Thursday, July 23, 2020

"Baroque Gems" - The Israel Chamber Orchestra in suave performance of vocal and instrumental works at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art

Maestro Ariel Zuckermann, players of the Israel Chamber Orchestra (Courtesy ICO)

Despite there being no audience present in the Recanati Auditorium of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on July 15th 2020, concert-goers were able to enjoy the Israel Chamber Orchestra’s concert of “Baroque Gems” on live streaming. Performing under the ICO’s house conductor Ariel Zuckermann, soloists included countertenor Alon Harari, orchestra members and Zuckermann himself on the flute. Joining the players was harpsichordist Aviad Stier. 


The event opened with the Overture to George Frideric Handel’s “Rinaldo”, the first original Italian opera ever to be performed on the London stage and the work that was to gain the composer the widespread recognition that he would maintain throughout the rest of his musical career. Handel composed Rinaldo quickly, borrowing and adapting music from operas and other works that he composed during the four years spent in Italy. The Overture was taken from the 1708 cantata “Arresta il passo”.  Zuckermann led his players through its French overture structure in spirited, stylish playing, addressing careful attention to rhythmic and dynamic detail, enhanced by some masterful violin and oboe soloing. “The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba”, a sinfonia for two oboes and strings, heralding King Solomon’s eagerly awaited guest opens Act III of Handel’s “Solomon”, an oratorio today rarely performed in its entirety. Zuckermann’s reading of the piece was fresh and celebratory, with oboists’ Keshet Seedel and Lior Virot’s duetting meticulous and vivid.


Of the arias on the program, "Frondi tenere e belle, Ombra mai fu"  (Tender and Beautiful Fronds...Never Was There Shade), the opening aria from Handel’s light and elegant 1738 opera Serse (Xerxes), was presented by Alon Harari with smooth intensity and warmth of sound, his subtle embellishing woven naturally through the vocal line. With its lilting siciliano-like 12/8 time, “Erbarme dich” (Have mercy), from J.S.Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, was poignant and affecting, the obbligato violin (Elina Gurevich) evocatively introducing and mirroring the anguish expressed in the aria. From Act 1 of Handel’s “Orlando”, we heard Harari in fresh, vigorous and energizing singing of the bravura aria “Fammi combattere” (Let me fight against any monster); here, Orlando declares that he could never love anyone but Angelica and would do anything to prove it, including fighting off fierce monsters. One of the program’s highlights was "Sol da te mio dolce amore" (Solely through you, sweet love) from Vivaldi’s opera “Orlando furioso”. The aria is sung by Ruggiero on falling victim to the snares of the enchantress Alcina, the casting of her spell depicted by the bewitching and sweetly suggestive sounds of the flute (Zuckermann), as it alternates teasingly between Vivaldi’s seductive vocal melody and its underlying tensions. Partnering Harari’s wonderfully crafted, sensitive and melancholically intense vocal line, Zuckermann’s playing emerged as spontaneous, his brilliant technique giving rise to imaginative ornamentation of Vivaldi’s haunting flute melody, the latter role often considered one of the most challenging flute solos in Baroque repertoire. 


Ariel Zuckermann also soloed in C.P.E.Bach’s Concerto in D minor, H. 426 (1747), one of five flute concertos written by J.S.Bach’s second son C.P.E.Bach, who spent many years employed as court harpsichordist for King Frederick II (the Great), the latter an avid amateur flautist. Following the delightful arpeggiated dialogue between Zuckermann and his instrumentalists of the opening Allegro movement, the flautist gave a captivating, delicate and lyrical performance of the second movement, with its brief moments of drama. As to the fiery agenda of the finale, showcasing an instrument that has, since its invention, been noted for its brilliance and virtuosic capabilities, Zuckermann navigated the Allegro di molto with precision and aplomb, presenting Emanuel Bach’s striking individuality but never sacrificing the work’s musical content for show. Would Frederick have met the demands of this piece? Probably not. It may well have been performed by the renowned flute teacher, flute maker and composer at the Prussian court J.J.Quantz, who held the exclusive privilege of approving or disapproving of the King's playing by shouting or withholding a “bravo”!


Closing with Handel’s “Rinaldo”, we heard “Lascia ch’io pianga” (Let me weep over my cruel fate), in which Almarena, mourns her captivity in Jerusalem and the absence of her lover. Alon Harari gave a poignant, warm-timbred performance of the aria, adorning the repeat section with some imaginative and daring ornaments. 


Despite not being performed on historic instruments (apart from the harpsichord), the modest size of the ICO ensemble was well suited to the performance of this repertoire, the refinement and good taste associated with Baroque music addressed throughout the program.

Countertenor Alon Harari (Ofer Amir)



Thursday, July 16, 2020

French Baroque music in a new light: Myrna Herzog and Giomar Sthel record harpsichord pieces of François Couperin on two viols

Cover design: Giomar Sthel
Born in Paris in 1668, François Couperin was a member of a musical dynasty, unique in France and only overshadowed in the history of music by the Bach family. Generations of Couperins held the post of organist at the church of Saint-Gervais in Paris from 1653 to 1826. Although their family origins were rustic (Couperin's great-grandfather was a farmer in Brie as well as a music teacher), the Couperins were time-honoured musicians at the court of Louis XIV, serving as organists of the Chambre du Roi and, in François' case, also teaching harpsichord to the dauphin and other children of the royal family.


Indeed, François Couperin’s musical life cannot be fully understood without relating to his strong connection to the lifestyle and mannerisms of the reign of the Sun King and, most importantly, to the art of dance. The elegance of dance, grace of movement, the art of gesture and fine deportment were major emphases in the general education of the French nobility. But there are additional characteristics to Couperin’s writing that set him apart from his contemporaries. Most Baroque keyboard composers furnished their scores with minimal ornamentation, phrasing marks, tempo markings and with some hints as to interpretation, then to depend on the "good taste" of the player to guarantee a high-quality performance. Not relying on keyboard players, indeed, incensed by poor performances of his music, Couperin took to providing his harpsichord scores with punctilious markings, challenging the player to decipher them and integrate them naturally into the weave of the music. His 1716 treatise “L'Art de Toucher le Clavecin” (The Art of Playing the Harpsichord) was and continues to be one of the most valuable instruction books for keyboard players.


Written Between 1713 and 1730, Couperin’s 27 suites, or " Ordres " as he called them, each consist of between four and 24 miniatures, their ornamentation prevailing as the core of the music, stimulating expressiveness and indicative of the gestures and mood of each piece, many of them "pièces de caractère". So unique is this repertoire that it somehow resists traditional analysis. The picturesque titles that Couperin, ever the individualist, gave the pieces have aroused much curiosity, their sketchy references, ambiguities and quizzical possibilities begging to be unravelled by players from the time they were penned.


So, what prompted Brazilian-born viola da gamba artists Myrna Herzog (today living in Israel) and Giomar Sthel (living in Germany) to embark on recording a number of these keyboard pieces on two viols? It was Sthel (also a keyboard player) who suggested adding three of them to a program the two artists were preparing for performance in Germany. The artists liked the pieces so much that they were motivated to put together a whole program comprising movements from the ordres. Indeed, in his preface to Book 3, Couperin encourages the playing of them on various instruments, even offering advice as to how to adapt them to specific instruments. He writes “Pieces of this kind, actually, will be suited to two flutes or oboes, to two violins or two viols, as well as to other unison instruments; it is evident that those who perform them will adapt them to their instruments.” Herzog and Sthel went ahead to perform complete programs of them in German churches and also in small venues in Israel, recording them a year later at St. Andrews Scots Memorial Church, Jerusalem (recording: Eliahu Feldman, mastering: David Feldman; Herzog herself edited out some street noise.) Apart from transposing some of the pieces and a changed octave here and there, the artists make no changes to the musical texts. On this recording, both play historic, 7-stringed viols.  Due to the more penetrating, treble-like timbre of the early 18th century German instrument she plays here (maker unknown), Herzog performs the upper line in all pieces except for on track 4, with Sthel taking the lower line on a 1744 Castagneri instrument, their choice of two different viols highlighting the beauty and distinctive timbres of two different schools of instrument-makers. 


Some of the pieces offer allusive, albeit seductive “portraits” of ladies at court; the manner in which each lady moves in the ballroom becomes almost visual in each vignette. “La Ménetou” refers to a truly gifted young woman - Françoise-Charlotte de Seneterre de Mennetoud (b.1680) - a child prodigy on the harpsichord; she composed music from the age of nine and is said to have performed for the king himself. Engaging freely in notes inégales and style luthé (lute style) or brisé (broken style, i.e. of never playing  the melody notes  and those of the bass or of the middle voices quite together) Herzog and Sthel’s reading of the piece, with its long, expressive melodic lines, suggests a lady of tranquil and mysterious independence, the middle section offering her the chance to show her prowess on the dance floor. It is thought that “La Chazé” is a description of Sister Liée Magdeleine of Sainte Elisabeth Bochart de Champigni; whether or not, Herzog and Sthel sweep her and the listener into a hearty, triple-time dance - perhaps a passepied, this dance introduced (now changed to a dance in triple time) to the court at the time of Louis XIV. Then there is “La Couperin” - François Couperin’s self-portrait. A thoughtful piece, coloured by chromatic moments, it is tinged with Couperin’s characteristic melancholy. The artists’ sympathetic, wistful rendition of it uses effective use of legato bowing as against amusing, non-legato textures, the latter perhaps evoking the composer himself pacing energetically through the opulent halls of the Palace of Versailles.


Some of the pieces reflect Couperin’s tender sympathy for everyday life and his understanding that the simple and the serious can easily coexist in one style. Such is “Le Carillon de Cythère”, describing the bell-ringing from a church on Kythera, an island located between the Greek mainland and Crete. Playing “Les Regrets”, appropriately set in the key of C minor, Herzog and Sthel invite the listener to be part of the crestfallen mood of the piece, as they pace it carefully in playing that is sincere, introspective and unmannered. Tragic and grand at the same time, “La Ténébreuse” (The Dark One), possibly written after the death of one of the French princes, is a dark, melancholic tombeau. Then there are the two rondeaus that make up “Le Dodo” ou “L'Amour au Berceau” (The Dodo, or Love in a Cradle), the lullaby, with its wavelike motion representing the rocking of a cradle, so soothing, almost mesmerising under the fingers of Herzog and Sthel. It is only in this piece that we hear Sthel on the upper part; in the opening phrase, a “tremblement” (trill) he plays produces an astounding dissonance, its minor-major mix sounding much like a cluster! And, being a rondeau, it recurs several times. Indeed, this effect emerges more boldly on bowed instruments than on the harpsichord.


With echoes from the commedia dell’arte, we hear Couperin’s “L’Arlequine” (The Harlequin’s Piece) a movement in a marked and stylized triple rhythm. Herzog and Sthel portray the comic servant character with empathy, allowing the piece’s quirky rhythmic surprises and hemiolas to give expression to the composer’s performance direction of “Grotesquement”. And, in keeping with Le Theatre Italien, a genre enjoying great popularity in the 1720s, there is Couperin’s “La Pantomime”, a colourful portrayal of actor Tiberio Florilli, also known as “Scaramouche”, the most famous actor of his time of the Commedia dell’Arte and a star in Paris of the Italian Troupe. The piece is performed here with “une grande precision”, some lighter textures punctuating its noble agenda. As to “La Lutine” (The Elf), a whimsical, carefree miniature perfect in construction but over in the blink of an eye, this represents the character of a goblin introduced into theatrical performances of the time to add an element of light-hearted entertainment. 


It is clear that Couperin’s descriptive pieces serve to fire the performing artist’s imagination. Herzog and Sthel’s effervescent and nuanced dialogue in “L’Anguille” (The Eel) evokes a vivid picture of the eel’s erratic movements and, perhaps, the stirring of the water as well. But it is those pieces bearing the more obscure titles that challenge players and listeners alike, transporting them into the world of boundless imagination. Take, for example, “Le Tic-Toc-Choc ou Les Maillotins”, published in 1722 in Book 3. The Maillot were a famous family of rope-dancers. According to Furetière’s Dictionnaire Universel, “Tic-toc” is an onomatopoeic term suggesting a “beating, a reiterated movement, a pulse that beats, a horse that walks, the pendulum of a clock or a hammer that knocks.” Herzog and Sthel give expression to this vivid perpetuum mobile, its unbridled energy and joy, at the same time, taking the listener through its harmonic development and melodic comments. “Les satires chèvre-pieds'' (ordre No.23) refers to goat-footed satyrs. Depicting the sylvan deity from Greek mythology that bears certain characteristics of a horse or goat and engages in Dionysian revelry, Herzog and Sthel set before the listener an image of this peculiar, grotesque figure in a clumsy, heavy, somewhat off-centre dance, their playing of the second half suggesting that the creature is not devoid of endearing qualities.


As performers and interpreters of French music, Myrna Herzog and Giomar Sthel display astounding musical rapport. They probe each of the Pièces de Clavecin here in depth, providing fascinating insight into the musical world of Couperin le Grand, its innate lyricism and elegance, its  intensity, its wit and charm, its nobility of sentiment, its theatre influences, its fantasy and into that elusive “esprit d'élégie” that so often pervades Couperin’s music. Enlisting the viola da gamba’s plethora of expressive, coloristic and textual possibilities, the artists' playing of these musical jewels offers an extraordinarily rich listening experience. Add to that the collection's true, high-quality recording sound. As yet, “François Couperin, Pièces de clavecin à deux violes” has not been issued as a CD, but it is available on all the current digital platforms.