Friday, July 21, 2017

The Haifa Studio Theatre premieres Aviram Freiberg's two chamber operas based on stories of S.Y Agnon

S.Y. Agnon (National Library of Israel)

The Studio Theatre (Haifa) has just premiered two chamber operas based on short stories of S.Y.Agnon - “The Lady and the Peddler” and “Splendour”. Aviram Freiberg adapted the texts and wrote the music for both. Jonathan Szwarc was stage director, with Tavor Gochman serving as musical director and pianist. Singers taking part were soprano Ayelet Cohen, tenor Alexander Yagudin and alto Liat Rockberger. This writer attended the performance on July 18th 2017 at the Jerusalem Khan Theatre.

“The Lady and the Peddler” (1966) tells of a Christian woman (Helena) who lives in isolation in the woods. A Jewish peddler (Joseph) stumbles upon her house, is ensnared by her charms, moves in and has carnal relations with her, only to discover that she has devoured her previous mates. Gradually, Joseph realizes that Helena intends to kill him, eat his flesh and drink his blood, as she hints she has done to her previous "husbands". She tries to kill him but fails, then killing herself. The story ends with Joseph leaving her house, with Helena’s frozen body left on the roof to be devoured by her own birds of prey. This horror story is laden with symbolism on all levels. In his interpretation, Freiberg focuses the relationship between the person dominating and the one who is dominated, attacker and attacked, the host and the parasite, the woman and the man. For the role of Joseph, he chooses to have him sung by a tenor singing in his low (and inconvenient) register to convey the uncomfortable (indeed threatening) situation in which Joseph finds himself. An interesting development is that Helena loses interest in killing and eating Joseph, while he is unaware of this change. In order to create integration of text and music, Freiberg chooses to use leitmotivs to suggest people, objects and ideas. The stage set consists of a table, serving as a house, a bed, roof etc., and a large length of red cloth whose final use is that of a shroud. Freiberg’s engaging but uncluttered musical score of clean, intelligible melodic lines invites the audience to follow the plot and its two characters with ease. Ayelet Cohen’s technical assurance, her creamy voice, easeful and richly colored in all registers, coupled well with her convincing enquiry into the role, her body- and facial language. Tenor Alexander (Sasha) Yagudin’s warm vocal timbre, musicality and comfortable stage presence gave credence to his portrayal of Joseph. Tavor Gochman’s musical direction and keyboard playing (in both operas) were vital, sensitive and strategic in timing.

Agnon wrote “Tehilla” in the 1950s. The story  is centred on a righteous old woman whom the narrator meets in Jerusalem’s Old City in the 1920s during the British mandate period. Tehilla herself personifies kindness and good deeds but has suffered tragedy in her life, which becomes apparent as the story unfolds. The narrator who is also a writer becomes involved in her story about sin, suffering, repentance and forgiveness. In the program notes, both Aviram Freiberg and Jonathan Szwarc relate to the characters and how they wish to portray them, hence Freiberg’s choice of a soprano (Ayelet Cohen) for the role of Tehilla and a contralto (Liat Rockberger) for the rabbi’s wife. Alexander Yagudin was the narrator. With the story deeply entrenched in Jewish tradition and thought, Freiberg’s score, guided by Agnon’s musically oriented language, included many associations of Jewish music. He also chose to use speech in different forms as a means of highlighting meaningful moments of the story’s development. The bleak stage set gave spine-chilling focus to the three personalities and what qualities each represented as did moments when the music played on and the characters were silent. On this shadowy, eerie background, singers and pianist convincingly unearthed the story’s horrifying family secrets and their results, nevertheless bringing Agnon’s story to its more positive outcome of forgiveness.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, the NFM Choir (Poland) and soloists perform Handel's "Messiah" in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv

Photo: Maxim Reider
The 2017 Vocal Fantasy, hosted by the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, followed the vision of the late Shimon Bigelman, who founded the festival in 2012. The six concerts, a celebration of choirs and voices taking place from July 12th to15th 2017 and with the endorsement of the Jerusalem Development Authority, was dedicated to Shimon Bigelman’s memory.

The event opening the festival (Jerusalem July 12th and closing it in Tel Aviv July 15th) was Georg Frideric Händel’s “Messiah”. Handel wrote the original version of “Messiah” in three to four weeks. Premiered in Dublin to an audience of 700 people on April 13th 1742, women were requested to wear dresses without hoops and men to leave swords at home in order to “make room for more company”. Conducting the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, the NFM Choir (Wrocław, Poland; artistic director Agnieszka Frankow-Żelazny) and soloists was JBO founder and musical director Maestro David Shemer. The festival’s visiting choir from Poland, singing in clear, British English, offered a careful blend of rich, well-anchored voices, coloring and contrasted gestures, highlighting key words, responding to orchestral textures and giving pleasing articulacy to the complexities of fugal sections as it propelled the work forward with impact and its uplifting messages.  Characterizing tenor Eitan Drori’s performance were his acute awareness of each shade of meaning, his timing and word-painting, as he found new expression for each turn of the text and its emotions. His is a large, lustrous tenor voice, maneuvered however with tenderness in the opening “Comfort ye”, then with hurtling fire to “laugh them to scorn” or “dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel”. Bristling with presence and descriptiveness, authority and contrast, bass-baritone Assaf Levitin presented his arias in definite colours, lending a keen sense of contrast to such passages as “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light” and triumph and joyousness in “The trumpet shall sound”, in which he was joined by Yuval Shapira’s fine handling of the natural trumpet. Soprano Hadas Faran Asia gave convincing balance to the solo soprano’s richly varied role of recounting the story and of emotional response to it - joyous and lyrical responses and the sense of awe of Händel’s own faith, as in her gently ornamented and dynamically varied singing of “I know that my Redeemer liveth”. Zlata Hershberg, her lower register occasionally obscured by the orchestra, wove peace and melodiousness into idyllic texts, whipping up the drama and tension as she sang of Jesus who “hid not His face from shame and spitting” in “He was despised”.

There was much buoyant- and beautifully shaped playing on the part of the instrumentalists and plenty of close communication between them and choir and soloists. With its drones, the sweetly bucolic and dreamy "Pastoral Symphony" (entitled Pifa) set the scene for the shepherds’ arrival in the fields. First violinist Noam Schuss delighted audiences with her ever well-spoken, lucid- and unmannered obligato playing.

And to the pinnacle of Händel’s “Messiah”, the Hallelujah Chorus, (for which audiences in some locations still rise to their feet in honour of this musical credo). On completing his writing of the piece which would take its place in history as the "Hallelujah Chorus", the composer, with tears streaming down his face cried out to his servant "I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself." The festival audiences in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv remained seated for the Hallelujah Chorus, but they certainly rose to their feet, shouted and whistled in appreciation at the conclusion of the majestic and exciting performance. The fact remains that this epic masterpiece is as fresh and inspiring as ever, still awing listeners 250 years after the composer’s death.


Wednesday, July 12, 2017

"The Symphonic Piano" - Ron Trachtman, Dror Semmel and Michael Zertsekel perform works on one, two and three pianos

M. Zertsekel,R.Trachtman,D. Semmel (Shmuel Semmel)
Referring to a recent concert of the Eden-Tamir Music Center (Ein Kerem, Jerusalem) as “The Symphonic Piano” was no play on words. The recital took place on July 8th 2017 in the magical setting of the Music Center. No new faces to the series, pianists Michael Zertsekel, Dror Semmel and Ron Trachtman performed works on one, two and three pianos. Introducing the program, Eden-Tamir musical director Alexander Tamir spoke of piano music for four and more hands as being one of the most popular genres of the 19th century. From the days before the wax cylinder, and in lieu of attending concerts, arrangements of orchestral music were often played by competent home pianists of the rising middle classes. Composers and music publishers quickly capitalized on this situation. Brahms, a fairly astute businessman, made sure to arrange all his symphonies for four hands, publishing the arrangements before the orchestral premieres, resulting in the fact that some of his audience would have been well familiar with the works by the time they attended the public concert.

The program opened with Ron Trachtman and Dror Semmel performing the two-piano setting of Brahms’ Symphony No.3. Certainly challenging to the artists, hearing the work on pianos challenges the listener no less - here is the most “Brahmsian” symphony -  the least under the cloud of Beethoven and the most concentrated in texture - but without his palette of orchestral timbres. Yet the piano setting proved to be no “ poor relation” of the orchestral score. In playing that was crisp, transparent and articulate, Trachtman and Semmel invited the audience to listen perhaps more actively than it might at a symphony concert to the character of each gesture, to mood and intensity. Intimate moments and large, intense tutti were all present as the two pianists gave subtle shaping to each utterance. Their long, surging Romantic melodic lines (as in the 3rd movement) drew the listener in via the senses, with Brahms’ characteristic longing and searching emerging in the performance. And for the intellect, the artists presented the composer’s brilliant contrapuntal technique, a technique not far removed from that of Bach. It was a mammoth undertaking and certainly most satisfying.

Paul Pabst (1854-1897) was a child prodigy, first performing in public at age 11. He studied with Rubinstein and Liszt, and by 1878 the Prussian pianist was appointed to the staff at the Moscow Conservatory, where he taught many famous pianists, including Rachmaninoff. He was a renowned pianist himself and his transcriptions were highly regarded. Michael Zertsekel performed Pabst’s Concert Paraphrase on themes from Tchaikovsky’s opera “Eugene Onegin” op.81. (Pabst and Tchaikovsky actually knew each other. Tchaikovsky greatly admired Pabst, referring to him as  "a pianist of divine elegance" and "a pianist from God".) A concert piece sometimes referred to negatively by critics and often performed as a cheap show of muscular virtuosity, Zertsekel shows us that the end result of opus 81 indeed depends on whose hands the paraphrase comes under! In its assemblage of well-loved melodies, Zertsekel shapes the piece with delicacy, artistry and freshness, presenting its changing moods, its hearty- and its nostalgic moments. Yes, it may be a compendium of piano techniques there to be performed by the virtuoso player, but Zertsekel chooses to take the listener into its richly colored-musical canvas. Treating us to some delightful scintillating fingerwork, his well-delineated playing gave expression to the many-layered texture of the work, as in the superb counterpoint of Lensky’s aria played in the left hand, with fragments of the waltz  floating dreamily above it in the right hand.  

Michael Zertsekel and Ron Trachtman then performed J.S.Bach’s Concerto for two Harpsichords in C-major BWV 1061 on two pianos. A work frequently heard with orchestral accompaniment (the latter not written by Bach), a mostly light and transparent addition, the autograph, in Bach’s hand, presents only the roles of the two keyboards. Zertsekel and Trachtman address the work’s fine detail as they engage in its dialogue, highlighting Bach’s multi-layered textures. Some brisk ornamenting gave expression to the concerto’s Baroque mindset, the artists’ bold playing of the fugue (3rd movement) following their pleasing, intimate reading of the  slow (2nd) movement. Bach invented the harpsichord concerto mostly for concerts at the local coffee house, Zimmermann’s. Zimmermann’s had two rooms, the largest, about 26’ x 32’, the size of a very ample living room. This is where the harpsichord concertos of Bach were premiered. The size, resonance and ambience of the Eden-Tamir Music Center’s hall seemed well suited to the work’s genesis.

The concert concluded with Michael Zertsekel’s arrangement for three pianos of the opening  movement (Molto Allegro) of Mozart’s Symphony No.40 in G-minor, K.550. Composed in 1788,  with the composer plagued by a constant lack of money and when Viennese audiences were only interested in light music for entertainment, having little love for Mozart’s challenging music, it was, nevertheless, an extremely productive period for the composer. In light of these circumstances, the Molto Allegro makes much of plaintive sighs, though gentle graceful melodies also appear and even occasional bursts of jubilation.  Charles Rosen (“The Classical Style”) has called the symphony "a work of passion, violence, and grief."  Zertsekel takes into account Mozart’s scoring - flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, strings but no trumpets and no timpani, hence the splendidly opulent and velvety tutti, with Mozart’s melodies and gestures shining through the texture together with his charm and Sturm und Drang references.

Here was another of Michael Zertsekel, Dror Semmel and Ron Trachtman’s programs offering interest and performance unique and uncompromising in quality.   


Saturday, July 8, 2017

The Atar Trio bows out of the 2016-2017 concert season with works of three women composers and the suite from Bernstein's "West Side Story"

Photo: Yaniv Druker

“From Kafka to Clara” was the title given to the Atar Trio’s last concert for the 2016-2017 season. The concert, on July 5th 2017  in the Ran Baron Auditorium of the Israel Conservatory, Tel Aviv, was also the Israel Women Composers Forum’s concluding event of the current season. Members of the Atar Trio are pianist and director Ofer Shelley, violinist Tanya Beltser and ‘cellist Kristina Reiko Cooper.
The evening opened with “Gregor’s Dream” by American composer Judith Shatin (b.1949), a work for amplified piano trio and electronics commissioned by the Atar Trio and premiered by it in a program titled “Dream within a Dream” in 2016. This is not the Atar Trio’s first collaboration with Shatin, who serves as professor at the University of Virginia and who founded the Virginia Center for Computer Music. “Gregor’s Dream” takes its inspiration from Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”, in which Gregor Samsa has a frightening dream, then to wake up to find he has turned into a horrible bug. In preparation of the magnetic tape, Shatin requested recordings of beetles from three bioacousticians (biologists researching animal sounds). Talking about the work, the composer writes “The mood of the anxious dream, and the ominous world into which Gregor wakes, suffused my musical imaginings. While there is some longing, it is mainly the fear of the ‘other,’ that permeates the story, or at least my reading of it. This poignant story is an important reminder that the ‘other’ is part of our own family.”  A demanding work, the players’ text constitutes a tense and terse, sometimes fragmentary, dialogue with the tape, the electronic effects ranging from ominous dark sounds, to what might sound like the squawking of large birds, to squeaking sounds, to high whizzing electronic auditory sensations. In well-measured cooperation with the tape and with each other, the Atar players joined with competent playing bristling with effects, including  strumming of the piano strings, in this work presenting players and tape as equal forces. Interestingly, at the work’s outset, and later at its conclusion, there was, woven into its dissonant agenda, a kind of solid anchor - a sense of tonic. Judith Shatin’s work is intense, uncompromising and powerful, its subject not for the faint-hearted!

Clara Schumann’s Romances for violin and piano op.22 were composed in 1853; this was a productive year of writing for the greatest woman musician of the time. She dedicated the op.22 Romances to the renowned violinist Joseph Joachim; the two artists took the pieces on tour. Joachim later performed them for King George V of Hanover. The romance was one of Clara’s favourite character genres, those of the opus 22, however, being among the last pieces she wrote. Kristina Reiko Cooper provided the audience with some interesting background information on Clara Schumann, the great virtuoso pianist, composer and editor, who had performed with the likes of Paganini and Mendelssohn and who was idolized by Goethe. Cooper also mentioned the fact that, in Clara’s day, a great virtuoso was required to perform his/her own works. Beltser and Shelley’s performance of the tri-partate pieces was personal and beautifully shaped, as they allowed the spontaneous character of the music itself to dictate pace. Beltser’s signature sound - her warm timbre and generous expressivity - is well suited to the plaintive Romantic lyricism of the works. With much dialogue between Beltser and Shelley, I felt that Shelley, at times standing back a little too much to give the violinist the stage, might have filled the soundscape more boldly, considering the fact that Schumann’s pianistic writing is no less luxuriant, intricate or idiomatic than that of the violin. A welcome addition to the program might have been a solo played by the Atar Trio’s newest member - renowned ‘cellist Ms. Reiko Cooper.

The Tel Aviv concert included the Atar Trio most recent commission - Jerusalem-born composer Dikla Baniel’s “If Forget Thee, O Jerusalem” (January, 2017), a work for piano trio and smartphones. It was premiered in the USA and has been performed to very different audiences. The composer, present at the concert, spoke of the “Binding of Isaac” as lying behind the work, of the three monotheistic religions addressed in it, of the constant conflict in the city and of the fact that Jerusalem is a city that brings out emotions in people. The work refers to holiness, sacrifice and religious fundamentalism. Where do smartphones come into the performance? Audience members were asked to open the Jerusalem-Atar YouTube app.and to each choose and play one of three recordings on it. With that, we were instantly transported to hustle and bustle of Jerusalem’s Old City, with a collage of crowd noise and prayers of all three monotheistic religions filling the hall - at times mingling, at times surfacing singly, at times silent. As to the sections of the instrumental score - intense and individual, as is Jerusalem - they are infused with clear musical associations of each of the three religions and also with the concept of violence, destruction and bloodshed. Between each instrumental section, the players are silent as the sounds heard in the Old City’s alleys serve to sweep away one association in readiness for the next. With the recordings silenced, the work ends on an eerie, thoughtful note. Dikla Baniel’s writing is intelligent, original and stirring. No easy work to perform, it makes for fascinating listening. The audience was deeply moved.

Ofer Shelley engages in much arranging for the Atar Trio. The concluding work of this concert was his new arrangement of Raimundo Penaforte’s Suite from Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story”, in which Shelley has expanded the violin-and-piano version into a five-movement work for piano trio. The Romeo-and-Juliet story (Tony and Maria) set in the urban underworld of New York, its brilliant blend of instrumental- and vocal music, dance, theatre and art  come together in Bernstein’s feverish, hypnotic score. What better vehicle could there be for a new arrangement than this rich canvas of sublime melodies, jazzy rhythms, calculated dissonances and raw emotion! In brilliant, colorful and polished performance, the Atar Trio players gave expression to the many aspects of this milestone work, especially to its tunes - the coquettish “I feel pretty”, “There’s a place for us” tugging at the heart strings, the pizzazz of “America” and the nostalgia of “Tonight”. Here was fresh, collaborative playing (also fine solos by all) bristling with jaunty banter, individual expression, energy and rhythmic dash, conjuring up New York with its city traffic sounds, bells, intensity and urgency, together with the human, touching aspects of “West Side Story”. Bernstein wrote:”This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” Ofer Shelley’s arrangement is splendidly crafted. As to the potential of the piano trio, I couldn’t agree less with Menahem Pressler who whimsically referred to the trio constellation as “a poor man’s orchestra”.


Thursday, July 6, 2017

Verdi's "Otello" direct from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Jonas Kaufmann,Maria Agresta (photo:Alastair Muir)
On June 28th 2017, Giuseppe Verdi’s “Otello” was shown in 1001 cinemas worldwide as the last  of the LIVE Cinema series of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London for the current season. This writer attended the screening at Cinema City, Jerusalem.

It was composer and librettist Arrigo Boito who approached the already-retired Verdi with an offer Verdi could not refuse - to compose an opera inspired by Shakespeare’s tragedy “Othello”. 280 years after Shakespeare’s “Othello”, Verdi’s “Otello”, his penultimate opera and final tragedy, had its successful premiering at the Teatro alla Scala, Milan, in 1887. The masterpiece has since remained an opera house staple. The Royal Opera House’s first performance of it in 30 years, this performance was conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano (UK), who has served as the Royal Opera House’s music director since 2002; it was directed by Keith Warner. In the role of Otello was German spinto tenor Jonas Kaufmann, Italian soprano Maria Agresta played Desdemona, Iago was portrayed by Italian baritone Marco Vratogna, with Emilia, Iago’s wife, by  Estonian mezzo-soprano Kai Rüütel, Montano - Simon Shibambu, Cassio - Frédéric Antoun, Roderigo - Thomas Atkins, herald - Thomas  Barnard, Ludovico - In Sung Sim.

For opera aficionados, Jonas Kaufmann’s debut in the title role was a definite drawcard. Avoiding the traditional Otello black make-up, Kaufmann nevertheless comes across as an outsider, initially glamorous, handsome and shy, as he then descends into the troubled loneliness and obsessions of his fracturing soul.  An effective touch was his looking into a mirror, one of the few props on stage, where he sees his own inner devil. The 48-year-old Kaufmann’s voice, which has been described as “baritonal”, is even in all registers, natural, richly coloured and lustrous, with a ready and sensitive use of dynamic expressivity. An intensely human Otello, Kaufmann will surely probe- and amalgamate more deeply with the role of a man undergoing emotional decay with each performance, to take the role to a higher degree of emotional pain and fury.

Maria Agresta made for a reliable and poised Desdemona, her face and body language leaving the cherubic look of a young woman in love to become a portent of what was in store. Despite occasional moments of detachment, her distinct, creamy and uncluttered soprano voice, young and fresh, were appealing, giving credence to the Desdemona role.

Marco Vratogna (a late substitute for Ludovic Tézier) revels in the cynicism and ill-will of the Iago role, authoritative and malicious  as he sets things in motion from the storm that opens the opera, singing his Credo to the  underworld  spectres there somewhere beneath the stage and becoming increasingly more malevolent as the action progresses. The audience loves a devil and Vratogna pulled out all the plugs to satisfy its wishes. After all, Verdi, at the peak of his dramatic power,  had considered titling the opera “Iago”.

Incisive and vital, Antonio Pappano’s conducting swept players and listeners into the spirit of the opera. Keith Warner’s understated staging - basically a black box, but one that cracks asunder to reflect the progressive decadence of the main characters -  with its attractive, delicate latticed panels designed by Boris Kudlicka, minimal as it is, comes across, in my opinion, as most effective, never distracting the audience’s  focus on the characters. Shades of other dark colours, greys,  midnight blue etc., take the tragedy through the course of events, with pastel colours and well-lit scenes reserved for those involving Desdemona. In the second half, graffitied walls serve to emphasize the deteriorating state of Otello’s mind - an interesting touch. Especially commendable was the beautifully-crafted, subtle and precise singing of the chorus (86 professional singers) under the direction of William Spaulding.

LIVE Cinema productions of the Royal Opera House offer an extra bonus to cinema goers - the chance to meet directors and singers, to take a glimpse behind the scenes and down into the orchestra pit, to learn more about the opera and what goes into producing it. Viewers can also enjoy having the best seat in the house!


Saturday, July 1, 2017

Pianist Amir Katz' recently issued disc of Chopin's Opus 10 and Opus 25 Etudes

Photo: Stéphane de Bourgies
Pianist Amir Katz’ recent recording “Frédéric Chopin ETUDES” includes the twelve opus 10 Etudes and the same number of pieces making up opus 25. The Etudes were written over some eight years. Three more Etudes (not recorded on this CD) followed in 1839. With the étude defined as a piece designed to aid a student in developing technical ability, those of Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) take for granted the pianist’s existing technical mastery. And, even more importantly, unlike the repetitive études of Czerny and Hanon that many of us were coerced into playing as young piano students, Chopin’s études, beyond their huge technical demands, form a kaleidoscope of dazzling tone poems - works concise in length but of immense effect. Having heard Chopin himself performing several of them, Robert Schumann proclaimed Chopin a “genius”, whimsically adding that “quite à la Chopin did he play them!” Constituting a new art form, the Romantic étude was taken up in a big way by Liszt, whose passionate études have of late been a focus of Katz, recently performed widely by him.


Chopin dedicated the opus 10 Etudes to Liszt, both composers being pivotal figures in the history of piano technique. Opus 10 was published in 1833. The composer was 23! One can go into great detail enumerating the myriad of new challenges met by the pianist in these pieces - the technique required for the playing of consecutive tenths of the first étude, the weaker fingers gently spelling out the seamless flow of chromatics of the A-minor etude (No.2), the running figures moving from hand to hand in the chromatically inflected molto perpetuo of No.4, the new hand position required for the “black key” étude (No.5) or Chopin’s concept of playing “cantabile” consecutive octaves (No.10). Katz’ playing, however, takes the listener into the gestures, the melodic- and harmonic magic and the emotional content of each small vignette - the proud, exhilarating wake-up call of No.1, the wistful gossamer-lightness of No.2 and in No.6,  splendidly and empathically sculpting Chopin’s melancholic melody, with each of its  notes strategically placed above the delicately bubbling left hand figure. Also, Katz’ spontaneity and flawless forays into the silken runs of No.8 and the overwhelming sense of wonder and light he creates in No.11, as he examines the new sensation of each tonality. His presentation of the lush fragility and  underlying sadness of No.9, with its faintly falling seconds of longing a reminder of Chopin’s later depression, was heart-rending.


The Opus 25 Etudes, published 1837 when Chopin was 27, were dedicated to Franz Liszt's mistress, Madame the Countess Marie d'Agoult, the reasons for which remain a matter of speculation. The Opus 25 Etudes take Chopin’s writing to a further degree of virtuosic bravura and synthesis, marking the next phase in the composer’s development as a virtuoso pianist and composer, with his use of a more innovative and integrated use of chromatics, color and texture, not to mention the unprecedented and consummate opulence of this collection. Katz take his cue from the sheer beauty of each  piece - the featherweight agility and longing of No.1, the restless, gracious playfulness of No.4 as its melody spells itself out on the back-beat, the whimsical, and decidedly dissonant effect of the stacking up of grace notes making up the fabric of No.5, its cantabile middle section offering temporary relief, the poetry and fantasy woven into No.6 by way of its cascading consecutive thirds and the dainty, iridescent  grace of No.9, referred to by some (not by Chopin) as “The Butterfly”. One notices how Katz deals with the gentle, concluding chords of several of the miniatures, taking that extra moment to place them thoughtfully, philosophically, with reverence. No.3 is buoyant, richly orchestrated and energizing; Katz does not let on as to its technical complexities, as he delights and entertains with its capricious, lightly galloping course. In No.7, led into by a single melodic line of warning, the artist gives poignant and personal expression to its sombre longing, its sad soulfulness, then to free it to spiral into a fuller soundscape. The stormy scene of No.10, with its uncompromising, chromatic octaves, receives a (physically and emotionally) powerful reading, its central lyrical section dispelling all the tumultuous surges of sound, if only temporarily. No less power and passion color infuse the  grand, noble and intense puissance of No.11, “Winter Wind” (not Chopin’s title). Deemed by Chopin as “treacherous and dangerous for the uninitiated”, Katz is secure as he balances the dashing treble figurations articulately and with poise above Chopin’s grandiose left hand chordal melody. The series ends with Chopin’s study in pianistic resonance, as No.12’s parallel arpeggios ascend and descend the keyboard and its chorale melody suggest the rigorous supremacy of the large forces of nature. Katz presents it convincingly; he does not, however, neglect its occasional tender and intensely human asides.
Born in Israel in 1973, Amir Katz, today residing in Europe, performs worldwide as soloist, chamber musician and recitalist. He made his Wigmore Hall debut in 2014. Since 2010, he has been accompanist to tenor Pavol Breslik. Of late, Katz has been focusing on cantabile works of Romantic piano repertoire. His CD of Chopin’s Etudes was recorded in April 2015 in Berlin for the ORFEO label. The disc’s sound quality is true and natural. Light of touch, Katz’ playing bristles with subtlety, clarity, assurance and technical perfection. As he enters the emotional sound world of Frédéric Chopin, he approaches its joy and sadness with clean brush strokes, sincerity and wonder.


Friday, June 23, 2017

Harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani in a recital at the "See the Sounds" series at the Israel Museum

Mahan Esfahani. Photo: Miri Shamir (Moritz Daniel Oppenheim Marriage Portrait of Charlotte von Rothschild
"See the Sounds" is a unique classical festival taking place from May 29th to June 24th  2017 at the Israel Museum. Presenting soloists and ensembles from around the world, the concerts take place in the galleries, with each gallery venue chosen in keeping with the kind of music and each event preceded by a gallery tour to provide the broader context and make connections between visual and audial content. Featuring different genres and styles, from liturgical music to the Classical masters, to 20th century music and jazz, the festival aims to reflect the relevance of Jerusalem as a centre of European- and other culture. Directed by Daniel Kühnel, it is a collaboration between the Israel Museum and the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (Federal Republic of Germany). Iranian-born Mahan Esfahani's harpsichord recital on June 10th in the intimate venue of the Gallery of European Art was his first in Israel. No event could be more fitting to such a festival.

Esfahani opened with a Pavan by Welsh-born Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656). Tomkins spent his creative life composing keyboard music (for both organ and virginals), some of it lost. Much of what survives was written in the last decade of his 84 years, resulting in one of the largest outputs in this style, only comparable in size to that of his teacher William Byrd. In highly ornamented playing of the adventurous, virtuosic text (from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book), Esfahani presented the Pavan's beguiling chromatic agenda, its poetry and its passion, as he created effective contrasts between the different sections. Here was a fine opportunity to experience the fantasy inspiring the keyboard music of the last of the English virginalists.

Remaining in England, Esfahani performed Giles Farnaby’s (1563-1640) “Woody Cock”, one of the composer’s 52 pieces appearing in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. In this  increasingly elaborate set of variations, based on a relatively simple English folk tune, one senses how Esfahani is enticed into exploring the character, mood and numerous ideas of each. Esfahani guided the listener through its six variations, entertaining the listeners with its contrasts, his stylishly smooth, relentless runs, the piece’s noble moments and its overall cumulative excitement - a true tour de force in which his playing never, however, loses sight of the work’s melodic content, shining through all textures.


We then heard Mahan Esfahani in a performance of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach’s Sonata No.6 in E-flat major F5. Introducing the work, Esfahani referred to Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (1710-1784) as a “loser”. Indeed, J.S.Bach’s eldest son’s lifestyle proved disappointing to his family, employers, to town elders and, finally, to himself. Yet, with one foot in the High Baroque and one in the Rococo style, Friedemann Bach has been referred to by some as the most brilliant of the four Bach composer sons and the last great German Baroque organist. Mahan Esfahani reads into Friedemann Bach’s playful, unconventional musical language, relating to each gesture, contrast and mood change, taking spontaneity as the benchmark of the compositional style of the illustrious German improviser, phrasing the work’s unexpected twists and turns with small hesitations and tasteful rubati. Not a performer to stand back and observe harpsichord music with sang-froid and objective chill, Esfahani takes on the vivacity, daring and expressiveness of the sonata with pizzazz and the wink of an eye.


The program concluded with J.S.Bach’s French Overture in B-minor BWV 831 from Part Two of the composer’s Clavier-Übung, published in Leipzig in 1735. Bach’s only complete mature ouverture-suite for solo keyboard, it straddles the genres of the English Suite, the Partita and, indeed the concerto concept, with “tutti” sections marked “forte” and solo passages as “piano” in Bach’s manuscript, thus requiring the use of the two-manual harpsichord. Esfahani opened the mammoth composition of eleven movements with his majestic, richly ornamented rendering of the extensive French Overture with its noble dotted rhythms, spreads, ornate trills, flourishes and the intricacies of its fugal central episode. Moving into the various dance movements, each emerges as a small gem, its character stamped with the artist’s personal taste and ideas, as, here and there, he holds the final chord a little longer to allow the listener to bask in its beauty before proceeding to the next. His playing of the Sarabande is meditative, spontaneous and personal. Then, following the infectious energy of  the dotted skipping, somewhat teasing construction of the Gigue, through whose processes Esfahani leads the listener, he then pulls out all the plugs to present Bach’s whimsical addition - the genial, indeed, exhilarating and joyous Echo movement. If the Clavier-Übung is an encyclopaedic overview of Baroque keyboard composition, Esfahani’s playing of this work certainly supports this.


For his encores, the artist played pieces of Purcell and Rameau.


An artist with flair, virtuosity and a vigorous musical personality, Mahan Esfahani’s performance is full-bodied and vibrant. His is a fine balance of intelligence and emotion. Under his fingers, the harpsichord springs to life with power, expressiveness and excitement. Mahan Esfahani today serves as professor of harpsichord at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London.




Thursday, June 22, 2017

Ensemble PHOENIX, the Upper Galilee Choir, soloists and overseas guests perform Brazilian music on authentic Classical instruments

The PHOENIX Classical Orchestra. Ricardo Rapoport (left),Myrna Herzog (right) Photo:Ami Shamir

A unique event of the 51st Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival (May 30th – June 3rd 2017) was Ensemble PHOENIX' A Brazilian Requiem for a Portuguese Queen”, taking place at the Kriyat Yearim Church on June 3rd.  PHOENIX is known for its performance of Renaissance-, Baroque- and South American music on authentic instruments. This program, researched and conducted by Brazilian-born PHOENIX founder and director Myrna Herzog, offered festival-goers a totally new listening experience, with the ensemble transformed into a full orchestra performing on period instruments from the Classical period. Overseas guest artists soprano Sofia Pedro (Portugal), violinist Lilia Slavny and Brazilians - violinist Luis Otávio Santos (Brazil) and Classical bassoonist and cavaquinho player Ricardo Rapoport - were joined by Israeli soloists: mezzo-soprano Anne Marieke Evers (Holland-Israel), tenor Oshri Segev, baritone Yair Polishook and clarinettist Gili Rinot. Making up the playbill were the PHOENIX Ensemble instrumentalists and the Upper Galilee Choir (director: Ron Zarchi). Myrna Herzog expressed her appreciation to the Portuguese- and Brazilian Embassies for their support in bringing the four overseas artists.

From the opening sounds of José Maurício Nunes Garcia's (1767-1830) orchestral overture, featuring virtuosic playing on the part of clarinettist Gili Rinot, one becomes aware of the downy, smooth textures of the Classical orchestra. It was followed by Damião Barbosa de Araújo’s (1778-1856) “Memento Baiano” (a prayer traditionally recited in the house of a person recently deceased) for choir and orchestra. The composer was Chapel Master in the Cathedral of Bahia, before moving to Rio, where the whole of this program takes place, around 1816. As to the work itself, the choir's careful diction and bracing tutti, colored with much highly expressive presence of the clarinet (Gili Rinot) highlighted its moods, its style indicative of the European influence on Brazilian church- and court music, both genres embraced by de Araújo.

Marcos Portugal (1762-1830) was not only the most prolific Portuguese-born composer ever, but also the most successful, both in Portugal and abroad (he died a Brazilian citizen). For Sofia Pedro's warm and appealing singing of Portugal's "Cuidados, tristes cuidados" (Worries, Sad Worries), featuring all four overseas guest artists, Herzog joined the players to play the 'cello in this tender and unabashedly sentimental modinha (traditional Brazilian love song). We also heard Pedro in "Qual piacere e qual diletto" (What pleasure, What Enjoyment) from Portugal's opera buffa "Oro non compra amore" (Gold Does Not Buy Love). Her luxuriant, easeful and substantial voice reached all corners of the Kiryat Yearim Church, as she eyed her audience, teasing it with the word-painting of the love-struck aria. Gili Rinot's playing of the clarinet obbligato role was suave and richly shaped.

Creating the flavor of Afro-Brazilian traditional dance, a smaller all-Brazilian ensemble of bowed and plucked instruments – Baroque violinist Luis Otávio Santos, accompanied by Ricardo Rapoport on the cavaquinho, with Herzog herself playing the rabeca (north Brazilian fiddle) – played a lundu, a flirtatious couple dance of typical Brazilian propulsive rhythm, its backing typified by alternating tonic-dominant harmonies.

With 2017 the 250th anniversary of the birth of the most important Brazilian colonial composer José Maurício Nunes Garcia, it was Myrna Herzog's aim to introduce his music to the Israeli public, with the Israeli premiering of his "Requiem for the Portuguese Queen Maria I, the Mad" (1816). Of this Afro-Brazilian composer and organist, the grandson of slaves, 240 works survive. When the Portuguese Royal Family took refuge in Brazil in March 1808, clerics who accompanied them tried to remove Garcia from his position because of his race.  However, Padre José Maurício Nunes Garcia was one of the greatest exponents of Classicism in the Americas.  Nunes Garcia's music was strongly influenced by Italian opera from the beginning of the 19th century. His membership in a literary society brought him into contact with a leader of the Brazilian struggle against Portuguese rule, and led him to add Brazilian popular music and folk music to his liturgical compositions. Nunes Garcia put into practice all the techniques and coloristic possibilities of the large orchestra he conducted. He also explored all the virtuosic possibilities of the excellent singers he had at his disposal. This Requiem is considered to be one of his most outstanding works.  The composition, in the key of D minor, shows parallels in several places to Mozart’s Requiem, which Garcia himself directed two years later (1819) for the first time in Brazil. Myrna Herzog's performance of Garcia's Requiem presented its genesis and the rich possibilities of the work. Her large orchestra (although not numbering the 100 players Garcia had in his court orchestra) highlighted the score's vibrant colors. It included natural horns (Alon Reuven, Ruti Varon) still a rarity in Israel; no less rare were the presence of two Classical clarinets (Gili Rinot, Nurit Blum), two Classical bassoons (Ricardo Rapoport, Alexander Fine), Classical flute (Moshe Aron Epstein) and natural timpani (Nadav Ovadia). The result was an orchestral canvas of great richness and subtlety, offering as much interest to the players as to the audience. The Upper Galilee Choir gave a most impressive, finely detailed, well blended and meaningful performance, its choral sound fresh and flexible.  The vocal quartet’s teamwork (Pedro, Evers, Segev, Polishook) produced a sympathetic and sensitive blend. Tenor Oshri Segev's full and mellow timbre and musicality were well suited to the work. Especially imposing was Yair Polishook's performance – his vivid mix of bass timbres, careful pacing and compelling dramatic sense drawing the listener with him into the work’s emotional fabric.  Myrna Herzog's production of Garcia's Requiem was electrifying.  Once again, she has introduced Israeli audiences to repertoire not previously heard in this country and in the most uncompromising and authentic manner.  In this ground-breaking event of great interest and beauty, the audience was swept into the excitement experienced by the artists involved in the performance.

Soprano Sofia Pedro (Photo Ami Shamir)

Monday, June 19, 2017

Harpsichordists Jochewed Schwarz and Emer Buckley's CD of J.S.Bach's Six Trio Sonatas BWV 525-530

Jochewed Schwarz (Sivan Farag), Emma Buckley (Veronique Allio-Vitrac)

                                       Johann Sebastian Bach

                                          “a 2 clav. Et pedal”

Six Trio Sonatas BWV 525-530 for two harpsichords

Emer Buckley & Jochewed Schwarz     CD PLUS (2012)

Among Johann Sebastian Bach’s extant trios of 19 trio sonatas, six are specified by Bach for “two manuals and pedal”, either to distinguish the three voices of the pieces or referring their performance on organ, pedal harpsichord or pedal clavichord.  The latter two instruments were commonly found in the homes of organists, in particular. Bach himself kept a pedal harpsichord at home, enabling him to practice of organ works there. Composed 1727-1731 in Leipzig, Bach’s Trio Sonatas BWV 525-530 served as instruction material in composition and organ-playing for his eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann; having been written for pedagogical purposes does not rule out the fact that these six works constitute one of the zeniths of organ repertoire.  As an organ teacher, it is clear that the older Bach wished to present his son with formidable technical challenges; he placed emphasis on clarity of texture, skill, coordination and complete independence of hands and feet. Johann Sebastian’s rigorous training paid off, for in 1733, Wilhelm Friedemann was offered the prestigious post of organist at the Sophienkirche in Dresden.

Played on the organ, the Trio Sonatas give the two melody voices to two different manuals and the basso continuo to the pedals; in first movements, the pedals mostly supply bass support, whereas in last movements they assume greater melodic involvement. The counterpoint is played mainly by the upper voices. Yet, as organ fare, these works do not especially resemble Bach’s other organ repertoire in pathos, majesty and power, their grace and joy rather sounding like the traditional Baroque trio sonata. These small-scale sonatas offer some of Bach’s most delicate counterpoint; they are Bach’s chief works of this description, bearing the stamp of Italian music, adopting the three-movement form of the Vivaldian concerto. Bach was a keen recycler of his own music; several movements of the Trio Sonatas are re-workings of other works or would serve as later works, and he would surely have been quite happy about the many arrangements these trio sonatas have undergone, from the 18th century to today, including some by Mozart for string trio.

Born in Dublin, Ireland, Emer Buckley studied at University College, Dublin, continuing her studies in France and Italy. She moved to Paris to perform as a soloist and continuo player; she teaches harpsichord and continuo at the Conservatoire de Rayonnement Régional de Lille, France. Born in Tel Aviv, Israel, Jochewed Schwarz studied at the Rubin Academy of Music (Tel Aviv), the Schola Cantorum (Basel) and in Paris, then returning to Israel, where she performs, directs and produces concerts. Buckley and Schwarz met at the von Nagel harpsichord workshop in Paris. They enjoy every opportunity to perform together.

So what are the advantages of playing these works on two harpsichords? (E. Power Biggs recorded them on pedal harpsichord in the late 1960s.) With no play of organ registrations, other elements come to the fore. One prominent quality is tonal freshness; fast passagework can sound blurred in the acoustic of organ venues.  Enhanced by Buckley and Schwarz’s spirited, crystal-clean execution and internal rhythmic precision, one has a sense that the artists’ aim is to present Bach’s text as it is. Clean fingerwork and textural transparency are paramount in outstanding teamwork that presents playing that is vivid, shaped and robust.

With rhythmic flexing and ornamentation used sparingly, Buckley and Schwarz’s playing is intelligent and objective, staying well clear of subjectivity and sentimentality. This line of reasoning (and natural temperament) could lead to tempi falling just short of natural energy. Some listeners may hanker after breakneck speeds and showier playing of outer movements. This is not Schwarz and Buckley’s style. Clarity and transparency are never sacrificed for flamboyance.  Take, for example, the first movement of Sonata no.1 in E flat major, BWV 525. Bach gives no tempo indication here; some performers take it at a very fast pace. Buckley and Schwarz do not lose their heads; their playing of it is fresh and vital, energetic and well defined.  In the second movement of Trio Sonata no.5 in C major – Largo – the artists, however, strike a fine balance between the movement’s introspection, its harmonic and melodic course and its sheer beauty. They lean into key notes and dissonances, their playing inviting the listener’s ear to follow them through Bach’s fascinating text.

Harpsichords used for the recording were built by Reinhard von Nagel. Emer Buckley played on a harpsichord after an antique signed N. & François Blanchet, Paris, 1730 and Jochewed Schwarz played on an instrument after an antique by Michael Mietke, Berlin, c.1710. The disc, produced by Jochewed Schwarz, was recorded at the von Nagel workshop (Paris) in 2012, the result being that the sound is true, lively, intimate and unhampered. The liner notes are informative without being effusive.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Maestro Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra host Russian pianist Denis Matsuev in a program of Haydn and Mozart

Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (photo:Marvin Hamlisch)
With Maestro Zubin Mehta retiring from his position in October 2019 as music director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, the orchestra with which he has been involved for half a century, being present a concerts in which he directs the orchestra is be enjoyed at any opportunity. Such was the case when this writer attended a subscription concert of the IPO’s 81st season in the Charles Bronfman Auditorium, Tel Aviv, on May 27th 2017. Soloists were Russian pianist Denis Matsuev, violinist and IPO concertmaster David Radzynski, the IPO’s principal ‘cellist Emanuele Silvestri, IPO principal oboist Dudu Carmel and the IPO’s principal bassoonist Daniel Mazaki.

The program opened with Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No.88 in G-major, a work with a strange history: Johann Peter Tost, a violinist in Haydn’s orchestra, took the scores of this and another symphony along with six string quartets to Paris in 1788, selling them (and a symphony of a second-rate composer, claiming it to be by Haydn) to a Parisian publisher by the name of Sieber. Haydn was indeed tricked, but the truth is that Haydn’s own musical skullduggery in Symphony No.88 constitutes trickery of a brilliant and good-natured kind, with such effects as an offbeat motive shifting to the downbeat, a melodic line disappearing into the texture to resurface unexpectedly and an accompanying idea that becomes a theme...and who would have expected trumpets and timpani to make their first appearance in the mostly sedate Largo movement?  As to Haydn’s Menuetto, its Trio, complete with drone, is unabashedly rustic. Mehta’s reading of the work breathes the Classical idiom of eloquence and balance, contrast and shape, as he  presents the richly varied agenda of the concluding rondo - Allegro con spirito -  its fabric a mix of folkish character, counterpoint and complex canon - with Haydnesque good cheer, good taste and clarity.
We then heard W.A.Mozart’s Concerto No.17 in G-major for piano and orchestra K.453 with guest artist pianist Denis Matsuev. As Mozart’s piano concertos were progressively finding more favour with the Viennese public, the composer wrote to his father that they “were written in such a way that the less learned cannot fail to be pleased, though without knowing why” - no great compliment to the listening public! Concerto No.17 in G-major has a number of different aspects to attract the listener’s awareness: Composed in 1784, it was one of the rare concertos not written for Mozart to perform. It was premiered the same year by his 19-year-old student Barbara Ployer. Matsuev’s performance was positive and full-bodied, highlighting Mozart’s melodic extravagance with brightness of tone and a rich play of textures, his rippling passagework and rhythmic zest imbued with both a sense of spontaneity and superb control. Arriving at the first movement cadenza, the artist opened with a touch of reticence, then to captivate the listener with the rich potpourri of Mozart’s musical ideas. In the Andante, summed up by Leonard Bernstein as “Mozart at the peak of his lyrical powers, combining serenity, melancholy and tragic intensity”, Matsuev takes time to pace its events, to shape the trills and articulate its many voices, to offer a personal, contemplative dimension to the cadenza. As to the last movement, a set of Rococo variations, the artist entertained the audience with the combination of drama and complexity performed with grace, wit and playfulness, its minor variation striking a serious note. Despite the concerto’s modest instrumentation, even in terms of the 18th century orchestra (it includes neither trumpets, drums nor clarinets) the IPO’s woodwind solos and horns gave poignant expression to the work’s beauty of orchestration.
Following the concerto, Denis Matsuev returned to the stage to perform two encores, the first a lively, elegant and touching performance of Sibelius’ Piece for Piano No.2, op.76. Playing the third movement of Prokofiev’s Sonata No.7 (one of the composer’s War Sonatas) Matsuev had listeners perched on the edge of their chairs as he tossed off its demanding agenda - a demonic, intense and darkly chordal toccata - with pizzazz!
nvited to London in 1790, Haydn arrived there in 1791 and was immediately asked to compose a sinfonia concertante by the London impresario Johann Peter Saloman. Haydn chose to feature a solo group of oboe, bassoon, violin, and cello for the simple reason that this unusual grouping would highlight the strongest players in Saloman’s ensemble. Written within two weeks, the Sinfonia Concertante in B-flat major op.84 was an instant success, with the Morning Herald critic praising it as being “profound, airy, affecting and original”. A work in which all four roles bristle with virtuoso music, here was a splendid opportunity to hear the four IPO players in elegant, collegial  dialogue. In the fast outer movements, the solo quartet emerges, then to recede into the orchestral weave (the cadenza at the conclusion of the opening movement features all four), with the slow, more quiescent, pastel-coloured F-major movement giving the stage to the quartet more prominently. What a treat it was to follow both visually and audially as  Radzynski, Silvestri, Carmel and Masaki engaged in the work’s give and take, playing alone or entwined in the conversation of Haydn’s sophisticated contrapuntal discourse. Energetic and inventive, it was hard to imagine the Sinfonia Concertante, his only work in this Baroque-influenced genre, as written by the older Haydn. Once again, Zubin Mehta and the IPO’s Haydn was fresh, suave and vital.