Saturday, September 9, 2017

"Unbounded Liberty" - German cabaret songs at the 20th Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival

Soprano Angela Denoke (photo:© Johan Persson)
“Unbounded Liberty - Cabaret Songs between the Two World Wars”, a unique and outstanding event of the 20th Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival (director: Elena Bashkirova)   took place on September 8th at the Jerusalem International YMCA. The program is a project of Jerusalem-born pianist and arranger Tal Balshai, today living in Berlin, and German soprano Angela Denoke. In the Jerusalem concert, Denoke was accompanied by Balshai (who offered some words on the works, composers and their times), Israeli-born clarinettist Shirley Brill and ‘cellist Tim Park (USA).

The program started with a tribute to Berlin - Kurt Weill’s “Berlin in Lights” (celebrating the wonders of electric lighting) and the breezy “Under the Linden Trees” (music: Walter Kollo, lyrics: Rudolph Schanzer), the latter speaking of the delightful town and some of its people. This was a kindly, caressing opening to an evening presenting the troubled mood hovering above Germany between World War I and the rise of Hitler, as expressed in songs of a formula mixing poison and saccharine and performed in the cabarets around Berlin. Germany was now a democracy, meaning that art forms no longer suffered from censorship. Sometimes written in the simplest forms of popular music, these often-witty or acerbic songs describe the state of society of the time, venting political dissatisfaction and the mood of decadence, disappointment and despair. And, of course, there are some love songs. Most of the cabaret composers were classically trained, many Jewish, many in exile. Promoting the genre were the original voices of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, whose songs formed a substantial part of the program. Taking a somewhat naive form, “To the Little Radio” (Hanns Eisler, Brecht) tells of a Jewish man fleeing from the Nazis with his little radio. It comes from Eisler’s “Hollywood Songbook”, compiled when the composer was in exile in the USA. From the same collection, we heard “On Suicide”, sensitively performed by the artists, Denoke’s use of her uniquely-timbred yet unforced low register adding to the song’s eerie agenda.  From Kurt Weill’s “Berlin Requiem” (1920), the “Ballad of the Drowned Girl”, one of Brecht’s most potent masterpieces, Balshai’s minimal setting gives the grisly details of the text centre stage, as Denoke relates  the tragic story of 20-year-old Marxist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg’s rotting body drifting down the Landwehr Canal...“it so happened that she had slipped from God’s thoughts”.

Friedrich Hollaender (1896-1976) was one of the most prolific composers and lyricists of cabaret song literature in Berlin between 1918 and 1933, writing over 200 songs, demonstrating his ability to adapt to the swiftly evolving tastes and expectations of cabaret audiences during the tumultuous Weimar Era, addressing political and social issues and adapting folktales. His repertoire spans playful character pieces to defiant antimilitarist statements and poignant illustrations of poverty and hardship, and via an economy of musical means. Hollaender’s songs  were well represented at the JICMF concert. In one of the ensemble’s many encores, “Peter, Peter, come back to me”, associated with the voice of Marlene Dietrich, Angela Denoke (addressing Tim Park!) expresses the woman’s misgivings at having been unfaithful to her best fellow, Peter. In “Chuck all the men out of the Reichstag”, Denoke gives zest to the text and its message: women are letting us know they have found their voice and are ready to stand together for a new feminist movement and for professional equality.

On an evening in the late 1920's or early 1930's, Berlin night crawlers might have slipped into the celebrated Tingel-Tangel club, which was run by  Hollaender, or  one could visit Kurt Robischek's Cabaret of Comedians (‘Kabarett der Komiker’, popularly called ‘Kadeko’) where the music of Mischa Spoliansky reigned. The advent of sound films ushered in a second career for Mischa Spoliansky, as a cinema composer. In the film “Love No More”, released in 1931,  Margo Lion gave a raucous rendering of Spoliansky’s “You can’t Live without Love”,  (lyrics: Robert Gilbert).  Spoliansky himself appeared in the film, billed as ‘Piano Man’. Denoke’s performance of the song, however, was mellifluous and colored with dynamic variation. Her singing of Spoliansky’s “The Lavender Song” carried a sense of urgency, with the refrain spelling out the song’s message with the greatest of articulacy. Written in 1920 under the pseudonym of Arno Billing  (lyrics: Kurt Schwabach) this song was dedicated to the German-Jewish physician and sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld and is considered one of the first gay anthems:
‘Why the torment
to impose
morals of others on us?

We, listen to this,
are what we are,
even if they want to hang us.
But who thinks,
that we are going to be hanged
for that one we would have to feel sorry
but soon, listen up,
all of a sudden
our sun will be shining too…’

Werner Richard Heymann was the most famous film composer in Germany and France until 1933. His music was heard  from the orchestra pits of the great theatre stages and on the battered pianos of tiny cabaret cellars. A serious classical composer, Heymann once confessed that he had never intended to write popular songs, but it seems he learned to enjoy writing them. One of the most spine-chilling moments of the Jerusalem event was Denoke’s performance of Heymann’s “The Cold”; her portrayal of the poor and homeless was haunting, the chill almost palpable in both the arrangement and especially in Denoke’s singing.

Tal Balshai has made a deep enquiry into the genre of German cabaret songs. His reworkings of the piano accompaniments for trio are artistic and elegant, offering each player possibilities for  personal expression and involvement in each verbal text; the instrumental roles reflect the emotional complexity of the repertoire. All three instrumentalists took up the challenge, adding much aesthetic pleasure to the evening. Balshai and Angela Denoke read each other well: they have been working together for 11 years. Angel Denoke is an extraordinary artist: she is comfortable on stage, charming, natural and unmannered, as she communicates with her audience and players. She enlists her fresh, rich and flexible voice in each item, appealing directly to the listener’s emotions. A real treat for the German speakers amongst us, it was the kind of concert you did not want to end!


The Leipzig University Choir, directed by David Timm, performs sacred German and Austrian music at the Dormition Abbey, Jerusalem

Fr. Nicodemus addressing the audience, the Leipzig University Choir, conductor David Timm, on the right. (Photo:Dr. Michael Borchard)
The Leipzig University Choir, under the direction of David Timm, gave a concert of largely a-cappella works at the Dormition Abbey, Mt. Zion, on September 4th 2017. Opening the event, Fr. Nicodemus Schnabel, pastor of the church, spoke of September 4th as being the Feast Day of St. Moses and made reference to Moses’ speech defect and communication difficulties. To highlight this point, Arnold Schoenberg, in his opera “Moses and Aaron” gives Moses a spoken role, while Aaron “translates” Moses’ words in the sung tenor role. Fr. Nicodemus referred to art as a form of translation, of music as actualization and that a choir has the ability of “translation”.

The program commenced with the spirited singing of the opening movement of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy’s setting of Psalm 98 “Sing to the Lord a new song),  composed in 1843/44 and designed as an Introit psalm. Singing it in Hebrew, the choir members brought out its strong sacred fervour, using consonants to add to the work’s energy. Of the program’s works spanning the 16th to 21st centuries, some were written to texts of Martin Luther’s hymns:  a suavely shaped reading of  Mendelssohn’s setting of Luther’s text “Verleih uns Frieden” (Grant Us Peace) and also “Mitten wir im Leben sind” (In the very midst of life) a motet by Johann Walter (1496-1570), who was a younger contemporary of Luther. An outspoken musical spokesman for Lutherans, Walter edited the first Protestant hymnal. David Timm led his singers with articulacy through the silken lines of its polyphony, highlighting the piece’s introspection. We also heard Timm’s own setting of a prominent Luther text from 1523 - “Nun freut Euch, lieben Christen g’mein” (Dear Christians, one and all, rejoice), its rich verbal and musical canvas coloured with jazzy rhythms, the percussive effects of finger-snapping and the stamping of feet, some very clear vocal lines rising from the texture, clusters and evocative chordal comments on the organ played by Timm as he conducted the work. The singers took on board the challenging musical techniques evoking the work’s dramatic message of the struggle and triumph of belief over sin.


In another setting of "Verleih uns Frieden”  from Heinrich Schütz’ “Geistliche Chormusik” collection of 1648, the composer links Luther’s plea for peace to the mood in war-torn Germany, following the horrific Thirty Years War. In fact, vivid artillery-like note repetitions  feature prominently in the music, with warlike fanfares (often led by the tenors) present. This Leipzig University Choir singers gave expression to the variety, subtlety and sophistication of this five-part texture.

Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied” BWV 225, J.S.Bach’s motet setting of Psalms 149 and 150 and of a hymn of Johann Gramann, may also have some connection to Martin Luther. Possibly written in 1727 for the Leipzig city and university festival celebrating the birthday of King August (following his recovery from a grave illness), it has, however, also been suggested that the double-chorus work may have been composed for the memorial service of Christiane Eberhardine of Brandenburg-Bayreuth, titular Queen of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, who had been unwilling to renounce Lutheranism for Roman Catholicism. Whatever its genesis, this is one of Bach’s most complex and ambitious motets, demanding instrumental virtuosity of the singers. I think those attending the concert would agree that the work is both musically- and visually interesting. The choir’s Abbey performance of it allowed for the audience to follow its word-painting, its play of motifs, the curious order of entries in the enormous fugue of the first section, the two choirs’ engagement in spirited antiphonal communication in the third section, how Bach weaves an aria so ingeniously through the chorale and  then the mighty four-voiced fugue of the final section.

Anton Bruckner’s “Locus iste” (This place) (1869) was composed for the dedication of the votive chapel of Linz Cathedral, where he had been church organist. Majestic, dramatic and rich in contrasts and chromatic at times, David Timm utilized small pauses to allow for the play of echo in the church’s acoustic.

Towards the conclusion of the evening, we heard two homophonic, chorale-like pieces from Max Reger’s “Acht geistliche Gesange” (Eight Sacred Songs) op.138, composed in Meiningen in 1914. This collection, based on short texts from the German Psalter, shows Reger’s mastery of straightforward setting, referred to as the “new simplicity”. Works not frequently enough performed, the choir’s articulacy and precision were matched with much dynamic interest.

And for a different and special item: playing the Dormition Abbey’s large Oberlinger organ, David Timm presented his own Romantic-style improvisation on the “Agnus Dei” from J.S.Bach’s Mass in B-minor, his playing  brimming with warmth, musical ideas, personal expression and reflection.

Felix Mendelssohn had been quoted as saying: “The most natural music of all occurs when four people go out together in the woods or in a boat, and carry the music with them and inside them." For an encore, the choir sang Mendelssohn’s “Abschied vom Walde”, sending the audience home with with a strong endorsement of Mendelssohn’s ideal of the rewards of the singing of part songs.The Leipzig University Choir, under Maestro David Timm’s direction, is an ensemble engaging in performance that is varied, informed, disciplined and polished.



Friday, September 1, 2017

The "Sounding Jerusalem" Festival 2017 - concert at the Dormition Abbey, Jerusalem

Photo: Dr. Michael Borchard
Established in 2006, the “Sounding Jerusalem” Festival was back again after a hiatus of six years, presenting concerts in Jerusalem’s Old City and one in Jericho. Founded, developed and led by Austrian ‘cellist Erich Oskar Huetter, the festival has always aimed to offer musical experiences to people living in Jerusalem and the surroundings, irrespective of their ethnic-, social - or religious affiliations, its musical agenda of classical and innovative chamber music constituting a dialogue between European- and Middle-Eastern musicians. “About Possibilities” is the theme of the 2017 festival, inviting the listener to reflect on life’s perspectives, options and opportunities. This writer attended “Icons of Chamber Music” at the Dormition Abbey, Mount Zion, Jerusalem, on August 28th, 2017.

Welcoming guests to the concert, pastor of the abbey Fr. Nicodemus reminded those assembled that August 28th was the feast day of St. Augustine. Nicodemus drew parallels between the many spheres St. Augustine touched and the diversity of emotions in the music of Franz Schubert, whose String Quintet in C-major D.956 would be performed at the concert. Fr. Nicodemus recommended we listen to it “with emotional ears”.

The program opened with a seldom-heard and curious work - G.F.Händel’s Suite in D for trumpet and strings (or organ?) HWV 341. Referred to as “Mr. Händel’s Celebrated Water Piece”, the work is actually an anonymous hybrid arrangement of dances, incorporating some bits of Händel’s music. It was probably written in 1715, prior to the grander Water Music Suite of 1717. In its chamber arrangement (minus timpani), we heard violinists Eszter Haffner (Austria) and Suyeon Kang (Australia), violist Vicki Powell (USA) and ‘cellist Paolo Bonomini (Italy), with  Rainer Auerbach (Germany) in the solo trumpet role. As to the sections representing Händel’s writing, the Overture comes straight from his Water Music, with the stately March, the Suite’s final movement, taken from “Partenope”, one of the composer’s more obscure operas.The event’s highly international ensemble gave the work a fresh, buoyant and festive reading, its up-front agenda presented with articulacy. Auerbach’s splendid playing was characterized by dynamic variety and his rich timbre, and enhanced by some tasteful Baroque-style ornaments.

The core work of the concert was Franz Schubert’s String Quintet in C-major D.956, referred to by Huetter as “living a whole life”. Composed in September 1828, two months prior to Schubert’s death, it perhaps represents the composer’s summing up of his all-too-short life. What is unique to his final instrumental composition is its configuration for two ‘cellos, whether to cater to the particular string players present at his brother Ferdinand’s house or to add a sense of intensity and mellowness to the work’s gestures. From the very opening chords of the first movement, the players transported the listener into the work’s profound world of contemplation and emotions, its melodiousness, its delight and delicacy, its urgency and its kaleidoscope of moods, as the artists engaged in the uncompromising,  bold shaping of phrases. In the Adagio, its plaintive, otherworldly opening was highlighted by first violinist Eszter Haffner’s heart-rending gestures, the movement’s mood then abruptly becoming a frenetic scene of dramatic action. The artists conveyed the return of the introspective section, its dialogue between first violin and second ‘cello so human, with even more poignancy than in its original statement. Issued in with a fanfare, the boisterous, high-spirited Scherzo, whisking away any memory of the soul-searching Adagio, never fails to surprise and confound many listeners, but, for the Trio, the artists colored it with melancholy as a reminder of the profoundly sad feeling never far away in the quintet, with the Scherzo’s return reestablishing the work’s life-affirming statement, as does the final Allegretto, which was performed with charm, presenting its appealing Hungarian dance music and perhaps making reference to the lively Viennese cafe scene. The artists’ performance of the work gave expression to Schubert’s daring and revolutionary “orchestral” approach to writing for the small string ensemble, as they recreated its vast contrasts of light and color as well as Schubert’s serenity, eloquence and poetry, still enigmatically a vital element of the style of the dying composer now plagued by ill health and disappointment.

For their encore, Huetter decided that Austrian composer Joseph Lanner’s “Styrian Dances” opus 165 would tie in with the dances of the last movement of the Schubert Quintet. Joseph Lanner (1801-1843) and Johann Strauss Sr. were the original “waltz kings”. Sadly today, outside of Vienna, Lanner’s music is now forgotten. Dating from 1841, the “Styrian Dances” are based on folk melodies from the province of Steyermark (southwest of Vienna) and constitute one of Lanner’s most popular compositions. Once again, Eszter Haffner led the players with consummate skill, steering the sweetly sentimental music with rubato, variety, surprises and with the wink of an eye!