The Bach Festival is back with gusto. After last year’s pandemic-induced furlough the program is currently up and joyfully running, with concerts scheduled to take place in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Ness Ziona through March 29.
The sixth edition of the annual event offers its usual diverse spread of works by the celebrated German composer, taking in flute sonatas, fugues, preludes and grand performances of the ever-stirring St. Matthew Passion.
Belgian conductor and viola da gamba player Philippe Pierlot will be front and center in four renditions of the latter, scheduled for Haifa (March 23), Jerusalem (March 24) , Tel Aviv (March 25) and Ness Ziona (March 27). He will be joined by the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra (JBO) and a lineup of vocalists across a broad range of registers, including German tenor Richard Resch and Czech bass Tomáš Král, and some of our own finest, such as sopranos Keren Motseri and Tehila Nini Goldstein, altos Shaked Bar and Shira Raz, and tenor Itamar Hildesheim.
Pierlot got to grips with the Bach masterpiece many moons ago. “It is one the pieces I learned during my studies at the conservatory in Brussels,” notes the 63-year-old. “We called them technical tools and artistic tools that we had to learn [as students]. For the technical tools, we had to play the Matthew Passion.”
Technique-based challenges notwithstanding, it is a glorious work and one which incorporates some of Pierlot’s true musical loves. They lean strongly toward the vocal side of the sonic tracks, both in a human and an instrumental form. It is that beguiling attribute that led the then young man to move away from his initial guitar and lute studies, and take up his current instrument. “I was very curious about the relationship between vocal music and the viola da gamba instrumental music,” he explains. “One of the characteristics of the instrument is that it is always compared to the human voice.”
That has been frequently noted in the context of the cello too. It seems Pierlot’s favored instrument has that beat. “That is even more than the cello,” he laughs. “You can read in every treatise, from the Renaissance, from the 15th century to the late 18th century, they all say the same that the viola da gamba is the most perfect instrument, because it imitates the human voice so well.”
That, Pierlot says, is particularly pertinent for the period leading up to Bach. “I found a very interesting relationship between voice and instruments in the 17th century German repertoire – the forefathers of Bach, like [Dieterich] Buxtehude and other less well known composers.”
This was not just a matter of admiration from afar. Fresh out of his higher education studies, Pierlot quickly got down and dirty with the material in question. “I created with some friends an ensemble, now it’s my own ensemble – it’s the Ricercar Consort – and we recorded a lot of sacred German 17th century music.”
Part of the ensemble’s intent was to introduce the world to creations by composers whose names and works had fallen by the marketing wayside over the years. “It was not only Buxtehude. We also discovered composers like [Nicolaus] Bruhns and [Matthias] Weckmann. To me, they are major composers of the 17th century.”
Pierlot was, and remains, keen to give those yesteryear creators some latter day due and to offer music lovers a broader picture of the German baroque repertoire. “They were, well, never played. It was impossible to listen to a piece by Weckmann. So the Ricercar Consort recorded the complete works by Weckmann, also lots of Buxtehude and lots of others.”
PIERLOT WAS all of 22 years of age when the Ricercar Consort started out, in 1980. Presumably he was very ambition-driven. “I don’t know,” he counters. “It’s not ambition, I think it’s more passion. When you discover music of such high quality you want to share it. I think it’s the music that makes you passionate and excited and makes you do things that you would never expect to be able to do.”
The sexagenarian has been getting on with all kinds of things he never expected to do for four decades now, spreading the word about German baroque and other strains of the genre that was all the rage across Europe from the early 17th century through to the mid-18th century.
Pierlot is not just motivated to unveil 17th century German musical gems. He wants to make sure we get as accurate a handle as possible on what music fans of the day might have been getting when they went out to their local cultural venue or church, and what the well-heeled got for their money when they booked an ensemble to come and entertain them at their sumptuously furnished pad or, indeed, some royal listened to in his palatial surroundings.
“I try to get as close as possible to what Bach sounded like,” he says. “For me it is a means to make the music speak at its best. I think the closer to the ideas of the composer [you get] the better.” That involves all sorts of considerations and logistics including, if possible, using instruments built at the time when the music was written or that were designed to try to recreate that sound.
That, for Pierlot, comes from sticking to the original score and intent. “For me it is just a question of respect, first of all. Of course the composer writes some music and when you perform it there are rules. In my opinion, you have to respect. When you play the recitativo [speech-like singing with dramatic orchestral accompaniment] you have to know the rules. You can’t just decide I like it like this or that, when you know the rules that Bach knew.”
However, that does not mean there is no room for maneuvering when playing baroque music. Indeed, back then, improvisation was part and parcel of the performance philosophy. Pierlot notes that was very much core to Bach’s way too, even though it is probably impossible to get the recreation venture entirely spot on. “This is not a construction of a historical performance. We are not in the same century and the circumstances of life are very different. But I think you have to be pragmatic.”
Pierlot posits that the German master frequently cut his coat to suit his cloth at the time. “I think Bach was also pragmatic. When you compare different versions of the same piece, you see he made some changes because, at some point, he didn’t have the right instruments or his position changed and he had a different ensemble to work with.”
All of which should make for a fascinating listening experience when the likes of Pierlot, the JBO et al get down to it later this month.
Elsewhere in the Bach Festival program, flutist Roy Amotz will present a spiritual-musical journey from Bach to contemporary works for flute, inspired by traditional flutes. The Bach Zen concert at Hamiffal in Jerusalem on March 28 features works by Bach for cello and violin arranged for baroque flute, as well as compositions by Japanese and other composers, including the world premiere of a composition by Israeli- and German-educated multidisciplinary composer and wind instrument player Bnaya Halperin-Kaddari.