One of the opening events for the 2016-2017 concert season was that of the “Octopus” Israeli piano quartet on September 10th in the Recanati Auditorium of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Guest artists were oud player Taiseer Elias and actor Alex Ansky.
Formed in 2013, “Octopus” consists of four pianists playing on two pianos – piano 1: Yifat Zeidel and Bart Berman, piano 2: Tavor Guchman and Meir Wiesel. The ensemble’s aim is to promote high quality arrangements of classical works and to encourage and perform new Israeli works, having so far performed works by Josef Bardanashvili and Eran Ashkenazi. The September 10th concert included the world premiere of Tzvi Avni’s “Metamorphosis” (2016), a work for oud and four pianists.
The concert opened with Paul Klengel’s 8-hand arrangement of Johannes Brahms’ Serenade No.2 in A-major opus 16. A work originally scored for winds, ‘cellos and double bass, written by the young Brahms as a work to provide him with experience in orchestral writing prior to embarking on the composition of symphonies, Klengel’s setting works incredibly well on two pianos. In a balance of restraint and finely “orchestrated” expression, the “Octopus” artists drew out the work’s innate mellowness, so Brahmsian in temperament - the darker piano timbres reminding us that the original score includes no violins. As they re-created the work’s solid, full-bodied sound world and seamless melodiousness, the work’s dance movements and its folk-like scherzo, the artists fashioned as one player the work’s centrepiece - the poetic Adagio non troppo - in singing, tender resonance. Adding an extra dimension and throwing light on Brahms’ personal emotional life, the Serenade movements were punctuated by actor Alex Ansky’s reading of excerpts from letters of Brahms from Shimshon Inbal’s lofty Hebrew translation of “Brahms: His Life and Work” by Karl Geiringer: letters effusive with love to his mother and Clara Schumann, a jolly description of his birthday celebration and quite a heartrending account of Robert Schumann’s dying in letters to his friend Julius Otto Grimm; also a self-effacing, letter to violinist Joseph Joachim, showing admiration for the violinist’s compositions.
Taking Max Reger’s lesser-known but rich piano transcription of J.S.Bach’s Toccata & Fugue in D-minor BWV 565, Meir Wiesel adapted it to the 8-hand “Octopus” constellation. Dousing the opening chords in a ringing effect of the sustaining pedal was a reminder of the grand church pipe organ and church acoustic, but from there, we were returned to the possibilities offered by two modern grand pianos. Comparing organ and piano timbres here would be a pointless exercise; using the physical strength demanded of the modern pianist, the artists presented the work’s drama of large dimensions; its pared-down, more intimate sections came across with pleasing articulacy. As to the work’s daring and pomposity, referred to as “famosissimo” and “celebratissima” by Alberto Basso in his 1979 Bach biography, that is what the work is about, and the audience loved it.
Performer, scholar and researcher Taiseer Elias, one of the world’s leading soloists in the field of classical Arab music, founded and has headed the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance’s Department of Eastern Music, leading the Arab-Jewish Orchestra; he also teaches at Bar-Ilan University. At the Tel Aviv concert, we heard Professor Elias in solo on the oud in improvisations and variations on “The Pretty Maiden”, an Arabic folk melody. Elegant, virtuosic and succinct, Elias’ poetical playing produced a kaleidoscope of east and west – the song melody richly ornamented, then dovetailed with sections based on western harmonies, including a reflection on the Bach Toccata and Fugue performed prior to the solo. The use of a microphone allowed listeners in the hall to enjoy every filigree detail to the full.
An auspicious item on the program was the world premiere of “Metamorphosis”, a work by Israeli composer Tzvi Avni (b.1927) for oud and 8 hands on two pianos. Professor Avni spoke briefly about the piece’s genesis. When Meir Wiesel approached him in July 2016 with the suggestion of a new work for “Octopus” and oud, Avni had just finished reading Kafka’s novella “The Metamorphosis”, in which Gregor Samsa wakes one morning to find he has turned into a large, monstrous insect. The novella proceeds to deal with Gregor’s attempt to deal with the situation and to his family’s attitude to the repulsive creature he has become. Avni makes no effort to write the story into the work, but has taken from it the theme of coping, of finding solutions to a given situation, such as living in Israeli society, where east and west meet. Avni’s opening gesture in “Metamorphosis” takes the form of an imposing and uncompromising piano cluster. Then, in writing that is both pleasing and appropriate for the instrument, we hear the oud in its own musical agenda. Dialogue between pianos and oud oscillates between the docile and the conflicted. Following a long, engaging oud solo, the pianos enter once more, accompanying the oud in velvety textures, the strumming of piano strings at one moment meeting the oriental plucked instrument in a spacy, otherworldly effect. In this new work, Tzvi Avni has met and juxtaposed the most unlikely of instrumental combinations, coupling them on an intensely human level in a musical language of the senses, in a piece bristling with interest and with timbral appeal.
The program concluded with Emil Kronke’s 8-hand setting of Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No.9 “Carnival in Pest”. With its blend of folk melodies and virtuosic passages, connected by improvisatory elements, the work evokes the atmosphere of a Budapest carnival from around 1840. Indulging in the constant changes of mood and “scoring”, the pianists gave a dazzling performance of the work’s Hungarian dance melodies, addressing its intimate moments and its elaborate, colourful finale - a challenging tour-de-force. Then for two encores: Aram Khachaturian’s unleashed “Sabre Dance”, well suited to the 8-hand medium, followed by a somewhat sober rendition of Beethoven’s “Turkish March”. “Octopus”, its members spanning a wide range of ages, offers the concert-going public a new, fresh approach to concert repertoire in playing that is both tasteful and most stylish!
Photo: Ilan Shapira