Sunday, May 30, 2021

"Murder, Mystery, Music" - Ensemble PHOENIX reveals rumours and scandal around the lives (and deaths) of several Baroque composers

Noam Gal,Lilia Slavny,Marina Minkin,Myrna Herzog (Yoel Levy)


Scandalous behaviour involving composers began long before Clara Schumann’s torrid affair with Johannes Brahms and doesn’t look like it is going to taper off in the near future. Ensemble PHOENIX’ most recent program “Murder, Mystery, Music” was proof of this most human of failings! Finding a program based on gossip hard to resist, this writer went along to the noon concert in the Faculty of Musicology of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on May 24th, 2021. The artists - violinists Lilia Slavny and Noam Gal, harpsichordist Marina Minkin and PHOENIX founder/director Myrna Herzog - were introduced by Dr. Sara Pavlov, producer of the Monday Afternoon Concert Series. It was Herzog who let the audience into a wealth of dark secrets behind the lives of several renowned Baroque composers who should have known better!

Alessandro Stradella was an immoral sort of a chap. With a reputation as an “aristocratic lady-killer”, he was obliged to flee Rome to Venice; in Venice, he seems to have continued in much the same manner. On his wedding day, he was attacked by two hired assassins but survived, later to be murdered in Genova by a revengeful rival. Opening the concert, Stradella’s marvellous Sinfonia No.8 in A minor makes the listener inclined to want to pardon the composer’s weaknesses. We were treated to a performance rich in interaction, emotion, in fiery meetings on dissonances and some fine individual touches. Noam Gal and Herzog played out the two parts in Stradella’s Sinfonia in A minor, a sparkling work of sudden and extreme mood shifts. Gal led expressively, taking on the role of a theatrical quick-change artist, colouring key notes with a touch of vibrato, as he, Herzog and Minkin capped the work with a dashing gigue.

It seems that no forensic scientist was on site to determine the real reason for Henry Purcell’s early death in 1695, be it from tuberculosis, pneumonia/hypothermia after being locked out of the house after a visit to the tavern or even from chocolate poisoning. At any rate, his widow Francis was left with the task of publishing his trio sonatas posthumously, of which we heard Sonata in 4 parts for two violins, bass viol & continuo No.10 in D major, Z. 811. Enjoying its grand moments and Italianate style, Slavny’s playing of the 1st violin part was warm and zesty, rhythmically vital and imaginative and with some suave ornamenting, as she was joined by her fellow players in creating  the work’s sense of well-being. Another mystery is (what could be) Purcell’s Toccata quasi Sinfonia con Fuga in A major, once attributed to Bach and even thought by some to be by Michelangelo Rossi. A solo keyboard work of diverse sections, Minkin calls upon each scene to inspire the manner in which it is to be played. Under her fingers, those sections evolving from the world of fantasy emerge with refreshing freedom and spontaneity, those of gossamer texture take flight into the intimate and personal corners of the soul, whereas stricter forms, such as the fugue, radiate with the discipline and merits of absolute musical precision.

French Baroque composer Jean-Marie Leclair was found stabbed to death on October 23, 1764. Although the murder remains a mystery, there is a possibility that his ex-wife may have been behind it, although the strongest suspicion rests on his nephew… yet another violinist. Minkin, Herzog and Slavny indulged wholeheartedly in the joie-de-vivre of Leclair’s Sonata Op.9 No.3 in D major, possibly the composer’s most popular violin sonata, with Slavny playing with the shapes and melodies that abound in ornaments and double-stopping. This is a work of virtuosity and contrasts, the contrasts also being of style: following the introspective, moving Sarabande, the sonata winds up with a foot-tapping Tambourin, its ardent, whirling fiddle melodies set above a drone.

Jean-Baptiste Antoine Forqueray was a bass viol player of extraordinary skill who, together with his composer father, left a small but noteworthy body of compositions for the instrument. Today, psychologists might claim that young Jean-Baptiste had “issues” with his disgruntled dad, who also happened to have been his music teacher. It seems that Forqueray junior was so successful that his father Antoine became jealous of him, to the point of having him thrown into the Bicêtre prison, later obtaining a ruling to have him banished from the kingdom for "indulging in all sorts of debauchery”. (Antoine’s wife, Henriette-Angelique Houssu, managed to escape her husband's cruelty only after ten years of legal wrangling.)  But, as every psychologist will tell you, young musicians will remain ever faithful to their abusive parents. In fact, it was Jean-Baptiste who assisted Antoine in the editing of his music, then, after Antoine’s death, bringing out an anthology in his father's name - the “Pièces De Viole” (1747) - a collection containing 32 works, of which 29 are attributed to his father. (Another twist: Some scholars are of the opinion that all the pieces might be the work or a reworking of the son.) Herzog and Minkin performed two character pieces from the collection – Jean-Baptiste’s “La Du Vaucel” (named for wealthy financier), a calm, cantabile viol piece with interest also emerging from the harpsichord and “La Eynaud” (Antoine Forqueray), a lively rondeau lush in gamba textures, delivered with vitality, the occasional subtle agogic accent and a touch of whimsy.

As to J.S,Bach, here is the latest rumour: Welsh-born musician Martin Jarvis (son of a detective) has come up with a startling theory – that Anna Magdalena Bach (Johann Sebastian’s second wife) was the composer of the six solo ‘cello suites. Jarvis elaborates on this idea in his book “Written by Mrs. Bach” (2011) and in a documentary film of the same name. In fact, this is not the first time that doubts have surfaced regarding prominent works in the Bach catalogue. Can we bear the idea that Johann Sebastian Bach, the most revered of western composers, has been pulling the wool over our eyes for almost 400 years?  We should, however, take comfort in the fact that there is no concrete evidence that Anna Magdalena composed music, nor that she had ever played a stringed instrument. The PHOENIX concert concluded with three of Bach’s Organ Trios…and even that is not as straightforward as you might think. Of the four Organ Trios (BWV 583–586) at least three are not original organ works. BWV 585 is not even a composition by Bach and it is possible BWV 583 is also an adaptation of a work written by another composer. The artists performed Organ Trios BWV 583, 584 and 586. Where one might have missed the grandeur of the pipe organ, the PHOENIX players compensated with elegant, stylistic playing, interesting interchange and warmth of timbre. Herzog was playing a Castagneri viol made in 1744 and Gal, a Giuseppe Gaffino violin built around the same time. For their encore, the artists played. the C minor Fugue in from Book 1 of J.S.Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, each voice as written by the composer, the only addition being Marina Minkin’s Baroque-style continuo part on the harpsichord.

A fine program of beautiful playing, interest and a humorous dimension. A treat awaits those intending to attend the concert in the Old Masters Gallery of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

By the way, have you heard that Bach was once imprisoned?? Well…that is for another time.

Friday, May 28, 2021

"A Flute Alone" - Idit Shemer records 18th, 19th and 20th century works for solo flute

Idit Shemer (photo:Anat Oren)


Nowadays, performance of western music written for one melodic instrument (not necessarily monophonic) seems low on the priorities of both professional- and amateur musicians, much of it, in fact, being unfamiliar to many concert-goers. Could it be that it has been relegated by some to the domain of pedagogical etudes? Granted, this repertoire is highly personal, frequently played in the confines of the home, with the musician in communication with himself. Yet, this genre offers a rich variety of styles ranging from the earliest of notated works to the most contemporary. In the liner notes to her recently-issued disc “A Flute Alone”, Idit Shemer writes: “So much has been written for the solo flute and so little is performed.” Giving the stage to works for solo flute, she performs each on the appropriate instrument of the period.


The disc presents a number of European- and two American 19th- and 20th century works. Two short evocative works by Parisian composers – Arthur Honegger’s cyclical “Danse de la chèvre” (The Goat Dance) written in 1921 as incidental music for dancer Jane Lysana in Sacha Derek's play “La mauvaise”, a piece of mixed modality, moving between the sombre and the whimsical, and Jacques Ibert’s “Piéce” (1936) – lyrical, extemporal and cantabile – are performed here with freshness, fine shaping and a sense of discovery. In an interview with Bruce Duffie in 1989, American composer John La Montaine (1920-2013) referred to the composing process thus: “I think there’s something interior that’s very, very deep inside of you, that you don’t really have access to, and that’s where that comes from”. Shemer’s playing of his Sonata for flute solo, Op. 24 (1957) endorses the enlisting of this natural spring of creativity, as she recreates the four personalities described in this engaging work with empathy, candidness and wit, approaching its technical challenges with consummate elasticity. A no-less challenging undertaking is Sonata Op. 39 by Hungarian-American Miklós Rózsa, a composer mostly known for his film music. Like Bach, he also chose to write unaccompanied solo pieces for various instruments, indeed, specifying that they were concert pieces and not technical exercises. Growing up in Hungary, he had heard a lot of folk music, which was always unaccompanied. Elements of folk song/dance are interspersed throughout the work, whose course comprises both lyrical sections and unleashed, zesty virtuosic moments. The above-mentioned pieces are played on a modern flute by Lillian Burkart, Boston.


A highlight of the disc is Johann Sebastian Bach's Partita in A minor for solo flute, also known as “Solo pour la flûte traversière”. Shemer guides the listener through the work’s beauty and uniqueness, as she presents the complexity and enigmatic path of the Allemande with suspense, the bariolage writing of the Corrente with playfulness and strategic timing and the Sarabande in solemn introspection, to conclude with the bracing rustic Bourrée Angloise offered with a touch of whimsy. The artist’s imaginative ornamenting adds much interest as does the robust, pithy timbre of the J.H.Rottenburgh traverso (c.1740), a copy by R.Tutz (Innsbruck).


A major part of the disc, offering short pieces interspersed between the other works, is devoted to examples of works from “L’Art de préluder sur la flûte traversière” (The Art of Preluding on the Transverse Flute) by the influential French Baroque flautist/composer/teacher Jacques-Martin Hotteterre, one of the most illustrious figures in the history of the transverse flute and the French school of wind instrument playing. In the liner notes, Shemer refers to the function of these short pieces as being “tonal preparation before the performance of a longer work or as constituting a solo cadenza…or even as a basis for improvisation.”. It was Hotteterre who brought the flute full respectability through his writings and pieces. Shemer’s playing of these miniatures - none even reaching two minutes in length – presents each as a perfect and complete work; she probes their melodic interest, their changes of mood and character and their Italian-style instrumental brilliance, with its prevalence for longer melodic lines, as against the subtleties of French courtly musical language. Engaging in some lavish ornamentation, her playing is dazzling and uplifting, but always charming and delightful, indeed, displaying the art of performance required when addressing the musical miniature. The Hotteterre pieces are performed on a copy of a J.Denner traverso flute (c.1720) by R. Tutz (Innsbruck).


No disc of solo flute music would be complete without a performance of Syrinx” (La Flûte de Pan) by Claude Debussy, written in 1913 as incidental music to a dramatic poem by Gabriel Mourey, its text based on the myth of Psyché. Shaping and sculpting the composer’s ever-enigmatic melodic course, Shemer’s bold yet beguiling sound captures the rapture and sensuousness of the work, as its phrases, like tears or sighs, fall to their end, with the piece culminating in a final diminuendo on a descending whole tone scale.


Recorded in 2017 by CedarHouse Sound & Mastering, New Hampshire, USA for the Omnibus CLASSICS label, the disc’s true, lively sound quality does justice to Idit Shemer’s fine reading and interpretation of the works heard here, making for a rewarding listening experience. Born in Jerusalem, Idit Shemer is principal flautist of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, chamber musician and a prominent flute teacher. With an interest in contemporary music, she has performed and recorded works composed for her. Other recordings include music of W.F.Bach and Philippe Gaubert.