of posts in Leipzig, where he then lived for the rest of his life. There is also no evidence of the Brandenburgs being performed in Bach’s lifetime. The concertos were finally rediscovered and published in 1849, nearly 130 years after their composition. In his program notes, David Shemer discusses the beginnings of the genre of orchestral music in Europe and of the development of the concerto grosso form in particular. Indeed, the Brandenburg Concertos give us a glimpse into the evolution of modern orchestral composition. In them Bach brought together the widest possible combination of instruments (different for each concerto), combining them in daring partnerships. Orchestral music would never be the same again once the world had heard Bach’s colourful and texture-filled Brandenburg Concertos. 


Leading the evening’s program was Lina Tur Bonet, no new face to JBO audiences. On this visit, she was accompanied by harpsichordist Dani Espasa, with whom she has worked extensively. Brandenburg Concerto No.3 BWV 1048 in G major is scored for three violins, three violas, three ‘cellos, bass, and harpsichord. The nine upper strings serve as both concertino (soloists) and ripieno (accompanists), fluidly transitioning between roles throughout the piece. Concert-goers are familiar with these pieces, but Tur Bonet was showing the listener that a concerto is not necessarily a flamboyant, virtuoso solo showpiece as we tend to think of it today. With ample low-register instruments, the evening’s general ensemble timbre (especially here, with three ‘cellos and double bass) was well-anchored, mellow and integrated. Even in the ebullient (final) Allegro, following the intimacy and cantabile fragility of the miniature second movement, Tur Bonet kept well clear of muscular, garish playing in favour of the beauty of the music itself.


The solo instruments in the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 BWV 1050 in D major are flute, violin and harpsichord, the latter also included as a featured instrument, originally to show off the new instrument Bach had brought back from Berlin. As the first movement opened with a vigorous tutti theme for the orchestra, Tur Bonet led her players with subtlety, her solos expressive, at times delightfully weightless, as she occasionally took the dynamics down to pianississimo delicacy. As the movement progressed, Espasa gave the harpsichord solo a sense of humility and stability, growing more elaborate but never overdone, its sparkling cascades of unaccompanied melody and figuration in the closing sections presented with gentle rubato. In the tender Affettuoso movement, with the texture pared down to just the concertino, Tur Bonet and Idit Shemer -  in the honeyed tones of the Baroque flute - collaborated in poignant dialogue, with Espasa engaging in some inégal playing. With the entire ensemble joining the soloists for the finale, again with much dialogue, Tur Bonet and her players indulged in Bach's joie-de-vivre, contrapuntal ingenuity and rhythmic vivacity, however, with kindly profusion.


If Brandenburg Concerto No.4 BWV 1049 in D major had got off to a very brisk start, it was not at the expense of Tur Bonet’s melodic shaping or of the collaboration of Florentin and Solomon on recorders. The violin part in this concerto is extremely virtuosic in the first and third movements. Who the main soloists are in the opening movement is never quite clear, but that was not important as the artists’ mastery and a well-rounded ensemble sound of finely delineated melodic strands strode hand-in-hand and Tur Bonet’s facial expressions communicated with her players, with the movement’s final chord coloured by a spicy dissonance leaning into its solution. In the second movement, the violin bows down to its recorder partners and provides the bass when the concertino group plays unaccompanied, with Florentin and Solomon entertaining the listener with thoughtful variety to each joint recorder response. In the finale, a combination of concerto style and formal fugue, there was a sense of balance among all as Tur Bonet negotiated the shimmering passages of arpeggiated bowings on alternating strings. 


G.F.Handel’s Op. 6 Concerti Grossi are widely considered as definitive examples of the concerto grosso form. The fact that they were intended for playing during performances of his oratorios and odes does not detract from their quality.  Inspired by the more veteran concerto da chiesa and concerto da camera of Arcangelo Corelli, the creative lavishness of structure and the diversity of styles that Handel exhibits in these Twelve Grand Concertos, coloured by a surprising palette of musical expression, is unique, often resulting in this collection as being considered alongside Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos as one of the great monuments of Baroque instrumental music. Lina Tur Bonet sets the scene for Concerto Grosso Op.6 No.6 HWV 324 in G minor with a sombre, ponderous, regal, almost spiritual reading of the  opening Larghetto e affettuoso movement. Following the brief chromatic, angular fugue, the serene mood was recalled in the elegant Musette, a movement offering dialogue between low and high registers, with Tur Bonet’s solos soaring plangently above the ensemble, its outer sections punctuated by a brighter interlude. Tur Bonet offered some flexing to her solo in the first Allegro. As to the second Allegro, tripping along delightfully in triple time with all the violins playing in unison, the work drew to a close with the players bowing out in graceful gestures.


Throughout the evening, Lina Tur Bonet, taking the audience into the world of small gestures, Baroque elegance and timbral transparency, created the ambience of fine house music. We might have been  hearing these works played in the drawing room of some noble family in Central Europe. 

© Yoel Levy

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