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Ernest BLOCH (1880-1959)
Baal Shem Suite (1923) [14:28]
Suite hébraïque (1951) [11:37]
Suite No.1 for solo violin (1958)  [11:10]
Suite No.2 for solo violin (1958) [11:18]
Paul BEN-HAÏM (1897-1984)
Sonata in G minor for solo violin Op.44 (1951) [14:34]
Berceuse sfaradite (1939) [3:22]
Improvisation and Dance Op.30 (1939) [7:50]
Hagai Shaham (violin)
Arnon Erez (piano)
rec. Henry Wood Hall, London, February and October 2004, Jerusalem Music Centre, May 2006 (solo violin works)
HYPERION CDA67571 [74:23]


Shaham and Erez have already recorded the Bloch sonatas, amongst other works, on Hyperion CDA67439. It was therefore almost inevitable that they would get around to the remaining two works here and for Shaham to take on the challenges of the solo Suites. To form a most appealing programme they together add two works by Ben-Haïm and Shaham performs the same composer’s 1951 solo Sonata.

Let me dispose of a potential obstruction first. The recordings are almost all too close. The ambient noise is immediate and one can hear Shaham’s anticipatory sniffs; it also makes for more abrasive bowing than is ideal. Shaham of course is a first class musician but he has been done few favours by the nature of the set-up.

That said one should persevere because no matter how uncongenial the recorded sound may sometimes become it does not seriously mitigate the nature of the performances. These are truly inspiring. Shaham is unafraid of liquid, quick portamenti in the Baal Shem Suite and he is at pains to balance Hebraic fervour with high lying lyricism. The harp-like ripple of the second movement is a testament to Erez’s involving and colour-conscious playing. Shaham intelligently varies his tone here – this is not an understated Nigun but it is one that says a lot without saying too much. The joyous buoyancy and culminatory exultation of the finale show how adept the duo has been throughout – they pace the suite extremely well.

The Suite hébraïque is a three movement series of Jewish melodies. Both men lighten their tones and tonal weight when most necessary. Shaham for instance reserves greatest weight of tone and power for the central Processional where his vibrato takes on a riper display. The two solo Suites were written in 1958, the year before Bloch’s death. They were commissioned by - and dedicated to – Menuhin though the premieres were actually given by Alberto Lysy. They’re compact four-movement works and clearly Bachian in orientation. They possess moments of reflective lyricism but show no diminution of power or control, and no easy acceptance either. To the Bachian dance patterns Bloch adduces Hebraic ones as well – especially in the third movement of the First sonata. Perhaps the most moving of all is the Andante of the second, a heartfelt and yet upliftingly noble utterance, played with exceptional clarity by Shaham.

Paul Ben-Haïm’s sonata was another work dedicated to Menuhin and it seems to take Bloch as an active model. There are plenty of opportunities for high lying writing and equally so in matters of dance drama and bite. There are baroque elements at work as well and chant-like moments in the central movement, ones that fuse the Mediterranean with elements of late impressionism. The finale uses a Hora, a dance that generates daemonic drive here. The two other works by Ben-Haïm, Berceuse sfaradite and Improvisation and Dance are respectively delicate and dramatic.

The playing is insightful, expressive, and thoroughly idiomatic. These two musicians make an articulate and important statement about both composers’ work. Reservations concerning the actual recordings should be seen in that light.

Jonathan Woolf


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