Saturday, June 11, 2022

"I Know a Forest" - Octopus, the Israeli Pianists Quartet, in a new program of European and Israeli works, together with poetry readings by Alex Ansky

Meir Wiesel, Ifat Zaidel, Tavor Gochman, Bart Berman (Maxim Reider)


Following the two-year long silence imposed on performing artists by the Covid-19 pandemic, Octopus, the Israeli Pianists Quartet, has returned to the concert hall with an original and unique program of music and poetry. Joining Ifat Zaidel, Bart Berman, Tavor Gochman and Meir Wiesel, (four pianists on two pianos) was actor Alex Ansky. "I Know a Forest", a two-dimensional program, took place at the Tzavta Theatre Tel Aviv on June 1st 2022.


The theme of nature and forests gave rise to the event's opening works and poems, either directly or by allusion. As to the latter, Robert Schumann’s rarely performed Andante and Variations in B-flat major Opus 46, originally written for two pianos, two 'cellos and horn, was rearranged by Schumann himself for two pianos. The setting we heard, that of Ernst Naumann/Bart Berman, recreated the unusually lush dark and warm colours of Schumann's original scoring. The four pianists gave expression to the work's lyricism, poetic beauty and understated virtuosity, their playing, rich in textures, moving between frolicsome, restless sections and idyllic tranquillity, so characteristic of Schumann's rich inner world, as they preserved the home-oriented intimacy of 19th century chamber music. The program that inspired Alexander Glazunov's "The Forest'', Fantasia for Grand Orchestra Op.19, a work influenced by the realm of fairy-tales, starts thus: "Frightening is the forest at night when the trees take the forms of monsters, and mysterious sounds fill the air." Performing K. Chernoff’s wonderfully pianistic setting for eight hands of "The Forest", a dark and highly Romantic work of large proportions, the artists gave a vivid reading of the pantheistic tone-poem, its emotional content layered with fear, apprehension, gloom, foreboding and magic.


And to the program's Spanish content (works by two French composers!), many of us are familiar with Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate’s "Carmen Fantasy" (1883), a celebration of the rich and exotic melodies from Bizet's best-loved opera. Another such work is the "Carmen Fantasie", a virtuoso showpiece for violin and orchestra constituting a section of Franz Waxman's score to the 1946 movie "Humoresque". At the Tel Aviv concert, the Octopus players gave a polished and refreshing performance of the "Fantasy On Themes From Bizet's Carmen", written for two pianos-eight hands, by American composer Mack Wilberg (b.1955). Drawing on familiar themes from Georges Bizet's opera - the Toreador Song, the Habanera, the Act II prelude, and Carmen's "Chanson Boheme" - Wilberg's interesting writing, with its elegant use of dissonance, its Spanish fire and allusions to the story's passion, lust, jealousy, obsession, and revenge, made for a fascinating item. Emmanuel Chabrier's work for orchestra "España", originally conceived as a piece for piano duet, was the outcome of the composer's research trip on the folk music and dances of Spain. Although deprived of the play of timbres of the various instrumental combinations in the orchestral version, Camille Chevillard's arrangement of "España" for two pianos-eight hands nevertheless captures the light and warmth of Spain and the sensuous allure of Spanish dance - the fiery jota and the slow, sultry malagueña - as well as  the virtuosic nature of the original score, as the artists engaged the full resources of two pianos to present the work's spicy mix of rhythms, harmonic colour and joy.


The program concluded with a selection of Israeli songs - Bart Berman's touching, imaginative and subtle settings of "Adorned is your forehead with black and gold" (Yoni Rechter) and "Jerusalem of Gold" (Naomi Shemer), Moshe Zorman's pizzazzy arrangement of Matti Caspi's "Noah" and a rendition of "One More Song" (Mordechai Zeira).


The evening was, however, as much a literary event as it was musical, with Alex Ansky's dramatic and insightful readings of poetic texts by Natan Zach, Hayim Nahman Bialik, Leah Goldberg, Federico Garcia Lorca (trans: Raphael Eliaz) and Avraham Halfi.


Octopus, the Israel Pianists Quartet forges ahead with its exceptional, enterprising programs and unwavering standards of excellence, offering audiences performance that is balanced, scholarly, inspired and exhilarating. 

Actor/journalist Alex Ansky (Courtesy Alex Ansky)

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Johann Adolf Hasse's intermezzo "La Contadina" performed in Jerusalem. Stage director: Gabriele Ribis; musical director: Yizhar Karshon


Niva Eshed Frenkel (Courtesy Jerusalem Opera)

Gabriele Ribis (Courtesy Jerusalem Opera)

Few 18th century composers enjoyed as much fame across Europe as did German composer Johann Adolf Hasse (1699-1783). Bourgeois opera-goers as well as heads of state doted on his productions. After initially travelling through Venice, Bologna, Florence and Rome, Hasse spent six years in Naples. It was there that he studied with Nicola Porpora, then meeting and studying briefly with Alessandro Scarlatti, at the same time soaking up the city's effervescent, outgoing resonance. He himself had a great lyrical gift as a singer; his marriage to soprano Faustina Bordoni and her appointment as "virtuosa da camera" to the Elector of Saxony saw the creation of one of the 18th century's most powerful musical couples. The intermezzo, an operatic form of two parts inserted between the acts of a full-length opera, was at first associated with Venice, but it was in Naples that it gained its greatest prominence. The female character was typically young, pretty and vivacious, usually a servant or a peasant and a schemer. In addition to the two singing characters, the intermezzi often included one or more non-singing roles. Setting the work to a libretto attributed to Bernardo Saddumene, Johann Adolf Hasse was twenty-nine years old when he wrote "La Contadina" in Naples. The work enjoyed such great success that records show that 38 productions of it took place in major European opera houses between 1728 and 1769, with the emergence of a number of versions. Israeli audiences have enjoyed several performances of Pergolesi's "La serva padrona"; however, Hasse’s "La Contadina" (The Peasant Girl) was new to many of us. This writer attended the performance at the Jerusalem International YMCA on May 31st 2022. The production, using Hasse's original version, was an Israeli-Italian collaboration of the Jerusalem Opera, the Carmel Quartet and the Piccolo Festival, FVG (Italy). With Carmel Quartet players seated on the stage, Yizhar Karshon conducted the musical proceedings from the harpsichord. Stage director was baritone Gabriele Ribis (Italy), who also performed the role of Don Tabarano. Soprano Niva Eshed Frenkel portrayed the flighty Scintilla. The two non-verbal roles were played by Vladimir Trasenko (Scintilla’s lover Lucindo) and Filippo Rotondo (Italy) in the part of Corbo, Don Tabarano’s servant.


A wheelbarrow of flowering plants, a sun umbrella, two chairs and a table - a serene, springtime rural setting. "La Contadina" opens with the somewhat effete Lucindo proposing to Scintilla. Niva Eshed Frenkel wastes no time in portraying the wily, crafty ways of the coquettish country girl, Eshed's sparkly, fresh, creamy vocal timbre and fine vocal technique serving her easeful stage manner as she shows how Scintilla wraps all and sundry around her little finger. Enter Don Tabarano (Ribis) with his servant Corbo (Rotondo). Ribis, his fluent, luxuriant voice and stage presence familiar to Israeli audiences, gives a droll portrayal of the dim but wealthy farmer who is madly in love with Scintilla, as the silent Corbo (also enamoured by her) tries to deter him through a gamut of muscular, theatrical gestures. Meanwhile, Scintilla flatters the Don to pressure him into furnishing her with gifts to enable her to elope with Lucindo. 

The second act (or intermezzo) incorporates some comical disguise, a characteristic of the intermezzo genre, as the Don and Corbo appear as Turks (the musicians too, who throw in a phrase of Mozart's Rondo Alla Turca!) to stop the young lovers making off to elope. However, instead of the tumultuous meeting taking place at the quay, as in the original storyline, the location here is a bus stop of the Israeli Egged bus company! The storyline ends with a bizarre twist: Scintilla admits to never having really loved Lucindo: she and her sugar daddy Don Tabarano now become the evening's latest "item", as Rotondo finally breaks his silence to sing the opening of "O Sole Mio" in fine bass voice.


A lightweight, farcical scenario? Indeed!  But Hasse matches the libretto's spirited wit and earthy high jinks with an outstanding score of brisk, bubbly tableaux, offering both challenging and memorable arias and delectable instrumental music. Karshon's direction resulted in a precise, clean and vibrant performance of the instrumental score, (adding some attractive keyboard gestures to the action-packed recitatives) bringing singers, actors and instrumentalists together in a mirthful and invigorating evening's music and entertainment. Kudos to Carmel Quartet players Rachel Ringelstein, Tali Goldberg, Yael Patish and Tami Waterman, who meet every new challenge with ardour and excellence.


Yizhar Karshon (Yoel Levy)

Cast and musicians (Yoel Levy)