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.



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