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Josef TAL (b. 1910)
Symphonies Nos: 4 (1985); 5 (1991); 6 (1991)
NDR RadioPhilharmonie/Israel Yinon
Rec. Sendesaal Studio 1, Jan/Feb 2003. DDD
CPO 999 922-2 [61.45]


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 review) 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 atonal.

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 Talís 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 wasted.

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 experienced.

Gary Higginson

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