As a reviewer it is
often exciting and sometimes alarming
to be asked to listen to and comment
upon, for goodness knows how many of
you out there, the work of a man of
whom you know nothing and whose music
you have not previously heard a note.
We have to come to terms with it in
a short space of time. This is what
has happened to me with Josef Tal. The
questions I ask myself are: 'what is
this composer saying to me?', 'how does
he see the world?', 'what has he experienced?'
and 'how does he communicate these experiences?'.
Sometimes the music is so full of experiences
and so original that you know it will
take a long time to do any sort of justice
to the artist. Not only do reviewers
think that; performers do and sometimes
even composers themselves as they try
to understand exactly what it is that
they have achieved.
So here we are: three
symphonies written in 1985, 1991 and
again in 1991 (no exact dates appear
to be given in the notes). I have not
heard the first three (CPO 999 921-2
and therefore the impact of these is
even more startling. I believe that
the First is more in the style of Hindemith
and the second is a serial work. The
present three works are formally unusual
and complex harmonically. They are not
constructed on tone rows but they are
To try to see the music
in the context of the composer's life
may be helpful. The usual very detailed
notes supplied by CPO are on this occasion
by Habakkuk Traber. They are, at times,
somewhat curiously translated and regrettably
are not good as far as basic facts are
concerned. I had to turn to the internet
for Tal’s biography.
He is a Jew who was
born in Germany. His father was a Rabbi.
He studied in Berlin under Hindemith
but moved to Jerusalem where he has
taught at the Academy of Music. In the
main his music dates from post-1952.
He could therefore be considered a late
starter. A German Jew brought up at
the time of Nazi Germany may well have
hundreds of painful memories and experiences.
These can emerge in the works of a creative
artist even if those works are purely
abstract, as these symphonies are.
Tal has used Jewish
titles in some earlier works, for example
the 'Succoth cantata' (1955) and 'The
Death of Moses (1967). The First Symphony
has, I believe, an old Jewish Lament
as its centrepiece. By the time he had
reached the later works the Jewish element
or experience appears to have disappeared.
Or has it? I think that it has been
internalised. No longer is it necessary
to wear it on the sleeve; it is submerged
but it is there.
Take the opening wall
of sound which greets you at the start
of the Fourth Symphony; surely a cry
to Heaven via the human emotion of fear.
This 'cry' takes up a large portion
of the symphony and its complex polyphony
takes some concentration. Only slowly
does this nightmare fade. Of the three
works this is the one I will return
to least despite some wonderful moments
and a memorable ending.
The Fifth Symphony
is likewise tense, beginning just with
a timpani roll and tremolandi almost
as if it does not want to be noticed.
Once in motion it cranks up into a frantic
peal of sound. About two-thirds of the
way through, just as you thought that
there would be no end to this tumult,
an immensely quiet section appears.
This is called up by that most pastoral
of instruments, the oboe, before being
buried in another thunderstorm of sound.
The Sixth Symphony
I like and admire greatly for its content,
unique form and emotional impact. It
could almost be described as a 'Concerto
for Orchestra'; not only is each orchestral
family featured but there is also a
role for individual instruments within
that family. This even extends to the
chromatic timpani and marimba. The work
begins with mooning horns soon joined
by the trumpets. After a few minutes
the woodwind add a polyphonic colour
and after a while a solo cello descants
around them. Soon the full string section
enters with a passionate threnody. You
are well on in the work before a wide
variety of percussion enters. They have
their own vast cadenza leading to the
re-entry of the horns and the whole
process is gone through again with modifications
one of which is a curtailing and tightening
of the material. The work ends as it
began with the horns. This is a piece
unique in form yet truly symphonic.
Any listener will find
these works challenging. Many will find
them all too easy to dismiss as 'uncommunicative'
or 'of their time'. I have to say that
they are worthy of the effort. There
is music between and beyond the notes,
as it were, yet I feel that despite
the many thousands of them none are
The photograph of the
composer in the booklet sees a crouched
and bowed old man listening deeply to
Israel Yinon and the producer Burkhard
Schmilgun in discussion. It is their
inspiration and determination that have
allowed us a chance to at least attempt
to grasp something of these symphonies.
Tal may be bowed but he has not been
beaten by the circumstances of the world
he has lived through. The music speaks
of tragedy and passion. It is challenging
and difficult but not as difficult as
the life the composer himself may have