Saturday, February 26, 2022

"Mozart & the Piano" - Paul Lewis (UK) performs two piano concertos with the Israel Camerata Jerusalem. Conductor: Avner Biron

Pianist Paul Lewis © Kaupo Kikkas

At this time in history, the concert world is overrun with last-minute changes due to the corona pandemic. With American pianist/musicologist Robert Levin unable to appear with the Israel Camerata Jerusalem, British pianist Paul Lewis, whose Italian concert tour was cancelled, promptly stepped in to solo in "Mozart & the Piano", Concert No.5 of the orchestra's Instru-Vocal Series. The result was an unforgettable event! This was Lewis' first performance with the Camerata. Conducting was Avner Biron, the orchestra's founder and music director. This writer attended the event in the Henry Crown Hall of the Jerusalem Theatre on February 22nd, 2022.

The evening's Mozart theme set out with Israeli composer/pianist/educationalist Ron Weidberg's "Variations on a Theme by Mozart '', a work that originated as a quartet, but that has since undergone several arrangements, with extra sections added. Weidberg starts out by basing the piece on the well-known first movement of Mozart's Sonata for piano in A major K.331, the subject used by Mozart himself (and Max Reger) for variations. Weidberg's piece displays fine contrapuntal writing, but no less pleasing is the rich, streamlined variety of his orchestration. Some sections employ dissonance, (none, however, actually being atonal in concept) others sounding completely tonal and in the richly-coloured hues of the Romantic style. Weidberg guides the listener through the mindset of each variation, whether lyrical, tranquil, naive, whimsical or even outright boisterous, with a jazzy touch  here and there, as the melodic subject tends to become illusive in some movements. Suavely flowing and tender, the fifth (minore) variation abounds in poignant songfulness, replete with lovely woodwind utterances. Altogether, the composer engages the woodwinds amply throughout. As the piece signs out with the Finale's wonderfully flowing and articulately voiced triple-subject fugue, I am left with the impression that Weidberg's "Variations on a Theme by Mozart" is a splendid concert piece, indeed, a fine vehicle for the skilled players of the Camerata.  Born in Tel Aviv, Dr. Ron Weidberg has written much vocal music, including five operas. His instrumental oeuvre includes symphonies, piano- and violin concertos, chamber music and many works for piano.

Remaining in the same tonality, we heard Paul Lewis in Mozart's Piano Concerto No.12 in A major, K.414. With Mozart addressing the key of A major as lyrical and serene, this graceful, flowing work, composed on Mozart's move to Vienna (and to be performed by him), where he was launching his freelance career, fits the concept. Lewis enlists his fresh, lively and flexible touch and rich palette of textures (luxuriant playing but never muscular), to convey the many sides of the composer's personality and his music - Mozart's good-naturedness and joie-de-vivre in the outer movements, a sense of well-being, playfulness (as invited by development sections) and, here and there, a touch of mischief. Introduced In velvet-like hues by the orchestra, Lewis takes the audience with him into his personal, fine-spun reading of the Adagio movement, offering committed musical meaning to each gesture and phrase, with a sprinkling of small, suspenseful comments as the first section searches to find its way back in, following  the subtly darkened clouds of the middle section, with the concerto topped off by Mozart's own mirthful cadenza. 

Mozart's B flat Concerto K.595, completed in Vienna in 1791 (he had set it aside after working on it in 1788), is the composer's final piano concerto and the last work to be performed by him in public. Yet, despite the fact that 1791 was a dire year for Mozart, with his waning fame, financial problems, his wife ill and his own depression, the work is lyrical, poised and subdued rather than bitter. Lewis weaves the piano role through the work with musical intelligence and poesy, serenity and reflective grace, commenting and conversing with the orchestra in an assemblage of touching utterances (some diminutive), with both brilliance of playing and sotto voce fragility, threading the cadenzas into the musical fabric with a natural sense of sequence. Like-minded in approach, Maestro Biron and Paul Lewis produce Mozart at both his most thrilling and his subtlest: his genius, explicit humanity and music meet on the concert stage, with echoes of his opera writing never very far away.

Paul Lewis sent the audience off home with Franz Schubert's bittersweet Allegretto in C minor D.915, a small jewel of a work, rendered with tenderness, fervency and crystalline shaping.

Born (1972) in Liverpool, England, Paul Lewis, regarded as one of the leading pianists of his generation, has performed as a soloist and with world-class ensembles across Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas. He is best known for his interpretations of Beethoven's 32 sonatas and piano concertos. performances of Mozart, Liszt and Schubert, including piano accompaniments of the latter's song cycles.



Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Violinist Kati Debretzeni leads and soloes with the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra in "L'estro armonico', an evening of Vivaldi violin concertos and other Venetian works

Kati Debretzeni (Yoel Levy)


Violinist Kati Debretzeni has a long-standing relationship with the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, so her leading and soloing in ‘L’estro armonico’,Concert No.4 of the orchestra's 33rd season, was not only a festive event but yet another link in the amicable collaboration that began with Debretzeni's first forays into the world of Baroque violin. Performing with her were JBO string players, theorbo player (Eliav Lavi) and JBO founder and director David Shemer on the harpsichord. This writer attended the concert on February 13th 2022 at the Jerusalem International YMCA. 


Although Antonio Vivaldi is best known for his iconic set of violin concertos - 'The Four Seasons' - 'L’estro armonico' ('Harmonic Inspiration' or 'Harmonic Fancy') Op.3 is among the most important of his works. These concertos met with great acclaim soon after their publication in 1711, then blazing across Europe. Dedicated to Ferdinando de' Medici of Florence, one of the patrons of L'Ospedale della Pietà (the orphanage for girls in Venice where Vivaldi was employed for over thirty years) these Op.3 concertos would have mostly been performed by the composer's young lady students at the institution. Displaying Vivaldi’s preference for three contrasting movements (fast-slow-fast), the twelve works fall into four groups of three concertos, each group comprising one concerto for four violins, one for two violins, and a solo violin concerto.  Over time, many arrangements have been made of them for other instruments, the most important being the six transcriptions by J. S. Bach, these having played a crucial role in escalating the Vivaldi revival of the early 20th century.


Although the audience members in the YMCA auditorium might have needed to summon up quite some imagination and fantasy to envision being seated in one of the grand Venetian edifices, Debretzeni and her fellow musicians took them into the lively, exuberant and brilliant allegros, the lyrical, lingering bel canto cantilenas and the Italian passion and good humour of the 'L'estro armonico' concertos. But their playing also exuded a strong feeling of the intimacy of chamber music, offering ensemble playing of refreshing freedom, diversity and personal expression on the part of all soloists as the evening's performance reflected detailed and profound probing into both the musical and subjective meaning of each motif and gesture. How fascinating it was to witness the chain of events of Concerto No.10 in B minor (RV 580), a work that could only be viewed as highly original, even experimental, and not only due to its novel instrumentation — four solo violins (Debretzeni, Noam Schuss, Lilia Slavny, Noam Gal), strings, and continuo. From the opening movement's rapid exchange of passages between soloists as the main theme becomes varied and ornamented almost before it has been completely stated, to the mysterious slow movement, the four soloists playing over a quiet continuo accompaniment, with the 'cello (Orit Messer-Jacobi) assigned an important role in the continuo throughout, then to join the wonderfully unpredictable solo episodes of the powerful final movement.


Kati Debretzeni explained that Vivaldi had composed Concerto fatto per la Solennità della S. Lingua di S. Antonio in D major RV 212 to be performed with himself as soloist, that he had written out his own improvisations for the Grave movement in detail and noted in his own ornaments, rather than leaving them to the discretion of a performer. Leading and soloing in this spectacular music, Debretzeni awed listeners with her concept of the work, no less with her handling of the two long highly virtuosic cadenzas, at the same time reminding the audience that music is, indeed, a form of entertainment, its moments of whimsy an intrinsic component to be enjoyed. Although we know that 18th-century listeners were astounded, even intoxicated, by the rhythmic drive and extraordinary intensity of expression in these Vivaldi concertos, there is no doubt that today's listeners experience the pizzazz of these pieces with excitement and elation.


Interspersed between the ‘L'estro armonico’ concertos were works of three other Venetian composers: Sonata à 5 'La Fugazza' Op.8 No.11 of Giovanni Legrenzi, played with a fine balance of grace and intellect, Tomaso Albinoni's Sinfonia in D major T.Si.4 and renowned violinist and composer Biaggio Marin's Passacaglia Op.22, in which Debretzeni and the JBO instrumentalists set aside the composer's characteristic virtuosity to indulge in the lush affects of this beguilingly tragic piece.


Born in Transylvania, Kati Debretzeni studied the violin with Ora Shiran (Israel) and Baroque violin with Catherine Mackintosh and Walter Reiter at the Royal College of Music, London. Since 2000, she has led the English Baroque Soloists (Sir Eliot Gardiner). In 2008, she was appointed to be one of the leaders of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, with which she has also soloed and directed. Debretzeni has recorded widely, featuring as soloist in two versions of J.S.Bach's Brandenburg Concertos - one with the European Brandenburg Ensemble (Trevor Pinnock), the other with the English Baroque Soloists. Over recent years, she has been invited to direct various ensembles in Israel, Canada, Norway, Poland, Iceland and the UK. She currently teaches Baroque- and Classical violin at the Royal Conservatory of Music in The Hague.


Noam Schuss,Kati Debretzeni,Dafna Ravid,Lilia Slavny (Yoel Levy)

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

The final concert of the 2022 Israeli Schubertiade - instrumental music, Lieder and settings of Heine texts by three Israeli composers. Guest artist: tenor Daniel Johannsen (Austria)

Daniel Gortler,Daniel Johannsen(Michael Pavia)


At the sixth concert of the 2022 Israeli Schubertiade, the final event taking place at the Israel Conservatory of Music on February 3rd, there was more than a touch of spontaneity! Spontaneity was, however, typical of the Schubertiades that took place in the drawing rooms of wealthy Viennese homes in the early 19th century. The original Schubertiades were sociable, informal musical gatherings, where musicians and music-lovers would gather to hear and play music. 'Cellist Raz Kohn, one of the Schubertiade's founders (2007), and who serves as its artistic director, "sang the praises" of the artists and other people who had made the festival a reality in these uncertain times. Kohn also mentioned the uniqueness of this specific Schubertiade concert, in which settings of Heine poems by three Israeli composers would be performed.  No new face to Israeli audiences, Austrian tenor Daniel Johannsen, renowned for his interpretations of the German Lied, performed throughout the evening alongside Israeli artists.  


With the concert focusing mainly on music to texts of Heinrich Heine, the event opened with a talk on Heine's personality and dilemmas by researcher and cultural critic Ariel Hirschfeld. Hirschfeld also spoke of the problems involved in translating Heine's poetry. (Prof. Hirschfeld teaches Hebrew literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he, himself, studied musicology and Hebrew literature). Nothing could have better substantiated Hirschfeld's talk on Heine's crisis of identity, the profound meeting of Heine's writing with Schubert's music, the palpable psychological element of the German Lied and its emotional unshackling, than Schubert's seminal song “Der Doppelgänger”, the penultimate song of the posthumous Schwanengesang collection (D.957). Setting it to music three months before his death (November 1828), Schubert lifted from its third stanza the term (created by Jean Paul in 1796) to call his song “Der Doppelgänger” (The Apparition/Double). Pacing it sparingly, Johannsen and pianist Daniel Gortler led the listener into the song's frozen, eerie soundscape via its sinister declamatory manner: the piano mostly tolls a four-chord ostinato as the poet finds himself standing outside the house where his beloved had once lived. He sees a man standing there, wringing his hands, overcome with grief, only to realize that he is watching his ghostly self of years earlier. Such a performance as was heard at the Tel Aviv concert leaves the listener deep in thought.


The Heine poem settings by Israeli composers were all sung in Hebrew, with several of the translations undertaken by Yossi Schiffmann. Performing two songs from Yehezkel Braun's 2006 song cycle, "Gleanings", soprano Reut Ventorero gave delightful, tasteful theatrical expression to the satirical wit, irony and coquettish nature of the first, addressing the more serious nature of the second. Not to be ignored is Braun's splendidly buoyant writing for the piano, which was heartily evidenced in Irit Rub's delivery. Performing four of the eight songs from Ella Milch-Sheriff's "Heine Cabaret" (2006) (Hebrew translation: Shlomo Tamia, Yitzhak Kafkafi), Reut Ventorero and baritone Yair Polishook were joined by a jazz trio comprising Michael Takachenko- alto saxophone, Erga Kotler-piano and Nir Comforty-bass. With the character and message of each vignette presented articulately, Ventorero and Polishook's rendition was elegant and uttered in the subtle language of understatement, enhanced by the sensitive playing of the trio and some delightful instrumental solos. Polishook and Rub's reading of three of Shimon Cohen's "Eight Heine Songs" (!998/2001) defined Cohen's gentle, contemporary style, presenting the songs' Jewish elements and underlying nostalgia, with the third song a tongue-in-cheek number voicing a man's chagrin at his lady's discontent:

'Diamonds hast thou and pearls,

And all by which men set store,

And of eyes hast thou the finest –

Darling, what wouldst thou more?'


An interesting comparison was drawn between two settings of Heine's "Ich grolle nicht" (I bear no grudge), as performed by Yair Polishook and Irit Rub. First, Schumann's version, with the artists' intense expression of the ambiguity playing out in the psyche of the lover and characterized by a struggle between opposing emotions. A very different piece, Charles Ives' setting of the text (written as a composition task when still a student) is certainly no protest song, rather, reflective and intimate, with some waves of heightened emotion, and cushioned in the congenial harmonies of the early 20th century.


Back to Schubert's "Schwanengesang", there was an air of magic to Johannsen and Gortler's performance of the charming song 'Das Fischermädchen' (The Fisher Maiden), its light-of foot, lilting stepping out to a siciliano rhythm pleasing the senses. Then to the artists' spine-chilling rendition of "Die Stadt' (The Town), the obsessive octaves in the piano left hand setting off the ghostly insistent arpeggio in the right hand, only to be twice interrupted by passages in which the rhythm changes to that of a funeral march. Johannsen evokes Heine's dark, disturbing text, underscoring each key word. Let's hear more recitals at the hands of these superb Lied specialists!


Daniel Johannsen and Irit Rub enjoy a long acquaintance, So, when there were sudden program changes due to force majeure circumstances, Rub happily joined Johannsen to perform some more songs not previously planned for the event and the artists took them on with esprit and sangfroid. They began with Fanny Mendelssohn's gorgeous, strophic 'Schwanenlied' (Swan Song), text: Heine, the song appearing in print in 1846, the year before her death, as part of the first collection of songs to be published under her own name. Heine was a friend of the Mendelssohn family. Johannsen and Rub's beguiling and tender performance of the bittersweet song, mirroring the Romantic practice of presenting lush nature descriptions also referring to a state of mind, emerged both vocally and in the piano's steady sixteenth-note figurations, as the artists displayed Fanny Mendelssohn's attention to detail, her use of word painting and the song's magical sprinklings of harmonic interest. Following their zestful, gently flexed reading of Schubert's 'Der Wanderer an den Mond' (The Wanderer's Address to the Moon) text: Seidl, Rub and Johannsen plumbed the layers of 'Am See' (By the Lake), a Lied set to a text of the composer's contemporary, Franz von Bruchmann. Both simple and hypnotic, the song highlights the relationship between man and nature: the voice is brilliantly used to evoke the soul "flaming brightly" as the piano emulates the waves. Johannsen spoke of this unique song as "almost a Freudian picture". To conclude, the artists moved back to Schubert's "Schwanengesang" and Heine's theme of alienation to produce an uncompromising and powerful performance of 'Der Atlas', a song portraying the unhappy lover as a hubristic seeker of universal happiness (or pain), its text introducing imagery from Greek mythology and ironic self-flagellation. Johannsen's heavier use of the voice and his ever-articulate diction were compelling, the piano conveying the god-man's steps via Schubert's pervasive use of dotted rhythms and the lower range of the keyboard.

The 2022 Schubertiade was bookended by instrumental works. Opening the concert itself, violinist Asi Matathias and Daniel Gortler played Franz Schubert's Sonata for violin and piano in A minor D.385, a work that might well have been played at a Schubertiade hosting friends and intellectuals at a private home, with the composer at the piano. Echoing the influences of Beethoven and Mozart, this early work already reveals Schubert's lush, Romantic melodiousness and his masterful chamber music interplay. Gortler and Matathias performed it with much grace and charm, almost disguising the complexity of its harmonic structure. The concert drew to a close with a touching performance of the Rondo Finale arranged from the final movement of Schubert's Piano Sonata D.850 for violin and piano by Carl Friedberg. Joining Matathias was his duo partner pianist Victor Stanislavsky, who was called on at short notice to stand in for Daniel Gortler.


Reut Ventorero,Irit Rub,Yair Polishook
(Courtesy Y.Polishook)

Asi Matathias,Victor Stanislavsky
(Michael Pavia)