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)

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