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.”