Duo Goldstein-Nemtsov, Gringolts Quartet
9th Mizmorim Chamber Music Festival
Colțea / Wolpe / Dessau / Weill / Toch / Milhaud / Zemlinsky

Gare du Nord, Basel, 2023-01-20

4.5-star rating

2023-01-30 — Original posting

Table of Contents


Venue, Date & TimeGare du Nord — Bahnhof für Neue Musik, Basel, 2023-01-20 12:15h
Series / TitleMizmorim Chamber Music Festival, Concert II: “Milk and Honey”
OrganizerMizmorim Chamber Music Festival
Reviews from related eventsReviews from concerts featuring the Gringolts Quartet
Reviews from concerts in the context of the Mizmorim Chamber Music Festival

Mizmorim Kammermusik Festival, Logo

The Mizmorim Chamber Music Festival 2023

This is the second time that I have been invited to attend concerts in the context of the Mizmorim Chamber Music Festival, founded 2015 by the Israeli clarinetist Michal Lewkowicz, now the Festival’s Artistic Director. In my review from a Mizmorim concert on 2022-01-22, I have already written about the festival, its goals and achievements, so I’ll refrain from repeating myself here. Instead, let me start with brief excerpts / highlights from my previous description. There, I mentioned that the name “Mizmorim” is Hebrew and refers to the biblical Psalms. The Festival is more than a classical chamber music event running over several days every January. It features

  • a broad mix of encounters between Jewish and Western Art music, as well as Jazz.
  • It involves numerous, renowned artists and ensembles, performing in a variety of locations, all over the city of Basel.
  • Events for children (Mizmorim Kids), family concerts, promotion of young talents.
  • The Festival commissions new works and premieres these in concert.

2022, the Mizmorim Chamber Music Festival reached 98% of its capacity and had to reject requests for tickets. The organizers therefore expanded the program, now featuring 15 events, among them 7 chamber music concerts, including two for children. After the conclusion, the organizers happily reported an audience increase of 25% for 2023.

The Festival Theme and its Background

Every Festival comes with a title / motto describing its focus. Last year’s theme was “Diáspora Sefardí“, focusing on the music and the history of the Sephardim (Hispanic Jews). The 2023 edition of the Festival ran under the title “Projekt Blau-Weiss” (project blue-white). Instead of reproducing the detailed background from the nice and extensive, 56-page Festival booklet, let me focus on the essentials, stating what may be obvious to the Jewish community.

“Blue-White” refers to Israel’s national flag, which goes back to a suggestion by the Austro-Hungarian lawyer, journalist, playwright, and political activist Theodor (Tivadar) Herzl (1860 – 1904), now known as the father of Zionism. With “Blue-White”, this year’s Festival evoked the memory of Theodor Herzl, who formed the Zionist Organization (later renamed World Zionist Organization). Herzl promoted Jewish immigration to Palestine in an effort to form a Jewish state—long before the State of Israel was founded. In fact, it took decades after Herzl’s death, before the modern State of Israel was founded in 1948.

Herzl not only founded the Zionist Organization. He also initiated the First Zionist Congress, which took place in August 1897 in Basel. Also many of the subsequent instances of that Congress (1898, 1899, 1901, 1903, 1905, 1911, 1927, 1931, and 1946) took place in Basel. After the Foundation of Israel, the Congress moved to Jerusalem, now being held every 4 – 6 years.

The Artists

Gringolts Quartet

As I have written about the Gringolts Quartet (founded 2008, Zurich) several times already, I’m keeping their introduction short, by just mentioning the members and their instruments:

The Gringolts Quartet has been associated with the Mizmorim Festival for several years already. Moreover, the organizers just announced that Ilya Gringolts has agreed to join the Festival organization as Artistic Consultant.

Duo Goldstein-Nemtsov

The soprano / mezzo soprano Tehila Nini Goldstein was born in New York to a Yemenite Israeli mother and an American father. She spent much of her life in Israel, but 15 years ago settled in Berlin—a family with two kids. For the past 14 years, Tehila Nini Goldstein has been working together with the Russian pianist and musicologist Jascha Nemtsov (*1963).

Jascha Nemtsov was born in Magadan, Siberia, but has been living in Leningrad (St.Petersburg) up till the mid-’90s, when he moved to Berlin. He married the composer Sarah Nemtsov (*1980), with whom he is raising three children. He is pursuing a career as pianist, specializing in Jewish art music, as well as Russian music, in particular the works by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975).

Since 2002, Nemtsov is also a member of the Institute for Jewish Studies at the University of Potsdam. He now holds a professorship, focusing on Jewish music and Jewish composers of the 20th century. In 2013 Sascha Nemtsov took up a professorship for the history of Jewish music at the University of Music Franz Liszt in Weimar, now at the Institute for Musicology, a joint institution between the University of Music in Weimar and the Friedrich Schiller University Jena.


The motto for this second concert in the 9th Mizmorim Chamber Music Festival, “Milk and Honey“, is referring to the phrase in Exodus 3:8, which talks about the Promised Land of Judaism as “a land flowing with milk and honey”. “Milk and Honey” at the same time is a reference to Theodor Herzl’s vision for the Jews to found their own state, their Promised Land of Judaism.

The program featured two works for string quartet, surrounding a set of songs for voice and piano, by five composers. This filled a compact, 70-minute lunchtime concert:

As already last year, the Swiss music journalist and violist Annelis Berger (music editor, producer and presenter at the Swiss radio station SRF 2 Kultur) served as moderator throughout the Festival.

Setting, etc.

The venue for this concert was the same as with the concert that I attended in 2022, the “Gare du Nord — Bahnhof für Neue Musik” (train station for new music)—an intimate chamber music venue for audiences up to around 200. My seat was in the center of the third row, maybe 5 meters from the artists.

Victor Alexandru Colțea (source: victoralexandrucoltea.com)
Victor Alexandru Colțea

Concert & Review

Colțea: “Rough Surfaces” for String Quartet (2022)

Composer & Work

Since 2019, the Mizmorim Chamber Music Festival is organizing a biannual competition for composers. In this year’s third instance, the winner of the competition was the Romanian composer
Victor Alexandru Colțea (*1986), who did his studies at the National University of Music – Bucharest, at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater Hamburg, and finally at the Lucerne School of Music (part of the HSLU, the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts), where he studied with the composer Dieter Ammann (*1962).

The work “Rough Surfaces” for String Quartet (2022) resulted from a commission by the Mizmorim Chamber Music Festival. This concert was the world premiere for this composition. In “Rough Surfaces” (especially the opening), Colțea is exploring the boundaries between noise and music, employing various techniques of rubbing the strings, creating sounds that can be rough, but also fragile.

Mizmorim Chamber Music Festival 2023: Gringolts Quartet @ Gare du Nord, Basel, 2023-01-20 (© Zlatko Mićić)
Mizmorim Chamber Music Festival 2023: Gringolts Quartet @ Gare du Nord, Basel, 2023-01-20 (© Zlatko Mićić)

The Performance

With the exception of the very first encounter with the Gringolts Quartet, back in 2017, the two violinists and Silvia Simionescu have always performed standing. It was a bit of a surprise to see the ensemble perform on chairs. However, as it turned out, this was for a good reason—also the fact that the violist and Anahit Kurtikyan were holding their instruments upright, on their lap, like soprano or alto viols. At first, it looked as if they were merely waiting for the cellist to open the piece with his solo. More careful inspection would have revealed that the musicians weren’t holding their bow with the tips of their right-hand fingers, but firmly in their right-hand fist. It turned out that this is exactly what the composer wanted:

Instantaneously, from the very first “note”, the audience found itself in the unique sonorities of the most unusual string quartet composition that I have ever encountered! It was Claudius Herrmann who started the piece, suffocating the sound by holding his left hand over the middle of the strings, but without pressing down to / touching the fingerboard. With this, the strings could not possibly produce any defined tone. The cellist was then pressing the bow onto the strings (around the end of the fingerboard). He immediately started making rapid, violent, fan-like movements while keeping the bow on the strings.

Rough Surfaces, Indeed!

One could describe the resulting sound as resembling the noise of a rolling train, or that of a big machine, with a motor-like rhythmic component. Successively, the viola, then the two violins joined the cello with the same “theme”. Ilya Gringolts held his instrument the normal way, but he, too, kept his bow firmly in his fist. I suspect that for this piece, the two violinists switched to more robust carbon bows: I’m not sure whether as instrumentalist I wanted to expose an expensive, possibly historic bow to the strains of Colțea’s composition!

Initially, the noise was unstructured, apart from the motoric underpinning through the bow movements. Gradually, though, percussive elements (battering on the strings, later also on the instrument body, and plucking on the “other” side of the bridge) added structure, complexity, and (partially) rhythm. The noise and the percussive components gradually faded, giving way to predominantly plucking noises. Bursts of (now more sonorous) scratching emerged, built up—and suddenly broke off, when one of the viola strings snapped with a loud “bang”…

The broken string was an unfortunate mishap, one might say. Here, though, listeners had a chance to “digest” the beginning, while Silvia Simionescu was mounting a new string.

A New Start

With “sharpened ears” the listener were now able to gather more details in this music, such as the changes in color, the added brightness, as the higher instruments joined the cello’s “machining”. After the “scratching bursts” mentioned above, a period of high-pitch scratching followed, with impulses not provided by the first violin, chaotic criss-cross chatting. Momentary softer periods were disrupted by bursts again. Rhythmic pizzicato and battering noise, gradually became more structured, but widened in the colors, through the addition of high-pitch noises into the original cello “machining”.


It was the viola which first injected the seed of a defined tone from the empty a’ string. That tone instantly got covered in the chaotic “noise-scape” again. When it returned, the cello picked it up, producing waves of drones on empty a string, the viola then “colored this” with microtonal intervals—waves of erupting clusters, noisy comments from the violins, tone-less “mandolin pizzicato” from the violins, scratching bursts. An excited, if not nervous, whispered discourse on the high instruments—always above the cello drone.

Once the cello drone ended, the high instruments produced a mix of alarm siren tones, while the cellist inserted a metal stick sideways into the strings (C and a strings below, G and d strings above), which for one alienated the sound of the instrument, but also served as tool for “indirect plucking”. With this, but also through additional percussion, battering and plucking techniques on viola and violins (also using plectra), the scope of the noise further broadened, widened, giving the impression of a rich percussion battery with wood blocks, etc.—fascinating!

Culmination and Ending

The cello “machining” sporadically returned, while also tones appeared, siren-like tones and flageolets. At one point, the sound converged “almost” to a unison—but remained “impure”, widened to clusters. The noises returned, as did tonal ff interjections, while the cello produced chains of harmonics through “glissando flageolet“. Rhythmic, vehement, tonal impulses, violent protests trough tonal beats. A complex mix or rhythms and exclamations (tonal-atonal), enthralling, tremulating, dissonant chords—and a final splash, when the artists smashed plastic beakers with a loud stomp.

Fascinating, for sure, enthralling throughout—and definitely very unique!

Rating: ★★★★½
Mizmorim Chamber Music Festival 2023: Gringolts Quartet, Victor Alexandru Colțea @ Gare du Nord, Basel, 2023-01-20 (© Zlatko Mićić)
Mizmorim Chamber Music Festival 2023: Gringolts Quartet, Victor Alexandru Colțea @ Gare du Nord, Basel, 2023-01-20 (© Zlatko Mićić)

Postcard Project “Songs of the Early Pioneers” for voice and piano (1938 – 1939)

The Postcard Project

As son of a Jewish businessman, the musicologist Hans Nathan (1910 – 1989) was born and studied in Berlin. He emigrated to the United States in 1936, assuming US citizenship in 1944. After 1946, Nathan was teaching musicology at Michigan State University in East Lansing. In the ’30s, well before emigrating, Hans Nathan initiated what became known as “Postkartenprojekt“. In that project by the JNF-KKL (Jewish National Foundation—Keren Kayemet LeIsrael), founded 1901 by Theodor Herzl, sent out postcards with imprints of Jewish songs (just melodies with the associated text, presumably) to Jewish institutions all over the world. The idea was, to spread these songs among the Jewish communities. Many of these compositions describe the early settlers’ hardship in agriculture and livestock farming, but also children’s plays and dances.

The “Songs of the Early Pioneers”

Before he died, Hans Nathan was able to recover the long forgotten collection of songs. He sent selected songs to composers, inviting to arrange these for voice and piano. Musically, the “Songs of the Early Pioneers” are obviously inspired by Jewish folk music, but there are also influences by Arabic music.

The artists selected six of the songs, arranged by five composers (four German, one French):

The Performance

With the song texts fitting onto a postcard each, the six pieces were all short—too short for taking detailed notes. With this, my comments below are shorter and summary. I should state that I’m a complete stranger to the Hebrew language—I apologize for my ignorance. The song texts were distributed on leaflets, both in Western transliteration and as German translation. However, during the performance, this merely allowed me to grasp which of the songs (and occasionally which verse) was being performed.

Balance Issues

One critical remark first: Tehila Nini Goldstein “lives in this music”, which is in her genuine idiom, her native character and language. Her voice is as character- and colorful as her charisma and appearance. Sadly, Jascha Nemtsov‘s piano accompaniment was often far too loud. Occasionally, it marginalized, almost drowned the singer’s voice. The most striking instance was the first song by Stefan Wolpe.

I understand that pianists hesitate to (partially or fully) close the lid (as it also alters the sonority). Here, however, I deemed it a necessity. I don’t mean to blame this exclusively on the pianist’s playing: it seemed to me that the acoustics of the venue were primarily helping / amplifying the instrument, while not being helpful in supporting the voice and its projection. The fact that some of these songs are for mezzo soprano rather than soprano (and often more chants than Lieder in the sense of Western art songs), didn’t make the singer’s task easier.

Brief and Selective Comments on the Songs
  • Wolpe: “Saleinu al k’tefeinu”
    See above for the balance issues. There was a discrepancy between Tehila Nini Goldstein’s seemingly discreet (even secretive?) singing and the playful-capricious accompaniment full of inverted mordents. Nice, fun, and well-played, for sure—but…
  • Dessau: “Alei giv’a, sham bagalil”
    A simple melody in folk tone, in four verses, with the piano part playfully surrounding the vocal line. Here, the balance issue did less damage, as Dessau’s merely illustrative piano accompaniment avoided competing with the vocal line.
  • Weill: “Havu l’venim”
    The piano opened as fanfare-like “revolution tune”, but retracting to march-like staccato accompaniment, as the expressive, exclamatory melody sets in, which largely avoided the balance issue. An impressive call to action, indeed—and so typical of Kurt Weill!
  • Toch: “Avatiach”
    Short, fun, joyful—I pictured a person praising and selling melons on a market. Interestingly, Toch’s harmonies and textures reminded of baroque music.
  • Milhaud: “Gam hayom”
    Expressive (and impressive!), dramatic in the melody. Milhaud’s piano accompaniment is the most complex, harmonically advanced in this set of songs—which made it feel like the farthest from a typical folk song.
  • Wolpe: “Tel Aviv”
    A short piece ended the series—in many ways reminding of the first song by the same composer: again with a playful, but more complex, and again fairly prominent piano part.
Overall Rating: ★★★★
Mizmorim Chamber Music Festival 2023: Jascha Nemtsov, Tehila Nini Goldstein @ Gare du Nord, Basel, 2023-01-20 (© Zlatko Mićić)
Mizmorim Chamber Music Festival 2023: Jascha Nemtsov, Tehila Nini Goldstein @ Gare du Nord, Basel, 2023-01-20 (© Zlatko Mićić)

Alexander von Zemlinsky (source: Wikimedia)
Alexander von Zemlinsky

Zemlinsky: String Quartet No.3, op.19 (1924)

The Composer

The Austrian composer, conductor, and teacher Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871 – 1942) grew up in Vienna, in an extraordinarily diverse family. His grandparents included a Hungarian, an Austrian, a Bosniak, and a Sephardic Jew. With one exception, all his ancestors were Roman Catholics. The entire family, though converted to Judaism, and Alexander was raised Jewish. He studied at the Vienna Conservatory, where his teachers in composition were Johann Nepomuk Fuchs (1842 – 1899) and Anton Bruckner (1824 – 1896): Zemlinsky not only received support by Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897), but he also met and became friends with Arnold Schönberg (1874 – 1951), and Gustav Mahler (1860 – 1911) conducted the premiere of one of his operas. In 1899, Zemlinsky converted to Protestantism. The “von” was added to the family name by Zemlinsky’s father, even though he had never been ennobled.

Up till 1911, Zemlinsky worked and lived in Vienna. He then moved to Prague, as conductor at the Deutsches Landestheater, and between 1924 and 1933, he was working with Otto Klemperer (1885 – 1973), as conductor at the Kroll Opera. 1933, he fled to Vienna, and 1938, he managed to escape via Prague to New York, where sadly he remained largely unknown up till his death.

The Work

Zemlinsky’s oeuvre includes 27 works with opus numbers, plus a large number of compositions without. The works include piano music, chamber music, orchestral works, songs, vocal works with orchestra, as well as operas and other stage works. Some of the early works are currently unavailable or partially lost. There are four string quartets, from No.1 in A major, op.4 (1896) up to No.4, op.25 (1936). The String Quartet No.3, op.19 is a composition from 1924. It features the following four movements:

  1. Allegretto: Gemächlich, innig bewegt — Allegro
  2. Thema mit Variationen: Geheimnisvoll bewegt, nicht zu schnell
  3. Romanze: Sehr mäßige Achtel, Andante sostenuto
  4. Burleske: Sehr lebhaft, Allegro moderato — Menuettartig —Tempo I — Vorwärts stürmend
Mizmorim Chamber Music Festival 2023: Gringolts Quartet @ Gare du Nord, Basel, 2023-01-20 (© Zlatko Mićić)
Mizmorim Chamber Music Festival 2023: Gringolts Quartet @ Gare du Nord, Basel, 2023-01-20 (© Zlatko Mićić)

The Performance

Back to the Gringolts Quartet, in its standard, standing setting. Anahit Kurtikyan and her husband, Ilya Gringolts, both performed from tablet, the others from sheet music (everybody had played from tablet in Colțea’s piece). And some (or all) of the musicians returned to their standard (modern, Tourte-type) bows. The opening piece had exposed the bows to considerable physical stress, which was fairly obvious from the amount of hair loss on some of the bows!

I. Allegretto: Gemächlich, innig bewegt — Allegro

To me, it was amazing to observe how within very few notes Zemlinsky was able to establish and present his very personal (and fairly unique) idiom. Although nearly atonal, the beginning felt romantic and expressive, with occasional portamenti, and full of rubato. Zemlinsky’s score is adorned with numerous tempo annotations, accelerandi and ritardandi. After the initial, lyrical, melodious opening, the movement rapidly builds up to the Allegro, full of violent triplet motifs (strongly rhythmic, spiccato). And the latter happened to form a strong and obvious link to “Rough Surfaces”!

Zemlinsky’s themes aren’t long cantilenas, but rather short, catchy motifs, often repeated and / or presented in fugato– or canon-like textures—complex, but transparent, and highly expressive. The “load”, the balance between the voices is excellent, both in the composition, as well as in the performance by the Gringolts Quartet. Naturally, the first violin gets some extra exposure, when it gently moves to highest positions, while the other instruments appear to ponder in dark, pensive tones. Another build-up combines a fugato structure with violent semiquaver figures—and ends in a sudden general rest.

A short, but highly expressive, lyrical segment follows, turning hesitant, calming down, leading directly into the recapitulation with the initial themes / motifs. Eruptions of emotions, alternating with pensive moments build up to a climax with an intense, polyphonic discourse, before reminiscences of the violent, early motifs end the movement.

II. Thema mit Variationen: Geheimnisvoll bewegt, nicht zu schnell

The short theme is both humorous and folksy—and progressively mysterious, ending in muted, tremulating pp demisemiquavers on the viola. The first variation combines eerie sound effects (mutes, playing close to the bridge) on the lower instruments, elegiac melodies on the cello, with violent interjections on the violins. Variation 2: joking, scherzando, and a ghastly transition to the very emphatic variation 3. Another, mysterious ppp transition leads to variation 4 with its delicate cantilena, high up on the e” string on the first violin. The short variation 5 is all pizzicato—yet moody and very expressive.

With variation 6, the ensemble again engages in a lively, intense discourse: four characters exchanging their opinions, finally reaching a conclusion with a snippy gesture. The final variation 7 is almost excessively expressive and intense, with elegiac cantilenas. It retracts to a “seeking motif” on the second violin with grinding, dissonant parallels on cello and viola as response. A painful transition leads to a short, but ghastly / eerie ending.

III. Romanze: Sehr mäßige Achtel, Andante sostenuto

A somber opening in parallel fifths, into which the viola presets an elegiac, if not sad melody. The first violin converts that into a tender, gentle cantilena with large intervals, high up on the e” string. Calm, intense, highly romantic, atmospheric, full of warmth—but always in Zemlinsky’s personal language. At the same time, the melodic lines reminded of those in dodecaphonic compositions. The ending retracts into calm, silence, mystery.

IV. Burleske: Sehr lebhaft, Allegro moderato — Menuettartig —Tempo I — Vorwärts stürmend

The foreword to the score describes the last movement as Rondo—to me, it rather felt like a Scherzo, with the fitting title Burleske. The ff cello opening momentarily reminded of the Cello Concerto in B minor op.104 by Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1904). The subsequent, intense and vehement discourse, was of course again entirely Zemlinsky’s style / idiom. At [2], a cello pizzicato under violent figures on the viola, full of syncopes felt jazzy, enthralling. “Burlesque” definitely is the best description of this music and its performance: fun, joking, playful, full of joy, with grotesque moments. Moreover, at [7], the burlesque tone alternates with fragments / reminiscences of a Viennese Waltz or the like, but soon reverts to the virtuosic Scherzo tone, finally building up to a strong, affirmative ending, ff and two sffz chords.

An impressive, master- and powerful composition, no doubt! Particularly the last movement is also highly demanding for the musicians, especially in terms of coordination though constantly changing tempo, meters, rhythmic structures. The performance by the Gringolts Quartet was simply jaw-dropping—compelling, coherent, convincing in all aspects. To me, the ensemble confirmed its reputation as one of the very top ensembles—worldwide.

Overall Rating: ★★★★★


The author would like to express his gratitude to Michal Lewkowicz, founder and artistic director, Mizmorim Chamber Music Festival, for the press tickets to this concert. All concert photos are © Zlatko Mićić.

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