On December 26th, the Hebrew University’s weekly Monday Afternoon Concert Series featured Ensemble Divina Insania, a Baroque chamber music group consisting of Israeli musicians living in Europe or in Israel and performing on period instruments. Guest artist was violinist Shunske Sato (Holland). Joining him were Doret Florentin (recorder), Tali Goldberg (violin) Benny Aghassi (bassoon, Hen Goldsobel (contrabass) and Yizhar Karshon (harpsichord). The Monday Afternoon Series series is directed and introduced by Dr. Sara Pavlov.
The concert opened with all players in an eloquent reading of the Overture to G.F.Händel’s opera “Giustino” (Justin), which was premiered at Covent Garden in 1737, its formal, homophonic opening evocative of the pomp of the coronation ceremony with which the plot begins. The allegro section offered some charming duets. Händel had a splendid oboist/recorder player in his orchestra, hence the challenging soprano recorder part, managed well by Florentin.
Then to Neapolitan composer Francesco Mancini’s (1672-1737) Recorder Concerto in A-minor, one of 12 of his appearing in a collection of concertos by Alessandro Scarlatti, Domenico Sarro, Francesco Barbella, Giovanni Batista Mele and Roberto Valentini (the English Robert Valentine) in a Naples conservatory. Enjoying a solid and vibrant basso continuo section, the ensemble’s reading of the piece, with much lively interaction between Florentin and Sato, was alive and spontaneous, its textures alternating between utterances of only violins and recorder and tutti moments, with some silver-tongued harpsichord spreads adding sparkle to calmer moments. Rich in well-crafted melodies and a sprinkling of surprises, the work, indeed demanding to play, made for fine entertainment. Primarily an opera composer, the list of Mancini’s instrumental works is small. Divina Insania’s colourful performance of the concerto emphasized how unjust it is that this leading figure of Naples’ cultural life and education (he was a rival to Alessandro Scarlatti) should have fallen into oblivion.
Of his more than 550 concertos, Antonio Vivaldi composed 39 bassoon concertos, for whom we can only guess, and the plot thickens if one considers that the bassoon had not yet been used as a solo instrument in Venice. It is thought that these Vivaldi concertos were written between 1728 and 1737. Vivaldi, though not a bassoonist, shows a thorough understanding of the instrument’s expressive and technical possibilities, taking the player on a journey through the bass and tenor registers, however, also through the concept of a string-player, with demanding arpeggios, rapid scales and register leaps. Benny Aghassi had listeners perched at the edge of their seats right from the first notes of the work’s wild unison opening, as he scurried up and down the bassoon range with articulate agility, warmth of timbre and pizzazz, with the violins adding comments and accents to complete the joie-de-vivre of the outer movements. In the Largo movement, with the bassoon’s languorous agenda set against held chords in the strings, Aghassi created small pauses between sections, as if each time searching anew for suitable inspiration for each gesture. Throughout the work, he communicated closely with his fellow players and with the audience. Benny Aghassi’s virtuosity and musicality left the listener wishing for more!
Performing Vivaldi’s Concerto for Recorder, Violin and Bassoon in D-major RV92, Florentin, Sato and Aghassi interacted vigilantly, the opening Allegro giving each artist much to say, as Sato signed out of it, tugging a little at the heart strings as he leaned into a dissonant penultimate note. Following the second movement, in which Florentin and Sato engaged in a moving dialogue, with Aghassi weaving long lines of gently inégal notes throughout, the artists’ technical command was displayed in the final, somewhat witty, abundantly imitative Allegro movement.
Most of us had no idea of what was in store when Shunske Sato and Yizhar Karshon launched into little-known Italian composer Giovanni Pandolfi Mealli’s Sonata for Violin and Continuo in D-minor opus 4 No.4 “La Biancuccia”. The opus 4 violin sonatas were published in 1660. Here was a vivid example of the “stylus phantasticus”, referred to in 1650 by Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher as being “especially suited to instruments…the most free and unrestrained method of composition…bound neither to any words or to a melodic subject… instituted to display genius and teach the hidden design of harmony…”. In this highly representative piece of the style, bristling with unpredictability and acrobatics, the artists juxtaposed its extreme moods in a continuum of sections expressing frenzy and lyricism (even moderation), coloured with accelerandi and audacious harmonic changes, rumbling harpsichord textures and the profuse ornamentation that emanated from under Sato’s fingers as he quizzically eyed the mesmerized audience. Karshon was with Sato all the way, as they introduced the audience to an uninhibited and totally delectable 17th century musical version of a Hitchcock movie. A musician at the court of Ferdinand Charles, Archduke of Austria, Pandolfi Mealli dedicated this sonata to a castrato. In 1669, when a violinist in the Messina Cathedral, he fled Sicily after murdering a castrato singer, then working as a violinist in the Capilla Real of Madrid. Who said music history was boring?
Appropriately timed (December 26th) the last work on the program was Arcangelo Corelli’s Christmas Concerto in G-minor Opus 6 No.8, with the Divina Insania artists lending supple and graceful expression to its lush, melodic beauty and undulating suspensions, its tempo contrasts and its dance movements, ending with the wonderful lilting pastoral movement, with its folk-like tunes, bagpipe drone effect and sense of wonder.
This was Shunske Sato’s first Israeli visit.
Photo of Shunske Sato: Yat Ho Tsang