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Josef TAL (b.1910)
Symphonies 1 (1953), 2 (1960), 3 (1978), Hizayon Hagigi (Festive Vision) (1959)
NDR Radiophilharmonie/Israel Yinon
Recorded September 2002, NDR, Grosse Sendesaal, Studio 1
CPO 999 921-2 [57:31]

An extensive booklet yields few hard facts, omitting even the date of the first symphony and preferring to tell us that "In his works, Tal devotes particular care and precision to the moment of memory", that "he uses the twelve tone row in order to formulate the musical process in time, not determinate it", that "Only one thing is certain: Tal does not prescribe any emotional course to which the music is forced to adapt. In his works, the emotionality arises from his musical thought, with its searching meticulousness and technical precision of composition", as well as much other precious information in the same vein.

An Internet search produced the following: Josef Tal was born Joseph Grünthal on 18 September 1910 at Pinne (now part of Poland but then in Germany). He studied at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin where Hindemith was among his teachers and then migrated to Eretz Israel in 1934 where he taught piano and composition at the Jerusalem Academy of Music, becoming its Director from 1948-1952. Only a tiny handful of compositions, mostly for piano solo, are listed as dating from before 1952, so his resignation from the Academy evidently represented some kind of watershed in his life. Later, in 1965, he joined the faculty of the Hebrew University and eventually became head of the musicology department.

Tal composed steadily until quite recently, completing 6 symphonies – the last three dated 1985, 1991 and 1991 – , 5 operas – Asmedai (1968), Massada 967 (1972), The Tower (1983), The Garden (a chamber opera, 1987) and Josef (1993) – , some big choral/orchestral works – Succoth Cantata (1955), The Death of Moses (1967), Parade of the Fallen (1968) and With all the Soul (1978) – and many chamber works including 3 string quartets (1959, 1964, 1976). Practitioners of instruments with a small repertoire may like to note that he has written Concertos for flute (1977) and oboe (1980), both with chamber orchestra, a Sonata for oboe and piano (1952) and (surely this must be almost unique?) a Duo for trombone and harp (1989) and a Movement (1980) for tuba and piano. As can be seen from the titles, Jewish themes have predominated. He has shown interest at various times in both serialism and electronic music.

Of the four works recorded here, it is the First Symphony which seems to me to have the greatest claims on an international public. It is clearly shaped with an old Jewish lament forming its centrepiece. This melody, with its dark orchestral colouring, is rather suggestive of the second theme in the second movement of Sibelius’s second symphony, but in view of its traditional origin perhaps we should be wondering where Sibelius got it from. An impressive and spacious movement in any case. The first movement begins and ends slowly but this encapsulates some brightly dissonant and energetic counterpoint which reminds us that Tal had studied with Hindemith and, at any rate to my English ears, recalled the work of the British Hindemith pupil, Arnold Cooke. More fiery energy starts the last movement, followed by reminiscences of the Jewish lament which led to a wonderfully infectious "fresh and youthful" rhythm which almost brings the work to a gloriously triumphant close – but instead, it ends with a question mark. A very fine symphony.

The Second Symphony is, we are told, serially based, but it promises to wear its techniques lightly. It opens with little of the unremitting angst which some say is the inevitable result of serial writing whether the composer intends it or not. The colours are generally bright and the rhythmic movement clear. Thereafter, I’m afraid, it lapses into a sort of all-purpose post-serialism and my attention was intermittently held. Perhaps this is another way of saying that it is more difficult to grasp than the first symphony and perhaps I should try harder, but surely even the most difficult work should offer some sort of incentive to the listener to go back and hear it again?

The Third Symphony seems to head further down the path of sterility. On a first hearing I tried to be patient because various episodes seemed to promise to lead somewhere, but the second time round it seemed a very pointless exercise when I knew all too well that it was going to end up nowhere. The work seems deliberately discontinuous and limited in its forms of expression and even its orchestral palette; a liking for the vibraphone, for example, has now degenerated into an obsession.

The "Festive Vision" belongs, we are told, with the series of symphonies, though it is not part of them. After an impressive beginning, dogged discontinuity sets in; some rhythmic build up arrives later but the material itself is more conventional than that of the symphonies, suggestive of a second-hand mix of other composers’ festive visions.

In an introduction to the booklet, entitled "The fairy tale called reality", Tal himself writes simply and poetically:

"Once upon a time there was a composer who was able to see a hundred years into the future using his little telescope.

"One morning he was sitting in the concert hall of the NDR RADIOPHILHARMONIE … The orchestra’s musicians were sitting on the stage. Before him stood their conductor Israel Yinon. At a sign from him they all rose and began to play and dance. All the chairs danced with them and so did the empty cases surrounding the composer … the big concert hall became filled with the notes of all six of the composer’s symphonies. When the final note had sounded all the musicians applauded by stamping their feet on the trembling floor of the stage.

"The ‘Festive Vision’ arose within the composer, and straightway the dance began all over again: And the microphones and the speakers and all the electronics used in the CD recording danced with them …"

Alas, poor man, I fear the beauty of these simple words is more in his mind than his music; but still, to have created the first symphony is no mean achievement.

Christopher Howell



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