Saturday, April 17, 2021

Salon music from late 18th century London - Revital Raviv and Jochewed Schwarz perform Haydn's settings of Anne Hunter's poetry


Jochewed Schwarz (Lauren Pressler)

Revital Raviv (Amir Itskovich)

A concert of Haydn’s settings of Anne Hunter's poems performed in the intimate setting of a private home in Kfar Saba, Israel on April 10th 2021 might be as close as one could get today to the kind of venue where these works would have originally been performed - in the salons of London. The works were performed by soprano Revital Raviv and early keyboard artist Jochewed Schwarz. In keeping with the repertoire, style, location and period, Jochewed Schwartz, who also performed a Haydn piano sonata, was playing on a 1798 Broderick & Wilkinson square piano.


Joseph Haydn arrived in London in January 1791 at the invitation of impresario Johann Peter Salomon. The composer gave a series of subscription concerts at the Queen's Ancient Concert Rooms, Hanover Square. Highly successful, they were attended by prominent London personages, these almost certainly including poetess Anne Hunter. The Lady’s Magazine reported that Haydn “the celebrated composer, though he has not yet been introduced at our court, was recognized by all the royal family” and that “the eyes of all the company were upon Mr. Haydn, everyone paying him respect.” Haydn’s lodgings were only a short walk to the house of the famous surgeon and anatomist Dr. John Hunter and his wife Anne, who lived in Leicester Square. Following a summer spent in the countryside Haydn returned to London. Another concert season followed in early 1792, a time Haydn was also starting his arrangements of Scottish and Welsh folk songs. It was at around this time that he met Anne Hunter, (1742–1821), whose fashionable Georgian salon was a meeting place for some of  London’s most influential people, those including members of the Bluestockings - a group of the city’s most educated and intellectual women. An evening at Anne Hunter's salon would have encompassed the full spectrum of art and learning available to the trendy Londoner of  the time. Haydn and Hunter collaborated on “Dr Haydn's VI Original Canzonettas”, the first of his two sets of “English Canzonettas”; the first bore a dedication to Hunter herself. The texts were published anonymously, but were, in fact, authored by Anne.Hunter and published 1794 during Haydn's second London visit. The result of this fortunate professional collaboration with Mrs. Hunter and the new possibilities presented by the more powerful English pianoforte was a true turning point in the development of the art song. The second set of Canzonettas, dedicated to Lady Charlotte Bertie, Countess of Abingdon, whose husband was one of Haydn’s many admirers, includes texts by various authors, including Hunter, Shakespeare, and Metastasio.  Heading each set of six is a sea song. 


The first half of the house concert was devoted to the first set of Canzonettas, immensely charming and tuneful songs, somewhat in the popular style - the pastoral-cum-sentimental English tradition - indeed, suited to intimate parlour entertainment, but written so well as to now represent some of Haydn’s most significant art songs. Haydn's command of English now greater, his music and the English lyrics move together hand-in-glove. The program opened with a sparkling, joyful rendition of “The Mermaid’s Song”, its skipping rhythmic course alive with word painting, the piano part exuberantly weaving in and out of the piece. The love songs that follow, however, all bear elements of regret and sorrow, of happiness that  once existed and that would never be retrieved, although Haydn’s settings, many in major keys, do not emerge overwhelmingly sad: “Recollection”, in which the piano part, almost, homophonic, stays at the speaker’s side throughout,  “A Pastoral Song” (the signature song of Jenny Lind), wistfully musing, its gorgeous melodic line partnered with the bold, independent piano part, the understated anguish of “Despair”, the sweet melancholy of “Pleasing Pain”, with its subtle piano comments, and “Fidelity”, evoking the storm (of the soul), nevertheless, concluding in an optimistic vein.


Separating their performance of songs from both sets of Canzonettas, Jochewed Schwarz chose to play Haydn’s Sonata in E-flat major Hob. 59, one of the composer’s last four sonatas, this latter group constituting the climax of Haydn's writing for solo piano. Written for an instrument with a much stronger sound and larger range than he had had available for his earlier piano music, it uses the resources of the new instrument to the utmost. Schwarz’ colourful playing brought out the work’s emotional depth, virtuosity, and vivacity, presented with a sense of spontaneity, freedom, attention to detail and personal touches. The sonata concludes with a Minuet that relieves the intensity of the opening two movements.


Revital Raviv spoke of Haydn’s second set of English Canzonettas as being more eclectic than the first. Opening with the hearty “Sailor’s Song” (text: anonymous) with its colourful (very jolly English!) depiction of bugle calls, cannons and rattling ropes, emerging zesty and uplifting, it was followed by a moving performance of “The Wanderer,” set in a gloomy but beautifully depicted nature setting, its disquieting pauses and unanticipated turns of chromatic harmonies powerful and disturbing. Then, “Sympathy” (text: Metastasio, Eng. translation), superb Haydn writing, touching in its tenderness warmth and sincerity, makes way for “She never told her love”, Haydn’s brilliant setting of verses from Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”, written in the form of a free arioso, enigmatic in its full-blown piano solo, its striking rhetorical gestures and extreme dynamic changes - a miniature of giant demands, and certainly well handled by the artists! Following a playful reading of “Piercing Eyes”, the program concluded with the original version of “Transport of Pleasure”. (The text was considered too suggestive for proper English society, necessitating an alternate version, titled “Content”.)


Revital Raviv’s voice - bright, honeyed, unforced and unmarred by excessive vibrato - is well suited to this repertoire, as is her expressiveness, good taste and fine British English, her performance communicative and revealing thorough inquiry into the content of each song. Conceived as keyboard works with vocal accompaniment, Haydn’s piano writing takes full advantage of the larger key span and the expressive qualities offered by the improved piano mechanisms Haydn encountered in the Broadwood instruments on which he played in London, pianos stronger and more robust than their Viennese counterparts. Jochewed Schwarz’ playing attested to the above, distinctively endorsing the many-faceted role demanded by the keyboard in these pieces, as she set the scene for each vignette, added “comments” and subtle meaningful pauses, also giving expression to Haydn’s elaborate ornamentation, all wrought in the manner of  Classical performance and championed by the action and true sound of her fortepiano.  Concert guests enjoyed the opportunity to hear this repertoire, not often performed on these shores. Holding such a concert in an intimate home setting elicited some lively discussion between audience and artists regarding the works and the timbres of various keyboard instruments. 

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

"A Tribute to Alexander Tamir" - from Vilna to Jerusalem - a new film chronicling the influential Israeli pianist's life, times and career

Prof. Alexander Tamir (© Ein Kerem Music Center)

Alik Volkoviski was born in Vilna on April 2nd 1931. He began studying music at the age of five. In early 1943, the Jewish Council of the Vilna Ghetto held a music competition. The winning entry was a melody composed by 11-year-old Alik, the boy already well known for his remarkable talent as a pianist. His song  “Stiler, stiler” (Hush, hush), to words written by his father, with lyrics later added by the ghetto poet Shmerke Kaczerginski became one of the best-loved songs of the ghetto. The lullaby, first performed at one of the last Jewish Council concerts before liquidation of the ghetto in 1943, is still frequently performed in memory of the Jews murdered in the Holocaust. With the liquidation of the ghetto, Volkoviski and his mother were sent to a concentration camp, where they were two of the few Vilna Jews to survive the war. After the liberation, Volkoviski moved to Israel in 1945, where, now known as Alexander Tamir, he studied piano in Tel Aviv with Eliyahu Rudyakov and composition with Yitzhak Edel. After graduating Geula High School. In 1948, he fought in the War of Independence.


Bracha Eden and Alexander Tamir met in 1951 as students of Prof. Alfred Schroeder at the New Jerusalem Conservatory (now the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance). Schroeder suggested they play as a duo.  In 1955, the Eden-Tamir Duo received a scholarship to participate in the Aspen Festival and study with the Vronsky & Babin Piano Duo. Two years later, they won 1st prize in the Vercelli Duo Competition, Italy. Eden and Tamir were the first artists to play Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski's "Variations on a Theme by Paganini" outside of Poland and the first to play and record Igor Stravinsky’s "Rite of Spring" arranged for two pianos - an adaptation by Alexander Tamir under the guidance- and with the consent of the composer. Eden and Tamir were instrumental in promoting Israeli works, many of which were written for them, including those by Josef Tal, Haim Alexander, A.A.Boskovich, Marc Lavry, Mark Kopytman, Karel Salmon and Ari Ben Shabtai. Senior faculty members of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, Prof. Eden and Prof. Tamir taught generations of students, many of them active today in music in Israel and abroad. Bracha Eden died in 2006.


In 1968, Tamir and Eden founded the Targ Music Center, Ein Kerem, Jerusalem, with the aim of enriching Jerusalem’s musical life and providing a platform for young talent and immigrant artists. Now known as the Eden-Tamir Music Center, the venue, nestling in a tranquil, exotic garden, functions as a recording studio and busy concert hall. The Music Center was also Alexander Tamir’s home till his death.


Alexander Tamir died on August 15th 2019. On April 2nd 2021, the date of what would have been his 90th birthday, a short film on Tamir and his life’s work was shown for the first time. Sponsored by the Association of Vilna and Vilna Vicinity Jews in Israel, the film was directed and edited by pianist Ofer Shelley (founder/pianist  Atar Trio), and produced by Hadassah Virshup (Association for the Lithuanian Jews in Israel); camera - Ariel Weiss, sound - Avi Elbaz. A view of the gates of the Eden-Tamir Music Centre, Ein Kerem, Jerusalem, with Bracha Eden and Tamir playing a Poulenc Waltz on two pianos sets the scene for “A Tribute to Alexander Tamir”, in which colleagues and friends talk of Tamir. Speaking to Ofer Shelley were Ms. Mickey Kantor (head of the Association of Vilna and Vilna Vicinity Jews in Israel, Beit Vilna, Tel Aviv),  Prof. Mordechai (Motti) Zalkin (Ben Gurion University of the Negev, researcher of the cultural, social, religious and economic history of the Jews of Lithuania), Avi Hanani (Voice of Music - Israeli radio, Israel Music Institute, Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra), Vilna-born concert pianist, pedagogue, cultural- and social researcher Dr. Zecharia Plavin (Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance),  Vilna-born violinist, conductor, composer and teacher Prof. Motti Schmitt (Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, concertmaster Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra), Dr. Dror Semmel (artistic director Eden-Tamir Music Center, member of faculty of the Edward Aldwell Institute) who was a student of Prof. Bracha Eden, Prof. Yoram Eden (director Eden-Tamir Music Center), recording engineer Avi Elbaz and Rachel Schwarz (producer of “Ponar”, a film documenting Alexander Tamir’s life.) Consecutively, the above speakers assembled a rich and comprehensive picture of Alexander Tamir - the person, the artist - pianist, accompanist, teacher - his radio programs, the prestigious Eden-Tamir Duo and the Eden-Tamir Music Center.


“A Tribute to Alexander Tamir” is the initiative of the Israeli Vilna Association. Growing up in the Ein Kerem neighbourhood, Ofer Shelley's piano teacher was Bracha Eden. Then, at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, he studied under Eden and Tamir. Many short film clips woven through “A Tribute to Alexander Tamir” - of Vilna in 1930, of Warsaw, of industry, migrant ships and scenes from Israel in the 1940s - call attention to the background and historic events of Tamir’s life. Of the musical items, Nechama Lifschitz’ moving performance of “Stiler, Stiler” and works (filmed at the Eden-Tamir Music Center) for two pianos of Dvořák, Poulenc and Z.Plavin, superbly performed by Zecharia Plavin and Ofer Shelley, make for a fitting tribute to Prof. Tamir and his profound influence on musical life in Israel and beyond. Beautifully made, this film is enriching and inspiring.