Where does one go to hear some of the world’s greatest pianists? To Jerusalem. More specifically, the Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival, the annual ten-day musical delight in the Holy City in early September. Under the artistic direction of pianist Elena Bashkirova, the roster reads like a dream for piano aficionados, but that fact is actually a hidden surprise among the more than 45 instrumental and vocal performers featured in 14 concerts. Keyboard giants like Kirill Gerstein, Sir András Schiff, Plamena Mangova, Louis Lortie, Menahem Pressler and Bashkirova herself are integrated as members of ad hoc small ensembles. Rather than taking the concerto spotlight, they are indulging in another burning passion: chamber music.

Nelson Goerner and Marina Prudenskaya © Dan Porges
Nelson Goerner and Marina Prudenskaya
© Dan Porges

The first four days offered six concerts for the 19th edition of this late-summer fest, and concentrated on works of the late 19th century and early 20th century with special attention to Shostakovich. On 3 September’s noon-hour programme, he and Prokofiev were scheduled side by side, almost as an unspoken invitation to pay comparative hommage. Beginning with Prokofiev’s exquisitely lyrical Sonata for Two Violins, eloquently performed by Alexander Sitkovetsky and Latica Honda-Rosenberg, Shostakovich’s rarely-heard but exceptionally moving Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti was performed by bass-baritone Robert Holl with pianist Gerstein who lent searing rapture to love poems penned late in life by Michelangelo.

Honda-Rosenberg reappeared, taking us intrepidly through the thorny and thrilling Prokofiev Violin Sonata no. 1 with the excellent pianist Nelson Goerner. This piece’s dark exploration of post-war gloom in Russia in 1946 exposes the composer’s kaleidoscopic emotions, as he swings back and forth from ghostly impressionistic flurries to sudden malevolent eruptions.

The magnificent finale of that concert was Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet no. 2, ably performed by a power team of violinists Sitkovetsky and Daniel Austrich, violist Miguel de Silva, cellist Frans Helmerson, and Mangova, who was the supernatural force of this performance: her every moment was riveting and filled with technical fortitude. This work is so evocative it can simply rip your guts out; here, it was an intense and intimate experience, especially in the hands of Mangova, for whom the execution of even a solitary note, while hundreds flew around her, was imbued with impassioned intent.

The evening concert offered equally rich fare, starting with Kodaly’s Duo for Violin and Cello, performed by Mihaela Martin and Pablo Ferrandez. Their reading was respectable, although it needed to reach a little further into the Hungarian soul for its quirky humor and animated folk influences.

Israeli composer Yinam Leef enjoyed the national première of his Yearning for clarinet (Chen Halevi), violins (Austrich, Sitkovetsky), viola (Hartmut Rohde) and cello (Tim Park). Yearning was commissioned by the Festival, and Leef wrote in the programme: “it describes the psychological state of longing... akin to sitting on one side of the fence while dreaming of being on the other.” The clarinet’s role was cleverly woven into a satin string texture that hovered in sustained shimmering chordal constructions. Halevi’s expert control in a highly nuanced part that was both soloist and team player lent imaginative coloration. Leef beautifully conveyed the feeling of needing resolution but never quite getting it.

Plamena Mangova and Edgar Moreau © Dan Porges
Plamena Mangova and Edgar Moreau
© Dan Porges

Young French cellist Edgar Moreau swung us gracefully back into the 19th century with Chopin’s Sonata for Piano and Cello with Mangova. Their collaboration maintained robust energy, and Moreau’s cello tone was appropriately bittersweet, since Chopin had composed the sonata when he had parted from his beloved George Sand. Then the velvet-voiced mezzo-soprano Marina Prudenskaya plunged into eight lesser-known songs by Liszt with pianist Goerner. Set to texts in Italian, Russian and German, the songs were less lyrically conceived and more styled like recitatives. Prudenskaya projected the dramatic intent, paying close attention to the text’s nuances and colours.

Bartók’s Piano Quintet in C was one of the high points as it champions edgy programming choices. This quintet is not often included in chamber concerts, and it contradicts what we normally expect from Bartók. It’s an early work that’s a fascinating hybrid of two duelling styles: the late-romantic slush that pleased the public versus flashes of Bartók’s emerging dissonance. The four movements sounded schizophrenic – as if Bartók was angry at having to prolong the agony of writing like others had previously proscribed, instead of the freshly angular language in his head that was threatening to explode onto the paper.

Its performance by violinists Martin and Austrich, violist Nobuko Imai, and cellist Park was somewhat rag-tag, probably due to being a quickly thrown-together group which had precious little rehearsal time. Mangova saved it, though, through the sheer horsepower required to tackle the knuckle-buster score, ending it with power and panache. Because this crazy-quilt piano quintet was a critical pivot-point for Bartok, it amounted to a fascinating adventure for listeners.