Thursday, December 31, 2020

Ensemble PHOENIX performs Labadie's transcription of Bach's Goldberg Variations at the 2020 Desert Sounds Festival

Noam Schuss,Noam Gal,Marina Minkin,Rachel Ringelstein,Myrna Herzog (Dror Heller)


“J.S.Bach’s Goldberg Variations - Beyond the Harpsichord”, an event of the Desert Sounds Festival and of the Felicja Blumental Music Center, was performed by Ensemble PHOENIX on December 24th 2020 and relayed to audiences on live streaming. Performing Bernard Labadie’s transcription of the work were violinists Noam Schuss and Noam Gal, Rachel Ringelstein-viola, Marina Minkin-harpsichord and PHOENIX founder and director Myrna Herzog-viola da gamba.


In 1741, J.S.Bach published the fourth and final volume of his Clavier-Übung, this consisting “of an Aria with diverse variations for the harpsichord with two manuals”. As in the previous three volumes of the series, the composer added that the work was “prepared for the soul’s delight of lovers of music.”  The Goldberg Variations represent the final stage of Bach’s rigorous and systematic exploration of writing for the keyboard that began with the Two- and Three-Part Inventions and the Well-Tempered Clavier and end with the four volumes of the Clavier-Übung. The Goldberg Variations are among the most technically demanding works for the harpsichord. Bach avails himself of the many resources of the instrument, including a number of variations requiring complex hand crossings, the latter technique unique in Bach’s keyboard writing.. He wrote the variations for a double-manual harpsichord, specifying which variations were to be played across the two keyboards (in some cases to facilitate hand crossings, in others, to colour specific variations differently.) The aria which precedes the variations and closes the variations is actually a Sarabande written over a bass line of 32 bars, the latter form and its implied harmonies (and not the Sarabande melody) forming the material on which Bach builds the variations. The composer’s fascination with numbers can be observed in his division of the variations into groups of three, each group culminating in a canon; the canons start at the unison and progress stepwise to a canon at the ninth. So, it could be said that the Goldberg Variations are, in many ways, the perfect balance between art and science. As much as can be said about the stringent technical challenges facing the performer, any virtuosity and mastery Bach demands of the player pales in comparison with the virtuosity and mastery he presents here as a composer. If one considers Bach’s own practice of reusing pre-written movements for later repertoire, it stands to reason that. a work of such universality is apt to fare effectively in different instrumental settings



Enter prominent Baroque and Classical conductor and opera specialist Bernard Labadie (b.1963, Québec, Canada). In 1997, he began his transcription of J.S.Bach’s Goldberg Variations for string orchestra and continuo. (Russian violinist and conductor Dmitry Sitkovetsky made a note-for-note transcription of the work for string orchestra prior to Labadie’s setting). Labadie’s aim was to transcribe the Goldberg Variations in the manner that might be chosen by an 18th century composer. Because of new possibilities offered by different instrumentation, Labadie sees his transcription as a new opus “which should not be compared to the original”, (easier said than done!), referring to the project as “a dangerous and stimulating process”. 


Ensemble PHOENIX pays respect to Bach, deciding to have the first section of the Aria played by the harpsichord alone (Minkin), however, bringing in bowed instruments on the repeat. Then, as one follows the PHOENIX performance with the original score, one sees how natural it was for Labadie to determine the instrumental settings for each variation. The work is no longer a keyboard solo, with the artist in communication with himself. Not lost, however, is the work’s intimacy, now created by close communication between the players, here, playing one to a part on period instruments, now engaging in the intimate chamber music genre. We are presented with string trios, as in Variation 9, with its occasional unorthodox harmonies, Schuss’ playing shining in fine shaping and expressiveness, or Variation 25 (Schuss, Ringelstein, Herzog) in the minor mode, its soul-searching, daring narrative wrought of large, unconventional leaps and dissonances, leaving the listener somewhat disquieted but deeply moved. There are quartets, there are tutti and there are duets, the power of Bach’s consummate two-voiced writing inviting thrilling teamwork and splendid delivery, as in Variation 11 (Schuss, Ringelstein) or in Variation 17, with the same two artists decoding Bach’s intense volley of notes with clear phrasing,  flexing and rubato, indeed, giving the movement their own personal stamp; and  Bach’s humour is present, as in the jocund hide-and-seek of Variation 20 (Gal, Ringelstein) representing the nimble and formidable hand-crossing acrobatics Bach demands of the keyboard player. As opposed to many artists who toss off Variation 27 in a blurred whirl of accelerated bravado, Schuss and Herzog, taking their cue from Labadie's tempo marking, pace their playing to outline Bach’s plan of action as inherent in the piece's playful dialogue. Labadie’s setting offers  much timbral variety. In Variation 7, however, PHOENIX chooses to have harpsichord and strings alternate, whereas Labadie's setting calls for only strings. The Goldberg Variations comprise uplifting tutti sections and solos, these and the above to be handled only by virtuoso players. The PHOENIX musicians gave expression to moments of Baroque courtly eloquence. PHOENIX also addresses Bach’s most original timbral inferences. In Variation 29, with the strings engaging in triumphant, homophonic, fanfare-type utterances, the PHOENIX players add the contrasting element of the  harpsichord part (Minkin) alternating the brassy chord texturess with its own agenda, indeed, playing totally different- and typically keyboard textures. If the Quodlibet, in its simple folk-like format, brings us back down to earth, it is the original Sarabande, now differently scored, with Schuss presenting the wistful melody throughout, completing the rich, meaningful musical experience that was offered online by Ensemble PHOENIX. And it was also a rich visual experience, with attentive camerawork inviting us to view the players’ every gesture and facial expression (unfortunately, we saw less of Marina Minkin, who was seated behind the string players) giving the audience the privilege of being involved in the musical process unfolding throughout the work... certainly a more visible experience than for people seated in a concert hall.  

A slightly different team of Ensemble PHOENIX players performed Labadie’s Goldberg Variations transcription in 2012. Always a “work in progress”, Dr. Myrna Herzog’s aspiration to revisit the Goldberg Variations is commensurate with the desire of many harpsichordists who perform and re-examine the mammoth work more than once throughout their professional lives. The PHOENIX players’ intelligent, virtuosic, profoundly inquiring, sensitive and nuanced performance confirms that the greatness of the Goldbergs goes far beyond the keyboard, opening the floodgates for new interpretative possibilities of this ingenious work, all wrought of the same harpsichord score.

Friday, December 25, 2020

Vespro a due voce - Ophira Zakai, Tal Arbel, Nour Darwish and Tal Ganor perform Italian instrumental and liturgical music in Nazareth

Nour Darwish,Tal Ganor,Tal Arbel,Ophira Zakai (Yoel Levy)


 “Vespers for Two Voices”, an event of the Nazareth Liturgical Festival, was relayed on live streaming from the Synagogue Church, Nazareth, on December 18th 2020. Performing early 17th-century Italian works were sopranos Tal Ganor and Nour Darwish, Tal Arbel-viola da gamba and Ophira Zakai-theorbo/direction. Tal Arbel and Ophira Zakai gave brief explanations on the program content and on the historic instruments they were playing. Now belonging to the Greek-Catholic community, the Synagogue Church, located in the heart of Nazareth’s Old Market, its exposed stone walls decorated with impressive wall paintings, provided a tranquil and atmospheric venue for the concert.

Tal Arbel and Ophira Zakai opened with Recercada IV by leading Spanish composer Diego Ortiz (living in the viceroyalty of Naples) and author of “Trattado di glosas” - the first printed instruction book on ornamentation for bowed string orchestras. Zakai drew the listener’s attention to the fact that the writing of some of the instrumental music on this program was experimental for its time, indeed, considered avant-garde! This was evident in three pieces of the German-Italian lute virtuoso Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger, one of the most successful (and least conformist) composers of his time, as heard in Arbel and Zakai’s crisp, hearty performance of “Kapsberger”  to a ground (a musical self-portrait?), a hearty “Ciaconna”  and the refined, introspective “Toccata arpeggiata”, the latter performed by Zakai alone, its perpetuum mobile manner accompanied by expanding harmonic development. Playing G.Frescobaldi’s canzona “L’Ambitiosa” on two instruments gave the artists the option of passing melodies back and forth, as they revealed the pronounced contrasts of the piece’s Italian-style writing of short sections, these including some decidedly dance-style episodes. As to Aurelio Vitgiliano, a theorist of Italian music of the late Renaissance and early Baroque period, known for his three books on performance practice and no less for his collection of virtuoso works, Tal Arbel’s alluring and versatile performance of Ricercar No.13 displayed its wide range of viol techniques, as she gave individual expression to each melodic voice and gesture.


Sacred soprano duets with basso continuo by Claudio Monteverdi figured prominently at this concert, with Nour Darwish and Tal Ganor conveying the subtle nuances and invention of the pieces, as the singers engaged in much eye contact, their fresh, mellifluous voices well matched, interweaving the melodic- and harmonic web and rhythmic vitality of these rich, complex pieces. Each item emerged intuitively and rich in contrasts, not only vocally but also instrumentally, with Zakai  and Arbel luxuriating in Monteverdi’s harmonic language, adding a variety of textures and sonorities to the soundscape. Ganor’s singing of the ostinato-based “Laudate Dominum” was buoyant, celebratory and coloured with some fine melismatic passages. Alessandro Grandi (for a time as Monteverdi's assistant at St. Mark's in Venice) took the text for “O quam tu pulchra es” (O how sweet you are) from Song of Songs. In her sparkling, dynamic performance of it, Nour Darwish gave intense expression to the array of changing emotions evolving from this monody - reflective, poignant, joyfully dancelike and, finally, languishing.


Bringing this superb music to the listener, some works pared down to chamber scoring, the artists’ performance was characterised by profound and detailed inquiry into the works, polished performance and sheer beauty of sound.



Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Rami Bar-Niv's autobiography “Blood, Sweat and Tours - Notes from the Diary of a Concert Pianist”

Pianist/composer Rami Bar-Niv (Courtesy R.B-N)

Pianist and composer Rami Bar-Niv has spent the many years of his outstanding (and ongoing) professional life performing in North-, Central- and South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand and Israel. He has performed as a soloist with orchestras, is a recitalist and chamber musician. Often sent abroad by the Foreign Ministry to represent Israel on the concert platform, he has become a goodwill ambassador for the country. Bar-Niv made history by being the first Israeli artist to perform in Egypt following the Begin-Sadat peace treaty. His recordings have met with great success and his compositions have been published, recorded and performed worldwide. Bar-Niv has engaged in educational activities worldwide, giving lectures, teaching private lessons and holding master classes and workshops. As of 2006, he has been running week-long piano camps for adults. His articles appear in music magazines and on Internet forums and groups. His first book “The Art of Piano Fingering: Traditional, Advanced and Innovative” (AndreA 1060) was published in 2012. His autobiography “Blood, Sweat and Tours - Notes from the Diary of a Concert Pianist” (AndreA 1070) came out in 2020. Today, Rami Bar-Niv and his American-born wife Andi live in Raanana, Israel.


Rami Bar-Niv was born in Tel Aviv in 1945. His parents immigrated to Israel before World War II, his mother from Poland and his father from Romania. Genia, his mother made her living as a piano teacher, giving him his first seven years of piano instruction; Aharon, his father, was a fine amateur violinist (as is Bar-Niv’s brother, Yair) and composer. The first section of the book deals with Bar-Niv’s childhood, his teenage years and studies in the USA. From 1969, he then dedicates a brief chapter to each year up to 2019. The book covers all major events and a myriad of other details of Bar-Niv’s life, as we are swept into accounts of his private- and professional life, travel for work and for pleasure and the many colleagues and friends he has collected on his way. A classical musician by training, Bar-Niv has also engaged in jazz and other popular genres of music, accompanying artists performing in many different styles. And Bar-Niv is a family man: the reader meets all immediate family members, reads of their joys, sorrows, also of the tragic death of Rami and Andi’s son Shai at age 15. Son Tal is a professional trumpeter. Daughter Sheli, also musical, decides to become a chef. The many photos add much to familiarizing the reader with the many, many people accompanying Bar-Niv on his rich and varied personal- and musical journey.


The prolific detail appearing in Bar-Niv’s memoirs may seem overdone to the general reader, but it will be much appreciated by his family, with information that will be especially interesting and relevant to the younger generations. Music lovers, potential- and professional musicians will, however, find interest in his discussion on management, piano practice, programming, performance and in Bar-Niv’s own compositions, a detailed list of which appears at the end of the book.  “Blood, Sweat and Tours - Notes from the Diary of a Concert Pianist” is readable and entertaining. Readers will enjoy Bar-Niv’s honesty and positive approach to people and life as well as his humour, as in accounts of a few unforeseen situations encountered by the artist, (probably not always as amusing at the time.) Although I feel the text should have undergone English editing, I found the book a good read and enjoyed its clear, pleasing format. It feels like time to revisit Rami Bar-Niv’s performances and compositions.


Thursday, December 17, 2020

Mozartiana - Michael Tsalka performs works of W.A.Mozart on keyboard instruments of the Classical period

(Design: Alastair Taylor)


Pianist and early keyboard artist Michael Tsalka brings Mozart’s authentic sound world to the listener with his new disc “Mozartiana - Rarities and Arrangements Performed on Historical Keyboards”. Dr. Tsalka has been considering the possibility of recording Mozart works on period instruments for some time. However, what triggered the project was when early keyboard restorer Pooya Radbon informed the artist that he had recently restored a Berner tangent piano (late 18th century) and a rectangular Maucher pantalon (c. 1780), prompting Tsalka to go ahead and record rare arrangements of Mozart’s incomplete works.


The first works on the disc are performed on the tangent piano (Tangentenflügel), an instrument whose strings are struck by freely-moving wooden posts, giving it 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, indeed, serving the new aesthetic demands of the early Classical period. Tsalka actually opens with a work familiar to listeners, the composer’s (complete) Adagio in B minor, K.540, referred to by Alfred Einstein as “one of the most perfect, most deeply felt, and most despairing of all his [Mozart’s] works”. Touching, but not dwelling on the sense of desolation as heard by many pianists playing the work, Tsalka undeniably also gives expression to the work’s positive energy, his adeptly paced playing contrasting the three-chord dramatic interruptions with cantabile passages, highlighting the work’s expressive harmonic progressions, also engaging in ornamenting and interspersing some original transitions.


In 1771, Mozart was present at the decadent and extravagant Venetian carnival, acquiring a taste for the Commedia dell’Arte so closely linked with the Italian carnival tradition. The visit to Venice inspired him to write the ballet-pantomime “Pantalon and Columbine” K.446-Fs twelve years later, in which he played Harlequin, with Aloysia, his sister-in-law (and first love) playing Columbine. Of this pantomime neither score nor script survive, only the autograph of a first violin part. The manuscript, however, includes stage directions, thus giving some clues as to the content of this piece. “Columbine”, meaning "little dove", a stock character of the Commedia dell'Arte, is desperately in love with the cheeky Harlequin, but betrothed by her father Pantalon to a man she despises. She is locked in her house and guarded by the mischievous servant Pierrot. Harlequin and Columbine secretly hatch a plan to escape the house and elope. In this world premiere recording, Tsalka, playing the series of sparkling, spirited miniatures from the completed, edited and arranged version by German musicologist Franz Beyer (1922-2018), provides the listener with fine entertainment, giving the lively, uninhibited tangent piano carte blanche to evoke the exaggeration, coquettishness, pseudo-dramas, humour and, above all, the devil-may-care and flamboyant sauciness that are part and parcel of the Commedia dell'Arte tradition.. 


Then, to pieces written by the very young Mozart. Following a small piece written by the 10-year-old Mozart, Tsalka takes us into the sound world of the fledgling composer, choosing to play excerpts from the 43 tiny, untitled pieces of the Londoner Skizzenbuch K.ANH 1096 (London Sketchbook, 1765) on the pantalon square piano, its marvellously true, rich timbre offering him “a special opportunity to explore the instrument’s ethereal, undamped sonorities”, in the artist’s words. According to some Mozart scholars, the aim of writing these pieces was for Mozart, who had just learned how to use pen and ink, to write down the harvest of his own inspiration without needing help. (Corrections by his father Leopold appear in pencil only.) Tsalka’s playing features not only the young Mozart's joie-de-vivre, his inspiration and invention, but also his curiosity to experiment, as heard in some daring forays into the bountiful medium of harmony. As to the dance forms of the time, we hear the rustic origins of the Contredanse (K15h) and the graceful, swaying of little Mozart’s not-unsophisticated Siciliano in D minor (15u). 


Michael Tsalka returns to the tangent piano to perform pieces from “Mozartiana: Kompositionen des Meister'' (Compositions of the Master), a collection of pieces, several of them miniatures, compiled, edited and arranged for piano by Swiss pianist/conductor Edwin Fischer. Tsalka opens with three small Minuets, all childhood compositions, inviting us to revisit (indeed to reconsider the potential of) pieces we played as very young piano students. He approaches them with an air of freedom, whimsy and some modifications, yet preserving the freshness and naivety of these small gems. More miniatures: K.236 – Mozart’s arrangement of the theme of “Non vi turbate, no”, an aria from Gluck’s opera “Alceste”, c.1782 (did the composer intend it to serve as the basis for a set of variations?), a piano reduction of the programmatic Contredanse in D major “Das Donnerwetter” (Thunderstorm) for orchestra K.534, its uncompromising depiction of the pelting rain punctuated by calmer episodes, and also the totally delectable Romance in A flat major. Then there are the Variations on an Arietta from G.Sarti’s “I Finti Eredi” (originally attributed to Mozart, but possibly penned by Emanuel Aloys Förster). Tsalka’s varicoloured and captivating reading of the work is clearly inspired by the potential inherent in the tangent piano. Mozart’s Fantasia in F minor K.608, composed in the last year of his life, was written for a large table clock that included a pipe organ, the best of those organs being serious instruments, serving music aficionados in Europe’s stately homes. Count Joseph Deym was one such an enthusiast of mechanical clocks. Mozart’s F minor piece, commissioned by Deym, was not originally titled “Fantasia”, but its content certainly attests to the genre. Tsalka’s gripping playing of the piece, disclosing all the trademarks of the seasoned composer, does indeed emerge splendidly at odds with the circumstances of its original performance on a Spieluhr: he gives depth of emotion and expression to its French-style overture, the Andante and the spectacular fugue, the latter a reminder that Mozart had, indeed, studied Bach's music.


In the disc’s liner notes, Michael Tsalka talks of Mozart as a prisoner of the marketing forces of his time, compelling him to write simpler, popular music, hence the composer’s “repeated escapes into the parallel worlds of buffoonery and riddling, freemasonry, opera and the carnival…” The artist is convinced that “Mozart would have been happy to listen to interpretations of these piano arrangements on two marvellous and original historic instruments, restored and revived almost 230 years after his death.”   Recorded for GRAND PIANO (GP849) at the Rochuskapelle, Wangen im Allgäu (Germany) in October 2018, this disc will provide much delight to Mozart lovers and to those of us curious to hear performance of his music on authentic instruments.


Michael Tsalka (Geelvinck Muziek Musea)

Friday, December 11, 2020

250 years of Beethoven's birth - the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra plays early Beethoven works on historic instruments

Photo: Yoel Levy

On December 8th 2020, the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra joined the extensive array of concerts worldwide celebrating 250 years of Ludwig van Beethoven’s birth. Taking place in the magical setting of the historic Yellin House in Motza on the outskirts of Jerusalem, “In Beethoven’s Living-room”, a program played on instruments of the Classical period, celebrated not only this orchestra’s first performance of Beethoven works, but also the inauguration of the orchestra’s latest acquisition - a fortepiano. This was to be JBO founder and musical director David Shemer’s first public performance on the instrument. The piano was built in 2009 by Chris Maene (Belgium) after a 1790 instrument by Anton Walter (Vienna). It is similar to the fortepiano Mozart owned. The piano has two knee levers, which are, essentially, right (sustaining) and left (una corda) pedals. In Shemer’s words, it “is an absolutely lovely instrument and it feels like butter!” With Covid-19 restrictions still prevailing, the concert was available to audiences on live streaming. Preceding the actual concert, a film showing parts of an on-line master class held for the artists by JBO honorary conductor Andrew Parrott (from his home in Oxford, UK) provided a fascinating and enriching aperitif to the evening’s proceedings. 


The program presented three early Beethoven works in chronological order, opening with Quartet No.3 in C major, one of the three WoO 36 quartets the composer penned in Bonn, these forming one of the master’s most outstanding juvenilia. American musicologist and Beethoven specialist Lewis Lockwood views them as “Beethoven’s first sign of greatness” and forming “the beginning of a relationship to Mozart that remained a steady anchor for Beethoven over the next ten years as he moved into his first artistic maturity.” In his opening greetings and remarks, David Shemer spoke of the effervescent and positive compositional style of the composer at age 14. Performing the quartet at the Yellin House concert were Noam Schuss (JBO 1st violinist), Tami Borenstein (viola), Lucia D’Anna Freij (‘cello) and David Shemer (fortepiano). The fortepiano and strings struck coherence and balance that gave the stage so naturally to each solo - such as played by Schuss and Borenstein with sensitivity in the (F major) Adagio movement, with the addition of some sparing ornamentation from the keyboard. Rich in textures and contrasts, the outer movements effused the joy of music-making, with the small occasional pause (Shemer) introducing a whimsical hint of suspense in the final Rondo Allegro movement. Referring to the latter movement in the on-line master class, Maestro Parrott hinted at its rustic character, commenting that he (Parrott) was “beginning to see the insides of taverns”

Photo: Yoel Levy

 Expressing delight at being part of the Beethoven celebration and at being back performing with fellow musicians, violist Netanel Pollak spoke of  Notturno Op. 42 for viola and piano is an arrangement of Beethoven’s 1796-97 Serenade in D, Op. 8, a work scored for violin, viola and ‘cello. The growing amateur market for music in the late 18th- and early 19th centuries encouraged publishers to increase their profits by issuing suitable works in all manner of instrumental arrangements. It is not known who exactly completed the original transcription, but it could have been Ferdinand Ries, a student of Beethoven, or F.X.Kleinheinz. What is known, however, is that Beethoven corrected it, adding the odd extra bar and occasional new imitative counterpoint, and approving it for publication in 1804.  In the 20th century, several violists took up the challenge to “improve” the Notturno and make it a “worthy” recital piece for viola and piano, but Pollak and keyboard artist Natalie Rotenberg gave preference to performing the setting from Beethoven’s time. Pollak mentioned that playing the Notturno (night music) would have provided pleasant evening entertainment for people at home. Offering a bright, alert performance, Rotenberg and Pollak gave the seven-movement work hearty expression, drawing out the contrasts between movements, also those within an individual movement. Here and there, both artists added a personal touch. In the Polonaise, Pollak added a few gestures that made reference to the folk origins of the dance. Following the Andante theme and variations, Rotenberg introduced a transitional passage, leading the listener back to the opening march, which concludes the work. The artists’ playing reflected deep inquiry into the salient points of the work; playing it on period instruments made for natural balance and easeful, collegial teamwork.


Photo: Yoel Levy

Gili Rinot, known for her playing of historic clarinets, introduced Beethoven’s Septet in E flat major Op.20 (1799) to the listeners, referring to it as well written, entertaining and constantly drawing the listener into its readily comprehensible agenda. She spoke of it being a serenade, with the addition of some introductions, its hybrid textures being both symphonic and in the character of chamber music. During the second half of the 18th century, serenades and divertimentos represented the favourite “pop” style of music for social gatherings of the aristocracy and middle class. The Septet calls for an extremely unusual combination, the double bass included to lend weight to the ensemble and because it had traditionally been a member of the serenade ensemble. Written in the buoyant style of Mozart and Haydn and in the divertimento-type form of six short movements, its structure  nevertheless emerges idiomatically that of Beethoven. Movements alternate between slow and fast tempi throughout. Performing at the JBO concert were Gili Rinot-clarinet, Matan Dagan-violin, Nina Loeterman-viola, Gilat Rotkop-bassoon, Barak Yeivin-horn, Yotam Haran-’cello and Eran Borovich-double bass. The artists gave articulate and finely-shaped expression to the work’s rich mix of antiphonal writing, florid wind solos and duets (there was much vivid dialogue between clarinet and violin) and virtuosic, concerto-like passages for solo violin, these altogether forming a musical canvas of both majesty and intimacy, brilliance and easeful composure. Added to these was the timbral warmth of the historic instruments and the inspiration Beethoven’s distinctive instrumental writing offers players. As was evident at this concert, we are now hearing some fine playing of early woodwind instruments on these shores, but how delightful it is to hear and see the natural horn played by local musicians! Kudos to Barak Yeivin for his commitment to this most challenging of instruments and for the pleasing results he produced on it. In 1802, Beethoven, in characteristic impatience, wrote the following to his publisher: “Send my septet out into the world a little faster – because the rabble is awaiting it”. It seems the public did not take offence at being referred to in this rather derogatory way.


 Adding to the enjoyment of spending an evening “in Beethoven’s living-room” was the streamlined production of the on-line event.



Wednesday, November 25, 2020

"Labyrinth", David Greilsammer's recent solo piano disc, offers an unconventional mix of works and superb performance

David Greilsammer (photo:Elias Amari)


“Labyrinth”, David Greilsammer’s most recent recording, a solo piano album recorded on the naïve label (November 2020), draws its inspiration from a personal and decisive inner journey taken by the pianist, one emanating from a dream. In the disc’s liner notes Greilsammer writes: “There I was, standing, surrounded by the walls of this immense and infinite labyrinth. I had never seen such a remarkable edifice – it was both terrifying and miraculous. An inevitable, relentless energy was forcing me to advance, like a desperate need to search for something... I kept walking, for many hours, perhaps weeks, perhaps years…I stopped, breathless, only to begin once more, rushing, falling…  Suddenly, I heard sounds, they were bizarre, abstract, attractive, and so I let them guide me and take me by the hand... fragments of numerous sonorities that were staring at each other, like stars in a galaxy, quietly gazing at one another. They seemed to be illuminating my way, accompanying me to the centre of the labyrinth...This dream, or this nightmare, has returned to haunt me...triggering doubts and sleepless nights, causing both excitement and anxiety. It challenged my beliefs, my emotions, and my strongest convictions. Of course, I would discuss this situation with several people around me, but my questions remained unresolved, and the dream’s appearance seemed to be accelerating, becoming more frequent over time. So, one day, I decided to stop talking about it. Instead, I decided to start searching for this labyrinth, in order to reconstruct it, and make it exist...And the only way to move forward and find peace was to recreate this maze with music, trying to reinvent the many pieces of this infinite puzzle, with the help of the sounds I had heard during my voyage, night after night…”


It was Aristotle who interpreted dreams as psychological phenomena, viewing them as the life of one's soul while asleep. To grant the listener a deeper understanding into the genesis of the disc, Greilsammer has admitted us into the workings of his dream world, firstly by way of his own program notes, then to hand the narrative over to his performance of several miniature works strategically grouped in threes in what he refers to as “chapters”. He sets out on the journey with a piece from Leoš Janáček’s “On the Overgrown Path”, a set of autobiographical pieces referring to the composer’s childhood growing up in Moravia: “The Owl Has Not Flown Away” propels the listener into a rich, evocative pianistic sound world, with its startling and alarming portrayal of the owl’s cry. Following an ethereal, pristine, richly ornamented rendition of “Les Sourdines d'Armide “ from Jean-Baptiste Lully’s 1686 musical tragedy“Armide”, we return to  Janáček with “Words Fail”. Then to Greilsammer’s  mysterious, evocative and dazzling playing from off the  circular notation of “The Magic Circle of Infinity” from George Crumb’s“Makrokosmos”, Volume I (subtitled "Twelve fantasy pieces after the Zodiac for Amplified Piano) as he fulfills the composer’s  request  that it be played “like cosmic clockwork”, Crumb’s piece bookended by two of Beethoven’s Op.126  Bagatelles - the first frantic and explosive, the second serene. Strange bedfellows? Actually, no. Not in this unique setting. And how about Contrapunctus I from Bach’s “Art of Fugue”, crystalline and eloquent, flanked by two of György Ligeti's highly virtuosic Études Pour Piano, Ligeti’s pieces merging the ideas heard in his inner ear with what he refers to as the “anatomical reality of my hands and the configuration of the piano keyboard.”?


The centrepiece of the disc, standing alone and literally placed between the first three chapters and the ensuing three, is “El amor y la muerte - Balada” (Love and Death Ballad) from Enrique Granados’ “Goyescas”, this piece taking its inspiration from the tenth painting of Goya’s “Caprichos” (1799) and its caption: “See here a Calderonian lover who, unable to laugh at his rival, dies in the arms of his beloved and loses her by his daring.”  One of the truly great outpourings of Romantic pianism, “El amor y la muerte” is both meditative and deeply emotional, turbulent and sublimely mysterious. Acutely aware of its profusely varied essence, Greilsammer wields the piece’s complex passagework and kaleidoscope of rich, changing textures, from the most fragile of filigree utterances to wide, sweeping gestures embracing the voluptuousness of the piano range. He produces a performance of both powerful emotion and exquisite poignancy, taking the listener beyond the programmatic content of the work and deep into the vast realm of fantasy.


Time to catch one’s breath! We hear two of Erik Satie’s "Danses de travers" (Crooked Dances) from “Pièces froides” (Cold Pieces), their limpid mood, frequently shifting tonalities and free rhythmical patterns still sounding invitingly contemporary more than a century later; these are punctuated by the unexpected harmonic forays, rhetoric and virtuosity encapsulated in C.P.E. Bach’s perfectly sculpted miniature Fantasia in D minor H195. 


"Repetition blindness is the failure to recognize a second happening of a visual display" (Wikipedia).  “Repetition Blindness” by composer, pianist and improviser  Ofer Pelz (b.1978, Israel) was not only commissioned especially for this program; the brilliantly pianistic piece, its two frenetic sections performed either side of a Marin Marais Chaconne, takes its inspiration from  works on the disc, quoting from Rebel’s “Le cahos” (Chaos) and sounding the owl’s strident cry from the opening Janáček piece, also basing the piece’s harmonic content on that of the two pieces. It makes for intense, riveting and active listening. Indeed, Pelz wishes to draw the listener’s attention to the fine differences between repetition and variation. Providing a brief hiatus between the piece’s two sections, Greilsammer takes the listener to the opulent Versailles court of Kings Louis XIV and XV to hear an elaborately-ornamented, albeit light-hearted reading of a Chaconne by Marin Marais. 


Touched off by  Greilsammer’s contemplative, otherworldly presentation of Alexander Scriabin’s “Nuances”  Op.56, the recording soars to a climactic and impassioned conclusion via Jean-Féry Rebel’s “Le chaos” (arr. Jonathan Keren), the composer’s depiction of the confusion reigning among the Elements introduced by chords simultaneously sounding every step of the D minor scale in what might well be considered the first notated tone cluster in the history of music, these to be followed, among other gestures, by contrasting  moments of euphoric sereneness. The recording culminates with one of Scriabin’s last pieces for piano, “Vers la flamme” (Toward the flame), Op. 72 (1914), a work totally based on an obsessively repeated semitone motif. “Vers la flamme” starts out sounding long, held chords interspersed with rhythmically uncertain phrase fragments, suggesting time suspended, progressively to create Scriabin’s incendiary vision through the gradual increase of complexity and an intensifying of keyboard textures. Greilsammer’s masterful handling of the flamboyant arpeggiations down in the lower register, whirling finger-work in the mid-range and dazzling, incandescent gestures in the piano’s upper region spiral to describing tongues of flame, as evoked by nebulous double tremolos, to present a triumphant, farewell burst of bright light, played out on the extremities of the keyboard.


David Greilsammer (b.1977, Jerusalem) is a bold artist, here presenting programming of a daring and fresh approach. Ground-breaking as it is, the program is impeccable in its planning, as he seamlessly crosses boundaries of time and place with the utmost of skill and eloquence. The Steinway Model D piano in the Sendesaal (Bremen, Germany) and the hall’s brilliant acoustics give prominence to Greilsammer’s love of detail, his pellucid piano technique and broad expressive spread. Indeed, he is a master of the musical miniature. Summing up the “Labyrinth” project, Greilsammer writes: “Like every personal journey, it was not the truth that I was looking for. Rather, I was hoping to make this labyrinth my own, revealing its patterns, its secrets, and its colours, like the discovery of an ancient fresco that had been hidden in the dust, for thousands of years.”

Friday, November 6, 2020

The 2020 Online Vocal Fantasy Festival - five days of concerts, pre-concert talks and master classes in live streaming from Jerusalem, October 2020

If varied programming, music both sacred and secular, familiar and unfamiliar works, historic and unconventional styles, interesting Jerusalem venues and fine performance are what go to make a good music festival, the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s recent Online Vocal Fantasy Festival ticked all the boxes. With concerts taking place from October 27th to 31st 2020, each event began with a discussion on the concert at hand. The audience was also invited to view master classes at no extra cost. The festival was directed by JBO founder and director David Shemer.


“From Johannes to Hans” (October 27th) introduced viewers to the untiring work of Jewish, Austrian-born musician Hans Lewitus, whose professional life was spent in Peru. The concert represented a project undertaken by recorder player Inbar Solomon to introduce Lewitus’ unique arrangements to the concert-going public, an important connection between her and Lewitus being the many arrangements he had made for recorders. Ricardo Lewitus, spoke about a recently issued CD of his father’s duo and trio arrangements. In the concert, under Solomon’s direction and taking place at the Jerusalem Music Centre, the artists performing settings of Bach chorales and South American folk songs (alongside some Spanish Renaissance music) were soprano Yeela Avital, Inbar Solomon and Adi Silberberg (recorders), Inbar Navot (viola da gamba) and Gideon Brettler (guitar). This “broken” consort gave richly textured and vibrant expression to the Bach works, bringing out each voice with articulacy; Avital sang the Latin American songs with stylish gusto, Silberberg’s improvisations flowed in quick-witted supply, with Brettler’s performance of Renaissance works, elegant and pleasing.

Photo: Yoel Levy


Prior to the performance at Jerusalem’s Hansen House of the Israeli premiere of G.F.Handel’s St. John Passion, Lior Friedman (Galei Zahal, Israeli army radio) and Maestro David Shemer discussed whether this somewhat enigmatic work was actually a very early work from Handel’s pen or whether it had been composed by some other Hamburg composer. (A German scholar has suggested it was written by Georg Bohm.) Despite a technical problem of synchronization in the live streaming, viewers were able to gain an impression of the attractive work, one decidedly shorter and less dramatic than that of J.S.Bach, a work consisting mainly of short numbers wrought of a direct, straightforward, rather conservative late-Baroque style, with the conventional tenor Evangelist (Doron Florentin). Six singers - Yeela Avital, Liron Givoni, Alon Harari, Doron Florentin, Hillel Sherman and Noam Lowenstein - gave some proficient to excellent readings of solos, duets and chorus movements, supported by eloquent, finely-detained and attentive playing on the part of the instrumental ensemble. The work, as yet unfamiliar to the general concert-going public, deserves a repeat performance before too long.


Designed by German architect Conrad Schick, the Hansen House was first opened in 1887 by the Protestant community of Jerusalem as a leper asylum. The Jerusalem Development Authority then took on the Hansen House preservation project, reopening the impressive historical building to the public in 2013 as a design, media and technology centre. The Hansen House’s imposing interior provided the perfect setting for “Assembly”, a program featuring Baroque musicians Doret Florentin (recorders), Idit Shemer (flutes), Orit Messer Jacobi (‘cello) and Aviad Stier (harpsichord), performing works in addition to items sung by the Great Gehenna Choir. The instrumentalists gave scholarly and refined readings of music by such composers as Palestrina and Castello, with Doret Florentin performing a work of the latter with virtuosity. The Great Gehenna Choir, an ensemble supported by the Jerusalem Arts and Culture Division and a collaborative project with the Mamuta Art and Research Center, was established in 2016 by Noam Enbar as an alternative to the more traditional concept of choral singing. It comprises classical singers, composers, singer-songwriters and multidisciplinary artists, who perform what could be conceived as transformative, contemporary ceremonial works. Its members, performing mostly unaccompanied, apart from the use of percussion instruments, work and create as a team, presenting works by such composers as Noam Enbar, Amit Fishbein, Ido Akov and Faye Shapiro. Standing and moving in various formations within the concert space, each item was led by a different member, as the young singers took the audience into the ageless realm of ethnic, oriental, spiritual, primordial and meditational music in performance that was both spontaneous and polished. A connection between both ensembles seems to have been formed through the Baroque players’ exquisite and atmospheric melange of Ladino songs, its course prompted by a sense of freedom and the magic of the moment, inspiring both ensembles to finally intermingle musically and with spontaneity. The event was enhanced by the  visual effect of a large, gleaming moon rising up, as inspired by Faye Shapiro’s “Hymn to the Moon”. Certainly, splendid festival fare!


Who were Handel’s divas? The Hansen House was the setting for a theatrical-musical event, offering viewers the chance to learn something of the personal dynamics behind  the London opera scene of the 1720s. “Handel’s Divas'', directed by David Shemer from the harpsichord, tells of four of the many foreign artists there at the time, catering to the Londoners’ passion for Italian opera, at a time when singers were the darlings of the opera houses, with audiences in the habit of shouting, clapping...and jeering quite freely. Actor  Itzik Cohen-Patilon was our witty compere, serving up a healthy dose of showbiz gossip from 18th century London, informing the audience on the competition between G.F.Handel and Giovanni Bononcini (till such a time as the Italian composer was forced to leave London following charges of plagiarism for putting his name to a madrigal by Lotti) and on two Italian opera singers - Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni, to both of whom Handel and Bononcini dedicated several roles. As to the singers, they certainly competed and bickered, but it was the opera-going aristocrats who began taking sides, engaging in fist fights and drowning out the music whenever one or other began to sing. Amid a few subtle gestures of female snubbing, we heard soprano Inbal Brill (Bordoni) and mezzo-soprano Karina Radzion (Cuzzoni) in several arias of both composers - Brill highlighting the fiery (and tender) emotions of the Italian aria and offering some effective ornamenting, Radzion performing with richness of timbre, melodic power and poise. Their performance of the “Dolce conforto” duet from Bononcini’s opera “Astianatte” highlighted the differing roles the composer allotted to each of his singers. Offering relief to the stormy dynamics ruling the London Italian opera scene, we heard JBO instrumentalists in lively, stylistic and elegant playing of two Handel works - the Overture to Rinaldo and Trio Sonata in G minor, Op.2. The ensemble consisted of violinists Rachel Ringelstein and Tami Borenstein; Netanel Pollak (viola), Yotam Haran (‘cello) and David Shemer (harpsichord). Indeed, an event full of interest, colour and spice...certainly, tailor-made to festival-goers on an autumnal Friday at noon.

Courtesy Miri Shamir


“French Fantasy”, directed by JBO 1st violinist Noam Schuss, brought the 2020 Vocal Fantasy Festival to a close. Schuss was joined by Dafna Ravid (violin), Ophira Zakai (theorbo), Tal Arbel (viola da gamba) and Aviad Stier (harpsichord). Not commencing in France, however, the program took the listener to Lübeck of 1696 with Dietrich Buxtehude’s Sonata for violin, viola da gamba and basso continuo in G minor, BuxWV 261. Invigorating, daring and exciting, with virtuosic moments, as displayed by Schuss, the performance gave expression to the work’s Italian influences, reflecting the improvisational, fanciful, expressive and colourful mannerisms of Buxtehude and his school, accurately referred to by Johann Mattheson in 1739 as the “stylus fantasticus”. Then to France with “La Française” - a sonata and dance suite from François Couperin’s “Les Nations”...also not purely French in concept, as Couperin places himself between the Italian and French musical styles of his day to create a fusion of beauty and excellence, combining the style of Lully and Louis XIV's court with Corelli's brilliance. In playing that was both robust and refined, the artists’ reading of the Italianate trio sonata with its free-form virtuosity, followed by a large-scale and elaborate French dance suite, was rich, sensitive and engaging. Many of us associate  Louis XIV with the splendour of Versailles and the art of  ballet, as well as with the stage spectacle, but, as the Sun King grew older, the tastes of his court became more subdued and chamber music began to dominate the royal repertoire, of which the cantata was a prominent genre  Louis-Nicolas Clérambault was the composer most associated with the French cantata. Published in 1713, Clérambault’s cantata “Léandre et Héro” is based on the tragic story of Leander, the lover of Hero - a priestess of the goddess of love, living in the city of Sestos, on the Grecian side of the Hellespont. Leander lives in Abydos on the Asian side. To reach his lover, Leander swims the Hellespont nightly. One night, the jealous god of the north wind brings about a storm in which Leander drowns. Grief-stricken, Hero casts herself into the waves. Neptune, however, takes the tragic lovers into the realm of the immortals, where they are united forever. Singing the text by heart, soprano Daniela Skorka gave splendid vocal and dramatic elucidation to the composer’s range of dramatic expressions, convincingly conveying eager love, heroic resolve, terror and inconsolable grief, as supported by the strikingly descriptive instrumental score. The cantata concludes with a reproach to love: “Always on the most tender of lovers fall the cruellest sufferings.”

Thursday, October 29, 2020

The Willy Brandt Center (Jerusalem) marks International Artists Day 2020 with an on-line presentation

Nadav Cohen(Meirav Kadichecsk),Johanna Lonsky(Roberto Ferrantini),Hanno Loewy(Dietmar Walser)

Art has been an important part of the human experience for time extending beyond the reach of memory, record or tradition. The first records of the world are not written in books, rather, captured in paintings, sculptures and music that create a picture of a world lost to the past. International Artists Day was established by Chris MacClure, a Canadian artist who specializes in the style known as “Romantic Realism”.  He created this day, celebrated annually on October 25th, to bring recognition to the world of art and to celebrate all the ways that artists bring their own special view to life. It takes a special type of person to be an artist - a person who thinks outside of the box, someone who is naturally creative, often viewing things from a different perspective. The anguish and joy of the human soul are portrayed through the haunting tones of a melody, the violence and fury captured in a photograph or the serene gaze of a statue staring off into eternity.

To mark the 2020 International Artists Day, Jerusalem’s Willy Brandt Center was joined by the Austrian Cultural Forum, Tel Aviv (director: Arno Mitterdorfer). Also celebrating their joint project "Jerusalem & Europe - Visions for a World of Tomorrow", as inspired by Stefan Zweig's “The World of Yesterday”, an international on-line event was held on October 25th 2020. With the aim of highlighting the contribution culture makes to society in these challenging times, it was moderated by the WBC’s Jerusalem social art project coordinator Petra Klose. Her reading of the following passage from “The World of Yesterday” seemed especially poignant in light of today’s fraught reality: “But in the last resort, every shadow is also the child of light, and only those who have known the light and the dark, have seen war and peace, rise and fall, have truly lived their lives.”  "Jerusalem & Europe - Visions for a World of Tomorrow", a collection of essays and short stories by Israeli, Palestinian and European scholars and writers, is published under the auspices of the Willy Brandt Center and available in November, 2020. Ms. Klose explains that although originally written in four languages, the collection will, however, appear in English, its content to be read by actors. The Austrian Cultural Forum supported commissions for four Austrian authors (Tina Brauer, Anna Goldenberg, Doron Rabinwici and Julya Rabinowich). There are also contributions by Eliana Almog, Peter Münch, Viola Raheb, Nadine Sayegh and Hanno Loewy. 

Dr. Hanno Loewy - German scholar of literature and film, curator and writer, founding director of the Fritz Bauer Institute (Frankfurt am Main), today director of the Jewish Museum, (Hohenems Austria) - has been active in the project. Speaking from the South Tyrol, Italy, he read his contribution to the collection - ‘The Tale of the "Christian-Jewish Occident”’ - indeed, a profound, provocative and highly thought-provoking piece of writing. He also spoke of a recently-opened exhibition at the Jewish Museum, Hohenems - “The Last European” -  referred to by him as a “critical, pessimistic exhibition”. It looks at Jewish individuals who, in the face of the destruction of Europe and the attempted extermination of European Jews in the 20th century, crossed national and cultural borders, once again vehemently demanding the universal validity of human rights. Based on their commitment to a united and peaceful Europe, this exhibition also dares to explore the threats that are facing Europe anew. Dr. Loewy sees Hohenems, a city bordering Austria, Germany and Switzerland, a crossroads through which refugees have passed and via which people commute, as the ideal location for this exhibition.

Loewy’s presentation was followed by the premiere video recording of two movements from “Four Character Pieces” for bassoon solo (2010) by Israeli composer Sergiu Shapira (b.1931, Romania), performed by Israeli bassoonist Nadav Cohen. Prominent on the local contemporary music scene, Cohen is a founding member and producer of the Tel Aviv Wind Quintet and a member of the award-winning Meitar Ensemble, where he also functions as a faculty member of its "Tedarim" Program for Contemporary Music at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. Referring to the work as an “essay connecting two worlds”, Cohen gave expression to Shapira’s free style of writing and accessible personal musical language, music that flows naturally, unencumbered by any predetermined system of composition. Works for solo melodic instruments are generally highly individual by nature, this being no exception. In a reading that was totally engaging, stirring and personal, Cohen’s playing addressed the work’s abundance of minute details, at the same time, creating the general mood of each movement. 


Johanna Lonsky, an Austrian actress working for the BBC and ORF, in cinema as well as theatre, has appeared at the Salzburg Festival, the Josefstadt Theatre, the Vienna Volkstheater and the Berlin Freie Volksbühne, as well as in such international productions as "To the Green Fields Beyond" (director: Sam Mendes.) From the living room of home in her native Vienna, Lonsky gave a vivid and enthralling reading of “Almost Staying”, a story by Austrian author, playwright, painter and translator Julya Rabinowich (b.1970, Leningrad). The story, dealing with one woman’s trip to Jerusalem and the subject of identity, appears in the “Jerusalem and Europe - Visions for a World of Tomorrow” collection. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the performing arts, mirroring its impact across all sectors of the arts. Due to physical distancing requirements and the closure of arts venues, curtailing not only public performances but also rehearsals, many performing arts institutions are offering new (or newly-expanded) digital services. For example, the opening of “The Last European” is available for viewing on YouTube. However, Dr. Loewy also points out the importance of the museum as a living, social space, where visitors communicate with each other as they view exhibits. Nadav Cohen commented that, although you can never replace the audience in a live music situation, one needs to be creative for the sake of both artists and concert-goers, such as on-line concerts, but also outdoor performances, playing at retirement homes and as for artists to take time to prepare new and different program material. Johanna Lonsky, utilizing this problematic time to “become the best version” of herself, speaks of one of the functions of the arts as giving comfort. She reminds us that COVID-19 has plunged us all into the same situation and of how important it is for people to connect with each other. Viewing the Willy Brandt Center's event, one was reassured that the creative spirit is not easily repressed!  Petra Klose invited those of us viewing the International Artists Day meeting to join her in raising a glass to celebrate the many artists who enrich our lives.

Petra Klose (courtesy Willy Brandt Center)