The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s second concert for the 2016-2017 season offered Baroque music aficionados a unique program. This writer attended the event, “A Christmas Special”, in the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship of the Jerusalem International YMCA on December 8th 2016.
Due to illness of one of one of the artists, there was a last-minute program change: instead of J.S.Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.6, we heard Bach’s Trio Sonata for organ BWV 527 performed in the traditional Baroque trio sonata format by Idit Shemer-flute, Noam Schuss-violin, Orit Messer-Jacobi-‘cello and JBO founder and musical director David Shemer-organ. The Sonatas for Organ (BWV 525-530) from around 1730, (they may also have been played on pedal-clavichord or pedal-harpsichord) written when J.S.Bach was tutoring his eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann in organ and composition, are made up of earlier composed instrumental movements, newly composed movements and older organ works. With Johann Sebastian’s choice of clear textures for this instructional material, requiring the young organist to exercise total independence of hands and feet, what distinguish these works from other organ repertoire are their textures which imitate the instrumental trio sonata, inviting a variety of transcriptions which date from the 18thcentury to today. Addressing the fact that they are neither the flamboyant toccatas and fugues nor the chorale-preludes imbued with mystery, the JBO artists did not dispense with the intimate and eloquent character both of the piece and also of the Baroque instrumental sound, despite its performance in a hall. With Idit Shemer playing a Baroque traverso flute, the other instrumentalists pared down their volume to what resulted in chamber music of fine transparency and poetic nuance, with sympathetic contrapuntal dialogues woven between flute and violin. A nice aperitif to the evening and presented by core JBO players.
Then to Dietrich Buxtehude’s (c.1637-1707) cantata cycle “Membra Jesu Nostri” (The Limbs of Our Jesus) BuxWV 75, a mystical work based on a collection of hymns in which each cantata represents the glance of a believer, standing at the foot of the cross, as he addresses parts of Christ’s body, his focus moving upwards from Christ’s feet to his face. The text, thought to have been written by Cistercian monk Arnulf de Louvain (c.1200-1250), reflects the rise of 17th century Lutheran pietism and its characteristic subjectively emotional sentiments. Each cantata is constructed along the same lines, the opening instrumental sinfonia followed by a “dictum”, an aria of three stanzas, with the dictum repeated at the end. The composer only breaks this form in the last cantata, where the repeated dictum is replaced by a lavish Amen. The work is scored for a small ensemble and five singers, the latter singing solos and small group- and tutti sections. The JBO instrumentalists were joined by members of Ensemble PHOENIX (founder and musical director: Myrna Herzog) and Tal Ganor-soprano, Anat Czarny-mezzo-soprano, Avital Dery-mezzo-soprano, Hillel Sherman-tenor and Guy Pelc-bass. In performance that was unforced rather than dramatic, with emphasis on clear diction, David Shemer led instrumentalists and singers through the work, preserving its meditative, devout and soul-searching character. For Cantata No.6, the instrumental sound world changes markedly: the violinists stand down and four viol players join ‘cello, theorbo and organ in a mellow, velvety setting to present “To the Heart”. This is indeed the heart of the work. The original ensemble returns for the final cantata and the viols are gone. The choruses presented a lively and interesting mix of vocal timbres, with vocal trios highlighting intensity of texts. Add to that Anat Czarny’s attractive, radiant voice, Avital Dery’s spiritual understanding of the work, Hillel Sherman’s burgeoning, natural tenor, Guy Pelc’s gentle intensity and Tal Ganor’s creamy, blending timbre. Ganor, just a little too careful, could have projected her voice further into the YMCA hall. The instrumentalists, including the evocative sound of the theorbo (Eliav Lavi), seized every opportunity to add interest and beauty to a work that is quite exquisite.
In his program notes, Maestro Shemer speaks of the fact that the music of the “veritable giant” Buxtehude “has not had fitting representation on Israeli music platforms”. The impact this performance has had (more Easter-oriented than Christmas) will hopefully mean that we hear more works of the Danish-German genius, whose music had such a profound influence on J.S.Bach.
Photo: Maxim Reider