Thursday, January 13, 2022

"Viennese Classics" - the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra performs works of Mozart and Beethoven on instruments of the Classical period. Conductor: David Shemer. Soloists: Tom Ben Ishai, Yaron Rosenthal

Tom Ben Ishai (Uri Elkayam)


Yaron Rosenthal (

Concert No.3 of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra's 33rd season marked a new and decidedly exciting shift for the ensemble. Introducing "Viennese Classics", JBO founder and artistic director Prof. David Shemer informed the sizable audience gathered at the Jerusalem International YMCA on January 9th 2022 that the Mozart/Beethoven program would be performed on instruments typical to the Classical period - authentic woodwinds and brass, with string players using Classical bows. Indeed, the keyboard instrument for the evening would be a fortepiano. Conducting the concert was David Shemer, with soloists Yaron Rosenthal-fortepiano and soprano Tom Ben Ishai.


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed the Divertimento in D major K. 136 for strings in Salzburg in the winter of 1772. Busy working on "Lucio Silla", a new, ambitious opera to be premiered in Milan, writing the Divertimento, K. 136 must have served as a means of releasing surplus energy for the 16-year-old composer. From the very first sounds of the vibrant opening Allegro, the JBO string players' genial, velvety timbres and minimal use of vibrato transported the listener into the ambience of a musical soirée taking place in the drawing room of one of Salzburg's leading residents, venues at which Mozart frequently performed on both keyboard and violin. The Baroque Orchestra's precise, unmannered playing allowed for the work's shape, charm, its effervescence and subtle surprises to surface, the warm, elegant Andante movement followed by the spirited Presto finale, bringing the Divertimento, a fine example of  an ambitious work in a genre traditionally designated as "light" music, to a close.


Concerts in Mozart’s day always included a vocal element. His concert arias were occasional works to be inserted into his own operas, those of other composers, or simply composed for singers who possessed voices he particularly admired. In the latter case, they were tailored to the range, ability, tonal- and dramatic qualities of those singers. The concert arias are small, dramatic set pieces which, almost invariably, borrow their words from full-length opera libretti. Taking its text from "Ezio", "Misera! dove son…Ah! non son io" K.369 (Ah! It is not I who speak) was composed in 1871 for Countess Josepha von Paumgarten, a 19-year-old amateur singer. Young Israeli-born opera singer Tom Ben Ishai issued in the recitative with restraint, its course becoming somewhat more agitated as it. progressed. In the aria proper, offering brief ornamental flourishes and dynamic changes, Ben Ishai's beauty of tone coloured sustained notes as she engaged easefully in its wide intervals and dramatic leaps, portraying the character’s frenzied mental state. And how lush the instrumental canvas sounded, scored for two violins, two violas, basso, two flutes and two horns. 


Another concert aria "Ch'io mi scordi di te? Non temer, amato bene" K.505 (Should I forget you? Fear nothing, my beloved) is unconventional in that it was written for the combination of solo voice, piano obbligato and orchestra. Mozart composed it in 1786 for English soprano Nancy Storace, who had sung the role of Susanna at the premiere of "The Marriage of Figaro''.  He created the complementary piano part, a farewell to Storace, for the concert aria which he and Storace performed together in early 1787, shortly before her departure from Vienna.  A work bearing a clearly strong personal element, the piece -  a unique sort of duo concertante, the only one of its type in Mozart’s oeuvre -  is the melding of an opera aria and piano concerto. (In Mozart's own thematic catalogue, it is labelled "Für M'selle Storace und mich," which might indicate a sympathy between them that went beyond art! ) Lush in its instrumental scoring for 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, and strings, with solo piano, the ambience is one of warmth and tenderness, well reflected in Ben Ishai's musical and well-shaped rendering of the piece, music indeed sympathetic, with plenty of give and take between singer and fortepiano (Yaron Rosenthal). The sound of the handsome fortepiano (Chris Maene, Ruiselede, Belgium), not built for the likes of the large concert hall, however, emerged as well-defined, its mellifluous timbre intimate and beguiling, adding its unique colours to the orchestral web. Mozart never saw Nancy again; yet he regularly wrote her letters, which regrettably have been lost.


And, to an auspicious occurrence in the history of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra - the ensemble's first performance of a work of Ludwig van Beethoven and one to challenge the concepts long ingrained in the minds of concert-goers. Listening to Beethoven's Piano Concerto No.1 in C major Op.15 at this concert, the listener was obliged to put aside the pompous sound world of the large symphony orchestra and the modern Steinway grand. We meet the 29-year-old Beethoven juxtaposing the inherited styles of his predecessors and Classical models with his own musical ideas, forms and taste, a Beethoven not yet beset by the crisis that would be brought about by his gradual loss of hearing. Maestro Shemer offers us the opportunity to embrace the leaner proportions of the historic Classical chamber orchestra, with the JBO instrumentalists' lightness and transparency setting off the robust but mellow brass instruments and silvery sounds of the fortepiano. In fact, once the ear had adjusted, the wealth of details emerging from orchestra and keyboard was rewarding, to say the least, with orchestra and soloist sustaining a balance that was precise and unfaltering. Rosenthal was clearly on home territory, with playing that was delicate, richly coloured, hearty, agile and tastefully flexed. It was all enjoyment on his part and ours and an elevating experience to hear the work in the more personal proportions with which the composer would have been familiar. Totally magical!


Prof. Yaron Rosenthal is a leading Israeli pianist, combining an international career as a soloist and chamber musician. He is the pianist of the acclaimed Jerusalem Trio and a senior faculty member at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. A graduate of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance and the Israeli Opera's Meitar Studio, Tom Ben has won several awards. Launching a solo career, she is also a member of the Cecilia Ensemble and the Israeli Vocal Ensemble





Saturday, January 8, 2022

The Silver-Garburg Piano Duo sees in 2022 with a performance of works by Rimsky-Korsakov, Schubert and Brahms at the Israel Conservatory, Tel Aviv

Gil Garburg, Sivan Silver (courtesy Silver-Garburg Duo)


2022 started "on the right foot" with a recital of the Silver-Garburg Piano Duo at the Israel Conservatory (Tel Aviv) on January 1st. The concert, of the Piano Recital Series, comprised works of Rimsky-Korsakov, Schubert and Brahms. Israeli artists Sivan Silver and Gil Garburg today reside in Berlin.


Guiding performers as to the subject matter of "Scheherazade", Symphonic Suite, Opus 35 (1888), a work inspired by a collection of Middle Eastern and Indian tales, known as "The Thousand and One Nights" (or "The Arabian Nights"), Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov prefaced his score with the following: "The Sultan Shahriar, convinced of the duplicity and infidelity of all women, vows to slay each of his wives after the wedding night. The Sultana Scheherazade, however, saves her own life by the expedient of telling the Sultan a succession of tales over a period of one thousand and one nights. Overcome by curiosity, the monarch postpones his wife's execution from day to day, then altogether renouncing his sanguinary resolution." However, while programmatic elements are undoubtedly present in "Scheherazade" and important to the shaping of the work, the music was not intended as an exact portrayal of any particular tale or any part of the collection. Indeed, the composer wanted the listener to "carry away the impression that it is beyond doubt an Oriental narrative of some numerous and varied fairy-tale wonders"... Scored for strings, harp, several woodwinds, brass and a variety of percussion instruments, the music of "Scheherazade" showcases Rimsky-Korsakov’s mastery as an orchestrator; in terms of the pure, sensory pleasure of sound and of the rich array of instrumental solos, he is unsurpassed. Performing the four-hand piano setting of the work presents a challenge to both players and listeners. Introducing this "story about a storyteller", Silver and Garburg present the two main characters with their own specific themes - the Sultan, his arrival announced by a bold, brash theme, to be answered by that of the mesmerising Scheherazade, the characters at the centre of these tales of love, intrigue and adventure. In playing that is finely chiselled, wonderfully clean, carefully paced, descriptive and imaginative, the artists take the audience east on an exhilarating journey into a fairy-tale world. Under their fingers, the action-packed work of four tableaus emerges richly textured, dramatic and evocative, but also intimate, only drawing to a close when Scheherazade’s stories finally come to a quiet and plaintive end. Listening to the third movement - "The Young Prince and the Young Princess" - the artists' tender and poignant playing of some of the loveliest and most sensual music of the entire work - leaves the listener in no doubt that this is indeed a love story. Altogether, the duo's playing of the work emerges with wonderful clarity, also owing to very careful and subtle use of the sustaining pedal. 


Franz Schubert's Divertissement for Piano 4 hands, D 823 "sur motifs originaux français" (1826-1827) is not frequently heard in today's concert halls for a number of reasons, one being that the composer's corpus of over forty works for four hands is largely unknown. (An inexplicable fact, as Schubert's genial, sociable "Viennese" disposition was ideally suited to the piano duet, to which genre he has contributed music of awe-inspiring originality, passion and virtuosity.) Another reason may be the Divertissement's extreme demands on the performers. If the work displays any French element at all, it could be the dotted rhythms of the stately main theme of the opening sonata-form movement, possibly a reference to the French Baroque Overture. Following Silver and Garburg's vivid handling of this movement, of its alluring and lyrical aspects and the timbral contrasts created by forays into the different piano registers, their playing of the exquisite Andantino varié, its bitter-sweet, delicate B minor melody burgeoning into four variations, was unrushed, pensive and sensitive, never over-sentimental. Forthright and dancelike, the finale, a sparkling Rondeau Brilliant, moving along at a galloping pace, emerged richly textured but never thick or muscular. Could this late Schubert Divertissement, a work stretching the piano duet medium and its practitioners to the limits in technique, subtle musicianship and endurance, be referred to as a Konzertstück? Not by Schubert. It would have been played within the private homes of his Viennese friends or with the composer seated next to his pupil, the young Countess Caroline Esterházy (with whom he was head-over-heels in love) at her family's summer residence.  


Remaining in the Viennese domestic drawing room, the duo-pianists concluded their Tel Aviv recital with a selection of Johannes Brahms' Waltzes for Piano Four Hands Op.39 (1865). First performed by Clara Schumann and Albert Dietrich at a party given by the Grand Duchess of Oldenburg in November 1866, these miniatures, each different in hue, each of a different mood, show a more intimate side of Brahms. In fact, they constitute some of the most delicate, subtly-fashioned jewels of 19th century dance literature. From the majestic opening statement of No.1 in B major, to the tender, wistful appeal of the G-sharp minor Waltz, to the flamboyant Romantic pianism of the E minor, the artists take the audience into the playful, giocoso asymmetry of the Vivace (C-sharp minor). No.11 in B minor, casting a furtive glance towards Eastern European dance styles and graced by small hesitations, gives way to the energetic, full canvas of the G-sharp minor Waltz, its sprinkling of irregular, accents teasing the ear ever so gently, with Silver and Garburg concluding the recital with the caressing Waltz in A-flat major. 


For an encore, Sivan Silver and Gil Garburg performed Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona's zesty "Malagueña".


Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Ensemble Mezzo (artistic director: Doret Florentin) performs virtuosic Baroque works of German and Italian composers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Department of Musicology

Photo: João Moreira


Ensemble Mezzo (artistic director: Doret Florentin) performed a program of virtuosic Baroque instrumental music at a concert of the Monday Afternoon Concert Series of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Department of Musicology on December 27th, 2021. Performing were Doret Florentin-recorder, violinists Lilia Slavny and Dafna Ravid, Amos Boasson-viola, Benny Aghassi-bassoon, Sonia Navot-'cello and Yizhar Karshon-harpsichord, all Israeli musicians living either in Israel or Holland.


Ensemble Mezzo performed a number of the (relatively few) concertante works for the recorder written in the late Baroque period. Opening the concert was G.P.Telemann's Ouverture in A minor for recorder, strings and basso continuo, a piece indeed giving prominence to recorder. (Telemann himself was a professional recorder player.) In a performance highlighting both the noble and jaunty aspects of the piece, Florentin's soloing was vivid, taking up the composer's "invitation" to engage in some ornamentation. Vivaldi's Concerto in G minor "La notte" for recorder, bassoon, strings and b.c. RV 104 must be one of the composer's most engrossingly original, quasi-programmatic compositions. To evoke its dark narrative, woven of disturbing dreams and mystery, Vivaldi chooses the key of G minor, one whose rhetoric is associated with agitation, fear and revenge. From the work's menacing opening octave utterance, the players take the audience into its series of erratically changing sections, with Florentin's small hesitations adding to the suspense, drama, the frenetic tutti and occasional otherworldly moments. Meeting her dazzling playing, Aghassi, ever attentive, answers and comments (sometimes on a whimsical note) giving vivid expression to the bassoon's new role as a soloist in its own right. It is assumed that Vivaldi intended the sopranino recorder to be the solo instrument for his Concerto in C major for flautino, strings and b.c. RV 444, a favourite with audiences due to its light-hued tonality and virtuosic writing. Vivaldi, in his imaginative exploitation of the possibilities of the tiny solo instrument, shows no mercy to the player in this concerto, a work clearly designed to showcase the soloist's extraordinary technique. Doret Florentin chooses to highlight the entertaining nature of the work, dashing off its complex figurations and episodes of increasing virtuosity with aplomb.  


The program included two rarely-performed pieces. If J.S.Bach's student Johann Gottlieb Goldberg is remembered as harpsichordist to Count Keyserlingk in the (somewhat unlikely story of the) latter's bouts of insomnia, the fact remains that Goldberg, indisputably a keyboard player of exceptional skill and virtuosity, was already composing by the age of ten, excellent and imaginative composer. Aside from his two surviving cantatas, Goldberg's oeuvre is essentially instrumental, the trio sonatas occupying a major place within it. Here was a rare opportunity to hear Goldberg's Trio Sonata in C major for two violins and b.c. DürG 13, with violinists Lilia Slavny and Dafna Ravid engaging in animated banter and imitation (each in her own personal musical language), the texture punctuated with spry bassoon comments (Aghassi). The program also included the Chaconne for violin and b.c. from Pietro Castrucci's Op.2 Violin Sonatas. Castrucci was born in Rome, where he studied with Corelli, in 1715 settling in London, there becoming known as one of the finest virtuoso violinists of his generation. (He was the inventor of the "violetta marina" - a modification of the viola d'amore. Handel, who engaged Castrucci as leader of his opera orchestra, wrote some obbligati for this instrument.) Drawing the audience into the Chaconne via their own sense of discovery, Slavny and Karshon fashioned each variation through a rich spectrum of textures, moods, tempi and violin- and harpsichord techniques, creating an exciting and not altogether unpredictable performance bristling with a sense of spontaneity. Foremost music historian of his time in England, Charles Burney considered Castrucci to be "more than half mad", obviously a good trait for an Italian composer writing virtuosic music. 


Then, to another Italian Baroque composer, but a musician located in a very different geographical and cultural environment. Born in 1685, Domenico Scarlatti spent the majority of his career in the service of the Portuguese and Spanish royal families, the latter appointment enabling him to devote his full attention to composing for the harpsichord. Living in an isolated environment accounts for the fact that the composer's music, though contemporary with that of Bach and Handel, differs so much from theirs in style. His employer and student, Portuguese Princess Maria Barbara, later to become Queen of Spain, must have been a very fine keyboard player if she was able to play Scarlatti's most difficult sonatas. Performing Scarlatti's bewitching Sonata in C minor K.115 (one of the composer's more than 550!) Yizhar Karshon's playing was subtle, his delivery calling attention to the eccentric contrast of the subjects playing out, the no-less eccentric Scarlatti-type progressions, the piece's Spanish flavour and what could only be defined in modern terminology as "clusters"! 


Ensemble Mezzo signed out with another Telemann work featuring the recorder - the Concerto in F major for recorder, bassoon, strings and b.c., its scoring atypical of the time as, when Telemann was at his peak, the recorder was becoming overshadowed by the more fashionable transverse flute, with the result that the recorder rarely appears in his ensemble music. Ensemble Mezzo addressed the shapes and gestures of the concerto's moods, both poignant and hearty, with Florentin and Aghassi engaging in some witty dialogue in the second and fourth movements. Complementing Florentin's lucid timbre (and virtuosic playing) with his warm, rounded tone and effervescent rendition, Aghassi proves that the lowest wind instrument of the ensemble can be just as agile and pizzazzy as the highest member. 


Ensemble Mezzo was established by recorder player Doret Florentin in 2015. All members are specialists in the performance of early music played on historic instruments. Mezzo's programs sometimes include traditional music from Greece, Cyprus, Italy and Spain, also music of Israeli composers and that of contemporary composers who have written works for the ensemble.