It was whilst poking around in a slightly obscure London record shop in the late 1980s that I discovered a rare recording on Jerusalem Records ATD8305 of Ben-Haim’s Second Symphony coupled with his Concerto for Strings. It was conducted by Kenneth Alwyn. This set me off on a mostly unfulfilled quest for more Ben-Haim. Several years ago I reviewed a CD of his beautiful piano music (Centaur CRC2506
) played by Gila Goldstein. I have continued to much admire and enjoy this composer’s works on the rare occasions when they have popped up.
This disc is labelled by Chandos ‘Music in Exile’ perhaps its part of an intended series and perhaps some of the Theresienstadt composers, less fortunate than Ben-Haim might be featured in future releases.
Paul Ben-Haim was for over 35 years known as Paul Frankenburger. His father, a prominent lawyer was Jewish. Paul had been castigated by some reviewers who did not approve of his early Concerto Grosso
being performed on the grounds that its composer was Jewish. Ben-Haim quickly realised as the power of the Nazis grew that he should leave Germany and chose his ancestors’ homeland of Palestine. Once there and married he assimilated the culture and this exudes through much of his music giving it a very distinctive character. I commented in the piano music review that he had tried to link the western with the eastern musical heritages that he came to know well. For that reason alone he is a composer who needs to be heard especially in the present climate.
It may be that Frankenburger wanted to hide his early Germanic, romantic works under the bedclothes as it were. It may also be that he realised that in 1920, as a brilliant young composer, works like the Piano Quartet
inspired by the generation of Reger and Fauré were beginning to sound somewhat anachronistic. Anyway, after an eventual performance and broadcast in 1932 it wasn’t heard again until 2012 when the ARC ensemble performed it. It means that they, and we are, in a wonderful position of getting to know an obscure work that has not just been cobbled together in the recording studio. This is one that the performers really know and love as they clearly demonstrate. The three movements consist of a huge sonata allegro but with many changes of tempi. It contains some fascinating textures, a funereal and dark middle Adagio and a fun finale with, as the booklet notes by Simon Wyberg tell us “a youthful” … “tongue-in-cheek baroque hornpipe” which “flippantly sabotages” the rest of the movement. A fine work.
The Two Landscapes
for viola and piano are most attractive with their typical use have modally inflected melody and even some use of quartertones. The first is an impressionist picture of The Hills of Judea
, rather forlorn and unpeopled; the second, more dance-like, is entitled Spring
. It is marked Allegretto Scherzando
. I do wonder if Steven Dann and Dianne Werner might have lifted the tempo a little more however. Its textures are light and airy and all is quite charming.
The Improvisation and Dance
is inspired not so much by the natural world as by the music around him.
The booklet essay describes the mainly solo Improvisation
for the violin as “Yemeni in character” and the dance as emerging “as a composite of influences” - by that Simon Wynberg means eastern and western. Surely this is a work that could easily hold its place in the repertoire.
In between these comes the brief Canzonetta
from a set of five piano pieces also recorded by Goldstein as mentioned above. She plays it in far less self indulgent manner - she knocks a whole minute off the length - but Dianne Werner’s more sensitive approach seems appropriate especially as the marking is affettuoso
The CD is book-ended by the large-scale works ending with a Clarinet Quintet
that is almost as vast a canvas as the Piano Quartet. Apparently the composer was “most pleased” at the amalgam of east and west as exemplified by this work. He had been living away from Germany long enough by now to estrange himself from its strongest pull. The Western influences are the overall Germanic sense of motivic development and plan. The Scherzo - called a Capriccio - comes second. The third movement uses a theme and variations. ‘Frenchification’, vaguely noted elsewhere, is also to be heard in the finale. The eastern elements are the opening ideas which, in the way the clarinet is used, may remind some of ‘klezmer’ sound of Jewish music. It’s beautifully captured by the silky tone of Joaquin Valdepeñas’s clarinet. We should also note the melismatic and ornamental nature of the material, a percussive syncopation and the use of a Jewish hymn ‘Elohei Tzidki’. The latter emerges subtly between the Scherzo and Trio elements of the Capriccio. It’s all beautifully and wonderfully captured by the players and the Chandos recording team.
The Qunitet retained my attention throughout. It’s just the sort of piece I had expected Ben-Haim to have written but had never heard before. It would though be good to know how the composer revised the work as late as 1965 and why.
This is a fascinating disc which begins to open up the world of a truly significant composer who should be much better known.